Reason and the First Person --atheism and rational action further considered

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, concluding chapter 16, can be found here.]

[This entry starts chapter 17.]

A philosophy that posits that the Independent Fact (the ground of all other facthood and the base for all reality) devises purposes, makes plans, initiates events or otherwise takes action, will fall into one of two mutually exclusive philosophical branches: ‘theism’, or perhaps better for our present purposes, 'not-atheism'.

'Atheism', by contrast, posits that the IF behaves only automatically, nonpurposefully, noninitiatively. An atheist could be (but usually is not) supernaturalistic. She could even (but usually doesn't) propose that the IF is 'alive' in some sense. Neither of these posited IF characteristics necessarily entails that the IF acts. An atheist might even allow that a Most Powerful Thinking Entity exists, which could without gross abuse of language be considered 'a god' and which might very easily and forgivably be mistaken for 'The God' (in other words, be mistaken for the Independent Fact, and thus inspire a belief that the IF itself is rationally active). However, such an 'emergent' god (if its/his/her existence could be established) would not technically falsify atheism, which concerns the properties of the IF itself.

So: I think an atheist, as an atheist, has a vested interest in proposing and defending the proposition that the final, ultimate base of reality does not act.

Granted, most atheists would probably say rather that their vested interest is to defend the proposition that the IF does not think; but if I was an atheist, I wouldn't require much introspection to recognize that this 'thinking' ability attributed to 'God' involves at a more basic level the practical exhibition of action initiation; or else, if not, then I might as well comfortably stay an atheist.

Let us say I am an atheist. A nominal deist claims to me that God exists, but (going a bit too far and transitioning inadvertently into cosmological dualism) also claims that God takes no actions whatsoever in my sphere of reality. What, as a consistent atheist, would be my response? As far as I can see, it would amount to a variation of one or both of two replies:

1.) 'Oh. That's rather... um... interesting. But if God never takes any action that relates to my reality, then on every conceivable and practical point God might as well not exist. That being the case, I'll just stay an atheist, thank you.'

2.) 'Ah. But if God never takes any action that relates to my reality, then you cannot possibly have any grounds for proposing God's existence other than your own sheer assertion. That being the case, I'll just stay an atheist, thank you.'

In other words, a consistent atheist will (with admirable prudence!) either consider a non-acting God to be a non-issue, or else a non sequitur (and thus a mistaken belief).

In either case, the proposed ability of God to 'think', as such, makes no practical difference to 'atheism', as such. If the nominal deist replies (as a nominal or even minimal deist would in fact do, not being a cosmological God/Nature dualist) that God doesn't only think, but also creates my reality, then I would consider it a real challenge to my atheism (to be defeated, of course, if possible). Now the claim would encroach on my actual beliefs. A claim of 'sentience' sheerly by itself would not be a major problem, to me, because sentience can be so variously defined as to be rendered innocuous. (God is sensible to stimulus??) But when a claim about God entails practical action by God, then things become much less ambiguous--and so much less safely ignored.

To put it bluntly, actions have consequences; and proposed actions of God have the most far-reaching of consequences. As an atheist, I would have no particular compunction to waste my time bothering about a claim that a thinking God just sort of exists somewhere out there. But if a thinking entity designed, instituted and maintains me? Now I have a serious issue.

God has a purpose for my life; God expects me to do certain things; God will act as ultimate judge of my conduct, and will take further actions to uphold that judgment; God sends messages to me and to other people; God grants authority to people and expects them to share in His plans and purposes as vice-regents, and thus as authority over me: these are propositions which strike me right in the face.

A man attempts to gain political power in my country, who merely claims 'a thinking God exists': what do I care about his opinion on this matter? He might as well be claiming that galaxy NCC-1701 has a black hole at its center. I am more concerned with whether he can manage governmental functions competently and honestly.

A man attempts to gain political power, who claims that God acts in the history of our reality. Now I (as an atheist) am concerned, because this is a man who could easily be trying to 'act' 'with' 'God'--and if I think he is mistaken about God's existence, I will conclude it would be dangerous to have a man so incorrect about reality to be in a position of such great power: because even if he has the best possible ethical intentions he will be acting in a way which (I think) cannot help but be questionably inefficient. To be mistaken about reality and to act on that mistaken belief is to court disaster, because you will be expecting reality to behave one way, and it will instead behave in another way--quite possibly (or even probably) at direct odds to your intention! This is not a person who should be in public office, other things being equal; certainly not who should hold the strongest authoritative power in our country (if not the whole world). But the person who merely proposes that a 'thinking' God exists? No problem.

And, of course, hyper-minimal deists (or, for that matter, hardcore God/Nature cosmological dualists) are rather rare. Someone who proposes the existence of God, usually means more than the mere proposition of a 'thinking' entity; they mean that the ultimate Fact of reality takes actions--one type of action being 'thinking'. This person may be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, some type of pagan henotheist, perhaps a positive pantheist, or even a 'non-religious' theistic ethicist. Strictly speaking, even the nominal deist would be claiming God takes actions, even if the deist restricted this claim to the absolute minimum of a one-time creation event beginning our Nature’s history; but as a matter of history, nominal deists have a tendency to appeal to God’s institution of Nature as a ground for practical moral action. Sometimes they acknowledge God as an active judge of morality, too, beyond death if not today in this life.

So what I will care about at bottom (if I am an atheist) is whether this 'God' of theirs acts--and especially whether this ‘God’ of theirs is still supposed to be acting in relation to the Nature I live in. Not just whether He, She or It 'thinks'.

Similarly, one type of pantheist (such as an Early Stoic) who claims that Nature is sentient but that Nature never takes actions, would not be worth my time as an atheist, except perhaps in a purely abstract debate--where my reply would probably be, "What is the point of proposing a 'sentient' Nature if you simultaneously deny its ability to act? The claim is contradictory. I also deny Nature's ability to act; that means Nature cannot be sentient, either. And that claim is self-consistent."

So when I put myself in an atheist's shoes, I discover pretty quickly that an atheist as 'an atheist' claims at bottom that the ultimate fact of reality, the Independent Fact upon which all other things are based, does not act--and, in passing, this also happens to mean It doesn't "think", either.

On the other hand, as an atheist, I would probably be very insistent that I can act--especially in my own judgments! "You are only an atheist because you were brought up that way," a theist might tell me. At this point, I would have one of two basic options open to me:

1.) "Hmm. I guess you're right," I could reply. "But," I might continue (assuming I don't thusly abandon my atheism as being irrational) "it doesn't matter, because those environmental pressures are such that they can be relied upon to produce true beliefs in, or through, me."


2.) "That is most certainly not true!" I could hotly retort, whereupon I would launch into a string of arguments to demonstrate that my beliefs about the non-existence of God are not only automatic knee-jerk behavioral responses of mine to my environment (even if I did happen to be raised by atheists).

The first type of defense would agree that I am not capable of action, but that this doesn't matter with respect to my 'thinking' behaviors. The second type of defense certainly involves a defense of my action ability.

These options may seem rather different modes of defense; but essentially, both these defenses involve the justification of what I call my 'reasoning ability', whether or not I consider this ability of mine to be utterly reactive.

And this leads me back to the end of my previous chapter. There, I had concluded that my ability to think (and otherwise act) either comes from a fundamental reality which engages in action itself; or else blindly automatic reactions must be considered capable of producing events which are themselves capable of active or only (yet sufficiently) reactive justification.

If the ultimate fact of reality--what I have been calling the IF--acts, then the whole wide-flung branch of 'atheism' must be untrue, and should not be reinstated later under any circumstances or conditions.

On the other hand, if reactions are proposed to have produced actions, then either this contention is intrinsic nonsense or it is not nonsense. If it is nonsense, then it is removed from the option list, to be replaced either by the proposition that mere reactions can be reliably self-justifying, or by the conclusion that a purposefully active IF exists. If this last defense of atheism turns out to be nonsensical, then it is also removed from the possibility list, leaving the existence of a Sentient Independent Fact--a purposeful, active IF--as a deduced conclusion: God (of some sort) will be deductively established.

(A successful conclusion of this type would still have some highly important qualifications to keep in mind, however, as I will discuss later.)

A defense of atheism therefore sooner or later entails defending the contentions 'it is possible that actions are ultimately produced by reactions'; or 'it is possible that reactions can be reliably self-justifying.'

Claiming that 'action' and 'reaction' are terms too vague to support the deduction runs almost immediately into the atheist's (or even the agnostic's) own practical acceptance of some such clear distinction as a professing atheist (or practicing agnostic). Thus, this tactic cannot be successfully used to defend against an anti-atheistic deduction.

Claiming that 'reactions' don't really exist, only actions, essentially means accepting that the IF purposefully initiates events after all; thus it would be a rejection of atheism.

This leaves the two basic lines of atheistic proposition, either one of which may be used as attack or defense (depending on who goes first in a discussion of the topic).

The atheist may claim that only reactions in fact exist (thus entirely avoiding the question of whether it is nonsensical to claim action-from-reactions--or even agreeing that such a claim would be nonsensical), and yet these reactions may produce behaviors that for all practical purposes equate to reliably 'rational' behaviors in us (particularly in our arguments).

Or, the atheist may attempt to establish experimental and/or formal arguments of reactions producing actions, concluding that the principle is not nonsensical.

The attempt to establish the consistency of the claim 'all actions could possibly be produced ultimately by reactions' seems to me to be the more popular of the two branches--atheists have a wide and impressive battery of claims along this line. That is, these claims are impressive in their density, and in the apparent scientific validity they possess, or in the apparent reasonableness of the proposed enterprise (assuming the relevant experiments haven't exactly been run yet). The claims are also impressive in their sheer number, and in the strident (sometimes triumphant) authoritativeness of their proponents.

But as impressive as such attempts may look, I think they are all, in principle, founded on a devastatingly circular argument; a circular argument actually shared by those who attempt to claim that reactions and only reactions can reliably justify conclusions.

I will illustrate this formal problem underlying the connection between atheism and human justification attempts, by presenting an imaginary dialogue between Chase (whom I will arbitrarily assign to the atheist role) and Reed (whom I will assign as the theist, using a variation of the theistic Argument from Reason).

Next up: the dialogue begins


Jason Pratt said…
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