Friday, August 23, 2013

Is Atheism Self-Defeating?

I've been debating with this Calvinist Christian who is very fond of presuppositionalism (as many Calvinists are) and he claimed that atheism is a self-defeating position. And so I inquired:

And why is atheism self-defeating? I want to hear your knock down argument against it. If it's any good I'll write a blog about it.

And so he responded to me:

Because it denies theism on the grounds that it is not empirically evident. But neither is the metaphysic that is needed to assume the validity of empirical verificationism. It thus assumes a metaphysic for which it has no empirical evidence in order to argue that things without empirical evidence, like theism, cannot be rationally affirmed. That's just one of the self defeaters within the worldview. 

We got into a long heated debate over epistemology, scientism, faith and belief afterwards that you can check out here. If you want to go rant on his blog and criticize his fundamentalist approach to Christianity, you have my blessing. (But be warned, he's a fierce debater and a hardcore presuppositionalist.) Since I love taking on challenges to atheism, let me take on this argument and show it how is ultimately baseless.

But first, I've noticed many Calvinists are fond of presuppositionalism รก la Sye Ten Bruggencate. They presuppose the existence of their deity in order to claim that logic can even work for you to even be able to argue against it. It's the most annoying thing ever, which is why I generally avoid debating presuppositionalists. But since this theist challenged atheism as being self-defeating, I just couldn't resist this one. So let me explain why denying theism is not self-defeating.

1. Atheists don't presuppose naturalism to be true

The theist argued that atheism "assumes a metaphysic for which it has no empirical evidence in order to argue that things without empirical evidence, like theism, cannot be rationally affirmed." So do atheists really assume naturalism or empiricism as a presupposition? No. Most atheists conclude naturalism to be true after a careful assessment of the evidence for and against the supernatural. To hold the naturalistic worldview, one does not have to presume that science is the only way to know metaphysical truths; we certainly need and use logic to verify many things. When properly used, logic can be used to make valid inferences. The scientific method in fact presupposes logic, as does pretty much every worldview and epistemological theory. But we have very good evidence that proper logic works as rational discourse is impossible without it.

The theist argued that religious faith is a reliable way to know metaphysical truths. So let's do a side by side comparison between religious faith and empiricism as a means to obtain metaphysical knowledge.

  • Religious faith, as an epistemology, does not have a proven track record of furthering human knowledge on metaphysics. Indeed, the metaphysics of every religion is in conflict with what we see and observe in the natural world via science. The only way religious belief can remain tenable is if one abandons its description of the history of the world in favor of the scientific explanation. That means empiricism trumps sacred texts as being the most reliable. 
  • Empiricism on the other hand, does have a proven track record of advancing human knowledge about reality and metaphysics. So you could say that we can empirically verify that empiricism works. 

I'm an empiricist only to the extent that I privilege sense data over logically derived data because data derived from observation and experiment has been shown to violate classical common sense notions of logic. For example, no armchair logician could ever have deduced the logic behind quantum mechanics. Only through observation and experiment could we know such things to be true.
    And the thing is, in order for something to be called the "truth" in the ontological sense it has to be logically or empirically verifiable. Any ontological "truth" that exists solely in one's mind that I cannot corroborate for myself, is no truth at all. It's an unsupported belief. And as long as it remains an unsupported belief, it has no authority over me and my worldview when they are in conflict.

    2. Scientific empiricism, along with logic are the only reliable means to discern metaphysical truths

    This theist willfully admits that he presupposed Christianity to be true in order to make sense of the world. His starting point is literally in the truth and infallibility of the Bible, taken on faith. He actually rejects all other religions as well as atheism on the presupposition that Christianity is true, and he accuses me of doing the same thing with empiricism. But many atheists such as myself arrived at our rejection of the supernatural because supernatural claims have routinely been falsified by naturalistic explanations. There has never been a supernatural explanation that has triumphed over a natural one, ever. And so-called "revelations" have never been able to produce anything useful to us by demonstrating to be a consistent, reliable conduit by which useful metaphysical knowledge can be gained that is not available by any other means. Sure, supposed revelations can be wildly imaginative, but none of their metaphysical claims that could be corroborated via empirical evidence has ever shown a consistent pattern of being correct. They're about as reliable as throwing mud at the wall and hoping some of it sticks.

    In epistemology we've basically got two ways of gaining factual knowledge: a priori and a posteriori. The former is logical and the latter is empirical. We cannot disprove theism with science or logic, although certain specific concepts of god can be disproven. As atheists we can certainly argue that no good evidence has ever been produced that theism is true and that many of the metaphysical claims made by every religion have turned out to be false. We know from neuroscience that religious experiences can be described via neurochemical and electrical brain activity and that they exist cross-culturally among people of diverse faiths. We know from evolution that false positives were favored and it lead us to attribute intentionality to natural processes. Considering this, along with other evidence, we have very good grounds for rejecting the theist's claim that god exists.

    Methodological naturalism is therefore justified in part because there is no good evidence for supernaturalism, and we have plenty of good evidence of the abject failure of supernaturalism at being a useful guide at making sense of our world. I don't assume a metaphysic that the natural world is all that exists, I conclude that the natural world is all that exists because religious faith in the supernatural as an epistemology has shown itself to be inept at making sense of the world we live in. And I don't need to empirically prove that theism is false for my worldview to be tenable, I just have to show how the means by which presuppositonalists claim to know god exists to be fallacious and circular. And presupposing your religion to be true as a starting point is certainly fallacious, and circular reasoning on steroids.

    3. Atheists don't have to presuppose verificationism to be true

    He accuses atheists of presupposing "empirical verificationism." Verificationism is not a prerequisite in order to be an atheist. An atheists can accept logic as a basis for deriving some metaphysical truths, but empirical verificationism should be the privileged of the two because it is more reliable. Once one accepts logic as an epistemology, they cannot be classified as a verificationist, because verificationism is the view that statements are meaningful only "if it is in principle possible to establish empirically whether they are true or false." Hard line verificationism gets you to logical positivism and that dreaded indictment - scientism (!). The "self-defeating" claim is made by arguing that verificationism itself is not verifiable (i.e. one cannot empirically verify that verificationism is true). He wrote during our debate:

    Logic can only function on premises that logic cannot prove. Ergo, my argument is not about logic, but the necessity of faith in metaphysical premises from which one must reason.

    Although it is certainly true that you cannot use logic to prove logic and you cannot use science to prove science in that each has to be granted, or presupposed in a sense before it can even be used, logic and science have a demonstrably proven track record of working. Historically, humanity didn't presuppose the validity of logic and science, they were developed over time and they've proven their usefulness. I would argue that they are both empirically justified. They simply just work. (I of course acknowledge that logic and science can be improperly used and can get things wrong. These instances are largely due to human error. The scientific method at least has a built in correction system.)

    Now this theist doesn't deny that logic and science work, and he agrees that empirical verification is a valid measure for finding facts about the physical world, he just says they have limitations, and the supernatural is beyond those limits. To tap into the supernatural, he says religious faith is needed. And he says atheists have faith in their presuppositions. He wrote:

    We also both use faith in our metaphysical presuppositions to discern metaphysical claims, so you actually are in the exact same boat in that regard. However, I have more of an ability to know metaphysical reality than you do, because I at least have a belief that someone who is transcendent has revealed the nature of the universe to us…” 

    Oh boy. You can see from this type of argument what kind of character we're dealing with here. His last statement basically amounts to saying: “My beliefs are true because my beliefs say they are true.” It's impossible to have a rational conversation with a person who presupposes an entire religion as a starting point, and then argues from there. I repeatedly argued that we not only have no evidence for the supernatural, but that many of the metaphysical claims by religions involving the supernatural have been falsified, like the belief that demons cause diseases and natural disasters, which we know today is false. He actually believes demons exist and that they use natural laws to do their dirty work. But if demons "use" natural physical laws that scientists can predict, then their existence and nonexistence are indistinguishable, meaning, it serves no useful purpose to believe in them; it's just redundant metaphysical baggage. That's basically what his supernatural beliefs amount to.

    What matters is not whose worldview can be proven, but whose is better supported, and it seems clear that the presuppositionalist and I are not in the same boat in that regard. If the fundamentalist was correct, the physical world would match the Bible's description of it. But it doesn't. It contradicts the biblical account. The fundamentalist is then forced to believe that the natural world deceives us and that we cannot trust our senses. In other words, all the evidence against their beliefs is the result of demons trying to steer them away from god. (Sigh) There is simply no logical reason to believe in supernatural forces controlling things if you have a sufficient natural explanation. This distinction in our worldviews highlighted our main disagreement.

    4. Metaphysics does not only entail that which is non-physical

    We got into a debate over metaphysics and he asserted that metaphysics only deals with that which is not physical in principle. He wrote:

    Metaphysical beliefs are purely non-physical because beliefs aren't material. Second to this, metaphysical reality, whatever it may be, is just that, META-physical, i.e., beyond the physical.

    I don't completely agree with him. The way I understand what a metaphysical claim is, is any claim about the nature or reality that is not currently verified via science. To say "dragons exist" is a metaphysical claim, even though dragons would be physical if they existed. To say "the earth is the center of the universe" is a metaphysical claim, even though it's about the physical universe. Once we confirm a metaphysical claim via science, it ceases to be metaphysical and becomes physical. But until then, it will remain metaphysical. Thus, metaphysical claims are about things that currently exist beyond what science has verified. They aren't only about what science can't verify. And according to his definition, naturalism wouldn't even be a metaphysical claim, since it doesn't posit anything beyond the physical besides emergent properties. Among philosophers however, there is no final consensus as to what the exact boundaries of metaphysics are, so we can agree to disagree here.

    What it all boils down to

    Ultimately what it all boils down to is this. I don't deny theism merely on the grounds that it is not empirically evident, although it certainly isn't. I deny theism (1) because of the lack of good supporting empirical and logical evidence for it, (2) because the worldview that every religion paints is inconsistent with reality and logic, (3) because we have good evidence that religious experience is a product of the mind that is found cross-culturally, (4) because revelation as a means for receiving consistent, useful knowledge is an abject failure, (5) a prior and a posteriori means for receiving consistent, useful knowledge are well attested and affirmed, and finally (6) what we see and observe in the natural world is more consistent with naturalism.

    So only if one adopts a hard line logical positivist epistemology is there any kind of internal inconsistency with atheism. But no atheist needs to adopt such a restrictive framework. The only thing that we all have access to to construct our worldviews using our senses and logic is the physical world. Given what we know about the physical world, it is much more compatible with naturalism than with theisms like Christianity. The fundamentalist Christian even has to deny science in order to make his worldview work and he therefore has to deny his own senses. Any worldview that has to deny well attested scientific facts is self-defeating.


    1. Because it denies theism on the grounds that it is not empirically evident. But neither is the metaphysic that is needed to assume the validity of empirical verificationism. It thus assumes a metaphysic for which it has no empirical evidence in order to argue that things without empirical evidence, like theism, cannot be rationally affirmed. That's just one of the self defeaters within the worldview.

      By this argument, no one would be able to deny that a spider is crawling up their arm when there was no empirical evidence.

      If the validity of empirical evidence is assumed, it is nonsense to need empirical evidence to validate empirical evidence. The worst he can claim is:

      It thus assumes a metaphysic to argue that things without empirical evidence, like theism, cannot be rationally affirmed.

      1. I think perhaps what he might be trying to argue is against Logical Positivism, rather than atheism (I've commented on a few Christian blogs where they're unable to distinguish between the two).

      2. Yes, some theists conflate logical positivism with atheism, just like they conflate communism with atheism. That's exactly what this fundie did.

    2. Dawson Bethrick takes apart Hodges's critique of Objectivism in the comments section, here.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.



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