Show Me the Money!
How do we make the case for atheism—or anything for that matter? Few would disagree that it’s impossible to get to work in an imaginary car, open a bank account with imaginary money, or seek shelter in an imaginary home (although it’s possible to have a show business career with imaginary talent—but that’s a whole other discussion). How do we convince our friends they don’t have invisible fire breathing dragons in their gym lockers or their Facebook page isn’t possessed by the devil? Generally, one can make this case with argument, evidence, and rhetoric. Baggini argues in chapter 2 why we shouldn’t make an exception for belief in gods.
Baggini begins by saying that atheism as a negative position, derived from the genesis of the term “atheism.” Stating this truth doesn’t further the argument. On page one, last line of the first paragraph Julian Baggini defines atheism: “a person who believes there is no God or gods.” Baggini stakes his claim for what he calls a “rational case for atheism,” or euphemistically but argumentatively: a “positive case for atheism.” I was initially concerned about entertaining a positive case for atheism since this feeds the line of thought and question often espoused by theists, “Why is atheism true?” leaving atheists in a position to prove the negative: God does not exist, which is impossible to prove. So I thought. Baggini indicts this line of thinking as committing the etymological fallacy of trying to understand the meaning of the word from it origin. Baggini maintains this gets us nowhere and should instead focus on his positive case for atheism, which is backed up by evidence and argument.
Baggini explains that not all evidence good evidence. This notion can further be broken down into two categories: good and bad evidence. Good evidence is independently verifiable and bad evidence is anecdotal arguing that, as Hume noted, that anecdotal evidence must be weighed against a much large body of evidence based on principle.
Therefore, the positive argument for atheism hinges on the strong evidence of naturalism—from which atheism is borne—and contrasted with the weak anecdotal evidence (i.e., personal experience and revelation) on which theism is based. One reason weak evidence (anecdotal) can be disregarded is that humans have been notoriously bad at introspection. The strong observational evidence simply points to the natural biological nature of humans that is independently verifiable. Even though human consciousness may be a mystery, there is no reason to presuppositionally posit a god into whatever strikes us mysterious or unexplainable at the current moment. Naturalism allows for this mystery to be an open question.
Baggini also debunks the ‘theistic defense’ based on the assumed aphorism: “absence of evidence is not evidence of evidence of absence.”
But what can Baggini make of the statement? In one sense it’s true, but others it’s not. Evidence or absence of evidence is contingent upon observation. If we don’t investigate a claim, then, yes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence because there is simply no data to support the claim either way. But, upon observation, the lack of data (absence of evidence) is, by logical default, evidence of absence, which is confirmed by the lack of data. Therefore, absence of data is evidence of non-existence.
Baggini notes two other counter-objections made against atheists. One is that atheists are too sure of themselves since there is so much we don’t understand about consciousness, and the other claim is that theists have evidence for the existence of God. He reminds us that the latter argument is based on very weak evidence noting the theist has to make a case other than by the repetition of hearsay.
The former criticism, which is a psychological projection of appeal to authority, has no basis in light of independently verifiable evidence.
An interesting point Baggini makes in what I would call the anti-William James argument, is to criticize the reluctance to form conclusions based on the ‘permanent possibility’ principle of undiscovered evidence. He argues that failing to form conclusions in the spirit of possible further evidence allows a whole host of possibilities to exist for any belief. He argues that, although these conclusion don't have to be permanent, the ‘evidence to date’ rule that weighs against something not being true is reason enough to believe them. We can still manage to get out of Plato's cave without absolute knowledge.
In fact, we don’t need absolute certainty on either end of the belief-disbelief continuum to make claims about the world in which we live. Perhaps we should, as Baggini noted, take the pragmatic notion of abduction, and really take a serious look at what would be the best explanation of the human condition and the world around us.