Monday, October 25, 2010

My Non-Answers to Egnor's Questions

Discovery Institute denizen Michael Egnor poses 8 questions to Atheists:
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?
These are good questions (but see below), and many of us who have been paying attention have seen them and answered them before.

Before answering these questions, however, we should pause to consider another question that relates to all of the eight and that clarifies the nature of the debate surrounding them:
For each of the eight questions, which areas of human endeavor and study are best suited to provide reliable answers?
For instance, is the discipline of medieval studies positioned to give the most correct and comprehensive answer to #1? Or, is the discipline of urban planning? In what bodies of knowledge and practice are we expecting to gain the most comprehensive and correct view on each question?

My point is that "atheists" are not really in a position to answer these questions. Neither are "theists." Question #1 looks like a matter for philosophers, but it's probably also, or more so, a matter for cosmologists and physicists. For Question #5, I should think neuroscientists would have the most to say.

As an Atheist, then, I am not claiming to know the authoritative, definitive answers to each question. I will happily share my opinions, of course, and hopefully these opinions derive from a reasonable understanding of the experts in fields relevant to each question. However, since the questions are directed to Atheists and part of a larger discussion between Atheists, theists, and accommodationists, I think we need to ask theists:
Upon what basis, if any, does Theology X claim to be able to weigh in authoritatively on these 8 questions?
The honest answer, of course, is that there is no theology competent to pronounce authoritatively on these questions. Judaism may have its own ideas about them, Hinduism may have its beliefs, Christianity may have its doctrines--but theology as such doesn't really help us to get answers. Indeed, theology actually seems to get us farther away from the questions

Finally, I think the questions themselves are a bit of a sham. Maybe some people get a charge out of wondering "Why is there evil?" but to me this is a question that allows the thinker to remain insulated in abstraction and to avoid the messy realities of real problems. Why stand in a street to observe the intractable problems of crime and poverty when one can sit in a private library justifying the existence of capital-e evil? Why trouble ourselves by dealing with the reality that we are here when we can indulge ourselves by meditating leisurely on questions such as why are we here, which are probably unanswerable?

So, I take a dim view of the intention behind Egnor's questions and of the debates that may obtain over the answers given. All of these are sideshows. As I see it, the questions have been given to make a distraction from reality. Their intention betrays an "I'm-more-metaphysical-than-you" attitude, and any debate over specific answers will become just another reason not to consider the questions we really should answer, such as "How can we reduce violent crime?" or "How can we reduce poverty?"

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