fine-tuned cosmos

Cognitive Dissonance at the Root of Atheism

I host a meetup group called “Crosstalk” where atheists, agnostics, and believers of various persuasions get together to talk about a variety of big ideas across ideological divides. The last meeting was a discussion of Allain de Botton’s TED talk on Atheism 2.0. His idea is that atheism is obviously true, so we should all get past that and think about what atheists might learn from thousands of years of religious practice. My idea for Crosstalk was to discuss not only what atheists might learn from religion, but also what religion might learn from atheists.

My main takeaway from the atheist side of the world is that atheists aim to view the world truthfully based on a rational evaluation of real evidence. They really mean to take the truth as it comes, good or bad. Their criticism of the religious is that we are not concerned with truth, but with myth, and that we twist our view of the world to fit our beliefs. Truth be told, I agree with this assessment.

However, there is a profound level of cognitive dissonance in the standard atheist position. The hallmark of the atheist viewpoint is rationality. Yet, if there is no supreme intelligence, no design, no rational plan at the root of existence, why would rationality be of any use in discerning the nature of things? If there is no designing intelligence, why would we look to the basic structure of space, time, matter, and energy, and expect to find patterns which can be rationally understood? Yet science is powerful because it is able to reduce complex phenomena down to simple and elegant explanations. We can use math to explain things! Isn’t this what science is – using rational thought to explain the physical universe? Yet if there is no designer, no rational plan, no teleology, why should rational thought work when explaining what we observe? If there is no designing intelligence behind it all, shouldn’t the universe be truly random? The reason why there is such a principle as “emergence” at all is that there is a pattern to things which is discernible through rational thought. The truth is, when we look, we don’t find random irrational undirected phenomena. We find order.

So we find that atheists begin to create myths to explain these things. They posit that the first living cell came to be because aliens seeded the earth. The aliens did not have time to evolve from primordial ooze on some other planet first because of the relatively young age of the universe – so they must have come from another dimension. The universe is finely tuned because there is a multiverse with many other universes which are not so finely tuned. The language of supposedly random adaptive evolution is filled with anthropomorphisms. These things are not the kinds of things that people who are in a reckless come-what-may pursuit of truth think about. These are not rational scientific explanations for things. Yet however crazy and ridiculous the explanation may be, simply because it excludes belief in a supreme intelligence, it is “rational.”

What we really find with the atheistic mindset is not a reckless abandon to the truth, but an irrational passion to cling to a metaphysical perspective. There is the underlying assumption that there is no designing intelligence at the root of things, and so everything must be interpreted as such. When we look, for example, at the Burgess shale or the Maotianshan shale fossil deposits in Canada and in China, we find similar evidence. There are plentiful examples of all kinds of small simple soft-tissued life that has been preserved, and then when we reach the Cambrian era we find an immediate non-gradual explosion of life. If there had been a gradual adaptive path, it would have been recorded in the deposits, because tiny soft-tissue life was preserved. Yet popular science ignores this and many other similar things, and continues to pretend that everyone who doubts darwinistic gradualism is an ignorant fool. They are increasingly unable to credibly maintain the rationalistic high ground when they ignore the preponderance of evidence.

The huge elephant in the room is that if the universe and everything in it came to be by undirected non-rational undesigned processes, then the one thing that must be excluded from the universe is the notion of mind. When we run experiments, we must be careful to keep our teleological fingers out of the pie, or we will spoil things. Yet, here we are: our defining characteristic as human beings is arguably our intelligence. Whereas our minds are not allowed to intrude into our interpretation of unplanned undirected nature, somehow our minds came to be. Scientists, indeed atheists, are clear that the main thing we must use to explain the undirected undesigned unplanned non-rational universe is our mind. Rationality is king. So how did the rational arise from that which is by definition not rationally directed?

Ironically, the drive to exclude the notion of rational design and to read rational patterns into what are supposed to be undirected undesigned non-rational processes is called “rational.” Yet why is it irrational to look at the clear evidence of a finely tuned universe exactly tweaked to support life, and the enormous information-rich complexity of life on earth down to the first living cell, and the existence of the human mind, and posit that there is a profound rational mind at the root of existence? The idea that there is a God is in fact the most rational position possible. Belief in God is in fact a direct belief in the rational.

As Alvin Plantinga points out, it is a popular misconception that science and atheism are handmaidens and that science and religion are at odds. I think we are increasingly finding that in fact the opposite is true. Belief in a designing intelligence at the root of existence is the only thing that really makes rational sense. Everyone who really has a passion for truth regardless of the implications must come around eventually to acknowledge this.

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  1. Magical thoughts such as Gods are fabricated in the human mind, God is not real or living….Never has been and never will be. Not to say magical thoughts are bad for you, they actually make you feel good. they can put you at ease, and aid the simple minded to continue, like a coping mechanism for the illogical. This is a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning. “Mark P. Mattson 2014 Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain”.

  2. Jim McNeely: ‘The hallmark of the atheist viewpoint is rationality. Yet, if there is no supreme intelligence, no design, no rational plan at the root of existence, why would rationality be of any use in discerning the nature of things? If there is no designing intelligence, why would we look to the basic structure of space, time, matter, and energy, and expect to find patterns which can be rationally understood?’

    Who ever said that a ‘rational plan’ was ever needed to account for the apparent organization of matter and energy (emergent phenomena)? No one doubts that there is some kind of order to the Universe, but I wouldn’t call this ordering of things a plan. To call it that way would be to add ‘will’ to the Universe, a reason to be, a goal, and there is as of yet no real conclusive evidence for any of this. At best, any evidence of the sort remains entirely conjectural. All we know is that certain things, or should I say a great many things, appear to be rule governed. At the quantum level things get messy, but that may be simply because we don’t understand everything.

    That being said there is no contradiction for scientist/atheists to use rational thinking as a tool to investigate the rule governed nature of things. You mistaken ‘order’ with ‘rational design’ those are two different things. Order can happen simply because of the inherent properties of something, whereas rational design needs to be created and intended. For instance, I buy a box of cereal. This cereal is made up of two things: light corn flakes and heavy dried fruit pieces. Lo and behold, when I go to serve myself a bowl of cereal I discover that most of the heavy fruit pieces are at the bottom of the box. Now why is that? With your way of thinking I’m should view this as a proof of intelligent rational design, something intended, yet there is nothing intelligent or rational about the fruit pieces neatly all going to the bottom leaving the corn flakes at the top, it is simply the laws of gravity doing what they know best, pulling the heavier thing down. This isn’t rational design but rather what I would call incidental ordering of matter, a by-product of emergent properties. Scientists try to find patterns to a rule governed Universe. Rule governed ≠ rational intended intelligent design.

    Jim McNeely: ‘Yet why is it irrational to look at the clear evidence of a finely tuned universe exactly tweaked to support life […]’

    Where do you get the idea that the Universe is finely tweaked to support life? We only have evidence for life on Earth at present and we don’t real know if life is found elsewhere in the Universe though many suppose it is. In terms of advanced interstellar or galactic travelling beings, we have no hard of evidence of such. Now why is that? Isn’t the Universe REALLY old and isn’t it fine tuned for life as you say? After all this time shouldn’t we be seeing life everywhere ? Or is there a great wall blocking it? A filter? Perhaps in fact the Universe is really adverse to life?
    Until proven otherwise, the truth is, we seem to be quite alone. If anything, the Universe does not seem to have been intended specifically to harbour life. Think about it, Earth is less than a speck of dust in the middle of an infinite (?) impenetrable and dangerous magma of not-so-life-friendly stuff. Just consider all the trouble we need to go through as humans just to get into space. The Universe is in no way life-friendly as far as we can see. Life is fragile and conditioned to the extremely limited and specific environments in which it arose. If we exist it is probably out of chance, and again an incidental by-product of the ordering of matter. Why? Because it could happen. That’s all. There need not be a ‘plan’. The heavier bits of cereal go to the bottom of the box. What is the meaning of that? There need not be any.

    Of course I could be wrong, and there could very well be a plan, but that is within the realm of conjecture. There no real observable evidence for it at the time speaking.


  3. I deeply apologize for waiting so long to approve this comment. I have been pretty busy with other things and I have been neglectful of this site. I always approve all comments unless it is out and out spam. Thank you for a thoughtful response.

  4. The reason we even have science is because the belief in a Creator convinced people we should expect predictable and repeatable phenomena, consistent with having been designed with specific capabilities. If they believed something from nothing were possible, there’d be no reason to assume such science was a necessary part of reality, because then any anything could just happen no matter what processes were typically involved. This isn’t some Christian revisionist propaganda, non Christian historians acknowledge that the premises of Christianity were the greatest influence for scientific discovery being possible.
    People had seen for all of history that things happen dependent of specific reactions to other things in nature, but it wasn’t until people carefully considered what was written in the bible that experimental and repeatable science as we know it now started. Clearly just seeing a correlation with things in nature wasn’t enough to conclude there were more complex things going on, without needing to deduce there is a creator. Greek natural philosophy knew there was a dependent relationship between things observed in nature, which of course contributed much to the discovery of science as well, but they never developed methods of experimentation to discover the fundamental processes for how things work. The bible taught that there is order in reality produced by an orderly being who wants us to rejoice in his creation as a testament to his wisdom and power. This influenced scientists to discover how things worked. Islam taught that Allah could do and change anything as he pleased so there was no need to see how things worked in nature. Hindu religions taught that this reality is an illusion. Polytheistic religions had no reason to assume there was a consistently working universe, because different deities had designed different phenomena and were constantly in conflict with one another. There’d be no one keeping things stable and consistently designed if there were so many creators making things work any number of ways, and starting conflicts, leaving the universe to fend for itself. That’s why most of known science was discovered by Christians. Everything in the universe works a specific way because of how they are designed, and is why the vast majority of scientists who have lived were convinced that it’s all more evidence for God. Bible believing scientist discoveries.
    Physics: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Maxwell, William Thompson.
    Chemistry: Robert Boyle, John Dalton, William Ramsay.
    Biology: John Ray, Carolus Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Rudolf Virchow, Louis Agassiz, Edward Blyth.
    Geology: Nicolaus Steno, John Woodward, David Brewster, William Buckland, Georges Cuvier.
    Astronomy: Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, William Herschel, Edward Maunder.
    Mathematics: Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz.

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