10/17/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

God and Some Scientists, Part II: On Mental Gymnastics

In my previous post I argued that David Barash's "demolition" of his young students' faith was overhyped, the work of an intellectual bully. I concur with his claim that natural selection undermines a certain sort of argument for God's existence, one in which God is believed to be the best explanation of organized complexity. However, if one's faith is not based on this sort of argument, then one's faith could or should remain unscathed. Moreover, while we are descended from primates and so share traits with primates, that alone bears little on the question of whether or not we also image bearers of the divine. So far, Barash is 0 for 2.

How about Barash's third strike, which he believes adds to "religion's current intellectual instability"? He contends that evolution affords a critique of theodicy, "the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering." What does biology bring to the theodicy table? The natural world, he writes, "is filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death -- and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things." The problem of natural evil is a very serious problem, one that is irreconcilable with various traditional theodicies.

One might have thought, though, that before pronouncing "strike three," Barash as a scientist would at least note various recent and sophisticated attempts to offer such a theodicy.

But suppose a theist believes, as I do, that we have no plausible explanation of natural evil. Is the theist's belief, therefore, "intellectually unstable"? In order to maintain her twin commitments to science and faith must the theist, as Barash alleges, "undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines"? In short, is a person of faith under some requirement to know what God's reasons are for permitting evil (or creating the world the way he did)? Hard to imagine.

I firmly believe as much as I can understand about what science teaches about the brain. And while I believe that I have thoughts, feelings and desires that are produced by neuro-chemical processes, my thoughts, feelings and desires are qualitatively different from neuro-chemical processes. My feeling of sadness at seeing my daughter leave the country for the year is not the same as the brain state from which it arose. Brain states are physical and objective (and so are accessible to scientists to study) while consciousness is non-physical and subjective (and so, in my case, is accessible only to me). I have no idea, nor does anyone else, how feelings and brains are related. But I don't think that we required to give up our belief in thoughts, feelings and desires until we have a good explanation of how consciousness is produced by the brain.

And while some philosophers and scientists deny that we have thoughts, feelings and desires, I don't see any reason that I or anyone else need follow them down that path.

If having to live with deep and abiding mysteries is tantamount to mental gymnastics, what Barash fails to note is that he, like all atheists, likewise has to undertake some challenging mental gymnastics.

For example, where in the world does he find good and evil (the stuff of human morality)? Here's a way to put the problem. Richard Dawkins claims that the world that science discovers has "no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." He goes on: "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but a blind, pitiless indifference." While the natural world is replete with elephants, asteroids, and quarks that have extension, duration, and number (among many other properties), it is devoid of good and bad.

How can you get the Good from matter/energy in its various manifestations? Philosopher Simon Blackburn writes of the problem atheism and ethics: "The problem is one of finding room for ethics, or placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part."

If, as the theist believes, Ultimate Reality is good, then it's not so difficult to ground one's judgments of good and evil. If not, then one has to resort to mental gymnastics.

In addition to morality, what about free will, consciousness (as noted), and knowledge (evolution gave us cognitive faculties to help us survive, not to acquire true beliefs)?

What about love? My cat acts like he loves me but I know that his purring and "affection" are aimed at me as a food source. If humans are simply, as Barash insists, animals, what about human love? Is it any different from feline love (or as The Captain and Tenille so eloquently put it, muskrat love)? How do we move from selfish genes, for example, to genuine, other-regarding, hunka-hunka burnin' love? Atheistic psychologist Edward Slingerland finds no place for love in his scientific, materialistic worldview. And yet he confesses to loving his daughter. Thank God for mental gymnastics.

Again, if Ultimate Reality is love, then we should expect to find love in the Creation. If not, one may have to do some mental gymnastics.

But we are all by our very nature mental gymnasts.

David Barash is a human being and all human beings are in less than optimal believing conditions. There are undoubtedly scientific challenges to some religious beliefs. Some religious beliefs -- a young earth, the special creation of species -- need to be given up. Other religious beliefs can be maintained more easily and some only through mental gymnastics. But there are also deep challenges to the scientific-materialistic conception of the world. I don't know which beliefs the scientific-materialist must give up and I'll refrain from calling scientific-materialists intellectually unstable. But when it comes to goodness, free will, consciousness, and love, the scientific-materialist must do some mental gymnastics.

Mental gymnastics is not the special burden of religious believers. It's part and parcel of the human believing condition. I suggest a policy of humility and tolerance with respect to those who disagree with us, not arrogance and bullying.