Friday, May 2, 2014

The Materialist Atheist Argument for Theism & Conversation Log

I forgot that one of the main purposes of this blog was to keep a running link-record of the more interesting arguments I get into online, and likewise forgot to include this conversation.

The gist of my view was this: the probable truth of atheism and materialism does not provide an objective moral or rational reason to reject theism and non-materialism, at least not in and of itself. On atheism and materialism, you don't have any moral duties to consider beyond personal whim and 'gee, those people over there will beat the shit out of me if I don't do as they say.' Likewise, there are no rational 'oughts' in play beyond the same considerations. So we're in the position where a person who comes to believe that atheism and materialism is likely true still is lacking a reason to sustain that belief, because sustaining a belief - or believing itself - is just one more act to which such restraints don't apply. Would they rather believe that theism and non-materialism are more likely true? Then there's no real intellectual barrier preventing them from doing exactly that.

What I found interesting in the argument was this weird attempt by the resident materialist atheists to try and find some kind, any kind, of restraint for the hypothetical theist who believes atheism and materialism are likely true, but who perseveres in their belief all the same (and, horror of horrors, urges others to do so as well.) But what's fascinating is that even granting the likely truth of atheism and materialism still doesn't give a person a reason to abandon their faith, because a world where both were true would be a world where all the intellectual rules we're used to living by (and have largely inherited from distinctly non-materialist, theistic ancestors) are only in force if we damn well want them to be. When you're left with a metaphysical view that only leaves force and whim as the real deciders of what 'oughts' there are, the metaphysical view itself is open to be sacrificed.

This isn't a novel view on my part - I've seen others mention it before, in particular a Christian quantum chemist (I think) whose name I forget. But it does seem like a view that's worth promoting more, though it has to be done with care - arguments like these are touchy, because they're easy to misinterpret. Also because, I think, a lot of Christians try to play the 'accentuate the positive' game with atheists, and have largely sacrificed the idea that metaphysical views like atheist materialism have a serious (much less negative, even from the point of view of a Christian) impact on our intellectual lives. We can't seriously suggest that thinking about things and coming to the proper conclusions may well be necessary to live morally and do the right thing, can we? How prideful.

4 comments:

grodrigues said...

@Crude:

"The gist of my view was this: the probable truth of atheism and materialism does not provide an objective moral or rational reason to reject theism and non-materialism, at least not in and of itself."

I think we can, and probably should, take this one even further. The moment someone espouses an utilitarian, relativist view of morality based on a mythical rational self-interest -- as many atheists are wont to -- it is time to point out, very clearly, very loudly, that all bets are off as regards intellectual honesty and probity.

Frye observed with acuity at the end of his "Anatomy of Criticism" that:

"Whatever one thinks of dialectic materialism as a philosophy, it is certainly true that when men behave or pretend to behave like material bodies they do behave dialectically. If England goes to war with France, all the weaknesses in the English case and all the virtues in the French case are ignored in England; not only is the traitor the lowest of criminals, but it is indignantly denied that any traitor can be honestly motivated. In war, the physical or idolatrous substitute for the real dialectic of the spirit, one lives by half-truths."

Make the appropriate replacements ("dialectical materialism" -> "atheist naturalism", etc.) and you got a spot-on criticism.

The Fez said...

The beauty of this approach is that you can essentially take the materialist as far down the rabbit hole as you would like. They are required, under their ideological paradigm, to couch everything in terms of what a un-thinking, un-willful meat machine would do, and why they would do it. To me, that's the weakest point in an atheist's armor: having to describe the validity of their moral outlook and why it should, thusly, apply to others. Why does the accidental belief of meat-machine A matter to meat-machine B? The moment they attempt to extrapolate their own intellectual and moral presuppositions onto another individual, they run into some predictable problems.

Ironically, they almost always wind up appealing, as they did in this case, to some scrubby notion of "harm" or "public good". And I suppose when you lack a framework for describing what those are and why they matter, you have to start criticizing someone for using too many words in one sentence.

I don't think you could have been any more explicit in terms of rendering the dilemma as an intellectual issue, even more so than a moral issue, within the context of the thought experiment. Of course, I'm curious to know how you might, if, say, you were an atheist, might satisfactorily approach the problem. Do you think that it's a possibility?

Crude said...

Grod,

The moment someone espouses an utilitarian, relativist view of morality based on a mythical rational self-interest -- as many atheists are wont to -- it is time to point out, very clearly, very loudly, that all bets are off as regards intellectual honesty and probity.

I wish it was done more often, and I think a fair share of theists are reluctant to walk down that road since the 'atheists can be just as moral as theists' mantra is powerful and popular. What I'm saying here doesn't contradict that claim - I happen to agree with it, conditionally, since it's about a logical possibility - but simply pointing out that an atheist-materialist worldview pretty well leaves one down to whim and force seems to be too aggressive for some Christians. Plus it can be touchy to argue.

I think the utilitarians try to cope with this kind of thing via Combat By Axioms. "Well I take it as axiomatic that everyone should be honest and nice and help each other and maximize happiness and..." Of course, on materialist atheism, axioms don't mean anything either.

Fez,

As I told Frances, I think atheists of her variety are under the impression that they just 'get' things like "public good" and "honesty" and the like for free, as in everyone will agree these things are sacred and should always be at the forefront of their minds. But no, that's as up in the air as anything else.

What do you mean by approaching the problem satisfactorily as an atheist?

Mr. Green said...

Crude: a world where all the intellectual rules we're used to living by (and have largely inherited from distinctly non-materialist, theistic ancestors)

A very significant point. Even atheists' own ideas of atheism are predominantly influenced by Western Christian philosophy. You know how you get blank stares when you reply to claims of "The Universe did it" or "aliens did it" with "Oh, so you are a theist after all, you just believe in pantheism or a pseudo-pagan pantheon"? Theology (largely Scholastic) was so successful in formulating the Judeo-Christian view that anything that isn't YHWH is taken to not even be theism. (Well, obviously the universe isn't God, everybody knows that!!)