Atheism and Agnosticism

Recently, atheism has become a a major topic of discussion. One of the most notable proponents is Richard Dawkins, professor of zoology and originally author of The Selfish Gene (which is, incidentally, a very good book). The debate has even made it into the Guardian with some frequency. All this attention to the topic makes me want to write my own blog article about where I stand, because my position is a little complex.

I’m only going to attempt to explain my position, not convince anyone else; I won’t be providing all of the evidence for my assertions. Since I suspect it will get quite long, I’ll also hide most of it from the front page.

The simple version is that I do not believe God exists. There are a number of reasons for this.

The first is that all the versions of God put forward by the religions I’m familiar with simply do not fit into the world as described by science. This is one of the places where I can’t provide all my evidence; it’s based on getting a science degree and then spending fifteen years reading the news and News and Views sections in Nature every week. It isn’t that I think science has all the answers. Far from it, in fact, and I’ll come back to that below. It’s that I have a pretty good grasp of what science does know, and classical Gods (Christian, Hindu, Shinto, even Buddhist, for those versions of Buddhism that have gods) simply do not fit into the picture.

No, I’m not going to produce my evidence. It’s based on the big picture, and there’s no way I can compress a big picture built up over more than a decade into a single blog post. On the other hand, you too can have this evidence; Nature sells subscriptions to anyone, and you could probably follow it without a science degree if you spent a few years reading New Scientist or Scientific American first.

The second reason is that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God do not work. Studying medieval philosophy for ten years and more means spending quite a lot of time on arguments for the existence of God, so I’ve gone into them in some detail. (Again, more than can be compressed into a single blog post.) There are two groups.

The first, like solutions to the problem of evil, do not offer any evidence for the existence of God. Instead, they are devoted to showing that the available evidence does not, in fact, disprove the existence of God. I think that a lot of these arguments are weak enough that they should worry theists, but there do tend to be versions that do the job of showing that it is still logically possible to believe in God, given the evidence. It’s also logically possible to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, given the evidence; this is not really much of a gain. Clearly, if you can’t show this, theism is in deep trouble, but showing this does not actually get you past the starting line of zero evidence.

The second group try to provide some evidence. They have two problems. The first is that none of them are sound. They either include premises that are either false or unsupported, or they are logically faulty. The second is that they do not tend to prove the existence of god as classically conceived. An unmoved First Mover is not, in fact, the God described in the Bible, and medieval theologians tied themselves in knots trying to argue that it was. (There’s a subsidiary problem in that, even if you suppose, falsely, that the arguments work, there is no argument that they are all talking about the same being. So maybe the necessary existent, the first mover, the source of goodness, and the designer of the world are all different beings.)

The third is that there is no reason to take the reports that purport to demonstrate the existence of God as doing any such thing. This includes the various scriptures of all religions, but also includes the personal experiences of believers. Now, I’m not claiming that believers do not have those experiences. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure that some of them were lying to get attention. But, human nature being what it is, I’m also sure that some of them weren’t.

However, the history of science, history of philosophy, and contemporary science tell us that people are very bad at divining the ultimate reality behind their experiences. It took two thousand years to sort out the behaviour of the stars and planets, and anyone can see them just by looking up at night (granted, in some countries you have to wait for the clouds to clear). Doctors were utterly wrong about the fundamental mechanisms of the human body for even longer, and they worked with it every day.

Religious experiences are rare, and ambiguous. It strikes me as wildly unreasonable to suppose that people are better at interpreting them than they are at interpreting much more common and unambiguous experiences. The fact that followers of all religions have these experiences, and see them as supporting their own religion, strongly supports the contention that people often misinterpret such experiences. Indeed, a follower of any particular religion would have to concede that the followers of other religions have misinterpreted their experiences, and is then going to have trouble explaining why their religion is different.

So, the first point means that there would have to be very strong evidence of the existence of a particular god to justify belief, because it fails to cohere with everything else. The second two points mean that the evidence is not forthcoming. The only sensible response is not to believe in god; not the Christian God, not the Jewish God, not the Islamic God, not the Hindu gods, not the Shinto kami. Not any of them.

OK, so far, so standardly atheist. Now come the complications. It is very important to remember that these are nuances on the above position. I do not believe in God. I do not believe that future discoveries of any sort will lead to the realisation that the Christian God actually exists, for example. I’m an atheist, not an agnostic, for all practical purposes.

The first complication arises from the fact that, as noted above, science does not have all the answers. Now, some of the things it doesn’t have answers about are simply things that we haven’t found out yet. They’re the same sort of thing as things we do know, and there is no reason to believe that, with the right experiments (and enough funding), we couldn’t fill them in. Indeed, science is constantly filling them in. There are some exceptions; there will always be gaps in the fossil record, because not everything gets fossilised. Still, we are learning more, and steadily filling in the patterns of descent. The ancestors of human beings get clearer every year.

However, there is another class of complications. The first is one that is widely known within the scientific community. General relativity and quantum mechanics are inconsistent. They cannot both be true, and they are probably both false. String theory is supposed to replace both of them, if it can be made to work properly. Even though both theories are probably false, the things that we have learned while investigating them guarantee that whatever replaces them will be weird, and contradict common sense in many, many ways. But then, we know that common sense is simply wrong.

Still, given that at least one of the fundamental theories of physics is wrong, it is a little dubious for scientists to make categorical assertions that certain sorts of things cannot exist.

The second gaping hole is even more serious, and less widely recognised. Science does not have even the beginnings of a theory of consciousness. Science has no explanation for why we experience the world, why it feels like something to be alive, and does not even have the beginnings of such an explanation.

A lot of scientists say that neuroscience can explain it. This is simply false. It does seem very likely that conscious states are very closely tied to the brain, given that physical interference with the brain can do odd things to conscious states. We might, given some experiments, be able to come up with an empirical rule for which states are conscious, and which aren’t. But that is not an explanation of why they are conscious, and does not allow us to say, for example, whether rocks are conscious.

Rocks conscious? Not as daft as it sounds. A popular theory of consciousness is that mental states that refer to other mental states are conscious. However, a rock can be construed as referring to mental states. Since the reference theory is supposed to be physicalist, with no mysterious mind stuff, it needs to explain why one physical state that can be interpreted as having a certain reference is conscious, while another is not.

So, science, at present, has no theory of consciousness, and little sign of where such a theory might be found. The dualist theories found in the philosophical literature are no better; they just say “there is conscious stuff”, but we know that. What we want to know is what the conscious stuff is.

Now, this is an even bigger hole that it might seem. All of science is built on conscious experiences. There is some evidence for unconscious experience, but all of the experiences that can be reported, and made publicly accessible and replicable, are conscious. That is, all experiences that are accepted as scientific evidence are conscious. And we have no idea at all what that means.

I also have no idea what a theory of consciousness might look like. (I’ve got a book on my to-read pile that, according to the reviews, has an interesting idea in that direction.) However, given that there must be one, and that it will have to be a major addition to current science, there is space in science for things of which science currently has no inkling. This has happened before; seventeenth century scientists did not dream of lasers or radioactivity.

The other side of this point is that people do have religious experiences. Now, they might all be internally-generated psychological illusions. But they might not. They are conscious experiences, and they might plug into the bit of the world that accounts for consciousness in ways of which we cannot even conceive now. Who knows, magic might even work through it.

However, coming back to my third reason for scepticism about God, we can be fairly confident that, if there is something going on here, it is nothing like the theories that have been developed to account for it so far. There will, most likely, be practical recipes and advice that prove to have been on to something, like medieval recommendations on exercise, but the theory is likely to be completely wrong, and anything achieved so far petty compared to what is possible. Look at the difference between the achievements of technology in the last century, and compare to five thousand years ago.

What this means is that I’m very reluctant to say that there is nothing to religion, mysticism, magic, or belief in spirits. I am confident that, if there is something to it, it’s not what believers think it is; I’m sure that they’re wrong about most of what they believe. But they may be right about their experiences. To take a concrete example: I do not want to rule out the possibility that one or two people have visited Lourdes and been miraculously cured. However, if they were, I’m sure it was nothing to do with the Virgin Mary or the Christian God.

I think that this is an area that would benefit from investigation, if we could work out how to investigate it. It’s a bit like speculations on the composition of the stars in the early nineteenth century, only more so. It would be nice to know, but we have no idea what methods will tell us something useful.

And, of course, the explanation of consciousness might be very low-key, consisting of small modifications to the properties of known entities, and having no wider impact, in which case there probably aren’t any miraculous cures.

The second complication is that religion does not strike me as entirely evil and misguided. Certainly, there are bits that do; the idea that God can, just because he created the universe, torture people who disagree with him for all eternity strikes me as utterly morally repellent. I believe a lot of Christians share my feeling here, and interpret those bits of the Bible away.

I think mythology, ceremony, and ritual can be a very valuable part of life, and there are some psychological studies that back this up; religious people tend to be happier than the non-religious. I, personally, like religious ceremonies. One of the reasons I like Shinto is that there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need to believe all the bits that are false to participate fully in the ceremonial aspect.

Taking this attitude to religion, it ends up playing the role in life that it plays for most people who are not regarded as religious fanatics. That is, you participate in the ceremonies, but crises involving people, and consideration for people, take precedence over the details of the religion. People who can kneel should kneel, for example, because that’s part of what makes the ceremony different, but people who can’t should be allowed to sit, and thus participate as far as they can. And you don’t go around trying to impose your religion on others, because it’s a largely aesthetic preference.

The biggest difference is that, on this approach, religion has no moral authority. Morals may be part of a religion, and an important part of it, but they do not get their authority from the religion. But that’s a huge issue that I can’t go into now.

So, the complications come down to this. I think that all religions are false, and that God doesn’t exist. However, I think it’s entirely possible that religious experiences and even miracles happen, with an explanation that is nothing like that provided by religions. I also think that religions, stripped of any tendency to believe that they are true, have an important role to play in human life, both individual and communal.

This puts me in the odd position of disagreeing quite strongly with Dawkins, while actually agreeing with nearly all of his arguments.

A final result of this set of beliefs is that I do not think that it is generally resonable to refer to religious people as “deluded”. They are wrong, but then so are all scientists. All scientists have a significant number of false beliefs, including, almost certainly, their beliefs about the fundamental nature of the universe (because quantum mechanics and relativity are inconsistent). Religious people are wrong about the fundamental nature of the universe, but that leaves them in the same position as scientists.

The normal atheist claim is that religious people have not properly weighed the evidence. But I would claim that they have. They have chosen not to spend their entire lives studying science, or reading Nature every week. (I enjoy it, but it is not a trivial commitment.) Thus, when it comes to choosing science or religion, they have to choose between two groups of people. Both say “Believe me, because I have reliable methods for finding out the truth”. They cannot personally evaluate either claim, so they have to decide who seems more trustworthy. Some people pick the preacher, others the scientist. I don’t think we can call either group deluded, although I think the ones who pick the scientists are closer to the truth.

It’s also possible that some of these people have had a personal experience that science cannot explain. It happens; even without the possibility of miracles, psychology is still in a fairly primitive state, and there are weird things that happen in the world. (Last time I looked, ball lightning seemed to be a real phenomenon that was still rare enough that no-one had managed to figure out what it was. Not alien spaceships, though.) They might have good reasons to reject the person who has no explanation for their experience, and go with the one who does. It is possible to have good reasons for making the wrong epistemic decision; Newton had good reasons to believe his theory of gravity, but it was wrong.

So, this is another reason why I don’t intend this post to convert anyone. My reasons are based on twenty years of thinking about and studying science, philosophy, and religion, and if you, personally, have not done so, well, why should you take my word for it? That would be quite a leap of faith.







4 responses to “Atheism and Agnosticism”

  1. James avatar

    Hello David,

    I’ve been following your blog with interest for a while, but was prompted to post when I found myself in agreement with much of the above. I wondered what the book on your ‘to-read’ pile was? If it’s not ‘Seeing Red: a Study in Consciousness’ by Nicholas Humphrey, then I recommend that you add that one too.

  2. David Boyle avatar
    David Boyle

    Not going to disagree with you (much), well not in a short blog comment.

    Is not ‘God’ (or indeed ‘Gods’ – I’ll leave you to sort out the grammar) nothing more than man’s anthropomorphic representation of otherwise inexplicable nature in any event? You can assign traits to ‘God’ (if you feel you can cope with the hubris) but doesn’t it come down to this: That the universe is infinite, which the vast majority of us don’t purport to understand and the small minority who do so purport are probably poor misguided souls (sic) whose finite understanding will fall woefully short. That given those inifite gaps in our ‘knowledge’, we can but fill the void with a generic Force/God/blahdeblah and that we cannot but foist our limited vision upon it. Perhaps the scientists, in searching for answers, focus on the void to the exclusion of that which is known, and cannot, as a result, assign any positive to the underlying force which pervades our very existence.

  3. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    James: Thanks for the comment. It’s not that book (it’s “A Place for Consciousness” by Gregg Rosenberg), but I think I’ve come across Seeing Red before. I’ll have to chase it down. The “to-read” pile is a little big at the moment, though.

    David: I suspect you’re right. That’s a large part of what I mean by saying that there may well be something there, but it’s not what religious people believe it is. I also think that science is not asking the right questions to cover that area.

  4. Abdullah Reed avatar

    Peace be with you

    David, I’m thankful you posted your blog, even if I am not in agreement with you. I’m Muslim. I have faith in God and yet I wasn’t born into a Muslim family. I studied some philosophy at uni and at that time, I didn’t believe in God.

    I used to be an atheist. Later on, with changes in my value system, I was more willing to investigate the possibility. That lead to seeing the evidence with less skepticism and more fairness. That lead to having to really listen and test out the arguments of the believers, and step by step, the belief in God became ‘possible’.

    After possible, it took a long time to become firm, but with time, and more research, that happened as well. I have blogged about it at my blog, and I hope you’ll have a look at it and post a comment.

    I also hope to address some of your ‘points’ above, but I don’t know where to start. I can say, though, that the evidence for God is much easier from the Qur’an than from the philosophers of Europe, or from the Christians.

    First of all, the Christian concept of God is flawed, and that puts the soul on a bend. So, the concept of God should be questioned there. When the right concept is the one to be believed, it is easier to believe, because your soul is protective.

    Anyway, I hope we blog or chat about it more…

    please contact me if so, or read about God in Islam on one of the websites like Harun Yahya.

    Yours sincerely,

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