Saturday, January 18, 2014

An atheist law professor gets a bit muddled about atheism

Dr. Daniel H. Cole of Indiana University describes himself as "Professor of Law (Maurer School) and a member of the Affiliated Faculty of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. I am also a Life Member of Clare Hall (College of Advanced Studies), University of Cambridge." Judging by his site's title, ", and the heavy concentration on bikes, I'd say he's a pretty avid cyclist as well.

His latest post deals with my critique of the Sophisticated Ground-of-Being arguments for God, and he generally agrees that they're not by any means the best and most irrefutable arguments for God. I do have a few quarrels with what he said (when don't I?), but it's refreshingly on the mark for a high-profile professor--one who admits his atheism.I'll reproduce the entirety of his new post, .His post is indented; my comments are not.

Jerry Coyne says the best arguments for God are flimsy.But I think he misses two of the best (but also flawed) arguments for the existence of some god(s):

(1) many people are comforted by a belief that some god (or other) exists, which obviously has no bearing on whether or not some god(s) exist(s) but is a valid normative (that is, non-empirical, non-positive) argument that some god(s) should exist;

Why is this even a good (must less "one of the best") arguments for the existence of a god? It's obviously not, and remember that Cole is claiming here to give arguments, albeit flawed ones, for an existence claim. Then he changes his argument so it's not about actual existence, but an existence to be desired.Well, I'd like a big icebreaker that could sail me and some friends to the Antarctic to see the penguins, but is it a "valid normative argument" that such an icebreaker "should" exist? And what does he mean by "should"? Maybe I'm being philosophically naive here, but Cole's argument #1 doesn't only fail to do what he says, but comes down to claiming that "if wishes were horses, even beggars could ride".On to #2:

(2) the absence of data does not warrant a conclusion that no god(s) exist(s), anymore than the failure to observe black swans warrants the conclusion that black swans do not exist. Thus, atheism, like any form of theism, is a matter not just of science but belief.* However, as Bertrand Russell argued about the celestial teapot, the burden of proof should rest on those who would posit the ontological existence of beings (natural or supernatural) about which we have no data. This goes for the mind (as opposed to the brain) and the soul, as well as the god(s).*

I disagree with much of this, starting with the notion that atheism is a form of theism (it isn't) and is a matter of belief (it isn't; it's a matter of disbelief). Further, if there is an absence of data when the data should be there, then one can conclude--with various degrees of assurance, of course--that there is no god.And, according to many theists, that data should be there. But it isn't.Would Cole argue that he can't conclude that the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist because there is an absence of data? There have been many attempts to find Nessie; all have failed. Likewise, there is an absence of data for the existence of Bigfoot, dinosaurs in South America, and alien abductions.Does Cole suspend judgment about those phenomena, too?

True, the burden of proof rests on those who make existence claims, but atheism is simply the lack of evidence for an existence claim.Frankly, I'm surprised that a law professor, who is used to parsing arguments, would say this as "one of the best arguments for the existence of some god." It's no such thing, but simply the use of religious logic along the lines demonstrated in one of my favorite cartoons (see Cole's second footnote, though):

Finally, Cole's footnotes:

*The only scientifically pure position would be a feeble agnosticism. Atheism, including my own, requires an affirmative (scientifically unprovable) claim that no god(s) exist(s).

No, the scientifically pure position is a fairly robust agnosticism: we can't demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no god, but we're pretty sure about the matter (I'm a 6.9 on Dawkins's 7-point scale) given the complete absence of evidence and the strong likelihood that religions were manmade. And Cole errs in assuming that any scientific (read "rational") position requires "proof," so that a strong atheist refusal to believe in gods requires us to "prove" that there are no gods. Well, no scientific position requires such "proof." What we require is evidence, and no evidence is ever 100% beyond future disproof, though some comes pretty close (e.g., a molecule of table salt has one sodium and one chlorine atom). This first footnote is particularly puzzling in view of the second:

*By the way, the oft-made argument that it is impossible to prove a negative is inaccurate. In fact, it would not require a trained scientist to prove quite easily that I have not buttered my toast this morning simply by examining the toast just before its consumption.'

Here Cole is right on the money, although again I'd avoid the phrase "you can't prove a negative" in favor of "you can't be nearly certain of a negative."This argument, of course, is the Last Resort of the Religious: "Well, maybe the evidence is thin, but you can't prove that God doesn't exist." It really surprises me that religionists even make such a dumb claim. If you try to rescue God in this way, you're saving fairies, Bigfoot, Santa, and unicorns at the same time. You can be as certain as one can be (and you should bet every penny you have on it) that I do not have four legs or blue eyes. That's as close to "proof of a negative" as you can get; in fact, it is "proof" in the conventional parlance, which, like Anthony Grayling, I take to mean something that is so sure that you'd bet everything you had on it.

After mulling this over, I guess I give professor Cole a C+ for this effort. The + is because he admits he's an atheist.
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