Monday, October 25, 2010

A Justification For Atheism - Critique

Kel over at Kelosophy has just posted a justification for his non-belief of theism. Here I am critiquing his post for two purposes - I wish to offer objections which an intelligent theist might raise as well as providing advice and challenges and a framework as to how I may answer the same question. I do not believe there are any fundamental epistemological problems with his defense, and hence his disbelief is justified.

The Ontology Of God
there's at least a general sense by which the concept [God] can be understood.
I'm not entirely sure I would be willing to concede this to the theist. In terms of the ontology of God we are never offered any positive or primary ontic properties, only relational or negative properties. I don't believe it's possible to discuss anything without positive/primary properties, (nor would we accept this in everyday situations) and hence we still don't know what God is. [1,2]

Agnosticism
and strong agnostics who take such an entity as being unknowable
As an aside: isn't identifying God as "being unknowable" a truth claim?!

Logical Problem of Evil
When it comes to the conception of God as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, the existence of such a concept is seen to be incompatible with the existence of evil. Such a conception of God can be ruled out, and indeed much time and effort has gone into addressing this concern. The problem of evil is justification for being a strong atheist, at least in respect to conceptions of God that involved absolute power and absolute goodness.
This is known as the logical problem of evil and it doesn't seem stand up in it's strongest form. Theists may be justified in their belief that all appearance of evil has a rational explanation (known as Skeptical Theism) that we may only understand if we too knew everything. We don't know everything therefore there might be good reasons for evil or apparent evil to exist.

A weaker form of this argument is to state that the level and amount of suffering makes much more sense under atheism than theism (argument to the best explanation) and the theist needs to demonstrate why evil can serve some greater purpose. [3] This is generally a good rhetorical trick because it makes otherwise intelligent Christians justify genocide, etc. [4]

The Ontology Of God
Likewise other traits are problematic.
I think the strongest is the impossibility of omniscience (it's impossible to know everything). [5] There is also the problem of omnipotence, being all-good and being free. If God can do everything and is free to do anything than that includes being evil. But it is metaphysically impossible for God to be evil. Also, as humans can be evil but God cannot - it stands to reason that we can do things God cannot. Hence he cannot be omnipotent. [6]

God vs Logic
can God make a rock so heavy that he can't lift?
An objection to this is to note that such a sentence is logically meaningless and hence the theist can modify the definition of omnipotent to mean "that whatever is logically possible". Such a concession may make some theists uncomfortable as it means that God is inferior to logic! If they do not concede this then logic is arbitrary and/or God is above/beyond logic and is therefore meaningless for humans to pontificate over.

Deductive vs Inductive Approaches
These kind of proofs though are at least to me unsatisfying because while they ground God in definition they don't capture the essence of what God is.
There are two ways to arrive at God. One is through pure reason (Anslem, Thomas, Scholastics), the other is through evidence (Natural Theology). Pure reason lead us to abominations such as the ontological argument for God! It's also a shaky edifice because to undermine any conclusion makes it almost impossible to patch one's argument. On the other hand natural theology sounds more like what the average person identifies with as God.

Boundaries/Scope of Explanatory Power
Can something supernatural act within the natural world?
I don't see how this is metaphysically impossible. I like to think of it this way - imagine we are in the matrix and those outside the matrix are "supernatural". Although those inside the matrix cannot interact with the matrix (unless there are built-in mechanisms), those on the outside can affect things inside the matrix.
If something is acting in the natural world what stops it being natural itself?
Supernaturalism has generally meant something along the lines of acausal will generating actions (i.e. uncaused causes, contra-causal free will, etc)
Can something simultaneously be in and outside of time? Can something outside of time experience or be said to have a thought?
There are serious coherency problems here in that humans, who are beings in-time, find it hard (if not impossible) to talk about these things. I try to stay away from it!
An undetected and undetectable deity is indistinguishable from there being no deity at all.
It's actually much worse than that! Even if there was some miracle, it is epistemically equivalent to highly advanced technology. It's impossible to tell the difference between a booming voice from the sky and aliens messing with us. [7]

Consciousness
Altering the brain alters conscious experience.
Have you heard of the split-brain patient where one half of his brain is an atheist and the other is a Christian? [8]

Tea Pot Skepticism
Nor could they disprove Santa for that matter, or an alleged china teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars too small to be detected by any instrument.
I'd be wary of taking this line of thinking too far just as a matter of principle - we don't just disbelieve these claims (Santa, tea-pot's) on the absence of evidence alone but because there are also good reasons to suppose they are not true.

First Cause Arguments
the notion of a clockwork universe, with notions like the arrow of time and causality probabilistic rather than definite
This one is a bit tricky depending on which QM interpretation you follow - there are currently at least 12. [9] In terms of the Kalam Cosmological Argument - it's foremost Christian proponent William Lane Craig says that it only works under A-theory of time (that time has a direction, etc) instead of B-theory of time (time is a 4D unchanging manifold). Despite Craig's defense of A-theory, many philosophers remain unconvinced over A or B (it's one of the most uncertain areas of philosophy) and the jury is still out. [10] Physicists would likely be more comfortable with B-theory. For example, in Hawking's new book [11] he advocates something which resembles B-theory. Not all A theorists are theists - you could still argue against Kalam with A-theory. [12]

Fine Tuning
There's no reason to assume that life, and more specifically us, is the focal point for the laws of physics. Evolutionarily so much owed to our existence is a product of contingency that it makes no sense to privilege us more than any other life-form.
Two problems with this. If there is only one universe then the existence of humans seems extremely improbable and very surprising. [13] Secondly evolutionary contingency can only exist when life is able to start existing - hence stars need to last a certain amount of time, the universe has to be a certain age, etc. While I could write for pages and pages about good ways to handle the fine tuning argument I can actually just point to Christian philosophers who actually argued that our "fine tuned" universe is equivalent to a "coarse tuned" universe if we do not have a probability distribution on what values the constants could have. [14]

Morality
Morality, evidentially, clearly is an evolved trait and requires no further explanation.
I recently debated a fellow atheist in our atheist club at university over the existence and nature of morality. My position is basically that objective morality doesn't exist (moral skepticism/nihilism) but that moral behaviour certainly does exist and must be evolutionary. I would say its very difficult if not impossible to get from moral behaviour to absolute morality without presupposing a miracle! (Then there is the issue of how the describe the ontology of absolute morality in a naturalistic framework. [15])

Cognitive Basis for Religion
We are wired for agency and in particular human agency.
Worse still we are wired to remember minimally counterintuitive ideas. Almost all supernatural entities can be reduced to singular ontological violations. Ghosts = People - Body's, Zombies = People - Soul, Magic Pendant = Object + Ability to listen, etc [16, 17]
In this respect, explaining God belief is just one of the many weird things that permeates in our species without good reason.
Our brains are still basically the same since when we left the Savannah some 100,000 years ago. We have stone age brains in a modern world with atomic weapons/global warming. This should alarm anyone! Even if you take God belief away, it transforms into New Age or any other metaphysical/existential crutch.

Conclusion

I find the quest for justifying belief to be difficult. At what point do you stop researching and just get on with your life? For most weak atheists it's just about simply pointing out that the traditional theistic arguments don't resonate with them and until they do, one is justified in not accepting them. Perhaps its just a case of doing what one usually does in cases where expertise is required - and that is to tentatively appeal to the authorities? So long as there is a vanguard of intelligent and sophisticated atheist philosophers of religion, we need not fear the development of some new fangeled attempt by Christian philosophers to bamboozle us into accepting some seductive sounding ontological argument.

All I know is that I learn the most when I push my atheistic brethren and see where it goes.

References

[1] George Smith "The Case Against God"
[2] Youtube, ProfMTH "What is God?"
[3] William Rowe "The Evidential Argument from Evil"
[4] William Lane Craig, "Slaughter of the Cannanites"
[5] Problems with Devine Omniscience
[6] For these and others (apparently there are PLENTY of incompatible properties of God), see Michael Martin.
[7] Gregory Dawes "Theism and Explanation"
[8] V.S. Ramachandran
[9] Interpretations of QM
[10] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Time
[11] Hawking, "The Grand Design"
[12] Quentin Smith (I think...)
[13] Luke Barnes presents a terrific introduction to this.
[14] Lydia/Timothy McGrew
[15] J.L. Mackie (Argument from Queerness)
[16] Pascal Boyer "Religion Explained"
[17] Scott Atran "In God's We Trust"

7 comments:

Kel said...

I've had a read through and I'll respond in detail tonight, I just quickly wanted to respond to this:
I find the quest for justifying belief to be difficult. At what point do you stop researching and just get on with your life?
This post stemmed from a "discussion" on Pharyngula with someone who was trying to say we should all be agnostics and calling atheism a faith because of no good reasons not to believe. My response was to counter that.

To need to justify the case isn't so much a personal thing, but a means of articulating the position to others. If others don't get it, it's no good keeping silent about it.

Kel said...

.I'm not entirely sure I would be willing to concede this to the theist.
I look at it in the way I look at Santa Claus. I don't have to know what material his belt is made from to understand what people are talking about and reject the concept. Take a conception of God's like Ken Ham's, it's pretty clear what he's saying God is. Ken Miller I'm not so sure. Karen Armstrong I'm never drunk enough to even begin to understand!

This is known as the logical problem of evil and it doesn't seem stand up in it's strongest form.
I think J. L. Mackie did a good job in Evil And Omnipotence in laying out the problems in those objections. The evidential form rather than the logical form is much easier to defend because it's so easy to make a mockery of just how much there is, e.g. Voltaire's Candide.

I don't see how this is metaphysically impossible.
How can something non-physical have physical effects? While maybe not metaphysically impossible, it's possibly incoherent.

I'd be wary of taking this line of thinking too far just as a matter of principle - we don't just disbelieve these claims (Santa, tea-pot's) on the absence of evidence alone but because there are also good reasons to suppose they are not true.
Indeed, and I think that's why I put it alongside a whole list of other good reasons. But in general we do take the notion of positive proof precisely because we can't empirically prove a negative.

This one is a bit tricky depending on which QM interpretation you follow - there are currently at least 12.
I wonder if through my pains to comprehend quantum physics I can understand panentheism :P. For the purposes of this entry, Lawrence Krauss' Atom and Sean Carroll's From Eternity To Here would be what I'm basing such statements on.

If there is only one universe then the existence of humans seems extremely improbable and very surprising.
No more than the existence or rocks or stars or ants.

Secondly evolutionary contingency can only exist when life is able to start existing - hence stars need to last a certain amount of time, the universe has to be a certain age, etc.
But our existence or anything like us is not an inevitability of evolution. While complexity is emergent and there are niches which can lead to near identical solutions, there's still so much of ourselves that is contingent on things going just right that are governed by indiscriminate laws that I don't see how it can make sense to single us out any more than cuttlefish.

I would say its very difficult if not impossible to get from moral behaviour to absolute morality without presupposing a miracle!
Michael Martin in Atheism, Morality & Meaning defended the ideal observer theory as a purely naturalistic means of having objective morality.

Even if you take God belief away, it transforms into New Age or any other metaphysical/existential crutch.
For some people I think it does, but obviously there is the capacity for reasonable inquiry by a lot of people if given enough training.

Thanks for pushing me, it's actually quite frustrating when that doesn't happen because I know I'm going to be talking shit without anyone there to call me on it. :P

Kel said...

"While I could write for pages and pages about good ways to handle the fine tuning argument"
If you could, that would be appreciated. Because from my perspective that the laws of physics are irrelevant because of the contingent nature of evolution. But I'm sure that's not a satisfying answer to some because it doesn't answer the question as well as those who don't accept evolution in its current form. In short, I'd have no idea how to address William Lane Craig on the issue :P

Reasonably Aaron said...

Thanks for your reply Kel.

"Take a conception of God's like Ken Ham's, it's pretty clear what he's saying God is."

Is it? Can you name some positive primary attributes his God has?

"Ken Miller I'm not so sure. Karen Armstrong I'm never drunk enough to even begin to understand!"

Isn't it funny that there is apparently one God and yet they all can't quite pin him/it down!

"because it's so easy to make a mockery of just how much there is"

Although I agree with the sentiment it doesn't disprove the skeptical theist who can say that no matter what situation one can come up with - there may always be some "higher" purpose that we are not privvy to.

Imagine travelling back to Jesus' time and telling them about how humans fly around in metal tubes that can travel half way around the world in a day. Even though they will laugh at you and never believe you - you would still be correct.

"How can something non-physical have physical effects?"

How can something non-A have A effects.
How can something non-visible have visible effects. (Fluorescence turns UV to Visible light).

I agree that its incoherent because its not clear if "non-physical" can exist. However, if something non-physical can exist there isn't anything logically stopping it having physical effects. (As my analogy to light)

"Michael Martin in Atheism, Morality & Meaning defended the ideal observer theory as a purely naturalistic means of having objective morality."

I agree that it's possible to develop a morality however I don't believe it can be done without begging the question. That is to say - why should we prefer Martin's morality over others?

I'll cover this in a future blog post. (That is - why I am a moral skeptic)

"If you could, that would be appreciated."
hahaha sure! It might not be entirely comprehensive, but I'll give a sketch and the details can get filled in...

Kel said...

That is to say - why should we prefer Martin's morality over others?
Why prefer science over The Bible? The subjective disagreement over the validity of knowledge isn't sufficient to dismiss such knowledge as possible. The task was to build a metaethical theory of objective morality, and the theory that Martin puts forward (not his theory) is as far as I can tell objective.

Kel said...

"Can you name some positive primary attributes his God has?"
Funnily enough I got into an exchange with Eric Hovind a few months back on Pharyngula and he was very forward with not only what attributes God had but how we could know him. Unfortunately he had the intellectual integrity of a wet paper bag... but still, all-powerful all-knowing, morally-perfect. That enough?

Reasonably Aaron said...

"all-powerful all-knowing, morally-perfect"

These are all secondard traits in that they are relational to something else (power, knowledge and morality).

Here is an example of primary positive characteristics of a can of coke.

1. It's mostly red with white writing. (Colour)
2. It's made mostly of aluminium. (Atomic composition)
3. It's shape is cylindrical. (Shape)

You will notice that God has none of these characteristics (Colour, composition or shape, etc).

Why is this important? Well lets say you were trying to figure out if a xyzzybob existed - you would want as much detail as possible to be able to evaluate it. We only get relational properties for God.

Concepts such as a guy in the sky with a beard would actually be positive primary characteristics, but we know this isn't god. Interestingly the fact that God is said to be male doesn't even comport with what we understand as maleness.