Why atheism cannot be correct

Alan Roebuck’s latest essay for VFR takes the form of an open letter to an atheistic think tank called the Center for Inquiry, proceeded by an introduction.

Introduction to the ideas in the letter

Liberalism must be opposed fundamentally, because if you accept, even tacitly, your opponent’s premises, you will eventually be forced to accept his conclusions. And the philosophical foundation of liberalism is atheism, because atheism makes man the supreme being, and means that there are no absolutes.

But nowadays, most apologists for atheism do not call themselves atheists. They say, “Atheism requires proving a universal negative, which is impossible. So I’m not an atheist. I just think there’s no reason to believe in a God, so I don’t. Call me a naturalist [or infidel, or freethinker, or agnostic.]” (But note that it is not impossible to prove a universal negative; mathematicians do it all the time.)

More importantly, the atheistic apologist says, “Since my position does not posit the existence of anything, it is the default position. The burden of proof falls on the theist to prove a God exists, and if the proof fails, I am justified in my unbelief.” The atheist then finds what he regards as flaws in each theistic proof, and believes his position is justified.

Professional atheistic organizations have apparently deliberately chosen this approach within the last 20 years or so. They presumably do this because they think it makes their job easier, and because the word “atheism” still sounds bad to the public they want to influence.

Superficially, their position seems strong. When we examine the world with our senses, we do not encounter any entity that could be called God. Since God is extra-ordinary, so it seems, belief in God requires extra-ordinary evidence before the rational man will believe.

But atheism has many weaknesses. Its main weakness is that man cannot live by the proposition “no God exists.” Man, being man, needs general principles to guide him, the most important of which are principles that tell him what is real and what is not (metaphysics), what knowledge is and how it is attained (epistemology), and what is morally right and wrong (ethics).

Therefore, atheism requires additional beliefs in order to be a livable creed. In order to avoid blatant irrationality, atheists must be metaphysical naturalists, meaning they believe that only physical objects and their properties really exist. Epistemologically, atheists are empiricists, believing that all knowledge comes to us from our five senses. And in the realm of ethics, atheists believe either that morality is relative to the group (the less popular position, because it discredits atheism by implying, for example that murder would not be wrong if society in general held it to be not wrong), or else that moral principles evolve along with the human race.

In this essay, I do not take the approach of proving God exists. Within the atheistic worldview, that is impossible. Instead, I argue that naturalism, empiricism and the ethical theories of atheism are false, indeed illogical. This also implies that, contrary to their assumption, atheism cannot be the “default position,” because irrationality cannot be the default position. (Since this is an essay rather than a book, I do not try to be comprehensive in my critique) This is presuppositional apologetics in action: demonstrating the absurdity of their presuppositions, showing that their worldview fails.

Here is my letter to the Center for Inquiry, an atheistic (they say, scientific) think tank and public policy organization that recently issued a “Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism.”

Dear Center for Inquiry:

I have read the statements of principle on your website, and there are some things I can agree with. Postmodern relativistic irrationalism needs to be strongly rebuked by being demonstrated to be false. Furthermore, you are right to decry the widespread ignorance of and even hostility to science.

But the statements on your website, and your basic position of naturalism (the doctrine that nothing exists but physical entities and their properties), make some fundamental intellectual errors. These errors doom your enterprise, and explain much of the public’s hostility to a scientific establishment that declares itself, erroneously, to be the acme of truth and clear thinking.

Although you have not stated it directly, you have clearly implied (and many naturalists have openly stated) that you believe science to be the highest form of knowledge, by which you presumably mean the most certain and the most precise. You have also taken the position that nothing can be considered knowledge, that is, justified true belief, unless it has been verified or at least supported by science. But these beliefs are actually irrational, because your view of science is self-refuting, and therefore necessarily false. Here’s why:

The validity of science clearly requires the validity of many forms of knowledge that are non-scientific, such as the laws of logic and mathematics, the knowledge that our senses are basically reliable in providing us with knowledge of an objectively existing reality, and certain moral knowledge, e.g., that you ought to report your data and results honestly. But none of these forms of knowledge are proved by using the scientific method. For example, the truths of mathematics are in no way proved by observation, hypothesis formation, and experimentation. The fundamental facts of mathematics are known by intuition, that is, the faculty of the mind that is capable of grasping truths immediately, without engaging in a process of reasoning. What might at first glance appear to be “experimental verification” of mathematical truths is simply the placing of mathematical facts before the student, so that he can see them clearly and thus understand and agree with them. Similar comments pertain to the laws of logic, the reliability of the senses, and (as explained more below) morality.

Therefore, you are making the absurd claim that science is more certain than the knowledge it is based on, which would make science more certain than itself! In reality, the reverse is true: mathematics and logic, for example, are preconditions of science, and therefore more certain and precise than science. Science is obviously not the highest form of knowledge.

Since it is clear that many non-scientific forms of knowledge are more certain and clear than science, you will have to abandon your claim about science. Furthermore, since there are at least some non-scientific truths that can be known, you will have to withdraw your claim that nothing can be known unless it has been justified scientifically.

You are also equivocating on the word “scientifically.” Naturalists will say that a necessary part of the definition of scientific inquiry is the assumption of naturalism. But reality is not determined by definitions: if you have good extra-scientific evidence for naturalism, then you are justified in your definition of science, but if not, you are not justified. In any case, we have to see that evidence; you cannot just say “naturalism is true.” Now, John Q. Public does not know that naturalism is a necessary part of science. He thinks you scientists just dispassionately examine the evidence, and go wherever it leads. If then you do not tell him that you do not prove naturalism, but just assume it, then you are for all intents and purposes lying to John Q. Public.

And this assumption of naturalism, coupled with your beliefs about the superiority of science as a way of knowing, produces another example of irrationality: If science is the highest form of knowledge, then naturalism, which cannot be proved scientifically, is less certain than science, in which case making naturalism a part of science will weaken science, not strengthen it.

Also, you have said: “Many modern thinkers have argued that we should examine our beliefs and theories carefully and assent only to those for which there are adequate grounds.” Although this sounds reasonable at first sight, it is, if interpreted in the most natural way, irrational: if “adequate grounds” means a proof, in the sense of giving other propositions that imply the proposition being proved, and if every proposition requires adequate grounds, then we have an endless process: “What are the adequate grounds for A? B and C. And what are the adequate grounds for B and C? D and E. And what are the adequate grounds for D and E?” Et cetera. This produces either circular reasoning, or else an infinite regression, both of which leave all knowledge without any justification.

The conclusion is inescapable: if we are to know anything, there must be at least some truths that we know without proof. These truths would have to be known either by intuition, by our direct experience of the proposition, or by our trusting the words of a trustworthy authority. All of us use these means of knowing every day. For example, we know “if A is taller than B, and B is taller than C, then A is taller than C” by intuition: when we contemplate this proposition, and when we understand what it means, it becomes self-evident. We know what we had for breakfast by direct experience; no proof is needed. And most of the specific facts we know (such as the results of the last election, the gross national product of Bolivia in 2004, or the mass of Jupiter), we know because we believe what an authority tells us. In principle, we could verify some of these facts for ourselves, but life is too short for us to verify for ourselves any but a tiny handful of the propositions that we have to believe in order to do the business of living. And even so, the verifications of these truths ultimately come down to either intuition or direct experience.

(In fact, knowing something by intuition can be seen as a specific type of knowledge by “direct experience”: you see it with your mind, and you grasp it directly, without engaging in a process of reasoning.)

So what exactly do you mean by “adequate grounds” for a belief or a theory? How do you know what type of grounds are “adequate”? Presumably, for you, “adequate” means “naturalistic.” But then we must ask, “What naturalistic grounds are there for the belief that only naturalistic grounds are adequate?” It is clear that any justification of the principle that only naturalistic grounds are adequate has to transcend naturalism, because the brute facts of the natural world do not have any justification, if a transcendental realm does not actually exist. If naturalism is true, the world is just a brute fact, without any cause or meaning, other than a meaning we make up for ourselves, which would be a subjective meaning, not an objective one. So in your worldview, you must either accept naturalism without any grounds, thus violating your principle of giving adequate grounds, or else you must refer to a non-naturalistic justification, in which case you violate your naturalism. In either case, your position is untenable.

This shows that naturalism itself is self-refuting: if it is true, there can be no reason to believe it. Any possible justification of naturalism would have to have a super-naturalistic origin, thus nullifying naturalism.

Therefore people are allowed to seek non-naturalistic grounds for their beliefs and theories, and they are allowed to believe some things without giving proof.

We have shown that if science is to be valid, then there must be at least some forms of knowledge that are “higher,” that is, more certain and more precise, than science. Furthermore, we have shown that all knowledge is based on propositions that are true, but are not proved, that is, they are either received directly by the mind, or are believed because the authority who provides them is trustworthy.

But how can this be, if naturalism is true? Naturalism (as a metaphysic) means by definition that nothing exists except physical entities and their properties. And epistemological naturalism means that all knowledge is obtained from the senses. But, for example, the laws of mathematics (which according to the foregoing analysis must be more certain than science and also known without proof) are clearly not physical entities, or their properties. And they are not proved by sense perception, because what we perceive with our senses is never exact, as mathematical entities are. The Pythagorean Theorem, for example, is never validated by any physically existing triangle; it is a statement about a universal class: all right triangles. How then can the Pythagorean Theorem exist, if naturalism is true? To understand this dilemma, consider the following thought experiment:

Even according to naturalism, it is possible that the human race is the only species in the entire universe that is intelligent enough to grasp mathematics. So according to naturalism, when we go extinct, and if no other intelligent species has evolved to take our place, then the Pythagorean Theorem will pass out of existence. But how can a non-physical entity “pass out of existence?” Does the fact that a treasure is buried at such-and such a location cease to exist when the last pirate to know its whereabouts dies? It is intuitively clear that the Pythagorean Theorem never passes out of existence, even if no mind exists to think it.

Naturalism fails to account for the existence of mathematics, which really exists. This is another proof that naturalism is false.

Finally, your worldview cannot account for morality. Real morality consists in saying “you ought to do this” or “you ought not to do that,” but these “oughts” are not the type of entity that can evolve, via Darwinism or otherwise. Darwinism at most can explain why people behave as they do (I don’t think it can even explain that), but it can never prove that they ought to behave as they do. Without this “ought-ness,” this “incumbency,” morality becomes meaningless as a guide to life, and any assertion that you ought to do X is meaningless in your worldview. At most, you can only say “If you want Y, then you ought to do X,” but this still leaves unanswered the question “Why should I want Y?”

For example, naturalistic ethics (in its currently popular form) declares that we ought to do what we can to alleviate poverty, but it can give no reason why we ought to care about poor people whom we don’t know and who have no impact on our lives. At most, your worldview says “If you want the entire human race to flourish, then you ought to care about improving the lives of the poor,” but you cannot prove that one ought to want the entire human race to flourish. What would you say to all the misanthropes of the world? You ultimately have no argument why they ought to care, so if it is necessary for them to act as if they care, you will have to use force.

Some naturalists try to dodge this problem by admitting that morality can be objective, and that we can know it by intuition, not by testing it scientifically. But where then do these “oughts” come from? In the naturalistic worldview, they simply exist without any origin or reference to anything beyond themselves. But such morality is not really morality, because if a moral precept does not originate from a legitimate authority (which would have to be a person), there’s no reason why we have to obey it, in which case it is not really morality. To understand this point more clearly, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine an archaeological dig that has uncovered an ancient city, and suppose the archaeologists have uncovered a tablet saying “No chariots allowed on this street, by order of the king!” Question: is it still true, in the year 2007, that chariots are not allowed on the street? Clearly no, because the authority who issued that rule, and backed it up, no longer exists. It is no longer the case that chariots are not allowed on that street. If there is no personal authority to back it up (to “ground it”), a moral rule is null and void. If morality is to exist objectively, there must be an authority who grounds it.

The scientific method cannot ground, that is, prove the objective truth of, morality, because morality (the sum total of all valid “oughts”) does not consist of physical objects or properties thereof. Therefore, a “scientific” morality cannot be an improvement over the “spiritualist-paranormal” ethics you decry. On the other hand, the biblical view of ethics makes sense: if a legitimate authority says you ought to do it, it is objectively true that you ought to do it. This view of ethics at least has a chance of being valid, whereas your view fails radically.

Furthermore, if our intuition tells us that some acts are objectively wrong, and are not just declared so by a consensus of society, then we must identify the cause of objective morality. This cause, whatever it is, must be non-naturalistic, which is more evidence that naturalism is false.

In conclusion, if you want to be rational, you will have to abandon your claims about science, and admit that non-scientific knowledge can be just as valid as, if not more valid than, science. You will also have to admit that all our knowledge is based ultimately on believing propositions that are not proved but are grasped directly, or are believed because of the trustworthiness of the authority, and not because of “adequate [naturalistic] grounds.” Finally, you will also have to admit that with a purely naturalistic worldview, you cannot create a society that understands and respects morality, because you cannot explain the evident existence of objective moral principles.

In short, naturalism cannot account for the most basic facts of reality.

Therefore, if you want to be rational, you will have to be some sort of “supernaturalist” or, as it is usually called, theist. Non-natural entities can exist, so you should examine the evidence to see which form of theism is the most likely to be true.

Of course, the real issue here is atheism. You believe there is no God, and so you want a comprehensive system of thought and social organization premised on atheism. Fair enough, but it isn’t going to be as intellectually easy to create as you seem to think. You will have to declare, arbitrarily, certain ways of thinking to be invalid, namely those ways of thinking that cannot be proved by reference to only naturalism. But then John Q. Public will rightly suspect that you are trying to pull the wool over his eyes, and he’s not going to take it.

Alan Roebuck

- end of initial entry -

Vishal M. writes:

Currently I am reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity—a wonderful book. He derives existance of God from morality and makes the argument that the “oughts” can not evolve.

I think more attention needs to be given to this. I am not yet convinced of this argument. When C.S. Lewis wrote the theory of evolution was still not perfected (logic-wise). The thoery has been improved by Wilson (evolution of alturism in social insects and of kin selection in all organisms).

I know Dawkins is now a militant atheist and thus more or less crazy but his older books are models of clarity and contain good ideas.

We need clear arguments about evolution of conscience. Merely saying “oughts” can not come from evolution does not cut it.

Paul Henri writes:

Although a thoughtful article, it relies on a useless word, real. If there are real cats sitting on my guitar, there must be unreal cats capable of sitting on my guitar. Logic is important, but I am not sure philosophy is important. It poses questions that are grammatical yet nonsensical. The article has a lot of ideas, but it does not develop them, prove them.

LA writes:
I agree with Mr. Roebuck’s overall position that the truths of science depend on non-naturalistic realities the existence of which cannot be proven in a scientific sense. However, I think his statement that the laws of mathematics are known without proof but only by intuition needs to be explained more clearly, especially as this is one of the key bases of the rest of his article. I can see that basic statements such as two plus two equals four can’t be proved, they just are. However, as I remember from my 10th grade Geometry class, the propositions of geometry are very much a matter of demonstration and proof. At the same time, of course, Mr. Roebuck is entirely correct when he writes: “Naturalism fails to account for the existence of mathematics, which really exists. This is another proof that naturalism is false.”

In fact, this reminds me of my recent discovery of a simple, absolute proof that there is a higher intelligence creating the universe. I haven’t written it up yet, but it’s very brief and I will write it and post it soon.

Vishal M. writes:

Currently I am reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity—a wonderful book. He derives the existence of God from morality and makes the argument that the “oughts” cannot evolve.

I think more attention needs to be given to this. I am not yet convinced of this argument. When C.S. Lewis wrote, the theory of evolution was still not perfected, logic-wise. The theory has been improved by Wilson (evolution of altruism in social insects and of kin selection in all organisms).

I know Dawkins is now a militant atheist and thus more or less crazy but his older books are models of clarity and contain good ideas.

We need clear arguments about evolution of conscience. Merely saying that “oughts” cannot come from evolution does not cut it.

Alan Roebuck writes:

Thanks for your attention to my arguments. Here are a couple of quick points, which I will try to amplify later:

The Center for inquiry does indeed discuss morality, here. This is necessary for their enterprise, because immorality is probably the most common charge made against atheists, who are accordingly eager to demonstrate that man can be moral without God.

Also, my claim about mathematics is that the fundamental axioms, the basic propositions upon which all else is based, are known without proof. Once these truths are known, the other truths can indeed be proved.

As for the “No chariots allowed” argument, I am trying to make the point that morality cannot be simply an impersonal fact, like the laws of physics. It has a personal component, in that it must issue from one person and be intended for another person.

Mr. Roebuch continues:

A couple of readers have said, in effect, “Not buying it. Need more details.” But I indicated in my introduction to the letter that this was not intended as anywhere near comprehensive. I was only trying to introduce some important points, and perhaps awaken some intuitions in the reader. I will, however, respond to some of the specific objections.

Paul Henri said that philosophy is not useful here. Well, there’s philosophy, and there’s philosophy. If we mean by the word “What the professional philosophers say and so”, then it may well be largely useless to John Q. Public. But philosophy properly denotes the study and knowledge of the most important intellectual issues: what is real, what is knowledge, etc. Philosophy in this sense is everybody’s business, and used properly it can help shed light on the topic at hand.

And what does Paul mean by saying that my use of the word “real” is not useful?

For Vishal M., and others, here’s a simple argument that consciousness cannot evolve, ie, be created or develop, via Darwinism. I heard it from Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher at Notre Dame, and a Christian. I do not know if he originated it:

Imagine a rabbit which, when it sees a fox, forms the belief (to the extent that “belief formation” is possible in animals) that the fox is a good partner for mating. Imagine further that the rabbit responds to this belief by immediately running away as fast as possible and hiding.

According to Darwinism, this would be an evolutionarily advantageous state of affairs; it helps ensure the survival of the rabbit. And we can also imagine that the rabbit, when it sees a real mating partner, does not form the belief that this is a good mating partner, and responds to this inaccurate belief by attempting to mate with the other rabbit. This would also be evolutionarily advantageous.

[LA adds: I’m lost.] The point is that Darwinism operates in a purely physical manner, and so under Darwinism, there is no necessary connection between thought and reality. Thus, under Darwinism, there is no reason to believe that our beliefs are actually true.

And it also shows that consciousness, which is analogous to a central processing unit located between sense perceptions and actions, is not necessary if Darwinism is true. All that Darwinism needs is perception causing action.

This also shows that morality cannot evolve via Darwinism. Only behavior can evolve via Darwinism, not actual moral imperatives.

About the “no chariots” argument: I was trying to awaken a moral intuition in the reader, rather than give an irrefutable argument. And although you are apparently not familiar with it, this line of reasoning is indeed part of the discussion of morality, at least in some circles. Since you are not convinced, let me try again:

It seems to me that a traffic regulation differs in degree rather than in kind from, for example, the moral principle that Hitler was wrong to kill the Jews. “No parking on this street” may originate from a tyrant’s whim, whereas, “No genocide” originates from a more authoritative Authority, but they are the same kind of thing.

Because if they are not the same kind of thing, we have to ask: what is the source of our belief that mass murder is wrong? It seems to me that there are only four possibilities:

1) There is no source. It’s just there, somehow. (To paraphrase Ayn Rand’s way of dismissing this kind of thinking.)

2) It has a source which is impersonal, such as the source of the Grand Canyon

3) It has a personal source, namely man: for example, we recognize that it is beneficial to refrain from murder.

4) It has a transcendental Personal Source, Who is the ultimate moral authority. That is, the Authority introduces us to morality, and enforces it.

1) is clearly inadequate; being analogous to the atheist’s claim that the big bang had no cause, it just happened.

2) is an improvement, but it fails to recognize that moral principles are clearly intended for personal beings who have the capability of choosing their behavior. And how can the impersonal have authority over the personal? If scrabble tiles are tossed on the ground randomly and they happen to spell out “don’t go”, am I obligated to not go? Obviously not!

At this point, we may be looking at an issue that cannot be explained further, but can only be grasped by intuition: personal beings can only be guided by precepts originating from another personal being. Of course, to the atheist there is no clear-cut difference between personal and impersonal: a man is just a more complicated version of a bacterium, and a bacterium is just a more complicated version of a bucket of chemicals, and thus he fails to recognize the truth of my assertion.

3) is even better, but it presupposes that the standard for determining what is “beneficial” for society has been clearly established. Hitler says that eliminating Jews is beneficial, and Auster disagrees. But if there is no Higher Authority to resolve the dispute, then it is just a matter of who is physically stronger. This may seem distasteful: Mass murder just seems wrong, and apparently that’s all there is to it. But saying “that’s all there is to it” is really a reversion to (non) explanation 1) above.

Therefore the most satisfactory explanation of the source of morality is God. More specifically, God is a person telling another person what to do. Or, to put it in a way appropriate to my letter, the atheist’s explanation of morality’s source is radically inadequate; with no personal God, it can only be 1 or 2 above.

Maureen C. writes:

Alan Roebuck clearly demolishes the widespread assumption that “scientific” knowledge is superior to other kinds of knowledge. Scientific “knowledge” is based on the same kind of mental “faiths” that science snootily attributes solely to religion.

Now, how would Alan discriminate between two dueling moralities both claiming justification by “authority” and “a priori recognition of truth”? In other words, if Alan has tackled a definition of the mental postulates required to demonstrate that one moral system is superior to another (e.g., Christianity to Islam, etc), I’d like to read it. Or, in regards to the claims of religions, are we bound in a completely subjective world that reduces all arguments to simplistic “dueling” presumptions.

An observation on the essay: It would be helpful if Alan defined what he means by the term “naturalism” earlier rather than later in the essay.

Paul Henri writes:

Totally incomprehensible is most of Mr. Roebuck’s excessively long discourse. Real has no meaning in a philosophical discourse although it does in common discussion for the reason that should be readily apparent from my example. Mr. Roebuck fails to realize this is a symptom of the illness that Ludwig Von Wittgenstein tried to teach; philosophy is an illness from which philosophers should be cured. There are unreal cats is as meaningless as there are ten angels on the head of a pin.

Please Mr. Roebuck, continue contributing here despite irritants such as I. It is not that you lack the knowledge and intellect, it is that you do not articulate it in a way most of us with less knowledge can comprehend. Moreover, be brief and you will gain legions of followers.

Alan Roebuck writes:

Maureen C. wrote:

Alan Roebuck clearly demolishes the widespread assumption that “scientific” knowledge is superior to other kinds of knowledge.

Now, how would Alan discriminate between two dueling moralities both claiming justification by “authority” and “a priori recognition of truth”?

Maureen, thank you for your kind words about my essay. As for your question, my argument only shows that there are some objectively true moral truths, that they are known fundamentally by intuition, and that they must originate in a transcendental Person. This is enough to show the falsity of naturalism, which means it is possible that a God exists, and therefore we ought to examine the evidence in favor of God fairly, and not dismiss it, as many atheists do.

To know which of a group of competing moral systems is the most correct is an entirely different enterprise. Furthermore, even if you know that the moral system based on the Bible is the correct one, this does not mean that you always know the right thing to do in any situation, nor that you always do it!

Also, just because the most basic principles of morality cannot be proved (because the demand that everything be proved produces an infinite regression that leaves us knowing nothing), that does not mean that all moral principles must be intuited. In somewhat the same way as mathematicians start with unproven axioms and then use them to prove other propositions called “theorems,” we can prove many moral principles.

Perhaps “prove” is not the best word. We can subject them to analysis, rather than just obeying them for no reason other than we trust our intuition or the Source of morality. For example, although social utility cannot be the ultimate basis of morality, it is a relevant criterion for deciding in many cases.

The simplest way to know that Biblical ethics is the best ethical system is to know that what the Bible says about God is true. Therefore, since God is the Supreme Being, those who disagree with him are wrong.

In case someone is thinking it, we are beginning to impinge here on what is sometimes called “Euthryphro’s dilemma,” named after the Platonic dialog in which the idea first appeared in Western literature. Are God’s moral commandments in accordance with some authority higher even than God, in which case God is not really sovereign, or could God have chosen to make, for example, murder morally acceptable, in which case morality becomes the meaningless whim of a cosmic Tyrant?

The resolution of the dilemma is to realize that there is a third alternative: God’s moral commandments are expressions of His nature, His being. As such, they are not forced on Him by a higher authority, nor are they just His whims, subject to revocation at any time.

The phrase “expressions of his being” is not just highfalutin” nonsense. Consider a tiger: he hunts and kills as an expression of his being. Nobody is forcing him to do it, and he didn’t just happen to choose to hunt and kill today, but tomorrow he’ll eat fruits and vegetables. No, hunting and killing are expressions of his being. That’s what tigers are.

Alan Roebuck writes:

Paul Henri wrote: “…you do not articulate it in a way most of us with less knowledge can comprehend. Moreover, be brief and you will gain legions of followers.”

My essay is designed to penetrate the armor of the intellectually sophisticated atheist. Ya gotta speak their language. But in case you’re not just being ironic, here’s something less sophisticated:

According to materialism, consciousness does not exist, because it is not matter. And some materialists actually say they believe consciousness does not exist. But Paul, isn’t the fact that your consciousness (you know, the thing you don’t have when you are sleeping and not dreaming) does exist the most obvious fact in the world? Therefore materialism is false.

LA replies:

Mr. Henri was not being ironic, and I think Mr. Roebuck’s reply is an example of the briefer kind of anti-atheistic argument that Mr. Henri was hoping to see.

Alan Roebuck writes:

I see that I need to clarify Plantinga’s “rabbit and fox” example. I think that this is the source of the confusion: the rabbit does form the belief that the fox is a suitable mating partner. But as long as his physical response to this false belief is to correctly run away, the Darwinian mechanism works! False beliefs, accompanied by true actions, still ensure “survival of the fittest”, if not “survival of the truest mental states.”

If it sounds wildly implausible that the rabbit would form such a false belief, and respond to it with another error that cancels out the first, understand that according to Darwinism, everything about life evolves: individual organisms, species, minds, consciousness, ideas, etc. Nothing has a nature that remains the same over time, and there is nothing that was predestined to occur. If we were to somehow recreate the original conditions, then the new results would be radically different from the results we just happen to see now. Under Darwinism, the bottom line is physical utility, not beliefs that faithfully correspond to an objectively existing reality.

So consider: if, although it sounds bizarre, a rabbit were to form the belief that a fox really is a good mating partner, and if it were to react to this belief by running away, then Darwinism would work out just fine. Under Darwinism, there is no necessary correspondence between thoughts and reality. All that Darwinism needs is that the physical behavior of an organism be physically advantageous, so that it can survive and reproduce.

And in my second example, the rabbit, when he sees a real mating partner, forms the belief that, let us say, he is seeing a dangerous predator. But as long as he responds to this false belief by attempting to mate, Darwinism works.

If, under Darwinism, consciousness can be so radically out of correspondence with reality, then under Darwinism, consciousness is not necessary.

Here are some more thoughts addressed to Paul Henri and, through him, to others:

You said:

Real has no meaning in a philosophical discourse although it does in common discussion…Mr. Roebuck fails to realize this is a symptom of the illness that Ludwig Von Wittgenstein tried to teach; philosophy is an illness from which philosophers should be cured.


I am not sure philosophy is important. It poses questions that are grammatical yet nonsensical. The article has a lot of ideas, but it does not develop them, prove them.

and also

…you do not articulate [your ideas] in a way most of us with less knowledge can comprehend. Moreover, be brief and you will gain legions of followers.

You seem to be making two basic points:

Philosophy cannot provide us with knowledge.

Roebuck’s essay against atheism fails to prove its assertions.

Consider your claim that philosophy is useless here. How do you know? Since you have said that you have difficulty following my arguments, isn’t it possible that my arguments actually do prove that materialism is false? When someone makes an argument, you cannot simply say “since I’m not convinced, the argument is useless.” You have to provide justification for your assertion.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh. Perhaps you are just saying “Help! Give me give me an argument I can follow!” Fair enough. Not everybody is a rationalistic atheist who is familiar with science and philosophy and who believes that theism has been proved to be absurd. There is a place for simpler proofs, which simply point to what everybody knows by intuition. And I have provided one, posted above.

But taken at face value, your words are a slander of philosophy. Yes, there is much nonsense uttered by philosophers, but that is because philosophy, like every noble calling, has been corrupted by liberalism. Don’t confuse the nihilistic pessimism that necessarily accompanies the loss of belief in God with the proper business of philosophy, which is to think clearly about the most important things, and sometimes to draw true conclusions. If you cannot prove that philosophy is useless, then perhaps you are mistaken, and it is not useless.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 11, 2007 02:31 PM | Send

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