Monday, February 16, 2004

Dialogue With an Atheist on the Premises and Axioms of Atheism (vs. Steve Conifer)

From an atheist discussion list: January 2002, uploaded with editorial permission from Steve Conifer, whose words will be in blue.

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I'd like to get down to basics and inquire as to the atheist's (or agnostic's) first principles, axioms, starting-points, premises, initial presuppositions or assumptions (pick your favorite term). Then I'll play Socrates a bit if I may. :-) Just a summary is fine; I'm not looking for a treatise at this point, or even a bare-bones outline of atheist epistemology, or "atheology" if you will: just the very first premises you start from, such as, e.g., "I exist," "minds exist," "the senses can be counted on to accurately perceive external natural events," "non-sensory 'internal experience' is inherently untrustworthy and hopelessly subjective," "logic [as classically understood] is an immutable eternal principle," etc.

I am assuming that atheists on this list are of the post-Enlightenment (usually positivist or analytical, and materialist) humanist variety, with no particular religious belief (as a working generalization). I realize that all belief-systems are more complicated once you look at them more closely, and the shortcomings of generalization, but as I said, I'm just trying to find out how these (various atheist) views are built up: what the starting-points are. I'm not trying to "do" technical philosophy at the moment (if I am ever qualified to do it). All positions (philosophical, religious, or otherwise) start with axioms -- I think we can all agree on that; there is no escaping it.

Every atheist has positive premises that he believes. Nobody operates on a basis of simply "I don't believe x, y, and z, and that is my axiomatic starting-point." You believe something, in a positive sense. I changed the nature of my initial inquiry by acknowledging that, yes, there are many sorts of atheists (which I knew, anyway). Nevertheless, a certain type predominates on this list. So I changed the question to "what are your premises?" (i.e., any given individual).

Atheists start with first premises just as I do. It is foolish to think that in order for you to talk about your own beliefs, you must make mention of a God whose existence you deny. That would be like me as a Christian saying that in order to talk about my beliefs, we must start by discussing polytheism, or the nonexistence of spirits and the supernatural, tenets that I deny. I'm not interested in polemics and controversy at the moment: just the basis upon which materialism or naturalism logically builds itself up. You ought to welcome such an inquiry.

You are not merely operating on a minimalist premise of "I don't believe in what doesn't exist [God]; that is my starting-point." You must affirm something without reference to that which you deny, in order to have any belief-system at all, in order to communicate in words at all, otherwise you are merely babbling nonsense (in its literal meaning).

Atheists must, at some point in their thinking, of course, diverge from theistic conclusions, but not necessarily in the beginning. On the other hand, even when an atheist states, "the universe exists," the tacit assumption which lies behind that is, "the universe is self-existent and has no cause outside of itself." In other words, how the universe came to exist at all is the question we all must ultimately deal with if we are curious about nature and reality.

When I wrote, "every atheist has positive premises that he believes," I was referring to the atheist as a species of man, viz.:

1. Every person has positive axioms in his thought.
2. Atheists are persons.
3. Therefore, atheists have positive axioms in their thought.
I could just as well have said that "every gardener has positive axioms in his thought" or "every art museum curator has positive axioms in his thought." Logically speaking, no implication is present which would require atheist presuppositions to be unique to atheism, or in inherent conflict with theistic presuppositions. That comes later (in the larger worldview), but not at the very beginning, as we are seeing now, with the first replies to my initial question. I, for one, am quite happy that there are many common beliefs which theists and atheists share.

Some questions and issues which might arise in the course of this discussion are:

1. How did the universe come to exist in the first place? And why do you believe it exists?

2. Why are the senses to be trusted to give us knowledge about the real world? For instance, sensory observations could be merely systematic illusions. A certain "logic" (or self-consistent alternate "worlds") might be said to be present even in dreams which aren't real, in terms of natural events corresponding to the "visions" therein. Arguably, truth also comes from inside our heads, from the very way we think, before we ever get to the "outside world." It seems to me that we have to place an extraordinary trust in the reliability and accuracy of our senses (and in our brains, which process and organize the data received from sensory perception) to even be able to take in data of the scientific sort: that which is "publicly available" and "justifiable" and falsifiable, and replicable, and so forth.

3. We can agree on the necessity of logic, but we must keep in mind that all logic involves premises, as logic consists merely of laws of relationships of one idea to another. One must still begin with ideas which they take as unquestionable in order to do logic at all. So, again, there are implicit, unspoken assumptions behind all axioms.

4. Many of atheist's axioms are commonly-held, more or less across the board (excepting perhaps, several eastern religious views, where the universe is an illusion, or maya, etc.). But how they are understood and applied will differ fairly quickly, between atheist and theist. Also, the epistemological grounds for holding the axioms in the first place may differ, perhaps greatly.

Furthermore, one can distinguish between the following two propositions:
A. All atheists have starting assumptions or axioms.

B. All atheists' starting assumptions or axioms are inherently atheistic (and therefore, unalterably opposed to theistic assumptions).

I accept A, but not B. Many atheists seem to mistakenly think the Christian is arguing B because they seem to be (I speculate) predisposed to think that all theist critiques of atheism see little or no common ground whatever between the two views. I agree that some strains of Christian apologetics or religious philosophy do that (one in particular is called presuppositionalism, which is dominant among Calvinists), but "mainstream" Christian apologetics and theology do not. And I believe that the Bible itself does not do this either.

The epistemology (or what might be called the "ontological framework") which lies behind atheists' vs. theist's premises might differ widely. No doubt those factors will enter into this discussion in due course as well. One might ask why atheists and theists diverge in their beliefs in the first place. In a nutshell, I would venture to guess that it is because materialist atheists (which I understand to be the "standard" or most prevalent kind) deny the existence of spirit and the supernatural: a sort of intrinsic "anti-Platonism." Everything is reduced to physical matter and the laws of nature. I think there is a failure of what might be called the "intellectual imagination," whereby matter is seen as the be-all and end-all of reality. That is what I would regard as the fundamental mistake or error.

I would argue that this position is not as self-evident as most atheists seem to cavalierly assume. And the reason for that is the set of axiomatic assumptions lying behind scientific inquiry: that which bolsters, in the materialist mind, atheism, and supposedly mitigates against any non-materialist entities (science almost being tantamount, in effect, to "God" for many atheists). One has to make several assumptions to "do" science at all, none of which are airtight and unquestionable, e.g.,:

1. The universe exists.
2. One's own senses can be trusted to accurately perceive external events.
3. Uniformitarianism of natural law.
4. That order is "ontologically superior" to disorder and chaos.
5. That order is a real entity, existing outside our minds, etc.
6. Laws exist and can be codified and systematized.
7. There are such things as theories and hypotheses which may correspond to physical realities.
Etc.

Traditionally, Christians (and even some non-Christian cultural observers) have asserted that modern science in fact arose (and arguably, necessarily) in a Christian milieu, and that there was very good reason for that: science required starting-assumptions which Christianity provided. The above questions were resolved by recourse to God, who created our minds and made them able to perceive and conceive, and Who created the universe with laws so that it could be orderly and predictable and observable in the first place: Kepler's observation that scientists were "thinking God's thoughts after him."

Why materialist atheists are so convinced that neither spirits nor miracles nor the supernatural exist, and how and why they think mind, intelligence, and things like DNA could evolve in a materialistic universe, are questions I am curious about. I hope to delve into those in due course.

Science is something all parties can largely agree on, since it is so verifiable and replicable. The differences really stand out when we talk about origins and First Cause and teleology; why and how the universe is here, does it have any "purpose," and if there are entities which transcend matter and natural laws alike. We contend as Christian philosophers that God as First Cause is perfectly plausible, and at least as good, if not more so, than any other explanation of the universe, according to reason and modern cosmology.

We say that science cannot rule out spirits and God because they are simply not its domain, being neither physical, nor subject to natural laws. And we say that miracles (the supernatural) can be verified by observation, and thus cannot be so easily dismissed as philosopher David Hume and others seem to think. Lastly, we contend that God is as necessary for thought, intelligence, and the ability to be rational and to do science and philosophy, as logic itself is, because only an Intelligent Designer could put together all the marvels we see in the brain, things like DNA, and the universe as a whole, and make possible both the marvels themselves, and our ability to perceive and understand the workings (and for that matter, beauty) of them.

Here are "large" truths whose negations I take to be incoherent, hence truths which I regard as necessary:

(1) Something exists.
(2) Laws of logic cannot be violated; contradictions cannot be true.
(3) Incoherent propositions (e.g., Socrates is a prime number) cannot be true.

Good. I agree. But I am curious as to how and why something came to exist, rather than nothing.

I am toying with the notion of adding

(4) There is nothing that science could never (even in principle) discover and explain.

How in the world do you arrive at that conclusion? And why would you even consider it as an axiom? It seems to me to involve several intermediate assumptions and deductions.

Well, it is basically just a tenet of something like positivism or naturalism, a somewhat different way of saying that metaphysical sentences (e.g., "there is a personal being outside time and space") are cognitively meaningless.

Another discussion . . . I don't buy the concept of defining away metaphysical entities by merely playing around with words. That's partially why I'm not that fond of the ontological argument, because it is so utterly unempirical. But it is infinitely superior to this sort of analytic positivist gobbledygook, which would rather render concepts like God "cognitively meaningless" than examine the possibility that God's existence is perfectly consistent with a scientific view of the universe, and as plausible an explanation of origins as any other.

But for right now I will stick with just (1)-(3). It is with some hesitation that I affirm the necessity of even (1), and I concede that I may be wrong about that one. However, it is my contention that meaningful discourse with someone who doubts (2) would be impossible, and such discourse with someone who doubts (3) would be very, very difficult (if not impossible).

Absolutely.

What I doubt is the NECESSITY of (1), not the TRUTH of (1). That is, I have doubts that "something exists" expresses a proposition that MUST be true, but of course I unreservedly affirm that it expresses a proposition that IS true.

For what it's worth, the Christian says that the existence of the universe is not a necessary state of affairs. So for a materialist, this belief would negate the necessity of #1. We do think that God's existence is necessary, in order for anything else (material) to exist. But since for you spirit and supernatural are nonsense and gibberish, this whole paragraph is rendered null and void. :-)

I am sympathetic to calling (4) a necessary truth because I have great difficulty conceiving its negation, i.e., the proposition that there might be something which science could never (even in principle) discover and explain.

Why? You just gave several examples above of something quite near to this, if not fulfilling what you have "great difficulty conceiving": e.g., "As for how the multi-verses came into existence, we might suppose that we cannot answer that because the explanation for it lies within the laws of the multi-verses themselves." Then you stated, as to the mystery of why something exists rather than nothing: "In the final analysis, . . . the best answer at present is a supremely simple and thoroughly honest 'we don't know.' "

Yet you are tempted to call #4 a necessary truth, when you yourself refute it all through this post (self-refutations always make the critic's job so much easier)? Science -- by your own virtual admission -- can't even explain the origin of that which is its specialty and field of inquiry: the universe! Yet you want to believe that it can explain anything, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. Curious. Odd. And very revealing as to your presuppositional biases. Science, too, is a philosophy, and it starts with unprovable axioms. It's not the sum of all knowledge. Not by a long shot.

After all, as Ted recently queried, what is the (conceptual) difference between an empty jar and a jar containing only a necessarily undetectable existent? My answer is, "The difference between a world just like ours and a world full of magic that has no effects whatever on anything whatever."

The fallacy here is in assuming (on what basis, I wonder?) that the supernatural would not and could not have an effect on the natural, or partake of observability, or (in its effects) be capable of undergoing observation (e.g., a medically-verified healing). The difference is the fact that the existent is in the second jar, of course. If you want to merely talk about "appearances," I find that uninteresting philosophically. E.g., we can't see natural gas, either (even the odor we smell is added so we'll know it is present at all). Don't mean it ain't able to cause bacon to be fried indoors or help dry up a pair of wet socks.

Which is to say, there is no difference at all between the two. To put it (sort of) succintly, to me the supernatural is impossible nonsense, and talk of the supernatural is meaningless gibberish,

I can see that, but why?, is the question? You having great fun poking holes in caricatures of what you oppose is one thing; explaining why you oppose it (i.e., the real thing, rightly understood) and how your view is epistemologically superior, quite another.

The supernatural is to me impossible nonsense because the idea of supernatural beings is incoherent. Therefore, talk of the supernatural is (cognitively) meaningless gibberish.

How is "the idea of supernatural beings" incoherent (it's interesting that you used this word rather than "impossible")? Because spirits can't exist? Is that all you got for me: dogmatic assertions on no grounds other than unprovable axiomatic assumptions?

but psychologically and sociologically fascinating noise-making of the most urgent variety.

Atheism is equally fascinating from our standpoint, I assure you.

No doubt. It is, after all, rebellion against God Himself,

More like a revolt against reason and logic, judging by your present response. :-)

whose existence is so incredibly apparent in "nature and conscience" that no sane and honest person could rationally deny it.

There are many reasons, I think, why people come to have atheist beliefs, just as there are many for coming to believe in Christianity. There are non-rational, emotional, and psychological (even geographical and sociological) influences on both sides. To deny that for either is folly, in my opinion. I find the study of both processes equally interesting, myself. But I don't by any means regard the average atheist as a dolt and gullible idiot (quite the contrary), let alone insane and dishonest, as so many atheists regard us. I think atheists have made honest or inadvertant mistakes in their reasoning process, and adopted inadequately established premises, which are at least as unprovable as our axioms (and, of course I believe, less plausible). Hence, the present thread. You are not disabusing me of my present beliefs on this matter at all thus far. :-)

Natural gas can be detected both actually (in various ways) and in principle. By contrast, a necessarily undetectable existent cannot be detected (even in principle).

The very statement presupposes that something exists ("existent"); therefore it could conceivably exist! Therefore it is not a meaningless or inconceivable object, because existence is a pretty important trait to have. Whether one can detect it or not is irrelevant, except as a practical matter. But as I reject the pragmatic criterion of truthfulness, that is of no import to me.

At any rate, you seem to have totally missed the point of my example, which is that to utter sentences like "there exists something that could never be observed, measured, recorded, etc." is both vacuous and unintelligible.

Not at all. It only seems to be that to you because you axiomatically presuppose that only observable things exist in the first place. That is hardly compelling, being circular from the outset, and no real argument.

For such sentences lack content

Not at all; they merely lack empirical content. There is a difference, you know.

and nobody can understand what it would mean for them to be true, despite all that some might say to the contrary.

Nonsense. That was why I used my natural gas analogy. A better one might be one atom of ytterbium (Yb) floating around the room I am in. How likely am I to be able to detect it? Does that make it nonexistent? Appealing to sophisticated scientific machines does not overcome the analogy, because we're talking about my perception. Just because I can't perceive something (or even if it is flat-out impossible to perceive) does not necessarily make it nonexistent.

Thus, if science can't observe a spirit, this proves absolutely nothing one way or the other about whether spirits exist, because no one who knows anything about science would expect it to be able to do so, as spirits are not matter, and science is the philosophy of matter (yes, it reduces to philosophy: its called empiricism). Science could observe the effect of a spirit or the supernatural, though; that gets back to the miracles discussion. In fact, science always does this because everything it observes was created by God, or that which is causally derived from same. :-)

There is just no proposition there at all;

No, there is no perception there at all. What is this?: the philosophical application of "out of sight, out of mind"?

there is only more of that meaningless noise-making that I referred to earlier.

It's only meaningless if you presuppose that empirical observation is the key to all knowledge (and you must tell me why that would be). Otherwise, it is perfectly legitimate logic and possible reality. I'm quite surprised that you can't see this, as sharp as you are.

As Dr. Drange writes in his book NONBELIEF & EVIL,

If a sentence is unintelligible, then either it does not express any proposition at all or else it expresses a proposition that is inconsistent or in some other way unthinkable. Therefore, it does not express anyone's belief.
And if a sentence is deemed unintelligible because unproven and unprovable axioms render it that way from the outset, by arbitrary definition, then we can create nonsense in any sentence we like, can't we Steve?
If people go around saying, "I believe there is a personal being who is outside space and time," then my reaction is to deny that they really believe THAT. Rather, such people are apparently mistaken about their own beliefs.
Why, if logic and mathematics and geometry can be perceived as outside space and time, and eternal principles of the relationships of ideas? So now you're telling me that in fact I don't (and can't) believe what I believe? That's interesting. We must flesh that out sometime. But I always tire very quickly of the word-games of analytic philosophy. If I wanna spend my time playing around with words, I'd much rather play Scrabble or write poetry, or come up with clever aphorisms or limericks. No offense intended (you don't think much of Christianity, either, so why beat around the bush?).
To have a belief requires more than just the disposition to assert given sentences. It is also required that there be some thinkable set of ideas to serve as the object of the belief. [end of quote]
That's what we're trying to get at with regard to your views, but as usual, it has already been switched around to the lambasting of theism.

But if a sentence is unintelligible, then it does not express any such set of ideas. It cannot express anything which anyone could entertain in thought and which could thereby be the object of a belief.

Yep. The question is what determines "intelligibility"? If you think it is some spectacular and irrefutable philosophical discovery to simply assume empiricism with no proof and then to go on and regard anything non-empiricaly ascertained as nonsensical and meaningless, then I must inform you that you have overestimated the strength of your position just a wee tiny bit. It's another instance of building a house of cards with no very sure or solid foundation.

I have no idea what it might mean for a being to be necessary.

Do you have any idea what it might mean for logic to be necessary? If you do, please explain how such an analogous belief in God is intrinsically unthinkable or inconceivable?

As Hume noted, "There is no being the nonexistence of which entails a contradiction."

I can conceive of God not existing. I have no problem with that. David Hume, remember, accepted God's existence on the basis of the teleological argument, which he made himself, quite forcefully. Many atheists don't seem to be aware of that, and I pointed it out last time I was here. So he is in our camp on this one, and very few atheists are willing to call Hume stupid or gullible, or one who believes in things which are "gibberish" and "meaningless nonsense," etc.

It might be said that the best explanation for why things appear to exist in a certain way is because they really DO exist in that way, and that that is the best explanation because it is simpler than the skeptic's alternative. Though it has its defects, I think there is great merit in this type of approach to the skeptic's challenge.

My analogical mind latched onto this immediately. Try this:

It might be said that the best explanation for why belief in God is nearly universal and that God appears to exist in a certain way is because God really DOES exist in that way, and that that is the best explanation because it is simpler than the atheist's alternative. Though it has its defects, I think there is great merit in this type of approach to the atheist's challenge.
Why would this argument for God's existence be less valid or sound than the way you use the exact same logic for existence of the physical world? In both instances we are dealing with a widely-perceived reality, held by the vast majority of people. Most people regard God as a necessary belief in order to get through life, just as acceptance of the physical world is required to get through life with "life and limb." Atheists are in a minority amongst theists, just as absolute idealism or solipsism is a tiny minority amongst those who accept the material existence of the universe. What's the logical difference?

Gotta love philosophy (actually logic) when it is this much fun :-)

If (1) ["something exists"] is indeed a necessary truth, as I believe it is, then it makes no sense to ask how the world (or the "first thing") came to be. For it DIDN'T come to be.

On what basis do you believe it to be a necessary truth, though? Existence per se is a separate proposition from the possible beginning or eternality of existence. Existence and duration are distinct concepts. It seems to me that two possible scenarios can occur:

A. That which exists always existed, never did not exist, never had a beginning (nor will it have an ending) and is infinite in duration.

B. That which exists began its existence some time in the past and is therefore finite in duration.

It simply is (or, alternately, there IS no "first thing"; the world is just eternal).

In a metaphysical philosophy conveniently disconnected from science, sure!

If, on the other hand, (1) is a merely contingent truth, then one possible explanation for the existence of the universe is that it began acausally. That is how most contemporary cosmologists (incl. Stephen Hawking, Alex Linde, and Andre Vilenkin) think the present-day universe was birthed.

Can you explain this curious concept in layman's terms, so we can grasp more clearly what exactly you are talking about. How does something like the universe begin without a cause, and what is the evidence for such a remarkable assertion?

Another possible explanation is that the observable universe sprang from an (unobservable and possibly no longer existent) hyper-universe of sorts. Perhaps there are (or were) many such "bubble worlds."

"I'm forever blowing bubbles . . . " (God)

Do you consider this more plausible and rational than positing a God? It obviously is not a scientific belief at all, since the thing under consideration is "unobservable" and maybe non-existent. One wonders how the evidence which can be brought forth for God is any less compelling than this!

Contingently unobservable entities can be inferred to exist from their effects. (God, by contrast, is a NECESSARILY unobservable entity).

Effects of God can certainly be observed. They are called "miracles." You simply assume (like Hume) that miracles are impossible, hence that God is "a NECESSARILY unobservable entity," unlike your "bubble worlds." You also seem to have forgotten that a certain man claimed to be the Christian God come in the flesh. :-) Just because you don't believe something doesn't make it "a NECESSARILY unobservable entity."

As I understand the situation (which is pretty dimly), the theory of multi-verses is, like the notion of an acausal inception, quite popular among working physicists. As for how the multi-verses came into existence, we might suppose that we cannot answer that because the explanation for it lies within the laws of the multi-verses themselves; and, whether necessarily or due to empirical constraints, we lack knowledge of those laws.

But you're willing to possibly accept this nonetheless, lest the alternative be the dreadful God-hypothesis, which is, of course, irrational, unbelievable, implausible, and unworthy of adherence, being far inferior to "multi-verses" whose laws cannot be known, and about which we can (by the nature of the case) know nothing or next to nothing. Talk about fideism! This puts the most childlike, gullible faith of the most uninformed Christian to shame. This is the sort of faith which is impervious to all disproof, since it has no proof whatsoever in the first place!

Yet another explanation is that the universe was brought into being by an impersonal mechanism of some sort, or a finite deity who is now dead, or an infinite yet largely malevolent deity who created the universe for the sole purpose of tormenting its denizens with things like earthquakes and plagues and tornadoes (from whose devastating results this wicked god derives boundless glee).

All options which are, of course, more plausible and feasible than the traditional God of Christianity. Of course . . . who could deny that?

In the final analysis, though, I agree with Mark: the best answer at present is a supremely simple and thoroughly honest "we don't know."

I deem that as infinitely superior to the other options you have presented, so I am delighted that you adopt it after the quick run-down of the alternatives (excluding theism, which is prima facie absurd and irrational).

Right now there is just too little information about the matter to make a reliable judgment concerning it. Though the best guesses of our brightest scientists appear to be on the right track, the fact of the matter is that the origin of the cosmos may be the last "Great Mystery."

Fair enough.

In any case, it should go without saying that even the weakest of naturalistic explanations is ipso facto superior to even the simplest and most plausible of supernaturalistic explanations,

Only under materialistic and naturalistic assumptions, so this is not particularly compelling reasoning, unless we are first informed as to why naturalism is self-evident over against supernaturalist dualism or theism.

for the former is just naturally much less obscure and far less extravagant than the latter.

I often find truth to be rather extravagant. Occam's Razor is nowhere near as impressive to me as the complexity of DNA or galaxies or even your average pretty sunset or woman. The more we learn, the less simple things get, so why would we cling to a maxim which touts the likelihood of simplicity being truth?

Furthermore, I do not even consider the "God Hypothesis" (i.e., the hypothesis that the universe was created by a timeless, bodiless, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipresent personal being) to be a viable candidate for the simple reason that it does not even meet the basic criteria of an explanation, namely, illumination and understanding. It is also unreasonable, anomalous, counterintuitive, and incomplete.

First of all, the "God of the philosophers" or philosophical theism is not, strictly speaking the Christian God. A Creator-God would have to, it seems to me, be timeless and a spirit and quite powerful indeed, and arguably personal (since He makes created personhood possible), but I don't see how the four "omnis" are required for a minimally-conceived creator. The other negative qualities you see in the proposition merely follow from the axiomatic and often circular skepticism and materialism of your premises, so they are of little use to our discussion. With those qualifiers, I don't see how the theistic scenario is a whit less plausible than your others, about which you admit we (and you) know little.

Where have we heard this chant before, of "there is no necessary need to posit a God"? Darwin, was it? Actually, it was the materialist evolutionist scientists after him (and after T.H. Huxley, who said that evolutionism didn't necessarily imply materialism, by its very nature) who said these things.

One of my points (if we ever get back to my discussion of premises) is that our predispositions and biases constantly color how we perceive (and even conceive) the world. The atheist scientist will tend to readily adopt such a theory (as we observe Steve doing) because it upholds his prior notion of atheism. It may be weak or actually have some merit to it, but he will be almost inevitably be predisposed to adopt it, so that he can lessen his own "cognitive dissonance." Likewise, the theist will be predisposed to accept what might be called "classic Big Bang cosmology" because it appears to him so consistent with monotheism and creatio ex nihilo. Bias is universal.

Bias among scientists (and philosophers, too, for that matter) is no novel concept. This has been examined at length by Thomas Kuhn and also much recently by Stephen Jay Gould. My interest in the present discussion is to determine why your particular axioms seem true and unquestionable to you, and (in due course) by what process they logically lead you to atheism (i.e., materialism, or secular humanism; whatever term you prefer).

. . . (Also, try reading the articles by Smolin and Linde, where the evidence for the model in question is meticulously examined.)

What I read (not in these articles, but in your earlier postings in this regard) was sheer and mere speculation, which seems not a whit more plausible to me than an Intelligent Designer who was behind all these marvels of what I call creation.

I never said that the given explanations are MORE plausible than the God Hypothesis (GH). However, certainly they are (at least) EQUALLY plausible.

Why? And try to answer without trotting out all the "omnis," which are irrelevant to a bare philosophical theism, or deism. Simply put, theism is not Christianity. The latter is a far more developed version of the former, adding in the huge factor of revelation. But when making theistic arguments, there is no need at all to import all the "omnis." Even a Creator need not be omnipotent, etc. You must know this. I can't believe that you don't. Philosophy is not religion. Even philosophy of religion is neither religion nor theology. It's the gigantic distinction between arguing for theism and arguing for Christianity. I do the former here, most of the time. And if I get to Christianity in the course of discussion, I almost never argue for exclusively Catholic Christianity, because that is not my point here.

So, GH is NOT the best explanation for the existence of the universe; the other explanations are just as good. There is thus NO REASON WHATEVER for preferring GH over those (alternate) explanations. Naturalistic explanations are by their very nature simpler and broader in scope than supernaturalistic "explanations."

So what? Why bow to the god of Occam's Razor? Why should that be some unquestionable axiom? The more we know, the more complex the universe becomes. Mendel's peas (and, for that matter, bare "natural selection") have ended up in DNA, which is not a "simpler" explanation, but a vastly more comprehensively explanatory one. So God is complicated! Big wow! He's no more complicated than, e.g., some entirely fanciful hypothesis of how life came (by purely natural, perhaps even random processes) from non-life, which materialist scientists still have little or no clue about, yet continue to believe, with no compelling positive evidence that such a thing could ever take place.

(I put quotes around "explanations" because I do not think something so obscure and unenlightening as "God did it" warrants the label).

No one is saying it did, so that's neither here nor there. But it is a quick and easy way to make the theistic option appear inherently foolish.

They posit at least one fewer entity and do not introduce a bigger mystery (God and his nature and methods) than the mystery they were introduced to dispel.

Again, this "simplicity" mantra is not all that impressive to me. Science is simpler than, say, mythological creation myths, but matter itself (the stuff of science) is extremely complex, and the quick denial of any design or teleology (on circular materialistic grounds) simply doesn't work anymore. Science has gotten beyond that point.

Because if an explanation x is simpler than an explanation y, then x is more a priori likely than is y;

Why? So Mendel's pea experiments better explain genetics than DNA, because they are simpler? Newtonian physics is more true than relativity on the same basis? The Genesis creation account is far simpler than Punctuated Equilibrium, so it is obviously true, etc. ?

and, all else being equal, if x is more a priori likely than y, then x is more likely the case than is y.

Unless you prove why I should accept the premise, I reject the conclusion. I would opine that coherence and cumulative, comprehensive explanatory value is profoundly more evident as an indication of truthfulness than simplicity.

I never claimed that science could never (even in principle) explain the origin of the cosmos, should there indeed be such. Rather, I suggested merely that it cannot do so at present (at least not fully). The difference between being contingently unexplained and in principle inexplicable is vast indeed!

Agreed. But, you see, whenever a materialist grants that he can't explain everything, he grants a little more (however little he may think it is) to the theist, because we, too, believe in some things we can't fully explain or understand. Absolutely comprehensive understanding is not in the cards for any view.

If it was SO obvious that God is not shown in creation, and that materialism could fully explain it, then wouldn't you think that science could explain the universe and its origin more or less totally by now? But if there are intricate complexities, then it is reasonable to posit some Design: something other than sheer chance and randomly colliding atoms. One either grasps this or they don't. But for those of us who do, we regard it as self-evident and intuitively true. Pick at that all you want, but you have equally unprovable assumptions, which is a big point of my thread. It is not a matter of gullible, irrational blind faith vs. science and reason.

My chief objection to the Cosmological Argument for God's Existence could be formally constructed as follows:

(1) There are alternate (nontheistic) explanations for the origin of the universe that have NOT been shown to be inferior to the God hypothesis.
(2) Therefore, the God hypothesis has NOT been shown to be the very best
explanation for the origin of the universe [from (1)].
(3) For there to be a cosmological argument that empirically supports the
existence of God, it would have to be the case that someone has shown that
the God hypothesis is the very best explanation for the origin of the universe.
(4) Therefore, there is no cosmological argument that empirically supports
the existence of God [from (2) & (3)].
The premise that Dave was apparently inclined to attack is (1). Unfortunately, though, he never really made it clear just what is wrong with that premise. In response to each of the five alternate (nontheistic) explanations for the universe that I put forward in our dialogue- we might call them "the Brute-fact Explanation," "the Acausal-inception Explanation," "the Hyper-universe Explanation," "the Impersonal-mechanism Explanation," and "the Finite-or-malevolent-deity Explanation," respectively - Dave simply complained that it is unscientific and no more plausible than the God hypothesis. I have several replies to that:

1. The Acausal-inception and Hyper-universe Explanations (as well as, arguably, the Impersonal-mechanism Explanation) are perfectly scientific, as both are in principle testable and falsifiable. Furthermore, while neither has been clearly or uncontroversially confirmed by empirical data and neither is universally accepted among cosmologists, elements of both can be found in the theories of leading physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Alex Linde, and both receive at least SOME support (albeit indirect) from science. Therefore, describing them as "pure speculation" or something of the like (as Dave did several times during our discussion) is patently wrongheaded.

2. Even if all five of my alternate (nontheistic) explanations for the universe WERE completely unscientific, that would NOT render them inferior to the God hypothesis and so would NOT suffice to refute premise (1). For the God hypothesis is ITSELF completely unscientific (in that it posits a cause for the universe which even in principle defies scientific investigation and which does not conform to the scientific method). It is also obscure, anomalous, unreasonable, counterintuitive, incomplete, and incomprehensible. In those respects alone it is explanatorily INFERIOR to even the weakest naturalistic explanation and so cannot be regarded as the best explanation for the universe.

3. In order for premise (1) to be true, it need not be the case that the given alternate (nontheistic) explanations are more plausible than the God hypothesis. It need only be the case that they are EQUALLY PLAUSIBLE to that hypothesis. Hence, Dave's complaint that none of the explanations in question is more plausible than the God hypothesis is simply irrelevant to the above argument (as well as to our discussion).

It is clear, then, that Dave has his work cut out for him if he wishes to successfully defend the Cosmological Argument (or show that the atheist's "axiom" that the universe can exist sans a divine being is somehow mistaken or flawed).


Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 13 January 2002, with express editorial permission from Steve Conifer.

3 comments:

Phil said...

Hi Dave,

Could you explain a little more your argument against the rationale used by materialist (or just general) atheists. It's not that I haven't read any of your articles, I believe I've read them all, but that I find them often lacking in straightforward clarity. I don't mind the length (for me the longer the better!)or the writing style, but that in most of these dialogues the focus tends to shift from the main topic ton other less improtant things, usually because the person you are dialoguing with does so delibiratly or commits some fallacy that you then have to point our, or rambles insesantly about matter completly meaningless to your argument. I often find myself having to re-read a paper several dozen times before the general meaning finally sinks in and stays. I am particularly intrigued as to what your position on Natural Law, Justice and Morality connect to Catholic Philosophy, your website is by far the only one that I have found on the Internet that deals with them in any depth.

Thanks.

Phil said...

Typos
*rational and premises not just rational.

Dave Armstrong said...

If you have to read my papers "several dozen times" to grasp them, I would recommend reading something and someone else, and further explanation now would be futile.