Christina S. Chen: Atheism and the Assumptions of Science and Religion


Atheism and the Assumptions of Science and Religion

Christina S. Chen

“There’s this thing called being so open-minded your brains drop out.”[1] I have to credit Richard Dawkins for having some sense of humor because I find the remark to be rather funny.  But I think Dawkins should also know that there’s this thing called being so close-minded that your brain drops dead.  Dawkins is among the many atheists out there who advocates scientific “fundamentalism,” arguing for people to embrace science and shed their religious beliefs because they are not only “dangerous” but also irrational.[2] According to him, religious people are too open-minded because they believe in something that isn’t provable.  What Dawkins and many others fail to realize is that scientific discoveries that have been “proven” to be “true” are all founded on at least six assumptions that are not rationally supported (compared to the zero assumptions that theists who don’t claim to know the nature of God make); therefore, science largely depends on faith and should not be considered as more– and perhaps should be considered as less–credible than religion.

Since science starts out with at least three assumptions that aren’t provable, it may be more rational to take science less seriously than religion, which starts out with zero.[3] Before scientists perform any kind of experiments, they start out with these basic assumptions: (1) that the experimental procedures will be performed adequately without any intentional or unintentional mistakes that will impact the results (2) that the experimenters won’t be considerably biased by their preconceptions of what will happen (3) that the random sample is representative of the entire population and that any random sampling that isn’t won’t significantly impact the results (4) that nature has regularity; most if not all things in nature must have at least a natural cause[4] (5) that there is such a thing called Objective Reality (6) and that science at least partly corresponds to that Objective Reality.  Therefore, when we think about it more deeply, the foundation of science is actually faith, a term usually used to describe religion, not science.  In comparison, theists who claim that God exists and don’t claim to know anything else about God base their belief on one currently true fact: that not everything can be explained by natural means.[5] Because scientists make at least six assumptions and theists make none, it is actually (and ironically) more rational to believe in God than in science.

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New Issue Volume 10 Number 1 (Fall 2008)

Volume X, No. 1 Fall 2008



The New Natural Law Theory

Christopher Tollefsen

The Real-Ideal Divide

Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen

What Does Academic Skepticism Presuppose?

Arcesilaus, Carneades, and the Argument with Stoic Epistemology

David Johnson

Is Intercultural Critique Possible?

An Examination of Recognition Theory

Jordan N. Bartol

The “Rightness” Error:

An Evaluation of Normative Ethics in the Absence of Moral Realism

Mathais Sarrazin

Berkeley’s Arguments on Realism and Idealism

Blake Winter

The Tao of Salinger

Sara Kallock

A Publication of the

Saint Anselm Philosophy Club

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Christopher Tollefsen: The New Natural Law Theory

The New Natural Law (NNL) theory, sometimes also called the New Classical Natural Law theory, is the name given a particular revival and revision of Thomistic Natural Law theory, initiated in the 1960s by Germain Grisez. Grisez’s initial collaborators included Joseph Boyle, John Finnis and Olaf Tollefsen. More recently, Robert P. George, Patrick Lee, Fr. Peter Ryan, S.J., Gerard Bradley, William E. May, Christian Brugger, and Christopher Tollefsen have done work on the NNL.

Articulation and defense of the theory began with the publication of Grisez’s interpretative essay on St. Thomas’s first principle of practical reason, in 1965. Although that essay established some of the controversial theses of the new view, in particular, that the foundation of practical reason is in a foundational practical recognition of certain basic goods, and that no inference from theoretical truths concerning human nature is necessary or possible, Grisez was there attempting to provide an accurate interpretation of St. Thomas’s thought. Subsequent work, while deeply indebted to St. Thomas, has not been primarily exegetical,[2] and in some particulars clearly conflicts with the positions of St. Thomas.

The distinctive, and often disputed, areas of contribution by the New Natural Lawyers include at least the following five, which will be the focus of the remainder of this article:

1. The foundations of moral thought and practical reason;
2. The casuistry of the New Natural Lawyers, especially as regards issues of taking life, procreation, and truth-telling;
3. The nature of human action;
4. The nature of political authority and the political common good; and
5. The ultimate end of human beings.

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Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen:The Real-Ideal Divide

The philosophy of Immanuel Kant introduced a change in the philosophical and scientific attitude towards mind and its relation to reality. Thus, we can talk about “realism” before and after Kant.

Generally speaking, the most essential and characteristic feature of realism is the notion of a mind-independent existence, which means that individual or a species of things have an existence that is “in-itself”. Realism is a metaphysical position; it is a stance taken of individual mind-endowed human beings towards the world in perception. On the other hand, to deny that something is mind-independent is yet another, however different, metaphysical stance that is called anti-realism or idealism. However, philosophical discourse discloses the fact that we, as philosophers and scientists, tend to choose different specifications for what is to count as “independent of mind” and also in which way this “mind-independent” entity is supposed to exist. There are many metaphysical issues over which realism and idealism have been argued. For example, we have the question about the existence of moral values. Or we have the problem of the existence of souls and minds. More interestingly is whether the past can be said to have been real, or, on the other hand, if the future is real. We tend, nevertheless, to take different specifications for granted and therefore we have a tremendously large variety of senses in which the word “realism” is being used. In order to get a general feeling of the modern sense of philosophical realism, we have to briefly take a look at the “before” and “after” of Kant.

Medieval scholastic realism had two poles: an extreme or exaggerated version and a much more moderate one. These two poles of realism were opposed to “nominalism” and “conceptualism”. Scholastic realists in general did not see “mind-independence” as any essential feature of their positions. In fact the “mind-independence” aspect did not present itself as any feature at all in the debate; it is only in modern philosophy that the aspect of mind-independence becomes an issue. It is the focus upon the aspect of “mind-independence” that marks of the shift from “medieval” realism to our modern versions. Scholastic realists emphasized the intimacy between mind and reality rather than focusing on the issue of having to deal with different “substances”.

The transition to the modern sense of realism came, however, with the philosophy of Kant. Kant saw idealism as the opposing view to realism. For Kant realism was divided into transcendental and empirical variants. Like the empirical realists, Kant was of the opinion that we know about the existence of things and objects in the world. These are things that appear in space and time. The transcendental realist would go further by stating that the existence we claim to know is wholly independent of our perception and predication. Kant would probably disagree with this view since his view was primarily interpreted as stating that knowledge is about things in the world dependent upon perception. However, this knowledge would rest upon nothing else but appearances. This is not knowledge proper.

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David Johnson: What Does Academic Skepticism Presuppose?

Although some have seen the skepticism of Arcesilaus and Carneades, the two foremost representatives of Academic philosophy, as being merely dialectical in nature, there is evidence that both philosophers held views definitive of their skepticism, views which are a direct consequence of a critique of Stoic epistemology and of a defense against the Stoic argument from apraxia. Moreover, both the critique and defense are articulated within the framework provided by Stoic epistemology. There is a strong case, then, to be made for the claim that Academic skepticism cannot stand alone, that it necessarily requires the terms, concepts and assumptions of Stoicism as an antecedent condition. In making this case I will treat the views of Arcesilaus and Carneades separately, since there are some important differences between them.

In order to see the way in which Arcesilaus presupposes dogmatic philosophy, we first have to address the question of whether the skepticism of Arcesilaus was merely dialectical, or whether he held definitive skeptical views of his own.[1] If Arcesilaus was a dialectician who limited himself to arguing against the views of others without proposing any of his own, then his skepticism would only presuppose the existence of opponents holding dogmatic views. Although his dialectical method could not subsist on its own, then, there is no reason why it should necessarily require as dialectical fuel the particular form of dogmatism found in Stoic philosophy. If, on the other hand, as I want to maintain, Arcesilaus held the three interrelated views that nothing can be known, that all people ought to suspend judgment, and that one can use the eulogon, or reasonable, as a practical criterion to guide action, then these views would be parasitic on Stoic philosophy in particular. The first two views presuppose Stoic philosophy because they are the consequence of a critique of Stoic epistemology. The third view presupposes Stoicism first, because it seems to have been developed as a response to the Stoic charge of apraxia, and second, because this defense is articulated using the terminology of, and within the framework provided by, Stoic epistemology.

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Jordan Bartol: Is Intercultural Critique Possible?

It is difficult, living in the modern west, to conceive of approaches to social justice that do not focus entirely on economic forces. Many of us are familiar with theories of social justice that strive for the just distribution of money, goods and resources. As Nancy Fraser (2001) explains, such approaches have “supplied the paradigm case for most theorizing about social justice for the past 150 years” (p. 21). There is, however, an alternative approach to social justice that departs from the largely economic focus of distribution theories: recognition theory. Recognition theory centres on adequate acknowledgement of the many unique groups that comprise the global village. The most notable recognition theory scholar is Axel Honneth. Honneth took recognition theory from a tool in Hegel’s early work and launched it to a prominent position in the cannon of philosophy. Honneth has recently penned a response to two of his contemporaries – Arto Laitenen and Antti Kauppinen – in which he provides a valuable discussion of the role recognition theory can play in social critique. In doing so, however, he attempts to broaden the scope of his theory making it applicable to cross-cultural critiques. It is my contention that although recognition theory works well for internal critique, Honneth’s attempts to locate a universal ground for critical social theory may prove problematic upon application to scenarios of intercultural criticism.

Recognition Theory

Deriving from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the basic tenant of recognition theory is that individuals require independent validation of the subjective conceptions they form of themselves. This validation is achieved through a process of mutual recognition. For example, if I deem myself to be autonomous, I seek to have that characteristic validated by another subject. That validation may come from either tacit acknowledgment – acting toward me in a way that indicates an acceptance of my autonomy – or explicit declaration on behalf of the other party.

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Mathais Sarrazin: The “Rightness” Error

J.L. Mackie’s Error Theory postulates that all normative claims are false. It does this based upon his denial of moral realism. Without objective moral facts “out there”, Error theory asserts that any purportedly moral claims are false because such statements make the assertion that some subject (a moral claim) belongs in the predicate of either “Rightness” or “Wrongness”, neither of which exist. As a result the statement “murder is wrong” is false, since the predicate “wrong” has no extension, and therefore the subject “murder” could not possibly be in it. In arguing for Error Theory, Mackie spends a great deal of time attempting to refute moral realism; however, this paper’s primary concern is with the relationship between moral realism and normative ethics, so to facilitate this process I will hereafter labour under the assumption that there is no moral realism. I will follow this line of argumentation through to its conclusion, in order to asses what impact this would have on the possibility of making justified normative claims. For the sake of clarity I will use throughout this paper the definition of moral realism put forward by David Brink in his book Moral Realism and Moral Inquiry, that is that “Moral realism is roughly the view that there are moral facts and true moral claims whose existence and nature are independent of our beliefs about what is right and wrong” . Normative claims will also be defined as they are by Brink, as claims about things which are morally important (e.g., what is right and wrong). Throughout this paper the primary focus will be on finding an answer to the question “can justified normative claims be made without moral realism?” To this end I will examine several contemporary papers addressing this question, as well as asses the stronger candidate metaethical positions for how they contribute to an answer. Furthermore I will postulate the hypothesis that justified normative claims can be made without moral realism, in hopes of either finding support for this hypothesis, or reason to reject it.

First it is important to note the implications of abandoning moral realism. This implies that we need to do away with all theoretical foundations for the inherence of objective mind-independent moral facts. As a result, the notion of a metaphysical ground from morality will be cast aside; as will, to some smaller extent, the rational grounds for a deontology such as Kant’s. These can both be done without affecting the world as we experience it. First let it be that there are no metaphysical postulates known as morals, second, allow that human rationality cannot provide an objective ground for moral realism, since hypothetically this is too queer and would require psychological corroboration which is not presently available. So the world without moral realism look very much the same as it does now and the phenomenology of making moral judgements stays exactly as it would in a world where there were real moral facts. This brings us to our first consideration, that is that presumably people would continue to make moral judgements.

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Blake Winter: Berkeley’s Arguments on Realism and Idealism

Bertrand Russell credited Berkeley with being the first philosopher to show that the position of idealism may be held without contradiction (Russell, 1997). However, in addition to this, Berkeley also attempted to show that realism was absurd, because it required concepts which could not in fact be conceptualized (1977). From this, Berkeley concluded that idealism was not merely possible but necessary, or at least necessarily the only theory we could understand.

We will commence by defining a number of terms which will be necessary or convenient for our exposition. We will proceed to give a succinct logical version of Berkeley’s argument, in order to illustrate the precise set of assumptions which are required. We will then show that using a parallel argument the same assumptions also prove that idealism as Berkeley conceived it is also not well defined.


Let us first define realism and idealism. We will take realism to mean the ontological position that there are things which exist that are neither minds nor ideas in minds. We will take idealism to mean the ontological position that everything that exists is either a mind or an idea in a mind. We may also define solipsism to be the position that everything that exists is either me or my ideas.

A concept will be said to be concrete if it may be defined ostensibly: that is, if all its conditions may be defined by direct (positive) comparisons with collections of particulars. In other words, a concept is concrete if we may determine whether an object meets its criteria by comparing it with the minimum collection of properties held in common among some collection of ostensible particulars, but we may not use the negation of these properties, unless the negation of the property in question is something for which we also have an exemplar particular (this is what is meant by the positivity of the comparison), and nor may we use only a part of the properties which are common to these particulars. We will say that a concept which is not concrete is abstract. Note that a property may be observed, but not concrete, if all particulars have that property together with some other property so that it cannot be isolated as the minimal commonality among any collection of ostensible particulars. Let us define a concept to be thinkable if it is possible to conceptualize that concept in a meaningful fashion. A concept is unthinkable, then, if it is not thinkable.

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Sara Kallock: The Tao of Salinger

The sage never has a mind of his own;
He considers the minds of the common people to be his mind.

Treat well those who are good,
Also treat well those who are not good;
thus is goodness attained.

The sage
is self-effacing in his dealings with all under heaven,
and bemuddles his mind for the sake of all under heaven.

The common people all rivet their eyes and ears upon him, and the sage makes them all chuckle like children.
Lao Tzu

The above excerpt serves as a simple characterization of the Taoist saint: a person who has subdued his ego thus enabling him to indiscriminately embrace all of humanity, attain for himself a fulfilling life in connection with the Tao (the “Way”), and the strength to be a example of righteousness according to the Way for mankind. Taoism holds that below the apparent chaos of reality lies a unifying theme of existence called the “the Way”, referred to as the Tao. This inherent “Tao” unites all of existence in a subtle harmony that is disturbed by any action a person’s ego forces upon it in an effort to change its nature. Such actions include brute force, prejudice, or judging the intentions of others, for any of these acts impede one’s perception of reality and thus create unneeded conflict that would otherwise not arise. Forceful imposition of one man’s view on another and cast judgment of another’s intentions and perspective only aggravates situations and blinds one from perceiving the world according to Tao. In order to attain an accurate perception of reality, one must live according to the Tao and use the humility of virtue instead of the forceful ego to “work like gravity between man and man”. By acting in such an unimposing fashion, the Taoist saint is able to see the heart of the situation lucidly and pacify the situation with greater ease. By dissolving his misleading ego, a saint is able to live in deep understanding of the Tao, and indiscriminately love all of existence with enough virtue and patience to serve as an example of goodness for mankind. In Salinger’s works, the Taoist saint is a figure is present and colorfully captured in his numerous characters: the attempted saint is depicted in Catcher and the Rye’s Holden Caulfield; the mistreated saint is found in Teddy and Seymour; and in Franny and Zooey one finds the completed and socially successful saint in Zooey and Franny. These examples all emphasize Salinger’s passion for the ethical message Taoism proclaims: that “it is spiritually impossible to prevent the Fall [from innocence]”, so “Salinger’s idealistic heroes are doomed either to suicide (Seymour) or insanity (Holden, Sargent X) or mysticism (Franny), or the ways of sainthood” . From the stories of each of these characters the path to potential fulfillment is proffered for the reader so one may, unlike many of Salinger’s character and perhaps Salinger himself, attempt to reach Taoist sainthood for himself.

Salinger held Eastern philosophies in high esteem throughout a majority of his writing career, as evidenced by his specific Buddhist diets, daily hours of deep meditation, and the emanation of “the essence of [Eastern] spirituality”. A thorough critic can find throughout Salinger’s works the influences of Eastern philosophies, such as Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Though Taoism is only lightly referenced, Salinger’s characters and their struggle for spiritual contentment, closely reflect the efforts and philosophies of Taoist philosophy. Buddy Glass, who at many points serves as Salinger’s persona throughout the Glass narratives, considers the roots of his thoughts and actions to be “planted in the New and Old Testament, Advaita Vedanta [of Hinduism], and classical Taoism,” thereupon illustrating the bridge Salinger on which walks between Eastern and Western thought. Though Taoist doctrine does not rule Salinger’s works, the Taoist path to sainthood and contentment is reflected throughout Salinger’s writings and lived throughout Salinger’s life.

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New Issue (Volume 9-2) Spring 2008


Volume IX,     No. 2 Spring 2008



Aristotle’s Form of the Species as Relation

Theodore Di Maria, Jr.

What Was Hume’s Problem about Personal Identity in the Appendix?

Megan Blomfield

The Effect of Luck on Morality

Kerian Wallace

Love as Knowledge: the Metaphysics behind the Emotion

Matt Schuler

A Publication of the
Philosophy Department
Saint Anselm College