Sunday, December 16, 2012

If atheism was true (part 1)

I've been contributing to a series of posts over at Speak the Truth in Love entitled 'If Atheism were true'.  The series is interesting because the claims made are very strange and unintentionally expose the silliness of some Roman Catholic arguments.

If Atheism Was True Then The World Would be Ugly [link]

Evidence of God?
The author wants to claim that atheism, by which he means strict scientific materialism, is unreasonable because it cannot adequately explain beauty.  He does so by stating that if natural selection was true then we should expect the world to be ugly:


I get that when you have something complex like genetic reproduction in place then you can get natural selection occurring based on survivability. But that does not explain why the species that ends up the winner should be at all interesting. I have read that if humans were to create a species that could out-compete existing animal species it would probably be a simple grey goo. Something that could reproduce itself efficiently and eat just about anything but it would be ugly. I can see the point. It is going to be a bunch of engineers that come up with this stuff. It is going to be functional for sure but don't expect beauty. They are not going to come up with a flower let alone the thousands of different flowers we currently have. So if we should not expect something designed by humans to be beautiful why should we expect something designed by natural selection to be beautiful? But that is what we see.

He concludes with a standard Roman Catholic argument that beauty in nature points towards God :

My point is that nature is full of those little winks. We have to be really thick to not see them. I wrote before how Dawkins can study bees his whole life and just see bees. Then someone else can look at bees and see beauty and ultimately see God. If it was just bees then it would just be one of those things but it isn't. It is everywhere. There are so many moments of wonder when you study science or history or politics or sports or whatever. That is not even counting human creativity we see in art, music, literature, etc.

The claim that if atheism was true then the world would be ugly is only backed up by an inference:  The best humans can manage, we are told, is to create an ugly grey goo. So we should not expect natural selection to produce beauty.  This argument is a non sequitur: What humans can or cannot do is irrelevant to the theory of natural selection. We cannot argue that because humans cannot convert light energy captured from the sun into food, we should not expect photosynthesis to do so either.

The author believes that beauty in nature would be rare if natural selection was true, but that ugliness would be common, that unguided evolution would lean towards ugliness rather beauty.  But we are not provided with any argument to consider.

It is however an interesting claim. A theist believes beauty was created by a gracious God and ugliness is the result of the fall of man. To demonstrate this he demands to know why the world isn't ugly but this involves an assumption that evolution would somehow lean towards ugliness, an assumption that a theist cannot explain or defend because it requires an evil God or at least some guiding force. I do not see how a coherent challenge to atheist materialism can be mounted along these lines and indeed the argument exposes the selective picking of facts behind the normal theist argument: beauty points towards a good God, but ugliness does not point towards an evil God. Framing the argument towards ugliness instead of beauty only exposes the dishonestly.

Strict materialists do not believe beauty exists outside the human mind or that beauty is a property of nature. If a flower is beautiful then it is because we find it beautiful. If tapeworm is ugly then it is because we find it ugly.  A materialist would not expect the world to be ordered towards ugliness or beauty; they would not expect our subjective aesthetic preferences to have any bearing on the cosmos.

Evidence of the fall of man?

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