6/29/10

"Surrender, Atheists"

Why?  Because they can't say why there's something rather than nothing.  That's the upshot of Ron Rosenbaum's "agnostic manifesto" over at Slate.
In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.
Take another case where I don't have an explanation for some chain of events. I have no idea what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, for example.  If I don't know, can I still believe confidently it wasn't X  or it wasn't Y?  Of course I can!  I can believe it wasn't, for example, human hunting (no humans back then) and it wasn't too much smoking (no cigarettes back then).

Likewise, I can not know what caused there to be something rather than nothing, and still believe it wasn't Donald Trump,  wasn't mixing vinegar with baking soda, nay, wasn't some all-good immaterial mind with stupendous causal powers.  I might have very good reasons for all those denials--Not Trump because no people back then.  Not vinegar/baking soda because there wasn't any.  Not an all-good immaterial mind with stupendous causal powers...because the whole idea is incoherent.

I admit I don't know why there's something rather than nothing, but not knowing why the universe exists doesn't (in the least) make it irrational to be an atheist.  Rosenbaum taunts the new atheists--
... many of the New Atheists seemed to have stopped thinking since their early grade-school science-fair triumphs ...
but I think Rosenbaum stopped thinking after he started stewing about why there's something rather than nothing. His first hunch was that if you don't know, no conceivable answer can be excluded. Further reflection should show him this isn't true.

25 comments:

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Sigh. Thank you, Jean. Even if an atheist cannot give you the answer to the question, without any margin of uncertainty, that has nothing at all to do with whether or not a creator figure is responsible. An atheist simply looks at all the evidence and uses logic to see the possibility of (and proof for) a god so slim as to be "beyond belief." See Richard Dawkins on the 7 levels of atheism in his book The God Delusion.

amos said...

I think that the problem with the question "why is there something rather than nothing" is about the use of the word "why". "Why" presupposes something, it presupposes causes; that is, if there is no something or hence, no causes, there is no way that "why" or language in general makes sense. To ask "why there is something rather than nothing" almost presupposes a first cause, that is, a Deity of sorts.

Ed said...

Why is there something and not nothing? The question is meaningless because it is conceptually muddled. It confuses the existence of "existence itself" with the existence of a contingent object like a clock or a cat.

The nonexistence of a clock might be considered a default condition, because the clock only comes about when something causes it. So we can ask why a clock exists.

We have no grounds to consider nonexistence to be the default condition of "existence itself". There is no external vantage point from which we can compare existence and nonexistence and determine why one would occur instead of the other, or even if both are possibilities.

Jean Kazez said...

I wouldn't want to get into a debate with Rosenbaum about whether the question makes sense. A lot of people do think it makes sense. The crucial point is that not having an answer isn't any barrier to atheism. Just none whatever. We can exclude "God" as an answer to "why is there something rather than nothing" even if we don't have a better answer. It's just like excluding one suspect in a murder investigation, even if you don't have any other suspects.

Aeolus said...

You say: "I might have very good reasons for all those denials--Not Trump because no people back then. Not vinegar/baking soda because there wasn't any. Not an all-good immaterial mind with stupendous causal powers...because the whole idea is incoherent."

I agree with you about Trump and vinegar/baking soda. We have good reasons in those cases. But why is "an all-good immaterial mind with stupendous causal powers ... incoherent"? The "all-good" part may be called into question by evidence, but "incoherent"? I repeat what I said in my guest post "Tea with Bertrand Russell": I can’t think of a reason for believing that no deity (of any sort whatever) exists that isn’t ultimately question-begging (see in particular Richard Dawkins' question-begging attempt to assign a probability to a Creator's existence). Perhaps you're right to say that the idea is utterly outlandish or incoherent, but what's the reason? The atheist belief just doesn't make any sense to me. Perhaps one day the light bulb will go on and I'll say, "Ah, now I see!" But so far, I don't. To me agnosticism seems to be the only rationally defensible position. (And again, I'm an atheist with regard to the Abrahamic god -- because I have good reasons to believe in its non-existence. One excludes a suspect in a murder investigation because one has good reasons to do so.)

David Hume says:
"Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is rational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe. It is confessed, that the utmost effort of human reason is to reduce the principles, productive of natural phenomena, to a greater simplicity, and to resolve the many particular effects into a few general causes, by means of reasonings from analogy, experience, and observation. But as to the causes of these general causes, we should in vain attempt their discovery, nor shall we ever be able to satisfy ourselves, by any particular explication of them. These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry."

That sounds right to me.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, One very good reason to find an immaterial mind with stupendous causal powers incoherent is because of the problem of mental causation. How is a purely mental entity supposed to have effects on the material world? Does a mind like that make things happen simply by willing them? As in--through God's willing the world to exist, the world comes into existence? But that makes no sense. I've tried willing things to happen and it never works. If sheer willing doesn't normally have any causal powers, why does God's willing have causal powers? Is it because he's immaterial? But why would that help? I think all the whole idea of immaterial willing as the cause of the universe is just patent nonsense, and everyone would see it that way if it weren't for God being a venerable concept, culturally speaking.

Aeolus said...

Jean: Why assume that the logic and laws internal to this universe also account for its coming into existence or being sustained in existence? Why assume that what may be "outside" this space-time continuum is the same as what's inside? You're just arguing in a circle, as far as I can see. We are simply in no position to make any rational assumptions or arguments about why this universe (or the multiverse, if we push things back) exists. We can't get outside the laws and logic of our finite existences. And as Hume says, that's the end of it.

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Aeolus, I agree with you, but that does not seem to me to prevent us from using everything in our power to examine the universe, apply critical thought, and then find no reason whatsoever to believe in a separate, distinct creator god. Most atheists would say (even Richard Dawkins) that they would admit a tiny possibility that there is a god, but on a "functional" level, with 99% certainty, they would say there is not. With convincing evidence, they would change their beliefs.

Aeolus said...

Justin: I find no reason (at least, no good reason, all things considered) to believe in "a separate, distinct creator god". I also find no good reason to believe that there is a 99% certainty that no such creator exists. Dawkins' attempt to ascertain that such a creator's existence is highly improbable is logically flawed, since it involves circular reasoning.

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Well, regardless of Dawkins' particular argument for or against a creator God, I guess a question I would ask you is this: Would you agree with someone calling herself an "atheist" if she examines as much evidence as possible from all fields (science, philosophy, etc.), applies serious thought to them, and finds them lacking for convincing proof of a creator god, while also admitting that there could possibly be such a god beyond the limits of her knowledge, though as far as she is concerned there is not enough evidence to believe in one? Or would she still be an "agnostic"? I mean, "atheist" simply means you do not believe in a god, not that there is no sliver of a chance there is one. I think this is where Dawkins is in fact useful with the "functional atheist" category. Just as there can be lazy agnostics and active, inquisitive agnostics. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, Atheists just reject gods. They don't reject "forces that nobody understands" which is basically what you're posing as a possibility.

A god is something specific--not just any old force nobody understands. A god is human-like to the extent of being an intelligence. But a god is spiritual, not material. So we have this issue of mental causation--how do spiritual things have material impacts? That's a great question when it comes to the postulation of a human soul, and still a great question when the issue is God and his supposed causal powers.

p.s. The whole idea that God, or some force, is going to fully answer the question why there's something rather than nothing really has no appeal to me to begin with. God/the force is a something. Why is there that something, rather than nothing? Oh yeah, God/the force is "self-existent." That kind of thing has always struck me as a bandaid, not a real answer.

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Right, Jean. I liked the elimination-of-suspects analogy with this as far as rejecting possibilities goes. And speaking of suspects, this is sort of like the identify of Keyser Söze. It becomes convenient for a certain group of people to maintain the myth and believe it because it serves their purposes well. Same thing with god--it is a convenient, easy answer, and a tool of power in many ways. That is, one can see reasons for the creation and maintenance of the idea (or meme--sorry had to use the word) and thus find further evidence for not believing it. Even if this is a specific God (white guy with a beard in the clouds) being perpetuated, the convenient function of it is still an issue, just in different contexts.

Jean Kazez said...

Justin, I agree--I think "being able to see reasons for the creation and maintenance of the idea" does (reasonably!) induce skepticism about its veracity. Wouldn't it be an amazing coincidence if an idea that grew and spread for a variety of cultural and historical reasons just happened to be exactly what's needed to answer scientific questions!

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Well, it would be great if Kayser were indeed the answer to everything. Though I myself prefer Douglas Adams'...

Faust said...

Actually Jean, I do think a particular subset of the atheist dialog is embroiled in rejecting "forces that nobody understands" or, more specifically, "forces that nobody COULD understand."

In other words, they celebrate methodological naturalism, and then tie this to philosophical naturalism, taken as (perhaps necessary) consequence of that methodology. And thus, we return to the naturalist/supernaturalist divide that undergirds every single one of these conversations.

Roughly: Full throated atheism will be appealing who think that the fact that non-naturalistic explanations should be viewed as having no ontology (as in your immaterial mind commentary), and agnosticism will be appealing to those who think we should simply be quietists about non-natural explanations since they are by definition outside of our method, but that by similar reasoning, making comments about them are of no great use or import since they are by definition outside of our purview (a position I take Aeolus to hold).

chigio said...

oh, very simple! There is no reason why there is something instead of nothing!

Causality requires the existence of time. if there is nothing, well, there is no time and no causality. So no "cause" can explain why there is something instead of nothing.

QED :-)

Aeolus said...

Justin: People define "atheism" in different ways, but in my book it means more than just not believing in a Creator. (Agnostics also don't believe in such a being.) It means positively believing that a Creator does not exist. You don't have to say "I'm absolutely certain." After all, I'm not absolutely certain I'm typing at my keyboard or am not a brain in a vat. But what I call an atheist would at least say, "I am reasonably confident that no Creator exists." My question then is, "What makes you reasonably confident? Are your reasons good ones?" I think there are good reasons for believing that a benevolent personal Creator does not exist. But I can't see any good reason for believing that no Creator of any kind exists.

Jean: Let's assume for the sake of argument that in this universe spiritual things (however we want to define that) cannot have material impacts. Does that also hold in the next universe over? Does E = mc2 there? Does an effect never precede its cause there? How would we know the answers to these questions? What about two universes over? Where's the evidence? What about "outside" universes altogether? What are the rules for the formation or sustainability of universes? What is the operating system of universe X? Does the material/spiritual distinction make sense outside this universe? Does it even make sense in this universe outside the categories of our understanding?

Now, I admit I may be missing something obvious -- or subtle. But until I find enlightenment on the subject, I'll point to what looks like an instance of begging the question that I'm naming "Dawkins' Circle".

Faust: I think I agree with your analysis. But that doesn't let Dawkins off the hook.

amos said...

Aeolus: People have a sense, which may or may not be mistaken, of how reality is, of how it functions. An atheist is one whose sense of reality tends to exclude the possibility of a Deity. That sense of how reality operates or how it is is based on experience, reading and in most cases, on one's background, upbringing. From that sense of reality, one constructs one's life: it is a fairly basic option. If your sense of reality indicates that there may be a Deity, there's not much that an atheist can say to you on that subject.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, Your reasoning seems to force you to be agnostic about all sorts of bizarre possibilities. If we're not going to be constrained by what makes sense to us, than we have to allow the possibility that a round square somehow exuded the universe, or a cabal of 3 million demons, or...whatever. Is that really how rational people ought to think about the origins of the universe? I find that really hard to believe.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, What you say about naturalism is interesting--I'm not sure what to think. By the way, I ordered Johnston's book, so more discussions of naturalism, etc. are on the way.

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Aeolus: Thank you for the response. I agree with amos's and Jeans' replies. But I also do not see why you are taking atheism to be such a mutually exclusive stance relative to agnosticism. An atheist will likely admit limits to our knowledge and even a slim possibility that somehow a god could exist. An atheist, though, will find no logical or other convincing evidence for said deity, and (more importantly) will live his/her life as if there is none. It is a matter of personal belief based, unlike much of religious faith, on solid reasoning using solid evidence. Yes, there may be holes in the logic here and there, but they are like pinpricks compared to the logical fallacies and conveniences of god belief. Jean said it rightly: Atheism is a rejection of gods...a lack of belief in or need for them. It is NOT a rejection of natural wonder, human limitation, or skeptical and critical inquiry into the nature of existence.

Faust said...

I don't want to speak for Aeolus, but I really don't see his view commiting him to 9,000 demons creating the world.

Having said that I think Aeolus could fruitfully expand his defense of his position by explaining the following:

If, as he says:

"I'm an atheist with regard to the Abrahamic god -- because I have good reasons to believe in its non-existence. One excludes a suspect in a murder investigation because one has good reasons to do so."

Then one is tempted to ask: what is left when one has emptied out the concept of "God" or "Creator" of all its relevant cultural content? If "God" is not in any significant way the "God(s)" that one might consider to be reasonably still on the table, then while it may be philosophically significant to call oneself an agnostic, but in terms of ones practical relation to the rest of society, then one is really an atheist, because one is an atheist with regard to all the gods that matter. To stick with the murder suspect analogy, if the murderer is not plausibly anyone that anyone could ever care about or be put in jail, then why not just close the case, even if, technically speaking, the case has not been solved?

Aeolus said...

Faust, I think you're right: when it comes to the gods "still on the table" (nice phrase), we're all atheists. But philosophically, with regard to the larger issue, there's a significant difference, because the agnostic denies what the (rational) atheist affirms: namely, that there is good reason to deny the existence of a god of any sort.

John S. Wilkins, a philosopher of science (biology) and self-described "militant agnostic", has a useful post on definitions of "atheism":
http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/06/24/definitions-of-atheism/
In the comments here
http://evolvingthoughts.net/2010/06/29/in-which-i-upset-pz-again-by-not-knowing/
some speak of Dawkins and company as "agnostic atheists" because they admit they cannot be absolutely certain that no god exists. On this basis some claim that agnostics like Wilkins (and me), who deny the existence of the gods still on the table, are really atheists -- but that is to fail to understand the difference I describe above.

Faust said...

Great links, thanks!

For the record, I'm largely in your camp, though there are enough interesting philosophical problems in this area that I generally don't take very many strong positions other than to say: I'm a methodological naturalist, and I'm still working out all the implications.

Justin Van Kleeck said...

Yes, Aeolus, thank you for those links. I like Wilkins' discussion and his final position. And Faust is also right that quibbling over labels (apropos of Jean's points about pescatarian et al.) is less important than what you think and how you live. The only difference I can see in most cases between many (vocal) atheists, including Dawkins (though not so much Dennett and some other "New Atheists"), and most traditional "agnostics" is that the atheists will focus on the lack of belief in (or likelihood of) a god, while agnostics are more emphatic about the "I do not know" part of it. Most of both camps share an underlying recognition of ever having 100% certainty, but the atheists seem to be more comfortable about taking the unlikelihood as a principle to live by. It keeps the debate interesting, I guess...