Red Five joins the Theological Debate

My good buddy 'Red Five' posted the following commentary to my takedown of the Jewish Philosopher, and I found the questions he raised to be important enough to warrant a full post reply. I have edited it slightly for brevity (which I might add, is ironically not my own strong suit), but hopefully not in any way that impacts his points;

So here it is!


If atheism is the absence of belief, how do we know if babies are atheists? We certainly cannot profess to know what their emerging brain wave patterns represent in terms of thought content, espcially as they lack a language construct around which to form said content. But can we say that a baby does not have any inherent belief? Depends perhaps on how one defines belief. Certainly they possess the "belief" that they are hungry, or wet, or tired etc. If by belief, however, we mean to say "faith", do we know with certainty that a growing child, unexposed to any concept of religion, will not come to believe or develop faith in something independently?


AR: For clarity's sake, Atheism is the lack of supernatural belief, not the lack of any beliefs at all. I have no doubt that babies believe things, the question is do they believe supernatural things?

The evidence seems clear to me that babies aren't born with any inherent religious concepts - i.e. it seems to be prima facie the case that you aren't born a Mormom or Zoroastrian, but rather that you are taught to believe in Mormonism or Zoroastrianism (imagine the amusing confusion that would occur if babies could be born with a particular religious belief - i.e. a Mormon child is somehow born to Zoroastrians! The hilarity! But I digress).

If the fact of a child's tabula rosa nature were not the case, why would parents need to insist on a religious education?

As to whether a child without any religious education would grow up to believe in the supernatural independent of any outside influence, I offer as evidence the fact that the Spanish felt it necessary to convert the native population of South America by force, rather than arriving to find a nation of Christians waiting for them. That isn't to say that the native 'animism' that the Spanish encountered doesn't count as a 'religious belief', I believe it does, but that 'animism' is a cultural phenomenae, not an innate human one.

So I'll stick my guns on this, babies are born atheists until someone can give me evidence to the contrary.

That obvious point made, there is something potentially more subtle about your suggestion than that point would address. Namely that while no child is born with any particular religious conviction, it is nevertheless likely that we all have an innate ability to engage in 'magical thinking' that pre-disposes us to consider religious content and arguments outside of any reasonableness they may have. In other words, we may not be born Mormons, but we are born with the potential to be Mormons.

I have made this point previously elsewhere that the human capacity for inductive reasoning is in part responsible for the powerful grip that untestable inductive arguments can have on us, so I don't think it's contradictory to say;

We are born atheists
We are also born with a predisposition to magical thinking that can lead us away from atheism


R5: More on this later, but another common argument which I'd love to hear AR expound upon - One often hears the atheist challenge the believer to "prove" that God exists. Aside from the fact that the nonexistence of "God" is as you put it, the "null" condition, can one prove that God does not exist?


AR: As a 'strong atheist' I definitely think you can prove God does not exist, but it's important to understand how the strong atheist arrives at this philosophical conclusion.

The agnostic (or weak atheist) is content to say 'I don't know' when confronted by the question of whether there are supreme beings, rightly pointing out that the evidence for supreme beings is non-existent or shoddy at best, and that the safest rational position to take on the matter is simply to admit that while it is possible that there are supreme beings, there isn't enough evidence for them to warrant positive belief.

The strong atheist however, makes an additional philosophical move; she notes that not only is their no evidence one way or another for supreme beings, but she points out that the very concept of supreme beings is both empty of content, and incoherent to discuss.

That is, the strong atheist can 'prove' god does not exist, the same way we can 'prove' that a square circle does not exist.


R5: Or conversely, why is it incumbent on the postulator to prove that which is postulated unless one postulates the nonexistence of something. Are we content to say that stating something does not exist requires no "proof", only stating that something does exist requires proof? While we're on the subject of proof, provide proof of the existence of a specific emotion, say "love" - prove that love exists...


AR: It is a philosophical axiom that you 'can't prove a negative', i.e. it is impossible to provide evidence for the absence of something (which you will note is why the atheists disproof of God doesn't rely on evidence, but rather relies on the incoherence of the theist proposition for its disproof).

In contrast, most philosophers (the exception being only those devout hardcore sceptics for whom no truth or knowledge claims can exist at all) would agree it is possible to provide proof for a positive claim, i.e. the claim 'some swans are white', because finding a single white swan would be sufficient evidence to make that positive claim 'true'.

So you can see how a postulate or positive claim 'Red Five is 7'2", 350lbs and plays centre for the Miami Heat' is at least something that can be demonstrated to true or false - and for those who don't know Red Five the claim is absolutely true. ;-)

As for your remark about 'prove the existence of love' (which as some of you may recognize is the argument Carl Sagan put into the mouth of Palmer Joss in the book 'Contact'), I'd have this to say;

'Love' is an emotional state of an individual (actually I contend it is several different but related emotional states - i.e. I love my wife, but that is not the same thing as the love for my parents, or the Platonic love I feel for my friends, or the 'love' I have for my hockey pool,etc.), so while we may not have direct epistemic evidence of the individuals mind, we nevertheless have evidence that we can point to when discussing emotions;

- I know my parents 'love me' because they demonstrate this with their actions. I received hugs, affection, attention, care, positive constructive feedback, and of course, their own positive claims in the form of speech that they in fact 'love me'. Is this 'proof' that they love me? Perhaps not in the sense that a mathematical proof is 'proof', but given that behaviour is the chief evidence for the existence of emotions, the actions of my parents certainly qualify as solid evidence for the proposition that they love me.

- It is also at least possible to consider that direct evidence through comparitive brain scans, that these emotional states are 'real' biological events and more than just mere wordplay on the part of the declarer.

- It would be possible to demonstrate that the actions of someone who claims to 'love me' are false. For example, if my wife were to say 'I love you' and then hit me in the groin with a frying pan, I'd be inclined to say that the evidence of her actions contradicts the verbal claim she makes as to her emotional state.

- Finally, anthropology gives us good reason to believe that the existence of emotional states is not confined to human beings. Emotions like; anger, affection, dissapointment, lust, etc. are determinable in the Great Apes for example, whereas they are not for other forms of life like insects or fish, which seem to exhibit no emotional responses at all outside of raw survival instincts (though I do wonder if wasps get 'mad' when you try to swat them). Anybody who doubts that animals have emotions has never been greeted by their pet after a long absence.


R5: Finally (for now), if one believes that the natural and scientific processes of the universe are, in fact, God, do we not agree with one another and argue simply over semantics? You call it natural law, and another calls it God, are those incompatible?


AR: The position you describe in the above (god = universe) is the same position as argued by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (and perhaps more famously declaimed by Einstein) known as 'pantheism'.

However, I have this to say about pantheism - given that the pantheists position is predicated on 'God' being indivisible from the universe, impersonal, and a non-actor (ie. there are no 'miracles'), ultimately, Pantheism is simply atheism with a theistic face in that there are no 'supreme beings' or 'supernatural' elements for the pantheist, just the raw material universe.


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