Atheist ‘Metaphysics’ and Religious Equivocation
The diagram represents the “Knowledge Paradigm” of science. It says simply and visually:
We have a very limited scope of knowledge. Everything we do know about our universe, we have learned through the scientific method. That which is outside our circle of knowledge, we seek to discover. We do not accept any new information about our universe into this circle of knowledge without sufficient evidence, and we only accept that evidence when instrumentation or multiple observers thoroughly corroborate it. In this manner, we seek to carefully and prudently expand the boundaries of our circle of understanding further into the great unknown. We accept that no matter how far we expand that boundary, there will always be much more to learn. Therefore we accept and make peace with the unknown, for it will always be with us.
As reasonable and sufficient as the Knowledge Paradigm sounds, there are those who insist that not only is this view wrong and arrogantly expressed, but that it represents a falsely all-encompassing and therefore unsupportable metaphysical position about the nature of reality. They refer to this Knowledge Paradigm as ‘scientism.’
If they’re really crafty, they’ll actually be able to cite some references to the philosophy of science, pointing out that disagreement remains as to the efficacy of the scientific method, especially with regard to the problems of induction and the limits of accuracy of human perception. If they’re really dodgy, they might try to deflect the discussion by bringing up an example of a negative result of the practice of science such as eugenics. But both objections are irrelevant to the question.
Other supposedly intellectual theists are not so cautious, engaging in overt presuppositionalism, circular reasoning, and a total lack of respect for evidence or logic. These theists are equally likely to routinely commit an equivocation containing the word metaphysics. For example:
“Your belief in no god is your particular brand of metaphysics. It takes just as much faith as a fundamentalist. You’ve have just flipped your belief system and your gods are the scientists. You have put your faith in science. You have no more evidence for your beliefs than we do.”
So far–five different words: “faith,” “god,” “evidence,” “beliefs,” and “metaphysics,” each used in the same discussion, each with two different meanings.
This subject has already been explored by other writers, who’ve posted lengthy rebuttals to this type of faulty logic. But I’ve had several instances come up in conversation or correspondence recently that prompted this post. Here are a few examples:
“Atheists keep telling me that there is no dogma and therefore no agenda to atheism, but if that is the case then why do these New Atheists seem so keen on pushing an anti-theism agenda? If it’s just the political stuff that bugs you, then why can’t you just fight the politics without having to convert everyone to your metaphysics?” –From comments by Mike C at Friendly Atheist
“I wont post again after this as, if it doesn’t open Black Sun’s heart, no amount of further posts will - arguing with naive-realists about metaphysics is fairly pointless, because they are completely blind to it. Succinctly put: Followers of Scientism believe that reality is essentialy dead matter that ‘accidently’ came alive and conscious, and started making observation statements about itself.” –Hasan Spiker, BSJ, deleted comment
Spiker is a particularly strident theist, steeped in Islamic mysticism, he is not content with a spirit-matter split. He contends that all of matter is unreal, with the spirit world (which no one can see) being the only reality. It’s easy to see how people move from this position of devaluing all matter to justifying things like suicide bombing as a response to nudity (previous post). But that’s a whole other discussion.
“And in this you are proclaiming “truth” standing on your own soapbox of fervent faith, no less rickety than that on which every fundamentalist Christian stands. The idea that consciousness ends at the death, you have no evidence of it, you know there is no evidence of it, yet you proclaim it as truth. This is your own brand of religious belief, founded on no less a blind faith than that which you ridicule in the fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, or what have you.” –Personal correspondence
This faith in science construction is one of the most pernicious and enduring forms of theistic equivocation. Let’s review: It’s self-evident that when I do a physics lab assignment and test out Newton’s laws, I don’t have to have faith. I make observations which either correspond with the laws or they don’t. If I’m unsure, I can ask someone else to observe with me. If we both find a discrepancy, either I made a mistake in my procedure, or I’ve discovered a new property of matter. The same can be said of those who will eventually work at the Large Hadron Collider or other science laboratories.
For a theist to claim that lab work requires faith in science is clear equivocation. At the risk of being highly tedious and pedantic, let me just reiterate what I mean: Faith in careful procedures and collection of evidence is not the same as faith in the resurrection of Jesus or in life after death (for which there can be no empirical evidence). But this equivocation comes up all the time. It’s part of the immune system of the theistic memeplex.
It’s an ironic argument, because the claim of the existence of an atheist metaphysics is itself based on an assumption that not only does empirical knowledge require faith, but it claims to explain everything. As you can see from the diagram above, it does exactly the opposite, leaving a potentially infinite space under the domain of the unknown. Theists and pundits try to turn this strength into a weakness, insisting because science doesn’t explain everything, it therefore explains nothing. Bill O’Reilly took this tack in an interview with Richard Dawkins a few months ago, asking him to explain the origins of the universe–to which Dawkins replied cheekily “we’re working on it.”
The next attack on the Knowledge Paradigm comes from relativism. Relativism, as I’ve said before, is the ocean in which all bad arguments swim. It’s the refuge of scoundrels. And it’s invoked in this debate as social constructivism chiefly by those who seek to justify their non-evidence-based belief systems through their popularity or efficacy. Or to claim things aren’t what an objective observer can see that they are.
An example of such constructivism is the “Courtier’s Defense:”
The Courtier’s Defense is the defense offered to help those who can’t “see” to understand that the Emperor IS, indeed, wearing clothes. We poor commoners may see only the Emperor’s underwear, but the courtier sees the Emperor’s “New Clothes” - the wonderful raiment, the capes, the jewelry, the crown. We see only the underwear or nakedness because we don’t have the vision (faith) to see what the courtiers see. The Emperor’s new clothes are invisible to us because we cannot see beyond physical reality, whereas the courtiers - who by their association with the king and their belief in the infallibility of his sense of reality - know better than the rest of us in assessing not only the existence of, but the very nature and appearance of the new clothes.
This type of thinking concentrates on the social results, comfort level or desirability of information rather than its truth-value. It thus immunizes non-rigorous minds against external challenges whose consequences they don’t wish to face (embarrassing the king, or being seen as a commoner). But this relativistic value-system falsely elevates personal interior subjectivity to an equal status with empirical inquiry.
This is no surprise. The dizzying pace of change can be painful, and we live in the midst of an explosion of knowledge which challenges our capacity to adapt. But clinging to outmoded certitudes and faulty worldviews imposes a heavy risk: not just to the individual, but to the effective functioning of representative democracy.
Back to the nature of the theistic claim: I posit that this equivocation comes from a deep-seated knowledge that their beliefs are not supportable. The emperor really isn’t wearing clothes, and they know it at some level. The part of their brain which normally would question such belief on insufficient evidence has, however, been shunted permanently into bypass mode. No one wants to feel deficient. So they play up the virtues of this “cognitive bypass” and call it “faith.” They’ve traded truth for comfort as a survival strategy which allows them to maintain the requisite levels of cognitive dissonance.
But they can’t completely shut down their critical thinking–which gives them a permanent inferiority complex, albeit at an unconscious level. Though they may have outer comfort, they still feel the sands shifting beneath their feet, because they know they can’t be sure they’ve chosen the ‘right’ belief system out of the countless thousands possible. The more time they have devoted to the system they chose, the more the bypassed critical thinking skills will have atrophied, and the more likely they are to defend their faith to the death. Knowing they suffer from this insurmountable uncertainty, they simply must attempt to level the playing field. (To do so, many have devoted lifetimes or built entire libraries of theological texts based on their presuppositionalism–essentially intellectual castles in the air.)
Rather than take the difficult and painstaking steps of learning to live within the confines of evidence-based knowledge, they attack its most basic value. They try to bring the discussion down to their level, where their preferences for softer ‘truths’ untethered to an unbending natural world can carry the day.
If you’re alive on Earth in 2007, chances are excellent you now embrace (or have at one time embraced) one of the superstitions in this diagram. You might even feel offended that I’ve included your pet superstion(s). (If it’s not on there, sorry, there’s just so much). Chances are also very good that you will have no problem dismissing about 90% of them as absolute nonsense. Good. You just made my point for me. Many other people will have no problem dismissing yours either.
Competing worldviews claim absolute knowledge of the principles of the universe–which they hold to be true at deeper levels “beyond” science–the levels of feelings or traditions. Many of these traditions claim to define not only the source and beginning of the universe, but its ultimate purpose. Others are simply untested or patently false claims of unproven phenomena. These unaccountable memes move around the collective human consciousness virtually unopposed. (Their virus-sheath disables critical thought). They’re initially guided by their handlers for reasons of power or prestige, aggregating in a free-floating and wide-ranging attack on rationality and often on each other. Once they achieve a certain autonomy and fixation in the population or institutions, they crowd tightly around the circle of human knowledge–trying to squeeze their way in. This creates confusion and uncertainty, threatening to collapse the circle entirely. Each superstition must accomplish two things:
- Subtly undermine the possibility of truths of greater value being found elsewhere
- Disavow the possibility of certainty of knowledge such that no belief remains able to strike a fatal blow at any other; Promote an ultimately self-interested ‘respect’ for other superstitions. “Many paths lead to the summit,” and other such aphorisms.
They especially must attack science, which they recognize as an ultimate threat, at the very least insisting on “non-overlapping magisteria.” We can therefore expect the superstitious to vigorously oppose scientific attempts to investigate their claims. To recap:
- Superstitions make unbounded and contradictory claims. Science tries to resolve conflicts and knows the boundaries of its knowledge.
- Superstitions would like to crowd each other out of the picture. Science only sees one picture.
- Superstitions make extremely specific claims about the nature of their gods (spirits, energy, law of attraction, etc.). Science does not claim anything about god or these other phenomena, other than to say it has failed to find evidence for their existence.
- Superstitions make assertions about the nature of consciousness as spirit, and that it precedes (or creates, or can change) matter. Science investigates methods of information storage and how consciousness arises as an emergent property of matter.
- Superstitions hold creation myths. Science pushes back the veil of time ever closer toward what seems like it might be the beginning (but we can’t be sure).
- Superstitions promote dualism (mind/body, spirit/matter). Science sees the entire universe or multiverse as a natural, potentially explorable whole.
- Superstitions deal in certainties. Science deals in probabilities, and aggressively pursues uncertainty.
With that background, we come full circle back to metaphysics and equivocation. A 1998 poll of scientists found that 72% do not believe in god, while 7% do. The rest are agnostic. So there are differences of opinion as to whether a scientific worldview excludes such a belief. But one thing is certain: the method does. The scientific method would have to find repeatable evidence from multiple sources which could be corroborated under laboratory conditions before it accepted the notion of a deity.
In his book Why God Won’t Go Away, Andrew Newberg throws away all his scientific training and gullibly accepts the testimony of laboratory meditators as providing sufficient evidence for the existence of an alternate reality–what he calls Absolute Unitary Being. But he’s definitely taken a position outside the method and outside the mainstream. What he observed was SPECT scans (showing blood flow and brain states) which gave some very interesting and potentially useful results. But then he made the mistake of extrapolating from these observations to speculate about a larger ontological reality. His ‘evidence’ consists of subjective experiential verbal reports from the meditators, which must wait for some kind of objective corroboration before being considered even remotely scientific.
This is the crux of the matter. Though atheists often speak forcefully about the lack of existence of a god or an afterlife, the truth is, we can affirm neither with certainty. Just to make sure you got that, I’m saying atheists cannot positively prove there is no god. What we can do is assert that there is a very low probability of such a construct. This is very important. Implicitly in conversation, when theists say “you can’t prove there’s no god,” they feel as if they’ve won a rhetorical victory and elevated the existence of god to an equal 50% probability: I hate to disappoint them.
Here’s how the probability calculation goes: Take every god ever written about or imagined by every human who’s ever lived. They’re all different, of course. Let’s give this an arbitrary value of one MILLION gods. Add a single digit to that million to represent the probability of “no god” existing. There you have it. 1:1,000,001 probability of anyone’s particular god existing for certain, or “no god” existing for certain. [Assuming that one and only one person in human history has discovered the exact and ontologically correct theology.] One in a million, or less. About the same as for the existence of Russell’s Teapot orbiting Mars, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
So it doesn’t make much sense to believe in things which cannot be falsified. Which brings us full circle to the need for positive proof, and why atheism, far from being metaphysical, is the default position. We just don’t have enough information. But we must learn to make peace with our level of ignorance. Filling the unknown universe full of concocted mental garbage (even if pleasant) does not make our lack of knowledge any less threatening. In fact, when people focus on the hocus-pocus, they decrease humanity’s chance of ever expanding their circle of knowledge to find out what’s really “out there.”
So the metaphysics we atheists are often accused of promoting concerns itself with cosmology. According to Wikipedia:
Cosmology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time. Historically, it has had quite a broad scope, and in many cases was founded in religion. The ancient Greeks did not draw a distinction between this use and their model for the cosmos. However, in modern use it addresses questions about the Universe which are beyond the scope of science.
Beyond the scope of science. Now go back to the beginning of the article and look at the diagram. The Knowledge Paradigm clearly shows awareness of its cosmological limitations, and does not comment on things outside the “circle of the known” unless the circle can be legitimately expanded through new observations or credible theories.
The Knowledge Paradigm places itself firmly within scope of science, and is therefore completely free from the trappings of metaphysics. It refrains from commenting on things outside of its scope, and therefore does not require any kind of faith or belief to operate. The only thing needed for science to successfully expand human knowledge is a strong and unwavering commitment to both skepticism and epistemic humility.