Atheism rooted in subjectivity

It is common for atheists to proclaim “there is no evidence for God’s existence” as if this was some objective truth about our reality.  Yet when someone says, “There is no evidence for God,” all they are really saying is “I don’t see any evidence for God.”  This follows from understanding that evidence is interpreted data and as such ultimately relies on subjectivity.   Our senses detect data (objectivity) and our minds convert and translate the data as evidence for or against some belief (subjectivity).  And because of this necessary subjective step, it is often the case that one person’s evidence is another person’s anomaly.

This subjective element is also on clear display when the atheist is asked to clarify his requests for evidence by spelling out what type of data would qualify as evidence for God’s existence. I have found that most of the time, atheists will ignore or brush off this request.  But in the cases where they try to clarify their position, they will invariably adopt the god-of-the-gaps approach to reality. For example, scientist Jerry Coyne explained what he needs:

if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.

Coyne needs a Sign.  A Gap.  Coyne, and those like him, are God-of-the-gaps atheists.

Yet there are many more atheists who would not consider such a demonstration of divine power as evidence for God’s existence.  Both PZ Myers (the internet’s most famous atheist) and Richard Dawkins (the real world’s most famous atheist) have said that they would not change their mind even if a 15 foot Jesus appeared before them and boomed, “I exist.”

Over at Richard Dawkin’s page, Steve Zara makes the point very clear:

There can be no evidence for God

[…]

More stridency? Like this – we should challenge the very concept of gods, we should not let believers set the rules of the game with flim-flam about the possible truth of Biblical miracles, or other ways of knowing reality, or necessary beings. We should make it clear that all arguments that lead to gods are wrong because they lead to gods! God is a singular mistake, a philosophical division by zero, a point at which the respectability of arguments break down. God is out of the question, the ultimate wrong answer.

PZ Myers applauds Zara

So yes, I agree. There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let’s stop pretending the believers have a shot at persuading us.

So we have two schools of atheism: 1) The God-of-the-Gap school that demands signs and miracles and 2) The Closed-Minded school that spins elaborate rationalizations for their inability/unwillingness to change their minds. That there is such disagreement among the atheists is very significant.  Why?

We’re supposed to take people like Dawlins, Myers and Coyne seriously because they are scientists. How so? Because they, as scientists, are supposed to be experts at handling evidence. That’s their entire claim to authority. Take away that simple factor and suddenly there is no reason why anyone would have reason to elevate their opinions beyond those of anyone else.

Yet here we have two “experts” on evidence who cannot even agree on the most fundamental question about evidence – what would count as evidence. So what good is their expertise?

Ask yourself why in the world can’t scientists like Dawkins, Myers, and Coyne reach a basic consensus on this fundamental issue of evidence?  I can only think of one viable answer.  These scientists are incapable of reaching consensus about what would count as evidence precisely because the answer to that question is so deeply subjective.  And that takes us back to the third sentence of this post: evidence is interpreted data and as such ultimately relies on subjectivity.  By morphing the actual position (I personally don’t see any evidence for God) into the rhetorical stance (There is no evidence for God), the atheist is masquerading subjectivity as objectivity to serve their culture war objectives.  And the New Atheist leaders nurture and encourage this error through their constant misuse of science as an authority on this issue.

Look, the atheist is entitled to his opinion about God’s nonexistence.

But that’s all it is.

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15 Responses to Atheism rooted in subjectivity

  1. keithnoback says:

    I’d agree – with the proviso that informed opinions carry more weight, in principle, than uninformed ones. By the same token, theists are entitled to their opinion about god’s existence, as a devotional object at least.
    My problem has always been that I can’t make sense of a substance dualism that preserves any relevance for a supernatural thing (I can make sense of Occasionalist, “brain in a vat” – type dualism, but then what does it matter?). Beyond that, I can’t make sense of an inherently disembodied mind. So, are you unperturbed by my position, or is it all politics and culturally defined ethics?

  2. Crude says:

    My problem has always been that I can’t make sense of a substance dualism that preserves any relevance for a supernatural thing

    What is a ‘supernatural being’? And substance dualism can be false and theism true. See: hylemorphic dualism, for example.

  3. keithnoback says:

    I mean a thing which does not have any physical properties and is not subject to causality. I’d appreciate if you could explain to me how Hylemorphism doesn’t end up being a flavor of pan-theism (not being a smart ass here).

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    I’d be curious to know how hylemorphism does end up being a flavor of pantheism. (I know you didn’t ask me, but if I were Crude, I’d be a tad cautious about having to disprove a claim you haven’t even stated, much less demonstrated.)

  5. Crude says:

    I mean a thing which does not have any physical properties and is not subject to causality.

    What are ‘physical properties’ anyway? Last I checked, those things were ridiculously elastic. Not to mention, ‘not subject to causality’? Materialists are the ones who have a problem with causality. Certainly not hylemorphists, nor even cartesian dualists.

    Along Tom’s lines, I fail to understand what you’re even asking me. What does ‘pan-theism’ have to do with hylemorphism?

  6. keithnoback says:

    Well, if you are looking for a back to basics approach, then I think a basic characterization of physical properties would be extension (locality) and dependent identity. If you have not read Descartes, I can explain further and relay my understanding of how those notions of physical properties have been developed since. To call something a ‘separate substance’, it would seem necessary that its identity not depend on substances from which it is separate; in other words, we shouldn’t be able to ask things like where it is relative to the other substance. That would be a lapse back into monism. Descartes himself had quite a lot of trouble explaining how we might have (know, observe to interact, explain) a separate substance, and the interaction problem – substance to substance causation – has plagued substance dualism since. I think ideas which establish a one-way causation offer the only reasonable “out”, but they leave me in the same position as Chalmers – not really sure what people are talking about when they speak of a separate substance, beyond saying “there appears to be some (thing?) else”.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume that when you say materialists are the ones who have a causation problem on their hands, you mean a problem specifically with mental causation, and certain types of physical to mental causation in particular. That is a fact. I don’t think those problems are unsolvable, but those issues are not what I’d like to discuss with you. Extra-theoretic discussions about intra-theoretic conundrums must devolve into epistemic and ontological disputes which are not resolvable, in principle, in terms of the issue at hand, and so are futile.
    You are correct, I owe you a clarification before I ask one of you. My understanding of hylemorphism is that it is a property dualism. So, under such a system an electron, for example, carries some potential beyond charge and other characteristics reducible to its constituents or simply basic to it. It has a an inherent potential to form structures, in conjunction with other particles, which is not discernible until those structures are realized, i.e. the structures themselves are not explained by interactions of individual-particle properties and history. I am not interested in the details here, just the basics of the theory, and that is my understanding of property dualism in general. To my mind, this is equivalent to saying a form exists as a property as opposed to a causal ideal. Under pantheism, god is an emergent property, so to speak, of the physical world. Under theistic property dualism, god would be a universal property which is being realized by the physical world. This would appear to me to be a distinction without a difference. What have I got wrong and why? If you’d rather not take the time just say so, but I am interested in your explanation if you are willing.

  7. Michael says:

    So, are you unperturbed by my position, or is it all politics and culturally defined ethics?
    Of course I am unperturbed. Was I supposed to be otherwise?

  8. TFBW says:

    keithnoback said:

    My problem has always been that I can’t make sense of a substance dualism that preserves any relevance for a supernatural thing…

    If I might make an observation, it appears that your problem is completely unrelated to the subject of this post. Did you have a contribution to make on the topic of the subjectivity of atheism, or was it your intention to change the subject?

    Back on the topic at hand, I’ve been engaging the “Hungry Atheist” who posted here somewhat recently along the same lines on his blog. He has his own particular miracle that he thinks would be sufficient evidence.

  9. keithnoback says:

    Michael – No. Just checking, because I see people move from this sort of issue into presuppositional arguments with some frequency. Those folks are generally perturbed.
    TFBW – I think it was on topic. I am agreeing with the post that I think there are inherent problems with a data-driven philosophy or theology, but disagreeing that the “two schools of atheism” characterization is an adequate one. I’m offering an example of the problems with theistic explanations which make them difficult to accept – reasons as opposed to rationalizations. You got me on the rest. The Aristotelian/Thomistic stuff is only tangentially relevant, but I’m always looking for a plain-language explanation of those ideas from somebody who feels that they understand them well.

  10. Crude says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume that when you say materialists are the ones who have a causation problem on their hands, you mean a problem specifically with mental causation, and certain types of physical to mental causation in particular.

    Oh, there’s not just that. There’s also a tendency to rely on brute facts, or things that pop into existence out of utter nothingness, uncaused. In fact, while mental causation is a problem, I rather think that blatant clinging to magic is worse.

    You are correct, I owe you a clarification before I ask one of you. My understanding of hylemorphism is that it is a property dualism.

    Incorrect. It relies on a pretty radically different conception of what counts as ‘material’ to begin with. Trying to fit it into what amounts to ‘substance dualism lite’ doesn’t work. What have you actually read about regarding it?

    Either way, you’re off base right on this point, so everything that follows after what you said here simply doesn’t obtain.

  11. keithnoback says:

    LOL, I’ll take that as a “No’.

  12. TFBW says:

    keithnoback said:

    I am agreeing with the post that I think there are inherent problems with a data-driven philosophy or theology, but disagreeing that the “two schools of atheism” characterization is an adequate one.

    I think that the “atheism” in “two schools of atheism” is limited to New Atheism. Your objection appears to be grounded explicitly in philosophy — metaphysics, I suppose — and that in itself probably precludes you from being classified as a New Atheist. Do you self-identify as New Atheist, or just atheist?

    In your opening remark, you said, “I can’t make sense of an inherently disembodied mind.” Neither can I, but I have exactly the same problem with the idea that consciousness is purely physical. I don’t know whether I can be properly classified as a dualist of some stripe on that basis, but I’m entirely dissatisfied that modern physics is sufficient to explain all phenomena, and I’m not willing to assume that the missing pieces can be obtained via further scientific analysis.

  13. Crude says:

    LOL, I’ll take that as a “No’.

    A no to what? Your identification of hylemorphism with pantheism turned on hylemorphism being a kind of property dualism. It’s not, and ‘property dualism’ has a lot of the same issues that Cartesian Dualism has when it comes to how it regards matter – it’s a mistake to identify the two. That’s not a “No, I don’t want to explain it”, it’s a “Here’s why your identification is wrong/confused from the very start.” End of story, explanation provided.

    If that’s not satisfactory, here’s something else to consider – hylemorphic dualists (who tends to be Aristo-Thomists) have separate arguments for God, and not a one of them has anything to do with ’emergence’. Actually the dead opposite, since God is identified as that which precedes all matter to begin with. At that point you seem to be saying ‘Well, if someone is a property dualist, then it seems like God can emerge and that would be pantheism.’ Hey, maybe. Something to take up with the property dualists.

  14. keithnoback says:

    Crude – No worries. I was hoping for an explanation of the nature of my error rather than just the fact of it. I’ll retract that request, this is probably not the proper venue.
    TFBW – I try not to self-identify; I hear it can lead to blindness. I always tell people I’m a monist, or a Taoist, though I’m less and less likely to claim the latter since I’ve had a few people think I might have an immortality potion on me. It wasn’t entirely clear to me that he was restricting his analysis to New Atheism, but it seems he was. I try not to identify with political movements, period, for the same reason I try not to self-identify.

  15. Crude says:

    I was hoping for an explanation of the nature of my error rather than just the fact of it. I’ll retract that request, this is probably not the proper venue.

    But that’s the problem. I thought I *did* explain the nature of your error. If you think that hylemorphic dualists believe that matter is what the property dualist believes what matter is, that’s a pretty fundamental mistake to begin with. If you want to drop it, that’s fine, but I really do think I’m giving you exactly what you asked for.

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