Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci discusses “the scope of skeptical inquiry,” and asserts that atheism is not a scientific position but a philosophical one. Here’s part of what he says:
First, let me define what I mean by skeptical inquiry, atheism and political philosophy. Skeptical inquiry, in the classic sense, pertains to the critical examination of evidential claims of the para- or super-normal. This means not just ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, UFOs and the like, but also — for instance — the creationist idea that the world is 6,000 years old. All these claims are, at least in principle, amenable to scientific inquiry because they refer to things that we can observe, measure and perhaps even repeat experimentally. Notice, of course, that (some) religious claims do therefore fall squarely within the domain of scientific skepticism. Also in this area we find pseudohistorical claims, such as Holocaust denial, and pseudoscientific ones like fear of vaccines and denial of global warming. Which means of course that some politically charged issues — like the latter two — can also pertain properly to skeptical inquiry.
So far, so good. But then he goes on to assert that the atheist position is not one that derives from “skeptical inquiry”:
Second, let us turn to atheism. Once again: it is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Now, I have argued of course that any intelligent philosopher ought to allow her ideas to be informed by science, but philosophical inquiry is broader than science because it includes non-evidence based approaches, such as logic or more broadly reason-based arguments. This is both the strength and the weakness of philosophy when compared to science: it is both broader and yet of course less prone to incremental discovery and precise answers. When someone, therefore, wants to make a scientific argument in favor of atheism — like Dawkins and Jerry Coyne seem to do — he is stepping outside of the epistemological boundaries of science, thereby doing a disservice both to science and to intellectual inquiry. Consider again the example of a creationist who maintains in the face of evidence that the universe really is 6,000 years old, and that it only looks older because god arranged things in a way to test our faith. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that could contradict that sort of statement, but a philosopher can easily point out why it is unreasonable, and that furthermore it creates very serious theological quandaries.
I’m baffled. But let’s be clear about what atheism is. I’ll call “weak sense atheism” the position that, I think, most atheists hold. It is this: “There is no convincing evidence for God, so I withhold belief.” This can be further refined, as Dawkins does in The God Delusion, into the statement, “There could be lots of evidence for God, but none has appeared. Therefore I think it improbable that God exists.” This is the stand that informs the atheist bus posters that read, in part, “There probably is no God.”
The second form of disbelief, which I call “strong sense atheism,” is the flat assertion, “I know there is is no God.” Note that this elides a bit into the “probably-no-God” position, depending on how strong you think the evidence is. The existence of suffering in the world, for example, convinces many, but not all, that there is not a beneficent God.
Now I don’t know anyone who is a strong-sense atheist. Even Dawkins, as I recall, is a “70% probability” man — he thinks it pretty improbable that God exists, but adds that he can’t disprove the existence of some kinds of gods. I’m pretty much on board with him. You’d be a fool to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all, including one that doesn’t interfere in the workings of the universe.
So let’s take weak-sense atheism (WSA) as the default stance. In its very weakest, “no-evidence-for-God” sense, WSA is absolutely scientific. After all, what is science but the claim that one needs empirical evidence before accepting something as a reality? When one says, “I see no evidence for a god, and therefore refuse to accept his/her/its reality,” one is saying nothing different from, “I see no evidence for the view that plants have feelings, and therefore I don’t accept the idea that they do.”
What about the “probabilistic” form of WSA? That’s equally scientific. If there could be evidence for a phenomenon, but repeated investigations fail to give that evidence, one becomes less willing to accept that phenomenon. In this sense, being a WSA is no different from making a perfectly scientific claim like this: “I think it pretty improbable that the Loch Ness monster exists.” After all, if there were a giant reptile trapped in the Loch, presumably you could find it. And people have tried. They’ve looked underwater with cameras, hung around the lake trying to photograph it, and conducted sonar and satellite investigations. Nothing has turned up. In all probability, the Monster is a myth.
Based on these searches, is it then a “philosophical position” to say that it’s highly unlikely that Nessie exists? I don’t think so. It’s an evidence-based position — in other words, a scientific one. Similarly, the god that many people believe in, who is said to be beneficent, answer prayers, heal the sick, come back from the dead, and the like, is contradicted by evidence: the failure of prayer and spiritual healing, the existence of inexplicable evil, and so on. There are a million ways that a theistic god could have shown itself to us Earthlings, but it hasn’t happened. There is no more evidence for a world-touching God than for the Loch Ness Monster.
Now of course we can’t refute, or find any evidence for or against, the existence of a purely deistic, hands-off God. In this sense, saying that “God certainly does not exist” is a philosophical position. But that’s not the most common form of atheism.
I’m not a philosopher, so maybe Massimo’s argument is more subtle than I perceive. But I see my own non-acceptance of a deity as a purely scientific stance. I believe it was Bertrand Russell who was asked, “But what if you’re wrong about your atheism? What if you die and find yourself before God, who asks you why you didn’t believe?” Russell’s reply was, “Not enough evidence, Lord; not enough evidence.”
UPDATE: Over at Sentient Developments, Russell Blackford, who is a philosopher, has a long and trenchant critique of Pigliucci’s post.