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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 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.