Stan, I’m worried that our exchange may get bogged down in terminology, and this may do you a disservice. You clearly have a predetermined target as grounds for discussion: namely, that you wish to move to some kind of ‘first principles’ as foundational for investigating nature, and (more specifically) to bring belief itself under scrutiny. Your ambition, as stated on your web site, seems to this observer to be nothing less than to use “the tools of logic and rational thought.... in a careful analysis of the Atheism itself.”

I’m not sure that I’m the best person for that conversation, either, because I am neither an atheist or an Atheist. The difference matters, I think, for atheist (lower-case) to me is simply descriptive of the absence of belief in gods, whereas Atheism (upper-case) implies that said absence is central and motivating to something like a belief system. As illustrative of the difference, as a science teacher who happens to be a theist, I really do think that science is an atheistic enterprise. But then, properly speaking, so is plumbing! Neither science nor plumbing, as a formal matter, involves the invocation of the supernatural. Yet there are plenty of scientists, and plumbers, and all manner of persons who privately harbor this or that belief, including the rather common one that conflates the methodological naturalism of science (which is merely scientific practice) with belief systems.

Anyway, I think your interest in this topic is clearly toward the latter, which is why this conversation has quickly turned on the nature of belief. Yes, it is certainly true that science has certain axiomatic foundations: that there is such a thing as causality, or that the Universe is lawful. And, to the extent that I incorporate such axioms as part of my private worldview, they become beliefs. So, in a sense science knowledge claims can often be represented as claims about what it is that should be believed, so the classic formulation is...

‘To know P is to believe that P is true.’

But, you know, scientific knowledge claims are held provisionally, rather than dogmatically, and on the basis of evidence. Knowledge may imply belief, but it does not imply a belief taken on faith, and that goes for the axioms of science. We accept causation and the lawfulness of the Universe not because they have been proved in any absolute sense, but because we have innumerable observations that support causation and lawfulness, and (this is a key point) many past observations that historically have been interpreted as random, acausal, unlawful etc. (such as supernatural claims) have, upon further investigation, been found to be better explained by scientific models that presume lawfulness. The sun, it seems, does not ride in a chariot.

I conclude, therefore, that I am not compelled to adopt any particular belief system as a personal matter either in doing science or contemplating the foundations of science. It is sufficient that such axioms exist as operational parameters for the conduct of science. These axioms, as with all generalizations in science, may not be true. They may be false. But I don’t need to care about that in order to do science. Based on experience, I and other scientists merely adopt the axioms provisionally as the best foundation for certain kinds of investigation. It is not so much that I intuit the Universe is lawful, now I look for its Laws; rather, I am interested in building models that describe and explain as many phenomena as possible, and the assumption of lawfulness not only greatly simplifies model-building, it seems increasingly difficult not to justify in light of the eminently-repeatable regularities that are apparently observed.

Now, the above attitude, I suppose, does count as something like a belief system in the sense that philosophers have given names to such attitudes. But it is a fluid thing that doesn’t lend itself to the neatest categories. In particular, I’m something of an instrumentalist as far as method is concerned, and a scientific realist in terms of building models to describe large sets of phenomena. The two philosophers whose views I find most compelling are Karl Popper and Charles Pierce, and the reason I feel that way is precisely because their views come closer (at least in my mind) to science as practiced. In fact, while I worry not a bit about the axioms of science, I worry quite a bit about concepts like abduction and falsification, because failure to attend to the niceties here seems to cripple or halt science.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. I don’t feel compelled as a scientist to delve into first principles. Perhaps, if I was a philosopher, I would feel more inclined, so for the purposes of our next post, let’s assume that I’m a philosopher. You seem to want to argue for foundational principles for the acquisition /evaluation of knowledge, and in particular for the claims of ‘big-A’ Atheism. Very well, then, assuming I’m a philosopher, my next question is this:

Given that I need a foundation of some support, what principles would you commend, and for what reason? Am I compelled by logic to adopt any, some or all of these principles?

Also, I urge you to stop me here if I am somehow missing the point, or if this is not where you want to go, and propose a different question for starting-over. I thank you in advance for any correction you might want to offer.

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