Thursday, April 10, 2008

Atheism and Explanation

New to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy this week, was a thought-provoking article on Mathematical Explanation; and this week also saw the start of this year's Gifford Lectures (previously, e.g., the excellent Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed) here in Glasgow, on Religion and Its Recent Critics. And so, since next week's Carnival (for philosophy bloggers) favours Idealism, I thought I'd compare a popular atheistic claim—that not believing in God is negative (so that the onus is on those who believe)—with the negativity of not believing in material objects, or in natural laws. Is the lack of evidence for material objects (evidence sufficient to justify introducing things of such an ineffably strange kind into our ontology) sufficient to justify Idealism; and is the lack of evidence for natural laws (over and above the observed regularities) sufficient to justify Humean Supervenience? Idealists and Humeans can argue that it should be, if they want to; but do we actually find many atheists either (i) making the effort to be Idealists or Humeans, or (ii) being in possession of evidence sufficient to justify the corresponding positive beliefs? Regarding the latter, it would hardly be good enough to claim that such beliefs are universal (Berkeley and David Lewis being the obvious counter-examples) or self-evident (similarly); but the former option is just silly—Idealism is ideally suited to theistic explanations, while the evolution of minds in a world of Humean Supervenience would be too odd, no?


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
There is evidence to believe that material objects exist- our senses. You can feel free to doubt your sense if you wish- however no one has done so consistantly. People who do end up in asylums.

Enigman said...

Hi Samuel. I personally believe that material objects exist (while I know for sure that mental subjects exist); but similarly, there is evidence that we have genuinely free wills (certainly, we must presuppose psychological freedom in order to be rational), and that is quite compatible with physical determinism, apparently, and similarly, all the evidence of our senses is quite compatible with Idealism.

We naturally assume that material objects exist, but then, we naturally assume that our choices are genuinely free (and that those ordinary objects are coloured and smooth, sometimes, and are in a space that is 3 dimensional, and so forth). So in short, what you say about material objects can be said about the sort of mental subjects that atheists usually dismiss summarily (since they are most readily accounted for under some sort of theism): There is evidence to believe that immaterial souls exist, based upon such phenomena as our rationality and responsibility.

You may try to doubt your own reason, or to assume that you are not free to choose, but you risk inconsistency and madness if you do. Of course, these are apples and pears; but Berkeley, for example, did not deny that stones could be kicked about. My point is that compatibilism is no less possible where it is less convenient for the new atheists. The stones can be kicked about because they have relatively stable properties that we can rely upon. Kicking a stone about is not a refutation of Idealism, but of Humean Supervenience, I think. I don't know why, but the former error was repeated very recently, in an article in The Reasoner. To see how such arguments are actually effective against Humean Supervenience, see my look at Black's 1998 paper (Brit. J. Phil. Sci. 49, 371-85) here.