More nonsense at NPR about God

April 26, 2015 • 10:00 am

I am frankly amazed that National Public Radio (NPR) would publish this mushy reconception of religion, for it’s worse than that purveyed by apophatists like Karen Armstrong. In fact, Nancy Ellen Abrams, who is flogging her new book A God that Could Be Real: Sprirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet, was given two mini-essays in NPR to write about her book. on her book. And that book apparently re-casts “God”, sort of, as “The Emergent Complexity of the Universe in All Its Scientific Wonder” (I’ve written about her thesis before), and so she pushes not deism, but the worship of some undefined aspect of science as a god.  Indeed, her “god” isn’t even vaguely human, or sentient. This is just a semantic trick. I could consider literature or art as “god,” too, and then I could say that we have a God That Could Be Real. Or food, or wine! In fact, I’d rather worship food than the Emergent Complexity of the Universe.

Abrams’s semantic argument is simply lame, and I doubt it will convince any believers, although Library Journal extolled it like this: “A fine addition to the growing library of alternative approaches to literalism in belief, this book is suitable for academic libraries, liberal churches, and individual seekers.” Yeah, seekers!

Moreover, her argument about words is disingenuous, for it co-opts most people’s notion of what God is like (a mind without a body, and one who cares about you), and tries to show people that, despite the nonexistence of such a god, they can still have a deity—indeed, one that’s The Only Kind of God Worth Wanting.

Does that remind you of anything else—like compatibilist free will? As science has debunked our notion of libertarian free will, philosophers have diligently redefined “free will” so that we can still have it. It is a pretty exact parallel to what Nancy Allen Abrams does: she simply redefines God in the light of scientific advances so that we can still have it as well.

This bothers me a bit on personal grounds, too, for I’m absolutely sure that were I to submit to NPR a piece or two giving the thesis of my new book—that science and religion are incompatible, and attempts to turn science into religion are dumb—NPR would reject it out of hand. That station and site simply have an overweening need to osculate the rump of faith, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t remember a time I’ve seen an overtly atheist piece on the NPR site. Shouldn’t they be balancing their copious coverage of religion and spirituality with alternative views? Don’t they see that nonbelief is an important trend in American culture?

But I digress. Abrams’s first piece is called “‘A God that could be real’ in the scientific universe.” Her initial point is this (Abrams’s quotes are indented):

We have to have a god because people can’t live without one. 

Does God have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between God and science, most people will choose God, which leads to denialism, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How can we get this?

Sounds a lot like what free-will compatibilists do, doesn’t it? (That’s not a coincidence, for several compatibilists have explicitly argued that we must tell people they have some kind of free will because society will fall apart if they lose their belief that they have real agency.) At any rate, I rarely tell people that they have to choose between God and science; I think I’ve said that once in my life. Rather, I try to show them that the scientific and religious ways to discern “truth” are incompatible, and then let them draw their own conclusions.

The traditional God doesn’t fly any longer because there’s no evidence for it. 

What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left?

We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it’s real. If it isn’t real, there’s nothing to talk about. But I don’t mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.

These are characteristics of a God that can’t be real:

  1. God existed before the universe
  2. God created the universe.
  3. God knows everything.
  4. God intends everything that happens.
  5. God can choose to violate the laws of nature.

Well, at least she admits that there’s no evidence for any kind of creator God or one with any characteristics of the Abrahamic God. But she won’t stop there and just admit that she’s an atheist. No, she has to make one god further—confecting a nebulous and fuzzy god. It’s a sort-of-sciencey and emergent god, one that she tries to describe in her second NPR post, “A new way to think about God.”

I’d like to explain what Abrams means by “god,” but it’s pretty obscure. In fact, I think it’s obscure because she wants it that way (the usual tactic of Sophisticated Theologians™). Or maybe she simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Regardless,  I have no idea what kind of god she’s describing, except that it comports with science, it has something to do with complexity, and  that it’s emergent (a word that almost invariably means you’re in Woo-Land). But here’s how she explains it:

Almost everything we humans do collectively spawns an emergent phenomenon. So, for example, people trading things has led to the global economy, an emergent phenomenon so complicated and unpredictable that not only does no one know the rules, but the professionals don’t even agree on what the rules should be about. The never-ending effort to get people to behave decently toward one another has spawned governments. Our innate desire for gossip has spawned the media. [it goes on, but you get the point]. . .

But we humans are not just traders, moralizers and gossips. Far beneath those behaviors, so deep it distinguishes us from the other primates, is this: We aspire. We aspire to different things, but we all aspire. Our aspirations are as real as we are. They are not the same as desires, like food, sex and security. Every animal has those desires from instinct alone. Aspirations reach beyond survival needs. Our aspirations are what shape each of us humans into the individual we are. Without aspirations, we are nothing but meat with habits. We humans are the aspiring species and may have been for hundreds of thousands of years.

Well, other species also have aspirations, and often for the same things that we do: food, status, and sex. Much of that, in us as well as other species, is a result of natural selection acting to spread our genes. But, Abrams says, we also aspire to meaning, and she somehow not only finds that meaning, but turns it into God. If you really understand this following bit, your’e better than I am! (my emphasis):

Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations, interacting. What is that something — that emergent phenomenon both fed by and feeding the aspirations of every human being? It didn’t exist before humans evolved, but it’s here now, and every one of us is directly connected to it, simply by virtue of being human and having aspirations. It didn’t create the universe, but it has created the meaning of the universe, which is what matters to us. Meaning, universe, spirit, God, creation and all other abstract concepts are themselves ideas that took form over countless generations, as people shared their aspirations to understand and express what may lie beyond the visible world. This emergent phenomenon has created the power of all our words and ideas, including ideals like truth, justice, and freedom, which took millennia to clarify in practice, and which no individual could ever have invented or even imagined without a rich cultural history that made it possible.

This infinitely complex phenomenon, which has emerged and continues to emerge from instant to instant, growing exponentially and shape-shifting, can accurately be said to exist in the modern universe. It’s as real as the economy, as real as the government. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu or Christian or Jewish or atheist or agnostic, because I’m not proposing an alternative religious idea. I’m explaining an emergent phenomenon that actually exists in our scientific picture of reality. You don’t have to call it God, but it’s real. And when you search for a name for it, it may be the only thing that exists in the modern universe that is worthy of the name God.

Okay, what exactly is this emergent phenomenon that Abrams is banging on about? She doesn’t explain it clearly—and if you look at the largely positive reviews of this execrable idea on the Amazon site, it appears that her readers don’t, either. Could a reader tell me what “god” she is talking about? Please? It clearly has something to do with science, and with dark energy and dark matter, issues she raised in her first post as well as the excerpt from her book that I criticized a few weeks ago. Here’s that excerpt:

The power of praying comes from daring to enter that mysterious place between the emerging God and us. But it’s not an empty space—it’s our own selves on progressively larger size scales, where we are participating in multiple emerging phenomena and creating emergent identities. As the ancient Egyptian world blended outward into the spiritual world, so does ours. And the higher our consciousness goes along the Uroboros of Human Identity, the more it blends into the emerging phenomenon of God. In tuning our ordinary consciousness in to those higher levels that we may have scarcely ever visited before, we approach God.

Theobabble!  But people apparently lap this stuff up, for it sounds profound, although I can’t see any substantive content. If I were to grade Ms. Abrams’s effort, I’d give her a D and write this in the margins of her paper: “Could you please explain exactly what the emergent God is to which we’re supposed to pray? You dance all around the issue but are never explicit. Rewrite paper and submit.”

Nevertheless—and this does surprise me—the readers on Amazon have generally rated the book highly. There are clearly many Seekers out there! Here’s part of a review by “J. Peterson” on Amazon, who gives the book four out of five stars, even though he/she doesn’t seem to fully grasp what Abrams is saying (my emphasis):

This book provoked a variety of thoughts and emotions for me, thus I judge the book a very worthwhile read.

I fully admit that I did not (and still do not) grasp all of what the author is trying to say, so I need to read it again. I can’t say that about very many books.

Some of the author’s ideas are fascinating, while others I reject. I will leave other readers to decide for themselves on these, and won’t attempt to review all of them here.

One of the ideas I liked the best was her description of “god” as an “emergent” phenomenon. Perhaps I don’t get out enough, but I was not familiar with the whole concept of “emergence.” But now that I have been introduced to the concept by this book, many (non-religious) things are much more clear. Simply put, an emergent phenomenon is one that is literally greater than the sum of its parts, e.g. a living organism is composed of unthinking atoms that individually just obey the laws of physics, but when aggregated into a human body, a totally new and wonderful thing emerges – somehow. The author’s premise is that god is also emergent, which is quite interesting. I am still trying to decide if I buy this or not, but I *am* still thinking about it.

But this is offset by a one-star review by Geoff Arnold, an atheist, who said it better than I could. (Of course, I haven’t read Abrams’s book as he has, but I’ve read the long excerpts in Salon (here and here) and her two pieces on NPR). I can’t be arsed to read the book if it’s anything like what she’s already written.) Here’s part of Arnold’s review:

Now she provides no evidence for the existence of such an entity, nor does she attempt to explain what “emergence” might involve. She seems to view emergence as a mysterious process that requires no explanation — a bit like the Gaia hypothesis, or some of Deepak Chopra’s quantum nonsense. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. Biology is “emergent” from chemistry and physics, in that the latter provide a plastic framework in which information-theoretic processes can — contingently — emerge, but that doesn’t mean that biological phenomena are epistemologically mysterious. (I pinch myself for effect.)

So by the end of the first section we have an unsupported hypothesis which seems “worthy” of the term “god”. Most theists would wonder whether an entity which is so radically contingent and highly local (in both space and time) would fit the bill; it’s hardly a prime mover, or a ground of being, or a timeless and omnipotent father figure. Oddly, Abrams seems to feel that this is a case where people should just “get over it”, and the “god” is quickly capitalized. Prayers follow; rituals are not far behind.

Now, I’m an atheist, so I find most concepts of “god” pretty much incoherent. Nevertheless, as deities go, this is a pretty unsatisfactory one. After all, one errant asteroid could wipe out all human life in a moment, and since Abrams’ god is merely an emergent property of human consciousness, bang goes god. Of course we wouldn’t be around to notice it, but it all seems remarkably parochial.

Ultimately, this book left me annoyed, almost angry. A silly piece of imagination, unsupported by any evidence, framed in language which exploits and abuses scientific thought, proposed as a replacement for conventional deities. “Could be real”. What does “real” mean in this context? We’re not told. Ultimately Abrams’ decided that she wanted to believe, and made up something that she could believe in, without any evidence. That’s silly.

Give that man a Cuban cigar! He has a long career ahead as a religion debunker.


97 thoughts on “More nonsense at NPR about God

  1. whenever I read such malarky, infatuation-with own -words empty prolixity, I miss C Hitchens more. NPR should be required to air quotes on the ills of religion by him whenever they promote their brand of devotion. Come on, NPR, fair & balanced? Sigh……

  2. This book can be taken in two ways maybe. One way is rubbish and the other as transitional. By transitional — half way between religion and no religion. So it could be a good sign. But someone should ask NPR what they think it is.

    1. By transitional — half way between religion and no religion.

      As someone once put it, “that just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”

  3. The deistic idea of a God seemed pretty reasonable for Enlightenment-era thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine – after all, these guys had no evolution, no Big Bang theory. Even Dawkins admits that atheism was going out on a bit of a limb at this time. But I’m pretty sure the reason deism didn’t really survive is because it was only there because those who followed it only did so because they didn’t have the knowledge to dispense with god entirely. If Paine and Jefferson were about today, I’m pretty sure they’d be atheists.

    1. Yes, and for the time Paine was probably closest to being the Atheist — “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.”

      1. When I think about these people who wrote against Christianity in an era where you were really ostracized if you did so, I can’t understand why the left is so lacking in sympathy to Muslims who do the same thing now. People like Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have the respect of all secularists and liberals. Of course modern liberals aren’t really liberals in the classical sense of the word. It’s all cultural relativism and post-colonial guilt.

        1. There is also that bravery and what some call intellectual honesty that Thomas Paine had along with many others. Hirsi Ali is one who has it today and others do not.

      2. Yet Paine wrote at the beginning of ‘The Age of Reason’ (1794): ‘I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.’ These are not the words of a deist; closer, rather, to what we would today term a universalist.

        1. Paine’s religious beliefs seem to be ideosyncratic; he’s not quite a deist. And he changed his mind – as far as I can tell he went from a very liberal Christian (Quaker, like his father) to his own stuff, learning that the bible is no good book, etc.

  4. NPR is constantly threatened with the axe by Republicans in congress. Maybe NPR is trying to look more “fair and balanced”.

      1. NPR is ‘known to be liberal’, therefore there is no citation needed for a belief that they regularly attack religion, thus generating a need to ‘be balanced’.

      2. I too have thought that being pro-religion might be to protect their rears from the Republican axe. Several years ago an NPR executive was recorded bashing Republicans, and I recall this was very damaging to them. So maybe they are pro-religion to stay the hand of budget cuts from Republicans who would sympathize with them for having lots of publicly funded religious programming.
        A different angle is that maybe they really want to be pro-religion to fit a demographic of many of their listeners. I understand that religion and general spirituality is actually pretty common among the left.

        1. The latter explanation seems more plausible to me. The brand of religion that’s being sold here is so loose and new-agey that I highly doubt it would placate any conservative religious critics. Rather, this is “comfort food” religion for liberals who are more or less atheistic, but too reluctant to admit it (to themselves or to others) because bald atheism is just terribly unhip.

          1. My hunch is that that is more plausible too, since my impression (which is not from data, mind you) is that the new-agey, spiritual sorts of people are from the left.

      3. Exactly. To the contrary, Public Radio coddles religion. Even has it’s very own Sunday morning (when else?)weekly interview show devoted to that very purpose named On Being. The name they obfuscatingly changed it to from the previous Speaking of Faith.

        The show’s choir (ranging from the spiritual but not religious™ to moderate godbotherers) is preached to by Templeton Foundation grantee (at the tune of $590,000), Krista “the ineffable”(her favourite word) Tippett, a real live deepity generator.

        Here’s Tippett’s explanation for why she has kept Dawkins and Harris off of her show: “They are polemicists — secular extremists” with a “narrow” and “limiting approach to life.” “There is no doubt in them. They have the answers for themselves and for all the rest of us too.”

          1. Here, Professor, of almost exactly eight years ago now — re such of K Tippett’s statements re Dr Dawkins and Mr Harris:

            This very immediately past one I, again for the nth time it seems, have successfully navigated through .not. contributing $ to the local npr station’s latest fundraising week.

            Because of this about which Dr Coyne writes and because of its blatantly obvious sexism which npr doesn’t even attempt, anymore, to cover up.

            My donating $ during these many of npr’s fundraising weeks, instead, goes off to the hq of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison.


      4. It’s being “fair and balanced” in the Fox News sense – fair and balanced towards all things Republican.

    1. I think they are just pandering to the religious liberal Keillor-ites with their apple pies and sunday family dinners who work so hard to exist within their Rockwellian painted American landscapes. Their image of American life requires certain tropes in order for them to sleep tight each night, and god, even a wishy-washy Unitarian-esque “god is whatever I say it is because I’m spiritual” type of modern middle class liberal god. Play to the crowd and they’ll open their pocketbooks during the next fund drive. Warm and fuzzy middle class liberal tote-bag spiritualism.

      1. I was going to choose a line from this to quote, but the whole thing is so spot-on brilliant. *applauds*
        I used to love NPR, Keillor, the whole package. Still like some of it, but it seems increasingly unbalanced and not relevant to me.

        Guess this is somewhat of a tangent, or deserves its own discussion: PBS embracing so many new age hucksters to generate revenue disturbs me more and more. Unless I’ve missed it, I haven’t noticed PBS exploring nonbelief in their programming lately.

        1. Thank you, and I share your pain. NPR, PBS, and the BBC are still, in spite of it all, my go-to sources for news and entertainment but all too often I find myself switching it off in frustration, like when that pledge drive dipstick “Dr.” Wayne Dyer comes on. I’m still a fan of Wait, Wait , Don’t Tell Me, but even Science Friday gets on my nerves quite a bit. However, just as in astronomy they speak of BTH (Better Than Hubble), we progressives have BTF (Better Than Fox), so until something better than NPR or PBS comes along, we’ll have to hold our noses and wade through the deepity.

          1. Same here – although it’s disconcerting that those news outlets are sometimes only a Better Than alternative to Faux News.

            Hear you on Wayne Dyer. He’s the worst. It seems like PBS doesn’t give him quite as much airtime as they used to, but if they had any integrity they’d cut all ties with him.

          2. You know, there’s always the “off” channel. It’s been my own personal favorite for at least a decade and an half, now. The only time the radio ever goes on is a livestream of the Met’s Saturday matinee broadcasts.


          3. Even WWDTM falls down occasionally. They had Reza Aslan (!) as a panelist on their Feb. 15th 2015 show.

        2. I like NPR’s weekly news quiz show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” One of the regular panelists is Paula Poundstone, and she has been fairly open about her atheism.

    2. Hopefully GOP will shut it down. NPR lacks any courage for stepping in on the side of science. Science to them is like some stigma for our civilization. They are afraid their listeners will jump ship is given the truth.

      NPR should be disbanded for even attempting to promulgate self-stupid arguments for yet another wildly contrived version of the grand personal deity.

  5. The emergent thing she’s talking about seems to just be human culture or civilisation: no one person could have come up with, for instance, the internet or fried cheese sandwiches. They emerge from the interactions of millions of people over thousands of years.
    Civilisation is certainly a very good thing (mostly), but hardly the same as a god.

    1. Yep. The answer to her question “Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations, interacting. What is that something[?]” is: society.

  6. As slippery and elusive as an eel in the water on a foggy night.
    Actually, I think that the idea that eventually emerged from this fog of deepities is that this spiritual god did not exist until humans began to ‘aspire’ with art, music, exploration, science, and curiosity. This spirit/God to her is simply the collective trend of our species to be ‘more’. So it is not ‘real’ like the moon, but it is still real…, well sort of. Only she did her utmost to make it all woo-ey in the NPR style of marshmallow rainbows and pink unicorns.

    Anyway, there is that word again: Uroboros. *shudder*.

  7. I like the Emergent and Uroboros stuff, but I’m disappointed that she left out quantum mechanics, because that explains God’s non-locality and omnipresence, while wave-particle duality means that Jesus can be both Man and Divine, which is why objective morality, truth, justice and freedom have any meaning. And The Book Needs More Capital Letters.

    A missed opportunity: 1/10, Would not believe.

    1. Haha! The first thing I did was a search for “quantum mechanics.” There is some genius out there who will eventually combine QM, chaos and emergent behavior into a Grand Unified Theory of Complicated Stuff That Must Be Magic.

  8. I have a friend who has this definition. That “God is everything.” Yet, the other day he told me he’s praying that my endoscopy goes well. Praying to what? Everything? I can never get a coherent explanation of what God’s will is or why praying would have any effect. Of course, he also somewhat buys into subjective idealism and the notion that only you can cause yourself to change your mind. Completely bizarre for a guy who posts multiple socialist and humanistic messages on FB everyday and has many of the same criticisms of organized religion we do. Why post them if they have no influence?

    1. Spinoza, who defended the idea that god is everything, actually *did* have the courage to say that it makes no sense to pray to god, attempt to change (his [sic]) mind, etc. Would that people actually learn their history! (I don’t fault your friend, but one encounters this still too often amongst people who should know better.)

      1. He certainly isn’t immune to woo in general. He takes astrology seriously too in that he meets a lot of people who conform to the alleged traits of people born under their signs. Of course, to divide humanity into 12 groups, you have to get pretty vague, which is the whole point. That Venn Diagram is going to have some huge overlaps and that’s enough to fool people when you throw a little confirmation bias thrown in.

        As for, “God is everything,” if that’s the case, then we all believe in God–no controversy. I don’t like that definition because it is completely meaningless and too much New Age and PoMo stuff takes that definition and adds some ineffable traits usually revolving around what we don’t yet understand scientifically. It seems he and quite a few of my friends have fallen prey to the usual tropes about not being able to prove negatives, not having certainty in knowledge, etc., yet when it comes down to it, it is militant to claim you know there’s no God but not militant to claim you know that there is. Maybe Professor Ceiling Cat’s new book can come in handy here…

        1. I don’t like it either, but 17th century thinkers have an excuse to avoid sounding nontheistic or areligious. We (at least here in Canada, for example) have the luxury to do otherwise.

          Otherwise intelligent people do still get into special pleading, that much is certain.

  9. “…those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential.”

    And why should I give a sh#t? Seriously, I don’t need my “spiritual potential” any more than I need a wear a nappy, ride in a stroller, or suck on a binky. Sure, when I was a little kid and didn’t understand the world, gods and monsters hiding in the clouds or the closet had a place in my life, but that doesn’t mean it was healthy or beneficial to my existence. I’d much rather trade my “spiritual potential” for something more kinetic, like a better understanding of genetics and biochemistry, thank you very much.

    The whole piece reads like special pleadings and mad ramblings of a terrified child who doesn’t want to sleep with the lights off.

  10. I’ve heard a few atheism-related snippets on NPR (adoption of protections for it in the Air Force, and noting Obama’s inclusion of “nonbelievers” to those who deserve the U.S.’s civil rights and protections). So even if that’s outweighed by neo-faithist gobbledygook, I hope the Professor will at least try to submit the Faith vs Fact viewpoint to NPR as worth a review.

      1. Well, you can give it your best shot; let it be on record that NPR of its own volition declined the opportunity.

  11. Does that remind you of anything else—like compatibilist free will? As science has debunked our notion of libertarian free will, philosophers have diligently redefined “free will” so we still have it.

    That’s not really true. Compatibilist notions of “free will” actually pre-date modern science, and anyhow, compatibilism is not about “redefining free will so we still have it”, it’s about understanding humans in a deterministic universe.

    1. That’s your take, not mine. Several compatibilists have explicitly given their motivations to replace “old” free will with “new” free will so that society won’t disintegrate. And really, give me a break, a LOT of new and different compatibilist notions post-dated science, and arose because science debunked libertarian free will.

      Sorry, but I reject what you say compatibilism is all about. I have enough experience of it to have a different opinion.

      The parallels between compatibilism and theology are numerous and profound.

      1. Hi Jerry,

        Modern compatibilism was pretty much invented by David Hume, back in the mid 1700s. All of the various compatibilisms today are minor variations on that (Dennett is influential today, but really his compatibilism is pretty much Hume’s).

        Thus Hume was writing when the prevailing opinion, even among scientists, was for some sort of dualism. This was long before Darwin, for example, and at that time dualism had by no means been refuted by science.

        The interesting thing about Hume is that he first rejected the prevailing opinion by arguing for determinism (or “necessity” as he phrased it). He was one of the first to argue convincingly that humans thoughts and decisions are determined.

        After doing that, he then produced an account of “choosing” and “freedom” in a deterministic world.

        It’s thus hard to maintain that Hume was motivated by a dislike of determinism and its consequences, since he was one of the advocates of determinism at a time when it was a minority view.

        1. Hume may have invented compatibilism, and Bacon “science,” but these enterprises are progressing on their own now, and citing Hume’s motivations as being the same as all the motivations of modern compatibilists is, as I think you’ll see, erroneous. Look, both Nahmias and Dennett have said that their efforts are aimed at helping keep society sound by letting us know we have free will. They’ve also both said that the issue of “free will” is better left to philosophers than scientists. Now are you REALLY going to say that Hume’s motivations have anything to say about the motivatons of modern compatibilists?

          1. As I understand them, Dennett’s motives in defending compatibilism are not too different from yours in defending Darwinism. You’ve posted here often about how (say) epigenetics has produced some interesting results, but those results fit comfortably within the prevailing Darwinian paradigm. Sensationalist attempts to portray them as “the death of Darwinism” are, in your view (correct me if I’m wrong), irresponsible and damage public confidence in science. Society is better off when people get accurate science reporting, without the hype, and you put a lot of effort into provided such reporting (for which your readers are grateful).

            That’s how Dennett feels about recent results in neuroscience: interesting, thought-provoking, but comfortably within the compatibilist paradigm. Attempts to portray them as “the death of free will” are irresponsible over-interpretation and deserve to be countered forcefully by more accurate and philosophically-informed reporting, which Dennett attempts to provide.

            Whether you find Dennett’s interpretation convincing is a separate question. But attacking his motives seems odd because he wants the same thing you want: better public understanding of our nature as evolved biological machines. Your disagreement is about what the science tells us, not about the value of good science journalism.

          2. Now are you REALLY going to say that Hume’s motivations have anything to say about the motivatons of modern compatibilists?

            I fully agree with you that some compatibilists have the motivations that you say. But, my reply is that it is not true of all compatibilists or of compatibilism per se.

            There is a well-established history of compatibilism, back to Hume and others, that is not about pining after dualism nor about fearing for society.

            That some compatibilists might think like that is not a defect of compatibilism, any more than — for example — the fact that some atheists are “faitheists” is a defect of atheism.

  12. I have to admit, I’m curious.

    While dismissing compatibilist free will in this entry, why the need to criticize the predestined article?

    I find the need to both argue that there is no free will, while criticizing people as if they have it, to be a hilarious invocation of only embracing an argument when it suits one’s needs. It’s like watching creationists who embrace any bit of science which might support them, while being willing to ignore it when it disproves their views.

    In this case, as well as other numerous topics where there are odious behaviors which I do believe are due to the actor’s choices (the orthodox Jews not wanting to sit next to women, for example), I don’t understand how the criticisms of the the choices fit in with pointing out there was no real choice involved.

    Personally, I believe that theoretically perfect prediction of a choice is not the same as a choice not being made. It’s just funny to constantly read someone who does argue that choice doesn’t really exist while simultaneously criticizing those choices.

    1. Sorry, Explorer, but you’re arrogant and you’re gone (you’re wrong, too). I don’t want people on this site who are at once rude and wrong.

      You simply don’t understand determinism. If you criticize people, you can change either their behavior or that of others who are looking on. So yes, determinism is compatible with making changes in people, and efforts to that end (even if the efforts themselves are determined) can be efficacious. Frankly, I’m surprised that people don’t realize this; it’s dead obvious. I guess it isn’t to you.

      I don’t understand why entitled people like you feel that you can come over here and be this arrogant, especially when they don’t even understand a simple argument.

      1. Thanks, professor. I awoke thinking about Explorer’s comment and felt a need to reply. I was happy to see that you had presented the same argument I would have, but more clearly and concisely.

  13. As far as I can make out, god as an emergent phenomenon translates as “mankind created god” which is what atheists have been saying for years. Doesn’t make a god any more real though.

  14. If I understand Abrams correctly (haven’t read the book,) then technically speaking atheism has won. It’s all gotten down to semantics and tactics. She’s deliberately using deepities while hoping that instead of the extraordinary-but-false gaining credibility by riding on the back of the true-but-trivial, if she’s just eloquent and enthusiastic enough then it will be the other way around. This is Michael Dowd and his Thank God For Evolution all over again. What we see as verbal trickery hitching a ride on an honest search for truth.

    The big problem with this strategy is not just a concern for terminological exactitude. It’s that it won’t work because religion and spirituality are all about confusion in thinking. If they CAN misunderstand you, then they WILL misunderstand you. If they CAN interpret fuzzy language in a supernatural way, then they WILL interpret fuzzy language in a supernatural way. This is how belief in the supernatural started in the first place. It seems to me that it’s therefore a very unlikely solution.

    The supernatural is a powerful idea.It’s not a simple problem which can be fixed by throwing around enough good will in hopes that a common ground will emerge out of the ideals.

    As science has debunked our notion of libertarian free will, philosophers have diligently redefined “free will” so we still have it. It is a pretty exact parallel to what Nancy Allen Abrams does: she simply redefines God in the light of scientific advances so that we can still have it.

    No, that’s not the parallel. See how she lumps together

    Meaning, universe, spirit, God, creation and all other abstract concepts … Our aspirations … the power of all our words and ideas, including ideals like truth, justice, and freedom …real as the economy, as real as the government

    Compatibilists treat ‘free will’ as if it were like meaning, truth, ideals, economy, government — abstract concepts in need of a good secular explanation which grounds itself in reason and the world — as opposed to copping out with mystical supernatural handwaving. In other words, what we really mean by free will is a common experience of choosing, one which religion arrogantly co-opted in the same way it took over what it means to live a life worth living by stating by fiat that “life requires God to give it meaning.” To a compatibilist, only libertarian free will is inherently supernatural. We’re wresting secular territory FROM the religious.

    But Abrams is playing a very different semantic game because she can’t legitimately say that people took a secular experience of God and distorted that into a false idea called ‘God’ — which is what she’s apparently trying to do.

    I mean, come on. The term is intrinsically religious. If Abrams had just made her argument while leaving out the crap religious talk about God, spirit, prayer, and soul then we’ve got yet another essay by an atheist explaining how the world doesn’t need the supernatural in order for life to have meaning, make sense, and be both livable and worth living. Abstractions don’t prove God. Got it. No problem. Very nicely done.

    But no. Unfortunately, reworking “God” into naturalism is the entire theme here. It’s her object. Instead of being cleared up the whole issue has only been muddled. As I see it Abrams isn’t new-agey spiritual; she’s a secular humanist atheist who means well. Yet by trying to form a pro-humanism argument through the use of core ‘spiritual’ terminology I think all poor Abrams is going to end up with is the same thing Dowd ended up with: theists who nod their heads and smile because they only heard what they expected to hear. “God exists and the atheists are wrong.” Kudos from the clueless.

    This is not bringing modern scientific and rational enlightenment to the issue. It may eventually chip away at supernaturalism given enough time — I don’t know and can’t say — but it seems to me that in the short term at least it’s just more dreary pro-faith atheist-bashing, intentional or not.*

    *(My guess, probably not.)

    1. Oh crap, I apparently forgot to close a tag. Only the word “crap” was (humorously) supposed to be lined out. Everything else which follows is what I wrote.

      *Sigh* If Jerry can fix this it would be lovely, but as it is it looks my ideas have been struck down by God. Maybe it’s a sign for all of us. Arrogance and ignorance strikes again and illegible.

      I’m very cross.

          1. Thanks. A ‘preview’ function for the WEIT website comments section would also be … nice. Casually mentioning it without judgement, of course.

          2. The problem with that is that I don’t trust WP’s interpretation of HTML. I know some HTML but I also know that WP’s treatment of imbedded links (e.g. Youtube videos) is anomalous.

            So I tend to use as little HTML as possible when I post.

            1. Damn. That was a reply to Gregory of course, not Sastra, with whom I am casually-and-without-judgement in agreement, of course. 😉

            2. If you enter a link (YouTube or otherwise) as part of an explicit A tag, WordPress will honor your HMTL and render it as you coded it.

              If you just paste in a naked URL as text, without tags, that’s when WordPress tries to be clever and convert it to an embedded video player or whatever.

              So the moral is, when in doubt, type in the actual HTML you want in order to preempt any misguided cleverness by WordPress.

        1. Sastra, I think you’re using the wrong commands. At any rate, I fixed it. In cases like this where there’s an error that really screws up a comment, just email me privately and I’ll fix it. I often don’t get to read comments till hours after they’re posted.

          1. Thank you very much. And yes, I did some very wrong things with angle brackets, which are sharp and dangerous.

    1. Filling that piece in your heart with a cat may also cause it to break a little some day – but it probably won’t make your head explode as religion does.

      Hey, let’s re-purpose the some of the empty churches in our cities – turn them into shelters, cat cafes. Srsly.

    2. If a “god-shaped hole in your heart” is anything like a Patent ductus arteriosus, a Coarctation of the aorta, or an Atrial septal defect, I recommend seeing a cardiac surgeon instead of seeking god, but the cat would make a nice recovery buddy. Who needs the placebo healing power of prayer when you can have the real healing power of purr.

      1. A prayer might warm your soul, but it won’t do diddlysquat to warm either your heart nor your sole. A cat, on the other hand, will warm your heart, your sole, your shoulders, your thighs….


  15. “A fine addition to the growing library of alternative approaches to literalism in belief, this book is suitable for academic libraries, liberal churches, and individual seekers.”

    There’s a seeker born every minute.

    (It had to be said.)

    1. Ha! well said!

      “I asked Bobby Dylan
      I asked the Beatles
      I asked Timothy Leary
      But he couldn’t help me either

      They call me the seeker
      I been searchin’ low and high
      I wont get to get what I’m after
      Till the day I die”

      -The Who

        1. You beat me to it. Now I have to bring out my Firesign Theatre LPs.

          Every time I drive through Houston, I see a sign for the Buffalo Speedway exit from 59 and misread it as Antelope Freeway (“1/16th mile”).

  16. “We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idea-less, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your mouldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a this year’s fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity.” –Robert G, Ingersoll, 1833-1899

  17. This “emergent” game seems a little too easy to play. Let’s see–I define “Godroach” to mean, the collective consciousness of all the cockroaches of earth. Godroach is clearly vastly greater than the sum of its parts–it encompasses the functioning of a complex web, a niche, and a filling of that niche in the natural world, roaches together as one, yet separate. Godroach brings humanity together, as we have all seen its manifestations, scurrying across our kitchens when we turn on the light. Once we all accept Godroach, we can drop the “roach” part and simply call it God.

  18. Thanks for the Cuban cigar, Jerry (although I don’t smoke). I’ve been involved in online debates of religion and atheism since the mid-80s (anyone remember alt.atheism and talk.religion.misc onUsenet?), but Abrams’ book is undoubtedly one of the silliest and most naive that I’ve had the misfortune to read.

    1. Geoff, thanks for reading it so we don’t have to. From the excerpts, and comments it seems like a rewrite of Teilhard de Chardin The Phenomenon of Man, which I did have to read, or at least skim, many years ago for my BA(Hons). The idea has, if anything, become less coherent over the years.

  19. Haven’t atheists always argued that it’s not that god created man but that man created god?
    The author is merely agreeing with the atheist position but hiding it it with “sophisticated” language.

  20. This post raised some thoughts for me. You seem justified in suggesting that NPR has some sort of duty to express the minority view of atheism- as a reasoned rebuttal to this accommodationist drivel. But let’s consider the atheist worldview- its a very small position within the American landscape. The whole declaration that NPR should counter these views with atheist thoughts- eerily echoes the creationist insistence that we “teach the controversy.” However, its easy to dismiss this because there is no controversy about evolution / creationism. One view exceedingly outweighs the other- and regardless of what the facts say, controversy is the clash of thinkers- not the clash of facts with reality. So, why then should NPR act as if there is a controversy about whether or not a god exists. It’s not a controversy really- an overwhelming majority thinks the issue is decided and god won. In daily discussions it may be controversial to posit an atheist worldview- but most people don’t consider it a topic even worth debating because the majority consider it simply silly to suggest a god is imaginary. I guess the main thing is, I’m having difficulty discerning the justification in my scoff at a creationist’s insistence that there is controversy in the evolution debate, while at the same time feeling justified to complain that MY small minority position is not being presented in order to “teach the controversy.”

    1. Thanks for the comment. However, the situations with creationism/evolution and atheism/theism aren’t equivalent. While you’re right that atheism is a minority view, unlike creationism it is SUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE (or rather, the lack of evidence for a God). Every day NPR pushes views about God for which there is no evidence at all. And yes, there is a real controversy, not a fake one, over whether God exists.

      I’m not saying that NPR has to put on as much atheism as they do goddycoddling, but they NEVER PUT ANY ON (as a reader noted, the last bit was about 8 years ago), despite the fact that secularism is a growing story in the U.S.

      There is no genuine controversy about creationism versus evolution, for evolution is established as a scientific fact. There is a GENUINE controversy about the validity of theism, for theists present NO EVIDENCE for their views. Why, then, should NPR give them so much airtime?

      1. …and, to add a bit of perspective…there’re more atheists in America than there are either Jews or Muslims. We don’t expect NPR to offer a Jewish or Muslim rebuttal to everything, but we certainly expect them to have, as it’s often put, “a place at the table.” And they do.

        So…where’re the atheists?


  21. We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it’s real. If it isn’t real, there’s nothing to talk about…

    It seems to me, by insisting that it’s real, she has given up on what would make it God. Word games of the silliest sort.

    1. I see Geoff Arnold has nearly the same response:

      So by the end of the first section we have an unsupported hypothesis which seems “worthy” of the term “god”. Most theists would wonder whether an entity which is so radically contingent and highly local (in both space and time) would fit the bill; it’s hardly a prime mover, or a ground of being, or a timeless and omnipotent father figure. Oddly, Abrams seems to feel that this is a case where people should just “get over it”, and the “god” is quickly capitalized. Prayers follow; rituals are not far behind.

  22. Could be real”. What does “real” mean in this context?

    This reminds me of something I heard Joe Nickell get into once. Before he became a skeptical investigator, he dabbled in a number of occupations, including carny.

    “Step right in gents, it’s all real. Some of its really true, some of its really fake, but it’s all really real.”

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