Thursday, March 7, 2024

Comments on Atheists I Respect Becoming Agnostics


Note: What follows is a transcription of the video.

Recently two atheists who I respect have announced that they are now agnostics. I’m speaking of Emerson Green and Matthew Adelstein who have put out a video and blog post respectively about their journey from atheism to agnosticism. If you haven’t already, I suggest taking a listen and/or read through of the linked pieces in the description. Both are quite worthwhile.

There has been some ruckus about two atheists moving “closer to theism” on various parts of the online philosophy of religion and apologetics discourse. I find it kind of funny that if you merely search Matthew’s name on YouTube right now the top two hits are going to be his appearance on Christian apologetics channels before anything else, including this thumbnail from Capturing Christianity talking about an “incredible story” labeling him a “Former Atheist”.

I mean the dude went from atheism to agnosticism, not a full on convert. I think it just highlights how thirsty the Christian apologetics culture is for atheist converts, especially given the broader trend in the west of most people deconverting from the major religions.

So I wanted to put some comments out there about this and make a few observations on both stories. I certainly don’t want to demean either person and I genuinely want them to express where they feel the evidence has taken them. Full disclosure, I’ve had a good amount of interaction with and respect for Emerson, but while I’ve not interacted with Matthew I have read and watched his stuff and he’s basically in the same category of Joe Schmid from Majesty of Reason where I sit and wonder how someone that young could be so smart on philosophy.

In fact I’d like to talk about where I completely agree with them, despite still strongly identifying as an atheist.

I’ll start with where both Emerson and Matthew have some things in common in their approach. Both guys are interested in arguments from consciousness, they are both impressed with arguments from psychophysical harmony and in a related sense they are also impressed with arguments about a value-selection hypothesis, which to me is like a kind of fine-tuning or design argument. If you don’t know what those arguments are, go check out their work on those topics, they explain it far better than I can. In short, the arguments lead to the conclusion that the fundamental nature of reality is mental, not physical.

Importantly, it’s not like we have an instance of “two smart dudes” who just so happen to think consciousness is plausibly fundamental. I appreciate Emerson in his video quoting atheist philosopher Paul Draper saying “it wouldn’t surprise me if fundamental reality is mind-involving”. In case you’re not familiar, Paul Draper could rightly be put up there as one of the “High Priests of Atheism” in terms of being one of the best defenders of atheism today.

Now personally, I’m far more of an agnostic as it relates to views on consciousness than anything else, though I do have disdain for dualism as far less plausible than say panpsychism or physical reductionism (including the kind of Type 1 Physicalism that both Emerson and Matthew outright reject). So I will join Paul Draper in that I won’t be surprised if it turned out that fundamental reality was “mind involving”. Well I would be surprised if the kind of tri-omni monotheism turned out to be true, but I’m really talking about the other views of mind-first reality. However I also don’t think we’d ever be able to really know if reality was mind-first or not. 

I also am not particularly impressed with arguments from psychophysical harmony or design arguments because it hinges far too much on the idea that “reality didn’t have to have these psychophysical laws” or that the laws of physics “could have been different” and then applying probabilities to that. Honestly I think employing the mitigated modal skepticism espoused by atheist philosopher of religion Filepe Leon is the right course of action when it comes to those kinds of modalities. It’s just so far removed from the experiences we use as a basis to say “this could have been different” that I don’t see any basis to engage in speculation about it, let alone assign probabilities. At least not until some theists come along and say that god can do anything logically possible, which is where I think theism obviously runs into problems.

That all said, I want to acknowledge that philosophy of mind is absolutely not my specialty and I’m pretty sure both Emerson and Matthew have read more on the topic than I have, which also dovetails nicely with one of their other common points: my epistemic peers, or even betters, have views so wildly in conflict with each other and my own that like them I am inclined to agnosticism when it comes to philosophy of mind even though I have preferences.

This raises an important question though, because if I accept that on views in philosophy of mind, why am I not an agnostic when it comes to views on whether or not god exists? After all, that is what they’re doing with the fact that so many of their epistemic peers disagree on theism.

Well this is where things get extremely interesting and we get into a little bit of semantics.

What do we mean by god? Or by agnostic and atheist for that matter?

Interestingly, both Emerson, Matthew, and myself are all atheists when it comes to the idea that there could be a tri-omni being of traditional monotheism who has created a hell that beings are sent to or allowed to exist in, where they will suffer Eternal Conscious Torture (ECT).  The three of us all agree that no such being exists and it is impossible for such a being to exist.

Yet lots of our epistemic peers and perhaps even our betters not only believe that it’s reasonable to believe in such a being and place, but also believe that both that kind of god and hell exist! As it turns out, the position of ambiguity on certain topics doesn’t apply universally.  This isn’t to say the principle is worthless, but the fact that it has limits is something both Matthew and Emerson discuss.

So at least some positions on certain philosophical topics are just so implausible to us that we have no problems moving past agnosticism and into taking a firm stance on those issues.  In fact if you watch the Capturing Christianity video that Matthew is in with philosopher Dustin Crummet, he brings up this exact point as it relates to Type 1 Physicalism in Philosophy of Mind.

It’s also interesting to point out, that Dustin Crummet is a Christian philosopher of religion who has played a large part in Matthew’s move towards agnosticism ALSO does not believe that the Christian god subjects people to eternal conscious torture, and is a universalist.

What makes this interesting is how apologists citing these moves on the atheist parts are typically channels who affirm that Christianity is true and that hell exists, yet the movement we see here is completely on the lines of universalist views of theism.

For Emerson’s part, he also expressly affirms that he is convinced that the Abrahamic god does not exist, and he speaks about other kinds of limited forms of theism, or other sorts of mind-first based views of philosophy (panpsychism, the value selection hypothesis, etc). If you’re wondering what those terms mean, I strongly encourage you to listen to Emerson’s podcasts/videos on those topics.

Here I think it’s worth exploring what one means by “god” because that topic gets particularly thorny in philosophy of religion and especially in Christian apologetics.

Remember that old “New Atheist” line about how there are over 3,000 deities out there and atheists just believe in one less god than the Christian/Muslim/Jew? There was no shortage of Christian apologetic responses to that particularly cute line by pointing out that “deities” like Odin, Thor, or Osiris are not really “gods” and that god is expressly defined as the tri-omni being of Abrahamic monotheism, and so those silly New Atheists have no idea what they’re talking about?

Well when we get into atheists moving towards agnosticism, but expressly rejecting the tri-omni being like Emerson does when he speaks about limited forms of theism like say the god of Mormonism or concepts like Open Theism that severely limit god’s supposed omniscience, many of these apologists will gladly call these folks agnostics rather than atheists who reject the tri-omni monotheistic god. Suddenly god can be a polysemous word!

Now to be fair it does seem as if Matthew’s openness towards theism is more along the traditional tri-omni monotheist side, though his articles and videos that I saw didn’t see him discuss the plethora of options that Emerson has explored. But there is still an incredibly large gulf between “theism” even in the tri-omni sense and belief in an incredibly specific religion like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. I’ve no idea of Matthew’s thoughts on the plausibility of things like the trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, but Emerson certainly rejects those things.  Suffice it to say that even if one was a theist, the arguments for believing specifically in Christianity face incredibly large hurdles, as I conveyed in my article/video Countering the Argument for the Resurrection.

Still, both Emerson and Matthew are merely agnostics, not theists and both of them give quite forceful presentations on the Problem of Evil as the main reason why they are not theists, which I broadly agree with. In fact Matthew thinks the problem of evil is such a strong argument it would eliminate theism as an option in philosophy if not for the strength of all the other arguments in favor of theism. My difference here is that I think those arguments are not particularly good, but Matthew’s counter will be that the atheist is forced to adopt all sorts of weird stances whereas theism has a simpler answer, except when it comes to evil.

There is one final topic both Emerson and Matthew embrace in their respective presentations that I want to address. Both of them reference how theism raises the possibility of an afterlife and existence in heaven, which makes sense given their universalist-only conceptions of theism that they find plausible. Matthew in particular has an exceptionally well written piece about hopeful theism and existence in universalist heaven with a reference to the movie Pan’s Labyrinth.  

It is here that I want to challenge both gentlemen with the problem of heaven. In particular, if it’s possible for a god to exist and create heaven, I don’t see a good answer as to why we are not directly in heaven from the get go, especially given the supposed power of god and ability to just make everything great by applying a little bit of that sweet sweet beatific vision to all created beings.

I think both Emerson and Matthew have a bit of tension between both of them pointing out the utter implausibility of theodicies presented to try and answer the problem of evil, yet they both think that an existence in heaven is something to hope for. For me, the existence of heaven is simply the other side of the coin as the problem of evil. If heaven is remotely possible, a world with no suffering or evil - then why aren’t we just there to start? All the theodicies effectively have to answer that question, and all three of us agree that those theodicies are quite plainly terrible.

I think this challenge is particularly acute to Emerson who rightly calls limited forms of theism more plausible than tri-omni theism: because if god is limited then the limited-theist has a much easier time explaining why there is evil in this world.

However the problem there is that if there is a limited god who can’t help but avoid creating a world with evil in it, how are we supposed to believe that said limited god can create an eternal heaven where there is no suffering and evil? If they can create that, then why should we exist here? Why not just move all of us over there the moment the limited god figured out how to create heaven? In fact to answer this one has to give a theodicy that I think in principle would apply to the tri-omni god, which is why I don’t particularly find the limited-theism answer very compelling if you also pair it with a heavenly afterlife, especially a universalist one!

I am ironically agnostic on the desirability of heaven, something I want to address in a future video about mortality in general, but I do want to reiterate one of Emerson’s points - if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. From where I stand, that’s kind of what heaven seems like to me given the world we live in, which is a big reason why I’m not a theist or optimistic about a heavenly afterlife.

Finally, I wanted to make one more point about the issues there are with a universalist theism. If that is indeed the only kind of theism on offer and we really do live in the kind of religiously ambiguous world where all kinds of theism, atheism, and agnosticism are rational views - I just find it hard to care very much about the topic.

To me it seems far more plausible to me that atheism is true for the tri-omni god, and I’m as agnostic as Matt and Emerson about limited kinds of gods, but even if I’m wrong - so what?
It’s not as if I’m justifying all sorts of behavior I think is immoral because I’m an atheist. I still try my best to do what I think is right, and religious ambiguity takes a lot of religion-specific supposed moral prohibitions off the table. So if I’m wrong I still end up going to universalist heaven anyway. The whole issue becomes kind of pointless, like an inverse version of the argument from meaning that apologists like to use.

In fact it gets even worse! Let's say I was a cartoonishly evil atheist who did engage in any kind of immoral act I think I can get away with, because there is no god who wants to punish me. They get to go to heaven too, and even for such people I wouldn’t say that any amount of torture is permissible, let alone eternal conscious torture. 

We do after all think it is incredibly immoral to torture people here in this life, in America we even have a constitutional right against being tortured. So I don’t think a universalist can appeal to a limited time trip in the fires of hell to scare obedience into people who want to do wrong.  Maybe a kind of finite non-tortuous purgatory aimed at rehabilitation before eternity in heaven? That seems plausibly fair, but then it doesn’t bother me much either.  If that’s the case then I’ll serve my time. I certainly don’t see how say “being a Chrsitian/Muslim/Jew/Hindu/etc” gets one out of purgatory in any kind of plausible way as it is.

In fact if we imagine such a scenario, what exactly is the reason to commit to any one of the very specific religions that bring far less plausible belief commitments than just the kind of universalist theism that my agnostic cohorts think is possible?

I think that’s the thing. What we see among theists, generally speaking, is that they don’t really care about mere theism, but about their specific religion. That’s what they defend, that’s what they cherish, that’s what they base their specific moralities on which they then want to enforce on society. Arguments for specific religions are far worse than the heavy philosophical arguments that my newly agnostic cohorts find plausible. I actually would love to see Matthew’s thoughts on that topic, Emerson has already eloquently laid out his own. 

So that’s about it. I still have great respect for both Emerson and Matthew, and I agree with both of them on a lot of their points. I just still call myself an atheist because when it comes to conversing with the vast majority of theists on the planet, which is to say Christians, Muslims, and Hindu’s, let alone theistic Bhuddists, or the Jews and Mormons, I still very much believe their god or gods do not exist. So to them I am an atheist no matter my agnosticism towards more general kinds of mind-first fundamental reality, deism, or other limited forms of theism.

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