In Agnosticism Revisited and the Case for Atheism I argued that being agnostic about the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Creator isn’t justifiable. I used the Argument from Perfection (a version of the Problem of Evil) to demonstrate that belief in a perfect creator isn’t sustainable and therefore people who are not agnostic about imperfect gods and goddesses have even less basis to be agnostic about the monotheistic deity at the heart of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Instead they should be atheist.
However that article received a comment from Max, an agnostic, which deserves serious attention. Although agreeing that I did “a good job pointing out the irreconcilable difficulties in a particular concept of God,” one which “embodies specific attributes,” Max argued that I “left the basic idea of god untouched.”
Although Max doesn’t “believe in Allah, or Jesus, or any and all specific mythic representations of god,” he is still agnostic rather than atheist since he doesn’t “disbelieve in the very idea of god.” In fact, Max wrote,
You did not present an argument at this level. Nor will you ever, since the concept of god in abstract of a specific mythic tradition is a completely non-falsifiable proposition, and thus cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.
He fleshed this objection out at the end of his comment this way:
If you argue against the existence of god, must you not pin that argument on some imagined attribute(s) of god. The problem is that as soon as you imagine god’s attributes you cease talking about the idea of god, and start talking about some specific imagined representation of god. You can disprove a billion representations without ever even addressing the concept of god itself.
Although Max left his comment over a year ago, I never got around to replying. I’m rectifying that now.
When Is a Concept Not a Concept?
My first question for Max is this: what is the concept of God if that concept involves no specific attributes? If the nature of a concept is unspecified, then it seems to me that the concept can’t be discussed because no one has any idea what is being discussed.
If I say, “X exists, but X has no attributes and no one can say what X is,” what am I claiming? I suppose Max is correct in saying that my “X” is non-falsifiable, but maybe that is only because “X” doesn’t have a meaning, and no actual concept is being asserted.
Likewise, if “God” is a meaningless word, one which doesn’t refer to any specified concept, then yes “God” is non-falsifiable — but only because meaningless words aren’t claims or propositions at all. There is no idea behind them.
I suspect that Max’s “abstract” concept of God does have “content” of some sort or another. It must, or else nothing remains. It is evident from his comment that Max rejects “perfection” as an attribute of God. Remove that attribute and the concept of God still has meaning. But what if we also remove the attribute of “creator”, the attribute of “being” and (for good measure) the attribute of “existing”? As far as I can see, nothing usable would remain: “God” would become a meaningless word, unfalsifiable but also undiscussable.
A Minimum God
Max doesn’t reveal what he believes the abstract concept of God is, but I’m confident that it involves a God with attributes. Existence must be one of those attributes, otherwise Max could have no good objection to calling himself an atheist. It is also likely that Max would posited this God as the cause of the physical world and our human existence. God, no matter how abstractly conceived, would hardly be God (or worth bothering about) otherwise.
Such a God need not be conceived as a personal being. Perhaps what is meant by the term is simply the intelligence behind the physical universe, an intelligence responsible for the world’s existence and nature. Max, I assume, would say that such a concept of God
is a completely non-falsifiable proposition, and thus cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.
But Max would be wrong.
The notion that there’s an intelligence behind existence is nothing less than the claim that naturalism is false. If naturalism is true, it follows that there is no intelligence behind or prior to the physical universe, so to maintain otherwise is to deny the truth of naturalism. The assertion above therefore amounts to the claim that philosophical naturalism “cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.” This claim is false and I will show why.
To do so, all that is required of me is to reveal by what rational means the truth or falsity of naturalism can be determined. In fact, I don’t have to provide a convincing case for naturalism, I only have to demonstrate that a rationally convincing case is possible.
Naturalism v Supernaturalism
Naturalism maintains that intelligence is a product of brains and that brains are a product of evolution. It follows from this that intelligence did not exist anywhere in the universe until organisms with brains evolved into being. Supernaturalism maintains the contrary: that intelligence existed well before brains were created. Intelligence (whether personified in a being or not) necessarily lies behind and prior to physical existence, according to the supernatural canon.
The question Max poses, then, is whether there is a rational way to decide between these two alternatives. There clearly is. We simply have to compare the intellectual case for believing intelligence preceded the existence of brains with the intellectual case for believing intelligence did not. If one case is stronger than the other, we will know which viewpoint — naturalism or supernaturalism — better fits the evidence we have. This is an inherently rational process, and is the sort of thing that scientists (as well as non-scientists, of course) do all the time.
I wrote that we “simply” have to compare the two intellectual cases — but of course the debate on this point is hardly “simple”. But the complexity of the debate only underscores the fact that it is a rational debate, one in which both sides vie to provide the most satisfactory account of the evidence we have about when intelligence entered the picture.
In Agnosticism Revisited and the Case for Atheism I wrote about the distinction between specific atheism and general atheism. Specific atheism, I said
is that atheism which purports to disprove the existence of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic monotheistic God
and the Argument from Perfection which I presented there pertained to specific atheism. On the other hand, I wrote that general atheism
is an outgrowth of the scientific/philosophical case for naturalism. Advocates of general atheism like to begin their arguments with well-established science (evolution, the physiology of vision or of the brain) and move on to conclusions about the nature of human knowledge and its relationship to the world—conclusions which if correct eliminate supernaturalism (and therefore eliminate any supernatural God or gods).
It is general atheism which pertains to the debate we have here.
The case for naturalism (or the opposing case for supernaturalism) is far too complex to present now, and at any rate that is unnecessary for the scope of this entry. That scope, it is important to remember, is to refute Max’s claim that the most abstract concept of God “cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means.” I have taken the most “abstract” concept of God to mean some kind of pre-existing intelligence responsible for the creation of the world (hopefully Max would agree). And I have pointed out that this gets us right to one of the central disputes (perhaps the central dispute) separating naturalism from supernaturalism: Is intelligence the product of brains or are brains the product of intelligence?
This is answered by investigating the world to determine whether the evidence we find fits better with the notion that intelligence existed at the beginning of the universe (before brains existed), or whether intelligence appeared with the evolution of organism with brains. I maintain that such an investigation can be done, and that doing it is a rational process which will lead to a rational answer.
In fact, I believe there are some smoking guns which indicate that naturalism is the correct answer. I have mentioned a couple of these in other blog entries.
1) Thoughts (and by proxy disembodied intelligence) can’t do anything without a physical body to do the doing. Therefore intelligence cannot bring the universe into existence or be its cause. I’ve presented the case for this position in God & Rocks as well as in Thoughts & Trees and God’s Physical Problem.
2) The existence of two types of knowing (analytic and synthetic) is prima facie evidence that there are two types of things to be known: the physical world and concepts. If supernaturalism were true we would expect there to only be one type of knowing — analytic. If naturalism were true, both analytic and synthetic knowing would need to exist in order for physical organism to “know” the world. This is touched on in Two Types of Knowing as well as in Thoughts & Trees
3) Although the Principle of Sufficient Reason holds for analytic knowledge, it appears to be false for synthetic knowledge. If there was an intelligence behind the universe, the Principle of Sufficient Reason would be true for both synthetic and analytic knowledge (thus one type of knowledge would suffice — see #2). But the fact that synthetic knowledge is best acquired through the process of methodological naturalism (together with the factual possibility of incomplete and incorrect synthetic knowledge), makes it clear that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false for synthetic knowledge. It follows that synthetic knowledge is not something innate in the physical world which our minds discover, but rather is the result of pragmatic empiricism. This fits naturalism perfectly, but can hardly be reconciled with supernaturalism. I touched on this in Thoughts & Trees — but much more attention needs to be given it.
As for the arguments presented by the other side, such as the design and information arguments, I dispelled them in Theism’s Rose-Colored Glasses. (See also Mind, Matter & Divine Creation.) Other atheists have written volumes dispelling these supernatural assertions.
Of course, Max may not find my smoking guns convincing. But he must admit that those of us who are atheists have not “left the basic idea of god untouched.” And he must admit that the concept of God in its most abstract form (as some kind of pre-existing intelligence) can be investigated by rational means and — it is at least a possibility — be found false.