After an afternoon wading through my twitter feed filled with #catholic hashtags, I had to cleanse my palate over at the Atheist Forum. I came across a newbie who had some questions.
Micah asks,Anyway, if thought is merely a chemical reaction, how can two people sit and discuss thought? Is their discussion just random? Also, how can someone think about making plans for something a month away, and when the time comes they fulfill those plans. Is that also just random? To a Materialist, nothing can exist outside the material, right? If so, there could be no "mind." ...If morality to an Atheist is simply treating our fellow humans kindly, how do we come to that conclusion? Why should we not steal from the supermarket? It is beneficial to me; I gain something without having to suffer the loss of money. If morality is subjective to the person, why would Hitler killing the Jews be bad? To Nazi Germany it was perfectly fine under their own subjective morality.
All good questions that may or may not have answers. How can we discuss thought? Well, we are right now! That's how. Biologists talk about "emergent" phenomena that are greater than the chemical reactions at the foundation. Atheism does not have to equal Materialism, there is room for phenomena that are inexplicable and we shouldn't feel that we need to explain everything. When a theist friend asks "why this", it's okay to say "I don't know"... but quickly add "And neither do you.".
Can emergence be understood by everyone at all times, or by anyone at all for that matter? Maybe not. Even the Buddha said that Enlightenment is fleeting, one might only attain it for a brief moment in an entire lifetime. or maybe never at all after a lifetime of striving. None of this inability to explain and understand is a "proof" of an anthropomorphic god. You can call the answer "god" if you want, but it certainly does not resemble the God of the Bible or Koran, so it depends on what your definition of god is. For centuries we could not explain all manner of things: planetary movement, weather, animal behavior, ocean currents, human medicine and physiology, germ theory, etc, etc, etc and we gave "God" credit for intelligently designing the universe and controlling it. Ha! We know now through empiric scientific reductionist study that supernatural gods do NOT controls these things. The British science journal New Scientist listed "Consciousness" and "Mind" as phenomena that scientists will strive to explain in the next century, quite an undertaking-- but remember that only 160 years ago we didn't even know that bacteria caused disease or how vaccines worked or even that hand-washing could protect our health. Take that, Howie Mandell!
Morality. Thich Nacht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says "Kindness is my only religion." Evolutionary biologists will say that morality is an adaptation encoded in our genes since those ancestors that were amoral were selected out when their social structures broke down, thus only the moral genes survived. Robert Wright*, in his book The Moral Animal, explains this concept very eloquently. No man is an island and we rely on our strong social structure to survive, grow crops and hunt and protect each other. This is not to say that every single person acts morally all the time. Hardly. We all decide who is in our moral community and deserves our "kindness." Most would agree that supermarket owners fall within that category and thus we would conclude that we should not steal from the supermarket. Al Qaeda? Maybe not. Each of us may have different views about whether animals belong within our moral community as well. We are kind to dogs and even protect them with laws, but yet we slaughter cows and pigs for food, for example.
One other item off topic. I hear many fellow atheists bemoan the failings of "religion" and equate "religion" with theism. Firstly, a large plurality of religious people in the world count themselves as atheist, Buddhists for example. One can be religious, even devout, but not believe in god. Secondly, are religions perfect? No, but that does not mean that they are worthless... all religions have the potential to be beneficial.
*Currently, I've just started Wright's latest, The Evolution of God, and I may review it at some point.