Monday, April 22, 2013

Mere Atheism; Or, You Can’t Justify Your Teapot.

There is a scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 where the Chaplin is being interrogated about the theft of Major Major’s correspondence and is asked by a C.I.D. officer about his religious persuasion.  The Chaplin declares himself an Anabaptist, which the officer finds a little suspicious: “Chaplin, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question. Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?”

The Chaplin protests, but the officer pushes the point “are you a Baptist?”, “no sir”, “than you are not a Baptist, aren’t you?” Defined by an absence of belief, the C.I.D. officer credits the Chaplin with certain malicious actions against the war effort.  Atheists often find themselves in a similar situation to the Chaplin, defined by an absence of belief. Theists and religious apologists infer ex nihlo that atheists hold a series of positive beliefs that have no necessary connection to the position of atheism, often the notion that “something came from nothing” or that in the absence of god “anything is permissible”. 

Atheism is not a cosmology, it entails no necessary belief that something came from nothing, that the universe is undergoing an endless oscillation between cosmic inflation and cosmic implosion, or any particular cosmological theory. Nietzsche thought morality was a shadow play of  the master’s will to power and the slave’ resentment; whilst the Utilitarians hold that morality is a hedonic calculus in which right and wrong are determined by the utility of an actions consequences.  Atheism implies no ethical theory except the rejection of divine command theory.  Atheism is not a worldview; atheism is a position on a single issue: atheos – no god.     

There are atheists that hold that ‘god’ is a ‘failed hypothesis’ which can be demonstrated through an absence of the evidence to be expected in a designed universe or certain logical conundrums like the paradox of omnipotence, yet, the minimum requirement is a lack of belief in the existence of god or gods. This lack of belief is often arrived at through an application of the principle of parsimony and the inability of theists to mount convincing arguments or produce evidence in favour of god’s existence. This definition of atheism is sometimes thought to be a more appropriate definition of agnosticism, even Dawkins admits that he is technically an agnostic; but the use of the latter term creates a false equivalence between belief and non-belief, which belies the importance of the principle of parsimony and obscures the burden of proof.

The principle of parsimony is derived from a maxim attributed to William of Occam that states “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”, which is often taken to mean that between two accounts with equal explanatory power the simpler explanation should be preferred. “Occam’s razor”   carves away unnecessary propositions and provided the first steps towards modern theories of knowledge and the scientific method that later flourished in the Age of Enlightenment. It should be remembered that the Enlightenment’s motto, according to Immanuel Kant, was “sapere aude!” (dare to know!), which he described as a process of “freeing oneself from self-incurred tutelages” and having the courage to use one’s own intelligence in the face of official pieties and doctrines. Not least of which were the pieties and doctrines of the Church that stood in the way of Galileo and Darwin’s insights into the place of human beings in the universe – neither at its centre, nor atop a great chain of being.  Applied to the question of god’s supposed existence, if the principle of parsimony is accepted, it follows that a god’s existence should not be postulated unless compelling theistic arguments can be mounted to establish god’s necessity or explanatory power. 

Nevertheless, theists often try and shirk this responsibility and shift the burden of proof onto non-believers by maintaining that god’s existence is self-evidently true. Bertrand Russell, in Is There a God?, illustrated this common presuppositional fallacy with the analogy of a celestial teapot:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”
Without evidence of a celestial teapot, there is no reason to postulate its existence – aside from the didactic value it proffers in demonstrating the inanity of religious apologists who attempt to evade the burden of justifying their own beliefs.  It often appears that god’s existence is something of a special case; as if the standards of logic and justification that govern secular discussions are abrogated in favour of those who believe without evidence. But there is no reason why this should be the case. In fact, it violates the principle of parsimony that is accepted in most areas of investigation and discussion. Without evidence of god there is no reason to suppose its existence. Deductive arguments for the necessity of god’s existence tend to resolve into special pleading or question begging. Even if the deductive arguments held water, purely logical arguments are insufficient to prove the existence of a god-like entity: it is an empirical question that can’t be solved by the hand waving of theologians. In the end, there are atheists because theists can’t justify their teapot. 

Written by Mathew Toll.


Anonymous said...

Very well put!

Mathew Toll said...

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it.

There are arguments against Russell's teapot analogy that I could have engaged with or gone through why exactly I don't find Thomas Aquinas or Saint Anselm's arguments for the existence of god convincing but I cut it short, unfortunately.

I'd have to do some reading again to engage with it again. I wrote this and then promptly stopped thinking about it. The problems and pleasures of secular existence are so much more interesting.