Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What is the best argument for atheism?

Any suggestions?

The question was prompted by this:

My answer: The best argument for atheism is the null hypothesis that: There Is No God. 

If it is assumed that there is no God unless proven otherwise - then it is difficult honestly to avoid being an atheist - because it feels like there never can be enough 'proof' for such a massive assertion.

The reason that atheism is at such high prevalence in the modern West is that this culture inculcates the assumption that there is no God as if it were common sense, necessary - and perhaps even the only sane assumption.

The reason that the majority of humans alive now, and pretty much all of them in the past, were theists is that the natural, spontaneous, inborn assumption of human beings is apparently something along the lines that god/s is/are real, important, influential in the world and in each person's life.

So atheism is one aspect of modern nihilism - the modern failure to assume, to asumme the non-validity-of (to 'problematize) what is spontaneous and natural to Man; and therefore to disbelieve in the objective reality of truth, beauty, virtue; purpose, meaning and relatedness; faith, hope and love; the need for Men to live in, and as, a family...

Our fundamental assumptions about life dictate pretty much everything else - these fundamental assumptions are termed metaphysical - and modernity teaches us that there is no such thing as metaphysics, that it is deceptive nonsense.

By thereby rendering modern metaphysical assumptions invisible, modernity renders atheism (etc) apparently unchalleangeable.

When humans accept, as they mostly do, their inbuilt knowledge and awareness of god/s - then theism is natural, and indeed undisproveable.

It is all a matter of assumptions. So the proper question moves onto considering what are the proper and valid grounds for such assumptions... 

Yep! - the inbuilt, invisible prior assumption of the validity of atheism is certainly the strongest 'argument' for atheism.


Joel said...

The argument from evil and suffering is the one that all others fall back to. I consider myself loving (so the argument goes) and I do the best that I can to prevent certain evils. If I were all-powerful, I would prevent a larger class of evils. I would not have allowed millions of human beings over the centuries to perish from malaria, for example.

It can be very hard to reconcile this world of suffering with the existence of an all-powerful God that we can understand.

You didn't ask, but I think that there are some points to advance against this argument, which is a worry to many theists as well as atheists:

1) There is some purpose to certain classes of suffering, which can be hard to understand fully. Parents know that their children are better off for suffering and discipline them in reasonable ways. We personally know that some of the suffering in our own lives has made us better. And a loving God may heal us in ways that we do not expect, and produce joy from sorrows where we think it impossible.

2) It is a mistake to consider the world as meticulously engineered by a God who engineers the path of every atom. Human free-will at least is one thing that seems to be outside of the compass that God has set for himself. Perhaps other things as well. There would be no room for providence in a world of universal providence.

Seijio Arakawa said...

My 'best' argument for atheism would be the proliferation of strident, incompatible, mutually-exclusive revelations.

Every serious religion seems to have a 'strict' wing and a 'lax' wing. The 'strict' wing, in the extreme, thinks that everyone outside the religion is damned. For example: extreme Catholics think all Orthodox are going to Hell, extreme Orthodox think all Catholics are going to Hell. Less 'strict' variants of a religion might not pronounce damnation on other religions, but still consider other religions to be at best a kind of morbid delusion. I can be a 'lax' Catholic or Orthodox who thinks that the choice of religion is not what matters, but any number of historical saints of either religion might denounce me for my laxity. "Traitor! Martyr X preferred to be tortured with hot iron rods rather than pray with members of Denomination Z!"

That does not actually help to tell if anyone of these extreme religions is right. They all seem similarly nasty, so the simplest solution is to say that all of them are wrong. If their claims about their particular religion's truth can be dismissed, then their claims of God's existence can be dismissed.

On the other hand, if I ask a 'lax' member of the same denominations, they will say that an atheist can be saved. Since they follow religions with a long tradition of people asserting that an atheist cannot be saved, they seem to not even believe their own religion, so they also do not have the truth -- their claims of God's existence can be dismissed.

I can disambiguate by pointing to a personal religious experience that seems to point towards the truth of religion X, because they resemble experiences people in religion X have had. Then I will say that people who have contradictory experiences in religions Y,Z,W,etc. (e.g. Buddhists who claim to remember past lives) are either dishonest or deluded (by space aliens, demons, or their own brain chemistry). However, if different people have contradictory experiences than my own, which point to different and incompatible realities, can it really be the case that all of them are dishonest? That seems improbable. It seems like a lot of religious experience would therefore have to be delusion. But then, how do I know that I am not among the ones being deluded?

Therefore, the simplest solution when confronted with any religious revelation or experience (my own or someone else's) is to dismiss it as delusion. If that argument was good enough for Seraphim Rose to dismiss the supernatural claims of every religion besides Orthodoxy, it's good enough for me to dismiss the supernatural claims of every religion whatsoever. Therefore I have no reliable testimony from anyone (including myself) that God even exists, and therefore I ought to be an atheist.

(removes tongue from cheek)

Nicholas Fulford said...

There is the plethora of competing and often very different religions - current and historical.

There is the lack of any event in the universe that has left any residual evidence to show a discontinuity with the physical laws so as to suggest divine intervention.

There is the argument that to project an image of God to be treated as God is idolatry. Hence, he who seeks to find God must eschew the projection or even any commitment to God's existence a priori because even the idea of God results in an image of God.

There is the problem of what would constitute God? Typically the characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence are given. If God has those characteristics then God is an unchanging and complete whole, BUT the universe exists, and how can that be if God is? Being complete, whole and perfect, God has no impetus to act - including to create a universe. But a universe exists, and one in which thinking beings exist who have a predilection for religion. Now tri-omni God may be virtual, and this universe may then project and express what God's essence is. (I think of that in a way that is like the relationship between a fractal equation and an iterating instance of the fractal equation.) But as soon as God is like a fractal equation the personal aspect that is key to many religions disappears. To believe or not believe; it really becomes irrelevant as belief is simply part of how the universe unfolds for particular people in their expression of what unfolds from that virtual base. You may believe, I may not, and it is only because of the particular thread each of us is/occupies within the tapestry.

Atheism comes honestly to me because of my scientific education. Hence my metaphysics is built upon an empirical base. Oh, that was not always the case. I was deeply religious in my teenage years; until I went to university. The thing I have never lost is the ability to experience the states which people link to their religion(s). I get just how intensely potent and beautiful those states are, and I am more than familiar with the experience of feeling a radiance that interpenetrates all things. I just do not feel that justifies the creation of theistic projections. I don’t need to frame my experience that way.

Being an atheist does not mean being unmoved by those things that move the religious. It simply means that I do not ascribe them to a projected image that I label God. Psychologically and chemically we are similar enough to experience ecstatic and other 'religious' states from within and outside a religious context. Not projecting an Imago Dei does not exclude finding meaning - even transcendental meaning. The universe unfolds, and I am part of it. I am contingent on an entire history, and necessary due to the fact of my existence. That is humbling and wondrous both. Yes I am finite, but I am able to reflect upon infinity to experience beauty, and to even be a conduit through which beauty may manifest in thoughts, emotions, prose, poetry and visual images. I am able to experience all this, and to revel in it for my brief existence here. I am even able to feel intense gratitude - though without a definite form upon which to express it.

And so, I am a-theist. I do my level best to not project an image and relate to it as God.

David said...

@Nicholas Fulford:

"And so, I am a-theist. I do my level best to not project an image and relate to it as God."

So, in other words, you chose ("do my level best") to use your free will, to not to allow yourself to believe in God, and you get the result you expected/wanted.

With respect (an in the spirit of friendly debate), it seems logical to infer from a parsing of this last sentence as 1) a evasion of the mystery of free will and agency (assuming you believe you have it, your science would be compelled to provide a comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon to back up your primary metaphysical assumptions, otherwise it would be a rigged arguement from the start, or I would be talking to some kind of sophisticated meat robot with no agency and only the illusion of it; which uses fridge magnet words that refer to transcendent things that exist like beauty and truth with no possibility of a real conscious conception of these 'memes' or constellations of electrical activity or 'ideas' in the brain or whatever) and 2) an evasion of sticking to the simple and crucial questions without making a Web of confusing complexity, which when spun wide enough, can make even the most dizzying intellect (obviously you are highly intelligent) become lost in the Web and forget the foundational metaphysical assumptions that were necessary to make the Web to begin with ie the assumptions that cannot seek asylum as 'empirical' - they are beyond that fold and in the territory not of science but of metaphysics!

As someone who once thought Science is God, I now feel it is impossible not to believe in God. We all do really at some level. But, that God can be Science, that God can be an empty space or a mystery that the inner eye glides over blindly when one (does ones) "level best to not project an image and relate to it as God." We are all still watching the shadows in Plato's cave and making free willed interpretations. If one elects to call the shadows just the consequence of arbitrary and meaningless laws of physics -that 'just are' - even God himself could not or would not force your hand, as it would remove the gift of free will. I believe that in Plato's cave as we watch the shadows, heavenly father is smiling loving at his children as they watch the shadows dancing in the firelight on the cave wall. He wants desperately for us to transcend the confines of our self - imposed intellectual prisons.

David said...

@ Bruce - I agree that your arguement for atheism is highly effective. Indeed, I *wanted* to believe Science had all the answers for much of my life. The elaborate webs of complicated arguement I was able to construct seemed highly effective and kept my eyes gliding over the 'chinks in the armour' that would allow me (had I noticed them) to extricate myself from the trap. I even thought that the strict *honesty* of the enlightened intellect that i imagined i was though hubris and pride, elevated me in some elite way above the non-thinking and bone-headed religious stereotypes, that I supposed hadn't the honesty and the courage to finally leave the archaic 'comfort blanket' of a heavenly father archetype behind. I was part of a new breed of modern, aspirational *realists* facing the Brave New world: armed with science and perhaps transhumanism - surely all the other problems could be ironed out in time. Screwtape would have been delighted with my progress: sat in his Web of lies, the spider advancing for a meal and me sat there all 'enlightened' watching in bemusement at the other lot that were insisting on this irritating, irrational notion of a God! How can we progress with this medieval impediment of the superstitious, backward impulse of religion?! We needed to leave all that stuff behind if we were ever to make *progress* and set about creating the Brave New transhumanist world unfettered by arbitrary moralistic considerations. If the Bonobo's have a sexually liberated group social structure, well, why not let's have that as the *ideal* model? Why fight our sexual impulses? We are jist animals at base? If we all decided as a collective society that 'sex in public,' multiple and interchangeable partners (changing at whim or fancy), sex to relieve stress (NHS funded brothels perhaps? I bet we could make an *excellent* scientific case for that!) maybe that could be a better world for us all?! The really moral would transcend any petty, possessive, archaic and unenlightened SELFISH *jealosy*! and grow spiritually; we could even argue we had become advanced and transcendent, a new level of compassionate altruistic beings.

*intoxicated in this enchanted spell: slowly, ever so slowly, the spider crept down for its meal in the mental webs of my creation, perhaps to anaesthetise first and then begin eating my soul from the back of my head as I continued to expand my labyrinthine diabolical visions. It could even *feel* good to be eaten alive unknowingly?!

But, if there is one tool that cuts through the Web of enchantment and lies of our own befuddlement and confusion it is Okham's razor. Ask simple (although profound and difficult answers may remain inferred alone as mysterious) questions and only consider simple answers! Is this thing good or true? Do I know this thing is true? What is truth? What is free will? Can I assume something come from nothing? What am I assuming when making this arguement? In other words metaphysics can set us free. Anything predicated on science alone will fundamentally probably be helping the spider tie you down further into the Web and do his work for will even enjoy the work for a time, setting the table for the cannibal to eat you...

What it comes down to is a I assume x or do I assume y? All the elaborate arguements and pseudo-justifications in the world will only make you *taste sweeter* to screwtape! Above all else, as Socrates taught us - keep it simple, but piercingly so, like a blade of truth. He was murdered, like Jesus, because most of us don't *want* the truth!!! We want our version of truth!

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - A sincere and rigorous (unconfused, self-consistent) atheist is not impossible - but I think we would never hear anything from him - certainly he would not contribute to online discussions, because he would be a convinced nihilist, doubting everything about himself.

I regard Nicholas - fro his dozens of friendly and interesting comments over the past couple of years - as a benign, idealistic, decent, confused and inconsistent atheist - who senses something wrong about his own views, which is why he hangs out here and contributes to this blog; but who is not yet clear about what this wrongness is!...

Bruce B. said...

Are we doing something evil by even doing this exercise?

What Joel said more or less. The world is a patchwork of random, chaotic, mostly unrelated or barely related phenomena and there’s a great deal of suffering in it.

And God doesn’t personally, explicitly reveal himself to each and every person.

David said...

@ Bruce - I hear what you are saying...and just to impassioned rhetorical style is not intended to offend or diminish another's sincere and honest position...I respect that...I only state my opinion, for what it is worth, take it or leave it...I only say what I say with a degree of passion as I once was firmly in another trenched position and could not see any other perspectives...I share it in the spirit of truth seeking and I hope not as a fanatic or zealot...its sometimes hard for me to temper my enthusiasm for debate/discussion and that too is a personal weakness :-) Sometimes I feel I am so certain of God's presence in creation that I want to cry it out to the world from the roof tops and at other times I can doubt myself into thinking the former mindset is of a great fool...especially when I am trying to justify to myself something I should not be doing that is when I find myself welcoming doubts the most...The war within is not yet over...

@ Nicholas - No offense intended and please forgive my boisterousness. I truely wish you all the very best indeed and that you will soon find what you seek...I suspect you know what it is deep down in your most real and yearning self and someone is waiting to meet you there when you are ready and wish it to be so :-)

JP said...

The argument from evil and suffering is the one that all others fall back to.

Theologians have addressed (and refuted) "the problem of evil" so many times over the past two thousand years that anyone who says "I am an atheist because there is evil" is actually saying "I am an atheist because I am ignorant".

Joel said...

@JP -- Given that there is an entire book of the Bible (Job) dedicated to the problem of evil, which contains no answer except an appended fourth poem that says "Don't quiz God on this because he's too powerful," and two even later prose bookends that subtly give their own spin on the poem -- well, all that tells me that the problem of evil may yet be something for us to wrestle with. (I recommend Maimonides' 12th-century essay on Job. It's far more advanced than anything written since, and expounds on the above, more or less.)

If you talk to the people in distress at your own church, or those whose faith is weak, the problem of evil is often what concerns them. There's no argument to answer them with that you can look up in your favorite Medieval logic-chopping theologian. It's something that has to be communicated heart to heart, not head to head.

For the other arguments presented in this thread, I notice that they are all some variation of How Can I Know What Religion Is True? That's a valid thing to ask, but I have never heard of the existence of debate being used as proof of there being no answer. Will Global Warming happen? Debate exists, but I imagine that people will find out one way or another over the next 100 years. Is String Theory valid? Debate exists, it may never be worked out, but that doesn't tell us that there is no answer.

Bruce Charlton's posted argument may be the most powerful one here, except that I think it functions even better as explanation than as an argument. People don't arrive at their worldviews through argument -- they imbibe them through osmosis. The God as Null Hypothesis worldview is indeed the default worldview of modern man, and it's the light under which he approaches all of the other questions of his life. And under the light of this worldview, no wonder he answers the arguments about theism and atheism the way that he does.

ajb said...

I think an important atheistic argument in the Christian context is that things occur without God's action. It is the (apocryphal) Laplacian contention that one has 'no need for that hypothesis'. If you can understand the cause-and-effect relationships in the universe without God being in the picture, this leads pretty straightforwardly to deism. Once you get to deism, all the arguments for the existence of something like a Christian God become abstruse. It seems to me that a robust Christianity requires that God is constantly active in the universe, in a way that makes a difference at the quotidian level (that is, not just at a philosophical level as the 'ground of Being' or something, or at the level of relatively rare but difficult to suss out miracles).

Robert Brockman II said...

There's a simpler way to look at all this.

Let's define God as "the source of all Goodness(TM)." Polytheism, "there are many gods", works great until a set theorist comes along and draws a circle around all of the apparently individual sources of Goodness and gives it a label. This makes sense because all of the sources of Goodness that manifest in this Universe are at least connected by their presence in the same Universe. Now we have Monotheism.

True atheists now need to argue either that there is no such thing as Goodness or that the sum total of all Goodness sources either isn't all powerful or is at least woefully underpowered in comparison to sources of Badness / Apathy. In the first case, the atheists are nihilists, in the second case they are believers in Despair(TM).

Viewed in this way, many people who call themselves atheists are just involved in a linguistic confusion. Many of these people do believe in Goodness(TM), they just don't buy into particular popular theories about how exactly Goodness is generated and propagated. Even LaVeyan "Goodness is completely arbitrary" Satanists believe that individuals get to define Goodness for themselves and go implement it. Since even the Satanists have a shard of divinity within them, this actually has a slim chance of working!

Odin's Raven said...

If atheism is unnatural, and the unnatural is harmful to individuals and groups, then surely in a measurable period, it extinguishes and hence disproves itself.

David said...

On reflection there are two arguements for atheism that do cause me concern or at least deep reflection. The first reoccurred to me last night whilst watching a historical drama called "the last kingdom " based on the books of Bernard Cornwall. In this episode a Northumbrian Christian priest watches in extreme anguish as his fellow Christian Bebbanburg warriors are routed and slaughtered by pagan Viking invaders. The priest prays openly to heavenly father to help his army prevail in the face of a ruthless and murderous opposition. Nothing happens. All the Christians are systematically slaughtered, the surviving women raped, the children enslaved. The question "where is God?" and especially the guiding, guarding and protective Christian God of mercy, seems at least understandable. This priest was presumably deeply praying for a parting of the red sea type intervention; after all God did this for the Isrealites so why not any other historical Christian army fighting on the *right side* post new testament (of course the Jews were the chosen people before Christians so the red sea needed parting then)....

David said...

This situation is no means restricted to 9th century Northumbria. History lavishes us with situations of equal repulsiveness and 'seemingly' unanswered prayers: God's chosen people, the Jews,  systematically exterminated by the nazis in cruel concentration camps (We can only imagine the horror but again being stunned into feeling abandoned by God and questioning the very foundational assumptions of their faith seems understandable to me), the fall of Byzantium, Christians being *allowed* to be eaten by wild animals in a Roman colloseum. Lots of prayers for deliverance but little answers in the way the humans clearly hoped for at the time ie to live all the way through the entire history of humans. If my earthly father let a wild dog eat me alive and then shouted "don't worry son the physical body is temporary and you will be in heaven after this short agony" I might wonder that his behaviour is cruel? But then we might argue this lies beyond divine intervention due to the constraints of free will, bigger fish to fry in terms of God's long-term plan or the surviving Christians might  argue whatever they need or want to justify history e.g. that somehow Byzantium had fallen due to its corruption or wickedness in its end days, perhaps. The victors whether Vikings, Mohammedans, or Isrealites can always justify divine intervention on their side post hoc or similarly assign an unprovable divine cause of whatever happens based on the your heart out science! (Big tongue in cheek)

2) And this point seems to make the 1st observations harder to explain. Jesus was a miracle worker, he raised the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons from the possessed. I believe that he did what the bible said that he did and that miracles and divine intervention are real and possible. But what I can't understand is why these things only happened (mostly) during Jesus' ministry and not in modern times. Surely these things were not all just show for the divine marketing plan. But, I find myself asking sincerely from the bottom of my heart...why would God allow sincere followers of Christ to be raped, tortured and murdered when Jesus showed it is within divine power to stop such horrors? A recent example, I read in the news of the rape and murder of a couple of Mormon missionaries on mission in South America. It is horrendous to contemplate but it happened; one case in countless cases of mind-blowing evil. I prayed and contemplated this for quite a while when I read the article and tried to make sense of it. I thought of the families, the evil actions of the men who committed the crime and I wondered earnestly "Why didn't Jesus or heavenly father stop this?" I cannot imagine for a moment that if Jesus were here on Earth during his ministry he would have allowed it. I keep my faith but can only say any reason goes beyond my understanding of such things; it just doesn't make sense to me. I make this point as it could be a case made against Christianity and/or a belief in a *personal* God. Such historical events feel permeated with a very scary feeling of cosmic *indifference.*

I look forward to having this arguement demolished. It needs to go and would make my faith stronger.

Bruce Charlton said...


You need to spend some time clarifying to yourself just what it is that you want explained.

First you need a genera scheme of what mortal life is FOR - and how it fits in with eternal life. Once you know what mortal life is supposed to do, then you can judge what its features might be expected to be.

Second you need to distinguish general explanations for suffering from specific ones. There are (according to what metaphysical type of Christian you are) several (sometimes incompatible) *general* explanations for suffering and evil in mortal life. These may explain or account for the fact that mortal life includes pain and suffering, and is not wholly (or mostly) blissfull and Good.

then there are specific explanations for specific instances such as you describe - are you expecting to know exactly the causality of such instances in terms of God's wishes and constraints? Is that realistic? Such individual explanations could only be known by direct revelation (i.e. God telling you specifically what specifically was going on in a particular instance).

You may, or may not, receive such a revelation - and you may or may not understand and agree with the specific reasons. But revelation is what you would need, and a revelation which you understood and were satisfied by would not necessarily do the job for other people.

But I suspect that you are off track in your general line of enquiry - since you seem to suppose that the horribleness of this world is some kind of evidence against the reality of God. It is not.

What it is evidence about is the nature of God (his desires for us, the nature of his power); the nature of the world (what it is for, how it works); and the nature of mortal life (what do we get from mortal life on earth, what are our capacities, what are we supposed to do during mortal life - e.g. are we expected to be perfect or to repent.

You may also - as part of a general scheme of understanding (metaphysical structure) need to consider how the imperfections and sufferings of mortality are relevant to eternal life beyond death: are they a mistake, an accident, or part of the plan?

But recall, wrt atheism, these matters are only 'a problem' to theism in the context of a society which assumes atheism as the default assumption. Societies in the past with vastly greater suffering than ours did not perceive suffering to challenge theism, nor do the majority of people in the world today who live in religious societies, nor did the most religious individual people who themselves often suffered more than most.

It is just an error to suppose that suffering challenges *in any way* the *reality* of God/s.

David said...

"It is just an error to suppose that suffering challenges *in any way* the *reality* of God/s"

I think that for some, for able than I perhaps, the intellect can propel them beyond the difficulties of others in coming to terms with these matters. Perhaps for you this is how you have been able to *figure things out.* once and for all like an Einstein contemplating the lofty equations of reality. For me, whilst i do have fun (and sometimes despair) trying to understand the deeper mysteries, I must rely on a humble attitude of recognising my limits, accepting deeper mysteries at work and assuming that Christianity is my best working *theory* of how the human condition works and make sense out of the experiences I have as well as I can. I have yet to have a better theory.

I state the arguements before not because I believe them but because the post is looking for arguements that atheists might use to support atheism. At best I can only see most arguements here fitting with a position of humble agnosticism and not atheism. I think at least if our culture could manage that instead of nihilism we would have made significant progress as a society.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Perhaps I should clarify that *atheism* refers to non-belief in god/s - not specifically or only the Christian God. Only the (? Jewish) Christian God is a God of Love - and it is this which potentially creates the problem of pain/ suffering.

In particular, the problem arises if God is assumed to be an omnipotent God that created everything from nothing, and who is therefore (at least by a common sense analysis) necessarily *directly* responsible for *absolutely everything* that happens - including every item of pain/ suffering, deliberate cruelty etc.

This is the difficulty of explaining suffering for the Classical mainstream Christian theology. But, as you know, this problem does not apply for those who believe in Mormon metaphysics.

Pain/ suffering poses no problem at all for the existence of God when God is not understood to be wholly loving and completely powerful. For example, the Ancient Egyptian and Classical Greek gods included powerful and cruel gods that were either indifferent to Men, or hated and wanted to destroy Men; and other concepts of God regard God as impersonal, or almighty but not wholly-loving, or else as simply inscrutable, incomprehensible in motive.

Some Eastern religions regard 'reality' as an illusion - so suffering has no relevance for them either - since it is unreal.

So the reality and nature of suffering has no relevance to the existence of God/s but only to a particular conceptualization of the Christian (and perhaps Jewish) God.

Nicholas Fulford said...

@ David - No offense intended and please forgive my boisterousness. I truely wish you all the very best indeed and that you will soon find what you seek...I suspect you know what it is deep down in your most real and yearning self and someone is waiting to meet you there when you are ready and wish it to be so :-)

@Bruce - I regard Nicholas - for his dozens of friendly and interesting comments over the past couple of years - as a benign, idealistic, decent, confused and inconsistent atheist - who senses something wrong about his own views, which is why he hangs out here and contributes to this blog; but who is not yet clear about what this wrongness is!...

Quite simply I enjoy thinking and interacting with people who think deeply. I am here not to convince but to be stimulated and in turn throw up some thoughts which will stimulate. As the more or less regular atheist you can sharpen your blade against my stone, and the reverse is also true. And don’t think what I read hear does not influence my thinking; it does. But as Bruce so cogently put it, “The Null Hypothesis” is a very strong basis for atheism, and it is one that is bedrock to my thinking - though not of course my emotions. Something to be kept in mind, and which is not often explicitly discussed is the fact that rational thinking is a very recent evolutionary development. Our “thinking” is not strictly or even predominantly rational. Emotion and instinct hold the greater sway in terms of things which we relate to and regard as meaningful. Love is not rational, nor is fear or hunger. Family and community are important - nay essential - to living the good life. Oh there is the odd hermit who can manage, but for the most part these are what bind a person to path that is fulfilling. Many of the issues Bruce addresses in this blog deal with social failure, and specifically the post-modern problems of ennui, nihilism, and the failure of hedonism to address existential angst. He also brings forward “Mouse Utopia”, which until I had visited was something I was unaware of, and it is something worth looking at closely. I - like many of you - have concerns about the state of our species, and I grapple with what it is to be human.

Am I confused?

Perplexed is probably the better word. I see our species as facing into our matriculation exams, and it bothers me how despite our intelligence we so often get so many things wrong. I trip into my own biases and predilections - frequently, and at the risk of projection, I expect most of us do.

Being human is not easy. I have a limited intelligence, limited knowledge and limited horizons beyond which I cannot see. That, and I run into the persistent sticky ooze that anchors me in the swamp of old repeating patterns of failure - just like everybody else. Even so, life is a most wondrous thing, and I love it with an unbounded exuberance. But I am concerned about the human condition; about the power we have to effect things, but without the means to govern ourselves in a way that is harmonious and respectful of the unintended consequences of exercising power.

Intelligence without wisdom is an agent for the realizing of extreme entropy. We step too quickly with our tools into places that should be left untouched, and unintended effect is the plague that accompanies us. Someday I hope we can learn to live meaningfully in cohesive small communities - to not have to step outside the shire, but still be free to think and wander the scapes of mind with dear friends and family.

And so, because you have asked, this is my explanation.

John Wright said...

The logical problem with the so called Null Hypothesis is that it is not an argument at all: it is an assertion that the burden of proof rests with the theists, combined with an unwillingness to find persuasive, or even to examine, any such proof.

Now, one could, if one chooses, argue about where the burden of proof rests in the question of theism, and once that argument was settled to the mutual satisfaction of the debaters, once could then begin the debate.

Obviously if the standard of proof was set so high that no one and nothing can meet the burden, then the debate is strangled in the crib. This is not likely to persuade any skeptics on the opposite side of the question.

One is either willing to debate a question honestly or one is not. Saying "I am not willing to discuss the matter" is, outside of scholarly circles, perfectly understandable. Some ideas are too lunatic or too obscure to be worth one's time for non-scholars to debate. (For a scholar it is a point of pride and a matter of honor not to walk away from any debate for the same reason a knight of King Arthur does not walk away from a challenger who smites his shield). But to categorize one of the two universal belief found among all races, nations, peoples, tribes and groups of both hemispheres for all of history (belief in the supernatural is one; a taboo against incest is the other) as lunatic or obscure is an act of such monstrous intellectual dishonesty that it disqualifies any partisan who utters it from consideration as a source of ideas worthy of debate.

In other words the Null Hypothesis merely nullifies the speaker. It is an announcement of his unwillingness to entertain ideas other his own.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I agree that the Null Hypothesis of atheism is not an argument - it is a metaphysical assumption which frames all possible arguments. That is why it is more powerful than any specific argument.

From my perspetive, the single key question an atheist needs to answer is why - on what basis (and it is not and cannot be an evidential basis) - he has overturned and rejected the set of assumptions he was born with. Why he has adopted the null hypothesis of nihilism.

Modern people often ask why God does not reveal Himself in the world, does not make Himself clear and explicit - but of course He does.

God revealed Himself (or more exactly God/s reveal himself or themselves) to pretty much everybody who ever lived in human history, and who accepted the validity of ther inborn natural assumptions.

In plain terms, God/s is built into each of us - in the sense that if we accept and live by the metaphysical assumptions we are born with, we will believe in God/s because we will perceive evidence of the divine all around us (not necessarily nice or good evidence - for many or most people in history the divine is perceived as real but malign. But theyc certainly are not atheists!).

But modern people choose to reject all these God-given and inbuilt assumptions that are supposed to frame our understanding of the world (e.g. the reality of the supernatural, the meaningfulness - non-arbitraryness - of life, the reality of the soul, persistence of some aspect of life after death - and others)... and then modern Man has the cheeck to complain that God has hidden Himself!

David said...

@ Nicholas :

"Someday I hope we can learn to live meaningfully in cohesive small communities - to not have to step outside the shire, but still be free to think and wander the scapes of mind with dear friends and family."

Your prose is elegant and wise. But this sentence of yours, for me, embodies much of what I perceive a province of heaven to be. I long for such a way of life and existence as this: to share, to explore, to love, to make beautiful things and share in unending expressions of creation with other friends; a place and time to leave behind the dark destructive thread of humanity that has confounded each epoch...

I used to believe that such a place is merely a glimmer or spark in dispersed human souls, never to kindle into the flames of reality. But my dear Nicholas, I can testify that one day such a place will come to be! The God whom we seek in our hearts, the Christian God of love, is yearning for us to help him (and his wife) to create this place. We are still a long way from it as a species although there are souls such as yourself and many who seek such places as this who are yearning to hasten the work and find a way how to contribute to the great cause. Sadly, many millions of us are not and a repentance, awakening and change of heart is all that separates them from the kingdom of God. This can spread like wildfire when enough sparks ignite a flame. Some of us will never get there and chose to opt out. Such a vision of heaven is not heaven to everyone after all...I cannot explain it but I feel it fires my soul with conviction as I write this...God is real. He loves his children dearly. His son Jesus came to live among us to show us the way to create the type of world you seek in your dearest hopes and dreams. As yet we only imagine, but in the fullness of time our imaginations will be manifest as the knowledge this sense represents. We are being guided towards God's kingdom and discerning the place where eternal truth meets a man's free will and individual expression. I believe this is true my friend whom I have never met, but truely it seems out of magical mysteries of creation, we share the same yearnings. This is too much to be an atheists work of chance for me; this great unfolding work...

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Arguments against a generic "God" are hard to come up with because the term is so vague, but there are plenty of strong arguments against various specific conceptions of God -- the argument from evil, the logical incompatibility of omnipotence and omniscience, etc.

But basically you are right: The strongest case for atheism is simply the lack of any strong case for theism. If there are no convincing reasons to believe, then nonbelief is the natural default position.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I intend something somewhat different from your phrasing. What I am saying is that *if* the problem is *framed* as in your last two sentences, then atheism (or, at least, doubt-plagued faith) becomes almost inevitable.

It seems to me that this way of framing the problem is very recent and local. For most humans, the problem has been framed more in terms of the case for or against a particular *conception* of deity - as a choice between religions.

Once the new framework had been imposed, and (falsely) passed of as the only rigorous, intelligent, adult was of framing the problem - then atheism, indeed nihilism, is pretty much entailed.

It is this shift at the level of metaphysics which does all the heavy lifting in Western secularization; and that is the dirty and denied 'secret' of secularization.

David said...

The null hypothesis of 'No God' is due to be blown out of the water once and for all for everybody at some point. That day is the end of their mortal life and when as a dead person they realise they are still alive and conscious. Of course at that point the confused soul and life-long denier can still tell themselves they have gone mad or fabricate another pseudo-scientific explanation to make sense of their experiences in secular terms. For example, I encountered a patient whom had a significant near death experience: light at the end of the tunnel, a magnificent experience of floating outside of her body in the hospital listening to friends and family in the emergency room, a feeling of being either back to her body or away, etc. Unfortunately this experience seems to have been so unsettling her family, friends and medical support have convinced her it wasn't real and just representative of some unexpected electrical activity in the brain when she was ill or hypoxia or whatever. She has intrusive memories of the event and high anxiety to this day, worries she is going mad. The possibilities of a rare spiritual experience have never been considered by anyone for even a moment. *That* is how high the secular world sets it's bar to get over the null hypothesis of nothing happens except the lights go out for eternity when we shuffle off this mortal coil! I cannot imagine almost any historic world civilisation or some current ones responding like that. Here in the west, we really have our heads as far in the sand as we can manage...

Bruce Charlton said...

@DAvid - "Of course at that point the confused soul and life-long denier can still tell themselves they have gone mad or fabricate another pseudo-scientific explanation to make sense of their experiences in secular terms."

That is the response of the dwarfs in the Narnian finale The Last Battle. I remember being very struck by this when I read it as an atheist, recognizing my own thought processes. It became a theist within a few weeks of that experience.