Stephen E. Parrish analyzes atheism with the sharpest tools of analytic philosophy in his latest book, Atheism? A Critical Analysis. After an introductory chapter looking at the issues at hand (circularity, the meaning and extent of worldview, definitions of key words like faith, and the specific type of atheism he’s analyzing–the most prominent one in contemporary philosophy today, naturalistic atheism), Parrish takes up the task of inspecting atheism from all sides, with chapters on competing theories of existence, the existence and order of the universe, the existence of the mind, ethics, and beauty and evil.
The chapter on competing theories of existence is insightful as it both helps divide different worldviews and categorize them and offers a fuller look at what Parrish calls ‘perfect being theism’ which is essentially classical theism sans a strong view of divine simplicity. With definitions under the belt, Parrish then dives into the critical analysis of naturalistic atheism.
The first question explored is that of the universe’s existence and order. Here, Parrish surveys the various possibilities. On naturalistic atheism, the universe may either exist by chance or necessity. He then offers deep analysis of each possibility. The concept of brute fact–that the universe just exists as it does by chance–is, frankly, brutalized in Parrish’s analysis. For example, the idea that our universe is the way it is and ordered because it just happens to be the one in an untold trillions chance that we exist and observe it, and that any other universe would have been just as likely, so we just happened to be likely, does not stand up to scrutiny when one also factors in the selection of an orderly, life-permitting universe like our own. As Parrish’s example points out, if we roll one trillion fair/unloaded dice, what is the likelihood of getting a six on every roll? Each additional sequence would be exponentially less likely. Then, if one rolls the trillion dice a trillion times, the odds of getting this sequence is remote in the extreme. That is, unlikely dice rolls are much, much, much more likely than lucking out and selecting the desired sequence of all 6 rolls. So even if there are an infinite number of possible universes, there is still a set of universes within that overall set of possible universes which would be infinitely less likely to exist, for we’d be trying to select a specific universe with a specific set of circumstances (eg. our own, as opposed to one in which no life is possible, or all that exists is a single star, or a black hole or something of the sort). So brute fact theory still has not accounted for the unlikely nature of our own universe. It is, effectively, equivalent to hand waving and saying the odds don’t matter, we just exist. Calling that an explanation for the existence of the universe is a misnomer at best (see Parrish’s analogy on p. 118). The universe as existing with necessity is analyzed by Parrish in a similar, thought-provoking fashion.
The existence of mind is the next question, and Parrish has done significant work on this question from a philosophical perspective in another work of his, The Knower and the Known (see my two part review: part 1, part 2). Here, Parrish offers a more succinct but nevertheless thorough analysis of the major philosophical positions on the mind from a naturalistic perspective. After a survey of the main options (eg. eliminativism, identity theory, supervenience, and more), he turns to pointing out problems with materialism such as the relationship between the brain and consciousness (146-147), the notion that consciousness is an illusion (147-148), and intentionality–that thoughts sem to be about things (148). Dualism, Parrish notes, has its own set of difficulties, but theism is able to offer a better explanatory power than naturalism because theism has reality as fundamentally personal due to the personal nature of God, thus allowing for an explanation for mind that does not reduce it to nothing, make it illusory, or any other position that suffers from the problems of effectively making consciousness a fiction, or, minimally, a non-intentional state (163).
The next two chapters cover ethics, value, and beauty and note how though these things seem to be observable aspects of our universe, naturalistic atheistic attempts to explain them fail on a number of levels. In particular, they struggle to explain how they can either exist or be objective. Two appendices at the end of the book provide a look at atheism’s ideological development and the social impacts of atheism. The latter appendix is particular aimed to be an answer to those that charge religion specifically is the cause of the worst of society’s ills.
Of the admirable aspects of this book, there is a noted effort to both present the strongest arguments atheists have to offer, including such noted names as J.L. Mackie and Graham Oppy, and an effort in tandem to avoid making arguments that not all Christians could agree with (eg. avoiding making something like ID theory a primary pillar of analyzing atheism in regards to natural order).
It should be noted that this work is intended for a more general audience, with more analogies and basic information presented than in Parrish’s other work. Nevertheless, it still remains deep and incisive in its reasoning and analysis, and readers of any level of expertise in relevant areas will find parts of interest. It would be hard to find a more well-reasoned, deeper look at analyzing atheism in the analytic tradition in a way that is written with accessibility to a more general readership in mind. Words and phrases like “worldview” and “probability structure” are utilized throughout the text, but Parrish defines them in the introductory chapters in such a way that readers will be able to grasp them. When it comes to the analysis itself, because of his engagement with major thinkers and positions in modern atheism, the book will be useful to any reader who finds the topic of interest. Atheism? A Critical Analysis comes recommended without reservations. Any reader can benefit from this extraordinary work.
Full Disclosure: I am named in the acknowledgements of the book, read an early draft, and provided some feedback on the early draft as well. I received a review copy from the author.
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