The Two Atheisms

Written by forrest : January 7, 2008

Two ancient human afflictions have become epidemic in the modern world. Both claim to be opposites, but share a common root: alienation from God.

Scientism has existed ever since some ancient Greek philosophers concluded that the real world consists only of “atoms and the void.” It became fashionable with the Enlightenment, but has only recently become a mass faith. It is now pervasive and its authority is assumed, so taken for granted as to be effectively invisible.

As a description of the physical world, how we can generally expect physical entities to behave, it works. There are big undecided questions, but nothing affecting what the water in your coffeepot will do when you plug it in.

Meanwhile everyone, whether they’ve thought about it or not, has experiences that transcend the materialist model of the universe. Experimenters like Rupert Sheldrake apply formally-correct scientific method to questions like: “Do people know when they’re being watched?” “Real” scientists, knowing that their model of the universe has no plausible mechanism for such experience, just as consistently fail to find it. But it’s a common element of human life. “Only subconscious intuitive interpretative mechanisms at work, only that and nothing more”–sure.

There are two basic kinds of problem-solving method: algorithms and heuristics. An algorithm is like your grade-school way of adding two numbers–Given sufficient time, pencils and ruled notebooks, it will in principle add up any two numbers correctly. But there are perfectly good algorithms that simply take too long, would need to use every atom in the universe for memory, simply aren’t practical for some particular problem. And then it’s appropriate to try “heuristics”–unsound methods that produce good possible answers, which you can then check.

The process of science is not an algorithm, but a heuristic. Cognitive science makes a heuristic assumption: that human consciousness is merely the phenomena we can observe about it–and thereby generates useful, quite likely true models of how that’s produced.

But then people start accepting that assumption as if it was the obvious, complete truth, the reality of “real” life. I don’t suppose that your average pizza delivery person falls into dispair because “Some professor has just proved that it’s all done with neurons; therefore I don’t (really) exist!” But that sort of thinking, at some level of acceptance, has reached everywhere. “They’ve found a center for religious experience in the brain (and therefore God must be merely something that center imagines!)”

We don’t normally expect to be thinking without neurons, any more than we’d normally expect to throw a ball without muscles or to see without eyes. While there’s nothing to stop us from (say) moving a King two squares at once, that doesn’t sound like proper Chess! It’s reasonable to seek physical causes for physical effects, but we need to remember that we’re playing this game on God’s gameboard, and that His rules may well allow for castling!

We need to remember that we’re alive, and consider the implications! To a cognitive scientist, the sense of “I” is a phenomenom to be explained, and once explained, reduces to a illusion of foolish neurons trying to digest their own outputs! But who is it, imagining that it’s imagining an illusion? [”Here!That little voltage spike was produced by a cluster of neurons that just imagined it was you thinking that you were real and really experiencing your life!” Oh.]

Two forms of atheism? Yes, the other is what we call religious “faith”! But that’s a subject for another post.

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One Response to “The Two Atheisms”

  1. mountainguy on January 9th, 2008 5:58 pm

    1. It’s nice tose this discussion in this website. I mean, in jesusmanifesto we usually find articles about theology, the practice of Jesus principles, criticism to politics and to conservative christians. But, i nice to find that we (as non conservative-right winged christians) try to make a criticism to atheistic vision of the universe.

    2. Although the importance of heuristics in science, the algorithms and mathematical models and assumptions have also an important role in scientific investigation.

    3. I recognize that atheism has a lot more “common sense” than any (other?) “religious view”…., but in a universe with a very very little common sense…, maybe “common sense” doesn’t work as good as it should.

    I’ll try to write later on this issue… I think I’ve just burn a lot of neurons, hehehehe.

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