It's considered correct for atheists to insist we have values. But the values I see us testifying to come mostly from past movements and ages. Atheism doesn't seem to generate any new values today.
Why not? I think it's because today's atheism identifies primarily with science and logic, and values from that source--such as strategies from game theory--seem bloodless to most people, almost sinister.
I propose a new direction for atheism: a return to old-fashioned humanism but drawing on a more recent discovery. This could provide atheism with a source of new values, in fact an entirely new human nature, built on a new foundation.
What I see making a difference--the new foundation--is knowing we evolved. The source of new values would be what we know, and can learn, about evolution.
That's idea number one. Here's quite-unrelated idea number two: my idea of atheism is, it's for the whole person, not just the left brain--science and logic--as atheism's philosophy tends to be now. I propose we create, also, a right-brain strand of atheist philosophy.
Put those two ideas together and they point to an atheism informed by knowing we evolved, with right-brain style. That could lead us to a new renaissance-humanism, but the renaissance in question would involve not physics but biology--new thinking about evolution.
Here's the sticking point: the evolutionary theory most atheists subscribe to-- darwinism--is pure left brain. It consists of two purely physical processes--natural selection and genetic mutation--expressed in the form of population statistics. Atheists almost universally subscribe to this account of human origins yet probably very few of us understand the mathematical basis it's been given. That puts atheism in the precarious position of being based on a theory over which it has no influence.
I therefore propose we develop non-darwinian, non-creationist origin stories based on us having evolved that we can draw on for new atheist values we can then promote in the form of plays and movies. For a sample story check out my play, "What it Means We Evolved: Dialogue Between Darwin and Galileo."
That's the idea I invite responses to. I ask you to respect me saying I am not a creationist, have no religious leanings.
Is there a constituency for this kind of thinking? I've been debating on this site with an advocate of philosophy-of-mind which clearly represents the left-brain side of atheist theory. I know humanists are considering how to respond to science's offer of a consilience based on darwinism. Can you point me to anywhere else in society where evolution and "mind" are being looked at from both left-brain and right-brain point of view?
About myself: The trajectory of my life has been from left-brain to right-brain. I grew up a physicalist--seeing myself as purely physical, driven entirely by brain chemistry, my consciousness being impotent to direct my behavior--then in my thirties I had an epiphany that convinced me I could, through consciousness, direct my behavior, that I was doing it all the time. As the "Contrarian Evolutionist" I write articles critical of darwinism, and I am currently working up an alternative theory of evolution on right-brain principles. You can see a list of the principles I've arrived at so far on my blog on this site.
You will find math and physics at the core of the arts, I assure you. One look at "sacred" geometry should be enough to understand that it is neither a left-brained nor right-brained direction that's taken, atheism included or not. It's true that many atheists come from the scientific fields, but many of us don't. I currently work in education--language... which would fit into the right side of the brain, if I remember correctly. I also come from an art background... and I once worked in tech support. Okay, that's more left-brained, but really--is it? Being able to relate to people, to articulate ideas and processes takes both sides of the brain, working en tandem. (Or is it, 'in tandem'? Forgive me.)
Morality is something that has evolved alongside society. Religions lay claim to it, but they do not hold patent on it at all. Don't buy into that. I certainly don't.
For a long time, I would have considered looking for a philosophy that optimizes how to live one's life. I have given that up, because no philosophy will cover all of the contingencies of life. Each philosophy is a beautiful construction of logic that unfortunately is threadbare on premise.
I see no need to generate new values as stated in the original post. None of our values were generated by previous religions. Religions only make the claim of generating values. However, these values are a natural consequence of changing living conditions. Religion has always told people what they want to hear. You can't stay in business otherwise.
While I am intrigued by your attempt to reconcile the needs of both the left and right sides of your brain, your premise that "atheism doesn't seem to generate any new values today" is somewhat flawed. It may apply to some atheists, but not all. I for one do not view atheism as an alternative to religion, but rather a simple rejection of it. For me, the noun "atheism" is really more of an idea rather than an entity of any kind. In this context, atheism itself would not, and should not, be able to generate anything. Instead, it simply leaves us free as individuals to develop our own ideas and views of the world around us without the rose-colored lenses of religion. The fact that you have taken the time to develop your set of principles is an excellent example of this.
A second criticism involves the idea that the cold, calculated and logical premises of evolution and genetic mutation theory, among other such principles, somehow makes atheists unable to generate any new values. A person's ability to navigate the environmental, social, cultural, political and economic complexities of the human experience is hard-wired by millennia of evolution, combined with his or her ever-present stream of consciousness, memory, and rationalization by the prefrontal cortex. Our values are based on much more than a simple story of our beginnings, however logical and scientifically-founded that story may or may not be. While many devout Christians believe in creationism, one seldom hears that their values are derived strictly from the book of genesis.
I applaud your thought and creativity, however to broaden any set of set of stories or ideas as the basis of some new atheism is to, in reality, create a new sort of religion. Thus, it could not become the foundation of atheism that is viewed strictly in the context of rejection.
Thanks for all replies, helping me see I fudged the issue. Edison, very interesting response.
My concern comes from a highly organized view on human nature that I see becoming very influential in atheism. It's the doctrine, based on a simplistic reading of science, that we are all physically determined, that our sense of having free will is an illusion. Following a talk I gave to about twenty five humanists maybe eight years ago three of those present said they were determined, three said they had free will, the rest weren't sure. The leader of our group said humanists (and I assume this applies to atheists) no longer believe in the old humanist principles but instead subscribe to modern science and the obvious implication that we are physically determined. Of 400 responses to a New York Times article on the issue a few years ago, a third gave an opinion, just over half of those saying they, and all humans, were determined. This is the doctrine of philosophy of mind, generally regarded as today's primary philosophy. I see this belief in determinism becoming a growing influence in atheism, and I have misgivings about it.
Would you have any misgivings about physical determinism becoming the default (because the only clearly articulated) belief underlying atheism? And do you see it happening?
This is a different issue from drawing on evolutionary theory to redraw human nature. For me the issues are linked but I appreciate that for most people they are not. I recently thought I could relate them by seeing determinism as left brain, and creativity and free will--which I see characteristic of evolution--as right brain. Your responses suggest this is not a persuasive model.
I am fishing, looking for opinions--am I chasing red herrings?
Shaun, you asked me to commit my time and energy but gave me no reason to do so.
Summarize in maybe 20 lines what I will see.
Tell me in as few lines as possible how your right brain view differs from the left brain view you allege.
Tell me how much time your play will require.
In short, sell your idea. How will I benefit?
The metaphor he uses, of the conscious, intelligent genome, is foggy and undeveloped. (It isn't a new metaphor). Develop it, flesh it out, and you'll see whether it's useful.
The play insults both Darwin and Galileo.
The basic idea seems to be that morality, consciousness, free will can be reintroduced by using the metaphor of a conscious genome directing evolution.
Applying Occam's razor, there isn't a justification for introducing a huge new entity, if it is "real". No proof that a conscious genome is necessary (whatever is meant by a conscious genome).
Big questions are: what is meant by a conscious genome?
is it necessary to use this metaphor to have morality, consciousness, free will?
Does this metaphor introduce morality, consciousness, free will?
Luara, the play is meant to be burlesque, sort-of Fawlty Towers, to make it amusing. So, yes, I do insult both Darwin and Galileo but it's meant in fun, in a British-sort of way. I am British. And I am tall and look like John Cleese. I do make a fool of myself, too.
Tom, the play is pretty standard length for a solo performance--40 minutes for a first act, 20 minutes for a second, with perhaps a 15 minute intermission. It takes place in the afterlife. I dress as Darwin, and play both roles. It's meant to be an evening entertainment for general interest audiences.
Luara, except for perhaps Samuel Butler in Life and Habit, I haven't come across anyone else suggesting the genome is intelligent. Can you tell me who has? Who should I credit?
Between you, you probably raise the issues I guess most people will face me with. What do I mean by a conscious genome, what relevance does it have for morality, consciousness and free will? And what is the benefit? I have written a self-improvement manual based on the idea ("Self Improvement Through a New Approach to Evolution") but I welcome the challenge of summarizing the benefit here.
I got interested in this from growing up convinced evolution was a foundation-shattering new origin story that would tell us all about human nature. Instead I found no one thinking of it as a new source of truth about us, only as a counter in a political game of church against humanism, special creation against evolution. Darwin could account for evolution only within the limits of pre-Victorian science--Victoria was still a teenager while he was coming up with natural selection. His had to account for the origin of the Earth's living species with only simple physical processes. Accounting for the evolution of all of human nature was incidental.
But that is what I want to know: how all of human nature evolved. Why do I enjoy studying history? What allows me to make rational choices? Why do I experience consciousness? How come I can be creative, a designer and an artist and a novelist? Where does our creativity come from? Non-living matter isn't as creative--volcanoes today are much the same as they were a billion years but today there are elephants, then there were only bacteria. In the solar system only us humans and the process of evolution appear to display creativity. Evolutionary psychology can't account for us liking ice cream, or being able to drive automobiles at night at 70 miles per hour, or wanting to practice science. What's going on?
I expect benefit to come simply from learning more about our own nature. I expect atheists to be interested in that. But we're likely to learn more about human nature with a theory better able to account for the evolution of us humans, with remarkable attributes like those above, so far beyond what you'd need merely to be adapted to the environment. I can testify that once I started losing belief in darwinism, as I did in my fifties, it rapidly came to seem grossly inadequate to account first for evolution in us, then for life in general.
I'm going to pause there. This post clears the way. I'll post another with benefits and theories.
Shaun, am I understanding your l-o-n-g argument, Darwinism (whatever you mean by the term) fails because it does not explain the evolution of thought and human nature?
A pioneer in any field requires dedication to her/his cause. Good luck with yours.
Tom, I put it this way: if we want to understand ourselves better through the study of how we evolved (surely a reasonable quest for atheists) we need a better theory than darwinism has shown itself to be.
I appreciate your good wishes.
As with so many theories and hypotheses, we put too much value in their ability to solve pesky human problems. Darwin is not the end of an inquiry, only a beginning. Much more work needs to be done and is being done to understand human evolution and, indeed, evolution of the universe. We have more questions than answers.
There is a difference between those who live in the answers and those who live in the questions. Answers people, such as fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and atheists don't get it. The answers we have to explain complex issues, such as life, miss the bigger story, they stop asking and seeking when some new idea apears. That is what our bicameral mind is all about ... ask questions, be skeptical, challenge authority, and think for yourself, welcoming ideas from others, not to accept but to ponder.
A great mind expander has to do with cognitive function, such as learning physics or biology, sociology; or the affective functions, such as feelings, emotions, desires, hopes, imagined preferred futures.
We exist, not as cognitive beings alone or emotional beings alone. We are both and.
I start with evolution, Positivism, physicalism, darwinism (darwinism standing for both Charles Darwin's natural selection and the modern synthesis).
Evolution is a fact as much as something can be. We evolved. Positivism is a practice of science, limited to what can be measured, with anything supernatural discarded, even "volition, natural or supernatural," that is, even human conscious judgment and will.
Let Positivism grow into a philosophy and you get "physicalism," denial that mind exists: only purely physical things can have any effect on other purely physical things. Since it's not physical, consciousness cannot therefore drive our behavior, our behavior must instead by driven directly by brain chemistry. So according to physicalists our sense of having free will--of being free to any extent of physical determinism--must be an illusion.
Now darwinism: In 1809 Lamarck said evolution involved "subtle fluids," a term from alchemy. Under the influence of Positivism Darwin came up with the purely physical process of natural selection. Later the modern synthesis would add to that the purely physical process of genetic mutation. These purely physical processes were widely adopted as what drives evolution ("darwinism").
Both darwinism and physicalism are doctrines, assumption made based on the Positivist way of practicing science. There can be no proof of them. Physicalism can't be proved true or false; whatever you do can be claimed to be either determined or done of your own free will. Similarly with darwinism, the creative (macromutational) effects of genetic mutation and natural selection can become significant only after hundreds of thousands of generations, by which point you can't tell whether or not the original genetic changes were due to mutations-- not unless you define all genetic change as "mutations."
Darwinism may be nothing more than an unprovable hypothesis, but physicalists point to it as proof of their doctrine that physics rules everything and we are determined, that we can't consciously direct anything that happens in the world except as determined by physics. So when atheists defend darwinism they add strength to physicalism's denial of consciousness as an agent in events. I have no problem with atheists who are also physicalists defending darwinism. What bothers me is atheists defending darwinism as a knee-jerk reaction against creationism, in the process also supporting the physicalists' denial of conscious volition.
For me, what's at stake is freedom from the feeling of fatalism, an unavoidable implication of us being determined. I think of humanism as defense against that feeling just as much as defense against religion. How much does atheism today celebrate freedom from fatalism? I hope, a lot. But how do you defend that freedom?
If you accept today's physics as a complete account of the world, you can't argue against physicalism. It's a purely logical system based on today's physics. That's why I say it's the epitome of left-brain thinking.
So how can you argue for freedom from fatalism? Where's the hole in the physicalists' argument that we're determined? For me it lies in two pieces of evidence for today's physics being incomplete. One is my fundamental conscious experience of being able to express conscious volition in behavior, and hence in physical matter. The other is how creative evolution is.
(Physicalists deny me both of those pieces of evidence. Evolution is no more creative than matter, they may say. And you can't prove you're not determined. In answer I say, those are axioms on which I base my natural philosophy. You can no more prove them wrong than I can prove yours wrong.)
Then I build my system. First, conscious experience is the medium through which the practices of science have to pass: conscious creativity in coming up with hypotheses, in creating experimental apparatus, in judging results. So even the practice of science depends on conscious experience being an effective agent in the physical world. Second, creativity is found only in evolution, and in its products--for example us. Since the process of evolution evolved before we did, and generated us, I assume that's where we got our creativity from. Evolution is the source of both it, and us, being genuinely creative, in defiance of physical determinism--physics does not create anything like living species.
By similar arguments I trace our ability to be conscious and to think to similar capabilities in the process of evolution. In other words, I account for all our mental capabilities by saying they come to us from the process of evolution building into us some of its own powers. We need to account for them somehow. Where else in the cosmos could they come from? Then I propose evolving is equivalent to thinking. So in us, thinking is our thoughts evolving.
Mechanism of evolution? On the basis of thinking being equivalent to evolving, I can suppose the genome can by thinking make changes to its "brain"--the genes it consists of--just as we when we remember something make changes to our brain cells. The intelligent genome can literally think up new species.
My skein of arguments, given my axioms, is not illogical. Maybe not at first plausible. But illogical? Can't be proved so. Will that do?
Benefits: If we get our mental powers from the genome, then by further study of evolution we may discover new powers in it that we can add to those we've already got. And, if this theory turns out to fit the facts of nature better, we can base new technologies on it.
I offer this not as "truth" but as a model for how to think outside the physicalist box. Even I don't think my theory is true, rather a supplement I have to propose as a supplement to physics, incomplete simply because of the limits it imposed on itself through Positivism's denial of "volition" in its subject material.
Because my theory rests on axioms involving creativity and conscious volition I see it as right-brain. It gives due acknowledgement to that side of our nature, as darwinism doesn't. Between the two, may we come to understand ourselves more fully.