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Atheism, Theism, Agnosticism: Which Is The Most Reasonable?
Posted: 30 December 2008 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I would like to put out the question as to what people think is the most reasonable account we can give of the world we are aware of: atheism, theism, or agnosticism.  By ‘reasonable account’ I mean a reductive genetic hermeneutic, which is a reduction of the phenomena we are aware of to their cause or causes, a further grounding to the origin of those causes, and an explanatory account or interpretation of said phenomena, cause/causes, and ground as such and as a whole.

I am currently an agnostic, but I am very open to learning more about other perspectives.  I guess I agree with Woody Allen’s character in ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ that in the end, no matter how much we want the answer to be one way or the other, we just don’t know.  Atheism and theism seem to me to be little more than creative guesswork.

I think that, phenomenologically, our awareness is given a field of what we call sensory information, which we differentiate from our consciousness because we have as significantly inactive relation to it.  I cannot, for instance, through an act of will, wish the chair that I am looking at out of my field of perception.  We can, as Plato pointed out, misperceive, such as when we ‘see’ someone coming at a distance, only to realize as they get closer that they are actually someone else - but nonetheless, from the point of view of description (even in this case of mis-perception or that of psychosis), I am passive with regard to sensory experience, to which I relate in various ways (accepting the fact that we imbue situations and things with meanings, values, etc.), regardless of whatever tricks my mind may be playing on me.  The only real difference between a psychotic delusion and a “normal” experience is that in the case of psychosis, the psychotic, among a collective of observers, would be the only one to claim the phenomena he or she was perceiving.

We conclude from the passivity of experience that there is a world existing outside of our consciousness, which we interact with using our various senses.  Now, this doesn’t mean there is such a world, as I could be hallucinating, or dreaming, or the victim of some sort of Matrix-movie-like situation, or being decevived by a demon of some sort, but in any case the mind generally gravitates toward the ‘natural world’ explanation, and ends up causing people no end of mental agitation if they systematically begin to doubt it. 

In this phenomenal world, we also distinguish between the natural world of scientific causes/effects, and the world of supernatural causation and intervention.  We can do this because natural scientific explanation provides a useful and reliable descriptive framework for appropriating our experiences, and there is nothing contained in our everyday experience that excludes the possibility of supernatural interventions and causes.  Atheists seem to object to supernatural explanations on the grounds that an explanatory account (knowledge) of what we experience doesn’t require them.  But I think that it’s a paralogism to conclude from the fact that we ‘can’ posit a closed system of natural causes that this position is also somehow ‘better’ than positing a system that includes supernatural causes and interventions.  Conversely, qua theist, it seems to be equally a paralogism to conclude that the experience of something ‘as’ supernatural constitutes, without remainder, ‘actually’ experiencing the supernatural, because we could just as easily posit natural antecedents to the noumenous experience (groupthink, delusion, emotional instability, drugs, heightened sensory awareness, etc.).  In this regard, I have come to believe that one posits the presence or absence of the supernatural only on the basis of a gross transgression of reason, even though the mind naturally gravitates toward doing so .  I believe that we simply don’t know whether there is a God or gods out there, but as Nietzsche says, we would rather will nothing than not will, so atheism becomes obvious for some, and theism obvious for others.

This is what I currently believe, but I would like to hear from people with differing perspectives.

[ Edited: 30 December 2008 09:03 AM by john76 ]
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Posted: 30 December 2008 09:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t see the problem as being as complicated as you describe it—from which you can conclude that I am either a) really smart, able to see through to the fundamentals; or b) really stupid, unable to appreciate subtlety. Take your pick. I tend towards impatience with the whole issue of epistemology, because I see myself as so closely integrated with the world that the sharp division drawn in epistemology between perception and reality just doesn’t make any sense. How do I know this color is green and not really red? I don’t care—that’s what my brain, interacting with the environment for so many years, has decided upon. While I respect the attempt to logically analyze the fundamentals of knowledge, I think that it presumes a logical basis for perception that is unreal.

I’ll also note that the structure of the human brain predisposes it towards theism. Atheism requires the some pretty serious cognitive effort.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 09:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Chris Crawford - 30 December 2008 09:40 AM

I’ll also note that the structure of the human brain predisposes it towards theism. Atheism requires the some pretty serious cognitive effort.

Does it really? Am I that unusual, I tried really hard to believe in god when I was a kid but failed - it just did not make sense.  Where is the evidence that atheism requires serious cognitive effort? Theism also requires serious cognitive effort - I applied that effort and still failed at it but I see plenty others succeeded.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 10:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The human brain has a great many “mental modules”—operational (not spatial) segments that developed in response to specific environmental challenges. Each module provides a good response to each challenge. Of course, these challenges were all the kind that hunter-gatherers faced—there are no mental modules for driving cars, meeting future mothers-in-law, or filling out income tax forms. Perhaps the largest and most complex mental module, with many secondary modules, is the visual perception module that is so old that it is now well-localized to the rear of the brain. Most of the interesting modules are younger and not well-localized.

Anyway, the two important mental modules here are the social reasoning module and the natural reasoning module. The former is used to figure out how to get along with other people. You know, things like not mentioning to a guy that you’re having sex with his mate, offering some sort of compensation if you’re caught so that he doesn’t kill you outright—that sort of thing. The other module here, the natural reasoning module, provides ways of figuring out cause and effect in the natural world. It’s the module that allows the hunter to look at some tracks and say “Hmm… mother deer and two fawns; one of the fawns is limping; they’re moving slowly.”

Now, what happens when those two modules start interacting? You’re trying to cope with the natural world and figure out cause and effect, and possibly manipulate it to your advantage. So why not treat the natural world using the social reasoning module? Lightning struck the tree next to you? Must have been a god who is angry with you. Crops not growing well this year? Perhaps if you offer something of value to the gods, they’ll be nicer next year. This also explains why the earliest priests were also astronomers.

People still mix the social reasoning with the natural reasoning. “Oh, God, if you’ll just get me out of this crisis, I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday!” People still believe that god is a person with whom you can negotiate. Offer the right things and he’ll answer your prayers. So much simpler than, say, working hard. And if doesn’t work, there’s a simple answer: God helps those who help themselves.

Given the strengths of all these natural propensities, it’s surprising that some humans can get past them to reject the whole theism schmeer.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 11:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Chris

I do not subscribe to the mental modules theory of mind and even if I did this is all too speculative - it looks like a just so story.

Where is the empirical evidence to support your assertion?

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Posted: 30 December 2008 11:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’ll start up a new topic to discuss evolutionary psychology.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 12:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Chris Crawford - 30 December 2008 11:15 AM

I’ll start up a new topic to discuss evolutionary psychology.

Just a test suddenly have a problem posting to a thread, lets see if this works

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Posted: 30 December 2008 01:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Chris Crawford - 30 December 2008 09:40 AM

I’ll also note that the structure of the human brain predisposes it towards theism. Atheism requires the some pretty serious cognitive effort.

I don’t think this is true, Chris. Let’s begin with the banal fact that nobody believed in theism before the notion was created by theologians a couple of millennia ago. What one might say is that the structure of the human brain predisposes it towards interpreting worldly phenomena in terms of agency; or that the structure of the human brain predisposes it towards superstitious beliefs and behavior. (These beliefs and behavior will themselves need unpacking, however; what exactly constitute superstitious beliefs and behavior?)

There were a couple of recent books on this that I would recommend with some reservations:

Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained

Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust

Neither, I think, really got anywhere much towards establishing their major thesis, which involves linking evolution to religious beliefs and practice, but IMO of the two Atran’s was somewhat more thorough and convincing. At any rate, neither of them was after a link between theism in particular and evolution.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 01:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Doug, we don’t know when theism first appeared; we know only that it was present in the earliest civilizations. Archaeologists are wont to treat religion as a practice that appeared in the indefinite past.

I believe that I have read both of the books that you mention and I too was unsatisfied with either. There’s been a lot of discussion on inferring religious beliefs from burial goods, but neither of these books really delved into that subject.

Again, for me the crucial point is the existence of both a social reasoning module and a natural reasoning module. The intersection of those two is necessarily religion.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 01:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Chris Crawford - 30 December 2008 01:40 PM

Doug, we don’t know when theism first appeared; we know only that it was present in the earliest civilizations. Archaeologists are wont to treat religion as a practice that appeared in the indefinite past.

I believe that I have read both of the books that you mention and I too was unsatisfied with either. There’s been a lot of discussion on inferring religious beliefs from burial goods, but neither of these books really delved into that subject.

Again, for me the crucial point is the existence of both a social reasoning module and a natural reasoning module. The intersection of those two is necessarily religion.

Well, I would not agree that theism was present in the earliest civilizations. If you read the Torah carefully, for example, it is clear that the Israelites were not monotheists in the traditional “theistic” sense of the term at the start. They were at the very least henotheists, and arguably polytheists.

If you mean to use the term “theist” to cover all of mono- and polytheism, then I suppose we’re closer to something defensible, but most anthropological studies of religion with which I’m familiar (including Atran) argue that the earliest human cultures were not polytheistic in any recognizable sense of the term. They practiced such things as ancestor worship, believed in sorcery, etc., but not in a God or gods.

And then again in your last sentence where you argue for a normal human acceptance of “religion”: this clearly can be monotheist, polytheist or atheist ... it’s something different again. All I’m arguing is that we have to be careful with what precisely we are claiming “the structure of the human brain” or our evolutionary history predisposes us to believe. I don’t think there’s any good argument that it predisposes us to believe in gods, certainly not in a God, and probably not in religion at least on the contemporary understanding of the term.

Another question is whether given the sort of environment humans find themselves in right now our evolutionary structure makes religion more palatable than atheism, or theism more probable than atheism. That’s a good question, but a different question than one, e.g., about our ancestral environment.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 02:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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You’re right, Doug, I should be more precise in my phrasing. Let me put it this way: the intersection of the social reasoning module and the natural reasoning module lead most people to imagine a purposeful agent behind natural phenomena that they don’t understand. Inasmuch as both of these modules can be traced back to times before homo sapiens, we can reasonably infer that these imaginings have been with the species from the outset. The flaw here is the presumption that these two modules intersected at an early time. There are good arguments for compartmentalization of operational modules—you don’t want indecision when two different modules yield incompatible responses. The counterargument is that the development of language served to break down the compartmentalization of mental modules.

All very speculative.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I just thought of a better way to explain this “intersection” of the two modules. Think in terms of an inkblot. You visual system scans it and is unable to detect a recognizable pattern. Basically, the pattern goes in, the visual cortex works on it, and comes back saying “I give up. I don’t know what it is.” At that point other modules in the brain kick in with their own suggestions. And the brain chooses the best fit it can find.

In the same way, when the brain encounters a physical phenomenon that is important (dangerous, perhaps), it delegates the problem to the natural reasoning module. Most of the time the natural reasoning module comes back with an answer: “That was a bird and it squicked on you as it flew overhead.” But sometimes the natural reasoning module comes back empty-handed: “I don’t have any inkling of why that lightning bolt struck so close, but I sure as hell would like to know!” At which point the problem spreads out into other modules. And the social reasoning module comes back with an answer: there’s this big powerful person up there somewhere and he’s mad at you, which is why he’s trying to clobber you with lightning.” Since the social reasoning module came up with the best possible answer based on the available evidence, that’s the module that we defer to in finding a solution: “Sacrifice a virgin to him! Everybody likes virgins! Maybe that will mollify him!”

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Posted: 30 December 2008 02:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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IIRC there were some detailed studies of pigeons in feeding boxes, where food was dispensed randomly throughout the day. Many pigeons engaged in what to us appeared to be pointless, “superstitious” behavior, presumably because they believed that by engaging in it, they were able to effect the dispensation of food.

This clearly happens also in humans: see, e.g., the “illusion of control”.

One could speculate that the same module or mechanism is at work in both cases. To the extent that that is true, the roots of superstitious or proto-religious belief and behavior may go well down on the evolutionary tree.

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Posted: 30 December 2008 02:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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“All pigeons bow down before the mighty Pigeon God, who is an old pigeon with a beard and made us in his own image. That’s why we are sacred creatures: we look just like Pigeon God!

See how Pigeon God made seeds to fit perfectly into our beaks? That in itself is proof that we were created, not evolved!”

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Posted: 30 December 2008 03:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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******Religion requires “doublethink”****
Agnosticism is lazy
atheism requires thinking.
Deism is the most logical version of god out there but it is still “Gaps for god”

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Posted: 30 December 2008 03:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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According to the novel 1984, doublethink is:

“ The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.[1] ”

This is what religion does.
You accept what you know to be false but when religion claims it is true but in other cases it is false. They do not realize that they are lieing to them selves.

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