An Atheist of the Old School

Steven Den Beste respected truth, and had humility or realism about the limits of his own human knowledge. Here is a good example. He was an atheist by conviction, but was well aware that his beliefs about God and the nature of the universe could not be proved.

“I guess I can see how [The Raving Atheist] might interpret what I wrote as pandering, but it’s difficult to see how it could be traitorous. That presumes that I’m part of some formal group and had given some sort of promise to it of loyalty, and then turned around and broke that promise. But I am part of no such group. I do not owe any loyalty to any kind of global atheist cause.

“… I do not agree with you that it is possible to disprove the existence of the Christian God. Nor do I “share your disdain for a tooth-fairy God,” etc.

“… I am totally convinced that a mechanistic explanation for the universe is the correct one. But I arrived at that result through inductive reasoning, not through deductive reasoning.

“… But induction is not objective. Deduction is objective, and one can document the evidence, reasoning and conclusion of a deductive proof and others can look at it and will agree that it’s unflawed and therefore true. Induction is not ultimately susceptible to an equivalent process of checking.

“… we as individuals can arrive at equal degrees of certainty about some issues but without really having any ability to convince other people of those results, in fields which are not readily susceptible to the collective processes of the scientific method. Religion is one of them.

“… If two people have different bodies of knowledge, they obviously won’t necessarily get the same inductive answers. But even if they broadly share the same knowledge base they can still get different inductive results.

“That’s because they may place different weights on different pieces of data. What one may find critically persuasive the other may think is completely unimportant. In principle that whole process might be subject to extreme scrutiny and maybe everyone could come to agree on all of those evaluations, but as a practical matter it ain’t gonna happen.

“When The Raving Atheist tries to claim that atheism is true and that theistic religions are false and that these things can be proved, those claims only make sense within deductive reasoning. Induction can never prove anything; all it can do is to assign an extremely high conviction level to it. What I was trying to say in that article was that my certainty about atheism is based on induction, and because induction is subjective I cannot outright prove to anyone else that I’m right.

“If someone makes the claim that atheism is subject to deductive proof then they are forced to achieve the standard of proof that I described in that article, and any single counter example, even if preposterous, is enough to derail that claim. That is the nature of the deductive process; it’s what makes it powerful when it works. If no such counterexample can be found, even preposterous ones, then the original claim is very powerfully proved.

“But what I showed in that article was that it is not in fact subject to deductive proof, which is why my single preposterous example was relevant.

“On the other hand, what works to disprove a claim of deductive truth may be irrelevant when the conclusion is the result of induction.

“… one can try to present an inductive case against the Christian God which is overwhelming. The Raving Atheist thinks such a case exists, and so do I, which is part of why both of us are atheists. But what I understand and RA clearly does not is that such an argument isn’t objective.

“As a practical matter, it’s a belief. I know that, and say so. He doesn’t seem to realize it.

“… I know or have known Christians that I thought were deluded fools. I have received more than my share of incoherent arguments from them which they thought were overwhelming and I thought were clear demonstrations of their lack of education and inability to reason effectively.

“But I have also known, and now know, Christians who are intelligent, intellectually disciplined, well read and knowledgeable who are completely convinced of their faith, just as I am totally convinced about mine. I think they are wrong, and they think I am wrong…

“… I do not think Donald Sensing is an idiot, and I consider his religion to be equal to my own, even though it totally contradicts mine. That doesn’t mean I have any doubt about mine; I’m convinced he’s wrong.

“… Donald and I disagree, but I think that his inductive process was of equal quality to my own, and until such time as further evidence becomes available which might directly affect those calculations, we’ll continue to disagree while maintaining mutual respect.

“As a practical matter, if he’s right we’ll both find out when we die. If I’m right, neither of us will ever know for sure.”

Now you know, Steven.

(Note: Of course the Catholic contention is that God’s existence is something which can be figured out by objective philosophical reasoning, as well as being supported by experience and history. But that is a whole other post, and I am not getting into Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles at this hour.)

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