The Flaw In Atheist Thinking

Miracles_coverI’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’s Miracles. As an aside (if you can have an aside after only one sentence!) I suggest this month might be a great time for all Lewis fans to dust off one of his books and re-read it as a tribute to him, since Nov. 22 marks the 50-year commemoration of his death.

At any rate, Lewis himself having been an atheist, brought a perspective I had never considered, so I find the book incredibly enlightening. One of the things he’s made clear for me is how irrational it is to try and prove the Supernatural by using the Natural. It can’t be done because the two are separate entities.

It’s like two scholars debating the scope of knowledge. One might say mathematics is the only field of study. The other might argue that no, literature is also a field of study, wholly different and separate from mathematics.

Sorry, the first one says. I can find no evidence for literature.

That’s because you’re only looking at the properties of mathematics, counters the other.

Where else would you expect me to look? his friend answers. I’m searching and searching in the vast field of knowledge, and there is no sign of literature.

Don’t you see, says the second professor, your search is limited. If you look beyond math, you’ll find literature.

How can I look beyond the only thing that’s there?

And so the argument would continue. The first professor cannot grasp the idea that the field of study with which he is familiar is not the sum of all knowledge, and the second professor can’t grasp how he can demonstrate with math how literature exists.

He might think of ways that math and poetry are alike, how math is the basis of music and music is an art akin to literature. He can even point out how literature has structure much the same way math does. But none of those evidences will be proof to the professor not willing to consider that math is not the sum total of all knowledge.

In the same way, the atheist who believes the natural world is the sum total of all that exists will not find any “circumstantial evidence,” to use a law term, to be compelling proof that something, let alone Someone, exists beyond the scope of what his five senses can detect.

It actually makes perfect sense. The flaw in the logic, however, is the assumption that Humankind can detect all that exists with our five senses: atheists take that as a given which needs no proof.

However, it is a false assumption that nature itself exposes. The fact that we did not for thousands of years detect other universes did not write them out of existence. The fact that we did not detect atoms and subatomic particles for thousands of years, did not negate their reality. Our five senses failed.

Relying upon the use of our five senses, we were wrong to think the earth was flat, that the sun rotates around the earth, that there were no other stars than the ones we can see, and any number of other errant ideas. Our five senses, then, are fallible.

Some might counter that, in fact, it is the advancement of knowledge which has allowed Humankind to correct these wrong beliefs by the use of our senses. Our technological improvements have made it possible for us to see further and look at smaller.

But that doesn’t address the issue. The human capacity to detect reality is flawed. We can go for generations believing a lie because our five senses have restrictions. What restrictions might they have now to which we’re oblivious?

An honest person will admit that we cannot know what restrictions are limiting our understanding. Which of course opens the door to the Supernatural. Because we don’t see, touch, taste, feel, or hear God in the same way we do our sister or boss or neighbor, does not mean God does not exist.

The ironic thing is that Humankind for centuries accepted the existence of the Supernatural, in large part because of their five senses, but also, I’d suggest, because of a spiritual sense.

Biblical history records that humans had encounters with God–that He insinuated Himself in the affairs of Humankind–so their five senses verified the existence of the supernatural. Some heard God’s voice, others saw His Shekinah glory, still others felt His Consuming Fire. Others, however, received visions and were filled with His Spirit.

What’s happened, then, it would seem, is what happens with all our physical capacities when they aren’t used: they atrophy. The ability people once had to interact with God, dependent upon their spiritual vision, faded, and had God left us to ourselves, I suspect we would have completely forgotten all about Him. Thankfully, He had no intention of abandoning us.

His greatest intervention was His decision to take on the appearance of a man, live so as to show us the Father, and die in order to make a way for us to once again interact with God.

Jesus Christ penetrated the natural on behalf of the Supernatural to restore our faulty, faded vision–the kind that allows us to see beyond the restrictions of our finite senses.

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14 Comments

  1. The first part, is, unfortunately, a fallacy:

    i) We can’t trust our senses to be able to perceive everything that exists
    ii) (from i) Thus it’s possible that there exists more than our senses can perceive
    iii) (from ii) Thus god.

    Even if we agreed for a moment on i) and ii), nothing leads to iii). Even if our senses are not perfect, that doesn’t mean, that there has to be god.

    The idea of a spiritual sense is nice, but unfounded. Prove it. Otherwise you are just taking your personal wishes, your personal emotions and declare them to be a “sense”.
    Then you go on and try to find an explanation for something you don’t have proven to exist in the first place. You are missing many steps there. It’s as if I started discussing the mating habits of invisible flying unicorns before having proven even one to exist.
    A much easier explanation is, that, stories from 2.000 years ago are simply that… stories. The people then were not more “advanced” by having a non atrophied god sense – that’s just a “everything was better then” myth.

    The important question is not, if we can see god. The important question is, does he have any measurable influence on our universe. If not, he may exist but obviously doesn’t care. So you don’t have to show god personally, but as long as you cannot make some point where you say: “Here is something that cannot have happened without god.”, you cannot prove him and thus, his existence for the universe is completely unimportant – because a god that only acts like he wasn’t there can be treated like he wasn’t there. If everything god is supposed to be doing can be explained in other, rational ways, you don’t need god to explain anything and you can disregard him safely. (and a god that hides so well is either evil or will really not care if you found him – which would be a more adult point of view for a supposed omnipotent being, instead of the childish need for attention by belief).

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    • Atomic Mutant, thanks for interacting with this post. You’re absolutely right that I skipped some major steps. After i) and ii) there’s more that needs to be done before a person can make a reasoned conclusion that iii) that God is, particularly the God of Christianity.

      Lewis addresses the parts I left out in the book I mentioned in the intro, Miracles, and he did a far better job than I ever could in my small blog post.

      My effort was largely to show the flaw in thinking that a look at nature, which we conduct with our five physical senses, could ever produce a proof of the supernatural.

      You’ve actually illustrated my point, taking the “prove literature by using these math principles” stance when you said

      The idea of a spiritual sense is nice, but unfounded. Prove it. Otherwise you are just taking your personal wishes, your personal emotions and declare them to be a “sense”.
      Then you go on and try to find an explanation for something you don’t have proven to exist in the first place.

      As I said in my post, there is evidence, not proof. And as is typical, you dismiss the evidence with your own unfounded conclusions:

      A much easier explanation is, that, stories from 2.000 years ago are simply that… stories. The people then were not more “advanced” by having a non atrophied god sense – that’s just a “everything was better then” myth.

      Your “easier” explanation does not take into account the flaw in thinking I pointed out: our senses are limited and fallible, so easy explanations should be suspect as much as hard ones. I’m sure it was easier for people to believe in a flat earth because that was right in front of their eyes. But easy didn’t lead to reality.

      You brought up a really important question, one I’ve not encountered before in online discussions:

      The important question is, does he have any measurable influence on our universe.

      I think the answer might not be satisfactory to you, though. God does have a huge measurable influence on our universe–from its creation to its continuance. He also has a great influence on people from the beginning of time to this present age.

      But I disagree with you that if some other explanation is available for the things Christians credit to God, we must accept them as true and God as false. That’s the thinking of “innocent until proven guilty” turned into “nonexistent until proven real.” That’s a legal distinction, not one leading to reality. Someone may be guilty, having committed the crime for which he is accused, even though the legal system hasn’t proven him guilty.

      Think, too, of a cloudy sky covering the sun. One person might say, the clouds have hidden the sun, but someone else may say, no the sun disappeared. Two explanations. The second one doesn’t automatically rule out the first just because the second person says the evidence of the sun’s continued existence isn’t proof, that what you need is to actually see the sun. It’s faulty reasoning and simply not true.

      Again, thanks for your comment, Atomic Mutant. I appreciate your thought-provoking ideas.

      Becky

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      • “My effort was largely to show the flaw in thinking that a look at nature, which we conduct with our five physical senses, could ever produce a proof of the supernatural.”

        And this is, if you ask me, where you are wrong. There are only two possibilities:

        a) Supernatural agent X has a measurable influence on this world.
        b) Supernatural agent X has no measurable influence on this world.

        If a), then we can measure his influence, even if we cannot measure himself. If b) then his existence is completely unimportant to us, because he has no influence at all.
        Of course, you postulate c) has influence, but that influence is not measurable, but then nothing differentiates this agent from pure chance, leading again to c), where we have to disregard him.

        And no, literature is THERE. You can see it, touch it, people have seen it, you can predict what happens if I read it, etc. That’s comparison is simply flawed. It would be more like mathematics and kdjnnhfeoijhr, which could be something that exists but no one has ever seen – or something I just made up. Literature HAS a measurable influence and that’s the difference.

        “And as is typical, you dismiss the evidence with your own unfounded conclusions:”

        You are confusing “explanation” with “conclusion”. I offer another, more simpler explanation that has the advantage of not having to assume another sense, etc. and thus, by Occam’s Razor, should be assumed better. That doesn’t mean it’s automatically true, but in comparison, with no other evidence present, it’s preferable. And no, after more facts were known, believing in a flat earth became harder, this is, why we stopped doing it.

        And yes, nonexistent until proven real IS the only way to go. Otherwise, I hereby welcome you to the churches of etgfjejh, ijkrtf4ewj4 and reojprt2, as you cannot prove the non-existence of any of them. Existing until proven non-existent for non-falsifiable thing is simply nonsense, sorry.

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        • Existing until proven non-existent for non-falsifiable thing is simply nonsense, sorry.

          It’s technically impossible to prove that anything other than oneself exists. Granted, I think solipsism is pretty absurd, but it makes it point.

          It’s better to believe what we see; that is, not to take what we see for granted or to think that it is all that is, but to believe that what we see is real and really outside of ourselves. And I do see God, though not in a metaphysical way. I see God in the pattern of all reality, in storytelling, and in the fact that things have meaning.

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          • Well, people also “see” Elvis, fairies and aliens, so you are in good company.

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          • Well, people also “see” Elvis, fairies and aliens, so you are in good company.

            I don’t know about Elvis, but fairies and aliens reveal God. Fairies and aliens are a human expression of the Other — that which is outside of us and beyond our experience, against which the meaning of our vain little lives is measured.

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      • Atomic Mutant, God’s influence on the world is measurable, but the problem is that you discount His influence as coming from Him. For example I’d say, that humans exist proves God. Nothing else apart from Him is rational. Rational thinking doesn’t come from irrational matter. I say that’s a measurable influence. But you’ll credit this and any of the other things I’d mention as coming from some other source, whether I’d bring up the existence of the universe itself, God’s work to reconcile Humankind to Himself by stepping into earth in the form of a person, or changing people by giving new life and the presence of His Spirit.

        So your test for the existence of God is really no test at all. We’re still operating from two different systems.

        You say that literature is THERE because you aren’t really operating from a system limited to math. Therefore you’re missing the analogy. If you believed that ONLY math existed as a form of knowledge, then no matter what I said to convince you that literature was also a form of knowledge, you would not change your views. You’d insist I prove literature by appealing to mathematics, but I could never do that to your satisfaction simply because we’re operating from two different systems, one so limited it has no way of accommodating the other.

        Because of the limitations of your view, then, the evidence I offer for God’s existence, you dismiss and then claim His non-existence based on a lack of evidence. That’s like saying poems don’t exist because they can’t be multiplied, subtracted, or geometrically proved.

        Your idea that the supernatural must be seen, felt, smelt, touched, or tasted or it is not existent, is a limited view of reality. You can claim this opens a person up to belief in all kinds of nonsense, and you’re right.

        That is, in fact, why God gave us so much tangible evidence–a chosen people (first, Israel, and now the Church), prophets who related His message, written records of His dealings with Humankind, the person of His Son, the presence of His Holy Spirit. You can say this, that, or the other about what other religions have as their proofs, but none of them has all of these.

        In other words, you are dismissing a wide array, the entire body of God’s work, because you think someone could fabricate a supernatural being if you allow in evidence that is not physical. I say, such fabrications are easy to spot because they don’t have the physical evidence Christianity has and they don’t have the supernatural evidence Christianity has.

        Becky

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    • The knowledge of God is revealed by His Holy Spirit, the same way any knowledge is acquired, by the apprehension of the mind of its truth. You may not comprehend that reality. Just as when someone tells a secret to me that you do not know. I can verify its truth, but you do not know of its reality or of its truth. The history of Christianity is full of the blood of martyrs who died because they saw and held to the truth, not being brainwashed by fanaticism or cultism.

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      • There is only one flaw: The flying spaghetti monster told me that you are wrong here. Sorry.

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        • Would you die holding unto the truth of what the flying spaghetti monster has told you?

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          • We’ve got a beer volcano and a stripper factory in the afterlife. Any questions? Wanna join?
            Unfortunately, people have also died for much stupider things like Zeus (duh! How you stupid do these people get? Of course, their gods are just inventions, the only true one is mine). So, the willingness to die for your cause does not say anything about the cause, only about the person.

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          • Bob makes a good point about people dying for what they believed. We’re not talking about some random group of people. We’re talking about the people who said they saw and learned from the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. To not die, all they had to do was admit they’d made it up. But they didn’t change their story.

            In addition, the people who could so easily have pulled Jesus’s body out of the grave to prove that these people were lying, didn’t do that either. And all the other people who guys like Peter said were with him when he walked, talked, and ate with Jesus, didn’t call him a liar.

            There were over 500 witnesses at one time. To discount such strong evidence is only possible if a person isn’t really examining evidence but looking to justify a preconceived conclusion.

            Becky

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  2. As an additional note, I think the point of this post and of much of Lewis’s philosophy (though I haven’t read all of Miracles) is that logical and rational evidences are not the only evidences that are important or meaningful. We do not only see things in the light of cold rationality; we also interpret reality by making decisions regarding meaning, purpose, and value — the things that make literature and myth. And I know there is a argument that reason itself points beyond rationality. It’s only reasonable that reason isn’t everything.

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    • Bainespal, in fact Lewis does use reason as the basis for his argument in favor of miracles. One of his main points is that reason must come from reason, not irrationality. Since nothing else in the know universe produces reason, it’s reasonable to conclude there is a Something apart from our known natural order. There are other steps he takes, then, to show that this Something is in fact God.

      I’m still reading. Good stuff, the books Lewis wrote! 😉

      Becky

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