The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Epistemology and Atheism

Many people tend to think that atheism and theism are simply "starting points" to built an epistemological worldview on. In that case then the elaborate intellectual edifice built by atheists and theists alike are merely equal "epistemological choices" and the preference should be based on one's intellectual taste. Here we will show that this is not the case and that atheism is epistemologically superior to theism. The arguments and terms I shall be using below are not mine (I wish!) but are taken from Daniel Harbour's brilliant book An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism (Duckworth 2001).

It is not possible to know anything if we start from a position of complete ignorance and skepticism. Some initial assumptions have to be made. Even our most sophisticated scientific theories which have withstood amazing empirical tests are ultimately based on some assumptions.

Take for example Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. The theory is based in a large part on the Michelson-Morley experiment which measures the constancy of the speed of light. These in turn are based on the laws of optics (the Michelson-Morley experiment depended on the reflection of light through a half-silvered mirror) . The laws of optics in turn are based on experiments and measurements done a few centuries before that. These experiment and observations are based on some fundamental assumptions: such as the rectilinear propagation of light-in other words, that light travels in a straight line. These are all further based on another assumption: that in general if many people performing the same experiments all come up with the same results then it is unlikely that all of them have been delusional.

There are two issues relating to the assumptions that we know we have to make in order to have any knowledge. The first issue involves the number of assumptions you would like to have. Do we choose many assumptions (We are being "baroque" with the assumptions) or have as few as possible (we are being "spartan" with what assumption to take up)? The second issue involves what do we do with the assumptions once our accumulated knowledge comes to a point where we can look back at them and find that some of them are most probably wrong or not useful. In other words do we keep assumptions based on its continued usefulness and the fact that it has yet to be proven wrong (a "meritocracy" of assumptions) or do we keep them because we had always believe it to be true and it has the weight of tradition supporting it (a "monarchy" in which the assumptions are 'king' and are not be questioned.)

From framing the issues this way, we can immediately come up with four possible worldviews based on how we select and keep our assumptions:

  1. Baroque Monarchy: Make as many initial assumptions as possible and keep them regardless of subsequent findings.

  2. Baroque Meritocracy: Make as many initial assumptions as possible but discard or revise those assumptions that are shown subsequently to be wrong, dubious or no longer useful.

  3. Spartan Monarchy: Make as few initial assumptions as possible and keep them regardless of subsequent findings.

  4. Spartan Meritocracy: Make as few initial assumptions as possible and discard or revise those assumptions that are shown subsequently to be wrong, dubious or no longer useful. [1]

A simple consideration shows us that positions (2) and (3) above are not stable. A Baroque Meritocracy will eventually evolve into a Spartan Meritocracy because evidence will surely start to accumulate that many of the initial assumptions (which, after all, are mere "stabs in the dark") are wrong or dubious. Thus the number of assumptions will slowly be reduced to the point where only a few assumptions would remain that stand up to scrutiny. A Spartan Monarchy would probably not survive as a worldview for long. Many of the few initial assumptions are bound to be wrong, and with so few assumptions to work on, it is very likely that any such attempt at acquiring knowledge based on them would be bound to fail almost immediately. A good example of a Spartan Monarchy was that of Lysenkoism. Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) was a Soviet scientist who repudiated the existence of genes and advocated a Lamarckian style theory of inheritance. Lysenko very ably, politically speaking, aligned his theories with Marxism and communism, and thus gained the support of the Soviet establishment. They utilized Lysenko's theories in order to enhance the production of grain in the country. Unfortunately the result of this was massive harvest failures and the inevitable famine. [2]

That leaves us essential with two stable world views: the Baroque Monarchy and the Spartan Meritocracy. Now which of this two worldview is preferable? I give the answer in Harbour's own words:

The desire to explain things is an admission of ignorance. So, the starting position is infected with ignorance. It is inevitably wrong. So, we should be prepared to recognize it as such and to revise it when it is possible to increase its accuracy. In order to minimize the scope of error, and in order to locate the source of such errors when they emerge, initial assumptions are best kept to a surveyable minimum. Alternatively it is either arrogance or folly to assume that an uninformed guess at the nature of Nature will be or should be beyond need of revision. Commonsense therefore commends the Spartan meritocracy as a sensible worldview. In the quest for understanding, it is clearly superior to the Baroque monarchy. [3]

It is quite obvious that the traditional forms of religion conform to the worldview of Baroque Monarchy. Thus many religions require blind adherence (i.e. "faith") to dogmas which cannot be proven, most Christians accept the triune nature of God and the resurrection of Jesus, Catholics add papal infallibility to that list, Christian fundamentalists/presuppositionalists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, while Muslims believe in the inerrancy of the Quran and in Muhammad as the final prophet. Many of these beliefs are not necessary to explain the world around us, thus these are baroque assumptions. Furthermore these dogmas are not to be questioned: they are monarchial.

We should also add that religious and political systems that are based on Baroque Monarchy are almost invariably undemocratic and tend to lead to persecutions of its "erring believers" or "unpatriotic citizens". This is inevitable; for the central assumptions cannot be proven but at the same time cannot be doubted or questioned in any way. The only effective way to silence critics of the system is to remove them from society (by banishment, imprisonment or even execution) and or to force them to recant under torture or the threat of it.

Science is obvious an example of Spartan Meritocracy. The example of the Special Theory of Relativity above is a case in point. The theory is based on a minimal number of strictly required assumptions. Furthermore, it overthrew an assumption that was thought to be true prior to that: the assumption that there is an ether permeating space which allows electromagnetic waves to propagate (just like sea is the substance on which water waves propagate). The assumption of the existence of ether was shown to be wrong by the Michelson-Morley experiment mentioned above. It was finally discarded as unnecessary by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.

It is important to note however that theism is not necessarily incompatible with Spartan Meritocracy. One could start by assuming the existence of God but may allow that assumption to be revised if the evidence calls for it. Indeed this was the case with the sciences of geology and biology prior to the advent to Darwin's Theory of Evolution. It was believed that fossils were left in the rocks as a test of man's faith and that the adaptive features of animals and plants were evidence of God's design. However Darwin showed how these could be explained within the natural evolutionary scheme of things without the added assumption of these being God's handiwork. Thus the assumption of God existence in these sciences were discarded. One could also start by not assuming God's existence but try to muster the evidence to show that he exists. Thus many of the classical philosophical arguments for God's existence used this method. However, as we have seen elsewhere, these arguments have all, without exception, failed to provide such a proof.

Thus Spartan Meritocracy does not begin with atheism. However, as we have seen above, attempts to have a Spartan Meritocratic worldview that incorporates God have failed. Therefore lacking any evidence for the existence of God, the worldview of Spartan meritocracy tells us that we cannot have a belief in God either as an assumption or as an explanation of the world. This, then, is atheism. [4]

To summarize, the only worldview that makes sense is Spartan Meritocracy. Most forms of theism are actually of another worldview: that of Baroque Monarchy. Theisms of this forms can be rejected because they are not Spartan Meritocracies. Attempts to incorporate theism as an assumption within Spartan Meritocracy or to prove theism within the generally accepted assumptions of the worldview have all been unsuccessful. Atheism is the only system that works within the worldview of Spartan Meritocracy. Therefore atheism is sensible, theism is not.

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1.Harbour, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism: p8-12
2.ibid: p95-96
3.ibid: p11
4.ibid: p12-41

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