Thursday, May 21, 2009

Soft-centred or hard-core?

Following the discussion below my post of A.J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic, I’ve been thinking a bit about the differences between soft and hard atheists. Conventionally, a ‘hard atheist’ is someone who believes that there is no God. A ‘soft atheist’ has no belief in God. Essentially, then, the hard atheist makes a factual claim about reality when they assert God does not exist, while the soft atheist only makes an assertion about the contents of their own heads when they claim that they have no belief in God.

The distinction is important because atheists in argument will very often assert that they are soft atheists and consequently do not need to present any positive arguments for the non-existence of God. To his credit, Richard Dawkins does not do this. In chapter four of The God Delusion, he presents an argument for why he thinks, in reality, there almost certainly is no God. Since his argument is about the real world rather than the inside of his head, he is undoubtedly a hard atheist (whatever he says elsewhere).

The soft atheist cannot assert that there is no God, probably or otherwise. Their beliefs clearly have no bearing on reality because they are not making a factual proposition about it. To claim as a soft atheist, “I have no belief in God and therefore God probably does not exist” is not a valid argument. But to claim as a hard atheist, "I have good reasons for believing that God does not exist and therefore he probably does not exist." is valid.

This makes being a soft atheist quite hard work. Because even if they are really careful and never let themselves think that God does not exist, they almost invariably reach other conclusions on the back of this.

For example, let’s assume I claim that God made a statue of Mary wave at me. The hard atheist can scoff because he has asserted there is no God. The soft atheist has a problem. He has no belief in God, but must admit that his lack of belief has no bearing on whether or not God made the statue wave. So he must simply say, he has no belief in the statue waving. He can’t say it didn’t (or at least, he can’t say it didn’t because God could not have done it).

So, in many cases soft atheists are actually hard atheists who have not come out. Soft atheism is often a rhetorical trick rather than a practical position to take.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

15 comments:

Matt said...

Hi James, love the blog.

For example, let’s assume I claim that God made a statue of Mary wave at me. The hard atheist can scoff because he has asserted there is no God. The soft atheist has a problem. He has no belief in God, but must admit that his lack of belief has no bearing on whether or not God made the statue wave. So he must simply say, he has no belief in the statue waving. He can’t say it didn’t (or at least, he can’t say it didn’t because God could not have done it).

What exactly is the soft atheist's problem supposed to be? The only intellectually honest response to that is to say you don't know what happened, whether you're a theist or an atheist (that goes for the witness to the event, too).

If you told me you had seen that, my skepticism would stem from the well-documented tendency of people to think they are witnessing supernatural events when other evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Of course, it could still have happened, although I don't see how you could know it was from God.

James said...

Hi Matt,

Glad you like the blog. Please do spread the word.

Yes, I'd agree that general scepticism might serve here, but the soft atheist still needs to be careful. I think the hard atheist has the easier time of it. Note Dawkins in the Blind Watchmaker and the God Delusion where he maintains that even if the statue had waved it would still not be sufficient evidence for God.

Best wishes

James

Tim O'Neill said...

In chapter four of The God Delusion, he presents an argument for why he thinks, in reality, there almost certainly is no God. Since his argument is about the real world rather than the inside of his head, he is undoubtedly a hard atheist (whatever he says elsewhere).Given our earlier discussion on this point, I went back and re-read Ch. 4 of TGD. All Dawkins is doing is presenting a reason he finds the Teleological Argument incoherent. He's no more making a "hard atheist" argument than he is when he presents similar reasons for finding the Ontological Argument incoherent.

To claim as a soft atheist, “I have no belief in God and therefore God probably does not exist” is not a valid argument. But to claim as a hard atheist, "I have good reasons for believing that God does not exist and therefore he probably does not exist." is valid.Sorry, but you're mistating the "soft atheist" position here. What we would say is "I find the arguments and reasons given to me for belief in God incoherent and/or unconvincing and so believe its most likely that this 'God' is a figment of peoples' imaginations like all those other 'gods' and so this 'God' probably doesn't exist".

That's no more unreasonable or invalid that your equivalent assessment that Santa is a piece of folklore made up to entertain children and, therefore, Santa probably doesn't exist. Or do you think that is an invalid position too? It would be very strange if you did.

The soft atheist has a problem. He has no belief in God, but must admit that his lack of belief has no bearing on whether or not God made the statue wave.Matt is quite right - if you told me that God made the statue wave, my scepticism would be about the vast unlikelihood of a waving statue. The unwarranted logical leap you've made in assuming that God made it wave is another issue entitirely. The additional unlikelihood of the existence of your 'God' barely registers in the whole affair.

Note Dawkins in the Blind Watchmaker and the God Delusion where he maintains that even if the statue had waved it would still not be sufficient evidence for God.And rightly so, since the waving statue is one thing but the assumption some 'God' had something to do with this unlikely event is another.

So, in many cases soft atheists are actually hard atheists who have not come out. Soft atheism is often a rhetorical trick rather than a practical position to take.Not at all. And I'm often amazed at how desperately theists try to stuff we "soft atheists" into the "hard atheist" box where they seem to think we belong. We'll stay right were we are thanks - in an eminently reasonable and highly defensible position.
Cheers,

Tim O'Neill

None said...

Let G be the proposition that "God exist." Now either G is true or not-G is true. The theist claims that G is true and the hard atheist claims that not-G is true. What exactly is the soft atheist saying? He cannot be saying that not-G is true for if he were, he would be a hard atheist. If claims that he cannot possibly know if G or not-G is true, then this would make him agnostic. This suggest that "soft atheism" is incoherent.

Tim O'Neill said...

This suggest that "soft atheism" is incoherent.
To take the example of Santa again, let's see if it's really incoherent. Since you seem too articulate to be less than 3 years old, I'll assume you don't have a belief in Santa. But since you can't prove a negative, I'll also assume you don't claim that Santa definitely doesn't exist. But you are still without a belief in Santa, since (I'll assume) you don't find the arguments or reasons given for his existence convincing.

In fact, given how unconvincing they are and given that it strikes you are rather more likely that Santa is simply a story for children, I'd go so far as to guess you could safely say "Santa almost certainly doesn't exist".

This is not only coherent, it's actually a highly sensible position. Substitute "God" for "Santa" and you have my position exactly. And this coherent and sensible position is "incoherent" how, exactly?

Sorry, I can't see it.

None said...

But since you can't prove a negativeI can prove a negative. For example, I can prove the non-existence of round squares. Also, for any proposition one can simply use double negation. If p can be proven, then ~~p can be proven.

What exactly is the difference between the soft and hard atheist? Using your analogy, would the "hard" position be the claim that "Santa Claus certainly does not exist"? Does this make me "soft" on the existence of other minds, since I cannot be certain they exist? Anyway, I fail to see any meaningful difference between soft and hard atheism. You either affirm G, affirm ~G or remain agnostic.

Tim O'Neill said...

For example, I can prove the non-existence of round squares. Also, for any proposition one can simply use double negation. If p can be proven, then ~~p can be proven.Therefore you can definitively demonstrate the non-existence of Santa? Really? Can you do so now please?

Anyway, I fail to see any meaningful difference between soft and hard atheism. You either affirm G, affirm ~G or remain agnostic."Agnostic" means that the thing or being in question is unknowable and totally unable to be apprehended. A "soft" atheist is not agnostic on God or gods, just unconvinced by the evidence and therefore without a belief in Him or them. Like you and Santa.

None said...

Therefore you can definitively demonstrate the non-existence of Santa? Really? Can you do so now please?I never claimed that. What I proved is that you can prove a negative.

A "soft" atheist is not agnostic on God or gods, just unconvinced by the evidence and therefore without a belief in Him or them.Thus a "soft" atheist believes ~G to be true, affirming the negation of the proposition, G. Unless one is agnostic, either G or ~G must be affirmed. The atheist (soft or hard) believes ~G.

Put more generally, if you lack belief in any proposition, p, then you must believe ~p (you can't believe both and you can't believe neither and we already ruled out agnosticism)

Tim O'Neill said...

Put more generally, if you lack belief in any proposition, p, then you must believe ~pIf it makes you happy, sure. I'm still a "soft" atheist, I still don't say that I believe God doesn't exist and my position is not only coherent, but eminently reasonable.

And Dawkins is still a "soft" atheist as well. Sorry lads, no matter how much you want us to get in the "hard" atheist box, we aren't going to do so.

Matt said...

None:Propositional logic is very far from being able to express all of human thought. It can't express any judgements about the possibility, probability, or knowability of propositions, or causal relations between them. It can't even express quantifiers! In short, you are not obliged to believe ~p just because you lack a belief in p.

James:General skepticism always serves! It might be "easier" for the hard atheist to say "well it obviously didn't happen because there is no god", but it would simply be wrong, as it would be demonstrably beyond what he/she could know. It doesn't take particular care to say "I judge it unlikely that the statue actually waved based on everything else I know about the world, but I don't know for sure what happened".

Note Dawkins in the Blind Watchmaker and the God Delusion where he maintains that even if the statue had waved it would still not be sufficient evidence for God.He's right. Do you disagree?

James said...

Matt, actually I disagree. A waving statue of Mary (assuming it was not trickery or illusion) would be powerful evidence of God and the Christian God at that.

By the way, I should be clear to all that I am a hard aclausist. I assert Santa Claus does not exist. I do so because his attributes conflict with what I understand about the world and I have not seen evidence that my understanding is incorrect in his case. I also note that the evidence given for his existence, the appearence of presents, has been found wanting.

I am not a soft aclausist since that would be to claim I have no belief in Santa Claus while denying that I claim he does not exist. Which would be silly.

Jim S. said...

Regarding the waving statue: If I understand the claims correctly, it would allegedly be more plausible for quantum events to take place to account for a statue waving its arm than to recognize that natural events could not bring it about, and that there must therefore be a supernatural cause for the event?

If that's a fair account, may I ask if anything would convince you that there is a supernatural realm? What evidence would it take?

Matt said...

The waving statue, if you were sure it was real, would be very good evidence for Christianity, I don't deny that. But what you said originally was "sufficient evidence", and I think it's such an ambiguous signal that there is room for reasonable doubt. It would convince me there was something very strange going on, but if it just waved once and then nothing else "supernatural" happened, there would be very little we could definitively say about it.


Douglas Adams in HGTTG wrote about alien teenagers who liked to mess with the heads of simple folk in isolated spots by landing their flying saucers, sticking antennae on their heads and walking around saying "bleep-bleep", then taking off again knowing nobody would believe the witnesses. There are multiple imaginable magical or technological causes of a waving statue, not all as facetious as an alien Jeremy Beadle. If the statue said explicitly that Jesus is Lord and the Bible is true, and other witnesses were around to confirm I wasn't hallucinating, I would convert instantly (yes, it could still be aliens, or demons from some other religion trying to ensure you pick the wrong one... but if something powerful enough to make a statue talk is telling you something, you really have no way to ever argue against them). But a mere wave is harder to interpret. Combined with the Bible, and assuming that the statue-waver could read my mind and would know how I would interpret the signal, I'd say the weight of the evidence pointed to Christianity. But I'd have to wonder, if God is going to bother with miracles, why he would be so coy about it.

If that's a fair account, may I ask if anything would convince you that there is a supernatural realm?

No, I wouldn't find random quantum fluctuations a plausible explanation, and I hope I've answered your question above. I'd just like to note that "a supernatural realm" is not the same as a particular god. I also don't see any principled reason to divide all that exists into the natural and the supernatural: even assuming Christianity, all that exists comes from God in the end.

I do so [assert Santa Claus does not exist] because his attributes conflict with what I understand about the world

The attributes of God don't conflict with what I understand about the world. "There is no god" is a meaningless statement without first defining what you mean by god: even within one religion, people seem to have different conceptions of him/it/them. And one can easily come up with definitions of god(s) which are consistent with everything we know and everything we could know about this universe. This makes the hard atheist position indefensible in my opinion, unless we're specifically talking about a conception of a god with contradictory properties, or which would not give rise to a world like this one.

Duke of Earl said...

But there is, or was, a Santa Claus. St Nicholas of Myra.

The Christian claims about God are supported by, and interpreted through, the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a historical event it can be established with a fair degree of confidence, certainly no one has successfully argued against it as a historical possibility, and the teachings that Jesus surrounded it with give a theological framework for understanding something of the nature of God.

'I don't find the evidence compelling' says more about the belief system of the person involved than any event. If someone told me that they had seen a statue move, and I knew them well enough to know that they weren't jesting, nor given to bouts of drug abuse, I would assume that they had indeed seen a statue move. Whether the statue was moved by magic, technology, or the power of God would then provide a few nights discussion in front of the fireplace.

Devoid of a theological framework the mere evidence of a statue moving would not itself be evidence for the truth of Christianity. However should James have been praying for a miraculous sign in regards to a certain decision then it might be.

Context determines significance.

Jim S. said...

Context determines significance.That's a very important point that gets lost in these types of discussion. Often, the non-theist uses an intentionally absurd, completely contrived (or ad hoc) example of something, and then asks whether such an event would be better explained by appealing to God. This assumes that any supernatural event would be an arbitrary interruption of the natural order. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God does not perform miracles arbitrarily. The resurrection of Jesus is an example of this. As Pannenberg wrote, the significance of Jesus rising from the dead is not that some guy was resurrected; it's that this particular guy did. Given the context of Jesus' life and ministry, his resurrection amounts to a divine vindication.