Ok. The title is misleading, but I thought it was funny. And it’s not ‘completely’ false. I’m not going to ‘completely’ refute it, but I am going to pick holes in it.
‘How to completely refute atheism‘, if you don’t know, is a video made by Apologia Studios, in which Jeff Durbin tells us how to completely refute atheism. Except he doesn’t. He offers arguments which are demonstrably flawed.
- Fake agnosticism
To begin with, I snipped a bit where Durbin blatantly straw-mans agnosticism:
According to Durbin, “agnosticism … says that we can’t know, ultimately, anything propositionally”. His analysis is that the word is made up of the prefix ‘a’, which he says means “negation”, and the word ‘gnosis’, which he says means “knowledge”. He says that the word ‘agnosticism’ means that “We are without knowledge; knowledge cannot be gained or had; we cannot know.” On Durbin’s view, the agnostic says “We can’t know anything”, to which he replies “Do you know that?” He thinks that this shows that agnosticism is self-refuting.
Durbin doesn’t state any arguments formally, but we can see the general outline very easily. The inconsistency he is pointing out is that if the agnostic says “I know that I don’t know anything”, then this entails a contradiction. He knows nothing; but by knowing that, he does know something. So he knows both nothing and something.
2. Pyrrhonian scepticism
Almost nobody holds that “we cannot know anything”. It is difficult not to think that Durbin was just making agnosticism look worse than it actually is, to make the job of refuting it easier. If he did, then he would clearly be advancing a straw man against agnosticism. And his description of agnosticism obviously unfairly saddles it with the universal rejection of all knowledge. We will come back to this in a moment, but before we do, I want to look at a position which really is the target of Durbin’s attack. Because, even if it is a straw-man, and it doesn’t really address agnosticism, we can still ask how effectively he argues against this straw-man. I argue that it isn’t really a problem even for the straw-man.
There is a position in philosophy which is quite close to the position that Durbin is actually attacking, involving the denial of all knowledge. And that is Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Pyrrho (c. 300BC) is reported to have said:
“…that things are equally indifferent and unstable and indeterminate; for this reason, neither our perceptions nor our beliefs tell the truth or lie. For this reason, then, we should not trust them, but should be without opinions and without inclinations and without wavering, saying about each single thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not” (Aristocles, quoted from the Stanford article)
It is not a stretch to say that Pyrrho’s position is that ‘we cannot know anything’. If so, then Pyrrhonian Scepticism is the position that Durbin’s argument was attacking. His idea is that this sort of extreme scepticism refutes itself. And this line of attack certainly has some appeal to it. We derived a contradiction from the assertion that ‘I know that I know nothing’. So imagine that I were to go around saying ‘My view is that Pyrrhonian Scepticism scepticism is true’. This would make me vulnerable to Durbin’s line of attack, as he could ask me whether I know that Pyrrhonian scepticism is true. If I said that I did know it was true, then I would be contradicting the main claim of Pyrrhonian scepticism; but if I said that I didn’t know it, then I would be tacitly conceding that it might not be true after all.
It’s not clear that even this extreme position is vulnerable to Durbin’s attack though. I could say that when I affirm Pyrrhonian scepticism, I am not making a knowledge claim at all; the content of the claim that Pyrrhonian Scepticism is true could plausibly be taken to be: ‘I believe that Pyrrhonian scepticism is true’. If so, I would be saying that ‘I believe that (I can’t know anything)’. If Durbin asked his gotcha question, ‘But do you know that?’, I could reply ‘No, I do not’, quite without self-contradiction. If Durbin asked ‘But do you believe that?’, I could reply ‘Yes, I do’, also quite without contradiction. So a Pyrrhonian sceptic can construe the statement of their own doctrine as merely a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim, and thus avoid Durbin’s accusation of self contradiction.
However, even if we forget this nuance, and insist that anyone who claims to be a Pyrrhonian sceptic is making a knowledge claim, we still have not refuted Pyrrhonian scepticism with this argument. The most we would have demonstrated is an inconsistency between the sceptic’s behaviour and the content of Pyrrhonian scepticism. It doesn’t prove that Pyrrhonian scepticism is wrong; it just shows that the person making the claim isn’t acting like a good Pyrrhonian sceptic. A good Pyrrhonian sceptic should not make knowledge claims. But criticising a claim on the grounds that the person making the claim’s actions are inconsistent with it, is to commit the tu quoque fallacy. So, even if we pretend that Durbin had caught us doing something which was inconsistent with Pyrrhonian Scepticism (like making a knowledge claim), and if he implied that this showed that Pyrrhonian Scepticism was false, then he would have committed the tu quoque fallacy.
But, even if we overlook this informal fallacy, Durbin is still in trouble. Even if Durbin had completely scored his point, and established that it is not possible to say anything as a Pyrrhonian sceptic without immediately contradicting yourself, this still leaves an escape route; you can be a Pyrrhonian sceptic and not make any claims at all. In fact, this response is the one advocated by followers of Pyrrho. When confronted with an argument, the best you can do is wag your finger at it, like Cratylus. If you don’t say anything at all, you cannot contradict yourself!
Presumably, this position would be open to ridicule by Durbin. Being able to avoid the problem only by retreating to complete silence would seem like a capitulation rather than a victory. Despite initial appearances though, this response might actually be thought to have something going for it. The view recommends a sort of spiritual, monk-like silence, which Pyrrhonians thought could be a pathway to enlightenment and happiness:
“…the result for those who are so disposed [to Pyrrhonian scepticism] will be first speechlessness, but then freedom from worry; and Aenesidemus says pleasure.” (ibid.)
Indeed, even if this supposed benefit were not there, a theory is not deemed false merely because it has been arrived at by retreat. Even if the silent Pyrrhonian monk only took his vow of silence reluctantly and after he conceded in a debate that there was no other way to be consistent with Pyrrhonian scepticism, this doesn’t make Pyrrhonian scepticism false. It could still be true for all that. Therefore, even here, when we have been as generous to Durbin as we possibly could, we have not found a refutation of Pyrrhonian scepticism.
So perhaps Durbin has a point against the Pyrrhonian sceptic who goes around making explicit knowledge claims, which is that he is not a ‘good’ Pyrrhonian sceptic. But Durbin does not have a point against one who makes more nuanced belief claims, and certainly not against one who remains in a peaceful silence. So, the argument only even slightly works if you straw-man it so that the opponent has to be an inconsistent Pyrrhonian sceptic (one that makes explicit knowledge claims).
Durbin is not arguing against agnosticism, but against a fake-agnosticism (Pyrrhonian scepticism), and his arguments fail to refute even this weakened opponent.
3. Not-fake agnosticism
Thomas Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnosticism’ in the late 19th century, described the ‘principle of agnosticism’ as follows:
“In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.” (Huxley, Agnosticism)
The key idea is that in cases where things “are not demonstrated or demonstrable”, we should not “pretend that conclusions are certain”. If we don’t know one way or the other about something, then just be honest about it.
Just in case you thought that this principle was accompanied by a Pyrrhonian denial of the possibility of all knowledge, consider the very next paragraph from Huxley:
“The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproved today may be proved, by the help of new discoveries, tomorrow.” (ibid.)
Huxley is saying that some people will know more than others, depending on the person and the state of science in their day. This clearly presupposes that some people know things, and that things which we do not currently know can become known.
Durbin claims that the agnostic’s position is that ‘We cannot know anything’, yet Huxley (the originator of the term ‘agnosticism’) explicitly claims that ‘the results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge’ But, if nobody knows anything, then the results of applying the agnostic principle will not vary according to individual knowledge; the results would be the same for everyone!
Durbin claims that the agnostic’s position is that “knowledge cannot be gained or had” and that “we cannot know anything”. But Huxley claimed that “that which is unproved today may be proved, by the help of new discoveries, tomorrow”. If knowledge cannot be had, how is it that we could prove things by the help of new discoveries tomorrow?
The answer is that Huxley clearly did not deny the possibility of knowledge per se. Agnosticism is just the idea that when you do not have a demonstration of something, then you should not claim to know it. There are lots of demonstrations Huxley would have accepted, and so things we would have accepted as knowledge, but crucially he thought that there was no such demonstration for God, and that therefore we should just admit that we do not know whether he exists or not.
To be polite, we would have to say that Durbin has not done his research, and that the straw-man is a result of ignorance, rather than outright deception. This interpretation strains credulity though, as a just a cursory internet search pulled up the sources linked in this article. Either way though, he is just plain wrong. Agnostics do not have to affirm that they have no knowledge whatsoever; all an agnostic has to affirm is that they do not know whether God exists. Such a person is not guilty of any charge of self-contradiction, and certainly not because of anything Durbin brought up.
4. Abstract objects
Durbin goes on to make many claims that I could pick at, but I will focus on just one more section, as what I want to say about it is similar to what I was saying about induction in a previous post. In this snippet from the same video, Durbin describes an encounter he had with a maths teacher while he was at Reason Rally. Where we pick it up, he is explaining how if you write an equation in chalk on a blackboard, then the representation is not the maths itself (not the ‘law of math’ itself), but just a representation of it:
The ‘argument’ starts with a familiar idea that the actual law of maths itself “cannot be seen, cannot be touched, cannot be weighed, there is no colour to it, it is a universal, abstract, necessary, invariant, unchanging law”. The atheist maths professor was apparently a believer that the universe is entirely material, and is just “time and chance acting on matter, it is just stuff happening, like Shakespeare says, it is sound and fury signifying nothing“. Because his worldview was entirely materialistic, the maths professor couldn’t account for such a non-material law. Apparently, he conceded all this, and then when Durbin asked him if 2 + 2 = 4, he replied “Maybe not”.
Now, its not entirely clear what is supposed to be going on in this section. Durbin doesn’t really offer an argument to the effect that there is something, a law of maths, which is an existing non-physical thing. He does explain that if you write ‘2’ on a chalk board, and then rub it off, then you have not destroyed “2-ness”. He seems to think that this is sufficient to establish realism about non-material objects. Let’s grant is for the sake of the argument. The problem he is highlighting is that this non-material entity is incompatible with the thesis that there is nothing but matter (i.e. materialism). So the problem is: realism about non-material mathematical objects, along with materialism, is a seemingly incompatible pair. On one view not everything is material, and on the other view everything is material.
Let’s remember that this is a video about (‘completely’) refuting atheism; not about refuting materialism. Is the problem he has outlined a problem for atheism? I don’t see how it is. So far, all Durbin has argued for (using a very elastic conception of the term ‘argued’) is that materialism and realism about non-material objects are incompatible. Of course, the atheist could have conceded his point, renounced his materialism and embraced a realist view about non-material objects, such as platonism. There are various types of platonism contemporary philosophy of mathematics after all. The atheist could have said, ‘Ok then, your chalk example convinced me that platonism is true. Now what?’
Does Durbin have anything that might move us from atheistic platonism to Christianity? Well, sort of.
5. “If you don’t have Jesus, you don’t have math”
His actual thesis is not just that we can’t be materialists, but that we we can’t be atheists:
As we saw above, the idea is that materialism cannot have non-material laws in it. In contrast:
“Christians have a basis for universal, immaterial, invariant laws … the laws of this universe reflect the order that God actually gives to the universe. Our thinking is to be like God’s thinking. God cannot lie. God cannot engage in logical contradictions. All of us are to essentially have our thoughts come into conformity with God’s thoughts.” (video above, 00:07 – 00:40)
Now, there seem to be two distinct ideas being run together here:
Firstly, there is the idea that God maintains order in the universe, preventing the “sound and fury” that would be there otherwise (“the order that God actually gives to the universe”). So God is a maintainer, or giver, of order.
Secondly, there is the idea that the way we think should be like the way that God thinks (“Our thinking is to be like God’s thinking.”). This normative fact (that we ought think like God) restricts the ways we can think about the world. He also says: “God cannot lie. God cannot engage in logical contradictions.” So, because God cannot lie, and our thinking is to be like his, then the logical law of non-contradiction is to be true for us as a result.
So it is clear that these are quite distinct types of things. On the face of it, they are two distinct accounts of the same phenomena. One is that a law is a regularity maintained by God, and the other is that a law is a thought process that God has (coupled with a normative principle). Are they somehow the same thing? Does God maintain the orderliness of the universe through maintaining a regular pattern of thoughts? How does this work? It is all very unclear.
The second idea, where God cannot lie or ‘engage in contradictions’ seems to me to be aimed at explaining a law of logic; specifically, at the law of non-contradiction. But how, we might wonder, is God’s inability to lie related to the mathematical laws that Durbin started off talking about? It seems to have no connection at all. Thus, even if this did justify that God maintained the law of non-contradiction via his pattern of thinking, it wouldn’t establish that the mathematical laws are held in place in the same way. Is there something about the way that God thinks which makes it such that 2 + 2 = 4? That doesn’t seem to make sense.
But it is actually hard to see how God’s inability to lie entails that the law of non-contradiction is true either. A very plausible reading of the phrase ‘God cannot lie’ is that it means ‘God can only speak things which he knows to be true’. What else could not being able to lie mean but having to tell (things that you believe to be) the truth? Let’s also grant that God believes all and only truths. If so, then this entails that he cannot say a contradiction (‘engage in contradictions’) if and only if there are no true contradictions. If, say, the liar sentence is in fact a true contradiction, then God would have to say the conjunctive proposition ‘The liar sentence is true, and it is false’, because that conjunction would be true! If there is a true contradiction, then if God said that it wasn’t true and false, then he would be lying. So saying that God cannot lie only entails that he cannot speak a contradiction if there are no true contradictions. So it only ‘establishes’ that the law of non-contradiction is true if it begs the question by presupposing that there are no true contradictions. It seems to me this consideration completely kills this line of reasoning. God’s honesty cannot entail the law of non-contradiction in any significant sense.
The idea that fact that God does not contradict himself somehow grounds the law of non-contradiction, also suffers from similarly crippling objections. If God uttered a contradictory sentence, “A and not-A“, he would have contradicted himself, but this is not the same as violating the law of non-contradiction. If God contradicted himself (and non-contradiction is true), then he would have simply said two things, one of which was true and the other of which was false. This clearly is not a violation of the law of non-contradiction.
Because it doesn’t relate to the maths stuff, and because it begs the question, let’s leave the second idea, and focus instead only on the first. That was the idea that God maintains the order of the world. The reason that physical objects act in law-like ways is because God imposes such an order on them. Durbin must also think that mathematical laws, like the one he motivated with the chalk example, are also things that God maintains in a similar way. God imposes that 2 + 2 = 4 on the world in much the same way that he imposes e = mc² on the world.
Here is where we run into the same argument as I used in the induction post. Let’s say that God maintains physical and mathematical laws (and while we are at it, let’s throw in logical laws as well). Let’s say that along with maintaining these laws, he has also revealed to us that he maintains these laws. And let’s say that we know this revelation in a such a way that we cannot be wrong about it; that we know it with absolute certainty. I say, even granting all this, we are in no better situation than a sceptic who doubts it.
Take the continuum hypothesis. It says that between the infinity of the natural numbers and the infinity of the real numbers there is no intermediate order of infinity. It is a currently unproven conjecture in mathematics. Does knowing with absolute certainty that God maintains mathematical laws help us figure out if the continuum hypothesis is true? No. It is no help whatsoever. All it does is rephrase the problem. Here is the problem now:
It is currently unknown whether the continuum hypothesis is true.
With the help of Durbin’s worldview, the problem becomes:
It is currently unknown whether the continuum hypothesis is one of the regularities that God maintains.
The simple fact is that, even on this worldview, God has not told us which regularities he has maintained. And the belief (or even knowledge) that God maintains some regularities, gives us no help at all in trying to work out whether the continuum hypothesis is one of those regularities or not.
And it seems Durbin will have to concede this point. It is obvious that the bible doesn’t contain answers to modern day mathematical conjectures. He has to concede that God has not revealed everything to us; he has not revealed exactly which mathematical laws he has maintained. In particular, he has not revealed whether the continuum hypothesis is true or false.
Durbin has to say that God has only revealed that he maintains mathematical laws, not which ones are true, because he doesn’t know via revelation all mathematical laws. But while Durbin doesn’t have answers to particular mathematical problems, he could say that his worldview provides a basis in which we can answer them. On the atheist worldview, where there is no God maintaining order, and “everything is sound and fury”, there is no such basis. Such might be his reply. I will show that this reply has no force to it.
Durbin is clearly in favour of a type of ‘revelational epistemology’, which for our purposes we can say necessarily includes the following condition:
A) The only way one can know that there are regularities (like mathematical laws) is through revelation from God.
It follows from this that an atheist does not know that there are regularities. How could an atheist know such a thing? Could they tell it through their senses? Can they reason to the nature of the universe just by thinking about it? Presuppositionalists, like Durbin, constantly tell atheists that they cannot find out the truth through these means alone, without God. That’s the point of A).
But it follows that the only way to positively know that regularities do not exist could also only be through such a revelation. For reductio, assume that I could determine, without God, that there really were no regularities in nature. It follows that either God does not exist, or A is false. For, if I can determine on my own that there are no regularities, then it couldn’t also be that God had revealed to me that there are regularities. So, on that premise, either he doesn’t exist, or I do not have revelation from him.
So according to revelational epistemology: if the atheist is right about her atheism (and God does not exist), then the she cannot know about whether there are regularities in nature at all. She has to be in the dark about such metaphysical matters. The issue of what reality is like at its deepest core has to be, for an atheist, a mystery. It might be regular, or it might just appear regular. On Durbin’s view, because they lack revelation, an atheist could never know whether there are universal regularities or not. So it is not that on the atheist’s worldview there are no regularities; its that on the atheist’s worldviews one cannot know if there are regularities (assuming Durbin is right about A being true).
So, for the atheist the question is just open, and seemingly impossible to answer definitively. Atheists are forced to do mathematics without knowing whether there really are any mathematical laws or not. This is how the atheist has to deal with mathematical laws in Durbin’s world.
And, say I, in this setting, atheism is no worse off than Durbin’s Christianity, even if we grant him his every claim.
Let’s look at it from Durbin’s point of view. He knows that God exists, and that God has revealed to him that He maintains certain laws of mathematics, logic and physics. This is the opposite position to the atheist in Durbin’s worldview; the atheist has no knowledge about regularities and no revelation, whereas the Christian has both.
Well, even here on his home ground, Durbin is in trouble. Say we are considering a particular mathematical hypothesis, from Durbin’s vantage in his worldview. Say that the hypothesis is geometrical, like:
“‘Parallel lines never meet’ is a universal law”.
Even with all his certain knowledge from God, even granting everything in his worldview, we know that God did not reveal to Durbin (or any Christian) that ‘parallel lines never meet’ is a universal law of geometry, because, as Riemann showed, it is not. And this meant that everyone throughout history, Christian or atheist, who like Kant had been convinced they had certainty about the truth of principles of Euclidian geometry were just wrong. And there is nothing that Durbin has on his worldview that can prevent this from happening in the future. For any purported law that you come across in Durbin’s world, you cannot ever be absolutely sure that it is a genuine universal principle (one of those regularities that God maintains), and not just an apparent one (like with Euclidian geometry). Even if you grant him all of the things that he claims about his own worldview, he could still not know with absolute certainty for any purported law whether it was a law.
This is exactly the same position that the atheist is on, even on Durbin’s worldview. For the atheist, they cannot be sure whether there are any regularities or not. For the atheist, with each purported law, they can never know for absolute certainty whether it is a regularity or not.
Thus, when we stack the deck entirely in favour of Durbin’s worldview (where we grant that God exists, that he maintains the regularities nature, and that he reveals to Durbin with absolute certainty that he maintains the regularities of nature), and where we stack the deck entirely away from the atheist (who has to make do in a world where revelation epistemology was true but where God does not exist to provide revelation) – even when we do that, each position is in exactly the same position with respect to each and every prospective universal law. Neither of them could ever know if it was actually a law or not. As such theist and atheist are indistinguishable with respect to the question of universal regularities.
The discussion between the atheist and theist at this point is where a theist can only say:
I cannot know that [Claim X] is a universal law, but I believe that [Claim X] is a universal law, and I also believe that what makes it true is that it is a regularity that God maintains.
The atheist can reply:
I cannot know that [Claim X] is a universal law, but I believe that [Claim X] is a universal law, and I also believe that what makes it true is that it instantiates an abstract platonic object.
Even granting all of Durbin’s worldview, the theist and the atheist are in precisely the same epistemological situation regarding universal laws. Each of them has a sufficient condition for the regularity, and neither has a necessary condition.
When you grind all the way through to the end, all you come out with is a perfect stalemate. He has taken not one step forward, even if we grant him everything.
Jeff Durbin is a one-trick pony. His trick is the straw-man. He will argue against an agnostic by presenting an argument which only (even slightly) works against a different position. Even then, he clearly has no idea about Pyrrhonian scepticism. If you say you are an atheist, he will try to straw-man you with a form of materialism. But don’t fall for it. If he wants to completely refute atheism, he has to actually offer an argument against atheism. So far he has offered an argument against Pyrrhonian scepticism (which fails) and an argument against materialism (which also fails).