Bertrand Russell and the limitations of reason

If there is one thing that sets the so-called “New Atheists” apart from the old atheists, it is perhaps the general ignorance of philosophy, and specifically of the philosophical foundations for their own stated positions.  I will hear Hume quoted (for his atheism and specifically for his arguments against the Design Inference), while ignoring the fact that Hume’s arguments also challenge the concept of causality; for Hume, science and reason cannot ever be predictive.  I have also heard Bertrand Russell quoted, as perhaps the most well-known atheist of recent years, having authored Why I Am Not A Christian.    Russell, however, presents even more problems for the New Atheism.

I thought that I had mentioned the great series of posts, “The Limitations of Reason,” that have been appearing over at Sophie’s Ladder, but perhaps I haven’t. In any even, if you have any interest whatsoever in philosophy and epistemology, this series (now at 10 posts) provides a nice overview.  Number 10 in the series deals with Mr. Russell and his inability to refute Hume.

The New Atheists all tend to lean towards science and specifically evolutionary theories as the “answer” to Christianity and faith in general.  Daniel Dennett stands out somewhat as he is primarily a philosopher, an empiricist who focused on the phlosphy of the mind. I don’t know how he defends his epistemology, if he does. (Perhaps Sophie will address this at some point.)  Russell, however, would not have fit in at all with this group, though he may have wanted to.

Russell’s conclusions include, as quoted by Sophie:

“Although our postulates can … be fitted into a framework which has what may be called an empiricist ‘flavor,’ it remains undeniable that our knowledge of them, in so far as we do know them, cannot be based upon experience…In this sense, it must be admitted empirism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate….”

Thus, science is “at war with itself:  when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will.  Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.  Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.”


“If we are to hold that we know anything of the external world, we must accept the canons of scientific knowledge.  Whether… an individual decides to accept or reject these canons, is a purely personal affair, not suscpectible to argument.”

Atheists tend to get upset when I point out that the validity of the scientific method cannot be substantiated by it’s own rules, and that their belief systems are based on choice.  Scientism, which places scientific knowledge above all else, and rationalism are therefore nothing more than other faith or belief systems.  John Loftus at least admits his thinking is based on  a set of foundational assumptions, though he doesn’t seem willing to discuss the validity of those assumptions.

To my knowledge none of the New Atheist discussions get to a foundational level, as Russell’s did. I am assuming this is because 1) they are unwilling to admit they have these assumptions (as science is supposedly totally objective), or 2) if they did, they may have to face Russell’s conclusions. Sophie concludes:

In the end, Russell’s movements through philosophy is an iconic testament to the futility of reason.   His beliefs that the objective world is encountered directly were soon shown to be false.  His attempts to establish mathematical logic were determined to be incomplete.  His attempt to refute Hume and establish inference were admittedly failures.   Yet, for all the crumbling of his towers, “rational” atheists still hold to his basic beliefs, which show that they themselves do not base their beliefs on rationality but cling to them because they desperately want them to be true – the very thing they accuse Christians of doing.

The Inane Atheists

The “New Atheists” – people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and of late, Christopher Hitchens – have been making the news now for a couple of years, as their books promoting their strain of anti-theism can be found on endcap displays and best-seller lists everywhere. While some of you who are arguably wiser than myself may not be familiar with these guys, I’m sure many of you are.  I started paying attention to them initially due to my old friend Mike who, when we reconnected after many years, advised me that he had become an atheist. I’ve never been big on apologetics, but found some of the debates – much of which involved the creation-evolution issue – somewhat stimulating. However, I think that the term “New Atheists” should be changed to “Inane Atheists.”  While some of them at times can sound wise and philosophical (apparently, at least, to other atheists) the majority of their arguments have proven to be little more than atheistic bedtime stories, concocted to provide the same type of comfort they charge religions with fabricating.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is correct: There is nothing new under the sun.  While the packaging has changed, there is nothing new about the disbelief in God, and the Biblical advice on the subject is still sound. The Psalmist is on point as is Paul.  Today, atheism, the belief that there is no god of any kind, also includes the belief that nothing supernatural or non-material exists. This, of course, describes a lack of belief, or a negative belief, if you will. The positive – what they do believe – would be called philosophical materialism, or sometimes naturalism. As I’ve described before many times, materialists are merely myopic; they have chosen to believe only in what they think has physical properties.  Atheism is, in many ways, epitomized by the Golden Calf, and yes, it is a form of idolatry, exchanging the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creation. I’m sure the argument would be made that they do not worship anything, but of course that is foolishness as well; the natural processes of the universe and reason itself are put in the place of God.

If anything is new about today’s atheists, it is that they are moderns (as are we all in the West).  As I’ve set forth in my Teacup Analogy, their arguments (for example, lately I’ve read a ridiculous series of posts trying to apply IDQ principles to Christianity and the Bible) must be brought completely within modernism in order to function. If you hold to a philosophy that is skeptical of their epistemology, they sound quite ridiculous.  They succeed only when they manage to trap some poor soul into adopting their presuppositions; as we in the West are all moderns to a degree, it is occasionally possible to suck some unsuspecting Christian into believing that Christianity is properly understood only within a modern context. John Loftus, at Debunking Christianity, is at least honest about that point when he says that modernism is the Achilles’ Heel of Christianity. Of course, John presumes modernism, and at least to my knowledge he hasn’t presented any argument for why modernism is the only true philosophical position; his point is that modernism and Christianity are incompatible, and that if you adopt a purely modernist worldview, Christianity will be undone.

However, as Alister McGrath has written (“I Believe” – Exploring the Apostles Creed, pp 26):

Reason runs into difficulties when trying to cope with God. Alfred, Lord Tennyson made this point perfectly in his poem “The Ancient Sage”:

For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven.

Belief in God, it need hardly be added, rests on solid foundations- even if paradoxically, as Tennyson suggests, it cannot be proved. Atheists and Christians alike take their positions as matters of faith. The former may like to try and represent their position as objective and scientific, but it is actually nothing of the sort.

Modern atheists, of course, will see this thinking as malarkey, as it is an argument based outside of the modernist teacup, or at least removes the argument from the materialist epistemology that they rely on. The “New” Atheists cannot seem to function outside of modernism or outside of materialism, because that simply is the box in which they have put themselves in. To interact with them on any meaningful way, you have to get in their box (or teacup).

And why would I want to do that?

You see, I’ve encountered God. It’s not just that I’ve had some spiritual experience, but that I know and have relationship with God.  A modern atheist will, of course, toss this in the pile of non-observable claims and demand “evidence.” However, this presumes a Kantian or Platonic kind of dualism, which is certainly not a given.  Classifying God and all experiences of God into the large category of Noumena in order to dismiss it entirely is, I think, to commit serious philosophical error; but for one who is committed to atheism, it is convenient, pragmatic error.  Again, it requires a commitment to stay within the modernist teacup and to close your eyes should you ever attempt to look over the rim.

Modern atheists, however, are almost always not committed to requiring objective evidence in all areas of their lives; if they did, they would become “Spock”-like in their assessment of everything, including politics and relationships. Love would cease to be a many-splendored thing, and family life would have to be based on pragmatism rather than any emotional bond. It is contradictory for a materialist to claim “I know that I love my wife,” for he can know nothing of the kind; it is simply an unprovable claim by his own standards.  However, materialism becomes essential when fending off any claims of God (although it has been shown many times how internally inconsistent these arguments against God are).

Operating from a more consistent approach in which you accept that there are ways of knowing that are not limited to that which is observable and measurable – that is, living outside of the teacup and taking in the banquet that surrounds it – we can look to the arguments, claims, challenges and ridicule of modern atheism and see how inane they really are. While I believe it is possible to climb in the teacup and expose the errors from within modernism, for the Christian to “prove” his own faith, it is simply not necessary.

Are modernism and Christianity incompatible?

John Loftus claims that modernity is the Achilles’ Heel of Christianity, something I’ve discussed before, and addressed again in my “teacup” analogy.  Could he be right?

Of course, Loftus believes that modernism (the operative Western worldview which is based on rationalism, a belief in progress, and which depends heavily on the scientific method) is good. He would believe this, because he is as modern as can be, and this is what modernism teaches. It is all very circular: Modernism presumes that progress is inherently good. We as a species know more today than we did yesterday (but not as much as tomorrow).  Evolution is progressive, not regressive. Every day, in every way, we get better and better. It’s all a load of hooey, but even though you realize this, if you take time to really think through what you believe about a great many things, you will find that you, too, think this way. It’s in the water, it’s in the air – every day of our lives we eat and breathe modernism. Even what is being passed around as postmodernism is 90% basic modernism.  As Loftus once pointed out to me, even I’m modern.

However, I am aware of it.

I don’t think that everything about modernism is bad; for example, reason and logic are good, in its place. The scientific method, as a tool, is also good. However, what modernism did was to shrink the worldview around these elements, and added a belief in the inevitability of progress and a disdain for anything pre-modern, other than as an object of study. Progress says that the worldview enlarged; however, in reality, by dismissing everything it didn’t want to deal with, in actuality the worldview shrunk. (See the aforementioned Teacup Analogy).

As I have expressed in my Teacup Analogy, it is my current hypothesis that if you try to shrink Christianity to fit within the constraints of modernism, you’re in trouble, because in order to do so, the terms of modernism require you to not just shrink Christianity, but rather to chop off the corners of Christianity to fit within modernism’s round hole (sorry for switching metaphors). The problem, as I see it, is that modernism is an inadequate and defective worldview, and in order to address Christianity completely within modernism as Loftus does is to render Christianity inadequate and defective as well.

I am not sure, however, that the great apologists would agree with me.  I would be very interested to hear what someone like William Lane Craig (who I would tend to place at the top of that list) would say about my hypothesis.  Loftus, in the post I linked to above, has challenged Craig (and any other Christian apologist) to debate him on the issue of Christianity vs Modernism, which I think would be very interesting. Are Christianity and modernism incompatible, or can a complete Christianity survive entirely within the confince of modernism?

Epistemology in a teacup

Over the last couple of months I have been writing a series related to the issue of epistemology, the study of knowledge and knowing. Epistemology attempts to answer questions like: “What do we know?”, “How can we know something?”, and of course, “How do we know what we know?” When discussing issues of faith and belief, a common topic of debate between people of faith and people of science, it is important to recognize the various epistemological positions in play. The words “faith,” “belief,” “truth” and “knowledge” often have very different meanings, and as a result the conversations often become meaningless haggling (for example, read nearly any series of 20 or more comments on a blog dealing with science vs religion).

I am writing about epistemology not because I am an expert, but merely because I tend to think about these things. Over the last couple of years I have engaged a number of people in discussions concerning the relationship between science and faith, and have learned a few things along the way (including the above revelation about meaningless haggling…). For what ever reason, a few months ago I came up with the Teacup Model, which so far has proven to be fairly accurate, at least as to how I am seeing the current materialist v non-materialist conversation.

Imagine a coffee table (you can imagine your coffee table, if you’d like).  Upon the coffee table sits a teacup and saucer.  Go ahead, use your imagination.  The teacup represents reality as defined by philosophical materialism, which is essentially that which is material: that which has physical properties and that can be experienced by our 5 senses and which can theoretically be measured.  Nothing outside of the teacup can be detected or measured by scientific or mathematical methods.  To the materialist, therefore, nothing outside of the teacup exists. Those believing in God or some other kind of non-material reality are delusional, as they cannot prove by the methods available within the teacup that anything outside of the teacup exists. This position is, as defined, a self-fulfilling hypothesis.

For the non-materialists, it is fairly obvious that the teacup is not hovering in space, but is resting on a coffee table, and also sits on a saucer. They, in fact, do not stay within the teacup, but move back and forth between the teacup and the saucer.  It is quite obvious to them that the materialists are at the very least, myopic.  So, we now have two conflicting worldviews (or teacup views): one sees only what is in the teacup, the other sees both inside and outside of the teacup. For non-materialists, there are actually a number of different points of reference, depending on where you stand on the continuum of points from the inside of the teacup to the outside- and all the way out to the coffee table. Christian moderns tend to be on the inside of the teacup, but either with a view outside, or simply a belief that what they’ve been told about the outside is true.

This teacup model supports my hypothesis that a modern worldview, i.e. life inside the teacup, is not compatible with true Christianity. As John Loftus says, “I call our modern ways of thinking the Achilles’ heel of Christianity.” Although, as I’ve said before, when John says it, he is implying that modernism is both superior and correct. However, I don’t believe either; modernism is a philosophy that works akin to the soil in the path in the parable of the sower, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.” (Matt 13:19)  Spending too much time immersed “in the teacup” – that is, looking at things from solely a modernist, materialist worldview – can result in blindness to things outside of the teacup. The logic that says that only the material is real seems reasonable, because by adopting a materialist, modernist worldview, all other input is discounted. The modernist worldview subjects any input, whether material or spiritual, to a rationalistic system of analysis that is only geared – at best – to deal with the material.  It is, again, a self-fulfilling exercise.

I am not for one moment saying that the teacup doesn’t exist. What I am proposing that a worldview which originates from within the teacup – that is, modernism and materialism – is inherently flawed as well as incompatible with Christianity. A proper worldview must see the teacup in its proper context; as I’ve pointed out in the past, Gödel’s Theorem (that a system cannot be properly comprehended from within the system) seems applicable to philosophical systems as well as to mathematical ones. And as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Why a teacup?  I’m not sure; I don’t typically drink tea. However, if I had proposed a coffee cup, I would have been compelled to empty it.  😉