The New Atheism: The Nature Of Mind

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters, a blog where we dive into the ocean of truth! Tonight, we’re still tangling with a shark but so far, it hasn’t been much of a battle. We’re looking at Victor Stenger’s book “The New Atheism: Taking A Stand For Science and Reason.” Thus far, I conclude if Stenger was truly standing for science and reason, those two would be in a lot of trouble. Tonight, we’re looking at his chapter on th nature of the mind called simply “The Nature of Mind.”

Stenger gives a brief history of the doctrine of the soul. Of course, he has a lack of sources as he always does when dealing with religious topics. However, I do not wish to nit-pick at that point. It is when he gets to the content of the chapter on the arguments for an immaterial aspect of man that I wish to raise objections.

To begin with, he asserts that theologians believe that religious experience is evidence for a soul. Stenger doesn’t seem to treat this seriously, but I will first off say that this is something that should be considered. It wouldn’t be my first argument, but if one wants to make it, then let them feel free to.

However, absent from that part are any arguments put forward by dualists. I realize some readers might be Christian physicists here (Not in the profession of physicists but in believing that there is not an immaterial aspect to man). However, I also realize that such would admit that there are arguments for dualism. They just don’t think the arguments work. That is quite different from just ignoring the arguments. If the best Stenger has is “religious experience”, then he’s lacking.

His first response is about near-death experiences. Now this is one of the first pieces of evidence I would present to a non-believer for the existence of the soul (Naturally, I could point to biblical passages for a Christian, but this is dealing with the non-believer so we will use the grounds that philosophy recognizes, reason).

Absent in this from Stenger is any example of a near-death experience. He tells us to take such reports of NDE’s with a large bag of salt and then just says “Every such report that has been examined by skeptics has a simple, natural explanation.” No argument given. No link. We are told later to look at another one of his books for his sources, but why can’t Stenger give us some source here? He could have at least pointed to the work of Keith Augustine.

Absent is any reference also to any work by those studying in the field of near-death experiences. There is no looking at Melvin Morse or Michael Sabom or anyone else. None of the cases brought forward by Gary Habermas or J.P. Moreland are mentioned. Apparently, Stenger wants us to take what he says by faith. One wonders what he would think if I simply said “All examples of transitional fossils have been investigated by skeptics and found to be false.” Now I am not asserting that, but surely he would call foul if I just said that, and rightly so.

Now I am also not against being skeptical of near-death experiences. I think we should always be questioning people who have them, but there are cases that have great evidential value and again, I refer the reader to the works of people like Habermas or Sabom for reference.

Stenger goes on to talk about thoughts and matter citing the theologian Thomas Crean who says he cannot think of how thoughts could come from matter. Crean asks how a material thing could cause an immaterial thing to exist.

Stenger first off says this is an argument from ignorance. Second however, he says that a computer is a material thing that can solve mathematical problems and write poetry indistinguishable from that by humans. It can also produce beautiful art and music.

What’s also amazing is that Stenger thinks this is a valid analogy.

Computers are also programmed by human beings with immaterial information and they act on that information. I do see information as immaterial. It is just often transmitted through material means. Right now, I am transmitting information to you. If it was something entirely physical, my giving it to you would mean that I am losing it. I am still retaining the information that I have which you are gaining as well.

The computer does not produce new information. It simply churns out in an altered form that which was already programmed into it. It is not a produce but a transmitter more than anything else. One wonders how Stenger’s worldview even explains the existence of anything immaterial.

If matter is all there is, then matter must act on matter according to the laws of nature. Are the laws of nature capable of bringing out of matter that which is not material? It would be interesting for Stenger to tell us how this would come about. It would seem to be a miracle, which his system cannot allow.

However, while Stenger says Crean uses the argument from ignorance, he goes after theistic philosophers Goetz and Taliaferro because they do not know how exactly it is that an event in the brain that is nonphysical can bring about a physical action. Stenger argues that they don’t even have a model.

So note this everyone. When a theologians says he cannot see how matter can produce the immaterial, therefore matter is not all there is, he is using an argument from ignorance. When Stenger says he does not see how the immaterial can affect the material, therefore matter is all there is, he is not using the argument from ignorance.

There is no doubt that both sides have difficult questions to answer, but to chide one’s opponent for what one is guilty of himself is a huge double-standard. This is especially evidence since Stenger attacks Crean on one page for doing something and then defends himself against Goetz and Taliaferro the same way on the next page.

Stenger also says that theologians just say “God did it.” Scientists say “We don’t know, but we’ll try to find out.” This is simply false however. The history of science has been loaded with numerous theists who wanted to figure out how God did it. They always asserted God as the efficient cause somehow, with good reasons for believing in the existence of God, but they also sought to know the instrumental cause. How is it that God does what he does? Newton thought his system of mechanism did not detract from God but rather increased the glory of God. Kingsley praised Darwin for a mechanism that produced machine-making machines.

Theists are not against mechanism. They are simply saying that mechanism does not rule out God as an efficient cause nor does it eliminate the possibility of final causes. I as a non-scientist will say of creation that God did it, because I believe he is a divine creator. I leave it to the scientists to find out the instrumental means. However, my lack of knowledge of an instrumental cause or maybe even a final cause does not rule out knowing the efficient cause. An example of this would be to watch or read a mystery sometime. You can know who did the crime without knowing how or why.

Stenger then mocks mind-body dualism as a common sense belief. He asks us if we know what those are and tells us that those are the same beliefs that tell us that the world is flat. Ironically, that common sense did not seem to be for those in the ancient and medieval period. They knew the world was a sphere and most could tell you its circumference.

Stenger quotes Goetz and Taliaferro again who say the following:

If a person is convinced that his reasons for believing that he is a non-spatial entity and that he causally interacts with a physical body are better than any reasons he is given for believing that there can be no non-causal pairing relations between a non-spatial soul and a physical body that makes possible causal interactions between the two, then he will be justified in asserting the existence of such a relation even though he does not know what it is.

How does Stenger interpret this? “In other words, a person can believe whatever he wants to believe even if he doesn’t know what it is he believes.”

It is a wonder how Stenger gets that out of that.

What Goetz and Taliaferro are saying is that one can have reasons that are primary for believing in something without knowing all the secondary reasons. For instance, I believe there are strong arguments for the existence of God, such as the existence/essence distinction and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In light of this, I’m allowed to believe despite secondary problems that I don’t know all about, such as why God allows possible evils to occur. I believe if a naturalist thinks he has reasons to believe in naturalistic evolution, he’s allowed to do that even if he doesn’t have an explanation yet for the origin of life. He believes answers will come to secondary questions because primary ones have been answered.

Stenger believes an immaterial force acting on the brain violates laws of conservation of energy and asks why these laws can be violated but not other laws such as the forbidding of homosexual marriage or condoms.

First off, not all evangelical and orthodox Christians think the use of condoms is a sin. Orthodox Catholics do, but not all Protestants. Second, let’s suppose somehow physical laws are broken. I’m not convinced they are. Stenger gives me no reason to think such. Why is it that those can be broken but not moral laws?

It is because moral laws refer to something that is unchanging, God’s nature which is goodness itself. Physical laws do not as they apply only to the universe and could have been other than they are. Goodness could not be other than it is. Stenger’s reply could have been answered at the level of high school apologetics. This is basic stuff.

Stenger goes on to ask that if we have a soul and it is that which sins, then shouldn’t the soul be punished? His thought after this is that the more we learn, the more incoherent religious beliefs become.

It only takes a moment’s reflection to see the nonsense in this reply. The soul sins through the medium of the body and through the information it receives in the body. The sin of lust is a sin of the mind for instance, but it is a sin done through the information received through the body. The soul is punished and often through the medium of the body. I assure you when I feel pain, I do reflect on it and a lot of the agony is my mental awareness of what I am going through physically.

Stenger asks why the soul isn’t punished. The Christian response is “IT IS!”

Stenger also goes after Mario Beauregard saying that Beauregard relies on the argument from ignorance. I simply defy and reader to go get a copy of Beauregard’s “The Spiritual Brain” and see if he is simply using an argument from ignorance. Stenger repeatedly thinks he can just hand-waive away anything that he disagrees with with one statement. It doesn’t work here.

Now none of this is proof of the existence of the soul. That would be a whole other work. My point here is to show that Stenger’s arguments here simply do not work and his argumentation is simply shoddy. He is following reductionistic thinking with the idea that everything must be reduced to scientific means. Now it could be that everything is physical in nature and science can explain all, but Stenger gives no reason to believe that.

We shall continue tomorrow.

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