Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The logic of 'agnostic atheism'

A number of atheists have told me that I either don't understand, or have slyly manipulated, what they mean by atheism.  These atheists have all been what they call 'weak atheists' - in their own words
we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe

If this is their definition, then they are right: at the moment, I don't understand it.  And that's mainly because I don't think it (a) makes sense or (b) somehow represents a kind of epistemic neutrality.  But I'm looking for an explanation - so feel free to point out errors (real and perceived) below!

The difference between the first clause ("we don't claim to know there is no god") and the second ("we also don't believe") has to do with the difference between belief and knowledge. Classically, knowledge entails that something be true, be justified, and be believed. If you believe that there is no God, but do not claim to know that there is no god, then it means one of two things. On the one hand, you could believe that your belief in the non-existence of god is not knowledge because it is not true. But this would be a logical contradiction (because you would be believing in the non-existence of god and disbelieving in it at the same time).

On the other hand, you could believe that your belief in the non-existence of god was not knowledge because you do not believe you can justify this belief.  But this second case is obviously false, too, as atheists evidently try very hard to justify their non-belief in god. From this I can only conclude that the statement "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe" is illogical - it is nonsense.

BTW: this isn't just the case because we're using the g-word. Let's exchange 'magic sky faeries' for 'god', using the contraction MSF. I could say I do not believe in MSF, but do not claim to know that MSF do not exist. Here is the problem. Knowledge entails belief, truth and justification. If I do not claim to know that MSF exist, then I am saying either:

(a) I do not believe they do not exist; or
(b) While I believe they do not exist, this is not knowledge, because I do not believe that their non-existence is true; or
(c) I cannot justify my belief in MSF' non-existence.

(a) is contradicted by the second clause: I do not believe MSF exists. (b) is internally contradictory. (c) depends on behaviour, and if the behaviour of aMSFists is like that of atheists, then aMSFists actually work quite hard to justify their position.

In other words, whatever you replace 'god' with, you end up with a nonsense statement. It is inherently self-contradictory.

Furthermore, to say "we don't belief in a god" entails a whole set of other beliefs. That's because "we don't belief in a god" is not logically equivalent to "we don't belief anything about god."  In addition, it generates other, secondary beliefs. For example, that religion is a natural phenomenon. That morality is non-absolute. And so on.

In other words, without having to move beyond atheism into humanism or naturalism, one belief becomes a whole set of beliefs - in other words, a belief system.

Now, I like atheists.  Some of my best friends are atheists.  :-)

But I imagine that atheists, of all people, would not want to seek refuge in the irrational and illogical.

BTW: The image above is a section of Sanskrit text taken from the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rigveda (RV10.129) which is one of the earliest examples of logic, and of ontological discussion of formal non-existence.


Katie said...

Man, this whole word play/logic stuff is doing my poor little head in! I'm not sure if I've been following all this correctly (after all, I'm just a lowly biology student), but it seems that the atheist position being argued here is something along the lines of "I'll believe in God when I have indisputable proof of His existence - in the meantime, I will deny His existence in the absence of that proof". Have I summed that up correctly? It seems to me to be a kind of "non-position" in which case I wonder why the atheists are so "strong" in their belief that they have no belief... I think I need to go have a lie down now!

Julio said...

"we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe"

I think this says a couple of things:

1. We're claiming a secular society as the default position and religion is a construct laid on top of that

2. We use the word 'belief' to mean attachment to the irrational. (ie we're normal and you're not).

This whole thing is more of a claim to higher moral ground than a logical argument. It's designed to win people over without much thought.

So the question is - how do you respond? Some very brief thoughts:

1. Secular Society and Government is a recent construct - prior to that many societies were by default non-secular (and perhaps this is the default position).

2. (I'm sure my dear friend Bryon can explain this better but..) Secular philosophy exists in a moral vacuum. (You can make a historical argument about leaders who have subscribed to this - but I think the historical argument works both ways).

3. (The weakness in their statement). They acknowledge that our understanding of the universe is limited by our own senses and ability to reason. We agree with this - and say that our God exists outside of it and choses to reach in to us.

Anyway - just my two cents.

Tom Tom said...

An interesting argument which makes my brain hurt. I'll re-read it when i don't have so much else to bother me.

P.S. When are you coming sailing?