Theism vs. Atheism: A Debate?

Vox Day has challenged the atheist community to a debate concerning "the assertion that there is not only substantial evidence for the existence of gods, but that the logic and the evidence in support of the existence of gods is superior to the logic and the evidence for the nonexistence of them." While only a paltry three days has passed, no David has yet stepped forth to challenge Goliath.1 I expressed interest in arguing for the atheist position, but Vox would prefer to debate an actual atheist. Certainly, a cloud of suspicion would remain were I to lose the debate. However, I think I can battle Vox to a standstill. And I have the harder task.

It is common wisdom that "you can't prove a negative." Strictly speaking, this isn't true. Some negatives can be proven, just like some positives can be proven. Circa 300 B.C.E. Euclid showed that there is no largest prime number. In 1995 Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last Theorem, which says that there are no integers, x, y, and z > 0 such that x
n + yn = zn, where n > 2. But showing that there is no god (or gods) is a more formidable problem. Such a proof would be like showing that no pink unicorns exist -- the only way to do this is by an exhaustive search and, by definition, god supposedly exists outside of nature where man cannot look. In theory, god can only be found if he/she/it actively broke the natural/supernatural barrier and left one or more clues to his existence.

Since I've already mentioned an attribute of god (supernaturalness), Vox has declined to define "god or gods" and has referred to dictionary definitions. I have no interest in arguing for or against beings that are worshipped (which says more about the worshipper than the worshipped), or beings greater than man that have power over nature (cf. Star Trek's
Who Mourns for Adonis? where Kirk and crew run into Apollo). I will limit my arguments to a supernatural being who created nature. This could be the god of the three main monotheistic religions; it could also be a deistic god or alien scientists who are running our universe as a simulation in one of their computers (many implies one).

How then, to make the case for atheism? Bertrand Russell, in "The Problems of Philosophy", states that all knowledge is based on instinctive beliefs (pg. 25). Aside from
cogito, ergo sum I'm not aware of a catalog of basic beliefs (I'm a software engineer, not a philosopher). Is "there is/is not a god" a basic belief, or is it a derived position? I will argue that both positions are basic beliefs, accepted without proof. Given two axiomatic systems, which one is right? The problem is like that of geometry. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry have the same number of axioms -- five -- but the fifth axiom is different in each. Each geometry is consistent. Which geometry corresponds to the universe we live in? On a very small scale, the universe is Euclidean (i.e. space is flat). But for the entire universe, we don't know, because we don't know the mass of the universe. To make the case for atheism, then, it must be shown that atheism is consistent and that it corresponds to the universe we live in.

Informally, both atheism and theism are consistent, in that neither axiom results in a statement that asserts a contradiction. There are claimed contradictions, for example, the problem of evil supposedly contradicts the existence of a loving god. Likewise, the problem of good has been used to argue against the non-existence of God. But neither hold up to scrutiny. Both systems result in explanations for all natural phenomena, even though those explanations may be wildly different. Does atheism correspond to the universe? That's a difficult question since we have incomplete knowledge. For example, if it could be shown that life could not arise by natural processes, then atheism would fail the correspondence test. This is, I think, one of two weakness of atheism and is what caused the formerly leading atheist thinker Antony Flew to convert to deism in 2004 before his death in 2010. However, this is a position adopted from ignorance informed by incredulity. There is no shame in saying, "we don't know," since incomplete knowledge is a problem in both systems, and the argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy recognized by both sides.

The arguments for theism typically fall into one of four categories:
  1. The problem of origins - God is needed to get things going.
  2. The problem of thought - materialism cannot account for human thought.
  3. The problem of morality - Vox wrote in "Letter to Common Sense Atheism I", "Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man…"
  4. The problem of personal testimony/transformation - God did such and such in someone's life. For a powerful example of such testimony, see John C. Wright's "A Question I Never Tire of Answering". Vox said much the same thing, himself. I, too, have been on the road to Damascus. This would include the category of miracles including, but not limited to, the Resurrection of Jesus and fulfilled prophecy.
To make the case for atheism, compelling non-supernatural explanations must be given for each. To deal with the above, particularly the last three, these facts will be used:
  1. We are partially self-aware. Our self-awareness is partial because it doesn't fully extend to how our brains work. For example, we make decisions, but we can't see the mechanism by which those decisions actually come about. This study, for example, shows how analysis of brain wave patterns enable prediction of decisions before the test subjects were aware of what they were going to do.
  2. Our brains are wired to look for patterns.
  3. Most brains are wired to think teleologically, that is to ascribe meaning to external events. As shown by this study, theists think teleologically, atheists think teleologically but then suppress it, and people with Asperberger's do not think teleologically. Their wiring prevents it. See also the work of Catherine Caldwell-Harris of Boston University. Note that this describes typical behavior; individuals may vary.
  4. Our brains are goal-seeking engines with variable goals. Animals are wired for reproduction and, to support reproduction, have the sub-goals of feeding, fighting, and fleeing. Man, however, is a general purpose problem solver and, according to John McCarthy in Programs with Common Sense, one feature to enable this behavior is that "All aspects of behavior except the most routine must be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable."
  5. We are "selfish" organisms, that is, our default behavior is to maximize our long-term benefit.
Once these facts are granted, it will become very difficult for the theist to make a strong case. Furthermore, the theist must grant these facts. Only D isn't currently backed by experiment, since we haven't yet created a human level artificial intelligence; but it is partially observable through introspection and, furthermore, to deny this is to deny the Biblical account of the Fall in Eden. This would put the Christian theist in an awkward position. I note that D can be used to explain C, but it's easier to assert C on the basis of experiment than derive it formally.

Earlier, I said that both theism and atheism were basic beliefs. C and D show why theism is, for most, a basic belief. It's how most brains are wired. C by itself explains the belief that many gods exist (many things need explanation), D explains monotheism (a goal seeking engine without a fixed goal will imagine an ultimate goal). God belief is also comforting because it can always be used for explanations where our knowledge is incomplete (there is ultimate meaning, ultimate morality, ultimate cause). Atheism is, likewise, a basic belief since it cannot be shown to be true. The atheist claim that there is no evidence for god is misguided, since belief guides the evaluation of evidence. This also applies to the theist.

If this is so, then why the debate? Partly because of the challenge. Partly because I detest bad arguments -- from either side. Proverbs 27:17 says, "Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another." Christians have become dull over time and need a wakeup call. Partly because I think I may have some new insights to offer, particularly since computer science is still in its infancy and I think it has important things to say with respect to theology. And partly because I think the result will be surprising. My position actually contains the seed of its own destruction (earlier, I said that atheism has two weaknesses) but I'm not going to give it away.

[1] Dominic Saltarelli eventually volunteered.
blog comments powered by Disqus