Thursday, June 28, 2012

Proof Positive

Last night I left a few comments on another blog that reported the news that a German court had declared it illegal to circumcise children under the age of consent. The comments on the blog veered to several side issues, one of which was condemnation of religions that practice circumcision. This led to a couple of commenters making the claim that atheism is not disbelief in God, it's merely the absence of belief in God. I've written about that before so I challenged them to define what the "absence of belief" is and how it's different from withholding belief (agnosticism) and disbelief (atheism as it has been understood historically and today). The "absence of belief" position was popular in the mid to late 20th century among some atheist philosophers, but they eventually abandoned it because they couldn't define it. Their motive for suggesting it was that if one simply lacks a belief then they (allegedly) do not share any burden of proof: the burden is entirely on the person who claims that God exists. If you assert that God does not exist, however, then you're making a claim to knowledge and so must shoulder the burden of proof just as much as the theist does. So the "absence of belief" position is basically an attempt to think whatever you want without having to go to the trouble of having reasons or evidence for it.

This led to someone else making a statement that is popular among atheist laymen. He wrote, "You can't prove a negative." I responded, "You can't? Why not? I can prove negatives. Who told you that you can't prove a negative?" Really, negatives are proven all day long and are very easy: you can prove that there is no full-sized elephant in your room right now. You can prove that, under normal conditions, if you drop a pencil, it will not fall up instead of down. These are perhaps silly examples, but proving negatives is one of the most common things to prove. Here's a more realistic case. Many scientists and philosophers of science follow Popper in claiming that science cannot prove anything it can only falsify. Science cannot prove "if A --> B" because A and B may just be occuring together by coincidence. However science can falsify "if A --> B" by finding an example of A occurring without B. If we accept this account then not only is it possible to prove a negative, it means that science only proves negatives.

Now I suspect the atheist who says you can't prove negatives is really thinking something else. Perhaps he's thinking that while you can prove negatives about observables you can't prove negatives about unobservables, like God. But of course this is false as well: you can prove that God did not just create a full-sized elephant in your room right now. The atheist may counter-respond that if we appeal to God we can make any absurd qualification we want. Maybe God just created a full-sized invisible elephant in your room right now. If you object that part of your anti-elephant proof is that your room is not big enough for an elephant, you can maybe qualify it further. But these attempts are non-starters. Absent the specific qualification that the elephant is invisible (or any other ad hoc qualification) the phrase "a full-sized elephant" by itself would mean that the elephant in question is visible (or lacks the ad hoc qualification). I think the people who make this objection are thinking something along the lines of: the concept of God has been repeatedly qualified to render it immune to disproof. It used to refer to a physical person-like object, but then when that became philosophically and scientifically untenable it was upgraded to a non-physical person-like object, etc. This seems to presuppose a naive view of the origin and development of religion which was common in the second half of the 19th century. Certainly, the theistic concept of God has developed -- as it should -- but it is not clear to me that this has been a series of ad hoc qualifications like, "Well, well, maybe he's just invisible!" At any rate, atheism is guilty of the same thing, so it strikes me as a tu quoque argument.

Or perhaps the atheist is thinking you can't prove a universal negative. That's a more respectable claim: to say there are no X's would seem to require that one had searched all of reality and determined that no X's exist. Even more, it would seem to require that one had searched all of reality simultaneously: otherwise, perhaps the X's were somewhere other than where you were looking at each particular moment; maybe they moved around so that they were always behind you or something. Unfortunately, this claim is still false. It assumes the only way you can prove something is via observation, that is, through scientific methods. This is scientism and scientism is a naive and foolish position. To make the most obvious point, you can prove things via logic -- specifically you can prove universal negatives via logic. If something contradicts a law of logic then it is impossible and cannot exist anytime, anywhere. If the atheist challenges the laws of logic we can simply point out that science presupposes the laws of logic. Once you've abandoned logic you've abandoned science (not to mention knowledge and rationality). However, this has a limited application. That's why this objection is more respectable: in many cases you can't prove a universal negative. It's only when the universal negative contradicts a law of logic that it can be disproven.

A third possibility: perhaps the atheist is defining "prove" in the logical sense. You can give an argument for something, you can demonstrate that something is more likely true than false, you can even show that it is very probably true. But a logical proof is an absolute proof. It cannot fail to be true (or, conversely, fail to be false). It holds of all possible worlds. But of course, this was already dealt with: to prove a universal negative via logic is to prove it absolutely.

Finally, I would just like to point out that the claim "You can't prove a negative" is a negative. So by its own lights, it can't be proven. This doesn't necessarily render it invalid, since there are many things we can know that we can't prove. However, it does mean, at the very least, that the person who claims you can't prove a negative must give us a reason for thinking why you can't prove a negative. This is likely to lead to one of the three possibilities above.

(Updated to add a point and clean up some awkward phrasings.)

Update, 12 July: On the definition of agnosticism, a point raised in the comments, see here.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

41 comments:

TJW said...

It's something I've come across as well, usually by those leaving comments on blogs. Their reasoning seems to be that because they don't believe in God they therefore have a "non-belief" in God. But what is a "non-belief?" If a person has never considered the question, I guess you could say they have no belief in relation to that question, but it seems to me that what they are saying is that there is insufficient evidence (in their view) to warrant concluding that a God exists. But that is a "belief" - a belief as to the quality of evidence in support of a conclusion.

p.s. I'm not sure what I am but I usually identify as an agnostic - I think that's the belief that there is insufficient evidence (in my view,) or are unpersuasive arguments, in support of the conclusion that God exists or that God doesn't exist.

John Kurman said...

Proving a negative is one of the foundational statements of (boolean) logic: A statement cannot be both true and false, and the proof is by negation.

Likewise, Dawkin's argument for the observational nonexistence of God is based upon the fallacy of scientism. With that, and his silly meme concept, I just can't be bothered with him anymore.

I am provisionally an agnostic and recognize 'provisional' is about as good as it can get.

Larry Tanner said...

"If you assert that God does not exist, however, then you're making a claim to knowledge and so must shoulder the burden of proof just as much as the theist does. So it's basically an attempt to think whatever you want without having to go to the trouble of having reasons or evidence for it."

These two sentences don't seem to go together. Surely, an atheist can make a reasoned, evidence-based case for God (and all gods, in fact) not existing. Many atheists of the "new" and "old" variety--including atheist philosophers such as can be found at the Secular Outpost--elaborate and defend these cases frequently.

So, for plenty of people atheism is not at all just thinking "whatever you want." For many, it's an acceptance that theistic explanations of the universe and things in it tend almost universally to compare unfavorably to explanations requiring no theistic element.

Jim S. said...

You're right Larry. The "it" of the second sentence did not refer to hard atheism, the assertion that God does not exist of the previous sentence. It refers back to the soft atheism of the sentences before the ones you quoted, that an atheist lacks a belief in God. My apologies for not making that clearer.

unkleE said...

"So it's basically an attempt to think whatever you want without having to go to the trouble of having reasons or evidence for it."

Yes, I've often thought this to be the case too, though of course not always. But often it seems that people argue like atheism = disbelief (i.e. a statement for which one can expect evidence), but then retreat to atheism = lack of belief (and hence not requiring evidence) when challenged. And then go on arguing strongly for disbelief again.

This is of course a definitional matter with no absolute answers, and is like all language likely to evolve. But I wonder whether these two questions would help resolve an atheist's position more clearly ....

1. So what proposition do you wish to put forward?
2. So do you regard the statements "God exists" and "God doesn't exist" as equally likely to be true?

Perhaps if we move past labels to statements, the truth will be more apparent.

I think too that there is confusion about the definition of "belief". To many atheists it is similar to faith, and therefore a very negative word, whereas to philosophers it is what goes on in our heads, whether true or false, based on evidence or not.

Tim O'Neill said...

I challenged them to define what the "absence of belief" is and how it's different from withholding belief (agnosticism) and disbelief (atheism as it has been understood historically and today).

Utter nonsense. Agnosticism has nothing to do with "withholding belief". It is purely about whether God is knowable - can God be apprehended by us. Many of those who hold that a being like God could not be known are atheistic agnostics. There are also those who believe God to be unknowable, but still maintain a belief. They are theistic agnostics.

But most of those who call themselves "agnostic" have no conception of all this and use the term to differentiate themselves from "hard atheists": those who deny the existence of any God. They are actually just "soft atheists" and are not agnostics at all.

Most atheists are "soft atheists" - we don't deny the existence or even the possibility of God or gods, we are just unconvinced by the arguments for the existence of these beings. So we are simply without belief.

It seems theistic apologists don't like this and cling to how atheism has been "understood historically" (ie by theists) because that understanding is easier to handle.

It's ridiculous that theists keep trying to tell me what I, as an atheist, believe. I do NOT deny the existence or possibility of God. Nor am I an agnostic - I believe such a being would be knowable. I am without a belief in any deities and, as such, I'm an atheist.

Deal with it. And get your terminology straight.

Anonymous said...

we are just unconvinced by the arguments for the existence of these beings

Are you also unconvinced by the arguments against the existence of those being?

it seems theistic apologists don't like this and cling to how atheism has been "understood historically" (ie by theists)

Could you quote historical antecedents for your definition of atheism as "lack of belief"?

Henrik said...

Tim O'Neill,

It's ridiculous that theists keep trying to tell me what I, as an atheist, believe.

OK, so you don't believe. Fine.

I do NOT deny the existence or possibility of God. Nor am I an agnostic - I believe such a being would be knowable.

Hang on, did you just use the B-word in there? I really believe you did.. :-)

Tim O'Neill said...

anonymouse asked

Are you also unconvinced by the arguments against the existence of those being?

Some of them. Why?

Could you quote historical antecedents for your definition of atheism as "lack of belief"?

Historically, atheism has been "defined" largely by theists, which is why you guys keep getting into this hopeless muddle and why you always fall back on this "historically" gambit. I first came across this very sensible delineation of a difference between "soft atheism" and "hard atheism" as a first year philosophy undergraduate - this is basic stuff. But since you asked:

“In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.”
(Anthony Flew, 1976) See also Michael Martin, Anthony Kenny and Jacques Maritain.

Henrik asked:

did you just use the B-word in there?

Beleive? As in "hold a considered but provisional position"? Yes. Why?

Anonymous said...

Most atheists are "soft atheists" - we don't deny the existence or even the possibility of God or gods, we are just unconvinced by the arguments for the existence of these beings. So we are simply without belief.

Most atheists are intellectual cowards who frantically define their beliefs in bizarre ways because they think doing so allows them to escape burdens of proof that, frankly, terrify them.

No need to thank me for clearing that up, it was my pleasure really. :)

Deal with it. And get your terminology straight.

An atheist denies God's existence. An agnostic is (surprise) agnostic about God's existence. That's the proper understanding of the terms.

Cry about this some more. I'm sure whining and angrily insisting it's a historical theist conspiracy will change facts!

Tim O'Neill said...

Most atheists are intellectual cowards ... (Remainder snipped for the sake of both mercy and pity)

Yes, well if that blurting was the best I could summon up I'd post anonymously too. If you want to actually understand what "agnosticism" actually is, go read Huxley's essay on the term. It's the one where he came up with the word, so I think you'll find he's pretty authoritative on the matter.

But I suspect you have no real interest in actually understanding what non-believers actually think anyway, so I'm sure you won't bother.

Perhaps someone else would like to actually engage with what atheism (and agnosticism actually is) rather than clinging to the common misuse of the relevant terminology or to caricatures from some vicar's sermon.

Noons said...

UnkleE wrote:

Yes, I've often thought this to be the case too, though of course not always. But often it seems that people argue like atheism = disbelief (i.e. a statement for which one can expect evidence), but then retreat to atheism = lack of belief (and hence not requiring evidence) when challenged. And then go on arguing strongly for disbelief again.

This seems right on the money.

Tim O'Neill said...

This seems right on the money.

Is it? If I tell you why I find a story about narrowly avoiding a car accident after prayer a weak reason to believe in your God, am I arguing for "disbelief" or "a lack of belief"? If I point out a flaw in the Kalam argument, which am I maintaining: "disbelief" or "lack of belief"? If I note the hypocrisy of certain Christians: "disbelief" or "lack of belief"? If I point out the more revolting genocides ordered by Yahweh in certain texts: "disbelief" or "lack of belief"?

Theists seem to read the "atheism" of their dictionary definitions into whatever we say, without bothering to ask us what it is we're saying or why.

Jim S. said...

Tim, it is agnosticism that is diverse, not atheism. Agnosticism can be personal ("I don't know") or universal ("No one knows"). It can be diffident ("We don't know") or assertive ("We can't know"). It can relate to the object ("It is unknowable") or to the subject ("We are incapable of knowing"). I should have been clearer about this instead of using a personal, diffident definition of agnosticism. Atheism just claims that God does not exist. You can certainly take words and use them differently than how they've always been used, but feigning outrage when everyone else sticks with the usual definitions is overwrought. A better word for lacking a belief would be apisteuism. At any rate, I still don't know what it would mean to lack a belief in a concept that I've heard of. Prior to hearing of Russell's orbiting teacup I lacked a belief in it. Once I've heard of it I no longer lack a belief in it. I believe, disbelieve, or withhold belief in it.

You ask "If I tell you why I find a story about narrowly avoiding a car accident after prayer a weak reason to believe in your God, am I arguing for "disbelief" or "a lack of belief"?" Neither. You're arguing for withholding belief a.k.a. agnosticism. The evidence does not support the claim, but that does not amount to evidence against the claim. You don't believe and you don't disbelieve, you withhold belief. "If I point out a flaw in the Kalam argument, which am I maintaining: "disbelief" or "lack of belief"?" The same answer: you're maintaining the withholding of belief. "If I note the hypocrisy of certain Christians: "disbelief" or "lack of belief"?" Withholding belief. "If I point out the more revolting genocides ordered by Yahweh in certain texts: "disbelief" or "lack of belief"?" Withholding belief.

At any rate, this post is primarily about the claim that you can't prove negatives, not whether atheism refers to lacking a belief.

Tim O'Neill said...

Agnosticism can be personal ("I don't know") or universal ("No one knows"). It can be diffident ("We don't know") or assertive ("We can't know"). It can relate to the object ("It is unknowable") or to the subject ("We are incapable of knowing").

Yes, people have been misusing “agnosticism” for so long that its colloquial usage has all kinds of meanings and so is pretty much useless as a term to define someone’s philosophical position with any kind of precision. Which is why it’s only useful in these discussions when used in its original meaning, as defined by Huxley when he coined the term: “we can’t know”.

I don’t believe that “we can’t know”, so long as the “God” under discussion has most of the attributes most believers generally ascribe: a sentient being, a creator, interventionist etc. So I’m not an agnostic.

but feigning outrage when everyone else sticks with the usual definitions is overwrought.

I’m “feigning” nothing thanks. I’m expressing a level of mild frustration that so many believers want to cling to “the usual definitions” when they include colloquial uses of “agnosticism” so rubbery as to be meaningless and narrow definitions of “atheism” that exclude vast numbers of non-agnostic non-believers. They want to confine the meaning of atheism into a tiny little package and get most cross when we atheists dare to actually define what we mean by the word. The impertinence of us!

At any rate, I still don't know what it would mean to lack a belief in a concept that I've heard of. Prior to hearing of Russell's orbiting teacup I lacked a belief in it. Once I've heard of it I no longer lack a belief in it. I believe, disbelieve, or withhold belief in it.

Good grief. If you seriously can’t see the difference between conceiving of something and actually having a belief it really exists then I despair of having any kind of sensible discussion with you.

Baerista said...

Jim, why don't we settle this by looking at the morphological and etymological evidence for a-the-ism?
The Greek root word is clear: theos, meaning God. The suffix -ism is used for belief systems. The prefix a- routinely designates a lack of something. To be a-moral is not to be im-moral, but to lack moral significance or value. To be a-pathic literally means a lack of passion. A-narchists prefer a world in which power structures are lacking. So we can conclude that the theists has a disposition to belief in God, while the atheist has no such disposition.
Looking at it from this quasi-objective angle convinces me that the atheists actually have better grounds for their definition of the word than theists, including yourself, Jim, do.

Henrik said...

Hehe, just noticed I misread you there, Tim:

It's ridiculous that theists keep trying to tell me what I, as an atheist, believe.

I read a that instead of your what. So I thought you were just another of those atheists who claim that they don't believe anything, when in fact they do believe that no god exists. Sorry for that, please just forget I ever posted my comment.

Jim S. said...

Good grief. If you seriously can’t see the difference between conceiving of something and actually having a belief it really exists then I despair of having any kind of sensible discussion with you.

Try. Explain what lacking a belief means and how it differs from disbelief, withholding belief, and not having any conception of something. I promise to do my utmost in having a sensible discussion.

Jim S. said...

Jim, why don't we settle this by looking at the morphological and etymological evidence for a-the-ism?

1. The prefix a- is just a negation. To have no belief would be a-pisteuism from pisteuo, belief. A-gnosis is to have no knowledge. Perhaps you could construct A-theo-gnosis or a-theo-pisteuo, to have no knowledge of or belief in God. But by your standards, you can't import the concept of knowledge into the term "theos". Theism is the claim that God exists, atheism is the claim that God does not exist.

2. Regardless, this is all pointless because it's a linguistic fallacy known as the root fallacy.

Baerista said...

I respectfully disagree, Jim. First: it would be a root fallacy if I simply asserted that the etymology always invariably defines the meaning of a word. What I'm doing instead is to suggest that we try to refer back to the etymology and morphology where we can't seem to agree who has the right to define the meaning.
Second: I can live with your wish to have "theism" refer to the claim that God exists, although I wonder why you bring up "theo-pisteuism" as something that differs from the content of theism in any interesting way. But what I find really baffling is that you would slip the "not" at that place instead of where it belongs. Clearly A-theism negates theism and not "theos".
So by adding the prefix we go from:
"Claim that God exists" to (not)"Claim that God exists".
An atheist hence does not claim that God exists.

Andrew said...

If we can define atheism as a 'lack of belief' in God, then we can define theism as a 'lack of belief' in metaphysical naturalism.

Then how would 'soft' or 'weak' atheism differ from 'soft' or 'weak' theism?!

Jim S. said...

First: it would be a root fallacy if I simply asserted that the etymology always invariably defines the meaning of a word.

That's not how fallacies work. We don't get to say, "Well I don't always reason this way, only on occasion, so it's not a fallacy." It doesn't matter if we do it "always invariably" or only on this one occasion. It's a fallacy.

What I'm doing instead is to suggest that we try to refer back to the etymology and morphology where we can't seem to agree who has the right to define the meaning.

But philosophers do agree on the meaning. Atheism is the denial of the existence of God. The logical positivists tried to redefine it in the mid-20th century to mean the absence of belief, and this attempt survived the rejection of logical positivism for a while. But it was eventually abandoned by philosophers because no one could define what the absence of belief meant in a way that distinguishes it from agnosticism or atheism.

I wonder why you bring up "theo-pisteuism" as something that differs from the content of theism in any interesting way.

Because theos refers to God, theo-pisteuo or theo-gnosis would refer to us, whether we believe or know God exists.

But what I find really baffling is that you would slip the "not" at that place instead of where it belongs. Clearly A-theism negates theism and not "theos".

I'm sorry, but this is bizarre. There are atheological arguments, arguments against the existence of God, such as the argument from evil. Are they negating the theos or the logica? Clearly, they're arguing against the existence of God -- the a- negates theos. Yet you want the a- in atheism to negate the ism rather than the theos.

Let me put it this way: if the a- doesn't negate theos then how would you negate the theos? There's nothing left, since ex hypothesi the a- is negating the ism.

Anonymous said...

Some of them. Why?

Then it follows that this alleged "soft atheism" is also lack of belief in the nonexistence of god as much as it is lack of belief in the existence of god, right?

I'm bringing this up because you're doing a disingenuous shift from talking about positions to describing a psychological state such as lack of belief to befuddle that this "soft atheism" is actually agnosticism when properly understood.

I can only lack a belief both in the truth and the falsity of a proposition if I don't understand the proposition, which isn't the case here, or I simply don't know the truth value of the proposition. So soft atheism, properly understood, is not knowing whether God exist or not. So it's all about the knowability of God; exactly what agnosticism is.

You also appeal to Flew, but in his article he also says:

The word 'atheism', however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of 'atheist' in English is 'someone who asserts that there is no such being as God', I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively.(...) The introduction of this new interpretation of the word 'atheism' may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. 'Whyever', it could be asked, 'don't you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?

Tim O'Neill said...

Then it follows that this alleged "soft atheism" is also lack of belief in the nonexistence of god as much as it is lack of belief in the existence of god, right?

Er, wrong.

Try this: you have no belief in Santa. But you don't actively deny the very existence of Santa, because you know you can't prove a universal negative. You've considered the arguments for the existence of Santa (eg the evidence of presents found by the chimney on Dec 25), but you find them unconvincing.

As a result, you are (quite reasonably) without a belief in Santa, while not holding the unsustainable belief that there definitely is no Santa (because you can't prove a negative). And we could substitute "leprechauns", "the tooth fairy", "Thor" or any number of other beings in which you have no belief for "Santa" in the sentence above.

Well, for me, we can also substitute "God" as well. You can keep tying yourself in knots trying to pretend that this entirely valid and perfectly reasonable position that you share when it comes to most mythic beings somehow involves some kind of "disingenuous shift" or is otherwise unreasonable if you like. But unless you can make that also work for your lack of belief in Santa, I'm really not very interested in your hysteria.

Anonymous said...

Try this: you have no belief in Santa. But you don't actively deny the very existence of Santa, because you know you can't prove a universal negative. You've considered the arguments for the existence of Santa (eg the evidence of presents found by the chimney on Dec 25), but you find them unconvincing.

How is this qualitatively different from not knowing if there is a Santa or not?

You can keep tying yourself in knots trying to pretend that this entirely valid and perfectly reasonable position that you share when it comes to most mythic beings somehow involves some kind of "disingenuous shift" or is otherwise unreasonable if you like.

I don't lack a belief in Santa, Tooth Fairy, leprechauns, or Thor. I believe that there is no Santa, there is no Tooth Fairy, there is no leprechauns, and there is no Thor.

And I'm not sure who is here tying himself in knots.

Tim O'Neill said...

How is this qualitatively different from not knowing if there is a Santa or not?

No-one can definitively know if something exists or not, unless they are omniscient. That's why the colloquial misuse of "agnostic" is so useless - it tells us nothing. So of course I don't "know" one way or the other. All we can do is use a term that makes a statement about whether we think the existence of something is likely enough to sustain a belief. A theist is someone who says they can. An atheist is someone who says they can't.

I believe that there is no Santa, there is no Tooth Fairy, there is no leprechauns, and there is no Thor.

So you're omniscient then? Congratulations. If you aren't, however, then you can't prove a universal negative and so maintaining a positive belief in the non-existence of something is unsustainable. "I believe there is no God/Santa/the ToothFairy etc" only works as a colloquial shorthand for "I am unconvinced by the evidence for God/Santa/the ToothFairy etc and so am without a belief in him/them". Which is my position on God/Santa/ToothFairy etc and yours on two of the above.

Henrik said...

So you're omniscient then? Congratulations. If you aren't, however, then you can't prove a universal negative and so maintaining a positive belief in the non-existence of something is unsustainable.

OK, so let's define "Santa" by "Man wearing red clothes, living on the North Pole and delivering presents each Christmas". If you search the North Pole quite thouroughly, without finding any such man, would you still find it unsustainable to believe that no such man exists?

Jim S. said...

No-one can definitively know if something exists or not, unless they are omniscient.

I don't think any epistemologist would agree with that. Even infallibilists don't require such a high standard for something to qualify as knowledge, and infallibilism is not as common today as fallibilism.

Tim O'Neill said...

If you search the North Pole quite thouroughly, without finding any such man, would you still find it unsustainable to believe that no such man exists?

I can't believe I'm bothering with this, but ...

You just defined Sanata in a way that makes it able to definitively rule on his existence ("living at the north pole") and so have been careful to define him in a way that God is not defined. So you've framed him in a way that makes him not analogous to God and then tried to argue he's not analogous. Congratulations.

If your "God" was defined in the same way - eg "living on Mount Sinai" - this would be relevant. But he isn't. Nice try though.


I don't think any epistemologist would agree with that.


So you can prove a universal negative? Terrific - please show me how.

The weird efforts some here are going to so that they can force me into their tiny "atheist" (actually, hard atheist) box is bizarre. What the hell is wrong with us defining ourselves as soft atheists? Why does that bother you people so much? Get a grip.

Jim S. said...

Did you miss the post Tim? I addressed universal negatives. But in your last few comments you seem to be equating being able to prove something with being able to know it. That's not only refuted by experience but by Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. "Knowable" and "provable" are not synonyms; we can know something without being able to prove it. Which is one of the reasons epistemologists reject your standard that "No-one can definitively know if something exists or not, unless they are omniscient." That's false, and I'm unaware of any expert in the theory of knowledge who would agree with it (except maybe Peter Unger).

Also, if I may intrude into your discussion with Henrik, you claimed that belief in Santa was analogous to belief in God since we can't disprove either one. Henrik pointed out that they are not analogous since we can disprove the existence of Santa, and we couldn't similarly disprove the existence of God. You object to this, but I don't see what your objection is. He didn't define Santa in an ad hoc way. You claimed the two beliefs are analogous, he showed that they are not.

Finally, not to beat a dead horse, but are you able and willing to define what lacking a belief means and explain how it differs from a) disbelief, b) withholding belief, and c) not having any conception of something?

David Duffy said...

I suspect Tim would answer Henrik by saying that Santa is not expected by his adult believers to be discoverable at the North Pole any more than ancient Greeks expected to routinely find Zeus on top of Mt Olympus. If disappointed by a lack of dry land at the North Pole, we must move to a more nuanced belief system (perhaps dropping a trust in scriptural inerrancy).

Similarly, with Popperian falsificationism, I believe there is no good rule for deciding when a theory cannot be further defended by modification: that is, there is often no clearcut knockout demonstration.

Tim O'Neill said...

No, I'm not.

Henrik pointed out that they are not analogous

He carefully set up a definition of "Santa" that was deliberately not analogous and then pointed out that it was not analogous. Not very impressive stuff.

not to beat a dead horse

Too late. And I've already been over what lacking belief means many times. Exactly why you have such a problem with such a simple concept I have no idea. It seems to be closest to your b) as far as I can tell. Now please don't tell me that your b) is "agnosticism" or we'll have to go over the way the rubbery colloquial uses of that word are too broad and varied to be useful in defining anything and how the original definition is something else entirely. Again.

I still can't work out why you guys get so worked up over the fact that we differentiate soft atheism from hard atheism. Why does this bother you so much?

Anonymous said...

And I've already been over what lacking belief means many times.

Do it again, then.

Jim S. said...

If you went over it before I missed it Tim. I wrote a post on the issue a couple of years ago and was surprised that you never commented on it. So if you could explain what it is, or point me to where you explained it already, I'd appreciate it.

I do have to say: of course withholding belief is agnosticism. You don't know if it's true and you don't know if it's false, so you simply withhold judgment. Your claim about how to define agnosticism warrants its own post which is percolating in my brain for the moment.

As for defining Santa: his location at the North Pole is part of the standard image of Santa Claus. Henrik didn't carefully define Santa in order to prove a point, he took the standard concept and showed it's not analogous. You can define Santa differently from everyone else if you want, but then you lose your point about how other people's concept of Santa is analogous to the concept of God.

Tim O'Neill said...


I do have to say: of course withholding belief is agnosticism.


Not according to Huxley. Why you guys ignore the actual definition of the word as defined by the man who coined it and cling to one of several sloppy colloquial misuses of it I have no idea. It seems connected to this weird obsession to pretend there aren't many thousands of atheists out there who use "soft atheism" as the more accurate and precise definition of "witholding belief" and to force all atheists into the confined box of "hard atheism". Why? Beats me.

As for defining Santa: his location at the North Pole is part of the standard image of Santa Claus.

Your santological claims are turning into something as abstruse and silly as most theology. Okay, if you are so fundamentalist about Santa then substitute "leprechauns" or "the Tooth Fairy" or "Odin" or "Quetzalcoatl". The fact is that you are not convinced by the arguments that any of these beings exist, yet you can't definitively know or prove they don't. So you are without a belief in them. This is a very reasonable position that we all share.

You might say "I don't believe leprechauns exist" or even "leprechauns don't exist" but this is simply shorthand for "while I can't prove they don't exist, the evidence for them is so unconvincing that I have no belief in them". Substitute "God" for "leprechauns" in there and you have what the overwhelming majority of atheists belief about your "God" and all the other "gods".

I've now explained this ... what? ... three times? I've also explained why the sloppy, colloquial misuse of Huxley's term is useless at least twice. I'm getting bored with repeating myself. Unless one of you people has something new to say other repeating the same weak crap I'm sick of this stupid conversation.

Jim S. said...

But Tim, you chose to compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus. Before we move on to address the claim that belief in God is like belief in fairies or leprechauns we have to establish that your first comparison was invalid. If you wanted to compare it to belief in leprechauns that aren't subject to the same refutation as Santa Claus then you should have done it from the outset. And you haven't explained it three times, you just backhandedly admitted that Henrik demonstrated that belief in Santa is not analogous to belief in God. He refuted your claim.

Tim O'Neill said...

Henrik demonstrated that belief in Santa is not analogous to belief in God.

By defining "Santa" in a contrived way that deliberately and artificially made the analogy invalid. Ridiculous.

This is pointless. I've had less braindead exchanges with the half-wit atheists on reddit.com. I'm out of here.

Henrik said...

The fact is that you are not convinced by the arguments that any of these beings exist, yet you can't definitively know or prove they don't. So you are without a belief in them.

It seems to me that you define "believe" = "know" or "being able to prove". I know a lot of people who believe in God, yet do not know he exists, neither can they prove it. Obviously.

Jim S. said...

By defining "Santa" in a contrived way that deliberately and artificially made the analogy invalid. Ridiculous.

Defining Santa as living at the North Pole is not contrived Tim, it's part of the basic concept. That was my objection: if he redefined the concept in an ad hoc way then you had some space to object, but he didn't, and it's obvious he didn't. You chose a bad analogy. Own it.

This is pointless. I've had less braindead exchanges with the half-wit atheists on reddit.com. I'm out of here.

Why am I a half-wit? I pointed out that your analogy was flawed and explained why. I said your epistemology was flawed and explained why. I said your concept of "soft atheism" was flawed and explained why. You, in turn, have not been willing to explain your positions and seem chronically incapable of admitting that you made a minor error. I challenged you several times to explain what "lacking a belief" means and the closest you came to an explanation was saying that it's similar to withholding a belief -- which is the philosophical definition of agnosticism.

You're not explaining Tim, you're obfuscating and deflecting.

saleem mohd. said...
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kamran shiakh said...
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