This Idea Must Die
The Atheist Prerequisite
Getting worked up over nothing…
It’s been known to happen that we inherit assumptions from our predecessors that in time become outdated by new findings without being called upon it. We don’t do it intentionally, but at the same time it is hard to constantly cycle through what you believe and beat the sh$t out of it. So it happens that once in a blue moon someone stumbles upon an outdated notion and clearly shows why its wide popularity is unjustified and actually how holding on to such a notion is blocking mental progress in certain other areas. And though there might be some people that part with the notion more grudgingly then others you recognize such ideas when their dismissal is less controversial then they are surprising.
I’m sure wild animals, for example, were perfectly disposable before we discovered how they are actually integrated with ourselves in fragile ecosystems. I’m equally sure it took a long time after we’d agreed that exterminating species was a bad thing before someone came to the conclusion that using abusing and mistreating animals as we were still used to, was in fact a backward idea that had to go.
Still such ideas are rare since usually we can integrate new findings and adapt wrong ideas without needing a watershed moment to align things. What ‘ideas that must die’ are not is someone’s defendable but probably unsupported disagreement with some broader consensus. You can argue that ‘Evolution’ is an idea that must die, until you are blue in the face, you are still wrong , you are not refuting the evidence and until you do we are not listening, now be nice and go play! What is also not acceptable is bring a hypothesis to the table that was mentioned before and found currently lacking in evidence and present it as the new kid on the block pushing out the status quo that holds the most cards still.
So I was a little disappointed when the Freakonomics podcast of WNYC did a piece on John Brockman’s book from 2014 where the contributors got to present their ‘Ideas that got to die’ in person. For instance the first contribution was a quantum physicist that proposed we’d abandon the notion of ‘the universe’ for that of an eternal ‘multiverse’. Well that’s fine. Except that this is neither a novel watershed idea nor one that can currently be supported by evidence. I personally believe it to be a plausible and very attractive idea that solves philosophical questions as ‘what came before time began’ and the initial cause to everything (replacing it with ‘eternity’). But it is not proven and will be hard to prove for the foreseeable future. You can’t kill ideas and replace them with ‘plausible’. Furthermore it was not shown that ‘the Universe’ was holding back our thinking or doing harm in other ways. So ‘neh’!
Though none of the contributions were really worthy of the ‘this idea must die’-label, most did pretty ok. I wouldn’t buy the book. They are still mostly well argued positions or criticism that, never the less, do not seem to break down any walls of any box we were ostensibly thinking inside of. Honorable mentions go to Alan Alda (yes the actor) for questioning whether any idea must actually really die. And also for contributing an unobvious subtlety where scientific results are too often presented as true or false without qualifying parameters. Which results in public skepticism when the new results are different and get qualified under other parameters. The example of the “glass of Red Wine” and the question of it being beneficial or not for one’s health is a good example of a poorly communicated result from science.
There was one other contribution still, that stood out from the others, more specifically in how exceptionally bad it was. How fluffy the tread and unscientific the argumentation. And though it has been criticized on other blogs it has gotten cudo’s on still others where, for some reason, it seems to have blown (presumably theists) minds.
The Atheist Prerequisite
Douglas Rushkoff (whom the contribution is from) is a professor media studies at Queen’s college CUNY. For more introduction: the man has written books, all of which can be consulted on his website (no link, google it if you must!). His contribution criticizes the alleged requirement for a scientist to assume only natural causes for things. Another atheist blog that attacked mr. Rushkoff justly refuted the entire notion saying that not only are there (amazingly enough) theist scientist that can unify their beliefs with their science, furthermore what you believe in is not questioned before you become a scientist. What you claim to be true in your work is, however. And if you wish to claim that ‘God did it’, you will need to back that up. But reading about the contribution of mr. Rushkoff in the book as well as listening over the podcast I’m not entirely sure that academic politics is really the main thing on mr. Rushkoff’s mind.
Rather the thing Rushkoff is ostensibly most concerned about is a meaning to life and some form of reverence for the human consciousness. Us atheists usually consider life to generate its own meaning, it’s own purpose. It is a relative purpose, a purpose for each of us, that needn’t be the same for another. It seems that for Rushkoff there is a meaning to life in an absolute sense, and though he tries to make this independent of the God-hypothesis, I’m not sure he can or even how he could. If there is a meaning, a purpose, to our lives in an absolute sense I fail to see how this can exist outside a meaning/purpose-giver. Can a wave leave the water? And thus I feel that instead of attacking academic bias Rushkoff is actually defending the God-hypothesis in a roundabout way. But I will let you judge for yourselves.
“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose.”
The complex interaction of reality certainly illicit wonderment whenever we take a step back. “Strange” however suggests ‘unknowns’ or even ‘unknowables’ which are not things we can intuitively ‘suspect’ as Rushkoff claims. It takes a lot of study to find things we cannot know more about. If for instance we come to learn that the proposition of a multiverse is untestable, thus unknowable, this is neither intuitive or ‘strange’. It is a limitation we ‘learn’, ‘get to know’ and learn to accept, much like the limit of light-speed. For the second part, whether we feel we have purpose or not is proof of nothing. In fact the all-too-common mid-life-crisis is usually accompanied by emotions of failure and a wasted life, such that, if life is to have a purpose in an absolute sense, it seems that most of that purpose is not achieved. History is full of lives that ‘just were’. Neither very pleasant or very remarkable and ending often in bitterness and dread. What was the purpose of these lives then?
“At the very least, this means our experience and expectations of life can no longer be dismissed as impediments to proper observation and analysis.”
Here Rushkoff goes on to postulate that this subjective ‘feeling/experience of purpose’ can be taken into account as indications of reality, as evidence, yet this is a complete non-sequitur. He didn’t show anything close to proving that subjective feelings are anything but ‘impediments to proper analysis and understanding’. In fact it is a syllogism with only 1 premise: ‘most of us feel a sense of purpose’, followed shortly by the conclusion: ‘therefore our personal experiences are relevant elements for analysis’.
After this critique that science doesn’t take the sense of purpose into account Rushkoff goes on a quest against the materialistic focus of science.
“But science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of space-time, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a byproduct of the big bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a byproduct of matter.” Here Rushkoff presents what science does while it should be ‘validating the purpose to our lives we all feel’: it follows materialism. But materialism is not the anti-thesis of ‘purpose-thinking’ nor does it ‘predict’ that Time began at the Big Bang or whether Time is itself eternal. Time is one of those things we are ignorant about. Ignorant, not biased. And while Rushkoff is correct that science’ materialism places the origins for human consciousness squarely in matter, Rushkoff does not provide any indication as to why we should think it has alternative origins.
What he does provide is a rant about how materialism is clearly part of a scientism/mythology given that the science ‘narrative’ follows so clearly the story structure of ‘other fairytales’. From the podcast(though much the same is in the book):
“And when I started to realize that much of science’s insistence on atheism was suspect was when I start hearing these folks talk about the “Singularity.” They have a narrative for how consciousness develops, that information itself was striving for higher states of complexity.”
“And that’s when I realized, oh, they’ve created their equally mythological story for what’s happening with a beginning, a middle and an end, which is just as archaic, just as arbitrary as any of the religious narratives out there.”
From the book again: “Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the singularity, and robot consciousness—a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of Biblical prophecy.”
Here Rushkoff suggests that there is a consensus narrative within science that anthropomorphizes ‘Information’ (and not by way of a metaphor) that is on a quest towards complexity. But there is no such consensus and a fortiori it is not something that follows from materialism. The technological singularity (which I gather he is talking about) is an extrapolation from the present. It is an unscientific prediction of the future based on the trends in artificial intelligence and the rapprochement between man and technology. It is not a consensus nor inevitable. But it is possible and consistent. And if it is apocalyptic, well there are countless other realistic apocalyptic scenarios that match it. After all it is not unreasonable if you play all lottery tickets all-the-time to assume that one day you’ll ‘win the farm’. We will not be here forever. Life itself may not even be eternal.
With regard to the narrative structure of the high-level cosmological history resembling that of faily-tales. Perhaps this is because we copied the self-similar fractal of beginning-middle-end, that is found throughout reality from the level of the individual to the level of the universe, onto those fairy-tales and not vise-versa. In any case, the similarity with an emplotted story is an argument towards a claim being false but it is not a sufficient argument to debunk it.
“You know, if there was something here before the Big Bang, then the story that science is trying to tell doesn’t really work.”
Actually not only did we for the longest time believe the universe was forever unchanging (until Einstein proved otherwise), we have since been struggling with the notion of it having a beginning as suggested by the findings of the Hubble space telescope. Lawrence Kraus’ “Universe From Nothing” for example is a valiant attempt to solve the problem on ultimate cause for everything, yet it is not proven nor easy digestible. Meanwhile Rushkoff is moving an uncaused-cause back beyond the Big Bang without providing any substantiation for it, all the while claiming the ‘science-story’ doesn’t work.
“It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.”
Indeed it certainly seems easier to believe Time predates matter (superficially at least). Unless you define “Time” in function of ‘Change taking place’, because then, without matter, what would be changing? Can you define a forest without trees? Also what does it mean for Time to ‘predate’ anything? To predate is a orientation in Time; Are there two dimensions of Time then? Doesn’t this just shift the problem? In what way is it then possible to rationally discuss the ‘moment Time began’ whilst also avoiding the paradox of Time existing before Time? It is like opening a box and taking it out of itself. In any case, in no way does this support or even suggest the existence of some form of pre-existing immaterial consciousness. Rushkoff just ‘wills’ this into existence. And while Rushkoff in the first paragraph of his contribution claims it doesn’t take believe in a God to accept all this, I really wonder what else one should call an immaterial, purpose-giving consciousness that predates everything, other then ‘GAWD!’. Just as ‘creation science’ is just backdoor-creationism, I venture to say that Rushkoff’s “secular eternal consciousness” is nothing but “backdoor-theism” sneaked into a science book.
“By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.” The ‘novelty’ of human consciousness is indeed something that still eludes us somewhat. But it is like describing all rational numbers between 1 and 10. It is simultaneously endless as well as not unbound. Likewise consciousness is limited by physics, as can be demonstrated by drugs that manipulate it in predictable ways. There is no God-essence to human consciousness that is being stiffened by an “Atheist Prerequisite”. There is no indication, not even anecdotal evidence, that consciousness is trans-material in nature, let alone, trans-humanoid or even eternal. And in order for it to have purpose, a meaning or a reason for being, in an absolute sense, that requires an external purpose-giver, a God. Ergo the supposed “Atheist Prerequisite” is just a blockage for the installation of a God-Prerequisite and that is exactly why it ‘must die’. Still after all this, I can’t escape the impression that Rushkoff is less interested in rescuing God than illuminating something divine he has found within himself. A personal theology perhaps, but not far removed from what your basic reformed Baptist believes. How arrogant of us atheists to demand that extraordinary evidence would accompany extraordinary claims, right?
“ I don’t know if there’s a god or not. I don’t know if there’s meaning or not. But what I’m saying is that atheism can’t be a prerequisite for the scientific model, because if you are forcing yourself to strip meaning from reality in order to cope with it, in order to explore it and observe it, then you’re tying your hands behind your back, and you’re missing a huge potential portion of the picture.”
Again there is nothing unscientific about claiming God exists and saying he is the ultimate cause. In fact the entire distance between science and religion exists because theists believes can’t be separated from the reality scientists study. It is not a ‘personal truth’. If there is a God there is one in everyone’s reality simultaneously. In fact, like many atheists I would love the existence of God. How cool it would be to negotiate your way around the fundamental limitations of physics: faster than light?: two hail mary’s; return in time?: four ‘our fathers’; find out who killed JFK?: dance with the Devil! In a godless universe you are really a lot more locked in.
The only problem is that we were much more able to predict the outcome of situations without the God-hypothesis than with. Science can’t deal with the internal contradiction that theism is rife with. It seeks consistency. Atheists just take the lack of evidence and all indications for humans story-propensity and make conclusions that, frankly, scientists would not ascend to (or dare ascend to). So the atheist-‘bias’ science is supposed to have is not an idea that must die. It is an idea which never existed! What is NOT an idea that must die however, is that you must support what you claim and correctly use logic to extrapolate conclusions. It seems to me that this professor has some trouble with that. Come back after summer, do not pass ‘GO’!