Sunday, July 31, 2011

Belief/Lack of Belief

While thinking about that hoary topic again, I have decided to write a post on the `belief/lack of belief' distinction which is the subject of so much fire in the skeptical and atheist communities.

I opine that atheism is, properly speaking, best described as a belief in nearly all circumstances where it occurs. I am familiar with the objections to this, which are most eloquently and illustratively summarized by the following video:

The goal of describing oneself as an atheist is presumably to give an accurate impression of ones stances. Since the term `atheist' has been used as a curse word - and really originated as such - and false equivalences are so prevalent, I always assume that I will have to clearly explain my stance in detail. For this reason, the distinction between lack of belief and belief, up to the aforementioned goal, is next to useless.

This is why, though I usually disagree with those who insist on the `belief/lack of belief' distinction, I nevertheless agree that it is understandable to make that distinction and insist upon it. If you are an atheist and have ever engaged in any argumentation, I would be surprised if you had not encountered false equivalences like those described in the video. Believers, by using `atheism' in a way syntactically similar to `religion', attempt to draw false equivalences. But I do not think that making the `belief/lack of belief' distinction will help to avoid the boring process of correction. We have to do this anyways.

Whether or not `lack of belief' is better than `belief' depends especially on one crucial fact: the definition or idea of gods in play. This semantic dependency is not obviated by insisting on the `atheism=a lack of belief in gods' equation; rather, `atheism' always carries with it this problem. So why do we identify as atheists at all?

The answer is very simple, and it hinges on how words are normally, conventionally employed. We are atheists with respect to gods as usually defined and as normally present in religion. To call ourselves atheists is to feel that this usage sense has some use, even if we have learned the ready lesson that one must always in advance insist on a relatively precise definition when arguing about gods.

Think about it in an indirect sense: is it really the case that we have no opinions concerning even hitherto undefined gods? Do we for example make statements about the nature of god-belief? Try asserting the following at the same time:

1. The gods of religions exist only in the minds of believers.
2. Some god exists.

Even if a non-descript god is presented for which there is no evidence either way, it is not as though we therefore lack any opinion. We have notions of parsimony - `Occam's razor' - and other intellectual tools that very much apply to such hypothetical entities. We do not think that they are as likely to exist as not, or any other such thing. To see where you stand on such gods, play along with a little thought experiment of mine.

Suppose I have a magic box - do not question the physics of the magic box - that can tell us with 100% accuracy whether or not an otherwise strictly non-predictive entity exists. If that entity exists, the box will output `yes' when you press the button. If not, it will output `no' when you press the button. How much are you willing to stake, in dollars or whatever else you value, that the box outputs `yes'? If you are anything like me, you would stake a considerable amount on `no'. The point is not that we lack a magic box; the point is that this experiment can reveal to us how confident we are about the existence or non-existence of deities which are incapable of being evidenced. Had we such a box, I would be happy to take $1000 off of anyone unwise enough to bet that sum on a `yes' answer. Would you?

I make a similar point in the context of the OTF. `Skepticism', or `atheism', are not free-tickets to being the `default' position. I add, and emphatically, that noise about the `burden of proof' is completely pointless. There are arguments. Talk about them. Once you get a theistic counterpart to carefully present what he or she believes, you should not have any trouble finding the right place to continue. The case is not, as Qualiasoup suggests, that atheism is the natural `default'. Rather, the `default' is whatever the person in the discussion believes at that moment. If anything, they will usually be supernaturalists. There is no one `default'. There is no hypothetical beginning of the discussion at which an absolute burden of proof is in play. This is pure distraction.

I am not thinking how Qualiasoup says that people like me are thinking. I am a probabilist, after all. I am also of the opinion that the `believe/believe that not' distinction is unnecessary in light of probabilism. It's all about whether or not any confidence is assigned to a proposition, and if so, how much. To me, `belief' as normally employed is a secondary, unnecessary term. But I still use it whenever I am talking to people who are not probabilists. So `belief' still has utility, as does `atheist', but as far as I can tell, it only has utility when it is used approximately how I use it.

Now, "I lack belief in your god" and "I believe that your god does not exist" are not contradictory statements. Which is more appropriate may depend on the specifics of the situation, especially whether or not a coherent, understandable concept of god is present. But that is not the point, because this applies to using `atheist' in any sense of the term.

If you want to engage in the arguments, do so. But the common purpose of atheists in insisting on the `lack of belief' label as a means to justify being in a `default' is deeply suspect, and furthermore, it is pointless. You are after all engaging in the arguments anyways. You are not a dictionary entry. Act like it.

This is all very straightforward.

Step 1: You have to ask for a definition.
Step 2: Evaluate that definition.

Is it contradictory? Then you can be a certain atheist. Is it incoherent or nonsensical? Then you can say why the definition is inadequate. Is it capable of being evidenced, but fails to have convincing evidence? That is a claim about the state of the evidence; defend it. Is it coherent and consistent, but incapable of being evidenced? Then demonstrate that this is the case, and if you maintain non-belief, explicate the principles of reasoning that justify your doing so. Whatever you need should be clear in the context of discussion, up to and including any subtleties in definition that are useful.

And whatever you do, do not make a gigantic big deal out of this.

Edit: And there are good reasons to not feel strongly about your self-labelings.

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