Atheism, agnosticism and theism 4: Existence claims

Previous posts in this series: One, Two and Three.

There are basically three kinds of philosophical questions. Given that philosophy is what you do when you have a question that can’t be resolved by facts, these are:

1. What is there? [Metaphysics and Ontology]

2. How do we know? [Epistemology]

3. What is it worth? [Values: Ethics and Aesthetics]

All other questions, such as the nature of logic, science, religion and so forth, are grounded upon these three issues. So far, we have seen that questions of belief in God and its absence depend a lot upon the epistemological questions. To recap: I have argued that we all have doxastic attitudes or conceptual stances regarding our world, and that some of these, which I equate to “beliefs”, are knowledge. This has been challenged because of the supposed connotations of terms like “believe”.*

Further I have argued that there are topics on which we think there is no resolution, either so far or in principle. On those questions I think we must call our stance agnosticism. I distinguished between weak agnosticism (roughly, “Don’t know yet“) and strong agnosticism (“Can’t ever know”). We are all weakly agnostic about some topics (or we are fools). This is epistemology.

Let us turn now to metaphysics, and in particular that part of metaphysics known as ontology. This is the field of inquiry in which we ask “what are the most general or universal things in the world?” Another way to put it is to ask what our conceptual stances commit us to thinking are real kinds. A sample question might be: “Are numbers real and objective facts about the universe, or are they just constructs of our cognitive processes?” This has many general names in the literature, one of which is the Problem of Universals.

Now in claiming that we are committed by our conceptual stances to accepting the reality of certain kinds of things (or not) we can also ask if there are things in existence that are unique and important. For example, the belly button fluff I have now as I type is unique but not important, while the existence of numbers is important, but obviously not unique (there are many other abstract entities we need to decide about).

How much metaphysics we need here is pretty limited. All we have to do is ask: what is someone who believes in God asserting, and contrariwise, what is someone who is not a believer asserting? Since we are treating belief here as having conceptual content about which we take a stance, we can simply focus on the content as if it were an explicit sentence. I don’t intend to suggest that this means a believer or disbeliever actually has explicitly formulated that sentence. Nor do I think there is a “mentalese” language in which this is prelinguistically formulated either. How we actually represent the world internally is a matter for neurobiology and neuropsychology to determine. I suspect the sentence itself is a representation in language of functional equivalences, but that is a side issue here.

So, when Fred believes there is a God, he is committed to saying that God exists. It logically follows from his having that belief: the sentence “I believe in God” includes a logical subsentence “there is a God” to which he has a doxastic attitude of assertion, truth-saying, or approval. His stance, whatever else believing in God consists of, is an existence claim. I say whatever else is involved because most religions are not propositional like Christianity. Instead they are largely ritual – belief consists in doing the right things and saying the right words. My point here is that this performative aspect of belief also includes a commitment to the existence of the target of these actions. If I leap out of the way of a car, I am committed to the claim that the car exists, whether I ever get around to making a propositional statement about it or not.

So belief implies an existence claim. What is the difference between belief claims in general and knowledge claims? I think it has to do with the claim that one is warranted in one’s belief by evidence. In either case having the belief involves an existence claim; one that either is or isn’t based upon evidence.

To believe in God is to make the claim “There is a god or gods”. What, then, is atheism? Is it, given our previous discussion, the claim that there is no god or gods, or not the claim that there is a god or gods? The scope of the Not operator matters critically. If the negation applies to the claim one believes or knows there is not a god, one is, as I said, a positive atheist. If one says one does not believe or know there is a God, one is a negative atheist. If one is a theist, one claims to believe or know there is a God. In logic, this is shown by the use of the “existential quantifier”, ∃, which is read as “there-exists”. All assertions in the formalisation of quantificational logic have either this quantifier (for some restricted number of objects of that kind) or the universal quantifier, ∀ (“For-all”). Hence, to make an assertion in this language is to make existence claims.

We can show this as a graph. One axis is the knowledge claim axis, and the orthogonal axis is the existence claim axis. Together they give us an epistemology and an ontology of claims made regarding gods (or indeed any subject):

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It remains to be shown how one can be an agnostic without being committed either to the existence of a deity nor its absnece, and likewise how one can be an atheist without needing to assert either knowledge nor the lack of it. If you will recall, I set up the notion that a concept is a coordinate in a semantic space, of which this is an instance. How can one have a concept without immediately making an implicit assertion one way or the other? It has to do with what Kant called “judgement”. I judge that this or that contrast is correctly resolved in a particular manner. Sometimes I cannot judge finely enough to resolve the location in the contrast space. That is to say, I lack a complete resolution:

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Atheism simpliciter: to be an atheist is simply to occupy this half of the space, either by having a coordinate within the solid region, or to restrict one’s possible conceptual commitments to some unspecified location within it.

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Agnosticism simpliciter: to be an agnostic is simply to occupy some coordinate within the solid region of the space, or to restrict one’s possible conceptual commitments to that space.

In short, one eliminates half the contrast space as feasible but lack the grain to make a more specific claim or commitment in one’s conceptual stance. The similarity with flags here is not coincidental. Conceptual commitments are often banners under which communities are formed and positions (a giveaway term!) defended. The emotive nature of debates about religion or the lack of it, rivalled only by one’s choice of football code and team, derives from this community aspect and whether one is considered in the privileged group or out of it within one’s society.

We are now able to classify, locate and consider actual claims with this “map”, “space”, or “flag” metaphor, almost. We now need to consider what the content of each claim is. I have so far spoken as if theism, being the reference claim, is a singular idea. It is not. That will be the subject of the next post.

* If “believe” meant only religious belief then phrases like “religious belief” would be tautologies. There is no better word in English to describe conceptual stances than “belief”, and so I must say to the critics, get over it. Because a word has been hijacked by one segment of the language community of one country, we cannot use it in any other context?

The next post in this series: Four.

32 thoughts on “Atheism, agnosticism and theism 4: Existence claims

  1. the “existential quantifier”, ?, . . . the universal quantifier, ?

    I don’t know about others, but I have looked at this page with three different browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Mozilla Sea Monkey), and instead of quantifier signs, I get only question marks, both in this post and in its predecessor.

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    1. I just fixed them by hand after MKR’s comment. I also send a blast to the developers of MarsEdit. If I use ecto I get the characters but lose posts. If I use MarsEdit I don’t lose posts but don’t get the characters. Either way I’m paying a lot of money for broken functionality. [BTW: Donate now!]

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  2. And where do Gödel’s Theorems come into it? I don’t understand why I should spend my time reading philosophy about knowledge (or belief or informaton) that doesn’t at least mention how it relates (or doesn’t) to Gödel’s Theorems.

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      1. Thony C.:
        AK, I can’t decide if your comment is meant seriously or not. Contrary to popular opinion Gödel’s theorems only apply to formal systems of a certain ‘strength’.They do not apply, for example, to scientific knowledge as it is normally defined, so I have no idea why you want to have the content of John’s post related to Gödel.

        Obligatory reference: Torkel Franzen, _Goedel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse_, 2005, A.K. Peters. Great book.

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    1. AK, I can’t decide if your comment is meant seriously or not. Contrary to popular opinion Gödel’s theorems only apply to formal systems of a certain ‘strength’. They do not apply, for example, to scientific knowledge as it is normally defined, so I have no idea why you want to have the content of John’s post related to Gödel.

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  3. most religions are not propositional like Christianity

    To what extent are you claiming that Christianity is propositional? Because if you are claiming that there exists some set of propositions to which assent is a necessary and sufficient condition to being a Christian, then I certainly can’t see Christians agreeing with that. (Admittedly, Christian definitions of Christianity tend to presuppose the existence of God, so a minor problem there.)

    You might just be saying that Christianity puts relatively more focus on its propositional aspects compared to other religions, i.e. is substantially propositional on a sliding scale from propositional to non. In which case, I think we can all agree.

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    1. @Adrian Morgan – take a look at the Wikipedia article on the Nicene Creed. For many, perhaps most Christians, this is exactly the set of propositions you refer to. Even those who do not recite the Creed (or a variant) would agree with the majority of the statements in it.

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  4. John S. Wilkins: This discussion is, after all, incomplete.

    I’ll say so! IMO most “philosophical” efforts in this regard are incomplete. In fact, I decided a long while ago that efforts to do “philosophy” about how the mind interacts with the real world end up depending on… Neurology. Now that I have some (still vague) ideas about how the brain constructs the mind, I find most efforts to do “philosophy” about it seem to boil down to word games. Between Gödel’s Theorems on one side, and rationalization on the other, I have my doubts that any philosophical discussion can provide more than a “feeling” that you understand what’s going on.

    BTW, I recently came to the realization that all of Science is just an effort to rationalize our observations of the universe with the belief that the universe operates according to universal, discoverable, invariant natural law. I’m still working on the implications of that.

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    1. BTW, I recently came to the realization that all of Science is just an effort to rationalize our observations of the universe with the belief that the universe operates according to universal, discoverable, invariant natural law. I’m still working on the implications of that.

      I guess that comes from our rather successful ability to predict things that we have no reason to think we can control.

      That is, rocks roll downhill whether we want them to or not. We find that we can predict how they roll down hills by constructing a “law” that exhaustively covers all our experiences with rocks rolling down hills. When we find an inconsistency, we also find that there are other, more extensive “laws” that can cover the usual conditions and the exceptions.

      Whether the laws model reality or not is not really the point – at least to me. The point is that the laws seem to model the universe better than any other alternative to date.

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  5. Dealing with the profession of a belief in God as if a statement to that effect means one thing is sacrificing accuracy about real life in favor of abstract considerations that might be true in a few cases in which the believer is trained in the relevant philosophical disciplines, I would say it probably has little if anything to do with what individual people mean by the statement that they believe in God. Since most people who assert they believe in God aren’t trained in philosophy or are even aware of the theology built on the tradition they consider themselves to belong to, I doubt they think of God in terms of existence such as those above. I’ve found that most atheists and even some agnostics have an extremely naive concept of what it implies when they talk about existence, as well as some extremely sophisticated thinkers about these issues. Being heavily influenced by Eddington, I’ll note that he confessed that he didn’t know what it meant for something to exist.

    I would guess most people believe in God without much considering the philosophical implications of that statement, obviously for those people the statement means something quite different that can’t be addressed by a discussion such as this one. I know that a lot of blog atheism proceeds on pretty much the same level.

    Then there are others who have mastered some kind of formulated creed to explain their belief or disbelief, often on a pretty superficial level of rigor, often even getting it wrong according to the more rigorous form of the creed they believe they have mastered. This is especially true in fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism, which are really based more on preference than they are on any kind of rational basis.

    Then there are people who have more sophisticated or at least clearer thoughts about their position, which, in my experience, are often accompanied by an appreciation that it isn’t the result of a strict handling of evidence or logic but is a matter of personal conviction based in experience. Quite often that’s a position associated with liberal religion and might be with a liberal atheism if people would recognize that distinction, a position which includes the possibility that it is wrong even as it defines itself in terms of convincement instead of absolute terms of logic and evidence. In other words, it incorporates doubt as a part of its process. It’s a mistake of fundamentalists, both religious and atheist, to believe that kind of liberal belief is weaker than fundamentalism. It might be in some cases. But in many cases it is a far more sophisticated position and those holding it far stronger in their conviction.

    Generally, it’s a huge oversight to ignore that religious belief, as well as atheism, usually has more to do with personal experience and conviction than it does a philosophical or theological program. In a lot of cases the person consults the formal literature of those merely to get arguments for a position they already take. But most people hold their beliefs on a far different basis, with variable results and with variable behavior explained on the basis of words used with little specificity and often in contradiction to their definition. Michelle Bachmann claims to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus but it would be impossible to intuit the sayings of Jesus from her policies and the actions she supports. Jesus pointed out in several places that there would be people who claimed him as their authority but who were lying. In such cases he advised people to look at the results of their action, presumably an indication of their belief. He also said that God is spirit and had to be worshiped in spirit. Paul also said that the letter of The Law killed but it was the spirit that gave life. I defy anyone to find evidence of that or any of the beatitudes or the citation of Hillel by Jesus in the program of “christian” fundamentalists, the only recognized form of Christianity in the corporate media or in most of popular atheism.

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    1. Anthony, I see your arguments as being based on observation of people. This is a completely valid way to consider things, but so too is John’s philosophical approach. It all matters.

      I think the importance of John’s work is that it may some day influence common thinking. I consider philosophy a very tricky subject. It’s easy to get tied up in arguments that are – at least as I see them – not much more than arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The real strength of philosophy is in the attention paid to thinking rationally. I often wish everyone had to learn how to think critically and rationally – I think of it as a life skill.

      Of course, so too are the observational approaches – like (I think) yours.

      Short version: I think both are meaningful, and I’m enjoying this blog tremendously. Thanks everyone!

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    2. Would you be surprised to learn that a lot of people who are atheists would find the very notion of a “rigorous form of the creed they believe they have mastered” to be absurd? That language makes no sense applied to atheists. What follows from positive atheism is: nothing. There is no disbelief. There is no rejection, there being nothing to reject. Is that specific enough for you?

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      1. Hi Susan, I am wondering what you think of John’s endnote:

        * If “believe” meant only religious belief then phrases like “religious belief” would be tautologies. There is no better word in English to describe conceptual stances than “belief”, and so I must say to the critics, get over it. Because a word has been hijacked by one segment of the language community of one country, we cannot use it in any other context?

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        1. John makes a good point and my comment has nothing to do with the definition of belief. The idea that there is an atheist creed is just wrong. Even the anti-religious views of the gnu-atheists are not the equivalent of a creed, although their vision (which is not universal among all of them) may be deemed a philosophy and sometimes resembles evangelism.

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  6. Oh, reading through what I just posted reminds me. About the third day of me writing my first blog, reading what I’d so carefully tried to get right and seeing my failure, I learned a useful truth, that a man who acts as his own editor has a blogger for a client.

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  7. “map”, “space”, or “flag” metaphor,”

    Their is an interesting metaphor used by the Ndembu which Victor Turner suggested is used by the Ndembu as their term for symbol (its been contested by other’s in anthropology).

    ‘chijikijilu’, its literal meaning is “to blaze a trail” by cutting or bending branches; to guide you back from unfamiliar paths to the known world.

    Martin Southwold discusses it briefly in his paper on Religious belief pp 636

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/2802151?seq=9&Search=yes&searchText=belief&searchText=religious&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dreligious%2Bbelief%2B%26gw%3Djtx%26acc%3Don%26prq%3Dbelief%2Bscience%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&prevSearch

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  8. jackd:
    @Adrian Morgan – take a look at the Wikipedia article on the Nicene Creed.For many, perhaps most Christians, this is exactly the set of propositions you refer to.Even those who do not recite the Creed (or a variant) would agree with the majority of the statements in it.

    Um, no, it isn’t. How many Christians have you spoken to? In general, Christians don’t define Christianity as assenting to a creed, but rather as a personal relationship with God/Christ. Which is not an acceptable definition for philosophy since it assumes God exists, but at the very least, any Christian will tell you that it’s not enough to simply believe that certain things are true. You also have to want certain things (e.g. to be free of sin). See that verse about how even the Devil believes in God.

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    1. Adrian, I think that if you study the history and theology of Christian thought, especially the small-c catholic (universal or orthodox, not to be confused with Orthodox or Catholic) kind, you will find that it is a credal tradition by definition, and that this is accepted by the primary authorities of all these traditions. Sure, the average Joe doesn’t think so, especially since the fideism of left-wing Protestantism (the revivalists and their antecedents) took over the popular imagination, but Christianity is indeed defined by acceptance (assensus) to the NIcene Creed. And of course I never intended to suggest that that is all Christianity is; just that it is a very propositional religion, moreso than most.

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      1. Ouch, I and millions of Trinitarians do not accept that the Father (1) eternally generates the Son and (2) eternally precedes the Holy Spirit. In fact, millions of Christian do not have the slightest idea that the Nicene Creed teaches 1 and 2. Does this mean that we are not Christians? Okay, perahaps I am nitpicking. 🙂

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  9. I have argued that we all have doxastic attitudes or conceptual stances regarding our world, and that some of these, which I equate to “beliefs”, are knowledge.

    John, I have two questions. This sentence suggests to me that you are equating (to some degree or another) beliefs and knowledge. Do I understand you right? And if so, what’s your take on the notion of knowledge as “true justified belief?”

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    1. I said in the first post that knowledge is a species of belief. It must at least be true and warranted belief. The Gettier cases present problems for the necessity and sufficiency of that definition, yes, but no belief is not knowledge IMO if it is not both true (however analysed – I prefer a representationalist account in a coherentist theory) and warranted (justified in some manner to be decided – I prefer a pragmatist view).

      Mind, I am no epistemologist, nor truth theorist.

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  10. Hi John, I don’t think belief necessarily implies an existence claim. For example, if I said “I believe the future is bright” this does not imply the existence of the future, or even time for that matter. I think the obvious thing to state about beliefs is that they are attitudinal, even intentional stances regarding something that has been codified and henceforth the subject of a communicative impulse. The process of codification may represent an agreed perceptual reality (resolved to significance to become part of langue) that belief may then attempt to dislodge (freeing up the conceptual space and releasing tensions in the process). Hope I’ve made some sense.

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  11. John S. Wilkins:
    What an interesting paper!

    His work strongly reminded me of you’re own. His is grounded in extensive fieldwork as you’re own is in the historical archive.

    Makes it far more comfortable to deal with as a non-philosopher as it places you on highly familiar ground. Can map the arguments more fully and much faster in a familiar landscape, which is not the case much of the time with philosophy.

    But this form of approach makes you feel much less of a stranger in a strange land.

    His article on Buddhism and the definition of religion is also worth a glance. Brought a smile to my face in a few places.

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/2801935?seq=1

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  12. If “believe” meant only religious belief then phrases like “religious belief” would be tautologies. There is no better word in English to describe conceptual stances than “belief”, and so I must say to the critics, get over it. Because a word has been hijacked by one segment of the language community of one country, we cannot use it in any other context?

    This sounds foundational for critical realism.

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  13. If “believe” meant only religious belief then phrases like “religious belief” would be tautologies.

    Religious usage is often “believe in” rather than just “believe”.

    To believe statement is, as you suggest, to have a conceptual stance toward statement. To say that statement is a belief is to make an entity out of that stance. For those who doubt that cognition is based on the use of a data storage/retrieval system, it seems entirely reasonable to be skeptical about beliefs, while acknowledging that we can be reasonably said to believe statements.

    As for “believe in evolution”, I can accept that evolution is a pretty good and useful theory without the need to believe it or to believe in it. Scientific theories don’t need to be true to be useful. Effective theories can be systems of methodological principles, rather than collections of facts.

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  14. The word is “atheos” (no/not/without god) + “ist” (someone who believes) = someone who believes we are without gods, no gods exist. That word was created almost a full century before the word “theos” + “ist” = someone who believes gods exist, came about. There was no word to add an “a” prefix to.

    There are no other ist words that work that way, either.

    Amoralist = someone who believes there is no morality
    Amoralist =/= not a moralist

    Atonalist = someone who believes in and creates atonal music
    Atonalist =/= not a tonalist

    Abiogenist = someone who believes in abiogenisis
    Abiogenist =/= not a biogenist

    The 2 axis, 4 position, models are flawed. Yours seems to be leaving off the gnostic positive atheist who claims to know no gods exist. Such people exist, I can assure you.

    Most 4 position models leave off the agnostic positive atheist, having a gnostic atheist introduce the claim “no gods exist”, but then ask no belief question about that claim. If you also ask a belief and knowledge question about both claims you’ll get 5 possible positions.

    Do you believe the claim “gods exist” is true?
    Do you believe the claim “gods exist” is false?
    Do you claim to know “gods exist” is true?
    Do you claim to know “gods exist” is false?

    YNYN = theognostic (belief + knowledge)
    YNNN = theist (belief + no knowledge)
    NNNN = agnostic (no belief + no knowledge)
    NYNN = atheist (belief + no knowledge)
    NYNY = atheognostic (belief + knowledge)

    http://i.imgur.com/bIkjE99.jpg

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