Catholic vs. Atheist - 2017-12-24 - Shaun Maxwell

Author Recorded Sunday December 24th, 2017

There are 47 episodes in the Versus:Atheist series.

Recorded February 9th, 2019

Catholic vs. Atheist - 2019-02-09 - Greg

Recorded September 11th, 2016

Catholic vs. Atheist - 2016-09-11 - Renaud

I met Shaun through his younger brother Dylan Maxwell, whom I interviewed in 2016. Shaun is an affable family man. He earned both his Masters degree and his Ph.D in Philosophy, with an emphasis on the nature of consciousness. He is currently writing a book on the Freedom of the Will.To be my guest, email me at :

Catholic vs. Atheist - 2017-12-24 - Shaun Maxwell

Author Recorded July 30th, 2016



These YouTube transcripts are generated automatically and are therefore unformatted and replete with errors.
hi this is shawn maxwell and you're listening to catholic versus atheist tell us a little bit about yourself who you are what you believe in how he came to believe it sure I was in Sunday school around when I was in kindergarten or grade one and confronted the problem of evil with the minister who was teaching the Sunday School and he after a session or two of hearing me argue the point and play six-year-old seven-year-old self decided I shouldn't be in Sunday school anymore and the Sunday school was probably preparation for visiting Northern Ireland where I live with my grandmother for six months who is deeply Protestant deeply Christian and so I went to church more than once a week at that stage of my life all the while believing that it was false but not wanting to hurt her feelings so doing my best to write along with it so I've been an atheist since I can remember for philosophical reasons I am also what some people call a fallible list so that if somebody who believes in any particular statement may be false this comes out of the philosophical work of Quine so the idea there is that we have a web of beliefs with many nodes each node being a particular beliefs any one of those particular beliefs may be false but it is highly unlikely that the entire web is false so because I'm a fallible list and because I believe that respect for other people's views are crucial to being a good human and that I believe one can be a very good human without being religious it is important for me to accept the importance the significance the value of other people's beliefs even when I believe they're completely wrong headed I spent a lot of time in my teenage years and 20s with hippies who believed in crystals and many other strange things but that doesn't make them bad people ones moral character the way one treats other people and animals in the world is independent of one's religious beliefs as demonstrated by many many evil people who are deeply religious and many many good people who are agnostic or atheist who are good can you talk a little bit about the admixture of Judaism and Christianity that's in your upbringing sure my mother started the family as one hundred percent Jewish blood but for three generations they were Protestant my great-great-great grandmother and grandfather converted most Hungarian Jews converted to Catholicism mine converted to Protestantism for obscure reasons so my mother was labeled a Jew by the Germans had a Star of David yellow star David owner in Budapest was an orphan was searched for by the Gestapo so she experienced being a Jew in the Second World War and she was in many ways a prototypical Jewish mother and so we have that personality aspect or that psychology in us my brother and myself but she was brought up Protestant she never had Chanukah she never had she never participated in Jewish ritual and my father's side of the family they are Protestant Irish and landed gentry so they stole the land from the Catholics in the 1600s we paid for a Cathedral of an abbey certainly a large religious building in Ireland there was a church that the family built not far from the family mansion in Northern Ireland's a very very serious Protestant my parents took us to churches both Catholic and Protestant synagogues mosques and even a Buddhist temple we were six seven eight nine ten so that we would be exposed to a variety of religions my father is an agnostic if not an atheist my mother had more spirituality that my father did but they were not religious that's my religious background and what about your education can you just touch briefly on the highlights of your education and how it may have shaped your worldview I went to a private boys school and I then went to an alternative CEGEP and by that point I was a first while hippie interested in Buddhism I did Tai Chi for seven years every day read a lot about Buddhism and the DAO I then went to university and studied anthropology in part because I was interested in social evolution and the way religion and societies moved through a set of stages in this is now sometimes seen as a Marxist analysis but there is a general pattern that one can pick out from polytheism towards monotheism towards atheism and so that's a story I can tell later that was something I thought about and worked on as an undergraduate at McGill I then did a master's in philosophy at the University of Toronto and then a PhD in philosophy at the University of Queens both masters in the PhD I worked on the nature of consciousness and the extent to which it can be explained scientifically and I argued that it could not be explained scientifically because it is it is it is essentially subjective rather than objective and the sciences deal with questions about the nature of things external to us and consciousness is essentially subjective and so presents very particular and unusual problems for the scientific method and that was in a way a struggle to define an area beyond the reach of science and could be read as a rearguard attempt to carve out a zone where rationalism and atheism stopped it's not how I see it or saw it but you could argue that was what I was doing this segues nicely into my main attacks on atheism which all have to do with the natural vs. the supernatural that have to do with determinism versus freewill and that have to do with morality can you just talk from your perspective and then I'll sort of try to nail you down but just speak generally about the supernatural and freedom of the will do you believe in those two things and if so how do you justify them as an atheist well I'm writing a book on the nature of free will so I do believe that some system some creatures are freer than others so humans are freer than dogs dogs are freer than nematodes nematodes are freer than bacteria what do I mean by that there's cycles within cycles within cycles and just like a wave matter and energy float through a wave but the wave is independent of the matter and energy that constituted at any one moment so if you're looking at a molecule in water the wave comes through the molecule rises as the wave comes to the point and then the molecule drops the wave carries on the molecule has passed out of it just like the atoms in our body are renewed every 7 years we are not the matter that constitutes us we are the process through which that matter moves through us you can look at evolution and pick out a series of organisms at any one point that are more developed and more free more capable of manipulating their local environment in order to maintain their identity increase their chances of survival by increased precision and extent of environmental manipulation so there's a certain sense in which freedom is the ability to manipulate and control one's environment such that one's own integrity is maintained in that respect humans are freer than other animals and in that respect some humans some individuals are freer than others those that are caught up in drug addiction are less free than the self actualized individual who is able to rationally consider alternatives and choose them you may justify your actions I did a because I wanted to get to be and that made me rational but how do you justify your decision to go after be all ultimately speaking that's going to be based on a value judgment and value judgments are very difficult to ground in empirical facts why is it better not to kill than to kill why is it better to maintain the natural environment than destroy it and change it those sort of value judgments are where religious and spiritual views have more of a bite because it is very difficult to ground those sorts of value judgments with empirical rational thought Bosh's what I argue in my book is that we can nonetheless do that and we do that by recognizing that organisms or process structures that maintain their own identity through their own activity and so in virtue of that it matters for a given organism that it is able to continue doing what makes it what it is and from that we can see the origin of value in the universe and I believe that humans and animals have degrees of freedom let's think about my dog Jacque my dog Jack will on some occasions be very interested in snowballs and on other occasions he will be much more interested in the smell over in the bush over there he's not rationally choosing between those interests but he is free to go for the snowball or go for the smell and he chooses now is his choice conditioned by his environment and his past and his genes indeed but so are we we are free while being determined there's a wonderful book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett called elbowroom varieties of free will worth wanting now I think then it's deeply deeply wrong about certain things but it's a beautiful short book about freewill which I encourage people to read because one of the things that he does beautiful show us that the kind of freedom that we want to exist can coexist with determinism this position and philosophy is called compatibilism and I'm a compatibilist without having a fully developed argument loriel I'm not sure I can defend it against all attacks but yes I believe that we are free yet determined so the mechanisms by which we are free are they somehow escaping from the laws of physics absolutely not okay so is there any responsibility if we are determined to do what we do or is it all just theater because this is a question I ask all my atheist guests when the criminal goes before the judge and the gavel is swung down and he's convicted is it just theater or is there real responsibility because there is genuine real freedom yes there's real responsibility ok so let's take some cases there's a the first mass shooting in the United States was a guy who was in a bell tower of Texas University with a rifle and he shot a whole bunch of people he had been a very nice guy beforehand so he was executed and they did an autopsy and found that he had a tumor in his brain that had eaten away part of his brain and particularly amygdala and various areas that effect rage and anger and fear and so we have a physical explanation for what drove this docile and rational human to do terrible harm to others the example you just gave is not helping you because it's proving that there was a physical cause for this person's behavior and my argument is that all atheists have to believe that that's always the case there's always an explanation on the physical level that will explain the good the bad the ugly and the neutral and the everything there's nothing happening there that's in violation of the laws of nature there's no violation of the principle of sufficient reason meaning that there is a sufficient reason for everything that happens and there is causality and nothing escapes the causal processes that lead me to behave in a certain way are fully determined by physics but meaning isn't making your question very seriously the answer is no one has a good answer and the smartest people in the world have tried very very hard Taiwan Kim being a prime example to make this work and it's very hard to make it work no one's got a convincing case yet okay so that I grant you that but you can have two systems that are physically identical down to the vector forces of the subatomic particles and because their histories are different their values are different and their meaning is different so mental content can be distinguished from mere causal relations so this realm that you're describing which is somehow beyond cause and effect is it supernatural or is it purely natural it's purely natural if it is natural what we mean is that under the same circumstances a system will behave in the same way if God is such that under identical circumstances God behaves in the same way then God is natural if God is a being who lives within the bounds of physics and it merely has enormous but not infinite life and cognitive and physical powers then I say sure there are presumably many different beings across the universe and in my account dogs are freer than worms and such beings are freer than us such beings may even be determining us I mean maybe we're all you know on Douglas Adams we're just an experiment being run by the rats what do you say to my accusation that you have taken a leap of faith in the you have zero rational justification or philosophical basis for your belief in free will and responsibility what would you say to that I would say that you're right in the following respect that I want to believe this I do not have a fully worked-out account of it even though I've been working on it for thirty years the other sort of approach I take with atheists on morality doesn't have to with freedom it has to do more with consequences if there are no enduring lasting consequences for you why don't you do the selfish thing because you can get more pleasure you could have more power you could have more money you could have a better reputation by lying cheating stealing and doing everything crooked that will give you more more of the good things more of the good life first of all I'm guilty I'm not living the moral life but my question is not why aren't you a better man my question is why aren't you a more selfish man that's my question because I've sought balance in my life between these two goods the selfish good and the good that I can do for others in the Aristotelian tradition of finding the good in the middle but that doesn't justify it a why don't I'm more selfish yeah I know what I'm asking you is if you could have more of all the good things that you want maybe for yourself only or maybe for you and your family or maybe for even your your entire community if you could do that by being immoral and being selfish what is the rational argument against that the rational argument against that is that other people's feelings matter and that I would be impinging on their freedom by taking all that I can for myself but why does that matter in the long run when there's no consequence that endures it doesn't matter whether the consequence injures what matters is the feelings of other people now and in the future if it so happens that in a hundred years there's no people left on the planet my actions are still relevant now because they'll hurt people's feelings now and into the next hundred years so there's a sort of timeless eternal quality to morality for you the way that I should act now would be the same thing in a thousand years under similar circumstances time less than that was yeah there's an eternal moral law that you strive to follow eternal no no the universe will have a heat death when protons and neutrons will decay billions and billions of years hence so the window of biological life is very brief in the big picture right although surprisingly long so it's a bit of an aside but you know so let's say the universe is 14 billion years old the earth is 4.3 billion years old it looks like life is 4.1 billion years old so on the planet Earth it looks like there's been life for a third of the existence of the universe which seems extraordinary and quite likely we weren't the first but you're only looking at the beginning the infinite time is ahead of us right according to your atheistic worldview not according to me space-time is a single thing in my ontology there are three things in the universe there is matter and energy in space-time there's information and there's consciousness those are not consciousness comes from information processing information processing comes from the behavior of certain sorts of physical systems but they are not determined by the preceding level let's talk about causation in physics when I say the e ball goes in the corner pocket because it was hit by vector force X Y that is a paradigm addict example of Newtonian causation and we don't understand it if you dig deep enough into the causation at the very prosaic level of a billiard ball we're not talking about subatomic particles we're not talking about chaotic systems we're talking about a Newtonian system on a perfectly flat frictionless plane we don't even understand that right we do no understand a great deal about it but at every level of those explanations there are questions that are unanswered of course yeah it's very humbling I like to think of it in terms of apprehension rather than comprehension just like you can grow an elephant in the dark or you can go to the ocean and touch the ocean but you haven't plumbed its depth so I often use this analogy yeah beautiful because you have a background in philosophy I'd like to you're sort of overview of andsome and his ontological argument it's what helped me go from atheism to theism monotheism any comment on that yeah well I thankfully I was just in a bookstore today flipping open a sort of a comic books lost feed book and I to review the arguments haha I can't remember what you're talking about you know the argument is essentially this you can think of the greatest thing and the greatest thing would be even greater if it existed well then God must exist because otherwise the greatest thing wouldn't be the greatest thing there's a whole bunch of problems with that but one of them is that it you know essentially rests on the idea that there is a essential contradiction in thinking that you are thought about the greatest thing could exist independently of the greatest thing existing so you can have in coherent thoughts I can think of the greatest thing without the greatest thing existing like I can think of well the heat death of the universe that hasn't happened yet so I don't I don't find the argument very convincing for a variety of reasons but just for the sake of the Platonic argument you can in your mind's eye imagine a circle and you can also play with the ideas of good better best and these sorts of superlatives so how do you work with that as an atheist without God how do you acknowledge perfect justice without God I don't think perfect justice exists of every not every most judgments about what we do involve compromises often there are incompatible goods that you want to achieve to goods say equality and Liberty and there are many occasions in which you get more of one by getting less of the other I don't need perfection I don't know if you're a fan of Pink Floyd love pick flavor ban for many years you know the album cover Dark Side of the Moon with yes the array of pure white light going into the prism and then it splits into the colors yes yeah you can point to the separated rainbow if you want to that's not an argument my argument is that they all come from this one source all of the colors come from one source and if you're pursuing health you are necessarily whether you know it or not and whether it works out nicely or not here below doesn't matter but if you're pursuing health you're pursuing justice and if you're pursuing justice you're pursuing truth if you're pursuing truth you're pursuing beauty so all of the perfections lie in one in the same source that's my Catholic point of view I mean that the story of the Big Bang is everything a single source so yes I think everything has a single source in the sense that is historically caused by a single event but one of the great difficulties I have with God is God as a being with intentions and this has to do with the problem of evil to tell the scientific story of how what exists now came to be it's such an extraordinarily beautiful story that when you tell me the religious account of how we came to be as we are I find it pales in comparison in beauty and depth and extent one of the central features of the scientific story is that there was no intention of a blind watchmaker so your reference to Richard Dawkins how we came to be did not involve the intentions of a supernatural being these are purely natural processes that could have gone in slightly different circumstances in different ways but may tend to the same end to the same state even if they start in very different circumstances and then you have to ask well why is the universe such that that I can ask these questions that I exist in the universe and you know well we happen to if the universe wasn't like that you wouldn't be asking the questions that is the standard still the answer but even if my account sees everything beginning in a singularity and becoming more complicated in a historical process and therefore is not fundamentally different from your account of everything having a single source in the Godhead there is the question of the afterlife and the question of the intention if the story that you give me of God doesn't require me to believe that God has a mind with plans and intentions I'm much more readily able to accept it there's a notion of entropy which is that things tend towards disorder yet we see enormous complexity in order in the universe so where is the complexity in order come from if not from God if not from the intentions of a supernatural being and the beauty of the scientific account is that we can see how this complexity arose without a plan and understanding how that complexity and order and freedom and consciousness can come about without a plan without a pre-existing being who possesses some of these attributes and therefore of course begs the question because if you know you have to say well God always existed but this story that we have of how things came to be from from simplicity from unity from a oneness we get this diversity in complexity that's as deeply intellectually satisfying as any religious account what would you say if you discovered that you're wrong and that God is all good and he's deserving of all your love and that your eternal salvation is what He desires not because he needs anything but because he loves you and he wants you to be happy with him forever if you discovered that would you still say no or no no I'd love it I hope I'm wrong I mean you know come after life I don't think I have one I think that my impact on the universe will be minimal and that after I'm gone a couple of certainly by a couple of generations no one will remember me and isn't that sad from my perspective so I wish I would love there to be an afterlife and I hope I've lived a good enough life that I will be accepted to heaven should there be one what do you say about Pascal's wager it doesn't cost me much to believe but something is wrong sure I'm prone to take risks that I shouldn't take and if I think seriously about Pascal's wager this is a risk I shouldn't take except that I can't believe I mean here we go back to the problem of evil I can't believe that there is a God and there's a heaven and a hell such that all the good Buddhists and Muslims in the world are gonna burn that may be what some radical Protestants teach but that's not what the Catholic Church teaches the Catholic Church doesn't declare anyone to be damned in hell except for the demons and Satan but the humans in hell we don't have much information we know that there is a hell and that it's possible to go to hell in there there are people that do go to hell we don't know how many we don't know the relative populations of heaven and hell all we know for sure is that the canonized saints are in heaven but we don't have canonized reprobate we don't have anti canonization for those that are definitely in hell we don't have certainty for that and we don't need to dwell on that because there's no salvation outside of the Catholic Church that's a dogma of the church but we don't know who's in the church and who's outside of the church and there are people that are ostensibly inside the church that are actually working against the church wittingly or unwittingly so it's a very complex affair and one of the basic principles is that it's none of your business your business is the moral choices you make and the love you show and the love you receive and your relationship with God and neighbor and really it doesn't really matter what naughty things Hitler got up to you know you're not gonna have to answer to that on Judgment Day but between you and your maker you do have a responsibility to do the right thing and to get your life straightened out so the church doesn't teach that Buddhists go to hell right again I hope there's an afterlife and that I'm wrong and that might be living a good life by being a good person I will be accepted into the bosom of God that would be great I really hope I'm wrong about everything I mean this is back to the web of beliefs it's I I think it's highly unlikely but and that doesn't make me an agnostic I really believe God doesn't exist but I hope he does because it would be a much better world much much better do you understand the problem of evil how it's resolved in the Catholic philosophy no tell me free will we were given free will which is good God is not the author of any evil he's only the author of good everything he made is good ontological e including Satan Satan is good by his nature evil by choice just like the rest of us but the free will that he gave us is good but it's subject to abuse and the very fact that were free means that we can make a choice for him or not and that not implies all kinds of consequences which are all the evils in the world every evil that you can point you today stems from sin both original and actual so there is no blame that can be ascribed to God he is the source of everything but everything is good and in Catholic theology and philosophy evil is not a thing evil does not exist evil has no substance evil is just a way it's a way of falling away from the good it's a way of falling away from justice and health and beauty good does exist and evil doesn't as in zero is nothing a one is something hell is a one becoming a zero and never quite reaches zero but it's on its way always it's an orientation and a falling away but at the end of my interviews I always ask my guests to just speak directly to the audience give a little message of hope what could you say to anyone that might be out there listening right now your feelings and other people's feelings matter in acting such that you improve the lives of others you will improve your own life in giving to others and caring for others you will feel love and find love the world is unfair some people get a bad deck of cards even though they're good it takes great character and enormous effort to face with a bad deck of cards nonetheless followed Jesus's good example and turn the other cheek and go back again and face the world with love and respect and care for others but in doing so you will improve your chance in the card game of life you will find that those bad cards our better played than you might have imagined it is through love for others care and concern for the feelings of others that we find the love

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