Egnor’s questions for atheists

If you read a bunch of atheist blogs, you’ve probably heard by now about the eight questions posed to “New Atheists” by the Discovery Institute’s Michael Egnor. Technically, the questions were directed at Larry Moran, as well as “other atheists (Myers, Coyne, Novella, Shallit, etc)” — so I’m not sure of the extent to which Egnor meant to address all atheists who are interested in stating their atheism plainly and debating theists about their beliefs, versus the popular but narrow conception of the “New Atheist” which involves book deals and web sites with high Alexa ratings.  I don’t actually think there’s much at all “new” about atheists who are willing to state and stand behind their lack of belief in deities; it’s just that the types of technology and media  (e.g. blogs, YouTube, etc.) we have at our disposal today make us marginally more noticeable. Also, I can’t tell whether Egnor is being sarcastic or whether he really is interested in learning more about what we atheists think. Nevertheless, I want to add my two cents in response.

First, here are the eight questions:

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?

I’m not really interested in going question by question. It’s already been done a few times (by atheists linked above, as well as Ophelia Benson and Luke Muehlhauser, and in the comic Jesus and Mo) and while I might quibble with a few details of particular sets of answers, I think they do a good job of representing the “atheist position,” such as it is. The real important thing to remember here is that being an atheist simply means that you are not a theist, which is to say, you do not hold the belief that any gods exist. There are no widely held positive beliefs among all atheists. I think most “new” atheists would stand behind the positive statement that science is a good way to learn about the world around us. But science is an approach, a process — not a set of fixed answers about every aspect of existence comparable to what religion purports to offer.

If I were to articulate my personal answers, they would each be some combination of “I don’t know,” “We’re working on figuring that out,” and “That question makes no sense,” to varying degrees. And like I said, that’s largely what’s already been written by others. But there’s one issue I want to point out which betrays the fundamental problem with Egnor’s approach, with the credibility of “intelligent design” as science, and with the reason why a frighteningly large number of people hold religious beliefs. Simply: Egnor is already one step in, in his question-asking process. He thinks he is asking the big questions, but there are bigger ones still which he presumes he knows the answer to.

When Egnor writes, “Why is there anything?” he has skipped over the question, “Is there a reason why there is anything?” By phrasing his first question the way he did, he has presupposed that there would be a reason for such a thing. When he writes, “What caused the Universe?” he has skipped over the question, “Does the Universe have a cause?” He has assumed the answer to that question is yes, then gone on to speculate as to what that cause might be. And so on. All of his “why” questions would be better changed to “is there a reason why” questions. You get the idea.

The fact is, we don’t have answers to these bigger questions. It might be that there’s no way to know. And I understand that not knowing can feel scary. I understand that confronting the possibility that there is no higher power consciously guiding all of existence is, for some people, even scarier. But neither of these types of scary feelings make it right to assume the safer-feeling answers with no justification — and even, as in this case, no acknowledgment that an assumption was ever made.

I don’t know if Egnor actually intended to spark a thought-provoking, intellectual discussion with atheists. But whatever his intentions, what he ended up writing strikes me as seriously intellectually dishonest.

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5 Comments

  1. Followed a trackback here from B&W. This is the best response to Egnor I’ve seen yet, I think. Well said!

  2. Well said indeed.

    But whatever [Egnor']s intentions, what he ended up writing strikes me as seriously intellectually dishonest.

    Michael Egnor intellectually dishonest? I’m shocked, shocked!

    (BTW, if being a Gnu Atheist really does earn one a book deal and a high Alexa rating, clearly I somehow managed to skip an important part of the orientation. You don’t still have the informational packet they handed out, do you? I don’t really blog anymore—does Alexa rate yammering comments or DKos diaries?—but a book deal would be fabulous….)

  3. Great reply. As PZ already pointed out, if he was really sincere about understanding atheists positions, he would allow comments on his blog. I think the loaded nature of his questions is further evidence that he is being disingenuous.

  4. Aristarchus

     /  October 27, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I think the real point is that atheists haven’t claimed to have answers to these. Religion has. That means it’s religion that has to give some reason for its answers being right. This is kind of like a prosecutor asking the defense attorney something like, “Fine, if your client didn’t do it, then who did?” It just doesn’t make any sense to expect that sort of answer. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim.

  5. Eloquently stated. You just earned yourself a link on my site. That and about five bucks will buy you a Starbucks latte, but I do want to express my admiration for your clarity of thought.

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