Atheists answering questions that no one asked

I recently was at a discussion on the subject of free will involving a neuroscientist, a philosopher, a biologist and a researcher in theology. I brought up the issue of how one can study subjectivity (or consciousness) scientifically when science itself depends on subjectively created categories, in other words you assume aspects of subjectivity in order to explain subjectivity. It’s a difficult question, but I don’t think it’s unsurmountable for materialists, but it requires a thought through account of consciousness and subjectivity as well as science. The Biologist, after hearing my question, proceeded to give an account about how animals begin to recognize agency in other animals, and then see themselves through those other agents as themselves agents, and how that leads to subjectivity through the evolutionary advantage of those who recognize agency.

Notice that the answer provided by the Biologist is to a different question than the one that was asked. This is known as a “red herring,” a distraction from the issue at hand. A lot of the discussion between Religious people and Naturalists ends up with people answering questions that have not been asked, one example is one I talked about in a previous post. So for example, when a religious person brings up the issue of morality, often the naturalist will give an account of either differing moral codes, or how morality can be explained through social evolution, societies who have certain moral codes survive more than others. One famous example is the whole debate between philosopher William lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss on creation Ex-Nihilo where each has their own definition of “Nihilo.” Krauss gives an explanation on how the Universe comes from a kind of Quantum Vacuum, Craig, however, asks, how anything, can come from absolutely nothing (defined as not-anything).

So let’s nip this in the Bud; giving a scientific account of something does not say anything about its validity, its purpose or its meaning neither does it necessarily give a full explanation of that thing. In a previous post, I gave the example of a Pub. There are various scientific explanations one can give, an engineering or architectural one or even a social evolutionary one. So for example, one can say that a Pub allows individuals to meet who wouldn’t otherwise meet, and perhaps mate, thus widening the gene pool in the community, one can also say that the Pub increases social bonds that help the community survive troubling times. An explanation like that tells us some things, some good things, but they do not tell us why the Pub is there, they don’t say what the Pub means to the community or to individuals.

Alvin Plantinga has an argument against Naturalism from Evolution. In short, it’s the idea that evolution only rewards survival, not truth, truth may be incidental to survival or it may not, so for example a belief that a lion is trying to kill you, or a belief that a lion has Cooties will lead someone to run from the lion and survive, both beliefs are compatible with evolution. Given that, we don’t necessarily have warrant to trust our beliefs given the truth of evolution, unless there is some kind of Imago Dei.

My question was somewhat similar. In science we rely on certain subjective categories, such as causality (which, as Hume pointed out, is purely inductive), pattern seeking, concrete objects, the reality of the external world, the truth of mathematics, the reliability of the senses, the rationality of the world and so on. All of these categories are what Alvin Plantinga would call “properly basic beliefs,” or beliefs which we hold more or less as axioms, but they are subjectively known, they are not “out there” they are simply assumed a-priori. Science relies on observation and appeal to these categories, but if we were to use science to explain consciousness, we would have to assume the categories which are purely dependant on and are known by, and originate from our subjective consciousness. Everything we observe, we observe subjectively, so it would almost be, by definition impossible to know what subjectivity is by subjectively observing the world or the brain.

It’s a difficult question; even to formulate it is rather hard. What, however, does an evolutionary account of subjectivity have to do with the question? Nothing at all. If subjectivity came about through evolution, was placed there by aliens, or was put there by God, none of that, by itself resolves the issue, or even addresses it. No matter how subjectivity came about, we still would have to rely on subjective categories if we were to attempt to explain subjectivity itself scientifically. Of course, the evolutionary account was interesting, and I appreciate hearing about it, but it doesn’t address the question.

Daniel Dennett talks about a “free will worth wanting” in his deterministic account of free will (which is nothing new, it’s the same old deterministic compatibilism); he uses the term “avoiders,” as a term for deterministically caused behaviors that “avoid” problems, and ties that avoidance with a kind of free will. But what if that’s not the “free will” you want to talk about? If Lawrence Krauss gives a wonderful explanation about how “nothing” (meaning the quantum vacuum) can create the universe, and that the “nothing” he talks about is more interesting, or the only “nothing” we (meaning scientists) know about, then one could simply respond “yeah but that’s not the nothing I’m talking about.”

Daniel Dennett also in his book “Breaking the spell” attempts to explain how religion comes about through evolution. Fine, but one can say the exact same thing about science or art, one can give an evolutionary account of almost any human endeavour. But giving an evolutionary account on why humans engage in science or create art says absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to the question of whether or not science explains the world accurately, or to the question of what is good art or what is beautiful or what is beauty.

The reason naturalists do this, in my opinion, is probably to give the impression that science can explain everything, and that religion is nothing more than “bad science,” and that any issue that religion can touch can be better explained through science. Since the idea that science can explain absolutely everything is obviously false, the naturalist must change any question raised into a question that science can address.

I think it’s important for the on-going dialogue between religious and secular people to make sure the issues don’t get confused. Religious people need to insist that if secularists are going to attack religion, or attack arguments for religion, or insist that science can answer all questions that they attack religion on what the religion actually claims and within context, and that they represent arguments for religion accurately and address the actual arguments, and the questions they claim science can answer are questions that are actually asked, not what they feel is “really important.”

Atheists answering questions that no one asked

One thought on “Atheists answering questions that no one asked

  1. […] I’ve made the point in an earlier post about why it’s flawed as a full explanation of human beh…Evolution is often the Atheists go to scientific ideology when it comes to explaining almost everything, I’ve made the point in an earlier post about why it’s flawed as a full explanation of human behaviour, but given the commonplace nature of the evolutionary explanation to dismiss Christian anthropology, I think the point needs to be made further. The argument often goes something like this: […]


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