May 19, 2008
It's often easy to spot faulty reasoning in somebody else's belief system, but how many of us rigorously apply equal scrutiny to our own cherished worldview?
The failure to do so is known as special pleading and I was recently accused of this intellectual atrocity by a good friend of mine while discussing the movie Zeitgeist. After weeks of hearing nothing but hype and praise about this film I'd love to tell you how disappointed I was with it, but now is not the time and you're more than welcomed to read the review. All you need to know for our dialog here is that the opening segments show in quick succession visual images depicting the epic problems of humanity, asking what could possibly be their cause.
The first potential cause offered is religion, and the filmmakers present almost a dozen examples of folks who made similar claims as the Bible makes for Jesus Christ, all of which were made long before the New Testament was even written. The implication was that all religions are misinterpreted sun-myths endangered by radicals who threaten humanity in a post-nuclear world, a claim I partly agree with. At any rate, my friend, a computer programmer firmly grounded in logic whom I esteem as one of the most skeptically intelligent friends I've made, was of the opinion that the existence of messianic claims that predate Christ inherently weakened the New Testament's claims about Christ. I disagreed. Continuing to persuade me, he brought up an analogy from skateboarding.
In the skateboarding world it is generally without dispute that Mark Gonzales was the first to grind down a handrail. My friend reasoned that if another skateboarder came up claiming to be the first to grind a handrail, that I would quickly and correctly identify that skater as a poser, a charlatan, a fraud. I thought for a second, then agreed. "I would say that skater was wrong," I replied, "…because we both know that Gonz was the first to do that trick." He then asked why my same logic didn't apply to messianic claims that predate Christ, and immediately attributed my disagreement to special pleading. At first I wondered if he'd caught me in a bona fide breach of logic, but I defended my position, contending I'd made no such breach, and he challenged me to support my point.
I believe I did.
Whether made by Osiris, Christ, or the weirdo down the way, messianic claims remain just that: claims. And like all religious claims, messianic claims cannot be verified empirically. In the case of grinding handrails, however, we find an event that can be verified empirically, and indeed video evidence and personal testimonies corroborate the claim that people have been grinding down handrails on skateboards for over twenty years now.
So of course I'd call the unknown skater claiming to be the first to grind a handrail a poser, not of special pleading, but because the conclusion fits the observable data. However, in the case of messianic or resurrection claims, we have no observable data, other than the written records in which the claims were made, which qualifies as circumstantial evidence at best. So I wouldn't call Jesus a poser simply because there is no incontrovertible, empirical data proving that life does or does not extend beyond death; data one absolutely needs to level any reasonable charge against anyone who makes such a claim.
Now readers unfamiliar with my tendency to get off-subject might be asking, What does skateboarding and Zeitgeist have to do with whether or not atheism is scientifically tenable? The answer is that the aforementioned scenario establishes a methodology by which we might reasonably decide whether or not a given claim is scientifically tenable, and that's whether or not it fits the observable data.
Beginning with the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, pop culture has routinely bombarded us with false dichotomies depicting atheists, skeptics and freethinkers as rooted in logic, science and reason, with theists, believers and dogmatics depicted as guided by myth, dogma and fantasy (like most false claims, there is a grain of truth to this one). Atheists generally pride themselves on what they perceive as strict adherence to rationalism, assuming that their belief system either stems from or is supported by empirical evidence, while simultaneously deriding theistic ideas as unscientific, unfounded or illogical. Recurring caricatures are the mindless zealot and the faithless scientist, but in fact we're all in the same boat of utter inability where no human being whether scientist, pastor, atheist, believer or otherwise can empirically validate anything about the existence of God or life after death.
As such the question bears careful repeating: Is atheism scientifically tenable?
As with any argument, first we need some working definitions. I've no doctorate, but to me a claim is scientifically tenable if it reasonably proceeds from established facts or theories in the absence of contradictory, observable data; in other words, if it fits the observable data. We've established before that truth corresponds to actuality. That oxygen consists of three hydrogen atoms, that our sun revolves around Earth, that human DNA molecules display right-handed chirality or that the human retina can detect electromagnetic frequencies greater than 1200nm are all scientifically untenable claims, because contradictory, observable data refutes each of them. On the other hand, that life evolved over time, that the universe had a beginning, that the continents used to be a single land mass or that we'll one day find a cure for cancer are all scientifically tenable claims; the plausibility of each claim is at least tolerated and at best verified by observable data, and they reasonably proceed from established facts and theories in the absence of contradictory, observable data. But do you notice a pattern in each of these examples? They are all verifiable through empiricism.
Arriving at a working definition of atheism is a bit more difficult. I was just on a blog where I noticed a comment posted by somebody who described his or herself as, "A scientist and an atheist who refuses to believe anything, no matter how obvious, without direct evidence." For the sake of this piece, let's define atheism not so much as the obviously scientifically untenable 'hard' or 'strong' atheism which overtly denies Gods, spirits and all things supernatural, but what could be called 'liberal' or 'mild' atheism, perhaps interchangeable with skepticism or philosophical naturalism, whose less-exclusive creed is that all observable phenomenon can be explained by natural causes, and that beliefs which cannot be supported by observable data must be rejected.
Humans instinctively want to know their origin, or potential cause. One of the first questions a child asks a parent is from whence it came, and let me say preemptively that this is not a pitch to persuade you of the First-Cause argument. However, when presented with the idea that the child came from the parent, the inquisitive child usually asks where the parent came from, with the process continuing on and on. It's reasonable that the first human or humans may have come from somewhere, and such extends to the universe. Prior to twentieth-century astronomy, one theory was that the universe itself was uncaused and had simply always been here. With the advance of science in that century came observable, testable data from esteemed professionals like Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble and others indicating just the opposite: that the universe itself had once been in a state of non-existence, that it had something comparable to a beginning.
When pondering the beginning, a natural question arises, Could the universe have a cause? If so, what might this cause be? These are not child's questions. It is a scientifically tenable assumption that some conscious thing or some unconscious process caused the universe to begin, but stating whether the cause of the universe was natural or divine is simply outside the jurisdiction of observable data.
The reasoning does have the illusion of validity. After all, regarding once-mysterious phenomena, we have replaced supernatural explanations with natural ones hundreds of thousands of times, right? So isn't it extremely likely that we will ultimately discern a natural cause for the universe, and not a supernatural one? Although this argument is true, and it does in fact appear likely that we'll ultimately discover 'natural' causes for the first replicator or the beginning of the universe, I object to the false dichotomy. Natural does not imply godless, yet, many atheists jump curiously to the conclusion that there is no need for God, because 'natural' processes can account for the current panoply of life and all the other things we don't understand. Such is a horrible argument for atheism.
That theism is scientifically untenable is old hat and of course exploited to no end by critics. What's less commonly understood is that if theism is scientifically untenable, then so is atheism by default. Although there is no observable data which directly contradicts a
natural godless cause for the universe, the belief that the universe had a natural godless cause cannot be proven by observable data. Unless they wish to make appeals to special pleading, those atheists or philosophical naturalists who wish to maintain intellectual integrity should stick to their guns by rejecting a belief that cannot be supported by observable data.
The next logical question becomes which idea better explains the range of observable data – and that, of course, is a subjective entirely.
Indeed, the whole world is pink through rose-colored glasses.