Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
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:
- What is there? [Metaphysics and Ontology]
- How do we know? [Epistemology]
- 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):
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:
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.
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.