Pages

Monday, December 5, 2011

Atheism: The default option?

One of the more common "arguments" (a terrm I use loosely for this article) is the notion that atheism is the default option.  Or put in another way, that atheists state that the correct default assumption is to state that God does not exist until proven otherwise.

There are actually quite a few problems with this "argument" however.  The first is the assumption that there are only two positions to take on the God existence question.  That the question of God's existence is either true or false.  There is actually a third, that of the unknown.  It is possible for a person to not know either way if God exists or not.  We call these people agnostics.

The atheist would object that for all functional purposes an agnostic and an atheist are interchangeable.  This is true at the functional level.  But it is not true at the proposition level.  An agnostic does not say that God does not exist.  An agnostic states that he doesn't know if God exists or not.  An atheist asserts that God does not exist.  An atheist is not netural on the question.

A theist points out that the atheist has no standing either on the question.  But at this point the atheist employs a sleight of hand.  The statement is that since it is impossible to prove a negative (i.e. God does not exist) it is only proper to assume that God does not exist and prove that He does.  This is absurd for two reasons. 

The first is that as pointed out above we are not locked in by two positions.  The "default" is the stance that we cannot conclude one way or another.  Thus the assumption should be that we dont' know if God exists or not.

The second problem is that if it is impossible from the evidentiary standpoint to prove a negative, then there can be no such thing as a rational atheist.  It is not possible to prove the non-existence of God by the rules set forth by the atheist.  The only thing one can conclude in the negative is that we do not know if God exists or not.  There is no way to assert that God does not exist if evidentiary arguments are what is required.

What the atheist in this case is claiming is "I cannot prove God does not exist.  Thus I will simply assume I'm right and force the theist to do the heavy intellectual lifting."  It is ultimately an argument in bad faith.  The atheist assumes something he cannot possible know by his own framework.  It is an intellectually lazy position to take, and one that reason cannot argue against because if taken on its own terms reason was not how it was arrived at.

The theist should rightly point out that this position is absurd and force the atheist to concede or argue against three things:
  1. That under this framework there is no way to prove God does not exist.
  2. That the atheist position as the default has nothing to support it.
  3. That evidentiary arguments are not necessary (indeed that they are not even appropriate) for determining the existence of God.   
  

8 comments:

Cuttlefish said...

You are conflating knowledge and belief (as many do). If you have no knowledge of something, what is your default position toward it, with regard to belief?

Your "two positions" paragraph does not speak about belief, but it should; there are two positions, mutually exclusive, that can be taken on the belief question. You either believe, or you do not. This is independent of knowledge. My sister does not think she can prove that god exists (thus, an agnostic stance w/r/t knowledge), but she believes that god exists (thus, a theistic stance w/r/t belief). I think it is logically and physically impossible to know for certain that a god exists--that is, even if we begin with the assumption that a god does exists, I believe it would be impossible for humans to discriminate between that god and a non-god but very powerful entity (thus, an agnostic stance), but I see no reason to believe that a god does, in fact, exist (thus, an atheist stance).

Agnosticism and atheism are not whatsoever interchangeable. And your definition of atheism is but one of several, and certainly not the definition that my atheist friends and I use. I prefer the privative definition, that atheism is the "none of the above" answer to the question "what god do you believe in?" I presume, since you are CatholicGuy, that you believe in the Abrahamic God of the bible, but not in Zeus, Thor, Odin, Athena, Isis, or a thousand other gods that others have believed in over the centuries. You probably (I cannot know) go a step further and positively assert that these gods do not exist.

Of course, the burden of proof is not on you to disprove the existence of these gods, just as it is not on me to disprove yours. In truth, you don't have to actively deny the existence of those gods (except that the first commandment makes this denial an explicit element of your own faith); you just don't have to believe in them.

It's quite simple, actually. Once you get over your misconception about the definition of atheism, and your conflation of knowledge and belief, I think you'll find it makes much more sense.

CatholicGuy said...

Thanks for stopping by!

"You are conflating knowledge and belief (as many do)."

How would you define "knowledge?"

"Your "two positions" paragraph does not speak about belief, but it should; there are two positions, mutually exclusive"

Actually that is not true. One can also hold that it is impossible to know either way. That is not atheism per se, but a more agressive form of agnosticism.

You assert quite a few "beliefs" without evidence, logical or otherwise. As such this is little better (and from a scientism perspective impossible to prove) than the Faith of a religious.

"that atheism is the "none of the above" answer to the question "what god do you believe in?""

Actually the question is "Does God exist?" Not the same thing as "Which God?" Do you grant then the existence of God as defined in the classical theist sense then? And it is simply the current religious definitions (which in Catholic Theology is the the classical theist position)?

"I presume, since you are CatholicGuy, that you believe in the Abrahamic God of the bible"

I do. But the existence of God is philosophical in nature, not religious. Thus I do not need to draw upon the "Abrahamic God" to hold that God exists. This is why the Greek could by natural reason conclude that there is a God.

"You probably (I cannot know) go a step further and positively assert that these gods do not exist."

My conclusion is that they do not because the original proponents of them have abandoned the belief. To me it is a rational view that if no one actually proposes such beliefs as serious for consideration then that plus the philosophical incoherence of polytheism leads to a safe conclusion.

"except that the first commandment makes this denial an explicit element of your own faith); "

True but again the existence of God is knowable by reason. I don't need to draw on a religious tradition to see that. But the limits of reason can only tell us so much.

Cuttlefish said...

So, are you attempting to understand, or attempting to justify your beliefs and win an argument?

(To briefly answer your first question, knowledge would be defined pragmatically and provisionally, through agreement by community. There is no objective knowledge, but there need be none. Those who do claim objective knowledge all too often disagree with others who also claim objective knowledge.)

Your "does god exist" presupposes a particular god; this is certainly your world view, but it is not at all the only view, or even the only current view. Your privileged position (I say that merely descriptively, not judgmentally) allows you to claim your view as "the classic theist position", but if you are trying to understand an atheist's point of view, you are going to have to stand in one's shoes for a bit.

Not only is it possible, as you say, to hold that it is impossible to know either way (indeed, that was the example I gave in my first comment, describing my own position), I have not seen a coherent argument that would allow someone with a human being's sensory, perceptual, and cognitive limitations to know with certainty that a god exists. It may be possible, depending on one's opening assumptions, to reason that a god exists, but again I have seen no arguments that do not reduce to a circular assumption of existence (well, ok, I *have*, but these have been arguments from ignorance, a "god of the gaps" argument from personal incredulity that falls apart with the slightest examination).

Your criterion for rejecting a god strikes me as indefensible. How many believers does it take, before a god can be considered to exist? Do you neglect all the non-western religions, the African, the Native American, the Aboriginal, the Indian? The Shakers died out, and none are left to believe in their god...(yes, it was the abrahamic god, but they certainly were not Catholics)

The existence of god, I hold, cannot be knowable by reason. Your last sentence hints at why. Your god is held to be omniscient, by people who could not possible discriminate omniscience. Your god is held to be omnipotent, by people who are unable to determine omnipotence. The characteristics of your god are impossible for us to perceive; revealed knowledge is as unreliable as eyewitness testimony; reason and logic depend on axiomatic assumptions, the validity of which are often impossible to determine.

And yet... you believe. This is my point. Belief is independent of knowledge. The vast majority of your fellow believers do not believe because of "conclusions drawn from natural reason"; they believe because they were brought up in communities which taught them to believe. They do not act as if they all worship the same god (many, as members of historically separate religions, clearly do not; others, like internecine warfare in both Christianity and Islam, fight to the death in the name of what historically is the same god.) They are members of different religions. In this environment, we have words for non-christians (heathens), non-muslims (infidels), non-jews (gentiles or goyim)... and the privative category, the none-of-the-above "atheists". No active denial required, just a simple "none of the above".

Oh, and I'd love to see the philosophical incoherence of polytheism explained, while leaving intact the alleged coherence of monotheism, without assuming your conclusions in some fashion.

CatholicGuy said...

"There is no objective knowledge, but there need be none. "

Is this a belief? Or knowledge? And how do you know?

"Those who do claim objective knowledge all too often disagree with others who also claim objective knowledge.)"

This neither proves nor disproves objective knowledge. See my post on Objective Morality. Your argument is a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallicy.

"Your "does god exist" presupposes a particular god; this is certainly your world view"

Only the most basic kind. The source of everything. It is the view of classical theism, shared by such as Plato. Does not require specific claims that only divine revelation can provide.

"characteristics of your god are impossible for us to perceive; revealed knowledge is as unreliable as eyewitness testimony; reason and logic depend on axiomatic assumptions, the validity of which are often impossible to determine."

Why does this make them less knowable?

"How many believers does it take, before a god can be considered to exist?"

Didn't you just say that knowledge is a consensus based notion? Not sure what you are arguing here.

"And yet... you believe."

No. I know. The existence of the classical theism concept of God is arrived at through natural reason. Not Faith.

"The vast majority of your fellow believers do not believe because of "conclusions drawn from natural reason";"

Doesn't matter. Objective truth is by definition objective. 100% could be wrong and and the truth is the truth. Your philosophy is incoherent.

You may be interested in Thomas Aquinas Five Ways. Most who I've seen object to them only demonstrate they dont' understand the argument.

Cuttlefish said...

Ok, you have (in more than enough words) answered my first question--you are not interested in understanding. Too bad. You might have learned to see things from a different vantage.

"Is this a belief? Or knowledge? And how do you know?" It is, consistently, the consensus of those who study human belief empirically. I'm one of them, so that's the position from which I speak. You speak from the perspective of a very different consensus, which allows you to believe in "objective truth". As Laplace said, "I have no use for that hypothesis".

"This neither proves nor disproves objective knowledge." It merely serves as one example among many that, if there is objective knowledge, it certainly eludes the grasp of religious doctrine. Objective truth that cannot be known is, pragmatically, the same thing as no objective truth.

"Why does this make them less knowable?" Wait, seriously? We have an empirical history of unreliability in human perception and cognition, against which you have a bare assertion that something which is far beyond the comfort limits of our sensory apparatus can be known with certainty? Sorry, but anyone who claims they can get to absolute truths by ignoring what empirical research has found, is not giving a lot of reason to trust their assertion.

"Didn't you just say that knowledge is a consensus based notion? Not sure what you are arguing here." Do try to keep up, then; I did indeed say that knowledge is a consensus based notion. *You*, however, said that you reject prior gods because others had abandoned them. My points were that A) there are current religions that do not worship your god, B) there was a time when your god was not yet worshipped, and C) that groups who worship a version of your god have gone belly-up; if we looked only at that group, your criterion would reject your own god. I don't expect you to follow my notions, but I sort of expect you to follow your own.

"100% could be wrong and and the truth is the truth." This, of course, is inconsistent with "My conclusion is that they do not because the original proponents of them have abandoned the belief. To me it is a rational view that if no one actually proposes such beliefs as serious for consideration then that plus the philosophical incoherence of polytheism leads to a safe conclusion." I begin (ok, continue) to suspect that you are not reasoning, but rationalizing.

"No. I know." No. You believe. If you wish to claim that atheists must be agnostics, you must realize that you are as well. Your logic presupposes its conclusions, which your assumption of "god" as opposed to "a god" shows. You need to be as brutal to your own assumptions as you are to atheists, and see if your own view holds its own.

I don't expect you to. I was hoping you were looking to learn, instead of to score apologetics points. I think, based on your response, that I was wrong. If you wish to understand, you will need to recognize the biases you bring with you, and abandon them. I genuinely wish you luck with that.

CatholicGuy said...

"You might have learned to see things from a different vantage."

I only consider viewpoints that at least have a chance of being logically consistent. You have yet to demonstrate that yours has that possibility. Hence the questions.

"It is, consistently, the consensus of those who study human belief empirically."

This is circular reasoning. Human knowledge is determined by consensus, and it was a consensus that determined this. It also isn't true. It is a modern invention. Most cultures have proposed that truth is Objective.

"You speak from the perspective of a very different consensus, which allows you to believe in "objective truth". "

The phrase "there is no objective truth" is self contradictory. I don't need a consensus to back it up. Just the Law of Non-Contradiction.

"It merely serves as one example among many that, if there is objective knowledge, it certainly eludes the grasp of religious doctrine."

No it doesn't. That's the point. It's a logical fallacy to conclude such. That people disagree with each other over objective truth tells us nothing about objective truth. It tells us that people disagree. That's it. To draw a conclusion that objective truth doesn't exist (which is what I think you are claiming, your writing is not very clear) is to commit a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy.

Until you shore up these propositions your whole philosophy is a self refuting circular mess. The denial of objective truth combined with saying I'm "wrong" about anything like saying I'm "wrong" for liking Pepsi over Coke.

"If you wish to understand, you will need to recognize the biases you bring with you, and abandon them."

Pot. Meet Kettle. That your snippy responses only leads me to suspect that it is emotion driving these ideas, not logic.

JC said...

And the hits keep rolling. This conversation reminds me a bit about Prof. McInerny's discussion of how we approach philosophy--do we need a "blank slate" approach or is it ok to begin with some prior beliefs? The only way to "begin" with a blank slate is to begin at infancy, since everybody who has reached the will by nature of having reached that age begun to reason--and thus to draw conclusions, however tentative.

CatholicGuy said...

JC,

I particularly love the assumption that I have not even considered the viewpoint of the atheist. As if simply meditating on that view will suddenly overturn all that philosophical mumbo jumbo about God. It hasn't occurred to our interlocutor that those who hold to the existence of God have their brains turned on, and horror of horrors actually conclude that Faith is grounded in reason.