Comments on Self Deception

There is a psychological phenomenon that I think is responsible for at least some of the persisting disagreement around philosophical, political, and religious issues. Philosophers refer to it as self deception.

The idea is that when we are attached to a position and are confronted with a criticism of it, we have the ability to push the criticism away rather than thinking about it carefully and honestly. We can do this by simply directing our attention away from the criticism or by brushing it off with some sort of facile criticism that we know on some level isn’t very good. The effect of our action here is to hide the criticism from ourselves because, after it is done, we forget about the criticism and carry on as if it was never presented.

If someone does this frequently, then their view will eventually be completely immune to criticism, because they will have hidden all of the objections to it from themselves. Their view will seem as clear and obvious as the morning sun, even though it is beset by problems on every side. Future criticisms will meet the same fate, since the person in question has established a habit of brushing away criticisms without serious consideration. (I think anyone who has spent any serious time arguing about religion or politics on the internet has met people like this.)

The problem is that to the person who has deceived themselves, their view looks exactly the same as a view that has been established. A view has been established, in general, if there are strong arguments for it and no serious objections to it. This is how a position looks to a person who has deceived themselves, because they have made themselves believe that the arguments in favor of their position are strong and the arguments against their position are weak.

This leads to a practical problem. How can we be sure that we aren’t deceiving ourselves about a political or religious issue that is important to us?

One method that might help is to sit down and explain your position from the beginning. A recent psychological study found that people who held extreme political views often became significantly less confident of their views after they were asked to explain their position step by step, listing every causal connection that their view presupposed. This is consistent with other studies that have found that people become less confident of their understanding of everyday objects like toilets or door handles when they are asked to give a mechanical, step by step description of how the object in question works.

Another method that might help is to write down objections to your position as they occur to you to help prevent you from forgetting them. Darwin allegedly used this method to avoid forgetting objections to the theory of evolution while he was gathering evidence for it.

Neither of these methods is infallible. There are people who can explain their position from the beginning and who write down all of the objections they come across who nevertheless hold absurd and disingenuous views. However, if you are generally honest, being a little more methodical might help you recognize problems with your position that you would otherwise have brushed away.

When do Atheists have to Study the Arguments for God’s Existence?

In a previous post, I argued that atheists have no general obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence in detail – that is, a typical atheist doesn’t have to review the academic literature about the existence of God to be justified in believing that God doesn’t exist. In this post, I will discuss the conditions under which an atheist is morally obligated to study the arguments for God’s existence carefully.

The first category is atheists who have an academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence. I know from personal experience that a philosophy major at a good school will be required to understand a number of arguments for the existence of God in order to get good grades in their classes. There is obviously much more to a philosophy degree than arguments for the existence of God, like the nature of knowledge, but understanding arguments for the existence of God is a big component of what a philosophy major has to study.

Why is this? Are philosophers just obsessed with arcane details of the past? No, there is a good reason why philosophy majors have to understand the arguments for the existence of God. A philosophy major should come away from the degree with a fairly strong understanding of the history of philosophy, especially as that history is relevant to the most important modern debates. There are certain basic things that a BA in philosophy should be able to do, like explain what logical positivism was in outline. This is in spite of the fact that logical positivism as such is almost never defended today, because it has been so influential and its ideas are still called upon implicitly by so many people.

The second category is atheists who intend to defend atheism in public, whether that is by arguing with people on the street, writing letters to the local newspaper, or having a formal debate in front of an audience. If you are going to be defending atheism in public, then you need to know what theists will say in defense of theism and be able to respond to it. This isn’t because theists’ arguments are especially cogent, but rather because they can be very tricky to unravel on the spot and there are a lot of variants on them that can add additional complexities.

This is where atheist philosophers of religion come in. Atheist philosophers of religion are not only clever, as anyone has to be to get a job as a professional philosopher, they are specifically educated for the task of developing and refuting arguments in philosophy of religion, and they have usually been writing in the field for decades. Atheist philosophers of religion can come up with much stronger arguments for atheism and much stronger objections to arguments for the existence of God than a typical layman atheist can.

Sometimes this is just a matter of laying things out more clearly than a layman knows how to do. For example, if a layman presented the problem of divine hiddenness, it would probably look something like this:

Well, if God exists, why hasn’t he shown himself to us? God isn’t loving!

Compare that with J. L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness:

  1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
  2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
  3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
  4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
  5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

This is a much clearer and more thorough way of making the argument from divine hiddenness, and if you study Schellenberg in depth by reading his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, you will find that he piles arguments on top of arguments in support of his premises (which are pretty compelling to begin with, frankly).

In other cases, atheist philosophers of religion have an advantage due to their superior understanding of theistic philosophy. For example, Anthony Kenny in his book The Five Ways has argued that Aquinas’ five ways were originally based on Aquinas’ completely false scientific views about the universe, like his astronomical view that the planets moved around on crystal spheres. This isn’t the sort of thing a layman could learn without studying Aquinas in depth, so reading Kenny’s book is a major time saver.

So, there are a lot of advantages to studying atheist philosophers of religion if you intend to defend atheism in public, to the point that I think anyone who is going to defend atheism in public has a moral obligation to make some effort to research their work.

Evidence that there is no Evidence for God’s Existence

In this post, I will explain why atheists like myself are justified in saying that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. I will not be engaging with any specific arguments for God’s existence in this post, but merely justifying the inference from a specific atheist’s not having come across a good argument for God to the conclusion that there are no good arguments for the existence of God.

First of all, atheists who are familiar with science usually feel that believing in God is profoundly unscientific and therefore unlikely to have good arguments in its favor. There are a number of good reasons to think this.

  • Science is explicitly naturalistic, at least in methodology. For several hundred years, explanations in terms of God or the supernatural have been automatically ruled out by almost all scientists. The belief that God exists seems to be in tension with the naturalism of science in a fairly straightforward way, namely that science would probably not have set up a rule explicitly barring appeals to God if God played a significant role in the operation of the world.
  • Science uses an epistemology that is inherently hostile to belief in God. Science requires empirical evidence for every claim, and most claims that are made in science have to be supported with numerous experiments and agreed upon by all relevant experts before they are regarded as established. The belief that God exists transparently does not meet these criteria, and the success of science gives us a very strong reason to think that these criteria are the ones we should use.
  • Science has constructed a nearly comprehensive view of the world with an unprecedented degree of coherence, detail, and independent support that never appeals to God at any point. The fact that we can construct a comprehensive view of the world that is this powerfully supported without ever appealing to God is a pretty strong reason to think that God doesn’t exist.

These reasons are so powerful, especially in conjunction, that an atheist could reasonably conclude that there are no good arguments for the existence of God on the basis of these reasons alone, without doing a serious investigation of the arguments for the existence of God that philosophers have put forward. If he did investigate the existence of God, he would be justified in operating with a strong presumption in favor of naturalism and atheism.

If an atheist does consider the arguments for the existence of God, he will find ample reason to think that they all fail.

The original versions of the classic arguments for the existence of God, like the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, have well known refutations which are very forceful and can be found easily by doing a search on the internet. This justifies an atheist in thinking that there are no good arguments for the existence of God because these arguments are still usually the ones put forward by theists who want to argue for their faith. If there were significantly better arguments for the existence of God, then we would expect them to spread rapidly through the theist community and come into wide use.

An even stronger reason to think that there are no good arguments for the existence of God is available to the atheist who chooses to review the contemporary academic debate about God’s existence. The arguments for God’s existence that contemporary academic philosophers put forward are typically just variants on the classic arguments for God’s existence mentioned above, and even these sophisticated variants have all been refuted dozens of times by atheist philosophers of religion. For example, William Lane Craig’s kalam cosmological argument, a variant on an argument put forward a millennium ago by Islamic philosophers, has been refuted many times in the literature, such as Michael Martin’s refutation in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and the very detailed refutations given by Graham Oppy and Jordan Howard Sobel.

The repeated failure of theistic philosophers of religion to provide tenable arguments for the existence of God is very strong evidence that there are no such arguments, since they are in the best position out of anyone in the world to provide good arguments for the existence of God. They have been immersed in theology and philosophy of religion for decades, they can explain the ins and outs of Augustine and Aquinas, and they generally have much more familiarity with modern science than most theists do. If they can’t do it, then no one can.

To recap:

  1. Atheists have no intellectual obligation to investigate the issue of God’s existence, since having a decent familiarity with science should give them a good reason to think that there will be no good arguments for God.
  2. If atheists do investigate the issue of God’s existence, a rudimentary review of the classic arguments for God’s existence should tell them everything they really need to know about the issue.
  3. If atheists decide to investigate the issue in detail, which is well beyond what they are obligated to do. they will find only confirmation of their atheism in contemporary philosophy of religion.

This is not to say that atheists never have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence. There are two types of atheists who have a moral obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence: Atheists who are trying to get a degree in philosophy or have some other academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence, and atheists who intend to publicly advocate atheism by debating formally or arguing with a lot of theists. An atheist can also have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence, albeit not a moral obligation per se, if they want to become more familiar with how people thought about the world in the past.

A Down to Earth Reason for Atheists to Study Philosophy of Religion

A lot of atheists who argue about religion on the internet don’t think philosophy justifies the claims it argues for. We can construct an argument for something, but in the absence of hard evidence to prop up the argument it’s all just air. Let’s assume this is true. The fact remains that saying “your argument is just air because it’s not supported by hard evidence” might fail to be persuasive to your audience, especially if you’re already several moves deep into the exchange.

This is why atheists routinely make arguments that assume that some of the theist’s premises are true and show that the argument fails anyway. You’re not establishing things scientifically here, but most atheists will be able to agree that having those extra internal objections could be just enough to tip a lurker over the edge. Reading what philosophers have written will help you come up with more of these potentially crucial extra arguments.

In summary:

  1. Persuading people that Christianity is irrational is valuable.
  2. Knowing internal objections to Christianity will help persuade people that it is irrational.
  3. Studying philosophy of religion will help you find more internal objections.
  4. Therefore, all other things being equal, it is a good idea to study philosophy of religion.

Here are some websites you can use.

Good luck.

The Cosmological Argument

A commenter on another post brought up the cosmological argument, so here are my reasons for rejecting the cosmological argument. I’m going to be fairly brief, but keep in mind that I’ve read Swinburne, Craig, Aquinas, Aristotle, etc., so I know more about cosmological arguments than I will be using here.

A very simple form of the cosmological argument asserts that since everything has a cause, the universe must have a cause, but the chain of causes cannot go back forever, so there must be a first cause, which is God. The problem with this argument is that the first premise contradicts the conclusion – if everything has a cause, then there is no first cause.

A more sophisticated form of the cosmological argument says that everything that begins to exist has a cause, and the universe began to exist, so the universe has a cause. The problem here is that the universe did not begin to exist. Beginning to exist assumes that there was a time at which the thing that began to exist did not exist, and there was no time prior to the universe at which the universe did not exist, since time is defined in terms of the universe.

The theist might respond to this last point by saying that something begins to exist if there is a time such that it is not the case that prior to that time, the thing in question existed. The universe began to exist by this definition, because it is not the case that prior to the first point in time, the universe existed – after all, there was no time prior to the first point in time. The reply to that is simply that by that definition God began to exist as well, so we fall back into the infinite causal regress that the theist was trying to avoid in the first place.

Another form of the cosmological argument says that everything contingent has an explanation, and the universe is contingent, so the universe must have an explanation in something that is not contingent but necessary, and this necessary being is God. The problem here is that there is no way to explain what “contingent” means without begging the question. For example, we could say that something is contingent if it depends on something else for its existence, but then calling the universe contingent is question begging.

So, I don’t think there are any sound versions of the cosmological argument. Again, I’ve read a lot more than I’ve used here, but this should give you the basic idea of why I don’t think there are any sound versions of the argument.

Atheism, Science, and Philosophy

I think a lot of atheists go through a process like the following. They apostatize from Christianity because the scientific evidence seems to indicate that it is false, and then they become an atheist. They still need a worldview (don’t we all?), so they latch on to contemporary science as a way of figuring out the nature of reality, knowledge, and morality.

I’m sympathetic to this form of atheism. After all, science is the most obviously successful knowledge gathering enterprise out there, so why wouldn’t we want to base all of our beliefs on contemporary science? Non-experimental methods of knowledge gathering must be a waste of time, or at best a source of aesthetic satisfaction.

However, science rests on a certain set of assumptions, like the assumption that there is an external world, that we are conscious and can gain knowledge, that falsifying experimental data is morally wrong, and so forth. These assumptions are not themselves based on experiments. They are perfectly reputable, of course, and in no way do they provide an opening for religion, but they are not based on controlled experimental inquiry.

Where do these assumptions come from? Presumably, at some point in the early modern era, a group of people noticed that conclusions that were based on controlled experimental inquiry were generally much more reliable than results that weren’t based on experiments (perhaps Francis Bacon was one of these people). They didn’t do an experiment to verify this, because there is no way to perform such an experiment. They just reflected on their experience with a bunch of different experimental and non-experimental generalizations and the relative utility that all of the generalizations in question turned out to have.

This sort of reflection is philosophical reflection. It is not based on experimentation, but it is based on powerful inductive arguments from life experience. Philosophical reflection can help tell scientists what areas of research they should look into next and what methodologies they should use. For example, biologists know from philosophical reflection that trying to prove Intelligent Design theory is not a useful way of spending their research time, because it violates a philosophical assumption of science, namely naturalism. Again, philosophical reflection on the nature of free will has helped researchers in psychology decide how to construct experiments investigating what laypeople believe about free will.

So, I think atheists with an interest in science should also look into philosophy and the philosophical assumptions of the things we do in science, as well as in everyday life. Philosophy is a valuable way of learning about the world in addition to science.

Two Spinoza Quotes

I really like this quote from Spinoza:

There is no singular thing in Nature which is more useful to man than a man who lives according to the guidance of reason.

Spinoza’s Ethics is full of great little quotes like this. Here’s another:

Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

This surprising conclusion is based on a couple of premises that Spinoza has put forward previously. According to Spinoza, our fundamental desire is for our own self preservation, because everything that exists strives to persevere in being (this is a claim in physics which is called the conatus – it is false, but that doesn’t affect what follows). Spinoza defines joy as an increase in one’s power of acting, and love as joy accompanied by the idea of an external cause.

So, according to Spinoza, if someone hates us, we can turn his hatred into love by increasing his power of acting. This will cause him to see us as an object of love rather than hatred, and he will love us more intensely than he hated us, because the new love is mixed with the joy of finding that a previous object of hatred is really an object of love.