on agnosticism and atheism – a soupy mess

from Wikipedia
Members of the modern ‘sceptical’ community frequently take significant pride in ‘being rational’ and having a particular affinity with philosophy and science. As I study philosophy and biology and am an evangelical Christian, I am often disappointed with how these subjects are wielded as weapons in this culture-war of epic proportions. That these fields should be associated with atheism and rejection of Christian faith is an absolute travesty, IMO. That this rejection should commonly be as a result of shocking misrepresentation of the findings of these fields is particularly unfortunate.

I’ve seen a few “QualiaSoup” (henceforth QS) videos. I’m not going to be able to adequately engage with the whole framework of thought that these videos promote – and, for the record, I’m sure there is a lot said in them that is both true and useful – so I’ll keep my critique to the points explicitly made in this video and if anyone wants to throw another one at me, I can maybe take a look at it. Some of the points I will make are debatable. That’s okay, I’m not here to prove anything much, just to show that the matter-of-fact tone with which QS asserts the entire content of this video is quite unjustified – it lacks the kind of intellectual humility that is supposedly all the rage in the sceptical community.

If you’d like to engage with this blogpost, that’s tremendous; but I ask that you read it carefully before doing so. I’ve made it in sections, so you shouldn’t have to read the whole thing to engage with some of my arguments.

Okay, let’s get into it. This clip, entitled “lack of belief in gods” provoked me enough to at least attempt to analyse the key assertions. I’m currently doing a summer project on Christian conceptions of God, so I find it interesting.

As we begin, let me say: I’m sorry to any readers who feel socially or politically isolated as a result of not believing in God or other supernatural entities. However, if we are to talk about whether God in fact exists and related issues, let’s try and be rational about it. Mere assertion and ridicule may help build up or encourage the in-group, but it’s not dialogue and it’s open to being shown as both false and puerile. (Gotta love that last word.)

”Having beliefs grants no one privileged status. Nor is there any reason for the acquisition of beliefs to be a particular goal.”
This is not convincing coming from a religious sceptic who elsewhere extols the virtues of critical thinking and the scientific worldview – and the voiceover example given, of scientific theories, is useful to examine. QS asserts that when scientific theories are formed, “the aim is not for people to form beliefs about them being true, but to account for available data with a model that has the greatest explanatory and predictive power.” This is a fairly common view in the scientific community, but cuts against scientific realism, a belief which I would suggest it is apposite for non-believers who attempt to use scientific arguments against religion to hold to. It’s a fascinating topic, as while some prominent Christians in the field (Roman Catholics Pierre Duhem and Bas van Fraassen (an adult convert), for instance) have been scientific ‘antirealists’, scientific realism seems to me to make best sense on a theistic worldview (see e.g. here). If a sceptic is then tempted to be an antirealist, her ‘scientific’ arguments against religious belief may well be undercut, but even if she goes that way, it is still the case that scientific theories and more broadly, research projects, are constituted by a set of beliefs [not about what is true, but what has explanatory/predictive power, if that’s the criteria that has been chosen for what counts as scientific], which presumably are worth acquiring. In general, truth is worth seeking – including the truth about God – and most sceptics will acknowledge this.

Agnosticism:

QS says, based on the etymology of the word (not a great start; arguing this way is notorious for leading to dubious conclusions in philosophical circles), that agnosticism concerns knowledge and not belief and an agnostic is someone who says that “nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of a proposed phenomenon.” As such, we are told, some people who believe in God can be ‘agnostics’, as can those who believe there is no God or have no belief either way. The definition actually seems fair enough to me; agnosticism is usually construed as including two possible beliefs: (1) either a claim that we can’t know whether or not God exists or not (perhaps because the agnostic believes we can only know empirical truths, or that God, if God does exist, would be epistemically inaccessible to us), or  (2) the claim that it is uncertain whether or not God exists; that the probability that God exists is around about the 50% mark. But the conclusion, that the holder of practically any belief about God can simultaneously be an ‘agnostic’, doesn’t come with much plausibility.

The standard view of knowledge, by contrast, is that it is warranted (or sometimes ‘justified’) true belief. To say you believe something, is, as far as I’m aware, a claim to having some knowledge of it. It’s a claim along the lines that “if I’m right, then I have knowledge about this”. Thus, to be both a theist and an agnostic would be a little contradictory. I’m not an expert in this and apparently there are debates about whether ‘knowledge’ comes in degrees, but it seems to me that unless there’s some special atheist-epistemology that I’m unaware of, then QS is simply confused, in suggesting that gnosis (knowledge) and belief are quite separate categories. It is also of course possible to have varying levels of belief, but I don’t think this really changes the picture. If I have a particular strength of belief in the existence of something, I’m saying there’s that particular chance that the thing exists and I’m not agnostic about its existence, except perhaps in the second sense.

Okay, now I’m getting tired of this, so I’ll speed up and just put in some comments for points made at certain approximate times in the clip:

2:30  interesting point. Seems to be suggesting that most ‘atheists’ are in fact naturalists (not that he uses that word). This is a more accurate representation of the relevant aspect of the worldview of most non-theists (at least the argumentative ones, particularly those in the mould of the ‘four horsemen’) than a mere lack of belief in a particular god. It’s interesting to compare this to the popular slogan along the lines “atheists – we just believe in one less god than you”. Actually, the atheist is generally a materialist of some form, or at least a naturalist construed in Plantinga’s sense of denying the existence of “God or anything like God”. The atheist is inclined to deny the existence of any transcendent personal cause of the universe, whereas the theist believes there is such a cause; that all contingent beings owe their existence to some entity/entities in a super-natural realm. This is far more than just the loss of one entity in our ontology.

3:00 – strange assertion that whether God exists or not is irresolvable because “no procedure available to us could reliably establish the existence or non-existence of such an unscientific entity”.  I suspect the work in this sentence is being done by the notion of ‘to reliably establish’, which has scientific undertones for QualiaSoup viewers – i.e. it’s along the lines “you can’t scientifically prove that which is unscientific”. By itself, that says nothing about whether the question of God’s existence is resolvable. The statement seems to be an assertion that, concerning a generic ‘God’, we should be agnostics in some strong sense, with the reason being derived from within scientism.

3:10 – the biblical God can’t exist, we’re told, because any perfect being can’t be one that “needs worship”.

This is perhaps the worst argument against Christian faith that I have ever heard. It’s particularly bad because it is superficially appealing (it’s not nonsensical per se, or simple ad hominem/abuse), but clearly mistaken.

The argument goes something like this:

P1: A perfect being would have no deficiency

P2: A perfect being would also need nothing (inductively or deductively derived from P1, I’m not sure)

C1: A perfect being would have no need for worship

P3: The Biblical God, if he exists, is a perfect being

P4: The Biblical God, if he exists, needs worship

C2 (from C1, P3, P4): The concept of the Biblical God is internally contradictory

C3 (from C2): The Biblical God does not exist.

I guess I could dispute P2 if I was in the mood, but, far more simply, P4 is false. God doesn’t need our worship. It’s a separate question whether we are morally obligated to worship God.

3:50 It seems to me that QS would assign a low probability to the existence of God, if I were to ask him about that. Actually, when it comes to any specific god that is claimed to be perfect and to need worship, QS ought to say that the probability of such a being existing is 0%, as it entails a contradiction. (Of course, QS is mistaken in thinking that any mainstream theism claims that God “needs to be worshipped” in any relevant sense).

4:00 – in a discussion like this, the atheist often wants the theist to have the burden of proof. So, the atheist says he doesn’t actually have any beliefs on the topic. This seems unlikely to me. Most/all atheists who give themselves the name will assign a low probability to the claim that “God exists”. This is a positive claim.

If a theist directly contrasts faith with “logic or evidence”, then I think they’re simply mistaken. QS should find some better informed interlocutors.

4:20 QS is at least strongly implying that other people should believe as he does. Accordingly, he has a burden of proof, by his own standard. In this video he has failed abysmally to meet this – at least thus far. Let’s see if the video improves.

Naturalism is not particularly plausible as a default position. See e.g. here (a paper I frequently link to. I’m not aware whether the author is a Christian or an agnostic of some sort, but he gives an effective response to the standard atheist “teapot argument” and related assertions.)

I am yet to see a convincing argument for naturalism. If there was one, surely all bright philosophers would be naturalists – but, they aren’t. The question of the existence of God is a highly technical and controversial one and it seems plausible to me that the answer one gives to the question will ultimately rest on intuitions which are not self-evident either way. QS is adding very little, if anything, to the debate; if anything, his condescending tone is more likely to build walls than convert any informed theist.

5:05 I have made this claim myself. The answer QS gives to it is primarily to repeat it in a sarcastic tone. Then, having primed his audience, he asks whether, when someone says “look around and tell me which ones aren’t married”, we would point to inanimate objects. He’s right, we wouldn’t, But this is irrelevant. If someone says that they don’t believe in any god or God at all, I feel I am well within my rights to ask them why; “I just don’t” is not a reasonable response, or at least it’s not one that the theist should be impressed with.
In any case, perhaps a more apt question for QS is this: is atheism something which can be “true” or “false”? Presumably he would like to be able to say yes, as he is implying that we should all be atheists and it also seems to me that he thinks that its corollary, theism, can be described as true or false. If atheism can be described as true or false, it is a proposition, with content, not a mere absence (of belief).

5:30 – curious ad hominem

QS is quite right that “atheist” is generally to be taken as a predicate of people; as, I would say, “communist” is. But if atheist is only applicable to people, it seems to be because only people have beliefs. To go on to reassert that atheism is not a belief strikes me as curious.

6:00 Looks to me like an equivocation on “default belief”. Just because beliefs in God take time to develop (i.e. the chronologically initial position is to not have such beliefs) doesn’t mean that the burden of proof is entirely on those who assert that there is such a being rather than those who do not believe there is (i.e. the claim that the absence of any God-beliefs is the logically initial position, which requires no argument). An example: someone who lacks belief in an external world (maybe they’ve never considered it, just taking solipsism for granted, perhaps due to a slightly unorthodox upbringing) is not without a burden of proof, are they? Interestingly, arguments for the existence of an external world rely on the reality of sense data from that external world and arguments for the existence of God similarly tend to depend in some way on the reality of action by that God. But that’s a whole other topic. Alvin Plantinga talks about a similar thing with regards to belief in the existence of other minds, in “God and other minds”.

The general claim being made in this video is an interesting upgrade of the more simplistic “if you’re making a positive claim, you have the burden of proof” – that assertion is shown to be extremely dubious by the fact that most (maybe all?) negative claims are logically equivalent to a corresponding positive claim.  QS tries to get around this by defining atheism as a mere absence of belief, but I don’t think he’s successful, for, as I’ve explained, atheism more often involves assigning a low probability to the existence of God and even if it is mere absence of belief, it is not clear where the burden of proof lies once we begin to assess the claim “God exists” (see the teapot link above).

9:40 “magical thinking” – and he wants people to take him seriously?

If ‘psychologising’ those who don’t agree with you is all good, I’d suggest that what is driving this video is an irrational fear of religion, more than rationality, science or clear thinking.

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One comment on “on agnosticism and atheism – a soupy mess

  1. Sam says:

    Good article man – last point is awesome – If ‘psychologising’ those who don’t agree with you is all good, I’d suggest that what is driving this video is an irrational fear of religion, more than rationality, science or clear thinking.

    Atheism seems to have so much to do with discouraging dissent and dialogue that it is quite freaky.

    I think the need for better interlocutors is true. The church in the west needs to be the church and the atheist will hopefully then get the chance to see the Jesus Christ of the bible

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