QUESTION: What are the best arguments for Atheism? Is there any scientific evidence for Atheism? If Atheism is true, then where did everything come from?
ANSWER: Hey Branden,
For the first and last question, I think I'll just refer you to the several posts of I've already written on each subject. Feel free to ask a more specific follow-up question if you feel like those links don't do it justice, though.
Best Arguments for atheism:
Here is an AllExperts post describing my ten best arguments for atheism:
I've written it pretty recently and I like it a lot. But when I'm asked to cite one argument in particular, I usually go with the Problem of Evil. It is the argument that I myself mulled over in my head when I decided to be an atheist. Its also the argument you see in almost Atheist-Monotheist debate. A theodicy is an attempt to address the Problem of Evil, and theodicies strike at questions of religion so fundamental that it provokes discussion even within a religion. I started to talk about it in this AllExperts post on my two best arguments for atheism:
and since then I've gotten many more AllExperts questions on specific theodicies:
Here I explicitly connect the Problem of Evil explicitly to verses of the Bible:
Origin of Everything:
“Where did everything come from" is another subject I've written a lot about. First I discuss it here:
Then I break-down the Kalam argument, the most polished comoslogical argument for God:
And in this article I bring in some more well-known cosmological history:
I also agree with a lot of what Sean Caroll says on the subject:
To summarize this work, I would say that its a lot easier to show how a secular account of the origin of the everything is superior to a religious one than it is to show any particular secular account of the universe is right and complete. Many people assume that this question has an answer attainable through philosophy and that science can tell us nothing more. I find neither of those notions to be necessarily true. Our universe may very well be organized in such a way that we will never have access to the information needed to know the true origin of everything or it may be organized in such a way that events don't need explanations for their origins. But whatever we can know, I also would say that advances in theoretical and experimental physicists are gradually revealing more and more of it. One partial answer arising from cosmological physics is the idea of the multiverse. This idea holds that the universe we belong to is generated from a much larger set of universes which and the physics governing the multiverse are less arbitrary and more fundamental. The multiverse is more physical matter to explain, but more importantly it takes less mathematical description to explain, therefore scientists regard it as making progress on this question. There is no smoking gun evidence of the multiverse, but many cosmological physicists regard it as fitting the available evidence better than a single universe.
Scientific Evidence for Atheism:
This is an interesting question, Branden. Mostly I see this as a problem of seeing the forest through the trees. All the scientific evidence either favors atheism or is neutral on the subject. The real argument is really over whether religious ideas should be subject to the same standards of evidence, level of scrutiny, and scientific reasoning as any other scientific or academic idea.
Here is a typical example. The Bible has a story in it about water turning into wine, but we know that didn't happen because it doesn't make any scientific sense for water to turn into wine. If it wasn't a story in the Bible, no historian who believed it would be taken seriously. To elaborate further, there is no great difficulty in explaining an outlandishly false but popular story, but an actual impossibility to incorporate every claim that is made with such a low standard of evidence. Yet everyone who believes this water-into-wine story also knows its scientifically impossible, so what's the point of saying so? Science has nothing to do with their belief. Instead they believe a scientific progression of the universe was occurring, then it took a break, and then it returned to science again.
Interestingly most believers also accept the validity of science as a method for establishing truth. They understand that the technology that they use runs on science, that evidence is needed to advance one scientific idea over another, and that scientists have actual knowledge about the subjects they speak about. For many of these believers, though, their science ends where their religion begins. It has too.
The belief that science and religion occupy different spheres and do not contradict is essentially a political fiction. In 1950 Pope Pius XII published Humani Generis which held that Catholics who believe in evolution were still permitted to be Catholic. Better of him to do that, he might have thought, than put his religion on the wrong side of a testable hypothesis. By 1997, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria to represent an offer by evolution biologists to accept religious views so long as they didn't immediately contradict to evolutionary biology. This reflected the social consensus held by a lot of Americans, and the National Academy of Scientists issued a similar statement shortly after Gould. At the time, scientists were willing to accept this as a kind of Faustian bargain. They were willing to downplay the conflict between science and religion because they believed that in return it would increase acceptance of biological evolution which was already suffering from heavy religious resistance. Now we see that didn't really work. The view of non-overlapping magisteria is increasingly rejected by atheists, scientists, and young people as neither honest nor effective. The atheists are often called strident and rude, but all they have done is refuse to politely accommodate the cognitive dissonance required by religion. In the actions of the religious, its clear to see that they already know who receives the advantage when science is allowed to weigh in on the subject of religion.
Personal belief in the supernatural thrives where the scientific uncertainty is the greatest. People are most inclined to pray over the weather, over health, and over the decisions of other people. But not, say, to make the answers given on the math test yesterday retroactively right. When you think about it, there is an important inconsistency here. Surely these things are governed by immutable scientific processes in principle, even if one doesn't have personal knowledge of how they work. It seems that not only do scientific facts banish religious thinking, but the very notion of a universe governed by scientific principles is at odds with religious superstition.
Its the same story with formal argumentation about the existence of God - there's no need to invoke God in talking about the principles of electromagnetism, but theists seem to believe he is hiding somewhere in cosmology, neuroscience, or ancient history. Science doesn't actually support the religion's case in any of these areas, but the subject is far enough from well-established scientific fact (or general knowledge about scientific facts) that it seems like good territory to stage a fight. However, the burden of proof lies on the religious case, so the uncertainty doesn't actually help. Where the religious account doesn't directly contradict the known scientific facts, it fails to meet the criteria for an effective scientific theory - parsimony, precision, falsifiablity, flexibility. Its the water-into-wine story all over again. This “God of the gaps”  view of religion requires special pleading – a different standard for a favored hypothesis than for any alternative hypothesis. Moreover, it seems like a poor foundation for absolute truth, since every scientific fact that comes to light will likely undermine it. I've already linked my writing on cosmology, I've also written posts about the evidence as it applies to Biblical History, life after death, religious hallucination, and prophecy.
If there is another specific science and religion topic you want me to address, though, I'm always interested – so feel free to ask a follow-up.
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QUESTION: Thanks for the response. Though a lot to read and take in, I'm glad that I got your perspective.
But I suppose my follow-up question(s) would be this.. Is it possible that God (what I would define as a Maximally Great Being who created the universe) exists?
And if it is possible that God exists, then would it not follow logically that at least the Christian God could exist?
And if it's at least possible that the Christian God could exist, that what we call "miracles" (like turning water into wine) would not be considered "scientifically impossible"? After all, if the creator of the natural laws wanted to feed a new event into nature (like a download of new information perhaps) it would at least be POSSIBLE, right?
And one last question.. Could you be wrong about *everything* that you claim to no, yes or no?
ANSWER: Hello again Branden,
I would like to do is thank you for keeping an open mind about the things that I have to say.
Is God Possible?
First, I believe its hard for humans to assign the probability to imaginable but implausible events. What is the probability that dragons exist, dragons can take human form, Barack Obama is a dragon, troops from Brazil will invade America, and Barack Obama will assume dragon form to personally fight in that war? I would trust no one's assessment of that probability. To refer to it as possible may technically be accurate, but seems to be so improbable and so implausible as to be not worth considering as a “real” possibility. This is how most atheists feel about the possibility of God .
Let's consider more about how we analyze low-probability events. When I open my closet door, I generally expect to see it exactly how I left it. However, something very bad or very good could happen instead. There could be a maniac waiting in there for me to open the door so he can murder me horribly. Or someone I know might have left me the most wonderful and thoughtful gift to surprise me when I open it. I don't think about about these things when I open my closet door, but I suppose the unconsidered bad possibilities and unconsidered good possibilities roughly cancel. I know also that when people try to use their imagination in place of evidence that they often come to the wrong conclusion. More people are afraid of the possibility of a murdering maniac than are excited about the possibility of an unexpected gift, although in reality people are more likely to find a surprise gift than a murdering maniac. This talk by Eliezer Yudkowsky  describes in great detail how what we tend to imagine frequently deviates from what is most likely. This is essentially why I trust the description of the origin of the universe obtained by cosmologists over those obtained by philosophers (William Lane Craig tries to paint himself as the former, but he belongs to the later).
The probability that a Christian God created the universe is necessarily less than the probability that a Maximally Great Being created the universe. The Maximally Great Being includes the Christian God as well as other possibilities and the Christian God's rivals don't just include the Gods of other religions. It includes every imaginable God and accompanying religion. Every offshoot and permutation of every religion that exists. Religions we've never heard of because they never caught on. Religions organized exclusively for alien beings on another planets. Gods that prefer not to make religions. With every possibility we consider, the likelihood of a Christian God, even given a Maximally Great Being that created the universe, becomes vanishingly small. This is explained well in this video on Pascal's Wager . So even if we assume the existence of a Maximally Great Being, the Christian God is one of those low-probability events that is easy to imagine but may be disconnected with what would exist in reality.
But you asked me if it is possible for God, a Maximally Great Being who created the universe to exist. I would say we can know its impossible it we find God to be fundamentally contradictory. This video by QualiaSoup is a great description about what we can say about the inaccessible and potentially impossible . Some atheists claim to be able to show that a Maximally Great Being is impossible. They might say, for example, that he cannot both be perfectly righteous and perfectly merciful, since these virtues represent opposite decisions. They might say that God is not maximally great he either cannot build a rock so big he cannot lift it or there is and he can't lift it. But I find it hard to endorse these arguments, because I don't think people could really know what it would mean for a Maximally Great Being to exist. I find the notion so incomprehensible that its hard for me to be sure whether it could or couldn't be proven to be impossible.
There is a related definition of God that I believe can be shown to be impossible. The Logical Problem of Evil (mentioned in my first post) purports to prove that a particular definition of God is fundamentally contradictory and therefore cannot exist. A God who controls his world perfectly, destroys evil whenever he can, and has evil in his world is fundamentally contradictory. The link I sent you before that I might refer you to especially is this AllExperts post in which I link these attributes to the Bible and discuss the idea of proving it. In principle there is nothing to stop someone from restricting their definition of God to non-contradictory attributes, but in practice its not so simple. The notion of God that most believers want has the attributes that make it vulnerable to contradiction. God must be all-powerful and all-knowing in order to be worthy of worship, comforting to have in control, and assuredly present through-out all cosmological, biological, and human history. God must be good to be worthy of worship and to have moral prescriptions worth following. And Evil must still exist in order for humans to do with their moral prescriptions. And vaguely resemble something described in the Bible or Quran. This is why I mentioned the Problem of Evil first, because it uses a definition of God that most believers will defend and most atheists think they can disprove.
Scientifically Possible Miracles:
Originally I stated the problem with the water-into-wine story is that it doesn't match our knowledge of physics and chemistry. But I hoped to communicate more than that. The bigger problem with the water-into-wine story is it doesn't match the scientific process whereby we accumulated all that knowledge of physics and chemistry in the first place. For one thing, science needs solid repeatable evidence of phenomenon that cannot be explained by conventional means before introducing a new law of nature. I said in my last post that if it weren't for the special treatment we give the Bible, any historian that believes the water-into-wine story would be dismissed as a crank. Since there is no shortage of instances of humans believing silly things that aren't true, there is no need to posit that the events actually occurred in order to explain how we got the story.
It may be useful to try to think of it as an outsider would. It should seem clear to both of us that Muhammed did not ascend into Heaven on a winged horse, even though the Quran says he did. Neither story has any physical evidence that it actually occurred (although the Muslims think they can point out the spot where Muhammed ascended). And its the magical parts that are precisely the parts that seem the most far-fetched when its someone else's favorite story. If we are consistent with ourselves, we have to reject the supernatural details of the Bible just like we have to reject the supernatural details of the Quran, Greek mythology, claimed sightings of ghosts, and the belief in psychic powers. If you looked for a list of supernatural acts that could hypothetically carried out by a powerful magical spirit known as God, you'd find no shortage of outlandish stories to attribute to him. But not a single one of them would you have a good reason to think actually happened.
In a previous AllExperts I make a list of Bible stories that could not occurred even if we trust the Bible and we allow the laws of physics to be suspended. For instance, the story about God stopping the sun in sky for a day so Joshua and his genocidal army could keep fighting God's human enemies. That didn't happen. For one thing, no other culture has any record of a prolonged day or night (especially the star-gazing ones). And then there are also all those incidences in which the New Testament can't even decide what it wants to claim is true – when the four Gospels tell four different stories that don't even resemble each other. So now lets go back to thinking about that hypothetical Maximally Great Being. Is this the book the autobiography he writes? Would he even want to be associated with a book that gets half the historical (and moral) stuff wrong? And if we assume this being exists and the Bible has something to do with him, do we have any good way to separate the accurate parts from the heresies? I'd sooner believe God's one true religion is one that no one's ever heard of. If God exists and his chief interaction with Earth is religion-making, he's not very good at it.
Maybe this gives you a better understanding a least of how someone can be so certain in their atheism. If I entertain the notion of a hypothetical God at one step, I immediately run into trouble at the next step.
Wrong about everything:
Could I be wrong about everything? I think you mean to say could I be wrong about God in some way that I cannot see. Actually I once lived in such a way that I took such a possibility very seriously (the first time I tell this story is here). When I first became an atheist, I was in middle school at the time and I felt like I was the only atheist in the world. I was very worried that I was defective or ignorant in some big important way, that made me unable to come to the same conclusions as so many people around me. And how does one take into account this information except as a lack of self-confidence? Well, under the assumption that I was missing something, I tried to learn everything I could about the existence of God, religious experience, and the universe in general. But the more I learned the more firmly I became an atheist. Eventually my confidence began to return and I started to feel silly for spending so much time, energy, and emotional turmoil over something that seems so clear to me now. Of course, it was important to me then, and I guess what I really wished is that I had someone there to give me the short-cut through it all. Someone to tell it like it is, to give me all the information I could want and to be patient with me while I was learning. So I guess that's what I'm trying to do on AllExperts Atheism. Whatever my blindspots may be, I'm not the one that needs help with this subject anymore. I no longer lose sleep worrying about being wrong, but what if I still am wrong somehow? At least I can say I'm advancing the conversation by getting to the real issues at stake.
Atheists talk a lot about evidence and rationality. If you doubt any specific thing I say, the best you can expect from me is give you all the information about why I come to the conclusion that I do.
 In particular I recommend Sagan's Dragon in the Garage, which describes the near impossibility of believing in something with no evidence: http://www.users.qwest.net/~jcosta3/article_dragon.htm
(if you are familiar with Pascal's Wager, you may want to skip to 2:40)
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QUESTION: Thank you for your response. I guess my next questions would be, what if God had good reasoning for allowing evil and suffering? Perhaps if God intervenes and stops evil things from happening, that people would lose the free will to love him? Think about it, would you have the choice to deny him if he forced himself on you? Just a thought...
And don't we use our logic and reasoning to determine the truth about things and obtain knowledge? If so, then how can we account for such things (such as universal, immaterial, and unchanging laws) in a physical universe that is always changing? Does logic change with the universe? After all, it would have to if it's contingent on an ever changing physical reality? Are these things not consistent with the biblical worldview? How can an atheist account for the validity of their logic and reasoning without committing the fallacy of circular reasoning, or an illogical infinite regress? In order for an atheist to account for the validity of logic and reasoning, would they not have a choice but to appeal to their logic and reasoning? Circular, right? And if an atheist attempts to validate their logic and reasoning by appealing to the logic and reasoning of others, would this not lead to an infinite regress, ie B validates A, C validates B, D validates C, until you exhaust logical sources? How else can an atheist validate that their logic and reasoning is valid? I've been struggling with this...
Hello again Branden.
The objections you bring up on the problem of evil I've discussed in the past a bit. I would in particular recommend you to look at the “Mysterious Ways” section and “Free Will” section of this one. However I'm always working on how I talk about these subjects, so I will try convey my response in other words. Mostly what I believe about these theodicies is that they may potentially describe some limitations that God has, but they never describe a self-consistent description of the limitations on God that would prevent him from doing more to accomplish his goals.
What are Gods goals? When we talk about God being Good and yet Evil still exists, what we're really talking about the gap between goals that God wants to accomplish and the imperfect completion of those goals we observe in the world. God might have multiple interrelated goals, but I'll just make a list of goals we might expect God could have: Minimizing unnecessary pain and suffering, maximizing moral behavior among human, minimizing restrictions on free will, maximizing the number of believers, maximizing the percentage of humans that are believers, maximizing the extent to which everyone's heaven/hell destination is based on adequate testing, and maximizing the extent to which prayers of the sufficiently faithful are sufficiently answered. I would say our universe doesn't seem optimized for any combination of these goals. If we say God doesn't accomplish his goals sometimes because he has a good reason, what could that reason possibly be? He either accomplish his goals or he doesn't - We don't have to know how his reasoning works to identify when his goals aren't being met.
Now what can God do to advance those goals? Technically he has the power to do anything he wants, of course, but let's assume he must limit himself to protect free will or other some other goal when can only infer indirectly from his behavior. I want use the concept of precedent to describe what he can do. Anything that God's done before he can do again (well except the flood, because he said wouldn't). And anything he allows the unthinking universe to do to us, is something he can do to us directly. In a previous AllExperts, I argued we should also add to this list anything he allows us to do to each other, but I'll leave that out for now. So now let's make a list of things that God is allowed to do or allowed to have nature do to us in order accomplish his goals: He's allowed to decide what the laws of universe are as well as break them, he's allowed to decide our natural inclinations, he's allowed to arrange the events of the universe deliberately to manipulate us or test us or help us achieve goals or prevent us from achieving goals, God is allowed to communicate directly with humans, and God is allowed to answer prayers. If God can't violate free will, then nothing on this list of permissible actions can violate free will.
The list of permissible actions gives God more than enough leeway to do better on his possible goals. So saying that God can't violate free-will doesn't actually explain the gap between God's goals and God's ability to accomplish those goals. What might violate someone's free will is he replaces someone entirely with a different person. Or if he forces that person to watch their bodies move under someone else's control. But no one is asking God to do these things in order to combat evil.
You've hinted that mere efficacy might violate free will. Perhaps God can stop ten earthquakes without violating any free will, but if he stops eleven then he's violating people's free will. But how does God doing a better job taking care of the planet or making his case to people start violating free will? It might guarantee he would get better results – more people would believe in him and worship him – but results aren't the problem. It can't violate any one's free will to voluntarily decide to be a good person, believe in God, and/or go to heaven. If a conversion of this nature isn't coercive when it works on a small percentage of the population, why would it be coercive when it works on a larger percentage of the population? How is someone who needed more convincing less free than someone who needed less convincing? And if our beliefs are shaped by our experience, don't we all essentially need the same amount of convincing? I just don't see any reason why free will should depend on efficacy and this is why the concept of precedence is so powerful here.
Logic and Reasoning:
Logic and reasoning don't have to change in a changing universe. Logic, reasoning, mathematics, and physics are defined to be those things that don't change when something else does. Think about the laws of physics the describe the forces on an object. If that object and the forces on it represents an object in the real-world, than the forces that the object is subject to might constantly changing. But the laws of physics describing the object don't have to change – the laws of physics take the location of the forces as input and output the trajectory of the object. The reason the laws of physics are useful is for precisely this reason – they help us take a complicated general case and reduce it to a straightforward simple conclusion. For different physical scenarios, different laws of physics might be employed to describe the dynamics of what occurs. But the laws of physics that we don't use aren't wrong, they just aren't be used at the moment. Logic, reasoning, and mathematics are the same way. They take “premises”, hypothetical information, as input and give conclusions as output. And for any possible way information can be related to any other information, in principle it is possible to find a mathematical or logical expression which precisely describes that. In some cases that mathematical expression might be so helplessly complicated to make it impractical for human use, but that doesn't invalidate it. And in fact, any approximation of a mathematical relation that humans can make practical use of is itself a valid mathematical fact about the universe. There is no incompatibility between a changing universe and changeless laws, because there always has to be something that describes how the changes occur and that thing can be changeless. Those changeless things that describe changing behavior are useful, for if humans discover them than they remember them.
So how do we justify logic and reasoning? Well I've already hinted at the easy answer: they work. Because logic and reasoning are real, they work, and because they work that justifies using them. But there's a problem, I have to use a logical principle of induction - “Because something worked in the past, there is at least some reason to suppose it is likely to do so in the future”. We haven't justified induction either, and we can't use induction to prove induction! This is what Hume referred to as the Problem of Induction. I've written before on the Problem of Induction, here. Alternatively, a major finding of modern philosophy is that logic and reasoning can be used to justify induction. This is called Solomonoff induction and it can also be used to justify the principle of parsimony otherwise known as Occam's razor. But if we can't use logic and reasoning, than it doesn't help to justify induction. So it seems like we need to assume something before we can reason about anything. Notice this isn't just a problem for atheists, it presents a problem for anyone attempting to justify anything. Why did you reach for the door-knob to open the door? You have to assume something about reasoning to do so. Why would use say attempting to justify reasoning leads to circular logic? You have to assume something about reasoning to say so.
It seems a little futile to say anything to attempt to justify reasoning if all words are to be thrown out as relying on some sort of reasoning. But at the very least we can talk at least in a retrospective way about how to understand reasoning. The first way to understand it would be through some notion of tests or arguments. Reasoning argues for itself, non-reasoning doesn't say anything. That's a reason to favor reasoning. Reasoning passes its own tests and flunks non-reasoning, non-reasoning doesn't say anything. Everyone will vouch for reasoning, no one vouches for non-reasoning. Is that enough? In order to accept reasoning is valid, then we have to make a new rule about justification. Not everything needs justification, things only need justification if anyone poses a valid objection (or could in principle pose a valid objection).
A second way to understand reasoning is to recognize we use reasoning (and induction) whether we want to or not. I already alluded to the naturalness with which we reach for doorknob to open doors. This is because we learned that this works, and we learned about it through induction. Almost all of our learning is some kind of induction. And then we relate our thoughts and memories conceptually by reasoning through them. We have no choice but to use reasoning and induction, so we might as well embrace it. If we embrace them, we will use them and if we reject them, we will still use them. So what's the point in justifying reasoning and induction? We are in no better position to justify this than we are to justify the fact that our biomass is based on carbon. We don't get to pick: it is what it is.
 God created the universe and God performs physics-defying miracles.
 If God created us, either generally or individually, then he already chose our natural inclinations. If you want, we can define "natural inclinations" as whatever exists in someone's psychology that does not depend solely on will. Of course, the free will theodicy was well invented before psychology was, so originally people might have thought there is nothing in this category. But human psychology is way more than just “decision-making entity” + “memories”. To deny this is to deny the science. There is a genetic component to aggression, sex-drive, intelligence, ambition, obedience, risk-taking, anxiety, depression, and many more things. One such study is described here. The natural inclination doesn't necessarily have to be the strongest factor in the personality trait. For our purposes any component of natural inclination that is permitted by God may serve as precedent for making that natural inclination stronger, so it counts as long as there is any statistically significant natural inclination.
 In particular the stories about Moses in Exodus comes to mind as Biblical precedent, full of examples.
 Some Bible verses are cited in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUj8hg5CoSw
Of course, this somewhat rude video doesn't prove God is impossible – instead it shows one way in which the Bible cannot be trusted as literal truth.