February 8, 2015 by allistairg
In the aftermath of a tragedy, many people, in their grief, express the belief that their loved one is now in a better place. Messages such as these express this feeling of hope:
“You are now a star that will shine brightly forever”
“You are an angel in heaven”
“We will meet again one day”
…and many others, with similar thoughts and feelings.
All such expressions have one thing in common: they affirm a belief that there is some form of life after death. Even the simple “Rest in peace” could imply this.
There are other people who limit themselves to ‘telling’ their loved one that “you will always be in my thoughts”, “I will never forget you” and so on. These thoughts tend to suggest that all that will survive death is a memory remaining in the minds of friends and relatives still alive.
A sceptic would dismiss the former kind of sentiment as mere wishful thinking, although I am sure most would appreciate the need to be sensitive to bereaved people at their time of grief. But from an intellectual point of view, such thoughts would be regarded by sceptics as essentially irrational and the product of desperate wishful thinking, which denies the “facts of reality”. Atheists, of course, would draw this conclusion.
Here are some typical comments by leading atheists, expressing their view that life is transitory and death is final. These quotations are featured on the website of the British Humanist Association:
“I believe this is the only life we have…” – Natalie Haynes
“Our lives are less than a thousand months long…” – Professor AC Grayling
“I have a strong sense of awe and wonder in the world, which my cells are so fleetingly a part of…” – Jim Al-Khalili
And I could quote many similar views from other atheist sources.
Now any true sceptic will demand evidence for any assertions. Such a person demands logically coherent supporting arguments. I therefore consider myself a ‘sceptic’, but my scepticism is directed at these atheists, who are making a truth claim that I believe they need to substantiate. In fact, I would argue that they are the ones indulging in wishful thinking and sentimentality, and that it is their view of reality, which lacks logical coherence, as I will explain.
Body and soul
What these atheists are essentially saying is: “Nothing survives the death of the body. When your body dies, that is it. No more life in any form. No consciousness. Nothing. Just an eternity of complete and total oblivion.”
Now, we need to consider the logical validity of this rather dogmatic assertion. What idea or ideas is this claim based on? What philosophy would cause someone to draw this conclusion?
Clearly if we believe that nothing (no mind, soul or consciousness) could possibly survive the death of the physical body, then we must assume that what we call the ‘soul’ is dependent for its existence on the body, because we would consider it to be part of the body. This would suggest that we are convinced that the entirety of reality consists of nothing other than matter and energy, and that there is no spiritual or supernatural realm above, behind or infused throughout nature. This is the philosophy of naturalism, also generally known as materialism or physicalism. Those who confidently assert that this life is our one and only life are at least tacitly affirming this philosophy to be true.
(It is possible that someone may object by saying that he denies life after death, but holds to some kind of supernatural view of reality. I have encountered this position, even among professing Christians. Anyone can say anything if it doesn’t involve being logically consistent. But I am arguing on the basis of logical consistency and coherence. It may very well be possible to believe in a ‘God’, who decrees that our lives should be temporary, but such a view is simply de facto materialism as far as human life is concerned, but with a “God-concept” tacked on as really nothing more than a theological construct. The view that we are simply bodies, and we cease to exist when our bodies no longer function quite obviously leaves no place for an objective spiritual reality – at least as far as human life and experience is concerned. Moreover, those who do affirm a supernatural reality, but deny an afterlife, hardly have grounds to dismiss belief in life after death as mere wishful thinking and sentimentality. It is the atheistic, naturalistic view of reality which drives the disbelief in life after death, and it is this, rather than a compromised pseudo-religious form, which I am challenging.).
The philosophy of naturalism is both a necessary and sufficient condition for belief in the proposition that physical death results in the total death of the individual. Now why would anyone believe this to be true? What theory of knowledge could justify this viewpoint?
Seeing is believing?
If the philosophy of naturalism is true, then the means by which we relate to the physical world, as far as knowledge is concerned, has to be the only means by which knowledge can be acquired. Since our only epistemic relationship with nature is through our five senses (or the extension of our five senses by means of scientific equipment, such as, for example, microscopes and telescopes), then it follows that if we could find a source of knowledge other than our five senses, then we could not justifiably assert that “physical nature is all that exists”, because we could not say that “the only reality we know anything about is the physical world”.
The physical world, of course, consists of such things as trees, dolphins, rocks, atoms, water and so on. It does not consist of ideas, in the sense that we perceive them in the way that we perceive the existence of the above mentioned entities. Ideas are not bits of ‘stuff’ floating around in the atmosphere and made up of atoms and molecules and which can be observed and measured by science. Ideas may be communicated by physical means, but paper and ink or pixels are not what ideas are made of. These are merely physical vehicles for the dissemination of ideas.
The theory that all knowledge comes via sense perception is known as ‘empiricism’. Empiricism itself is an idea, of course, and not a physical thing. Either empiricism is true or it is not true. If it is held to be true, then for the person who believes it to be so, it counts as ‘knowledge’. But empiricism itself claims that all knowledge comes via sense perception, so how can the idea of empiricism itself be counted as ‘knowledge’, since this idea does not come to us by sense perception? It is an idea and not in the same epistemic category as a tree, a dolphin or a rock. Thus empiricism is self-refuting. The idea of empiricism itself breaks its own rule. It claims to be knowledge and yet transgresses its own rule by which knowledge is defined.
It may be argued that this is not a correct definition of empiricism, because it is possible to be an empiricist and accept the validity of innate ideas. It is indeed possible for the subjective human mind to hold to any view, no matter how self-contradictory and try to pass it off as something it is not. This moderate view of ‘empiricism’ is not actually empiricism, but a hybrid of empiricism and rationalism. I could just as easily say that it is a moderate form of rationalism: a rational core with a bit of sense perception thrown in! But even if we accept that definition of empiricism, it does not help anyone who holds to the philosophy of naturalism.
A question of evidence
The philosophy of naturalism depends entirely on empiricism for its justification. If we take away the fundamental claim of empiricism – that “all knowledge comes to us via sense perception” – then naturalism will collapse, because we would have no grounds for claiming that physical nature is all that exists.
The celebrated atheist cosmologist Carl Sagan certainly affirmed the view that all valid evidence had to be empirical, hence his famous “invisible dragon” comment: “Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?” This was his attempt to shift the burden of proof away from atheists, but rather bizarrely, he failed to take into account that an entity, which is not detectable empirically, can be inferred to exist as an explanation for phenomena which can be perceived. Another well-known atheist analogy was John Wisdom’s The Parable of the Invisible Gardener – a view of evidence gathering that no competent scientist would ever accept, because it ignores the role of inference. Many scientific theories are based entirely on inference, such as, for example, the theory of the existence of dark matter, which is empirically undetectable. These examples clearly show that attempts to promote the philosophy of naturalism, by which atheism is established, are based entirely on strong empiricism. Once empiricism is compromised, then naturalism is compromised.
Built on an impossible foundation
The theory of knowledge – empiricism (or “strong empiricism”, if we want to use the “belt and braces” term for clarity) – on which the philosophy of naturalism is based, is self-refuting, because it is an idea, and ideas are not physical objects detectable by the senses. Because it is self-refuting it kills itself. Therefore it cannot conceivably be true. An idea that destroys itself by its own inherent content is the ultimate nonentity. It simply cannot exist and function. It only appears to function by being parasitic: stealing something from its host (in this case, the objective validity of ideas) and then using that stolen property to promote a certain false view of reality. And the hope is that no one will notice!
Thus any view of reality dependent on a self-refuting theory of knowledge must be false. A house built on an impossible foundation cannot stand. The philosophy of naturalism is therefore logically impossible. (And it is no good claiming that this philosophy is not self-refuting, because we can argue that ideas have their origin in nature or that brain produced mind. This is an example of “begging the question”, that is, including in the premise of an argument the conclusion, which one is attempting to prove. In this case, the philosophy of naturalism is assumed to be true, and then a conclusion about the truth of naturalism is drawn from this premise. It is a circular argument, and therefore completely fallacious).
Hedging one’s bets
Now it may well be that some atheists recognise the epistemological problems of naturalism, and so they assert that “it is most probably the case that nothing survives the death of the body, but, of course, we cannot be absolutely sure about this. The rational working theory is that death is the end, as we have no knowledge of an afterlife, but reality could conceivably prove us wrong, although we think that that is very unlikely”. Such agnosticism has been redefined as a form of atheism; a kind of de facto or practical atheism.
Well this just will not do, as I will show. Let us analyse this claim, and see where it leads us.
Let us say that ‘x’ represents the proposition that “death is the end and there is no afterlife”. If ‘x’ may be true, then the following two statements of modal logic are true:
1. It is possible that x is true.
2. It is possible that x is not true.
If one of these two propositions is denied then it is impossible to say that “x may be true”.
And if both these propositions are true then we can use either one of them to prove our case. If x may be true, then it is true that “it is possible that x is true”.
The dogmatic atheist says that “x (= no afterlife) is true”.
The agnostic says “it is possible that x (= no afterlife) is true”.
What is the difference between these two statements from a logical point of view? Well not a lot. The first one is stating that a particular claim is true, and therefore being true it is logically possible. The second one is saying that because it is logically possible, it could be true. Both statements affirm that the truth claim in question is logically possible, and the only difference between the two statements is the fact that the agnostic is also saying that the denial of the truth claim is also logically possible (which, of course, is not the same as saying that the truth claim is logically impossible).
Since we have established that the truth claim relies on the philosophy of naturalism, which, in turn, is dependent on the theory of empiricism, and given that empiricism is self-refuting, then it follows that the logical foundation of the truth claim is impossible. How then can an idea be deemed to be “logically possible” when it is dependent on a theory of knowledge which is logically impossible?
A troubling conundrum
Even the celebrated atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell could not accept the implications of the self-refuting nature of empiricism. This is what he wrote:
“I will observe, however, that empiricism, as a theory of knowledge, is self-refuting. For, however it may be formulated, it must involve some general proposition about the dependence of knowledge upon experience; and that any such proposition, if true, must have as a consequence that itself cannot be known. While, therefore, empiricism may be true, it cannot, if true, be known to be so.” (From: An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth, Allen & Unwin: 1940. Emphasis mine.)
Here he is saying that an idea, which he admits is self-refuting, may be true. An idea that is self-refuting destroys itself and therefore cannot be true. He refuses to go that far, and merely states that such an idea cannot “be known” to be true. Yet it may actually be true.
This is extraordinary. Russell is not talking about the limitations of the human mind, but rather claiming that an idea can be true which cannot be known to be true, in other words, no logical mind could ever know this ‘true’ idea to be true. Given that the very formulation of the idea of ‘truth’ relies on methods of verification, which involve logical correspondence and coherence, then it is inconceivable how, even in principle, an idea can be asserted to be true (even as a mere possibility) while acknowledging that it stands outside the realm of logical possibility!
Even Bertrand Russell drew back from the logical implications of empiricism. Because it is self-refuting, it is not true. It cannot be true, because it is logically impossible. And therefore any philosophy which relies on this idea cannot be true. And any proposition which relies on that philosophy – such as the belief that the death of the physical body is the end of life – is also impossible, even when considered as a mere probability.
Unfortunately many atheists have not thought through the implications of the philosophy of naturalism. They make assumptions about the human condition based on this philosophy, but seem unaware of how deeply flawed it is.
The real wishful thinking
Atheists are fond of telling us that they are the ones who uphold reason, and that so called ‘religious’ people are irrational, weak-minded and sentimental. Indeed many religious people do fall into this category, but it is completely illogical to make a sweeping statement about all people who hold to a view of reality, which includes the dimension of the supernatural. It is actually those who subscribe to the philosophy of naturalism, who are indulging in irrationality, because they hold to a view of reality which is logically impossible, being self-refuting. There is thus no epistemic basis to their assertions about human mortality (and this does not even take into account the serious problems of reconciling the functioning of the human soul with the philosophy of naturalism. I have already touched on this in the article ‘Reason, Freedom and Atheism’ concerning the fundamental nature of free will and reason itself. We can also ask whether consciousness could possibly have a material basis. That is a subject for another time, but the basic properties of consciousness do not sit well with a materialistic reductionist explanation).
Thus we can say that those bereaved people, who express the kind of sentiments listed at the very beginning of this article, are expressing an awareness of something that actually makes logical sense. We don’t need to rely on controversial NDEs (Near Death Experiences) or so called “paranormal research” to have confidence that there is an ultimate reality for humanity, which survives the grave. We just need to think. And to think critically and accurately.
As the above mentioned atheist Carl Sagan once said: “it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true”.
Let us apply that maxim to all ideas, including the idea of the philosophy of naturalism!