3 Questions for Atheists — 3rd Question

The first post in this series is here. Here’s the 3rd of unkleE‘s questions:

3. You live your life with some sense of purpose. But Richard Dawkins assures us that that purpose is illusory and the universe shows us just blind pitiless indifference, Professor William Provine, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, confidently asserts that “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent”, while Francis Crick talks of his astonishing hypothesis: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” So what is the logic that allows you and many others to ignore these conclusions of some of the finest biology minds we have?

I don’t feel like these issues have been ignored by most atheists, nor do I think I’ve ignored them. In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville makes the point that it can be depressing to think that humanity doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. Then he simply acknowledges that “the truth just may be sad.” It might be preferable to believe that there’s a higher purpose to our existence, but that doesn’t mean there is. So the lack of purpose argument might be interesting, but it doesn’t count as evidence against atheism, in my view.

Also, isn’t it a bit arrogant to assume that we are such magnificent creatures that we must have a higher purpose? Do you suppose giraffes believe in a giraffe-god because without one their species would have no higher purpose? And it seems strange that this argument would be put forth by the same group of people who believe humans are naturally depraved individuals. Which is it? Are we worth nothing or does the universe revolve around us?

All that said, I don’t see what’s so bad about making our own purpose. The people that matter most to me are the ones who know me intimately. If I make a good impact in their lives, that’s enough for me. If people 200 years from now have no idea who I was, so what? I won’t be around to lament that fact, and I won’t even know who those people are — why should I care if they know me?

And what’s the benefit in having a cosmic purpose anyway? If my purpose is to serve God (as Ecclesiastes teaches), doesn’t that pale in comparison to making my own purpose? Think of it this way: if I’d only had my children for what they could do for me, doesn’t that make me petty? Wouldn’t it be better to help them find their own purpose than to make myself the center of it?

Finally, if we need a purpose higher than ourselves in order to have value, what is God’s value? By definition, there would be no purpose higher than himself, so wouldn’t that make his existence rather sad and pointless by this standard?

In the end, I think it’s up to each of us to make our own purpose. And in a way, I find this exciting. I don’t believe the end of the human story is set in stone — there is really no limit to what we might accomplish as a species if given enough time. Will we eventually visit other planets, other stars? What advances will we make in medicine and technology? Can we achieve some semblance of world peace? I think our ability to make our own purpose is more hopeful than depressing.

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39 thoughts on “3 Questions for Atheists — 3rd Question”

  1. If you believe you can create your own values, then you must believe in free will in order to be able to do this. But what is the source of this free will in a world determined by evolutionary drives and instincts?

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  2. Ah, good question, Jonathan. And thanks for stopping by.

    You may want to check out my two previous posts, because they deal with that very thing, and we’ve already got a good conversation going. Hope you’ll jump in. 🙂

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  3. If we are all part of the ‘machine’ then we all contribute to the functioning of it. How? Who knows? Maybe Unklee knows the answer?
    If he can’t tell us, perhaps we should ask Hayden. He tells us he chats with his god all the time.

    Life truly is too short and too precious to really concern oneself with such high philosophical questions.
    As long as the beer is cold and the woman is hot and the music is good….well, Praise the Lawd Geez, Us? for that. I love being an atheist.
    After all!. …its the way god made me,

    Sorry , Nate. I wanted to be serious but I just couldn’t keep a straight face.

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  4. really for me I feel like issues of purpose are so over-blown, even when I was christian, I felt like they were overblown….

    I would actually have to agree with Unklee with this one, but only from a purely philosophical stance. Outside of the evolutionary biological purpose of reproduction there is no absolute purpose to Life. And I am talking about purpose in the (absolute) macro-sense, not in the mico-sense. Like We give life purpose cause we choose to give in purpose. But is there purpose to life outside of our own micro personal opinion.

    But I find this topic so odd, because from an atheistic sense, there is absolute macro purpose. Really for the atheist the only absolute purpose they can have the value in that they will have only one life, and they should not waste it, and the evolutionary purpose of reproduction

    But it seems to me christians have forget what their bible has instructed them on purpose. Have christian so naively forgetten their lessons in the book of ecclesiastics on the purpose and meaning of life..let me remind the reading christian ECC 1:1 Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless

    I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless

    The book even goes farther in telling the christian, that knowledge and wisdom is meaningless, that work is meaningless, Pleasure, love, and fun, all meaningless. money is meaningless, life is ultimately meaningless.

    The reality is that this life for a christian is waste, because they are not living for this life, they are living for their second life. And as christian, if you are not using every waking moment in devotion to God to advance his kingdom, then your life is even more meaningless than mine. Cause atleast I give my life purpose, the christian can’t do that.

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  5. Thanks for this series Nate. I appreciate the opportunity to see your responses and to reply.

    I agree with you that lack of purpose doesn’t count as evidence against atheism. It may indeed be true that we don’t have any purpose in life. But I find it interesting that according to naturalism we have evolved to feel like we have consciousness, freewill, ethics and purpose, and to need to feel like we have them, when in fact we don’t. I think there is a small alarm bell ringing there, for those who have ears to hear it.

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  6. “The reality is that this life for a christian is waste, because they are not living for this life, they are living for their second life. And as christian, if you are not using every waking moment in devotion to “God to advance his kingdom, then your life is even more meaningless than mine. Cause at least I give my life purpose, the christian can’t do that.”

    ‘Nuff said.
    Good one, Marcus

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  7. “But I find it interesting that according to naturalism we have evolved to feel like we have consciousness, freewill, ethics and purpose”

    unkleE, I think you make some good points

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  8. UnkleE, thanks for posing these questions and for discussing them with me (and all of us).

    I also think it’s interesting that we’ve evolved to feel like we have consciousness, free will, ethics, and purpose. I think that some of those things are by-products of our understanding that we will die one day.

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  9. I’m still not sure I get why freewill, consciousness, or morality only really exists if god really exists.

    It seems like children making up the rules for a game as they play. I feel like someone is simply saying “freewill and purpose can only exist if god gave it to us, and since we have freewill and purpose, then we know god gave it to us. and Since god gave it to us, we can be certain that god is in fact real.” It just seems like a stretch. It feels like someone just created some arbitrary rule and labeled it as fact to suit their argument.

    Perhaps i am missing the obvious. But maybe we have purpose, freewill, and morality, all to whatever degree, without god. Perhaps it was all the byproduct of evolutionary chance. Maybe god really wants for me to have a equal and unbiased choice between pepsi and coke, or maybe I evolved to be able to choose between pepsi and coke while still battling with the influence of past experiences and corporate pressures – but would that mean that I don’t really have freewill? I think the freewill with or without god remains the same. I fail to see the difference and anyone, from either side of the discussion only looks desperate and like they’re grasping at straws to find flaws in the other’s view point.

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  10. Mr. Rodriguez, you wrote “And as christian, if you are not using every waking moment in devotion to God to advance his kingdom, then your life is even more meaningless than mine. Cause atleast I give my life purpose, the christian can’t do that.” I am not sure this is entirely true. I agree that many Christians do not value this life as much as others do. However, as simply a believer in God, I actually value this life very much. This is because I have learned that the purpose of this life (whether I created this purpose or it was given to me by a Higher Power) is to serve one another, to make peace, to have mercy, etc. (Living the Kingdom of Heaven). And in order to accomplish this, I have to love others in this life and therefore value this life. Whether or not I will have another life after this one is beyond me, but I know for sure what I need to do while I am still breathing. I wish other believers can focus more on the needs of this world. My post “Do Theists Value Life Less?” describes in more details my views. Thanks for reading. Peace.

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  11. @Noel

    Hello Noel, I have no problem admitting that in christianity, there are other aspects to christianity that provide guiding principals to life and how to behave and interact with others. But those are just principals into how to live life, not purpose and meaning to life. From the christian perspective your Purpose and Meaning is simple:I “For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. 8 If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Romans 14: 7-8. For your sole purpose is this above. And any attempt to add something to this, that is not solely for the glory of God is Vanity. Yes you may enjoy other things in life, that may give you enjoyment, but really all the do is distract you from your primary purpose. Welcome to Christianity.

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  12. blockquote>”I’m still not sure I get why freewill, consciousness, or morality only really exists if god really exists.”
    I’m sorry William, but I missed this before. I believe there is a strong argument here, but it is not quite as you have expressed it. Here’s my take on it ….

    1. Assume that only the physical exists (= naturalism or physicalism) – a common assumption, because that is all we can measure by science.

    2. Then our brains/minds can only be physical – i.e. the brain processes neuroscientists measure are all there is going on there. These brain processes are fully describable by physical laws.

    3. Whatever “we” are, it cannot be more than these brains and these processes. There is no “us” to control the processes, “we” are the processes. So if the processes are fully describable by physical laws, “we” are fully describable by physical laws.

    4. Therefore “we” don’t have any choice to change the physical processes because “we” are the processes and “we” are controlled by the laws. So naturalism leads to determinism – and most naturalistic philosophers and neuroscientists would agree.

    5. If we believe this is a wrong conclusion, we need to break the logic flow somewhere. The obvious place is the initial assumption of naturalism. If there is something more than the physical, then “we” can be something more than physical, and the rest of the above argument fails.

    6. So if we believe in something more than naturalism, we are believing in supernaturalism (that’s what it means – it doesn’t necessarily mean God or fairies, but it means something more than naturalism).

    7. So what form of supernaturalism will we believe in? There are a lot of strong arguments for the existence of God (first cause, etc). Most of the attempted rebuttals derive from naturalism. But if we have rejected naturalism, those rebuttals are significantly weakened, and it starts to look more likely that a God may exist after all.

    Conclusion. There are three possibilities.

    (i) Naturalism but no freewill.
    (ii) God, supernaturalism and the possibility of free will.
    (iii) Some other form of supernaturalism, but what??

    I conclude then that without God, it is hard to see how we can have free choice; with God it becomes much more possible. Our innate belief in freewill may be naive and mistaken, but it may equally be a pointer to God for those with eyes to see.

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  13. I am not quite understanding. These physical processes that make us, us, may not be the same thing as the choices we may or may not make.

    The physical processes may indeed be “us.” or God may have made us, “us.” So whether I am the product of god or physical processes, we may still the freedom to choose.

    Granted, we cant choose everything. I mean, I cant just choose to breathe naturally underwater, but i couldnt do that with god either – so i am obviously not talking about these sort of choices.

    Just because we cant control the processes that make us, us, doesn’t mean that we cant choose how to behave. I mean, we are who we are regardless of the process that brought us into being. And I’m not sure which brain processes you’re referring to when you say they’re all fully describable by physical laws, nor i am sure how that aids in a discussion about god or freewill.

    i appreciate you taking the time to answer, but at first glance it seems like you’re only saying that if there is no god, then then brain was formed without god (naturally), and therefore operates off of natural laws. But everything in nature already seems to operate within natural laws. I’m saying i dont see this as an argument for or even necessarily against god, and I am also suggesting that we can in fact have as much freewill without go as some think we have with god. This may be moot anyways since we all agree that we have some form of freedom of choice (freewill).

    I could just as easily proclaim that there is no real freewill if god were real. If god knows the future, then he knows what we’ll do before we do it, so no freewill in a scripted life. If he doesnt know the future but offers a “choice” with the deck stacked in extremely biased favor of one option, then is that a real choice? I could say that, but i dont, because it, like the flip side, it’s just making assumptions and pretending they’re absolute. maybe they are, but maybe they’re not.

    whatever made us, “us,” did so in a way to grant us all some form or degree of freewill – whatever the processes were.

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  14. “Just because we cant control the processes that make us, us, doesn’t mean that we cant choose how to behave. “

    William, if the physical process in our brain are all there is (i.e. no non-physical mind), then there is nothing to change those processes except external stimulation, which we don’t control. So how can we change the natural processes, which is what is required for freewill?

    It seems to me that you are asserting we have freewill without actually explaining how it occurs. So my questions to you are:

    1. Do you agree that freewill means the ability to make a choice between two or more alternatives, both/all of which are possible for us to make?

    2. If so, how does the human brain make that choice? By this I mean, what happens to change the physical processes going on in our brain so that we choose something different?

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  15. Good questions.

    1. Yes, i agree.

    2. let me ponder that awhile. But while I do, what is your answer for #2?

    And I am still not sure what you mean by physical processes or the ability to change physical processes. Is the physical process how the brain works? like memories being electrical patterns, and the the brain sends signals to the rest of the body using electricity and chemicals, etc?

    Or do you mean that the mind and its thought processes are the physical processes? Like why did the brain decide to move its arm, etc?

    Either way, i’d still like to see how you’d answer #2 from your point of view. Again, to me this isnt “either god or not god” type of thing. We “are” whether god made us or something else.

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  16. William, yes I agree – at the moment we are not talking about God but about how brains work.

    “And I am still not sure what you mean by physical processes or the ability to change physical processes. Is the physical process how the brain works? like memories being electrical patterns, and the the brain sends signals to the rest of the body using electricity and chemicals, etc?”

    Physically, our brains are a bunch of neurons and synapses (connections), and they work by a combination of electrical currents and chemical actions. These are physical processes governed or described by laws which are well known. (The difficulty with the brain isn’t understanding how the processes work so much as the sheer complexity and number of neurons and synapses. You could read a brief summary of this at Are our brains like computers?)

    Now electrical and chemical processes cannot start themselves, but require something to start them. In the brain, this can come from several sources:

    1. From a previous process.
    2. From nerves in the body – e.g. touch a hot stove, the brain gets a signal via the nervous system to move the hand.
    3. From external input via our senses – e.g. I read this blog and my brain starts thinking certain things.

    But for us to have freewill, we need to be able to change these processes, or start a new one. But how can we do that? How can a electro-chemical process stop obeying the laws of physics and do something different?

    So my answer to my own question 2 is this. I believe there is something more than physical about our brains or minds. This more than physical aspect is the real “us” and it can act on the brain processes to allow freewill. This view is sometimes called “dualism”.

    So again, how can a purely physical brain act spontaneously and thus have freewill?

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  17. “But for us to have freewill, we need to be able to change these processes, or start a new one. But how can we do that? How can a electro-chemical process stop obeying the laws of physics and do something different?”

    why do we have to change the processes of “a bunch of neurons and synapses (connections)… {that} work by a combination of electrical currents and chemical actions” in order to make a decision?

    Why isn’t it that we use those physical processes to make decisions, or a choice between two or more alternatives? As you said before, “freewill means the ability to make a choice between two or more alternatives, both/all of which are possible for us to make.” making decisions still uses the neurons and synapses that work through a combination of electrical currents and chemical actions.

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  18. “Why isn’t it that we use those physical processes to make decisions, or a choice between two or more alternatives?”

    We DO use those processes to make decisions. The question is whether we have any control over those processes. If they are “us”, and there is nothing more, then those processes are controlled by the laws of physics and there is nothing else to get in the way. I think you are still thinking as if there is an “us” separate from the brain to make the choice, but of course there isn’t if physicalism is true.

    Think of it in terms of a process diagram. For a free choice, something has to initiate a brain process, which then causes us to think or do something. Draw the diagram, then try to define what it is that initiates. If physicalism is true, the only thing there is is the brain. So the diagram becomes the brain initiating its own processes. So how does a physical lump of meat do that?

    The key is initiation.

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  19. outside stimulation. I would suppose that triggers responses in our brains using the physical processes – exactly how it would operate if god created it.

    And I’m just not understanding you. No, I dont think we can change the physical processes. Our brains work, like you said, through a bunch of neurons and synapses that work by a combination of electrical currents and chemical actions. We cant change that process. That process still exists even if god created it.

    It seems like, to me, that your saying there is a process to make cookies. But once you make cookies, you had to have changed that process. the process, when followed, produces the outcome. Having the outcome (decision making) doesnt mean we somehow manipulated the process or changed the process or circumvented the process.

    I think the physical process is what gives us our freedom to decide. And although I don’t believe this, i could very easily claim that if god were real, that would mean there is no freewill. I’ve already given some examples of one might argue that point, so i wont do it again even though i can think up several scenarios.

    your answer to #2 was that you thought there was something more than physical controlling our brains, but couldn’t there just as easily be some other physical thing controlling our brains?

    Maybe all of our decisions are based upon our own self interests. Maybe we, like most animals, are trying to benefit ourselves, but our brains allow us to predict future circumstances or events, but in the near future and in the distant future. What benefits me today, may not benefit me tomorrow, and the reverse is true. Or one may find him/herself facing a possibility of two outcomes, both beneficial. One uses their physical processes to weigh these options.

    this does bring up a question in my mind. Would you also presume that animals’ brains are controlled by other-than physical processes?

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  20. Outside influences + past experiences + biases and preferences + perceived outcomes (prediction) + some other stuff = what we do.

    It’s true that these can all be traced to physical processes, but that (to me) doesn’t mean we have NO control. Just use perceived outcomes and predictions from the “diagram” above as an example. We use our imaginations (a physical and chemical process) to estimate what will happen if we follow different courses of action. Those predictions influence what we ultimately do. While it’s a process that occurs physically, it’s still a process occurring within ourselves that affects our actions. To me, that’s a form of free will.

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  21. But Nate, instead of asserting that you think we have free choice, can you explain how it happens within physicalist assumptions? How we (who are no more than a physical brain and body) can initiate a physical process that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?

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  22. “Would you also presume that animals’ brains are controlled by other-than physical processes?”

    I wouldn’t presume anything. All I would say is that if they are not, then they can’t have free will (I think).

    As to the rest William, I really don’t think I have any more to say. I think I have explained what I see as the logic of naturalism, and I don’t want to harp on and on. Thanks for talking with me, and best wishes.

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  23. But Nate, instead of asserting that you think we have free choice, can you explain how it happens within physicalist assumptions? How we (who are no more than a physical brain and body) can initiate a physical process that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?

    I thought that I did… It seems to me that you’re ignoring the physical and chemical processes that we ourselves initiate when we make decisions or perform actions. I think our free will is limited, but I don’t think it’s non-existent, because many of the processes you’ve been talking about happen within ourselves. In my opinion, that’s our “free will” in action.

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  24. “It seems to me that you’re ignoring the physical and chemical processes that we ourselves initiate”
    But how does a physical and chemical process initiate itself? (Remember, under naturalism, “we” are no more than the physical and chemical processes.)

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  25. why would it have to initiate itself?

    actually, let me clarify my earlier comment. We respond to things and formulate new ideas… I view that as a part of free will. Initiate may have been a misleading term.

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  26. Nate, I don’t think we are connecting at all. I don’t want to keep labouring the point, so let me have one more go.

    1. Assume physicalism, i.e. there is nothing in existence but the physical, what we can observe and measure by science.

    2. Therefore we are no more than the particles which make us up. Our consciousness is just a product of our brains – which means the physical processes that occur in our brains. And our choices are made through brain processes.

    3. Processes that are beyond our control (e.g. external stimuli, nervous responses) can initiate a brain process, but we don’t freely control these. For us to exercise freewill, we would need to be able to initiate or change a brain process from what would have occurred naturally.

    4. But how do “we”, who are brain processes, initiate or change a brain process? I cannot see any mechanism, can you? “We” are the result of such processes, not the cause.

    5. It is clear from logic that the only way we can exercise free will is if “we” exist outside our brain processes – then there is something other than the processes than can affect them. But that isn’t possible if physicalism is true.

    It is worth noting that I didn’t dream this up myself, I got it from discussion with a friend. His name is Steve Grand, and he is, or was, an artificial intelligence researcher. He is also an atheist and a determinist (i.e. he believes free will is illusory). About 7 years ago we corresponded for about 2 years by email (and it was he who first put me onto atheism forums etc on the web). He convinced me that atheism = determinism. I think I am not doing as convincing a job as he did to me! : (

    I hope that helps. The key challenge, if you want to believe in freewill, is to show how the mechanism works – i.e. how there is something of us that can change a brain process from what would have happened naturally. It requires a clear description of that process rather than an assertion that it is there. We both agree it is there, I am just asking you to justify it from your current viewpoint. As long as you cannot explain its mechanism, I suggest your confidence in freewill is an argument against your current worldview.

    Thanks again.

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  27. Thanks for the explanation — I have a better idea of what you’re talking about now. I’ll have to think about it for a while, because I’m not really sure what I think about it.

    The key challenge, if you want to believe in freewill, is to show how the mechanism works – i.e. how there is something of us that can change a brain process from what would have happened naturally.

    I don’t believe that there’s an “us” outside our brain processes. I’m not sure I agree that this would force me to think free will is illusory, but I don’t have a good way of formulating why at the moment. If I can think of a way, I’ll comment (or post on it) again. Thanks for spending so much time on it. 🙂

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  28. Thanks Nate. I was worried I was going on a bit too much, but it was worthwhile if it gave you something to consider. Best wishes.

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  29. “I think, therefore I am.”

    If thought is independent, then free will has to be a by product.
    suggest otherwise requires developing a scenario so complex it would have to account for every single variable of human behaviour, and as we are constantly evolving, to follow the non-free will path suggests a ”çontroller” of some description.

    If one applies philosophy to anything one can eventually arrive at any result one truly wishes. Like accountancy.

    PS. Jesus just told me it’s past my bedtime. Nite nite…

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  30. Thanks Nate, I didn’t realise Persto had a blog. I had a look and found it interesting, and commented too – would you expect me not to? : )

    Yes it was relevant to what we’ve been discussing, and I agree with a lot, disagree with some. I found it interesting that he addressed the question of whether an atheist should accept the more reductionist (but logical) conclusions of atheism – a matter I was preparing a blog on (see The loneliness of the long distance atheist).

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  31. Nate and UnkleE-
    Very good discussion here.
    You guys really demonstrate the kind of back and forth that is very refreshing.
    -Josh

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  32. God did give us our own purpose, he does give us our own individual gifts too but we need him to fulfill those. Our purpose is to serve him but it benefits us too. We were made to serve him not as slaves but as part of his wonderful plan to be a part of it to be next time not below him. Jesus said to the man next to him on the cross you will be with me in Paradise. Paradise, unlike how some believers or some who claim to be believers portray it I do not think of Heaven as us all sitting their praising God like slaves being miserable doing what he wants. As a Christian here on Earth when I obey God, when I do good for others, I receive reward, but I a not a miserable slave, because that is what I was made to do, made for, I am serving my purpose but when I do not not do this I sometimes receive earthly rewards that do not last or eventually cause suffering and that is what you get when you seek our your own purpose without God and then I feel like a slave, a slave to other people, to the Devil to Earth or whatever else you want to believe, you can be a slave to anything but no one is a slave to God he made us all free. You do have a purpose but God is the one who made you, you cannot figure out what it is or accomplish it without him. It is to serve him by doing things he made you to do but it is things that will bring as much happiness to you as it does to Him. God is not selfish and he is not a slavedriver but we were made to serve. ON this earth serving is made to be such a bad thing but it is not, any time you see someone serve someone humbly by choice to someone that is loving to them and rewards them it is actually am amazing thing to watch whether it be a husband to a wife or wife to husband or employee to employer etc One of my favorite Bible verses is about those who exalt themselves being humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted because I see it played out every day in life especially at work as an HR Director.

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