What that guy believes

Fig. 68Michael Egnor has now answered his own questions so we can now review his answers and discover in amazement how they make a lot more sense than what non-theists and scientists could come up with. Or not. His new post can be found here. My own answers to those same questions can be read here.

The first thing I noticed in Egnor’s new piece is that while atheists are often accused of arrogance, Egnor also assumes that they are ignorant:

“these explanations have largely been forgotten by atheists and by scientists with a dogmatic materialistic view of nature”

They have not been ignored of course, they have just proven to be useless or obsolete and it’s the likes of Egnor who have been largely oblivious of the progress of science over the last centuries. Which is why they clutch at multi-century-old notions that the rest of the world has dismissed for good reasons.

“Dogmatic”? How pretentious! The essence of science is to be the opposite of dogmatic thinking. It is a set of methods that we have devised in order to discover truth about the natural world despite our preconceptions thereof. Scientific thinking cannot be dogmatic, otherwise it’s not scientific. It’s a common technique to accuse your adversary of your own faults so this is hardly surprising from the apologists of Dogma.

Also make note of the pretensions of Egnor:

“these beliefs are entirely compatible with modern science; in fact, classical philosophy and classical theism is the source for modern science”

We’ll see about that...

1. Why is there anything?

“God created the universe as a free act of creation. God is Spirit and is not created; The Thomist paradigm of essence (what a thing is) and existence (that a thing is) can be applied by analogy to God: God's essence is existence. His existence is necessary.”

That is an entirely circular definition of God. It is essentially different from my own argument which was based on the intrinsic existence of real mathematical objects that have a rigorous definition. The argument from instability of nothing also is a well-established discovery of 20th century physics.

Hand-waving and play on words on the other hand are not considered a proper form of reasoning. The only thing whose essence is existence is existence itself. Not God. You might as well say “the essence of the universe is existence. Its existence is necessary.” The reasoning isn’t any more valid but there is at least one thing that is verifiable in there. Not so of Egnor’s argument.

2. What caused the Universe?

“1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause 2) The universe began to exist 3) The universe has a cause. A super-natural cause in necessary for the creation of nature ex-nihilo. 'Nature created itself' is nonsense- it's a contradiction. From nothing comes nothing.”

Again, Egnor demonstrates his ignorance of modern science. Causality is a notion that presupposes time, which may not have existed as we know it at the “beginning” of the universe. The argument that everything has a cause only applies to the contents of a universe where causality exists, but not necessarily to the universe in its entirety nor to any kind of universe. It’s hard for us to imagine anything else, because our whole existence would be impossible in a universe that wouldn’t have causality, but it isn’t otherwise a necessity and in particular it probably breaks down near the “beginning” of the universe. It’s also assuming there needs to be something outside of the universe. A real Universe is entirely self-contained: by definition it’s the total sum of everything that exists. We can conceive in cosmology of universes that have no boundary and no beginning, just a smooth form. Think of a sphere (which we know how to construct without plunging it into a 3D space by the way). Where is the beginning of the sphere? There is no such thing. Any definition of one is arbitrary.

Also, from nothing comes something all the time, everywhere. Another discovery of 20th century science was that void is unstable. Combine that with a force like gravity, which has negative energy, and you have the absolute necessity for a material universe to emerge.

Finally, please show me the cause for the existence of the mathematical group Z2.

Egnor is almost right on one thing though:

“This Pure Act is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless”

Replace “Pure Act” with the universe and there you have it: a modern view of the universe. Except for one essential difference: modern cosmology is based on and verified by observation, whereas Egnor’s Pure Act is just hand-waving.

3. Why is there regularity in nature?

“Teleology is the goal-directedness of nature.”

There is no such thing as the goal-directedness of nature, except in the twisted minds of ID-proponents.

4. Of the four causes in nature proposed by Aristotle, which are real?

“the four causes were truncated to two or three by enlightenment philosophers, who didn't like the theistic implications of classical philosophy […] Moderns generally don't understand any of this, and accept merely material and truncated efficient causes as adequate to describe nature. They are mistaken.”

It’s not that they didn’t like them. That does not matter in the least. What matters is that they discovered that the harder they looked, the less final causes seemed necessary (science does not bother with unnecessary hypotheses, as famously illustrated by Laplace). Worse: they were counter-productive in that they were getting in the way of finding objective truth. This is all very well understood and not the product of ignorance. Quite the contrary.

5. Why do we have subjective experiences?

“humans have spirits, which are created in God's image. We are subjects and not just objects because of the powers of our rational souls and the fact that we are spiritual creatures. […] Nothing in materialism predicts or explains the emergence of 'I' from 'it'”

Again, failure to recognize the achievements of science and even philosophy. For instance, read Nietzsche and his idea of consciousness as a grammatical fiction or Hofstadter’s I am a strange loop. Neuroscientists have been able to study the brain with ever-increasing precision and have obtained some extremely curious and important results, such as consciousness of an act happening after the act is performed, reversing our assumption on which causes which. The way consciousness, sensations, feelings, states of mind, memories or even religious experiences can be induced or suppressed by physical and chemical stimulation of the brain also point to a materialistic explanation of our subjective experiences. There is plenty of science dealing with the emergence of ‘I’ from ‘it’, and it suggests that our consciousness is more after the fact story-telling than causation and free-will agency.

There is one question I’ve always wanted to ask dualists: where does the soul go when you sleep and when you don’t dream?

6. Why is the human mind intentional? How can mental states be about something?

“Intentionality is no problem from the classical hylemorphic understanding of nature and of man. It is inexplicable by materialism. Materialism, which acknowledges only material and efficient causes, founders on intentionality”

Here, Egnor is lying. He has read Dr. Novella’s answers to his posts on that subject but ignores it.

7. Does Moral Law exist in itself?

“Moral Law is "written in the heart" of men, and each of us feels an obligation to comply with it. […] Moral Law is the manifestation of Divine Law, and compliance with the Moral Law represents a telos (final cause or purpose) of man's life.”

More hand-waving. Here is another thing that is written in the heart of men, quite literally: genetic information, the results of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Seriously, read Sam Harris.

“if Moral Law doesn't exist independently to men, then it is the moral law of the strongest of men that will rule”

Ah, that old canard that if morality does not come from God, everything is permitted. And that other canard that evolution is about the law of the strongest.

Never mind that the evolution of altruism is well understood since George Price. Never mind that modern evolutionary theories deal with populations much more than with individuals.

8. Why is there evil?

“Evil is the privation of good. It exists because we are a fallen race in a fallen world.”

This, I must say, may be the most disgusting and dare I say evil part of the Christian dogma: that we somehow all have to pay for the Sin of our long-dead ancestors is plainly immoral. Compound that with the nature of the Sin in question and you get a doctrine that I could never, ever swallow (pun intended). There are plenty of very obvious and perfectly good explanations for the existence of evil, and God is not one of them. Quite the contrary, if God were to disappear in a puff of logic (to quote Douglas Adams) it could be from the existence of evil, and Egnor is well aware of it:

“there are still aspects of natural evil (children with cancer, etc) that I find very hard to understand”

Indeed. but he also says:

“The traditional theodicy that natural evil provides opportunity for courage and faith makes sense to me”

What a horrible, twisted way to induce virtuous behavior. Aren’t there ways to inspire courage other than the horrible suffering and death of children? Especially when you are an omniscient and omnipotent being? Does Egnor even realize the enormity of what he’s saying?

“atheism and materialism offer no solutions at all. If mankind evolved by natural selection, we wouldn't even perceive the death of unrelated others as evil. It would be a real win- more offspring for me!”

And once again, we see the use of a straw-man version of evolution that only exists in the minds of ID proponents. See above, this is very well understood.


A few things should be clear from all this.

Far from resulting from ignorance, at least some atheistic views are constructed on the accumulation of centuries of philosophy, science and even theology. They also take into account results from modern science and are open to revision as new evidence is discovered.

Egnor, by comparison, ignores -probably maliciously- centuries of progress. And he doesn’t take comments on his blog, which says a lot about his open-mindedness.

Make your own conclusions...


Reductio ad absurdum

abeilles Reductionism is the idea that all known phenomena are the simple sum of simpler, more fundamental ones.

It has worked really well in science, and it could even be argued that reduction is a good part of what science is.

Chemistry is well explained by the interactions of atoms, atoms are well understood as a quantum assemblage of protons, neutrons and electrons, and protons and neutrons are quarks bound by their strong interaction mediated by gluons.

Another example of very successful reduction is thermodynamics. Thermodynamics provide a set of consistent and successful laws that rule the behavior of macroscopic quantities such as temperature, pressure or volume. You do not need to understand the microscopic dynamics of atoms and molecules in a gas to use it and understand how a fridge or a thermal engine work. Still it’s true that using only statistics and some simple dynamics, you can derive all the laws of thermodynamics. Reductionism win!

Now take higher-level phenomena such as sociology or psychology. It would seem absurd to claim that these can be reduced to the quantum interaction of subatomic particles. More importantly, it would be sterile and counter-productive to attempt it. Not to mention impossible in practice.

A second way in which reductionism can fail besides practical irrelevance is in the assumption that you can effectively separate reality in distinct layers that don’t interact with one another. In particular with non-linear or chaotic phenomena, small uncertainties in the state of lower layers can translate into very large differences in the higher layers (the so-called and much misunderstood butterfly effect). This also means that in turn, higher layers can affect the lower ones in inextricable ways.

Take evolution for example. Biology is reducible in principle to chemistry (and biochemistry is a triumphant discipline that has probably done more for the betterment of humankind than most), but the interactions of living bodies run so deep and are so tied to environmental factors (even though those are also reducible in principle), and they do in turn affect their own environment in such important ways that it is impossible to give a complete picture of evolution based only on chemistry.

But in principle, each layer does strictly depend on the underlying, more fundamental layer. To this day, there are no phenomena that expose demonstrable contradictions with lower layers. Such a contradiction could come for example in the form of a macroscopic phenomenon not conserving energy. Here you would have a quantity that is valid at both levels but that would behave differently at the higher level than it does at the lower one. This never happened so far.

In other words, the failures of reductionism are not failures of the principle, they are failures of practical applicability and relevance.

Reductionism is not sufficient anymore in the scientific arsenal. It does however remain extremely useful and we do still rely in many cases on its theoretical validity.


When failure is a feature

I was reading an article in SciAm this morning about the possibility of a robot uprising. Don’t laugh yet, this is a very real, if still quite remote possibility.

The main idea that was described was that AI could rise one day to self-awareness and to an ability to improve itself through self-replication beyond human abilities to control it.

Sure, that’s one possibility, and some people are actually arguing that if that’s the case, maybe it’s just the march of evolution and humankind is just destined to one day become obsolete and be replaced by something fitter, whether from good old evolution or by artificially creating its own replacement.

I would tend to agree but I do have an objection. There is a distinction in this kind of speculation that is not often pointed out: self-replication and evolution are not the same thing.

We don’t know exactly how a self-replicating pre-biotic device emerged out of inanimate matter a few billion years ago, but that it did and that it managed to evolve to the variety of life that we observe today was only possible because of one crucial little feature of the whole system: failure.

Because they arose naturally, the first pre-biotic replicators probably were clunky little things that were only working within specific conditions and that were failing often. In particular, such an imperfect replication mechanism could fail in lots of different ways under the influence of a varying environment.

And this is precisely what enabled them to mutate into something a lot more interesting. That ability to create imperfect copies of themselves is what made it possible for early organisms to adapt to an environment that is sure to change (from external causes as well as under the influence of the organisms themselves on their own environment).

Guess what? This “strategy” has been so successful that it is still a feature of all living organisms today. You’d think that organisms could have evolved to remove the imperfections and to ensure perfectly faithful self-replication. But that in the long run would be a losing strategy because the next time the environment changes in a way that is no longer compatible with your perfection, you die and leave no successor.

In fact, modern organisms did evolve such perfecting mechanisms that suppress mutations from expressing themselves, but the amazing thing is that this suppression can fail under stress, which might be part of what you observe at times of mass extinctions, which are also fertile events in that they trigger the appearance of a large number of new species that are fit to the new conditions in a geologically short amount of time.

Sex on the other hand is another evolved way of introducing variation into the genes of a population. In other words, sex is the greatest invention of all times after failure.

What I’m getting at is that we may be able in the not so remote future to create self-replicating machines and when we do, we might make the mistake of making the replication perfect. It may actually be a lot simpler to do so: the easiest to build self-replicating structure probably is a lot simpler than the messy stuff nature came up with through random processes and selection.

And if the replication is perfect, this leaves no room for anything new, ever. What it could allow on the other hand is a reproduction mechanism that is much more efficient than anything life has been able to invent yet, the sort of manufactured efficiency that could take over the planet.

Self-awareness is clearly not necessary for self-replication and might even impair it so why they are packed together so often is kind of a mystery to me.

So why am I talking about this today? To make the larger point that failure can be an essential creative force and that without it the world would be a cold and sterile place where creativity has no role to play.

I often tell my 6-year-old that if she never fails, she will never learn. Failed ideas for example are at the heart of the concept of brainstorming: failure is the path to success.