Atheism, religion, and the pitfalls of reasoning from first principles

Blunt force reasoning from first principles may work for the narrow question of gods’ (non)existence but the truly difficult questions require deeper engagement with atheistic, humanist and secularist philosophy.

I could construct a perfectly logical, entirely theoretical argument that building more roads would help reduce traffic, or that a minimum wage decreases demand for labour. This argument from first principles could seem entirely sensible but would be empirically indefensible.

I’ve been thinking about the pitfalls of such reasoning from first principles, and why atheists, among others in the AHS+ community, may be particularly vulnerable to them. It is possible, sitting in a room by yourself, with no other people, to figure out the ‘God Question’. Every formal argument for the existence of gods (i.e., for theism), is based on logical fallacies, and every informal argument on well understood cognitive problems we all have.

As empirical evidence has nothing to say, because gods do not actually exist in the real world, the brute force rationalism of a first principles approach is a good fit for the narrow question of gods’ existence. We may even be underestimating the impact that the so called ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century has had, in making any sort of positive arguments for theism completely intellectually untenable.

However, many of the problems with the modern atheist movement have come where this sort of blunt first principles approach has been applied to wider questions of religion and society.

To answer questions like “what the relationship between religion and society should be” or “how do I live a good life without religion”, we need to draw on the deep wells of atheistic, humanist and secularist thought which go back centuries, if not millennia, and adjust our beliefs in the light of empirical evidence. And that includes empathy and other tools dismissed by many of the “facts don’t care about your feelings” first principles crowd.

I speak from a position of privilege here, having not suffered childhood indoctrination and having faced relatively few social consequences for my atheism. Many are not so fortunate, but for those who are, this narrow ‘God Question’ is not that difficult. Yet solving it can give some atheists an inflated sense of their own intellects. After all this is supposedly one of the Great Questions, and I am smart enough to figure it out on my own, using just the power of my reason.

From this, some atheists begin to believe that they are free from any logical fallacies or human cognitive errors. Like certain sceptics who have seen through the claims of pseudoscience, they may begin to think they can come afresh to any issue and apply their reason without bias.

Theism is irrational and almost certainly false. But you cannot generalise from this that religion or any other complex belief system which may seem irrational, can be entirely dismissed. None of the problems with religion are based in any sort of simplistic sense on the logical fallacies of theism. Refuting the teleological argument, does not address the complex causes of religious opposition to science. I don’t believe any form of religiously motivated bigotry or discrimination has been affected in any meaningful way by the flaws in the ontological argument.

This sort of blunt force, first principle obsession with logical fallacies has also been applied to social issues, where it simply isn’t relevant. Deep and complex political disagreements are disagreements about our perception of facts and even more so how we weigh certain values with respect to those facts.

One of the best arguments for the utility of first principle reasoning is the John Rawls thought experiment of the ‘veil of ignorance’ which temporarily removes our knowledge of our position in society, so we can reason without that bias. The veil is not intended to remove our knowledge of society, or human emotions.

Many people forget this part, or only remember the first part of the thought experiment, going behind the veil. The second part, the process of reflective equilibrium, where we are supposed to switch back and forth between this ‘original position’ and the real world so we can adjust our theories, is equally important.

So none of this is to say that there aren’t times when pointing out that the emperor has no clothes can’t cut through to the heart of the matter. But often when we try to reason from first principles, or kid ourselves that we can, we ignore the potentially flawed presumptions that we include.

Perhaps I’m less a fan of this first principles approach, because I’m more concerned with the episcopate than epistemology. I’m more concerned with the moral than the intellectual failings of religion. In fact, to the extent that I’m passionate at all about those intellectual failings, it is largely because of the impact on the moral failings of religion.

My atheism may be based on rationality, but that is only a foundation. Far more is needed to build a personally fulfilling and socially just humanism and secularism.

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