The claim you attribute to Russell is self-refuting, as you say. (I can’t be sure if that’s actually something Russell said/wrote. The only place I find it is in versions of the argument you’ve made, not in any piece of his writing.) Basically, you’ve run up against the problem of induction; after all, science is essentially formalized inductive reasoning.
Science by itself cannot prove that induction is absolutely reliable, but, then, it doesn’t set out to do so. Instead, science gives us confidence in our inferences. Such confidence can be justified with statistical arguments that do not depend on empirical verification (see section three of this article). Even if these arguments are not sufficient, you still can’t infer the supernatural.
Let’s assume we can’t solve the problem of induction. That leaves us with an unsolved problem. There may be a naturalistic explanation we haven’t thought of, or there may not. Unless you can prove that there is no naturalistic explanation, you can’t infer a supernatural explanation. (Even then, there might simply be no explanation.)
But it gets worse. Even if I accept your argument wholesale and admit that the problem of induction is ultimately solved by some supernatural phenomenon, this would not imply theism. You still have the hard work of identifying that supernatural cause and showing that it is some sort of deity. Materialism per se may be in trouble, but not atheism. I don’t think atheists need be concerned if materialism is violated in this way.
Like you, I find relativistic notions of truth unsatisfying at best, but this “argument” amounts to mere wordplay. You’re confusing “truths” with “true ideas”. Ideas exist in minds, whereas truths are mind-independent. Gravity would work whether anyone had any ideas about it or not.
I believe that thoughts are the result of physical processes in the brain, but these processes are not “random”! The brain is a finely tuned machine whose parts work together in an intricate ballet.
In any case, evolution weeds out brains that fail to perceive the world accurately. Our brains aren’t perfect, but there are sound naturalistic reasons to expect them to work well.
We don’t know enough to justify belief in either claim, but the theistic option is a much bigger stretch.
This is funny because it’s a direct reversal of an argument against creation. Some people find reasons that the universe should require a creator, but atheists often point out that those reasons (e.g. complexity) usually indicate that the creator also requires a creator. You’ve inverted the form of this atheist argument, which is clever but not particularly convincing.
The bottom line is that we don’t know what caused the universe. Maybe it always existed, maybe it popped into existence, but we don’t know why. What is illogical is assuming that God caused the universe without any evidence or convincing argument. God is a possible explanation, but as explanations go, God is very complex (God is person-like, conscious, intentional, interested in us, etc.). In general, simpler explanations, like an uncreated universe, are much more palatable.
As I said, I don’t know how (or if) the universe began. We don’t have enough information to answer this question. And remember, unanswered questions do not mean goddidit.
(When I say I “don’t know how the universe began”, I’m not disputing our knowledge of cosmology. What I mean is that I don’t know why the Big Bang occurred. The Big Bang did occur, and in some sense that’s how the universe “began”. I just want to be clear that knowing that the Big Bang occurred isn’t the same thing as knowing “why there is something rather than nothing”.)
Posted: October 19th 2012
See all questions answered by George Locke