The Return of the Supercilious Atheist

In the comments of my Supercilious Atheist post was something which requires a little more elbow room than the cramped wordpress comment system is able to provide. Here we go:

This is how my examples point to the falsehood of naturalism:

Although there is no single, comprehensive, universally agreed upon definition of “naturalism,” almost everyone takes it to mean basically “nature, i.e., the physical world, is all there is. So supernatural things like God or human souls, do not exist, except perhaps metaphorically speaking, and there is no non-physical means of knowing.”

Naturalism, then, is negative: it says that certain things do not exist.

Nice strawman. A better way to put it would be:

“nature, i.e., the physical world, is all there is evidence for. So supernatural things like God or human souls, for which there is no evidence, cannot rationally be concluded to exist, except perhaps metaphorically speaking, and there is no evidence of any non-physical means of knowing, and all the evidence we do have about how we come to know things is physical in nature.”

Also you still seem to be trying to separate the senses from the mind and memory. There are senses of the mind, senses for examining and manipulating what’s stored away in your brain. It is even true, for example that if you recall the sound of of a symphony you’ve heard, that certain auditory processing parts of your brain are activated in much the same way as if you were actually hearing the music. Thinking is part of, and inseparable from your senses.

But how, in general, do you know that something does not exist? Simply being unable to locate it is not enough, because it may be elsewhere, or it may not be detectable through sense perception (in which case it would have to be detected intellectually, by drawing valid inferences from what we already know.)

I never claimed to know that things, undetectable even in principle, do not exist.

I would however claim that such things are indistinguishable from things which do not exist.

I would claim that nobody is justified in claiming that they know that such things do in fact exist.

No, you have to use reasoning to test whether naturalism is true: is it rational to assert that no non-physical realm exists, or that only knowledge originating in the senses can be valid?

If you include in the senses, the introspection of your mind, as I do, then yes to the last part. To the first part, I would assert only that it is irrational to assert that the non-physical realm exists (my assertion being distinct from asserting it’s non-existence), as (for starters) the word “exists” has no meaning for things which are, in principle, undetectable. Your writing is physical in nature. If you write about the non-physical, and claim to write from some knowledge of the non-physical, then you are claiming to have a bridge from the non-physical to the physical. You are claiming to have some sense capable of sensing the non-physical. Here’s the thing, if you can sense it, then it involves the senses. If it does not involve the senses, then you cannot, by definition, sense it. Can you sense your own thoughts and your own memory? Yes you can. Thus, you have senses for this purpose. They may not be commonly known, or have well known names, like “sight”, “hearing”, “taste”, “smell”, and “touch” do, but that does not mean the means by which these things are sensed are not senses. If you can sense it, then senses are involved. But I suspect that you are asserting the existence of some “magic” non material sense. The burden is on you to prove such a thing exists. All of biology, neuroscience, medicine, and science in general are stacked against you.

If you claim to be able to sense it, then you are claiming to have senses capable of sensing it.

This notion of arriving at knowledge without sensing anything is bullshit. Take Einstein. One might argue that his refinement of Newtonian physics was arrived at by pure thought. But, it was thought informed by empirical evidence about the world. Einstein thought about the physical process of how vision and perception worked, the mechanisms involved, photons, photon detectors, and from very carefully thinking about this, and a bit of simple algebra, refined Newton’s physics. Then, this refinement was tested empirically in many ways, as is well documented. So if one were to argue that Einstein arrived at the truth by non empirical means, they would be wrong on two fronts. One, the initial insight was driven primarily by thinking about how the empirically observed world appeared to work, and two, the resulting theory was verified by empirical observations.

Likewise, even such “obvious” things as 1 + 1 = 2 are arrived at empirically. If you put 1 marble in a bag, and put another marble in the bag, then look in the bag to see how many marbles you have, you usually do not have three marbles, you have two. That 1 + 1 = 2 is true is arrived at empirically. Back to Einstein, if you’re travelling 5 miles an hour, and you observer a motorist passing you at a relative speed of 5 miles an hour, how fast is he travelling relative to a stationary observer? Is it 10 miles an hour? Does 5 + 5 = 10? According to Einstein, almost, but not exactly. Velocity doesn’t add up directly like this (so it is a (non-obvious) mistake to think of this question as being the same as asking what is 5 + 5.) Instead it’s very very very slightly slower than 10 miles per hour because of how how velocities add up.. Thinking about things can lead to deeper truths, but in order to be more certain (not “know”) that those deeper truths are real, and not mistakes, empirical evidence is required. If empirical evidence disagreed with the pythagorean theorem, would the theorem still be accepted? No, of course not. Empirical evidence is how you can become confident you haven’t made a mistake.

My examples show that it cannot be the case that we can only know what we can validate with the senses.

Again, include in the “senses”, the operation of your memory, and thoughts. If you can sense it, it involves your senses.

This does not, by itself, prove that there is a God, but such a proof takes many steps, and I don’t have the time to present them all.

Oh ho ho! You have a proof of God’s existence, but there are too many steps, and you don’t “have the time to present them all” !?!?

What an incredible whopper of a lie that statement of yours has to be! Oh, Great Prover of God’s Existence, why don’t you take the time, present your proof, and claim your Nobel prize, and title as Greatest Philosopher/Theologian in the History of the Universe then?

Could it be because you know damn well you have no such proof?

What these examples do prove is that at least some things can be known non-empirically.

(Either that, or they show that we don’t really know most of what we think we know, which is the conclusion reached by some naturalists. I think their position is absurd, we obviously can know the facts of mathematics and logic, so they’re wrong.)

Or, the word “know” doesn’t necessarily imply the certainty you think it does, nor does it refer to a single concept, as you seem to think it does (or, deliberately equivocating.)

If, then, some things obviously can be known non-empirically, you cannot just defeat theism by saying “all your evidence is non-empirical, therefore it is invalid.” Since some things can be known non-empirically, you need some sort of criterion for deciding which non-empirical evidence can be summarily dismissed, and which must be given a fair hearing, so to speak.

It’s kind of a shame you have no time to present your proof of god, isn’t it?. Presumably it’s based on some non-empirical evidence. Now, if I’m convinced that the pythagorean theorem is true, by means of thinking alone (albeit resting on a whole lot of empirically verified information), then you should have no trouble convincing others of the existence of god with the same sort of proof, which you’ve claimed to have. So, let’s have it. I don’t think you have any such proof.

What these examples also show is that there are some things that we can know by a direct intuition; e.g., what I am thinking, that murder is wrong, and the more mundane facts of mathematics and logic.

(You say it is just an opinion that murder is wrong. That would mean that if you and I were the only two people in existence, and I decided to murder you, then it would not be wrong unless I said so. Do you really want to assert such a position?)

Yes I do. You are making another appeal to consequences. You don’t like the consequences of the notion that “‘murder is wrong’ is just an opinion”, so you invite me to reject it on that basis alone, the basis that you and I don’t like it. In so doing you have committed a logical fallacy.

Saying “murder is wrong” is the same thing as saying “most people find murder very undesirable.” It is certainly true that most people find murder very undesirable, and consequently take measures to prevent it from happening, like passing and enforcing laws against it, teaching their children that it’s an awful thing, and nobody should do it, etc.

Suppose “murder is wrong” is absolutely wrong, in the sense that you seem to mean it. How would you know that it was an absolute, and that it was not just your opinion that it was an absolute? How would you know that you weren’t mistaken in your opinion that murder was absolutely wrong? Even it if really were an absolute? There is no way of knowing the absolutes really are absolutes, so there cannot ever be absolutes.

Knowing something by “intuition” does not mean that we just believe, without any evidence. It means that once we grasp the situation to which it refers, it is obviously true, and no formal proof is needed.

And if we can know some things by intuition, not by sense perception,

By “intuition”, I presume you mean “using your brain only.” I count that among the senses. I sense my memory. Sometimes my memory is wrong. Often my memory is wrong without me knowing it is wrong. Same goes for you, I’d bet.

then it is at least possible that there exist, and we can know about, real non-physical things (“substances,” not just properties, to use the language of philosophy).

I don’t think that you have shown this. All of the examples you’ve given of things we know by thought alone are examples of concepts: knowing your own thoughts, the truth of the pythagorean theorem, “knowing” that murder is wrong, none of which involve finding out about the existence of anything which exists in the same way that a chair or a desk exists, or presumably a deity exists (surely you’re not arguing only that the concept of a deity exists?) (And I am excepting the clearly existing neural correlates these concepts manifest in the brains they inhabit.)

These things would be known not by sense perception, but either by drawing logical conclusions from what we know about the more mundane world, or, in the case of supernatural intelligent beings such as God, they could be known if they tell us truths about themselves and we believe them.

You do not indicate any means of distinguishing between the following cases:

  • a supernatural being lies to you, and you believe them (you think a supernatural being, the Supreme Creator of the Universe even, is incapable of deceiving you?).
  • a supernatural being tells you the truth, and you believe them.
  • You hallucinate that a supernatural being tells you something, and you believe it.
  • You imagine that a supernatural being tells you something, and you believe it.
  • You remember (incorrectly) that a supernatural being once told you something, and remember (incorrectly) that you believed it then, and you now you (incorrectly think you still) believe it.
  • Someone convinces you, or conditions you to be ready to accept that some ambiguous “feeling” is confirmation of some suggested hypothesis, and you accept this as being a supernatural revelation, when in reality it is nothing but an emotion.

You would call all of these cases “knowing.” That seems negligently irresponsible to me.

At any rate, you cannot just say “the non-physical does not exist, because it cannot be detected with the senses.” That is circular reasoning: “The non-sense-detectable does not exist, because it is non-sense detectable.” Since my examples show that some real things that are not sense detectable do exist, the onus is on you to actually prove that the non-physical does not exist. It cannot just be assumed.

I wouldn’t say that the non-sense-detectable doesn’t exist, though I would say (including the operation of my mind as a sense) that a non-sense-detectable thing is indistinguishable from something which does not exist, and therefore, for ALL purposes, is identical to a non-existent thing, and might as well not exist.

I would also say that asserting the existence of the non-sense-detectable is not defensible. You have not shown the existence of anything non-sense-detectable. If we can know mathematical truths by thinking alone, this does not mean those things “exist” in the same sense of existence as the coins in my pocket, unless you want to talk about the neural correlates these truths have in the brains of those who are aware of them, and I’m pretty sure you do not.

What does it even mean to say that something which is not detectable in any way to “exists”. This is very very close if not crossing the border into nonsense territory.

I can also say that only a fool would assert the existence of a supernatural intelligence without being in possession of any evidence for the existence of that thing. But I suppose you have claimed not only to have evidence, but to have proof. So, let’s have it.

I have given a more detailed (but certainly not comprehensive) refutation of naturalism at:

http://www.intellectualconservative.com/2007/12/21/the-scientific-leftists-of-the-center-for-inquiry

I presume you lacked the time to post your proof of god’s existence there, as well, eh? Perhaps you’re saving it up for a Pulitzer prize winning book you plan to write?

Much more could be said, but that’s enough for now.

It’s certainly plenty.

~ by scaryreasoner on March 7, 2008.

6 Responses to “The Return of the Supercilious Atheist”

  1. Excellent argument and refutation. If only I could have gathered my “senses” to present such a well worded…like I said.

  2. Dear Scary Reasoner:

    When I referred to the “senses,” I was referring to sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. But you use the word “senses” to refer to most of contents of your mind, which is a wider category. To you, “sensing” something is basically to “knowing” it.

    So now your position is not just that one cannot “sense” the supernatural with one’s five senses, but that one cannot know the supernatural, period.

    Aside from radically redefining naturalism, you are making you job harder. Saying that the supernatural cannot be perceived with the five senses is certainly true, which means that you at least have a chance to prove atheism (or your position that God is unknowable in principle, which, as you say, is equivalent to God not existing.) But now you need to prove that God cannot be know in ANY way, which requires you to prove more, not less.

    And your assertion that the truths of mathematics are arrived at empirically is only true if you redefine “empirically” to mean “based on thought,” rather than “based on data provided by sight, etc.” Since you have redefined “sense” to basically mean “any valid idea in the mind,” by that definition, yes, mathematics and logic are empirically verified.

    (By the way, since the usual definition of “empirically” is “based ONLY on data from the five senses,” calling something “non-empirical” does not mean that we have no data from the five senses. It means that this data is not enough to fully establish the truth.)

    I do not give the proof of God because you are not yet capable of receiving it. You will never be capable of receiving it as long as you cling to your irrational worldview that we can ignore the supernatural. A proper proof of God starts with what you would call empirical evidence, which is then interpreted according to a correct worldview in which both the natural and the supernatural exist.

    About the moral status of murder: I am appealing to an intuition that you, like all people, have: murder is wrong. Some people, in accordance with their false worldview, reject the testimony of their intuition, but many others are willing to properly consider what their intuition tells them about reality.

    You also indicated that it is possible that a supernatural being lies to us, or that we do not correctly interpret the evidence. Sure, that’s possible. There is no 100% guarantee. But the odds (interpreted according a more rational worldview that takes in all the evidence) are better for a traditional interpretation of theism.

    One indication that a fully naturalistically worldview is irrational is that you have redefined it. Your basic position is that we are justified in believing all contents of our mind that are based on ordinary mundane experience. Mathematics and logic are valid, our memories (mostly), and even some of our intuitions.

    So your basic position is this: If it is not derivable from the obvious and the mundane, then it is false, for all intents and purposes, and we are justified in rejecting it.

    But how can the merely physical give rise to the nonphysical aspects of reality: consciousness, logic, life (which requires information), and so on? You can only say, “It happened. Somehow. Appealing to the supernatural is not allowed. There is no evidence for the supernatural.”

    It’s a circular argument: the reason we don’t need to appeal to the supernatural is because appealing to the supernatural is unnecessary.

    Your position is basically that mankind is the supreme being. For your own sake, you had better be right.

  3. Another thing:

    Your mind is real, but not physical. Your BRAIN is physical; your mind is not. If your non-physical mind obviously exists, why is it absurd to believe that other non-physical substances exist?

    Because the mind only exists when it is affiliated with a human brain? But the mind is a real entity, which somehow comes into existence when a brain is formed. If the physical is all there is, this cannot occur. And yet it does. You can be content to regard this as an unanswerable mystery, or else you can draw the proper conclusion: some non-physical substances (i.e., things that are not just properties of something else) really do exist.

  4. Dear Scary Reasoner,
    Have you ever read Alvin Plantinga’s argument that theism is properly basic?
    chris

  5. For Alan Roebuck:

    If you concede that the supernatural cannot be known by the five senses, that leaves thought alone, and some sort of proof, a la the pythagorean theorem, or revelation. Revelation is useless, as it is not distinguishable from hallucination, and one man’s revelation is not transmissible to another man, except by transforming it into hearsay.

    I do not need to prove that deities cannot be known in any way, just that the it is not reasonable for me to believe those who claim to know god exists, given the evidence I have (none) and the evidence they present (also none.)

    As for the mind vs. the senses distinction regarding the definition of empiricism, I did not claim that senses are “any valid idea in the mind,” only that without the mind, there are no senses, you cannot separate the senses from the mind, and that the act of introspection is itself a kind of sense, the mind attempting to sense itself. Are a schizophrenics hallucinations not, to the schizophrenic, evidence? He may with difficulty, in more lucid moments, put together enough pieces of the puzzle to figure out that his mind must not be working correctly, like John Nash did, but this won’t make the hallucinations seem any less real. In the case of things deliberatly imagined, one of the things sensed is that these things are deliberately imagined.I fail to see the distinction between thoughts and sensations, because sensations _are_ thoughts.

    Mathematics are empirically verified, not because as you misconstrued my words, “any valid idea in the mind” constitutes empirical evidence, but because what is directly observed by the senses agrees with mathematics, e.g. you put one marble in an empty bag, and then another, and then open that bag, and voila, two marbles are in there.

    You don’t give the proof because I’m incapable of receiving it? Why? I’m not brainwashed enough yet? You claim to have a proof analogous to the proof of pythagorean’s theorem, a proof I find utterly convincing, yet, unlike this, your proof is only proof to, whom? Only to people who already agree with it? People who have real proofs are not afraid to present them to others because those others are “not able to receive them.” You are full of shit. Your proof is not like the proof of pythgorean’s theorem at all. If it were like it, you would present it, and I, and everyone else, would be convinced. At best, you have an argument. And if your previous posts are a guide, a poor argument, though, to be fair, this is the only kind of argument for a deity I have ever encountered.

    Put up or shut up. Where’s this proof? If it isn’t convincing to people who don’t already agree with it, then guess what? It isn’t a proof.

    ” A proper proof of God starts with what you would call empirical evidence, which is then interpreted according to a correct worldview in which both the natural and the supernatural exist.”

    In other words, you must assume what you wish to prove in order for the proof to “work,” In still other words, your “proof” fails utterly and immediately, if it is as you have described it, and is no proof at all. Just as I suspected. You are really terrible at this.

    As for asserting that “murder being wrong” is a fact, I would like to see your proof of this “fact” as well. Appealing to my intuition bolsters my position that it is merely a widely held opinion. “Appealing to my intuition” is the best case you’ve got? I have similar argument which goes like this, “Aren’t Monet’s paintings ever so nice to look at?”, and “Isn’t Bach a great composer?” Clearly murder happens often enough that some people apparently don’t think it’s so terrible in all cases.

    “Your position is basically that mankind is the supreme being. For your own sake, you had better be right.”

    “The supreme being?” In what sense? I do not argue that mankind created the universe. And I’d better be right, or else what? Is that a threat? A threat is not an argument. And a threat in which the utterly unevidenced claimed consequences arrive after I am dead, is a feeble threat indeed. Mostly, a threat is a big clue that you have no argument, but are (most likely unwittingly) perpetrating a con (of which you and millions of others are also the unwitting victims.).

    As for the mind being non-physical, you have not shown that the mind is non-physical. You are right that the problem of qualia is a very hard problem. I don’t claim to have the answer to the question of “why is it like anything to be a person. rather than like nothing at all.” I think you don’t have an answer either. I think your ‘answer” is not really an answer at all, but just a renaming of the problem, and declaring the problem off-limits, and declaring the existence of a lot of strange and arbitrary attributes around the problem without any evidence.

    However, ALL of the evidence we have indicates that the brain and the mind are so tightly coupled as to be inseparable. If a neurosurgeon can electrically stimulate a part of a patient’s brain, and by this directly cause the patient to experience all sorts of things, reliving memories, finding everything funny for no reason, hearing music, feeling sensations of touch, or taste, or think of cochlear implants, etc, and when there is zero evidence of the brain being anything other than physical (e.g. no evidence of the brain being something like a radio — but receiving magic “soul” waves from the great beyond, no evidence of anything like that. Further, artificial neural networks in computers modelled after how parts of the brain works are able to do tasks typically associated with brains, e.g. real time speech recognition, or face recognition? How is it that the structure of the brain, supposedly distinct from the mind, proves useful in these fields?

    If you make a claim you have to have evidence. You don’t get to cry that it’s circular to insist upon evidence when one of your claims is that your other claims by definition will have no evidence. Tough shit if this makes your proof utterly unconvincing, and utterly fail to actually be a proof.

  6. “> Have you ever read Alvin Plantinga’s argument that theism is properly basic?”

    No. I have heard of it, and of Plantinga, but not read it directly. From what little I’ve read about it, it sounds a little bit like the “but, you use faith too!” argument, more of a defensive argument trying to show that theism is not irrational, rather than that it is true. Seems vulnerable to Occam’s razor. But, that is just my initial impression, I haven’t really looked at it.

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