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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

God, gods ... and so-called atheists

This post is a continuation of a long-running discussion between 'Crude' and me (most recently in his post 'Gods, gods, God, god, aliens, agents, designers, and Designers') concerning the efficacy and/or thoroughness of my argument for God by disproof of the denial of God, on the grounds that the existence of human selves disproves the denial (which is sketched here). This is not to say that Gentle Reader's thoughtful comments are unwelcome in this thread.

On the "so-called atheists" of the title, I'll get to that. But, first (you know me), the immediate background.

In his post, 'Crude' said:
...Let's focus on the "naturalism" issue a bit more.

One of my favorite posts by the brilliant Ed Feser is The Trouble with William Paley. Probably one of his less favorite posts, since I've brought it up about ten times during my blog-via-comments phase (Thanks for that summary, Cogitator!). What I find remarkable about it is that Ed's view of "naturalism" seemingly could include lowercase-g gods without issue: Zeus, Thor, etc. Not the God of classical theism, but those "lesser" gods? Sure.

And I've found that many others, including naturalists, seem to take views similar to Ed's. Such that the idea of powerful beings from other planets seeding our planet with life is naturalism (otherwise Francis Crick wasn't a naturalist), just as our living in a simulation is naturalistic (otherwise Nick Bostrom, Sir Martin Rees, and others are flirting with or are committed to non-naturalism), etc. And frankly, once someone is talking about life on our planet, or our entire universe, being the result of an intentional act by a powerful being or beings... really, doesn't that sound like good ol' fashioned polytheism/supernaturalism to you?

Now, there's of course the standard reply. "But those are just powerful aliens! Not gods!" My response is, I fail to see a difference that matters. Ed does have a point that the God of classical theism is quite a different thing, drastically so, than Zeus. I would add that some other conceptions of God (Say, most versions of Brahman, or even Berkeley's God) are also damn different from Zeus. But how different is Zeus and the gods of Olympus from Nick Bostrom's programmer, or even Crick's seeding-the-universe-with-life society? Frankly, not too much. "Degree, not kind", as they say.

Of course, this wreaks havoc on some traditional thoughts about many things, history included. One of the supposed benefits of modern science is that it has aided in banishing superstition, which is of course associated with "supernaturalism". But suddenly that no longer seems to be the case. Take the typical example - "Lightning is caused by thunderbolts hurled by Thor!" But if Thor is a naturalistic being, then that was just a questionable naturalistic hypothesis. And having control over lightning can't itself be sufficient to call someone a supernatural being anyway, or else I just supplied pictorial evidence that the supernatural is real at the start of this post. ...
While I didn't mention it to 'Crude,' that would be one of my least favorite of Feser's posts (and an important reason I don't much read or post comments to his blog any more), because I don't think that he's being fair to the IDists ... or to Paley. For, among other things, he's faulting them for failing to accomplish what it is not even their intention to attempt to accomplish.

Commenting on 'Crude's' post (and making somewhat oblique reference to the on-going discussion/disagreement between us about my argument for God and against God-denial), I said:
It's not just that naturalism can, but that it *does* logically encompass most pagan pantheons.

Naturalism (and atheism) cannot rule out Zeus, or Thor, without ruling out humans on the same grounds. The point being that the grounds on which naturalism (and atheism) attempt to account for humans are the same grounds upon which the pagans accounted for their gods -- "They just happened, order out of chaos!"

Of course, naturalism (and atheism) rule out humans on other grounds.
It goes without saying that (at least) one of us is misunderstanding some critical point or points, and that we each are sure that it is the other who is misunderstanding. Perhaps, in this thread, we can work through some of that.

'Crude' replied:
Well, that's where things get messy. I agree that naturalism cannot rule out those things.

Atheism though? That's where I think things get confusing. And very interesting.

I'm happy to see someone else knows the origins of the greek pantheon ("Out of chaos!") and sees the connection between it and modern naturalism.
To the best of my knowledge and understanding, of all the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures and civilizations which are formative to present-day Western civilization -- Akkadian-Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Germanic-Norse -- only the ancient Hebrews understood that the Cosmos, and all the minds therein, is an effect of the self-existent God, rather than the minds of gods and men being effects of the Cosmos, which is itself an effect of a self-existent Chaos.

The cosmologies of the ancient paganisms *start* with a chaotic material world, which "just is," and which self-organizes itself into an ordered world, into which living organisms and/or minds "arise" ... some of whom are able to affect the Cosmos/Nature in ways humans (who come later) cannot; including, generally, having formed the first humans.

These ancient cosmologies are indistinguishable in kind from the modern naturalistic-and-atheistic cosmology. The main difference -- and it is a difference of focus (and/or sequence), not of kind -- is that for the paganisms, the first sapient minds which "arose" were those of deities of one sort or another, frequently the ancestors of the then-worshipped deities; but for modern naturalism, the first sapient minds which "arose" were those of our own species, or one biologically ancestral to us; or possibly space-aliens, who may or may not have caused our species to exist.

On the other hand, the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews (and their modern spiritual and intellectual heirs), starts with an immaterial Mind, a Person, who "just is," and who creates an ordered material world, including all living things, from nothing at all material, but rather from and by his own wisdom and will. And his love.

On a side note, in his book, 'A History of the Jews,' Paul Johnson claims that the ancient Greeks (of the Hellenistic period following the dissolution of Alexander's empire) hated the Jews with a passion; and that *that* is the source of the history of the anti-Semitism in various cultures of broad Western civilization.

Johnson doesn't say anything to this effect, but from the moment I read his claim, I became convinced that the reason the Hellenistic Greeks so hated the Jews -- I mean aside from their "stubborn" refusal to suborn their traditional culture to the conquering Hellenistic culture -- has to do with pique that going back for far more than a thousand years, the ancient Hebrew ancestors of the then-present-day Jews, even when they were just no-account desert nomads, knew and understood a fundamental truth about the nature of reality, which the finest minds of proud Greek culture were only just then coming to understand. It must really have torqued the Greek intelligentsia of the Roman period that the philosophers were never were able to convince Greek culture-at-large to accept the truth that there is One, transcendent, God -- and yet Jews! managed to do so.

I replied to 'Crude:'
I've mentioned that connection many times (no reason, of course, that you'd have known that I did).

Naturalism entails atheism ... and atheism implies naturalism. I think that's the best way of putting it. We've discussed this before, and I don't know what I could say that I haven't said before, that might help you see the point. Might it help in any way if I wrote a detailed post on the matter?
That (" ... and atheism implies naturalism.") is the point of disagreement or misunderstanding between the two of us.

'Crude' replied:
I'd welcome it. But before you do, let me explain where I'm coming from.

I think "naturalist" and "materialist" have in practice ceased to mean much of anything anymore. Materialism never really recovered from quantum physics and the discarding of that old "billiard ball" idea of matter, as near as I can tell. Chomsky (for a change) is right: Now anything that's discovered or is thought up to flesh out a theory, etc, is called "physical".

Naturalism is arguably in worse shape, since naturalists aren't even bound by that already ridiculous 'materialist' label. They can be full-blown dualists. They can believe in what in any other age would have been called deities. No one bats an eye or calls these things 'supernatural', because the explosion of the word 'natural' has made it certain that 'supernatural' has lost meaning as well.

These words are used, especially in popular conversation, more as flags. A naturalist and/or a materialist is on THIS side of the God/religion debate (Which inevitably is wrapped up in specific kinds of anti-theism), a person who believes in the supernatural (Again, inevitably specific religious faiths or even political positions) is on THAT side. Etc, etc.

I suspect the number of actual atheists, as well as naturalists or materialists in the ways necessary to fit what I take to be your view of them, are less numerous than one might think. I recall when you and I have spoken on such things in the past, you've argued (and I've agreed) that atheists are almost to a man radically inconsistent. I think the key difference between us is that you take this inconsistency to show that there are real atheists, but they lack either the intelligence or fortitude to face up to what their beliefs truly mean. I take it to show that their supposed 'atheism' is in large part an act, a put-on.

Think of it this way. If a man claims he hates McDonalds, yet he eats there fairly often, his eyes light up when he gets an angus burger, etc, you may point out how irrational and inconsistent he's being, and how his hatred for McDonalds would rationally entail certain acts or forbid others. My response would be, his claims aside... maybe he doesn't really hate McDonalds.


Crude said...


I've got nothing really to add here at the moment, given that you've already seen my reply and that was the last of our exchange. But I wanted to add a convenient reference.

The Maverick Philosopher (I know, you're not a fan) recently received an email from an atheist saying the following:

Your recent post discussing the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham and Isaac caught my interest. Having grown up in a religious home, I have always been of the opinion that arguments for theism argue for something different than what believers take themselves to believe in. After all, how many religious people take themselves to be praying to an unmoved mover or a-being-greater-than-which-cannot-be-conceived? For this reason, I have not felt that my atheism could be threatened by any of the arguments for theism, even if they turn out to be successful because they argue not for God but for God*.

I want to repeat what this man is saying: He's not threatened by any arguments for the existence of God*, because to establish the existence of God* (Whether Edward Feser's Pure Act, Craig's Personal First Cause, or dare I say it, the theistic God you speak of as necessary for reason) is not to establish the existence of God (As in, the specifically Christian deity). Therefore, his atheism is not threatened.

Marvel at that.

Ilíon said...

No marvel at all; I fully expect it.

And, this post (the OP, I mean) is far from complete, so naturally you have nothing yet to add.

Ilíon said...

I apologize for my procrastination, for that is what it is, in finishing the OP.

Crude said...

Take your time, these things are never urgent. I look forward to seeing it.