Religion vs Philosophy or Why is Stanley Fish paid to blog for the New York Times?

I am an atheist, and I spend most of my time asking questions about value, or, for lack of a better term, meaning, in my life.  This tends to be the disposition of people who are attracted to philosophy.  Perhaps this is why I am so puzzled that another purported philosopher, Stanley Fish, has taken it upon himself to attack the so-called “new atheists”* in his weekly New York Times blog.   Fish’s straw-man charge, which he makes second-hand, via his review of a book with an identical thesis, is that the new atheists (people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) have somehow failed to take seriously the fact-value distinction.   He correctly observes that science alone cannot answer questions of value, then quotes a number of annoying platitudes about the purpose of theology, before coming to the unremarkable conclusion that reason alone still leaves us in want for the meaning of life.

Fish’s blog begs for a defense of prescriptive philosophy as a legitimate place to describe meaning in a world of descriptive calculations, but, instead, he limp-wristedly defends God.  Without ever offering any positive defense of superstition or religious dogmatism, he dismisses the weight of these charges by groundlessly asserting that science is its own type of superstition and scientists their own type of dogmatist.   I find this kind of equivocation appalling, especially coming from a philosopher, because it is exactly this sort of bad scholarship that leaves impressionable people believing that all opinions are equally valid, that truth is relative, or that appeal to “reason” is just a manipulation of the powerful upon the weak.  It is ludicrous, and it is sophistry.

As a corrective, I want to make the case that there are many of us “new atheists” who are concerned with the questions that Fish credits as being “theological” in nature.  For example, anyone who has ever studied Kant (and there are many atheists among us) has worried about the question, “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”  It turns out that this is a fundamental question in epistemology and metaphysics, and the fact that we are not quick to settle on an opaque and ultimately useless answer like “God did it” does not say anything about theological intuitions.  It just suggests that we are intellectually honest.   The same goes for questions such as “Why is there anything in the first place?”  Here, the postulations of atheist philosophers are as equally legitimate as the postulations of theologians, but philosophers are quicker to catch on to the fact that neither reason nor evidence will give us the kind of answers we want for that question.  Again, the only difference here is that philosophers don’t just make up the answer they want.

In the contemporary world, the fundamental disagreement between atheists and their detractors is not about the existence of God but about whether propositions premised upon the existence of God can be justifiably used in a public debate.  This translates into debates over creationism, homosexuality, treatment of women, child care, and many other prominent contemporary issues, but the core point for the atheist remains the same:  You need to show me evidence to convince me of your conclusion because your belief in magic is not a reason for me.  It is silly to begin an attack on the new atheism by making generalizations about what atheists don’t care about because that is not a unifying feature of atheism in any way.  What unifies atheists is that we demand reasonable justifications (appeals to empirical evidence, valid arguments) for our positions and for positions that affect us.

Ideas matter.  No group is more aware of that than the deeply religious, and so it should not be surprising that they respond to atheists with ire or incredulity.  It is appropriate that the proponent of creationism feels that he is being attacked because he IS being attacked.  But it is surprising that a figure such as Fish would mock atheism from the sidelines.  If Fish takes himself seriously as an intellectual, he should take the pursuit of truth seriously as well.  Otherwise, he is a step below any person who seriously engages questions about God and meaning, regardless of conclusion.

* As to the distinction between “new atheism” and “old atheism,” my best guess is that we “new” atheists are a bit less scared to come out of the closet and a bit less apologetic when we do.

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82 Responses to “Religion vs Philosophy or Why is Stanley Fish paid to blog for the New York Times?”

  1. Jesse Says:

    Somewhere in the comments to Fish’s blog entry there was a woman in Spain who asked why we do not discuss these sorts of issues in the context of philosophy (a conservative but also highly heterogeneous discipline), but instead reduce the issue to the old religion v. atheism wrestling match.

    It was a comment with which I found myself in complete agreement. While there are still a few Atheist philosophical positions remaining, they are few and fleeting—moreover, they are stolen off by the cultural binaries and hyper-realist, technophiliac capitalism that has hijacked any intellectual discourse on the issue of either Atheism or religion. The proliferation of straw men on both sides is worrisome (no science is not a totality, and positivism is over, as is the Enlightenment). But the problem, I believe, is as much the fault of “new” Atheists as the hyper-fundamentalist Christians whom they seem to reflect.

    Personally, I think that while philosophy would at first seem to lead very quickly away from religion, it leads away from the ersatz, smug (and purely social) arguments of “new” Atheism much, much quicker. I know that’s harsh, but I’ve really lost all respect for its primary proponents, regardless of who may be arguing against them this week. If potent and valuable Atheist philosophical positions still exist, whose to say Ditchkens-et-al won’t just co-opt them into the oblivion of anti-religious demagoguery?

    • Liza Says:

      I’m not sure whether this post is a direct response to my blog or a general reaction to Fish’s blog, but, as this is the first comment I have received, I feel obliged to give it an honest response.

      Re: Spanish Woman’s Comment
      Yes, I think we should discuss these issues in the context of philosophy. That was my first point. Philosophy attempts to answer those ultimate “why” questions just as theology does.

      Re: Problems with Atheist Philosophy
      I don’t really know what you mean by “cultural binaries and hyper-realist, technophiliac capitalism that has hijacked any intellectual discourse.” It seems as though we are having intellectual discourse right now. I am not a hyper-realist, technophiliac, or capitalist. I don’t think atheism implies any of those things. Why do you? And to what “cultural binaries” are you referring? I would imagine that most real people who bother to think about these things are not adequately described as A or B.

      Re: anti-religious demagoguery
      Hitchens is not a philosopher, and, though I admire his work a great deal, Dawkins isn’t either. I think the charge of demagoguery is unfair, however. Dawkins and Hitchens have clearly articulated their values, and they each make a political case for the harm of religion. There is nothing disingenous about that. Also, it is a mistake to conflate the political views of all atheists (or even the views of Hitchens and Dawkins), just as it would be a mistake to conflate the political views of all theists. Atheists hold that value doesn’t derive from God, that doesn’t imply any positive statement about value on its own.


    • Jim Says:

      Without knowing what the comment in question actually said, I can only respond to you, Jesse, and I guess I’m a little confused. You don’t think these issue are already addressed in the domain of philosophy? If that’s the position you’re taking, I’ll submit that you are wrong, that these issues are, in fact, regularly discussed by philosophers.
      Also, as to your assertion that “While there are still a few Atheist philosophical positions remaining, they are few and fleeting,” I’m going to have to disagree with you there, as well. So far as I’m aware, and I’m pretty well-versed in this area, no proof for God has succeeded yet. As atheism is a position of disbelief, it seems like a pretty stable position. And, as to your concern that the “Ditchkenses” will “steal off” any good arguments that “real” philosophers generate, so what? If the argument is good, what concern is it of philosophers that others will make use of their sound positions? A good argument is a good argument. By all means, let’s popularize the good arguments. I just don’t get the concern.
      I’ll admit I’m also a bit put off by the suggestion that positivism is dead. (No lie. Positivism never had room for a good explanation of theoretical entities, and such are necessary to theory in general, so it just turns out positivism was never a good description of how science works. Welcome to 1934.) I just don’t see the point there unless the suggestion is that science somehow fails in its attempt to provide good descriptions of the world. In that case, I would suggest you’re wrong, and I would hold up the magic box onto which you’re typing as evidence for that position.
      I’m open and ready to hear why anyone would think that good philosophy doesn’t support the arguments of the new atheists, because I don’t see it. Just what are these arguments away from which philosophy quickly takes us?

  2. Jack Angstreich Says:

    What Fish is keen to articulate is that the so-called “new atheists” beg the question as to what legitimately counts as evidence. Theistic arguments are also premised upon evidence but their evidential canons usually differ from those of atheists. The question of which evidential canons are the “right” ones is a question which neither science nor philosophy can answer; Fish insists that the answer to this question will ultimately only be resolved by force.

    • Jim Says:

      Before I could comment on whether or not someone is begging the question, I would have to see the argument presented legitimately and accurately. All I saw in Fish’s article were bad straw men.
      Dennett doesn’t seem to be engaged in question-begging, and, from what I’ve seen, neither does Harris, and both are considered part of the “four horseman” of new atheism. If “new atheism” is to be reduced to Hitchens, then arguments against it are merely against him, and such certainly shouldn’t be generalized to an entire group.
      Also, I’m curious upon what “evidential canons” theists are relying. I myself am very interested in evidence for God’s existence. Clue me in.

      • Jack Angstreich Says:

        Dawkins engages in the same question-begging Hitchens does, as does Liza in the post to which I responded. Fish, in his theoretical writings, has explained how the question of evidence is always relative to evidential canons; Fish’s argument holds whether or not it correctly applies to Dennett or Harris. A similar view to Fish’s can be found in the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga correctly says, in line with Fish’s arguments, that belief in God has just as much rational standing to be “properly basic” as belief in the existence of other minds, as long as the theistic belief is not subject to a logical defeater.

        • Jim Says:

          Be specific about the question-begging, because I don’t see it.

          Plantinga’s idea of what gives a belief proper warrant includes a few parts, mainly a) that the cognitive faculties which produce the belief are functioning properly, b) that the cognitive faculty were designed to produce true beliefs, and c) there is a high probability that the beliefs in question are, in fact, true. While I could talk about (b) here, and it would certainly be germane to your anti-foundationalist leanings (which would seem to discount an interest in Plantinga, who is clearly a foundationalist, but I’ll put that aside), it doesn’t seem to be the relevant question. The relevant issue seems to be (c). That is, given everything else that we believe, God as traditionally described doesn’t seem probable. Simply put, the functions normally reserved for God can now be explained and future incidents predicted without employing the services of God. As such, one is not warranted to believe in God.

  3. Jesse Says:

    But any sober, neutral approach to philosophy seems quite independent to both religion and Atheism. You don’t see philosophy prof’s expressing ultimate proofs for or against God (thank the 18th century for having already occurred!) precisely because arguments for and against Atheism, just as those for and against religion, are pretty well equally distributed. In other words, belief becomes merely a matter of choice, even in an Existential or postmodern context. And in a world of equal possibilities, that which pushes in one direction or another is usually just the ever-shifting bias of cultural circumstance and power, not truth. So arguing for either one or the other results in this repetitive and purely recursive exercise of arguing for or against a God of limited instantiations: be it Marx’ God of bourgeoisie repression, Kierkegaard’s God of the Other (Derrida fits in here as well), Kant’s transcendental God, Nietzsche’s God of power/untruth, etc., etc.

    What it boils down to is that something like Atheism—“new” Atheism in particular—is only meaningful in terms of the aesthetics which it imposes on a world that does not conform to that of their selection. While I admit it is an ad hominem argument, I think it is meaningful that there is so much philosophical and scientific charlatanism amongst these “new” Atheists. Can they articulate a coherent, consistent theory of knowledge, science, mind, or ontology if the words “God,” “Theism,” or “religion” are removed from their available vocabulary? Can they truly even argue against religion if their definition of “religion” is so narrow and straw-filled? Or, can they do so without reifying their opponent’s position (as all absolutist cultural agencies must do) and hypostatizing belief and action into a single, monolithic totality? And if so, then why turn that into outwardly bigoted assertions that religion (reified into merely some occult myth) necessarily causes people to behave badly? Why use that to rake the coals into some public sentiment against a specific segment of the population?

    Don’t get me wrong, in the political and social context of the last decade or so I completely understand the increased affection for “Atheism” or just “something else.” (The glove didn’t fit OJ either, but that didn’t make him innocent.) But that has nothing to do with philosophical or political development in the last half-century, nor does it have anything to do with formal philosophical discourse in general (which has already passed the analytic/continental split). So the prevailing attribute that gives definition to the fallacious arguments of “new” Atheism is social, political, and economic circumstance.

    And as for its philosophical or scientific grounds, the critiques are many. First of all, if a student entered a university philosophy course and argued for the “default” position (vaguely, that Atheism is not an affirmative statement, but merely the negation of theism), that student would fail the course. Likewise, there is a profound difference between the view of science as purely local, contingent, and instrumental, as opposed to the view of science as leading to ontological “truths” or some likeness of them—very few scientists would endorse the latter view (Merleau-Ponty’s critique of scientific reduction as limited, Popper’s multiple-worlds hypothesis, Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, the “Schrodinger’s cat” dilemma, Jasper’s intersubjectivity, the EPR problem in physics/quantum mechanics which contradicts basic thermodynamic and Newtonian laws; and for a more aesthetic analysis, Jameson’s critique of capitalist institutions in postmodernity, Bataille’s Marxism, Lacan’s notions of reciprocal violence, Structural notions of cultural binaries and the colonialism which they perpetuate, various arguments by Zizek…) I know that’s a shotgun of name-dropping, but its worthwhile to recognize that the view of scientific reduction as purely local and contingent isn’t just a philosophical position, but derives its priority from empirical scientific evidence.

    I mean Atheist and religious arguments can go back and forth all day long—as they will do—but frankly I just don’t understand anyone who attempts to deploy scientific apparatuses to describe social phenomena, let alone the greatest one of them all. It’s needlessly smug and condescending, going back to the days of eugenics, social Darwinism, and IQ tests (which an abundance of the population/internet-companies believe in to this day). Not to say that it isn’t useful in certain contexts, simply that it requires far more nuance, ethical humility, and rigor than messianic fellers like “Ditchkins” seem to desire.

    • Jim Says:

      While your philosophy professors might not be pushing one side or the other, that is in no way evidence that the question isn’t being asked. It most certainly is, and it just is not the case that “arguments for and against Atheism, just as those for and against religion, are pretty well equally distributed.” I challenge you to present one sound argument for God that hasn’t been thoroughly trounced and destroyed. As for arguments foratheism, you’re right about seeing a lack there. But that’s because atheism is not a positive position. I don’t need much of an argument for suggesting there are no invisible tigers roaming my house. Unless I have some good reason to believe there is any such thing, I am wholly justified in believing there is not.
      Belief is not a matter of choice. We just do not have the power to willfully choose our beliefs Moreover, we are morally obligated to only accept those things for which we have good reason as groundings for beliefs. This has already been addressed in this blog, so I won’t go into it again here.

      Looking at your second paragraph, it seems to me that you too are reducing everything to Hitchens. He is not the end-all and be-all to skepticism, atheism, or even new atheism. He is the least important (though possibly the loudest) of those considered the most influential. Most of the influentials do not think that religion “necessarily causes people to behave badly.” Even Dawkins doesn’t hold that position (the other half of Ditchkins). You’re the one shoving straw here. And religion is mythology. Well, that or truth, and it can’t be justified as truth.

      No student would fail out of my class for asserting that atheism is a position of disbelief, one that is legitimate if good reasons for belief in some god are not presented. Further, I don’t know anyone who teaches philosophy, and I know quite a few who do so, who would fail such a student either. Do you teach philosophy? What would be your reasoning on failing such a student? Do you genuinely believe that if that student challenged the grade and a departmental committee looked at the issue that the committee would let the failing grade stand? I’m skeptical.

      I won’t take the time to go into your “shotgun of name-dropping,” but I will say that there are quite a few scientific realists out there. You’re not paying attention to journals of philosophy of science if you think otherwise. And, really, that’s irrelevant. Even if it turns out that scientific theories are, at best, internally coherent methods of describing the world that have no guarantee of getting the world “as it really is,” it’s still the best method for describing the world available to us. In terms of explanatory and predictive success, nothing else even comes close, and, yes, that stuff matters. Certainly, no brand of theism is a close competitor in that regard.

      Lastly, the reason someone would use scientific apparatuses to describe social phenomena is because they work. Certainly sociology and social psychology have been far more productive than methodologies employed in the past for explaining why groups do what they do. But I don’t see how that is relevant to the rest of your comment, and I get the feeling you meant to say something else, though I don’t know what that is. What I will suggest is that the reduction of “new atheism” in general to Hitchens in particular is a straw man. Even the presentation of Hitchens in the way Fish discusses him (as Ditchkins) is a straw man. But the important thing to understand is that his position is not everyone’s, so hammering him because of his caustic speaking style is missing the target completely, and it most certainly is not grounds for reintroducing God into the discussion without any explanation why or how such is legitimate when no argument for God has withstood even mild scrutiny.

      • Jesse Says:

        Skepticism is pretty much antithetical to “new” Atheism. This is really precisely the kind of everyday philosophizing that invalidates “new” Atheism from having any definition aside from its bigoted arguments about religion, the position that all of modern philosophy boils down to the dead-horse binaries of materialism/monism vs. religion. If Atheism really had some infallible position, some elevated, sovereign position of judgment, can’t you intuit that prof’s around the world would be turning blue to advance it? The reason no serious intellectual engages the God debate (in a social setting, that is) is that it is structured in such a way that the question can’t even be asked, as it is a debate which seems to require stacking-the-deck, straw men, and popular demagoguery. Do you really think the plurality of possible viewpoints boils down to such incredibly narrow and false definitions of what religion is versus guys like Dennett and Harris? I mean Harris is a whole ‘nother story; if his arguments are to be looked back upon by future generations of students, it will be through the prism of analyzing his colonial and astoundingly bigoted arguments about the religious. We are a secular country, as we always have been; if a person doesn’t like religion, the most that it entitles them to do is to be non-religious. As soon as they begin attempting to make these fundamentalist, quasi-scientific arguments that religion is necessarily bad, they have overstepped any ethic of democratic pluralism. But these “new” Atheists seemed to have skipped the entire era of Existentialism, ignoring the “bad faith” inherent in wasting so much time beating on religious straw men and somehow expecting that their self-fulfilling expectations for debate won’t just lead them in circles. Honestly, articulate a comprehensive position without mentioning God or sniping at religion—earnest critiques of materialism happened a century ago. The most democratically offensive part is how they pirouette their way from the same harsh scrutiny by reifying their opponents and presuming that anyone who disagrees with them is a “theist” or likewise. It’s ridiculous, and I’m just glad that people are beginning to call them on it.

        • Jim Says:

          Skepticism is in no way antithetical to any atheism. As no good reason has been presented for believing in any god, a healthy skepticism leaves room for no other position than atheism. If you have a working argument for God, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, your assertion here about skepticism seems just flat-out wrong.
          Your contention that the questions at hand are not seriously discussed is odd considering we are discussing them. However, your view that contemporary philosophers find this issue largely uninteresting can be understood as it’s hardly a “hot topic.” But this is not because the arguments for both sides is so evenly weighted. On the contrary, issue with such characteristics are the most philosophically interesting. Rather, the reason the topic seems dead is because it has largely been conceded that there is no good argument for theism of any kind. No argument for God has proven successful, so atheism is largely seen to be the default position. That’s why no one is “turning blue to advance it.” While the causes for faith might be interesting, the conclusions that one infers from one’s personal faith is wholly uninteresting to philosophers in general. Faith is a non-starter; there’s nowhere to go once someone invokes it, and it justifies a belief in nothing.
          I have no idea what you mean when you suggest that the the debate is a “dead-horse binary.” You either don’t believe in God, or you do. As the atheist is largely unconcerned with the particulars of religious belief, there only seem to be two positions there. You have to be a theist to have more than a binary at all. You need to explain in detail what these “pluralities” are, because I don’t see them.
          You keep talking about fallacious arguments, but you don’t list them. You’re going to have to be more specific if you want any sort of response to that accusation. Otherwise, I’ll just say “Nuh-uh!” to your “Uh-huh!” and that gets us nowhere. Give me some details with which to work, or I’ll just assume you don’t have any.
          I don’t see what democracy has to do with whether or not there is a god. Most atheists couldn’t care less what you believe on your own time. The opposition is to faith-based beliefs influencing public policy, from tax statuses to what is taught in schools, and that influence is very real.
          Lastly, what reification is being perpetrated by the atheists? You can’t mean God, because all the theists I know believe God is objectively real. No reification is happening there.

          • Jesse Says:

            I was just enjoying Attlee’s inputs, to which your response only made Angstreich’s point (via Nietzsche) that only power or force will resolve the paralyzing effect of relativist interjections into the search for some Kantian thing-in-itself: coercing one to a given position by making it empirically contingent to the use of some finite good (a computer, derived technology, etc.) is an evasion of the fact that the argument is still a logical one, not empirical.

            “You can’t mean God, because all the theists I know believe God is objectively real.” That’s a hasty generalization and yet another reduction of one’s opposition to a position of convenience. Atheism “by default” is an amazingly anti-intellectual position. In a classical sense, if “God exists”=”A”, then “~A” is just as much of an affirmative, universal statement. “~_” is a unary (and therefore affirmative) statement, which is precisely the underlying logic that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” So if a person wants to keep arguing the “default” position, how exactly do we default to its opposite affirmative? It’s a big middle that we’d be excluding. At best, if you want to continue with the default argument, the strongest argument yields only a default to “non-Christianity,” or agnosticism. Even then, that’s only “Christianity” (or merely “religion”) of a deliberately narrowly-conceived sort, disregarding all the complex measures through which many religions self-acknowledge their own limitations and seek to justify them (rational faith, and the like). Ultimately, the popular formulation of the argument is just to evade having to state an independent position, lest it be subject to the harsh degree of criticism with which Atheists freely browbeat religion. Even if the argument was right (and it is not), that would not allow it’s employment as justification for making essentially ad hominem arguments about what religion is.

            What worries me isn’t that the rhetorical strategy of self-described “Atheists” is one of reification, but that for some reason they are granted a pass for doing so, or that this sort of behavior is deemed acceptable. The success of “new” Atheists argument in general rests on these abundant circular assertions of necessity that religion is bad, and that religion cannot do otherwise (via these quasi-eugenic “gene” arguments, historical arguments, or otherwise). Abstract belief and action are not prescriptive, nor are they one and they same thing, let alone are they some automatically cooperating monolith. Conflating them doesn’t get us anywhere, it just deepens this awkward cyber sentiment that all of those who disagree with us are brainwash cases unwinding mental software like watches… which, if true, also invalidates the person making the assertion (but we always ignore that). I’m sure that sort of rhetorical argument sells books for the likes of Ann Coulter, but the last of my goals is to be like Canned Scolder. And if self-exception identifies what has been the historical fault of religion, then doesn’t this “default” maneuvering strike you as manifestation that “new” Atheism is merely the latest locus for precisely the same pathos of self-exception? Don’t you see the ethically anti-Existential underpinnings?

            But I don’t know. I’m not religious, so that’s no where I’m coming from. It’s simply that skepticism and pluralistically-democratic ethics cut both ways, whether it’s fundamentalist religion or ersatz, fundamentalist Atheism. The burden is on them both. On the contrary, that does not “default” us to pure anti-foundationalism or relativism, it’s just a statement of the pre-conditions of formulating arguments… and perhaps a plea for a bit of introspective humility.

          • Jim Says:

            First, I don’t see Nietzsche saying anything like you’ve suggested. I think you’ve misunderstood his notion of the will to power. And, yet again, no one is talking about a Kantian thing-in-itself. It would help if you read what was actually written rather than assuming you already knew what I was going to say. And I wasn’t doing any kind of coercion (there’s that not reading thing again). I suggested Attlee didn’t really believe what s/he said s/he did, namely that there is no uniformity in nature, and all appearances of such are mere remarkable coincidences. My evidence of such is Attlee’s expectation that her/his computer will come on the next time s/he wants to use it. As far as the logical point, the one Attlee hoped to make only applies to inductive reasoning, and this is not an accurate description of the reasoning used in science.

            If you don’t like my “hasty generalization,” perhaps you could explain what reification is occurring, as you still have not done so. Rather than criticizing, it might be more productive to make your position explicit rather than doing this lame dance.

            As far as atheism being a positive assertion that there is no god, you’re wrong, at least in general (in specific lots of people have lots of beliefs, so I’ll just stick the the general idea of atheism as espoused by all the atheists I know personally and have read the “new atheists” suggesting). Not believing something is the case is wholly different from believing that something is not the case. For example, I don’t believe there is a cupcake under my couch, but it isn’t the case that I believe there is no cupcake. I would look before making the latter claim. But the former claim is the default position when I don’t have good reason to believe there is or is not a cupcake under my couch. See the difference? Really, this is standard stuff, and, if you’ve actually read anything about the subject, I shouldn’t have to spend this much time making such an elementary point.

            You’ll need to explain how suggesting that something for which there is no evidence is not true is an ad hominem. That seems to be addressing the very issue, not sidestepping it by firing fallacious attacks at someone so as to evade addressing the point at hand. If that is an ad hominem, how could one go about addressing the issue without falling into fallacious reasoning?

            You are just wrong to suggest that most atheists think that religion is necessarily bad. Apparently, you don’t know enough atheists. But you’re also wrong to suggest there is nothing prescriptive about belief (or the grounding thereof). We are morally obligated to accept as grounding for our beliefs only those things for which we have good reason. I made an earlier blog post about that. You can address that issue there.

            Lastly, it’s absurd to describe atheism as “fundamentalist” as there is not some list of fundamentals that unite atheists other than a disbelief. That’s like suggesting that all who have no positive belief in Russell’s teapot are fundamentalists united in their a-teapotism. Those of us who lack such a belief (presumably all of us reading this) are not fundamentalists in any way that is meaningful. And we are not engaged in some anti-democratic posturing because of that disbelief, nor are we asserting some positive idea that needs defending. With no good reason to believe there is such a teapot, and with plenty of reasons to think that such would run contrary to other things for which we do have good reason, we are wholly justified in not believing in the teapot. As goes the teapot, so goes God.*
            *Unless, of course, you have some good argument. If so, now is the time to give it.

          • Jesse Says:

            “All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

            I’m not going to take this further, because it’s getting to the usual language games and flux definitions. The fact that you are comparing an incredibly abstract thing—concepts of “God” —with limited objective phenomena (Russell’s teapot) is cartoonishly counterproductive. Am I a “theist” by default? Really? You don’t see the totalizing, taxonomic logic in doing these sorts of things? Those patterns of presumption are exactly the reason nobody listens to the village Atheists. No one is impressed, least of all intellectuals.

          • Jim Says:

            I want to preface this by saying it’s frustrating that all you seem to want to do is a bunch of vague hand-waving. Your refusal to give specific arguments or be explicit about your position reeks of intellectual cowardice. The problem of “usual language games and flux definitions” is because you refuse to state your position clearly.

            Quoting Nietzsche is pointless. His own biggest concern was that he would be misunderstood, and he was explicit that anyone reading him should start at the beginning and read everything he wrote in order. His style lends itself to some confusion. I would suggest you check out Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist to gain some insight into what Nietzsche was hoping to communicate.

            Atheists don’t have a problem with a merely abstract God. If that’s what you mean by God, I don’t think you’re going to find any atheist who will argue that such doesn’t exist. However, you are amazingly misinformed if you don’t know that most theists believe that God is more than a mere abstraction, that He is an independent entity with an objective existence independent to our conception of Him.

            It’s funny that you think the comparison of God and Russell’s teapot is “cartoonish” when the thought experiment in question was created for the express purpose of being a comparison to God. I guess Russell was just another “village atheist” to whom no intellectuals listened.

            As far as you being a theist by default, I never suggested any such thing. I have no idea what you believe. You might believe all sorts of things without good reason. But, in general, the default position for anything is that if there is no good reason to believe that something exists, you don’t believe that thing exists, at least for rational individuals. That goes for teapots, leprechauns, el chupacabra, alien abduction, bigfoot, unicorns, and even gods.

            It’s amusing that you think that intellectuals don’t listen to “village atheists.” There is an enormous amount of data that shows a very strong correlation between education and lack of religious belief. It just turns out that the more lettered you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Here, as so many times in your comments, you just don’t know about the subject you’re addressing.

            Your incessant unfounded presumptions and accusations of the faults of which you are guilty combined with the complete lack of an articulation of an explicit position makes you worse than wrong; it makes you boring.

      • Attlee Says:

        There is no way of “getting the world as it really is,” since prejudicial and perspectival perception is all there is.

        As to your remarks on the “explanatory and predictive success” of science, as Russell and Hume have stressed, the validity of the inductive method does not depend upon the success of its predictions—since the inference by which the principle of the “uniformity of nature” is obtained is not a process which can be logically legitimated.

        The past “predictive success” of science is good evidence for science’s reliability only to those who accept the postulate of uniformity—an assumption which cannot itself be demonstrated without circularity; to those who do not—myself for example—it will merely be a remarkable coincidence.

        With regard to the tenour of the article in question, the key is to note that accepting the postulate of the uniformity of nature is something to which one consents merely by virtue of intuition, will, faith, and the like, and so, a theology which is logically coherent is neither more valid nor more invalid than science is, since the evidence in support of both science and any theism is equally arbitrary, which is to say that such evidence rests upon a circular appeal to canons of justification which are not uncontroversial in themselves—this is the thesis of antifoundationalist thought, in general.

        This said, the question of whether science is the “best” method for “describing the world available to us” or not is a purely subjective matter—and, as Mr. Angstreich correctly notes, “the answer to this question will ultimately only be resolved by force.”

        • Jim Says:

          I didn’t actually say that we could get to the world as it really is. Reread my response.
          As to the rest, this might be an appropriate response for a sophomore class on the moderns, but it turns out that philosophy of science has moved on since Hume. It is widely recognized that science in not an inductive process; it is abductive. Uniformity of nature is thought to be legitimate because it provides the best explanation of the facts. And the idea that anyone, yourself included, actually believes that science’s predictive success is merely a “remarkable coincidence” is absurd. Do you mean to tell me that you don’t expect the computer you used to continue working? Do you seriously expect me to believe that if it stopped working you would say something like, “There goes that uniformity of nature right out the window” rather than thinking that something explicable only within the presumption that such uniformity was in place was actually at issue? Don’t be foolish. The very fact that you expect your water to run, your car to start when you turn the key, for airplanes to not suddenly fall out of the sky or turn into chickens all point to your acceptance of the uniformity of nature, and for you to claim otherwise now is a poor attempt at sophistry.
          As for the assertion that the question of whether or not the world is best described by science “will ultimately only be resolved by force,” that’s absurd as well. If any group took seriously that science was not a legitimate means of explaining what’s going on in the world, they would not be using the fruits of that enterprise to further their position, and, hence, they would not be able to must enough force to do much of anything. Anyone using the various large-scale weapons which were developed only using contemporary scientific theories are explicitly relying on science. If they didn’t the battle between the groups would be remarkably short as those buying into science would quickly wipe out the opposition. The cultural tensions are not between science and non-science. They are science and science + magic, and any dependence on magic in any way is doomed to failure.
          But everyone accepts science, including you. Your response to this using a tool that could only be developed once a sophisticated quantum mechanics was in place, a theory which presumes as real objects which cannot, in principle, be observed, attests to that clear fact. Only when you stop using your computer because you genuinely believe that you have no reason to expect it to work now, as all past instances of it working were merely remarkable coincidences, will I take your assertion of holding such a belief seriously.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            Almost every scientific theory which has ever been dominant within the scientific community has been rejected by the vast majority of scientists at a later time; this suggests an enormous basis for skepticism with regard to the authority of science as a provider of “best” explanations — science seems to provide “best” explanations which are routinely overturned by science itself. In any case, asserting that science presents the “best” explanations of phenomena merely begs the question of what counts as a “best” explanation; as Fish would observe, what counts as “best” is a rhetorical achievement — i.e., an achievement of force (of persuasion) — not a logical one. Certainly, there is no argument that one “should” accept science’s authority which is not question-begging. To assert that ascribing science’s predictive success to coincidence is “absurd” is to present a mere opinion, and not an argument. In any case, there is no non-circular argument for the authority of science nor could there be; this is the essence of the anti-foundationalist insight into the nature of justification. It is irrelevant whether or not Attlee is honest about his real beliefs about science, since the skeptical argument holds whether one’s behavior is influenced by this belief or not.

          • Jim Says:

            Scientific theories are replaced by other scientific theories only when the new provide the best explanation. No issue arises from abductive reasoning there, especially as it science itself which provided the new explanation. Further, the core of science, the thing that has been at issue, the uniformity of nature, is a necessary part of any scientific theory. As all theories contain this, it is always the best explanation.
            As to what makes it “best,” I don’t mind specifying that. The best position is that which grants the greatest success in navigating the world. This could be argued to simply come down to values, and you might not share such a value (though, as you continue to successfully navigate the world using the fruits of science to do so, e.g. abundant food, clean water, good health care, easy transportation, protection from the elements, etc, I would be skeptical if you said you did not share this value). But, assuming such a value is shared, and believe Fish would be lying if he said he didn’t, there is no question-begging or circularity going on.
            And, yes, it is patently absurd for someone to use all the benefits afforded to them by science while claiming to not buy into it. My argument was brief but clear. One would not expect someone who genuinely does not believe there is uniformity in nature to spend their life behaving in every way as if there is. If they do, they are either deceivers (fooling everyone around them into thinking they believe something they don’t) or madmen (behaving in a way that is wholly contrary to their real beliefs and never acting in line with their beliefs).

          • Attlee Says:

            It is not necessarily “absurd”—indeed, I would argue it is more logical—to reject the principle of inference to the best explanation.

            “Uniformity of nature” cannot provide “the best explanation of the facts” because there are no “facts” to be known—at the most, scientists “believe” and what they believe can be confirmed, in accord with widely accepted canons of justification, by empirical investigations—whether what they believe is justifiable is a matter that is open to debate.

            While I do have an “expectation” that my “computer will come on” the next time I desire to use it, if asked to justify my “expectation”, I can only respond that I expect my computer to work by reference to experience,—indeed, as Hume demonstrated, any attempt to justify this expectation by way of reasoned argument must appeal to the assumption that the future will be like the past, but the thesis that it will be—the principle of the uniformity of nature—is not something for which we have empirical evidence, and any attempt to use past observations to support this principle must, necessarily, beg the question—thus, one accepts inductive practices upon faith, intuition, etc.— this is not a very compelling answer to the radical skeptic, whose argument that the “success” of science is nothing more than constant coincidence, cannot be legitimately ridiculed.

            There is no contradiction in accepting skeptical results while believing that the results of one’s reasonings are, on the whole, probable—thus, your accusations of inconsistency and contradiction—namely, that my practice doesn’t match my principles—constitute mere rhetorical bluster, signifying nothing, since you evidently have no argument against radical skepticism.

          • Jim Says:

            See my response to Jack.

            Hume was mistaken about why we expect things. It isn’t because of habit. We form models,theoretical frameworks, that allow us to explain and make predictions of the world. Philosophy of mind has moved on since Hume, and neuroscience, though still in its infancy, has provided quite a bit of insight into how our brain functions.

            But, if you’re serious about your radical skepticism, I challenge you to be courageous enough to live like you believe rather than cowardly cow-towing to your scientific oppressors. The next time a bus is coming, don’t move. After all, it’s merely a habit of thinking resulting from a string of remarkable coincidences that makes you believe that moving will save your life. There is no reason to believe that moving will prevent the bus from hitting you, and there is no reason to believe that not moving will result in you getting hit. As there is no uniformity, moving might be the very thing that kills you, while standing still might be the thing that saves your life. Let me know how abandoning uniformity works out for you.
            And if you want to respond that I’m suggesting that I wish you harm, let me point out that any expectation that harm would occur is only legitimate if uniformity holds. If it doesn’t there is no expectation of any such thing, and there is no reason for you to complain.

          • Attlee Says:

            “…it’s merely a habit of thinking resulting from a string of remarkable coincidences that makes you believe that moving will save your life.”

            Of course—it is not impossible to conceive of an individual—say, a radical skeptic (or a theist) whose faith is strong enough to encourage them to walk in front of speeding automobiles with no expectation of being harmed. The point, to you, that I am making, is that you, ultimately, have no intellectual grounds to ridicule such an individual’s belief, even though you believe they shall, in all likelihood, be killed or maimed—ultimately, your belief “that moving will prevent the bus from hitting” you rests upon a faith, i.e., a (foundationally arbitrary) belief in the scientific world-view.

            So, speaking personally, although I possess no courage with which to step in front of speeding automobiles, my ridicule of someone who would be willing to risk his life in this manner would only rest upon—if there were no logical objection—my beliefs in the validity of inductive inference, the postulate of uniformity, and so forth—beliefs which, as Hume demonstrates, are not really well-founded, since they are grounded upon mere intuition.

            Western neuroscience depends upon underlying metaphysical assumptions as well, for instance, that there is an objective world which is independent of subjective, perspectival experience—an assumption which is mistaken.

            You can assert all you like that “Philosophy of mind has moved on since Hume” but no philosopher has ever successfully refuted his ideas.

            You say that “It isn’t because of habit” that we expect things, but rather it is because “We form models, theoretical frameworks, that allow us to explain and make predictions of the world.”

            But the fact remains that there is no non-circular argument for the authority of these “models” and “theoretical frameworks” nor could there be—to justify induction, one would need to produce a cogent argument whose conclusion is that induction is reliable, and whose premises are not themselves inductively based—the only such premises are reports of past observations.

          • Jim Says:

            I’ll say first that your bald assertion of being unwilling to live up to the conviction of your own claimed beliefs, of your brazen cowardice, is a little shocking to me. I pity you.
            There is nothing about scientific reasoning that relies on faith. Faith is believing without evidence or good reason, and that is not science at all. While science does not provide absolute certainty, does not “prove” anything, it makes no claim of doing anything of the kind. What it does do is reason to the best explanation given the data at hand (this point being missed by you completely as you continue to mistakenly assert that science is inductive, so any criticism relying on such a mistake need not be addressed). As such, it provides good reason for its conclusions. It is just not the case that those relying on science are using faith in any way. Rather, they have good reasons for the things they assert, namely the deep explanation and the repeated corroboration by way of predictions turning out to be true. In fact, if such predictions turn out to be false, it is at that point that science looks for a better explanation, one that does not have such problems. This, then, is nothing like faith, which has no evidence. Merely because absolute certainty is not the result of such investigation does not in any way mean there is no good reason at all for accepting the conclusions as valid and reasonable.
            Also, you seem to be under the mistaken belief that Hume was opposed to science. This would be a dramatic misunderstanding of Hume’s philosophy.

          • Jesse Says:

            You guys are having a pretty damn good conversation on early modern philosophy, if I may interject. Keep it up. Seriously. If only we three weren’t dudes we might avoid so much cross talking and electronic ball-busting…

            If I understand Attlee’s position, it would be something to the effect that science derives it’s “absolute” knowledge of facts through a process that is ultimately self-referential, a system reliant upon logical completion (a scientific metalanguage) only by way of instantiating its own completion (instead of being able to claim such a justification externally). And thus, a kind of hermeneutic circle in which the inductively-derived “facts” of science are paralyzingly local, utilitarian, and contingent.

            And if I understand the good sir Jim’s position, it’s that induction is valid by way of assuming the transcendental uniformity of nature (VERY loose language, I know), and that induction works because it is the operation of describing what we assume to be true, since science is a purely descriptive—i.e., posterior—endeavour. (Wasn’t Locke one who tidied up the whole posterior induction vs. prior concepts constructs conflict? I know Kant was the big name, but I thought someone else helped to mediate the whole empiricist/idealist divide. Screw it, another digression into a class in which I got a damn C…) Likewise, science is legitimate because it is synthetic (a Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Which is certainly an excellent response to the claim that science is some unstable process in which old theories are regularly negated rendering new ones meaningless; however, I don’t think that—via Hegel’s highly optimistic vision of progressive modernity—you can thereby impose some teleology on science (gap filling). Most of the twentieth century is about rejecting that sentiment. Albeit, I don’t think you suggested that, but it is an important constraint on notions of scientific progress.

            I think we’re filling out the classic mind/body split (as a defense, respectively) while on the other hand, assuming the opposite in the form of an undivided body/mind relationship. And thus the antagonism between dualism and reductive materialism of various forms. I mentioned Merleau-Ponty before, who provides a pretty good negotiation of the philosophical ambiguity of body and mind that came out of modern philosophy: “M.P. asserts that the twentieth century erased the dividing line between body and mind and ‘sees human life as through and through mental and corporeal, always based upon the body and always (even in its most carnal modes) interested in relationships between persons [I’m assuming he is referencing the influence of Existential thought]. This statement refers of course to the overcoming of dualism on the one hand and of a reductive materialism on the other… He sees the line of thought which he sums up in his ‘body-subject’ as triumphing over on the one hand and [mechanistic] materialism and behaviorism on the other and, to put the matter another way, as going beyond the antithesis between idealism and materialism [a dialectic about which Marxists/post-marxists often write]. In Existentialism man is indeed conceived as essentially a being in the world, dialectically related to it in the sense that man cannot be understood apart from it [as with scientific fact-ness], apart from his situation, while what we call the world cannot be understood apart from meanings conferred on it by man.” -Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. IX, p. 399

            I highly suggest trying to find copies of Copleston’s “History…” volumes; though a little old, they are accessible, to the point, and available on the cheap at any good (urban) used-book store.

            Copleston’s examination of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology only gets better, but his concept of “facts” and of bodily-subjectivity itself as dialectical constructs is a pretty powerful tool for getting out of the inductive-material/idealist rut. I know those ideas lead to a progression of more contemporary theories (structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, etc.), but he makes some pretty pointed and useful remarks about science and scientific reduction. Via M.P.’s dialectical notions, one may note that if science is the fact-conferring quantitative institution, you can also legitimize religion (in its more modest forms) as a kind of truth-conferring qualitative institution (admitting that defining “truth” may be highly subjective). Either way, something like a church can legitimately be viewed not as some monolithic/thing-in-itself/prescriptive institution abstracted from all surrounding circumstances, but rather as a continuous, dialectical part of its environment serving an intersubjective community of members and organizing the social capital of the community as a whole.

            It has been sixty years since Merleau-Ponty, but I can’t name more recent scientific philosophers who understand the role of dialecticalism; and every time I find myself in the bookstore, the actual physical divisions of the aisles between scientific literature and philosophical literature suggests the same presumptuous tension between idealism and reductive materialism that M.P. addressed.

          • Jesse Says:

            Oops, clicked “comment” too soon. Knew there’d be some grammatical errores in there.

            Correct Copleston quote:

            “…as triumphing over *idealism* on the one hand and [mechanistic] materialism and behaviourism on the other…”

          • Liza Says:

            You haven’t seen fit to respond to my questions, and I am starting to suspect that you don’t understand a lot of the terminology that you are throwing around. Radical skepticism is a challenge to scientific realism, but this has absolutely nothing to do with the mind/body problem. The only thing they have in common is that Descartes touched upon them both. It would be useful if you could explain your position without dropping names or a million two-dollar words. Specifically, what is this alternative between theism and atheism that you seem to suggest?

          • johnny5 Says:


          • Jesse Says:

            Sorry, I wasn’t ignoring your questions. I kinda dangled that prior “two-dollar word” filled post to get input on more contemporary references in philosophy of science. No takers.

            My point is that the debate between Atheism and theism is merely a dialectic of late capitalism. So while the debate itself is (marginally) relevant, I think there are secondary concerns that supersede considerations of Atheism and theism (a purely redundant debate, historically), and through which it must therefore be interpreted and analyzed. Prior to that, I have qualms that such a “debate” could even occur because Atheists and “theists” utilize completely different modes of language; religious language derives its meaning through metaphor, not literality. The very idea that the complex systems of signification of religious ideas and texts can be reduced to scientific constants is utterly strange and fetishizing to me. Likewise, Atheism is an affirmative position, and I highly doubt the existence of the common Atheist’s razor-thin definition for a “theist.”

            I mean honestly. If you don’t like religion, then (gasp!) don’t be religious and don’t exhaust so much energy on such a loaded, mutually-antagonistic discourse. It’s that simple. “The bear who sees the trap cannot be caught.”

          • Liza Says:

            Re: “the debate between Atheism and theism is a dialectic of late capitalism.”

            No. This is preposterous. Off the top of my head, the earliest example that comes to mind is the debate in the Euthyphro about whether something is good because it is pleasing to the Gods or something is pleasing to the Gods because it is good. Socrates (or at least Plato) realized the problems endemic to a system which grounds the Good in the will of an unknowable being, let alone a pantheon of Gods who disagree. The Greeks might not have understood the contemporary debate but they were clearly moving in that direction by recognizing that positing God doesn’t get you any kind of a justification for belief.
            Descartes raises the brilliant problems of the veil of ideas in the Meditations and then comes up with a laughable “proof” for knowledge of the external world by appealing to the existence of a benevolent God. Many scholars think that this “proof” was a subversive way of showing exactly the opposite (i.e. there is no benevolent God and no way out of radical skepticism) while staying under the radar of the oppressive church- read the obsequious letter to the pope that prefaces the the Meditations if you need further evidence. And, of course, David Hume spelled out the problem of miracles explicitly in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The problem of God’s existence- what It explains and what explains It- has held weight for thinking people in every era, regardless of who controlled the means of production.

            Re: “secondary concerns that supersede considerations of Atheism and theism (a purely redundant debate, historically)”

            What are these superseding considerations? Can you give me an example? Also, what do you mean about the theological debate being “purely redunant” historically?

            Re: “Atheists and “theists” utilize completely different modes of language; religious language derives its meaning through metaphor, not literality.”

            Every believer I know seems to be using the same language that I use when s/he describes his/her beliefs and explains why s/he believes them. Of course it is true that Scripture/myth uses metaphor and simile to convey complex ideas, but no believer thinks that it is all metaphor. If it were, then any religious text could literally mean anything, and I very much doubt that people would fight and kill one another over mere aesthetic disagreements about metaphor. Believers do not think God is a mere metaphor for Love/Beauty/Good or some other amalgamation of abstract concepts. They believe God is real, and that He has an independent will and is an intervening force in the universe. They also believe that they can and should know the will of God and act in accordance with it. However you cash out the other details of God, these stances are not metaphorical, and atheists and theists are not talking past each other when they debate them.

            Re: “If you don’t like religion, then (gasp!) don’t be religious and don’t exhaust so much energy on such a loaded, mutually-antagonistic discourse.’

            It has nothing to do with liking or disliking religion. Belief is not a matter of choice. I cannot choose to believe in Divine intervention any more than I can choose to believe in Leprachauns or that 2+2=5. When you seriously engage ideas they change your mind. Philosophy is dangerous that way. You can end up believing something is true whether or not that belief is helpful to you. We debate this stuff because we think that the truth matters. I would venture to guess that on some level you must think that as well. Clearly, we all enjoy exhausting our energy on this type of discourse. Why else would you read a stranger’s blog post on atheism and bother to respond?

          • Jesse Says:

            “Why else would you read a stranger’s blog post on atheism and bother to respond?”

            Excellent point—good bye! Thanks for responding though, if not to distort what I said and to not name any more contemporary philosophers of science or religion…

            Have a good weekend.

    • Liza Says:

      Jesse, it would be useful for me if you could articulate your position in propositional form. I infer that you strive for a “sober, neutral, approach to philosophy” and so I would like it if you could give me a better picture of what that would look like. What is this middle ground outside of theism or atheism? Can you explain it to me?

      Also, please elaborate on what you mean when you say “Atheism—”new” Atheism in particular—is only meaningful in terms of the aesthetics which it imposes on a world that does not conform to that of their selection.” It would be very useful to me if you could explain this as though you were speaking to a very bright 12 year-old, because I expect that your philosophical background is quite different from my own.

      Lastly, if you haven’t looked at the other posts on this page, I would encourage you to read them. Jim and I are well aware of the is/ought gap, and we are concerned about the problems that arise when social scientists attempt to derive moral imperatives from generalizations about our nature.

    • Attlee Says:

      Unfortunately, any talk about a “neutral” approach to philosophy is at best utter nonsense, as Fish proves.

  4. Jesse Says:

    Well as far as purely cultural agencies go, chalk one up for religion in its recognition that the aesthetics of an argument, how it is presented, is as important as the content of the argument itself. In the age of “the medium is the message,” new Atheism is shooting itself in the foot and alienating itself from any formal inspection of Atheist arguments and their social implications if the current tact is maintained.

    You asked before how Atheists reify their opponents, and it just occurred to me that their most common analogy—Russell’s teapot—is the best demonstration. (That the analogy and its origination is so embedded in their line of thinking isn’t a good sign.) You take something as abstract as God, and you can only contradict it by hypostatizing it into some finite, narrowly-conceived thing. Philosophy has come a long way since Analytic/natural-language philosophers like Russell.

    You don’t seem to realize that the popular “default” argument is precisely the anti-foundational (and presumably nihilistic) ethos you lamented prior. Atheism is the truth-functional, absolute, universal, necessary statement that there is no God, we can know it is such and cannot be otherwise. But the “new” Atheist argument is that, in effect, your position is that you have no position, and are therefore exempt from being criticized because the primary attribute of your position is that it has no attributes. It’s absurdly circular. It’s like being subpoenaed for a murder trial and submitting as a plea that your plea is that you have no plea, and as such you cannot be scrutinized as if you having made a plea. Unfortunately, that kind of submission won’t pass in any court of law, and for very good reasons. Likewise, there are specific rules in place for ridiculous claims to exception by non-claim: “nihil dicit,” a judgment made in want of a plea.

    Or maybe this statement helps make it clear that you are engaging in the philosophical charlatanism that is so representative of “new” Atheism as a whole: “There is an enormous amount of data that shows a very strong correlation between education and lack of religious belief.” Blah, blah, blah. So correlation equals causality? I mean, what?

    But keep dancing. I admit it can be very entertaining.

    • Jim Says:

      “You take something as abstract as God, and you can only contradict it by hypostatizing it into some finite, narrowly-conceived thing.”
      Yet again, no one cares about God as an abstraction. As long as you don’t think God is an independently existing, objective entity, no atheist will say that God doesn’t exist. You purely abstract concept that only exists in your mind is fine. However, what you fail to understand is that that isn’t the god that most theists hold out as God. By suggesting that atheists care at all about the god you’re proposing, you are creating a straw man argument that no atheist makes.

      Atheism is absolutely not “the truth-functional, absolute, universal, necessary statement that there is no God, we can know it is such and cannot be otherwise.” Your continued insistence that it is won’t make it otherwise. This is a straw man position.

      The “new atheist” position is not a non-position. It is a position of disbelief. The position is that there is no good reason to believe in any of the gods described. This is not nihilistic. It is not circular. It is not like your pathetic caricature of a plea. It is the same as every other position that is a disbelief, just like the fact that I do not believe there is a cupcake under my couch. It is just the same thing. This is not a complicated issue. Your failure to understand something so simple suggests that your ignorance is willful.

      I never suggested that correlation equals causation. I was very clear in what I said. Whatever the cause, it turns out that intellectuals are more likely to be atheists than non-intellectuals. It was a response to your absurd, unfounded assertion that “nobody listens to the village Atheists. No one is impressed, least of all intellectuals.” Yet again, your failure to follow simple arguments suggests that your ignorance is willful.

      “But keep dancing. I admit it can be very entertaining.”
      This is what lets me know that you have no leg to stand on at all. I haven’t danced in any way. I’ve been explicit in my position and my criticism of your comments. You keep accusing me of the very failure of which you are guilty. It’s boring.

  5. Attlee Says:

    “There is nothing about scientific reasoning that relies on faith….It is just not the case that those relying on science are using faith in any way.”

    What a clown you are! “Scientific reasoning,” relies, every bit as much as theology, on “faith” insofar as scientists proceed with foundational presuppositions which they cannot further justify (non-circularly)—indeed, it is only after the “faith” based acceptance of foundational assumptions—for instance, the existence of the external world, the existence of a typical order in nature—that research is possible—without these assumptions, scientific enquiry would soon collapse.

    Any attempt to justify inductive inference, in whatever form, will inevitably run up against the wall that is Hume’s skeptical argument—there is simply no appeal to scientific knowledge that could, non-circularly, establish the legitimacy of such knowledge.

    Practice, as Jack (and Jesse) pointed out to you, is simply irrelevant to the merits of an argument—but you continue, all the same, to believe that my argument is worthless because I have somehow failed to “live up to the conviction” of my beliefs. This is known as the Tu Quoque fallacy—in which the person advocating a position is charged with acting in a manner that contradicts the position taken—of course, anyone but a clown would know that whether someone else is already acting in a manner counter to the argument at issue or whether someone else would act in such a manner if the opportunity arose has no bearing on whether the argument in question is cogent.

    • Jim Says:

      It turns out that a coward who refuses to acknowledge his mistake calling me a “clown” bothers me not at all. And I didn’t suggest in any way that it was your cowardice that was the root of your mistake, so your accusation of fallacious reason on my part is yet another mistake. You missed the point completely.
      Science isn’t foundationalist. It is coherentist, and it’s reasoning is abductive. The justification of the model used is complex, but the basics, as I have said here repeatedly, the explanatory power and predictive success of the theory being used. “Faith” in any meaningful sense is never a part of the story.
      But keep criticizing induction and foundationalism. It’s very clear you quite enjoy seeing your own words on the screen, even if they have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

      • Jack Angstreich Says:

        Coherentist epistemologies don’t escape the charge of circularity, unfortunately, since having a “best” explanation may still be a “wrong” explanation, as the history of the sciences repeatedly affirms. Abductive inferences still rely upon principles which cannot themselves be established without circular justifications.

        • Jim Says:

          As science doesn’t claim to provide absolute certainty, the fact that some explanation doesn’t give that is no charge against it.
          The justification for an abductive inference is the success that such an inference provides. What counts as success is admittedly a question of values. If you don’t value successfully navigating the world, then I’ll readily admit that science is of little use to you. Of course, it’s unlikely you’d be around long enough to have such a discussion.

          • Jesse Says:

            Sounds like the “open texture” problem of verifiability:


            In your view, because of the questions about the validity of a scientific metalanguage, how does science avoid either certain postmodern-relativist pitfalls or a radical pragmatism? How would a guy like Dennett position himself in this debate? I’m not baiting, I’m curious what positions can be argued and which contemporary philosophers might represent that sort of view (and hopefully philosophers of science rather than the overly-political field of legal philosophy/interpretation). Admittedly, it is a nuisance that our culture often makes a cargo-cult out of relativist positions, giving way to this anti-realist validation of fundamentally groundless ideas (Scientology for everyone!).

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            Unfortunately, your reply is an instance of the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy. Theists have little difficulty navigating the world — if this is the test of the validity of competing ontologies, it does nothing to establish the rational superiority of science over a logically coherent theism which assumes that empirical regularities are sustained only by God’s providence. Nor does this “test” establish the superiority of scientific naturalism over the radical skeptic, since the naturalist, to his surprise, may find that scientific generalizations suddenly and mysteriously fail and that his former ability to successfully navigate the world dissolves; past predictive success is no argument that this is not a possible outcome — or even that it is an unlikely outcome, since there is no known, objective, non-circular canon of probability which could establish its unlikelihood. Under such circumstances the skeptic will be vindicated. There is no possible Archimedean point where we can stand to objectively judge which among the three competing ontologies to which I have referred provides a “correct” account of the world — acceptance of one ontology over another is a mere act of “faith”. Evidentialist arguments for the “superiority” of scientific naturalism over religious belief are, thus, circular. “New atheist” attacks on the likes of Plantinga will only be able to succeed via logical arguments, not empirical ones, but the radical skeptic cannot be logically defeated by the scientific rationalist, as Hume correctly recognized.

          • Johnny 5 Says:

            I am no philosopher or scientist, but I disagree that “theists have little difficulty navigating the world”. From Geocentrism to the Inquisition, from Christian Science ‘healing’ to the biblical age of the Earth, theism provides answers to worldly questions that have turned out to be wrong. In some cases, very wrong. Science is no more than a method of observing and making assumptions on those observations. I don’t think you can even compare theism and science; it’s like comparing nationalism with cooking bacon. Even so, I don’t think Jim was saying that ‘successfully navigating the world’ is the litmus test for a valued position. He was being facetious, but you probably knew that. The bottom line is still intact: faith is belief without evidence. No one can dispute that. Science is making educated guesses based on evidence. I am an atheist because I see no reason (IE I have seen no evidence) to believe in a god, or invisible pink unicorns, or a flying spaghetti monster. Though the latter, notably, would be very good with some shredded Parmesan and a nice red wine. Or we could just get water, and your friend Jesus could walk on it, then turn it into wine? It’s cheaper, and we get a free show!

          • Liza Says:

            Theists have no difficulty navigating the world when they assume empirical regularities (i.e. when they act like atheists), but as soon as they start relying upon God’s providence as an intervening force they run into problems. Just try praying the next time you get a serious infection. God doesn’t work like antibiotics.

            I am curious about who you mean to describe when you mention the radical skeptic. If what you mean by the “radical skeptic” is a person who relies upon science but concedes the logical possibility that we may be entirely deceived about the world as it is, then Jim and I would both fall into that category. If you mean to suggest that you are a radical skeptic who believes empirical regularities are so dubious that you would not be surprised at all if the sun didn’t rise tomorrow, then I would venture a guess that you are lying- either to yourself or to all of us.

          • UK Says:

            Could you go into more explanation of what you think theists believe about prayer? Thanks.

          • Attlee Says:

            “The justification for an abductive inference is the success that such an inference provides.”

            This is using abduction to justify abduction, and thus results the very sort of vicious circularity that Hume argued against.

          • Liza Says:

            Attlee, a quick review via wikipedia: “Abductive reasoning is a method of reasoning in which one chooses the hypothesis that would, if true, best explain the relevant evidence. Abductive reasoning starts from a set of accepted facts and infers their most likely, or best, explanations.”

            We are not using abduction to justify abduction, we are using abduction to justify induction, and the criteria for this justification is non-circular. Here is why:
            First, let’s concede Hume’s point about the problem of inductive circularity (e.g. “my reason for for believing that events in the past will resemble events in the future is because, in the past, events in the past resembled events in the future”). Is my only reason to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow that it always has? No. My reason for believing that the sun will rise is that the uniformity of nature is the best EXPLANATION for why predictions based upon the uniformity of nature are so successful. Of course it may be the case that nature isn’t uniform, but the hypothesis that it is, if true, is the best explanation for why predictions based upon the uniformity of nature keep coming true.

            Now, at this point, you may want to introduce a rival hypothesis that, if true, would be an equally good or better explanation for predictive success than the actual uniformity of nature. I think the only way you can get one is if you entertain radical skepticism. Certainly, it is just as coherent an explanation of predictive success to say the appearance of predictive success is the result of manipulation by Descartes’ evil demon. There isn’t a way to overcome this, but this is not a special problem for scientific realism. This is a problem for any theory that posits the existence of an external world.

            If you have a rival explanation to explain predictive success without positing radical skepticism, I would like for you to elaborate upon it.

      • Attlee Says:

        And what, may I ask, is my “mistake”?

        A body of beliefs can be ever so “coherent” but it may nonetheless be utterly false. As Jack notes, coherentist treatments of epistemic chains turn out to be viciously circular—indeed, to avoid an infinite regress, a coherentist must, ultimately, accept circularity—”faith” is always part of the story since the only way to avoid an infinite regress (belief R is based upon P, P upon T, etc.), is to take belief R as an unjustified brute posit.

        • Liza Says:

          Your mistook abduction for induction. That was your mistake. [See above.]

          • Attlee Says:

            I don’t think I have—any empirical “justification” must use some method of inference—if it uses the very method it seeks to justify, then circularity threatens, so it is just as circular to try to justify induction abductively as more directly by standard inductive considerations. So long as the inference is from the observed to the unobserved, it does not matter how the inference was carried out—the inference cannot be justified—since any such justification will have to imply an empirical and general relation between the observed and unobserved, one which will itself be in need of justification just as much as the inference it sought to justify.

            Hume’s argument is quite general as to both the sort of inference we may wish to justify and the sort of justification we may try to employ to do the justifying, because whatever could do the job of justifying an inference from the observed to the unobserved must itself be an inference from the observed to the unobserved.

            Thus, inference to the “best explanation” or “abduction,” is not—contra your assertion—immune to Humean skepticism.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            Liza cites Wikipedia’s definition of abduction as against Attlee’s discussion of abductive inference as vulnerable to the same fundamental criticism as inductive inference. What Liza did not cite from Wikipedia is notable. On the Wikipedia page entitled “Abductive Reasoning”, one can find the following:

            Abduction allows inferring a as an explanation of b. Because of this, abduction allows the precondition a to be inferred from the consequence b. Deduction and abduction thus differ in the direction in which a rule like “a entails b” is used for inference. As such abduction is formally equivalent to the logical fallacy affirming the consequent or Post hoc ergo propter hoc, because there are multiple possible explanations for b.
            Unlike deduction and in some sense induction, abduction can produce results that are incorrect within its formal system. Hence the conclusions of abduction can only be made valid by separately checking them with a different method, either by deduction or exhaustive induction. However, it can still be useful as a heuristic, especially when something is known about the likelihood of different causes for b.

            If one clicks on the hyperlink for “affirming the consequent”, one finds the following explication:

            Affirming the consequent, sometimes called converse error, is a formal fallacy, committed by reasoning in the form:
            If P, then Q.
            Therefore, P.
            Arguments of this form are invalid, in that arguments of this form do not always give good reason to establish their conclusions, even if their premises are true.
            The name affirming the consequent derives from the premise Q, which affirms the “then” clause of the conditional premise.
            One way to demonstrate the invalidity of this argument form is with a counterexample with true premises but an obviously false conclusion. For example:
            If Bill Gates owns Fort Knox, then he is rich.
            Bill Gates is rich.
            Therefore, Bill Gates owns Fort Knox.
            Arguments of the same form can sometimes seem superficially convincing, as in the following example:
            If I have the flu, then I have a sore throat.
            I have a sore throat.
            Therefore, I have the flu.
            But many illnesses cause sore throat, such as the common cold or strep throat.

            Scrolling further down, one finds the following further discussion of abductive inference:

            Although affirming the consequent is an invalid inference, it is defended by some as a type of inductive reasoning, sometimes under the name “inference to the best explanation”. That is, in some cases, reasoners argue that the antecedent is the best explanation, given the truth of the consequent. For example, someone considering the results of a scientific experiment may reason in the following way:
            Theory P predicts that we will observe Q.
            Experimental observation shows Q.
            Therefore theory P is true.
            However, such reasoning is still affirming the consequent and still logically weak. (Let, e.g., P = geocentrism and Q = sunrise and sunset.) The strength of such reasoning as an inductive inference depends on the likelihood of alternative hypotheses, which shows that such reasoning is based on additional premises, not merely on affirming the consequent.

            Wikipedia, then, describes abduction as a formal fallacy several times. Wikipedia says, “the conclusions of abduction can only be made valid by separately checking them with a different method, either by deduction or exhaustive induction”; what non-circular deductions are available to scientific evidentialism which can provide the necessary confirmations for abductive inferences establishing naturalism’s superiority to theistic ontologies? What resources does scientific evidentialism have to perform the “exhaustive inductions” which can provide the necessary confirmations for abductive inferences? How does the probability calculus for such an induction escape the charge of circularity?
            Wikipedia also goes on to refer twice to abduction “as a type of inductive reasoning” and then comments that “such reasoning” is “logically weak”. Wikipedia then says that “the strength of such reasoning as an inductive inference depends on the likelihood of alternative hypotheses, which shows that such reasoning is based on additional premises”; what non-circular probability calculus establishes the likelihood of these “alternative hypotheses”? And what non-circular justifications establish these “additional premises” which underlie whatever validity abductive reasoning can possess?

          • Jim Says:

            Jack, I’ll say this once more, and then there I’m going to let it go. Science does not claim to grant one absolute certainty. It doesn’t claim logical necessity. It readily admits that it can produce error. That said, to suggest that there is no good reason to believe its conclusions or that it is a process reliant upon mere faith is ridiculous. The extensive predictions produced provide a way of checking the results of the reasoning by way of direct observation. If one wants to complain that absolute certainty is not obtained that way, again, there was no claim to the contrary. However, it is not mere habit that gives one that impression, either. It is the reliance upon a model that produces verifiable results that grants one the justification for buying into that model. Do I need to say that it doesn’t produce absolute certainty again? That said, it is not in any way the same thing as a method that does not produce true predictions. That’s where Fish is wrong. He isn’t wrong because science produces conclusions that are true by way of necessity (I’ve said this so many times that it’s hard to believe you or Attlee bother to read what is written as you keep pounding your fists on this point). He is wrong because the alternative systems he might suggest as comparable to science do not produce the goods. We don’t fly, make deserts bloom, heal the sick and disabled, or any of the other things magic is supposed to provide, but we do, in fact, do all of these things with science. You know this as you are using a tool built on something far more complex and counter-intuitive than any magic ever conceived: quantum mechanical theory. And you expect your computer to continue working. And if it didn’t work, your first suspicion would not be that q.m. failed, or that uniformity of nature doesn’t hold, or that God forgot to Will the screen to come on. It is intellectually dishonest, and a kind of intellectual betrayal, to enjoy all the fruits of scientific endeavor while claiming that those providing those fruits are engaged in the process for no good reason, that they are wholly unjustified in believing that the work they are doing, the work from which you benefit, is not a waste of time, and that it is the same as believing in magic. I’m willing to bet that your house isn’t filled with magical items on which spells of various belief systems were cast so that you can benefit from whatever function they are supposed to provide, and neither is Fish’s. That’s because you are all too aware of the fact that those magic doesn’t produce the goods. And yet, you, Attlee, and Fish are all too happy to attack the system that provides you all benefits it does, to claim that those working in the process are irrational, and to suggest that the process is equal to nonsense. It’s disgusting. Of course, because your buddy Attlee can’t understand this, and you seem to share some of the same qualities, this is not the source of the problem. But it is a relevant side-issue that I cannot help but address.
            I’ll say this once more to make it clear: the results of scientific enquiry are not logically necessary; the scientific enterprise does not produce absolute certainty; science has no answer for the radical skeptic who is concerned that she is fooled by an evil demon, is a brain in a vat, or is trapped in the matrix. However, none of that means that there is not very good reason to believe the conclusions generated by the scientific process. The radical successes of that process are the grounding of that reason. Nothing in our history has even come close. IT IS PATENTLY ABSURD TO CHALK ALL THAT SUCCESS UP TO MERE COINCIDENCE! It is absurd to think that it is mere coincidence that engines continue to run as expected AND FAIL AS EXPECTED, that televisions not only keep coming on when power buttons are pressed, and that when such doesn’t occur we know where to look to find the source of the failure, and all the other things about which you are all too aware. To suggest that that level systematic success could be coincidence is close to madness. THAT is irrational. THAT is something for which there is not good reason to believe.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            Science readily admits it produces error; it does not deliver absolute certainties. Why, then, believe something we cannot know to be true? An intellectually honest enquirer would conclude from this fact that the only credible position is one of agnosticism about the truth of scientific propositions; similarly, intellectual honesty demands that we be agnostic about the truth of theistic propositions, if they are self-consistent. Instead, you and Liza encourage us to believe things which cannot be known for certain and castigate us for defending the argument that one not necessarily believe things which cannot be known for certain but only be accepted on “faith”. Again, since you cannot know scientific propositions to be true, assuming they are true is an act of “faith”; in this respect, belief in science is no different from religious “faith”. Yet, you insist that science is not a “faith” but you have produced no argument that one can accept the propositions of science on any grounds other than “faith”. So, what you and Liza are encouraging is intellectual dishonesty, i.e., believing things on “faith”. Indeed, you are encouraging us to accept the logical fallacies of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” and “affirming the consequent” as valid modes of argumentation; and yet, you call us “absurd” when your own position is an attack on basic logical principles, i.e., affirming fallacious modes of argument as sound logic. “Absurdity” applies to unsound arguments, not sound ones; neither you nor Liza have been able to demonstrate any logical error in any of Attlee’s or my own reasonings yet your own position is an apologia for accepting the conclusions delivered by logical fallacies — indeed, it is more than apologia, it is the centerpiece of whole campaign of defamation since your aggressive implication is that only a moron would reject the conclusions of logically invalid arguments. This is clearly a diabolical inversion of the methodological canons of philosophy. So, who is really being “absurd” here?

            “Direct observation” cannot “check” abductive inferences because all observation is theory-laden and, thus, there is nothing “direct” about any observation — this is merely elementary philosophy of science and yet you castigate us for being ignorant of the history of philosophy where you capitulate to the crude positivism which was discredited decades ago. The fact that all observation is theory-laden is precisely why science cannot escape the hermeneutic circle and I add that no one has ever produced an argument refuting this fact. Again, all dominant scientific theories which were later overturned were “verified” by empirical observations until they were falsified by new, disconfirming observations; thus, “verification” is a chimaera since false theories have repeatedly been “verified”. To conclude from the history of science that we “should” accept the deliverances of the scientific method because they are “verified” by empirical testing is to demonstrate either a profound ignorance of the history of scientific theories or a willfully perverse desire to defend irrationalism. We have no way of knowing if our empirical “confirmations” are in any way reliable since past predictive success is no guarantor of future predictive success. I repeat, we cannot occupy any Archimedean point where we can compare our theories with the world as it is in-itself; thus, why do we believe that past predictive success is a reliable guide to future actions? Clearly, you can produce no deductive argument that past predictive success will guarantee future success. Our belief in the reliability of past predictive success as a guarantor of future actions is a mere hope, i.e., a “faith”. Using abductive inferences as a method for justifying scientific models is merely using logical fallacies as justifiers; when we believe conclusions that are delivered to us on the basis of fallacious reasoning, we are believing these conclusions on the basis of “faith” — there is no other word for this mode of justification. Thus, Fish’s conclusions have been entirely vindicated and I eagerly await either Liza’s admission that she was mistaken to impugn him or, alternatively, more intellectual mendacity and insults from the two of you; which is it going to be? Or maybe the two of you will just retreat into a convenient silence hoping that others who read this blog will think Attlee and I are just fanatics.

            Again, neither of you can produce any deductive argument that scientific successes are to be explained as mere coincidences rather than vindications of any scientific models. Given that you possess no deductive argument that scientific successes are not best explained as coincidences, you do not know that they are not coincidences. Not knowing that they are not coincidences, intellectual honesty demands that you be agnostic as to whether they are coincidences or not. The only logically “absurd position”, then, is the one which believes that fallacious reasoning can deliver one from agnosticism and pretend that one is not subscribing to a “faith”. Given that science is a “faith”, one may accept the deliverances of the scientific method on “faith” and proceed in one’s reliance upon the scientific method just as one did before — and just as theists proceed in their reliance upon the deliverances of religious “faith” until they encounter a defeater — except with one crucial difference: that scientific naturalism is forever deprived of the claim that science is not, at bottom, a “faith” and that evidentialist arguments against theism no longer have any standing when directed against theisms which employ different evidential canons from that of scientific naturalism. So, again, the claim that it is “absurd” to defend the possibility that scientific successes are attributable to mere coincidence is only an assertion, and an assertion is not a substitute for an argument. If you don’t have an argument, there is no reason to insult either Attlee or me. You will note that in no previous post have I insulted either you or Liza yet you have had the temerity to insult me for merely preferring logic to logical fallacies. In my experience, I have noted that the insults generally surface when good arguments cannot be found; from these observations, I abductively infer that the best explanation for your insults is that you have run out of good arguments — something which you have more or less conceded — but, again, insults are not a substitute for arguments.

          • Jim Says:

            My “insults” have not been from a lack of argument but from a genuine disgust at the cowardice that was readily admitted and the lies that the two of you have told. Even now you continue to lie. You say that any confidence in scientific conclusions is merely a matter of faith, and yet you rely on those rather than other faith-based conclusions. If you are genuine in your position, I want to see you pray your way to your next post. After all, using the products of science requires faith, and relying on prayer requires faith. As faith is believing something without good reason, there is no way to privilege one faith-based position over another. As such, there is no reason to use science rather than prayer to get your post up, your car started, or you disease treated. As this is the case, I challenge you to rely on some other faith-based position rather than those of the scientific enterprise. Should you refuse to do so (as I am certain you will), the only conclusion I will be able to draw is that you believe that those methods derived from science are better than others. Clearly, then, you cannot believe that science is merely faith-based since, as I have pointed out, there is no reason for privileging one faith-based position over another. Your privileging of the science-based position, then, cannot be the result of believing that the results can only be believed by faith or is merely a series of remarkable coincidences. THAT is why I have claimed you were a liar. Rather than being because I had no argument, I brought such to the forefront as a way of demonstrating that you yourself don’t buy into your own arguments.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            I challenge you to show anywhere where I have said that I do not have “faith” in science; in fact, I have said nothing about my personal beliefs here. But, in fact, my personal beliefs are irrelevant to the soundness of the arguments I have presented, none of which have been refuted by either you or Liza. My argument is merely that science is a “faith” — whether I possess this “faith” in science or not — and it is this, and only this, which is the question at issue here and it is precisely this issue that you and Liza continue to refuse to confront. So, let us leave aside ad hominems and tu quoques — as well as all the other logical fallacies you and Liza have continued to perpetrate — and I ask you — and especially Liza — to confront the argument itself. You are correct that there is no non-circular way to privilege one logically self-consistent faith-based conclusion over another and this fact is a basic tenet of Quinean coherentism as well as any form of anti-foundationalism — deploring this fact does not render it any less true, nor does deploring it refute the position. However, “faith” most emphatically does not mean believing anything without a “good” reason since, if it did mean this, this would beg the question of what counts as a “good” reason, and it is why something counts as a “good” reason which is precisely the question at issue here; “faith” refers to belief in something of which one cannot be certain and, thus, both science and religion are “faiths” since both modes of understanding require beliefs which cannot be justified without recourse to circularity — this is an argument Attlee and I have present innumerable times and there should, thus, be no necessity to repeat it. The only cowardice observable here, then, is that of you and Liza since you both appear to be terrified of having to admit that you cannot confront the arguments Attlee and I have presented without recourse to “ad hominems” and “tu quoques”; if either of you were not cowards, you would address the arguments themselves rather than take refuge in fallacious digressions.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            The portion of the sentence above should read: “this is an argument Attlee and I have presented innumerable times and there should, thus, be no necessity to repeat it.”

          • Jim Says:

            You’re wrong about what faith is. Faith has almost always been considered “belief without evidence” by all sides. The strange contemporary movement by a small group of Christian apologists to change how faith is defined is ill-motivated, and, if successful, would leave completely vacant the traditional position of faith, which, of course, is the position under discussion whether you understand that or not. The reason is clear, and it is the same one I articulated earlier and to which you assented: there is no way to privilege one faith over another. If you take all positions which do not provide absolute certainty as relying on faith, then there is no reason to choose science over Voo-doo. However, as you have now indicated, explicitly contra Attlee, you do, in fact, choose scientific explanations over other explanations. But you have offered no reason for your doing so, and, if both are positions of mere faith, there is no reason in principle that you can offer. As such, it would be just as legitimate for you to pray your way to the witchdoctor to get a spell to heal your mother. But that isn’t what you do. So, the question is “why not?” It isn’t merely because you’ve chosen a different faith. It’s because choosing the non-scientific route doesn’t work. You have evidence that one position works and one doesn’t. One has predictive success based upon its deep explanatory power, and the other’s explanation is “Poof!” In short, one provides good reason for believing in its veracity while the other is a matter of faith. Again, if you continue to insist otherwise, as you agree that there is no reason to privilege one faith over another, I challenge you to use some other position of faith to navigate the world. If you are unwilling to do so, then I submit that it is just not true that you think all positions are equal when they do not provide absolute certainty, and your continued privileging of the results of the scientific method over all others is my evidence for saying just that.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            Adding tendentious rewritings of the history of philosophy to “argumenta ad hominem”, “tu quoque” arguments, “ad verecundiam” appeals, “petitiones principii”, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacies, and “affirmations of the consequent” to your armoury of evasions will not succeed in refuting the fundamental challenge we have posed. Obviously, theists have evidence for their religious beliefs — this is the evidence of religious experience itself. However, such evidence does not satisfy the demands of scientific rationality; the question is, then, what authority grounds the scientific claim that the evidence of religious experience must be deemed inadequate — or to not even count as “evidence” at all, in your prejudicial formulation? Obviously, this authority cannot be foundationally justified without recourse to circularity. If you had read carefully what I wrote, you would have understood that I nowhere said “there is no reason to choose science over voodoo”; what I, in fact, wrote was “there is no non-circular way to privilege one logically self-consistent faith-based conclusion over another”. To quote you, “there’s that not reading thing again”. (We can now add straw-man arguments to your crimes against reason.) Obviously, there is no lack of “reasons” to select one worldview over another: preference or intuition, for example. But justifications for one’s selection will be inescapably circular; thus, the atheist can present no non-circular argument to the self-consistent theist that the latter’s worldview-preference is illegitimate.

            Again, I have nowhere indicated here that I share your “faith” in science. (“There’s that not reading thing again”.) I have been explicit that the issue is irrelevant, a “tu quoque” evasion and, therefore, have declined to affirm any substantive thesis about the nature of the world and have restricted my contributions here to the analysis of arguments. However, if I did — or do — accept scientific assumptions, my defense of such a belief can only be faith, will, preference, intuition, etc., i.e., faith in abduction (i.e., faith in conclusions derived from a fallacious mode of inference). It is not a logically satisfactory answer to defend one’s faith in the conclusions derived from a fallacious mode of inference by reference to its predictive success in the past because then the natural question will be: what justifies the belief that the future shall resemble the past? Appealing to a further claim that it has always done so, in one’s experience, only elicits the corollary question as to what justifies the belief that because the future has always resembled the past before, it will always do so in the future. Obviously, one has generated an infinite regress which can only be arrested by the arbitrary institution of a brute posit — and this brute posit, this “properly basic” belief, i.e., the thesis of the uniformity of nature, can only be affirmed by an act of “faith”. The thesis of the uniformity of nature cannot be logically established, as Hume proved; it can only be affirmed as a brute posit.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            Sorry, the first sentence of the last post was wrongly worded. It should read:

            “Adding tendentious rewritings of the history of philosophy to your armoury of evasions — which now include: “argumenta ad hominem”, “tu quoque” arguments, “ad verecundiam” appeals, “petitiones principii”, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacies, and “affirmations of the consequent” — will not succeed in refuting the fundamental challenge Attlee and I have posed.”

          • UK Says:

            In your opinion, when did the contemporary movement to redefine faith begin and who are these apologists? Thanks

          • Jim Says:

            The apologists are numerous, but the basic idea is to remake faith into something that includes science along with any inquiry that reaches conclusions that are not absolutely certain (read all conclusions). This is certainly not the faith of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or even C.S. Lewis. I am not sure when it started, but it is fairly recent, and I am inclined to think it is a response to what is considered to be a new “attack” on Christianity by science.

          • UK Says:

            It has been a long time since I’ve read anything by Aquinas but didn’t he believe philosophical or scientific objections to faith could and should be answered on their own terms.

            If this is too off topic then I’m sorry.

  6. Attlee Says:

    Jim wrote that “Faith is believing without evidence or good reason, and that is not science at all.”

    Again, what legitimately counts as “evidence” or a “good reason,” as Fish explains, is a wholly contentious matter, and is always only relative to canons of evidence which themselves require further warrant and this process entails an infinite regress.

    There is no such thing as science without any presuppositions—on what grounds, then, (if not on faith-based grounds) do we yield these presuppositions our assent? What do you think the basis of science consists of if not the indispensable assumption of unproved hypotheses, and of faith-based assent to principles, tenets, and theories? What is the “uniformity of nature,” for example, but a sublime assumption? and what is this assumption grounded upon, if not intuition, if not “faith”?

  7. Johnny 5 Says:

    “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.” ~Bertrand Russell

  8. Attlee Says:

    “Faith,” Jim says, is “belief without evidence” but it is impossible to talk about “evidence” at all without begging the question—what counts as “evidence”? Jim has thus defined “faith” the way the so-called “New Atheists” define it, and then he reduces the meaning of “evidence” to what is available to science, but exactly what are the non-circular, non-question begging grounds that could provide “evidence” for the hypothesis that the “non-scientific route doesn’t work” and that in order for knowledge to “work” it must be based upon the paradigm of scientific enquiry, and the “results of the scientific method”? “Evidence” in science only comes into view in the light of some first premise or presupposition that cannot itself be put to the test (i.e., established by “evidence”)—given such a starting point, and the methodology that follows from it, and given the assumption of the material world that caused itself, “evolution,” for example, is as faith-dependent an “explanation” as any other. The history of science is a record of controversies about what counts as “evidence”—so faith cannot be defined in terms of “evidence”—try again.

    • Jim Says:

      The history of science is not about “what counts as evidence.” You clearly don’t know much about the history of science. Evidence is primarily predictions being shown to be true.
      As you believe all methods rely on faith, and as all faith is equal, please do me the favor of using some non-scientific method to communicate any further responses. I will take any further posts done by using the tools produced by the scientific enterprise as acknowledgment that you privilege science over other methods. As there is no reason to privilege one faith over another, it is clear that such privileging can only indicate that you don’t believe that scientific method is a matter of faith. Hence, using tools produced by science will indicate that it is not mere faith that leads you to use them, thus demonstrating a direct contradiction to your claimed position.

      • Jack Angstreich Says:

        In fact, disputes about what can legitimately be considered evidence in support of a scientific theory are not unfamiliar to the history of scientific controversy. Just over the past 140 years, for example, there has been enormous methodological disagreement among scientists over what evidence could confirm the hypotheses originating from such domains as psychoanalysis, the labor theory of value, neoclassical economics, evolutionary psychology, and string theory.

  9. Jack Angstreich Says:

    Given the failure of the owners of this blog to appreciate the cogency of the arguments of Stanley Fish, I thought the readers of this blog — who seem to now be two in number — would be interested in the opportunity to obtain an accurate appraisal of Fish’s contentions on the issues of religion and evidence; for the edification of the readers — and, also one hopes, the authors — I post below links to the relevant columns by Fish on religious belief and on anti-foundationalism:

  10. A.E.Y.Z. Says:

    Sorry, we are reposting because we left out the first two paragraphs. Feel free to remove the other post.

    Let us start by pointing out that we are not professional philosophers, and partly for that reason and partly (and primarily) for reasons of clarity prefer not to rely on arguments that simply cite a source, i.e., a name, for a position without explicating the actual argument. We would also prefer any responses to be in that same form. To quote Liza, talk to us “as though you were speaking to a very bright 12 year-old.” Explain everything.

    One more thought in the way of preamble: we are not assuming that you don’t agree with the following points, although you may disagree with some of them. We want to make these points in order to get a better handle on where exactly the disagreement lies, as well as, hopefully, introduce some ideas that we haven’t seen reflected fully or directly in this discussion thus far.


    1. We personally believe that science is more useful than religion, don’t believe in God or practice any religion.

    2. We, like you, would like to have a way of proving that our beliefs are correct/better.

    3. We are not aware of any argument that has been verbalized, either in this discussion or elsewhere, which is sufficient in doing so.
    That is to say, there may be arguments that may be persuasive to some people, but ultimately, at bottom, these will reflect value judgments of one sort or another.

    4. To clarify, there are logical or other kinds of doctrinal inconsistencies in most actual religions that can be used to argue against them, but that is not what is at issue here. For example, there are logical issues concerning religion’s reliance on the notion of “free will,” which is a totally incoherent concept. Another example — which Jack has noted in another discussion — is the contradiction between the orthodox theological notions that God is omnipotent, omniscient (including possessing total foreknowledge), omnibeneficent and the creator of all things and that, nonetheless, positive evil exists. A less purely logical inconsistency may be found in the fact that many Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists believe that the first five books of the Old Testament were literally handed to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. As you may know, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that this is, at best, historically unlikely, since all kinds of linguistic and textual analyses suggest that these books were written by numerous authors operating during distinct historical periods. A religious person may, of course, argue that all of this may reflect false leads implanted into the text by God to mislead those inclined to doubt and to have faith in empirical sciences, and at that point, we won’t have much to say in response (other than the standard response of “well, okay, there’s no point in continuing this conversation, because you can say that about anything”), but our argument, if fully explicated, with underlying evidence, to a religious person may succeed in convincing most, as it, indeed, has done within many less fundamentalist Judeo-Christian congregations, who have, in consequence, abandoned the belief that the first five books of the Old Testament were handed to Moses on Sinai and have substituted for this a belief that these books were simply divinely inspired or some version of that. As you see, in other words, arguments of this form can succeed in being persuasive, but ultimately, the religious person must still accept some common premises for such arguments to succeed.

    5. If someone said that science is useful but personal revelation
    more so, we would not have a deductive way of showing them that they are wrong. For all the seemingly useful advances science has given us, for all the accurate predictions science has made, if someone wants to argue — going further in the direction charted by Eagleton, as cited by Fish — that progress, and scientific progress, has been a bane to civilization, has opened Pandora’s Box and led us away from some Edenic state, etc., we would certainly be able to muster arguments to the contrary, but we would not succeed in ultimately convincing someone who espoused drastically different values. Our best approach to the religious person might be to ask, “Okay, what do you value?”, whereupon the religious person might say, for instance, “I value living in harmony with nature,” and then we might try to explain how science is not in conflict with that goal, or we might ask, “Do you value a life free of physical pain?”, and if the religious person says they do, we can try to explain how science has furthered that goal, but, again, if the religious person contends, in response, that following God’s commands is the ultimate way to avoid even greater pain, there’s not much we can say. Or if the religious person says, “I value living in a world unchanged from what God has given us, with all the limitations he has deliberately imposed on us, because there is divine purpose in what he has done,” we can try to push back by asking questions like, “Well, how do you know that God wouldn’t have wanted us to do the most we can given our limitations, which involves progress and science…?”, but, in the end, the religious person can get out of anything we say by simply appealing to different values from the ones we may share.

    6. The theist does not have to reject science but merely assume
    that sometimes there is a conflicting authority that might trump science. The theist can be fully on board with the scientific method and believe that science has given us much that is great and useful, but they can also believe that there are circumstances where religion must take precedence, and it seems that the most we can do here is to try to push them on why they adopt an empirical approach to the world on some questions but a non-empirical approach with respect to others.
    But it is easy to imagine some generally coherent religious response to this query, even if we may disagree with it.

    7. Given no deductive evidence, we are left having to show that
    because someone relies on science, they shouldn’t rely on / it is wrong to rely on / it is less productive to rely on / [insert other possibility x here] other forms of “evidence” such as personal revelation. What x should be in the above statement is at the heart of this debate. Unfortunately, any x, at least any that we have thus far seen or can think of, is still ultimately value-based and might be persuasive to some people but will not be persuasive to all religious people who are rational. As a further illustration, if Moses hears voices that inform him that square-triangles exist and Moses trusts logic over everything else, we can convince Moses through logic that square-triangle can’t exist. In contrast, If Moses hears voices that tell him that in a certain case he should ignore empirical evidence, we have no way of proving to him that he is wrong to trust the voice.
    We can try to persuade him through arguments that might change his intuition, but it will come down to his beliefs as to what is a greater form of evidence.

    8. We have gotten at this point above, but just to be clear,
    arguments as to the progress science has made in comparison to the progress that religion has made assume a shared set of goals. The theists can easily argue that our goals of our material existence are insignificant compared to the goals of religion and that science might bring us closer to our destruction.

    9. If no argument is currently sufficient, suggesting that one
    exists probably does not further the cause and might even hinder it.
    The New Atheists, or whatever we might want to call them, have overplayed their hand in many ways, and we believe that this is what is partly responsible for the backlash against them. In some ways, they’ve made atheism look bad. (It’s possible they have also done much good at getting atheists to feel more comfortable expressing themselves in public life, and we don’t really have a strong position one way or the other about whether, on balance, they’ve done more harm than good or vice versa.) For instance, we were at a debate between Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza where Hitchens was making all sorts of arguments about how much science has accomplished versus how horrible religion has been, historically (Jack was also at this debate). One of the arguments went sort of like this (this is from memory, and we’re condensing a lot, but this was the gist of it):

    HITCHENS: Look at all the horrors that have been perpetrated over the course of history by religion: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, 9/11, etc., etc.
    D’SOUZA: If you take just the 20th century standing alone and the body count of secular regimes — Hiter’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, etc. — these will easily dwarf all of the horrors perpetrated in all of history in the name of religion put together. How many people died during the Salem Witch Trials?
    About 20?
    HITCHENS: The Nazis were not anti-religious, and I would argue that the 20th century communist regimes were closer to religious than secular in their basic ideologies because they embraced a sweeping, all-encompassing faith in a certain system to transform humanity, treated their leaders almost like Gods, etc. None of these horrors that you describe were perpetrated by secular humanist governments.
    D’SOUZA: Oh, I see, so religion is responsible for its most extreme incarnations, as in the terrorists of 9/11, but atheism has no responsibility for its extreme incarnations, communist regimes that had an explicit, enforced atheist ideology among their most important tenets? That’s pure hypocrisy. Now suddenly secular humanism is the only kind of government we’re allowed to count on the side of atheism?

    We believe D’Souza had the better of that point, as well as of many others, precisely because Hitchens was overstating his case (to be clear, this is not really a point about Hitchens, who may not represent all the “New Atheists” fully; it’s more about the general danger of overstating the atheist case). There are careful, well-thought-out points that atheists and secularists can make to try to convince religious people, but doing what Hitchens did would, we believe, only get an audience composed of undecided — and, certainly, of religious — listeners to come to believe that religion has the better arguments on its side — or, at best, that secularism/atheism is as controversial and deeply value-driven in its claims and its offerings to society as religious doctrines might be.

    10. There are many arguments we can make which, while not persuasive to all, are, at least, suggestive of something that can seed doubts in some. We can say, for instance, that the scientific approach to the world aspires to be empirical, which is to say that it aims to look for input from empirical data and often refines and revises its theories over time, sometimes radically, partially in response to such empirical input, the result of which process has been, historically speaking, an ability to make more and more accurate predictions about a broader and broader range of matters. Faith-based approaches to the world, meanwhile, are not driven empirically, at least not primarily; rather, they are driven by revelation of one sort or another and, therefore, have, historically, not changed nearly as much in response to any empirical input; moreover, insofar as they have changed, those changes have often been dictated by societal/scientific advances rather than anything internal to religion. For instance, the fact that many Judeo-Christians now believe that the Adam-and-Eve story is a spiritual history, not a literal history, of the creation of the world is probably, in large part, a response to scientific progress in areas of biology, chemistry, evolution, cosmology, anthropology, etc., and if we had checked during the Middle Ages, before these scientific advances were made, the vast majority of Judeo-Christians would still have believed the Adam-and-Eve story literally. This, we can say, is a partial acknowledgment that religious texts used to be a dominant approach to understanding how the world was created and how its history unfolded, later became an approach that competed with science and now is, in many religious circles, an approach that is said to occupy a different sphere (i.e., “religious addresses different kinds of questions”). The very fact that science has been, thus far, progressive in coming to define more and more of our ideas about who we are while religion has been regressive or degenerative in the same respect might prove persuasive to some people but, again, it requires faith in induction, and who is to say that God will not reveal Himself tomorrow and show us all that the true nature of the universe is precisely as described in Genesis, while our scientific conceptions all relied on a certain erroneous and hubristic faith in our very limited capacities to apprehend reality, etc.? Ye should have known better, Scientists, and thus, now shall suffer the fire and brimstone in the deepest circle of Hell.

    11. All of this is not to say that arguments against religion shouldn’t be made. We believe they should be made. But we also believe that it is better to make those arguments with a full understanding of their limitations, which will ultimately bolster the persuasiveness of any such arguments, since they will lack the kinds of vulnerabilities displayed, for instance, by Hitchens’ point as described above. Moreover, we do not believe that the limitations we have identified above are reason to despair. Most or many religious people are probably unwilling to go so far as to disavow many of the fundamental secular values which they might have to disavow in order to be able to espouse a different set of values that could rationally ground their beliefs. In other words, there are not many religious people who are going to say, “well, but that relies on induction, and I don’t believe in induction” or “yeah, science has made a lot of progress in relieving physical pain, but that’s not significant to me,” or something of that sort. Some significant proportion of religious people probably are also unwilling to entertain beliefs that they know are contradicted by empirical evidence. For instance, if religious people truly didn’t care about the evidence in favor of evolution, they wouldn’t be struggling so hard to come up with ‘scientistic’ counter-models such as creation science or intelligent design or whatever incarnation it’s now assumed. The fact that they are going to such lengths means that, in many respects, they’re willing to engage us on our terms because they DO share many of our values and would readily agree to many of the admittedly unprovable assumptions that ground secularist/atheist/scientific beliefs. This is not to suggest that there aren’t strong social and psychological forces that pull them the other way — which is why they are willing to go to such lengths to ignore, misconstrue and deny evidence that supports propositions that threaten their religious world views — but it is still a reason to believe that there exists common ground sufficient to make progress, which is precisely what has happened over the course of many centuries.

    • Liza Says:

      Yaniv and Alex,
      Thank you for your explicit and extensive explanation. Though it may be hard to infer this from the back-and-forth with Jack, Jim and I both share your worries about how to defend science against against competing, debatably-coherent, theological systems, and we do not take it for granted that science gives us the Truth about the world as it is. We generally agree with most of your positions, actually. But, you want to get a handle on where the disagreement lies, and so I will do my best to identify the source.

      In point 3, you say “there may be arguments that may be persuasive to some people, but ultimately, at bottom, these will reflect value judgments of one sort or another.” Jim acknowledged this point during the debate about abduction vs. induction, but perhaps that was ignored in the shuffle. We readily acknowledge that science does not prove anything about the empirical world. That is to say, we have no way of proving that nature is uniform, that our descriptions of theoretical entities are accurate, that we are not brains in vats, etc. The charges that Jim levels against the theist (or the pretend-theist) are incoherence and hypocrisy, the latter clearly being a value judgment.

      The incoherence charge applies to theists who use induction and, ultimately, abduction (albeit a very flawed version of abduction), just as the atheist does, but they take the postulate of the uniformity of nature for granted in order to make their case that there is evidence for the supernatural. This is not mere circularity, it leads to a contradiction because the theist must assume A (nature is uniform- every physical event is necessarily caused by a prior physical event) to make the case for ~A (nature is not uniform- some physical event is necessarily caused by a prior non-physical (supernatural) event). Perhaps Jack wanted to make the case that there are coherent theistic views that do not lead to this kind of contradiction, but while he asserted that they exist, he didn’t spell out what one would look like. You seem to suggest in point 6 that this position is easy to imagine, but I find it difficult. I can imagine that a theistic view that rejects experience entirely would be coherent, but I can’t imagine that anyone would hold it. The theist cannot deny the uniformity of nature and at the same time count some experience (even personal revelation) as evidence of something because evidence only has persuasive force if you take nature to be uniform.

      I hope this clarifies our position for you.

      On a side note, I enjoyed your anecdote about the Hitchens/D’Souza debate. I had a similar conversation with my father last Sunday where he rightly observed that atheistic ideologies can be used to back oppressive regimes just as effectively as theistic ones. I do not think this says much about religion or atheism, it’s just a footnote to that old adage about the way that power corrupts.

  11. A.E.Y.Z. Says:

    Hi, Liza.

    As we said in our original post, we did not assume that you and Jim necessarily disagreed with what we wrote, and we are happy to see that it looks like we agree on most of it. We figured there was a good chance that certain areas of contention were getting amplified and polarized in the prior discussion, while points of agreement were being missed, and that’s precisely why we wanted to post something.

    With that said, let’s focus on the one area where, it seems, we do have a slightly different position and see if we can arrive at a common understanding. You wrote the following:

    1. “The incoherence charge applies to theists who use induction and, ultimately, abduction (albeit a very flawed version of abduction), just as the atheist does, but they take the postulate of the uniformity of nature for granted in order to make their case that there is evidence for the supernatural.”

    We can imagine forms of the theist position that have contradictions and forms that do not. Most of the contradictions we can imagine would actually be WITHIN, i.e., internal to, theological doctrines (e.g., about the definition or nature of God), rather than BETWEEN theological doctrines and non-theological beliefs about the world.
    Yes, there might be a contradiction between a belief that there is 100% uniformity in nature and that the supernatural exists, but that is not a view that theists need to hold. One can, for example, believe that there is generally uniformity in nature but that such uniformity is just some manifestation of the mind of God, and He, of course, can make exceptions. Such a view would allow you to say that you shouldn’t jump in front of a train unless God tells you to. Do you see this as a view that’s inherently contradictory or hypocritical?

    2. You wrote:
    “The theist cannot deny the uniformity of nature and at the same time count some experience (even personal revelation) as evidence of something because evidence only has persuasive force if you take nature to be uniform.”

    From our standpoint, this really comes down to how you define “evidence.” There is no a priori definition of the term. Evidence can be defined, simply, as whatever form of support for a position is held to be compelling. The definition supports such a broad notion. There evidence is defined as:

    1. that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.
    2. something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign: His flushed look was visible evidence of his fever.

    What people who have our position (meaning both your position and ours) would WANT to argue is that certain forms of evidence are superior to others.
    Unfortunately, that’s only possible when the forms of evidence are directly commensurable, which is not usually the case as between the theist and the atheist. We’re back to the point that this is a question of contested values.

    The theist could, for instance, say something of this sort (this being one variation that might help you imagine others): “Nature is generally ‘uniform,’ in your sense of that word (‘every physical event is necessarily caused by a prior physical event’), but there may be cases where nature is non-uniform and a supernatural agent intervenes.
    My evidence for that position is that I have personally been visited by God, and he has spoken to me and told me so himself, and I know that my interlocutor was God and not an illusion of some sort because when he visited me, I experienced an indescribable feeling wholly unlike anything I have ever experienced, whether in dreams or hallucinations I’ve had in the past. It was a kind of experience of a reality richer and denser than any I’d ever felt before, more all-encompassing, more sublime, mysterious, tremendous and enrapturing. If such a feeling cannot be taken for ‘evidence,’ then I have never in my life experienced ‘evidence’ of anything, for there is nothing I have ever known that was more compelling than this. And then I felt, for the first time, the truth that is God’s reality, putting our own everyday sense of things in perspective, as though crowning reality with a resplendent halo.”

    Where is the contradiction in something like that? Is such a person being demonstrably irrational? Inconsistent in some obvious way? It seems to us, rather, that they are simply recognizing certain kinds of “evidence” that an atheist would not acknowledge (or maybe that an atheist WOULD acknowledge if only he could experience it).

    And this, as we noted above, is just one possible way to justify a theist position; there are others. Some, such as your suggested approach of denying experience altogether, would, as you say, probably be a minority position, but others, such as the some version of the one above, might be more mainstream. The conclusion to draw seems to be that — as we wrote in our initial e-mail — it might be possible to find a hook with which to argue against some particular theisms but not against certain other particular theisms, and certainly not against theism as such.

    • Liza Says:

      Re: The coherency of the thesis that “Nature is generally ‘uniform,’ in your sense of that word (’every physical event is necessarily caused by a prior physical event’), but there may be cases where nature is non-uniform and a supernatural agent intervenes.”

      I’m not sure if this view is incoherent, but I think the coherent view would be as unpersuasive as any other unfalsifiable coherent theory which presupposes entities for which we have absolutely no evidence. It seems like a theist could coherently hold that nature will usually appear uniform but that this appearance is illusory. The theist could say that God is behind every appearance of causal necessity and is therefore responsible for every event, whether the event appears to be natural or not. That is coherent, but of course we have no special reason to believe that nothing is as it appears, just as we have no special reason to believe that there are invisible pink fairies guiding the movement of medium sized objects in the universe. It is incoherent if the theist agrees that nature really is uniform because it looks as though there is no place for God to intevene in the natural world then. God’s intervention in the world would violate the first law of thermodynamics, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Now, as to your example, I do not know that it is incoherent to hold that certain regularities obtain with law-like certainty most of the time, and sometimes God intervenes and these regularities cease to obtain, but if this view doesn’t suffer from the incoherency of the latter example, it is as unpersuasive as the former example. This is because we have no evidence to believe that God intervenes. To understand why, I will address your other question…

      Re: What counts as evidence?
      In David Hume’s proof against miracles he says that while experience may give us some evidence that we have just been visited by God, it will always give us more evidence that people who believe things like this are hallucinating. I cannot deny that if I had the experience you describe above I might very well believe that I had spoken to God, but that wouldn’t be a legitimate justification for my belief. The only reason I have to believe that any experience tells me something true about about the world is that I buy into induction and abduction. If I do buy into abduction, then the inference to the best explanation is that I am hallucinating. If I discount abduction, then I have no reason to believe that this experience told me anything true about the world because I have no reason to believe that I can infer knowledge about the world from my experiences.

      A more concrete way of thinking about this is that it looks like the theist has no more reason to believe that God actually spoke to him in the midst of his reverent prayer than he does to believe that God spoke to him when he dropped several hits of acid before the Pink Floyd concert. In both cases, the overwhelming amount of empirical data suggests that nature is uniform and that every event is best explained by appealing to laws which are postulated under the assumption of uniformity. There is no more reason to think that God spoke to him in the midst of prayer than in the midst of an LSD trip, but the person who sees God during a prayer is more likely to privilege that experience over the rest of his experiences in a way that is unjustified. I take it then, that this person is being “demonstrably irrational” and “inconsistent in some obvious way.” If he would discount the experience of the appearance of God while on acid because it is best explained as an hallucination he should discount the experience of the appearance of God while in prayer because it is also best explained as an hallucination.

      I hope this clarifies my position.

      • Simon Stack Says:

        I saw the question sleeping on a grate near Grand Central to keep warm. The question had sores on its legs and smelled like piss. The question got on my subway car the other day and made a speech about how it was hungry and just needed a nickel, a dime, a quarter or whatever I could spare. In a word, you and Jim have begged the poor question so persistently that it is now destitute. And by the way, talk about preaching to the choir: there’s not a theist in the joint as far as I can tell. The whole argument boils down to this simple piece of common sense: there’s no arguing with a lunatic (i.e. a theist, not to mention Jack Angstreich). yours in exasperation, with a dash of bemusement, Simon (full disclosure: I’m a Proustian, not a philosophy student, an old friend of Jack’s, a recent friend of Yaniv’s and an acquaintance of Alex’s). P.S. Jim should brush up on his grammar — he perpetrates many howlers — my suggestion would be to give philosophy a break and study literature for a while — it’s important to write as well as possible when arguing complex points, and such is not what he does. P.P.S. Also directed mainly to Jim: Based on your tone in replying to posts here, you seem to want to incite flames as opposed to having a productive discussion, which I would suggest requires a modicum of friendliness and good manners. The atmosphere in here is absolutely toxic, and I don’t think it’s entirely Jack or Atlee’s fault. Fortunately, Yaniv-Alex is very patient, and less given to reacting violently to your provocations, recalcitrance, rudeness, poor writing and irrationality, so the tone of the discussion has been elevated somewhat. But apparently begging the question is your bread and butter, and no amount of patient explanation will dissuade you from turning it into a veritable pauper.

        • Liza Says:

          Your writing style reminds me of my grandfather, but I think he would be more self-aware than to describe himself as a “Proustian.”

          Everyone here is aware that everyone else here is not a theist. The real fight here is over epistemic justification. The subtext is a disagreement about foundationalism. The sub-subtext is the contempt Jim and I hold for a lot of postmodern philosophy, especially the derivative postmodern philosophy of people like Stanley Fish.

          Jim has a degree in literature and a Master’s in linguistics, in addition to his philosophy training. He is also the sharpest, quickest mind and one of the deepest thinkers that I know personally. I had no trouble discerning what Jim meant, and if you are picking over grammar then I expect you did not either. He could write poetry, but that is not what this blog is about. If you would prefer something more along those lines, I am sure that I could direct you to some 20th century French philosophy that would satisfy your desire for opaque whining.


          • Simon Stack Says:

            First, I don’t know what makes you think I have any desire for opaque whining. If that’s meant to be some kind of dismissive comment on Proust, I would take it as indication that you are a philistine. Although his copiousness does present problems for many readers, he is never opaque and he is certainly not a whiner. I call myself a Proustian because his work has had more of an impact on me than anything else I’ve encountered since my childhood. I would recommend a full reading of his work to almost anyone, since in addition to a wealth of poetry, comedy and heart-rending tragedy, it contains innumerable, deeply penetrating and carefully worked-out essays on a wide range of issues affecting modern man, dealing with subjects typically treated in works of philosophy (particularly aesthetics and phenomenology), art history, psychology, sociology, and history. My reading of him informs almost every opinion that I hold, and that’s why I mention it, not because I lack self-awareness. But since you don’t know me from Adam (only from Jack), I understand you finding “Proustian” a strange designation for someone to insist upon.

            I’m well aware of what the real fight here is (“epistemic justification”) and I’m well aware of its “subtext, a disagreement about foundationalism.” I can’t address the “sub-subtext,” your contempt for post-modern philosophy, since I’m ignorant of that subject. I have read several of Fish’s works, however, and I find them quite cogent and useful, even corrosive. I would disrespectfully suggest that you are the one who doesn’t fully understand what is at issue here, based on the extensive question-begging that you continually engage in.

            There’s no need to slog through all the circular argumentation here to find examples. They’re all too ready to hand. Let’s look at your post time-stamped May 12, 2009 at 7:27 pm:

            In your first full paragraph, you beg the question twice. You say that “we have no special reason to believe that nothing is as it appears, just as we have no special reason to believe that there are invisible pink fairies…” A theist or a faeryist may well have a special reason for believing either of those things, such as that “he knows it deep in his soul” or some such thing. Later you say that “we have no evidence to believe that God intervenes.” How could you possibly write such a sentence after being warned so many times that you are begging the question? There must be a diabolical force (or an ideological agenda) spurring you on to continue to contradict the plain and simple logic that Jack and Atlee have repeatedly laid out in their posts. Milton gave rhetoric to the Devil, but apparently the Devil didn’t lend enough of it to you to enable you to avoid this particular mistake.

            In your second full paragraph you state that you “might very well believe that [you] had spoken to God, but that wouldn’t be a legitimate justification for [your] belief.” You then proceed to cleverly flesh out your question-begging as follows: 1. Speaking to God is an experience. 2. Believing something based on experience is “abduction,” which necessarily entails “reasoning to the best explanation.” 3. The best explanation is that you are hallucinating. Q.E.D. (Question Ends Destitute). A theist might be coherent and refuse to assent to either 2 or 3. He might say that he knew it was God speaking to him without having recourse to his faculty of reason. He might recognize the low, even infinitesimal, probability of Divine Intervention as the proper cause of his experience, but he might still insist that unlikely as it seems to you who didn’t experience it, God spoke to him. In other words, from my perspective, and I suspect from yours, he would be effectively a lunatic, and there would be no arguing with him. But no matter how firmly I believe it, lunacy would only be my explanation to myself of his reported experience, and I would have no way of proving to him that I am correct, since his explanation, while unlikely, is equally coherent. There would be no ground on which to engage him in a discussion in which he would be forced to admit that he was wrong. Of course, in real life, I might, if I cared about what he thought for some reason, actually try to have a discussion with him, and I might try to find some way to get him to change his mind, but the point of this discussion is to clarify the logical resources that are and are not available to underwrite such an effort.

            The poor question is clearly begged again in your third paragraph, but I’ll spare you, myself, and everyone else that explication.

            Regarding Jim’s grammar: Mine is not perfect, and my spelling is worse, and I wouldn’t point it out if I didn’t find his posts so obnoxious in other respects, and his arguments so weak. (I mean, really, insisting that I must agree with him because I’m using a computer — it’s a little thin, isn’t it? But at least it gave us all a chance to familiarize ourselves with the “Tu Quoque” fallacy.) Also, if English is not his first language, I would have to apologize for my rudeness. That said, I would suggest that you proofread Jim’s posts in future, so that he can avoid howlers such as the following, which verily jumped off the page at me, from “A Quick Note on How Science Works” (a new post, mind you, not a reply):

            “The ability to test every conceivable instance that needs to be true in order to demonstrate absolute certainty is, in principle, not possible…”

            “Examples of such would be string theory and evolutionary psychology, both of which are debated to have no means of falsifying those theories.”

            Sure, I know what he meant in both cases, but when I read sentences like this, a little man in my head whispers to me, “this guy must be an idiot, because he can’t string together a sentence properly.” That may be unfair, but I can’t help it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Writing style is crucial to polemics as well as poetry. I would be concerned about the deflating effect on an argument of such illiterate blunders.

            I’m quite sympathetic with the project of opposing religion, and I would prefer it if my materialist world-view had an objective foundation which would enable me to argue decisively for it and against any other world-view. Unfortunately, it does not. I suspect, although I haven’t given it much thought, that the project of opposing religion is not well-served by pretending that such foundations exist. Certainly if one desires to know the truth, one should recognize in one’s own mind that they do not exist, even if one then decides, a la Fish, to lie and claim that they do.

            yours truly, Simon

            P.S. Go read Proust (my version of “Go, and sin no more”).

          • Jim Says:

            Thanks for the critique of my writing style. The second quoted sentence is, I admit, a little clunky, although I happen to like the way the first sentence reads.

            I’ll respond to a few things, and that will likely be the last of my comments to this post.
            No on here has claimed science is deductive or delivers absolute certainly. In fact, the contrary has been explicitly asserted.
            You missed my point about using a computer or partaking of any of the other benefits of the scientific enterprise. Looking at your criticisms of Liza’s comment, that seems to be common for you.
            It’s is interesting that you believe that you’re on the same grounds as someone you would describe as a lunatic. With that in mind, you might want to talk to someone about the “little man in your head.”
            It is also interesting to read this kind of response from someone lamenting that someone else has made the atmosphere here “toxic” by not having “a modicum of friendliness” or “good manners.” Some might call that hypocrisy.

            Yours oh-so-very truly and forever and ever,

          • Liza Says:


            The remark about opaque whining was a reference to postmodernism (French philosophy), not French literature. I can’t make any comment about the contributions of Proust. A few years ago, my best friend read every volume of A Rememberance of Things Past, and strongly encouraged me to drop everything else I was doing and begin that project as well. I was 20 at the time, and I thought it seemed like a good idea if only I didn’t have so many other pressing things to do and to read. I’m 26 now, and I have a copy of Swan’s Way in a pile by my bed. It still seems like a good idea to read it, if only I didn’t have so many other things to do and to read.

            Regardless of whether it is worthwhile to read Proust, however, I think it sounds a bit pretentious to call oneself a Proustian in the context of this debate. Were “Proustian” a shorthand for a common philosophical position (e.g. Marxist, Kantian, etc.), then it would be doing some explanatory work, and describing yourself as such would be informative. As far as I can tell, you don’t intend to pick out an argument, position, or set of beliefs that others would abbreviate as “Proustian,” you just want everyone to know that you like Proust. That seems pretentious to me. Of course, if I am a philistine, then you may discount this charge.

            I wish I had the time and the patience to address every charge of circularity and question-begging, but I do not. My position is that theists play the game of inferring from experience just as atheists do, but they do not play by the rules. I do not see how this is question-begging or circular at all. It may be the case that others who are reading this blog want a defense of the game itself- an objective foundation for knowledge to permanently silence the threat of radical skepticism- but I never suggested that this is possible. My point is only that theists commit an error that that atheists do not commit. You are welcome to contest this point either by scrutinizing my analysis of the “rules” of the “game,” as Yaniv has done, or by challenging the existence of a “game” at all (which is, of course, the argument between Jack and Jim), but your charges leave me baffled. What is the question I have begged?

            Lastly, I am puzzled by your speculation about convincing a lunatic. You can’t convince a lunatic by reasoning with him anymore than you can convince a psychopath to feel empathy by giving him a tender embrace. You may be able to get these people to do what you what, but you will be manipulating them, not engaging with an expectation of common understanding. The question here is whether a non-lunatic can make the rational case that he has reason to believe in an interventionist God.

          • Johnny 5 Says:

            Waiving an entire logical argument on the grounds of bad grammar is ridonkulous. We do not want your flower.

      • A.Z.E.Y. Says:

        A few responses:

        1. “while experience may give us some evidence that we have just been visited by God, it will always give us more evidence that people who believe things like this are hallucinating”

        Let’s say, however, that we, taking on the role of a theist, start with the assumption that God might exist, and there are supernatural events that might occur sometimes, however rarely that might be. We know you don’t share our hypothetical assumption, but we don’t (hypothetically) share your assumption that He doesn’t, so let’s call it even (in fact, we’d argue that in this hypothetical scenario, we’re being more open, since we’re simply undecided). So, you say that experience “ALWAYS” will give us more evidence that people who believe they have been visited by God are hallucinating. Let’s assume that that’s true. Let’s, as I said, also assume that God might exist and that, if He exists, He could be essentially omnipotent and so might visit people if He chooses to.
        Let’s then suppose that we’ve just had an experience that feels like it was a visitation from God, and we must now decide whether it, in fact, was a visitation from God or was just a hallucination. Based on all these assumptions, we are simply obliged to conclude, no matter what the visitation felt like, no matter what other circumstances do or do not obtain, no matter the extent to which the situation is screaming at us to realize that we’ve just been visited by God, that, in every instance of such a visitation, we are hallucinating. What we’ve essentially done, therefore, is assume, a priori, that we could never experience a visitation from God. We’ve, in effect, discounted our experience of the visitation entirely. Such an experience, based on our assumptions, should be utterly irrelevant, since our prior experience apparently entitles us, nay, FORCES us to conclude that any new experience we have is simply irrelevant to the question of whether or not we are actually being visited by God.

        Now, we don’t know about you, but to us, this whole scenario seems rather dangerous. What is it about our past experience that entitles it to be so thoroughly privileged over any new experience, even to the point where the specific qualities of that new experience must simply be ignored, even if, say, the new experience is of God coming to us and revealing to us some deep, dark, heretofore-never-revealed secret about someone we know, whereupon, once we recover from what we are obliged to conclude was a hallucination, we confront the person we know and ask whether the revelation we’ve been given is accurate, and they are stunned to tell us that it, indeed, is, forcing us to further conclude, we suppose, that we are either still hallucinating or that we came by the information in some other way but have simply forgotten how or that we’ve experienced an incredible (we won’t say
        “miraculous”) coincidence? Do you see the problem here?

        We would argue that logic and reason dictate the exact opposite of what you are suggesting: to decide whether we have been truly visited by God, we should, of course, be cognizant of our past experience and knowledge of science, etc., but we also MUST pay attention to the specific nature of our new experience, i.e., what state we were in, what did the ‘visitation’ feel like, have we previously ever hallucinated, were we on any medication, what other reason might there be to think we were or weren’t hallucinating, what did ‘God’ reveal to us, can we find a way to test what we were told by ‘God,’ etc. And, we would argue, there could conceivably be situations where it is perfectly reasonable or even ONLY reasonable to conclude that we have been, in fact, visited by God.

        To say this another way, it’s a kind of black swan problem in the Nassim Nicholas Taleb sense, if you’re familiar with that. The idea is just that if the model you are working with only deals with events that you’ve seen before, it is inherently unable to deal with very rare events that you haven’t seen before. Taleb explores this notion in the realm of financial models and rare, cataclysmic financial events that those models are not equipped to deal with, but it applies with equal force here. We do not even have to reject induction as such to understand that if, for instance, nature is constructed in such a way that 99.999…% of events involve regularities in compliance with ‘natural laws,’ but some incredibly minute percentage of events is supernatural, we might never have encountered such an event in our experience, and to the extent other human beings have ever encountered such events, they might be predisposed to ‘induce’
        them away and decide they’re hallucinations or something of that sort, and when certain other human beings refuse to discount those experiences, then those human beings will be disbelieved by the more scientific-minded members of the species. And such events, given their rarity, may be particularly un-amenable to any kind of scientific measurement, since such measurement usually involves the use of controls, statistically significant quantities and repetition of results, all of which are next-to-impossible to apply to things that happen, say, only once every 500 years, much less once every 100,000 years. Thus, even if you believe in induction, you would still be entirely rational to conclude that there are things that could happen that would invalidate the beliefs arrived at by virtue of earlier inductive efforts.

        1b. In relation to the above, is there a point that would cause you to question your views? If Jim, and many other that you trust, as well of millions of others that you don’t know, starting reporting that they had been visited by God, would that count as evidence? Would it be considered empirical evidence? Assume we cannot find hallucinogens in the water. Would you still be certain? The point is simply that the characterization of what counts as evidence is not that simple.

        2. “The only reason I have to believe that any experience tells me something true about the world is that I buy into induction and abduction.”

        Why is this so? What about — picking off where we just left off above — if there is something about the experience that simply feels ‘true’ to us? What if, as we suggested in our prior e-mail, the experience feels more true and real to us than anything we had ever before experienced? What if the experience simply doesn’t seem to fit within any previous inductively-arrived at result. What makes that an illegitimate reason to conclude that we’ve just learned something true about the world, even if it is somehow inconsistent with much of what we had previously believed? What if something about the experience convinces us that before we were in the dark, but now, we’ve finally awakened to reality for the first time? What if we had previously thought that, for good reason (namely, centuries of observation in a wide variety of environments), that all swans are white, and then we see what looks like a black swan? Are we obliged to conclude that we are hallucinating? That the bird, inherently, cannot be a swan, since we already know all swans are white? That someone painted a white
        swan black? If we can grab hold of the creature and drag it into
        the lab for analysis, we will do so, of course, but what if, as we lunge for it, it flies off and is never heard from again? What belief should we be left with? Would it be wrong to, at least, have an open mind about whether black swans might exist?

        3. “If I discount abduction, then I have no reason to believe that this experience told me anything true about the world because I have no reason to believe that I can infer knowledge about the world from my experiences.”

        Again, why? What if I believe that in the course of my life, I have many experiences, and some of them are real while others are illusory, and from the real ones I can infer knowledge about the world, but from the illusory ones I cannot, and the way to tell which is which is, among other things, by sensing the extent to which such experiences are or are not endowed with ‘divine light’? Yes, this sounds rather insane, but there is a difference between your (and our) believing it to be insane and somehow demonstrating it to be insane or irrational.

        4. “I’m not sure if this view is incoherent, but I think the coherent view would be as unpersuasive as any other unfalsifiable coherent theory which presupposes entities for which we have absolutely no evidence.”

        As you noted, this comes down to the question of what counts as evidence, and our response on that is above (as well as in our prior e-mail). There’s simply no a priori standard for what counts as evidence. Yes, you might not feel particularly compelled or persuaded to adopt our vision of the world based on the kind of anecdotal evidence of a visitation from God (or a black swan) that we may put forward, but, then, we might feel equally unpersuaded to adopt your vision of the world, which is based on faith in induction and limited human powers of observation and interpretation. There are certain things we may, indeed, literally have absolutely no reason to believe because no reason has been advanced in any form whatsoever. Your suggestion of invisible pink fairies guiding the movement of medium-sized objects in the universe might be an example of that. But would you say the existence of the supernatural is one of those things? Its existence is, among other things, attested to in various texts, claimed to have been experienced in one form or another by millions upon millions of people throughout human history up to the present time and invoked cross-culturally by every civilization that has ever arisen. There are arguments to be made against every one of these reasons, of course (and we personally believe those arguments), but we are unfamiliar with any argument that is a knockdown argument, any argument that would force anyone rational who understood it to accept it and proceed to discount all seeming counter-‘evidence.’

        • Liza Says:

          Yaniv and Alex,

          Thank you for your thoughtful response and questions. I do not have the time to give you the lengthy response that these questions merit, but I am not going to put off a response any longer for fear that I won’t ever get to it.
          I think the source of our disagreement has to do with the fact that I view this as a debate about epistemic justification, and, though you address that, I think what you really want is to make a point about ontological possibility. Actually, I think this distinction informs most of the debate on this blog.

          Forgive me for this tangent, but I think it may be informative: Jim and I would not call ourselves “moral realists” because we are subjectivists about value, but neither are we moral (nor epistemic) nihilists. This is a view I have attempted to clarify on this blog, but I think to some extent my clarification has suffered from the fact that I, like most people in philosophy, am more comfortable writing about what I don’t believe than what I do believe. I won’t go into an extensive defense of my view here, but I want to note a few things about my view of morality because I think they may also tell you something about my view of epistemology. (These are just my views, by the way. I really couldn’t say whether Jim would agree.) I look at both ethics and epistemology as justificatory enterprises, and, as such, I am less inclined to worry about the ontological foundations of Value or Truth than many other people. In contemporary ethics, my view would probably be described as “contractualist” or “contractarian”, and there are analogues in epistemology. I can’t prove to you what is Good, but I can tell you what you ought to do given the assumption that certain things are valuable. This is moral justification. Similarly, I can’t prove to you what is True, but I can tell you whether a belief is coherent and whether certain perceptive tools and methods for processing data are likely to yield predictive success. This is epistemic justification. You may find this ironic, but it is because I am agnostic about our ability to Know the world as it really is (the Truth or the Good) that I can speak confidently about why theistic accounts of the world are unjustified.

          You both seem to be caught up in this idea that my view precludes me from the possibility of accepting that God spoke to me, but it doesn’t. What it precudes me from is accepting that I am JUSTIFIED in believing that God spoke to me. This is not a claim about what I can or cannot believe about the world a priori , this is a claim about what counts as justification a posteriori. Some people on this blog have accused me of begging the question about what counts as evidence. I don’t think I have, but let me be explicit in any case. Evidence is the sort of information that, if not in practice, is at least in principle accessible to others with similar perceptive apparati and cognitive capacity. That is why I appeal to evidence to justify my beliefs about the world. While it it is meaningful to talk about strict or lax standards of evidence for justification in different situations, it is an absurd misunderstanding to talk about evidence that only “counts” to some people. When I attempt to justify my belief to others, I appeal to evidence precisely because it is information that is as accessible to my opponent as it is to me. Moreover, when I ask myself whether my beliefs are justified, I ask whether there is are any external grounds for my belief beyond my feeling or intuition. So, even when I am not engaged in social discourse, justification requires that I speculate about what others with similar perceptive and cognitive capacities could access and believe.

          Now, on to the subject of faith: Let me be clear that I am agnostic about the existence of God, just as I am agnostic about the possibility that I am a brain in a vat. I do not think the possibility of God’s existence is a good reason to believe in God, just as it is not a good reason to believe in Russell’s cosmic teapot, but this is not my only reason for calling myself an atheist. I am also an atheist because I do not believe that God (as He is traditionally understood) can exist in the world as I understand it. If the first law of thermodynamics accurately describes the universe, then there can be no interventionist God adding or subtracting energy. Now, of course, I do not Know that the first law of thermodynamics is accurate. I don’t know that my tools of perception give me anything close to the world as it really is. Hell, I don’t even know that an external world exists. I bracket radical skepticism by allowing the possibility that I could be terribly mistaken in my initial assumptions (e.g. there is an external world, there are other minds, etc.), and then I try to reach sound conclusions about the way the world works, knowing full well that the truth of my conclusion is entirely dependent upon the truth of these unproven postulates.

          I think I am justified in bracketing Hume’s nightmare and assuming the uniformity of nature as an unproven postulate in the same way I bracket Descartes’ evil demon and assume that I have access to the external world. I contend that I have legitimate grounds for doing so because this assumption is necessary in order to give experience any persuasive force. I have said above that evidence is, in principle, accessible to some other person with similiar cognitive and perceptive capacity, but that isn’t the only reason that we appeal to evidence to justify our beliefs. We also appeal to evidence because we assume that experience doesn’t just describe the world as it was but the world as it is. If I thought that matter could pop in or out of existence then pointing to a particular arrangement of matter in time and space wouldn’t tell me anything about the way the world was or the way the world will be. So, appeal to experience- appeal to “evidence”- is not meaningful unless we make the assumption of uniformity. Just taking the simple definitions that you used, “that which tends to prove or disprove something” and “something that makes plain or clear,” I don’t understand how we can make sense of any experience doing that unless we assume that experiences give us a reliable picture of the world.

          All of that being said, I like your question about whether we need to assume that nature is uniform 100% of the time. I think the assumption that nature is almost always uniform is sufficient to give experience persuasive force as evidence, which does open up the possibility of uncaused events. But this still leaves open the question of why we would believe these events are acts of God. As you can probably guess, my view is that we are unjustified in attributing uncaused events to God. If we allow the possibility that some events are not caused by any preceding physical event, it looks like we don’t have any special reason to believe that there is a non-natural “cause” (i.e. God), to explain those events. It is just as consistent with the 99.9999% uniformity of nature that some events have no cause as that some events are caused by God. This doesn’t mean that God couldn’t have intervened, but the burden of proof is on the theist to explain why this belief is justified, and without appeal to evidence this kind of justification is likely to be quite weak.

          I hope this clarifies my position.

          • Jack Angstreich Says:

            The following is from the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”:

            A different antirealist argument, presented by Laudan, attacks directly the “ultimate argument” for realism. Laudan reflected on the history of science and considered all the past theories that were once counted as outstandingly successful. He offered a list of outmoded theories, claiming that all enjoyed successes and noting that not only is each now viewed as false, but each also contains theoretical vocabulary that is now recognized as picking out nothing at all in nature. If so many scientists of past generations judged their theories to be successful and, on that basis, concluded that they were true, and if, by current lights, they were all wrong, how can it be supposed that the contemporary situation is different—that, when contemporary scientists gesture at apparent successes and infer to the approximate truth of their theories, they are correct? Laudan formulated a “pessimistic induction on the history of science,” generalizing from the fact that large numbers of past successful theories have proved false to the conclusion that successful contemporary theories are also incorrect.

  12. tuptotAvect Says:

    Nice blog! Very interesting aspects. I will allways read it. Also e-mailed on rss.

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