A slow crawl toward ontological naturalism

I've often expressed in the past that my atheism is not a founding principle of a philosophy of ontological naturalism, but an outcome of epistemic naturalism: I am not asserting that God cannot or certainly does not exist – only that the absence of evidence for God's existence prevents me from reasonably affirming a such a belief.

But the more I've thought about this, the more I've found it to be not inaccurate, but inadequate.
In the words of anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained:
"The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes." [p. 31]
I'm not an atheist only because I don't think there is any compelling evidence that God exists; that's actually the smaller part of why I'm a non-believer. On the contrary, I'm an atheist primarily because I think there are lots of good reasons to believe that God does not exist. This is not solely limited to God; I possess a positive belief that supernatural things, in general, do not exist.

I'm sure any theist who has read this blog in the past is thinking, Aha! I knew it!, but they'd be sorely misguided to jump ahead of me before fully understanding my position – I still think that theists generally mischaracterize naturalistic beliefs. Before I explain my beliefs more in detail, I think I should give a quick refresher on Naturalism 101:

  • Ontological naturalism (a.k.a. metaphysical naturalism) is the belief that the natural world is all that exists. From Wikipedia:
    Metaphysical naturalism, or ontological naturalism, is a philosophical worldview and belief system that holds that there is nothing but natural things, forces, and causes of the kind studied by the natural sciences, i.e., those required to understand our physical environment and having mechanical properties amenable to mathematical modeling. Metaphysical naturalism holds that all concepts related to consciousness or to the mind refer to entities which are reducible to or supervene on natural things, forces and causes. More specifically, it rejects the objective existence of any supernatural thing, force or cause, such as occur in humanity’s various religions, as well as any form of teleology
  • Epistemic naturalism (a.k.a. scientific naturalism), by contrast, does not make an a priori assumption that supernatural things do or do not exist; rather, it is concerned with the nature of human knowledge. On a view of epistemic naturalism, supernatural things (like God) may exist, but – if they are beyond the purview of rational, scientific inquiry – they are essentially unknowable.

I think it's important to point out that I believe these two types of naturalism to be compatible, for reasons which I will elucidate shortly. I am not going to suggest that supernatural things – a blanket term for anything beyond the universe and hence beyond rational inquiry, including God – cannot possibly exist. Such a statement would be in clear violation of epistemic naturalism, as many things may exist which by their very nature are destined to elude feeble human understanding – what we might call our "epistemic horizon". I am not going to proclaim that I can disprove things that are by definition impossible to disprove.

Yet, the description of ontological naturalism above is an outlook that I think nearly all non-believers would agree upon. We would, in a spirit of intellectual honesty, concur that we may not be able to disprove the existence of supernatural things – but we would also dismiss such ideas as fundamentally useless, empty, and irrelevant. We would assert that while we believe ontological naturalism to be true, this is not quite the same thing as a positive assertion that we can conclusively dismiss as impossible any and all supernatural things. Ontological naturalism is not a claim to absolute or transcendent knowledge, but – as I intend to argue – a logical outcome of our epistemology.

A God who might as well not exist

I've often said that the only thing worse for theism than a God who probably doesn't exist is a God whose existence doesn't matter anyway, and I think most believers understand this. Most generally rational individuals intuitively recognize that any belief held in lieu of objective reason is essentially worthless. If God – or anything supernatural, for that matter – exists in a capacity that is relevant to our existence, there must be evidence that this is the case.

My contention is that theists not derive their beliefs from evidence, but that they erroneously interpret certain objective facts and experiences as congruent with a priori assumptions, thus fabricating a sort of post hoc rationalization of their conclusions. No believers truly operates by faith alone. Aside from bored philosophers, few of us are interested in a God whose existence is utterly unknowable and hence meaningless to us. This brings me to one of my favorite quotes, from PZ Myers:
"If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along."
But of course, believers do not resort to such nonsense until cornered in a philosophical argument. Day by day, they will make highly specific claims about our epistemic understanding of God – that God's presence is felt in one's heart, observed in the marvelous structure of the universe, realized in our moral values, heard in answered prayers, or wrought upon us in natural disasters. The philosophically inclined will make even bolder proclamations about the ontological nature of God – that he is eternal, unchanging, omniscient, loving, etc.

It is precisely this need for clarity and specificity that is the undoing of supernatural belief. Before we can even consider how we might understand anything about God (including his existence), it must first be demonstrated why such a being is necessary in the first place. Believers often claim, for example, that the universe requires an explanation for its apparent "design" that can only be filled by God. But this bald assertion conflates order with design, and simply begs the question of why we ought to assume that the mere existence and fundamental ontological properties of the universe need an explanation at all. After all, any designer must, by definition, also possess ordered properties – thus implying that the designer, too, requires a designer. The believer's only recourse is to speculate that God operates by a different set of metaphysics, a shallow ruse which not only fails to answer the original question begged, but places God beyond our epistemic horizon, rendering his existence irrelevant. This brings me to a vital point: if God operates by a different set of metaphysics, then nothing about him – including his mere existence – can be inferred from our own material metaphysics.

Possible, or plausible?

It is possible, from an ontological standpoint, that all reality is an illusion – that, like in the movie, we're all plugged into the Matrix. It's possible that our decisions are being manipulated by superintelligent aliens from another dimension, or that all life was created just seconds ago – with false memories intact – by a seven-footed magical bunny. In other words, virtually anything we can dream up is ontologically possible. But the gulf between possible and plausible is vast, and it's precisely the reason why most of us don't concern ourselves with the Matrix or superintelligent aliens. We can clearly see that in order for us to postulate supernatural realities, we necessarily conceptualize them in a framework of our own metaphysics. But because our understanding of ontology is derived from a material framework – that is, the physical universe itself – it's nonsensical to talk of things beyond the physical universe as though they were bound to the same framework. Supernatural concepts are thus fundamentally incoherent. This is the basis for a branch of philosophy called ignosticism.

Due to the intrinsic incoherency of supernatural concepts, we can justifiably acknowledge our epistemic horizon while affirming a provisional assumption that the natural world is all that exists. It should be clear, then, that I do not subscribe to the kind of ontological naturalism that theists generally accuse atheists of subscribing to – a belief that supernatural things cannot exist. But to the extent that our epistemology is grounded in the ontological framework of the physical universe, talk of supernatural things is, at best, speculative and meaningless. That is why I believe, positively, that the natural world is all that exists.

"The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be." - Carl Sagan


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