Posts tagged: atheism

Atheism and Theism as Model Choices

One way to think about the comparative rationality of atheism and theism is to treat atheism as the rational default. After all, atheism postulates no God, theism does, and so theism bears the burden of proofs, especially because God’s existence is extraordinary or random postulate.

That’s the wrong way to think about the rationality of theistic belief. Following Michael Rea’s important book, World Without Design, I think of atheism and theism more like frameworks or research projects for making philosophical judgments. Many of the arguments for both positions involve claims that the other side sees as non-starters, and whose premises ultimately suppose that atheism or theism is true. What’s more, the frameworks are sufficiently different that they don’t even affirm the same phenomena to be explained, such as the existence of libertarian free will. In this way, we might even see theism and atheism as distinct philosophical paradigms, rather than simple competing propositions.

Atheism and theism are therefore competing frameworks for explaining certain kinds of “big” phenomena, like existence, order, morality, freedom, and consciousness. Both postulate an ultimate ground for everything. Atheism tends to ground everything in particles and fields. Theism tends to ground everything in a single agent, usually a perfect agent.

For reasons Mike Huemer outlines, simplicity does not settle fundamental philosophical problems, and I think that extends to atheism and theism. Which view is simpler? Postulating a single perfect agent that grounds all kinds of phenomena? Or particles and fields? On the one hand, atheism usually says that there is one kind of thing (matter/energy), whereas theism has two kinds of thing (matter/energy and mentality). On the other hand, theism has one grounding object, whereas atheism has many grounding objects. So which is simpler? I think theism is, but it’s not obvious.

So then how do we assess the rationality of theism? We engage in model-based reasoning. List shared phenomena and determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism. Then list the unshared phenomena, assess whether you affirm or reject them, and then determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism.

To illustrate, here are some agreed upon phenomena: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge, suffering, religious experience.

And here are some (usually) disagreed upon phenomena: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, universals, objective life meaning.

Here’s my balance of evidence.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: suffering.

Agreed-upon phenomena that may break even: religious experience (some is consistent with theism, but the totality may be inconsistent with theism).

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, real universals, objective life meaning.

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: ? [atheists belief in less stuff, so it’s perhaps not significant that this category is empty, but feel free to fill in the gaps]

For me, the theistic model explains more phenomena that theists and atheists agree upon. I admit that suffering favors atheism, but not so much that it overrides the explanatory power of the other factors, especially order in the universe. I think the probability of suffering on atheism is like 99.99%, and on theism, it is well under 50%. [The skeptical theist reply convinces me that suffering is not very improbable on theism, since we don’t know God’s reasons. Plus, if everyone goes to heaven, every life has infinite worth, so suffering is always an infinitely small portion of one’s life.] But I think the probability of order on theism is 99%, and order on atheism is something like 10^-10. [Those are the odds the cosmic fine-tuning argument gives us, and that’s being generous to atheism.]

I think I have good arguments that the disagreed upon phenomena are real, and I think it is  clear that these phenomena make more sense on theism, but I understand that atheists will not be as moved by these arguments.

So from my epistemic point of view, theism is supremely rational as a modeling choice. It’s a way of looking at the world that makes a whole lot of phenomena seem natural, coherent, and unsurprising vis-a-vis the main intellectual alternative of atheism. I think theistic argumentation is sufficiently strong that atheists will have trouble assigning theism a very low probability, but I don’t think that atheism is an unreasonable view. It’s not something that has to be proven. It’s a modeling choice, and I get why people choose it.

But atheists should see theism as a modeling choice, and not treat theism as irrational because it is not subject to proof.

Why Was Anyone Ever Impressed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

One interesting feature of recent debates about God’s existence is the use of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to deride the rationality of theistic belief (a colorful spin on Russell’s teapot case). What I’m interested in is why anyone was ever impressed with it.

Lately I’ve been studying the history of the Byzantine Empire: its military history, its religion and theology, its philosophy, art, and architecture. It’s amazing to me that there’s an entire empire, lasting one thousand years, that is wholly absent from popular Western culture. When was the last time you saw the Byzantine Empire mentioned in a movie, a television show, or a recent novel? And so what happened? Why did one thousand years of Greek Christian history go down the memory hole?

Anyway, I don’t know. But I am impressed by one thing that survives – neoplatonist influences. I’m impressed by neoplatonists’ ability to continually reinvigorate themselves over the centuries, especially by introducing and refining theological ideas that continue to have broad influence in Christianity. Neoplatonism played an essential role in the development of the doctrine of the trinity, the two natures of Christ (the hypostatic union), the doctrine of the immortal soul, and the Eastern Christian ideas of theosis, and the essence-energies distinction.

Neoplatonism was extremely influential in the Western Empire as well, among Augustine, who more or less introduced Platonism into Christian theology in the West, Anselm, Aquinas, and many others. Platonism was probably most influential in Christian Egypt, through Alexandrian theology.

So all around the Mediterranean, and deep into Europe, neoplatonism was the state of the philosophical and theological art for centuries and centuries.

For many neoplatonic thinkers (Christian or no), the existence of some sort of deity is philosophically obvious. God/master deity often served as the explanatory ground of almost everything: concepts, knowledge, morality, human purpose, the soul, freedom, and the basis of political order. This isn’t a coincidence. They believed they had arguments beginning from their philosophical commitments and extending to the existence of some kind of chief deity. Some kind of God served a central explanatory role in these philosophical and theological systems.

For neoplatonists, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) would have seemed a ridiculous analogy with the divine. The power of the FSM is to generate the intuition that God’s existence is random, unnecessary, and absurd. And just as no one should believe in FSM, no one should believe in God. But, again, the finest minds for over a thousand years, and really fifteen hundred years, would have been utterly unmoved because God’s existence was in no way random. In fact, God’s existence was the least random thing imaginable.

The truth is that a single, original deity isn’t going to seem random on any view that prioritizes the conceptual and the mental as ontologically fundamental. Deity just doesn’t look weird on such views. And, importantly, these views aren’t insane, since it is hard to see how the conceptual and the mental as we know them could even in principle originate in the material world. So there must be some mental point of origin or explanation, and that suggests at least one deity, and perhaps only one master deity. I take no stand here on whether those systems must lead to some kind of theism, just that it is entirely reasonable for these philosophical systems to yield arguments for some kind of theism.

So when did FSM start seeming like an interesting analogy? Not the 19th century, since idealism was dominant in many places, and idealists frequently affirmed the existence of either an immanent deity or a transcendent one.

No, it is the dominance of physicalism that gives the FSM its rhetorical power. But this suggests that all the FSM can do is convince people with tacit physicalist commitments that God’s existence is as random and unexplained as the FSM. For again, for centuries upon centuries, almost no reflective person with philosophical training would have been impressed. Instead, the only people who are impressed are those who have absorbed physicalist assumptions. And, while physicalism is influential, it is not only reasonably contestable, but it is probably in some trouble in the philosophy of mind and metaethics. It’s just hard to jam mental and moral properties into the physical world.

Now, of course, many people will say that the only reason various forms of monotheism were dominant for so long is that people were pressured into believing it and absorbed it from their culture. But, first, that wasn’t always true (it wasn’t true in the polytheistic ancient world in many areas). Second, the lines of argument they pursued weren’t at all absurd, or at least no more absurd than modern philosophical arguments for all kinds of things. And third, similar debunking explanations can explain away rational atheism too. One could argue that the reason atheism is common in the academy is that high status academics are often atheist physicalists, and atheism has filtered out of the academy in part because many academics are high-status atheists in the popular culture, like the late Stephen Hawking.

So that’s why I think the FSM impresses some people. It impresses express or tacit physicalists, but other reasonable philosophical systems won’t see a single God as an arbitrary and laughably random postulate. And the philosophical systems that do see God in this way are subject to various difficulties. Now, the Christian God may indeed seem random as a specification of the master deity, but even Christians admit that we only know about God’s Trinitarian structure through revelation. So if you want to impugn the Christian God with the FSM, you have to already think you have a good argument against the idea that the master deity can and has revealed itself as having a Trinitarian form. And that requires a bit more than ridicule, if the existence of a master deity is already on the table.