Atheism’s Strongest Argument?

I believe that the greatest case for atheism lies in the argument from parsimony. If we can explain, through natural means, all that we observe in the natural world, why should we posit anything more? I have never been able to ignore the deep and pervading sense in which everything traces its origins back to a cold and indifferent natural principle, in that all my human experiences are slave to the way things are. I cannot act as if it does not make a great deal of sense.

Detractors of this argument often point out that we cannot quantify certain subjective human experiences, such as love. This is simply mistaken. From a scientific perspective, people do not intend to explain the subjective experience—they only want the tangible observations. The words, the rushing of blood to the face, and the bowing of the head in prayer, can all be explained according to general principles. The existence of religious belief has simple natural explanations, and one might say that we should not pay any more attention to it, as per Ockham’s razor. Though I find many aspects of this argument compelling, I cannot swallow it entirely. I shall not detail my reasons for accepting as much of the argument as I already have: let us assume that the natural world, including the human behaviour, is quite self-consistent. It is this last conjecture—that the actual existence of something is superfluous, if belief therein is explicable—that begs a closer look.

Imagine that I have come to believe in a pie on the table. Nobody would say that the existence of a pie is superfluous, because I have been convinced of the pie’s existence by the same data that we generally use to verify the existence of pies on tables. Trivial! Now, imagine that I come to believe that someone loves me. The deconstructionist will eye this example greedily, because the data that convinces me of this love is not unilaterally associated with anything. An observer need not posit the existence of “love,” since he may be satisfied to say: “one person is behaving in a certain way towards another, perhaps because of the benefits it may entail, and according to a pattern which has its own evolutionary history.” There is no need for him to give special privileges to the subjective experience. Because he is a human who has experienced love, however, he may leave things well enough alone. Now, suppose that I come to believe in a God who is responsible for the natural order of things. The deconstructionist says that the existence of God is superfluous, because he can explain how humans (whose minds are this particular way) might require the belief in such a thing. But hold on just a second here.

The argument from parsimony has two distinct limitations. First off, the universe does need an explanation, and this is a natural observation that any person can make. It is perfectly legitimate to debate what this explanation may be. It is not sufficient to throw Ockham’s razor at the problem, because it is unclear how no explanation is simpler than some explanation (God), who himself does not require an explanation of the same form as the universe does (being, by definition, unbound by space and time). Ockham’s razor is not a principle of logic, but a rule of thumb better suited for solid, empirical realms of thought. By the time one begins discussing how “complicated” God is, as if to determine whether he may be sentenced to Ockham’s razor, the principle has been taken well beyond its limits. The principle originates from subjective experience and common sense—it does not trump it! It’s as foolish as a man, who realizes that his wife always calls him at a time he least expects, deciding that he will prevent his wife from calling by expecting her.

The second limitation of the argument is its reliance on a self-defeating assumption: that our higher thoughts are meaningless, if they can be explained in terms of their constituent parts. Scientifically, there is no meaning to any of our thoughts! The development and prevalence of atheism can be explained perfectly, but we do not discount it because of this. Now, it may be argued that we do not discount it because—as per the line of reasoning above—the meaning of “atheism” is consistent with the data that has caused the atheistic beliefs, while the word “God” is not consistent with the data that has caused the belief in God. Or is it?

Consider morality and altruism. We may provide natural explanations for these things, but we are only describing a biological impetus for moral behaviour. We are not explaining the idea of morality. Can we account for all the data that has caused this idea?

With our higher thinking, we have developed concepts that are totally distinct from the behaviours associated with them. It is as if these higher concepts run parallel to their phenomenological counterparts, undeniably similar, and undeniably separated.

The feeling that there must be a parent figure looking out for you, or an ancient belief in someone who makes the sun rise, does not explain away the concept of God that we are still discussing today. It explains only why some people behave (or behaved) as if he is there. Morality is an excellent example. Moral behaviour is easy to explain on the grand scale. In the mind, however, there is nonetheless a very real idea—that things should be such and such a way. The idea is entirely distinct from the mere altruistic behaviour and its advantages via game theory. This is why you can “mean” something, rather than simply do it. When we ask that somebody “mean” something, we are asking that their behaviour originate from the conceptual plane, rather than from some unspecified set of impulses that have given rise to the basic form of the behaviour.

Such a distinction does not apply to all things in life. For example, our modern concept of hunger does not take us far beyond what hunger has always been. People do not “mean” hunger, nor do they suggest that they are eating food for any other reason than to nourish themselves (or, in their first-world affluence, to enjoy it). For this reason, among others, I do not believe that the perceived distinctions that I have mentioned arise from a human quirk. Rather, I believe they tell us something about the thing itself.

You cannot say that your genes are wholly responsible for some of your behaviours (particularly the more embarrassing ones) and not others. Every action of yours is tempered by your higher thinking, and the higher thoughts are all connected. If we suggest that even one of them is a pure delusion—the complex ghost of empirical goings-on, an empty epiphenomenon—we destroy everything. Why should we do this? We will be trapped, and we will no longer be able to have a discussion.

I find that the argument from parsimony stops here, as it cannot destroy ideas that are distinct from their associated phenomenological behaviours. A great many of religion’s tent poles are precisely such ideas, and we must maintain our practice of handling these ideas separately, because this practice is the foundation of all human thought and activity.

I would not say that the argument out and out fails, but I do not believe it has the resources at its disposal to finish the job.


One Response to “Parsimony”

  1. Lucretius would attribute this higher conceptualization of phenomena to the unpredictable “swerve” of atoms off of their naturally predisposed course through spacetime. He knew what you speak of, though perhaps he didn’t quite know what to do about it. (I’m still waiting for you to read his De Rerum Natura.)

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