Posts

God, Absence of Evidence, and the Atheist’s Teapot

Brian Garvey, a lecturer in the philosophy of mind and psychology at Lancaster University, has written an article exploring Russell’s famous celestial teapot. The article, Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot, appears in in the latest volume of Ars Disputandi, a philosophy of religion journal hosted by Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Here’s the abstract:

Atheists often admit that there is no positive evidence for atheism. Many argue that there is nonetheless a prima facie argument, which I will refer to as the ‘teapot argument’. They liken agnosticism to remaining neutral on the existence of a teapot in outer space. The present paper argues that this analogy fails, for the person who denies such a teapot can agree with the person who affirms it regarding every other feature of the world, which is not the case with the atheist vis-a-vis the theist. The atheist is committed to there being an alternative explanation of why the universe exists and is the way it is. Moreover, the analogy relies on assumptions about the prior plausibility of atheism. Hence, the teapot argument fails.

And a quote:

“There is, I want to argue, a significant di fference between denying the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun, and denying the existence of God. When two people disagree over whether or not there is a teapot orbiting the sun, they are disagreeing over whether the world includes that particular item or not. For all that that particular disagreement implies, the two people agree about every other feature of the world: the tea-ist believes in a world that is exactly the same as the one the a-tea-ist believes in, with the single difference that it contains one item that the a-tea-ist’s world doesn’t contain. Since, as I have argued in the previous section, the only thing that could count as evidence for the teapot orbiting the sun is that someone has seen it, it is in one way analogous to a situation where one person says: ‘there’s a postbox at the end of the high street’ and the other person says ‘no there isn’t, go and have a look’, and the first person goes and looks and doesn’t see one. If that person is reasonable, that will be the end of the argument. The two situations are not quite analogous, however, in that no-one has gone and looked to see whether there is a teapot in outer space. But the situations are disanalogous in a second way too, and a way which helps to illuminate why, in the absence of evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no such teapot. That is, that there is nothing manifestly far-fetched in the idea of there being a postbox at the end of the high street. In the absence of seeing one (leaving aside the possibility of more indirect evidence, such as seeing a map of where all the postboxes are at the GPO) one is hardly being unreasonable if one doesn’t come down on one side or the other. And this difference between the postbox and the teapot tells us something about why it is unreasonable to suspend judgement regarding the teapot, even though we have not only failed to see one, but failed to carry out anything remotely approaching an exhaustive search. Because of its manifest far-fetchedness, or what amounts to the same thing, because it’s reasonable in the absence of prior evidence on the specific hypothesis to estimate that it’s highly unlikely, we can say that, when it comes to teapots orbiting the sun, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. The atheist’s argument attempts to gain persuasiveness by ignoring this issue of prior plausibility. It is true that we cannot (at present) conclusively prove that there’s no teapot in outer space in the way that we could conclusively prove that there’s no postbox on the end of the street by going there and looking. But part of the reason why, despite not being able to do this, it is still reasonable to conclude that there isn’t, is that prior to any investigation the hypothesis is manifestly far-fetched. In the postbox case it is not, and thus we can see that absence of evidence, as far as rendering it reasonable to deny something’s existence goes, has different force depending on the case in hand. Unless the existence of God is taken to be also manifestly far-fetched, the argument to the effect that if we don’t suspend judgement regarding the teapot then we shouldn’t suspend it regarding God, doesn’t get off the ground.”

Read the whole thing on the Ars Disputandi website.

(Source: Z)

What does Atheism really mean?

In the April 2010 Reasonable Faith Newsletter, William Lane Craig had this to say about his visit to the University of North Carolina and his debate with Herb Silverman at UNCW, the Faculty Forum on the existence of God.

“Around 1,000 people showed up to hear a very rousing debate. As is typical with secular humanist types, Dr. Silverman had very little of substance to say about the arguments for or against God’s existence (indeed, he presented no arguments against God’s existence, taking the lazy man’s route of re-defining atheism to be just the psychological state of being without a belief in God).”[1]

Atheism has traditionally been defined as the belief that God does not exist. This remains the formal definition in the Philosophy of Religion.[2] Though not usually done, this idea can legitimately be expanded in certain contexts to include the denial of any particular god or gods. The early Christians for instance were called Atheists because they denied the existence of a whole pantheon of Roman god’s.

In recent years there has been a further expansion of the term to what Craig describes above as “the psychological state of being without a belief in God.” The columnist Christopher Hitchens advocated this construal of atheism during his debate with Craig last year (2209) at Biola University. Antony Flew, formally the worlds leading Atheist intellectual recognizes this shift of definition in the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion.

“…the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.”[3]

It is said that this shift in definition is taken up to avoid the burden of making an argument. No longer does the atheist have to make an argument, because atheism has changed from being a view to being a psychological state. The first must have a truth-value, while the second is absent any proposition, and therefore has no truth-value.

But have these “atheists” truly escaped the burden of making an argument? I think not for at least two reasons.

First, in moments of honesty you will find that those who claim to be Atheist’s of the new variety are actually undercover atheists of the old variety. Ask any of them in an unguarded moment, “Do you believe there’s a God?” and what answer will you get? There answer will be “No.” They may say “no” in different ways, like “God is a Delusion,” (Richard Dawkins) or “You won’t find me guilty of wishful thinking.” (Christopher Hitchens). Bill Cook, the president of the New Zealand Secular Humanist Society in debate and in print has chosen to define atheism in this new, unorthodox way. In debate Craig caught him out by pointing out that a god merely in the imagination and a god not existing is “a difference without a difference.” A recent Thinking Matters comment stated something comparable to; “I’m not arguing that God doesn’t exist. I just want you to admit that the essential attributes of your God are incoherent.” This is philosophical double-speak. At bottom, these Atheist’s still hold to the classical construal of Atheism, no matter the lip service they give to a having no-belief regarding God.

The absurdity of their insistence on the new definition, is that if it were so, babies, dogs and cats, even trees should also be considered Atheists. Further still, if Atheism on the new construal were diligently and systematically applied, it would be totally compatible with for Theism being true, and even the more rationally respectable option. So if this truly is what Atheists mean by “Atheism,” why is it that the New Atheist’s rail against the notion of God so much? Misquoting Shakespeare, my history professor said of Dawkins, “Methinks he doth protest too much.”

The extreme expression of this linguistic pose is Reggie Finlay, the host of the Infidel Guy Radio program. He will describe himself as an Atheist-Agnostic or Agnostic-Atheist. Agnostic because he recognizes that he cannot know with certainty that God does not exist, and Atheist because he believes that nevertheless Atheism is the more likely than Theism. Findlay says, “I really doubt it [theism].”

To this you may respond, “What reason is there to think that Atheism is more reasonable than Theism?” You would be right to do so. Here is the second reason for why the atheist has not escaped the burden of having to make an argument. Because they implicitly, sometimes explicitly, make the claim that traditional Atheism is the more probable candidate. This claim, like any other positive assertion, needs philosophical justification. Thus the new brand of Atheist is in the difficult position of once again having to support his position with arguments lest he be called irrational.

Attempts of deflection are unsuccessful. Generally Atheist’s appeal to the idea that it is Theism that makes a claim to knowledge that has not yet been demonstrated, so we should not believe God exists in the absence of evidence. This appeal is what is called the Presumption of (traditional) Atheism. It is a poor appeal in two respects.

First off, Atheism also makes a claim to knowledge that cannot be demonstrated. Why then does the adherent of Atheism adopt this psychological state of non-belief in God? Was a coin flipped? Why not non-belief in Atheism? Why not Agnostic-theism?

Second, this appeal relies on idea that all the arguments for Theism, such as the cosmological, teleological, axiological, ontological and historical arguments, etc., are unsuccessful. This lays a heavy burden on the Atheist who now has to try and find reasons to either deny (highly plausible) premises or show an informal fallacy of some sort in the arguments for God’s existence. This is an uncomfortable position to be in as it will always be on the back-foot – defensive mode.

The Atheist might try to appeal to make other appeals, such as to the presence of evil in the world. But once they go there, they are once again in the difficult situation of trying to make arguments like their Atheistic intellectual forebears. Arguments that, after years of re-formulation, eventually grew tired and were found not to work. For instance, Christopher Hitchens, whose only argument (or shall we say railing?) is the Problem of Evil, embarrassingly admitted in a panel discussion in Dallas Texas that the presence of evil and suffering in the world could be explained coherently on the Christian worldview.

If my arguments are correct, then one implication is that Atheism is not the default position or a position of intellectual innocence/neutrality. As rational agents we should be able to give account for the justification of our beliefs and the Atheist must accept this fact, no less than the Theist. Personally, I think so-called Agnostic-atheists, non-theists, a-theists, etc., should tie their shoelaces and become either full-fledged Atheists, or kept faithfully to Agnosticism while calling it thus.


[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith April Newsletter 2010, www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8081

[2] Atheism: “the view that there is no divine being, no God.” Penguin dictionary of Philosophy. Edited by Thomas Mautner. Penguin Books (1996)

“Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Edited by Ted Honderich. Oxford University press (1995)

The belief that God – especially a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God – does not exist.” The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. BUNNIN, NICHOLAS and JIYUAN YU (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

“Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.” William Rowe (1998). Atheism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Rowe does go on to say in the article: “Another meaning of ‘atheism’ is simply nonbelief in the existence of God, rather than positive belief in the nonexistence of God. These two different meanings are sometimes characterized as positive atheism (belief in the nonexistence of God) and negative atheism (lack of belief in the existence of God). Barring inconsistent beliefs, a positive atheist is also a negative atheist, but a negative atheist need not be a positive atheist.”

[3] A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997), s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew.

I am indebted to Jason Kumar for most of these footnoted references as well as excellent editorial advice.

A Familiar Conversation: Part 2

In my previous post, I analyzed an argument for Atheism and discussed the hidden second premise that “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” Didymus is a pseudonym used for our familiar objector. Here I’ll look at three typical responses to my discussion and examine the reasonableness of each.

1:

“Well, if you reason like this then you can’t conclude that pink unicorns, trolls and hob-goblins don’t exist.” [1]

This is no insult or failing of my philosophy. I don’t make the claim that things like trolls don’t exist. Failing to be able to prove something does not exist is no slight. This is why soft agnosticism becomes the safe middle ground – an acceptably moderate position in the absence of evidence.

In similar fashion Didymus adds, if you reason like this you have to take seriously the existence of such things as Lucky Potions and Flying-Purple-People-Eaters. He alludes it is ridiculous to do so in the absence of evidence.

It is good to take such things seriously if there are some good reasons to believe these are credible. As there are none, I am under no such obligation. Thus, I do not have to take seriously things like trolls. Now in the case for God there is no comparison. There are good reasons to believe God is credible. There is philosophical evidence, which is backed up by my own experiential evidence, and without reasonable defeaters for each of these, I am completely rational in believing that God exists.

2:

“Well, there are many intelligent people on both sides of the debate who disagree with the philosophical arguments, and so philosophical arguments are not to be trusted.”

The assertion that many intelligent people would advocate Atheism is false. Most serious thinkers would prefer a soft form of Agnosticism if not Theism.

There is an assumption here that both sides are equally diligent and honest in their quest to find the truth. I make no claim here about motivations of either side (I can only know my own, and perhaps even that imperfectly). The point here is simply to say that to implicitly claim to know that the people on both sides of the debate are genuinely applying serious critical thought into this area of Philosophy of Religion is presumptuous.

The greatest problem with this type of response when arguing for God’s existence is it commits the fallacy of argument ad populum. This is an appeal to the numbers of people who believe in order to prove ones point. What people believe about God’s existence or the arguments for God’s existence makes not a whiff of difference whatsoever about God’s existence. We know in other subject areas that the whole world can be wrong, yet this does nothing to effect the truth or falsehood of any belief.

Finally, the response itself is self-defeating. This is a philosophical argument that has engendered some difference of opinion from both sides of the debate, so by its own merit we should not trust this argument. In short, it is using philosophy to argue against the use of philosophy.

3:

“Well, the point is where there is no evidence it is foolish to believe in something, and it’s not foolish to believe in something if there is evidence.”

Of course, I think there is good evidence for God’s existence; so believing in God is not foolish by this axiom. But the objection holds water like a leaky bucket. If your trustworthy wife told you she spent the afternoon window-shopping, but she did not have any evidence of this, it would actually be foolish not to believe it.

The point of the illustration is not to make a comparison with belief in God, but to show the objection is not axiomatic. On further analysis, one wonders why it was not foolish to believe something in the absence of evidence? The answer is because your wife has proven herself trustworthy in the past and stands in as an expert witness to her afternoon activities. Expert witnesses, though not guaranteeing the truth or falsehood of a belief, nevertheless increase the credulity of the position they advocate. When a five-year old girl in pig-tails fresh out of kindergarten advocates an outlandish belief about her favourite rugby team, she might convince a few of her pairs, but not many others. When Hamish McKay agrees with her announcing on the News in all seriousness that the Chief’s have a good shot at winning the Super 14, this authoritative stamp of approval gives said belief considerable weight.

Christianity of course suffers from no lack of expert witness. Two billion[2] or so people worldwide can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ. Miracles are in abundance for anyone who is willing to open their eyes and look for them. A revolution in philosophy in the last 40 years, especially in the Anglophone world, has curtailed the atheistic dominance in the field. Today perhaps one quarter to one third of philosophy professors are theists, and of that mostly orthodox Christians.[3] And of course, God himself in his word, the Bible, provides the ultimate expert witnesses. There he has preserved with other powerful proofs[4] the testimony of the apostles, all eye witnesses to the risen Lord.

CONCLUSION

It seems to me that Didymus is right in that until evidence is found that would corroborate these types of beliefs then one is justified in remaining sceptical, even to the point of disbelief. However, this is where he is wrong. As soon as one claims something does not exist a burden is placed upon them to prove it. If one fails to bear this burden they have crossed the boundary of what is reasonable. Empirical evidence can verify that belief in P is reasonable, but lack of empirical evidence cannot prove that belief in not-P is reasonable.

Unfortunately, in forsaking philosophical evidence because he believes it hopelessly indeterminate, and by ardently requiring tangible evidence such as that which is delivered in a science lab, he has mired himself in a quagmire or illogic, unable to pull himself free from claims he so vehemently makes. These claims are explicit and implicit; respectively, that God does not exist, and that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.


[1] or “Toothfairy, Thor and water-divining,” See comment: # 11 February 2010 at 1:37 pm; Panel Discussion of Stephen Meyers Signature in the Cell

[2] How Many Christians are There Worldwide

[3] Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.

[4] Such as fulfilled prophecy

A Familiar Conversation: Part 1

Those familiar with past conversations on this blog will be familiar with the voice of our objector. In this article I shall refer to our objector as Didymus, in memory of the one who doubted the Apostles’ word, but came to believe when Christ appeared to him saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believed.”

The following will seem like we’re treading familiar water. That’s because we will be. This is, as the title declares, a familiar conversation.[1] First, take note of few of Didymus’ statements;

Stuart: Failing to make an argument is failing to reason.

Didymus: I’m not failing to make an argument, I’m refusing to make a philosophical one. . . One argument of mine is that I just don’t see god. This is an evidentiary argument.

In response, making an argument, but not making a philosophical argument is impossible. All arguments require and use in some way philosophy, even if it’s just the basic laws of logic (rules of right-thinking) that are employed. Logic is a sub-discipline of philosophy, and because logic must be used in an argument, refusing to make a philosophical argument is refusing to make an argument.

An evidentiary argument is one that provides evidence. Evidence by itself tells us nothing until reason is applied. Good reason requires good philosophy, and bad reasoning uses bad philosophy. So evidence is always used in philosophical arguments, and this is the case for the cosmological, teleological, moral and historical arguments for God’s existence. Because I look favourably on the use of such arguments, I am an evidentialist apologist. The ontological argument is supposed to only use premises that can be derived purely from inside the mind instead of tangible evidence from the world of sight and sound. Still, one could construe this argument to be evidentiary in the sense that it, as a purely philosophical argument can be used as evidence in the case for God’s existence (that is, if one thinks it is a good argument).

Also take note of Didymus’ response to this question.

Stuart: What arguments for Atheism[2] do you find convincing?

Didymus: I see no evidence for god.

“I see no evidence for god” is supposed to be taken as a serious argument for Atheism.[2] Witness the implied syllogism.

Step (1) I see no evidence for god.
Step (2) Therefore, God does not exist.

Clearly this is not an argument. Arguments need at least two premises to reach a conclusion. There is no logical law of inference that would conclude (2) – that God does not exist – from (1) – I see no evidence for God. In order to conclude atheism one would have to add an extra premise between (1) and (2), bumping the conclusion to step (3). Let us presume that the lack of Didymus finding evidence is reason enough to conclude that there is no evidence for God.

Step 1) There is no evidence for god.
Step 2) The absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Step 3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Now this is a logically valid argument. That is the argument breaks no formal or informal rules of inference. The argument though is far from sound. For an argument to be sound it needs to be logically valid and have true premises.

The evidence for God is vast. There are two broad categories each with a diverse variety: philosophical evidence and experiential evidence. The philosophical evidence is listed above, and frequently discussed here at the Thinking Matters website. The experiential evidence can be everything from a full-blown Christophany[3] to the quiet witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer. Other experiential evidence might include miracles of healing, signs and wonders, deliverance from demonic activity, the functioning of spiritual gifts such as prophecy or words of knowledge and wisdom.

So as there is evidence for God, premise (1) is false. Nothing more is needed to invalidate the argument. However, you will recall that we were operating under Didymus’ belief that there is no evidence for God. So more important for my purpose here is to point out that premise (2) is also false. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

When there is an absence of evidence for belief P it may be reasonable to remain sceptical or doubtful about belief P, but to conclude from only this that there is an actual absence of P is to overstep the boundary of what one can rationally claim. There are many cases where the failure to provide evidence does not mean said occurrence did not happen, or said entity does not exist. Four examples shall suffice.

(A)

A body is found. Investigators are able to deduce a time and cause of death, and come to suspect that it took place in a well-known haunt where other illegal activity often occurs. As it happens, the murder did occur there and their suspicions are correct, though they do not know it. The problem is the place they suspect is clean of all the expected bloodstains and bullet casings. They find no evidence that the crime was committed there. This is because the murder scene was scrubbed clean and put in perfect order by an expert team, who then fled the country leaving no witnesses. Scenarios like this make “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” an axiom in forensic science.

(B)

Prior to the advent of heliocentricism,[4] championed by Copernicus and Galileo, it was thought by more than a few that the earth was the centre of the Solar System and that the sun revolved around the earth. Suppose heliocentricism was proposed before any of the evidence for it was found. One would understandably be sceptical, as this new idea would be totally different from what had always been taught and previously believed by everyone else. The people who ask for evidence get no reply – none yet has been discovered. They conclude then that geocentricism[5] is better because there is no evidence for heliocentricism. In this case the inability to prove something was not proof that that something was false.

(C)

Take the moral claim “cannibalism (to eat another human’s flesh) while the person is still alive is wrong.” When asked to prove this moral assertion, the person making the claim is not able to do it. One argues that is wrong to knowingly inflict harm on someone else, and thus this case of cannibalism is wrong, but this response itself relies on other unproven and un-evidenced moral assertions. The point here is you can know something is wrong, without knowing how something is wrong. Morality is very much an instinctual process, and one grasps that something is wrong without necessarily reasoning out the “why?” beforehand. So here you have a moral claim that is true but is unable to be shown to be true, yet it remains reasonable to believe true. Again, the inability to prove something was not proof that that something was false.

(D)

Before the Seventeenth Century it was supposedly thought that there was no such thing as a black swan. However, during the expansion of Europe people traveled widely and, lo and behold, some black swans were discovered. Prior to this there was an absence of evidence for black swans, but this did not mean that there were no such things as black swans.

Next time in Part 2 we shall continue with this familiar conversation, and see how Didymus generally responds to this.


[1] My reason for posting here is so when this argument again pops up, as it inevitably will, I can simply refer said proponent to this post.

[2] Atheism is the idea that God does not exist

[3] An appearance of Christ in the flesh, such as to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus.

[4] The belief that the earth revolves around the sun.

[5] The belief that the earth is in the centre of the universe, and all revolves around it.

Atheism and Immorality: An Interview with Jim Spiegel

The Evangelical Philosophical Society has posted an interview with Taylor University Philosopher, Jim Spiegel, about his new book The Making of An Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief:

How did this book come about for you?

Like any philosopher of religion, I’ve followed the new atheist movement with interest.  But after reading numerous responses from Christian apologists, I noticed a conspicuous lack of attention to the moral-psychological roots of atheism.  Given that the biblical writers emphasize this dimension of unbelief, I thought someone needed to address it.

How does this book uniquely contribute to critiques of atheism and the “new atheism”?

Most Christian apologists’ responses to the new atheists challenge their arguments and reveal the many fallacies in their objections to religious faith.  This is helpful, of course, and I applaud the work of Ravi Zacharias, Alister McGrath, Dinesh D’Souza, Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Tim Keller, and others for their superb contributions to the debate.  What they so well demonstrate is that atheism is not the consequence of any lack of evidence for God.  So the question naturally arises, What is the cause of atheism?  That is the question I address in my book.

The “noetic effects of sin” (as it’s sometimes called) plays an important conceptual and explanatory role in your book. In general, can you briefly explain your view on this matter?

I take my cue from Scripture, specifically such passages as Romans 1:18-32, where the Apostle Paul asserts that no one has any excuse not to believe in God. Rather, he says, some “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18).  In my book I develop a model for how this happens, tracing the suppression of truth to a willful rejection of God, prompted by immorality and self-deception.  Thus, I argue, sinful behaviors cloud and distort cognition.  The notion that volitional factors impact belief-formation has been forcefully argued by thinkers as various as John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, William James, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and Alvin Plantinga.  In terms of a specifically Christian application of this dynamic, I’ve been especially inspired by Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.

Read the rest on the EPS blog.

Check out Jim Spiegel’s website and blog for more information about his book. You can also find a lengthy article by him on the causes of atheism at Apologetics.com. Reviews of The Making of the Atheist have also been posted on Cloud of Witnesses and the blog Exo Tays Parembolays.

A bridge to nowhere: Wilson on New Atheism and morality

Douglas Wilson, pastor at Christ Church in Idaho and a senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College, reflects on his recent debate tour with Christopher Hitchens (the documentary of the tour, Collision, is now available on DVD) and the problem of morality for atheists:

“Can I be good without God? Sure. Knock yourself out. May I be good without God? Again, sure, but here is where the question starts to cut both ways. The question is double-bladed because it is here that we realize that we are alone by ourselves, and we are not really asking anybody for anything. I may be good without God for the same reason that I may be evil without Him or, as it suits me, indifferent without Him. There is no one here to get permission from. For anything. Mom doesn’t care if I go play ball, and she doesn’t care if I shoot my sister. She doesn’t care because she doesn’t exist. Turns out I have been asking questions of a deaf and indifferent universe.

Near the end of our film, Christopher [Hitchens] admirably acknowledges that you can be a fascist and an atheist, a communist and an atheist, a sado-masochist and an atheist, and so on, and you can do it all without contradicting anything within the tenets of atheism. Christopher does not think of this as a concession to my central point, but I do want to press it. He wants to go on to insist that atheism does not commit you to the “absurd belief” that if you are an atheist then you “have no morality.”

If we piece all this together, the only thing he can possibly mean is that every atheist has the authority to generate his own code of morals, and that these morals do not need to conform to the tenets promulgated by the International Society of Nice Atheists, and that they further do not need to conform to the code of morals being generated in the fevered brain of the fellow next to me. But notice what this does. It makes all morality a matter of radical personal choice.

But once we do this, how can we come back in later to restrict or limit the choices? Once the individual generates his code, he certainly may seek out other like-minded people in order to form what sociologists call a plausibility structure. But there is no such thing as an overarching moral code, independent of the individual, one that is authoritative over him. There is no ultimate reason why he cannot decide to defy his societal norms (his plausibility structure), or move to northwest Pakistan to join up with another plausibility structure–one with more excitement and explosions.

Once we have gotten to this point, we may certainly fight with those who have made different choices. But we may not appeal to a standard that overarches both of us, which they are disobeying and which we are not. They have as much right to generate their code as we do ours. We may fight with them, but we have lost the ability to reason with them.

Centuries ago, David Hume pointed out how deep and broad the chasm was between is and ought. The new atheists, for all their vaunted skill in engineering, have not been able to build a bridge.”

Read the whole article at On Faith.

Atheist Bus Campaign Comes to New Zealand

bus

The campaign to promote atheism on New Zealand buses was launched yesterday. Organizers are hoping to raise $10,000 in order to run the advertisements from March next year. The campaign migrates from Britain, where 800 buses in that country have circulated slogans such as “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” and “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Spokesperson for the campaign, Simon Fisher, argues that while the group has no agenda to increase atheist numbers they hope the advertisements will reduce any stigma that might be attached to the atheism label. At the 2006 census 1.3 million New Zealanders professed to be without religion, although how many of these are actually atheists was not measured.

While some may be critical of the campaign, Christians should welcome the fact that one of the (intended or unintended) consequences of the advertisements is that it puts the question of God’s existence back into public debate. Contrary to the atheist message of the campaign, the debate about God matters and is worth worrying about.

Also, check out this cool bus slogan generator.

(HT: Rob)

An Atheistic Argument from the Big Bang

The Big Bang event may be one of the most important scientific discoveries about the origin of our universe. Observations by American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 and the final discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964 confirmed predictions by Friedmann and Lemaître and convinced scientists of the expansion of the universe from a denser, hotter, primordial state. It was a turning point in the history of science. No longer was the universe thought to be a static, timeless, unchanging entity. The Friedmann-Lemaitre model gives the universe a backstory and more than that: a beginning. Physicist P. C. W. Davies explains: “most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.”

The idea of an expanding universe has not only revolutionized the field of science and been a unifying theme in cosmology but has had profound implications beyond those disciplines. According to the British astronomer Stephen Hawking, “If the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be”. But he admits, “so long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator”. This has been too uncomfortable a conclusion for some. Robert Jastrow, physicist and founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, comments:

“There is a kind of religion in science. . .This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning. . .as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications – in science this is known as ‘refusing to speculate’ – or trivializing the origin of the world by calling it the Big Bang, as if the universe were a firecracker.

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, what cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the universe? …And science cannot answer those questions…The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.” (God and the Astronomers, pps 113-15)

But while the fact that our universe both has a beginning and arose from nothing provides powerful evidence for a personal Creator (see Stuart’s post on the Kalam Cosmological Argument), Quentin Smith, philosophy professor at Western Michigan University has put forward the unique claim that the Big Bang is incompatible with God’s existence. In the book Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology, Smith sets out this argument:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state of the universe.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than a universe that does not contain life.

4. Therefore, if God created the universe then the earliest state of the universe must either contain life or ensure that life will eventually emerge.

5. There is an earliest state of the universe and it is the Big Bang singularity.

6. The conditions of the earliest state of the universe (infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density) were hostile to life.

7. The Big Bang singularity is inherently unpredictable and lawless and consequently there is no guarantee that it will produce a universe where life can emerge.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will produce a universe where life can emerge.

9. Therefore, God could not have created the earliest state of the universe.

10, Therefore, God does not exist.

Does this argument succeed? There are several problems that are immediately apparent (for a full discussion read William Lane Craig’s response in that book), but two weaknesses are serious enough to undermine its conclusion:

Firstly, God is not obligated to create a universe that contains life. It does not follow from premise 2 and 3 that God must create a universe with life. God could indeed have a reason for creating a world with life. He may, in fact, freely choose to create a world because of the good He may want to bring about. But just because God possesses a reason for creating a universe, this does not impose a necessity on Him. Furthermore, the Christian theist will deny that in order for God’s goodness to be expressed, He must create a universe with life. Apart from creation, God is neither lonely nor in need of objects for his benevolence. Within the Trinity and the fellowship of three persons united in one nature, God’s benevolence is fully and perfectly expressed.

Secondly, God could guarantee life through His subsequent intervention. The assumption that God must pre-programme life-hospitable conditions into the initial stages of the universe is perhaps the most significant problem for this argument. Why must God embed this capacity for life into the universe from the very start? It is not at all illogical for God to causally direct the evolution of life through his subsequent providence and care. This is, in fact, quite consistent with the classical Christian view that God not only created the world but remains living and active within it (Matthew 6:26; Ps 147:8-9; Job 38:41, etc).  According to Smith, however, this would be “a sign of incompetent planing . . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” However, this is an arbitrary and anthropocentric constraint on God. Why think that God is incompetent because he does conform to our standards of efficiency? In his response to Quentin Smith, William Craig cites the American philosopher and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Thomas Morris:

“Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. before you know where a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in… In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.”

Not only is efficiency proportional to the ends desired, but efficiency is only a significant value to someone who has limited time or power.  For a God who lacks neither, Smith’s complaint against God’s intervention into the natural order of causes is unwarranted. Furthermore, there are many reasons why God might choose to be causally engaged in the activity of creation. Craig points out two: (i) God could delight in the work of creation and (ii) God might want to leave a general revelation of Himself in nature.

Smith has failed to show that the Big Bang is logically incompatible with God. Instead, the theistic explanation of the initial cosmological singularity remains superior to its atheistic  rival. To believe that our universe simply came into being out of nothing without a cause, furnished with a set of complex initial conditions so bizarrely improbable as to to ridicule comprehension, then accidentally evolved to fall into delicate balance with life-permitting conditions must be taken as wildly implausible at best, and plainly absurd at worst. The Big Bang, rather than taking us away from God, brings us closer to the Creator of Christian theism.

Notes:

Reason and Religious Belief by Michael Peterson,  William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design

The argument from design is the Comeback Kid of theistic arguments.  Once long neglected, recent discoveries in cosmology and physics have brought the word design back into philosophical and scientific discussions. Molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner, Francis Crick once concluded “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would be satisfied to get it going.”

However, many (including Crick) are critical of allowing a theistic conclusion to follow from the growing awareness of the finely-tuned cosmic architecture. Some go so far as to say that such theories are not scientific – either because theories of design violate the purpose of science ( it is argued that science a priori must be defined as the pursuit of naturalistic explanations to natural processes) or because such theories violate the practice of science (not meeting requirements of observability, testability, etc).

Into this debate, philosopher of science and atheist, Bradley Morton has written a new book arguing that the theory of Intelligent Design is science and that its arguments are stronger than most realize. In Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, the professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado discusses the plausibility of arguments for a cosmic designer, the scientific legitimacy of design theories and even whether such theories may be taught in public school education. The book is a unique one in the philosophy of science and it looks to significantly develop and enhance the debate surrounding Intelligent Design.

Check out Dr. Monton’s website here (includes several published articles) and also his  blog here.
Read more

Counting the fallout of New Atheism: Is there an atheist schism?

As early as Epicurus, there have been attempts to debunk the supernatural, but it was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with Hume, Feuerbach, Russell, Sartre and others, that more intellectually sophisticated arguments for atheism entered the marketplace of ideas. Since the early twenty-first century, however, a new pattern of atheism has emerged. Departing from their skeptical forebears, the New Atheists espouse a dogma that differs in both tone and content. They denounce not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is said to be not only wrong, but evil. The shift in accent and stunning ignorance of the heritage of the debate that they are joining has not only concerned theists, but many atheists as well. Over at The Guardian, an interesting discussion is unfolding among skeptics in the wake of this. Two philosophers, Michael Ruse and Ophelia Benson, address the fallout from the New Atheist movement and consider whether there is a split occurring within the ranks of those who profess atheism.

Michael Ruse, the atheist philosopher of biology at Florida State University, defends the revolt against Richard Dawkins and the New Atheist movement in his article “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute”.  He writes:

There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling – I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical. First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. . .

Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander. There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.

Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief. . .

Today, nearly a decade after 9/11, terrified as so many still are by the terrorist threat, the atheistic fundamentalists are finding equally fertile soil for their equally frenetic messages. It’s all the fault of the believers, Muslims mainly of course, but Christians also. But don’t worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.

Forgive me if I don’t sign on.

Ophelia Benson, atheist and deputy editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, responds to Ruse in her article “Atheism itself isn’t a movement”. She argues that the disagreement isn’t within atheism but among atheists who hold additional political views (namely, whether religion is dangerous):

Many atheists want to be able to be atheists without being dragooned into some boring noisy unsubtle bad-tempered “movement”. Many other atheists want to be able to be overt explicit unbashful atheists without constantly being told to be more euphemistic or evasive or respectful or just plain silent by other atheists, who surely ought to know better…

The problem, of course, is that what each group wants is incompatible with what the other group wants. In a perfect world, plain atheists could just ignore movement atheists, and movement atheists could mutter away without disturbing their quieter friends. But in the real world, many plain atheists feel that movement atheists bring the whole notion of atheism into disrepute. We make it more difficult for plain atheists to be just that, because the world at large now thinks of atheists in general as movement atheists.

I see the difficulty, and like the walrus, I deeply sympathise, but I also think that plain atheists should to some extent put up with it. We don’t actually want to dragoon them into “the movement” but we would like to be able to talk freely without even other atheists telling us to pipe down.

To put it another way, we’re not telling them to be noisier, but we don’t much like it when they tell us to be quieter. Yes, granted, we’ve made it somewhat harder to be a plain atheist (though they could always just closet themselves completely, by pretending to be theists) – we seem to be jumping up and down on the parapet yelling “over here, we’re over here!” while everyone else is trying to avoid enemy fire. But that’s life. The pope is always making life difficult for liberal Catholics, too; so it goes.

Where one locates oneself on this map depends partly on whether one thinks religion is mostly benign, or mostly harmful, or a difficult-to-unravel mix of the two. It’s not a neat mapping though – I’m a committed “movement” atheist in the sense that I really do think taboos on open discussion of religion should go away, but I also think religion is a difficult-to-unravel mix of the benign and the harmful. But then I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that all “new” or movement atheists match that description too.

While the concession in Benson’s final paragraph is well-taken, it’s difficult to agree with her general characterization of the debate. I don’t think Ruse or serious advocates of theism are trying to discourage the open discussion of religion or insulate it off from public scrutiny. Christianity, particularly, has nothing to fear here. It has flourished with the robust examination of its ideas for centuries, by great minds such as Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, etc. What Ruse and others are objecting to is the mix of belligerence and intellectual complacency that has marked the New Atheist stance.  With pretensions that outstrip their ability to pontificate on the topics they raise, the volume of their shouting has been inversely proportionate to the credibility of their arguments. Religion shouldn’t get an easy ride – faith is no excuse for intellectual shoddiness – but the cliche-mongering and arrogant tone that Dawkins and the New Atheists all too frequently marshal makes it difficult to believe that their goal is truly to engage the theistic side at all.

Richard Dawkins is coming to NZ

As a part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, zoologist and popular atheist Richard Dawkins has been invited to speak in Wellington early next year. Dawkins is the author of many landmark books on evolution, including the recently published “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution”. He will speaking at the Festival as apart of the Writers and Readers Week, along with influential philosopher and atheist Peter Singer.

Dawkins is no stranger to controversy, and indeed has invited it openly himself, with his polemical writing and often incendiary comments.  He has been described as “Darwin’s Rottweiler” and a “fundamentalist” in the service of the evolutionary cause. Dawkins’ previous book, The God Delusion, sold more than 1.5 million copies but has been criticized as unsophisticated, prone to caricature and ultimately out of its depth, with even some atheists embarrassed and cringing at some of its claims. But if there’s one thing Dawkins is good at, it’s at stimulating debate. Let’s hope his arrival will encourage the right kind of debate, with more light than heat.714blog_richard_dawkins_2

Eminent Atheist Changes his Mind: The Antony Flew Story

By Ron Hay

The December 2004 headline was eye-catching – “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God.” The Associated Press story went on to say, “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind. He now believes in God…based on scientific evidence.”

The professor in question was Antony Flew whom many rate as the pre-eminent British philosopher of the last half century, so his change of mind was certainly major news. Strangely, though, his story received the barest mention in the New Zealand media. Would that have been the case if a notable Christian, say Billy Graham, had announced that he had just become an atheist?

Overseas, the interest in Antony Flew’s announcement was huge. One commentator wrote: “Few religious stories have had such an impact.” Many welcomed the news. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, wrote: “His colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized by his story, but believers will be greatly encouraged, and earnest seekers will find much in Flew’s journey to illuminate their own path towards the truth.”

Others were, as Collins predicted, “scandalized” by the news and reacted angrily. Richard Dawkins accused Flew of “tergiversation,” that is, apostasy or betrayal, and made disparaging comments about this being a change of mind made in “old age.” Read more