Once more into the fray, dear agnostics

I like Larry Moran. More than any other scientist, he has educated me on the standard (and occasionally nonstandard) theories of evolution, biochemistry (of which I know little, but what I do know is largely due to him), and even a bit of other stuff like information theory (he won’t recall that, from the talk.origins days).

So, when I get a bit testy (and really, a bit testy is all you can say I got; I used … sarcasm), it doesn’t mean I dislike Larry, or I am cross with him personally. Philosophy is predicated in being able to make a distinction between the ideas accepted and the person accepting them. I even know some very nice theists who, like Larry, I would take to lunch if only he lived in Melbourne and not that Canadian fleshpot nest, Toronto.

So I owe it to Larry to try, one more time, to explain my views. This time, I will do it carefully and not at all sarcastically. I will explain it as if I were talking to a… scientist, and not to a philosopher. This might help. That’s not being sarcastic; that is a recognition that the rules of debate in science (and in common life) are often very different from those of philosophy.

We all have in our heads a list of propositions we can fairly be said to believe (although we may not actually express them overtly either in public or in our heads; it’s enough that we have the right stances that can be expressed by those propositions):

Reasoner for

Let us call this person the “Reasoner for”, since they hold positive beliefs. It doesn’t matter whether or not the beliefs are expressed in a positive manner for now. [Their belief might be that they believe there are no faeries, for example.] A person who stands for some beliefs immediately sets up the possibility there are those who reject (negate) the beliefs:

Reasoners for and against

Of course, there are also those who simply fail to have a stance regarding the beliefs p, q, and r. They don’t appear here, for obvious reasons.

These propositions are selected, as it were, from a universe of currently possible statements – let us call them known statements (unknown statements don’t tend to play much of a role in our choices). This universe is not something that exists independently of humans, of course, but it includes not only all statements humans have made, but all the ones they might make, from the structure of logic (which I think is a human creation myself), languages, and the historical resources of past statements. There may be thoughts that could be had that don’t involve any of these, but they are of no concern to the average human thinker.

Universe selection empty

This universe is divided into those statements that are incoherent with accepted statements like the truths of mathematics or accepted knowledge, or which are simply meaningless, like the famous Chomskyan statement “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. We can therefore exclude them for both reasoners:

Universe incoherent

leaving only those statements that might be true, given what else we know. Our reasoners might agree on these or not; it doesn’t matter here.

Of the possibly true statements, some are consistent with known facts, while some are consistent with things that might be factual but we don’t know yet. We can’t decide ahead of time that they are false, because that would mean they are in the “incoherent” bucket.

Universe coherent

So now, we have dispute about those things which are consistent (or not!) with the facts. Only these ideas can be the subject of rational dispute. [It follows then, that we can dispute where in the Universe of Statements a particular statement is to be located; more on this shortly.]

So let us take a particular claim G: that [some] God exists. It may or may not be about a particular god such as YHWH or Allah or Xenu, or it may be about a deity sometimes called “the god of the philosophers”. Where you put this statement determines what you should be called. Let us take it as the belief of a Reasoner-for. Suppose you say it is simply meaningless or logically incoherent (a position you would need to argue for yourself, which makes this meta-claim itself the subject of a belief):

Strong atheism

This makes you a strong atheist. But if you say it is at least possible that a God exists, then there are two positions to adopt and defend. One is that of the weak atheist: God might exist but doesn’t:

Strong agnosticism

Here, the Reasoner for G is the theist, and the Reasoner against G is the weak atheist. The weak atheist is committed to saying that the theist is at least rational, because G might have been true. That it isn’t needs to be shown, of course, but the rational weak atheist thinks the theist might be right even if the evidence tends to show they aren’t.

Consider a parallel case to clarify this. I think that, circa 1982, AIDS might be caused by lifestyle factors, and you think that it might be caused by a virus, but as yet nobody has shown one belief to be factual and the other false. So it is rational at that time to think either view, and disputing the environmental factorist by calling them irrational, at that time, would simply be to beg the question. This is not rational behaviour.

After that time, though, the facts tell one way: AIDS is caused by a virus. Continuing to hold onto a view that is nonfactual (the technical philosophical term is “contrary to fact” or “counterfactual”) is simply the mark of an irrational person. So before that time, the belief is rational that AIDS is caused by, say, drug use; afterwards it is irrational.

Now consider whether God exists. Can we say absolutely that God does not exist? Is there evidence to the contrary? Some have argued thus (e.g., Victor Stenger), but the evidence merely shows the unlikelihood (given certain priors) of all gods existing, and the counter factuality of some gods (those whose existence requires facts not to be facts). Is it therefore irrational to believe in gods that do not require facts not to be facts? I cannot say this, and I think it is wrong to try.

This leads to the white area of our universe of statements: some views just lack warrant but may one day have them, for or against. AIDS in 1982 might have been caused by all kinds of things; when we discovered the cause, the statements it is not caused by HIV were moved to the incoherent bucket, and the statement that it is moved to the green section. Until then, though, we suspended judgement. Since, as of now, there are no telling facts that rule out gods completely (and I invite those who think otherwise to argue that case), it is rational to suspend judgement. As I have said before: philosophy is what you do when facts don’t fix the solution. When they do, follow the facts.

Agnosticism is in the white region. Some people hold that we can and should move to the red region for G, while others think that we should move G to the green region, and assert its truth or falsehood, but in my view, the sole warrant for this is thinking that your beliefs are true and all others are false. They may well be, but to show somebody else, an interlocutor or arguer, you have to give argument. And this is not forthcoming in my experience (and I have read pretty well all apologetics for and against deities in my life). Therefore, I am an agnostic.

I won’t go into the debate here about how to define the words “atheist” and “agnostic”, based on the writings of authorities. Authorities are either only a guide to actual practices and stances (which has no weight if you are trying to work it out yourself), or they are the outcome of arguments that we can attend to ourselves. While I appreciate Larry’s reading of some internet articles by philosophers (good ones too), I remind him that if I were arguing with him about, say, junk DNA, my citing the internet articles of some scientists might not carry a lot of weight. To be happy with the usages, one must examine the analysis given. I think that philosophers, like every other profession, can sometimes rely too much on established practices (a task of philosophy is to disentangle these prior uses of terms), and it is this I am disputing. So appealing to these articles doesn’t resolve my problems. Nor should it; philosophy is about the debate, not the authority. Maybe it’s different in molecular biology…

When next I am in Toronto, Larry can buy me coffee and we can talk. I promise not to call him a silly poo poo.

 

 

31 thoughts on “Once more into the fray, dear agnostics

  1. “Since, as of now, there are no telling facts that rule out gods completely (and I invite those who think otherwise to argue that case), it is rational to suspend judgement.”
    While it may not rule gods out completely, the history of people making up invisible agents, our projection and anthropomorphic tendencies, and that we are physicals beings suggests to me that if God happened to exist, it would be the mother of all coincidences.

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    1. You are still thinking about what you should believe, not what you should say about those who believe otherwise.

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  2. I have read all the way through this and don’t feel any the wiser. However, like Larry, I’m a biochemist, so perhaps we were created in a form incapable of understanding. I wonder how he will respond.

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  3. There seems to be a general consensus in this discussion among the self-identified atheists and the self-described agnostics (both here and at the Sandwalk), that we’re all agnostic in the strict sense with respect to gods. That is, everybody admits that one cannot actually be certain. The issue, for agnostics such as myself, is that how does that state of affairs affect what we should declare to and about those who believe differently from us? My view, as a self-identified agnostic, is that I prefer to assert the position that I don’t know and cannot know (based on available evidence or constraints in reasoning), and that you (either the positive atheist or the theist) do not know either.

    It is the position I am willing to defend regarding the existence of deities. In my opinion, and perhaps what I understand John’s to be as well, is that it is not that atheists and theists ought to be lumped together for making assertions about the factual nature of deities. Rather, it is that one asserts that they do not know when prompted with the question: “do you believe in God?” (vs. “Do you believe in a god who created the earth 6,000 years ago?”, etc. etc.).

    So, is there a god? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s even possible to know. You don’t know either. If you think you do, show me a) that it’s possible to have this knowledge; b) how you arrive at your knowledge consistent with (a).

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    1. NB: I’m not speaking for John. Simply stating how I understand his position, or at least how I understand it to be similar to my own.

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  4. Martin Brazeau:
    There seems to be a general consensus in this discussion among the self-identified atheists and the self-described agnostics (both here and at the Sandwalk), that we’re all agnostic in the strict sense with respect to gods.

    I don’t believe that’s quite right. I’m an atheist for gods who should be interacting with the observable world yet fail to do so (Thor, fairies); I’m agnostic for gods who don’t interact with the physical world (Spinoza’s god, faeries); and I’m theistic when it comes to gods who create their own typesetting software, write the definitive book on computer algorithms, and own their own pipe organ (Don Knuth).

    A while back I called that “indexed atheism.” If religion is enough of a hobby that you know of enough gods that an index might come in handy, it’s a useful concept. For better or worse, most atheists I run across on the intertubes are only familiar with their family’s god and maybe the god of Fred Phelps.

    So, is there a god? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s even possible to know. You don’t know either. If you think you do, show me a) that it’s possible to have this knowledge; b) how you arrive at your knowledge consistent with (a).

    This is a pretty easy burden for most of the Christian classes of god. To take a trivial example, the Prosperity Gospel teaches that god is little more than an ATM machine when, when presented with the correct incantations uttered in the correct state of mind will dispense cash on demand. This is a god who is required to interact in the physical world in a very narrowly prescribed fashion. The interaction isn’t observed, thus this particular god doesn’t exist.

    In contrast, liberal Quaker ideas of god require (as best I can tell) no interaction with the world. I’m agnostic about this class of gods not because of any certainty or uncertainty that they exist, but because I’m certain that I have no access to knowledge about them.

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  5. I take it that most of this debate rests on the meanings of the terms “rational” and “know.”

    You’re agreeing that we don’t need certainty for knowledge, so the mere fact that we can’t be certain that there isn’t a god doesn’t rule out atheism. I take it, then, you saying that we have no good reasons whatsoever for denying the existence of Spinoza’s god. (I’m not sure how you rule out parsimony as a justification.)

    Two questions:

    (1) What is your view of van Fraassen’s constuctive realist position? Is it rational for someone to be agnostic about unobservable entities in general (for those not familiar, van Fraassen does not accept the existence of molecules, viruses, or anything that can’t be seen with the unaided eye).

    (2) You’re arguing that agnosticism is rational. Are you also arguing that atheism is irrational, or do you hold that both agnosticism and atheism are rational positions? (For comparison, I believe that van Fraassen holds that it’s rational to be a scientific realist, he just wants to say that it is also rational to be an instrumentalist.)

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    1. 1. Van Fraassen’s constructivism is, in my view, the formal conclusion of a Kantian phenomenal/noumenal distinction. Since I reject that to a degree, I don’t find myself agreeing with him or the other internal realist positions. Internal realism is at least true to the extent that we have our ideas and think the right ideas are true, but we also have access to phenomena “neither sought nor provoked” by our theories, and so I do not think theories are the end-all.

      2. Both can be rational – neither need be. A position is rational just to the extent the reasoner takes reasons to force that conclusion. But we need not be rationalists: reason does not guarantee correct conclusions. At best it gives correct conclusions if the right reasons are appealed to and the reasoning is correct. In my view, theists, atheists, agnostics and whatever else there can be in the world of ideas can all be rational if their views are not incoherent or meaningless. This does not mean they are right, just reasonable.

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      1. Why don’t you write a post about noumena. It seems like they’re coherent and consistent with known facts. Kant designs his arguments so that they are logically possible and no phenomena could be the ground for denying their existence. They remain a sort of useless addenda to a scientific theory despite what they do for Kant’s philosophical agenda. This is sort of how I envision the problem regarding Spinoza’s God. Coherent scientific theory + this other thing that doesn’t do much explanatory work but is nonetheless consistent with observed phenomena. Why the useless appendix? This is where the worry about parsimony comes in, right? Philosophers are predisposed to answer this sort of question. From evil demons to monads, we’re trained to hit philosophical bedrock, explanatory and theoretical closure, etc. Nonetheless, the logical postivists, pragmatists, the Wittgenstein of On Certainty, and Kant in his Critical moments want to foreclose certain questions precisely because answering them is beyond our ken. I find it attractive. The “Here be dragons” approach to philosophical questions.

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  6. While reading your exchange with Larry Moran two things occured to me. First, sometimes I think that whether someone is an atheist or an agnostic is a matter of the question asked. If the question is: Do god(s) exist? The possible answers are Yes, No, or I don’t know = theist, atheist, or agnostic. But if you ask: Do you believe in god(s), there are only two possible answers, Yes and No i.e. theist or atheist. The first question is about what is true, and the second one is about what you believe. It annoys agnostics (rightfully, IMO), if their agnosticism is construed to be an answer to the second question (a la do not know what to believe or don’t wanna say), but it also rightfully annoys atheists if their atheism is construed to be the answer to the first one.
    I don’t really know but I’d guess that if these two questions were posed in a survey, the vast majority of atheists and agnostics would answer in exactly the same way.
    Which brings me to my second point. I can’t remember that I’ve ever read about anyone who did believe in god who’d self-identify as an agnostic. I have never once read about someone insisting that all theists must be 100 % certain that their god(s) exists otherwise they should self-identify as agnostic. Why is that so?

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  7. Physicalist:
    I take it that most of this debate rests on the meanings of the terms “rational” and “know.”

    You’re agreeing that we don’t need certainty for knowledge, so the mere fact that we can’t be certain that there isn’t a god doesn’t rule out atheism.I take it, then,you saying that we have no good reasons whatsoever for denying the existence of Spinoza’s god.(I’m not sure how you rule out parsimony as a justification.)

    Parsimony is a perfectly good reason, as are elegance, utility and personal preference.

    Two questions:

    (1) What is your view of van Fraassen’s constuctive realist position?Is it rational for someone to be agnostic about unobservable entities in general (for those not familiar, van Fraassen does not accept the existence of molecules, viruses, or anything that can’t be seen with the unaided eye).

    That’s clever and it’s useful to take ideas to their extreme and watch what happens, but beyond that I don’t find it useful.

    (2) You’re arguing that agnosticism is rational.Are you also arguing that atheism is irrational, or do you hold that both agnosticism and atheism are rational positions?(For comparison, I believe that van Fraassen holds that it’s rational to be a scientific realist, he just wants to say that it is also rational to be an instrumentalist.)

    Depends on the god (or class of god).

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  8. This universe is not something that exists independently of humans, of course, but it includes not only all statements humans have made, but all the ones they might make, from the structure of logic (which I think is a human creation myself), languages, and the historical resources of past statements.

    I don’t somehow see how the universe include humans statements. Does it include all statements Aristotle ever made, or only those written by him or his disciples?
    Maybe some would like to know all statements Plato had made. Is it possible to somehow retrieve them from the Universe?

    I also do not see how Logic and “structure of logic” is a human creation. Logic is something you have to follow to think formally right.
    In science and especially in Logic we speak about “discovery” of laws, not about their “creation”.

    Psychologism and its modern follower Darwinism just obfuscate thinking.

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    1. The universe here is a “universe of discourse” – that is, it just is the world of human statements. I was contrasting it to a Platonic view of ideas existing independently of humans.

      But the actual universe surely contains the set of all human statements…

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      1. Only if someone has made them… saying that the universe must contain all of X is a clockwork-universe kind of paradigm, and Einstein and Heisenberg put a stake through the heart of the clockwork universe long ago. Popular conception has yet to catch up.

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  9. I just don’t agree that the “strong atheist” position belongs in the red region.

    For me, it’s more like this: once you add a proposition to your knowledge base, the rules of inference give you a recursively enumerable set of new propositions. If the added proposition is “god exists”, for most values of god, most of those new propositions are inconsistent with other propositions that are known to be true or logically incoherent or meaningless. Therefore I reject that proposition. But I don’t see the proposition itself as logically incoherent or meaningless, so according to this I wouldn’t be a “strong atheist”.

    I don’t know, maybe it depends on your value of “god”. But the only way I couldn’t reject that proposition is if it’s a god that works very, very subtly while still being (in principle) detectable by scientific methods. If that makes me agnostic about gods, I can’t see how it doesn’t make me agnostic about other magical creatures like fairies as well.

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  10. …more “philosophy for scientists”, please! I especially like the graphics – I bet it would add to the commentary if we could doodle our thoughts on them.

    PS atheists would be less dismissive of fairies if millions “believed” in them

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  11. While Venn diagrams and Universes of Statements probably work better for academics trained to think in those terms, from a pedagogical perspective, speaking purely as a non-philosopher, I find analogies, bearing in mind their limitations, such as to our ignorance about the causes of AIDS in 1982 to be more accessible as illustrations of the point you are trying to make.

    What also strikes me is that the degree of friction between the atheist and agnostic camps is out of all proportion to the epistemological differences between them. In fact, there seems to be so little difference between weak atheism and agnosticism that atheists have little difficulty in admitting to being agnostic in a strict sense and many agnostics will readily concede that they are atheist for all practical purposes.

    The annoyance, which seems to be much more on the atheist side, can be seen in the ill-tempered accusations of accommodationism flung at agnostics who are perceived as being too soft on faith. But this is more a question of advocacy not epistemology. It’s almost as if contemporary atheists feel that, finally, they are beginning to break free of centuries of oppression by the religious and that agnostics are hindering that progress by being too spineless to speak out against the evils of faith now that they have the chance.

    My view is that the so-called New Atheists have made good progress towards establishing atheism as a respectable position and presence in the public square although they are not there yet. Agnostics should not feel reticent about speaking out against the evils done in the name of religion even if it causes offense to some of those believers who would never dream of doing such things. Atheists should always bear in mind that not all Muslims are al-Qaeda affiliates or Taliban and not all Christians attend the Westboro Baptist Church, follow Rushdoony or bear the curse of Ham (Ken, that is). Once again, the danger lies in absolutist thinking, whoever does it, not in doubt.

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    1. I’d believe you about Venn Diagrams if I didn’t constantly encounter scientists using just such devices to get science across to their peers. I think the issue they have with this sort of thing is the subject matter, not the mode of presentation. However, on the rest I concur. I too have said that I think the newish atheist surge is a good thing in general, and that agnostics should share many of their views. Moreover, I am trying, in my inchoate manner, to get the notion across that absolutism is a mistake no matter who does it (sometimes with … sarcasm).

      But I would point out that those with Ideas tend to hate those whose Ideas are very close to, but not quite the same as, theirs, more than they hate the common enemy. I call to the stand, the Judean Peoples Front. Splitters!

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      1. My biggest concern is the latest surge seems closely tied with that absolutism. I’d be happy to be wrong or at least see that change.

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  12. I continue to wonder if there is any real argument going on here. It seems to me that everybody is perfectly aware of where they stand. I’m not complaining about the analysis, mind you, which, as usual, John does very well. It’s just that some political fights are not about truth.

    I’m reminded of the bit about the diplomat who thought he could settle the quarrel between the white chess pieces and the black chess pieces by promoting mutual understanding.

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  13. ” It’s just that some political fights are not about truth. I’m reminded of the bit about the diplomat who thought he could settle the quarrel between the white chess pieces and the black chess pieces by promoting mutual understanding.”

    Reminds me of the claim of some anthropologists that feuding was eternal.
    I think you can expect some movement in political stances.

    My politics and perspective are drawn from having spent years having to observe and study belief. What’s had the most impact on my political beliefs on religion was carefully watching a group of strong atheists (with regard to religion) from a rural community using traditional supernatural beliefs (fairy beliefs in origin). They used belief to exclude individuals in a rather brutal manner but would at all times state that they were agnostic (did not use the term) with regard to the supernatural powers they were discussing and using socially. They would claim not to believe but that they did not know for certain and were erring on the side of caution.

    In the case of Rural Scotland supernatural belief survives the death of god and faeries. Yet it seems to be a constant theme in these debates for the more hardcore that eradicating belief in God, Thor, Faeries etc. will work like a magic wand in eliminating and eradicating these social and cultural beliefs.

    Its a mistaken belief. Its not that simple. We simply do not know how these things work fully but they can survive the death of Gods that much is clear.

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  14. I just stumbled upon this dialogue with Larry Moran. I must say that–far from clarifying matters–this post seems to me quite confusing.

    On a minor point, I can’t understand, John, why you refer to all currently possible statements as “known statements”. In what sense can a statement that has never been thought or encountered by anyone be said to be “known”?

    More seriously, I find the way you partition this set into three sub-sets (red, green and white) very confusing. The red set is labelled “Logically incoherent or meaningless”. But, from the text, this set includes statements that are “incoherent with … accepted knowledge”. As far as I can see, “incoherent with accepted knowledge” means the same as “inconsistent with known facts”. And this interpretation is supported by your telling us that the statement “AIDS is caused by drug use” moved into this set once the relevant facts about HIV became known. It seems strange to me to describe a statement as “logically incoherent” by virtue of the fact that it’s inconsistent with the known facts. I would say that “logical incoherence” usually refers to some sort of internal contradiction or necessary (or analytic) untruth. More important, if all statements inconsistent with the known facts lie in the red set, then all statements in the other two sets are consistent with the known facts. Yet just one of those sets–the green one–is labelled “Consistent with known facts”. This is misleading if all the statements in the white set are also consistent with the known facts. In any case, “Consistent with known facts” (as the green set is labelled) and “Consistent with unknown facts” (as the white set is labelled) are not mutually exclusive, so the non-red area can’t be partitioned on this basis.

    Suppose we ignore the “Consistent with known facts” label, and just pay attention to the “Consistent with unknown facts” label as the criterion for the partition between green and white. So the green set consists of statements which are inconsistent with unknown facts, which seems to be another way of saying that they are untrue though we can’t yet know that they are untrue. This would make some sense, but seems irrelevant, since we’re discussing what it’s rational (or irrational) to believe, not what is true. It may be rational to believe something which is in fact untrue (e.g. if we are presented with misleading evidence). Maybe that’s just the point that you were trying to make by drawing the green-white distinction. But it’s not at all clear.

    Given this interpretation of what you mean by “logically incoherent” it seems that your term “strong atheist” includes those who think that God hypotheses are inconsistent with the known facts. I suppose that makes me a strong atheist, though I would prefer to say that God hypotheses are inconsistent with the evidence rather than inconsistent with the known facts. I would also emphasise that consistency with the evidence is a matter of degree, not an absolute, and the degree depends on which God hypothesis is under consideration.

    After mentioning strong atheism you proceed as follows:

    This makes you a strong atheist. But if you say it is at least possible that a God exists, then there are two positions to adopt and defend.

    Putting it this way implies that a strong atheist denies the possibility that God exists. But, by your definition as I’ve interpreted it, that needn’t be the case, and I would say it’s generally not the case. I don’t deny the possibility that God exists, and neither does Dawkins.

    I can’t help feeling that you are conflating a strong sense of incoherence/inconsistency (that rules out a hypothesis absolutely) with a weaker, evidentiary sense (that only rules it out to some degree of confidence). On the subject of God, you talk about absolutes: “Can we say absolutely that God does not exist?” But do you also think you’re speaking of an absolute when you talk about HIV? Can we say absolutely that HIV is not caused by drugs? Or can we only say that it’s beyond reasonable doubt?

    Consistency with “known facts” (or consistency with “evidence” as I would prefer to say) is not an absolute, because empirical (evidential) inferences cannot be fully deductive. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but you seem to have lost sight of it here.

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  15. I’m another who thinks there ought to be a couple more areas in the Venn diagram: one for coherent statements inconsistent with known facts, and another for statements whose coherence or meaningfulness is undecided or undecidable.

    When HIV was linked to AIDS, the lifestyle hypothesis didn’t become meaningless, it was shown to be false.

    Both atheists and agnostics are inclined to differ in as to which region they assign the god question. PZ Myers regards it as incoherent, Dawkins and Coyne regard it as inconsistent with known facts, some regard it as simply false, and Huxley seems to have regarded it as undecidable.

    As a blunt pragmatist, I’m not particularly interested in statements that fall outside of some neighborhood of being coherent and consistent with the facts, even though much of my own pondering winds up in the possibly undecidable territory (like what’s the relationship between dark matter and the Higgs field?).

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