Friday, July 26, 2013

A Brief Conversation with an Atheist

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a conversation. It’s a monologue. Hopefully it’s not close-minded and unreasonably slanted. What it is: a summation of a few conversations I’ve had with an atheist, along with some thoughts and light analysis. It’s neither an argument for God nor against atheism. Rather, I hope to shed a little light on a common argument against the traditional idea of theism.

I’ve had a running debate with a self-professed atheist. Unfortunately, the discussion tends to begin and end in the same place every time. We don’t pick up the debate at the place we left off a few months earlier. Instead, we re-begin at square one. That’s part of the reason for this post: to put it all together. Let me refer to the anonymous atheist as Auggie. 

Auggie’s general argument against theism in general and religion in particular revolves around “science.” It goes something like, “Hey, back in the day, prior to the evolution of science, we needed God to fill in the gaps for the things we couldn’t explain. But there’s no need for God now. Everything we experience can be explained by the physical world.”

One of my major rejoinders to this sort of argument—and this is where I generally spend most of time on the offensive with Auggie—is to make the simple point that science is based on materialism, but it doesn’t, and can’t, prove hard materialism. What I mean by this is simple: hard materialism is the belief that all that exists, in any sense of the word ‘exists’, is material, physical mass. There’s nothing in science, the scientific method, or in any discovery of science that can prove that material matter is all that exists. Science only evaluates physical mass; its tools can only observe physical mass: Therefore, it’s not any wonder science only gives us proclamations about physical mass.

I could expound upon this by drawing many analogies, but let one suffice: If we were to analyze the world solely using our ears, then we would discover only a world of sound. Should we then make the argument that the study of ears proves that the only thing that really exists is sound? No, of course not. I could keep going, but what I really want to get to is the common response to my rebuttal—and then my further response.

A reasonable response to my argument above is, “Yes, yes; I see your point. Science doesn’t prove that only physical material exists. But it comes damn close.” If pushed to explain, Auggie would say, “We only experience physical matter. Yes, that doesn’t mean we can disprove the existence of anything else; but it gets you 99% of the way there. I also can’t prove that there is not an invisible dragon floating above both our heads right now, but science shows us that that possibility is rather slim—in fact, slim enough for us to discount, like God.”

I want to briefly elaborate on an assumption built into this argument. I do this not simply to argue against Auggie but because I believe most self-professed atheists presuppose Auggie’s assumptions. They implicitly claim (without much reflection) that most of our experience of the world is an experience of physical matter. Therefore, to assume the existence of anything else is both unscientific and unrelated to our daily experience. But this exactly what I find to be rather preposterous.

Our experience of the world is hardly at all an experience of physical matter. (By the way, the following set of statements is not an argument against science or even against hard materialism. It’s a set of observations.) If you ever felt that something mattered, then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever felt that there was a right and a wrong in a decision you had to make—even if you felt the moral decision was subjective—then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever looked at a sunset—or a painting, poem, or person—and said, “This is beautiful,” then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever read about something in a newspaper and thought, “That is just horrible,” then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you’ve ever had a job (or could imagine one) that you did, at least somewhat, because you felt the job mattered, then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you’ve never had a job like that but instead do a mindless job just so you can bring money home to your kids because that matters, then you’ve experienced something unlike physical matter. This list could continue.

None of these are arguments against hard materialism. I think anyone can see that. But what they do is point out that our experience of the world, on a daily level, is an experience of something unlike physical matter. Auggie can claim that all of these impulses—from morality to empathy to meaning—are illusionary. Perhaps. My point here isn’t to prove the veracity of these experiences. It’s simply to point them out. Even if they are all caused by physical matter—which I shall suppose as a possibility for the sake of this argument—they aren’t experienced as physical matter.

For example, I simply cannot experience a moral dilemma as physical matter. When I experience it, the moral dimension to the decision—that there is a right and wrong choice (objective or subjective); that making the right or better decision is somehow healthier or nobler for me as a person, as well as for other persons involved—is most definitely not experienced as physical matter. Perhaps one could use the science of the brain and evolution to explain my moral dilemma; but this would still not allow me to experience the moral dilemma as physical matter. Once I truly accepted the moral dilemma as physical matter, the dilemma would no longer exist.

So what’s the point? I guess one of the points is to shift the onus of proof. The hard materialist cannot simply rely on his argument that we only experience physical matter; real or illusionary, this is not how we experience life.

But more interestingly, for me, what this observation does is put Auggie in a position that he must argue that all the experiences outlined above, and their nearly infinite variations, are simply illusions. Auggie must argue that most of our important experiences of life are illusionary. Of course this is a possibility, but it’s a far cry from the science that wants to explain real data by real methods. Instead of applying a reasonable scientific method to experience, Auggie makes a sweeping claim, “It’s all just illusion.” This sounds Buddhist, not empirical.

This also breaks down the basic argument upon which Auggie relies: a) Science shows us only a material world. b) A non-material world is a possibility, but c) a non-material world is a possibility the same way an invisible dragon floating above my head is a possibility. Therefore, d) hard materialism is the most logical possibility. My problem here is with premise C: I don’t experience an invisible dragon floating above my head, but I, like all humans, experience a non-physical world of meaning and morality. Even if illusionary, I still experience it.

Instead of the theist getting pounded for accepting improbable data, the hard materialist is actually in the position of rejecting most of our most important human data. To return to the ear/science example earlier, hard materialists are exactly like the eye-scientists who only look at what the ear can observe, and then assume that all that exists is sound. These scientists must argue that all of our other experience—that of sight, taste, etc.—are illusions. I suppose that’s a possibility, but it’s not all that scientific.


  1. Jonas, good to hear from you again! Excellent topic: the sort of materialism you outline seems widely accepted these days, if not by professional philosophers, then at least in our general milieu. I had a coworker this past year who routinely contrasted my 'beliefs' based on blind faith with his 'knowledge' based on hard science, on proven fact.
    The non-physical human data you bring up is a very well-made point. I wonder how Auggie would respond? Is there not a difference between the things you mention that 'matter' (which, although perhaps non-physical in themselves, are at least our responses to 'real' physical stuff, i.e. what actually exists) and the religious subjects of belief (God), which we cannot by definition sense in the real world? Maybe experience is difficult for us to explain (at present levels of science) but it, like the physical world, IS part of our experience. God is simply a made-up concept -- like the invisible dragon.

    1. Solid point, my friend. Looking back at the conversation I outlined, I see it’s really only a piece of something that could and would continue. I suppose my overarching point was to argue against some of the most common “common-sense” arguments against God. But my points would definitely not end the conversation. Auggie most likely would respond as you have anticipated: by pointing to the differences between my examples of “experiences of non-physical matter” and “God,” who we do not experience in the same way as these other experiences.

      Or do we? I believe some would argue that God has, throughout history and in the contemporary moment, been experienced. (By the way, simply getting Auggie to the point that he must see that “science” cannot and does not account for most of our most important experiences of life, and that the hard materialist must label these as all illusionary, is my real point in the post.) I won’t expand upon any of the following, but let me just throw out some possible approaches to Auggie’s rejoinder.

      1. History shows us how humanity has experienced God. Lewis does a lot with this point.
      2. Individuals, alive today, consistently speak of experiencing God.
      3. Once we accept non-material experience of the universe (basically rejecting hard materialism) we are left in a position that arguing purely logically could get us to some idea of God, or at least an omniscient being, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover. I’m not saying that a rejection of hard materialism automatically results, logically, to Aristotle’s “god.” But I think it becomes a very logically cogent argument. I think arguments for God’s existence are scoffed at today by most people exactly because of the things Auggie assumes and I would like to show are fallacious.
      4. I think that you can go from experience of non-physical things like MEANING and MATTERING to a world of meaning and mattering, and then to a transcendent non-physical being as the source of meaning/mattering. Once again, this isn’t a unbiased argument in the truest sense—but it shows one of the ways you could go once hard materialism is, at the very least, held as possibly suspect.

  2. A quick second point: when you "make the simple point that science is based on materialism" ... I think you give too much ground. Both historically and in principal science is not based on materialism. Modern science not only developed in a context which was Christian (non-materialist), but it also does not require materialist principals in order to work successfully. It also, in my view, continues to use non-materialist Aristotelian concepts in practice (recognizing things, like stars and galaxies, by their function and form and so forth). Neither God nor materialism is a matter of PROBABILITY.

    1. Oh, well done. I believe I agree with you.

      I think what I was doing was accepting Auggie’s idea of “science,” which would be based on materialism. Of course, Auggie isn’t a scientist; but he would have an idea of science. In the final analysis, though, it’s probably not too helpful for me to allow Auggie’s definition of science to stand without heavy scrutiny. I suppose what I mean is to say, “Hey, even if you define science as materialistic, it still doesn’t prove hard materialism.” But I guess I would need to go back and show why science isn’t purely materialist. I think that deserves its own post, by the way; and I elect you, Basil, to write about it. I would also love for you to expound upon your final statement, “Neither God nor materialism is a matter of PROBABILITY.”

  3. Happy to write it, and I'll get to it this week. Just a quick point, related to my thoughts on your comments, is that atheists and secularists often write with this "common sense" atheism which you described rather well, and give the common sense materialism as though God was an extremely small possible explanation for material phenomena. But considering the history of philosophy, it's hard to think of metaphysical arguments from probability (maybe Paley's watchmaker?).
    But to this attitude, I believe your response was correct (simply getting Auggie to the point that he must see that “science” cannot and does not account for most of our most important experiences of life, and that the hard materialist must label these as all illusionary, is my real point in the post.) I think David Hume somewhere gives a syllogism for the impossibility of miracles whose premise begs the question (though it poses as Ockham's razor), and I think many atheists today don't realize that they (and modern science) aren't ARRIVING at hard materialism as a conclusion, but STARTING there as a premise. And when you've shown that their premise EXCLUDES much of ordinary experience, you've gone a long way toward starting a fruitful conversation.