Mere Machines

New Atheists

In the days of the frothing-at-the-mouth “new atheists” starting in around 2008, many of the more vulnerable fence-sitters on the God question were swallowed up and inoculated against rational thought on the subject.


What followed was an even larger rise in the number of people who apparently think one can remain neutral on this subject.  They are referred to sometimes as “Nones,” people who do not identify themselves with a particular religion or denomination or church.  Unlike the first group, however, the “nones,” or at least the younger among them, are probably not sitting around waiting for someone to tell them atheism is ok.  They may be as skeptical of the materialists’ position as they are of the theists’.

Perhaps for that reason, the anti-God arguments in many venues are softening.  Atheism is presented as more of an acceptable lifestyle choice, rather than a snarky Christians-are-such-boobs polemic.  We remarked on a particularly embarrassingly shallow example of such a presentation here.

A more recent example is Sean Carroll’s recent book The Big Picture.  He attempts a more reasoned and complete explanation of the atheist position, adding the phrase “poetic naturalism” to the discussion.  Stripped of the soft-voice presentation, however, his views are just as hard-line in favor of atheism as are Dawkins’ and the late Hitchens’.  Even though he has better manners, his arguments for atheism suffer from the same gaps of logic and depend on the same emotional, anti-religious predisposition.

Assertion of Determinism

Here’s an example.  Carroll argues that three elements of our physical universe support the principle of determinism:  time’s arrow, the big bang, and the principle of entropy.  Time’s arrow is the puzzling reality that time has a direction.  We can plan what we’re going to do tomorrow, but not what we did yesterday.  The big bang is the currently most viable theory for the beginnings of the universe, and philosophically, it is significant because it means there was a beginning, and events that followed that moment of beginning.  Entropy is the idea of disorder following from order.  You can easily mix cream in your coffee but you can’t really unmix it.

From these three observations of physics, Carroll (himself a physicist and a popular writer on subjects of physics) concludes that what happens in the universe is pre-determined.  He cites these three observable phenomena of the physical world for the proposition that Laplace had it right:  the next thing to happen is determined by the state of the universe just before it happened.  That is, everything that occurs is determined by the sum of all the vectors of matter in motion to that moment; a number large beyond imagining, yet finite.

It must be said that Carroll attempts to soften the philosophical blow of this kind of determinism, even as he argues for it.  To avoid the obvious implication that people are mere machines, he argues that people aren’t deterministic in the same way as, say, the planets’ orbits, because people are too complex.  But as we pointed out here, that doesn’t ameliorate the harshness of his determinism.  It just means people are a bit less predictable than planets.

Begging the Question

But here’s the even more fundamental problem with this conclusion of Carroll’s and of those who share his severe materialism.  Time’s arrow, the Big Bang, and entropy do not argue for materialism, much less materialistic determinism.  One searches in vain for the causal linkages in Carroll’s argument.  It amounts to a bare assertion:  everything we experience now is traceable to the Big Bang, and all it means is that everything now is because of everything that went before.

In the use of formal logic, we would say this “begs the question.”  Not that it raises another question, but rather that a premise from which one argues already incorporates the conclusion.  In this situation, Carroll is essentially saying that everything in the universe is mechanistic because it is mechanistic.

This isn’t only a refutation of Carroll’s argument.  His book just provides a ready example of this flawed way of thinking.  This is intended as a refutation of all materialists who, despite their allegiance to dogmatic empiricism, are really only saying that they observe some mechanistic processes in nature, therefore all of nature is mechanistic.

Let’s ponder that for a moment.  From the dawn of man, we have observed what could be described as mechanistic processes.  It is basically our reliance on observed causes and effects.  Stars in the night sky follow a pattern which changes with the season.  Friction causes heat which can cause fire which can make food more palatable and safer to eat.  The movement of objects follow mathematically-describable patterns, and energy provokes movement corresponding to the level of energy.  The most basic observations of our existence involve mechanistic processes.  The God hypothesis, whether of the personal God kind, as with the Hebrews, or the impersonal uncaused-cause, as with the Greeks, does not take the place of mechanistic explanations for much of what we observe.  We have a greater depth of explanation for the processes we observe, but nothing is really new about reality.  What’s new is the assertion that mechanistic processes are all there is.

It’s a little puzzling, really.  Suppose you were suddenly deposited on a planet way out in space.  You encounter a strange machine.  It is obviously not an artifact of the environment.  Someone put it here.  It takes some time to understand, but you’ve got plenty of time.  After years of study you come to know a great deal about how the machine works, and what it does.  But you still have no idea how it got there, nor why you have arrived to engage with it.  Does it make sense that because you now understand the machine, you conclude that everything is a machine and nothing more?


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