Saturday, October 24, 2009

On Perception and Science: A Reflection on Some Claims Made by Certain Atheists

[Author's note to the atheistic reader: As a preliminary, I think I need to make this clear to certain atheists who may be following what I write. This post (like the predecessors in the series) are not written with the goal in mind of disproving atheism once and for all.  Nor do I assume that what I write here proves Christianity once and for all.

Rather, the subjects I have been writing on have been approached with the intent of looking at certain claims of made by some atheists who make them with the assertion these claims show Christianity is unreasonable.  The purpose of my writing on these certain claims is to investigate whether the argument made in each case is reasonable or flawed.

It stands to reason that if a argument is fallacious, it does not prove the claimed conclusion and cannot be used as a reasonable objection to the faith.

Please keep this in mind and keep to the topic if you wish to respond]

Preliminary: The Understanding of Assertion

Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) once wrote in his work Grammar of Assent:

1. PROPOSITIONS (consisting of a subject and predicate united by the copula) may take a categorical, conditional, or interrogative form. 

  1. An interrogative, when they ask a Question, (e.g. Does Free-trade benefit the poorer classes?) and imply the possibility of an affirmative or negative resolution of it. 
  2. A conditional, when they express a Conclusion (e.g. Free-trade therefore benefits the poorer classes), and at once imply, and imply their dependence on, other propositions.
  3. A categorical, when they simply make an Assertion (e.g. Free-trade does benefit), and imply the absence of any condition or reservation of any kind, looking neither before nor behind, as resting in themselves and being intrinsically complete.

These three modes of shaping a proposition, distinct as they are from each other, follow each other in natural sequence. A proposition, which starts with being a  Question, may become a Conclusion, and then be changed into an Assertion; but it has of course ceased to be a question, so far forth as it has become a conclusion, and has rid itself of its argumentative form that is, has ceased to be a conclusion, so far forth as it has become an assertion. A question has not yet got so far as to be a conclusion, though it is the necessary preliminary of a conclusion; and an assertion has got beyond being a mere conclusion, though it is the natural issue of a conclusion. Their correlation is the measure of their distinction one from another.

We need to keep these distinctions in mind when studying a topic.  Which category does a statement fall into?  Treating a interrogative as a assertion demands proof of something which is itself seeking proof by nature.

So, we need to look at the topic from these perspectives.

  • An interrogative statement would be "Does God exist?"  This is something open to the possibility of the answer being either yes or no.
  • A conditional statement would be "if these propositions are true, God does not exist."  The conditional depends on the propositions made.  If the assumptions err, the conclusion is not established to be true (which is different from saying it is established to be false).
  • A categorical statement would be "God does not exist" or "There is no reason to believe God exists."  Such a statement assumes the position contrary to the assertion is not valid.

One of the problems with the discussion of the concept of the existence of God is people do overlook these three situations or confuse one for the other.  The one who questions is not the same who asserts.

So when one asserts something categorically when another believes the categorical assertion is not justified the proper thing to do is to look at the prepositions which the individual uses to make their categorical claim.

Looking at some of the Propositions and Claims of made by some atheists

Atheism, in general, professes a disbelief that God exists, though it is commonly professed in two ways, though with variations in phrasing:

  1. A positive statement that there are no divine powers (The "Science has disproved God" argument fits in here) and everything happens in an undirected and unguided manner.
  2. A hedged statement that there is no evidence for God, so it is unreasonable to believe He exists.

The problem of course in Statement #1 is evidence for such a claim has to be provided and evaluated.  It tends to be an argument from silence when looked at.  The case on Statement #2 is used by those who hedge their bets, yet this supposedly "more reasonable" approach also contains some logical problems.

The Logical Problems with the "No evidence" claim

I've already dealt with the first statement and the problems it has with invoking science.  So lets look at he second.  The problem I have is with how I have seen it expressed.  Put into a syllogism, it follows this pattern:

  • Either A or B
  • Not A (or no evidence of A)
  • Therefore B (or B is more likely)

The problem is "Not A" or "No Evidence of A" does not lead to the conclusion that "B is true" or "B is more likely."  (The logical term is "non sequitur" which is Latin for "it does not follow").  The lack of proof for one has no bearing on whether the other is true.

Take the case for a hypothetical case, an alien race exists.  Whether we could detect such a race would depend on where they were located in relationship to us and where they were technologically in relation to us.  If for example a pre-technological race existed on another world, we would not find evidence of it through SETI (which is based on detecting communication symbols in space), yet conclusions that they do not exist, though a "best guess" of science would be wrong.

The Case Of Phlogiston

Or if you don't want a hypothetical case, consider a real one.

Phlogiston was a scientific theory (first appearing in 1667) used to explain combustion and oxidation prior to the discovery of oxygen as an element.  Phlogiston was believed to be a substance which caused combustion, and once burned out, the pure material was left.  Respiration was seen as the process of removing phlogiston from the body (which is why a match would be extinguished if dropped  in a bottle of the stuff you exhaled).

So let us look at the theory of Phlogiston using the syllogism above:

  • Either Phlogiston or Oxygen
  • There is no evidence for Oxygen
  • Therefore Phlogiston is more likely

Up until the late 18th century, this would have seemed like a reasonable argument.  However, the lack of evidence for oxygen did not mean oxygen did not exist.  Rather we had a misinterpretation of the data we had which led to a scientific conclusion which was false.  The scientific community of the time might have thought phlogiston was proven, but in such a case the theory was wrong in interpreting what it knew.

The Issue of Assumption

From this, we can see that the assumption something must be, or likely be, so because of a lack of support for the opposite is the wrong way to argue.  One needs to be certain no possibility of error exists before making a categorical claim.

Now yes, some assumptions are safe bets, though the reasoning is not always formed correctly.  "The sun rose yesterday, the sun rose today, the sun will rise tomorrow" is commonly considered a safe bet, but really the past performance is no guarantee of future results.  The sun could theoretically go nova tomorrow and obliterate our world.

Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor might be invoked here, saying that when it comes to whether or not God is involved in the universe, the simpler conclusion is usually more valid.  The argument often used is that Science can explain the universe without the need for a God, so a conclusion making use of a God is not logical.

The problem is this is a misquoting of what the Razor in fact was "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity."

The example of Geocentrism

Now, there is indeed some use to the Razor.  For example, with the dispute over a geocentric solar system and a heliocentric solar system, we had a problem with the geocentric system which had to explain why the planets moved backwards during their orbit, and the result was calculations trying to explain how planets could move in orbit this way.  The Heliocentric system could explain these retrograde motions in a much simpler way.

Now the fact that the heliocentric view was simpler did not make it true, though the fact that the geocentric system required so many exceptions to what was being observed in physics that these added complexities needed to be looked at.

Occam's Razor is a tool, and not a law, but some people treat it as a law.  The fact that it can be used to question complex theories does not mean that the simpler is always correct.  For that matter, it does not always mean that our perception of what is simpler is always correct.  Let's face it, for the ancients the evidence seemed pretty clear: The sun rose in the east and set in the west every day.

From that perspective, the heliocentric view would have seemed implausibly complex because full knowledge was not available.

Science is Complex

When I was in school, we were taught that the atom was made up of the Proton, the Neutron and the Electron, and the electron was the smallest part of the atom.  A few generations before I was born, it was still assumed the atom could not be split.

Yet nowadays, we know of gluons and bosons and hadrons and quarks.  Science has shown the atom to be more complex than it was understood to be in earlier times.

Now, if we were to take Occam's Razor and apply it to the atomic theory, one might want to reject modern theory because it seems more complex than the earlier theory, yet we do not.  Why is this?

A Lack of Knowledge does not mean a Lack of Existence

The reason this is is because our observations have shown us more about the universe… information we did not have at earlier times.  Because of these observations we realize that what we thought was a cut and dried observation about science in fact did not go deep enough due to the lack of ability to observe the very minute things of the universe.

I have no doubt of course that science will continue to make deeper observations over things as time goes on.

But What Will It Learn?

One of the arguments that has been put forth in favor of "debunking" religion works along these lines:

  1. Science has shown the Greek Myths to have no basis in fact
  2. Science will some day show that the claims of Christianity have no basis in fact either.

It is a comparison which presumes that the Christian claim is no more valid than the claims of Greek myth.  It often presumes that:

Any supernatural claim has to be false and science will some day produce the evidence to justify this claim.

Replace that claim with this one:

Any supernatural claim has to be true and God will some day produce the evidence to justify the claim.

Many atheists I have encountered would accept the first claim as reasonable and mock the second.  Yet the argument is identical.

If the atheistic premise is false, the conclusion that science will be able to show miracles cannot happen is false. 

Yet even if the atheistic premise were true, it is still not reasonable to speculate on what science may be able to discover.  We may also discover our current knowledge on a subject was as erroneous as Phlogiston or that discovering the cure to cancer is as likely as discovering how to transmute lead into gold.

(In case you're wondering the case does indeed work the other way as well.  Just because God exists does not mean He will explain all some day).


I believe we do need to keep these sort of assumptions in mind when we evaluate arguments against our faith.  Not all scientists are atheists, but in general atheists tend to use science to shore up their claims.  So when arguments promoting atheism are made in the name of science, the question is on what basis such a claim can be made.

A claim from science needs to have the standards of science applied to it for example.  Is it science to speculate on what science will know in the future?  No.  It is not science, but science fiction, and the person who says this says so not from scientific knowledge but from faith in what he thinks science will discover.

Ultimately we need to remember that what we think science is showing us may be the perception which we later discover that science shows us the former perception was wrong.  We cannot anticipate these things though.  Learning truth of the natural and physical world through science requires observation, study and theory to help us understand it, not guessing as to whether we will be flying to work in rocket cars

No comments:

Post a Comment