Why I don’t believe in God(s)

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When I first started my blog I thought I would attempt a very clear pathway to describing my thoughts about religion and why I don’t believe in God or gods, but that was yet another fanciful idea that I had in my brain that will never materialize.  Most of this is likely because I’m not organized enough to lay it all out in a clear and precise fashion, but I think part of it is that it is not defined consistently enough making it too difficult to be discussed.  Ignosticism comes to mind here (the idea that there are too many different definitions of God or gods that different people have which makes it too hard to even respond about their existence).

But I’m not going to talk about ignosticism.  Instead I’m going to begin to try to explain why I don’t believe in God.

One of my own explanations really lies in a bit of a broader idea.  The only conscious beings that I have ever interacted with have had physical brains.  I don’t think it’s too unfair to conclude that the probability is high that all conscious beings that exist have physical brains.  Current research on the brain indicates a clear connection between the brain and the conscious personality of animals and humans.  When the brains die the consciousness disappears.

A few points on this:

– As I’ve said before, all of my conclusions stand along a continuum of relative certainty levels.  While this one is not near as strong as my belief that WLC’s holy spirit epistemology is a really bad way to approach truth, it is still a fairly strong conclusion for me not just because of what I’ve said above, but because it is based on other things as well (more on that in future posts).

– This conclusion is based on life experience, observation, and current research on consciousness.  However, one reason that it is not rock solid is because current consciousness research has not really gotten far enough to draw strong conclusions.

– I think that my own process of coming about to this conclusion is very similar to how people conclude that they do not believe in goblins, ghouls, fairies, or ghosts (although ghost belief is a bit more popular than the 3 other things, but I believe a significant number of intelligent people do not believe in ghosts).  Now I’m not saying that belief in some higher creative power(s) is exactly analogous to these other things, but I still believe there is some similarity in the process by which we all come about these kinds of conclusions about invisible entities.

In my future posts I plan to give a few more reasons why I don’t believe in gods, will try to explain why proofs for gods aren’t very convincing to me, and will end with my personal opinion on the best approach theists should use to convince others of the existence of gods.

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37 thoughts on “Why I don’t believe in God(s)

  1. Well said. A few years ago, I was listening to the NPR program Fresh Air (love that show!), and Terry Gross was interviewing neuroscientist David Eagleman. It was a really fascinating interview, and your thoughts above made me think of it. In the interview, Eagleman gave several examples of how physical changes in a person’s brain changed their personality.

    For instance, the guy that climbed the tower at Texas A&M and shot all those people years ago had left a suicide note where he asked that they do an autopsy on him, as he felt that something was different about himself. The people that knew him said the same thing: the old cliche that they never would have suspected that he would be capable of such heinous acts. The autopsy revealed that he had a massive tumor in his brain.

    In another case, a man with no prior record was arrested for child molestation. His family said that this was a huge change in behavior. As they were working with him, they discovered that he had a large tumor in his brain as well. When it was removed, he was back to his old self. Some time later, he began exhibiting symptoms again, and when they looked, he had another tumor growing in his brain.

    If our personality can be affected so severely by purely physical changes, what does that say about a soul? And what does that say about our notions of morality? That makes me think along the same lines you do, that it’s hard to imagine a consciousness without a physical brain. Of course, it would be great if it’s possible. Who wouldn’t like to live beyond this physical life?

  2. This is the perfect addition to my post and I’m really glad you added perfect examples that support my viewpoint that consciousness is tied to physical brains. Life after death is an enticing concept (as long as it’s pleasant of course 😉 ), but I’ve always been ok with there just being nothing. An unpleasant afterlife is obviously by far the worst of the 3 of these scenarios.

  3. Glad the examples are helpful. Again, it’s been 2 or 3 years since I’ve heard that interview, so I could have a couple of the details confused. The main points are spot on though. Pretty interesting stuff.

  4. Thanks Ark. I think Pandora’s box is a really good way to describe it. In my post I was only thinking about the conclusion that it leads me to about there not being gods, devils, goblins, etc., but you and Nate are so right that the examples Nate brings up open up so many other questions about ideas that a lot of people hold very dear to them like morality and accountability. In fact this morning I remembered a related RadioLab episode that I listened to about a month ago which also featured David Eagleman in part of it. Here it is: http://www.radiolab.org/story/317421-blame/

  5. This vein of interesting thought reminded me of a question I put to a true believer some time ago, and I need to resurrect it on other blogs that I haunt, as well as my own,

    Suppose a person who lived to follow the words attributed to Jesus–always putting others ahead of himself, always praying for others, always helping the poor in every way he could–suppose that person began to have delusions, became schizophrenic, and then committed a senseless murder and was killed directly afterward by the police. An autopsy discovered a tumor in the brain in such a location that made it clear his actions were caused by that tumor. Would that person go to Hell?

    I don’t recall the believer’s answer, but I am going to ask it today of other believers. The answers should be quite interesting and good material for another post and further exploration.

  6. Interesting question. I wonder if tumors could even cause people to hate others… perhaps it could change someone from loving to hating a God that they believed existed. Or even other questions like could a tumor change ones beliefs about reality. That one brings up even stranger philosophical questions.

  7. Stripping away the paragraphs, the implied (and occasionally explicit) argument I saw you write was this [with my comments]

    (1) Every conscious being I know has a physical brain [personal anecdote]
    (2) Therefore all conscious beings must have a physical brain [really, huge jump]
    (3) God apparently does not have a physical brain [theist given- seems reasonable in some theism, probably not Mormons and others]
    (4) Therefore God can’t be a conscious being [ vaid from 1,2,3 – but #2 was invalid, so invalid]
    (5) God-believers say God is a conscious being [OK, most theists would agree]
    (6) Therefore I don’t believe in God (or goblins, ghouls, fairies, or ghosts…) [based on invalid argument]

    Is this fairly accurate? Where did I go wrong?

  8. Thanks for the input Sabio. I think you went wrong first and foremost in assuming my writing was meant to be a nip-tuck tight logical argument. I’ll try to reply further later to describe what I mean after work.

  9. Sabio,

    Not to speak for Howie, but can you provide an example of a conscious being that does not have a physical brain?

    Thanks

  10. Hey Nate,

    No worries about speaking for me – I’d love to get a multi-person discussion going here because I know I can learn from anyone who comments.

  11. There’s a lot packed in here we could talk about, so I’ll take only a few.

    First about personal anecdote of (1) – I absolutely agree that the way I wrote it was an anecdotal statement, in fact my next post is going to definitely be even more anecdotal and I was going to mention it there.I’d really like you to define your own definition of anecdotal if you can. To be perfectly honest I don’t have a very good definition myself, but I know how most people fairly use this word.

    I happen to think that this particular stated argument goes a bit beyond anecdotal. First, even among many people who believe in God (and I admit it’s not all) the vast majority would admit that they have not really interacted with them in a direct sense. I should qualify this, because a lot of religious people would say that through coincidences that happen and through reading certain sacred texts and through talking with other people they feel that they have interacted with God, but none of this is really direct interaction with that conscious being. But again, some would say that they have interacted in a substantial way, but the ones who say they have directly interacted are a somewhat small percentage (sorry I don’t have statistics – if you do please provide and if I’m corrected on this that’s cool). I’d also say that research has been done to try and see the results of invisible conscious beings and it seems that these investigations usually do not come through with positive results. Joe Nickell is an example of someone who tries to investigate these things without coming to the investigation with an a priori assumption of the claim being false. There have been many unsuccessful studies on prayer as well.

    I have a similar question as Nate – are you familiar with research that has been done that seems to indicate that there are conscious beings without physical brains?

    as for (3) I think you should have wrote “most” instead of “some”. What do you think? Again note that I talked about ignosticism – I really can’t reply to every person’s different view of what a god is. I am trying to reply to the vast majority of god beliefs in which the gods usually are spirit beings which have consciousness similar to humans which do not have physical brains. This covers a lot more than just the mono-theisms I believe.

    I never said “all conscious beings must have a physical brain”. I wrote that I felt it was “fair to conclude that the probability is high”, and further down wrote that it was not a “rock solid” conclusion for me.

    I never wrote “therefore God can’t …” – I don’t believe in God so I can’t make a statement like that.

    By the way, sorry I don’t have an “about me” page but if you want to know some of my views look here and here You don’t have to read it, just wanted to provide you links in case you are interested.

    I’ve written very quick and have not been careful so feel free to correct. Thanks for your input.

  12. Just remembered – I also said in my post “it is based on other things as well (more on that in future posts)”. Perhaps it is bad form to piece apart all the reasons for why I believe something rather than putting it all in one post, but if I tried that my post would be way too long for the facebook generation to read. 😉

  13. Sabio Lantz – How would you define consciousness if not a manifestation of brain activity?

  14. @ Howie
    — Yep, I read for logic. I torture my kids with the same. Remember, I’ve taught University for many years — I read critically. But I invite critical reading of my posts — they are often sloppy.

    @ Nate
    Well, first, I guess we’d have to figure out what “consciousness” is — and there is tons of debate on that. So to bring it up for evidence that God(s) don’t exist struck me as odd from the get go. It is like pretending to talk science — something I have a great allergy for.

    So, I must assume everything I talk to has consciousness. But I talk to Siri. That is improving and will probably continue to improve. Social bots deceive people all the time. I can imagine consciousness developing in machines — so I see no need for biological neuro-networks. So maybe other networks could communicate. Did that help?

    Thanks for the compliment on the avatar image — it has gone through many permutations.

    @ Howie again
    Ah, I have no problem with anecdotal — but it is the lowest form of evidence. It is one person’s story. n=1

    This “conscious being” seems problematic. I never hear believers talk like that. I do hear them say “God talks to me” or “I hear God’s voice” ….

    I’ll wait for your “about page” — it will be much easier.

    BTW, my avatar is explained on my “blog purpose” page.

  15. Sabio – I’m not sure my about page will look much different from the links I gave you. My writing style’s a little different from yours because I always want to caveat things so people fully understand what I mean… probably to my doom. 😉

    I also strongly invite critical reading and responses to my posts, but I hope you are ok if I am critical back to the responses to my posts as well – I thought your summary of what I said was off from the wording and gist of what I had written, so I may have come down too hard in my response to you giving you the impression that I’m not interested in critical input… so not true.

    As far as the anecdotal, I also don’t have a problem with it and I’ve written some blog posts where I’ve also indicated that I believe they are the lowest form of evidence. I think the lines become blurry sometimes on anecdotal though, and arguments could be made that everything is anecdotal and this could theoretically push us into the most extreme form of philosophical Skepticism which simply becomes impractical for me.

    Some more thoughts on anecdotal:
    – I feel that much (some would say all, and that may even be fair but I’m not sure) of the evidence that theists give for proof of the existence of gods is anecdotal. So to refrain from belief in it due to that seems like a “justifiable” position. By justifiable I mean that if someone were to hold it against me and judge me for refraining from belief then I’d have a difficult time understanding why.
    – I thought Nate’s examples as well as the research I’ve mentioned (it could be argued that it’s not extensive enough and that is actually an area I’d love to explore more) brought my statement about consciousness a bit beyond anecdotal (because it is not just stories that I or other people say, but research has been done – this is where I believe most people believe the line is for anecdotal versus not anecdotal).

    I agree that it is possible that gods exist. I agree that it is possible that fairies and goblins exist. I’m not saying I know for sure that all these things do not exist. But I’ve got to make practical decisions on what I believe about these things and most people don’t critically judge me when I use similar kinds of reasons for not believing in goblins.

    You have good points about computers seeming to have consciousness and I agree that this will greatly improve and cause us all to rethink our worldviews, but they are still tied to physical objects and seem to disappear when the object is destroyed.

    Again, these things are small parts of why I lean toward not believing (i.e. refrain from saying I believe in) in gods. When I weigh them on a scale in my brain that’s where I land.

  16. @ KeepCalmHiggsBoson,
    I didn’t use the term, so I will let Howie try to define it.

    @ Howie,
    (1) Yes, theists often use “I have experience it, so it is true” anecdotal reporting as a big part of their evidence — and recognizing that is important. Once that subjectivity is noted, the possibility of testing can be brought up.

    (2) I think it so highly improbable that gods exist that it worth affirming that I don’t believe in them.

    So, Howie, to the point. I have highly doubtful that the reason you don’t believe in god(s) is because of consciousness issues. I think it can either be put more simply or straightforward without the pretense of philosophy of mind or neuroscience issues. You probably would not have believed in gods if you were born 400 years ago and could have told us why without the philosophical/science coating. I am just pushing you to get more real.

    Are you saying:
    Look, I can’t feel god
    Look, I can’t see god
    So, I can’t imagine something I can’t feel or see talking to me
    So there ain’t no god?

    Whatever you think I think it is simple and not complex.
    That is my bias. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if I were wrong on this issue.
    Just bein’ honest with ya mate.

  17. Interesting point. I think you may be onto something — at least that’s how it applies to me. Goes back to the old observation: the invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike. Or to put it another way, if God exists, why is he so hidden?

  18. I appreciate your honesty Sabio, and frankly I think this is an absolutely awesome conversation! I hope you can hang in there with me because in all honesty I’m not totally sure I understand your main point, but I definitely think I can learn something from our exchange. Seems like this quote is your main point (is it not?):

    So, Howie, to the point. I am highly doubtful that the reason you don’t believe in god(s) is because of consciousness issues. I think it can either be put more simply or straightforward without the pretense of philosophy of mind or neuroscience issues. You probably would not have believed in gods if you were born 400 years ago and could have told us why without the philosophical/science coating. I am just pushing you to get more real.

    I’d be the first one to admit that I might be over-thinking this. I’ve been told I over-think things way too much and you may have sensed that if you’ve read parts of my blog. But I over-think things because I really truly want to get a good understanding about what it is that I believe. I’m not as confident of a person as you and Nate. I doubt and question and doubt and question over and over again. I go through this process not just because I lack confidence (which I am willing to admit) but because I also believe this process helps me get closer to truth about reality.

    Now as far as whether or not I would have believed in God or not 400 years ago I really can’t say but my best bet is that the environment of practically everyone assuming that God existed (which I think was the case back then in most of the western world) then I’d venture a guess that I probably would have believed that God existed, but who knows. Maybe I would have just been even more agnostic than I am now about the subject. I would not have had the benefit back then of seeing how science and objective reasoning can improve our ability to predict the things we experience. So if this is your main point then I am not sure what to make of it. I’m being honest as well.

    As far as consciousness issues goes, I don’t mind that you highly doubt my own reasons I’ve described regarding conscious entities (and by conscious I mean self-aware and able to respond as humans are – this is how the majority of religious people describe the gods they believe in) not being found without physical brains, but just because you highly doubt it doesn’t force me to then concede. I know you are a smart guy but I also know what transpires in my own thoughts. I’m always willing to admit I’m wrong, but this honestly is a factor of mine when it comes to the subject of deciding whether or not gods exist. It is one of several factors as I have indicated, so no it is not the main factor. Why do you doubt my own statement of my own beliefs? Is it because you don’t think it is a smart reason to not believe in gods? I’m a different person than you are – so can’t certain reasoning make sense to me but not to you? I’ve explained why I don’t think I was being anecdotal. I’ve also said that the research that has been done to try and investigate claims of invisible conscious entities (ghosts and gods specifically) have not come to positive results, and also how I and many others have not directly interacted with invisible conscious entities -> for me these are good reasons to push me further toward not believing in gods. At least it can push it a little bit couldn’t it? Am I way out of whack on this? I’m not even sure that is really very complex as you make it out to be. I haven’t written much so maybe this is actually simple and then meets your criterion. 😉 Does simple really even have to be a criterion with this subject?

    As far as the “Are you saying: Look, I can’t feel god…….”, I thought we agreed that anecdotal evidence is the lowest form of evidence. Surely that alone can’t be enough. Is that a factor – yes of course. Our own experiences can surely be a part of building up our beliefs about reality, so yes your poetry is a factor as well, but that is not all I am saying here. Just because I can’t imagine something I can’t feel or see talking to me doesn’t imply that it doesn’t exist, so surely my reasoning should go beyond that.

    What do you think?

  19. Interesting thought – maybe we are saying the same thing and using different language. I’m not sure I’ll have to think about it.

  20. @ Howie,
    There is a difference between over-thinking and rationalizing. I think we fool ourselves with our knots of thinking. I suspect that your post did that. I think that this “consciousness” thing is not why you don’t believe. Instead it is something as simple as “I never experienced a god.” or “I can’t hear a god.” or “When I hear voices in my head, I know they are just me.” or “I don’t believe in fuzzy, bodiless spirits”. Or maybe all of those.

    But maybe something about consciousness was your reason — but if we were in a coffee shop together and you said this, I would doubt and question until I perhaps able to show that you were intellectualizing much more basic reasons. Or maybe not. But I can’t do that on a thread. It is too time consuming. So we’ll just have to leave it at “May I am wrong.”

  21. That’s funny, I was thinking a similar thing – that if we were hanging out it would probably take only 10 to 15 minutes of talking to figure out where each of us was coming from, and I wonder if at the end we’d both realize that each of us has something to say that is worthwhile to think about, and talking it out is so much friendlier and easier to recognize earnestness in communication than writing!

    My hunch is that you have a valid critique here and that I’m just not quite sure exactly what it is. I also have a hunch that it is not super important to my overall ideas.

    I’m entirely with you on knots of thinking – especially when it comes to deep questions (and I’m an engineer, and frankly the knotted brain syndrome often comes with difficult problem solving at work even when the questions really aren’t all that deep).

    I suppose it could be argued in some sense that all of us are rationalizing. In fact in your wording of what you believe I am saying you are still using anecdotal language and that was part of your original critique which I agreed with, so even if I wrote the simple statements you wrote then it could be argued that I’d be rationalizing non-belief due to anecdotal evidence. And as I’ve said before I have no problems with people using their own personal experiences as pieces of the puzzle to build their own worldview (in fact I believe people should do that), but I think it should be balanced with other peoples experiences, objective research and investigations that have been performed and peer reviewed, as well as a best effort to try and be consistent.

    My own reasoning of this original post came from a question that my kids had asked me a few months ago. They were afraid that ghosts would come to them at night and they asked me if I believed in ghosts. I told them that I didn’t and they asked me why. I told them: “well let’s see, I’ve never seen or talked with a ghost, and I’ve never met anyone else who has done this either, and I’ve read that when people have tried to investigate claims of ghosts the investigations came up short.” (I didn’t use any of those “big” words with them of course, because they are young, but that was the gist of what I told them). But what this made me think about was that it wasn’t only gods that I didn’t believe in it was something more broad. And then I tried to think about what it is that ghosts, devils, angels, goblins, ghouls, fairies, gods, etc. have in common and what came to me is that they are all “conscious”, or “intelligent”, or “free” agents (trying different words to be clearer but in the end it just means that they act in the same way as humans) without physical brains or bodies. So my main point was that it’s not just “gods” that I don’t believe in it is something even broader than that. And the fact that we haven’t confirmed these kinds of things exist caused me to lean toward believing they did not exist. And I think that the reasons for why I don’t believe in those kinds of things is the same thing as you are writing only using different words. Perhaps your point is that the thing in common that these things and even other gods which are claimed to have brains and bodies (like the Mormon gods) is really even broader than that – it is that the only evidence we have for them currently is anecdotal evidence. I would agree with that critique. I was going to give a more detailed analogy about this in a future post.

    And the fact remains that there really is no way to know for sure that any of those things really do not exist because perhaps we just haven’t found the corner of the universe that they are hiding in, but we could say this about anything that we can dream up and that would lead us to incredibly crazy world-views if we were being consistent -> this isn’t a response to you, because I think you agree, but I just wanted to include it to be clear to others who might be reading and thinking “since you can’t prove 100% that these things don’t exist then you shouldn’t say you don’t believe in them”.

  22. Yep, there ya go:
    (1) never talked to a ghost
    (2) never met others who have
    (3) investigations come up short

    Then you started to rationalize and take it away from the original simple judgements.
    BTW, I’ve seen ghosts.
    See:
    here
    and
    here
    and
    here

    Now you can get rid of #2.

    Coffee would be fun — the goal, to keep it simple.

  23. Good point – change (2) to “there are very few people I know who have” instead of totally removing it. I don’t agree that it should be totally removed. It is still a worthy point.

    Where did I rationalize specifically? Because obviously I didn’t recognize it. 🙂

  24. @ Howie,
    Dude, do you know anyone who understands Quantum Mechanics — I wager you know more people who swear they’ve seen ghosts. That doesn’t distract from your belief in Quantum Mechanics, does it. Belief is a funny thing, mate.
    BTW, I don’t believe in ghosts — but I’ve seen them. Well F*** me, eh!

    It would take me a long time to dig through your long comments but it seems you rationalized from #1,2,3 in my comment above (your explanation to your kids) to some sort of thing about “consciousness” — whatever the hell that is.

    Dude, this would seriously go much, much better in a coffee shop or on Skype.

  25. Sabio,

    I like you because I’ve read your blog a lot and you seem like a really nice guy. I can tell by your response that it’s best we table until we meet for coffee! 😉 Please feel free to offer constructive criticism whenever you like, but know that my responses will typically be long and I may not agree.

    Later,
    Howie

  26. Right, that seemed your tone. What wasn’t constructive about it? I pointed out what I thought an epistemological issue and answered your question.

  27. Hey Sabio – the comment you made really had a tone to it that didn’t really suggest back and forth respectful dialogue and I like to keep the peace here. Please, I think you need to table this one as I suggested so we can actually have some more constructive conversations in the future – there will be plenty of time for that. You even kind of hinted at it when you said “dude, this would seriously go much, much better….”. I definitely think this horse is pretty dead and bloody at this point. 🙂

  28. That’s cool, I just wanted to address your closing which made a final implication that I was “unconstructive”.
    NP – We’ll touch base another time.

  29. Pingback: Afterlife Debate Review | Truth Is Elusive

  30. Pingback: Maybe There Are Gods | Truth Is Elusive

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