Wednesday, 8 June 2011

It's Good To Ask Questions

On facebook my cousin Benjamin shared a reference to an article in an Irish newspaper about her deconversion to Atheism and asked "I'd like to see a theist's take on this article."

So, I thought I'd take him up on it. Hope the response isn't too dry! First it'd be a good idea if you read her article - it's well written and gets to the point.

“Atheism Is the True Embrace of Reality”

Paula's article consists of two major points.

Firstly: she explores the variety of Christian beliefs and finds them completely inconsistent. Therefore you can't know anything about the truth of the existence of the Christian God.

Secondly: Atheism isn't a belief, but a rejection of beliefs not based on evidence.

The first point is essentially an argument from subjectivity. I.e. a subjective experience can't tell us anything about the existence of God. And that's kind of correct, a subjective experience isn't a basis for even determining God's existence, never mind his/her/its properties or character. And that's primarily because from an external viewpoint (which is what the observer has), the subject is simply another item within the reality we live in: a heap of well-organised DNA, generating sound waves.

The problem therefore with the argument is that it's the wrong way round. God, if he/she/it existed determines us and our reality, in a roughly analogous way to the way mathematical axioms determine valid mathematical theorems, or (going another step back) a mathematician determines the set of axioms, which then determine mathematical theorems. It's not possible to determine God's existence from subjectivity in the same way it's not possible to determine the historical existence of Euclid from the existence of parallel lines, not even if the parallel lines could say "I wouldn't be where I was today without Euclid!" ;-)

So, the problem remains, if subjectivity isn't a valid basis for believing in God's existence then what would the basis be?

So, onto the second point: "Atheism isn't a belief, but a rejection of beliefs not based on evidence". So, the questions I would raise are firstly: What is precisely meant by 'evidence' here? Secondly: Is evidence a sufficient basis for beliefs?

I suspect that what she means is scientifically attested evidence supported by a consistent rationale (although she doesn't really mention anything at all about the need for reason in connection with evidence in her article). What she doesn't mean is subjective evidence, i.e. "I went on a milkshake diet last week and lost 2Kg", even if the person could prove that they did go on a milkshake diet last week and lose 2Kg.

The issue in her part of the argument is that all her qualifying terms, such as: 'valid' (as in "a deity for which no valid evidence…") or "reality" (as in "one you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence") end up being circular. What is 'valid' means (I presume): "scientifically attested" (i.e. attested, because repeated experiments have provided consistent evidence). What "reality" means is: the reality one can infer from valid evidence and reason, etc.

With her second point the problem again is that "evidence" can't be a sufficient basis for beliefs. Let's consider one of her statements: "there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too.."

But this doesn't follow. If there's no life following this one, then why not just stomp on everyone else to get your own way? We're both going to die after all. Or putting it slightly differently: there's no life after this one, so why not just try and make as much money as possible? There's no life after this one so why not just party? There's no life after this one so why bother getting up in the morning? All these things, I think, follow just as well don't they?

Conversely, what if the evidence proves unpalatable ideas - should we change our beliefs? What if objective evidence in the end justifies genocide - that is that unless we bump off the weaker members of our society (e.g. religious people) then humanity is doomed. What comes first in that case?

So, as I see it, the nub of the problem is the question of what counts as a sufficient basis for anyone's beliefs on any kind. Subjective claims aren't a sufficient basis for knowing truth, but 'evidence' is a badly defined term and a complete minefield as a basis for constructing beliefs about how to live.

But it's good to ask questions isn't it?