Strange Bedfellows, Atheism and Naturaistic Theism

From: Steve Petermann (
Date: Fri Sep 12 2003 - 09:56:44 EDT

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    The scientific method is a remarkable tool. It has enabled humans to
    understand the workings of the cosmos to a great degree. Among the bedrock
    requirements of the scientific method are repeatability and predictability.
    If it cannot be shown that a theory repeatedly predicts outcomes, it will
    not make it into the cannon of scientific knowledge.

    However, this requirement also points to a view that the cosmos is
    mechanistic, controlled by the natural law. If the cosmos wasn't
    mechanistic science would not be able to make sense of what is sees. No
    repeatability, no science. But this also says that the cosmos has no
    freedom. It does what it does and cannot do otherwise. Even if one
    considers the indeterminism at the quantum level those events are supposedly
    random, not affording any freedom either.

    All well and good so far for science. However, what happens when the
    spotlight of the scientific method shines its light on humans. Then it
    becomes a different story. That unfreeness of the cosmos that science
    relies on suddenly dissolves when the human mind is under the scrutiny of
    the method. It is an anathema to humans that *they* are unfree and

    Humans need a sense of meaning. Where do that get it? In large part from
    the idea of agency. Personal agency based on human freedom creates a sense
    of personal meaning. Divine agency based on divine action creates a sense
    of ultimate meaning.

    Enter the strange partnership of atheism and naturalistic theism.

    In my experience with atheists(many of whom are my friends) they base, to a
    large extent, their sense of meaning on the idea of human agency(human
    freedom). So do the theists and non-theists I know. Many of those theists
    also look to divine agency as a ground for ultimate meaning. But all the
    naturalists in this group(atheistic and theistic) have a problem with this
    mechanistic view of the cosmos. It doesn't seem to offer any real sense of
    freedom either personal or divine.

    For them there are only two strategies to overcome this problem, redefine
    the term freedom or look to the indeterminism of the quantum world. Turns
    out they may use both.

    As an example of the first strategy, it seems to me that Daniel Dennett in
    his recent book _Freedom Evolves_ opts for the first strategy by pushing a
    definition of freedom that doesn't, in my opinion, fit our common sense of
    the term. This might be considered a slight of hand move that seems to
    offer an answer to the anathema but it really doesn't.

    The other strategy is where atheists and naturalistic theists have formed an
    unconscious partnership. Both want quantum indeterminacies to be the source
    of freedom. Classic physics doesn't offer any hope, but perhaps this
    strange world of the quanta can save the day. But if atheists look to the
    openness of the cosmos as this source of personal agency why is it such a
    failing for religious folk to do the same? Interestingly enough research in
    this area may offer a reasonableness to both positions. Then in the final
    analysis it will all come down to a personal intuition about the cosmos
    followed by actions based on faith.

    Steve Petermann

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