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The Atheistic Argument from Evolution

It is a common taunt among combative non-theists (henceforth called atheists) that evolution, because it is a well-established scientific fact, somehow provides positive proof that God does not exist. God, as the title of the evolutionary zoologist Richard Dawkin’s book proclaims, is a delusion. If this is so it then follows that belief in God is the same as belief in Santa Clause, which directly opposes our best scientific knowledge. Read more

Are logical arguments evidence?

It is said that an argument will convince a reasonable man, and a proof will convince even an unreasonable man. So why do so-called atheists insist upon evidence? In a previous discussion, a claim was made that logical arguments are not evidence. Here I want to unpick that comment and see if we can find a way of thinking about the relationship between evidence and logical arguments that is helpful.

First I want to draw a distinction between two different types of evidence. First there is physical-evidence. This would be material stuff, such as bullet shells, exit wounds, DNA, photographs, lab results, etc. All of these would be available, either directly or indirectly to the five senses.

I take it that it was this type of evidence that was meant by the claim logical arguments are not evidence – that is, physical-evidence. Such as an arrowhead in cave can be said to be evidence for human habitation of that cave. Or that a shivering of a body can be said to be evidence it is cold.

What is troubling is that if physical-evidence is a necessary for knowledge, then we should know nothing of moral truths, aesthetic values, and meta-physical intuitions. Yet surly we do know that torturing babies is wrong, open graves are macabre, waterfalls are sublime, that the past is objective and other minds do exist. The Achilles heal of this particular epistemological theory is it is self-referentially incoherent. If its reasonable, then its unreasonable by its own merits. For no physical evidence is able to to reveal that evidence is required for reasonable belief. If it could be rationally affirmed and were true, then the Christian would be in an awkward position, for a further implication would be there is no hope for reasonable belief in non-physical entities. In fact the criteria, if adopted, would rule out the possibility of attaining reasonable belief in non-physical entities before any discussion or debate began.

There must therefore be something terribly wrong then with the criteria. Which is why I’d like to draw our attention to another type of evidence called argument-evidence. Evidence is broadly speaking that which lends support to a proposition or claim. Argument-evidence is any reason given for believing something is true or false. That is not to say that all argument-evidence is good evidence. That is just to say that arguments can count as evidence, in that they too give support for believing some proposition or claim. There can of course be counter-evidence that could dissuade belief.

For those not inclined to accept this distinction I have drawn between and physical-evidence and argument-evidence, and those who disagree with me that arguments can count as evidence, it will be useful to consider the following.

Physical evidence doesn’t speak. That is to say, all physical-evidence passes through the filter of an interpretative lens, and, perhaps unnoticed by the advocate, acquires certain meaning that was not intrinsic to the object or event itself. More colloquially, material objects have no voice to tell you what they signify. Everything is interpreted by a person who brings with them additional premises from their world view and store of experiences.

We have all gone through what its like to say one thing, and for two people to hear totally different things. A fossil will tell a paleontologist one thing. The same fossil will tell the next paleontologist another thing – sometimes even used to support mutually exclusive theories. Yet if physical-evidence was all there was available for investigation, how is it then that disparate theories can arise over the same object or event?

What happens is that somewhere between an objects discovery and its interpretation additional premises are added. These premises combine to form arguments. One hopes of course that these arguments are logical. Different premises given by different perspectives lead to different conclusions. Thus, in a way, all evidence is argument-evidence, for the physical-evidence, if left to itself, remains silent and tells us nothing.

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.

The Anthropological Argument: Part 2

In this post a specific anthropological argument for God’s existence is stated and defended, and then examined if it is a good and convincing argument.

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