Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Would You Believe it? Part 3

A Tale of Two Worldviews

Following on from my previous post which attempted to describe my own worldview alongside others, I'd like to look at two opposing factions in a little more detail. These two are roughly divided into the atheist/materialist and the spiritual/idealist camps. I say roughly because there are no strict boundaries here. These are general terms and there might even be some overlap. I'm not concerned, in this post, with discussing any religious point of view. Religion might crop up but it is peripheral to my main thrust here.

Atheism, materialism, scepticism, etc.

Firstly, then, I want to discuss the atheist/materialist position and please forgive me if I tend to conflate atheism with materialism. I know there are differences but, for the most part, these two points of view seem to go together. So if I use either term, please be aware that I'm generally thinking of both. But further than those two terms, there is a bewildering terminology to comprehend. Read any blog or forum popular with these guys and you will find they have terms they like to be associated with. It would seem that these words apply to themselves but not to those who disagree with them:

Sceptical, debunking, rational,  critical thinking, free-thinking, scientific, reason, occam's razor, bright, secular, peer-reviewed and, of course, real scientists.

They also have their pet pejoratives:

Magical thinking, creationist, IDiots (pertaining to Intelligent Design proponents), supernatural, superstitions, God-of-the-gaps, logical fallacies, fairies, unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, young-earthers, flat-earthers, pseudoscience, woo, mumbo-jumbo, hippy, New Age, wooly-minded, and so on.

So the first question I would have for anyone who associates with the above terminology is, why are you so nasty? This is not a trivial issue - especially for those of us on the receiving end of such vitriol. I am assured by my atheist friends and family members that the majority don't behave in an insulting or aggressive manner. I'd like to believe that but either they steer clear of the internet, popular atheist literature and newspapers or I'm looking in all the wrong places. Because I see it everywhere.

The second question would be this: why do atheists assume that anyone who does not share their view must be religious? In many cases, not only religious but fundamentalist. There is also an apparent assumption that anyone who has some concept of God must believe in an abrahamic God: the God of the old testament. Atheists include all gods in their sweeping rejection but will generally argue as though they are attacking the idea of single, biblical divinity. So we, who do not necessarily subscribe to religious ideology, find ourselves fending off arguments against something in which we have no intellectual or spiritual investment.

I'm probably off base here and my friends are correct in saying that most don't fit the angry stereotype. Yet here's an article from the Daily Telegraph, written by an atheist and lamenting the nastiness of his fellow atheists.
How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet.
Poor guy, look at the responses in the comments section beneath his article. He will be even less inclined to show his face at an atheist gathering now. Here's another article by another atheist none too happy with his fellows, as this quote demonstrates:
"If you want to find out why I call these guys Reddit Atheists, take a brief dip into the atheism subreddit. It is a place entirely defined by bitter, faux-enlightened young people sharing “thought-provoking” images about the horrific evils of religion (in practice, pretty much just Christianity) and congratulating each other for being “enlightened”. The site was originally intended to be a place where people talk about atheistic ideas, but as is Reddit’s depressing trend, it soon devolved into a swampy mess of endless, banal clichés, memes and general anti-intellectualism. It actually rivals Creationism in terms of having a narrow worldview. They’ve actually had a campaign where they would write “once upon a time” on the first page of every Bible they found in hotels, which is probably the lamest form of vandalism ever." (my bold)

Now, I can understand anger. I have seen the way US christian conservatives operate and I would be angry too. I wouldn't want to be associated with George Bush (Senior or Junior), Sarah Palin or the Tea Party either. Unfortunately, evangelical christians have a lot of sway in right-wing politics - especially in the US. Nevertheless, I don't have to be an atheist to be angry about those things. Nor do I need to be an atheist to be horrified by brutal beheadings carried out in the name of Allah.

So why are these internet atheists so determined to bully me out of my "religious" superstitions? And what does any of that have to do with my belief that my mind is not equal to a blob of meat in my head? Or my doubts that evolution by natural selection and random mutation is the whole truth (see my post here)? Or that NDE patients are experiencing something that cannot be explained by brain chemistry? Is the idealism of Plato, Hagel and Berkeley also responsible for numerous wars and atrocities?

I suspect it comes down to this: science offers an alternative to religion for the atheist. Therefore scientific materialism must be the truth. Anything else is religion or superstition. After all, doesn't all of the evidence point that way? Well, let's see, shall we?

Parapsychology and non-materialist evidence.

In the first part of this trilogy of blog posts I looked in some detail at the evolution debate and the materialist assumption behind neo-darwinism. I don't want to revisit that here except to say that if you want an example of the sheer arrogance and condescension of those who insist on calling themselves "real scientists" then listen to Peter Atkins talking down to Stephen Meyer in the video I posted on that page. Sadly, Atkins isn't even the worst example. 

What I do want to do here is to present a few pieces of evidence that some scientists take seriously along with some quotes from other well respected scientists and commentators. My aim is to show that, despite the hyperbole, scientific materialism is not a done deal. Here are some views questioning the base assumption.

Thomas Nagel is an atheist philosopher who upset a lot of his fellow atheists when his book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” was published by Oxford University Press. Here is a quote from an article he wrote following publication.
"Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics." (my bold)

Nagel was vilified for daring to question both materialism and neo-darwinism but he stuck to his guns and even recommended Stephen C. Meyer’s book "Signature in the Cell" in a Times Literary Supplement review. This, of course, provoked a predictable response (“It is hard to imagine a worse book”) from mainstream scientists and TLS printed some of the letters from both sides (though giving the last word to the complaining scientist).

How about some quotes from famous scientists?

“The ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct 'actuality' of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation, however, is impossible… atoms are not things.” Werner Heisenberg

“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else." Erwin Schrödinger

"On the other hand, however, every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. " Albert Einstein
"I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition ... we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. " Sir John Eccles (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

And the views of a materialist? 

"Nearly every present-day scientist would agree with Carl Sagan that our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind, including any of the various gods from Adonai to Zeus…. We also exclude from our explanations little green men from Mars riding in spaceships, although they are supposed to be quite as corporeal as you and I, because the evidence is overwhelming that Mars hasn’t got any…
We take the side of science … because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. … To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen." Richard Lewontin (evolutionary biologist and geneticist)

I'll leave it to you to look up other quotes if you need more balance, although that is hardly necessary as we are bombarded with material in support of the materialist status quo every day on TV and in the press. Lewontin's assertion about "nearly every present-day scientist" is not disproved by the quotes I have used from past generations of the great minds of science but note what he says next: "our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural ...". Again, he makes the assumption that material is fundamental and he later confirms "that materialism is absolute". He ignores the fact that there are phenomena that are not explained by materialism.

Finally, for this post at least, I want to share a few examples of how serious, intelligent people, including scientists, are approaching consciousness and parapsychology with an open mind. Perhaps we should bear in mind these people and many like them have put their careers at risk by identifying with these ideas.  There are organisations, particularly the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and the Centre for Scientific Investigation (CSI/CSICOP), which have been formed specifically to attack (not investigate as they would have you believe) any evidence for the paranormal. Indeed, an offshoot of JREF calling themselves Guerrilla Skeptics has practically hijacked Wikipedia in order to discredit paranormal researchers their work. Also if you scan down the names of those fellows of CSI, you will recognise all of the prominent atheist crusaders. For more information, take a look at these links:

James Randi: debunking the king of the debunkers

The Guerrilla Skeptics: Taking Creepy to 11

CSICOP: True skeptics, or blinkered debunkers

Skeptical about Skeptics

Anyhow, there follows some material of a more positive nature. There's some really interesting stuff here but it will take a whack of your spare time to watch all the videos (though some are very short). I hope you do though, especially if you are in any way committed to scientific materialism.


Near Death Consciousness

Science and the afterlife

Dr. Bruce Greyson is Professor of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. The following video is part 1 of 5.

Dean Radin PhD on scientific taboo

Monday, 9 March 2015

Would You Believe It? Part 2

Since the last entry on this subject and the subsequent discussion, I have continued to ponder on the nature of beliefs; particularly my own. Why do I adhere to them? How come I didn't decide that reality was otherwise? Can I justify them in the light of the evidence we have at our disposal in the modern world? This page is necessarily introspective: it has to be because I can't answer the above questions for anyone else. But it might, hopefully, have some resonance with whoever should happen by and read it. There will be no revelations or conclusions but it might put a few things in perspective.

Well, what do I believe?

Firstly, we humans have a tendency to categorise: to box and label. We invent "isms" and then apply one or more of those ism's to our beliefs. So, I generally say that I'm an idealist - I believe that the fundamental reality is mind and that the world is made manifest from mind stuff: thoughts or ideas, hence idealism. But that does not mean that I have studied philosophical idealism or that I can name all the idealist philosophers from Plato onwards. It is a box with a label. There are many labels and much argument arises from the definitions attached to them. Should my beliefs be restricted to the strict definition of the term, "idealist"? Well, I'd have to say no on the basis that I cannot say what that strict definition is. The label is, for me, a best-fit. 

So someone might approach me and ask, "You say that you are an idealist but do you believe in God?" When faced with that question I have no option but to answer with another question: "what is your definition of God?" And there's the rub. To an idealist such as Bishop Berkeley (sometimes referred to as the "Father of Idealism"), the source of all ideas is God. But some idealist schools of Buddhism maintain that "all is mind" yet without reference to a deity. I suspect that Berkeley's God and the Buddhist's "mind" are philosophically equivalent. And if not for Berkeley and the Buddhists, then they are indeed equivalent for me.

So, for me, God/mind is all there is. There is nothing other: it is infinite and therefore not subject to time and space. All experience occurs within. Physical reality is a manifestation of ideas: a particular framework within which experience of a certain quality can take place. That framework is defined by time and space along with what we call the laws of physics. It is an elaborate, elegant and massively complex mental construct. Think of the Matrix movies and you'll get a clue of the framework I'm attempting to describe. 

What about religion?

First let me say that I do not consider myself to be religious. I don't hold to any religious dogma, I have grave doubts about religious texts such as the Bible and I find the concept of worship utterly unnecessary. There are concepts of God in religion that I cannot entertain yet I will never dismiss the importance of the mythology of religion. Mythology is full of important and useful metaphors which wiser souls will always take seriously.

Religions of all hues tend to be dualistic (one could argue that Buddhism doesn't count as a religion because it is non-theistic: it doesn't have a deity). Dualism maintains that, fundamentally, there are two kinds of "stuff": mind (for religion, read: spiritual) stuff and matter (physical) stuff. Mind is non-physical and expressed as thoughts and ideas - perhaps also love. Matter can be measured: it has physical properties such as weight, energy, odour, electrical charge, etc. In general, dualists attribute mind to God, humans and, perhaps, some animals. God is assumed to exist apart from His creation. 

Therefore, are we to believe that God decided, at some point, to fashion a universe ex nihilo - out of nothing? Or did the material necessary for dualism (mind AND matter, remember) already exist along with God? Come to think of it, is God himself dualistic? Apparently not according to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"Christianity rejected all forms of a dual origin of the world which erected matter, or evil, or any other principle into a second eternal being coexistent with God, and it taught the monistic origin of the universe from one, infinite, self-existing spiritual Being who freely created all things."

Some theists are, like Berkeley, idealists. Oxford don, Prof. Keith Ward is a Christian philosopher and idealist. Here is a short (20 min) video explaining his metaphysics:

There are many scientists who have a religious faith. I find that surprising and difficult to understand if that faith is in the literal interpretations of religious texts such as the bible. Take Francis Collins, for example.  Here is a famous and influential geneticist, a critic of Intelligent Design and a friend of the late Christopher Hitchens - an arch-atheist. Collins justifies his faith in Jesus as follows:

"For me, that leap came in my 27th year, after a search to learn more about God's character led me to the person of Jesus Christ. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus."
Now, from my reading, there seems to be remarkably little historical evidence of Jesus' life. Most of it comes from the Gospels and a little from Josephus, a Jewish-Roman historian writing shortly after the time of Jesus. For someone who demands reliable evidence for a living, doesn't it seem odd for him to accept the Gospels on so little evidence? I can understand a scientist seeing God's work in nature but cannot grasp the unquestioning way they accept the scriptures. 

My take on atheism.

Atheists appear to love applying several descriptive labels to their non-belief. It can be just as bewildering to determine the tenets of atheist thinking as it is to follow all the threads of religious divergence. You might like to take a side-track to the Humanist website for a more thorough explanation. There you will find out about Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, Sceptics, Secularists and more.

They don't list materialism on that web page but atheists will insist that atheism does not require materialism. Yet it might be difficult to find a materialist who is not an atheist. One thing that atheists or materialists will be almost guaranteed to agree on is the rejection of the "supernatural". The assumption here is that nature (the natural) is fundamentally material, i.e. made of physical stuff: atoms, molecules, forces and fields. While Relativity and Quantum Physics might reduce all matter to energy, we are still in the realm of the physical. No spirit stuff here, we are told.

"Supernatural" is quite a loaded term. It is used by atheists in a pejorative sense to mean the same as "superstition". Bible stories of miracles, virgin birth and healing are considered superstitions. Ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance and spirit communications are also superstitions. Atheists seem hard-pressed to speak of these subjects without the obligatory sneer. 

The scientific method, developed and honed to an effective and productive tool ever since the enlightenment, has done so with the unquestioned assumption of materialism. The fact that it has produced such reliable results and technological progress is seen as justification for that assumption. If God were involved, they say, we would have seen evidence of His handiwork. But, they will affirm, every time God was proposed as a explanation, science eventually showed there was a naturalistic mechanism which did the job without the need for divine intervention. 

Discuss these subjects, even with a reasonable and fairly open-minded atheist, and you will inevitably receive the following challenge: "Show me what non-materialism has added to science - where are the non-materialist cancer cures or space probes?" I've even asked myself those questions. 

My answer to myself is threefold:

1. There is a category confusion in the question. Drugs and space probes are physical technologies and in the domain of the physical sciences. The nature of spirit or mind belongs in philosophy or metaphysics. The scientific method is not concerned with metaphysics. Should we expect the tools of physics be used to determine the nature of the non-physical?

2. Quantum Mechanics - the most successful scientific theory of all time - has been shown to require a conscious observer. This is hotly disputed but many of the most respected scientists in the field have said something similar. I'll add links below.

3. Despite the unsuitability of scientific equipment and methods to investigate metaphysical phenomena, there are areas of human experience which can be subject to experimentation and research. Parapsychology has long been attracting a few highly curious and qualified scientists and evidence has been collected and verified to exceptional standards. This is so despite denials and dismissals from the mainstream. Again, I'll add links later.

Scientific paradigms change. Until the late 19th century, the paradigm was based upon Newtonian mechanics. This was a mechanistic worldview of a clockwork universe. It explained much of the observed universe and, for many purposes, is still relevant today. Yet Relativity and Quantum Mechanics forced science to adopt a new paradigm and perhaps it is again time for science to expand its horizons.

I am trying to show here why I, personally, don't have an atheistic or materialist worldview. I rejected religion at an early age because I felt I was being fed stories which didn't make sense when I thought them through. I later rejected atheism for many of the same reasons. In the end, they both lack a clear vision of the bigger picture. They both make assumptions that can't be justified. Religion with its dualism and personal, judgemental and all-too-human-like God. Atheism with its assumption of materialism, of randomness and coincidence. Science is a wonderful tool but it is not an oracle. Beware of promissory materialism: the promise that things like consciousness and the origin of life, while something of a mystery right now, will soon be found to have purely physical causes. I doubt that.

In my next entry, I'll try to provide the evidence I hinted at above. Links and videos to back up the statements I have made here. I hope someone will find it all interesting and I hope I have not offended anyone.