Friday, July 26, 2013

A Brief Conversation with an Atheist

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a conversation. It’s a monologue. Hopefully it’s not close-minded and unreasonably slanted. What it is: a summation of a few conversations I’ve had with an atheist, along with some thoughts and light analysis. It’s neither an argument for God nor against atheism. Rather, I hope to shed a little light on a common argument against the traditional idea of theism.

I’ve had a running debate with a self-professed atheist. Unfortunately, the discussion tends to begin and end in the same place every time. We don’t pick up the debate at the place we left off a few months earlier. Instead, we re-begin at square one. That’s part of the reason for this post: to put it all together. Let me refer to the anonymous atheist as Auggie. 

Auggie’s general argument against theism in general and religion in particular revolves around “science.” It goes something like, “Hey, back in the day, prior to the evolution of science, we needed God to fill in the gaps for the things we couldn’t explain. But there’s no need for God now. Everything we experience can be explained by the physical world.”

One of my major rejoinders to this sort of argument—and this is where I generally spend most of time on the offensive with Auggie—is to make the simple point that science is based on materialism, but it doesn’t, and can’t, prove hard materialism. What I mean by this is simple: hard materialism is the belief that all that exists, in any sense of the word ‘exists’, is material, physical mass. There’s nothing in science, the scientific method, or in any discovery of science that can prove that material matter is all that exists. Science only evaluates physical mass; its tools can only observe physical mass: Therefore, it’s not any wonder science only gives us proclamations about physical mass.

I could expound upon this by drawing many analogies, but let one suffice: If we were to analyze the world solely using our ears, then we would discover only a world of sound. Should we then make the argument that the study of ears proves that the only thing that really exists is sound? No, of course not. I could keep going, but what I really want to get to is the common response to my rebuttal—and then my further response.

A reasonable response to my argument above is, “Yes, yes; I see your point. Science doesn’t prove that only physical material exists. But it comes damn close.” If pushed to explain, Auggie would say, “We only experience physical matter. Yes, that doesn’t mean we can disprove the existence of anything else; but it gets you 99% of the way there. I also can’t prove that there is not an invisible dragon floating above both our heads right now, but science shows us that that possibility is rather slim—in fact, slim enough for us to discount, like God.”

I want to briefly elaborate on an assumption built into this argument. I do this not simply to argue against Auggie but because I believe most self-professed atheists presuppose Auggie’s assumptions. They implicitly claim (without much reflection) that most of our experience of the world is an experience of physical matter. Therefore, to assume the existence of anything else is both unscientific and unrelated to our daily experience. But this exactly what I find to be rather preposterous.

Our experience of the world is hardly at all an experience of physical matter. (By the way, the following set of statements is not an argument against science or even against hard materialism. It’s a set of observations.) If you ever felt that something mattered, then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever felt that there was a right and a wrong in a decision you had to make—even if you felt the moral decision was subjective—then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever looked at a sunset—or a painting, poem, or person—and said, “This is beautiful,” then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever read about something in a newspaper and thought, “That is just horrible,” then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you’ve ever had a job (or could imagine one) that you did, at least somewhat, because you felt the job mattered, then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you’ve never had a job like that but instead do a mindless job just so you can bring money home to your kids because that matters, then you’ve experienced something unlike physical matter. This list could continue.

None of these are arguments against hard materialism. I think anyone can see that. But what they do is point out that our experience of the world, on a daily level, is an experience of something unlike physical matter. Auggie can claim that all of these impulses—from morality to empathy to meaning—are illusionary. Perhaps. My point here isn’t to prove the veracity of these experiences. It’s simply to point them out. Even if they are all caused by physical matter—which I shall suppose as a possibility for the sake of this argument—they aren’t experienced as physical matter.

For example, I simply cannot experience a moral dilemma as physical matter. When I experience it, the moral dimension to the decision—that there is a right and wrong choice (objective or subjective); that making the right or better decision is somehow healthier or nobler for me as a person, as well as for other persons involved—is most definitely not experienced as physical matter. Perhaps one could use the science of the brain and evolution to explain my moral dilemma; but this would still not allow me to experience the moral dilemma as physical matter. Once I truly accepted the moral dilemma as physical matter, the dilemma would no longer exist.

So what’s the point? I guess one of the points is to shift the onus of proof. The hard materialist cannot simply rely on his argument that we only experience physical matter; real or illusionary, this is not how we experience life.

But more interestingly, for me, what this observation does is put Auggie in a position that he must argue that all the experiences outlined above, and their nearly infinite variations, are simply illusions. Auggie must argue that most of our important experiences of life are illusionary. Of course this is a possibility, but it’s a far cry from the science that wants to explain real data by real methods. Instead of applying a reasonable scientific method to experience, Auggie makes a sweeping claim, “It’s all just illusion.” This sounds Buddhist, not empirical.

This also breaks down the basic argument upon which Auggie relies: a) Science shows us only a material world. b) A non-material world is a possibility, but c) a non-material world is a possibility the same way an invisible dragon floating above my head is a possibility. Therefore, d) hard materialism is the most logical possibility. My problem here is with premise C: I don’t experience an invisible dragon floating above my head, but I, like all humans, experience a non-physical world of meaning and morality. Even if illusionary, I still experience it.

Instead of the theist getting pounded for accepting improbable data, the hard materialist is actually in the position of rejecting most of our most important human data. To return to the ear/science example earlier, hard materialists are exactly like the eye-scientists who only look at what the ear can observe, and then assume that all that exists is sound. These scientists must argue that all of our other experience—that of sight, taste, etc.—are illusions. I suppose that’s a possibility, but it’s not all that scientific.