bookmark_borderMilitant Agnosticism

I recently received an email from an agnostic named Dan who was, ironically enough, quite militant about his agnosticism! According to Dan, “one cannot logically be an atheist” because “a negative can never be proven.” Notice, however, the statement “a negative can never be proven” is itself a negative statement. Either the statement “a negative can never be proven” can itself be proven, in which case the argument is self-refuting, or it can’t be proven, in which case it doesn’t provide a reason to reject atheism. I make this and other points in my essay, “Is a Sound Argument for the Non-Existence of a God Even Possible?

When I referred Dan to the article, I explained that there are actually two ways to prove the nonexistence of something. One way is to prove that it cannot exist because its very concept is self-contradictory (e.g., square circles, married bachelors, etc.). The other way is by carefully looking and seeing. Both of these methods can and have been used to disprove various conceptions of God.

Dan took issue with the second method because it “presumes your senses and abilities are w/o bound.” Not really; the fact that we are finite beings does not prevent us from legitimately concluding that, given some body of evidence, a particular hypothesis is more probable than another hypothesis. This goes for conclusions about God’s existence just as it does for other areas where inductive logic is used, such as weather forecasting and criminal forensic investigations.

I suspect that Dan is holding both theism and atheism to a much higher evidential standard than we apply to other empirical questions. The fact that we might discover some new item of evidence in the future that supports a contradictory conclusion in no way undermines the fact that the evidence we have today supports an explanatory hypothesis. For example, the probability that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776 is extremely high, but it is not 100%. I suppose it is logically possible that in the future someone might discover historical evidence demonstrating the Declaration of Independence was signed on February 2, 1775. But the fact that such a thing is logically possible is irrelevant to the inductive (probabilistic) conclusion that the Declaration was indeed signed on July 4, 1776. In other words, a conclusion can be highly probable even if it is possible that the conclusion is false.

As a nontheist, I don’t demand that someone prove to me that the existence of God is absolutely certain (i.e., has a 100% probability). I would settle for an argument showing that the total relevant evidence merely makes the existence of God highly probable. Similarly, we don’t need absolutely certainty (i.e., 100% probability) in order to know that there is no God. We can use inductive arguments to show that God’s nonexistence is more likely, even much more likely, than God’s existence. And, indeed, I think there are inductively correct arguments that show religiously significant conceptions of God–such as the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–do not exist.

After corresponding with presuppositionalists who make the ridiculous claim that there are no atheists, I thought I had heard everything. I was wrong. After reading my defense of the second method of proving the nonexistence of something, Dan then proceeded to tell me that I am “really” an agnostic but I just refuse to admit it. This remarkable conclusion is supposed to follow from the fact that I don’t claim to be able to prove with absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist. The fact of the matter, however, is that ordinary usage of the word “atheist” does not support that conclusion. There is no requirement that one has to be absolutely certain that there is no God in order to qualify as an atheist. I have never claimed to be absolutely certain that atheism is true, but it doesn’t follow that I merely lack belief in God or that I am not an atheist. Rather, I believe God’s existence is very improbable.

To make an analogy, I don’t know with absolute certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I am highly confident that it will (i.e., it has an epistemic probability for me of >99.999%). That hardly means I am “agnostic” about whether the sun will rise. (In other words, one can hold a belief without assigning an epistemic probability of 100%.)

I’m reminded of Taner Edis’s recent discussion about individuals who claim that everyone is born ‘my’ way (i.e., theists who claim that everyone is born theist, atheists who claim that everyone is born atheist). Granted, Dan’s claim (that I and at least some other atheists are really agnostics) is not quite in the same category as the claims that Taner was discussing. But it is interesting to me that so many people’s argumentative strategy includes defining one’s ‘opposition’ out of existence!

bookmark_borderKen Ham: Postmodern Relativist?

In a series of feature articles prominently displayed on the Answers in Genesis (AiG) website, Creationist Ken Ham seems to promote a point of view that can best be described as postmodern relativism. In an article on searching for silver bullets, Ham writes:

“[U]ltimately, the [evolution versus creation] argument is about how you interpret the facts—and this depends upon your belief about history. The real difference is that we have different ‘histories’…, which we use to interpret the science and facts of the present.”

“Creationists and evolutionists… all have the same evidence—the same facts,” he insists in another article on evidentiary proof, emphasizing that our presuppositions frame how we interpret those facts. “Christians,” he writes, have the Bible and the stories therein provide “a set of presuppositions to build a way of thinking which enables [Christians] to interpret the evidence.” Evolutionists, on the other hand, “have certain beliefs about the past/present that they presuppose, e.g. no God… so they build a different way of thinking to interpret the evidence of the present.”

Ham thinks that creationists should point out that theories are driven by presuppositions rather than evidence. In this way, the creationist can not only justify his own set of interpretations over another but hopefully change people’s minds so that they, in effect, choose the biblical view of creation rather than the scientific view of evolution.

Is Ham channeling Foucault or Derrida here? His comments are strikingly similar to those made by postmodernists at war with Enlightenment principles. For those of us steeped in the scientific method, truth is objective, universal, and its predictions verifiable. Truth is not some warm fuzzy that emerges from tribal customs, pragmatism, or the a priori dictates of a godless worldview. As Richard Rorty put it, truth is “something to be pursued for its own sake, not because it will be good for oneself, or for one’s real or imaginary community.”

We naturalists do not want to preordain our conclusion by privileging a certain way of looking at facts. We want to go where the evidence leads. Postmodern relativism holds that science is wrong to promote universal theories over the many multicultural and local viewpoints. They say that since science has no more of a foundation than personal interpretation of facts and sources there can be no single truth. There are instead only competing contingent truths all informed by the cultural and philosophical presuppositions in which one is immersed. In other words, for postmodernity truth is nothing but an extension of power because after these culture clashes are over the winner essentially decides what is true.

Given that the facts do not lead to young-earth creationism, I guess it’s no surprise that Ham would retreat to the vague “truthiness” of postmodern relativity. Having lost the argument for creation on the merits of the evidence, it’s easy to see why other creationists harbor the idea that a secular conspiracy promotes an erroneous truth in place of the real truth. But I wonder how many dedicated creationist readers of AiG’s web site agree with Ken Ham’s approach to truth, evidence and theory?

bookmark_borderMuslims outraged

For all the Religious Right political influence and the cultural weight of the most mindless forms of Christianity in the United States, at least it’s not a Muslim country.

After a Danish and a Norwegian newspaper printed a couple of cartoons less-than-fully-respectful of Muhammad, Muslims the world over are indulging their sense of outrage, demanding that Denmark and Norway somehow censor or otherwise punish the newspaper or the cartoonists. Some comments sent to the Turkish newspaper I read online huff about how the Scandinavians pretend to be so concerned about human rights yet they let the religious sensibilities of a billion Muslims be offended. There are calls for boycotts of Scandinavian products, and even some violence.

Here’s some English-language news about it from the Guardian, buried at the end of a story about the Middle East.

gunmen from the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade – a Fatah offshoot – held the EU building in Gaza for half an hour this morning.

The gunmen said they wanted an apology from Denmark and Norway for the publication in a Danish and Norwegian newspaper of cartoons showing Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban on his head.

Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet, even respectful ones, out of concern that such images could lead to idolatry.

The cartoons have sparked protests, flag burnings and boycotts of Danish products throughout the Muslim world. On Sunday, Palestinian protesters burned Danish flags in two West Bank towns.

The Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper has refused to apologise for the publication on the grounds of freedom of speech. The Norwegian evangelical newspaper Magazinet reprinted the cartoons in the name of defending free expression.

bookmark_borderThe greatest philosophers: theists or atheists?

William Vallicella ranks the greatest philosophers, asking whether they were theists or atheists–and his list puts at least seven theists in the top ten. I think he’s asking the wrong question–an alternative question which would put things in a different perspective is

Were the greatest philosophers advocates of the mainstream religious views of the population they lived in, or did they express doubts about such views?

Atheism has always been a tiny minority view, especially if you only count those who called themselves atheists. Asking the question the way he does gives an advantage to theism simply in terms of number of candidates to select from. If he asked how many of the greatest philosophers were advocates of evangelical Christianity (of the sort that didn’t exist until the late 19th century), I’d expect the answer to be zero. Counting the greatest philosophers of history who were theists doesn’t tell you anything about whether theism is true–it’s a strategy much like that used by creationists who point out that many of the greatest scientists of history were creationists, populating it with names from before Darwin.

bookmark_borderWanchick’s moral argument

I probably should have posted this directly here rather than on my own blog, but I’ve offered up a critique of Wanchick’s moral argument in his Internet Infidels debate with Richard Carrier at The Lippard Blog. I believe that not only does Wanchick mainly proceed through the mere assertion of dubious premises, but that at one point he effectively argues for something that is almost moral subjectivism as a premise by which he attempts to derive the existence of God from the objectivity of moral order (i.e., a self-contradictory argument). Actually, it’s not quite subjectivism, as he would hold that all moral properties are objective properties of persons, but he does explicitly limit moral properties to persons, denying them to anything external to persons. I suspect that in light of this criticism he might revise his position to say that a person must always be involved (as actor or acted-upon) in order for moral properties to be involved.

bookmark_borderOn Living

Take a look at this poem by Nazim Hikmet, On Living. It loses something in being translated from the original Turkish, but there’s enough of an echo here of what is one of my favorite poems that I have to recommend it. And it’s a very secular view of life, just to make it relevant to this blog, but I almost hesitate to say so — it’s not like whether I enjoy something has a whole lot to do with whether I wholeheartedly agree with it…

bookmark_borderAliens Are Coming

The New York Times issues yet another in a series of found-another-planet-out-there articles that have been steadily coming in from astronomers around the world. In this case, the team reports that the new planet is the “the most Earthlike planet yet to be discovered.” It seems that it’s just a matter of time before we detect planets that can support life. And you know what that means. Aliens. No, not flying saucers but worlds in which intelligent beings are thriving. Since at least Lucretius in the first century BCE this idea has captured our imagination. In his epic poem On the Nature of Things he wrote:

“And now, if store of seeds there is so great that not whole life-times of the living can count the tale… [then it] must be confessed in other realms there are still other worlds, still other breeds of men, and other generations of the wild.”

There is a unique theological conundrum here for Christians that Jews and Muslims escape: of what value is the incarnation if there are thousands (perhaps millions) of other worlds in the universe with intelligent life? Perhaps there were multiple incarnations—a million deaths on a million crosses—in a sort of macabre cosmological Groundhog Day.

Or maybe out of all of the “other breeds of men” we’re the only ones who screwed up so badly that God found it necessary to take on the form of a man, sacrifice himself as a blood offering, so that he could then turn around and take receipt of that offering as forgiveness for everyone. (That’s like a son who borrows a bunch of money from his father and so the father decides to forgive the debt by withdrawing everything from his savings account on Tuesday and then depositing it back in on Wednesday.)

In any case, the aliens are coming. Christians had better get their story straight now so they’re on the same page when they finally arrive.

bookmark_borderDaniel Dennett interview in New York Times Magazine

The New York Times Magazine of January 22, 2006 contains an interview with Daniel Dennett on the subject matter of his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. A couple of excerpts suggest it will have some similarities to Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained:

We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof.

When a person dies, we can’t just turn that off. We go on thinking about that person as if that person were still alive. Our inability to turn off our people-seer and our people-hearer naturally turns into our hallucinations of ghosts, our sense that they are still with us.

bookmark_borderEveryone is born my way!

I was following a conversation elsewhere about how some Christians insist that everyone really knows that their God is real, it’s just that due to sin, they suppress this knowledge. Everyone is exposed to the illumination of the Holy Spirit, it’s just that those of us who remain skeptical prefer darkness.

Muslims, interestingly, do the same sort of thing, perhaps even more often. It tends to be based on their belief that the created nature (fitra) of every human is such that they are naturally Muslim. Someone departing so far from Islam as to not just associate others with God but to deny all gods must be in the grip of pretty strong immorality — they either lie in stating that they do not believe in God or they do something really drastic to suppress their innate knowledge that there is a God.

And then there are the atheists who claim that everyone is born an atheist, since newborns lack a belief in God and aquire it later through social indoctrination. A rock, presumably, is an atheist, lacking any beliefs whatsoever, and therefore being quite the godless infidel. Many Muslims, mind you, very seriously argue that rocks are Muslim. After all, a Muslim is someone who submits to the laws laid down by God. And a rock has no option but to act according to the laws of physics that were determined by the Great Lawgiver in the Sky.

Now, on the face of it, I find arguments such as this whole “people innately share my view, unless they are indoctrinated otherwise” profoundly silly. They’re ludicrously simplistic in their conceptions of how people acquire beliefs, but even setting that aside, what’s the point? Maybe because I’m a physicist by trade, I am very aware of how our commonsense and folk-theories are very bad at grasping how the world works beyond everyday circumstances. I suppose people might feel that if their point of view was innate, that was a point in favor of its being true. Well, maybe, but even if so, that would be very weak support. There is something else that motivates all these claims, by believer and nonbelievers alike, that theirs is the natural, default state of affairs. And I’m not sure I understand what it is.