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Posted by on Apr 15, 2013 in Culture, Religion, Science, Skepticism | 11 comments

Daniel Loxton on skepticism and atheism (3)

Time to wrap this up, though there is doubtless much more we could discuss – do comment here or one on one of the previous posts in this series. I at least wanted to say in some detail why I object to Daniel Loxton’s formula “my personal non-scientific theological beliefs”. As I suggested a couple of days ago, it is misleading to call atheism “personal”, “non-scientific”, a “theological” position, or even “beliefs”. It would have been better to say something that gives a very different impression, such as “my own scientifically informed philosophical view on the question of God’s existence.”

I’ll take this one step at a time. First, I understand that atheism is Loxton’s own view on the God question. What more is added by the word personal? We usually add this word, in such a context, when we want to stress that the view concerned is not privileged in some relevant way. E.g. we want to stress that we don’t think it should be imposed on others by law, or don’t think it is or should be the view of the organisation we belong to, or don’t think it should have any special status within our social group, etc. But the question as to whether atheism should have some of special or privileged status within scientific skepticism is precisely what is up for debate here. Many skeptics think that it should have such a status, perhaps because they think that belief in God is just as open to scientific debunking as belief in, say, the medical efficacy of homeopathy. They may be wrong (though I actually think there is at least some force in their position), but it is question-begging to suggest that they are at the outset. Some kind of argument has to be put as to why belief in an all-powerful supernatural being falls outside the remit of organisations that spend a lot of time debunking other supernatural beliefs. After all, I can’t imagine Loxton taking pains to suggest that his skepticism about astrological influences is a merely personal belief with no privileged status in skeptic circles. Why should belief in God be different?

Loxton describes his atheistic position on the God question as non-scientific. Well, perhaps it is. People end up being atheists as a result of different experiences and encounters with different arguments. Perhaps in his case the reasons genuinely have nothing to do with science. But for many other people, me included, that is not the case. Whether or not Loxton’s own reasons for being an atheist relate to science, that does not make atheism inherently non-scientific. Compare the many people who have no belief in the efficacy of homeopathy, perhaps because they have never heard of it, or because they have simply been socialised to be suspicious of it, or for some emotional reason (such as dislike for an enemy who happens to be a homeopath). While such people exist, the fact remains that there are scientific reasons to be very suspicious of homeopathy. The trouble is that there are also scientific reasons to be very suspicious of theism. Perhaps the best case that can be made out in favour of atheism will depend, in part, on considerations from outside of science (perhaps from the humanities, such as in the work of historical and textual scholars), but it will at least be very much scientifically informed. So Loxton’s talk of “non-scientific” beliefs is at best misleading.

Is atheism a theological position? That is really pushing things. Even if you defined theology in such a way that any view on the God question was technically “theological”, the word gives the wrong impression. Historically, theologians have been believers arguing among themselves about doctrine, often depending on exegesis of holy books, reconciliation of traditional materials, and so on. When someone holds to an atheistic view from a background of disciplined inquiry into the issue, that inquiry would usually be regarded as belonging to philosophy of religion, not to theology. Sure, theologians do get involved with philosophy of religion, just as they do many other things, such as church history, textual translation, etc. The fact remains that atheism as an intellectual position is best described as a philosophical position, not a theological one. When I put arguments in favour of atheism, I do so as a philosopher, not as a theologian. Furthermore, modern analytic philosophy is heavily informed by science. It is not obviously inappropriate for it to inform, in turn, the scientific skeptic movement, whereas it is fairly obvious (don’t you think?) that theology should not. So the choice of words here is pretty important.

What about “beliefs“? I’m not as worried as some people about calling atheism “a belief”, but historically it would not have been necessary for someone to form a positive belief in the non-existence of God for them to be denounced and distrusted as an atheist. All that was really needed was an absence of belief in God or gods, and whatever goes with it. For example, Locke would have considered anyone who lacked a positive belief in God and the afterlife to be untrustworthy (and fit for state persecution). More worrying, saying “beliefs” (plural) makes it sound as if atheism is a body of doctrine, when it is, at the most, a single belief on a single point, i.e. the belief that no gods exist.

Thus, Loxton has chosen a formula that is far more misleading than the more accurate one that would apply to the views of people who think that atheism deserves a privileged place in the skeptic movement. For them, it is a position on a single issue (so not a body of beliefs), which is informed by considerations from science (and so not, at least not entirely, non-scientific), which is philosophical, not theological, and which they are not prepared from the outset to see as merely “personal” in the sense of not meriting any privilege in this context.

I refer you to Loxton’s overall post/article, and I don’t propose at this stage to discuss all his arguments. Perhaps, however, some of them will be debated in the thread. In the end, though, there may well (as I’ve said, I’ve come around on this view) be good pragmatic and historical reasons not to try to make atheism a focus of the scientific skeptic movement (or a shibboleth for participation). But there are also, I think, reasons why science-based arguments in favour of atheism have a legitimate place in the movement. E.g., I think it would be legitimate for someone to put the arguments for this at TAM.

This may seem like an unsatisfactory or even cowardly, compromise. Maybe it is, or maybe I’ve been “captured” by hanging around more with people from the skeptic movement who think this way. For what it’s worth, though, it makes sense to me, if only because the movement is partly defined by what its focus has actually been as a matter of history. Perhaps it could evolve over time in some other direction, perhaps becoming more focused on skepticism about religion or even on aspects of philosophical skepticism. But that is not what it has been so far, and the legacy, personalities, etc., make me think there is a useful division of labour for the broad secular movement with the scientific skeptic component remaining in something like its current form. But can scientific, or scientifically informed, atheism be excluded entirely? I don’t think there’s a principled reason for this.

  • Russell — I’m sort of unclear on how science could be used to disprove something as amorphous as a magical immaterial invisible atemporal cosmic megamind. Can you please give us a couple examples of the sort of “science-based arguments in favour of atheism” that you have in mind here?

  • RussellBlackford

    You’re really going to have to read 50 GREAT MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM. It’s not as if I’m putting forward some kind of simple deductive argument for atheism that I could set out quickly in a blog comment. It’s more a matter of numerous convergent considerations that undermine the plausibility of theistic religion. In the book, Udo and I discuss the relationship, as we see it, between religion and science at considerable length.

    As I see it, the case for thinking that all religions, including the theistic ones, are probably false and that atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question does, indeed, depend on, among other things, the way our picture of the universe has changed in the past 400 years or so as a result of science. I think that it is now generally most rational to be a philosophical naturalist (not just a provisional methodological naturalist), and this is largely because of the general success of science, as well as many of its specific successes. The balance of what is most reasonable to believe might have been very different in pre-scientific times… say, 500 years ago.

    However, you might also like to discuss this with some of the people who have commented on the other threads in this series, who seem to think that scientific disproof of God’s existence is fairly straightforward. I haven’t argued that.

  • Daniel Loxton

    I might add here in agreement with Russell that science and scientific skepticism can in some cases clearly shed light on questions that have major theological implications for some believers. Scientific skeptics have never shied away from answering those answerable questions, regardless of whom the answers might offend. (The classic example is the exposé of American faith healer Peter Popoff.) For those interested in the issue, I discuss this in some detail in my recent two-chapter essay “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” which we released at the Skeptics Society as a free PDF. Part Two is especially relevant to scope discussions, and in particular you may be interested in the subsection “’Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’” on pages 36–41.

    I will also agree here briefly that there are many other “grey area” cases that arguably could be investigated, at least in principle, and which would have important theological implications—and also cases that clearly cannot be investigated through any remotely empirical means. For example, the most we can say about the claim that the sacrifice of Jesus redeemed sin is that this is an untestable, extra-scientific faith claim. On the other hand, in principle it could once have been determined whether Jesus physically rose from the dead, even if that question has now in practical terms receded beyond the event horizon of the knowable.

    In previous decades, skeptics were reasonably comfortable with efforts to feel out and explore the limits of our empirical scope, and even sometimes to tentatively explore beyond our traditional boundaries, because we shared a common understanding of our foundational principles or mandate. With pressure since 2001 (and especially since 2005) from other rationalist movements to conflate our project with theirs or even to deny that our tradition has any value (see the atheist blogosphere’s hostile disdain toward “Bigfoot skeptics”) scientific skeptics have become a bit more touchy.

    The way forward, I think, is for scientific skeptics to re-clarify what we’re trying to do, and to ask that those in other rationalist movements recognize the intent and general outline of our project (as Russell has commendably done in these three posts). With that shared understanding, we’re all then free to meet on friendly shared ground where it exists and to make common cause where the opportunities present themselves. Good fences make good neighbours.

  • “For example, the most we can say about the claim that the sacrifice of
    Jesus redeemed sin is that this is an untestable, extra-scientific faith

    Don’t science and other empirically informed areas of study like history actually have a lot to say about this claim? Whether Jesus existed in the first place. Whether the concept of sin as a thing that could be inherited is realistic. Whether the source of this supposed sin (e.g. Adam and Eve) existed. Whether the culture who originated this claim has a history of belief in appeasing dieties with sacrifices. It seems clear to me that the claim relies on a worldview that doesn’t match what empirical studies have revealed (e.g. no verified historical records of animal sacrifices changing events, no biological or psychological indication sin is something that can be passed down like genes), and that we can study the events this claim is based on and determine probable reasons it originated based on our knowledge of Jewish culture and history.

  • RussellBlackford

    I agree with this, but it’s all rather indirect and circumstantial if used as an argument for atheism. My position is an anti-accommodationist one: I think that the claim that “religion and science are compatible” is misleading if not outright false. Science undermines religion in all sorts of ways, and you are giving some indication of those ways. Cumulatively, science renders the claims of religion implausible. When well-meaning people like Stephen Jay Gould or well-meaning science organisations try to give reassurances to the contrary, I think it’s unimpressive.

    But Damion is also correct, up-thread, to suggest that religious claims can come in very amorphous forms that cannot be decisively refuted by scientific means (and they might be too vague to be condemned as internally inconsistent). In the end, we might be able to do no better than say that there is no good reason to believe such remarkable and unanchored claims. If you haven’t been socialised to believe them, then you certainly have no good reason to start believing them now. If you have been socialised to believe them, you might have a good reason to step back and apply what John Loftus calls the outsider test. Ask yourself whether you have anything to say that should be convincing to someone who has not been socialised as you have been, and if the answer is “no” then perhaps you ought to start doubting those beliefs.

    All of this and much more can be informed by science. But it is a very different style of argument from what has been the tradition and focus in the scientific skeptic movement. This does legitimately push the issues into a grey area for the scientific skeptic movement, I think, whereas it is central to someone like me, with pretensions as an atheistic (and anti-accommodationist) philosopher of religion.

    I think there is enough coherence and value (and fun!) in what goes on in the scientific skeptic movement for it to continue down its current, rather distinctive path without concentrating on atheism or secularism. But I also think it’s no coincidence that many people actively advocate all three. The same processes of reasoning are likely to give support to rejecting religion, to rejecting theocracy, and to debunking the kinds of claims that have been the main topics of interest to the scientific skeptic movement.

  • While we largely seem to agree, I’m curious how you think the evaluation of something traditionally skeptical like ghosts is very different from the evaluation of Damion’s “magical immaterial invisible atemporal cosmic megamind.” In both cases, skeptics note science indicates minds require material. In both cases, they note science shows no evidence for any sort of spiritual/transcendent/heavenly plane of reality. In both cases, they note claims of particular encounters lack the evidence required to establish them as actual parts of reality. In both cases, they note psychology and culture can provide explanations for why people would believe in them.

    The only differences I can see are those I commented on in your earlier post- skeptics have historically left major religious claims alone, there are more self described skeptics who believe in gods than ghosts, and many of those see it as something that shouldn’t be questioned and could be alienated from the movement.

  • RussellBlackford

    I have some sympathy for this, but I think it’s probably more complicated. I’m something of an outsider to the scientific skeptic movement, but my impression is that its members would be more likely to focus on particular claims about particular ghosts than to make pronouncements that “ghosts don’t exist”. I.e., the tendency seems to be more on investigating (and probably debunking) particular claims than on drawing general inferences.

    So, these good folks might also be interested to investigate particular claims about miracles, but less likely to draw more general inferences such as “miracles don’t happen”.

    I agree with you if you’re saying that one possible reason to be suspicious about ghosts in the first place is that you might be convinced of an overall thesis such as that there are no immaterial minds. But there are two points here. One is that you may have adopted this overall thesis partly as the result of the history of these minds not being found so far. So the causation goes both ways.

    The other is that I don’t think an outright denial of the existence of immaterial minds is a shibboleth in the scientific skeptic movement. Although I think it’s a good scientifically informed philosophical conclusion to draw, it looks as if many scientific skeptics operate on the basis of weaker assumptions such as, “Hmmm, we don’t seem to have encountered any immaterial minds so far, and people have a lot of reasons to fake their claims, or to be gullible in various ways, so this latest claim is very probably also bogus… let’s go and investigate (in a suspicious frame of mind).”

    At a more abstract level, this could get complicated (sorry, I know I keep saying that!), involving questions about the distinction between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism, and the important but much-overlooked distinction between different kinds of methodological naturalism. It seems to me that science is only committed to provisional methodological naturalism (it has historically given up on framing supernatural hypotheses, as this was not historically fruitful, but it does not rule them out a priori or claim that they cannot be investigated if framed by someone else). I think that there is good reason to hold to philosophical naturalism, but I don’t think either science or scientific scepticism requires this. At most, I’d say that scientific skeptics are committed to some fairly incomplete and provisional variety of naturalism, enough to be highly suspicious of certain allegations of supernatural events (including miracles, I’d expect, and certainly including ghosts), but not enough to entail philosophical naturalism, which, in turn, entails atheism.

    Sooo, I can think that philosophical naturalism (and hence atheism) is justified on the basis of arguments that are informed by science, while at the same time thinking that agreement with me on such a strong (even if justified) claim is not required to do the sort of work that scientific skeptics actually and historically do.

    This is all off the top of my head, and I might say something different if I were to write it up in a book or something. It might also be worth hearing what Daniel says about these issues if he’s still reading.

  • Daniel Loxton

    I think that’s an accurate description. It may help to mention that a quite central function of the skeptical movement is to attempt to act as honest brokers on topics which are traditionally accepted uncritically (or not sufficiently critically) by media and the public while being rejected a priori by mainstream science. Skeptics organized to provide fair, accountable assessment of those claims—to role up our sleeves on the public’s behalf and see how far evidence can get us. That role tends to come with (and perhaps requires) a certain studied neutrality or agnosticism regarding philosophical naturalism, which is why it is so common to hear skeptics insist, “I’m an investigator, not a debunker.” The notion of a priori judgement is considered quite offensive in skeptical circles, even while we also acknowledge the low prior probability of many claims and the very large number of similar claims that have turned out to have prosaic explanations.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks, Daniel – though notice that I haven’t bought into the “I’m an investigator, not a debunker” thing in my posts. A lot of skeptics say that, I know, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous. I think they approach the phenomena they do with initial suspicion and an expectation of debunking, even if they would be open to confirming a phenomenon if the evidence turned out to be unexpectedly strong. I also think there’s nothing wrong with that attitude, given the prima facie unlikelihood in any given case that the phenomenon will be confirmed. It’s not a big deal, but in my opinion skeptics could (and perhaps should) be more upfront about this,

  • Thanks for the reply, sorry mine is late. One of the great parts about science is that it establishes patterns and thus accumulates knowledge and is predictive. We “know” any random experiment we run will agree with F=MA, or that any cat we find will be made of cells. If scientific skepticism is just “this particular example is probably false” without taking the combined results of those studies to suggest the entire phenomenon is probably false, I’d say that’s quite a failure. Ironically, that difference would mean “scientific skepticism” is less scientific than standard atheism. I agree with what you say below in response to Daniel. It’s not fair, honest or neutral to say the next cat I see has a realistic chance of being composed of rocks instead of cells. Sure scientists always allow for the possibility our ideas are wrong, but the proper skeptical, empirical response to a claimed rock cat or ghost is surely to say “You’re near certainly wrong and it will require significant evidence to show otherwise, until then I’m justified in thinking those things don’t exist.”

    I think you might be taking my immaterial minds example in the wrong way- as a basic claim. I meant it more as a (always provisional) conclusion based on what empirical science has revealed. So while part of that is that we’ve never observed one and that people have good reasons fake or be fooled by them, there’s also a litany of facts like if we damage brain material it damages the mind, material substances can alter the mind, we can map material activity than corresponds to mental states, etc.. So it’s just one of many apparent facts about the universe I’d expect a scientific skeptic or atheist arguer to take into account when evaluating a phenomenon.

    I don’t think the difference between philosophical and methodological naturalism matters here. Atheist arguments aren’t based on philosophical naturalism (or else they’d be circular), and don’t even have to result in it. You could believe in spirits without believing in gods, for example. Philosophical naturalism seems an obvious result from our empirical scientific knowledge, but it shouldn’t be a starting point for scientific/skeptical/atheist arguments.

  • RussellBlackford

    Just quickly, atheist arguments would be circular if they were ultimately based on philosophical naturalism. But I do think that it’s legitimate to say: “philosophical naturalism appears very plausible given our experience with science”; atheism is entailed by philosophical naturalism; therefore atheism is now very plausible. That’s not a proof that there’s no God, but it shows how the balance of what is plausible in this area has changed over the last 500 years, and how science has altered the playing field of arguments about the God question, and it gives one indication of why it is glib and misleading to say “religion and science are compatible”.

    I agree with you that philosophical naturalism seems an obvious conclusion to draw from science, but (as I think you’re implying) it’s not an assumption made by science. I think modern science does assume a form of methodological naturalism, but only provisional methodological naturalism. Thus, science doesn’t offer a circular argument for philosophical naturalism, as is sometimes alleged (not by you, but I’ve certainly seen this from Christian apologists).