Tag Archives: Naturalism

Should We Value Happiness? Subjectivism and Objectivism in Metaethics

This is another post inspired by the discussions we’ve been having in the Derek Parfit seminar. Metaethics seems to me to be a very difficult thing to talk about. So bear with me as I work this out in writing. The question debated in class today revolved around the distinction between Hard and Soft Naturalism. Hard Naturalism is the view that there are just natural facts, and that we do not need to talk using distinctively normative language; we can jettison normative talk and just use natural descriptions. Soft Natualism is the view that there are just natural facts, but we still need to use irreducibly normative language. Parfit thinks that Hard Naturalism makes normativity out to be trivial, and he thinks Soft Naturalism is incoherent because he thinks Naturalism is committed to a thesis about reduction. Just about everyone in the class was not satisfied by Parfit’s arguments against both Soft Naturalism and Hard Naturalism. Most people thought that we could somehow rescue normative language from purely naturalistic properties. That is, people were saying that we could dispense with talk about these spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts and be just fine in producing genuinely normative claims about what we ought to do.

Now, I’m certainly not endorsing any talk about spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts. But I’m not really sure a complete reduction of ought-statements is plausible. How does talk about atoms in the void getting you to ought-statements? Well, the thought goes, once you start talking about the biological and society level of reality, you can get statements about what’s most natural for humans to desire, and we can translate ought-statements into statements about how to maximize happiness in sentient organisms in virtue of well-known facts about the subjective preferences of organisms. This is basically the idea behind Subjectivism. Presumably, the thought goes, it’s rational to do what one ought to do. What is it that we ought to do? Subjectivism says we should satisfy the desires of ourselves and others under conditions of ideal information and deliberation.

Imagine a man who genuinely wanted to chop off his pinky finger. He had all the relevant information about what would happen to his subjective well-being if he cut off his finger, and he wasn’t deluded or out of his mind. He simply wants to cut off his finger because he has a genuine desire to do so. Here’s the question: would he have a good reason for cutting off his finger? The subjectivist position is this: the man would have a good reason to cut off his finger because that’s what would satisfy his desire, and rationality is about desire satisfaction. The objectivist would say that the man has no good reason to cut off his finger. Having a desire for something is not enough. One must have good reasons to want to do something.

Most people in class seem to think that Subjectivism is the right way to go, because it seems to be the only plausible theory compatible with naturalistic metaphysics. But I’m convinced there is a serious problem with Subjectivism and all other forms of noncognitivism, expressivism, quasi-realism, and any other desire-based, Humean story. The problem is this: all these theories assume the same thing: that all humans share the same values. Subjectivists make the following argument. They say that we can use naturalistic facts about what the average human desires, and use these facts to tell us what we ought to do. On this view, spooky nonnatural normative facts are just like regular natural facts, it’s just that these natural facts are about making animals happy or satisfying desires. But here’s the thing: Subjectivism does not seem like it is capable or even wants to give a rational justification for the desire for happiness, or any other bottom-level desire.

And here is where I think Parfit is really onto something when he says that for Subjectivism, nothing really matters. Notice in the subjectivist explanation of the man wanting to cut off his finger the justification looks like this: he wants to cut off his finger and it’s rational because he has a desire to do so. There is no need for the man to justify to Subjectivists why he desires to cut off his finger. He has thought about it long and hard, considered all the consequences, and he still desires to do so. Likewise with claims about happiness. Why ought we to promote happiness? The subjectivist says that we should promote happiness because we all fundamentally desire happiness. So the normative force of the moral principle “maximize happiness” stems from facts about what we, as typical humans, desire.

But why should we value happiness, as opposed to unhappiness? Why should we value life, as opposed to nonlife? If the suicidal person genuinely wants to end his life, how would appealing to the descriptive fact that most humans value life give the suicidal person a reason to not end his life? It just doesn’t seem to have any normative oomph to point to the descriptive fact about what typical humans under typical conditions value. The question is why should we value the things that we value. Should we value life? Should we value happiness? What reasons do we have for valuing such things?

This is why I do not think the complete reduction to preferences works. We cannot reduce the statement “One ought to value happiness” into statements about the natural fact that most people in fact value happiness. What if we just emphasized that, look, given that most people do in fact value happiness, doesn’t that provide enough reason to, say, prevent the killing of innocent life? Parfit’s answer is no. If rationality bottoms out at the level of desire satisfaction, and we can tell no justifying story about why we should have the bottom-level desires we have, then nothing really matters except the satisfaction of those desires. But take someone who happens to not have similar values to typical humans. Let’s say a man desires to kill an innocent person. Are we going to really just say that the only reason he is irrational is because he doesn’t have typical human preferences, that he is just biologically unusual?

I think Reason can do better than that. But as I emphasized in my last post, I think the Objectivist story about rationality only works with Human Rationality, which is distinct from the instrumental rationality we share with nonhuman animals. And this is why I don’t think evolutionarily inspired arguments for moral nihilism work. Such arguments would go through if the only form of rationality humans possessed was instrumental rationality. But humans are not limited to just that form of rationality. Human Rationality is capable of reflecting on the very bottom layer of human valuation and asking, yes we do in fact value happiness, but should we? Do we have good reasons for doing so beyond just appealing to the brute fact that we very often do in fact desire such things? Don’t we want more out of our moral theory than a translation of natural facts about what we already know we desire? Don’t we want our moral theory to tell us something above and beyond the natural facts? Don’t we want our theory to tell us what we ought to do, what we ought to value?

I don’t think any of this requires talk of spooky nonnatural properties. It requires only a proper understanding of what it is exactly that Human Reason is up to when it enables humans to augment their decision making and go beyond instrumental rationality.

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In Defense of Naturalism: A Response to Timothy Williamson

In a recent article in The Stone,  Timothy Williamson has some strong opinions on the intellectual strength of naturalism as a comprehensive worldview. What does Willamson mean by naturalism? He says ” [Naturalists] believe something like this: there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.” This is supposed to be a bad thing. Why? Because, for starters, the current science of physics might be superseded by a different physics in the future. Hence,  “Naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers.” And how does Williamson characterize the scientific method? “[Science] involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment. This is called the hypothetico-deductive method.”

What’s the problem? For one, Williamson doesn’t think this method can handle the science of mathematics. Moreover, “Which other disciplines count as science? Logic? Linguistics? History? Literary theory? How should we decide? The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite.” Apparently, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as “inconsistent with naturalism” is little better than dismissing it as “inconsistent with Christianity.” And coming to the crux of his attack on the intellectual respectability of naturalism, Williamson says “Where experimentation is the likeliest way to answer a question correctly, the scientific spirit calls for the experiments to be done; where other methods — mathematical proof, archival research, philosophical reasoning — are more relevant it calls for them instead…Naturalism tries to condense the scientific spirit into a philosophical theory. But no theory can replace that spirit, for any theory can be applied in an unscientific spirit, as a polemical device to reinforce prejudice. Naturalism as dogma is one more enemy of the scientific spirit.”

I find this whole article to be fantastically misguided in its attempts to attack naturalists as “dogmatic” or antiscientific in “spirit”. For one, I think Williamson has not adequately captured the intellectual core of naturalism as a worldview. In my opinion, the essence of naturalism is not a defense of the “hypothetico-deductive method” as the only worthwhile method of inquiry. Rather, the essence of naturalism is the claim that there is no supernatural realm and no supernatural entities inhabiting that realm. The essence of naturalism is thus negative, in the sense that it denies that there is something beyond the natural world (whatever that might turn out to be). But contra Williamson’s caricature, naturalism, in my view, does not impose strict edicts on the best method for investigating the natural world. Naturalism is merely the view that the natural world is all there is, with nothing extra left over.

Of course, one can step into dogmatic waters in trying to explicate what exists in the natural world. But I don’t think naturalism is required to say what the ultimate constituents of the natural world is, be that atoms or some kind of quantum foam. Is there only one universal super object and all other objects are merely modes of that super object? Or are there a lot of fundamental objects? I take it that we can’t decide on these issues from the armchair. But this is not a failure of naturalism for naturalism is essentially a reactive enterprise. Our species’ religious history has caused us to inherit theological baggage such that many people would say that there exists both a natural world and a supernatural world. Naturalism is simply the thesis that the supernatural world is a figment of our overactive imaginations. In order to make this claim, the naturalist need not say anything substantial about the best method to inquire about the natural world. It is only a thesis about the fictive status of historically proposed supernatural realms like heaven and hell as well as the supernatural entities which inhabit these realms like angels, demons, and gods.

Accordingly, we can see that Williamson has it exactly backwards in regards to the supposed “dogmatism” of naturalism and the scientific spirit. For who is more dogmatic? The naturalistic who “dogmatically” proclaims the supernatural realm is an illusion based on the latest and greatest brain science, or the supernaturalist who proclaims he “just knows” the supernatural realm exists because he has faith in it? For this is the great advantage of naturalism: what it “dogmatically” proclaims to exist (the non-supernatural reality) is, in principle, discoverable or encounterable by means of our fleshy sensory apparatuses coupled with whatever tools we can harness, like the telescope or atom-smasher. In contrast, what supernaturalism dogmatically proclaims to exist is not, in principle, encounterable by such flesh for the supernatural is defined as being outside of time and space. Of course, supernaturalists often claim that supernatural entities do in fact interact with our world, but such claims cannot be brought into the respectable scientific arena of prediction and manipulation, so the claims are often left unprincipled and taken on faith. And of course, supernaturalists often report experiences of the supernatural. But in regards to explaining such experiences, it strikes me as obvious that brain science and evolutionary theory (including theories of cultural evolution) does a better job of accounting for why people believe their experiences of the supernatural are veridical. A better explanation than “the experiences are accurate” is that the brain is capable of causing hallucinations that are triggered by specific cultural contexts such as being raised in a religious environment where the interpretational framework of supernaturalism exists. It remains to be seen if a far-future atheistic society would interpret hallucinations in the same way as most people do now.

In conclusion, I have attempted to argue that Williamson is wrong to claim naturalism’s most basic claim is about the hypothetico-deductive method being the only method of inquiry. Instead, naturalism’s most basic claim is that the supernatural realm implicitly and explicitly assumed to exist by religious people throughout history is in fact, fictive. All that exists is the natural world. But naturalism as a basic thesis makes no claims about about (1) what the natural world is most fundamentally or (2) what the best method(s) for inquiring about that world are. Both of these questions need not be completely resolved in order for us to see that supernaturalism (the only true opponent of naturalism) is intellectually bankrupt.

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A cumulative case for naturalism and atheism

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Some definitions and assumptions:

God: classic theological entity defined as “omniperfect”. Usually God is said to have perfect goodness, perfect power, perfect knowledge, and perfect existence. Theists say that God has always existed and, moreover, is involved in the moral sphere, usually carrying out some kind of ultimate plan for Cosmic Justice, as well as bestowing “freewill” to human souls. Alternatively, God could be finite, perhaps as a very powerful galactic being with the power of fine-tuning universes as a kind of detached tinkerer, but without any personal concern for individuals, or as some limited panentheistic process-God.

While interesting from a theoretical perspective, I don’t take this finite or limited concept of God to be worth talking about in spiritual terms, as it seems to be compatible with naturalistic metaphysics. Hence, I will reserve the term “God” for the “omniGod” of classic theology since that is really the metaphysical opponent for naturalistic metaphysics (since we can imagine a finite but really powerful being creating a universe). But naturalism is not compatible with the existence of the omniGod, who has been understood to be the “ground” of everything that exists, whereas in naturalism the natural world does not ontologically depend on a “higher power” to exist; it subsists on its own just fine.

Naturalism: the view that there are no supernatural miracles, supernatural entities, or supernatural realms (such as Heaven, Hell, or Limbo, etc.). Naturalism is the theoretical framework, worldview, or reality map that all phenomena are natural phenomena. There is no “spiritual” or “divine” kind of existence, except in our brain-generated imagination, which has culturally inherited mythological concepts from prescientific ancestors and their primitive belief systems. Naturalism is not necessary committed to a “lawful” ontology (i.e deductive-nomological explanatory frameworks) wherein all phenomena are covered by general law. Another possible explanatory framework compatible with naturalism would be  a “model theoretic realism”, or a “case study theoretic”. Naturalism, most simply put, is the view that all that exists is the natural realm.

Naturalism is not committed to the idea that the universe was “created out of nothing” from the Big Bang, since “oscillating” models are logically possible wherein the universe, in some form or another, has always existed in the way that God has always existed. It’s just always been there. Since theists can imagine an endless future (life in Heaven), they must also be able to imagine a past without a beginning. Just as we can imagine adding “one more day” onto the future forever in heaven, we can imagine “the day before” forever backwards. This poses no conceptual difficulties. Moreover, naturalism could explain all our empirical evidence. Any experience of God can just as easily be explained as a hallucination or delusion as it can be explained as actually being an experience of a divine being (which would require adding the supernatural realm into your model). How could that person ever really be certain that it was an experience of the divine rather than just a by-product of neural activity which causes them to have an “other worldly expereince”? Certainty and absolutism in knowledge claims (“I just know I am right!”) has a terrible track record. Being absolutely certain you are right about how to think about a concept stops the doubting process that underlies the true scientific attitude, which is inquiry driven from lack of certainty.

Atheism: An atheist is a person who does not believe in God (but not necessarily someone who claims to have “proved” that God doesn’t exist). The atheist does not think that “existence” is more perfect that “nonexistence”, and thus denies the ontological argument that God must necessarily exist since He has perfect existence. Even if existence is more perfect than nonexistence, this would be compatible with the idea that a natural world that exists would be better than a natural world that didn’t exist, and that an existing natural world would be the “greatest thing conceivable”. The atheist doesn’t have to be a naturalist, but I think that any well educated modern atheist should embrace naturalism. After all, God as a concept was used to answer metaphysical questions like, “What is the ultimate nature of reality?” If you reject God, how are you going to answer those ultimate questions? Naturalism is the obvious choice to replace ontotheology for the educated atheist given everything we know about the natural cosmos.

Now, the evidence for a cumulative case for the truth of naturalism and atheism:

  1. Methodological naturalism.Scientists usually adopt methodological naturalism to do science. Science has been incredibly successful (e.g. iphones, lasers, space programs, computers, the aviation industry). Why is science successful? Is it because God holds the universe together through divine fiat, executing a perpetual miracle or having perfectly wound the watch at the beginning of the universe? Or is science successful because naturalism is true? I believe that inference to the best explanation that we can currently come up with based on hundreds of years of sustained inquiry is that science is successful because the methodological naturalism underlying science is ontologically true, or at least approximately true according to our most corroborated hypotheses and theoretical frameworks. The competing alternative hypothesis is that science works because God exists.  The problem with this alternative hypothesis is that there cannot be a science of divine acts. Anyone who claims certain knowledge of the divine realm and how it really works is fooling themselves; as long as neural explanations can predict behavior (e.g. the “God helmet“), then we cannot use “personal experience” of the divine as evidence that the divine realm actually exists. There are better, more parsimonious explanations and ontological frameworks to explain why people experience the divine realm. I think that a world by itself is more eloquent than a world plus a divine realm, which is a historical relic of three tiered prescientific folk metaphysics (the Human world in the middle, the Underworld below, and Heaven above, where the gods live). If we are going to predict the behavior of a system that we collectively and intersubjectively come across in experience, we must assume that the system is natural and subject to the formation of patterns and regularities (e.g. the regularity of the molecules in a grain of salt, or a boulder). Moreover, the biological world is full of repetitions, habits, and rhythms. We are developing the conceptual tools to study systems, not just in terms of regularity, but in terms of deterministic chaos. Scientific explanations are better than divine explanations because the scientific explanations lead to novel predictions, which are then confirmed by empirical evidence and integrated with previous knowledge and theory. While it’s possible that God has given his believers divine revelations as to the truth of His existence, there is no way to argue it’s impossible that the true explanation of divine revelations is that they are simply hallucinations triggered by neural activity, which in turn can be stimulated by ritual, prayer behaviors, religious ceremonies, drugs, fasting, communal singing, etc. (See the book Inside the Neolithic Mind:Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods). The question then is which hypothesis is more probable?
  2. Problem of evil. The problem is that I can easily conceive of a world better than this one that was created by an omniGod. There is an overwhelming amount of suffering and cruelness that happens in the universe independently of any moral/intentional influence of humans, especially if evolutionary theory is correct about the origins of species (which it is). I don’t see how predation works to the good of anything. I can imagine a God creating a much better world that still allows an arena for humans to make mistakes and learn to be responsible, and make their souls “greater”. But birth defects? Predation? Tsunamis? Earthquakes? Floods? Genetic diseases? Predation? I don’t take Original Sin very seriously. It explains nothing. Only science offers any hope of stopping the suffering of these devastating natural disasters. Sure, science can spawn evil very easily, but how does praying to make the world a better place do anything constructive? Praying to gods won’t get us anywhere in this world. The naturalistic perspective is the only thing that makes sense of out all this evil and suffering. Through science we can understand our place in the overall scheme of things and answer fundamental questions about ourselves e.g. where did we come from? How old is the Earth? What’s out there? What’s our relationship to all these animals (especially great apes)? When a lightning bolt starts a forest fire and cruelly kills innocent animals, why did that happen? Naturalism is the best explanation, for such phenomena are confusing from the theistic perspective. They can only appeal to ignorance for “God works in mysterious ways, it’s possible that it will all work out for the best in the end.” But possibilities are weak evidence for the theistic side, since the atheist can appeal to the explanatory framework of naturalism and offer more convincing explanations for the massive suffering around us (evolution, natural selection, geology, meteorology , genetics, modern medicine, etc.). It’s a cruel world, no doubt. But at least naturalism helps us understand it, and gives us a true sense of the contingency of natural existence and the fragility of individual existence, and shows us why life on earth is worth preserving.
  3. Free will. It is often said by theists that without free will we could have no moral responsibility, because unless you freely chose to act this way and not that way, you cannot be held responsible for your action. And if the will is “freed” from the physical constraints of embodiment, this seems incompatible with a naturalistic worldview. And since no one can deny that you have the ability to freely choose your actions (such as opening and closing your fist at will, or deciding to stop at the store on the way home from work),  we have reason to believe that there is more to reality than just the physical universe. Theists claim that our freewill proves that God must exist and that there is an absolute moral order on the supernatural plane of existence. Case closed right? Not so fast. There is no denying that humans have a will or make decisions, but what reason do we have to think that the will is free? If we can come up with a plausible naturalistic model for the will, we will be able to talk about willing and making decisions without supposing that the will is “free” from the physical constraints through which it is realized. As it turns out, we do have such a model. Psychologists are starting to form a consensus that there actually exists two decision-making systems in the human psyche: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, prereflective, emotional, inherits most features from phylogeny, is domain specific, heuristic, and executes its mentation in a massively parallel way. This is the system that will make you instantly “decide” to make a value judgment that a dark alley is dangerous, increase your heartbeat, and decide to walk faster. In contrast, System 2 is slow, consciously controlled, reflective,  linear, narratological, multimodal,”global” articulate, and inherits most features from ontogeny, culture, and learning (plasticity). Most psychologists agree that in all likelihood, System 2 is only available to humans, and possibly, in a limited respect, to a few other higher mammals (like Great Apes). To me, System 2 decision making is exactly analogous to what theists are referring to when they talk about free will. Yes, we have the ability to step outside the domain specific context of our perceptual-emotional context and reflectively deliberate on how we should act, possibly in terms of abstract rules and principles. But this is not evidence for a soul, God, or any supernatural phenomena. Willing and deciding in System 1 & 2 supervene on activity in the body, especially the nervous system. There is no reason to think that the idea of a “will” making decisions, either nonconsciously or consciously, is incompatible with a naturalistic worldview. Having a System 2 type decision making ability justifies the continuation of our current social practices of holding people responsible for their consciously chosen actions. But the recognition of the importance of System 1 for influencing the supposedly “free” System 2 also forces us to recognize that people are not responsible for everything they think, perceive, feel, and do. We do not hold someone accountable for what they do if we know they are sleepwalking. System 2 must be activated if we are going to hold someone accountable to abstract moral principles, since it is only System 2 that takes such principles into consideration when deciding what to do. It is up to the theist to show that these naturalistic models of the will are incoherent or talking about the wrong thing. Although many theists will simply say “System 2” is not what they are referring to when they talk about free will. But I think this is simply bad phenomenology. The phenomenal features of System 2 are pretty much exactly the same as those of free will, commonly understood. It is only on account of the presupposition that God exists that theists conclude the will must be free from physical constraints. But any scientifically literate person knows that this can’t be true. The will is fundamentally embodied, and thus constrained and not free.
  4. Cosmological argument. It is claimed by theists that the universe must have had a beginning since the idea of an actual infinite chain of universes is incoherent. But is it? As many atheists have pointed out, if theists can imagine an endless future (Heaven), they should be able to imagine an beginningless past. And if a beginningless past is conceivable, we have good reason to think it is possible. And if it is possible, the idea that God must necessarily exist in order to create the universe we find ourselves in goes out the window. For it is equally possible to suppose that God didn’t create the universe, and that this universe was simply preceded by another universe, and that universe was preceded by another universe, and so on. It seems possible to simply respond to the cosmological argument by saying in it’s equally possible that the natural cosmos has always existed in one form or another. Theists claim that the multiverse is an ad hoc hypothesis that cannot be empirically verified. But so is the God hypothesis. And even if we were to accept that the universe was intelligently created, we need not suppose that a monotheistic deity (God) did the creation. It is conceivable (and therefore possible) that a whole TEAM of creators created the universe. This is, of course, Hume’s reply. Even if all the evidence points says that our particular universe was created (which it doesn’t), we have no reason to believe that God created it. It might have been created by a team of advanced aliens who figured out how to create universes by collasping blackholes or something. Or if we went with the supernatural hypothesis, we can suppose that our universe was created by a legion of different gods instead of just one omniGod.Modern theists like to imagine that omniGod is the only conceivable form a supernatural realm could take on. But more than one god existing is just as conceivable as just one god existing. And modern readings of the Bible support the idea that the Hebrews were once polytheists but slowly transitioned into monotheists.
  5. Fine tuning. The idea that the physical constants of the universe are “fine tuned” to support life is not a knockdown argument for God’s existence. The apparent fine-tuning of the physical constants to support life here on Earth is compatible with the weak anthropic principle. The weak anthropic principle simply states that “The conditions observed must support the existence of the observer”. That is to say, if the conditions were not fine-tuned to support life on Earth, we could not be here to remark on the fact that the conditions around us seem fine-tuned to support our existence. And we have no empirical reason to believe that our form of life is the only possible form of life. So although the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence rightly points out some limitations of our current understanding of the cosmos, it is by no means a knock-down argument since there are possible naturalistic explanations for why it appears that the universe is fine-tuned for existence. Since we can imagine at least one possible naturalistic explanation for why the conditions observed are the way they are (the alien technology possibility, which is compatible with the beginningless past possibility), the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence loses it “necessary” oomph. It just becomes one more possibility among others than we can contemplate.
  6. Personal experience. This is the ultimate trump card for most intellectually sophisticated theological apologists. They claim that belief in God is properly basic in the sense that it isn’t believed on the basis of some evidence or argument, but is directly believed in virtue of immediate experience of God. Theologians claim to have direct subjective evidence for the reality of God based on their experience. The experiences are usually either a peak or mystical experience or an experience where something amazing happens to you (perhaps in response to a prayer or a faith healer praying on your behalf). While it is probably true that there is no way to argue against that fact that someone claims they had this experience, this is no reason to believe God really exists. It’s part of the language game that we have to accept the subjective testimony of rational adults (and there is no question that theologians are by and large capable of thinking rationally). So if someone claims to have directly experienced the divine realm, or who claims to have been touched by God, what recourse does a naturalistic atheist have against these claims? None. But this isn’t a win for the theist since if this is the game played, then apologetics is dead since at this point the theist gives up on trying to convince atheists that God exists, and instead only try to argue that they are rational in believing what they believe. But since “it is true since I experienced it as true” is not a good way to convince a skeptic that a claim is true, the atheist is not going to convert to theism on account of a report of subjective experience of God, since there are many other more plausible explanations, such as that the person who claims to have experienced God was simply hallucinating, or experienced an altered state of consciousness in response to either internal or external perturbations. So while the atheist cannot claim that the theist is irrational in using his experience as the basis for the claim that God is properly basic, this cannot convince the skeptic (nor can it convince other religious people like Mormons, Jews, or Muslims). For good reason. People claim to have experienced all sorts of wild things, such as that they were abducted by aliens, or that they can really astral project, or in any number of occult, paranormal, or superstitious reports. Humans are still recovering from their primitive and superstitious past. There is good evidence that religious experiences generated by the brain were an exaptation that allowed for the growth of civilization in the Neolithic era. We thus have a naturalistic explanation of why people report religious experience and why they are so certain in the truth of their claims. The atheist is not convinced by those claims because the alternate explanation that religious experience strongly supervenes on nervous and bodily states triggered by internal and external stimuli is much more plausible in light of his methodological and metaphysical convictions.

There is much more I could say in favor of the cumulative case for naturalistic atheism. What I have written here only counts as a fraction of all the evidence and philosophical reasoning in support of naturalism and atheism. There is a huge atheistic literature that I think is overwhelmingly convincing in its argumentation and reasoning (see the “Debunking Christianity” blog by John Loftus in the blogroll side bar to the right). I have seen every positive argument for God refuted over and over. For this reason most theists resort to personal experience as the ultimate epistemological trump card and simply give up on trying to convert the skeptic. They simply want to live in peace and practice their religion and indoctrinate their children such that they too believe the religious claims. This is fine, but I think it significantly weakens the case for theism to allow personal experience to trump skeptical requests for positive argumentation and empirical evidence for their beliefs, particularly if we think that we have a moral obligation to teach our children the truth.

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Dewey on Naturalism

The naturalistic method, when it is consistently followed, destroys many things once cherished; but it destroys them by revealing their inconsistency with the nature of things — a flaw that always attended them and deprived them of efficacy for aught save emotional consolation. But its main purport is not destructive; empirical naturalism is rather a winnowing fan. Only chaff goes, though perhaps the chaff had once been treasured. An empirical method which remains true to nature does not “save”; it is not an insurance device nor a mechanical antiseptic. But it inspires the mind with courage and vitality to create new ideals and values in the face of the perplexities of a new world

– John Dewey, Experience and Nature

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