Some thoughts on (strong) Atheism and Rationality

Consider the following propositions

  • Π1: The question of the existence of God is unfalsifiable*
  • Π2 :Unfalsifiable questions cannot be answered by means of rationality
  • Π3: “Strong atheists” can only trust pure reason

Notice that Π3 is incompatible with Π1 and Π2. If a “strong atheist” can only trust pure reason then he can not answer the question of the existence of God (Π1) which is a contradiction. A “strong atheist” claims that Π1 can (potentially) be solved by means of rationality!  On the other side if he is not purely rational -which by definition means that his not a “strong atheist” –  then his claim should be based on his subjective belief (and thus in some sence he is similar to the theists).

I note also that beliefs are always ΝΟΤ absolute (i.e. they can never be equal to absolute truth)!  Something is certain only if no scepticism can occur. Beliefs are uncertain! Hence they have only to be expressed in terms of subjective “probabilities”. You can have a strong degree of belief but not an absolute belief (which is a requirement of strong atheism). The evidence (or the lack of it) could be weighted as carefully as possible but certainty inevitably always elude us. The claim ” I believe in (strong) atheism”  is hence inconsistent.

*The question is unfalsifiable because it can not be rejected by either absence of evidence or by subjective experience.

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18 thoughts on “Some thoughts on (strong) Atheism and Rationality

  1. Actually the question of the existencets of God is not always unfalsifiable. It would be unfalsifiable if it’s meaning was akin to the proposition “there exists a black swan”. But is that what “God exists” really means? Could it not be that most meanings of this phrase are closer to phrases like “Gravity holds” or “Special Relativity holds” than to actual existential propositions. So if that is the case “God exists” could very well be falsifiable if, that is, those who believe in it could be honest and provide us with a test case. For example those who believe God exists and is benevolent should be required to explain the suffering of infants. In any case I do not think that “strong atheists” are by necessity in a tough spot over this issue first because “God” is such a fuzzy concept that your proposition Π1 is not necessarily true and also because in most cases I think the concept is such that Π1 is actually false.

  2. epanechnikov says:

    Konstantinos your points are very reasonable. However, I will direct you to the following arguments and I hope that this way you will see why I think Π1 is unfalsifiable

    “The first point to make in reply is that we do not diminish God if we
    say that any limitations on his power or knowledge are of his own
    choosing. If he, in his wisdom, knows that his ultimate purposes will be
    achieved more effectively by allowing a measure of randomness in the
    world, then that is a mark of greatness rather than impotence. The
    second is that God is in no way diminished if he is unable to do mutually
    contradictory things. When we say that God cannot do something which
    it seems an all-powerful God ought to be able to do, we mean only that
    he has freely chosen that things shall be thus. He may have decided that
    he shall not be able to do something because it is not in his nature to
    want to do it.”

    “Many reasons have been suggested to explain why a loving
    God might choose to create a world involving evil and suffering.
    Swinburne reviews many of them.8 All but one of these (to which we
    return later) amount to saying with Leibniz that this is the best of all
    possible worlds. This is to be interpreted in the sense that if God had
    created some other kind of world, without evil and suffering, some vital
    principle would have been missing which would have thwarted the
    whole purpose of the exercise. ”

    Source: DJ Bartholomew “God, Chance and Purpose: Can God Have It Both Ways?”

    (DJ Bartholomew is a Christian statistician)

    Notice also that the following propositions are incompatible

    Π1: God gives unlimited freedom
    Π2: The world contains no evil

    If humans have got free will then they can surely cause evil. If humans can not cause evil then they have not got free will.

    Furthermore consider the following set of propositions

    Π1: God is omnipotent
    Π2: God is wholly good
    Π3: Evil exists

    The set above is not explicitly contradictory as no member is the denial of another member (i.e. the negations of Π1,Π2 and Π3 do not belong to the same set as Π1,Π2 and Π3). Additionally, the set is not formally contadictory. No explicit contradiction can be deduced from its members using the laws of formal logic.

  3. thinks says:

    The catch-22 you are describing between Π1/Π2-Π3 can actually be broken-through if we assume that God stands for something that a pure atheist can prove through reason. For example, the “code” Father/Son/HolySpirit could be translated to Universe/Life/Physics-Evolution. This parallel, based on a metaphor, does not go against dogma -but it explains it. Don’t forget that when Christianity was coined in 325 and 381 of the Common Era, the Library at Alexandria still stood, and the religion-makers were not dummies.

    Similar parallels can be drawn for most faiths. Yes, the fairytale is Kindergarten, but we don’t burn down all kindergartens because one day we reach University…

    We must be open to such possibilities, otherwise catch-22 sayings become nothing more than parlor games.

    Just a thought. And thank you for leaving me your link in my comments. The post of mine you read was the first of three at dimitristhinks.blogspot.com and I look forward to your opinion on the second and the third of the series.

    Happy New Year, there in the land of Merlin!

  4. epanechnikov says:

    Dear thinks (aka dimitris),

    Thanks for your comment. First of all please note that I am not referring to any specific dogma (such as christianism) but to the question of the existence of God in general. Secondly bear in mind that falsifiable statements should be inter-subjectively (i.e. objectively) tested. As in Kant, from the required objectivity of statements it follows that they must be “at any time” inter-subjectively testable. This requirement is not satisfied by the proposition “there is no God”. For the same reason, metaphors can not be used to falsify hypotheses.

    Happy new year too!

  5. thinks says:

    Thanks, epanechnikov! What I see, then, is that we are possibly coming from two different directions in our understanding of the issue and our propositions. You seem to be utilizing scientific methodology while I am relying on imagery, metaphor and philosophy. I can perfectly understand that these disciplines are apples and oranges, but I cannot help thinking they both perform a valid function.

    Do you think it may be as simple as a heaven and hell situation, where in heaven we come up with whatever the mind imagines as possible, and where, in hell we need to prove or disprove it?

    I find the subject matter of the “test”, God, to be adding an extra dimension in that the concept of what is God is different to each person and therefore we must painstakingly establish the parameters for his definition in this context?

    And I agree with what you wrote to ManBlogg in my blog -hey, there’s another two posts after that one, already! Take care!

  6. epanechnikov says:

    Thanks for your message thinks! You are perfectly right in saying that philosophy and epistemology (or the philosophy/”logic” of science) both perform different but perhaps equally valid functions. I agree too that science itself is highly metaphysical (especially the conception of scientific ideas and the scientific methodology). However I believe that all propositions should be perpetually tested by both applying the rules of formal logic and by utilizing our (subjective) experience. Each of us may want to test a different proposition (our idea of God – the metaphysical dimension you mentioned) but all of us (rational beings) should follow the aforementioned path. Here I should however mention that we can easily realize that the problem of the existence of God is not objectively testable by the fact that the hypothesis is not (always) inter-subjectively fixed. Hence no one could (rationally) claim that God surely exists/surely does not exist (an a.s. claim could however be perfectly permissible). Especially so if his initial hypothesis is not falsiafiable. Finally I tend to believe that despite the fact that God could be perceived in a variety of ways He should always (by necessity) own various distinct features. But of course the problem can become more complex if we consider the fact that not all subjects can conceive the necessary features a God should have!🙂

  7. thinks says:

    Well said! All the philosophy and imagination in the world would be pointless without its counterweight, the method of testing the validity (or method of proof, etc.). I am perfectly happy in my chosen position of allowing myself to examine and contemplate existence from a philosophical standpoint, where the method of discovery is our imagination and common sense, research and powers of observation, coupled with the Socratic method of questioning and answering. On the other hand I welcome, and consider a necessary part of the process, that which my colleague from the next room, you, can bring to the table: rules of formal logic and the testing. Of course, my first reaction would be to question the testing methods, but I’m easy! (It’s just that in general I suffer this allergy, brought on by any authority that remains unquestioned. Scientists question themselves all the time -otherwise they would not be scientists)

    I fear that in any discussion on the existence of God, the point has been defeated before the discussion begins because the term “God” is so vague and subjective. Great care should go into defining exact parameters before we begin -as you say yourself in your response. “God” is mostly a descriptive word of something that is unique, and unknown in its essence to everyone who thinks about it because it is not supposed to be visible or quantifiable, whether one means an old man in the sky, or whether one uses the term poetically to describe all that science has yet to discover in the material world.

    We see light and colors. Those definitely exist, yes? Not quite. Try to describe any color to a person blind from birth. Can you? without saying “red is hot and blue is cold”? Light itself is energy, where its very low frequencies are radio waves, the very high frequencies are gamma rays, there is infrared and ultra violet, and then, in the middle of the frequencies spectrum, a very narrow band of frequencies, stimulate the retina of the human eye, and the optical nerve tells the brain “Hey! Caught some energy frequency here! Frequency XYZ! and the brain imagines: red”

    So, does Light exist? How does Kant fare in this question?

    Really enjoying our conversation. Have a great day! (sorry, after 7 years in the UK I spent 17 in the States, so we are kinda talking English to American, but so far, so good!) -Dimitris

  8. epanechnikov says:

    Dimitris (thinks) I agree with most of your message but I have some minor objections. First of all I feel obliged to clarify my point of view. Every rational subject divides (at least unconsciously) the class of all possible statements into basic statements which comply to his beliefs – say type A- (in this occasion the belief into the existence/absence of God) and to those which do not – say type B. If I define as experience not only our exposure to events (or better to occurences) but the one also to ideas then I should say that most of our (higher or lower level) experience can be distilled into basic statements of type A or B. For various reasons experience can not act as a good verifier of our beliefs but it can become an excellent (subjective) falsifier. The practice of testing (or comparison) and any subsequent decision rules (how much type-B experience is necessary so that we shift our views?) can take different forms in different subjects and may change over time but their presence is always a necessary condition for rationality. Most of the testing may happen at an unconscious or intuitive level but this is not as relevant as it is the existence of the aforementioned evaluation procedure. (as you can see I am easy too…. No need to blindly trust authorities here.)

    Hence my view is that while at an objective level the question of the existence of God can not be falsified (and I think you tend to agree on that) at a (wider in terms of experience) strictly subjective/personal level it can! Thus subjective beliefs may be reasonable (and necessary when formal logic fails) but they can not play the role of objective knowledge. The claims “God exists” and “God does not exist” can only be considered as statements of (strictly subjective) belief and nothing more.

    I appreciate that your third paragraph is associated with some philosophical problems of the mind as well as the language. You probably imply that there is no such thing as inter-subjective (objective) experience. (am I wrong?) As you have however already mentioned the light has both a subjective as well as an objective (wavelength) dimension. The way we perceive this narrow band of frequencies can not be objectively assessed. Same probably happens to the objective dimension of the light* (unless we all utilize the same mearurement instrument and/or make some strict/loose assumptions). Hence we are back to our point of origin. The beliefs (which here I will call objective).🙂 Is there any problem with that? I don’t think so…

    I thoroughly enjoy our conversation. Thanks again!

    *Here I should perhaps add that universals cannot be reduced to classes of experiences. Descriptions (such as “Here is a red light”) have the character of theory, of an hypothesis. Universals which appear in descriptions can not be correlated with any observational experience.

  9. thinks says:

    Well, your first paragraph eloquently, yet with a flair rooted in mathematics, explains the process of formulating beliefs -and it is with disciplines like the one you use here that we were able to build computers and advance human technology faster than the pace of the advancement human spirit. I understand the discipline though, and like it.

    But, I insist that although the existence, or non existence of God cannot be falsified with these methods there are observations so solid that they can annul the term itself. We know the characteristics, origin, purposes, powers and concerns of the Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Now look at the universe they created. Trillions of galaxies of trillions of stars each, in a space infinite in more dimensions then we can comprehend. Life abundant everywhere. Trillions of quadrillions of species. And, on the other hand: One planet Earth. God created the universe and then spends his time around the concerns of the individuals of one species on this planet?

    Based on the above I don’t believe the word God survives the test of whether it is accurate as a definition before we attempt to falsify its existence. Or, rather, the word describes a personal expectation, and it can then exist or not only as a result of personal expectation in a subjective structuring and organizing of the world in which each thinker lives. But then the word God refers to the needs of each separate thinker and it exists, or not, by default of personal preferences.

    My point is that any attempt to falsify a statement involving God, has failed before it begins because God is a concept in error by default. Even if there is a God in this real universe that deity would by definition of the universe itself be very different to the God of the scriptures, and the universe of the God of the scriptures does not exist, therefore that God does not exist -albeit in personal preference of each thinker.

    That was also the point I was making with that little lecture on light. The question “does light exist” is wrong because it is descriptive of subjective experience. It should be phrased “does energy exist”.

  10. epanechnikov says:

    Dimitris (thinks) the observations you refer to are nothing more than human perceptions. And human perceptions may be very interesting (especially so to researchers of disciplines such as psychology, sociology or anthropology) but they certainly can not act as disqualifiers of universal terms. A being (and a physical process too!) may certainly exist outside the particularities of our perceptions (and our expectations).

    However I would agree with the idea that, as with any other definition or linguistic term, the definition of God involves decision. And in this particular occasion, most dimensions of this decision seem to be imposed almost by necessity. Hence the common (and most reasonable and rigorous I believe) way to define God universally is by referring to those particularly rigid dimensions (which to a great extent are shared in most human dogmas). Once a definition (or more) has been obtained I see no problem resorting to the disciplines of epistemology, ontology and logic.

    p.s. The process I previously described may indeed have many similarities with certain aspects of the logic of science (that was indeed one of my main influences). However it certainly deviates a lot from it as the latter solely accepts empirical arguments.

  11. thinks says:

    Now, this is a very interesting argument (seriously!), that the universe recognized by our science is nothing more than human perception. Although many cosmologists and astrophysicists would raise their eyebrows, I cannot dismiss it. And if the scientific view of the universe is just human perception, then, it cannot veto the views of religion, and the term “God” can stand, and take the test, which, as you said in the beginning, is inconclusive.

    The object, then, of this exercise is to show that the question of whether there is a God or not cannot be resolved.

    Your argument in the context of our discussion is well-placed and I accept it.

    So, my next worry is that if we were to prove that the question of whether there is a God cannot be answered, we would be inviting the stagnation of the advancement of human spirit which is fueled by such questions.

    What do you think?

  12. epanechnikov says:

    I definitely agree with the view that science is human perception* (here I should mention that it is true that some astrophysicists -the positivist ones- and not only them may dislike this view). But this perception is not only originated by necessity or arbitrariness but also (and most importantly) by observation. Scientific views are constantly tested as new experience becomes available. And the more our views survive those stringent tests the more certain we become that our views represent a part of the truth. Such tests can unfortunately not be utilized to assess beliefs that do not conclude to basic falsifiable statements. Our only resort is then our subjective experience (or the lack of it) and our imperfect reasoning. Despite the apparent weakness of such media, their role in the advancement of human spirit (but not to the advancement of human knowledge) is highly critical. Hence I tend to think that the fact that the question of whether there is a God cannot be answered (let assume that we have already concluded on that) cannot lead to stagnation.

    * (addition) See what Stephen Hawking writes in his book “The Universe in a Nutshell”

    ” Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested… If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.”

    Note however: Karl Popper was far from being a positivist (even though he is often interpreted as such). He was certainly one of the fiercest opponents of positivism

  13. thinks says:

    I understand the reasoning you explain, up to the point where you use it to support that, based on it, the unanswerability of the God question cannot lead to stagnation. I am not convinced the reasoning in the beginning of the paragraph, sound as it may be, leads to that conclusion.

    My point was that if we determine that we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God, then, there is no point in continuing, seeing that any endeavor would only be justified if either end could be conceived as reachable. Determining that neither end may be reached, renders any attempt to reach it futile, therefore we stop trying.

    But what I really want to understand is what it is that I am missing from the link between your reasoning and your conclusion.

    You are bringing in the big guns with Stephen Hawking because I respect him greatly. I also believe that he made a faux-pas when he came out and said “I have proven there is no need for God to exist”. We all knew that kind of God could not possibly exist before he announced it, thank you very much. The only reason for him to speak is to inform those who did not already know, and you simply don’t get any one of the opposite camp to listen to you by blurting out the sentence of the destruction of their beliefs. State your case and let them figure out the logical conclusion if they can reach it. I think Stephen goofed big time last September when his new book came out.

    Which leads me to the question: If he uses Popper to support one end but you say that Popper in fact stood for the opposite, would that signify a second goof for Hawking, or a misunderstanding on our part?

    • epanechnikov says:

      My point is that while the question cannot be falsified at an objective level (and hence does not consist an hypothesis of true knowledge) it can be at a personal/strictly subjective level (see formation of subjective beliefs). This is actually our sole resort when we face metaphysical (i.e. non-empirical) propositions. While subjective protocol sentences (statements describing immediate experience or perception) cannot be used to falsify hypotheses at a wider level they can do so at an atomic level.

      Now we’ve reached the point where we need to evaluate the following proposition. Are we as human beings solely interested in the objective (inter-subjectively and inter-sensually testable) knowledge? Do we take self-experiences seriously? Psychology says yes (for the latter – no for the former).

      p.s. Popper has indeed opposed positivists at various levels. One has just to read his book “The logic of scientific discovery” to realize that. I think Stephen goofed another time…

      Bear also in mind that Popper would definitely disagree with the following!! (I think my next post will be related to Popper’s work) :

      “a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make”

  14. thinks says:

    Well, perfect objectivity is impossible and if a supposition begins without that caveat it is inherently flawed. All we can hope for is a level of awareness regarding the possible difference a perfectly objective thought would have compared to our subjective view. What is really interesting is that our conversation here is becoming more and more parallel to our discussion at my Atheism post.

    I think the major difference in our approaches is, as we discussed above, that yours is a test-based scientific approach while mine is fueled by more subjectivity, poetry and dare I say philosophy. But I am finding that the more we try to look at and understand the essence of each other’s view it is not that dissimilar of at all.

    I made an interesting argument in an answer in my Atheism post last night, claiming that since the biology of the brain limits us all to the same needs and capabilities, all thought is rooted in the same structure regardless of the appearance of the end-result. In this approach, all belief has the same structure regardless of whether it is based on God, the Absence of God, or on Mickey Mouse! I am not sure whether it was a good argument or just sophistry but I had fun formulating it.

    • epanechnikov says:

      Well, perfect objectivity is impossible and if a supposition begins without that caveat it is inherently flawed. All we can hope for is a level of awareness regarding the possible difference a perfectly objective thought would have compared to our subjective view.

      I certainly agree with the above. This was indeed the essence of my article! Objectivity is almost always impossible to reach -especially so when dealing with non-empirical (and hence nonfalsifiable) propositions- and thus absolute claims are highly insensible.

  15. I am rather inclined ‘to believe’ than ‘to know’ simply because believing does not require objectivity while knowing does, in order to be taken seriously. The only factor that could make both faith and knwoledge more objective is experimentation / experience. Yet the conclusions are in most cases subjective and there haven’t been only a few cases where a newer research proves the previous one mistaken.

    Atheism claims to be based on ‘knowledge’ rather than on belief and for this reason an atheist appears to me as a bit arrogant for his certainty while on the contrary an agnostic admits his lack of knowledge. In reality atheism is just one more faith while agnosticism isn’t.

    And going further, I can could say that faith does not lack of rationality. A person can be led to faith to God through a very reasonable procedure and coclusions. Here’s one for instance:

    If man was really created in the image of God and he happens to be only logical creature on earth, then this means that God is logical and man should be able to perceive him through logic. For this reason in the Christian letters God is described as Logos (Reason/speech/logic) which has most probably been badly transalted as Word. (The Word of God).

    I personaly believe, but among the other reasons which lead me to faith, is logic. I finaly decided that to believe in the existence of God is more logical than the belief that there is no Master Mind in the universe. Experiences followed later to confirm my decision but at first place it was logic.

    I wouldn’t dare though claiming that I KNOW there is God, and I only use the word I believe. However if one’s life is a… lab, experience often comes to confirm that decision, though again you have to come to believe in order to be able to have the experience of faith.

    For this reason atheists refuse to accept the experiences of believers as a proof, while agnostics have an attitude that varies from acceptance to rejection or to a different interpretation. At least they do not rush to reject a believer for being simple-minded or deluted.

    The most rational option to me is being an agnostic or a believer. Now IF there is a God, HOW, WHO or WHAT is he and WHAT have we do do with him that is a totally different issue. Because there are people who claim they do not believe if God just because they find a statue of a Madonna to be of… bad taste.

    • epanechnikov says:

      Thanks for your message Theoprovlitos. First of all, most atheists would claim that they believe rather that they know. And their belief has been formed by lack of evidence not by knowledge (note, that here I am not referring to the “strong” atheists). This belief is similar to yours (in biological sense and not only)!

      I also definitely agree with the idea that faith does not lack of rationality. But not for the reason you mentioned. You assume that God exists. But this assumption can not be taken as a given fact. This is actually our starting problem. And as such it still remains unsolved. Furthermore humans may be imperfectly rational (or perfectly irrational!) but that does not mean that they can solve unsolved problems through logic. If somebody could do so then he could certainly claim that he KNOWS! And yes experience can confirm our beliefs but we know that experiences are imperfect (e.g. what confirms your subjective belief may at the same time confirm somebody else’s opposite belief. It is known that we suffer from illusions/biases etc.) and thus they can not substitute formal logic. But I would agree with the fact that subjective experiences reasonably form subject beliefs.

      Finally I believe that all options (except strong theism/atheism) are rational. All humans have actually got a double nature – they are both atheists and theists. Agnostics are also both but they are so in equal proportions (which results into their indeterminism).

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