What do you tell your kids, or your friends, when they play back the “New Atheist” argument that humanity is nothing more than a special sort of machine whose highest mental capacities soon will be surpassed by computers? Or that we are playthings in the hands of blind evolution, and that our notion of moral responsibility is an illusion?
I recommend Scott Shay’s 2018 book, In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism.
Here, in summary, is why the “New Atheist” arguments are outrageously wrong, in a meditation I published earlier at Asia Times.
Scientists are confused about every foundational problem in physics and biology. The more confused they get, the more prevalent the notion becomes that the human brain is just another machine and human consciousness is a byproduct of electromagnetic effluvia. Never mind that we don’t know what an electron is, let alone an atom, not to mention a molecule, and we don’t know why such things interact with each other.
The trouble is that people want to believe that their thoughts and impulses are determined by something other than their own judgment. The popularity of scientific determinism has jumped while the explanatory power of science has bumped up against its own limitations, whether acknowledged or not. The irony is that our longing for determinism has nothing to do with science as such. On the contrary, the popularity of scientific determinism has grown along with obviously pre-scientific kinds of determinism, notably astrology, which is enjoying a revival among millennials. These considerations came to mind reading Scott Shay’s book In Good Faith, which contrasts the claims of biblical religion to the old idolatry of the pagan world and its contemporary avatars.
Shay observes, “The Bible assumes human beings have the ability to make moral choices. But today, many scientists, particularly neuroscientists, have begun to question the idea that man possesses any such things as ‘free will.’ The Bible takes for granted that man knows the difference between good and evil, even if we are tempted to deceive ourselves. Scientists, in contrast, are not so certain. In the book Free Will, Sam Harris takes the position that free will is illusory. At the same time, he recognizes, as do other neuroscientists, that as humans we can consciously deliberate and make choices. So what is the current debate on free will all about?” The full-credit answer requires reading his book. Below are a few pointers.
The evolutionary biologist Yuval Harari, who believes that human brains will meld with machines in a union of biological and artificial intelligence, has sold 30 million copies of books in which he claims that the human race is the mere product of natural processes and that free will is an illusion. But Harari looks at man-machine through both sides of the looking-glass.
“History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods,” he advises on his website. By this he means that evolution and illusion made us the miserable creatures we are now, but that once we program the computers to reprogram ourselves and tweak our DNA, we will be self-determining machines – sort of the sentient machines in The Terminator, except we (or perhaps the Silicon Valley billionaires who lionize Harari) will be masters of the process. The best antidote to Harari’s dark vision in the bookstores today is Scott Shay’s 2018 volume In Good Faith. I will return to this. But a brief recapitulation of the scientific issues is in order first.
The Aramaic word “chutzpah” was adopted into Yiddish as qualifier for over-the-top effrontery, as in the case of the son who murders his parents and asks the court for leniency on the grounds that he is an orphan. A similar degree of chutzpah attaches to the “evolutionary biologists,” neuroscientists and pundits collectively referred to as the “New Atheists.” They claim that biblical religion is unprovable and dependent on big assumptions. So look who’s talking.
The exact sciences entered the 20th century confident that all the mysteries of nature had been laid bare to human reason, except for the tying up of a few loose ends. They concluded the century in a state of utter confusion. The philosophers, who for millennia had run after the scientists with broom and dustpan to make order of the implications of their discoveries for our notions of man and the world, fared even worse. Two generations ago, the average reader of newspapers and magazines knew the names of living scientists – Planck, Einstein, Schrödinger or Hawking – as well as the names of famous philosophers: Bergson, Heidegger, Dewey, Sartre or Rorty. Stephen Hawking died in 2018, and with him the opportunity for documentary filmmakers to feature a scientist of standing whose name was known to the public.
That in itself is not remarkable. Science has bogged down for centuries before, waiting for the next paradigm shift. The truly remarkable circumstance is that large parts of the public have embraced the shabbiest and least credible products of our unsettled science as an ersatz religious dogma. Meanwhile our picture of the universe is more confused than it has been since before Isaac Newton published his laws of motion in 1687.
In the very large, cosmology tells us that we live in one of an infinite number of possible of multiverses. Thanks to Professor Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, educated people know that the equations of physics (specifically those of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) become meaningless just before what we call the “Big Bang,” for lack of a better word. Because we have no means to describe it, of course, we do not know what it is.
In the very small, quantum theory offers useful results – all of solid-state electronics is founded on it – but we do not know why it works or what it means. Each morning my news feed offers one article or another from a popular scientific publication declaring that some “quantum mystery” has been solved, except that it hasn’t been. We are no better off than medieval alchemists who stumbled on some useful chemical reactions while believing that they were performing magic. Discover magazine described the “map of madness” recently as follows:
“At least a dozen interpretations of quantum mechanics vie for physicists’ hearts and minds, each with a radically different take on reality. Adán Cabello, a physicist at the University of Seville in Spain, recently summed up the confusing, incompatible gaggle of viewpoints as ‘a map of madness.’
“There’s the Many Worlds model, which posits the existence of innumerable parallel realities. If that seems a tad extravagant, you might prefer QBism (pronounced ‘cubism’), where the quantum world and the scientists who observe it are inextricably bound together in an unpredictable, interactive universe. The central issue is that physicists don’t know what the most basic equation of quantum theory – a mathematical formulation called the wave function – actually represents.”
The paradoxes, contradictions and utter weirdness have been with us for so long, and have proved so resistant to investigation, that physics has lost its ability to make grand statements about the nature of reality.
Biology hasn’t fared any better. An enormous literature documents the collapse of Charles Darwin’s theory in light of evidence (or lack of it), artfully summarized in Claremont Review of Books by the distinguished computer scientist David Gelernter. The Cambrian explosion of new species, Darwin’s critics observe, should have been preceded by pre-Cambrian forms, but those simply do not exist:
“The trunk was supposed to branch into many different species, each species giving rise to many genera, and towards the top of the tree you would find so much diversity that you could distinguish separate phyla – the large divisions (sponges, mosses, mollusks, chordates, and so on) that comprise the kingdoms of animals, plants, and several others – take your pick. But, as [David] Berlinski points out, the fossil record shows the opposite: ‘representatives of separate phyla appearing first followed by lower-level diversification on those basic themes.’ In general, ‘most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged.’ The incremental development of new species is largely not there.”
And that is not the worst of it. The new science of DNA proves mathematically that the odds of a random mutation leading to an improvement in the adaptability of a living organism are effectively zero, Gelernter shows. Even a small protein molecule has a chain of 150 amino acids. If we rearrange them at random we mostly obtain gibberish. In fact, “of all 150-link amino acid sequences, 1 in 10^74 will be capable of folding into a stable protein. To say that your chances are 1 in 10^74 is no different, in practice, from saying that they are zero. It’s not surprising that your chances of hitting a stable protein that performs some useful function, and might therefore play a part in evolution, are even smaller,” Gelernter explains. That is Establishment science, not the murmurings of the Creationist fringe.
In short, the evolutionary biologists can’t explain how animal life made the great leap from protozoans to arthropods in the Cambrian Explosion, let alone how natural selection through random mutation might have shaped the human mind. Biologists do brilliant and important research, to be sure, and the profession should not be blamed for the exaggerated claims made by a few publicists like Harari or Harvard’s Steven Pinker.
If the science is so dodgy, why is scientism so popular? A good place to look for an answer is in the reason for the popularity of deterministic thinking that obviously is not scientific, for example astrology. As Julie Beck reported last year in The Atlantic, “Astrology is a meme, and it’s spreading in that blooming, unfurling way that memes do. On social media, astrologers and astrology meme machines amass tens or hundreds of thousands of followers…. The practice has grabbed a foothold in online culture, especially for young people.”
Beck explains, “People tend to turn to astrology in times of stress. A small 1982 study by the psychologist Graham Tyson found that ‘people who consult astrologers’ did so in response to stressors in their lives – particularly stress ‘linked to the individual’s social roles and to his or her relationships,’ Tyson wrote. ‘Under conditions of high stress, the individual is prepared to use astrology as a coping device even though under low-stress conditions he does not believe in it.’ According to American Psychological Association survey data, since 2014, Millennials have been the most stressed generation, and also the generation most likely to say their stress has increased in the past year since 2010. Millennials and Gen Xers have been significantly more stressed than older generations since 2012.”
Think of this in a slightly different way: People who feel they have no control over their lives believe that some force must have control over their lives, and in their fear and despair will believe in every sort of nonsense. There is a bitter irony in the predicament of Generation X, which has been told that it is free to follow its impulses, up to and including forms of sexuality that until quite recently were held to be aberrant. The more readily people indulge their impulses, the less control they have over their lives, and the more inclined they are to believe that some cosmic power – the constellations, random mutation of DNA, artificial intelligence, or whatever – actually is in control.
That is one side of the old pagan worldview, which saw human beings as the helpless playthings of nature and its personification in the gods. But the gods were more than a personification of nature: They were avatars for earthly elites who acted like gods on Earth. That is just where Yuval Harari believes we are headed. What will happen, he asks in his book Homo Deus, when “the principal force of evolution – natural selection – is replaced by intelligent design? What will happen to democracy when Google and Facebook come to know our likes and our political preferences better than we know them ourselves? What will happen to the welfare state when computers push humans out of the job market and create a massive new ‘useless class’?” No wonder the tech titans of Silicon Valley make such a fuss over this strange little vegan who spends two hours a day in meditation. He visualizes them as a new class of demigods shaping the lives of the mere mortals down below.
Shay is the anti-Harari. The New Atheism turns out to be the old idolatry packaged into a smartphone app. He observes:
“The elites of the ancient Near East commandeered ancient gods for political purposes. The first gods were imagined as the spirits of places and natural processes. As the societies in the region became more organized, leaders refashioned gods in their own image for their own gain. By the time of the Bible, the ancient Near Eastern gods in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Canaan were projections of the earthly rulers who described them in the myths they wrote and guarded.
“These fictional gods competed fiercely to assert dominance in the heavenly court just like their counterpart earthly kings. In Mesopotamian mythology, for example, the god Marduk battles his rival Apau. Ancient Near Eastern peoples did not trust their gods, who could make your crops flourish or kill your cows in spiteful punishment if they felt neglected, or even if they just felt like it. They also randomly abused others simply because they could. The Canaanite god Baal, for example, was rampant in his lust for bestiality and incest.”
The pagan religions of the past were founded on the fatalistic submission of the weak to the powerful. Biblical religion invites the humblest as well as the most exalted to act as free people, by taking moral responsibility for their actions. It demanded equality before the law for rich and poor, for home-born and stranger, with the premise that every human being was a free agent with the right to live without fear of predation from the strong or oppression from the rich, and that every human being was equally responsible for his or her actions. Despite the efforts of philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas and beyond to “prove” the existence of God, an exercise that long since has fallen into discredit, no philosopher can prove the existence of a God who cares about the stranger and the indigent, the widow and the orphan.
Shay’s book does not hector the reader to accept religious faith. Rather it demonstrates that the premise of biblical religion requires a leap of faith no greater than that of the atheists. Its consequence is the birth of human freedom, by making human beings free moral agents. The consequences of the old idolatry as well as the new paganism, by contrast, are repugnant.