New Atheism, Morality, and Falsifiability

New Atheism, Morality, and Falsifiability February 29, 2012

A couple of days ago I argued that New Atheism was primarily a movement interested in advancing a number of moral causes. New Atheists are, in short, very motivated by, and invested in advocating for, a range of moral judgments about the ethical rightness of people thinking both freely and scrupulously for themselves and not submitting to unfounded sources of authority in matters of belief and practice just because of uncritical veneration for traditions. I wrote:

We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

Launching off of this remark, Beth replied:

This is the same basic argument that true believers in any ism are apt to make. Those who are sincere in their attempts to evangelize others ALWAYS believe that they are spreading truth and combatting falsehoods despite the fact that what they call ‘truth’ is actually an unfalsefiable claim.

First of all, being an “ism” is not intrinsically bad. Or, if it is, Beth does not give a falsifiable reason for knowing that it is. Either there is a test of falsifiability to show “isms” are bad or she is using a standard besides falsifiability to judge them bad. Later in her comment she accused the New Atheists of intolerance. Is there some falsification test that is supposed to tell us that we are not supposed to be intolerant? I don’t know of such a test.

But you know what is falsifiable and falsified? The proposition that all truth must be of the kind that passes tests of falsifiability. Of course, this is not falsifiable experimentally, say, through using the kinds of tests Popper devised for assessing whether a given proposed scientific proposition could be shown false through well designed experiments. But nonetheless, the proposition that truths can only be known if they pass tests of falsifiability has a simple test. If we can find a truth that is true even though it cannot, even in principle, be put to a test of falsifiability, then not all truths are known only because they pass tests of falsifiability.

Here is such a truth: “1+1=2”. That indubitably true. There is no conceivable experiment which could show it to be false. Here is another truth which is unfalsifiable: “A bachelor is an unmarried man.” This is true by definition. No experimental test could prove it false. Here is another one: “A=/=~A”. The law of non-contradiction. There is no test condition under which it can be false. But it is still true.

Falsifiability is a valuable tool for developing scientific knowledge. But not all of our knowledge is scientific (and not even all good science is falsifiable in the strictest sense). Our moral and epistemic knowledge, for another example, draws on formal rational principles, on tests of internal consistency, on experience of the world, and even on some science. But it is not itself scientific and it is not itself falsifiable. Nonetheless, we can have moral and epistemic knowledge. Or, at least, we can have rationally defensible moral and epistemic claims which are justified by their being proportioned to the reasons for them.

Secondly, the point I was talking about in saying that New Atheists argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it was not the narrow and more presumptuous claim Beth imputes to us that people are better off living with any specific pet New Atheist proposition than without it. New Atheists are committed more specifically to arguing for the value of truth and rigorous standards of rationality themselves, than they are actually interested in any specific truth claim in particular. I’m contrasting our proposition that truth itself is an intrinsic good with the view of other atheists (like Beth?) who doubt either that truth is an intrinsic good at all or that truth, even if it is an intrinsic good, can ever be justifiably more important to a person than his pleasure.

Our primary concern is to argue for the value of truth and rationality themselves in response to those atheists who share our disbelief and yet who also think that it is not a bad thing when other (religious) people hold beliefs that we atheists agree are false (and, so, “deluded”). Among us atheists who share this view (that faith-based religious theism is either likely false or at least insufficiently supported by reason and evidence to be believed) we are split only on the question of whether those who we both think are wrong should be told the reasons we have for thinking they are wrong.

Our other main reason to argue for the value of truth itself is that many religious believers explicitly attack the value of reason. They explicitly celebrate believing either without evidence or, even, against the evidence. They both implicitly and explicitly teach people to adhere to their religions more than to their reason. They try to make faith into a virtue. Sometimes they denigrate reason itself and go so far as to advocate outright irrationalism or fideism of the most naked and unapologetic kinds.

If Beth is so committed in principle to rejecting unfalsifiable beliefs on the grounds of their supposed dogmatism, then she should certainly be a New Atheist and oppose religious faith beliefs. When someone believes by faith he not only commits to believing a wide range of unfalsifiable propositions, but he even commits in many cases to believing falsifiable propositions after they have been falsified. Some things the faithful believe can and have been falsified and yet they go on believing. And sometimes they frankly will tell you that they will continue to believe in some of their not-yet falsified beliefs even if they see them falsified.

We New Atheists are not “true believers” in some dogmatic set of propositions that we cannot defend. Our raison d’être is not to dogmatically advance any specific proposition (not even that there are no gods). Our explicit rallying target is the non-existence of gods because that question is ground zero of religious attacks against rationalism. There is no more widespread, dubious faith belief than the belief in gods. There is no more influential lie to buttress real world religious authoritarianism in beliefs and in practices than the lie that their beliefs come from supernatural, divine revelation and that they serve as the mouthpieces of gods. There is no larger or more vigorous group throughout the world defending the supposed value of believing contrary to evidence than the defenders of belief in gods.

So, rationalists who are opposed to faith-beliefs in principle and who argue and agitate for the intrinsic values of truth and reason for their own sake (even in the public square and not just in laboratories or the ivory towers of academia) grasp that faith-based religions and the kinds of gods they promote are the ones who encourage and train people to submit to their cognitive biases as virtues, rather than to expunge them as thoroughly as possible.

Precisely what we are opposing in principle is “true belief” in what is not adequately defensible according to reason. That’s our moral principle. Beth, and other critics of New Atheism, want to blame us for being so adamant about this moral principle but then hypocritically apply it to us when criticizing us. “You’re like a dogmatic true believer!” For what? For arguing that dogmatic beliefs are wrong to hold because they are unjustified, likely to be false, and likely to lead to poor choices due to false information?

Well, either you think there is something wrong with being a dogmatic “true believer”, in which case you really are with us in principle despite your being bizarrely offended that we criticize the real “true believers”, or you think there is nothing wrong with being a “true believer”. But if that’s the case, why exactly are you criticizing us? Is it because we’re somehow hypocrites for having “true belief” while telling others not to? Why is that suddenly a problem whereas dogmatism itself and the systematic training of people to be dogmatic as a routine part of religious training isn’t? Is it that our supposedly dogmatic and evangelizing practices of “true believing” somehow harms others? If that’s true, you’re saying that “true believing” can be blamed for the ways that it distinctly contributes to harms for others when the “true believing” is (allegedly) carried out by atheists, but not when it is done by theists?

Again, we New Atheists are not actually “true believers” in the sense of being committed to any particular propositions beyond rational warrant. Ultimately our only real commitment is just to the principle that people should only believe, even in religious matters, according to reason. That’s really it. The rest—even the atheism!—is in principle negotiable.

The moral commitments that motivate us, which I enumerated at length in my previous post, all stem from that commitment to rationalism itself. Either you are with us in opposing irrationalism as a matter of principle, in which case you should be side by side with us denouncing faith-based believing, or you do not think that irrationalism is an inherently bad thing—in which case, you have no grounds to try to dissuade us of what you allege is irrational in what we do. Maybe you will say that our (supposed) irrationalism is not intrinsically bad in itself but you think it’s harmful. But when we argue that faith-based religious beliefs are on net, in the long term, likely to do more harm than good, Beth accuses us of making (presumably illicit) unfalsifiable claims. Are the allegations that our supposed irrational faith beliefs are in the long run detrimental any more falsifiable?

We who think theists should be challenged over the falseness of their beliefs are not dogmatic fanatics. Our non-belief is no more irrationally formed than is the non-belief of our accommodationist atheist brethren. Our disbelief itself is no more extreme or unjustified than that of atheists who want to “live and let live”. They usually share our basic philosophical and scientific positions on the lack of justification for religious beliefs and the poverty of religious means for forming true beliefs. That we simply try to convince those who disagree with us of the rightness of our shared position does not make us any less rational in the way we come to our positions.

Nor does our confrontationalism make us somehow dogmatic in how we argue for our positions. Just because we want to dissuade others does not mean that we are manipulative, authoritarian, or closed-minded as the most notorious religious proselytizers. Some of us certainly behave badly and succumb to the tribalistic vices all groups are prone to. This is lamentable and something I write against often. But to eradicate the vices intrinsic to group behavior you would have to eradicate all groups. That’s not an option. And New Atheists are no more especially guilty of demonizing or otherwise mischaracterizing or mistreating our enemies than any other group which publicly argues for its viewpoint. We should hold ourselves to high moral standards, of course, but we should not be dismissed as somehow failing to meet even minimal moral standards.

We are simply interested in debating theists in order to dissuade them of what we perceive to be their errors. This does not make us suddenly equivalent to proselytizers who want to bully people into emotionally or illogically accepting propositions which admit of no good rational support but require an emotional and illogical leap of faith.

What we want to do is consistent with what intelligent people are concerned to do in all other areas of life where they have disagreements about truth. You wouldn’t accuse a natural or social scientist of being a pushy proselytizer or of being committed to a dreaded “ism” simply for arguing with other investigators over a contentious issue of fact. Neither are philosophers proselytizing when debating with each other the truth of any number of philosophical propositions, including moral ones.

The only thing “evangelical” about the New Atheists is that both the standards of believing we advocate and the propositions that most people are driven to when they adopt them affect people’s core identities and their core values when they are persuaded by us. In many cases, the stakes are high for people if we dissuade them of their theism or their commitment to faith. If we are right, in many cases they have to drastically reevaluate and reorganize their beliefs and their lives in a number of ways in order to accommodate reason-based (as opposed to distinctively faith-based) truths about reality and values. To the extent that their sense of self, their methods of belief and value formation, their relationships to their families and to religious institutions, etc. are all deeply shaped by certain religious beliefs, the effects of being deconverted can be downright life altering (and, at least temporarily, quite painful.)

We are also controversial because we are driven by a moral fervor and interest in the good and, so, many of the intellectual propositions we advocate are distinctively moral ones. But this does not mean that we are just positing arbitrary beliefs by faith. Moral propositions are rationally defensible and people who care about the good should be willing to debate moral propositions, to submit them to public scrutiny, and to unabashedly scrutinize the moral claims of influential people and institutions. I understand that this often looks ugly and messy. I understand that there are temptations towards emotionalism and tribalism in moral debates. But they have to happen. Working out our values so that they are the best they can be is too vital a concern. Intellectuals with relevant insight into the mistaken beliefs of the public who nonetheless seek at all costs to avoid the unseemly and uncertain gladiatorial arena of values debates out of disdain are not the high minded and restrained rationalists they like to fancy themselves but, rather, just socially irresponsible.

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