Tag Archives: atheism

The Enlightenment’s Unskeptical Disciples

“The only way, really, to pursue a godlessness in good conscience is to forget history.”

– David Bentley Hart

In context, I found this a deeply penetrating statement about the condition of the current discussion between theists and materialists. What is that context? I highly recommend the full talk, but it can be summarized as follows:

The claim was never true, but it was (in some ways) understandable that Enlightenment thinkers would believe that a society liberated from all belief in transcendence would achieve new heights of prosperity and morality–that enough education, or the right social programs, would do what religion could not.

Now that we are living in the wake of the bloodiest century in all of human history, it takes a deep lack of curiosity (or downright willful ignorance), to believe that a godless society is the unqualified good to be zealously pursued that so many proclaim it to be.

Hart points out that Nietzsche’s fear of the “last men”–of those who have no deep truth to speak, no rational basis for morality, and therefore no meaning in their lives–now seems rather quaint. This idea has gone from a horrific and seemingly wild proclamation to a banal, almost tedious, observation the facts.

The fact that so many, from the New Atheists to an all-too-large group of theists, have such a distorted, shallow view of what it is that Christianity actually claims is only the most recent evidence that ours is an age which has become so used to living without transcendence that far too many of us don’t even understand the meaning of the term.

And we can’t, of course, correct the problems sparked by the naivety of the Enlightenment thinkers simply by insisting that their view of reality was perfectly correct. And, whether they realize it or not, this is exactly what Dawkins and his fans are doing–unreflectively buying into Enlightenment propaganda as if it were a new and established truth they’d discovered themselves. So far, we’ve seen no sign that this group is even remotely aware of the connections between their own ideas and the mass slaughters of the twentieth century.

I, for one, think there are very good reasons to dismiss materialism as false. But, if it is true, it is a catastrophic truth–a bearer of death and oblivion. Those who speak as if it were, in some unspecified way, a glorious triumph have simply ignored the facts.

Hume Defects to Theism?

UnknownI’ve never been sure why modern materialists are so confident that David Hume has shown their position to be correct. And neither reading his work, nor explanations of him, has helped to explain it. In fact, it’s led me to the opposite conclusion.

Take, for instance, the claim that we can dismiss traditional notions of causation (and, therefore, dismiss theistic arguments like the Kalam) on the grounds that Hume “showed” that we can’t trust the common sense of causation. Of course, it’s always important to note that Hume himself didn’t take the position that he “showed”, but there is a bigger problem here.

What Hume actually showed is that, given materialism, there’s no explanation for the fact that inductive reasoning (and thereby science) actually works.

What is amazing is that so many have responded by soberly reporting that causation doesn’t exist. Clearly, causation does exist. What’s actually been proved here is that there are parts of reality that materialism cannot explain.

Surely, it is questioning materialism that is the reasonable response, and declaring “then causation must not exist” that is the appeal to magic.

And so it typically goes, so long as one isn’t deeply committed to defending materialism.

I think the same is the case for the argument that only properties exist–that there is no things that have properties. There is no cup, says Hume, only cylindricalness, solidity, height, width, and so forth.

Why does Hume think this? He gives an argument, but it is largely based in the idea that all information is received through the senses. By the time he’s done naming off all the properties of a thing, he’s exhausted the information of the senses, and so has nothing on which to claim that there is an actual object there, in addition to the properties.

And this applies to people as well as cups. But, anyone who believes that she (and not just a collection of properties) exists, will have to question Hume’s approach.

And the problem seems to be this idea that we only know what comes through our senses.

I find arguments like these excellent reductio ad absurdum arguments, which tell us a great deal about why materialism is false. That being the case, it seems to me that Hume’s name ought to be found on the lips of theists, pointing out the consequences of accepting this view.

I hope to develop these ideas further in the future. But, for now, I think it significant to point out that, as a theist, I simply don’t accept that things like causation are illusory.

And, if that is the cost of abandoning theism, I’d need a very good reason to do so.

Plug: The Confidence of Jerry Coyne

Ross Douthat has been involved in an interchange with Jerry Coyne. I thought this comment was a very good response to the New Atheist position in general.

I tend to agree that, so long as Coyne and others continue to do exactly the things that Douthat accuses him of doing, their movement will do more to foster interest in religion than destroy it.

Theology and Science Aren’t Rivals (In Other News: the Sky is Blue, Water Wet)

touchingthevoid4601Continuing on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the thorny and emotional issue of arguments from design.

Mackie himself opens with Hume’s Dialogues, which contain several lines of argument (nicely summarized by Mackie). The first to be discussed is Hume’s idea that the entire universe cannot be said to be designed, because we cannot check that hypothesis with additional information (as we’ve included the whole of our information in it).

Because he tends to be very fair-minded, Mackie criticizes this argument in that it a scientific hypothesis or theory often goes beyond the available information–and is not useless for that (indeed, many have been put to amazing use). Still, he agrees with the basic formulation on the grounds that “the theistic hypothesis” does not explain why we observe the specific phenomena that we do.

Of course, the main thing to be said here is that it is simply wrong-headed to speak of “the theistic hypothesis” at all. Not only does this assume that there is only one form of theism (a falsehood that atheists are keen to reject in other contexts), but it is simply wrong to say that theism is a hypothesis in the first place.

Those beholden to materialism are constantly in danger of treating every topic as if it were science (save, it seems, when it is their personal views we happen to be discussing). No one dismisses a literary theory, a moral code, or a proposed law on the grounds that it is not a scientific hypothesis–that the results can’t be mathematically modeled or make predictions about the particular phenomena of stories, morals, or laws.

This is because these things are not science. More specifically, it is because they deal with free agents (writers, lawmakers, and so forth), and it is impossible to give a deterministic proof regarding the acts of such agents.

But this is what Mackie is demanding of theism. And it is to grossly misapply standards.

I’m coming to agree with those who maintain that there is a current tendency in philosophers to be consistently over-impressed by Hume. I enjoy his works, and he was clearly brilliant–but his arguments against theism were mostly directed at the easiest targets.

To insist that they had much, if anything, to say about all forms of theism is to deeply misunderstand what theism actually is.

Atheism vs Consciousness

faceIn discussing J.L. Mackie’s defense of materialist atheism, we’ve come to his criticisms of the argument from consciousness. In particular, the topic is Swineburne’s argument, which denies that matter can give rise to mind–and ultimately concludes that mind is a better explanation for the material world than the other way around.

It is important to note that Swineburne doesn’t deny evolution. Rather, his argument has nothing to do with evolution one way or the other. He simply points out the many reasons it has been shown that mind is something altogether different than matter–and that greater complexity of material systems won’t yield mind.

Mackie concedes this point. He agrees that the materialist has no answer to this challenge. Rather, his entire argument hangs on attacking theism as an alternative to his materialist atheism.

And this sounds rather familiar–as this is the approach of nearly all atheists on the popular level today. It is flawed for essentially the same reasons as the popular versions of this argument are flawed.

First, because it fails to demonstrate that the materialist account of reality is a better fit to what we know than any other system–it’s simply a “so’s your mother” approach. At best, this results in a stalemate.

Second, and more importantly, it achieves the stalemate only by distorting theism and, intentionally or not, attacking straw men.

Mackie does so by insisting that God is no explanation for the laws of nature because we would then have to show how the intentions of a mind produce results in the reality. Human minds do this through mediators, but we don’t know how God might do this.

This is a valid question, but it is simply demanding an explanation of the explanation. Yes, there will always be more to learn. Yes, we’ll need to have that conversation eventually. No, that doesn’t mean that the explanation isn’t a valid one, as Mackie seems to think. He claims that any lack of an explanation of the explanation makes the idea antecedently improbable. But I doubt that he’d use this reasoning on any other topic.

No one, for instance, dismisses a new scientific theory because we haven’t explored the explanation of why this law is so–and that, given a lack of that further explanation, the theory must be antecedently improbable. No scientific progress whatsoever could be accomplished if we took this approach.

But Mackie also insists that the intentions of mind cannot be something other than matter because they “are a sub-class of causal explanations, not a rival mode of explanation to the causal one”.

Here, I think he’s simply confused. Mental explanations are not rival to the entire idea of causation. They are a rival to the idea that deterministic, efficient causation is the whole of causation.

And this is one more case of switching positions as the momentary need arises. Mackie (like many materialists) emphasizes the singular importance of classical, deterministic causation in this case, but is willing to deny all causation (a la references to Hume and Quantum Mechanics) when discussing arguments such as the Kalam.

But, rather than vacillate between extremes, we should see the middle-road truth that there is such a thing as causation, but that it is not exhausted by the classic newtonian picture. That is precisely what Swineburne’s argument is suggesting–and Mackie’s case against him rests on taking the newtonian account as the whole truth.

So, causation indeed. But to simply equate causation with the vision of causation held by the materialistic atheist is to beg the question. Mackie can’t assume this in order to “prove” Swineburne’s argument a failure.

He also points out, rightly in my view, that the theist can’t simply claim that God made matter to be able to create mind. This is, in effect, no different or better an explanation than the materialist’s claim that matter simply creates mind. The trouble is that I don’t know of any theologian or theistic philosopher who simply claims this. Rather, what they claim is that there is more to human beings (and, for many, the everyday objects we encounter constantly) than simply those traits that science studies.

It is those traits of the human which are not physical which are, according to theists, most directly responsible for consciousness. But it is obvious why this does not fall prey to the same problems facing the materialist position–as the materialist denies the existence of these traits.

In concluding his discussion of the argument, Mackie admits that materialism rests on claims of brute fact. He also admits that some form of dualism must be true. He then claims that materialism has better answers to bridging the mind-body gap than does theism. Not only is this false, but it is an utter contradiction of the concession just a sentence prior. For the materialist, there is no gap: dualism is simply false.

If he admits that dualism is true, Mackie has conceded his materialism, and, thereby, the basis of his atheism.

Church Divisions and Judgmental Exclusion: Not Just for the Religious Anymore

140103132147-sunday-assembly-founders-story-topI’d expect that any likely to be reading this post have heard of the “Atheist Church”, officially known as Sunday Assembly. The organization is very young, and many are excited to see it expand. And it is doing so quickly, with branches is several cities in Britain and the US.

But, as always seems to happen with such expansions, the group is experiencing a division.

The most obvious response, it seems to me, is how well this illustrates the fact that atheism isn’t ridding us of strife and tribalism as Hitchens’ fans proudly declared it would.

It seems that the old problems of being human are still there–and it’s a little hard not to feel that all the campaigning to rid the world of the “divisiveness” of religious belief was, at its very best, a colossal waste of time.

As to Sunday Assembly, the split essentially seems to be over whether or not to make atheism a major focus–or to make the church about self-improvement–with little to no reference to rejecting God.

Though I’m religious myself, I can see the value of the latter to many. But the only positive value I can see to the demand that the group dwell on its atheism is to those still laboring under the false belief (dare I say “dogma”?) that atheism is the answer to humanity’s social ills.

Of course, I can’t entirely resist the suspicion that this has something to do with the value of feeling smarter, cleverer, and more in touch with reality than the hated religious believers. If so, then atheism definitely isn’t the answer to divisive tribalism that Dawkins has proclaimed it to be.

Whether that’s true or not, there can’t be much genuine, productive good to come out of a focus on on what one is not–the ideas one excludes and judges to be inferior. That sounds much more like a recipe for bitterness than anything that would help a community.

Many people, theists and atheists alike, have rightly criticized the church when it becomes too fixated on exclusion and opposition. Now that atheists are forming their own church of a sort, they seem to be discovering that resisting that tendency is quite a bit harder than it seemed from the outside.

But nothing good comes from a purely negative approach. The important thing is what one is for–not what one is against.

Of course, being for something, and defending it from the countless attacks that will inevitably come, is much harder than many atheists seem to think. There are certainly those who, after mocking others for not doing a better job, will be understandably gun-shy about defending their own beliefs. They aren’t likely to do a better job than those they have mocked.

And, really, I doubt this kind of “what we’re against” atheism will be able to survive long–as more people come to realize that claiming to be atheist isn’t any more a sign of intelligence than claiming anything else.

Undefended Claim Behind “I Simply Lack Belief”

Cute_Hidden_Eyes_804455114Suppose, for a moment, that I claimed to disbelieve in gravity and insisted on being given a good reason why I should believe in it. You, being in a generous mood, agree that we should have reasons for what we believe and precede to point out that gravity explains a number of things in our everyday experience quite nicely.

I counter with the idea that we can’t really trust our everyday experience. The senses can deceive us, the rigorous measurements taken by scientists simply assume that their eyes are working correctly when they read instrument panels, and that their ears are reliable when getting a second opinion from their colleagues. And, anyway, what kind of person needs to believe in gravity to know that things fall in the first place. That’s just obvious. Not everything in the universe gets sucked toward the Earth, I say, so that just shows how silly your concept of gravity actually is.

At this point, part of you might be tempted to ask me if I were taking heavy medication or suffered a blow to the head recently.

But this weird rant about gravity isn’t fundamentally different from a very common reaction to moral arguments for God’s existence. Many think it is enough to simply deny moral experience without giving any reason to deny this experience while trusting sensory experience.

All this usually climaxes with a one-liner to the effect that only a terrible person would need the Bible to tell her that murder is wrong. No amount of pointing out that God is being proposed to explain the fact that murder is wrong; the whole argument is intended for people who already agree that it is. To throw out this silly meme is to get the point precisely backward.

The same goes for those who insist that theists’ concept of morality is all about rewards and punishments issued by God. This is nothing at all like what the moral argument concludes. In fact, the only thing this argument says about rewards and punishments is that they are sometimes correct, and sometimes wrong.

I suspect that these kinds of reactions pass for reasonable responses, in a way that my gravity example does not, for essentially this reason:

Modern, western, post-enlightenment culture is simultaneously enamored with what it calls “openess” and “relativism” and perfectly willing to be horribly judgmental toward those cultures which don’t preach these same values.

The one who insists that there is a real, underlying reality to moral truth can be dismissed or mocked, but not answered. It is taken for granted that this person simply does not understand that moral intuitions can be explained in terms of socio-biological evolution.

In reality, whether they can or not has nothing to do with the argument.

This would, really be no different than explaining gravity in terms of theories about mass hallucination. Even if they were, they don’t answer the question “does gravity actually exist?”, they simply attempt to discredit the evidence while equally undermining the evidence for any other view.

But philosophy should explain our basic experience in life, not to dismiss it as an illusion. To do the latter is simply to throw out evidence when it doesn’t fit the theory. To do the former, however, leads us well away from the materialism that has become an unquestionable dogma for far too many.

The Atheist Dogma

pope-dawkinsOverwhelmingly, the most common defense of atheism is the (false) claim that atheism need not be defended at all. It is confidently stated that atheism is simply a “lack of belief in any gods”, as opposed to the belief that God does not exist. It is then said that one need not defend a simple lack of belief.

And, personally, I agree on that last point. A lack of belief need not be defended. But there are two very serious problems with the logic of this approach.

First is the reason why no defense is needed. It is not because atheism is somehow true by default. Rather, it is because (by this rather questionable definition) it is simply not a position at all. Anyone who isn’t claiming the non-existence of God, but simply lacks belief, isn’t advancing inquiry–or saying anything at all. Rather, this is simply an attempt to halt any attempt to discover what the truth might be.

Second is the fact that those who take this approach, just as much as the rest of us, have working answers to life’s big questions. Redefining atheism to mean “a lack of belief” doesn’t change this fact. Really, it simply insulates the atheist’s position from challenges.

Nearly always, the hidden position is materialism: the belief that matter and energy are all that exist. So, if the atheist wants to refute theism, he has to do more than attack theism (or, as is very often done, a horribly distorted straw man version of theism). We need a reason to think that materialism (or some other position) is more likely to be the case.

But, often as not, I encounter “refutations” of theism that would do as much damage to materialism. The “no evidence for God” argument is merely the prime example. While there is evidence for God, the point is that I’ve never encountered anyone who uses this (poor) argument that can offer evidence for materialism when asked for it.

As such, I hope it is becoming clear to more people why claiming to simply “lack belief” is (whether intentionally or unwittingly) an attempt to stack the deck in favor of the atheist. It halts inquiry instead of advancing it.

By all means, let us discuss whether or not it is more reasonable to think that God exists, or that the materialism of atheists popularizers is valid. But let’s examine both of these ideas, rather than pretending that the latter is somehow immune to being questioned or challenged.

That is, after all, just another form of dogmatism.

Actually, There Is Evidence that God Exists

640x392_68652_210262Many atheists are fond of saying that there is no evidence that God exists. In fact, a great many seem to have no other argument for atheism than variations on that.

Of course, when one presents evidence, one is promptly told that whatever one presented isn’t evidence. This being the case, I’ve made a point of asking such people what standard of evidence is being used to make that judgment.

After more than fifty requests across dozens of conversations, no one yet has even attempted to answer that question.

I think this is key. Really, it is a decisive failure of the argument if it turns out that no standard other than “I don’t agree that this is evidence” is being used. As such, I think it is worthwhile to point out why the “there’s no evidence” meme is nothing more than a meme.

Let’s start with dictionary.com’s understanding of evidence:

1. that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.

This can’t possibly be what the atheist is thinking of when he insists that “there is no evidence for God”. This would include logical and philosophical arguments–so long as they were based in facts that the atheist accepts. After all, logical argumentation is how things are proved or disproved, perhaps most obviously in mathematics, but the method is used in every field.

But those repeating the “no evidence” meme have made it very clear to me that such things are not evidence.

2. something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign: His flushed look was visible evidence of his fever.

I don’t see how this definition will be any better for the “no evidence” claim.

There are many indications and signs that God exists. This is precisely what the arguments for God’s existence point to. To say otherwise would require demonstrating that they all fail completely–that they have absolutely no weight at all.

And that would actually be much harder than establishing atheism–it isn’t an argument for atheism.

So, while many might be willing to claim that these arguments do completely fail, no one has come anywhere near showing that they do.

Of course, someone will almost certainly insist in the comments that, even though it is the atheist making the claim in this case, that the burden of proof is on the theist. This is false, but I’ll get to that elsewhere. One meme at a time.

3. Law. data presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.

I certainly hope that this isn’t the definition that is being used–and I doubt that the New Atheists would approve of witnesses, records, or documents as evidence.

These really don’t support the claim that there is no evidence for God. But the New Atheist might have a better time with Merriam-Webster. Not with two of the three definitions there, they have similar problems as those above. But this really seems to help his case:

a visible sign of something

One can’t see a logical principle, so the New Atheist doesn’t have to bother disproving the arguments for God in order to insist that there is no evidence. They aren’t visible, so that’s that.

Of course, many theists point to facts about the universe which are visible as evidence for God. While the New Atheist would have to show that this is untrue in order to make the claim that there is no evidence that God exists, there is a much bigger problem here.

That is, “there is no visible evidence for God” doesn’t quite cut it, does it?

Even the New Atheist is willing to admit that not everything that exists is visible. To grab the simplest example, we can know what a thing sounds like even with our eyes closed precisely because not all evidence is visible.

But, let’s help Merriam-Webster out a bit. What about this?

an empirical sign of something

This would allow for the non-visible parts of the universe to be considered evidence. That’s getting closer. But, there are two new problems:

First, it’s getting harder to dismiss they theist who denies the claim that there is no evidence for God. There are empirical facts which have been cited as evidence for God’s existence. It is not enough for the atheist to simply dismiss them or say that they are insufficient. To support the “no evidence” meme, he would have to show (not merely claim) that they don’t offer even the slightest support.

But the second issue is much more serious.

This still isn’t a concept of evidence that’s really inclusive. Yes, if one starts from the assumption that all evidence is empirical, it isn’t too surprising that one will only find the empirical. But there is no reason to start from that assumption, and good reason not to.

For instance, it’s a well-established fact that, even if one believes the human mind were purely physical (it isn’t), there isn’t any physical evidence for it. That is, neurobiology doesn’t prove that minds exist, it starts from that assumption.

Nor is it enough to say that we don’t “yet” have such proof, but that we should give science time. That would mean that we should remain agnostic about whether or not our own thoughts exist until neurologists get back to us on that.

No, we accept that there are minds because we experience minds–we experience being minds–every day.

But what about this?:

an experienced reality or known fact that supports something

This is the definition I tend to use. It is inclusive, and is right to the point about what evidence actually is: information given in support of something.

But far too many people claim experience with God for this to be of much use to the atheist. Far too many people have shown, via logic and reason, that there are things in our daily experience which give us reason to believe that God exists.

The atheist is free to question the validity of those experiences, and debate with the arguments, but the point is that he won’t be getting any help from the “no evidence” meme if we’re using this definition.

If we take this approach, there is evidence. The only debate is over whether or not the evidence is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that God exists.

I’m still looking, and open to suggestions. But can’t seem to find any way of understanding the claim “there is no evidence that God exists” that makes it both true and anything like a reason to reject belief in God.

It’s a clever-sounding meme, but I don’t see any real content in it at all.

Plug: Do Atheists Exist?

A great discussion of whether or not humans can really be permanently secular.

In particular, I appreciated the observation that many secular movements can be atheist only by appealing to a very distorted view of what religious belief actually is–then asserting that, because we can live without that distortion, we can live without religion.

Whatever one thinks of the conclusions, it is definitely a thought-provoking read.