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 (https://ashesblog.wordpress.com) are given.