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?
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.