Friday, April 9, 2010

Interview with writer Alan Roebuck on atheism, materialism and naturalism

This is an interview with writer Alan Roebuck on several topics, including atheism, naturalism and materialism. Roebuck has published the article "How to respond to a supercilious atheist" which has caused a lot of controversy on the internet, so I've decided to ask him about these matters in more detail. I thank Alan for accepting this interview. Enjoy.

1-Alan, tell us something about your background.

I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life, attending UCLA and graduating with degrees in physics and mathematics. I was raised in a politically and religiously liberal environment at home, school and church but although I was basically a liberal, I always at least sensed that there was something wrong with the generally-accepted ways of thinking. In my 20’s, partly as a result of having my first real job teaching mathematics, I began—for the first time—seriously to explore the world of ideas, and the result was that I began consciously rejecting the ideas of the left. This process has taken a long time (more than 20 years), because the thinking of the left has permeated all parts of Western Civilization, but I am now politically a traditionalist conservative and attend a creedal (i.e., faithful to the Reformation) Reformed church.

2-You have published an online articled entitled "How to respond to a supercilious atheist" which has caused a lot of controversy. What did motivate you to write that article?

I observe that the “evangelical atheists,” the ones trying to convert people, claim there is no evidence for God. They say this, not because there is no evidence, but because they radically misinterpret the evidence, which exists in great volume. And they misinterpret it because their basic philosophical beliefs about how reality operates, their presuppositions, are materialistic. In other words, they presuppose, but do not prove, that matter is all that exists, and therefore miracles and the supernatural don’t exist. I wanted to point out this basic flaw in their thinking.

No atheist that I am aware of has publicly responded to this basic point by attempting to justify his premise of materialism. Obviously there exist philosophically knowledgeable atheists who have defended materialism, but there are very few of them. Most evangelical atheists just assume materialism, and then assume they have defeated theism.

3-As you know, recently the "New Atheist" movement has received a lot of publicity. Do you think this movement has been positive to raise the intellectual level of discussion about the existence of God?

The New Atheists have stimulated Christians to write several good books defending theism and pointing out the intellectual deficiencies of the organized evangelical atheist movement. There are many good arguments for God, but most people are not even aware that they exist, so the New Atheists have indirectly benefited theism by forcing theists to make their case more strongly. In general, the level of public intellectual discourse in America and the West is very low; good discussions are generally relegated to some parts of academia and a few blogs, and so John Q. Public generally thinks that the deep questions of life (about God, morality, death, virtue, sex, and so on) are either unknowable or else have been answered skeptically and atheistically for all time by unknown sages. The more we can bring discussion out in the open, the better.

4-Atheist philosopher Julian Baggini wrote an online article entitled "The New Atheist Movement is destructive", and other atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse have a similar complain about the New Atheism. Do you think that, from a social point of view, the New Atheist movement is mostly negative?

I haven’t read Baggini’s essay, but atheism, by definition, is a negative agenda because it opposes belief in God. Some atheists just want to be left alone to disbelieve, but the aggressive evangelical atheists also have a positive agenda of replacing God with some other authority, typically science. But since an atheistic worldview cannot have any authoritative answers to the big questions of life, and indeed normal human functioning is impossible without constantly at least alluding to what goes beyond the mundane and the physical, atheism is radically inconsistent with any decently-functioning human society. People naturally find themselves using words that refer to salvation, worship, design and purpose in the cosmos, and so on. Atheism thus declares an important part of normal human life to be unreal.

5-Most contemporary atheists believe in a worldview known as metaphysical naturalism or scientific materialism. They claim that such a worldview is the only one supported by the evidence of all the sciences. What arguments would you present against the naturalistic worldview?

I have made an argument against naturalism in my essay “The Scientific Leftists of the Center for Inquiry,” but the basic reason materialistic naturalism fails is that it cannot account for many obvious features of reality. That is, many obvious features of reality are impossible under materialism. Consciousness, for example is obviously not material, that is, it is not made of matter, it is not a material event, and it is not a property of matter. Consciousness may be correlated with brain activity (a material event), but it is not the same as brain activity. And consciousness is not a property of matter because it cannot be measured: We can define a unit of length or of mass, but a unit of consciousness cannot exist. Therefore consciousness is not a measurable property of matter. Justifying these intuitively obvious facts about consciousness takes some effort and sophistication, but the result is what everyone knows but some wish to deny: consciousness is not material. And since consciousness obviously exists, matter is not all that exists.

Some materialists are so perverted that they actually assert that consciousness does not exist. They say this because it is necessary in order for their worldview to have a chance of being valid. But they’re obviously wrong.

Naturalism also is self-refuting, and therefore necessarily false. It claims that all knowledge must be empirically-based, but it is impossible to use empirical evidence to prove naturalism itself. Therefore, by its own standards, naturalism is false.

6-Do you think that naturalism and secular humanism provide a solid basis for morality, moral behaviour, moral motivation and moral responsibility? I ask you this, because one of the core aspects of naturalism is "determinism", the view that all the physical phenomena (including cerebral processes and human behaviour) are fully determined by a causal chain ruled by impersonal natural laws. But if it's true, then how could a person to freely choose moral behaviour over the immoral ones? And how does a naturalist explain moral responsibility in that context?

Obviously a materialist can be morally good, or at least as morally good as a theist. But the most important part of morality as an intellectual system with integrity is not what people should do, but why they should do it. All people who are not demented can agree on the basic moral rules: don’t murder, don’t steal, keep your word, etc. The most important question is, why should I obey these rules? Any theory that cannot give a good answer to this question cannot provide a basis for society’s morals.

Materialism can only give three possible answers to the question “Why should I be morally good?” The possible answers are: “There is no reason; you just should,” or “Because a human authority says so,” or “In order for there to be good consequences.

Answer # 1 is obviously inadequate. Answer # 2 ultimately means that morality is whatever the strongest party says it is, which we recognize intuitively to be incorrect. And answer # 3 is no answer at all until we agree on which consequences are good, which means that it does not answer the question. For example, if you say “Thou shalt not murder because murder is bad for society,” what do you say to the person who says “I don’t care about society”? All the materialist can say is “You just should,” which is not an answer.

Materialists like to say that morality evolved. But this explains nothing. That we should obey the moral law cannot come into existence by evolution, because a moral imperative is a non-physical thing, and non-physical things cannot come into existence by physical evolution.

Morality only works if it proceeds from an authority. And if this authority is not man, it can only be God, which is impossible under materialism. Therefore materialism ultimately means that human might makes right. Since there can be benevolent despotism, this system sometimes works, for a while. But normal people generally do not respect a morality that is purely a human convention.

The philosophical problem of free will is not one I have fully worked out to my satisfaction. I just observe that man obviously does have free will in the normal sense of the word: he can choose what he will do. Saying that man’s actions are, in some ultimate sense, determined by impersonal natural law is, it seems to me, unnecessary at best and false at worst. Morality deals with the practical, and man has practical free will.

7-Do you think that consciousness (subjectivity, mental phenomena, rationality, qualia) is compatible with materialism, physicalism and naturalism?

Certainly not, as discussed in my answer to question 5.

8-Dawkins has developed an argument for atheism that some consider a masterpiece of atheist thinking. Roughly, the argument says that God cannot be the explanation of the complexity of the universe, because postulating such designer immediately raises the larger the question of "Who designed the designer". And in addition, Darwinian theory of evolution explains the appearance of design in the world, so we have a powerful reason to think that God almost certainly doesn't exist.

Dawkins’s argument is the little brother of a classical argument against God: “If God made the universe, then who made God?” To be more precise, this argument attempts to rebut any argument for God based on the idea that the universe requires a creator. This rebuttal is invalid, however, because we do not claim that everything requires a creator. Only things that have not always existed or, at a more sophisticated level, things that exist only contingently, require a creator. Since we have no evidence that God came into existence, or that His existence is contingent, God does not require a creator. There must, in fact, be something that is eternal because otherwise, if everything came into being, then there would have been a time when absolutely nothing existed. But it is impossible for anything to arise out of nothing. So if anything exists, something is eternal. This rebuts the atheist’s rebuttal.

(One can make a similar but more sophisticated argument that it is impossible for everything to exist only contingently, in which case there must be something whose existence is necessary.)
The same rebuttal applies to Dawkins’s argument. Only something that came into existence requires a designer. “Designer,” in fact, is pretty much the same as “creator.” Since God did not come into existence, He requires no designer.

As for Darwinism explaining the appearance of design, it only does so if Darwinism is a true description of the development of life. If the Darwinian mechanism cannot produce all of the appearance of design that we see around us, then it does not explain (i.e., account for) life. If the process to which Darwinism refers is actually capable of explaining all of life, then this is indeed powerful (but not decisive) evidence against God. But if it is not, then the challenge to theism fails. And I would say that Darwinism’s mechanism cannot account for all of life, as I argue here.

9-Perhaps the strongest argument for atheism and against Christian theism is the "problem of evil". This argument says that if God is all-powerful and all-good, he wouldn't allow the existence of evils and unnecessary suffering in the world. However, it's a fact that evils and unnecessary suffering exists; therefore God doesn't exist. Do you think it's a good argument for atheism?

The problem of evil, as an argument against God, is emotionally strong but philosophically and theologically weak. Stripped down to its essence, the argument runs like this:

Major Premise: If God exists, bad does not exist

Minor Premise: Bad exists

Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.

The major premise is usually stated in the way you said it: “God, if He existed, would be all-powerful and all-good.” But “all powerful,” as theists define it, does not mean “capable of doing anything.” It means “capable of doing anything that can be done, and that does not violate God’s nature.” And “all-good” does not mean “only doing what atheists judge to be good.”

Seen in this light, this argument against God is obviously not valid. God is not required only to do or permit things of which atheists (or other people) approve.

10-Another argument by atheists is methodological. It says that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", so claiming the existence of a supernatural being requires an extraordinary burden of proof that no theist has ever met.

This is another example of sloppy thinking. First, how do you know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? And how do you identify a claim or evidence as being “extraordinary?” The principle “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is just an ad hoc assertion that has no authority, and a very vague assertion at that. We judge every claim, extraordinary or not, by clarifying what the claim is, and then gathering and examining the evidence. The claim that God exists is more difficult to judge than more mundane matters, but it does not differ in kind from other claims.

The atheist’s real problem, as discussed above, is that usually he arbitrarily declares that the evidence for God is invalid because it is inconsistent with his philosophical materialism.

11-As a rule, atheistic materialists consider themselves scientific empiricists. They argue that the empirical scientific method is the only way we can know the real world. And that method doesn't provide any evidence at all for God's existence. So it's likely that God doesn't exist. What do you think about this argument?

This is circular reasoning. Science only deals with the material world, and so any non-material reality would be known in non-scientific ways, although science could shed light on miracles that involve the material world. The atheist’s argument here is like a blind man declaring that sight does not occur because he never sees anything. People who talk this way are simply assuming (not proving by examining the evidence) that the non-material does not exist, and then claiming that they never see evidence for it.

And note that my example says sight does not occur. A blind man can detect light, because it is detectable with scientific instruments that he can use. But what the blind man cannot experience is sight, which is a phenomenon of the mind.

12-In your opinion, which are the best arguments for the existence of God?

Arguments for God are highly subjective in the sense that what one man finds utterly compelling another finds worthless. I think that some arguments should compel people to believe, but belief does have a subjective element. So before we talk about proving God, we would have to consider the criteria we use to judge whether God exists. As I indicated above, most atheists decide the issue before they examine the evidence, by assuming a worldview in which no god is possible.
We also have to confront the issue of proving that some sort of god exists versus proving that it is the God of the Bible. Proving the latter is more complicated than proving former, and I will restrict myself mostly to the former.

Having said that, the basic argument for God is that some facts of reality that we experience every day and that are undeniable real cannot be accounted for unless God exists. Life, for example, is so common that we take its existence for granted, but life cannot originate out of non-life without supernatural, personal, intelligent intervention. And since consciousness is non-physical, it must have originated non-physically, by deliberate intelligent design.
Similarly, the existence of objective, dependable rules of logic, mathematics, science and morality cannot be accounted for out of mere matter. These things seem so obvious that many people take them for granted as necessary features of reality, but it turns out to be impossible for these to exist unless there is a supernatural intelligent being.

13-Recently, Christian philosopher James Spiegel published a book entitled "The Making of an atheist", where he considers some evidence that suggests that atheism is, ultimately, rooted on sin and rebellion as indicated by Apostle Paul in Romans 1. In your experience with atheists, do you think Spiegel's hypothesis has some plausibility?

As a Christian, and therefore one who acknowledges the authority of the Bible, I believe Spiegel is correct. But we also can support this non-biblically. I observe that atheists who go to the trouble of trying to evangelize for their faith are like liberals and leftists generally: they talk about spreading peace and love but they often become personally vicious when opposed. Of course theists can be vicious too, but I see much more viciousness among the evangelical atheists. And people who are radically disobeying the commands of God (and some residual knowledge of these commands remains even among atheists) have an obvious motivation to deny God: they want to convince themselves that they do not face His wrath.

14-From a Christian philosophical perspective, the best anti-atheist books that I've read are Peter Williams' "A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism"; John Lennox's "God's Undertaker" and Edward Feser's "Aquinas". All of these are books critical of atheism (and in the case of Feser's book, a solid contemporary defense of Aquinas' classical theism) by trained and sophisticated philosophers. What books or literature would you recommend to the atheists, agnostics and theists reading this interview?

As I said above, proofs of God are highly subjective in the sense that different people are moved by entirely different lines of reasoning. Also, I’m most interested in arguments which are appealing to the man in the street, not just professional intellectuals. I find that good, direct arguments for God are usually hidden, either behind professional jargon or else in obscure blogs, lectures, or some such. It’s as if we still need the book “The Idiot’s Guide to Proving God.”

That being said, I can report on some sources that have been useful to me. “Reasonable Faith” by William Lane Craig and “Scaling the Secular City” by J. P. Moreland give comprehensive but accessible arguments for theism and Christianity using philosophy, science and history.

Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Midair” by Gregory Koukl and Francis Beckwith demonstrates how moral relativism is false, and how this requires there to be a God. Edward Feser’s “The Last Superstition,” a response to the New Atheists, shows how a professional philosopher, using classical philosophy, demonstrates God. Phillip E. Johnson’s writings, especially “Darwin on Trial” and “Reason in the Balance” demonstrate at a fundamental level the weakness of Darwinism and, indirectly, materialism. And C.S Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” is a unique source for many lines of reasoning arguing for God and Christianity.

15-In my blog, I deal a lot with scientific evidence for paranormal phenomena tested in laboratories (like telepathy, psychokinesis, remote viewing, etc.) and afterlife research (near-death experiences and mediumship research, for example). What do you think of these controversial fields? Do you think these phenomena, provided they exist, offer evidence against naturalism and in favor of God's existence (or at least, of some spiritual and transcendental dimension)?

I haven’t studied these fields and therefore cannot make an informed evaluation here. But I would say that if God exists, He intervenes from time to time in the physical world, and these interventions could be studied, at least in their physical manifestations, by science. If nothing else, this research can establish that paranormal phenomena sometimes do occur, which is valid evidence for a supernatural realm.

16-Something else you'd like to add to end this interview?

First, thank you Jime for giving me the opportunity to discuss these important questions at your blog.

I’d like to conclude by emphasizing the importance of the question of God’s existence at two levels: the social and the personal.

At the social level, we see that Western Civilization currently bases its sociopolitical order on practical atheism, i.e. either denying God’s existence or else relegating Him to the realm of private opinion. Either way, public policy is based on a denial of God. Liberals and leftists are busy overturning the traditional order because they believe that man, not God, is the supreme being. Therefore an essential part of resisting the Left is to reestablish a robust and widespread belief in God and His authority.

And now for the personal level:

If you, the reader of this blog, are undecided on the question of God’s existence, ask yourself some fundamental questions:

Which side in this dispute shows more confidence in their beliefs, as manifested by their being willing to engage in intellectual discourse rather than name-calling? Which side is genuinely willing to examine the evidence, rather than declaring that it is not valid because it violates their rules for thought? And how much do I really know about the reasoning each side uses?

The question of God’s existence is question number one. Everything else is influenced by your answer to this question, so you had better be as sure as possible of your answer. If you examine the evidence I believe you will see that theists make a much better case, and that the atheists’ case is mostly one of refusing to grant the validity of evidence that is actually valid.

But belief that God exists is not enough. If God exists, you need to know something Him, and this can only be possible if He has communicated with man in a way man can understand. This communication is called, of course, revelation. Many religions claim to have received revelations from God, but only one of them has two features that everyone needs: actual evidence and reasoning that validate this Revelation, and a solution to the problem that we all know that we have. That religion is Christianity.

This isn’t the place for the details. To know what Christianity teaches, I recommend the Heidelberg Catechism, or the Westminster Catechism, with its justly famous opening “Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” And for an intellectual defense of Christianity, I recommend beginning with the books of Craig and Moreland mentioned in my answer to question #14 above. But the bottom line is that only Christianity correctly identifies man’s problem—sin—and provides the solution: repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of that sin. And that’s good news.

Links of interest:

-Alan Roebuck's articles on atheism (see this and this)

-My post on William lance Craig's examination of Richard Dawkins' main argument against God.

-My post on Thomas Nagel on atheism and the cosmic authority problem.

-Naturalist philosopher David MacArthur's paper entitled "Naturalism and Skepticism" (which demostrates that naturalism is a source of philosophical skepticism)

-Naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg's article on the moral and intellectual implications of naturalism.