Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Response to "The God Test"

The following is dissection of The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes by Rabbi Adam Jacobs. The original article is in quote blocks.

Try as I might, I continue to be startled by the mindset of the non-believer.
The reverse is also true. Considering that this statement, and mine, have no bearing on anything other than starting off on the wrong foot, let’s move on.
It’s not so much that I can’t grasp the notion that someone could believe that there is no Creator and that there is no grand design to the universe, but rather that so many of their choices and thinking patterns seem to suggest that they believe something quite unlike that which they profess. Often, I’ve inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level? After all, one random grouping of molecules interacting with another has no inherent meaning or value. I still await the brave soul (or neuron complex if you prefer) who will respond that I am quite correct; that no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other, that statements like “I would like to enslave all of humanity” and “I would like a chocolate bar” are functionally equivalent, and that their very own thoughts and words are intrinsically suspect as they are nothing more than some indiscriminate electro-chemical impulses. Until then, I will carry on believing that most “non-believers” actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or that they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview. (emphasis added)
This is an odd, and inaccurate, representation of non-theistic worldview. The ol’ straw man of the nihilistic, materialistic atheist strikes again! I have a hard time finding where to even begin on this. Your thesis strikes me as ignorant and misinformed as the Creationist’s attempt to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics to disprove evolution. By making the false assumption of a closed system, Creationist’s think that there isn’t enough energy in the system to create order, therefore a supernatural force must exist to create order. This is a tangent, but it’s the same illogic the Rabbi uses.
If I lived alone on some island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and never spoke to another human and had no way of communicating or even leaving evidence of my existence then yes…”nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level.” Fortunately for me, I don’t live a completely secluded life 1000’s of miles from another person. I have a family, friends, co-workers, and a presence on the Internet where my words will survive as long as the Internet does. Now, I know what Rabbi Jacobs is attempting to get at. Without a supernatural force to bring order to disorder, to bring meaning to insignificance, then how can I, as an atheist, make any assertion to the contrary?  Simple. I am here and I say so. Sometimes not everything is a convoluted philosophical question. Without YHWH would you simply walk away from your life and live in a hut somewhere since nothing matters? Would you kill just because you now can? I doubt it. It is not beneficial to society, which is made up of individuals. Yes, those individuals are made of electrical impulses inside smooshy grey matter, but those processes have evolved to ensure the greatest cooperation between individuals both naturalistically and culturally. It is hardly nihilistic. I love my wife and child. The reasons for which are based on what you perceive to be a cold materialism, but you make an accidental or willfully ignorant illustration that humans are no more than walking automata of biological processes. The brain, which has evolved, at no point requires supernaturalism to have come into existence or function.

Let’s put this assumption to a test. How would you answer the following series of questions? I posit that if you are inclined to answer any of them from a non-materialist perspective then you might secretly suspect that there are grander cosmic forces at work than those discernible on a purely empiric level, or, possibly, that you are a victim of societal programming.
1. Would you be willing to sell your parent’s remains for dog food?
If you answered no, why? As there are finite resources available to us as we plod through our limited number of revolutions on this planet, wouldn’t it be in your interest to maximize them — especially considering that a non-functional carcass provides little to no personal or societal benefit (and is a little unpleasant)? If you suggest that it represents something that was important to you and therefore you are inclined to treat it with more respect I would ask, “so what?” Your notions of respect and importance are subjective, non-intellectual whims that in any case (as we’ve said) are in reality nothing more than tiny electrical blips in your skull and worth far less than cash.
Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it’s just wrong to do it — wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother’s corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer.
Again, humans do not live in a vacuum without culture and society. Your question is ridiculous. OF COURSE MY CARING FOR MY DEAD PARENT IS SUBJECTIVE! How is it not? Would a higher primate “trade” their dead relative for food? No. Quite the opposite. They would probably rip your face off if you tried. Do they believe God exists? No. They are happy in the ignorance of your small concept of the universe. Does your God make apes, dogs, and many social animals suddenly care for their dead kin? It’s a subjective response to the disruption of social structure. Emotional response isn’t restricted to humans and requires no God to assert.
2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?
If yes, why? As no one will ever know what transpired and it will soon all be over in any event, what difference could it possibly make what you do in your final moments? I again see only two possibilities for the non-believer — either you suspect that there is an inexplicable but real import to fateful decisions such as these or you have been conditioned to act a certain way — one that is more in sync with the logical conclusions of a believer’s worldview and not your own. As physicist HP Yockey suggested of the materialist’s viewpoint, “if humans are only matter, it is no worse to burn a ton of humans than to burn a ton of coal.” If you answer that it makes no difference whatsoever, then you are two for two (and I am impressed with your consistency).
Once again you make the assumption that the morality you allude to does not predate your religion. That is absurd, conceited, and false. If objective morality existed we would still have the same morals as those in the Old Testament. We do not and we're better for it. We—you and I—do not adhere to all the laws in the Pentateuch or we would be arrested for a litany of crimes. We—you and I—are conditioned by society to act in accordance with the rules of our culture that took thousands of years of cultural evolution to get where we are.  If we weren’t I would assume that you would stone the raped virgin that refuses to marry her rapist.
Rabbi, you are falling into the theist trap of “there is no morality without God.” Without God looking over your shoulder you would simply smash peoples head’s in whenever you felt like it?  I don’t think you would.
3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?
For those (almost all of us) who are inclined to say yes, the question once again is why? What precisely is the root of their significance? What difference does a painting make? You can’t eat it and it will not help your genes to reproduce (for whatever unclear reason it is that they “want” to do that in the first place). Does it truly matter whether or not you love your children as long as you provide for their basic needs? And if you suggest that love is a basic need that was cleverly “designed” by evolution to help parents to provide for their offspring, then does it matter if you only pretend to love them? Or do you believe that love has an intrinsic meaning of its own — one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis? If you do, ask yourself why, as it would not seem to effectively square with the non-believer’s weltanschauung.
Nice use of the word “designed” in quotation marks there. That’s a nice touch. It shows a lack of understanding of evolution or a lack of intellectual integrity on your part. You are trying to infer that evolution is designed. There is not a single shred of proof that actual, conscious design occurred and in fact it would be logically inconsistent since the template is highly imperfect.
As for your third “point”, I covered this in the intro.
If you are willing to define the human experience as nothing more than an arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms and other blind and indifferent forces acting in concert, then at the end of the day, you necessarily concede that human emotion and experience are intrinsically meaningless. What difference, then, does it make if you (or others) choose to completely disregard concepts like kindness, decency and love? The non-believer is duty bound to say that it makes no difference whatsoever, as meaning — in all of its varied splendor — resides exclusively with those who acknowledge its basis. One that is neither blind nor random nor physical.
Human emotion and experience IS intrinsically meaningless. That is not the same as worthless. We live subjective lives in a material world with other subjective beings that we need to get along with in order for the whole wheel to roll. You diminish that by adding the god concept.
If you chose the non-materialistic answer to any of these questions (no, yes, yes) you may be more of a believer than you think.
You’re projecting. I do not dispute that your belief in God structures your world and provides comfort. However, I can turn the table and ask you: “What has God provided you?” You can’t answer that in any way that isn’t personal and subjective. It is not repeatable. The fundamental misunderstanding that believers in the supernatural have is that non-belief in the supernatural is in no way related to belief. It is just called that because you are the majority and the majority believes. Non-belief isn’t the opposite of belief.  I do not make any claim about the universe or “Truth” that isn’t objectively available to you. We can study science together and unless you are way off the deep end and deny scientific fact, we can largely agree on these things. You can’t even agree with the countless religions and their countless sects that make similar claims as you.
Your religion is 0.2% of the world population. That’s it! What makes you so special? That is what you are claiming, after all. You are a special little snowflake and God loves you. Yes he does.  All those other people are bad or stupid because your God loves YOU and YOU'RE right about it. I make no claim of being special. I make no claim that I cannot back up. I can no more prove that a God does not exist than you can prove one does. It should be easy for you! All the extraordinary things God is claimed to have accomplished are just waiting to be proven. The difference is that I don’t have to. I am at the default position here. You are claiming the extraordinary. Actually, a good way to conclude this is to quote Carl Sagan on what would have been his 77th birthday. I wish I could say this has been fun, but I found your article contrived, insulting and ignorant.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
—Carl Sagan


Fester said...

The Rabbi's assumption that unbelievers are cold, self-absorbed and nihilistic is, besides being inane, insulting to all unbelievers - and to all human individuals.
The very idea that "no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other" is fatuous: even a preschooler knows that thoughts, deeds, actions and impulses carry different meanings and results.
I would like to slap this ignorant rabbi across the face - which action would hold a far different significance to him than it would hold for me: And if I were to stab the m*other f*cker in the eye and kill him, that would also hold vastly significant differences for each of us.
If this "teacher" (who I would not allow near any child!) has often asked non-believers his laughable question then he has also often received clear responses that he is an ass and a fool.
I once was fortunate enough to be able to save the life of a child: it made a great difference on the child's life, those of his parents and siblings and mine as well.
This man is as much of a rabbi as I am POTUS. He should be ashamed of himself.

Steve said...

Resorting to violence, even in a rhetorical sense, is unwarranted and does not add anything meaningful to the discussion and in fact detracts from it. Anyone coming here to read this rebuttal to the Rabbi's poorly thought out and insulting article may see your comments only to dismiss the response and your otherwise valid points.

We all need to be mindful of the language we use.