Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Question for Atheists

If only the natural world exists, then how did belief in the supernatural evolve?


Anonymous said...

Because humans are primates who can't believe all this neat stuff is just lying around without some alpha male owning it all.

(originally said by Robert Anton Wilson, if I remember correctly)

Lee Shelton said...

OK, but why a supernatural alpha male?

Brian Seitzman said...

Ignorance. Nothing in the material world precludes being wrong.

Lee Shelton said...

That doesn't answer anything because you would have to explain how ignorance evolved. And if you are correct in saying that "nothing in the material world precludes being wrong," then the same could be said of your own beliefs -- especially since you're outnumbered by about 9 to 1.

How can the natural give rise to a belief in the supernatural? From a purely materialistic standpoint it doesn't make sense.

Ian said...

The qualitative distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" is a modern construct.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived a few thousand years ago. How do you explain the sun moving across the sky? How do you explain the storm rushing across the savannah? In the terms you understand. You are able to manipulate and order your own world to some extent. Since you can only work with what you know, you'd probably conclude that just as you can manipulate objects around you, a much bigger "person" could manipulate the sun and the moon and the seasons.

So who is this person? You were probably raised by parents - a father, the protector, a mother, the nurturer. You probably live in a patriarchal band, where the chief serves as "father" to the band. You may know that some wild animals work the same way - the lion protecting its pride. So, working from what you know, you conclude that the world itself is organised by someone like you, only bigger. The question of how people came to imagine Gods and Goddesses is totally distinct from the question of whether they exist or not.

The distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism comes much later. It's only when people realise that some things can be explained naturally that you have the idea that some things can't be. When the hurricane turns and avoids your city, people attribute it to the hand of God, even if there's some good meteorological explanation. When the raindrop doesn't your head, most people don't attribute that to God, they attribute it to the roof they worked 40 hours a week to pay for. From a theological perspective, it's reasonable to thank God for both the raindrop and the hurricane avoiding you. Because most people understand the mechanism of how the former works but not the latter, they are likely to attribute supernatural causation to the latter.

Brian Seitzman said...

Ignorance is not knowing something. That doesn't have to "evolve." It isn't biological; ignorance isn't a living thing, simply an absence of knowledge. It makes no more sense that ignorance has to evolve than it does to maintain that there not being unicorns had to evolve.

How many people believe a thing has nothing at all to do with whether the thing is true, so even if it were a fact that 9 times more people believed in an idea contrary to the one in which the other 10% believed, it has no bearing on the validity of that idea. Vast majorities have believed in nonsense throughout history. Lots of people thought that a "pocketful of posies" would keep them safe from the bubonic plague at one time, too. Reality dealt that majority a harsh blow despite their numbers. Knowledge is measured by conformity with the real, empirical world, not by how many people agree with it. The majority of people today couldn't tell you the number or names of kinases involved in an immune response, either. They still exist and work just fine.

Ignorance is not supernatural, and your question wasn't how the supernatural comes to be but how belief in the supernatural comes to be. There's nothing supernatural about not knowing how something works. It's perfectly natural to be ignorant. Knowledge requires effort. From a "purely materialistic" viewpoint, that makes perfect sense. If you don't go get food, you'll starve. If you don't go get knowledge, you'll be ignorant and make up stories to explain things in the absence of fact. That's when the supernatural comes to be believed.

Anonymous said...

The things that we tend to call natural, for example, life, cannot be explained but by the supernatural!!
If I am wrong please correct me, but please present the facts.

Lee Shelton said...

Ian, I'm not talking about a belief in an "invisible man" that manipulates the world. Belief in the supernatural goes far beyond that.

I'm assuming you believe that nothing exists beyond the natural/material world. If that's true, then man has only the natural/material world from which to learn. He has only his five senses at his disposal through which he can obtain knowledge. Can mere ignorance explain how man has evolved (or devolved) to a point where he is willing to believe in something that isn't confined to the natural/material world? My point is that such a notion is impossible given a purely natural/material world. If a natural/material world is all we can possibly know, then no human is capable of believing otherwise.

Lee Shelton said...

Mike, what do you mean that the number of people holding a particular belief has nothing at all to do with whether it's true or not? From a purely naturalistic perspective, it makes perfect sense. If around 90% of people believe in the supernatural, then those who don't must be an aberration.

Brian Seitzman said...

OK, Lee, now you're demonstrating a willful ignorance.

What I mean is that people being wrong about things has nothing to do with the number of people being wrong. What part of this are you not understanding?

When people are unaware of facts, they substitute things they make up. Some of those things make recourse to the supernatural because they are unaware of nature.

For example, if an entire civilization believes that the sun is pulled across the sky by a chariot because they don't know about gravity, the nature of space, or the nature of the sun, they're wrong. The sun isn't pulled across the sky by a chariot; how many people believe otherwise is inconsequential.

Whether or not something is an "aberration" is a value judgment and not part of naturalism, whether methodological or philosophical, at all. "Aberration" means that a thing is flawed in some way; this requires come value judgment to be made in comparison to something else (in your case, an a priori belief system that demands that there is a valid quality called "supernatural.") My knowledge of the empirical nature of how the sun appears to move across the sky is only "aberrant" t someone who demands otherwise as an article of belief, which itself is not part of a naturalistic approach.

When an idea is in conformity with empirical fact, the idea is correct. When it is not, the idea is incorrect. When one thinks that one's idea is correct because one doesn't know the facts that contradict it, that's ignorance. When one continues to cling to an erroneous belief despite having knowledge of the facts (e.g., someone who continues to believe in the sun-chariot hypothesis), that's stupidity. When ignorance or stupidity rely on the idea that there aqre things which cannot be detected by material means despite the assertion that these same things can affect the material world, that's belief in the supernatural.

Again, I have answered your original question in spades. Belief in the supernatural proceeds from ignorance. You don't like that answer, of course, so you're trying now to equivocate your way out of it by redefining naturalism. That's your choice, of course, but only people who already agree with your insistence on the supernatural (like Scot, who wants me to explain all of organic chemistry, biochemistry and biology to him when he's never been curious or intellectually honest enough to learn these things for himself in the first place) are going to agree with you.

Ian said...

I'm not talking about a belief in an "invisible man" that manipulates the world. Belief in the supernatural goes far beyond that.
You asked for a suggestion of how belief in the supernatural could have evolved in a purely natural world. It's possible to come up with naturalistic explanations for how the concept of supernaturalism in ancient or modern Christianity could have evolved...but (a) that wasn't what you had asked, and (b) the more specific you get, the more speculative you get. While specific just-so stories are fun to construct, they aren't terribly useful.

I'm assuming you believe that nothing exists beyond the natural/material world What's the fun in that? Not that it has bearing on a conversation about hypotheticals, I consider myself to be a Christian, though I realise that a lot of people would reject my use of that descriptor.

If that's true, then man has only the natural/material world from which to learn. He has only his five senses at his disposal through which he can obtain knowledge. Can mere ignorance explain how man has evolved (or devolved) to a point where he is willing to believe in something that isn't confined to the natural/material world?
I'm getting the impression that you misunderstood what I wrote.

To begin with, our obsession with "facts" and "reality" is a modern, Western, post-Enlightenment idea. Your question seems to pre-suppose that sort of a mindset. And even therein, the scenario you present is a caricature. No one limits themselves to careful measurement and calculation. We all depend on intuition, on emotion, on all sorts of fuzzy ways of obtaining knowledge. Kekulé claimed that the structure of benzene came to him in a dream. There are lots of ways on "knowing" that don't depend on measurable quantities (like love, or the appreciation of art) but I don't think you are suggesting that "art" could only have come into existence unless art existed in a reality that was independent of the workings of the mind.

My point is that such a notion is impossible given a purely natural/material world. If a natural/material world is all we can possibly know, then no human is capable of believing otherwise.
It's only impossible if you define "possibility" so narrowly that it leaves out a huge swath of material reality. It isn't impossible, it's eminently possible.

If we assume that nothing but the natural world exists, that doesn't mean that everyone in that world employs methodological naturalism. The scientific method is a modern invention, an attempt to design a self-correcting tool for collecting knowledge about the world. I see no reason to assume that something like that would be somehow inherent in us - the evidence suggests otherwise, that people are prone to work off instinct and intuition. And, quite frankly, are pretty good at it. We're also prone to confirmation bias. I don't think the existence of confirmation bias should be taken as evidence of the existence of God. But it's a great tool for building superstition. The existence of superstition isn't proof of the existence of God, but it's a great tool for inventing unseen beings. The existence of belief in unseen beings isn't evidence of God, but isn't a great tool for inventing a God.

None of this has anything to do with whether God exists or not. But it's pretty easy to see that the idea of God, that belief in God, isn't in and of itself evidence that proves the existence of God.

Anonymous said...


Human sees the natural world. Human feels alone. Human seeks out other humans. But things happen in human's world. Rain falls. Sun shines. Snow is cold but insulates well. Why does this happen? Surely human is not alone. Human is protected by greater thing that makes rain fall and sun shine.

Progressively modernize it, slap a few labels on things like the greater being and the people who follow that idea, get said followers in governmental power, and hey presto.

It doesn't matter WHAT religion you apply it to, it is all the same. For instance, my "religion" (although I ascribe to it as a philosophy, no more), Buddhism. Buddhism evolved because some human thought about it long enough and came to the conclusion that there was no greater being, that the greater being was within himself and everyone, and therefore we have never been alone.

It's all about being alone. You cling desperately to your interpretation of the supernatural because it makes you feel safe, comforted, loved. You as in "all humans", that is. Atheists interpret the supernatural as not being makes them feel safe. Do you see the pattern here? Do not feel threatened because I'm pointing out the desperate need of the religious to feel safe and loved by the supernatural...realize that is what you are and what you believe, and embrace it, because who could be RIGHT at the end of the road. I haven't shut the door on it...what I cling to as safe doesn't say I have to. :)

Anonymous said...

With all the philosophical jargon that is being discussed by Lee's opponents, my point is that belief in the supernatural, has been for centuries,nay millennia, the only RATIONAL way of understanding the COMING INTO BEING of the universe.
The reality of the question is not the existence of the natural order(the fact that it exists) or the laws that govern its functionality, that we all acknowledge. It is not even how beliefs evolved, because that certainly does not change the price of coffee. The real issue here (and has always been) is the ORIGIN of the natural order.
Now here are the facts:
(1) There is a material world
(2) There are laws that govern the material world which permit its continuity.
(3) Life forms do not evolve; they adapt to environmental changes, but they certainly do not evolve.

Those are the known facts, now what about the science. Well, I'm not an expert, but it goes something like this:
(1) There can be no effect unless there is a cause. The law of cause and effect necessitates that something so grand as the universe, and something so complex as life cannot just happen without something or Someone making it happen.
(2) Laws demand a Lawgiver
(3)the whole of creation stands in contradiction to the theory of evolution.

Now, as I said, the real issue that was taken up by the founder of your belief system, Darwin, was the ORIGIN of the species, and not the BEING of such, and any supposition concerning the origin of our existence must logically be SUPERNATURAL because whatever you believe about the coming into being of all things as we know them, you do not believe that they came about through NATURAL processes.
A big bang 000 000 000 000? years ago cannot be defined as something that is natural.

Evolution has been proven for quite some time to be irrational, therefore like Christianity and any form of theism evolution is a religion and its proponents must have faith in what they cannot see (nothing evolves now).

Relativism. I would not even waste the time or space to refute such absurdities.

Supernatural/belief in the supernatural

The evidence seems to weigh HEAVILY on our side.

Lee Shelton said...

An ignorant person might conclude, "Objects move when pulled with a rope tied to a chariot. Therefore, the sun must be pulled by a chariot." There is nothing inherently supernatural about that belief, just as there is nothing inherently supernatural about a belief in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. It's possible for a person to reach such conclusions simply by applying what he knows about the natural world around him.

The belief in the supernatural I'm talking about goes beyond all of that. We now understand things like gravity and physics, and have witnessed numerous missions into outer space, yet belief in the supernatural continues -- for example, a belief in a God who isn't bound by, and cannot be explained by, the natural world. And for most people, the more they learn about the universe only serves to strengthen that belief. Could it possibly be that we are simply hard-wired to believe in the supernatural?

Lee Shelton said...

Anti - Ethnocentric, if this need for God stems from our fear of being alone, why do you think that is? Why would we evolve to believe in something that cannot possibly be explained by the natural world?

Lee Shelton said...

Scot's right. Go back far enough and eventually every natural or material explanation breaks down.

Chris Wilde said...

I haven't responded, because I don't consider myself an atheist. But, Lee and Scot, the atheists here are making better arguments. Lee, you are responding to some very well-presented reasoning with no real counterpoint. You're just dodging the argument by asking more questions. Scot, you are claiming "facts" where there are none. You don't make facts just by saying so. This is like watching a fight between wolves and a couple yapping terriers who don't even know how outclassed they are in the fight. I think it would be better for both of you just to acknowledge that, at its root, your faith is not rational. Call it the grace of God that you believe, or whatever you like, but don't pretend you've reasoned your way to Christianity. You have accepted the Gospel by faith because you can't abide the prospect of believing something different. Though your "reasoning" may seem very solid to you, that's just because you're looking at it in reverse from preconceived convictions.

Anonymous said...

Chris, to argue against facts when they stare you in the face is to shut your eyes to reality, and that is where fantasies and illusions arise.
Paul's argument in Romans 1 far outclasses any argument that anyone might conjure. And it is simply this: A created order demands a Creator. There is no logic that can outclass such a powerful argument.

Anonymous said...

...Not only does a created order demand a Creator, but it is the most conclusive evidence that there is.

Lee Shelton said...

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not as edjumacated as most atheists. I haven't taken a philosophy course, I've never read The Origin of Species, and I'm fairly certain I've never read a biography on Kekulé. I simply asked a question. It is one seldom addressed by atheists, so I was curious to see how they would answer. (By the way, anytime you see the word atheist, feel free to read "agnostic" or "deist" or any combination of the two into that.)

Let me restate my original question: If only the natural world exists, then how did belief in the supernatural evolve? "Ignorance" was the best answer y'all could come up with.

Now, even I know that ignorance is nothing more than the absence of knowledge, but you atheists are the ones talking about it as if it's the active cause of the formation of nonsensical and otherwise irrational beliefs. You are essentially saying that ignorance causes people to fill in their knowledge gaps with a belief in the supernatural, and that those who believe in the supernatural (i.e. God) just aren't using the sense nature gave them. About the best explanation you can come up with for this ignorance is that it's a coping mechanism.But to say that ignorance explains mankind's belief in the supernatural just doesn't cut it with me. Mike O'Risal stated emphatically, "Belief in the supernatural proceeds from ignorance." He knows that to be true. I could just as easily say that non-belief in the supernatural proceeds from ignorance.

Just in case there is any confusion regarding my position, let me lay it out for you: I don't see how, from a naturalistic/materialistic perspective, that we can reach a belief in the supernatural unless we were designed that way. If we are bound by the material universe, we could no more imagine something beyond that material universe than one who has been blind from birth could imagine the color green. There is no evolutionary explanation for the fact that our minds are able to contemplate and reason things beyond our own temporal existence. We are the only species with that capability, so I would think evolutionists might at least view a belief in the supernatural as a bold step in the evolutionary process. But no. It's seen as an evolutionary throwback at best, an undesirable mutation at worst.

Lee Shelton said...

Chris, I'm not arguing that I have reasoned my way to Christianity. Reason only opens us up to God's general revelation, which, as you have noted before, might get one to some sort of deism. Only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes. The faith I have "is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

As for having preconceived convictions, I must confess that I'm guilty as charged. Every single one of us reasons based on our preconceived convictions. There is absolutely no way around that fact.

Anonymous said...

belief does not exist in an atheistic worldview, only the chemicals in the brain give the perception of belief, with a different combination of chemicals a different perception would exist.

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