Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Universal Athiest"

     One of the favorite lines of thought for atheists to use is what I call the "universal atheist" argument.   I submit there is at least one fundamental flaw in the premise of this argument that, as far as I can see, can not be patched.

The "Universal Atheist" argument goes thus:

1) Everyone disbelieves in at least one god, be it Thor or Zeus or Ahura-Mazda. This makes everyone an atheist (hence the moniker "Universal Atheist") because (PREMISE:) Disbelief is a default position when considering any proposition.
2) PREMISE: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
3) PREMISE: The existence of God is an extraordinary claim.
4) ASSERTION: I see no extraordinary evidence for the claim

THEREFORE: Concluded-Atheism is a reasonable position.

     I see nothing wrong with premises 2 or 3, so I will stipulate to those.   I find the assertion of 4 presumptuous (can anyone know everything?   Even if given any one of us knows half of everything, is it possible God exists in the half we don't know?), but such an assertion is subjective.   If an individual thinks they have explored enough to stand by such an assertion, it seems pointless to argue as long as whenever new evidence to challenge that assertion is presented, the individual remains willing to reassess the claim of the assertion.

     I would strongly suggest, however, that there are severe problems with the opening premise.   I do not see where it is at all true or helpful to consider as true the premise that disbelief should be a default position.   Such a position would make it impossible to get through life.   While the proposition that we should disbelieve everything until proven sounds appealing to an empirically grounded culture, it is, in fact, totally contrary to the nature of our existence and would stop life in its tracks if we operated on such a premise in our daily lives.

     Example:   Will marriage to the one I love now yield a lifetime of happiness or misery in the future?   Restated as a positive claim, "Getting married will bring us a lifetime of happiness."   Now, if disbelief is our standard default position, then we must not be moved from the negative conclusion (ie "No") until the claim is proved in the positive.   This being the case, we would never get married, because until we jump in, "take the plunge," as it were, and live out the marriage, we can never know whether the claim is true or not.   Indeed, continued failure to assert the positive actually precludes the very possibility of proving the positive.   Thus, the only way to prove the positive is to act on the default positive position.   The claim may still, unfortunately, yield a negative result, but by standing on the negative, a positive outcome can never be realized.

     This is how daily life works.   Marriage, having children, choosing a job--we never have complete information.   In fact, any older, married parents will tell you that comparing what they know now with what they knew then is like comparing the mass of a whale to an insect--no matter the size of the insect, it can never match that of a whale.   Amazingly, even so, a new child to that parent would put them back to having an infinitesimally small bank of knowledge regarding the outcome of that child.   That is because, as every good parent will tell you, every child is different and times change.   Having had a successful outcome (so far!) with three children over the past 20 years does not assure a successful outcome with a proposed fourth over the next 20 years.   Yet, it would be absolute insanity to even contemplate a fourth unless I optimistically were willing to stand on the positive conclusion to such a proposition despite the profound ignorance on which I would have to base such a conclusion.

     However, this does not make my conclusion "unreasonable."   To the contrary, the experience of successfully rearing three children makes it eminently reasonable to conclude that my parenting skills are presumptively adequate to the task.   That is, I certainly have reasons, good, informed reasons on which to base my positive conclusion ie I have faith in my parenting skills.   That is the very nature of faith--not ignorant belief to all contrary evidence, but informed positive assertion in the face of incomplete data where such data could not otherwise be complete.   This is the Biblical concept of faith as defined by the author of Hebrews:   "NOW faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1).

     My point is that if we cling to the premise of a negative conclusion by default, nothing would be possible.   Science could not operate; conclusions could never be drawn.   In the face of all timely calls to action--international crisis to personal disaster--our permanent, default "action" would be, in fact, the lack of action.

     Rather, I would assert our standard, default position as a matter of daily practice ie the "real world" truth of the matter is that we consider first is it possible for the claim to be true.   After determining the possibility of truth, we consider the evidence for and against and assign a probability of the claim being true, not proclaim it false until proven true.   When called to act ie where we must act upon our informed belief in the truth of a given proposition--does God exist?   Does Saddam have WMD?   If I have a kid, will he/she turn out OK?--we act in accord with our assessment of the probability of the positive resolution of the claim.

     Atheism is not a reasonable position based upon this premise, which is shaky at best.   Neither is agnosticism.   That topic in the next blog!


  1. Um... that 4th child idea would have to get past your wife.... and I KNOW that ain't gonna happen! Ha ha!