The Tentative Apologist
5/11/10 at 01:04 PM 0 Comments

A close look at one atheist's reasons for rejecting supernaturalism

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Obviously it is important for all of us to think through our beliefs: why do we believe the things we do? It is that much more important to do so when those beliefs concern the most fundamental questions of existence such as "Why does anything exist at all?", "What defines a life well lived?" and "Is there a god?"

Thus it is with interest that I read the comments of Sorceror, an atheist commentator here at the Tentative Apologist, describing his reasons for rejecting supernaturalism.

[A definitional aside. Supernaturalism is "belief in an order of existence irreducible to the natural." Note the minimalism of this definition as it does not necessarily commit one to the existence of a personal god, though commitment to theism obviously entails commitment to supernaturalism.]

Back to the story: here in full are the reasons Sorceror provided for refusing either to accept supernaturalism or to remain agnostic on supernaturalism:

As I've stated before, I see no positive evidence for the existence of the supernatural, I have grave epistemological doubts that the supernatural is a coherent concept, and I have strong philosophical grounds for rejecting the concept of 'supernatural' as worthless at best, inimical at worst.

So, based on those grounds, I'm as certain as it's possible to be about any real-world existence claim that the 'supernatural' doesn't exist. I'm definitely willing to bet my life on it - and more to the point, the lives of my loved ones. For example, if one of my children were terminally ill, I'd be looking to doctors and evidence-based medicine to save them. I wouldn't bother with prayer or faith healers.

Let's work through these claims to consider their merit. The first paragraph includes three claims. I'll respond to each briefly:

(1) I see no positive evidence for the existence of the supernatural.

In contrast to Sorceror, I am aware of a lot of evidence that provides support for supernaturalism. The ontology of mathematics, free will, the irreducibility of qualia to brain states, the veridical OBEs recorded in medical journals by researchers like Michael Sabom, the forty years of case studies for transmigration collected by Ian Stevenson, and on and on.

Even if we set this material aside for the moment, note that at best Sorcoeror's claim would support agnosticism. Consider: I have seen no positive evidence that there is a planet in our solar system beyond Neptune (granting Pluto's recent demotion). That doesn't support the conclusion that therefore there are no planets beyond Neptune.

In contrast, I believe that there is no Jupiter-sized planet between Earth and Mars because we should expect to be able to detect one if there were. But can we say with confidence that if there is a planet beyond Neptune that we should presently be able to detect it? Clearly not, so we should be agnostic on the point.

Even if all the evidence I noted above (and all the other evidence out there) fails to establish supernaturalism as true, how does Sorceror know that we are in the place to be able to detect that there is no supernatural realm? Sorceror must be able to argue that supernatural entities, if they exist, must be like the Jupiter-sized planet between Earth and Mars instead of a planet of undefined size somewhere beyond Neptune. Unless Sorceror can do this, Sorceror should be agnostic on the question.

(2) I have grave epistemological doubts that the supernatural is a coherent concept.

This is the second point which, if sustainable, could alleviate the burden Sorceror faces. (In short, it would show that in principle there could be no planets beyond Neptune.) So is the very concept of supernaturalism incoherent? Let's make this easy. If supernaturalism is incoherent then any and all supernatural entities will be incoherent. So I'd ask Sorceror to demonstrate the incoherence of just two concepts: (a) the concept of a ghost; (b) the realist conception of mathematical entities like the number 1.

If Sorceror cannot do at least this then this a priori attempt to render the supernatural realm incoherent fails and he's back at agnosticism. And once there, I'd ask him to consider more seriously the evidence in favor of the supernatural because I have a sneaking suspicion he has yet to survey it in any substantial depth.

(3) I have strong philosophical grounds for rejecting the concept of 'supernatural' as worthless at best, inimical at worst.

Inimical to what? Worthless for what? These are simply bald assertions.

Next, let's consider the second paragraph briefly:

(1) So, based on those grounds, I'm as certain as it's possible to be about any real-world existence claim that the 'supernatural' doesn't exist.

Based on the evidence Sorceror has provided, I find the commitment to naturalism described here irrational. Surely there is more evidence that the city of Los Angeles exists than that naturalism is true (at least based on this evidence). And yet if Sorceror is to be believed, then he is at least as certain that naturalism is true as he is certain that Los Angeles exists. That's irrational.

(2) I'm definitely willing to bet my life on it - and more to the point, the lives of my loved ones. For example, if one of my children were terminally ill, I'd be looking to doctors and evidence-based medicine to save them. I wouldn't bother with prayer or faith healers.

I accept supernaturalism and when my child caught pneumonia the first thing I did was take her to a doctor. Nor was this action in any way inconsistent with my commitment to supernaturalism so Sorceror's observation here is irrelevant.

In sum, I find Sorceror's reflection on this fundamental question of whether supernaturalism is true to be lacking in evidence and even irrational.

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