Quodlibet: Atheist Attitude

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

I’ve written on this theme before, but thought I’d wait until the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism rode by to snipe at them from behind.  Who, after all, wants to be in the sights of the formidable Professor Dawkins or the acid Mr Hitchens?  Not me.

In their heyday, the Horsemen’s books were sitting on the coffee tables of every secular/humanist/atheist household I visited, and I visited a few.  In one case last year in Los Angeles, a proud browser had Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens on view on side tables, but confessed he “hadn’t read them all the way through.”  That’s no crime, I said happily.  “They’re really not very good.”  How could I say that, he asked, somewhat confused: “Aren’t you the head of some humanist outfit?”  Atheists are mostly pretty old and they use “outfit” thinking back to their service days.  I assured him (a) I was not the head of anything and (b) I did not check my critical reading skills at the door when I joined the humanist outfit.

When I wrote on this topic before (“Of Brights and Dims: Why Hard Science won’t Cure Easy Religion,” Free Inquiry, 2006) I mainly had Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion in view.  I still do.  Without oversimplifying an already simple thesis, Dawkins feels that religion is essentially for stupid people–people who don’t like or understand science and who think big bangs come from Pa’s shotgun.  They like their religion literal, illogical, and their savior handy in case of distress.  Think of the Palin clan, back in Wasilla.  Nevermind that it gets them into all kinds of messes, like smiling in the face of the proven insufficiency of abstinence-only birth control:  it’s easy to understand and you don’t have to wait in line.  God cleans up the messes we make because he’s in the business of wanting personal relationships with people (he’s in the forgiveness business), and as a bonus he created the big mess we call the world in the first place.  Religion is for Dims.  Science is for Brights.  Religion (saith RD) is the default position for the scientifically challenged of the world.

Now AAFCPS, this is not an argument against religion.  It’s proof of stupid people.  I meet such people every day. They doze through my classes, can’t make change, even with talking cash registers, burn out their credit by the age of 24 and think their preacher is the smartest man in town–after Rush Limbaugh.  Dawkins, it will come as no surprise, comes from the faraway land called England, but his model of a Dim is almost exclusively American.  This is where dim dives to new wattages.  This is where dim is dimmest.

Richard Dawkins wants these people to know they are deluded.  To help them out, he reminds them of their Thomas Aquinas and Anselm’s famous ontological argument.  Nevermind that even the intellectually radiant Pastor Bob has never read these thinkers either.  It is important that their dimness include ignorance of the Middle Ages, which it almost certainly does.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an argument against religion either: it’s blaming medieval scholastics for living in the Dark Ages.  Everything was pretty dim.   But what reason do we have to suppose that Aquinas would not have accepted the idea of a primordial implosion as a worthy substitute for “In the beginning God,” if he’d lived next door to Dawkins in twentieth century Oxford.  (And as it happens, Anselm lived just down the way, in Canterbury, but alas, in the 10th century, and too dim to make the journey to the twenty first).  The lesson seems to be however, that before dims can achieve a higher luminosity they must first foreswear the arguments for God’s existence that they have never heard of.

Next, they must confess, as an act of faith, that the science they were too dumb to learn proves them dim.  Most of the scientists I call friends have never read the Origin of Species, but they are permitted this omission because they take evolution as scientific theory, meaning subject to falsification, meaning that if Pastor Bob can produce photographic evidence of Genesis 1-3 Darwin can suck eggs.  But until he does, Darwin is right, and Pastor Bob and all his Darwin-dissing ID by-any-other-name friends are a threat to society.  Moreover, creationism cannot be scientific because creation clearly exists and is thus not falsifiable and with it goes the need for a creator.  Whoops, category error.  Who spotted it?

Once there was a fifth horseman, a physicist by trade, a nice but plodding prose style, the author of seven books or one book in seven versions, the latest being God, the Failed Hypothesis.  At a 2007 lecture anticipating his book Why is There Something rather than Nothing? Victor Stenger said, “Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence.  The laws of physics are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing.  There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.”  And all the congregation, bedazzled with an hour’s worth of sparkling equations and no toilet break, said Amen.

I felt my light flickering: was I dimming out?  Surely, I thought quietly, not wishing to be outed, we can only say something is more stable than nothing because we live in something-land.  (To say Nothing does not exist is a tautological giggle).  And what strange quantum hubris entitles us to say in the passive voice, “No laws of physics were violated in bringing the world into existence”–because the cosmos we see is the one we would expect to get from nothing.  I said nothing of course. (Perhaps the something I might have said would have been the sort of thing one would expect). The audience were in full and energetic agreement.  A few were even trading equations on business cards.  For my part, I resolved to enroll in a low-numbered physics course at a local community college.

What physics has shown is that a table is in full conformity with a square-topped four-legged entity used for eating, writing or similar function.  Just as we expected before we made it.  From wood.

I have missed so much.

20 thoughts on “Quodlibet: Atheist Attitude

  1. I’m always bothered by the Four-Horseman epithet, which exaggerates the likenesses and homogeneity of their books, and which permits synecdochic hatchet jobs that focus only on _The God Delusion_, which has obvious deficiencies. I would be greatly interested in your thoughts on Dennett’s book, which seemed the most sophisticated of the four.

  2. I did enjoy the four horsemen riding by – the black cloaked highwaymen on a dreadful mission. And Dawkins, so fashionable, is so deluded about religion and his view of the religious is drawn from the Dims. Regarding Stenger: what’s so unstable about nothing? Nothing can’t fall over because it doesn’t exist but a two legged table can because it does. Why do very clever people, trying to be clever, not seem to be very clever at all? Stenger proved nothing. He assumed something and said nothing, I assume. Was he charismatic? It’s amazing how one person, saying nothing, or twisting words together in convoluted seemingly meaningless sentences, create an impression of learning. It’s amazing how this impression can spread like contagion through an audience and inspire energetic agreement and amens. I’ve seen similar things in Pentecostal Churches with exuberant dancing and hallelujahs.


  3. Pingback: Quodlibet: Atheist Attitude (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

    • “But what reason do we have to suppose that Aquinus would not have accepted the idea of a primordial implosition as a worthy substitute for ‘in the bginning God’.”
      Whatever speculative (atheist attitude) reason is being suggested; I dare to offer that the truly Bright question suggested is: By what reason do we face the indisputable fact (even for RD athestic labeling – Religion is for Dims – Science is for Brights) that the very founders and grand theorists of modern (quantum and relativity) physics, the worlds greatest physicists, by the droves go beyond physics to embrace meta-physical mysticism
      in one form or another?
      The reason in brief is given in the following comments 7.8 & 9. Begin with 8 then 9, 7 is repetious.
      The comments are excerpts from Quantum Questions. All on the chance that some reader (against the advise “Ignore the believers”) might yet have the interest.

  4. Well worth reposting quite apart from it’s entertainment value, because it’s possibly even more shockingly relevant. The “four [or five] horsemen’s” shared atheistic attitude I’m sure has become louder. If anything their dimness has become dimmer – and more hostile, self righteous and vitriolic. I was interested to read a Guardian article published (16 July 2009) around the time of this post, in which Dennett attacks other atheists he labels as being from the “I’m an atheist but” crowd, who deplore the hostility and rudeness of “us atheists”, Dennett says, “while privately admitting that we’re right.” Really? Right about what? And “privately”…? Dim.


  5. I like the four horsemen specifically but that isn’t an argument for checking critical thinking at the door. Getting to atheist isn’t a requirement or the end of the road for people but I’ve found having zero belief to be a challenge because it’s just assumed so often in the circles I was subject to that everyone has a little faith or a little voice telling them about the actual true god. The four horsemen confirmed that other people were running across similar experiences.

    I think there is value in the growing louder atheism as part of a process that ends with variations of non belief being treated as more ordinary. I’m a software engineer working with two hundred or so other engineers. Peers of this sort tend to be mostly atheist. And in this environment, we rarely spend any time discussing it because it’s hardly interesting compared to discussing technology.

    But outside of that, among my relatives or my fellow soldiers when I was serving as one, non belief is not only not expected, the Christian model of belief is sort of the template of faith (possibly just in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia). A chaplain of any faith bears a cross as a portion of their rank. There, I was louder and I observed peers who felt the same only more quietly. Although my logic is still a work in progress, I got the message that non believers exist in ordinary capacities to people who haven’t seemed to consider that possibility.

    So while these criticisms of adopters of the New Atheism trend may be sound, I think I’ll pardon myself if I took a moment to enjoy best selling pro-atheist literature. It’s not the most logical or the most practical way to deal with issues such as creationism as a science and evolution as a guess but that’s the first time I saw atheism trend and it was nice to have the presence of known atheists being discussed in so many venues.

  6. Joe,
    It is evident that a quantum comment from one physicist has had an unsettling effect – “I felt my light flickering: was I dimming out?” – the comment: “– the cosmos we see is the one we would exppect to get from nothing” – then steph’s: “He assumed something and said nothing”.- all suggesting that there is substance to “I have missed so much”.
    Having just declared: “Science is for Brights”, I take it that you might just be open to further quantum comments, here by the very founders and grand theorists of modern physics.

    Einstein: “The present fashion of applying the axioms of physical science to human life is not only entirely a mistake but has also something rephensible in it.”
    When asked what effet the theory of relativity had on religion he said: “None. Realitivity is a purely scientific theory and has nothing to do with religion.”

    Eddington: “I do not suggest that the new physics ‘proves religion’ or gives any positive grounds for religious faith. Physics takes its start from everyday experience, which it continues by more subtle means. It remains akin to it, does not transcend it.”

    What in particular, did the new physics (qantum and rlativistic) tell these physicists that the old physics failed to mention?
    Eddington: “Now the great difference between the old and the new physics is not that the latter is relativistic, nondeterministic, four deminsional, or any of these sorts of things. The great difference between old and new physics is both much simpler and muchmore profound. both the old and the new physics were dealing with shadows – symbols, but the new physics was forced to be aware of that fact – forced to be aware that it was aware of that fact – forced to be aware that it was dealing with shadows and allusions, not reality – in the world of physics we watch shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow table as the shadow ink flows over the shadow paper. The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances”.

    Jeans: “The essential fact is simply that all of the picctures which sccience draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are mathmetical pictures – they are nothing more than pictures – fiction, if you like, if by fictin yo mean that science is ot yet in contact with ultimate reality.

    Eddington: “Briefly the position is this. We have learnt that the explanation of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which these methods are unadapted for penetrating.

    There is much more.. Should someone indicte an interest, I am plesed to offer it.

    • The above quotes are from the classic treatment “Quantum Questions: Mystical writings of the World’s Greatest Physicist”, Edited by Ken Wilbur. Your advise “Ignore the believer” cautioned against using the word Mystical to better the chance that it be read. Hence the quotes are limited to these physisicist’s thoughts on modern physics. So there is inded much more. Reasonably I can assume that you have not engaged with the book – so here I take “I have mised so much” literally, encouragig the decision to offer more irrespective of whether it is read.

      “It seemed a good idea to consult the founders of modern physics on what they thought about the nature of science and religion, What is the relation, if any, between modern physics and transcendential mysticim? Does physics bear at all on the issues of fee-will, creation, Spirit, the soul? What are the respective roles of science and religion? Does physics deal with Reality or is it necessarily confined to studying the shadows in the cave?
      This volume is a condenced collection of virtually every major statement made on these topics by the founders and grand theoricist of modern (quandum and relativity) physics: Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Plank. I was quite surprised to find a very general commonality emerge in the worldview of these philosopher-scientists, certain strong common conclusions were reached by virtually every one of these theorists – – they are virtually unanimous in declaring that modern physics offers no positive support whatsoever for mysticism or transcendentalism of any variety. And yet they were all mystics of one sort or another! The reason for that will be one of the cenral questions of this volume.
      The critique of these theorists cuts at right angles to any possible new discoveries. Briefly, the critque is this. The central mystical experience may briefly be described as follows: in the mystical consciousness, Reality is apprehended directly and immediatly, meaning without any mediation, any symbolic elaboration, any conceptualization, or any abstractions; subject and object become one in a timeless and spaceless act that is beyond any and all forms of mediation. Mystics universaly speak of contacting reality in its “suchness”, its “Isness”, is “thatness”, without any intermediaries, beyond words, symbols, names, thoughts, images.

      Now, when the physicist “looks at” quantum reality or at realitivity, he is not looking at the “things in themselves”, at noumenon, at direct and nonmediated reality. Rather, the physicist is looking at nothing but a set of highly abstract differential equations – – not at “reality” itself, but at mathenmatical symbols of reality. As Bohr puts it, “It must be recognized that we are here dealing with a purely symbolic procedure. Hence our whole space-time view of physical phenonmena depend ultimately upon these abstractions”. Sir James Jeans: “These will nevr describe nature itself – – our studies can never put us into contact with reality”.

      What an absolute radical, irredeemable difference from mysticism! And this critique applies to any type of physics – – old, new, ancient, modern, relativistic, or quantum. The very nature, aim, and results of the approaches are a profoundly different: the one dealing with abstract and mediate symbols and forms of reality, the other dealing with a direct and nonmediated approach to reality itself!
      More later.

      • Quotes continued.
        “–if you are in the cave of shadows and don’t even know it, then of course you have no reason or desire to escape to the light beyond. The shadows appear to be the whole world, and no other reality is acknowleged or even suspected — this tended to be the philosophic effect of the old physics. But with the new physics, the shadowy character of the whole enterprise became much more obvious, and sensitive physicists by the droves — including all of those in this volume — began to look beyond the cave and beyond physics altogether.

        But why then, did all of these great physicists embrace mysticisim of one form or another? Obviously, there is some type of profound connection here.

        “The symbolic nature of physics,” Eddington explains, “is generally recognized in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a part something wider.” However, according to these physicists, about this “something wider” physics tells us — and can tell us– nothing whatsoever. It was exactly this radical failure of physics, and not its supposed similarities to mysticism, that paradoxically led so many physicisis to a mystical view of the world. As Eddington carefully explains: “Briefly the psition is this. We have learnt that the physical scinces leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating. Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point in human consciousness – this one centre where more might become known. There [in immediate inwrd consciousness] we find other stirrings, other revelations than those coditioned by the world of symbols. Physics most strongly insists that its methods do not penetrate behind the symbolism. Surely then that mental and spiritual nature of ourselves, known in our minds by an intimate contact transcending the methods of physics, supplies that which science is admittedly unable to give”.

        To put it in a nut shell: according to this view, physics deals with shadows; to go beyond shadows is to go beyond physics, to go beond physics is to head toward the meta-physical or mystical — and that is why so many of our pioneering physicists were mystics. This new physics contributed nothing positive to this mystical venture, except a spectacular failure, from whose smoking ruins the spirit of mysticism gently arises.”

      • Is there any chance you can reduce whatever it is you are trying to say into some essay format that clearly says it?

        You seem to be discussing non overlapping magesterium which is the proposition that science has nothing to say about religion and vice versa. But you’re talking a really long winded and unclear approach to doing even that.

  7. It is the, perhaps hopeless, attempt in this centre to get around the Dim athiest attitude “Ignore the believers” – “religion for Dims”; indeed to make the indisputable point that the World’s greates
    physicists in droves go from physics to embrace religion – mysticism – they are indeed believers!

    • I have my doubts that anyone has suggested ignoring the believers. Personally, I hardly ever get that chance.

      Your appeal to authority is interesting in it’s basic structure, but that’s not a great tactic if you are inclined to think for yourself. Respecting the professional authorities should be limited to the fields of the professionals. Therefore, I’ll defer to Einstein on physics but not on belief no matter how many physicists share a common belief.

      “Religion is for Dims” has several problems. The first is the terminology makes me think you are arguing with Brights. I’m not a Bright and an atheist isn’t necessarily a Bright. So you may have misinterpreted your audience here. Secondly, I’m an atheist. The blog author isn’t necessarily and also there are other commentators who won’t identify as atheist. So there’s even more diversity than your comment appears to address (from my vantage point). Third, as an atheist, I haven’t adopted any stance along the lines of “believers must be stupid”. I don’t think that for a second. I think there absolutely has to be sensible reasons for so many people to have a belief. I do not share their belief and that is all that being an atheist necessarily implies. It’s not a matter of ranking their intelligence.

      If you want a conversation with atheists and humanists and such, by all means continue. Or get your own blog and post what matters to you. I’ve got one. And you know of the one you are on. That’s a great way to make sure a believer like yourself is hard to ignore.

  8. A beautifully written and commented critique of the four schoolboys, RJoe, but there is no appearance of any markers forming your side of the wager. Very little of ‘something’ to disprove ‘nothing’. (I’m assuming you’re not ‘all in’.

    As always I point out that these guys aren’t Humanists either, despite the coat of many colours that they stole from a tradition far nobler than their own.

  9. “Surely, I thought quietly, not wishing to be outed, we can only say something is more stable than nothing because we live in something-land.”

    Actually this is a common misconception people have. Mostly the “something” of something-land is mainly comprised of empty-space, that is, there is more nothing between our cloistered together particles than actual something.

    As for the universe, I think Victor Stenger, and others such as Lawrence Krauss are simply referring to the quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, that is, as Stephen Hawking demonstrated mathematically 30 years ago how the universe could have arisen from a quantum field of virtual particles (the closest thing to “nothing” that there is).

    But physical laws would need to be violated if God snapped his fingers and made a cream danish from nothing for me to eat. No laws need be violated, however, for a universe to pop into existence from mere nothing full of cream danishes for me to eat.

    It’s magic!

    • “But physical laws would need to be violated if God snapped his fingers and made a cream danish from nothing for me to eat. No laws need be violated, however, for a universe to pop into existence from mere nothing full of cream danishes for me to eat.”

      Like all tautologies, this is true. But it doesn’t actually prove anything–including the laws that are not violated but extrapolated from what is. No laws are violated in a universe described by YHWH’s Ten, either until a system appears in which, e.g., ridiculing the gods is regarded as virtue and keeping laws as sin. I have nothing against the “laws” of physics obviously but nothing that satisfies the maxim Ex nihilo nihil fit, whether it’s cream danishes or fluctuations in a vacuum or worlds. The postulate’s closest cousin is Anselm’s ontology, where the physical has to be explained in terms of the non-physical, and that leads to simple mischief.

  10. @Joe

    Since your on about the new atheists, and it seems that my cream danish analogy was a bit fuzzy, here’s a good video explaining far better than I could about the universe coming from nothing. (Maybe you’ve seen it?)

  11. Pingback: Datman, Numavox and The New Oxonian? | Blue Django

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