Ted Drange on the Logical Coherence of Atheism

Theodore M. Drange

Ted Drange just me the following response to Vasko Kohlmayer’s column, “Atheism: Why It is Logically Incoherent.”

Toward the end of his essay, the author writes:

But even as the atheist tries to make his point, he unwittingly falls into a trap: If his worldview were true, then the principle of non-contradiction – or any other rule of logic – would be void of meaning.

Why? Because within atheism reality is ultimately composed of only matter and motion. If atheism is true, then everything in the universe must be explainable in terms of these two.

Rules of logic, however, possess properties that cannot be explained in terms of matter and motion. After all, rules of logic are immaterial, abstract, universal and unchanging.

None of these qualities can be explained by what the atheist claims constitutes reality. Such properties simply do not fit into a materialistic picture of the universe.

On atheism, rules of logic should not even exist. But they do exist. Atheists themselves testify to this fact every time they make a logical argument to “prove” their point.

To put it another way, they presuppose that which their outlook implicitly denies.

It is crucial that we grasp this point: Atheists claim that everything is ultimately matter and motion, and yet in their reasoning they resort to categories which cannot be accounted for by matter and motion. This constitutes a contradiction at the very heart of atheistic thought.

If atheism were true, then human reasoning – which is based on rules of logic – would be a futile exercise.

Thus every time an atheist puts forth a logical argument in support of his position, he refutes that which he seeks to defend.

Atheism is not a logically coherent position, because it cannot account for the very tools which its adherents use to justify their beliefs.

If they really wanted to be consistent, proponents of atheism would have to relinquish their worldview.

I gather from that the following:

1. He is not defending theism against my atheistic argument, but rather, putting forward a general attack on atheism (one that is nothing new).

2. His argument could be summarized as follows:

(a) Atheism implies materialism.
(b) Atheism also presupposes that logical laws exist.
(c) Materialism can’t adequately explain the existence of logical laws.
(d) Therefore, it is impossible for materialism, and hence atheism, to be true.

3. There are some deep philosophical issues involved in that piece of reasoning. One of them is that of what it might mean to speak of logical laws as “existing.” And another is that of what it might mean to speak of “explaining the existence of logical laws.” One who delves into those issues might be able to come up with good objections to premise (b) and/or premise (c) of the argument. (I am not inclined to attempt such philosophizing at the present time.)

4. Premise (a) of the argument is clearly false. Atheism merely claims that God does not exist. It has nothing to say about non-material things in general. Some atheists are materialists, denying that there are any non-material things, but there is no need for an atheist to go that route. Atheists could quite consistently accept the existence of some non-material things (numbers, propositions, etc.) and yet deny that God exists. That in itself refutes the argument.

5. I would also argue that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Even if there were something that materialism could not adequately explain, it would not follow that materialism would need to be false. The thing that materialism could not explain might be something that it is absolutely impossible to explain.

6. The author hints that theism could adequately explain the existence of logical laws, but that is something I would strongly deny.

Related Posts:

God and ‘The Laws of Logic’” by Keith Parsons

The Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven
The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Jesus on Faith – Part 4
Critical Thinking is Bigotry
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05034037930336299849 Mike Gage

    Here's something interesting to consider as further support that atheism does not imply a specific view about the existence of teh laws of logic. If you look at the PhilPapers survey of philosophers, there is the following result regarding the existence of abstract objects:

    Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

    Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)

    Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)

    Other 214 / 931 (22.9%)

    Given that 73% of respondents were atheists, it is necessarily the case that some atheists actually accept platonism, as I think Bertrand Russell did. And there are a wide variety of views captured by "Other" including Derek Parfit's view about some sort of non-natural, irreducible entities with no ontological status.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01214435586629463058 Peter White

    Vasko Kohlmayer seems to think that ideas or concepts must somehow exist outside of our physical brains. Everything we know has a material explanation, including the function of brains. So far there has been nothing we have learned about the universe that requires a supernatural explanation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Perversely, the worse an argument is, the more resilient it is. The argument that atheists somehow are inconsistent when they employ logical arguments or invoke logical laws has been around a long time. It is thoroughly debunked every time atheists address it. Ted Drange does so once again. Yet it survives to obfuscate again. Why?

    Advocates of the "inconsistency" argument appear to commit a category mistake–one very similar to the one that Gilbert Ryle attributed to Cartesian dualism: From the fact that mind is not a material entity, we cannot conclude (as Ryle said dualists do)that mind is therefore a non-material entity. Maybe it is not an entity at all. Likewise, the laws of logic are not material entities, but–contrary to what people like Mr. Kohlmayer seem to assume–they are not non-material entities either.

    When Mr. Kohlmayer and such persons invoke the "laws of logic" they seem to mean the rules of valid inference, like Modus Ponens and Modus Tollens. Such rules do not have to be viewed as abstract platonic entities (though, as Drange and Mike Gage point out, there is no obvious reason why an atheist cannot be a platonist). Modus Ponens, for instance, can be seen as an algorithm, a set procedure that automatically and infallibly directs us to a valid inference from any two propositions with the form p –> q and p. There is nothing the least bit mysterious or otherworldly about this.

    Why respect the rules of valid inference? Because we contradict ourselves if we do not. Well, why respect the law of non-contradiction? Not because that law has some sort of incomprehensible theistic grounding, but simply because, as Aristotle pointed out three and a half centuries before Christ, it is a necessary condition for asserting anything at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Keith — Can you say more about the idea that maybe the mind "is not an entity at all"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12853267753412902721 Credo In Unum Deum

    It is just as irritating when atheists make claims stronger than they should as when Christians do it… and it happens all to often. Calm down and make reasoned and measured claims. Just because some theists get all goofy and make radical claims doesn't mean atheists have to. I mean ,seriously, the author wants to say that (some kind of) theism doesn't adequately explain the laws of logic? Really? That's silly. Just silly. And goofy. That doesn't mean that some kind of atheism doesn't provide an adequate explanation. I don't see why there can't be multiple explanations for something given certain starting points. Just because it explains something with consistency and fidelity to its presuppositions is no great feat and doesn't make it true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12853267753412902721 Credo In Unum Deum

    "all too often…"
    My apologies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons


    I wasn't intending anything surprising or original. At the beginning of her terrific introductory book on the philosophy of mind,Suzanne Cunningham asks: "What sort of thing is it [a mind]? Is it a nonphysical thing like a spiritual soul, something quite distinct from the body? Or is it a physical thing like a brain or maybe the whole nervous system? Is it a thing at all? Is it best understood as a process or a set of function rather than a thing?" (from What is a Mind, Hackett, 2000, p. 1)?" I was just suggesting that last possibility. Were you thinking of something else?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04760072622693359795 Francois Tremblay

    Credo In Unum Deum, your comment was bizarre, to say the least. How could theism possibly explain the laws of logic? Beyond the fact that "God did it" is not an explanation, how do you reconcile absolute laws of logic being contingent upon God's creation? Come on. Your position is untenable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10246055581387825972 Whytebyrd

    "Atheism merely claims that God does not exist" Ted Drange

    What does it mean to exist?

    1.Have objective reality or being.
    2.Be found, esp. in a particular place or situation.
    3.Can be identified by name
    Thus from an 'objective' standpoint, God does not exist.
    But from a subjective standpoint, God exists personally and/or of the same essence as 'I”.
    But what about experience?
    What of those who have experienced THAT which cannot be named?
    THAT which does not exist yet prevails dynamically as spirit
    “The name that can be named is not the Everlasting name” Lao Tsu

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