No, I’m Not An Atheist By Faith, Here Are My Arguments.

Yesterday Ron Rosenbaum aggressively attacked atheism and defended agnosticism in Slate. He starts out with the familiar charge that atheists have “faith”. But faith in what?

Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

Okay, so by “atheists” he does not by any means mean me. I do not worship any alleged certainty that some day I will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. First, I have no such certainty. Second, I do not worship any such certainty, either in myself or in others. I do not even worship the aspiration to such certainty if it is disconnected from warrant for such certainty. If some day people can make justified claims to know with certainty where the universe comes from, then they are welcome to hold that belief with certainty.

But, unlike faithful believers, I do not think aspiring to the attitude of certainty without the warrant for certainty is praiseworthy in the least. So, I do not hold to “as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious “ do since apparently I neither agree with the substance of the alleged creed nor the view that it is desirable to hold views by faith.

This second distinction is a crucial one. Even if atheists do hold some beliefs by faith (and I’d be open to hearing what you think these are—I’m unpersuaded Rosenbaum has put his finger on any faith-beliefs in his piece), it still matters that we would not hold beliefs on faith as a matter of principle or deliberate idealization of faith-based believing. Faith-based thinking in atheists is a blind spot, not a deliberately cultivated disposition treated as a virtue. It is an unadmitted vice if it exists at all.

He goes on:

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive.

Again, I have no such unwarranted belief that science necessarily will answer this question. What I know is that some questions that “bedeviled” thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas do not bedevil us anymore. There has been 800 years of learning since them, including just 400 or so years of truly unprecedented growth in knowledge during which questions once thought purely metaphysical and incapable of empirical resolution (like atom theory) have proven solvable with empirical science after all.

So, there is reason not to rule out dogmatically, as the dogmatic agnostic might, that some day a God-principle could be conclusively enough proven or disproven that it could become a matter of bare scientific knowledge that there either is or is not a God. I have neither a dogmatically held confidence that it will happen nor a dogmatic doubt of its very possibility.

Do I consider that it “may well be a philosophic logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing”?  Yes, I consider that and it is one of the reasons that I think the idea of a God—you know, a being that creates itself from nothing—is a worse explanation than that there was always just something and that all processes of “creating” and all states of “nothing” that we understand happen within this something that we find around us already.

All acts of creating and destroying, all differences between being and nothingness happen within reality itself. I do not see a reason to posit that these processes that occur within reality as we can grasp it are also somehow above reality as we know it conditioning it itself. In other words, it is quite a leap, as yesterday I quoted Sean Carroll arguing, to go from a process among particular contingent realities whereby they cause different forms to arise within reality to posit that reality itself must be a form that needed to be caused to come about by some other thing prior to it.

This is especially problematic to posit since it leaves us with the question “well what formed that thing which formed knowable reality”.  And if you say, we just define that as the thing which needs no other former, the thing which just exists as its essence, the thing which was created by nothing else, then do we not run into Rosenbaum’s logical impossibility, an instance of something coming from nothing?

My best philosophical answer—not a dogmatic assertion with no reasoning, not a faith position I am committed to against all contrary arguments and evidence, not my 100% certainty, but merely my best philosophical answer is that we need to better understand the words creation and nothingness. Everything we see “created” is only a recombination of preexisting matter. We never see creation from nothing, but only creation from something.

And we have no experience whatsoever with “nothing”. We can only have experience with some things which are not other things. If I say there is nothing in the cupboard, it is not because I have encountered nothing, but it is because what was there was nothing edible or nothing but air and woodshavings and bacteria invisible to my naked eye, etc. I have no experience of nothing. I just have experience of things which are not expected things or things detectable by the senses.

So all I experience of physical creation and nothingness is recombinations of matter and absences of expected combinations of matter. If I say a plant cannot come from nothing, all I mean is that there must be the right combination of prior existing materials which must be in the right forms to turn into a plant and combined properly to create the plant.

To say the universe cannot come from nothing by some analogy is entirely confused.  Do we know anything about the nature of the universe itself to say it is the sort of thing that has elements of which it itself is made that exist in some way prior to its existence and which only create the universe when they are properly combined to make it? Obviously this view would send us on an infinite regress. I do not think we can take our observance of relative “creation” and “nothingness” and apply these as the logically appropriate categories for understanding the totality of reality in which they occur.

And even worse would be to argue that not only does all known reality have to have been created just because particular realities are “created” by the effects of preceding realities to themselves, but that the creative force must be personal like we are. Theists not only assume that reality itself can or should be explained by a comparable dynamic of how things merely within and components of reality are explained but that they must be explained by a conscious deliberate mind the way the products of our human creative activities are. This is even more outrageous.

I can understand why Rosenbaum thinks it is a logical impossibility to posit that something comes from nothing (even though I think he is confused about which position, atheism or theism, is more reasonable given that problem). But surely Rosenbaum must recognize that even if the reality we know requires a reality beyond it that creates it and even if that reality beyond it (mysteriously) can do what we call “creating” to itself and can do this to itself using what we would call “nothing”, what good reason is there to entertain that this entity is at all like us?

Even analogically, it strikes me as a ridiculous suggestion to say that this hypothetical being would at all likely or plausibly be like us. Christians might interpret “God the Father” as an analogy for “source of our being”. We presumably might feel to the source of all contingent being itself, including ourselves, the same sorts of feelings of gratitude we feel to our fathers because they both share at least one formal relationship to us. We depend for our existence on both of them and so the proper gratitude we should feel for that on which we depend applies to both fathers and the “ground of all being”.

But if that’s enough to call God “like our fathers”, with the enormous personal implications and feelings that come with that, then why do we not just go and talk about other impersonal conditions of our being like gravity and electromagnetism as though they were persons too? Now other Christians might mean that God is not only analogically related to us as other persons are but that God is also a literal person like us. But why think that at all? We recognize from all our observations that personhood is a rare occurrence in nature dependent upon all sorts of material conditions, all of which are presumably absent in whatever being is so wholly different and beyond this reality with its limited conditions.

In other words, if the supposed problem of getting something from nothing leads to the positing of a being that is totally different in essence from this world with its contingent properties and instead is the totally distinct source of those properties, then we have no good reason to suspect that it has traits which we only see emerge with certain combinations of properties found within the reality that this mysterious, indescribable being would theoretically be completely beyond.

These are some of my reasons for rejecting belief in God. It is not a faith-based position. My position is open to challenge on scientific or metaphysical grounds, since it is made on scientific and metaphysical grounds. It is open to the possibility that scientists will form a workable naturalistic God concept or that philosophers might formulate a compelling argument for a necessary metaphysical principle of God that overcomes my objections. I have no certitude that scientists or philosophers will make any substantial progress in improving the state of knowledge on this question beyond where I have it now.

I need no such certitude to be convinced that I have a sufficient degree of philosophical confidence to say that I am justified in believing there is no God. Since I do not conflate the words knowledge and certainty, I would even be comfortable saying that I know that particular kinds of gods do not exist and that certain kinds of god conceptions are so implausible that I know they are false.

Saying I know does not mean that I will not hear out new arguments that may persuade me to change my mind. I can know and yet know that I might be wrong. There are plenty of things that I think I know which I could be persuaded I do not know. But right now I think I know them. I am pretty sure my parents are my parents. I really think I can say I know that. It is always possible shocking evidence could come forward and force me to change my mind. But even though I know it’s conceivable that I am wrong, I still know they are my parents.

And just as I know there is no Thor, I can know there is no Yahweh, no risen Christ, no Vishnu, etc. I am a gnostic (i.e., knowing) atheist, about those gods, based on reasons and not faith. Even if I have made mistakes, they are rational errors, not deliberate choices to commit myself to a belief, as religious faith entails.

And even though I am not as certain that there is no personal God, I am fairly confident about it and hold it as a strong belief on rational grounds which I have laid out above.  I consider myself a persuadable gnostic atheist with regards to this possible kind of being. First make the arguments for the bare conceptual coherence of a personal deity, then for its minimum plausibility, and then for how it is more consistent with what is known about reality than disbelief in one, and maybe you can diminish the strength of my belief. I dare you.

And, similarly, but less certainly, I think my half-solution to the paradoxes of creation and nothingness is more rationally compelling than the theist ones I have studied. But I recognize it does not answer everything. I just think it has less problems than the theist solution.

And since I am deliberately avoid as best I can believing more strongly than my warrant entails, and therein avoid faith as best I can, I only tentatively believe that the notion of a distinct source of being from outside our reality is less likely than that our reality is itself in some inscrutable way all there is. On this point, I am rightly an agnostic atheist.

I am an agnostic in that I think that presently there is not enough philosophical or physical evidence to decide there is no further kind of reality than the kind we experience to say either that there is such a “God” principle or that there could not plausibly be one. I am even vague on how different or in what way different than known reality this being would have to be to count as “God”.

In the light of this uncertainty, I hold it as a matter of principle to not affirm or deny the existence of the remaining possible deities that might be beyond this reality. I think in matters of such inconclusive evidence either way, we have an epistemic responsibility not to affirm or deny as though we had a strong enough argument. So, I will simply say that I do not know about that possibility, but think some arguments strike me as far more plausible, interesting, and less problematic than others.  Despite having some arguments I think are likely correct, I reject the decision to go ahead and answer the “ground of all being ” question as a confident enough metaphysical position to count as knowledge.  So rather than saying I believe there is no such ground-of-all-being-god, I simply say that I lack belief in such a being.  I take this still to be a form of atheism, just one founded in epistemological, rather than metaphysical or scientific, considerations.

On principle, without any positive reason for the belief in such a “ground of all being” deity, I think we are obligated to simple lack of belief in such a metaphysical principle or, at least, to the weakest form of commitment to the proposition if one thinks the arguments tilt justification to just over 50% confidence in favor of it, rather than just under 50%.  This makes me a de facto atheist on this question. But this atheism is an agnostic atheism, contrastable with my other, gnostic forms of atheism.

For further arguments as to why I think I can know certain kinds of gods are not real, especially personal and intelligent designer gods, and as to why I think Ron Rosenbaum’s attempt to separate from agnosticism is flawed, see  Beyond Agnosticism: More Details About How I Know Various Kinds Of Gods Do Not Exist, Based On Scientific And Philosophical Reasons.  For a succinct summation of the various philosophical solutions to the problem of why there is something rather than nothing, see the post, 6 Basic Kinds Of Answers To The Question “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” from guest contributor, metaphysician Eric Steinhart. For blog posts which spin out of the comments section below see Shane Wilkins offer A Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence and my reply on The Cosmological Argument, The Composition Fallacy, And More Reasons Not To Believe In God.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Peter Norell

    Science has and will continue to give us explanations to things. It has revealed to us that the sun is a complex assortment of reactions, not a god. It has told us what gravity is. It has told us why we have night and day. I feel that is grounds enough to have confidence in it.

  • http://asystemofrandomtangents.wordpress.com/ Anna Johnstone

    I love

    “Do I consider that it “may well be a philosophic logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing”? Yes, I consider that and it is one of the reasons that I think the idea of a God—you know, a being that creates itself from nothing—is a worse explanation than that there was always just something and that all processes of “creating” and all states of “nothing” that we understand happen within this something that we find around us already.”

    Might have to use that if it’s ok?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Of course, Anna! And with attribution and a link, of course. Spread it around!

  • http://gortnation.blogspot.com Oblio

    Really well-done evaluation, thanks! This issue keeps coming up between me and my hard-core Christianist friends… they always ask ‘BUT WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?!?!’ I tell them that’s OK, I’m willing to consider the fact that my anti-theism stance could be wrong, but my free will tells me that I have taken a good, hard look at the whole deal and I simply do not find any credible evidence or argument to ‘believe’.

    By the time I reached the age of 12, I was already starting to question the whole Catholic thing I was raised with. Perhaps it was my choice of science-fiction reading materials, but nothing in my church was making sense, the whole biblical thing was just illogical, a fable, a fairy tale.

    It all changed for me when I read Arthur C. Clark’s novella and then saw the theatrical release of ’2001 – A Space Odyssey’ at the movies with my Dad, who I begged to take me. To this day, he insists it was the worst film he’s ever seen, but it was an epiphany for me. The notion that our world’s human existence and intelligence were the work, an experiment of an advanced off-world force, was astounding. It immediately made so much more sense than anything I was taught in Catechism.

    That realization has never dulled for me… in fact, I find it to be a consistent point of reference towards a universal understanding that we universally understand nothing, really. It galls me when my Christianist family and friends allot all power to their god, which negates their earthly efforts and infantilizes them as powerless skinbag chattel.

    It never ceases to amaze me how so many highly-educated people I know have allowed themselves to be conditioned followers of religion. There was an old Cheech and Chong bit where a so-called Jesus Freak states ‘You know, I used to be all messed up on drugs, but ever since I found the Lord, now I’m all messed up on the Lord!’ Too true.

    Thanks again for your awesome site and observations… keep up the great work!

  • Ben de Groot

    Rosenbaum simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. Before making such certain statements about what atheists “believe” and “worship,” he should be more skeptical and do his research. He would have found out he’s attacking strawmen.

  • http://www.neter.fi Tero Keski-Valkama

    “Do I consider that it “may well be a philosophic logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing”?”

    Why on earth would this be either a philosophical or a logical impossibility?

    Logic dictates: “a” comes from nothing, therefore “a” comes from nothing. Philosophy has never had any authority on ruling physical phenomena impossible.

    Energy conservation, for example, is not a philosophical rule; it is a law (a theory) that is observed to be true in all experiments.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Presumably it would be the idea that coming FROM entails that there BE a from, from which one comes and that nothing cannot be a from for something to emerge out of.

    Now, if you define nothing as Victor Stenger does and it is a past state of the universe of some sort (which a physicist but, not I, can explain) then you may be describing a state that is no determinate thing but you’re not describing “Nothing nothing”—the complete lack of being altogether.

    That’s where the logical impossibility would allegedly arise. Your Thoughts, Tero?

  • http://www.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    Atheists don’t believe (or “have faith” that they know all the answers. Nor do they presume science will answer everything eventually (though we enjoy the search for answers). The problem is that most religious people look at any question and say “goddunnit” rather than seeking actual answers. To make matters worse, they ignore any answer that discounts their “goddunnit” notions.

    And I so despise that “something came from nothing” garbage. We’re not the ones who believe that. They’re the ones who think their sky-fairy made the earth and the universe from a formless void. That sounds pretty much like making something from nothing.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ImvlS8PLIo Jara Cimrman

    “Something from nothing” is a common misunderstanding – it is total energy which is conserved. Total energy of our Universe is known (measured) to be zero within tightening bounds (by reducing experimental errors with better experiments). Hence there is neither a paradox nor a need for creator nor original cause. Testable science suffices thank you very much.

    Daniel – time is a property of our Universe, therefore the question “what was *before* it” is literally meaningless. Science may not be “intuitive”, which just testifies to our evolved nature.

    “Nothing nothing” seems as a concept easily removed by Occam’s razor. The properties of the suggested “past universes” would be completely erased during the inflation period – what is observed is consistent with inflated random quantum fluctuations in the inflaton fields. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primordial_fluctuations

    The properties of “nothing” are rather interesting though: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_state

    Obviously the scientific understanding of the universe is incomplete and evolving. There was a tremendous progress – for instance now we know how old the Universe is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_universe

    Quantitative experimental science not only does provides much better and more “fascinating story to believe in” if you wish so, a belief in spectacular evidence, and anyone can indeed test its validity. Science also comes with known errors, which set limits on how wrong we could be.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Jara, I understand your points and think they’re consonant with what I argued above and in my post on the illusory nature of the concept of “nothing nothing”.

  • http://www.neter.fi Tero Keski-Valkama

    Nothingness/emptiness is a property of space. Saying that it is impossible to nothing come out of “nothing nothing” is basically a word play, and has absolutely nothing to do with either logic, physics, or what is possible in the universe or not.

    In physics, the nature is the judge on what can happen and what cannot. It is impossible to make any constraints from a thinking chair about the way nature can, or cannot work.

    Yes, you can make hypotheses, which is what theoretical physicists do, but you cannot pretend that your philosophy has any authority over physical world.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I agree completely and was making the point that our common sense language categories, out of which Aristotle and Aquinas’s philosophies were explicitly based, are completely confused and cannot with philosophical legitimacy be taken to trump physics categories.

    The concept of “nothing nothing” is the concept the complete absence of all being, not a property of space (since as a property, that is some kind of “being”, some kind of existence of space at least, just the not being of any thingbut being even an absence of any space whatsoever).

    And what I argued above and in my nothing post is that that nothing nothing concept is an unintelligible one when examined, since it cannot even be thought but only imagined as some sort of limit point of non-existence, and that we have no experiential basis for thinking it applies to our world, either from common sense or from physics.

    The relative experiences of “nothing” from which we get our common sense notions of it (which, again, are the basis of Aristotelian and Thomistic thought) are simply not experiences of “nothing” but rather of something different than we are looking for or can detect with our senses. We never experience complete lack of all space.

    Now, I do not understand the physics of nothingness as a property of space well enough to talk about that, since I’m not a physicist, but I trust the physicists know what they are talking about (and I do not trust them by “faith” but by the authority of their proven methods and the proven predictive, explanatory, and technological powers).

    And so what I am saying above is that we have no experience of a true and total “nothing nothing” and no reason to put that conceptual muddle which contradicts itself even in its own logical implications over the physics understanding of nothing as a property of this universe itself (and maybe of other possible ones) and not as something metaphysically prior to this or all other universes, which is somehow an obstacle to their creation.

    And by “prior” to, or above when I referred to “coming from”, I do not mean to imply that the something can’t come from nothing crowd thinks chronologically about these things.

    Even Aquinas thought that God was not needed to explain the chronological origins of the universe at a first cause moment, but rather he alleged God was necessary to explain the ontological cause of the universe. God could be eternally creating all that is without giving the universe a specific beginning point. Aquinas thought physics and metaphysics required a God to supply being to a universe of things that were each contingent by nature.

    On his thinking this is because contingent beings each are dependent on other beings to transmit to them their being. E.g., you couldn’t have come into being without your parents causing you to be. And neither could your parents come into being without their parents, etc. Each particular “contingent” being is a combination of matter and form dependent upon prior combinations of matter and form.

    So, Aquinas reasoned that while there is no philosophical reason that these recombinations of matter and form could not be going on eternally, there is still reason to think that no contingent being (which is just a recombination of matter according to a form given to it from outside its own agency) can explain why there is any being in the universe at all to be shuffled around among contingent beings. In other words, for all eternity, humans can be transmitting our “being” into other humans but no human can create being itself.

    So Aquinas reasoned that if no contingent being can create being itself but merely be created as a combination of other being and transmit that being to other beings, there must be something that is wholly different from the contingent beings around us, a necessary being that gets its being not as transmitted from any other being but from its own essence itself. And whatever that source of being itself is, is “God”.

    Aquinas thought that that was a solid metaphysical proof based on the inherent and essential contingency of physical beings. He then thought that the belief God created the world with a temporal beginning was a matter of faith. He believed that only because of the Bible but did not think it could be metaphysically proven.

    Metaphysically he thought the universe could be eternal, it just needed a principle that explains how there is being at all and that the explanation of how there is being at all could not be the doings of a contingent, physical being of any of the kinds we experience in nature since all of those beings which we experience in nature are recombinations of matter and form which they themselves are not responsible for in the first place.

    SO there must be some abstractly conceivable metaphysical principle of something not so limited, not dependent on other beings for its being, but only dependent on its own nature for its being, that thing which explains why the contingent beings which cannot account for their own being have any being at all.

    The question that the honest theist philosopher wants answered is where the space that can have “nothing” in it (before its instability led to the emergence of something) itself could come from. Why space, why anything whatsoever?

    My rough retort to this is that this entire problem of “nothing coming from something” is an overextension of our common sense engagement with the world.

    In common sense experience we know that there cannot be a plant if there was no prior soil and seed and water, etc. The Thomist philosopher then tries to turn into an analogy when he tries to say that all the being in the universe is like the plant, something the agency of which cannot account for its own existence, and the the way the plant cannot be the source of the seed, water, and soil, which constitute the conditions of its existence, the universe cannot be the source of the being that constitutes it.

    But the problem with this is that it completely overextends dynamic causal relationships with meaning within reality and then tries to make reality itself dependent on one of those relationships. It is trying to treat the totality as though it operates in an analogous way to the way the parts within it work.

    Just because the plant needs an utterly independent soil, water, and seed for it to come into being, does not at all mean that the universe needs a completely independent source of its being in the form of a reality beyond known reality. The leap is an abuse of logic, based on a physically ignorant and logically self-refuting concept of nothingness (what I’ve dubbed “nothing nothing”).

  • david crowther

    However, without some other observable process by which a thing comes into being (i.e., that something always appears to come from some other thing(s)), it makes sense to generalize that all being follows the same pattern. We have observable examples and no observable contradictions.

  • david crowther

    it may be fruitless to explode this concept into a religion (or wholly irrational), but the concept itself does not seem to be, as you have said “an abuse of logic”. Or, perhaps I have misunderstood what you’ve said.

  • david crowther

    What I really want to do, is get back to the question of whether atheism is necessarily a “faith position”. If we generalize the term “faith” to mean believing or relying on something without absolute proof, than I think it is true to say that every possible idea or belief or even fact we acknowledge is taken on “faith”; whether it be ludicrous, illogical fanaticism, or the “law” of gravity. You have explained it best yourself (was it the above post?) when you laid out your “reasonable certitude” that you have parents. Even something as necessary to our existence as it stands and as verifiable as gravity, can only be said to be a law, in that it has never been proven not to occur.

    Therefore, we must make the assumption that many of the things we understand as proven day in and day out are only reasonably certain. I would call this faith: believing or relying on a concept or idea that is not 100% proven.

    This to me says something about our ability to know anything. How do we know what we know; or how do we know what we know is true?

    Dan, I am compelled by your explanation of your own “search for truth” (if you will permit me use the term in that way), because I believe (with all the baggage of the term) that I do what you do: I also “do not worship any alleged certainty that some day I will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.” I also test what information or opinion or belief comes my way, with all the faculties I have available to me. I think it is unfair and untrue, as some of your posters (people who posted) have implied or said, that to hold to a religious faith or belief is to hold to ignorance (BUffy posts above: “The problem is that most religious people look at any question and say “goddunnit” rather than seeking actual answers. To make matters worse, they ignore any answer that discounts their “goddunnit” notions”; or your own comment, that “faithful believers think that aspiring to the attitude of certainty without the warrant for certainty is praiseworthy”: I certainly do not!) I fully acknowledge that there are many many people who cling dangerously and fruitlessly to faith or beliefs with no rationality and with a fear that it will, in fact be proven to be irrational, false, etc., to the point where they kill and hate, etc.

    It is not contrary to test all the information that a person comes in contact with ones rational and scientific mind, while also HOPING that there is a friendly ultimate behind the curtain of the universe. I want there to be such a thing, but I have little to no certitude that it is true, other than my own desire. Nonetheless, I engage in thoughts and conversations like the one here, because I am equally as interested in testing out what I experience (or think I experience) of reality, as it comes in contact with my hopes.

    I think an interesting question to muse on, is why I should HOPE for anything that is not evident in one way, shape or form, in the reality that I am rationally able to perceive around me.

    thanks
    thoughts?

  • david crowther

    OH yeah, and the ONION makes a good argument against the evolution of humanity: http://www.theonion.com/articles/eons-of-darwinian-evolution-somehow-produce-mitch,17635/

  • http://www.neter.fi Tero Keski-Valkama

    Aquinos is irrelevant. Aristotle is irrelevant.

    I tried to read your text, but my brain went in a knot. Thanks for that. I rarely find something so complicated/insane.

    “Blah, blah, blah, I have no measurements, test, or experiments. And I still want to prove something or other about the observable universe. By talking.”

    It does not work like that. Sorry.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    First, Could be considered to be faith that it is possible to explain the universe without God. You might think that you don’t have to explain it, but they would argue that you still have to have faith that some sort of explanation if possible or that no explanation is needed. Of course, you might have good reason for your belief after all.

    Of course, a better example of belief “without evidence” could be our belief in induction. Such a belief could have a justification, but I wouldn’t call such a justification “evidence.”

    Two, your argument mostly sounds like objections to arguments for God rather than arguments against God. You have one area that might cover this issue:

    On principle, without any positive reason for the belief in such a “ground of all being” deity, I think we are obligated to simple lack of belief in such a metaphysical principle or, at least, to the weakest form of commitment to the proposition if one thinks the arguments tilt justification to just over 50% confidence in favor of it, rather than just under 50%. This makes me a de facto atheist on this question. But this atheism is an agnostic atheism, contrastable with my other, gnostic forms of atheism.

    It sounds like you are committing yourself to occam’s razor (i.e. the teapot argument), but that could be considered quite a substantial argument in its own right and much is left unsaid about such an argument.

    If our belief in induction is justified despite a lack of evidence, we need to make sure that God isn’t also justified for a similar reason.

  • Daniel Fincke

    If our belief in induction is justified despite a lack of evidence, we need to make sure that God isn’t also justified for a similar reason.

    Our belief in induction is not justified “despite a lack of evidence”, the evidence of induction is repeated success in getting at the truth using induction. We inductively test it all the time and it comes out successful. I don’t see any parallel to God.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Aquinos is irrelevant. Aristotle is irrelevant.

    If you have any interest in explaining to theists why their philosophical concept of nothingness is incorrect, you’d best understand its source. Just giving them Krauss and a physics definition of nothing which does not address the problem of contingency and eternality that they explicitly thinking about but shoos the question away as irrelevant, is not really going to work.

    I tried to explain to you the positions of Aristotle and Aquinas not because I agreed with them. If you paid attention, you would understand this. I explained them so that I could explain where their fault is.

    I tried to read your text, but my brain went in a knot. Thanks for that. I rarely find something so complicated/insane.

    Your ignorance of the history of philosophy and inability to think within alternative categories to modern ones is not a strength and my ability to understand and engage those categories is not insane.

    <blockquote?“Blah, blah, blah, I have no measurements, test, or experiments. And I still want to prove something or other about the observable universe. By talking."

    It does not work like that. Sorry.

    There are conceptual and philosophical problems about how to understand what we know from those scientific accounts of the world. I am trying to elucidate some of those. I am trying to explain why some pretty fundamental, rather common sense intuitions people have about being and nothingness are obstacles to their being able to grasp the physical concepts you talk about. I’m trying to explain from within those concepts why they’re self-defeating conceptually and in terms of observation.

    If you wouldn’t be so arrogant to assume that because you have a physical understanding, philosophical investigations of the related metaphysics are just gibberish, you might be able to glean at least something of benefit. Like, an understanding of the categories which primarily are confusing people—which is all I was trying to explain.

    But apparently your reading comprehension is so awful you couldn’t see that I was agreeing with you and trying to relate your point to the philosophical categories that need to be refuted if the average mind is to understand how to look at the physics categories.

    • http://neter.fi Tero Keski-Valkama

      “If you have any interest in explaining to theists why their philosophical concept of nothingness is incorrect, you’d best understand its source. Just giving them Krauss and a physics definition of nothing which does not address the problem of contingency and eternality that they explicitly thinking about but shoos the question away as irrelevant, is not really going to work.”

      I don’t see that debating theists within their metaphysical framework is fruitful. The basic fact remains that no philosophy can be used to make assertions about the state of the universe, so it is misleading to engage in a discussion “within alternative categories to modern ones”, making a subtextual point, that this is somehow actually relevant.

      “I tried to explain to you the positions of Aristotle and Aquinas not because I agreed with them. If you paid attention, you would understand this. I explained them so that I could explain where their fault is.”

      True, but the basic problem with Aristotle and Aquinas is not that their metaphysics were somehow illogical or incorrect, but that discussing metaphysics at all is completely irrelevant to the actual state of the universe.

      So, I am not against your conclusions, but I do not approve your method of reaching them.

      Trying to make any point at all about the universe by using “alternative thinking categories” is invalid. And you are actually making a point that “universe does not work like Aquinas and Aristotle thought, or how theists are thinking”, by just using philosophy, and not measurements.

  • shane

    Dan,

    In what sense do you think we’re no longer bedevilled by the philosophical problems Aristotle and Aquinas were interested in? Those thinkers physical theories are wrong, and at times the failures of those physical theories undermine some of the particular conclusions they wanted to endorse. But that’s different than saying somehow science has provided definitive answers to other *metaphysical* issues they were concerned with.

    Second, theists don’t believe that God “created himself out of nothing.” That’s a strawman–it’s obviously incoherent to suppose that something could be the cause of itself. For x to be the (efficient) cause of y, x at least has to exist before y, so in order for something to cause itself it would already have to exist before it exists, which is incoherent.

    But all the theists I know (except Descartes in Meditation III) want to say that God doesn’t have a cause–he’s an uncaused cause of other things that exist. You only need a causal explanation of things that exist contingently, but God doesn’t exist contingently, he exists necessarily according to classical theism.

  • Daniel Fincke

    In what sense do you think we’re no longer bedevilled by the philosophical problems Aristotle and Aquinas were interested in?

    I think their concepts were too tethered to common sense intuitions, too much a projection of common sense into a physics and metaphysics, which led to problems being conceived in ways that are confused to begin with—such as, particularly, the problem at hand.

    Those thinkers physical theories are wrong, and at times the failures of those physical theories undermine some of the particular conclusions they wanted to endorse.

    I have a hard time thinking that you can abandon their physics for modern physics without having to make correlated wholesale reconsiderations of their metaphysics, insofar as the two are interconnected. Now, this is not my area of specialty by any means, so you may take that with a grain of salt, if you wish. But I think that while any of a great number of particular metaphysical distinctions or formulations may be implanted into or modified for a contemporary metaphysics, there have to be some significant changes in approach to correlate with the significant change in both the approach to modern physics and the substance of its conclusions.

    But that’s different than saying somehow science has provided definitive answers to other *metaphysical* issues they were concerned with.

    Well, the difference between physics and metaphysics is partially nomenclature here. So, I don’t know how to answer that. We’d have to carve up all their positions and see which ones are either now totally supplanted by a scientific explanation, which ones must be modified to account for a scientific explanation, which ones might conceivably be compatible with modern scientific understandings but are not the most natural and consistent fit with them, and, finally, which ones may not have been directly supplanted by science itself but which would be inferior to contemporary, more scientifically informed metaphysics, are preferable.

    So, no, I’m not saying get rid of all metaphysics, but build it off of what is known through science, make it as consistent as possible with its terminology so as to unite our language as closely as possible, and be very wary of classical common sense metaphysics which predates numerous counter-intuitive understandings of our actual world.

    If you are doing all of that scrupulously, then you can find conceptual structures in classical and medieval thinkers which are still helpful and, I’m sure, do interesting work. I, for example, was led back to teleology by reading Aquinas and now I’m a hard core teleologist. But I’m a naturalistic, existentialistic, Darwinian, functionalistic teleologist who thinks teleologically describable features of reality were not intelligently placed there but emerge as just the reality of functional entities with regular functional possibilities that demarcate their own kinds’ excellences according to what they are.

    “Forms” are just sets of scientifically describable processes that tend particular living things to be structured and function as they do. Sometimes different structures have common functions and then we might say that across two different processes there is a common “form” (say of hands, between humans and koala bears. As comparable functionalities our hands and theirs are truthfully describable as both fitting that same basic “form” but there is no common “handness” in both of us that’s just, say, being filled out with human matter in one case and koala matter in the other. That way lies empty reifications, I think.

    Second, theists don’t believe that God “created himself out of nothing.” That’s a strawman–it’s obviously incoherent to suppose that something could be the cause of itself. For x to be the (efficient) cause of y, x at least has to exist before y, so in order for something to cause itself it would already have to exist before it exists, which is incoherent.

    But all the theists I know (except Descartes in Meditation III) want to say that God doesn’t have a cause–he’s an uncaused cause of other things that exist. You only need a causal explanation of things that exist contingently, but God doesn’t exist contingently, he exists necessarily according to classical theism.

    Right and this distinction between contingent and necessary beings is the confusion. My point is that if you lay down a principle as conceptually ambiguous as “something cannot come from nothing” and then say that the universe needs a cause from outside of it but then say of that causal principle (which presumably is something, even if not some thing as in some particular contingent thing) that that something comes from nothing else.

    All it intelligibly means to say that you cannot get something from nothing is that the sorts of ordinary objects of our experience do not magically appear without a recombination of the elements of prior existing things. To then look at the elements of which those things we experience are composed or of space itself and say that those things must be obedient to the kind of principle we employ for objects on the ordinary objects (the dishes didn’t just “appear” in the sink, someone put them there) is to let common sense dictate to our entire metaphysics.

    There must be some uncaused something in some respect as far as we know. But what we do not know is that the essence of space is “contingent” or that the essence of matter or elements is “contingent” and in need of some outside “necessity” which simply exists according to its own necessity. That attempt to determine such ontological statuses is a huge leap, rooted more in common sense and pre-modern physics, than a chastened, empirical, look at the universe working from the inside out based on experiments.

    It is a mistake to base a strong ontological claim about the inherent contingency of the universe just on account of the observable contingency of particular forms it takes. It is unnecessary and so unwarranted to posit a distinct being from the universe, rather than a yet unquantified feature of the universe which accounts for its uncaused existence.

    Legitimating that somehow the fact that contingent beings themselves only arise under specific causal conditions that the universe of those beings, on a more fundamental level, is like one of those contingent beings in need of another cause, is taking a functional observation about how things within reality behave and thinking of reality itself as though it is one part of such a functional operation. That’s the problem.

    Since there manifestly is something in existence and since nothing is a concept that can never have a referent in the world (besides a physics understanding which talks about “nothing” as what I can only very very crudely articulate in my basically unqualified, non-physicist way as “nothing in particular, space without any definition”. “Nothing nothing” is not anything we know anything about, not anything we should presume is a possible problem even.

    We are tempted to think it is a problem because if I walked out of an empty windowless room with only one door and no rooms below or beneath it, turned around immediately and went back in and saw an elephant in the room, I would be utterly stupefied. An elephant just appear out of nothing. The example is even better if the elephant just materializes in front of me out of nothing that normally causes elephant appearances. THAT’S what we are thinking of when we say something cannot come from nothing. But that’s just taking our local experience with what can or cannot cause elephants and projecting it on to reality itself or this universe itself, or what have you, and saying it must be a caused thing the way an elephant is. I’m not even sure we should bother with the concept of eternal for describing reality, but that’s the closest word we could have to convey, it’s not like an elephant that is caught within a series of causal networks within reality and cannot exist outside of them—reality IS reality. It has no comparable “something from nothing-nothing” problem. And the physically inferable sort of nothing—that’s a situation so unstable that it inevitably turns into something. (Again, using my very, very crude knowledge of physics that should not be quoted anywhere! I’m NOT remotely an expert on the physics.)

    SO, to quickly defend my rejection of the God hypothesis on “something cannot come from nothing” grounds, I’m saying that if you illicitly (in my judgment) extend the principle of something never coming from nothing as as observed among contingent things and make that a universal problem, which requires a non-naturalistic, metaphysical solution, then this problem of something being unable to come from nothing apparently extends into the metaphysical realm too as some fundamental law of both physics and metaphysics and then why not apply it to God too?

    Why find the origin principle to be something uncaused? Isn’t that something that comes from no cause and isn’t no cause “nothing” when we’re using “comes from” language?

    Your response to that contradiction is, well, then, it’s clear since God cannot be its own efficient cause that the need for efficient causes does not apply there, only to the world. And then we’re back to my case that if we recognize that the local dynamics of causation among contingent things is not explanatory of all reality, then why not say one aspect of reality is that it transcends efficient causes, is the context in which they happen but not itself the result of one, and call it a day without having to posit any superfluous separate omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal deity who used to love the smell of burning animal flesh, once made itself into a human being so he could get tortured to death and blow every one’s mind by coming back from the dead, and now wants to have a personal relationship with everyone of us (or torture us eternally if we’re not down with that or accidentally are unconvinced of his totally non-apparent existence).

    That may be the longest sentence I ever wrote—and, for me, that’s really saying something.

    Your Thoughts?

    • Gregory Wahl

      Why do most people choose to posit a “superfluous separate omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal deity”? It has to do with psychology, not philosophy. I think that most (if not all) arguments for a creator are colored by anxiety over mortality.

      Corliss Lamont, in his book The Illusion of Immortality, quotes William James: “Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race, means immortality, and nothing else. In this view, God is merely the producer, or guarantor, of human immortality.” And he quotes (someone named) James Pratt: “As the belief in miracles and spirits has gradually disappeared, the only pragmatic value of the supernatural left to religion is its promise of a personal life after death.”

      Faced with this intense personal longing for self-preservation, your excellent and thoughtful arguments are futile (if they are intended to change the minds of the faithful).

    • Daniel Fincke

      Faced with this intense personal longing for self-preservation, your excellent and thoughtful arguments are futile (if they are intended to change the minds of the faithful).

      I am glad you find them excellent and thoughtful. I am only worried about whether or not they are true, not whether some people’s psychologies are hopelessly incapable of overcoming a dependency on belief in God. I don’t know what to do with such a comment because I don’t see how it should stop me doing what I do.

      Yes, some people will be unpersuadable, but so what? Are all believers unpersuadable? Absolutely not. I was as devout as they come and so were many, many atheists I know. There are persuadable believers. So, in a paraphrase of one of the Bible’s wisest coinages, “let he who has ears to hear, hear and eyes to see, see”.

      I don’t see the point in defeatism or in highlighting the fact that arguments will not work on everyone. All I can worry about is clarifying the truth (not just about religion but all philosophical matters) as best I can. I can hope that the more people are exposed to true arguments the more likely they will be forced to take them seriously and the more likely that some who have the ability to understand and agree with them if only they come across them will get that opportunity.

      I will also say that religion is way too multifarious a phenomenon to peg it to any one particular part of the psyche. Certainly there are aspects of the mind it aids in various ways which explains its power over specific people. But I was devoutly religious without much anxiety about immortality at all. Some people are religious for intellectual reasons (as I was, given the scope of my learning when I was young) or for moral and familial reasons (me again, I admired many Christian role models and took their happiness and well-adjustedness to be evidence of the truth of their beliefs as true guides for living life), etc.

      So, as far as I’m concerned all people are different, different things will get through to different people. There are some people I could never hope to dissuade of their religious beliefs that others might. There are a good many who are simply impervious to reason. I can only be me and do my part and let those with ears to hear listen.

  • Gregory Wahl

    I admire your efforts and enjoy reading your essays. But here’s a good example of what you’re up against — three excerpts from theologian John Haught’s book Deeper Than Darwin:

    “If, in the ultimate depths of nature, we were to unearth an aimless, impersonal materiality, we would then have to yield to cosmic pessimism. And we would have to acknowledge the ultimate futility of all scientific exploration as well, since our intelligence will then have met the impenetrable obstruction — the absolutely unintelligible. Such a finale would mock mercilessly all our efforts to understand the universe.”

    “In every death, a center or cluster of experience dissolves. So unless somewhere there is permanence, and unless this permanence is able to redeem all perishing, evil ultimately wins out over goodness, and the world in the end is absurd. The stream of perishing must flow toward something that saves it all from final nothingness; there must be something that gathers up, and holds in eternal memory, the great cosmic epic.”

    “Since, in humans, the universe has awakened to consciousness, and evolution has now become conscious of itself, it is inconceivable that any truly cosmic redemption would tolerate the suffocation of the very consciousness to which the universe has been straining so mightily to give birth. Unless our experiences are somehow preserved in their immediacy and fullness, our anxiety about death remains without redress; and then the cosmic pessimists will have had the last word.”

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Even if atheists do hold some beliefs by faith (and I’d be open to hearing what you think these are—I’m unpersuaded Rosenbaum has put his finger on any faith-beliefs in his piece)

    It is somewhat orthogonal to the topic of this post, but I feel that an iota of “faith” (though that’s a rather grandiose term for what I am proposing) is necessary for any coherent worldview other than nihilism, in order to short-circuit the Problem of Induction. I am of the mindset that without induction, deduction (and pretty much everything else) falls by the wayside, so one needs to have “faith” so to speak in the basic validity of inductive reasoning.

    However, all I am basically asking is to accept the statement “All other things being equal, future events are at least marginally more likely than random chance to unfold in a similar manner to past events.” I do not think any worldview, other than nihilism of course, can possibly function without accepting the truth of this statement! Some worldviews may not require it as an axiom (e.g. “Axiom: The Bible is fundamentally and literally true. The Bible seems to endorse induction, so…”) but I simply cannot conceive of a coherent worldview that doesn’t at some point accept the aforementioned statement. Even Last Thursday-ism accepts induction, at least over 7-day time spans!

    I think my belief in that statement cannot be characterized as tentative, and so therefore must be classed as “faith”. After all, the only evidence that I c can conceive of that would to me disprove the validity of inductive reasoning would itself have to rely on inductive reasoning! e.g. if all of a sudden everything I experienced appeared to be completely random, with no rhyme or reason or any ability to be predicted whatsoever, and if this happened for a long enough period of time, then inductive reasoning might suggest that inductive reasoning had stopped working… but uh… whoops.

    So I’ve got to take that one on “faith”, as it were. I can’t imagine anyone but a nihilist objecting, though.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I wouldn’t call that faith, though, James, just a properly proportioned belief. We can say we know induction works to a high degree of certainty. That makes that belief a matter of knowledge until it is demonstrated otherwise.

    I most directly make the case for restricting the term “faith” here http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/06/30/disambiguating-faith-not-all-beliefs-held-without-certainty-are-faith-beliefs/and here http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/07/05/disambiguating-faith-defending-my-definition-of-faith-as-belief-or-trust-beyond-rational-warrant-2/

    Induction has evidential warrant for reasons explained here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/05/17/evolution-and-epistemology/

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    We can say we know induction works to a high degree of certainty.

    How do we know that? The only reasons I can come up with rely either on inductive reasoning — circular argument.

    Remember also that I am in the camp which feels that with induction as a given, deduction falls away as well. I feel that while you can always show a perfect deductive proof within a given logical framework, you cannot argue that any given logical framework has the slightest bearing on reality, until you accept inductive reasoning and use that to show as much.

    That makes that belief a matter of knowledge until it is demonstrated otherwise.

    How would one demonstrate otherwise? Because it stopped working? That would also be inductive reasoning…

    I skimmed through the “Evolution and Epistemology” post, and I don’t think it even comes close to addressing this. It does a nice job of addressing the rather silly claim that evolutionary theory undermines the idea that we can ever figure anything out about reality, but it does this using deductive and inductive arguments. How can I argue that natural selection would select for “organisms [which] track truth optimally” without using some form of either deduction or induction? Hell, the very idea of natural selection relies on deductive reasoning (albeit a rather obvious deduction in hindsight).

    I have not read the two posts where you make your case for restricting the term “faith” yet (gotta work) but I think I can guess based on the titles approximately what you are going to say, and if so I agree with you of course. I would not say, for instance, that I have “faith” that putting neosporin on this nasty cooking burn I’ve got on my hand will help fight off infection, even though a) my understanding of how antibiotics work is extremely shallow and b) I have done no chemical analysis or other experiments to determine that the brand X neosporin in my wife’s bathroom actually contains antibiotics — but of course that is not faith because both of those difficulties could be resolved in principle (even though it would be terrible impractical), and because if tomorrow I saw a headline saying “Top Care Triple Remedy Antiseptic Cream recalled due to lack of any damn antibiotics”, I would rapidly modify my beliefs.

    Even things which I have very little reason to believe at all — for instance, “I’ve got a good feeling I’m going to actually catch the ball in my attempts to learn to juggle this time” (which turned out to be false, of course) — it still doesn’t count as faith, even though I believe it against all rational judgment, because when it is proved to be false I shrug my shoulders and move on.

    That’s all fine and good, and I agree that it’s rather annoying to conflate the term “faith” with “trust” or “tentative belief”. But I don’t see how one can possibly make that kind of argument in regards to the problem of induction. I can think of no non-circular justifications for trusting inductive reasoning, and I can’t think of any ways it could be falsified without relying on induction (which of course would be a paradox).

    I’m not losing sleep over it, because as I say, it seems a bit grandiose to label a belief as “faith” when it is shared by literally everyone, except maybe a few nihilists, and even then they behave as though they accept it even if philosophically they don’t. But by a strict definition of faith, I don’t see any way around it.

    • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

      Argh, a couple of clunky typos in the first couple of paragraphs, but I think my point is clear. Just to be sure: t I am in the camp which feels that without induction as a given, deduction falls away as well. Whoops. :)

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Also, as I said in my original comment, this is all somewhat orthogonal to the topic of this post — I don’t think faith is required for atheism per se, of course not. As soon as we have enough “faith” in inductive reasoning to allow us to even carry on a conversation or put our pants on in the morning, IMO the non-existence of a personal god becomes terribly obvious, and the various impersonal gods that have been posited are exposed as meaningless and/or superfluous.

  • http://wwwconversationstickers.weebly.com Olympia Atheist

    I maintain that time itself was created in the Big Bang, therefore before the Big Bang, there was no time for a creator.

    • Andrew Houghton

      I would love to discuss philosophy with Leonardo Da Vinci and watch him design a time machine, submarine, helicopter, hand glider, lift, watch him draw anatomically accurate representations of human muscles distended, tendons taught as they strain.
      What of our modern Philosophers? Is it not noticeable that they restrict themselves to subjects that avoid showing their ignorance of Science?

  • Andrew Houghton

    Atom theory, the big bang theory, dark matter, quantum theory……that word theory. The Laws of physics are that. Theories used in an argument by a Philosopher, beg the question, does he use the words loosely with understanding of what he speaks, or as a ley person might expunge on an article in his sunday paper?

    • http://conversationstickers.weebly.com Lucas in Olympia

      Christians love my stickers. Kinda like how I love self-trepanation. Or Santorum.

      *shakes head*


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