Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

St. Patricks day! Also, atheism

with 4 comments

Today we celebrate the day St Patrick turned all the snake in Ireland into Guinness. Or something like that. Don’t let the church tell you St Paddy’s isn’t today. Just because it’s their holiday, doesn’t mean they can move it about…

Speaking of the church (Good link, good link…) here are some random thoughts on atheism. So the scientific atheist position seems roughly to be the following:

  • You can explain everything with science.
  • Specifically, you can explain religion by talking about memes, evolution and other such things.
  • This is the best explanation of religion.
  • The best explanation of religion doesn’t appeal to God.
  • So shave the big man upstairs with Occam’s razor.

I think there is a subtlety in the Occam’s razor step that is often overlooked: this is a scientific explanation. It is good science not to believe in the existence of entities your theory doesn’t need. I think this scientific aspect of the Occam step is important.

So, what criticisms can we make of this? I think the Big One is the idea that we should be explaining religion with science. If you concede that, then you’re pretty much finished. But roughly speaking I agree with the argument. I just don’t quite feel pushes me all the way to outright denial of the existence of any deity. So I’d say I’m intuitively atheist, but philosophically agnostic.

I don’t really have a proper point.


Written by Seamus

March 17, 2008 at 2:23 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I think your one proposition is wrong. Scientific Athiests, as you call them, don’t really believe that You can explain everything with science. This conclusion from the existing history of scientific achievement is hopeful, but I think suffers from a bit too much Hubris.

    The position is more truthful if put forward that ‘all things that can be explained with basis in reality, should have mechanisms for testing in reality’. The problem here is that religious belief does not provide a mechanism for falsification, and as such there are always an infinite number of similar propositions which could also fit the same set of requirements.

    Basicly, Religion tries to answer whats in the black box. We know what goes in, and what goes out, and so long as the story fits that, they are ok. Science says that if you can’t open up the black box and look inside, and figure out the system more speicificly, then it is non-sence to go beyond simply saying what went in, and what went out. All you can do is say that x happened, not why x happened.


    March 17, 2008 at 9:02 pm

  2. “The problem here is that religious belief does not provide a mechanism for falsification”
    – So falsification is a philosophy of science idea.

    “there are always an infinite number of similar propositions which could also fit the same set of requirements”
    – Underdetermination, again philosophy of science

    “Religion tries to answer whats in the black box”
    “Science says that if you can’t open up the black box and look inside, … then it is non-sence to go beyond simply saying what went in, and what went out”
    – Which way is your black box idea pulling? Religion is opening a black box and science thinks opening black boxes is good. So?

    OK, I don’t really understand the point you’re trying to make. But I don’t think your formulation of “all things that can be explained with basis in reality, should have mechanisms for testing in reality” helps much.
    You’re still talking about mechanisms and explanation. Which sounds pretty close to talk about science, again.


    March 19, 2008 at 12:04 am

  3. Not exactly JUST philosophy of science… Falseification is a principle of life. If I tell you that I am God, you can disprove it by me simply not being able to do the things that your definition of God provides. Just one example, but we do it all the time for lots of things ever day. If I tell someone something that is unlikely and they believe me totally, we call them gullable. Science just formalizes the principle to protect against being gullable and taking in bad ideas as rules.

    Religion is saying what the black box does AND has inside it, without cause. Science is saying what the blackbox does, and stops there unless it can further explain the components inside.

    I guess I am talking about Mechanisms and explanation, but that is what understanding is. Without an explanation, we are just pointing at the Sun and saying Apollo rides there. Without those principles, it has to be admitted that the religion is a revealed religion rather than naturalistic, since there is no real understanding, just faith.

    I hate to go back to the Richard Dawkens example, but if you had been raised to believe that Zeus and Apollo were the true Gods, would you still believe in them? For what reason? Take a step back.. ok.. those gods are not real, but then why is any God real?

    Science doesn’t say there is no god, and your right in that good science doesn’t include God where the proposition is not needed. A scientific Athiest is really just an Athiest that also agrees with science. The dis-belief in a God is not related to scientific finding, but a general understanding that the stories peolple tell us may not always be true. And if there are no Unicorns, perhaps there is no God. Furthermore, in looking at the universe, they find no proposition that logically requires God.

    You point to the Big Bang, and here we are in the ‘God of the Gaps’. Newton in his book made no use of God until the end. He explained everything himself with his new mathematics which has plagued every college student since (tho very useful). A the end, when he hit on things he couldn’t explain, he said ‘God did it’.

    Now, we have answered those questions.. and more.. we have moved well beyond it to the question of where did the universe start (pretty impressive for apes that regret coming down from the trees). And now the only thing that we can say is well, maybe God did that!. But why do we need to even say this? After all, we are not explaining first cause here. We are saying the creation of the universe has its cause because we can’t accept that it happened spontaniously (something that may not be true and cosmologists are working on this). But given that, we need to assume that God happened by itself. We only move the problem back one spot AND we add the additional philosophic issue that the Big Bang lacked order, but a God has alot of order. So we aren’t even saying that something came from nothing (and the Big Bang does not say that), we are saying that Everything came out of something FAR more complex than anything we see.

    Yes, there is alot of science. But Religion tries to point to the things Science supposedly can’t give examples of or prove and say that this is proof that God exists. You in your origional argument posed a Scientific issue as a proof of God, the Big Bang (the Big Bang is a scientific idea, not a religious one).

    To summarize, your right.. Nothing in Science says you have to give up your Diety. This is not a question Science addresses which is why the idea of a Scientific Athiest is such a misnomer. Philosophy and Reason should however make you question the basis for that belief. If Science has addressed all materialistic issues as to make, as you admitted was reasonable, God unnecessary for the propositions it address, then you have to look else where, and not to the physical world.

    But in the world of ideas, I still don’t see necessary conditions to believe in a god. God is a sufficient cause for the universe, but not a necessary one. Others are more likely, and more desirable, otherwise there is a God that could have created the universe better and decided not to.


    March 20, 2008 at 1:50 am

  4. It’s interesting you mention Newton as your exemplary scientist; Newton was devoutly religious.

    Here’s the point. Science says “God isn’t necessary.” That’s fine. The illegitimate move is to jump to “necessarily, God isn’t.” This is the move people have tried to justify by appeals to science and Occam’s razor and so on. I meant “scientific atheist” to refer to people who use some kind of roughly “scientific” principle to make that extra jump.

    It’s a logical point really. And like I say, I’m pretty much an atheist except for this one point. But you can’t prove He doesn’t exist.

    (And I didn’t mention the big bang at all…)


    March 20, 2008 at 1:09 pm

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