Saturday, October 23, 2010

Another Quiz!

Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and Larry Moran have already given their answers to this pop quiz from a creationist:

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?
Those respondents didn't say much about the rules that came with the pop quiz, which I find more interesting than the quiz itself:
1) Answers can't be limited to the shortcomings of theism (e.g. 'So who caused God?'). I'm looking for an exposition of New Atheist belief, not a criticism of theist belief. Mutual criticism will come once all beliefs are on the table. If New Atheist belief can only be expressed by negation of the beliefs of others, just say so.
2) Myers' "Courtier's Reply" gambit is fine. If you think that a question is nonsense, say so.
3) No changing the subject. New questions are welcome, once the old questions are addressed.
4) The Law of Snark Conservation applies; thoughtful courteous answers get thoughtful courteous replies. [emphasis mine]
I think the part about "once all beliefs are on the table" tells us everything we need to know about the quiz. The quiz is an effort to shift the burden of proof to atheists, and in turn a concession that the burden of proof falls on those who make positive truth claims.

In that light, the real answer to all of those questions turns out to be the same answer: evidence will decide these questions if anything will. Period. Full stop.

That said, a few of these questions may be so ill-formed as to defy any definite answer -- for example, depending on the answer to #4 -- which itself may or may not be amenable to a definitive answer, and not only because it is question-begging -- questions #1 and #2 may or may not be distinct questions, and #3 and #7 could dissolve into gibberish, or into reasonably straightforward logical entailments of #4.

If, for example, only material causes can be said to exist, then the answer to #7 must be that morality is only a consequence of material (natural) causes, and this has pretty clear implications for its status as "Moral Law" -- that is, it doesn't merit the capitalized M and L, because it is, under this answer to #4, a merely contingent consequence of natural history. Morality as we experience it might well be different if our natures were different, and our natures might well be different had our distant ancestors undergone different evolutionary trajectories based on different survival pressures and different patterns of genetic mutations.

Evidence combined with reason will decide these questions if anything will. Atheists' acceptance or non-acceptance of the evidence-and-reason-driven answers will have no bearing on the determination. Nothing in any book, speech, blog post, or tweet written by any atheist will change it; no cherished starting postulate or animating ideal will overpower it; no tradition, emotional preference, or system of social capital will outmatch it. Though it breaks rule #1 to say so (or so I gather), the same holds true of theists -- their preferences, traditions, texts, ideals, and creeds don't determine what's true and what isn't.

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