Monday, 15 November 2010

Peter S. Williams reply to me

Here's the first reply from Peter. If you feel you have anything to say about this, feel free to leave a comment below.

Dear Nathan,

Nice to hear from you.

I agree with you that Dawkins strays too far from his expertise in biology when addressing metaphysical questions and that he too readily asserts ‘that science can disprove the idea of god or that the god concept is provably illusory’ :-)

I obvisouly have a lower opinion of Dawkin’s excursus into theology and philosophy than you do, but I doubt it would be worth our time to get sidetracked into the detail of such a non-substantive disagreement. I would simply observe, on the one hand, that many atheist philosophers (such as Julian Baggini, Michael Ruse and Thomas Nagel) have been critical of Dawkins’ approach; and, on the other hand, that that there are atheist critics of theism outside the neo-atheist camp whose arguments I think are far more subtle and informed.

If Dawkins is only aiming to critique the ‘most common and most foundational ideas about religion held by most lay-people’ I could critique him for asserting things about the beliefs of lay people that don’t apply to many ‘lay people’ that I know; or I could simply set aside his whole project as irrelevant to the questions of whether theism and/or Christianity is true, or a rational belief system, at a more advanced level of discourse.

For example, along with other new-atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling and Victor J. Stenger, Dawkins would clearly endorse your statement that ‘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!).’ Even setting to one side the question of religious experience and whether or not it is accurate to dismiss it as a completely subjective experience, rather than as evidence that must be taken into account, this statement is false - even when applied to lay people. I know, and have known, a great many 'lay people' in many churches over many years (I am one myself), and I know that this assertion isn’t true. I rest my faith (i.e. trust) on experience, evidence, argument and logic. Of course, my experience may be a delusion, my evidence may likewise be a delusion, or be incorrectly interpreted, or be insufficient, my arguments may be unsound and my logic invalid – but Dawkins et al claim that faith means setting aside any notion of rational warrant for one’s beliefs – and this is a demonstrably false claim. Whether or not faith is warranted, many believers (I’m not disputing the existence of some fideists) take it that their faith is warranted by evidence, argument, etc.

As for experience and the burden of proof, I totally agree with you that ‘we simply have to go with what we see as being real’ – or as philosopher Richard Swinburne puts this 'principle of credulity': we should take things to be the way they seem to us to be in the absence of sufficient counter-evidence. I don’t see why the mere fact that people’s apparent experience of the natural world precedes people’s apparent experience of God should make the latter experience suspect.

I agree with you that the natural world exists, of course, but I don’t think that it is the only kind of reality that exists; that is, I do not think that metaphysical naturalism is a true worldview.

It seems that you are reticent about claiming that naturalism is a true description of reality: ‘is metaphysical naturalism true? I'm not sure the word “true” is accurate here.’ But you do want to make naturalism your default position: ‘This is none other than the default position, a base assertion if you will.’ I wonder if the principle of credulity, when applied to the evident reality of your own consciousness, doesn’t imply a distinction between that consciousness and the apparently non-conscious realities of the natural, material world around you. In other words, I think that metaphysical naturalism is not warranted prima facie as a worldview even if we set aside the question of God, because the principle of credulity is against it when it comes to our experience of ourselves as feeling, reasoning, choosing beings. Perhaps naturalism will meet this burden of proof (I personally doubt it), but it seems to me that the prima facie, default position here is not the naturalistic one.

Indeed, as many philosophers have pointed out, it is our experience of our own conscious awareness, thought etc. that is the primordial experience, and the reality of non-conscious realities in the material universe is something only known through the experience of consciousness.

Naturalism is in effect an error theory, which says that ‘Although it looks like mind isn’t the same as matter, although it looks like the world is the product of design, etc., actually that appearance is misleading and everything can be accounted for by a simple naturalistic worldview.’

Now, I grant that naturalism has the explanatory value of simplicity – but I doubt it has the more significant explanatory value of adequacy; and simply in terms of going with what we see as being real, it seems to me that naturalism starts off on the back foot, whether or not it can push back against this opening disadvantage.

Whether or not atheism carries the burden of proof for someone who lacks a relevant religious experience (a matter that would depend upon how strong you thought the extension of the ‘principle of credulity’ to taking seriously other people’s reported experiences via the ‘principle of testimony’ was), it seems to me that naturalism does carry the burden of proof.

Your definition of atheism as making no claim about the existence or non-existence of God - ‘The atheist does not make any claim, full stop… the atheist makes no claim.’ – surely makes atheism indistinguishable from agnosticism. So I’d be interested to know if you consider yourself an atheist or an agnostic?

As for objective evidence for theism, I refer you to the sources listed in my original e-mail.

Yours truly,

Peter S. Williams

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