Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 27, 2008

Atheism, Science, and “Taking Things on Faith”

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

I get a little tired of atheists and scientific materialists claiming that they are more reasonable than theists (people who believe in God) because they “don’t take anything on faith.”

All belief systems rest on at least some unproven assumptions and on fundamental concepts that cannot be analyzed into simpler terms. Scientific materialism and atheism are no exception. The problem is not that theism rests on unproven assumptions and atheism doesn’t: both of them rest on unproven assumptions. Instead, the problem is that some of theism’s unproven assumptions contradict those of atheism. As a result, theism and atheism find it difficult to engage in productive debate because each rejects some of the central unproven and unprovable assumptions of the other. Because the assumptions are unproven, debate about them (on both sides) tends to degenerate into emotional appeals and sophistical preaching.

Moreover, we often fail to define what we mean by “theism” and “atheism.” That makes it difficult to argue clearly. Atheism simply means denying that God or gods exist. Everyone is an atheist with respect to some theologies: Christians, for example, deny the existence of Odin and Zeus, though Christian comic-book fans are ambivalent about the existence of Thor. But everyone is a theist in the more general sense of believing in transcendent principles.

Everyone believes, on faith, that there are principles transcending our day-to-day experience, such as the validity of induction and the uniformity of nature. Scientific materialists believe, on faith, that physical science can give a complete and accurate description of reality. As a consequence, they believe that reality is entirely physical. They believe that nothing exists except what can be investigated by traditional scientific methods.* However, there is no scientific way to validate such beliefs: they are articles of faith. When confronted by phenomena that seem to contradict their articles of faith, such as consciousness itself, scientific materialists either ignore the phenomena or dismiss them as somehow unreal. They argue, for example, that when we feel as if we are conscious of anything, it’s simply that our brains are deceiving us. The phrase “arrant nonsense” comes to mind, but perhaps that’s just my brain deceiving me.

It’s true that conventional logical arguments, even those offered by great thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, fail to prove conclusively the existence of God as defined in the Judeo-Christian sense. I would argue, however, that those arguments increase the plausibility of such a belief. For example, evidence that the universe is intelligently designed to support our kind of life is just that: evidence, not proof. If you’re inclined to believe in God, you’ll accept the evidence and conclude that the universe was intelligently designed by God. If you’re inclined to deny God’s existence, you’ll reject the evidence (by a straightforward application of modus tollens) and conclude that the universe was produced by random chance, or perhaps that it is just a very lucky case in an infinite number of universes (the “multiverse” hypothesis).

For me, belief in God hinges on whether or not one is willing to accept evidence that falls outside the traditional definition of “scientific,” that is, insights gained via meditation and other spiritual experiences. William Pepperell Montague, a philosopher at Columbia University, develops this insight very well in his book The Ways of Knowing. Note, however, that assessing the validity of such evidence is not a scientific question: there is no experiment you can do, and no conventional observation you can make, to decide if meditative insight is a reliable guide to knowledge. As a result, scientists have no special expertise in assessing such evidence. They have opinions about it, but they are philosophical opinions that are unsupported by scientific evidence.

Consider a thought-experiment. Suppose that you were designing a virtual reality game and wanted to make it convincing. You would have to make it impossible to prove, from evidence within the game and by the logic of that virtual reality, that anything existed outside of the game. By that analogy, God could be simply a very savvy game designer — very savvy, naturally, because that goes with His being omniscient.

* As a result, some of them get quite bent out of shape over string theory, which is so far resistant to experimental validation.

Copyright 2008 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as credit and URL ( are given.


  1. Thought experiments and using things such as personal interpretations of experiences and meditation are not really evidence of anything.

    Science has to be objective which means that if you claim to have proof or evidence of something, I should be able to see it or touch it and come to a very similar conclusion after examining it. Or if you can create a repeatable experiment that will let me see a deity under controlled conditions, it will be science.

    This is not to mention that your thought experiment relies on a good half-dozen of assumptions. Occam’s Razor anyone?

  2. You make some very perceptive points. We agree on some of them and disagree on others.

    I agree with you that arguments about God are not scientific in the normal sense. That applies equally, however, to pronouncements in favor of atheism and scientific materialism. They are not science, but metaphysics. As such, they lack the imprimatur and authority of “science.”

    Likewise, I agree that Ockham’s razor is a useful epistemic principle. However, that’s precisely what it is: a practical, common-sense principle. There is no guarantee that in any specific case, the simplest explanation is the correct one. The fact that one can, for example, “explain” human behaviour in terms of brain states does not prove that the explanation is correct.

    Meditative and mystical experiences, including near-death experiences, can be explained — or explained away — in terms of brain states: I grant you that. However, it is not established, and I would argue it cannot be established from the physical-world frame of reference, that such explanations are correct.

    William James, the “father of American psychology,” speculated — and he clearly labeled it as speculation, neither proven nor falsified by the empirical evidence — that the brain is like a transceiver which provides an interface between our physical world and a transcendent reality. On that analogy, the phenomenal mind really is a “function” of the brain. Changes in mind states affect brain states, and changes in brain states affect the ability of transcendent consciousness to manifest itself through the brain. That’s entirely consistent with the empirical evidence, though it doesn’t prove James was right — any more than a physicalist gloss on mind-brain interaction would prove James was wrong.

  3. Actually William James was beaten by Plato’s Timaeus in which the entire material world, us included are functions of a metaphysical realm. I suppose great minds think alike or someone’s doing a tad of plagiarism….

    And I understand your point on Occam’s Razor. It’s not supposed to be a test for the correct answer, just the most plausible one. In an era of alchemists, astrologers and mystic monks, there had to be someone who would urge to keep things down to Earth and stop making all kinds of unprovable assumptions to explain the simplest things. This is what Occam’s Razor really is. It’s a control on getting too enthusiastic and running away with a theory to the point where you inject metaphysical musings into it.

    That brings us to science. Ideally, if you don’t know something you leave it as unknown until you can find some actual proof to it. I don’t believe that science has “disproved God” because that shouldn’t be the intent of a scientist. You can’t disprove a concept with a nebulous, shifting definition. But what science has done was to show that our traditional conception of God in the West is scientifically unsound.

  4. First, let me express my delight at arguing with someone who has not only heard of William James but has read Plato (better than I have) and understands the motivation of Ockham’s razor. Even most philosophy Ph.D. candidates these days are nearly illiterate about such things.

    Second, the only point of yours about which I disagree is that science has shown much of anything about theology. It seems to me (and obviously, we differ on this) that physical science has little to say about the existence of God, pro or con. Scientific theories and results can make theological views more or less plausible, but they do not confirm or falsify concepts of God in any normal sense.

    Another point that William James made was that people tend to disbelieve ideas for which they find no use. Even theists happily concede that the existence of God is irrelevant for most scientific work. One of the greatest advances in scientific method, pioneered by Galileo and Francis Bacon among others, was to get away from the idea of referring physical phenomena to a Divine cause. Whether such an ultimate cause exists or not, it isn’t helpful in finding the efficient, physical causes of events. So if physical scientists have no use for the idea of God, it’s unsurprising if they come to regard the idea as a delusion. One can’t draw a logical connection between science and theology, but there’s a definite psychological connection.

    I might mention that I am an ex-atheist. I didn’t have an emotional “conversion” experience. Over the years, I merely came to believe that I had paid too little attention to the non-empirical evidence that I mentioned in my blog article. But I’m well aware of the careful reasoning that goes into the views of thoughtful atheists. I simply no longer find it convincing.

  5. Actually, I don’t think we disagree that science doesn’t have the definitive word on the existence of God. My only point was that science shows us that our conception and definition of what a God is, doesn’t seem right and injecting the divine into the everyday world is unnecessary to find an answer to a question about nature. Basically the same thing you said in slightly different words.

    And as long as we’re disclosing religions, I’m an agnostic deist who has what I think is a healthy aversion to institutions which try to use God as a weapon for advancing their personal beliefs on others.

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