What is he talking about?

>> Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive. (For a review of the centrality, and insolubility so far, of the something-from-nothing question, I recommend this podcast interview with Jim Holt, who is writing a book on the subject.)

-Ron Rosenbaum, "An Agnostic Manifesto,",
Slate, June 28, 2010


I don't even know what he's talking about. No, wait: I do. It's just that what Rosenbaum is talking about is stupid. Profoundly stupid in that special profoundly stupid way an erudite person can be when he has no idea how stupid he's being.

Allow me to answer Mr. Rosenbaum's question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" the only way I know how:

I don't know, why the fuck not?

I am, as you know, an atheist. Have been for, I dunno, decades now. I am an atheist because I have no evidence satisfactory to myself that a deity exists and because I agree with Laplace and not Lagrange. I can think of no way in which postulating the existence of the divine as a solution to unanswered or unanswerable questions resolves more questions than it raises, and therefore I discard it, ptui!

But can I say there's no deity? No, of course not--no more than I can say a good many other things for which I have no evidence and no particular reason to believe don't exist. To that extent, you can describe my position as a form of agnosticism although I've sometimes bristled at the term for it's connotations of "undecided" or "uncommitted." To say that I don't know whether or not there's God is a logical position, not a position of uncertainty.

But what of Rosenbaum's oh-so-important question? Back to that--

He's being absurd. I don't know that there are many atheists, if any, who feel that science will answer all questions someday and indeed I suspect atheists are as likely as anybody else to get into epistemological debates. Indeed, Rosenbaum's accusation that atheists share a faith that science will eventually answer all questions fails to account for the fact that there is a branch of science that addresses precisely the issue of limitations on knowledge and specific instances in which what is knowable about objects is destroyed or in which what is knowable is inherently limited; to have faith that scientists will eventually know everything, in other words, would be a paradox since science has already identified situations in which things cannot be known.

And is the particular philosophical question Rosenbaum asks important as opposed to interesting? I think it's interesting to think of reasons there might be something other than nothing, but as a pragmatic matter we are, apparently, here and things do exist as opposed to not-exist or we wouldn't be having this conversation. But important?

As I think around this, it's obvious that the question is important insofar as if you could know the answer with some certainty, it might have implications for life, the universe and everything, but insofar as you probably can't know, it's merely an interesting question to get drunk over until somebody cracks wise about The Great Green Arkleseizure.

Let me put this another way: if you could prove that God created the universe, then it would mean there was a God and that could be very important if God continued to have anything to do with daily affairs. But since you can't prove God created the universe you're stuck with saying it would be nice to know why things exist but you still have to get up in the morning and go to work either way, unless nothing actually exists but then you'll probably be fired from your imaginary job when your imaginary boss gets angry that you pretended to sleep in.

And then there's this, and it's a good bit of why I agree with Laplace: supposing one suggests that God created the universe, who or what created God? It's a juvenile question, except that if you're arguing God's the Prime Mover, you're arguing that things can exist without creators and therefore it's hard to see what the divine hypothesis adds other than a mysterious extra moving part; and if you're not arguing that God is a Prime Mover, then who or what created God's creator, etc.? It's easier to suppose that the universe created itself or simply happened. Furthermore, one might point out that a God who created the universe and then absented Itself is probably less meaningful than a "deity" that came into existence on the first Tuesday after the universe auto-started but then behaved as a good parent, proffering moral instruction and preventing the occasional extinction--not that there's any evidence, in my view, of such a being, merely that a proactive non-Creator deity would at least be useful unlike whatever kind of creature Rosenbaum might be suggesting to explain why there's something and not nothing, if he's suggesting anything at all.

Rosenbaum says at one point:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

I imagine he might regard "Why the fuck not?" as an evasion; if so, he'd be an asshole. I mean, seriously, trying to claim that this is the question that somehow dismantles disbelief in the existence of gods is really a dickhead move from a usually-thoughtful writer when you really get right down to it.

I can't move on without one more point about how asinine Rosenbaum's piece is. See, Rosenbaum goes on to present a list of problems he and Australian scientist John Wilkins have with the so-called "New Atheists," among them:

[Atheism] tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of "weak" Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

Of course, if you're going to write a three-page essay about atheism and agnosticism, it might help to familiarize yourself with the terms of the discussion. Referring to agnosticism as a form of "weak atheism" is not a matter of "co-opting" agnosticism, but rather a matter of trying to classify it and work it into an epistemological framework--an effort, actually, you might think someone like Rosenbaum would sympathize with if he wasn't trolling. (And what can I say here, except that obviously I've taken a bite of the chum he scooped over the side.)

Rosenbaum's cluelessness is perhaps summarized near the end of the piece when he writes:

Wilkins' suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

The courage to admit we don't know and may never know what we don't know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.

The "two claims" Rosenbaum cites aren't novel questions of epistemology that have just come up in reaction to the so-called "New Atheists" recent prominence; the question of whether God exists and the question of whether we can know is almost certainly as old as theology and in the context of agnosticism goes back at least as far as Thomas Huxley coining the word. I can't really begin to imagine why Rosenbaum wants to trot it out now as a profundity, unless he's perhaps attempting to use the cosmic as misdirection, hoping his reader is so unaware and clueless as to notice the paucity of ideas there, much less originality of the few to be found.


Anonymous,  Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 9:20:00 AM EDT  

Douglas Adams called himself a "radical atheist," in order to indicate that he actually held a considered position:

"It's easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it's an opinion I hold seriously. It's funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague wishy-washy Agnosticism - both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much."

As for the "New Atheists," Dawkins spends a fair number of pages in The God Delusion talking about the fact that he is not claiming that he's somehow proven a negative -- merely that the evidence, in his opinion, seems to point overwhelmingly in the other direction. So all this strikes me as Rosenbaum putting words in people's mouths.

And of course he doesn't really address the Flying Spaghetti Monster question -- i.e., most people are atheist about most gods, reserving their agnosticism for the traditional god of their culture. To call yourself truly agnostic with regard to every possible god -- even the ones someone just made up to prove a point -- strikes me as dishonest. I don't believe there's a single person reading Slate today who's agnostic about the existence of Tlaloc the Aztec rain god, for example. Saying you don't know what, if anything, caused the universe to come into being is very different from saying that you don't believe in any of the specific gods who've been offered up to you for consideration. It's the latter form of atheism that the New Atheists have embraced, not some sort of epistemological finalism.

I know you knew all that. I just wanted to pile on.

timb111 Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 2:07:00 PM EDT  

In the Skeptic's Dictionary Bob Carrol explains why he isn't an atheist: Why I am not an atheist

I don't believe any gods exist, but I'm not an atheist any more than I am an asantaclausist or an aeasterbunnyist. Not believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn't commit me to an ideology or belief system shared with others who reject the notion that such creatures exist. My disbelief in leprechauns doesn't unite me with millions of other aleprechaunists. The label of 'atheist' is one that theists use to create the illusion that their belief in spirits has some substance. I don't mind that theists devote themselves to illusions and delusions as long as they don't do me any harm. But they fill their concept of the atheist with a number of lies and falsehoods that attempt to denigrate those of us who don't share their belief in the existence of spirits. Theists are particularly prone to parading forth non sequiturs in their attempt to vilify those of us who don't believe that an invisible spirit created us or the world we live in.

Disclosure: that's me in the acknowledgments section of the SD.

Eric Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 3:18:00 PM EDT  

FCFHI: Welcome, and pile on, pile on!

Timb111: Carroll actually has a very good point, and in a more-perfect world I think I'd agree with him in principle and practice. The problem, however, is that while I agree with Carroll in principle, I'm not sure I can act on that agreement. That is, there's a social and cultural expectation of identification and affiliation, and "atheist" is a very convenient and more-or-less accurate label. In a saner world, Carroll's right--it would be unnecessary and silly to go around identifying oneself by what one isn't.

It might be noted that the need to label isn't new or confined to the religious. Huxley felt obligated to coin the word "agnostic" to describe his beliefs in the first place precisely because religious belief permeated Victorian England to such a degree that remaining silent on such things was insufficient; then-and-there, as here-and-now, the presumption inferred from silence was that you were religious (and almost certainly Christian) and in agreement with the predominant faith of the land.

The other obvious point, of course, is that by saying "I don't believe any gods exist," Carroll is, by definition, an atheist whether he chooses to identify himself as such or not.

Nonetheless, thank you for pointing me to that--I get Carroll's newsletter but hadn't seen that piece, and I certainly wish in a Carrollian sense that I didn't feel like I had to be an atheist.

Rachael Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 6:16:00 PM EDT  

My answer to the "Why is there something rather than nothing?" question has always been, "I don't really care." I suppose that could be considered evasive as well, but I'm getting really tired of having jerks look down their noses at me because I have better things to do with my time than work myself into a frothing tizzy over a question that no one can convincingly answer at this point. It's a question that has no meaning to me and no impact on my life, and while I'm sure there are many people who are endlessly curious about it, I just can't be bothered.

Way to generalize, Rosenbaum. I hope it lets you feel like a unique and smugly superior little snowflake.

Eric Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 6:53:00 PM EDT  

It's funny, Rachael, because in one draft of this I actually had as an alternative answer: "I don't know and I don't care," and for pretty much the same reasons you lay out.

Jim Wright Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 10:27:00 AM EDT  

I'm with Bob Carrol - I put God into the same category with the Easter Bunny and The Good Fairy and astrology. And I put pretty much the same effort into disbelieving in all of them - which is to say none.

Here's the thing, he's not my made up invisible friend who lives in the sky, therefor the burden of proof - or disproof - is not mine.

Eric Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 11:57:00 AM EDT  

Here's the thing, he's not my made up invisible friend who lives in the sky, therefor the burden of proof - or disproof - is not mine.

Absolutely agreed, Jim, and I think you hit upon another flaw in Rosenbaum's piece, which is that he seems to feel that disbelief is a position that requires effort, as opposed to an abeyance of knowledge (in that sense, many atheists are indeed agnostic in the sense of not knowing--along with not caring until proof of an affirmative claim in the existence of a particular deity is made).

But I think Carrol is getting at another matter, which is whether one identifies with a fellow group or may be identified by others in a particular way (whether one likes it or not). As to the former of these, that's certainly up to the individual, and you or Carrol are obviously free not to consider yourselves "atheists" in some formal sense or identify/associate with other atheists. (I myself am in a sort of middle position--I have no interest in joining any kind of atheist organization or engaging in any particular activism, but I'm not unsympathetic to those who do such things and I enjoy reading and writing about the subject now and then.) As to the latter--well, actually, there's kind of a post scheduled to appear tomorrow about whether one has a "right" to self-identify that has to be respected by anybody else, so maybe I'll leave that for now.

Leanright,  Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 3:11:00 PM EDT  

Just watch this til the very end. It's really not THAT off topic.



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