Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

19 thoughts on “Some Things Never Change”

  1. As Smart LX mentions there’s lots of material and discussions on this site pertaining to these topics.

    Briefly – laws of logic are more or less derivative of physical reality and thus of physical laws. So we can stop thinking about laws of logic and concentrate on why physical laws are uniform.
    The question of why there are certain physical laws and not others and why these laws are uniform is something that science (physics in particular) keeps investigating continuously and increasing our knowledge about.

    Absolute morality is highly debatable. In my view logic is a derivative of physical laws and morality is a further derivative of physical/ evolutionary logic. The bare minimum “absolute morality” is usually nothing but evolutionary logic in action.
    Obviously, it can vary from species to species since the evolutionary paths taken by each species though they have a lot of commonality are distinct/ branched and dependent on the environment that species faced and how it adapted to it to survive and propagate.

  2. I’ll go even further than the first two. There is no such thing as universal morality. “Morals” is just a human concept, an idea used to lump things together. Like pretty or ugly or good or evil, what is moral or immoral is based purely on the society or culture defining it. Nothing is inherently good or pretty or moral.

    Logic is much the same way. Although the rules of logic are very accurate, they are only accurate within the realm of logic. You can get a true or valid answer in logic that is in reality completely false. Logic is similar to morality in that it is a human construct, but different in that it wouldn’t necessarily disappear if humans ceased to exist. No one would be around to apply logic, but that doesn’t mean that the rules of logic would cease to exist.

    The uniformity of nature is an interesting one. Can we really say nature has uniformity? There is such a thing as asymmetrical decay, which might explain why we have so much matter without its anti-matter counterpart. The move from the singularity to the universe we have today saw a change too, like the start of time for example. There are certainly conservation laws in effect in this universe, but that doesn’t mean that they were in effect before this universe, or that they will be in effect after this universe. Time and entropy are two things that are moving in only one direction, and while that is consistent it isn’t necessarily good. Fortunately we do live in a universe with consistent laws (or at least very stable ones) that has allowed life to spring up here and probably elsewhere. But when to get into the quantum mechanics of it the idea of “uniformity” is quite fuzzy…

    What your question really boils down to, at least in my opinion, is that you think there has to be a reason for this “uniformity”, that it is the result of a conscious, directed effort. That is why so many believers ask this same question (which is humorous to me because the also spend so much time trying to claim radiometric dating can’t be relied on because they don’t think we can say radioactive decay has been stable for the last 14 billion years). There is zero evidence for such a directed effort however, and zero data that says a universe cannot be uniform if it is not created by a divine entity…

  3. Hi Caleb, you seem to be inferring absolutes where they might not exist:

    Atheist worldview: There’s no such thing. Atheists are at least as varied as theists. Consider a sexually promiscuous businessman whose goal is to amass as much money and possessions as possible and live as hedonistic a life as possible with a Buddhist nun who owns no more than her robes and a few cooking utensils and devotes her life to meditation and charitable work. I’ve met both people and the only thing they had in common was a lack of belief in a god. Certainly not a ‘worldview’.

    Laws of logic: Modal logic is clearly a human invention. There are forms of Buddhist logic in which contradictions are a perfectly acceptable way of thinking. Aristotelian logic operates at the scales of space time with which we are familiar but breaks down at subatomic levels, i.e., at the most fundamental levels of nature. So its by no means certain that logic is an absolute. The notion that logic is an absolute is claimed by Christian theologians because all the arguments for the existence of god rely on formal Aristotelian logic. If the absolute nature of formal logic is not recognised then not only do the arguments for the existence of god lose weight but so do many arguments for god’s alleged characteristics. As far as theism goes, some Islamic theologians don’t seem worried by this and so also deny that logic is absolute.

    Uniformity of nature: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘nature’; I’m more struck by the diversity here on our little speck in an inconsequential solar system on the edge of a mundane galaxy among billons. If you are referring to biology can we be certain, for example, that there isn’t even greater diversity such as other life forms in the universe that are not carbon and DNA/RNA based? Perhaps silicon based? If you are referring to physical constants, then almost certainly no viable universe (containing life or not) could exist without them, so it’s a trivial fact in itself.

    Absolute morality: There’s no such thing. Imagine if all human beings died suddenly. We could be sure beforehand that e.g., the speed of light being a physical absolute would still have effect after humanity. But what evidence could possibly be offered that an absolute morality exists without a human brain to process the notion? Some of us might have a strong concept of absolute morality which we claim to have been revealed to us but that’s a far cry from demonstrating that it’s a reality. I for one am glad that humans don’t adhere strictly to the notion of absolute morality. I can think of nothing more distasteful and dangerous than a conception of morality devoid of any appreciation or understanding of how the universe actually worked or its effects and consequences on people. It seems to me it would be a truly cruel way to organise any world containing sentient beings.

  4. So the philosophy of naturalism cannot explain this problem, but apparently no one is allowed to consider alternatives to this philosophy, because that is deemed an “argument from ignorance”?! It seems remarkable to me that theists are accused of resorting to what is mistakenly called ‘faith’ (that which is contrary to reason, or has no reference to reason, which is actually NOT what faith is). Reason demands that we make inferences based on sound assumptions. One of these sound assumptions is the idea that the nature of an effect gives some indication as to the nature of its cause. We live in an ordered and intelligible universe, subject to physical constants. The existence of such a universe and the ability of intelligent beings to study this environment suggests an intelligent cause of both the environment and its observers. Even if one takes the view that this explanation cannot be proven, it is certainly a rational view – far more rational than that offered by the self-refuting philosophy of naturalism.

    I say that naturalism is self-refuting in that it posits that human reason is merely a product of natural selection – an entirely blind and non-intelligent process. Within such a process mind can only have developed for utilitarian reasons: to aid survival. Such a concept of reason and mind is entirely incapable of processing issues of objective truth. The philosophy of naturalism claims that certain ideas are merely human inventions concocted to aid survival, such as the idea of God. But there is nothing within naturalism by which we can decide which ideas are merely inventions and which are not. Reason requires consistency, and on that basis it follows that if one idea is judged to be merely an invention of the human mind, then any other idea could have the same status. If the idea of God is merely an invention then so is the idea of the philosophy of naturalism. In this way naturalism destroys itself by its method of verification. This is why atheism is epistemologically impossible. Whatever it claims about certain metaphysical ideas, it must claim about all metaphysical ideas, including the philosophy on which atheism depends, i.e. naturalism.

    It is fashionable to use the phrase “argument from ignorance”, but assuming a certain view of reality is true without considering its rational implications is the ultimate “argument from ignorance”. Naturalism provides no epistemological tools by which to study nature, because it must assume certain realities, which can only be explained within the paradigm of intelligent causation.

    1. The argument from ignorance I highlighted, Allistair, is to claim that the world we inhabit is impossible without a god and not merely unexplained. There’s nothing wrong with considering non-naturalistic entities and influences in (or not in but still affecting) the universe, but declaring naturalism invalid after only asserting the possibility of alternatives is going way too far.

      The nature of an effect only MAY give some meaningful indication as to the nature of its cause. In many cases it does not, or the connection is only apparent in retrospect. A butterfly looks nothing like the creature it was before its metamorphosis. A smashed window in a junk heap could have been broken by any number of deliberate, accidental or natural means, either in its original frame or on its way to the heap. When a person goes on a murderous rampage we look for mental, social and chemical factors that might have contributed, and only occasionally do we find a solid hypothesis for the cause.

      The universe is only intelligible because it is ordered to some extent. Even by your approach this would indicate a precursor or progenitor with some amount of order, not intelligence. It could be a god, but it could also be some self-regulating but unsentient mechanism, like the quantum foam or a set of other universes. It could also be the universe itself instead of a precursor, changing form over time but ultimately as eternal and constant as God is supposed to be. Your ‘sound assumption’, even if sound, is not very useful. And if it’s not entirely sound, which is likely, then the ordered universe could have been caused by something far more chaotic.

      Your attack on naturalism is reminiscent of the Sye Ten Bruggencate technique of tearing down any objective basis for thought that does not presuppose an absolute anchor such as a god. I find it amusing that the alternative is to base all reasoning on a completely unobserved and unverified entity. If there isn’t a god, we still seem to be thinking with some degree of rationality and therefore perceived rationality doesn’t require a god. Without solving the problem of ‘hard solipsism’ (i.e. how do we know anything exists outside of our own minds?) there will always be a base amount of uncertainty undercutting everything we think, and concentrating all the uncertainty by linking everything to a hypothetical god doesn’t change this.

      We can only go by things that appear to be reliable, like an ordered world and unchanging logic, and use those basic assumptions to go about our lives. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong, but we seem to be okay so far. No one said methodological naturalism was infallible, but it’s been workable for thousands of years. Even if you’re against naturalism you still have to behave as if the world around you will generally behave according to physics and God isn’t going to vanish the ground beneath your feet on a whim.

    2. Allister, before commenting at more length (If I have the time) I’d like to clarify an important point. You seem to be swapping between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism in your arguments. There are many Christians who work (and by that I mean make their living) completely comfortably within a framework of methodological naturalism but not consider themselves to be philosophical naturalists. There are surely very few who deny both – are you one of them?.

  5. Allistair, you make a number of statements that are not accurate.

    #1: [Reason demands that we make inferences based on sound assumptions. One of these sound assumptions is the idea that the nature of an effect gives some indication as to the nature of its cause.]

    That idea is not a sound assumption. Say you find a spherical stone on the ground. How did it get that way? If your assumption is right, we should be able to figure it out. Problem is, we can’t. It could have been picked up by a glacier and grinded into that shape. It could have been created by waves crashing against the shore. It could have been ejected by a volcano and cooled into that shape. Some human could have sanded it into being. No way to tell which possibility is right, or if any of them are. This simple example shows that your assumption does not pass a common sense test.

    #2: [The existence of such a universe and the ability of intelligent beings to study this environment suggests an intelligent cause of both the environment and its observers. Even if one takes the view that this explanation cannot be proven, it is certainly a rational view – far more rational than that offered by the self-refuting philosophy of naturalism.]

    The fact that the universe has order and can be understood by humans does not show that it had to have an intelligent cause. There is no evidence that human intelligence and an ordered universe require intelligent design. You make a claim without showing that there is a connection between the two. #1 is not a valid assumption, so unless you can provide something that ties them together I consider this a moot point.

    #3: [I say that naturalism is self-refuting in that it posits that human reason is merely a product of natural selection – an entirely blind and non-intelligent process. Within such a process mind can only have developed for utilitarian reasons: to aid survival.]

    Unfortunately not every evolutionary mutation that gets incorporated into a species genome is there to “aid survival”. Birds of paradise have ridiculous feathers whose only purpose is to attract mates. The plumage of the males is often a hindrance to flight and other movement. This doesn’t aid survival, it is merely more attractive to the opposite sex.

    #4: [Such a concept of reason and mind is entirely incapable of processing issues of objective truth.]

    And yet we have the theory of gravity…

    #5: [The philosophy of naturalism claims that certain ideas are merely human inventions concocted to aid survival, such as the idea of God. But there is nothing within naturalism by which we can decide which ideas are merely inventions and which are not.]

    That’s why we have the scientific method. Something, by the way, that came from the same inventive human mind…

    #6: [Reason requires consistency, and on that basis it follows that if one idea is judged to be merely an invention of the human mind, then any other idea could have the same status.]

    “Could” and “does” are not the same thing. The scientific method helps us separate the two.

    #7: [If the idea of God is merely an invention then so is the idea of the philosophy of naturalism. In this way naturalism destroys itself by its method of verification. This is why atheism is epistemologically impossible. Whatever it claims about certain metaphysical ideas, it must claim about all metaphysical ideas, including the philosophy on which atheism depends, i.e. naturalism.]

    Even ignoring the first 6 irrational conclusions as false, this one falls flat on its face on its own accord. Naturalism has evidence and data to support it. Divine creatures and the supernatural do not. Just because they are both things that human’s defined does not make them equal in truth.

    [It is fashionable to use the phrase “argument from ignorance”, but assuming a certain view of reality is true without considering its rational implications is the ultimate “argument from ignorance”. Naturalism provides no epistemological tools by which to study nature, because it must assume certain realities, which can only be explained within the paradigm of intelligent causation.]

    Obviously false, given the entirety of this response…

    1. in addition to Tim’s reply:

      #3 “I say that naturalism is self-refuting in that it posits that human reason is merely a product of natural selection – an entirely blind and non-intelligent process.”

      Allistair, why do you suppose reasoning is a product of natural selection? Tim pointed out that not everything results from natural selection. I’d like to give another more pertinent example: reading. We did not evolve to read. Reading is a cultural invention, differing to large degree across cultures. Our universal ability to read piggybacks on a number of brain regions (which differ somewhat according to language grouping) which all evolved for entirely different reasons. The fact that we can read is entirely incidental (though enormously useful) to our neurophysiology resulting from natural selection mechanisms.

      The idea that our physical and mental capabilities have resulted directly from natural selection mechanisms is simplistic and erroneous.

  6. SmartLX –

    Sorry that this is a very long post, but you have touched on so many issues, that I feel I have to deal with each of them carefully.

    “The argument from ignorance I highlighted, Allistair, is to claim that the world we inhabit is impossible without a god and not merely unexplained. There’s nothing wrong with considering non-naturalistic entities and influences in (or not in but still affecting) the universe, but declaring naturalism invalid after only asserting the possibility of alternatives is going way too far.”

    Well, “way too far” is a value judgment, and I would be interested to know against what scale of rationality you are making that judgment. I find the logic of the second sentence in your comment I quoted above rather strange. If a theory is falsified, then, of course, we only have recourse to alternatives to that theory, surely? In fact, I would suggest that many atheists tend to take the same approach. They declare that the “God hypothesis” is invalid (generally by appealing to whether it is judged to be ‘scientific’; science being considered the only valid method of discovering objective truth, and this hypothesis therefore allegedly failing this test), and thus it is assumed that “there must be a naturalistic explanation” for everything in reality. Hence we have declarations about, for example, abiogenesis, in which any vaguely promising hypothesis is treated as, if not actually the truth, certainly the foothills of truth, even though such an event or series of events lies outside the range and remit of the empirical scientific method (being non-observable). “Could have happened” does not equate to “did happen”. Of course, the same argument could be applied to the “intelligent design” hypothesis (“it could have happened, therefore it did”), but my point is that, generally speaking, the naturalistic hypothesis is regarded as scientifically valid, whereas the view that includes the role of extra dimensions of reality over and above the natural, is considered scientifically invalid – and therefore ‘untrue’ or at least ‘irrational’.

    If you are suggesting that we should not dismiss any possible explanation in favour of its alternatives, then presumably atheists are happy to advocate the teaching of intelligent design in schools? After all, according to your reasoning, they should not “declare ID invalid after only asserting the possibility of alternatives”. This methodology is, according to your thinking, “going way too far”. So the argument works both ways. If you were perhaps to respond by saying that the argument does not work both ways, then you would guilty of special pleading in favour of the philosophy of naturalism.

    As it happens, falsification is a perfectly valid method of justification. We can look at the internal logic of a truth claim, and ask whether it is valid. We question its validity on the basis that logic is valid. If logic is not objectively and universally valid, then we can say nothing about anything at all – and that includes all conclusions drawn from empirical observations and experiments. So the claim in one of the comments above questioning the absolute nature of logic rest on self-refutation. On what basis are such conclusions reached? If not logic, then what? Sentiment? Emotion?

    “The nature of an effect only MAY give some meaningful indication as to the nature of its cause. In many cases it does not, or the connection is only apparent in retrospect. A butterfly looks nothing like the creature it was before its metamorphosis. A smashed window in a junk heap could have been broken by any number of deliberate, accidental or natural means, either in its original frame or on its way to the heap. When a person goes on a murderous rampage we look for mental, social and chemical factors that might have contributed, and only occasionally do we find a solid hypothesis for the cause.”

    I would agree that an effect may be different from its cause in some way, but what is remarkable is the claim that those who infer some kind of homogeneity between cause and effect in certain aspects of reality are judged to be ‘irrational’ or, in the words of one celebrated atheist, “enemies of reason”. This is absurd, of course. Even when the cause may be different from its effect, we can still find some indication from the effect as to the nature of the cause. If we look at your examples: there is informational continuity from the larva to the butterfly. The butterfly was contained within the larva, and through an ordered process it was revealed at the correct stage of development. You give an example of a smashed window. Of course, it could have been broken by any number of means, but all those means had something in common: they involved some kind of destructive impact such that the force acting against the glass was more powerful than the material integrity of the glass such that it broke. The murder example falls into the same class. What we don’t expect is that a caterpillar contains a radically different informational content to the butterfly. We don’t expect that a window would break if someone carefully wrapped it up in protective material and stored in a sturdy wooden box. We do not expect someone to go on a successful murderous rampage brandishing a feather as his only means of hurting people. So you can see that – in very general terms – causes fall into fairly predictable classes of events.

    In the same way, it is reasonable to argue that some form of higher intelligence produced human intelligence (likewise personality produced personality). If a completely mindless and impersonal universe somehow managed to bring human intelligence and personality into being, then we need to ask how such a strange and counter-intuitive event could have occurred. Going back to one of your examples, it may conceivably be possible for a glass pane to be smashed after having been carefully wrapped in appropriate protective material, but this is an unusual occurrence, and so we would need to investigate how this could have happened. On the other hand, we hardly need to puzzle over how a pane of glass could have smashed after someone threw a brick at it! What I am saying is that we see a logical connection between cause and effect, and that connection reveals some kind of homogeneity between both events. If there is a dissonance between the events, then we need to come up with a rather more convoluted explanation (which, by the way, makes a mockery of Okham’s Razor, but then again, that principle is rather subjective, being interpreted in contradictory ways). The causal connection of intelligence to intelligence does not require an explanation, which stretches credulity to the limit. It is a logically predictable and harmonious relationship. But the idea that the complexity and sophistication of human intelligence had its origin in the brute mindlessness and simplicity of unguided material reactions, is highly far-fetched, and therefore it is not unreasonable – and certainly not unscientific – to question such a proposition. To argue that one MUST accept this theory for fear of being accused of resorting to an “argument from ignorance” is quite remarkable. I’m afraid I don’t see the logic in that conclusion at all.

    “The universe is only intelligible because it is ordered to some extent. Even by your approach this would indicate a precursor or progenitor with some amount of order, not intelligence. It could be a god, but it could also be some self-regulating but unsentient mechanism, like the quantum foam or a set of other universes. It could also be the universe itself instead of a precursor, changing form over time but ultimately as eternal and constant as God is supposed to be. Your ‘sound assumption’, even if sound, is not very useful. And if it’s not entirely sound, which is likely, then the ordered universe could have been caused by something far more chaotic.”

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding the approach of this website. Having spent a number of years debating with atheists on the internet, I have been given the impression (confirmed by the general attitude of the so called “New Atheists” in the popular media) that a theistic explanation for natural phenomena is regarded as ‘irrational’ and ‘unscientific’. I draw a distinction between atheism and agnosticism. You seem to be advocating a position of agnosticism, and to acknowledge that the idea of intelligent causation has validity, even if, in your view, it may not be true. If that really is your position, then I have a certain degree of respect for it.

    However, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to apply the method of falsification to different hypotheses. When this method is applied to the philosophy of naturalism, I see contradictions. You say that the universe is intelligible, because it is ordered to some extent. Now, we may decide that we cannot understand why the universe is ordered and we should not bother trying, because any theory (such as the “God hypothesis”) would be regarded as presumptuous. If we claim that the universe is intelligible, then we cannot claim that we should not try to understand it. That is a contradiction. The refusal to try to understand it is to concede that the universe is NOT intelligible. We cannot have it both ways. And if we deny that the universe is intelligible, then, of course, we can make no claim at all about anything in reality, including, of course, the claims of atheism. Thus knowledge itself becomes impossible.

    So we ought to look for explanations as to why reality is as it is. How do construct valid explanations? There must be some tool by which we are able to build hypotheses and theories and confer on them some measure of validity. The empiricist will say: by means of the empirical scientific method. The problem with that is that scientific conclusions about the nature of reality are not actually simply based on empirical observations. We reason from the output of an experiment to an understanding of physical laws by means of inference based on certain presuppositions, which are themselves not the result of any experiment. For example, let us take the simple experiment of dropping two objects of differing mass from the same height within a vacuum. They both fall at the same rate. Therefore we conclude something about the nature of reality, especially if the experiment is repeated many times with the same result. But how do we come to this conclusion? Simply by observing the motion of the objects falling? No. We see the objects falling, and then ASSUME that this behaviour holds true throughout the universe on the presupposition that the laws of physics apply consistently everywhere. In other words, we make an inference based on a prior belief, which itself cannot be verified empirically (because the only way it could be verified empirically is if we went to every single place in the entire universe and conducted this experiment). And how do we infer anything? With what tool? Well, the answer is logic. And that assumes, of course, that we believe that logic is universally valid, otherwise again we could not draw this conclusion.

    So here we see that empiricism does not establish the principle of the universal consistency of the laws of physics, and the laws of physics do not themselves establish the universal validity of logic, given that it is only by submission to logic that we can believe in the consistency of such laws at all! Therefore this proves that, in order for science to work, there MUST exist a rationality behind and above the material universe – a rationality which matter obeys, but does not itself create.

    “Your attack on naturalism is reminiscent of the Sye Ten Bruggencate technique of tearing down any objective basis for thought that does not presuppose an absolute anchor such as a god. I find it amusing that the alternative is to base all reasoning on a completely unobserved and unverified entity.”

    My attack on naturalism is due to looking at the nature of this philosophy and finding it illogical – indeed, self-refuting. Belief in such a philosophy requires a commitment to empiricism, namely, the belief that all our knowledge comes to us through sense perception. Our epistemic relationship to material reality is through our senses, of course, and therefore the only reason anyone would conclude that the material universe is all that exists is due to a prior commitment to this particular epistemological theory. Even Bertrand Russell acknowledged that empiricism is self-refuting, in that the very claim of empiricism itself is not empirically discerned. The idea that “all knowledge comes to us via sense perception” is not a material object floating around somewhere. It is an idea, and ideas, though expressed in material ways (with ink or pixels, for example) are in themselves invisible and non-empirical. You seem to think that it is wrong or invalid to base our reasoning on a completely “unobserved and unverified” reality. Firstly, something can be real without being observed, the most obvious case being our own consciousness, which is the ultimate reality in all our lives (and even if it could be argued that consciousness has a material basis – something which has never been proven – that still does not make consciousness ‘observable’. By its very nature it cannot be observed). Secondly, you are assuming a particular epistemological theory when you talk about verification. As I explained earlier, nothing is actually verified purely by empirical means, because logical inference based on certain presuppositions has to be part of the equation. Furthermore, I don’t know what you mean by “base our reasoning on”? Surely you accept that our reasoning has some kind of cause? If you believe that it is uncaused, then how do you justify that logically? And if you accept it has a cause, then it is perfectly valid to seek to explain that cause, and to apply the method of falsification to rule out illogical theories. That is all I am doing. The insistence that I must not attack naturalism seems to suggest that that philosophy must be a priori regarded as sacrosanct, which, ironically, sounds rather religious!!

    “If there isn’t a god, we still seem to be thinking with some degree of rationality and therefore perceived rationality doesn’t require a god. Without solving the problem of ‘hard solipsism’ (i.e. how do we know anything exists outside of our own minds?) there will always be a base amount of uncertainty undercutting everything we think, and concentrating all the uncertainty by linking everything to a hypothetical god doesn’t change this.”

    You say that “if there isn’t a god, we still seem to be thinking with some degree of rationality” and use this observation as justification for arguing that “perceived rationality doesn’t require a god”. Well, of course, this is a non sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. You assume that there is no God (or ‘god’ if you prefer) and then say, “hey, we can still think rationally, therefore there is no need for a God”. It’s a bit like saying “if gravity doesn’t exist, we still seem to be rooted to the ground, therefore we don’t need gravity to keep from floating around chaotically”. Anybody can construct such an argument. I am not starting from the hypothesis of atheism and then saying “Oh look we don’t need God, because I assume he doesn’t exist”, but rather looking at the nature of reality and arguing that “because such and such is part of reality, it requires certain other things to exist in order to explain it!” How would an atheist feel if someone said the following “if evolution (i.e. common descent) has never happened, then it follows that because we are here, then evolution is not needed for our existence.” An atheist would rightly dismiss that argument as a non sequitur (and I would agree with him, quite irrespective of whether common descent is actually true or not).

    No one is saying that the inference of a God does away with uncertainty. But uncertainty is not absolute, otherwise we could never claim that anything is uncertain. Total scepticism is self-refuting. To say “we can know nothing” implies that that statement is itself knowable.

    “We can only go by things that appear to be reliable, like an ordered world and unchanging logic, and use those basic assumptions to go about our lives.”

    I agree. But we can also try to explain these things.

    “If we’re wrong, we’re wrong, but we seem to be okay so far. No one said methodological naturalism was infallible, but it’s been workable for thousands of years. Even if you’re against naturalism you still have to behave as if the world around you will generally behave according to physics and God isn’t going to vanish the ground beneath your feet on a whim.”

    I think you are confusing philosophical naturalism with methodological naturalism. It is a common error. A good example of the difference is within the field of engineering. A bridge is built by the process of methodological naturalism. No engineer will say “Ah, let’s just not bother to secure the bridge properly, because we will hope that God will just supernaturally hold it up”. Of course not! But just because they construct the bridge on the assumption that all the forces acting on it are natural forces does not mean that only such forces exist. Suppose that years after the bridge has been built, one of the engineers is driving across the structure and he sees someone in distress threatening to throw himself off the bridge into the river below. Does he go up to that man and say, “I’d love to tell you that there is a God who cares for you, but I’m afraid my work in constructing this bridge prevents from doing so, because it wouldn’t be standing if such a God really existed, as we could not factor the existence of God into our work of construction.”? Of course, anyone can see that this is a grotesque category error.

    1. Hi Allistair,

      Although you have obviously had some training in philosophy there are instances where you veer off into tangents in which you begin to sound like you’re reading from a creationist website. In particular you seem to have a much caricatured view of science. In addition, some of your scientific statements are grandiose, offered without any corresponding explanation. This is a style of argumentation which would be considered very sloppy at the earliest undergraduate level. All you have effectively done is critique methodology in a textbook manner. It follows a common pattern in theistic argumentation; assume that God/Designer/First Cause is the null hypothesis; circle the wagons around that null hypothesis by claiming that the tools at our disposal are inadequate to investigate; dismiss all evidence to the contrary by pointing out gaps in knowledge; contend that those gaps will never be filled; carefully, and as surreptitiously as possible, substitute accepted definitions and concepts within a particular field with their lay equivalents in order to misrepresent your opponents position ; finally, claim to have won the argument even though you haven’t presented a scintilla of evidence in favour of your initial claim.

      SmartLX: “There’s nothing wrong with considering non-naturalistic entities and influences in (or not in but still affecting) the universe, but declaring naturalism invalid after only asserting the possibility of alternatives is going way too far.”

      Allistair: “I find the logic of the second sentence in your comment I quoted above rather strange. If a theory is falsified, then, of course, we only have recourse to alternatives to that theory, surely?”

      Here, you’re trying to employ logic in the service of what is no more than your subjective opinion. I find no strange logic in SmartLX’s sentence at all. Naturalism hasn’t been falsified. At least no-one has yet told the 72.8% of philosophers who call themselves atheists (Philpapers Survey 2013; sample >3000). Or the 96.7% atheist members of Royal Society or 93% of the American Academy). Of course you don’t come right out and say it – that would leave you open to an immediate and powerful rebuttal – but the implication is certainly there. It’s a common tactic used by those making a religious argument; plant a seed of doubt in the unqualified readers head regardless of whether that doubt has any justification outside of your own opinion and without offering any further discussion of its legitimacy.

      Allistair: “They declare that the “God hypothesis” is invalid (generally by appealing to whether it is judged to be ‘scientific’”

      This is a simplistic analysis. Dubbing theistic belief the ‘God Hypothesis’ is actually a sign of respect. Hypotheses are scientific concepts and only ever formed from systematic and repeated observations. Accordingly, I’ve never heard an atheist declare that the ‘God Hypothesis’ is ipso facto invalid. Rather, most thoughtful atheists will ask when the hypothesis was tested and what were the results? Asking for evidence is therefore a sign that the concept does have validity.

      The problem here I think lies in the fundamentally conflicting claims often made by theists that (i) science can’t investigate the supernatural because it is by definition non-physical and by definition science only considers the physical (some atheists make this claim too, though I would argue its not true) and (ii) evidence for the supernatural is abundant and easily observable in the physical realm. Any ‘hypothesis’ that so readily engenders two such incompatible claims surely lends to any reasonable person suspicion as to its validity as a scientific proposition.

      Allistair: “………science being considered the only valid method of discovering objective truth”

      Here, you’re deliberately smuggling the philosophical/theological term ‘objective truth’ into a discussion of science, a field in which the term is never used and not recognised. Be honest, have you actually read a scientific paper that, in either the abstract, the results or the discussion section, claims that their findings represent ‘objective truth’? I haven’t and I’m certain it would not pass peer review if anyone ever made such a claim. Science only ever claims to discover ‘provisional facts/truths’. As soon as you make claims of ‘objective truth’ you’re straying from the field of science into philosophy or theology.

      Is ‘objective truth’ even a coherent concept? Objective by what or who’s criterion? True by what or who’s criterion? God’s? OK, that’s a fine hypothesis. Next, present for us the evidence for God. Then present the evidence that we can know the mind of that God. Then present God’s pertinent criteria for objective truth so we can compare what we think might be objective truth with what we now know to be objective truth. Until we’ve got to that stage, a terms like ‘objective truth’ is no more than a theoretical construct; more cynically, philosophical flim-flam used to argue for the existence of some desired state of affairs in the absence of actual evidence.

      I don’t think there’s anything particularly controversial about the view that science has been demonstrated to be the only valid method of discovering ‘provisional’ facts (not ‘objective truths’) about the universe that we can employ to further our knowledge of the universe and/or benefit the survival and wellbeing of our and perhaps other species. Theists often claim there are other, comparable if not superior, methods of gaining knowledge. OK. Present that methodology. Can you, for example, give us an example of any finding concerning the physical realm in the past 500 years that might be described as ‘objective’ that we have gleaned from any method of discovery, and that would have been impossible to have been gleaned from science? I cannot think of a single example. Similarly, can you give us any ‘objective’ finding concerning the supernatural gleaned by any method of discovery in the past, say, 3000 years? I cannot think of a single example. We know no more about a postulated deity now than we did then. Though we certainly make far more (often conflicting) claims about god than we used to. But talk is indeed cheap. The hard work comes by doing the actual investigating and that requires us to get up out of our comfy armchairs and collect real data. If some people don’t like where that data has taken us then that’s their problem. Our thoughts are not important. The universe will roll on regardless.

      Allistair: “……….the naturalistic hypothesis is regarded as scientifically valid, whereas the view that includes the role of extra dimensions of reality over and above the natural, is considered scientifically invalid – and therefore ‘untrue’ or at least ‘irrational’.”

      Philosophical naturalism has long gone way beyond an hypothesis. I’ve already mentioned the strength of its support among scientists and philosophers. For the bulk of people who would deny this, very few have come to that conclusion based on informed deliberation. Most have been taught that there are “extra dimensions of reality” well before they are able to reason. However, the fact remains that every time we’ve identified the proximal cause of any phenomenon it has been observed to be a physical cause. There are no exceptions in well upward of 20 million published research papers. In my experience, this fact surprises many intelligent people who have no training in science, a level of ignorance I do find disturbing.

      So when investigating any phenomenon, whether plumbing or particle physics, it’s obviously more rational to employ methodological naturalism and predict physical causation and therefore less rational to employ some other practice and predict supernatural causation. This doesn’t imply that supernatural causation might not be found some day. If you’re walking in the mountains and you see what you perceive to be a primate shaped figure moving in the corner of your eye it is more rational to predict it is actually human and less rational to claim that a yeti is present. This doesn’t imply, of course, that yetis are an impossible species.

      You seem to be implying that until we know everything there is to know, it would be just as rational to infer a yeti as a human. That the chances of a burst pipe having a supernatural origin are always on par with their being a physical cause. This is sophistry. To a psychologist this is a pathological style of reasoning. I’m sure you’re not suggesting that we employ this style of reasoning in our everyday life. So I have to wonder what motive you have for employing that style of thinking (a true & rational/untrue & irrational distinction) solely for God/non-God questions?

      “………presumably atheists are happy to advocate the teaching of intelligent design in schools?”

      This is a huge subject with which I have a personal interest. You are making a strawman argument here. I for one have no problem with ID being taught in schools, just as I have no problem with Genesis being taught in schools. They are perfectly acceptable subjects in history, folklore or mythology. Formal opposition to intelligent design in education has never been made simply on the basis that atheists disagree with the claims made. It’s always been based on the fact that (i) It’s a fundamentally dishonest enterprise – being clandestinely religious and attempting to hide that fact (as even many religious people attest) and (ii) It is not science. It is predicated on a unique and wide ranging definition of science that makes a mockery of good practice and diligence in investigative methodology (iii) It has yet to generate and test any scientific hypotheses (iv) their authors consistently attempt to bypass the peer review process and frequently have no qualifications in the field they write about and (v) It is promoted by very few people and the ratio of authors to published material is actually decreasing. In other words, ID has yet to earn a place at the table. I would be more than happy to discuss this subject further if you wish.

      “We can look at the internal logic of a truth claim, and ask whether it is valid. We question its validity on the basis that logic is valid.”

      Well we could, but if we used this as our sole criterion for validity we would get nowhere. Imagine an alien visits Earth. She knows nothing about Earth, our fauna, cultures etc, but she understands logic perfectly well. Some human joker tells her that:

      All blocks of cheese are more intelligent than any philosophy student.
      Meg the cat is a block of cheese
      Therefore Meg the cat is more intelligent than any philosophy student.

      The internal logic of this truth claim is perfectly sound. Like you she believes that logic is primary. It is universally true. So our alien has no reason to doubt the truth of that statement has she? So she heads back to the Planet Zog with her new information, confident that she has learned something new via a universal truth.

      But let’s say she’s a rebel and wants to investigate the truth of the statement further. What would she do? She would first ask for definitions of cheese, philosophy students and cats so as to be able to identify them. She would then observe the three items separately and interacting. She might do this repeatedly and be satisfied. But if she’s intelligent she’ll realise this is not enough. The items observed might not be representative of their kind. They might be confederates of the jokers and be trying to fool the alien etc. So unbeknownst to the three items she would generate and test hypotheses as to their physical structure and behavior. She would undoubtedly conclude that although logically sound the syllogism is complete nonsense. And how did she know that? By using empirical-style methodology. Human beings have done this throughout time in a less systematic, folk-psychology way. Observing cause and effect and apportioning qualitative and quantitative probabilities to possible outcomes. Empiricism is not some invention of atheists hanging about in some coffee shop in the Enlightenment. People have unwittingly been using empiricism to good effect for thousands of years. Yet you claim that empiricism is fundamentally flawed. Big deal. What other method do you think she could have employed to come to a correct, useful understanding?

      You have it backwards. Logic is not primary. Logic only works for us because empirical-style reasoning has already worked. Imagine if we had no ability to think in anything like an empirical fashion. We would be completely unable to employ logic, wouldn’t we? It would make no sense to us to do so. Logic only makes sense to us when we can pair it with systematic observation considered a-posteriori that allows us to predict the probability of future outcomes. Without prior knowledge of the terms and realistic physical relationships used in the premises logic is no more than a party trick; a word-game involving e.g., cheese, philosophy students and cats or whatever. You can substitute these items with God or ‘objective truth’ and, provided you can demonstrate internal logical validity, potentially convince anyone of anything. In what conceivable way does that make it true? All you are doing is proffering statements that link objects with concepts regardless of their actual truth value.

      Empiricism works precisely because we have evolved physiological mechanisms that enable us to sense, to imagine alternative scenarios, to link psychological concepts, to form several different kinds of memories, to folk-calculate probabilities and to reason inductively etc. These sub-mechanisms did not evolve in tandem. Nor did they evolve to perform empirical or logical calculations. There is no survival value in the ability to perform logic, as any bacteria will tell you (or the horseshoe crab (450 million years old and its well conserved genome is still going strong). Our ability to perform empirical calculations and deduce logically are epiphenomena that piggyback on a number of other cognitive mechanisms that really have had survival advantage at the level of the genome. There is nothing particularly special about logic other than we find it useful and I doubt the universe cares either way whether we do so or not.

      Allistair: “If logic is not objectively and universally valid, then we can say nothing about anything at all.”

      If logic was objectively and universally valid we would expect all logically sound statements to be true in the same way that a mathematical axiom or proof is true in all situations it can be properly applied. The fact that there are far (infinitely?) more logically sound yet completely absurd statements that have no basis in reality than there are those with any truth value tells us a great deal about logic.

      There is a well established observation in particle physics. Read e.g., the following paper:

      Andreyev et al. (2000). A triplet of differently shaped spin zero states in the atomic nucleus 186Pb. Nature, 405: 430-433.

      It discusses how the nucleus of Lead-186 has been observed, at the most fundamental levels of reality we are aware of, to exist simultaneously in three entirely different shapes; a sphere, a prolate spheroid and an oblate spheroid. There is a square circle! It appears that the laws of logic may not, as is sometimes claimed ipse dixit, be invariant, unchanging and eternal, transcending time, space and matter, and so representing a constraint on all possible realities, including God. How do you know, as is claimed by the Asha’rite philosophy of Islam, that they aren’t merely a physical manifestation of the whim of God and so changeable at a moment’s notice, potentially leaving us in an absurd universe? How do you know, as I’ve suggested, that they aren’t any more than descriptions of reality garnered from our sensory experiences and so reliable only within that particular frame of space-time reference in which we have evolved? If all human beings disappeared from the planet instantly, what evidence (of any kind at all) would there be that logic was universally valid, say a minute later? If even one person was put in the world and was cognitively normal, what ability would they master first in order to survive? A form of folk- empiricism or reasoning via logic? The answer is a complete no-brainer.

      Christians in particular seem to place an unusually high regard on logic because in the absence of empirical evidence, all of the arguments for the existence of God rely on logical procedures. When evidential arguments are attempted they are invariably aimed at particular postulated characteristics of God, not the mere existence. So, once the universal validity of logic is questioned, the arguments for God lose considerable steam. Ergo, logic must be universal and transcendent, no matter what cognitive psychology or physics has uncovered. You see the same thing with the question of free will. Christianity must hold to strict libertarian, contra-causal free-will (a compatibilist notion of free-will doesn’t work for anything other than perhaps universalist forms of Christianity). Yet all of the science says contra-causal free will is logically impossible and it’s certainly never been observed. Obviously, we need to find something wrong with the science then……..

      Allistair: “………and that includes all conclusions drawn from empirical observations and experiments………….. On what basis are such conclusions reached? If not logic, then what? Sentiment? Emotion?”
      No-one is arguing that the conclusions do not go through some logic filter. We can make logic work for us. But if logic is not primary, so what? If that’s the universe we find ourselves in, then so be it. This state of affairs in no way denigrates the empirical method as the means par excellence left to us of finding things out about the universe that we can use to our advantage, whether we live in a cave or a high-tech high-rise. And even if that conclusion were indeed based on no more than sentiment and emotion, then we must ask ourselves how come our endeavours based on empiricism are so spectacularly successful? How come our knowledge grows exponentially year on year and it all fits together so well without any earth-shattering surprises? How come we don’t find 1000+ curable diseases caused by bacteria and viruses and a dozen or so immune to medical treatment because they are caused by demons that need to be exorcised? Might it be because we live in a universe governed entirely by physical causation? On what basis is that not a rational provisional conclusion? Because the methodology we employ is claimed to have some perceived internal logical error? Of course it includes some logical error. What method doesn’t? Our brains are Heath-Robinson machines. What do you expect? Mathematics too is alleged to contain logical errors. Should we be looking elsewhere for mathematical proofs? Should we question that mathematics can tell us anything about the universe?

      These aren’t silly questions. Promoting the idea that methodological naturalism is flawed and can’t be relied upon can be highly dangerous. An ex-student of mine is now a doctor working for a charity treating Ebola in West Africa. There are many people out there who believe, via their churches, that Ebola does not have any physical causation. It is apparently caused by “the role of extra dimensions of reality over and above the natural” as you describe things; manifested in this case by demons or a lack of faith. They ignore the medic’s advice and give all their money for exorcisms. Some won’t allow infected corpses to be burned because of what might happen to their souls. They bury them near groundwater sources. Why ever not? They ‘know’ that the notion of physical causation is a crock. Even you agree with that. But only when it suits you. Remember, these people don’t have your level of education or sophistication of thought. They really do believe in “the role of extra dimensions of reality over and above the natural”. And they pay a very high price.

      But what if it was shown that our conclusions were based on no more than sentiment and emotion? Wouldn’t this simply demonstrate that we had underestimated sentiment and emotion as epistemological tools? All this is only a problem if you’re wedded to a particular worldview so strongly that the mere thought that the universe might not be the way you believe it to be causes you angst.

      Allistair: “We see the objects falling, and then ASSUME that this behaviour holds true throughout the universe on the presupposition that the laws of physics apply consistently everywhere.

      Please tell me this is not taught in any philosophy of science class. It sounds like something you’d read on a creationist website written by a scientifically illiterate pastor. It’s neither an assumption nor a presupposition. It’s a repeated observation. We have visible access to a portion of the universe 93 billion light years in diameter across a temporal range of 13.8 billion years. The laws of physics as we observe them here on Earth are observed, without any exception, across that entire time/space region. It’s surely a reasonable inference, then, that this is characteristic of the universe. I would go so far as to say that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is irrational to believe otherwise bordering on the perverse. Despite that, physics takes seriously the notion that there are possibly local conditions/locations within the universe where the laws of physics as we know them do not hold, especially in terms of magnitude. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of methodological and philosophical naturalism from fundamentalist Christians especially is its acceptance of the very concept of relativity, not just scientifically. Yet here you are asserting that methodological naturalism is too eager to make absolute assumptions!

      Allistair: “In other words, we make an inference based on a prior belief”

      No, we never do that. As a philosopher, I’m honestly surprised you have made that statement. You are using a bait and switch technique here, implying that one particular lay definition of belief (‘confidence in something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof’) is no different to the scientific view of belief (‘acceptance of validity based on evidence ’). We only ever make inferences based on evidence, actual repeated observations and continual testing of those observations employing as many dependent variables as possible.

      Allistair: “………….which itself cannot be verified empirically (because the only way it could be verified empirically is if we went to every single place in the entire universe and conducted this experiment).”

      We don’t have access to the whole of the universe. So what? This really does sound like a moribund presuppositionalist argument: ‘we need to know everything to be able to come to some conclusion and God is the only person who knows everything’. What you seem to be saying is that unless we know every instance of every phenomenon at every temporal and spatial location within the universe we can have no useable information which we can use to investigate the universe? The proof is in the pudding. Again, what’s your alternative?

      “Allistair: “I draw a distinction between atheism and agnosticism. You seem to be advocating a position of agnosticism, and to acknowledge that the idea of intelligent causation has validity, even if, in your view, it may not be true. If that really is your position, then I have a certain degree of respect for it.”

      I can’t speak for SmartLX (though I do know his stance on this). Theists often redefine atheism to mean exclusively, the denial of the possibility of a god rather than a lack of belief. In my experience the vast majority of atheists who take a philosophical/scientific interest in the subject lack belief on the basis that they cannot be convinced by a paucity of evidence. They are agnostic atheists, along with a few ignostics (I tend increasingly in that direction). In reality, there are very few gnostic atheists, though many gnostic theists.

      Allistair: “Even Bertrand Russell acknowledged that empiricism is self-refuting, in that the very claim of empiricism itself is not empirically discerned.”

      Theists can’t seem to get away from a good old-fashioned ‘Appeal to Authority’, can they? While atheists generally quote someone because of their vicious sense of humour or particularly novel argument, theists tend to think an important person’s opinion is what really counts as evidence. Really, who cares what Bertrand Russell thought? He’s been dead for 45 years. I’m not saying he’s wrong, and by all means mention him as an example of a particular mode of thinking, then maybe quote someone else and maybe a third person for contrast, but a single ‘Appeal to Authority’ as evidence? I could quote Alex Rosenberg here, I think he’s an even better philosopher, but I’m not going to play that game.

      Anyway, what’s the problem? We work with the tools we have, including our own brains. It’s been astonishingly successful thus far. If I were you, rather than continually point out the inevitable flaws in methodological naturalism why not introspect at the reasons you feel you have to denigrate it rather than embracing it. Like I say, if you have some better methodology let’s have it……

      Allistair: “……even if it could be argued that consciousness has a material basis – something which has never been proven”

      This is a good example of where non-scientifically trained philosophers should not wander into discussions regarding the minutiae of science. They only ever embarrass themselves. There is no such concept as ‘proof’ in science. But you should walk into any brain sciences lab and tell them that consciousness has no material basis. Once they’ve picked themselves up off the floor from laughing they’ll ask you for some evidence that consciousness exists without neurons……….but of course you don’t have any. I mean real evidence that we can put to reliable use. Not logical word-plays. This is another subject I will gladly debate with you at length if you wish.

      On the other hand I can prove to you and any interested observers without a shadow of a doubt that your consciousness is based entirely on the integrity of your neurons. All I would need is a general anaesthetic (or a hammer). I can even alter your consciousness to suit by chemically altering the excitatory or inhibitory or voltage changes in your synapses. I can even alter the consciousness of any of your yet to be born children by knocking out or manipulating their genes in vitro. I can even alter the consciousness of your already born children by providing them with a purpose built environment and behavioural regime and observing the progression of the changes in brain activation by periodic scanning. The evidence that consciousness has a material basis is overwhelming. To claim otherwise is a preposterous statement with no basis in fact.

      Allistair: “……that still does not make consciousness ‘observable’. By its very nature it cannot be observed).”

      This is an astonishingly ignorant statement; perhaps you mean something else and have not worded it accurately enough? If it’s not observable how do you know it exists? Solipsism? How do you discern between not-observable and not-existent? If it’s not observable how is it of any importance to us in a phenomenological sense? How do we perform research on it? How do we measure it? You do know that there’s an instrument to measure levels of consciousness and it’s been used for the past 40 years?

      Allistair: “The insistence that I must not attack naturalism seems to suggest that that philosophy must be a priori regarded as sacrosanct, which, ironically, sounds rather religious!!”

      When you study scientific methodology and/or the philosophy of science you study the philosophical criticisms and methodological shortcomings of the empirical method. It’s not something kept secret. It’s openly discussed. We’ve all heard of Hume. To the extent that it can be done, procedures are put in place to prevent many of the pitfalls identified. Open any discussion section of any paper reporting experimentation and it will include a discussion on the shortcomings of the methodology, and the limitations on any conclusions that might be drawn. You don’t get published unless you critique your own work. You seem to think that people who work in the field treat the whole enterprise as sacrosanct and beyond criticism. Nothing could be further from the truth. To a scientist, your attacks on naturalism don’t make you look smart. They make you look like someone with an agenda trying to look smart.

      SmartLX: “If we’re wrong, we’re wrong, but we seem to be okay so far. No one said methodological naturalism was infallible, but it’s been workable for thousands of years. Even if you’re against naturalism you still have to behave as if the world around you will generally behave according to physics and God isn’t going to vanish the ground beneath your feet on a whim.”

      Allistair: “I think you are confusing philosophical naturalism with methodological naturalism. It is a common error.”

      I think you’re being condescending. I don’t think he was confusing the two things at all. The first two sentences segued into the third sentence rather nicely. He was suggesting that, even if you dismiss methodological naturalism as somehow inadequate, you still have to accept philosophical naturalism to some extent. I’ve never met a single person who’s lived their lives in a manner entirely counter to philosophical naturalism, except for schizophrenics experiencing a psychotic episode and presenting with positive symptoms of manic religiosity. And no, I’m not being facetious. I’m being deadly serious.

      1. Because my last post dealt with a number of disparate issues and I tend to ramble off on tangents, I thought it might be a good idea to give an encapsulated, more concentrated, version of my opposition to Allistair’s central claims regarding naturalism and logic.

        Allistair notes that there are (well known and acknowledged) flaws in the empirical method and because of that we cannot reasonably infer naturalism. All well and good. I went to some pains to make sure he knew I was not denying that outright. The problem of induction is a valid argument. He actually went further and at one point he inferred that naturalism had been falsified. This is a very controversial, minority-view statement among those trained in philosophy and science and so his inference rings a number of alarm bells.

        First, he assumes that because in his view naturalism (as it is conceptualised in the theological sense) has been falsified supernaturalism wins by default. This is emphatically not so. Not finding the results of empirical investigation (i.e., naturalistic causation) to be acceptable is not the same as proving that naturalistic causation is not true. A burden of proof would remain with the theist to provide evidence for a deity even if naturalism was shown to be false. I find many theists have real difficulty with this concept, perhaps because they start with their answer and work backward rather than starting with a truly null hypothesis and working forward. All too often, their null hypothesis is their answer.

        Second, Allistair claims that logic is knowledge-wise, primary and transcendent, and so if an investigative methodology fails the logic test it cannot provide us with ‘objective truth’ (whatever that means; we have no way of judging it to be so). I agree that logic is a useful tool of investigation. However, I gave some examples of how logic is not transcendent and objectively true; it can give us untruths and there are regions of space/time where logic as we know it doesn’t hold up. I could also add the non-binary nature of Buddhist logic and mathematically-derived logic such as fuzzy logic to that list. I suspect that the Christian tendency to employ Aristotelian-style logic in their apologetics is not because it is in any way inherently superior but more because it best meets the needs of the argumentation. There is no reason why an argument for the existence of God could not be formulated using Buddhist-style logic, for example, but because of the more complex way the logic is formulated it would probably be less effective as an argument. I have no doubt if it could be made to work, however, claims of an exalted position of formal logic would soon disappear from Christian apologetics.

        Third, there is a far more fundamental error in Allistair’s reasoning that he conveniently ignores: If we have no logical basis for employing empiricism as an investigatory tool then it follows that we also have no basis for using logic as a tool for validating truth. Put simply, while we can validate knowledge claims using logic we cannot validate logic itself. It is impossible. Putting aside claims of transcendence and objective truth for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever (and which wouldn’t affect my argument anyway), attempts to validate logic usually take the following style:

        1. Things that work are true
        2. Logic works
        3. Therefore, logic is true

        Or something like:

        1. The universe contains mathematical laws
        2. A universe containing mathematical laws implies the presence of logic
        3. Therefore, logic is true

        I’ve even seen this one:

        1. The empirical method is based on logic
        2. If logic wasn’t true, the empirical method would not work
        3. The empirical method does work
        4. Therefore, logic is true

        Note that all of these examples are using logic to prove logic. In other words, logic can only ever be validated by employing logical fallacies (i.e., petitio principia & reductio ad absurdum). This can even be demonstrated as a syllogism:

        1. Logic is true because it gives us true conclusions
        2. We can know that we have reached a true conclusion because logic is true
        3. Therefore, logic is true

        So, ironically, we can’t even make the claim that logic has no logical justification because that claim itself requires us to use logic. But just as important was the point I was trying to make (with the cheese, philosophy students and cats example) that we cannot even deduce whether or not a logical argument has indeed given us a true conclusion (as opposed to just being logically sound) unless we are able to compare the premises and the conclusion with information that must emanate from outside the logical argument. By far the most reliable way to gain this information is via systematic observation, i.e., through using some level of empiricism.

        In effect, Allistair is criticising use of the empirical method to gain knowledge on the grounds that the rationale for using the empirical method is circular – but – the very rationale he is employing to make that criticism is, in itself, circular. Further, if, as Allistair claims, our ultimate source of knowledge and validation of knowledge is logic then we have surely just proven that Allistair cannot prove anything he says – and this includes all of the arguments for the existence of God. In other words, logic has no justification for its use other than a pragmatic one; the fact that it works very well for us. As, of course, does empiricism…….Ergo, there is nothing special about logic.

        The problem for Allistair is that doesn’t like what empiricism has discovered, i.e., the totality of naturalistic causation. But rather than admitting, as empiricists must and do, that all knowledge can only ever be considered conditional and provisional, because it relies on inferences that are not necessarily true, he prefers to unilaterally denigrate empiricism and methodological naturalism (and of course philosophical naturalism) while conveniently ignoring the fact that relying on logic to validate knowledge has no more justification than relying on empiricism to discover knowledge.

  7. Gary:

    “Although you have obviously had some training in philosophy there are instances where you veer off into tangents in which you begin to sound like you’re reading from a creationist website. In particular you seem to have a much caricatured view of science. In addition, some of your scientific statements are grandiose, offered without any corresponding explanation. This is a style of argumentation which would be considered very sloppy at the earliest undergraduate level.”

    I must say that it is rather disappointing that your long response to my comment should begin with a totally unnecessary personal attack. Feeling the need to resort to this approach does not, of course, speak well of your position. You use the word ‘sloppy’ to describe my style of argumentation, and describe this as something of “the earliest undergraduate level”. This, of course, is sheer bluff, and if you are someone who has genuinely benefited from a university education, I don’t think I need to tell you that I could counter your comment in a way that would make you feel more than a little embarrassed. But I am not going to stoop to that level. You have written two long posts, both of which contain claims which can be easily refuted (which I hope to do when I have the time), so don’t be so sure of your ground.

    “All you have effectively done is critique methodology in a textbook manner.”

    Not at all. What I have done is present logical arguments to call into question the validity of the claims of metaphysical naturalism. Either those arguments are valid or they are not. A proper intellectual response involves either validating or refuting those arguments. Any other judgment about them is just a smokescreen to avoid addressing the issues I have raised.

    “It follows a common pattern in theistic argumentation; assume that God/Designer/First Cause is the null hypothesis; circle the wagons around that null hypothesis by claiming that the tools at our disposal are inadequate to investigate; dismiss all evidence to the contrary by pointing out gaps in knowledge; contend that those gaps will never be filled; carefully, and as surreptitiously as possible, substitute accepted definitions and concepts within a particular field with their lay equivalents in order to misrepresent your opponents position ; finally, claim to have won the argument even though you haven’t presented a scintilla of evidence in favour of your initial claim.”

    Fascinating. I really never knew I was so cunning!! Apart from being a rather entertaining read, I must say that the above comment leaves a lot to be desired in the logic department. Let’s hack our way through this verbiage to make some sense of what you are trying to say:

    1. “It follows a common pattern in theistic argumentation” – I thought we were talking philosophy, not sociology. What habits other ‘theists’ indulge in is their business, as far as I am concerned. You may be on the lookout for patterns, but I am more interested in something called ‘truth’.

    2. “…assume that God/Designer/First Cause is the null hypothesis” – You may feel that you discerned a ‘pattern’ in my comments, but you have singularly failed to pay attention to what I actually wrote. My starting point was not this assumption, but actually the facts of reality. Which claim is a more coherent explanation for the facts of reality: the claim of metaphysical naturalism, with its extraordinary theory that reason, complexity, consciousness, free will and morality are all the result of totally mindless, meaningless and blind forces or the claim that such aspects of reality suggest the existence of an intelligent, personal and ultimately meaningful first cause? Now this approach is most definitely NOT a case of imposing a “null hypothesis” onto the facts of reality. But let us suppose that you are right, and that this is what I have done. How, may I ask, is this any different from the method of atheists? Is it not the case that they also impose their “null hypothesis” (the philosophy of naturalism) onto reality, and dismiss any competing paradigm? If you cannot explain to me how the atheist is any different from what you imagine “theists” do, then your claim is, at best, naïve and, at worst, downright hypocritical.

    3. “…circle the wagons around that null hypothesis by claiming that the tools at our disposal are inadequate to investigate” – Well, this comment is incomprehensible. Not one thing that I have said even remotely suggests that “the tools at our disposal are inadequate”. Now perhaps you are referring to my criticism of the epistemological theory of empiricism, and you (rather unfortunately) may think that this is a criticism of the empirical method. If this is the case (and if it is not, then I haven’t a clue what on earth you are talking about), then you really need to reread my previous comment, where I was at pains to explain the difference between “philosophical naturalism” and “methodological naturalism”. I affirm all the proper tools of intellectual enquiry: the empirical method, deductive logic, inductive logic, abductive logic, modal logic and so on. I will go on to explain that actually you are the one who is claiming that “the tools at our disposal are inadequate to investigate”, because of your low view of the most important intellectual tool of all, without which no intellectual investigation is possible: logic.

    4. “…dismiss all evidence to the contrary by pointing out gaps in knowledge” – This is meaningless, unless you actually specify what evidence you are referring to. It’s ironic that you give the impression that you value evidence, and yet fail to provide any evidence to support this bizarre accusation. I assume that when you talk about ‘gaps’ you are referring to the methodology of “God of the gaps”? If you are, then I suggest you take the time and trouble to think more deeply about this approach to knowledge. Has it never occurred to you that ANY idea can be used as an intellectual filler? We can indeed have “God of the gaps”. But we can also have “naturalism of the gaps”. We can have “evolution of the gaps” (as in saying “isn’t it amazing how evolution has done such and such” without any explanation of the detailed process, backed up with robust evidence that such a process did in fact take place). In fact, all speculation about matters for which we do not have convincing evidence is a “gaps explanation”. To suggest that the idea of “intelligent cause” should be dismissed as merely a “gaps idea”, but the idea of “non-intelligent cause” should never be considered as such, is just ludicrously dishonest thinking. What we should be doing is looking for explanations that make most sense of the facts of reality. That is the only honest, intellectually valid approach.

    5. “…contend that those gaps will never be filled” – Again, where is the evidence that I stated such a thing? If you care about evidence, then at least have the decency to back up your accusations against me. Nowhere did I suggest this. I am having to guess where you are coming from, because you have failed to support your claims, so correct me if this impression is wrong, but what I suspect you are trying to say is the kind of thing Richard Dawkins frequently comes out with: “science will work it out one day” – meaning: “one day we will be able to explain everything according to the philosophy of naturalism”. This is a pure faith-based “gaps” approach: Naturalism of the gaps. It is, in essence, no different from “God of the gaps”. “We don’t understand something and we don’t have an explanation so we just assume our pet cause to be the culprit”. I am not interested in this nonsense. I am interested in what explanation fits the facts of reality now. Furthermore, I would also like to point out that I completely welcome the advancement of science, whereas I suspect materialists are terrified by it. Science is not validating metaphysical naturalism. The findings of quantum physics do not sit easily with a materialistic view of reality, whereas they easily fit into a theistic framework. For example, the concept of superposition makes perfect sense within a theory, that posits that there is an informational basis to matter, and this coheres with the “intelligence theory” of causation. So don’t accuse me of wanting to put the brakes on science. What I want is for science to put its foot on the accelerator, because the more science advances, the more we see how complex reality really is, and how inadequate and naïve atheistic materialism really is. Atheists generally claim that science is their best friend. One day it may turn out to be their worst enemy.

    6. “…carefully, and as surreptitiously as possible, substitute accepted definitions and concepts within a particular field with their lay equivalents in order to misrepresent your opponents position” – If you really cannot see the irony of this comment, then I am not sure whether we can really have a discussion. You are accusing me of the very thing of which you clearly are guilty, hence my need to debunk your accusations against me point by point. Talk about misrepresenting someone’s position! I am aghast at the position you think I have adopted, which is far removed from what I actually think! Get a grip, man.

    7. “…finally, claim to have won the argument even though you haven’t presented a scintilla of evidence in favour of your initial claim.” – No, what I have done is put forward my reasons for rejecting the philosophy of naturalism. Are you saying that I am not allowed to do this? As for not having presented a “scintilla of evidence”, well… I suppose if logic does not count, and epistemology is to be considered a useless subject, then you may have a point. Unfortunately, if that is the case, then there is no evidence for anything at all, because no evidence is possible without logic and a sound epistemological framework in which to gather such evidence. So your accusation backfires on you. If you reject logic, then you have rejected any evidence claim you have made. If you don’t agree with this statement, then perhaps you would like to show me some evidence that exists completely independently of logic. I would be most intrigued to see this.

    I am well aware that there is much more to respond to. But I will leave my comment there for now, and I hope to come back to write more later.

  8. “SmartLX: “There’s nothing wrong with considering non-naturalistic entities and influences in (or not in but still affecting) the universe, but declaring naturalism invalid after only asserting the possibility of alternatives is going way too far.”

    Allistair: “I find the logic of the second sentence in your comment I quoted above rather strange. If a theory is falsified, then, of course, we only have recourse to alternatives to that theory, surely?”

    Here, you’re trying to employ logic in the service of what is no more than your subjective opinion. I find no strange logic in SmartLX’s sentence at all. Naturalism hasn’t been falsified. At least no-one has yet told the 72.8% of philosophers who call themselves atheists (Philpapers Survey 2013; sample >3000). Or the 96.7% atheist members of Royal Society or 93% of the American Academy). Of course you don’t come right out and say it – that would leave you open to an immediate and powerful rebuttal – but the implication is certainly there. It’s a common tactic used by those making a religious argument; plant a seed of doubt in the unqualified readers head regardless of whether that doubt has any justification outside of your own opinion and without offering any further discussion of its legitimacy.”

    As with the points that I responded to in my previous comment, you misunderstood my original comment in response to SmartLX.

    I was rebutting SmartLX’s straw man argument. It is simply not true that I attempted to falsify the philosophy of naturalism “after only asserting the possibility of alternatives”. My conclusion that naturalism is logically invalid is a result of actually looking at the coherence of the epistemological foundation of that philosophy, and finding it self-refuting. In other words, I was not saying “Oh, naturalism is invalid, because there is possibly an alternative”, but rather that “naturalism is invalid because it is inherently incoherent, and so therefore there has to be an alternative”.

    Now you say that naturalism has not been falsified. That is, of course, absolutely true in the minds of those who subscribe to this philosophy. In that sense, there is absolutely no point of view which has been falsified if it is held by at least one person. Such an argument is clearly absurd. No one can be expected to believe an idea to be true simply because certain other people believe it. In fact, if that really is what you are suggesting, then atheism is dead, simply because the vast majority of members of the human race have not been and are not atheists. Truth is not established by democracy or force of numbers. So trotting out statistics about the number of philosophers who subscribe to naturalism is anti-intellectual (it’s an “argument from authority” – another logical fallacy). Ideas should be considered on their own merits, in terms of the correspondence and coherence methods of verification. Of course, the most powerful method of verification is the coherence method, by which the validity of ideas is considered on the basis of internal logic. If an idea is self-refuting, then it cannot conceivably be true, because by definition it defeats – indeed destroys – itself.

    The only reason anyone can rationally claim that physical nature is all that exists is on the basis of an epistemological theory built entirely on sense perception, since it is only through our physical senses that we establish an epistemic relationship with the natural world. Arguing that innate ideas and the necessary assumptions we need to make in order to navigate reality at all are merely ‘physical’ is, of course, an example of begging the question, which is a logical fallacy. The same goes for the assumption that consciousness must be a purely natural phenomenon. Assuming that naturalism is true and then concluding that everything in reality must therefore be entirely physical is a totally circular argument. In order for this philosophy to be valid it must possess independent epistemological justification. It does not. There is a whole raft of assumptions we need to make before any sense perception can take place. Science itself is impotent without the role of these assumptions. These assumptions – including the fundamental claim of empiricism – are not empirically perceived. Therefore empiricism defeats itself, because the idea by which empiricism is formulated breaks its own rule of verification. “Empiricism” is not a blob of matter floating around somewhere that we can ‘observe’ scientifically. It is an idea and therefore if it is to be considered ‘true’, it therefore claims to be ‘knowledge’, thus denying its own claim that “all knowledge comes to us via sense perception”.

    I am well aware that atheists don’t want to hear this, but I am afraid you cannot fault the logic of this argument. So called ‘religious’ people are frequently accused of putting their hands over their ears and saying “la la la la la” to evidence, but it appears that atheists seem to have caught the same bug. Naturalism is completely incoherent. For example, how does naturalism account for the emergence of reason itself? Let us take the idea of God (by which I mean nothing more than the bare idea of ultimate intelligent causation). Naturalists (such as Daniel Dennett) assume that this idea is the result of some form of natural selection, in which ideas are generated to facilitate survival. Well, if this is the case, then logical consistency demands that we apply that logic to ALL ideas. Why single out one idea? So what is true of the origin and evolution of the idea of God is also true of the origin and evolution of the idea of the philosophy of naturalism. You simply cannot have it both ways. That is intellectually dishonest. You may argue that some ideas are immune from this analysis, because they have been verified empirically. Although this approach has its problems, for the sake of argument, I will temporarily concede that point, but this is not applicable to metaphysical ideas. Both ‘God’ and “the philosophy of naturalism” are metaphysical ideas (as they attempt to explain reality “as a whole” rather than make sense of individual objects within reality), and therefore stand outside the range of empirical verification. Therefore within naturalistic epistemology they have the same status. So here we see the philosophy of naturalism refuting itself, because the content of its own definition fails its own method of verification. Whatever it states about any metaphysical idea it has to say about itself.

    Well, of course, I suppose that proponents of the philosophy of naturalism will deny this, and simply assert that naturalism is true. Fine. If some people want to take a leap of faith into believing quasi-religious dogma then that is up to them. But don’t pretend that this has anything to do with rigorous reasoning or evidence. It does not.

    One more thing: you seem to be suggesting that I am not willing to engage in further discussion of my viewpoint. This is nonsense. If you wish to provide evidence that empiricism – along with the philosophy of naturalism – is not self-refuting, then I would be very happy to consider that argument. What I will not do is take seriously personal attacks (including the questioning of my motives, as if I am out to deceive people) and unsupported assertions.

    Atheists frequently claim to be ‘rational’. OK. Then prove it. Let’s see your hand. Trying to downplay the role and importance of logic is a bit like a poker player being asked to show his hand (his bluff being called, in other words) and he just walks off in a huff telling the world that he no longer accepts the rules of the game. Such a position is simply not credible.

    1. Allistair,
      First off, my comment about undergraduate level and sloppy was not sheer bluff; it was based on my experience of wading through countless undergraduate essays and exam scripts, many of which exhibit similar styles of one-dimensional thinking. I’m sorry if I spoke too frankly, but wasn’t Jesus supposed to have done the same? Anyway, let me elucidate. You seem to have a good knowledge of classical western philosophy. You strike me as a good old-fashioned armchair-style philosopher who has read a lot of books. You sometimes write like a textbook (don’t worry, so do I and I’ve been told I sometimes talk like a science paper). As a trained scientist what particularly bothers me is the cartoon version of both atheism and science you seem to hold (i.e., simply drawn and much too colourful). Examples:

      “science being considered the only valid method of discovering objective truth……………. We see the objects falling, and then ASSUME that this behaviour holds true throughout the universe on the presupposition that the laws of physics apply consistently everywhere……………..we make an inference based on a prior belief………………”

      I discussed the erroneous (and to a scientist, belittling) nature of these statements in an earlier post. They are views that people who work in science would not recognise of themselves; but they are often encountered when dealing with Christian creationists who the only atheist they recognise is Richard Dawkins and the only scientist they recognise is that guy in the wheelchair who speaks through a machine. Let me illustrate what I’m getting at:

      You seem to be wedded to the notion that atheism is synonymous with philosophical naturalism. You also seem to think that atheists simply substitute a null hypothesis of naturalism for a null hypothesis of theism. Both views are way off the mark. They’re simplistic caricatures of the real thing, not the sort of views you encounter in any academic setting or otherwise intelligent discussion but more in books of Christian apologetics written for lay people. It leads me to suspect that you’ve gotten your views on atheism, not from meeting and discussing with a wide range of atheists, but from books with a pro-Christian, anti-atheist agenda.

      First, atheists are an incredibly broad church (couldn’t resist that). My wife is an atheist for completely different reasons to me (and I really mean, completely different). We can be substance or property dualists, or idealists. Some even accept Platonic forms for abstract entities. There are even atheist pantheists and panentheists. Most traditional Australian aboriginal cultures embrace geosophical naturalism. If you think all atheists are physicalists you should get to know some Therevada Buddhist nuns and monks. They can go full atheist and Bishop Berkeley. The caricature view of atheists deliberately promulgated by some of the more fundamentalist churches tells us a lot about their so-called commitment to truth. Second, despite what you might read in the pop literature, atheism considered alone has no claim to knowledge. It is simply lack of belief in deity(s). That’s all that holds all the different kinds of atheists together. I was very surprised that you didn’t realise that the majority of atheists in western countries are agnostic. Even Dawkins. As I’ve mentioned on this site before, I’ve only personally known one gnostic atheist (I know God definitely doesn’t exist, no doubts whatsoever) and I’ve known him for about 40 years. He’s not ignorant; he knows his stuff and has two degrees, one in philosophy. All this impacts on your statement that:

      “Is it not the case that they also impose their “null hypothesis” (the philosophy of naturalism) onto reality”

      No, it is emphatically not the case. Formally, the null hypothesis is always conceptualised as the negation of a supposed actuality. If any atheists make a positive claim of naturalism as their null hypothesis then they are not employing a null hypothesis. Theists make a claim to knowledge regarding a supposed actuality (God hypothesis if you like); that of your “existence of an intelligent, personal and ultimately meaningful first cause”, i.e., classical monotheism. In the case of the ‘God hypothesis’, the null hypothesis is therefore a lack of acceptance or belief in that claim until sufficient evidence is considered to have been provided, i.e., a-theism. The null hypothesis can never therefore be ‘the philosophy of naturalism’. You claim to know that there exists “an intelligent, personal and ultimately meaningful first cause”. In contrast, I claim no knowledge of such an entity, for I have received no revelation; the scriptures don’t read true for me; I see no adequate empirical data and the logical arguments are all flawed and even if true bring up too many contradictory states of affairs to satisfy me. Ergo, I am an agnostic (no knowledge) who is also an atheist (no belief). To claim that my stance is irrational and illogical is simply ludicrous. If I held the same stance (lack of knowledge or experience, therefore a lack of belief) regarding anything other than a deity, it would surely be considered a sign of deficient reasoning, perhaps even psychopathology, to consider me irrational and illogical. You next claim:
      “the only reason anyone would conclude that the material universe is all that exists is due to a prior commitment to this particular epistemological theory”

      I would unhesitatingly mark down an undergraduate essay that contained this line. Not because of its content but its poor style of argumentation. It is typical of the kind of sweeping, unevidenced statement that we discourage students from using. It portrays a caricature, off-the-assembly line unthinking atheist so beloved of too many theists. Really Allistair, “the only reason”? In some neuroscience research, you only need to test one individual subject that displays a certain ability to know that it is a statistical certainty that she will not be unique. There will be others like her. Well, I’m the individual who doesn’t fit your theoretical mold. I do not know if philosophical naturalism is true; but this is a completely separate issue to my atheism (more on this later). But it certainly seems to be so, and the evidence in its favour is accumulating rapidly. I know you do not accept this, but I venture that this is because you do not understand science in any fine detail. This is evidenced by comments like:

      “the idea that the complexity and sophistication of human intelligence had its origin in the brute mindlessness and simplicity of unguided material reactions, is highly far-fetched.”

      When you write about purely philosophical issues you can be eloquent and knowledgeable. However, when you write about scientific issues you read like a creationist website spitting out the same tired old canards. Science has discovered plenty of things that are “highly far-fetched”. And all of them, without exception, have involved naturalistic causation. Biological and non-biological examples of emergent properties from non-teleological mechanisms have been observed many times and are now well-established within theoretical frameworks. Evolution does not operate solely by chance. I get a little fed up with unqualified people telling me something about my field of science which is completely untrue. A couple of years ago I had someone on an online forum tell me that they would have enough faith be an atheist if we ever saw a unicellular organism evolve into a multicellular organism. Oh dear, that was observed in the 1990s and many times since. I doubt they lost their faith, though. Subjective feelings, no matter how strongly felt, and theological just-so stories in which:

      “there MUST exist a rationality behind and above the material universe – a rationality which matter obeys, but does not itself create”

      reminds me of the Kalam Argument, which has more philosophical and scientific holes in it than the colander I strain my pasta in. Again, I’d be more than happy to discuss this issue, I have a particular interest in it. Please understand that such a view is not dismissed because the implications are unpalatable – Christian and Muslim scientists (I’ve worked with both) will fully agree with me on this – they are dismissed because we are unable to devise suitable questions to test to see whether this is actually the case. That’s all. There’s no hidden agenda. No emotional a-priori commitment to philosophical naturalism. Naturalism is my ontological thesis simply because as a way of viewing the universe it works astoundingly well as an explanation. It is far and away more complete and plausible than anything else that has ever been on offer. Naturalistic explanations explain, theistic explanations merely describe. As soon as we accept a theistic description we reduce the amount of data we have to work on by magnitudes. Thus I do not affirm philosophical naturalism because of any a-priori metaphysical commitment. Again, there is surely nothing irrational or illogical about my stance.

      In science, unlike philosophy, it is not the answers that are paramount. It is the questions. If you had experience in a research environment you would understand this. Formulating the questions and devising as sound a method as possible to test those questions often takes up the bulk of time and effort. The thrill is in the chase. Questions regarding untestable claims are rightly dismissed because they can’t give us answers and we need the answers we get to act as the tools to get to the next question. Many experiments and studies do not work out; they do not give us any answers. But science also works by making mistakes. And then correcting them. Unlike philosophy, we glean just as much knowledge by making mistakes as we do by negating a null hypothesis. It is not an endeavour of ‘proving things’, like philosophy is. All findings are considered provisional; if there is anything considered sacrosanct when discussing experimental results it is that. Your comment “science being considered the only valid method of discovering objective truth” is a cartoon version of the real thing. Scientism, if it even exists, is not what you you’ve been led to believe it is. Even the Devil Dawkins wrote a book filled with poetry, which he loves.

      Now, do I think that science could disprove my acceptance of philosophical naturalism? Yes, definitely. I am certain of it. It is capable. Instead of trashing naturalism, why don’t theists devise suitable questions that can be tested that might demonstrate the existence of supernatural phenomena? In the USA and Africa they build huge megachurches. Why not do research with that money? Is it because they’re afraid that the findings might not support their claims? All the research in this field, NDEs, Psi, remote viewing, intercessory prayer, telekinesis etc. has failed. And in most cases failed abysmally. Some of this is down to poor methodology, especially in earlier years, but contemporary methodology can be good, such as Sam Parnia’s 2,060 patient study of NDE. Still no positive results though. Occasionally there may be some hocus-pocus involved. Very occasionally you’ll get a piece of research that publishes a positive result, only to find that no-one else can replicate it. Statistically, you can predict that an occasional study will give a false positive – ironically, if there was never a false positive it would be evidence for supernaturalism. I get particularly saddened when I see a single case study hyped up by the press and the web forums become alive with theists spreading the good news only to be reported later that it was all BS. The journeys to heaven-and-back type BS. Meanwhile gullible people have spent millions of pounds on merchandise. Think Eben Alexander or Alex Malarcky. Just like the Families of Ebola patients in West Africa who ‘know’ that naturalism is false. Their pastors tell them so. And you aid them. I think those who argue for theism and supernaturalism really need to get to grips with this kind of thing. Sitting in comfy armchairs pontificating about how things MUST be purely on the basis that it’s a logically sound argument is not only getting tedious, it’s downright dangerous.

      If you really want people to accept your hypotheses, get out and do some actual research, like Sam Parnia tried (and failed). It’s not as if you don’t have the tools. Experiments in psychic research that identified the presence of immaterial minds, for example, would probably refute philosophical naturalism straightaway, but this point is very important and it is one which I don’t think you fully appreciate; should such a thing occur it would surely represent a triumph for the efficacy of methodological naturalism, not a triumph for philosophical supernaturalism. Naturalism can affirm supernaturalism because it has the intersubjective investigatory methodology by which to do so, but supernaturalism cannot affirm supernaturalism on the same scale, because it has no corresponding investigatory methodology. It only has a subjective view, the anecdote. Remember, if everyone was aware of and could sense immaterial minds, or we had some other efficacious method by which to investigate them, we wouldn’t even need to use methodological naturalism. After all, we don’t need any technique to perceive other people. There is nothing illogical or irrational about this stance. However, you see things differently because:

      “empiricism defeats itself, because the idea by which empiricism is formulated breaks its own rule of verification………. So here we see the philosophy of naturalism refuting itself……….. If you reject logic, then you have rejected any evidence claim you have made.”

      Firstly, I never rejected logic. I don’t recall ever meeting anyone in my life who has. So a strawman argument from the off. I do agree that there is a verification problem for empiricism. But – and this point is crucial – there is no method of investigation that does not have a verification problem. I had earlier written:

      “I went to some pains to make sure he [Allistair] knew I was not denying that outright. The problem of induction is a valid argument.”

      My problem with your argumentation, therefore, is not that you base your worldview on immateriality or supernaturalism or even on the grounds that the naturalistic worldview is flawed. I understand that. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand and respect it. One of my closest friends is a devout Christian, another is a devout Muslim. One of them, the Muslim, thinks exactly the same as you (he’s a surgeon). We get along fine. The other relies on faith, something I noticed you didn’t include when you said:

      “I affirm all the proper tools of intellectual enquiry: the empirical method, deductive logic, inductive logic, abductive logic, modal logic and so on”

      Only one of which, I note, wasn’t a form of logic (more on this later). My problem with your argumentation is that, unlike my Muslim friend, you are attempting to portray your worldview in such a way that it appears to have no verification problem and is therefore privileged. This is exactly what I meant by ‘circling the wagons’, pointing out the shortcomings of naturalism but ignoring any discussion of the merits and successes of your worldview. This is, to put it bluntly, academically dishonest. You’re versed in philosophy. You know fine well that there is no worldview at all that is completely verifiable. So, in reply, I gave you a structured argument, with examples from logic that countered what appears to be one your primary presuppositions, a mainstay of your worldview. I demonstrated, step-by-step, that relying on logic to validate logic (which we use to validate empiricism) has, in itself, no rational basis. In reply you stated:

      “So called ‘religious’ people are frequently accused of putting their hands over their ears and saying “la la la la la” to evidence, but it appears that atheists seem to have caught the same bug.”

      But this is exactly what you have done with this glib comment:

      “Trying to downplay the role and importance of logic is a bit like a poker player being asked to show his hand (his bluff being called, in other words) and he just walks off in a huff telling the world that he no longer accepts the rules of the game. Such a position is simply not credible.”

      When did I walk off in a huff? I’m here now aren’t I? My position is simply not credible? Let’s see. My analysis of logic was to demonstrate that, despite what you are implying, your worldview is no more privileged than mine. I want to state here and now that you have made no attempt to refute anything I had written in that post. Readers can return to previous posts to verify that. If you recall I said of logic: “it works very well for us”. I also said, however:

      “If we have no logical basis for employing empiricism as an investigatory tool then it follows that we also have no basis for using logic as a tool for validating truth. Put simply, while we can validate knowledge claims using logic we cannot validate logic itself. It is impossible.”

      Again, interested readers can refer back to my previous post for the full argument and I encourage them to do so. Unlike many of your statements, there is nothing controversial or hyperbolic about this claim. So, again, I ask you on what grounds can you give me to trust logic to validate the knowledge that informs your worldview? After all, you must have some, surely? You cannot validate logic using logic. But, bear in mind – if you give me an answer that appeals to some evidence other than logic, then logic cannot be absolute, it cannot be basic, as you claim – it would be derivative of more basic evidence. And look at the converse: if you claim logic is absolute and basic despite your ability to base it on something else, how then would you ever know when logic is false? You can’t validate it. Again, if you answer by appealing to evidence other than logic, then what grounds have you to maintain that logic is absolute and basic?………….see the circularity in your worldview?

      Don’t even pretend that you can meet this challenge. No-one can. This is not some scheming atheist trick. This is philosophy 101. You can accuse me of bluffing all you want but remember that some people who read this exchange will understand logic perfectly well and will see straight through your presuppositional game. Some things just have to be taken as axiomatic because if we don’t have any starting point we cannot progress our thoughts. The fact is that your worldview is no more privileged than mine, so please stop pretending it is and insinuating that atheists are illogical and irrational and that you are not. If you insist on maintaining the superiority of your worldview then all you need to do is refute what I have claimed about your inability to validate logic. Demonstrate to me, for example, how the Law of Non-Contradiction can be understood by any normally intelligent human being without recourse to their prior empirical observation. Don’t fall back on a strawman argument like:

      “perhaps you would like to show me some evidence that exists completely independently of logic. I would be most intrigued to see this.”

      Because nowhere did I say anything that even vaguely hinted that I thought evidence existed without logic. I made it clear (I thought) that all kinds of evidence are necessarily interrelated – that empiricism is validated by logic, but logic itself cannot be validated without prior empirical observation. If you have no prior empirical knowledge of what a bachelor is or what being married means you might well be able to determine how sound that famous syllogism is but there is no way you could decide its truth value. The syllogism would be no more than word-game. Read my previous post. I challenge you to find fault with it. Your stance re logic is all the more surprising because I cited a paper that shows that the Law of Non-Contradiction certainly doesn’t work at quantum levels, the most fundamental levels of existence that we are aware of. Again, this is not a controversial or hyperbolic statement. It’s a regular observation. It completely refutes your claim of the absolute nature of logic. Nevertheless, despite your insistence on denying this and holding the opposite view, you then go on to say:

      “The findings of quantum physics do not sit easily with a materialistic view of reality, whereas they easily fit into a theistic framework.”

      Can you not see the glaring contradiction you are making here? It’s also a bold (and dare I say arrogant) statement. I would not presume to know how to interpret the findings of quantum physics. I have no qualifications in that field. If I wanted to know whether quantum physics favoured a theistic or an atheistic framework well, I would go ask a few people who actually work in the field. What do you think I’d find? Well, this:

      Carroll, S. (2005) Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists. Faith and Philosophy 22, 622.

      No doubt your response would be:

      “Truth is not established by democracy or force of numbers. So trotting out statistics about the number of philosophers who subscribe to naturalism is anti-intellectual (it’s an “argument from authority” – another logical fallacy).”

      This was in response to my noting that the vast majority of both philosophers and PhD level scientists were atheist. It was a strawman argument then and it would be if you tried it now. I hadn’t quoted those figures to establish a truth, had I? I quoted those figures to show that, like the cosmologists referred to above, people who actually work in the relevant fields don’t agree with your theistic synopsis. Not that naturalism was correct. There’s a subtle difference which you either can’t perceive or are deliberately ignoring. But put that aside for a moment. Imagine we are both in a room full of motor mechanics and I know nothing about the mechanics of cars (and you know that) and I make the statement that car model A was more reliable than car model B solely on the basis that I had driven both. Imagine 90% of the mechanics disagreed with my subjective opinion. Would you, on the basis of “Truth is not established by democracy or force of numbers” buy model A or model B? Be honest now. So why not apply that same reasoning to quantum physics or deities? Surely it would be the rational thing to do?

      Your attitude has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They (the experts in their fields) think you (not an expert) are plain wrong. But hey, you know better! So, even in the unlikely event that you’re right and they’re wrong, you still have to convince them that you’re the one with the superior knowledge and insight. Look, I know very little about quantum physics. I think I understand the concepts but not the nuances and mathematical complexities. Imagine if I had the notion that they were all interpreting the data incorrectly. And I go to all the experts in the field and I say “no, you’ve got it wrong, this is a better interpretation of the data” (or go to a physics forum) and (almost all) tell me that in their expert opinion they don’t agree with me, I have it wrong. You know what I’d do? I’d thank them for their insights and go home and re-evaluate my ideas. I certainly wouldn’t have the audacity to persist in claiming things like: “Science is not validating metaphysical naturalism.” I also wouldn’t have the audacity to ask this sort of question:

      “how does naturalism account for the emergence of reason itself?”

      This is a prime example of trying to impose a simplistic philosophical perspective on a complex field of science in which the questioner clearly has no knowledge. It’s akin to asking how “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My first response would be that there is no such thing as ‘reason’. It’s a simplistic philosophical construct, like that of, for example, qualia. I did my PhD in visual neuroscience, an area in which you would imagine the concept of qualia would be commonly discussed and considered. It’s not. And when it is, eyes usually roll upward. Philosophers (and the odd computer scientist) might wax lyrical about it, but to those who do the actual coal-face research into how humans sense, perceive and perform cognitions, it’s (almost, there’s the odd person who takes it seriously, to be fair one of whom is a leader in the field) completely ignored. It’s largely irrelevant, considered to be something philosophers blather on about that has no real world application. I don’t think many philosophers fully grasp this; that, for the most part, philosophy does not inform science and working scientists largely consider philosophy as completely irrelevant to their work (I’m not necessarily saying it is). You can spend a whole career as a scientific researcher and have no contact or input from philosophy at all. There are exceptions; philosophers who are acknowledged to have real knowledge of and/or training in science, such as Piglucci, the Churchlands, Dennett, Chalmers etc. All of whom happen to be atheists. Tell you something? So when you ask questions like “how does naturalism account for the emergence of reason itself? please understand that it’s an armchair question. Many in the field will assume that, by asking such a simplistic question, you know nothing about the field you are demanding an answer from.

      I doubt you really want an answer, the question was intended to score a cheap point, but here goes. There are different ways of performing mental representations about objects and abstract ideas which a layperson might label as ‘reasoning’. In actuality, we can measure performance of those different mental representations and we know that performance on one kind of task does not necessarily correlate on performance on other kinds of tasks and this score is usually maintained throughout life. The main abilities measured and studied are verbal reasoning, perceptual reasoning and spatial reasoning and they all have sub-varieties. It’s worth mentioning here that, like reading, or many other cognitive abilities, we have not evolved to specifically perform those tasks, either by natural selection or random drift or neutral theory or whatever mechanism. They are often epiphenomenon, a Heath-Robinson type mixing of various perceptual and cognitive abilities resulting from different brain areas and mechanisms forced to work together by some environmental demand such as schooling. Epigenetic mechanisms too play a large part in these abilities. In a previous post I used reading as an example because much of my research was in that area and it obviously didn’t evolve, it piggy backs on numerous other evolved mechanisms. Speech on the other hand is different; that has a specific evolutionary pathway.

      We have come a long way to understanding the physical substrates underlying mental representations and it’s a burgeoning field of research. We know that ‘knocking out’ specific genes can create specific cognitive deficits in animals and humans, and that activating them can introduce the ability. There will be no such thing as a gene for ‘reasoning’. But, if we’re looking for the unknown basis of a cognitive ability, prior probability would tell us that a naturalistic approach such as a genome search would be a good place to start. Very briefly, all mental representations in humans seem to rely on the actions of about 56 genes involved in foetal corticogenesis in neocortex. From memory, 14 of these are unique to human beings, the remainder shared with our closest genetic cousins and to the extent that they can reason, they require the same genes. Two in particular, ARHGAP11A and ARHGAP11B on chromosome 15q seem to play a pivotal role in cortical neuron differentiation and multiplication. They are found in Neanderthals and Denisovans but not any other primates. Also (my favourite) the FOXP2 gene on chromosome 7 also plays an important role in verbalising and understanding symbolic perception. We share that with our genetically closest extant species. That’s a (very) concise explanation. You can look up the gene loci, orthologs, lineage and genomic context etc, it’s all public knowledge. I imagine you’ll counter with the argument that these are only the proximal causes, the material causes, not the efficient causes. Well fine, science demonstrates that its turtles all the way down. If you think any different the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate otherwise. Like I say, good luck with that.

      My second response would be to say “we don’t know yet, is that somehow a problem?” But I’m pretty sure you didn’t really want to tap my knowledge of the field and were really attempting a thinly veiled ‘God of the Gaps’ argument. It’s a common strategy: Invent some blanket concept such as ‘reasoning’ (or free will, whatever), claim that we don’t know how it got there and voila, God! You mentioned earlier that gaps can be filled by anything, even naturalistic explanations, and that is so, but you weren’t telling me anything new. I had already alluded to that fact in my example of walking in the mountains and inferring a yeti. That was an example of naturalism of the gaps. The more important point, though, is that you are being disingenuous because you can be seen to be inferring that all potential explanations hold similar epistemological weight. This of course is patent nonsense. If there’s one thing about modern fundamentalist Christianity I find disappointing it’s this continual deferral to postmodernist relativism, the kind that says “we’ve all got presuppositions, ours are just different to yours; ours is God, yours is naturalism”. Employing as few axiomatic presuppositions as possible, and only those based on immediate and intersubjective experience is a very different kettle of fish to accepting a whole raft of presuppositions based on the way you want the universe to be (or have been taught from birth that it is).

      There is a distinct and important difference between generating a hypothesis and generating a plausible, workable hypothesis. Any fool can do the former. Indeed, that’s how human reasoning often works. We are not as cognitively adept as we think. As a species we are prone to a multitude of reasoning errors. But, if we do manage to you act in the spirit of rationality, we will provisionally fill the knowledge gap, not with the hypothesis that takes our fancy, but with the most parsimonious explanation, with the highest degree of prior probability. Using a form of folk-Bayesian reasoning. This is where filling a knowledge gap with a naturalistic explanation wins hands down. Seriously, what possible prior probability can you put on a supernatural explanation to fill a knowledge gap? How many presuppositions are you going to have to take into account before you even begin to make the calculation?

      Stating that naturalism is dead but hey, you are fortunate enough to be born into a culture with the right philosophical ideas and the religion that just happens to be the real one is, on the face of it, very convenient for you, don’t you think? Those poor Australian aborigines using their folk-empiricism to survive the desert heat before Christian white man arrived. How irrational and illogical. If only they had realised that empiricism couldn’t be validated using Aristotelian logic. If they had, they might have believed in the proper monotheistic God instead of the geosophical naturalism that actually kept them alive. Meanwhile the universe rolls along……..

  9. Gary:

    You have written a great deal, and I can’t be expected to respond to every single line of it in a short period of time, although I hope to do so (and I am aware that you have written a great deal in previous posts which I have not had time to address). However, as a start, I would like to make a comment about the following remark in your last post:

    “Employing as few axiomatic presuppositions as possible, and only those based on immediate and intersubjective experience is a very different kettle of fish to accepting a whole raft of presuppositions based on the way you want the universe to be (or have been taught from birth that it is).”

    Now, you seem to be claiming some kind of position of academic and intellectual superiority (even subtlety) with your thinly veiled personal attacks (personal ‘impressions’ which smack of serious prejudice), but clearly assuming that my thinking is based on a presupposition of mere wishful thinking or conditioning through upbringing just makes a mockery of both your academic credentials and intellectual integrity. This comment really reveals that you are not actually interested in a proper, robust and mature discussion or debate, and that you are simply erecting a smokescreen to avoid addressing the issues I raised. This is rather disappointing, to say the least. The accusation that I hold to a form of theism because that is what I simply would like the universe to be like (without recourse to any evidence) and because I have been conditioned to think like this, is both deeply patronising and insulting, and not worthy of someone who claims to work in an academic environment (it is also highly ironic given the naturalistic view of the putative emergence of reason – I’ll leave you to think about that!). It doesn’t surprise me therefore that you should bring up one of the old favourites of “internet atheists”: the “Dunning Kruger” effect. It’s a tired, old, well-worn and predictable internet ‘put-down’, which anyone with any wisdom can see through. Likewise the attempt to downplay the role of logic, which I hope to come back to later, to show that there is absolutely no equivalence between the claim that empiricism is self-refuting and logic’s validity being circular.

    Based on what you claim about yourself, I would have expected much better than this. I really don’t know what kind of academic environment you work in, but certainly in my country (the UK) and the university I attended (London) we had to provide sound reasons for the assertions we make, and certainly not resort to the kind of vague personal assumptions that your posts are replete with. Perhaps academia works differently elsewhere, where there is a kind of deference and conformity to one’s perceived academic superiors, but in my country we are encouraged to think for ourselves. Thank God.

  10. Gary wrote: “Third, there is a far more fundamental error in Allistair’s reasoning that he conveniently ignores: If we have no logical basis for employing empiricism as an investigatory tool then it follows that we also have no basis for using logic as a tool for validating truth. Put simply, while we can validate knowledge claims using logic we cannot validate logic itself. It is impossible.”

    You are conflating ‘empiricism’ and “the empirical method”, which are, of course, not the same thing. The former is an epistemological theory and the latter is merely a method. The former asserts something about the fundamental nature of all knowledge, whereas the latter is a tool of investigation to be used alongside other tools. It rather concerns me that you should refer to ‘empiricism’ as an “investigatory tool”. Empiricism is not a tool but a theory of knowledge. You accuse me of inflating my own sense of intellectual competence – hence the admittedly rather spiteful reference to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but clearly I have to wonder about your academic credentials, when you commit such a basic error. I made it clear that there is a fundamental difference between philosophical naturalism – which relies on a particular theory of knowledge (empiricism) – and methodological naturalism (the use of the empirical method). My experience has been that atheists generally seem not to understand this difference, to the point where I have read some most remarkable straw man comments about what theists apparently believe. One particular atheist once argued that my consent to the medical cardiac procedure which most probably saved my life a few years ago was only consistent with the acceptance of an atheistic view of reality: “Why didn’t you just trust God to heal you?” It was a struggle to get this individual to understand that I was actually healed by “intelligent intervention” – in this case, the intelligent intervention of the surgeon – which is nothing more than an application of the intelligent design within nature. I could just as easily have argued that, if I were to become an atheist and live consistently with that view of reality, then I should have asked the surgeon just to apply some totally unguided random procedure and hope that it would work (which, of course, is admittedly a counter-caricature, but actually no more absurd than the nonsense suggested to me).

    No, we do not believe that angels hold bridges up or that there are little men activating the workings of car engines (and other such idiocy that I have read from time to time). Applying the laws of nature presupposes that we live in an ordered and intelligible universe, in which the laws of nature are not in fact regarded as merely descriptions of “what matter does”, but treated as though they are actual laws. If we admitted that these laws were mere descriptions then we could never make the necessary inferences and extrapolations which are absolutely necessary to the proper functioning of the scientific method, because we would have no basis for doing so. And if they are laws, then matter depends on them and not vice versa. Thus they precede matter, and must therefore have a source independent of matter. This is obvious and, dare I say, logical. Which brings me onto my second area of concern about your academic claims and credibility…

    Logic. Ah yes. You say the following:

    “If we have no logical basis for employing empiricism as an investigatory tool then it follows that we also have no basis for using logic as a tool for validating truth.”

    You criticise your undergraduates, but how you can pass this off as a coherent statement is quite beyond me. Do you understand what the phrase “it follows” means? What do you mean “it follows”?? If ‘follows’ in what way? Well, of course, what you mean is “it follows LOGICALLY”! “It follows” is a phrase that concerns the functioning of logic. The phrase reveals to the reader that you are employing logic. So how can rely on logic to undermine the validity of logic? That is absolutely absurd. Let’s carry on with the rest of your comment:

    “Put simply, while we can validate knowledge claims using logic we cannot validate logic itself. It is impossible.”

    Impossible IN WHAT WAY? You are using logic to validate knowledge claims, and then drawing a conclusion about the validity of logic by using logic. In other words, you have proven by this approach that logic validates itself, because without logic we cannot draw any conclusion about the validity of logic. And then you argue that anyone who does claim that logic can be validated is guilty of a circular argument. But the problem with that proposition is that a circular argument is only judged to be a logical fallacy BY LOGIC ITSELF. In other words, it is impossible to claim that someone could be guilty of employing a fallacious circular argument by assuming the objective validity of logic, given that it is only by logic that we can define what is fallacious. Thus the one making the charge is validating logic by implication. This shows that logic is part of the fundamental fabric of reality – like existence – that self-validates in the sense that nothing can be said and no conclusion reached about anything (including logic and existence) unless these elements are themselves valid.

    If you don’t agree with me, then please show me how it is possible to argue that logic can be validated WITHOUT using a logical argument. What are you going to say? All you can do is make a dogmatic statement, which you then hold entirely by (what atheists mistakenly refer to as) ‘faith’. If you do that, then you hardly have a case against anyone who holds to a competing view of reality, have you? I am sure you have heard of the principle of “ex contradictione sequitur quodlibet” – the tragic state of affairs that follows when logic is abandoned! Atheists are forever reminding us of how stupid ‘religion’ apparently is, but if your thinking is to be believed then, frankly, anything goes!!

    Logic is self-referencing, but empiricism is not. It is self-refuting. It is impossible to undermine the fundamental validity of logic without using logic (thus showing that your argument is self-refuting), but it is perfectly possible to use the empirical method without having to believe that “all knowledge comes via sense perception”. One atheist I once debated with argued that just as empiricism is self-refuting so logic is self-refuting. I had to patiently explain to him that he was guilty of a gross category error. He then sought refuge in so called “paraconsistent logic” (which is just a fancy version of non-logic, based on a serious misunderstanding of the concept of paradox).

    You have taken it upon yourself superciliously to “put me in my place” academically, and claim to be some kind of superior intellectual being, but I have to say that the above comment does you no favours. Your poor definitions and fundamental errors of reasoning make me wonder about your academic claims, to be honest. You talk about marking down your undergraduates’ papers, but on the evidence of your understanding of epistemology, I find this rather worrying. Enough said.

  11. Gary:

    “Allistair: “They declare that the “God hypothesis” is invalid (generally by appealing to whether it is judged to be ‘scientific’”

    This is a simplistic analysis. Dubbing theistic belief the ‘God Hypothesis’ is actually a sign of respect. Hypotheses are scientific concepts and only ever formed from systematic and repeated observations. Accordingly, I’ve never heard an atheist declare that the ‘God Hypothesis’ is ipso facto invalid. Rather, most thoughtful atheists will ask when the hypothesis was tested and what were the results? Asking for evidence is therefore a sign that the concept does have validity.”

    Of course hypotheses have to be tested, but by what method? If you assume that the only way to test a hypothesis is by the empirical method, then clearly you would operating according to a limited understanding of ‘evidence’. The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truth (and I assume that you believe in some concept of ‘truth’, otherwise our discussion is a waste of time). As I have already explained, and as you must know, if you have had any training in philosophy (including the philosophy of science), there are ideas on which the empirical method depends, which themselves cannot be tested empirically. These ideas can only be validated by another method: logic. For example, all hypotheses relating to events of the distant past, prior to human history, cannot obviously be tested by the empirical method – for quite painfully obvious reasons: they are events which cannot be directly observed. Therefore inferences have to be made on the basis of certain assumptions.

    Now you may argue that we can ‘test’ these hypotheses in the laboratory by a process of reconstructing the conditions obtaining at the time in question to see how certain reactions might take place (say, in attempting to construct a theory of abiogenesis). If you are honest, you must surely know that this is fraught with difficulty, because, firstly there is the notorious element of experimenter interaction (which, ironically, when factored in is more likely to demonstrate intelligent design than the naturalistic alternative), and, of course, secondly, certain assumptions need to be made in order to “set up the conditions”. Thirdly, a leap of faith is then required to draw a conclusion, because of the obvious principle that possibility does not equate to actuality (“it could have happened this way” and “it did happen this way” are not equivalents in any scheme of logic). While this process may have its merits, we are always left in a state of agnosticism, and atheists (or “strong agnostics” if you prefer) can argue until they are blue in the face, that their conclusion is more rational than the intelligent design idea, but it is simply logically impossible to declare the process of conscious selective interaction (i.e. how intelligence works) irrational. From my experience, the standard response to this is that ID is to be considered ‘unscientific’ (and therefore, by a non sequitur, somehow ‘irrational’), because we cannot directly observe this intelligence in action. Not only is this merely a subjective principle imposed on the process of reason (we never think like this in areas such as archaeology, for example, where we have not observed the manufacture of unearthed artefacts), but if valid, it can also be deployed against naturalism, because, of course, we cannot directly observe the method by which nature apparently has worked.

    I agree with you that hypotheses need to be tested, but it is clear from your entire position that you would consider that there is only one method by which claims can be tested. If that is indeed how you think, then it is extremely naïve.

    “The problem here I think lies in the fundamentally conflicting claims often made by theists that (i) science can’t investigate the supernatural because it is by definition non-physical and by definition science only considers the physical (some atheists make this claim too, though I would argue its not true) and (ii) evidence for the supernatural is abundant and easily observable in the physical realm. Any ‘hypothesis’ that so readily engenders two such incompatible claims surely lends to any reasonable person suspicion as to its validity as a scientific proposition.”

    ‘Science’ can investigate anything, depending on how we define ‘science’. Obviously if science is defined in terms of the philosophy of naturalism, then it is limited to investigation of physical reality. There is no logical reason why science should be so limited. Atheists like Dawkins tend to conflate empiricism and rationalism (a schoolboy error), and so ‘reason’ is always defined in empirical terms. This is so laughably wrong that anyone with any training in philosophy really needs no more persuasion to accept my criticism of it.

    “Allistair: “………science being considered the only valid method of discovering objective truth”

    Here, you’re deliberately smuggling the philosophical/theological term ‘objective truth’ into a discussion of science, a field in which the term is never used and not recognised. Be honest, have you actually read a scientific paper that, in either the abstract, the results or the discussion section, claims that their findings represent ‘objective truth’? I haven’t and I’m certain it would not pass peer review if anyone ever made such a claim. Science only ever claims to discover ‘provisional facts/truths’. As soon as you make claims of ‘objective truth’ you’re straying from the field of science into philosophy or theology.”

    Firstly, it is impossible to “stray from the field of science into philosophy”, because science itself is completely dependent on philosophy. There is no such thing as “pure science” completely uninformed by and functioning independently of philosophy. Hence the existence of the discipline of the philosophy of science. You give the impression that what you term ‘science’ is supreme, whereas in reality it is a method limited to studying an aspect of reality. If you do not accept this, then I have one simple challenge for you: show me the scientific experiment or observation which proves (beyond reasonable doubt, if you like) that science can operate independently of philosophical concepts. I may allegedly be a deluded victim of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”, but if you cannot meet this challenge, then you are in an even more hopeless intellectual state than I apparently am in, because this proves that your entire position is invalid. If you are going to claim something about the role of science, then intellectual honesty demands that you use that supposedly supreme method to demonstrate the validity of your case.

    As for the question of “objective truth”: well, if you don’t like this phrase, then shall we use the term ‘reality’? “Objective truths” are nothing other than concepts which cohere with reality. If you don’t believe that anything can be said about ‘reality’, then you cannot believe in ‘reality’. How ironic it is that many atheists accuse Christians of “not facing up to reality” or being “scared of reality”. While that may indeed be true of some people who profess to believe in God, as a general criticism it is about as far from the truth as can be imagined. I start all my reasoning from the data of reality, and ask which ideas explain reality most accurately. I am not at all convinced by the claims of the philosophy of naturalism, whose ideas are far removed from the inescapable facts of our lives. A good example of this is the question of moral responsibility. Obviously without the operation of genuine free will, moral responsibility is an illusion. And yet it is impossible to live our lives without assuming that at least most people possess a certain level of moral responsibility. This is far removed from the physical determinism of material processes, which at best could only form instincts in the human organism. There is no ‘ought’ in nature, as you well know (if you have ever studied philosophy).

    You claim that everything is provisional, but this is nonsense. Is the statement “everything is provisional” itself provisional, and can this proposition be validated by science? The dogmatic statement that “everything is provisional” is actually a dogmatic objective truth claim. It’s a bit like the sceptic who claims that we can know nothing, not realising that he has just asserted a truth claim, namely: “we know that we can know nothing”, which, of course, is self-refuting. If he doesn’t ‘know’ this, then his comment is meaningless. Perhaps he could say “I think it is probably true that we can know nothing, but I am not sure about that”, but again that is also a truth claim, because he is asserting the following: “I know that I think….” You may perhaps think this is just sophistry, but it is not. It is an act of using the method of logic to test a claim about reality, to show that in fact we cannot say anything about anything unless we have some foundation of what can rightly be called “objective truth”. Therefore your criticism of the phrase and concept is, at best, naïve and, at worst, dishonest.

    OK, this is turning into another long post, and I realise that I am not covering absolutely every single one of your comments, because I don’t have the time to spend hours on this (although I certainly have no fear of your ideas, and can respond to all of them). However, I will just finish this post by responding to your definition of ‘atheism’ in your last post:

    “First, atheists are an incredibly broad church (couldn’t resist that). My wife is an atheist for completely different reasons to me (and I really mean, completely different). We can be substance or property dualists, or idealists. Some even accept Platonic forms for abstract entities. There are even atheist pantheists and panentheists. Most traditional Australian aboriginal cultures embrace geosophical naturalism. If you think all atheists are physicalists you should get to know some Therevada Buddhist nuns and monks. They can go full atheist and Bishop Berkeley. The caricature view of atheists deliberately promulgated by some of the more fundamentalist churches tells us a lot about their so-called commitment to truth.”

    I am well aware of this point, and I have addressed it quite a number of times in the past. Of course, it all comes down to the definition of ‘God’. Some atheists oppose what they term ‘religion’ (a very strange word, it has to be said), and one gets the impression that ‘religion’ is a blanket term that covers all views that affirm some kind of ‘supernatural’ reality. Now it is clear that this movement of atheism is unapologetically naturalistic, by definition.

    If however, we are talking about a rejection of the idea of ‘God’ rather than the more vague ‘religion’, then, of course, we need to define what we mean by ‘God’. If ‘God’ (or ‘god’) is defined as merely “a supernatural entity which is the supreme reality”, then it may be possible that some pantheists and panentheists are not atheists. If ‘God’ is defined as “the Supreme Being”, and is clearly a person, then it is certainly possible for someone to be an atheist, while subscribing to a belief in some form of ‘supernatural’ reality. Obviously it stands to reason that this supernatural reality will be fundamentally impersonal, just as nature itself is impersonal. Thus it is a realm operating according to certain forces, and therefore in essence no different from the basic structure of nature. The only difference between such a realm and the physical world, is that the former may not be accessible to scientific investigation. If it is accessible to science, then there is really no difference between it and nature, and it is only distinguished by a change of name. If it lies outside the investigation of science, but could perhaps be validated by recourse to logic, then I would be very happy to consider its claims. But what I think you are really trying to say is this: “if you can prove that the philosophy of naturalism is invalid, then don’t think you have successfully undermined atheism, because it is logically possible to be an atheist and believe in some form of supernaturalism”.

    I would be intrigued to see how many atheists would be prepared to abandon philosophical naturalism in favour of this kind of non-theistic supernaturalism, because this conversion would rather undermine their constant criticism of ‘religion’. But perhaps they would be prepared to subscribe to this new view, on the basis that it provides an alternative to theistic explanations: “OK, so we accept that you have demolished naturalism, but that does not prove God exists, because we have this alternative theory, which satisfies the demand for a non-naturalistic realm, and therefore God is not needed.” Well, if that is the way they were to think, then they would need to think a bit more carefully. The problem with naturalism is not simply the fact that too much is loaded onto material reactions, but the fact that it is impersonal. The basic distinction between philosophical naturalism and theism is that the former denies the role of an ultimate intelligence, whereas the latter affirms it. The function of intelligence (rather than pre-programmed instinct) presupposes the existence of consciousness and will: i.e. personality. Therefore an impersonalised supernatural realm suffers from the same problem as naturalism: there is no place within it for a properly functioning ultimate intelligence. Therefore “atheistic supernaturalism” is just a fancy form of naturalism.

    For this reason, I stand by my view that atheism is completely dependent on philosophical naturalism.

    “Second, despite what you might read in the pop literature, atheism considered alone has no claim to knowledge. It is simply lack of belief in deity(s).”

    I don’t know what you mean by “the pop literature”, but certainly I am not the one whose views reflect dumbed down pseudo-reasoning. The point you have raised here is probably the most naïve proposition that atheists come out with. It is based on the belief that the concept of ‘God’ is entirely trivial and has no implications for how we view reality. Such atheists like to compare the idea of God to the idea of “the invisible pink unicorn” or “Russell’s teapot” etc. This is a serious category error. The latter two ideas are entirely trivial and have no bearing on the fundamental nature of reality. The same quite obviously cannot be said about the concept of a supreme being, who is the creator and first cause of the entire universe! If you reject a non-trivial concept, then it follows that you have to replace it with ideas which counter the implications of that concept. Those ideas then constitute a definite claim to knowledge, i.e. a worldview. The denial that life arose as a result of intelligent design requires an affirmation of the claim that life arose by some other method. This is a definite claim to knowledge, and, in fact, it has implications for medicine (for example, if we believe that the human body is just a “work in progress” which has not been designed, then that will speak directly to how we treat disease. For example, the lipid hypothesis regarding heart disease asserts that there is such a thing as “bad cholesterol” – which is a myth, because there is no such thing, given that what is termed “bad cholesterol” is not even cholesterol anyway, but a completely necessary transporter protein. Both this protein and cholesterol are vital molecules, and not merely “mistakes of a blind naturalistic process” that need to be counteracted with dangerous drugs). Therefore it is a heinous lie to say that atheism makes no definite claim about reality. You smugly insinuate that I am just spouting the views of “pop literature”, but let me just say that if you stopped to think about some of your statements you would realise that if I am reading “pop literature” then I am clearly not the only one! Some of the atheist tomes I have had the misfortune to read (even stuff by AC Grayling, who one would think would know better) is incredibly sloppy, full of “it seems to me…” type phrases. As for Dawkins’ “God Delusion”, well, say no more… (the absolute ultimate in “pop literature”!).

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