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Moshe Averick's Nonsense of a High Order as a Model of the Flaws of Attacks on Nontheism (2019)

Michael D. Reynolds

Averick's Principles for Argumentation
Averick's Book is Not an Argument against "Atheism" but an Attack on Science and Scientists
"Man's Search for Meaning and Spirituality"
     "The Meaning of Life"
Assertions of the Existence of Souls
The Origin of Moral Ideas
     Innate Moral Ideas
     The Moral Values of Human Beings are "Subjective" and Therefore Inferior to "Objective" Values Imparted by God

The Problem of Evil
Misrepresentations of Nontheism by Averick
     Averick Misrepresents the Principles of Naturalism and Science
     Averick Misrepresents the Views of Nontheism on Purposefulness and the Value of Humans
     Averick Misrepresents the Statements of Nontheistic Authors
Conclusion

Moshe Averick is an Orthodox rabbi who taught Jewish theology and Judaic studies (p. 13, 35, 286). (Page numbers in parentheses with no name cited are pages in the book under review here.) His recent book, Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused World of Modern Atheism, is one of a number of books attacking "atheism" that have been published lately. It exemplifies several characters these books have in common. For instance, the subject is addressed by an author whose knowledge of relevant facts and of principles of research and of argumentation is inadequate for the task he has set himself.

The back cover of Averick's book bears praise typical of that found on the dust jackets or back covers of similar theistic works: it is a "well-researched masterpiece," "profound," "very persuasive," and "effectively dismantles the atheists' assertions that science can provide satisfactory materialistic answers." The present essay will demonstrate that none of these plaudits is true: absence of relevant research is a striking character of the work, it is shallow and unconvincing, and because it misunderstands and misrepresents the views it attacks, it offers no effective criticism of them. A detailed critique of Averick's book should be useful not just with regard to the book itself but also in relation to similar works.

This essay addresses the sections of the book that propound theistic notions regarding people. Nearly half of Averick's work is devoted to an attack on the concept of a naturalistic origin of life, and an argument for its creation by God; a forthcoming essay will critique that section. The present essay is not a review; it is a critique whose principal purposes are to demonstrate that:

  • the author is ignorant of the nature of science and its principles;
  • he is either ignorant of or does not understand the scientific explanations of the topics he addresses;
  • his ignorance causes him to invent odd notions that completely misrepresent the scientific view;
  • he arbitrarily rejects scientific explanations without providing any substantial argument against them, and;
  • he repeatedly asserts that something is true without offering any argument for its truth.

Averick's Principles for Argumentation

Averick describes how he came to write Nonsense of a High Order. He entered a bookstore and discovered that several books on nontheism were displayed. He undertook to read a number of such works.[1] He decided to write "a book whose essential purpose would be to demonstrate without question that it is the theist who wields a decisive advantage on the intellectual battlefield" (p. 15).

At the beginning of his book Averick expresses, without identifying them as such, what he regards as the correct principles for argumentation:

  • One must hold the premise that, in general, his senses and reason provide "accurate data" about reality (p. 30).
  • "Proving something means to present evidence that demonstrates the proposition to be true beyond a reasonable doubt" (p. 30); the evidence must be "rational" (p. 37).
  • One should be "open to questions, to consider another point of view, or to be theoretically ready to reconsider his position" (p. 28).

And the author offers this warning: "The most dangerous enemy of truth" is "denying an obvious reality because it threatens [one's] comfortable way of life, ideology, or agenda" (pp. 26-27). (Similarly, the philosopher Thomas Metzinger writes of the "temptation to sacrifice intellectual honesty in favor of emotional well-being" [Metzinger, 2009, p. 211].)

Averick's Book is Not an Argument against "Atheism" but an Attack on Science and Scientists

Works opposing theism commonly observe Averick's principles for argumentation. They consider the existence of God (or gods) as a hypothesis. They then ask, what is the evidence for and against this hypothesis? They conclude that it is not supported by the evidence. But among the reasons for rejecting the hypothesis that God exists, Averick addresses only one: "the problem of evil" (below).

Instead, the author's mode of argumentation is to choose three main topics that he regards, presumably, as essential or important components of a nontheistic worldview, and then to attack these concepts. Averick takes the following three items to be the ones essential to a nontheistic worldview:

  • life originated by natural processes;
  • mentation, including consciousness, is a natural phenomenon, and;
  • ethical behavior and ideas are products of biology and human activity.

Thus this book, despite its title and stated objective, is not a critique of the intellectual ground of nontheism. It is an attack on scientific facts and theories that show the falsity of some important doctrines or beliefs of Judaism and the religions derived from it.

This attack is supplemented by disparagement and denunciation of scientists:

  • Averick quotes scientists who state that scientists do not have better morals than other people; they have the same faults and bad behaviors (p. 91; cf. p 94).
  • He quotes scientists who criticize the process of publishing in scientific journals (pp. 92-94).
  • He criticizes individual scientists in a disparaging and disrespectful manner (pp. 16, 100-103, 132, 134-136).
  • He avers that scientists are abusing their "credentials" by affirming a naturalistic origin of life (pp. 103, 115).
  • Responding to the idea that the existence of the hydrogen bomb is difficult to reconcile with an all-powerful and benevolent god, he remarks that scientists created the bomb and calls them "the aristocrats" and "the elite of the atheistic world" (pp. 221-222).
  • He states, "many scientists themselves have been guilty of the most horrible atrocities in recent history" (p. 168) (no instances are offered).

See also "Averick Misrepresents the Principles of Naturalism and Science," below.

What Averick calls atheism is not just nontheism, but naturalism (p. 117, 129, 136), which may be defined as "the empirical doctrine that the facts of the universe are explained by its material character, and by general regularities in the behavior of matter-energy and space-time that are the result of their intrinsic properties." This is the principle of science.

Instead of studying the scientific bases for consciousness and morality, Averick tried to glean knowledge from books written not to describe scientific ideas but to present arguments for nontheism. The biological natures of mentation and morality are supported by extensive and consilient scientific evidence, but the author did not look for it.

Even so, one would expect that when Averick read works that addressed these concepts, he would have sought out any nontheistic arguments and attempted to refute them. Instead, he mostly culled statements about the difficulties of explaining consciousness (and the origin of life), and presents them at length, as if that sufficed to validate his opinion that the scientific ideas are inadequate. He gives no sign of having observed his own principle of being willing "to consider another point of view" (to consider is "to think about carefully").

"Man's Search for Meaning and Spirituality"

The last two sections of Averick's book present alleged reasons for believing in God, although he does not characterize them in this way. He asserts that aspects of human behavior, and particular ideas, should be interpreted as having been instilled in people by God. His basic premise is that these things cannot be explained by naturalistic principles.[2] The main flaw in his presentations is that he does not know, or understand, the naturalistic explanations of the subjects he is discussing.

At the outset, the author usefully provides a "working definition of the spiritual": "a reality that exists in time but not space, has a clear effect on our lives, and is undetectable and unmeasurable by physical means" (p. 162; cf. p. 181). The only example he gives of a "spiritual reality" is ideas, or concepts (pp. 199-200, 202, 260). The notions that "ideas and concepts exist in time but not space" and are "undetectable by physical means" will be discussed below under "Assertions of the Existence of Souls." Presumably spirits themselves, such as God and angels, have these same characters, and can be regarded as otherworldly ("outside of the material universe" [p. 100]) because of their indemonstrable nature.

Averick's statements about to be discussed fail to establish the existence of a physically undetectable "reality."

"The Meaning of Life"

Averick's principal assertion of the existence of God begins with the observation that people are willing to die for what they "believe is meaningful." He lists as examples "one's family, honor, country, or faith" (p. 172). (One can ask, are persons who die for the sake of social entities or systems of beliefs expressing "meaning," showing commitment, or manifesting "social conditioning" [p. 220, 270] [Riddle, 1951]?) The author alleges that people have a "burning hunger for meaning and purpose" (p. 173). (He does not state in what sense he is using the word meaning, but evidently it denotes significance or importance.)

Having stated that people have purposes and regard particular matters as important, Averick attempts to convert this psychological observation to a theistic one. He states that the alleged "'thirst' for meaning" is not abolished by satisfying one's "every physical need," and that it shows a requirement for a "transcendent goal." Only something that "transcends this world," "a higher purpose," can provide people with "fulfillment" and "significance" (pp. 172-173). He states that people are not "satisfied and happy to live purely physical, material lives." So by transcendent he evidently means something immaterial, that is, "spiritual."

The author continues, "In a purely materialistic [sic] universe, there is no such thing as 'purpose' or 'meaning.'... 'Meaning' cannot be metamorphosed, transfigured, or expressed as a function of any material formula" (p. 174). He has made more precise his assertion that there is a "hunger [and thirst] for meaning" by defining meaning as denoting only "spiritual," immaterial things. So the conclusion of this extended exposition is that people require a "spiritual" purpose in order to find "significance," or meaning, in their lives.

His conclusion does not follow from his premises: the fact that people have purposes other than adequate food, shelter, clothing, etc. in no way demonstrates that any of their purposes must be "spiritual."[3] Even "primitive" people desire, in addition to material well-being, the respect of their fellows, and to produce children—secular goals that are not "physical needs." People have countless purposes and goals that are mundane, and they are gratified by achieving them. Moreover, many people are "satisfied and happy" with lives devoid of belief in spirits (Zuckerman, 2008). Averick is not making an argument; he is merely alleging that people have "spiritual" cravings. He is acting on his religious beliefs, not on evidence.

Note also that in Averick's exposition a person's family or country can be "meaningful," but because they are not immaterial and do not "transcend this world" they cannot possess meaning as defined by him.

Changing the subject, the author asks, "From what part of a person springs the need to seek some ultimate explanation of himself and the world around him?" (p. 174). Human beings' need for explanations is attributable to the fact that knowledge about other human beings and things in the environment promoted survival of early humans, so curiosity, and a desire to know causes, were developed by evolution. The notion of an "ultimate explanation" is a metaphysical or theological veneer on this biological behavior.

Finally, Averick offers a quasi-scientific argument: "We are inescapably hardwired to seek a meaning that transcends our physical existence. A search for meaning that ultimately can only find its fulfillment in connection to ... the eternal, One God" (p. 175; cf. pp. 35, 155-156, 261). This also is mere assertion. First, even if one allows a desire to find something "transcendent," there are countless alleged vehicles of (and means to attain) transcendence other than Averick's deity (e.g., in shamanism, Hinduism, and some sects of Buddhism). Averick is imposing his personal ideas on a common metaphysical notion. Second, the idea that belief in a single deity is innate ("hardwired") is often promoted by monotheists but is false. Huge numbers of people past and present did/do not believe in a unique god, and many did not even possess such a concept (Hecht, 2003; Jacoby, 2004; Rives, 2007). "There is no 'god' part of the brain" (McNamara, 2016, p. 199).

What, then, is Averick's view of purposeful living by nontheists? He presents quotes declaring that "the meaning of life is what we choose to give it" (p. 169). This is the viewpoint appropriate to naturalism: people, collectively and individually, are the source that gives meanings (intentions) to our species. A person determines the purposes of his or her own life, and we band with others to effect more comprehensive purposes. Averick states, "[I]t is the responsibility of each individual ... to discover the truth about the meaning, purpose, and direction of his or her own existence" (p. 270). But he dismisses the idea that a person has "no other aim than the one he sets himself" by the semantic trick of labeling it subjective, which he then equates with illusory. He characterizes the principle of determining one's own purposes for his life as to "make something up that gives your life purpose and pretend that it's real" (p. 169; cf. 270). This is just one instance of the author's devaluing human beings. In his thinking, they do not have intrinsic worth as natural human beings, but only as creatures of his deity in a supposed relation with that god (p. 18, 161): "I ... respect your essential value as a human being and continue to relate to you with the sense of dignity and obligation due to someone created in the image of God" (italics added) (p. 269).

Averick's notion of the naturalistic alternative to a "transcendent," divine explanation of "man's search for meaning," is this: "primitive man dreamed up God or gods to explain and/or achieve a sort of harmony or inner peace with the powerful and overwhelming forces of nature" (p. 174). Now, it is true that spirits provide pseudoexplanations of everything[4], and belief in spirits has as a corollary that by making the spirits approve of her, a person can influence events (on which she in fact has no influence). These, however, are only a fraction of the naturalistic explanations of why belief in spirits is almost universal—why "man dreamed up God." Naturalism offers cogent, detailed, evolutionary theories why people believe in spirits including Averick's "One God" (Barrett, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Girotto et al., 2014), but Averick shows no evidence of having any knowledge of them.

Assertions of the Existence of Souls

Averick propounds the traditional notion that inside each person there is an immaterial thing, the self (or soul), that is conscious and aware of itself, and is the agent of consciousness and self-awareness as experienced by the individual.[5] He thereby reifies the self (pp. 180-181). This idea does not explain consciousness and self-awareness; it merely attributes them to an indemonstrable entity.

If Averick had studied what is known about the process of mentation[6]—how the brain receives, processes, and responds to external and internal sensations; how people are not conscious of most mental activity; and how imperfect the processes of thinking are (Bargh, 2017; Burton, 2008; Churchland, 2013; Kahneman, 2012)—he might have perceived that these facts are not at all consonant with thinking being directed by an "executive" soul that exists independent of the brain and is a rational agent implanted by God. They are, however, entirely consonant with the slow evolution of mentation, beginning with the most primitive brains some 500 million years ago (Damasio, 2010; Feinberg and Mallatt, 2016). That process culminated in the construction of a self by the brain:

Our brains generate a world-simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it as an image in our minds. Then, they generate an inner image of ourselves as a whole.... The internal image of the person-as-a-whole is the phenomenal Ego, the "I" or "self" as it appears in conscious experience. (Metzinger, 2009, p. 7)

Traditionally, thinking (ratiocination), having feelings, willing (regarded as a distinct "faculty"), perception, and other mental acts were attributed to one or more souls—indwelling spirits—as their agents. Scientific study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain has shown that mental activities are correlated with patterns of activation of specific structures or regions within the brain (Churchland, 2013, pp. 86-96, 147-149, 176-178, 233-248; McNamara, 2016, pp. 115-116), and they all are reasonably regarded as manifestations of neurophysiology rather than magic acts of spirits (Churchland, 2013, pp. 33-53). Averick seems to believe that self-awareness remains free of any such associations. This is a false notion; like other mental events, perception of self is associated with activation of specific cerebral structures and regions (Damasio, 2010; Metzinger, 2009, pp. 15-65). There is no objective reason to believe that it is not a physiological process. Self-awareness is a property or capability of the brain; it is not a property of an entity—such as a soul—distinct from the brain.

Averick wrongly asserts that distinctions "between the perceiver and the perceived" and "what is real and what is fantasy," the ability to verify "the true source and nature" of "perceptions and sensations," and the ability to make decisions, all require the existence of a discrete self or "executive I" (pp. 189-190, 193). This is untrue. All the actions referred to can in principle be, and are, performed by multifocal, interacting systems of neurons (Metzinger, 2009, pp. 40-48, 62-65, 166-169; McNamara, 2016, pp. 138-147); they do not require a discrete control unit. Circumstances and episodes in which a person's perception of reality is inaccurate are explained by this complex cerebral mechanism (Metzinger, 2009, pp. 75-114). Errors about the "source and nature" of perceptions occur commonly. Decisions are made unconsciously and rationalized after they appear in consciousness (Bargh, 2017). These facts are not consonant with an "executive" center where sensations are analyzed and decisions are made.

Using techniques that are obviously material—mechanical and electrical stimulation of the brain—one can evoke sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Averick's explanation of such phenomena is that "the soul clearly interacts with the brain" (p. 178; cf. p. 181) and "the physical brain is involved in many aspects of consciousness" (p. 194). Thus his argument for a soul takes on characters similar to those of the "God of the gaps" argument: whatever is not yet fully explained by science is presumed to be inexplicable and a manifestation of spirits (pp. 141-142; cf. Churchland, 2013, pp. 56-60). This is one reason for the zeal with which Averick and other believers in spirits resist the naturalistic facts about consciousness and about animate life: these seem to them to be the most important phenomena not comprehensively explained by science.[7]

Averick uses the idea that the "non-material soul/mind ... works together with the brain" to explain how a person's mental abilities can become impaired by disease or age (p. 195). He alleges that the "personality" of someone with brain dysfunction persists (he seems to think that it is unchanged), but "our accessibility to this person's personality has been limited." This is all mere hypothesis. What is the basis of Averick's belief that the soul still functions even though mentation is impaired? He allows that "[n]obody knows what actually happens to the soul/personality" when the brain is damaged.

Averick's specific argument for the existence of souls is an odd attempt to interpret language as a "spiritual" phenomenon (pp. 198-205). He describes emitting speech that is heard and understood by another person as "attaching ideas to sound waves." He observes that "the 'idea,' the 'information,' or 'message' that passes between two people" has no physical properties. From this he concludes that an idea "is not physical or material in any way"; it is a "spiritual reality" (pp. 199-200).

This depiction demonstrates the author's ignorance of, or unwillingness to acknowledge, scientific facts. Ideas are not "attached to" sound waves. The processes of speaking, the transmission of the sounds, and their initial reception by the ear of another person are mechanical. The recognition of the sounds as language, and their cognitive and emotional (pp. 203-204) effects, are physiological acts of the brain. The sequence of events within the brain, from perception to production of an idea and/or an emotion, takes place along specific pathways and occurs in specific structures that can be located by various methods.

Similarly, Averick writes that "ideas and feelings" are "contained" in printed words. Because they cannot be measured, he concludes that they are detected by the soul (p. 202). But words do not "contain" ideas. The passing of light from a text to an eye is a material event, as is the formation of the image of the text on the retina. The retina anatomically is an extension of the brain. The perception of the image, the recognition of the image as words, and the words' cognitive and emotional effects, are physiological acts of the brain. The sequence of events in the brain can be localized as it is for speech. There is no need to postulate an immaterial, indemonstrable "spiritual" entity to explain these things; "[n]euroscience has extracted the brain from a pre-scientific world of spirits and souls" (Taylor, 2012, p. 26). Averick's exposition is an expression of a belief he holds, not a factual argument.

The author's rhetorical question, "'who' is experiencing" a mental event (p. 194), presupposes that there is an observer of the events of consciousness that itself is outside consciousness. It indicates his ignorance of or unwillingness to understand the scientific explanation of consciousness, which provides an objective, albeit incomplete, alternative to his presupposition (Metzinger, 2009, pp. 62-65, 75-82, 101-104).

Averick states, "[i]deas and concepts exist in time but not space" (p. 260). But the concept idea is an abstraction of the process of thinking; a subset of thoughts is labeled "ideas." The formation of this or any other concept is a physiological act; thinking about ideas is an instance of electrical and chemical activity in the brain. Hence the events of a concept being present in consciousness have both temporal and spatial extension within the brain. To say that there is a thing with the name idea that is independent of space, or that an idea exists without being thought, is to reify these cerebral processes. The abstraction idea is a useful linguistic device, but it does not create an immaterial, "spiritual" entity. (Averick states that it is "foolish and mistaken ... for a theologian to believe that his 'commitment' to finding a religious answer magically creates a spiritual/metaphysical reality" [p. 126].)

The author's attack on the naturalistic idea of consciousness includes the allegation (accompanied by quotes from diverse authors [pp. 185-186]) that "no scientist in the world has any idea whatsoever how the brain could generate consciousness or if it generates consciousness" (p. 187). This is grossly untrue, and indicates a remarkable failure on Averick's part to acquaint himself with what scientists have written.

Another aspect of the author's attack is to berate scientists and philosophers for not being willing to entertain his hypothesis of an immaterial soul as the agent of consciousness and self-awareness (p. 181). He criticizes this behavior as "narrow-minded" (p. 177) and "intellectual laziness and pompousness" (p. 178). In this he demonstrates his ignorance of the nature of science. He chides an author for not offering a "scientific explanation for his a priori rejection of the soul and a corresponding non-material reality" (p. 178). No such explanation is needed by someone who understands science. As soon as one introduces an element of magic, science is no longer science. Accepting the idea that an indemonstrable spirit is responsible for mental phenomena does not enlarge scientific study of those phenomena; it abrogates such study.

Averick's conclusion is, "[T]he 'I' is the soul." This "is unmistakably the simplest, clearest, and easiest answer" to "the problem of consciousness" (p. 181). Is he capable of giving a simple and clear answer to these questions?

  • How does an immaterial soul "affect the physical world" (p. 181)?
  • If the self/soul does not exist in space (p. 181, 184) how is it possible for it to be located in an individual?
  • Consciousness and self-awareness are expressed internally in language; one talks to oneself. Does the soul of a child learn language? Or, if the soul knows its person's language without learning it, what else does it already know that the person does not and has to learn?
  • Does the soul perceive the external and internal world directly, or through the body? If the former, how can an immaterial soul perceive material things? Is the soul of a blind or deaf person impaired? If the latter, is the soul subject to errors of perception? Does the soul of an alcoholic have hallucinations?
  • Some persons involuntarily manifest, at different times, more than one self or persona. Do they possess more than one soul? Is their soul confused?
  • Is the soul of an insane person diseased? How does one know?
  • Apes communicate "ideas and feelings" using human languages (Dubreuil and Savage-Rumbaugh, 2019; Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1998). By Averick's reasoning, this means that apes have souls (p. 202). What is the status of the souls of primates in Judaism?

Averick's "answer" is neither simple nor clear. Perhaps he would evade problems with the doctrine of souls by attributing all obscure circumstances to the brain with which the soul "interacts."

The Origin of Moral Ideas

The last major topic of Averick's book also is a scientific one, although he does not acknowledge the fact: the basis of morality.

The author correctly observes that if a spirit is not believed to be the source of moral rules, their source must be individuals or societies, and that "an atheistic worldview must admit that 'ethical' values have no significance at all outside the heads of those who espouse them" (pp. 210-212; cf. p. 214, 217). The entire significance of ethical values, however, derives from the facts that people attach importance to them and act in accord with them. Their significance does not depend upon belief that they have an otherworldly source. Such a source is an allegation made by believers in spirits, that has the effects of promoting their status and authority, and sometimes furthering adherence to moral rules by notions of supernatural surveillance, punishments and rewards (Boehm, 2012, pp. 202-203).[8]

Averick's lack of understanding of the nature of ethical ideas appears in his statement, "in an atheistic world, the terms morality and personal/societal preference are identical and interchangeable" (p. 212). Averick describes nontheistic morality as "subjectively agreed upon, non-binding, pragmatically driven 'social contracts'" (p. 252). Now, the act of preferring demands a power or opportunity of choosing. But individuals generally do not consider different systems of ethics and then select one. A person does not choose his childhood moral ideas any more than he chooses his social opinions (but a person past the age of childhood can make such choices, especially if he has been educated [p. 237]).[9] Likewise, the moral precepts of a society are not subjected to a popular vote; they are not "social contracts." They evolve over time, but a society does not choose the ethical principles it observes any more than it chooses its language. And to say that moral precepts are "nonbinding" ignores the personal and social forces that cause most persons to observe most of the precepts most of the time (Boehm, 2012). All these conditions exist regardless of people's opinions about whether the source of moral ideas is theistic or naturalistic.

Averick's comprehension of morality is limited by his Biblicist presupposition that it must originate in a set of rules. Morality cannot be determined by any set of rules (Churchland, 2011, pp. 165-185). The absolutism inherent in a set of ethical commands is not compatible with either what people do or what is desirable (for example, socially beneficial and ethically proper "white" lies that contravene a rule always to tell the truth). Morality is a set of personal and social behaviors, based on biological tendencies (Boehm, 2012; Churchland, 2011, pp. 27-46, 59-60), of which a major effect is to reduce conflict in a society—mostly by avoiding causing harm to other persons—thereby promoting the continuance of that society (Boehm, 2012). Ethical rules are attempts to codify behaviors that already exist. Such rules can never be complete or fully accurate, because those behaviors are variable depending upon the situation.

Naturalistic theories of the origin of moral behaviors and ideas have been clearly described by a number of authors (Boehm, 2012; Bradie, 1994; de Waal et al., 2014). Such theories offer a cogent explanation of the existence of ethics (whereas attributing ethics to revelation by spirits explains nothing). Averick briefly discusses one writer's naturalistic explanation of the existence of moral ideas (pp. 216-218), but he evidently made no effort to acquire knowledge of the naturalistic view (p. 221).[10] Therefore, he does not understand the concept he is attacking; he is ignorant of the theories of morality as a result of biological and cultural evolution. He can conceive only "absolute, transcendent moral laws" (p. 232) and "absolute truths and values" (p. 258).

Innate Moral Ideas

Averick states, "Human beings have an innate sense of compassion, empathy, the need to bond and form relationships, and the ability to love" (p. 212); and "we do have an inborn 'moral compass'" (p. 232). But he concludes that "the inborn moral voice by itself is virtually useless," and, "this inborn 'moral compass'" is "hollow and insignificant." The basis for this conclusion? "The wildly disparate value systems of different individuals and societies" (p. 232; cf. p. 228, 229). So, Averick believes that there are innate moral ideas and behaviors, and that they are "the moral voice of God implanted in the soul of every human being" (p. 232, 252), instances of "awareness that there are spiritually existent values that actually are more important than my own life" (p. 258). Then one asks, why are these "spiritual" moral values that "emanate from God" (p. 232), who is "all-Powerful" (p. 34) so ineffective in restraining evil behavior?

In his assertion that there is an "inborn moral imperative" whose source is "the one God" (p. 252) the author introduces confusion by failing to distinguish a person's assessment of what is "moral" from what is "meaningful, valuable, [or] significant" (pp. 255, 257-258), and by not distinguishing both these from self-esteem (p. 256). He alleges, without evidence or argument, that all these things are the product of a single "inborn" "drive" (pp. 257-258).[11]

Now, the biological basis of moral behavior is innate (Taylor, 2012, pp. 62-63). But it is questionable that specific moral behaviors are innate or that there is an "inborn drive" for them (Churchland, 2011, pp. 103-116). These behaviors are learned by social interactions (Churchland, 2011, pp. 163-165; Boehm, 2012). And judgments about what is significant are not innate. Feelings of self-esteem are distinct from moral feelings although they are connected by conscience (a feeling that Averick mentions but does not discuss; see Boehm, 2012, pp. 29-32, 172-176; Churchland, 2011, pp. 130-132).

The Moral Values of Human Beings are "Subjective" and Therefore Inferior to "Objective" Values Imparted by God

Averick states that theistic moral rules are "objective" while the ethical principles of nontheists are "subjective" (pp. 20, 249-250). He alleges that theism is the only "possible rational foundation" for "noble ideals" (p. 20; cf. p. 163, 175), and that without "a transcendent moral being ... there could be no objective moral truths" (p. 243). By objective he seems to mean "coming from an external source," as opposed to one's own "subjective" ideas. If this is his meaning, then the statement that rules coming from "a transcendent moral being" are rules coming from an external source is self-evident and trivial. Averick values moral ideas that one attributes to God more than those not so attributed, but statements that nontheists are incapable of having "rational" or "noble" ethical principles are merely insults (Churchland, 2011, pp. 194-199; Rose, 2008).

The ethical ideas of theists and nontheists alike have been determined by their experiences, including all manner of social interactions and exposure to cultural influences, and (in the more thoughtful) by their reflection on morality:

We can no longer appeal to an objective world of moral facts or principles independent of human nature to ground our moral deliberations. But we can, and do, appeal to a shared human nature to conclude that our moral deliberations rest on an objective, intersubjective shared human heritage as shaped by the forces of evolution....

[T]he human capacity to be moral is an evolutionary product. The capacity to be moral, to engage in moral reasoning, to make moral judgments, and to formulate moral rules, rests on a number of other more fundamental capacities. (Bradie, 1994, pp. 166-167)

Finally, moral statements are either commands, or judgments of goodness (or badness); they are not statements of fact and cannot be "truths" (or falsehoods) (Ayer, 1936/1946, pp. 107-109).

The Problem of Evil

Averick quotes Sam Harris's comment to the effect that the existence of evil is not consonant with belief in an "omnipotent" (and benevolent) deity (pp. 221-222). Averick acknowledges that there is a "challenge that evil and suffering pose to the believer."

The author allows that it is "undeniably true that terrible crimes have been committed in the name of religious ideologies" (p. 234), but he fails to acknowledge that belief in God is the reason for the crimes of the monotheistic religions. Adherents state or have stated that God demands of, asks, or inspires them to wage war, kill unbelievers and heretics, impose their religion on everyone, partner with authoritarian governments in order to use the coercive powers of government for religious oppression, and oppose humanistic proposals to improve people's lives, including abolishing slavery, giving social and economic equality to women, stopping oppression of workers by employers, providing universal education, abolishing racial segregation, and ending political interference in people's sexual lives. They justify these behaviors by God—not by the Bible or the Qur'an, not by some doctrine, not by Pope or Caliph—but by God "himself."

Averick states, "The fact that people may correctly [?] and truthfully believe in God does not preclude the very real possibility that they have deluded themselves into thinking that their own particular code of behavior is divinely ordained." The Christian Ku Klux Klan member and the Muslim ISIS terrorist would respond, "Their religion is divinely revealed truth, they are essentially living the way God wants them to live, and you are the one who has a distorted sense of how human beings are really supposed to live and behave" (p. 270). Averick and these people can disagree about whether God wants them to hate and kill Jews, but this is a matter of religious opinion and their disagreement is unresolvable.

It is in view of these facts that Averick should discuss Sam Harris's statement, "Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism" (p. 233). By its very nature, disbelief in spirits does not incite people to impositional behavior, the way belief in superhuman beings (religious ideologies) or superhuman forces (authoritarian political ideologies) does. Averick, however, attempts to dismiss the significance of the lack of impositional nontheistic movements by repeating the falsehood that nontheism devalues people, and therefore it cannot inspire them to commit evil (p. 233) (see "Averick Misrepresents the Views of Nontheism on Purposefulness and the Value of Humans," below).

The "real," "transcendent," "divine" system of morality presented in Averick's scriptures approves military conquest; massacre of wartime captives; slavery including sexual slavery of women captured in war; subjection of females; torturous executions; the execution of supposed witches, homosexual men, disobedient sons, and persons deemed irreligious; forcing the victim of rape to marry her rapist; and ethnic prejudice.[12] This primitive moral code is advocated even today by believers in God who cite these scriptures as the source of their ethics (Rushdoony, 1973). Present-day Western ethical standards—that in the law, in most public discourse, and in the thinking of many people have no relation to religion—are markedly better than Biblical standards with respect to violence, cruelty, injustice, and narrow-mindedness.

The preceding paragraphs present some of the moral arguments that nontheists offer for rejecting theism, in addition to their factual arguments.

Averick writes, "[I]f God does not exist, the whole question [of suffering and evil] ceases to have significance.[13] The pain or pleasure of mankind turns out to be nothing more than the luck of the draw" (p. 268). This is obviously false. The matter of evil is important independent of the existence or nonexistence of spirits (and regardless of belief or unbelief in them). "Pain [and] pleasure of mankind" are highly subject to the actions of individuals, groups and societies; they are not a result of "luck." Averick himself acknowledges, "we are all profoundly grateful for the benefits that have been bestowed upon mankind by advances in science and technology, particularly in the area of medicine" (p. 264).

Misrepresentations of Nontheism by Averick

Averick Misrepresents the Principles of Naturalism and Science

Averick falsely attributes to naturalists a simple-minded, naïve, materialistic reductionism [14]: "According to them nothing exists besides atoms, molecules, chemicals, light waves, and the laws of physics" (p. 179, 180). He challenges scientists, supposedly thinking in this way, to explain the effect of having an embarrassing secret revealed publicly, and imagines preposterous responses:

How is it possible to destroy someone's self-esteem with cruel words and insults? Are there tiny pieces of chemicals that enter into the person along with the offending words?... Are there mysterious chemical structures that float through the air that enter a person's body...? I defy any scientist to explain why vicious or compassionate words ... can have such a profound effect on another human being. (p. 204)

This challenge is met by the demonstration that parts of the brain that produce emotions (and the physiological responses to emotions) are activated by the processes related to the perception of language that were described above. These activities of perceiving, understanding, and having responses to linguistic entities (speech or letters) are explicable in terms of neurophysiology. Averick substitutes for these complex processes a crude reduction to "electrical activity" (pp. 199-200). True, to "monitor brain activity" does not yet enable one to identify the specific thought or emotion that results from perception of an instance of language, but the nonpublic character of this information does not alter the material basis of the mental event.[15] And it is possible to identify some subjective experiences by observing the activity of the brain (Taylor. 2012, p. 34).

This kind of false reductionist argument is repeated throughout the book (pp. 181, 184, 191, 198-205, 214, 259-261).

As noted above, Averick alleges that human beings possess an "inborn moral imperative" or "drive" (p. 252, 257). Then he parodies science: the scientific view must be that the "drive" he is postulating is a "function of some chemical, molecular or genetic source." He fails to perceive that his reduction of the "drive" to this level is essentially different from the statement he next makes, that the "drive" is a "physiological process" (p. 258). This alleged reduction, by science, of a complex process of neurophysiology to chemistry (and chemically encoded genetic information), is a figment of the author's imagination. (And his offering this figment as the only alternative to a "spiritual need and drive that has been planted in us by God" [p. 258] is a false dichotomy.)

Averick continues: if the "moral imperative" is a naturalistic phenomenon, then "our moral sense is the result of a peculiar arrangement of genetic material in our DNA and the entirety of morality, values, and ethics is nothing more than a chemical illusion" (p. 258). This is also a figment of his imagination. The fact that moral ideas and behavior require a particular genetic endowment (human beings have the capacity for them; rattlesnakes do not) has no effect whatsoever on their personal or social significance. And it is a fantasy that complex personal, social, and cultural systems of ethics, composed of ideas, emotions, and behaviors, are rendered by naturalism either "chemical" or an "illusion" (Churchland, 2011, pp. 199-201). What is an "illusion" is the notion that they are somehow produced by an indemonstrable being rather than by real circumstances, processes and events.

Averick Misrepresents the Views of Nontheism on Purposefulness and the Value of Humans

Averick quotes 11 scientists and philosophers stating that the universe and life do not have meaning or purpose (pp. 166-167). He then asks, if they believe this, "why do they all seek achievement" by writing (p. 167) or by having "a passionate commitment to investigating and understanding human existence and the universe" (p. 173; cf. p. 171)? He fails to perceive that the people he quotes are rejecting the notion that the universe and humankind were created, and assigned purposes. He seems not to comprehend that people can live purposeful lives as autonomous human beings rather than as bit players in a cosmic drama scripted by a supernatural power. This enables him to attribute falsely to nontheism the view "there is no compelling reason to care about anything, no reason to bother with anything; ... there is no hope of finding deeper meaning in life" (p. 167). This notion appears throughout the book; for example, the "atheistic" "worldview offers one no conclusive reason to care or bother about anything" (p. 22). But the fact that the universe, or human beings, were not created by a supernatural agent who assigned purposes to them, in no way detracts from people's capacity to have or to appreciate personal and social purposes that give value to human lives. One can readily "find deeper meaning in life" without resort to spirits.

A variation of this idea is that an "inescapable implication of atheism" is that human beings are not qualitatively different from any other animal (p. 209). But what "atheist" can Averick cite who states that human beings possess no qualities that are not also found in starfish, snails, or sharks? Here and elsewhere (pp. 16-17, 19) he twists statements that Homo sapiens is a species of animal to mean that nontheists declare that human beings have no more capabilities, purposefulness or value than do brutes.

Such false statements that nontheism devalues humankind are a feature of Averick's book (pp. 16-18, 233). Now, naturalists sometimes emphasize the facts that, contrary to the creation myths of Genesis, Earth did not occupy a special place in the formation of the universe, nor did Homo sapiens occupy a special place as the different species of organisms came into being. The lesson a person should learn from these facts is appropriate humility. Biblicists, however, are distressed by the facts; it seems that their vanity is wounded and they do not want to be humble in relation to the universe. So they allege that the effect of the facts is to make human beings "insignificant" and their existence of no value (p. 18). Naturalism does not satisfy persons who proudly imagine that their acts and thoughts are so important that they merit continuous scrutiny by the supervisor of the universe (and who think that their personas are so important that they must last forever).

The universe, however, does not assign values to its components. A judgment of worthlessness comes only from human beings, and in the present circumstance expresses an inability of the Biblicist to accept his cosmic insignificance. Only human beings can assign a value to humans including themselves, and it is the Biblicists, not the naturalists, who declare humans worthless if they are not the creatures and favorites of an otherworldly being (p. 18).

Averick Misrepresents the Statements of Nontheistic Authors

Averick quotes factual statements by Sam Harris and Steven Pinker that no one region in the brain can be identified as the site of self-awareness or consciousness (p. 182). Then he falsely attributes to these authors the conclusion that "[s]ince we cannot find a specific physical location for the 'self' inside the brain, the 'self' does not actually exist" (p. 183). This conclusion is neither stated nor implied by the texts he quotes, and the "preposterously distorted argument" (p. 182) against which Averick inveighs is of his own invention. Naturalists do not deny that people are aware of their individual personalities. But one's perception of a discrete, unitary self—an "'I' [that] is clearly separate from everything else going on in my head" (p. 180)—is, as stated by the authors Averick quotes, an "illusion" that does not accurately represent the multifocal, interacting systems that are the basis of selfhood. Averick's error arises from his ignorance of the facts and his inability to separate the concept of a soul from that of self-awareness. Instead of using the writings of nontheists to stoke his indignation, he should have made more effort to understand them.

The author distorts a statement by Christopher Hitchens by suggesting that Hitchens does not want people "actually [to] be held accountable for what we did with our lives" or for life to have "real purpose" (p. 214). But insofar as Hitchens' statement can be taken to refer to accountability and purpose, its meaning is that these things exist without God. Averick goes on to attribute to Hitchens the idea that without acknowledgement of divine authority "one is 'free' to do whatever one pleases ... [humans] are responsible to no one and accountable to no one but themselves" (p. 215). There is nothing in the passage Averick quotes that permits this interpretation.

Later, Averick creates a caricature using Hitchens' statement, "The so-called Golden Rule is innate in us" (p. 228). Averick's preposterous exaggeration of this idea is, "the 'innate Golden Rule' will guide us and all moral issues will resolve themselves" (p. 229). He then expatiates for 5½ pages about bullfighting, infanticide, and exterminating Jews, laboring to refute an assertion that neither Hitchens nor, to my knowledge, anyone else has ever made. Averick also twists Hitchens' comment that the moral sense is absent in sociopaths and psychopaths: "Hitchens simply labels adherents of value systems that conflict with his own as 'psychopaths' and "sociopaths'" (pp. 228-229).

This comes after Averick has complained that some of what Hitchens wrote "is either a distortion, an outright fabrication, or presented so out of context that it is the equivalent of an outright fabrication" (p. 37)!

The author quotes scientist and philosopher Victor Stenger's remark, "what matters now is what happens now." Stenger's clearly stated purport is that "we can find present ['now'] meaning in our lives that does not depend upon our [supposed] immortality" (Stenger, 2007, p. 251). Averick, however, explicates the quotation with a series of hypothetical situations that demonstrate lack of foresight and prudence, and alleges that Stenger is advocating that people not "understand the consequences and implications of their ideas, beliefs, and actions." He asserts that Stenger's "philosophy" is "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" (p. 171). He does not quote Stenger's subsequent statements:

Many people think that life is pointless unless they fit into some grand, cosmic scheme. They imagine that meaning can only be assigned externally, by some outside higher authority.

But, why can't we find meaning internally? ... Over the ages, philosophers have offered many suggestions on how to live rewarding lives. (Stenger, 2007, p. 251)

Averick thus unjustly and meretriciously insults a distinguished scientist and philosopher.

To these longer incidents one could add a number of others. Is Averick's behavior in these instances merely incomprehension "of a high order"?

Conclusion

Averick seems to satisfy his own definition of a fanatic as "someone who has shut off his mind and is unwilling to consider anything that presents a challenge to his dearly held belief system" (p. 28). On the "intellectual battlefield" of science and antiscience he manifests an irrational reverence for these religious notions:

  • Spirits exist and are responsible for many events and states of affairs.
  • The agent of mentation is a personal spirit, or soul.
  • The chief spirit has dictated the only acceptable rules for behavior.

Contrary to his stated principles, the author was unwilling "to consider another point of view" (p. 28) (that of science) and to "take the trouble to find out what it actually is" (p. 36). He thereby rendered himself incapable of making informed arguments against that viewpoint. Insofar as he offers arguments rather than mere assertions, Averick builds them on a foundation of inadequate knowledge, misinterpretation and incomprehension. As a result they consist largely of errors and falsehoods.

The Confused World of Modern Atheism also demonstrates logical and semantic tactics that are common in books attacking nontheism:

  • Do not give an accurate or complete presentation of the ideas and principles one is attacking.
  • Do not disclose naturalistic explanations of things, or if one does, give only partial or distorted versions (caricatures).
  • Seek out idiosyncratic, atypical, even bizarre, expressions of the opposing viewpoint and dwell on those as if they were typical.
  • When quoting opponents, distort and misrepresent what they said by attaching false meanings to their statements, taking words and phrases out of context, and failing to distinguish different meanings of particular words and phrases (e.g., to believe).
  • Misrepresent the statements and ideas of nontheists in such a way as to impute to them religious notions and behaviors.
  • Make false dichotomies by stating a religious belief and an opposing view, then alleging, "these are the only two possibilities," although there are alternatives to one or both the views stated.
  • Deride and insult persons one is criticizing.

Averick's book illustrates the following statement: "A man's charity to those who differ from him upon great and difficult questions will be in the ratio of his own knowledge of them: the more knowledge, the more charity"—and conversely.

Notes

[1] In his text Averick names four nontheistic books (p. 13), only one of which provides a general argument for nontheism. (The others address specific matters, such as the scientific evidence against the God hypothesis or theism's harmful effects.) One other monograph (a short general statement) and three anthologies appear in his endnotes (pp. 175, 205, 237-238). Averick provides no indication that he has read other works that state comprehensively the failures of theism and the arguments against it (e.g., Everitt, 2004; Le Poidevin, 1996; Martin, 1990; Onfray, 2007; Smith, 1989; Thiry [d'Holbach], 1772/1895), which would have provided some "intellectual firepower" (p. 15), and "worthy opponent[s]" and "skillful foe[s]" for "a vigorous, honest battle of intellect" (p. 13).

[2] Averick offers no independent argument for the existence of God, such as the traditional ones about a first cause, miracles, providence, etc. This book implies that God is the alternative that one should turn to if convinced by Averick's assertions that secular/scientific accounts of the matters that Averick discusses are inadequate.

[3] Some secular authors also aver that "a deeply felt sense of purpose is as necessary as hunger and thirst" (Burton, 2008, p. 183) and that it is "a visceral drive" (Burton, 2008, p. 196). But they understand these "profound mental sensations" (Burton, 2008, p. 177) as "rooted in biology" (Burton, 2008, p. 183) and not in anything "spiritual." One can, however, question all assertions that claim that there is a need for "purpose." What is the evidence for such a need? Some people do direct their actions overall toward a particular goal (whether pecuniary, egotistical, physical, artistic, intellectual, charitable, or of some other sort). For example, those who believe strongly in a religious or sociopolitical ideology may conceive their lives in terms of some overarching significance or purpose. And all people have intentions and short-term goals. But how many people truly manifest "a deeply felt sense of purpose"?

[4] "Explanations" in terms of spirits do not explain anything under the ordinary meaning of "to explain": they do not state any causal process that could be verified. They are attributions, not explanations.

[5] Sometimes Averick distinguishes consciousness from self-awareness (p. 177), while at other times he seems to conflate them (p. 182, 189).

[6] In the main text of the book Averick does not cite any publication explaining naturalistic theories of consciousness or self-awareness. Two articles, but no books, are cited in his endnotes (p. 205).

[7] A great reason why many people are unwilling to accept the fact of biological evolution, and the fact that consciousness and self-awareness are not endowments unique to humankind but evolutionary developments, is that these facts negate their egotistical belief that human beings occupy an exalted place distinct from the rest of nature. Since this notion is required by many religions, it is vigorously defended by their adherents (such as Averick).

[8] Professing a code of conduct that one attributes to a deity does not ensure moral behavior (p. 270), as exemplified by "[t]he War of the Christian Churches against the Jews" (Runes, 1968). Daily life in Europe during the "Age of Faith" had much more violence, cruelty, and dissolute behavior than life in the present secular time (McCabe, 1946).

[9] Averick misrepresents such choice as follows: "If we are not accountable to a higher power for our actions, how we choose to behave becomes a question of 'am I psychologically able to jettison the social conditioning to which I have been subjected?'" (p. 220; cf. p. 215). But people do not analyze their "social conditioning" (nor their ethical ideas) and then decide to abandon ethical rules. They can ask themselves and answer questions about which particular ethical rules they choose to follow, but they cannot obliterate the effects of the naturalistic sources of moral ideas.

[10] Nowhere else in the main text of the book (nor in his endnotes) does Averick cite any publication explaining naturalistic theories of ethics.

[11] He continues this thought by stating that the "inner moral imperative" is "to seek 'the true ' value system" (p. 259)—which of course is that to which he subscribes (p. 258). Any other system is "illusory." By "illusory" Averick presumably means only that he regards any view of ethics other than his own spiritualistic one as false (p. 259).

[12] Averick ignores these and other moral faults of his scriptures when he presents them as a source of ethical principles (p. 14).

[13] This statement demonstrates an extraordinary inability on the part of the author to think outside of his religious opinions. Is human suffering important only in the context of monotheistic beliefs?

[14] Reductionism is sometimes defined as "the attempt to explain all biological processes by the same explanations ... that chemists and physicists use to interpret inanimate matter" (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). Averick writes: "It beggars the imagination to explain [emotional turmoil] ... solely within the paradigms of physics and chemistry" (p. 261). But no one does this, and reductionism is not an intrinsic element of either naturalism or nontheism.

In principle, we could reduce the description of a mental event to a "lower" (more basic) level by referring to processes such as the depolarization of cell membranes and the release and reception of chemicals; and even farther, to specific movements of molecules and atoms. But by altering the context, each reduction loses information contained in the "higher" level physiological and conceptual descriptions (while adding information about events of smaller magnitude). It is not useful to attempt reduction, and it is not necessary to demonstrate that these cellular and molecular processes, which are known to occur, are taking place at each step during the mental event.

[15] For a naturalistic resolution of supposed metaphysical problems concerning the subjective character of mental events, see Feinberg and Mallatt, 2016, pp. 217-227.

References

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Copyright ©2019 Michael D. Reynolds. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael D. Reynolds. All rights reserved.

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