Levels of Scepticism: How Even Rational People have Sceptical Blind Spots

Most of my readers doubtless recognise the importance of being skeptical about the information, arguments, and ideas that we encounter, be it dietary advice, political opinions, science news articles, or whatever else. There are, however, different levels of scepticism, corresponding to the varying degrees of sophistication we can attain in the manner in which we respond to new ideas or arguments. In this piece I wish to outline a brief topology of these different levels of scepticism. I do not pretend to offer any sort of definitive classification, nor do I claim that these levels are in any way based upon empirical psychological research. Their purpose rather is to serve as a conceptual tool to help us think about the ways in which we can improve our own thinking, and work to eliminate residual biases and blind spots that hamper our efforts to form beliefs that are best justified by strong argument and quality evidence. The hierarchy that I shall outline has four levels, ranging from least sceptical at level 0 to most sceptical at level 3. I want to emphasise that the purpose of these levels is not to create a ranking of particular people as better or worse sceptics, as most people operate at multiple different levels depending on the circumstance and the topic in question. Rather, the purpose is to rank particular types of thinking, so that we may better recognise when we are thinking in a better or worse mode of scepticism.

I will begin my discussion at the bottom of the hierarchy, level 0. When we think at this level, we do not think particularly critically or sceptically about much of anything. Though we may have opinions about various matters of political, ethical, or philosophical import, when operating at level 0 we are typically unable to clearly articulate these views to others, or explain why we hold them. Most such views are typically informed primarily by our upbringing, socialisation, and the attitudes of the people around them as they go about their lives. Many people who operate at this level have little to no ability to critically analyse evidence or analyse an abstract logical argument, having never been taught such skills or found it necessary to learn them. Even those who do have such skills, however, can sometimes be remarkably compartmentalised in the manner in which they apply them, for example being able to hold forth a detailed analytical argument about topic A, but when discussing topic B doing little more than spouting catch-phrases that resonate with them. When we operate at level 0, we tend to think that our viewpoint is ‘obvious’, and react with surprise when we find that others think differently, or that any sensible person can hold a different view. It is likely that the majority of humanity operate at level 0 most of the time, as this is the type of thinking that comes most naturally and easily to most humans. That is, we typically form beliefs about the world not on the basis of careful examination of evidence, logical analysis, or in-depth comparison of alternative perspectives, but unconsciously and reflexively as we go about our lives, drawing largely upon what we know and are familiar with. I do not want to claim that this is inappropriate in all contexts, as certainly we cannot always subject everything to detailed critical analysis. However, I do think that making a habit of thinking in this way is liable to lead us into error and confusion about a great many of our beliefs. Scepticism, logic, and science are valuable tools, and neglecting these tools leaves us intellectually impoverished and prone to biased and mistaken reasoning.

This leads me on to the next level of the scepticism hierarchy, level 1. When operating at this level, we are able to articulate clear opinions on a variety of subjects, martialling various arguments and evidences in favour of our views. We recognise the distinctiveness of different viewpoints and are able to employ the tools of scepticism and rationality to make arguments for what we regard as the correct view. However, when thinking at this level we also tend to identify strongly with one particular perspective, be it religious, political, scientific, or whatever else, and employ these sceptical tools selectively against arguments or information coming from the opposing ‘side’. We are able to spot logical fallacies, faulty reasoning, and inadequate evidence in the arguments of our ideological opponents, but are much less able to apply the same skills to arguments made by those of their own ideological persuasion. When operating at level 1, we tend to respond to new claims by ‘pattern matching’ how the claim is framed and who is making it, and on that basis classify it as ‘for’ or ‘against’ our side. We thus do not judge arguments fairly on their own merits, but subject them to an initial, largely unconscious ‘screening process’, whereby if an argument ‘sounds like’ the sort of thing someone we disagree with would say, then we subject it to closer skeptical examination. On the other hand, if it sounds like the sort of thing somebody who agrees us would say, then it typically avoids any in-depth examination. This sort of self-serving, pro in-group bias comes very naturally to humans, and thus is very difficult to overcome. It is also very difficult to notice in ourselves, because when operating at level 1 we typically are only conscious of the times when we are being skeptical and critical, not the times when we aren’t. To us it feels like we take arguments only on their merit, when in reality we are very selective about how our scepticism is applied, and make little effort to subject views that accord with our beliefs or biases to the same rigorous critical examination that we apply to those that do not. When operating at level 1 we are also liable to be misled by framing effects, slogans, buzzwords, and other irrelevancies relating not to the substance of an argument, but to how it is packaged. Selective scepticism of this sort is very common to those heavily involved in some sort of social movement or organisation, and is not always bad because it can save us time – after all, we can’t critically examine every single claim we come across. At the same time, it can become all too easy to become accustomed to operating at this level, and in doing so we fail to make proper or full use of the tools of rationality and scepticism.

When operating at the next level up in the hierarchy, level 2, we are able to apply critical thinking skills and skeptical analysis consistently and fairly both to arguments that we find agreeable and those that we find disagreeable. We allow the arguments and evidence to be persuasive in their own right, with minimal influence based on who has made them, or how they have been formulated. We consciously recognise our tendencies to favour ‘our side’ over the ‘other side’, and make efforts to circumvent this by deliberately taking time to critique arguments made by those who agree with us, and likewise by finding the strongest, most able defenders of ideas we disagree with. This, of course, is not easy to do, and requires careful attention and genuine effort to fairly engage with different perspectives and ideas. There is, however, one significant failing that we still commonly experience when operating at level 2. Namely, we instinctively and reflexively retain an unreasonable overconfidence in our own reasoning abilities. We tend to believe that our perspectives or conclusions on some issue are the ‘right’ ones, and everyone else has got it ‘wrong’. Taken to extremes, this type of thinking can lead to habitual contrarianism and even conspiratorial thinking. In such cases, we may think that both sides of some major dispute have it wrong, and we are the ‘lone genius’ able to see the correct answer. While most people do not reach such extremes, what those operating at level 2 have in common is their inability or unwillingness to apply the same sceptical attitude and critical examination to their own thought processes that they do to the arguments of others. We thus do not properly appreciate the many limitations of memory, rationality, and knowledge that we ourselves are subject to, and which hamper our efforts to draw correct conclusions. We are skeptical of everyone else, but not sufficiently skeptical of themselves, of our own biases and limitations.

The highest level of my hierarchy is level 3, and it is the level I believe we should all aspire to use as regularly as possible. When operating at level 3, we properly apply scepticism and critical analysis not only to everyone else, but also to ourselves and our own beliefs, preconceptions, and thought processes. We are often hesitant to attach strong credence to the conclusions we reach, because we know that our rationality is grossly imperfect and our knowledge and perspectives sorely limited. This of course should not lead us to radical scepticism or keep us from forming opinions about anything, but it should temper our confidence considerably and keep us from becoming dogmatically attached to our conclusions and perspectives. In level 3 we are also much more self-critical, actively setting out to uncover our own biases and doing our best to compensate for them, and not just criticising the biases and errors of others. Likewise, we actively seek out the viewpoints of other informed persons to critique our opinions and point out our cognitive ‘blind spots’, helping us to apply scepticism to our own thought processes and reasoning. Level 3 is often an uncomfortable state to operate in, for it robs us of the overconfidence in our beliefs that is reassuring to most people, and also requires a degree of active self-criticism which is unnatural and effortful to maintain. We also must also make an effort to find the right balance between appropriate self-criticism and scepticism on the one hand, and paralysing self-doubt, apathy, or total mistrust of reason on the other. Operating at level 3 is neither easy nor natural, but I do believe it is the highest form of ‘true scepticism’, and the ideal to which we should all aspire. Operating in this level may not always be possible, but nevertheless is worth striving for since it allows us to take the fullest advantage of the tools afforded by logic, rationality, and scepticism, thereby providing us maximum chances for ultimately forming accurate beliefs free from error, bias, and distortion.

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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’.

A Critique of Crude Positivism: Why the Epistemology of Dawkins and Hawking Fails

Introduction

In this essay I wish to address a particular set of opinions that seem to be quite popular among many contemporary atheists, rationalists, and freethinkers. It is not a single specific position, but rather a patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives sharing a more-or-less constant core. Being somewhat amorphous, the position of which I am speaking does not really a distinct name. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall refer to this constellation of views as ‘crude positivism’. ‘Positivism’ is a complex and controversial philosophical perspective, which broadly speaking is characterised by a strong respect for science and empirical enquiry, and an opposition to truth claims based on metaphysical speculation, faith, or authority. My purpose here is not to attack positivism itself, but rather the relatively crude form of it that is popularised, to varying degrees, by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. While one again emphasising that I am describing a family of related and overlapping viewpoints rather than a single well-defined doctrine, three of the key most commonly-encountered components of this ‘crude positivism’ are the following:

  1. Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  2. Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.
  3. Pragmatism: science owes is special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

My goal in this piece will be to challenge these three claims. In particular, I will argue that the ‘crude positivism’ typified by these three views presents an overly narrow conception of knowledge, and represents an ultimately fragile basis upon which to ground challenges to superstitution, pseudoscience, and other forms of irrationality. My key contention is that we need to move beyond such crude positivism in order to have a stronger intellectual underpinning for the atheistic/rationalist/freethought movements. A final note on style: when I use the phrase ‘crude positivists’ I don’t mean to imply a well-defined group of people. I just use it as shorthand to refer to those who, to varying degrees, hold to one or more of the three positions outlined above.

Strict Evidentialism

Crude positivists insist that all beliefs, or at least all beliefs concerning anything of importance, ought to be based upon appropriate evidence. While I agree with this as an abstract principle, I have concerns about the manner in which crude positivists typically interpret and apply this maxim in practise. The trouble is that, when challenged, nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something that they regard to be ‘evidence’. To consider a specific example, the evangelical Christian may claim to know that God works in the lives of believers because they have seen it happen with their own eyes, and experienced it personally in their own lives. Needless to say, this is not the sort of ‘evidence’ that adherents of crude positivism are likely to accept as legitimate. The question, however, is why not? After all, the justification in question is empirically based, in that it is derived from making observations about the world. Generally positivists respond that such experiences are uncontrolled and anecdotal, and thus cannot be trusted to provide reliable evidence. To this, however, the Christian may simply agree, arguing that while such experiences are anecdotal and thus do not qualify as scientific evidence, nevertheless they do constitute evidence of the relevant sort for the domain in question, namely the domain relating to knowledge and experience of God. According to this perspective, only certain particular phenomena or aspects of reality are susceptible to the investigative methods of the empirical sciences, and the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him would not be one of these areas that science can study. These phenomena can be empirically studied, but this is done by applying different standards than those used for scientific inquiry, using methods that are much more personal and experiential. Scientific methods are applicable in the scientific domain, while other methods and other forms of empirical evidence are applicable in other domains. I am not attempting to defend this ‘separate domains’ position. Instead, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to respond to a position like this by simply asserting that beliefs should be based on evidence, since that is not the point under dispute. That is, the question is not whether some form of ‘evidence’ is important, but the type of evidence is deemed acceptable, and how that evidence justified claim being made.

A related problem concerns the issue of how evidence should be interpreted. Crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence simply and unambiguously picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practise, however, this is almost never the case, as evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory in order to interpret. For example, in order to understand a historical text, one requires not only knowledge of the language in which it is written, but also a broad understanding of the relevant social and political context in which the text was written. Likewise the raw output of most scientific observation or experiments are unintelligible without use of detailed background theories and methodological assumptions.

Given the important role that background assumptions and perspectives shape our interpretations of a given piece of evidence, it is very common for different people coming from different perspectives to conclude that the same evidence supports wildly different conclusions. For instance, many young earth creationists interpret the fossil and other evidence in light of their pre-existing belief that the bible is the literal and infallible word of God, and as a result they conclude that the extant evidence points to a divine creation event in the recent past, devising various ingenious methods of reconciling their beliefs with the apparent evidence to the contrary. My intent is not to defend creationists, but to illustrate that it is not enough to simply say that creationists ignore the evidence. These creationists are responding to the evidence (indeed they argue that it supports their position), but are interpreting it differently on the basis of different suppositions and approaches. We cannot simply dismiss them as being blinded by their presuppositions, since (as I have just argued) evidence can never be interpreted in a vacuum, free of assumptions or preconceptions, but can only ever be interpreted in the context of an existing methodological framework and various background assumptions. To say this isn’t to endorse some form of epistemic relativism, but simply to point out that if we want to explain why creationists and others like them are mistaken, we have to move beyond the crude positivistic cry of ‘seek the evidence’, and articulate a more detailed set of criteria and epistemological principles upon which certain initial assumptions and modes of interpretation are to be preferred over others. We need to do a better job of explaining what types of evidence are most reliable, how to interpret evidence, and why these approaches are more conducive to the formation of true beliefs than other, competing approaches.

Narrow Scientism

The second aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I want to discuss is the view I have termed ‘narrow scientism’, which refers to the tendency to dismiss, or significantly downplay, the importance and status of all disciplines outside the natural sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, and geology produce reliable knowledge, while psychology is a bit of a question mark, and economics and political science are clearly ‘not sciences’, but belong with disciples like philosophy and much of the humanities, the domain of fuzzy opinion and not verifiable fact. This, at least, is the typical perception among my advocates of crude positivism. In my view, however, this disciplinary classification is arbitrary, and fails to demarcate any epistemologically relevant distinction. In particular, what is the justification for the view that the only ‘real sciences’ are only the natural sciences? It cannot be the result of having adopted a superior set of methodologies, since in many cases there is more methodological continuity across different disciplines than within single ones. For example, analytical chemistry and cognitive psychology are both largely focused on laboratory experiments, while in astrophysics and macroeconomics experiments are mostly impossible, and so these disciplines instead rely predominantly upon observation and development of mathematical theories. Likewise, piecing together the evolutionary relationships of different species has more in common with the linguistic analysis of different languages than it does with other subfields of biology. Nor can it be the subject matter of the disciplines which sets them apart, since there is a continuum between the study of primate behaviour in biology and the study of human behaviour in the social sciences, and also between the study of natural history in geology and biology, and the study of human history in the social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, many mathematical models originally developed in the context of physics and chemistry have also been profitably applied to many other fields, especially economics and sociology (e.g. equilibrium theory, network analysis, complex systems theory). My contention here is not that there is literally no difference between the natural sciences and social science or non-scientific disciplines. I do, however, think that there is a great deal of continuity and intermingling between them, both in terms of methodologies and subject matter, a fact which belies the sharp science/non-science dichotomy advocated by crude positivists.

This is not, however, merely a question of whether disciplinary boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. The real point I am trying to make is that crude positivists simply have no justification for elevating the natural sciences (whether their boundaries are fuzzy or not) on a pedestal above all other disciples. That is, I do not think the natural sciences are epistemically privileged in the way that crude positivists claim that they are. After all, what is so special about the natural sciences relative to, say, economics, history, or even blatant pseudosciences like astrology? The most straightforward answer, and I think the one crude positivists have mostly in mind, is that the natural sciences apply a rigorous scientific method not found in any of these other disciplines, and this method is more conducive to finding truth than other competing methods. My response to this is threefold. Firstly, I note that this is not a claim that finds a home in any of the natural sciences (i.e. it is not a scientific claim), but seems to appeal to philosophical criteria that lie outside of science. I do not think there is anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it seems to sit at odds with the crude positivistic view that only science is to be trusted. Secondly, as I have argued above, it is simply not true that the natural sciences systematically apply different methodologies to those used in other disciples. Within any disciple the quality of work varies dramatically, some being much more careful and rigorous than others, and this applies just as much to the natural sciences as to other disciplines. Thirdly, and most importantly, if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearers of the superior status, not the physical sciences themselves. Applying these same principles to any disciple should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards. If this is correct, and what is at the bottom of the success of the physical sciences is adherence to a particular methodology or methods of inference, then it is those methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in.

It has been argued that the subject matter of the social sciences and other such disciplines is inherently ‘messier’ and more complex than the comparatively simpler physical systems studied by the natural sciences. However even if this is true, application of appropriate methodologies should still result in reliable knowledge – the only difference will be that the knowledge will be less precise and known with less confidence, since our understanding of the system in question is less complete and less detailed. This will not, however, result in a qualitatively distinct and far inferior form of knowledge, contrary to the claims of the crude positivists. Some argue that the subject matter of history and social science is such that it is not suited to study by the rigorous methods of natural science. If this were true, it would seem to leave us with two options: either no reliable knowledge about such things is possible in principle (i.e. we can say little or nothing about human history, how societies and economies work, etc), or the reliable methods of attaining knowledge in such disciples are distinctly different and at odds with those used in the natural sciences.

The former possibility strikes me as deeply implausible – why should we not at least be able to know a great deal about such topics through careful investigation, and furthermore how could we possibly know if this were the case given that we could not study these topics? The latter option seems equally unpalatable, for it is essentially identical to the argument by which the evangelical Christian claims that their supernatural claims are outside the bounds of scientific investigation. Indeed, if it is the case that the appropriate methods for studying any subject outside of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to and at odds with scientific methods, then any ground for objecting to irrational or unscientific claims is lost. Religious claims (“the divine cannot be studied scientifically”), alternative medicine (“human health is too holistic to be subjected to scientific methods”), or the paranormal (“the spirits don’t respond under controlled conditions”), it can always be argued that the subject matter lies outside of the natural sciences, and hence different, non-scientific investigative methods are applicable. In my view, this absurd outcome shows that, if we grant superior respect and status to the claims of the natural sciences, it must be because (when conducted properly) the natural sciences utilise justified and reliable general epistemological processes, processes which should similarly be conducive to knowledge acquisition when applied to other subjects. Crude positivists who instead reject any application of scientific methods outside of the natural sciences cannot then simultaneously berate those making religious, paranormal, and supernatural claims for failing to use scientific standards and methods, since by their own admission such methods are only applicable to certain subjects. Narrow scientism, then, is at odds with the core principle of basing all important beliefs upon reliable evidence.

Pragmatism

The third and final aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I wanted to discuss in this piece is pragmatism, the appeal to the past successes of science as the primary and overriding justification for its epistemically superior status. Science, so the argument goes, simply ‘works’: it puts men on the moon, builds aircraft that fly, and makes transgenic fish that glow in the dark. Ways of knowing that rely on appeals to authority, esoteric knowledge, or personal experience, are inferior precisely because they do not ‘work’ in this way. While I do think this sort of argument has some validity, I think the crude positivist goes too far in advocating practical utility as the defining feature of knowledge. One simple problem with this approach is that many people think that prayer, mystical experiences, etc, ‘work’ in a very real way – they pray to Jesus, and they feel God’s love pouring out over them. The crude positivist, of course, is unlikely to admit that as being a valid example of ‘working’, however all this shows is that science comes out best when judged by its own criteria of what it counts as legitimate ‘success’, while the types of ‘success’ (e.g. drawing closer to god, becoming one with nature, etc) defined by other ways of knowing are simply disregarded.

Beyond this issue of defining criteria for success, there is a deeper philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the ‘success’ of a theory, and the ‘truth’ of that theory. Most of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are, properly understood, really applications of engineering, not science itself. Of course, engineers utilise scientific findings and theories, but there is nevertheless an important distinction between the development of theory and its practical application. This is important because some schools of thought in philosophy, especially the sort of instrumentalist, pragmatic viewpoints that crude positivists are most closely aligned with, argue that the ability of a theory to deliver successful applications is insufficient to validate the accuracy of that theory in describing the way the world truly is. One example is that of Ptolemaic astronomy: it was capable of generating accurate predictions of the positions of the planets despite the fact that its underlying model for reality (an Earth-centred cosmos with the planets orbiting about crystalline spheres) is completely wrong. To take a more recent example, scientists and engineers still routinely use chemical and physical models which treat atoms as solid spheres interacting in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics. As a description of reality, this is entirely incorrect – atoms are mostly empty space, and what is not empty space consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to our best theories behave (very loosely) like smeared-out probability wavepackets, evolving in accordance with the laws of quantum (not classical) mechanics. Notwithstanding this completely inaccurate description of the underlying reality, however, the ‘billiard balls’ approach is still very useful and ‘delivers results’ in a wide range of applications. Such examples are one of the major arguments used by those philosophers who adhere to a position known as scientific anti-realism, which is the view that while science produces very useful predictive models, it does not necessarily describe the way things ‘truly are’. Thus, according to this view, science is not in the business of finding ‘truth’ per se, but merely of producing theories that are ‘empirically adequate’ and useful for prediction and practical application.

My point here is not to argue that anti-realism is correct, or that science doesn’t describe reality. Rather my argument is that either way, these considerations pose a problem for the simple pragmatism of crude positivists. If, on the one hand, scientific anti-realism is false, and scientific theories do truly describe the way the world is, then the extreme focus on scientific theories being special because they ‘work’ becomes difficult to justify, since under this view science is special not predominantly because it ‘works’, but because it yields true descriptions of reality. The simplistic pragmatism defence thus simply cannot work, and the fact that other disciplines (e.g. philosophy or theology) may not ‘deliver results’ does not mean that they cannot accurately describe reality. On the other hand, if scientific anti-realism is true, and scientific theories don’t necessary say much about the way reality truly is, then the crude positivist has no basis for critiquing non-scientific ways of knowing for not making predictions or ‘delivering results’. This is because these other ways of knowing (e.g. faith based) don’t necessarily claim to be able to provide predictive models, but claim to describe parts of reality as they truly are. If science and faith/intuition/etc are not even trying to do the same thing, the one attempting to generate useful models, the other not caring about predictive accuracy but about providing true descriptions of reality, then it is unclear how the crude positivist can even compare the two in the way they seem to want to. This approach also seems hard to reconcile with the fact that many adherents of crude positivism do very clearly make truth claims about subjects like religion and the paranormal. If this form of pragmatism is correct, then science and non-science aren’t incompatible, but rather are incomparable, for they are not even trying to do the same thing.

Conclusion

Some people will doubtless read this piece as an attack upon the value of science, or a defence of pseudoscientific, faith-based or emotion-based methods of reasoning. As I have said throughout this piece, however, this is not my intention at all. My goal is in fact to equip skeptics and rationalists to deliver a robust, cogent defence of the value of science and critical thinking in learning about the world, and the superiority of such methods over various rivals. What concerns me is that the constellation of views that I here describe under the label ‘crude positivism’ is quite popular among many rationalists and skeptics. As I have argued, however, I think these views are philosophically naive and very hard to rigorously defend. Worse, some of the more intelligent defenders of non-scientific practices, including religious apologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of various pseudosciences, are aware of the problems with such views, and will vigorously critique rationalists who espouse them. I think we can answer their objections, but to do so requires a greater familiarity with philosophy and relevant methodlogical issues than many rationalists and skeptics have, especially when they so often dismiss these fields as irrelevant. In order to advance the cause of science and rationality, therefore, we need to abandon ‘crude positivism’, and replace it with a more sophisticated, thoughtful, and philosophically rigorous account of science and rationality.

Islamic Contributions to Scholarship

School students the world over regularly experience all the pain and pleasures of learning algebra. What few students realise, however, is how much they have to thank medieval Islamic scholars for the development of the ideas they are learning. The word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic al-jabr, which means roughly ‘restoration’ or ‘rejoining’. It was developed by ninth century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in his most impressively entitled The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. Al-Khwārizmī also gave his name to the world ‘algorithm’, referring to the method he developed of solving mathematical problems by systematic application of particular abstract rules – the very rules that students learn to this day in elementary algebra courses.  Students also have medieval Islamic scholars to thank for the numerals they use in calculations (1,2,3, etc), which were originally developed in India and then passed on to the West by Islamic mathematicians. Although modern students might perhaps feel less than grateful for this contribution, anyone who has ever attempted to do arithmetic using Roman numerals (the preferred method in the west before the adoption of Arabic numerals) will understand how much of an advance they represent.

The contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars to human knowledge extend well beyond algebra, encompassing a wide range of fields such as mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. The modern scientific discipline of chemistry evolved from medieval alchemy, and the English word ‘alchemy’ derives from the Arabic al-kīmīā. Such a word borrowing is due in large part to the influence of such scholars as Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (‘the Persian Socrates’) and Jabir ibn Hayyan, both of whom purified a wide range of chemical substances, and whose works describe in detail various chemical apparatuses, some of which are still in use to this day. In the field of astronomy, Syrian astronomer and mathematician Al-Battani calculated the length of the solar year to within an accuracy of two minutes, his work later being influential to Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Copernicus in the development of heliocentrism. The tenth century Basran scientist and philosopher Hasan Ibn al-Haytham was so profoundly influential that he has been called ‘the second Ptolemy’. He wrote numerous influential works on optics, astronomy, and geometry, and was an early proponent of what we would now describe as the ‘scientific method’, including the use of empirical observations and mathematical models to understand natural laws. Ibn Sina, like many contemporary Islamic thinkers, made contributions to many fields, but is perhaps most well known for his monumental medical encyclopaedia The Canon of Medicine, which was used as a medical text throughout the Islamic world and in Europe until as late as the seventeenth century. Islamic scholars also made important advances in the field of geography, such as the notable work of twelfth century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. He produced a fascinating work called ‘the Book of Roger’ (after the Norman patron who commissioned the work), which discussed in detail the physical geography and social and political customs of all lands and peoples of the known word, from Western Europe across to East Asia. Al-Idrisi produced a world map which remained one of the most accurate in existence for centuries, until the voyages of discovery of the fifteenth century.

Most of the developments discussed above, and many others besides, took place during a period often referred to as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, which lasted from roughly the eight through to the thirteenth centuries. Understanding why the Islamic world flourished during this period, and how influential their contributions were to prove to Europe, requires some knowledge of the historical context in which these developments occurred. To appreciate this story, we must journey all the way back to the fifth century AD, in the dying days of the Roman Empire. As the western portion of the empire progressively decayed and collapsed under the combined assault of barbarian attacks and internal unrest, economic and cultural life became increasingly disrupted. The gradual collapse of central administration meant that the famed Roman roads, so vital for connecting together disparate regions of the Empire, fell into disrepair. Local townships and petty lords took over the provision of security at a local level, hampering commerce and cultural exchange between regions. With the economic and political decline came a reduction in the degree of urbanisation, falling literacy levels, sharply decreased manuscript production, and an overall reduction in the resources available and interest in the pursuit of science of philosophy.Such a comparable decline, however, did not occur in the eastern regions of the Empire, and it was these relatively wealthy regions, still preserving much of the learning of the ancient world, which came under Islamic rule beginning in the seventh century. The period of relative order, prosperity, and unity that the Islamic world from Persia to Spain experienced in the following centuries helped to foster the bourgeoning of Islamic science, philosophy, and culture. Islamic achievements of this period therefore far outstripped anything taking place in contemporary Europe, which by comparison was economically backward and hopelessly fragmented into numerous feudal principalities.

Beginning around the eleventh century, increased economic and cultural exchanges between Western Europe and the Islamic world (largely taking place through Spain and Sicily), led to a transferal of many texts, ideas, and technologies to the West. Of particular interest to Europeans were the Arabic translations of many classical Greek writers, relatively few of which had been preserved when knowledge of Greek had been lost in the west in the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As more of these texts were translated into Latin (the universal language of scholarship in the west), many of these texts became available to European scholars for the first time in centuries. Particularly important as the so-called ‘rediscovery’ of the works of Aristotle, which although preserved in the East had largely been lost to the West, and the translation of which into Latin resulted in a wide range of philosophical and theological upheavals, notably influencing the work of leading medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Today, many scholars believe that the contributions of medieval Islamic science, philosophy, and mathematics to Western Europe, as well as its important role in preserving ancient Greek texts, helped to foster first the Renaissance and later the rise of modern scientific thinking in early modern Europe. In particular, the rediscovery and reimagining of many works of literature and philosophy of classical Greece and Rome that characterised the period would likely have not been possible had these works not been preserved in the Islamic world. It is unfortunate that today, with the central nexus of scientific and philosophical work now having shifted elsewhere, so few remember the vital contributions of the Islamic world at a time when Western Europe, by comparison, produced very little of scientific or philosophical value.

The Failures of New Atheism

Introduction

As for social and intellectual movement, the term ‘New Atheism’ is a diverse and contested notion, potentially encompassing a wide diversity of positions and ways of thinking. My subsequent discussion of the differences between ‘New Atheism’ and ‘Old Atheism’, therefore, should be understood as explicating general tendencies, rather than presenting an absolute binary dichotomy. This caveat being made, however, I believe that the New Atheist movement does exhibit sufficient regularities and commonalities for us to make some tentative general observations.

In contrast to Old Atheism, by which I mean atheism as it existed roughly prior to the turn of the Millennium, New Atheism has tended to be much more assertive in the public discourse, much more eager and willing to make its views heard, and much less concerned about respecting the religious beliefs or faith of others. New Atheism also has tended to focus, to an even greater degree than did Old Atheism, on the social and political harms of religion, especially fundamentalist religion. New Atheism has also placed a much greater emphasis on creating a sustained mass movement, and of developing a socially and politically engaged atheism. All three of these trends are themselves worthy of much deeper analysis, however in this article I want to focus on a fourth major trend that I observe in New Atheism, one which I find to be a much less positive development. Simply put, I believe that New Atheism represents an intellectual retrogression from Old Atheism, doing away with the sophisticated philosophical positions of old, and replacing them with a crude form of scientism and general disinterest in rigorous philosophy. In this essay, I will argue that this trend represents a profoundly negative development in the history of atheistic thought, and puts atheists and rationalists in a poor position to counter increasingly sophisticated apologetic arguments.

Atheism: Old and New

New Atheism is undoubtedly a movement thoroughly infused by scientists and the scientifically minded. Beginning with the canonical ‘four horseman’, we find that Richard Dawkins is a biologist, Sam Harris a neuroscientist, and Christopher Hitchens a journalist. Daniel Dennett is the only professional philosopher of the four, though he too represents a particular strain of highly scientifically-minded philosophical thought, and is not himself a specialist in philosophy of religion. Other prominent figures associated to varying degrees with new Atheism include Victor Stenger (physicist), Laurence Krauss (physicist), Jerry Coyne (biologist), PZ Meyers (biologist), AC Grayling (philosopher), Michel Onfray (philosopher), Dan Barker (former pastor), Michael Shermer (historian of science), Bill Nye (biologist), and Neil degrasse Tyson (physicist). Though this list is hardly comprehensive, it is I think representative of the strong (though not exclusive) domination of New Atheism by scientists, particularly biologists and physicists.

This preponderance of scientists in the New Atheism contrasts greatly with the much larger proportion of prominent philosophers among Old Atheists. Key atheist figures from the twentieth century include Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul-Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew, Michael Martin, John Mackie, and Richard Rorty. All of these figures, with the possible exception of Freud, were notable philosophers who provided robust and challenging arguments against religion. Such thinkers, as I have indicated, are much less preponderant among the New Atheists. Indeed, a number of New Atheists or allied thinkers, such as Dawkins, Krauss, and Tyson, have publically expressed their disinterest and indeed active distain of philosophy in general, or philosophy of religion in particular. From their public remarks, many New Atheist thinkers and their supporters seem to endorse some form of scientism, a view (not widely accepted even by scientifically-minded philosophers) which asserts in essence that science is the only legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the world. New Atheism has largely turned its back on serious philosophy, embracing science as the queen of all human knowledge.

The Christian Resurgence

Contrasting sharply with the New Atheist turn away from philosophy, since roughly the late 1960s there has been a surprising resurgence of theism in general, and conservative Christianity in particular, within the Anglo-American philosophical world. This resurgence has been manifested in several ways, including the publication of a series of highly influential works by thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and William Lane Craig. Supporting this burgeoning Christian scholarship have been two academic societies, the Evangelical Philosophical Society was (founded in 1977), and the Society of Christian Philosophers (established 1978). Both these societies have their own peer-reviewed academic journals, respectively Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy, which regularly publish articles relating to Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics.

This resurgence of conservative Christianity with the academy has been mirrored by the rise in popular evangelical apologetics. A simple Google search reveals a positive cornucopia apologetic ministries and organisations: The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (founded 1995), Creation Ministries International (founded 1977), The Christian Apologetics Alliance (established 2011), Reasonable Faith (founded 2008), and Cold-Case Christianity (founded 2013) are just a few representative examples. Many of these groups and thinkers are financed and publicised by evangelical Christian universities such as Biola University, Denver Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Southern Evangelical Seminary, all of which also over masters degrees in apologetics. Needless to say, organised atheism lacks anything like this degree of institutional support.

This new brand of evangelical apologetics bears little resemblance to the uneducated, scientifically illiterate caricature that New Atheists frequently present of theists. On the contrary, many of these Christian thinkers utilise a wide range of cutting-edge discoveries and concepts from both philosophy and the sciences. In his Kalam Cosmological and Fine Tuning Arguments, for example, William Lane Craig synthesises old philosophical arguments with new scientific discoveries and ideas such as the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, Boltzmann branes, and quantum cosmology. Alvin Plantinga has constructed a sophisticated and much-discussed version of the Ontological argument using modal logic, and has also built upon recent work in reliabilist epistemology to develop a careful argument defending belief in God as properly basic. Richard Swinburne has used principles of inductive logic and bayesian inference to argue for the Resurrection of Jesus. Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins has argued on the basis of modern findings in biology and neuroscience for the compatibility of Christianity with evolutionary biology.

New Atheism’s Intellectual Shortcomings

What do the New Atheists have to say in response to this rising tide of increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced evangelical apologetics? With a few exceptions, such as the excellent writings of Dawkins and PZ Meyers against creationism, and the work of Stenger critiquing the Fine Tuning argument, on the whole the answer seems to be relatively little. One searches in vain through the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others for detailed, careful examination of the apologetic arguments raised by Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, and others. Indeed, as I noted above, generally New Atheist thinkers express considerable distain for philosophy of religion, and evince little or no interest in presenting carefully-crafted responses to apologetic arguments. A related severe shortcoming of the New Atheist movement is its predilection towards outmoded scientistic approaches to philosophy, harkening back (though generally without attribution) to the early-twentieth century Vienna School in holding that claims which are not scientifically or empirically verifiable or testable are meaningless and not even worth discussing.

The New Atheist movement is also particularly poor at advancing any positive arguments in favour of atheism as a worldview. A common approach is to mock religion for its many absurdities, denounce its many negative social and political consequences, and then make various self-aggrandising statements to the effect that modern scientific discoveries in biology, physics, neuroscience, etc, have made theism obsolete and indefensible. The multifarious epistemological, ontological, ethical, and other assumptions which underpin such beliefs are rarely addressed, and almost never with reference to contemporary literature on the subject.

There are a number of atheist philosophers who have produced sophisticated, thoughtful responses to Christian apologetic arguments, including Kai Neilsen, Theodore Drange, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Michael Ruse. Such thinkers, however, have substantially lower profiles than either their New Atheist or Christian apologist counterparts, and also typically have not been much associated with the New Atheism movement. Indeed, Michael Ruse has been highly critical of New Atheism, describing it as ‘a bloody disaster’. Similar views have been echoed by other philosophers, for example in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, it is remarked that ‘New Atheists are largely seen as bush-league by professional philosophers of religion’.

My assessment of New Atheism as a movement, therefore, is that it represents a shift in atheist thinking away from the philosopher and towards the scientist, and consequently has led to a relative decline in the intellectual standing of atheism as a worldview. Indeed, whilst New Atheism has been successful in raising the profile of non-belief and in drawing greater attention to the harm and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion (both noble pursuits to be sure), I believe it has failed in its endeavour to provide a rigorous, carefully constructed, philosophically defensible account of the world around us and our place within it.

Why it Matters

Why should we, as rationalists and critical-thinkers, care about these developments? I think there are several reasons. First, as freethinkers we have an obligation to the pursuit of truth through examination of the best available evidence, careful argumentation, and critical analysis of reasons given for different beliefs. It reflects very poorly upon our position if we continue to repeat the slogan ‘there is no evidence for the existence of God’, whilst turning a blind eye to the many rigorous, carefully-development arguments that have been and continue to be advanced by Christian apologists and theistic philosophers.

Second, inquiring minds who seek out the best evidence and arguments increasingly are encountering the writings of Christian apologists and philosophers, and then searching in vain for persuasive responses in the New Atheist literature. This leads some, I suspect non-trivial, number of people to either adopt or maintain strong evangelical convictions. This is of concern to me because it represents, particularly in the case of young thinkers, a diversion of talent and intellect away from potentially more productive endeavours such as science or humanist causes, towards Christian apologetics programs, theology, or Christian ministry. To me it is a tragedy that even a single person would devote their life in pursuit of a false set of beliefs, let alone that this may happen in part as a result of the failure of New Atheists to provide clear and robust refutations of apologetics material. A corollary of this is that atheists themselves might also be concerned about holding false beliefs, particularly if they cannot provide adequate responses to apologetic arguments.

Third, the prestige and influence of any intellectual movement is, in the long run, substantially affected by its ability to add to the store of human knowledge, and to produce new and insightful ways of understanding the world. For the most part the New Atheists, (in disturbing contrast to the new apologists), have failed to do this, and I believe it is partly as a result of this failure that their influence in intellectual circles is waning, and will continue to wane unless the movement substantially lifts its intellectual game.

All of my criticisms of New Atheism would not be so much of a concern if this represented but one among many competing brands of atheistic belief, since if New Atheism proved not up to the challenge of providing rigorous philosophical responses to the new apologetics, other approaches to atheism could fill its place and step up to the intellectual mantle. Unfortunately, given the relatively small monetary and organisational resources of atheist, freethought, and humanist groups (certainly in comparison to the many incredibly well financed Christian churches and universities), it seems that there is not really room for more than one significant ‘brand’ of atheism. New Atheism seems to have ‘crowded out’ other approaches to atheism, at least in the popular consciousness and discourse. Consequently if New Atheism fails to present a philosophically rigorous and persuasive response to the new apologists, this will be taken to represent a failure of atheism or freethought as a whole to provide such a response. To avert this deeply concerning outcome, we as rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists, must learn to better combine the New Atheist passion not to be silenced with the Old Atheist respect for careful philosophical argumentation. Anything less represents, in my view, an abdication of our intellectual and social responsibilities.

Sources

Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” Philosophy Now (2013).

Dougherty, Trent, and Logal Paul Gage. “New Atheist Approaches to Religion.” In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, edited by Graham Oppy, 2015.

Ruse, Michael. “Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster.” Science and the Sacred (2009).

Taylor, James E. “The New Atheists.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015).

A Naturalistic Worldview: Talk Notes

Attached is a link to my slides from a talk I presented at the Humanist Convention in April of 2017 (last week as at the time of posting). They summarise some of my recent thinking about metaphysical naturalism, an argument in defence of which constitutes the majority of the talk. I hope they may be of use and interest to some. Eventually I will get around to writing up my thoughts into a proper article, which I will post on my blog. I anticipate, however, that it will be significantly more technical than these slides, so these may make a good ‘first introduction’ to some of these issues for people with less philosophical background.

A Naturalistic Worldview 2.0, Apr 2017

The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

Introduction

In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist

Theodicies

Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.

Defeaters

The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.

Conclusion

In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.