Thursday, 14 October 2010

Reply to Peter S. Williams

So apparently my last post on the burden of proof has found its way to the theologian Peter S. Williams of fame.

He asserts a few things I want to rebut, I guess.

If Nathan has indeed listened to my podcasts, including those responding to the frankly shoddy scholarship of the so-called 'new atheism', I doubt there's much I can usefully add in generic terms; although if he has some specific objection to what I've argued I'd be happy to respond. Perhaps it would help to point out that Dawkins et al represent the sort of atheism that other atheists think gives atheism a bad name?!

Let's start with Dawkins. First off, I want to say that I respect the guy and that his science is extraordinary and revolutionary. I don't fully accept his premise that the main evolutionary change occurs at the gene level, the evidence I think leans in the direction of population level evolution (allopatric speciation). There seems to be a good middle ground employing both concepts though, which I appreciate. But the question here is did Dawkins take his impeccable science too far from the biology lab? I think there's a case to be made for this, especially as it relates to a critique on religion and spirituality. He asserts (far too readily) that science can disprove the idea of god or that the god concept is provably illusory. 

But Dawkins is far from being the buffoon most Christian apologists make him out to be. He most definitely does not have 'shoddy scholarship' in the realm of theology or apologetics and does not gloss over the more convoluted ides of those fields. After all, by the logic bandied around by apologists no amount of training or readings could ever be adequate for a comprehensive critique of religion. This position is simply unfalsifiable and a gross display of shifting the goalposts. Dawkins makes it quite clear that he is critiquing the most common and most foundational ideas about religion held by most lay-people. Of course a scholar that's dedicated their lives to diligent contemplation of esoteric texts and writings could pick small holes in Dawkins arguments, but he fully realizes that and so doesn't even try to deliver a comprehensive critique. Such a thing would be impossible by definition because, as every believer asserts, they do not rest their belief on evidence, argument, or logic but on a completely subjective 'experience' of their god (whatever that means!). As Christopher Hitchens once said of his debate partners, he would have to write a fresh book for every person of faith if he were to speak to them personally. The decision to simply attack the commonly held beliefs is a conscious one held by most of the so-called 'new atheists'.

P.Z. Myers does a good analogy about how ridiculous such a dismissal of their arguments actually is. Moving on then:

I see that Nathan says on his blog that "the burden of proof always lies with the person proposing the idea." The idea that God does not exist, and the idea that metaphysical naturalism is true, are just as much ideas as the idea that God does exist or that metaphysical naturalism is false - according to Nathan's own way of defining the burden of proof, then, he cannot escape shouldering such a burden. If anyone lacks such a burden, perhaps it is the soft agnostic - but one might also argue that since a belief in God is a widespread, natural human tendency supported by a prima facie interpretation of many people's experience of the world as well as their specific religious experience - the burden of proof is more properly upon the atheist than the theist.

Well, what about the burden of proof? I'm not sure I accept the grammar of your assertion here. What exactly would it mean if '"the idea that metaphysical naturalism [were] true"? I totally understand that any discussion about reality will quickly dive into a sea of doubt as Descartes found lying on his bed after a particularly vivid dream. In my humble opinion about the nature of reality, we simply have to go with what we see as being real: we need a starting point, this is mine. Of course I could be a brain in a vat or still inside a dream but these ideas don't add anything of utility to my next move, simply put they are unnecessary. But is metaphysical naturalism true? I'm not sure the word 'true' is accurate here. I could point out that, as you do, everyone in the world essentially sees the same thing as we do when we use our senses: the natural world and its movements. This is none other than the default position, a base assertion if you will. So I guess in that context the word metaphysical naturalism is true, but only to those people who employ fully working senses. I would go further and say that a natural cause for physical events is the only game in town. After all, what good is saying “god did it!” to everything? It serves only to kick the can further down the road and is a completely unnecessary conclusion. Things only make sense, and we can only advance our knowledge (e.g. Ipads, rockets, baked beans) if we treat everything as if it were of a natural, knowable, testable, and repeatable cause. I don’t understand how anyone can miss this! How far do you think humans would get today if we dropped naturalism in the sciences in favour of saying “god did it” when we turn on the t.v.?

Sure people "feel" the supernatural and "experience" god but these are things added post hoc to an initial accrual of what the five senses sense. I posit that the universe has certain attributes, one of them would probably stem from metaphysical naturalism, and this is the prediction that is best described as with the idea of inertia. I predict that a ball will continue to roll unless friction or another physical obstacle impedes its travel. The burden of proof most definitely is upon me (I do not hide from it); therefore I will test such a claim. And what do you know, I am vindicated: It works! On the other hand, the burden of proof exactly expects from the prediction of god an equal amount of tests and vindication to assess validity of the claim. The idea of god, so burdened, has never been vindicated objectively. I challenge you to propose an objective test for your god that mimics the repeatability of my inertia test. You are forbidden to use any semblance of a subjective universal "feeling" of god, such a proof is laughable and equivalent to "feeling" that faeries exist. Until your god can be proven by the default standard tests for those who put forward a claim, that which is posited without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

How then, sir, do you still suggest that it is the atheistic viewpoint that has the burden of proof? To meet the burden of proof, one must have a claim and proof to verify it (among other things I do realise). The atheist does not make any claim, full stop. Atheism is simply an answer to a question (or in this case a claim), that being: does a god exists. The atheist simply answers that there has been no good evidence provided for one. Therefore the atheist does not have any burden of proof as they fail to meet the full criteria expected for one, the atheist makes no claim. I’m sorry if I’m spelling this out for you. No amount of universal “feeling” or anecdotal evidence can be proof for your god unless you take every “feeling” a Muslim or animist has as equal proof for their god’s. Without objective proof for your god, and I stress the importance of objectivity, each spiritual feeling is an equal and equivalent glimpse of the same subjective untruth. 


shreddakj said...

With regards to the naturalism issue, the simple fact is that methodological naturalism is useful to us, it extrapolates very simply into metaphysical or philosophical naturalism. Supernaturalism is not useful to us, try point to one piece of knowledge that arose from a supernatural source. You can't. Everything that humanity knows, comes from a natural source, our brains, our experimentation via methodological naturalism that we call Science and so on.

In the same way that supernaturalism is not useful to us, the god hypothesis is not useful to us, and we have no evidence for its veracity. The theist attempt to shift the burden of proof seems to come from a straw-man of what modern atheism is (I've been meaning to a blog post about this for some time). They try to paint a picture of atheism that says "I know that there are no gods", whereas modern atheism does not say this at all. Modern atheism is saying "I don't know that gods do exist, and see no reason to accept their existence". So it should be quite clear that the theist has the burden of proof, and always will do.

heresmyopinion12 said...

It's funny that this guy tried to squeeze the proposition that supernaturalism is the default mindset for humans. It's simply not. Humans are born not knowing anything about the so-called 'supernatural world, and they stay that way until told otherwise.

Sometimes I wonder whether these people simply cannot understand what it's like to be someone who does not experience the supernatural. It's all white noise to them.