Tag Archives: Atheism

Study by UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz falsifies materialist determinism

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here’s a summary of the research of UCLA professor Jeffrey Schwartz, authored by William Dembski.

Excerpt:

Schwartz provides a nonmaterialist interpretation of neuroscience and argues that this interpretation is more compelling than the standard materialist interpretation. He arrived at this position as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers recognize obsessive-compulsive thoughts and urges as separate from their intrinsic selves. For instance, after a few washings, the compulsive hand-washer realizes that his hands are clean and yet feels driven to keep washing them. It was reflection on this difference between the obvious truth (the hands are clean) and the irrational doubts (they might still be dirty) that prompted Schwartz to reassess the philosophical underpinnings of neuroscience.

From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, the brain enables the mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this involved a patient acknowledging that his hands were in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about his hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing his thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).

Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms, but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, “mindful attention”-conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.

So mind-brain interaction is not a one-way street. Everyone knows that you can alter your consciousness, beliefs, moods, sensations, etc. by changing your brain, e.g. – with drugs. But it turns out that you can also will to focus your thoughts on certain things in order to change your brain chemistry. So the causation is not just bottom-up, but also top-down.

Now mindfulness therapies – which are documented in the research papers published by Schwartz (like this one and this one and this one)- assume the existence of free will. Naturalists don’t like these scientific publications because naturalists don’t believe in free will, as the famous naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg explained in his debate with William Lane Craig.

This post from Uncommon Descent explains the naturalist conundrum.

Excerpt:

The issue, for Schwartz, turns on whether or not there is such a thing as free will. The assumption of free will is critical to mindfulness therapies for practical purposes.

Philosophies and religions have various opinions about ultimate free will. The therapist must ask, is my patient capable of carrying out a program that requires that he choose to focus his attention on A and not B? In practice, this turns out to be true for many patients, which makes the therapy useful. There is neuroscience evidence for brain reorganization as a result, showing that it is not merely an imagined effect.

Now, if someone wishes to claim, as many outspoken advocates of Darwinian evolution have, for example, that free will is impossible, the only thing that a mindfulness therapist can say is, go away. Either they are mistaken or the research results from mindfulness therapies are.

By the way, if you like this topic, and want a resource to show your friends, be sure and get a hold of the debate on mind vs. brain between Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Michael Shermer.

Does reading science fiction predispose people to atheism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

My friend ECM thinks that science fiction that people read when they are younger causes them to believe that the religion is anti-science and that the progress of science always disproves religion. The stories they read colors their views of science and religion for life, before they ever get to assessing evidence. And that’s why when we produce evidence for them in debates, they will believe in speculations rather than go where the evidence leads. So they believe that maybe unobservable aliens caused the origin of life, and that maybe the untestable multiverse theory explains the fine-tuning of cosmological constants, and that maybe this universe has existed eternally despite the well-supported Big Bang theory which shows that the universe began to exist. Maybe, maybe, maybe. They seem to think that untestable speculations are “good enough” to refute observational evidence – and maybe it’s because of all the science fiction that they’ve read.

Here’s an article in the American Spectator that talks a bit about it.

Excerpt:

A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held to particularly qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God.

[…]Historically the contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Kepler was assisted by a number of Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who had studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler’s theory on the Earth having an elliptical orbit. J.L. Heilbron of the University of California has written:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.

Science fiction is, by definition, fiction, that is, it deals with things which are the product of a writer’s imagination and are not literally true. In any event, what is and what is not science fiction is hard to define. Simply to say it is about science is meaningless, and while some science-fiction writers are qualified scientists, many are not. Probably even fewer are trained theologians.

Science fiction makes the mysteries of the universe seem easy to an atheist. Everything can be easily explained with fictional future discoveries. Their speculations about aliens, global warming and eternal universes are believed without evidence because atheists want and need to believe in those speculations. In the world of science fiction, the fictional characters can be “moral” and “intelligent” without having to bring God or the evidence for God into the picture. That’s very attractive to an atheist who wants the feeling of being intelligent and moral without having to weight actual scientific evidence or ground their moral values and behavior rationally. The science fiction myths are what atheists want to believe. It’s a placebo at the worldview level. They don’t want cosmic microwave background radiation – they want warp drives. They don’t want WMAP satellite confirmation of nucleosynthesis – they want holodecks.

Why do people become atheists?

My theory is mainly that atheists adopt atheism because they want pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, without any restraints or guilt. They want to believe that sex without commitment has no consequences, especially a consequence like God judging them for it. Another contributing factor may be that atheists want to be thought of as smart by “the right people” – to sort of blindly accept whatever the “smart people” accept without really searching out reasons or dissenting views. They do this so that they are able to look down at some other group of people so they can feel better about themselves and be part of the right group – without actually having to weigh the evidence on both sides. And lastly, atheism may also be caused by weak fathers or abandoning fathers. But I think that ECM’s science fiction theory has merit, as well. I think that all four of these factors help to explain why atheists believe in a discredited worldview in the teeth of scientific progress.

I wonder if my readers would take some time out to investigate whether their atheist friends have been influenced by reading science fiction and whether they still read it.

New study: belief in free will linked to ability to behave morally and to help others

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

So, Monday night I finally finished “reading” God’s Crime Scene, the new book by J. Warner Wallace. I was listening to the audio book, because it is hard to speed along with the top down and read at the same time. For now, here’s my one line review: this is a book for people who like evidence – he has collected a ton of evidence on everything people should be puzzling about, and sometimes on surprising topics. Anyway, I wanted to post something about some studies he mentioned in Chapter 6, on free will. This is one of the places where he found evidence in a surprising area.

Wallace says that free will makes more sense if theism is true, because we have non-material souls that interact with our bodies, but are not causally determined by them. On atheism, only matter exists, and you can’t get free will (or consciousness) from matter. So atheists like Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg, for example, deny free will, because they are materialists and atheists.

Anyway, here’s what he writes on p. 256:

In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so.

In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and the University of Kentucky found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others.” Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga conceded: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences.

I decided to look up these studies.

Here’s the abstract for first study: (2008)

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

And the abstract for the second study: (2009)

Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

So what to make of this?

If you’re an atheist, then your worldview is telling you that what you are doing now is the result of genetic programming and sensory inputs. You’re not conscious. You can’t reason. You make no free choices, including moral choices. Naturally, someone who believes this is going to struggle with prescriptive morality, including self-sacrificial care and concern for others. Their worldview undermines the rationality of the moral point of view. You might find atheists acting morally for their own purposes, but their worldview doesn’t rationally ground it. This is a big problem for people who can see objective morality woven into the universe – and themselves – because they have the awareness of objective right and wrong.

I think what atheists like to say is “I can be moral, too”. That’s not interesting. What is interesting is whether it is rational for you to be moral when things start to get a bit uncomfortable. When I look at the adultery of Dawkins, the polyamory of Carrier, the divorces of Shermer and Atkins, etc. I am not seeing anything that really wows me. They all deny free will of course, and think that trying to resist temptation is a waste of time. What difference would it make if they did, anyway – there’s no afterlife on atheism.

Wallace explains how the awareness of free will and moral choices caused him to turn away from atheism, in this blog post.

He writes:

As an atheist, I chose to cling to naturalism, in spite of the fact that I lived each day as though I was capable of using my mind to make moral choices based on more than my own opinion. In addition, I sought meaning and purpose beyond my own hedonistic preferences, as though meaning was to be discovered, rather than created. I called myself a naturalist while embracing three characteristics of reality that simply cannot be explained by naturalism. As a Christian, I’m now able to acknowledge the “grounding” for these features of reality. My philosophical worldview is consistent with my practical experience of the world.

I think atheists who want to be honest about their own experience of first-person consciousness, free will, moral realism, etc. will do well to just accept that theism rationally grounds all of these things, and so you should accept theism. Theism is real. If you like morality, and want to be a virtuous person, then you should accept theism.

Tim McGrew debates Peter Boghossian on the definition of faith

I have tried very hard to avoid writing about Peter Boghossian because I kept hoping that someone would speak to him and set him straight before he went too far.

Basically, when you listen to the debate below, you’ll find that Boghossian redefines the word faith so that it basically means “stupidity”, and then he tries to get people of faith to accept that they are stupid according to his new definition of faith. The new definition is not found in any dictionary, and it’s not used commonly, either.

Anyway, here are the details:

This Week on Unbelievable : Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – debate on ‘A Manual For Creating Atheists”

Peter Boghossian teaches philosophy and is the author of ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’. He believes that faith is a ‘false epistemology’ (way of knowing things) and even describes it as a ‘virus of the mind’. Tim McGrew is a Christian philosophy professor specialising in epistemology. He contests Boghossian’s definition of faith and debates the merits of his recent book. To cast your vote on the definition of faith visit www.facebook.com/unbelievablejb.

The MP3 file is here.

Topics: (I reserve the right to satirize Boghossian in this. Listen to the audio if you want his exact words)

  • PB: My book tries to avoid the “obfuscations” of reputable, credentialed Christian scholars and discusses faith at my intellectual level
  • PB: The goal of the book is to help people abandon the dictionary definition of the word “faith” and accept the definition I invented
  • TM: Defining the word “faith” in the wrong way is not the right way to start an authentic, respectful conversation
  • TM: Faith does not mean “pretending to know things you don’t know” – that is not a standard definition
  • TM: the only people who accept your definition of faith are you and the people who follow you online
  • TM: your whole book is predicated on on a wrong definition of faith
  • PB: that is my definition of faith based on my experience of talking to lots of people
  • TM: He says this is how billions of people define faith – but not in my experience, maybe satirists like Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain do
  • TM: Your definition of faith is not in the Oxford English Dictionary and that definition is based on common usage of the word faith
  • TM: The New Testament definition of faith “pistis” means trust
  • PB: There are 50-100 people who use the term that way, and only in academia
  • TM: How about “The Good Atheist” who interviewed you? He is not an academic or a theist, but he didn’t accept your definition
  • PB: You are “extraordinarily isolated” from the real definition of faith
  • TM: Faith is not belief without evidence, it is trust based on at least some evidence
  • PB: Christian leaders use the word according my definition, I won’t name any or quote any, though
  • JB: So you are basically saying that Christians are lying when they express their faith, since they know what they are saying isn’t true but they say it anyway
  • PB: What percentage of Christians use the word faith to mean “belief without evidence”
  • TM: Well below 1%. It may be the case that their evidence is not very good, but they do rest their beliefs on evidence
  • TM: Faith is trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reasons to believe is true in the face of difficulties
  • PB: That’s not what people mean by faith, they mean my definition
  • JB: What do you mean when you say that faith is a “virus of the mind”, and a “mental illness”? School programs to remove faith?
  • PB: Think about how atheists feel when they are told they will go Hell
  • PB: Christians are hurting people, so that means they have a mental disorder that needs to be cured in a systematic way
  • PB: Faith is an epistemic virus that hijacks the reasoning process

At that point I quit summarizing, because I didn’t think he was worth listening to any more.

He is clearly not aware of how even basic Christian apologetics books that are bestsellers cover evidences like the Big Bang, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, galactic habitability, stellar habitability, New Testament reliability, historical Jesus, philosophical arguments for theism, and so on. This is the bottom-shelf of Christian apologetics, widely read by rank-and-file Christians, but Boghossian seems to be completely unaware of it. He needs to get out more and talk to people outside of radical atheist circles. Maybe he needs to pick up a serious book like “Debating Christian Theism” and read it before he opens his mouth on topics he knows nothing about.

But that’s not all. As, I explained before, the concept of faith presented in the Bible agrees with what Dr. McGrew said – faith is trust based on evidence. That is the Biblical view.

And finally, this:

John 10:37-38: [NASB]

37 If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me;

38 but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”

The words of Jesus – he is saying: believe me because of the evidence I provide from miracles that you can see with your own eyes. Period. End of discussion.

So Boghossian’s view of faith is nowhere except in his own mind. Not in the apologetics literature. Not in the writings of any reputable Christian scholar. Not in the Bible. Not in the words of Jesus. It’s enough to make me think that this talk about “mental disorders” and “viruses of the mind” is just projection.

Vote in the poll

Please vote in this poll:

Thank goodness we have debates like this so that we can find out where Christians really come down on faith.

Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

One reason why some people reject the existence of objective morality is because moral absolutes can conflict.

Canadian philosopher Michael Horner to explains the problem.

He writes:

You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”

[…]I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.

For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?

We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.

If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable.

So, in this case, it seems as if the moral absolutist is stuck in a dilemma. If you lie to save the innocent life, then that would be wrong. But if you tell the truth and hand the innocent person over to murderers, then that would be wrong. Does this really disprove objective moral absolutes?

This problem annoys me, because I know this is the kind of objection to objective morality that annoying philosophy lecturers like to push onto freshmen in order to convince them that morality is nonsense.  But does the moral dilemma objection really work?

More Horner:

[…][I]f moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.

If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.

But isn’t this moral relativism? After all, we are deciding what to do based on the situation! It’s relativism, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t, because there is always one right thing to do in every situation. In every situation, you always follow the weightiest moral rule. The right thing to do does not depend on your subjective state of mind. It is an objective moral duty, and it is the same for everyone, across all times and in all places. That’s what objective morality means -what is right and wrong is not determined by personal preferences or cultural conventions, which vary by time and place.

And of course, God is the ground of this hierarchy of objective moral absolutes. They existed through him before human beings even appeared, as part of his design for us, his creatures. How we ought to behave is grounded ontologically in God’s design for us.