Ask the Atheist (round 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 19, 2010 in Ask the Atheist

Because I know everything, obviously.

Because I know everything, obviously.

Earlier, I invited my readers to ask me anything. You may ask more questions here, but please read the instructions first. Here is my first round of responses.

Question 001

Aaron asks:

What are your plans regarding academic qualifications in the future? Do you plan to get a higher education in philosophy or are you content with doing this as a “hobby”?

I’ve written before about Scholarly Papers and Books I Want to Write, but I think I’ll hold off on all that. Right now I’m young and I want to live for a couple decades. I can get a degree and start doing philosophy later, maybe around age 40. Heck, that’s what Nicholas Nassim Taleb did, and he’s doing quite well.

Question 002

Mattc asks:

By what means can one test the reliability of a revelatory experience if it is an experience that is not a property of physical reality? All experiences unilaterally rely upon the assumed reliability of the framework in which they take place. Physical experiences unilaterally rely upon the assumed reliability of our physical perceptions and physical reality itself. Similarly, though I will admit some overlap, theistic experiences unilaterally rely upon the assumed reliability of theistic reality and theistic perceptions. By trying to test these revelatory experiences using physical reality, one is taking them out of the framework for which they exist. It is tantamount to trying to prove the existence of physical reality or the reliability of our perceptions without begging the question.

On what basis then, given the aforesaid, can one criticize theistic experience?

I don’t need to give a case against religious experiences. Religious people need to provide a good case for the legitimacy of religious experiences, and I don’t think they’ve done so.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to be suspicious of religious experiences:

  1. People from all religions have religious experiences, and the assumed metaphysics behind them are often contradictory. Thus, even religious people will reject the metaphysical assumptions behind the vast majority of religious experiences. Isn’t it special pleading to assert that your religious experiences are different, and reveal something accurate about a supernatural realm?
  2. Scientists continually discover simpler, better, natural explanations for all kinds of religious experiences.1 By Occam’s razor, we have no need to posit that supernatural beings are responsible for religious experiences.
  3. A great many religious experiences have been found to be the work of charlatans.

You also asked about how we might test the reliability of experiences of non-natural phenomena. I wrote about this in On Seeking Truth About the Non-Physical World.

Question 003

danielg asks:

…are you afraid that you [ - like Graham Oppy - ] may come to a point where you realize that there are no definitive arguments [either for or against theism]?

Today I think that’s more likely than I used to believe, but I’m not “afraid” of such a conclusion. It would be nice to have a “silver bullet” argument against theism so we could just be done with it and move on to solving more important questions about society, the environment, and morality. But then again, most people don’t adopt a worldview because of its rational merits, anyway.

Question 004

Midas Vuik asks:

How did you come to be so knowledgeable about philosophy of religion, theology, etc.? What works did you read? Did you take any classes on the subject at all?

I wrote some about the works I read in My Journey to Atheism. Since my deconversion, I’ve read hundreds more articles and dozens more books. I did not take any classes.

I actually don’t have much time for reading these days, but I try to keep up. I think I do a good job of selecting what to read.

Question 005

Bill Maher asks:

Do you think someone being religious can hinder someone from doing good work in history (treating miracles as historic events), philosophy (metaphysics and ethics relating to non-existent things), or science (interruption of the laws of the universe)?

Is it possible for them to “leave their beliefs at the door” and do experiments, read through the past, and confront the big questions like an atheist or agnostic?

If they can, then why bother caring of someone is religious or not?

Being religious and superstitious can certainly hinder one’s work in history, philosophy, and science. But religion is only one of many hindrances to any search for objective truth. Many atheistic historians, scientists, and philosophers are more greatly hindered by other biases and confusions than some religious academics (for example, Freeman Dyson) are by their theism .

So, removing theism from the world will help our pursuit of truth in the same way that removing Greek paganism did: such an achievement would remove one stumbling block among thousands. We no longer waste time positing Zeus as a cause for things, and that helps science. And perhaps one day we will no longer posit God as a cause for things, and that will help science, too. But there are many more human stumbling blocks to overcome. Killing theism will not by itself lead to a golden age for science. If anything, killing humanity (and replacing it with moral machines) would do that.

But religious hindrances to the pursuit of truth are not the best reason to care about destroying certain religious worldviews. The best reason to care about destroying certain religious worldviews is the enormous harm certain religious worldviews cause (for example, Koranic Islam).

Do you think someone being religious can hinder someone from doing good work in history (treating miracles as historic events), philosophy (metaphysics and ethics relating to non-existent things), or science (interruption of the laws of the universe)?
Is it possible for them to “leave their beliefs at the door” and do experiments, read through the past, and confront the big questions like an atheist or agnostic?
If they can, then why bother caring of someone is religious or not?

  1. See, for example, Evan Fales’ “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences” Part 1 and Part 2. []

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur January 19, 2010 at 6:15 am

So, removing theism from the world will help our pursuit of truth in the same way that removing Greek paganism did

No help at all, then.

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Steven January 19, 2010 at 8:13 am

I am intrigued by your discussions and responses, thanks.
One quick question or clarification for me: are you giving Dyson as an example of an “atheistic historian, scientist, [or] philosopher?”

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lukeprog January 19, 2010 at 8:59 am

Steven,

No, Dyson is a Christian.

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RA January 19, 2010 at 9:10 am

Is that a picture of you or Keanu Reeves?

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Eneasz January 19, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I’m straight, but I gotta admit… dude, you’re pretty hot.

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Rick January 19, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Luke,

I think you do a great job searching for the truth and it seems like you’re willing to amend your beliefs to reflect the conclusions you come to.

Suppose you or someone else is finally able to solve the question, conclusively. Resolved is the question of god’s existence, and there is no god, at least in the sense of a sentient being concerned about the affairs of humans. Proof negative, if you will.

What do you hold the chances to be that humanity in general will give up their false religions and beliefs? In particular, that the radical and violent fundamentalist sects will lose membership and influence?

Edit: Sorry, just noticed I posted this as a question on the first round of answers rather than the original challenge like I thought.

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Jake de Backer January 19, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Rick,

Thanks for the post, dude. This thread was getting weird for a minute.

J.

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Steven January 20, 2010 at 6:16 am

Thanks lukeprog,

It would be interesting to see how atheistic historians etc. are more hindered by biases or confusions than are religious academics.
More precisely, how they would be hindered by their atheistic bias (I don’t doubt that atheists can be subject to many other types of biases).

Your statement that many are more hindered is hard for me to quite see, and I think worth exploration.
In the case of historians, I would say that atheist might give a most unsympathetic view of certain religion inspired events such as the crusades, but again, I’m not sure that is a hindrance.

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lukeprog January 20, 2010 at 7:32 am

Steven,

I was mostly talking about non-atheistic biases, but I’m sure there are some historians that have atheistic bias that distorts their work, too.

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urbster1 January 20, 2010 at 11:52 am

Hey Luke,
Plantinga is going to be giving a couple talks at the campus I work at in a few months. What would you recommend I begin reading in order to be informed enough to ask some hard-hitting philosophical questions? Thanks for the help!

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lukeprog January 20, 2010 at 11:57 am

urbster1,

I don’t know that “hard-hitting” questions will do much good. Genuinely inquisitive ones will be better received.

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urbster1 January 20, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Ok thanks for the help

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Andrew Marshall January 20, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Hi Luke,

I’m asking, since I didn’t hear back earlier in the month, what do you think of an agnosticism that allows for many possibilities, but speculates very few specifics regarding the nature of deities? (some specifics would be along the lines of ‘if you accept definition (a) of omnipotence and quality X of God, then God cannot be omnipotent for the following reason…’)

Some might answer with “what is the point, if one can’t say much concrete about God(s)?” But in an open philosophical conversation intended to be as reasonable as possible, isn’t that precisely the most defensible position?

I’ve met atheists who are very quick to compare the very general question of whether a deity of sorts is possible to the specific existence of the Easter Bunny, for example, and I’ve found that strain of atheism lacks imagination as well as reason.

Also, I’d wager that hypothesizing a God, say in reaction to a child’s question about the universe, would be a lot less loaded and a lot more reasonable outside of the context of our current world religions, with all their dogma and political leverage.

What do you think?

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lukeprog January 20, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Andrew,

I’m a bit confused. What do you mean by agnosticism for many possibilities?

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Andrew Marshall January 20, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I’m asking what you think of agnosticism, garden variety agnosticism, except that in considering many many different possible causes for the universe, say, some general properties of God or Gods are dismissed on grounds of inconsistency while other properties are momentarily accepted on ground of being interesting and seemingly plausible.

It seems to me there is a lot of social pressure to accept very specific, seemingly very implausible, often contradictory religious tenets, and atheism is seen as a haven from that. But when you take the question of God(s) out of that (extraneous) context, and place it where it belongs–in a very speculative area of metaphysics–then atheism is but one conclusion, and an interesting one, but certainly not a necessary one. “Belief” itself becomes unsatisfactory, almost absurd.

For example, if I traveled around the world with a large black box, and asked people to tell me what they ‘believed’ was inside, maybe a lot would say “nothing.” That would be a decent guess, if the rules were ‘name the specific item(s), if there are any,’ since it seems many times more probable than any specific given item or collection of items. But is it more probable than “something”? I don’t think so. Moreover, it may be interesting discussing what I could or could not possibly have inside. It may not be interesting, many people wouldn’t care, as it doesn’t really affect their lives. Still others might think I had something threatening or wonderful inside, and might worry that it was important to guess. When there is no specific reason for alarm, I would argue that there’s no use in being paranoid, and to enjoy the guessing game for what it is or disregard it. Either way, ‘belief’ almost doesn’t apply, does it?

I hope my metaphor is clear. I’m asking what you think, in terms of this metaphor, for the claim that religion is this black box.

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lukeprog January 20, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Andrew,

Hoo-boy. I’m afraid it’s still not clear to me.

Let me put what I think you might be saying in my own words and you can tell me if I’ve got you right.

The cause, reason, or origin behind the universe itself seems a mystery. Many people have asserted that a highly specific type of God is the cause of the universe. Others reject this God as the cause of the universe, but are open to the possibility of a less-specified sort of Ground of All Being. Are you asking what I think of this latter group?

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Andrew Marshall January 21, 2010 at 6:26 am

Yes, Luke. I was just trying to give some rationale for that position. That’s what I’m asking.

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LukeL January 25, 2010 at 12:23 am

Howdy, I’ve been enjoying your site, especially all the debates and hopefully you’ll know the answer to a little problem I ran into.

Alright, this is actually an argument AGAINST christianity that I came up with and I’m relatively sure it’s flawed so I’d appreciate some insight. Here’s how it goes.

1. Nothing existed before God
2. God is the source of all things.
3. Since all things come directly from God then all things are a part of God
4. God created hell
5. God Sends people to hell
6. God is sending parts of himself into eternal torment

How can God create something apart from himself? And doesn’t it suggest something about his sanity that he would cause himself suffering? An analogy would be that if I could snap my fingers and make a cup appear the fact would remain that I thought of the cup, I have to power to make it be, and I caused it’s existence from nothing but myself. Therefor the cup and I are made out of the same substance and we are in fact, the same thing.

If this can’t be answered then it also suggests that we should consider the moral implications of how a reflection of God could ever commit an act that was objectively evil and thus deserving of punishment.

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