Gary Gutting recently posted an article to the NY Times philosophy column “The Stone” in which he had this to say:
Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?
He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.
But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.
The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.
I’m quite familiar with these “agnosticism is more rational than atheism” arguments. I usually find the proponents of these arguments to be insufferable in their quest to prove agnosticism a superior philosophy to that of atheism, a more “juvenile” or “arrogant” position put forward only by the philosophically naive (Dawkins, etc).
Gutting seems to suggest that because sensible people report some kind of direct awareness of a divine being and because theologians have found ways of rationalizing these experiences, this lends credence to the supposition that agnosticism is the preferable stance insofar as we can’t “reject the [supernatural] hypothesis out of hand”. But this begs the question against the possibility of giving an overwhelming empirical explanation of exactly why and how religious hallucinations are possible.
Let’s say we have two competing explanations of the religious experience of “direct awareness of a divine being”. The first explanation is based on a naturalistic metaphysics. It starts from the expansion of the universe, the formation of stars, galaxies, planets, organisms, mammals, apes, and humans, etc. It tells this story in exquisite detail, with all the gory details filled in how the brain evolved over time. At some point in history, a side effect of human brain evolution was the advent of auditory hallucination wherein we experienced our dead ancestors, friends, deities, and demons talking to us. The naturalistic explanation thus explains the origin of “divine awareness” in terms of how the hallucination of divine authorities projected from the subconscious mind had some kind of adaptive power. Scientists are now able to experimentally induce the experience of a “divine being” by magnetically stimulating certain parts of the temporal cortex with a so-called “God Helmet“.
The second explanation is the supernatural explanation, which suggests that the best explanation of why we seem to experience immaterial realities and impossible experiences of divine beings is that there actually are divine beings and immaterial realities. Think about the logic of this for a second. This would be like saying the best explanation of why dreams are magical is that dreams actually are magical, as opposed to simply being the result of the brain being in an altered state of consciousness. It substitutes complete explanatory power for zero explanatory power. We can induce subjective experience of supernatural entities with magnetic stimulation, but the best explanation of what actually causes the experiences is that there actually are supernatural entities? Unless someone can put forward a non question-begging argument as to why induced experiences are different than “real” divine experiences, the supernaturalistic explanation seems to simply fly in the face of the well established rationality of scientific metaphysics.
Philosophers seem to think that religious experiences are based on logical speculations about necessary beings. On the contrary, the first gods were crude auditory hallucinations. Look at the book of Amos. God is experienced as a thunderous booming voice:
“The LORD roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.”
If you look at the subjective reports of these “direct experiences of divinity” and compare them with the reports of schizophrenic auditory verbal hallucination, the similarities are striking. For example, 20 year old schizophrenic Tobas reports:
I felt the Lord in me. This is when the voices began. At first they were only whispers, but then louder, but still soft. It was Jesus speaking to me. He would tell me what to do and ask me questions. Jesus would speak to me alone and no one else. Then I became a backslider. The Devil started talking to me. (He was unable to imitate the voice of the Devil) The devil told me bad things. He told me to kill myself. The Devil just wouldn’t leave me alone because I was a backslider.
These are the experiential grounds for Gutting’s “preference” for agnosticism. What are we supposed to make of the prevalence of auditory hallucinations in nonpsychotics, of the prevalence of hallucinated playmates in childhood, of the prevalence of voice hearing in the homeless and even in nonverbals? Naturalistic metaphysics theoretically has an explanation for all of this. Supernatural explanations of such phenomena barely make sense and certainly aren’t capable of producing theories such that prediction and control of the phenomena become possible (as with naturalistic metaphysics).
I have one last point. Gutting says:
It follows that [atheists] have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.
Gutting makes a familiar move here against the atheist. He makes it such that the atheist is said to “deny” the existence of God, that is, to say “there is no God and I am 100%” positive of this because of such and such arguments”. This is not my understanding of atheism. I am, strictly speaking, an agnostic atheist. That is, someone who lacks a belief in god (a-theist) but does not claim “there is no God and I am sure of it”. For all I know, Deism is an open possibility. But I can’t think of a good reason why the pathetic scribblings of human theologians and metaphysicians would accurately represent anything about this supposed Deist-God that exists “outside” the natural universe. In this respect, we can say that agnostic atheism is the “preferred” stance for all possible gods, but given the naturalistic explanation of human religious experience, atheism is preferable in respect to particular deities hallucinated by the faithful. And moreover, since agnostic atheism is itself a properly respectable a-theism (lacking all positive endorsement of the claim “supernatural deities exist”), we can say that atheism in general is preferable over agnosticism.