When The Moral Landscape came out a while ago, Harris suggested that free will was just an illusion. Not the typical compatibilist sort of illusion that most people can live with, but something substantially more discomforting. Compatibilists about free will generally say that though we can’t do anything other than what we do, we nevertheless do what we will to do. It was impossible for me to not eat that turkey sandwich I had earlier, but I still acted according to what I wanted to do. So I am a still a moral agent responsible for my own actions, at least according to the compatibilist. The illusion for the compatibilist is not that he has a will, but that there are really other choices.  Harris took things a step further. He suggested that the will itself is illusory. The experience we have of “willing” is just an artifact of some brain chemistry. The sense of being in control of one’s actions is just completely wrong. Our thoughts are just moved along via external stimuli and brain chemistry. Obviously, such a view has radical implications for how we do justice, psychology, and just about every field that has something to do with human beings.

The Moral Landscape was already controversial, but when Harris added his remarks about free will, it caused some real problems. Harris took so much flak that he felt obligated to respond to the criticism on his blog as a sort of addendum to the book. Several months later, and critics not yet satisfied, Harris releases Free Will. Here Harris more fully addresses the problem of free will. The center piece of his argument flows from a couple of studies he mentions in the book.

In one study, a physiologist used an EEG “to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.” In another study, a random series of letters was flashed on a screen in front of some subjects while they were asked to push one button or another. Later, they were asked what letter they perceived on the screen when they made their decision. “The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.” Another study showed that by monitoring a handful of neurons, scientists could predict the decision a subject would make about 700 milliseconds before the subject made it and they could do so with about 80 percent accuracy.

Apparently, only a little while after the brain makes a decision, do we become aware of it, mistakenly believing that we consciously made such a choice. With these insights in hand, Harris constructs his argument against free will. As best I can tell, it looks like this:

(1)    Studies show that brain activity precedes conscious awareness of making a decision.

(2)    This brain activity leads to relatively accurate predictions about the decision a person will make.

(3)    If we are not conscious of relevant factors in the decision making process, we do not have free will.

(4)    Since (1) and (2), and given (3), we do not have free will.

There a couple of problems here. The most obvious issue is that even if Harris’ interpretation of the studies is correct, all that follows is that some decisions are not made consciously. At best, I think Harris has shown that some decisions might be entirely impulsive and not “willed.” That fact alone makes the conclusion (4) invalid. Just because we know that some decisions are known to be made before we are conscious of them, doesn’t mean that all decisions are. Harris would have to show that there really is no significant difference between, say, pushing a button and picking a profession. There certainly seems to be a real difference. I’d want Harris to explain why there isn’t.

Aside from that, I also wonder whether Harris’ interpretation of these studies really makes sense. Why do we think, for example, that activity in certain parts of the brain indicates that the brain has “decided?”  Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Here’s another plausible interpretation: maybe, in response to certain stimuli, the brain automatically turns on certain parts which our consciousness will need later, sort of like a computer warming up.  The hardware is getting ready for the software to run. In that case, we might be able to predict what a subject will eventually choose based on the hardware that was turned on, but the hardware doesn’t determine the decision.

Imagine if we applied Harris’ interpretation to a personal computer. We notice that before the computer ever reads from the CD drive, it spins up the CD drive.  In fact, in about nine out of ten cases, we can accurately predict that once the CD drive spins, the computer will read the CD. Therefore, the CD drive spinning determines whether the computer will read the CD. Obviously, this interpretation is false.

What is actually going is this: the computer spins the CD drive in response to stimuli; someone put a CD in the tray and then closed it. But whether the computer actually reads the drive will depend on the software running at the time. If, for example, it’s a music CD and the media player is open, then software will “decide” to read the CD. It seems plausible that consciousness works in the same way. In response to certain stimuli, the brain “spins up” certain parts of the brain which the mind (or consciousness) then utilizes to make a decision.

Depending on the stimuli, I bet we could make very accurate predictions based on brain activity as to what a person’s decision will finally be, just like we can guess that when a computer spins the CD drive it will almost always read from the drive.

So even though Harris’ reasoning is flawed and his interpretation of the data is questionable, there is still another, more fundamental problem: Harris’ commitment to materialism. Harris begins his essay by arguing that “Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.”  If we take these as the only two options, then we begin to understand why Harris has taken the track he did. We are more disposed to think that brain activity is the cause of our conscious experience, after all, what else could be the cause? It can’t be random, then, if we had an experience at all, it would be totally incoherent.

The problem is that Harris views the world as a closed system.  All effects are attributable to some cause that, in turn, is explained by some other effect, and so on until we get back to the beginning of the universe. Harris states this rather clearly: “In physical terms, we know that every human action can be reduced to a series of impersonal events: Genes are transcribed, neurotransmitters bind to their receptors, muscle fibers contract, and John Doe pulls the trigger on his gun.” But not everyone takes this view; Harris doesn’t allow for what philosophers call agent causation.

To understand what agent causation is, just think about how God’s actions must work. What is the cause of God’s actions? Are his actions determined by prior causes or randomness? If so, then he could hardly be called God. We actually think that the source of God’s action is his will. God wanted to do such and such so he did. There just is no further explanation than that.  When an agent, like God, causes something to happen, we call that agent causation. It seems plausible to think human beings could be capable of the same sort of causation, within the limitations that go along with being human.  

So if there is a thing as agent causation, then Harris’ dilemma is a false one.  And it turns out that if we allow for the possibility of agent causation, then we are not so inclined to think that Harris’ argument is successful.

Frankly, I don’t think Harris himself really thinks that there is no such thing as agent causation. About half way through Free Will, Harris tries to give us some advice about living our lives as collections of causes and effects. He suggests that

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can—paradoxically—allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).[emphasis added]

Here Harris uses the euphemism, “getting behind our conscious thoughts,” to describe the process of manipulating one’s own environment to generate a desired outcome. But who, exactly, is doing the manipulating and what is it, precisely, that is behind our conscious thoughts? What Harris is suggesting here is that we can actually influence our actions, even if it is indirectly. There is a new cause in the closed system. Contradiction.

The trend these days is to view human beings in a reductive way. They are just bundles of causes and effects.  Or they are just odd arrangements of matter and energy.  The trouble is that such a view human persons entails number of recalcitrant facts. For Harris, the fact that human beings apparently can and do influence their own actions is difficult to explain.  If Harris wants a more robust view of human persons, one that accommodates the sort of life he thinks is worth living, I would encourage him to adopt a worldview that allows for such a view. I don’t know if he knows it, but the Bible says that man is made in the image of God. That seems rather robust to me.

Richard Carrier is one of the lesser horsemen of the New Atheism, but he’s often cited by atheists who are slightly more serious. One of his most popular essays is “Why I am not Christian.” I was recently asked to write a response to this essay.

Before I offer my response, I want to say that there are certain limitations to this essay.  Two that you should know about right off. First, what I say here is not an argument for Christianity, only a response to objections. If you want fully developed arguments, I’d recommend Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. Second, I wasn’t able to respond to everything Carrier said, but I tried to respond to the spirit of his argument on each point.

God is Hidden

Carrier’s first point is that God is silent. He argues that “If God wants something from me, he would tell me. He wouldn’t leave someone else to do this, as if an infinite being were short on time. And he would certainly not leave fallible, sinful humans to deliver an endless plethora of confused and contradictory messages.” [1]

This puts Carrier in the strange position of holding the burden of proof for a theological point of view.  Why is it that we should suspect God to act in the way Carrier suggests? Carrier thinks that his position flows “necessarily” from the Christian idea of who God is: a perfectly loving and perfectly omnipotent being.  It’s just a simple syllogism: A loving and omnipotent being would make himself known to everyone. God has not done this. Therefore, God, at least a loving and omnipotent being does not exist.

Now, there’s at least three points to be made here. The first is that there is a sense in which God has met the requirements laid out by Carrier. Romans 1 says, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” God has provided revelation that is accessible to everyone. Granted it may not be a full disclosure; he only reveals his “eternal power and divine nature,” but nevertheless it is there.

The second point is that Carrier’s position seems like a rather presumptuous, solipsistic position to take. How is that we can presume to know what God should do? Carrier presents analogy after analogy that are designed to demonstrate that if he were in God’s position, he would most certainly do such and such a thing or act in some particular way.  I know there have been many times I have been certain that a person should have acted in such and such a way, but later, when I had all the facts,  changed my mind. Human beings presume to know all the facts all the time. And we get it wrong all the time. Isn’t it at least logically possible that, given all the facts, God might be justified in not making the sorts of appearances that Carrier suggests? To make the claim, as Carrier does, that “The logically inevitable fact is, if the Christian God existed, we would all hear from God himself the same message of salvation, and we would all hear, straight from God, all the same answers to all the same questions,” is to shoulder a tremendous burden of proof. He would have to show that there is no logically possible set of circumstances where God would act differently than Carrier’s prediction.

Related to this second point is another issue. Richard Carrier does not get to decide the conditions under which the revelation of God will be satisfactory. We, as human beings, do not get to turn to our creator and say to him, “Hey God, you know what? I’m not going believe in you unless you  physically appear directly to me. And none of that ‘vision’ nonsense. I want empirical data. Something I can run tests on and such. That cool with you, God?” I don’t think a god who was commanded about by us so that he obeyed our demands and, in essence, was subject to us, is really a god at all. That sounds rather more like a cosmic waiter than the God of the universe. “Hey God, if you do a real good job, I’ll believe in you a little extra – maybe wear a cross necklace or something. Deal?”

The third point to make here is that we have good reason to think that there are circumstances and conditions that Carrier has overlooked so that the sort of revelation Carrier demands is not “logically inevitable.” Carrier labeled the first point of his essay “God is hidden,” and this is a point theologians have acknowledge for a long time. Everyone agrees: God is not a visible as he could be. The question is “Why?”

One response is to say that God does not want to coerce belief, so he makes himself illusive. He wants to preserve human freedom. You can find him if you want to, but he’s not going to write his name in the cloud every other Tuesday. In other words, God wants people to choose to trust in him. He doesn’t want people to merely be resigned to the fact that God exists in the way they are resigned to the fact that the sky is blue or that one day they will die. Carrier dismisses this kind of argument as “excuses.” Such arguments, he says, suffer from a lack of evidence and being too ad hoc. Well, that may be and it’s not really the view I hold myself. But the point is that there is a logically possible set of circumstances where God would have good reasons for not revealing himself as Carrier requires. And so long as this is even a logical possibility, Carrier’s point about the hiddenness of God entailing the non-existence of God doesn’t succeed.

The best answer to the hiddenness of God is not that God wants to preserve human free will, though that is a possibility. The best answer is that God desires a certain kind of relationship with mankind and so he reveals himself in just such a way for that relationship to best be attained. Paul Moser suggests that “One of God’s aims with divine elusiveness would be to focus and highlight a more urgent question for humans: namely, who exactly is in charge here? Who is the proper moral authority over the universe, including over all humans? A related urgent question in need of focus may be: exactly how is God in charge over this morally troubled universe?” The elusiveness of God creates an existential problem that we have to work out, and this problem has to be worked out the way God wants, not the way Carrier demands God to work it out. When we presume to make God the subject of our cognitive demands, we commit what Moser calls “cognitive idolatry.”  As Moser asks, “Will we let God be truly God (and thus morally robust) even in the area of human inquiry about God?”[2]

Moser suggests that Jesus himself raised this point himself:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mt 11:25-27, italics added; cf. Lk 10:21-22; 1 Cor 2:4-14)

The conclusion Moser reaches is that

Jesus thus portrays his divine Father as hiding divine ways and means from people who are pridefully “wise and learned” in their own eyes. He suggests that God is intentionally elusive, even to the point of hiding, relative to people who oppose God’s authority and morally righteous ways. This suggestion agrees with a long-standing teaching of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew scriptures, including Isaiah 45:15: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.” If we take Jesus and the Hebrew prophetic tradition seriously, we should expect God to be morally righteous, perfectly loving and thus at times elusive toward wayward humans.

The point is that we should not expect for God to be revealed under the circumstances and conditions prescribed by human beings, as if he were some sort of regular specimen in a lab. If God revealed himself in this way, it might ease the minds of many empiricists, but it would ultimately sell human beings short of the sort of relationship God wants us to have with him. Instead, we should expect God to be revealed under the circumstances and conditions God prescribes: God reveals himself only under the conditions he wants, if it all. As Moser has aptly said, “We think we readily know what we should expect of a perfectly loving God. As a result, we confidently set the parameters for God’s reality as if our favored parameters were decisive. This is a careless move, if bold, common, and apparently self serving. We seldom ask, however, what God would expect of us.”

God is Inert

The second point Carrier raises is that God is inert. Essentially, Carrier is arguing his own version of the problem of evil here. He says that “It’s a simple fact of direct observation that if I had the means and the power, and could not be harmed for my efforts, I would immediately alleviate all needless suffering in the universe. “ God, he argues, has the means and power and the motive (being all-loving), “Yet I cannot be more loving, more benevolent than the Christian God. Therefore, the fact that the Christian God does none of these things—in fact, nothing of any sort whatsoever—is proof positive that there is no Christian God.”

His second point has some of the same problems as the first, namely that Carrier actually takes  a positive theological position which he needs to prove. This time, he needs to show that there could no possible set of circumstances under which God would be justified in allowing suffering to take place. He would also need to show that God does not, in fact, intervene to alleviate suffering. The world is indeed full of suffering, but we have no way of knowing of how often God intervenes in human affairs. Perhaps he does it all the time in ways that are not detectable. Of course, I’m not claiming that this is in fact the case. I’m just offering it as a logical possibility, one that Carrier would have to refute in order to take the position that he does.

Essentially, what Carrier is suggesting is the classic argument against theism, which Sam Harris recently restated:

Of course, people of all faiths regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.

There are really two versions of the argument from evil. The first is the logical. Simply stated, the logical problem evil claims that the statements “God exists as an omnipotent, omni-benevolent being” is contradictory to the statement, “Evil exists.” But most philosophers seem to think that the logical version of the argument cannot be successful (For examples of Christian theodicies, see Platninga’s Free Will Defense or John Hick’s Soul-Making Theodicy). Paul Draper, a respected philosopher of religion and an agnostic, said, “I do not see how it is possible to construct a convincing logical argument from evil against theism.” [3] It seems rather likely that God, even being all good and powerful, could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering and evil in the word. As long as this is even a logical possibility, the logical argument from evil does not succeed.

The second version of the argument, the emotional version, is something that should be taken very seriously. Essentially, the emotional version of the argument is that while God and evil may be logically compatible, there is nevertheless no satisfactory reason as to why God allows the amount of suffering he does, or why he allows it in a specific circumstance. There are all kinds of horrific experiences we might call to mind here: rape, torture, starvation.  Sure, God’s existence may be compatible with evil, but this kind of evil?

I’ll be frank and honest here. There are reasonable responses to be offered, but if someone I loved experienced something as horrible as torture, I surely would not pat them on the back and say, “Hey, you know what? God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing this.” That might be the logical answer, but it certainly isn’t the right answer in that moment. If asked why, my answer would have to be, “I don’t know and I am so very sorry this happened to you.”

But, part of my answer would include a reminder of the fact that this person is created in the image of God and intrinsically and inherently valuable. And that he is more than an aggregate of parts or an ongoing fizzing chemical reaction so that he is reduced, according to Richard Dawkins, to a machine for propagating DNA, which is “every living object’s sole reason for living.” Why should the undesirable brain state of a particular machine matter to us? I can’t think of a very good reason. However, the reason that evil in the world matters, the reason is it should upset us, is because people matter. People matter because they are more than the sum of their parts – they are imago Dei.  So, while I can’t provide an explanation for why some particularly evil event happened, what I can do is say why it matters.

Wrong Evidence.

Carrier’s third reason for rejecting Christianity is that “Christians can offer no evidence at all for their most important claim, that faith in Jesus Christ procures eternal life.” He goes on to conclude that because this specific claim does not meet his requirements for what constitutes evidence, that Christianity is not true. First, it’s just not the case that there is “no evidence at all” for the claim that faith in Jesus Christ produces eternal life. Perhaps Carrier means that there is no direct, empirical evidence for the very specific claim “faith in Jesus Christ results in eternal life.” That might be true, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t bother Christians. What is the basis of their beliefs? It’s on the basis of inference from other beliefs – a perfectly valid way to form beliefs. We hold all kinds of beliefs without having direct, empirical data. Big Bang cosmology, for example, is based on inference from what we do observe, like the expansion of the universe. In the Christian case, if we have good reason to think that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rose from the dead and that he said, “Faith in me results in eternal life,” then we also have good reason to think that faith in him results in eternal life.

Second, it’s a distortion or oversimplification to suggest that the central truth of Christianity is that Jesus hands out eternal life for the faithful, as if Jesus was some sort of cosmic Billy Mays. “Hey guys, if you put in a little faith now, you’ll get a nice reward in heaven! It’s all yours for only prayers a day!” This seems like a rather convenient way to argue. First, you distort and isolate a claim calling it “central.” Then you set up your own criteria of evidence and decide that there is no evidence for the claim you are trying to disprove. I imagine just about any position can be refuted if we’re allowed to use these maneuvers. Now, if we ask the broader and more appropriate question, “Is Christianity true?” what we find is that the situation is not at all like Carrier has described it. There are, in fact, good reasons and evidences for thinking that Christianity, specifically, is true.

Carrier expands his critique, saying that “Christian” evidences boil down to either a claim that (1) “the universe exists; therefore, God exists” or (2) “I feel that God exists; therefore, God exists.” He adds that these sorts of arguments don’t tell us which god exists, only that maybe one, unspecified god does. (2) is, of course, ridiculous. I don’t know of any intellectually serious Christian making that argument. Alvin Plantinga argues for something called the sensus divinitatis, but that’s not at all like the argument “I feel God exists; therefore, he does.” However, Carrier does have a point here. Cosmological and teleological arguments can only tells us so much about who God might be and they certainly don’t tell us that the God of Christianity is the right one. The Bible itself seems to confirm this. The verse from Romans I quoted earlier said that nature reveals only God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. But, not all Christian arguments reduce down to Carrier’s two options.

The arguments are numerous and varied, but one of the best and simplest arguments comes from Gary Habermas. He argues that on the basis of the evidence for the resurrection alone, the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated. He has scholarly articles available for free on his website: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/articles.htm.

William Lane Craig has also presented substantive arguments for the existence of the Christian God. He takes a two-step approach, first arguing that God exists and then that it is the Christian God. He has many of his articles for free on his website as well, but you have to sign up to be able to access them: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer?pagename=scholarly_articles_main. In my opinion, his book, Reasonable Faith, is the best, fullest account demonstrating the rationality of Christianity. If you are serious about interacting and dialoguing with Christians on an intellectual level, you should pick it up.

I’m not going to present Habermas and Craig’s arguments here since this essay is only a response to Carrier’s objections, but there are certainly good, substantive reasons for having faith in Jesus Christ. They are at least good enough the people like Hitchens and Harris think it worthwhile to have a debate.

Wrong Universe

Carrier’s final point is that Christianity predicts a qualitatively different universe than the one we find ourselves in. He says that the universe we would expect to observe if Christianity is true is one like the one the Apostle Paul had in mind: a geocentric world with no evidence of evolution. I think Paul probably did have a geocentric worldview and of course he didn’t believe in evolution. But I don’t think that’s because thought Christianity entailed a universe with certain material qualities. It’s probably because he shared the standard and accepted general cosmology of his time. Frankly, I don’t think Paul would have any problem with modern cosmology. One reason to think this is the case stems from the fact that from a relatively early date Christians were open to the idea that God may have not created everything directly, but instead utilized “potentialities.” Augustine, for example, was open to the idea that God just created the cosmos. Everything else, for lack of a better word, “evolved” out of this initial creation.

Carrier says that given what we know about the Christian God, it is very unlikely he would have created the universe we observe. A good God, who wanted to create a universe designed for intelligent life then we shouldn’t observe the amount of death and suffering in the world. We also should life springing up in every corner of the universe. After all, if God’s purpose was to bring about life we can assume he’d be pretty good at it. The problem here is that Carrier has once again taken the burden of proof for a theological position. He claims to know the sort of universe God would create given his intentions. I just don’t think we’re in a good place to make those sorts of predictions. For example, Carrier says that we should expect a human brain to be quite a bit smaller than it is if there really is a soul. After all, he says, all the thinking would happen in the soul and not the brain. I find this to be incredibly speculative and the fact that human brains aren’t smaller than they are can hardly be counted as evidence against Christianity.

One of the themes through this last chapter is that Christianity is ad hoc in how it reconciles the data about the material world with the world Christianity predicts. That’s an interesting claim. I’d have to agree that in at least some cases Christians are guilty of this. Creationists, for example, will claim that light traveled at a different speed at different times in order to explain how we can observe light from stars millions of light years away when the universe is only a few thousand years old. That’s certainly logically possible, but it strikes me as being far too contrived. However, in general, I don’t think Christianity is guilty of the level of “ad hocness” that Carrier says. All the Christian worldview really predicts about the material universe is that it was created by God for the purpose of revealing and glorifying himself. That’s a pretty wide open sort of claim. It certainly doesn’t entail the sorts of predictions Carrier thinks a Christian worldview should. In short, Christians are open to a wide range of possible universes. There is no specific Christian material cosmology, so that if we find out that the earth isn’t the center of the world, we have good grounds for thinking Christianity has failed. William Lane Craig recently did a podcast on this very issue: http://www.rfmedia.org/RF_audio_video/RF_podcast/Some_Questions_About_Design.mp3. You don’t have to sign up to listen. You can just click through.

This isn’t to say there are no predictions Christianity makes about the material world. At least one prediction is that the universe is not eternal and that it had a definite beginning. Another prediction is what J.P. Moreland calls the recalcitrant imago dei. Essentially, what Moreland says is that if it is the case that human beings are created in the image of God, there ought to be certain facts about human beings that a worldview like materialism would find difficult to explain. I won’t lay out his case here, but you can find a summary of it at his website: http://www.jpmoreland.com/books/recalcitrant-imago-dei/.


The conclusion here is not surprising: I don’t find any of Carrier’s reasons for rejecting Christianity adequate. Carrier certainly raises a number of good points that are worth thinking through. But, ultimately, even in light Carrier’s objections, Christianity is still a reasonable worldview.

[1] Carrier, Richard (2011). Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith (p. 7). Philosophy Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Paul Moser in God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable & Responsible (p. 54). Intervarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] See Paul Draper, “The Argument from Evil,” in Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, ed. Paul Copan and Chad Meister (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), p. 146.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article on Slate yesterday. Said he thought I would think it’s interesting. The tagline was “Does Evil Exist? Neuroscienctists Say No!”

It’s just the kind of title to get a reaction out of me and before I even read the article, I had decided that the typically left leaning Slate was contributing to the disturbing trend that grants scientists authority in all aspects of life.

I quickly quipped back to my friend that I knew of an equally authoritative article, “Do Neutrinos Exist? Bank Tellers say no!” That’s no slight to bank tellers. It’s just that they don’t really have any expertise on the subject of neutrinos. Likewise, scientists also have little expertise on the subject of evil. They might be able to tell us the sorts of physical reactions we have toward evil. Or what kinds of brain chemistry an evil person has, but they can’t tell us what evil is or whether or not it exists.

So after I settled down, I started to read the article. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?

Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general.

It turns out that my initial impression was right. No need to read the rest. Slate is a science worshiper just like such much of those left-leaners these days. And so I told my friend that I had correctly judged a an article by its tagline, a feat I was quite proud of. For a moment. After informing him of my insight, my friend asked, “Did you read the whole thing?”

Well the truth is that I hadn’t. And I had done such a poor job of reading even the first few words that I didn’t even notice the title: “The End of Evil? Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing. Are they right?”

So I went back and I actually read what Mr. Rosenbaum had to say. Turns out, there is some real insight here and I almost missed it. I think the neuroscienctists would probably say I have a cognitive bias. I suppose they are right.

You can read the article here.

From Jon

There’s an interesting post up over at Slate. The author, Jesse Bering, makes the now trending suggestion that God is some sort of psychological phenomenon, an evolutionary side effect. I’ve got a couple of comments here.

First, if it is the case that belief in God is an illusion generated as a side effect of evolution, then what other beliefs do we hold that might be illusory? How can we trust any of our beliefs at all to be formed correctly? Evolution, after all, is certainly not a process aimed at helping us humans form true beliefs.  It seems if you’re able to dismiss belief in God this way, you’ve dismissed much more than you’ve bargained for. Like a workable epistemology.

Secondly, this article does not even approach the evidences for God’s existence (for example, even if beleifs formed by perception are unreliable, this does nothing to a priori arguments for God’s existence) . Instead, Bering dismisses God as illusion with some frighteningly bad argumentation which turns on this assertation:

After all, once we scrub away all the theological bric-a-brac and pluck the exotic cross-cultural plumage of religious beliefs from all over the world, once we get under God’s skin, isn’t He really just another mind—one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps above all else, intentions?

Perhaps our tendency to beg the question is a by-product of evolution as well? You can read the post here.