(a series on why I don’t think atheism solves the very philosophical problems with which it faults theism)
So, I’m trying out a new idea for this blog: a multi-post philosophical series. Over the next few weeks (maybe more, if discussion gets good) I plan on developing reasons as to why I do not believe in the non-existence of a deity. That’s clunky language, I know. But it pinpoints the purpose of this series. I want it to be known that I am not trying to prove theism (much less am I trying to prove Christian theism, though I will admit that my references to deities in this series are going to presuppose a Western view of a personal god rather than an Eastern “force” kind of theism). Rather, my purpose here is to show that atheism commits some of the same “errors” that it charges theism with. In other words, I’m trying to show that atheism doesn’t solve the philosophical problems that many atheists cite as reasons for disbelieving theism. This is a Schaefferian- type of thing to do in that it reflects what Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called “taking the roof off” – a term that denotes showing someone the implications of his or her worldview. Inherent in my critique of atheism is going to be my blatant Christianity. I will try to rein this in when possible, as my goal is honestly not to offend. However, it is the presupposition with which I start, so it is a very difficult thing to hold in check. Anyway, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s start.
It is difficult to figure out where to begin these sorts of arguments. After all, any of us who are currently alive and who desire to get in on the a/theism debate have to do so realizing that we’re jumping into the middle of a discussion that’s gone on since humankind has existed. That’s a lot of ground to cover. One good starting point might be epistemology (the study of how we know things), but I’m having a hard time starting there. The reason for my difficulty is that most philosophers accept the Socratic view of knowledge as Justified True Belief – that is, we can be said to “know” something when that something is a belief that is an accurate reflection of reality (true) and which can be demonstrated through a system of “proofs.” I put the proofs in quotes because virtually nothing can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (see the discussion of the Munchhausen trilemma a few paragraphs down). It isn’t called Proven True Belief, but merely Justified True Belief. I cannot “prove” that we are not just brains in vats that are being manipulated a la The Matrix to pseudo-experience this world. Similarly, I cannot prove that we did not just spring up into existence mere seconds ago with our memories already implanted. I can’t prove or disprove these thought experiments because they require us to jump outside the methods of justification that we have available. As assertions of things outside our reality, they can’t be proven or disproven using things within our reality. So I’m not going to start with epistemology, and I’m going to just assume prima facie that our experiences are real and we’re as old as we think we are, etc.
Instead, and for the remainder of this part of the series, let’s talk about ontology. Ontology is the study of what is. When I talk about a person’s ontology, I am referring to his or her conception of what exists. For instance, a materialist would assert that only the material world exists and could therefore be said to have a materialistic ontology. Note that while I’m not going to explicitly discuss epistemology at this point, ontology is directly connected with epistemology. It is basically impossible to discuss one without the other, so there are going to be parts of this discussion that inevitably deal with how we know things – or at the very least how we justify our ontologies. W.V.O. Quine, one of America’s most influential and brilliant philosophers, was an advocate of having as sparse an ontology as possible – by which he meant that he wanted to allow for the least amount of necessary things existing in reality – and this is an idea that is very palatable to atheists, if I can make a generalization. One of the criticisms that many atheists have toward theism is that theism asserts the existence of a being that is not necessary to explain reality. Another way to put this is that theism is seen to have an overpopulated ontology.
In order to break down this criticism and show, hopefully, that atheism does not alleviate an “overpopulated” ontology, I am going to switch my talking from an overall ontology to what I will call “necessary brute facts.” These necessary brute facts are things which we merely have to assume are true in order to explain the world. The Munchhausen trilemma asserts that, basically, any proof of knowledge must ultimately rely on three equally unappealing (especially in today’s skeptic culture) options: a circular argument (in which the proof is used to prove the asserted knowledge, and the knowledge is used to prove the proof), a regressive argument (in which the proof then requires a further proof to prove it, which then requires a further proof to prove that proof, to infinity and beyond), or an axiomatic argument (in which the proof[s] are built upon some accepted fundamental precepts). Since the first two options are incredibly unappealing, I will assume the third. That is, I assume that everyone – even the skeptical atheist – rests his or her arguments on these fundamental precepts (i.e. my “necessary brute facts”). So, now that the terminology and, begrudgingly, a bit of epistemology have been set in place, let me get on with it.
The atheist’s argument that theism has an unnecessarily overpopulated ontology can be reformulated to assert that theism has too many necessary brute facts. I disagree with this, as it seems to me that the only real necessary brute fact in (Christian) theism is the deity itself. In a western, personal-god form of theism, the only necessary brute fact that must be taken for granted is the existence of the deity. Everything else can be seen as contingent upon this deity’s decision to create in the manner in which it decided to create. There is less that needs to be philosophically explained in this system, to my eyes at least. (This is one of those areas in which I readily know I’m not convincing anyone, but let’s move on).
For the atheist, there is more “mere faith” that has to be assumed – more necessary brute facts that cannot be accounted for and cannot, by virtue of being brute facts, be explained through appeals to other facts. On the large scale, the atheist must assume that the Universe is the ultimate brute fact. The difference here is obviously that we can observe the universe, etc. But what this leads to is a cascade of necessary brute facts. Since most philosophers accept the idea of the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that what simply exists does not reflect what ought to exist – the atheist is then left to defend an ontology that includes things we can’t readily experience. At least, the atheist (which in our day and age usually equates to materialism, since many atheists’ problem with theism is that it asserts a non-scientific nonmaterial world) must paradoxically accept as necessary brute facts things like an ethical code embedded into the universe. Note that trying to prove that this ethical code rests on other things like the progress of society or the inherent worth of life does not solve this problem. Instead, it simply pushes the problem back from the ethical code to either society or life, respectively. So it seems to me that the atheist, paradoxically, must accept more necessary brute facts than the theist! The problem has not been solved by a simple move to atheism. Instead, the atheist has just moved from having one thing that he or she cannot prove and must simply accept to having a multitude of things that he or she must accept.
So there it is. Obviously, this post is not in the least bit exhaustive. Subsequent posts will deal with more specific grievances that atheists typically use to refute theism, but I thought a more general/abstract discussion was necessary to kick off the series. Many people who are more well-read and more knowledgeable than I have attempted to tackle this Ontology problem – both on the theistic and atheistic side. My point is simply to show that this issue, which many atheists hold to be a fault of theism (i.e. the “you have to have blind faith” sort of criticism) is not escaped by a simple move to atheism because both theism and atheism have at their cores “necessary brute facts” that must be accepted prima facie, without any proofs, and which are subsequently used to interpret all the other facts available to us. This post is supposed to encourage discussion on the matter, from both sides, and so I welcome comments. In fact I really desire that people talk about it! I’d love to hear refutations of this as well as agreements. However, my one rule is that if you feel inclined to comment on this, you must be respectful of other people. Attack ideas and not people. Any attempt to do the latter will get your comment removed – though disagreeing with me will not.
-END PART ONE-