Nocturnal Daylight Atheism

I ran across a blog post by Daylight Atheism titled “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists.”  It is mostly devoid of interest, repeating a warmed-over scientism, but I noticed a wild non sequitur in the opening paragraph that deserves comment.

Here is how Daylight Atheism starts off:

In several years of debating atheism and theism, I have made an observation. Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, “Nothing – I have faith in my god.” Although such people may well exist, I personally have yet to meet a theist who would acknowledge even the possibility that his belief was in error. Many theists, by their own admission, structure their beliefs so that no evidence could possibly disprove them. In short, they are closed-minded, and have been taught to be closed-minded.

The argument is

  1. Theists will not specify conditions under which they will give up their belief in God.
  2. Therefore, theists are closed-minded.

Consider the following parallel arguments

  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief that he exists.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief that he is conscious.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief in minds.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded (!).
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief in reality.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief in truth.
  2. Therefore P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief that there are beliefs.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.

What Daylight Atheism seems to have overlooked is that there are many beliefs which are rationally incorrigible even if they are not rationally demonstrable.

It is useful to begin from Descartes’ famous principle Cogito Sum: “I think; I am.” The principle that I exist and am aware so long as I am aware of myself as thinking and therefore existing (a condition of the ability to think) is both rationally incorrigible and completely indemonstrable.

I cannot give an irrefutable demonstration that will rationally compel another person to conclude with anything like certainty that I am a conscious being, with thoughts and subjective awareness.  The move is always open to him to regard me simply as a body, mechanically making sounds, which have the outward appearance of claims that I am conscious. For all he knows and I can prove, I could be an automaton, utterly devoid of any subjective conscious awareness. (This is what we in philosophy call “a zombie”, or sometimes “a philosophical zombie”—to distinguish this concept from the walking dead type of zombie).

At the same time, I know, beyond any possibility of doubt, that I am conscious. I know in advance that no possible argument he could bring to bear could convince me otherwise—since my being conscious is not only directly evident to me as a basic reality, it is also the precondition for my entertaining and being convinced by any arguments whatsoever.

In short, with respect to the existence of MY consciousness, someone else and I are not in epistemically parallel situations.  Any attempt to maintain that we are, and that in order to be rationally warranted in believing that I am conscious, I must have evidence that would convince a third party that I am conscious is a fallacy of false equivalence.

And this is precisely the case with the theist and the atheist.  While it is the case that I was initially led to my belief in God at first as a purely intellectual matter, on the basis of metaphysical arguments, since then I have had experiences of God sufficient to make the matter of God’s existence rationally incorrigible for me.  When God makes His presence known to you, He sometimes does so in such a way as to leave you without any doubt. The nonexistence of God is, to use William James’ term, not a “live option” for me, no more than is the nonexistence of reality in general or my own present nonexistence.

I am aware that atheists have (presumably) not had such experiences and that my experiences do not constitute strong evidence for anyone else, since to anyone else they are merely testimony (which is, pace many atheists, actually evidence)—but to me, they are not merely testimony.

Daylight atheism is making use of a suppressed premise, namely, that “the only reason that one would refuse to specify conditions under which he would give up a belief is closed-mindedness”, that is, a willful refusal to give up a particular belief.  This suppressed premise is false.  Another perfectly good reason not to specify conditions under which one would give up a belief besides “closed-minded, willful blind faith” is “a belief’s being rationally incorrigible for me due to my privileged epistemic position with regard to this belief.”

Theists are not acting irrationally in not being willing to give up belief in God when they have direct evidence of God which is “first personal.” We know we are right; whether this sureness annoys atheists is completely beside the point. The only way an atheist could reasonably object to this is to call into question the reliability of all “subjective” experience as belief-warranting, which of course he cannot do, since all “objective” knowledge is founded upon subjectivity, that is, thought and experience.  At most he could try to argue that “only those experiences which are common to all should be considered belief-warranting”, but this is also a non-starter: it crashes and burns right away on cogito sum.

Whether or not I can produce a demonstration sufficient to convince an atheist that God exists, the atheist has no rational case that my belief in God is unwarranted.  It is entirely reasonable that my or anyone else’s belief be warranted by their experience of God.

 

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