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“If Only Atheists Were the Skeptics They Think They Are”

by Greg Krehbiel on 20 May 2008

This article — The Skeptical Inquirer — although not very well written, IMO, is worth reading because it makes some very good points about modern skepticism.

This essence of the argument runs like this.

If the only way to find God is by strictly empirical evidence, then either (1) God shows himself to us by such evidence, (2) God doesn’t exist, or (3) there’s no way for us to know if God exists.

Our modern alleged skeptics like this scenario because it fits with their commitments, so they stop right there and consider the battle won. What they fail to do is apply skepticism to their skepticism. They fail to take into account that God might want us to find him some other way.

The atheist, according to this author,

… likes a world in which he can stop thinking about something when the hard evidence for it gives out: That is a beautifully simple world. …

What he cannot do is believe in God in the posture that he has adopted, since he demands to believe on the basis of the specific kind of evidence he is not getting. … He demands that God show himself to senses or logic, and when God does not oblige, he considers the matter closed and ceases to think.

The author’s argument is pretty good, if you can slog through the language. But what he fails to do is provide a now what?

It’s all well and good to say that the atheist has constructed a phony situation, and it’s true that the atheist is often unfair in his application of his principles.

On other questions — in fact, in his most fundamental commitments, in his credo — he does believe without evidence, since there is no evidence to support the belief that the divine must knock at the doors of eye and mind.

This is standard fare, and a perfectly reasonable criticism of atheism. But since the author doesn’t provide some other way to look at the issue — except a rather vague reference to “listening to the heart” (by which he does not mean feelings, but I’m not exactly sure what he does mean) — I don’t see how any of it helps the skeptical reader.

It’s all well and good to say “you can’t find God in a microscope,” but that doesn’t tell anybody where they can find him.

2008-05-20  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 13

  1. John Krehbiel jkrehbielp
    20 May 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    I tried to read that article, really I did, but the author is trying so hard to be clever, he hides nay straightforward statements in this kind of blather:

    By a “skeptic” I mean a person who believes that in some particular arena of desired knowledge we just cannot have knowledge of the foursquare variety that we get elsewhere, and who sees no reason to bolster that lack with willful belief.

    Yup, there’s a definition worthy of Webster- on LSD.

    I remember many years ago, hearing that Newton (maybe) argued against the idea that there is some absolute frame of reference, in terms of location in the universe. His argument was, imagine a universe five feet to the right of our present one- could you tell any difference, even in principle?

    IOW, if you can’t tell any difference, there is no difference.

    So we are faced with a question: How can we tell God exists? What evidence is there?

    If there is evidence, problem solved. If there is no evidence, we don’t really know that He doesn’t exist, but if there is no discernible difference between a world without a God and the universe we observe, what does the proposed existence of God add to our understanding?

    And besides observable evidence, what “some other way” is there?

    Revelation is easily dismissed as wishful thinking, and one person’s “revealed knowledge” is another’s heresy. Gets us nowhere.

    So what is this “some other way?”

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    20 May 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    It is a badly written piece. I tried to warn you. 🙂

    I haven’t read Pascal, so I don’t know what this “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know” stuff is all about.

    Obviously there are things that we believe that don’t rely on observable evidence. E.g., the existence of other minds, or cause and effect (which Hume supposedly demonstrated cannot be proven by observation). So the claim that we should only believe things that are shown by observable evidence doesn’t hold up.

  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    20 May 2008 @ 10:17 pm

    I googled the old “heart has reasons” thing and came up with this post, which I thought was pretty interesting.

    He raises the question: As we look back on our lives, do we wish we’d been more logical, or more passionate?

    I often find myself in the position of (1) realizing the severe limitations of rational thought, but (2) not believing that any other option is demonstrably better.

  4. Brent the Plenapotentate
    21 May 2008 @ 3:58 am

    I agree in principle with what you’re saying Greg – I believe God is only going to be found through some non-empirical mechanism.

    I’ve heard it said before that “wisdom is reaching sufficient conclusions from insufficient evidence”…or something like that. That said, I think there is a relationship between God and wisdom.

  5. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    21 May 2008 @ 8:40 am

    Brent — I’m not sure I completely agree with all this, I just think the guy raises some good points. Basically, I’m inclined to agree with anybody who says that people are only half as smart as their worst critics would admit. 🙂

    I think many arguments aren’t a matter of reason or rationality. They boil down to what people want to believe. For example,

    + somebody who wants to believe that humans are messing up the environment is more easily persuaded of man-made global warming;

    + somone who wants to cast off certain moral inhibitions is more easily persuaded there is no God;

    + someone who wants to believe in life after death (for himself or others) is more easily persuaded there is a God. Etc.

    There’s usually enough evidence for people who are inclined to believe something. IOW, saying “there isn’t enough evidence” is often like saying “I don’t have the time.” Of course you have the time, you just don’t want to do it.

    If you read the skeptic boards, it’s blazingly obvious that they settle for crappy arguments that support their position. Of course the same is true on the Catholic boards, and the Environmentalist boards, and the “Aliens have landed in Roswell” boards, and so on.

  6. pentamom
    21 May 2008 @ 9:07 am

    And on that last point, they fiercely defend the lousy arguments if you try to get them to improve them, even if you’re on their own team. I don’t know how often I’ve tried to tell people (in Net land), “You know, I agree with you, but that’s not a good way to argue it, because this part of it isn’t actually true, or this part of it will just leave the other guy with this other question.” All you get is defensiveness, because the suspicion is that if you take away one of their arguments, you’re taking away their ability to defend the proposition, or calling the proposition itself into question. This is the case even when you tell them, “If you slightly modify the argument this way, it works better.”

    But that goes back to your other post about not everyone being an expert. People understandably don’t have the time to think everything through and tighten up their arguments, so they go with what seems to work, and fear messing with it. All of us do it.

  7. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    21 May 2008 @ 10:18 am

    For some people the doctrine and the defense are so closely aligned that to doubt the one is to doubt the other.

    I ran into this phenomenon in endless online discussions with Catholics about contraception. The position I took was that the arguments for the doctrine are lousy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the doctrine is wrong.

    People just couldn’t accept that and assumed that I had a hidden agenda, was “anti-child,” etc.

    (A Lutheran friend on the board was privately amused that people with one or two kids were accusing this father of five of being “anti-child,” but that’s how this sort of thing works. Being unpersuaded by the anti-contraception arguments necessarily meant that I had the alleged anti-child attitude of people who believed in contraception.)

  8. John Krehbiel jkrehbielp
    21 May 2008 @ 7:13 pm

    Often, rigorous logical arguments are not very effective at changing minds, so the arguments you get are logical crap that persuade more people.

    “+ somone who wants to cast off certain moral inhibitions is more easily persuaded there is no God;”

    I just don’t get this one. Nobody I’ve ever heard of became an atheist so they didn’t have to behave morally. In fact, one of the students in my “honors” class last year pointed out that another student who regularly disrupted class with creationist proclamations was not exactly behaving as a Christian ought to act. She said that just becasue she was a Christian didn’t mean that she couldn’t do whatever she wanted to. (I know the intent was to disrupt because her comments had nothing to do with whatever we were covering)

    Yes, in practice we believe all kinds of things without evidence, but as your other post pointed out, if we wait for certainty, we spend all our lives choosing a tie.

    But you haven’t answered my main question. When seeking reliable knowledge, what is there to go on besides evidence?

  9. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    21 May 2008 @ 7:58 pm

    People use magical thinking to escape making choices. In that respect, religion is a crutch.

    People reject the notion of God to escape feelings of guilt. In that respect, atheism is a crutch.

    I did a quick web search to show that other people actually feel that way, and that I’m not just making it up. Here’s a quote I found rather easily.

    ‘What are the best benefits of atheism/secularism, in your opinions? For me, it was the freedom to make my own decisions about everything, without the Catholic church looking over my shoulder saying whatever I was doing was “wrong.”‘

    Several of the recent atheist books talk about this phenomenon — about a feeling of euphoria and release people experience when they give up on belief in God. Why? Because they no longer feel that some Other Mind is scrutinizing and judging their thoughts.

    Atheism is a way to escape the prospect of moral judgment.

    You say people don’t become atheists to avoid morality, but I can assure you that lots and lots of people do — especially when you realize that morality covers more than behavior.

    >When seeking reliable knowledge, what is there to go on besides evidence?

    I guess it depends on what you classify as “evidence.”

    To my way of thinking, there’s no evidence that other minds exist. Everything could be explained just as well by an elaborate computer simulation. So on what basis do I believe that other minds exist? Not on the basis of evidence, since the only evidence I have fits just as well with other theories.

    I haven’t read Hume in a while, but he supposedly proves that there’s no evidence for cause and effect. So why do we believe in it?

    There isn’t any evidence for the law of non-contradiction.

    So to some extent our knowledge depends on things that have nothing to do with evidence.

  10. Jon
    22 May 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    There’s no evidence of other minds? I’d say there is. I have a mind, so I know what it is like to have a mind, and I know how having a mind affects my behavior. I see other creatures that look like me that likewise behave as if they had a mind as I do. They get up for work in the morning and perform tasks so they can make money, exhibit forethought as they take care of their kids, etc. Can’t I conclude based upon these observations that there are other minds? It’s an inductive conclusion like any other scientific conclusion, so you can’t know with absolute certainty, but you can regard it as more probable than not.

    I think this view that I’m not going to believe unless there is evidence or reason that can justify the conclusion is a reasonable way of approaching life. You can’t prove that this is the only way to know things. But I know from experience and from looking at history that when people form conclusions not based on evidence and reason the conclusions are often wrong and destructive. It seems that when I open my eyes when I move towards the stairs I bang my shins a lot less frequently. When my boss asks me to predict if a design will fail, it seems to work better when I evaluate based on previous experience and test data rather than some sort of non-evidence based method, such as how the question makes me feel. Reason and evidence just has a much better track record.

  11. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    22 May 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    Jon — but how would you tell the difference between what we all consider to be real life and being on the Star Trek holodeck? What evidence could you point to?

    Have you ever seen the Truman Show? Imagine that same scenario run by a computer program.

  12. Jon
    22 May 2008 @ 5:23 pm

    Yeah, I guess that’s a good point.

    Maybe I’m just believing what works. If I act like there are no other minds, and I steal some stuff, these other people act like they have minds and they get mad at me and do stuff to me that I don’t like. So I’ll assume they have minds. Beyond that things seem to work out better for me when my conclusions are based on reason and evidence.

    Of course religion works for a lot of people. Suppose religion is not based on evidence. Suppose the evidence opposes it. I guess you have to decide what works better for you, conclusions based on evidence, or religion.

  13. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    22 May 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    Jon — don’t get me wrong, I believe in other minds, I just realize that I don’t believe it on the basis of evidence. It’s an assumption. I think it’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s an assumption nevertheless.

    Or perhaps we define “evidence” too narrowly. I’m not sure.

    I don’t believe that religion is “based on” evidence. I think it’s based on something far deeper — like our belief in other minds. That doesn’t make it true or false. Some of these “deep intuitions” (or whatever we choose to call them) may be wrong. And some of them, like belief in the existence of other minds, might be beyond the reach of evidence to either confirm or deny.

    I’m not sure.