Saturday, August 21, 2010

Atheists Are Non-Believers, Even Explicit Atheists Like Me.

Pete Enns, Ph.D., Senior Fellow in Biblical Studies, The BioLogos Foundation, wrote an article "Atheists Are Believers, Too" published by Huffington Post on August 15 , asserting that "Atheists do not know God does not exist; they believe it."

Some self-declared atheists say they have no belief on this question, and I accept their characterization of themselves as non-believing atheists, but I am an atheist who positively believes that there are no gods. I am compelled to this belief by my understanding of the weight of the overall evidence. However, it is an equivocation on different definitions of belief to call atheists "believers", as Pete Enns does in his article. A believer is a person who is convinced that something exists, the person who is convinced that something does not exist is a non-believer. According to this common usage, atheists are non-believers. This distinction has some significance because it is the person who positively asserts that an entity exists who has the primary burden of providing the evidence and clear definitions to support their belief. The logical default starting position on any possible entity is that we shouldn't assume that it exists absent both a good definition of that entity and empirical evidence for its presence. However, atheists who, like me, positively believe that gods do not exist also have some responsibility to provide evidence in support of our belief. Accordingly, I cite physicist Victor Stenger who has also recently been writing articles for the Huffington Post. He makes such arguments on the evidence and Pete Enns would be doing better if he acknowledged those arguments.

Pete Enns goes astray again when he asserts "To say that God's existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God." So what is this alternative way of "accessing God"? He explains "This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition." Sure, emotion and intuition have their place because we often have to make decisions quickly without complete information and evaluating all of the evidence would take too long and take too much effort. But they are no substitutes for evidence and deliberation when there is no urgent need to make a quick decision. If appeal to emotion and intuition is the best that theists can do then the case for theism is very weak indeed. It is a fact that much of our modern understanding of the world is counter-intuitive, including the most important concepts of modern physics (quantum mechanics, general relativity) and biology (evolution).

This characterization of atheists as people who assert "certainty" of knowledge is a false negative stereotype. No one needs to claim an unattainable absolute knowledge to justify their belief that some conjectured entity does not exist. We justify our beliefs based on the overall weight of the available evidence. That is all that is needed and all that we claim.

He then tries to skip over the need for evidence with the assertion that "god is the source of all being". That is lame, we have no justification for accepting that. As an example of a belief that is allegedly justified without evidence he then states that "there is no compelling evidence whatsoever" for the widely accepted "principle of uniformity". Not true. There is plenty of evidence for uniformity. We witness the laws of nature and find that they appear to be the same everywhere and don't change. On all such questions we will follow the evidence wherever it takes us. So if and when we find evidence that the laws of nature differ in different locations or change over time then we will be compelled to conclude that the laws of nature vary by place and time.

Pete Enns writes 'I know some real live atheists, and they do not claim to know as much as some others do. The reason that they are atheists is that "God is" is a less compelling proposition to explain their reality than "God is not." They did not come to this sure and certain conclusion by a calm and logical assessment of the evidence (as opposed to the unreasonable and illogical faith of religious types). Rather, they came to their atheism for many different types of reasons, some of which are too subtle to quantify.'

He appears to now be contradicting his earlier argument that emotion and intuition was sufficient justification for belief since now he is suggesting a "calm" assessment of the evidence is essential. He also is simply mistaken here (although he is now correct regarding the need for evidence). Every belief is not "unreasonable and illogical faith". Some beliefs are justified by the weight of the evidence (based on a calm and logical assessment of the evidence), some beliefs are unjustified by the weight of the evidence, and some beliefs are contrary to the weight of the evidence. Atheism is the best justified belief here, it is a belief that is the result of a calm and logical assessment of the evidence. There is no solid empirical evidence for gods, all the empirical evidence that we do have is collectively a best fit with the conclusion that gods are made up entities that exist only in the minds of people and nowhere else. Atheists don't claim to "know more than anyone else", but atheism does appear to be the rationally compelled belief from the overall weight of the evidence, evidence that is equally available to many of us, although not necessarily equally consumed or equally followed, resulting in most people being theists. There is nothing in Pete Enns' article to support any assertion otherwise.

On Gary Gutting's Theism: A Response

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.” He published an article "On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response" for the Opinionator column of the NY Times on August 11. Towards the end of the article he makes the following assertion regarding the status of materialism:

"At this point, the dispute between theists and atheists morphs into one of the most lively (and difficult) of current philosophical debates—that between those who think consciousness is somehow reducible to material brain-states and those who think it is not. This debate is far from settled and at least shows that materialism is not something atheists can simply assert as an established fact. It follows that they have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God."

The fact is that we have excellent evidence that consciousness (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) exists only as a material product of a nervous system and brain: Consciousness manifests itself according to both absolute brain size (because brain resources are needed to produce consciousness) and brain size relative to body size (since brain resources are also devoted to supporting bodily functions). Therefore consciousness is a material phenomena. This method of reaching conclusions is called logical best fit on the overall weight of the available evidence. We don't have to be professional scientists or philosophers to adopt this method of applied logic, its freely available to everyone and in fact its commonly recognized as the best method. We can adopt this method and at the same time recognize that some phenomena may be too complex, indeterminate, or informationally hidden to fully understand scientifically. We don't have perfect methods for finding the ultimate truth, we cannot have perfect and complete knowledge, but we do have a reliable method versus non-reliable methods for justifying beliefs.

Furthermore, we cannot properly conclude that our present ignorance, or even the inevitability of our future ignorance, is evidence for "immaterial realities" in general or for any god in particular. Theists tend to favor appeals to ignorance as evidence for god, personal interpretations of personal experiences as evidence for god, argument by assertion of possibilities as evidence for god, what I call "the dog eats the homework" and other excuses for not having, or even needing, supporting empirical evidence, and the like. These are unreliable methods for justifying beliefs, and poor excuses for not relying on evidence, that rational people rightly reject in many other contexts as seriously flawed and should also reject here.

As far as doubting versus denying, we should hold our beliefs in proportion to the evidence. If little evidence is for, and much evidence is against, then denying is more appropriate than doubting. There is very little in the way of solid evidence favoring god, so given the ample evidence against, god denial is proportional to the evidence. Gary Gutting fails, completely, to put forward evidence for any gods in his article.

Furthermore, we don't need "decisive proof" to deny a far-fetched hypothesis. We have no decisive proof that the sun will "rise" tomorrow, yet we are justified in denying that tomorrow our sun will inexplicably disappear from the universe. Most, if not all, of our knowledge is contingent and probabilistic, its based on weight of the evidence. Outside of mathematics and pure logic we don't have "decisive proof", no one operates by such an impractical standard. Its a double standard to assert, as Gary Gutting does, that atheism, and apparently only atheism, be required to adhere to such an impossible standard.

Gary Gutting disputes Dawkins' assertion that god as "a highly complex being would itself require explanation". However, the evidence that we have is that intelligence of the sort attributed to god requires brains and brains are complex. So, putting aside the obvious dubiousness of the assumption that an all-knowing being is feasible, an all-knowing being would be very complex indeed on a weight of the available evidence standard. Why should we abandon weight of the evidence for any particular other "possibilities", as Gary Gutting advocates? Theological arguments that weight of the evidence isn't the proper standard are cited, but please pardon me when I assert that those arguments are all sophistry. If Dawkins' "ignores those discussions" then I say good for him. If more people took such weightless, arbitrary, and unjustified possibilities as "god" being the "necessary being" less seriously then we would have more rational deliberations. Gary Gutting accuses Dawkins' of taking leaps, but going from the universe exists to "necessary being" and then from "necessary being" to "god" are leaps greater than any leaps found in the contents of Dawkins' arguments for atheism.

Gary Gutting then cites public opinion favoring the existence of god as evidence for god. If the overall weight of the evidence is against public opinion then majority public most likely is wrong, as it has occasionally been wrong throughout history. The fact is that there are many bad reasons for people to believe in gods and we have multiple sources of evidence that people's beliefs regarding gods have little to do with the facts of the matter and much to do with human emotional and intellectual limitations. For example, it is implausible that a majority of beliefs about gods throughout history are true because those beliefs are self-contradictory and mutually exclusive, so we have good reason to think that people's ubiquitous beliefs about gods are wrong.

I am most unimpressed with the free floating, unanchored, evidence-less, philosophizing for god belief on the basis of mere possibilities that Gary Gutting promotes. We have no good justification for taking such arguments seriously.