My guest stint at Times And Seasons went well enough that they decided to let me join as a permablogger, for which I am both grateful and excited. This coming Monday, I’m going to start posting weekly with the first in a series I’m planning about modern secularism and Mormonism. But I’ve got some general comments about the claims of modern secularists that I want to get to right now.
1. Atheism and Christianity: Not Apples to Apples
Any debate between a modern secularist (i.e. New Atheist or New Skeptic) and someone of religious faith starts with a tactical advantage for the atheist because atheism, as a category, has no history, no text, and no dogma. There’s virtually no content and therefore nothing to defend. The representative of religion, by contrast, is expected to answer for the history, text, and dogma not of theism (which, like atheism, is a mere category), but of Christianity (or other religions), which is a particular instance of theism.
A fair debate would either pair generic atheism with generic theism, or it would pit a specific instance of atheism against a specific instance of theism. It’s not as though there are no organized instantiations that fall under the broad umbrella of atheism, after all. Maoism would be one particularly unpalatable example, since it clearly embraced atheist belief in the non-existence of God and drew the conclusion atheists often draw which is that religion is irrational and dangerous. As a result, Mao bloodily repressed religion during the Cultural Revolution. Am I suggesting that atheism ought to be held responsible for the actions of every instantiation of atheism? Absolutely not, nor am I suggesting that Maoism is typical of atheism any more than radical Islamic terrorists are representative of religion (or even of Islam). I’m just illustrating how much of a tactical advantage it is to only have to defend a generic abstraction.
The reality is that the New Atheists actually do make specific, concrete claims that deserve scrutiny and require defense. In particular, the New Atheism entails myopicy materialism, radical reductionism, and extreme empiricism. Each of these is a contentious philosophical proposition, and none of them can be defended by pointing to scientific, quantitative experimentation. Nope, it’s experimentation itself that actually requires philosophical defense.
It’s not that modern secularists are deliberately avoiding these tough questions, of course. It’s more a matter of the fish not knowing what “wet” is. Scientism is so ascendant in particular regions of Western civilization that folks aren’t even aware that they have a specific paradigm, and much less that it might have feet of clay.
2. Not All Faith is Blind
I’m not going to present a comprehensive critique of materialism, reductionism, or empiricism in this post. It’s just too much to write. I want to emphasize, however, that my point isn’t necessarily that these views are wrong so much as it is that they are contested. This dispels the false impression which New Atheists often rely on that their particular claims are synonymous with reason and logic. This isn’t true. Reason and logic are contentless methods of establishing connections between ideas, but New Atheism actually consists of specific propositions that are not self-evidence.
I do want to talk about empiricism a little bit, however, because it ties into the most common atheist attack: that faith is belief in something without proof and is therefore irrational. After all: who would believe something without a reason?
Partially this is just an exercise in sophistry: to do something without any reason is, of course, unreasonable by definition. The crucial question is not “should there be a reason for belief?” but “what are good reasons for belief?” New Atheists would have you believe that scientific evidence is a good basis for belief, and they are right. They would also have you believe that that proposition is rational. It is not. They would also have you believe that there are no other good reasons to believe. That is absurd.
One of the most damning attacks on this empiricist view comes from Hume, who wrote from within the tradition of British empiricism. I’m going to quote from Professor Cahoone’s summary of Hume’s greatest work (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) because it’s more succinct than the original text and he’s better qualified than I am to summarize.
Hume started with the basic empirical proposition: “all knowledge and all ideas derive from experience”. He observed that two things are not observable based on the senses: the future (obviously) and also the concept of necessity. As Cahoone says: ” We cannot experience the future, and we cannot experience necessity. Therefore empiricism, according to Hume, must say that we have to cease to use such concepts.” Cahoone then goes on:
Now it’s crucial to recognize the radical nature of this conclusion, and even some students of philosophy miss this point. Hume is not merely saying that our knowledge of the future is uncertain. He’s saying something much worse. He’s saying we have no probable knowledge of the future either. That is we have no reason to believe… that the sun will rise tomorrow, no reason to believe that if I jump off the building tomorrow I will fall. None. No reason whatsoever. No rational justification for such beliefs.
That’s pretty bad, but it gets worse:
This means, by the way, that the very method of induction is in peril… One of the methods by which science works and by which we make inferences and try to gain knowledge is induction… What Hume is claiming is that the method of induction has no rational justification.
Hume still isn’t done, however.
Since we have no knowledge, not even probable knowledge of necessity in events, the future, we also cannot know the existence of forces that are unexperienced. Like gravity. For Hume there is absolutely no evidence that gravity exists. Now, one immediately wants to respond to this “This is crazy. Are you saying if I jump up I won’t fall down? If I throw a ball it won’t fall down?” Hume says: experience gives us evidence that things fall, but it doesn’t give us evidence that there is an unseen force making them fall. To believe in gravity is to believe in something, and what kind of a thing is it? A force. A power that is itself unseen and makes other things happen. Hume says, if you’re going to say that’s true, you might as well imagine that there are little gnomes or sprites in the world making things happen. In other words from Hume’s point of view it’s completely unempirical and even unscientific to go beyond the claim “things fall” to the claim “something unseen makes them fall”.
So much for science, but Hume has one implication left to reveal. Locke and Berkeley, empiricists who wrote before Hume, believed that there had to be more to physical objects than just our perceptions of those objects so that they could exist independent of our perceptions of them. In other words, these empiricists believed in some Aristotelean substance that is completely undetectable by any empirical means. Therefore, according to Hume, we have no rational to believe in it. This means:
There is nothing to reality… but impressions, surfaces, that which we perceive. Well this literally means for Hume that we do not know if an object continues to exist when it’s not being experienced.
Cahoone writes that Hume has discovered phenomenology, but it might be just as accurate to say he has discovered one consequence of quantum mechanics. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, “the act of measurement causes the set of probabilities to immediately and randomly assume only one of the possible values.” If no one looks at the moon, the moon doesn’t exist. Just a waveform. When you take that observation, the waveform collapses and you get an object, but only as long as you observe it.
All of this might seem rather esoteric and therefore irrelevant to everyday experience, but the problem for the New Atheists is that when they step outside of their laboratory and begin to lecture religious folk about epistemology, this is the ground they have chosen to tread on. If they don’t want to deal with Aristotelean metaphysics or phenomenology then they should admit they are not qualified to weigh on epistemological concerns.
The strong temptation for the New Atheists is to insist that the problem lies with philosophy. It makes simple things too complex. There just really isn’t any need to defend their paradigm because it’s self-evident. The irony is that in taking this approach, the New Skeptics are sweeping the Model Skeptic under the rug. Quoting Cahoone again:
Hume thus provided the model skeptic that all other philosophers would try to defeat. Philosophers to this day argue with Hume. His thought led to the greatest of the 18th century philosophers… Emanuel Kant.
It’s also worth pointing out that Hume himself well understood how unbelievable his logical conclusions were. Quoting Hume himself this time:
Most fortunately it happens that since human reasoning is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours of amusement, I would return to the speculations they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further… Nature is always too strong for principle.
Hume didn’t actually believe the sun would not rise tomorrow. He believed that it would. Hume did not actually disbelieve gravity. He knew that if you drop a coin it will fall. The fundamental debate is not about “what should we believe?” but “what is rational to believe?” After all, that’s the claim that the New Atheists are making: tha it is irrational to have faith in God. Problem is, it’s also irrational to have faith in gravity. Kant wasn’t confused about Hume’s arguments either. He understood that Hume wasn’t actually threatening the scientific method, but he spent his life’s work attempting to refute Hume anyway. Kant’s point wasn’t “Science is correct after all” (that was never in dispute), but rather “We have rational basis to rely on induction”. For the New Atheists to try and ignore the Hume vs. Kant debate is not evidence of clear-thinking after all. It’s evidence of superficiality.
I get asked to define faith frequently. Strictly speaking, my argument doesn’t rely on my ability to do so since what I’m actually doing (citing Hume) is pulling the rug out from under secularism to put religion and science on the same epistemological foundation. Note: this doesn’t mean that I’m claiming that religious knowledge is the same as scientific knowledge. Science is defined by the ability to derive quantifiable, reproducible evidence and is thus a particularly potent form of human knowledge, and I do not deny that it has some special status. I simply reject the unargued premise that it is self-evidently rational. It is clearly not self-evident and, if Hume is right, it’s not even rational either.
According to idealism, going back to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”, the only thing we can be certain of is the existence of our mind. The physical world–including all of science–is up for doubt. According to empiricism, the only thing we can be certain of is the physical world and thus it is actually the existence of a mind that is in doubt. I believe that to assume the correctness of either empiricism (realism) or idealism is impossible. I believe we’re caught between. Quoting Otto Neurath:
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
There is no certain starting point. Not belief in God and not belief in Science and not even our self since, by the time we start asking these questions, we’ve already had years of socialization and unconscious, imitative learning piled on top of a tangle of genetically evolved behaviors. We start out in the middle of the ocean. Authentic faith, in my mind, is just a strategy to deal with this reality, and in some other post I will explain my own brand of it. For now, however, my point is simply that the New Atheism has to choose between getting its hands dirty and defending the contentious philosophical propositions that make up its foundation or admitting that its self-confidence is actually a reflection of carefully cultivated ignorance. The simplest choice would be to adopt Kant’s rebuttal to Hume, but the New Atheists would first have to admit that such a defense is necessary, second have to accept the help of the founder of German idealism to rescue empiricism, and lastly actually go out and read some Kant. (Maybe not in that order, of course.)
3. About that Blind Faith…
At the end I want to point out that the idea of “don’t believe something without a reason” is also misused in a much more mundane ways. This applies to all those silly arguments about Flying Spaghetti Monsters or Celestial Teapots.
A friend of mine once asked if I would believe there was an invisible pink unicorn under my window. He was trying to prove that the default position, skepticism, entails disbelief. I replied by asking: “Are there hoofprints?” The point I was trying to make is that lack of information is never a good reason to believe, and that disbelief (as opposed to nonbelief) is just a kind of belief.
- Belief – I accept the proposition “X is true”.
- Disbelief – I accept the proposition “X is false”.
- Nonbelief – I don’t accept either proposition.
The default position should always be 3. [EDIT: I changed the order of the list at some point and didn’t update the text right away. So for a while it said “2”. My mistake.] That’s what real skepticism is about. Belief or disbelief without good reason are equally irrational. (This is why the New Skepticism is essentially the Old Dogmatism, it accepts fundamental premises without defending them.) The thing with pink invisible unicorns, however, is that without any evidence of their existence we actually have very good reasons to suspect their non-existence. Start with the fact that “pink” and “invisible” are contradictory terms. It’s like asking if someone believes in a version of the number 3 that is also even. Uh… no. Secondly, the word “unicorn” implies a whole set of characteristics, starting with something about the size, shape, and weight of a horse. Such an object would leave footprints. Given that assumption, the lack of footprints is not merely a lack of evidence, it’s strong evidence of non-existence.
I also have a basic understanding of both biology, evolution, and optics. I know what it would take to make something invisible, and I know that no animal observed has ever exhibited that kind of capacity. If there were such animals, we’d have evidence (footprints, droppings, running into them) and based no what I know about basic human behavior (what we find interesting, etc.) I’d have heard about them. I haven’t. In addition, we’d expect to find examples of semi-invisible animals as the ability slowly evolved. The lack of these things, given what we know, becomes once more evidence of non-existence instead of just a lack of evidence for existence. (The term for all of this is compossibility, by the way.)
Of course you can modify the term “unicorn” so that now we’re talking about weightless, flying animals that arrived from outer space and have no connection to Earthly evolution, but you end up introducing more problems than you solve and you start drifting away from the original meaning of the word. At this rate, you’ll have to explain why aliens would want to travel to earth (and how FTL works) and in the end “unicorn” would mean something like “a particular region of dense water vapor that is sort of horse shaped”. In short, you have to either invent ever more complex and less compossible explanations or you have to redefine the term to meaninglessness.
Does the same apply to the existence of God? Well, it depends very much on how you define God. The Problem of Evil, the argument that God can’t exist because an all-powerful and all-loving God would never allow so much suffering, is a perfect example of the kind of compossibility argument I’m describing. So there are valid arguments against God’s existence based on compossibility, but relying on merely “You should disbelieve in what you don’t have proof of” is irrational. You should always be neutral without a reason. (And the definition of “reason” might be b roader than just “scientific evidence”.) This is why even Richard Dawkins has conceded the possibility of some god-like entity that is actually just a super-evolved being. In short, the Flying Spaghetti Monster / Celestial Teapot arguments only work against very simplistic and naive ideas of God to the extent that they work at all. Like the rest of New Atheist dogma, they rely on cherry-picking their targets while pretending that they have no vulnerabilities of their own.
So if New Atheist arguments are so irrational, why are they so popular? The answers is simply that modern secularism is the ascendent religion of the current time. It seems reasonable because everyone else believes it, too. And that is what I’ll be writing about over at Times And Seasons, starting on Monday.