Atheism and Carl Sagan’s God, part 1 of 2

Please note that this essay has been moved to True Freethinker where it was posted at this link.


  1. Greetings, Mariano. You say:

    Absolutely everything in the universe can be lined up and presented as exhibits in a chain of evidence of God’s creative work.
    The atheist has made at least two errors in this regard:
    One, is thinking that as long as they can concoct materialistic tales about how things may have or could have (or should have?) happened that is enough to ward off God.
    Two, is thinking that the more materialistic causes we find for materialistic effects the more God becomes superfluous. However, since God created the material realm we should only expect that material effects have material causes.

    One: we do not concoct "materialistic tales" in order to "ward off God", but rather to explain things. Some of these explanations, especially about the origin of the Universe and similar topics where there is little information to go on, are still highly speculative, and the honest scientist will say "I don't know". The theist will jump in and say "I do know: Goddidit". But as I and others have said over and over, without being answered, this is no explanation at all: God's existence is not accounted for, and "Goddidit" doesn't give us any new information that explains or predicts any observable features of the world. Thus, to call God an "explanation" is using the word in a rather peculiar sense, in my opinion.

    Two: in the absence of any evidence that God created the material realm, the default position is the naturalistic one. "Since God created the material realm" remains to be shown. Evidence?

    Mariano: I know you are very busy. In the post following this one you apologize for not answering us, and that's of course perfectly understandable. But here you go again, putting up another lengthy post about basically the same issues, rather than answering a large number of open threads on similar topics.

    It is of course your prerogative to decide how to apportion your time and energy. I enjoy the opportunity to discuss these things with you and the others here. But I would hate to see this blog go in the same direction as, say, Ray Comfort's blog, where he simply writes post after post and practically never responds to the readers. Just my humble suggestion.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

  2. Ray Comfort... I think he's probably got a banana in his hand as we speak. No wait, that's not a banana, and is that Kirk Cameron with him? That's so wrong.

  3. I find that people seek the god-according-to-me. God surely is to be found, or so people assume, in the field of my particular interest. Scientists want God to demonstrate Himself in ways that are detectable through the scientific method. Historians want to see God’s work in history. Mystics want to feel the presence of God, et al, etc.

    Ok then. Let's forget about god-according-to-me. Let's talk about god-according-to-you.

    Do you believe that God does things that are detectable by the scientific method?

    If yes, then please tell us what experiment(s) to run or at least give us some kind of framework from which to design an experiment.

    If no, then the god hypothesis may be true but it would have no ability to explain anything in the natural world. Intelligent design would be doomed from the start, since its success would contradict your answer to this question.

    I've asked this question in a few different ways on this blog and I've never gotten any kind of response from a theist.

    While materialists may be looking through telescopes and microscopes, looking at the moon and obits the majority of the entire planet’s population, regardless of chronology, geography or theology, claims to have had experiences with God. To discount this as mass delusion or discount it as primitive superstitious ignorance is to make assertions and not to explain anything.

    I completely agree with you that the ubiquity of belief in a higher power demands an explanation. Anyone who says, "Eh...so what?" isn't giving the phenomenon nearly the respect it deserves. But if you're going to search for an explanation, you have to allow for the possibility that the answer may be something other than "because God exists."

    Daniel Dennett's book "Breaking the Spell" is an attempt to get people to start applying to tools we've developed for understanding other phenomena to understand this one.

    I absolutely leave open the possibility that the answer is "because God exists". The problem is that I don't know how to test this hypothesis. All I know how to do is to seek out natural alternative explanations to either confirm them or eliminate them as possibilities. This isn't because of some materialistic bias I have--it's due to the fact that the process for discovering natural explanations is well-understood whereas the process for discovering supernatural explanations is either non-existent or unknown to me.

    Mariano, a common complaint that you make is that atheists just take it on faith that a natural explanation will eventually be found. But that's just not the case. What is true is that goddidit remains one of many possible explanations that have not been tried yet. And can you blame scientists for focusing on the hypotheses that are at least in principle possible to confirm?

  4. "But here you go again, putting up another lengthy post about basically the same issues, rather than answering a large number of open threads on similar topics."

    Aye. As an atheist...

    ...you know you've been hanging out at a theistic blog for too long when:

    1. You find yourself trying to help the author to maintain the level of the blog

    2. You have to plead with the author to put up more of a fight

    (..add your own..)

    Mariano: Isn't is about time we just close up the shop here and go home?

    I mean, isn't there a contradiction in "Answering Atheism" and "Atheism is Dead"? Or do you talk to the dead a lot? Or as in this case, talk about the supposedly deceased rather than to them? I mean, all this spouting of articles into oblivion just for your own (whose else? speak up if you're there) satisfaction, isn't this just masturbation? What are you accomplishing, shouldn't you ask yourself that?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. That is silliness. Many blogs simply contain an author's thoughts without him or her actually interacting heavily with the readers.

    And of course there may be a literal contradiction between answering a dead person, but you know full well what the title of the blog is supposed to convey: that atheism is morally and intellectually bankrupt and ought to be answered on those grounds. You're being kinda pretentious, don't you think?

  7. "That is silliness. Many blogs simply contain an author's thoughts without him or her actually interacting heavily with the readers."

    Absolutely. Mine's an example, but that's because I don't have any readers. But if AiD is heading this way (and lately one has to wonder), then that is certainly a break with its prior history. Mariano is the only blog member posting regularly nowadays, and he doesn't have time to address the comments that his own articles have generated, so what are the readers to make of this? M and Stan are out, netlosh has never posted anything, MedicineMan has fled to other nooks, irish is doing whatever, Croath being silent lately, and you not following through what you start. RD Miksa was a recent exception to this general trend of decline. What is the state of affairs at AiD, really?

    As for "pretentious," I don't think it's unfair to call him out on "Answering Atheism" when there is very little actual "answering" happening, and mainly just a lot of monologue. As one commenter stated here, "I thought this blog would have some good debate; instead it’s a list of articles." That's maybe not completely true, but not totally wrong either.

  8. Whatever our contributors do with their time is their business. Blogs evolve over time, and more than likely if people don't like it they leave. We have a significant readership still despite changes that would end most blogs.

    I saw the earlier comment you linked too, and I'd say that he is just confused as to the nature of interaction between atheists and theists. A quick perusal through our articles section reveals that many of them are critically engaging specific claims of many non-religious people. This is the exact same thing that atheists do, and the exact same thing anyone involved in polemics would write.

    Besides, there is a fairly good selection of debates between atheists and theists under our audio and video section. If he wants some one on one action he is invited to peruse the archive.

  9. Of course, you run the blog your way, I don't presume to tell you how. I was just making some observations, albeit in a facetious manner, about some trends in AiD of late.

    I mean, let's face it: the blog authors aren't experts on the subject matter of the blog, atheism - they're experts on the antithesis (if "expert" is the right word). To me, that puts the blog in a different category than expert blogs which I'm happy to just read for information. AiD purports to be "Your source for information about atheism," but half the time the blog authors have no clue what they're talking about when they describe atheism. That implies, at least to my mind, that debate is really the principal raison d'être for this blog. So when most of the cast goes awol and the most prolific author is so prolific that he has no time to engage in debates of his own produce, this kind of signals that something's rotten in the state of Kansas. IMHO.

  10. What you seem to be supporting is the idea that specific claims about the supernatural can not or should not be made. But doesn't that leave you with supernatural realm that is nothing but a horribly vague Rorschach test? You make no specific claims as to the nature of God, so the concept of God is not about something 'out there' but is really nothing more that what ever a person wants to read into it.

  11. Until you can provide a positive ontology for the immaterial or supernatural all you offer is a broken concept.

  12. Zilch, Kuhlmann, Adonais;
    All: I appreciate your time, readership, commentatorship and acquaintance.
    I hope that you will all pardon this generic and succinct response but I read the comments here and thought that there was a general trend:

    My track record is that of doing the research, writing, posting and debating everyone at the same time (oh, and living my non-cyber life). Try enjoying a nice weekend with your family only to find 30-40 comments and knowing that after another day or two of posting something you they will grow exponentially. Also, keep in mind that when I post several responses at once, as I generally do since I wait for them to build up, I get responses back and onwards and upwards goes the exponent.

    Sadly, when you all begin to write comments about me not responding to comment you are only making matters worse and making me waste very, very valuable time reading complaints.
    Patience my dear friends, patience.
    To answer Adonis: when you cut the head off of a chicken you may still have to run after it to catch it as it bee bops and scats all over the place.

    Why is atheism dead? When we take into consideration what we know about the universe, knowledge which grows every day, when we take into consideration the very highest philosophy and science the universe implies a creator and even the creator’s characteristics.

    That some of you respond by stating, “What a coincidence,” “What a fortuitous accident,” “It just is,” “It just happened to happen,” etc. is about as convincing to me as when you hear “Goddidit.”

    But now comes the next step: both of us want to know the “how” of it: you want to know how the accidental material world functions and I want to know how the created material world functions. This is where the scientific method comes in. Whether God’s handiwork can be discovered in the material world, in the functioning of it, I am not certain (a lot depends on how we define our terms, etc.) Let us consider Intelligent Design for example, this is a very, very new science. It is newer than the science about which I am always told to give it time to mature. Surely, you will be just as generous.

    I can say that I believe that God created life on earth but that says nothing, to either of us, as to “how” God did it and we would both love to know.

    Although, I will submit that the Bible provides quite a few predictions of subsequently scientifically attested features of the world.

    Science is necessarily reductionist right? I suppose an answer of “Yes.” I find it quite odd that someone would take a method for reducing the universe into parts to be manipulated and dissected and turn that into a worldview. For example, we could say that I am a bio-organism, a meat sack animated by electricity and bio-chemical reactions. But that tells you nothing about “me.” I am more than this reductionist view and the more that I am cannot even be considered under the scientific method. But again, if we want to know “how” my bio-mass functions then, sure, apply the scientific method and dissect away.


  13. "Let us consider Intelligent Design for example, this is a very, very new science. It is newer than the science about which I am always told to give it time to mature. Surely, you will be just as generous."

    Depends on what you mean by generous. ID can take all the time it wants, if that will help it demonstrate that it ultimately offers a more powerful explanatory paradigm than evolution. But until that happens, rejecting its speculations is not being "ungenerous," but simply being practical and following the norms of science.

    You'd be amazed at how many "fledgling" theories are created all the time, especially in physics, by enthusiastic amateurs or kooks who think they have proven Einstein wrong (a very popular hobby), or have a new theory of everything, or whatever. It is entirely possible that one such underdog theory might one day turn out to be correct, but that doesn't mean that we should be generous to any and every crackpot theory that comes along. Respect in science, like in life, has to be earned.

    "Science is necessarily reductionist right? I suppose an answer of “Yes.”"

    With the simplistic notion of reductionism that you have, the answer would be no, science is not necessarily reductionist in that way.

    For any phenomena that we encounter, we may not initially not know at what level of description to attempt to explain and understand it. Finding the appropriate level of description can be a research project in itself (e.g. psychology, ecology, theory of mind, etc.), and in this investigation reductionism is a method of exploring the different avenues to find out what works. But there is no rule or principle of reductionism which says that everything must necessarily be described at the lowest possible level; that would just lead to greedy reductionism in almost all cases except high-energy physics. Every phenomena will find some "optimal" level of description, or quite often a mix of levels, that yields the greatest understanding of it. To then reduce the atoms of the explanation further will just not add any new information about the phenomenon or epiphenomenon you're investigating. You can perhaps formally express it ("biochemical meat sack"), but it adds nothing to your understanding of it.

    So reductionism is not what you think it is; it is not an imperative to always push explanations down to the quantum level. But reductionism in the broader sense of explaining a complex phenomena or epiphenomena in terms of something that is "simpler" or less complex, that is probably a general feature of scientific explanation. Some of the most fascinating research today are showing examples of where that "simpler" explanation of something actually exists on a higher and more abstract level than the actual phenomenon itself (e.g. phenomena of emergence, or other substrate-independent phenomena of an algorithmic nature).

    "I find it quite odd that someone would take a method for reducing the universe into parts to be manipulated and dissected and turn that into a worldview."

    But you said it yourself (and I said too above) - it's a method of doing something, not a worldview.

    "For example, we could say that I am a bio-organism, a meat sack animated by electricity and bio-chemical reactions. But that tells you nothing about “me.” I am more than this reductionist view"

    Yes, but this "reductionist" view is a straw man of your own making. Of course you are a biochemical meat sack, but nobody invokes that as a scientific explanation of what or who you are.

    Now, if I could make one wish, it would be that the next time you talk about reductionism in science, you have considered some of the input you have received (not just in this thread, but on many many occasions). I don't presume to think that you would ever be argued out of your religious beliefs by atheists, but I do think it's about time that you level up your understanding of science and atheism, considering the amount of feedback you have had over the last year or so. :-)

  14. Mariano: you say-

    Although, I will submit that the Bible provides quite a few predictions of subsequently scientifically attested features of the world.

    Name one, please. I just hope it's not the Leviticus passage about blood being life, since any caveman could have told you that as well.

  15. Adonais;
    I understand that the term “science” (whatever that means to whoever is using it at any given time) is a security blanket for atheists. The problem comes in when they begin to pretend that a scientific explanation about something is applicable as a worldview. Do a keyword search for “science” on this blog and your computer will explode. The term is employed as catch all that is, apparently thought to be all encompassing. Science is the best tool we have but it is to be used for the appropriate project. A hammer is the very best tool for certain project but it is to be discarded when the project is the removal of a splinter from our finger.

    What understanding of atheism? The one that says that atheism is merely a lack of believe in god(s) or the one that tell me atheist believe this and that and the other and so you are wrong if you do not characterize atheists as such? Moreover, I believe that reductionism has come up a grand total of one time. In all seriousness I am asking honestly: how have I misrepresented science and atheism?

    Thus, far it does not seem that I will be argued out of my “religious” beliefs by atheists because they generally expect to put my head in a quaint thought-box. But this is an interesting point: am I not merely a bio-organism whose Darwinian survival tactic is to hold certain delusory beliefs? If so, then why are you attempting to destroy my survival mechanism?

    See comments to Michael Shermer and the Greatest Miracle.