Saturday, April 4, 2009

Give me that old time atheism

Last night I was dipping into Roy Abraham Varghese’s Great Thinkers on Great Questions, an interesting collection of interviews with a number of prominent philosophers (including A. J. Ayer, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Ralph McInerny, Brian Leftow, Gerard Hughes, and many others) on topics mostly related in one way or another to religion. Some of Ayer’s remarks brought to mind how different earlier generations of agnostics and atheists had been, not merely culturally (as Roger Scruton has noted) but philosophically. Ayer, though a notorious lifelong foe of religion, was not a materialist. In his famous book Language, Truth, and Logic, he attempted (as he reminds us in the Varghese volume) to reduce physical objects to “sense-contents,” entities which were intended to be neutral between mind and matter but which were in fact (as Ayer admits) closer to the mental than to the physical side of the traditional mental/physical divide. Hence the resulting position was “much more nearly mentalistic than physicalistic.” And to the end of his life he apparently always rejected any attempt to reduce the mental to the physical.

The reason for this is that even agnostic and atheist philosophers of Ayer’s generation generally recognized that materialism is just prima facie implausible. As I have noted in some earlier posts (here and here), and as I discuss at length in The Last Superstition, dualism was by no means a deviation from the broadly mechanistic conception of matter contemporary philosophy has inherited from the 17th century, but rather a natural consequence of that conception, given its highly abstract and mathematical redefinition of the material world. If matter is what the mechanistic view says it is, then (it seems) there is simply nowhere else to locate color, odor, taste, sound, etc. (as common sense understands these qualities, anyway), and nowhere else to locate meaning (given the banishment of final causes from the material world), than in something immaterial. And until about the 1960s, most philosophers (the occasional exception like Hobbes notwithstanding) seemed to realize that, short of returning to an Aristotelian hylemorphic philosophy of nature, the only plausible alternatives to dualism were views that tended to put the accent on mind rather than on matter – such as idealism, phenomenalism, or neutral monism.

The last of these, as its name implies, was officially committed to the view that the basic stuff out of which the world is constructed is “neutral” between mind and matter, but notoriously it tends to collapse into either phenomenalism or idealism. In my atheist days, it was the version of neutral monism developed by Bertrand Russell (or rather a riff on that version developed by F. A. Hayek) that I took to be the most plausible approach to the mind-body problem. (In recent philosophy, Russell’s views have been developed, in a way that seeks to avoid any sort of idealism, by Michael Lockwood; and, in a way that to some extent or other concedes their idealistic implications, by Galen Strawson and David Chalmers. In my Russellian days I was more attracted to Lockwood’s approach.) After a brief flirtation with materialism while an undergrad, I was more or less inoculated against it by John Searle’s writings, and came to regard the Russellian approach as the most plausible way to defend a naturalistic (if non-materialistic) view of the world.

Most naturalistic philosophers are not at all attracted to this approach, however, precisely (I would suggest) because of its tendency to collapse into some sort of philosophical idealism. For to make mind out to be the ultimate reality is – as the history of 19th century idealism shows – to adopt a view which must surely strike most naturalists as “too close for comfort” to a religious view of the world. To be sure, Chalmers and Strawson do not take their position in anything like a religious direction, but so far few other naturalists have been willing to follow them.

But if they were wise, they would do so. Chalmers and Strawson are in fact among the most interesting philosophers of mind writing today, in part because of their attempt to defend a kind of naturalism while acknowledging the very deep philosophical difficulties inherent in materialism. (Strawson famously dismisses materialism as “moonshine.”) As I have been lamenting in recent posts, most contemporary philosophical naturalists (to say nothing of non-philosophers who are naturalists, such as the New Atheists) have only the most crude understanding of the theological views they dismiss so contemptuously. In the same way, they tend also to be absurdly overconfident about the prospects of a materialist or physicalist account of the mind.

Earlier generations of philosophical atheists or agnostics – Ayer, Russell, Popper, to name just three – knew how difficult it is to defend such an account, and thus avoided grounding their atheism or agnosticism in a specifically materialist metaphysics. Some of their contemporary successors – Lockwood, Chalmers, Strawson, Nagel, Searle, Fodor, McGinn, Levine, among others – have, to varying degrees, some awareness of the same problems. Consequently, at least some of these people realize that naturalism itself (which seems most plausible precisely when spelled out in materialist terms) is by no means obviously right; it is something that requires a very great deal of effort to defend, and cannot blithely dismiss its rivals. Unfortunately, the bulk of contemporary philosophical naturalists – Dennett and Rey being by no means idiosyncratic in this regard – seem forever lost in their dogmatic slumbers.

ADDENDUM: I should note that Strawson does sometimes call his version of Russell's position "real materialism," and that Lockwood has occasionally said similar things. By contrast, Grover Maxwell, another Russellian who influenced both Lockwood and Strawson, repudiates any kind of "materialist" label even though his views are more or less identical to theirs. And Chalmers sometimes characterizes his own variation on Russellianism as a kind of "dualism"! So, the terminology here can get confusing. The point is that all of these authors reject materialism in the standard (Smart, Armstrong, early Putnam, Davidson, Dennett, Churchland, et al.) sense.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Actually, I was looking over some papers from a recent online philosophy conference (There are links to some of those papers on David Chalmers' blog) and was struck by how one paper was defending physicalism - as in, Russellian monism. In the comments section, one of the contributors crowed about how the efforts of Chalmers and other anti-materialists have made it so Russell's monism is back on the table precisely because the problems with materialism have been so highlighted.

So what I'd ask you, Dr. Feser, is: Do you think we're seeing the start of a trend to return to neutral monism? And if so, do you think there will be an attempt for naturalists to have their cake and eat it too by passing off neutral monism as materialism?

Edward Feser said...

I think it's still too early to say whether neutral monism or Russellianism will make much of a comeback beyond what it has already, though there are signs that it might.

Re: calling it "materialism," I should note that Strawson himself sometimes calls his view "real materialism," even though it is light years away from what people have traditionally meant by materialism. (The reason has to do with the idea that matter is at bottom "really" something like mind.) Lockwood does something similar. By contrast, Grover Maxwell, another Russellian, explicitly repudiates the materialist label, while Chalmers takes his own version of the view to be a kind of dualism! So, the terminology here can get very confusing. The bottom line -- and this was the point of my post -- is that all these authors reject what usually passes for "materialism" or "physicalism." So there really is no sense to be made of the idea that their views might be used to salvage materialism in the usual sense, though they might indeed be used as a way to salvage naturalism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Dr. Feser.

I think your post did a great job of highlighting as much - indeed, I was surprised a while back to find out that Russell was not a materialist. And I think the problems with a thorough materialist/mechanist treatment of mind and the world are tremendous, as you illustrate.

My concern is that 'naturalists' engage in some sleight of hand on these topics. The brief history of materialism is often described in a way that implies it's been a non-stop march of accurate predictions for three hundred years, and the issues with quantum theory (which, I think, Russell himself viewed as stopping materialism in its tracks), chaos theory, etc have been swept under the carpet. And just as you've noticed intentionality and aristotle-like terms/concepts being 'smuggled into' physicalist and naturalist accounts of the mind, I half expect that if the need to reject 'materialism in the usual sense' is recognized, many philosophers will just pick russelian monism or otherwise and call it 'materialism' or 'physicalism', as if no major change took place.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone also noticed that materialists tend to be stubborn, even after a complete demonstration that their system is incoherent?

J. Istre

Jime said...

Ayer, though a notorious lifelong foe of religion, was not a materialist

Just as an incidental and curious anecdotal, Ayer had a near-death experience. After this, he said: "My recent experiences, have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death ... will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be"

http://www.near-death.com/experiences/atheists01.html

Note that Ayer was convinced (before his NDE) that death was the end. In this sense, it seems he saw himself as a materialist, at least in the sense that consciousness is product of the brain and can't survives it.

But Ayer's comment "though I continue to hope that it will be" (refering to his conviction of death as his end), because it shows he HOPED (and wanted?) to believe that death is the end.

It seems that for some, the idea of absolute personal extinction is more confortable than the idea of an afterlife.

P.S
For the record, do you imagine some contemporary secularist, rationalist activist and "new atheism" supporter defending the existence of the afterlife?

Well, such rare phenomenon exist, see this new book by an atheist and self-proclaimed rationalist and skeptic arguing for an afterlife and dualism in his book "The Atheist Afterlife":

http://www.modernphilosophy.com/books/aa_intro.html

I like to collect and study serious books on afterlife research, but given the explicit and uncritical support of the new atheism by the above book's author, I have serious doubts about the reliability of his case for an afterlife or dualism.

The arguments of his website seem very simplistic and agenda-driven (and I wonder what makes him to consider an afterlife and dualism as a serious possibility)

In my opinion, atheism per se is not incompatible with belief in an afterlife, because you can be atheist but not materialist. (In fact, some afterlife researchers are atheists or agnostics; and they think science may be used to researh this field); but contemporary atheism (e.g. the new atheism) is intrinsically materialist, physicalist and mechanistic and, as such, ideologically hostile to an afterlife or any concept of trascendent spiritual dimension (in fact, the same concept "spiritual" makes no ontological sense in that worldview).

Thus, I think the author of that book is pretty confused in his support of the new atheism while arguing for dualism and afterlife.

Jime said...

I forget to comment in Dr.Feser's post "Stove Award winner announced" an argument that is probably the most absurd atheist argument against God's existence that you'll ever read. So I include it here, as (another) off topic.

It was expressed by atheist Richard Carrier in his book "Sense and Godness without God" (p.273)

"Since there is no observable divine hand in nature as a causal process, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no divine hand. After all, that there are no blue monkeys flying out my butt is sufficient reason to believe that there are no such creatures, and so it is with anything else"

As wrote philosopher David Wood in his review of Carrier's book "This may be the worst argument ever offered by anyone, and it gives us some insight into Richard’s position. Let us ponder his logic here. Richard draws an analogy between the absence of an observable divine hand and the absence of blue monkeys flying out of his butt. Just as we reject the idea of blue monkeys, so also we should reject the idea of God. Since this is an analogy, his conclusion about God can only be as strong as his conclusion about blue monkeys. But how strong is that conclusion? Richard says the fact that blue monkeys aren’t flying out of his butt is “sufficient reason” to conclude that blue monkeys don’t exist. The tremendous weakness of this argument should be obvious. Presumably, there are no monkeys of any color flying out of Richard’s butt. Are we to conclude that monkeys don’t exist? Neither are there fire trucks, books, planets, horses, or bees emerging from his butt. But all these things exist"

http://www.answeringinfidels.com/component/option,com_/Itemid,0/option,content/task,view/id,86/#_edn16

We should think that, given that there is no observable atheists flying out of Carrier's butt, then no atheists exists.

Stove's contest has a new (and maybe unbeatible) challenger.

Brodie Bortignon said...

I'm not sure whether Carrier meant his argument in quite that way. When he said, after observing that there was a consistent lack of blue monkeys flying out his butt, that there are 'no such creatures', he might not have meant by that 'blue monkeys' simpliciter, but, rather, 'blue monkeys that fly out of my butt'--and if there are no observations of the latter kind of blue monkey in the general area of Carrier's butt (and I'll take his word for it) then they cannot exist. They'd just be regular blue monkeys. This is a more charitable reading, and it might be better to give Carrier the benefit of the doubt here.

If this is his argument, then it's not so easy to deal with. But it's still quite bad. First of all, Carrier assumes that all knowledge is and must be empirical knowledge: for an object to exist it must be a physical object discoverable by the methods of modern science. This, of course, is far from obvious, and for obvious reasons: the truths of mathematics and logic (for just one example) surely exist, but they are certainly not measurable, physical objects. A person can not point to calculus or weigh set theory. Is Carrier to have us believe that, because they are not empirically measurable, the discoveries of mathematics and logic are not properly to be considered as knowledge? Are they on the same epistemic level as monkeys flying out of a person's arse? Any sane person would say no, of course not; but this sort of absurdity is where Carrier's crude, unargued empiricism leads.

His second problem is that he simply assumes that all causation is physical-to-physical event causation. Again, this is far from obvious. If, as theists maintain, God acts, and that, at some stage in the history of the cosmos at least, God has acted in the world, then of course this is inconsistent with physical-to-physical event causation. But, like Dawkins's use of materialism as a premise in his Ultimate Boeing 747 argument, Carrier's assumption of a variety of causation incompatible with the claims of theism is merely begging the question. He at least owes us an argument for the exclusive validity of physical-to-physical event causation.

Carrier's third problem is perhaps his most obvious. God is not a physical being. In the great monotheistic religions, God has never been claimed to be physical, so even as an analogy Carrier's argument fails. And even if it did go through, it would only prove that God, if He exists, cannot be physical. And that would certainly be devastating for the half dozen or so people who believe in a monotheistic God composed of material parts.

So even on a more charitable reading of Carrier's argument, it is still woefully inadequate. He assumes a gravely problematic version of empiricism--and does do without argument. He assumes a gravely problematic version of causation--and he does so, yet again, without argument. And he makes the absurd assumption that, if God is to be known to exist, then God must be some sort of physical being involved in the chain of material causation. This latter point is, of course, tied up with the materialist assumptions of his initial empiricism.

God or blue monkeys might not be flying out of Carrier's arse, but his arguments certainly seem to be. Arguments, however, are not physical things, though they are communicated through physical mediums; so perhaps Carrier should be forgiven for being unable to discover from where his own arguments derive.

Jime said...

I agree with Brodie's charitable reading of Carrier argument. Certainly, such reading is possible and we'd to prefer it.

That is, blue monkeys with the property of "flying out" of Carrier's butt would expected to be seen if they actually exist. Thus, if we don't see them, then we can infer they (blue monkeys with such property) don't exist.

But Carrier is using that example as an analogy to refute God's existence. The problem is that he's giving to God an arbitrary property (i.e the intervention of God in natural processes in an observable way), creating so a caricature of God's attributes.

As Brodie says "And he makes the absurd assumption that, if God is to be known to exist, then God must be some sort of physical being involved in the chain of material causation"

In conclusion, Carrier's God probably don't exist. but it doesn't implies that God (as usually understood by many theists) doesn't exist.

Carrier's argument refutes his own caricature, not the God as defended by the best theists.

I support the other problems of Carrier's argument (in its most charitable reading) mentioned by Brodie.

Another curious argument of Carrier, this time about Jesus, is this:

"Note, also, that Jesus is never said to have laughed, and by all accounts he had no family life, no children or wife. Is that really an image we ought to follow? And contrary to popular belief, he was not a peace-loving man (Mt. 10:33-6). He could not even restrain himself from violence in the marketplace (Jn. 2:13-16), and this makes even Gandhi a better man than Jesus"

I'm not expert in Christianity, but as far I know Christians must follow th teaching and values transmitted by Jesus, not his specific behaviour. That is, if he never laugh (and I don't know if it's true or not), it doesn't imply that Christians shouldn't laugh either.

A Christian doesn't need to be a copy of Jesus to be a consistent and real Christian. So I believe that Carrier's question "Is that really an image we ought to follow?" is pretty irrelevant.

Brodie Bortignon said...

On the topic of Jesus having a sense of humour, here is a fascinating article by Donald Wayne Viney on that very topic:

http://artfuljesus.0catch.com/viney.html

The quotation of Carrier Jime kindly provided is yet another example of bad reasoning. It's certainly arguable that Jesus never made jokes, as the Viney article makes clear. But does there being no documented example of Jesus laughing prove that Jesus never laughed? I see no reason to believe that. There are, as far as I know, no records of Caesar ever burping. Does that mean that Caesar never burped? Of course not; his chroniclers just thought such a detail irrelevant. The Gospels were written as records of the most important aspects of Jesus's life and teachings; examples of him having a good chuckle wouldn't be particularly pertinent: he had proved his humanity in sundry other ways.

As for Carrier's comment that having no wife or children or family life is not an example we ought to follow, I would say that, while Jesus had no wife or children (that he had no family life is not really true) that doesn't mean that having any of those things is inconsistent with his teachings. Just because he didn't engage in these activities himself doesn't mean that they are contrary to his teachings. Carrier's implicit claim that if one condones a thing one must practice it is just absurd. I condone the right of a man to grow a moustache, but I can hardly be accused of being a hypocrite for not growing one myself.

Eric said...

Chesterton on Jesus' mirth (from 'Orthodoxy'):

"And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never retrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something: I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."

Etienne Gilson said that Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived, which is a judgment that, IMHO, it's difficult to demur at!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the contrast between old time and new time atheism, Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig had a debate last night. Surprise - all accounts are that Hitchens had his ass handed to him.

Four horsemen, indeed.

Tim said...

Maybe that should be the four asses of the apocalypse ... ?

Jime said...

Speaking of the contrast between old time and new time atheism, Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig had a debate last night. Surprise - all accounts are that Hitchens had his ass handed to him

Correct. As I said in other post, Craig will demolish him. And it ocurred as expected.

Even atheists agree:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=1230

Another account of the debate is here:

http://douggeivett.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/william-lane-craig-vs-christopher-hitchens-first-report/

Jime said...

Regarding to another of Carrier's argument against the existence of the Christian God (presented as an "irrefutable" argument), let's see the following (it was taken from his reply to Wood's review mentioned above):

Premise One: If a compassionate God exists, then he would do things just as a compassionate person would.

Premise Two: God doesn't do things as a compassionate person would.

Conclusion: Therefore, a compassionate God does not exist.

This is irrefutable.

Therefore, it is as certain as there is gravity that no compassionate God exists (see pp. 277-82). This entails that Christianity is certainly false. Of course, some other God might still exist, a God who is considerably less compassionate than I am, but there is no good reason to continue holding out for that possibility


http://www.richardcarrier.info/contrawood.html

Rearding premiss one, I'm not sure that God "would do things just as a compassionate person would", because, given his perfect attributes (omnipotence, etc.), he could do otherwise (different both in quantity and kind to those done by human beings)

I think this is the main problem of the argument (premiss two can be take for granted)

I'm not an expert in theodicy or solutions to the "problem of evil", but even if we take Carrier's argument seriously, I doubt it's "irrefutable" as he pretends.

At most, it poses some problems to Christian theism.

Brodie Bortignon said...

For Carrier's argument to be sound, he would have to provide a working definition of compassion and outline why the evils of the world are inconsistent with the existence of a (I assume perfectly) compassionate God. By Carrier's use of the term 'irrefutable' to describe his own argument, he seems to be proposing that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil in the world.

I'm not sure if Carrier is aware of the fact, but the logical argument from evil for the non-existence of God was rightfully abandoned by philosophical atheists some time ago as being unsound (God could have morally justifiable reasons to allow for the existence of evil, such as the creation of free, morally autonomous creatures, to give just one example). The more sophisticated modern strategy is to claim that, while the reality of evil in the world is consistent with the existence of a perfectly good God, the sheer amount of evil makes God's existence improbable. This is the probabilistic argument from evil (and, as Jime truly said, it is an issue that the theist should take very seriously). Carrier exposes his ignorance of the history of this argument by his use of a widely rejected formulation of it. His intellectual sloppiness is further exposed by his use of the term 'compassion'. This is a strange term to employ. Even though one could plausibly argue that perfect goodness implies compassion, compassion does not necessarily imply perfect goodness. The terms overlap, but are conceptually distinct.

Conceptual sloppiness aside, it is fair to interpret Carrier's use of the term 'compassion' as a stand-in for the more relevant concept of 'perfect moral goodness'. If by the former he really means the latter, then his argument is at least more consonant with the argument as it is propounded by modern atheistic philosophers. Nevertheless, his failure to demonstrate a logical contradiction between a compassionate God and the reality of evil is only slightly alleviated by re-stating his argument in a more coherent form by exchanging 'compassion' for 'perfect moral goodness'--which is how he should have formulated it in the first place. Because, even with this correction, the argument still demonstrates no logical contradiction. One could certainly argue that the amount of evil in the world makes the existence of God improbable. But, once again, this is a probabilistic argument, and because of that fact cannot reasonably be described as 'irrefutable'. To do so would to claim a certitude for the argument that the argument itself, by its probabilistic, cannot logically sustain. As we've seen, however, Carrier is no stranger to this sort of childish over-statement.

Sorry for the long posts.

Brodie Bortignon said...

This sentence should read:

'To do so would to claim a certitude for the argument that the argument itself, by its probabilistic nature, cannot logically sustain.'

Matt said...

Looking at the argument being discussed.

“Premise One: If a compassionate God exists, then he would do things just as a compassionate person would.

Premise Two: God doesn't do things as a compassionate person would.

Conclusion: Therefore, a compassionate God does not exist.”



This appears to me to commit the fallacy of equivocation. What does Carrier mean by person? Does he mean “human being” or does he mean person in the broad sense where it includes omniscient omnipotent beings.

If the former is correct premise one is false. It’s simply not true that if God exists he would do the same things a compassionate human being does. Human beings being limited in knowledge and power and perspective as well as having limited responsibilities would behave quite differently to an omniscient omnipotent person who is responsible for everything and is aware the truth of every fact at every time.

If the second interpretation of “person” is correct then it seems to me that there is no reason to support premise two. It’s true God does not act that way a compassionate human being always does, but that’s not what’s required for the argument to work on this interpretation. What’s required is compelling evidence that God does not act they way a compassionate omniscient omnipotent being etc would act, and that’s far from obvious.

Jime said...

Hi Matt,

I've been thinking in your argument, and I think you're correct.

In addition to Brodie's considerations, I believe premise one is false too.

But I didn't make the useful distintion you made about the meaning of "person". I assumed that Carrier was refering to "human person" and this is why I saw clearly his premise was flawed.

But as you have correctly said, if Carier meant by "person" a broad concept including an omniscient, etc. being (like God), then premise two is false or, at least, unwarranted.

He'd have to explain how "divine" compassion is seen by God and, in addition, offer evidence that God is not acting in a divinely compassionated manner according to that criterion. (In addition, he would have to exclude possible reasons that God would have to not acting as compassion would require, like those to enable the evil)

I see Carrier's argument much weaker now.

Brodie Bortignon said...

I recently came across a book by Paul Gavrilyuk called The Suffering of the Impassible God, published by Oxford University Press in 2004. It is a fascinating discussion of the notion of the doctrine of impassibility as understood in Patristic though. It deals, inter alia, with the notion of compassion vis-a-vis God and humanity. I won't even try to summarise the argument here. Needless to say, the concept of compassion is much more complex than Carrier's evidently shallow understanding of it would suggest. From what I've read I would definitely recommend it.

Matt said...

Hi Jime

I actually think its a common mistake made in arguments from evil. I am working on a paper which suggests the same mistake occurs in Michael Tooley's version of the argument from evil.

Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton said...

Hi Dr. Feser,
Regarding Ayer's "sense-contents"; is this more an attempt to address the object as it exists in reality? Or to address the state of our minds on attending to the object?

I guess I'm just confused how "sense-contents" could be anything but something that is immaterial.

Thank you.

Edward Feser said...

Ricky,

The idea was roughly to argue that a "sense-content" was inherently neither mental nor physical, but rather that when sense-contents were related according to the laws of physics, the result was something physical (what we think of as an "external" object) and when related according to the laws of psychology. the result was something mental (what we think of as an "internal" object).

Arthur said...

It seems to me that Carrier's "blue monkeys" argument boils down to the ever-popular "no evidence" argument against God. For that reason, it's also another example of atheists not stating their arguments plainly. Simple though the "no evidence" argument sounds, my main problem was always that the atheist in question almost never describes what they mean by "evidence for God" in the first place. I'm not making this up; I've actually debated with atheists before and extracted confessions that they don't know what they mean by their own words.

That's not to say that you can't get an account of "evidence for God", of course, only to point out that you need such an account to make the "no evidence" argument intelligible, let alone convincing.

For what it's worth, I agree that Carrier is assuming some kind of empiricism. I also wonder, in passing, just what he means by a "divine hand in nature". What would such a "hand" look like? He also seems to think that God meddling in nature, rather than, say, transcending it as First Cause, is the only intelligible way there could be "evidence" for God. That's probably connected to his empiricism again.

All in all, it seems that Carrier doesn't understand his own arguments with much clarity, much less those of his opponents.