science versus religion

Is naturalism more probable than supernaturalism? – Post 3

Post 3 Gary Robertson

Gary Robertson replies to Hugh Harris based on the essay : Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

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by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.

 

Hugh Harris defends a version of philosophical naturalism that contends it is likely nothing exists outside of the natural world. Hugh primarily bases his defence on “the observance of the natural world along with its laws”, which essentially consists of him appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature. Yet the question being addressed in this debate is not ‘Does the natural world exist?’, but ‘Is there a reality beyond the natural world?’

Hugh’s defence of weak naturalism is also based on what he perceives as “the absence of any evidence of the supernatural” and here his case largely consists of negative arguments in which rebuttals are presented against arguments for the existence of a supernatural reality. Before I respond to Hugh’s comments and counterarguments relating to my first post, “Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?”, I would like to discuss some serious shortcomings of the metaphysical position he defends.

Various forms of the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ by philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel, CS Lewis and others show philosophical naturalism (both reductive and nonreductive) to be incompatible with reason and that, therefore, believing in philosophical naturalism is self-defeating. Philosopher of science Bruce Gordon explains the argument as follows:

“The prospect of human knowledge depends upon the veridicality of our perceptions and the validity of our reasoning processes. If the certainty resulting from cognitive perception and valid inference provides a genuine grasp of how reality must be independent of our minds, then knowledge is possible, but if the certainty so obtained is a mere feeling and not a genuinely reliable insight into reality, then we do not have knowledge. Now, if naturalism is true, human beings came about as the result of undirected processes of evolution that had no goal in mind. In such case, our cognitive faculties are the end result of mindless causes and historical accidents that take no account of truth or logic, just the exigencies of survival. Under such conditions, any complex of beliefs and desires that conduces to survival would suffice. What we believe to be true under such conditions is therefore an accidental historical byproduct of purely natural events that bear no intrinsic relation to the actual truth of the beliefs we hold; it is an expression of how our brains just happen to work. That our beliefs should actually be true under such conditions seems quite unlikely; at the very least, whether our beliefs are true or false cannot be ascertained. If naturalism is true, therefore, our reasoning processes are so discredited that they cannot support the truth of any of the beliefs we happen to hold, especially those rather distant from immediate experience, such as the belief in naturalism itself. Belief in naturalism is therefore epistemically self-defeating, and since there is for the naturalist no remedy to this situation, it is irrational to be a philosophical naturalist because it destroys the possibility of rationality altogether.” (Gordon, 2011)

Charles Darwin himself inadvertently acknowledged that the unreliability of human cognition was intrinsic to his theory of natural selection. For instance, in a private letter written in 1881 he stated:

“Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”(Darwin, 1881)

In an earlier letter Darwin wrote:

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the ‘Origin of Species;’ and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” (Barlow, 1958)

Unfortunately Darwin acknowledged this inherent aspect of his theory of evolution very selectively. As the above quotes indicate he only deemed his beliefs untrustworthy when they were inconsistent with natural selection, such as his conviction of the necessity of an intelligent First Cause and his “extreme difficulty” in conceiving the universe as the result of blind chance or necessity. However his theory was itself “a conviction of man’s mind” and therefore, following the same logic, was also untrustworthy. Darwin failed to recognize that to be logically consistent he needed to apply his doubts about the reliability of human reasoning to his beliefs about natural selection. If he had done so he would have been confronted with an internal contradiction that renders believing in natural selection self-defeating.

Hugh states that my first post “seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalām cosmological argument.” I find this comment rather odd for three reasons. Firstly, I mention the terms ‘science’, ‘scientific’, ‘empirical’, ‘empirically’ and ‘methodological naturalism’ a total of nine times before I even get to the kalām cosmological argument (KCA). Indeed, prior to advancing the KCA I address science in relation to metaphysical propositions, such as the proposition that a transcendent realm exists. Secondly, since Hugh perceives there to be an “absence of any evidence supporting supernaturalism” I would have thought he would be expecting little to no scientific evidence in my posts. Lastly, as I explain below, the point is trivial as scientific knowledge represents just one type of evidence relevant to the topic being debated.

Hugh then wonders why I state that “’Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes’, thus, ‘methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science’, and thus, ‘all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical’”. He suspects it is so I “can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism”. However his suspicion is wide of the mark. I made these points to clarify the nature of the debate as Hugh appears to harbour the misconception that the epistemic status of philosophical naturalism is close to that of an empirically verifiable position, or that, at minimum, it has a higher epistemic status than supernaturalism has. Each of my points on the relationship between science and the investigation of ultimate reality can be readily confirmed as the establishment position on the topic. For instance, the US National Academy of Sciences in its official booklet Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science states:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.” (National Academy of Sciences, 1998)

Or in the words of Eugenie Scott, former executive director of the US National Center for Science Education:

“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.” (Scott, 1999)

The restriction of scientific inquiry to natural causes mentioned in the foregoing quotes is known as methodological naturalism (MN), which is an epistemology and a procedural process that also acts as a set of demarcation criteria for differentiating science from non-science. As Wikipedia states:

“Methodological naturalism does not concern itself with claims about what exists, but with methods of learning what nature is. It attempts to explain and test scientific endeavors, hypotheses, and events with reference to natural causes and events.” (Wikipedia, ‘Naturalism (philosophy’)

Since MN a priori excludes claims about ultimately reality, the fact that Hugh broadly aligns his inherently metaphysical position on ultimately reality with MN is puzzling. I assume this is because he adheres to scientism – the belief that empirical science possesses a unique claim to knowledge, or all that can be known about the external world are things which can be determined through the methods of the natural sciences. Indeed, in a glossary of terms used on this blog Hugh defines naturalism as “the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.”

My statement that “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical” refers to the fact that naturalism and supernaturalism are properly the domain of metaphysics. This is cogently explained in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1st Ed), which defines metaphysics as:

“Most generally, the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality. It is broader in scope than science, e.g., physics and even cosmology (the science of the nature, structure, and origin of the universe as a whole), since one of its traditional concerns is the existence of non-physical entities, e.g., God. It is also more fundamental, since it investigates questions science does not address but the answers to which it presupposes.” (Robert Audi (Ed), 1995)

However, Hugh appears to misconstrue my statement as meaning philosophical arguments “sideline science altogether”. Clearly this is not the case as empirical evidence is crucial to many philosophical arguments, including the KCA. To restate a point I’ve made in previous replies, scientific evidence can support premises for a conclusion that has metaphysical significance, but a metaphysical position cannot ultimately be confirmed by scientific evidence alone (which would make it a scientific position). In other words, although one or more premises in individual arguments for supernaturalism and naturalism may be supported by empirical evidence, neither position as a whole is empirically verifiable.

Looking at it from the flipside may better illustrate this general distinction between scientific and philosophical propositions. There are many scientific theories – Einstein’s theory of general relativity and Newton’s theory of universal gravitation to cite just two – that are, arguably, based upon deeper philosophical premises, presuppositions and concepts which can be justified by philosophical lines of argument. However, we would not refer to these theories as philosophical propositions as they are derived from empirical observation and are amenable to direct or indirect experimental testing.

This convergence of philosophical and scientific evidence within the theories of general relativity and universal gravitation, and also within many propositions about ultimate reality, nicely illustrates Hugh’s point that “philosophy cannot exist in a bubble”. Far from been sidelined then, science plays a crucial role in many important philosophical propositions (and vice versa), including in many prominent arguments for and against the existence of a transcendent reality. And since the inclusion of both scientific and philosophical evidence often allows for a more complete and informative metaphysical argument, I wholeheartedly encourage Hugh to incorporate scientific evidence in his case for weak naturalism.

Hugh, however, goes too far when he implies that non-empirical propositions have “no regard for the real world”. While many arguments contain premises that are justified to varying degrees by empirical data, many others with ‘real world’ implications are justified purely on philosophical grounds. For example deductive arguments for God’s existence, including the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument and Leibniz’ Contingency Argument, are purely philosophical arguments which provide evidence for the reality of a transcendent Creator. Moreover, Aquinas’ Five Ways are logical proofs that depend only minimally on inferences drawn from nature and are therefore not impacted by revisions to empirical knowledge. Further, while a posteriori knowledge is dependent on experience or empirical evidence, a priori knowledge is not and many non-empirical propositions based on a priori knowledge have practical real-world applications.

To quote from Wikipedia again:

“A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience, as with mathematics (3,000 + 2,000 = 5,000), tautologies (“All bachelors are unmarried”), and deduction from pure reason (eg, ontological proofs).” (Wikipedia: ‘A priori and a posteriori’)

Hugh asserts “Virtually all scientists operate under the assumption of philosophical naturalism – all causes are empirical and naturalistic ones which can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.” I suspect, albeit without any supporting data, it would be more accurate to say that most scientists, including those who are theists, adopt methodological naturalism while conducting scientific research into physical phenomena, but not necessarily when investigating immaterial realities not associated with physical causality or not reducible to the actions of neurons, subatomic particles, physical forces, etc. Such realities are beyond reductionist science and include human appreciation of beauty, art, music, poetry, literature, and other creative activities involving abstract thought, as well as conceptions of aesthetics, justice, morality, honour, mercy and love.

But even when addressing the physical world science has its limitations, thereby requiring us to go beyond the senses and natural sciences to attain a more complete understanding of the universe. The reason why science cannot give us a complete description of reality is that it is, by its nature, quantitative. Although the quantitative methods of modern science have resulted in many spectacular predictive and technological successes, they can only capture those aspects of reality amenable to mathematical modeling, prediction and control. It certainly does not follow that there are no other aspects of reality.

It should also be noted that although many scientists adhere to methodological naturalism while studying the causes or properties of physical phenomena, that does not necessarily mean they are philosophical naturalists or believe the natural sciences alone reveal all they can know about the world. After all, modern science was largely founded by theists like Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Leibniz, Copernicus, Boyle and others who believed that order and precision exhibited by the physical universe, and the overall intelligibility of the natural world, revealed evidence of God’s existence. But irrespective of one’s worldview, science is about following the evidence wherever it leads and evaluating evidence entirely on its merits – not filtering it through the lens of a particular philosophical position or judging its validity on its congruence with specific metaphysical preconceptions.

Hugh contends the kalām cosmological argument commits the fallacy of composition by “moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe”. However, the KCA does not argue compositionally – that because everything within the universe has a cause, therefore the universe as a whole has a cause. Rather, it is based on the Causal Principle – everything that comes into existence at some point must have a cause which brings it into existence, and the scientific consensus that the universe began to exist. Additionally, the Causal Principle, which is constantly confirmed in our experience, is an inductive generalisation – not a statement about one thing, and therefore cannot be the result of an inference from the parts of a thing to the whole. In other words, it is drawing an inference about all the members of a class of things based on a sample of the class. Inductive reasoning undergirds empirical science and is not to be confused with reasoning by composition.

Further, not every inference from part to whole commits a fallacy of composition; whether an inference does so depends on the subject matter. If each brick in a wall of Lego bricks is red, it does follow that the wall as a whole is red. Even if one were to infer from the contingency of the parts of the universe to that of the whole universe, I contend that would be more like the inference to the colour of the Lego wall (or the Great Wall of China) than the inference to its size.

Philosopher Edward Feser explains it this way:

If A and B are of the same length, putting them side by side is going to give us a whole with a length different from those of A and B themselves. That just follows from the nature of length. If A and B are of the same color, putting them side by side is not going to give us a whole with a color different from those of A and B themselves. That just follows from the nature of color. If A and B are both contingent, does putting them together give us something that is necessary? It is hard to see how; indeed, anyone willing to concede that Lego bricks, tables, chairs, rocks, trees, and the like are individually contingent is surely going to concede that any arbitrary group of these things is no less contingent. And why should the inference to the contingency of such collections stop when we get to the universe as a whole? It seems a natural extension of the reasoning, and the burden of proof is surely on the critic of such an argument to show that the universe as a whole is somehow non-contingent, given that the parts, and collections of parts smaller than the universe as a whole, are contingent. (Feser, 2010)

Ultimately though, since the KCA is not justified by an argument from composition Hugh is simply arguing against a straw man here.

Hugh claims the KCA’s conclusion that the universe began to exist is invalid because “given that space and time are inextricably linked, the contention that the universe began suggests a moment preceding its existence. But, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this is like seeking a point more northerly than the North Pole – the universe can be both finite and without a prior moment or beginning.”

Firstly, the view that the universe had an absolute beginning and there was no space, time, matter, energy and, hence, physical laws, before the universe began is the consensus view of physicists and cosmologists for good reason. The standard Big Bang model, which posits space, time, matter and energy came into existence at a single point simultaneously, is well supported by a confluence of independent lines of inquiry. Prominent US sceptic Michael Shermer briefly explains why the theory is so well supported in the April 2017 issue of Scientific American:

“There are many propositions for which we have adequate grounds for certainty as to their truth: There are 84 pages in this issue of Scientific American. True by observation. Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. True by verification and replication of radiometric dating techniques for volcanic eruptions above and below dinosaur fossils. The universe began with a big bang. True by a convergence of evidence from a wide range of phenomena, such as the cosmic microwave background, the abundance of light elements (such as hydrogen and helium), the distribution of galaxies, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, the redshift of most galaxies and the expansion of space. These propositions are “true” in the sense that the evidence is so substantial that it would be unreasonable to withhold one’s provisional assent.” (Shermer, 2017)

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, along with Arvin Borde and Alan Guth, was able to prove that any universe that has on average been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem shows that classical space-time, under a single, very general condition, cannot be extended to past infinity but must reach a boundary at some time in the finite past. Vilenkin states:

“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (Vilenkin, 2006)

Or, as a New Scientist editorial plainly states, “It now seems certain that the universe did have a beginning.” (Editorial, 2012)

Secondly, nearly all space-time theorems derived from general relativity establish a singular simultaneous beginning for all the matter, energy, space and time in the universe rather than suggest a moment of time preceding the universe’s existence. Indeed, there is no justification for the assumption that causal priority implies temporal priority. As philosopher William Lane Craig comments:

“The standard Big Bang model thus describes a universe which is not eternal in the past, but which came into being a finite time ago. Moreover—and this deserves underscoring—the origin it posits is an absolute origin ex nihilo. For not only all matter and energy, but space and time themselves come into being at the initial cosmological singularity. As Barrow and Tipler emphasize, “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo. (Craig, 1999)

And lastly, Stephen Hawking’s model for a finite universe “without a prior moment or beginning” is a speculative proposal that employs a statistical technique (imaginary numbers) for time variables in order to preserve a purely spatial representation of the beginning of the universe. The problem with the use of imaginary numbers in the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary quantum cosmology model is aptly explained by William Lane Craig:

“The question which arises for this construal of the model is whether such an interpretation is meant to be taken realistically or instrumentally. On this score, there can be little doubt that the use of imaginary quantities for time is a mere mathematical device without ontological significance. [English cosmologist, theoretical physicist and mathematician David] Barrow observes, ‘physicists have often carried out this “change time into space” procedure as a useful trick for doing certain problems in ordinary quantum mechanics, although they did not imagine that time was really like space. At the end of the calculation, they just swap back into the usual interpretation of there being one dimension of time and three . . . dimensions of . . . space.’ In his model, Hawking simply declines to re-convert to real numbers. If we do, then the singularity re-appears. Hawking admits, ‘Only if we could picture the universe in terms of imaginary time would there be no singularities… When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities.’ Hawking’s model is thus a way of re-describing a universe with a singular beginning point in such a way that that singularity is transformed away; but such a re-description is not realist in character.

Hawking has recently stated explicitly that he interprets the Hartle-Hawking model non-realistically. He confesses, ‘I’m a positivist … I don’t demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don’t know what it is.’ Still more extreme, ‘I take the positivist viewpoint that a physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it corresponds to reality.’ In assessing the worth of a theory, ‘All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements.’ ’ (Craig, 1999)

Given the foregoing, Hawking’s logical impossibility of multiple most-northerly points fails as a defeater for the claim that the universe had a beginning. It would be more accurate to employ Hawking’s logical impossibility as an analogy in the following way: Before the Big Bang time did not exist, therefore one cannot go further back in time than the Big Bang in much the same way one cannot go any further north than the North Pole.

Hugh informs us that philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum “explains that the singularity of the Big Bang does not conform to an actual ‘physical event’ given its unbounded nature, infinite density and scalar curvature. Thus, it does not even have the requisite chrono-geometric relations specified by the space-time metric, to which a cause could be applied – it cannot in fact ‘be the effect of event-causation or agent-causation alike’” (Grünbaum, 1994)

Grünbaum’s comments are from his critique of the Philosophia Naturalis article “Creation and Big Bang Cosmology” by philosopher William Lane Craig (Craig, 1994a). Craig subsequently responded to Grünbaum’s objections (Craig, 1994b) and in response to Grünbaum’s claim that the Big Bang singularity was not a physical event, Craig notes:
“Grünbaum’s lengthy critique is actually directed at only two paragraphs of my original article (the fourth and the fifth). In the first of these I charge that Grünbaum’s objection that the Big Bang singularity cannot have been caused (because it could have had neither a subsequent cause nor an antecedent cause) is a pseudo-dilemma because the cause of the initial cosmological singularity could be simultaneous (or coincident1) with that singularity. In response, Grünbaum presents the following argument:

1. Only events can qualify as the momentary effects of other events or of the action of an agency.
2. The Big Bang singularity is technically a non-event.
3. Therefore, the singularity cannot be the effect of any cause in the case of event causation or agent causation.

If this argument is sound, then it is simply irrelevant whether the putative cause of the Big Bang singularity is antecedent to, simultaneous with, or subsequent to the singularity, since any sort of cause of the singularity is excluded.

It seems to me, however, that this argument is invalid, since it equivocates on the meaning of the term “event.” The sense in which the initial cosmological singularity is not an event is, as Grünbaum notes, a technical sense employed in GTR [General Theory of Relativity]. Since that singular point is not Hausdorff isolated, that is to say, since its coordinates cannot be specified independently of all other space-time points, it cannot be classed as an event as that term is technically used in GTR. But the word “event” as it is used in (1) cannot be this terminus technicus if (1) is to be plausibly regarded as true. For we can easily envision happenings which are not “events” in the technical sense in which that word is used in GTR, but which do qualify as the momentary effects of other events or agent causes: (i) The initial cosmological singularity is causally linked to later space-time points and events, so that in this case we have events which are the momentary effects of a non-event. Now consider the final cosmological singularity in a universe caught in gravitational self-collapse: here we have a case in which a non-event is the momentary effect of other events, which contradicts (1), if that premiss uses “event” in the technical sense at issue. (ii) In the quantum realm, occurrences take place (such as the collision of two elementary particles) which cannot be termed “events” in GTR’s technical sense. Classical conceptions of space and time finally break down within the quantum regime. Yet these quantum occurrences are doubtlessly causally conditioned by macroscopic physical states which are classifiable as (series of) events (such as a quantum experiment’s being carried out by a researcher). (iii) The technical sense of “event” in GTR is inapplicable to mental events such as the perception of an object or the experience of being surprised. Yet such occurrences in consciousness are clearly in part the momentary effects of events in the physical world and also, plausibly, of the action of agents, as, say, when I force myself to concentrate on some subject or to get my mind off something else. (iv) If God exists, why could He not cause momentary effects which are not events in the GTR sense of the word? Could He not create a universe not governed by GTR in which there are momentary effects of His action which are not “events” in the technical sense of the term? Since GTR is not metaphysically necessary, why is this impossible? And why could not mental processes, quantum occurrences, and singularities be causally produced by God? In short, (1) is plausibly true only if “event” is understood in a broader, non-technical sense (for example, “that which happens”) than the sense which that term carries in GTR. But in that case (3) does not follow from (1) and (2), since the notion of “event” in these two premisses is not univocal.” (Craig, 1994b)

Hugh asserts, “the laws of conservation do not suggest that we can keep on subtracting elements from the universe until we get nothing. Parmenides famous adage, ‘from nothing, nothing comes’, does not suggest that nothing preceded something and that something needs a cause. Rather, it expresses the riddle of existence itself. There is no reduction of something into nothing in the natural world. And so, the state of nothing which is supposed to precede something, is doubtful at best, and antithetical to our observations of the natural world at worst.”

Hugh’s position requires that there is at least one natural entity that was either uncaused or self-caused. However, there are a number of problems with this position. If the proposed entity had no antecedent cause it would be self-existing and past-eternal. Yet it would not be part of nature because the natural world (which of course includes the laws of conservation) had a beginning point in the finite past (a singularity) and, therefore, a past-eternal entity would transcend nature. Nor could the entity be self-caused as the notion of self-causation is a logical impossibility – no entity can cause its own existence because no entity can cause anything unless it already exists. This effectively rules out Hugh’s proposition of “a timeless natural force which governs all of existence”, but certainly allows for a timeless supernatural force which governs everything.

Hugh claims, “the cosmological argument assumes the universe itself cannot be a brute fact (or eternal) because everything that begins must have a cause; and then goes on to suggest that therefore there must be a brute fact (such as God) to explain it. This is begging the question. One cannot logically deny the existence of brute facts as a premise (whatever begins to exist has a cause) and then insert a brute fact as the conclusion (a necessary, uncaused being).”

However, the KCA makes no such assumption. As I’ve stated above, the argument simply draws a logical conclusion from premises based on (1) the Causal Principle that everything that comes into existence has a cause which brings it into existence, and (2) the scientific consensus that the universe began to exist. (Why assume the existence of something is a brute fact when the available evidence explains aspects of its existence?) Besides, while the KCA appeals to philosophical and scientific evidence to argue that the universe had a cause of its existence, it neither concludes that this cause is God or a brute fact, nor denies the existence of brute facts. Arguments that expand on the KCA, such as arguments B and C in my first post, may deduce certain properties of the universe’s cause, such as that it is supernatural, however, they do so based on valid deductive arguments. Even if one concludes that the supernatural cause of the universe is God (as I do), one is not appealing to a brute fact. As philosopher Karlo Broussard explains:

“The theist is not saying God is a brute fact, i.e., he has no reason or explanation for His existence. It is essential to classical theism that God’s existence, though not caused by another, is explained by his essence. His essence is existence itself—ipsum esse subsistens. This is not something theists arbitrarily assert but is the conclusion of deductive reasoning that starts with certain features of the world—motion (change), efficient causality, contingency, degrees of being, and final causality.” (Broussard, 2016)

Hugh says, “One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact?” To borrow again from William Lane Craig,

“Although the brute fact claim for the universe’s existence would have some credibility if the universe is past-eternal, it loses all credibility once we discover that the universe began to exist, for then we are forced to say that for no reason whatsoever the universe popped into being out of absolutely nothing, which is worse than magic.” (Craig, 2017)

Please note: Given the breadth of topics covered in this response, I’ll discuss teleological arguments in a future post.

 

SOURCES

Audi, R (1995) [Ed] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Barlow, N (1958) [Ed] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. Collins, London.

Broussard, K (2016) ‘5 reasons why the universe can’t be merely a brute fact’, StrangeNotions.com.

Craig, WL (1994a) ‘Creation and Big Bang Cosmology’ Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 217-224.

Craig, WL (1994b) ‘A Response to Grünbaum on Creation and Big Bang Cosmology’, Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 237-249.

Craig, WL (1999) ‘The ultimate question of origins: God and the beginning of the universe’, Astrophysics and Space Science 269-270: p.237-249.

Craig, WL (2017) ‘Royally Bad Objections to the Kalām Cosmological ArgumentReasonableFaith.org. 29 Jan 2017.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 14 Jan 2012.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Hume, cosmological arguments, and the fallacy of compositionEdwardFeser.blogspot.com 28 Dec 2010.

Gordon, BL (2011) ‘The rise of naturalism and its problematic role in science and culture’, in Gordon, BL and Dembski, WA (Eds) The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Delaware.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 14 Jan 2012.

Grünbaum, A (1994) ‘Some Comments on William Craig’s “Creation and Big Bang Cosmology”’, Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 225-236.

Mastin, L (Undated) ‘Time and the Big Bang’ ExactlyWhatIsTime.com

National Academy of Sciences (1998) Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. National Academy Press, Washington DC: p.124

Scott, EC (1999) “The ‘Science and Religion’ Movement. An Opportunity for Improved Public Understanding of Science?Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 29-31

Shermer, M (2017) “What would it take to prove the resurrection?Scientific American 316(4).

Vilenkin, A (2006) Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. Hill and Wang, New York. p.176.

EarthfromSpace

In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson

In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson’s Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?

by Hugh Harris

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The position I propose to defend is weak naturalism. Conforming broadly to the standard of scientific inquiry known as methodological naturalism, it can be distinguished from the stronger position of philosophical naturalism, which claims categorically that the natural world is all there is.

Weak naturalism: as far as we know, the natural world is all there is. I defend the claim that naturalism is more probable than supernaturalism, in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism- the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism, and its likelihood in comparison to the sans-evidence claims of supernaturalism.

In his first post, Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?, Gary Robertson seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalam cosmological argument. Gary states that “Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes”, thus, “methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science”, and thus, “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical”. I’m not sure why Gary does this, but I suspect that it’s so he can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism . Perhaps philosophically they are equal inversions, in the sense that naturalism is the denial of the supernatural and the supernatural is the affirmation of it. But evidentially, they are not equal.

Virtually all scientists operate under the assumption of philosophical naturalism – all causes are empirical and naturalistic ones which can be measured, quantified and studied methodically. When our children are ill, we don’t look for magicians or witch doctors summoning supernatural forces. Why? Because there is no evidence they work, and much evidence suggesting they’re harmful. And this is despite the plethora of religious faith healers such as the discredited John of God faith healer, who scratches at the eyes of the credulous and who has made over $10 million out of selling crystals and other fake cures, and yet, had his own cancer treated by chemotherapy in a hospital.

And so Gary might have to forgive my reluctance to sideline science altogether from this debate. Additionally, I assume we’d agree that philosophy cannot exist in its own bubble, separated from empiricism, with no regard for the real world. Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position, but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science. Further, the ultimate nature of reality is unlikely to vary depending on what University faculty building one happens to be in.

Evidently Gary agrees, given he goes on to claim that “supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature…did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, … the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural”.

But I disagree that that’s what the scientific/empirical evidence suggests, as indeed do the majority of philosophers and scientists. The kalam cosmological argument:

 

Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The Universe began to exist.

Therefore, the Universe had a cause

 

Objecting to my previous critique, Gary issues the following challenge: “I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself””.

The cosmological argument uses the causality, we observe in the known world to make the case that the known world itself must have a cause. But this self-referentially uses the laws of causality, to explain their own existence. Bertrand Russell exposes that moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe, commits the Fallacy of Composition, which mistakenly concludes that since the parts have a certain property, the whole likewise has that property. If all bricks in a wall are small, is the Great Wall of China small?

The kalam cosmological argument makes the invalid assumption the universe began to exist. Given that space and time are inextricably linked, the contention that the universe began suggests a moment preceding its existence. But, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this is like seeking a point more northerly than the North Pole – the universe can be both finite and without a prior moment or beginning.

Adolf Grunbaum 1994, explains that the singularity of the Big Bang does not conform to an actual “physical event” given its unbounded nature, infinite density and scalar curvature. Thus, it does not even have the requisite chrono-geometric relations specified by the space-time metric, to which a cause could be applied – it cannot in fact “be the effect of event-causation or agent-causation alike”.

Additionally, the laws of conservation do not suggest that we can keep on subtracting elements from the universe until we get nothing. Parmenides famous adage, “from nothing, nothing comes”, does not suggest that nothing preceded something and that something needs a cause. Rather, it expresses the riddle of existence itself. There is no reduction of something into nothing in the natural world. And so, the state of nothing which is supposed to precede something, is doubtful at best, and antithetical to our observations of the natural world at worst.

Grunbaum 1994, further argues that “a galaxy of theists… take it to be axiomatic that if there is a physical world at all, then its spontaneous, undisturbed or natural state is one of utter nothingness, whatever that is… Why, in the absence of an external supernatural cause, should there be just nothing?” Further, the “presupposition of the spontaneity of nothingness lacks even the most rudimentary plausibility”. Many philosophers have argued against the proposition of nothingness as unintelligible. Why assume nothingness as a default, or a brute fact?

The other consideration, is that the cosmological argument assumes the universe itself cannot be a brute fact (or eternal) because everything that begins must have a cause; and then goes on to suggest that therefore there must be a brute fact (such as God) to explain it. This is begging the question. One cannot logically deny the existence of brute facts as a premise (whatever begins to exist has a cause) and then insert a brute fact as the conclusion (a necessary, uncaused being). One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact. Crucially, even if one accepts that the universe begins, why cannot it not begin due to a timeless natural force which governs all of existence?

Thus, it’s invalid to suggest that the evidence points to a supernatural cause of the universe. In regards to teleological arguments we’ll have to discuss the specific versions. Then, my generalisations on this subject – “arguments from incredulity” – can be supported by considering the particular teleological argument in question.

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Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism? – Written Debate

Post 1 Gary Robertson

This is the first post in a written debate between Gary Robertson and Hugh Harris based on a discussion of the essay : Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

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by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.

 

My worldview is a theistic one (non-denominational, non-fundamentalist Christian) informed primarily by natural theology, philosophy and science.

I would generally define naturalism as the view that nature is all that exists, but would also deem the less rigid position you appear to espouse (that the existence of a supernatural realm “is more improbable than probable”) to be a naturalistic one.

While we both agree that nature exists, we differ in our respective answers to the metaphysical question of whether there is a reality beyond nature. To determine whether there is a realm that transcends the natural world we need to closely examine the evidence and draw rational, logically consistent inferences based on this evidence. Simply knowing that “the natural world does in fact exist” does not empirically confirm the proposition that nature is all there is. Indeed, such a proposition can neither be confirmed nor disproved empirically as, like all philosophical positions, it falls outside the purview of methodological naturalism.

Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes, which a priori excludes hypotheses and explanations relating to the reality of extra-natural dimensions. Thus, methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science and are by definition philosophical methods – not scientific ones. Consequently, all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical, irrespective of what they affirm or deny.

That naturalism is a philosophical view (specifically metaphysical or, more specifically, ontological) can be readily verified by consulting any reputable encyclopaedia or dictionary. Hence, I have not tried to “frame the discussion” as one metaphysical view against another. Since both positions are inherently metaphysical ones most informed discussions pitting naturalism against supernaturalism are assumed to be presenting the debate in that context, whether this is made explicit or not. This does not mean both positions “must be equally probable” either. As I noted in a previous comment, their respective strengths depend on the quality of the evidence supporting their premises and their degree of rational coherency.

You claim “there is no evidence of any other world beyond [the natural world]”, yet supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature (space, time, matter, energy and physical laws) did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, if the prevailing cosmological position is correct the cause of the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural.

The argument can be expressed as follows (argument A) and expanded (arguments B and C):

A. The kalām cosmological argument:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause (nothing comes from nothing)

(2) The universe began to exist (2nd law of thermodynamics, evidence of a cosmological singularity)

(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

 

B. It is logically impossible to provide a natural explanation for how nature came into existence as such an explanation must assume the existence of nature in its opening premises, thus committing the circular fallacy. Necessarily then, the origin of nature (ie, the entirety of physical reality) must be supernatural.

(1) The cause of nature is either natural or supernatural

(2) The cause of nature cannot be natural

(3) Therefore, the cause of nature is supernatural

The demand of deductive logic to avoid the circular fallacy makes (2) necessarily true and (1) is a true dichotomy, therefore (3) logically follows.

 

C. Moreover, since time is a physical property of nature, logic dictates that the cause of time must have been independent of time if we wish to avoid the circular fallacy.

(1) The cause of time must have been either dependent or independent of time

(2) It is logically impossible for the cause of time to have been dependent upon time

(3) Therefore, the cause of time must have been timeless/eternal

(4) It is logically impossible to cause a timeless entity to come into existence

(5) Therefore, the cause of nature is eternal and, ipso facto, a first cause

 

From the above logically valid arguments, we can conclude that the cause of the universe must be supernatural, timeless, eternal and uncaused.

Since the kalām cosmological argument (A) appeals to scientific evidence to prove the beginning of the universe – not the existence of God, it is not a “God of the gaps defense”. Likewise, arguments B and C logically deduce properties of the universe’s cause but do not infer that God is this cause. Thus, there is no God-of-the-gaps reasoning involved in any of these arguments. And since the conclusion of argument B logically follows from the premises, it is not a matter of arbitrarily or gratuitously inserting ‘supernaturalism’ into gaps in scientific knowledge.

I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself”. The same applies to teleological arguments based solely on interpreting empirical data through standard scientific methods. Simply making bare assertions, like “teleological arguments are invalid arguments – arguments from incredulity” and evolution “turned [the argument from design] on its head”, is not a counterargument.

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The Child is Father of the Man

As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia Journal, September, 2016

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What should we tell a child about the world? How do we distinguish between knowledge and beliefs? Answering this question requires us to reach deep down into ourselves and grasp for the forgotten struts that hold one’s view of the world together. Proceed with caution however, as once the supports are prized away the whole thing is apt to collapse.

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My atypical view comes as a result of my six-year-old son’s placement in a fundamentalist and evangelical religious instruction (RI) program. Despite us immediately pulling him out of it, and even after I’d written opinion pieces opposing RI in the Australian media, our boy was put back in the class without our knowledge.

The experience brought me unwillingly face to face with the question of what to tell my son about religion. I’d prefer him to find these answers on his own. The conversation went like this: I tried to explain the limits of our knowledge, and cast some doubt on his new found certainty of the existence of a Creator God; while my son grilled me as to what I believed – presumably so he could instantly adopt my position. The resentment at being placed in this position cements and reinforces my opposition to proselytising in schools.

The school curriculum is a perennial source of controversy. Was Australia settled or invaded? Is Safe Schools an anti-bullying program or misguided social engineering? What should we teach children about culture, and religion? Opponents of both religious instruction and the Safe Schools program argue against teaching children contested beliefs or ideologies.

One of the architects of Australia’s National Curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire, recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.

“We don’t want material creeping into the curriculum without it being quality assured. You should never outsource the development of a curriculum to any group with a particular agenda, or blindly accept any curriculum material they have provided to be used in schools”.

The issue is fraught by evolving attitudes toward the rights of children – no longer merely the “don’t speak until spoken to” property of parents.

We should distinguish between rights as they apply to learning in three ways: the rights of parents, the best interests of society, and the rights of the child. In western cultures, parents still enjoy inordinately high levels of control over their child’s education.

According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), parents have the right to bring up their children in their chosen religious or non-religious belief system.

Consider the tension between the rights of parents, and the rights of the child. The child cannot assess what is best for them and can only rely on the assumed best intentions and good judgement of their parents. But what if the parents insist on inculcating their child into an extreme or harmful belief system?

We also need to balance the entitlements of parents with the utilitarian notion of what is best for society, and reflect on the significance of a child’s potential.

As poet William Wordsworth noted “The child is father of the man”.

 

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety

 

Our days “bound each to each” the child begets the adult, connected by a continuous line of experience. The outcomes of what we teach children extend well beyond the lives of the parents, influencing the temper and texture of our future society.

But how can we measure the rights of parents? Beyond chattel ownership, parent’s rights can be measured in maximising the child’s ongoing welfare and opportunity to flourish.

So, to the extent that the parent’s rights rely on satisfying the best interests of the child, then the child’s rights take precedence. The rights of the parent turn on the best interest of the child. Given the prevailing balancing of parent’s rights over children’s rights, this should give us cause for alarm.

Children’s rights aren’t adequately protected when it’s legal to indoctrinate them into closed orders, send them to extremist schools, or proselytise fundamentalist dogma in state schools. Serving the best interest of society involves providing the child with knowledge and arming them with the critical skills to deploy it.

Those arguing against teaching contesting beliefs strike upon the crucial distinction: beliefs are secondary to knowledge. By definition, beliefs lack the verifiability and or universality which would otherwise render them as knowledge.

So, how about this rule of thumb? If adults cannot agree on a particular proposition, don’t teach it to children.

Challenging the generally accepted meme of parental entitlement, involves allowing the child greater autonomy and freedom of thought to develop their own framework of ideas and beliefs. Wordworth’s phrase evokes the unbroken link between a child’s world and the adult world, but it should also motivate us to reflect upon the gradations between belief and knowledge.

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Fallacy of the Atheistic Regimes

Straw Man:  20th Century Atheist regimes are responsible for the worst massacres in history.

This argument has become a thought terminating cliché which serves both as a cautionary tale of what happens when we turn away from God, and also as an attempt to equal the ledger in discussions relating to religious violence.

This argument erroneously presupposes we accept that atheism was pivotal in causing violence in the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century.  Accordingly, ‘atheistic regimes’ are supposedly an example of the dangers of ‘atheism’ in practice.  Where we might have previously said, Communist Regimes, or Totalitarian Regimes, for the purposes of argument we rebrand them Atheistic Regimes, employing a rather transparent form of Humpty Dumptyism in order to pin the blame on atheism.  The argument is used a return argument, a Tu quoque fallacy, to divert attention from religious violence.

Nazi Germany

Firstly, as an absolute knockdown, Nazi Germany was not even an atheist state.  Germany was a 95% Christian country when it went to war in 1939.   As Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out the first Treaty signed by the Nazi regime was with the Catholic Church exchanging political influence for control of German education.   Hitler ascribed his victories to divine Providence, and encouraged his own personal deification. Soldiers had ‘Gott min uns’ (god on our side) inscribed on their belt buckles, and party members took the following oath under God – “I swear in the name of almighty God, my loyalty to the Fuhrer?”  Hitler was explicit: Nazi Germany was, and would always be, a Christian nation.

Historians such as biographers John Toland cite Hitler’s Catholic background in having an influence on his fervent Anti-Semitism.  Following meetings with Hitler, General Gerhard Engel and Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber wrote that Hitler was a believer in God.  The references to Hitler’s contempt for Christianity in the memoirs of some of his confidantes seem to be the root of the association of Nazism with non-belief.  However, these references are at odds with his public announcements, and the memories of some of his other contemporaries.  Although his personal religious views varied throughout his life, Nazi public policy contained a consistent commitment to Christianity.  The Party and developed Positive Christianity to do to further its own needs, which involved a hard line reinterpretation which was particularly Anti-Semitic with a trajectory towards deifying the Fuhrer himself who was said by Hanns Kerrl, Reichsminister of Church Affairs, to be the “herald of a new revelation”.

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, pg 307.

“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

Hitler did not act alone.  Using propaganda he fanned the flames of popular Christian Anti-Semitism, its perceived relation to Bolshevism, and promoted a policy of racial purity and Arian superiority.  As a scapegoat for the humiliation Germany suffered at Versailles, Jews were reviled as subhuman, commonly held to be treacherous creatures, undeserving of pity; beliefs which made the final solution possible.

The views of Hitler on Jews are hardly unique or unchristian – his own views are a product of the centuries of Christianity which preceded him.  Consider the 1543 Anti-Jewish Pamphlet by Martin Luther ‘On the Jews and their Lies’ wherein he referred to Jews as “poisonous bitter worms”, “miserable and accursed people”, “brood of vipers” [Matt. 3:7], “truly stupid fools…”, “they are nothing but thieves and robbers”, “great vermin of human ordinances”, and “these lazy rogues.  Anti-Semitism has its roots well before Nazism, as Martin Luther’s recommendations in dealing with Jews indicate:

“First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.  This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…”

“Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”

“Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”

“Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”

“Fifth, I advise that safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”

“Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.”

“Seventh,…letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow..”

The pamphlet ‘Jews and their Lies’ was displayed Nazi Nuremberg rallies, and the scholarly view is that it had a major influence on German attitudes to Jews from the Reformation to the Holocaust. (refer: Wallmann, Johannes. “The Reception of Luther’s Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century”, Lutheran Quarterly, n.s. 1 (Spring 1987).

So the arrow flung at atheism for Nazi atrocities might, at least in part, be redirected towards historical Christian Anti-Semitism, not to mention the other drivers of Nazism – Nationalism, humiliation at Versailles, Racial purity, Utopian ideals, Fascism, and the cult of personality of Hitler himself.   Nazi Germany was not an atheist regime, atheist country, and nor was it motivated by atheism.

Communist States

But what of countries that have embraced atheism as a national creed – The Soviet Union under Stalin, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia?  The atrocities of these regimes were not primarily motivated by atheism but by the crushing of dissent in fulfilling the utopian creed of which atheism was but a tenet.  To blame atheism is a Fallacy of Division:  when one reasons logically that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts.  Atheism, as a part of Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s regimes, cannot necessarily be judged as equivalent to the whole regime, and the specific causes for the violence require further investigation.

Reflecting on the primary goals of Communism as described by Marx and Engels in redistribution of wealth and changes to the social, political and economic order, atheism was but a secondary consideration.  The Soviet State under of Stalin was epitomized by the paranoia and power crazed nature of its leader resulting in purges of all potential opposition.  The perceived necessity for the government to control its’ subjects by force seems to have provided the leaders with the tools to prolong their own grasp on power; men who would be tyrants tended to obtain and keep power. One might make the case that Communism is a failed political system which appears to result in totalitarianism, murderous despots, and failed economic reforms.  20th Century Communism, like Nazism, is based on a utopian vision for society where human rights are sacrificed for the common good, where the end justifies the means, and where totalitarianism usurps the will of the individual.

Abandonment of faith in God in favor of worship at the altar of science or reason is also often invoked as part of the ‘atheistic regimes’ fallacy.  Since atheism does not necessarily entail ‘blind faith’ in science, or anything else, this point is a straw man, but even so the argument is ahistorical.  In China the Great leap forward was a disastrous economic experiment which caused millions of deaths through famine resulting primarily from inept planning.  The agrarian reforms of the Soviet Union also featured bad science and a reliance on Communist dogma with the same results – famine, and millions of deaths.  Nazi Germany featured pseudo-science driven policies such as eugenics and racism aimed at purification.  Pol Pot relocated urban dwellers to the country in order to tend farms and work in forced labor projects resulting in widespread malnutrition and death.  Science was subordinate to socialist and communist dogma, and the policies pursued were often unscientific.  Scientists did just fine in totalitarian states unless they challenged authority in which case they were killed, forced into exile or put in prison camps.

Pol Pot was not an atheist. A Thervada Buddhist, he believed in irrationalities such as karma, amd that heaven was guiding him in his efforts to transform his country into a Communist utopia.  Cambodia was Buddhist and the Khmer Rouge adopted and mirrored elements of Buddhist thought such a dhamma, and the renunciation of material goods and sentimentality.  Hitler was a Christian influenced by Martin Luther, Stalin was an altar boy educated in a seminary, and Pol Pot was educated at a Catholic School for 10 years and then at a Buddhist one.  If correlation is all that matters we could easily draw the conclusion that religion is crucial to causing the atrocities of these regimes.  Alas, the causes are to be found beyond considerations of belief or non-belief.

Correlation does not prove causation

A correlation between Atheism and the despotic communist regimes of the 20th century does not imply causation.  Proponents of this view seem to make the connection due to their own pre-existing biases, reasoning that without Christianity (or other faith) as a controlling force these regimes cut the cord to morality.  There is no evidence to support the view that the irreligious are less good than the religious.  The rich history of religious violence, continued in the present day by ISIS, Boko Haram, Christian militias in central Africa, and many other religious groups demonstrates how myopic this view is.  Atheists are drastically underrepresented is US prisons at 0.07%, compared to 1.6% of the general population (2008).

Progress

One observes that attitudes to violence have changed dramatically in the last century.   In previous centuries capital punishment was common.  Divinely ordained monarchs were not squeamish when it came to dealing with their enemies.  The revered Queen Elizabeth I had 71 of her subjects hanged, drawn and quartered, many on the basis of their religious affiliation.  The guilty were dragged by horse on a wooden frame to a public place where they were hanged by the neck until almost dead, then placed on a table, disemboweled, their sex organs were removed and burned, after which they were finally decapitated.  The corpse was then hacked into four pieces, which were placed on display in different parts of the city or country.  The crime of treason, often identified by religious affiliation, was often punished in this gruesome manner; the Christian doctrines of peace and mercy were apparently no obstacle.  The torture chambers in the Inquisitions featuring some of the most sadistic and morally repellent punishments devised by men – the Rack, the Heretics Fork, the Pear, the Strappado, Judas Cradle, the Breast ripper, the Garrotte, Breaking on the Wheel, and of course, burning at the stake.  These were not undertaken in the grip of passion, or with a temporary loss of sanity, they were premeditated crimes, reasoned and thought out based on the practical application of scripture.  The parallel with totalitarianism is self-evident: the ideology demands compulsory adherence on pain of torture and death.  If the absence of faith in God severs the moral urge in humans it is curious that we seem to have become progressively more adverse to extreme violence over time, concurrent with an increase in secularism, humanitarian attitudes, and democratic governments.

20th Century violence not the worst

Steven Pinker, in his magnificent The Better Angels of our Nature, provides ample data that violence is declining historically.  We are becoming more peaceable when we measure violence in proportion to the world population (which is surely a more accurate measure than by total numbers of deaths given the dramatic increase in the global population).  When understood in proportion to the total global population, the 20th century does not represent a high point of violence in history, and in fact its second half has been notable for a lasting peace.  The Crusades, unambiguously religiously motivated, resulted in 1 million deaths out of a total world population of 400 million, proportionally higher than the Holocaust.  The carnage resulting from the religious Thirty Years War was double that of World War I, and about the same as World War II, when compared as a percentage of world population.  This data takes some steam out of the belief that the last century featured extraordinary violence requiring a special explanation.

Perspective – Utopian political systems and Totalitarianism

The large death tolls of the 20th Century are better understood in comparing the rise of utopian political systems rather than their religious affiliations.   As countries have shifted away from political systems such as Nazism and Communism, abandoned totalitarianism, as they have embraced universal human rights and became secular liberal democracies we have had a period of comparative peace.  There are also a myriad of other specific reasons explaining the violence of the 20th Century.  It is simplistic to characterize societies as if they are driven by a single idea, even those led by genocidal despots feature a range of ideas and interests represented in an ideology.  Fascism co-existed with Catholicism in various countries, and Cold War allegiances were driven by the political system rather than the religious affiliation. Weapons became more destructive, capable of killing en masse early in the 20th century allowing for higher death tolls than before.  Ethnic cleansing, military juntas, political instability, sectarian violence and other reasons have all contributed.

Atheism does not demand State Atheism

‘State Atheism,’ the official promotion of atheism as an enforced belief by government (employed by Communist regimes), must be distinguished from mere ‘atheism.’  Most modern atheists support Secularism not State Atheism.  There are no new atheists I am aware of who argue for atheism to be state sponsored and enforced on pain of loss of liberty, torture and death.  This highlights a crucial distinction between religious ideologies and non-religious ones.  Christianity suggests an evangelical requirement on believers, and if it were actually true that an eternity in Hell awaits non-believers then one would indeed be doing good by forcing others to conform to its’ doctrines.  Fervent believers in Islam are also determined for the religion to be practiced by all.  Harsh punishments, including the death penalty still exist in many parts of the world for apostasy and atheism.

State Atheism represents a totalitarian ideology abhorrent to most modern atheists, humanists and secularists, and is an indictment on the collaboration between utopian ideologies and totalitarian political systems, not atheism itself.  Atheism necessitates only a lack of belief or disbelief in god(s); it is not necessary to adhere to an ideology seeking to enforce compulsory belief on all.   This is where the straw man of the ‘atheistic’ regimes argument is erected.   Atheism is conflated with State atheism, symptomatic of the apologetic habit of measuring aspects of atheism in contradistinction to aspects of religion, as if they are diametrically opposed to one another with equivalent but opposite qualities.  Atheism is broadened into a tapestry of irreligious ideologies often including such things as scientism, social Darwinism, eugenics, Communism and totalitarianism.  The new atheists are not arguing for State atheism, any more than they are promoting theocratic rule.  Pluralism is an ideal common to atheists, one that stands in stark contrast to totalitarianism.

Key Points

So in summary the Fallacy of the ‘atheistic regimes’ argument encounters the following decisive objections:

  1. Nazism was not atheistic
  2. It is a Fallacy of Division to equate atheism with larger political systems which might include it as a tenet
  3. Atheism was not the prime motivator of the violence undertaken the fascist and communist totalitarian regimes of the 20thcentury
  4. No evidence suggesting decline in religious belief, or atheism, leads to an increase in violence, although plenty of evidence suggests the opposite
  5. The 20thcentury was not the most violent in history
  6. The cause of violence and the passage to non-violence is better understood in terms of the rise and fall of utopian totalitarian states
  7. Atheists do not support or promote State Atheism

Facing these objections the straw man falls.  Atheism does not suffer any guilt by association with Communist dictatorships and tyrannical despots.  Their delusions of grandeur, false ideologies and lust for power were far more urgent motivators than the influence of a lack of belief in God.  It might be comforting for the apologists of religion to rationalize the violence done in its name by invoking the fallacy of atheist regimes but they are forced to ignore history to do so.  Historians don’t think atheism is the cause of 20th Century violence – they point to the specific range of drivers in each case.  The failure to make elementary distinctions, an incurious and cherry picked view of history is symptomatic of starting with a conclusion and then trying to furnish it with evidence.

 

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Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

Critics of atheism and or naturalism/materialism often present the dichotomy of naturalism and supernaturalism as a false choice. Naturalism entails the closed system of the known universe and supernaturalism represents the realm beyond or outside the physical world. Theists too easily dismiss naturalism and materialism as unproven, since they cannot disprove immaterial worlds and other dimensions, thereby seeking to grant religious beliefs in supernaturalism additional power. As I will show, this is a mistake as it unfairly manipulates the argument by a focus on what naturalism denies, rather than what it affirms.

The false dichotomy is represented by an either/or choice between:

  • Natural

OR

  • Natural + Supernatural

There are two reasons why this is fallacious:

  1. Supernaturalism is arbitrarily granted equal epistemological status with nature
  2. Limitless versions of Supernaturalism are available

Definitions

From Dictionary.com

The distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism has been something of a vexed question, and for the purposes of argument it is clarified as follows:

Naturalism

  1. the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.

Supernatural

  1. a being, place, object, occurrence, considered as supernatural or of supernatural origin;
  2. that which is supernatural,or outside the natural order.

Essentially the natural and supernatural are flipsides of the same concept. The supernatural is defined as outside or transcendent of nature. Naturalism entails a formal belief that nature is all there is. This is mostly perceived as a strong positive belief that the universe is a closed system with nothing beyond or outside of it. For the purposes of this discussion it will be useful to understand naturalism as simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension, as opposed to positively claiming it does not exist. This might be termed weak naturalism. Just as an atheist might be termed a weak atheist since he lacks belief in God, but does not necessarily positively disbelieve in all god(s).

Since the strong interpretation of naturalism effectively rules out anything beyond the natural, the theist is able to seize the opportunity to corner non-theists into a position they may not actually hold. A non-theist does not necessarily claim that the known universe is all encompassing, or that his lack of belief in God(s) demands that he also refutes any possibility of the supernatural. In order to create the false dichotomy the non-believer is conscripted, using naturalism, in to the position of denying any other knowledge or realm apart from the natural.

Since the definition of naturalism precludes supernaturalism, if we were able to identify another realm, perhaps an immaterial one, this realm might then by virtue of its discovery become part of the naturalist position. Therefore something is amiss. The distinction becomes meaningless if naturalism is equated precisely with our current knowledge. This is known as trivial naturalism. It must have a distinction in kind so that supernaturalism is not only unexplained by nature, but also has causes outside of nature or belong to systems with different laws, or is explained by the mental powers of immaterial Beings. Thereby, if discovered they would still be classified as supernatural.

This is dependent on the definition of nature. When we talk about nature we are discussing the observance of natural laws and cause and effect in the world. What exactly makes them natural? If God created the world would not acts of God within the world he created also be natural, as long he did not contravene the laws of nature he created? This question would be difficult to answer, and thankfully we can leave it to one side, since we are only concerned with the natural world as we know it. The distinction of supernatural refers to something operating beyond or outside of these laws, and would therefore be anything that is not controlled by the known physical laws of the universe.

Philosophically, the nature-supernature distinction is problematic because generally a ‘distinction’ relies on a comparison between two known entities. We know virtually nothing about allegedly supernatural entities, and can offer no verified examples for comparison. The supernatural is primarily a negation of natural – its’ definition dependent on overcoming, overriding or sitting outside the causation observed in nature. The supernatural cannot be defined as one thing, or one realm. It is the unknown not-natural which is as yet an undiscovered set of things, as far as we know potentially an empty set, and potentially an infinite set.

False Equivalency

In terms of practical knowledge, the natural world and the supernatural are not equal. Those who speculate on a world beyond naturalism are unable to present the same level of evidence in support of it as we have for the natural world. In fact, there is no comparison whatsoever.

The universe exists; beyond philosophical ‘mind in a vat style’ equivocations one could hardly mount a convincing case that it does not. The nature of the physical universe and the physical laws which govern it are documented so extensively that we are able to make accurate predictions about future events, predictions about the movements of planets, tides, and the weather. Humans can perform complex medical interventions to improve our longevity, understand and control the spread of disease, utilize natural resources to provide food and shelter, create vehicles to navigated long distances and a myriad of other things too numerous to mention. In stark contrast the evidence in favor of a supernatural realm is confined to speculation, religious doctrine, ghost stories, and unverifiable claims of revelation.

Theists who seek to assert equivalency are on shaky ground. They might propose that since we do not know everything about nature we cannot disprove supernaturalism. This is a mistake. Inability to rule it out does not count as positive evidence in its favor, and indicates nothing about the probability of the supernatural realm.

Theists may argue that since we do not have an answer to some of the fundamental questions about existence itself, an answer might or must be obtained in realms that are as yet undiscovered. Again, lack of an answer to a fundamental question about the natural world, does not necessitate any evidence in favor of a theory that provides a non-natural answer; this is a non-sequitur.

Mysteries, such as the vast and uncharted universe, dark matter, our inability to traverse to distant galaxies, to enter black holes, or to understand what happened prior to 10-43 Plank time, and the unresolved aspects of abiogenesis, lead some to reason that since we don’t understand a great deal about existence then we must subscribe to an open mind about the supernatural, eventuating an apathetic attitude of giving it an even chance of existing. Since we don’t know a lot about fundamental reality we cannot say with great confidence that complete realms aside from the natural exist. This openness to new information is quite reasonable but should not lead to the conclusion that a transcendent reality, supplementary to the one we know exists, is equally likely to the hypothesis than the universe is a closed system. The lack of any evidence of a supernatural or immaterial realm is at least a prima facie case that it is more improbable than probable. Our imperfect knowledge of the natural world does not indicate a probability or equal likelihood of supernatural realms; this is a ‘super-nature of the gaps’ style argument (refer: God of the Gaps). Our inability to solve the fundamental questions of existence do not equalize theories with knowledge, or speculation with what is demonstrable by evidence.

Many versions of Supernaturalism

The supernatural realm is conspicuously absent a well-defined set of properties. The religions who agree with each other that this realm exists disagree spectacularly on what it entails. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions assume a supernatural realm exists but posit different entities within it, and different Beings governing it. Some propose Heaven and Hell as repositories of human souls. Some disallow any contact between the supernatural realm and the natural realm whilst others allow a myriad of interventions from angels, Gods and devils.

The contradiction ever present in theology is the argument that we cannot have contact or knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but we must have faith regardless, or obtain to knowledge through faith. Transcendental arguments of revelation through faith are numerous (see the Witness of the Holy Spirit) and yet they are unsupported by a consistent “known” nature of the supernatural. A singular or common standard does not apply and the alleged “experience” is reported in various different ways. The various versions of the supernatural are consistent with speculation rather than knowledge, and lead to an infinite number of possible worlds in the supernatural realm since there is no possibility or means of reducibility.

The False Dichotomy

The choice can be better outlined as follows:

  • The Known Universe

OR

  • The Known Universe + Christian Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + Islamic Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + Hindu Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + reincarnation, spirits, ghosts

OR

  • ….and on to infinity

Where the theist argues we must make a choice between two scenarios he is making a grave mistake. The actual choice is between the extant universe and an infinite number of possible worlds that we are prevented from having any knowledge of.

We should not be cornered into accepting such a speculative set of beliefs. The burden of proof is on the Theist to mount a case in favor of a well-defined supernatural realm. Once that is achieved we could properly compare the likelihood of one to the other.

Evidence

The Theist is forced into jumping back and forth to either side of the evidential coin. Arguing, on one hand, that the supernatural is beyond our power to observe it by definition; that seeking to use our senses and perceptions and the tools of science to measure what is undetectable, due to its existence beyond the bounds of nature, is an exercise in futility; a category mistake.

On the other hand, they are unlikely to want to concede there is no way of knowing there is a supernatural realm or of determining what exists within it. The doctrines of their religion are based upon knowing these things. Not only do religions claim the realm exists they also proscribe a conception of what it might be like. The concept might include a deity, angels, various levels of either heaven or hell, activities, waiting chambers such as purgatory, and any number of other properties. The religion will often describe how the realm relates to our purpose in life, and how we should interpret the will of its deity or deities who reside there.

The theist is then forced to argue that we do in fact have knowledge of the supernatural dimension through non-evidential means. It’s worth considering the dictionary meaning of ‘evidence’ does not limit it to any type (on line Dictionary):

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid

It then becomes apparent that it is the Theist who makes a category mistake by assuming a category of knowledge not available to them. If revelation, knowledge through faith, and witness of the Holy Spirit truly provide knowledge of the supernatural then they are evidence. This evidence could, therefore, be weighed in accordance with its consistency, verifiability and its ability to make predictions. As ‘evidence’ of another realm, or of God, we should reasonably expect the provision of knowledge relevant to humanity, or greater truths not available in this world, which might provide great insight in to the meaning of life, and the fundamental questions. At the very least we should expect a consistent description of the supernatural realm, the nature of the Beings therein, and the content of the experience. In contrast to these expectations, Theists seek to exempt such experiences from the measures of evidence.

Bearing in mind the definition of evidence mentioned earlier, the theist effectively claims to have unique access to a type of evidence outside of evidence itself; a logical impossibility. Analogously, we cannot claim there are possibilities beyond what is possible. We cannot logically do the illogical.   Alternatively, they may counter this statement by saying they have evidence but it is only available to those who have faith. It can only be accessed by those committing to faith, and even then it is not demonstrable or verifiable to anyone without faith.

Conclusion

Naturalism does not entail a simple choice between two options. The supernatural realm entails an unlimited number of possible worlds. Not only do the proponents of the transcendental need to demonstrate the properties of another realm, they also need to demonstrate a means of detection. If alternative realms are proposed to be undetectable any claim to their existence is self-defeating. If they are proposed to be detectable and interactive with this world then their veracity should be demonstrated on evidence. Evidence cannot be discounted as, by definition, it constitutes the way in which we know things. It is not a knock down argument for theism to claim that naturalism or materialism cannot be proved; the unproved is the denial of the supernatural realm, whose probability is not helped, but hindered by its own unknowability and inscrutability. The false dichotomy is clear: the natural world is clear to see, the supernatural is undiscovered.

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Debunking the Witness of the Holy Spirit

From Aquinas’ sensus dei through to the modern Christian apology of Plantinga and Craig, God’s existence has been affirmed through the manifestation of his holy spirit. God has graced humans with a sensus divinitatis (a special sense) providing the individual with certainty of God without recourse to evidence.   John Calvin:

 

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget

 

The large numbers of people oblivious to this sense presents a problem for the sensus divinitatis. Alvin Plantinga’s modern variant of the argument provides an airtight explanation – this sense is defective in some people due to sin.   Well, how convenient!   One unproven doctrine props up another one.

 

Reformed Epistemology, a continuation of Calvin’s sensus divinitatus, proposes properly basic beliefs which are self-evident. We perceive them directly, as we would when we see a tree, or taste an apple. Plantinga admits the perception needn’t be similar to other perceptions, but maintains the concept is the same. Some beliefs must be properly basic, not requiring grounding in other beliefs, thereby providing a foundation for other knowledge.

 

The key question is whether the personal experience of the holy spirit provides an acceptable standard of evidence to justify forming belief?   There are various strong objections to be made to the witness of the holy spirit.

 

  1. How can any subject KNOW their perceptions are authentic?

The wide range of metaphysical beliefs demonstrates people are capable of drawing different conclusions from the same world (evidence).  As above, many theistic religions make precisely the same argument for a witness of the holy spirit.  Not all of these claims can be true, as several are competing. Many “witness” type claims have been discredited.   Modern Branch Davidians led by the notorious David Koresh who believed he was the prophet who would father the next messiah. They were even other Branch Davidians who claimed to have the ability to raise the dead. Their witness of the holy spirit was obviously false in this case.   Sathya Sai Baba of India made a lucrative career from convincing others of his Divine nature by working miracles, faith healing and predicting the future. The BBC’s The Secret Swami exposed his fakery, fraud and probable paedophilia. India has quite a tradition of fake gurus. Countless spiritual leaders and faith healers were later found to be charlatans.

2.   Human fallibility is evidenced constantly throughout history.

Our species has held many beliefs as knowledge without sufficient evidence that later turned out to be spectacularly false – earth was flat, quintessence, the stars determined out fate, earth was the centre of universe, belief in witches, lighting and weather was god’s wrath, sacrificing animals and children influences god.  A thousand years ago it seemed entirely reasonable that the Earth was the centre of the universe given observation that the moon and the stars appeared to rotate around it.   Many of the modern discoveries of physics have been counter intuitive to our natural expectation – evolution for instance. If we should distrust even commonly held beliefs if they lack sufficient evidence, then we certainly question our personal intuitions.

  1. Personal fallibility; which perceptions are true and which are not?

How does a subject determine without any doubt that God is real, when they are aware of being deceived on other occasions? Everyone has been deceived by their senses in one way or other. Those suffering from mental illness or experiencing effects of mild altering substances, have perceptions that differ markedly from reality.

 

  1. Why is the content of the experience lacking?

 

To have an actual witness of the Holy Spirit implies a genuine experience of the person – God. There clearly should be substantive descriptions of the nature of God as revealed through this experience; his Holy nature cannot remain hidden if we claim to bear witness to it. Believers would note common features or properties of God that they could relate to each other. Such an amazing experience would surely entail some sort of knowledge otherwise one must ask how they know what they are bearing witness to? How compelling would this testimony on the witness be? I had an experience with person X but, alas, know nothing about person X, nor can I describe any detail of the experience with person X, nor can I produce any effects demonstrably caused by person X, but trust me, I know for certain that person X exists. This is not a witness of anything.

  1. Personal experiences lack verifiability.

 

Knowledge is justified on the basis of sufficient evidence, testable by third parties. If our evidence is merely a feeling or instinct within our consciousness, the qualities required for third party analysis are absent. To accept the witness of the holy spirit implies agreement that all other untestable claims have equal justification. The outcome is a relativist world where reality is entirely subjective. Not only a patently false description of our world, the acceptance of untestable propositions as valid truth claims would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences.

 

William Lane Craig argues the witness of the holy spirit is an intrinsic defeater-defeater, immune to counter evidence.   Even if presented with irrefutable evidence pointing to the non-existence of God, Craig would maintain faith due to the overwhelming power and conviction provided his witness of the holy spirit. But note how he responds when a non-Christian theist makes the same claim:

 

Of course, anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience. So you present arguments and evidence in favor of Christian theism and objections against their worldview in the hope that their false confidence will crack under the weight of the argument and they will come to know the truth.
Craig dismisses without argument other claims of self-authenticating witness of God, “They really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.” This invalidates any claim of a witness of God, including Craig’s own. There is no explanation to satisfy the special pleading invoked in favour of Craig’s God as opposed to everyone else’s. If it is acceptable for Craig to dismiss the claims of others, then it must be acceptable for others to dismiss his own. From his own logic one thing is clear; if there is any legitimate argument for the existence of his God, above any others, it is demonstrably not the witness of the holy spirit!

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Beyond Empiricism

It’s not surprising after several millennia of culturally enforced piety that many people believe in transcendence; contact with phenomena beyond the empirical world; and not just the faithful.
‘There must be something…’
…‘This can’t be all there is.’
People say things like this all the time, as if an assumption becomes a deductive truth. Conversely, some claim that limiting the world to naturalism reflects a form of faith itself, often labelled as scientism or dogma. This would imply a burden of proof on the naturalist to provide evidence (not faith) there is nothing beyond the natural world. Since this is demanding the impossible, it is an unreasonable demand. But is it equally unreasonable to reject the presumption of a non-empirical realm?

Cultural myths cast a shadow of otherworldliness upon our psyche. Even for non-believers it is natural to speculate on an afterlife. Offering an antidote for grief and a defeater to mortality, the cognitive bias that informs these beliefs seems watermarked into our consciousness. Wishful thinking is embedded in the phraseology of our language. Instead of dying we would much rather pass on or go to a better place in the next world, because death is not the end, but merely the beginning.

James Whitcomb Riley’s He is Not Dead:

I cannot say, and I will not say,
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land.
David Searls:
Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.
G.K. Chesterton
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility… But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur.

Throughout history we witness the collaboration between assertion of the transcendent and an alibi for its absence. Unlike the sun at noonday which we can actually see, we can see no transcendence; not a blaze nor a blur, no shining or shapeless visage, no splendid confusion; only a crestfallen nothingness that leaves the assertion unfulfilled.

What if we accept the natural world is all; abandoning the afterlife and its promise of eternity? What sort of nihilism entails from this belief? Nietzsche articulates the insecurity entailed in his famous God is dead passage (from The Gay Science):

How could we drink up the sea?
Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun?
Whither it is moving now? Whither are we moving?
Away from all suns?
Are we not plunging continually?
Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?
….Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?
…God is dead.
God remains dead.
We have killed him
To abandon faith is to slay humanities’ dearest illusions. Marx postulated real happiness depends on this excision:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Both Marx and Nietzsche understood implicitly the human need fulfilled by religion, and so they sought its replacement. Giving up the addiction to superstition and consolation was never going to be easy, and even now, after a century of gradual secularisation and a movement away from faith in many western countries, the supernatural still has its appeal. There is something in our nature that desperately clutches on to it, like a child to a parent.

The allegation of scientism, a word which has become a snarl word for excessive reductionism, is made against those who deny a mystical dimension. Since science cannot disprove a spiritual dimension, it must admit its possibility; and presumably its accessibility. Reza Aslan:

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science
The argument rests on the unknowability of metaphysical claims; since they are beyond the purview of science they cannot be denied by science. Yet, how are they to be understood by any other fields of inquiry if they cannot be known? Rather than just supposing that there is something beyond the impenetrable boundary of the universe, shouldn’t we be considering whether there is or isn’t? It is of course quite a grand claim after all.

Cosmologists theorize that the universe is a closed system. The sum total of our existential knowledge is the observable universe, and what operates within that universe does so invariably according its nature. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p109:

It has likewise no impulse to self-preservation or impulses of any kind; neither does it know any laws. Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress….
Nature is defined by the forces and entities that operate within it; it cannot observe laws, those laws are what we invent to describe its fundamental nature. Understanding the depth of Nietzsche’s point is appreciating that we should not expect miracles, or divine interventions; these are simply impossible. The natural order is impervious to prayer, worship, chance, and the wishful thinking of men.
If there is a supernatural or otherwise non-natural dimension outside the universe then it has stubbornly evaded detection. To presume its’ existence despite this, must surely entail an obligation to provide some evidence in support of it. We do not have to accept that people can communicate beyond the grave, or encode messages from deities, or are themselves reincarnated famous historical figures, or similar outlandish things.
If there is a path to knowledge beyond empirical inquiry then we should surely have some demonstrable effects of this knowledge. We should have solved some problems by non-natural means, and sought to harness its power. We should be able interrogate the veracity of supernatural claims. However, while attempts have been made, nothing has been proven. No-one has claimed James Randi’s prize.

If there is another type of reality beyond the universe we currently have no way of knowing anything about it. It is therefore impossible to know whether there is anything there, and if there is, what that thing or set of things might be. From a pure logic point of view it would be staggeringly unlikely that we should be able to guess what exists in another dimension or world without any relation to it.

And yet many people do predict what things might exist in an after-life, and the ways in which people might transcend the natural laws of this world. There is a wild assortment of transcendental beliefs; ghosts, gods, vampires, psychic abilities, magic, reincarnation, spirits, witches, goblins, fairies, werewolves, incubi and so on. How do we assess the validity of each of these claims based on having no knowledge or measurable relationship to them? Based on zero evidence, all we have to go on is the coherence of the claim. And perhaps this explains something. Those who describe the transcendent in contemporary literature seem to place high stock in wrapping the message in compelling, sometimes breathtaking language. Roger Scruton:

…the root of the human condition, points always towards the transcendental — the point on the edge of space and time, which is the subjectivity of the world.
sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.
Whilst they sound nice these statements are simply assertions without proof. This language carries over to the consideration of the transcendent as an activity in the observance religion and spiritualism. Through these meditations we can achieve greater insight into life, or enlightenment. The perceived value in religion is often expressed in phrases such as “pointing to the transcendent”, “its eternal, tranquil watchfulness,” or looking for the “sacred light of truth at the edge of the world.” Without question, there might be some introspective benefits to be obtained by these contemplations. But we should admit that they necessarily involve an effort of imagination and speculation to create an artificial experience. There is no real communication between this world and another one.
The search for genuine spirituality would assuredly be enhanced by a focus on achieving the individual experience rather than the fictional creation of other world-ness. Since we can have no knowledge, it is futile to accept faith in supernatural beings in a way that presumes precisely that somehow we do have knowledge; and that the supernatural being has an exacting and unambiguous plan which must all followed for our entire lives. Not only is it futile, it is counterproductive as we could be investing our time and intellects more wisely.
Kierkegaard’s paradox is essentially the human belief that we can know, what is by nature, unknowable, in relation to belief in God. We can somehow transcend our own rationality to perceive something without knowing how we perceive it. It is only a paradox if we choose to believe that there is something there that we cannot know about. Otherwise, it is not a paradox, it is a contradiction. One may object that if we perceive something without knowing how, we should be skeptical as to how we can know it. Other precedents for this type of knowledge include the hallucinations of those using illicit substances, and the delusions of the mentally ill. Even if we could argue that this knowledge is provided through some other means we are unconscious of, or only subliminally aware of, there is no way we can support the conclusion. Without accessible knowledge we have no way to verify or determine that this belief is justified. It is a license to claim the existence of any supernatural or natural entity. Greater care and diligence should be exercised before accepting of these type of beliefs, particularly considering that belief in God and observance of religion is to many people the most important and influential belief in their life. We cannot know what we cannot know. However we want to dress it up it is a case of special pleading, and we cannot rationalize our way to knowing what is unknowable. What is an existential mystery for Kierkegaard is also market opening for charlatans and cons.

To consider how the self might die, and then continue on to another reality is at odds with our medical knowledge. Sentience is a product of our brain. Our mind works because of the physical workings of our brain, which can be measured and studied in the realm of neuroscience. When the human body dies, the electrical impulses in the brain cease. There is no more consciousness; there are no more thoughts; there is a point which we can medically detect that sentience and life is gone. It seems incongruous that the mind will somehow kick start again without the brain, to allow a continuance in some other reality. In the event that it could, it would seem to indicate that the physical operation of the brain throughout life was an unnecessary redundancy, or a ruse to deceive us. Likewise it is problematic to imagine consciousness transferring to some other controller, our soul for instance, and still remaining a product of the same self. In addition, the soul remains undiscovered. If it is residing somewhere within our bodies, it is undetectable by the instruments of modern medicine. So in postulating transcendence or an afterlife, we do not even have a reasonable hypothesis for how our own identity continues to exist, never mind a clear idea of where that identity goes.
It is not unreasonable or dogmatic to reject belief in a non-empirical realm. There is no evidence, and it is only guesswork to speculate about it. Those who disagree are free to provide their evidence, and their explanation of how they know. It is clear that we must neither assume the existence, nor non-existence of a non-empirical realm. Though we should feel no obligation to award warrant for those who claim to hold knowledge of things that they are patently unable to demonstrate through evidence

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The Burden of Proof  

(See also Debunking the Witness of the Holy Spirit)

 

In philosophical discussions the burden of proof or, Latin: onus probandi, is said to rest with the person making the claim.  It is invalid reasoning, an argument from ignorance or, Latin: argumentum ad ignorantium, to contend that because something cannot be proved false it is assumed to be true, or that because something cannot be proved true it is assumed to be false.   Shifting the burden of proof is a significant issue in debates relating to the existence of God.

The same standard applies in the legal fraternity where the burden of proof generally rests with the prosecution, who must prove the defendant guilty by providing sufficient evidence to achieve a positive verdict beyond reasonable doubt.   The obligation lies with the claim maker, as the Latin maxim attests: semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, which translates as, “the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges.”

In science, a hypothesis is proposed and this is subject to systematic observation, measurement and testing.    The results are used to ascertain the success or failure of the proposition, where further investigation may proceed to attempt to replicate the same result, or use the result to provide predictions that would entail from its’ truth.   In all cases the default position is that the proposition is unproved prior to its consideration.

Atheists tend to claim that the theist bears the burden of proof to justify the existence of God, whereas the theist tends to claim that both parties have an equal burden of proof.  The Oxford dictionary defines atheism as follows:

 Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

This definition allows for the subtle, but important, distinction between positive and negative atheism.   Positive atheism is the belief that God does not exist, whereas negative atheism simply lacks belief in the existence of god or god.   Antony Flew, in The Presumption of Atheism[1], has argued that negative atheism does not bear a burden of proof as it is not making a knowledge claim.   Negative atheism is simply the lack belief in God, a subtle but important distinction from the knowledge claim that God does not exist.  Atheism can be wide or narrow – some may be positive atheists in respect to the Omni God of the major montheisms, but negative atheists in regards to other concepts of God.   A wide positive atheist would assert that no Gods exist, and a wide negative atheist that he lacks belief in all Gods.

William Lane Craig argues that atheists have an equal burden of proof because they are making an equal knowledge claim to the theist.   Despite the dictionary definitions of atheism which all include lack of belief, he claims that a negative atheist view is an attempt to redefine atheism.

“Such a re-definition trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition atheism ceases to be a view, and even infants could count as atheists.”[2]

Craig is attempting to belittle the atheist position of lacking belief in God due to lack of evidence.  This is clearly misguided, but it underlies a key vulnerability in his claim that atheists should bear an equal burden of proof.  Negative atheism is clearly an opposing view to all forms of theism, and can be distinguished from any religious belief in God or gods.   It should not be deprecated as an insignificant belief as it would be opposed to the observance and privileging of religious beliefs, which it would view as unjustified.   To be aware of holding this view tends to result in opposing unwanted religious impositions one’s own life, and on the lives of others.   It is an inconvenient view as it seems to avoid bearing any burden of proof.    When Craig mentions that even infants can count as atheists he also betrays an appreciation that, in his view, the default position would indeed be a presumption of atheism.

It is useful to note that whilst Christian apologists assert that atheists bear an equal burden of proof, they also have a tendency to argue that it is impossible to disprove the existence of God.

“It is important to realize something about being an atheist that even most atheists fail to acknowledge and that is that atheism requires omniscience (complete knowledge of everything).… An atheist is making a positive assertion that there is no God. The only way that anyone could make such an assertion would be to presume that he knew everything about everything.” [3]

The existence of God is described as a universal negative.   A universal negative would be the type of negative argument that is impossible to prove due to our limited knowledge of the universe.    A proponent may argue that just because there is no evidence for P, does not mean that P does not exist.   Black swans were assumed not to exist because everyone knew all swans are white by nature; in fact the term black swans became a by word for impossibility.   They were then promptly discovered in Australia.

To attempt to prove a universal negative is extraordinary difficult. It can only be achieved if the proposition is logically impossible or false by definition. Bertrand Russell once remarked that he would be at a loss to prove that the Gods of ancient Greece did not exist:

If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments.

If we consider leprechauns or Bigfoot, we could conceivably demonstrate that they do not exist on earth, but then we would have to expand our search to the entire universe. If it is possible that something exists, it seems that disproving it is either a task of Herculean proportions, or practically impossible.

Therefore, unless we can demonstrate that God is logically impossible, or incoherent as a concept, then it would appear to be very difficult to disprove him. Thus, from a theist’s point of view, the burden of proof cannot rest on atheism.

(Of course, many atheists, including myself, do think the concept of God as generally understood in the major religions, is logically impossible and incoherent. However, this would not be accepted by apologists, and the attributes seen as incoherent or impossible could easily be revised.)

If the theist demands the atheist shoulders a burden of proof, and he also asserts that it is impossible to disprove the existence of god, then he is effectively demanding that the atheist prove the unprovable.   It is clearly nonsensical for the burden of proof to be placed upon any proposition that is unprovable.  Therefore, if we cannot prove a universal negative, then atheism cannot be expected to bear a burden of proof on the existence of God.

So the apologist needs to make a choice.   Does he believe that it is possible to prove a universal negative, or will he grant the atheist no burden of proof?   The claim that you cannot prove a negative is a self defeater.  As Stephen Hales argues it is folk logic to make this unsustainable claim, and that in the sense that we can prove anything by deduction or induction, we can prove a negative.  Therefore, the positive atheist should not be complacent.   Since he believes there is no God, whether in the narrow or wide sense, he should bear a burden of proof proportional to his claim.

It should be unnecessary to point out that we do not have an obligation to disprove those things we lack belief in.  When a hypothesis fails, it is not necessarily disproven; it has failed to be proven.  The proven and verified hypotheses are the ones we move forward with.  There is no positive reason to act on a hypothesis whose only merit is that it cannot be disproved.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This oft quoted aphorism makes the point that the absence of evidence for God does not indicate positive evidence that God does not exist.   This is of course assuming that the nature of the entity or hypothesis being tested would not have necessitated evidence.  William Lane Craig argues in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Theistic Critiques of Atheism, that it in order to demonstrate that the absence of evidence provides a strong argument for disbelief in God:

….it is incumbent on the atheist to prove that if God existed, He would provide more evidence of His existence than what we have.[4]  

In a stunning twist the perceived lack of evidence for God is used to reverse the burden of proof on to the atheist.  This is equivalent to demanding the defense counsel prove their client is innocent by demonstrating the real culprit would have left better clues.  William Lane Craig then goes on to claim that there are two reasons why this is an enormously heavy burden of proof for the atheist to bear:

On at least Christian theism the primary way in which we come to know God is not through evidence but through the inner work of His Holy Spirit, which is effectual in bringing persons into relation with God wholly apart from evidence.  (2)  On Christian theism God has provided the stupendous miracles of the creation of the universe from nothing and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, for which events there is good scientific and historical evidence….

This annuls his own argument as he introduces evidence in points 1 and 2 to show that there is no absence of evidence after all.  The incoherency is exposed as Craig appears to think that, given the absence of evidence of God, the burden of proof is shifted to the atheist to prove that this should mean that God does not exist, at which time he will announce that we actually do have plenty of evidence of God!  He has invalidated the notion that a lack of evidence is not evidence of absence, by seeking to provide evidence.  This seems to imply that he actually believes that the lack of evidence is indeed a significant barrier to reasonably holding belief in God, and may actually constitute evidence of absence.  Furthermore, it does seem reasonable to propose that if God exists there might have been some evidence by now.

One wonders if a statute of limitations could be placed on the absence of evidence for the existence of God; after all, theists contend that this absence will not last forever.   Absence of evidence does not indicate God does not exist, but it does absolutely nothing to encourage belief in the proposition that he does exist, and merely implies that it is more rational to withhold belief until provision of said evidence.

In the absence of evidence there is nothing to be implied about that proposition.   Perhaps the aphorism can be reformulated:

In the absence of evidence, absence prevails

In the absence of sufficient evidence we, perforce, default back to the position which existed prior to the hypothesis.    In assuming that the hypothesis that God exists has failed, we revert to the position that we can neither affirm, nor deny Gods existence.   The default position is that we cannot prove the proposition that God exists, and equally, we cannot prove the proposition that God does not exist.  We might recognize equally; that we have no reason to believe in the existence of God, and that we may not be able to disprove Gods existence.   Evidently, the default position is completely neutral to the question, so neither the positive or negative position is proved.

When we consider this in practical terms, the default position is epistemologically equivalent to the negative atheist position of a lack of belief in God or God(s).   Otherwise, we would not only need to demonstrate that it is rational to hold beliefs without any reason or evidence, but also that we can do so in the absence of a proposition, which is clearly absurd.   Axiomatically, the neutral position is effectively the same as lacking of belief in the positive assertion that God exists.

A common objection to the argument that the burden of proof lies on the claim maker, is that evidence does not necessarily determine our beliefs.  If we can argue that we hold justified beliefs without evidence, then we should not require evidence as a justification to hold beliefs.  Let’s consider some examples:

I know that other minds exist

There plenty of evidence that other minds exist, as seen through the effects they cause.    There is an important distinction between evidence and irrefutable proof.  We do not require irrefutable proof to rationally hold beliefs, so long as they are supported by sufficient evidence.  We may not easily be able to demonstrate that other minds exist, but nevertheless we know that they do; the question is how do we know, and whether it is by evidence.   We have an intuitive understanding of the workings of other minds due to their apparent similarity with ours, as we observe the effects of the minds’ workings in the actions of the subjects concerned.    When we have a conversation with another person we can often identify a thinking process, or a line of thought, that enables us to not only confirm that a mind similar to ours is at work, but also to predict the sort of argument that may be soon to follow.   We can also point to the extensive medical evidence of how the brain works, and how the different regions of the brain can be seen to be influenced by various phenomena.

We can use the past to predict the future

How do we know that the laws of physics will work tomorrow?  We might argue that we know this without evidence.  However, our evidence is contained in the past, in a series of periods of time where the laws of physics have remained unchanged.  We have an observable pattern of evidence that the physical laws of nature, such as the law of gravity, can be seen to be operating in a consistent and typical manner.    In fact, it is distinctly noticeable that throughout history there have been no verified suspensions of the natural order.

A friend tells me his sister has got a job working in town

This might be advanced to suggest that we would not question this proposition, even though it is not accompanied by evidence.  We could substitute this phrase with any number of equally unsurprising assertions, such as, ‘my mother had her hair cut,’ that we would encounter regularly, and would have no need of questioning.  The evidence in favor of accepting this proposition is our level of trust in our friend, combined with the unexceptional nature of the claim.  If we distrusted our friend, we might not accept this proposition.  If we trust our friend, and it is implied that we do, since he is our friend, we would tend to count that trust in favor of relying on his testimony, and this would therefore constitute evidence in favor of its truth.  This knowledge is most likely incidental to us – it may have no bearing on our immediate happiness – therefore we would not have an obvious incentive to demand its justification.  It is also a fairly mundane claim, the sort that would be easily demonstrated by evidence, if required, and the sort that we would not need to proportion a great deal of evidence to accept.   It’s very ordinariness, and our common prior experience of these sort of claims, and the context in which they are normally be made, leads us to deduce that there is usually little incentive to mislead, and this would also count as evidence in favor of its acceptance.  In addition, if we are not accepting this knowledge on evidence, one has to provide an alternative reason why we are accepting it.

When there is no evidence of something, it is more reasonable to assume that it does not exist, rather than it does exist.  We see that in all other realms of human thought.  Lack of evidence is taken as strong reason to form the view that that proposition is unproved, or that the thing does not exist.  When we have insufficient evidence we operate on the assumption that the hypothesis is denied, until that evidence is provided.  There is no reason whatsoever to allow a special pleading for the existence of God.

The default position is neutral on the position of God’s existence.  The burden of proof is on the claim maker to justify his claim by evidence.   At the least, negative atheism does not bear a burden of proof – simple lack of belief in God can only be altered by provision of evidence to the contrary.   As per previous, it is unsustainable for the theist to hold that the belief that God does not exist is a universal negative, unprovable by definition, and that atheism should bear a burden of proof.   This indicates we should be wary of the suggestion that proving a negative is impossible.  Sufficient evidence is the standard by which we measure rational belief.

If you do not agree then I offer the following challenge:

Name one proposition involving the existence of a tangible entity that is unrelated to religious belief that you believe in without ANY EVIDENCE.

(When I offer the caveat tangible entity I wish to exclude concepts or abstract ideas, such as ‘love’ or ‘justice’ that I anticipate might be offered as solutions.)

I welcome your ideas and comments

 

 

[1] Flew, Antony (1984) [The Presumption of Atheism, 1976], God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis (reprint ed.)

[2] Craig, William, L., 2007, Theistic Critiques Of Atheism, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp.  69-85.  Ed.  M. Martin.   Cambridge Companions to Philosophy.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[3] McFarland, Alex, 2007, The 10 Most Common Objections to Christianity, US : Bethany House Publishers, pg 37-38.

[4] Craig, William, L., 2007, Theistic Critiques Of Atheism, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp.  69-85.  Ed.  M. Martin.   Cambridge Companions to Philosophy.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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ATHEISM: TERMS, DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS  

In discussing atheism various terms are often employed as if their meaning is known by all. Further, the meanings of various terms are often conflated or muddled to suit a particular worldview. The following outlines some of the key terms. It’s important to recognise the distinctions which exist between different positions, and not to fall in to the trap of assuming, as many people do, that one position infers another. Such as an atheist is necessarily a materialist. Or that a naturalist’s are never theists.

Atheism

An Atheist either lacks belief in or disbelieves in god(s). Refer- Oxford Dictionary. Within the atheist position are a number of sub-positions which follow.

Despite the wild claims of some, Atheism isn’t a religion. Since it simply involves the negation of Theism, it’s understandable that the adversaries of Atheism take the opportunity to straw man it into equivalence with religion. Though, the advocates of Atheism are often also advocates of other positions listed below.

Weak Atheism 

A weak atheist lacks belief in the existence of God(s). This is a metaphysically weaker position than making the knowledge claim no god(s) exist. Weak atheism is also known as Negative atheism.

Positive atheism 

  • The positive disbelief or denial of the existence of god(s). Positive atheism is also known as Strong Atheism.

Wide atheism 

  • The denial of the existence of all gods.

Narrow atheism 

  • The denial of a particular conception of god.  Most Theists are typically narrow atheists about other gods such as Zeus, Shiva, or Thor. The Abrahamic religions specifically deny the existence of other gods.

Anti-Theism

As its name suggests, Anti-theism involves active opposing Theism, usually on the basis of an Atheist metaphysical view, and the proposition that religion is on balance a harmful influence on the world. The New Atheists are also Anti-Theists. Anti-theists tend to be strong atheists, at least in reference to the major world religions.

Anti-theism seems to be becoming the new bogey word of the religious apologists. The conflation between atheists and anti-theists is evident in a reluctance of some atheists to embrace the term, even movement atheists, combined with the apologist’s tactic of using it as a rhetorical bat.

Agnosticism 

Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Gnostic

The opposite of agnostic, a gnostic believes we can have knowledge of whether metaphysical claims are knowable. The word must be distinguished from Gnosticism, the group of ancient religions which shun the material world. Gnostic derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means pertaining to knowledge.

Theism

  • The belief in the existence of god(s).

God

There are various definitions of God. Western conceptions of god include the omni properties of omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and all good. Richard Swinburne offers the following:

a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things

Spiritual

This word can mean any number of things, often associated with the human spirit and the soul. Generally, it’s concerned with the aspiration to higher levels of awareness, fulfilment, or meaning within life, as opposed to material or physical things. Often invoked as a general term in relation to religious belief, it has also become a quasi-metaphysical position widely adopted by the non-religious, or by non-observant believers, to describe a state of belief in a spiritual realm or a source of meaning for humans.

Combining Terms*

In developing a position, particularly as a non-believer, we may wrestle with our level of certainty that certain things don’t exist, or with the epistemological justification for ruling them out altogether. As such, various combinations are used to clarify ones position.

*Agnostic Atheism

This position accepts both that we cannot have knowledge of whether gods exist and that we don’t believe they exist. An Agnostic Atheist will therefore tend to be a Weak Atheist.

*Gnostic Atheism

Lacking belief or disbelieving in the existence of Gods and believing we can have knowledge of such metaphysical items.

*Gnostic Theism

Theists are typically gnostic, believing they can have knowledge that god exists.

*Agnostic Theism

Believing that god exists and also believing that we cannot have knowledge of this.

Naturalism 

Naturalism is the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.  (See Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Supernaturalism

Not all things that exist are natural. There are some entities, forces, or phenomena that exist beyond the spatial-temporal world that science investigates.

The distinction between naturalism has been problematic as it’s difficult to assign a “nature” to the unnatural speculation of supernaturalism. See The False DichotomyRichard Carrier has postulated that supernatural might be defined to only include mental processes which are unexplainable by natural forces.

Methodological Naturalism

According to this view the most effective way of acquiring knowledge is through the methods of science, not from logic, deduction or conceptual approaches. Using observation, hypothesis, and empirical disconfirmation is the best way to study the world, and obtain knowledge. Methodical Naturalism is concerned with the means to acquire knowledge—rather than a metaphysical view about the ultimate constituents of reality. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick) (Also, refer to Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Materialism

Materialism is the view that all things are made of matter and nothing else. While materialism appears to overlap with naturalism, especially ontological naturalism, we should see it as an explicitly metaphysical thesis about the ultimatum constituents of reality, but not as much a view about what the best methods are for acquiring knowledge of that reality.  Some of the Greeks, for instance, arrived at the materialism conclusion through a priori or more conceptual reasoning.

Eliminative materialism

This view denies our intuitive understanding of the mind and proposes that some or all of the mental states we normally refer to don’t actually exist. The eliminative materialist believes that with the expansion of our scientific inquiries, there are often concepts such as “demonic spirits,” or “celestial spheres,” that cease to find a place within our theories.  Some terms, like “heat,” we keep, but only by radically revising what we think the ultimate physical constituents of heat are.  Other terms are too embedded in an old model of reality to be effectively salvaged.  The label applies primarily to a position about minds, but we can see the implications for God and many religious concepts. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Reductionism

A reductionist believes complex systems and phenomena can be reduced and explained entirely in terms of their parts and their causal interactions.  Reductionism in philosophy of mind can be contrasted with emergentism, or epiphenomenalism.  According to these anti-reductionist views, mental states, qualia, consciousness or other phenomena are produced by physical processes, but they cannot be explained entirely in terms of them.  For a variety of reasons, theists are often anti-reductionists, but reductionism itself as a thesis about explaining objects in nature is distinct from atheism. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Belief

Belief: the acceptance that something is true with or without evidence or proof.

Faith

Faith: the acceptance that something is true on trust with or without evidence or proof. See The Perils of Faith

Knowledge

In everyday usage, knowledge is understood to be sum of what is known, and comprises facts, information and skills.

In Philosophy, theories of knowledge have been propounded for centuries. The most well-known hypothesis is true, justified belief.

Secular

Not involved or requiring religious, supernatural or spiritual matters.

Secular doesn’t necessarily entail a denial of religious beliefs, or the demand that society or individuals should abandon religion. It’s important to appreciate this distinction. Secular is most often used in connection with the desirability of a separation of church and state. Many Secularists also subscribe to pluralism, and religious freedom, championing freedom to practise or hold one’s preferred metaphysical beliefs without coercion.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge with regard to its methods, validity and scope, and distinguishing between justified belief and unjustified belief. See Oxford Dictionary.

Pluralism

Pluralism is a belief in allowing the co-existence of more than one belief system, political party, ideology or interest group. It’s a system whereby society isn’t governed by one overriding principle or ideology.

Religious Freedom

The principle, that individuals and groups in society should have the freedom to manifest their chosen religion. This freedom includes no religion, and to change religion or “apostasy.”

Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty might seem to be exactly the same thing as religious freedom, but it’s more focussed on protecting the right to observe and practise religious beliefs and traditions, in particular when they come in to conflict with secular law. It’s often invoked as if it’s a natural right, to help sway a debate towards allowing a religious group to privilege their own beliefs on the basis of conscience. For instance, in India polygamy is permitted within Islamic groups, on the basis of religious liberty. In other places in the world sharia law is used exclusively by the Muslim population, even given significant differences to secular law.

Model-Dependent Realism

  • A theory of knowledge posited by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design. Reality can be described by models, or several overlapping models, where the absolute “true reality” of everything is an impossible ideal. This model is applied to relativity, quantum mechanics and theories of everything.

 

AND FINALLY…

If there are any concepts you think I should be including here, or if you disagree with my definitions and comments I would be keen to hear from you.