Category Archives: religion and atheism

Does God exist? What reasons are there for believing in God?

Response to the Claim that Atheists Can’t Justify Believing in Free Will

Blogger Wintery Knight argues that atheists cannot ground the claim that we have libertarian free will.

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

He quotes atheist Jerry Coyne:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

First of all, giving examples of atheists who believe that there is no free will does not establish a logical connection between the two positions. There is considerable diversity among atheists in terms of what they believe about free will. Two examples of atheists who believe in libertarian free will are Ayn Rand and John Searle. Robert Kane and E. J. Lowe have also presented accounts of libertarian free will that are consistent with atheism. So, quoting an atheist who happens to be a hard determinist doesn’t prove anything.

Secondly, this is bad evidence for determinism. The decision about which of two buttons on a computer to press is not a significant one, and there is no real basis for making the decision given the experimental setup, so subconscious influences may have a bigger role here than they would in a decision that something actually rode on.

Thirdly, it is self evident that we are capable of making decisions rationally, and the determinist’s own argument presupposes that he is capable of rational deliberation. If his conclusion is correct, then his own belief in determinism is merely the result of arbitrary subconscious influences, which means that it is invalid.

In conclusion, Wintery Knight has provided no reason to think that atheism is inconsistent with libertarian free will.

Putting God on Trial

A lot of atheists hold that although they don’t have any evidence that God exists, and therefore don’t believe in God, he might exist. It’s just very unlikely.

One of the atheists who hold this position is Matt Dillahunty, who compares the atheist’s position on God’s existence to a trial verdict. In a trial, the defendant is not found to be innocent, they are found “not guilty” – meaning that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them of a crime. Analogously, according to Dillahunty, the atheist is not finding God innocent of existing, i.e., concluding that God does not exist. Rather, he is finding God “not guilty” of existing, meaning that there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that God exists.

I agree that there isn’t any good evidence for God’s existence, but the conclusion Dillahunty draws is not the correct one.

I like the analogy to a trial, so I’ll stick with that. Before a trial is held, there is a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant even having a trial, which is a lengthy and laborious affair. Similarly, before considering a position, it is necessary to have some evidence indicating that it might be true, and is worth investing one’s limited time and energy in exploring further. Positions that fail this initial inspection are “arbitrary.”

Once we have concluded that a position is arbitrary, there is no need to consider it further. We are not obligated to assign it some “degree of probability,” since it has no relation to our knowledge, and hence there is no basis for such a probability assignment. Nor are we obligated to say that it is “possible” or “might be true.” A claim is possible, epistemically, if there are some facts in its favor, but there are no facts in favor of a claim if it is just an arbitrary assertion.

The correct position for an atheist to hold on God’s existence isn’t “it’s very unlikely, but it might be true,” it is “I have no reason to consider that idea.”

A Bad Argument for Moral Subjectivism

I have seen moral subjectivists imply the following argument at times:

  1. Either morality is based on God or morality is subjective.
  2. Morality is not based on God.
  3. Therefore, morality is subjective.

The argument is rarely put this clearly, but I suspect it’s a pattern of reasoning many moral subjectivists follow. They start out as Christians, accept that God doesn’t exist, and conclude that there is no morality, since the only concept of morality they are familiar with is supernatural. (This premise could also be seen as suggested by much of the moral debate in certain areas of the internet, which is mostly between divine command theorists and moral subjectivists.)

This is a bad argument because the first premise is unjustified – there is no reason why objective morality would have to be based on God. This is a Christian premise that there is no reason to accept on a secular worldview.

On a secular worldview, objective morality is much more likely to be based on the desire to live a good life. Everyone reading this likely wants to be happy, and you will be happier if you develop certain character traits in yourself over time. One example of such a character trait is productivity. People who are characteristically productive are likely to be happier than people who are lazy, because they will have accomplished more, so they will have higher self esteem, and they will likely be materially better off (more so than they would have been, at any rate).

This is the approach to morality moral subjectivists need to be considering when they make their case for moral subjectivism, not the much less plausible supernaturalist approach. We don’t use the pattern of reasoning “not supernatural, therefore subjective” in scientific issues, so we shouldn’t use it in philosophical issues.

Science and Philosophy

In an earlier post, I argued that neuroscience was relevant to philosophy of mind, because neuroscience provided support for the claim that the brain is not unified in the sense that consciousness is, which is an important claim in philosophy of mind (see the post for elaboration).

I have reconsidered this, because it occurred to me after a discussion with one of my professors that we don’t need neuroscience to know that the brain is not unified like consciousness is. Anyone can see, from the most elementary, pre-scientific knowledge of what the brain is, that the brain is not indivisible. You can’t have half of a mind, but you can have half of a brain.

This is part of a consistent pattern I have observed. Scientific experiments which claim to contribute to philosophical debates always, in my experience, end up falling into one of two traps:

  1. Triviality: The philosophical point the scientific experiment attempts to prove could be argued for equally well from pre-scientific knowledge.
  2. Ambiguity: The scientific experiment can be re-interpreted by opponents of the philosophical claim it attempts to prove.

I’ve yet to see a scientific experiment that didn’t fall into one of these two traps. However good it may be as science, when it is interpreted as an argument for or against a philosophical position it always turns out to be trivial or ambiguous.

This is not to say that you can’t make it easier or harder to hold a philosophical position using science. I would say that scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have made it harder – not impossible, but harder – to believe in God. I do not mean to say that there is a deductive argument for atheism here, but familiarity with the theory of evolution could give a person the sense that the world is entirely explicable naturalistically, or knock out primitive forms of the teleological argument that formerly served as a basis for faith.

Objective Meaning

The anonymous author of the blog Believe or Doubt recently made a post about objective meaning with respect to theism and atheism. According to believeordoubt, atheists do not have objective meaning, meaning based on something other than their feelings. Therefore, atheists do not have meaning at all, i.e., they do not have true meaning.

There is a fundamental assumption that religious people make and atheists deny, without it often coming into consciousness: true meaning must be objective. That is, the feeling of meaning is not the same as real meaning.

believeordoubt, being religious, sides with the religious people on this. She gives the analogy of Nozick’s experience machine, a machine that could give you the illusion of a completely perfect life. According to believeordoubt, most people would not enter the experience machine, because it isn’t real. In the absence of objective meaning, there is no meaning.

In my view, the atheist has no problem supplying his or her life with objective meaning, as defined by believeordoubt.

A conclusion is objective, not based on feelings, if it is based on observation and logic. An atheist should have no problem gathering observations about his or her own desires and interests, the world around them, and the available productive careers. By reflecting rationally on those observations, the atheist could fashion for him or herself an objectively meaningful life (and I submit that many of them do).

Such a meaning is not properly described as based on feelings, since the atheist is not just saying “welp, I feel like being a doctor today.” One’s life would be meaningless if one went into a career by whim, without thinking about it, but the application of evidence and logic to the issue removes that possibility.

Now, believeordoubt may mean something other than this by “objective meaning,” but if she does then I don’t know what it could be. Since no definition is provided, one could reasonably assume that she is tacitly defining objective meaning as meaning provided by God, in which case her argument is viciously circular.

 

Prayer

I think prayer is, in part, a way of attempting to control complex systems that we do not understand. To illustrate, here are some examples of prayers people might say:

  • “God, please let my candidate win the election.”
  • “God, please don’t let the hurricane tearing through town hit my house.”
  • “God, please don’t let Bob die of cancer.”

Each of these prayers have surely been said many times, in various forms, and each of them attempts to exert control over a complex system that we do not understand – the election, hurricane, or cancer. The prayer is a way of allaying our fear about an uncertain outcome.

We are much less likely to pray about things that we know will happen, because in those cases we understand all of the variables, so we don’t feel any need to appeal to a mysterious force to influence the outcome.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is an argument against divine command theory, the view that God’s commands are the source of morality. On this view, anything that God commands us to do is the right thing to do, by definition, and anything God commands us not to do is the wrong thing to do, by definition.

So, here’s the Euthyphro dilemma, based on one of Plato’s earlier dialogues:

  1. If morality is based on God’s commands, then either God commands us to do things because they are good, or it is good to do things because God commands us to do them.
  2. If God commands us to do things because they are good, then morality is independent of God, since things are good prior to God’s commands.
  3. If it is good to do things because God commands us to do them, then morality is unacceptably arbitrary. For example, God could command us to boil babies alive, and that would make it good to boil babies alive.
  4. Therefore, morality is not based on God’s commands.

This is usually taken to be a very strong argument against divine command theory.

Interestingly, this sort of argument is not usually taken to be a strong objection to other moral theories that base morality on the will of a specific person or group. For example, moral subjectivists don’t think it is a very strong objection to their view that it is consistent with boiling babies alive if my subjective desires incline me to. Moral relativists don’t think it is a very strong objection to their position that it is consistent with boiling babies alive if the group decides to boil babies alive. And so on.