Friday, 21 December 2012

Rational and evidential equivalence


I don’t usually chase popularity, but what I saw after my previous post was published gave me cause for reflection. Of the 94 posts on this blog, “An atheist creed” has certainly had the best first 24 hours, with more than 100 views during that period alone. It was also my most popular post by far, reaching 10 “+1s” within a couple of hours. On Twitter and Google+ too it was received well, which suggested that I had picked a good topic. Not only that, but on Google+ it also lead to a conversation that made me append an update to the original post.

And then three of the original +1s were revoked, still leaving a respectable seven but clearly signaling disagreement with the update’s content. After a day of trying to work out what might have lead to someone changing their mind (and if you are one of the three who did, I’d love to hear from you), I have decided to expand on what I said, with the hope of being more explicit than the update’s 100 or so words allowed.

While the initial post attempted a summary of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and arrived at the conclusion that his position is one of unacknowledged belief, for the explicit variant of which he chides those who hold religious ones. At the end of the post I then admitted that, while I respect agnostic positions and hold a Christian one, I fail to see the honesty of atheism. After an enriching exchange on Google+ I then returned to the post and added an update in which I quote one of my atheist friends as saying that their atheism is a belief in there being nothing else out there beyond what we experience. Since this was the first time I have encountered atheism as a creed (my post’s title originally having been intended as a dig at Dawkins), I was surprised and felt like I needed to take a fresh look at it.

I suspect, although I am not sure (and, please, do correct me if I am wrong), that the following may have been the root of the discontent with the post’s update: “the nature of [religious or atheist] belief and [their] relation to evidence and rationality are, to my mind, equivalent.” While the original post was decidedly negative about atheism, the update may have looked like I have softened my stance and like I may even have devalued my own Christian beliefs. Let me therefore be more explicit about these two possible interpretations.

First, everything I have said in the post before the update still stands as is. The atheism presented by Dawkins, and many other militant, aggressive atheists like him, is to my mind rationally feeble and delusional. It claims to be a purely rational, evidence-derived position, while it cannot possibly be. This lack of honesty about the nature of such atheism is fundamentally harmful to those who hold it, since it endows them with an illusory sense of superiority that dramatically (and demonstrably) inhibits their capacity for dialogue.

Why do I claim that their position cannot be evidence derived? For a more detailed answer see this previous post, but in a nutshell it is this: All empirical evidence that I can ever have is in the form of my own experiences and not directly of entities beyond myself. I experience images, sounds, sensations of texture, pressure, temperature, etc. but in all of this I am only conscious of aspects of myself. When I have the experience of seeing an apple, my evidence is not of some external entity - the “apple” as separate from events in my stream of consciousness - but of an image formed in my consciousness. No amount of reference to others, method, measurement or anything else can possibly result in anything other than events that I can with certainty place anywhere other than my own consciousness. This is the nature of experience that has been well understood by philosophers for some centuries now (very clearly by Hume and Locke and to different extents also by many others in preceding centuries).

The only exclusively empirical position is to restrict oneself to making statements only about oneself. Anything else requires belief. A belief in a physical world that causes the experiences we have access to, or even a belief that there is nothing beyond oneself (or some of the more esoteric beliefs typically posited for the sake of exploring the nature of knowledge, like the idea that we are all brains in vats, being fed signals that give rise to the experience we have). A belief that the physical world is all there is or that there is something or someone else beyond it. Beliefs about what it is that lies beyond the physical world. All of these beliefs have the same relationship to empirical evidence - i.e., none! Empirical evidence can contribute to greater or lesser confidence being attributed to one theory or another that explains it, but its scope is only that of the empirical. Evidence cannot point one way or another when it comes to what is beyond it - whether it be nothing or something.

It is with this in mind that I said, and repeat, that an atheist creed has the same empirical and rational status as a religious creed (including my Christian one). The position that is rationally inferior is an atheism that considers itself to be derived from evidence and devoid of the necessity of forming beliefs beyond its scope.

Finally, let me also emphasize that this position is fully compatible with how Christianity understands its own beliefs - as a gift from God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §153-154):
“Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed are contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason. Even in human relations it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us […] or to trust their promises […] to share a communion of life with one another.”
My belief in God is empirically and rationally equivalent to another’s belief that there is nothing beyond the physical world and I look forward to learning from my atheist friends what it is like to hold the beliefs they do. Open, honest and charitable dialogue can only be enriching to all who partake in it and I am pleased that I can now count some atheists among those who appreciate it as much as I do.