Answering Theists #1

There are a lot of theists out there who type up what they think are “gotcha” questions for atheists. Theist trolls absolutely love these lists and to copy/paste them, often on a hit-and-run basis. Judging from the newlines I’m cleaning out, Michael Benson Ajayi copy-pasta’d such a list in a Pharyngula comment thread. (Or he wrote it in Notepad or something and word wrap tweaked it.) So I’m starting this series here.

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Free Will

I’m tempted to write up a Doggerel entry on it sometime, but for now, I thought I’d have a post for discussion on the topic. The big problem I have with the phrase is that a lot of people are way too attached to outdated, incoherent, unfalsifiable, or self-contradictory definitions of it. I haven’t talked about it in any “academic” context, so I don’t want to get caught confusing one type for another. Those of you better read on the history of the concept have my permission to write long comments about the hair-splitting differences.

My general idea of free will would be something along the lines of “able to consciously evaluate possible actions and determine which is most optimal.” In a way, it’s like a computer’s ‘decision’ that results from a deeply nested set of If/Then statements. Humans are “free willed” because we’re capable of a large set of possible decisions and we’re capable, in part, of thinking about how we make those decisions. At the other end, insects generally react to stimuli with little or no thought about the context of their actions. Of course, like consciousness, this would be on a spectrum instead of a strict binary thing, and circumstantially variable within a particular organism: If I see something threatening suddenly rush towards me, I don’t consciously evaluate possible defense strategies so much as blindly react.

One thing I don’t get is the deal with substance dualists, anti-determinists, and “fuzzy” free will ideas. If souls exist, how do they make decisions, and how is it inherently “freer” than a brain making decisions? How does bringing in the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics make decisions “freer” than a deterministic universe? All it does for me is tack on new variables, middle men, and such for no real gain.

Substance Dualism and the Substance Problem

One of the big problems I have with substance dualism is “how does the soul work?” With monist theories of mind, there are still plenty of unknowns, but there’s a large tapestry of interacting causes and effects we can trace. When someone gets brain damage in region X, it tends to cause problem Y. When there’s an amount of drug X in the system, the production of neurotransmitter Y is inhibited, reducing brain function Z. It’s a complex system, but from what I can tell, it has pretty good predictive value.

Not so much with the soul. It just does complex consciousness stuff without any explanation. You can call that a “mystery” but it says “brick wall!” to me. It doesn’t help that some people misunderstand and abuse Occam’s Razor to claim that souls should be favored as an explanation because they’re allegedly simple. If that were how Occam’s Razor worked, anything could be said to work through “simple” magic, and we’d get nowhere. It’s also heavily against what I’ve seen of the universe: Simple objects have simple interactions. It’s only when you have complex systems that complex behavior results. If you want to assert something so counter-intuitive, you’ll need something other than special pleading to convince me.

One common argument is an analogy: Brain damage, drugs, and such reduce conscious behavior because the brain is like a radio or television, and the soul is like a transmitter, so damage to the radio messes with the reception. I realize this is just an anecdotal account, but that certainly defies my experiences as a conscious person. When medication makes me sleepy, I’m not a fully awake, conscious person in the ether, trying to control a less responsive body, I get sleepy. I’m a teetotaler, so I’ve got to ask: When you get really drunk, are yelling at your body for making stupid decisions?

One persistent annoyance I have is that the non-physical substance posited by dualism is described in terms of what it’s not. Attempts at analogies comparing physical objects to other physical objects, like matter and energy, only serves to spread confusion while allegedly sounding profound. What’s the deal? Opposite that, I’ve seen a lot of assertions that “material” things like brains can’t have consciousness, with no explanation given. Why not? What identifiable properties or circumstances are preventing it?

Substance Dualism and the Language Problem

I’m gushing over Qualia Soup, again, and my last post got me motivated to thinking about a point in his two part video on Substance Dualism: There’s often a shift in perspective we don’t think about when we talk about experiences. The example he gives is someone saying “I decided to move my arm, and then my arm moved.” If you’re not already familiar with the idea I’m talking about, you might not notice the change from first person to third person. That’s what I’m going to be focusing on for the moment.

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Quote of the Time Being: Social Reputation

Greta Christina has a good post up about “The Just World Fallacy,” and Leftover1under left a good comment:

In a one-off encounter between different species, selfishness pays (e.g. lions and cheetahs), but not in a social atmostphere of one species (e.g. amongst a troop of chimpanzees). The religious would ignorantly counter by saying “You wouldn’t steal from a family member but you’d steal from a stranger!” which is a load of crap. Socialization is more than family, it’s communities, cities and countries. Even as a tourist in a foreign place, people tend to act ethically because we are concerned about what others think of us.

Atheists want to live in a civilized society, so we try to make it one. By voluntarily working for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, we gain a social structure, both community and relationships. The religious are also motivated by selfishness, but they are more concerned with the myth of “going to hell” and having a spit inserted up their nethers and out through their mouths. They don’t see the need to be civil or cooperative except where there is personal benefit, not because it is “the right thing to do”.

The two may sound similar, but atheists don’t believe the lie of “I can pray and be forgiven!” Forgiveness from a god is an excuse for hypocritical behaviour – wanting the protections of society but none of its obligations.

That pretty well explains why I don’t think belief in heaven and hell makes a person moral. It’s a cheat to get similar results, but with many flaws.

Bruce Lipton, Nut

In an earlier post, asking for targets for me to scrutinize, Yakaru suggested I look over Bruce Lipton. I was a bit slow in jumping into the topic, so Yakaru made a post of his own.

I’ll still make my contribution, and skimming over Lipton’s website, I’m drawn to a book excerpt he posted: “The Nature of Dis-ease.” The title alone is an ideological red flag. I’ve seen a lot of altie gurus use it in the past, trying for some kind of clever wordplay. I tend to see another aspect to this word splitting: I think it promotes the idea that health is the default state of being. It’s a meme that’s going to need more and more critical scrutiny because as medicine advanced, we’ve been able to lead healthier lives. It’s because of modern science-based medicine and our society’s infrastructure that we generally take health for granted and see disease as an aberration instead of an integral part of life.

Onto the article itself:

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Obligatory Easter Post

I may consider Christianity to be just another form of woo in terms of science and epistemology, but it’s pervasive where I live and wields undue political influence. That’s why I tend to devote more time to talking about it. Of course, like many American atheists, I used to be a Christian, but it tended to be in a far vaguer sense than the mainstream.

The typical Easter story never made sense to me.

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Newage Culture: An Overview

I discover Yakaru has a blog! It’s got a good post on the front page right now: Blaming the Victim: Comments on Louise Hay. It deals with one of the familiar tropes in both religion and newage that serves to protect the higher-ups when they can’t make good on a promise. It’s given me some motivation to share my extended thoughts on newage culture.

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Doggerel #1: “Supernatural”

The old crew

Welcome to the new Doggerel series, where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with the series, and it’s time for new beginnings. I will be completely rewriting the series, using the lessons I’ve learned as a blogger and commentator for science, logic, and atheism. This time, I intend to keep a consistent, calm tone and restrain myself from ranting. Continue reading