pink clouds spread across a pastel sky, smoke rising below from masaya volcano, lit from the last sunlight of the day

Three thoughts for today.


"The Rationalist Press Association, in its Prospectus, defines Rationalism 'as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority.'"

--- Charles Watts, essay "The Meaning of Rationalism", 1905, (in An Anthology of Atheism & Rationalism, Gordon Stein, pg 22)


"We have outgrown the old mode of propaganda, and we recognize more than ever the influences of our environment. We are, in this particular, like trees: we expand and grow from within, but often the iron band of circumstances that surrounds us prevents our free growth and expansion. We, therefore, adopt the rational plan of imparting a knowledge of the facts of existence as revealed by science and philosophy, believing that, in proportion as truth is recognised and accepted, error will disappear. Rationalism is bound by no ancient creeds, hampered by no alleged sacred books, nor marred by dread of punishment in some other world for entertaining unpopular opinions in this. Our desire, as Rationalists, is to urge a sound motive for conduct, which is that "the welfare of the people is the supreme law," to obtain freedom for all in matters of opinion, to promote ethical culture irrespective of theological teachings, and to foster friendly co-operation in spite of divergency of thought."

--- Charles Watts, essay "The Meaning of Rationalism", 1905, (in An Anthology of Atheism & Rationalism, Gordon Stein, pg 25)


"...Truth, is a thing to be shouted from the housetops, not to be whispered over the walnuts and wine after the ladies have left; for only by plain and honest speech on this matter can liberty of thought be won. Each who speaks out makes easier speech for others, and none, however insignificant, has right of silence here. Nor is it unfair, I think that a minority should be challenged on its dissidency, and should be expected to state clearly and definitely the grounds of its disagreement with the majority."

--- Annie Besant, essay "Why I Do Not Believe In God" , 1887 (in An Anthology of Atheism & Rationalism, Gordon Stein, pg 30)


human male asleep in a chair, in the sunshine

Are we out of context?

In the book Evolutionary Medicine and Health: New Perspectives (2008), edited by Wenda Trevathan, E.O. Smith, and James KcKenna, there's a chapter by Carol Worthman titled After Dark: The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Sleep.

Worthman takes a look at how well people's current sleep patterns match up with our ecological and evolutionary history -- the context in which human sleep evolved. Any species with a long history is affected by the long-term development of the species over time in particular environments. When the environment changes dramatically in a relatively short period of time, there's a lag as the species' development catches up, so to speak, adapting to the change in environment. For a while, there's a mismatch between the species' current state and its current context.

The motivating question of Worthman's chapter is are we out of context?

Human sleep

No one actually knows exactly why organisms sleep. Researchers have shown it's essential; they've determined that sleep disruption and deprivation often has negative effects; they've mapped out stages of sleep as characterized by patterns of physiological, behavioral, and cognitive activities. Sleep habits are fairly plastic. We have the capacity to have "sleep debts" and make that up later -- but if sleep is so important, asks Worthman, why is that possible? What kinds of situations provoke sleep restriction? What roles do stress and stress physiology play in disrupted sleep? And, most importantly, how have our sleep habits and the conditions under which we sleep changed in modern times from the context in which we evolved?

Factors that Worthman addresses include:

  • housing, beds, climate control
  • co-sleeping practices
  • material, social, and psychological contexts
  • macrosocial factors such as technology, labor, social structure

How and when a person sleeps is regulated by demands for wakefulness from the circadian system, and demands for rest and slumber. Worthman talks about the evolutionary roots and elements of human sleep ecology. She discusses how sleep settings have tended to be social across societies, even before longhouses and one-room log cabins. We didn't evolve in an environment where we put oursleves in a room to "lie down and die" for the night. Rather, humans tended to live in groups and sleep in groups, with all manner of activity occurring throughout the night -- were fires, noise, other people, conversations, nighttime pests, and more. These were, ecologically speaking, signs of safety and security -- signs that it was okay to sleep and let our own vigilance mechanisms relax.

black cat curled up in a ball, asleep, on top of a patchwork quilt

Now think about insomnia for a moment. In some instances, difficulties getting sleep in our current society may be related to how and where we now sleep. If we close ourselves off from noise, fire, other people (essentially, take ourselves out of an environment in which some of the vigilance is taken care of for us), our vigilance mechanisms go off, so to speak, and attention is focused on the kinds of things about which we should be vigilant.

In these kinds of group settings and active-nightlife contexts, was sleep interrupted? Sure. But rather than just losing sleep, people stayed awake for good reasons -- useful activities, time and energy demands, threats to physical survival, and social challenges. People have adapted to defer sleep to these kinds of activities. An interesting point -- one can recover from lost sleep in far less time than the original deficit. An example Worthman gives is that ten days sleep deprivation can be recovered in one or three eight-hour nights.

A question Worthman asks is just how atypical our sleep patterns are, and whether these patterns are giving us problems we wouldn't otherwise have.

How much do you sleep?

The biggest thing I got out of her article was this: Bedtimes are fluid. In the US, we seem to have the idea that to sleep properly, we have to be dead to the world for a solid chuck of eight hours. But sleep's more fluid than that, and sleep isn't just the time during which you're dead to the world. We probably underestimate the time that we actually spend sleeping, and we probably make a bigger deal than is actually necessary about getting the recommended eight hours.

Take a look at other cultures -- in some, people sleep for five or six hours and night, and maybe have a two-hour nap in the afternoon. Sleep doesn't have to just be in one chunk. Punctuated sleep is fine. Napping is fine. Some college students seem to have figured this one out already.

Essentially, Worthman argues, we should worry about our sleep a little bit less.

Interested in more of the details?

Worthman's chapter is definitely worth a read. Pun intended.


flat, wide creek water leading to a cliff edge; framed by tall trees; puffy bright sky

Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the fifth and final post in the series. I encourage you to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV if you haven't yet.

Loose ends

The remaining chapters of Nielsen's book take a broad look at some of the common concerns and objections people have to atheism, including religious ethics versus humanistic ethics, and religion and rationality.

I'm not going to summarize these chapters in depth. Nielsen (and others) have written entire -- and more recent -- books on these topics, which at some point perhaps you'll see me read and discuss here.

Instead, I've collected up miscellaneous notes on some of Nielsen's smaller but still interesting points -- his thoughts on agnosticism, discussions of science and religion, anthropomorphic deities. Let's start with...

Against agnosticism

Nielsen spends one chapter discussing whether agnosticism is a reasonable alternative to either theism or atheism. He proposes, paraphrasing T. H. Huxley, that "we ought never to assert that we know a proposition to be true or indeed even to assent to that proposition unless we have adequate evidence to support it" (p. 56). Are we justified in asserting the truth of propositions about God's existence or non-existence? He argues that we are, and that to take an agnostic stance is to accept the possibility that 'God' has a coherently specifiable referent -- which he argues is not the case.

Science and religion

Also in the chapter on agnosticism is a discussion of how, even with a sophisticated analysis of religion and the assumption that religions are making truth-claims about the state of things, there exist numerous conflicts between science and religion. E.g., many Christians take "as central to their religion that Christ rose from the dead and that there is a life after the death of our earthly bodies" (p.64); these claims don't generally line up with our scientific understanding of the world.

Widely accepted now is the view of the Bible and Bible stories as mythical and poetical; the stories, such as those about demons and Jonah in the whale's belly, should not all be taken literally. But how far, asks Nielsen, should we extend this?

"Are we to extend it to such central Christian claims as 'Christ rose from the Dead,' 'Man shall survive the death of his earthly body,' 'God is in Christ'? If we do, it becomes completely unclear as to what it could mean to speak of either the truth or falsity of the Christian religion. If we do not, then it would see that some central Christian truth-claims do clash with scientific claims" (pp. 64-65).

Nielsen suggests that atheists and agnosticists generally answer this by saying either (a) these religious utterances do not function as truth-claims at all, or (b) science and religion clash. In the case of (b), scientific knowledge is to be preferred as a method of fixing belief because it is more reliable. If there is good scientific reason to suggest that people cannot be resurrected when they die, then we have a strong reason to reject the Christian claim that "Christ rose from the Dead." We could, alternatively, reject the scientific beliefs in favor of the religious ones, but more often is it the case, suggests Nielsen, that scientific understanding drives people toward atheism or agnosticism.

Nielsen discusses several counters to this argument, such as beliefs in miracles, which he defines as events of divine significance that are exceptions to at least one law of nature, noting that scientific laws are falsified only by classes of experimentally repeatable events.

The cool thing about anthropomorphic deities

Nielsen notes that the "anthropomorphic deities of the various cultures are tailor-made projectively to meet the anxieties and emotional needs of their members" (p. 116) Two of his examples: Eskimos see Sedena, a female god who lives in the sea and controls storms, weather, and sea mammals. Israelites see Yahweh, a ferocious male god of the desert who protects the Israelites from alien peoples. Cultural preoccupations are projected onto the universe, and stories are created about the deifications.

He spent a while early on dicussing why one ought not believe in anthropomorphic deities.

Philosophy's role in theology

Nielsen takes some time to question whether or not philosophy has any business at all criticizing, refuting, constructing, or justifying theological systems. The claim is that philosophy is a conceptual inquiry and can evaluate the logic of theological arguments but not their truth.

You're not going to be surprised at what Nielsen argues -- after all, he's a philosopher who has just written an entire philosophy book about theology. Philosophy does have a role to play, he says, and that role is not as a neutral bystander. Rather, philosophy is at the heart of theology. It is the basis on which fundamental religious concepts, claims, revelations, and so on are developed; philosophical criteria such as validity, intelligibility, and truth must be referenced in determining what portions of theology are genuine.

I agree with Nielsen here.

So my question for you is this: Which arguments and philosophies should I read next?


sun beams through an array of puffy clouds over a grey-blue ocean

Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the fourth post in the series. I encourage you to read Part I, Part II, and Part III if you haven't yet.

The presumption of atheism

One question Nielsen takes care to address is With whom does the burden of proof lie?

That is, must the theist propose and defend the concept of God, providing sufficient reason for belief? Or must the atheist provide proof for disbelief?

Nielsen introduces a collection of essays by Anthony Flew called The Presumption of Atheism, in which Flew argues that it is on theists to produce evidence in support of their beliefs. Like in law, wherein a party to a trial is assumed innocent until proven guilty, Flew argues that one should presume that belief in God is unreasoanble until proven otherwise. This doesn't preclude believers from having deeply held convictions about God's existence or the nature of God (in the same way some people may be convinced of a party's guilt, despite a lack of evidence).

Nielsen doesn't think this is the way to approach the question. Instead, he points out that

"In speaking of God, we are speaking of what the believer takes to be an ultimate mystery. A reflective believer, if he is philosophically literate, knows very well the concept of God--the concept of such a mysterious reality--is only partially intelligible to him and is likely to be through and through unintelligible to the skeptic. Given this state of affairs, it is very unlikely that it will be the case that the believer can produce good enough reasons to convince the skeptic that this procedural presumption of atheism has been defeated and that it is not unreasonable to believe in God." (p. 132)

And similarly, it seems just as unlikely that the atheist will ever be able to produce sufficient proof against God's existence for the theist to accept it.

Flew assumes that reasonable people will proportion their belief to the evidence and will not take belief in God to be justified until evidence that could convince other informed, impartial, reasonable people can be produced. But this would trap the believer and throw the debate in favor of the skeptic. As Nielsen points out, even if it is rational to seek evidence to ground one's beliefs, isn't it also rational to have adequate grounds for disbelief?

According to Nielsen, Flew also assumes that:

"Beliefs must be shown to have grounds to be reasonably believed. So it is perfectly in order and nonprejudicial to demand that of the believer, particularly when the belieg is that this exhibiting of grounds is just what cannot be done for certain fundamental religious beliefs. So, Flew reasons, given that reasonable demand for grounds, the presumption of atheist is justified." (p. 137)

The main problem with this is that "[t]here are many things we reasonably believe which we do not believe for a reason" (p. 139). Not all the beliefs of the theist or of the atheist are intimately grounded in conscious reasoning and evidence. In fact, Nielsen argues that it is "wildly unrealistic and indeed actually an unreasonable demand" (p. 139) to requires that all beliefs must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and that all beliefs should be proportional to those reasons and evidence. I would have liked Nielsen to expand on a few examples of such reasonable beliefs here, but he points us instead to Wittgenstein's On Certainty to find further arguments on the matter.

Nielsen covers a few more of Flew's assumptions and how we ought not accept those assumptions as truth. Without reading Flew's essays myself it's hard to evaluate how justifed Nielsen is making these arguments, so perhaps I'll add them to my reading list.

Where next...

There are still a few chapters left in Nielsen's book, covering religion and ethics, religion and rationality, and whether philosophy has any business criticizing or justifying theological systems. Given how large each of these topics is, and given that Nielsen has written entire books on these subjects since the writing of this one, I may gloss over them and end with a final post tying up loose ends with miscellaneous notes and thoughts. Stay tuned.


pastel beach and ocean with the glowing morning sun

Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the third post in the series -- I encourage you to read Part I and Part II if you haven't yet.

Religion and commitment

Nielsen claims that belief in God is no more necessary than beliefs in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

"We do not need such beliefs to give our lives meaning or to undergird the moral life, and such beliefs are not essential for an understanding of the nature and destiny of man. The great religions do indeed contain bits which can serve as aspirational ideals, but in this respect there is nothing there that is not perfectly available to the atheist" (p. 109)

The discussion that follows this claim splits into three threads:

  1. Morality cannot be grounded in belief in God because it is only by already having some understanding of what is good and what is not that we can ever come to believe there is a God.
  2. Statements about God are false, very probably false, or unintelligible. This is similar to the same claim he discussed at length earlier.
  3. Atheists are not "believers in disguise" nor is atheism itself a religion.

Let's look at these in turn.

A brief look at morality

For many people, morality is first introduced in the context of religion. But where one is introduced to what moral behavior is is independent of how one can justify moral beliefs or knowledge of good and evil. The basis of moral beliefs cannot be in a superior entity who is infinitely perfect and good. Even if one accepts that God exists, even if one claims to be aware of the reality of an entity called "God," one must choose to believe that God is infinitely perfect and good. As Nielsen asks, "[h]ow can we know or have reason to believe, except by making up our own minds that he or it is perfect and good?" (p. 114)

To make such a judgment, we must first have some idea of what it is to be perfect and good. Our concept of good must come before our concept of God. Nielsen notes that sure, God could tell us that He is perfect and good, and then we would know that being perfect and good is being like God is, but should one necessarily take such a being on his or its word? Simply saying that something is true does not prove it true. We cannot know except through our own experiences and our own insight (limited, finite, fallible as these are) what any being or entity is. We cannot know any X is infinitely perfect or good, except by making up our minds and relying on our own insight.

But what if one claims that the statement "God is not infinitely perfect" is a contradiction? God must be perfect; this requirement is built into the very logic of God-talk. Nielsen argues as follows: "God" is a referent. "God" stands for something that at least conceivably must exist.

"Now when we say something is good or bad, perfect or imperfect, we are not simply applying a certain descriptive redicate to it. We are not just characterizing it as having a certain property that could, directly or indirectly, be discovered by observation. What we are doing when we ascribe value to something is very difficult to say; sometimes we are expressing our approval of it, taking some interest in it, commending it and the like, but one thing is clear: 'Good' or 'perfect' are not peroperty words like 'red' or hard.' We could not discover some action or person to be good by simply observing it quite independently of any attitudes we might take toward it" (p. 113)

In considering the referent of "God", we must necessarily ground our concept of God is what we have experienced -- which, as noted above, is limited, finite, and fallible. If we observe our own finitude and dependency and conceive of a non-dependent, infinite being, how could we know, simply from being aware of the reality of this being, what its qualities are?

"When we decide to use the label 'God' for this alleged Power or, if you will, this ground of being, we imply that this reality is infinitely perfect, but we are able to do this only because we have a prior and logically independent moral understanding that could not have been derived simply from discovering that there is a reality transcendent to the world, a reality that created man and sustains him, or from discovering that there is some being as such, some ground of being, that is the dimension of depth in the natural. In this crucial way morality, even Christian morality, must be independent of religion" (p. 114)

Nielsen points out that sure, religion may seem to be necessary to some people for psychological stability, moral behavior, and finding significance in their lives. However, this is not true of all people. It merely shows that "some men with an understanding of good and evil need a prod and crutch to continue to act as moral agents" (p. 115).

Although Nielsen doesn't spend any time here talking about where one does get moral beliefs, he has written several more recent books on the subject.

Talking about God: Factual claims

The question of what statements about God actually refer to is one of Nielsen's primary themes. Religions make purportedly factual claims. Factual claims must have a certain logical character, and he argues that religious claims do not follow this logic.

"For any statement p to be a bona fide factual statement the assertion and denial of p must note be equally compatible with any conceivable observation that might be made. If p and not-p have exactly the same empirical consequences, if everything that is logically possible for us to experience is equally compatible with the truth and the falsity ... of p and not-p, then p and not-p are not factual statements" (p. 116).

The statements p and not-p may still have meaning and may still be intelligible. But they are devoid of factual significance.

Nielsen argues that if one talks about a non-anthropomorphic God -- i.e., a God is transcendent, non-spatio-temporal, an infinite individual, but not a reality that can be apprehended -- then statements such as "There is a God" and "God created the world" are not false, but entirely unfalsifiable. We cannot confirm or disconfirm them.

If one believes in, doubts, or denies this non-anthropomorphic God, then one cannot think of any conceivable turn of observable events that will change one's opinion of that God's reality or non-reality. (I invite you to try: What evidence would you need to say you are mistaken, whatever your current beliefs are? Do share in the comments.)

If there are no observable events that will change one's opinion of God, then statements like "There is a God" and "God created the world" have no factual significance.

"They are then equally compatible with anything and everything that the believer and non-believe alike can conceive as being experiential. This being the case, they are no more saying anything that is in reality incompatible, than the American is asserting anything that the Englishman is not when the American calls all those things and only those things elevators that an Englishman calls lifts. The man, in such a circumstance, who says "There is a God" is not asserting anything incompatible with or even different from the statement of a man who says "There is no God." But this show that neither statement has factual content; neither succeeds in asserting or denying the existence of the peculiar reality that they were meant to assert or deny. Belief, paradoxically enough, becomes indistinguishable from atheism. But this, in effect, shows that such a believer has not succeeded in showing how he can make a claim to reveal a reality or reveal some level of reality that the nonbeliever does not grasp. The realm of the supernatural remains unrecognizable" (pp. 117-118).

Nielsen recognizes an important objection to his arguments: What if one takes the proposition "There is a God" to be logically or necessarily true? I.e., what if "There is a God" is not taken to be a contingent fact, as is the case in most religious contexts? Then it makes no sense to ask for a contingent, empirical state of affairs to verify the statement's truth. It is true a priori.

The questions become why is God's existence necessary? and why must "There is a God" be necessarily true?

When one says "There is a God," what is commonly being asserted is that there is a being worthy of worship "whose nonexistence is wholly unthinkable in any circumstance" and "[t]here must be no conceivable alternative to such a reality"(p. 119). Nielsen describes a common argument for this position:

  1. God is that reality on which all other things depend for their existence.
  2. Take X to be God.
  3. Y is a conceivable state of affairs incompatible with the existence of X.
  4. Then Y would not depend on X.
  5. Then X by definition cannot be God.

Nielsen notes that there are many objections that can be made to this argument, but limits himself to one: In asserting that there is a being we can call "God" and that this being's existence is necessary and its nonexistence is wholly unthinkable, it is not the case that "necessary" must mean "logically necessary." Even if a being was appropriately designated "God" by the above argument, it does not follow that "There is a God" is logical truth and that "There is no God" is a contradiction. Nielsen mentions the following two cases:

We conceive of God as an eternal being -- i.e., God couldn't just happen to exist or come to exist or cease to exist. However, stating that "God is eternal" does not prove that this is so. It's a proposition of the form "If God exists, God is eternal." If we know that "God is eternal" is true, we know nothing about the truth or falsity of "God exists."

We define "God" such that all other beings are completely dependent on God. But the statements "'There is no completely independent being upon whom all things depend' or 'There is a reality whose existence is necessary for all other being' can be significantly denied" (p. 120).

Certainly, it may seem to believers that God's nonexistence is wholly unthinkable in any circumstance, but that doesn't make it self-contradictory to deny God's existence:

"[Believers] can be taken to be asserting that the presence of God is so evident to them that, given their conception of Him as an eternal being, they could not, as a matter of psychological fact, in any way find it thinkable that God should not exist. God's actuality is so vividly present to believers that they could no more, except in a purely logical sense, come to doubt for one moment the reality of God than I could doubt that the earth has existed for many years and that I have been on or near to the surface of that earth during my life. I recognize that I can significantly deny these propositions ... [but] I am quite certain of them, and I find it unthinkable that they might be false" (pp. 120-121)"

If key theological statements are not factual claims, then one ought to reject beliefs based on these statements as irrational and unnecessary.

Atheism != another religion

Nielsen's final thread addresses the claims of Kierdegaard, Tillich, and others that atheism is impossible, incoherent, and a contradiction.

He points out that there are two kinds of atheism. First, there are atheists who claim the statement "There is a God" is false. But if as argued above "There is a God" is factually meaningless, it is equally irrational to believe either that "There is a God" is true or false. So he turns to the second brand of atheism: atheists who reject belief in God, regardless, because one thinks that "There is a God" is either absurdly false, or devoid of factual content, unintelligible, and unworthy of belief.

It's not enough to show that religion is often intellectually absurd. Nielsen realizes this. Religion is not just intellectual content -- it's a whole way of life. If one wants to remove belief in God and the religious practices stemming from this belief from the realm of rational acts, one must provide an alternative. One must work to "transform society so that men will no longer need to turn to religious forms to give inspiration to their lives" (p. 123).

Philosophers who Nielsen names as champions of this view include Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, David Strauss, and Freud. He says we can turn to them -- among others -- in our arguments that need no theistic belief to justify our moral convictions or to give significance to our lives. We can and must, he believes, "show that there are other ways of life, other ways of thinking and acting, that are more desirable, more admirable, more worthy of allegiance than our religious ways of life" (p. 124).

In conclusion: People have some knowledge of what's good and what's evil independent of a transcendent reality. Some people have figured out how to give meaning to their lives independent of theism. To believe that this is so, to hope that it could be so for others, and to work to bring about the social and psychological conditions necessary for it to be so is not to deify man or to turn atheism into its own sort of religion. It's just to live.

Nielsen's final point in this section: Atheism is a way of life.