Monday, July 12, 2010

Critique of Ten Common Atheist Polemical Claims About Science, God's Existence, the Alleged Profound Irrationality of Theology, and Epistemology

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Epistemology and the relationship of science, philosophy, and religion (and the relative reasonableness of all) are among my very favorite topics to discuss and debate. There are a huge amount of myths and misunderstandings to overcome on this score. The atheist polemical claims below will be numbered, centered, and in blue.

* * * * *

1) Scientific proof constitutes the only sensible way to determine whether or not God exists.

This is the wrong way to ask the question or approach it, in my opinion. First of all, I (along with many Christian philosophers, theologians, apologists, etc.) would deny that absolute proof can be had. My position is that God's existence is plausible, reasonable, and quite worthy of belief, based on a great number of considerations and many fields of knowledge and experience: all taken together.

Secondly, this outlook assumes the epistemologically naive premise that science is the sum total of all knowledge and of all proof of whatever is able to be proven at all. This requires, then, a completely separate discussion of the false premise that scientific knowledge is all there is. Fortunately, I have done a great deal of that "spadework" already, in past dialogues and papers:

Philosophy of Science & the Impossibility of Epistemological "Neutrality" (Esp. Within Materialist or Logical Positivist Presuppositional Frameworks) (editor)

Dialogue With an Atheist on the Relationship of Christianity and Metaphysics to the Scientific Method (vs. Sue Strandberg)


Old Habits Die Hard: The Garden Variety Atheist Fairy Tale of "Christianity vs. Science and Reason" Redux (vs. "drunkentune")

To say that science is the only way to establish anything is to make a logical assertion, and it in itself is not scientific (strictly speaking about scientific method) at all. It is an abstract observation of meaning, made from a certain philosophical stance (empiricism). Science and philosophy are distinct disciplines (though science is a branch of philosophy: essentially empiricism). Therefore, this is a philosophical statement that is assumed (circularly) to be unassailable and indisputable.

Now, it is either indisputable or it is not. If it's not, then that is a problem, and the principle is questionable. If it is, it is still a problem because it is self-contradictory and therefore logically and conceptually incoherent, since it is a philosophical statement claiming that all proofs are scientific, or else meaningless. But the very assertion (science is all there is in matters of proof) contradicts the premise required (non-scientific logic and philosophy) to make the assertion.

In other words, one has to step outside of science to make grand, sweeping conclusions about science and what it can and cannot do. Philosophy cannot be entirely separated from science. It never has been separated in the past, is not now, and never will be, since there are many assumptions that must be taken as axiomatic (matter exists; we can observe it and draw conclusions; we can trust our own observations; matter follows certain laws; the universe is orderly, matter contains within itself inherent properties that have brought everything in the universe about; uniformitarianism, etc.) before science is possible in the first place.

Lastly, it is absurd to demand scientific proof of God because this involves another fundamental category error: science deals with matter and God is spirit. How, then, could there be such a proof, if science is the study of matter? It's a meaningless question, from within its own purported paradigm. Science operates methodologically on the assumption that matter is all that is in play. Individual scientists (not all, by any means) often have a materialistic worldview as well (one that would rule out spirit from the outset even if spirit were part of scientific inquiry, which it is not).

So how is it that it is thought that only science can prove anything; anything includes God; therefore, if science can't do this, the rational person must conclude that there is no God? This sort of thinking (quite common in atheist circles) is a feast of internal logical dissonance and chaos. If science wants to be methodologically materialistic (which I have no problem with, as far as it goes), then by the same token, and by intellectual fairness or fair play, it has to "shut up" about the question of God's existence altogether.

It can't disprove His existence anymore than it can prove it. It would be like trying to prove that Beethoven was a great composer, by a geometric proof, or that a particular skyscraper has a great structural integrity, by enlisting the principles of botany or etymology or good golf technique. The two things have nothing to do with each other, by definition.

All that the atheist or Christian can do is argue that science as we know it is harmonious and not inconsistent with atheism or Christianity, respectively. The outside observer can then compare relative plausibility of the claims. This is an approach that respects all the different fields of knowledge, and doesn't involve vicious internal circularity, incoherence, or philosophical / epistemological naivete.

I submit that atheists who reason in this fashion are unaware of many of their own premises because they have not sufficiently thought through the implications and foundations of their own assertions. But that's alright; we Christians are happy to offer our support in helping them do that, and to get up to speed on logic and the proper relationship between science and philosophy.

As to "proof" in general: one can only argue from plausibility and reasonableness and self-consistency, based on many different arguments of different sorts. The very notion of faith indicates that there is more in play than demonstration or proof. But belief in things we can't absolutely prove is also inherently present in any atheist system of belief or indeed any system of belief at all, so belief in non-provable notions is not unique to Christians at all.

Saying that only science can prove or disprove the existence of God is a self-contradictory notion. A purported "truth" is taken as axiomatic. But it is not science. It is an epistemological statement about what can be known. If it is true, it is true not because of science, because it has nothing to do with science insofar as its own "criterion" for being accepted as a true notion. Therefore, not all truths are scientifically ascertained, and the statement contradicts that which it claims and is reduced to logical nonsense.

Religious inquiry or the theological endeavor, on the other hand, incorporates revelation, the history of theological thinking (including authoritative tradition), religious experience, psychological, sociological, and anthropological analysis, philosophical inquiry, etc. Science can also be discussed in terms of its findings being entirely harmonious with what Christians believe (e.g., the Big Bang, which is one such example, since it is perfectly consistent with the traditional theological notion of creatio ex nihilo).

Scientific method is the best method we have for understanding the truth about matter, but not all truth claims whatever. Since it doesn't deal with spirit, it has nothing to say, ultimately about God or religion; certainly not by way of proof or disproof. Non-empirical philosophy has built up many ways of approaching reality over 3000 years or so.

Without proper philosophy or religious morals, science can lead us down paths that have little to do with reality or morality: as happened, e.g., in Nazi science and the fascination with phrenology that was very far-reaching in science at one time, or in forced sterilization practices and immoral goofball eugenics (that the Nazis put to much use).

2) Atheism by nature doesn't require any faith, as religion does. Faith only enters in where rational, scientific, observable evidence is lacking.

This is untrue. There is plenty of faith in atheism, as I have noted and argued for many years now. The faith comes in what the atheist believes about matter. It is believed (without anywhere near sufficient "proof") that matter has within itself -- with no outside intelligence or spirit involved other than the eternal laws of matter -- the power and capacity to create absolutely everything in the universe. That takes an incredible amount of faith to believe. I've written at length about the extraordinary measure of faith and belief in unprovable or unproven axioms that atheists exercise:

How did gravity and quantum mechanics and natural selection come to be in the first place? They still derive from the Big Bang. How did they evolve? And what remarkable potentialities were present in the Big Bang itself to make such a thing occur? What do "most nontheists" believe about how the universe came to be, and about its seeming "design"? . . .

Natural "laws" (themselves metaphysical abstractions in a large sense, even though they have to do with matter) still have to attain their remarkable organizing abilities at some point. One either explains them by natural laws or by humbly bowing to divine teleology at some point as an explanation every bit as plausible as a scenario which boils down to materialism any way you cut the cake (everything is explained by material processes).

Matter becomes god in the atheist/materialist/naturalist view, as far as I am concerned, and this is patently obvious, because in the godless universe, matter has the inherent power to do everything by itself, that Christians believe God caused, by putting these potentialities and actual characteristics into matter and natural laws, being their ultimate Creator and even Ongoing Preserver and Sustainer.

Quite obviously, then, since all these marvels which we observe in the universe are attributed to matter, just as we attribute the same capacities and designs to God's creative power, from our perspective, matter is the atheist's god, in which he places extraordinary faith; more faith even than we place in God, because it is far more difficult to explain everything that god-matter does by science alone. Yet atheists manage to believe this anyway because they refuse to acknowledge a God behind all the Design. . . .

Such belief is, in effect and in substance, closely-examined, a kind of poytheistic idolatry of the crudest, most primitive sort, which puts to shame the pagan worship and incredulities of the ancient Babylonians, Philistines, Aztecs, and other primitive groups. They believed that their silver amulets and wooden idols could make the sun shine or defeat an enemy or cause crops to flourish. The polytheistic materialist is far, far more religious than that: he thinks that trillions of his Atom-gods and their distant relatives, the Cell-gods, can make absolutely everything in the universe occur, of their own power, possessed eternally either in full or in inevitably-unfolding potentiality.

One might call this (to coin a phrase) Deo-Atomism ("belief that the Atom is God"). The omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, ubiquitous (if not omnipresent) Atom (especially trillions of them) can do absolutely everything that the Christian God can do, and for little or no reason that we can understand (i.e., why and how the Atom-God came to possess such powers in the first place). The Deo-Atomist worships his trillions of gods unreservedly, with the most perfect, trusting, non-rational faith imaginable. He is what sociologists call a "true believer."

Oh, and we mustn't forget the Time-goddess as well. She is often invoked in worshipful, reverential, awe-inspiring terms as the be-all, end-all explanation for things inexplicable, as if by magic her very incantation rises to an explanatory level sufficient to shut up any silly Christian, who is foolish enough to believe in one God rather than trillions. The Time-goddess might be said to be the highest in the ranks of the Deo-Atomist's wonderfully-varied hierarchy of gods, since she is one, rather than trillions (sort of the "Zeus" of Deo-Atomism). One might call this belief Deo-Temporalism.

Deo-Atomism is a strong, fortress-like faith. It is often said that it "must be" what it is. How is this at all different from monotheism, where certain things are taken for granted as basic beliefs? There is no epistemological difference. The atheist's and materialist's or positivist's or naturalist's religion is Deo-Atomism; mine is theistic Christianity. Matter is their god; a Creator Spirit God is mine. The Deo-Atomist simply reverses the error of the Gnostics. They thought spirit was great and that matter was evil. Deo-Atomists think matter is great (and god) and spirit is not only "evil" (metaphorically speaking), but beyond that: non-existent.

In a certain remote sense, on one level, the Christian reacts to such profound religious belief with the thought, "Who am I to endanger by rational argument such a sublime fideism and Absolute Trust in a Teleological Argument vis-a-vis trillions of Atom-gods? I can only stand in awe of such Pure Faith."

Deo-Atomists may and do differ on secondary issues, just as the various ancient polytheistic cultures differed on quibbling details (which god could do what, which material made for a better idol, etc.), but despite all, they inevitably came out on the side of polytheistic idolatry, with crude material gods, and against spiritual monotheism.

Some Deo-Atomist utterances even have the "ring" of Scriptures, such as an appropriate humility urged in man's opinion of his own importance, because the universe is so large, and we are so small, as if material or spatial largeness itself is some sort of inherently God-like quality. One Deo-Atomist told me that "order is in the eye of the beholder." That reminded me of the biblical Proverbs (perhaps he was the Deo-Atomist equivalent of Solomon).

Of course, in Deo-Atomism, each person is gods too, because he is made up of trillions of Atom-gods and also lots of Cell-gods, so there are lots of gods there indeed! When you get trillions of gods all together in one place, it stands to reason that they can corporately perceive the order of which any one of them individually is capable of producing. So within the Deo-Atomist faith-paradigm, this make perfect sense. But for one outside their circle of religious faith, it may not (just to warn the devout, faithful Deo-Atomist that others of different faiths may not think such things as "obvious" as they do). The Deo-Atomist manages to believe any number of things, in faith, without mere explanation.

In other words, the "why" questions in the context of Deo-Atomism are in and of themselves "senseless." And the reason why that is (i.e., for the Deo-Atomist), is because the question impinges upon the Impenetrable Fortress of blind faith that the Deo-Atomist possesses. If the question of "Why does God exist?" is senseless, then it follows straightforwardly that likewise, the question, "Why do the Atom-gods and Cell-gods and the Time-goddess exist and eternally possess the extraordinary powers that they do?" is senseless, meaningless and oughtn't be put forth. One simply doesn't ask such questions. It is bad form, and impolite in mixed company. We know how sensitive overly-religious folk are.

Instead, we are asked to bow to the countless mysteries of Deo-Atomism in humble adoration and awed silence, dumbstruck, like the Magi at the baby Jesus' manger, offering our "scientific" and "philosophical" allegiance like they offered gold and frankincense and myrhh. The very inquiry is senseless and "intrusive." And so rational examination is precluded at and from the outset. It is, indeed, an ingenious, self-contained system: hopelessly irrational and self-defeating; ultimately incoherent, of course, but ingenious and admirable in its bold, brilliant intellectual audacity and innovation, if nothing else. . . .

I don't worship science or the atom or my own brain. I worship God. And if God didn't possess some attributes I didn't fully understand or comprehend, I submit that He wouldn't be God. That would simply be an idol that I created, that I completely understand, as it is no higher than what I can conceive it to be: a "God" made in man's image, rather than vice versa. . . .

Deo-Atomists ought to stop asking for scientific explanations in the name of theology, when they can't even give scientific explanations (pertaining to origins and teleology) in the name of naturalistic science for many of their beliefs.


3) The universe (from what we have learned by applying the scientific method) is able to operate without any "God" being necessary.

God is required in terms of being the Prime Mover or Creator Who set all the wheels of the marvels of matter that we see in motion. Science cannot explain them at that fundamental level. It takes just as much faith to believe that all of this came about by eternal laws of matter than it does to believe that there was some sort of Primal Intelligence that is a spirit and eternal: what we Christians know as God.

My question about the Big Bang is "how did it come about?" One can believe that the event happened based on many scientific indications, but science can't tell us about why it did or whether a spirit outside of it caused it to happen. This being the case, there is nothing irrational whatever in a Christian believing that a superior Intelligence and Designer caused that. It is going way too far to claim that the Big Bang "proves" the existence of God. But I would say that the most plausible explanation of its own cause (and of all the marvels we observe in nature) is God.

I have many books about physics and/or the Big Bang in my personal library. All of the cosmological theories about origins now being bandied about, require faith as well, as Paul Davies noted in his book, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, pp. 173-174):

[T]he many-universe theorists concede that the 'other worlds' of their theory can never be, even in principle, be inspected. Travel between quantum 'branches' is forbidden. Moreover, the ordered regions in the infinite or oscillating model universes are separated by such huge expanses of space or time that no observer can ever verify or refute empirically the existence of the many universes. It is hard to see how such a purely theoretical construct can ever be used as an explanation, in the scientific sense, of a feature of nature. Of course, one might find it easier to believe in an infinite array of universes than in an infinite Deity, but such a belief must rest on faith rather than observation.

Davies also observes about the relationship of science and religion (p. 218):


In spite of the spectacular success of modern science, it would be foolish to suppose that the fundamental questions concerning the existence of God, the purpose of the universe or the role of mankind in the natural and supernatural scheme has been answered by these advances. Indeed, scientists themselves have a wide range of religious beliefs.

4) If intelligent design or the traditional argument from design (teleology) were part of science, then scientists would have been discussing it. But they are not doing so. Only the fringe kooks (creationists, geocentrists, etc.) are doing that.

It's not allowed to be discussed in scientific circles, by deliberate choice. Present science excludes teleology as a matter of category and compartmentalization. That has no bearing on whether teleology itself is valid or invalid or has any insights to offer on a philosophical plane. It doesn't follow, however, that all talk of God whatever is excluded from science. Obviously, in many books written by science (particularly by cosmologists / physicists / astronomers), God is written about regularly (and not without a great deal of respect for the history of theistic thought, and continuing possibilities of various aspects of theism being true). Even Stephen Hawking does this:


Science seems to have uncovered a set of laws that, within the limits set by the uncertainty principle, tell us how the universe will develop with time, if we know its state at any one time. These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it.

So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator.

(A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantam Books, 1988, pp. 122, 141)


Lots of very sharp thinkers throughout history have concluded that the observations of science and observation of the universe lead the probing, thinking mind to some additional spiritual reality. For example:

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion . . .

Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system . . .

All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is
adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author.

(Philosopher David Hume, Natural History of Religion, 1757, edited by H. E. Root, London: 1956, 21, 26)

My comprehension of God comes from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world. In common terms, one can describe it as 'pantheistic' (Spinoza).

(Albert Einstein, Answer to the question, "What is your understanding of God?" Kaizo, 5, no. 2, 1923, 197. in Alice Calaprice, editor, The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton Univ. Press, 2000, 203)


Now, I would like to ask atheists: from whence comes Einstein's "deeply felt conviction"? Is it a philosophical reason or the end result of a syllogism? He simply has it. It is an intuitive or instinctive feeling or "knowledge" or "sense of wonder at the incredible, mind-boggling marvels of the universe" in those who have it. Atheists don't possess this intuition, but my point is that it is not utterly implausible or unable to be held by even the most rigorous, "non-dogmatic" intellects, such as Einstein and Hume. And the atheist has to account for that fact somehow, it seems to me. Here are some more similar statements by Einstein:


My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

(Calaprice, ibid., 204 / To a banker in Colorado, 1927. Einstein Archive 48-380; also quoted in Dukas and Hoffmann, Albert Einstein, the Human Side, 66, and in the New York Times obituary, April 19, 1955)

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe -- a spirit vastly superior to that of man . . . In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort . . .

(Calaprice, ibid., 211-212 / To student Phyllis Right, who asked if scientists pray, January 24, 1936. Einstein Archive 42-601, 52-337)

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

(Calaprice, ibid., 213 / Ideas and Opinions, 46)

In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.

(Calaprice, ibid., 214 / Said to German anti-Nazi diplomat and author Hubertus zu Lowenstein around 1941. Quoted in his book, Towards the Further Shore, London, 1968, 156)

I have found no better expression than 'religious' for confidence in the rational nature of reality, insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Whenever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism.

(Calaprice, ibid., 216 / To Maurice Solovine, January 1, 1951. Einstein Archive 21-474; published in Letters to Solovine, 119)


5) Religion can't really explain things like the origins of the universe, because it has no explanatory value. It doesn't explain process and causation and mechanism. It's just a bunch of ancient myths; "God of the gaps." Christians always throw up God when they can't truly explain something. He fills in all the gaps of knowledge.

With regard to the Big Bang and many how and why questions regarding the origin of the universe and of the laws of science, Hawking freely concedes that we don't have them. If he is correct, then again it is seen that the atheist has to exercise faith and/or belief in unproven (and sometimes unprovable axioms and theories and hypotheses) in order to maintain his atheism and to "explain" why the universe is here at all, and why matter behaves as it does. This is not unlike "God of the gaps:


The question remains, however: How or why were the laws and the initial state of the universe chosen? . . .

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?

Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories. . . . science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists . . .

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.

(Hawking, ibid., pp. 173-175)


I'll be eagerly awaiting the announcement of this unified theory, so we can then know with certainty why we and the universe exist. Hawking thus exhibits the usual pretentiousness of many in the scientific community: the illusion that science can or possibly will explain everything there is to understand. But I give him credit for at least acknowledging some sensible limitations, not falling into the "science is the only knowledge" self-illusion, and not ruling out the possibility of God altogether.

The separation of science and theology in terms of their basic subject matter has always been patently obvious. Hence, John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote 152 years ago in Part II, chapter 7 of his famous book, The Idea of a University (and it is every bit as much true today):

. . . I propose, then, to discuss the antagonism which is popularly supposed to exist between Physics and Theology; and to show, first, that such antagonism does not really exist, . . .

I think I am not mistaken in the fact that there exists, both in the educated and half-educated portions of the community, something of a surmise or misgiving, that there really is at bottom a certain contrariety between the declarations of religion and the results of physical inquiry; a suspicion such, that, while it encourages those persons who are not over-religious to anticipate a coming day, when at length the difference will break out into open conflict, to the disadvantage of Revelation, it leads religious minds, on the other hand, who have not had the opportunity of considering accurately the state of the case, to be jealous of the researches, and prejudiced against the discoveries, of Science. The consequence is, on the one side, a certain contempt of Theology; on the other, a disposition to undervalue, to deny, to ridicule, to discourage, and almost to denounce, the labours of the physiological, astronomical, or geological investigator. . . .

The physical philosopher has nothing whatever to do with final causes, and will get into inextricable confusion, if he introduces them into his investigations. He has to look in one definite direction, not in any other. It is said that in some countries, when a stranger asks his way, he is at once questioned in turn what place he came from: something like this would be the unseasonableness of a physicist, who inquired how the phenomena and laws of the material world primarily came to be, when his simple task is that of ascertaining what they are. Within the limits of those phenomena he may speculate and prove; he may trace the operation of the laws of matter through periods of time; he may penetrate into the past, and anticipate the future; he may recount the changes which they have effected upon matter, and the rise, growth, and decay of phenomena; and so in a certain sense he may write the history of the material world, as far as he can; still he will always advance from phenomena, and conclude upon the internal evidence which they supply. He will not come near the questions, what that ultimate element is, which we call matter, how it came to be, whether it can cease to be, whether it ever was not, whether it will ever come to nought, in what its laws really consist, whether they can cease to be, whether they can be suspended, what causation is, what time is, what the relations of time to cause and effect, and a hundred other questions of a similar character.

Such is Physical Science, and Theology, as is obvious, is just what such Science is not. Theology begins, as its name denotes, not with any sensible facts, phenomena, or results, not with nature at all, but with the Author of nature,-- with the one invisible, unapproachable Cause and Source of all things. It begins at the other end of knowledge, and is occupied, not with the finite, but the Infinite. It unfolds and systematizes what He Himself has told us of Himself; of His nature, His attributes, His will, and His acts. As far as it approaches towards Physics, it takes just the counterpart of the questions which occupy the Physical Philosopher. He contemplates facts before him; the Theologian gives the reasons of those facts. The Physicist treats of efficient causes; the Theologian of final. The Physicist tells us of laws; the Theologian of the Author, Maintainer, and Controller of them; of their scope, of their suspension, if so be; of their beginning and their end. This is how the two schools stand related to each other, at that point where they approach the nearest; but for the most part they are absolutely divergent. . . .

So far, then, as these remarks have gone, Theology and Physics cannot touch each other, have no intercommunion, have no ground of difference or agreement, of jealousy or of sympathy. As well may musical truths be said to interfere with the doctrines of architectural science; as well may there be a collision between the mechanist and the geologist, the engineer and the grammarian; as well might the British Parliament or the French nation be jealous of some possible belligerent power upon the surface of the moon, as Physics pick a quarrel with Theology . . .


6) Science deals with facts and reason, but religion is an ultimately irrational system of arbitrary beliefs, held in faith, in the teeth of reason.

All facts have to be interpreted as to their larger significance, and placed with a larger paradigm or framework. Facts alone do not touch the deeper "why questions" of philosophy and religion. Thinking atheists and Christians pretty much agree on the "whats" of scientific observation. What we disagree on is how this state of affairs came about, the "whys", and the nature and parameters of knowledge and what we can know and not know, and what requires faith or belief in unproven premises and axioms, etc.

Thomas Kuhn writes repeatedly about such paradigms in his famous work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1970, 16-17, 44, 46, 94, 173):

. . . No natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism. If that body of belief is not already implicit in the collection of facts -- in which case more than "mere facts" are at hand -- it must be externally supplied, perhaps by a current metaphysic, by another science, or by personal and historical accident . . .

. . . the existence of a paradigm need not even imply that any full set of rules exist . . . Michael Polanyi has brilliantly developed a very similar theme, arguing that much of the scientist's success depends upon "tacit knowledge," i.e., upon knowledge that is acquired through practice and that cannot be articulated explicitly. See his Personal Knowledge (Chicago, 1958), particularly chaps. v and vi . . .

Scientists . . . never learn concepts, laws, and theories in the abstract and by themselves. Instead, these intellectual tools are from the start encountered in a historically and pedagogically prior unit that displays them with and through their applications . . .

When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm's defense. The resulting circularity does not, of course, make the arguments wrong or even ineffectual . . . Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle . . .

What must nature, including man, be like in order that science be possible at all? Why should scientific communities be able to reach a form consensus unattainable in other fields? Why should consensus endure across one paradigm change after another? And why should paradigm change invariably produce an instrument more perfect in any sense than those known before? . . . That problem -- What must the world be like in order that man may know it? . . . is as old as science itself, and it remains unanswered . . .


Science cannot claim to be neutral about religious claims while claiming that it (the only reliable form of knowledge: so many atheists maintain) has simultaneously disproven all such claims: even though by definition it deals with matter and God and theological propositions are spirit and intellectual abstractions, respectively.


7) Theology is silly and irrational because it presupposes that God exists from the outset.

It must do so for the word "theology" to make any sense in the first place. One can hardly engage in the study of God if one believes there is no God to study. So the word presupposes the existence of God (just as the Bible itself does). The Christian can just as easily turn the tables on the atheist who argues in this fashion, and assert:

Scientific investigation of the laws of science are hopelessly flawed because they assume that such laws exist to be discovered and described, and that the behavior of matter determined by these laws, and matter itself, exist.

Scientists make certain axiomatic assumptions, too. In fact, I argue that all knowledge requires axioms and has a point at which there is an unproven proposition. So why should theology be different? But the atheist typically sets apart theology as if it is fundamentally irrational and different from science in this respect, and falsely imagines that science has no unproven assumptions of its own, that it builds upon.

8) Science and theology are fundamentally at odds: like oil and water. They relentlessly contradict each other and historically have been "at war."

This is a myth. In point of fact, modern science began in an overwhelmingly Christian milieu, in the late Middle Ages. The reason for that, I believe, is that Christianity provided the axioms upon which modern science and the scientific method are based: the universe really does exist; it is orderly and follows certain laws (i.e., the basis of uniformitarianism); our brains and intelligence (given to us by God the Creator) can discern, and our senses can observe these patterns and laws, in order to build up a great body of knowledge about the natural world. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead saw this clearly:

Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

(Science and the Modern World, New York: Macmillan, 1925, p. 19)

Thomas Kuhn argues basically the same thing in his book, The Copernican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books / Random House, 1959), as does Edwin A. Burtt in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1954, from 2nd ed., 1932).

Physicist Paul Davies stated in his 1995 Templeton Prize Address:

It was from the intellectual ferment brought about by the merging of Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Islamic-Christian thought, that modern science emerged, with its unidirectional linear time, its insistence on nature's rationality, and its emphasis on mathematical principles. All the early scientists such as Newton were religious in one way or another. They saw their science as a means of uncovering traces of God's handiwork in the universe. What we now call the laws of physics they regarded as God's abstract creation: thoughts, so to speak, in the mind of God. So in doing science, they supposed, one might be able to glimpse the mind of God. What an exhilarating and audacious claim!

In the ensuing three hundred years, the theological dimension of science has faded. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature - the laws of physics - are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they come from; at least they don't in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological world view. . . .

Now you may think I have written God entirely out of the picture. Who needs a God when the laws of physics can do such a splendid job? But we are bound to return to that burning question: Where do the laws of physics come from? And why those laws rather than some other set? Most especially: Why a set of laws that drives the searing, featureless gases coughed out of the big bang, towards life and consciousness and intelligence and cultural activities such as religion, art, mathematics and science?

What is it about the universe -- I would ask atheists -- that supposedly overturns religious faith? What do the inner workings of the atom or the physics of a black hole or quasar, or the evolution of fruitflies have to do with questions such as who Jesus was, the determination of right and wrong, or the purpose and meaning of life? We marvel at the universe just as atheists do.

Arguably, we are even more excited about it, because the more we learn, the more we praise the God Who created these things and set them in motion. To us it is His handiwork, and we see Him in the universe and all its wonders and marvels. But why do I have to become an atheist to experience the thrill of scientific discovery or to appreciate the amazing things about the universe that we have learned? They are what they are.

9) Religion -- unlike science -- is dogmatic, and arbitrarily so at that.

There are religious beliefs that come to be regarded as more-or-less unassailable dogmas. In terms of widespread (often required) assent of followers, however, these are epistemologically little different from universally accepted scientific laws and principles. Over time, certain things become "canonized," so to speak, in science as well as theology, so I see no point in pretending that there is some huge difference of principle between the two (apart from the fact that they deal with different subject matter: spirit / morality and material things).

What books of theology and Christian apologetics and philosophical theology and the history of theology and Christianity have most atheists read? If they haven't read much, surely it is obvious that to be sufficiently informed, one has to at least see the best of what the "opposition" has to offer. Or an atheist can conclude that all religious people are dolts and simpletons, and intellectual equivalents of flat-earthers, and ignore them (and their beliefs) altogether (as I do flat-earthers). But many atheists do not do that. So there must be some suspicion of truthfulness somewhere, or doubt in their own conclusions: that they might possibly be overturned. Otherwise why spend any time at all interacting with what they believe are perfectly senseless, ludicrous belief-systems: on the level of belief in unicorns or leprechauns?

10) Atheists have knowledge that religious folk (for the most part) need to become aware of, so that they can grow intellectually and learn to think properly, and be conformed to reality rather than myths.

It's not "knowledge" to say that there is no God, because that is a negative. The positive "knowledge" atheists claim to possess and offer us is of materialism in the universe. But when that is challenged, and hard questions are asked (the whys and hows, and questions of morality and meaning), all of a sudden there ain't much there: rather like peeling down an onion and ending up with nothing in the end.

If atheists claim that they have a monopoly on reason and respect for science and philosophy, that is simply not true; it is self-evidently false. There have been plenty of theistic scientists and philosophers: and many among the very best and most influential. This supposed wedge between reason and faith won't fly. It's one of the most cherished atheist myths, and seems almost necessary for self-understanding and self-image in atheist circles, but unfortunately for them, it doesn't comport with reality.

Therefore, atheists don't have to offer Christians and other theists either true science or solid philosophy. The thinkers among us are quite familiar with them and love them as much as atheists do. Less sophisticated folks on either side are not so familiar, but so what? Ignorance can be found everywhere. That never proves anything one way or the other. I grant that, proportionately, atheists as a class have a higher educational level (many sociological reasons for that: mostly having to do with influences and whom one associates with), and that corresponds with more reading, etc., but this is irrelevant as to relative truth claims.

***

13 comments:

Dan Marcum said...

Dave said...
I...would deny that absolute proof can be had. My position is that God's existence is plausible, reasonable, and quite worthy of belief...


This is such a fascinating topic, and I have a few thoughts that I'd like to know your position on, Dave. First is that, since you argued that science is not the only mode for proving statements true, wouldn't you agree that non-scientific, philosophical proof for God's existence is ready at hand? Aquinas' five ways, for example, or C.S. Lewis' formulation of the moral argument...aren't these scientific proofs of a non-material maker of laws both material and spiritual?

I've read books by apologists who say God's existence can't be known with metaphysical certainty and those who say it can; I am of the persuasion that it can, since the conclusion of a syllogism, if wrought correctly, simply cannot be false, so long as the premises are true. What is your take on this?

I am thinking there might be two meanings of "knowledge" being bandied about here. You don't "believe" in something you "know" is true empirically in the same way that you "believe" in something proven logically. But I can say with all sincerity: I am as convinced by the logic of the case for God's existence as I am by the testimony of my senses that this computer I am typing at exists. That kind of intellectual acceptance of a proposition as a fact is what we all are accustomed to call "knowledge": I "know" that my computer exists because I can see and feel it, and I "know" that God exists because the argument is successful. But then, what does it mean to say that God's existence cannot be "known"?

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Dan,

It depends what one means by "proof." I usually take it to mean absolute evidentiary demonstration. I deny (in a strict epistemic sense) that such a thing is possible for almost anything. That doesn't mean I become a skeptic (not at all!): only that such a demand is excessive and unnecessary across the board.

The Christian exercises faith. The Bible (e.g., Romans 1) assumes that there is a God, but doesn't argue for God's existence. Most premises cannot be absolutely proven, either. All knowledge involves unproven axioms.

We know in faith that God exists, and believe in the whole system of Christianity for many and various reasons, that go very deep. The basis upon which I would place this is Cardinal Newman's illative sense in his Grammar on Assent, or Alvin Plantinga's "properly basic beliefs."

It's more of a platonic argument than an aristotelian, empirical one. Yet the cosmological argument remains my favorite. I simply deny that it offers absolutely conclusive proof. The many different arguments make it exceedingly probable and plausible that God exists. We believe in faith that He does, on many grounds.

It is "the assent of faith" -- as Newman describes -- but not at all an irrational faith or unreasonable.

Michael Polanyi argued along similar lines in the 20th century.

Dan Marcum said...

Dave said...
All knowledge involves unproven axioms.


I don't know why people believe claims like that. It's not as though that particular epistemological position has been proven, since it doesn't even claim that things are provable (epistemically). It's impossible to prove the conclusion that conclusions are impossible to prove, so why believe it? The statement "all knowledge involves unproven axioms" is itself a knowledge-claim, but it just happens to overthrow its own foundation (proof by argument).

But whatever epistemological position we take, everyone agrees that people talk about "proving" things, and proving claims means that granted certain premises, certain conclusions follow. We don't say that the existence of the creation is "plausible, reasonable, quite worthy of belief," we say it follows necessarily from the facts observed. Well, the existence of the Creator has arguments for it from the same facts, and from much more solid foundations as well. So why is there a difference, I wonder, between the way you and I talk about knowing creation's existence, and the way you and I talk about knowing the Creator's existence?

I'm not trying to be argumentative or put you on the defense, if I sound that way. But I find the "certitude" position much more solid than the "plausibility" position, and I'm glad of the opportunity to know your thoughts about it, since you are on the other side.

Dave Armstrong said...

My epistemological position is virtually identical with Cardinal Newman's, as expressed in his Grammar of Assent.

I oppose the notion of philosophical certainty, but I believe in the certitude of faith, which proceeds on somewhat different, more complex grounds.

I don't have time to get into all this right now. It's far too complex, and not given to short summaries at all. I would direct you to the above book (which can be read for free online). Your beef is ultimately with him, since I follow his thought. Newman was key in my conversion (development of doctrine) and I also like his epistemology and "religious psychology." He has had a profound effect on all of my thought and even the way I do apologetics and ow I argue things.

A lot of this seems to hinge upon whether one is a Thomist. I am not, though I have immense respect for St. Thomas.

Dave Armstrong said...

what does it mean to say that God's existence cannot be "known"?

I didn't say that. I said that "absolute [philosophical] proof" cannot be had. And I asserted in reply, "We know in faith that God exists."

why is there a difference, I wonder, between the way you and I talk about knowing creation's existence, and the way you and I talk about knowing the Creator's existence?

One difference is that the universe is material and observable, whereas God (the Father) is not.

it make it look like someone could yet convince/show to you that you were wrong all this time and god don't exist.

I think any thinking person has to be open to the possibility of being convinced otherwise. We don't know the future, and we don't know all things. It is extremely, exceedingly unlikely, but it is possible.

Maurício said...

"I think any thinking person has to be open to the possibility of being convinced otherwise"
That is where you are wrong, since for certain things you can know that it's impossible to be convinced otherwise, since it is the truth, the logical truth.

You live and go getting informations, searching or not, and, utilizing all the information, you go deducting/comparing things and choosing what appears to be solid ground or not. then you has to step on it and keep walking, without be always on the doubt if that will crack or not (wich is what you do). What happens is that sometimes along the way you get the comprehension that lets you see/realize that one of the "solid grounds" is indeed solid, that there was no flaws on your logic towards that place.
Then, for one thing you see that you can't be convinced otherwise since you has saw the truth

Maurício said...

"My epistemological position is..."
huu, I don't know what is "epistemological", hahaha (maybe I should search on google)

"I oppose the notion of philosophical certainty, but I believe in the certitude of faith"
Yeah, I had see that by reading some of your texts.
But philosophy has a function that seens forgoten: discover the truth.
Not be in eternal divagation/opinions, but to realize/discover/understand what it can of the truth of reality.
I never utilize the word "philosophy", if I have to call what I do for some name I would call "analize of reality", since it englobes everything.

hãã... maybe I should wait to know if you will have interest in read what I could write here, since, maybe, I would write a lot of stuff, hahaha

Dave Armstrong said...

Like I said, pick a fight with Cardinal Newman. He is infinitely wiser than I am and just as much more eloquent.

Dan Marcum said...

Dave said...
My epistemological position is virtually identical with Cardinal Newman's, as expressed in his Grammar of Assent.


I've never read Cardinal Newman, so that's probably what the problem is. I'll read his book and see if I can learn anything about it. Thanks. :)

Dave said...
A lot of this seems to hinge upon whether one is a Thomist.


I hadn't thought of that. It makes sense, though. I think I'm more Thomistic in thought, so definitely that could be a key difference.

Dave said...
I didn't say that [we can't know]. I said that "absolute [philosophical] proof" cannot be had. And I asserted in reply, "We know in faith that God exists."


Sorry for misreading you. I mis-tagged you with the words of Dinesh D'Souza in his book, "What's So Great About Christianity," an apologetics book targeted toward atheism. He says in that book that everyone is agnostic in a certain sense, because no one can know God exists, we just have to go with the best arguments. Therefore, he argues for "Theistic agnosticism." I put that into the same category of thought as you (and Cardinal Newman?) seem to be arguing for.

Dave said...
One difference is that the universe is material and observable, whereas God (the Father) is not.


The conclusion that material reality exists derives from the two premises (1) that we can see and observe it, and (2) that whatever we can be seen and observed exists. Therefore, material reality exists. But the argument for God proceeds along very similar lines: (1) we can see and observe material reality, (2) whatever can be seen and observed must have a ground for being/must have a creator. Therefore a Creator of material reality exists. The argument for the latter is just as solid as the former.

If Descarte's phrase "I think, therefore I am," is sound, it is just as sound to say, "I think, therefore God is." Material reality not only attests its own existence, but its Creator's just as strongly. Don't you think?

Dave Armstrong said...

I believe I said that my favorite theistic argument was the Cosmological. I think it is exceedingly plausible, but not an absolute proof. I argue that it is far more worthy of belief than the atheist alternatives.

Stay tuned for my latest paper. I collect some material showing that falsifiability and positivism as a requirement for Christian belief prove too much, since they would also take out mathematics, geometry, logic, and grand scientific laws and theories.

Dan Marcum said...

Dave said...
Stay tuned for my latest paper. I collect some material showing that falsifiability and positivism as a requirement for Christian belief prove too much, since they would also take out mathematics, geometry, logic, and grand scientific laws and theories.


Great. I look forward to it. Thanks for talking. :)

Maurício said...

Blah, disapoint answer.
But never mind then

Dave Armstrong said...

Can't please everyone, but I try to do my best . . .