osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,
osewalrus
osewalrus

Philosophical reflections on atheism and religion

Sparked by this report of Hitchens and Sharpton debating atheism.
http://empirezone.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/07/hitchens-sharpton-and-faith/

Sharpton makes, I beleive, a number of good points (odd as it may be for me to say that). But I believe he also stumbles on a critical issue: that God must exist because only that way is there an objective right or wrong. This argument has the same flaw as Hitchens argument that religion exists to explain the universe, and is therefore no longer necesary. It presumes that because something I ardently desire must be so, that it is so.

For reasons I explain below the cut, I argue that the effort to prove or disprove the existence of God must ultimately fail. The argument that God does not exist because God is not necessary to explain the universe is as much a logical fallacy as the argument that God must exist. Indeed, even the argument that the Jewish God or Christian God or any other set of religious beliefs cannot exist because of an internal irationality or inconsistency all run afoul of the same error.

This leaves, as the chief argument in favor of atheism, that the unverifiable and unprovable nature of God proves the irrationality of belief. But this argument, as I will seek to demonstrate below, also fails for critical reasons. First and foremost, inherent all complex human action is the same level of faith-based irrationality. If belief in God is irrelevant or dangerous because believers rely upon unverifiable and non-disprovable axioms and are motivated by them to irrational and dangerous behaviors, then atheism is equally irrelevant or dangerous.

Where this leaves me as a logical conclusion is neither a refutation of atheism or an affirmance of religion. Indeed, either outcome is inherently impossible. Rather, in grumpy Osewalrus fashion, I conclude that it is the debate itself, rather than either position, that is inherently irrational and dangerous, because it causes athiests and believers to regard one another as inimical.


Hitchens begins (at least according to this report) with what amounts toa recapitulation of Frasier's argument from the Golden Bough. Magic and religion arose from efforts to explain the world. We now know these efforts were wrong, as science better explains the world.

The problem is that this is a proof that presupposes the the thing that it is supposed to prove. Yes, if God (or other religious forces) do not exist, then this might explain how such a system of belief arose. But the existence or non-existence of a physical reality does not depend on either necessity or convenience or even our awareness. They simply are. There is no reason, for example, for oak trees. They exist. Knowing that they exist, I can use scientific means to explain how they got here. Australia does not need kangaroos. But they exist, existed before human beings arrived to observe their reality. While the lack of a necessity for the existence of God may be a perfectly fine individual reason to disbelieve in God, it cannot serve as a proof to others that God does not or, better from the athiest's standpoint, cannot exist.

(There is a secondary problem that this argument has no evidence other than inductive reasoning. I could argue with equal force -- and the better weight of scientific authority -- that the drive to beleive and have faith is a natural outgrowth of our need to trust matters we cannot verify with our senses from moment to moment. Indeed, my ability to believe in things that I am not perceiving and verifying at the moment is critical to cognitive thought. If folks are going to argue that God is unnecessary, I could wish they didnot rely on outmoded arguments based on the inductive reason of Edwardians and invite them to join the present fashion of laying everything on evolution.)

This is not to say that the lack of necessity is a valueless argument. To the contrary, it refutes the counter argument of the believer that God must exist because God is necessary. Again, this assertion proves nothing. While I might, as Sharpton suggests, find the absence of God an impediment to developing a moral system, that inconvenience can hardly alter an objective reality. Either God exists or doesn't. Either the events described in the various religious texts happened or didn't. My need for them to have happened (unless I wish to posit a world view in which I create reality) can no more make it true than my lack of need can make it false.

Which brings us to the next argument, typically advanced as an argument for atheism but really advanced as an argument against specific religions. To wit: that the God of the Bible behaves in an irrational or contrary way, or one that offends modern sensibilities. But it is no proof against the existence of God that Exodus permits slavery, orders "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide," prohibits consensual relationships among adults, etc. etc. Again, these may serve as adequate proof to the individual. They may even constitute logical atatcks against established religions and doctrines. But they cannot, of themselves, prove or disprove the existence of God anymore than the lack of necessity can disprove the existence of God. If God exists, the essential matter to be proved or disproved, and if the Bible is the literal truth, then it happened. The history of human action is littered with inconsistencies and improbability -- as is the physical reality that we find around us. That does not make them less real. I may find it improbable in the abstract that an outcast child in Mongolia could rise from slavery to conqueror of one of the greatest empires in the history of the world. But it happened, and my distaste for that reality and its inconsistency with how I beleive the world should work does not disprove the documentable life of Ghengis Kahn.

We now therefore come, it seems to me, the chief argument in favor of atheism. The objective reality I describe is irrefutable becuase it is verifiable -- or at least theoretically verifiable. I do not need to take on faith that there are kangaroos, I can go see them. But -- by my own argument -- God is inherently unverifiable. Belief in God is therefore irrational -- at best harmless and at worst dangerously dellusional, since it encourages behavior and limits rational inquiry in the name of irrationality.

Before proceeding to the true counter-argument, it is worth pausing to reject an oft-raised counter argument. To wit, that every athiest must take certain matters on "faith." As I alluded to above, the ability to trust certain facts I have not myself verified -- and to believe in the persistence of reality from moment to moment -- is an essential element of cognative thought. Without it, human beings could not learn from experience. We could not accumulate knowledge. Indeed, one of the critical milestones on cognative developement for humans is a belief in the "persistence of reality." According to current thinking, a newborn's life is entirely experiential. Over time, however, the child learns that certain actions always produce certain consequences, and that reality has stability unless acted upon. Very young children do not "get" certain magic tricks, because they have no expectation that the trick violates an expected law. The ball is in the cup, the ball is gone, I pull it from behind your ear. Neat! Do that again!

But, as the child grows, the trick becomes interesting because it violates a rule that the child has internalized. The ball should stay in the cup because things stay where you leave them unless someone moves them. The balls should not come from my ear because balls do not pop out of people's ears. For a time, a child (or even some adults) may accept "magic" as the explanation. Gradually, however, as the belief in the persistence of reality grows, many people reject magic as the explanation. They may not know how the trick is done, but they know that it is a trick -- because the alternative violates a fundamental rule.

Similarly, and equally valuable in human evolution (see how I play to current fashion), we learn to develop trust. When people I trust tell me a plant is poisonous, I don't necessarily feel a need to verify that for myself. When I learn that force equals mass times acceleration, I do not need to go out and reproove it. When I see a map of Australia, I do not need to go there to prove to myself it exists. This allows me to accumulate additional knowledge over time and advance human understanding.

Many believers attempt to refute the athiest argument that belief is irrational because athiests themselves have faith in things they cannot prove, in the manner described above. Many mysteries remain in our understanding of the natural sciences and the world around us, but athiests take "on faith" that these are solvable. Athiests take "on faith" that reality persists, and that trustworthy sources provide useful information. How, beleivers argue, can athiests reject a belief in God when they themselves express faith daily.

The answer is, of course, trivial. There is a marked difference between the verified and the verifiable. I do not have to go to Australia to trust that it is there. But I can go to Australia if I want. If I have reason to question Aristotle's theory of spontaneous generation, I cna devise means to test it. Pasteur could prove Aristotle wrong, despite a persistent belief in Aristotle for thousands of years. Anyone seeking to prove the opposite if free to produce a controlled experiment that will demonstrate that maggots arise spontaneously from decaying meat.

We must therefore not be sidetracked by semantic issues of defining "faith" or "belief." A belief that sceintific methods will evnetually resolve the unanswered questions in the natural science if not irrational, given the track record of the sciences to date. The presence of unanswered questions in human evolution cannot prove that belief in evolution no more rational than the story given in Genesis. To the contrary, belief in evolution is entirely rational based on the avialable and examinable evidence, and it is rational to believe that further study will provide further explanation.

No, when I say that athiests act as irrationally as believers, and that such irrationality is inherent in the human condition, I mean something different. Recall again, that I am addressing the argument that religion is To recall, the argument for atheism I am addressing is that because God is inherently unverifiable, the belief in God is inherently irrational.

To which I must respond that all human codes of behavior are equally irrational. By this I do not mean simply arbitrary, I mean irrational in the same sense that beleif in God is irrational: inherently not subject to proof.

By this I do not imply that athiests lack moral codes or are inherently immoral. This is demonstrably false. I mean that all efforts to construct a human code of behavior must -- at their foundations -- lie on unprovable and untestable hypotheses. Secular humanism, socialism, even utter self-centered weaselness all derive from untestable and unprovable assumptions about the desirability of outcomes.

For example, secular humanism begins with essential beliefs about human dignity. Why should these be true as a matter of objective verifiable reality? Certainly I can make arguments about how a society based on such rules maximizes this or that outcome or social good. But, as a matter of objective physical reality, similar to the verifiable reality that hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of activation energy combine to make water, how do I prove that these outcomes are appropriate? Because they will maximize social utility? Because they will make the greatest number of people happy? Because they are an invetiable outcome of economic or technological determinism? How are these judgements inherently verifiable or unverifiable in an absolute sense?

Even assuming that I am correct in my logical deductions as to outcomes, why should that matter? A libertarian may argue that one human being cannot morally compel another. You can verify that? In the same way you can verify a map of Australia? Inherent in all such efforts is the same elemnt of irrationality, because I must presuppose values and desires for outcomes that are inherently unverifiable. Any moral system that attempts to address what a society "should" be is as inherently irrational as a belief that God created an objective morality. In this ase, it is merely the substitution of oneself for God as the arbiter of morality.

Sadly, even moral relativism or self-centeredness to the point of utter amorality does not escape this irrationality. I may beleive that rules are for losers and I need to look out for number one, but it is a matter of faith to me in such instances that my behavior yields that result. For every succesfull sleazebucket, you can find a dozen counter examples of folks who persued the same philosphy and acvhieved a poor result by whatever criteria they used to measure it. At the end of the day, their decision to act amorraly as a means of maximizing their material gain was no more or less rational than a belief in enlightened self-interest or a beleif that God rewards the virtuous.

Even the most recent effort to revive a "scientific" theory of morality from observation of our genetic cousins among the primates does not avail. It contains an inherent and non-verifiable value judgement that "natural" behaviors based are somehow "superior" or "better," or optimal. Nor, bluntly, do I think that such advocates applaud our wars as natural extensions of monkey tribes battling for territory. And, as a matter of historic record, "scientific" efforts to construct governments have a rather poor track record to date.

This should not lead us to despair. Rather, it should cause us to reevaluate whether the inherent rationality or arbitrary nature of action can constitute a conclusive proof about whether "religion" is inherently dangerous to society. I submit that it cannot. All efforts to construct a belief system from logic or even self-interest fail on the same "rationality" test; they rely on inherently non-verifiable axioms and therefore, at a fundamental level, are no more or less "rational" than religion.

I do not suggest that individuals will not find particular arguments or axioms persuasive. I have my own reasons why I believe God is real, that the dictates of my faith are true, and that my life objective to establish a relationship with God is appropriate. Others may find my beliefs and arguments attractive. Others will find them repulsive. Athiests will remain unpersuaded that God exists, even if they agree with me that a certain level of irrationality is inherent in the human condition. And I do not doubt I shall fail to persuade them of the logic of my arguments -- or that they shall fail to persuade me.

Which brings me to my final point. In my humble irrational opinion, I think we are all better served by not treating each other as idiots. We can start by accepting that the best we can do is seek to persuade rather than prove with scientific certainty. An Evangelist is free to believe I am damned to Hell and is welcome to try to spead the Good News and save my soul. Dr. Hitchens is certainly welcome to preach that if I abandoned my unnecessary belief in a primitive tribal God that sanctions immoral behavior, the world would be a better place. And I can seek to persuade people that adopting my political philosophy would make the United States a propserous and peaceful nation. I just don't confuse persuasion with proof.
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