Thursday, June 26, 2008

Matt 24 Watch, 59: On responsibility, our experience as thinking and choosing agents, and atheism

Sometimes, an online forum exchange can be very revealing on the underlying gaps in evolutionary materialist thought.

From reader
I in the US, we can find such a revealing exchange.

The context is a recent news item, in which a woman from the Czech Republic caught up in a cultic group was accused of horribly torturing her young sons. (The instance is so disgusting that I will not give an excerpt, but will warn that the link has very disturbing reading.)

In the forum, the following exchange occurred:
B wrote:

I: So, her behavior was not caused, but rather she chose her acts?

B: Yes.

I: Which means that (pace the "science[^]" of Richard Dawkins) she's not, after all, a "meat puppet" dancing on the strings of "antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment."

B: She is a culpable meat puppet, dancing on those strings. Physiology, heredity, and environment affect us all, and yet many of us choose and or modify the effects on ourselves.
I then commented, very correctly:
You're trying to have it both ways; but that's not how reality works, you know.

There is a vast difference between saying that:
1) "physiology, heredity and environment" (i.e. 'accidents' as such was historically called) may have some greater or lesser degree of influence upon us as we choose this or that;
versus saying that:
2) "physiology, heredity and environment" mechanistically determine our behaviors.
The two statements are polar opposites; they cannot both be true.

The puppet cannot pull its own strings.
B's reply to this summary is utterly, sadly, revealing:
B: Nothing you say can change what I think; that's already been decided.
I then responded:
In which case "think" is entirely the wrong word to use.

You might want to think about this, Anthony Flew's Choice and Rationality[^] (.PDF, 11 pages) in the archives of 'Reason Papers' at This, by the way, was written when he was still an 'atheist.'
The background for the exchange is the evolutionary materialist view on how mind allegedly emerges from meat through chance and mechanical necessity acting on our claimed remote, ape-like ancestors. In Dawkins' words: "We are jumped-up apes, and our brains were only designed to understand the mundane details of how to survive in the stone-age African savannah."

Going to Dawkins' article as I linked above:
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software . . . .

Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady, should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school? Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is an accepted defence, as is insanity . . . .

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment . . . .

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions?
Perhaps, Professor Dawkins, because it is utterly and plainly absurd and unworkable, given our most direct experience of the world, i.e. of ourselves as conscious, deciding, thinking, responsible agents. So, very properly, we reject any theory that implies that such is delusional.

For, without the power of real thought and choice -- not driven by forces beyond reason and volition -- knowledge, thought and communication become impossible.

So, we may see how Professor Antony Flew -- even in his atheist days -- neatly dissects such [want of] thinking, in I's linked article. The article is somewhat complex, but its essence is that once we seek to explain away choice as the product of chance and/or mechanical necessity, we automatically undercut the basis for real knowledge and communication, i.e absent responsible choice, we cannot be agents:
. . . choice-choice between at least two real alternatives either of which the agent possibly could take-must be a presupposition of any actual knowledge. For no creature incapable of making choices between alternative possibilities of belief could properly be said "to know something." Second, choices, in this understanding, cannot be causally necessitated. For to say that there was necessitation in one particular sense would be to deny that there were any real alternatives to that particular commitment. Third, we all acquire the crucial and complementary notions both of practical necessitation and of being able to do other than we do in what is, surely, the only way in which such fundamental notions could be acquired. We acquire them from our everyday and utterly familiar experience both of making choices in action, and of bringing some things about while finding it utterly impossible to effect others.
In short, we begin our thought life from our self-experience and growing awareness of real (albeit limited) choice, thus agency. Otherwise, we are simply puppets being played by chance and necessity, with only the delusion of real thought, and real choice.

So, if -- for instance -- we have a claimed scientific account for the origin of the mind, which undermines the credibility of the mind, then it saws off the branch on which we HAVE to sit to function as thinking, choosing, communicating beings. And, the evolutionary materialist account of the origin of mind is precisely such a case:

. . . materialism . . . argues that the cosmos is the product of chance interactions of matter and energy, within the constraint of the laws of nature. Therefore, all phenomena in the universe, without residue, are determined by the working of purposeless laws acting on material objects, under the direct or indirect control of chance.

But human thought, clearly a phenomenon in the universe, must now fit into this picture. Thus, what we subjectively experience as "thoughts" and "conclusions" can only be understood materialistically as unintended by-products of the natural forces which cause and control the electro-chemical events going on in neural networks in our brains. (These forces are viewed as ultimately physical, but are taken to be partly mediated through a complex pattern of genetic inheritance and psycho-social conditioning, within the framework of human culture.)

Therefore, if materialism is true, the "thoughts" we have and the "conclusions" we reach, without residue, are produced and controlled by forces that are irrelevant to purpose, truth, or validity. Of course, the conclusions of such arguments may still happen to be true, by lucky coincidence — but we have no rational grounds for relying on the “reasoning” that has led us to feel that we have “proved” them. And, if our materialist friends then say: “But, we can always apply scientific tests, through observation, experiment and measurement,” then we must note that to demonstrate that such tests provide empirical support to their theories requires the use of the very process of reasoning which they have discredited!

Thus, evolutionary materialism reduces reason itself to the status of illusion. But, immediately, that includes “Materialism.” For instance, Marxists commonly deride opponents for their “bourgeois class conditioning” — but what of the effect of their own class origins? Freudians frequently dismiss qualms about their loosening of moral restraints by alluding to the impact of strict potty training on their “up-tight” critics — but doesn’t this cut both ways? And, should we not simply ask a Behaviourist whether s/he is simply another operantly conditioned rat trapped in the cosmic maze?

In the end, materialism is based on self-defeating logic, and only survives because people often fail (or, sometimes, refuse) to think through just what their beliefs really mean.

As a further consequence, materialism can have no basis, other than arbitrary or whimsical choice and balances of power in the community, for determining what is to be accepted as True or False, Good or Evil. So, Morality, Truth, Meaning, and, at length, Man, are dead . . . .

In short, ideas sprout roots, shoot up into all aspects of life, and have consequences in the real world.
The Apostle Paul is therefore very relevant indeed:
RO 1:20 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 men are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles [One adds: in Paul's day, in Pagan Temples; today in textbooks, in Museums and on TV . . .] . . . .

RO 1:28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity . . .
So, let us think again, very carefully indeed about the implications of evolutionary materialism in the guise of "Science." And, how those implications destabilise the foundations of our thought life and morality, including sexual morality. Indeed, it is highly interesting that precisely as such thinking reaches ascendancy, the precise perversions Paul identifies in Rom 1:26 - 28 as the consequences of turning our backs on God and making up images and stories that reinforce our rebellion, attain unprecedented proportions.

Mere coincidence?

Somehow, I think not. END


Ilíon said...

Interesting. That "I" fellow seems to fit so much meaning into such an economy of words. ;)

Gordon said...


But, by virtue of implying or referring to/linking a lot of context.

Some of which is brought out supra.


Ilíon said...

The link to the original exchange isn't working ... the links to posts on that forum are "dynamic," unless you copy just the right one (called the "Permalink")

Later, I'll see if I can get you the corrected link.

Ilíon said...

This link to the original exchange should work:

KF: "The background for the exchange is the evolutionary materialist view on how mind allegedly emerges from meat through chance and mechanical necessity ..."

Here are links to some of the background exchanges with that particular group of 'atheists' (and "materialistic Christians"):

"Your Brain Is Not You" ( )

"Half a Brain is Enough" ( )

Gordon said...