USS Clueless - Atheist affectations

Stardate 20020706.1456

(On Screen): A while back, as part of his reaction to the court case about the Pledge of Allegiance, Dr. Frank quoted the following entry for "atheist" from a 230 year old version of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

a person who does not believe the existence of a Deity. Many people, both ancient and modern, have pretended to atheism, or have been reckoned atheists by the world; but it is justly questioned whether any man seriously adopted such a principle. These pretensions, therefore, must be founded on pride or affectation.

To which he comments, "I have nothing to add to that."

I must say that part of the problem here is in trying to group "atheists". It's a negative definition, sort of like "non-white". You can group people that way, but if you try to make generalizations about them then it means you're going to be trying to say things that are equally valid about Maoris, Chinese, Pakistanis and Zulus, and it should be apparent that it's going to be difficult to find anything non-trivial to say about them beyond "they ain't European". By the same token, atheist is "someone who believes that there are no deities." But that says nothing about what they do believe in, and atheists are quite varied. The term "atheist" is in common use, and I refer to myself as an atheist because most people don't know the correct term that does positively describe my beliefs.

The terms are "mechanist" or "materialist", but the difficulty is that both terms have, in addition to their technical meanings in philosophy, more common meanings which are unrelated. For instance, to most people materialist means "The one who dies with the most toys, wins." That has nothing whatever to do with the meaning as the term is used in philosophy.

The characterization of atheism that Frank quotes was written by a theist, and as such it's not really fair, any more than the characterization of theists which might be written by an atheist would necessarily be considered fair by a theist. For example:

A person who deceives himself into thinking that he's the center of the universe and favored by an all-powerful mystical being, because he's afraid to face the reality of how insignificant and unimportant he truly is.

(No, I don't actually think that, but some atheists do.) That amounts to the same kind of distortion. Britannica's writer has an a priori concept that "of course there is a God; how could anyone think otherwise?" But a lot has happened in the last 230 years.

One interesting aspect of the history of science is the extent to which engineering concepts have driven scientific ideas. What happens is that engineers develop new ways of making useful stuff (which is what engineering is about) and in the course of doing so start to create new ways of analyzing things, so as to understand what it is they created and how they can make it better. Those ways of analyzing things, in turn, become available to scientists who begin to apply them to the natural world and find that they also reveal insights about how the universe works. For example, blood was long a mystery for anatomists: where does it come from? Where does it go? What function does it perform? Why does someone die when they lose too much of it?

Over the course of a couple of hundred years between the 16th and 18th century, you began to have the development of significant transportation networks in Europe and a concentration of economic functions. Before that point, individual areas of a nation were largely self-sufficient. They produced what they needed, and if something couldn't be produced locally then they mostly did without it. Imports were luxuries. But with the creation of large scale and efficient transportation networks (in particular, the canals) you started seeing more and more specialization, and a growing dependence on those transportation networks. Some areas began to specialize on producing food; some on goods of various kinds, and the entire concept of economy of scale appeared: concentration and specialization were good; distribution was inefficient.

And they finally began to realize that blood circulates, that the functions of the body are specialized and concentrated, and that the function of blood was to transport products of various kinds from where they were produced to where they were needed.

There are so many cases like this in the history of science before the 19th century that it's arguable that practical experience has to create many such concepts before they can be observed and recognized in nature. I'll be discussing some others later.

Mechanism (my form of atheist) began that way. In a sense, its name derives from its origin. It comes from the industrial revolution, and the beginnings of system theory. I'm a systems engineer. Again, I mostly tell people I'm a software engineer because when I say I'm a systems engineer they ask, "What's a system?" Unfortunately, I have a concept for the term "system" but it's extremely difficult to put into words, because it is so general. But I'll try:

A system is a group of individual components which interact in such a way that the overall grouping of them creates properties not present in any of the individual components.

Rats. I don't like that. Let's try again:

A system is any grouping which has emergent properties.

No, that begs the question. Um, how about this:

A system is a combination of components such that the interactions between them have valuable or interesting characteristics over and above the individual characteristics of the components themselves.

The difficulty is that system is indeed such a nebulous and general concept. That's not a flaw of systems engineering, it's a virtue. What it means is that systems engineering is one of the most broadly applicable kinds of engineering there is. What a systems engineer looks at primarily is the interactions between the components of a system, and tries to understand how the interfaces between them affect the behavior of the collective system. As an engineering discipline, it then attempts to see if there's a way that the interfaces can be (re)designed so as to maximize the advantageous properties of the system.

Such things as industrial engineering (the design of factories) are aspects of systems engineering. Proper application of systems engineering to a factory can drastically increase the production of the facility without necessarily increasing the expenses by as much, thus making the production cheaper per unit.

Systems engineers can also come with ways to make systems simpler, perhaps by recognizing that some components of the system are not actually necessary, or that several components might be replaced by one different one.

Systems engineering really gets its start with the steam engine. It's arguable that there was a nascent form of it present in the early work on clocks, but the discipline was different. With clocks, the goal was simply to make them work. With steam engines, there was a strong incentive to make them work well. Fuel was expensive, and whatever-it-was that the steam engine was doing (initially, pumping water out of flooding mines) was important, and the better that the engine could be made to do the job, the happier the owner of the engine would be. So early engineers had an incentive not just to figure out how to make steam engines work, but how to make them work better. And as the applications for steam engines became more and more broad (powering factories, for instance, or later in railroads) there was more and more emphasis on analysis with an eye to improvement.

A locomotive is a beautiful example, because everything is a tradeoff. Unlike an engine which powers a factory, a locomotive has to move. So the goal is not just to optimize power, but to get the best power-per-weight you can, within a desirable power goal, while making the engine efficient and reliable and as cheap as possible. Everything is pulling in different directions at once. Is higher steam pressure desirable? It increases the direct force of the pistons and therefore the overall power of the engine. But it also means that the boiler and all the steam fittings have to be made stronger (to handle the higher pressures involved) which means that more metal is required, which means that the overall engine will be heavier, and as a result the power-to-weight ratio might well actually decline if the weight actually has to climb faster than the power. Also, higher steam pressure might well require more fuel, and the cost-per-operating-mile might not justify it. And it might increase the rate at which water is consumed, meaning that re-watering stations might need to be placed closer together. (Steam engines go through a lot of water!) If your engine is going to be operating in an arid region, the water has to be hauled in, and if more water is required than operating costs will rise still further.

Four, six or eight driving wheels? More wheels add more weight to the engine. But more wheels also provide better traction, and distribute the load better on the rails and cause less damage and a lower chance of derailments, and may mean you can scale up every other part of the engine.

There are no obvious answers to these kinds of issues. In a vacuum, there's no way to say that "four driving wheels is better than eight" or vice versa. Better for which engine, accomplishing what job? Everything is a balancing act, and every decision made about any part of the system affects all the others. Most decisions about "better" have to be made in context of the specific design.

And though a lot of steam engines move, they still may have different tradeoffs. For instance, the engine in a locomotive isn't optimized the same way as the engine in a big steamship, which may be different again from the engine in a warship. For instance, a steam ship is more concerned with optimizing fuel usage, while a warship is more interested in performance. A locomotive engine design has a much smaller weight budget than either of the other two.

Individual mechanical engineers will design individual parts of the engine. Someone sits down and designs wheels and wheel bearings. Someone else designs pistons. Someone designs boilers, and smoke stacks. But some guy has to sit in the center, and give all those other guys their requirements so as to create a combination where each component works smoothly with all the others in such a way as to maximize the performance of the total machine once it's assembled. That is "systems engineering."

It turns out to apply to a lot of other things. Once this idea of analyzing the overall performance as a function of the interactions of the components became more broadly understood, engineers began to apply it to factories, to the layout of transportation systems, to communications systems, and in fact to almost everything which we refer to now as "systems" (e.g. "the telephone system").

And the scientists picked up on the concepts and began to apply the same ways of doing analysis to some other places. For instance, it became clear that economics was a form of system. The movement of money, the management of budgets, the ways in which individuals and companies within a nation and between nations interacted financially were susceptible to systems engineering. A lot of modern banking is based on that.

The science of ecology developed out of systems engineering. For a while, "ecology" as a term was coopted by certain activists and used as a synonym for the political movement known as "environmentalism", but ecology is politically neutral as is all science. It's a study of how the different organisms in a given area interact with each other, so that the system as a whole works, or doesn't. They began to see how it was that feedback was involved, for instance to balance the number of prey and predator animals in a given area. For a while there was a assumption that ecological systems were automatically ideal and perfectly balanced. (They used to believe that about economics systems, too.) But now it's understood that some ecological systems constantly oscillate, and that many of them are not operating in a fashion which we might consider optimal.

Systems engineering really starts in the 19th century, after the article Dr. Frank quotes. And in a sense, it's also the basis for the form of atheism known as mechanism or materialism. A mechanist thinks that the universe is a big machine, operating without outside interference, and that everything which happens in it is (or eventually will be) explainable entirely on the basis of the characteristics of matter and energy and the laws that describe how they behave. As such, deities are superfluous.

A mechanist doesn't claim that our knowledge is complete, and recognizes that there remain things which are unexplained. A mechanist believes that these things will be worked out in time; and that's why this is a belief and not a "fact". It isn't possible (yet) to prove that mechanism is true, and it may never be. But the evidence continues to pile up, and nothing has been found yet which seems inexplicable.

In 1770, that wasn't possible for an honest man. In 1770, someone proclaiming such a belief would indeed have been unreasonable. But we've learned a lot since 1770, and the reason I'm a mechanist is because I do think it is reasonable now, based on everything I know and everything I've read.

Every belief system will attract people for different reasons. Some of them have internal agendas for why they join, and some of them will become rather obnoxiously militant for their newly-found belief. Most such are an embarrassment to the more established and main stream members of that group. Usually the reason they're so militant is that they have internal reasons why their new belief must be true. There are Christians like this, and there are atheists like this.

But it isn't fair to judge an entire group, especially one as disparate as atheists, on the basis of their lunatic fringe.

Some people become atheists (or think they do) because of an emotional rejection of the belief in which they were indoctrinated by their parents. That kind of rejection isn't confined to atheists; you find all kinds of people who reject their parents religion and become zealous about some other, instead. You got Moonies, and you had the Rajnashees, and so on. But with someone like that who becomes atheist, it's one of the few cases where "atheist" actually is an accurate description of their beliefs.

Usually such people haven't yet figured out what they do believe in. What they have decided is that religion is wrong. And for most theists (especially Christians) that is the image of atheist: Christian rejectionism.

But not all atheists come to it that way. I didn't. It wasn't so much that I decided I hated Christianity (in which I was raised) and then searched for something else, as that a mechanistic view of the universe just made more and more sense, and that within it there didn't seem to be any place for a god.

I hope that what follows doesn't seem snide, because it isn't intended to. I do not mean to imply that all of what follows is comparable; it isn't. But it shows a pattern, a way of thinking, a progression.

When I was little and was losing my teeth, I got told that if I put one of them under my pillow the tooth fairy would replace it with a quarter. (That was a lot of money for a little kid in the 1950's, when they were still selling candy bars for five cents.) Eventually my older brother told me that it was my dad who was doing it.

I don't recall that my parents ever actually tried to convince us that there was a Santa Claus, but it's the same kind of thing. For some kids, there's this guy in red who delivers gifts; only later do they discover a much more mundane explanation for things.

By the same token, there seemed to be two basic reasons why I should believe in the Christian God: His existence explained why we were here, and He gave us instructions on how we should live a good life.

Eventually I came to realize that I didn't need a god to explain why we were here or why things happened the way they did, and use of Him as a source of moral teachings seemed contrived. I began to strike out on my own, to try to create a rational understanding of my place in a mechanical universe, with no overall universal moral authority, and with a full understand that everything is ephemeral.

Do I like it? I'm content with it, but I didn't pick it because I thought it was more emotionally satisfying. All other things being equal, I wouldn't at all mind knowing that there was some all-powerful being somewhere watching my life and trying to make sure things go well, who I could ask for favors now and again and who would reward me with eternal bliss for a life lived well. But I can't convince myself that it makes sense for such a thing to exist, and I refuse to choose pleasing falsehoods over unpleasant truths.

In essence, I'm not a mechanist because I want to be, but simply because I can't be otherwise. No other way of looking at the universe makes sense to me.

The result is less than totally satisfying in many ways, but the universe didn't promise to satisfy me. Within the context of a religion, you can have a feeling of security and ethical certainty, for instance. Out here alone in the cold, I've come to the conclusion that all ethical systems are deeply flawed.

But there are satisfying aspects to it, forms of beauty that I think theists can't see because they can't let themselves see them. Of course, from their point of view there are many forms of beauty (like God's Grace) that I can't see because I don't let myself see it. It's all in your point of view, I suppose.

I think what I'm trying to say here is that the quotation from the 1770 Britannica contends that all atheists are posers, and are putting on airs. I'm not sure if that was really true even in 1770. It is certainly not universally true now. There are posers in every religion, but many modern atheists are rational and moral people who truly do believe that there are no Gods and don't harbor any lingering doubts about that.

I like to think I'm one of them.

Update: Dave Trowbridge comments. He thinks he sees the same beauty I do, but I don't agree. Perhaps that's because I used to look at the world through the eyes of a believer, but he's never seen it through mechanist eyes. It doesn't look the same.

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