Thursday, April 20, 2006

MacNeill's Wisdom for the Ages

Give me PZ Myers any day.

With PZ, you get overdoses of vitriol, you get someone who cannot grant another his premise and then argue self-consistency (PZ will argue against the premise itself, which leads to rampant emotionality rather than thoughtful discourse) and someone who quashes dissent while basking in the adoration of his admirers. You get all that, but you also get entertainment, which (in small quantities) makes it all worthwhile.

Take away all PZ’s warts and, it pains me to say, his brains, and what evolutionist are you left with?

I think it might be biologist Allen MacNeill of Cornell, who will teach a course entitled Evolution and Design: Is There Purpose in Nature? . The syllabus speaks volumes about MacNeill’s objectivity—notice that he always embeds intelligent design in sneer quotes.

I never heard of MacNeill until I read his comments on a recent Panda’s Thumb thread. MacNeill wrote:

I can’t resist: when my students ask me if I believe in “God”, or (even better) if I believe that “God exists” (or doesn’t), I ask them “Does the United States exist?” Almost always someone takes the bait and says “yes”, and then I ask “Where?” Sometimes they describe the geographical boundaries of the USA, but usually at least one realizes what I’m driving at and says “Yes, it exists as an idea in our heads.” And I commend them, and point out that the United States, like God (or, more properly, the “idea” of God) exists exactly where all ideas exist: in (and only in) the human mind.

By this criterion, therefore, God not only exists (in the same way that the United States and the Democratic Party and the state of Minnesota exist), there are quite literally billions of gods living in the minds of the human inhabitants of this planet right now. Indeed, as many people are quite capable of holding more than one idea (even contradictory ones) about the same subject, the number of possible gods is certainly larger than the number of people who have had, have now, and ever will have such ideas. This is “polytheism” with a vengeance…

Notice that, as Richard Weaver once wrote, “ideas have consequences”, and so the “idea of God=God” identity has consequences for people’s behavior, in the same way that other supernatural ideas (such as the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) have real-world consequences, up to and including killing people in huge, costly, violent, and stupid ways.

So, it is possible to completely disbelieve in the kind of “god” that creationists, most ID theorists, and many mainstream theists believe in (and believe me, I don’t believe in the kinds of “gods” most of them believe in), yet still believe that other people believe in an idea they attach the name of “God” to, and then let that idea actively control their behavior (and let the people who either genuinely or cynically believe in the same idea control their lives for them).

Cornell parents: how much do you pay for such drivel? I have a mental image of MacNeill, writing this, with an immutable smirk stemming from his self-acknowledged cleverness —but in fact undergrad late-night bull-sessions, with which virtually all of us are familiar, produce a better quality of nonsense. Even those not assisted by hallucinogenic fungi. And they’re free.

The scenario that MacNeill paints, at least as I read it , is that through nothing more than the intoxicating proximity of his intellect and his humility (He simply, as he tells us, can’t resist!) he enlightens a few of the peasants.

Bleh. I don’t believe any student interaction ever happened the way MacNeill describes. I categorize this as another “too good to be true” story.

Oh, but lucky for us the erudite MacNeill has deigned to share more insight with the little people:

For a purely naturalistic and anthropological explanation of why people believe in gods, demons, and so forth, check out Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought”. I served on a panel at a conference with Boyer and found both his arguments and the evidence supporting them quite convincing.

You might also be interested in my own foray into this morass in which I elaborate on Boyer’s explanation, grounding it in what I believe is the most likely candidate for the EEA in which the capacity for religious belief and experience evolved: chronic, low-level intergroup warfare (which archaeological evidence now indicates has been a feature of human existance since the mid-Pleistocene).

Given a choice between PZ saying that believers believe because they are stupid and MacNeill arguing that religion is an evolutionary adaptation to warfare (and warfare an adaptation to religion), I think PZ at least displays the admirable trait of cutting to the chase, while the pedantic MacNeill sets off BS detectors in the next state.

But wait, there’s more—and please appreciate that Cornell students have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for this, and you get it here for free!

Sorry if I gave the impression that most believers equate the “idea of god” with “god”. I do, but most of them don’t. However, I don’t think that most believers in the “traditional” God have thought through just exactly what it is they believe in. Most have a vague idea of some “all powerful force” or “entity” (although if you take the Judeo-Christian bible literally, He’s a big guy with a long white beard who goes out for the occasional spaziergang in the cool of the evening).

That said, ideas are clearly “supernatural” are they not? After all, you can’t cut somebody’s brain open and find “ideas” in there. If ideas have any physical (i.e. natural) reality at all they are simply patterns of action potentials in the central nervous system. Therefore, since ideas are “supernatural”, then the equation

God = the idea of God

is perfectly reasonable as far as I can tell.

As to whether or not ideas can have physical consequences, of course they can. Try crossing the border between the United States and Canada without identification (at an official border crossing, not some creek in northern Vermont) and see if the “imaginary” US and Canadian border officials buy your story about how the two countries only exist in their minds.

After holding court on the PT thread with some of the younger crowd, Mark Perakh enters the scene. Now Perakh, with whom I have disagreed with on a number of occasions (he is anti-ID), is a true scientist—and as such I perceive that MacNeill caused his crapola meter to pin. Perakh writes:
Dr MacNeill, would you please answer the following question: Say, a few years ago a guy named John went to a remote area in Australia and came across a fancy stone half-buried in the ground. Having seen it, he believed that it existed, and, if I understand your thesis, this means the stone in question indeed existed to the extent it existed in his mind. Yesterday John died. There is nobody any longer who ever believed in the existence of that stone, so, according to your thesis, it does not exist as it does not anymore exist in anybody’s mind. I am confused - does that stone exist or not? Say, it does not. If tomorrow some girl by the name of Mary travels to the remote area in question and discovers the stone still in the same place, it will suddenly come into existence, right? So, it existed between the time John saw it and the time of his death, then it did not exist for a while, and then it again came into existence when Mary saw it? Do I misrepresent your thesis? Thanks for clarification and apology if I distorted your thesis.
There is much, much more on the thread although, at least for the moment, Perakh seems (with a follow-up question) to have scared MacNeill away. It’s not as fun when the big boys get out of school.

In MacNeill's last post, at the time of this writing, MacNeill goes Socratic:

Perhaps it would help to ask the following questions:

1) Since, as most of us agree, there is no empirical evidence for the existence of the kind of “god” described in the JCMM Bible/Q’uran/Book of Mormon, why do so many people believe there is? Are people really that gullible, or is there perhaps an innate predispostion to believe in such things? For example, I can suggest to you that you are “hollow” in the back (i.e. only your ventral surface exists; you are built like a Hallowe’en mask), yet this idea is unlikely to catch on with most people. However, a huge majority of the Earth’s human population believes fervently that an invisible human-like entity with super powers controls their lives, and that they will continue to live on after they are dead. Are these two ideas really that different? What makes so many people not believe the first, but believe the second to the point that they will forego reproduction or even kill people and/or commit suicide in support of that belief? Could it perhaps be an innate predisposition to believe in such things as gods?

2) If there is an innate predisposition to believe in such things as gods, what would be the most likely candidate as to the EEA in which such an adaptation evolved? That is, what human activity, pursued assiduously over the past 100,000 years or so, would have caused the greatest assymetry in reproductive success, thereby resulting in the evolution of such a capacity? I believe, based on the work of Atran, Boyer, Betzig, Keely, Kelly, LeBlanc, and others that the answer is warfare. If you don’t think so, then what other human activity would be more likely to provide the evolutionary context within which such a capacity would have evolved?

I stand in awe of his willingness to help.

PZ would say he doesn’t believe in God because he is too smart for such nonsense. MacNeill does not believe in God –or the idea of God—because he has a genetic irregularity—that is he lacks the normal human genetic predisposition for god-belief that he postulates and ascribes to the masses. This genetic superiority no doubt makes him a true god in his own eyes.

Neither PZ nor MacNeill would be receptive to the truth: they don’t believe in God because God (I am speculating based on the evidence) has not regenerated either—and so they lack the moral ability to believe.

That’s the plain truth Dr. MacNeill. It is not that superior breeding has permitted your line to jettison the gullibility gene, it is that you are in a fallen state in which you will never accept God, not because of genetics or cleverness, but because you can’t. And from this state you cannot extricate yourself—though you delude yourself into thinking that there is a materialistic reason for your atheism. It is not religion that, through evolution, has become man’s natural state: atheism or idol worship is man’s natural state, which he will often (like PZ) misinterpret as his own clever choice—but there is no choice. (More precisely: you have an infinity of bad choices to satisfy the appetite of your free will.) Only a supernatural act can resurrect you, allow you to choose God, and then bear witness to the fact that you previous state requires no explanation beyond depravity.

No comments:

Post a Comment