Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Strawman of the Faithful Atheist (Part 2)

The reasonable man bases his conclusions on the evidence currently available while acknowledging that tomorrow’s evidence may show something quite different. – RG Swinburne

Rosenbaum also claims that a significant portion of atheists hold “the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.” This is not so much a lie as a misunderstanding of the truth.

Atheism as it exists in the real world (not as the theoretical Pure 7 Rosenbaum seems to think most atheists are, which I would call anti-theism) is an inherently scientific theory. I can’t speak for all of them, but I’d suggest that the majority of atheists believe that science (and its parent discipline, logic) will probably eventually solve all the problems that most people circumvent by the increasingly-useless panacea of the God Hypothesis. Very few would state that science and logic will definitely solve these problems, especially given that humanity as a race probably does not have infinite time to work on them. What we are certain of is that science is our best and only hope. Maybe such questions as ‘why something exists rather than nothing’ are unable to be answered by science and logic – but they are definitely unable to be answered by religion. Rosenbaum challenges atheist readers to send in their answers to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing” – and, although I’m sure the vast majority would readily admit to not knowing yet, he laughs at the notion that science and logic could ever answer this question. This boggles my mind – does he think organized religion or the philosophical copout answer “God did it” ever could? All we are saying is that we will take our chances with the ‘maybe’ rather than the ‘definitely not’. Putting a question in the too-hard basket and explaining them with an unknown and unknowable god are exactly the same thing – because then you would need some sort of logical, scientific inquiry to explain how and why God did these things.

Rosenbaum, via John Dewey and his own comments, equates ‘militant’, ‘aggressive’ or outspoken atheism with theism, seemingly only due to the intensity of their beliefs. In doing so, he is conflating intensity of belief with irrationality of belief. While it is true that someone who believes something with 100% certainty does so irrationally (because it is irrational to be 100% certain of anything) and that someone who believes something with 100% certainty will invariably hold that belief very intensely, it does not follow that any belief that someone holds intensely – something that they are very sure of but are open to the possibility of being wrong about – is an irrational one. I touched on this in Part 1, but atheists currently do spend a disproportionate amount of time defending their lack of belief in a deity, due to the constant attacks on this belief by theists. This is not because it is what atheism is about, it is because scientific theories that do not require a deity are constantly and vehemently opposed by theists, and we need to address the issue so that we can get on with our business. Logical processes are disrupted by people imposing illogical, religious beliefs upon them, and so we feel the need to oppose this. Since these beliefs are ruining our society (or, since most of what we are trying to do is fix the mistakes of the past, preventing us from un-ruining it) we should and do oppose them fiercely. But the fact that we defend our beliefs as intensely as theists does not mean that we came to those beliefs by the same methods, and this is so blindingly obvious that I can’t believe I need to say it.

Now, obviously Ron Rosenbaum is an idiot, and as the comments on his article will tell you, the vast majority of what he says has been pre-rebutted by philosophers (Russell et al.) before he was even born; I realize I’m not really treading new ground, but I include these rebuttals both so that critics of atheism who use arguments like Rosenbaum’s can see how illogical they are, and so atheist readers have them readily available in a format that can be used when arguing with said critics. But this one is slightly trickier: there are many things which are proposed but have no evidence, that some people will believe in and some will not. The examples given are Vishnu for the Christians and Thor for pretty much every contemporary person; most people aren’t fence-sitting agnostics about these deities, they are 6.5-atheists. Atheists will then often put to agnostics that they should essentially be consistent in their beliefs and also be agnostic about these gods or anything else; the example given is fairies but I think Bertrand Russell’s cosmic teapot is the best one. You can propose almost anything to exist, provided that you put enough limitations on its ability to be observed, and it is impossible to disprove its existence. This endeavors to show the logical fallacy of being agnostic, since the fact that something cannot be disproved is not sufficient reason to believe in it. The reality is a bit trickier though; as he points out, there is a long leap from saying that specific gods or teapots do not exist to saying that no gods can possibly exist, and there are (at least on the surface) several reasons one might suppose god exists (such as the first cause) whereas there is no natural phenomenon for which we can say “Well, if the cosmic teapot did exist, it would explain that.”

Essentially, the answer here is to free yourself from the burden of history. Agnostics almost always come at the God Hypothesis from the angle of theism; they start out assuming that there is a God of some description, and then become skeptical enough to doubt it. In this period of doubt, they don’t find anything that conclusively disproves God, so they err on the side of their previous beliefs and become agnostic – essentially, they want to believe there’s a god, and there are still enough gaps in our knowledge for God to fit into, so they do. It generally stops being the rigid, dogmatic God of the church they grew up in (I’d suggest because it is dissatisfaction with the church that leads them to doubt in the first place) but it’s a god nonetheless. But if they were to free themselves of what they believe, what they want to be true, and look at the facts with fresh, skeptical eyes, they would conclude that the existence of all supernatural beings are equally likely, and that likelihood is very low. It can be seen that although there are gaps in our knowledge, science and logic are the only ways it is possible to fill them; and that although there are some questions that we may never be able to answer, proposing a God raises more questions than it answers. After all, if you propose “God wills it to be” as the answer to the question of why something exists rather than nothing, then you not only need to ask “Why does God will it to be?” and “How does God’s will work?” but more pertinently, “Why does God exist rather than nothing?”

So yes, atheists believe in science. We have faith that its principles are sound ways of discovering the truths of the universe – but it is not a blind faith. We do not think we can predict the future, so we do not profess to know for certain that we will be able to explain everything in the universe. But we think, based on past success, that we will probably be able to discover a lot more, and that religious methods definitely will not be able to. Glad I could clear that up for you.

(Part 1 here)

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