Hello TAC, it is good to be posting again after a prolonged illness that left me unable to do anything but make half-conscious Facebook updates. I have been following the news, and for the sake of our collective sanity, I am going to refrain from extended commentary on foreign affairs. Instead I wanted to share with you an interesting discussion I had recently with some rather confident, cocky atheists on the question of free will.
It had begun as a debate on the so-called “problem of evil.” They think we have a problem with evil; maybe some Christians do, but I don’t. But I do think atheists – by which I mean Western, science-worshiping, philosophical materialists – have a problem with evil. Namely, how do materialists who reject free will (either explicitly or implicitly, depending on how well they’ve thought it out) even speak of such a thing as “evil”? Assuming we are speaking of human acts, and not things like bad weather, to describe an act as “evil” or malicious or malevolent or something similar assumes and implies that it was freely chosen. No one speaks of a lion’s decision to tear apart a zebra for sustenance as an “evil” act. What mindless animals do has no moral significance whatsoever. What people do has significance solely on the assumption that we can choose otherwise. In other words, free will. Without the assumption of free will, morality utterly collapses into a meaningless rubbish heap.
I was hesitant to write this because I don’t like picking battles with atheists. At first I didn’t see how anyone would take this idea about free will and our judicial system seriously, but it seems some people are. So I offer the following with the hope that if more people know about this discussion, more people can see it for the nonsense that it is.
Victor Stenger, Ph.D. particle physicist and best-selling author of God and the Folly of Faith has written an essay at Huffington Post “Free Will is an Illusion” and it took an unexpected turn. Certainly, the atheistic consideration of free will is nothing new, but Dr. Stenger also makes a connection between free will, or the lack thereof, and our judicial system in the United States. This position has disturbing societal implications.
Keep in mind, this is the man who popularized the phrase: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” He has also published such titles as God: The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Victor Stenger has made it known that he thinks science can prove there is no god, and that he considers religion dangerous to society.
In this Huffington Post essay he references a book by another physicist, Leonard Mlodinow, who says that the unconscious plays a dominant role in human behavior. As Dr. Stenger puts it, “before we become aware of making a decision, our brains have already laid the groundwork for it.” He goes on to say (read carefully), “This recognition challenges fundamental assumptions about free will and the associated religious teachings about sin and redemption, as well as our judicial concepts of responsibility and punishment. If our brains are making our decisions for us subconsciously, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals or God punish sinners who aren’t in full control of their decision-making processes?”
He also references the book Free Will by neuroscientist Sam Harris and title-quotes him in stating that “free will is an illusion.” Dr. Stenger writes, “We don’t exist as immaterial conscious controllers, but are instead entirely physical beings whose decisions and behaviors are the fully caused products of the brain and body.”
So, essentially having established that humans are determinant blobs of matter with no free will, he then makes the case to the Huffington Post readers that “our largely retributive moral and justice systems need to be re-evaluated, and maybe even drastically revamped” if the people in society are going to be able to protect themselves from “people who are dangerous to others because of whatever it is inside their brains and nervous systems that makes them dangerous.”
That is, he is calling for a new system of morality and justice based on the the presumption that no one is ultimately responsible for his actions, and remember, he’s made it clear who he thinks the “dangerous” people are. This is eerily like the argument used to justify abortion, only we’re all blobs of tissue now.
We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.
Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has died. One of the giants of our time, he was one of the dissident heroes in the Eighties who helped end Communist rule in Eastern Europe. He was also a profound thinker and writer. In recent years, although his own personal religious beliefs were murky, he has bemoaned the atheism and the flight from God that has become a hallmark of modern Europe. Last year he gave a remarkable speech, in which the following passage sums up what is wrong with Europe and much of the rest of the West:
We are living in the first truly global civilisation. That means that whatever comes into existence on its soil can very quickly and easily span the whole world.
But we are also living in the first atheistic civilisation, in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important. Continue reading
(Hattip for the Atheist Barbie pic to its creator, Atheist Blogger Blag Hag.) Another April 1 rolls around, and it is time again to observe National Atheist Day and salute those atheists who, as part of the herd of independent atheist thinkers, bravely assert that, yes, matter and energy did arise ex nihilo without God, and that belief in God is too silly for a person of intelligence. (Sorry Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas! Sir Isaac Newton you simply lacked the intellectual heft to embrace belief in non-theism.)
In honor of the day, I think Sir Francis Bacon’s essay Of Atheism from 1601 might be appropriate: Continue reading
I make a point of always trying to listed on the EconTalk podcast each week — a venue in which George Mason University economics professor Russ Roberts conducts a roughly hour-long interview with an author or academic about some topic related to economics. A couple weeks ago, the guest was Robin Hanson, also an economics professor at GMU, who was talking about the “technological singularity” which could result from perfecting the technique of “porting” copies of humans into computers. Usually the topic is much more down-to-earth, but these kinds of speculations can be interesting to play with, and there were a couple of things which really struck me listening to the interview with Hanson, which ran to some 90 minutes.
Hanson’s basic contention is that the next big technological leap that will change the face of the world economy will be the ability to create a working copy of a human by “porting” that person’s brain into a computer. He argues that this could come much sooner than the ability to create an “artificial intelligence” from scratch, because it doesn’t require knowing how intelligence works — you simply create an emulation program on a really powerful computer, and then do a scan of the brain which picks up the current state of every part of it and how those parts interact. (There’s a wikipedia article on the concept, called “whole brain emulation” here.) Hanson thinks this would create an effectively unlimited supply of what are, functionally, human beings, though they may look like computer programs or robots, and that this would fundamentally change the economy by creating an effectively infinite supply of labor.
Let’s leave all that aside for a moment, because what fascinates me here is something which Roberts, a practicing Jew, homed in on right away: Why should we believe that the sum and total of what you can physically scan in the brain is all there is to know about a person? Why shouldn’t we think that there’s something else to the “mind” than just the parts of the brain and their current state? Couldn’t there be some kind of will which is not materially detectable and is what is causing the brain to act the way it is?
The New York Times runs an article about how the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are seeking to address concerns about shrinking membership as they celebrate 100 years of boy scouting in the US. The number of boy scouts has declined 42% since it’s peak in 1978, with 2.8 million boys currently in the Scouts.
To judge from the commentariat at the Times, you would think this is entirely the result of the BSA remaining firm in their ban of gay scout leaders and statement that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with obligations in the Scout Oath.” Not to mention saying that boys who refuse to recite the Scout Oath because of its references to God and reverence may simply not have a place in the program. Commenters claiming to be Eagle Scouts line up one after another in the comments to announce that no son of theirs will ever be a member of the Scouts while it remains homophobic and theocratic.
The title of this article almost sounds surreal. At first one could be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of low budget End Times movie seen on some local cable access channel. However, the information contained within this article is real, fortunately, as believers and specifically those of us who are Catholic we know that Jesus promised that His Church would not fall despite the attempts of those working for the evil one. God is the truth and God is love, but the mere fact that He is both has caused many rebellions against him literally from day one. Sadly, those who often claim to be the smartest act the most childish, by at first claiming God doesn’t exist and then claiming if He does exist, He doesn’t make sense at least to them. This article will look at this behavior from the world’s earliest moments, but will mainly focus on what has happened in the last few years, right up until this very moment.
If You Want The Political Left To Run Governments, Look At What The Religious Left Has Done To Religion (Left It In Tatters)
There is a undercurrent in American society that somehow believes that if the mafia ran things, the country would be better off. There was one city (Newark, New Jersey) where the mafia once controlled much of the city. When their grip on power was done, the city was in tatters. The same could be said for liberals running religion.
Occasionally one runs across a post that’s particularly nicely done. I think Matthew Boudway’s recent reflections on a column by Clifford Longley on the new atheists comes dangerously close to perfect. It’s brief, highlights an interesting article, and adds a thoughtful perspective that provides more depth to the article it cites. Here’s a snippet:
[In response to Richard Dawkins’s claim that it is wrong to “indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them,”]
“There is no such thing as value-free parenting,” Longley writes…Longley proposes this as an argument about parenting, but it is hard to see why it wouldn’t also apply to education. If the argument doesn’t apply to education, why doesn’t it? If it does — and if it is a good argument — then people of faith have a compelling reason not to send their children to schools where the subject of religion qua religion is carefully avoided. One could, I suppose, argue that the tacit message of such schools is that religion is too important to get mixed up with the tedious but necessary stuff of primary education, but of course public schools approach important matters all the time, and cannot avoid doing so.
Part II of my presentation of the four sermons on the Anti-Christ given by John Henry Cardinal Newman during Advent in 1835 before his conversion. Part I is here.
In this second sermon Newman concentrates on what we can glean of the Anti-Christ from Scripture and from the writings of the Fathers of the Church. One thing stands out in this sermon for me. The idea that the reign of the Anti-Christ may involve both ferocious atheism and a return to paganism. This seems like a contradiction, but Newman points to the French Revolution:
In that great and famous nation which is near us, once great for its love of CHRIST’S Church, since memorable for deeds of blasphemy, which lead me here to mention it, and now, when it should be pitied and prayed for, made unhappily our own model in too many respects,-followed when it should be condemned, and admired when it should be excused,-in the capital of that powerful and celebrated nation, there took place, as we all well know, within the last fifty years, an open apostasy from Christianity; not from Christianity only, but from every kind of worship which might retain any semblance or pretence of the great truths of religion. Atheism was absolutely professed; -yet in spite of this, it seems a contradiction in terms to say it, a certain sort of worship, and that, as the prophet expresses it, “a strange worship,” was introduced. Observe what this was.
In watching the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza at King’s College, I had many ideas of my own. Continue reading
Salvete TAC readers!
Here are today’s Top Picks in the world of Catholicism:
1. Today is the twenty year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher all played pivotal roles in bringing down Communism and discredited all socialistic and atheistic systems the world over. Pope John Paul II played the most important role of the three, providing the moral backbone that is needed when confronting these manifestations of evil.
Newt Gingrich, Callista Gingrich, and Vince Haley wrote a timely article concerning this important anniversary titled The Victory of the Cross: How spiritual renewal helped bring down the Berlin Wall. For this article click here.
2. Dave Hartline has already posted three articles here with us. His latest is titled, Following the 2009 Election Results which Way is the Tide Turning toward Truth or Relativism?
For the article click here.
For all of Dave Hartline’s articles on The American Catholic click here.
3. Catholic Culture has changed their look again. Unlike the last time I mentioned their new look, I have to say it is a major improvement. It’s much easier to find Diogenes of Off the Record (under Commentary). Blue has replaced what I think was the color pink as it’s primary color and the fonts are much stronger.
For the Catholic Culture link click here.
For Diogenes, which is under Commentary, click here.
Greg Craven, who is the Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University (ACU), wrote a serious, yet funny, article. The article comes from my favorite Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald. In the article, A plague of Atheists has Descended and Catholics are the Target, Greg Craven explains the rise of a new group of atheists that would rather engage in polemics and attacks on the Catholic faith than engage in serious dialogue. These attacks are so vitriol that they descend beyond reason and become humorous to read, but they aren’t intentional.
Over at CrankyCon, Paul Zummo offers a brief review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:
The atheism is only a small part of the issue with objectivism. Galt (and thus Rand’s) objection to the concept of original sin is naive, but even absent this aspect of objectivism, it remains a dehumanizing and abhorrent moral philosophy. Rand detests totalitarianism, it is true, but other writers have written better and less repugnant works in defense of capitalism and against totalitarianism. If libertarians and conservatives wish to seek out inspirational works on the topic, they are better off with the likes of George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Sowell, Wilhelm Roepke, F.A. Hayek and countless others.
The fundamental problem is that Rand is as naive about human nature as the socialist utopians. After all, a utopian is a utopian, whether they are Marxian or Randian utopians. Therefore the rejection of the concept of original sin is something of a problem because it blinds Rand to the idea that human beings cannot simply shut off their passionate desires. If totalitarians are blind to the reality that human nature cannot be perfected, Rand is blind to the fact that the altruistic tendencies of humans cannot similarly be wiped out. Believe it or not, we are social beings (Aristotle and Aquinas being right), and it is simply unrealistic – and Rand is supposed to be about reason and realism – to expect humans to simply ignore these aspects of their personality.
Mr. Wilson first came on my radarscope when he wrote in 1990 what I perceived to be a fairly nasty biography of C. S. Lewis which I thought was actually much more about Wilson’s dislike of Christianity. At the time of writing the book on Lewis, Wilson was an angry atheist. He had been an Anglican, a Catholic, an Anglican, and then an atheist. In 1991 he wrote a short volume, 53 pages, entitled Against Religion in which he declared that the love of God was the root of all evil. An interview from his atheist days is here.