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Sunday, November 15, 2015
A response to an argument that atheism is unreasonable
By Mathew Goldstein
A recent opinion article in the University of Louisiana student newspaper titled
Atheism is Unreasonable defends the Catholic "knowledge of God by revelation" as enabling "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on." It is a brief article, citing Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas as the philosophers to follow, and speaks mostly in generalities. Yet the content expresses perspectives that are common among theists and makes a good basis for a discussion to explain the atheist perspective, which the author of that article does not appear to understand well. So here follows a criticism of that theist perspective from an atheist perspective.
The author of the article says that contemporary philosophy has gone astray because by rejecting God it fails to answer the why questions. She says "This is unreasonable because as rational creatures, we desire to know why." Since "we see cause and effect in our world all the time. Why wouldn’t there be cause and effect for our existence or regarding morality and virtues? And isn’t it reasonable that God would reveal Himself to us and help us understand these things and our purpose?" Atheists, she says, dispute "fundamentalist arguments" but Catholicism (unlike most other Christian denominations) "isn't fundamentalistic."
Because we desire to know why, it does not follow that why questions have an answer that is distinct from the answer to the corresponding how questions. It is improper to start with an a-priori assumption that the universe is about us when trying to understand how the universe functions. Addressing our desires on the one hand, and understanding how the universe functions on the other hand, are different goals. We do not get to create the universe according to our desires, we are merely born into the universe such as is it. Atheists recognize this distinction, theists too often do not.
The centrality of cause and effect is evidence that our universe is mechanical, physical, and material. A hypothetical God could transcend the mechanical, physical, and material. There is no good evidence for such divine intervention, which is a major problem for theism. All of the explanations that we uncover remain within the constraints imposed by naturalism. Biological evolution, abiogenesis, chemistry, and physics, appear to be sufficient to explain our existence and to explain both our commitments to, and lack of commitments to, morality and virtues. As for the "why not nothing?" question, we have no definitive answer. But we can speculate that nothingness may be a fictional condition because a nothingness condition in the universe is unstable according to quantum mechanics.
The non-evidenced, a-priori assumption by many theists that absolute nothingness is the initial cosmic condition illustrates the disagreement between theists and atheists. For atheists, following the empirical evidence and modeling the universe on a best fit with empirical evidence is the best we can do in our effort to understand how the universe functions. There is nothing beyond the empirical evidence that gets us to non-fiction. Not faith, not logic, not reason, not intuition, not desire, not first principle, not metaphysics, not Aristotle nor St Thomas Aquinas, not the Christian bible nor the Catholic Church, not best fit with cosmic meaningfulness nor purposefulness, nothing. When we use logic and reason, as we all must, we must apply it to, and anchor it in, the empirical evidence. When it really matters, as when our own physical welfare is immediately at stake, for example when driving a car, or walking near cliffs, or walking near walls, everyone respects the empirical evidence. There is no good reason to abandon that uniquely successful strategy when the stakes are lower, such as when evaluating the veracity of supposedly holy books.
Since we are not all knowing or all present it is unsurprising that there are questions we are unable to answer. Full stop. We do not pretend to find answers by looking "beyond the physical" or by accepting the answers provided by any metaphysical philosophers who died before the germ theory of disease became general knowledge. We do not do that because we know, from the history of humanity, that methods of determining how the universe functions that are not rooted in best fit with the empirical evidence produce fiction. Given that the available empirical evidence indicates that nothingness is an unstable condition, unless one day additional evidence is uncovered that says something more, that is literally the best answer we have to the question why there is something instead of nothing.
Arguments that Catholicism, or any other religion, or any metaphysical philosopher from the past, are the best sources for ultimate knowledge regarding how the universe functions, including "knowledge of God by revelation" that enables "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on" are unimpressive. Metaphysical naturalism, a.k.a. atheism, is more reasonable because it fits better overall with the available empirical evidence.