Couple of my recent papers

These are under review, so any useful comments will be helpful still.

What is it to be an atheist? [Revision 5.2]

Essentialism and natural kinds in biology

21 thoughts on “Couple of my recent papers

  1. From “What is it to be an atheist?”: “Modal arguments have been often made, and criticized, for the existence of God
    (Le Poidevin 1996; Oppy 1993, 1995), but few have been made against the
    existence of God (an exception being Pollock 1966).” How about J. N. Findlay’s “Can God’s Existence be Disproved?” from 1948? (Roughly: if God exists, then he exists necessarily, but nothing exists necessarily, therefore God doesn’t exist.)


  2. I loved the reference to the term “revanchism”!

    If you wanted to be a more muscular fence-sitter, I would encourage you to move further with the stuff about Bayesian inference and the role of critical rationalism in defining the contemporary scientific method.

    Probability is woefully misunderstood, even at a basic level, by a large fraction of the scientific community (let alone the laity), particularly in the life sciences, and the understanding of Popper’s trip and why it’s so valuable, is not that much better. In fact, I see a lot of kickback against hypothesis-driven science precisely because people don’t understand the importance of this process in obtaining more concrete estimations of prior probabilities.

    ThonyC laments the lack of historical context in scientific training these days, but your essay is touching on a deficiency in the thinking of contemporary scientists that cuts right to the core of the whole endeavour, imho.


  3. Read your paper on what it is to be an atheist – interesting stuff – but what about “ignosticism”? I usually refer to myself as an ignostic rather than an agnostic but my (admittedly mainly wikipedia-based) notion of ignosticism seems to be very close to your particular brand of agnosticism (I don’t find the question “does god exist?” meaningful). Doesn’t ignosticism fit into your taxonomy of beliefs?


    1. I am required by academic convention to stick to existing and accepted terms. Besides, ignosticism is just an adjectival form of agnosticism, and we have as many of those as we have adjectives: fiercely atheist, enthusiastically theist, etc.


  4. Only a couple of things:

    P. 6:

    “There is a nice term in political histoiy – revanchism4 – which about the desire to gain or regain territory.”

    … seems to be missing a verb.

    P. 9:

    You might want to explain “deoscope” a bit.

    Otherwise very nice, though I’ll have go through the section on first order logic more closely when not being distracted by a classic baseball game.


  5. I notice that when the subject is a very long phrase there is a comma between the subject and the verb:

    Page 8
    “That we can tell what the chemical composition of minerals is now, is a very different issue from whether there is a God”

    Remove the comma between “now” and “is.”

    “but a deity whose existence does not imply this, is not,”

    Remove the comma between “this” and “is.”


    1. I will rewrite the sentences. I think the comma is necessary for the reader to avoid being confused with the sentences the way they are. It’s a slightly archaic technique, but not wrong.


    1. Yes please. Although that paper is in flux, so email them. I have moved a distance beyond that version even now.


  6. I don’t know how far you intend eventually to go on the historical side, but a source always worth looking at when it comes to the history of definitions is Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, a very influential early modern reference work. It can be found online (the short atheism entry is on p. 166 of volume 1).


    1. A very useful resource indeed. I too didn’t know of it and that despite its being on the University of Wisconsin’s History of Science resource the home of David C. Lindberg one of my favourite science historians. Thank you Brandon for the tip


  7. Interesting paper – first time I’ve seen formal logic applied to religious belief.

    But on P.8: “There is no middle ground for existence”

    Can you really make a sweeping statement like that? How about an ontological superimposition of states (is the cat dead or alive)? Or a many worlds claim, and modal realism? And perhaps even more tenuous than possibility is conceivability.


    1. I think that the logic of religious claims precludes superpositional deities, modally real possible deities, and after our discussions over the past thousand years, merely conceiveable deities. As Nagel once said of the ontological argument, it mistakes grammar for logic.


      1. I agree. However, there did not seem to be any reference to specific religious claims in the context of that sentence. The sentence immediately before it was: “It is true that either [a] god exists or not.” No specific god or class of gods is referenced.

        Lawrence Krauss in his review of the God Delusion said in passing, “Incidentally, I couldn’t help wondering, somewhat facetiously, when Dawkins used an anthropic argument from cosmology to argue against God, that, although indeed only very rare universes may harbour life, if an infinite number of universes exist, could not at least one then harbour what might pass for a divine being?”


  8. Hi John, I just went quickly over your very interesting manuscript. One small comment: you should be careful when citing Wikipedia, and detail which version of the article you are refering to. Wikipedia articles are even more in flux than your paper, and there is always a risk that a new version will say something different from what you read.

    If needed, you can find the required bits of information for the citation by clicking the “Cite this page” link in the left toolbar (for example:


  9. I have finally found time to finish reading your paper, “What is an atheist?” A well written, well argued, interesting and stimulation paper and you might have finally convinced me to call myself an agnostic rather that an atheist or at least to be more aware of the uncertainty of my knowledge claim in terms of atheism.

    I think there is a typo on page 11. The verbal explanation of the logic term [A] reads, “i.e. there is no God (or the exists no God)”. I think the phrase in brackets should read, “or there exists no God” (??) or better “no God exists”.


  10. One thing in the essay that was completely new to me was contained in this bit:

    This reflects an old distinction of scholastic theology of fides (faith) into fiducia (trust, implicitly in the reliability of the deity and the rituals taken to rely upon the deity) and assensus (assent to doctrinal truths).

    Now, the distinction itself is not new to me: I have long been of the opinion that it is not often enough made, and that some misunderstandings between believers and atheists come about because believers more often take “faith” to mean fiducia while atheists more often take it to mean assensus.

    What I did not know is that there are Latin terms for talking about the distinction, and I think that’s nice to know.


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