Is Atheism Based on Reality Testing, While Theism is Not?

I’m all for reality testing, and I advocate it for all ideologies, but there is another reality as well, and it is this: a group of people perverse enough to hold a prejudice deeply enough can find epistemic justification for whatever they want to believe—and that’s true for atheist groups as well as theist groups.

For example, no amount of apparent “fine tuning” in the physics constants has ever converted more than a few atheists to theists—it just tends to send atheists concerned about the physics constants issue outside this singular universe into a multiverse hypothesis (so that you can get a greater probability of “time and chance” working its magic).

But this move by some atheists is quite akin to theist supernaturalism. The multiverse hypothesis is an inference to give some sort of probable accounting for our universe’s apparent “good luck” in having life and mind in it, and has no direct (and maybe not even indirect) experimental means of verification. Like theists, there are atheists willing to posit one or more (or infinite!) universes “next door” to this one. But these universes, if they exist, are forever inaccessible to us. We cannot, even in principle, ever visit them.

Another example is strict naturalism itself, which is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Like any other philosophical position, atheism rests on epistemic assumptions not verifiable by science. But an atheist, like a theist, has got to start somewhere. So the questions facing the atheist and the theist are the same, and equally intractable and impervious to settlement by empirical methods:

  • What are your premises?
  • Where do you start?
  • How do you decide?
  • What are reasonable inferences from the data that you have?

All of us have to try to answer these questions, and all of the questions invite question begging. We’re like Taylor and his buddies at the beginning of Planet of the Apes. Where are we? What should we do? We’re in something, but what?

Welcome to Fichte’s “flungness”:

As for me, as an agnostic I’m partial to Francis Bacon. I think (as did Bacon) that a great deal of theological speculation, being by its very nature separated from empiricism, results in airy (and largely dubious) intellectual castle building. I further think that contemporary empiricism, as a practical matter, narrows the range of probable inferences that a sensible nonfundamentalist person can make about where we are, and what is the nature of the universe. For example, I think it is fair to say that empiricism has safely taken the notion that we live on a young Earth (as many fundamentalists still assert) completely off the table.

Like Taylor and his buddies in Planet of the Apes, the human race’s first historical guesses about where we’ve “landed” have been proven largely wrong, and time is giving us more information, and narrowing our range of likely scenarios still available to us. Both atheism and some forms of theism are still living options. Let’s keep looking and thinking and doing science (so that our range of reasonable inferences can be narrowed still more).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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35 Responses to Is Atheism Based on Reality Testing, While Theism is Not?

  1. No atheist will ever be able to come up with a proper response to T.H. Huxley’s observation that “all our knowledge is knowledge of states of consciousness.” There is simply no way to exorcise the ghost in the machine. He’s the only one who knows how to run the machine!!

    • Really? How about “There is no ghost in the machine.”?

      Mind/brain dualism has long been falsified.

      • santitafarella says:

        Shamelessly:

        The machine is a ghost—the brain is a ghost—they are both perceptions of mind—not an encounter with the machine itself, or with the brain itself. The mind is not in the machine or brain, the machine or brain is in the broad dome of the mind. These are the emanations of mind. The overarching canopy of the sky (when you look up) is the canopy of your mind seen from one vantage of the mind. We are (to quote Whitman) large, we contain multitudes.

        —Santi

      • WOW! Santi

        What the hell have you been smoking?
        This is good stuff, do you have more??

  2. santitafarella says:

    Apuleius:

    Interesting point.

    —Santi

  3. For example, no amount of apparent “fine tuning” in the physics constants has ever converted more than a few atheists to theists—it just tends to send atheists concerned about the physics constants issue outside this singular universe into a multiverse hypothesis (so that you can get a greater probability of “time and chance” working its magic).

    Where to begin? Where to begin?

    Who says the universe is fine-tuned? That’s a just-so story. The universe came first. It is life which is fine-tuned to the universe, not the other way round! Nor is it all that finely tuned. For instance, it has been said that if the mass of the neutrino were to increase even slightly, the universe would have imploded immediately following the beginning the initial expansion. Hogwash. There would simply be fewer neutrinos, since the energy density of the universe would be exactly zero! Change physical constants by orders of magnitude and simulations show that stars and galaxies still form in a large percentage of these simulations.

    This is just an exercise in ‘puddle thinking’ –

    Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. ~ Douglas Adams

    Next is the assertion that we claim that the multiverse model is how we believe the universe came to be. BALDERDASH! What you (rather dishonestly, whether consciously or not) fail to say is that we acknowledge that this is speculation. Currently, all hypotheses as to the origin of the universe are speculative. The reason we bring up the multiverse and other naturalistic models is in refutation of the claim that theists (And since you are taking a theistic perspective, you are numbered among them. That you haven’t chosen a specific god (or so you claim) to believe in means squat and doesn’t make you an agnostic.) claim that the universe could not have come into being through natural means. We do not know if the multiverse model (to take just one of the hypotheses) is how things happened. But the multiverse model is consistent with known physics, which is all we need to refute the theistic claim.

    That is why we reject the fine tuning of the cosmos argument. There are other, philosophical reasons for rejecting it, but as you will read below I do not hold philosophy in high esteem when it comes to claim testing.

    Another example is strict naturalism itself, which is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Like any other philosophical position, atheism rests on epistemic assumptions not verifiable by science.

    Oh, leave the metaphysics to useless philosophy. Show me an epistemology outside of empiricism which demonstrably provides knowledge. Show me something other than naturalism which provides testable and falsifiable explanations for observed phenomena. Science uses what works and discards the rest. Natualism works. Pragmatic? Based on inductive reasoning? You bet. Does it bother me? NOT ONE WHIT! In the words of Dire Straits, “Philsophy is useless. Theology is worse.”

  4. Cross posting from other post. Feel free to delete it from one of them if you will.

    Santi

    As I already said, you should stop to talk “atheists this…atheists that”. I have no idea what ALL atheists think about a lot of stuff. To be an atheist just means that I don’t believe in god, it doesn’t entail any position about comoslogical hypothesis.
    Yes, probably most atheists are naturalists, and not only in strict sense, but within a full range of variations. However atheism IS NOT naturalism, as you seems to think. In fact we can’t, except in a very broad sense, talk about atheism, as there is no such thing. It’s not a doctrine, it’s A-theism. Get it?
    As for the “fine tuning” I don’t buy it, as it’s based on many speculative assumptions, and it frankly begs the question. I, WE don’t know, NOBODY knows if the physics constants can be “tuned” at all. If they can, NOBODY knows what is the range of this suposed “tunning”. Even if they can be tuned in a very wide range, so the “fine tunnig” argument makes sense, it’s an argument for Deism, not Theism. You couldn’t say ‘the universe is fine tunned, so…Jesus!’
    Beyond that I don’t think the idea of “fine tunning” makes sense from the start. It betrays a very poor or naive at best, understanding of the Universe we live in and of its nature. We don’t live in an Universe “fine tuned” for life (lets say us). We live in an Universe where life is possible. Barely.

  5. Gunlord says:

    Change physical constants by orders of magnitude and simulations show that stars and galaxies still form in a large percentage of these simulations.

    Out of curiosity, which simulations are you referring to, and what, exactly, constitutes a “large” percentage of them?

    Not trolling, actually, I’m genuinely curious, since it sounds interesting.

  6. Gunlord says:

    Hi Gato,

    Thanks muchly for the link. Very informative. The only small request I would have is in reference to this quote,

    I have also examined the distribution of stellar lifetimes for these same 100 universes
    (Stenger 1995, 2000). While a few are low, most are probably high enough to allow time for
    stellar evolution and heavy element nucleosynthesis. Over half the universes have stars that live
    at least a billion years. Long stellar lifetime is not the only requirement for life, but it certainly is
    not an unusual property of universes.
    I

    I was hoping for specific numbers (how many are few, how many are most, how much is over half? 55%? 60%? 80%?) but since Stenger cites his 1995 and 2000 papers I presume I can find them there. You wouldn’t happen to have them on you, would if? If not, though, that’s 100% okay of course, as great fortune would have it I’ll go down to the library sometime and acquire them from there (Dr. Stenger’s papers ought to be either online over there or even in the archives somewhere, depending on which journal they were published in).

    If you wouldn’t mind, though, might I ask another cosmological question? Dr. Stenger says that in those 100 simulations, “the values of the four parameters were generated randomly from a range five orders of magnitude above to five orders of magnitude below their values in our universe, that is, over a total range of ten orders of magnitude.”

    I am curious, though–do pardon my ignorance–why only 10 orders of magnitude? That’s a hefty number, of course, but one could imagine universes whose characteristics differed from ours by 20, 200, or maybe even 2000 orders of magnitude. That’s getting really, really big, though (or really, really small, but you get my point). Out of curiosity, I must ask, from what we know of cosmology is it impossible for the values of a hypothetical universe to be more than 5 orders of magnitude above or below the values we have in our universe IRL?

    Do forgive me for the strange/silly question, physics and cosmology are subjects I have some interest but lamentably little experience in.

    • Gunlord

      For what we know we don’t know:
      1) IF, and that’s a BIG IF, the constants COULD have different (from the actual) values (there is a reason for been called ‘constants’ you know);
      2) If been allowed to have different (from the actual) values, what would be the range, 5 orders of magnitude, 2000? Which values in this suposed range could they assume? Anyone or only a sub-set of discrete values.
      From what we know, all this, including the “fine-tune” hypothesis itself, is wild speculation.
      Stenger’s point, I think, was not to explore all possible scenarios, but just to show the futility of the idea of “fine-tuning”, that even a small variation of the fundamental constants would make life impossible.

      • Gunlord says:

        That is true, and at this point a very significant proportion of speculation about the early universe, whether it be for the argument of ‘fine-tuning’ or against, naturally involves a great deal of, well, speculation! But the issue I have is a question about this:

        If been allowed to have different (from the actual) values, what would be the range, 5 orders of magnitude, 2000? Which values in this suposed range could they assume? Anyone or only a sub-set of discrete values.
        From what we know, all this, including the “fine-tune” hypothesis itself, is wild speculation.

        I am wondering, though, is Stenger’s article implying that life could have arisen in virtually any conceivable universe, regardless of its particular constants? I mean, from his paper would it be reasonable to extrapolate that life might have arose in a universe were the constants were 2,000 orders of magnitude higher than ours, or 3,000 orders of magnitude smaller than ours? Or is that taking the data/his argument a bit further than he intended?

  7. As I already said, I think he’ve just wanted to show that in other universes with other physics constants life (not like ours) would be possible.

  8. The point is that as all this is speculation, nobody can claim that the universe is “fine-tuned”. So Stenger have just falsified this hypothesis.
    From what we know we are “fine-tuned” for this planet (and indeed a very tiny portion of it) by evolution.

    • Gunlord says:

      Again, all this is speculation…Dr. Stenger may have cast aspersions on the fine-tuning hypothesis, but without reading his other two papers on the topic it’s hard to say he’s falsified it just yet. Perhaps there were variables he overlooked in his simulation which, when accounted for, would narrow the range of possible universes. I don’t know, of course, this is why I am withholding judgment until I can actually wander down to see his papers m’self.

  9. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    Let’s pretend that the apparent fine tuning of the physics constants is, as you claim, overstated, and let’s stipulate that all or half or any percentage of constants you choose lead to conditions suitable to life. The very fact that life is here still seems dumbfounding. If one is a theist, one can still point to the ontological mystery and say: Here we are.

    No matter how thorough the material explanation of our existence becomes, the theist position will always inhabit the ontological question underlying everything. You’re chasing, in other words, a king around a chessboard in which you don’t have the right pieces yourself to put the king in checkmate.

    You can say that this is the perversity of the human psyche to make excuses and to rationalize, or you can say that the universe, at bottom, starts with a mystery, but the reality is that no empirical data point (tuned constants or untuned) ends the game.

    —Santi

  10. Santi

    I am an a-theist and I’m able to say: Here we are. How? Why? I don’t know it’ a mystery.
    This is not what a theist does. A theist claims to have solved The Mystery, but what he/she are really doing is pretending to have the solution, in fact what they do is replace The Mystery with a Bigger Mystery.
    However mysteries only can be solved by gattering data, making hypothesis, models, theories, and testing them.
    Baseless claims are just bullshit.

  11. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    Then why call yourself an atheist, and not an agnostic? You sound more like Socrates than someone who knows something (that gods don’t exist).

    —Santi

    • Because I don’t think the probabilities are 50/50. Because the God Hypothesis explains noting. It replaces something big, complex and vastly unknown for something even bigger, much more complex and mysterious.
      So it is a superfluous assumption that isn’t backed up by the availabe data, and as such should be merciless cut by Ockham’s Razzor.

  12. Gunlord says:

    Well, thanks, Gato. That paper was quite nice…though when I clicked on its link to the Monkeygod program, the link seemed to be dead T_T I suppose his book is the last hope for me D:

  13. TomH says:

    “…empiricism has safely taken the notion that we live on a young Earth (as many fundamentalists still assert) completely off the table.”

    The death of the young earth position is greatly exaggerated. I would acknowledge that YEC skepticism lacks sufficient justification. Coincidentally, I have recently submitted a paper to a journal on which proposes a new justification for YEC skepticism.

    Certainly, the RATE results (http://www.icr.org/rate/) which support YEC skepticism by offering empirical evidence against an old earth have never been answered adequately. (See, e.g., http://gondwanaresearch.com/rate.htm or http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/rate.htm.)Science requires dialogue. Merely sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “lalalalala” when an opposing position is doing work and offering new arguments is insufficient.

    • Tom

      Certainly, the RATE results (http://www.icr.org/rate/) which support YEC skepticism by offering empirical evidence against an old earth have never been answered adequately

      Really? I don’t think so.
      Besides, what do you think about Gravity? Do you believe it? Because…well…it poses some serious trouble for YEC bro.

      • TomH says:

        Henke’s shotgun approach, where most of his points are trivial, is not an acceptable reply. Henke had one important point–that the RATE results need to be tested under gologically-comparable pressure conditions.

        Sounds like an opportunity to disconfirm the RATE results. You all need to get on it. It’s been a long time since RATE was published. What have Henke and Meerts been doing since 2004?

        I don’t like utube for learning because it’s hard to find the place with the information I’m looking for it’s too slow besides, and there’s no opportunity for cutting and pasting quotations. Can you condense it into a post for me? Thanks.

      • Tom

        RATE was not done in realistic conditions so it’s conclusions don’t follow. It’s not a challenge, period. So nobody needs to yet disconfirm it. Are Humphreys et al who makes the claim, who conduct the RATE experiment WRONG, the ones who should do it again properly, and publish the results.
        What have Humphreys et al been doing since 2004?

        As for the videos you don’t need to search, just follow the link, this is the first of 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bRvt0InhYk . Come on, don’t be affraid, try them. They are better than any post I can write about it.
        Again do you believe in Gravity? If you are a YEC you shouldn’t…

  14. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    We all have different windows from which we take in the world, but for me, the convergence of lines of evidence (with regard to the Earth being old) is so overwhelming that I would rate the status of YEC as no higher than Holocaust denial (in other words, nil).

    Also, to believe in young Earth creationism you have to assume that scientific experts in every major scientific field on which the question has been posed (geology, biology, astronomy etc.), and from the very best universities in the world, are not just wrong about the question, but spectacularly wrong (on the order of magnitude of a million times). The Earth is not 5,000 years old, but 5000 million years old. If conventional science, against so many converging lines of evidence and expert opinion, was this spectacularly wrong, then we might as well live in Alice’s Wonderland (as our perception and ability to judge where we are at would be equivelently impaired).

    —Santi

    • Santi says

      the convergence of lines of evidence (with regard to the Earth being old) is so overwhelming that I would rate the status of YEC as no higher than Holocaust denial (in other words, nil).

      I say

      the convergence of lines of evidence (with regard to the Evolution) is so overwhelming that I would rate the status of Creationists/IDists as no higher than Holocaust denial (in other words, nil).

      And that is what explains the reations of outrage against Nagel’s endorsement of Meyer’s book.

      How would you react Santi if Nagel, or someone of the same caliber give endorsement to a Holocaust denial book? Would he be the target of your solidarity, for the academic freedom? Or will you throw shit on him as anybody else? Honest answer please.

    • TomH says:

      Santi,

      “Also, to believe in young Earth creationism you have to assume that scientific experts in every major scientific field on which the question has been posed (geology, biology, astronomy etc.), and from the very best universities in the world, are not just wrong about the question, but spectacularly wrong (on the order of magnitude of a million times).”

      “Spectacularly wrong” indeed.

      The evidence against a young earth can be broken down into two main types–radiometric dating and the horizon problem.

      The horizon problem is problematic no matter the cosmological theory, so there’s no reason to assume that a solution to it will not benefit YEC as much as the Big Bang. I expect that we’ll discover a new way that blue- and red-shifts can occur which will cause a reevaluation of stellar distances.

      The radiometric dating problem has already been replied to in detail by YEC geologists. Furthermore, they have come up with a hundred rate-based dating methods as counter examples which attack confidence in the reliability of radiometric dating. YEC (the 19th century “scriptural geologists”) was way ahead of old-earth geology in determining that flooding is a major source of geological stratification.

      If we are skeptical about rate-based inferences generally, then YEC is pretty much immune to old-earth arguments, as it commits to agnosticism with accompanying epistemic justification. I’ve submitted a paper about that topic to the Creation Research Society Quarterly, so hopefully in the future we’ll have more to discuss about this.

      • Tom

        “Spectacularly wrong” indeed

        Oh boy, here we have another genious…

        I expect that we’ll discover a new way that blue- and red-shifts can occur which will cause a reevaluation of stellar distances

        LOL.

        Don’t spare the prayer, you’ll need. Good luck.

        The radiometric dating problem…

        ROTFL

        There is no “radiometric dating problem”, this is wishfull thinking of yours. The RATE exp is an exemple of the lazy “research” done by YECs with no avail.

        …flooding is a major source of geological stratification

        ROTFLOL

        Since 19th Century geologists and Geology as a whole field have turned away from the idea of a Global Food and a young Earth. All evidence points to an old-earth, no evidence point to a global flood, you dion’t know what you are talking about.

        I’ve submitted a paper about that topic to the Creation Research Society Quarterly, so hopefully in the future we’ll have more to discuss about this.

        ROTFLOLMAO

        A genius indeed. Fine, but rather do so in some legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journal and have some real dicussions with people who can understands and evaluate your claims.

  15. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    Do you hold to a young Earth view (or at least hold it as possible) because you feel that it would undermine the biblical chronology not to? If so, why not just read Genesis 1 poetically and be done with it? It’s obviously a poem (not an attempt at history). See the link in my recent Tim Pawlenty post if you doubt that Genesis 1 is a poem.

    And in terms of biblical literalism, the whole Exodus from Egypt story is completely contrary to archeology. To accept the Bible on too literal terms in the 21st century seems to me a truly uphill slog.

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      Even when I was an evolutionist and a deist, I was skeptical about extrapolations of any kind. This applies to rate-based inferences as well. I find the whole idea of extrapolation to be epistemically abhorrent. I’ve argued with YECs about their use of it as well.

      I’ve answered your Framework Hypothesis idea in a comment to the Pawlenty post.

      The Exodus, in terms is chronology, actually is confirmed by the Assyrian account, though the Egyptian accounts don’t confirm it so far.

      I should note that archaeology has confirmed the Bible and disconfirmed criticism of it a number of times. There are still some problems yet to be resolved–no question about that.

      My view of the 21st century is that scientism reigns and works against science, history, etc. to the detriment of all.

      As regards a hermeneutic for Genesis, I find P. J. Wiseman to be particularly persuasive and Mackey has done some good work. http://www.specialtyinterests.net/Toledoth.html

  16. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    I suppose we’re reading very different sources for the contemporary status of biblical field archeology. My understanding is that the Hebrew Bible is not just wrong about the history of the Israelites (being in Egypt, passing through the desert, taking Canaan from the Canaanites), but spectacularly wrong. My understanding is that the Israelites were a group of Canaanites who developed an independent identity within Canaan. That’s what the archeology supports (according to every secular academic archeologist that I’ve ever read. I’m thinking of pople like Finklestein etc.). What’s in the Bible is epic storytelling (using Canaanite historical memory, not specifically Hebrew memories, of slavery in Egypt).

    —Santi

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