Science, Reason, and Agnosticism
Philosophy Department, Sonoma State University
Abstract: Science-inspired arguments for atheism confuse 1) claims that are unfalsifiable within a paradigm with 2) claims that have been scientifically proven by that paradigm. This confusion enables atheists to confidently claim they would change their position, once they encounter “scientific evidence” that cannot possibly exist. It also inspires theists to search in vain for scientific evidence to support their position, which necessarily dissolves into a handful of mechanisms once it is in their grasp. Neither side notices that the deck was stacked against the theists from the beginning. A close look at possible candidates for scientific evidence of atheistic (or theistic) claims reveals that, given our current assumptions, no such data could possibly exist.
These days, atheists often accuse theists of being incapable of reasoning. Dawkins approvingly quotes Jerry Coyne’s description of the atheism/theism debate as a war “between rationalism and superstition.” (Dawkins 2006 p. 67 ) He also says that “religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation. . . it discourages questioning, by its very nature”. (Dawkins 2006 p. 306 ) Sam Harris says that “each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified”. (Dawkins 2006 p. 278).
It is true that most theists in the Abrahamic traditions are willing to believe certain propositions on what modern thought rightly calls insufficient evidence. For example, it clearly violates the most fundamental principles of modern science and scholarship to believe a proposition simply because it is stated in an allegedly sacred text. This is especially true of the Christian Bible, because it is a collection of sources written by a variety of often unknown authors, most of whom never explicitly claim divine authorship, and which was compiled in its present form only after a tangled series of political compromises. To go from the fundamental tenets of Christianity, such as accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, to the divine inspiration of a book written 100 years after his death in such fallible circumstances, is a non-sequitur. It is far more rational to believe, as many liberal Christians believe today, that the Bible is an imperfect documentation of an extraordinarily important event. This is true even for those who have had a profound spiritual transformation from reading it. It is equally problematic, although slightly less unjustified, to accept a text (such as the Koran) solely because the author says it is a revelation from God. There is at least some reason for believing that a text might possibly be divinely inspired if the author and text explicitly claim to be divinely inspired. However, there are still unavoidable problems of circularity involved in using a book to justify its own divinity.
Nevertheless, committing these particular epistemic sins does not impair the ability to reason. On the contrary, belief that a particular text is divinely inspired and infallible actually creates a tremendous demand for reasoning skills. There are inevitably multiple interpretations of any sacred text, which make it impossible to decisively determine how to follow the text’s guidance. Disputes over these interpretations are responsible for most of the evils done in the name of religion, particularly when argument is abandoned in favor of force and violence. However, the development of these multiple interpretations also requires a skillful use of rational argument, and many great rational thinkers honed their minds by comparing and developing these multiple interpretations. Thomas Aquinas, William of Occam, even Isaac Newton and John Locke, all believed that the Bible was divinely revealed, but this did not stop them from reasoning with great skill. These men, and numerous others like them, were both devoutly religious and among the greatest reasoners who ever lived.
Harris was wrong when he said that religious faith implies that religious propositions need not be justified. Religious rationalists do believe that some religious propositions must be accepted on faith. But they also believe that all their other religious beliefs can be rationally justified only if they are made consistent with these basic faith axioms. This is not surprising if one understands how reasoning works. Reasoning always starts with unquestioned first premises, simply because it has to start somewhere. Many great thinkers of the past were willing to start reasoning from first principles that are rightly not acceptable to us today. However, that did not stop them, nor was there any reason to assume that it should have stopped them, from validly reasoning from those starting points. This is the fundamental principle taught in every critical thinking class: the truth of one’s premises, and the validity of one’s reasoning, are distinct and separable properties.
This is more obvious to those of us who have extensively studied philosophical texts. One of the great pleasures and challenges of reading a philosopher like Kant is the continuing discovery that his counterintuitive conclusions really do follow from his premises. This inspires a hunt as to which of his many plausible premises can be questioned, and a resulting recognition that sometimes we must respect and acknowledge the rationality of people we disagree with. Unfortunately, sometimes a scientific training works against this kind of pluralism. Science makes progress when there is essentially universal acceptance of a set of presuppositions often called a paradigm: an acceptance that makes observations appear to be theoretically neutral. (Kuhn 1963). This illusion of neutrality blurs the line between observation and reasoning, and consequently being rational is often considered to be equivalent to acknowledging the truth of our most strongly supported scientific observations. It is important to criticize people who are willing to reject certain facts merely because of spiritual discomfort or economic inconvenience. However, analyzing the quality of evidence, and learning how to reason validly from that evidence, are importantly different skills. People who are scientifically trained, but philosophically naïve, are often not as aware of this difference as they should be, and consequently unconsciously conflate reasoning and evidence. This conflation is one of the most widespread fallacies in popular discourse. Anyone who has studied logic cannot help but cringe when Mr. Spock on Star Trek uses the word “logical” for any conclusion which happens to be true.
This conflation between reason and factual evidence is the primary reason that so many people believe that atheism is somehow more scientific than theism. Many scientists write popular books that blur the line between scientific fact and the metaphysical assumptions that made the discovery of those facts possible. The result is a mishmash of science and philosophy which requires even more hard philosophical work to clarify and separate. It is this mishmashing which has given atheism an appearance of scientific support that it has not earned. In this essay I will argue that once we have a clear criterion for distinguishing science from theology, we will see that atheism is itself a kind of speculative theology, which is scientifically no better or worse than theism.
If theism and atheism have essentially equal nonsupport from science, this seems to imply that anyone who takes science as the gold standard for knowledge will have to accept some kind of agnosticism. I will be arguing for a subspecies I will call Meta-agnosticism. This is distinct from the species of agnosticism which insists that our level of ignorance on the topic is so high that it would be best to behave as if the atheists were right. For all practical purposes, this kind of agnosticism is behaviorally identical to nondogmatic atheism. Meta-agnosticism, in contrast, acknowledges that nondogmatic atheism does imply certain behavioral commitments, and refuses to make those commitments. Instead, it acknowledges that there are forms of atheism, theism, and agnosticism which are intellectually honest, because there are good but not decisive arguments for each of them.
I agree with William James that when evidence and arguments leave us adrift in this manner we have some legitimate freedom in what we choose to believe. This freedom does have limits. We cannot believe that global warming is imaginary simply because that belief makes us feel better. We cannot legitimately believe that the earth is only six thousand years old just because the Bible could be interpreted as implying this. However, when our most careful intellectual effort narrows the best possible answers to a figure that is greater than one, we have an epistemic right to choose between these (and only these) possibilities. This kind of narrowing is the best that we can do with theological questions, which is why there are intellectually honest versions of theism, atheism, and agnosticism, even if there are no decisive proofs for or against the existence of God. Meta-agnosticism honors all three of these as legitimate and honest choices.
Why then is it so widely believed that science is on the atheist’s side? Why do Dennett and Dawkins insist that “evolutionary biology disproves the idea of a creator God” (Dawkins 2006 p. 69). The first response to this objection is that Dennett and Dawkins themselves do not always state their case this boldly. In a New York Times article (8/29/05), Dennett said that Darwinian science “ seems to deny one of the best reasons we have for believing in God”, which is a long way from saying that evolution proves that there is no God. That carefully worded statement deliberately implies that this denial may or may not be decisive, and that there may or may not be other valid arguments for the existence of God. Dawkins has said “I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.” (New York Times 1/5/05) These cautious versions of the atheist arguments from evolution are much more accurate, because although these arguments rely on and were inspired by scientific facts, they are not themselves scientific. Like all philosophical arguments, they rely on conceptual analysis of the implications of accepted facts, rather than the discovery of new facts. This means they are both more ambitious and less likely to generate consensus than the arguments and evidence produced by science itself.
The Paradox of Metaphysical “Certainty”
The most important difference between metaphysical and scientific thinking is also its greatest paradox. Science distinguishes the possible from the actual by means of experiment and observation. This leads to theories that have a very high probability of being true, but are still vulnerable to future disproof. We can always imagine that any scientific theory is possibly false, and sometimes even the best ones turn out to be actually false. Metaphysics, in contrast, makes claims that appear to be even more certain than scientific facts. This is because metaphysics must rely not on inductive observations, but on deductive arguments which, like all deductive arguments, try to prove that their conclusions are necessarily true i.e. it seems impossible that things could be otherwise. When philosophers attack claims about God, or any other metaphysical claim, they do not limit themselves to saying there is evidence that the other side is probably mistaken. Instead, the argument is made that the other side is necessarily mistaken (1). The fact that these arguments usually fail to convince the other side does not alter the fact that, even though there is never agreement that they have achieved it, these arguments strive for necessity. This is true of the argument itself, even if there are people making the argument who are unaware of this fact. This striving for necessity is why these arguments are not empirical scientific claims, because all empirical claims are vulnerable to falsification by observation and experiment. The paradox is that despite these pretensions towards necessity, it is an historical fact that metaphysical inquiry has never resolved controversies with the level of decisiveness that can be achieved with scientific experiments.
There are many strategies that can be used to show that a claim is necessarily true or false. One can argue, for example, that a claim is necessarily false if it is self-contradictory, or implies a vicious infinite regress, or violates Occam’s Razor. These strategies require great mental discipline to do properly, and some of the world’s greatest geniuses have devoted their lives to this discipline. And yet metaphysics remains-as Kant once described it-a field which has questions it must always ask but is never able to answer. Why is it that metaphysical claims are so hard to prove, even though they appear to be necessarily true? That is itself a metaphysical question, which is as hard to answer as any of the others. One reason, however, is that even though all deductive arguments lead to necessarily true conclusions, this truth value holds only on condition that the premises are true. Metaphysics starts with premises that seem impossible to deny, and it seems obvious that if we reason validly from premises that must be true, then our conclusion must be true.
Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work that way, because many premises that seem necessarily true actually turn out to be confused or even false. Dennett put it this way: It’s easy to confuse a failure of imagination with an insight into necessity. We assume a claim must be necessarily true if we can’t imagine it being false. Nevertheless, sometimes new scientific experiments, or new imaginative constructions called thought experiments, show us that what we thought was impossible turned out to be possible after all, or sometimes even actual. I would go perhaps a step further and say that this is true for all metaphysical claims. No matter how vigilant we are, we have no way of distinguishing a failure of imagination from an insight into necessity. Consequently, if anyone gives you a metaphysical argument, whose conclusion seems necessarily true, you should actually trust it less, not more, than a scientific claim, which is supported “only” by inductive reasoning.
Doesn’t this suggest that the concept of necessary metaphysical truth is an illusion? And if no metaphysical claims are in fact necessarily true, why should we concern ourselves at all with this distinction between possible and necessary? Unfortunately, without an awareness of this distinction, there is a danger of confusing 1) claims that are unfalsifiable within a paradigm as 2) claims that have been scientifically proven by that paradigm. This confusion enables atheists to claim that their position is based solely on scientific evidence, and consequently that if the evidence changed, they would change their position. It also inspires theists to search in vain for scientific evidence to support their position. The purpose of most of the scientific citations in this paper is to provide examples of both of these kinds of confusion. Here you will find atheists confidently expressing a willingness to change their mind, once they encounter evidence that cannot possibly exist. You will also see theists convinced that there is scientific proof for the existence of God just over the horizon, only to have it dissolve into a handful of mechanisms once it is in their grasp.
In a society so deeply enamored of all things scientific, it is not surprising that everyone wants their position to be backed decisively by scientific evidence. Nevertheless, both sides need to be honest with themselves, and admit that with theological questions, scientific evidence is useful only as a starting point for philosophical reflection. It cannot falsify or confirm a metaphysical claim with the decisiveness that it can falsify or confirm a scientific claim. Consequently, when it comes to theological claims, the alleged openness to falsification (or confirmation) by future data is a delusion. A close look at possible candidates for scientific evidence of theological claims reveals that no such data could possibly exist. These argument may claim to be scientific, but because their conclusions appear to be necessarily true, they are actually philosophy pretending to be science. If they are bad philosophy, they can be revealed as such only by means of philosophical techniques. If they are good philosophy, they still have no right to the kind of credibility that we give to good science.
Can there be Scientific Proof for the Existence of God?
Dennett coins the term skyhook to refer to “a ‘mind first’ force or power or process , an exception to the principle that all design and apparent design is ultimately the result of mindless motiveless mechanicity” (Dennett 1995 p.76). The key word here is “ultimately”. Dennett has long acknowledged that mind-based explanations are appropriate and necessary for what he calls ‘the intentional stance”, and that we can’t make sense of our daily interactions without them. These mind-based explanations are what he calls “real patterns”, although figuring out exactly in what sense they are real is a major topic of debate. Nevertheless, Dennett still wants to claim that these mind-based explanations must ultimately be grounded in mechanical explanations. We can’t get along without intentional explanations when we are trying to sign contracts, drive through traffic lights etc. and they are probably essential in various disciplines like economics, anthropology etc. But when considering fundamental issues in biology, natural history, or theology, ultimately skyhooks offer no explanation at all.
Mechanisms are by definition things without minds, and can’t have motives for doing anything, because they don’t have beliefs or desires. What this definition means, in other words, is that any fundamental explanation is automatically disqualified if it talks about persons who have beliefs and desires. Doesn’t this eliminate any possibility of an explanation that makes any reference to God, who is by definition some kind of person? (2) If our current scientific assumptions are designed to exclude the possibility of everything but mindless mechanical explanations, the fact that all our scientific discoveries are of mindless mechanisms doesn’t provide any inductive evidence for atheism. If you take a poll, and invalidate every vote against your candidate, your candidate will obviously get 100% of the vote, but so what?
For many people, accepting Darwin’s discoveries gives a sense that God has been eliminated from the Universe. But have you ever asked yourself “What else did I expect to see? What would scientific evidence for the existence of God look like?” If we except Dennett’s principle that the scientific method requires an a priori ban on any explanations that require skyhooks, the idea of scientific proof for (or against) the existence of God becomes as self-contradictory as a round square. Dennett’s arguments against skyhooks are intuitively compelling, and they have been especially helpful as guiding principles for artificial intelligence. You can’t run a computer program that has skyhooks in it until each of those skyhooks has been analyzed into mindless mechanisms. Nevertheless, my point is that Dennett’s arguments are deductive arguments from useful heuristic assumptions, not inductive arguments based on evidence or experiments. No computer scientist could test the assumption that you could build a computer without skyhooks, because that assumption is the defining goal of AI. In much the same way, a mindless mechanical universe is the defining assumption of natural science.
Suppose we had scientific evidence that a miracle occurred. Wouldn’t that be scientific support for the existence of a supernatural God? This is a popular and tempting suggestion, but it is ultimately doomed to incoherence. Dennett’s arguments against skyhooks are merely one example of science’s a priori ban against any kind of miracle. If the fundamental explanatory buck is permitted to stop with an explanation that refers to mental properties like beliefs and desires, we are implicitly accepting something like Cartesian dualism. This dualism is in effect a claim that the connection between the mental and the physical is fundamentally miraculous. (This position is stated even more explicitly by Descartes’ disciple Malebranche.) Descartes’ arguments for dualism were at their most compelling when the complexities of mental behavior seemed beyond the reach of mechanical explanation. Without a plausible mechanical explanation, dualism was tolerated because it was the only game in town. Now that we have rational machines whose sophistication is getting closer and closer to that of rational animals, many of those arguments are far less compelling. In much the same way, the atheist idea that life arose purely because of mindless mechanisms seemed preposterous, until we had a better understanding of those mechanisms. Thanks to Darwin and his heirs, it no longer seems necessary to posit a supernatural force that is directing and controlling nature.
However, we could have legitimately come to the same conclusions even without the most recent data. There were purely conceptual confusions with Cartesian dualism that made it a bad solution for the problems it was trying to solve. These are the same basic confusions that make it impossible for naturalism to make sense out of the idea of a God separated from her creation by a yawning miraculous gap. This gap is just Cartesian dualism applied to the entire universe. Cartesianism says that the spiritual mind floats independently over, and yet magically controls, the physical body. Supernaturalism says that God the spirit floats independently over, and yet miraculously controls, the physical Universe. The primary objection to supernaturalism is thus the same that Dennett raised against Mind/body dualism, or any other miraculous “explanation”: it is a form of giving up on the epistemic enterprise. (Dennett 1991 p.37).
This is the fatal problem with the freakish hybrid of science and metaphysics known as “intelligent design”. It gives up on trying to find a mechanical explanation, and labels this ignorance as a form of knowledge. The discovery of a gap in our knowledge is considered to be evidence for the existence of God, which is why this theory is rightly ridiculed with the epithet “God of the gaps”. The evidence they provide for the unsurprising fact that there are gaps in our current knowledge is irrelevant, because You cannot infer anything about the world from our ignorance about the world.(3)
However, many of the atheists who criticize intelligent design for this mistake are guilty of a similar error. Shook says “No supernatural belief has yet passed the reasonable standard of empirical knowledge” (Shook 2010 p. 18). The word “yet” clearly indicates his belief that a scientific proof of the supernatural is possible. Dennett says “Perhaps there are . . . miracles that actually defy the laws of nature. If so, the only hope of ever demonstrating this to a doubting world would be by adoption of the scientific method, with its assumption of no miracles, and showing that science was unable to account for the phenomena. . . .If it isn’t entirely natural, if there really are miracles involved, the best way–indeed the only way–to show that to doubters would be to demonstrate it scientifically.” (Dennett 2006 p.26) The problem is that this “assumption of no miracles” is not a tentative hypothesis that can be cast aside if disproven. It is a fundamental assumption of all scientific activity, as any attempt to concretely imagine such a project will show.
Suppose, for example, that there was a person who appears to be able to walk on water. Suppose he was brought into a laboratory with a large swimming pool, and performed this trick over and over again for the greatest scientists in the world. There are only three possible things that could happen. 1) The scientists discover an explanation that fits the current laws of science. For example, he could be doing it with mirrors, or by balancing on a skinny wire just above the water surface. 2) The scientists discover that his abilities are explained by a whole new set of scientific laws, which produce a revolution in science. This would be a cause for great rejoicing on the part of the scientists doing the research, because they would probably receive Nobel prizes. But it would not show that this person had performed a miracle. A miracle has to suspend or break scientific laws, and his trick wouldn’t break what we would then know to be the real scientific laws. 3) The scientists would be completely baffled by what they saw, and have no explanation to offer for it. Some people would probably claim that this “proved” that this person is performing miracles. But they would be wrong, for the same reason that the God of the Gaps argument is wrong. The fact that we don’t understand something does not prove that a miracle occurred or that God did something. The scientists in this situation would not say they had proof that a miracle occurred. They would say that they had not discovered proof of anything one way or the other. You cannot infer anything about the world from our ignorance about the world.
This does not mean that science has proven that there are no miracles in the world. The question of whether miracles are possible is a metaphysical question, not a scientific one, so science itself will never be able to answer it. Instead, science assumes as a fundamental postulate that miracles do not occur, because every unexplained event must be in principle explainable if we are to do science at all. A ‘science’ which accepted miracles would be a science that had given up. Some Atheists do appear to acknowledge this (4), but they don’t seem to recognize that this acknowledgement is inconsistent with the claim that science remains open to the possibility of discovering miracles in the future.
More on Naturalism and Persons
Dennett’s ban on skyhooks requires us to reject any explanation that refers to nature as a person with beliefs, goals, and desires. It’s important to recognize that this ban, like the ban on miracles, is not a tentative hypothesis, but a necessary part of the naturalistic perspective. Both theists and atheists have a lot of trouble accepting this, including those who occasionally acknowledge it specifically. Atheists assure theists that they will gladly change their minds once the theists provide the proofs they ask for. The theists continue to search for such proofs, then argue fruitlessly with the atheists who correctly point out that the alleged proofs are unsuccessful. Neither side notices that the deck was stacked against the theists from the beginning. Here are a few examples of this dysfunctional enterprise in action.
Praying to a Personal God
Dennett asserts that if we could “demonstrate that people who are prayed for are significantly more likely to get well than people who get the same medical treatments but are not prayed for” then we would be forced to conclude that “this would be all but impossible for science to account for without a major revolution.” (Dennett 2006 pp. 274-5). Could such a revolution provide evidence for the existence of a personal god–in other words, confer scientific respectability on the concept of skyhooks? No, because there are only two possible conclusions that could be reached from such an experiment. 1) Suppose that the correlation was 100%?–everyone who was prayed for got well and all the people who weren’t prayed for died? This would be a major scientific and medical breakthrough, and probably result in doctors prescribing prayer with the same frequency that they now prescribe penicillin–”take two hail Marys and call me in the morning.” However, nobody has ever inferred from its healing efficacy that penicillin must be possessed by a benevolent spirit that wishes us well. On the contrary, the fact that its effect is so predictable is what supports the belief that its healing powers are mindless, motiveless and mechanical. If prayer did produce the kinds of results that scientists could take seriously, the connection between prayer and results would have to be so reliable that there would be no need to posit a god who was hearing the prayers and answering them. 2) Our only other option is for the effect to be less reliable and predictable. Would we then infer from this that the healing power of prayer emanates from a personal God, who sometimes decides to heal us and sometimes doesn’t? This is a strategy sometimes used by ministers and theologians, who say things like “God always answers our prayers, but sometimes the answer is ‘no’.” However, this is a completely unacceptable strategy for science. Instead, scientists would say that this is an intermittent effect best explained by chance and coincidence. These are the only possibilities that the Naturalistic perspective can (or should) consider.
Chance, Design and Determinism
This Naturalistic ban on personal explanations for natural phenomena is also illustrated by research on chance mutations in evolution (See Millstein 2003 and Eble 1999). Theists who are unfamiliar with this research are often hopeful that disproof of chance mutations will provide evidence that the evolutionary process might be directed by a quasi-intentional agent. Despite the many permutations of this subtle debate, however, this possibility never comes up. The only possibilities ever considered are variations on the two possibilities in our hypothetical prayer research: The process of mutation is either random or deterministic. The laws of statistics only predict a range of probabilities, not certainties. If mutation rates were explainable by following some laws other than statistics, these laws could very well be deterministic. This would mean that if these laws were fully understood, we would be able to predict exactly what would happen in the future from what had happened in the past. This would have some interesting metaphysical implications. For example, a mutation system run by chance would arguably produce a different set of species if the clock of history were rerun, whereas a deterministic system would arguably produce the same set of species every time. This is highly speculative and abstract metaphysics, but it never brings up the issue of God. The only options considered are either chance processes that are mindless and motiveless, or mechanical processes that are mindless and motiveless.
A purely deterministic process that operated as a closed system within a cell’s DNA is nobody’s idea of a conscious agent. But suppose we discovered that DNA was actually more likely to produce helpful mutations than bad ones? Wouldn’t that be evidence of some conscious goal-seeking by the evolutionary process? Many people think so, which generates both interest and hostility for what is called directed mutation. Once the possibility began to take concrete shape, however, it became one more illustration of this fundamental principle of Naturalism: The better we understand anything, the more we rely on mechanical explanations and the less we rely on personal explanations.
When Jablonka and Lamb outline the arguments and evidence for a new form of directed mutation, they provide no evidence either for or against the existence of God. Their comment on the theological controversy is “such ideas have no part in scientific reasoning (and through their absurdity ridicule religion as well).” (Jablonka and Lamb 2005, p. 88). They do argue for the existence of what they call directed mutation. But the word “directed” has two importantly different meanings, one of which has theistic implications and the other doesn’t. We often use the word “directed” to mean “guided or planned”. But the word “directed” could also imply nothing more than a response to some kind of physical cause. For example, we would say that the flow of a river was directed by the banks of the river. However, this would not imply that the banks were “directing” the river the way Stephen Spielberg directs a movie.
Jablonka and Lamb argue that there are physical cause-and-effect connections between the DNA mutations and the environment and body of the evolving organism. They refer to these connections as “epigenetic systems” because they impact the genes from the outside. There is evidence, for example, that environmental stress can cause an organism to increase its mutation rate. (Jablonka and Lamb 2005 p.273) This sensitivity would be just the sort of trait that would be selected by the evolutionary process, because it would enable organisms to mutate most frequently when they needed to adapt to changes in the environment. This contradicts the current scientific view that genetic mutation is a spontaneous closed system. But this debate will neither confirm nor deny the view that evolution is “directed” by some kind of conscious intelligence. Both conscious and unconscious processes work through physical cause and effect connections. Stephen Spielberg could not direct movies without relying on certain causal connections, such as those between the vibrations caused by his shouting “action”, and the eardrums of the actors and photographers. But such causal connections also exist between many unguided and unplanned activities. Although there are obviously important differences between unconscious directors (like the riverbank) and conscious directors (like Stephen Spielberg) these differences are deliberately ignored by practicing scientists.
These numerous examples should hopefully began to open our eyes to an important fact. The individual cases described here are merely particular manifestations of certain fundamental principles of science. They make it easier to see the truth of those principles, but they don’t actually provide inductive justification for them. Of course, it’s always fun to learn new facts, but after a while these facts are philosophically beside the point. Once we accept these principles, we accept them as de facto necessary truths, which will determine what we see in the future as much as what we see in the present. Paradoxically, the fact that they are necessary truths makes them vulnerable to skepticism. It’s an undeniable inductive fact that the “necessary” truths of metaphysics, are not as reliable as the contingent truths of the natural sciences. What Dawkins and Dennett call a scientific theory that disproves the idea of a creator God is revealed to be only a philosophical theory inspired by a plausible interpretation of that scientific theory. This is enough to demote atheism to a position of equality with theism and agnosticism, at least until we have evaluated the atheist argument on purely philosophical terms.
I have already done this kind of philosophical evaluation in Rockwell 2009, but I now feel that my original assessment of a key atheist argument was too generous. This argument is often conflated with another argument which is quite strong, for the latter was responsible for the demolition of what had once been theism’s strongest argument. This demolition however, does not lead to atheism, only to agnosticism. The argument for atheism, which relies on many of the same scientific facts, is fallacious for a couple of reasons. This is why Darwinian science can lend support to agnosticism, but not to atheism.
Argument (1): the Demolition of the Argument from Design.
Darwin has had an undeniable and irreversible impact on theology. Before Darwin’s discoveries, atheism seemed preposterous, like believing that the works of Shakespeare could be created by an explosion in a printing shop. Since Darwin, the burden of proof has shifted radically in the opposite direction. Dennett says that Darwin made the argument from design as obsolete as the quill pen with which it was first written (Dennett 1995 p. 83), and he has good reasons for saying this. The argument from design got its force from the fact that before Darwin, the idea of life originating without a creator seemed unimaginable. What Darwin did was make it possible to imagine a universe in which there was no God. Before Darwin, atheism seemed ridiculous. After Darwin, atheism seemed not only possible, but sensible.
However, proving that something is possible is not the same thing as proving that it is true. The facts cited by Dawkins and Dennett get their philosophical force, not from what they show is actual, but from what they show is possible. The only philosophical significance of these scientific facts is that anything which is actual must also be possible. Before Darwin, the idea of life originating without a creator seemed unimaginable, which made the existence of God seem to be necessarily true. What Darwin did was make it possible to imagine a universe in which there was no God. This demolished the argument from design, because that argument relies on the intuition that a self-creating mindless universe is preposterous. This Darwinian argument does show that those people who were convinced by the argument from design really were mistaking a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity. However, proving that something is possible is not the same thing as proving that it is true. The standards of proof for a possibility are much lower. For the same reason, however, the conclusion from such a proof must be more parsimonious. The only conclusion we can derive from a destroyed argument from design is that atheism is possibly true, which is fully compatible with the claim that both theism and agnosticism are possibly true.
Argument (2): No Gaps, No God
The transition from agnosticism to atheism occurs when the atheist takes the same kind of facts that were used to demolish the argument from design, and claims that they prove God doesn’t exist. An example of this kind of argument can be found in Dawkins 2006, which cites similar arguments in books by Victor Stenger and Peter Atkins. The thrust of this argument is that every new discovery of a mechanical explanation for some aspect of the evolution of life is another piece of evidence that God doesn’t exist. This argument is the flipside of the “God of the Gaps” argument (GG), which is why I call it the “No Gaps, no God” argument (NGNG). The “God of the gaps argument” looks for gaps in the causal order as evidence for God’s existence. The “no Gaps, no God” argument looks for filled gaps as evidence for God’s nonexistence. Dawkins defends the latter position thusly.
. . . evolution by natural selection would be a very easy and neat way to achieve a world full of life. God wouldn’t need to do anything at all! Peter Atkins. . . takes this line of thought to a sensibly godless conclusion when he postulates a hypothetically lazy God who tries to get away with as little as possible in order to make a universe containing life. Atkins’s lazy God is even lazier than the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: deus otiosus—literally God at leisure, unoccupied, unemployed, superfluous, useless. Step by step, Atkins succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist.” (Dawkins 2006 p 118)
The assumption behind both arguments is that in order for God to exist, there must be some kind of gap in the causal order which could not function without her. If we accept that kind of dualism, we have to agree with both sides of this debate that evidence for mechanical causal processes is evidence for atheism. NGNG is arguably less irrational than GG, because it doesn’t assume that you can learn something about the world from our ignorance of the world. Nevertheless, it does contain some important confusions. For one thing, this piling up of “evidence” doesn’t add any actual force to the argument. It’s not as if we are comparing the amount of explained phenomena to the unexplained phenomena and weighing them in some kind of balance. Any unexplained discoveries are rightly assumed to be explainable in principle. Consequently, conceptual analysis of the principles of scientific explanation are what really justify NGNG, not a body of scientific evidence. The only reason for reveling in the intricacies and variety of these mindless mechanisms is, in Dawkins words, because “you need to be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, swim about in it, before you can truly appreciate its power.” (Dawkins 2006 p. 117). This is undeniably an exhilarating experience, as anyone who enjoys reading about evolutionary science can attest. The inference from this experience to atheism is fallacious, however, despite its popularity.
This kind of inference has a venerable lineage, even among people who reject atheism and materialism. In the above quote, Dawkins correctly points out that deism shares his assumption that once you have explained something mechanistically, you have proven that there is no consciousness in it. The most popular deist metaphor was God the artificer, who built the Universe, wound it up, then left it to run on its own. Dawkins is arguing above that deism is a slippery slope that leads to atheism unless you try to block it with some kind of God of the Gaps argument. I think he may be right about this, but that is only because atheism and deism are both relying on the fallacious NGNG argument. The way to avoid that slippery slope is not to take the first step into deism, and recognize that mechanically analyzing a system into parts tells us nothing one way or the other about whether that system is conscious. Some Christian writers have already acknowledged something like this by denouncing the GG argument. Alvin Plantinga says “God is constantly, immediately, and directly active in his creation” and rejects the idea that God intervenes in his creation only intermittently. (Plantinga 2001 p.350) This sounds very mystical when applied to God, but something similar is equally true of we natural conscious creatures. We don’t have to intervene into our brain cells when we make conscious decisions, because our consciousness is a property constantly possessed by (or supervening on or identical to) our biological system.
Descartes also used an argument that is similar to GG for the existence of mind-body dualism. One reason he posited dualism was that it seemed impossible for mechanical devices to replicate the behavior of conscious rational beings, because there could not be “Enough different devices in a machine to make it behave in all the occurrences of life as our reason makes us behave” (quoted in Dreyfus 1994 p. 236). Now that we have computers that can perform branching functions, that particular gap in Descartes’s knowledge has been filled for us by a mechanism. Most modern arguments against dualism rely on the principle that other gaps in our knowledge are in principle fillable by other similar mechanisms.
However, once this argument has been used against dualism, it can no longer be used against theism. Once we have rejected the idea that minds are nonphysical substances, we must see them as a kind of mechanism – a mindful motivated mechanism. Consequently, when we reveal the mechanical substrate of a process or organism, it tells us nothing whatsoever about whether that process or organism is mindful, conscious, motivated, or purposeful. It’s true that any process appears to lack purpose when we analyze it using the tools of physical science. But that is equally true of any process that everyone agrees is conscious and purposeful. Dawkins claims that the discovery of evolution shows us that God wouldn’t need to do anything at all. But no one claims that when we discover that we think with our brain cells, we must conclude that we don’t do anything at all. Any argument that claims the evolutionary process is mindless and purposeless because it can be analyzed into mindless mechanisms would force us to conclude that we ourselves are mindless and purposeless, because we can in fact be analyzed into mindless mechanisms.
There are many ways of revealing the fallacy in this argument. I have elsewhere described it as a form of affirming the consequent (Rockwell 2013):
If Evolution were mindless and purposeless, it would be explainable in terms of mechanisms.
Evolution is explainable in terms of mechanisms.
Therefore, it must be mindless and purposeless.
If the propositions in the first premise were reversed, the argument would no longer be fallacious, but the first premise would be false. Here is the first premise, both reversed and generalized.
If something is explainable in terms of mechanism, it must be mindless and purposeless.
This statement leads to the absurd conclusion that Homo sapiens are mindless and purposeless, because the behavior of Homo sapiens is also explainable in terms of mechanisms. NGNG is also an example of the fallacy of composition, because it infers that the evolutionary process is mindless from the fact that each of its parts is mindless.
I think the most ironic problem with the No Gaps No God argument, however, is that it only works if you assume that mind/body dualism is true. Dualists have to see the connection between the mental and the physical as miraculous. This is not a problem for the defenders of the God of the Gaps argument, who enthusiastically accept both miracles and immaterial souls. However, anyone who believes that minds are embodied in physical stuff has no right to conflate the absence of miracles with the absence of mentality. This is exactly what Shook is doing when he writes “The Earth might look designed, but planetary geology and evolutionary biology… can assemble a natural history of the Earth that requires no miracles” (Shook 2010 p. 137). We can also assemble a history of the origins of the Empire State building that requires no miracles. No one infers from this that the Empire State building did not have a designer.
In Rockwell 2009 and 2013, I claimed that from our gnat’s eye view of natural history, there is no way we can tell the difference between a mindless mechanism and a mindful one. I argued that this put atheism and theism on an equal footing, because absence of proof is not the same thing as proof of absence. At the moment, however, I am inclined towards the unfashionable position that some kind of naturalized theism might have a slight edge over atheism, because our gnat’s eye view of evolution actually gives constant indications of purposeful activity. These indications are not decisive proof. Decisive scientific proof for the existence of consciousness is simply not to be had, at either the manifest or the supermacro-level. We do have an intuitive sense of how to tell the difference between things that are probably conscious (homo sapiens, dogs, snakes) from things that probably aren’t (rocks, vacuum cleaners), but we don’t know how to codify that sense into a set of explicit principles. Our inability to translate those intuitions into principles is the main reason that the philosopher’s “zombie problem” seems so hard to eradicate. However, when we are relying only on those intuitions, we are, as most Darwinian atheists freely admit, strongly inclined towards the belief that the process of evolution is purposive and goal oriented.
Dawkins’ primary aim in almost all of his writings is to train his readers to see this purposefulness as a mere illusion, for he recognizes that the appearance of design and goals in natural selection is almost overpowering. Even the word “selection” in ordinary language implies the existence of an agent who is doing the selecting. We can allegedly free ourselves from this illusion of agency by focusing on the causes and mechanisms that embody that purposeful activity. This doesn’t prove anything, however, because this ‘illusion” of agency also disappears when we focus on the causes and mechanisms that embody the purposeful activity of actual agents. i. e. homo sapiens. In other words, once the No Gaps No God argument is revealed to be fallacious, there is no reason not to take this “appearance” of purposefulness at face value. The philosophical implications of Darwinian evolution have effectively demolished any reason for believing in a supernatural God. The level of competition and bloodshed revealed by evolution also gives a new level of urgency to the old theological problem of evil. But weakening these old Christian dogmas does not imply that life must have been created by Dawkins’ mindless motiveless mechanical blind watchmaker.
Agnosticism and Commitment
The atheist interpretation of evolutionary history destroyed the argument from design, but did not prove that atheism was correct. Similarly, even if the NGNG argument is fallacious, that does not imply that theism is correct. Because it is unlikely that theological questions will ever have answers that are decisively supported by scientific evidence, it remains possible that Dawkins’ blind watchmaker theory could be right (and could be wrong). And yet many of us, including committed atheists, believe it is essential to come up with the best answers we can find. W.K. Clifford famously said “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (Clifford 1876 p.289). Unfortunately, when we are dealing with theology, Clifford’s criterion condemns us all to an eternity of epistemic Original Sin. For theological issues, there is, and apparently always will be, insufficient evidence to decisively settle the question one way or another.
Agnosticism, unlike theism and atheism, is usually considered to be an epistemological, rather than a metaphysical position. Theism and atheism are claims about reality, whereas agnosticism is a claim about our level of knowledge and/or ignorance. Nevertheless, all three positions are often taken to imply or advise courses of action and belief, and usually atheism and agnosticism are seen as identical in this respect. If we can’t know whether or not God exists, it seems at first that we should act as if she doesn’t exist. However, the position I call meta-agnosticism refuses to accept this inference. William James rightly pointed out that we can’t cope with this condition by simply withholding judgment, because there is no point in withholding judgment when there is no reason to believe that our current epistemic situation will ever change. “If we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasicality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell” (James 1896/1970 p.213).
When we cannot make the choice between alternatives for purely epistemic reasons, there is nothing wrong with using other criteria. John Dewey chose to be an agnostic who was a de facto atheist, because he felt traditional piety distracted from the need for social reform. James was drawn to religion because he felt that scientific materialism left out something indescribable but important. Meta-agnosticism is the position that there was nothing intellectually dishonest about either of their positions, because both men were scrupulous in their attention to the arguments and/or evidence. Perhaps Meta-agnosticism even leaves room for some form of Kierkegaardian Christianity, if it acknowledges that it is based on a “leap of faith”, rather than on an argument that could be used to rationally justify a theological commitment.
I even think a strong case can be made that we sometimes have the right to choose a possibility that has somewhat weaker support than the other legitimate alternatives. When Einstein first began developing his theory of relativity, there was obviously less support for his theory than for Newtonian Physics. Otherwise, there would have been no need for him to continue working on it. And yet surely we do not want to say that Einstein was irrational for believing in his theory before he had sufficient evidence to justify it. Most of our really important commitments are made with insufficient evidence (I believe I can start a successful business, write an important piece of philosophy etc.). Brad Paisley made this point in his song “if love was a plane, no one would get on.” Sometimes it really is rational to bet on a longshot, but I will not attempt to determine when or why in this brief conclusion. This is partly because I don’t have the space, and partly because I honestly don’t know how to tell when this is the case.
1. There are philosophers, most notably Richard Swinburne, who offer what they call inductive arguments for the existence of God. (Swinburne 2004). Swinburne, however, believes that he is doing something very different from traditional theology, and I would agree. These arguments follow the same basic form as standard scientific arguments, but are much more speculative and multi-disciplinary. These factors make it impossible to get scientific replicability and certainty, which is why no one would call his work science. Nevertheless, I would argue that his inductive arguments are really quasi-scientific arguments for the existence of God, rather than theological arguments in the sense I am discussing here.
2. Of course, many theologians insist that God is not a person in the same sense that we are persons. I applaud this acknowledgement of the fact that theological claims must stretch and even shatter the categories we use for everything else. Nevertheless, this denial of God’s personhood was never intended to imply that God is impersonal in the sense of being mechanical. The only theologians who would claim that God is a mechanism are atheists like Dawkins and Dennett. My main purpose here is to critique those atheist mechanistic theologies, so I will ignore the nuances that differentiate other alternatives.
3. Some intelligent design theorists respond to this objection by saying that unlike other kinds of ignorance, the gaps they are discussing necessarily exist, because no evidence could possibly fill them. These arguments are often intricate and subtle, but they are ultimately unsuccessful, because they mistake a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity. Although this is a possibility for all metaphysical arguments, it is a proven fact in this case, because many of their allegedly “Irreducible complexities” now have mechanical evolutionary explanations. See Pennock 2001.
4. Shook 2010 says “Supernaturalism would have to prove that some things in the world can never be scientifically explained, and that is an impossible task” (p. 40). If Shook means “conceptually incoherent” when he says “impossible”, he will be agreeing with me here (and contradicting my earlier quote of his). However, he could mean merely “impossible” in the sense of “beyond all human capabilities”.
5. Some may object to the idea of agnosticism being either true or false, as it as often thought of as not asserting anything at all. Agnosticism, however, is an epistemic claim, even if it is not a metaphysical one. For the purposes of this discussion, we can think of all three claims in epistemic terms. Atheism is the claim that there are at least a preponderance of arguments and evidence against the existence of God, and theism is the claim that the evidence and arguments support the existence of God. Agnosticism is the claim that the evidence and arguments are indecisive. Classical agnosticism concludes from this indecisiveness that one should act as if God didn’t exist, because we can’t ever know anything about her. My meta-agnosticism says this is one rational course of action, but not the only rational one.
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