A number of my readers are atheists, but only one is anatheist.net, and that’s James Tracy. In “What John Loftus has is a failure to communicate” James and I continued with the old faith as a starting point of thinking theme (my theme, to be more specific). When James refused to come out and affirm any form of naturalism, realizing I suppose the precarious position in which it would place him, I replied: “if you ever get to the point of defending an actual set of metaphysical claims, be they Christian ones, naturalistic ones, or anything, else, you’ll find yourself in the same boat.” When mere “atheists” grow up they become naturalists, and when they become naturalists, and thus adopt a particular metaphysic, they have to defend it.
This is how James replied:
“It is one thing to have a certain and non-controversial starting point, like ‘nature exists’, while it is quite another thing to have as ones starting point that ‘the Christian God exists and appropriated a certain number of texts produced in the middle east but a class of Israelites and gentile intellectuals during 1000 BCE to 200 CE that happened to have survived and been edited together after hundreds of years into a selection that we know call the Bible, etc, etc.'”
The problem here is two-fold. The first problem is with the jab at Christians. After all, if a person has some ground or evidence to believe the Christian God exists then the unique authority of the Bible suddenly becomes eminently more plausible. James is attempting to highlight the arbitrariness of Christian belief by lumping convictions about the existence of God and the canon into a single proposition.
Now let’s turn to the second problem. James seems to be offering an apologetic defense for naturalism by speaking of “a certain and non-controversial starting point, like ‘nature exists'”. There are actually two problems with this response. The first is that naturalists do not simply hold that nature exists, but that nature is all that exists. And that suddenly moves from non-controversial to eminently controversial.
And what about the statement “nature exists”? This may be “uncontroversial” so long as the content we pour into it is minimized to the point where it is a mere cipher. But the second you go beyond that to affirm realism and deny idealism and solipsism, and to affirm a particular theory of perception (e.g. the sense data theory) and deny others, and to affirm a particular view of the mind (e.g. functionalism) and deny others, suddenly the existence of “nature” has become a bold and controversial thesis, and one needing very much to be defended.
Of course if you want to remain with the naive realism of a drooling two year old grasping his Thomas the Tank Engine and unreflectively taking everything as it comes, you’re welcome to it. But if you want to provide any content to “nature”, you’re moving onto ground that needs to be defended.
Consider James’ statement once more: “a certain and non-controversial starting point….” Does he mean certain in terms of “particular”? The context suggests not. But if he means “epistemically certain” as in “indefeasible” or “incorrigible” then we have a problem, for again his beliefs about nature are surely only indefeasible and incorrigible so long as he keeps the content in “nature” so minimal that it is a mere cipher along the lines of “something exists”.
James then said this: “Everything that I am aware of that exists is natural to the best of my knowledge. That is about as much as I can reasonably affirm.”
So now “natural” is a property, but a property of what? Something you buy at the health food store? Something manufactured without GMOs and pesticides? After James provides a certain (as in particular) and non-controversial definition of natural we can admire the provincial limitations of this statement. After all, think of a farmer who has lived all his life on the prairies and declares “Every topography that I am aware of is flat.” Well good on you Farmer Brown, and thanks for raising the wheat that ended up in my Wonderbread, but that doesn’t mean the Rocky Mountains don’t exist.
Finally, methinks there is a tension between James’s hat-in-hand statements in my blog and his comments on his own website where he writes:
“I am also an atheist and a religious skeptic. I do not believe in any god or gods, and I am highly skeptical of religious people who purport to know what they cannot possibly know. Faith is not a virtue but a failure in applying critical thinking.”
So James does not believe in any gods. And he calls himself an atheist. Does that mean that he knows no God exists or has evidence to demonstrate it more likely than not that no God exists? I dunno, I sure haven’t seem him provide any. I hope he isn’t keeping it to himself like a kid hoarding his Halloween candy. James, if you have some Coffee Crisps please do share them with us.
It could be that James is not an atheist who has any evidence that makes it more likely that God does not exist. Maybe he just hasn’t seen any evidence that God does exist. But wait, James says that religious people “purport to know what they cannot possibly know.” So it is not possible for a religious believer to know God exists. (Sniff sniff.) What’s that smell? Did somebody take out the garbage? Oh no, wait, it’s an unquestioned dogmatism!
How does James know that we “cannot possibly know” what we purport to know? Two possibilities. First, it could be that James is a strong agnostic who believes that these are issues that cannot, in principle, be settled. But surely that depends on whether God exists, doesn’t it? I mean if there is an omnipotent God, he is surely able to reveal himself, isn’t he?
So James’ bravado collapses into a positive knowledge claim. It is not possible to have knowledge of God because God does not exist. But then if God does not exist, if there is no supernature, then isn’t James a naturalist? And doesn’t he now have something to defend?
You know this reminds me of when I was growing up and one guy would buy a ticket to the movie. Then he’d go to the theatre’s alley exit and surreptitiously let in his friends. It seems that that is what James is trying to do. He insists that all my metaphysical beliefs must purchase a ticket but he only buys a single ticket for being “without gods” and then sneaks the rest of his metaphysics in through the alley. Apparently he thinks I’m not going to call an usher.