Critical Thinking Watch: Why Atheism is as Question Begging As Theism

Is the atheist conclusion that matter preceded mind from the very “beginning” of the universe more plausible, evidence-based, or rational than the theist conclusion (that mind preceded matter)?

I say no.

Here’s why. As a matter of logic, if you reject the existence of God or mind prior to matter and believe that atoms rustling in the void wholly accounts for all that is, then matter must have always existed or it must have come from nothing.

There is no third option. On the matter of ultimate origins, if you’re a strict materialist (matter precedes, and has always preceded, any appearance of mind) then you’re faced with Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. Matter came from nothing or it is eternal. Either way, you are in the same conundrum as the theist with regard to this question:

Where did the mind of God come from?

If it is question begging for the theist to say, “The mind of God came from nothing,” or “The mind of God has just always existed,” it is also question begging for the atheist to say, “Matter came from nothing,” or “Matter has just always existed.”

Be an atheist if you want. Just don’t pretend that the grounds for your belief enjoy more evidence, or are any less implausible or mind-boggling, than the person who says that she has chosen to believe that the mind of God precedes matter.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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66 Responses to Critical Thinking Watch: Why Atheism is as Question Begging As Theism

  1. Unknownguest says:

    you really have some badge with this word “Atheism”, Don’t you?
    “There is no third option” – really? I hate metaphysics, you know why? Because its speculative bullshit.
    Any talk beyond empiricism in this context is nothing more then
    A) A logical possibility
    B) Argument from ignorance.
    Your take on the matter (“No third nipple…”) – falls in the latter. Why don’t you waste your time arguing about the metaphysical possibility of zombies?
    And how do you know the Aristotle law of excluded middle apply to the start of the universe? *hint* you don’t my friend. I have no idea what is your metalogic take is, but to me you sound like an absolutist who suffers from the Philosopher’s syndrome.

    I’m an empiricist, naturalist, atheist and I suspend judgment on the issue.
    And if you think that I’m copping-out, you should check your biases, because from your last posts they seem to be going rampant (is it cool to be an individual? go against popular opinion just for the sake of it? check your biases!)

    • santitafarella says:

      Unknown,

      Can you at least admit that there are not more than two atheist options and that one of them must, logically, be true?

      Either (1) matter had a beginning and came from nothing; or (2) matter is eternal.

      What third option are you waiting on? Or is it just uncomfortable to admit that naturalism, like theism, brings one to a rather uncomfortable (and perhaps a little embarrassing) leap of faith?

      —Santi

      • OverlappingMagisteria says:

        It is a false dichotomy to claim that matter either always existed or came from nothing. A third option would be that matter was produced by some other thing that it neither nothing nor can be considered matter. One of the ideas going around is that matter was created out of a large fluctuation in the quantum “noise.” (Essentially, matter pops in and out of existence all the time, but usually in very small quantities. This has been observed.) This quantum “noise” is not matter, and its doesn’t fit the definition of “nothing” either.
        If you want to construct a true dichotomy, you can try “Matter is either eternal or not eternal” or you can try “Matter came from nothing or not from nothing.”

      • OverlappingMagisteria says:

        To append to what I wrote earlier:

        It seems that you define ‘matter’ as being anything that is not ‘nothing’. This is the only way I can make sense of it when you say that if matter had a beginning it must have come from nothing.
        I wonder then, what category does God fit into? Is God matter, or is he nothing? Or is there a third option?

      • santitafarella says:

        Overlapping,

        Quantum noise?

        Why isn’t it quantum music? And where was it making this noise, and how does such a noise become matter?

        This is (poetically) pretty close to the notion of God speaking the universe into existence. God as John Cage (or Mozart, depending on whether you think that quantum sound is harmonic or discordant).

        In any case, your third option is interesting, but it really just puts the question back a step, doesn’t it? Ultimately, you’ve got to arrive (if you’re an atheist) at some non-mental “stuff” that just is and, given enough time, is astoundingly prolific (ultimately producing us).

        Did no one plant this extraordinary universe-apple tree that just happens to “apple” supersymmetries, physical laws, galaxies, and minds?

        Whooda thunkit?

        Maybe someone did.

        —Santi

      • Unknownguest says:

        Atheism my friend isn’t a synonym to Naturalism. And I’m not an ontological naturalist.

        No, I don’t admit that.
        Your assuming classic logic, for some reason, applies to all of the universe. I prefer to suspend judgment and see where Physics takes us, and not speculations of the hurried (who psychology need explanations for some reason).
        Why assume matter comes from anything at all? Does science tell you that? No (that is NOT what the big bang theory says).
        And what is “matter”? Have you ever seen something that isn’t “matter”? And if were already into metaphysical language, what is “nothing” my friend?
        *I suspect analogies* and you know why? Since I don’t think you have a clue yourself what these terms mean, so you shift context in which they have, and create a false analogy.
        Metaphysics is nothing more then talking language out of context and still hoping it will mean something at the end of the day. “Nothing”, means the lack of something in its lexical use i.e. “There is nothing in the draw! where are my stuff?”
        I think you gave the lecture about the problem of free will, I think you failed to grasp the point yourself. (traditional) Philosophy, since it lacks a structure of clear meaningful terms, will never give you answers. Metaphysics is even worst, its a enterprise which holds such little value, I’m surprised modern philosophers still do it.

  2. Actually, we have evidence that matter exists and that “mind” is just one of the many results of matter. You are your brain. As for the “mind of god…” it never existed and there is no evidence for it. Asserting that a baseless fairy tale must be true because you can’t find evidence against it is just clumsy rationalization. What can be asserted wihtout evidence can certainly, as Christopher Hitchens said, be dismissed without evidence.

    Your assertion that matter must have always existed or else it came from nothing is astute, yet you seem to be laboring under a false conception of the word “always.” You also labor without the need to bother seeing the same thing is far more problematic when assuming that god always existed or came from nothing.

    Of course, this all relies on misunderstanding big bang theory. Do more reading. Let your inquisitive mind feed itself.

    • santitafarella says:

      Vince,

      Nobody disputes that “we have evidence that matter exists” or that human minds are in some sort of relationship to their material brains.

      What is disputed (because there is no evidence for it) is this: matter is either eternal or the first matter to ever exist came from (literally) absolutely nothing.

      What is also disputed is that mind does not precede matter. Maybe it does. Three good reasons to think that mind preceded matter at the “beginning” are the following: (1) the very fact that the universe goes by laws and is mathematical; (2) the very fact that the universe started as a supersymmetry with low entropy; and (3) the very fact that the universe-tree “apples” minds.

      These are three things that are surprising and that you wouldn’t expect from a strictly material universe. You would expect a strictly material universe (if such a thing could even get started without mind) to be random, highly entropic, and utterly absent so strange an epiphenomen as mind.

      Still, here we are. At least 7 billion ghosts (and counting) in the machine.

      But, since you’re confident that atheism is nonetheless true, could you please tell me your theory for how our universe started in so low a state of initial entropy? Was the universe’s low entropy and supersymmetry (which is now breaking down as it cools) a lucky singular event? Or is this a multiverse phenomenon (with the multiverse in a very high entropy state on average)? Surely, if God doesn’t exist, you must have some sort of non-mind based explanation, even a tentative one.

      So, what is it?

      —Santi

      • I certainly dispute that human minds are in “some sort of relationship with their brains.” Let me be clear. WE ARE OUR BRAINS. This nonsense that “mind” existed before matter makes no sense. Without matter there would be no brains with neurons and synaptic connections which is what comprises the mind. So, no, I don’t know of anyone who has offered any rational thought on the subject that mind came before matter in the universe. That is not a rational assertion.

        And this talk of “god mind” and such is just gibberish. The term has no meaning. And your three reasons for assuming that such a mind came before matter is one of the clumsiest non sequiturs I’ve seen in some time.

        Your “mind based” explanation of the universe’s beginnings boil down to “god did it” I suppose. Which is just gibberish for “I don’t know.” At least “I don’t know” is a constructive point to begin.

        As for me, I do not tend to assume that the universe began. I don’t think that the expansion of space/time requires a telekinetic being. If it did, said being would also require an origin… as would that cause also require another, and so on, ad infinitum.

      • santitafarella says:

        Vince,

        Putting “We are our brains” in CAPS doesn’t constitute evidence for the claim. And I notice that you did not even attempt to answer my question concerning how the universe started in so low and symmetric an entropy state.

        And, if matter can simply exist for eternity (or come into existence from nothing), why can’t the same thing be posited of mind (or, at least, the mind of God)? Why is this leap easy for you regarding matter (which managed, all by its lonesome, to get itself into a low entropy state accompanied by physical laws!), but not mind?

      • There doesn’t seem to be a reply option for your response below, so I’ll respond here…

        Again, I do not assume that the universe began, so I don’t spend a lot of time figuring out how it began. Since we see it is here, we do not need to wonder if it came into existence or what the odds might have been. However, as we see no evidence of any supernatural creator faculty (God), we have no need at all to regard the concept as anything other than the leftover of mystic savages who lacked the science to know better and lacked the humility to say, “I don’t know.”

    • Doug Drake says:

      Gee, the Straw Man fallacy in all it’s glory!

      I’m not seeing an assertion by santitafarella that the “fairy tale must be true because you can’t find evidence against it.” The assertion is that atheism has a problem when it comes to first origins and therefore also “begs” questions. Committing this type of fallacy indicates a weakness in the logic being used.

      Just for my own curiosity, are all atheist as arrogant as you and the “Unknownguest” whose reply is just above yours? I mean really – why the condescending attitude? Are you so insecure in your beliefs that you need validation that badly?

      • Bob Chatman says:

        Your interpretation is flawed. That was not at all what was being said.

        Regarding arrogance and condescension, you are likely to find that anywhere that a persons views are being misrepresented and misused. And of all the places to be looking for validation, this blog is not the best place to find it.

      • Doug, I think your own attitude might use a bit of work before you point a finger.

        You might want to work on your reading comprehension skills as well. I was quite clear.

        And no, I don’t know if all atheists are as arrogant as I am. I am sure there are many who are willing to pretend that terms like “god mind” actually has a coherent meaning. I am not.

      • Doug Drake says:

        Bob & Vince, it seems pretty clear. The title of the post is “Why Atheism is as Question Begging As Theism.” The stated argument questions whether the atheist’s belief concerning first origins “more plausible, evidence-based, or rational” than what the theist believes. Please show me where Santi says that the “fairy tale” (the theist beliefs) must be true because there’s no evidence against it.

        Concerning atheistic arrogance: I understand now – thinly disguised ad hominem attack.

      • Bob Chatman says:

        @Doug – Once again your interpretation is flawed. The illustration was used to show that the comparison between the Atheistic and Theistic view points is not as equal as is being shared. The stated argument is wrong because of this, an interpretation of atheism that is not under any kind of circulation beyond the “agnostic – atheists are just as [dogmatic|evidence requiring|faith filled| etc.] as theists are” crowd. It is incorrect,

        The author continues to misrepresent atheism, in pushing her own personal views on the matter. There is nothing that ties Atheism to naturalism, materialism or any other world view point. Since you seem to like calling out fallacies here is an example of another one: There are branches of atheists that do believe these things, of which i am one, but to say that belief in a conscious entity outside of space and time created all of this is just as plausible as matter existing is a false dichotomy. the options for atheism are not [“Matter came from nothing,” or “Matter has just always existed.”]. There is at least one further position, and probably a billion others that we have yet to uncover – I don’t know. The big thing about empiricism is that you need to follow the results of experiment where it takes you, and do little else. As a person who follows the news about physics experiments looking for gravity waves, new particles being discovered and so forth, i would like to say that i would love to hear about experiments regarding origins. As yet there is no definitive data about it – hence “i don’t know.”

      • Doug Drake says:

        Bob, these are points that at least address the issue that Santi brought up. What I was pointing out in my original reply was directed at Vince, who accused Santi of claiming the “fairy tale must be true because you can’t find evidence against it.” (Whose reply you proclaimed as “nicely said.”) I have no problem with differing points of view, but Vince’s reply totally misrepresented Santi’s argument! That’s what I was compelled to respond to.

        Concerning the precise definition of nuanced-atheist beliefs – I can understand why it can be upsetting when you feel that your belief system has been misrepresented. It’s got to feel very similar to the situation when someone misrepresents your argument.

      • santitafarella says:

        Doug,

        The last sentence in your reply directly above was quite delicious. Excellent use of the rhetorical knife.

        —Santi : )

      • Bob Chatman says:

        There may be truth to your response regarding Vince’s opinion on the matter, but i don’t think he landed as far from the mark as you imply.

        The author is asserting that there is an equality between two concepts that are not related and it is simply wrong. A great way to get people to avoid being abrasive or brash with your point of view is to accept when it is wrong, which has not yet been done. A little bit of humility goes a long way to improving relationships between groups of people.

  3. Bob Chatman says:

    Nicely said, @Vince & @Unknown. I have responded to this on my blog as well – http://irrationalbob.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/begging-the-question/

    Suffice to say that this misuse of the term “atheist” is quite disappointing. I like how in this one the author uses atheist to introduce the concepts of naturalism/materialism then moves to use the term materialism to explain it further. This only illustrates the fact that atheism is not necessarily materialistic.

    • santitafarella says:

      A theist thinks that mind preceded matter and brought matter into existence. An atheist denies this, and affirms that matter precedes mind, and brought mind into existence. Consequences follow from both positions. Sorry to point out the obvious.

      —Santi

      • Bob Chatman says:

        The consequences of atheism are nil. Having you tell me what being an atheist is when you show no understanding of the term is simply unfair. Being an atheist AND a naturalist/materialist AND claiming that you know something about origins is what you are arguing against. It is simply incorrect to assert any of this with regards to Atheism alone.

      • Unknownguest says:

        …that makes so much sense. Mind brings matter, or matter mind.
        Maybe we should speculate if bees give birth to beers at the end of the universe? Or better, if there are such things as Zombies, copies just like us. I think there is a category you missed tho. Mind, matter and Pokemon. Does Pokemon cause matter or matter Pokemon?
        A) assuming mind isn’t matter
        B) assuming the only kinds of stuff are – matter and mind.
        C) Why all these speculation?
        D) why imaginary categories?
        E) maybe worst of all, assuming all these terms make sense.
        F) Is your metaphysical intuition good & suited for 0.00000001 trillion of a second before the start of the universe at the big bang? *hint* hell no.

        Let science do its job, you will get answers.

    • santitafarella says:

      Of course atheism, strict materialism, and certain ideas about origins go together. To say “I don’t believe in God” entails a whole series of consequences. It means (for example) that you posit the existence of matter prior to any minds.

      You’re not saying that you are an atheist and yet think that disembodied minds jumped into existence by chance, prior to matter, and then made matter, are you?

      Do you know of any atheist group that thinks such a thing?

      If not, then why are you so defensive about having atheism linked to strict materialism and certain non-mental ideas about origins?

      —Santi

      • Bob Chatman says:

        If we believed in God, we might ask “Who created God”. If we believed in evolution and the “Big Bang” we might ask “where did this matter and energy come from that created the big-bang?”.
        For the Elohim, it is the same – they were created by people coming from the sky as were their creators. It’s an infinite cycle of life. One day scientists from earth will also go to another planet and populate it.

        http://www.rael.org/faq

        They are atheists who do not believe in matter existing forever.

        You have simply asserted this point of view, regarding atheists and their views. Can you provide some evidence for your claim, something other than hear say and your own testimony? Can you point to any documented evidence regarding a mind existing with or without a body, and not being the brain. As an agnostic how do you justify this situation?

      • Bob Chatman says:

        You do, however, recognize that there is a difference between Atheism and Natualism/Materialism, correct?

      • santitafarella says:

        Bob,

        As to the possibility of mind being non-local or disembodied from the brain, I’d suggest neurologist Alvin Noe’s book, “Out of Our Heads” for some out-of-the-box thinking about this. I’d also keep an open mind concerning the following:

        (1) What quantum physics suggests surrounding the interaction of mind with matter. I’m thinking of the book “Quantum Enigma”, which you can readily find at Amazon.

        (2) Exorcism. I’m thinking of the book “Rites,” which is a pretty interesting (and disturbing) read. People who have witnessed cases of alleged demonic possession have been seriously challenged intellectually and emotionally. I don’t know what to make of what I’ve read of the phenomenon. I’m trying to keep an open mind.

        (3) NDEs. I think these are also quite interesting. I would suggest going to YouTube and watching the clip of the case of Pam Reynolds (from a BBC documentary on NDEs).

        (4) PSI phenomena. I think it’s an open question as to whether ESP studies demonstrate a statistically significant nonlocal effect. I want to know more.

        (5) David Chalmers book, “The Conscious Mind.” I think he lays out the extraordinary difficulties that adhere to strictly materialist explanations of mind.

        If minds are something other than just brains, I’m open to the radio analogy (the brain as a local receiver for nonlocal consciousness).

        —Santi

  4. Pingback: Begging the Question « Rationality for the Irrational

  5. ozenwoo says:

    Aristotle’s excluded middle does not apply in the manner you describe simply because the formal negation of the proposition “matter must have always existed” is “it is not the case that matter must have always existed”, NOT the proposition “matter must have come from nothing”. They are two VERY different propositions.

    • santitafarella says:

      Ozen,

      Fair enough. But you’re either pregnant or you’re not. That’s Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle (in a nutshell).

      So, if atheists claim that matter is not eternal, then it is not eternal. It can’t be a little bit eternal. Matter must then have had a BEGINNING, appearing out of the blue, from NOTHING. If there is nothing prior to matter, such as the mind of God, then there’s no third option, no “middle” options. On atheist assumptions, matter is eternal or it came into existence out of nothing. Both options exclude any middle ground fudging.

      Which one do you subscribe to?

      And, just out of curiosity, what’s your theory as to how the universe STARTED in such a low state of entropy in the first place? In other words, how did matter ever “wind itself up” before it started to wind down over the past 13.7 billion years? Isn’t there a bootstrapping problem here?

      Even if matter jumped into existence out of nothing, you would expect it to be unordered and random, not a mind-boggling supersymmetry, right?

      —Santi

      • Bob Chatman says:

        You still seem to be conflating Atheism with Materialism and Naturalism. These are not the same, and in many ways unrelated.

      • ozenwoo says:

        Here are 2 statements:
        1) “Matter is eternal, or matter is not eternal” – Aristotle’s excluded middle rule applies.
        2) “Matter is eternal, or it came into existence out of nothing” (your statement, verbatim) – Aristotle’s middle rule does NOT apply.

        To be pedantic here, the rule does not apply in #2 because the proposition “it came into existence out of nothing” is not the negation of the proposition “matter is eternal”. You need two propositions that are the negation each other in order for the excluded middle rule to kick in. We’ve got that in #1, but not in #2 because, again, saying something is not eternal is NOT equivalent to saying something was created out of nothing. You are introducing the concept of “nothingness” into a context which it is not implied.

        So when you present me with the statement “…matter is eternal, or it came into existence out of nothing”, and ask the question “which one do you subscribe to?” I can reply as an atheist with no logical difficulty whatsoever that I can, and do, agree with BOTH! The proposition that matter arose out of nothing STILL does not imply the existence of a god or anything super-natural (in fact, it happens all the time, and everywhere, on the quantum level).

        As far as supersymmerty, I’m really not sure where you’re going on that point. So far there hasn’t been any direct evidence of supersymmerty, and even if it is confirmed by experiments at the LHC it will just help clear up some points in one physical model of the universe (the Standard Model) or perhaps supplant it with another physical model (Superstring). Still no closer to god.

      • santitafarella says:

        Ozen,

        At the beginning of time there is symmetry and low entropy. You don’t even need to call it supersymmetry. The dumbfounding thing is that the beginning of time was so far from a high entropy state. You would think that a mindless system would be in a state of asymmetry and high entropy. I’m asking you to account for the violation of the laws of thermodynamics at the beginning of our universe: whence came the initial energy and order that is now running down?

        As for your other observation, I get it: you posit eternal matter that springs in and out of existence from the quantum void. Why quantum voids should be eternal and do such things and why matter should be eternal and do such things really has no answer. They’re just your starting axioms. Explanation, for you, stops there.

        That’s fine, but just realize that theists make a similar move with the mind of God.

        —Santi

      • ozenwoo says:

        Yes I have always acknowledged that each side must ultimately reach a point where explanation stops or ends. However, that in no way implies that both “explanatory end points” must be recognized as valid. An atheist saying that “the universe is the universe and there is nothing beyond that” is not equivalent to a theist saying “god is god and there is nothing beyond that”. The boundaries and foundations underlying the atheistic “explanatory end point” and the theistic “explanatory end point”/god are very very different.

        The evolution of entropy during the initial epochs of the universe is not “dumbfounding” at all. It may be complicated and convoluted but it isn’t dumbfounding….See the works of Alan Guth, et. al. on the effects of gravity and cosmic inflation.

  6. OverlappingMagisteria says:

    I agree that both a theist and an atheist have an unanswered question about the origins of God or matter, respectfully. However, the major difference is that we observe matter to exist. God… not so much. Theists only speculate that something must have created matter and label that unknown something “God.” Why not be honest and just say that we do not know the origin of matter? Saying that we do not know is not a leap of faith.

    • santitafarella says:

      Overlapping,

      I agree, but saying that matter’s origin was absent mind is also a leap of faith.

      Given the extraordinarily low entropy state of the universe at its beginning, why start with matter instead of mind? If you walked into a perfectly orderly room that hadn’t succumbed to entropy yet, would you say, “Ain’t chance amazing!”???

      More likely, you would say, who cleaned up this room before I’m about to throw my dirty underwear on the carpet, spill 7-Up on the dresser, and leave Barbecue Lays Potato Chip crumbs in the bed?

      And what if you watched the room with a time lapse camera, and, as its symmetries broke down over time, minds appeared in it, and apple trees, and cats—and Sophocles?!

      Talk about trippy. You would probably say, “What the hell is going on here???”

      —Santi

  7. Anonymous says:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14135523
    Sorry, I just thought about lightning this heavy discussion with this news story, I hope I am the first to post it.

  8. concerned christian says:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14135523
    Sorry, I just thought about lightning this heavy discussion with this news story, I hope I am the first to post it.
    That was me but the first time it was posted without my name.

    • santitafarella says:

      Concerned,

      That’s brilliant! I’ll try to make a post of the link tomorrow.

      —Santi

    • concerned christian says:

      On a more serious note, St Augustine answered the question by stating his belief in the existence of God, and in regard to the question of what was happening before God created the World, he postulated an answer that matches the time space continuum of relativity theory. He proposed a finite space and that time began with the creation of space. In today’s physics jargon; time started with the Big Bang. Here’s what he said in the City of God book XI at the end of Chapter 5.
      “Of course, they may admit that it is silly to imagine infinite space since there is no such thing as space beyond the cosmos. In that case, let this be the answer: It is silly for them to excogitate a past time during which God was unoccupied, for the simple reason that there was no such thing as time before the universe was made.”

  9. Pingback: I Got Nothing « Spritzophrenia

  10. OverlappingMagisteria above said “It is a false dichotomy to claim that matter either always existed or came from nothing. A third option would be that matter was produced by some other thing that it neither nothing nor can be considered matter. One of the ideas going around is that matter was created out of a large fluctuation in the quantum ‘noise.’ (Essentially, matter pops in and out of existence all the time, but usually in very small quantities. This has been observed.) This quantum ‘noise’ is not matter, and its doesn’t fit the definition of ‘nothing’ either. ”

    I wonder whether part of the heat in the discussion (not just referring to this) is because of the use of the words “matter” and “nothing”? However we explain matter (eg via quantum noise), there is still a “something” existing rather than not existing. It’s the existence of anything at all that is problematic, not matter as such. (Although, for the record, I happen to agree with Santi on that one.) Nothing really is nothing, and does not allow for quantum noise. Quantum noise is still a “something”.

    I’ll also quote Paul Davies’ words which I think apply to the meta-laws of “something is there” as well as they do of multiverses.

    “The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained— eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.” (from http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/hawkings-grand-design-cosmology-still-needs-god/ )

  11. Beni says:

    I think neutral monism might suffice as a “third option”. If not, I’ll take it anyway.
    Or as a Hindi might say, “not that, not that”.

  12. Cody Deitz says:

    I can understand where you’re coming from, and I have similar arguments before, albeit often less articulate. I think you’re doing a disservice to atheists (and possibly naturalists as well) to conflate them with theists in basically being in the same proverbial boat.

    As an atheist, I can only answer for what I’ve personally come to understand and believe, and not for anyone else. There is a substantial difference between understanding the origin of something we can feel, taste, touch, and experience otherwise and something that has yet to provide any shred of evidence of its existence, be it a he, she, or whatever. Regardless of what you believe, we face the question of origin. The difference between me and say, a typical Bible-believing Christian is that I haven’t created a mystical being to ever-so-conveniently fill in the gaps in my understanding of the world. In this manner, I suppose I could be called an agnostic. I always liked Richard Dawkins when he says on a scale of 1-7 with 1 being absolutely sure that a God exists and 7 being absolutely sure that no sort of divinity exists. Like Dawkins, I consider myself a strong 6. I understand that it’s possible (however unlikely) that a god exists, but there is an incredible lack of evidence for such a huge belief. So I guess I’m a de-facto atheist.

  13. santitafarella says:

    Cody,

    It is odd that, if God exists, he (she) chooses to stay hidden. That’s a clue that atheism is, more likely than not, correct.

    But I do think that the existence of the laws of physics, if they are treated as eternal or chance created things that “just are”, strain belief. The theist notion that the laws of physics derived from the mind of God also strain belief, but not any more so than the atheist proposition. Both propositions are jaw-dropping.

    —Santi

    • Cody Deitz says:

      Here is where we come to a very interesting aspect to this discussion.

      Our concept of the “laws” of the universe, from my view, are largely reflective of the human expectation of order in the universe. This observable apparent uniformity is too frequently discussed as some set of prescriptions rather than mere regularities. There certainly does appear to be a small sense of order, or at least regularity in certain aspects of the universe, but this pales in comparison to the vast majority of irregularity and absurdity that pervades.

      I’ll admit that the peculiar sense of structure that exists in many different facets of our experience is boggling, but I don’t think it’s intellectually responsible or even helpful to posit a supernatural as the puppet master.

      • santitafarella says:

        Cody,

        Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by “helpful.”

        If hope that the universe has an ultimate (good) meaning grounded in a Great Mind that preceded matter can be at least plausibly posited (and that, I think, is an open question, not to be answered with an obvious no), then it becomes an existential question whether or not it would be “helpful” to believe it.

        In other words, we’re not robots. People posit that gods exist because the problem of meaning is acute for them. Nobody would care about the god question if we were absent emotions (like, say, Dr. Spock).

        Objectively, Occam’s razor might casually cut off the God hypothesis, and leave things at that. But, subjectively, that may not be especially “helpful” to people of a certain temperament. Belief in God can secure for the believer a lot of positive things that atheists tend to live without. Here are a few: contra-causal free will, a feeling that one is never really alone, the idea that consciousness may continue after death, and the belief that the arc of history is long, but it is bending toward beauty, love, justice and some ultimately good meaning.

        People might thus hope for the existence of God precisely because the alternative is so distressing. If that hope constitutes, say, a 20% possibility of being true, and it brings real comfort to the minds of people who put their hope in it, that might justify lives oriented toward faith.

        So the question becomes this: how plausible can you make arguments for God’s existence?

        That’s the big question because, if you can get God’s existence at least into the realm of plausibility, then you are confronted with a choice: how should you then live?

        —Santi

  14. Cody Deitz says:

    I think we’ve made a significant transition into a notably different discussion. When I used the term ‘helpful,’ I was using it in the context of a search for truth. If you’re concerned with the best way to live your life, than truth might not have anything to do with it.

    The reasons to believe in a god are plentiful, as are the reasons association with an organized theist belief system should be regarded with utter disgust. I definitely agree that this metaphysical problem is an acute one for many people. Even if there is, say, a 20% chance of a god existing, does that necessarily justify living a faith-based life? I honestly don’t see any correlation between any particular percentage possibility and the commitment to live a faith-based life. That just gets you into more questions.

    When it comes down to it, the large number of theists is partially due to the fact that religious belief IS comforting. It DOES lay certain questions to rest, allowing one to focus on more life’s other problems instead of cowering in one’s dark apartment, crippled by existential angst.

    I don’t believe that this comfort, in any way, justifies the pervasive theist claims of any transcendental signified, to borrow from Derrida. I don’t believe it’s right to stop anyone from choosing to believe in a god if it brings them necessary peace of mind and satisfaction, but those theistic claims should not be allowed intellectual immunity on the basis of comfort. The problem is that this argument for comfort often leads to a justification for intellectual immunity.

    • santitafarella says:

      Well, that’s a good point. And we don’t want to have sacred cows that can’t be questioned because it would hurt feelings.

      I’m not sure, however, that an intellectual theist (and that would be the only kind I would respect) would set questions aside once and for all. They might decide that they have free will and a soul by faith even as they recognize the problems that accompany their positions (as an objective matter).

      I think that faith is something one should only leap to with eyes wide open. That is, be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and don’t pretend that your moves are more rational or plausible than they objectively are.

      That’s good advice for atheists as well.

      Ultimately, there is no escaping the gamble. How much of the real world can you face and accept the appearances of, and how much do you have to ignore, sublimate, or place in the hope-against-hope category?

      This is a human problem, not just a specifically theist problem. Atheists who come to 90% certainty, for example, that humans have no contra-causal free will have to decide how much this belief should affect their day-to-day interactions with people and whether or not they think such a belief should ever transform the criminal justice system.

      —Santi

      • Cody Deitz says:

        Eyes wide open is always a good policy. I agree with you that the problem extends to atheists as well as theists.

        The main problem I see with accepting theism, and especially an organized form thereof, is that the philosophies attached to theism often include aspects that strongly discourage intellectual objectivity or criticism. Therein lies much of the problem. Especially when it comes to Christianity, anti-intellectualism is basically built-in to the faith.

      • santitafarella says:

        The story of Doubting Thomas in the Gospel of John is not a very good model for intellectual inquiry, is it?

        —Santi

  15. Pingback: Difficulties with Materialism « Rationality for the Irrational

  16. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    “It is odd that, if God exists, he (she) chooses to stay hidden. That’s a clue that atheism is, more likely than not, correct” (a throw-away sentence in your comment to Cody):

    Unfortunately (speaking as an atheist), I can’t accept that the above does provide any clue to the existence or otherwise of the Great Mind. Unless, that is, the deist/agnostic is proposing that the GM is, of necessity, somewhat similar to the gods already described by mankind’s totally unbelievable religions – that is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving etc and, crucially, concerned about about the wellbeing of us humans.

    Why assume that the GM is any more concerned about us than we are about slugs? Or why assume that the GM realises we exist? Or that the GM is not a sadist? Etc.

    Colin.

  17. Seph Sayers says:

    I remember sitting through Dr. Kent Hovine’s (DVD) ptich on how absolutely silly and recidulous the Athiest’s point of view was that us (Humans, Life) came from nothing. Then when on to mock the idea of the Big Bang; that everything came from absolutely nothing. (Somehow not seeing that his own Born-Again, Evangelical belief-system believes this very same thing).

    ~

    I’ve always echoed your point myself. Atheism is a belief. (And I’m perfectly fine with it). But it is not a fact. The Atheists that push this issue (that they only believe in facts) are really little more than a different flavour of fundamentalist.

  18. Bob Chatman says:

    Atheism is not a belief, it is the lack of one, by definition. It makes no positive claim of anything further than that. While i have never met an atheist who only believes in “fact” there are absolutely atheists who follow empiricism, as well they should. It is far from a fundamentalist belief though.

  19. ozenwoo says:

    Sure, but that definition is so broad that it leaves it’s application almost meaningless.

    • ozenwoo says:

      oops, I meant “its” instead of “it’s”

    • Bob Chatman says:

      Would you care to expand on why you feel that way?

      The definition of Atheism is actually quite precise, in that it is a singular answer to a single question – [Do you believe in god? No.] How can you consider anyone who does not comprehend the concept of a god to be anything other than an atheist?

      • ozenwoo says:

        Yes, I too agree an infant is an atheist. No problem there.

        1) Lacking a belief in god
        2) Not accepting a belief in god
        3) Rejecting a belief in god
        4) Believing there are no gods

        All of these are definitions of atheism. But they are not identical, and there are significant differences between the meanings they impart.

        The “lack of a belief in god” definition of atheism (the definition you have adopted) is broad because it obscures, and in some contexts renders trivial, the concept of what it means to be an atheist. So if, for example, using the “lacking a belief in god” definition I make the statement “X is an atheist”, I have revealed almost nothing about X. The statement’s descriptive power is diffuse (X might think like Noam Chomsky, or X might think like a 3 month old child, or X might not think at all because he is in a medically induced coma). Not so with definitions 2, 3 or 4.

      • Bob Chatman says:

        It is odd to me that you draw these lines. I do agree that you can draw no further conclusions regarding someones beliefs regarding the “lacking belief” definition, but that is the point, really. While all four of these people are atheists, the only thing they have in common is the first one. Going to the extend of being a gnostic atheist (#4) is just a point on the continuum of atheism.

        I would argue that #3 does not exist in practice, except from angry ex-theists who haven’t quite let go and in rhetoric from people trying to make headlines.

        #2 and #1 are, at least in my eyes, identical. I do not accept a belief in god, and i do not have a belief in god. very similar in message and i thin the only difference would be that someone who does not accept a belief would have to have been offered it already.

        This is the orthogonal discussion i had with santi earlier regarding Gnosticism and Atheism and how they are not related concepts. You are free to be anywhere on the continuum, hence why there are gnostic atheists, agnostic theists and all other permutations. This is also why it is common to see more descriptive labels – Scientific Atheist, Anti-Theist. There are just as many combinations of atheism as there are grains of sand in the universe. Because describing ones positions from a defensive statement like “i don’t believe in god” lacks descriptive power. It allows us to mix and match.

      • ozenwoo says:

        I’m in agreement with you. My overall point here, relating back to Saniti’s earlier post about burden of proof (perhaps I should have posted this there instead), is that the boundaries of where the burden of proof lies in the theist/atheist question are very much depenendent on which definition (1-4) of atheism is used. A claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated, ignorance (I’m not using this term in the pejorative sense) need only be confessed.

      • Bob Chatman says:

        I think that is a bit off mark too. By and large everyone who has not had a personal experience is an agnostic. Being an agnostic is the norm, and its the only position that can fairly be supported without looking like a complete loon, or at least being chastised. I think you would be hard pressed to find many Gnostic Atheists. There are probably fewer of them than there are Gnostic Theists, because of the nature of the statement. With regards to any specific god, such as the christian omni omni omni god, i can safely say i know they don’t exists, but this is not a claim to absolute knowledge.

  20. Aught3 says:

    Hi Santi, I found your blog a few weeks ago while reading Frankenstein and trying to get a better understanding of how the author saw her work in relation to the myths about Prometheus. I’ve been enjoying your posts ever since.

    As an atheist I have a different take on who is more rational on the origins question. Atheists, in general, follow cosmologists back to the big bang and inflation where matter is expanding to form our universe. No cosmic minds are necessary to get this far. Trying to go back any further leads to a break-down in the mathematics so the question of ‘something from nothing’ or ‘eternal something’ currently has to be left as an unknown. And that’s where most atheists stop.

    Theists, in general, abuse this knowledge gap and try to insert a god as their explanation for the origin of something. Not on the basis of any empirical evidence, but just because they want to have an answer. In response to this assertion one possible counter is to use the same argument the theist used to establish a gap for a god on the god itself – creating another gap. The theist answers with, ‘god from nothing’ or ‘eternal god’ yet denied those as possible answers to the earlier question. Only then has one side committed the fallacy of question begging and that side is the theists.

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