Can atheism be properly basic?
March 21, 2015 — 4:44

Author: Rik Peels  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Uncategorized  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 41

I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.

I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.

Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.

We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.

What if God does not exist? Is it then possible that humans have a reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist? In order to see whether it is, let us consider other reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanisms that produce basic beliefs. Among them are visual perception, auditory perception, belief formation on the basis of memory, belief formation on the basis of smell, belief formation on the basis of taste, and belief formation on the basis of introspection. Now, why should we think that these mechanisms are truth-oriented and why should we think that they normally reliably produce true beliefs?

The answer will be something like this: we have good reasons to think that these mechanisms are truth-oriented and reliable, because the basic beliefs they produce are the result of the right causal interaction with our physical environment. Beliefs based on visual perception, for instance, are usually true because visually perceiving our environment normally directly produces true beliefs.

On atheism, the most plausible explanation of why such beliefs are usually true is highly likely to be one in terms of our evolutionary history. It seems evolutionarily advantageous to form true perceptual beliefs about one’s environment. If we did not, we would not have been as successful at survival or we might not have survived at all. If we failed to see that a shark or tiger is approaching, our chances of survival would be comparatively low. Mutatis mutandis the same applies to other beliefs, such as beliefs based on memory or introspection, as well as on smell or touch. It also applies to basic mathematical beliefs, such as 2+2=4. Even if numbers are abstract entities that exist independently of us, it will be true that, say, one is surrounded by no sharks, one shark, two shark, three sharks, or even more. Given that sharks are distinct material objects, our basic mathematical beliefs can be properly basic, because our physical interaction with our environment directly and automatically leads us to have certain basic mathematical beliefs and it seems that having true basic mathematical beliefs is evolutionarily advantageous.

Thus, our normal basic beliefs seem to be produced by cognitive mechanisms that are truth-oriented and generally reliable, because they have the right causal connection with the world (outside or inside) and having true beliefs contributes to survival. There has been some debate about whether evolution selects for true beliefs, but it seems that virtually all atheists and even many theists embrace this thought, so I will not question that thesis here.

Now, the problem is that the basic belief that God does not exist seems to differ radically from perceptual beliefs, auditory beliefs, introspective beliefs, and our other basic beliefs. If God does not exist, he cannot cause anything in our physical environment, nor will he be exemplified in our physical environment in the way that properties like being such that there are three of them within a range of twenty feet can be exemplified by the sharks circling around us.

Of course, believing that God does not exist may have survival value. However, even if it does, it does not seem to do so in virtue of its being true—this in opposition to, say, our perceptual and memorial beliefs. For, it seems that the belief that God does not exist is not and cannot be caused by the world inside or outside, in the way perceptual and memorial beliefs can. This is not to deny that atheism as a basic belief may have survival value: it may make one, say, courageous or independent. The point is: it seems it cannot have such survival value because of the causal interaction with the world. And such causal interaction does seem to be required in order for the mechanism that produces that belief to be truth-oriented and reliable.

Hence, even though, for all we know, the basic belief that God does not exist is true or even necessarily true, it seems it cannot be produced by a mechanism that is both truth-oriented and reliable. This means that whether or not God exists, it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented cognitive mechanism that reliably produces the basic belief that God does not exist. And that means that, to the extent that one’s atheism is a basic belief, it cannot be properly basic. Hence, in order for it to be warranted, it should be based on arguments against God’s existence. This may even imply that atheism cannot be rational if it is merely a basic belief, for instance, if rationality requires that it seems possible that the belief in question is produced by a reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanism.

Thus, if something like Reformed Epistemology is correct, there is an important epistemic asymmetry between theism and atheism: theism can be properly basic, whereas atheism cannot—the theist does not need arguments for God’s existence, whereas the atheist does need arguments against God’s existence.

Any thoughts on this?

  • Hi Rik – a couple of years ago, I was considering a similar question, namely whether we’d be able to derive warrant (or whatever other positive epistemic quality) from areligious experience, that is, an experience that strongly, and non-inferentially, produces belief that God does not exist. Someone pointed out to me work by Jerome Gellman, showing that one can have a non-inferential justified belief that God does not exist upon experiencing evil. This sort of experience is quite different from a reasoned argument (along the lines of “this evil is very bad and gratuitous. If God exists, he would prevent it. Therefore God does not exist” – Gellman writes “the problem of evil is first and foremost grounded on a type of experience that provides defeasible grounds for believing in the non-existence of God”. Unfortunately, I can’t find Gellman’s paper anymore (it’s A new look at the problem of evil, published in F&P in 1992), so I’ll build my own analysis of this question:
    Assume that one encounters horrendous instances of evil, instances one considers to be incompatible with God’s omnibenevolence. Even in the absence of arguments, one can then form a justified belief that God does not exist. If that belief happens to be true, would it have warrant? And if it is true, would it be properly basic, as in, not formed on the basis of arguments, but formed by reliable cognitive faculties working well in a given environment – in this case, I would say, reliable cognitive mechanisms that allow us to assess persons and their motivations and nature, which were shaped by natural selection. On the basis of that, one could form beliefs like “X is a nasty, back-stabbing person” or “Y is a good person”, using one’s experiences with them. With the background information that God is all-good and desires the good, a horrendous instance of evil could then occasion our ability to assess persons to form the belief “Either God isn’t good after all, or he does not exist”. Maybe one would still need an argument to then conclude “God does not exist”.

    March 21, 2015 — 6:03
    • Dear Helen, thanks for the reference. I agree: I think Gellman makes the point in “A New Look at the Problem of Evil”, Faith and Philosophy 9.2 (1992), 210-216, and Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 76-83, but I find it hard to see exactly how the example is supposed to run in the case he describes. I think your example is clearer. Still, I’m not entirely convinced. I see how the mechanism could reliably produce true properly basic beliefs in the kind of example you mention. But how could it do so in the case of belief about (the non-existence of) an omnibenevolent, omniscient being? It seems the right sort of causal interaction with the world is absent in such a case. Evolution would never select for true belief in that case. Of course, such a causal connection is absent in other cases as well (e.g. many of our scientific beliefs), but then those beliefs are based on arguments.

      April 16, 2015 — 14:48
  • Interesting argument. I think Trent Dougherty argued in a recent
    paper that one could (defeasibly) non-inferentially know or justifiedly believe, if some particular
    horror, that no one could justifiedly cause or allow it. I suppose it would
    require a quick inference from there to “God does not exist”, but then
    So would the inference from “God made all of this” to “God exists”.

    March 21, 2015 — 14:43
    • Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve been in touch with Trent about this a while ago (and wasn’t entirely convinced by his arguments at the time). I’ll reread the relevant passages (I think they’re in his recent book on animal pain).

      My reply to your point that one also needs some kind of inference to get from theistic experiences to the belief that God exists would be twofold.

      First, many religious believers, certain philosophers included, claim that there are mystical experiences in which people experience God directly. They experience him mystically or feel his presence by way of a sixth, religious sense. I take it their idea is that humans are endowed with a mechanism that produces the basic belief that God exists or that God is present (and, hence, exists) once God reveals himself to that particular person. Surely, it seems, this is not impossible if God does indeed exist.

      Second, even if people form the basic belief that God exists upon experiencing the beauty of a landscape or the order in the universe rather than God himself, the ensuing belief that God exists can be produced by a reliable truth-oriented mechanism. After all, if God exists, then it is possible that he has implanted or created in human beings a mechanism that, upon receiving inputs like perceiving a beautiful landscape, automatically (non-inferentially) and reliably produces the basic belief that God exists. It seems not at all impossible that a perfectly good God would not only produce belief that God exists in human beings when they perceive God himself, but also when they perceive what one could call ‘the works of his hands’.

      March 21, 2015 — 15:42
  • Sorry for the typos. Texting isn’t ideal for posts.

    March 21, 2015 — 14:47
  • Hi Rik,
    You might be on to something, and it’ll be interesting to see how your proposal fleshes out. Here are a few more thoughts:

    (i) Recall one of Plantinga’s early examples of properly basic theistic belief: a child who forms belief in God on the basis of the word of those in her community (testimony). Mightn’t an atheist likewise properly form atheistic belief in the basic way in a similar manner?

    (ii) In “Functions, Warrant, History” (in the Naturalizing Epistemic Virtue collection co-edited by Fairweather and Flanagan), Peter J. Graham argues that some epistemic functions are *acquired*, and sometimes rather quickly (e.g. operant conditioning is a feedback mechanism that generates many functions, as we learn when we quickly acquire the process of reliably tying our shoes). Now I’m not sure how the story might go offhand, but I’m wondering if it’s epistemically possible to have properly basic atheistic belief via an acquired truth-conducive function.


    March 21, 2015 — 22:57
    • Thanks, Felipe, for your reply.

      Ad (ii): I don’t yet see how the story would or even could go, but it’s an idea worth exploring. I’ll read the paper by Graham!

      Ad (i): I’ve been thinking a bit about how things would go in the case of atheistic testimony. Here are my thoughts. When someone tells me, say, that Mongolia exists because she has been there herself, I have reason to trust her; after all, there are many countries in the world, some people travel over long distances, and, I presume, I have no reason to think this person is lying. And when a scientist tells me that the Law of Boyle is correct, then I have no reason to mistrust her, for scientists are the kind of people who know such things. But now imagine that someone tells me that God does not exist. It seems that a cognitive mechanism that makes a person accept just any testimony whatsoever will not reliably lead to true beliefs; one should have at least some indication that the person who gives the testimony is possibly in a position to know the thing in question.

      Now, there seem to be three main possibilities as to what happens when someone asks the atheist for her reasons to think that God does not exist.

      First, the atheist does not give one any arguments against God’s existence, but just repeats that he or she believes that there is no God. If one comes to believe the atheist merely because she claims that God does not exist, then it seems that the mechanism in question is not reliable, for it is entirely uncritical. It is, therefore, hard to see how the resulting belief could be properly basic.

      Second, it is possible that the atheist gives certain arguments and that one comes to believe that God does not exist on the basis of those arguments. That, however, would render one’s belief that God does not exist non-basic.

      Third, it is possible that the atheist gives one certain arguments that are too complicated for one to understand, but that one knows at least that she has based her view on certain arguments against God’s existence. Of course, any well-educated person living in a Western society knows that there are many others who do believe in God and who are not convinced by those atheistic arguments and who have some theistic experiences and even arguments for God’s existence (which, presumably, are also too difficult for one to understand). Now, imagine that one is aware of this and that one does not understand the arguments on both sides, but that one nonetheless accepts the atheist’s testimony on the non-existence of God and, thus, comes to believe that there is no God. I admit that in this exceptional scenario – I call it exceptional, because there seem relatively few such cases – one’s belief that God does not exist may be basic. The problem, though, is that this very same scenario requires that there is an atheist who does have arguments against the existence of God. Thus, even though the atheism of the person who accepts the other person’s testimony need not be based on arguments, it requires that someone else’s atheism is based on arguments, so it requires that other atheists have arguments against the existence of God. Thus, there might still be an epistemic asymmetry between theism and atheism in the sense that theism could be rational even if there are no arguments for God’s existence, whereas atheism, in order to be rational, requires that there are arguments against God’s existence.

      March 23, 2015 — 9:18
  • Rik,

    One feature that would almost certainly be advantageous evolutionarily is the means to make intuitive probabilistic assessments given certain background information. Those assessments do not need to include specific numbers, but only need a capability to intuitively give a certain degree of credence to certain hipotheses. The hypotheses don’t need to be represented in terms of words, either. Humans who never learned how to speak, or even members of other species – say, chimps – can do that too.

    A feature like that can be applied to hypotheses involving beings that do not exist, and thus cannot affect anything, like the hypothesis that the cause of a noise in the wall is the ghost of a person murdered 256 years ago, or that 1000000 years from now, every human will turn blue and gain the powers of Superman, or that there is a dragon in the garage.

    They can also be applied to claims like the claim that a religious leader manifested objects (i.e., made it come into existence with his words), and/or levitated, and/or cured any illness – no matter how bad – in seconds, and/or is immune to poisons, and/or walked on water, raised the dead, etc.

    The assessments in all of those cases would be – given backgrounds that most people in many present-day social contexts have, at least – that they’re extremely improbable, at least before considering some specific arguments in support of any of those hypothesis (and I’d say even after that; Christians would disagree at least with some of those, but I see no good reason to agree with them).

    I don’t know whether you would count such assessments as “properly basic”, but in any case, they do not require any conscious deliberation – they’re intuitively made, and still based on a reliable process. If they’re inferential, then a non-conscious and very fast inference is doing the job.

    The same might happen when an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect (or omnimax) being is posited. The assessment that it’s extremely improbable may include as background information data on suffering and moral evil – for instance -, and/or about the potential variability of minds and preference structures, but in any case, it may well not require any arguments (not in a sense requiring conscious deliberation). So, while omnimax theism is less improbable than more specific versions of it (like different versions of Christianity or Islam), it might still be (I think there is, for many of us at least and without the need for conscious deliberation) that the [proper] intuitive probabilistic assignment to the hypothesis “an omnimax being exists” is almost zero.

    March 22, 2015 — 7:57
  • Kevin Stanton

    I’m still thinking through everything you’ve argued, but this jumped out at me:

    “If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist.”

    Why think this is true?

    March 23, 2015 — 9:26
    • One reason I was thinking this is that every instance of the belief that God does not exist would be false, so the mechanism would not be reliable.

      March 23, 2015 — 9:32
      • Rik, you say, “if God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.”

        Suppose we think about the cognitive process(es) that generate atheistic belief something that is capable of generating multiple beliefs; that is, not as a sort of one-off belief generating mechanism (i.e., a process that generates but one belief: the belief that God does not exist), but as a process that generates all sorts of beliefs about the divine realm.

        Suppose that God exists and (A) He wants us to believe that most of the ideas that people come up with about divine beings are false, and (B) He does not care whether we believe that he exists. Why would he want these things? Well, let’s suppose further that God wants us to behave morally and that this is his highest goal for us. Let’s also suppose that false beliefs about the divine realm have a tendency to cause (together with other factors) people to behave immorally. Given this, it is easy to see why he might want (A). Further, given that moral behavior is possible without belief that God exists, he might not be too concerned that people believe in him.

        Now, given (A) and (B) it is plausible to suppose that God would create human beings in such a way that they will have a cognitive process that generates beliefs of the form ‘Odin does not exist’ and ‘Zeus does not want me to kill my enemies, since Zeus does not exist.’ Such a mechanism, it seems to me would be truth-oriented and reliable even if God exists. It is true that one belief generated by this mechanism (the belief that God does not exist) would be false, but that does not change the fact that, in general, the mechanism is truth-oriented and reliable.

        March 31, 2015 — 8:06
  • Mike

    What if God has a reason to cloak his existence? Maybe going so far as to provide equal evidence for both positions? Because maybe our free will depends on the uncertainty. The uncertainty allows each of us the choice to believe, the choice to love, the choice to follow, and/or obey. How free could anyone be with the absolute knowledge that an omniscient and omnipresent God is watching and judging?
    If God doesn’t want to be found, he could hide in plain sight and nobody would ever find him. We make the assumption he can be found or wants to be found or maybe he wants us to desire him enough so that we will seek him?

    March 23, 2015 — 13:44
    • I doubt that “being quite sure” and “being absolutely sure” makes such a big difference to people in practice. And there are plenty of people who are quite sure that there is a God, and nonetheless seem quite free.

      March 25, 2015 — 9:42
  • David Simpson

    I would strongly disagree that being an Atheist means believing that God does not exist.
    Atheism means not believing in God because there is no evidence for it. In essence I think being an Atheist means not believing in ANYTHING, belief is thinking something exists regardless of evidence. Atheism is basic as it simply means know what exists based on the evidence we have.

    March 23, 2015 — 14:02
    • mike

      The problem isn’t enough evidence, after all every single culture has and/or had a belief in Gods. The evidence is abundant, it’s just that the modern interpretation of the evidence is different. Funny but the best description of our world can only be done by the most strict, rule intensive endeavor made by man, mathematics, and in turn can only be understood by the very smartest minds to have ever lived and yet that same universe could come from nothing without design. To me, that just seems a little unlikely.

      March 23, 2015 — 17:18
  • Kevin

    It seems to me the easiest way to comprehend this argument, would be to replace the word God with Dragons. I think by doing that, you will find your fallacy.

    Also, a major assumption is being made by stating that only created minds can find “truth”. It begs the question, does truth exist outside the mind or does it exist within it? Either way, you are the one making the claim, so you have the burden of proof.

    March 23, 2015 — 14:15
    • I don’t see the fallacy yet. And I’d appreciate it very much if you could point it out to me.

      I don’t think I assume that only created minds can find truth. I believe God ‘finds’ every truth, but is and has no created mind.

      April 16, 2015 — 14:58
  • Aaron

    Two or three issues of logic occur to me, and perhaps you’ve dealt with them but they are implied rather than explicit. 1) Physics and the physical world are perceived more properly as groupings of events, and not “things” that exist or do not exist. The example here is the ability of infinitesimal breakdown of time and space into smaller and smaller parts. Grouping those parts into bundles of particles or atoms or groupings of atoms is how humans perceive the world. However, these “things” are only momentary groupings. Divining universal truths (that we “reliably” know to be true) based on these larger, imperfectly describable groupings is largely not possible. The phrase “reliable truth oriented cognitive mechanism” takes this ambiguity on by making a generalization about human ability to reason and achieve reliable results that is not born out in practice. 2) On a more basic level, if you define atheism as something that must be proven… then the existence of theism is a logical precursor to atheism (i.e., atheism is a reaction to an expression of theism). This is incredibly in line with your point, but undermines the value of your observations somewhat as it is a more simple proof. A response to a thing cannot exist before the thing itself. 3) If you define atheism, rather, as the lack of a belief in a god or gods, then that lack of belief need not be based upon anything at all and your proof is not logically consistent.

    Food for thought. I suppose a clearer definition for three terms would be helpful to more clearly imagine and delineate your proof: theism, atheism, and “reliable truth oriented cognitive mechanism.” (At least for the common reader.).

    March 23, 2015 — 14:39
  • If I were an atheist, I do not think I would say that my belief that God does not exist was itself a basic belief, as that is being defined here.
    However, I would point out that “God exists” is certainly not among my basic beliefs.
    I would suggest that such beliefs as “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and “The burden of proof rests with the person making an existential claim” are plausibly taken as basic beliefs. These basic beliefs, I would argue, provide support for my (non-basic) belief that there is no God. They throw the burden of proof on the theist.

    Of course, it would require some sophisticated philosophical argument to establish that beliefs like “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” really are basic. But the philosophical atheist who established such a claim would have performed on behalf of the unphilosophical believer the same service that Plantinga thinks he has done on behalf of the unphilosophical theist. The claim is that a non-philosophical believer is entitled to say “Well, I think that until someone presents me with some extraordinary evidence, I’m perfectly entitled to go on not believing in God.”

    March 23, 2015 — 15:55
    • My argument is confined to beliefs and does not say anything about claims/assertions (maybe the theist who claims that theism is true or maybe anyone who makes a claim has a burden of proof; I am only saying things about beliefs, though).

      Also, the argument is not directed against non-basic atheism, only against basic atheism (atheism as a basic belief).

      March 26, 2015 — 10:39
      • Indeed, my initial thought was that an atheist could concede everything you claim and respond with a shrug: what does it matter if there is no exact symmetry between the status of the belief that God exists, if that is true, and belief in atheism, if atheism is true?

        Thinking about it further, some atheists might even welcome this conclusion: if theism is true, it is a belief that everyone could accept as basic, but if atheism is true, it still requires a little philosophical sophistication to have a warrant for your atheism. So, atheism requires philosophical sophistication – that might confirm certain prejudices.

        March 30, 2015 — 11:18
  • Jeremy Hiltz

    I think that there is a tangible difference between the positions ‘Believe that god does not exist’ and ‘No believe that god does exist’.

    March 23, 2015 — 16:02
    • I agree. The argument is confined to belief that God does not exist.

      March 26, 2015 — 10:40
  • GG

    Quick list of problems:
    Our senses actually give us many false perceptions of the way things are, some are markedly off — i.e. the way space, time, solidness, motion. Even things like what coldness is were not understood 200 years ago.
    The second problem is what is God — the concept has too many incarnations.

    March 24, 2015 — 5:47
    • As to the first problem, there are, of course, defeaters for beliefs, and there may be defeaters for theism (that’s up for debate). I don’t see how what you say here counts against my argument–the conclusion of which is simply that there is good reason to think that atheism cannot be properly basic.

      By ‘God’ I mean a perfect being as described by Anselm: a personal being who is omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good, and the creator of the universe.

      March 26, 2015 — 10:42
  • Alan White

    (i) Moorean-based accounts of basic belief require only reports of 1st person experiences that have content. It’s pretty hard to report not-content. That might a strong asymmetry here.

    (ii) Even so, Helen’s remarks resonate with me. Over three decades ago, as I was undergoing a move away from religion, my father died a pretty horrible death by cancer. I left grad school temporarily to care for him with my mom, and it was a death attended by protracted suffering. Until you have lanced boils on your father while cleaning defecation as he writhed in pain, not recognizing you from the toxins in his blood uncleansed by renal cancer, you do not know the evil of disease and a society which allowed a WWII vet to die in such a way. When it was over, I realized I had not once ever even thought of God, who seemed so very absent as to not warrant such. That was as close to my seeing the presence of evil as a nullification of God as a basic belief as one can, I suppose. But still–though I have written about Whitehead’s idea of negative prehension–I still doubt that one can form something like a basic belief about a non-existent anything. But that implies nothing about the reliability of basic beliefs–especially when any foundational belief about that reliability of religious experience is extremely suspect.

    March 24, 2015 — 22:02
    • Dear Alan,

      As to (i), it seems to me we form all sorts of properly basic beliefs about the absence or non-existence of objects. For instance, when I see an empty chair, I immediately form the basic belief that there is no human being on the chair and that belief seems properly basic. I do not need any kind of argument in order for this belief to have warrant and be rational. And when I am in my living room I can see at once that there is no elephant in it (unfortunately, my living room is not that big). I need no argument for that: that belief is basic and perfectly rational.

      However, these are all beliefs about the absence or non-existence of some object at some place. We can form properly basic beliefs about whether or not there is someone on the chair or whether there is an elephant in the room, because we can oversee the chair or the room. With the existence of God, however, it seems to me things are rather different. On a classical conception of God, God is immaterial, that is, without a physical body. And we, human beings, do not have the overview over the entirety of reality – which would include immaterial entities, if God exists – that we have over the chair, the room, and over even larger physical objects, such as planet earth or certain parts of the universe. (Gellman 1992; 1997, 76-83, in his description of alleged cases of experiencing the non-existence of God, fails to take this point into account.) Thus, the fact that we have basic beliefs, produced by truth-oriented reliable cognitive mechanisms, about the absence or non-existence of certain entities provides us with no reason to think that the basic belief that there is no God can also be produced by a truth-oriented reliable cognitive mechanism.

      Of course, we also hold beliefs – about the non-existence of things – that do not concern a specific location in the way my belief that there is no one on the chair does. Here, we can think of such beliefs as that the Yeti does not exist, that phlogiston does not exist, that quasi-dragons do not exist, and that Venusians do not exist. It seems to me, though, that those beliefs are not basic: they are based on certain arguments – some kind of inference – to the effect that these entities do not exist. We argue, for instance, that if the Yeti existed, then in certain mountainous areas there would be evidence for his existence, but that there is no such evidence.

      March 25, 2015 — 3:43
  • James D

    I agree with your article in its entirety, however I think your article will have tremendously little affect on the vast majority of atheists, not because they will ignore it, because it irrelevant to them. Your article relates exclusively to positive atheism – the belief that god does not exist – however the vast, vast majority of rational atheists are negative atheists – it’s not the case they believe god doesn’t exist, rather they would claim that they have no belief that he does. For negative atheists belief formation is of no concern as they would claim they have no belief which requires justification or explanation.

    March 25, 2015 — 5:17
    • I’d say the people you’re talking about are agnostics. And I agree that there probably are significantly more agnostics than atheists (people who believe that God does not exist).

      Still, there will be millions of atheists. Some 25% of the inhabitants of my own country (the Netherlands), for instance, believe that God does not exist.

      March 26, 2015 — 10:45
  • Rik,

    In your reply to Alan, you say “We can form properly basic beliefs about whether or not there is someone on the chair or whether there is an elephant in the room, because we can oversee the chair or the room.”
    I would say that we also make intuitive probabilistic assessments involving things we are not in a position to see or otherwise detect with our senses, or even instruments. Those assessments may or may not involve the existence of objects. The relevant feature – favored by evolution – would be a mechanism to make probabilistic assessments of hypotheses based on a certain amount of info.

    As examples, we may consider the following hypotheses:

    H1: 1837442 years from now, half of the human population will turn blue and gain Superman-like powers, while the other half will turn green and will be like the Hulk.
    H2: There is a green, black and blue dragon living on Gliese 581c, who knows everything that happened on Earth since the planet was formed, including what you had for breakfast. She has the power to teleport to any point in the universe at will, and will never allow any humans to detect her because she particularly likes hiding from humans.
    H3: Sathya Sai Baba had the power to manifest small objects (i.e., make them just pop into existence, apparently), as many people witnessed. However, he’s not here with us, so we’re not in a position to check. But he did all that. In fact, sometimes he appears to some of the people who believe in him – but not if anyone else is watching.

    I would say a person can properly give all of those hypotheses a extremely low (close to zero) probability, based on the background information available to her, and right after the hypothesis is presented to her – no need to come up with an argument.

    March 25, 2015 — 12:39
  • The Doctor

    I think atheism can be reliable, particularly because it follows identity axiomatically in the same way the Ancient Greeks thought.

    The Ancient Greeks believed in *natural* gods–meaning, in gods that were normal, physical beings who happen to exist within the universe with such and such characteristics. They were not *supernatural* as the modern idea of God is. This was because of the nature of the universe. The universe being everything that ever was, is and will be, it logically follows that the universe *cannot* be created. For there to be a creator, it would mean that there was something before the universe existed–which translates to: there was something before there was something, which is a blatant contradiction. By this logic, there simply is no supernatural being, creator of everything. Nothing can change the universe or its laws, the universe is what it is, it has a nature, an identity which is axiomatic and undeniable (undeniable because whatever we do or say presupposes such laws).

    The Ancient Greeks believed in gods because of tradition and subjectivism. If their thinking was alive today, there would be no excuse for believing in a natural, superhuman god–a supernatural one was discarded thousands of years ago.

    March 25, 2015 — 22:57
  • Therion

    Aside from questions of belief… Atheism is a condition related to key dysfunctionality in the organic make-up of the individual. True Atheists – i.e. those who aren’t simply adopting the “A” lifestyle to be cool – lack, at the extreme end, the psycho-emotional apparatus to “see” or even intuit that which is extra-dimensional, be it spirit-related or even subjective perceptions of a psycho-emotional sort arising from a mystical or quasi-mystical appreciation of the natural world.

    These types can be so cerebral and process oriented almost nothing functions beyond a ticking heart and the usual deductive, logical faculties tethered to a limited emotional repertoire. Being in and around people like this can be a disturbingly empty experience. Yes they can be kind, generous, charitable… all those human qualities that are many times associated with the religious… but there is something intrinsic to their humanity that is missing. They seem less than whole… predictable… programmed… oddly one-dimensional.

    I’m not coming at this from a faith perspective, rather from the standpoint of potentialities. Practical working methods exist to develop the will and imagination. It is possible to open inner doors to a realm of experience in which energy can be manipulated and experienced in ways that can be characterized as “religious”… “magickal”… “mystical.” This is not simply fantasy or make-believe. But the key to experience of this sort is the willingness to accept that in the realm of purposeful imagination – or image-making – when you act upon A… B and C will follow… just as certain effects follow initiated causes in the physical world governed by physics.

    Is this “proof” of God per se? No but it opens up a door to the miraculous that of necessity includes a type of experience that is cultivated through the development of will, concentration and the use of symbol. Those familiar with these working methods know that “things happen” when you initiate a current of inner force along certain preordained lines. There is a “something” that is entirely independent of us, that can be apprehended in various forms that reflect aspects of the whole. This something is active in our cosmos but for reasons we don’t entirely understand its operation is hidden from our everyday perceptions and you have to dig with the right tools in order to engage it.

    March 28, 2015 — 2:16
  • Arnold J Rimmer

    What you would need to do first is to define god(s). All arguments here seem to be for the monotheistic Abrahamic God. This God can be proved/disproved due to the interventionist traits attributed to it.
    Wakan Tanka, the Sioux great spirit, would be difficult to prove/disprove due to it living outside of space and time and not intervening in the world.
    The obvious question to me,is that if there is no evidence, why believe? Anything could exist, but that does not show that anything does exist.
    That is why I am an atheist.

    April 6, 2015 — 23:38
    • I wasn’t trying to give an argument for theism or against atheism. I only aimed to show that atheism, in order to be rational, needs to be based on arguments.

      April 16, 2015 — 14:59
  • GRE

    An interesting argument but it goes off tangent. Implies subjects that have nothing to do with anything about the question at hand and are only included to try to help support the argument due to it’s frailty.

    From a simplistic viewpoint one could say that the Atheistic viewpoint goes something like this:

    “Proof of Existence

    For all beings that exist, their existence (defined by it’s specific attributes) must be detectable
    through predictable and replicable testing/experimentation.


    If the specific being which is defined by it’s specific attributes is detectable
    then the being exists.

    If the being which is defined by it’s specific attributes is not detectable then it does not exist.”

    Pretty strait forward thinking that yields results each time. It’s time tested and approved.

    This logic can be and is used for anything (just not beings) that we are trying to prove/disprove.

    For example, the Higgs Boson was only an idea until it was finally detected. Up until then for all intents and purposes we could not say that it existed and it was only an idea and with that said, had to say to the best of our knowledge it does not exist.

    The argument originally presented is really only modified version of the “just because I can’t prove that it exists doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist”. With a thought process like this then you are basically stating that “Everything I can imagine is true and exists” and we all know that is false.

    If we were to replace the word God in the original argument with Leprechaun the argument would still have just as much useless merit/meaning.

    So in closing, if you are to say something is true, it is up to you to prove it not the rest of the world. The burden is on the “believer” not the atheist. The Atheist’s viewpoint is the only logical position on the subject of the supernatural.

    April 7, 2015 — 13:17
  • Forgive me if this duplicates some other comment; I didn’t read them all, as they’re about five times as long as the original post.

    “atheism – the belief that God does not exist”
    I would only define strict atheism in a negative sense–not as a positive belief in the non-existence of gods or goddesses, but as a lack of positive belief in the existence of same. Put simply, if you cannot assent to the statement: “at least one being exists that might properly be referred to as a god”, then you’re an atheist in my book.

    Question: on these grounds, can ANY belief of the sort “X does not exist” be properly basic? All the arguments for “strong” atheism being non-basic would seem to apply equally well to “strong” a-unicornism. Does it therefore follow that the unicornists need no argument, whereas the a-unicornists do?

    If it is true that theism can be properly basic because “God” can be directly observed, then it follows that specific brands of theism are properly basic, because specific gods can be directly observed. Would this not mean that the theist/atheist epistemic assymetry carries over into the Odinist/a-Odinist divide? That followers of Vishnu have no need of argument, whereas dissenters are obligated to defend their disbelief?

    April 7, 2015 — 14:46
  • Cal Metzger

    Foundational (basic) beliefs aren’t beliefs about beliefs — if your belief depends on another belief existing, then it’s a safe bet you’re not considering a contender for a basic (foundational) belief.

    Atheism is the position that the belief about something — a god — does no work, doesn’t fit with the evidence, and can be explained conventionally (our evolved, hyper-active agency detector).

    Your question appears to be a mere category error.

    April 9, 2015 — 20:02
    • I think you mean something different by ‘atheism’. I take it to be the view that there are no gods.

      April 16, 2015 — 14:55
  • Murali

    Hi Rik,

    I think you are too dismissive of your first scenario. Suppose God exists. Now, suppose that there are a variety of mechanisms which are truth oriented and reliable. Not perfect, mind you, just highly reliable. The fact that in the one (perhaps particularly unusual) instance, it produces a false belief does not make it unreliable or not truth oriented. Thus it seems perfectly consistent to say that a reliable and truth oriented belief forming mechanism could reach the belief that God doesn’t exist even when the opposite is true.

    In fact it seems that the atheist might invoke a Moorean argument to the following effect. Perception is a reliable process. When I perceive no lions, it is good reason to think that there are no lions. If human perception was unreliable, my ancestors would have died out (not strictly true but bear with me). I perceive no Gods. Therefore there are no Gods. Therefore, it is rational to form a basic belief that God does not exist.

    April 14, 2015 — 21:20
  • Joe

    I’m having a hard time figuring out how this argument doesn’t automatically show that all beliefs about the non-existence of some entity are not basic. You say: “if X doesn’t exist, then it could not have causally affected your belief that X doesn’t exist, so that belief is not produced reliably, therefore it isn’t basic.” But this proves too much, right? Is my belief that there are no unicorns equally non-basic? No square circles? No morally good genocidal racists? Surely some of these beliefs have been produced by reliable mechanisms. So “reliable mechanism with respect to P” cannot be equated with “mechanism that includes P as a cause”.

    April 15, 2015 — 14:47
    • Dear Joe, I’d say my belief that there are no unicorns is based on an inference to the best explanation. If there were, we would have had sufficient evidence for them by now. Hence, it’s not basic. My belief that there are no square circles is based on self-evidence (someone who grasps the concepts immediately sees that there cannot be such things; this is not the case in the case of God: clearly, I would say, some kind of argument is required here). As to one’s belief that there are no morally good genocidal racists, that will depend on a bit of meta-ethics. I myself am a moral realist and believe that God has endowed us with reliable moral cognitive faculties that produce properly basic beliefs like these.

      April 16, 2015 — 14:54
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