Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Atheists and the argument of epistemological uncertainty

Fairly often, I come across some atheist who rubs me the wrong way because I am sure there is no god and then says, tut tut, dear fellow, you can't be epistemologically certain about anything, therefore you can't really say there's no god. I hate that argument. It's so silly!

While I acknowledge epistemological uncertainty in this life, everyone I know makes pretty absolute statements. They say "the earth exists". They will also say "Batman doesn't exist". Which is the more interesting point for me. Because . . . how do they know? Have the really scoured the entire universe and checked every possible place Batman might exist? No. Because there is a sufficiently compelling narrative to explain the existence of stories about Batman without having to search everywhere in the universe. The same is true with god - we have compelling historical, sociological, psychological and archeological evidence about the creation of religion all over the earth. We know the process, have seen the process happen again and again, through which religion is created, we know much about the historical events around the creation of all major religions which fit into this pattern. We all these powerful and consistent facts that explain everything about the development of religion - include the idea of god - that fit in with the broader tapestry of human knowledge. But then what we're expected to do is ignore all of this human knowledge because of a smidge of epistemological uncertainty.

And, almost always, because these people are unbelievers, they do not actually believe in any god enough to be religious in any sense. So, I often bring my brows together with confusion. If they don't believe in any god enough to act on this knowledge, where is their claim to believe in the possibility of this god? Because, y'know, if you admit to the possibility of god, then Pascal's wager makes quite a bit of sense. Sure, maybe the Christian (or whatever other god you might choose) might not exist, but maybe they will, and you really improve your odds of not burning in hell or whatever from nothing to "a slim chance you chose right". But yet there they go, living their atheistic lives without the possibility of god's existence entering their mind when choosing a choice of behavior. Except to annoy other atheists who are just a fraction of a percent more certain than they are about the non-existence of a god.

So, perhaps it is more ultimately accurate for me to say I don't believe in a god to the limits of epistemological certainty. But that seems cumbersome. In normal speech, I just don't believe in god and think that quibbling about arguing about the limits of epistemological certainty is generally quite a bit off target - especially coming from admitted non-believers!

Interestingly, this is the argument that religious people, themselves, often use. They'll try to say the epistemological uncertainty about the origin of the universe, for instance, justifies belief in god and then improperly generalize that to mean their god. This is, of course, the god of the gaps, which is a intellectually cowardly and insupportable notion. But it is to be expected from religious people - it's when atheists admit to the possibility of a god because of those gaps that make my eyebrows knit together.

13 comments:

J. K. Jones said...

I always though that certainty about something was inevitable. I exist. I exist because I must exist to deny my own existence. Whatever is undeniable is true.

JK

Shane said...

It'd be easier to say, "I'm as certain that there's no god as I am that there's no Batman. So STFU." Then you get to insert a reference that makes you smile AND you get to point out to these people how stupid they're acting! I also suspect that these are the people who want to cast themselves as "nice atheists" (as compared to you, the evil atheist) to be friendlier to religious folk. It's like the ultimate high moral ground... or something.

Chris Bradley said...

J. K.,

I dunno if something that is undeniable is true - I might be wrong! ;) But, again, then we're getting into those weird little arguments about epistemological certainty and uncertainty. I can certainly find grounds for epistemological uncertainty about even my own existence, but I'm still going to say "I exist". ;)

Chris Bradley said...

Shane,

Yeah, some of them very explicitly dislike the militancy that I sometimes approach atheism - but, interestingly, the specific case that made me post this post was something Richard Dawkins was saying. I don't think that anyone will put him into the "nice atheist" camp. More like Darwin's rottweiler, which is one of his nicknames, hehe. It's something that even otherwise very forceful atheists will do, they'll say, "Well, you can't be ONE HUNDRED PERCENT SURE OF ANYTHING". Which is true in this very philosophical way, but only in this very philosophical way.

I mean, when someone asks them how they're doing, do they go, "Oh, well, I would say I'm fine but a person can't really be sure about anything"? We don't go around talking like that. God, especially as believed in by the big religions, I feel has been disproven to the extent allowable by epistemological uncertainty. So we don't need to bring up how such certainty exists whenever we talk about god, and only when we talk about god. It vexes me. ;)

CyberKitten said...

Chris - I have *finally* gotten around to adding you to my Blogroll.

Many apologies for the oversight.

CyberKitten said...

Chris B said: Because, y'know, if you admit to the possibility of god, then Pascal's wager makes quite a bit of sense.

No it doesn't. Though I don't believe in Him I'm guessing that if God did exist the idea of hedging your bets wouldn't sit very well with Him.

Chris B said: But yet there they go, living their atheistic lives without the possibility of god's existence entering their mind when choosing a choice of behavior.

As I do on a daily basis....

Chris B said: it's when atheists admit to the possibility of a god because of those gaps that make my eyebrows knit together.

Personally I too find the 'gap' argument insupportable. God may indeed exist - but I doubt it enough to say that I don't believe in Him & live my life according to my belief (or lack thereof). I think that the odds of God existing - especially when God is put forward as any *particular* God - is vanishingly small. No 'wager' is required because of that... after all we don't exactly take out anti-asteroid insurance do we?

Chris Bradley said...

CK, well, you never OWED me a blogroll or anything. ;)

But, for what it is worth, we actually are taking out asteroid insurance. There's a group of scientists who do nothing but search the skies for serious impending meteor impacts in the hopes we might be able to do something about it (if only be forewarned). ;)

I also think that, y'know, if a person tried hard enough they could force themselves to believe in any god they choose to believe in. If you act a given way long enough, regardless of the reason, people start to adopt that attitude. You can see it all the time on salespeople. They know that their jobs depend on their product, and the only way they're going to sell, sell, sell is to BELIEVE in their product, so they do that. They decided to believe, the psyche themselves up into believing, and then they do believe it. (If you haven't been to sales meetings, you've REALLY missed out. The connection between sales and fundamentalist religious services is powerful and obvious.) So, sure, you might start believing in bad faith, as an insurance policy, but over time, acting religious is internalized into being religious. I think Pascal knew this, too.

But, and I guess I said this poorly, if you think that the odds of any god existing are sufficiently small that you do nothing about it, isn't that really the same as saying you don't believe in god? The belief in that incredibly tiny chance, against the mountains of evidence for alternate hypotheses about why and how religious exist, falls below the threshold of enacting such beliefs in your life - except to say that because of epistemological uncertainty you can't absolutely say that god doesn't exist. Even tho', y'know, you'd feel comfortable saying Batman doesn't exist.

CyberKitten said...

Chris B said: CK, well, you never OWED me a blogroll or anything. ;)

True... and I haven't returned the favour for everyone... [laughs]

Chris B said: If you act a given way long enough, regardless of the reason, people start to adopt that attitude.

That sounds a bit like Aristotle - that if you *act* in a virtuous manner.. you eventually *become* virtuous. I guess that living a lie gets easier as time moves on.

Chris B said: if you think that the odds of any god existing are sufficiently small that you do nothing about it, isn't that really the same as saying you don't believe in god?

Pretty much, yes.

Chris B said: except to say that because of epistemological uncertainty you can't absolutely say that god doesn't exist.

Very true. We cannot be absolutely certain of *anything*. But I don't think that absolute certainty is a necessary condition to a life of any kind.

Chris B said: Even tho', y'know, you'd feel comfortable saying Batman doesn't exist.

I think that the existence of Batman is more likely that the existence of God though both are very unlikely. There might also be ghosts, demons & werewolves - but I don't believe that they exist either. But you never can tell for certain.....

Chris Bradley said...

LOL. You think the existence of Batman is more likely than the existence of god! Splendid! How can I not like that? I should get a T-shirt made, "Batman is more likely than your god." With a picture of Batman kicking Jesus' ass or something. ;)

But my bit where I said if you live a lie you become it is more, like, modern psychology than Aristotle. People find it very hard to lie. What they'll do rather than lie is come up justifications for their actions.

When you're a kid, you might have taken a toy from your sister. When your mom comes and asks you why you did it, most kids won't say, "Because I was bigger and stronger and I wanted it so I took it." Most kids will say, "Well, she had it a really long time, and it's my toy, anyway, and I deserved to have it."

This is the same with any course of action. People tend to rationalize their actions - no matter how weird or stupid - as being ultimately benevolent.

CyberKitten said...

Chris B said: People tend to rationalize their actions - no matter how weird or stupid - as being ultimately benevolent.

Well, it *is* hard to get through the day without at least one good juicy rationalisation... and humans do have a prounounced tendency to rationalise things. I guess we could rationalise most things - even God (if we tried hard enough). Seems like a lot of work for nothing though....

Chris Bradley said...

Obviously I agree. It would be meaningless if it was for nothing. But if you don't think it's for nothing, if it's only PROBABLY for nothing, then the analysis changes.

There are all sorts of people who make their living about this - risk assessment managers. They weigh the relative risks against benefits and decide on a course of action.

Which is why I brought up Pascal's wager. It would seem to me that unless a person was certain, really certain, taking a chance on religion in a risk management sense would be a good idea. Sure, maybe god would figure it out that you're just trying to avoid hellfire and send you there, anyway, as having insufficiently pure love. But any finite inconvenience against infinite suffering is, to me, obviously worth the gamble.

Unless you *are* certain, hehe.

CyberKitten said...

Chris B said: It would seem to me that unless a person was certain, really certain, taking a chance on religion in a risk management sense would be a good idea.

The problems with Pascal's Wager are many - including the unspoken assumption that their is a choice between belief in (the Christian) God & non-belief in (the Christian) God. Of course things are never that simple.

For instance, what if the 'real' God wasn't the Christian version (even at this point if anyone could actually *agree* on WHICH version of the Christian God we were talking aout) but another God entirely? What if the Gods of Ancient Egypt where the 'real' Gods and are *really* pissed at people for believing in the false Christian usurper?

Second Pascal's Wager is based on fear & self-interest rather than on faith & love. The Wager says that belief in God is simply in our best interests because the alternatives are just too horrible to contemplate. But wouldn't any decent God want people to come to Him/Her *honestly*? So isn't it reasonable that any God worthy of worship would value honesty - even value honest mistakes? So maybe honesty is *really* the best policy in this case?

Chris B said: Unless you *are* certain, hehe.

Actually I'm not certain of *anything* including my own existence - yet I still get up in the morning, go to work & generally get on with my life. Certainty (absolute or otherwise) is problematic at best - and is not necessary in order for decisions (important or otherwise) to be made.

As to the God question... I am certain *enough* about the non-existence of God. That's good enough for me [grin].

Anonymous said...

It's just a way of saying: don't believe in what you believe and don't believe in what you don't believe...

All belief is relative. That's epistemological uncertainty.

Agnosticism rules in this respect