“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
—Lord Francis Bacon of Verulam
How can Bacon make such a statement without insulting the intelligence of the likes of Sartre, Camus, Hume, Engel, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, John Rawls, Bertrand Russell? Indeed, Wikipedia helpfully provides a whole list of atheist philosophers for anyone seeking amongst notable philosophers for allies to oppose Bacon’s assertion. To think about this question in a comprehensive way demands, at the outset, that a certain foundation be laid in the form of a number of apparently peripheral logical points.
The first of these is to note that to prove anything requires an appeal to a number of operative principles by which that proof is achieved. In a successful operation of this sort, it is the outcome of this given sequence of reasoning that has been proven and not the premises or principles that were employed along the way. These must be assumed on a basis other than the particular proof in question. The above is merely a logical point that is summed up by a generalisation of Godel’s theorem in mathematics, which can be roughly formulated “any consistent system will necessarily remain incomplete” together with its contrapositive: “any complete system will necessarily be inconsistent.” The first proposition indicates that every system must contain axioms that cannot be accounted for or proven from within the same system. Hence it is said to be “incomplete.” The second proposition indicates that any system which does not rely on axioms that cannot be accounted for by that system itself must necessarily remain sufficiently vague so as to allow for contradictory statements to be generated from within it. Returning to the question of arguments for God, it will be clear that the existence of God cannot be dismissed out of hand on the basis that there is no proof for it from within whatever system the person who is making this claim is appealing to. The reason that this claim cannot be accepted is that it must itself make use of principles and premises that are also not proved by that system. It will also be clear that the notion of God, in order to be meaningful in the way that it is intended, is almost by definition liable to lead to inconsistent interpretations for the sake of maintaining its completeness. I will return to this point later.
A second logical point to note is that an atheist finds himself at a logical disadvantage in arguing for his position because he is compelled to prove the non-existence of something, which is logically impossible. Atheists have tried to get around this problem by invoking Ockham’s Razor under the premise that assuming God’s non-existence is simpler than the contrary in order to shift the burden of proof onto the theists. This is an unsatisfactory solution, however, because it is not self-evident that the non-existence of something is simpler than the existence of it. If the non-existence of something were always assumed, we would never have arrived at the so-called “Laws of Physics” because we would be forced, on the basis of Ockham’s Razor, to assume that no such regulatory, ordering principle of discrete observations existed. Suffice it to have established that Ockham’s Razor alone does not settle this problem. Another way atheists have attempted to shift the burden of proof onto their opponents is by saying that atheism is essentially a negative proposition. This amounts to the claim that atheism does not affirm anything and therefore does not need to support itself with argument or evidence. But in reformulating his contention in this way, the atheist risks sacrificing consistency for completeness because he has really only redefined “atheism,” which is the positive negation of God’s existence, with “agnosticism,” which is the suspension of judgement over it. Agnosticism is clearly compatible with both the existence and the non-existence of God, while these scenarios themselves are incompatible.
A third logical point that it is necessary to address is the question of evidence. How do we recognise evidence when we see it? Naïve people assume that evidence just is, in the manner of a “brute fact.” But obviously this is not true because there is a difference between a fact and evidence. Reflection will reveal that evidence is always correlative to a theory or principle that it can be evidence for. It may be surprising for some people to discover this recursivity of evidence and theory that is at the heart of all scientific knowledge. Evidence is marshalled in support of a given theory, but that same theory is what provided the condition for the evidence itself to be recognised as such. To recapitulate this third point, therefore: evidence does not exist independently of a theory or understanding for which it constitutes evidence. Turning to the question of God, we must pose the serious question to ourselves about how we determine what is relevant in attempting to understand it. We are confronted with something of a paradox or a Catch-22 because in order to answer this question, we would need to know what God is, but part of the way we learn what God is is by seeking for evidence amongst manifest phenomena. The so-called “cosmological arguments” for the existence of God proceed in this manner—inferring from certain facts about the cosmos to the existence of a creator of those facts. A difficult situation confronts that person who seeks mutually fruitful dialogue between the atheist and the theist because the former believes to know that God does not exist. This may not seem deleterious to the dialogue I indicated until it is observed that by denying the reality of God, by the same token, the atheist is preempting his ability to recognise evidence, not only for God’s existence, but also against it. The reason for this is the correlative relation between evidence and theory that was outlined above. It might be objected that the atheist, in fact, can indeed entertain the theory of God and balks only at affirming the existence of the being that the theory articulates. But this objection overlooks the fact that an atheist’s theory of God encompasses the (anti)quality of his not being real just as surely as St. Anselm’s theory includes “greatestness.” Else we would not call the first person an atheist.
That is probably a good aporia to end this piece withal. I will try to write a follow-up soon that will add to what was presented here. It is to be hoped that it will resolve some questions that have remained and it is to be expected that it will raise new ones as well. It is to be expected that it will resolve some questions that have remained and it is to be hoped that it will raise new ones as well. I wrote these two sentences to show how each of them is made true according to the attitude by which we inquire.
I will end with a quote from Alexander Pope:
“All-seeing in thy mists, we want no guide,
Mother of Arrogance, and Source of Pride!
We nobly take the high Priori Road,
And reason downward, till we doubt of God.
—Alexander Pope (“The Dunciad” 1742, IV, lines 465-72)