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.

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The Intolerance of Truth? Really?

Is ‘truth’ intolerant?

In one sense it could be argued that objective truth, by its very nature, is absolutely ‘intolerant’. The sum 2 + 2 = 4 is ‘intolerant’ in the sense that the operation “2 + 2 =” cannot possibly accept any answer other than ‘4’. The answer ‘5’ is as intolerable as the answer ‘1,236’ and is no more intolerable than the answer ‘4.001’; all these three proposed solutions to the operation are, in a sense, equally intolerable. They are intolerable on the basis that they are simply wrong, according to the rules of arithmetic. Just as the human body cannot ‘tolerate’ the ingestion of certain substances, so the arithmetical operation “2 + 2 =” cannot ‘tolerate’ any answer except ‘4’. Any physical application of a calculation that included “2 + 2 ≠ 4” would, more probably than not, have disastrous, or at least, embarrassing, consequences.

Category error?
Now it may be argued that my use of the word ‘intolerant’ is a category error. Truth can no more be ‘intolerant’ than pink can be hungry or the number 15 could be angry! It is simply an inapplicable adjective to the noun being qualified. And that is true. I am using the word ‘intolerant’ in a metaphorical sense, because essentially the concept of ‘tolerance’ applies to attitudes held by people, rather than to the inherent validity of propositions.

Unfortunately, however, intolerant attitudes are frequently justified with reference to truth, by which I mean “true truth” – Truth with a big ‘T’ – rather than “my little subjective truth”. This is evident not only among many religious people, but also among many vocal atheists. There is a constant appeal to ‘truth’ to justify at best, a subtle exclusion and disdain for those with differing views, and, at worst, a complete scorn and condemnation of those people. Even worse perhaps is a rather patronising form of ‘love’ for those with whom we disagree, in which we pity their ignorance and delusion (or ‘lostness’) and try to convert them to our point of view (but in a way that fails to listen to anything they actually have to say to us, and to respect their own ability to reason).

The unpleasantness of dogmatic, proselytising and bigoted attitudes could lead us to assume that ‘truth’ is too dangerous and too divisive a concept to entertain, except perhaps at the rather less controversial level of practical science and applied and pure mathematics: “as long as we get science and maths right, then all the other religious and metaphysical stuff can be regarded as an airy fairy irrelevance”.

At times I cannot help but sympathise with this attitude!

However, is it really justifiable to appeal to ‘truth’ to promote a view of reality in which the human race is so sharply and clearly divided between those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”? In a limited sense there are inevitably divided views about all manner of topics, and therefore there is validity to this position. But how far can we take this?

The Bible and absolute truth
As a Christian, I am concerned primarily with how this subject relates to the attitudes and actions of both myself and my fellow believers. Does Christianity – or, more specifically, the Bible – promote this view of truth?

Now there is plenty of ammunition in the Bible for those who wish to champion the exclusivity and divisiveness view of truth. One popular verse is a saying of Jesus Himself: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

This is often quoted to justify the divisive nature of Christianity, and, dare I say, provides an excuse for those who profess faith in Jesus, but who act in the most obnoxious way, such that they attract thoroughly deserved rejection from others. They can then claim to be ‘persecuted’, and this martyr status provides a psychological fillip, which then perpetuates their unfortunate behaviour. (Interestingly this saying of Jesus could be interpreted completely differently. The context is rejection by one’s own family, and it could very well be the case that someone, who makes a stand against bigotry and prejudice, could suffer just this kind of fate!)

The unique Saviour
Another saying of Jesus also seems to dismiss the views of billions of people, and provide comfort for those who take a more exclusionary view of the Christian faith. This concerns His status as the unique Saviour of the world: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) This is confirmed by the Apostle Peter’s words in Acts 4:12 – “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The message of these verses seems indisputable: to be saved (which ultimately involves going to heaven when you die rather than hell) involves consciously believing in Jesus Christ, and if you fail to do so then you will be damned.

Here we have an example of ‘truth’ (big ‘T’ Truth), by which we can divide the human race into the saved and the damned, the redeemed and the lost, and the factor by which we can make this distinction is “the conscious and active profession of faith in Jesus”. In other words, if you are a Christian, you are saved, and if you are a non-Christian, you are damned.

Superficially this seems to be the message of the Christian gospel.

But is it?

Let us just explore this a little bit further…

Here is an analogy. The only way to get from where I live near London to New York within a day is by air. I could say that if I needed to get to New York by tomorrow then “there is no other method within the transport methods on offer by which I can achieve this other than by air” or “no one gets from London to New York in one day except by air” (to paraphrase the above two Bible verses). I cannot fly myself to New York. All I can do is consent to be flown there. This ‘unique’ method of transportation is not dependent on my efforts.

Now suppose someone suffered from a serious health problem, and he urgently needed some specialist treatment in a New York hospital (no criticism of our health system; it’s just an analogy!). Let us suppose that he was also in a coma. He was then flown from London to New York quite without his knowledge or consent. In this scenario, is the method of transportation any less unique than if he had consciously consented to the journey? Of course not! The uniqueness of this method of travel within this context and time-frame does not depend on any subjective factor on the part of the traveller. Its uniqueness is an objective fact.

Or let us suppose that the traveller was suffering from some condition in which he was overcome by powerful delusions, and he needed treatment in New York. He was in no fit mental state to consent to the journey, but he was taken on the plane nonetheless, and, as a result of his delusions, while in the air he was utterly convinced that he was travelling somewhere by sea. Does the fact of his mental state, which did not correspond to the reality of the journey, compromise the uniqueness of the method of transport of the journey he was taking? Again, of course not!

The point of this analogy is to explain that the status of an objective fact is not dependent on subjective factors.

A biblical analogy
This is further supported by a biblical analogy, which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is presented as the person who ‘saved’ the man who fell among thieves. There is no indication from the parable that the man being rescued consented to his deliverance, and, in fact, he could very well have been lying there unconscious. There is no indication that the injured man had to profess a “correct view of the nature and work of the Samaritan” in order for the latter to help him. In fact, the injured man could very well have hated Samaritans, and yet he was still rescued by a Samaritan. Nothing about the state of the wounded man related to the unique status of the Samaritan as his ‘saviour’.

But the doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour is often presented as it were dependent on the human response. Thus the doctrine has been changed from what is, for Christians, an objective fact, to merely a description of human religious affiliation. Thus the Bible is subtly rewritten to read: “No one comes to the Father except by conscious belief in Me” and “there is no other belief system under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”.

Man as co-saviour
The implications of this are obvious. Jesus saves. The uniqueness of Jesus’ role in salvation is not dependent on the state of the person being saved. In fact, if it did, then Jesus would not be the ‘unique’ Saviour, but He would be the co-saviour with the person being saved, given that the latter has to make a contribution to the process. This is the supreme irony of exclusivist Christianity.

Now some may argue that this smacks of predestination, which rides roughshod over human free will. I certainly believe in the importance of human free will and I also believe in God’s desire to save all people and that Christ died for all without exception. But the exclusivist view actually undermines human free will. Unless we believe in reincarnation, then we have to accept that no one chose to be born into this fallen world. Billions of people are brought into this world, without any reference to their consent, and various systems of thought are imposed on them through the culture in which they grow up. If God does not take the initiative to save these people, because it would violate their consent, then one has to ask why God has allowed their consent to be violated by allowing them to be born into a non-Christian system of thought. By refusing to save these people, is God not actually violating their consent?

But then someone may object by saying that if God simply saved these people by decree, doesn’t that imply universalism, which is clearly unbiblical? My answer to this is: no, it does not imply that, because God may accept a person on the basis of the light He has given them, while that person is free to resist that conviction of the Holy Spirit.

A humbling truth
God, in His sovereignty, is at work throughout the world in different cultures among people with vastly different levels of spiritual accountability (as the Bible says: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” – Luke 12:48 – with the obvious corollary: “to whom little has been given, from him little shall be required”). Therefore we don’t know exactly what God is doing in the lives of the millions of apparent non-Christians around us. Salvation is His work, not ours, and, as Jesus said concerning being “born again”: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The work of the Holy Spirit cannot easily be subjected to the scrutiny of man, even of the most spiritually minded in the Church. As Jesus said, it is a mystery. The proper response to mystery is, of course, humility.

Therefore there is no contradiction between upholding the objective truth of the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Saviour of mankind, and believing that God’s work in the world is rather more inclusive than we are often led to believe by some teachers and preachers in the more conservative parts of the Christian Church. The doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour simply tells us that… Jesus saves. How man is supposed to respond to that, and how we are to assess who is ‘saved’ and who is not, is rather more complicated.

Commanding the sun!
As I have mentioned, the supreme irony is that the doctrine of the exclusiveness of a particular kind of response to God as a condition for salvation actually undermines the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour, in much the same way that if I had to speak to the sky to command the sun to rise every morning, one could not say that the motion of the earth turning on its axis was an operation completely independent of my actions. Just as the rising of the sun has nothing to do with me, so, in a sense, have the actions of God.

The truth of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour of mankind should therefore cause us to respond to others with humility, not intolerance.