Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?

All atheists assert, so far as I can tell, that MATTER PRECEEDS MIND. But I think it is tricky to assert that if one begins all one’s reasoning on the presumption that matter preceeds the existence of mind, that one has not done something METAPHYSICAL—and even engaged in an act of FAITH.

In other words, atheism, like theism, starts with a metaphysical premise that is not really accessible to proof, but must nevertheless be asserted as an axiom before one can say much of anything further (intellectually). 

Sartre’s metaphysical premise is (famously): “Existence preceeds essence.” In other words, we are free beings, and not essential beings (determined). I don’t really see how one arrives at this by inductive or deductive proof—one has to accept it as a metaphysical starting point (as I do).

The same is true of the atheist axiom: matter preceeds mind; or existence preceeds mind.

One might point to suggestive things in its favor, but it is more a metaphysical premise than something self-evident or discovered by a sustained and thoroughly convincing appeal to inescapable reasoning. Why there should be anything at all is an utter mystery, but atheists have an opinion on it. That opinion is this: matter just has always been, or came into existence of itself, and over time, varied, MULTIPLIED, and interacted with itself, and can now be observed to function by self-generated and predictable “laws.” Oh, and by the way, the vissitudes of the eons have (lucky for us) produced minds, and love, and philosophy, and Richard Dawkins, and William Shakespeare.

It sounds improbable and metaphysical, doesn’t it?

In this sense, because atheism’s beginning axiom is no more subject to proof (or even probability) than is theism’s (and, indeed, they are the mirror opposites of one another) it seems reasonable to call both atheism and theism competing THEORIES that try to account for the universe based on a singular premise (either matter preceeds mind or mind preceeds matter).

Thus, if you are an atheist, how do you know if you are a hundred miles ahead of your opposition (intellectually)—or a hundred miles behind? Likewise, the same question applies to the theist.

To be an agnostic is to acknowledge that, when it comes to ultimate questions, we are pretty much groping in the dark, and our stabs at explanation may not just be wrong, but wildly wrong.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?

  1. Doulos says:

    So very true! Of course (some) atheists will deny this, claiming that their view is not based on an metaphysical claim but rather empirical evidence.

    This right here, the basing an entire world view around a metaphysical claim, is why theists say that atheism is a relgion of sorts.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Doulos:

    I agree that, in a certain sense, atheism is religious.

    If you say, “I see no evidence for your claim that Yahweh actually exists (or Zeus, or Allah, or Krishna)”—I would not call this a religious statement. I would call this a simple denial of an unsubstantiated claim. It does not make you religious to deny the existence of Jupiter or Thor.

    But if you say the universe began by chance with matter, undirected by any telos, and that mind and the laws of nature evolved out of the random behavior of matter, and that matter popped into existence of its own accord, then I think that you are engaged in an essentially religious—or at least metaphysical—gesture. You are posing a hypothesis—a lens—for seeing all the world through. It’s not monotheism—but mono-atheism—a kind of absolutist religious claim with existential stakes.

    I don’t think that any of us can avoid completely religious moves.

    —Santi

    • Brunkster says:

      Keep in mind, the basis of atheism is that there is no god. The concept that the universe began by chance is unknowable, but a hypothetical assumption. It is the theist who tries to answer this question of how the universe came to be and, as most societies of the past, their answer is god. To this I ask…if you are so certain that the universe needs a creator, and everything needs a creator, then who created god? You can’t have it both ways.

  3. Jared K. says:

    Well put Santi.

    I think that it is only honest to admit that we are, to a substantial degree, groping in the dark for the answers to these big questions.

    If agnosticism is, as you define it, simply an acknowledgement of how little we know–and that we could always be completely wrong–then this seems reasonable. I guess my only reservation about claiming to be an “agnostic,” in contrast to the labels “atheist” or “theist” (or pick your metaphysic), is that to be an agnostic-rather-than-atheist (for example) means that you believe either that the evidence is absolutely perfectly balanced between two competing metaphysics, or else you believe that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever (not even the slightest shred of indication one way or the other). Both of these options seem absurd.

    But I guess, from your earlier posts, that you understanding agnosticism in a different way–something more like a view that allows you to lean in a certain direction–maybe with much fear and trembling–and the constant realization of how wrong you could be.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    It’s not that there is no evidence one way or the other, or that they must be positioned in “perfect balance.” It is to acknowledge that we are comparing apples and oranges. How does one compare the problem of suffering (an argument that seems to favor atheism) with atheism’s “multiverse” hypothesis (which theists cite as a potential weakness for atheism because we as yet have no proof that multiverses exist). Which should have greater weight in “deciding” between the two positions?

    As an agnostic, I simply give myself over to absorbing projects and let these questions be held in parenthesis for the time being.

    I’m just waiting for Godot.

    —Santi

  5. Sandwich says:

    All atheists assert, so far as I can tell, that MATTER PRECEEDS MIND.

    –Not all atheists assert this. Though it is probably true that many do.

    (either matter preceeds mind or mind preceeds matter).

    –Either one of these could be true, and and theism could be incorrect, contrary to implication as I’ve perceived it.

    FTR – I’m agnostic

  6. eggplantinspace says:

    There is a problem here with definition. I consider myself an Atheist, but I will always accept that I could be wrong.

    I’d feel a right donkey at St Peters gates saying
    “Yes Guv, but you dont exist, so let me in!”

    You would consider me Agnostic because I have accepted I could be wrong, and therefore it is not a “belief”.

    This is a little silly though, since I also believe Gravity exists, because all the evidence suggests it does, I also however accept that maybe I’m wrong, after all I dont know everything.

    That doesnt make me Agnostic about Gravity. It makes me as sure as I can be. It makes me fly the Gravity colours from the highest flagposts… ”
    Yay for Gravity… Gra-vi-tee, Gra-vi-tee!”

    Surely the real point about this though, is that regardless of you being a believer in God or a non believer in God, its still a massive leap to believe in a God that listens, understands, cares, or whatever.

    My point being surely we should be talking about how silly religion is, and let the God issue figure itself out in its own time.

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