Francis Collins purports that his reasoning for belief in the existence of God is that there seems to be a universal moral law and a ubiquitous search for God. Richard Dawkins argues that since evolution is now seen as fact and can account for how we are here and our complexity, there is no need for a god. From there, he infers that since we have no need for a god, that God does not exist.
I am going to argue that neither the apparent omnipresence of morality, nor the ubiquitous search for God proves that a god exists; that moral reasoning and belief are evolutionary acquired inheritable traits. I will also attempt to show that we have biological and theoretical handicaps in perception, which ultimately means that we can never disprove that there could exist entities that we cannot sense; that Dawkins’s main argument against the existence of God inhibits us from admitting that we can explore these possibilities. However, if these entities outside our perception do exist, these beings can be explained as not something supernatural.
Morality and evolution are huge topics that are exploited by both sides in mainstream debates over the validity of religious beliefs and systems. To many scientists, it seems that religion should go away because of the mounting evidence supporting evolution: since evolution explains our origins and biological complexity, it should follow that there is no God. However, to their chagrin, the world religions show no signs of tumbling down. It becomes apparent that the discovery of evolution is not enough to overpower piety. Additionally, many religious followers seem to think that if evolution can somehow be disproved the doubt of God’s existence will go away.
Many religious followers also believe that it is because of their religion, and/or the existence of a god, that morality exists. True, it could be argued that a percentage of religious followers do not whole-heartedly believe the religion they profess, but are afraid that if the People’s faith in the religion were to die, then there would be no reason to act moral. To the atheist scientist, it seems becomes a simple of matter of proving that we do not need a supernatural entity or religion in order to act morally.
Subsequently, neither side is successful in winning many converts over these two debates. In the end, it appears that perhaps it does not matter what views one holds on evolution and morality in regards to his belief in a god. There are many who were given a religious upbringing who, through questioning and contemplation, became atheists in their adulthood. Likewise, there have been many who were given a secular or atheist upbringing who, through questioning and contemplation, professed belief in their adulthood. Fifteen years after the atheistic Soviet Union’s collapse, 84% of Russia’s citizens reported that they believed in God (Ganske, 2006). A quandary for the “typical” atheist scientist is that there are instances of highly educated people, who were raised without a religious upbringing, who venture from atheism to theism. It becomes evident that perhaps that there is another factor, apart from culture and socialization that plays a part in religious belief: genetics. Of course, it should be noted that what I am referring to is someone can be genetically predisposed to join a religion – not that there are specific “Christ” or “Buddha” genes that have been propagating from generation to generation.
I will address later the point that even though we may be able to show scientifically that religious beliefs have their foundation in the brain (and subsequently in genetics and evolution), that from an epistemic perspective, we will never be able to prove that there is anything else out there outside of our senses. I would also like to note that any atheist who fails to recognize this perspective is perhaps dogmatic in his atheistic beliefs. Nonetheless, another debate arises as to whether we should acknowledge the existence of anything outside our senses as supernatural. After all, from the subjective point of view of a primitive unicellular organism which does not have the necessary faculties to perceive human beings we would exist outside of their senses, but we would not refer to ourselves as supernatural beings just because we know that there are little tiny beings who are not capable of perceiving us.
Anyway, before I get to that point, I am going to address who I think of as a model of the “typical scientific atheist”.
EVOLUTION EXPLAINS THE ORIGINS OF HUMANKIND,
SO THERE IS NO NEED FOR GOD
On the flip side of the religion, one of the major representatives is none other than Richard Dawkins. He is specifically who I refer to when I write “typical scientific atheist”. It is according to him in his 2006 book, the God Delusion that:
Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance. A full understanding of natural selection encourages us to move boldly into other fields… Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes? (p. 141)
It appears that, to Dawkins, if all of us were to wholly understand how natural selection worked, we would be able to escape the traditional, “cop-out” reasoning that something needed to create everything – and thus, we can eliminate any supernatural entity from the grand scheme of creation. This “cop-out” reasoning – religious reasoning – he says is quite irrational and that most believers know that it is absurd, “Many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked” (p. 187). Dawkins has also been in favor of religious censorship in the course of rearing children – that a Christian parent cannot teach his children Christian beliefs and/or take them to church, or that a Jewish parent cannot circumcise his baby boy. He states,
I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents’ privilege to impose it by force majeure. And this, of course is especially important when we reflect that children become the parents of the next generation, in a position to pass on whatever indoctrination may have molded them. (p. 367)
In The God Delusion, Dawkins gives many examples of religious indoctrination in children that are obvious forms of child abuse such as the Hell Houses in Colorado started by Pastor Keenan Roberts. Hell Houses are places where children are brought to be exposed to what might happen to them after they die. Actors play out dramatic scenes regarding such issues as abortion and homosexuality with the mission to frighten the children from doing such things for fear of going to Hell (p. 359). Although Dawkins has a point that when it comes to such instances as these, there is a case that religious upbringing would result in child abuse, I think that Dawkins would go so far as to make it illegal to rear children around religion in any way (if he had that power) so as a method to eliminate religion altogether as if that would work. However, as I mentioned earlier, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, belief in God spiked in Russia and that there have been many people who have had Dawkins’s “ideal upbringing” and still gravitated toward religion when they got older.
In the end, Dawkins uses the theory of evolution to disprove God in the same way that G.E. Moore “used his hands” to disprove the Skeptic/Dream hypothesis in philosophy. It is in this sense that many believers have found ways around Dawkins’s arguments, such as Francis Collins.
GOD EXISTS BECAUSE THERE IS
A MORAL LAW AND A UNIVERSAL SEARCH FOR GOD
Francis Collins, a geneticist specifically known for his achievements through heading the Human Genome Project, has perplexed many scientists because of his professed religious beliefs. In his 2006 book, The Language of God he explained his reasoning as to how it is possible to pursue science and still have a zealous belief in [the Christian] God.
Interestingly, Collins was raised as a “son of freethinkers … [and] had an upbringing that was quite conventionally modern in its attitude toward faith – it just wasn’t very important.” (p. 11) It was not until age 26, in his third year of medical school, that he seriously considered the evidence for and against belief [of Christianity] (p. 20). This was mainly due to the fact that he was “profoundly struck” by spiritual aspect of many of the sick and dying patients he encountered “whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace” (p. 19).
He then read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and from there, formulated his reasons for believing in [the Christian] God: the existence of what seems to be a [universal] Moral Law and a universal search for God (p. 140).
Collins is able to refute Dawkins’s There-Is-No-God-Because-We-Have-Evolution argument because Collins is one who supports evolution and follows Evangelical Christianity.
While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of special creation for each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out his creative plan by means of evolution. Dawkins’s … argument is thus irrelevant to the God that Saint Augustine worshiped, or that I worship. (2006, p. 164)
Collins never had any conflict with the theory of evolution, and from the discoveries of his Human Genome Project population geneticists have been able to construct an evolution tree of life that matches the tree constructed from the fossil record (p. 126), “The study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things” (p. 134).
Collins points out that there have been many instances in history in which scientific discoveries met with strong theological objections. One major example was when Galileo came to the conclusion that the earth revolved around the sun, which conflicted with the views that the Catholic Church held at the time. Conclusively, the Galileo’s heliocentric scientific view triumphed over the Church’s objections (p. 156). Today, most believers do not have any problem with the heliocentric view despite its troubled past with the Church. Collins believes that the theory of evolution will follow a similar path. He also holds the view that religious followers should open their minds to the fact of evolution, because when any non-religious person listens to them and their views on the Holy Scripture, it makes the religious person look ignorant, and in essence, discredits the Bible and the religion (p. 157). He thinks that denying evolution is akin to what biology professor Darrel Falk says “is insisting that two plus two is really not equal to four” (p. 174).
Even though Collins successfully refutes Dawkins’s evolution argument against God, Collins’s own arguments for his own belief in God run dry.
WHY THE UBIQUITY OF RELIGION AND SEARCH FOR GOD
IS NOT EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
Collins seems quite comfortable with his reasoning that since religion is everywhere throughout the world and history, that this means there is a God, “In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes such as … the universal search for God” (p. 140). This line of thinking seems to imply that since everyone through the ages has thought about a god or gods, there must be some Truth in it. Collins probably thinks that just as mathematics is recognized as ubiquitous and true, this can hold true for belief in God. However, Collins makes the mistake in thinking that religion is ubiquitous in the same way that mathematics is ubiquitous.
Mathematics has been discovered all over the world by different cultures in that, for the most part, all of these different cultures – many who did not know of the existence of each other – have arrived at the same conclusions about mathematics: such as two plus two equaling four and a² + b² = c². If religion were to be ubiquitous in the same way, we would see the same basically uniform religion popping up all over the world, in this way it would be more believable that when people converted to the religion they would be recognizing a “truth” in the same way that people learn mathematics. In fact, religion demonstrates ubiquity in the same way that the human practices of racism, war, lying, and murder demonstrate ubiquity. All of these practices have happened all over the world, throughout time, and in different ways.
People all over the world are not racist or nationalistic towards the same race, people do not lie over the same matters, and people do not murder and wage war over exactly the same things. The various minority groups who were discriminated against under Hitler were not discriminated against in the same way that the Untouchables of India are prejudiced against, however the commonality is there. It follows then that even though we can argue that religion (or the search for God) is a ubiquitous human practice, that does not necessarily mean that this practice is right or correct no more than nationalism or murder is right or correct. In so, it is surprising that Collins finds such comfort in this “evidence” for God.
Another ubiquitous human trait that deserves attention is sadness.
THE VIEW THAT “UNIVERSAL SADNESS” IS CAUSED BY BEING WITHOUT GOD
Sadness is an emotion that we have all felt from time to time. It has an emotion that many hold dear and special to the human race just like the emotion of love. Although love has been conventionally explained in evolutionary terms as means for the human race to propagate, sadness is another emotion that has been utilized by religious believers to further their cause. This sadness that we all may feel from time to time has been referred to as a “hunger that only be met by God” (Discover the Word Radio, 2009, para. 18). Some believers thus use our “universal sadness” and “universal incompleteness” as an argument for the existence of God since they believe that this sadness can only be quenched when we “accept Jesus Christ” and when we are reunited with Him in heaven. Additionally, this “universal incompleteness” is often lumped together with the universal longing and searching for God.
Interestingly enough, Utah, a dominantly Mormon state leads the nation in prescriptions for anti-depressants (Hancock, 2002, para. 2). Utah also ranks as the nation’s ninth highest suicide rate even though barely anyone lives there (para. 7).
Additionally, even though it has been a popular practice to medicate depression since it is well known that medication alleviates the “sadness symptoms” in many people. Most would wonder why we feel such an emotion – whether there actually is an evolutionary advantage in feeling sad. In a 2007 article published in Time magazine, John Cloud claims that sadness is part of our “biological heritage”. For example, nonhuman primates when separated from their sexual partners or peers exhibit physiological responses that are very similar to those responses in humans that pertain to sadness. Additionally, human infants cry to get sympathy from others – in this way, we tend to their needs and take care of them and the infants have a better chance of survival. The “despair responses” exhibited by infants suggest that sorrow is perhaps genetic:
These behaviors are useful for attracting social support, protecting us from aggressors and teaching us that whatever prompted the sadness – say, getting fired because you were always late to work – is behavior to be avoided. This is a brutal economic approach to the mind, but it makes sense: we are sometimes meant to suffer emotional pain so that we will make better choices. (para. 5)
Major debilitating depression, however, can lead people to avoid socializing, work, and to display an overall inactivity and lack of energy. This is an instance in which it would seem that a person acquired too much of an evolutionary honed survival trait.
Nevertheless, it seems that advancements in neuroscience are making it so that people who have not responded standard therapy for depression may be able to undergo brain surgery in the near future to quiet the “sadness center” in the brain (Roth, 2010, para. 5). So far, the method of deep brain stimulation, which places a small, steady voltage to electrodes inserted in a spot roughly behind the eyebrows, has met with great success, not only with depression, “but with over 30,000 American patients with Parkinson’s disease or other movement disorders, quieting areas in their brains that cause the tremors, rigidity and jerking that are part of those conditions” (para. 13).
From here, we can surmise that sadness is not merely caused from an “absence of God”.
AS AN EVOLUTIONARY ACQUIRED, GENETIC TRAIT
A 1979 study done by Bouchard, Lykken, Mcgue, Segal, & Tellegen found that adopted twins raised apart held the same religious views – whether that meant that they held little belief or a lot of belief – when they reached adulthood, regardless of what beliefs that were raised with when they were children. The study showed that during childhood, environmental factors played the largest role in determining their religious beliefs, and it appeared that in adulthood, genetics played the largest role. However, this could simply be the result of the lessening role of “authority” figures – as we get older, we do not pay as much heed to our elder’s advice because we have found them fallible. So we rely on our “own thinking”.
From here, we can play with the idea that religious susceptibility is in fact, genetic. It has been proposed that this possible “religion” center, in the past, evolved through societies that utilized ritual healing and the placebo effect. The only people who survived, and thus propagated their genes were the ones who were devoutly religious and thus able to utilize the placebo effect in order to combat ailments (Dennett, 2006, p. 138). Religious susceptibility explained as an inheritable trait would explain such statements as made by Timothy Keller in his 2008 book The Reason for God:
I don’t want to argue why God may exist. I want to demonstrate that you already know that God does exist. I’d like to convince [you]… that whatever you may profess intellectually, belief in God is an unavoidable, “basic” belief that we cannot prove but can’t not know. We know God is there. That is why even when we believe with all our minds that life is meaningless, we simply can’t live that way. We know better. (p. 147)
Many people end up reverting to an “intuitive feeling of what seems right” to explain the existence of something supernatural to compensate for the fact that they are not able to explain certain ideas or beliefs about the world – it is simply a “fundamental mechanism in their brains” (Newberg & Waldman, 2006, p. 27). Many atheists will think that is so absurd that people can hold their beliefs about miracles and Gods, yet it could be this same “mechanism for imagination” that allows us to make new discoveries in science:
The brain is adept at imagining potential realities. For example, around 400 B.C., Democritis envisioned an atom, which he considered the fundamental building block of the universe. In the late 1800s, Joseph J. Thomson proposed the “plum pudding” model, suggesting that there were even smaller parts within atoms. […] This chain of ideas led to the atomic bomb as well as nuclear energy, nuclear disarmament treaties, and even global-warming scenarios. They all originally arose from the brain’s neural capacity to generate flexible beliefs. (p. 43)
Now it is easy to see that it is perfectly reasonable for the imagination and religious beliefs to evolve and propagate through the generations of our species. It is also interesting to think, that if religiosity fits into the brain in the same way that sadness does, it may be possible to install some electrodes in a person’s overactive “religious center” and “quiet” this part with voltage. Despite any ethical boundaries an experiment like this may cross, if it could proven that someone’s religiosity could indeed be “quieted” – so that person would not “feel” he needed his religion to be happy – it would definitely be a hypothetical notch in the atheistic scientist’s belt.
Even though it could be shown that there is a “religious center” in our brains, many people, including Francis Collins, cite “evidence” of an obvious, special Moral Law – which means there is a God who writes this law. This is another “proof” for God that seems to have been reached without careful thought. It appears that people, such as Collins, have ignored the interesting evidence that morale reasoning is perhaps a trait that has arisen through evolution and that it very well could simply be another working of our brains – not something mystical and supernatural, though no less special.
Many experiments have been done on primates, suggesting that there exists a kind of primate morality. If other animals are found to possess morality, then it would seem that either morality lies deeper within us, or that there is some biological component at work. Furthermore, if chimpanzees and monkeys can also be moral, then it would seem that it is not merely our socialization that teaches us morale reasoning. (Richards, 2010, para. 7) Jane Goodall, the British primatologist who has been researching chimpanzees since 1960, once witnessed an “adult male chimpanzee drown in an attempt to rescue a fallen baby chimp that did not belong to him” (World Science Staff, 2007, para.9). In a 2008 study done on capuchin monkeys by De Waal, Greenberg, & Leimgruber, it appeared that under certain conditions, “delivering benefits to others seemed gratifying [to the monkeys]”. The goal of the study was to see whether a monkey would take into account “another monkey’s welfare”. In the experiment, while paired with a partner, subjects were given the choice between two, small differently marked tokens.
Additionally, the studies that have been done on people show that moral reasoning can perhaps be tinkered with, by messing with structures in the brain.
THE MONKEYS WHO STARVED THEMSELVES
TO AVOID SHOCKING OTHER MONKEYS
In a 1964 study done by Masserman, Terris, & Wechkin rhesus monkeys were trained in an “operator compartment” of a two compartment apparatus to pull one chain in response to a red light and another chain in response to a blue light in order to get food pellets. After training was complete (which meant the monkeys pulled the correct chain with a 90% success rate) a Stimulus Monkey was placed in the adjacent compartment that was separated from the operator compartment by a half-silvered screen. The half-silvered screen allowed the Operator Monkey to see the stimulus monkey, but did not allow the stimulus monkey to see the operator monkey. During this time, the operator monkey continued to pull the chains in order to receive food pellets.
On the fourth day of the experiment, one of the chains was programmed deliver a shock to the stimulus monkey. Most of the operator monkeys would not pull the chain that would give the electric shock to the stimulus monkey and showed a statistically significant preference for the chain that did not elicit the shocks. However, some operator monkeys refrained from pulling either chain when they saw their companion stimulus monkey shocked. One monkey lasted up to 12 days; the monkeys were “literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another” (Richards, 2010, para. 9). It appeared that if an operator monkey had experience as a stimulus monkey, it was more likely to exhibit self-starvation.
Later on, the experimenters rigged the apparatus for later pairings so that the operator monkey could not hear or “feel” any possible deterrent sounds made by a stimulus monkey, since it was possible that the stimulus monkey was somehow communicating with the operator monkey or that the operator monkey found the screams from the stimulus monkey unpleasant. In this way, if the operator monkey still refrained from pulling the “shock” chain for food, it was more evident that the operator monkey did this out of genuine empathy for the other monkey. Interestingly, the “auditory” insulation did not change the responses from the operator monkeys in any statistically significant way.
CASES OF MORAL JUDGMENT NOTICEABLY CHANGED BY BRAIN DAMAGE
In 2000 Blair & Cipolotti observed a patient who, after damage to the right frontal region, including the orbitofrontal cortex, exhibited noticeable sociopathic behaviors. His behavior “was notably aberrant and marked by high levels of aggression and a callous disregard for others.” Blair & Cipolotti compared him with another patient who also experienced damage to the frontal lobe (but not the orbitofrontal cortex) and with five prison inmates who were diagnosed with development psychopathy. The other patient who also had damage to the frontal lobe exhibited no sociopathic behaviors. Although the patient who had “acquired sociopathy” displayed no learning impairment from the brain damage, he displayed difficulty in (1) recognizing, and involuntarily responding to angry and/or disgusted expressions, nor could he (2) recognize the emotions of “fear, anger and embarrassment” to fictional story protagonists, and (3) he failed to recognize what were socially unacceptable behaviors. These difficulties were not exhibited by the other patient who had frontal lobe damage, nor the prison inmates. Blair & Cipolotti suggest that his “emotional impairment” was due to a “reduced ability to generate expectations of others’ negative emotional reactions”. Normally, the individual’s ability to generate expectations of others’ emotional reactions is used to gauge what behaviors are socially appropriate, and to thus restrain any inappropriate behaviors. Blair & Cipolotti proposed that the orbitofrontal cortex may be specifically responsible for the ability to generate the emotional expectations of others, or the use of these expectations to gauge and suppress inappropriate behavior.
In another study, by Koenigs et al., 2007, six patients with focal bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), exhibited an “abnormally utilitarian pattern of judgments on moral dilemmas that pit compelling considerations of aggregate welfare against highly emotional aversive behaviors (such as having to sacrifice one’s life to save a number of other lives)”. Koenigs et al. attribute these judgments to the fact that the VMPC is responsible for the generation of social emotions. Thus, the findings suggest that (1) the VMPC is crucial for normal judgments of moral dilemmas, and that (2) emotions play a necessary role in those judgments.
KOHLBERG’S [TRADITIONAL] STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT
Lawrence Kohlberg outlined his six stages of moral development in 1963. The six stages are grouped into three moral levels:
Level I. Pre-Moral Level
Type 1. Punishment and obedience orientation. (Punishment by another)
Type 2. Naïve instrumental hedonism. (Manipulation of goods, rewards by another)
Level II. Morality of Conventional Role-Conformity
Type 3. Good-boy morality of maintaining good relations, approval of others. (Disapproval of others)
Type 4. Authority maintaining morality. (Censure by legitimate authorizes followed by guilt feelings)
Level III. Morality of Self-Accepted Moral Principles
Type 5. Morality of contract and of democratically accepted law. (Community respect and disrespect)
Type 6. Morality of individual principles of conscience. (Self-condemnation)
The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order
Kohlberg, pp. 9-10
Kohlberg thought that only roughly 25% of individuals ever reached Stage 6 (type 6) – most remaining at Stage 4 (Cory, 2006, para. 21). What is interesting about that assessment is that the rhesus monkeys in the 1964 study by Masserman, Terris, & Wechkin, and the chimpanzee that Jane Goodall witness all demonstrated Stage 6 level of moral reasoning. Kohlberg specifies that in Stage 6, individuals morally rationalize in terms of universal moral
principles such as Kant’s categorical imperative. The operator monkeys treated the stimulus monkeys as “ends in themselves” rather than “means to food pellets”.
From all of these observations on the morality of monkeys and brain damaged humans we can conclude that moral reasoning is trait fostered by evolution and resides on various locations within the frontal lobe of our brains. From here, we can argue that the existence of any “moral order” does not need the existence of a supernatural entity.
OUR PERCEPTUAL BIAS LEAVES US NOT ABLE TO PROVE
WHETHER THERE ARE SUCH A THINGS AS “SUPERNATURAL ENTITIES”
Thus far, I have spent time attempting to convey reasons why Francis Collins’s logic for “knowing” God’s existence is flawed. However, Dawkins’s perspective of atheism also has its challenges. The challenges I am referring to are the same ones that a person who follows the empiricist school of thought comes across when confronting the Skeptic (Dream) Hypothesis – that we cannot prove that we know that we are not dreaming, not brains in vats, nor delusional patients in a mental hospital. Dawkins’s main argument – that a God does not exist because we can scientifically explain our origins and complexity – fails the “skeptic’s challenge”.
The Dream Hypothesis points out the disconcerting notion that we fundamentally cannot know whether we are dreaming. In so, we cannot trust that our senses of perception about reality are the best that they can be. For an interesting example to show the validity of this argument, damage to the right side of the brain many times results in illusory sensations of movement:
This suggests that the two brain hemispheres process reality in different ways, and thus our belief systems depend on an integrated coherence between these two perceptions.
When coherence is disrupted, a person may believe that a paralyzed limb is perfectly fine, or that it actually belongs to someone else. Such patients are not lying; they are simply conveying their sense of reality. Fortunately, such symptoms often disappear after a few weeks, along with the memory that they ever existed. (Newberg & Waldman, 2006, p. 60)
Probably the most disturbing part of this example is that the memory of the illusory moving limbs has been eradicated simply because sometimes “the person simply cannot accept the truth”. In people who experience “phantom limb movements”, brain scans reveal that the “sensory motor areas of the brain do not distinguish between imaginary and actual images and activities” (p. 61).
As I mentioned before, Dawkins’s reasoning that there is no God for lack of empirical evidence is akin to G.E. Moore’s “proof” (1939) that we know that we are not dreaming. Moore reasoned that if we can prove that the external objects exist, then we can prove that the external world exists. He deduced that if we can show that these external objects exist, then we can prove that we are not dreaming. To Moore, an external object is anything that exists outside our minds. For example, Moore would have us take a television set to be something that exists independently, outside of our minds. Ultimately, Moore in his 1939 paper acknowledged that we cannot prove whether or not we are dreaming. However, he reasoned, we can “know things that we cannot prove”; it is simply more reasonable that we are not dreaming.
Of course, any sensible person can see that Moore’s “proof” is flawed. In fact, Moore exhibits the same reasoning that a religious person would use to “know” that God exists. It is important to note here, that in his last writings, Moore did indeed acknowledge that “since he did not know that he was not dreaming, then that meant that he did not know such things as that he is standing up and talking, in so he accepted that he could not know for certain that he was not dreaming” (Baldwin, 2008). By the same token, Dawkins should be careful in touting “we know that God does not exist because we ‘know’ that evolution ‘exists’” – especially since his conclusion does not necessarily follow the premise; the conclusion it just seems more reasonable than the alternative.
Perhaps we need not go so far as to worry whether we are dreaming or hallucinating. Immanuel Kant in his 1781 work, the Critique of Pure Reason, proposed a view that he thought of as a compromise between the rationalist and empiricist schools of philosophy. He pointed out that we have several, perhaps biased ways of perceiving the world: such as space and time. Our biased ways of perceiving the world are merely our forms of understanding. From this perspective, even though we may never be able to prove whether we are dreaming, we can at least analyze the world that we apparently perceive. This leaves room for the idea that there are possible things outside of our perception, and/or that we do not perceive things as they truly are. We could be like the unicellular species of Euglena that are handicapped by eyespots that merely detects light, and primitive sense organs (Visual Dictionary, 2009), thus essentially cannot actually “see or sense things as they are”.
Additionally, biological research has confirmed that there are many examples of animals that have better sense organs than humans: an octopus’s vision is more accurate and can see at greater distances, honeybees distinguish patterns on flowers that are completely invisible to a human eye, and there are many animals that can sense and utilize polarized light (Newberg & Waldman, 2006, p. 67).
It is interesting to note too, that in humans, such perceptions that we take for granted such as color categorizations are actually merely language bound: if we are not taught names for certain colors, we may never think to recognize that color. Different cultures have divided and labeled the color spectrum in different ways. Many times, this results in people from other cultures not recognizing the same colors. For example, individuals belonging to the Berinmo tribe of Papua New Guinea do not distinguish between the colors of green and blue. However, they can be instructed to differentiate between the two. (pp. 56-57)
Furthermore, although we have neural receptors enabling us to see various colors – there is no neural receptor that differentiates between any of the shades of gray.
No one knows for sure where the experience of gray occurs, but one theory suggests that it is a concept fabricated in another part of the brain when both the blackness and the whiteness receptors are turned off. Gray, like many other colors we can imagine, is a belief construction within the brain – a form of understanding, a thought. (p. 57)
Referring back to Kant’s notion that our perceptions of space and time are actually just our biased forms of understanding reality, there has been mounting theoretical evidence that time is actually an illusion – our perception that we move from moment to moment like beads on a string is perhaps not “right”.
“The concept of a timeless universe… may pave the way to explain many of the paradoxes that modern physics faces in explaining the universe,” according to Leonardo Vintiñi in his 2010 article, Is Time an Illusion? If we can fathom that our brain “fills in the gaps” of our “color sense” so that we can experience such a thing as gray – it should not be too outrageous of an idea for us to consider that our “sense of time” is wrong or that it is another way our minds “fill in the gap” to comprehend a reality that we have perhaps not yet evolved the faculties that are needed to truly sense it.
So in the end, it is illogical for an atheist to discount the possibility of the existence of a “greater entity” based on empirical evidence which is in turn based on flawed perceptions. However, if the scientific atheist agreed to recognize that our perceptions of reality are indeed flawed, he could perhaps get away with redefining these “supernatural” entities as naturally occurring beings. For example, if we were to witness some “miracle” such as a person being lifted into the air without any apparent aid, it could be one of these entities for whom we cannot sense, moving the person around. Just as we can tilt a lab dish around containing a primitive unicellular organism, such as Euglena, causing it to move in all sorts of directions – and it would have no “idea” how this happened. However, again, it would be a stretch to refer ourselves to supernatural beings caring for our “lab dish” of Euglena – we are just something that exists outside its perception of reality so we could “appear” as supernatural. However, to suggest that the Euglena had any idea what we were and subsequently developed superstitious beliefs to try to “control us” would simply be absurd.
If we were to build a time machine, we could go back in time and disprove all of the world’s religions. Even without a time machine, we can show that all of the evidence in support of the world’s religious beliefs are not valid. Most likely, through studies in neuroscience and genetics, we will be able to prove indefinitely that the only reason people believe resides in brain chemistry; we can show that our prized developmental pattern of reasoning is an evolutionary acquired trait. However, we would still not be able to defeat the notion that there could be some entity that exists outside our perceptions. This notion finds validity when we realize that our brain “covers” for gaps in our perception already – we have no idea from where the experience of gray comes, we know that it is possible for our brain to malfunction so that we experience hallucinations, in so in the end – we cannot be sure that even our sense of time is correct.
In the future, perhaps all we need do is decide whether we should define [the possible existence of] “god as a supernatural entity”. Especially since any existence of entities outside our senses would be natural, there should be nothing “miraculous” this. In all likelihood, these entities’ relationship to us would probably be no more different than our relationship to the organism Euglena.