Michael Egnor (badly) answers his own quesitons

Michael Egnor over at the horribly misnamed "Discovery Institute" answered his own questions. Shockingly (can you feel the sarcasm?), he didn't allow comments on his own blog, which leaves me to believe he's not that interested in what atheists actually think. I answered his questions in the previous post, so now I just want to bat out quick* replies to the assault on logic that he's passing for answers.
1) Why is there anything?
My answer: God created the universe as a free act of creation. God is Spirit and is not created; The Thomist paradigm of essence (what a thing is) and existence (that a thing is) can be applied by analogy to God: God's essence is existence. His existence is necessary. To ask 'what caused God' is nonsensical; God is the ground of existence.
That doesn't explain why God exists. It's a way of trying to explain why the universe exists, but if you're going to ask why anything exists, it's the fallacy of special pleading to leave God out of the equation. Saying God exists "necessarily" doesn't work either, because it begs the question necessary for what – the answer being anything else (like the universe), therefor it's circular and doesn't answer the question of why God exists.

Whether or not you believe in God, at some point you have to accept that some things simply are. They aren't caused or created. I contended in my answer that the laws of physics allow the universe to exist timelessly, uncreated  and uncaused. That's what I've heard countless highly regarded physicists say, and it's what Stephen Hawking's new book is about. And when it comes to who is right about physics, I'm going to hedge my bets on the guy who was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge for 30 years over some guy who blogs for the Discovery Institute.

But here's the other problem. I'm fine with the idea of a "God hypothesis". So, how can we test it? How could we know, for example, that God still exists now and didn't destroy himself in the creation process? How could we know whether the God that created our universe is the biggest god of all, and not the lesser minion of another god? How do we know it's God at all, and not, I dunno, superintelligent extra-dimensional aliens? How could we know whether God is monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic or deistic? How do we know that it's really an intelligent God, and not a natural process of some kind? Egnor's arguments are all just blind assertions. They don't explain anything because they can't be tested or confirmed in any reliable or valid way.

2) What caused the Universe? 
My answer: The most succinct form of the cosmological argument (it has many variants) is: 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause 2) The universe began to exist 3) The universe has a cause. A super-natural cause in necessary for the creation of nature ex-nihilo. 'Nature created itself' is nonsense- it's a contradiction. From nothing comes nothing. What can we know about the Cause? Another version of the Cosmological Argument: Aristotle's Prime Mover argument (Aquinas' First Way) observes that all change in nature is a transition from potency to act. An infinite regress of potency to act is not possible in an essential series. The origin of change must be Pure Act. (The terms may be unfamiliar to the reader; I have discussed Aquinas' First Way in much more detail here). This Pure Act is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful (by the the doctrine of the convertibility of transcendentals). As Aquinas observed, this is God.

Ugh. He really did it. He brought out the Cosmological Argument. It's a fallacious argument because causality is merely a process that we observe within the universe itself, one that obeys all the laws of the universe we inhabit. It's meaningless to talk about causality outside the universe. Besides, it's not even true: there are many phenomena in quantum mechanics in which causality does not occur. Besides, who said the universe had to be created at all? Wait, of course! Theologians. Certainly not physicists. Hey, Michael Egnor: if you're that reluctant to subscribe to Scientific American, I will pay for your subscription. Seriously.


3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

My answer: Causes in nature are often directed to regular effects. Stones fall to earth, not to the sky; struck matches cause fire, not ice; etc. Regular effects in nature are teleology (final causes; vide infra). Teleology is the goal-directedness of nature. Teleology in inanimate nature is often described as Laws of nature, and often can be described mathematically (Newton's Laws, Maxwell's Equations, etc).
Aquinas, in his Fifth Way, observes that teleology in nature often involves the act of inanimate objects directed to an end. But whatever lacks intelligence can only be directed to an end by intelligence- 'This all men call God'. The Laws of nature- as manifest in final causes- are part of God's creation, and have their origin in Him.

Wait, who said nature is teleological? Wait! Theologians. Certainly not scientists. Because nature is not teleological. We retroactively impose patterns of intent on the chaos of the universe, like when we say something like "snakes evolved venom to subdue their prey". No – snakes evolved venom, which allowed them to efficiently kill small mammals, which allowed the snakes to survive long enough to reproduce.

But my answer, which his answer doesn't address in any way, was that per my answer to the last question, the laws of nature are a fundamental thing that simply is, and doesn't require an explanation.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

My answer: All four causes are real, and all are necessary to describe nature. The material clause is the stuff or matter of which the thing is made (e.g. the rubber in a rubber ball). The formal cause is the intelligible principle by which something can be understood (e.g. a rubber ball is soft, elastic, round, bouncy, etc). Material and formal causes of course refer to matter and form of classical metaphysics. Efficient cause is that by which something comes into being (the efficient cause of a rubber ball would be the guy in the factory who made the ball). Final cause is the end, goal or purpose of a thing (the final cause of a rubber ball is to provide a bouncy toy). Biological things have four causes as well. The material cause of the heart is muscle tissue, etc. The efficient cause of the heart is the embryological process by which it develops in the embryo. The formal cause is its organization into ventricles, atria, valves, etc. The final cause is to pump blood. Even inanimate objects have four causes, although often an inanimate final cause is the same as the formal cause. Final cause is fundamental to the other three causes (Aquinas: "the cause of causes"), because final cause determines material and formal cause and final cause makes efficient cause intelligible. Every efficient cause is directed to some end state, in the sense that 'cause' necessarily implies 'effect'.
Why do I belabor the four causes and particularly final causes in discussion of atheism? The four causes entail the potency/act distinction of hylemorphism ('matter-form'), which is the classical understanding of nature. Hylemorphism necessarily entails a Prime Mover/First Cause/Necessary Being, as demonstrated in Aquinas' First, Second, and Third Ways. Final cause is the basis for Aquinas' Fifth Way. The metaphysics of the four causes entails a very specific theism, which was one of the reasons that the four causes were truncated to two or three by enlightenment philosophers, who didn't like the theistic implications of classical philosophy. Formal and final causes were never proven wrong; they were stipulated as unnecessary, and over generations were forgotten. It was a profound mistake that has plagued science since; confusion about evolution and about the mind-body relationship and much of the 'strangeness' of quantum mechanics to modern sensibilities is largely a consequence of abandonment of classical metaphysics. Moderns generally don't understand any of this, and accept merely material and truncated efficient causes as adequate to describe nature. They are mistaken.

This guy is really into Aquinas for some reason.

The first of the "four causes" are at best generalizations that, in this scientific day and age, are pretty useless. But Egnor is really big on the last one, which is just another appeal to teleology. The folly of saying something like "the final cause of a rubber ball is to provide a bouncy toy" should be obvious. That's talking as if the object itself has an intrinsic final cause, when the glaringly obvious case is that we decide what the cause of the rubber ball ought to be. Egnor's whole notion of "final causes" simply imposes patterns of intent – retroactively – on the randomness of nature. It doesn't actually explain anything, it's logically fallacious, and it's completely unnecessary to our understanding of the natural world.  It's like saying that the purpose of an exploding star is to create planets (by distributing heavy elements throughout the galaxy), when the far more parsimonious explanation is simply that planets happen to be one byproduct of exploding stars.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?


My answer: living things have a soul, which bears the same relationship to the body that form bears to matter. Plants have a vegetative soul, which mediates growth, reproduction, nourishment, etc. Animals have a sensitive soul, which mediates sensation, locomotion, memory etc, in addition to the powers of the vegetative soul. Humans have a rational soul, which has will, intellect, reason, etc, in addition to the properties of the sensitive/vegetative soul. Furthermore, humans have spirits, which are created in God's image. We are subjects and not just objects because of the powers of our rational souls and the fact that we are spiritual creatures.
So why do I ask about subjective experience in a list of questions about atheism? Nearly all New Atheists are materialists, and not only deny God but deny non-material reality. However, there are no material explanations for the subjective experience that characterizes the mind. In the materialistic paradigm, matter and its associated material and efficient causes cannot give rise to subjective first-person experience. Nothing in materialism predicts or explains the emergence of 'I' from 'it'.

He's making two mistakes here. First, he's just asserting that things have souls. And that's all it is – an assertion. He doesn't actually present any evidence. What he presents is an argument from ignorance: he says that science can't explain how subjective experiences arise from matter (which is nonsense), and then concludes therefor, a soul. But I'm not sure where he's getting this idea that subjective consciousness can't arrive from matter; that's the only thing it can arise from. I'm no neurologist, but at the very least we know our consciousness is derived from a range of sensory input that our brains organize into patterns. There's no reason why "I" would not emerge simply as one of those patterns. "I" is not a thing, but a concept derived from categorization of pattern recognition.


6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

My answer: Intentionality is the ability of a mental state to refer to something other than itself. Intentionality is a hallmark of mental acts. It is the central issue in philosophy of the mind. Accepting that a mental state (e.g. imagining an apple) is instantiated in a brain state (e.g. an electrochemical gradient), how is it that an electrochemical gradient can be about an apple? The electrochemical gradient isn't an apple, it doesn't look like an apple, it's not connected to an apple, etc. In the materialist paradigm, an electrochemical gradient can't be about anything. It just is.
Classical theism offers an elegant solution to the problem of intentionality. In fact, the solution was so obvious to classical philosophers that intentionality wasn't even recognized as a problem until classical understandings of the soul were abandoned several centuries ago. In classical philosophy, the mind, which is an aspect of the soul, is a form, and can grasp the form of an object. When I am thinking of an apple, the form of an apple exists in the apple and in my mind at the same time. The form is defined as the intelligible principle of the apple, and when I think of the apple the intelligible principle of the apple is in my mind. Intentionality is easily explained; my thought that is instantiated in my brain state refers to an apple because the form of the apple is grasped by- is actually taken into- my mind. The mind is also a form- Aristotle called it the "form of forms', in that it could contain the form of another substance without becoming that other substance. The power of the mind (a form) to contain within itself the form of the thing perceived is the origin of the word "information". We retain the language of hylemorphism, although we have largely forgotten the deep insights on which our language is based. Intentionality is no problem from the classical hylemorphic understanding of nature and of man. It is inexplicable by materialism. Materialism, which acknowledges only material and efficient causes, founders on intentionality. I discuss intentionality in more detail here.

This question and its answer are equally inane. He's confusing concepts of things with actual things. The "form of an apple" does not "exist" in his mind. This is what's known as a use-mention error. The vastly more parsimonious answer is simply that his mind interprets sensory input that, based on certain patterns of shape, color, texture and taste, can be categorized in his brain as "apple", just like certain other patterns can be characterized as "I".


7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

My answer: Moral Law is objective, not merely subjective. Moral Law is "written in the heart" of men, and each of us feels an obligation to comply with it. We have differences in our intellects and wills, and thus differences in the extent to which we comply with the Moral Law. We are also spiritual beings, and we can choose good or evil. Moral Law is the manifestation of Divine Law, and compliance with the Moral Law represents a telos (final cause or purpose) of man's life.
The assertion that Moral Law is subjective or is a byproduct of evolution is incoherent at best, and has horrendous implications for mankind. As I noted above, materialism fails miserably to account for subjectivity, intentionality, and mental acts, so it fails as well to account for morality. Furthermore, if Moral Law doesn't exist independently to men, then it is the moral law of the strongest of men that will rule. The widespread understanding that Moral Law is objective, is God's Will, and applies to all men-to kings and paupers equally- has been the greatest check on tyranny in the West.

I answered that there is no such thing as "Moral Law", and that morality is simply a sociocultural byproduct of evolutionarily selected group-oriented behavioral traits. But his argument is fatally flawed for the obvious reason that he claims that something "objective" is known by feelings. Feelings, intuition, and the like are not objective.

I think if any of us were asked today whether slavery is wrong, we would say "yes" without hesitation. If we were then asked why it is "wrong" to own people as property, we would probably be unable to say exactly why – we'd say something like, "I don't know, it just is!"  But if that same question were posed to us 150 years ago, we'd likely be much more indecisive. And if we were citizens of tribal Israel in Old Testament times, we'd say "Of course it's not wrong!" because God, in both testaments of the Bible, condones and commands slavery. Clearly, our feelings are not reliable guides for morality. Just ask your local sociopath, whose frontal cortex doesn't work properly, preventing them from feeling empathy.

He's also off base by suggesting that evolutionary morality equates to some sort of "survival of the fittest" phenomenon. He fails to understand that for virtually all species on Earth, cooperative group living is not a choice but a survival strategy. We are wholly dependent on one another for every aspect of our survival.

I'd also add that the "strongest man" is inaccurate; "fittest gene" is more apt, and he should study some basic evolutionary biology if he doesn't comprehend the difference.

And it's absolutely comedic that he thinks "God's Will" has been "the greatest check on tyranny in the West." Good grief man, get real. Who demarcates "God's Will"? Humans can't even agree on what God is, much less what God wants. Hell, as this whole thing demonstrates, we can't even agree that he exists at all! Hitler was a Catholic who often spoke of his Christian faith and the will of God. Tyranny in the West ranging from the Crusades to Hitler to modern Islamic terrorism has been the result of people being unable to objectively discern what God is and what he wants. We atheists are saying that there's a better way.

8) Why is there evil?

Evil is the privation of good. It exists because we are a fallen race in a fallen world. Some aspects of human evil seem easily explicable to me: evil actions by men are the result of God's grant of human freedom. To choose good, we have the option of choosing evil. Natural evil (disease, natural disasters) is more problematic for me. The traditional theodicy that natural evil provides opportunity for courage and faith makes sense to me, although there are still aspects of natural evil (children with cancer, etc) that I find very hard to understand. I note that atheism and materialism offer no solutions at all. If mankind evolved by natural selection, we wouldn't even perceive the death of unrelated others as evil. It would be a real win- more offspring for me! Theodicy is difficult for some kinds of evil. However, atheism is even less satisfactory. It offers no explanation as to why we even call harm to unrelated others 'evil'.
My answer was that evil is just a concept we use to describe certain behaviors. It's not a real thing. Once again, Egnor does not understanding the difference between things and concepts of things. My earlier argument that morality is a sociocultural outgrowth of evolutionarily selected group behavior traits can explain "evil" quite easily.(I should add that it's not really my argument – I learned it from scientists like Frans De Waal, Desmond Morris and Marc Hauser.) Empathy is an example of an evolutionarily selected group behavior trait. As we can see with sociopaths, our ability to feel empathy is limited to a functional part of our brains. Creatures who evolved the necessary intelligence to feel empathy would have behaved in a more cooperative manner, significantly improving their odds of survival and reproduction.

We can describe behaviors that run counter to that empathetic response as "evil", but that's of limited utility. Here's a tougher one, which shows that the concept of "evil", like all morality, is a sociocultural outgrowth of those biologically hardwired traits: Was it evil to drop the atomic bombs on Japan? Regardless of how one chooses to answer it, the answer will certainly not be as intuitively obvious as the answer to "Is it wrong to murder a child just because you feel like murdering a child?" – instead, the answer will be the result of our cultured, rational brain clashing with our intuitive, emotional brain. Egnor's answers to evil and morality are childish oversimplifications that add nothing to our understanding of real moral dilemmas.



That's it. Congratulations if you made it through this epic post. This all makes me wonder about something though. Egnor is arguing for the existence of God at the Discovery Institute's blog. But wait... don't those guys keep telling us over and over that Intelligent Design isn't about God at all? Hmmm....


* I suck at quick.

Comments

  1. Epic.
    Well done, I don't know where you find the time or patience to wade through all that crap, and to answer it too.
    These loons melt my head.
    thanks man.

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  2. Thank you, thank you. It seems like most people think their questions just aren't even worth taking seriously. But people really do believe that crap, so hey, I might as well do my part and with any luck stimulate some thought.

    ReplyDelete

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