Sunday, May 11, 2003

Constructive criticism for atheists

Steven Den Beste has posted two interesting blog entries on his view of atheism's "provability" at USS Clueless: USS Clueless - Raving Plagiarism and USS Clueless - Belief in atheism

Den Beste distinguishes between "proof atheists" and "belief atheists." "Proof" atheists assert that the concept of God can be disproven via logically sound and valid arguments, while "belief" atheists (such as Den Beste himself) simply deny that there exists sufficient evidence of the existence of a god or gods to move them to believe in his existence.

Den Beste points out that strong atheists tend to be, ironically, more "religious" about the object of their scorn, following the classical "village atheist" stereotype. (Not that he says that all do, Ayn Rand, herself a "strong atheist" despised "village atheism," and wouldn't have gotten along at all with M. M. O'Hair even without their political differences, for reasons she discusses with a humanist (pp.575-83) and a Roman Catholic priest (pp. 632-34) in THE LETTERS OF AYN RAND.)

This distinction is also followed in Professor Michael Martin's book, ATHEISM: A PHILOSOPHICAL JUSTIFICATION using the conceptual labels of "Positive" and "Negative" atheism. Martin ironically falls into the trap that Den Beste predicts when attempting to argue for "positive" atheism, to the point of trying to revive the discredited "verification principle" The VP cannot meet its own criterion for meaningfulness! simply to flog theism:

(2) In Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Martin defends a revised version of verification principle which focuses not on meaning in general but on factual meaning (i.e., a criterion of what sentences express statements) in which meaningful statements are those which are "confirmable or disconfirmable in principle by nonreligious, straightforward, empirical statements." He concludes, not surprisingly, that "religious language is...factually meaningless."

First, how does this formulation not rule out the standards of logic? Has Martin confirmed or disconfirmed the law of non-contradiction and a host of other similar criteria? How would one find an "empirically determinate state of count against" the truth of a foundational statement like this? Second, the standard begs-the-question against the Christian in the most egregious fashion: "The very notion of referring assumes some temporal or spatial or spatial-temporal scheme." With that sort of guiding dogma, how could one not be an atheist?

Martin's attempt refuted

All in all, Den Beste's points are fairly solidly reasoned, especially his discussion of the heuristic nature of Occam's Razor. (Skeptics tend to forget Occam's philosopical commitments) It is interesting to note by way of contrast to his discussion of the "FredGod" that there is an argument for the existence of God which is both internally consistent and potentially falsifiable, the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. My friend and co-blogger Billy Ramey has written a fine exposition of the argument The Kalam Cosmological Argument: A Summary and the argument's chief philosophical advocate has put his summary and defenses of the Argument online at this URL Dr. William Lane Craig on The Kalam Cosmological Argument It is because of this argument, combined with other evidence and arguments, that I am a theist. I simply do not find an a-rational or non-rational cosmos coherent in light of my experience of existence. There is also the problem of how we can have "scientific knowledge" of the kind that Den Beste seems to want if we are naturalistic creatures. Dr. Alvin Plantinga's classic argument "The Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism" (found in Real Audio format at this site-But perhaps Dawkins is dead wrong here. Perhaps the truth lies in the opposite direction. Their (our cognitive faculties-E.B.) ultimate purpose (is) survival: not production of true beliefs." ) discusses whether or not we can have confidence in the -truth-, as opposed to the "survival value," of our scientific observations on naturalistic grounds. I highly recommend it.

Finally, a word must be said about Den Beste's commendation of Bertrand Russell's "wisdom" regarding atheism. While Russell might have had great insight into mathematical logic and the anti-freedom nature of the Bolshevik revolution, his views on atheism are not well-founded and have not aged well, especially his comments on the historicity of Jesus. In his famous 1948 Third Programme Debate with Fr. Copleston on the Existence of God (contained in the excellent anthology THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by John Hick and WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN by Bertrand Russell), Russell first consents to the meaningfulness of the sentence "Does the cause of the world exist?", only to deny it later in the debate:
Copleston: It may be that the scientist doesn't hope to obtain more than probability, but in raising the question he assumes that the question of explanation has a meaning. But your general point then, Lord RusseII, is that it's illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world?

Russell: Yes, that's my position. Debate excerpt on the meaninfulness of asking after first causes

...thus rather punting the debate on forensic grounds. A far better exposition of atheistic arguments and critiques is J.L. Mackie's THE MIRACLE OF THEISM, which is highly demanding, but exceedingly well-written and much more fair-minded than the usual atheistic examination of religious belief. Michael Martin's ATHEISM: A PHILOSOPHICAL JUSTIFICATION has the virtues of comprehensiveness and being more up to date (through no fault of Mackie, he died in 1982, shortly after MIRACLE came out), but should be read very critically, as he is less charitable and well-reasoned than Mackie.

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