Atheistic Fallacies

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I generally respect Atheism as a concept. When life’s difficulties hit home, they certainly bring with them doubts regarding the existence of God. And, more than this, the religions of the world including Christianity tend to be filled with nonsensical beliefs as well as deplorable actions mixed in with the good. I often say that Atheism is God’s gift to the intellectually lazy religiosity of modern times.

But I do have a problem with atheists when it comes to some of the common methods they use in debates. I don’t know if it is because they just don’t see the logical inconsistencies or if they are purposely trying to confuse their opponents but frankly it doesn’t matter why they do it. What does matter is that an enormous amount of time is wasted in debates that are rigged to be unproductive before they even start. And people of character should care more about the progress that can be achieved through a good debate than about winning the debate. I will try to address some of these issues here.

Theism vs. Atheism

The first problem I often run into is that the debates are framed wrong, i.e. Theism vs. Atheism. The issue here is that Atheism by definition is not a proposition in and of itself and therefore the entire burden of proof rests on the Theist.

To illustrate the flaw here just picture a political debate between a Democrat and an a-Democrat where the a-Democrat stands for nothing in particular except in that she disagrees with everything the Democrat stands for. At the end of such debate we might know all the reasons we shouldn’t vote for the Democrat but we would have no idea why we should vote for his opponent; what they will do when they take office, what position they hold on major issues etc. And, as much as we might dislike all the negative things we found out about the Democrat, we would likely still vote for them because at least we have some idea where they stand. No one would put up with this in the political arena but it happens in the philosophy/religion arena all the time.

To be rational, debates between theists and atheists should be set up like this:

1) We start with a blank slate.
2) The one given/known in this discussion is that we/our planet/our universe exist.
3) If we exist it means that we’ve gotten here somehow.
4) Each side must present and support a proposition for how we came to be here.

In essence, the debate should really be theism vs. naturalism (assuming the atheist is not a non-theistic supernaturalist). With such a framework each side is expected to make their own case as well as counter the other’s position and the debate is balanced. The observer could then have a clear picture of all the issues involved and how well each side is supported. The weaknesses of one side strengthen the position of the other and vice versa instead of one side bearing all the responsibility.

It happens at times that, when this is mentioned, the atheist refuses the label of “naturalist”. He prefers not to be restricted to a specific position, prefers to hide behind an “I don’t know,” and to just take blows at his opponent. In such a case it is my recommendation that the theist decline the debate altogether. If the atheist doesn’t think that theism is a good explanation for how we got here then he is welcome to present a better explanation. Otherwise there is nothing to talk about.

Naturalism as the Default

A second problem I come across quite often is somewhat similar. Although the atheist does in this case argue for Naturalism, he does so as if Naturalism is the Default position; the position that is automatically correct if the Theist is unable to make his case. The Atheist never takes the time to prove that this is so; he just conducts his debate as if it is. Needless to say this puts the theist at a disadvantage since arguments that might have carried sufficient weight in a balanced debate no longer do. The opponents end up speaking past each other and there is an obvious disconnect in the discussion but no one seems to be able to put their finger on what the problem is.

In a proper setup, unless either side has first taken the time to demonstrate that they hold the default position, it must be assumed that both positions share equal footing. In such debates, the participants should keep an eye out for this type of thing and address it immediately before moving on to the actual topic under discussion.

But are Atheists justified in assuming that Naturalism is the default?

The only reason one would consider naturalism as the default would be if that position itself posed no challenges. As it is, naturalism does have its share of problems. In our universe, in order to perform work you need energy. As it is used, energy is converted to a less usable form. The energy from our sun for example will eventually run out and, although there will be other suns, these also will eventually run out. Working backwards we can deduce that at some point in the distant past there was far more usable energy than there is today and the obvious question is, where did it all come from?

Various models have been proposed for this but they often only push the question back further. Not just this, but simply imagining a potential model is not sufficient evidence that it is in fact what happened. And, since we know so little about our visible Universe and, since the visible universe is only a tiny fraction of the expected size of the actual universe, and since we don’t know if there is anything beyond that (maybe a multiverse), making definite claims here is like polling ten/fifteen people in a little town in Arkansas and then claiming to know who is going to win the presidential election.

These are only a few examples of the potential issues with naturalism and therefore naturalism cannot just be taken for granted. The supporter is just as obligated to make a case for it as is the one supporting theism.

Acceptable Evidence

If the discussion between a theist and an atheist gets past the first two problems, it generally gets stuck on the third. Here the atheist demands the following:

1) Since the theist is the one making the claim, the burden is on him to prove it.
2) The only acceptable proof is Scientific Evidence.

This might seem like a reasonable expectation but in fact it is an impossible one, by definition. It’s sort of like the following:

1) Only boys are allowed to play in this basketball competition.
2) The only acceptable proof that girls are good at basketball is evidence that an all-girls’ team has ever won this competition.

The scientific method functions under certain presuppositions, mainly that the laws of physics are consistent and universal. In essence, the scientific method assumes that the supernatural does not exist. And, because it works under this assumption, it will lead to conclusions that are always consistent with this assumption.

For example, suppose that an actual supernatural event occurred. If we were to study this event using the scientific method we would start by trying to come up with a naturalistic/non-supernatural model for how the event might have taken place. If we exhausted every naturalistic model that we could think of without adequately explaining the event, we would not then conclude the event was supernatural. We would assume instead that we are not advanced enough to discover the correct explanation and would need to wait for science to progress further. The only way theoretically that the scientific method would ever lead to a supernatural conclusion would be if we first exhausted every single naturalistic explanation possible, which, in practical life, would be impossible.

Now there is nothing wrong with the demand that only scientific evidence be acceptable. However, if that is the expectation, the only way to approach the question would be to flip things around and ask the naturalist to demonstrate that a naturalistically derived universe is entirely possible without the need for the supernatural. This would not prove that god didn’t exist but it would show that He was unnecessary. And that’s about as far as we would be able to go using the scientific method alone.

So in summary, either the restriction for only scientific evidence is removed or the naturalist must make the case for a naturalistically derived universe and the burden of proof is no longer on the theist.

But someone will say right about now that the problem with supernatural claims is not that the scientific method cannot accept these claims. The problem is that these claims don’t pan out, period. In other words, it’s not that supernatural events happen but the scientific method forces us to assume they were natural. Rather, whenever there are claims of the supernatural, the claims themselves prove untrue; like say a psychic who, under controlled experimental conditions, performs statistically no different than the general population.

Obviously, I cannot take responsibility for everyone’s dubious claims. But let’s address a claim that theists often do make, mainly that God answers prayer.

How would we evaluate this claim scientifically?

Say there was a person who was really sick but several people came to visit, offered a prayer and the person soon got better. This actually happens from time to time.

To approach this question scientifically you would examine the nature of the sickness and the progress the person made once they started improving and then come up with a naturalistic explanation for the recovery. After all, of all the people suffering with that particular sickness, there is always a percentage that get better regardless of whether prayer is offered or not.

Of course, that wouldn’t really prove that it wasn’t a miracle, either. Just because we can conceive of a natural explanation for something does not mean it is in fact what happened or that God might not have been behind the natural workings which would not have happened without Him. But then again, why doesn’t God do something out of the ordinary like heal an amputee so we can be sure?

So then you might think to set up an experiment where you take 2000 sick people and you have someone pray for half of them (without telling them they are being prayed for.) If God really answered prayer then you should expect that the half being prayed for will show a statistically higher rate of improvement, right?

Let’s think about this a little bit:

1) When we talk about God we can probably safely assume that we are talking about an entity that is smarter than us and more technologically advanced than us. After all He created the universe.
2) We can also assume that God does have intentions. God is the one that initiated the creation process not us.
3) So if in creating us it was God’s intention to make it such that we would be absolutely certain of His existence, He would have found a way to make us certain of it without your help or mine.
4) And, if it isn’t his intention that human beings have absolute evidence of His existence, why would we assume that we should still be able to devise an experiment that would either force God or trick God into making His own existence undeniable?

If there is anything we can be fairly certain of, it is that if God exists, He definitely does not intend to remove all doubt of His existence or He would have done it long ago and we would not today be having this conversation. There’s probably very little chance that any of us will ever get to go on Oprah and tell the world that we have proven God’s existence once and for all, regardless of whether God actually exists or not. And this is a pretty obvious conclusion; it’s quite silly that people actually do try to put together this type of scientific experiments.

In conclusion, when atheists state that they lack belief in God because they have never been offered convincing evidence for God, and if by evidence they actually mean only scientific evidence, they are being irrational on two counts:

– First, because the scientific method discards supernatural claims by definition and
– Second, because it is obvious that it is not God’s intention to dispel all doubt of His existence, something which scientific evidence will inevitably do.

And, as much as we might not like this state of things, it is what we have to work with. The sooner we realize this, the sooner our discussions will start to have a chance at actually being profitable for a change.

There are other similar issues that could be mentioned but these three, in my opinion, are fundamental and affect the majority of debates on the topic. I do not recommend that anyone engage in a debate without settling these three points first.

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Comments

  1. Charles Bonner  February 11, 2013

    I’m sorry that you feel that being asked to provide any actual evidence that might reasonably lead to the conclusion that God exists is an unfair debating tactic. On the other hand, consider this a discussion, and not a debate, so be it known that I simply am inclined to go with Carl Sagan’s position that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and not with the contrary position that extraordinary claims require no evidence whatsoever because, maybe, just maybe, God deliberately withholds the evidence. I do like the argument that trying to measure the efficacy of petitionary prayer is futile because God would deliberately sabotage any such experiment — brilliant! Not the least bit persuasive to me, because there’s no evidence for such a claim, but the fact that it positively glories in the lack of evidence for it is precisely what makes it so brilliant.

    The bottom line is that I absolutely have to agree with yout that, on the question of the origins of the universe, you and I have almost nothing to say to each other. I don’t know precisely how the universe came to be. I do know that there is more than one naturalistic hypothesis on the table, but I’m willing to let the scientists try to sort it out. Perhaps they will before too long. For your part, you have no clue whatsoever as to how the universe came to be, other than you know it was magic, and you identify the magician with the tribal deity of an ancient Middle Eastern hill tribe. As for how this magic works, well — it’s magic! You’re not supposed to know. It’s Houdini’s trade secret.

    I do, however, want to adress one particular scientific point here, and that is your statement that “When we talk about God we can probably safely assume that we are talking about an entity that is smarter than us and more technologically advanced than us. After all He created the universe.” Since the 1980’s, some scientists have speculated that we actually know what it would take to create a universe. We do not, as yet, HAVE what it takes to create a universe, because first, according to the recipe, you have to start with a miniature black hole. Our most powerful particle colliders have not yet developed the energy needed to make one (a woman did sue unsuccessfully in Germany to prevent them from trying to make one with the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland because she was afriadf it would swallow the earth — they said it wouldn’t).

    So it might turn out to be the case that, if God created the universe, he is in fact not any smarter than us (or at least not smarter than some of our physicists), and not necessarily much more technologically advanced (I must confess that the idea of God employing “technology” is new to me). But if it is possible for human scientists to create a universe, then I suppose we should not absolutely rule out the possibilty that our own universe was indeed created — by scientists in some other universe.

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  2. Lausten North  February 14, 2013

    I’m starting to wonder if you are for real, or if you are attempting to demonstrate flaws in the theist’s arguments by taking them on. This post shows some strong logic, but also some misunderstandings about science.

    Theism vs Atheism
    This misunderstands the scientific method. Scientists constantly propose theories and their colleagues shoot them down. There is no requirement to offer an alternative explanation. That is a childish response of, “well then, if you’re so smart, how did we get here.” Just because an atheist doesn’t know where the universe came from does not mean they should accept a super naturalist explanation, and certainly not a leap to any particular god or creation myth. Even if one made the leap, how would they know which one to pick?

    Naturalism as the default
    Hawkins and Krauss are not “simply imagining” a model of the universe. They are using rigorous methods and extremely difficult math. I agree with your argument that we can’t know, but that does nothing as an argument for any particular creation myth. Creation myths are not just similar to asking a few people in Arkansas they are exactly that. Just because one was written down by Moses, that does nothing to make it more credible.

    Acceptable Evidence
    Your basketball team analogy is perfectly backwards. For thousands of years, there were only theist teams. People were banished or burned at the stake for questioning them. Science did exactly what you say theists can’t do; prove that they could win the competition while the rules were set against them. But here’s the thing, the rules that they now have, are completely fair. They aren’t going to kill you for making your case. They just want your case to make sense.

    You understand the premise of assuming consistent laws of physics. There is another assumption that comes first that you are ignoring. That is, if it can be shown that the premise is invalid, we must abandon the premise. That is the essence of the debate.

    You go on to explain how God would not reveal a method to prove or disprove his existence. Given that, I propose a theory that God expects us to use the scientific method to discover everything else about the universe. He wants us to figure out for ourselves how to best treat the world and Its inhabitants without us knowing exactly where everything came from or why we are here. This seems perfectly compatible with everything you have said. It also ends the debate.

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  3. Unapologetics  February 15, 2013

    It doesn’t seem to me that either of you understood what I was trying to say. But before I respond, let me address some preliminaries first.

    This particular article is not discussing Christianity specifically but theism in general; so comments about Moses and middle eastern hill tribes are out of place.

    Second, if we’re going to discuss God and the supernatural I would like to know what you guys are referring to when you use those words. How do you define “supernatural?”

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    • Charles Bonner  February 17, 2013

      “If we’re going to discuss God and the supernatural I would like to know what you guys are referring to when you use those words. How do you define ‘supernatural?'”

      Why do you ask? Are you using these terms in some peculiar or eccentric way? Still, I suppose it’s a useful question.

      The Webster-Merriam online dictionary defines God as “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” So, if it turns out that there is a creator and ruler of the universe, but that being is not “perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness,” then said being is, by definition, not God, right?

      The same dictionary defines “supernatural” as “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil”. The first part of the definition is problematic. Much of the universe — perhaps almost all of it — is invisible and unobservable, but I’m not inclined to say that what exists in the invisible or unobservable parts of the universe (to say nothing of what might exist in universes other than our own) is by definition “supernatural.” In fact, it seems to me that the concept of “supernatural,” like the concept of “God,” is rather ill-defined.

      What do YOU mean by these terms?

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    • Lausten North  February 20, 2013

      If understanding is the problem, it is not helpful to point fingers. Your posts are lengthy so increasing understanding would require digging deeper into specific details rather than simply discounting my examples. I agree with Richard Dawkins, that on a scale of 1 to 7 where 7 is convinced that no god of any kind exists, a reasonable scientific perspective is 6.9. That is, we still need a little more detail before we can decide.

      This encompasses responses to your post; like supernatural events don’t happen, theism vs atheism is not a 50/50 choice, and we don’t need to understand every detail of how life came to be to make an informed decision about supernatural activity. The fact that we don’t have an answer to a question does not strengthen any proposed answer.

      To your “Moses is out of place” comment. I brought him up in response to your analogy to the polling of a dozen people in Arkansas. It fails because that it is not what science does, but it is what religion does. Theism, of any flavor, takes the writings and opinions of very few people, using unconfirmed evidence and personal revelation, and bases a whole culture on it. Is that general enough for you?

      I don’t think “supernatural” is where the misunderstanding lies. I think it closer to my discussion about what a premise is. You are asking for the premise of naturalism to be proven. It’s a premise, it can’t be proven. It can be shown to be valuable and workable and after hundreds of years, we can be pretty sure it’s true, but that’s it. It’s got us to the moon and cured polio, so I’m going to stick with it.

      You have already agreed that God or god can’t be proven. Belief in god(s) has led to war, witch burnings, prayer that does not heal and child abuse. Ya sure you want to keep defending that?

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      • Unapologetics  March 13, 2013

        The question I have for you and Dawkins is where you came up with this 6.9 out of 7 figure? What scientific or logical arguments can you line up that would bring one to conclude this particular value?

        My “dozen people in Arkansas” analogy is meant to illustrate the point that in science you can’t just come up with some imaginary scenario for how something might have happened and then claim that you have settled the question. It’s ok to have a hypothesis but you then need to confirm it with experiments. And, since we know so very little about the universe there is no way that any such hypotheses could be confirmed just yet.

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        • Lausten North  March 14, 2013

          The 6.9 is just a graphic. Dawkins might have some math behind it, but I don’t think we need that level of precision in this context. As for what arguments, this list is pretty close to exhaustive.
          http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=50_reasons_to_believe_in_God

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          • Unapologetics  March 15, 2013

            Well, unless I know the arguments behind it, it’s just an arbitrary number.

          • Lausten North  March 15, 2013

            So, what I hear you saying is, when someone says, “on a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 5”, means nothing to you. You are a very difficult person to have a normal conversation with.

          • Unapologetics  March 15, 2013

            Why is it that you heard me say THAT?

            What you SHOULD have heard me say is that anybody can come up with arbitrary numbers. I could say for example that there is about an 8 out of 10 chance that God does exist. Unless I support that assertion with some type of argument however, it is meaningless.

            Now you mentioned my analogy about the girl basketball team in an all-boys competition. The point I was trying to make is that atheists demand an impossibility of theists.

            Its as if you asked me to prove to you that circles exist by showing you their corners. That is an impossible demand by the very definition of the words.

            Asking for proof of the supernatural using the scientific method is an impossibility by the very definition of the scientific method.

          • Lausten North  March 15, 2013

            I’m using the scale to explain how I feel. There is no scientific description for that.

            You can’t prove the supernatural using any method. You can’t even show that it is remotely possible. If you disagree with that, show your method. The scientific method was created to explore questions and discover truth. The supernatural was created as a simple answer.

          • Unapologetics  March 15, 2013

            I cannot prove the supernatural just like you cannot prove the lack thereof.

            The possibility of the supernatural is equal to the possibility of the lack thereof. We have no way of knowing whether the natural is all there is or if there is such a thing as supernatural out there (read my comment on the definition of natural/supernatural below).

            Say I give you an object with a spinning part and ask you to tell me why that part is spinning and if someone caused it to spin or it is spinning on its own. You take the object apart and look inside. If after taking the object apart you realize it was only spinning because of the wind then you can tell me that no one caused it to spin. If instead, when you take it apart it has some type of clockwork mechanism inside then you would tell me that someone must have wound up the clockwork mechanism and caused it to spin.

            The big dilemma with the universe is where the initial energy came from that started the process. Scientists might some they find a way to explain this in a way that does not require outside intervention or they might arrive at the conclusion that the only way to explain how the universe started is to postulate some outside element. Until then we don’t know either way and claims about likelihoods of 6 out of 7 are completely baseless.

          • Lausten North  March 16, 2013

            There are plenty of articles on proving a negative so I won’t attempt to regurgitate one. You can look that up yourself. Your spinning wheel story assumes the existence of mechanisms and inventors, things that we agree exist. You want to frame a discussion starting with “God exists”, something we don’t agree on.

            Yes, the origin of the universe is a dilemma. It’s great to be alive at a time when we are making progress toward finding out about it. Scientists could at any time stop trying and say there must be some outside element. But that would not be “arriving at a conclusion”, that would be stopping, giving up, postulating something for no reason. At that point, it would no longer be considered science. Science actually does discontinue lines of inquiry all the time. They found flaws with Einstein’s work and had to abandon parts of it. But they didn’t “conclude” that there must be “some” other element or force, they kept trying to figure out what those things might be.

            So, maybe the real question is, which is more convincing, a method developed over centuries that demonstrates its claims and tests its premises and is open to inquiry or a method that asks you to accept a premise on faith? Note that I’m using what you have said here, to define faith as; an end of attempts to explain something using evidence. I understand that you see this as reaching a conclusion. We disagree there.

          • Unapologetics  March 16, 2013

            The universe was either made or it made itself.

            You think that if scientists look long enough and hard enough they will eventually figure out how to prove that it made itself.

            In reality, true science tries to figure out what actually happened not what they want to have happened.

          • Lausten North  March 16, 2013

            I agree with your statement about reality. But you don’t know what I think. You should phrase that as a question. I don’t know how everything in the known universe came to be. I do know that there are some interesting theories being developed about particles that seem to violate the laws of space and time that we have assumed for most of human history.

            I know there are theories about how we need to change our understanding of the laws of physics so we can understand what we observe. I should really say “they”, because I haven’t done those experiments nor do I understand the math, but I trust the people who are saying it, because when questioned, they don’t say that they quit doing experiments and just made conclusions.

            They say there are still questions, they admit where their theories are weak, they show their work to others who know how to evaluate it, they use basic premises that people all over the world and of most religious faiths agree upon. In other words, they us a fair system.

          • Unapologetics  March 16, 2013

            That’s fine. But you’re still assuming the final conclusion will support your side of the issue.

            It could very well be that when its all said and done it will be concluded that it could not have happened on its own.

    • Unapologetics  March 13, 2013

      This is how I think these terms should be defined in the context of this particular conversation:

      Supernatural – the “natural” refers to everything that is subject to the laws of physics. The supernatural, in contrast, would refer to something not subject to the laws of physics.

      However, for this particular conversation the supernatural should refer to something outside the laws of physics that is responsible for the existence of the natural universe.

      So in essence, Naturalism claims that the explanation for the existence of the universe is entirely in line with the laws of physics while Supernaturalism claims that these laws cannot explain how the universe got here so an external element is necessary.

      Now the concept of “God” goes beyond the supernatural in that the supernatural entity is an intelligent agent. So Supernaturalism could refer to a supernatural being or only a “Force,” while theism refers exclusively to a supernatural intelligent being.

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