Atheists vs Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An atheist who goes by [theresidentskeptic] is one of many atheists who have demanded that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy change its definition of atheism to their preferred one, namely, the dishonest “lack of belief” definition.  Here’s how the SEoP’s definition reads:

AtheismStanfordDEF

And here is [theresidentskeptic]’s email and Stanford’s reply:

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Stanford,

I am constantly having your definitions of atheism and agnosticism regurgitated to me by people who don’t seem to understand what they mean and your authoritative definition completely muddies the waters.

Your definition which can be seen at the the following link states:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheis…sticism/#1

“‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.”

I am forced to point out to you that agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, not claims of belief. Why are you conflating the two? A belief necessarily deals with a single claim; God exists is one claim; God does not exist is another claim- or String theory is true is one claim; string theory is not true is another claim.

A cosmologist who does not know if either position about string theory is true would be considered an agnostic. The cosmologist then disbelieves claim 1; string theory is true, therefore, for lack of a better term, is an atheist with respect to string theory. They do not necessarily believe that claim 2; string theory is false, is true.

Similarly, with respect to god claims, a person who does not know if either claim (god exists / god does not exist) is true would be an agnostic. The person who disbelieves claim 1; God exists is an atheist and this does not say anything about their acceptance that claim 2; god does not exist, is true.

I will use an analogy:

If I made the claim that there are an odd number of blades of grass in my front yard, would you believe me?

No, you wouldn’t unless I could substantiate that claim (if you are rational). Does that then mean you believe the opposite of that claim? That there are an even number of blades of grass in my front yard? No, you wouldn’t accept that claim either. With respect to your belief in the true dichotomy of the nature of the grass then, you are an atheist; you disbelieve claim 1; there are an odd number of blades of grass. If you don’t know which claim is true, you are an agnostic. The terms are not mutually exclusive.

With respect to god claims, I identify as an agnostic atheist; I do not know if a god exists or not, and I disbelieve the claim that a god does exist.

Gnostic: Of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. –> Therefore it’s opposite, agnostic, relates to a lack of knowledge.

Theist: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures –> Therefore it’s opposite, atheist, relates to a lack of belief in the existence of gods and not necessarily the belief in the opposite claim, that no gods exist.

Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists

Source [for definitions]: Oxford English Dictionary*

Kindly update your definitions to reflect this.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
[theresidentskeptic]

*EVE NOTE: [theresidentskeptic] is being dishonest here: his definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is an important distinction—the OD accepts and uses much looser standards than the OED. The OD is what you get from Google. The OED requires a hefty fee to access.

———————————-REPLY FROM STANFORD BELOW———————————-

Dear [theresidentskeptic]

Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be adjusted.

That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the term “atheism” is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature. Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry—that ‘atheism’ means the denial of the existence of God—is correct in the philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as “positive atheism” and contrast it with the broader notion of atheism” which has the meaning you suggest—that ‘atheism’ simply means not-theist.

In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972). In that work, he noted that he was using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand “atheism” as a default position.

Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew’s way simply on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves atheists in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to re-label them “atheists”—a term they rejected.

All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry.

All the best,
Yours,
Uri

——————————————————-
Uri Nodelman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Senior Editor
CSLI/Cordura Hall editors@plato.stanford.edu
Stanford University ph. 650-723-0488
Stanford, CA 94305-4115 fx. 650-725-2166
——————————————————-

[EVE NOTE: Emphasis mine.]

An atheist philosopher’s critique of the “lack of belief” definition of atheism

“The Philosopher’s Groan” was a philosophical blog that seems no longer to exist. This is shame, as it had a number of interesting posts.  One in particular stands out to my mind, because it is an atheist philosopher’s trenchant critique of the tendentious “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism.

Although strictly speaking it should make no difference whatever whether a theist or an atheist critiques a given atheistic talking point, in practice it does, since most atheists will simply dismiss criticism made by theists out of hand.

It is therefore very worthwhile for you atheists to hear it from one of your own, that the “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism is severely flawed, tendentious, and at this point in the discussion, simply intellectually dishonest to maintain.

Here, then, is a link to Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do? 

Because I know you’re probably too lazy to click a link just on my say-so, I’ll give you some of the main points:

________________________________________________________________

Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do?

There is a common view – one you yourself may hold – that the only intellectually honest position for an atheist to have is a ‘lack of belief’ in gods. Today I’m going to argue that this definition is confused, and should be retired. It is too broad to be useful, and that we ought to reserve the word ‘atheist’ for active disbelief in the existence of gods.

In recent years, many counter-apologists have come to recognise ‘atheism’ as meaning a ‘lack of belief’ in gods, and that’s it. That is to say, atheism is the end result of rejecting – but not necessarily denying — the positive claims of religion. It’s a non-committal, neutral stance. The reasons usually provided to motivate this definition are some variation on the following:

  1. It is impossible to prove a negative, or to know that something doesn’t exist;
  2. a ‘lack of belief’ isn’t a belief;
  3. that ‘-theism’ (belief) and ‘-gnosticism’ (knowledge) are independent, non-mutually exclusive categories;
  4. the rejection of a claim doesn’t mean accepting the opposite (charge of a false dichotomy); and,
  5. that the etymology of the word ‘atheism’ breaks down to ‘a-‘ meaning ‘without’ and ‘-theos’ meaning ‘gods’, and is thus correct by definition.

I’ll take each of these in turn.

(1) It is possible to prove a negative by demonstrating a logical contradiction: there are no married bachelors, or square circles. Those paired concepts are mutually incompatible, and rule each other out. If the concept of god is incoherent, then the thing it points to can’t exist. And that’s the end of the story.

Furthermore, it’s possible to argue for a negative with an ‘absence of evidence’ argument. If X exists, I should expect to find evidence Z. If evidence Z isn’t found, X is not likely to exist. While not irrefutable, we don’t need it to be to say with a high probability that X doesn’t exist. If you think we do need it to be irrefutable to say X doesn’t exist, then you’re an infallibilist about knowledge, and I’ve already written about why that’s not a desirable position.

[Eve: Cf. my posts You Can’t Prove a Negative and You Can’t Prove a Negative Part 2.]

(2) This seems to be a confusion between the folk concept of ‘belief’, and it’s more precise philosophical definition. The folk concept is something like ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof‘. The philosophical definition is something like ‘a mental state that represents a state of affairs which is accepted as true by the believer‘.

[Eve: A failure to make this distinction leads to such hilarity as William Lane Craig’s humiliation of Lawrence Krauss after Krauss declared in a debate “I have no beliefs!”, to which Dr. Craig humorously responded “Do you really believe that?”]

The philosophical definition means, roughly, a ‘picture’ or a ‘sentence’ in your head that you think is an accurate representation of the world. You look at a wall, you have a belief about that wall. You think about the past, you have a belief about the past. The word just tells me that you think the world is a certain way. It shouldn’t conjure up the spectre of ‘acceptance without evidence’, which is confusing it with ‘faith’.

The only time someone can be said to have a lack of belief regarding a god is before they’ve heard the claim for one. In some minimalist sense this person is an a-theist, but that’s an extremely weak point to hang one’s hat on. After hearing it, they can accept, reject or mull over the claim undecided. But lacking a belief about it is no longer open to them.

When we’re talking about scientific concepts, we make the effort to use appropriate scientific language. We ought to make the same effort to be philosophically precise in matters of philosophy. ‘Atheism’ and ‘belief’ are also technical terms in philosophy. This might rub some anti-philosophical types the wrong way, but like it or not, if you engage in rational argument, you’re doing philosophy. And anything worth doing is worth doing correctly.

(3) This one is often said in conjunction with ‘2’, and is usually accompanied by this graphic:

agnosticatheistgraph

The first thing I can say here is that belief and knowledge are not usually paired this way. As our justification for a belief being true gets stronger, it eventually qualifies as knowledge (because knowledge is at least a ‘justified, true, belief’). So this makes both the gnostic positions rather redundant, as you necessarily have to have a belief if you also have knowledge.

The second thing I can say is that this ‘neat’ partitioning doesn’t capture the degrees of confidence we have in our beliefs and knowledge. I know that the Sun is a star. I also know that evolution has occurred. Do I know these two facts to the same degree of confidence? No. They’re both very high, but not identical — and they’re certainly not 100% certain. This graphic doesn’t capture that nuance, and neither does the distinction it’s attempting to carve out. It’s too simple. Our minds don’t work like this.

(4) While it is true that ‘believing X’ and ‘believing not-X’ aren’t the only options, I disagree that the middling position of ‘not believing X’ is a useful definition of atheism. It’s far too broad to capture just what we might intuitively want to call an atheist (it drifts too far into ‘Area C’). I’ll try to motivate this change of intuition in you.

If a mere ‘lack of belief in god’ is sufficient to be an atheist, then babies are atheists. You might say “yes, they are, or at least were before religion got its mitts on them!” But on this definition chimps are also atheists. As are dolphins, dogs, and doors. They all lack belief in a god.

You might object that the ‘thing’ has to be capable of beliefs at all to prevent the ‘door’ from making this absurd (that’s going to be a problem for anything that is defined in purely negative terms). But suppose I grant that point, even though it seems extremely ad hoc. Are you comfortable calling a dog an atheist? If so, are you just as comfortable calling a goldfish apolitical? Calling the ants in my garden a colony of atheists feels like a misuse of words to me, because this word – defined in this way – picks out any conscious thing on the planet as its referent. That’s a huge net. If we think of atheism as ‘positive disbelief’, that picks out a very small subset of belief-capable humans, and that’s a more desirable outcome.

(5) is an interesting one, as it is a great example of what I call the ‘fetishisation of etymology’. It treats language as if it’s static and eternal, rather than the truly fluid organism it really is. Words change meaning all the time, mostly due to popular usage, but sometimes due to necessity (like the planet example). Thumping the table and shouting “words have meanings!” as I so often see happen, is not an argument.

[Eve: For an excellent case of ‘linguistic fetishization’—although not in this case a fetishization of etymology—see my account of my encounter on Twitter with a linguistic fetishist who maintained that ‘words have only one true meaning, so it is usually the case that the inventors of a word are using it wrongly as soon as they invent it, since its true meaning may not be known for centuries’ at Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself, and Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time.]

In the first few centuries CE, the word ‘atheist’ was used by polytheistic pagans to describe Christians, who they were ridiculing for believing in ‘one god for everything’. They taunted them that they should just round it off to an even zero since they were most of the way there already. Before them, it was used by the pagans against the Epicureans (yes, this one, even though this quote is wrongly attributed to him by an early Christian scholar) in Ancient Greece, who believed that the gods did exist and were made of atoms, but were unconcerned with human affairs.

So the word ‘atheist’ has changed several times in history already in response to a conscious or unconscious desire for it to do so. Rather than let the folk concept flitter to and fro, I’d rather intelligently design our language so we can mean what we say, and say what we mean. Like Pluto and the planets, it seems to me that once this folk concept is scrutinised, it comes up short and in need of a rethink.

If you’re still hung up on etymology being king, look up the word ‘nice’ here & here for examples of a word whose meaning has changed dramatically in just 700 years.

[Eve: adding a useful reference on the etymology of atheism.  Not that one should fetishize etymology, but it is worth knowing that the etymology of atheism simply is not a- theism but atheos -ism: See my The Etymology of Atheism.]

The Etymology of Atheism

Many people are mistaken about the etymology of the word “atheism.” They think it comes from an alpha-privative negation a- joined with theism, that is, they think

atheism  =  a- theism

or

atheism = the negation of theism

That is not where atheism comes from, however. ‘Atheism’ is in fact an older word than ‘theism.’  It comes originally from the Greek ἄθεος meaning ‘godless’ or ‘without god’.  The -ισμός is a later addition, which means “doctrine of” or “teaching of.”  Hence

atheismἄθεος -ισμός = atheos -ism

or

atheism = the doctrine or teaching of Godlessness, i.e. the teaching that there is no God.

Here’s a breakdown of the history:

EtymologyOfAtheism

As noted above the new redefinition of atheism as “lack of belief in God” was a bit of philosophical slight of hand (or more precisely slight of language, or even more precisely sophistry, perpetrated Antony Flew and a few of his atheistic fellow travelers starting in the early 1970s.  Flew was probably the most consistent atheist apologist in philosophy through most of the 20th century—and it is worthwhile to note that late in his life, when retired and finally with enough leisure to read Aristotle carefully for the first time, Flew was rationally forced to reverse his lifelong position and embrace rational theism. Maybe he should have read Aristotle earlier in his career? Kudos to Flew for having the intellectual and philosophical integrity to publicly reverse himself on the very position he had built his entire philosophical career maintaining.  That extraordinary act of philosophical courage and integrity almost makes me forgive him for perpetrating this pernicious bit of sophistry:

Flew Atheism Etymology

Why the ‘Burden of Proof’ Destroys Rational Discourse

As my friend Chris Lansdown has noted, not only is the “burden of proof” not useful in discussions, it actually renders all discussion and argument impossible, if it is taken seriously.

Consider someone who claims that his opponent has the burden of proof. By his own principle that “the one who claims has the burden of proof,” he has the burden of proof to prove his claim that his opponent has the burden of proof.

Suppose he attempts to do so. In order to prove this, he will have to make an argument. In order to make an argument, he will have to assert other claims, namely, the premises of the argument he offers as a proof.

But in asserting these new claims as premises, he immediately, by his own principle, acquires a burden of proof to prove his claims. So he will need to prove his new claims, the premises, as well.

But to prove his premises, he will need to make an argument for each premise, and every argument he makes will require more still more premises—that is, claims—and with every new claim he asserts, he acquires—by his own “the one who claims has the burden of proof” principle—a new burden of proof to prove each of the new claims.

This very obviously results in an infinite regress, where you have to prove the proof and then prove the proof of the proof and then prove the proof of the proof of the proof etc. ad infinitum.  And since this endless task cannot be completed by any human being, it would destroy any meaningful conversation before it even begins.

Thus, literally the ONLY way to have a rational discussion about ANYTHING is to DISREGARD the nonsensical pseudo-logical principle that “the burden of proof is on the one who claims.”

A Muslim Corrects an Atheist about the Burden of Proof

Muslim: “I am having trouble convincing the Infidels that Islam is true. Allah lead me to wisdom! How may I win in arguments?”
Muslim: *thinks*
Muslim: “I have it! Allahu akbar! I will define Islam as ‘the truth of all things’! And this is indeed reasonable, since Islam is indeed the truth of all things!”
Atheist: “Hey, wait a minute! You can’t just define Islam as true!”
Muslim: “My friend, why can I not?”
Atheist: “Because it is intellectually dishonest to try to win an argument by defining your way to victory. It’s also cowardly, because you won’t actually face the arguments of your opposition. You just define them as being wrong! That isn’t a way to win an argument. It’s just cheating!”
Muslim: “My friend, you have made some telling points. I will think more, Allah assist me!”
Muslim: *things*
Muslim: “Allahu akbar! I have it!”
Muslim: “Islam is the default position! Does not the Prophet (peace be upon him) say that all are born Muslim? Islam is the default position; the infidels have the burden of proof!
Atheist: “You can’t say that! That’s just another way of defining your position into being true!”
Muslim: “But my friend, I have noticed that you atheists say the very same thing! Indeed, my ears never cease to be filled with atheists chanting ‘Atheism is the default position. Theists have the burden of proof.’ Surely, my friend, if it is fair for you to do, it is fair for me to do?”
Atheist: “NO! ONLY ATHEISTS ARE ALLOWED TO DEFINE THEIR POSITION AS TRUE BY DEFAULT!”
Muslim: “But my friend, what accounts for this special privilege of atheists, you wish to claim?”
Atheist: “Atheism is true by definition.”
Muslim: “Ah, my poor deluded atheistic friend, have you not heard? Islam is the default position. The burden of proof is upon you, the infidel. Allahu akbar!”

al-Ghazali and the Apes of Unbelief

al-Ghazali was one of the greatest of the Islamic thinkers. Virtually single-handedly, al-Ghazali brought it about that Islam came to regard mathematics, science, and philosophy with suspicion and hostility. And this, arguably, was what was responsible for what has been called “the closing of the Islamic mind,” and the bringing of the Islamic Golden Age of intellectual inquiry (~950-1150) to its end.

Even today, the Islamic world remains on the whole very hostile to the very idea of science and philosophy—these things seem to be man attempting to fathom the ways of Allah, in a way which is blasphemous and impious, as well as absurd and ridiculous. What man can fathom the mind of God? What man would be so presumptuous?

The Muslim world likes technology—because these things may easily be regarded as gifts from Allah. Muslims tend to deny any strong causal link between developed theoretical science and technological development. If you assert that there is one, you will be told (correctly) that correlation does not entail causation. Muslims are, or tend to be, Humeans (or more precisely, Hume is a Ghazalite or Ash ̔arite, al-Ghazali following al Ash ̔ari on this crucial point) that

  1. Correlation does not establish causation.
  2. All attempts to establish causation do so by means of correlation.
  3. ∴ Causation can never be established.
  4. ∴ There is no evidence for causation.
  5. ∴ Natural cause and effect are fictions of the mind.

Hume taught that “cause and effect” was not a reality, but a mere psychological habit the human mind has of connecting things. It followed that all or most of human science was not grounded in reason, but it an irrational and unjustifiable psychological prejudice. So Hume ended up in a deep and almost total skepticism.

al Ghazali applies Ockham’s Razor centuries before Ockham and notes (correctly) that the most parsimonious explanation of seeming regularity in the world, or what some call “nature,” is simply a single cause: the omnipotent will of Allah. One cannot get more parsimonious than one and only one cause.

So it follows that there is simply no such thing as “nature.” There are no second-order causes that operate apart from the will of Allah. It is not the case that paper placed in fire will burn because the fire consumes it.  Fire has no power to cause anything, including burning—what happens is, when paper is place into fire, Allah may (or may not) cause the paper to be burnt. Every event, bar none, is caused directly by the will of Allah. The word “nature” is not the name of anything. There is no such thing as nature. The very idea of “nature” and therefore of “natural sciences” rests on a mistake, namely, that there is an order of causation that is independent of the will of Allah. But this cannot be so, so it is not so.

It is a strange argument for most Westerners, given their understanding that “nature” was the great discover of the Greeks that allows the very possibility of philosophy and science. But it isn’t entirely foreign to the Western tradition either. As I’ve already noted, William of Ockham taught just such a an occasionalism conception in which God is the single cause of all events; and David Hume took philosophers and scientists to task for believing their concept of “cause and effect” was a rational one, as opposed to a merely irrational habit of associating two things in the mind.

al-ghazali

As new and radical as the insights of Ockham and Hume seemed in their own day, they were only following in the footsteps of al Ghazali. Here are some of his words.

As a thought experiment, when you read al-Ghazali’s words below, replace “mathematics” and “mathematician” with “science” and “scientist” respectively:

Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion; it rests on a foundation of proofs which, once known and understood, cannot be refuted. Mathematics tend, however, to produce two bad results.

The first is this: Whoever studies this science admires the subtlety and clearness of proofs. His confidence in philosophy increases, and he thinks that all its departments are capable of of the same clearness and solidity of proof as mathematics. But when he hears people speak of the unbelief and impiety of mathematicians, of their professed disregard for the Divine Law, which is notorious … he says to himself that, if there was truth in religion, it would not have escaped those who have displayed so much keenness of intellect in the study of mathematics.

Next, when he becomes aware of the unbelief and rejection of religion on the part of these learned men, he concludes that to reject religion is reasonable. How many of such men gone astray I have met whose sole argument was that just mentioned. And supposing one puts the following objection: “It does not follow that a man who excels in one branch of knowledge excels in all others, nor that he should be equally versed in jurisprudence, theology, and medicine. It is possible to be entirely ignorant of metaphysics, and yet to be an excellent grammarian. There are past masters in every science who are entirely ignorant of other branches of knowledge. The arguments of the ancient philosophers are rigidly demonstrative in mathematics and only conjectural in religious questions. In order to ascertain this one must proceed to a thorough examination of the matter.” Supposing, I say, one make the above objection to these ‘apes of unbelief,’ they find it distasteful. Falling a prey to their passions, to a besotted vanity, and the wish to pass for learned men, they persist in maintaining the preeminence of mathematicians in all branches of knowledge. This is a serious evil, and for this reason those who study mathematics should be checked from going too far in their researches. For though far removed as it may be from the things of religion, this study, serving as it does as an introduction to the philosophic systems, casts over religion its malign influence. It is rarely that a man devotes himself to it without robbing himself of his faith and casting off the restraints of religion.

Now tell me: has he missed the mark?

Atheistic Arguments

Something that doesn’t get a lot of attention today are actual atheistic arguments, arguments for the position “God does not exist.” This is the result of an odd situation that occurred in the mid-20th century in which atheists essentially did two things:
(1) they admitted their position could not be defended and gave up trying to do so, and
(2) they still did not abandon their indefensible position, but instead shifted their position to a much more defensible one, agnosticism—except they did not do this honestly and openly, but redefined ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’ so that they two words are now supposed to mean essentially the same thing (despite the fact that ‘agnosticism’ had been coined in explicit contradistinction to atheism, and also despite the fact that the loud atheist minority did not bother to ask permission of the agnostics before forcibly co-opting their identity).

What are the arguments that God does not exist? How strong are they? There are only four, to my knowledge, and if you suspect they are not very strong, given that atheists themselves recognized their complete failure, you would be correct.

1. The Argument from Evil. The argument from evil makes the case that the amount of evil in the world is sufficient to be incompatible with an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God. It essentially says that such a God would not permit evil, and would have the means to do away with evil, but since there is evil, no such God exists. The argument from evil is the most powerful of the atheistic arguments because it makes a very powerful emotional appeal. In grief, suffering, and loss, human beings are apt to demand of God “Why?”—and taking the pain and incomprehension a step further, one can go on to conclude that a good God would never allow such a painful or horrible thing as X (whatever X is) to happen.

Logically the argument does not have much force. First, it is important to note that human reckoning of evil and horror tends to drop off very sharply with time. No one gets worked up about the Magyar invasions of Europe in the 9th century, and screams “Why???” at God. The problem with emotional reasoning is that it over-prioritizes things that matter to you, personally. The reason that the argument from evil logically breaks down is that the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil” can be defeated simply by denying it in favor of the the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil without sufficient justification.” Then the argument from evil turns on whether or not God has sufficient justification for permitting the evil that He does permit. So the argument from evil requires that the following premise be established: “An all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God would not permit the amount of evil that actually does exist in the world.”

It should be obvious with a moment’s reflection that, in order to establish this needed premise to be true, one would have to be in a position to evaluate the actions of an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God.  One would, that is, have to be oneself both all-good and omniscient.  And any argument that stands on a premise that requires omniscience and omnibenevolence to support it is going to fail.  All the argument from evil can do is attempt to elicit an emotional agreement to this premise, that it can no way establish to be true except on the basis of “feeling” it to be so.

But of course many Christians and other theists “feel” that God exists, so the atheist cannot allow premises to be established on the basis of feelings.

2. The Argument to Parsimony, or the Appeal to Ockham’s Razor.  This argument holds that God is explanatorily unnecessary in the order of nature, and therefore does not exist. It is typified by the response of Laplace to Napoleon, when asked by him as to the place of God in his system of Newtonian physics: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

A child should be able to see that this argument, logically speaking, is a non sequitur. From the fact that God is not required as an explanatory principle, it simply does not follow that God does not exist. The argument is simply invalid.

It should also be said, however, that the premise that God is explanatorily unnecessary is dubious—it is perhaps true that God is explanatorily unnecessary within physics, but it very possibly and even likely is the case that God is explanatorily necessary to explain nature and the possibility of physics—that is, to address what is sometimes called the question of being: Why does anything at all exist, and not rather nothing?

3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction.  Some atheists have argued that the concept of God is self-contradictory, and since nothing self-contradictory can be, God cannot exist. The problem with this argument is that it at most succeeds in showing that “God” cannot exist when “God” is defined in a self-contradictory manner. But no one has ever succeeded in showing that classical philosophical definitions or understandings of God are contradictory.

4. The Argument to an Alternate Explanation of the Concept of God.  This argument takes the form of

  1. X is a possible alternate explanation of why people might believe in God other than God existing.
  2. Therefore, God does not exist.

As with the Argument to Parsimony, this is an obvious non sequitur. It was popular in the 19th and early 20th century, being deployed by the likes of e.g. Marx and Freud.  Freud, for example, argued that belief in God arises in human beings as a kind of wish-fulfillment.

Without getting into the details of Freud’s speculations—which are questionable at best—one can merely reply with “So what?”  The human belief (at one time) that it would be possible to construct devices to allow human beings to fly was certainly partly grounded in a wish to fly.  That fact has absolutely no bearing on the fact that it is possible, according to the laws of physics, to build airplanes.  Today many people have a wish for spaceships that can travel interstellar distances in short times. Our science fiction writers dream about “warp drive” or “hyperspace” travel. Does our wish to explore the universe have any bearing on whether or not this is possible, according to the laws of physics? Not that I can tell. Why would it? Many of us wish for peace on earth, or for the number of murders and rapes in the world to be zero. Do our wishes for these things entail that they cannot be? Everyone who plays the lottery (I assume) wishes to win. Does the fact that every player wishes to win demonstrate that it is impossible for anyone to win the lottery? Or in team sports, fans wish for the team they support to win. Does that wish demonstrate no team will or can possibly win? How would it?

The point, of course, is that at the end of the day, the fact that something has its origins at least partially in desire or wish has no logical bearing on the truth of the matter.  One can make a rather powerful argument on Freudian grounds that atheism arises as a kind of human wish fulfillment: the human wish to be autonomous and free of any binding normative obligations and especially the wish to be free of judgment and punishment for wrongdoing.  It is rather difficult to see how wish fulfillment can account for the traditional, orthodox Christian belief in Hell, but it is extremely easy to see how atheistic disbelief in Hell could arise from wish fulfillment:

feseratheismhell

There are the only four arguments for atheism that I’m aware of. And they are all logically unsound.

I do not count the Evidentialist Argument here, because it is not, properly speaking, an atheistic argument, but an agnostic one.  Framed as an atheistic argument, it would run

  1. If there is insufficient evidence to establish that X exists, X does not exist.
  2. There is insufficient evidence to establish that God exists.
  3. ∴ God does not exist.

So framed, it is valid, but Premise 2 is highly contestable to the point of being almost certainly false, and even if it were not, even if it were true, Premise 1 is obviously false. This can be seen invoking such things as intelligent alien life in other galaxies.  We certainly do not have sufficient evidence to establish that such a thing exists.  But how would that be evidence that intelligent alien life does not exist, much less prove that it does not? We have insufficient evidence that faster than light travel technology can exist; is that evidence that, necessarily, it cannot exist? We had insufficient evidence that coelacanths did not go extinct 65 million years ago—until some fishermen caught one.

The problem here is that both “the evidence we have” and “what counts as evidence” are not static.

The Evidentialist Argument is somewhat stronger when used to argue that we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant or justify a belief in the existence of God—while openly acknowledging that this situation, even if it is the case, in no way demonstrates the nonexistence of God.

Even here, though, the Evidentialist Argument always seems to involve a kind of question-begging circularity.  It begins by postulating certain criteria as evidentially sufficient, and then goes on to show how God does not meet the postulated criteria.  The argument proceeds in way almost logically identical to the Argument from Self-Contradiction, except in this case, instead of offering a definition of God which is self-contradictory, and proceeding from there to show that the offered self-contradictory definition is, unsurprisingly, self-contradictory, the evidentialist strategy is to specify evidentiary criteria upon which God will be found to be insufficiently evidenced, and then to go on to show that, on such criteria, God is, unsurprisingly, insufficiently evidenced.  The problem here is that this seems very much like a trick—and it is a trick that anyone can play.  It is trivially easy for a clever person to, for example, show that science is insufficiently evidenced—one would only need to “pull a Hume” and attack the various unjustified assumptions that all science makes, e.g. in the reality of cause and effect, in the uniformity of nature, in the intelligibility of nature, in the reliability of reason, etc.

This is the kind of argument I refer to as a Vorpal Sword Argument: it will indeed succeed in disproving what you are trying to disprove, in a sense, but this is because it can succeed in disproving anything whatever. A vorpal sword can kill anything—and it does not care who wields it against what.  Atheists, and anyone else for that matter, should think twice before legitimizing arguments that can be turned on any and all positions alike, including theirs.

Okay, so much for the arguments for atheism roundup.  See you next time.