New Atheist Atheology

Michael Egnor

P.Z. Myers answered my eight questions about what New Atheists really believe. Myers provided his “fast and flippant” answers; yet he provides a fine synopsis of New Atheist atheology. More detailed book-length New Atheist apologetics (Dawkins, Harris, etc) are less fast but no less flippant.
My original questions are followed by Myers’ answers, then by my reply.
1) Why is there anything?

Myers: ? Nothing is unstable.

Me: “Nothing” is not unstable. Nothing is not stable. Nothing is not metastable, nor hypostable, nor quasi-stable. Nothing is nothing. Nothing has no properties. “Nothing is unstable” is gibberish. Hence its central place in New Atheist atheology.

If by “nothing” Myers is referring to the emergence of matter by quantum fluctuations (today’s trendy New Atheist evasion of theism), I observe that a quantum field isn’t “nothing.” A quantum field is very much something, in need of explanation. A quantum field gives rise to particles, not to itself. You have to explain the existence of the quantum field. Nice try.

The question “why is there anything” is fundamental. The classical theist answer is that God’s essence is His existence, and He is the ground of existence. Note that God (as understood classically) does not need explanation or cause. The uncaused nature of God is demonstrated, not stipulated, by classical theism (see Aristotle’s Prime Mover argument and Aquinas’ First, Second, and Third Ways). Furthermore, the Prime Mover argument (Aquinas’ First Way) demonstrates that God’s existence is necessary even if the universe was eternal and had no beginning; His existence is necessary for existence of the universe at every moment.

New Atheists don’t understand the question, don’t understand the terminology, and don’t understand their own rudimentary logical contradictions. New Atheist ignorance doesn’t mean that classical theism is true; it merely means that New Atheism has nothing to say. But I sort of suspected that.

2) What caused the Universe??

Myers: Nothing caused it.?

Me: “Nothing” doesn’t cause anything. Nothing is absence of existence. Nothing has no agency. “Nothing caused…” is an oxymoron.

Let’s look at coherent answers to the question. The basic cosmological argument is this: 1) Whatever begins to exist is caused by another 2) the Universe began to exist 3) The Universe was caused by another. Rudimentary logic. Something that begins to exist cannot cause itself, because that would mean that it was prior to itself, which is nonsense.

The universe began to exist 13.75 � 0.17 billion years ago. So another caused it. The universe is nature, so its cause is super-nature-al (sometimes the hyphens and the last ‘e’ are omitted). The supernatural cause of the universe is an insight provided by science and reason. Denial of a supernatural cause of the universe is denial of science (Big Bang Cosmology) and reason (elementary logic).

Let’s consider the alternatives:

1) Perhaps the universe was caused by a quantum fluctuation, a black hole, fecundity of a multiverse, ad nauseum (vide supra). But then the causation problem just shifts to the quantum field or the black hole or the multiverse. What caused the quantum field, or the maternal black hole, or the whole damn multiverse itself? You can’t change the subject.

2) Perhaps the word “cause” doesn’t apply to the universe at all. Perhaps the universe is a Kantian noumenon, not a phenomenon, and it’s not subject to the rules that govern the things we perceive (this was Kant’s gambit against the Cosmological Argument).

But if this is true, then the principle of sufficient reason is invalid. The principle of sufficient reason, for you New Atheists, is the principle that anything that happens does so for a reason. It’s the proposition that everything that begins to exist has a cause. If you deny the principle of sufficient reason to elide the inference to theism, then there is nothing wrong with asserting that lesser things in the universe (e.g. rabbits, hominids) popped into existence for no reason as well. If the whole shebang doesn’t need reason, no thing needs a reason. You can invoke “it’s uncaused” anytime. If you can shuck the principle of sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, you sure as hell can shuck the principle of sufficient reason for origin of species. POP. The universe exists. POP. Primordial prokaryotes exist. No need for OOL research. POP. Trilobites exist. No need for “natural selection” when you’ve got “uncaused existence.” POP. Whales exist. POP. Man exists. New Atheist creationism, with no need for God. No need for any explanations. Stuff just POPs into existence. POP POP POP. No need for evolutionary biologists.

If the universe doesn’t need a cause, no part of it needs a cause. Denial of the principle of sufficient reason is denial of logic, science, and history, all of it. Any surprise that New Atheists invoke it? They’d rather invoke nonsense than admit the obvious: there is a Cause.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature??

Myers’ answer: We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t.?

My answer: Myers’ answer — “We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t”? — is an observation, not an explanation. To understand the difference between an observation and an explanation, imagine that you are in front of a firing squad. Twenty expert marksmen, rifles with 20 round clips, six feet in front of your chest. They shoot, and you emerge unhurt. All the bullets missed. Someone asks you, “Why did they miss?” Your answer, “I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t,” is merely an observation — true — but it wouldn’t answer the question “why” they missed. To answer why would require an explanation — they liked you, or they were drunk, or they were really lousy marksmen, etc.

My question is “why.” What obtains such that there are Laws of nature? New Atheists obviously have no answer, and seem not to even understand that the question requires an explanation. My answer is that there is teleology (final causation) in nature. Final causation in inanimate nature implies the existence of intelligent agency (Aquinas’ Fifth Way). Whatever lacks intelligence can only be directed to an end by intelligence.

Here is the reasonable answer: God — Prime Mover, Uncaused Cause, Necessary Existence — is the Intelligent Cause of the Laws of 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??

Myers’ answer: Material & efficient. How bizarre to think Aristotle is even relevant, except as a historical factor, or that ancient categories are apposite.

My answer: Myers is wrong about Aristotle. His metaphysics is the basis for all Western philosophy and all Western science, developed through the scholastic, enlightenment, and modern philosophers. All metaphysical doctrines since Aristotle are either affirmations or denials of Aristotle’s categories. His logic is the basis for all logic up to the 20th century. His psychology is still the deepest insight into the mind. His biology is remarkable — the first systematic empirical science — and he was the first to propose the Great Chain of Being (Darwin was a very late also-ran). Ancient categories are worthless to Myers because New Atheists are philosophical Luddites. They have no answers and they understand none of the questions.

All four Aristotelian causes are real, and obviously so. Material cause (the matter of which something is made) is meaningless without invocation of formal cause (the intelligible principle by which the matter is known). Efficient cause (the agent of change) is unintelligible without invocation of final cause (the teleology or end to which something is changed). Cause (efficient cause) necessarily entails effect (final cause).

Final cause is prior to the other three (Aquinas: “final cause is the cause of causes”). Final cause determines material and formal cause, and makes efficient cause intelligible.

As I noted above, final cause is the basis for Aquinas’ Fifth Way. Whatever lacks intelligence can only be directed to an end by something that has intelligence. Final cause is a real problem for New Atheists, because it necessarily entails intelligence in nature. There’s method to Myers’ ignorance of teleology.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence??

Myer’s answer: “An epiphenomenon of the fact of instantiation.?”

My answer: Everything that exists is a fact of instantiation. What does “an epiphenomenon of the fact of instantiation” mean? That everything has subjective experience? Pan-psychism? Or just certain things, such as things with brains like us, have subjective experience? But that’s just a restatement of the question as a proposition: “our subjective experience is an epiphenomenon of the fact of instantiation.” Restating the question isn’t an answer to the question.

Myers doesn’t have an answer to the question. Nothing about Myers’ materialism offers an explanation for the question as to why we aren’t just philosophical zombies or meat robots. Nothing about the materialist description of man distinguishes a human being with subjective experience from a human being without subjective experience.

So my answer: We have subjective experience — intellect, will, memory, sensation, etc. — because we have souls, created by God. We are creatures of spirit, soul, and matter, and man cannot be understood except as a spirit-soul-matter composites. We are not just highly complex matter. We have a spiritual soul.

Strict materialism, which is the philosophical foundation of New Atheism, is a transparent philosophical error.

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself?

Myers’ answer: Because minds aren’t isolated, but a product of brain + environment.?

My answer: Does Myers even know what “intentionality” means? Intentionality is the hallmark of mental acts. It is the ability of a mental act to be about something other than itself. How is it that a brain state — a certain electrochemical state in the cortex — can be about something? How can my physical brain state — protoplasm — be about something? A physical brain state is a physical brain state. A rough analogy to intentionality is the difference between spelling and semantics. Spelling is the rule-based physical arrangement of letters. My brain state is spelling — the laws of physics-based arrangement of matter. My mental state is semantics — the meaning of my thought. Where in neuroscience is meaning explained? My mental state can even be about something that doesn’t actually exist in the “environment,” such as unicorns and fairies. Something that doesn’t exist can’t be part of the “environment.” Yet it can be what our thoughts are about. Thoughts can be about universals — truth and beauty. The mind is not analogous to the output of a computer. It is not a calculation. It has intentionality. It has meaning. Materialism utterly fails to explain intentionality/meaning of mental acts.

Intentionality is the central problem of explaining the mind from the materialist perspective. In fact, it is one of the unequivocal demonstrations that materialism is false. Materialist philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have spent careers trying to explain intentionality materialistically. They’ve produced nothing but comic sophistry. The ultimate materialist gambit is to deny that mental states exist at all (better that than admit that their worldview is b.s.). Eliminative materialists Paul and Patricia Churchland insist that we are just brains that have been duped into believing that we have minds. The Churchlands change the subject when asked how they can hold the opinion that there are no opinions.

Classical theists have a straightforward explanation for intentionality. It was first proposed by Aristotle. We are composites of matter and soul. Our soul is the substantial form of our body (brain). When we contemplate an object, the intelligible form of that object is grasped and possessed by our intellect, which is also a form. The form of the object contemplated is possessed in the form that is our mind, and our thought is therefore “about” the object whose form we have grasped. The hylemorphic (matter-form) understanding of man and nature intrinsically explains intentionality. The hylemorphic understanding of nature also demonstrates the existence of God (Aquinas). Atheists would rather propose ignorant gibberish about intentionality than acknowledge the explanatory power of theist metaphysics.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)?

Myers’ answer: It doesn’t.?

My answer: Of course objective Moral Law exists. It exists in itself, and we all know that it does. The risible New Atheist assertion that the Moral Law is merely a product of evolution, like earwax, is so far removed from genuine insight that it’s difficult to satirize, let alone defend. Moral Law doesn’t exist? Then why is Richard Dawkins suing fellow New Atheist Josh Timonen — who ran Dawkins’ online store — for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars? If Moral Law isn’t an objective reality, what right has Dawkins to sue Timonen for merely struggling to survive? If Moral Law is merely an opinion, how can one man’s moral opinion (“it’s ok for me to take Richard Dawkins’ money”) be objectively wrong whereas another man’s opinion (“it’s right for me — Richard Dawkins — to keep my own money”) is objectively right? If the Moral Law doesn’t exist in itself, then all moral opinions are subjective and relative (that’s what “doesn’t exist in itself” means). Torturing babies? Carrying out the Final Solution for a pesky religious group? I think it’s wrong, but who am I to say what’s right for you?

To assert that it’s wrong or right for someone else to do anything is to assert that Moral Law has objective existence independent of individual men. To assert the moral rightness of Moral Relativism is to deny Moral Relativism.

The classical theist understanding of Moral Law is that it is an aspect of Natural Law, which is the manifestation of Divine Law in the natural world. Men have natural ends; human life is teleological. Our natural end is to know and love God, and obedience to Moral Law is part of the path to that end.

New Atheist denial of the objective existence of Moral Law is incoherent self-contradictory gibberish. If you want to know whether P.Z. Myers thinks that Moral Law has objective existence, steal something from him.

8) Why is there evil?

Myers’ answer: Evil is simply anti-human, and most of the universe is against us.

My answer: “Most of the universe” isn’t “against us.” Atoms heavier than hydrogen were forged in stars. Our bodies are literally stardust. Anthropic coincidences are remarkable: the universe has scores of finely-tuned properties that are essential to man’s emergence and continued existence. It’s hard to think of a more witless assertion about the universe than “most of the universe is against us.” Classical theists have known for millennia that the universe was exquisitely suited to man. The anthropic theorists are just now catching up. Myers never got the news.

Back to the existence of Evil. If you deny the objective existence of Moral Law, how can you say anything about Evil? The mere assertion that a certain act is evil presupposes an objective Moral Law that is transgressed by that evil act. If there is no objective Moral Law, there can be no evil. There are merely differences of opinion. Rape is just satisfaction of an urge. Resistance to rape is just the satisfaction of the urge not to be raped. Shaking a crying baby to death is one parent’s solution to being awakened at night. No Moral Law, no evil. Just diversity of opinion. I don’t believe in brutalizing innocent people, but hey, that’s just me. If there is no Moral Law the strong get to assert their “opinions” on the weak — a succinct description of State Atheism in the 20th century. Denial of objective Moral Law has consequences, to which 100 million witnesses would attest, if they could. Atheism has consequences.

New Atheism is an intellectual and moral vacuum. It’s all sneer, mockery, self-contradiction, and juvenilia. New Atheists aren’t defenders of “science and reason.” The inverse is true. They misrepresent science and reason for ideological ends. New Atheists have no answers to the fundamental questions of man. They don’t even have coherent attempts to answer the questions. They don’t understand the profound insights of classical theism. Most New Atheists don’t even understand the questions. And their nihilistic atheist superstition denies even the most basic imperatives of Moral Law.
This is the reason for the raging clash between atheists who are accomodationists and atheists who are confrontationalists. The accomodationists are just as clueless metaphysically, but they know a “framing” nightmare when they see it. Nihilistic Luddites like Myers and Dawkins and Coyne are exposing New Atheism for the intellectual fraud that it is.
Not that I have any problem with that.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.