Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why I am not an atheist

I tried very hard, really I did.
I still  consider atheism to be the logical consequence of adopting a thorough going methodological naturalism, where all propositions about the world have to satisfy the rigours of the scientific method. Apart from the obvious difficult that naturalism as a principle  is not itself scientifically provable, but simply 'position taking' that other problem with such an approach is that most abstract concepts and qualities that give life meaning, such as notions of love, freedom, justice, beauty and indeed the notion of 'meaning' itself, cannot be demonstrated from the scientific method. The naturalist simply does not care about that, or if they care then they may sadly accept a much diminished view of life. In reality the naturalist usually believes in love, freedom, equality etc like the rest of us as a matter of utility and 'faith'.
To my  mind naturalism treats what is unprovable in scientific terms as non-existent, in practice, if not in fact in theory. But I want to consider 'intuition' and personal 'gnosis' as a source of knowledge, and I must do so to bolster my case for deism which cannot be proved in scientific terms even if can be shown to be reasonable.  I accept that the rational 'price' of allowing personal feelings and insight to inform our view of reality is we have to demand that intution can only be a basis of establishing 'private truth'not 'public truth'. Public truth remains in the domain of science, which means public policy making, laws etc are informed only by what is naturalistically demonstrable and not beholden to faith claims or spiritual revelations. This is a necessary consequences of wanting, as I do, a secular society that separates church and state.
There are many theists and deists who will insist that their notion of a deity, if not actually provable, like a mathematical or logical proof, can be demonstrated to be reasonable from philosophical arguments. The arguments, which I won't rehearse here, include the cosmological and teleological arguments, the latter re-stated in terms of the apparent 'fine tuning' of the initial conditions of the universe, so it would be suitable for complex animals, life and indeed consciousness.  There are of course counter philosophical arguments, for example the hypothetical existence of a multiverse may explain the 'apparent' fine tuning. (I'm just skating over the complexity of the issues here). However some of the philosophical arguments for deism have force, and are compelling to my mind, if far from unanswerable.

We know deity is invoked commonly to explain why there is something rather than nothing (as an explanation for 'Being') and to explain how life came from non life by random processes (i.e. as an explanation for the origin of life) and to explain consciousness (and in the latter case, a belief in deity is necessarily a belief that consciousness is not merely an epiphenomenon of complex forms of materiality but is fundamental in some way to existence [all credible beliefs in deity  require adoption of a philosophical idealism, neutral monism or dual-aspect theory I believe]. We may reasonably worry about  our notion of deity becoming a the 'God of the Gaps'. However in one sense if the deity has any explanatory value then such 'gaps' in our understanding of the cause of the universe should be expected. The fact something can be explained naturalistically does not rule out non-naturalistic explanations (as there can be more than one reason or process leading to a particular state of affairs] but if there were no gaps in our knowledge then theism or deism would lack any explanatory advantage, and applying 'Occam's Razor' (which device for assessing evidential value should not be elevated to a  metaphysical principle ) it would have distinct explanatory disadvantages.  Naturalism cannot of course accept any supernatural cause as an explanation [and this is why 'intelligent design' is not 'scientific'] because for naturalists there must also be independent scientific evidence of the causal mechanism that is proposed to explain any physical state: something 'supernatural' can never provide a 'scientific' explanatory cause. We are far from having 'scientific evidence' for a deity, but philosophically we should not expect such, because deity must necessarily be undetectable by existing scientific methods - see discussion of 'transcendence' below. And despite the original optimism of materialists and naturalists, we don't seem to be any closer to finding an adequate and uncontested scientific explanation for being, life and consciousness. The 'gaps' in our scientific understanding today sometimes seem as big as ever, and possibly 'bigger' as science continues to find yet more mysteries wrapped in enigmas when it delves ever deeper into the origin of the universe, life and consciousness. At the very moment of writing the Standard Model of cosmology and even Einstein's equations are under assault from problematic empirical evidence. I won't draw too many conclusions from these recent events as the existing theories may quickly adapt or the alleged problematic empirical evidence may not be reproduced or be shown to be based on mistakes. Still, the 'gaps' remain.

More recently  I had a problem with the notion of 'transcendence'. But now I see the notion of transcendence involves simply a claim that deity, at least in its eternal primordial aspect, does not subsist in our 'space and time' universe (since 'universe' technically means everything that exists,  our 'universe'with its particular space-time structure and physical constants shall be described as the 'cosmos' hereafter). It is now well accepted in scientific discourse, that in principle other dimensions (and in string theory there are at least 10 such dimensions] can exist in which our cosmos may be embedded i.e. that there may be a 'hyper-dimensional' reality.  However deism has long proposed that the deus must be distinct from the cosmos we inhabit. Indeed deism avoids the problem of evil by proposing that the deity cannot intervene in the universe we inhabit in a mechanical way either to change physical laws or processes or to communicate special revelations - even if it wanted to. An understanding of modern cosmology leads one to realise that whatever is external to our cosmos cannot interact directly in our space time, and certainly  not without disrupting the physical laws and constants that maintain the integrity of our cosmos. So deism it must be, not theism, unless we abandon reason.

Ultimately a belief in a deity can be reasonable (i.e. it is not contrary to logic or existing scientific knowledge) but the choice to believe rather than not believe comes down to a personal judgement. This in turn is informed by yes, intuitions, emotion, aesthetics, and a desire that the universe be a certain way. I would argue that a strong commitment to atheism also involves such non-rational elements. I have come across many atheists who don't want there to be a god, and don't like the idea of it. Usually they are reacting to a particular religious notion of deity and religious practice, which is not a necessary consequence of such a belief.

I do agree that religion is probably the result of man's dread and awe of the unknown, and usually an attempt to find escape from death and meaning in suffering.  My deistic cosmology does not assume an after-life, or any meaning to particular suffering. It is not 'comforting' but it does seem to provide an overall explanation that satisfies not just reason but many other aspects of my personality and psyche, providing a successful form of integration and individuation. It is psycho-therapeutic whether it is true or not!. I admit immediately that any different personality may not 'see' what I see. Personality, upbringing, and social interaction has a huge influence on a religious choices or lack of them. Which is another reason why I cannot understand how religions could damn those who honestly can't believe - it is not a moral failing to not believe and hardly something we can force upon ourselves by dint of effort (believe me, I've tried). However the states of belief and unbelief, chartered on this blog are always in flux for most of us. Some days for me it is easier to believe than on other days. Supernaturalistic Evangelical Christianity is never believable on any day (not for many years) but also I find it very hard to hold to Naturalistic Atheism. Pan-en-Deism or Pagan Deism (discussed elsewhere) satisfies me today. As for tomorrow, who knows!

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