Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 13

Chapter 13: I Just Happen to Believe in One Less God than You
We find ourselves arriving at 40% into Randal’s dense little book, so you can let out a sigh of relief. We’re almost to the halfway point, and thus far it feels like we’ve ran a veritable mental marathon—one of wild twists and turns, ill-defined terms, far too many presumptions to count, and practically no justifications for the claims made—but to be fair, I wasn’t expecting it to be a scholarly work when I set out to review it. I am, however, a little disappointed in how unscholarly it has proved to be. So, once again, I’m merely providing my atheist perspective to the illusive ramblings of Randal Rauser, Christian theologian and apologist.

Sheridan begins the chapter by asserting that “I just happen to believe in one less god than you.”

It’s not a wrong statement, but we should find it no surprise that Randal takes umbrage at it.

“I’ve heard that line before,” he begins. “You’re assuming that you can take God out of the picture and everything else stays the same. But that’s just not true. If you really are an atheist, you end up rejecting not just God but all sorts of other things as well.”

Watch Randal go! Telling atheists what atheists believe, again. Even so, he's not wrong about atheists rejecting more than just God. A-theism, or absent theism, is technically the rejection of the whole theistic claim, in this case it is the rejection of a specific type of theism, Christian theism. A rejection of Christian theism is a rejection of the Christian God along with other metaphysical aspects to Christian belief, such as the soul, angels, demons, the trinity, the devil, the resurrection, talking snakes and all the rest.

However, I’m not quite sure what Randal means when he says we’re assuming that everything stays the same when we take God out of the picture. So, what if we are? It’s only a deduction predicated on the assumption that naturalism is true. If there’s no God, and naturalism is true, then of course everything remains the same—because that means things simply are the way they are regardless of whether or not God exists.

I think what is happening here is Randal is allowing his bias against the validity of naturalism to influence his thinking about what atheists purport to believe. It’s Randal’s hang up, but not atheists. Randal rejects naturalism in favorite of a theistic metaphysics, but to say atheists are wrong because we think things would remain the same minus God is to presuppose naturalism is wrong, and only Randal is doing that here. But it’s from this initial misrepresentation of the atheist position that Randal begins to inform what atheists ought to believe.

Randal challenges Sheridan on the belief in the existence of angels and souls. “Now are you merely without belief in angels and souls, or do you believe there are no angels or souls?”

Now a pretty authentic sounding dialog begins as Sheridan answers the question, so I will quote it in script format.

Sheridan: “Do you believe there are leprechauns and pixies living in the woods?”

Randal: “No, Sheridan, I don’t. So do you believe there are no angels?”

Sheridan: “Sure, in the same way that you believe there are no leprechauns and pixies.”

Randal: “I believe there are no leprechauns and pixies because those are characters of mythology and there’s no evidence for them.”

Sheridan: “Ditto for angels.”

Randal: “Certainly angels can be found in mythology, complete with wings and harps. But that doesn’t mean that the basic idea of an angel as a non-physical agent is merely mythological. Lions and wolves can also be found in mythology, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t also exist in reality.”

First let’s address the point that lions and wolves are also found in mythology. Indeed, they are. And often times they also happen to be gods in disguise, or they have the uncanny ability to speak, or they have some other form of magical property, and we know for certain that these types of magical lions and wolves don’t exist in reality. Even if we were dealing with mundane lions and wolves, the fact of the matter is, we would recognize that they were part of a mythological construct due to other key aspects, such as interacting or engaging with proper mythological entities. So, it’s really just a moot point.

Yet when it comes to strictly mythological entities, such as leprechauns and pixies,  well, there is no distinguishable difference between these and angels and God. They have, after all, the exact same evidence for their supposed existence. Which is absolutely zero.

Of course, this is why we call Randal an apologist and not a genuine philosopher. Instead of weighing both mythological entities equally, he tips the scales in favor of his preferred belief system. Such a bias inevitably causes him to leap to defend his cherished convictions while simply dismissing other equally viable, equally mythological, claims.

Basically, all Randal has done here is say that since he thinks Christianity is real, and not mythical, then he assumes there’s more to the Christian God. But he very well could have said since he thinks Rumpelstiltskin is real, and not mythical, then he assumes there’s more to leprechauns. Randal is simply guilty of favoritism here. Or to phrase it like Jedi Master Yoda, favoritism an argument does not make.

Sheridan then explains that he doesn’t believe in souls because everything (about humans) can be explained by appealing to the brain. Randal challenges that assumption, but I have to point out that it is a poor apologetic move. Now Randal is merely using an argument from ignorance to preach to the choir. He knows other Christians will merely agree with him, so he feels free to contend the point without, once again, seeking the opinion of credentialed cognitive scientists and neurologists.

If it seems hypocritical that Randal always harps on the “credentials” of atheists who challenge his position, then presumes to know everything about other fields of study he isn’t qualified to speak on, then you’d be right. It’s a harsh criticism, I know, but Randal's tendency to play the "credentials" trump car in his favor is something which we’ve seen several times throughout this book, and frankly, it grows tiresome. Not only because hypocrisy is, in general, bothersome, but because Randal should know better—yet almost seems oblivious to the fact that he’s doing it.

Sheridan then rightly asserts, “If you damage the brain you change the person. If you destroy the brain you lose the person. No souls need apply.”

Randal fires back:

“The growth of our knowledge of the brain certainly shows that there’s an intimate relationship between brain and mind; there’s no doubt about that. But it’s a leap to go from this intimate-dependence relationship to the conclusion that the mind is only the brain.”

Really? How so Randal? What are your sources?

It’s no surprise that Randal just holds to the assertion without so much as attempting to justify it. Classic Randal.

Sheridan wants to know why such an assumption, based off evidence, is a leap. So Randal gives a rather strained analogy about a Mormon neuroscientist who studies the brain states of coffee drinkers so eruditely that he eventually learns to tell the difference in the brain states of a person who is drinking a cappuccino and someone who is drinking and Americano. He then asks Sheridan, “But with all that knowledge of the brain, would that Mormon scientist who had never tasted espresso know what espresso tastes like?”

Sheridan doesn’t seem to know, but let’s give atheists more credit, shall we? No, of course the scientist wouldn’t know what coffee, espresso or otherwise, tasted like if he had, in point of fact, never tasted it. He would first need to have the experience in order to “know” the taste of coffee. All he can do, however, is study the effects of coffee drinking at the level of the brain. From that he could derive a lot about what such an experience entails but it still wouldn't be the experience itself.

Of course we can see where Randal is going with this brain scientist / coffee drinking analogy. Randal continues:

“At the very least it’s reasonable to conclude that the scientist would not know the taste of coffee even after knowing all of the brain states that accompany the drinking of coffee.”

This is true. After all, he couldn’t “know” with any certainty unless he manipulated his own brain states to match those of coffee drinkers. But this isn’t Randal’s point. Randal wants Sheridan, and subsequently us atheist readers, to understand that

“[M]aybe somebody can know everything about a person’s brain and still not know what’s going on in their mind. And that suggests that the mind is something more than the functioning of the brain.”

Not exactly.

It seems Randal has jumped the gun here. The idea is that brain science, if it could become good enough to know everything at the level of the brain and its interaction with the body, then in theory—replicating the brain states of coffee drinkers would be possible.

Knowing what coffee tastes like would depend on the ability to manipulate the brain signals in a way that they match up, and mimic exactly, the coffee drinker’s brain. It doesn’t actually suggest the mind is more than the functioning of the brain. All it suggests is that we still don’t understand the brain well enough to make that statement, but Randal makes it anyway.

In order to better illustrate how Randal’s analogy fails, let us use a similar one.

In this example let’s talk about “knowing” everything about how a car works but not being able to drive a car. Randal would say something like:

“[M]aybe somebody can know everything about how a car works and still not know how to drive a car. And that suggests that a car is something more than the functioning of mechanical parts.”

No, it means that *driving a car is something more than simply knowing how the mechanical parts function.

There is a difference, after all.

Anyone who has ever driven a manual stick shift for the first time clearly understands this. So Randal’s analogy is flawed, because he is switching from a question of comprehensive understanding about a thing's function, i.e. knowledge of how it functions, to a question of doing, or utilizing a thing's function, and, as you can see, these are actually two entirely different things.

Randal then uses an even worse comparison by invoking C.S. Lewis’ timeless children’s classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. He reminds us that when Lucy told her siblings about the magical land of Narnia that she discovered by stepping through the magical wardrobe, they searched the house, but did not believe her. They even went to the wardrobe and all they found were coats and walls. Narnia was not on the floor plan, so obviously, it didn’t exist. Except, Randal goes on to mention, Lucy really did experience it, and informs us that

“The relationship between the brain and consciousness is something like the relationship between the house and Narnia. When we look for the consciousness within the brain, we can’t find it—consciousness seems to be a reality that transcends that three-pound lump of grey matter altogether.”

If your face melted off from another atomic face-palm, you’re probably not the only one. And once again we have no footnotes or sources to back up such bold assertions. But that really seems all Randal is doing here, asserting that consciousness seems to be a reality that transcends the grey matter of the brain. But without actually talking to some cognitive scientists and neurologists to get their informed take on the question, I can’t help but feel Randal is still confusing the knowledge of how a thing functions with the utilization of the thing's function. Under such a misconception, it would be easy to make the mistake Randal does here.

Sheridan rejects Randal’s analogies which spur Randal on to drive his point home. Using the philosopher Leibniz as an example, Randal says if we walked inside a giant brain the size of a factory, all we would see are neurons firing. We wouldn’t see conscious experience.

Again, Randal seems to insist on maintaining a confusion between knowledge of function and utilization of function. It’s like saying if we popped open the hood of a car, all we’d see are engine parts churning, but we wouldn’t behold the experience of driving. Which is true. But the question is, why would one assume knowing anything about how an engine runs and a car works would be anything like the experience of driving?

Sheridan gets Randal back on track after asking what any of this has to do with a soul. But all we get are more assertions.

“As I said, in the same way that Narnia’s wintry wood transcends the architecture of the country house, so conscious life transcends the architecture of the brain.”

He claims this argument throws into question the claim that souls exist (but it actually doesn’t).Then he goes on to state:

“I’d argue based on the evidence that conscious life is rooted in the soul.”

And more baseless assertions.

“And once you recognize the evidence that immaterial souls may exist, the existence of an immaterial deity becomes that much more plausible.”

Wait, what *evidence? All Randal gave were a couple of poor analogies where we could easily point out an obvious confusion in Randal’s reasoning. How do a couple of poorly devised analogies suddenly count as evidence for the existence of an immaterial soul, is what I’d like to know?

Randal closes the chapter by giving us one more blatant assertion.

“[I]f it’s plausible to view the mind as a non-physical substance that interacts with the brain, then it increases the plausibility of the idea that there could be another nonphysical substance that interacts with the universe.”

I think we can very well answer Randal’s bold-faced assertion with one of our own, “No it doesn’t.”

The existence of one thing simply does not prove the plausibility of the existence of another thing minus any evidence or reason to assume a relationship exists between the two.

The existence of dark matter, for example, does not mean parallel dimensions are more likely to exist. It could be these things are related, but we don’t know, it’s not an assertion we can make based on absolutely no evidence or reason to suppose they are related. Besides this, there is little evidence for either at the moment, so by saying they're related, or one boosts the plausibility of the other, merely results in us talking out of our hats. The same can be said of Randal’s horrible assertions in this entire chapter, a chapter of assertions.

Knowing the mind exists, never mind if it’s an illusion generated by physical processes, much like how a computer program is an artifice generated by physical processes, or whether it’s simply a metaphysical mind—the existence of such does not denote a higher plausibility for existence of a God. They simply are not related claims. All we could assume, is that a mind signifies the plausible existence of a brain, just as a computer program signifies the plausible existence of a computer.

But that’s as much as we could assume. Saying the existence of a computer program proves a greater plausibility in God, is simply false. That is not an assumption we can make. Nor can we say that the mind proves a greater plausibility in God. Again, we cannot make such an assumption. Such an assumption simply isn't warranted. But nonetheless, Randal makes just such an assumption.

Chapter 14 is entitled “The Pastry I Freely Choose” and I presume it deals with ‘choice’, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.


Popular posts from this blog

Conflating Atheism and Agnosticism is a Mistake

Discussing the Historicity of Jesus with a Christian Agnostic