Friday, October 19, 2007

Kant's Refutation of Atheism (per D'Souza)

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on an article in The Christian Science Monitor, in which Dinesh D'Souza attempted to use Kant to refute Dawkins' (and other empiricist) arguments against the existence of God. (What Atheists Kant Refute

Before doing this, I have a couple of caveats to expose.

First, this is a blog about ethics, not a blog about the existence of God. The proposition, "At least one god exists" and the proposition "It is not the case that at least one god exists" are both morally neutral. Neither has anything to say about how we should live our lives. We have to add other propositions to these in order to draw morally relevant conclusions. So, I feel that it is safe to ignore these propositions, and focus on the other propositions that have real moral implications.

Having said that, bigotry and prejudice against atheists is a moral issue, and one which is appropriate for this blog to address.

I also consider it to be important since many (though not all) of the false beliefs that cause good people to do real-world harm to real-world people are false beliefs supported by religious institutions. Preventing these harms means correcting the false beliefs that those agents are acting on.

Second, D'Sousa has repeatedly proved himself to be an epistemic hack who substantially makes things up as he goes along. I have learned long ago that he selects propositions to go into his articles without any consideration to whether they are true or false, but by considering only their utility. In this article, anything he says about Kant, I immediately conclude to be probably false. If it is true, it is only accidentally true, since the intersection between D'Sousa's writing and truth is, at best, entirely accidental.

This means that I have a couple of questions regarding this request. What am I actually being asked to do? Am I being asked to address whether Kant actually does have a response to Dawkins on the existence of God as D'Sousa claims? Or am I being asked to assess D'Sousa's arguments against Dawkins. allowing for the fact that any relationship to Kant's actual views would be purely coincidental?

In order to address the first question, I would have to be a Kant scholar. I am not. Of course, I took college courses on Kant and, as a moral philosopher, I spent a fair amount of time studying his, Metaphysics of morals. However, neither of these make me an expert on his Critique of Pure Reason.

So, I am going to have to pass on answering the question of whether Kant has an argument that effectively refutes Dawkins on the issue of God's existence.

However, my experience with D'Sousa suggests that if he had an ounce of integrity and a love of truth not completely overshadowed by a love of rhetoric, sophistry, and demagoguery, he probably should have passed as well.

I have my own reasons for my atheism - reasons that came to me at such a young age that I have never gone through any kind of 'deconversion'. History shows us that primitive cultures had a habit of adopting almost universal belief in a myth involving superbeings (gods), mystical monsters, sorcerers, and heroes. I see absolutely nothing that justifies distinguishing the myths of the ancient Greeks, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegians, Native Americans, and others from contemporary Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or any other religion. If any think that it is no longer possible to persuade whole populations to adopt a myth, the success of the Mormons and the Scientologists (among others) testify against that.

For this reason, I place all religious scripture on the same shelf. The Iliad and the Odyssey share the shelf with the Torah and the Koran. L. Ron Hubbard's Dyanetics belongs in the same genre as his nobel Battlefield Earth. The Book of Mormon sits on the same shelf as the stories of Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill.

This is not to say that one cannot draw some useful moral lessons from literature. I believe that Mark Twain did an excellent job in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn describing the way that a culture can cause a person to actuall feel that helping a slave to escape to freedom is wrong. Huckleberry Finn tried several times to do the right thing and return Jim to his rightful owner, but could not bring himself to do it, finally deciding that he must resign himself to the fact that he is a bad person. Yet, the usefulness of this story in describing the corrupting influence of culture does not incline me, in any way, to profess that every sentence that Mark Twain wrote is literally true. The story - and even the name of the author - is a work of fiction.

Okay, this is a lot of space to spend on caveats, but I thought that some perspective is in order.

So, let me spend at least some time answering the question I was asked.

D’Sousa’s claim basically boils down to this:

Reason and science, they contend, are the only proper foundations for forming opinions and understanding the universe. Those who believe in God, they insist, are falling for silly superstitions. This atheist attack is based on a fallacy – the Fallacy of the Enlightenment. It was pointed out by the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant erected a sturdy intellectual bulwark against atheism that hasn't been breached since.

There are two claims here. One is that the atheist attack is based on the premise that reason and science are the only proper foundations for understanding the universe. The second is that this premise is false.

As I said, I am not a Kant scholar, and I will not attempt to report what Kant would really say against this. However, I do know of an important refutation of this premise. This refutation is that, “Reason and science cannot prove that reason and science are the only proper foundation for understanding the universe.” If we appeal only to reason and science to establish this foundation, our arguments are viciously circular. If we go outside of reason and science, our premise is false.

However, there is a difference between saying that reason and science are not omnipotent, and that there are things that can refute the claims of reason and science. For example, reason tells us that the sum of the angles inside of a triangle equals 180 degrees. If somebody wants to claim that he has a special way of knowing, that’s fine. However, if he claims that his special way of knowing tells him that the sum of the angles inside of a triangle is equal to 150 degrees, then the reasonable conclusion to draw is that his special way of knowing is deeply flawed.

So, a ‘way of knowing’ that says that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, when all of the evidence available to reason and science suggests 4.5 billion, suggests that this ‘special way of knowing’ is critically flawed. A ‘special way of knowing’ that says, ‘the contents of this conclusion are literally true’ – when this ‘special way of knowing’ has supported such a wide variety of mutually conflicting and contradictory myths, suggests that this ‘special way of knowing’ is not all that reliable. Far too many people who have relied upon it have gotten far too many different conclusions for anybody to sensibly claim that it works.

This special way of knowing becomes particularly problematic when one wants to use to justify behavior that does harm to or even takes the life of others. It is one thing to be put to death because of crimes that one was proved guilty of performing in a court of law. It is quite another to be executed because, “I simply have a special way of knowing that you are guilty.”

This is the type of thinking that D’Sousa is defending – a way that says it is permissible to kill others on the basis of a special way of knowing they should die.

In fact, this ‘special way of knowing that religious people like to appeal to have given us a huge array of contradictory beliefs, from Ares to Xochopilli, from Amman-Ra to Zeus. This gives us reason to believe that this ‘special way of knowing’ is not latched on to any read knowledge at all, but to the imaginations of those who invent the theories.”

This is where my objection to religious claims come from – in the fact that so many people are actually claiming that their ‘special way of knowing’ justifies behaving in ways that cause real-world harm to real-world people. In most cases, this ‘special way of knowing’ is simply their own culturally derived prejudices that work the same way that Huckleberry Finn’s ‘special way of knowing’ told him that he should return Jim to his rightful owner.


Martin Freedman said...

Damn you beat me to the punch on this one! Will write another topic on my blog today - if I have time.

Anyway I would have said that reason and evidence do not preclude means better than them to attain connection with the "world beyond the senses".

We would know they are better because (A)where possible they could be later at least partly be verified by reason and evidence, (B) not contradict it, (C) resolve issues that were hitherto under-determined by reason and evidence and (D) be self-consistent.

Faith fails on all counts, that is it is demonstrably worse than reason and evidence. So whatever means that might be better than reason and evidence to connect with the "world beyond the senses", faith is just not it and we know this to be the case.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I think that there is merit in several bloggers taking on the same topic - if they have intelligent points to contribute. It reinforces the message that the epistemic hack that wrote the original piece is, in fact, an epistemic hack.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I just finished my piece about this same lame apologetic over at A Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow. I agree we oughta see how many folks can gang up on this sorry hack.

Sheldon said...

"Second, D'Sousa has repeatedly proved himself to be an epistemic hack who substantially makes things up as he goes along."

How incredibly true!

Purely by coincidence, on a completely different matter, I had just picked up the latest issue of Skeptic magazine. In it was an article by famed primatoligist Franns De Waal responding to a blog post by D'Souza about the alleged debunking of a myth about Bonobo chimpanzee behaviour (that they use various sexual behaviours to diffuse conflict).

Sure enough, when I checked the blog post, D'Souza either outright lies, or is amazingly sloppy, so as to present things exactly the opposite of the way they really are. All this to apparently malign "social liberals" for the following:

"What Hohmann is leaving out here is the human tendency to distort evidence to suit our prejudices."

Black kettle, meet black pot.

Aspentroll said...

Like, who gives two ounces of crap whether Kant refutes atheism or not. His ravings will not in any way change most atheists' way of thinking.

And Douchebag D'Souza, who is he? Obviously a poor delusional creature running about hoping for the rapture no doubt. These assholes make me sick, posting their
B.S. about mythical monsters
hoping to frighten people back into the churches.

Bring on the rapture, I'll get me a better car and any house I might like, after all the goody goody two shoes leave for their promised land.

ADHR said...


I have read the first Critique -- at least the bit's relevant here -- and D'Souza is worse than you've claimed. Kant doesn't given an argument for theism. He explicitly says that God is unknowable, and hence his existence cannot be proven or disproven by argument.

The condition on knowledge, for Kant, is experience. "Experience" is a bit technical but, in essence, an experience is a cognitively-processed sensory impression which is accessible to the conscious mind. Objects which we experience are called "phenomena". God, however, is a "noumenon" -- a thing in itself, apart from our experience.

Noumena are unknowable, for Kant. Knowledge requires experience. Once a noumenon is in a form that it can be experienced it is, by definition, a phenomenon. So, we can only ever known phenomena. Thus, God is unknowable. Instead, for Kant, one "knows" (metaphorically) God through faith. (That move at the end is pretty sad, but at least Kant is honest about it; he's got nowhere else to go if he wants to preserve his religious views.)

At the end of the day, D'Souza is trying to turn the first Critique into a treatise on rational (or natural) theology when, in fact, Kant is arguing that rational theology has set itself a fundamentally impossible task.

Oh, and, to Aspentroll, Kant doesn't "rave". I think you're confusing him with Hegel. :)

Anonymous said...

As always, you take us down a fascinating path that provides a new perspective. Thanks for addressing the question and thanks to adhr for contributing the critique of Critique.

Unknown said...

I am coming to this one pretty late, but I would just like to point out that Kant does, in fact, provide a solid refutation of Dawkins' brand of atheism. If D'Souza's article was a genuine attempt to explain Kantian metaphysics as relate to science, morality, and religion, then it is certainly a failure. But we shouldn't ignore Kant simply because D'Souza is a hack.

Kant's point, as pertains to religion, is that religious beliefs may be rationally warranted, if not epistemically secured, because of what Kant calls the antinomy of practical reason. Without getting into too much detail here, Kant's basic argument is that there is a sort of existential despair that can sap a pure rational morality. Morality has no need for religion, but when confronted with the apparent futility of the moral project, rational people are warranted in postulating a mechanism (god or anything else) which functions as a basis for hoping that the moral project is neither futile nor necessarily at odds with the natural end of human happiness.

In such a belief, one does not make a knowledge claim about a god or any other religious idea. One simply employs the religious idea regulatively (as opposed to constitutively) to encourage and support one's moral strivings (specifically to counter moral despair). Now, if you know anything about Kant's moral theory, then you can see how this could potentially undermine his 'morality for morality's sake' approach to virtuous motivation. But, putting those issues aside, I think we can see how such a use of religious concepts neither amounts to an unsubstantiated claim of knowledge (contra science) nor a susperstitious basis for acting/not acting (contra rational morality). So, we do in fact have a defense of religion that is impervious to the simplistic attacks of Dawkins and the like.

em said...

ack, longwinded philosophizing... but I comment, because my major impression was similar to yours: D'Souza "... substantially makes things up as he goes along."

I first came across ds's promo here:
Background on kant's "Critique" was unnecessary. I soon noticed that ds's "logic" went astray of itself.

I then wondered if DS represented (hacked?) "kant" accurately. Did "Kant" actually "refudiate" atheism? Google snippets *suggested* that kant (thought he) disproved atheism.
I arrived here, where ADHR's synopsis of relevant kant suggests that ds's para-hacking "misunderstood" kant's hypothes(e|i)s.

Phil (here): "Kant does, in fact, provide a solid refutation of Dawkins' brand of atheism" [i paraphrase:]~faith, ~hope to prop "apparently" logically futile morals ...
So, DS overlooked an opportunity to inject "morals"? I think because ds claims his article is based on (kant's) reason.
(btw, is ds an elaborate/laborious namedropper?)

"a defense of religion that is impervious to the simplistic attacks of Dawkins and the like"
or perhaps instead, a defense of the (social|mechanical|adminitrative) purpose|value of a simplistic religion.
(btw, in above linked version of his promo, DS "KantHacks" against a (claimed) C Hitchens quote, not Dawkins.)

btw, google spellcheck spells DS's surname "D'Souza".

Anonymous said...

Uh, an atheist with ethics?

oh, i forgot. yes. you can have ethics, too.

must be nice to be able to make any ethics up you need on the spot.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

My ethics has a prohibition on mindless bigotry. What about yours?