Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Skepticism of Claims

I've decided for my first blog post to address a common argument that floats around the apologist circles: Methodological Naturalism. I've often gotten into online discussions that quickly got derailed by the accusation that I, as the skeptic/atheist/naturalist in the conversation, have a presuppositionalist, faith-based position that nothing supernatural exists.

This really does cut to the heart of the matter for me, for reasons which I'll explore in depth another time. But briefly, the apologist is attempting to frame the issue to their advantage; "Naturalism" is not a word that is used in scientific circles in the sense that theists use it. The apologist isn't saying that I'm a researcher of ecology or the flora/fauna of a given region, they are applying this "-ism" label to me to make implications about what arguments I'm necessarily going to reject out of hand for faith-based reasons. (It's the same reason that I don't think "atheism" is ever going to not be hors de combat: there's too much of a connotation that it's a dogmatic "-ism.")

I have had this accusation leveled at me in a number of ways. "You're blinded by your commitment to methodological naturalism," "you're biased against miracles," or most infuriatingly "what is your evidence for 'evidence?'" Anti-science apologists will quickly attempt to undermine the foundations of evidence-based epistemology, again as an attempt to frame the issue to their advantage.

I am not a methodological naturalist in the sense they mean it. I am perfectly willing to consider miraculous evidence for, say, the existence of God or the validity of the Bible. I am absolutely willing to hear them out the reasons to believe in a god. I love hearing arguments, evidence, apologetics, and I'm thrilled when any of them holds up to even casual scrutiny. It's not my fault that every bit I've ever been presented with has ultimately proven to be unsound, fallacious, or just flat wrong.

I have two principles that I start from, in addition to the Logical Absolutes. The first is that no claim should be accepted until it has been demonstrated. I don't say "proven." I don't say "evidenced." "Demonstrated" is a broad net, and can encompass rational argument, logic, or what-have-you. It's inclusive of naturalism, but not limited to.

On the question of god's existence, I call myself an atheist because the statement's truth has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction. I tend to believe the statement is false, but that is an induction, not a faith-based conviction. I'm open to being proved wrong, but I'll want to ask "how do you know?" It's not a glib question--I want to know how you got the knowledge.

I don't know how God's existence could be demonstrated to me. I've asked theists flat out to take their best shot, and the results are laughable. They'd much rather talk about biblical authority, or the Moral Argument, anything but what justification they have to believe that it is anything more than the house of cards it seems to be. This is invariably where they accuse me of having blinders, of being deluded, of having my own faith-based position, and I say that's bull. I'm perfectly willing to consider a miracle as evidence of the supernatural. But how does one know.

The problem comes in when talking about miracles. If I were the methodological naturalist they say I am, then I'd be explaining away, for example, the parting of the Red Sea as a combination of low tide, freak wind conditions and other ad-hoc speculation about possible causes. I don't insist on naturalistic explanations for such a miracle. But how do we know it actually ever happened in the first place? We can't discuss how it happened until we establish to some level of confidence that it did happen? Certainly the Egyptians record no series of calamities such as locusts, frogs, boils, etc, ultimately culminating in the death of their god-king and his troops, crushed beneath the waves.

Miracles have this maddening tendency to occur in times and places where we have, at best, anecdotal or textual evidence for them. I've helped cater weddings, and I can say that it took about four bushels of food to feed three hundred people, so five thousand people would be on the order of sixty-seven bushels (plus twelve--apparently omniscience has a margin for error of fifteen percent when you're breaking the laws of thermodynamics.) Getting all that from five loaves and two fishes is impressive--I have no methodologically naturalistic explanation. But all we have are copies of copies of thirdhand accounts that it ever happened at all, so it's not worth much to me. Modern day miracles are nowhere near that stupendous...somebody's cancer goes into remission, a plane crashes that only kills 99% of its passengers--these are things that don't need recourse to "it's a miracle!" Sure it could have been god, or it could have been the exhaustive efforts of pilots, engineers, officials in response to other crashes--how do you know?

My position, first and foremost, is "I don't know." I don't claim that science has all the answers; if science is good at anything it's good at showing that what we don't know is nearly infinite, what we do know is tentative, and some questions may never get good enough data to say for sure. But I'm not going to accept the claim is true unless somebody convinces me.

How do you get around the flimsiness of the arguments and evidence for miracles? The answer is, of course, faith, which deserves its own entry. As this has been quite lengthy enough, I will address that in a subsequent post, where I go over the second of my two first principles mentioned above.

"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is closer to the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong."

--Thomas Jefferson


  1. Hi,

    Just wanted to tell you I like your writing. Can I ask a question?

    Do you think there is value in the religion myths even if the stories didn't happen for real? I've read that they help unify people and give them a grounding.

    Your comment on science reminded me of a quote by Joseph Campbell"Science is the breaking through into the mystery dimensions. Its pushed into the sphere the myth is talking about, the edge.. the iterface between what can be know and what is never to be discovered."

  2. I just realized I totally forgot to reply to you. I'd probably say that, if all religions did was unify people and give them grounding, I wouldn't have a problem.

    The problem is, that's not consistent. Religion divides as much as it unites--it is the nature of religions to schism over unprovable assertions, and at last count there were 38,000 worldwide denominations of Christianity alone. To say nothing of the fact that before the separation becomes very wide, the doctrines of one become outright blasphemy to others, and wars can and do result.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "grounding." If a belief cannot be shown to be true, how can you say that anything is resting on solid ground?

  3. "Religion divides as much as it unites"

    I see your point, but I'm not sure that a lack of religion would be an improvement. Intolerance and hatred divide people, but that seems to happen even without religion. For example, the Czech Republic, is a very atheist nation, but their citizens still mistreat the Roma people because they are different. Saddam Hussain was a secular leader, but he still committed mass murder of his citizens.

    Do more pluralistic religions like Hindu and Buddhism do a better job of being tolerant?

    "If a belief cannot be shown to be true, how can you say that anything is resting on solid ground?"

    I don't know. Just personally, when I was religious, I felt like I was on a path to self growth and helping others. I would visit nursing homes and play songs and share scriptures that would give people hope. Now I don't really feel like I have anything to offer to people suffering like that. I kind of think that religion is like a psychological tool to help people cope with life.