How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren't Skeptical Enough

How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren't Skeptical Enough


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Challenging atheists to be more skeptical about their own worldview, this book by an accomplished philosopher shows how Christianity offers the best explanation for the world, humanity, and morality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433542985
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 02/29/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Mitch Stokes (PhD, Notre Dame) is a senior fellow of philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He holds a PhD in philosophy, an MA in religion, and an MS in mechanical engineering and previously worked for an international engineering firm where he earned five patents in aeroderivative gas turbine technology.

J. P. Moreland (PhD, University of Southern California) is distinguished professor of philosophy at Biola University. He is an author of, contributor to, or editor of over ninety books, including The Soul: How We Know It's Real and Why It Matters.

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Hume Exhumed

Hume's Legacy

In the introduction I mentioned that the Scientific Revolution led to the Enlightenment's skeptical distemper. The great David Hume provides us with the best example of this science-induced skepticism. If we want to understand the link between atheism, skepticism, science, and morality, we can hardly do better than begin with Hume's philosophy. In it we find the ingredients for a thoughtful, robust skepticism, combined with a particularly antireligious rancor. His writings were generally sophisticated, iconoclastic, and Promethean, and he has been a champion of skeptical unbelievers ever since.

Not that Hume was always consistent. But who is? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Hume was, however, more consistent than most who avow skepticism today. Many of today's skeptical atheists don't understand the real significance of Hume's philosophy, despite their admiration. They typically ignore his radically pessimistic assessment of our cognitive faculties and what that implies. More specifically — and we'll see this later — they don't usually follow Hume in his skepticism about causation, induction, the material world, personal identity, and morality.

But some try, or at least go further than others. One of these is Duke University philosopher of science Alexander Rosenberg. In his book The Atheist's Guide to Reality, Rosenberg — who has been called a "mad dog naturalist" — credits Hume with helping him answer the questions that kept him up at night.

Rosenberg had initially turned to physics for answers and was quickly disappointed. The answers physics provided just didn't scratch Rosenberg's "itch of curiosity." So he switched to philosophy. Unfortunately, he says, philosophy pointed him right back to science.

Imagine how troubling it was for me to discover quite soon that the history of philosophy was mainly a matter of great minds wrestling with science! At least from the beginning of the seventeenth century onward, the agenda of every one of the great philosophers has been set by advances in physics and chemistry and later also biology.

He eventually found his way. "It took a few years, but by reading David Hume (1711–1776), I was able to figure out the mistake preventing science from satisfying me. The mistake, as Hume showed so powerfully, was to think that there is any more to reality than the laws of nature that science discovers." But once Hume showed Rosenberg that science tells us all there is, the pieces of his atheistic worldview fell into place.

So science really had given him the correct answers, but it took some time for Rosenberg to accept them. Here are some of the answers science gives, he says:

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck ...

Is there free will? Not a chance.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don't like forbidden, permissible, or something obligatory? Anything goes.

Many of these answers are usually resisted by even the most hard-nosed atheists. But I agree with Rosenberg. I think he gets the right naturalistic answers. We disagree, however, about whether the naturalistic answers are right.

Most atheists, on the other hand, think that Rosenberg gets things right when he says that science tells us there's no God. But as I alluded to, few follow him to the conclusion that atheism leads to an "anything goes" morality. Almost all of them believe that atheism is entirely consistent with objective moral laws. I think things are just the opposite: I do not think science shows that there is no God, nor do I think that atheism is consistent with an objective ethical standard. So, as I said, I'll give reasons for doubting that science implies naturalism in part 2, while in part 3 I'll argue that if naturalists persist in their unbelieving ways, they should seriously doubt the existence of objective moral standards.

"The Experimental Method"

Like most intellectuals of his time, Hume was wildly impressed with Newton's "new philosophy" (today we would call it science). There were two main aspects of this new philosophy, both of which attested to the uncanny cognitive powers of the human mind. One was the use of mathematics in the formulation of nature's laws. What made this astounding was that mathematics is something you do with only your mind — perhaps with heuristic help from paper and pen — and yet it tells you something true about the world outside your mind. When you add, for example, a group of 1,375,228 people to a group of 3,245,672 people, you can predict (using addition) that the total number of people will be 4,620,900. But we're now so familiar with addition that it has lost much of its luster. In fact, familiarity has bred contempt. Still, we would begin to discover the power and strangeness of mathematics if we were to carefully look at the details of how, say, calculus enables us to describe — and predict — much of the world's behavior, or at least more than it ought to. It really shouldn't work.

But mathematics can't remain in the mind; its use in science must ultimately answer to the world. It simply isn't free to roam the conceptual landscape without alighting on physical reality at some point. At least if it's going to tell us physical truths about the world. Mathematics must describe and predict behavior that we can observe, and creatures like us need sense perception to do this. Mathematics, then, must ultimately earn its keep by matching observations. Math can say all it wants, but seeing is believing, and the only way to know whether the mathematics is telling the truth is to check the world.

Hume was well aware of all this and saw how the new philosophy had succeeded where the old philosophy (Aristotelian science) had failed. And though the mathematics was a substantive part of the new philosophy, it was only through its connection with the sensible world that Newton revealed its true power.

But Newton had done so only for the inanimate world. Hume wanted to extend this method beyond natural philosophy — to what was called moral philosophy, which included epistemology and metaphysics as well as ethics. In particular, Hume wanted to apply the "experimental method" to humans, to the knowing subjects themselves. So he launched a program of "scientifically" studying human cognitive abilities. He called it the "science of man."

'Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature; and that however wide any of them may seem to run from it, they still return back by one passage or another. Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.

For Hume, knowledge of the world must be grounded in experience. Science had turned him into an empiricist. And he wasn't the last convert: Rosenberg calls empiricism the official epistemology of science.

Of course, when it came to the "science of man," Hume couldn't really perform experiments in any strong sense of the word. But, he said, we can extend the experimental method to our intellectual capacities by paying careful attention to how we actually think, reason, and perceive. And so he did.

Skepticism about Sense Perception

Suppose you're hiking through the mountains near your house, enjoying the way the green conifers stand out against the gray, craggy cliffs in the distance. You see a strangely twisted tamarack tree about ten feet away.

In actuality, you're really seeing only an image of that tree, an image that is behind your eyes and beneath your skin. The tree itself isn't in your head — you'd be the first to know if it were. But the image is in your head, it must be admitted, for if your head went out of existence (we need not get graphic), so too would the image. Of course, it seems for all the world that what you're seeing is the tree itself, out there, but that's only because our optical faculties, including the mind and its construction of the image, are remarkably advanced. The movie of the world playing in your head is very convincing, so convincing that we rarely think of it as a movie. Rather, we take the images to be the objects themselves.

But the most we can say about your "tree idea" is that it is merely a representation of the tree. We call this view of sense perception — which is our contemporary view — representationalism. The idea in your head stands for or represents the tree itself. But it is not the tree.

There's something further we believe about your "tree idea," namely, that it resembles the tree in important respects; it "looks like" the tree. Now why think that? Is there a good reason for thinking that your idea of the tree resembles or is similar to the tree itself? Well, that depends on what we mean by "a good reason." If we're asking whether we have an argument for our "resemblance assumption," then no, there's no good reason. One way to see this is to realize that you couldn't distinguish between actually standing in front of the tree and simply experiencing a remarkably vivid dream, or being a "brain in a vat" that's electrochemically stimulated by a vast network of computers (a BIV, as it's known to philosophers). Your experience would be identical whether you were a BIV or really in front of a tree.

You might object that you're pretty certain your ideas resemble the world "out there" because your senses have (so far) kept you alive: they've kept you from falling over cliffs, from walking out in front of cars, from stumbling into open flames. Unfortunately, this objection won't work. The only way you "know" that you've done all these things is through the very senses you're trying to vouch for. You're arguing for the credibility of your senses while using their own credentials. As Thomas Reid (one of Hume's contemporaries) said, this would be like asking a man whether he's telling the truth when you suspect him of lying.

Suppose, however, that you're undaunted: "Look," you reply, "perhaps I can't know for certain that I'm not a BIV, but what's more likely: that I'm a BIV or that I'm really in front of a tree?" Unfortunately, this reply won't work either. After all, you judge which scenario is more likely based on other things you know. And for all you know, you're a BIV. To be sure, we have a lifetime of experience that powerfully conditions us to believe that there's a world "out there" and that this world resembles our ideas. But this very conditioning is being called into question.

Of course, you'd be insane to believe you're a BIV, but that is much different from arguing that you aren't. Worse still, what's wrong with believing you're as likely a BIV as not, logically speaking? If you threw in your epistemic lot with reason alone, would it be unreasonable to believe that each is equally likely? Reason doesn't decide which is more likely. After all, it may be that you've been a BIV all these years, and the evil geniuses in charge of your simulation have been slowly adjusting your brain to the idea of living in a virtual world. (They don't want you to have a nervous breakdown like all the previous test subjects.) Notice that, slowly, over your lifetime, technology has advanced, movies have portrayed increasingly elaborate Matrix-like scenarios, and you've gradually gotten used to it all. All the experiences they've fed you are simply preparation for the moment when the nefarious scientists reveal their entire plan.

Whatever. The point is that Hume helped us to see that we have no good reason (i.e., no good argument) for believing that our ideas resemble the world outside our minds. In fact, we don't have good reason (argument) to believe that there is a world outside our minds. Of course, Hume admitted that he couldn't help but believe in an external world that matched his ideas; but this was, he said, because nature is simply too strong for philosophical arguments. Nature won't let us follow reason; we believe by instinct. And good thing, too; otherwise humans wouldn't have lasted very long. In any case, nature has ensured that our species has lasted at least long enough to realize our predicament, which Hume called "the whimsical condition of mankind." To echo W. V. Quine, the Humean condition is the human condition.

Skepticism about Induction

But things get worse, even if our sense experience is as reliable as you please. For, in addition to direct experience, we must often reason from that experience. That is, we frequently use our brains to reason from old beliefs about the world to new beliefs about the world. This reasoning process can take many forms, but in general it's called inference. We know lots of things by way of inference. For example, I know that if I let go of this coffee cup, it will fall to the floor. And though I know this partly from experience — I'm pretty familiar with how gravity has worked in the past — I've never actually seen that the cup will fall. And yet, I know that cups the world over would behave similarly in relevantly similar circumstances because I've inferred this from past sense experience. This kind of reasoning or inference from prior experience is called induction. Much of our knowledge of the world rests on induction. Without induction we'd be dead.

Characteristically, Hume noticed something peculiar about the whole induction process. Take a simple example: We all know — or at least seem to have very good reason to believe — that the sun will rise tomorrow. And we have induction to thank for our confidence. But Hume recognized that induction depends on our belief that the future will resemble the past (or more generally, that nature is uniform). Now, what reason do we have for believing that the future will resemble the past? Well, it's because in the past, the future has always resembled the past. (You see where Hume is going with this.) The very basis for believing that the future will resemble the past, and therefore the basis for all inductive reasoning, is our belief that the future will resemble the past. But this latter belief is also the result of induction and so relies on itself. We have no (noncircular) reason for trusting induction. Like Hume, then, if we're going to follow the arguments where they lead, we too must be skeptics about induction.

Again, Hume concedes that we can't help but trust induction. But again, we don't trust it because we have reason to; rather we simply can't help ourselves.

Skepticism about All Reasoning

Now in all this arguing for skepticism, Hume is using his reason, and so it had better not be inductive reason, as we've seen. But there are other kinds of reasoning. Why should we trust these?

Unfortunately, with respect to any kind of reasoning at all — inductive, deductive, abductive — things look pretty dismal. When it comes to our inferences, there is always, says Hume, the possibility that we've made a mistake. We know this from experience, at least from those mistakes we've recognized. (Assume for the moment that there's no specific problem of induction.) We should therefore afford, says Hume, some measure of doubt to our conclusions, no matter what they are, even if the doubt is minimal. But, he continues, this evaluation of the reliability of our first belief is also an inference, and therefore it too should be doubted, even if ever so slightly. This could theoretically go on ad infinitum, according to Hume, just as we can theoretically add 1 to any number ad infinitum. Hume says that our confidence in that original belief should "in this manner be reduc'd to nothing."

Though there may be something to Hume's argument, to my mind it's not very compelling. But there's a much more troubling problem with reason. Even if we ignore the calculus of infinitesimal doubts, we still never have a noncircular argument for reason's reliability. To offer any argument for reason is to use it. And to use it, we must first trust it. Credo ut intelligam — "I believe so that I may understand."


Excerpted from "How to Be an Atheist"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Mitchell O. Stokes.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword J. P. Moreland 11

Preface 13

Acknowledgments 17

Introduction: Skepticism and Contemporary Atheism 19

Part 1 Sense and Reason

1 Hume Exhumed 33

2 The Believing Primate 43

Part 2 Science

3 Science: Ruining Everything since 1543? 55

4 Science and the Humean Condition 63

5 Photoshopped Science 71

6 Real Science Is Hard 81

7 Arguing with Success 99

8 The Current Crisis 119

9 Physics-Based Metaphysics 131

10 God: The Failed Hypothesis? 139

Part 3 Morality

11 If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permissible? 151

12 Some Brush Clearing 161

13 Moral Mammals: The Evolution of Ethics 169

14 An All-Natural Morality? 181

15 Can Science Determine Human Values? 195

16 Morality Is Personal 201

17 Can God Ground Morality? 217

18 Living with Moral Nihilism 227

19 What's the Point of It All? 235

Bibliography 243

Index 249

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

How to Be an Atheist is the best popular discussion of the (alleged) conflict between science and religion that I have ever read. The book is well written, well organized, and philosophically sophisticated. Moreover, the author’s knowledge of science, the history of science, and the history of ‘the conflict between science and religion’ is admirably suited to his purpose. Above all, the book is accessible. No reader who is interested in questions about the relation between science and religion will have any difficulty in following the author’s arguments.”
—Peter van Inwagen, John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame

“How many times has atheistic naturalism appeared to be a charade, like a shell game where you never seem to see all the steps of the process? Or how frequently have you been told that atheists are too soft—that they must be even more rigorously skeptical? But then when they do follow their own system, there is nothing left with which to build their worldview! Get ready—you’re embarking on a challenging journey here. In this volume, Mitch Stokes uncovers issue after issue where atheistic naturalism looks more like the king who wore no clothes, and Stokes is the one to give him the message! This is must reading—I recommend it highly!”
—Gary R. Habermas, Distinguished Research Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy, Liberty University

“I’ve been saying for years that professional skeptics are not skeptical enough, that they are selective in their skepticism, and that if they ever turned their skeptical faculties on their own skepticism and the materialist worldview that almost invariably comes attached to it, they would see the house of cards they’ve built collapse of its own internal inadequacies. Mitch Stokes, in this incisive book, does a wonderful job filling in the details to this charge against skepticism.”
—William A. Dembski, Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute; author, Being as Communion

How to Be an Atheist is both readable and well documented, both incisive and wide-ranging. It is a wise book that exposes the dead-end reasoning and ultimately antihuman positions of modern skepticism. If you’re looking for an accessible book to take you through the host of such skeptical arguments against belief in God, this is it!”
—Paul Copan, Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics, Palm Beach Atlantic University

“Opponents of Christianity have often claimed that science disproves the God of the Bible. But actual scientists and philosophers of science have been far more modest, expressing serious reservations about the use of science to prove anything about the origin and ultimate nature of the world. In this book, Stokes expresses a deep respect for science, but like the best scientists themselves, is carefully skeptical about the idea that science is our final gateway to truth. He also argues that despite all recent claims to the contrary, morality does not make sense without God. The book deals with some highly technical matters in a learned way, but with wit and clarity. I profited from it very much.”
—John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary

“Mitch Stokes takes the so-called new atheists out to the intellectual woodshed. His clear and powerful double whammy against atheism—it is difficult to ground morality in science, and it is difficult to ground science on atheism—shows just how much faith it takes to be an atheist.”
—Kelly James Clark, Senior Research Fellow, Kaufman Interfaith Institute; The Honors Program, Brooks College

“In this superbly executed book, Mitch Stokes makes a solid and creative case for why many atheists aren’t skeptical enough. If they were consistent ‘sober skeptics,’ he argues, their view of the world would be radically reimagined. For those—whether believer, agnostic, or atheist—who are not afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead, this book is a must-read.”
—Chad V. Meister, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Bethel College; author, Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed    

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