Philosophy and the New Atheism

In the last few years, atheism has seen a resurgence in the West, inspired in part by a handful of books written by the “new atheists”, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.  Here, I’d like to examine and expand upon one aspect of their position.  Many have pointed out that, while these men may be very accomplished scientists, they are novices with respect to philosophy.  And for all their praise of “logic”, they seem not to be fully trained in its use.

Their major claim is that there is no evidence for God.  Find any atheist or skeptic blog or book and you will find the refrain repeated.  When you think about it, though, it is really amazing.  No evidence?  None at all? Do the Christians know this?  It would be pretty embarrassing if you believed something your whole life, and thought that your belief was justified, only to find out that there really is no evidence for it.  It would be like walking around thinking you had a glass of champaign in your hand at a party, only to be informed that you’re hand is utterly empty.  That is the level of oversight that we Christians are being charged with.  This charge is an extraordinary claim on the part of these atheists.  I believe it was the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Have the atheists presented extraordinary evidence for the claim that the existence of God is completely without evidence?  For my part, I won’t demand an answer, but the answer does lead to the first of two major logical blunders being made by the person who claims that there is absolutely no evidence for God.

Negative claims are very difficult to verify, much less prove.  Limited negative claims, such as “There are no horses in this room.” or “The greek term ‘x’ never means ‘y’ in the New Testament.” may be quite verifiable, since the scope of the search is small.  The claim “There is no evidence for God” is not like these.  It is universal.  It says that there is no evidence anywhere, in any form, under any conditions, at all, for the existence of God.  Again, this is a phenomenal claim.  How would one even begin to verify it?  The fact is, most don’t.  Rather, they seek to verify a more limited, but still very wide, claim.  They say that there is no scientific evidence for God.

Before addressing this claim, it must be pointed out that saying there is no scientific evidence for something does not prove that there is no evidence for it at all.  If you want to prove a statement, you can’t just prove a different statement and say you’ve proven the first.  So the atheists have made an illogical argument.

The only way their argument could work is if there was some logical connection between “no scientific evidence” and “no evidence at all”.  That connection must be proven before any argument from lack of scientific evidence can be leveled against the existence of God.  Do the new atheists offer anything of this nature?

Unfortunately, they do not.  The way they make the connection is to insist that the only thing that counts as evidence is scientific evidence.  This is where their second, and more basic, logical blunder lies.

The new atheists argue that belief in God is unjustified because there is no evidence.  “Evidence”, by definition, is limited to scientific evidence.  If the new atheists were trained in the history of philosophy and not just the natural sciences, they would have heard of the “Vienna Circle”, a group of philosophers in the early 1900s which included Hans Hahn, Philipp Frank, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, and Moritz Schlick.  These philosophers and others, including A. J. Ayer, were called the logical positivists, and their main purpose was to rid philosophy of “metaphysics”, the area of philosophy concerned with asking what the true nature of reality is.  Metaphysicians, because they dealt with questions about whether God exists, or the soul exists, and didn’t limit their arguments to what science offered, were considered by the positivists to not be true philosophers.

The positivists created an ever-modified “criterion of cognitive meaning” which they used to exclude from serious discussion anything that wasn’t verifiable by experience.  Ayer’s formulation is probably the most useful: 

We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express–that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.  If, on the other hand, the putative proposition is of such a character that the assumption of its truth, or falsehood, is consistent with any assumption whatsoever concerning the nature of his future experience, then, as far as he is concerned, it is, if not a tautology, a mere pseudo-proposition.  The sentence expressing it may be emotionally significant to him; but it is not literally significant.  And with regard to questions the procedure is the same. We enquire in every case what observations would lead us to answer the question, one way or the other; and, if none can be discovered, we must conclude that the sentence under consideration does not, as far as we are concerned, express a genuine question, however strongly its grammatical appearance may suggest that it does. (Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic; from the chapter entitled, “The Elimination of Metaphysics”)

Ayer’s formulation for his criterion of meaning would make most of today’s atheists jump for joy if they’d ever read it and understood what it means.  Basically, Ayer puts sentences into two categories: meaningful and non-meaningful.  In order to be meaningful, a sentence must assert something or ask a question to which the answer asserts something.  That assertion must be verifiably true or false, either by observation, or by simply being self-evidently true or false.  If a sentence is none of these, then it is meaningless, nonsensical verbiage that doesn’t actually say anything.

Isn’t this just the sort of thing that the new atheists are saying when they tell us that belief in God is unjustified because there is no evidence for it?  Sure, the terminology is different, but I’m sure anyone would agree that Ayer would hold belief in the truth of meaningless statements to be unjustified.

So why bring up the cornerstone of a bygone era of philosophy?  There is a reason why the era is bygone.  Contemporary philosophers are not, by and large, empiricists.  The philosophy of the time period could not sustain itself for one reason.  It is self-defeating. I’ll let Carl G. Hempel, himself an empiricist writing in 1950, explain:

What kind of sentence, it has often been asked, is the empiricist meaning criterion itself?  Plainly, it is not an empirical hypothesis; but it is not analytic or self-contradictory either; hence, when judged by its own standard, is it not devoid of cognitive meaning?  In that case, what claim of soundness or validity could possibly be made for it? (Hempel, Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning)

Many have pointed out that the harshest critics of positivism were the positivists themselves, which comes as no surprise, since they were very interested in precision.  Hempel follows up this observation with a couple of attempts to solve the problem, but he has to give up on calling the criterion true in order try to keep it from being meaningless.  Needless to say, empiricism has not survived as a popular philosophical view among philosophers.  It has only had support among scientists who think that their knowledge of biology gives them license to make grandiose philosophical claims.

Let’s look at exactly how this affects the new atheism.  If the only evidence that counts is scientific, empirical evidence, then what sort of evidence do we have that only scientific evidence counts?  Or to put it another way, what justifies limiting evidence to the empirical sort?  Remember, we are being told that the only correct place to look for evidence is science.  What sort of scientific experiment could we perform to tell us whether or not the only evidence that counts is scientific?  Finding one is an impossible task.  It’s like asking whether there’s life on Mars by limiting our search to the Moon.  Science alone can never tell us whether science alone provides meaningful evidence for any belief.  Thus the new atheists’ criterion for “evidence” is not supported by “evidence”.  If they had studied a little history of philosophy, they might have known that already.

Do Christians believe that they have evidence for the existence of God?  Of course.  The new atheists would regain some credibility if they would engage that evidence rather than simply pretend it doesn’t exist.

5 thoughts on “Philosophy and the New Atheism”

  1. Engage one of these “pseudo” philosophers (hey, they get to call ID “pseudoscience”…) on the merit of a particular piece of evidence (for OR against), and you see just how deeply this fallacy lies. Dawkins in particular and any old athiest blogger will declare that any divine/supernatural claim is untestable and IS THEREFORE FALSE. This ridiculous fallacy is called the reversed burden of proof, as he’s made a universal statement which by his own criteria (modern scientific method) he can’t experiment and prove/disprove. He doesn’t understand that when the believer makes a supernatural claim: “There is a God”, this is not empirically testable in a laboratory, nor is it intended to be. This isn’t to say there isn’t evidence for the existence God! I’m simply pointing out that the scientific method is self circumscribed by its own assumptions from yielding an empirical claim about the existence of God and other spiritual questions.Atheism/secular humanism/empiricism/imsmarterthanyouism dismisses a priori the possibility of anything existing beyond that which is bound by their own philosophy, creating a weird circular argument where their own theory is supported only by the very assertions it makes.

  2. Sorry I didn’t get back to you, David, I didn’t see you’d posted to me.Sorry, I’m married.HAH! Just kidding 🙂 I actually live in Arizona with my wife and two boys, otherwise I’d love to. If you could email me a Guinness Extra Stout, that would do nicely.

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