A brief refutation of materialist atheism
Dear materialist atheists:
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While some of you, including some who participate at VFR, are content to allow us theists be theists, others (such as Mr. D. Sanchez in his final comment to Mr. Auster in a thread last December that was recently summarized here), claim that theists are irrational for believing in God, and therefore, at least by implication, a menace. I have no desire to be insulting, but the gravity of the issue, and your aggressive promoting of your atheism, require a strong and direct response. Actually, it is you who are irrational, believing things for which there is no good evidence. In fact, your way of thinking fails on its own terms, so you cannot dismiss me as just another irrational theist.
That is, you clearly believe that only matter exists, and that all knowledge comes through the senses. (For example, Mr. Sanchez said “And of course, once you jettison the evidence of the senses its deuces wild.”) But it is obviously false to say that all knowledge comes through the senses. Consider:
Therefore at least some things can be known non-empirically (i.e., not through sense data.) That being so, you cannot just dismiss the evidence for God as being non-empirical. You will have to investigate it, to see if it is valid non-empirical evidence.
- You do not know what you are thinking right now from your senses. To be consistent with your worldview, therefore, you would have to maintain that you do not know what you are thinking.
- You do not know that murder is wrong with your senses. All your senses tell you is that when person A stabs or shoots person B, person B stops breathing and eventually assumes room temperature. Sense data never validates the belief that actions are right or wrong. To be consistent, you will have to reject the view that morality is real knowledge, in which case it is no more than opinion.
- You do not know that the Pythagorean Theorem is true with your senses. Your senses only provide you with knowledge of specific marks on specific pieces of paper, but the Pythagorean Theorem, and the other truths of mathematics, deal with universal and ideal objects. Using sense perception, all you can know is that every specific triangle you have ever measured has satisfied the equation a^2+b^2=c^2, within the limits of your measuring device, but you can never know that all right triangles satisfy this relation exactly. To be consistent, you would have to give up all mathematical knowledge, as well as all knowledge of logic.
Furthermore, your belief that only the physical really exists is also illogical. Consider:
According to the science that you undoubtedly believe to be the highest authority, all matter, energy, space and time came into existence in the Big Bang. Therefore, according to the best scientific evidence, “before” the Big Bang, there was no matter, no energy, no space and no time.
But according to your position that the physical is all that exists, matter, energy, space and time are the only things that can exist. And therefore, if you are to be consistent with your philosophical system, you will have to believe that “before” the Big Bang, there was absolute nothingness, which somehow “caused” the Big Bang.” This is the ultimate in irrationality.
And you cannot escape your irrationality by appealing to the current scientific theories that postulate the existence of a higher-dimensional realm, existing prior to the Big Bang, which served as the non-theistic cause of it. There is no empirical evidence for these theories, and according to your way of thinking, only empirical data counts. To be consistent with your premises, you are required to believe that absolute nothingness “caused” the cosmos.
There are many other reasons why your worldview, which is basically the same as what the philosophers call “naturalism,” is irrational. For example, if non-physical entities really existed, they would not be detectable with your senses, but you believe that you are justified in dismissing the supernatural because you have not detected it with your senses. You are like a blind man who does not believe in color because he cannot detect it with his other four senses, which is absurd.
(Note that I said “color,” which is a subjective mental state, not “light,” which is a physical phenomenon that could, in principle, be validated by other senses, if we develop instruments that report light in a non-visual way. Color will never be detected by the other senses.)
Furthermore, if it were really true that only knowledge which is based on sense data were valid, then this doctrine of knowledge itself, which cannot be validated only with sense data, would have to be rejected. Naturalism is self-refuting, i.e., necessarily false.
If, therefore, you are as rational as you claim to be, you will adjust your way of thinking, and admit that some sort of supernatural world must exist. And then you can begin to correctly interpret the evidence for God, instead of falsely dismissing it because of your false worldview.
Sean McLaughlin writes:
Your correspondent’s summary of the anti-empiricist case goes the long way around to say, “Empiricism is necessarily false because it cannot be proved empirically.” I have always thought that this argument is so final and unanswerable that there is little else to be said on the matter—though much else can be said, and often is. I really have no idea why people persist in clinging to materialism, especially mathematics enthusiasts like John Derbyshire, but cling they do.
Mark K. writes:
In the thread “A brief refutation of materialist atheism,” Alan demonstrates the inconsistencies in materialist logic. However is the real issue the irrationality of materialistic thinking? In considering what the apostle Paul said in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, the problem is not logic and rationality. People are actively suppressing the truth even as they know what it is:
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them.:
The truth is actually manifest in them; they have been shown the truth:
“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
These things are “clearly seen” not ambiguous or cloudy or incomprehensible. So they are without excuse.
Not only are their postions inexcusable, but they professing to be wise are actually fools:
“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”
They have become active conspirators against the truth by trandforming it into a set of lies:
“Who changed the truth of God into a lie.”
The real issue is not a materialist’s lack of logic but his instinct to pervert the truth. As the first chapter of Romans shows, the perversion of truth becomes the perversion of morals. God “has given them over to a reprobate mind” precisely because they have refused to honor the truth itself. Are we fooling ourselves in believing that this is strictly an issue of logic? Paul doesn’t hesitate to specify that an illogical mind is an immoral mind that both phenomona stem from an instinct to actively suppress the truth. It is not that they don’t recognize the truth—it is that they go out of their way to disparage it. That is why we have this militant atheism and perhaps the time has come to undress it and show its naked immorality.
But Mark K. is assuming that all non-theistic thinking proceeds from rebellion against the truth. Not necessarily so. Take the average modern European, growing up in an environment in which non-theism is simply assumed to be true. He may not have explored the issue much himself. He may be simply accepting the environment in which he lives and its typical thought patterns, which say that belief in God is irrational, and non-belief rational. For such a person, simply realizing that there are reasonable reasons to believe in God, and that many of the anti-theistic arguments are not reasonable, could be exactly what he needs to hear, rather than Pauline sermons.
James M. writes:
Alan Roebuck is setting up straw men a la C.S. Lewis in Miracles, which is well-written but poorly argued.
“That is, you clearly believe that only matter exists, and that all knowledge comes through the senses.”
Pi exists and isn’t material; knowledge of pi does not come through the senses. There’s no irrationality in materialist atheists believing those things. Lewis would claim that reason is supernatural, but supernaturalism doesn’t escape the problems of naturalism: it increases them. The supernatural is more “material” than the material, because it’s eternal and unchanging, and you still have to have a mechanism whereby reasoning is carried out. It is the mechanism, rather than its physical or superphysical structure, that is important (provided the structure is robust and realiable enough). I’m agnostic rather than atheist, but one reason I think theists are irrational is that you give more certainty to your claims than they warrant and you contradict each other about fundamentals. There is no objective way of settling a theological argument but force, as history proves over and over again. It seems ludicrous to me to see Christians despising Muslims for beliefs that the Christians too would hold if they’d been born into the same environment. And vice versa.
You’re going way off the rails of what is a straightforward point. Making comparisons of Roebuck’s position with Islam and theistic tyranny and all that is wildly off the mark.
All Roebuck is saying is that thought, consciousness, is not material and is not an object of the senses. Therefore the position that only the material exists is demonstrated as false.
James M. writes:
“You’re going way off the rails of what is a straightforward point. Leaping into comparisons of Roebuck’s position with with Islam and theistic tyranny and all that is wildly off the mark.”
But the rationality of supernaturalism and theism vs the irrationality of materialism and atheism is part of his argument. Supernaturalism and theism aren’t rational or theists wouldn’t behave the way they do and would have some objective means of settling their disagreements—other than force.
“All Roebuck is saying is that thought, consciousness, is not material and is not an object of the senses. Therefore the position that only the material exists is demonstrated as false.”
What does “material” mean? Are energy and light material? An idea or a concept is not material, but it can be known only when embodied in something material—or supermaterial, for theists. God knows all the digits of pi in some way, embodying them by some means more “material” than our matter, seeing that it is eternal and unchanging.
James M. says:
“Supernaturalism and theism aren’t rational or theists wouldn’t behave the way they do and would have some objective means of settling their disagreements—other than force.”
It’s very curious. In one of P.D. Ouspensky’s books, I think it was Tertium Organum, he starts off by saying that we begin by knowing that two things exist: the world around us, and our own consciousness. Now that seems like a rational statement in line of actual human experience.
But the materialist atheists say otherwise. They say that we begin by knowing one thing: the existence of the world. They deny that human consciousness and thought are real. So their position is a radical attack on experienced human reality right from the start.
This is why it’s curious that James M. thinks that Mr. Roebuck is somehow aiming to force his theistic beliefs on non-believers. James seems not to have noticed that throughout the 20th century, it has been atheists who mass murdered religious people. He seems not to have noticed that today the EU is seeking to define anti-Darwinians as enemies of society. He seems not to have noticed that we have a slew of aggressively atheist authors trying to drive religious belief out of society by declaring religion per se to be “poison.” We have commenter D. Sanchez, after I engaged in a civilized, polite discussion with him, quoting an Ayn Rand passage portraying me as an enemy of existence.
James M. seems somehow to have missed all that. At the same time, because Alan Roebuck simply countered D. Sanchez by saying that it is theism that is rational and anti-theism that is irrational, James M. concludes that theists seek to impose their beliefs on non-believers by force.
Furthermore, let us note that today’s tyrannical atheists have gone their Communist predecessors one better. The Communists sought to suppress and eliminate belief in God. Today’s atheist materialists seek to suppress and eliminate belief in human consciousness itself.
Mark K. writes:
LA says: “For such a person, simply realizing that there are reasonable reasons to believe in God, and that many of the anti-theistic arguments are not reasonable, could be exactly what he needs to hear.”
Paul states that people have been given the knowledge of God from the beginning. They are not lacking it in themselves. God has shown himself “in them.” That is why they are without excuse. So there really is not this mythical creature that has not “heard” the truth—they all know it as condition of being. The case is not that it is yet to be manifested; it has already been manifested in their being and in their conscience.
If the presuppositional approach is valid, has it worked thus far? Francis Schaeffer engendered Mr. Roebuck’s approach 40 years ago and what have been the results thus far? Both Europe and North America have gone even further away from the truth. This distancing from the truth is not the result of a lack of rational knowledge of the truth, but a movement to suppress it. If the case is that the truth needs to be more widely disseminated, then confronting the liberal world is merely a technical problem to be resolved by a more even distribution of the truth. But Paul doesn’t consider the lack of truth to be an aspect of distribution and dissemination. If that were the case, why not discourse and dialogue with every possible group in society (e.g. Muslims)?
I have friends in Europe and their young people, raised in atheistic homes, do not listen to the truth innocently with open ears. They sneer at it with snide remarks. As a young Dane told me, “You people are laughable when you try to be rational given your beliefs.”
Mark K. continues:
LA says: “Furthermore, let us note that today’s tyrannical atheists have gone their Communist predecessors one better. The Communists sought to suppress and eliminate belief in God. Today’s atheist materialists seek to suppress and eliminate belief in human consciousness itself.”
Isn’t this rather Pauline language—“sought to suppress,” “seek to suppress,” and “eliminate belief in … “—turning the issue into precisely what the apostle was describing?
Mark K. is making a powerful argument. The issue between him and Mr. Roebuck is not one that I have thought about before, as Mr. Roebuck’s presuppositional approach is new to me and it makes sense to me too. I never thought of it in these terms before, but it seems to me that Mark’s view—which is St. Paul’s view—has always been basically my own, and I’ve stated it many times in a variety of ways. I think that there is a primary experience of divine reality which is available to all human beings. I don’t mean necessarily a completely developed religious belief. I mean the experience that there is “something” there and that the world comes from it. It used to be the case that even people who were not specifically religious would say that they believed in some higher force. Whether it’s the God of the Bible, or the divine as understood in non-Western religoins, or a non-theistic sense of “something” higher, this is the primary experience that I’m talking about. What I’m saying is somewhat different from St. Paul as he thought the primary experience was of the God of the Bible. I’m being more latudinarian than he about the nature of the primary experience, but I still believe in its existence. Further, Paul said that this experience was natural to man and that anyone who did not have this experience was suppressing it. I don’t know that that’s true. I think it may be the case that some people simply do not have any experience like this. Mark would probably disagree and say, with St. Paul, that such people are blocking what they really know to be true.
Certainly there are people who have the experience and deny it. Here’s an example I’ve given before. An atheist right-wing philosopher of my acquaintance once told me that when one of his sons was a baby, he was looking at his son play with a toy, and suddenly it seemed to him that the whole universe had come into being in order for that child to be sitting there playing with that toy. My acquaintance caught himself having this theistic experience, and immediately rationalized it by saying that Darwinian evolution had planted such thoughts in him to make him love his child.
So, there is a human being having an experience that the divine exists, and deliberately canceling that experience and subsuming it under an absurd materialist reductionist theory, which says that belief in God is the product of a godless, mindless universe.
And this seems to exemplify St. Paul’s understanding of the psychology of non-believers. The error my aquaintance made did not come from mistaken reasoning; it came, rather, from a conscious will to deny that God exists, which required that he close off his own experience, that he deny his own experience and interpret it as an illusory mental product of random mutations, which, though illusory, had improved the reproductive chances of its possessors and so had been passed down to him.
His problem was not faulty logic. His problem was a determined will to deny God and to deny any experience within himself that might lead him in the direction of belief in God.
But here’s another example. There is the reader who recently told me that he has been a non-believer all his life, and that when he read my “statue of Zeus” illustration in my discussion with D. Sanchez (that when we look at a statue of Zeus, we know for an absolute fact and without any further explanations that the statue was created by a sculptor) had made him think for the first time that maybe God exists. Now, was my statue argument an example of Roebuck-type apologetics, leading a person toward the truth by logic, or was it something more primary, awakening an intuition that maybe God exists? I don’t know the answer. I’ll be interested to hear what Mark K. and Mr. Roebuck have to say.
Patrick H. writes:
Materialism is indeed irrational, as Alan Roebuck pointed out. Materialism cannot give an intelligible account of consciousness. It cannot even give an intelligible account of itself; more properly it cannot even begin to give an intelligible account. If materialism is true, then “materialism” itself must be material. If so, then we should be able to give an intelligible account of it in the same kind of language we use when we describe matter. So: how much does “materialism” weigh? How long is it? Exactly where in space is it located? If it is located in brains, then if every brain that houses materialist “thoughts” were annihilated, does “materialism” disappear? After all, it is no longer physically embodied. Was “materialism” true before there were brains to think it? If “materialism” persisted after the end of humanity, say as words in a book, would “materialism” therefore still exist? After all, it continues to be physically embodied. And how much would it weigh then? The weight of the book? The weight only of the specific pages on which it is written? Or just the weight of the ink? And speaking of the ink, can we say that this book-embodied “materialism” has a colour—the colour of the ink on the pages where it is written down?
The problem with materialism is that is a form of radical skepticism, which denies the validity of the only means by which it could meaningfully describe itself. It is utterly and immediately self-refuting, and need not detain rational thinkers, theistic or otherwise, since by its own admission, it doesn’t even exist. I am not entirely sorry to say that when James M. tries to save materialism by admitting the existence of such non-material realities as pi, he is merely practicing the materialist version of what you call the “unprincipled exception” (forgive me!).
James M2 writes:
James M. writes: “Supernaturalism and theism aren’t rational or theists wouldn’t behave the way they do and would have some objective means of settling their disagreements—other than force.”
I interpreted James M. to be speaking of disagreements amongst the various religions, not disagreements between the theists and materialists.
In positing that rationality would allow the various religions to work out their differences, I think he is falling into a trap of religious egalitarianism. In other words, he is saying that if theism were rational, all theists could utilize their rationality to hash out squabbles as opposed to fighting. This is obviously false since it’s impossible to use one system of logic to simultaneously rationalize multiple religions to be true. One has to be correct and the others wrong, and therefore all the theists of the world can’t be expected to communicate using the same logic.
Interesting. James M2’s interepretation might be correct. I thought that James M. was saying that theists use force against non-theists because that’s James M.’s context: He was combining his (a) criticism that theists say atheism is irrational with (b) his idea that theism uses force. So naturally I assumed he was speaking of how theists treat non-theists.
But if James M. (as James M2 believes) was speaking about relations between different religions, well, James M2 is correct that all serious religious are ultimately incompatible with each other, because each represents a unique approach to the divine and as such cannot be simply open to other approaches. Pluralism—including the possibility of violence—is built into the structure of things.
At the same time, that doesn’t prove that the various belief systems are irrational. Even if from God’s point of view truth is absolutely one, the moment that human beings, with their particular mental constitutions and cultures, try to understand truth, they will understand it in accord with their mental constitutions and cultures. So it’s the very nature of religions that they are deeply incommensurable with each other. That doesn’t mean that truth is not ultimately objective and one. It’s just an inevitable consquence of human difference. And that’s what the story of Babel is about. It is God’s purpose that men live in different nations scattered over the earth, speaking different languages, having different cultures and mental constitutions, and, therefore, at least during this stage of human development (which maybe simply means the period following the Fall), having different understandings of God.
John D. writes:
“What I’m saying is somewhat different from St. Paul as he thought the primary experience was of the God of the Bible. I’m being more latitudinarian than he about the nature of the primary experience, but I still believe in its existence. Further, Paul said that this experience was natural to man and that anyone who did not have this experience was suppressing it. I don’t know that that’s true. I think it may be the case that some people simply do not have any experience like this. Mark would probably disagree and say, with St. Paul, that such people are blocking what they really know to be true.”In several years of reading your writings, this is the first instance that I have observed any particular one of your thoughts or statements to be contrary to the Word of God as written in the Bible or at minimum, to question the Truth as written in the living Word. Actually, it seems that you are refuting what has been written by the statement you made here. You have really caught me off-guard. Could I possibly be misinterpreting what you have said here?
My gosh, I didn’t realize that everything Paul said is included in the Nicene Creed as a basic statement of Christian truth requiring absolute agreement from all Christians.
In the famous passage from Romans Chapter One (which I quote below from the King James Version), Paul is not just saying that the invisible reality of the transcendent God can be seen and understood from the visible creation. He’s saying that all men who have ever lived from the beginning of time should have seen and understood the invisible reality of God from the visible creation, and that all men who have ever lived who have not seen and understood God in this way are without excuse.
Here it is in the King James Version:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.The idea that the truth has been known from the beginning is somewhat ambiguous above, as the phrase, “from the creation of the world,” could be read as modifying “the invisible things of him” rather than “are clearly seen.” The ambiguity is removed in the Revised Standard Version:
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.Now the problem with this, as I see it, is that it seems to be saying that in all the eons and cultures BEFORE the Hebraic revelation of the God of Genesis, the God beyond the cosmos who created the cosmos, men should have seen this God, and they are without excuse for not having seen him. But we know (Paul did not know) that for thousands of years before God revealed himself to the Hebrews and Genesis was written, all human cultures believed in gods who were part of the cosmos and nature, rather than in a transcendent God. All cultures that have ever existed have believed in the divine, but they saw the divine as part of nature and the cosmos; they had not had the Hebraic revelation of the transcendent God. The Hebrews had that understanding of God because of God revealed himself to them.
So Paul is saying that the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, and before them, all the humans who lived in hunter gatherer clans for a hundred thousand years that Paul did not know about, should have seen the transcendent God of Genesis and are sinners without excuse because they did not see him.
So it seems to me that Paul’s statement only makes complete sense within an understanding of human history as delineated by Genesis itself. That is, the transcendent God created man, and was in direct communication with him, but then man immediately began to sin and separate himself from God, and so quickly brought on the terrible results summed up in Romans Chapter One. Paul is thinking within Biblical time. In Biblical time, the first thing that happens is God’s creation of the world and God’s creation of man as a being in perfect relationship with God, quickly followed by man’s initial disobedience of God and then all his other sinning behavior further separating himself from God as told in Genesis. For Paul, whose historical framework is Biblical history, the very first man knew the transcendent God, and all the men since then who fail to know him, fail to know him because they are in a state of sinful rebellion. But we know that there were cultures and tribes for 100,000 years before Genesis was written that knew nothing of the transcendent God. So can we reasonably say that all those people who lived pre-Hebraic revelation should have known the transcendent God and are without excuse for not knowing him?
So this is why I say that the common or primary experience of mankind throughout the ages and in all cultures is that there is “something” there, though the true nature of that something—namely, the God who created the heaven and the earth—was not revealed until Genesis.
Here is the KJ version of the passage:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
John D. writes:
Thanks for your reply.
Your reiteration only addresses the first half of the statement I quoted. It is mainly the latter part of it that prompted me to write you. You say:
“Further, Paul said that this experience was natural to man and that anyone who did not have this experience was suppressing it. I don’t know that that’s true. I think it may be the case that some people simply do not have any experience like this.”
If what you have said here is true, “that some people simply do not have any experience like this,” then what Paul said in passage 19-20:
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse,”
would be false in regards to “some people.” If that were the case then we are beholden to, and worship an unjust god. How could it be otherwise?
John D. is correct that I failed to address his point. In attempting to address it, let me restrate it in somewhat different language. St. Paul is saying that to deny God’s self-evident existence is a sin. I had suggested that it didn’t seem to me that that was necessarily the case, since some people simply don’t have any experience that God exists, therefore they are not deliberated rejecting God and therefore are not sinning. So the substantive question here is whether atheism is a sin.
Here are a few quotes I’ve found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and elsewhere:
From the above statements, I stand corrected. Atheism is a sin. To state the issue in terms of the first chapter of Romans: God exists, the proofs of his existence are everywhere, God wants us to believe in him, and our failure to do so, even if not willful but due to a misunderstanding or a simple failure to see what’s there, is a sin, meaning that one is missing the mark.
- Atheism: The denial in theory and/or practice that God exists. Atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion required by the first commandment of the law.
- Para 2125 of Catechism: Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances.
- The root meaning of the English word sin is actually, “He is guilty as charged.” This in turn implies that the person committing the offense knew, or ought to have known, that his act would be an offense before he committed it. This word actually captures the meaning that many religious traditions ascribe to sin.
The Greek word used in the original New Testament and translated “sin” in English is hamartia. This word captures the Christian meaning of sin much better. Hamartia means missing a target. Thus sin does not require bad intentions, but might result from a misunderstanding. This is not to say that the consequences are any less dire, however. It does mean that sin need not be intentional; it can be a knowing (but not intentional), reckless, or negligent act.
To assure non-believing VFR readers that they are not being singled out here, I would only add that many believers, who are not committing the sin of atheism, are committing a lot of other sins.
You said that the atheist philosopher’s reaction to his religious (or proto-religious) experience was based on “a conscious will to deny that God exists.” That’s possible, of course, but the way you presented the story, it made it seem as if the mere fact that he rationalized his experience in a way that was consistent with atheism showed that it was, in effect, wishful thinking (a will to deny the truth). Couldn’t it be, instead, that the atheist philosopher has other beliefs that imply that there is no God, and which seem to him very well warranted? If so, it would rational for him to explain away the anomalous experience in a way that was consistent with atheism. His will would play no role.
In the same way, a theist might have bleak moments when it seems to him that there is no God—the world can certainly seem that way too, at times—and he might explain those experiences away as, say, a test of faith. That could be rational too, given a different set of background beliefs.
This brings me to what I think is a deeper question. Since it is possible, obviously, to have both of those kinds of experiences—an experience of purpose and transcendence, or of bleak nothingness—how could either theism or atheism be rational in any ultimate sense? The mere fact that one has a certain experience is not enough to make either position rational, since the way that the experience is interpreted depends on prior beliefs about the universe. But what about those prior beliefs? How can we decide whether they are rational? They can’t be rational in light of those experiences, since both kinds of experiences can be very powerful and overwhelming, and both are open to different interpretations.
Of course, if theism is true, the religious experience would be “primary.” But here we’re asking how we can know that it’s true, and the experience doesn’t seem to decide that question. The only option, then, would seem to be that some argument can convince us of theism, and so convince us to interpret our experiences in a religious way. But as you’ve said, arguments alone just don’t seem to be enough to convince people of these things. (They probably aren’t enough to convince people of atheism either, of course.) So my question is this. I think it may be rational in a limited sense to interpret experiences either religiously or atheistically, depending on one’s prior beliefs about the world. But is there any more ultimate sense in which it’s rational to have one set of beliefs rather than the other, interpret experience in one way rather than the other? It seems to me that without some answer to that question the appeal to religious experience doesn’t add anything to the case for theism or against atheism. It shows that individual theists may be quite rational, in a way that dogmatic atheists haven’t considered. But it doesn’t show that, objectively speaking, theism is a rational position to hold, or more rational than atheism. In the end, does this issue just come down to psychological differences between people, and nothing particularly rational?
Julien’s first question is: couldn’t it be the case that the atheist philosopher was merely explaining away his anomalous experience of a divine purpose behind the universe in a way that was consistent with atheism, which he believes is true, and therefore he’s not consciously denying that God exists?
I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, for the atheist philosopher to have a new experience, a new kind of insight, that opened up a new way of seeing things, and then immediately rationalize it away by a bizarre and counter-intuitive rationalization (he had these weird thoughts because of evolution!), is not the sign of a person who is open to truth and is pursuing truth. Second, as seen in the above discussion of atheism as sin, the reality is that God exists, that he fills the world with undeniable evidence of his existence, that he wants us to believe in him, and therefore to fail to believe in him, whether through a deliberate act or an unintentional failure of understanding, is a sin. Therefore to have a new experience in one’s life suggesting that God exists, and not even to have an open attitude toward it, but immediately to deny one’s own experience and turn it into its opposite by saying it’s really the result of random mutations that occurred in one’s distant ancestors, amounts to a deliberate rejection of something that may well be a reflection of the truth. It is an active sin of commission, not a passive sin of misunderstanding or of failure to see.
On Julien’s second, more difficult question, if Julien is suggesting that the ultimate affirmations of truth and value by an individual or a society cannot be based on rationality in the sense of discursive logical reasoning, I would agree with that. However, such affirmation are based on what we could call intuitive reason or noesis, the immediate apprehension of first principles.
What, after all, is the archetypal original act of moral affirmation? It was when God looked on the creation that he had created:
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.
Did God justify his judgment of the goodness of light by a verbal, discursive process? No, he immediately apprehended the nature of light and saw that it was good.
Now suppose that someone came along and said that the light was bad: could God persuade him through a verbal process that it was otherwise? I doubt it. Since the goodness of light is self-evident, to say that light is bad represents such a willful rejection of reality that it cannot be overcome by argument.
Now perhaps it might be said that my example is too easy. After all, who would question the value of light? So let’s not use the example of the value of a thing that no one questions, but of the existence of a thing that some people do question. The material atheists deny not just the existence of God but of human consciousness. They tell us our consciousness is nothing but an epiphenomenon of electrical impulses. To this, we answer, based on our own immediate apprehension of existence, that we know that our consciousness exists and that the materialists are wrong.
Similarly, non-material reality, even God, exists. The existence of non-material reality is not just an opinion perceived by minds constituted one way and not perceived by minds constituted a different way. So it is not true that there are no ultimate truths to which we can appeal.
Which, of course, is not the same as saying that all men agree to those truths.
Patrick H. writes:
In response to Julien, while it is possible to have an experience that God exists, it is not possible to have an experience that God does not exist. Atheism cannot claim any experience in its favour because it is a negation, nothing more. An experience of a nothing is a nothing, and a nothing cannot be evidence for any conclusion at all. Atheism stands or falls on the merit of its arguments alone.
As an aside, you are correct in identifying intuition (intellectus, nous) as the faculty by which humanity perceives the truths of spirit. The Intellect is not only the faculty of spiritual apprehension, its intuitions are necessary even to begin to use reason or to think and act ethically. Hence the denial of reason, of morality, and of beauty by the young Danes referred to by Mark. They must deny these things in the world because they deny the very part of themselves that could recognize and respond to them. Atheists like Mark’s young Danes do not deny God so much as they deny Man. In that sense, it is their anthropology, not their theology, that is at fault.
Brandon F. writes (March 10):
You mentioned Paul’s sometimes difficult style:
“Also it’s much more direct and less convoluted than many of his writings, and thus readily understandable even in the King James Version.”
I received some consolation reading that because I have thought the same thing at times. I came across this passage this morning and thought it could possibly shine a light on his intent. I would appreciate your opinion on this. Today is the first day of Lent for all Orthodox Christians.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” Corinthians Chapter 1 verse 17.
Yes, Paul acknowledged that he was not exactly the clearest of writers. St. Peter also remarks on how difficult the Letter to the Romans is to understand.
As for the meaning of the passage you quote, maybe he means that if he were too eloquent, if he explained the crucifixion in beautiful words, those words would replace the primal spiritual impact of the crucifixion, which each person must experience on his own, not through a neat or eloquent explanation.
Could he mean that trying to convey the meaning of the Cross through human eloquence, like Greek philosophy, would not suffice or be subject to a rationalistic cross examination? By using some sort of syllogism or dialectic the message would be subject to syllogism or dialectic?
Yes, I think you’re right, in fact I think Paul himself makes that argument at some point.
“… rationalistic cross examination”
Alan Roebuck writes (posted March 12):
I have some responses to this excellent discussion.
James M. makes an accusation that’s common among atheists: “There is no objective way of settling a theological argument but force, as history proves over and over again.” and “Supernaturalism and theism aren’t rational or theists wouldn’t behave the way they do and would have some objective means of settling their disagreements—other than force.”
And therefore, says the atheist, since theism allegedly leads to irreconcilable conflict, we need to stick to a strictly materialistic way of thinking, at least when we are dealing with public policy (as opposed to private beliefs.)
But this position is nonsense: For one thing, what he’s really saying is, “If everybody agreed with me, then there would be no disagreements,” which is vacuous. And if our publicly authoritative philosophical system is to be based on materialistic atheism, then there will be no objective way to answer the most important questions of life: What does my life mean? or What is moral and what is immoral? or Is there a God who has authority over me? and so on. None of these questions can be answered within James M.’s way of thinking, and so any society based on atheism will have to answer these questions arbitrarily. And therefore there will be no objective means of settling disagreements—other than force.
Mark K. expressed doubts about the effectiveness of my presuppositional approach, so an overview of that approach is needed:
A presuppositional argument is only needed when you are opposing an atheist who is explicitly committed to his naturalistic worldview. For such a one, who is actively suppressing the truth, and for the onlookers who are trying to decide which side makes the more persuasive case, a presuppositional argument is needed: How do you know that the criteria by which you reject God are valid criteria?
At this point, Julien’s question becomes relevant:
I think it may be rational in a limited sense to interpret experiences either religiously or atheistically, depending on one’s prior beliefs about the world. But is there any more ultimate sense in which it’s rational to have one set of beliefs rather than the other, interpret experience in one way rather than the other? It seems to me that without some answer to that question the appeal to religious experience doesn’t add anything to the case for theism or against atheism.
Julien is referring to the theme of my essay “How to Respond to a Supercilious Atheist”: all formal reasoning takes place within a specific system of thought, based ultimately on certain presuppositions, but how do we test such a system? How can we test whether “it’s rational to have one set of beliefs rather than the other.”?
Presuppositional apologetics answers this question: By examining the consistency (logical and otherwise) of the worldview. (For more details, see the essay linked above.) But for people who are not bedeviled by a false worldview, we can say: Pay attention to your intuitions, and what they obviously imply. In that sense, I agree with your response to Julien.
For those who are open to the possibility of the transcendental being real, such an argument will not be necessary, except perhaps as an inoculation against the seductive thinking of the materialists, who offer a world more easy to explain. For such people, we give the basic argument for God, which is that without a God, we cannot plausibly account for certain aspects of reality that we all know or sense: consciousness, moral laws, laws of mathematics and logic, the fact that the cosmos is not eternal, the design of life, and so on.
To answer your question about the VFR reader who was induced by your statue argument to consider theism as a real possibility: I would say that your argument was a successful appeal to intuition, rather than a logical argument. But many suppress the intuition because of their false worldview, so we need a weapon designed to defeat the worldview.
One last point. Mark K. said:
“If the presuppositional approach is valid, has it worked thus far? Francis Schaeffer engendered Mr. Roebuck’s approach 40 years ago and what have been the results thus far? Both Europe and North America have gone even further away from the truth. This distancing from the truth is not the result of a lack of rational knowledge of the truth, but a movement to suppress it.”
True, but to counter this movement of suppression, our only weapon is rational argumentation against the materialistic worldview that validates the suppression. And since the materialistic Emperor has no clothes, we can make progress if we press the issue.
Alan Roebuck writes:
“Without a God, we cannot plausibly account for certain aspects of reality that we all know…”
This is very useful. We know that Darwinists and materialists come up with no end of accounts for those pesky non-material aspects of reality such as consciousness and morality; the problem is that none of these accounts is remotely plausible. God’s creation of man in his image and likeness is a plausible explanation for the existence of a moral sense in man. A bird having a chance random genetic mutation that made it emit a warning call at the approach of a predator that saved its fellow birds even as the bird who made the warning was killed, and so the trait of self-sacrificing altruism was naturally selected in that bird species because the birds that were saved were relatives of the bird that died and shared its mutation, is NOT a plausible explanation for a altruism in birds. Nor are similar scenarios plausible when it comes to the existence of the moral sense in man.
But the people such as Richard Dawkins who put forrth such scenarios, and demand that we believe them, never rest. For Dawkins, the willingness to believe scenarios that are not remotely plausible is proof of one’s hard-headedness, because it is only by adhering to such totally implausible scenarios that one can stave off the totally unacceptable possibility that God exists. Just as Nietzsche turned reality on its head and said that man becomes superman by saying “YES!” to an eternally recurring universe of horror and godless meaninglessness, Dawkins turns reality on its head and says that man attains true intellectual manhood by saying “I BELIEVE!” to an endless series of totally unbelievable Darwinian scenarios.
Tim W. writes:
Just offering a bit of agreement with Alan Roebuck. It seems ridiculous to argue that the only way to settle theological disputes is by force when the primary method of advancing secularism is, in fact, force. There’s an enormous double standard on political issues involving such matters as abortion and homosexuality which demonstrates the point. We’re told that we can’t restrict abortion or homosexual conduct because to do so would “legislate morality,” and we can’t do that unless there’s a near universal consensus for the restriction (as there is on banning bank robbery, for example).
Yet, no one demands that secularist or materialist type people obtain a near universal consensus before legislating their values. It’s never suggested, for example, that we can’t change the 5,000 year old definition of marriage unless and until 98 percent of the people agree to do so. Instead, it’s considered perfectly legitimate to use raw judicial power to force that change on society, even if the vast majority of the people don’t agree. It’s then considered legitimate to force landlords, business owners, private clubs, and any number of others to conform to the new paradigm.
This same pattern exists on any issue touching on morality in any way. Only the theistic side of the debate is expected to obtain consensus. The materialist side simply takes it as a given that they possess the right to force their agenda on the public, which perhaps explains the totalitarian nature of materialistic regimes, including the Orwellian EU.
I realize this goes off-topic a bit to discuss real world political issues, but I think it demonstrates the fallacy of arguing that materialist ideas are somehow less dependent on force than theistic ones The idea that they aren’t is a conceit comparable to the materialists’ ego-boosting description of themselves as “freethinkers.”
Sage McLaughlin writes:
Re: Tim W’s comment about “the materialists’ ego-boosting description of themselves as ‘freethinkers,’” I recall a comment by (who else) G.K. Chesterton. He said that for all their self-flattery and pretensions to intellectual curiosity, in actual fact, the reverse is the case. Materialism is a mental prison which simply annihilates—without sound justification—whole swaths of human experience and entire realms of thought upon which a sane and tolerable life depends. He remarked that the phrase “free thought,” when used by the materialist, refers in fact to something else altogether—the impossibility of miracles, denial of the transcendent, and so forth, none of those ideas being particularly liberating. The materialist disbelieves in the Incarnation because his system of thought disallows the possibility—he is not permitted to believe, and moreover, he is not permitted even to consider the possibility. His materialism does not somehow permit or enable or free him to dissent from religious belief—it instead prohibits him from assent. In fact the world of the materialist is small, uninteresting, and bound by immutable laws which can only be understood by a relatively tiny expert class, who must depend upon a severely truncated range of sensory experiences to determine What Is Truth. We, in Richard Dawkins’ ideal world, are free only to accept their report of What Is Truth entirely and without reservation, even if it should contradict our daily experience of life, lest we be branded enemies of reason. This is freedom?
My own movement away from a strict materialism to traditionalist Catholicism has been the most freeing experience of my life. I have found that my mind has expanded to include whole realms of thought and experience from which I was hitherto completely barred by the unyielding laws and ruthless reductionism of modern empiricism. When I discovered that God has revealed himself to Man, my mental universe did not suddenly shrink—it broadened and became expansive, and dazzlingly so. I am now free to believe, free to accept the existence of a transcendent Author. That I should be freer were I compelled to reject him only because other men do not find him useful for the investigation of such trifles as rocks and black holes, I find absurd.
“His materialism does not somehow permit or enable or free him to dissent from religious belief—it instead prohibits him from assent.”
Excellent. And this indeed is the thought process that one sees over and over in the writings of today’s aggressive materialists. God or any non-material reality (such as Mind) cannot be true, period. Therefore any evidence or thought or argument that leads in that direction is ipso facto false, and must be denied, and the opposite must be true. The guiding principle for these thinkers is not “What is true,” but “What validates the non-existence of God.”
LA to Alan Roebuck:
Confession: The main problem I have is with the term “presuppositional apologetics.” it’s too fancy for me. It doesn’t convey any concrete meaning to me.
Alan Roebuck to LA:
The admittedly non-euphonious phrase “presuppositional apologetics” basically means “the discipline of refuting false premises.” Or, to expand a bit, “the theory and practice of refuting false and generally unacknowledged premises.”
Hey, that’s what I do all the time!
I’m like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain finding out that I’ve been speaking prose.
Mark K. writes:
Concerning the use of presuppositional apologetics in responding to materialist atheism, let me assure Alan Roebuck that I am a fan of Francis Schaeffer (in fact I have all of his books on CD and have read them three times over) and would recommend that conservative apologists read his short work “Escape From Reason.” The reason that I mentioned the ineffectiveness of this approach is that in my estimation a line has been crossed in thge past decade. This line now demarcates an area of active hostility (e.g. Dawkins and Hitchens) from neutral agnosticism. In Europe, there no longer remains a position of objectivity with respect to transcendental truth (witness the efforts of government through the European Community to impose Darwinism on schools and categorize Intelligent Design as a socially inimical ideology). Even scientists such as Hawking vociferously emphasize the atheistic aspects of cosmology.
In such a situation, rational discourse through presuppositional apologetics may be just as effective as the tepid conservativism that continually yields to liberalism … an inch, then a foot, thereafter a yard, and eventually a mile. When Anthony Flew announced his acceptance of theism, the European response was not to initiate a reasonable dialogue with him but an all out personal attack on the stability of his mind.
At some point, this hostility towards the truth is at bottom a hostility towards God (not just the church or its representatives). The harsh rhetoric against transcendental truth and the calculated attempt to eradicate it in European schools leads me to believe that this has become a war against God. Therefore Paul’s concept that human beings don’t simply misunderstand the truth (or m iss it)—they actively go out of their way to suppress—seems to me to characterize today’s environment. Home schooling is coming under a furious legal assault in Europe because those families attempt to teach a Christian world view. This is no longer a rational discourse when the might of government is brought to bear upon families.
Mr. Auster or Mr. Roebuck say that we can appeal to a kind of intuitive reason to show the superior rationality of theism: “pay attention to your intuitions, and what they obviously imply”. But while some experiences or “intuitions” seem to reveal order and meaning in the world, others seem to reveal chaos and meaninglessness. How do we know which to pay attention to? A person experiencing seemingly pointless evil, in a children’s cancer ward, for example, might argue in the same way for atheism: “Just look at how horrible and unjust this is; it’s obvious that God wouldn’t allow this”. Why is that less rational than the theist who, for whatever reason, is more impressed by the good aspects of reality and takes those to show that God does exist?
This is why I don’t understand Mr. Roebuck’s appeal to consistency. Theism is consistent with certain experiences and (apparent) facts, and inconsistent with others. The same is true of atheism. Neither world view, as held by mortals, at least, is perfectly internally consistent or perfectly consistent with all pre-theoretical experiences and beliefs. So if we are going to say that theism is, overall, the more “consistent” view of things, we need some basis for deciding which experiences and facts are to be taken seriously, and which apparent inconsistencies can be reasonably ignored. But that’s just what we don’t have, because experience itself is open to incompatible interpretations, and an appeal to either of the rival views would beg the question.
James M. writes:
“And therefore, says the atheist, since theism allegedly leads to irreconcilable conflict, we need to stick to a strictly materialistic way of thinking, at least when we are dealing with public policy (as opposed to private beliefs.)
“But this position is nonsense.”
No, I don’t say that. Morality isn’t materialistic and I see no objective way of deciding it, within theism or outside. I find torture and execution by burning morally repugnant, but if I’d been born in medieval Europe I’d no doubt have accepted them as perfectly fair. So would Mr. Roebuck if he’d been born then. In other words, there is no objective way of saying that torture and burning people alive are wrong. I wish there were. There isn’t.
“For one thing, what he’s really saying is, ‘If everybody agreed with me, then there would be no disagreements,’ which is vacuous.”
No, what’s he really saying is that he has no objective way of proving his theological beliefs or disproving anyone else’s. That’s why he’s agnostic rather than atheist. Faith—irrational certainty about inherently subjective things—is what drove Communism, but if Communism killed more people than Christianity in the twentieth century, that’s because Communism was revolutionary rather than conservative and had better technology at its disposal.
“And if our publicly authoritative philosophical system is to be based on materialistic atheism, then there will be no objective way to answer the most important questions of life: What does my life mean? or What is moral and what is immoral? or Is there a God who has authority over me? and so on. None of these questions can be answered within James M.’s way of thinking, and so any society based on atheism will have to answer these questions arbitrarily. And therefore there will be no objective means of settling disagreements—other than force.”
Yes, because there is no objective way of settling any of those questions. If Mr Roebuck claims to have one, he is wrong. Morality and theology are not mathematics. That’s why my primary concerns for public policy are practical rather than ideological. I think society should be, as far as possible, racially and religiously homogenous, which is one reason I oppose mass immigration. Checks and balances within the organs of the state are also very important. I don’t believe literally in the Fall, but I don’t think you need to: man’s propensity to evil is obvious. Religion can in some instances exacerbate it and I agree with Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Richard Dawkins would no doubt agree with Pascal too, failing to see that he has religious convictions of his own. I would not like to see either him or a dogmatic theist deciding state policy: the Founding Fathers seem much closer to my ideal, at least in a new state.
This extraordinary thread has reached the maximum size for a VFR entry. Alan Roebuck has a reply to three recent comments. His comment is posted here.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 08, 2008 12:01 PM | Send