Christian “Atheism”


Five-Cent Synthesis

jupiter

I have developed the habit of reading four to five books at a time, plus dipping into another dozen in between, which may or may not prove very edifying. This, I admit, is a symptom of intellectual intemperance; however I also admit that I am ambivalent about seeking a cure. One I have just begun is Faith and Unbeliefby the English theologian Stephen Bullivant; as a former atheist turned Catholic theologian with a doctorate from Oxford, he appears to have an expansive grasp on both orientations towards reality.

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The Myth of Consciousness . . .


Consciousness Explained.  By Daniel C. Dennett.  Boston, MA:  Little, Brown and Company, 1991.  511 pages.

It is, by now, common knowledge that it is far easier to explain something which ultimately does not need to be explained.  Take, for example, the birth of Pegasus.  If you were to ask me to explain how it is that Pegasus was begotten from the blood spilling out of Medusa’s decapitated head, I should simply respond, “Pegasus and Medusa do not exist.  What is there to explain?  Perhaps, what you really want is a historical account of how this mythological tale came to be.”  One does not need to explain how a creature like Pegasus, who only seems to exist (i.e., whose existence is grounded in our imagination), is begotten from the blood of a dead goddess.  Likewise, if we are to accept Dr. Dennett’s stance, one does not need to explain consciousness—at least, not in the traditional sense.  For, according to his view, consciousness only seems to exist; it is mythology.  What we really want, when exploring the nature of conscious mental states, is a scientific, third person, account of how the notion of consciousness arises.  It is in this sense that consciousness is explained (or, perhaps, more fairly, explained away) in his book.

Setting the Stage

Dr. Dennett sets the stage by introducing the means by which he intends to “demystify” the notion of consciousness.  His first move is to reject Cartesian Dualism as a matter of principle.  It will strike some readers odd that, save for a couple of humorous comic strips and a handful of vague comments regarding the, all too cliché, problem of interaction, he seems entirely uncompelled to provide rigorous argumentation against the Cartesian view.  Most, however, will be sympathetic to the fact that it is far more economical in a lengthy work of philosophy to simply pronounce, ex cathedra, the death of an opposing point of view.  Such an approach, I might point out, makes the task of promoting one’s own view far easier.  To be fair, though, it must be conceded that Dr. Dennett makes several strong assertions about why we should ignore dualistic theories of the mind.  He declares that dualism is both unscientific and mysterious.  As he states:

[The] fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.  It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up (37).

Rather than wallow in mystery (and, really, who wants to wallow?), Dr. Dennett proposes a more sensible way—materialism.  But not just any form of materialism, a materialism that faces the problem of consciousness realistically; without ignoring the key features of conscious mental states which render them so difficult to account for.  The bulk of his book, therefore, is spent attempting to provide a broad materialistic framework by which we might account for all of the features of consciousness.

From this standpoint, his book is essentially a conglomeration of various materialist theories on human cognition, neurology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and biological evolution pulled together to provide a cumulative case against those who might view consciousness as being at odds with a materialist ontology.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that his real goal is to undercut traditional assumptions about the nature of consciousness (ie., the ones that need to be explained), and thereby remove the obstacles facing empirical scientific approaches.  He achieves this by redefining or calling into question these assumptions—such notions as a “center of consciousness,” intentionality, identity over time, and qualia—which continue to mystify scientists.

The Death of Qualia

One key feature of conscious mental states that resists any and all materialistic explanations is what philosophers call qualia.  Material things can be described, almost exhaustively, from an objective or third person stance.  For instance, I can examine and explain nearly everything there is to know about a rock—its mass, weight, location, geological history, chemical makeup, etc.—without invoking any subjective or first person properties.  Conscious mental states, in contrast, seem to possess a quality that rocks, and all other material objects, lack.  As Dr. Dennett explains:

Don’t our internal discriminative states also have some special “intrinsic” properties, the subjective, private, ineffable, properties that constitute the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)?  Those additional properties would be the qualia (373).

Recognizing that subjective experience poses a serious problem to his materialist proclivities, Dr. Dennett spends a considerable amount of time on the issue.  I will highlight several of the more innovative approaches he utilizes to “disqualify” qualia as being a serious obstacle to materialism.

First, he wisely chooses not to quote any philosopher who makes a case that qualia is: (a) a legitimate property of consciousness and (b) a serious challenge to materialism.  This is a very smart move, because it frees him from having to deal, directly, with their arguments (an understandable choice to make, considering the book is already 511 pages).  Instead of engaging the literature on the subject, Dr. Dennett utilizes a fictional character named Otto (a.k.a., the Straw Man) to represent the opposing side.  He then proceeds to deconstruct the problem of qualia as it is espoused by Otto.  I will deal with this in greater detail in a moment.

The second approach Dr. Dennett uses, which proves to be very effective, is what philosophers call equivocation—the ambiguous use of a key term in an argument.  At the beginning of chapter twelve, Dr. Dennett correctly identifies qualia as being a “subjective, private, ineffable,” property that constitutes, “the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)” (373).  A couple of pages latter we see a subtle shift in his use of the term:

When Otto, in chapter 11, judged that there seemed to be a glowing pinkish ring, what was the content of his judgment?  If, as I have insisted, his judgment wasn’t about a quale, a property of a “phenomenal” seem-ing-ring (made out of figment), just what was it about?  What property did he find himself tempted to attribute (falsely) to something out in the world (375, emphasis mine)?

Note how seamlessly he shifts from qualia being an internal subjective property to an external property we attribute to something out in the world.  Such sophisticated sophistry is a rare gem.

Following this subtle shift in the meaning of the term, Dr. Dennett spends multiple pages discussing color and providing a very lively and entertaining third person scientific account of how various organisms perceive reflective light surfaces.  He then draws the following conclusion:

What property does Otto judge something to have when he judges it to be pink?  The property he calls pink.  And what property is that?  It’s hard to say, but this should not embarrass us, because we can say why it’s hard to say.  The best we can do, practically, when asked what surface properties we detect with color vision, is to say, uninformatively, that we detect the properties we detect.  If someone wants a more informative story about those properties, there is a large and rather incompressible literature in biology, neuroscience, and psychophysics to consult.  And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink by saying “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience).  All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state . . . but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work.  There are no such things (382-383).

If this passage leaves you feeling confused, you are not alone.  At first, Dr. Dennett seems to be discussing the “property of pink” and the “surface properties we detect with color vision” (i.e., external, third person properties); then, without warning, he declares the death of qualia.  It is impossible to appreciate Dr. Dennett’s argument because he does not make one, but I submit that we can admire this paragraph for what it is: a powerful form or rhetoric.

This leads us to the third approach Dr. Dennett utilizes to disqualify qualia: begging the question.  It should be noted that this approach is perhaps one of his greatest strengths.  Rather than disprove the existence of qualia (or, for that matter, any of the key features of consciousness) he simply assumes materialism is true.  With this assumption in place, it is all too easy to explain qualia away.  Consider, for example, how he handles the problem of inverted qualia.  Dr. Dennett starts with the assumption that materialism is true and that our subjective qualitative experiences are simply reducible to our “reactive dispositions” (392).  He then utilizes these assumptions to undercut the thought experiments propounded by those who consider inverted qualia a serious challenge to materialism.  For example, his response to one thought experiment which demonstrates that, even with perfect technology, “no intersubjective comparison of qualia would be possible,” is merely to point out that it, “provides support, however, for the shockingly “verificationist” or “positivistic” view that the very idea of inverted qualia is nonsense–and hence that the very idea of qualia is nonsense” (390).

It seems that by placing quotation marks around the terms verificationism and positivism, Dr. Dennett hopes to downplay the self-contradictory nature of both views.  Unfortunately, sarcasm and well placed quotation marks do not negate the fact that verificationsim and logical positivism are dead-end’s which have been abandoned by serious philosophers for years.  The reason being that both views promote a hopelessly limited epistemology.  Dr. Dennett, however, seems undeterred by these problems because, after all, in his view materialism is true; and, if materialism is true, there must be some empirical (i.e., materialistic) way to verify the existence of qualia (outside of the fact that we all have subjective qualitative experiences).  Naturally, if we accept this, our inability to compare our subjective experiences through some sort of third person objective standpoint leads to the conclusion that qualia is nonsense.

The process of question begging demonstrated above is utilized repeatedly, and with great rhetorical flare, throughout the chapter.  Consider Dr. Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s much debated thought experiment: Monochromatic Mary.  The point of the experiment is to demonstrate that Mary, a super intelligent color scientist who has never personally experienced color, learns something knew upon her release from her monochromatic prison.  Although she has learned everything there is to know about physical third person explanations of reflective light surfaces, human vision, neurology, and biology, she learns something knew upon personally experiencing a red rose for the first time.  This “something new” is of course qualia–her subjective qualitative experience of the outside world.

His response to the problem this story generates for materialism is merely to assert the truth of materialism.  He does this by telling his own version of Mary’s first color experience:

 And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors.  As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever.  Mary took one look at it and said “Hey!  You tried to trick me!  Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!”  Her captors were dumfounded.  How did she do it?  “Simple,” she replied.  “You have to remember that I know everything–absolutely everything–that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision.  So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object . . . would make on my nervous system.  So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the “mere disposition” to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?).  I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue . . . (399-400).

Note how his story simply assumes the non-existence of qualia–the very thing in question.  Admittedly, this method works very well to Dr. Dennett’s advantage.  Why argue for your position when you can simply assume it to be true?

Concluding Thoughts

The hard problem of consciousness, as it has been called by David Chalmers,  is exactly the type of problem one would expect to be solved in a book entitled Consciousness Explained;  ironically, quite the opposite is true.  It is, rather, the hard problem of consciousness which is explained away by Dr. Dennett.  The most significant features of consciousness, the one’s that incessantly resist materialistic explanation, are simply dismissed as being some sort of illusion.  Qualia, intentionality, and other irreducible features of consciousness are no different from mythology in his view.  Harking back to the analogy I presented in the introduction:  the story of Pegasus and Medusa is exciting, and even thought provoking, but at the end of the day it is not based on reality.  Likewise, for Dr. Dennett, our subjective inner qualitative experiences are a nice story but do not correspond to reality.  Reality, if we accept his understanding, is anything explainable in terms of evolutionary biology, neurology, cognitive science, and the overarching laws of physics; period.

As disconcerting as this may be, it is not quite as disconcerting as the means by which Dr. Dennett arrives at his conclusions.  Arguments against dualism (in any way shape or form) are completely absent from the text.  Materialism is, thus, taken for granted and consistently used as a defeater for any feature of consciousness that poses a challenge for materialism.  A great deal of time is spent providing third person scientific accounts of physical processes without directly addressing the actual arguments of those who would object to Dr. Dennett’s materialism.  For these reasons his book should not be considered a serious work of philosophy.  It should, however, be praised for its good humor and readability.  If anything, it is a shining modern example of sophistry and should be read diligently by anyone who seeks to learn how to make the weaker position seem strong.

Thank God for Michael Dowd: How the Capitulation of Religion to Science Will Transform Your Life and Our World


Michael Dowd is a self-described “evolutionary evangelist” who lies at the forefront of a growing movement known as “Christian Naturalism” or “Christian Darwinism”–a movement largely influenced by his popular book Thank God for Evolution.  There are a variety of things I could say about Mr. Dowd’s book, but, for now, I would like to focus your attention on its misleading subtitle.  It reads as follows:  How the Marriage of Science and Religion will Transform Your Life and Our World.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this subtitle–in fact, I think it’s rather catchy.  My only real objection is that it’s printed on the cover of Mr. Dowd’s book.  Perhaps you disagree, but I subscribe to the school of thought which advocates that a book’s subtitle actually convey information about its content.  I carefully read and reread this manuscript in an attempt to find a “marriage” between science and religion but was left empty handed.  What I found, instead, was analogous to the fatal actions that a female praying mantis takes against her male partner after copulating–science biting religions head off!  A more accurate subtitle would read:  How the Capitulation of Religion to Science will Transform Your Life and Our World.   

The last time I checked, a good marriage was characterized by mutual love and respect.  Having been married for over five years I can attest to this.  The reason my wife and I are still madly in love is because we both value each other–we don’t demean each other, we take each other seriously, and, although we both play different roles in the marriage, we consider each other equal in value, dignity, and worth.  If either one of us were to change our attitude, to look down upon the other or treat the other pejoratively, our marriage would quickly deteriorate.

Rather than a marriage between religion and science, Mr. Dowd advocates something more akin to the relationship that a king has with his concubine.  In such a relationship, the concubines sole purpose is to pleasure the king and keep him company–she is not an equal partner sharing the same dignity, value, and worth as the king.  She is merely an object to be used and, if necessary, discarded.  In Mr. Dowd’s vision, science is the king and religion is his concubine.

Consider this statement in the introduction:  “Here is my vision:  Within the first half of this century, virtually all of us–believers and nonbelievers alike–will come to appreciate that evolution is a gift to religion and that meaning-making is a gift to science” (13).  Notice that he equivocates religion with “meaning-making.”  This is far different from saying that religion gives  meaning.  To say that religion gives meaning is to say that religion makes objective claims about that nature of reality.  To equate religion with “meaning-making” is to suggest that religious claims are merely subjective interpretations of reality.

I wonder how Mr. Dowd, and others, would react if I equated science with “fact-making?  I suspect they would not be happy with this label.  For, it would suggest that science does not discover facts about reality but, rather, makes them up as it goes along.  And they would be right to be upset–such a view is utterly preposterous.  Consequentially, he should not be surprised to discover that people serious about their religious faith are not appreciative when their views are reduced to that of “meaning-making.”

Mr. Dowd’s statements reveal the true object of his faith–naturalistic science.   For Mr. Dowd, science is the pillar and bulwark of the truth (in fact our only reliable source of truth); science alone provides us with objective answers about reality which are true for all men.  Religion, on the other hand, is merely a conglomeration of colorful fairytales which act as a sort of “opiate” for the masses:

What I and others mean by the Great Story is humanity’s common creation story.  It is the 14-billion-year science-based tale of cosmic genesis–from the formation of galaxies and the origin of life, to the development of consciousness and culture, and onward to the emergence of ever-widening circles of care and concern.  Science unquestionably provides the foundation.  For this tale to be experienced as holy, however, it must don the accouterments of myth.  Barebones science must be embellished with metaphor and enriched by poetry, painting, song, and ceremony (25, emphasis mine).

After reading this quote, taken from the first chapter, there is little to nothing worth discussing about the rest of the book.  If you have read Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, you will find nothing new here.  He simply presents atheistic scientific naturalism donned with, “the accouterments of myth,” and “embellished with metaphor.”  Mr. Dowd truly seems to believe that simply attaching adjectives like “holy” or “sacred” to evolution actually make it holy and sacred.  In the same way that McDonald’s believes calling their burgers “deluxe” actually makes them deluxe.

I’m truly baffled that Mr. Dowd believes his portrayal of religion, as a placebo, will resonate with millions of devout religious people who actually take their faith seriously.  Does he honestly believe he has bridged the gap between science and faith by encouraging everyone to accept Richard Dawkins’ naturalistic worldview embellished with religious lingo?  This is tantamount to serving dog droppings smothered in whip-cream with the expectation that your cultured guests will find it palatable.   I see no reason why religious people should capitulate to the nefarious doctrines of scientism and naturalism–especially considering the devastating critiques of such views recently offered by such noted philosophers are Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, Angus Menuge, William Dembski, and J. P. Moreland (to name but a few).

In the final analysis, I believe I was wrong to suggest that Mr. Dowd’s subtitle failed to relate any information about the book.  If his thesis turns out to be correct, if naturalism is true and science is our only reliable source of knowledge, then he is right–our lives truly will be transformed.  We must now come to terms with the unavoidable conclusion that we have no free will; that we are locked in an endless mechanical cycle of material causes and effects completely out of our control.  We must learn to cope with the startling truth that there is no objective meaning or purpose for our existence; and affirm that there is no such thing as good or evil.  If this is the universe we live in, perhaps Mr. Dowd is right–pretending life has meaning may be our best option.

[Dowd, Michael. Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion will Transform Your Life and Our World.  New York: Viking, 2007.  USA $24.95]

Saving Giberson: How to Be an Intellectually Honest Atheist


Upon reading Karl Giberson’s book, Saving Darwin, I too became a disillusioned fundamentalist—disillusioned with Giberson’s naive assumption that philosophical naturalism is somehow compatible with the Christian worldview.

Never mind Giberson’s nonchalant dismissal of sophisticated arguments in support of Intelligent Design with “devastating” quips like, “I don’t think . . . [ID theorists] . . . have a good feel for how the historical practice of science has gradually . . . [led] . . . practicing scientists away from such explanations.” (159)  Forget the various theological blunders littered throughout the book—such as the stunning assertion that the Christian concept of hell is a, “secondary doctrine.” (38)  All such problems, while noteworthy, pale in comparison with Giberson’s patent refusal, throughout the book, to acknowledge the inherent incompatibility of philosophical naturalism with Christianity.

By philosophical naturalism, I mean the prevalent doctrine that the universe, as we know it, is a closed system of material causes and effects.  The idea that nothing exists beyond matter and energy; that the physical world is all there is.  This nihilistic doctrine constitutes the metaphysical foundation upon which Darwin’s theory of biological origins is predicated upon; and any attempt to detach Darwin’s brand of evolutionary theory from its naturalistic base inevitably leads one to adopt a non-Darwinian form of evolution.

Consider, as Giberson does in his book, that Darwin’s theory is touted by its proponents as being the conclusive argument against design.  They reason, that since Darwin was able to explain the origin of the species by means of an undirected, non-teleological naturalistic process, there is no longer a need to infer design in nature.  All such appearances, say the Darwinists, are merely an illusion.  Accordingly, those who posit any form of intelligent guidance or input within nature (Such as theistic evolutionists or deists) are essentially rejecting Darwin’s formulation of evolution.

If God exists, and if he played an active role in the advent of biological life—either by guiding the evolutionary process or setting the initial conditions or laws of the universe—Darwin’s theory of unguided, naturalistic, evolution is necessarily wrong.  Under Darwin’s framework, we are merely the result of chance and necessity—random variation (genetic mutation) and natural selection.  Any worldview which claims God intended life to arise or inserted the information necessary for life to arise, or guided the evolution of life, challenges this basic claim.

Therefore, I find it hard to understand how Giberson believes one can claim to be a Christian and fully accept Darwin’s theory of evolution without being a complete hypocrite.  Affirming the truth of two incompatible worldviews is simply oxymoronic.  Yet, this is precisely what Giberson’s insipid book advocates.

The dissonance in Giberson’s argument comes out clearly in chapter three, where he address’s Darwin’s “dark companions.”  In this chapter he attempts to disassociate the biological theory of evolution from its overarching metaphysical implications.  At the beginning of the chapter he states: “The connection between biological and social Darwinism is complex and troubling, and perhaps even suspicious, but there is no denying that it has always been there, even before evolutionary theory became known as “Darwinism.” (79 Emphasis mine)  After explaining social Darwinism’s role in the development of such atrocious social projects as Eugenics and even admitting its influence on the Nazi’s, he concludes:

Thoughtful evolutionists hasten to point out that no necessary connection exists between biological evolution, which provides descriptive explanations of how nature works, and social Darwinism, which suggests prescriptive guidelines for how society should behave.  It is far from obvious that eugenics, unbridled capitalism, relaxed attitudes about infanticide, or rampant militarism is implied by the theory that species originate through natural selection.” (80)

Thoughtful evolutionists seem to have forgotten that descriptions of how nature work are not done in a vacuum.  Perhaps the reason social Darwinism has always been attached to evolutionary theory is because it is predicated upon and bolsters a view of reality which does imply eugenics, unbridled capitalism, relaxed attitudes about infanticide, and rampant militarism; namely, philosophical naturalism.  One simply cannot separate Darwinism from it’s undergirding worldview.

If there is no overarching purpose or design in the universe, if God played no role in the development of human life, if nature is a closed system of causes and effects, then there are no objective moral values.  Furthermore, there is no sensible reason to believe that human life is intrinsically valuable.  It seems to me, then, that the social Darwinists are simply following the logic of philosophical naturalism to its ultimate conclusion.  They, unlike Giberson, are not being hypocrites; but advocating exactly what their metaphysics entail.  Sadly, Giberson appears to be willfully blind to these facts.

For example, he argues in chapter six that he wishes Intelligent Design were true; in fact, he goes as far as to say that, “all Christians . . . should wish it were true.” (155)  Why, because Intelligent Design coheres nicely with the Judeo-Christian worldview–a worldview that he admits becomes extremely questionable if Darwin’s theory of evolution is true:

I have a great appreciation for the counterarguments for God’s existence.  I understand how honest thinkers and seekers of truth like Daniel Dennett and Michael Ruse [both prominent Darwinists] can end up rejecting God.  Like that of most thinking Christians, my belief in God is tinged with doubts and, in my more reflective moments, I sometimes wonder if I am perhaps simply continuing along the trajectory of a childhood faith that should be abandoned. (155)

In spite of the troubling fact that Darwinian evolution poses a serious threat to his faith, Giberson stubbornly refuses to acknowledge its tacit metaphysical implications.  He refuses to consider the possibility that Darwinism is built upon a worldview which is wholly incompatible with his Judeo-Christian proclivities—he is willfully blind.

In a later chapter he laments the fact that, “virtually all the leading spokespersons for science—the ones on bookstands and public television—are strongly antireligious,” and argues against the idea that evolutionary theory has rendered religion superfluous mythology. (174)  His argument is that the silent majority of evolutionary biologists don’t think this way; that many, in fact, do believe in God.  What he fails to realize is that the silent majority of evolutionary biologists are either metaphysically confused or blatantly adhering to two contradictory views of reality.

I submit that the only Darwinian evolutionists being consistent to their worldview are the exceedingly antireligious spokesmen like Richard Dawkins and Carol Sagan.  Darwinism is predicated upon philosophical naturalism and the views they advocate so passionately are the logical outgrowth of such a view of reality.  As such, I can see no way in which Darwin can be saved.  Contra Giberson, there is no coherent way in which one can be a Christian and fully accept Darwinian evolution.

At the end of the day, the strongest rational Giberson has for maintaining his Christian faith, in light of Darwinian evolution, is one of pure practicality.  As he explains:

As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God.  My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith.  My wife and children believe in God, and we attend church together regularly.  Most of my friends are believers.  I have a job I love at a Christian college that would be forced to dismiss me if I were to reject the faith . . . Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails. (155-156)

Basically, the only reason he doesn’t reject the existence of God is because it would make a lot of people upset with him and he might lose his job.

While I sympathize with Giberson’s need for a job and his desire to remain in friendly fellowship with family and friends,  I think it’s time that he stop living a double life.   The idea that Christianity is compatible with a scientific theory predicated upon philosophical naturalism is nothing but rehtorical nonsense.    For this reason, I implore him to be consistent: either, Christianity is true, and Darwinian evolution is false or Darwinian evolution is true and Christianity is false.  There is no middle ground; for the truth of one means the negation of the other.