On Prime Movers, Watchmakers, and the “Necessity” of Belief

Last night, I conversed with eight people on religion, dogma, and faith, which followed from an exchange about the separation of church and state in the United States. What struck me the most was (1) that, to them, the universe could not be explained without some “Prime Mover” or “Watchmaker,” and (2) that they unflinchingly believed that people need to live according to some set of beliefs. These two ideas are undeservedly the sacred cows of culture. The latter dogma dies hard in the paper “The problems with beliefs”. This paper efficiently shatters many dogmas, and its thesis is “one need not own beliefs of any kind or express them in human language to establish scientific facts, predict future events, observe and enjoy nature, or live a productive, moral, and useful life.” (One important idea out of many from that I got from this paper is that when I write or say something, I use the word “think” to describe any thought that is absent from “belief,” a word I no longer use to describe my mental forming of ideas.) Also, the idea that “everyone believes in something” is treated in its own section:

– Many a believer, religious and atheist alike, will become astonished at any statement against belief, if for no other reason because they believe and the people around them have beliefs. They tend to form a belief-of-its-own that projects beliefs onto others. However, simply because most people own beliefs does not necessarily follow that all people require the concept of belief. To claim the knowledge that everyone on earth believes in something portends an astonishing proclamation. It would require an omniscient ability to see into the minds of every human on earth. Moreover, many people fail to understand that belief requires conscious acceptance. People who own beliefs (unless they lie) do not deny them. Quite the contrary, people who believe, admit their beliefs quite readily. Furthermore, few people stop to ask what we mean by beliefs or understand that one can replace belief with other forms of “thinking.” –

Moving on to the first dogma I mentioned, it would be appropriate to mention William Paley. These individuals had probably never knew of (or don’t remember) the British philosopher Paley, who was famous for develping the Teleological Argument, but that did not matter to them. The Teleological Argument is powerful in people’s minds because it is intuitive, and connects with the way people think in daily life – no one needs to teach them how to assert it. If you see a watch in the middle of nowhere, you don’t automatically think a watch could have been “designed out of chaos, without the aid of mind,” you think some sort of careful planning had to be done to make the watch. Therefore, the maker had to be some conscious being, not a mindless process such as naturalistic evolution.

Nevertheless, the people told me to “look around” at the natural world. I suppose that they thought that would be all I need to bow down and worship the Creator. I have looked around in the natural world, and have found instances in biology that do not scream “Watchmaker” such as: snakes with pelvises, whales with finger bones, the human appendix, the human blind spot, free radical production in metabolism, and fixation of oxygen by rubisco. Another thing “looking around” taught me was that the right hemisphere of the brain is adept at seeing seemingly consciously-made patterns and designs that turn out to be illusions once subjected to left-hemisphere rational analysis. Without rational analysis, we would be acting on patterns and motives that did not exist all the time.

An innocuous example is when people see animals in cloud shapes, but in this case, people already know the clouds just form without a pre-conceived design. The people already know they are falsely attributing a planned-out, intentional design for the cloud’s resemblance to an animal. Clouds arise without the aid of mind. They arise from random interactions of water molecules. Then, people have fun seeing intelligently-made designs in them. This is a microcosm of the way people perceive all of Nature. Except that when some people look at all of Nature, they do not realize they are falsely attributing an Intelligence to the phenomena they experience. This is quite unlike when they have fun seeing animal designs, which they know are actually illusions of their minds derived from the emergent properties of aggregates of water molecules floating in the sky. There is a great survival advantage in having a propensity to perceive patterns and designs because these can indicate the presence of a competitor or a predator. This is just evolutionary psychology at work. To make analogy with human history, take this example of a person’s thinking: people are getting sick, so it must be some vengeful spirit that is putting a curse on our tribe. Let us make human sacrifices to please it. Fortunately, we no longer need to do human sacrifices because science has discovered that mindless bacteria, that have evolved for millions of years, float around in the air and infect people. Intelligence is absent from the Germ Theory of Disease as it is in the design of the universe. The belief in a divine Watchmaker is a dogmatic belief in a logical fallacy.

The same problems apply to the dogma of the “Prime Mover,” even though the people may not have remembered learning that doctrine when they studied Aristotle or Aquinas. This is another intuitive argument that does not need to be taught. It seems like a belief sprung from plain common sense (like the Teleological Argument), and therein lies the problem. Common sense and logic sometimes clash. People often wonder: we have this massive world, but what caused it to be? It must have been something that moved the world into being. Bertrand Russell pondered this issue, and his take on it is appropriate here:

– I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. –

These individuals used some very seemingly convincing arguments. They were certainly more subtle than those who simply quote from the Bible, advance Creationism, and tell me I would suffer eternal punishment. They even agreed that [virtually verbatim], “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” (I am guessing that was an attempt to quote Mark Twain.) They all explicitly agreed that faith is irrational, which was immediately followed by, “But, science can’t explain everything.” That is something I would be the first to admit, but that does not mean dogmatic religion gets to put its god-of-the-gaps into the areas where science needs more advancement. Yet, this is exactly what these individuals were doing. Obviously “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but as long as there is absence of evidence, people should not believe they have evidence. That is, unless they want to believe in the Celestial Teapot.

To inform the people I talked to on the recent thinking in science, I would want them to be exposed to the ideas in Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable along with Michael Shermer’s How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. Other important books for them to look through, I think, would be Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. To say that I believe in these books would (like a Christian believes in the Bible) would be a travesty. Information does not require belief to be utilized, and I maintain a healthy level of skepticism about everything I think and read. I also think that the authors who wrote these books maintain a level of doubt about their conclusions, and do not claim absolute knowledge about reality. Scientists and analytic philosophers usually have these attributes, and these people are among the best in their fields.

I would not command that the individuals who I conversed with believed in these books, I would ask them to weigh the quality of the evidence and reason in the books against those of their beliefs, and then come to a conclusion. If they have a problem with this, perhaps their beliefs have no validity to the outside world, and are upholding intransigent superstitions or falsehoods, thus impeding a connection to reality that could have been made easier without owning beliefs. Beliefs create an unnecessary and false sense of trust, and can harden the mind to contradictory evidence. Any belief when it is found to disagree with the evidence should be acknowledged as having no validity no matter how old it is, how many people believe it, or how much reverence and importance is accorded to it. What good is it to live according to a belief one knows is not true? Reality does not go away by ignoring it. By accepting evidence, one can better cope with reality. This process can start by rejecting the abstraction and unnecessary barrier of belief.

We need to be aware that some beliefs must be attributed to highly unique accidents of historical contingency. Scientists are undoubtedly products of their times, but the discoveries (not beliefs) they provide about reality belong – essentially – to no one. Why? Because some one could discover that knowledge from reality regardless of what other people had said about the subject. Had Copernicus never lived, someone else could have reached his discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In contrast, for example, had Shakespeare not lived no one else would have ever written all of his plays verbatim. In other words, Shakespeare’s plays belong only to Shakespeare. There is a difference between creation and discovery. Discoveries can come from many different start points and routes in “Design Space,” while creations like Shakespeare’s plays or the Council of Trent’s edicts require the exploitation and tremendous amplification of many historical contingencies in “Design Space” (Dennett 1995). Discoveries can also be empirically verified, and reproduced independently of others. Although in many cases, scientists would like to have a previously-produced body of evidence with which to work.

We could logically conclude, especially, that a certain set of Iron Age and medieval beliefs should carry no weight in our undertaking of understanding reality. No one else could have come up with them, or have verified them. They are arguments only from the person who came up with them – dogmas. (There is no such thing as a sound dogma.) They are “creations,” and are not informed by the all the scientific discoveries we have attained up until today. It is for that reason that it would be morally and intellectually unjustifiable to give any weight to those ancient beliefs in informing the way we understand reality. I am inclined to think that under present circumstances an empirical, impersonal, tentative, and un-dogmatic approach is probably the best way to accurately think about reality.

Similarly, arguments from authority (dogmas) are irrelevant. No should consider authority when finding out that the Earth goes around the Sun because arguments from authority are never valid. “The Earth revolves around the Sun” is knowledge, while “This holy wafer is the Body of Jesus Christ” is a dogma from the Roman Catholic Church. Some one would need the authority and survival of the Roman Church up until today to be raised a Catholic in the United States in 2008, and to believe the dogma “This holy wafer undergoes transubstantiation to become the Body of Christ, which can erase your venial sins.” Had historical contingencies been different, that same person would probably believe that Ra is the sun god.

Science and reason do not depend on unnecessary belief, dogma, or illogical thinking. Accurate and sound understanding of reality is built upon the body of evidence that is received from the interrogation of reality and being empirically-minded. I strive to take this approach when informing how I should live my life and what I think because no one has shown me the evidence that anyone has been harmed by becoming more reasonable. In conclusion, it is in the face of logic, clear thinking, and empirical evidence that I have given up belief in belief.


~ by jsacc001 on December 7, 2008.

One Response to “On Prime Movers, Watchmakers, and the “Necessity” of Belief”

  1. Those”8 people” love you

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