Friday, March 09, 2007

Manchester United are good .. world ends.

As David Hume once said :-

"Rational proofs for the existence of god are as non-sensical as rational proofs for the non-existance of god"

Atheism is the belief in the non-existence of a supernatural being, not based on proof or material evidence but based fundamentally on volition. It is not agnostic to the matter, but is the positive belief that deities do not exist.

Such a system can be described as a faith. You choose to believe in this faith or not.

So when does a faith based system holding certain beliefs in the state of the supernatural by a community identified with that faith become a religion?

  • Are there a certain number of beliefs it has to have?
  • Do you need to have a number of rituals?
  • Does it have to have a certain number of members?

The arguments seem fairly pointless and purely semantic as all such systems can be described as religion to some degree. I use the words "some degree", as I have yet to come across an absolute truth (other than the trivially defined) and so I tend to see things as more true (+true) or more false (+false).

However, this is not a popular view of atheism with some quarters, but then again it's not quite as unpopular as "globally traded carbon permits are a future mechanism of deprivation and exclusion" or "global climate temperature change may not be solely attributable to anthropogenic emissions but also natural causes, whether reinforced or diminished by them" - both are subjects which merit more discussion but neither are a case for inaction or procrastination.

So I'll come to the statement which I read on Tom Coates blog

"If atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby"

It is amusing but based upon a co-equivalence designed to reinforce a particular statement by using two unrelated premises which are defined as true regardless of their real state. These "TRUE" statements are:-

"stamp collecting is a hobby" (+true)

and

"atheism is not a religion"(+false).

But then you can get all sorts of fun little statements by defining two statements (one +false, one +true) as both true, considering them equivalent and inverting.

By defining a statement such as "Science is a Religion" as true (when it is agnostic to the supernatural), you can argue

"If science is not a religion then 1+1=42"

and so on.

You can spend lots of time doing this .... complete waste, but fun.

Seeing that I'm a Chelski fan, I personally like

"If Manchester United are a good football team then the world ended five minutes ago"

9 comments:

thinkmonkey said...

"Atheism is the belief in the non-existence of a supernatural being, not based on proof or material evidence but based fundamentally on volition. It is not agnostic to the matter, but is the positive belief that deities do not exist.

Uhm, no, actually. On several counts.

I base my belief that there are no gods on evidence and argument. You may or may not be convinced by the evidence and arguments, about which I could not care less, but you have no basis for your assertion that an atheist's lack of belief is simply a matter of volition. Atheism is not a faith position, and you declare that it must be so by definition. The fault lies in your definition, not in atheism.

Your use of the word "proof" is especially suspicious in this context: It makes me think you equate holding a belief based on anything less than total, absolute proof to be an act of dogmatism or faith, which is utter nonsense. Beliefs based on evidence and reasoning are subject to alteration based upon further evidence and reasoning. Beliefs based on simple volition or faith are not. The idea that absolute certainty is a requirement for knowledge or belief is almost always a dodge or trap, wherever it arises. Don't buy it, and don't sell it.

Also, there is an often important difference between simply lacking a belief in the existence of X and the positive assertion that X does not exist. Your way of framing the issue denies the existence or even the possibility of this well-established and much-discussed distinction between weak atheism and strong atheism. You can deny the difference if you want, but you'd need to read something about it first and make an argument about why the distinction makes no difference, not just ignore it out of existence.

You have also missed the central meaning of the Hume passage you quote. The key word is "rational." Hume was generally critical of arguments based on "pure reason" divorced from empirical evidence, a.k.a. a priori reasoning. Hume was an empiricist, which means among other things that direct experience of the world must play a part in any argument about what exists in the world (and the properties of things that exist). Insofar as a conception of God would have consequences in the world, it is subject to empirical evidence and argumentation: God's creation of or intervention in the world has consequences for the nature of the world and events in it, for example, and there is also the whole problem of evil. Hume himself wrote a very famous wonderful argument about the problem of miracles from an empirical perspective.

On the flip side, a conception of God which is so nebulous and ethereal that it has no possible or specifiable consequences in the world seems (a) rather pointless, (b) rather different from what people typically mean when they say "God," and (c) possibly entirely nonsensical (depending on how one characterizes the sense of a proposition). Certainly such an abstract conception of God would only be amenable to various sorts of purely abstract, a priori arguments completely divorced from experience - arguments of exactly the sort that Hume criticized.

swardley said...

"I base my belief that there are no gods on evidence and argument"

What evidence is there about the state of the supernatural? There is no empirical evidence - one way or the other.

You base your argument on reason alone. It is a "rational" argument.

Now, I don't say that atheist's have a lack of belief - quite the opposite, atheists believe in the non-existence of a supernatural being - as you point out. Oh, and yes there are of course degrees to this.

I assume you weren't coerced into this view and it was "simply a matter of volition"?

So you have "rational" arguments for the state of existence or non-existence of the supernatural and a belief in that state made through your own choice and convinction.

Without evidence, there is a fine line between the "rational" and "dogmatic" but no matter, it's still a faith position.

I personally enjoyed your comment that

"a conception of God which is so nebulous and ethereal that it has no possible or specifiable consequences in the world"

... is fairly pointless (a).

Well it is if you are trying to find proofs for the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.

However, I'm sure it is not pointless to the people who hold views on the state of the supernatural.

This is why I agree with Hume, why your arguments are the typical "rational" viewpoints which Hume himself argued against and like it or not why Atheism is a faith position.

It's also why Science is agnostic to the matter.

One final comment, if you re-read the post carefully you'll notice that I don't believe in absolute truth or knowledge.

thinkmonkey said...

Hmm. You seem to using some peculiar definitions of words and concepts. If a supernatural claim cannot possibly by definition have any evidence for or against it, then what are we to make of claims that a supernatural being interferes in the world (answers prayers, causes miracles) or is responsible for the nature of the world (i.e. God the Creator)? Surely if a supernatural being acts as a causal agent in the world, the effects of such causes are subject to empirical investigation - hence Hume's argument against miracles.

I'll gladly admit that a purely supernatural claim might not be the sort of thing that there can be evidence about one way or another, but people have all sorts of beliefs about God that do have real-world consequences. These are claims about the actions of a supernatural being, so it would be very strange to say that they aren't supernatural claims: Nevertheless, insofar as they are supernatural claims which have consequences in the natural world, they can be evaluated on the basis of evidence and reasoning - not pure a priori reason.

Also, this bit of your response shows some serious confusion: "Now, I don't say that atheist's have a lack of belief - quite the opposite, atheists believe in the non-existence of a supernatural being - as you point out. Oh, and yes there are of course degrees to this."

What I tried to point out is that there is a real difference you are glossing over - and you're still glossing it over. One atheist position, typically called 'weak atheism,' means precisely that one merely lacks belief in the existence of any god or gods (or, more broadly, supernatural agents or forces). The positive assertion of the non-existence of anything supernatural says MORE than simple lack of belief in the supernatural, so it is a distinct position - and since it claims more than weak atheism, it is called 'strong atheism.' These are indeed two different positions, and the difference matters.

Some people might say that this distinction (between weak and strong atheism) is one that makes no difference - but that isn't an option for you. Given your opinion that it is impossible to make any assertions one way or another about supernatural claims, a weak atheist and strong atheist appear to be quite distinct: Since a weak atheist makes no claims - lacking a belief in the existence of the supernatural does not require making any existential assertion one way or another about any supernatural claim - then a weak atheist is not in fact believing anything "as an act of volition." Since the weak/strong atheism distinction makes a difference in the terms of the argument as you present them, it makes it very problematic that you trample over the distinction without even acknowledging it.

And this volition comment is bullshit: I assume you weren't coerced into this view and it was "simply a matter of volition"?

The way you phrased it in the original post (the part I quoted), you clearly meant that one believes as a consequence of making a decision rather than because one is persuaded by the evidence (because you assert that there can be no evidence either way). It is a blatant equivocation to turn around and characterize "volition" as if you just meant "not coercion."

In fact, that's such an obvious and deliberate equivocation - intended to cause confusion rather than clarify - that I'm not sure I want to continue this discussion. There are (at least) two kinds of arguments: Some arguments are intended to seek truth, where all participants attempt to offer clear definitions and are willing to concede errors - in short, philosophical arguments. Partly, you seem to be doing this. But you also seem to be engaging in the other common kind of argument, a debate where the goal is to win by defending your position (rather than to arrive at the best possible position). I'm always willing to engage in philosophical argument, but debates are a waste of my time and energy. Which is it gonna be?

swardley said...

An excellent comment. I am more than willing to discuss and explore ideas and to refine my views based upon such, but I also have little time for discussion which does not allow for the existence of alternatives or assumes that there is an absolute truth.

That said, let's continue this as you have kindly spent the time to respond.

"What are we to make of claims that a supernatural being interferes in the world (answers prayers, causes miracles) or is responsible for the nature of the world (i.e. God the Creator)"

This a good point. However my comments arise from the discussion of the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being i.e. beyond the realm of physical reality. As such any claims over it can only be reasoned and there exists no empirical evidence as otherwise it would be within the realm of physical reality.

A view can always be taken that there exists something beyond the physical realm, which cannot be proved or disproved and is purely a matter of belief in that statement. That is the point I am making when I agree with Hume's comment.

Now this is completely different to the discrete claims of how the supernatural interferes in the world, and where such claims are dogmatic and have a physical element they can be argued against, and alternative reasoned models can be provided.

The dispute of claim, merely disputes the claim but provides us no insight into a realm beyond physical reality. However as you state if a "supernatural being acts as a causal agent in the world, the effects of such causes are subject to empirical investigation". This is a strong point, however to determine such an influence would require absolute knowledge of all the possible causations of all effects in order to determine such a supernatural influence. As far as I am aware this is beyond our capabilities, and depending upon whether information is infinite or not within this universe may always be so.

Hence my view that whilst I see no achievable method at this moment for gaining any form of empirical evidence on the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being, I do agree that discrete claims of interference may be reasoned against.

Hence I agree with your statement that "insofar as they are supernatural claims which have consequences in the natural world, they can be evaluated on the basis of evidence and reasoning" but this simply disputes a claim.

Now as to my bit of serious confusion ... ah well, I was tired when writing and a bit flippant.

When I use the term "Atheism", I am referring to the positive assertion of non-existence and hence "Strong Atheism". I accept that are many shades of atheism, from belief in the non-existence of all Gods, to specific Gods to merely disbelief.

My apologies for trampling over that distinction. I tend to view "Weak Atheism" as more akin to agnosticism, though neither empirical or strict but instead an agnostic atheist, for example the disbelief in a supernatural being as one has no idea or evidence to support it or not. The debate on classification is a long running one and still disputed.

In the later part - yes, when I'm referring to volition I am talking about "one believes as a consequence of making a decision" based upon no empirical evidence on the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being. I do not mean to imply volition as simply not coercion but instead a choice, a decision made. This is also why when I am referring to Atheism I am talking about "Strong Atheism" as opposed to "Weak Atheism" which can refer from either "unawareness of the concepts" to "merely lack of belief".

Your view, would seemingly be one of "Strong Aethism" based upon your statement that "my belief that there are no gods on evidence and argument."

My basic argument is that whilst individual claims can be disputed, belief in the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being can only be based upon volition as no evidence can be gathered. It is no different from any other faith.

Of course, my position is completely false if evidence is available to support the existence or non-existence of supernatural being.

So, since you are so keen in telling me I talk nonsense or bullshit, that I am at fault, suspicious and just trying to defend my position, why don't you provide the evidence of the non-existence of the supernatural that you say you base your belief upon?

I am more than willing to change my position that your belief is a faith based upon this or reasons of why it is not a faith.

But, alas

"You may or may not be convinced by the evidence and arguments, about which I could not care less, but you have no basis for your assertion that an atheist's lack of belief is simply a matter of volition."

this can summarised as "Aetheism is not a faith because well it isn't and yah boo sucks".

I agree with you, this is pointless, but for different reasons.

thinkmonkey said...

Well said all around. I don't wholly agree, but well said.

I'll address your final point first: Atheists of any stripe present arguments. Religious believers make professions of faith. Oh, believers might present arguments as well, but they also claim to believe for personal, subjective motivations which are independent of any arguments (which is why they typically make such awful arguments). I'll bet good money that you've never encountered an atheist who says "I just know in my heart that God does not exist, and that He is not watching over me right now." Take out the 'nots' and you have a perfect example of a typical profession of faith.

Given that, can you see why perhaps your claim that an atheist is adopting a position as a matter of faith might be considered a tad insulting? Hmm?

Sarcasm aside, this is a substantial difference. At the very least, to believe something as a matter of faith means to believe it on some basis other than as a conclusion of evidence and reasoning. Some people say faith is a matter of hope, or feeling, or revelation, or choice. No one says that faith beliefs are simply the conclusions of carefully reasoned arguments based on objective, publicly available evidence.

Now you may disagree about the public availability of certain kinds of evidence, or you may disagree with the reasoning of a given argument - but surely you don't thereby refuse to acknowledge that atheists are even making arguments! Because that's exactly what you imply when you make the accusation (I cannot help but take it as an accusation) that any atheist's belief is a matter of pure volition - a matter of faith rather than the conclusion of an argument. Making an argument you don't happen to find convincing is simply NOT THE SAME as not making an argument at all. Which is why I got all pissy about it. :-)

I'll grant that maybe there are atheists out there who adopt atheism as a matter of faith - atheists who have never even considered any arguments on the matter either way, but simply don't believe because they prefer not to believe. But I've never encountered one in all my years - and I've talked with lots and lots of atheists, so such faithful atheists must be pretty damned rare.

Now as to the more substantial argument about supernatural claims... I'm going to have to postpone that for another time - probably tomorrow - because it's late here and I need to sleep. Off the top of my head, though, I think your attitude towards supernatural claims as being somehow purely independent of one another - such that refuting one particular claimed effect with a supernatural cause has no bearing whatsoever on any other claim, or on the existence of the supernatural cause - is quite at odds with Hume's argument against miracles. Have you read it?

swardley said...

Ok, there are some very good points here and unfortunately I'm about to get on a flight for San Francisco - so I'll come back to this early next week (after the jet lag has worn off).

I came across Hume's arguments on miracles some time ago - so you'll have to forgive me if misquote the basic premise. I'm certain I've not read the original but instead someone else's interpretation - this is something I should correct, so you'll have to be fairly forgiving with my my assertions here.

As far as I remember the basic argument was that a miracle was an abnormal event, a violation of the laws of nature and not an event which is in the normal course of nature. By normal course of nature, we are referring to that which is uniformly or generally observed.

The arguments against miracles are based upon authority of witnesses, historical viewpoints, personal sense of reality and so forth. For example the miracle of the past may not be considered a miracle in a modern society, for reasons of technology etc. The old adage that any suitably advanced technology is akin to magic to previous generations.

These are arguments which I can generally agree with as a basis for refuting a claim of supernatural influence in a discrete event - however this is merely refuting a claim, they are not a basis for an argument over the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.

However, insofar as they are a basis for refuting a particular claim - I hold the view that there exists another issue relating to whether information is infinite or not. This view is that if information is not infinite, then at no single point can enough information be held to understand all the possible causations of all effects in order to determine such a supernatural influence. In principle, this means that a claim can be refuted but that is all - and hence it always tends to a matter of belief.

Hence my views against absolutism and rather that things are shades of truth, more true or less true.

It is also the reason, why I take the view that science is a set of useful models rather than a view of absoluteness and is agnostic to the supernatural.

However, this discussion is good and your comments are very much appreciated. So let me come back once I've landed and had time to reflect on your points and find a copy of Hume's original argument.

P.S. I also was a bit pissy, so please accept my apologies.

P.P.S By stating my view that Atheism is a faith, I'm not intending to insult Atheism. I very much respect the views of Atheists and theists alike, and I am not intending to imply in any way that one view is wrong or right.

thinkmonkey said...

You said: By stating my view that Atheism is a faith, I'm not intending to insult Atheism. I very much respect the views of Atheists and theists alike, and I am not intending to imply in any way that one view is wrong or right.

Ah, but respect is not the issue, or at least not the main issue. I didn't say you were implying that atheism was wrong. I just noted that you were implying - indeed, explicitly stating - that atheism was a faith position. It is not.

I've made the argument that atheism is not a faith position, and I've clarified the argument by offering a definition of faith by which one might judge whether or not a given position is a matter of faith. You have not made any counterargument to my argument, nor have you questioned my definition of faith in any way. So will you concede the point, or not? This is what's important. You stated a position (that atheism is a faith belief). I made an argument against the position. You can either respond to my argument or you can give up the position, but telling me that the position was not intended to be insulting is really quite beside the point.

Moving on...

Here is the beginning of your account of Hume's argument with miracles and your disagreement with it - and to be honest, I'm not quite sure where the account ends and criticism begins:

As far as I remember the basic argument was that a miracle was an abnormal event, a violation of the laws of nature and not an event which is in the normal course of nature. By normal course of nature, we are referring to that which is uniformly or generally observed.

The arguments against miracles are based upon authority of witnesses, historical viewpoints, personal sense of reality and so forth. For example the miracle of the past may not be considered a miracle in a modern society, for reasons of technology etc. The old adage that any suitably advanced technology is akin to magic to previous generations.


The first paragraph correctly articulates Hume's beginning, but the second paragraph quite misses the point of the rest of his argument. I'll try to summarize - partly to disagree with your criticisms, but also mostly just to clarify the argument for myself.

You mentioned (and this is close to Hume's phrasing as I recall it) "the normal course of nature." As an empiricist, Hume thought that the only basis by which we can come to know a "normal course of nature" at all is from experience. Our general conception of causes preceding effects, and the details of which particular causes lead to which particular effects (i.e. "laws of nature"), are all based entirely on our experiences. But we never directly experience cause and effect, only circumstances where one event closely follows another. From the regular recurrence of some events together, we infer (not observe!) their association, and from the general pattern of regularities amongst such associations we infer the general concept of cause and effect. Similarly, we never directly experience or observe natural laws or regularities of nature, we only infer them based on observed associations of events and our (also inferred) understanding of cause and effect. (Kant disagreed by saying that cause and effect is not an inference, but is something we necessarily bring to experiencing the world, such that our experience could not exist without it. This distinction makes no difference for this particular argument, though.)

Miracles, insofar as they deserve the label, by definition consist in violations of this "normal course of nature" which is inferred from ALL of our other observations and experiences of events in the world. (And by "other," I mean observations and experiences of non-miraculous events.) The arguments FOR miracles (not the arguments against them, as you state) are based on things like "authority of witnesses, historical viewpoints, personal sense of reality and so forth." That is, accepting the evidence for miracles is entirely a matter of believing people's reports of the miracle, whether of ancient miracles or modern ones. Even if you personally experience a miracle (which damn few people claim, actually, except when they are vastly loosening the definition of miracle to include events which in no way require violations of the natural order), you are relying on the "reports" of your senses for that event.

But you necessarily pay an epistemic price for accepting those reports of miracles at face value as evidence for miracles - because there are always other possible explanations. (Maybe your own position on infinite information, which I do not really understand, has some bearing here.) That is, it is possible that the reports are simply erroneous, or that the reporters are confused or lying. Even if you are the witness yourself, it is certainly possible that you are misinterpreting the event, or that you lack information that would make the event appear non-miraculous, or even that you are hallucinating. By accepting the evidence for a miracle at face value, you are granting that a violation of the ordinary course of nature is MORE PLAUSIBLE than all these alternate possibilities. But since the ordinary course of nature is an inference from all of our collected experiences in the world, to accept that the miraculous explanation is preferable to non-miraculous alternative explanations (lying, hallucination, etc.) is to privilege that particular experience (or merely reported experience) OVER ALL YOUR OTHER EXPERIENCES!

Hume thinks (and I find it hard to disagree) this is always too high a price to pay, and so his argument doesn't just speak to individual miracles as such, but gives reasons to reject any and every claimed miracle: There are always alternate possible non-miraculous explanations for any given claimed miracle, and those non-miraculous explanations are always more plausible than miraculous explanations because they do not require ignoring or outweighing the collective epistemic weight of ALL our other non-miraculous experiences combined.

Moving beyond miracles, this same general line of argument would seem to militate against your inclination to treat every supernatural claim as distinct and separate. Supernatural claims do have a common character, and I really do not understand your reasons for taking a position to the contrary. Supernatural claims are not all purely specific and isolated, needing to be addressed wholly separately on their own merits (if, from the perspective you adopt on the impossibility of evidence for or against supernatural claims, they can even be said to have "merits"). They can be addressed on the basis of their shared features, as Hume does in his general argument against miracles.

And that's enough really, really big ideas for one post. Enjoy San Fran!

swardley said...

First my apologies for taking so long to get back to this - combination of travel, jet lag, needing to think about your comments etc.

Still, very good points, well made and thank you for the summary on Hume's argument. Couple of clarifications on my part.

When I stated:-

"The arguments against miracles are based upon authority of witnesses, historical viewpoints, personal sense of reality and so forth."

I was referring to the issues that miracles are witnessed by the few, that they are often historical reports and not being in the "normal course of nature" they are reported from a personal sense of reality - or as you put it more clearly

"Even if you are the witness yourself, it is certainly possible that you are misinterpreting the event, or that you lack information that would make the event appear non-miraculous, or even that you are hallucinating."

These are all arguments against miracles.

Also when I used the word "discrete" - the distinction that I was trying to make, rather clumsily, was that if a discrete claim of a miracle was shown to be in the "normal course of nature" it didn't meant that all claims were false.

Hume's argument is a basis for refuting a claim of supernatural influence in any discrete event, and hence all such events by using the same arguments. I prefer the way you've put it.

"There are always alternate possible non-miraculous explanations for any given claimed miracle, and those non-miraculous explanations are always more plausible than miraculous explanations because they do not require ignoring or outweighing the collective epistemic weight of ALL our other non-miraculous experiences combined."

The argument does not deny the possibility that an event may be a miracle, nor does it attempt to deny or agree with the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being, it merely says there is always a more plausible explanations within the "normal course of nature" - even if we don't know what that is yet.

As such, it provides no insight into the supernatural - it's existence or non-existence. So we may have a the means for refuting claims of miracles but we have no empirical evidence for the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.

Which brings us back to "rational proofs for the existence of god are as non-sensical as rational proofs for the non-existance of god" and my view that Atheism (strong) is the belief in the non-existence of a supernatural being, not based on proof or material evidence but based fundamentally on volition.

Now in your previous comment you state.

"At the very least, to believe something as a matter of faith means to believe it on some basis other than as a conclusion of evidence and reasoning. Some people say faith is a matter of hope, or feeling, or revelation, or choice. No one says that faith beliefs are simply the conclusions of carefully reasoned arguments based on objective, publicly available evidence."

Choice is true of both, evidence is non-existent in this case, and any arguments are "pure reason", rational, apriority as opposed to "matters of fact".

So your argument is that Atheism (strong) is not a faith because Atheists believe in this viewpoint ONLY from the conclusion of rational argument rather than say as a matter of hope or revelation and it is that matter of hope or revelation that distinguishes Atheist beliefs from a matter of faith?

It's a good point though, and revolves around the definition of faith.

However, it's one I'll agree with.

swardley said...

A refinement, Atheism may contain an element of revelation in the sense that the belief maybe revealed through insight or a particular event. However, I can find no examples of where Atheism contains hope, an end game such as salvation. It is this absence of hope which distinguishes Atheism from other faiths.

Hence

Atheism (strong) is not a faith because Atheists believe in this viewpoint ONLY from the conclusion of rational (a priori) argument rather than as a matter of hope and it is this matter of hope that distinguishes Atheist beliefs from a matter of faith.

is a statement which I find difficult to argue against.