The memorably named 22056 has recently started a blog which appears to have the goal of attacking “atheism”. I say “atheism” because I strongly suspect the author’s concept of atheism has formed in an echo chamber that doesn’t care much for what atheism really is or what atheists really believe. Part of the reason I think the author lives in an echo chamber is because here the author considered criticisms of scientism to be rarely discussed. Type scientism into YouTube or into the WordPress search you will see that the criticism is absolutely everywhere.
More importantly, the rebuttal to scientism is a moot point. I have never encountered anyone who is an advocate of scientism. I have met people who think science is a better method of knowledge in certain domains, of course, but never as an absolute method.
The author writes short posts, of about a paragraph or two and managed to compact a lot of mistakes into that. There is extensive writing about the Kalam Cosmological Argument, including a link to a rather dense piece by Edward Feser (who seems to be gaining some traction in apologetics circles).
I think 22056 is on a predictable trajectory. For now, the author is blogging about horrid straw-atheists that should be apparent not only to atheists, but to any honest and informed religious person as well, and about a massive misunderstanding of objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I’ll spell it out:
1. The Straw Atheists
Despite dedicating an entire blog to discussing atheists and, therefore, belief and knowledge, 22056 is strikingly uninformed about pretty much every element of the philosophy he would need to engage in the conversation. 22056 claims that:
“One of the most interesting intellectual phenomena to observe is witnessing certain atheists […] deny the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument […] and thereby tacitly admit that some things might come uncaused from absolutely nothing.”
Anyone who cares can see this is fundamentally mistaken. But I thought a graphical representation might make it clearer for those who still don’t know:
Although I admit off the bat that deriving “confidence” from non-statistical data, like reason and logic and carefully considered evidence, is much woollier than this graph implies, I do feel it captures the basic concept: both the claim and the claims negation can fall short of being accepted. The truth is we simply don’t know what would happen with any given sample of nothing. The philosophical points this alludes to are the ‘default position’ and the ‘burden of proof’. The default position is the idea that a person being told an idea should start off from the position of scepticism. The burden of proof is the idea that the claim maker needs to actively support their claim, not just deride imagined negations and alternatives.
Another interesting idea this graph alludes to, which is much more nuanced, is the idea of varying levels of confidence. 22056 thinks of “belief” in binary terms and uses that to extrapolate wildly:
“if that atheist truly believes that universes could possibly come uncaused from nothing […] then the same atheist should immediately and unavoidably become agnostic about all knowledge claims […] for if the atheist believes that it is possible that our universe came uncaused from nothing, then […] it is also utterly possible that this very same universe came uncaused from nothing five seconds ago with the appearance of age, or that it was a universe where only the atheist himself is conscious and everyone else just appears to be, or a universe where the atheist is just a brain in a vat imagining all that is around him, and so on and so forth”
I’m not actually sure what “and so on and so forth” might refer to here, as the author has exhausted the philosophy 101 cliche examples of reasons to lack absolute certainty. But, by recognising these are possibilities, 22056 has followed through their confused notion of ‘possible’ being a monolith and not a spectrum, and ruled out not just certainty, but the acceptance of any belief.
These tortured philosophical ideas lead to caricatures of atheism that do not map onto anyone I have met and, more importantly, do not reflect critical thinking that underpins most atheists I know.
Atheism is very simply the lack of belief in a god. Atheism has no greater reach. It solely answers to the question ‘Do you believe a God exists?’ with anything other than the affirmative. Anything else a person claims atheism to mean is an assumption.
1.2.1 Appending a misunderstood philosophy
22056 also makes reference to methodological naturalism. But, in keeping with a person who simply has not read up on the issues, defines it wrongly:
“inferring design violates the long-held scientific principle of methodological naturalism”
22056 is clearly thinking of ontological naturalism, the position that really does exclude supernatural causes and therefore Intelligent Design. However, methodological naturalism is the position that we can only investigate natural things, but they can, in principle at least, lead us to supernatural explanations. I’ve never known it happen, but it is not a long-held principle to exclude them. As the term “methodological naturalism” is repeated, I don’t think this is a typo. I think this is actually an outright philosophical error.
On the left, with Ontological Naturalism, the solid line denotes the natural world is all there is, or all that can be known (these are slightly different claims, and are two different schools of ontological naturalism). The lines connecting different observable entities show that all things can only be understood in relation to each other. However, as “physics” could be an entity inside Ontological Naturalism, it isn’t a bad representation of the actual body of knowledge we currently have. The broken line in the right, under Methodological Naturalism, distinguishes between the natural, which we can observe, and the supernatural that, given sufficient reason, we could call on for explanations; the distinction between the natural and the supernatural is semi-permeable. The reason I have used arrows instead of lines connecting entities inside the natural world to things in the supernatural world is because there are no well defined entities in the supernatural world, at this time, to connect them to, and no good theories that would connect the natural world to a supernatural world.
It’s isn’t just this mistaken “long-held […] principle of methodological naturalism” that’s the issue. It’s the assumption that atheism is methodological naturalism, at all. If you want to attack methodological naturalism, be my guest; I look forward to knowing how we can directly investigate the supernatural as well as a good definition of the supernatural. However, neither atheism nor science is necessarily methodological naturalism.
1.2.2 Atheism doesn’t answer questions
Atheism is also not an answer to a question. The topic has no reach into ethics. More importantly, in the context of 22056, atheism doesn’t answer questions in biology, chemistry, cosmology or physics. It is inaccurate to say:
“the atheistic-naturalist […] has an utterly blind and unjustified faith for not only does the atheistic-naturalist not know how […] life came from non-life, or rationality from irrationality, or consciousness from unconsciousness, the atheistic-naturalist does not even know if they could arise on naturalism for he has no idea if natural forces have the causal power to make these things come about, and thus the naturalist, on nothing more than blind faith”
What we do know is, however it is that nature operates, it allows for phenomena like the ones 22056 lists here. It could be that nature operates with the occasional intervention from something supernatural. That is not, by fiat, ruled out. However, given the absolute absence of evidence at this time, a rational thinker rules out the supernatural intervention. This does not mean that in some dichotomous sense the rational thinker then accepts naturalism. Look at the graph at the start of this post again: The cause is natural and The cause is supernatural are two different claims; it could be that neither of them have met their burden of proof.
If that makes you curious as to why secular thinkers talk of models of abiogensis and evolution of rational thought, it is time to look at the arrow on the first diagram that connects the claim on the right to the doubt of the negating claim on the left. Doubt is informed by many things, including shortfalls in the defence of that claim, ambiguity and linguistic shortcomings. But doubt is also informed by good defences of the opposite claim, even if the opposite claim has also not reached its burden of proof. So, every plausible model of abiogensis feeds into not only the confidence in the claim ‘The cause is natural’ but also into the doubt of the claim ‘The cause is supernatural’.
2. The Kalam Cosmological Argument
2.1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause
This premise can be written in many ways, but this is how 22056 decided to word it. It doesn’t matter, as the premise always has the same problem: it fails to distinguish between that which begins to exist and that which does not. I think the problem is clearer when the premise is worded in terms of ‘contingent’ and ‘noncontingent’ things, but the problem is essentially the same. If you listen to William Lane Craig defend this premise, he will talk of the ‘absurdity’ of an infinite chain of causes, and therefore there must be some cause that, itself, is not caused. This is needed to break the infinite regress.
The infinite regress point only makes sense in time, so any ‘boundary’ to time also gets around the problem. If the chain of causality were infinitely long and transcended a cyclical break in time, like in Loop Quantum Gravity models, then the problem disappears. Any Bang-Crunch cycle of the universe gets around this problem. But, the problem also evaporates when one looks at ‘time’ as one of the things that began to exist. Time cannot be caused to exist, because causes and effects happen in time. Time cannot be effected by a cause that precedes it.
2.2 The Universe began to exist
This very much depends on what one means by ‘the universe’. If this universe is actually the rearrangement and expansion of a previous universe that collapsed, did this universe ‘begin to exist’? If, as some people argue, “universe” means “everything” then this universe did not begin to exist, it is simply a former collapse being rearranged. It is a dynamic and constantly rearranging universe. Under these circumstances, the infinite chain of causes stops being a problem because there is a ‘boundary’ to time at each collapse/expansion. And the entire ensemble becomes eternal.
Also, if one takes the law of conservation of energy seriously, then energy is eternal. Even if all energy was once expressed in terms of quantum fields, all that energy doesn’t disappear and wasn’t created. One could argue the universe ‘began to exist’ from that energy. But one may also choose to argue that the energy is a part of the universe.
The blog 22056 has started up is an embodiment of the Gish Gallop; a large number of poor-quality arguments that take no effort on 22056’s part, that take a long time to unravel: bad assumptions and misleading use of language. A Gish Gallop is not a fallacy, it is a technique of offering too much to address. The content of what is offered is often laced with fallacies. That is what 22056 represents, tripe and gibberish coloured to look rational.