Friday, January 20, 2006

What? Atheism is Irrational?

Robert Bell of Libertopia posted an interesting article entitled Why Atheism is Irrational. Since I am a part time atheist (I could never get the funding to go pro) I thought I might respond but as I drafted it I quickly exceeded what could, in good conscience be plonked down in a comment section so I thought I would respond on my own space and leave a link for whoever might care what little old me reckons.

Robert and I have discussed some issues in the past and while I don't think either of us has convinced the other on anything specific, I can say that I have enjoyed the discussions.

I should also say to all the kids out there that I am completely unqualified to be considered a source of information about the physics I will discuss and I only speak of what I know and my best understanding of the material. Please consult the actual physics community before using any of the information I provide to create a blackhole in your basement. They can be located every 3rd Sunday in March at the old Tim Hortons coffee shop in Yellowknife.

Hi and hello Robert.

I might be nit-picking (whether accurately or not one can judge for themselves) but there are some points I might like to make.
"theism is the proposition that God (or some supernatural being) exists"
So are deism and pantheism but they differ as to whether this being interacts with the physical universe and what its relationship is to it. A small point but one that often gets overlooked in the atheism/theism discussion.

You said:
"Indeed, generally speaking, atheism would appear to be the natural result of education"
Strangely enough, I find myself disagreeing with this statement nearly as much as you probably do (at least when I am not talking with fundamentalists). Education seems to enable people to consider alternatives to their culturally endowed views; alternatives like atheism, agnosticism, deism, pantheism and even the religions and philosophies of other cultures, which is why you do see higher levels of all of these views among the educated, but I do not see the appearance that education specifically leads to atheism in a logical or practical sense (even if I might wish it to ;-) but since some people see feel that it does, I can see why you would wish to refute that. Also, while ignorance is as rampant in religious realms as it is in every realm of human endeavor, I don't currently see religion as being any more guilty of trafficking in ignorance or being sourced in it than many other realms though given the state of human affairs that is not saying much.

Now to address the meat of your post.

"Regardless, I can, and will, demonstrate that atheism is, in fact, misguided and irrational; and conversely, that theism is inherently rational."


Talk about an ambitious goal, given that people have been arguing about this for millennia. Seriously though, as I see it, atheism is a belief and like all beliefs it is not rational or irrational - only the argument in favor of it can be rational or irrational, as with theism, deism and whatnot. If one holds a belief, whether it is wrong or right, their belief can not fairly be called irrational, only unsupported. If one is not trying to convince anyone of the belief and has no interest in the criticisms of that belief, one has no obligation to support one's beliefs to anyone just as theists have no "obligation" to provide any evidence of God to anyone (see below). It is when we are arguing in favor of a belief, as many atheists and theists do, that these arguments become subject to the charge of irrationality. This might seem like a minor point but I think it is important.

"The so-called Atheist Manifesto certainly tries to make that case:"

'Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87% of the population) who claim to never doubt the existence of God should be obliged to present evidence for his existence…'


It is obviously not possible to "present evidence", i.e. empirical evidence, so that "obligation" is really no obligation at all."
I agree (the Atheist Manifesto never asked for my opinion - can you imagine?) but this draws attention to the fact that the question of atheism verses theism depends not on logic but on how your premises are chosen and evaluated (epistemology).

An atheist might argue:
Premise 1) Believing in something without sufficient evidence most often leads to believing in things which are, on further examination, false.

Premise 2) The negative consequences of believing in falsehoods are far greater than the negative consequences of not believing things which are true but are not evident.

Conclusion: Fewer negative consequences result if we do not adopt beliefs for which evidence is insufficient or completely lacking.
While the premises may be wrong, the decision to adopt them is an epistemological issue and does not make the argument irrational.

As for the premise which would make this an argument for atheism (or at least agnosticism):
Premise 3) There is a complete lack of evidence of, or insufficient evidence for, the existence of a creator of the universe.

your post provides a good example of the debate about the origin of the universe and whether its existence constitutes sufficient evidence of a creator. I would, however, like to make a couple of points here too.

Firstly, the debate is dancing around a big gaping hole in our understanding of physics and no discussion of the early moments of the universe can be considered to be the last word on the subject until our knowledge of the physics of this era is more complete. Even the existence of the singularity that you mention is contested among physicists.

There are also some statements and concepts in your discussion that are problematic given our lack of knowledge:

"there seems to be some reluctance to determine what, if anything, caused that event" (the initial cosmic expansion) "to occur" This is because of the meaning of time in a context where time is being created. I have read that it is possible to create a model of existence with two or more dimensions of time and that in such a situation, time behaves in a much more space-like manner. In this model, causation is no limitation since effects and objects can result in their own causation just as there is no beginning to a circle. Am I in a position to evaluate this model or the claims based on it? No. If they are mathematically sound, does that mean they describe what "caused" the universe? No. It does mean that a belief that either God or the universe "came in to being" to use temporally tainted speech, without a cause has not been ruled out and neither can be seen as more or less rational.

"Since space is a function of matter,..." While this has been suggested by some inside and out of the physics community, it is by no means a certainty. The revelation of the exact relationship between matter/energy and space time awaits further physical understanding.

"To be sure, the laws of physics dictate that matter can be neither created nor destroyed" Energy can not be created or destroyed. Matter (one type of energy) can be created along with anti-matter (with a seemingly slight asymmetry towards matter) from energy and is done so in particle accelerators when the energy of collision is converted into mass-containing particles. Energy can also be created if an equal amount of negative energy is created in the same system at the roughly the same time as discussed below.

"Now, some hold to the notion of spontaneous generation (with respect to the origin of the universe). This, in essence, is the idea that the universe spontaneously came into existence all by itself (note: there is no entry for this at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This concept is manifestly absurd, as the universe would necessarily have had to exist in order to create itself." It is only manifestly absurd from the point of view of the same linear time which we inhabit, and which is suspected to have only come into existence at or around what we call time zero. Just as God can't be ruled out due the the "transcendent" adjective, neither can auto causation (for lack of a better word) of the universe be ruled out because of the nature of existence at t=0. One could hypothesize that existence at t=0 is a "natural" or unintelligent phenomenon which, since it exists in a different spacial/temporal context, is itself transcendent and self-initializing (see below where multi-dimensional time is discussed) and that it buds off an infinite number of universes with linear time like the fruit from a tree. We can not say anything about the probability of such a thing happening because "probability" and "happening" have little or no meaning outside of our current concept of time.

Your quote from the Stanford website said:
"If no scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws) can provide a causal account of the origin of the universe, the explanation must be personal, i.e., in terms of the intentional action of a rational, supernatural agent." A) How does one know if the scientific explanation does not exist or is not yet discovered? B) Lack of a scientific explanation does not necessitate any other specific explanation especially if multiple non scientific explanations are possible. Putting aside the possibility of a natural phenomenon that is outside of our universe and so inexplicable to any scientific theory of our reality, what about an irrational supernatural entity? Or a supernatural entity with great power and knowledge but who is not omniscient and capable of accidents like accidentally creating a universe? (I seem to remember that Gnostic Christians hypothesized that the God who created the universe is a lesser God than the higher, truly omnipotent God).

In the comment section you responded to Ricardo by saying:
"Moreover, the absence of matter and energy does not necessarily imply "nothingness". For if the material universe is all there is, then one of two things must be true:

(i.) matter is infinite, i.e. without a beginning


(ii.) matter spontaneously sprang into existence

"Now, (i.) is implausible, since matter has no intelligence or will, not to mention the problems of inertia and entropy; and (ii.) is absurd because ?"from nothing, nothing can come?". In light of the absurdity of (ii), and in order to account for the existence of the universe, something must necessarily be infinite. Why should we suppose that matter is latter perceived to be less rational than the former?"

While (i) may be implausible, I do not see that as being demonstrated because matter has no intelligence or will. It has existed for a long time without these traits so why it could not have forever... But that point is moot because there is the hypothesis, based on fairly unremarkable physics, that the expansion of the universe during inflation (a time when regions of space expanded away from each other faster than light (as distinct from traveling through space faster than light which is not possible) would have represented a huge source of negative energy. Since energy must be conserved in a system, the negative energy would have been countered by a huge discharge of positive energy resulting in the matter and energy (via e=mc^2) we see today.

Also, inertia is not a problem because all of the matter in the new universe is moving in different directions which means that all the inetial vectors can cancel out and entropy is a function of probability and requires time to have meaning. It describes how a system changes in time so it breaks down with the rest of our physical theories in the context of near singularities.

Item (ii) is not as absurd as it sounds since real objects (virtual particles) spontaneously spring into existence all the time. If, however, matter/energy and space time are unified as many physicists think they will be in a more complete theory of physics, lets lump the whole universe in as "matter" and examine your question:

"Why should we suppose that matter is infinite, as opposed to a transcendent, personal agent? Why is the latter perceived to be less rational than the former?" While this would be a good argument in defense of seeing atheism and theism as equally rational given the sum of our current knowledge, it does not seem to me to aid the goal of demonstrating atheism to be irrational and theism to be inherently rational.

I admit that much of this might sound irrational but this is because of the difficulty of thinking about a system that is different from our familiar universe.

While it is possible that I did not fully absorb your argument, I don't think I am yet convinced of your conclusion that atheism (rather the argument for it) is irrational and while I will concede that given the right starting premises, the argument for theism can be considered rational, that neither makes it true nor (to me at least) persuasive. But since proving that conclusion to those better able tappreciatete the argument would be a major event in the history of human thought and might result in a Nobel Prize for you, I will wish you luck ;-)

3 Comments:

At Sat Jan 21, 11:29:00 AM 2006, Blogger Robert said...

A few quick thoughts (I’ll say more when I get enough time to leave and intelligible comment):

Firstly, your response is as thoughtful as it is well-reasoned, coherent and cordial. From what I “know” of you, this is not surprising. Also, I’ve made a correction to my original post (giving you full credit, of course). Lastly, the title (and stated goal of the essay) was intended to be slightly hyperbolic…did I succeed?

Paraphrasing the Govenator: Iaaa’ll be baaack!

 
At Sun Jan 22, 04:11:00 PM 2006, Blogger Robert said...

I have read that it is possible to create a model of existence with two or more dimensions of time and that in such a situation, time behaves in a much more space-like manner. In this model, causation is no limitation since effects and objects can result in their own causation just as there is no beginning to a circle.

This area of theoretical physics is highly speculative and is not widely accepted (at least not yet). Regardless, I’m convinced that the Causal Principle is indispensible, which seems to be at the heart of our disagreement.

Item (ii) is not as absurd as it sounds since real objects (virtual particles) spontaneously spring into existence all the time.

Again, that’s speculative; and I think it’s more perception than reality.

There is a complete lack of evidence of, or insufficient evidence for, the existence of a creator of the universe.

If you reject the premise of causation, I can see why you’d arrive at that conclusion.

I admit that much of this might sound irrational but this is because of the difficulty of thinking about a system that is different from our familiar universe.

Instead of “this” (in the above sentence) being a referent for atheism, allow “this” to refer to a creator. Does it make less sense when stated that way?

My intention was not to convince anyone of the reality of super-naturalism. Rather, I attempted to show that categorically dismissing theism (and by extension theists) and adopting atheism was not just “common sense”; and despite my dim view of atheism, I actually believe that agnosticism is quite reasonable. In fact, it’s what I’ve taught my children all along. They’re all blissfully agnostic.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 10:19:00 PM 2006, Blogger Apesnake said...

"Lastly, the title (and stated goal of the essay) was intended to be slightly hyperbolic…did I succeed?"

Yes and I can certainly appreciate the tactic. Certainty can only be answered by establishing doubt and that sometimes requires extending the point further than the points design specifications, just as many agnostics argue from the point of view of an atheist when arguing against very confident theists.

"Regardless, I’m convinced that the Causal Principle is indispensable, which seems to be at the heart of our disagreement."

I agree with you that the causal principle is at the heart of the disagreement. Understanding how fundamental causality is outside of time, in a "transcendental" frame of reference is, to say the least, something that there is room for debate about.

I was under the impression that virtual particles are a direct prediction of quantum mechanics and are fairly centrally incorporated into their understanding of electromagnetic theory and the quantum description of how forces (not including gravity) are transmitted between particles thought a physicist would be able to confirm or deny that. The idea of virtual particles predicted the Casimir effect" though I will grant that some believe the effect is due to other factors.

"Does it make less sense when stated that way?"

No, you are right; the argument does works both way.

"Rather, I attempted to show that categorically dismissing theism (and by extension theists) and adopting atheism was not just “common sense”; and despite my dim view of atheism, I actually believe that agnosticism is quite reasonable."

Quite true. It is sometimes tricky to see the line between theism as a general belief and the variety of arguments (good and bad) and the variety of theist positions and the variety of theists themselves which results in dismissing the entire concept of theism for reasons which are not applicable to that entire concept.

 

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