Can General Atheism be Proved?

In Agnosticism Revisited and the Case for Atheism I argued that being agnostic about the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Creator isn’t justifiable. I used the Argument from Perfection (a version of the Problem of Evil) to demonstrate that belief in a perfect creator isn’t sustainable and therefore people who are not agnostic about imperfect gods and goddesses have even less basis to be agnostic about the monotheistic deity at the heart of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Instead they should be atheist.

However that article received a comment from Max, an agnostic, which deserves serious attention. Although agreeing that I did “a good job pointing out the irreconcilable difficulties in a particular concept of God,” one which “embodies specific attributes,” Max argued that I “left the basic idea of god untouched.”

Although Max doesn’t “believe in Allah, or Jesus, or any and all specific mythic representations of god,” he is still agnostic rather than atheist since he doesn’t “disbelieve in the very idea of god.” In fact, Max wrote,

You did not present an argument at this level. Nor will you ever, since the concept of god in abstract of a specific mythic tradition is a completely non-falsifiable proposition, and thus cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.

He fleshed this objection out at the end of his comment this way:

If you argue against the existence of god, must you not pin that argument on some imagined attribute(s) of god. The problem is that as soon as you imagine god’s attributes you cease talking about the idea of god, and start talking about some specific imagined representation of god. You can disprove a billion representations without ever even addressing the concept of god itself.

Although Max left his comment over a year ago, I never got around to replying. I’m rectifying that now.

When Is a Concept Not a Concept?

My first question for Max is this: what is the concept of God if that concept involves no specific attributes? If the nature of a concept is unspecified, then it seems to me that the concept can’t be discussed because no one has any idea what is being discussed.

If I say, “X exists, but X has no attributes and no one can say what X is,” what am I claiming? I suppose Max is correct in saying that my “X” is non-falsifiable, but maybe that is only because “X” doesn’t have a meaning, and no actual concept is being asserted.

Likewise, if “God” is a meaningless word, one which doesn’t refer to any specified concept, then yes “God” is non-falsifiable — but only because meaningless words aren’t claims or propositions at all. There is no idea behind them.

I suspect that Max’s “abstract” concept of God does have “content” of some sort or another. It must, or else nothing remains. It is evident from his comment that Max rejects “perfection” as an attribute of God. Remove that attribute and the concept of God still has meaning. But what if we also remove the attribute of “creator”, the attribute of “being” and (for good measure) the attribute of “existing”? As far as I can see, nothing usable would remain: “God” would become a meaningless word, unfalsifiable but also undiscussable.

A Minimum God

Max doesn’t reveal what he believes the abstract concept of God is, but I’m confident that it involves a God with attributes. Existence must be one of those attributes, otherwise Max could have no good objection to calling himself an atheist. It is also likely that Max would posited this God as the cause of the physical world and our human existence. God, no matter how abstractly conceived, would hardly be God (or worth bothering about) otherwise.

Such a God need not be conceived as a personal being. Perhaps what is meant by the term is simply the intelligence behind the physical universe, an intelligence responsible for the world’s existence and nature. Max, I assume, would say that such a concept of God

is a completely non-falsifiable proposition, and thus cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.

But Max would be wrong.

The notion that there’s an intelligence behind existence is nothing less than the claim that naturalism is false. If naturalism is true, it follows that there is no intelligence behind or prior to the physical universe, so to maintain otherwise is to deny the truth of naturalism. The assertion above therefore amounts to the claim that philosophical naturalism “cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.” This claim is false and I will show why.

To do so, all that is required of me is to reveal by what rational means the truth or falsity of naturalism can be determined. In fact, I don’t have to provide a convincing case for naturalism, I only have to demonstrate that a rationally convincing case is possible.

Naturalism v Supernaturalism

Naturalism maintains that intelligence is a product of brains and that brains are a product of evolution. It follows from this that intelligence did not exist anywhere in the universe until organisms with brains evolved into being. Supernaturalism maintains the contrary: that intelligence existed well before brains were created. Intelligence (whether personified in a being or not) necessarily lies behind and prior to physical existence, according to the supernatural canon.

The question Max poses, then, is whether there is a rational way to decide between these two alternatives. There clearly is. We simply have to compare the intellectual case for believing intelligence preceded the existence of brains with the intellectual case for believing intelligence did not. If one case is stronger than the other, we will know which viewpoint — naturalism or supernaturalism — better fits the evidence we have. This is an inherently rational process, and is the sort of thing that scientists (as well as non-scientists, of course) do all the time.

I wrote that we “simply” have to compare the two intellectual cases — but of course the debate on this point is hardly “simple”. But the complexity of the debate only underscores the fact that it is a rational debate, one in which both sides vie to provide the most satisfactory account of the evidence we have about when intelligence entered the picture.

In Agnosticism Revisited and the Case for Atheism I wrote about the distinction between specific atheism and general atheism. Specific atheism, I said

is that atheism which purports to disprove the existence of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic monotheistic God

and the Argument from Perfection which I presented there pertained to specific atheism. On the other hand, I wrote that general atheism

is an outgrowth of the scientific/philosophical case for naturalism. Advocates of general atheism like to begin their arguments with well-established science (evolution, the physiology of vision or of the brain) and move on to conclusions about the nature of human knowledge and its relationship to the world—conclusions which if correct eliminate supernaturalism (and therefore eliminate any supernatural God or gods).

It is general atheism which pertains to the debate we have here.

Smoking Guns

The case for naturalism (or the opposing case for supernaturalism) is far too complex to present now, and at any rate that is unnecessary for the scope of this entry. That scope, it is important to remember, is to refute Max’s claim that the most abstract concept of God “cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.” I have taken the most “abstract” concept of God to mean some kind of pre-existing intelligence responsible for the creation of the world (hopefully Max would agree). And I have pointed out that this gets us right to one of the central disputes (perhaps the central dispute) separating naturalism from supernaturalism: Is intelligence the product of brains or are brains the product of intelligence?

This is answered by investigating the world to determine whether the evidence we find fits better with the notion that intelligence existed at the beginning of the universe (before brains existed), or whether intelligence appeared with the evolution of organism with brains. I maintain that such an investigation can be done, and that doing it is a rational process which will lead to a rational answer.

In fact, I believe there are some smoking guns which indicate that naturalism is the correct answer. I have mentioned a couple of these in other blog entries.

1) Thoughts (and by proxy disembodied intelligence) can’t do anything without a physical body to do the doing. Therefore intelligence cannot bring the universe into existence or be its cause. I’ve presented the case for this position in God & Rocks as well as in Thoughts & Trees and God’s Physical Problem.

2) The existence of two types of knowing (analytic and synthetic) is prima facie evidence that there are two types of things to be known: the physical world and concepts. If supernaturalism were true we would expect there to only be one type of knowing — analytic. If naturalism were true, both analytic and synthetic knowing would need to exist in order for physical organism to “know” the world. This is touched on in Two Types of Knowing as well as in Thoughts & Trees

3) Although the Principle of Sufficient Reason holds for analytic knowledge, it appears to be false for synthetic knowledge. If there was an intelligence behind the universe, the Principle of Sufficient Reason would be true for both synthetic and analytic knowledge (thus one type of knowledge would suffice — see #2). But the fact that synthetic knowledge is best acquired through the process of methodological naturalism (together with the factual possibility of incomplete and incorrect synthetic knowledge), makes it clear that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false for synthetic knowledge. It follows that synthetic knowledge is not something innate in the physical world which our minds discover, but rather is the result of pragmatic empiricism. This fits naturalism perfectly, but can hardly be reconciled with supernaturalism. I touched on this in Thoughts & Trees — but much more attention needs to be given it.

As for the arguments presented by the other side, such as the design and information arguments, I dispelled them in Theism’s Rose-Colored Glasses. (See also Mind, Matter & Divine Creation.) Other atheists have written volumes dispelling these supernatural assertions.

Of course, Max may not find my smoking guns convincing. But he must admit that those of us who are atheists have not “left the basic idea of god untouched.” And he must admit that the concept of God in its most abstract form (as some kind of pre-existing intelligence) can be investigated by rational means and — it is at least a possibility — be found false.

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6 Responses to Can General Atheism be Proved?

  1. skepticgriggsy says:

    If Max is right and he is, then we have the ignostic challenge that God is a meaningless word!

  2. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

    What say ye about ignosticism?

  3. Jeremy says:

    From what i’ve read of Max in this article, he seems more to claim that God’s existence is a question that cannot be addressed, along the line of Bertrand Russell i suppose, as God is nothing you can pin down.

    I don’t thinks it’s possible to do as this author has done and simply postulate “existence” as an attribute to God (which Kant has kindly explained cannot be done) nor any other predicates. What Max seems to be saying is that any God you attempt to disprove God, through reason, will never be a direct reflection of the the God up there (if there is one) as God is simply a diverse concept (concept being a key issue here) and cultural relativism shows everyone has a different opinion as to what/who he, she or it is, and consequently atheism can’t take evidence and claim “this proves God is not omni benevolent” because who’s to say God is omni benevolent at all.

    Personally i would suggest the only claim to theism, or knowledge of God, is direct contact with God, experience of him (but for it to be inductively concluded it would have to be STRONG evidence)

    Furthermore, i would claim you can’t have ‘in experience of God’ (from an Atheist’s point of view) to claim he doesn’t exist, AT ALL, only that it’s unlikely he doesn’t. Consequently agnosticism (or Max (?)) seems to be suggesting that atheism is not possible, the question of God’s existence can’t be answered through reason, nor can it be completely disregarded through a lack of evidence.

    I probably spurting crap at the moment. Most of this site seems WAY beyond anything i can comprehend. :/

  4. Gabriel Edilberto Cruz y Lumanlan says:

    I am a social Anarchist, meaning I belive in the autonomy of the ego, without dictation, although he must cooperate with the existing politics and society as long as they never thread his hoof. As a social Anarchist I belive in the diversity of man’s belief, as the myriads of religions formed from Theism.

    An Atheist could say there is no Jesus, no Nazareth, or even an Adam-built Mecca; as there are Atheists who venerate the major religious founders because of their contribution to world history, be it terrific or terrible.

    To maintain diversity only this should be an Atheist creed:
    -that he disbelieve not just God, but all kinds of supernaturalism and superstition.
    -that, if he’s an artist, he’s an aestheticist; if not, he must be very practical.
    -that he’s a realist and a naturalist.
    -he’s Epicurean.

  5. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

    God is fatuous, but that does not gainsay that that negates atheism ,since atheism is the absence of belief in Him, so that ignostics affrim atheism, and since the First Cause and the Designer and such have no referent,the arguments for Him themselves affirm igtheism as Paul Kurtz calls it.

  6. Let’s be candid. Many self-professed atheists are as militant and myopic as any evangelical preacher. There’s a real danger of atheism becoming a new found form of philosophical dogma, ironically falling into the trap of the 100,000-plus documented religions of recorded history.

    Although the metaphor of “God” may be solely a matter of personal definition, consider the fact that Einstein was, by current definition, a Scientific Pantheist, and would likely be disturbed at the tone of current debate over atheism.

    On a personal level, I don’t truly know if there’s a Creator God, and neither do you. People can have their personal faith-beliefs, whether that’s perceived as wishful thinking, intuitive connection, a product of peer pressure, a true feeling of oneness with the Universe, societal indoctrination, or blatant superstition is clearly open for interpretation.

    We are on the verge of a new era in neuroscience, and promising developments will help us explain the need for transcendental experience. Increasingly, neuroscientists have found that so-called spiritual practices, like shamanic drumming, yoga, and meditation, have a profound effect on the brain’s structure and chemistry.

    Thus, institutional religions are likely not just socio-cultural constructs, but may have an evolutionary role in social cohesion, tribal identity and the need for personal security for the social, human animal. At one time, they may have served as a form of pre-Freudian therapy; I would highly recommend reading the works of Andrew Newberg, Andrew Darling and Matthew Alper, all of whom consider biology in the birth of religious feelings.

    Considering religion: Of course, the lethal down side is when these practices become an “us versus them” mentality, leading to a breakdown in cooperation among cultures, the universal story of war and conflict. The centuries-old conflict between Islam and Christianity is the most visible, but there are dozens of similar tribal disputes in locales across the globe.

    In reality, the New Atheists are not scientific at all. They seemingly heap real and circumstantial evidence into an emotional public debate, and deal in absolutes. That’s pseudo-science, at best.

    Lacking a better definition, science is a process of evolving hypotheses, based on a process of obtaining empirical evidence. From my personal experience as a Humanist, many atheists act as though they have all the answers (based on the books of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Chris Hitchens, three Brits with some personal issues). That arrogance, based on popular reading material, despite the relative limitations of current science.

    In my lifetime, we’ve learned (through science) how the Earth’s biosphere evolved, how the Big Bang occurred, and how the dinosaurs became extinct. Just 15 years ago, we didn’t know if there were viable planets orbiting nearby stars — thanks for the Hubble Space Telescope, there are evidently some 500 planets within viewing range.

    With open questions on Dark Matter and Energy, and the probability of multiple dimensions in a quantum reality, it appears that both monotheistic and atheistic opinions are being stated based on incomplete evidence. To assume that new science will prove, or disprove, a culturally defined concept of deity is bordering on outrageous.

    Certainly, I believe in Darwinian evolution, but it has some flaws, particularly when you look to processes like Horizontal Gene Transfer. Increasingly, we are coming to a more complete model of the Earth’s development, piece by scientific piece.

    Physics is making tremendous strides towards understanding the Universe. The FermiLab in Illinois is looking to research the possibility of a “Holographic Universe”, one that has been touted by quantum physicists and New Agers alike. If proven, this would just as paradigm shifting as early Darwinian naturalism.

    The “New Atheism” is not new, as its roots go back to Thomas Hobbes, Arthur Schopenhaeur and Betrand Russell. Today, Americans Sam Harris and Michael Shermer are better latter day skeptics, and don’t seem to have the ego problems that evidently afflict the British atheists of popular discourse.

    One observation: Distinctly, I remember that TIME magazine ran a cover asking “Is God Dead?” when I was a small child in the early 1960s. An interesting question, in that the Maoris of New Zealand believe that gods die when humans quit believing in them.

    Regardless of what you think, it’s unlikely this question will be resolved in our lifetime, perhaps never by contemporary science or theism. The questions may exceed our abilities to comprehend an ultimate truth beyond the mechanics of the Universe.

    On a cautionary note, atheism is one foundation of the “me first” ethos that drives Objectivist philosophy, which is increasingly creeping into Congressional debate. What’s the next step, Neo-Nazism? The individual should be rewarded for his/her talents, in my opinion, but the concept of “Enlightened Self Interest” would seemingly penetrate the obtuse arguments of narcissism.

    Somewhere, there has to be compassion towards humanity, and an awareness of how intricately connected society and Nature truly are. Atheism, a ‘non-prophet’ belief system, just does not adequately fill the vacuum of a declining monotheistic culture in the West.

    Predictably, a new cosmology will likely emerge in this century, based on Dark Green thinking, respecting life in all its forms — as Bron Taylor would call it, a Civil Earth Religion vs. Religious Nationalism (of the past). However, the very definition of “religion” will change, as it may imply more pantheistic, or egalitarian, thinking than the worship of anthropomorphic deities.

    The persistent problem with militant atheism is that it tends to cut many of its adherents off from considering possibilities and ongoing scientific evidence, by advocating absolute doctrines. Tragically, as history has taught us with radical religious and secular philosophies, that only leads to catastrophe

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