Why Atheism Beats Agnosticism

John K Clark (johnkc@well.com)
Fri, 24 Apr 1998 21:53:10 -0700 (PDT)


On Fri, 24 Apr 1998 Damien Broderick <damien@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au> Wrote:

>The claims for a deity of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim variety are far
>stronger than the utterances of a lone lunatic hallucinating an
>invisible elf.

The claims are no stronger than those presented by the founders of those
religions, none of whom were playing with a full deck.

>Mystical experiences, which tend to be excluded or invalidated by
>those who've never had them

Yes, that sometimes happens, but not nearly as often I as wish it did. It's
one thing to be deeply moved by your own mystical experience, quite another
thing to be influenced by somebody else's. I could be wrong but at least I
have some criteria for evaluating my own subjective experience and judge its
significance and accuracy. I can't do that with your mystical encounters
because such things by definition can not be fully communicated, like trying
to explain to a man blind from birth what the color red looks like.
It's logically possible (but I wouldn't bet the farm on it) that a mystic
somehow has access to information that can't be obtained by the scientific
method. It's also logically possible that the mystic just has indigestion,
we have no way of telling if he's correct or not, so there is (almost) no
point in listening to him. In the unlikely event that I ever have a mystical
experience I intend to keep it to myself, no point in making a fool of
myself by trying to talk about things that can not be communicated.

I must admit I could be wrong about all this, I was once. At one time I
thought all mystics were fools, then I read a great book called
"The Tao Is Silent" by Raymond Smullyan and it was a revelation to me,
Smullyan is a mystic and he didn't convince me, but he's certainly no fool.
I still think most are however.

>[mystical experiences] are frequently conceptualised and framed in
>terms that take language to its very boundaries. But so too do QT
>and much of mathematics.

But there is an important difference, some pretty abstract mathematics are
used in quantum mechanics and the mental models it asks us to form have
little relation to those we're accustomed to, but the predictions it makes,
even if sometimes they're only probabilities, are anything but vague;
an electron makes a spot on a phosphorus screen or it does not, a photon
makes it through a polarizer or it does not. It is for this reason that I
prefer a brand of mysticism that's repeatable and consistent. There is a
name for that type of mysticism, it's called science. IF voodoo could
predict how variations in doll manufacture effected performance of the curse,
and if a Fundamental Theorem Of Voodoo could determine the shape of the
"needle penetration of doll versus distress of victim" plot, then voodoo
would be as much a science as quantum mechanics.

The important difference between magic and science is NOT that one deals in
chants, incantations and crystal balls and the other deals in equations,
lines of computer code and electron microscopes. The difference is that one
works and the other doesn't.

>like concepts of infinity and physical singularities, deity can be
>teased out of our sense of the world's limits in a special way
>utterly unlike delusions or even the indwelling `life-force' or gods
>of animist belief systems.

If I thought that was true then I'd be a very religious man, as would anybody
who valued logic, but I don't think it's true.

>We need to give our metaphysical foes credit for the depth and
>subtlety of their claims.

That's exactly the problem, as hard as I try I can find no depth or subtlety
in religious ideas. They take everything that is unexplained and mysterious,
rap it up in a big package, paste a label on it called "God", and then
refuse to pursue the matter any further because they insist the problem is
solved. If their God would be asking himself the same deep questions that we
do (and he would be, like "why have I always existed, why haven't I always
not existed?") then the problem have not been solved, just kicked upstairs.

John K Clark johnkc@well.com

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