Thursday, January 21, 2010

Open the Floodgates

Maybe you thought you’d be able to bridge the great divide between the natural and the supernatural worlds and get to God through faith?  The evidence for God isn’t compelling, and there are lots of things that suggest there isn’t one.  But if you just have faith that he’s there, then you can believe and be confident that he’s real.  Maybe you thought having faith gives you a special kind of knowledge even. 

In their paradigm cases, we use the term faith to describe a case where a person’s epistemic situation doesn’t fully warrant believing on the basis of evidence.  There are some counter indications or some lack of evidence that leave the conclusion unresolved.  When a person’s favorite sports team is down in the last few minutes but has a slim chance to come back, he has faith in them.  A wife has faith in her husband when he’s away on a business trip with an attractive coworker.  Worried family members, in the emergency room waiting room, have faith that their critically ill loved one will make it through the night.  And so on.  We only invoke faith when there are some reasons to doubt or the result we desire seems unlikely.  Where there is evidential justification, there is no room for faith. 

That’s why faith is so frequently the response that believers give when they are pressed hard on the grounds for believing in God. 

But here’s the problem.  Reason is the set of cognitive capacities that make it possible for us to seek out evidence, sift through it, and draw conclusions.  (Evidence here should be broadly understood to include empirical as well as conceptual or a priori considerations.)  Our reasoning capacities are the only tools we have for separating reality from fantasy, fact from fiction, justified belief from nonsense.  Once you abandon it, then you’ve opened the floodgates.  Once we let it go, there are no principled, coherent, or meaningful grounds on which to prefer one God over another.  As long as you were just thinking about the one God that you’re familiar with, the one that everyone around you seems to believe in, then making the leap of faith sans reason, doesn’t seem so problematic. 

But here’s a question:  How many supernatural hypotheses are out there for your consideration?  How many gods are vying for your faith?  Is the only game in town the God that the people in your church have been telling you about?  Obviously not.  There is a very long list of other beings lurking over there, waiting to get in.

Before, when you still had reason at your disposal, at least you had some means of singling the right one out of this mess.  But if we write off the role of reason in making decisions on the basis of evidence, we have a dilemma.  On what basis will you decide to opt for one of these gods and not the others?  Since you’re allowing that it’s ok to abandon reason and just believe what you like without regard for the evidence, then why no Baal, Acchupta, Ryangombe, Pu’gu, Pen Annwen, Orcus, Orunmila, Nintinugga, Ningirama, Montu, Mahamanasika, Kamrusepa, Haumiatiketike, or Hatdastsisi.  Faith in one is just as good as faith in another, right?    

You’ve opened the floodgates to any and all gods, and left yourself without the means to choose or hold any of them back.  Reason and the evidence were the only things you had to hold back countless mistakes. 

That is, there’s not a sufficient case to be made in favor of believing any of one of these and rejecting the others on the basis of evidence, so what’s to keep one of the devout followers of Hatdastsisi from pulling the same move.  “The only way to true belief in Hatdastsisi is through faith,” after all, “and those of you who don’t will suffer with eternal torment.”    

You’ve given up the one  tool you had for making a choice here on the basis of any rational standard.  If the evidence (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter, then all of these supernatural beings are on the same footing.   Notice the irony in someone who is willing to abandon good sense and believe against contrary evidence, but who says about all these other gods: “but those other gods just don’t make sense.”  Since when was making sense the issue for someone who is opting for faith over what makes sense? 

Of course, you’ve got a special place in your heart for the divine being that your parents taught you about, and the one that the other members of your culture or religious sect all believe in.  But those aren’t reasons to think that he really exists.  That you were born into a Christian household and culture is a historical contingency. 

The thing is,  you might not think there’s as much to recommend  Haumiatiketike as there is to recommend Jesus, or whoever your favored magical being is.  But if you try to defend your opting for the same God that you were taught to believe in as a child, and you’re going to play the faith card, then you’ve set yourself up with an irreconcilable problem.

On the one hand, when the evidence and reasoning wouldn’t produce the conclusion that you wanted, you thumbed your nose at them and decided you’d belief what you wanted anyway.  But on the other hand, now you’re trying to argue or reason that there are some grounds for thinking that God is real and the others are not.  You just can’t have it both ways without being flagrantly irrational.  Gerrymandering some defense of believing in your God by faith while rejecting all of the others is a flagrant example of special pleading or the ad hoc fallacy. 

Maybe you think that having faith in Jesus is more fulfilling or somehow more enriching for human life than all of those others.  But notice again that you invoking a reasoned principle that is something like “People should adopt those religious doctrines that are most fulfilling in X, Y, and Z fashion.  Having faith in Jesus is most fulfilling in X, Y, and Z fashion.  Therefore, people should have faith in Jesus.”  There are two things that are seriously messed up here.  First, this believer is making use of some logical inferences only as long as it suits him, but rejecting them when they give him any conclusion that is contrary to the Jesus conclusion he wants.  And second, notice that we’ve left the discussion about truth entirely.  It might be that there are some pragmatic benefits to certain kinds of cognitive practices, but those never entitle a person to claim that some claim is true.  It gives me a thrill to believe that a billion dollars has mistakenly been deposited to my bank account too, but I’m not entitled on the basis of those positive personal feelings to conclude that it is really in there.  Personal fulfillment never gives us epistemic justification. 

What the faith move does, in effect, is throw out the rules.  It shows that you’re just going to believe it regardless of what the real indicators point to.  And by throwing out the rules, you mire yourself in nonsense, and you disqualify yourself from any serious consideration.  You also undermine your own efforts to try to make sense of anyone else’s view.  Suppose the atheist pulls the same move. 

Atheist:  I know that there are no gods whatsoever.

Believer:  But how can you ever know something like that for sure?

Atheist:  I have faith that there are no gods. 

Believer:  That doesn’t make sense.  How can you have faith in something that isn’t real?  You can only have faith that there is a God. 

Atheist:  I don’t have to be concerned with what makes sense—I’m off in faithland now.  And in faithland, reason, evidence, and good sense are disregarded so that I can help myself to any conclusion we want without worries about being coherent or making sense.  Those are petty evidential and rational concerns that are all left behind by faith.  My faith in the vast godlessness of the universe is beyond human comprehension--it transcends our puny understanding.

Actually I find it all surprisingly comforting.  As soon as I let faith into my heart, all my worries and cognitive needs about figuring out the truth and being reasonable dissolved.  Faith brings great peace of mind.  It deadens the acuteness of the persistent need I felt before to gather as much reliable information I could and draw the most reasonable conclusion I could on the basis of it.  Now I don’t have to worry about any of that.  Now I’ve realized that I can just believe anything I like without any responsibility for justifying it.  If I want it, I can just help myself to it.  As long as I'm at it, I'm going to have faith that global warming isn't real, there are no religious conflicts in the middle east, and that there's a million dollars in my bank account.  

Believer:  But that's all insane.  What about your responsibilities as a citizen and a moral agent in a society with the rest of us?  How can you think that the evidence is irrelevant to what you believe, or that you can just dismiss the importance of rationality?  

Atheist:  You know, I don't like your tone.  You’re angry and strident.  You're being intolerant and critical of my faith.  I'm exercising my religious freedom by opting out of being rational, and you have to respect that or you're not respecting my personal religious choices.

Many believers retreat to the “F” word as their last ditch effort to defend believing in God.  Faith has a number of features, but principle among them is that it describes cases where we believe that something is true even though the evidence on the whole does not support it.  If there were sufficient evidence, after all, there would be no need for faith.  Many people also view this sort of fudging as harmless.  But what we have seen is that it creates a crisis.  If the evidence doesn’t matter in our justifications for what we believe, then floodgates are open for any sort of insanity to rush in.  Taking the evidence seriously was the only way we had to sift the claims that are plausible from the ones that are delusional, dangerous, or absurd. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Atheism--Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

My article on atheism is now published at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  I worked out much of the material here on this blog.  Thanks to all of those who contributed.

Atheism at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Friday, January 15, 2010

Are We Proving the Negative Yet?

Let’s consider a line dividing the natural and supernatural worlds. We can leave some of the details of what this line is, exactly, open for now.  The natural world is where we live.  That’s where our brains are, science is here, Lady GaGa, down quarks, and bacteria live here.  And all of our tools for empirically  investigating reality reside here.  Science operates here with particle accelerators, telescopes, biology labs, and so on.  So provisionally the line between worlds is the line between those things that we can investigate with scientific methods—spatial-temporal entities, forces, and phenomena, broadly considered. 

What’s on the other side?  Well, there have been many proposals.  Ghosts, if they were real, would be there.  The souls of dead people who psychics talk to would be there.  Our prayers are alleged to cross the line.  Angels, demons, saints, and all the other things that have been alleged to be real, but not part of the natural world.  And of course, God, by most descriptions, if he was real would be there.

Our challenge, then, is to use the tools we have—our empirical and not so empirical methods—to do our best to figure out what’s real over there.   We know that people have always eagerly proposed many inhabitants for that world.  Over the millennia the number of supernatural hypotheses that have been put forward is staggering.  But lots of them, it turns out, are bogus.  Demons aren’t real.  Ghosts aren’t real.  Paluga, Odin, Oprah’s favorite mystical force The Secret, aren’t real.

Everyone, including enthusiastic supporters of Odin and ghosts, has to acknowledge that there must be some criteria of reasonableness that we can employ to sift the real from the imaginary when we consider various proposals for supernatural beings.  We’ve at least got to try to use the resources at our disposal to figure out which of those we should believe in and which we should be doubtful of.  The alternative would be to simply accept all of them, I suppose.  But no one actually does that, nor do they think that’s reasonable.  And we can’t accept all of them as real because many of them are mutually exclusive:  if the Muslim Allah is real, then the existence of Catholic saints in the afterlife presents a problem; if Paluga created the universe, then a number of other views about the origins of the world must be ruled out. 

So what tools do we have?  We can gather as much empirical information as we can and try to construct the best, most comprehensive, most logically and probabilistically consistent model of reality on the basis of it.  We infer the existence of unobservable (but natural) entities on the basis of observables all the time.  The data from bubble chambers in a particle accelerator are explained by the presence or muons, or a readout on a mass spectrometer leads us to postulate the presence of a chemical compound in a sample.  It may be that the best explanation of some particular set of empirical observations is that there is a supernatural being on the other side—that’s what “irreducible complexity” and intelligent design arguments allege to show.

Alternately, we can employ more conceptual methods.  We can just ask ourselves if the supernatural proposal even makes internal, logical sense.  Are the various claims about this supernatural entity consistent with each other?  If they are not, then at the very least, that should raise a red flag about the plausibility or viability of the proposal.  (I dealt with the possibility of acquiring private knowledge of God through your own thoughts here:  Vetting Supernatural Knowledge Claims)

When we have a proposal for an inhabitant of the supernatural realm, then, first we need to get clear on exactly what sort of thing it is alleged to be and what sorts of properties it has.  Then we need to see, to the best of our abilities, whether what that thing is alleged to be fits with two things.  First, does it fit with  our empirical observations of the world and the scientific model of reality that we have developed to explain them.   If it doesn’t, then either there is something wrong with the model, or there is something wrong with the supernatural hypothesis.  Which one we should prefer in this case will depend on the strength of the evidence we have for the empirical model of the world against the strength of the evidence we have for the supernatural entity  A concrete example:  consider the fundamentalist Christian God who, among other things, is alleged to have created the entire universe, the Earth, and all life in its current state of development in just seven days approximately 6,000-10,000 years ago.  This is a supernatural being that might be real, and whose existence would have some observable implication in the natural world where we live.  So in principle, this is a supernatural being that we can investigate empirically. 

It would be a gross understatement to say that our investigations have not favored this proposal.  The hypotheses that 1) our universe began approximately 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang, 2) that life on Earth began in its most primordial forms about 3 billion years ago, and 3) that humans evolved gradually from these lower life forms billions of years later, have become some of the most thoroughly confirmed and justified conclusions in the entire scientific enterprise.  To put it very mildly,  if we were to accept GodFC (fundamentalist Christian), there are too many other well justified beliefs that we would have to reject.  And to make things worse, the evidence in favor of the existence of GodFC is remarkably sketchy.  There is very little to recommend it, besides prejudice, ignorance, and delusional ideology.  Scratch one more supernatural being off of the list.

And while we are at it, let’s scratch demons, ghosts, sprites, elves, Santa, chi, etc. off the list too.  Those are  all supernatural hypotheses that can’t be reconciled with the rest of what we know (and have better evidence for).  And fundamentalist Jews and Muslims also subscribe to young Earth, creationist views, so there’s two more down:

What about other supernatural hypotheses.  We can proceed according to plan.  And we can use both approaches.  For centuries, philosophers have been considering the viability of abstract characterizations of God as a singular, personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good being.  Call this GodB5, for the big 5 properties listed.  Does a being  a being like this make sense? 

Deductive atheologists argue that it does not (see Drange, Martin, Mackie, McCormick, Grim, Everitt, and others).  First, there have been many attempts to work out the details of what it  would be for God to have these various properties and in a number of ways it has been argued that one property is incompatible with another.  See Drange for a quick overview.  These incompatible property arguments suggest, but do not deductively demonstrate, that no such being with these particular properties can exist.  Why do they only suggest it? It remains too be seen whether there can be  no reasonable account of what it would be for God to be omnipotent, for example, and also omniscient that is logically  and conceptually consistent whatsoever.  Maybe there  could be a characterization of these properties that is both reasonable (no special pleading or ad hoc revisions are allowed) that we just haven’t come up with yet. 

Maybe.  But at what point do we shift over from “probably,” to “we’re not sure,” to “probably not,” or it is “beyond a reasonable doubt?”  To date, among the greatest philosophical minds that have worked on the problem over the course of 2,000 years, we do not have a satisfactory account of omnipotence.  (Nor are there any arguments for the existence of God that have achieved any widespread consensus support.)  The paradox of the stone, which you may heard of, is just the start of it.  In recent decades, philosophers, including many theists, have employed the latest greatest and most sophisticated advances in logic, conceptual analysis, set theory, and even math to try to spell out what omnipotence could be to no avail.  We haven’t been able to define it in a way that has sufficient scope to be appropriate for a divine being on the one hand without running afoul of logical paradoxes, and being puny but relatively free of abstract conceptual problems on the other.  So the prospects for omnipotence are dim, and they don’t seem to be brightening.  And omnipotence doesn’t appear to be a viable property, then the prospects for their being a God who is essentially omnipotent are poor.   

I won’t summarize the full set of discussions in the literature here.  But a large set of arguments within the deductive atheology tradition (and in the philosophical theism tradition too!), presents us with serious conflicts either in the account of a single property like omnipotence, or between two or more properties.  And those conflicts are the strongest indicators that we could have that God, as traditionally conceived, is not even a possible being, much less an actual one.  And if we can’t make rational sense of the classical account, then it undermines a number of other proposals:  If there’s no GodB5, then there’s no Christian, Muslim, or Jewish God. 

The problems pile up.  Many people have also concluded (and it would be difficult to insist that they are being unreasonable) that the quantity and quality of suffering in the natural world make the GodB5 hypothesis implausible.  There is a very large literature in the background here, but I’m going to stick to the big picture.  The problem of evil gives us grounds to put yet another scratch through the GodB5.  Put a scratch through it for every compelling argument we have—empirical or conceptual—against the existence of GodB5.  With so many stakes in his heart, it will be hard to resurrect this one from this side of the divide. 

And so on.  For every supernatural hypothesis that has fallen to good sense, evidence, empirical investigation, and careful thought, we can propose it and then cross it out. 

See my post on 500 dead gods for several hundred more that I couldn’t squeeze onto the slide.  See 2,500 more at

So . . . . 

Are we proving the negative yet? 

That is, what about wide positive atheism?  That depends on what sort of standard of proof we are adopting.  If we artificially elevate the bar so that it is only reasonable to believe those negative existential claims (“X does not exist”) where we have deductive certainty, then the answer is no.  "You can't prove a negative," we hear again and again.  But atheism is being held to a false standard of proof.   That’s a standard that no one meets for any of their beliefs.  Descartes took it seriously in the Enlightenment, but notice that he didn't get far after that.  Then, after a number of developments in math and logic in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Euclidean and Aristotelian notions of certainty that used to give us so much security are anachronistic.  (See Godel, Cantor, Russell, Reimann, Lakatos, Carnap, Putnam, and Wittgenstein, to name a few.) 

Even mathematicians now acknowledge that if we adopt a different set of axioms at the outset, we will be able to  “prove,” different conclusions.  Furthermore, the arguments in favor of one set of axioms over another themselves do not provide us with perfect deductive certainty.  If the wide positive atheist isn’t justified because he lacks this sort of proof, then the problem isn’t just his—that means that we all have to face the consequences of a devastating global skepticism.  Put another way, the epistemological challenge of skepticism is not uniquely the atheist’s to solve.  In rejecting atheism on these grounds, the skeptic has robbed himself and everyone else of everything.  If there are no rationally justified beliefs, then it’s true that wide, positive atheism is not a rationally justified belief.  But consider the cost.  As many see it, the absolute certainty demand is not an indicator that we don’t have any knowledge, it’s a reason to reevaluate the epistemic principles that produced the demand.  (See G.E. Moore.)  I will take the existence of many rationally justified beliefs that are justified in the absence of perfect deductive certainty as the reductio argument against skepticism and leave it at that for now.  The critic of atheism cannot artificially raise the standard of proof against atheism to levels that no beliefs can fulfill, and then pronounce only atheism dead. He's got much more serious problems.

Can we draw some conclusions or make some projections from the long list of dead gods that are moldering on the other side of the line?  Do they prove the negative?  They prove the negative as well as it can ever be proven.  

For decades, the patent offices in the U.S. and Britain were deluged with submissions for patents on perpetual motion machines—contraptions that would produce more energy than was put into them, and thus solve all of humanity’s energy needs forever.  Such a device is highly dubious, if not impossible, given what we know about the laws of nature.  After wasting countless frustrating hours reviewing these proposals only to reject them, the patent offices adopted a new policy.  They ruled that no more patents applications for pepetual motion machines would be accepted. 

We should draw the same lesson about God.  The failure of so many attempts to 1) devise  a conceptually coherent account of what God is, and 2) reconcile the existence of God with the rest of what our best scientific model of reality describes, give us reasonable grounds for rejecting the existence of such a being.  This conclusion is defeasible—we should be prepared, like any reasonable people—to revise this conclusion in the light of new evidence.  But 100% of our best, earnest, energetic attempts to find some reasonable grounds for believing have failed.   And all of those failures narrow the possibilities for what that being could be.  Any new proposals must navigate around all those corpses, as it were.  And they must fit with our rapidly expanding empirical knowledge of reality.  The prospects for doing that look more dim than reviving demon possession as an explanation of infections, or of finding new evidence that overturns all of the evidence for evolution. 

We are justifiably skeptical about the prospects of yet another proposal for a perpetual motion machine coming though the door.  The next applicant comes into the patent office and says, “I know that the existence of a perpetual motion machine flies in the face of all the physics and chemistry that we know.  And I know that there have been thousands, or even millions of others, just like me, who insist that they are the first and only ones who ever got it right.  But seriously, you’ve got to believe me.  I am the one who has finally figured it out.  My proposal for a perpetual motion machine really works.”  You’ve got a lot of explaining to do to justify our taking you seriously.     

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Know Your Godless Heathen Positions

Unfortunately, in many of the recent discussions about atheism and God, a number of crucial distinctions have gotten blurred together.  It has become common, especially for the critics of atheism, to conflate atheism, materialism, naturalism, evolution, and natural selection.  Then, an objection to one of these positions is taken to undermine all of them.  This would be a mistake since there are several distinct positions here that the atheist may or may not also accept.  And much of the energy that has been expended to knock them down is wasted because several of them turn out to be compatible with theism.  Let’s clarify:

Atheism—Simply put, an atheist is someone who does not believe in a god or gods.  A person’s atheism is wide when they deny the existence of all gods.  We can describe someone as adopting a narrow atheism position when they deny the existence of a particular conception of god.  So Christians are typically narrow atheists about Allah, for instance, or about Thor.

Negative atheism:  The term atheism can be understood the way “atypical” or “asymmetrical” are.  It can mean “simply lacking a belief in God.”  People who have not reflected on the question, or who are not sure can be described as lacking an affirmative belief in God, so they can be characterized as negative atheists along with those who affirm that no God exists.  This sense of the term is not typically distinguished; usually what people mean when they describe someone as “atheist” is that they are positive atheists—they believe that no God exists.  For the most part, when I use the terms “atheist” or “atheism” in my blog, I mean, “positive atheism.” 

Ontological naturalism-is the view that the only things that exist are those that are discovered by and investigated by scientific methods.  This could means something like, “the totality is made up entirely of spatial-temporal objects,” where spatial-temporal objects is understood very broadly. One way ontological naturalism can be spelled out is in terms of causal closure.  Everything that happens is brought about by a fully physical history that is discoverable by science.  There are no spooky, supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.  (See Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Methodological Naturalism--  is the view that the best, most effective, or only means of acquiring knowledge is through the methods of science, not through a priori or purely conceptual approaches.  The study of spatial-temporal objects employing the principles of observation, hypothesis, and empirical disconfirmation is the only way for us to come to know the world, even for traditionally conceptual and philosophical problems.  Some people hold that methodological naturalism is compatible with a ontological  supernaturalism.  That is, they insist that we can believe in, or there can exist, supernatural beings, such as God, even though we engage in empirical investigations where no such entities are evident.  The big question for the theist who is also a methodological naturalist, of course, will be, “how is the knowledge of God obtained?”  MN is typically viewed as an epistemological thesis—it’s about how to acquire knowledge—rather than a metaphysical view about the ultimate constituents of reality. (See Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Materialism—is the view that all things are made of matter and nothing else. While materialism appears to overlap with naturalism, especially ontological naturalism, we should see it as an explicitly metaphysical thesis about the ultimatum constituents of reality, but not as much a view about what the best methods are for acquiring knowledge of that reality.  Some of the Greeks, for instance, arrived at the materialism conclusion through a priori or more conceptual reasoning. 

Eliminative materialism- is a position from the philosophy of mind.  It is the “radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.”   The eliminative materialist believes that with the expansion of our scientific inquiries, there are often concepts such as “demonic spirits,” or “celestial spheres,” that cease to find a place within our theories.  Some terms, like “heat,” we keep, but only be radically revising what we think the ultimate physical constituents of heat are.  Other terms are too embedded in an old model of reality to be effectively salvaged.  The label applies primarily to a position about minds, but we can see the implications for God and many religious concepts. 

Reductionism—complex systems and phenomena can be reduced and explained entirely in terms of their parts and their causal interactions.  Reductionism in philosophy of mind can be contrasted with emergentism, or epiphenomenalism.  According to these anti-reductionist views, mental states, qualia, consciousness or other phenomena are produced by physical processes, but they cannot be explained entirely in terms of them.  For a variety of reasons, theists are often anti-reductionists, but reductionism itself as a thesis about explaining objects in nature is distinct from atheism. 

Supernaturalism—is the denial of ontological naturalism.  Not all things that exist are natural.  There are some entities, forces, or phenomena that exist beyond the spatial-temporal world that science investigates. 

Theism—the view that God exists.  Typically, the God that is of most interest to atheists and people characterized as theists is the singular, all powerful, all knowing, all good, personal deity who is the central figure in the major western monotheistic religions. 

Evolution—is change in objects over time.  Stars, dialects, and political systems evolve.  In biological species, change can be induced by many factors including but not limited to natural selection.  The suspected asteroid collision that brought on the extinction of the dinosaurs was an evolutionary event, but the extinction was not due to natural selection. 

Natural Selection—is a specific causal mechanism on Earth whereby species evolved over time.  The reproduction of organisms yields heritable variations.  Some of these variations render some organisms better able to survive than others.  Those differences in survival rates produce differences in reproduction of those heritable traits in the next generation. 

I won’t embark on an ambitious argumentative thesis at this point.  In fact, I think that wide positive  atheism, and some forms of ontological naturalism, eliminative materialism, reductionism, and evolution by natural selection are the most reasonable positions given what we know.  But I want to emphasize that an objection to reductionism or to naturalism, by themselves, are not objections to atheism.  Atheism (narrow, positive) is a view about the existence of God, nothing more, nothing less.  That view is compatible with a number of other ontological and epistemological views.  So it will not do to conflate these importantly different positions together and accept or reject them wholesale on the basis of a particular objection to one of them.   

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Know Your Godless Heathens

The discussion between believers and non-believers on the web is filled with sweeping generalities about atheists’ believing this and believing that. Atheists are guilty of it too. Unfortunately, lots of the people making these claims are not taking the time to actually find out what atheists have been arguing. As a result, the characterizations they are giving of atheist positions and arguments have little to do with reality. I’ve presented a long bibliography of the important sources of atheist thought in the last hundred years here:  Atheism Bibliography.  But I acknowledge that that is a substantial homework assignment. Nevertheless, if you are going to take this topic seriously, you need to work your way through the important works on the topic. A physicist couldn’t expect to follow what’s going on if she hadn’t read Feynman, Einstein, and Newton, after all. And a biologist couldn’t get by without Darwin, Mendel, and Gould.

So here’s a much shorter list of some essential works in philosophical atheism from the last 30 years or so. A few are articles, one is my overview of the field that’s going up at the Internet Encyclopedia (It’s posted here:  Arguments for Atheism in the mean time.) And there are several book length topics. If you read these and understand the arguments, you’ll have a good handle on all the big issues and arguments in the field. The Rowe article from 1979 is the watershed presentation of the inductive problem of evil argument (and restated in 2006). To date, the strongest response that’s been given to it is pretty puny: we just can’t be sure if there have been instances of completely pointless suffering out there.

Start reading:

Drange, Theodore (1998b). “Incompatible Properties Arguments: A Survey.” Philo 1 (2), 49-60. On the web here.

  • [A useful discussion of several property pairs that are not logically compatible in the same being such as: perfection-creator, immutable-creator, immutable-omniscient, and transcendence-omnipresence.]

Everitt, Nicholas (2004). The Non-Existence of God, London: Routledge.

  • [Everitt considers and rejects significant recent arguments for the existence of God. Offers insightful analyses of ontological, cosmological, teleological, miracle, and pragmatic arguments. The argument from scale and deductive atheological arguments are of interest.]

Gale, Richard (1991). On the Nature and Existence of God, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • [Gale gives a careful, advanced analysis of several important deductive atheological arguments as well as the ontological and cosmological arguments, and concludes that none for theism are successful. But he does not address inductive arguments and therefore says that he cannot answer the general question of God’s existence.]

Mackie, J.L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism, New York: Oxford University Press.

  • [Influential and comprehensive work. He rejects many classic and contemporary ontological, cosmological, moral, teleological, evil, and pragmatic arguments.]

Manson, Neil A. (ed.), (2003). God and Design, London: Routledge

  • [Perhaps the best recent academic collection of discussions of the design argument.]

Martin, Michael (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

  • [A careful and comprehensive work that surveys and rejects a broad range of arguments for God’s existence. Particularly clear and structured. Many penetrating objections. One of the very best attempts to give a comprehensive argument for atheism.]

Martin, Michael and Ricki Monnier (eds.). (2003). The Impossibility of God. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press.

  • [An important collection of deductive atheological arguments—the only one of its kind. A significant body of articles arguing for the conclusion that God not only does not exist, but is impossible.]

Martin, Michael and Ricki Monnier (eds.). (2006). The Improbability of God, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press.

  • [The companion to The Impossibility of God. An important collection of inductive atheological arguments distinct from the problem of evil. God’s existence is unreasonable. The only one of its kind.]

McCormick, Matt. (2009) “Atheism” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. forthcoming:

  • [A more detailed survey of the atheism literature and the families of arguments that have become influential in the 20th and 21st century, parallels this bibliography.]

Oppy, Graham (2006). Arguing About Gods, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

  • [Main thesis: there are no successful arguments for the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. This project includes some very good, up to date, analyses of rational belief and belief revision, ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, Pascal’s wager, and evil. He sees these all as fitting into a larger argument for agnosticism.]

Rowe, William (1979). "The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism," American Philosophical Quarterly 16, 335-41. On the web here

  • [Very important work. Rowe insists that even if there are some natural or moral evils that God could have had a good reason for creating, there are instances of pointless evil that God could have prevented, then there is no God. And there are instances of pointless evil, such as the isolated suffering of a fawn burned in a forest fire. So it is reasonable to conclude that there is no God. This work provokes an enormous response in the modern literature.]

Rowe, William (2006). "Friendly Atheism, Skeptical Theism, and the Problem of Evil," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59, 79–92

  • [Twenty five years after the publication of “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” Rowe elaborates on and summarizes the multitude of developments in the argument and his position.]

Schellenberg, J.L. (1993). Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

  • [Schellenberg argues that the absence of strong evidence for theism implies that atheism is true. Important development of a new argument.]

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vetting Supernatural Knowledge Claims

I frequently get accused of making the mistake of narrow mindedly demanding empirical proof for things that are not empirical, tangible evidence for the intangible, or applying scientific standards of proof to all knowledge claims when not all knowledge is empirical or scientific.

This sort of comment is typical:

“It always amazes me when materialists clamor for proof regarding spiritual realities in no other than material form. It would be like me asking a physicist for the introspective insight that proves gravity; a plainly ridiculous request. "Spiritual" reality is no misnomer; it is called such precisely because it is spiritual, not material. The distinction here is very real. The means to acquire material knowledge of the cosmos is not the same as one employs to discover spiritual truth. You will never receive a handful of spirit to examine under a microscope, gaze at God through a telescope, or discover a soul on an operating table. The path to spiritual insight will never be found on the outside; it is and will always remain an inner discovery.”

Atheists should reject the switcheroo that is being foisted on them here. Atheists and non-believers should refuse to accept this changing of the topic from "what are the reasons we have for thinking that there is a supernatural being that exists?" to "science and empiricism aren't the only paths to knowledge." First, atheism is not materialism, naturalism, or scientism. At a minimum, the atheist merely denies that there is sufficient justification to believe that “God exists,” is true. In its stronger form, atheism is the view that it is more reasonable to believe that there is no God than to believe or be agnostic. That, in itself, implies or requires no further commitment about the totality of nature. The atheist need not defend an ontological naturalism that insists that no supernatural beings whatsoever exist, although many of us think that is the most reasonable view too. The alleged failings of science, or of materialism are irrelevant to the central question: do we have good reasons to think that God is real?

In looking for an answer to this question, the atheist does not need to insist, at least in principle, that the only way to acquire knowledge of the world is by empirical or scientific means. We can grant that this supernatural, subjective, or non-empirical knowledge is possible. A lot of things are possible, and we’d be foolish to try to argue for their impossibility on the basis of insufficient information.

The problem comes in trying to find some justifying grounds in these so-called internal methods for learning about God. We can allow that it might be possible to acquire some access to another reality or to God through some internal, subjective, personal, or conceptual methods. That’s what many mathematicians believe they are doing when they reason a priori from definitions and axioms to theorems that have sweeping application in the conceptual world of numbers. But what we cannot accept are just any old deliverances of these internal sources without any scrutiny. The other extreme position from a radical empiricism or scientism is having a complete gullibility about these subjective, internal feelings and apply no criteria to them to separate the legitimate from the bogus.

We’ve known since Socrates that in order to have knowledge, a person must have a justified, true belief (Gettier problem notwithstanding). That is, a person does not know something unless first, she believes it, second, it actually is true, and third, she is justified in believing it—she can’t just pull it out of nowhere. And the justification criteria is where these supernatural knowledge accounts invariably fail. In order for a method for producing claims about reality (empirical or supernatural) to be trusted, it has to be reliable. The method must be one that works—that successfully produces true claims about the world. If the method you are using actually produces more false claims than true ones, then we can hardly trust its deliverances. In fact, if it has this sort of track record, like Astrology, or palm reading, or prescient dreams do, then the fact that you arrived at the conclusion by way of that method actually tells us that it is more likely to be false than true. That can hardly be called knowledge. But if the method works—if there’s someone who can gaze into her crystal ball, or read tea leaves, and she can reliably make predictions about the stock market, or find murder victims, or divine tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers—then it’s reliable. And that track record gives us good reason to trust the method and the next deliverance that it produces. Someone may protest that these examples still come down to empirical confirmation. Reliability and the need for some method of discrimination in our methods are not confined to science or the empirical realm, however. If a mathematician can go into a trance and draw out the answers to complicated unsolved problems in the discipline through some mysterious act of divination, we can’t reject that approach outright. The proof is all in whether or not the method works. If her solution to Fermat’s last theorem, or Goldblatt’s conjecture, or whatever, works, and we can check it against some other standard, then she’s building a case for the reliability of her method. And the better the reliability, the more justification it will provide. Then, if the method indicates that the claim is more likely to be true than not, we’re on our way to having knowledge.

So if the theist has another method for learning about the reality of God, we’re prepared in principle to accept that. First issue: if it is not something publicly tangible that can be experienced by the rest of us, what is that method? Is it a voice in your head? A strong feeling? A powerful sense of presence? An overwhelming awareness of a transcendental reality? Something ineffable? Do you come by that knowledge by praying? By thinking? By talking to yourself? Do these ideas come to you when you get yourself into an altered state by fasting? Hallucinogenic drugs? Chanting or meditating? Does it feel like what you figure being overcome by the Holy Spirit must feel like? Do you spin for hours until your consciousness is altered?

Second issue: What are the criteria that you are employing to determine the reliability of this method to acquire supernatural knowledge? How can we tell when the voices or the feelings are lies?

The problem is that we all know that lots of people have lots of these types of experiences that are, for lack of a better word, false. In the course of human history, billions of people have heard voices, felt presences, or divined ideas that just weren’t real. Even the most enthusiastic advocate for internal, supernatural knowledge has to concede that in a lot of cases when people have these experiences, they are bogus. If the Christian advocates this route to knowledge of the Christian God, then he has to conclude that the thousands of non-Christian sects and billions of non-Christians who used that very same method but got different results were mistaken. So just like any other method for justifying a claim, including scientific ones, there must be some way to separate the authentic deliverances of this inner sense from the mistaken ones. What are those distinguishing marks that would allow us to determine the reliability of the method?

Please don’t say that they can only be known privately inside your head too. It can’t be that we (on the outside) can know that your method is reliable because it really, really feels reliable to you. That amounts to a circular proving of the method with the method. Besides, the Sufi mystic, or the Hindu seer both say exactly the same thing about their method for finding (different) ultimate truths about reality. It can’t be the voices in your head that confirm the reliability of the voices in your head, and the feelings of the Holy Spirit can’t establish the reliability of what appear to be the feelings of the Holy Spirit.

What some authors like William Alston and Alvin Plantinga have conceded that person should seek out confirmation of their method outside of their own minds. Good methodology can be distinguished from bad by checking with a community of other believers or experiencers who report having these feelings too. By comparing notes with them, the experiencer can become satisfied that what they are feeling is real.

The problem here should already be evident. If the believer draws the circle carefully and small enough around just those people in their tradition, from their church, or sect, then they might find what appears to be corroboration. But define the community of other-worldly travelers big enough to include the local mosque, synagogue, gurdwara, or shrine and suddenly we find people who are using the very same method to arrive at radically different and logically incompatible results. The history of human religious movements is filled with the near infinite splintering of one group from another over doctrinal and theological disagreements about the so-called one, true meaning of God’s communications. It’s laughable to suggest that the reliability of one’s inner sense of God can be proven by appealing to some consensus among believers that simply does not exist. Proving the reliability of the other-worldly method cannot be a matter of merely checking with your (close) friends.

The problem is made worse by the fact that there is a mentally ill guy on the corner by the supermarket who has lots of powerful, seemingly metaphysically significant ideas springing up in his mind too. The internalist theist has to admit that there needs to be some way to distinguish authentic epiphanies of God and reality from delusions, fantasies, and ideologically driven mistakes. If they have no way to separate them, and just insist that they have some really, really powerful feelings that God is there, what makes their claims any more acceptable to the rest of us than the homeless guy's?

The answer, of course, is that the internalist does not have anything resembling a method and no way of establishing the reliability of their special God sense over all the others. And that’s why we reject their claims to have knowledge this way. The problem has nothing to do with the totality of science or the adequacy of empirical methods to discover all truths. The problem is that so many of these non-empirical methods have produced obvious bullshit for millennia, and we should know better than to just accept some subjective feelings as reliable indicators of a metaphysical reality.

Two points to summarize. First, we should not allow the redirection of doubts about special private knowledge of God to a debate about the methods of science, naturalism, or materialism. That’s all beside the point. The real issue is: what are the reasons we have to think that God is real? Since the subjective realm is notoriously unreliable, it won’t be sufficient to defend internalism by merely insisting that religious belief is subjective and beyond the reach of empirical methods. There have got to be some methods of discrimination or the believer can have no knowledge.