Shelley, Atheism, Life and Afterlife

RE: This...


There are many things about these three essays that amuse me. The first is that this is claimed to be philosophy but is actually polemic. Shelley starts to try to deconstruct the problem into clear and fundamental ideas but, in each of the three segments, devolves into arguments about how society functions relative to these ideas and how that's bad. Nothing wrong with that but it makes a substantial part of the essay mere opinion and disagreement and, thereby, not so useful.

One thing I like, though, is his distinction between "creative god" and "theological god". This is a dichotomy that serves as a foundation in my own view on the matter, though I call the former "an independent, willful entity that can violate the laws of physics" and the latter, "cultural god". I believe that the latter is a real and important thing. The former, pure fantasy.

Even though, however, that last assertion suggests atheism, I do not include myself among people with that view. I define atheism as an assertion that the non-existence of god is a fact. A fact being something known for certain, eg, something like the fact of gravity pulling toward the center of the earth. No one who is not insane can doubt the reality of gravity on earth. I do not think it reasonable to claim the same certainty for the non-existence of god. Further, facts can be tested. The existence of god cannot.

I claim to be an agnostic. This word is used in several ways but, for me, it means that I believe that the existence of god, positive or negative, is by definition beyond the ability of humans to determine. It is my view that certainty of god's non-existence is every bit as ridiculous as certainty that it exists. The reason is that god, I'll use the shorthand, creative god, is a thing that can generate the entirety of reality. To do this, it must somehow be outside that reality (a creator that creates itself is too goofy for me to credit). A thing that is outside of reality is, in my view, outside our ability to perceive or correctly reason about.

That said, I am extremely skeptical of the existence of a creative god. I agree with Shelley's assertion that postulating a creator merely complicates the problem without answering anything. Where did god come from? If it has knowledge of creating a universe, does it create new ones every day? If not, what caused it to create this one? And, crucially, what caused the inspiration to do that, ie, what created the inspiration to create is no less a question than what created god or what created reality. None is any more satisfying than science or mystery.

He does pique a little interest in his opening evaluation of what causes "belief" though I think it would be more accurate if he had set up a structure distinguishing the ideas of agreement, belief and faith, not least because he is using the word 'belief' in reference to ideas that I would call 'faith'. In my taxonomy, belief straddles the two others. I believe in gravity. My view is more than mere agreement with the arguments in its favor but is not the same as a Christian's belief in the virgin birth but not entirely different, either. Were anyone to try to convince me that gravity is not real, I would not even consider the proposition. My perspective is nearly faithful.

I spent eight years in dedicated Torah study, hours each week, with real interest. One of the topics that especially interested me was the comparison of Judaism with Christianity. I concluded that the most important difference is that Christianity wants faith and Judaism wants performance. Do the Mitzvot and you are a good Jew. Do Good Works without Faith, and a Christian still goes to hell. Because I am a scientist at heart, I have thought a great deal about faith and what it is.

One thing is for sure: I am incapable of it. The love of my wife or children? I believe it exists. There is enough evidence that it is impossible to convince me otherwise. Evidence to the contrary that I cannot explain is ignored. I believe they (and my dog) love me. Period. But the views do rest on evidence, lots of it for a long time.

Fear is a sensation generated by a lump of meat in your head, mostly the amygdala. That is the part that calculates the difference between your current mental state and your expectations and generates some level of alarming ideas based on the difference. There is another lump of meat, the anterior cingulate cortex, that does sort of the reverse. It compares your current state to expectations and generates calming ideas based on the similarities. (Note that I am not only simplifying the explanation to the point of stupidity but I also know almost nothing about neurological topics.) The yin and yang of these two lumps seem to me to be important in figuring out what you believe or disbelieve. (Where something else entirely seems to be involved in 'agreement'. I claim that agreement is basically arithmetic about a topic.)

It is less clear what governs faith but I have read of brain surgery where they stimulated part of the brain and the subject reported feeling religious. The hippocampus, prefrontal lobes and anterior cingulate cortex are mentioned in this context. To me, it seems fairly obvious that there is some lump of meat or system that generates the sensation that Christians report when they talk about their belief in Christ. It is one that, in me, is fairly diminutive. In others, big and juicy.

So, what does it all mean? 1) We can never know if there is a god or not as a matter of fact. 2) Shelley is right. The idea of god does not offer any answers that are useful in understanding reality. 3) Faith in god is an explainable mental state. If you think it is divine inspiration, see point number 2.