Why atheism cannot be true (part 2)

In part one of “Why atheism cannot be true” I looked at the subject of the ultimate origin of the universe, and concluded that none of the options available to the rational human mind supports the view that an intelligent personal creator does not exist. In summary: the ideas of the universe from nothing, infinite regress and a beginning of the universe from a pre-existing impersonal state are all incoherent. On the other hand, the idea that the universe had a definite beginning which resulted from the actions of an intelligent, conscious, personal being with free will overcomes the difficulties inherent in the atheistic hypotheses.

But cosmology is not the only area in which it can be shown that the atheistic view of reality can be refuted. The most fundamental subject within human learning – an area of study that undergirds both science and mathematics – reveals the inadequacy of the view that reality can only be explained in purely naturalistic terms. This discipline is epistemology: the study of knowledge itself.

Every claim about reality stands or falls on its epistemological credentials. If epistemology judges a truth claim to be incoherent and self-refuting, then such a claim cannot conceivably be true. There is no proof more compelling than an epistemological one. Mathematics is often perceived to be the most ‘elemental’ of all subjects, but this is not the case. All mathematical proofs presuppose the objective validity of reason. If a claim about reality fails to uphold and explain reason itself, then nothing else can be proven to be true within that worldview.

Atheism and the idea of ‘evidence’
The following are frequent claims by atheists, and such assertions populate the internet as well as publications promoting the view that no God exists:

“There is no evidence for God’s existence and therefore all gods must be assumed not to exist” – anonymous atheist on the internet.

“Despite such well-financed efforts [by the ‘infamous’ Templeton Foundation], no evidence for God’s existence has yet appeared.” – Richard Dawkins

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens (with reference to claims about God).

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan (as with the Hitchens’ quote, this is also with reference to claims about God)

All these comments have one thing in common: they tacitly claim some level of competence in the field of epistemology. All these authors assume that their naturalistic (therefore atheistic) view of reality is epistemologically sound and rationally valid, and therefore any other view of reality is to be rejected.

I will now investigate this implied claim, to discover whether it really is sound and coherent.

The anonymous internet atheist and the three well-known atheists quoted above all make comments which presuppose a certain definition of the concept of ‘evidence’. All four comments state, in different ways, that “there is no evidence for the existence of God” – or there is “no ordinary evidence” (therefore the only evidence that could be adduced for God has to be ‘extraordinary’, whatever that means!).

Because the claim that “there is no evidence for God” is often not explained, we are left to guess what kind of evidence the atheist would accept. If we define ‘God’ as “the intelligent, personal – and therefore conscious – all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe”, then it is not unreasonable to infer His existence from at least certain aspects of reality (for example, high levels of order and complexity within nature, the validity of reason, free will, the moral sense, consciousness). Even if some people do not accept that we could ‘prove’ that God exists on the basis of these inferences, they cannot logically dismiss the validity of such an approach. It is not irrational to infer intelligent causation of intelligent and intelligible effects. If that were the case, then we would require proof that only a non-intelligent cause can produce an intelligent and / or intelligible effect, which is clearly absurd.

So obviously the atheist who claims that “there is no evidence for God” cannot include inference in his definition of the idea of ‘evidence’. If that is the case, then what are we left with? There are a couple of famous atheist analogies that can help us to answer this question…

Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy:

Someone claims that “a fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”. This (apparently female) dragon is also invisible and floats in the air, so cannot leave footprints, if we try to capture images of them by spreading flour on the garage floor. The dragon’s fire also possesses no heat, so cannot be detected by an infrared sensor. The dragon is also incorporeal, so spray painting will not reveal her existence. Every physical test of her existence is countered with a “special explanation” of why it won’t work.

Sagan then asks: “What’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?”

The other well-known atheist analogy is John Wisdom’s “Parable of the Invisible Gardener” which was later developed by Anthony Flew:

“Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot’. The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener’. So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘But what remains of our original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’”

Now both these analogies have something in common: they both assume that the evidence for the existence of something – or someone – must involve some element of direct observation or sense perception. Both are examples of “strong empiricism”, which claims that “all knowledge comes via sense perception” – i.e. we can only know what we can observe or perceive with our senses.

Of course, we assume that there is no “invisible dragon” in the garage or “invisible gardener” tending a plot in a clearing in the jungle. But these are not valid analogies of God, because these ideas are trivial, whereas the idea of God is non-trivial. Thus both analogies commit the fallacy of a category error. A trivial idea has no – or little – effect on reality, whereas a non-trivial idea has strong explanatory force. Therefore to lump Russell’s teapot, Sagan’s dragon, Wisdom and Flew’s gardener, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, invisible fairies down the bottom of the garden etc etc, in the same category as the intelligent, personal creator of the universe, is rationally inadmissible. The concept of a supreme, intelligent, personal creator implies something about the nature of reality, whereas these other ideas cannot imply anything at all.

If certain effects were observed, which could only reasonably be caused by an invisible dragon in a garage or by an invisible gardener in a jungle clearing, then we would be justified in stating that “there is evidence for the existence of these beings”, even if they were imperceptible to our senses. We would be constructing this theory on the basis of inference.

Science uses inference all the time. In fact, the scientific method is impossible without it. We could not infer the Big Bang, dark matter, most of the process of evolution or even draw conclusions about most of the functioning of the universe without inference. The only way we can draw any conclusion from any scientific experiment is to bridge the gap between that particular experiment and the general functioning of the universe by assuming – thus inferring – that the laws of physics and chemistry hold true throughout the whole of nature. If, for example, we observe matter functioning in a certain way in London, we infer that it would function in the same way in Paris or New York. Do we really need to repeat the experiment in every place, before we could draw a conclusion? We infer that matter is essentially the same in Paris and New York as it is in London.

Thus the atheist view of ‘evidence’ is far too restricted and unworkable even within science. The claim that “there is no evidence for God” has to be translated as “there is no direct observational evidence of the being of God according to the tenets of strong empiricism”. And I would agree. God is not a physical being floating around somewhere in the air. Indeed if He were, He would not be God, who transcends space and time.

The impossibility of the atheist theory of knowledge
It is not simply the case that atheists have a defective and limited understanding of the concept of ‘evidence’, but that their theory of knowledge on which their view of evidence is based, is logically impossible.

The quotes and analogies cited above all presuppose the epistemological theory of “strong empiricism”, which I will henceforth simply refer to as ‘empiricism’ (I say ‘strong’ empiricism to distinguish it from the ‘weak’ empiricism which is mixed with rationalism. Of course, some knowledge comes via sense perception – no sane person doubts that! But “weak empiricism” is really little different from “weak rationalism”, and is irrelevant to this debate.). Some atheists may dispute this point, and state that “of course, there are innate ideas which do not come to us via sense perception”. Fine. But then they have no grounds for asserting the philosophy of naturalism (aka materialism, physicalism), which requires a belief in strong empiricism, given that our only epistemic relationship with nature is through the senses. If they then argue that innate ideas have their origin in nature, they would be guilty of special pleading or question begging – assuming naturalism to be true as the means of concluding that it is true. That is, of course, dishonest.

The theory of empiricism is an idea, and is not derived from sense perception. There is no observation or scientific experiment that tells us that “all knowledge comes to us by means of sense perception”. The concept is not some physical thing floating around in the universe or discernible at the subatomic level. It is an a priori idea, and therefore it precedes sense perception. Therefore the idea of empiricism itself breaks its own fundamental rule: we cannot know empiricism to be true if we believe it is true. In fact, if we believe it is true, then we are breaking its own method of verification. It is the ultimate leap of faith.

Atheists often accuse theists of “taking a leap of faith” into the dark, or into irrationality. They often claim that faith involves ignoring evidence or is even exercised in spite of the evidence. Whether some believers do this or not, it is certainly true that an atheist, who subscribes to the philosophy of naturalism, makes just such a leap of faith. He insists on subscribing to a view of knowledge which is self-refuting, and therefore logically impossible. It defies all logic to hold to a view that “evidence can only be defined and verified empirically” when that very idea cannot be verified empirically.

But it gets worse…
But in the light of this, the atheist could still say, “well, OK, there are innate ideas, and we accept that not all knowledge comes to us by means of sense perception, but we still think that the philosophy of naturalism is most probably true, even if we cannot absolutely prove it, whereas the God theory is implausible.”

This is the position of “atheistically inclined agnosticism”. Firstly, such a position logically disqualifies any atheist from declaring a believer in God to be irrational, which should put an end to the vitriol of much debate on the subject of the existence of God. Secondly, the atheist is saying that a theory, which is logically dependent on a self-refuting theory of knowledge, may be true. Well, “may be true” implies the assertion “it is logically possible that this theory is true”. How can this be the case, when we have already established that the basis of the theory is logically impossible! Modal logic thus disqualifies atheistically inclined agnosticism.

The fundamental problem with atheism, is that this worldview cannot explain reason itself. We are being asked to believe that ‘reason’ derived entirely from the human ‘mind’, which itself derived from the physical human brain, and this evolved without any purpose other than mere survival. Thus, according to this view, reason emerged merely as a survival mechanism. If this is the case, then all ideas (beyond the most immediate perception – and perhaps even these) are equally valid. The “idea of God” is no more invalid than the “idea of naturalism”. According to the philosophy of naturalism both ideas emerged merely as aids to survival. Thus we are told that religious people believe in God, because it helps them cope with reality, but according to this logic atheists do not believe in God for precisely the same reason! Objective truth has nothing to do with it.

Clearly we can see that the philosophy of naturalism is entirely self-refuting. If all ideas (especially metaphysical ideas) are merely aids to survival, then we could never know whether the philosophy of naturalism itself were true (this philosophy being, of course, a metaphysical idea, given that it makes a claim about reality as a whole).

So the philosophy of naturalism is impossible. Of course, there are some atheists who claim to hold to some form of supernaturalism (which is the only alternative to naturalism). This kind of impersonal supernaturalism may really only be an extension of naturalism, but even if it is not, such atheists have no rational grounds for criticising anyone with a religious belief.


Why atheism cannot be true (part 1)

There is some debate about the definition of the word ‘atheism’. The term has been used in a variety of different ways encompassing agnosticism and even specific forms of belief in God / gods (for example, under Roman rule Christians were often term ‘atheists’). Fundamentally (and etymologically) ‘atheism’ is the negation of ‘theism’. According to a dictionary of philosophy edited by the celebrated atheist Anthony Flew (who late in life converted to a form of theism), ‘theism’ is defined as: “Belief in God, where God is understood to be the single omnipotent and omniscient creator of everything that exists. He is regarded as a Being distinct from his creation though manifesting himself through it, and also essentially personal, caring for and communicating with mankind, and infinitely worthy of human worship and obedience.” (A Dictionary of Philosophy, Pan Books Ltd, London: 1979).

For the purpose of the argument in this essay, atheism is defined in accordance with the above dictionary definition. Fundamentally it is a rejection of belief in a personal, intelligent Supreme Being, who is the creator of the universe. In place of this creator, atheism posits an impersonal reality (however that is defined), which is regarded as the origin and basis of all that exists.

The foundation of reality: personal or impersonal?
On the assumption that logic possesses genuine validity and authority as a tool for discovering truth, we need to consider the implications of different theories of ultimate causation. (If logic is not absolutely and objectively valid, then we can say nothing at all, and, in fact, even this very statement becomes incomprehensible, constructed as it is by recourse to logic! Therefore any attempt at the discovery of truth requires a commitment to the absolute and universal authority of logic).

Concerning the ultimate origin of the universe (which includes any hypothetical extension of the universe, such as the multiverse), we have four options:

1. The universe has always existed and had no beginning.

2. The universe popped into existence from absolutely nothing.

3. The chain of cause and effect, which we know to be our universe, began at a certain point in time, but it did not arise from nothing, but from a pre-existing impersonal timeless state.

4. The universe had a beginning, and was brought into being by a personal reality (usually known as ‘God’) outside itself.

Let us consider the logical coherence of each of these theories:

1. The idea that the universe has always existed as a chain of cause and effect presents us with the problem of infinite regress. A sequence of events spread over a period of time without beginning defies logic. Every event in the sequence would be preceded by an infinite – that is, unending – number of events. Since this series of unending events could not, by definition, end, then the event this sequence precedes could never be reached, and therefore could never occur. And this is true of every event in the entire sequence, and thus no event in this sequence could ever occur. Thus an infinite regress is impossible.

2. The popular theory that the universe just popped into existence from ‘nothing’ defies everything we know about science and logic. In a recent debate with an atheist on this subject, I was informed that… “The universe can, will, and does come from nothing. This has been observed.” Well, of course, this is absurd. ‘Nothing’ – by definition – cannot be observed, so therefore it is impossible to ‘observe’ the universe coming into being from nothing. Certainly it could be the case that certain parts of the universe (certain particles) could arise from a non-observed state, but we have no way of knowing whether that ‘non-observed state’ is ‘nothing’ or simply a dimension of reality which we cannot directly observe. Science gives itself the liberty to infer the existence of non-observed entities, such as dark matter, so it is entirely proper that science should apply the same rule to the apparent appearance of particles from ‘nothing’.

If it is really the case that matter can just pop into existence from ‘nothing’ (and remember ‘nothing’ means “not anything” – there is not a ‘something’ called ‘nothing’!), then the fundamental principle of the conservation of energy and mass is undermined along with the scientific method which relies on it. No conclusion could ever be drawn from any scientific experiment if we allow matter to arise from ‘nothing’. No reliable inference can be made from any experiment if the principle of causation ex nihilo is true: we would have no idea whether in another place, where we would expect the same experiment to work, some factor would not arise “from nothing” that would interact with and therefore skew the result. Scientific reasoning can only function if the principle of the conservation of mass holds true. Therefore we can dismiss this theory of “the universe from nothing”.

3. In an attempt to overcome the difficulties of “infinite regress” and “the universe from nothing” we could perhaps speculate that the universe had a definite beginning in time (which would release us from the infinite regress problem), but that this chain of cause and effect arose out of an impersonal primordial state of ‘something’ (thus preserving the principle of the conservation of mass).

The problem with this idea is that there would have been a change in this primordial state from a timeless condition to the activation of a chain of cause and effect. How did this change come about? An impersonal state or system cannot effect change from within its own resources, but has to be acted upon by something else. A machine, for example, which stands inert cannot suddenly start working unless something external to it causes it to begin functioning. An impersonal entity is, by definition, blind, unconscious and lacking free will. An unconscious entity does nothing unless acted on by something else. It cannot therefore act entirely on its own initiative powered only by its own resources. There is no factor within it that could effect change without an external influence programming it or acting directly on it. If such a state changes then an external influence brought this about, and if that external influence is itself impersonal, then it itself would have been acted upon by another impersonal influence. And so on ad infinitum. Thus we are back to the problem of infinite regress.

4. What about the “personal creator” theory? Can this idea overcome the difficulties outlined above? I affirm that it can, for the following reasons…

There is no infinite regress, because the creator brought the universe into being, and thus the universe had a definite beginning. There is also no concept of “the universe popping into existence from nothing”, because we have an agent who pre-existed the universe and drew on his own resources to bring the universe into being (I am well aware of the difficulty of tacking an agent onto “creation ex nihilo”, as if this solves the problem of matter being brought into being from absolutely nothing. Many theists sincerely believe that God created the universe “from nothing”. Unfortunately, an agent working with ‘nothing’ can no more bring something into being than something can come into being from ‘nothing’ without an agent. A potter needs clay. Do we really know what matter is at the most fundamental level? Certainly the Bible affirms that God did not create the universe “ex nihilo” but ‘spoke’ the universe into being. In other words, he formed it from information. Interestingly this idea is not lost on physics. The renowned Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger, made the following statement: “In conclusion it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Then the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word”.”)

But in what sense does the personal “primordial state” (God) differ from the impersonal primordial state described in hypothesis 3 above? The fundamental difference is that this first cause is personal, and therefore possesses free will and consciousness. Therefore this creator can bring about change without needing to rely on any external factor. He can make a conscious, free will decision relying on his own resources. Free will involves, of course, the freedom to act in a certain way or not to act, irrespective of any external influence or factor. Free will cannot function without consciousness and consciousness determines whether an entity is personal or not. This is why the first cause of the universe has to be personal. An impersonal, unconscious and therefore unfree, first cause cannot rely on its own resources to bring about change, but must rely on some external influence. And thus it can never be a genuine first cause.

God of the gaps?
It is clear that the idea of a personal first cause is the only logical explanation for the origin of the universe. Some may argue that this is a case of “God of the gaps”. If this is the case, then we can equally argue that the other hypotheses are “gaps explanations”: “infinite regress of the gaps”, “nothing of the gaps”, “multiverse of the gaps” and so on… Any idea can be appealed to as a method of “filling a gap” in our knowledge. I have not resorted to the “personal creator hypothesis” as a gaps explanation, but have argued the case on the basis of logic and necessity.

Part 2 of “Why atheism cannot be true” will look at the epistemological arguments against the philosophy of naturalism, on which atheism relies. This will be published soon…