Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Two (non?) Realities?
Dedicated to RMJ and Phila
Much as I’d like to go through the entire wrangle conducted last weekend at Echidne of the Snakes about the professional skeptics’ dishonest use of double standards, the record of what I wrote and the responses to it are there to be read. Why reproduce it? And here again I begin with a lie. The truth is I’d rather not go through that turning door another time just now. Instead I’ll point out something that became clear to me in reading over the responses and considering them in light of my experience.

I think there are essentially two kinds of atheists, there are those who say “I don’t believe in God” and those who say “I know there isn’t a God”. I’ve known both types. The “I don’t believe” type have placed themselves on firm ground, their non-presumptuous stand is based on their not believing something that can’t be proven. It isn’t a position that is open to debate. Oddly, I’ve got a suspicion that the “I know there isn’t a God” type would think this was a wimpy position when it’s actually the stronger one. At least to those interested in honesty and fairness.

The “I know there isn’t a God” position asserts something that can’t be true. You can’t “know there isn’t a God”. I could just point out that old saw “you can’t prove a negative” but what I’ve experienced of this opinion doesn’t give me any faith that even if it was a fact that doing so was impossible would make a dent.

For the rest let me at least explain what I mean. In order to “know” that, you would have to have falsified every possible God that could possibly be proposed. Since a number of proposed Gods are firmly beyond the possibility of either proof or disproof neither their existence or non-existence can be known. For example, take the description in first line in Arnold Schoenberg’s great opera Moses und Aron, God is unimaginable, unseeable and all mighty. How do you disprove the existence of such a God? I could propose any number of Gods which, either fully or in part, and by choice, are beyond discovery. Here, just for fun.

It could be that there was a creator god who died and who no longer directs the universe and whose traces are lost to intelligent detection. It could be that there is one who is unconcerned with the progress of the universe, roughly, the God of the deists. There could be one who directs the entire universe in every single detail and who chooses to entirely cover her tracks from us. You think that an omnipotent and omniscient god couldn’t do that? Maybe god got to be God through really good time management and attention to detail. Maybe just as you don’t tell your mother what she doesn’t need to be bothered with, God wants to relieve us of the petty details which we are too limited to begin to comprehend.

Maybe god is a trickster who created the universe for our entertainment and his own, or he might be a sadist. Maybe god is like an unfair detective writer who is going to hold out the crucial clue till the very end and spring it on whoever is left standing. Maybe that god only cares about those few people at the end of the story and the rest of us are extras. Maybe we are like amoebas to such a god and there is another species somewhere in time or space for whom the entire thing is intended, maybe such a god let them in on the clue. Maybe in the Burgess Shale there are the fossils of a species that knew it all, knew there was an afterlife and that this life was just a beginning. Maybe such a species didn’t bother to evolve or preserve itself because it knew this and so became extinct. Maybe God doesn’t much like Richard Dawkins or his ilk and chooses to bedevil him. Maybe he finds them to be egotistical prigs and he chooses to reveal herself to lesser mortals of more modest abilities or pretensions for Dawkins’ further irritation.

I don’t know if that’s your idea of fun but I enjoyed it. None of these proposed gods would be susceptible to discovery, either by their choice or as a consequence of our limitations. None of them can be “known to not exist” just as their existence would be hidden from reason.

As soon as this proposed difference between two types of atheists came to me I recognized it immediately by its converse, it is exactly the difference between liberal religion and fundamentalism. A liberal religionist says “I believe”, a fundamentalist says “I know”. Maybe the problem of the Dawkinsite fallacy is more one of emotion instead of reason. Fundamentalists don’t do much in the way of reasoning. They might say that it’s wimpy but maybe they really are afraid of the possibility of their being wrong. Liberals tend to believe what they do without fear. Perhaps this is the reason that they are never as congenial targets of the Dawkinsites as religious fundamentalists who start with a flawed assertion of certainty.

I’m going to speculate that if this is true that it might have some relationship to the manners of both groups, the fundamentalists and the liberals of both believers and atheists. As I’ve declared before, I don’t think that what people believe is very important to anyone but themselves. It is their business. It is when they act that their business becomes other peoples’ business. So, what is the really important thing I can leave you with based on my experience? Liberals aren’t as likely to do you harm.

Olvlzl--added a comment of my own to one of your posts at Echidne's place, then never went back to see how it was received. Much as discussions like that annoy me when fools with no knowledge prate on, I hate even more to get drawn into such arguments. Never argue with a fool, and all that.

Your presentation, however, was quite cogent. I meant to congratulate you on it.

Now I will. I really appreciate what you added to the discussion. Just sorry you have to suffer so many brickbats over it from those with no understanding.
Thank you RMJ, if it hadn't been for the apparent hold over of the last time the Dawkinsites went for me I might have written about something I'd rather be dealing with. A lie told in the ventasphere seems to only continue. The irony of these self-promoted guardians of all that is true and fearlessly honest being such a pack of gossipy liars was pretty tempting too, I must add.
I've found people are never so vigorous as when defending their ignorance.
Do you suppose there is a way at this point to separate the two varieties of atheism you note? There are plenty of words that have multiple meanings, but atheism is probably one that deserves a precise & singular definition.

Your case against the statement "I know there isn't a God" is a fine one, but you seem willing to allow the holders of that viewpoint to call themselves atheists. I've tried to use my made-up word 'antitheist' as a more appropriate description of their view, but it is admittedly somewhat of a clumsy construction.

I did plenty on my part to pull the threads over at Echidne's further off-track; my apologies for that.
Very well said, olvlzl. I've gotten in these disputes myself, and I know how exhausting and disheartening they can be. You did a very fine job of remaining patient and cogent.

As horrified as I am, in my silly pedantic way, by your detractors' poor grasp of philosophy, religion and science, it's their hostility to freedom of conscience that truly staggers me and - as you say - reveals them as fundamentalists.

Thanks for going to the trouble.

atheism is probably one that deserves a precise & singular definition.

There's a common distinction made between "strong" and "weak" atheists, the latter more or less comprising the "can't know" or "don't care" positions.
Well, you know, God could be a baker, and we could be yeasts in his bread dough. How would we know him with our yeastly senses?

Only by analogy, by becoming bakers ourselves. But in the analogy, some reality might creep in and you might discover that it's a better metaphor than you're likely to find.
Midwest, no words are ever immune to being pulled in two directions, those who are in favor of the principle and those who are opposed will both claim the mantle of whichever is more popular, and mouth the platitudes while acting contrary to their meaning. Recognizing the difference is our job.

Any similarity to current events is coincidentally descriptive.
buddha was silent when asked which god was the one true god. according to some scholars this was because he felt that attempting to answer that question did more harm than good.

i'm starting to agree.
Dan, I love the sutta in which someone questions the Buddha about things like the afterlife and he refuesed to answer saying that thinking about them wasn't helpful to reaching enlightenment.

I just found you from reading comments on Adventus, and I wanted to say that your analysis of the different flavors of atheism makes a lot of sense to me.

I've seen things you've written over at Echidne of the Snakes as well, and you generally have intelligent things to say.
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