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Prescriptions for atheists

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

Prescription

Jeez. You go away for a few days, to the beach and countryside, and come back to find that progress has been made in philosophy; in particular regarding the right view to hold about religion and the religious.

The story so far: I wrote a series of posts about agnosticism, especially one on what agnosticism about any idea or claim might be. Then I took Jennifer Michael Hecht to task. My commentators, and those at Larry Moran’s blog, and Larry himself, have, however, deeply undercut my arguments.

First, Larry points out that arguments about the existence of God require one to take a position on fairies. One can only be agnostic about gods to the extent one is agnostic about fairies. My previous argument that this is comparing unlikes has, in one fell swoop, been demolished!  Of course, there must be other reasons for thinking that we can rule fairies out of contention (let us call them faeries to avoid confusion) which do exist but are undetectable. It cannot be the principle that “if it is unscientific it is irrational” for that would be the positivist presumption and that would be unscientific. I know I am wrong about positivism here, because Dan Hicks pointed out that some positivists weren’t positivists about everything. So positivism is never self-defeating, even when the positivist presumption is applied by some to everything.

Larry must have other reasons for showing that faeries do not exist – other than being uninterested in what some people claim; this, as Larry must appreciate, is not about what I the reasoner think is true, but about what others who make these claims must be called. I look forward to him enlightening me on this.

This leads to the clarification of several commenters: I had thought there was a difference between my having reasons to believe in some claim and others making claims and being critiqued for having them. I had (wrongly, as it turns out) thought that if somebody held a view that I happened to think false, but which was logically coherent and not contrary to facts, they might be wrong but rational. It turns out, much to my surprise, that to be wrong is to be irrational! This, if nothing else, is progress! We have turned a corner here. If somebody has a false belief, they are ipso facto, irrational and to be denigrated in public and have metaphorical rotten fruit thrown at them.

It is such a good thing, then, that none of these commenters believe anything that is false. We live in such a wonderful time.

My mistake was to think that one should disparage beliefs we thought to be wrong, but to give reasons. Oddly (and falsely) I had thought that was the meaning of “rational”; the giving and following of reasons. It turns out, that to be rational is to believe the right beliefs, and to treat those who one disputes as fools. If I believe there are no gods, because all gods (or fairies) so far proposed are silly or false, then anyone who believes in un-silly or not yet shown to be false gods, no matter what arguments they may put forward, I should not take these arguments or views seriously. I can just dismiss them like that [snaps fingers].

This makes philosophy so much easier. I look forward to the recognition of the philosophical community of these obviously true principles (and of course, being scientific principles, they will have underlying data and experiment to validate them, which, although boring, will be important to those of us who cannot immediately see the self-evidence of them).

My other main error was to think that something that should not be true of skeptics and rational people was to try to belittle, insult or demonise those whose views we dispute. This is so 19th century of me! Mill, pah! A mere apologist for unnecessary tolerance. Truth does not come from discussion; it comes from believing the right things. This is not at all like the way religious communities exclude and denigrate those they disagree with because they are wrong and so what they do is prejudicial and exclusionary, whereas when atheists do it, it is not at all either of these things.

Of course, when somebody makes an argument for a conclusion you disagree with, and you are Right (we may as well capitalise that blessed state of Enlightenment), the appropriate response is not to make counterarguments showing how the conclusion does not follow from agreed facts or logic, but to insult them. Call them a “word cake baker”. Compare them to creationists. Redefine terms so they are wrong, appealing to common definitions that are under dispute. I wish I had never been taught the rules of what I wrongly thought were reasoned argument. I could have saved so much time just calling people silly poo poos.

Finally, I see that mere consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds. On the one hand it is clearly the case that atheism is not the denial that gods exist, but simply a lack of belief in gods, so agnosticism is atheism. On the other it is clearly the case that atheism is the belief that no gods should be believed in as gods do not exist, so agnosticism is a failure of nerve. And, and this is the major progress in the debate (precursored by O’Brien in 1984), these views are true at the same time, despite the apparent logical contradictions. And as we know, all truths can be proven from a contradiction…

I now go to make something of myself in industry.

 

 

25 Comments

  1. Brian Brian

    About bloody time! You philosophers with your prevarication and forestalling. Let’s march into the bright and positive future!

  2. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    My only solace is that when they shake their pitchforks at we few, we happy [un] unbelievers, at least you will be there with me.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Did you not know? We accommodationists are cowards, too, so we will not be there, but running. Our patron saint is Rincewind from the Pratchett novels…

      Ohshitohshitohshit!

  3. Ian H Spedding Ian H Spedding

    I now go to make something of myself in industry.

    I hear there are jobs vacant at Apple…

  4. Martin Brazeau Martin Brazeau

    I had no idea that being an agnostic was about being an accommodationist (especially because I’m an agnostic and don’t consider myself an accommodationist). But now that I’ve read Larry Moran’s post, I’ve come to a whole new level of understanding. That it is indeed what this is about. . . for Larry.

  5. Brian Brian

    Martin Brazeau:
    I had no idea.

    Apart from the perfect past, that acurately describes all thought I’ve had up till now. (And probably until I die, but I’m agnostic about that, I might buck the trend.)

  6. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    Maybe we should take a leaf out of the Occupy Wall St book and go and Agnostify Sandwalk.

    I doubt it would work, though…

  7. I was agnostic about how basic the drive to form outgroups is … once.

  8. In terms of examining logically-consistent propositions of God put forward, what is the difference between agnosticism of this kind and what most atheists say? The weak atheist position that’s often advocated by many “new atheists” is that there’s yet to be a conception of God put forward that’s been reasonably established, but they are willing to change their minds if this is the case.

    • In fact I think most atheists are agnostics but identify themselves as atheists for sociopolitical reasons, and I do not contradict that self-identification. That is their right. This is about how the ideas play out, though, not the social issues.

      • Fair enough, John. Though I’m not sure if it’s solely for socio-political reasons, at least in my case I identified as an atheist because I thought that gods didn’t exist, and it seemed fairly silly to call myself an agnostic when I didn’t see any reason to believe in God any more than Santa Claus – and every reason to think that God is as made up as Santa Claus. Of course, that may stem from my lack of philosophical training in what word is adequate.

  9. Greg Gaboardi Greg Gaboardi

    I think you’re completely right about agnosticism, and I think that atheism is the belief in the non-existence of gods (and that’s all, there’s no such a thing as “negative atheism”, the “negative atheism” talk is part of what causes these confusions and makes some people think that agnostics are really “negative atheists, but atheists anyway”). I think that you already nailed that question when, sometime ago, you said that some atheists are just tryin to grow in number with such moves in the discussion.

    That said, I’m an atheist. And I’m an atheist because I endorse metaphysical naturalism (of the kind that David Armstrong endorses), and I want to know your position on that, since it seems to me that endorsing agnosticism means that you can’t really accept metaphysical naturalism.

    • Roger Roger

      Metaphysical naturalism as a precept is which, a conclusion or a prior? If a conclusion, how is it other than a leap of faith? If a prior, well merry-go-rounds are fun but you don’t get anywhere.
      And “endorse”? With a few leaps of my own it boggles. Why would a metaphysical naturalist care a whit for personal endorsements over foundational logic? Perhaps that endorsements should be voted out of fashion.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        I’m unsure exactly what you are saying in the second half, but let me respond to the first half: metaphysical naturalism is a project not a precept. And so far it is a damned successful one, compared with the alternatives. So the “priors or conclusions” dichotomy is question begging.

        And also, priors do lead to progress. It is not a merry go round but an exploration. The entirety of Bayesian reasoning relies upon our having previously found information and knowledge in constructing our priors. Otherwise, we could not learn about the world (a view I think you might actually hold)

        • That was the single most important comment I’ve read in the last few years.

          It is the job of the philosopher to simplify things. Hura.

      • Greg Gaboardi Greg Gaboardi

        I don’t get all that “leap of faith” talk. Atheism follows from metaphysical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism follows from arguments like the argument from causal clousure.

        Sure, metaphysical naturalism eliminates only transcendent gods, but for me that’s the most important part of atheism.

      • Greg Gaboardi Greg Gaboardi

        I don’t get all that “leap of faith” talk. Atheism follows from metaphysical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism follows from arguments like the argument from causal clousure.

        Sure, metaphysical naturalism eliminates only transcendent gods, but for me that’s the most important part of atheism.

  10. Jeb Jeb

    “if you followed him around for several days you could not distinguish his bevavior from that of any other non-believer.”

    This was a belief that you could argue was a central notion in allowing an educated elite in the late 17th century to believe in faeries. It was often reported that such creatures found in the antipodes and the fringes of the known world resembled native inhabitants in dress, manners and outward appearance. They aped the manner of men of true faith but had no faith.

    A Major substantive that allowed fairy stories to be treated as fact and was suggested should result in a new branch of late 17th century philosophical enquiry.

    “Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his ƒhadow, as is oft ƒeen and known among Men (reƒembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes alƒo often ƒeen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Perƒon of that Liknes wes to Viƒite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att laƒt to his own Herd. It accompanied that Perƒon ƒo long and frequently for Ends beƒt known to it ƒelfe, whither to guard him from the ƒecret Aƒƒaults of ƒome of its own Folks, or only as ane ƒportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which aƒƒume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, ƒeem to have ƒome Pleaƒure, (at leaƒt to aƒƒwage from Pain or Melancholy,) by friƒking and capering like Satyrs, or whiƒtling and ƒcreeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earneƒtly required, theƒe Companions make themƒelves knowne and familiar to Men; other wiƒe, being”

    Robert Kirk “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves Fauns Fairies (and John Wilkins ?), 1691

    • Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

      As an aside, I was just trying to work out the rules governing the use of the ‘ƒ’ character in that piece by Robert Kirk. It seems to be used in place of both the hard and soft lower-case ‘s’ yet that letter is also used. Did it represent a sibilant that was phonetically different from the other forms of ‘s’?

      • It’s like the Greek sigma – short form at the end and long form within words, I think.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Just a note: you do know I live in the antipodes? Are you calling me a faery? Them’s fighting words where I come from, boyo.

  11. TB TB

    John S. Wilkins:
    I’m unsure exactly what you are saying in the second half, but let me respond to the first half: metaphysical naturalism is a project not a precept. And so far it is a damned successful one, compared with the alternatives.

    Metaphysical naturalism or methodological naturalism?

    • Metaphysical. Methodological naturalism is not at issue, nor is there any alternative but rationalism and revelation, and the second is false (IMO) while the third is unwarranted.

  12. Louis Louis

    John S. Wilkins:
    Did you not know? We accommodationists are cowards, too, so we will not be there, but running. Our patron saint is Rincewind from the Pratchett novels…

    Ohshitohshitohshit!

    But but but The Final Word has been had on the subject. You didn’t reply, therefore you ran away and therefore I MUST BE RIGHT (It’s truer if it’s in caps. Caps = more truthiness. So mote it be.).

    There can be no other explanation or formulation. I blame that Mqhuyz* fellow.

    Louis

    *The q is silent. There is a joke here but it is a bad one and I am very ashamed of myself.

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