Tag Archives: atheism

J. L. Schellenberg’s Ultimism

J. L. Schellenberg is an atheistic philosopher who has advocated a kind of secular religion. The following is based on my imperfect recollection of his work from a couple of years ago and some cursory research.

Essentially, we are very young as a species from the perspective of deep time (think millions of years), so our best religious ideas might still be ahead of us. Based on that premise, “ultimists” would explore different contemporary conceptions of ultimate reality without committing to any of them.

Schellenberg does think he has good reasons to believe that there may be an ultimate reality which (a) everything that exists depends on, (b) is the greatest thing possible, and (c) benefits humanity when they act on the premise that it exists. These reasons are adaptations of the classic arguments for God’s existence, although he thinks the original versions fail, and his reformulations are very different from the originals. However, he believes that the problems of evil and divine hiddenness show that the Christian conception of God cannot exist, so that can’t be the ultimate reality he is in search of.

I would say Schellenberg is at least as interesting an author as many Christian authors writing today, so he’s worth reading if you have a serious interest in philosophy of religion.

An Old Post on Why I Think Theism is Irrational

Note: I posted this elsewhere a few years ago, and I’m posting it here to save it.

Consider the following argument.

  1. The belief that God exists needs to be supported by evidence to be rational.
  2. The belief that God exists is not supported by evidence.
  3. Therefore, the belief that God exists is not rational.

The conclusion follows deductively from the premises, so the question is whether the premises are true. Both premises of this argument are controversial in philosophy of religion.

Premise 1 is primarily denied by Reformed epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga. I have read a number of Plantinga’s books, and I don’t find his arguments convincing. However, Plantinga has gone through multiple phases in his intellectual development and it would take considerable space to address all of these phases convincingly. Instead, I’ll just list a couple of general considerations and let people ask questions.

First, the belief that God exists is not comparable to beliefs like belief in the external world or belief in other minds, because a sane, informed person can seriously deny that God exists and not that the external world or other minds exist. Even people who believe that the external world or other minds don’t exist have to assume that they do exist in order to put forward their arguments.

Second, we do have some evidence that the external world or other minds exist, even if this can’t be put in the form of a deductive argument for the conclusion that an external world and other minds exist. We observe the external world, and we see other people move in ways that suggest that they are conscious. Plantinga does claim that we have this sort of evidence for God’s existence as well through religious experience and the like, but it seems unlikely that religious experience could sufficiently ground a large scale cosmological hypothesis.

Premise 2 would require a lot of analysis to establish convincingly. What one would have to do would be to choose a dozen or so of the most prominent arguments for God’s existence, then analyze each of them in depth to show that they do not support the claim that God exists. However, this has been done by atheists like Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and Herman Philipse in his book God in the Age of Science?, and I cannot repeat their whole analysis here. Again, what I will do is offer up some general considerations and let people ask questions.

There are a number of versions of the problem of evil that cast doubt on any attempt to establish the God hypothesis. Here are a few examples.

  • The problem of animal suffering argues that God would not allow animals to suffer so horribly over the course of millions of years of evolution. We would expect a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God to avert these millions of years of suffering if at all possible, so the fact that we do observe that these millions of years of suffering have happened seems to count against the God hypothesis.
  • The problem of divine hiddenness argues that people who seek God honestly should always find him if God is loving and wants to establish a relationship with everyone, but they do not, so divine hiddenness seems to count against the God hypothesis. This has been developed in more detail by J. L. Schellenberg.
  • The problem of horrendous suffering argues that particularly horrific cases of suffering count against the existence of God. For example, suppose a man comes across a woman alone in the forest, cuts off her arms with an axe, rapes her, and leaves her to die. It seems like a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God would prevent this if we know anything at all about what is good or evil, but he does not, so horrific suffering seems to count against the God hypothesis.

Now, I recognize that these arguments may be objected to on the grounds that we cannot know for sure what God has good reasons to do or not do, since we are not omniscient like he is. I have two responses to this.

First, I am not offering these arguments from evil as attempts to disprove or provide evidence against the existence of God, but as attempts to provide observations that count against the God hypothesis in the sense of making the God hypothesis more difficult to establish. The real work here is being done by premise 1, which says that the believer needs to provide evidence for God, and these arguments from evil are really just attempts to make it harder for the believer to accomplish that.

Second, arguing that God might have reasons of which we are unaware for allowing apparently bad events creates a skepticism about whether we ever know what we have reason to do. If a man coming across a woman in the forest, cutting her arms off with an axe, raping her, and leaving her for dead can be overall a good thing, how can we say that we know that anything is ultimately good or bad?

So, I conclude that the belief that God exists is not rational on the basis of my initial argument. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments.

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.

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.

 

How do atheists define good and evil?

Below is a post I wrote in response to the following question.

How do atheists define good and evil?

Atheists define good and evil differently, just like theists do. You’re probably familiar with Christians who have different beliefs about what good and evil are than you do. There are Christians who don’t think morality is based on God’s will, and even among Christians who do think morality is based on God’s will there isn’t complete agreement about what God’s will is, specifically. The situation with atheists is a lot like this – lots of different worldviews with no single set of principles between them.

Personally, I think Ayn Rand correctly defined good and evil in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics.” Ayn Rand thought that the purpose of morality was to have the best life for yourself and the people you love. This doesn’t mean exploiting other people, like Nietzsche thought it did, because the only way to become happy is to live a principled, productive life, neither sacrificing yourself to other people nor other people to yourself.

If you’re interested in looking into Ayn Rand’s own summary of her philosophy of Objectivism, you can read it at the link below:

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/objectivism.html

Let me know if you have any questions.