Evolving Thoughts

The local evangelical students society had me along last night to talk about “Is belief in the Christian God rational?” I was on the negative, although I did ask them which side they wanted me to argue for. It was done in traditional debating format, and I found it incredibly restrictive – speakers were allowed to get away with introducing stuff they hadn’t mentioned in their main point piece, and a number of things were left up in the air.

Kudos to the undergraduate organisers Tim and Stewart for having a philosophy lecturer and a graduate student in physics and moral philosophy (Sebastian Schnelle, my cospeaker) address them while they, as undergraduates, took the affirmative. And they were very well behaved too, no Ken Ham-style rhetorical tricks (although I did make mention of the Gish Gallop, which may have forestalled some moves). But one thing that my honorable opponents did do is a standard way of framing such debates:

Worldviews.

Both pro speakers made mention of the fact that “atheism/agnosticism is a worldview of naturalism”. Now this is a theme that is repeated so often one might start to believe it if not for the fact that it licenses the following argument:

Christianity is a worldview that rests on a set of presuppositions.

Atheism and agnosticism is a worldview that rests on a set of presuppositions.

One’s choice of presuppositions makes one’s worldview reasonable.

===

Ergo, Christianity is a reasonable belief (at least as rational as agnosticism/atheism)

Similar arguments are put that “belief” in science is on a par with belief in Jesus or the Bible, and so this is really about duelling worldviews. That is, about which religion is correct.

But there’s a couple of deep flaws here. Agnosticism is the absence of knowledge about a god-claim. Atheism is the absence of a god-claim. Absences, although they may make the heart grow fonder, have no other implications. They cannot, for they are not-things, not things, and for something to have a property or implication it has to be a thing.

In simpler terms, as the old saying has it, bald is not a hair colour. Not believing in some religion is not a religion. It may be that those who are either agnostic about Christianity, or atheist about it, have some other set of commitments that might qualify as a religion, but they do not need to, just in virtue of being a not-theist or a not-knower. So the choice is between believing in Christianity or not-believing in Christianity. It is not a case of commensurable religions, but a religion and no religion. This is the privative fallacy, from the old term for a lack of something.

The other error is more widespread. I was in effect accused of having a worldview that precluded the existence of God, and the audience was invited to compare that with my opponents, who had one that permitted God. But the simple fact is, I don’t have a worldview. In fact, neither do they. I don’t think worldviews exist. They are a gross oversimplification of what is actually going on inside people’s heads, and are mere abstractions. If one believes in God, one might still believe things that are inconsistent with a belief in God. Intellectual schemes are not whole cloth, and you can entertain incompatible ideas, and in fact I think you must, because nobody gets a simple set of coherent ideas handed to them at birth, free of all confounding beliefs.

Christians, who have an extensive body of traditional dogma which they like to reassure themselves is true and consistent, like to think also that everybody has something like this. Religions are “rationally reconstructed” as sets of dogma by the Christian tradition (e.g., when doing anthropology by missionary) when in fact there is no dogma at all, just stories, rituals, and ways of life. The idea that one has a worldview by necessity is one that is made by analogy with a false view of themselves. The worldview tradition comes out of the propositional view of beliefs that ultimately found its best expression in Wittgenstein:

When two Principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled, then each man calls the other a fool and a heretic. On Certainty, 611

If a Lion could talk, we could not understand him. Philosophical Investigations, p190

The lion comment is understood as being based on meaning as a “form of life” (Lebensform): lions have a form of life that is different to us and so the meaning of their utterances would be opaque. Likewise, the principles (Prinzipe) are basic, fundamental, giving meaning to the belief system of their holders in ways that are ultimately equivalent and between which one cannot decide – you either hold the Prinzipe or not.

I think this is a fundamental error, on Wittgenstein’s part as much as that of anyone else who holds to this Weltanschauung mythology. If a lion could talk we’d understand quite a lot – because we share a form of life (we have an evolutionarily related biology, for a start), and two principles of human intellect also share forms of life – that of being human biologically and that of a shared history if there is one. And that shared nature means we can evaluate one or both for coherence, sense and reliability. Some views are just not amenable to a good life. I think Christianity is one, and not because I have some well-worked alternative I’d like to sell you, but because I can learn from the past and make inferences, and so can you.

Beliefs are not abstract sets of propositions. Or rather, some are, but not all of them. We have malformed, half formed and underinterpreted ideas all the time, but that doesn’t give us a conceptual scheme. In this regard I am with Donald Davidson’s attack on the very idea.

So to my Christian audience I say, do not commit either the privative fallacy or the Weltanschauung mistake. If you think you can evade my and others criticisms by assigning some faux ideology to us in virtue of us not adopting your own preferred set of absolutes, you are greatly mistaken, and building a nice strawman to knock over.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Grossman
    August 20, 2008

    Lovely piece.

    Wittgenstein: If a Lion could talk, we could not understand him.

    Or, in a great parody attributed (I think correctly) to Michael Frayn:

    If a lion could speak, it would not understand itself.

    http://stevepetersen.net/personal/wittgenstein-fog.html

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    August 20, 2008

    *snort*

  3. #3 Dunc
    August 20, 2008

    While I completely agree with you, there is another interpretation of the “different worldview” argument which is less easy to deal with – the one based on differing epistemological standards. If you simply don’t accept the “rational” definitions of evidence and logic, at least as they apply to certain subjects of enquiry, then you could be said to have a “different worldview”. Rationalism rests on the presupposition that the world makes some kind of sense. Not everyone accepts that – at least, not in all cases.

    I suspect that a lot of the disagreement between rationalists and irrationalists has its roots in differing definitions of what it actually means for something to be “true”. Now I appreciate that it’s hard, as a rationalist, to understand how there could be any disagreement over that, but I do believe it’s there.

  4. #4 Brian English
    August 20, 2008

    John, you claim to be agnostic. But I claim to be atheist and your views are mine. With the possible exception that, without any reasonable arguments, or evidence. I assume that the non-experience doesn’t exit. I don’t claim that it doesn’t exist.

    By the way, excellent post. Kudos.

  5. #5 Dave X
    August 20, 2008

    “…speakers were [not?] allowed to introduce material…”

  6. #6 jeff
    August 20, 2008

    If you say you are a rationalist, or a physicalist, or an atheist, or a flat-earther – aren’t those all worldviews? You are making some kind of truth claim with global implications, usually corresponding to a single image or idea in the mind. Of course, one need not have any such images, but most people do.

    As far as Wittgenstein goes, I suspect most of us walk around 90% of the time experiencing mental models of our own construction, that have a tenuous connection at best to any noumenal reality. (98% for philosophers)

  7. #7 John S. Wilkins
    August 20, 2008

    Dave, no, they were. That was what got up my nose…

    Jeff: No, if I am a rationalist, that means I hold some views named by that word. It doesn’t mean all my views or even most of them are in fact controlled and determined by those views. It doesn’t even mean I am consistently a rationalist (think of all those angry atheists who are “rational” about everything but their own atheism and fail to admit the correctness of my views on the matter).

    A worldview is something that must, per definition, cover all my views of the world. As to canons of logic and debate, there is a sense in which no matter how perverse one tries to be relative to everyone else’s standards, one cannot be too perverse. Human nature and society reigns in those who would redefine logic and normalcy to give their wackiness a free run. That’s the point about shared Lebensformen. At some point you are just sick.

  8. #8 llewelly
    August 20, 2008

    Isn’t ‘pigeonhole’ the other word for ‘worldview’ ?

  9. #9 Flaky
    August 20, 2008

    I’ve always understood the word ‘worldview’ to mean a mental model of the world that a person has. Thus, we do have worlviews, but saying that a worlview consists of a set of presuppositions is a crude abstraction at best.

    I do wonder why believers don’t themselves see how absurd these sort of mind games are though. On one hand for them God is as real as the chair I’m sitting on, and similarly has an effect on the real world (e.g. Jesus really did walk on water). On the other hand, believers need to resort to this sort of verbal trickery to rationalize to themselves that God really does exist, or that believing in God, at the very least, is reasonable despite the remarkable absence of direct evidence.

  10. #10 Bill the Cat
    August 20, 2008

    It was said best long ago.

    “Faith is believing in something you know isn’t true.” -Mark Twain

    Face it, the religious know that they are pretending. They’re having fun baiting intelligent but gullible people into taking them seriously. When I was a kid, we called this yanking someone’s chain. They’re completely disingenuous when they’re toying with the sincere.

    Wise up, kiddies.

  11. #11 Todd
    August 20, 2008

    But there’s a couple of deep flaws here. Agnosticism is the absence of knowledge about a god-claim. Atheism is the absence of a god-claim. Absences, although they may make the heart grow fonder, have no other implications. They cannot, for they are not-things, not things, and for something to have a property or implication it has to be a thing.

    For the life of me, I have never been able to distinguish between the two positions. The heated debates that erupt over the two positions strike me as a Lilliputian argument over breaking eggs.

  12. #12 Iain Walker
    August 20, 2008

    Re Wittgenstein & worldviews:

    One sometimes encounters a Wittgenstein-derived argument from believers (and from non-believers who still “believe in belief” or who are pushing a NOMA-style position) to the effect that religious language constitutes a language game in its own right, and hence that religious utterances are not liable to evaluation from a position external to the rules of said language game.

    This seems to me to commit the same mistake as that outlined in the original post. Yes, there are some ways of speaking which more typically crop up in religious contexts than others, but there are few that are restricted to religious contexts alone. For the most part, religions (and indeed all cultural institutions) participate in many different ways of talking which have applications in a wide variety of contexts.

    (Just to give an example, if you’re going to talk about God as an agent, then you are playing the language game of intentionality or agent-talk, and your claims can be legitimately evaluated by anyone else who can play that game. And if you’re going to talk about God as an agent in a metaphorical sense, then you can be taken to task by anyone who understands the rules of the intentionality game and the metaphor game.)

    In short, the whole idea of a language game as something correlating with a particular area of cultural practice, gives rise to a very misleading and unhelpful taxonomy of human thought. There is no hard and fast category of “religious language” that somehow allows believers to shield their ideas from analysis and criticism from an independent stand point.

  13. #13 Thony C.
    August 20, 2008

    I’ve always understood the word ‘worldview’ to mean a mental model of the world that a person has. Thus, we do have worlviews (sic), but saying that a worlview (sic) consists of a set of presuppositions is a crude abstraction at best.

    If I understand our Aussie Anthropoid correctly he is saying that the most of us don’t have “A” mental model of the world, that is one single one, but that each of us has a whole collection of mental models, that are not even usually consistent with each other, that we apply individually in different situations and at different times. I would even claim that it is possible for us to apply two different and even contradictory mental models to two separate occurrences of the same situations, its called changing ones mind!

    If I have interpreted His Gorillaness correctly then I thoroughly agree with him.

  14. #14 Eamon Knight
    August 20, 2008

    This “worldview” or “assumptions” argument pops up with various levels of sophistication, and in slightly different forms. Sometimes it seems that the apologist is making a straight-forward accusation of bias, of failure to “think outside the box”, to consider alternative positions and ideas. Given that such tunnel vision is a common human failing to which no one is immune, that’s not a priori an unreasonable accusation to make. Rebutting such an accusation requires delving into the details of the point under debate, attempting to show that the alternatives have not been neglected, but rejected for cause — at which point the original accusation often starts to morph into something like hard presuppositionalism, in which the two views are simply incomparable on evidential grounds, being completely determined by assumptions held on faith.

    I think apologists (some of whom are merely muddled thinkers rather than actively dishonest) get a fair bit of mileage out of this equivocation.

  15. #15 Ed Barton
    August 20, 2008

    I disagree with your definition of “atheist”. You say that Atheism is the absence of a god-claim. That would be “non-theism” (a subset of agnosticism). Atheism is the “absence of a god”-claim, or claiming that there isn’t a god.

    Hopefully you can see how the misuse of the label has caused frustration in theists when non-theists call themselves “atheists”, but condemn theists for believing something they have no proof for. To answer that statement from an atheist, one must merely point out that they can’t prove their tenet, either.

  16. #16 Brandon
    August 20, 2008

    I’ve noticed this worldview terminology popping up a lot in apologetics circles; I think it’s an attempt to modify older presuppositions talk in a way that avoids the more obvious problems of presuppositionalism. I think it does, to considerable extent (much more open to evidence and reasoned argument, for one thing), but it runs into precisely the problem you note: if we make this notion of ‘worldview’ precise enough to be useful, then it just becomes a name for this or that position; if we make it broad enough to cover everyone, then it becomes useless for discussing them properly. So it begins to sound like philosophy out of a really basic popular introduction, rather than something that involves real interaction with reasoning and argument.

    But I do think it worth noting that the ‘Weltanschauung mistake’ is something that’s very easy to fall into in a philosophical discussion even if you have a more sophisticated philosophical background than this sort of pop philosophy; anyone who has ever been tempted to say that because a person is classifiable as rationalist/empiricist/naturalist/Christian/atheist/agnostic/whatever on one set of criteria they must therefore also be committed to X, Y, Z in areas where other criteria may be relevant is doing essentially the same thing. It’s a pretty common human failing, in part because it can require some careful maneuvering to avoid it when you are trying to argue against not merely (say) John Wilkins’s particular version of agnosticism, but agnosticism as a general position. I’ve seen it done, for instance, by competent philosophers discussing things like empiricism (and it will lead you far, far wrong when dealing with someone like Berkeley, let me tell you); it’s the same mistake at a more advanced level.

  17. #17 spinozista
    August 20, 2008

    The notion of “worldview,” as employed by such as religionists, Christianists and creationists, is functional and political, not substantive and philosophical. Its purpose is to serve as a counter in the game of negating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as they see it has usually been applied against them in court. Since there is never anything but “worldviews,” then either (1) everything is a “religion,” and so you can’t teach “atheism” in the schools either, or (2) nothing is a “religion,” and so the state can proselytize and teach creationism, etc., etc. Heads I win, tails you lose.

    This maneuver is always made with an unmistakable air of self-satisfaction, since they suppose it to be a sort of ideological jiujitsu – defeating the “rationalists” by using “their own weapons” of “reason” and “logic” against them.

    I suspect the underlying logical error is something like what I call the “all cats are dogs” argument: All cats are animals, all dogs are animals, therefore all cats are dogs. (Am I thinking of the “undistributed middle” fallacy?)

    There is no point to trying to argue them out of it, because it is at best merely a derivative of their basic beliefs, and an unimportant one at that (they do not take it seriously themselves). Simply rejecting the notion outright, the first moment it appears (the debating skill is to know when that is), is probably the best (and only) thing to do.

  18. #18 Aureola Nominee, FCD
    August 20, 2008

    Mr Barton:

    I am an atheist, and I don’t claim that no gods exist, merely that I have yet to see any evidence that at least one god exists. Every self-proclaimed atheist I have ever discussed this matter with holds the same position. What an atheist thinks or claims is SOLELY determined by what he thinks or claims, not by what other people think s/he should think or claim. I am afraid that you are mistaking “strong atheism” for atheism, and that is a very elementary equivocation.

  19. #19 Brandon
    August 20, 2008

    The notion of “worldview,” as employed by such as religionists, Christianists and creationists, is functional and political, not substantive and philosophical.

    I have no doubt that one can find uses that are purely political; but if taken as a general statement this fails to conform to the evidence. The worldview approach is taught in fairly standard curricula where the works tend to be, in fact, philosophical in approach, or at least in intent — Sire’s The Universe Next Door, for instance, or Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City, or Philips and Brown’s Making Sense of Your World. The quality of such work varies considerably; as a rule, though, they are no worse than most pop philosophy books.

    If there were no philosophical intent here, even a confused one, it would be difficult to explain why they spend so much time discussing things like the flaws of postmodern approaches to science, or Marxism, neither of which are likely to help in First Amendment cases.

    Good job on lumping all “religionists, Christianists and creationists” into one worldview, though; you’ll pick up the worldview lingo in no time.

  20. #20 Spaulding
    August 20, 2008

    Ed Barton,

    You say that Atheism is the absence of a god-claim. That would be “non-theism” (a subset of agnosticism). Atheism is the “absence of a god”-claim, or claiming that there isn’t a god.

    No, Wilkins has it correctly. “Atheism” = “non-theism” (parse out the etymology: “a-” = “not”. Just like amoral does not mean immoral, and apolitical does not mean anti-political.).
    The definition that you’re trying to assign to “atheism” is more properly assigned to “antitheism.”

    theism: “I have belief in a god.”
    agnosticism: “I do not believe that knowledge [about gods] is possible.”
    atheism: “I do not have belief in a god.”
    antitheism: “I believe that there are no gods.”

    Interestingly, in actual practice of declaring one’s position, people frequently seem to feel obliged to round to a lower level of disbelief. Lots of people who ignore the idea of gods creating or running the world when making decisions about their life, goals, health, or morality will nevertheless identify as theists when asked. Lots of people who do not have god belief will declare that they are not atheists, but are agnostic, simply because it sounds less confrontational.
    And many active antitheists prefer to rally around the more passive statement of atheism. So in practice, a person’s self-labeling frequently does not match their actual position on this subject. Yet the words still have meanings beyond the general misuse.

    For this reason, it does get a bit confusing. It might be helpful to reduce use of “atheist” in favor of “non-theist” and “antitheist”, and to reduce use of “agnostic” in favor of “non-theist”, “go away, I don’t care” and “let’s talk about the nature of truth and knowledge.”

  21. #21 Spaulding
    August 20, 2008

    Also, some people like to use the term “strong atheism” to refer to the antitheist statement.

    There’s not a lot of consensus on use of terminology among theism or its dissenters, sadly. In one-on-one conversations, it’s usually best to start with asking your opponent to make a clear articulation of their positions or beliefs, otherwise you may find yourselves in a confusingly orthogonal debate.

  22. #22 James Goetz
    August 20, 2008

    John, I don’t assume that I can prove my Christian faith to an agnostic or atheist. But I don’t see why you would say that my faith is “just not amendable to a good life”. Could you please explain your view on this?

  23. #23 DSKS
    August 20, 2008

    “theism: “I have belief in a god.”
    agnosticism: “I do not believe that knowledge [about gods] is possible.”
    atheism: “I do not have belief in a god.”
    antitheism: “I believe that there are no gods.””

    You can add to this ignosticism, which is an extension of the agnostic position, and alludes to the predicament of even speculating as to the existence of something that is not firmly defined in the first place. And theists are so very loath to define God in any certain terms.

    “Does the Flaboojamoojoo exist, and did it create the universe?”

    “?”

  24. #24 Jim Harrison
    August 20, 2008

    An acquaintance of mine tried to do empirical research on the worldview of well-educated, upper middle class men, modeling his methodology on Piaget’s work on children. After a year of strenuous efforts, he decided that there was damned little evidence that his subjects had a worldview at all if that slippery term means something like a general understanding of what the world is, how it works, and how it got that way. The responses to his questions were either obviously just made up on the fly–Piaget called such responses “romances”–or amounted to badly remembered quotations from popular books or old college courses. Bullshit or cliches.

    The concept of worldview is actually very problematic since very few people seem interested in specifying just what such a thing might be. A set of axioms? Master metaphors? Heuristics? Philosophically speaking, the term has become as worn out and worthless as “paradigm.”

  25. #25 jj
    August 20, 2008

    Relating to the semantics argument, I’ve always been under the impressions that:

    Atheism – No God
    Agnostic – There is no reasonable evidence to prove a God

    I always align myself with the Latter, as the way I see it, we can’t prove the no-god theory, and we cannot prove the god theory. We may be able to disprove a certain god theory (Christianity), but, as with all good science, you can only disprove, not prove.

  26. #26 jj
    August 20, 2008

    Well I guess I’d agree with #20’s definitions, better worded…

  27. #27 bad Jim
    August 20, 2008

    My first edition American Heritage Dictionary (1978) has two definitions of atheism (strong and weak) but only one definition of atheist (strong). A later edition has two definitions for atheist. Clearly, common usage has changed recently. Moreover, a recent Pew survey found that only 73% of atheists in America claim not to believe in God.

  28. #28 efrique
    August 21, 2008

    I think all the patient explanations to Barton are a waste of time. He’s obviously heard them before (as you can see from his text). He doesn’t want to know, because it interferes with his favourite argument based on redefining the term to a much more convenient strawman.

  29. #29 John S. Wilkins
    August 21, 2008

    Jim, I will expand upon that comment in a new post.

  30. #30 Brian English
    August 21, 2008

    On the contrary, reasoning is orthogonal, meaning that it is inherently inconsistent (self-contradictory). Then why are you reasoning with us? If by your definition what you say is inherently inconsistent?

  31. #31 jtradke
    August 22, 2008

    But the simple fact is, I don’t have a worldview. In fact, neither do they. I don’t think worldviews exist. They are a gross oversimplification of what is actually going on inside people’s heads, and are mere abstractions.

    This is the sort of thing I read and chew on and savor, and it gives my mental model of the mind just a bit more nuance and accuracy that it didn’t have before. Thanks for that.

    Also, regarding the definition of atheist, I think there’s a big confusion between what an atheist believes and what an atheist claims. An atheist, in my mind, cannot claim that there is no god, because claims, I think, must be provable (even if not yet proven). But he or she certainly can believe that there is no god; in other words, he or she can draw the provisional conclusion–based on experiences or lack thereof–that there isn’t a god.

  32. #32 Ehwotay
    August 22, 2008

    I very much enjoy reading your posts, although given the complexity of the ideas you are introducing, it takes me a while.

    Keep up the good work!

  33. #33 BlueNight
    August 23, 2008

    Just to be a bit clearer, I have met people who call themselves Atheists, who claim outright that no God exists, and thus they don’t believe in Him. Rather than a lack of a god-claim (“I don’t believe in God”, they have made an absolute negative god-claim (“God does not exist”). Thus the two different types of Atheism. The latter is usually based on or bolstered by the materialist philosophical position, and is the one most Christians mean when arguing from worldview.

    Besides “God does not exist”, that brand of Atheism makes several more derivative claims.

    That the universe came into being in some manner other than an all-powerful being; the Big Bang is the most popular choice.

    That the human species (and all life on Earth) came into being in some other manner; evolution is the most popular method, while the actual start of life has no popularly accepted theory.

    That the universe will become completely uninhabitable in the far-distant future; the Big Fizzle (total entropy) and the Big Crunch were the two biggest contenders last time I checked.

    That life ends at death, no undo, no takebacks; under the materialist flavor, the only possibilities of eternal life are technological, and they are unlikely to survive Crunch or Fizzle.

    That nobody’s views on Right and Wrong are objectively Right or Wrong, and there is no Meaning of Life; Nietzche made his position clear, and if I was certain that death would be the end of me, I’d advocate people read a lot more Nietzche, Rand, and Spider Robinson. (I am a fan of all three, by the way, and a Christian.)

    The worldview concept is not flawed in principle. Most people simply don’t think through the implications and interactions of their belief systems. Each worldview is based on propositions, however, and it is valid to test each proposition against objective facts… if it can be.

    Untestable propositions are a longstanding tradition in most worldviews. I have seen many people use derived implications as propositions, to their detriment.

    The proposition I’ve come to find most amusing in Atheism is the axiom that God is irrational. It’s usually stated one of two ways: “A person who believes in God is irrational” or “The concept of God is irrational.” The first is a categorical error; there are many rational people who believe in God. The second is also erroneous; many people have discussed the idea of God in perfectly sound rational arguments.

  34. #34 Pierce R. Butler
    August 23, 2008

    Spaulding @ # 20: antitheism: “I believe that there are no gods.”

    On first blush, I would tend to interpret that word as meaning something like, “I believe there is a god, and I oppose him.”

    This makes antitheism a form of theism, a paradox which should make all good philosophers’ toes wiggle with delight.(Not to mention setting the stage for the next saga from Michael Moorcock or James Morrow.)

    At the risk of violent backlash from etymologists (for compounding Latin & Greek roots), may I suggest the belief in no-gods might be better dubbed negatheism?

  35. #35 Ed Barton
    August 23, 2008

    @28: yes, I’ve heard all the arguments before. I’m was a philosophy major, so I’ve actually studied all the arguments.
    No, my response wasn’t meant to be a “strawman.”

    It was merely to point out that the author was (in my mind) misusing a fairly critical word.

    As for answering the question of whether belief in God is rational, I actually agree that it isn’t. I know I can’t prove to anyone that God exists. I can’t prove that he doesn’t. So for me, belief is a choice, partly rational, but mostly emotional. Do I refuse to believe something just because I can’t see/touch/smell/prove it, or do I accept it and explore it. I chose the latter, but I can understand why people choose the former.

    @27: Yes, usage has changed recently, which is what dictionaries show. That doesn’t make the new usage right, just a lot of people wrong. I believe you’ll also find “ain’t” in the dictionary, though you’d be hard-pressed to find an English Professor who’d accept it in an essay.

  36. #36 Dace
    August 23, 2008

    Interesting stuff, John, I enjoyed reading that.

    One thing that #23 didn’t mention about those belief terms is that some of the labels can be combined: one can lack a belief that there is a god, whilst believing that we can never know this fact, and is therefore correctly described as an ‘atheist agnostic’. If they instead believe we can know this fact they are an ‘atheist gnostic’. The same modifications can be made to the label of ‘theist’ as ‘theist agnostic’ and ‘theist gnostic’. We can obviously use the same trick with ‘antitheism’ and ‘ignosticism’, though some of the resultant labels will not be coherent, and so have no application (e.g. a ‘theist ignostic’ doesn’t exist, and so ‘atheist’ will be redundant in ‘atheist ignostic’).

    I prefer these labels to those tack on ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, since it makes it clear what one is committed to – someone who calls themselves a ‘strong atheist’ only seems to be expressing that they have a strong disbelief in God, and are therefore not required to defend it, but someone who calls themselves a ‘atheist gnostic’ is making an implicit knowledge-claim, and like all knowledge-claims, one is claiming to be able to support the assertion with evidence sufficient to uphold it*. An ‘atheist agnostic’, on the other hand, really isn’t claiming anything at all, apart from the fact that he has a lack of belief in God, which provides for the distinction #31 makes.

    I think this works nicely: we preserve the usual meaning of the prefix ‘a-‘ as a negation, and we explain why an agnostic and an atheist often sound similar (both parties are often ‘atheist agnostic’) as #4 said.

    *(Much confusion comes from a couple of norms of discourse and how they interact: first, there is the norm that one should not supply more information than is necessary to get one’s point across, and so if wishes to express his opinion that ‘God does not exist’, then you don’t qualify it as a belief, as this extra info implies that your belief is especially weak; second, there is the norm that one should not assert what one does not know, since a straightforward assertion misleads the hearer to think that the testimony is solid, when it is not.
    So you can see where the problems arise, with atheists and theists thinking each other to be making the stronger claims, and why discussions between them typically lessen in intensity (and stagnate) once they begin qualifying their assertions as personal statements.)

  37. #37 Dace
    August 23, 2008

    “The proposition I’ve come to find most amusing in Atheism is the axiom that God is irrational. It’s usually stated one of two ways: “A person who believes in God is irrational” or “The concept of God is irrational.” The first is a categorical error; there are many rational people who believe in God. The second is also erroneous; many people have discussed the idea of God in perfectly sound rational arguments.”

    BlueNight, I think the first of those explications should be read as “A person who believes in God is irrational insofar as they believe in God”, not that the entire breadth of their thought is irrational for the mere fact that one of their beliefs is. How about some interpretive charity, eh?
    With the second, it depends on how God is defined, which it so often is not. Some conceptions of God are certainly incoherent, and thus one cannot believe them rationally. Indeed, I think that the usual attributes assigned to God (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence) come very close to making ‘God’ incoherent. So whilst the concept of God may yet be retained in a sophisticated form by people as yourself, the opinion that ‘the concept of God is irrational’ may yet be true in most cases. In fact, if the concept remains undefined in the general consciousness, then “God’ seems to be, as regards these minds, incoherent by default – and so irrational to believe.

  38. #38 David Marjanovi?
    September 29, 2008

    The lion comment is understood as being based on meaning as a “form of life” (Lebensform): lions have a form of life that is different to us and so the meaning of their utterances would be opaque. Likewise, the principles (Principe)

    German is always trickier than one thinks, native speakers unsurprisingly included. A Lebensform is something you are, not something you have, a concrete manifestation of life, for example a species or “life as we know it”. In this case, the lion is “life alien enough that we don’t actually understand it”. And “principle/principles” is Prinzip/Prinzipien; il principe is “the prince” in Italian…

    Face it, the religious know that they are pretending. They’re having fun baiting intelligent but gullible people into taking them seriously. When I was a kid, we called this yanking someone’s chain. They’re completely disingenuous when they’re toying with the sincere.

    Most aren’t. I know, I was one.

  39. #39 John S. Wilkins
    September 29, 2008

    David

    As to Lebensformen, whatever they might be or mean in ordinary German, in Wittgenstein they are roughly like Sumner’s “folkways”, only they are in this case biological. And it was indeed a typo: Prinzipe, nicht Principe. I will correct the post.

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