Notes From Babel

Atheism’s Intellectual Procrastination

with 11 comments

I was heartened a while back to read that other writers feel as I do about blogging:  the time exacted in securing my continued employment often leaves me with only abbreviated periods for bathing and dressing and grooming and other rudimentary civilities.  It is usually not possible to write about something at the moment the inspiration strikes, so I resort to jotting down ideas throughout the week, and then referring back when I finally get a moment at my poor neglected computer.

But I did not have to resort to my list to remember what I wanted to say about the plea of beleaguered atheist Ilya Somin to stop demanding philosophical rigor from atheists.  As I’ve explained before (see, e.g., here and here), the problem with atheism is that does not replace what it purports to tear down.  Theistic models of reality draw connections between the transcendental worlds of continuity and universality—the world of the forms.  Atheism denies these models, but fails to provide any systematic, cogent theories to replace the models it rejects.

Responding to Ron Rosenbaum, Ilya Somin puts it this way:

Atheism is not a complete theory of the nature of the universe. Rather, as I discussed here, atheism is simply a rejection of the existence of God, by which I mean a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and completely benevolent (the definition [traditionally] accepted by [the vast majority of adherents] of the major monotheistic religions). One can reject the existence of God without believing that we “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”

Sure.  And so may a toddler reject his supper without being able to explain how or why he would be able to continue existing without sustenance.  Atheists tend to be deeply confused about what “atheism” actually means.  One may make the statement “I do not believe in God” in isolation from any other statements about the universe.  But it would be an idle and worthless statement—a toddler rejecting all manner of food. One may believe in an idea without fully appreciating or believing the ideas necessarily deriving from the idea.  Thus, while one may be an atheist before he can fully “explain how and why the universe came into existence,” he is immediately and continuously under an intellectual duty to engage in providing a cogent answer to these problems.  Atheism cannot be merely passive or destructive.  It must fill the intellectual gap it creates, not simply revel in sacking others epistemological systems.

To make the point another way, consider the environmentalist mandate of “sustainability.”  As it turns out, in order to have true sustainability, all humans on the planet would have to live well below the U.S. poverty level.  Thus, once we unpack the rhetoric about sustainability, we find that all this sweet talk about Mother Earth, taken seriously, would mean a devastating and far-reaching impact on the behavior of every single American—even the very poor.  I can blather on about “sustainability” as a vogue multi-syllabic political expression.  But if we are actually talking about the meaning of words and ideas, then “sustainability” means something very radical and severe.

Something similar occurs with atheism.  One can say “I don’t believe in God” as a glib expression of one’s anti-authoritarianism and wide-eyed skepticism.  But it actually means something very severe—particularly if it also means “I do not believe in anything that transcends empirical phenomena.”  This is a profound statement that tears down important metaphysical underpinnings in one’s view of the world.  If the author of such a statement has any interest in talking seriously about ideas, he will have to posit an alternative theory of reality that can account for them.  Ilya Somin presumes to reduce this argument down to a quip, that

The “new atheists” whom Rosenbaum attacks also don’t rely on any comprehensive theory of the universe in making their case against the existence of God. Writers like Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have their flaws; but believing that they can explain the origins of the universe isn’t one of them.

To the contrary, this is precisely their problem.  One has to have a viable theory of the universe in order to graft on any viable theories about anything else. I can reject that the idea that suspension bridges can safely carry any passengers across them.  But I would not expect anyone to hire me to perform maintenance on the Golden Gate Bridge unless and until I could posit a viable account for the successful passages to date.  Atheists, however, don’t feel the need to account for how we can know anything about objective reality or morality without God.  As Somin puts it:

But how can atheists rule out the possibility that God created the universe if they don’t have an airtight alternative explanation? The answer is that it’s often possible to rule out one potential explanation for X even if we don’t know for certain what actually caused it. For example, I don’t know why I had a headache a couple days ago. But that doesn’t mean I can’t rule out the theory that it was caused by a witch’s curse. There is strong evidence against the existence of witches with magical powers that isn’t tied to any particular explanation for the origins of my headache. Similarly, if we have strong arguments against the existence of God that are not tied to any specific cosmological theory, we have good reason to be atheists even if we can’t explain why the universe exists.

Talking about witches and the slimy-custard-man is a typical ploy that non-serious atheists use to rally any humans with a functioning intellect to their cause.  “You do believe in science, don’t you?  You do believe aspirin can cure your headache better than enchanted bat’s feet, don’t you?”  This is misdirection.  Atheists can’t account for how anything can cause anything if they don’t posit a transcendental explanation for the workings of reality.  David Hume observed that while we may see a billiard ball begin to move once it is struck by another billiard ball, we cannot ever actually observe anything called “causation.”  The best we can observe is “constant conjunction” between events—one even happens, and then always another.  “Causation,” for all its importance in making sense of our reality, cannot be explained by the purely empirical model of the world that atheists have adopted.  All we know is we remember always seeing two things happening together.  We then assume—for we cannot know—that what has occurred in the past will occur likewise, always and forever, into the future.

This, certainly, is faith.

And yet, atheists continue to refuse the demand to account for their theory of reality, of morality, and of truth.  Somin expresses his refusal thus:

My purpose here is not to provide a comprehensive argument for atheism. That can’t possibly be accomplished in a blog post. Rather, I want to make the much narrower point that such an argument doesn’t require a demonstrably true alternative explanation for the existence of the universe. And most serious atheist writers do not in fact rely on the claim that they have such an explanation.

Somin laces this thought with a clever qualification in an attempt to make it unassailable.   Pleading that atheists cannot be expected to provide a “demonstrably true alternative explanation for the existence of the universe” is melodramatic.  The whole problem with accounting for the nature of reality is the limitations of our senses—that is, theories about the universe cannot be “demonstrably true.”  But this is not the task put to atheists.  Their problem is they have provided no alternative explanation for the existence of the universe, whether “demonstrably true” or otherwise.

At any rate, that “most serious atheist writers do not in fact rely on the claim that they have such an explanation” is precisely why the atheism of these writers cannot be taken seriously.

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Written by Tim Kowal

July 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Atheism, Philosophy

Tagged with ,

11 Responses

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  1. “At any rate, that “most serious atheist writers do not in fact rely on the claim that they have such an explanation” is precisely why the atheism of these writers cannot be taken seriously.”

    So why are you bothering to type?

    Seriously, you show the same ignorance of atheism as many other theists.

    Brian Westley

    July 24, 2010 at 5:48 pm

  2. Larry at The Barefoot Bum posted a critique of my post here. I responded with the following comment at that site:

    “We are certain some element or elements of a theory — a set of statements about the world — are false if the theory entails false statements about observation.”

    There cannot be any “true” statement about reality once one rejects the concept that truth can transcends the empirical world. You are correct that there are as many models of truth and reality as there are religions—more, even. This is a debate for the respective adherents to those models. But to reject any truth that is not empirically observable is to cut oneself off at the knees. At the very least, atheists must posit that objects in the world have causal relationships with one another, that the future will resemble the past, and so on. Religion is simply an organized, systematic way to organize these transcendental truths.

    Atheists certainly don’t reject causation and induction, but they don’t give an account for how they can know it. They simply refuse to acknowledge the transcendental truths they rely upon. This is disingenuous.

    Tim Kowal

    July 26, 2010 at 9:05 pm

  3. I am tempted to respond to this, but I’ll need to go to my happy place for a while. The certainty that a wild fantasy of an answer is more intellectually robost a postion than “I don’t know”, is by itself enough to grate on any rational mind.

    TheCelticChimp

    July 28, 2010 at 7:17 am

    • Let me highlight two points that are often misunderstood or overlooked in this matter:

      1. Etymological quibbles aside, the most common and sensible understanding is that “atheism” is the belief in the nonexistence in the supernatural. The position “I don’t know,” as you put it, is most commonly and sensibly labeled as agnosticism. My post was about atheism, not agnosticism.

      2. Religion, or transcendental epistemological systems, are not the enemy of science. In fact, science requires its practitioners to bring some brand of transcendental presuppositions about the world before they can even make use of science. This is because, as David Hume first recognized, the empirical world does not provide any justification for causation or induction, which are in turn necessary to do science. We have to first assume, or presuppose, these truths. Many religions provide a model where these can be asserted in a fairly cogent way. (Adherents to these models can argue which do so in the most cogent way, with the fewest unnecessary premises, etc.) Atheism’s problem is that it discards the possibility of transcendental truth. In doing so, it also discards the ability to make use of science. In this way, religionists actually have a stronger claim to the truths yielded through science than atheists.

      Tim Kowal

      July 28, 2010 at 8:59 am

  4. 1. Etymological quibbles aside, the most common and sensible understanding is that “atheism” is the belief in the nonexistence in the supernatural. The position “I don’t know,” as you put it, is most commonly and sensibly labeled as agnosticism. My post was about atheism, not agnosticism.

    Agnosticism is not the position “I don’t know” it is the position “I cannot know”. Atheism and agnosticism are compatible.

    Athesim is a belief. Beliefs do not have to be epistemologically absolute expressions. To say I don’t believe in gods can be expressed as “I do not positively hold the view that there are gods”. I have encountered only a very few atheists who do not admit the possibility of gods. In other words the evidence on the subject does not conclusively rule them out.

    2. above is some awful nonsense. If you are making the trival point that we all must bring certain presuppositions with us to do almost anything, lets say a scientist is not going to philosophical agonise over the consistance of mathematics before doing science, this is true and unrelated. Science is the practice of constructing models that match our observations. transcendental epistemological systems are about asserting “truths”, which are not even remotely established as true, that you have no evidence for asserting in the first place.
    We have to first assume, or presuppose, these truths. precicely, what truths are these exactly?

    What you are suggesting is that we should accept, without any sensible or rational reason given, that there are these “truths”. You assert, without any coherent expression of how or why, that these truths are necessary to, of all things, the practice of science.

    Atheism’s problem is that it discards the possibility of transcendental truth. In doing so, it also discards the ability to make use of science.
    What truths and why?

    You assert over and over that “causation” requires God. How?, why?
    You also completely sidestep the fact that God is not evidenced by any observation a human mind can make about the universe. Perhaps the universe was created by intelligent aliens, perhaps it is all just a figment of an imagination. You are trying to justify “God” essentially by saying that you don’t have, or are not capable of producing or understanding another answer.

    TheCelticChimp

    July 29, 2010 at 5:34 am

  5. I had assumed that you would not require a detailed explanation why the concepts of causation and induction are necessary to the practice of science. If I am wrong in this assumption, please so indicate, and I will provide a brief analysis.

    “Causation” requires positing God, or some other transcendental explanation that sustains the concept. Whatever transcendental explanation is posited, it will not be subject to empirical verification. It will be subject to other types of analysis, but the very nature of a concept as transcendental takes it out of the scope of science. Science is a limited field, of course. Thus, it is odd that atheists take such glee is purporting to debunk concepts because they cannot be measured scientifically.

    Instead, the concept of God is a different sort altogether than mere empirical claims. As I’ve said elsewhere, when you talk about a claim, such as the existence of God, which, when rejected, undermines the possibility of making intelligible all other claims, that’s fundamentally different than rejecting the existence of, say, the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. As Greg Bahnsen once put it, if I reject the idea that there are so many pounds of Cocoa Puffs in the world, that claim doesn’t have an effect on many other things. But when I reject the transcendental basis for causation, induction, and an objective morality, that’s extraordinary.

    Tim Kowal

    July 29, 2010 at 8:49 am

    • I had assumed that you would not require a detailed explanation why the concepts of causation and induction are necessary to the practice of science. If I am wrong in this assumption, please so indicate, and I will provide a brief analysis.
      You are misunderstanding my question. Why do causality or induction require a god concept?

      “Causation” requires positing God, or some other transcendental explanation that sustains the concept.
      You are again just asserting. Why does the concept need a transcendental explanation?

      Is this one of the truths you are refering to but never explicitly state?

      TheCelticChimp

      July 29, 2010 at 9:14 am

      • Causation and induction require transcendental explanation because, as David Hume famously recognized, no other explanation is available. We do not see one billiard ball “cause” the other to move. We merely see “constant conjunction” between events. We have no reason to make predictions about the future based on past observations, because we have no data about the future. We require extra-empirical premises to make these basic functions of science available to us.

        Tim Kowal

        July 29, 2010 at 9:20 am

  6. You have to be more specific about precisely what you mean by a “transcendental explanation”. What precisely are you asserting that the explanation must transcend?

    In the epistemological transcendent sense, scientific hypotheses routinely “transcend” naive empiricism: we hypothesize statements that cannot be directly verified by experience. In another sense, you might be saying that some statements must be “ontologically transcendent”, that they must necessarily refer to entities not of the prosaic world. A claim of ontologically transcendence requires substantially more argument.

    You must be careful also to not define “God” too far down. If by “God” you just mean some subtle, non-obvious truths about the universe, you’ve gone too far, into a definition with uncontroversial content. If, as did Einstein, you want to label these subtle truths as “God”, you are not talking about the sort of God that atheists typically disbelieve.

    I’m not going to follow this discussion: you strike me as the sort of philosopher who throws as much philosobabble as possible at every question, and who meets requests for clarity and precision with additional obfuscation and confusion. If you write a post you wish to bring to my attention, you’re welcome to email me or comment on my blog.

    The Barefoot Bum

    August 16, 2010 at 3:02 am

  7. […] No, we do not “understand those things” because of “science.”  In suggesting as much, Pollock commits a serious category error.  If it’s true, as Pollock supposes, that the problem O’Reilly identifies is that we cannot explain “rules and order” in an atheistic universe, science has precisely nothing to aid us, because science itself depends on the legitimacy of rules and order in the universe.  To use science to justify the rules and order on which it depends is to beg the very question.  No one is doubting that the universe is governed by rules and order, of course.  But the question is, what sort of explanation can be given to account for rules and order? […]

  8. […] Clearly, however, Mr. Leopold subscribes to an objective moral standard.  The world is more than mere matter in motion.  There are truths beyond mere observable reality.  But in the strident secularist’s world, such topics are off limits.  […]


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