Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Ten Commandments of Atheism: A Brief Refutation

       I came across an article on the Huffington Post entitled 10 Commandments For Atheists Who Want To Explore Their Values by Kimberly Winston. In the article, she gives a synopsis of a recently published book called "Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century". The book, she reports, is intended to be a "philosophical road map" for the essential beliefs of nonbelievers.

       I have a few issues with the article, particularly with the equivocations and misleading information about the authors. However, that is something best left to the side. Regardless, I wanted to offer a brief refutation of their humanist ten commandments, since it is a perfect reflection of how unsophisticated the atheist community is. They have a habit of pumping out popular level books, 'fun' books, that lack any philosophical depth and are easily refuted by someone possessing elementary knowledge in philosophy. It's a shame since both authors are promoted as having "studied philosophy and logic." I'll begin by listing their ten 'non commandments' and then offer a brief critique.

The Ten Non-Commandments:

I. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.
II. We can perceive the world only through our human senses.
III. We use rational thought and language as tools for understanding the world.
IV. All truth is proportional to the evidence.
V. There is no God.
VI. We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not.
VII. There is no universal moral truth. Our experiences and preferences shape our sense of how to behave.
VIII. We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.
IX. We benefit from living in, and supporting, an ethical society.
X. All our beliefs are subject to change in the face of new evidence, including these.

      Commandments I, II, and III contradict each other in the sense that they form an invalid  argument. This is easily seen if we read them in reverse order. Looking at commandment III, it should be noted that rational thought and language are inept as tools for understanding the world without content from our experience of the world in the first place. This is supported by commandment II, which claims that we can only know of the world through our 5 senses. However, this certainly doesn't support commandment I. If all we can know about the world comes from our senses, then it is highly presumptuous to claim that the world is real. Why think, on atheism, that the world is real simply because we can sense it? This is a textbook example of a circular argument. Epistemologically speaking, evolution only cares about behavior that yields survivability, not beliefs that yield truth. A false belief is just as likely to yield adaptive behavior. Our cognitive faculties are suspect under naturalism, but that is a topic for another time.

      Commandment IV is simply false. Not all true propositions require evidence. Using their first commandment, if I say "show me evidence that the world is real", then what evidence could they provide that wouldn't already assume that the world is real? It's question-begging. Secondly, we assume that our evidence is true when we present a cumulative case -- more circularity! It should also be added that this creates an infinite regress of evidence required for any truth claim. Thirdly, this commandment makes truth probabilistic. However, statements like "I exist" or "something exists" are immediately true, and no amount of evidence would add or subtract from them without already assuming the truth of the proposition in question. Evidence is merely something that assists us with coming to some beliefs, and doesn't itself determine truth. Reality determines truth and evidence only helps us believe it. Show me an atheist providing evidence for the laws of logic and I will show you an atheist providing only examples of those laws. Examples aren't the same as evidence.

    I was caught off guard with commandment V, since most atheists claim that they merely have a lack of belief in God. However, this is saying that there is, in fact, no God. Therefore, it's a claim that requires a valid argument(or, if you prefer, evidence). I find it particularly interesting that they have just claimed the world can only be known through the senses, but are eager to claim that God doesn't exist. Does God not exist because we haven't perceived Him with the senses? This appears to be arguing from ignorance. Just because Group A doesn't perceive entity B, doesn't therefore mean that entity B doesn't exist. The absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Of course, this is the byproduct of their faulty epistemology and metaphysical assumptions. They ought to have said, "Based on what we know, God is unlikely to exist" or "Belief in God is unwarranted."

      Commandments VI - IX, like their first three counterparts, are incoherent when taken together. If becoming a peeping Tom makes me happy, then according to commandment (VI) I should pursue it. Likewise, if giving money to a homeless person makes me unhappy (the loss of money), then according to this commandment I should avoid doing so. Commandment VII reinforces this by claiming that, essentially, moral phrases carry as much weight as declaring your favorite ice cream flavor. VIII is completely redundant and was already dealt with in VI. Finally, commandment IX is incoherent so long as the word "ethical" remains undefined. It's not easy to see what they mean by "ethical society". Is a society ethical if they maximize the happiness of the majority, or merely your own happiness? Surely we'd benefit if our happiness is preserved under such a society, but not so much if the majority is considered. At the end of the day, the authors implicitly admit that such atrocities like the holocaust weren't really 'wrong', but rather were the subjective expressions of a German people. In fact, one can use their so-called ethic against them epistemologically. Truth, or the pursuit of it, is really a trivial thing since the man who chases after whatever gives him pleasure and comfort is doing nothing epistemologically wrong. These last four commandments destroy the spirit of science, philosophy, and degrade human beings while simultaneously destroying society.

      Finally, commandment X can effectively be ignored since one is just as likely to change his or her beliefs based on the amount of emotional comfort or pleasure it gives them, rather than the weight of rational evidence.

      In conclusion, the authors fail to provide a coherent 'blueprint' for humanism. They only succeed in revealing atheism's shallowness and inability to work as a tenable worldview. This brief refutation was done within an hour's time. I wonder how much red ink would be spilled if their project was submitted before a philosophical committee, or was peer-reviewed. Perhaps the atheist community's preference for publishing 'fun' books is the reason why it's dying in academia, but I digress.