Monday, March 05, 2007

Beyond belief

Mark Vernon writes about atheist mistakes (see also responses from Ophelia Benson, Matt Murrell and Stephen Law, plus replies from Mark).

He says that atheists arguing against god’s existence (such as with the problem of evil) typically “present 'proofs' that require empirical evidence”. Mark, an agnostic, thinks there’s a problem with this:

“But empirical evidence is only good for certain kinds of proof and a rather limited range of proofs at that. For example, the whole of mathematics would fail if you required empirical evidence for its veracity. As would morality and, indeed, philosophy.
“Even in the realm of experimental science, the empirical approach is not enough. … One can, of course, provide evidence that supports or undermines theories. … But still you need to understand how to read the evidence: it is rarely self-evident.”

I think the second part rather undermines the first: it’s definitely true that science isn’t simply a matter of evidence. No scientist would submit to a journal a list of observations rounded off by ‘This shows that the lesser-spotted flapper is a species of the Frecklyfeather genus’. Of course you need to explain the significance of any given piece of evidence and then use it as part of a logical argument.

And while philosophy isn’t science, it can certainly make productive use of empirical observations (for instance, much of contemporary philosophy of mind is – or tries to be – informed by experimental psychology and neuroscience).

So a typology of arguments that only use empirical evidence and ones that only use cogitative logic wouldn’t hold (I think Mark would agree).

In the case of god, we’re talking about a supposedly real being who, while not being observable in the physical universe himself, does have causal effects in that he has created the universe to correspond with his wishes. So, while it’s hard to know what empirical evidence might be brought to bear in moral philosophy, for instance, here there is room for observation to play a part.

Another point Marks makes (in fact, “the over-riding issue”) is that:

“if they [atheists] really want to be conclusive then they must address the best ideas of God available, the criterion for that being those of the great theologians. Aquinas, because I know something about him, is always my test case. Unfortunately, or irritatingly, though, they will find that the best theologians say that God is not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis they want to apply. For the very simple reason that God is beyond human comprehension, else not God.”

I agree that battering straw men is a waste of everyone’s time (he mentions the undergraduate argument that omnipotence isn’t strictly possible, therefore nor is god, and rightly rubbishes it: that a given conception of omnipotence is incoherent only means that the theist has to add certain reasonable caveats, and then we proceed from there).

But there are two serious problems with Mark’s line of argument here. First of all, there’s a definitional issue: if certain atheist arguments do indeed disprove the existence of a being defined in a given way, then that’s a result. If an atheist disbelieves in god (conceived of in some way) but a Christian believes in god (conceived of in some other way) then that’s not a defeat for either. If the Christian agrees that the first type of god doesn’t exist, then that’s all clear; if the atheist wants to present an argument against the second type of god, then that’s another matter.

We could argue about whether a certain conception couldn’t legitimately deserve the name ‘god’ – what if he were morally flawed, or had only very substantial power, or had initially been created by some other being? – but that’s just semantics. For any given definition that’s hypothesised, we can ignore the name and debate its plausibility. But if we just hold the name out as the focus of the argument, almost regardless of the nature of its supposed object of reference, then we lose a grip on what exactly we’re discussing.

So, secondly, there’s an indeterminacy issue. If the ‘best idea of god’ is of a god that is ‘beyond human comprehension’, then that’s not much of an idea, really. Mark praises Aquinas but here he sounds more like an agnostic version of Anselm: “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

Anselm’s attitude to faith is vapid because unless you know what it is that you believe, then you don’t have a belief at all: you have an empty mantra.

It’s like me saying that I have a new theory of monetarism that would guarantee universal prosperity. You ask me to explain, and I reply that it’s beyond human comprehension, and that I believe in this theory firmly in the hope that I may one day come to understand at least some of it. I add that it lacks the limitations of the well-known approaches that go by the name of ‘monetarism’ – and then I challenge you to prove that it won’t work.

To insist that a hypothesis that cannot be formulated (and therefore cannot be supported or opposed by reason or evidence) is the one whose falsification atheists must aim at is to beg the question against those of us who like to be told what ‘god’ is supposed to be before wondering whether or not he exists.

Mark concludes:

“In short, I try to look for the best in the religious traditions, which I think it is incumbent upon us - atheists and agnostics - to do, and wise in the modern world. Reject religious belief, sure. But reject it well.”

Agreed. But if ‘the best’ can’t tell us what they think, then we can’t even start to evaluate it.

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