Entries from August 2010 ↓

Comment: Naturalism and God

Most naturalists see reality as an orderly and knowable place. Orderly in that things occur and reoccur in predictable ways. It is hard to imagine how life could evolve if things had been otherwise. Reality is also knowable, well at least in theory if not in practice. A naturalist rejects the idea of anything inherently ‘mysterious’ about our world, contrary to most religious traditions.

Our way of ‘knowing’ the world (with all due concerns about the word ‘knowing’) is through human perception supported by human reason, empiricism in philosophical terms. We have no other sources. Our perceptions can be from immediate senses or from recalled memories. However the bulk of human knowledge, our social knowledge, comes from the testimony of others from their perceptions and reasoning. Hence, not surprisingly, naturalists reject revelation as a genuine information source and are suspicious of any a priori claims to knowledge – knowledge without prior experience. Artificial, self-contained rule-based systems, such as mathematics and games, are well-known exceptions.

The unreliability of human perceptions is well-known. Seeking to confirm prior opinions, people’s wishful thinking and delusions block attempts to be truly objective. In recent years our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, social sciences, and historical research – have clearly been our best efforts at harnessing human perceptions while controlling human fallibilities. They have produced more reliable information about the world, than numerous religious proclamations over the years. One amusing example is the early Christian predictions, some 2000 years ago, of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom through Jesus of Nazareth. Christian zealots, Gospel writers and Paul of Taurus, were quite clear about this, even though apologists since then have attempted to reinterpret these failures away.

And what about the belief in a god ? Almost automatically, a naturalist would reject the belief as accepting something so completely incomprehensible. The naturalist’s reality is one of mass and energy existing within time and space and that we are an intrinsic part of that world. Even though known reality expands and contracts with changes in our empirically-based knowledge, all ‘things’ are of the same ontological stuff. ‘God’ stands for something else entirely – different stuff, imperceptible and unfathomable by human reason (not surprisingly according to naturalists). Even the idea of such as thing, outside of that found in imaginative fiction, is amusing or perhaps even offensive to the sensibilities of a naturalist. When asked why, a believer simply declares it to be so, accepting faith over any contrary human perception and reason. Not coincidentally, the believer’s verbalisations are shaped by his or her own religious traditions. God is then explained by rewordings like ‘master’, ‘lord’, ‘shepherd’, ‘cosmic consciousness’, ‘essence’, and so on. This is the fine art of substituting one set of magical words for another.

Our lives are full of uncertainties with incomplete and changing understandings of the world. How we explain and accept these uncertainties separates naturalists from the religionists, like the evangelical Christians. For naturalists, this is a normal consequence for being part of a complicated physical world. Though acknowledging our inherent limitations, naturalists, like scientists, continue still to strive for full knowledge and understanding of the world, to overcome our limitations. By contrast religionists explain this uncertainty by imagining an unknowable consciousness called God, one who created the world and now maintains it. And, of course, this is done in ways we do not understand.

Unfortunately for religionists, the empirically-based sciences have effectively replaced religions as the major knowledge-makers in our secular society. Very little of today’s world understanding comes from religious traditions. 2000 to 3000 year-old explanations no longer hold credence and respect they once had.

So what are typical naturalists’ reactions to beliefs in God?

  • Irrelevant: the naturalist sees no need for any God to explain his or her world or to find personal meaning;
  • Incomprehensible: the idea of any existence outside of the physical world does not even make sense to a naturalist. It is more incredible that most Christians claim their God has consciousness and is even worthy of worship;
  • Offensive: hopefully explanations are no longer of angels and demons. To naturalists, theologies are still rooted in those ancients beliefs with human styled non-physical beings. Religions are re-calling past superstitions, rather than seeing humans as an integral part of the physical world like all other living things. We need to acknowledge that we physical only, without an exclusive non-physical soul.

Alex McCullie

Guest Article: Does Scientism Equal Faith: Combating Misconceptions

scientismHow often do religious folk criticise atheists and naturalists of scientism, their ‘bogey word’ for applying scientific scepticism to religious claims? Alexis Bonari has kindly written her take on the issue. Thank you, Alexis. You can catch more of her writing at scholarships.

Does Scientism Equal Faith: Combating Misconceptions

Can a belief in natural science ever be classified as religious faith?  Most atheists have heard this question raised at least once by those of a religious persuasion.  Atheists often pride themselves on their ability to see through superstition and culturally mediated belief systems. Some critics, however, claim that they are guilty of scientism.  In other words, does an atheist fall off the rationality bandwagon when he or she believes that science is the most authoritative worldview, and/or that science will potentially provide all the answers if only given enough time?

Experiential Knowledge

To answer this question one must look at the evidence for both arguments.  Critics of scientism claim that such complete reliance on science for answers ignores knowledge that can be obtained only by experiencing a phenomenon, i.e. experiential knowledge.  Religious people often take offense when atheists attempt to determine a scientifically derived explanation for their religious experiences.  While they might concede that there are, for instance, neurochemical events that go hand-in-hand with experiencing the presence of god, they believe that focusing on potential scientific explanations would be to miss the point entirely.

When Is Science Irrational?

At their least rational, atheists and scientists claim that nothing can exist outside of our current scientific models. This is an irrational statement, as it assumes that these models are infallible.  The fields of theoretical physics and applied mathematics have provided us with compelling evidence suggesting that it is literally impossible to create a completely accurate model of the universe. These types of theories undermine the idea that one can have absolute certainty through science.

Scientism ≠ Religion

But where does that leave the debate? Does the lack of certainty through science mean that atheists should abandon their stance in favor of religious faith?  The answer is a resounding, “No”.  In order to combat these arguments, atheists must become truly comfortable with some level of uncertainty.  Even though science may not be the infallible truth-definer that enlightenment philosophers believed it to be, that doesn’t mean that it should be put into the same category as a religion.  Religion relies completely upon faith.  Those who trust science over religion are at least choosing the scientific method, an attempt to prove any theory before accepting it as fact. 

As with many answers, there are no absolutes.  Certainly, there are some atheists who cross the line from rational deliberation into territory that requires faith.  Perhaps human nature, our desire to believe in some sort of absolute spiritual or otherwise, drives this trend.  If atheists remain intellectually honest, and attempt to curtail these drives within themselves, accusations of scientism will fall by the wayside. 

Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She often can be found blogging about general education issues as well as information on college scholarships. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Book recommendation: Philosophers without Gods

Excepts of description from Amazon. This is a highly recommended collection of essays.

Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life [Hardcover]
Louise M. Antony (Editor)

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (August 8, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195173074
ISBN-13: 978-0195173079
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds

Review

“The authors answer, forcefully and intelligently, the standard arguments against atheism.”–V.V. Raman, CHOICE
“This Atheists R Us compilation differs markedly in tone from Hitchens and Dawkins. Excellent fare for Christian small groups whose members are genuinely interested in the arguments raised by atheists.”–Christianity Today
“Rather than the foolishness of Dawkins or Hitchens, these [essays] are compelling and sophisticated arguments that religious people ought to confront….”–Tikkun
“This collection strikes me as an excellent example of how comprehensible philosophical writing can be at its best. By and large, the essays are written in a clear and direct style, free of philosophical jargon. many who read it will find themselves also engaged at a level that is not merely academic.”–George I. Mavrodes, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
“Taken as a group, these readable, personal, and provocative essays make it clear that there are many kinds of non-believers, and even many different elements that make up a single skeptical outlook. Contrary to the popular image, atheism isn’t all rebellious trumpets and defiant drums. That part of the orchestra is essential, but here we have all the varieties of unreligious experience, a full symphony of unbelief.” –Free Inquiry

Product Description
Atheists are frequently demonized as arrogant intellectuals, antagonistic to religion, devoid of moral sentiments, advocates of an “anything goes” lifestyle. Now, in this revealing volume, nineteen leading philosophers open a window on the inner life of atheism, shattering these common stereotypes as they reveal how they came to turn away from religious belief.
These highly engaging personal essays capture the marvelous diversity to be found among atheists, providing a portrait that will surprise most readers. Many of the authors, for example, express great affection for particular religious traditions, even as they explain why they cannot, in good conscience, embrace them. None of the contributors dismiss religious belief as stupid or primitive, and several even express regret that they cannot, or can no longer, believe. Perhaps more important, in these reflective pieces, they offer fresh insight into some of the oldest and most difficult problems facing the human mind and spirit. For instance, if God is dead, is everything permitted? Philosophers Without Gods demonstrates convincingly, with arguments that date back to Plato, that morality is independent of the existence of God. Indeed, every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong. Moreover, they contend that secular life can provide rewards as great and as rich as religious life. A naturalistic understanding of the human condition presents a set of challenges–to pursue our goals without illusions, to act morally without hope of reward–challenges that can impart a lasting value to finite and fragile human lives.
Collectively, these essays highlight the richness of atheistic belief–not only as a valid alternative to religion, but as a profoundly fulfilling and moral way of life.

Talk: Naturalism as a viable world-view (Part one)

pdf: text of Naturalism talk (right-click to save)

Introduction

Over the last three years, I have conducted courses on Atheism and Agnosticism at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne within the Lifestyles department. Given the diversity of participants, we would spend the first night clarifying the usage of both terms, a controversial discussion even within Atheist communities.

We typically would reduce atheism to the usual ‘disbelief or rejection of the god’ of society. In past times, that meant accusing Socrates of atheism for not believing in the gods of Athens and, even, early Christians for rejecting the gods of Rome. For us, it usually refers to the Christian god as the dominant form of worship. So atheism is a statement about our claims about reality or Metaphysics in philosophical terms.

Most saw agnosticism as a gentle form of atheism, the sort of atheism that can be declared in polite company. This is a far-cry from Thomas Huxley’s coining of the word in the 1860s to curtail any claims of certainty about rejecting god. ‘God is inherently un-knowable’ is closer to his conception of agnosticism. Again in philosophical terms, it is an epistemological claim, one about the nature of knowledge.

So, atheism and agnosticism are dealing with only limited aspects of our perspectives of the world. Therefore, neither of the concepts is an opposite of Christianity, which makes many more claims about the nature of reality and ourselves, and even on how we should behave. Enter Naturalism. Unlike atheism, Naturalism seeks to address a broader range of significant issues about life rather than be restricted to the existence or non-existence of god.

World-views

Before speaking specifically about Naturalism, let me introduce a useful way of discussing and comparing different perspectives, the world-view, a literal translation of the German Weltanshauung. Not surprisingly different writers interpret the concept in different ways. For me, world-view is an intellectual framing of our experiences, including our intuitions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs about ourselves in the world. While acknowledging that deeply held emotions underlie our reactions to the world, I see that verbalising a perspective as a world-view makes it an intellectual process at rationalisation, similar to retelling of a dream. So a world-view provides a person and his or her community with a verbal tool set to describe, interpret, and explain experiences, emotions, and thoughts and in many cases to prescribe appropriate behaviours to be consistent with that world-view.

I would like to mention two risks when analysing world-views. I am drawing from ‘A New Science of Morality’, a talk[1] given by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, at a recent Edge seminar. Firstly, we need to be aware of being WEIRDs, people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic societies. We are a minority in the world and need to be careful not to see ourselves as the norm. Secondly, we need to be aware that human reasoning evolved to win arguments and not to pursue the truth. Using reason to justify our actions and beliefs leads to the well-known confirmation bias.

An example of misunderstandings from seeing things as a WEIRD is our concept of self. We emphasise the individual – personal rights, personal goals, and personal ownership. When doing historical research or examining other societies, we bring an individualistic sense of self with us. However many communities interpret ‘self’ in a vastly different way, as a collective self of group identity. Jesus scholars regularly face this problem with their studies of first century Middle-Eastern societies. According to Bruce Malina[2], ‘Who do people [others] say that I am?‘ was and is a commonly thought of question, though rarely asked. In collectivist communities people see themselves as defined by the opinions of significant others.[3] This is something similar to the behaviourist quip: ‘You seem okay. How am I?’

I should mention that many writers even dispute the concept of world-view, as it implies some sort of consistency of our intuitions, beliefs, and ideas. It may be more accurate to characterise our verbalisations about life as trying to normalise a changing, contradictory, patchy, and often inaccessible ‘mishmash’ of emotions and thoughts. Simple honest reflections of our attitudes seem to confirm these concerns.

Despite this caveat, the concept of world-view provides a useful way of talking about fundamental perspectives and, particularly, for contrasting religious with non-religious ones. We need to remember that in reality a person’s perspective is based on deeply held beliefs or assumptions developed from his or her familial and cultural backgrounds. So someone growing up in an Islamic tradition, especially if educated in a Madrassa, will hold a perspective dominated by an Islamic world-view. He or she may later question aspects of that view although it is hard to imagine any fundamental change. Similarly, my view developed in a very secular household where religious practices were seen as cultural artefacts. Christian concepts like God, Christ, and The Trinity hold little real meaning for me and are empty of feelings. In summary, my approach is to see a world-view as an intellectual rationalisation of our attitudes and a way of enabling discussion and some possible change

Perhaps more controversially, each world-view is underpinned by foundational beliefs or truth claims that, I suggest, we are unable to prove or disprove. Within a world-view itself the language tool-sets are built from those very assumptions, which cannot be then used to verify them. Similarly, the tool-sets of other world-views are based on different sets of assumptions and are again problematic for challenging the assumptions of others, in any independent way. None of us have a god’s eye view. Or as Albert Einstein once put it, ‘Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.‘ So is the only alternative a Post-modernist ‘free-for-all’, where all world-views are of equal value? No, I believe there are ways of comparing the efficacy of world-views, but more on that later.

What are those fundamental questions? We even have to be careful about what questions we pose, as questions themselves include and exclude issues. Framing the question controls the nature of the dialogue.[4]

So, not surprisingly, Evangelical Christian world-views always include questions about a personal-style god, which would be meaningless to those from many Eastern religions without personal gods. So here are some questions:

  1. What is our reality and what does our ‘world’ consist of? (Metaphysics)
    Possibly where has it come from and where is it going to?
    What am I and what is my position in the world?
  2. How do I know? How can I know truth? What is knowledge and truth? (Epistemology)
  3. Why do I behave as I do? How should I behave? (Ethics)
  4. And, possibly more specific questions like: what is the nature of history? (events linked for causes and effects only or linked by some grand narrative – reoccurring cycles, pre-Christian or linear progress to a greater goal, Christian)?

Unfortunately the term world-view has been usurped by Christian writers. Just check the Internet or books at the Amazon site. So these writers’ categorise world-views in Christian’s terms with the underlying questions being Christian questions, such as ‘Is there a personal God?’ Then the assessments are from an Evangelical Christian perspective. For example, The Universe Next Door[5] by James W. Sire presents a catalogue such as Naturalism, Christianity, Existentialism, Nihilism, Post-modernism, and so on with the Christian world-view being shown to be more comprehensive and fulfilling. No surprises there.

Previously I mentioned a possibility of comparing world-views, even though we are inevitably within our own view. We can consider three aspects:

  • Coherence or internal consistency (internal conflicts of explanation?) Are there some parts of the world-view that is inconsistent with other aspects? Often these differences are rejected by supporters or patched over by apologetic arguments.
    Note: internal consistency is often an adequate measure of truth for post-modernists.
  • Correspondence to experience (explanatory powerful?) How well does the world-view account for the range of our experiences? Of course, the confirmation bias haunts any analysis about explanatory power. Does a materialist view of the human being provide explanations that meet our needs? Does a loving, all-powerful God reconcile with the death of a young baby?
  • Comprehensiveness (any gaps?). Here atheism or theism falls short of a comprehensive world-view. Science may similarly do so.

Every world-view has short-comings. For example, the ‘Problem of evil’ – presence of gratuitous suffering with an all-powerful, all-loving god – presents an Achilles’ heel for an Evangelical Christian world-view. Reconciling our inner-world of consciousness with a strictly materialistic view of the world is perhaps another one.


[1]    URL: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality10_index.html

[2]    Bruce Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons”, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 44.

[3]    Malina emphasises that (1) self was interpreted by a group understanding; (2) there was little sense of self-reflection, no associated concept of internal psychological processing; (3) complete separation of sexes with vastly different roles and responsibilities; (4) personality characteristics were seen as expressed behavioural terms only e.g. knowing a women is have had sexual intercourse with her; (5) physical characteristics and deformities were signs of permanent personal qualities.

[4]    Susan Johnston audio lecture Religion, Myth & Magic http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B0031UCWWA
…religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered.      (Page 8 for accompanying guide)

[5]    Sire James M., The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edn. (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2009)