A Refutation of Weaver’s “An Objection to Naturalism and Atheism from Logic”
By R.N. Carmona
Weaver’s argument, although robust, commits what I think is a cardinal sin in philosophy: “An objection from logical considerations against atheism is one which attempts to show that some deliverance of logic is at odds with atheism or something strictly implied by atheism” (Weaver, C.G. (2019). Logical Objections to Atheism. In A Companion to Atheism and Philosophy, G. Oppy (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119119302.ch30). One should not get in the habit of drawing ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations and though Weaver makes a good attempt to justify his conclusion, there are too many areas in his composite argument that are vulnerable to attack. There are parts of his composite argument that are clearly stated in his own words, but other parts have to be sifted out from his discussions, specifically on logical monism and classical logical consequence (CLC). Also, the conclusion that atheism is false has to be gathered from his discussion following his claim that ontological naturalism is false.
A general note, prior to proceeding, is in order. Weaver’s paper is quite technical and not at all easy for the untrained eye to read, let alone understand, so I will endeavor to avoid technicality wherever necessary; I will only permit pursuing one technical element because I disagree with Weaver’s treatment of supervenience, how he conveniently begs the question regarding reductionist materialism (if only to ensure that his argument is not met with immediate difficulty), and the conclusion he believes follows. More importantly, I think that the domestication of philosophy within the ivory towers of academia was a critical misstep that needs to be rectified. While analytic philosophy has its use, its abuse makes philosophy the slave of academic elites and therefore, keeps it well out of the reach of ordinary people. Philosophy, therefore, if it is to be understood by laypeople, needs to be communicated in ordinary, relatable language. Since my interest is to, first and foremost, communicate philosophy in an approachable way, I tend to avoid technicalities as much as possible. With that said, it is not at all necessary to quibble with Weaver’s logical proofs of validity (especially because validity matters much less than soundness) or Williamson’s notion that contingentist statements can be mapped onto necessitist ones and vice versa, but that “The asymmetry favours necessitism. Every distinction contingentists can draw has a working equivalent in neutral terms, but the extra commitments of necessitism allow one to draw genuine distinctions which have no working equivalents in neutral terms. If one wants to draw those distinctions, one may have to be a necessitist” (Williamson, T.. “Necessitism, Contingentism, and Plural Quantification.” Mind 119 (2010): 657-748. 86. Web.).
Williamson and Weaver, following his cue, are both guilty of ignoring logical atomism, so ultimately, it does not matter if the validity of logical statements suggests that necessitism about mere propositions is probably true because ultimately, we are not talking about mere propositions but rather Sachverhalte, “conglomerations of objects combined with a definite structure” (Klement, Kevin, “Russell’s Logical Atomism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)). This is perhaps Weaver’s motivation for dismissing Carnap who was anti-metaphysical. It can be argued, therefore, that reinstating metaphysics or overstating its importance is necessary for any argument against naturalism and/or atheism or conversely, for Theism, to get any traction. The fact remains, however, that propositions comprising a sound logical argument are dependent on real world experiences via the senses. The proposition “there is a cat” may speak to the fact that either i) one believes they have seen a cat in whatever space they find themselves in ii) one knows and can confirm that there is a cat in their vicinity iii) there is presently a cat within ones field of vision. While I grant that propositions can speak to entirely imaginary or, at least, hypothetical entities, all propositions rely on entities we have identified in our common tongue. Therefore, statements like “there is a cat” will always rely on content not necessarily entailed within a given proposition. There is still a question as to the context of such propositions and the preciseness of what one is trying to say.
Weaver’s Composite Argument Against Naturalism and Atheism, and Its Problems
With these preliminary concerns in our rearview, I can now turn to Weaver’s composite argument and provide a few avenues for the atheist to refute his argument.
W1 Since situationspf do not exist (“I will therefore be entitled to reject…the existence of situationsPF” (Weaver, 6).), situationsC exist.
W2 Given situationsC , classical logical consequence (CLC) is the case.
W3 From W2, necessitism is true.
W4 “If necessitism is true, then ontological naturalism is false.”
W5 “Necessitism is true.”
W6 “Therefore, ontological naturalism is false” (Weaver, 15).
W7 From W6, “Necessitism is true and modal properties are indispensable to our best physical theories.”
W8 If W7, “then there is a new phenomenon of coordination (NPC).”
W9 “Necessarily, (if there is an NPC, it has an explanation).”
W10 “Necessarily, [if possibly both (atheism is true and there is an NPC), then it is not possible that the NPC has an explanation]”
C “Therefore, atheism is false” (Weaver, 18).
Setting aside that Weaver assumes that suitably precisified situations (situationspf) cannot exist and the problems he would face if just one instance of such a situation does exist, there is a way to show that even on the assumption that just classically precisified situations (situationsC) exist, it doesn’t follow that CLC holds. Weaver seems to think that CLC follows from a schema concerning mere validity: “A deductive argument is valid, just in case, there is no situation in which the premises are true and the conclusion false” (Weaver, 4). I think it is straightforwardly obvious that a typical non sequitur already violates this schema. Consider the following:
P1 If it is cloudy outside, there is a chance of precipitation.
P2 It is cloudy outside.
C Therefore, the Yankee game will be postponed.
The first two premises are true perspectively. In New York City, at this present hour, it is partly cloudy outside and there is thus, a chance of precipitation. However, the conclusion is false because the New York Yankees are not even in Spring training and it is out of the norm for them to have a regular season home game in late January. The above argument can prove true given not only at least one extra premise, but also the fact that it is not winter but spring, and that the MLB regular season is underway. This goes a long way in showing that propositions are usually missing crucial content and are true given specified context. Perhaps, then, Weaver should provide a different schema to ground CLC.
Weaver, unfortunately, does not give an adequate account of what he means by situationspf and what such situations would look like. It is enough to reiterate that the existence of even one such situation takes him back to square one. This is aside from the fact that a rejection of pluralism entails a rejection of arguments operating outside of classical logic, e.g., Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument, which rests of the axioms of S5 modal logic. A thorough rejection of free logical systems would limit Theists to the domain of classical logic, which will prove unforgiving since nothing like God seems operative in the real world.
Weaver’s dependence on situationsC and CLC proves problematic and is one place for an atheist to focus on. Another avenue for an atheist to take is W4 and W5. Is the notion that ontological naturalism is false conditional on necessitism being true? I do not think Weaver established that this premise is true. Furthermore, aside from exploring whether these clauses have a conditional relationship, one can simply ask whether necessitism is true. The jury is still out on whether necessitism or contingentism is the case, and there may yet be a synthesis or a handful of alternative positions that challenge both. Given the current state of the debate, I am uncommitted to either position, but I am suspicious of anyone siding with one for sake of attempting to disprove a position they already assume is false, which, in Weaver’s case, are naturalism and atheism.
In plain language, the perspective of necessitists falls flat or appears to be saying something nonsensical. Williamson outlines where disagreement lies:
For instance, a contingentist typically holds that it is contingent that there is the Thames: there could have been no such river, and in those circumstances there would have been no Thames. By contrast, a necessitist typically holds that it is necessary that there is the Thames: there could have been no such river, but in those circumstances there would still have been the Thames, a non-river located nowhere that could have been a river located in England. Thus the contingentist will insist that necessarily if there is the Thames it is a river, while the necessitist allows at most that necessarily if the Thames is located somewhere it is a river.Williamson, T.. “Necessitism, Contingentism, and Plural Quantification.” Mind 119 (2010): 657-748. 9. Web.
Contingentists deny the necessity of the Thames, whether river or not. These identity discussions extend further when one considers people. Manuel Pérez Otero explores this and tries to synthesize these two opposing point of views (see Otero, Manuel Pérez. “Contingentism about Individuals and Higher-Order Necessitism.” Theoria: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, vol. 28, no. 3(78), 2013, pp. 393–406. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23926328. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.). Though Otero’s synthesis is tangential for our purposes, it shows that this binary Weaver thinks exists is one of his own making, essentially a false dichotomy. Given the issues necessitism presents for ordinary language, and the likelihood of one of its alternatives being true, it follows that necessitism is probably false. An exhaustive defense of a position I am not committed to is not at all required to show where Weaver has gone wrong.
This takes us to Weaver’s treatment of supervenience and his New Phenomenon of Coordination (NPC), which states:
Why is it that modal properties and notions enter the verisimilitudinous fundamental dynamical laws of our best and most empirically successful physical theories given that modal properties do not weakly supervene upon the physical or material? (or) How is it that the material world came to be ordered in such a way that it evolves in a manner that is best captured by modally laden physical theorizing or dynamical laws given that modal properties do not even weakly supervene upon the material and non-modal? (Weaver, 17)
If necessitism is probably false, then ontological naturalism still has a chance of being true. This is despite the fact that Weaver failed to show that the falsity of ontological naturalism is conditional on necessitism being true. A stronger route for him to have took is to argue that ontological naturalism is false iff necessitism is true because even if turns out that necessitism is true, ontological naturalism can also be true. Weaver has not established that they are mutually exclusive. Therefore, an atheist can feel no pressure at all when confronted with NPC. This is setting aside that Weaver appears to be undisturbed by the incongruity of our scientific and manifest images. One would think a reconciliation is required before proclaiming that the material world is organized via modally laden physical theories and dynamic laws that supervene, whether strongly or weakly, on the material world.
The primary issue with Weaver’s assessment is the assumption that all atheists must be committed to reductionist materialism or physicalism to be a consistent ontological naturalist. There are alternative naturalisms that easily circumvent Weaver’s NPC because such a naturalist would not be committed to any version of supervenience. As an example, this naturalist can hold, to put it as simply as possible, that scientific theories and models are merely representations. Therefore, the modality of scientific theories need not supervene on the material world at all. Given a representationalist account of scientific theories, perhaps something like a reverse supervenience is the case.
∎∀𝑥∀𝑦(∀𝐹 𝐹𝑥 ≡ 𝐹𝑦 ⟶ ∎∀R R𝑥 ≡ R𝑦 )
Necessarily for any entity x and for any entity y, [(if for any material property F, (x has F, just in case, y has F), then necessarily, for any representational property M, (x has M, just in case, y has M)].
Scientific theories and models are, in other words, more akin to impressionist paintings than a group of modally laden propositions. This is a more commonsense view in that a scientific model is a portrait of the real world. While there is a feedback between the model and the material world, in that theories have to be tested against reality, theories and models are not conceived in a vacuum. Real world observations impose the postulates of a theory or render a portrait that we call a model. Ptolemy misconstrued planetary orbits and attributed their motions to invisible spheres rather than the ellipses we are familiar with. He was not far off the mark, especially given that there is an intangible involved, namely gravity, but his impression was inexact. This is what a representationalist account of scientific theories would look like and whether something like reverse supervenience is necessary does no real harm to the account.
The last route atheists can take is in Weaver’s conflation of atheism and naturalism. Though I am sympathetic to the conflation, like Nielsen, who stated, “Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism” (Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.), the same need not apply in vice versa. In other words, the following statement need not be the case: “atheism, where consistent, is a naturalism.” While I am also partial to that statement, even going as far as defending it in Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism, that gods do not exist does not entail that no immaterial beings can exist. It could be the case that no iteration of god exists, but that ghosts do. Weaver’s conflation seems to rest on the assumption that naturalism is the antithesis of supernaturalism. Naturalism is also opposed to paranormal phenomena, so there can be defeaters of naturalism that are not also defeaters of atheism. In other words, a definitive proof of the paranormal does not debase the thesis that gods do not exist. A definitive proof of one’s great grandma roaming the estate does not imply that God or any other god undeniably exists. Nielsen’s statement implies only that a disproof of atheism is also a disproof of naturalism, but this does not work in the other direction.
Ultimately, in light of the composite argument above, one that I think is true to Weaver’s overall argument, fails to disprove ontological naturalism and atheism. There is far too much controversy in a number of places throughout his argument to regard it as convincing. The argument needs to be critically amended or entirely abandoned because in its present form, it does not meet its end. My rebuttal provides fertile ground for further exploration with respect to necessitism, contigentism, and any possible syntheses or alternatives, in addition to what is required to contradict naturalism and atheism. God, whether the idea Theist philosophers defend, or a more common concept tied to a particular religion, is still resolutely resigned to silence, hiddenness, and outright indifference. Therefore, Theists have their own onus that must go beyond even a successful argument against naturalism and/or atheism.