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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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Bill,

Thanks very much for your kind remarks. I should not have referred to stipulative definitions; I meant persuasive definitions.

I agree with Gordon that "S does not believe in God" is ambiguous, because it includes:

-Lack of belief (agnostic)

-A positive belief that the proposition "God exists" is false (atheist)

There is a logical difference between the two above types of positions, because only the last one has a burden of proof.

The agnostic is not making any claim regarding God existence or non-existence. He simply suspends his judgment regarding it. It's a psychological state of undecision. Given that he is not making any claim, he hasn't the burden of proof regarding God (except if he makes the claim "I'm agnostic regarding God", in which case, he's the burden of proof of that claim, e.g. arguing that the arguments for and against God seem unconvincing for him).

However, the atheist is making a claim about the world: God doesn't exist. Thus, he has the burden of proof regarding the non-existence of God.

Many atheists argue that they haven't the burden of proof because it's not possible to prove a negative. But any person who has studied logic knows that if you prove the truth of P, then you're proving that Non-P isn't true (so you're actually proving a negative).

If I prove that David Gordon is a libertarian and austrian economics supporter, then I'm proving that he's not a communist (a negative claim). If I prove that Richard Dawkins is an atheist, then I'm proving that is NOT a Christian (again, I'm proving a negative proposition).

If I prove that Bill Vallicella was born in USA, then I'm proving that he wasn't born in Chine, Russian or Germany (because he can't be born in all these countries at the same time)

Evidence is always a positive activity, but its logical implications can support both positive and negative propositions (like the above examples).

So the rule "you can't prove a negative" is simply false. It can be hard to prove a negative in specific cases, but not logical rule entails it. In fact, logic entail that you can prove a negative:

http://departments.bloomu.edu/philosophy/pages/content/hales/articlepdf/proveanegative.pdf

Some atheists use the ambiguity that Gordon refered to above, for avoid the burden of proof regarding their negative claims and beliefs.


I think that Gordon is right, that atheism properly describes the absence of belief in God. One may have a positive belief that God does not exist or no such belief and still be accurately described as an atheist. So cannibals who have simply never considered the possibility that God or gods may exist would be atheists. Indeed, if Christian missionaries happen across a culture like this, they would be very likely to describe them as such.

The burden of proof is indeed on the theist, for he makes a postive existential claim and the atheist (or antitheist, if you prefer) does not. If the burden of proof did not lie with the person making the positive existential claim, then the claim that there are thousands of perfectly transparent, levitating gnomes between me and this keyboard would be on an equal par with the claim that there are no such things.

I would even, taking inspiration from C.S. Peirce's Fixation of Belief (though I don't know if he would agree with me), say that we need not have any beliefs about the non-existence of something. It is good enough to say we have no reason to believe in the thing.

I would like to hear what you think about the following move a theist can make against an atheist using Smith's definition of atheism, i.e. the absence of belief in god.

There must be an explanation for the atheist's lack of belief. Some explanations are obviously not important, given the context (i.e. a discussion about who has the burden of proof in a debate about god's existence), e.g. never having been exposed to god belief, or having brain damage. So it seems that we can distinguish explanations that are grounded in reasons (E1), and explanations (such as the examples in the previous sentence) that are not (E2).

If an atheist claims that his atheism is explained in a way best categorized as a token of (E2), then his position is by definition non-rational, and there simply doesn't seem to be any reason to take non-rational positions seriously (or whether there's even a position to take seriously in the first place) in the context of a discussion about god's existence that is at least sophisticated enough to involve competing claims about how the definition of the term 'atheism' affects the burden of proof.

If, however, the atheist does claim to have reasons for his lack of belief (E1), then the atheist is making a claim, i.e. my reason or set of reasons justify my lack of belief in god. This doesn't seem prima facie to be a claim about god, but a claim about the relationship between the atheist's reasons for his lack of belief and his lack of belief itself, and this is of course a claim that can be challenged (i.e. perhaps his reasons don't justify a lack of belief in god).

So, since it seems to be the case that most atheists using Smith's definition of atheism explain their lack of belief in a way that is best categorized as an instance of (E1) -- Smith himself wrote a rather long book giving reasons for atheism as he defines it -- it seems to me that the atheist is making a claim that needs to be defended in a debate about god's existence, even if that claim is not about god, but about the connection between the atheist's lack of belief and his reasons for it. In other words, if the atheist is saying, "I lack belief in god, and I have good reasons for my lack of belief" then why is the burden of proof entirely on the theist who is saying. "I believe in god, and I have good reasons for my belief"?

Incidentally, I wonder how coherent Smith's position is. If we define atheism as a lack of belief, then it's hard to see how it could be described as a conclusion; however, if he claims to have reasons for his lack of belief -- a claim he obviously does make, given his long book that posits sundry reasons for his atheism -- then his lack of belief must be a conclusion of some sort. If this is the case, then perhaps atheist's using Smith's definition must formulate at least two definitions of atheism: one to describe atheists whose lack of belief is an instance of (E2), and that therefore cannot a be described as a conclusion; and atheists whose lack of belief is an instance of (E1), and that therefore must be formulated as a conclusion.

I was thinking this through as I wrote it, so I apologize if most of it is nonsense!

I think Spencer, above, is right: it's not so important that an atheist [actively] believes there is no God, or that a theist [actively] believes that there is (and in both cases are making statements about God, as well as about their own beliefs).

Is it not the claim of many an atheist that "I have no good reason to believe in God", and that hence there is no God? Maybe this is not as definitive as "I believe there is no God", although I think it amounts to the same thing in practicalities, but it is also what Dawkin's Flying Spaghetti Monster is all about. Does the avergae Joe [actively] believe there is no FSM, or just have no good reason to believe in the FSM?

So solipsists that "have no good reason" to believe in other minds don't have the burden we do?

Seems to me this "we don't have good reason" tactic rather begs some important questions re: natural theology and theistic claims about the clarity of God's existence and the subsaquent evidence-supression or culpable ignorance of the atheist.

Oh, and what if Alston is right and God has no beliefs. Since he would "have no believe in God," then God would be an atheist (!) ... but perhaps Alston is wrong. however, since his thesis is possible, the atheists definition isn't analytic.

[BV writes] "I would say that 'atheist' as used by Smith is a precisifying definition which takes a word in ordinary use and gives it a precise meaning. He is free to do that."

Indeed he is, and since so many atheists have espoused this definition, and since so many doggedly insist on it, there is no reason why we should not indulge them.

It's worth having another look at Austin Cline's page about this definition, because his thinking is, I feel, quite close to the atheism of the 'trenches' so to speak. That is, what you would find in usenet groups and on atheist forums, and so on all over the place. Furthermore, Cline gives us some insight as to why an atheist would insist on defining himself this way.

http://atheism.about.com/od/definitionofatheism/a/LackBeliefGod.htm

"It might thus be fairly said that the entire attempt to deny the definition of atheism as simply a "lack of belief in gods" is an attempt by religious theists to avoid facing and defending their own theistic position. You see, if they can claim that atheists are making their own assertions, then perhaps the theistic claims will fade into the background and not be subject to the critical examination, questions, and critique they deserve."

From this I think we can conclude one of two things:

(1) That this definition of atheism really is a true description of an atheist, and therefore, theists cannot accuse atheists of making assertions, because they do not make assertions. The things they say and write may seem to be assertions, but really they are only mountains of syllables. The atheist holds no conviction about these pseudo-assertions either. Also, cabbages, sparkplugs, lawn-chairs, the neonatal, and bowls of potato salad are atheists.

(2) This definition of atheism is not a true discription of an atheist. The atheist is in fact making assertions when he is seen and heard to be making assertions.

If (1) is true, then there is no use listening to atheists or taking them seriously, since they don't believe what they say and they aren't saying anything anyway. If (2) is true then atheists are, unfortunately, lying about themselves.

I think we should all agree to the following. First, the theist believes the proposition that there is a (theistic God); the atheist in turn has the belief that there is no theistic God. Therefore, each of them has a belief that contradicts the other’s belief. Simply noting the fact that each has their respective beliefs and reflecting upon the content of these beliefs (e.g., that they are contradictory) no conclusions can be conclusively drawn regarding the question as to who carries the burden of proof. Burden of proof is a pragmatic notion: it is neither a purely semantic notion nor a purely logical notion (but, of course, it includes elements of both). Typically, contextual elements determine who has the burden of proof. When Einstein introduced his theory of relativity everyone, including himself, accepted that he has the burden of proof because he in effect proposed to replace the prevailing theory with a new one. If today someone wanted to replace Einstein theory, then they will carry the burden of proof.

Second, we should also concede that there is nothing wrong in the context of everyday life for a person to believe in God based upon faith. Such a person is no less rational by so doing than my accepting on faith that the ground under me shall not open up and swallow me. When I walk on the ground I do not do so by first contemplating whether I have rational reasons to believe that the ground shall not swallow me and only then will I walk over it. Of course, there may be inductive support for this belief, but we all know how that works. On the other hand, if I walk in a territory replete with quicksand terrain, then of course having strong evidence against the ground swallowing me here and now is a matter of life or death. So this in broad stroke how things go in everyday life. It would be totally misplaced to accuse someone of being irrational merely because in the context of their daily life faith is their principal ground for holding the belief in a theistic God.

However, matters change considerably when the belief in a theistic God, or the opposite belief of the atheist, is considered in the context of Rational Theology; namely, the philosophical contemplation of whether the propositions ‘A theistic God exists’ or ‘A theistic God does not exist’ can be given rational support. The question here is whether either one of these propositions can be given rational support that is at the same time a refutation of the other proposition. In this context, the task is akin to many other philosophical questions: e.g., are there rational reasons to be moral? What is the meaning of life? Do we have free will? Is there consciousness? In each of these cases we live our normal everyday life as if there are good reasons to be moral, that there is a meaning to our life, that we do have free will, and that we do have conscious experiences. However, when these questions are examined in a philosophical context, the question is whether it is possible to give a rational argument, perhaps even a conclusive one, one way or another.

In the philosophical context, the theist as well as the atheist has a vested interest to prove or offer arguments in support of their position. Hence, we have a variety of proofs for the existence of a theistic God and proofs against it. However, even when these beliefs are considered within a philosophical context it is futile to seek some sort of a meta-burden-of-proof argument as to who carries the burden of proof absolutely and in the absence of any contextual considerations. Doing so presupposes that at this level burden-of-proof is either a semantic or a logical property of the propositions in question or the belief-attitudes of holding them or a combination of the two. However, I think that such attempts have been shown to fail and there is a systematic way they all fail. Any argument to shift the burden of proof to the other side must always rely on certain premises and these premises are going to be challenged and most likely proved as begging the question. There is no meta-burden-of-proof argument. Therefore, it is best to think of burden of proof as a particular responsibility that one side or another provisionally takes upon themselves within the context of a particular debate. Many well known theologians and philosophers, I believe, adopted such an attitude when they offered proofs for the existence of a theistic God or when they offered proof against it.

peter

I do not see what is the big problem about offering a reasonable criterion for who falls in the class of atheists. Since a theist (I suppose we agree) has the belief that a (theistic) God exists, the atheist, in turn, has the belief that a (theistic) God does not exist.
Now, various atheists may have other accompanying beliefs: e.g., some might hold that the theist cannot offer rational support for their theistic beliefs, others might not hold this later view. What is in common to them all, I think, is that they hold the belief that a theistic God does not exist. This is the essential component of being an atheist. Any other accompanying beliefs may or may not be held by atheists; but unless one has the belief I cited, one cannot be an atheist.

peter

"I think we should all agree to the following. First, the theist believes the proposition that there is a (theistic God); the atheist in turn has the belief that there is no theistic God."

Peter, an atheist using Smith's definition will disagree with you here. He will say that there's a difference between having 'the belief that there is no theistic god' and lacking the belief that there is a theistic god. The issue is whether this redefinition (or 'precisifying' definition) of atheism holds water.

The reason I don't like discussion about the burden of proof is that it is a social idea - one person wants the other to have to do all the talking, so he folds his arms and says he has no burden of proof.

But what from the individual standpoint, the one that doesn't care about philosophical camps of thought, what then? Each individual ought to look for the way a worldview would be true, instead of consigning other positions the 'burden of proof' to justify his laziness and then do nothing at all.

Perhaps there is a deeper understanding of the burden of proof than that, but it usually comes off as someone trying to get a day off work.

Reflections on Neoatheism

Eric says,
"Peter, an atheist using Smith's definition will disagree with you here. He will say that there's a difference between having 'the belief that there is no theistic god' and lacking the belief that there is a theistic god."

Here we have the starting point for a new form of atheism Bill and Gordon have brought to our attention. I shall call it ‘Neoatheism’.

I will begin these reflections by a direct response to Eric: I know that there is such a difference. The question is whether there is any merit to redefining atheism in the manner you defend. I, for one, fail to understand the rationale for introducing such a definition. Bill and Gordon did a masterful job in challenging this strategy so I shall add some long footnotes to what they have already said. I hope I will be forgiven for repeating some issues they have already covered extensively.

1) Given a proposition P, and a belief-corpus S of A, there are four possibilities: (i) A’s belief-corpus S includes P; (ii) A’s belief-corpus S includes ~P; (iii) A’s belief-corpus S includes neither P nor ~P; (iv) A’s belief-corpus S includes neither P nor ~P and A fails to have the conceptual resources to understand propositions P and ~P. Shortly I shall give an example of this fourth possibility.

Let P = A theistic God exists. The traditional classification has been this: option (i) characterizes a theistic attitude (I am assuming no one challenges this claim assuming the usual additional propositions that go with it); option (ii) characterizes the atheist position; and option (iii) characterizes an agnostic position. Option (iv) may be called the “ignoramus” position.
We may wish to make a distinction here between “radical agnosticism” and “moderate agnosticism”. Both lack a belief in either proposition, except that the radical agnostic believes that there cannot be any conclusive rational support for either proposition and, hence, no knowledge of either is possible; whereas the moderate agnostic thinks that perhaps such a proof is possible and, therefore, knowledge of one or another proposition is possible.

2) A new form of atheism emerged. I shall call it ‘Neoatheism’ and it sets out to challenge the traditional way of classifying the above attitudes toward our proposition. If I understand this Neoatheism correctly, its principal agenda is to shift the burden of proof to the theist by maintaining that the atheist is not in slot (ii) above: i.e., the atheist should not be taken to believe the proposition that there is no theistic God. Rather the atheist should be taken to hold neither the proposition that the theist God exists nor its negation that the theist God does not exist. What is the motivation of the pioneers of Neoatheism to propose such a shift in the content of atheism? I shall deal with this shortly. Presently, however, we need to realize that the Neoatheist’s position (as I have just described it) is ambiguous between categories (iii) and (iv) above; namely, between the position held by agnostics vs. the position held by the ignoramus.

3) Example:
A *Communist* can be characterized as someone who believes that the means of production should be owned by the collective state and that the collective state should control the market place. A *capitalist* can be characterized by someone who believes that the means of production should be owned by individuals and the collective state should not control the market place. So these two characters have contradictory beliefs.

What about Yokel Doodle? Suppose Yokel lived about two thousand years ago in a very small village. At that time the human race, his community, and village did not even have the vocabulary to formulate the opposition between a communist and a capitalist. Yokel never even contemplated the question and in fact could not have done so in large part because he lacked the conceptual resources and even the vocabulary to pose the question to himself. So Yokel has no beliefs (lacks any beliefs) about who should own the means of production and control the marketplace. Yokel, then, is ignoramus with respect to the debate between communism and capitalism. His belief-corpus belongs to category (iv) above.
What should we say here? Are we to say that Yokel’s lack of any beliefs about this matter makes him a *communist* or a *capitalist*? Or should we say instead that Yokel, having no beliefs about the matter, is neither. Yokel never contemplated the matter; could not have contemplated the matter and form definite beliefs about it, and therefore Yokel is neither a *communist* nor a *capitalist*. Period!
But, Yokel is not an agnostic, moderate or radical, either. To be an agnostic one must be able to ponder the two contradictory propositions and decide that neither is worthy (as yet or forever) of rational acceptance. Yokel is an ignoramus with respect to the debate in question: he cannot and should not participate in such a debate on any side of the issue.

3) Do the Neoatheists propose that atheists are or should see themselves as being in Yokel’s situation with respect to the debate regarding whether a theist God exists. Do they suggest that atheists should adopt the position that they do not have the vocabulary and conceptual resources to even formulate the debate for themselves so as to contemplate the question? If the pioneers of Neoatheism have this view in mind, then I am certainly not a Neoatheist because, as an atheist, I see myself as having the vocabulary and the conceptual resources to formulate myself the debate and contemplate the question. And upon reflection, I hold that the theist God does not exist. If I were to adopt any other position, I would be deceiving myself. I suspect, therefore, that the Neoatheists’s proposal is to classify the new form of atheism in slot (iii) above.

4) If so, then we need to ask what motivates such a proposal. I suspect that it has to do with the following strategy. If a theist belongs to category (i) and the atheist belongs to category (ii), then as Gordon and Bill and others have emphasized, they are both on the same footing with respect to the burden of proof. They both hold a certain belief and must therefore provide rational support for it (not in everyday life, of course, but when entering the philosophical theater). But atheists always held a deep seated belief that in some fundamental sense it is the theist that must carry the burden of proof. Why? In the commons, this deep seated belief is expressed roughly like this:

“You the theist hold the *positive* belief that this entity you call ‘God’ exists, while I the atheist hold that the very same entity does not exist. But it is well known that a negative existential proposition cannot be proven. Therefore, the burden of proof is always upon those who hold a positive existential belief; and that is you my dear theist!”

5) Now, in the corridors of the philosophical theater the above argument of the amateur atheist will not work because its premise that a negative existential proposition can never be proved is simply false. So, the atheist strategy to shift the burden of proof to the theist remains at limbo. What shall he do? Well, one strategy is to assimilate the theist’s belief in a theistic God to some really bizarre beliefs such as Russell’s teapot, flying spaghetti (I think this was the example someone gave), or little green Martians disguised as pets (my example, I think!) and make the reasonable argument that due to the bizarre character of such beliefs, the belief in a theistic God among them, anyone who holds these sorts of beliefs carries the burden of proof. This move, as Bill has pointed out in several posts, simply flies in the face of the obvious fact that the belief in a theistic God, whether true or false, is not on the same footing as those other bizarre beliefs. At least some sort of an argument must be given to so assimilate the belief in the existence of a theistic God and, of course, the Neoatheist knows that any such argument will be encountered by considerable difficulties. So what should be done now?

6) The Neoatheist notices that the moderate agnostic is in a very enviable position of justifiably holding all the shifting the burden of proof aces. Why? Because the moderate agnostic can tell the following story:

“Both you the theist and you the atheist wish to convince me to add your favorite proposition to my belief-corpus. But adding such a proposition to my belief-corpus is not a picnic for me: it does not come without a considerable cognitive cost. If I add either one of these propositions to my belief-corpus, then I might have to adjust a whole bunch of inferential relations among it and other propositions throughout my belief-corpus. I might even have to accept some additional propositions that come with the one you ask me to add, which in turn will require me to examine whether any contradictions arise and so forth. Therefore, if you wish me to take on this considerably costly tasks, you better provide some good reasons why should I adopt your preferred proposition. And these reasons must be in the form of rational arguments that demonstrate that your favorite proposition is in fact (or very likely to be) true.”

7) Here the moderate agnostic provides a legitimate argument based upon certain contextual features of his belief-corpus that places the burden of proof equally on the theist and the atheist. The Neoatheist proposal is in effect attempting to appropriate the benefits of the moderate agnostic’s position while at the same time still holding on to his denial that a theistic God exists. In the Saloon-Halls of the old West you can get shot for pulling aces out of your sleeve in this way when playing poker. In our current world, you get rewarded by publications for essentially the very same thing: in some respects the swift and unequivocal justice of the old West is to be admired.

8) I, for one, am an atheist that refuses to shift the burden of proof in the above manner. I find it intellectually dishonest, motivated only by a shrewd pursuit of strategy rather than the pursuit of truth, and finally it is futile. It is intellectually dishonest because it pretends as if there is not now and never was a clear difference between an atheist and a moderate agnostic. It is motivated by chasing a strategy instead of the pursuit of truth because it is focusing upon procedural question of shifting the burden of proof rather than focusing upon the content of the beliefs themselves. And it is futile because it is not going to convince anyone (least of all the theist but also the agnostic) except those who are already deeply entangled in this form of argumentation. I am certainly not convinced: moreover, I wish to distance myself as an atheist from any such maneuvers and, therefore, from Neoatheism.

9) I believe that the theistic God does not exist: the theist believes that the theistic God exists; we have contradictory believes. I shall try, if capable, to offer arguments, evidence, and other rational considerations in favor of my belief. The theist will do the same on behalf of his belief. If we debate the matter, then we might quibble over burden of proof considerations regarding one or another move, argument, considerations. But, it would be dishonest of me (or the theist) to maintain that there is some Meta burden of proof argument that shows that the theist has to do all the philosophical work to rationally establish his position, whereas I need only to respond by showing that his arguments are incoherent, invalid, unsound, beg the question, or whatever other ills they are liable to commit. Moreover, holding as I do that a theist God does not exist, I would like to think that there are positive reasons for this belief rather than base my acceptance of it on the contingencies of this or that failure by a theist to prove their belief. I would like to think that I hold this belief for a good reason rather than merely because the theist defaulted on his obligation to support his beliefs by good reasons. Why would any philosopher wish to voluntarily assume the position of a winner in this debate simply on the grounds that the theist is defaulted on his philosophical responsibility? I really would like the proponents of Neoatheism to answer these questions.

peter

"I will begin these reflections by a direct response to Eric: I know that there is such a difference. The question is whether there is any merit to redefining atheism in the manner you defend."

Peter, that's exactly what I said in the post you're responding to (i.e. that the issue is whether the redfeinition holds water), but I certainly don't in any sense 'defend' this redefinition. Indeed, my previous post (Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 08:09 PM) questions its coherence. Actually, most of it is clearly in agreement with what you've just written.

That aside, nice post (and not just because we agree;) )!

Eric,

Thank you and I am happy to see that we agree. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

peter

Peter,

You make some good distinctions. Nothing to disagree with! Thanks.

I just have a quick question about negation. I've always thought of atheism as a-theism, literally not-theism. I liked the funny comment about cabbages and sparks-plugs, but I did not find it satisfying. When we say things like "asexual" or "non-integers" we clearly know that what is being references as a negation is a subset of everything (where "everything" includes cabbages and spark-plugs). For instance, when we speak of "non-integers" we are clearly talking about the numbers. When we say "atheists" we are talking about people, or any intelligence capable of believing.
Moreover, there actually are people that don't believe in God or anything like him that do not make a strong statement such as "God does not exist". Because that is an actual phenomena, we need the vocabulary to deal with it. There are not any theists that are non-antitheists only. They necessarily say more..

Peter,

I think that the place where the "neoatheist" will insert the wedge is where you say, regarding teapots and spaghetti monsters, that:

"This move, as Bill has pointed out in several posts, simply flies in the face of the obvious fact that the belief in a theistic God, whether true or false, is not on the same footing as those other bizarre beliefs."

Indeed, Bill has made several arguments defending this view, such as in his "Teapot" post:

====

"Another suggestion embedded in the Russell passage is the notion that if God existed, he would be just another physical thing in the physical universe. But of course this has nothing to do with anything maintained by any sophisticated theist. God is a purely spiritual being.

Another problem with the teapot analogy is that God as traditionally conceived in the West is not an isolani — to use a chess expression. He is not like an isolated pawn, unsupported and unsupporting. For if God exists, then God is the cause of the existence of every contingent being, and indeed, of every being distinct from himself. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic being."

====

But these simply have no pull on atheists like Harris, Dawkins, etc.. Sure, there is a distinction to be made between just another thing in the world, like a teapot, and the idea of a Being that is the cause of every contingent thing -- but even if that point of distinction is granted by the atheist (as it cheerfully would be by most, I think; certainly nobody would seriously imagine that an orbiting teapot was the Creator of the Universe) the latter idea seems no less fanciful to the atheist's mind. Likewise, the arguments made by Plantinga and others exert no pull either; as Bill acknowledges, they are just not "compelling".

The mind of the atheist of this sort is so constituted that he simply cannot look at this question without seeing an asymmetrical burden of proof. Here we have the world around us, and we are making good progress in understanding how it all hangs together -- and then along come these other people who insist on this other enormous Thing that should be believed in, despite the fact that it really "explains" nothing, and is simply nowhere to be seen.

No amount of argument about burdens of proof is going to have the slightest effect here; to the atheist there is just no good reason, in the total absence of compelling evidence, why anyone in his right mind should default to the theistic position. (There are, of course revelatory experiences, but they don't convince anyone except the person who has them.)


One other point: I think that in general it is an over-simplification to cast the discussion purely in terms of certain belief in either the existence or nonexistence of God. Even the faithful have their doubts, and those at the other end of the spectrum do too. It is probably more realistic, instead, to use a scale of belief, with, say, 100 being complete certainty that God exists, and zero being complete certainty that God does NOT exist.

I would put myself somewhere far down in the low single digits, but not all the way to zero. Calling myself an "agnostic" seems misleading, though: it makes it seem as if I am standing somewhere near midfield, which I most certainly am not. Given the lack of suitably discriminating terms, I generally call myself an atheist (with just the faintest misgivings), because I think it is very, very, unlikely indeed that any sort of gods actually exist. (In the terms of this discussion, I most definitely "lack the belief" that God exists, though I stop just short of an absolute doxastic commitment to God's nonexistence.)

But if we are going to reserve "atheist" for "exactly zero", then in fairness we really need some new terms, I think.

Malcolm,
Good seeing you again.

1) In the posts above you advance two points:

(A) A sharp distinction between atheism and agnosticism is artificial and the boundaries are in fact less clear epistemically; (the second post)
(B) The “bizarreness argument” does in fact justify a shift in the burden of proof to the theist; (first post).

2) I wish to point out at the outset that there is something of a tension between (A) and (B). The severity of the tension remains to be seen.

3) Let me consider your point about (A) first. I certainly agree that from an epistemological point of view we may distinguish among both theists and atheists those who attach certainty to the respective propositions they accept and those who attach some degree of probability short of certainty. Those who attach certainty (on either side) view the matter of rational support as settled: they do not need any further arguments on behalf of their belief. Therefore, they will take a dogmatic posture toward any arguments against their respective beliefs. These are the *dogmatists* and we have them among theists as well as atheists.

3.1)Those who are not dogmatists and attach some degree of probability short of certainty to their respective beliefs do see a point in offering arguments on behalf of their respective beliefs (and against their opponents) because if such arguments are deemed cogent, then they will increase the degree of belief in the respective propositions they already hold. Similarly, viable arguments against the proposition decrease the degree of belief in the respective propositions they already hold. But, (and this is the critical point to keep in mind) in all of these cases and regardless of your place in this epistemic spectrum, you either believe that a theist God exists (and, thus, you are a theist) or you believe that a theist God does not exist (and, hence, you are an atheist). The spectrum represents the *degree of intensity* with which you hold the respective beliefs. But in order to hold a given belief with an extremely high intensely (say up to certainty) or with much less intensity *you must have the belief* as part of your belief-corpus. “Misgivings”, on either side of the theist-atheist aisle, occur and perhaps with a reasonably high frequency; but unless they turn into all out skepticism, they simply change the intensity with which a belief is held (temporarily or permanently) and not the fact that the belief is held.

3.2) So an atheist, misgivings and all, holds the belief that there is no theistic God with a sufficiently strong intensity (short of certainty) so as to distinguish himself from an agnostic who does not hold this proposition or its negation with any degree of belief or with any intensity.

But while an agnostic does not hold either belief, he is not averse to consider arguments for either one and decide on the basis of such arguments whether to convert into a theist, atheist, or maintain his agnostic posture. However, he is in this position precisely because his belief-corpus does not contain either belief.

3.3) Therefore, the distinctions between a moderate agnostic and a non-agnostic, on the one hand, and the theist vs. atheist, on the other, are not “over-simplifications” but rather are of the essence of their respective epistemic stands. The subtleties you point out in their epistemic situation pertain to the intensity with which all of them hold their beliefs or lack thereof.

4) Now I turn to your point (B) regarding the “bizarreness argument” and shifting the burden of proof. You note that the considerations that Bill advanced against lumping the belief in a theistic God together with bizarre beliefs in flying teapots and other such objects “… simply have no pull on atheists like Harris, Dawkins, etc..” because, and I quote:

“The mind of the atheist of this sort is so constituted that he simply cannot look at this question without seeing an asymmetrical burden of proof. Here we have the world around us, and we are making good progress in understanding how it all hangs together -- and then along come these other people who insist on this other enormous Thing that should be believed in, despite the fact that it really "explains" nothing, and is simply nowhere to be seen.”

4.1) Let us first establish the fact that if your analysis of why arguments along the line Bill gave are not going to convince an atheist, then there surely is a sharp distinction between an agnostic and an atheist, on the one hand, and an atheist and a theist, on the other. For given an agnostic’s epistemic posture, he might be persuaded by some of the argument’s Bill gave. So, therefore, you certainly must acknowledge that an agnostic is to be distinguished from an atheist, certainly from atheists such as Harris, Dawkins, etc., contrary to point (A). Similarly, since a theist advances arguments along the lines Bill gave, which are not persuasive to certain atheists, again the distinction between an atheist and a theist must be carefully maintained. So, it is in this sense I have noted above that there is a tension between your point (A) and (B).

4.2) Second, clearly atheists such as Harris, Dawkins, and others hold the belief that the theist God does not exist with a fairly high intensity (perhaps even with certainty) and, therefore, in this sense they do not exemplify the attempted redefinition of atheism proposed by the Neoatheist. This, then, confirms my original post, at least regarding these atheists.

4.3) Does the “bizarreness argument” justify shifting the burden of proof to the theist? Your explanation quoted above has things reversed. You seem to argue that the “mind of the atheist of this sort” [e.g., Harris and Dawkins] is such that they are strongly predisposed to, cannot help but, see the burden of proof as being squarely upon the theist even *before* they consider the “bizarreness argument” and the merits of Bill’s arguments against it. But citing one’s state of mind as holding the belief that the theistic God does not exist with very high certainty is not in and of itself a rational justification to shift the burden of proof. Moreover, this very state of mind that perhaps crosses the threshold of dogmatism also accounts for the fact that these atheists will not be persuaded by Bill’s considerations against the bizarreness argument. Yet, once again, a state of mind while perhaps offering a sound explanation for such positions, they do not offer a rational justification for holding them.

5) Finally, you offer an argument based upon the explanatory success of science. However, I am uncertain about the target of this argument. If the target is the theistic proposition itself, namely, that a theistic God exists, then the argument from the success of science has nothing to do with the burden of proof issues. It is rather a positive argument advanced by the atheist against the theist, thereby acknowledging that the burden of proof is shared by the atheist and theist alike. On the other hand, if the argument from the success of science is intended to offer a rational justification in order to shift the burden of proof, then it is unclear how such an argument is supposed to accomplish such a justification. Suppose science is indeed very successful. The theist will certainly agree to that. So far both atheist and theist share their assessment of science. What follows? Nothing follows unless the atheist is able to show that the belief in a theistic God is a rival explanatory theory that competes with the scientific one. If the atheist is able to show that, then the burden of proof immediately shift to the theist, at least with respect to the issue of demonstrating that theism packs equal explanatory success to the scientific theory. But theism can avoid such a direct clash with science and most sophisticated theists do just that. They relegate the explanatory power of theism to areas about which science is either neutral or to the extent it is not, theism is on equal footing with the scientific account of the phenomena. So I still do not see that there is here a convincing argument that succeeds to shift the burden of proof exclusively to the theist.

peter

Hi Peter, and thanks for your prompt and detailed reply.

First, let me make clear that the purpose of the first of my two earlier comments was not to argue that there is any *generally* convincing argument that shifts the burden of proof exclusively to the theist (i.e. an argument that even a commited theist would see as placing the burden of proof exclusively on his side), but rather to remind us that to many atheists, the "obvious fact that the belief in a theistic God, whether true or false, is not on the same footing as those other bizarre beliefs" is not so obvious at all. After posting the comment I wished I had put the section "Here we have the world around us, ... and is simply nowhere to be seen" in quotes, so as to make it clearer that this was meant to be simply an expression of the attitude of the hard-core skeptic.

I am having difficulty reconciling your points 3.1 and 3.2 above.

In 3.1) you say that "...regardless of your place in this epistemic spectrum [in which 0 = dogmatic atheists, and 100 = dogmatic theists] you either believe that a theist God exists (and, thus, you are a theist) or you believe that a theist God does not exist (and, hence, you are an atheist). The spectrum represents the *degree of intensity* with which you hold the respective beliefs."

In 3.2), however, you say that "...an agnostic does not hold either belief..."

How would you characterize a person at position 50 in this epistemic spectrum, who really isn't sure just *what* he "believes"? How is an "agnostic" at position 50 different, in any meaningful way, from a "theist" or "atheist" at position 50? In one place you speak of "degree of belief", and in another you seem to treat belief as a binary attribute that is either wholly present or wholly absent. On this view, could you have an "atheist" with a position of 99 on the scale and a "theist" with a position of 1 (i.e. "believing" with only one-percent certainty)?

This all seems a bit too complicated to me; the only thing that matters, I think, is the degree of confidence one has in the truth of the proposition "God exists". If you are far enough down the low end of the scale, it seems appropriate, in a common-sense way, to start referring to oneself as an "atheist", while "agnostic" would simply mean that you are more or less in the middle. The difficulty of marking off exact regions (other than 0 and 100) is, I think, at the root of the terminological difficulties being discussed here.

In my own case, my confidence that God exists is so very, very low that "agnostic" seems misleadingly weak, but that confidence still hovers somewhere above zero. In other words, I wouldn't say that I "believe" that God doesn't exist -- but I do think that's where the smart money is, and I'd be very, very surprised indeed if it turned out that he did.

Regarding your 4.1) and 4.2), I should think that it would be only the 0's or 100's on this scale that would be immune to any rational argument (more so the 100's, I would say, but again that reflects my own position on the scale). But in the same way that "degree of belief" can vary on this gradient, so does the degree of agreement with, and acceptance of, the premises that undergird the arguments Bill and other theists have made. (Indeed, they are all just aspects of the same underlying world-view.)

As for 5), there are indeed many theistic claims (the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, young-Earth creationism, etc.) that are sharply at odds with scientific accounts of the world -- though as you say, the most sophisticated theists do manage to stake out a rationally defensible patch of ground.

Much of the criticism coming from the Harris-Dawkins crew is indeed directed at the less-sophisticated models -- which is understandable in a practical sense, as most of the religion in the world (and pretty much *all* of the religion that actually causes trouble in the world) hardly consists of philosophically sophisticated theism.

"...but I do think that's where the smart money is..."

With apologies to Pascal, of course.

Teague,

Does the nontheist take a position with respect to the proposition that God exists or not? If he does not, then there is no point in any conversation with him about the God question. He has two main options. He can disbelieve that God exists or he can suspend judgment. If he disbelieves, then he is an atheist. If he suspends judgment, neither affirming nor denying the existence of God, then he is an agnostic. Why muddy the waters with confusing phrases like 'negative atheism' and 'positive atheism'?

If someone says that atheism = absence of theistic belief, then it follows straightaway that sparkplugs are atheists.

If someone says that atheism = absence of theistic belief in persons, then it follows that neonates are atheists. (Which is also a silly thing to say).

If someone says that atheism = absence of theistic belief in persons capable of having beliefs, then atheism is a property, not a proposition, and we have nothing to discuss.

If someone says that atheism = the proposition that some people lack theistic belief, then that is a trivial truth not worth discussing.

So far I see nothing of value in the terminological innovations of these New Atheists. Give me that Old-Time Atheism any day.

Malcolm,

I am sorry that I did not make clear in my last post where exactly I am coming from. So let me remedy this matter now.

1) Since we are talking here about believing, disbelieving, and having an agnostic posture, we are in fact talking in large part about the doxastic (epistemic) states of people. So let A be an arbitrary agent and P be any proposition whatsoever. We can now start by distinguishing three doxastic states:

(a)A believes that P: A's belief-corpus (doxastic state) includes P;
(b)A believes that ~P: A's belief-corpus includes ~P;
(c)A does not believe P and A does not believe ~P: A's belief corpus includes neither P nor ~P.

The fourth state I have distinguished, the case of the ignoramus, is a case where A could not epistemically have either P or ~P as part of his belief-corpus because he cannot even understand these propositions. Let us keep this case in the background.

2) It is important to see that there is a sharp difference between the case of (c), on the one hand, and cases (a) and (b) with respect to the pair of propositions P and ~P. While in the later cases A’s belief-corpus includes either P or ~P (we assume not both), in the case of (c) A’s belief-corpus includes neither. So if we imagine an assignment of degrees-of-belief (or intensity of belief) to the propositions in a belief-corpus, then in the case of (a) we will have a certain positive assignment to P (depending on how intensely A believes P) and ~P will receive 0. So suppose that both A and B belong to case (a). We can now compare the degree-of-belief they have in P. In the case of (b) exactly the opposite will happen. But in the case of (c), both P and ~P will receive 0 degree-of-belief (or degree of intensity), since neither P nor ~P are present in A’s belief-corpus. Therefore, (c) is not somewhere in between cases (a) and (b) as you seemed to suggest. (c) is a totally separate case where both P and ~P receive the value 0.

3) Thinking of the situation in this way is more intuitive because an agnostic is not someone who is somewhere in the middle with respect to the degree to which he holds a proposition. An agnostic lacks the belief in the proposition altogether; therefore, his degree of belief in the proposition can be represented numerically as zero. I hope this clear up some of the points I was trying to make in that post.

4) As for your comment that

“Much of the criticism coming from the Harris-Dawkins crew is indeed directed at the less-sophisticated models -- which is understandable in a practical sense, as most of the religion in the world (and pretty much *all* of the religion that actually causes trouble in the world) hardly consists of philosophically sophisticated theism.”

Perhaps that is true as a claim about the Harris-Dawkins own motivation and aims. I, however, think that this strategy is misguided. If their aim is to convince the masses by any means necessary, then they will use their time better and more effectively by trying to discover an anti-theist serum and distribute it to the masses. As for myself, I rather try to find rational arguments against the theist’s position, for in the long run it is these that will trickle down to the masses as a better conception of the world. And if I or others cannot do so by means of philosophical arguments, then perhaps the lesson is that theism and atheism will have to remain as viable world views for the foreseeable future.

At least so I see matters. And therefore I must beg to differ with your statement:

"...but I do think that's where the smart money is..."
I think that is where the bubble is; and when it bursts, then the emptiness of such approaches does more harm to atheism than good.

peter

Peter,

To expand slightly on what you say above. Distinguish five cases:

A. Acceptance. A believes that p. A accepts or affirms the proposition.
B. Rejection. A disbelieves that p. A rejects or denies the proposition. Disbelief that p = Belief that ~p.
C. Withholding. A withholds his intellectual assent and dissent. He practices epoche or suspends judgment. He neither believes that p nor disbelieves that p.
D. Entertainment. A considers whether p. He merely entertains the proposition. He neither accepts nor rejects nor withholds.
E. Ignorance. A has never considered whether p. The proposition has never come before his mind either as a matter of fact or because A's mental equipment will not allow the proposition to come before his mind.

It is perhaps not obvious that (E) is distinct from (D). But it seems to me that one can merely entertain a proposition without suspending judgment with respect to it. One merely considers the proposition but is open to belief, disbelief, and suspension.

It seems obvious to both of us that to call an atheist someone who is ignorant with respect to the proposition that God exists is preposterous.

A more thorough discussion would have to consider the occurrent/dispositional distinction and how that affects things. And of course we are both assuming that belief is a propositional attitude when there are other theories of belief.

"Note that it does not suffice to say that an atheist is a person in whom the belief that God exists is lacking for then the neonatal and the senile would count as atheists, which is surely a bit of a stretch."

Here's an obviously silly example that makes this point clearly.

Imagine that ten people are trying to figure out if there are more atheists or more theists among them, and that the atheists are using the definition above ("an atheist is a person in whom the belief that God exists is lacking") to define themselves. Suppose the count initially comes out like this: five atheists, five theists. Suddenly, one of the theists suffers from a cerebral aneurysm and goes into a coma from which he will not awake. Can the atheists then say, "Now it's six to four!"

Or, more simply, does an ardent theist who, as a result of a cerebral aneurysm, goes into a coma become an atheist? No one would (seriously) say of such a person, "Ah, Joe used to be a devout Christian, but no more -- since his aneurysm, he's an atheist."

Peter,

I do think you misunderstood my "smart money" remark; all I meant there was that my own doxastic position is such that if I had to place a bet on whether the proposition "God exists" is true, I'd bet against it.

I still find your categorization of belief-states rather bewildering. (Please do forgive me if I am being dense here.)

Let us say that P is the proposition "God exists".

According to your proposed doxastic taxonomy, I might say that I believe P with a degree-of-certainty of 1%, or I might say that I believe ~P with 99% certainty. Are these meaningfully different cases?

Eric writes, >>Or, more simply, does an ardent theist who, as a result of a cerebral aneurysm, goes into a coma become an atheist? No one would (seriously) say of such a person, "Ah, Joe used to be a devout Christian, but no more -- since his aneurysm, he's an atheist."<<

Good way of putting it, Eric.

Malcolm,

If I misunderstood that remark then I apologize.

"According to your proposed doxastic taxonomy, I might say that I believe P with a degree-of-certainty of 1%, or I might say that I believe ~P with 99% certainty. Are these meaningfully different cases? "

That is possible, although not very realistic. But if that were to happen, then the reasonable advise is that since your degree of belief in P is so low (e.g., 1%), you might as well withhold belief altogether and become an agnostic. Note, that such an advise is a far cry from suggesting that due to your low degree of belief in P, it is best you should adopt ~P with almost complete certainty (e.g., 99%). And the reason it is not the same is precisely because you have an option of withholding belief from both.

So the 1% belief in P and the 99% belief in ~P are meaningfully different because the option of being an agnostic is wedged in between them. What you seem to miss here is that while every *proposition* is either true or false (i.e., bivalence holds in the realm of propositions), epistemic states or not bivalent: i.e., it is not the case that for every proposition you must either believe it or believe its negation. For you always have the option of withholding belief from both. And doing so is a fundamentally different epistemic state than the other two.

So the agnostic position of withholding belief from both P and ~P is available to one as a reasonable doxastic state and one that is fundamentally distinct from the other two positions, whether you characterize it in the way I suggested or some other way.

The only way one can escape the consequences of this fact regarding the Neoatheist attempt to redefine atheism is by fudging this difference between an agnostic epistemic state and the non-agnostic states. But doing so is contrary to both everyday intuitions as well as philosophical clarity.

peter

Peter and Malcolm may be talking about two different measures, p(P) and m(P), say. Peter seems to be talking about what might be labelled 'perceived reason to believe', since p(P) and p(~P) look to be independent intensities ranging anywhere in [0,100], and a low p(P) doesn't necessarily correlate with a high p(~P). For Malcolm, it looks as if m(P)+m(~P)=100, so his measures aren't independent, and a low m(P) does correlate with a high m(~P). Malcolm is like the juror who is obliged to come up with a verdict one way or another, or, as he suggests, like a man forced to place a bet. Peter can remain uncommitted. Can we reconcile the two measures? Perhaps, roughly:

m(P) = 0.5 (p(P) - p(~P)) + 50

Malcolm's measure has the advantage of explicitly taking into account the irrationality of strongly believing P and ~P simultaneously, marking both beliefs at 50. But it conflates the weak agnostic position, where there's little reason to believe either P or ~P with the strong, where there's good reason to believe both.

Peter and Malcolm may be talking about two different measures, p(P) and m(P), say. Peter seems to be talking about what might be labelled 'perceived reason to believe', since p(P) and p(~P) look to be independent intensities ranging anywhere in [0,100], and a low p(P) doesn't necessarily correlate with a high p(~P). For Malcolm, it looks as if m(P)+m(~P)=100, so his measures aren't independent, and a low m(P) does correlate with a high m(~P). Malcolm is like the juror who is obliged to come up with a verdict one way or another, or, as he suggests, like a man forced to place a bet. Peter can remain uncommitted. Can we reconcile the two measures? Perhaps, roughly:

m(P) = 0.5 (p(P) - p(~P)) + 50

Malcolm's measure has the advantage of explicitly taking into account the irrationality of strongly believing P and ~P simultaneously, marking both beliefs at 50. But it conflates the weak agnostic position, where there's little reason to believe either P or ~P with the strong, where there's good reason to believe both.

Write out 100 times: "I must buy a new mouse".

DavidB,

1) My view is that regardless of how we measure intensity or degree of belief, we must sharply distinguish between the case of someone believing that P (with whatever intensity), someone else believing that ~P (with whatever intensity), and someone (the agnostic) whose belief corpus can be described by the propositions “It is not the case that he believes that P” and “It is not the case that he believes that ~P”. There are several weighty considerations in favor of doing so. So let us state the cases, where ‘X’ is a place holder to be replaced by a designating expression of a believer:

(a) X believes that P;
(a*) It is not the case that X believes that ~P;
(b) X believes that ~P;
(b*) It is not the case that X believes that P;

Several considerations support sharply distinguishing (a) from (a*) and (b) from (b*), otherwise we are liable to face some serious complications.

2) Intuitions:
Consider some unsolved mathematical problem: e.g., take Goldbach's conjecture which says that any even number greater than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers. Let this be P; let its negation be ~P. There might be three mathematicians of equal mathematical competence such that one believes with some degree of confidence that the solution is going to be P, another that the solution is going to be ~P, whereas the third withholds belief about whether the solution is going to be P or ~P, either because he has no mathematical reason to prefer either or because he doubts that the problem is going to be ever solved. I think that these three mathematicians have completely different belief-attitudes towards Goldbach’s conjecture. For instance, the first two might spend quite a lot of time working on proving P and ~P, respectively, whereas the third will spend his time working on an unrelated problem because he does not think the problem can be solved (i.e., that we can prove either P or ~P).

3) Logical Form:
Maintaining a sharp distinction between (a) and (a*), on the one hand, and (b) and (b*), on the other, is reinforced by considerations of logical form. That is, by noticing that the two operators of negation and the doxastic operator ‘belief’ have different scopes in these cases. Take (b) and (b*), for instance. In (b) the doxastic operator has wide scope and the negation operator has narrow scope. The situation is reversed in the case of (b*), where the negation operator has wide scope and the doxastic operator has narrow scope. Conflating the two will obliterate these scope distinctions and result in some unpleasant consequences (to be illustrated shortly). The case of (a) and (a*) is a bit more complicated. Since in (a)’s case there is no explicit negation operator, the doxastic operator has the widest scope by default. However, (a*) presents a more complicated case, since there are two negation operators and one doxastic operator. The first negation operator has the widest scope, while the other negation operator has the narrowest scope. The doxastic operator, therefore, has an intermediary scope.

3.1) It would be a mistake to conflate these scope distinctions and take (a) and (a*) as equivalent on the grounds that (a) is equivalent to

(a**) X believes that it is not the case that ~P;

and then render (a**) equivalent to (a*) [double negation].

3.2) Suppose we ignore these scope distinctions and conflate (a) with (a*) and (b) with (b*). Then we get in trouble. For suppose that John has no beliefs either way about some proposition P. We can describe John’s doxastic state as follows: “It is not the case that John believes that P” and “It is not the case that John believes that ~P”. By so doing we are of course not accusing John of having contradictory beliefs. But, if we equate (a) with (a*) and (b) with (b*), i.e., if we ignore distinctions of scope and equate cases where negation has wide scope with cases where it has narrow scope, then the result will be that we are in effect accusing John of having contradictory beliefs: i.e., we are saying that “John believes that P and John believes that ~P”. Not good! For all that poor John wanted is to reduce epistemic risk by withholding any beliefs regarding both P and ~P, yet we end up rewarding him for his epistemic caution by saddling him with contradictory beliefs.

3.3) I say that the problem is with us not John. And the conclusion we should draw from this experiment is that we should not conflate the relative scope of operators. And that means that we must acknowledge the sharp differences between (a) and (b) and their respective (*) counterparts. Hence, believers should be described in terms of (a) or (b), but not both unless they do have contradictory beliefs. An agnostic should therefore be described as the conjunction of (a*) and (b*). Therefore, assignment of degree of belief or intensity of belief makes sense only in the case of believers of either kind, and it makes no sense in the case of the agnostic. However, this does not prevent us from assigning a different measure to agnostics, say the degree of *resistance* an agnostic might have to accepting P and ~P, respectively. Such a measure, properly formulated, should enable us to compare two agnostics in terms of their respective degree of resistance to P, and similarly with respect to ~P.

4) You say: “Malcolm's measure has the advantage of explicitly taking into account the irrationality of strongly believing P and ~P simultaneously, marking both beliefs at 50.”
I do not understand how you arrive to this conclusion. Perhaps I am missing something here. If someone believes P and also believes ~P, then they have contradictory beliefs. It makes no difference how intensely they hold each, they are irrational. My account (if it can be called an ‘account’) will explicitly entail that they are irrational, since they hold contradictory beliefs, and so should any other assignment of degree of belief, Malcolm’s included.

peter

Perhaps a better scale would run from -100 to +100. -100 denoting strong disbelief in P, ie, strong belief in ~P; -20, say, weak disbelief in P; 0 agnostic; 20 weak belief in P and 100 strong belief in P. This incorporates both Malcolm's refusal to countenance simultaneous belief in both P and ~P, and Peter's requirement to represent an agnostic position.

DavidB

"This incorporates both Malcolm's refusal to countenance simultaneous belief in both P and ~P, and Peter's requirement to represent an agnostic position."

You mean above simultaneous "disbelief"? Neither of us insists on simultaneous belief in both P and ~P, except insofar as taking this to represent someone who has contradictory beliefs. On this we agree, I think.
I think Malcolm is (or at least toys with) refusing to accept simultaneous *withholding belief* from P and ~P (my agnostic), and I maintain that we must. So our positions are directly contradictory. I think not doing so leads to fudging scope distinctions and that leads to the consequences I have stated above and more.
I do not see how a *single* scale can accommodate both positions, no matter how *wide* it is. So far as I can see, the believer and the agnostic must be assigned different scales.

peter

David: I have been very busy lately, but I have not forgotten that I owe you a response on the other subject. I will get to it soon.

Peter,

Apologies, I took you to be advocating independent measures of belief in P and belief in ~P, though this would be inconsistent I think with your other remarks on this thread. I see now that this was wrong.

Regarding my last comment, a point on the [-100, 100] scale represents degree of belief in P and ~P in a single mark: a positive value denoting some belief in P and none in ~P, while a negative value denotes some belief in ~P and none in P. The interpretation naturally rules out simultaneous belief in P and in ~P, with 0 giving intuitive expression to an agnostic position. But [-100, 100] is isomorphic to [0, 100], with 0 on the former mapping to 50 on the latter. It's a little like Celsius versus Fahrenheit. The [-100, 100] scale has the advantage that the absolute value of the mark represents degree of belief for or against P. This is not so neatly expressed on the [0, 100] scale. I think Malcolm would be happy with this. Is it consistent with what you are saying?

I look forward to your reply on the other thread.

Hi Peter and David,

I am frustratingly busy today, and have had only a moment to check in on this very interesting discussion. (I actually posted this once before, about an hour or two ago, but it hadn't appeared when I just checked in again, so am reposting it now. If it should subsequently appear twice, I apologize.)

In particular I have not had time to digest Peter's detailed comment of 8:55 a.m., so will not comment on it just now. But I did want to say that David expresses one important point that I was trying to make as well, namely that this is sort of a "zero-sum" situation here. His -100 to +100 scale is indeed isomorphic to my 0-100 model.

Regarding the proposition G ("God exists"): we will all agree, I think, that any informed and rational person should, regardless of his belief about G itself, believe with 100% certainty in the truth of the metaproposition I'll call X: "Either G or ~G". I think it is safe to say that *nobody* is in a position of witholding belief in X; i.e. nobody is "agnostic" regarding X.

I am interested in distinguishing these three cases:

1) The person who is "agnostic" regarding G. He is equally, and symmetrically, disposed toward accepting both G and ~G, but has no doubt that one or the other must in fact be the case. He simply does not feel that he has sufficiently compelling reasons to move to one side or the other.

2) The "atheist" who "believes" ~G, but with 50% confidence. He too knows with certainty that X, but the lack of truly convincing arguments against G leaves him in the middle.

3) The similar case of the "theist" who believes G, but also with only 50% confidence. Like the others, his confidence in X is certain: he believes, absolutely, that God must either exist or not exist, but the lack of any evidence, or even compelling arguments, for G leaves him right at 50 also.

Each of these three knows (because, remember, they all believe confidently that X) that to the extent they lack confidence in G they must have confidence in ~G, and vice versa. They know for sure that either G or ~G *must* be true.

Given that belief is a psychological disposition, how do these people differ? In particular, how is the agnostic at the middle of the scale meaningfully different from the theist or atheist in the middle? Both are disposed in the same way towards both propositions G and X.

Oh my - I hadn't realized that this was a multi-page comments section, and now here is the same comment three times. Apologies to all.

(Bill, if you can delete two of these, and this, that would probably make things tidier. Very sorry.)

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