What we know and what we believe

“Truth,” the late philosopher Richard Rorty explained, “is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” It has been observed that his contemporaries did not, as a general proposition, let him get away with that understanding of truth.

This comment came to mind not just because Rorty passed away last Friday, but because of the spat going on over agnosticism and atheism. John Wilkins quoted Bertrand Russell saying that “An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.” An atheist, on the other hand “holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.”

Larry Moran objects:

This is not correct. There are many people who have decided not to believe in Gods and they live their lives as if there were no Gods. However, they do not maintain that the nonexistence of Gods is known for certain. They believe that that it’s impossible to prove a negative. These people call themselves atheists


There is a worthwhile distinction to be drawn here between personal knowledge that people have and the sort of societal consensus that Rorty equated with truth, especially in light of the shift Moran makes from the active voice (“they live their lives as if?” to “nonexistence of Gods is known?”). It can be simultaneously true that they know that gods do not exist, and that it is not yet a generally agreed upon truth. When you talk with theists about their beliefs, some will freely acknowledge that God’s existence is unprovable, but will still state that they know God exists. That is knowledge, but not scientific knowledge. It is a sort of knowledge that is not provable nor falsifiable. They would regard it as a revealed truth, and one more fundamental than details of scientific knowledge.

Agnostics would argue that not only is the existence of the deity unprovable, but that they personally have no form of knowledge about God’s existence. A lot of agnostics describe themselves as apathetic agnostics, to make the point that they don’t know and don’t care if God exists. Moral good exists, and we have some form of knowledge about that, even though that knowledge may not be subject to empirical scientific testing.

It is worth noting in passing that an apathetic agnostic cannot empirically demonstrate that it doesn’t matter whether God exists, nor that God’s existence is unknowable. There is no way even to gather data on a universe which includes a god to compare with one that lacks any such being. These beliefs are a form of knowledge distinct from scientific knowledge, as are beliefs in God’s existence, or beliefs in God’s non-existence. All three beliefs are forms of knowledge (gnosis).

Atheists like Richard Dawkins acknowledge that one cannot prove that God does not exist, but they do care whether God exists, and tend to act as if some sort of personal certitude on the topic is possible (whether or not they deny the possibility of such personal certitude). These sorts of atheists often explain their belief system in terms of some sort of scientism, which is to say, the belief that means that empirical scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge.

Larry Moran’s objections to Russell’s definition of atheism seem to center on this issue. As a matter of scientific knowledge, it is impossible to state that God does not exist. If you don’t see the evidence for God, you are not a theist. The best one could do is to create something like the continuum Richard Dawkins describes in terms of probabilities that God exists, where theists think the probability is high and atheists think it is low. The trouble with Dawkins’ treatment of that continuum is that he locates agnostics in the middle, as people who think that it’s a toss-up. But believing that there is a 50% chance that God exists is different from believing that God’s existence or non-existence is unknowable. That subjective probability is itself a form of knowledge about God’s existence, and agnostics reject the possibility of possessing exactly that sort of knowledge.

Russell’s definition is valid, an atheist is someone who possesses some sort of knowledge about God: the belief that God doesn’t exist. That knowledge may not be empirical, but other sorts of knowledge exist. It is probably worth distinguishing atheism from something like non-theism, a category that would include religions like Taoism as well as agnostics, atheists and people who simply have no opinion on the subject. Atheists have an opinion, and shouldn’t be ashamed of saying so.

Richard Rorty said, “To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.” This is a cheery sort of truth-agnosticism, which he deployed to explain where he differed from those who asserted that truth did not exist in any objective form.

Comments

  1. #1 MonkeyHawk
    June 11, 2007

    I’m a lapsed agnostic.

    I’m not sure what it is I don’t believe in.

  2. #2 Explicit Atheist
    June 11, 2007

    Its more accurate to define an atheist as someone who believes that theism is unjustified. I believe there are no gods because gods are clearly inventions of human imagination for which there is no real evidence and because gods logically lack explanatory utility. Basically, if we lack evidence for FC AND FC logically lacks explanatory utility then belief in FC is unjustified. This is a general rule and it applies to all fact claims FC. This is not “scientism”, whatever that is, its just the basic standard almost everyone applies to fact claims, apparently with the exception of supernatural fact claims that many people dub “religion”. Labeling supernatural fact claims “religion” doesn’t justify dropping the evidence and logical explanatory utility standards for believing in fact claims. In fact, many theists assert both, that there is evidence for god and that god does have explanatory utility. So THAT is the fundamental difference between theists and atheists.

  3. #3 jeffk
    June 12, 2007

    Russell’s definition is worthless, because as far as I’m aware, almost nobody thinks that they can prove there is no god. Every atheist I know – and every sensible person, if you ask me – thinks that it’s simply absurdly unlikely and thus should be treated as false. Agnostics, in my experience, tend to be the wishy-washy “maybe” types who really don’t think about it all that much. These are the definitions I’m familiar with, and they’re a heck of a lot more useful than changing it so that nobody’s an atheist and everyone’s an agnostic, which appears to be some strange effort by thinking agnostics to inflate their numbers. The definitions of words should be defined in ways that make them functional. The way I describe is not only the way I’ve most commonly seen, but also the most useful way to define the terms, so I don’t see why it should change.

  4. #4 Eliena Andrews
    June 12, 2007

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  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    June 12, 2007

    I don’t see where Russell talks about proving anything about God. We all believe things that we can’t prove, that’s how fashion and aesthetics, among other things, work.

    It may seem all warm and fuzzy to paint agnostics as people who haven’t actually thought about the issue, but it’s false.

  6. #6 Renaisauce
    June 12, 2007

    There are reasons that I understand and can deal with for people becoming atheist: current religious confusion, interpretation of religious history, absence of data, etc. But I do have a problem with people claiming to be atheist because believing in God is too “absurd”, as the commenter said. Scientists have been on the wrong end of that reasoning several times, and it isn’t justified. The ONLY thing that an atheist can say is that they do not have data that they deem as credible that there is a God with methods currently available. If you’ve going to take the “logic” road, then you have to dismiss that kind of subjectivity.

  7. #7 jeffk
    June 12, 2007

    We have bushels of data showing that every testable claim made by theists is wrong. Untestable claims – claims about things that don’t exist in the natural world – are impossible to disprove, and never will be disproven by science. And I don’t particuarily care, because any untestable claim is as ridiculous as the next one. Hence, the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    And yes, I generalized, there certainly are some people who have put in consideration and still, by some miracle, consider themselves agnostics (I referred to the “thinking agnostic” in my post). But my serious point was about the way that the words are defined.

  8. #8 Explicit Atheist
    June 12, 2007

    Jeffk is correct. There are going to be theists, usually religious theists, who are going to claim god is a “fact” and there are going to atheists who claim that no god is a “fact” but the definitions of the words theist and atheist cannot be said to depend on confusing beliefs for knowledge. Theists are people who believe in (a) god(s) and atheists are people who do not believe in gods. We do have relevant knowledge in the sense that we know the holy books were written by people, that different groups of people created different imaginary gods in their own image, that the universe, including but not limited to human biology, consistently have the traits of non-intelligent design, etc. So there is lots of relevant evidence and understanding of and interpretation of the evidence is relevant and important as is the related but still distinct issue of logical explanatory validity. Explanations have to non-arbitrarily restrict the possibilities about what can be true to be valid and god as explanation doesn’t do that. God is consistent with every possible world and every possible fact and therefore god is lacking explanatory validity. God did it is merely a declaration that is no more a meaningfull explanation of anything than the devil made them do is a meaningfull explanation of any people’s activity.

  9. #9 Renaisauce
    June 12, 2007

    I see that, but there’s a fundamental problem with saying that there’s data (even “bushels”) that show that the testable claims are wrong, and that problem is that of all the sects of subsects of religious belief, none of the claims agree. When you test out the beliefs of say, the baptists, or the bahai, or the shiites, that isn’t the same as discrediting the methodists or the sunnis, the methodists or the buddhist, because their belief about who God really is, and therefore their claims on how to know him, are radically different. Claiming that one sect or religion’s God is false based on their testable claims (assuming all the qualifications were met) doesn’t eliminate the actual existence of God. It’s the same thing as saying that you don’t believe neuronal networks don’t work because Golgi was clearly wrong, when it is also true that Ramon Y Cajal was clearly right. So the big question for everyone is, “if there is a God, which one is it, and is there a testable claim available that would allow one to actually know?” I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that is a completely rejectable proposition.

  10. #10 jeffk
    June 12, 2007

    Renaisauce, the holy books of every religion are chock full of absurd claims about the natural world. Making up more/different claims doesn’t lend religious explainations any credibility. Even if somehow a holy book was predictive or “right” about something, the most reasonable explaination would then be that it was a coincidence, rather than that the book was infused with mostly wrong but occasionally correct knowledge by the creator of the universe. Showing time after time that testible claims made by the religious are wrong doesn’t ‘eliminate’ the existance of god, it just makes it very, very unlikely.

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    June 12, 2007

    Being wrong about testable scientific facts is not necessarily relevant to a discussion of whether religion is right about its central claims. Those claims are inherently untestable.

    I don’t know if any gods exist. I know that the earth wasn’t created in the way Genesis is described, but I also know that Genesis is poetry, and taking poetry at face value isn’t always wise. Did Robert Frost actually take a road less traveled? Does it matter?

    This approach to religion is erroneous. It’s an error when Ken Ham does it, and an error when atheists do it. However we define “atheist.” There is clearly a difference between someone who believes god doesn’t exist, and someone who doesn’t believe in god. It’s a difference between absence of belief and presence of belief. At the end of the day, all the atheists I know seem to possess the belief (with or without empirical evidence) that god does not exist. Theists possess the belief (with or without empirical evidence) that some god does exist. I’d prefer a term like “non-theist” to refer to people who simply lack the belief that god exists.

  12. #12 Renaisauce
    June 12, 2007

    I agree that a lot of holy books make unusual claims. That doesn’t bother me so much because if you have a God that can create the universe, then he must be able to do things that we can’t understand. But many of the things science has a problem with doesn’t come from what the texts say, so much as what they are interpreted to say. For example, I strongly disagree with most of the tenets of creationism, but that’s mostly because I believe they read way too much into what Genesis actually says, not because I discount the existence of a creator. The book is just the beginning of what religions claim. So I agree that the odds of a religion actually being true are very low, so that there is either (a) one specific right one, (b) there is a God but we don’t have the facts or (c) there really isn’t a God. So those are the options that I leave open.

  13. #13 Explicit Atheist
    June 12, 2007

    Renaisauce wrote
    “…Claiming that one sect or religion’s God is false based on their testable claims (assuming all the qualifications were met) doesn’t eliminate the actual existence of God. It’s the same thing as saying that you don’t believe neuronal networks don’t work because Golgi was clearly wrong, when it is also true that Ramon Y Cajal was clearly right. So the big question for everyone is, “if there is a God, which one is it, and is there a testable claim available that would allow one to actually know?” I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that is a completely rejectable proposition.”

    Don’t you reject any fact claims simply on grounds of implausibility? How about the devil, angels, unicorns, leprechauns, the Abominable Snowman, the flying spaghetti monster, …? All fact claims do not have to be “completely rejectable” like 1=3 to be rejected on grounds of implausibility. They can be rejected as a matter of opinion simply because the evidence is stacked against them or they are meaningless. Opinions don’t have to be wishy washy, opinions can be definite. The argument that definite opinions are incorrect because they are somehow insufficiently wishy washy is not a serious argument. Everyone has some definite opinions about what is most likely true and what is most likely false. If we lived in a Harry Potter type of world, or similiar magical worlds as depicted in fiction, there would be evidence for supernaturalism. But that is not our world. Supernatural stuff that originated in the minds of people from the distant past is almost surely nothing more than imaginary.

  14. #14 Spaulding
    June 12, 2007

    You and Wilkins seem to be confusing atheism with antitheism.

    Atheism is the absence of belief in a god, while antitheism is the opinion that there is no god.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and there’s a deafening absence of evidence in support of the claim that an invisible magic man made the world, or that he intervenes in its operation. It’s a bit silly to reject principles of parsimony simply out of cultural nostalgia for the bronze age myths with which our parents indoctrinated us. Atheism is the parsimonious null hypothesis.

    “Let those who call themselves agnostic with respect to religion add that they are equally agnostic about orbiting teapots. At the same time, modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the golden calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. “- Richard Dawkins, Forbes, 1999

  15. #15 Mark Frank
    June 12, 2007

    I think atheism can be even stronger than God is absurdly unlikely. If you are logical positivist in the mould of A.J. Ayer then you hold that statements which are not testable are meaningless. It also seems that all things said about deities are either statements about magic tricks – trivial compared to what we know from science (virgin birth etc) – or not testable (first cause, seat of morality) and therefore meaningless.

  16. #16 Explicit Atheist
    June 12, 2007

    Josh Rosenau wrote:

    “It’s a difference between absence of belief and presence of belief.”

    This “no beliefs” stuff is nonsense. You believe it is “erroneous” to assert either that gods do or do not exist. In other words, you believe that the existence of god is plausible enough to merit serious consideration. That is a belief, it is your belief. You are not in some Zen Buddhist otherwordly absent of belief status, if you were you wouldn’t be asserting that atheism and theism are “erroneous”. Yuu can’t have it both ways.

  17. #17 Explicit Atheist
    June 12, 2007

    Spaulding wrote

    “Atheism is the absence of belief in a god, while antitheism is the opinion that there is no god.”

    No, anti-theism is the belief that theism is bad for humanity. Not all atheists are anti-theist, but like all descriptions of this sort there are different degrees of anti-theism and many atheists are to some extent anti-theist and many theists are to some extent anti-atheist.

  18. #18 Explicit Atheist
    June 12, 2007

    Mark Frank wrote

    “I think atheism can be even stronger than God is absurdly unlikely. If you are logical positivist in the mould of A.J. Ayer then you hold that statements which are not testable are meaningless.”

    That is similiar to what I am saying when I say that “god did it” is a meaningless assertion that superficially masquarades as an explanation but actually lacks any explanatory substance. There is simply no good reason for taking such meaningless assertions seriously.

  19. #19 Renaisauce
    June 12, 2007

    Of course there are things that I consider ridiculous, much as I think an edible spaghetti monster would be cool to have around. But like you say, everyone’s opinions about what is implausible are different. You obviously see the plausibility of God as being far less credible then I do, and the difference probably has something to do with our own life experiences. In fact, my personal experience is that there actually are tests with replicatable results that indicate that God does exist, but I’m sure that this isn’t the forum to really discuss those. All I’ll say is that my strong opinion is that there is still ample room for belief despite the obvious improbabilities.

  20. #20 les
    June 12, 2007

    Who knew, when I gently slid away from my Catholic school upbringing, that my destination would be so damn hard to label.

  21. #21 Amos
    June 13, 2007

    “It is probably worth distinguishing atheism from something like non-theism”

    In my experience, non-theism is very commonly used quite explicitly as the *very definition* of atheism. It’s seen as a purely ontological position. If you’ve got an ontology and God isn’t in it, you’re an atheist. It doesn’t matter why you hold that position, just that you do.

    I’ve also seen agnosticism used very often as a purely epistemological position. Do you have, or can you have, knowledge about the matter?

    I’ve almost always seem them presented this way, as a pair of clear binary, orthogonal positions. Everyone is meaningfully some combination of the two.

    Have I just been running is strange circles?

  22. #22 Amos
    June 13, 2007

    My bad. I’m not saying that everyone is some combination of atheist and agnostic, just that everyone can (supposedly) be cleanly placed into one of four possible combinations of Yes/No answers to the theism/gnosticism questions.

  23. #23 Paul A
    June 13, 2007

    Russell’s definition is valid, an atheist is someone who possesses some sort of knowledge about God: the belief that God doesn’t exist.

    Just can’t agree with that definition. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the existence of god(s) as there is, to my mind, no satisfactory evidence for their existence. A look at Scottish legal system may prove worthwhile here, check out the “not proven” verdict. It doesn’t commit to saying yay or nay, just that there’s insufficient evidence for a verdict.

    I don’t claim that gods definitely don’t exist, I mean for all I know there’s a planet full of unicorns somewhere as well! However due to the lack of evidence I’m without a belief in gods. Without theism. An atheist you might say. I live my life as if there were no such thing, much as I live as if there were no leprechauns, because to do otherwise given the complete lack of evidence to the contrary would seem a bit absurd.

    Agnostics believe it impossible to prove the existence or otherwise of gods (or that it’s impossible at the present time). That’s all well and good but it’s a strange position – surely they then limit themselves to a concept of god which exists outside the physical realm. This definitely does not cover all possible gods – what of those of past civiisations who supposedly walked among us and interacted. Didn’t even the Christian god used to do that? Such a god’s existence certainly could be proven so agnosticism seems a fundamentally weak position to hold.

    Sorry, this was rattled off in 5 mins while trying to put off writing a boring presentation and as such is probably riddled with holes. Dissection welcomed :-)

  24. #24 Explicit Atheist
    June 13, 2007

    Amost wrote:

    “My bad. I’m not saying that everyone is some combination of atheist and agnostic, just that everyone can (supposedly) be cleanly placed into one of four possible combinations of Yes/No answers to the theism/gnosticism questions.”

    Actually, when we address different descriptions of gods, it is reasonable to assert that all atheists are to some extent agnostics.

  25. #25 Daryl McCullough
    June 13, 2007

    I suppose any definition is valid, but the question is whether Russell’s distinction is a natural one or a useful one. To me, the important distinction is whether a person (1) acts as if there is a God, (2) acts as if there is no God, or (3) acts as if he is uncertain as to whether to do (1) or (2). It doesn’t matter whether you harbor secret doubts one way or the other, what’s important is whether those doubts actually affect the way you live your life.

    If someone lives his life without thinking God, without wondering if God exists, without letting the possibility of God’s existence affect his life, then he is for all intents and purposes an atheist. I can’t see any point in calling such a person an agnostic.

  26. #26 Amos
    June 13, 2007

    Explicit Atheist,

    That was an excellent post you linked to. I’ve got it bookmarked now.

  27. #27 Josh Rosenau
    June 13, 2007

    Explicit Atheist asserts that I “believe it is ‘erroneous’ to assert either that gods do or do not exist. In other words, you believe that the existence of god is plausible enough to merit serious consideration. That is a belief, it is your belief.”

    No, it isn’t. I think it is erroneous to assert that gods do or do not exist, so I think the question is not worthy of serious consideration. See my discussion of “apathetic agnostics” above.

    Yes, the belief that god’s existence or non-existence is uninteresting is a belief, but it is not a belief about god. I don’t believe or disbelieve that there is an asteroid with a mass of exactly 1 ton located exactly one light hour from Jupiter. There may be, there may not be, and I simply don’t care.

    In my taxonomy of beliefs, “antitheism” would be the somewhat odd position that god exists and is to be resisted. If “antitheism is the opinion that there is no god,” is the belief that Santa Claus doesn’t exist “anti-Santaism”? “Anti-” expresses something more oppositional than merely denying that something exists. Being “ant-Santa” implies that you oppose Santa’s existence, not just that you deny that existence.

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