Monday, April 30, 2007

Thoughts on Atheism and Faith

I can speak, you know. I just choose not to.
-- The Rabbit

I have often heard the claim that someone who is atheist or anti-theist is essentially committing the same error as a religionist, akin to the recent assertion of a good friend of mine, from a quasi-religious viewpoint of his own informed by a sort of postmodern skepticism, that atheism is "just another kind of faith" -- the belief in something that cannot be proved.

At first, he had me at a loss to explain the difference. After all, one can't prove a negative, and therefore to believe there is no God (or god, or god-figure, or Shiva, or Athena, or Pan, or what-have-you) is to believe in a proposition that cannot be proved. But surely one cannot consign the principled skepticism of atheism to the dustbin of presumptuous faith-based belief, can we? (And, I might add, to the solipsistic skepticism of postmodern thought.)

I thought about it for the next few days, and I came to what I believe is the answer, or, more accurately, a decent answer that gets at the root of the issue.

I believe that the key to the riddle is patterns.

The nature of all learning comes from the fact that we perceive patterns in life. Everything we "know" is based on patterns taken either from the assertions of others (hearsay) or our own observation. For example, we don't know exactly what causes gravitation, but we all can see that gravity exists as a pattern of matter being attracted to the earth, and, in space, to other matter based upon relative mass. From our observation of the physical effects of it, we can believe that it, and similar phenomena, are at least reasonable and believable suppositions. Indeed, we would be hard-pressed, indeed backed into the corner of irrational fantasy, to attempt to disbelieve it.

But that's too dull. Let's take a more, well, exciting example. It is perhaps obvious, but I shall name it anyway: talking rabbits.

You see, I not only do not believe in rabbits that can speak Swahili, or any of various pre-revolutionary French dialects, but I affirmatively believe that they do not exist. That is something of a leap. How can I be sure? How can I be so arrogant?

The problem is that we are not at liberty to responsibly believe everything. Everything we accept as real must somehow suggest itself in some sort of pattern. No evidence exists, nor has any ever been recorded or even alluded to, that rabbits have spoken. Indeed, none exists of any non-human animal ever having picked up on a human language. There just is simply no recorded pattern whatever in existence of non-human animals speaking human language, despite the fact that people have been rather inclined to induce and record such things.

On the other hand, there are plainly measurable and consistent patterned reasons why they cannot -- lack of sufficient brain development and lack of vocal apparatus being chief among these. Indeed, researchers have spent years trying to teach the most intellectually-capable species of monkeys and dolphins language, without success. Even where basic concepts are taught (e.g., "hungry," "food," and "come here"), complex ideational linguistic development is well beyond their reach. (Although, from what I understand, dolphins have come closest, and are just simply amazing creatures who have their own rather complex form of aural communication that allows them to coordinate complex aerobatic maneuvers and to cooperatively herd large schools of fish with great precision and timing. But, even if they do have the intellectual capability to understand language in some form, one won't say, 'allo there!, to you. They are just not physically capable.)

Thus, there does not exist a pattern of any non-human animal speaking human language, other than rote-memorized repetitions of small phrases without true comprehension (parrots) or sub-linguistic communications (dolphins, monkeys).

But, you say, my child just told me that Dog spoke to him, as a man speaks to a man! And, indeed, there have been numerous animated films starring talking rabbits. Here is evidence!

Okay. Let's rephrase this. No evidence from reliable witnesses that ought to be taken as evidence of the occurrence of real phenomena. The human imagination is amazing, and can mix existing, real patterns into new imagined patterns that have no counterpart in what we call reality. Thus, this very second, I am envisioning rabbits with a species-specific form of gravity that makes any two rabbits coming within 20 feet of each other slide toward each other and stick together like two little fuzzy magnets. I'll call it, say, Rabbitation.

And note that, in my mind, those rabbits are chatting quite amiably with each other over tea as it happens.

As I noted, however, human imaginings are noteworthy in this ability to synthesize new, impossible patterns from perceived existing patterns. I might be able to submit my Theory of Rabbitation to the nearest university physics department, but your average first-year student will see right through it, and indeed might find my submission of the theory to constitute evidence of propositions quite different from those I've asserted. For example, my lack of sanity, or at least my lack of sincerity.

So, to rein this back in, human imaginings are not valid evidence constituting "patterns" upon which belief ought to be formed. When we speak of "reality," we speak of observable patterns beyond the realms of our own fancy. I understand that post-Modernist modes of thought currently fashionable posit no distinction between the inner and outer world, between perception and reality, but I disagree rather strongly, and think they've disappeared down the rabbit-hole of solipsistic contemplation. (To be fair, not all are so bold, but there are some that boldly follow themselves to that logical conclusion.) I invite any of them who imagine no distinction between physical reality and perspective to abandon food and just imagine they do not need it anymore.

Of course, is it truly physically impossible for a French-speaking, tea-drinking rabbit to be born tomorrow somewhere in Marseilles? No, not strictly so. There could be a series of simultaneous, viable mutations that spontaneously do what millions of years of evolution took with the hominids, producing a rabbit with human-approximate intelligence, motivations and vocal characteristics, that happens to be born in the right place and time to be noticed for what it is and appropriately educated in the French countryside. However, given that the probability of even two or three minor simultaneous mutations to be both viable and improvement-bearing is almost impossibly remote, and given the overwhelming likeliness that any given mutation will be nonviable, we can handily classify this rabbiteering possibility as "impossible" in the same way that we may so conclude with Douglas Adams's postulate that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the collected works of Shakespeare.

Thus, coming back to the god conundrum, how do I "know" that there is no god?

Well, it's not strictly, technically impossible that some sort of metaphysical uber-being approximate to the forms envisioned by the self-ordained prophets of the world could in reality exist somewhere, somehow. But we might assign it the same probability as our simian Hamlet. Tielhard de Chardin be damned.

The idea of deity as envisioned by the creators of human religions throughout the preceding millenia matches no existing observable patterns. It's not just that we can't see these guys; it's that there is no fact, no evidence, no phenomenon, nothing, that even suggests that such patterns exist. Indeed, most such superstition has had its starting points in wonder, ignorance and fear; why did a big mountain explode out of the earth and pour fire on the neighboring village? They must have pissed off someone.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence to support the conclusion that, for every religious utterance; for every assertion of divinity or communication with divinity; for every sighting of a ghost, a god, a demon, or the sudden collision of two teacups shattering and spilling their contents as the rabbits holding them were violently thrust together by an unknown force; for every assertion of human superstitious imaginings, there is a far more simple, consistent and reasonable explanation, producing far less inconsistency. Or, in other words, we can cut them all with Occam's Razor.

Of course, enumerating these is beyond the scope of my argument here, but I imagine anyone who would care to read this probably needs little enlargement upon this proposition.

But what is more damning to assertions of the existence of deity is a third factor: the countless examples supporting a pattern of the invention of deities, demons and other metaphysical bugaboos for reasons psychological and sociological. Indeed, there is a rather strong and consistent pattern of certain groups of humans, who we'll collectively call "the priests," using religion as a tool to control those beneath them and to "consume the grass belonging to their flock," to roughly quote the recorded statement of a victim of the Catholic Inquisition. We have much evidence of patterns of self-serving motivations and creative ignorance behind the creation of many of these people's gods, of which Mormonism is but one excellent case study. In law, we call it conflict of interest.

To render it in terms familiar to the Western courtroom, we have ample evidence of these declarants being unreliable, self-interested witnesses whose answer to questioning is hostility, derision and condemnation, rather than honest answers. Would you believe a witness whose only answer was to damn opposing counsel to eternal flames, or to the depths of Hades, or to "outer darkness"?

To conclude: given the utter absence of supporting evidence for, or patterns suggestive of, the possibility of deity (outside the rather anything-goes realm of human imaginings), combined with the utter banality of self-serving or ignorant-superstition-induced creation of spiritual or deific beings, we can safely conclude that these assertions of gods and demons are indeed the self-serving imaginings that what evidence does exist shows them to be. Kinda like our fuzzy pink talking rabbits, and like any of the sundry tribal gods and demons our modern religionists themselves facilely dismiss as ignorant, superstitious paganism (even as they assert their own invisible gods and demons) in their selective critical inquiry.

Yes, I imagine it's not outside the realms of possibility and probability so aptly explored in Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, but I'm rather comfortable sticking to observable patterns and probabilities and therefore actively disbelieving in gods, demons, spirits, and little, pink, unusually-adhesive bunnies chatting with each other over broken dishware. To do otherwise is to disappear down that rabbit-hole of subjectivity and remain in the darkness of superstition, confusing imaginings with reality.

(For the record, I understand that gravity is not adhesion, per se, but I claim poetic license.)

Does this mean that I, and others who likewise so disbelieve in things without example in reliably observable reality, are closed-minded and assume we have seen all patterns in existence? No. But neither are we gullible, taking the self-interested word of suspect individuals or groups without scrutiny. Furthermore, religion is a special case, because of the massive evidence against every instance of it, the total lack of any supporting patterns elsewhere, and the emotion-based nature of such faith. Indeed, I am far more apt to be open to the possibility that rabbitologists and rabbosophers might be able to show my rabbit example wrong. I am open to new patterns and to the possibility that patterns in which I had believed were incorrect (or incorrectly perceived). But show me evidence and do not try to persuade me through emotion and histrionics.

Note: By the way, I had not read of "Russell's Teapot" or the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" when I wrote this. But, except for the "patterns" bit, it is the same sort of approach. In other words, take away the special dignity given to one's religion of choice, and apply the same standard to all propositions, and the absurdity becomes manifest. In the end, it's just institutionally-backed special pleading. Not all propositions are equal.


Sister Mary Lisa said...

Gluby, I love this post. Brilliant. I won't look at the rabbits in my yard the same again.

C. L. Hanson said...

Excellent post -- I'm flattered that my little discussion helped inspire this!!! :D

xOhioJoex said...

Let me explain this in more simple terms (albeit your lengthy retort is accurate). There is no question that atheism is not a faith, or belief, or religion. The only reason we keep talking about it is because of the psychology of the theist who can't fathom not believing in God. We atheists clearly see that all the 'evidences' they speak of for God are rediculous, absurd, or do not have the proper level of muster ot think it likely. But, the theist looks at that SAME evidence, and thinks it proves God exists. So, they presume that we see that evidence the same way they do, and thus we *must* be "denying" what we are *seeing*. The reality of it is, we are seeing things way more clearly than they are, because we are not afraid to. We see their evidences more clearly than they do and they do not realize that those 'evidences' are not evidence at all for their God. They fear things like Hell, and wrath of God, or simply a mild discomfort with "maybe being wrong" if they say they don't believe. We aren't afraid of thoughts or evidence, so we have no worries about seeing things they way they are.

As Dan Barker (former evangelical preacher, now an athiest) put it: "We don't have to see all the polar bears to conclude there are no naturally occuring purple polar bears"

JulieAnn said...

So can rabbits talk dirty? I heard they could...

Not to be a contrarian, but I based on your assertions, I conclude that you believe that everything (our world) was created by happenstance, and human beings. If we created everything around us, then wouldn't that make us God? Is it a matter of semantics? I personally believe in ...something, don't know what. But I definitely don't believe in the Judeo-Christian views of God. I think human beings created the reality and collective as we know it, therefore, WE are the creators, we are God. And if you believe that, then there is proof that there is a God. You, and me.
Just thoughts...:0)

Gluby said...

S&M Lisa,
And I don't think the rabbits will look at you the same either, now that you know their secret.

Thanks! I quite enjoy your writings.

Ouch! "Lengthy retort" has unflattering undertones, but I'll assume it was just an odd-but-friendly word choice.

You make some important points as well about the irrational and fear-based nature of religious analysis. It is true that the choice of what evidence is believable and what sources of it are reliable is heavily influenced by one's beliefs, and that much of the same evidence will be accepted by a religionist but, instead, seen as supporting their positions. And it is true that, given the irrational (and often anti-rational) basis of religious belief, relying far more upon intuition and emotion, this interpretation of evidence will likewise be irrational.

However, true as it may be in any given instance, I don't think it is sufficient to merely say "we see things clearly, while they don't because they are afraid to." That's a little loaded and far more likely to create angry defensiveness than to take the rational high-ground.

Interestingly, Barker's polar bear line basically is a pattern argument.

Rabbits talking dirty? I hadn't considered that possibility. Perhaps they only trust people who have faith that they can speak, and those are the only ones to whom they speak. I posit that they speak dirty to SML, but that she is sworn to secrecy about it and will deny it.

I do believe in physical evolution free of metaphysical phenomena, so yes, I believe that we and our world were created by natural, unconscious processes in a basically indifferent universe. And I believe that human beings have created our own social and intellectual world (though much of it is spurred by instinct).

But I certainly would not say I believe everything was created by human beings. I think reality as we know it existed long before us and shall exist long after.

What do you mean when you say we created everything around us? You don't mean the physical world, do you? Or just the buildings and social reality?

And if you and I are gods, we have been absent from our duties and have some cleaning-house to do...

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Gluby, of course they talk dirty to me. It's because they know their secrets are safe with me. And because I'm just so dang nice.

JulieAnn said...

Oh Gluby, if we are Gods, we have no house-cleaning to do at all; unless your paradigm of God is an interfering God. Mine isn't. My God observes and allows without judgment or interference. :0)

CV Rick said...

Very well done. It's as cogent and formulated as any argument in The God Delusion (which I recently read and wrote a review on by Richard Dawkins.

Believers often try to assign equality in the debate to what they perceive as an opposing side. The religious try to assign belief and faith and a system of religious non-religion to Atheists and scientists. Creationists to people accepting evolution. Global Warming deniers to those of us knowing the truth is found in the discoveries of science.

However, as a modern man and an atheist I feel no need to elevate the religious to my own level of knowledge. I don't feel a need to make "two equal sides" for debate purposes or to create a falsified "Fair and Balanced" dichotomy. Faith and belief are not equal and opposite evidence, experimentation and observation. And, never should be.

Gluby said...

I checked out your review and, given what you said there, find this to be high praise. Thanks!

True. It is definitely true that the seeds of all of the worst behaviors are in us, but I think that those in whom a particular harmful tendency has come to full fruition always love to claim that everyone else is like them, like the archetypal thief who argues everyone else is on the take, too, but is just not honest about it. Not really, Mr. Thief.

Personally, I have far more "faith" in mankind to rise above the worst in us, though, again, I am using the term "faith" imprecisely, because it is based on observed patterns of human behavior, rather than, well, a vaunted and lionized form of wishful thinking.

And I agree -- spurious, irresponsible apologetic argument is given far too much dignity and legitimacy, far beyond what reasonable benefit of the doubt and assumption of honorable intent require. The rational arguments of those who actively disrespect reason have exhausted every entitlement they have seized for themselves through two millenia of iron-fisted Christian dominance.

Jonathan Blake said...

I'm late to the discussion, but…

Let me preface this by saying that I am an atheist. Just keep that in mind. Also, I understand your operating definition of faith to be the decision to act as though something is certain despite insufficient evidence to support that certitude.

I'll be the contrarian and say that you've failed to convince me. You've demonstrated that the faith necessary to believe in God is much greater than the faith necessary to believe that no such entity exists (i.e. atheism has much more evidence to back it up). You've demonstrated that atheists have different, better strategies to decide which assertions deserve their faith.

But in the end, we atheists must admit that we don't know with absolute epistemic certitude that there is no God, as you admit in your post. We must therefore also admit that we use some small amount of faith to bridge the gap between our very high confidence in atheism and the unattainable heights of certainty.

Some of us don't like to admit that we have to resort to the same tricks as the theists, but that's the human condition. We're finite. We can't know anything with certainty. All we can do is reduce the amount of faith we have to exercise by increasing our understanding.

Gluby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gluby said...

Oh wow. I somehow missed this comment. I'll respond for the sake of doing so, even though I am quite certain the original commenter has despaired of a response.

I find the Acting Without Epistemological Certitude = Exertion of Faith argument to be highly flawed.

First, let me just note that that is not my operating definition of "faith." It is, after all, not my aspersion. I am using the generally-accepted notion of "faith" as something considerably more specific than merely "action without epistemological certainty." Faith, I'll propose, means belief as an act of will (1) in defiance of evidence, or the lack thereof, or at least (2) in recklessness or casual disregard for evidentiary considerations.

Nevertheless, if you wish to define it that way, then I will agree with you. However, I'll also paraphrase that old Abraham Lincoln line that you can call a tail a leg, but it's still a tail. But "faith" in the usable sense means something more specific than "action without epistemological certainty," certainly something less aggressive than "decision to act as though something is certain."

It is not only reasonable, but completely incumbent on us to act as though something exists only if something so suggests it. We would be unnecessarily paralyzed with indecision, fear, confusion and a tumble of other emotions if we believed real everything that occurs to our or others' imaginations. We can't just believe everything because "not believing is an act of faith." We need some ground to recognize a thing or phenomenon.

On the other hand, if believing things to actionable certitude on the basis of responsible apprehension of evidence in patterns of reality is "faith," then we've extended the definition of faith to near-meaninglessness. We've basically taken it to mean "any use use of the senses is a leap of faith." And we then devolve to philosophical paralysis.

Epistemological certaintly remains a ridiculously rarefied concept, relevant only abstractly. The correct answer is not extreme skepticism, doubting everything to a some practical degree even in the face of evidence, but to diligently examine evidence, to cast aside baseless claims, and to be prepared to renounce evident apparent truths we had embraced if we later find them proved questionable to actionable doubt. We can also doubt everything new prima facie, but be prepared to accept it provisionally (and then later with some finality) if evidence (again, responsibly apprehended) so supports.

Second, in a sense, it's basically special pleading in its use for gods of choice. I notice your use of the capital G in "God", and hence your particular imputation of special dignity to that paradigm -- are you sure you're an Atheist? Because you concede far too much. Once we open up the inquiry to every competing claim of imperceptible beings or things, it devolves into a parade of preposterousness.

Put another way, it is revealed in this aspect by using it with equal fervor for things we find completely preposterous. Imagine it with, if not the bunnies, then horrible (but completely undetectable) fire-breathing dragons in your garage (a la Carl Sagan) or Super-Elephants in spandex tights and bermuda shorts everywhere parading around, undetectable to our senses.

Finally, perhaps the error is the assumption that we are, as you put it, "bridging the gap between our very high confidence in atheism and the unattainable heights of certainty." Since I can believe nothing to that level, I don't bother to. Perhaps that is where we differ; I don't require epistemological certitude to function and apply evidentiary analysis. Sure, I'm not foolproof, but I'm a lot less foolproof than if I disrespect evidentiary analysis as, to paraphrase your term, in the end, the same sort of trick theists and charlatans use.