Friday, March 21, 2014

Is This How to Argue Against God?

I have recently become aware of an article entitled, “How to Argue that God Does Not Exist.” Sounds ambitious! Only occasionally, I will respond to these types of “arguments.” I put “arguments” as such because it’s more a case of assertions, only sometimes followed by purported conclusions. It’s sometimes difficult to know precisely what the argument is supposed to be. Nonetheless, I think I want to offer a few observations on it.

I.               The Inconsistencies.

The author notes at the beginning that, “proving nonexistence is a logical impossibility,” but then claims he knows how to “prove that God does not exist through simple logic.” Well which is it? Is it logically impossible to prove non-existence, or is it simple? You can’t have it both ways.

There is also the issue of religious belief requiring fideism, except where it doesn’t. On the one hand, the author assures us that it’s been scientifically demonstrated that faith and knowledge are opposed to one another, whatever that means. In that same paragraph, he claims that this fideism (where you believe something someone else tells you that makes no sense and that you recognize as a lie—that entire claim has its own major problems, by the way) is a requirement underlying all religion. In the tips section, he says that one shouldn’t expect all theists to operate on blind faith, that they’re instead using arguments that “appear to be rational.” That is, the arguments appear to make sense, and appear not to be based merely on testimony. Now perhaps the author would argue the further thesis that, in fact, such an argument is based on testimony, and that testimony is either false, irrational to believe, or both—but that’s not clear.

II.             The Insufficient Definitions.

Speaking of this definition of fideism, there are multiple problems with this. First, it’s not clear that every religious believer recognizes that the testimony beliefs relevant to their religion are lies. This is because, amongst other things, perhaps it could merely be false (after all, a lie is an intentional falsehood, not just any falsehood). So perhaps then we can amend it, and all is well. Not a chance. There are people, myself included, who do not think the foundations of their religious beliefs are false. In fact, many of us think Christian theism is the best explanation of the world; the ultimate paradigm of making sense, as it were. Now, perhaps we are completely mistaken, but the point is that religious believers do not in fact know it is incorrect, and it’s uncharitable to assume that all religious believers are attempting to deceive when saying they believe something. So perhaps we can jettison that last clause, and focus on the basis of religion being that one must accept testimony beliefs. What’s supposed to be the problem with that? Well, perhaps one will say that testimony beliefs can be false. So what? Lots of things can be false, including scientific theories. No one calls for the abandonment of those. Further, testimony beliefs are actually fundamental to human epistemology. That is, if we could not accept testimony beliefs, we would know precious little. In fact, we wouldn’t be justified as toddlers, hearing our parent’s instruction (e.g., “Don’t touch that stove; it’s hot; hot things will hurt you and you will not like it,” or “Don’t cross the street without looking; a car may hit you”). On a denial of all testimony beliefs, the toddler would be completely unjustified in accepting this as true. Surely something has gone wrong.

The next definition that needs some help is the apparent definition of science. Apart from a bizarrely specific claim that scientists collectively understand 4% of the universe (what does that even mean?), the demarcation given between science and religion (non-science) is the following: “the former [science] is always willing to reconsider any of its theories, laws and rules . . . . Ask any religious person if they would accept any evidence disproving the existence of his/her god(s) and the answer will always be ‘no.’ That is why religion can never be classified as ‘science’ regardless of what name you give to it.”

There’s so much wrong with this definition, it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll be arbitrary about it. First, it’s naïve to believe that scientists really are willing, at any and every point, to reconsider just any of its theories, laws, and rules. Thomas Kuhn (and Samir Okasha) argued that science operates in paradigms. Briefly, scientific paradigms are “a set of fundamental theoretical assumptions that all members of a scientific community accept at a given time; secondly, a set of . . . particular scientific problems that have been solved by means of those theoretical assumptions.”[1] It’s not time that helps these paradigms, it’s the explanatory instances and scope, amongst other things. It’s important to note that, during this successful period, the theory is not up for debate. The scientific enterprise is assuming the theory and proceeding to see what follows from there. Scientific revolution only takes place when there are several, perhaps many, disconfirming instances of a theory. Only after a theory has been stretched to the breaking point is a theory potentially ready to be “junked.” However, not even this is good enough, since science needs a competing theory to replace the old paradigm. Without a sufficiently explanatory theory or set of theories, the old paradigm is not abandoned. This isn’t a criticism of science; it’s just a description of what happens (in fact, there seem to be good reasons behind operating this way, at least in some cases). So it doesn’t seem as though science is really willing to do this after all.

On the other hand, is religion really in such a bind? It depends what one means. The author is quite ambiguous in this section. Is he saying something like, “Religion is not counted as science because believers don’t grant that something disproves God”? That would be an uninteresting version of science! Does the author mean something like, “Religion is not counted as science because believers don’t accept any facts as evidences in an argument whose conclusion is that God does not exist”? If so, then he should know that believers often do grant that certain things, such as the existence of evil, can function as prima facie evidence that God does not exist (even if she is ultimately not persuaded that the overall argument succeeds). Or does the author rather mean something like this, “Religion is not counted as science because believers say that nothing in principle can count as evidence against or disprove God”? Again, I point to many believers, including myself, who say that if it were to be determined that the Christian God is a logical impossibility, then I would believe God does not exist; or if the bones of Christ were found—not just the claim that the bones were found, but if the bones were actually to be that of Christ—then my faith is disproven.

Finally, the definition is invalid because it presumes that mere falsifiability is good enough for something to be counted as science. To see why this would be a criterion that is too broad, consider crystal ball gazing. Suppose crystal ball gazing is guided by a theory, namely, that it is generally reliable. Suppose there are further facts and rules, such as, an appropriate practitioner had to be operating the crystal ball. Now finally suppose that there is a rule that, given the theory and the particular fact that there is an appropriate practitioner in operation, that a successful prediction would ensue. We can imagine asking the intellectuals of crystal ball gazing what would show them that the practitioner before them is actually an inappropriate one—in effect, what would falsify the prediction. They would presumably reply that if the prediction made from the crystal ball gazing were not to come true, then the practitioner can be regarded as an inappropriate one (or disconfirming of the complete theory, etc.). Yet who is going to thereby regard crystal ball gazing as an exercise of the scientific discipline? So it is with religion. We’re not attempting to do science in and of itself. Are there places for both in the universe? That will be the subject of the next article, continuing this examination.

[1] Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 81.


  1. I think the majority of atheists are getting lazier

    1. Hey Cornell. :) What's interesting is, this guy (at least, to me) obviously believes what he's saying. I don't think he's trying to be mean, or trying to trick people. It's just so sad that fundamentalist atheism exists. At one point, in the "warnings" section I believe, he capitalizes "Science" (in a non-standard place). It was probably just a mistake, but it made me think: these people really are religious after all, and it is almighty Science that is their god. They are free to speculate on some of the specific beliefs, but overall, there are commandments to observe, orthodoxy to uphold, cultural battles to fight, and anti-intellectualism with respect to some things, and pseudo-intellectualism with respect to others. The "faithful" will be rewarded (with accolades and whatnot), while the apostate and heathen (those who are scientists who also become or are Christians and those who never were scientists but are Christians) will be condemned (by mockery and marginalization. All hail, Science! ;) I followed this one up with one more post.


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