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August 7, 2006

Too Many Questions to Be an Atheist?

Here's Bill Moyers interviewing one of my favorite novelists:

BILL MOYERS: You're not a believer?
MARTIN AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. Not a being, but an intelligence. And I don't mean intelligent design. I just mean why is it so vast, as Updike said, why not this attractive spattering of stars in the background be perfectly enough, you know? Why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes? These extraordinary quasars and black holes. What do we need all that for? So many questions remain, that I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more.

Pretty thoughts, as expected, but unexpectedly odd ones. In what sense would a cute, simple little universe (surrounded by what?) be more intelligible without "an intelligence"? (Wasn't it the apparent cuteness and simplicity of the pre-Copernican, earth-centered universe that supported the traditional notion of humans as God's chief concern?) Why should the universe be easily intelligible to two-eyed, one-brained us? How does the universe's lack of intelligibility increase the chances that there is "an intelligence" behind it? (The traditional religious argument was the opposite.) How might we have an "intelligence" that is "not a being"?

I love the notion that we'll need "eight more Einsteins." But hasn't the work of the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins we have already had been leading in one direction: away from a Prime Mover, away from a universe-designer, away from "some intelligence" (anthropomorphic or not)? Hasn't it been leading -- step by step -- toward a naturalistic, scientific understanding -- however difficult-- of an extremely large and complex universe?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 7, 2006 9:39 AM


Isn't there some axiom that states that no system can explain itself? I've thought that human reason is a poor tool for understanding the universe simply because it evolved within that universe. It is a byproduct of the mechanics of the universe, probably an accidental byproduct, and so there really is no reason (!) to believe that human reason will approach a sufficient explanation of the overall state of things. Thus if some are puzzled by the complexity of the universe, that is (to me) a sign that the tool they are using for examination and understanding is simply inadequate for the job. (Yes, it's the best tool we have, but that by no means says that it must be the standard by which all things should be understood.) Conversely, those who claim they see signs of intelligent design in the universe are looking through the filter of limited human ability. I like to think that humans will evolve to some higher level of awareness or consciousness or thinking ability (so that these future humans will look on us much as we look on our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees -- adorable but lacking in brain power) and so we will creep toward better understanding in ways that our current brains cannot possibly comprehend now. Perhaps this is one way to consider those "eight Einsteins." While I don't believe in the supernatural, I'm willing to consider the superhuman.

Posted by: pablo at August 7, 2006 10:33 AM

If we really step back and look at what is happening we see a world that is quickly being networked. Information, shared and distributed, is accelerating asymptotically. Wires are no longer necessary. Soon those Blue Tooth phones will be implanted.

The future of what we are is not understandable as individuals. It is the combined, connected reality that will replace us and absorb us. Resistance is not only futile, it is impossible.

There is no Star Ship Enterprise in our future but there is a Borg.

Eight Einsteins? Peanuts! Think of 6 billion connected to one another at speeds that are faster than their internal processing.

We are just spinning our wheels thinking about silly, unanswerable questions. No matter.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 7, 2006 10:53 AM

I think Amis was right on the mark and the above comment, while not intended to support his argument actually lend credence to it.

Pablo says: "those who claim they see signs of intelligent design in the universe are looking through the filter of limited human ability." And Jay complains that "We are just spinning our wheels thinking about silly, unanswerable questions"

Yes, that's Amis' base point -- logically, we can't reject the idea of that anthropomorphic intelligence without first accepting it as a possibility and, as an entity that evolved within the organism being examined, we are unlikely to ever understand the organism and even less likely to understand its origins.

Under these circumstances, an unwavering disbelief in ANY LOGICAL POSSIBILITY seems to be a foolish option.

Posted by: whymrhymer at August 7, 2006 11:21 AM

But Gods are not logical possibilities. Gods are the warm fuzzy tigers of emotion that make things understandable when they are not.

Every act is predicated on belief. There is no agnosticism in action. We take our most absolute beliefs without questioning and do not think of them as beliefs. Blinking{lubing the eyes}. Gravity{fall}. Fire{burn}. They just are. Actions born of conscious thought have a complete and complex set of beliefs that support them. That is why we like a good story, it massages all the emotional buttons that make us feel secure.

Every act sacrifices the possibility of all other actions. Every act collapses the quantum state of infinite possibilities into action and is only achieved by belief in the outcome. We are born of faith and live on only faith.

For me, the most foolish of beliefs is to think we have the capacity for even the smallest of peeks into the awareness questions of God entail. That would then include agnosticism, the belief that God may be a possibility. There is no reality-based logic for that belief. One can quite logically remove God from the list of possibilities. Here is how, we define God, however loosely, ergo we misinterpret the larger awareness--that which we cannot know. No God we can imagine can hold what we cannot imagine.

Why as why?

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 7, 2006 4:04 PM

ED: Why ask why?

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 7, 2006 4:14 PM

Does it make sense to even judge the vastness or complexity of the Universe, when we don't have anything to compare it to? Would the Universe not seem just as vast and complicated if it was only the size of our galaxy, and as complex as einsteinian physics?

The Universe is "vast" because it is so much vaster than ourselves and the range of our insignificant actions in time and space. And the Universe is "complex" because it is a huge challenge for us to understand it, compared to most other intellectual tasks we deal with.

Posted by: Kristian Z at August 7, 2006 7:09 PM

When you start off a post with the statement "But Gods are not logical possibilities" its obvious we're on different pages and, no doubt, even in different books.

Forget about biblical and legendary Gods -- those are all fairy tales . . . besides which I never credited this organism that we are a part of to a "God."

My point, in relation to creation is simply this: everything is created from something!

Something as complicated as an accurate timepiece had to have an intelligent force behind its creation. We, you and I, our bodies, our minds, our emotions, are millions of times more complicated than the most magnificent timepiece. How is it illogical to assume that there was some intelligent force (forget the word "God") behind its creation?

(I'm not sure what you're on about with your 'essay on action' -- you lost me there! :))

Posted by: whymrhymer at August 8, 2006 12:14 PM

But among the problems with the "design" argument remains this: who, then, would have designed this designer -- this "intelligent force," which would be, presumably, "millions of times more complicated" even than we? Darwin takes us from a soup of chemicals to great complexity (us). This "intelligent force" takes us only from unimagined complexity (it) to great complexity (us). (Alleged) problem not solved, me thinks.

Posted by: mitch at August 8, 2006 2:38 PM


I love the simplicity of your question. Often I have discovered the most profound thoughts are those that are articulated without all the clutter.

Your question is the same that so many little children ask. You see, when a child asks who made something in this world and the parent replies "God," inevitably the child's inquiry continues and "Who made God?" To which the believing parent replies: "No one.God simply always is."

It is the principle of eternity past and the absolute status quo of a deity that is believed in by such words as ALWAYS and IS.

And to a seeker, it is a universe that we cannot really hope to fully explore or measure. Simply marvel at and celebrate!

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 8, 2006 4:39 PM

Isn't there some axiom that states that no system can explain itself?

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which only applies to formal axiomatic systems in mathematics. But I suspect it has wider applicability. Given any set of commandments specifying what is good and what is evil, you can always find a situation not covered by the rules. Which is why religion is a piss-poor source of morality. Anyway it interests me that so many people shy away from coming straight out and calling themselves atheists, preferring to take refuge in the word "agnostic". But nobody ever says they are agnostic with respect to Zeus, or Odin, or the Easter Bunny. By equivocating about the Christian god they are giving it a special privileged position.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at August 9, 2006 3:03 AM

What fun!

Who designed Darwin's "soup"? Nobody knows how it got to be -- that's the point!! You can't say "impossible" when you don't have the correct answer.

"By equivocating about the Christian god they are giving it a special privileged position."

I for one don't equivocate about the "Christian God," my position is: religions and their "Gods" were created by man to cure the percieved ills of mankind and some of it has done a pretty good job -- some of it (like the radical Shiite (or is that shit) stuff that's going on is the exception. The way I see it (I may be wrong) is that this conversation is NOT about religion -- its about creation -- the "real one" not the one you'll find in a religious text.

Posted by: whymrhymer at August 9, 2006 11:54 AM

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