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"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot?

Let’s look at the second of the two arguments I sketched out for science (and any atheism dependent on it) being a “faith position” too. It went like this:

The sceptic about the external world shows that our belief that our senses are a reliable guide to reality cannot be justified. But then, as science and indeed all our beliefs about the external world are based on the assumption that our senses are a reliable guide to reality, they too are rooted in "faith". So belief in God is no more a "faith position" than is empirical science.

One response would be to say that while:

(i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality


(ii) there is a God

are both equally unjustifiable, and so, if you like, “faith positions”, the fact is we all assume (i). By contrast, (ii) is an additional assumption we don’t need to make. So the principle of economy says that if we can get away with assuming just (i), we should do so. Adding (ii) as a second assumption requires considerably more “faith”.

Trouble with this move is that some theists maintain that if we accept (ii), then (i) is no longer an assumption. We can justify it by appealing to (ii) (in the style of Descartes – a good God would not allow us systematically to be deceived).

So, each belief involves an equal amount of “faith”.


I think there’s a more obvious and better objection to the above argument for science (and any dependent atheism) being a "faith position, in fact. Coming to that shortly….


Anonymous said…

Look at
"Trouble with this move is that some theists maintain that if we accept (ii), then (i) is no longer an assumption. We can justify it by appealing to (ii) (in the style of Descartes – a good God would not allow us systematically to be deceived).

So, each belief involves an equal amount of “faith”."

I cannot see this equality. The notion that there's a good God requires much more "faith" than the notion that "our senses are a reliable guide to reality".

And then there are the ancillary beliefs of the theists to consider. Heaven and hell are also part of reality, for Christians, yet our senses fail to detect them. So our senses are being systematically deceived in respect of this version of the afterlife.

And with all the evil in the world, how can anyone be certain that a good God would not allow us to be so deceived? If he would let us suffer so much from hunger, natural disasters and disease, what's a little deception between a deity and his followers ? More belief required, I'm afraid.
Larry Hamelin said…
The thing is, we don't accept (i); that we do in fact employ the concepts of hallucinations and optical illusions conclusively demonstrates that (i) is not an premise in the logical sense.

We do conclude, however, that our perceptual experiences are (usually) reliable; this conclusion is subconscious and automatic, so it often feels like an premise.

We should recast (i) to establish the weaker authority of our senses, rather than their veracity:

(i') Our perceptual experiences as experiences are authoritative

They are authoritative in the sense that our perceptual experiences must be accounted for. The veracity—the truth of the objective content—of our perceptual experiences, is one particular hypothesis; often, but not always, scientifically justifiable.

Under (i), hallucinations and optical illusions are incoherent; "such-and-such experience is illusory" contradicts—and thus cannot be derived from—the premise, "Our senses are reliable."

Under (i'), hallucinations and optical illusions are unproblematic. They still exist: We do in fact see the pencil as bent when halfway in the water. They are still authoritative: we must account for why we see the pencil as bent. But since the hypothesis that the pencil actually does become bent when it is halfway immersed in water is not the simplest hypothesis to account for the experience, we are free to reject the veracity (reliability) of that particular perception.

The problem with (ii) is, of course, that we cannot in fact derive (i) ((even if (i) were coherent) or (i') from (ii). There is nothing in the definition of God (even if we accept the Omnimax definition) that analytically entails (i) or (i'). We must explicitly add an extra premise:

(ii-b) God desires (or it is good) that our senses are reliable/veridical or authoritative (i').

In order to "derive" (i) or (i') from (ii), we must add an equivalent premise to (ii); Therefore, the notion that "God exists" does not, by itself, explain (i).
Larry Hamelin said…
One (failed) way to "rescue" (i) is to interpret "reliable" as "mostly veridical". However, in a purely logical sense, we end up with the "wishy-washy" version of (i):

(i-ww) A particular perceptual experience is veridical or it is not veridical

Analytically valid, of course, but entirely vacuous.
Larry Hamelin said…
Decartes' conclusion does not follow: We must add the enthymeme, "It is not good to be deceived."

We cannot count on our moral intuition at all on to substantiate Decartes' conclusion: If it is good to be deceived, then we would be benignly deceived when we intuit that it is bad to be deceived.
anticant said…
As Joad would have said, "it all depends on what you mean by 'reality'."
Anonymous said…
-Atheist's reality: this universe

-Theist's reality: this universe + a supernatural creator

It STILL looks like an inequality of faith to me.

"in the style of Descartes – a good God would not allow us systematically to be deceived"

Well, we all once thought the Earth was flat, didn't we? We were DECIEVED to think so due to a flat-looking horizon. (Use of senses) Now we can see the Earth is round because of satellite pictures. (Also a use of senses)

So that means, theists must ALSO have faith that God is either good, evil or morally neutral. But He can't be good since we've been decieved. Therefore He, if He exists, is either morally neutral or EVIL. (see Stephen Law's God of Eth for more evidence of this)

So again,

Atheist's reality: this universe

Theist's reality: this universe + a supernatural creator+ the morality of this creator being good despite the logical evidence+ logic doesn't really work+ atheists are weird

Unless a theist argues our senses are NOT reliable. True, as I've illustrated in the Flat Earth case, but that STILL gives no reason to assume something else beyond our senses.

And besides, What You See/Sense is What You Get, no?
A certain quote from Groucho Marx springs to mind here:-

"Who you gonna believe...?"
Ophelia Benson said…
"Trouble with this move is that some theists maintain that if we accept (ii), then (i) is no longer an assumption."

It seems to me we have to accept both (ii) and (iii) for (i) to be no longer an assumption. (ii) was "there is a God"; (iii) is "the God there is is good". So the amounts of faith aren't equal; (ii) and (iii) are at least double (i).
James James said…
Someone tried to do a similar thing recently ( Solving induction with Jesus. He said that if you believe in god you have no problem of induction, i.e. the reason physical laws hold everywhere is because god makes it so.

The problem is that, while consistent, we have absolutely no reason for believing god exists.

Returning to the original question, we have no reason for believing our senses (I could be a brain-in-a-vat), but we if we believe in god, we do. But this is not a reason to believe in god, and we have no reason to believe in god. So which is more "reasonable"?

I say the one without god. God just requires one extra thing, which we have no reason to add. Nothing even suggests god as an explanation.
Larry Hamelin said…
Ophelia: Actually we have to have three premises:

(i) God exists
(ii) God is good
(iii) true beliefs are good
Larry Hamelin said…
Yet another premise required:

(iv) God causes us to have beliefs

To make God work in any kind of form, we have to assert a plethora of deductively unjustified premises.
Jeff said…
I just go with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The existence of anything outside a given context is unknowable. For that matter, there are truth-statements in a given system that are unprovable from within the system, and unreachable false-statements as well.

So by this standard, capital-A Atheists require just as much faith (that, is, acceptance of something that cannot be proved) as Theists.

Anecdotally, most Atheists I've had discussions with seem to be just garden-variety contrarians whose pet topic happens to be god.
Larry Hamelin said…
Jeff: You have just a bit of a gap between your premise and your conclusion—otherwise known as the non-sequitur fallacy, with a topping of poisoning the well.
Larry Hamelin said…
Rev. Dr. Incitatus: Are you referring to this story?

A neighbor of the mullah Nasreddin wished to borrow the mullah's donkey. Nasreddin, however, considered his neighbor untrustworthy; so as not to be impolite, however, he insisted that he had already lent his donkey to another.

"But I saw your donkey just this morning!" complained the neighbor.

"No, you must be mistaken," countered Nasreddin, "I lent him out yesterday."

At that moment, the donkey let out a loud bray.

"Aha!" exclaimed the neighbor, "Your donkey is in the stable!"

"Nonsense!" replied Nasreddin, "Who are you going to believe? Me or the donkey?"
James James said…
"Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"
Chico Marx in Duck Soup

Jeff: Do you actually know Gödel's first incompleteness theorem? It's for arithmetic, not this.
Ophelia Benson said…
BB, I know, I thought of further premises that were needed, and then more again, but I decided to keep it simple. But I added some in another location yesterday.

It actually takes quite a lot of beliefs to make the 'God guarantees our senses' idea even make sense. Paging Mr Occam, paging Mr Occam.
Timmo said…
I just go with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.

I hate it when this happens. As I wrote here, Gödel's 1st Incompleteness Theorem is really just a technical result in mathematical logic, and does not show the sort of thing that Jeff supposes it does.

In full, this is Gödel's 1st Incompleteness Theorem: For any theory with identity T, such that (i) T has a recursive axiom set, (ii) every recursive function is representable in T and every recursive relation is expressible in T, and (iii) T is omega-consistent, there is at least one undecideable sentence in T. How does one go from that to saying that atheists have faith?
Ophelia Benson said…
Rebecca Goldstein hates it when that happens too; she talks about it here.

"Among “humanist” intellectuals who do invoke Gödel’s name, he is often associated with the general assault on objectivity and rationality that gained such popularity in the last century. I’d often find myself pondering which would be the preferable state of affairs regarding Gödel, anonymity or misinterpretation. Which would Gödel have preferred? I’m going to indulge in “the privileged position of the biographer” to presume I know the answer to the latter question, at least: Gödel, who was so passionately committed to the truth, would have far preferred utter oblivion to the falsifications of his theorems that have given him whatever fame he has in the non-mathematical world."

The whole piece is a great read, I think.
Larry Hamelin said…
Although I certainly don't think that Godel's theorem entails that atheism is faith, and it's not an all-out assault on "objectivity" (itself a vague concept) or truth, I do think it's more than just a "technical result"—especially for someone interested in computer science and artificial intelligence as well as philosophy.

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