On the Reddits, there’s a bit of debate about what we should understand by the term “atheist”. The most popular view among atheists there is that their atheism is a “lack of belief”, and that they make no claim about whether or not God exists. Take the sidebar on /r/DebateAnAtheist as an example of this view:
For r/DebateAnAtheist, the majority of people identify as agnostic or ‘weak’ atheists, that is, they lack a belief in a god. They make no claims about whether or not a god actually exists, and thus, this is a passive position philosophically.
What’s going on here?
Firstly, some people think that someone who believes or who states a belief has a “burden of proof”. See Frank Turek’s blog, for example, where he makes the analogy to a courtroom (I guess he doesn’t know about Scottish law). In this view, the atheist needs to make their case, they can’t just sit back and wait for the apologist to make theirs. The “lack of belief” atheists accept that a person with a belief has a burden of proof, so they are careful to say they don’t have a belief, just a lack of belief.
Secondly, apologists also like to say that atheists have a belief, therefore they have faith (meaning unevidenced belief), therefore we’re not so different, you and I. Again, a “lack of belief” atheist might accept that a “belief” is “something accepted on faith”, and that believing without “positive evidence” is always bad, but deny that they have a belief.
Finally, the apologist and the “lack of belief” atheist might both accept that “you can’t prove a negative” and relatedly, that to claim to “know” something requires you to be absolutely certain of it.
I think what’s going wrong in all these cases is that the atheists have gone too far in accepting stuff which the apologists made up to muddy the waters (or, more charitably, which is confused thinking shared by atheists and apologists), but then suddenly realised they need to pull up just before crashing into an undesirable conclusion.
What does the “lack of belief” view get right? Well, people do have degrees of belief, so it’s true to say that failing to accept one belief is not the same as believing the opposite belief. The classic example quoted by “lack of belief” atheists is the jar of beans: if I say I don’t believe the number of beans is even, I’m not saying it’s odd, I’m saying I don’t know. If I wanted to put a number on it, I’d say it was 50% likely to odd and 50% likely to be even, in the absence of any other information.
However, if I thought it was 50% likely that there was a God, I’d still be in church every Sunday. The consequences of being wrong are too great to risk on a coin toss. I think most atheists consider it much less likely that there’s a God, unlikely enough that, if the question were about anything other than God, they’d be happy enough to say “X does not exist”.
Burden of proof
Going back to the first point, we should distinguish between rules of debate (or of a courtroom) and rules of rationality. An atheist who goes into a debate and says just sits there repeatedly telling their theist opponent “you haven’t proven your case” deserves to lose the debate. Entering into a debate requires taking up the burden of convincing the audience.
But it’s not true that if we want to be rational, we take on a duty to defeat all comers when we believe something or say out loud that we believe it. Being rational means we ought to have good reasons for our beliefs, but our time is limited, so we cannot become experts on everything. Rational belief in evolution doesn’t require us to rebut everything in a Gish Gallop in a way which would convince a creationist.
On to the second point. As I’ve mentioned previously, atheism doesn’t require faith, at least in most common senses of the world. A belief is just a mental assent to some statement of how things are. This assent isn’t something that only happens because a person has faith: perhaps they have excellent reasons for their belief (or perhaps they don’t: both cases are examples of belief).
There’s also some confusion about evidence, where some people don’t realise that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Something that doesn’t happen when your theory says it should have can provide as much evidence as something that does happen.
Proving a negative, absolute certainty
We can certainly prove a negative in mathematics (the square root of 2 is not a rational number, there are no even primes above 2, and so on). Outside of mathematics, it’s difficult to reach 100% certainty for anything we believe, but that just means that we’ll have to make do without it. It’s generally harder to show that something does not exist than that something does (where we can just point to an example of the thing), but remember, something that does not happen can still be evidence.
In either case, just because we can think of ways in which we could be wrong does not mean we shouldn’t believe something or act on that belief (for example, by saying out loud that we believe it or know it).
Are atheistic arguments failures?
Sometimes, people say they’re “lack of belief” atheists because of the variety of things one could refer to as gods, but that the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good capital-“G” God does not exist. I think this is one situation where the “lack of belief” idea makes sense: where the person has not really considered all the possible things that could be called gods. We can only formulate a belief when we know what we’re talking about. (But see You can’t know there isn’t an X out there, previously).
But, elsewhere, I’ve also seen Internet atheists respond to Christians with the “lack of belief” definition, i.e. saying that they lack belief in the Christian God. This seems to imply that those atheists think all the arguments against the existence of that God are failures (they’re presumably aware of the arguments if they’re discussing atheism on the Internet), so they can’t say there is no such God, only that they “lack belief”. That’s an odd thing for an atheist to think!
A presentation by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper for Coventry Skeptics. The Q&A; (linked from the description) is interesting too.</p>
A concept of gender identity which is entirely exhausted by “I am what I say I am” doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of a professional philosopher like Reilly-Cooper, and I hadn’t realised that people were saying things like “my penis is a female sex organ, because I am female” (as opposed to saying “it’s a woman’s, because I am a woman”).
“Many Christians read the Easter stories year upon year, as I did for several decades, yet we never compare them in detail. As a consequence, we often do not realize that they are not telling the same story. There are indeed contradictions in the texts, but it is very important to move beyond “mere contradiction” – the issues with our gospels are far more extensive than that. Comparison against the historical record and assessing the gospels for trends of legend development are probably far more crucial. As with many non-believers, I left Christianity specifically because of the Bible, and because I considered and examined its content very seriously indeed.” (tags: bibleeastercrucifixioncontradictionshistoryChristianityReligion)
A friend commented the other day that I don’t post much on here any more. I do occasionally write interesting stuff over on Reddit, so I thought I’d make some blog posts based on some of those comments. Here’s a little realisation I had about how we talk about the physics of lindy:
A follower was telling me how she always needs to create her own momentum or she won’t move anywhere, and I responded that if she does so, it breaks one of the most basic rules of following and causes confusion and miscommunication in the dance. — LindyEverywhere on Reddit
Followers aren’t on frictionless wheels. Naturally, they’d stop, but the game is for them to pretend to have a lot less friction than a body on legs actually does (and maybe a bit less mass, too, I think). They’re not just physically getting moved around by the leader without co-operating by playing that game. Shifting people who aren’t co-operating is martial arts, not lindy
What lindy teachers seem to be referring to when talking about keeping momentum and not injecting energy is that once you’re playing the game, you play it consistently. Maintaining that consistency is not a natural consequence of the physics of the situation, so the follower you were talking to was right to say physically, she’s actually moving herself a lot of the time, or, not having wheels, she’d just stop. Playing the game consistently is a learned skill.
Because this game is so engrained into the dance, a lot of experienced people abbreviate the description of what’s going on by speaking as if what followers do is just allow physics to take its course (when they’re not throwing in their own stuff, I mean), when what they’re actually doing is simulating being a different sort of body and allowing a simulated version of physics to take its course. I imagine this is a bit confusing for beginner follows. (The other thing is that I’ve heard balboa teachers talk about a different simulated physics for follows turning down a line, where they lose angular momentum and so curve in).
One good exercise I’ve seen for teaching this is to play “lindy tennis”: half of you get into a circle, half of you are the tennis balls. The people in the circle set the balls off across the circle with some direction and rotation, which the balls maintain (except for avoiding collisions with teach other). When the balls reach the edge of the circle, the people there catch them and re-direct them (gently!). Playing this fixed an awful lot of “followers stopping themselves” i.e. killing the momentum rather than continuing the line around beat 4 in swing-outs from open, because it teaches what the pretend physics is.
Edit: Thinking about it some more, it seems more “real” at high speeds and when the connection is transmitting an impulse, and more “faked” at low ones and when the leader isn’t exerting a force: in the first case, it may be that it feels like your upper body is being moved by the connection to the leader and you’re just keeping your legs under you so you don’t fall over (which is still kind of a choice, but a natural one), but the thing where follows are told to keep moving at a slow pace having been given a small impulse seems like something you learn to do so as to pretend you’re a frictionless follow moving in a vacuum.
The theist will say that there is Something or Other that Created the universe, but they cannot tell us what this Something or Other was (other than that they call it ‘God’) nor can they say what it means for the Something or Other to Create. At most, as Anthony Kenny argues, they can say that ‘Create’ specifies some unknown and incomprehensible relationship between the Something or Other and the universe.
The atheist can agree to this much. There is some explanation for the universe’s origins. Perhaps future inquiry will reveal the explanation and we’ll be able to fill in the details. (tags: humedavid-humephilosophytheologygodatheism)
Delicious have started adding spam to their RSS feeds, which probably means they’re circling the drain and are desperate for cash. I’ve moved all my bookmarks over to Pinboard instead, following in Andrew Ducker’s footsteps. I’ll delete the Delicious account in a few weeks, so if you happened to be following the RSS feed there (and getting the annoying spam), you should follow the Pinboard one instead.
I’ve hacked on the bookmark posting script a bit, and the regular bookmark postings on this blog (which are also copied to my LiveJournal) should be working again.
“There’s a rule of thumb when you’re designing a complicated system, which says that when you get to a point where you’re applying fixes to fixes it may be time to step back and reconsider the whole thing.” (tags: flight911aviationterrorismcrashcfitsecurity)
“Explanation is a form of compression. If a theory is smaller than the data, then in that case, as in so many others, less is more. A successful explanation is a matter of covering a large debt with a much smaller one.” (tags: mathematicsphilosophysciencecomputation)
A term that once described jobs where being friendly and cheerful was seen as part of the job has apparently been co-opted to mean “someone expects me to do something”. (tags: emotionlabourworkrelationships)
“Why it is that aliens want to probe our butts; or, more specifically, when exactly did people start claiming that aliens gave them anal probes? This may seem to be a silly question, but silly questions often end up revealing hidden layers and secrets. In this case, asking the uncomfortable question of why aliens are so interested in anal orifices reveals a fascinating story about the dark side of the alien abduction media industry and its effects on those who participate in it.” (tags: aliensufoanalprobe)
It’s not actually a song describing date rape (although it could be performed that way, I guess). ““Hey what’s in this drink” was a stock joke at the time, and the punchline was invariably that there’s actually pretty much nothing in the drink, not even a significant amount of alcohol. “ (tags: songlyricsdaterape)
“By failing to name the ideology and isolate it from everyday Islam, we deprive these reforming voices of a lexicon, a language to deploy against those who are attempting to silence their progressive efforts within their own communities. We prevent a conversation around ending Islamism’s appeal while also reforming traditional Islam. If it has “nothing to do with Islam,” there is nothing to discuss within Islamic communities. In this way, we surrender the debate to the extremists, who meanwhile are discussing Islam with impunity.” (tags: islamislamismreligionterrorismjihadisisisil)
A fun rant against tech recruiters in the UK, who are apparently a bunch of wide-boys (or spivs, to use the old fashioned term). I haven’t used one for over ten years, so I don’t know how accurate it is, but HN’s discussion on it had some people saying it rings true. (tags: recruitersjobstechnologywork)