Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Going Nuclear

Stephen Law has nicely put his finger on a common philosophical objection and mistake that gets lodged against atheists here:

During the Cold War, our strategy for “winning” was to resort to an option that would lay waste to everything:  Maybe we can’t win the war, but we’re willing to start a global thermonuclear holocaust and destroy all life on Earth to make sure that you don’t.”   The global thermonuclear skeptic protests against atheism:  You can’t prove that there’s no God because we can’t prove anything.  There is nothing we know with complete certainty, so there’s nothing we know.”  or alternately, “There is nothing that we know with certainty, so it’s ok for me to go ahead and believe in God (or whatever I want.)”

So critics who go nuclear on the atheist fall into at least two groups.  First, she might take the view that since absolute certainty that doesn’t admit of any doubts is required in order to know something, then both the theist who thinks he knows there is a God and the atheist who thinks there isn’t are mistaken.  They’re both claiming to have something that cannot be had, so they’re both overstepping the boundaries.  Theism and atheism involve a kind of hubris, ironically, or an illegitimate land grab.  The only reasonable position, thinks the critic, since we can achieve the necessary level of certainty about so little is to withhold assent, be agnostic, and not claim to know either way.  If these skeptical worries are extended further, then nihilism results.  Most or all of our efforts to know or believe reasonably are stultified by an insurmountable burden of proof. 

   We are nihilists!!

Alternately, the nuclear critic might take this view.   Since absolute certainty is required for knowledge, and since there is so little certainty, there is room for faith to take us to the conclusions that reason cannot support.  Since nothing is known, in effect, it’s all faith.  In this family of criticisms you often get the “atheism is just another form of religious faith” complaint.  The criticism here is that ultimately no position can provide the necessary justification, so it amounts to believing despite a lack of justification or evidence at some point.  And believing despite a lack of evidence, or even believing despite contrary evidence, is the consummate example of believing by faith.  So the atheist, with all his pretense at being reasonable, applying skepticism to everything, and claiming to only believe what the evidence supports, is actually engaged in just as much a leap of faith as all the religious adherents he criticizes.  Another variation on this theme would be the nuclear critic who seems to think that since all the other kids are doing it, including the atheist, then it’s ok for him to do it too.  If not view can meet the burden of proof, then there can be nothing objectionable about his going ahead and believing in God.  Radical skepticism paves the way for religious faith.  On this account, it’s hard to see what the atheist might be doing wrong except claiming or presuming more certitude than is real or possible. 

Time to defuse the nuclear bomb: 

The nihilist skeptic is making several mistakes.  First, even if this burden of proof issue is real, it’s not the atheist’s  problem uniquely to solve.  If it’s true that we have to have absolute, doubt-free certainty in order to know anything, then most or even all of the rest of what we think we know goes out the window.  Since on radical skeptical scenarios like the Matrix, or Descartes’ Evil Demon hypothesis none of what we see or experience externally is real, then the only thing I may know is the fact of my own existence.  And even that claim is predicated on this principle’s being true:  all of the reports of my own thoughts, beliefs and subjective experiences that I have through introspection are veridical.  I don’t know that there is a tree external to me, but I do know, through introspection, that I am thinking about and having tree like sensations.  But there is a mountain of research now calling the veridicality of introspection into doubt.  Start here for a survey and a few hundred references:    Nisbett, Richard, and DeCamp Wilson, Timothy.  Telling More Than We Can Know:  Verbal Reports on Mental Processes.   So for the nihilist critic to through this global skeptical problem just at the atheist isn’t an objection to atheism at all.  It’s demanding that the atheist solve a problem that, as formulated, isn’t solvable, and then the critic claims a questionable victory over atheism.  He may feel satisfied that he’s shown the folly of atheism, but only at the cost of giving up everything.  If you’ve burned the whole planet down to a cinder, there’s really nothing to claim victory over. 

The nuclear nihilist has another problem made clear by G.E. Moore.  Roughly, the principle that the whole objection is based upon is this:  Knowledge is not possible unless one can acquire absolute, doubt free certainty.  Call this the Certainty Principle (CP).  In contrast, consider some alternative claims that we would ordinarily treat as knowledge:  I have a right hand.  My name is Matt McCormick.  There is an external world full of objections that exist independent of my mind.  Smoking causes cancer.  And so on.  Call these Ordinary Facts (OF).  The crucial question for the nuclear nihilist is, what are the grounds, reasoning, evidence or considerations that lead you to adopt CP or think that it is true?  And how is it that the considerations that lead you to CP are so powerful that they trump the considerations that would lead you to believe OF?  Put another way, how is it that you know CP?  Are you certain of it?  Is that certainty beyond any doubt itself?  The nuclear nihilist is saying, in effect, that once all the relevant considerations are made, the reasonableness of CP completely eclipses the reasonableness of OF.  CP is better justified than OF, so we should abandon OF in favor of CP.  Now that we’ve framed the skeptical hypothesis Moore’s way, it’s easy to see the answer.  Given the choice of starting points between “There is nothing we know,” and “there are a great many things that we know,” there aren’t enough considerations that favor the former over the later.  Faced with the principle,  “If you don’t know it with absolute certainty, then you don’t know it,” and its implications, we should reconsider what led us to accept the principle instead of running off on the fool’s errand of trying to procure absolute certainty for everything we thought we knew. 

The other problem here is that skeptic appears to be ignoring a significant literature that presents arguments that do exactly what he’s denying can be done:  deductive atheology.  We now have thousands of carefully constructed analyses of the properties of God that conclude that no being with X property, or X and Y properties can exist because X or the combination of X and Y are logically, conceptually at odds with each other.  See the sections of Single and Multiple Property Disproofs in my Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Atheism for starters.  Also see The Impossibility of God, eds. Martin and Monnier. 
Also see Theodore Drange’s Incompatible Properties Arguments:  A Survey.    And see a number of Patrick Grim’s articles on omniscience such as “Against Omniscience:  The Case from Essential Indexicals,”  
Or “Truth, Omniscience, and the Knower,   Or there is this exchange between Grim and Plantinga  “Truth, Omniscience, and Cantorian Arguments:  An Exchange.”   Even if you find some of these arguments inconclusive, it is important to note that they are alleging to do that which has been pronounced impossible by the nuclear nihilist.  It would be premature of him to simple decree that no such argument has or will ever succeed in showing that God is impossible.  So we can’t really take him seriously. 

The rejoinder at this point might be:  But even if those arguments show that some notions of God are incoherent, they can’t prove that there’s no God at all, or that all gods are impossible.”    But now it appears that the goal posts are being moved.  Arguably, if a being isn’t omniscient, then that being isn’t God.  If the properties that we can coherently attribute to something can’t achieve a minimal amount of greatness, then we shouldn’t be labeling the lesser sorts of beings as “God.”  Think of “God” as a title, like heavy weight boxing champion of the universe.  It’s a placeholder for a certain kind of great entity.  The being that fills it should be powerful, knowledgeable, and good in their greatest or maximal instantiation.  If the greatest sort of thing that can exist falls far short of that minimal greatness, that lesser being doesn’t become God.  If omnipotence is incoherent, or if it is impossible to be both all merciful and all just, or if moral perfection is impossible, then it would appear that nothing worthy of the name God can exist.  Retreating to other, lesser characterizations and then clutching at hope that one of those might pan out doesn’t salvage God.  Even worse, the possibility of some other, lesser beings existing out there certainly doesn’t undermine the atheism that results from reflecting on deductive atheological arguments.  If I consider the long list of DA arguments and then (tentatively) conclude that there appears to be no description of a being that is on the one hand, sufficiently great to be worthy of the title “God,” and on the other hand, logically, conceptually, and internally coherent, the nuclear nihilist can hardly criticize my conclusion.  The justification for atheism isn’t undercut by the charge that there may be other lesser (but not worthy of the title “God”) entities out there.  
One more problem for the nuclear nihilist:  rejecting atheism because it fails to pass the Certainty Principle invokes a double standard.  I suspect that the nuclear nihilist has artificially raised the burden of proof just for those arguments he wants to defeat, but he doesn’t really take it seriously for everything else he believes.  He believes, along with Moore, that he has a right hand and a left hand, that Barack Obama is the president, and that smoking causes cancer.  Beyond the debate with the atheist, his words and his behavior betray him.  The vast majority of what he accepts and acts upon in his life fall far short of meeting the outrageous burden of proof, but he takes all of that to be known, reasonable, true, and justified.  It would never occur to him to doubt that benzene is carcinogenic were we to put a beaker full of it in front of him and ask him to drink it.  Dennett’s apt description here is that we are playing tennis and the critic lowers the net when he serves, but when I try to volley back he raises it as high as possible.  (Then he claims victory when I can’t get the ball back over the net.) 

This post is running long, so I'll deal with the nuclear advocate of faith in the next post.  


Unknown said...

I've come across many arguments that may potentially undermine any sort of solid atheism, but it is interesting that all of them undermine the beliefs of the person asserting them.

That sort of militant skepticism, or militant agnosticism (as I like to put it), seems to be a completely untenable position to hold. I have, as yet, to come across an argument against any sort of atheism, or in favor of any sort of religious belief, that does not undermine itself.

The "going nuclear" position, as you explained it in an earlier post, simply does nothing. However, I am constantly shocked at how many people seem to think this is a valid argument. It is thrown out, then the arguer crosses his arms and sits back with a smirk, completely oblivious to his own (argument's) demise...

The more philosophically sophisticated arguments against religion are so complicated, as the argument delicately dances back and forth between skepticism and contradiction, as to be completely incoherent to me.

Notwithstanding the fact that I understand very little, if anything, about philosophy, religion, and argument, I simply cannot accept that an argument to show or prove the existence of anything will be complicated beyond my ability to comprehend. Perhaps that is arrogant, and I'm being presumptuous, but it seems consistent with everything I have hitherto come to understand and believe.


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks PSM. Yeah, we should be very suspicious of any arguments that build into their premises the claim that we are incapable of understanding God or the argument, therefore we should accept the conclusion. And we should be suspicious if the claim is that God is real, and God wants us to believe that he is real, and God is capable of making his existence known to us, but for reasons that we don't grasp he has set the world up so that it is only by means of an abstruse, complicated, and tendentious argument that we can come to know his existence. The more elaborate the arguments for God's existence get, the more we should wonder, "Why is God hiding himself so thoroughly?" The answer, of course, is that there isn't a God.


Unknown said...

Those sort of arguments remind me of something I saw on the Philosophy Dept's FB page. Some claim as to "God's logic" being different from our "Flawed, human logic."

Again, it's just a claim of, "you can't possibly understand." Which becomes completely incoherent when you finish the statement which is really, "you can't possibly understand what I understand."

*explosion!* And the argument immediately crumbles. Not to mention that it's an incredibly arrogant claim to begin with.

I guess all I can do is take my flawed, human logic and blindly try to find my way through reality...


Matt H.

pboyfloyd said...

I've come to the conclusion that a religion is a corporation.

It's a legal person, whose CEO, board members and stake-holders can come and go and anything at all can be justified in the name of the corporation.

T said...

Great link and wonderful additions to Law. I had never thought of how this tactic of going nuclear worked exactly (though I've encountered it many times), nor had I previously known how to successfully counter it. Nice!

Unknown said...

Not sure where I got this nuclear type of argument but it works best to stop all debate most likely so no believers are lost. The authoritative christian begins and ends the discussion with something along the lines of 'I'(we) can discuss God and Christianity with this atheist but know that many will be swayed because, whether the atheist knows it or not, (s)he is speaking via Satan and the arguments presented will be very clever and deceitful. So much so that only the the most devout and faithful will be able to resist or find the words to argue with Satan. And really, Satan wants you to enter into this discussion so that he can plant the seeds of doubt. Then come the bomb. Why enter into this battle knowing that Satan will be able to trick you and lead you astray? This is a battle best left to the properly trained Christian leaders (you wouldn't try to do an exorcism on your own would you?). Everyone is encouraged to leave, to stop listening, etc.

If the debate or discussion is already in progress or has ended the Christian leader will announce that the devil has spoken and caused your faith to waiver. He has caused you to question your beliefs and faith - usually about contradictions in the bible, or Christ's acceptance of slavery, or stoning your wife or kids to death for disobeying, fornication or whatever. He will say that these questions are Satan's method of weakening your faith, that the answer's are beyond the understanding of mere mortals (or beyond your current religious training). That the most important thing is to remember the promise of everlasting life with Jesus and acting otherwise will result in eternal damnation, yadayada.

The only response tha I can see is for the atheist/free thinker to stick to the words of the bible and to ask those remaining believers 'Does this sound right to you?' Are these the actions or beliefs of a benevolent God? Don't offer your interpretation or expound on these questions. Just be prepared - use cliff notes and have a handout that is not mocking or demeaning, but that just asks the believers to read these selected items from the bible for themselves (from the new and old testaments).
Then set up a time or a phone number or email address to contact later if they have questions or want to meet to have further discussions.
Recommend that you do not invite them to the next atheist meetup. My experience is that, unless prepared, some of the meeting members will tend to be offensive and be making comments about what the religious wing-nuts are up to. Probably similar to a group of religious people talking about the plans of crazy & evil godless zombies.