Does Atheism Entail Metaphysical Assumptions Which Cannot Be Warranted by Empiricism?

The short answer is yes.

To say that you reject not just particular individual gods (like Zeus, Vishnu, or Yahweh), but all gods (or the concept of God), necessarily entails that you must also believe that matter, energy, the laws of nature, and time are either eternal or self created from nothing. You must further believe that matter precedes mind (telos ) at the “beginning.” You must also believe that the universe is one (not two), and is thus, in some sense, a closed system. These are just some of the things atheists necessarily believe when they reject the concept of God altogether. It is a position for which empirical evidence cannot lend direct or final warrant to the atheist for believing.

This is why it is not fair of atheists to say that theism is inherently opposed to science, while atheism is its natural ally. It is true that empiricism and atheism, via their mutual commitments to philosophical naturalism, are kin to one another, and emerged in full force out of a specific historical context (The Enlightenment). Empiricism, afterall, cannot function at all if it allows for supernatural explanations of data. But unfortunately, empiricism cannot, in any final sense, adjudicate between theism and atheism, for empiricism cannot reach, with data, to the ultimate question—the ontological mystery—that divides theists from atheists:

Why is there something when there might have been nothing?

There are only three answers to this question: matter is eternal; matter is self-created from nothing; matter was created by some sort of mind (or telos ). All three answers invite question begging and cannot be warranted by empirical moves.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Does Atheism Entail Metaphysical Assumptions Which Cannot Be Warranted by Empiricism?

  1. josef johann says:

    I don’t recall that atheism affirmed any of the above. Denial of a deity is only affirming the whole infinite range of empirical possibilities consistent with the denial of a deity. I’m not sure why you imagine this to be constraining or restrictive position.

    Beyond that there is no content to the atheists perspective on empirical reality other than its basic empirical character, and its bizarre to try and transform this wholly open-ended embrace of empiricism into something negated by it.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Joseph:

    I’m an agnostic, not a theist. My point is that atheism entails more than just a denial of gods. It means the positing of some moves for which empiricism cannot adjudicate. For example, do you believe that matter is eternal; matter is self-created from nothing; or matter was created by some sort of mind (or telos )? Your answer (obviously) cannot be resolved empirically, but the consequences of the answer are numerous, and invite question begging. Epistemically, as a non-believer I just don’t think I’m in any better epistemic shape with regard to this question than any religious believer. I’m in perplexity concerning the ontological mystery.

    You aren’t?

    —Santi

    • Just Me says:

      I do think that atheism is compatible with scientific epistemology in a way that theology is not.

      Try this, instead of asking how far empiricism can reach, ask how well atheism and theism can reach into empiricism.

      To put it another way, I think your perplexity is quite compatible with science and empirical thinking. You aren’t making assertions about the world that aren’t grounded in observation and science – whereas the theist is.

      Also, “belief” can have the same definition for the scientist and the atheist, but not for the theist.

      I’d say that puts you in better epistemic shape.

    • josef johann says:

      My point is that atheism entails more than just a denial of gods

      Atheism means no more and no less than that it affirms the infinite range of possibles you get once theism is negated. I’m mystified as to how anyone could regard that as constraining, or how it implies some lack of “perplexity” about the ontological basis of reality.

      On the contrary, I think if you ask “why is there something instead of nothing”, as though it were a point of separation between empiricism and religion, as though it were impossible even in principle to reconcile with empiricism you are making an extraordinary claim about the limits of empiricism, and need to elaborate. Also, its a claim that’s likely mistaken.

      It is furthermore cold comfort that a belief system could happily provide me an alternative explanation but can’t in the same breath actually assure me that anything about this explanation lends it legitimacy.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Joseph:

    I think that elemental set theory would suggest that you can never come up with a full explanation of a system that also includes the explanation’s full justification (without special pleading or question begging). So I don’t think it is an extraordinary claim to suggest that empiricism cannot answer a “why” question like “Why is there something when there might have been nothing.” If we find a determinate answer to the question, it still begs the question: Why should that determinate answer exist, and not another? I really think that some questions are the snake chasing its tail, and religion will always hide there, and make its back and forth moves, however narrow science closes in on it. Empiricism will never checkmate religion. I’m not saying that as a good. I’m just making an observation that there are real limits to empiricism (unfortunately), and we therefore must make leaps of faith—atheist or theist.

    Some leaps, of course, appear more reasonable than others.

    —Santi

  4. Kalibhakta says:

    Well, of course atheism contains non-falsifiable metaphysical assumptions… but you’re presenting a somewhat over-simplified version of cosmology here. I can think of several more than just three answers to this alleged “ontological mystery,” most notably “The assertion that there ‘might have been nothing’ is totally meaningless and therefore should be discarded.”

    On a totally unrelated note, I loved your post about the Christian couple who toured the Creation Museum with the atheists…

  5. santitafarella says:

    Kalibhakta:

    Thanks for the nice comment on the Christian couple’s post.

    As for above, where you say—“The assertion that there ‘might have been nothing’ is totally meaningless and therefore should be discarded”—is, to my mind, a dodge.

    You can see this dodge by simply looking at the structure of your statement and applying it to other things:

    “The assertion that there might have been no free will in the universe, and yet it is nevertheless here, is totally meaningless.”

    “The assertion that there might have been no life in the universe, and yet it is nevertheless here, is totally meaningless.”

    “The assertion that there might have been no mind in the universe, and yet it is nevertheless here, is totally meaningless.”

    “The assertion that there might have been no information in the universe, and yet it is nevertheless here, is totally meaningless.”

    “The assertion the there might have been different laws governing the universe is totally meaningless.”

    The structure of such an argument might well work among committed atheists as a convenient way to avoid looking at the problem of origins directly, but to anyone not already committed to atheism it sounds like a wordplay move for shutting down discussion. Using the word “meaningless” to describe the sentence does not in fact answer the perplexity we continue to feel. The sentence (“Why is there something when there might have been nothing?”)is not logically impossible, nor, so far as we know, is it physically impossible. The universe might well be contingent. And even if we discovered that it had to be here, it would beg the question: “Why?”

    The ontological mystery is not dispensed with like you might shuffle a half-asleep child off to bed. It stays up and fights you, and refuses to be ignored.

    —Santi

    • Kalibhakta says:

      I see what you’re saying, but all those alternate statements strike me as meaningless, too! 🙂

      It’s a difference of perspectives, I think, of basic ontological questions. I am very invested in the Eastern “What is this universe?” rather than the Western “Why is the universe here?” I can see how this might sound atheistic (you probably know about the Advaita tradition in Indian philosophy–a kind of spiritual radical skepticism). It’s a big part of how my teachers have helped me see the world.

      The whole Why Are We Here problem, from Plato (?) onwards reminds me of the dreaded “anthropic principle” promulgated in all seriousness even by some very good scientists; both to me lack substance and ultimately just generate giant tautologies.

      But– I think we basically agree on a lot, and I welcome this argument/exchange of ideas. And yes, the perplexity, the wonderment… in my true heart of course I think it’s God calling to us, an answer that might please Plato and a half-asleep child, but may not suffice for you…

      thank you for the dialogue…

  6. santitafarella says:

    Kalibhakta:

    Okay, I understand where you’re ‘coming from’ now.

    I also had a couple of years of intense Eastern meditation reading and practice. I’m sure at some point, I’ll return to it. I see “Kali” in your name, and I’m thinking of Ramakrishna, a devotee of Kali, who I really enjoyed reading. I should post some of his stuff here on my blog.

    One of the deeper gurus I read in my “Eastern philosophy” stage of my life (about 8 years ago now) was Ramana Maharshi. I found myself moving back and forth between Hindu and Buddhist books, which I see as mirroring theism and atheism in their Atman v. anatman tensions.

    In any case, I can see what you mean by suggesting the above questions are not entirely meaningful.

    My wife said something to me today that I thought nailed my personality dead-on. She said that I love irresolvable questions, to chew on them like poems, precisely because you can’t arrive at a conclusion. I like to go back and forth, seeing the “vase-face” of existence shift in and out. It’s why I like to talk about God, and UFOs, and free will, and call myself an agnostic, and loathe confidence atheists and confidence theists.

    So what is the universe, since you’ve been meditating on it and thinking about it?

    Is the universe a thought? I forget who said it, but I like this: “The universe is not made of atoms, but stories.”

    —Santi

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