bookmark_borderWhat are Atheists For?

What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion
Dominic Johnson*
Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
An explosion of recent research suggests that religious beliefs and behaviors are universal, arise from deep-seated cognitive mechanisms, and were favored by natural selection over human evolutionary history. However, if a propensity towards religious beliefs is a fundamental characteristic of human brains (as both by-product theorists and adaptationists agree), and/or an important ingredient of Darwinian fitness (as adaptationists argue), then how do we explain the existence and prevalence of atheists – even among ancient and traditional societies? The null hypothesis is that – like other psychological traits – due to natural variation among individuals in genetics, physiology, and cognition, there will always be a range of strengths of religious beliefs. Atheists may therefore simply represent one end of a natural distribution of belief. However, an evolutionary approach to religion raises some more interesting adaptive hypotheses for atheism, which I explore here. Key among them are: (1) frequency dependence may mean that atheism as a ‘‘strategy’’ is selected for (along with selection for the ‘‘strategy’’ of belief), as long as atheists do not become too numerous; (2) ecological variation may mean that atheism outperforms belief in certain settings or at certain times, maintaining a mix in the overall population; (3) the presence of atheists may reinforce or temper religious beliefs and behaviors in the face of skepticism, boosting religious commitment, credibility, or practicality in the group as a whole; and (4) the presence of atheists may catalyze the functional advantages of religion, analogous to the way that loners or non-participants can enhance the evolution of cooperation. Just as evolutionary theorists ask what religious beliefs are ‘‘for’’ in terms of functional benefits for Darwinian fitness, an evolutionary approach suggests we should also at least consider what atheists might be for.
Keywords: evolution; adaptation; religion; atheism; non-belief

bookmark_borderVery Interesting Theistic Argument

I just discovered Robin Collins’ very, very interesting reply to Carroll. Collins defends an entirely new class of fine-tuning argument for theism. This new class of fine-tuning argument does not argue that the universe is fine-tuned for life. Rather, this new class of fine-tuning argument argues that the universe is fine-tuned for discoverability. This novel argument sets up the following reply to Carroll on the extremely low entropy of the early universe: the extremely low entropy of the early universe isn’t necessary for life, but it is necessary for discoverability. And the discoverability of the universe is very much more probable on theism than on naturalism.
I have no idea if Collins’ argument works, but he’s given me something to think about. Props to Collins for a very interesting and very creative argument. (Did I mention I think his paper is interesting?)

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Fourth Question

Ed, Here is your fourth question to me:

“4. In response to another reader’s question, about Craig’s version of the First Cause argument, you wrote: “Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact. For Craig it is God, and for me it is the universe.” Now, as you know, the expression “brute fact” is typically used in philosophy to convey the idea of something which is unintelligible or without explanation. And your statement gives the impression that all theists, or at least most of them, regard God as a “brute fact” in this sense.
But in fact that is the reverse of the truth. Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. would denythat God is a “brute fact.” They would say that the explanation for God’s existence lies in the divine nature — for Aristotelians, in God’s pure actuality; for Neoplatonists, in his absolute simplicity; for Thomists, in the fact that his essence and existence are identical; for Leibnizians in his being his own sufficient reason; and so forth. (Naturally the atheist will not think the arguments of these thinkers are convincing. But to say that they are not convincing is not the same thing as showing that the theist is either explicitly or implicitly committed to the notion that God is a “brute fact.”)
But perhaps you think the standard interpretation of the views of Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. is mistaken. Perhaps you think that these thinkers are in fact all explicitly or at least implicitly committed to the thesis that God is a “brute fact.” So, could you please tell us where you have spelled out an argument justifying the claim that all or at least most philosophical theists regard God as a “brute fact” or are at least implicitly committed to the claim that he is? Is there a book or journal article written by you or by someone else in which we can find this justification?”

The short answer is that my statement was not meant as a historical remark, but as an assessment of what I see as the genuine philosophical alternatives. As I see it, the choice between naturalism and theism comes down to a choice between ultimate brute facts: God or the universe. Which is the more satisfactory terminus of or explanatory chains, the primordial or fundamental features of the universe, on the one hand, or a supernatural being with the omni-predicates attributed by theism? My view is that the former choice is at least as defensible as the latter, and that each choice amounts to the selection of a brutally-factual end-point for our explanatory enterprises.
As for your historical analysis, you are, of course, exactly right. Traditionally, most theists have regarded God as in some sense self-explanatory. Recently, perhaps in response to accumulated skeptical responses to traditional metaphysics, some leading theists seem to be backing away from those claims. My reading of Richard Swinburne is that he concedes that the universe could be the ultimate, uncaused existent, but that theism is the preferred hypothesis because of its allegedly greater simplicity (an argument I challenge in detail in my 1989 book God and the Burden of Proof). Likewise, as I understand William Lane Craig, his argument does not rest on the Principle of Sufficient reason, or any definition of divine necessity, but upon the metaphysical intuition that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. When it comes to things that begin in space and time, I share Craig’s intuition. When it comes to the origin of space/time itself, I do not.
Why think that there could be brute facts? Two reasons: (1) Our ordinary explanatory practices definitely do not require total explanation, and (2) The alternative to brute facts—that anything could be self-explanatory—is highly dubious.
(1) In all of the modes of explanation in natural science and ordinary life, explanation proceeds piecemeal from explanandum to explanans, where the latter, at least temporarily, is left unexplained. There is nothing wrong with this procedure. I can know that the pipes burst because of the freezing temperatures and the fact that ice is less dense than water, even if I do not have detailed knowledge of the structure of the water molecule. In tracing back causes to effects we hope ultimately to come to some set of completely general and basic laws and some set of fundamental entities. Let’s suppose that the Holy Grail of physics is found and a satisfactory TOE is one day established. We will then have some set of ultimate facts for which no deeper explanation exists, and this is precisely what we have hoped all along to find. In explanation, something is always left unexplained, and that this is the case when we reach physical “rock bottom” should neither surprise nor chagrin us. Indeed, there are logically only two alternatives to reaching a brutally-factual explanatory “rock bottom”: Either the explanatory chain proceeds back ad infinitum, or it terminates in something that is not brutally factual but is, in some sense, self-explanatory. As for the first alternative (and pace Prof. Craig), we cannot know a priori that the chain does not extend forever. I am supposing that, in fact, it seems to terminate in a fundamental theory. The second alternative to a brutally-factual explanatory terminus is something that is self-explanatory.
(2) What could it possibly mean to say that something is self-explanatory? I know that, as you note above, Ed, many philosophers have made suggestions here. I find these to be very obscure. They sound to me like verbal formulas devised to obviate a problem rather than solve it. I am not even sure that it is coherent to say that “God is pure actuality” or “God is his own sufficient reason.” I would have to ask for a very careful unpacking of these phrases before I would concede that they are meaningful.
In the meantime, it seems to me that the most obvious way for something to be self-explanatory would be for its existence to be logically necessary. But this option leads us into all the notorious problems associated with the ontological argument. How can there be a concept that guarantees its own instantiation? It can never be contradictory to deny the exemplification of a concept, because that denial does not contradict any of the content of that concept, but only denies that such content is instantiated in extra-conceptual reality. “The non-existent necessarily existent being,” is, of course, a contradictory concept. However, there is, and can be, no contradiction in saying “The concept of the necessarily existent being is not instantiated.” In fact, as has long been known since Russell’s famous example of “the present King of France,” to deny that concept is exemplified is merely to say “There is no x such that x exemplifies predicates P1, P2, P3…Pn.” Such a statement in no way contradicts the mentioned concept, whatever its content.
In what other way, other than by being logically necessary, could an entity be self-explanatory? Well, it could be metaphysically rather than logically necessary. As far as I know, the best candidate for specifying a notion of metaphysical necessity is the PSR, which we may express as: “Nothing exists or is what it is unless there is a sufficient reason for its existence and its nature.” But why should we accept the PSR? As I say above, our ordinary explanatory practices do not presuppose it. Is it intuitively obvious, as I think that Leibniz held that it was? Not to me. On the contrary, with Hume, my intuition is that there very well could be something that exists without any explanation. As curious creatures we may hanker for an explanation for, literally, everything, but I can see no a priori basis for thinking that reality owes us such satisfaction.
The upshot is that if there are no indisputable principles requiring either a logically or metaphysically necessary being, then it is eminently rational to posit brute facts.
Ed, thanks for the chance to address these questions. As always, the subsequent discussion could go on forever, but life is short, and you and I both have many other pressing duties.

bookmark_borderNASA: The Universe is Flat (which Suggests It is Spatially Infinite)

The WMAP spacecraft can measure the basic parameters of the Big Bang theory including the geometry of the universe. If the universe were flat, the brightest microwave background fluctuations (or “spots”) would be about one degree across. If the universe were open, the spots would be less than one degree across. If the universe were closed, the brightest spots would be greater than one degree across.
Recent measurements (c. 2001) by a number of ground-based and balloon-based experiments, including MAT/TOCOBoomerangMaxima, and DASI, have shown that the brightest spots are about 1 degree across. Thus the universe was known to be flat to within about 15% accuracy prior to the WMAP results. WMAP has confirmed this result with very high accuracy and precision. We now know (as of 2013) that the universe is flat with only a 0.4% margin of error. This suggests that the Universe is infinite in extent; however, since the Universe has a finite age, we can only observe a finite volume of the Universe. All we can truly conclude is that the Universe is much larger than the volume we can directly observe.


bookmark_borderIs HADD Evidence Against Theism? Part 1

I’ve been thinking lately about whether HADD, on the assumption that it exists, is evidence for or against the existence of God. I’m starting to think it is neutral, but I’m posting this here for feedback.
Before diving into the details, let’s review a few items for context.
First, let’s address terminology. HADD is an acronym which stands for “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device.” HADD is a theory in the cognitive science of religion which says that most humans seem to be hard-wired to believe that agents explain various facts; this tendency seems to include all sorts of invisible agents, including God, gods, ghosts, and so forth.
N stands for naturalism; T stands for theism; and I’m continuing to use the same definitions I’ve offered before.
Second, I’ve written before about the structure of explanatory arguments. I’m going to adopt that same argument structure here. So, let’s dub the following argument “the evidential argument from HADD” against theism.
The Evidential Argument from HADD Formulated
(1) HADD is known to be true, i.e., Pr(HADD) is close to 1.
(2) T is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(T | B) is not much more probable than Pr(N | B).
(3) Pr(HADD | N) > Pr(HADD | T).
(4) Other evidence held equal, T is probably false, i.e., Pr(T | B & HADD) < 0.5.
The Evidential Argument from HADD Assessed
For purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that both (1) and (2) are true. If (1), (2), and (3) are true, then (4) is necessarily true. So what I want to do is figure out if there are any good reasons for thinking that (3) is true. Are there?
The “HADD Produces Many False Positives” Argument
Here’s one reason to think (3) is true, what I call the “HADD Produces Many False Positives” argument. This argument focuses on the letter “H” in the acronym HADD: most humans not only have a mental tool called an “agency detection device” (ADD), but this device is literally hypersensitive. Given ambiguous information, most human brains have a tendency to err on the side of assuming that an agent–maybe even an unseen or invisible agent–is responsible for the ambiguous information. This mental tool has survival value because it causes people to be on guard against potential predators. Furthermore, it’s better for ADD to err on the side of false positives than on the side of false negatives. So because HADD generates so many false positives, it is unreliable. On the assumption that naturalism is true (and humans are the result of unguided evolution), this is just what we would expect. If naturalism is true, nature is “blind” and so is indifferent to our beliefs about a non-existent God. On the assumption that theism is true, however, there is much more to reality than just “blind nature.” God not only exists, but cares about human beings such that God would not rely upon an unreliable process like HADD to produce theistic belief.
One reason to doubt this argument has to do with HADD’s reliability in the context of religious beliefs. First, it may be the case that HADD is notoriously unreliable in some contexts (such as hearing strange noises at night), but very reliable in other contexts (such as religious beliefs). Second, it’s doubtful that HADD is the only mental tool involved in the formation of religious beliefs. So what is the reliability of HADD when combined with these other mental tools? In order for the “HADD Produces Many False Positives” argument to work, it seems to me that we would need some way to show that the combination of HADD and other mental tools often leads to false positives about supernatural agents.

bookmark_borderExtremely Low Entropy of the Early Universe as Evidence against Theism?

One of the topics from last Friday’s debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll was the extremely low entropy of the early universe. As I type this blog post, the video of the debate isn’t available, so I’m going from memory. But I thought I heard Carroll argue that the extremely low entropy of the early universe is evidence favoring naturalism over theism.
In The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, Carroll seems to make a similar point:

An example of fine-tuning well beyond anthropic constraints is the initial state of the universe, often characterized in terms of its extremely low entropy (Penrose 1989). Roughly speaking, the large number of particles in the universe were arranged in an extraordinarily smooth configuration, which is highly unstable and unlikely given the enormous gravitational forces acting on such densely packed matter. While vacuum energy is tuned to 1 part in 10120, the entropy of the early universe is tuned to 1 part in 10 to the power of 10120, a preposterous number. The entropy didn’t need to be nearly that low in order for life to come into existence. One way of thinking about this is to note that we certainly don’t need a hundred billion other galaxies in the universe in order for life to arise here on earth; our single galaxy would have been fine, or for that matter a single solar system.

If anything, the much-more-than-anthropic tuning that characterizes the entropy of the universe is a bigger problem for the God hypothesis than for the multiverse. If the point of arranging the universe was to set the stage for the eventual evolution of intelligent life, why all the grandiose excess represented by the needlessly low entropy at early times and the universe’s hundred billion galaxies? We might wonder whether those other galaxies are spandrels — not necessary for life here on earth, but nevertheless a side effect of the general Big Bang picture, which is the most straightforward way to make the earth and its biosphere. This turns out not to be true; quantitatively, it’s easy to show that almost all possible histories of the universe that involve earth as we know it don’t have any other galaxies at all. It’s unclear why God would do so much fine-tuning of the state of the universe than seems to have been necessary.
(Sean Carroll, “Does the Universe Need God?” The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, Kindle location 6467 – 6493).

This passage from Carroll’s essay suggests yet another example of how cosmological fine-tuning arguments for God’s existence commit the fallacy of understated evidence: given that our universe is fine-tuned for life, the fact that the early universe had such extremely low entropy favors naturalism over theism.
See also:
Stenger on Zero Total Energy as Evidence for Atheism
The Evidential Argument from Scale (Index)
Paul Draper, The Fallacy of Understated Evidence, Theism, and Naturalism

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Third Question

Ed, your third question and accompanying commentary was this:

In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:
I think Bertrand Russell’s beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: “If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.” Exactly.
Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man. Specifically, Lowder has said:
[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God’s existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, “everything has a cause.”
You won’t find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.
End quote. Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made. But is Lowder wrong? If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? — actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

My response: In effect, I responded to this in a reply I made to Jeff. Let me quote that:

“What about Russell’s claim, to which Ed adverts, that (paraphrasing): “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe rather than God.” Does this attack a straw man? Well, as usual, it depends on how we read it. Is Russell charging that theists make the following argument?
If everything has a cause, then there has to exist something without a cause.
Everything has a cause.
Therefore, something (i.e. God) exists without a cause.
I think it is safe to say that you will not find such an argument outside of the paper of a “C” student in Phil. 101. The conclusion contradicts the second premise and the first premise is necessarily false since the antecedent contradicts the consequent. If Russell is caricaturing theistic philosophers as the authors of this or a similarly bad argument, he is indeed attacking a straw man.
Once again, however, I think that there is a good idea here that can be turned into a much more challenging argument. I would propose the following quasi-Russell argument
QRA: If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation, or, if it is possible that something does not have an explanation, then the universe might be that unexplained “something.” Symbolically, I would represent this argument as follows:
[□(∀x)Hxe → □Hge] v [◊(∃x)~Hxe) → ◊(x = u)]
I think Ed would have no problem with the left disjunct and would argue that God has an explanation in the sense that he is self-explanatory.
I would opt for the right since I consider brute facts to be possible, and that the universe (or, rather, its primordial state or fundamental aspects) can be brutally factual.”

The problem here, of course, involves the word “cause” which even philosophers often use imprecisely. The notion of “cause” has also changed over the history of Western philosophy. Penelope Mackie gives a succinct statement of some of those changes in here essay “Causality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

“In modern philosophy (as in modern usage in general) the notion of cause is associated with the idea of something’s producing or bringing about something else (its effect); a relation sometimes called “efficient causation.” Historically, the term ‘cause’ has a broader sense, equivalent to ‘explanatory feature.’ This usage survives in the description of Aristotle as holding ‘the doctrine of the four causes.’ The members of Aristotle’s quartet, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause correspond to four kinds of explanation. But only the efficient cause is unproblematically a candidate for a cause that produces something distinct from itself.”

My hypothesis is that Russell, an author of two comprehensive histories of philosophy, was using “cause” in the broader, historical sense that was much closer to “explanation” than to “efficient cause.” This was certainly the sense I intended when I endorsed Russell’s comment. In that case, I don’t think Russell’s statement, or my endorsement, was quite the straw man Jeff decries!

bookmark_borderLet’s Attack a Straw Man, C.S. Lewis Style!

I was re-reading C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, and was struck by his completely biased way of defining the theory he wants to discredit. Here’s a quick refresher: Lewis wants to defend a moral argument for what he calls the “Religious view” (read: theism) and against what he calls the “Materialist view.” If you were expecting Lewis to offer a “neutral” definition of materialism, such as “the belief that matter and energy are all that exist,” you’d be massively mistaken. Instead, here’s how Lewis defines his terms.

I now want to consider what this tells us about the universe we live in. Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us. The other view is the religious view. (*) According to it, what is behind  the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know.

Lewis then proceeds to give his famous moral argument for God’s existence.
If we deconstruct and generalize this paragraph, Lewis’s approach seems to be as follows.
1. There are two main competing worldviews: H1 and H2.
2. [Hidden premise: there is a set of facts F1, F2, …, Fn which count against H1. These facts are as follows.]

F1: the universe exists (“matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why”)
F2: the evolution of intelligent life (“the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us”)

3.  Define H1, not in the way that any of its proponents would do so, but instead in terms of F1, F2, …, Fn to make it sound as implausible as possible.
4. Offer a much more favorable definition of H2, one which makes no reference to any set of facts which might count against H2.
5. Then move on to to give your argument for H2 and against H1.
I think I’m getting the hang of this…. If my goal were to be the C.S. Lewis of naturalism, then, I would begin an essay against theism with the following skewed definitions.

I now want to consider what this tells us about the universe we live in. Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held.
First, there is what is called the Religious view. People who take that view think that God is changeless … except for when he decided to create the universe [see the “immutability vs. creation argument” here]. They think that God created the universe, except there was never a time when the universe did not exist [see the “impossibility of a divine cause argument” here]. They think that God ‘fine-tuned’ the universe for intelligent life, except for the universe’s massive hostility for life, the clumsy process of evolution by natural selection, the coarse-tuning of pain and pleasure systems, and the fact that the majority of sentient beings do not thrive for most of their lives. They think that human minds are immaterial souls that just happen to be dependent upon a physical brain, a brain which is reliable… except when it produces religiously important beliefs about invisible agents, like God, or incorrectly leads people to assume that invisible agents explain the natural world, except for all of the times science has shown such explanations to be false.
The other view is the naturalist view. According to it, the physical explains why anything mental exists.

I think no fair minded person–theist, naturalist, or otherwise–would say that this is a fair and honest way to begin an examination of the evidence about God’s existence. Why, then, if their silence is any indication, do so many Christians seem to think Lewis’s diatribe is acceptable?
See Also:
Do Christian Apologists Spend Too Much Time Focusing on their Weaker Opponents?
ETA: Note:
Here is the note Lewis provided where the asterisk (*) appears inside the quotation of Lewis.

Note —In order to keep this section short enough when it was given on the air, I mentioned only the Materialist view and the Religious view. But to be complete I ought to mention the In between view called Life-Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution. The wittiest expositions of it come in the works of Bernard Shaw, but the most profound ones in those of Bergson. People who hold this view say that the small variations by which life on this planet “evolved” from the lowest forms to Man were not due to chance but to the “striving” or “purposiveness” of a Life-Force.
When people say this we must ask them whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then “a mind bringing life into existence and leading it to perfection” is really a God, and their view is thus identical with the Religious. If they do not, then what is the sense in saying that something without a mind “strives” or has “purposes”? This seems to me fatal to their view. One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences.

bookmark_borderIndex for Feser-Parsons Exchanges

The purpose of this blog post is simply to provide a convenient index to all of the posts in the planned two series of exchanges between Edward Feser and Keith Parsons. Feser’s contributions will be posted on his blog and Parsons’ contributions will be posted on The Secular Outpost.
This post will be updated with links as as they become available.
Exchange #1: Feser’s Four Questions for Parsons
Feser’s Initial Statement: “Four Questions for Keith Parsons
Parsons’ Initial Response:

Feser’s Counter-Response:

Parsons’ Counter-Response:

Exchange #2: Debate: “Can morality have a rational justification if atheism or naturalism is true?”
Feser’s Opening Statement: “A Second Exchange with Keith Parsons, Part I
Parsons’ Opening Statement: “Morality and Atheism: An Exchange with Prof Feser
Feser’s Response: “A Second Exchange with Keith Parsons, Part II
Parsons’ Response: “Belated Response to Ed Feser