Article

In Bondage to Reason: Evidentialist Atheism and Its Assumptions

By April 15, 2013November 11th, 2019No Comments

Robert C. Bishop and Joshua Carr describe and critique a number of assumptions found in recent books by atheist authors arguing against God’s existence. Several of these assump- tions are shared widely by Christians and may be adversely influencing our own work. Mr. Bishop is Associate Professor of Physics and Philosophy and the John and Madeline McIntyre Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Wheaton College. Mr. Carr is a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Eminent scientists notwithstanding, science is not a body of demonstrated truths. Virtually 2all of science is an exercise in believing where we cannot prove. Yet, scientific conclusions
are not embraced by faith alone.—Philip Kitcher

The ethics of science are inseparable from science’s forms of knowledge.—Alfred Tauber

Introduction

In recent years, self-identified atheist authors, sometimes called the “new atheists” (such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger), have gained influence in popular discourse.1 While recognizing that God’s existence cannot be rigorously disproved, these authors argue that we ought not to believe in God, or at least that no good reason for believing in God seems discernible.2 Despite the “new atheist” moniker, however, such conclusions appear to be the results of a well-worn evidentialist epistemology common in academic and popular writing on the sciences since the nineteenth century.

This epistemology’s key claim is that all our beliefs must be backed up by evidence from reason and experience – science being the archetypical model. The fuller our scientific understanding of the universe, these authors claim, the more adequate seems a fully naturalistic explanation of its origins and workings. Correspondingly, the empirical claims of various religions seem increasingly untenable, since (it is claimed) they are not sufficiently supported by reason and experience.3

There are three main Christian responses to such a position. First, perhaps these thinkers have gotten the science wrong – that is, naturalistic explanations alone do not suffice to describe the empirical goings-on of the universe – hence, reference to divine agency is scientifically necessary. This is the approach of special creationism4 (SC) and some advocates of intelligent design (ID). Alternatively, Christians could take issue with the pride of place given to science by these thinkers’ epistemology, arguing that science is merely one human activity among many, having little to commend it above other (for example, religious) approaches. This would be a postmodernist tack. Finally, Christians could argue that although science is an important source of some sort of objective knowledge, scientific standards suffice neither to address the status of religious claims, nor to establish science as an exhaustive source of objective truth. Hence, although science does not demonstrate its own inadequacy by offering up some phenomenon which it cannot explain, the inclusion of theistic lines of reasoning provides a more complete picture of reality than science alone can offer. Many who think in this way adopt a “concurrence” view and argue that although God is at work in and through all empirical phenomena, his mode of action is, at least typically, via “natural law.”5 Hence, scientific methods would be expected to be blind to his presence.

We take up this last line of response. Against the SC/ID position – often characterized as a god-of-the-gaps view – these atheist writers employ various tentative explanations that, though certainly inconclusive, seem to offer reasonable grounds for speculating that gaps in our scientific knowledge may one day be filled with a more rigorous scientific story. For reasons beyond the scope of this paper, we also reject the postmodernist response; suffice it to say that the astounding practical success of the natural sciences seems to place the burden on the postmodernist to demonstrate that findings of science are not “objective” in any important sense.

Many atheist writers, however, will deny the plausibility of concurrence explanations by arguing that the attempt to find nonscientific evidence for God betrays fundamentalism at work: if the existence of God is compatible with scientific evidence that prima facie renders his existence unnecessary, then what evidence could possibly get the theist to change her mind? Dawkins writes, “Fundamentalists know what they believe and they know that nothing will change their minds,”6 and stresses that he would, in fact, believe in God if confronted with incontrovertible evidence. Despite the claims of, for example, SC and some ID proponents, however, such evidence is not available. Thus, he does not believe in God. In this, Dawkins argues, he is very unlike fundamentalist theists, who can consistently cling to belief in God’s existence whatever the evidence.

However, the basic concurrence claim is that the ultimate reasons for one’s belief or disbelief in God must be nonscientific; rather, belief must result from the work of the Spirit in the hearts and minds of people. Although Dawkins and his fellow “evidentialist atheists” are not fundamentalists vis-à-vis the simple question “Does God exist?,” they are fundamentalists vis-à-vis their commitment to an evidentialist epistemology and their standards for good inquiry. The natural consequence of this epistemology, moreover, is that there turns out to be no compelling reason to believe in God. If, however, this epistemology is ultimately too limited, and a superior epistemology is available, we may discover various nonscientific lines of support for God’s existence, lines of support which may even shed new light on our scientific knowledge.

In what follows, we identify several assumptions lying behind the various claims and arguments put forward by the evidentialist atheists.7 The ones we find most important are discussed within three categories: epistemological, theological, and moral/value-based.

Epistemological Assumptions

Univocality of Data and Methods

A central assumption of the evidentialist atheists’ epistemology is the univocality of data and methods. The data scientists ascertain are treated as “brute” in that they ultimately have only one proper, unequivocal meaning. Moreover, the operations and procedures used to obtain and process the data permit only one interpretation. Hence, the goal of science – and of intellectual inquiry more generally – is to discover or disclose that one meaning of the evidence. Conceiving of evidence univocally animates the notion of objectivity frequently found in discussions of science.

The univocality assumption shows up, for instance, in Stenger’s explanation of how scientific arguments break out of endless circles: “In science we are able to break out … by calling upon empirical observations as the final judge.”8 Empirical observations could serve as a truly “final judge” only under the ideal of univocal meaning of data and methods. Many evangelical Christians have adopted this assumption of evidentialist epistemology.9 This has led to highly oversimplified (“literal”) interpretations of biblical texts (see below) and underlies the strict inductivist and positivistic approach that so many SC and ID advocates take toward harmonizing nature with the Scriptures.

The idea that data and methods in science have univocal meanings has come under penetrating criticism in post-positivist philosophy of science.10 For instance, Thomas Kuhn argued cogently that any supposed univocal meanings for either data or methods in science are tied to the ways scientists conceive things at the time and to the shared presuppositions forming the context or paradigm for their research.11 Among these atheist authors, only Stenger mentions Kuhn’s discussion of how data we collect are always colored by a significant amount of theory and other background knowledge (though nowhere does Stenger genuinely engage this important insight).12 Scientific data and methods are always subject to multiple viable interpretations even if only one is observed in scientific literature. Consider conservation of energy, for example. Emmy Noether reinterpreted the conservation law as being a consequence of time-reversal symmetry. Albert Einstein, around the same time, famously reinterpreted energy itself as being not merely a property of matter, but as being interconvertible with it and thus “of the same sort of stuff” as matter so that we now have to speak of conservation of mass-energy. The presence of multiple viable interpretations means simply that such fundamental reinterpretations are always possible.

Moreover, the same event can have different but consistent meanings when viewed from different perspectives. Consider an electron colliding with its anti-particle, a positron (resulting in the annihilation of both particles in a burst of energy). Quantum electrodynamics allows us to assign one sort of meaning to this event, but this meaning is far from exhaustive. The context in which the event takes place is at least as important in determining its significance (for example, occurring in a particle accelerator as part of an experiment or in intergalactic space as part of the early universe). Moreover, under the doctrine of creation, this event also finds meaning and intelligibility through its place in God’s cosmic order. As well, under a concurrence view, the event fulfills a particular purpose as God works through it. None of these meanings is subjective in any sense that automatically renders scientific meanings “more real” than any others.

Belief Reduced to Positivistic Knowledge

Related to the univocality assumption is the assumption that all forms of belief reduce to positivistic knowledge. That is, beliefs can only count as knowledge if they have the form of concrete, demonstrable propositions that are logically or empirical verified. This view is at work when Harris writes:

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Read in the right way, this passage seems to render faith entirely self-justifying: perhaps the very fact that one believes in something which has not yet come to pass (“things hoped for”) or for which one has no evidence (“things not seen”) constitutes evidence for its actuality (“assurance”).13

In this interpretation, however, Harris leaves out the very possibility of non- empirical, multivocal sources of justification for faith commitments, as though “not seen” was equivalent to “necessarily unsupported.” Similarly, Dennett writes,

The proposition that God exists is not even a theory … That assertion is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.14

For Dennett, it seems, propositions are only meaningful if they can be univocally interpreted and tested. Because religious convictions cannot be definitively tested empirically, they are practically meaningless.15

This way of thinking about beliefs arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a number of influences such as mercantilism, capitalism, and bureaucratization pushed the idea of belief in the direction of the empirical, precise, predictive, and as historically evolving.16 Such influences, along with the development of science and technology, led eventually to the positivist view that: (1) beliefs are only reliable if they can be verified by experience; (2) empirical beliefs are more trustworthy than those about nonphysical reality; and (3) beliefs should be precise, logically formulated propositions.

As argued above, the evidentialist atheists insist that meaningful hypotheses take the form of concrete, empirically demonstrable propositions. This positivist ideal also shows up in many ID advocates’ arguments that discovering particular “facts” would serve as evidence for the work of a designer in nature, where these “facts” do not require any background assumptions, values, or faith-based interpretation, at least in principle (for example, whether sin has clouded one’s judgment or not). For instance, Michael Behe maintains that “the conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself … design is evident when a number of separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components.”17 The view that rational analysis and empirical investigation alone can detect design in nature or that such a conclusion “flows naturally” from the data presupposes both the univocality of data and methods and the positivist ideal of knowledge. Simply considering what is packed into such notions as “separate,” “interacting,” “component,” “order,” “accomplish,” “function,” and “beyond” individual components, however, reveals that a great deal of background knowledge and values are involved in these supposed “natural inferences.”

In contrast to this tendency to deal with data and procedures positivistically, many scientists and philosophers hold that the sciences involve processes where experimental and observational procedures and data are always rooted in interpretations based on presuppositions. Thus, “every conclusion of science requires presuppositions, just as necessarily as every conclusion of science requires evidence. Indeed, without appropriate presuppositions, evidence loses its evidential role, and that undoes science.”18 Moreover, “facts” receive their meaning from within a moral framework.19 That is, facts take on whatever status they have due in part to the values attached to them, and they find their interpretation within an ethical as well as an epistemological framework (see below).

If conclusions concerning religious propositions do not “flow” from stable, fixed data, many oft-disparaged natural theological arguments may be seen in a more positive light. To take just one example, some theists argue that beauty in the universe (such as natural grandeur or artistic masterpieces) displays the existence of a God who values beauty and who created a universe pregnant with it. Taken as a theological proof, Dawkins handles this quite simply: “Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare.”20 Nevertheless, the theist is likely to have a lingering intuition: if God does not exist, is it not awfully surprising that a universe so pregnant with beauty should develop? Taking this approach, the theist argues, essentially, that the universe has the nature of a well-written story, a story in which we are characters.

Imagine what things would look like from the perspective of a character in a great work of fiction, say Frodo in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. From Frodo’s perspective, the existence of beauty in music and poetry, of good and evil, and of purposes and aims he must accomplish, are clear. What is not clear is the existence of Tolkien. As readers, we realize that all these things exist in the story because of Tolkien, but that does not change the fact that Frodo could interpret their existence in two ways: as the product of a fruitful author or as a mere invention of his mind, superadded over the truly real material phenomena of his existence.

Evidentialist atheists follow the latter intuition, reducing the class of “real phenomena” to those which alone we seem completely incapable of denying such status (material phenomena and efficient causal connections). Not surprisingly, they find God not to be among those things resisting denial. Since science is well adapted to treat material phenomena, it is also no surprise that such thinkers tend to ascribe to science a privileged place. In contrast, the Christian, who trusts the intuition that such things as beauty, morality, and purpose are real (perhaps even more fundamental than the material phenomena that bear them), quite naturally finds their existence to hinge on God’s, so that modes of inquiry besides the natural sciences are needed to generate fuller accounts of reality. Accordingly, the arguments of natural theology are important, not because they confute atheism, but because they clarify theistic motivations.

Naïve falsification

Often, evidentialist atheists deploy a rather naïve view of falsification: if a hypothesis has some observational consequences and experimental tests produce contrary evidence, the hypothesis is falsified. Naïve falsification ignores Pierre Duhem’s crucial point that no hypothesis is ever tested independently of bundles of other hypotheses.21 If, for example, we observe a falling rock’s speed under the force of gravity, we are not only testing the theory of gravity, but also tacitly invoking theories of mechanics, optics, electricity, and magnetism as well as specific hypotheses about the apparatus used to make the necessary measurements (most fundamentally, our senses). Because the formulation and testing of hypotheses always involves human interpretations, putative falsifying observations may not necessarily indict the hypothesis in question. This is particularly true when it comes to testing anything in the religious or social realms.22

Footnotes

  1. Note that the viewpoints embodied by these authors are hardly synonymous with atheism simpliciter.
  2. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin 2007); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 2008); Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008).
  3. It is important to note that these authors’ endorsement of naturalism depends at least as much on their standards for judging religious claims, and their construal of these claims, as it does on how they interpret the achievements of science. Although we elect to forgo a full treatment of this issue, for such reasons we believe that a proper scientific commitment to methodological naturalism does not require the additional presupposition of metaphysical naturalism, so there is no front-loading of an atheist worldview into modern scientific methods.
  4. Whether of young or old Earth variety, special creationists believe all or most species of organisms were created by God de novo or fully formed over the span of six calendar days. To the extent that progressive creationists invoke de novo creations of organisms, they would also be appealing to divine agency as scientifically necessary.
  5. For example, Benjamin B. Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings, eds. M. Noll and D. Livingstone (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).
  6. Dawkins, 19.
  7. Our discussion of atheist authors’ assumptions clearly has implications for apologetics approaches dealing with scientific evidence. Space limitations prevent us from addressing these explicitly.
  8. Stenger, 34.
  9. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the American Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), ch. 5.
  10. For example, Russell N. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundation of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958); Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and Philosophical Papers Vol. 2: Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Frank C. Richardson, Blain Fowers, and Charles Guignon, Re-envisioning Psychology: Moral Dimensions of Theory and Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).
  11. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, with an Autobiographical Interview (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  12. Stenger, 35.
  13. Harris, 64.
  14. Dennett, 311; italics in the original.
  15. In the most extreme-sounding (and perhaps most consistent) passages, these arguments hearken back to positivism’s now-defunct verifiability criterion of meaning. Consider Dennett’s statement that the proposition that God exists is “not even a theory.” This seems rather like claiming that it carries no real propositional content. Judged by the verifiability criterion, such an utterance would be meaningless by virtue of not being testable. The most direct problem with this criterion is self-referential: how is one to verify whether statements must be verifiable in order to be meaningful?
  16. James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 132-140.
  17. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996), 193-194.
  18. Hugh Gauch, Scientific Method in Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 112.
  19. See, for example, Alfred I. Tauber, Science and the Quest for Meaning (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009).
  20. Dawkins, 110.
  21. Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  22. Robert C. Bishop, The Philosophy of the Social Sciences (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007).

Robert C. Bishop

Wheaton College
Robert Bishop is Associate Professor of Physics and Philosophy at  Wheaton College.