A Theory of Reductive Naturalism: The Metaphysical Foundations of Non-belief

Introduction

What do you believe about God? What about global warming? Do you think euthanasia should be legalised? What about bible study in schools? Whatever your answer to these questions, it is very unlikely that you hold your views in isolation, independently of all your other opinions and perspectives. That’s not how human minds work. Instead, we hold our views in the context of a large set of overlapping and interconnected beliefs about what the world is, how it works, and why things are the way they are. This very large, overarching set of beliefs and conceptions about the world is what I call a ‘worldview’. When ideas become successful or popular, it is very rarely because of the specific merits of one idea considered in isolation. Rather, ideas are usually ‘sold’ as part of a ‘package deal’ – a set of interconnected, internally coherent beliefs about the world which people find attractive. Socialism, Fascism, Christianity, Humanism, and Environmentalism are all examples of such worldviews. As my choice of examples shows, the effect that such worldviews has on the world varies dramatically – ideas can shape the world for better or for worse. If, therefore, we want to shape the world for the better, we need to spread good ideas, and to do that we need to package these ideas in a way that people find attractive. To put it another way, it is not enough to just be right about a whole bunch of unrelated issues. Rather, one needs to incorporate these positions into a unified conceptual whole, to provide a worldview that people find intellectually and emotionally attractive. My aim in this short article is to present an outline of the key points concerning what such a worldview might look like from a Rationalist/Humanist/Atheist perspective. Specifically, the view that I am outlining is a form of reductive naturalism, the meaning of which I will explain shortly. It is a metaphysical theory, meaning that it makes claims about what exists in the world. I do not claim that this is the only possible naturalistic worldview that one can develop, but I do think it is a particularly compelling one which is worthy of serious consideration.

Reductive Naturalism

To begin, I must first explain what I mean by the term ‘naturalism’. This word is used in a variety of ways in everyday language, but in this context I am using it with reference to a particular set of philosophical positions concerning what sorts of things exist in the world. Put most simply, naturalism holds that only the natural world exists. While there is no generally accepted definition of ‘natural’ in this context, the usual conception is that the natural world includes all things that are not supernatural. Supernatural entities are such things as ghosts, spirits, magical forces, immaterial souls, gods, and immaterial forces like yin-yang from Chinese philosophy. Such supernatural entities are typically thought to be highly distinctive from anything that exists in nature in that they are not made up of matter, and do not follow determinate causal laws in the way the natural world does. I should emphasise that natural entities include not only things like particles, organisms, and planetary bodies, but also man-made artifacts like computers and political institutions. The relevant distinction is thus not between natural and artificial, but rather between natural and non-natural or supernatural. Thus understood, naturalism is simply the position that there are no non-natural or supernatural entities.

The version of naturalism that I am here defending is reductionist, meaning that according to this view, everything that exists is either a fundamental particle, or is something that exists and holds all the properties that it does solely in virtue of the arrangements and interactions of such fundamental particles. Another way of putting this is that according to reductive naturalism, if one specified the exact configuration of all the fundamental particles in the entire universe, then this would also be sufficient to determine all the properties of everything that exists within the universe. There is nothing ‘left out’ of reality beyond the arrangements of fundamental particles. A few points of clarification are necessary here. First, when I speak about ‘fundamental particles’ I do not necessarily assume that these are the same as what physics currently regards to be the fundamental particles of nature (quarks, electrons, photons, etc). Perhaps they are, or perhaps they are something yet more fundamental that we have yet to discover. All that is important to my case is that there are a determinate, relatively small number of such things, and that they follow causal laws in principle describable by a ‘completed physics’. Second, when I say that the arrangement of fundamental particles is sufficient to determine all properties about everything that exists, I am advocating a theory of ontology (what exists), not a theory of epistemology (how we know) or semantics (what words mean). To consider a particularly tricky example, according to reductive naturalism, the statement ‘Bob loves his wide’ must ultimately be either true or false in virtue of some state of affairs concerning particular arrangements of fundamental particles. This is not to say, however, that we come to know whether Bob loves his wife by examining states of fundamental particles. Nor is it to say that when we say ‘Bob loves his wife’ we are in any way actually thinking about fundamental particles. Rather, my claim is about what exists in the world that makes this claim true – the so-called ontological basis of the fact that ‘Bob loves his wife’. The claim of reductive naturalism is that even highly abstract and complex states as this ultimately pertain in virtue of the arrangement of fundamental particles. Thus, there is nothing outside of or beyond such particles and their interactions that is needed in order to bring about the state of Bob loving his wife. I am thus explicitly disputing the claim made by some philosophers that immaterial minds or Platonic forms or other non-natural entities are necessary in order to account for all the various phenomena that we know about in the world.

Even given these clarifications, many people typically find this reductive naturalism intuitively implausible. How, they say, can you claim that the interactions of protons and electrons are all that there is to such complex, indescribably rich phenomena as human emotions? A large part of the implausibility of my position, however, is removed once we consider the reduction hierarchically. That is, rather than trying to imagine jumping directly from subatomic physics to human emotions, we should instead think about the stages in which this reduction occurs. Subatomic physics underpins the structure and properties of atoms, which in turn bind together to form molecules. Molecules join together through various types of chemical bonds to form macromolecules like proteins and DNA which make up the cells of the human body. Different types of cells with different functions combine together to form tissues and organs, each with their own role in supporting the life of the organism. In the case of the human mind, neurons connect together in complex networks to form mental representations of various concepts, including ultimately those of loving another person. Considered in this incremental manner, I think the notion that facts about human thoughts and emotions are ultimately reducible to facts about brain states, which in turn reduce to facts about neuronal firing patterns, then down to proteins, molecules, and atoms, is far more plausible than it is if we think simply of jumping from atoms straight to the mind in a single leap.

The utility of a philosophical theory ultimately is determined by how useful it is in accounting for various phenomena that we wish to explain in the world. In the case in question, two of the most difficult phenomena that have led many people to posit entities beyond those of the natural world are the human mind and moral values. In this short article I have space only to very briefly consider these complex subjects, and I certainly do not claim to have a complete philosophical account of either. Nevertheless, I do wish to at the very least sketch the outlines of how a reductionist naturalistic worldview can account for the existence of both mind and morality in a way that provides a space for such phenomena without needing to posit the existence of any additional, non-natural entities.

Before doing so, however, there is one final concept (borrowed from physics) that I must introduce, namely the distinction between a microstate and a macrostate. A microstate is a single complete configuration of all the fundamental particles in a system. A macrostate, by contrast, is a set of microstates that share some property of interest. Macrostates thus refer to ‘higher level’ phenomena, whose existence is nevertheless wholly dependent upon the particular microstate the system is in. For instance, one example of a microstate is the exact description of all the positions and velocities of the air molecules in a room. We can then consider various macrostates which are higher-level properties that nevertheless are entirely determined by the microstate that the particles in the room reside in. refers to the set of all such microstates in which the room has a particular temperature. One example of a macrostate would be ‘the air temperature in this room is 30 degrees Celsius’. This macrostate refers to the set of all possible microstates that give rise to this temperature. Even though there are many possible microstates that can instantiate a single macrostate, the temperature of the room is still determined completely by the microstate. The macrostate is thus just a useful ‘higher order’ concept we use to refer to sets of microstates that are similar in some relevant way.

Applications: Mind and Morality

Applying this distinction between microstates and macrostates to the cases of the mind and morality, we see that under the reductive naturalistic worldview, mental and moral states of affairs can both understood to be a kind of macrostate. In the case of the mind, examples of macrostates could be ‘he perceives the colour red’, ‘she remembers her grandmother’s face’, or ‘I believe that it will rain tomorrow’. These are all mental states of affairs which are expressed in a psychological language involving appeal to believes, perceptions, desires, etc. According to the theory of reductive naturalism I am advocating, all such mental macrostates ultimately exist in virtue of the (exceedingly large) number of microstates that are capable of instantiating them. There is, for example, a very large number of possible ways the atoms in my brain could be arranged such that they correspond to being in a state of ‘deciding’. Indeed, it is possible that microstates quite different to those which exist in my brain are also capable of instantiating mental macrostates, such as the arrangements of atoms making up the circuitry of an artificial intelligence. This position in the philosophy of mind is known is functionalism, and holds that mental states are constituted by the functional workings of a given system, and that different physical systems may be capable of producing the same functions and therefore of yielding the same mental phenomena. The exact details of functionalism are not important here, the point is simply that such a view fits very readily within the reductive naturalist paradigm that I have been developing, and is capable in broad terms of making sense of how mental states can exist in a purely material world. The key idea, then, is that mental states are not some mysterious things that cannot be accounted for in the natural world. Rather, appeals to mental states such as beliefs, desires, perceptions, and, even acts of free will, ultimately refer to very complex bundles of possible arrangements of fundamental particles. We cannot possibly specify in detail exactly what all these arrangements of particles look like, but nor do we need to, as the arrangements are defined functionally by the higher-level properties they instantiate. There is of course no need to replace such psychological terms with talk of fundamental particles, because that would distract from our purpose and lead us to getting bogged down in irrelevant details. The point of this analysis, rather, is that such psychological language and the mental states they refer to can fit quite comfortably within a naturalistic worldview, without needing to appeal to the existence of any additional non-natural entities.

We can apply much the same analysis to the case of morality. Morally good macrostates can be understood as states of affairs conducive to the flourishing or wellbeing of sentient creatures. Morally bad macrostates, by contrast, would be states of affairs that bring about the suffering and misery of sentient creatures. Obviously we would need to articulate in more detail what we mean by terms like ‘wellbeing’ and ‘misery’, however since we can readily identify examples of each I take it that these terms, while fuzzy, have a robust meaning that is sufficient for our purposes here. This position corresponds to the metaethical theory of reductive moral naturalism, though once again, the details of this theory are not of prime importance here. What I want to emphasise is simply the fact that moral states of affairs can be readily accorded a place in this naturalistic worldview in accordance with whether or not a particular microstate instantiates a macrostate that is conducive to wellbeing or misery. Thus, when we say something like ‘killing for fun is morally wrong’, this statement is true in virtue of the fact that the various microstates which instantiate the act of killing (obviously there are many ways to kill someone) also instantiate a macrostate in which the wellbeing of sentient creatures is diminished relative to a comparable macrostate in which this act of killing did not occur. There is no need to appeal to the existence of God or any other transcendent source of morality for such moral macrostates to pertain, as they exist purely in virtue of the fact that certain arrangements of fundamental particles instantiate the wellbeing of sentient creatures to a greater extent than other arrangements. Of course, whether one is motivated to act so as to bring about morally good states of affairs is another question entirely. My point here is simply to argue that the existence of morally good states of affairs is readily explicable under a reductive naturalistic worldview.

One possible line of objection to my arguments is that we still do not have a very good understanding of precisely how mental or moral states of affairs arise from (or ‘supervene on’) the interactions of fundamental particles. In particular, there is a sizeable gap in our knowledge between the level of the functioning of single neurons and the emergence of complex mental behaviours and sensations in large networks of neurons. As such, it might be argued that to claim that we can say the latter arise solely from the interactions of the former is premature. In response, I would argue that it is in fact not at all premature to make such an inference. Recall that I am not claiming we have a complete theory of how all of nature works – science is an ongoing endeavour. All I am asserting is that we can account for the core phenomena that we need to, including the mind and moral value, without needing to appeal to any entities outside of the natural world. In doing so, I have given an account as to how the mind and morality can be conceptualised in a reductive naturalistic worldview – I have given ‘a place where they can fit’ in a naturalistic ontology. For this to be plausible, all that is needed is sufficient reason to think it plausible that higher order phenomena such as the mind can potentially arise solely as a result of the interaction of fundamental particles. And I think that the current state of knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and psychology is more than sufficient to affirm that such a belief is plausible. Certainly we don’t have the full explanation as to how this occurs, but I think we have ample evidence to infer that it is plausible that it does. Most everyone is willing to believe that the immensely complex behaviour of financial markets arises purely as the result of the financial activities of individual traders and corporations, despite the lack of a detailed theory as to how exactly this occurs. Likewise, no one would seriously argue that fluid turbulence is the result of anything other than the interaction of molecules in the fluid, even though our understanding of the physics of fluid dynamics is still relatively poor. I thus content that we are similarly in a position to affirm the plausibility of mind and morality arising purely from the result of neural activity in the brain (and hence ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles), even though we lack a complete theory as to how this occurs.

Conclusion

While I have argued that we can plausibly consider complex mental and moral macrostates as existing solely in virtue of the interactions of fundamental particles, I have not provided any arguments to prove that this must be the case. There may well be entities that exist outside of the natural world, and therefore the theory I have sketched here may constitute a drastically incomplete worldview. My argument, however, is that a reductive naturalistic worldview has sufficient explanatory power to account for the existence of all the phenomena we would wish it to. Furthermore, reductive naturalism is a highly parsimonious worldview, meaning that it posits only the existence of the natural world (whose existence almost all worldviews accept), and nothing else besides. My argument, therefore, is that if we can account for all that we need to from the natural world alone, then we have no reason to posit the existence of anything beyond the natural world. As to the existence of entities outside of nature we, like Laplace, therefore have ‘no need for that hypothesis’.

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Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.

The Wisdom of Christianity and the Foolishness of Atheism: What Atheists Consistently get Wrong

Introduction

I recently attended a public discussion called “How do You Know”, in which atheist Peter Boghossian engaged in dialogue with Christian Richard Shumack concerning various matters of religion and epistemology. This piece is written in part as a response to that event, though I will also draw upon and refer to the numerous other interactions I have observed between Atheists and Christians, and commonalities I have observed therein. It is necessary to clarify right at the outset that the title of this piece is shamelessly adapted from Richard Shumack’s book The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, and that in speaking of ‘Atheism’ and ‘Christianity’ in this way I do not intend to make sweeping generalisations about such diverse bodies of thought. So please do not read ‘atheists’ to mean “all atheists”. Rather, I am talking about general tendencies that I personally have observed, whereby many atheists often to make certain types of arguments and rebuttals which I believe are unsound and poorly researched. Needless to say, many Christians do this as well, however what I want to focus on in this piece are instances, far more common than I think many atheists would like to admit, when the arguments or rebuttals made by atheists are of far lower quality than the Christian arguments they are directed against.

Atheists and Scientism

“The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t” – Lawrence Krauss

“My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” – Stephen Hawking

There is a very prominent strand of atheist thought which, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be described as ‘scientistic’, advancing the view that scientific processes are the only reliable or justifiable methods for arriving at knowledge of the world. Peter Boghossian made remarks to this effect numerous times, repeatedly arguing that scientific methods are the way to truth, and that looking at objective evidence is the only truly reliable way to form beliefs.

I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Those who have been around for a while will know that I have advocated arguments along similar lines before. However, I have lately backed away from at least some of the more extreme, less cautious forms of such ‘scientism’, since I don’t believe it to be philosophically defensible. Schumack said during the event “New Atheists believe in scientism but philosophers don’t”, and in essence I agree with this statement. There are numerous deep philosophical problems with the idea that scientific methods are the only valid ones, or that we can determine what is true by ‘looking at the evidence’ in the relatively straightforward way that Boghossian seems to imply, or that we can dispense with philosophical analysis in addressing these sorts of questions. Below I will give just a few illustrative examples of such problems, which atheists typically do not address and seem generally unconcerned with:

  1. Evidence: what is evidence? What is it about certain events or experiences that make them evidence for something else? Unsurprisingly, this is a hotly disputed philosophical question which science seems to lack the tools to address by itself. Particularly relevant philosophical problems include the theory dependence of observation (in brief, that it is not possible to interpret any empirical evidence absent some pre-existing theoretical framework), and the underdetermination of theory by observation (namely that there are always a large range of potential explanations equally consistent with any observations). These and other similar questions in epistemology or philosophy of science are essential to grapple with if one is to defend a robust ‘evidence-based’ epistemological methodology, however atheists very seldom address these issues at all.
  2. Explanation: we know that science explains things, but what exactly is an ‘explanation‘? What properties distinguish good explanations from bad ones? There is little agreement about them among philosophers, and no clear way of answering the question within the bounds of what is generally thought of as ‘science’. We may also ask what is it about theistic or supernatural explanations which makes them so inferior to those provided by science in all circumstances? Boghossian said at one point that even if Jesus appeared to him in front of a large crowd of witnesses he would still not be convinced (I have made similar statements), because he could not rule out alternate explanations such as aliens. The question is, on what basis should we conclude (as he implied, and others have explicitly stated) that an alien intervention constitutes a better explanation, or is more likely, than a supernatural one? Unless we assume a priori that supernatural explanations are inherently implausible, it seems difficult to justify this assertion, at least not without a great deal more analysis and clarification of relevant concepts than atheists typically provide.
  3. Probability: Boghossian mentioned a number of times ‘the likelihood that one will have true beliefs” (which is language very similar to that which I have been known to use). There are, however, several different interpretations of probability which entail different interpretations of the meaning of probabilistic statements such as those being made by Boghossian, and little agreement about which of them is ‘correct’ or when different conceptions may be most applicable. Again, it is difficult to see how such disputes can be resolved within science itself, without recourse to philosophical analysis.
  4. Semantics: a fairly common critique of philosophy is that it concerns itself predominantly with endless and largely pointless debates about the meaning of words. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this view in part in his quote above, and Boghossian hinted at some similar notions at various times in his presentation. The problem with such critiques is that we absolutely cannot get around debating about the meaning of words. Consider this statement: ‘philosophy is not very useful for learning about the world; science is much better suited for finding truth’. Is this statement (or others similar to it) a statement that is the product of scientific, or of philosophical reasoning? To me it seems very much the latter and not the former, in which case the  strong anti-philosophical views expressed by certain atheists are self-undermining – they are making philosophical claims in the act of denouncing philosophy. If we do need to do philosophy in order to consider a question like ‘is scientific reasoning a paramount method for finding truth?’, first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by the word ‘science‘. Likewise when analysing concepts like ‘evidence‘, ‘reason‘, and ‘explanation’, we have no recourse but to discuss the meanings of these words and the concepts they attempt to describe. Maybe we could say ‘don’t use such confusing words then, just say more precisely what you mean’. But what is it they we mean exactly? What words could we use in place of ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ to be more precise? To answer that question we need to know what is meant by these words, which is precisely the question we were hoping to avoid. Hopefully the point I am getting at is clear: atheists absolutely need to do philosophy, and that necessarily involves debating about the meaning of words. Complaining about this is foolish and results not in replacing philosophy with its much better cousin science, but instead in replacing some philosophy with other, bad forms of philosophy.

Atheists and Jesus

“I have no idea about whether Jesus was a real historical figure” – Peter Boghissian

“It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all… although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history” – Richard Dawkins

In the past I have been quite vocal in criticising Christians about their lack of engagement with what I consider to be essential aspects, questions, and issues pertinent to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Here I want to shift the direction of such criticism, and emphasise some points that I have made before (and indeed strengthen them to a degree), with regard to the lack of engagement on these points by most atheists. In particular, it seems from my experience that if Christians are perhaps generally not as informed about historicity questions as I think they should be, atheists are in general at least ten times worse. Only a very small number of atheists appear to have any knowledge or interest in such matters at all, and even many who do seem to use what knowledge they have as a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination (I didn’t invent this lovely turn of phrase, like basically all my ideas it was shamelessly stolen).

Here I want to focus on addressing some of the common falsehoods, misconceptions, and irrelevancies that I hear from many atheists, a number of which were raised by Boghossian or by various audience members during question time.

Outright False Claims

  1. Jesus probably never existed: though I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the language of some Christian apologists responding to this who have used phrases like “historically certain” (I don’t think anything is certain, in ancient history least of all), nevertheless I am in agreement with the thrust of this response, namely that to reject the existence of the historical person of Jesus is to reject the overwhelming majority of scholarly work on the matter, secular and sacred alike. We do not have totally unequivocal evidence beyond all conceivable doubt of any sort that Jesus existed, but to deny the historicity of Jesus is to reject the consensus of relevant experts to a similar degree as do climate change deniers and other proponents of pseudoscientific theories. I don’t think Jesus mythicism is quite as bad as Young Earth Creationism, but the difference in terms of the solidity of scholarly consensus is mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind. Expressing scorn at one for being ignorant of relevant scholarly whilst simultaneously embracing the other is, in my mind, deeply problematic.
  2. The bible is all fairytales and is not a historical document: this statement goes too far even for the Old Testament, and most certainly for the New Testament. Certainly many scholars have raised questions about the historicity of particular details of the New Testament accounts, for example the miracles and the birth narratives, but to say that the NT has no historical content or value is once again to completely reject the consensus of relevant scholars. Atheists who do this arbitrarily treat the NT documents differently to essentially all other ancient documents, which are likewise written by biased (in the sense of not being totally disinterested in their subject matter or the reactions of readers) persons who held views that today we would likely regard as dubious. Unless an atheist likewise wishes to mostly or entirely reject essentially all ancient documents, it is unjustifiable for them to refuse to consider the historical evidence of the NT on the basis of such considerations.
  3. The bible has been translated and re-translated several times: Boghossian didn’t claim this, but it is something that I occasionally hear atheists say. The claim is false – current English translations are compiled by large teams of scholars working from documents written in the original ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Such translations and the documents from which they are derived are not beyond criticism on certain points, but nevertheless one cannot say that the bible has suffered from multiple rounds of translation. (Note: this was true of the very earliest English bibles, which I believe were translated from the Latin Vulgate, in turn translated from the Greek, but this is no longer the case with modern translations).
  4. The story of Jesus bears many similarities to other mythical Gods: it is true that the story of Jesus bears some similarities to claims about other deities. In particular, ideas of a virgin birth and of a ‘dying and rising god’ are found in other mythologies of the ancient world. But the many lists of alleged similarities one finds posted in various online forums are for the most part inaccurate: some of the similarities are invented, others exaggerated, and in all cases differences are ignored (readers can research the details at their own leisure, I won’t get into them here). Furthermore, even if such similarities pertained, I cannot recall ever having heard an atheist present a clear explanation as to what could be inferred from this fact. At least to me, the notion that corrupted divine revelations pertinent to Jesus could have become entrenched in the mythology of various ancient peoples would explain such similarities quite as well as the notion that they were the product of careful copying by the authors of the New Testament.

Irrelevancies and Distractions

  1. The NT accounts were written decades after the events they describe: most (though not all) Christian arguments for the historicity of the resurrection hinge on the claim that people like Peter and Paul claimed to have seem the risen Jesus (alone and in groups), and were later harshly persecuted for their beliefs. That personal acquaintances of Jesus (which Paul wasn’t but Peter and the other apostles were) made such claims is widely accepted by relevant scholars, and therefore is problematic for atheists to deny (see also above about Jesus never existing). If this crucial fact is accepted, then it is largely or entirely beside the point how long after the event the gospels were written, because the key historical detail they contain pertinent to the matter has already been admitted. If the atheist wishes to argue that the gospels were written so long after the event that even this central fact is unreliable, then they are going against the consensus of scholarship.
  2. There are contradictions and inaccuracies in the NT: along with (I think, though I haven’t seen survey data) the majority of scholars, I agree that there are events recorded in the NT which are very unlikely to be historical and which are both seemingly internally contradictory and at odds with extra-biblical evidence (the birth narratives being my favourite example, the genealogies being another). Some Christians won’t agree with me on those points, but that’s irrelevant here. The key point is, what I think about these passages, and indeed what other scholars think about them, is not essentially relevant to most of the arguments that Christians make concerning the evidence for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter that the birth accounts are problematic. The evidence, so the argument goes, rests on the eyewitness testimony provided by the apostles and others and recorded (perhaps not first handed but recorded nonetheless) in the New Testament.
  3. There are many other competing miracle claims: this is not completely irrelevant (and indeed I have written quite extensively on the issue of comparative miracle claims), however it is not sufficient for an atheist to merely cite the existence of competing miracle claims in other religions, as the existence of false miracles does not preclude the existence of genuine ones (though it may well alter relevant probabilities concerning our belief that the miracle is genuine). As with anything, the details of a claim, including the evidence available and the potential presence of competing non-miraculous explanations, need to be examined and compared to those of competing claims. I have been critical of Christians for making relatively little effort to do this, but in my experience atheists tend to be equally disinterested in such an endeavour, which is perhaps even more problematic given that atheists tend to spend more time talking (at least in general terms) about ‘other miracle claims’.

Conclusions

My purpose in writing this piece is not to point fingers or imply that atheists are stupid or ignorant (though undoubtedly some are). My purpose is rather to promote better, more carefully considered dialogue between Christians and Atheists, where all persons take the time to think carefully through their own arguments and those of their opponents. Atheists typically pride themselves on being rational and basing their beliefs on evidence, but very often I have found they are far less consistent in applying these ideals to questions of religion and philosophy than they should be – not that I am perfect myself, but I think we can all try harder. Making arguments which are grossly dismissive of the scholarly work on relevant matters, as unfortunately atheists often do, is not helpful in moving forward dialogue on these very important matters. It is also not consistent with an unyielding and impartial (or as near as we can make it) search for the truth, wherever such a search will lead us. This is the search I am on, and I warmly invite all others, Christian and Atheist alike, to join me.