Cara Santa Maria gave a talk at the CFI Summit which I enjoyed a lot. She talked about having tattoos and piercings and always making sure to have the arm tattoo visible when she does public stuff, because she wants young people (and people in general) to realize that scientists can look like her and like them.
She also talked about becoming an atheist at 14, having been raised Mormon, and how difficult that was. Her parents were divorced; her father (but not her mother) was very strictly Mormon; her father told her it was his duty to force her to continue going to church until she was 18. So a gulf opened up between them that lasted for years. It’s powerful, moving stuff.
But I disagreed with some of what she said about religion and atheism.
One item was that she calls herself an agnostic atheist, because after all she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if there’s a god or not. I think she argued that nobody knows, that we should all call ourselves agnostic atheists or theists, that we can’t know. I don’t remember exactly, but that was the point of what she was saying – that it’s unknowable in both directions.
Yes but. It’s true as far as it goes but it’s not all there is to say. Knowing isn’t the only issue. If you say more of what there is to say, the picture becomes less evenly split between the two – knowing there’s a god, knowing there’s not a god, versus not knowing there’s a god, not knowing there’s not a god. There’s less symmetry if you ask about mental states short of knowing.
Atheism has better reasons to decline to believe there is a god than theism has to believe there is a god.
The two are not even close to symmetrical in that way. What good reasons are there to believe there is a god? Any?
I mean epistemically good reasons. I can of course think of emotionally or psychologically or socially good reasons, but reasons of that kind can be very much in tension with epistemically good reasons.
Another item was naturalism and supernaturalism. She made the familiar claim – science can investigate nature, it has the tools to do that, but science can’t investigate the supernatural, it doesn’t have the tools to do that.
But then she didn’t go on to ask the obvious, glaring, you-have-to-ask-it question: what does have the tools to investigate the supernatural? What tools would those be? Who has them? Where are they?
Framing the familiar claim in the familiar way implies that in fact there are such tools, it’s just that science doesn’t have them, in the sense that they don’t belong to science. I want to know what those tools are.
Suppose you have a tool shed labeled Naturalism. It holds a lot of things – empiricism, testing, falsification, replication, peer review, statistics, instruments, logic, mathematics. Then you have a tool shed labeled Supernaturalism. What’s in that shed? Name me one thing.