Thursday, January 10, 2008

Thesim, Atheism, and Rationality

A few questions related to religious belief this time around, so let's have at 'em:

Enigman asks:

What precisely is it, about the world (and/or oneself), that inclines reasonable people towards (i) atheism, or (ii) theism, so that they regard those otherwise inclined as unreasonable; or, are all reasonable people agnostics?
This is the psychological version of the question asked by Bogus:
What would suffice as a refutation of theism? -----or atheism.
Which is the logical side of the issue. The first question deals with what factors lead to actual belief or disbelief, while the second asks what factors should lead to belief or disbelief. These are two different questions, but are clearly related.

The first question has the presupposition that agnosticism is rational. The idea -- and I will put words in Enigman's mouth here, so if this is not what you intended, please correct me -- is that the existence or non-existence of a supernatural deity is not something that is determinable to be true or false with absolute certainty, the rational stance towards a proposition whose truth or falsity is uncertain is to withhold judgement, therefore the only rational position here is agnosticism. This is not terribly different from what is argued by W. K. Clifford in his famous essay "The Ethics of Belief."

Of course, in the simpler form in which we have the question, it needs to be pointed out that rational belief does not require certainty. Virtually everything any of us rationally believe is uncertain to some degree, with the exception of a few mathematical results, but this does not mean that we are irrational for believing it. For example, I believe that sticking this fork in this electric socket would lead to unhappy consequences. Is it possible that it wouldn't? Sure. Maybe a freak power outage would happen at just the right minute to spare me the shocking effects of the action. Or maybe, unbeknownst to me, someone substituted cleverly disguised plastic forks for my usual metal flatware. Any number of strange situation could be the case and the existence of these means that electrocution is not certain. But anyone who then refused to believe that sticking the fork in the electric socket is a bad idea because they were amped up because of the logical resistance provided by these current possibilities is surely being irrational. It is rational to believe that which is probably true, even if it is not capable of being shown with absolute certainty.

This is where Bogus' question comes in. Is it possible to refute or, on the flip side, prove the existence of God. Some, like Anselm have tried to argue for God's necessary existence. Others like Aquinas have argued that God's existence is a necessary consequence of certain observable facts, like motion. none of these arguments have succeeded. On the other side, one can argue that certain combinations of properties cannot all belong to a single being if they are logically inconsistent, that is lead to contradictions. This is what the arguments concerning omnipotence -- the "can God create a rock too heavy for God to lift" arguments -- demonstrate; not that God can't exist, but that if a god exists it could not be the sort sketched out in certain theologies. So, there is nothing that would refute or prove the existence of God, but that doesn't really get at our question of rational belief since there is nothing that could prove or refute the belief that whenever I drop my pen it will always fall.

So, the question is how people do and should make up their minds concerning belief in a deity. Most people, I would contend, use a combination of argument from tradition and an appeal to authority -- we've always believed it and I was told it was so by a highly respected member of the community, so I believe it. To put a positive spin on it, being a part of the religion gives them a meaningful sense of connection to their past and a vibrant community in the present. In this way, religiousness makes you a apart of something more than you are.

Others rely on a felt, experienced sense of the Divine. It is not an abstract propositional concern, but a feeling of connectedness to everything that is a part of their basic stance towards life. In this way, it is more an orientation than a belief.

Still others look around for observable evidence. On the atheistic side, they see system after system that can be explained, predicted, and manipulated according to scientific theories to an unbelievable degree. Given that systems we thought were irreconcilably beyond our comprehension have become perfectly well understood, it seems reasonable to believe that all such systems will be. Thus the move from agnosticism to atheism. On the other side, there are those who see the meticulous order and structure, complexity that seems to them to be impossible to have arisen from purely physical causes and this is taken as observational evidence of intelligent creation. Hence, you have the argument for theism.

For yet others it has nothing to do with the world, but issues of power. For some, having a Heavenly Father who will send you to hell with no desert if you are bad and a pat on the head if you've been good is a comforting way to avoid the sort of anxiety over full responsibility for self that Sartre and the existentialists discussed. At the same time, others disregard a Divine being because it intrudes on their autonomy. I am me in the world, I will reject that which holds me back. In my personal case, it was a question of ethics. I remember sitting by myself when I was ten years old and still being sent to Hebrew school when an amazing sentence popped into my head -- "I could just be good." Those five words made me an atheist. I realized that one of the sources of my moral education was not actual part of the rational justification for ethical claims and that if one employed Occam's razor, my whole ontology could become more streamlined. Not that I used those words at ten, but that was the idea.

The psychology of faith is an interesting question, perhaps more interesting than the logic of it...but maybe that's because the latter has been beaten for centuries and the former has scientific, social, political, and biographical aspects.

So, what was it in your own case that made you a theist or an atheist?