Saturday, February 24, 2007

He Has No Brain, So God Doesn't Exist

By every indication we have, immaterial souls, brainless minds, or entities that occupy some ethereal afterlife do not exist. The widespread belief that humans have an immortal soul that survives the death of the body is utterly unfounded. A body of neuroscience research that grows every day has given us an increasingly fine grained understanding of the neural architecture of the brain that is responsible for producing our thoughts, our feelings, our memories, our goals, our plans, and our consciousness. A mountain of evidence indicates that brain damage produces mind damage. And that the destruction of the brain causes the destruction of the mind. That is to say that everything that has been traditionally associated with the immortal soul is dependent upon the brain to exist. So when the brain dies, the soul goes with it.

God is thought to be a person. He has plans, desires, goals, and emotions. He acts, he creates, he loves, and he commands. He reacts to our behaviors. He is alleged to form personal relationships with people through prayer and meditation. He communicates to them through signs and indicators. Sometimes people claim to have heard his voice, felt him exert his will, or even to have encountered him directly.

So by the most common characterizations, God has a consciousness. By my account above, to have a mind is to have a soul. Minds and souls are different terms for the same thing. So God can be said, by common accounts, to have a mind or to have a soul. His soul, they say, filled with love for us, his creation.

God is thought to be immaterial. While God has contact with the material world, he is not in it.

Or alternately, God doesn’t have a brain. But if God is alleged to be a person, and being a person requires having a mind. But having a mind requires a brain, and God doesn’t have a brain.

Therefore, God does not exist.

The most likely responses to this argument will be something like these: First, “Isn’t it possible that God is not a person?” Second, “Isn’t it possible that God does have a brain? Maybe it’s something bigger than we have ever encountered, or it’s someplace we have never seen or been?”

Perhaps. These might be possible. But possibilities do not render a belief reasonable. It is possible there is a million dollars in my bank account. But it would be flagrantly irrational of me to conclude that there is a million dollars there because it is possible. What we need to see is some evidence, any real indicator that such a thing is true. And until that evidence is in hand, we are justified in concluding that that suggestion is as preposterous as it sounds.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Does the Theist Have a Moral Advantage Over the Atheist?

One of the most common comments on atheism is people expressing confusion or consternation about the possibility of an atheist's being moral. It is usually thought that if one thinks there is no God, then there is nothing to restrain you from doing whatever sort of horrible acts you might want to do--there's no one who is going to punish you in the end. This objection to atheism has been dealt with thoroughly and clearly again and again. See Kai Nielsen, Michael Martin, Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Peter Singer, and Sam Harris, to name a few.

But here's another important consideration: The view that morality emanates from God is called Divine Command Theory. The criticism of atheism above presumes that on our own, we cannot determine what is right or wrong--only God can determine that, so we must obey his commandments.

Suppose you can figure out exactly what things God has determined to be good and which ones are evil. That alone is a daunting task given that so many billions of people on the planet can't seem to come to any kind of consensus about what that is. And typically people cherry pick the commandments that appeal to them while ignoring all the ones that are not so charming. For example, people like to cite the 10 Commandments as a obvious, clear statement of morality. "Honoring your father and mother," sounds like a great idea. The punishment for failing to obey this commandment is to be put to death. That's also the punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain, and for coveting your neighbor's goods, and all the other commandments. So, if we were to do what the Bible commands us to do, we need to put every person who has ever disrespected their father or mother, or who has slipped and said, "God dammit," to death.

First, it's clear that people who think that the Bible contains clear, obvious moral commandments probably aren't serious, or haven't actually read it, or they are just picking the commandments that suit them. Second, I don't care if God commanded it, executing someone for being disrespectful or using the word "God," in a rude way is positively barbaric, not the pinnacle of moral virtue.

Back to the original problem. Suppose we can figure out what God's commandments are (we can't seem to.) Now the most that any person who considers the texts is that the book says that God commanded them. It doesn't follow that God did command them, or that there is a God, or that we should do everything that a book says we should because it insists that God issued the commandments. There are thousands of religious documents all over the world that contain stories about spiritual leaders, some even claiming to be God, that issue commandments that you are currently ignoring. You don't think that the commandments of Zoroastrianism are binding, do you?

Now even if God said it and the book you choose to adhere to accurately relays that commandment, it doesn't follow from that alone that one should do it or even that it is good. You have to make your own moral choice, on criteria of your choosing, about whether or not it is a good thing to follow that commandment. You have to figure out which features of the commandment are relevant to deciding whether or not it is a good commandment to follow, one that you ought to obey. But the choice, the moral responsibility for deciding to act according to those commandments instead of some others still falls squarely on your shoulders, not God's. You have to figure out, on the basis of other facts than just that God commanded it, that doing X is a good thing. The second order choice, "Is it a good thing or a bad thing to do what God commands?" is still entirely up to you. That is, even if there is a God (there isn't) who gives us clear commands (he doesn't), acting on them is my choice. And it is my fault if I pick the wrong commandments, and it is to my credit if I choose the right ones. Complete, 100% moral responsibility falls entirely on the person who makes the choice, in every case. People are fond of saying that morality can only come from God and that only God is capable of recognizing what is right and wrong. But deciding to do what you take God to command is itself a moral choice that only you can decide. The theist might respond, "But I am not deciding what is right or wrong. Only God can do that. I just do what God commands." What that means is that you have made the decision to do what God commands instead of something else, and that decision it unavoidably moral because the rule you are deciding to follow are commandments about what is moral.

Notice that when someone says that they bombed the abortion clinic because God told them to do it, or to fly planes into a building, we don't immediately let them off the hook simply because they claim to have divine authorization. We expect them and everyone else to make moral choices about which principles deserve to be followed, whether you think they came from God or not. It is never enough to foist the moral responsibility for one's actions onto God, because you cannot divest yourself of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility cannot be separate from any human free choice.

So the theist who thinks that the atheist is amoral and directionless just hasn't reflected on the basic moral challenge for all of humanity. What all of do is entirely up to us. If you decide that since God commands X, Y, and Z, you ought to do them, you aren't absolved or moral responsibility for those acts. You decided that doing what God commands is good, and you deciding that doing X, Y, and Z instead of something else was a good thing. So the atheist and the theist are in the same boat for figuring out which principles are morally acceptable ones to live by and why.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Is Religious Education Child Abuse?

Human babies born today are more or less the same neurologically and biologically as human babies born ten of thousand years ago. We tend to think of humans from the past as more primitive than us, less capable of advanced thinking, less smart. But humans haven't evolved significantly in that regard in millennia. The scale required to really see noticeable changes in structures like brains in that regard is millions of years, not thousands. So it's not that a human born ten thousand years ago was less neurologically advanced than us--they weren't dumber. They just had access to less of the knowledge of the world that we had.

So really the only difference between a baby born today and one born ten thousand years ago is what you put into them. If you give them a first rate education that capitalizes on all the most recent advances of science and history, if you feed them well, if you nurture them in all the ways that we now know through science are the best for them, then you maximize their potential in the era of human history that they happened into.

But in our culture, a very strong presumption in favor of the parents' rights to control their child's upbringing has developed. It is so strong, that we let them teach the children anything they want, take them anywhere they want, and in effect indoctrinate them in any way they see fit. The parents' treatment of the child has to reach extremes before we will intervene. If there is outright physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, we legally intervene.

But consider educational child abuse. If we take a medieval or ancient worldview that makes simplistic and demonstratively false claims about the world, and if we teach that child that that is the truth, we rob them of thousands of years of important advances in science, physics, biology, history, and medicine. Consider the large percentage of the population who still believes that the earth was created 6,000 years ago. Consider how many people don't understand the rudiments of the scientific method. Consider the $40 billion or so that Americans spend on alternative, unproven medical treatments. The majority of Americans believe in ghosts, psychic powers, communication with the dead, and other paranormal phenomena. Every time a parent passes some of that to a child, the child has lost the opportunity to find out the truth, she's less equipped to deal with the real world as we know it, and her life will be filled with more ignorance, fear, and superstition. And she goes on to propagate those ideas, miring all of us in the past.

If we inculcate child with a simplistic set of moral principles from an ancient culture, we leave them ill equipped to deal with the radically different social, technological, medical, and psychological issues that face us now when we have to make responsible moral decisions. Consider the Ten Commandments that are so often touted as the pinnacle of moral guidance. It's naïve to think that we can resolve complicated new moral dilemmas like the morally acceptable use of stem cells to cure disease, or end of life euthanasia, or other medical decisions that are made complicated by 21st century advances in technology with a handful of aphorisms from the 2nd century. You will not find any clear answers to moral questions about in vitro fertilization, or fetal genetic testing in the Bible. But you will find some thoughtful guidance and relevant information in the works of moral philosophers, researchers, and analysts in the 21st century.

When parents impart a religious worldview that is 1,000 years old, or 2,000 years old to their children that ignores what humanity has learned about the universe, about history, about human psychology, about medicine, and everything else, they do a grievous harm to that child. The point would be obvious if a parent decided to only teach their child addition, but refused to let them learn multiplication, algebra, and calculus. And if a parent told their child that the food in the grocery store nourishes because it is inhabited by friendly benevolent spirits that help the body from the inside, we'd also be scandalized. If a parent told their child that everything that people think about history is a myth--there was no American revolution, there was no discovery of electricity, there was no World War I and II--but instead, all of the humans on the planet were put here last week by magical fairies, it would be obvious that the parent is not fit and the child's interests are not being served. So how is giving a child a religious education any different?