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A little while ago on Stack Exchange, I came across a question asking for a "rigorous argument for Atheism". I tried out an answer and picked up a few votes from the international peanut gallery.

I thought I'd provide the question and answer here again, and maybe a little later I'll add some notes or comments. I'm not entirely satisfied with my own answer, and my use of Laplace's Daemon requires a little elaboration - it's a little glib.

Is there any rigorous philosophical basis for atheism?


In what follows I use the term God to refer to an entity that has at least one of the following properties:

  1. Has created the universe
  2. Is omnipotent
  3. Is omniscient

Approaches to Atheism

A great many philosophers and scientists have put together their efforts to form what today is known as rationalism; from Socrates in ancient times to Kant in the 18th Century. Rationalism is the underlying foundation in science nowadays as any claim is not valid unless - simply put - no logical contradiction accrues from its acceptance. However, in my humble opinion, this principle has not been extended to apply in religion as - to the best of my knowledge - the following two trends prevail amongst atheists today:

  1. Historical scepticism
  2. Scientific omnisciency

Historical scepticism

The first amounts to rejecting the idea of an "almighty God" because the Holy Bible as well as other religious books contain historical inconsistencies. First of all this approach requires the concept of religion to define itself therefore cannot form a rigid basis and any discussion or inference on this basis is doomed to fail. The debate on this basis boils down to the acceptance of the dogma "I'm right because you're wrong" (from all sides).

Scientific omnisciency

The second trend is more or less the approach that people like Richard Dawkins use. Dawkins in his book titled The God Delusion concludes that one should not believe in God because science provides all necessary tools to reach the truth and leaves no place for the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient entity. The problem is that this very last sentence is not scientifically sound. Was it like that there would be a proof (in scientific terms) that there is no God for example or - at least - there would be a chance that we have such a scientific proof. Science unfortunately does have its limits and this is not something to demean its value; on the contrary... Science should be aware of these limits. This is something one can learn studying statistics. Many say statistics is a big lie in science. This is a glorious manifestation of ignorance! Statistics is science because it knows its limits and its domain of applicability.

Playing devil's advocate I say that the theory of evolution does not imply that there is not God. God created the species as described in Genesis and also the laws of Nature as a control mechanism that guarantees sustainability blah blah... Evolution is about the maintenance of the species; it does not explain how the first cell appeared on Earth. Therefore, evolution to me is not the proper tool or basis to talk about God.

The question

So my question is whether there is some better structured and systematic approach to the question of the existence of God or some interesting atheist treatise published.


I would like to clarify a few things about the term rigor here. A statement in science or philosophy is said to be rigorous if (i). Someone made certain assumptions that do not contradict one the other (ii) they used rules of logic to arrive at this result. Different assumptions lead to different results all of which are correct with respect to the initial set of assumptions. Also, more rarely, different logic systems may lead to different results. But, again, a logic system is itself built up on non-contradicting assumptions.


My Answer:


Off the top of my head, I think it's better to look at the criteria you've proffered for identifying "God". Working backwards,

  1. Omniscience. It's an untenable idea, especially since David Wolpert's proof against Laplace's Demon. We can see this easily, as we can break down omniscience over the universe as these four possibilities:
    1. God is omniscient and the universe is deterministic
    2. God is omniscient and the universe is indeterministic
    3. God is not omniscient and the universe is deterministic
    4. God is not omniscient and the universe is indeterministic

    For omniscience to be true, we can only have (a) or (b). But given Wolpert's proof, it's a impossibility for (b) to hold and God's omniscience to not contradict logic. Given (a) as the only remaining option, we can address

  2. Omnipotence. The Epicurean trilemma works well enough: If God is omnipotent, but not willing to stop evil, it remains difficult to claim He's good, unitary, or any of the other common attributes we want a God to have.Possibly the best direct answer to the trilemma is Plantinga's Free Will defense, roughly paraphrased as the concept that free will requires that even an omnipotent deity not intervene to allow morally good beings to exist. However, (a) above appears to entail a very strict form of determinism, which forces one to accept a very particular kind of compatibilism for free will to be a useful answer to the trilemma's challenge.In fact, the free will to be accepted here is so ineffectual that possibly your only recourse for continuing to support the proposition of an omnipotent God at all is to accept a Calvinist model of predestination, a morass in which I for one refuse to set foot.
  3. Omnicausal (Created the Universe). Finally the heart of the matter: I tend to think that people only want to know that there's someone responsible for it all, to either praise or blame. At this point perhaps there's no real argument against God as first mover; however, a rational answer would have to provide some kind of identity for the first uncaused cause, as there's a bit of dispute over the matter. Allah? Yahweh? Vishnu? Chaos Monkey? Take your pick.This, finally, is where the scientific method declines to answer, as it doesn't need to. If the universe is singular and deterministic, anyone can claim that the Big Bang was set off by a single deity and there's no strictly logical counterexample to dispute that.Oh, but wait! It's not just that there is no counterexample, it's that there can be no counterexample, as any kind of multiverse theory already poses further problems: if God created our actual universe, did He create them all? Are there any possible universes which exist that He didn't create? Could God have not created any additional universes, or even prevented them from existing, if there was ever a real possibility of their existence? Where does that leave omnipotence, or omniscience, or even the slightest hint of a relatable Deity that can have an opinion about the way we live our lives?

The problem with God is not lack of evidence, or contradiction with science. It's merely that if you really investigate it, the entire notion of a God as separate Creator is incoherent, which is a much bigger obstacle to surmount than any of the arguments that Harris, Dawkins, or Hitchens levels at religious belief in general.