Category Archives: Epistemology

There’s No Such Thing as Presuppositional Naturalism

I was watching one of Matt Dillahunty’s recent debates, Is Belief in the Christian God Rational?, versus Cliffe Knechtle today and one of the many, MANY things that I took issue with that Cliffe said was a bit about Naturalism.

The gist of it was that, if you have a naturalistic worldview, then he agreed with Matt that you could discount the Bible as being true because it contains miracles which are, naturalistically, impossible. But! he continued, this line of reasoning requires that you presuppose naturalism. The implication was that you can’t prove naturalism any more than you can prove Christian presuppositionalism, and thus both positions rely on faith, which makes Matt’s position (that faith is irrational) inconsistent.

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, I’ll take a quick aside for that. A presupposition is something you accept in order to create an argument. It is different from an assumption (or a supposition) in that it is usually an unexamined and not directly a part of the argument. Often they can be hidden and much harder to identify. It’s a bit easier to explain with examples. If you’re trying to form a logical argument, using premises and deductions to arrive logically at a conclusion, then one of the things you’re presupposing is the validity of the logical system you’re using. When apologists try to prove the truth of Christianity by pointing to the Bible and telling you what it says, they are presupposing that the Bible is 100% inerrant (this, incidentally, is called presuppositional apologetics).

Naturalism is the philosophical position that all which exists is the natural world: people, trees, rocks, starts, protons, quarks, really awesome cars, etc… But not things like ghosts, demons, souls or anything else that would typically be called “supernatural”. Generally speaking, “natural” means anything which can be observed to exist.

You might be able to see the problem here: If all the stuff that is observable is part of the natural world, then what exactly is left? Keep in mind that in scientific terms, “observable” doesn’t just mean “can be seen” there are many other ways of observing stuff either directly (using other senses, or even apparatuses we’ve built such as telescopes to detect distant stellar objects) or indirectly (observing the effects of gravity to deduce the existence of dark matter). So if something  interacts in any way with the world, it is by definition “natural”.

This is why the term “supernatural” is so frustrating. At the end of the day, “natural” basically just means “anything that exists”. So when people start talking about the existence of supernatural ghosts or souls or gods, they are talking about things which, by definition, don’t exist. If they did, then they would be part of the natural world.

So to say that you have a naturalistic presupposition is to say that you are presupposing that all things which exist… y’know… exist. It’s a purely a priori, analytical tautology.

So to claim that miracles are impossible only under a presuppositionally naturalistic worldview is to agree that miracles are impossible. Leastways, it’s to say that the things we consider miracles are explainable, just we don’t currently have the explanation available to us. Either that or they never actually happened.

Stalemate

A friend on my Facebook posted this image:

Spock says:
“Neither of you can prove or disprove God”
“Checkmate Christians & atheists”

I replied as follows (and wanted to repost it here):

Ignoring that science is not actually in the business of “proving” things, but rather gathering evidence through investigation.

Ignoring that if you’re going to use a standard of knowledge that requires “proof” or “absolute certainty” then you actually can’t prove or know anything. And I mean *literally* anything. You can’t prove that the sky is blue because for all you know we’re in the Matrix right now and the actual sky is violet.

Ignoring that Christians can’t even agree among themselves as to the characteristics of the god they believe in; let alone the hundreds of other religions in the world.

Ignoring that, actually, if your claims about gods require preconditions that contradict things that we know about reality, then yeah… you can eliminate the possibility of that god existing. Further, if your the preconditions of that god are logically impossible then you’ve again precluded the possibility of his existence.

Ignoring that absence of evidence is, in fact, the only *possible* evidence of absence, and that you don’t believe in leprechauns, unicorns, fairies or mermaids for the exact same reason that atheists don’t believe in gods (ie: complete and utter lack of evidence for their existence).

Ignoring all that and supposing for the sake of argument that we have absolutely no idea whether or not any gods exist:

Without being able to prove that religion is correct, you don’t get to impose it on other people. There’s no reason to deny loving same-sex couples the right to marry. There’s no reason to institute mandatory prayer in schools. There’s no reason to splash acid in the faces of women for wanting to go to school or drive a car. There’s no reason to refuse to help the poor because they’ll just get some really good shit in their next life. There’s no reason to deny women their rights to bodily autonomy. There’s no reason to deprive children of necessary lifesaving medical technology like vaccinations or blood transfusions.

In the argument between atheists and religious folks guess who’s fully on the side opposing all those things?

That’s right, the atheists.

We don’t do it for ourselves, we do it for everyone. So that nobody has to be oppressed by the religious segments of society.

And you know what? If nobody on the planet were harmed in any way by religion, then I’d still argue with religious people, but it would be in the same way I argue with people who think that Star Wars is better than Star Trek: at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because neither of us are going to go home and starve our children because of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where all the things I listed above happen. A lot.

And before you throw up the “not all religious people are like that” argument, let me just tell you: I don’t care. I don’t give one half of the tiniest shit about that. The fact that it happens AT ALL is the problem.

That’s why the atheists fight.

And if you’re a religious person who lives their full life without harming anyone in the slightest, whether inadvertently or not, because of your religious beliefs? Good for you. Captain Kirk could still kick the shit out of Han Solo.

On a related note, the bit about going home and starving one’s children over religious belief is a reference this story. I worry that it seems like I’m just picking a recent bit of news that proves my point, but the sad thing is whenever I go to write about the horrific things that people have done in the name of religion, I don’t need to dig back very far in recent news to find something. Like, ever. There’s a constant source of terrible, depressing things done by religious people, in the name of religion, easily available for reference in the news stories of the past week or so.

Remind me again how you can’t have morality without God?

“That’s Just Your Opinion”

This was a story I first heard about from The Non-Prophets, but I didn’t see the video until it was linked to from Pharyngula this morning.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists was invited onto Fox News to talk about what atheists do in preparation for Hurricane Irene if not pray. His basic answer was (perhaps obviously) that we do everything theists would normally do to prepare for such a crisis, except for praying.

Now, as he points out in that video: they asked him what his opinions were. And when he tells them that atheists aren’t going to pray because it doesn’t do anything, he’s accosted with cries of “Well, that’s just your opinion!”

But of course it’s his opinion! That’s why you asked him on the show: to give his opinion. And afterwards you start screaming about how prayer does have a positive effect. Guess what: that’s your opinion. As Silverman points out, the facts about the world are on the side of his opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an opinion.

This raises a bigger issue that irks me in real life whenever I start criticizing religion or homeopathy or government conspiracies. I hear about how my views on these things are merely my opinion and that I just think I’m right all the time.

Here’s the thing: I know I’m not right all the time. I get proved wrong on occasion, and when I do my opinion changes. But any opinion I currently hold hasn’t gone through this. It basically boils down the the following, which is my usual response:

Of course I think I’m right. If I thought I was wrong, I would think something else!

Look, we all have our opinions but contrary to what we were taught in kindergarten not all opinions are correct, or equally valid. If two people disagree about a matter of fact, then by necessity at least one of them is wrong. I can say God doesn’t exist as loudly as you can say he does but at the end of the day only one of us can be right. And atheists just happen to be the ones with evidence and reason on our side.

The point I like to make, though, is that we don’t need to go around prefacing our every statement with “I believe…” or “In my opinion…” Have some pride in what you think and go out there and say it. It’s okay to be wrong sometimes, so long as you change your mind when you are. But it’s also okay to be right sometimes too.

And if you ask someone their opinion, actually take the time to listen what they have to say and if you disagree say why. Because the only real response to “That’s just your opinion,” is “Well… duh!”