Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Mother of All Assumptions

We’ve all heard the saying about assumptions and, I suspect, we all have enough experience to know that it is partially true. Sometimes, assumptions do make asses out of everyone involved. Of course, sometimes they don’t. The difference between the two situations is almost always in how wild we let the assumption become.

Plenty of things start out as assumptions and there’s nothing wrong with that. So long as the assumption is tested and evidence is gathered, eventually that assumption will cease to be an assumption. Properly tended by reason & evidence, assumption is the seed from which facts spring.

The problem comes when assumptions are untended, left to grow uninhibited by fact or logic. Here there is no pruning, no careful separation of what accords with reality from that which is wild imagination. Here grows Faith. Faith is what happens when assumption is unshackled from reason, when it allowed the luxury of ignoring evidence. Faith is the mother of all assumptions and it seeks to make an ass of us all.

Let’s face it: Faith is a bad thing. I know it. You know it. Hell, even the apologists know this, which is why they are so interested in justifying their beliefs or, failing that, tossing out the inevitable dig that atheists have Faith too.

So then, do atheists have Faith? Have we let our assumptions get out of hand? Let’s look at some of our alleged Faith and see what the case may be.

1) Atheists must believe that something came from nothing- Ok, this isn’t strictly a claim that we have faith in something, but it’s so annoyingly, blatantly wrong that I had to address it. There is nothing in the lack of belief in gods that ties it to a belief that something came from nothing.

2) Atheists display Faith every day, such as the Faith that oncoming traffic won’t cross the center line- A classic case of equivocation. In this case, faith is a synonym for meager assumption, but the apologist is trying to pass it off as something more. If we put it to the test, though, we find that this “faith” is well-tended by logic and reason. There is a sufficient body of evidence (past experience, general self-preservation instincts, etc.) to keep this assumption in check, to afford it a measure of certainty.

3) Atheists (or more broadly anyone who depends on reason & evidence) must have Faith that the natural world is all there is- This one is untrue, but not in the delusional sense. It is a misunderstanding that needs cleared up. Neither atheism nor science depend on the assumption that the natural world is the totality of existence. What they do is look first to the natural world for an explanation. Why? Because we know that the natural world exists. If, by some chance, all natural explanation proved insufficient, science does not exclude us looking for a supernatural one. (The debate over whether we can truly exhaust all natural possibilities is another one entirely.)

4) You must have Faith that your senses can be trusted- Here, we have entered the world of the absurd, a philosophical mire that threatens to drag us all under. I often wonder if the people who suggest this are aware of the implication. No, scratch that. Clearly they aren’t or they would never bring this up. While the details of the mess are too long to discuss here, the short of it is that generally trusting our senses is unavoidable. To do otherwise excuses one from reality. At any rate, it should be easy to see that where our senses are concerned, it is at worst another case of a well-tended assumption that has blossomed into fact.

5) You must have faith that the world is rational/that you can make sense of the world- More often than not, these are separated into two statements but they shouldn’t be. Really they are restatements of each other. To say that something is rational is to say that it is consistent with reason, that it makes sense. Really, this is all that needs to be said here. The world is not rational or irrational, it simply is. Calling it rational is simply saying that we have constructed a reasonable model describing it. It is purely a function of ourselves and requires no Faith. Now, I suppose the apologist could mean that we must have Faith that our model is correct, but yet again this turns out to be a case where assumption has been nurtured by fact, not left to grow into wild faith.

These, of course, are just a few of the things atheists allegedly have faith in, but the pattern holds. Each time, we come around to an initial assumption that has been supported & transformed by evidence. (Not surprisingly, this echoes the scientific method) It is curious to note though, that in the cases above where there was an assumption, it was not limited to atheist. The apologist must assume their senses can be trusted, that their model is correct, that natural explanations are sufficient for a great many phenomena. Add to this the great untethered assumption, the faith in an invisible, intangible, omnipotent magic being. Even if this all comes down to weighing assumptions, the apologist still loses out.

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