Guest post by BillyBob
Recently on this site, there has been a discussion about whether an atheist should say gods do not exist or that atheism is a lack of belief in gods. The underlying concern is can you prove a negative, which brings up the question is anything possible? In my response to the question I described a creature, the Planet Eating Vorpal Dragon Kitten. Is it possible this creature exists?
What if someone were to write a computer program comprised of 5,000 adjectives and adverbs that randomly described one of 5,000 random nouns. An example could be Green Gigantic Cosmic Goat. Can we prove this creature does not exist? No, but what is the probability that any of the millions of creatures created by the program exist? Is it realistic to be agnostic to the creatures created by the program or just call them nonsense? Nonsense is the correct answer.
Why are gods not considered nonsense? The Planet Eating Vorpal Dragon Kitten has a greater probability of existing than a god because it could have evolved naturally in strange circumstances somewhere in the universe whereas gods are poofed (imagined) into existence. When a telescope takes a photo of a Planet Eating Vorpal Dragon Kitten having lunch, I will then consider it a real possibility and when a god shows up I will then consider gods a real possibility. Until then, neither exists.
There are two ways to approach acquiring knowledge. The scientific way, and the lazy way.
The scientific way requires having the courage to admit that you don’t know all the answers, and declining to state anything with certainty until the evidence comes in. The logic behind this method is that it’s a hell of a lot easier and safer to only accept knowledge that has been verified, than it is to accept bad knowledge then try to find and “correct” it later. Choosing that path means you will have lesser minds nattering at you for refusing to commit to something that they think is “obvious” (and often you will have different groups of people each mocking you for refusing to admit a different and contradictory “obvious” truth), but that’s the price you pay for having integrity.
The lazy way is just making an assumption because you lack the backbone and intellectual honesty to admit you just don’t know something. Unlike the scientific way, this method does not protect you from being wrong. In fact, using this method often enough not only guarantees that you’ll be wrong, eventually, it also ensures that you will *stay* wrong, because it tricks you into imagining the other side has a burden of proof toward you when they really don’t.
You go right on ahead assuming that none of your millions of combinations of nouns and adjectives exist. I’m sure that’s comfortable and easy for you. As for me, I’ll abstain from making any assumptions or committing to any positions until the evidence comes in (or until something *forces* me to commit); I won’t just assume that each random name that comes up doesn’t exist just because the probability that they do is very low. But I’m sure your strategy will work out just great for you. After all, how realistic could it be that things like a “raspberry crazy ant”, or a “pink fairy armadillo”, or a “pleasing fungus beetle”, or a “satanic leaf-tailed gecko” actually exist, right? Those are all nonsense, right?
As an agnostic atheist, I have religious people on one side taunting me for not having the “courage to believe”, and non-agnostic atheists on the other taunting me for “sitting on the fence”. You know what? Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em both; both sides. There’s no reason why I need to commit to a position, so what would be the point in doing it without enough justification? Other than to assuage the nagging dread that many people have in the face of uncertainty, I suppose, but that’s their problem, not mine. I’m quite comfortable admitting that there are things that I don’t and almost certainly will never know for certain. That includes the existence/non-existence of gods – while I’m operating on the assumption that there are none, I’m quite comfortable admitting that I can never be absolutely certain. If that bothers you, bring me the evidence either way, or GTFO.
I want to try to understand the universe as it *really* is, as much as I possibly can in the time I have. I gain nothing from taking half-assed shortcuts, especially when there’s no good reason to. If I could be satisfied with pat assumptions just to avoid uncertainties, then I might as well have just bought into a religion.
If uncertainty is too scary for you, or you can’t stand up to the pressure from one side or another to commit to their assumption as fact, then you go right on ahead and build your beliefs on a foundation of “meh, I’ll just fudge this”. I’m sure a half-assed blanket assumption based on probability and induction is *just* as good as metaphysical certainty! Go right on ahead and gamble on knowledge, and may the odds be ever in your favour. I mean, hey, what are the chances that something with a random-sounding name like “screaming hairy armadillo” could actually be real?
Interesting viewpoint but I believe impractical. Our lives are built on assumptions and probabilities. I can never know with absolute certainty that a car stopped at a red light will stay stopped when I cross the street in front of it. So if I want to cross the street then based on cultural consensus and past probability, I have to make a half-assed blanket assumption that the car will indeed stay stopped. Yes, that particular assumption has proven wrong rather more often than I like.
So can I know with certainty that gods do not exist? No of course not, but based on experience and Occam’s razor the odds are very, very likely that they don’t. The most practical way to live is then to assume there are no gods and get on with living.In the very unlikely event I get run over by Yahweh riding a screaming hairy armadillo then at least I will have lived and not been paralyzed waiting for certainty.
It’s absolutely true that there are situations where we are FORCED TO ACT on incomplete information. In those situations, sure, use the balance of probability – along with whatever evidence and reasoning you have – to make the best estimate possible of what is likely to be true.
But who or what is *forcing* you to decide it’s true that “god(s) exist(s)” or “no gods exist”? There’s no reason why it’s necessary to commit on that question. I’ve never come across a single situation in my entire life where if I didn’t decide that gods certainly exist or don’t exist, I couldn’t move forward. Have you? I seriously doubt it.
You don’t need to decide that gods definitely don’t exist to say “I don’t see any, so I’m not going to assume any” and go about your life. Not assuming any doesn’t mean assuming none. Saying “I don’t see any, so I’m going to assume none exist” is totally gratuitous; why take that extra leap if you don’t have to?
Who’s holding a gun to your head saying “either believe gods exist or believe they don’t”? Nobody. Why make a decision that no-one and nothing is forcing you to make, and that you will gain no benefit from (unless it really is true that you can’t handle admitting/accepting that you just don’t know something – in which case, you should probably deal with that phobia before worrying about metaphysical questions)? Seems pointless to me, so I can’t be bothered.
You don’t need to be paralysed waiting for certainty. You don’t need certainty at all in questions that don’t need to be answered.
“There are two ways to approach acquiring knowledge. The scientific way, and the lazy way.”
Sounds like lazy thinking to me.
I certainly don’t rely on divine proclamation or visions for my knowledge but science is not so simple.
It relies on human intuition for both hypothesis and theory generation.
It relies on logic for theories that can’t be tested directly.
It relies on rigourous observation but also interpretation of data using logic and intuition.
And the entire endeavour is motivated by an entirely emotional passion to explore and learn.
Most importantly, science uses these different ways of knowing things to rigorously fact check each other, where possible.
> Sounds like lazy thinking to me.
Not so much lazy thinking as lazy labelling. This hardly seemed the place to go into intimate detail about a rational epistemology. And so many atheists these days are so weirdly antagonistic to “philosophy” (as they understand it), and so in love with “science” (as they understand it), that it seemed a convenient shortcut to avoid getting mired in the details.
Everything you said is correct. A *proper* rational epistemology is technically not literally scientific, because “scientific” would literally mean “only empirical” (among other things), and of course there are plenty of things we can’t figure out by observation alone. The scientific method is a *subset* of the rational method, and while it works quite well, it doesn’t work for everything. My favourite example is the belief “there is no even prime number greater than 2”: there is no way you can prove that via science, that is, via empirical observation or the hypothesize-experiment-update cycle, because there are an infinite number of prime numbers; even if you experimentally test a trillion of them and find no even numbers greater than 2, someone can still argue there might be one in the next trillion. But if you give up using the scientific method and use the rational method (or technically, the mathematical method, which is also a subset of the rational method, but not the same subset as the scientific method), the solution is obvious and irrefutable: any prime number must be a product of only itself and 1, any even number must be a product of 2, therefore the only even prime number can be 2. (On the other hand, no amount of logic and reasoning can tell you that the mass of an electron is 9.11 × 10⁻³¹. That’s something you have to observe (measure) to find out.)
So yes, lazy labelling, but that’s because I don’t really want to get too deep into philosophy on this blog – and *especially* in comments.
> Not so much lazy thinking as lazy labelling. This hardly seemed the place to go into intimate detail about a rational epistemology. And so many atheists these days are so weirdly antagonistic to “philosophy”
Fair enough. The idea that science is a tool, as opposed to a toolbox, is one of those things I think removes any possiblity for common ground, and limits understanding. Philosophy is a bridge to understanding, but it seems a bridge too far for some reductionist sciency types. And so I feel the need to bring it up, whenever I see the opportunity.
Fact checking, via empiricism is essentially what distinguishes science from theology. People need to understand the reasons science is so successful, but also the pitfalls implicit in any search for knowledge.
I’m not an agnostic because I am wishywashy or don’t like a good scrap. I’m an agnostic because that is me being as humble and honest as I can be. To be fair, humble is not my strong suit.
Here’s maybe another way to look at it:
You’re born. You grow up to adulthood. Throughout all of that time, never once have you heard or read or had to obey anything having to do with any thing called a god. Never once have you had some kind of being revealing itself to you. In this time you learn about how all the things around you came to be/function that we know of so far. You examine the evidence. You’re fine with agreeing with the conclusions drawn from the evidence. You’re fine with accepting the fact that we don’t yet know EVERYTHING.
Someone starts talking at you about how they think such a thing exists and that for some peculiar reason feels they have to somehow worship it and sing wicked songs and hold wicked thoughts about what to do to people that don’t agree that such a thing exists and following peculiar rituals and rules. They think you should worship it too.
You are not making any assertions or claims as to the non-existence of any thing. You’re simply starting from a nothing, blank, null position on the topic. Being a person that prefers to gather and accept evidence, you ask the person for theirs due to the fact that they ARE asserting something.
Now we get to where probably most of us are. Um…that’s it? Yeah I don’t think so. Thanks for sharing your fairy tale with me though nonetheless. I think I’ll pass. You walk away hoping they’re not going to nail you to some timbers.
Now, obviously, probably all of us here have been exposed to such concepts. We have probably come to an understanding that the assertions made are completely lacking in evidence and so therefore dismiss them. That’s where I think we are.
Loved the new creatures, the ant sounds tasty!
How about I paraphrase you
“But who or what is *forcing* you to decide it’s true that “Raspberry Crazy Ant exist(s)” or “no Raspberry Crazy Ant exist”?”
You keep going back to gods, why did you not talk about the Raspberry Crazy Ant or any one of the other random creatures? That is the point why does “God” have a special place in your heart? There is no evidence for either but you engage only in talking about god.
I only focused on gods because that’s the topic of choice of the blog. The reasoning I used applies to *everything*.
Assuming I’d never heard of Raspberry Crazy Ants, if someone asked me “do you believe that Raspberry Crazy Ants exist?” (and described them, so I knew what they were talking about), my answer would be “no”.
If they then asked me “then do you believe that Raspberry Crazy Ants *don’t* exist?”, my answer would again be “no”.
If they then asked me “so what *do* you believe about (the existence of) Raspberry Crazy Ants”, my answer would be “nothing; I don’t have enough evidence to form a belief either way”.
And that’s exactly how it would stay, until either the evidence comes in and I can finally make an informed conclusion (either in favour of existence or non-existence), or I am forced to make a choice.
I can’t imagine a reasonable situation where I’d be forced to make a choice in believing that Raspberry Crazy Ants exist or not without any evidence. But let’s say I’m stuck in some situation, and there are only two possible means of escape: 1) relying on a Raspberry Crazy Ant, which has a high probability of success… but only if Raspberry Crazy Ants exist; or 2) relying on something else, which has a very low probability of success. Then I’d have to decide whether I believe Raspberry Crazy Ants exist or not: if I decide they do, I’ll take option 1; if I was right and they do exist, I win… if I was wrong, I lose. If I decide they don’t exist, I’ll take option 2: if I was right and they don’t exist, then I made the right choice, even if it doesn’t work out… if I was wrong, I basically threw away my chances of winning (unless I’m really lucky).
But unless and until I’m in a situation where I have to decide whether Raspberry Crazy Ants exist or not, I’ll remain agnostic about them.
(Of course, in reality, I’m not agnostic about them. I have enough information about them – including even why they’re named “Raspberry”, and called crazy – that I can comfortably conclude they exist. In fact, I have so much information about them, from so many sources, that it would be irrational for me *not* to believe they exist.)
I am an agnostic atheist because I’m pretty ignorant about the universe and have no where close to a random sample of it.
Life on the planet earth is entirely anecdotal evidence. Even physics *may* vary depending on where you are… see the problem of dark matter/energy.
Probability demands better sampling, and I’m not a biologist nor physicist, so interpreting how likely this or that is…. in either of those fields is not something I would venture to do.
I can say, that based on my understanding of logic, history and psychology, that the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god seems entirely self-contradicting, and more likely a function of fear-wishing and a anthropomorphism.
I don’t believe in that god, and have found none so far that do much better… (Hail Eris, you are the fairest!!).. but did a conscious agent create the universe I exist in? I do not know.
“I am an agnostic atheist because I’m pretty ignorant about the universe and have no where close to a random sample of it.”
Just because we lack knowledge is no reason to make up
things. Are you an “A” vorpaldragonkittenist?
“but did a conscious agent create the universe I exist in? I do not know.”
I also do not know the hows and whys of the origin of universe. Does that give me a reason to make shit up?
How do you know the universe was created?
I’m not an agnostic because x god makes more sense than sfjlewkjlfwenc. I’m an agnostic because gods are relevant to the society I live in.
I also think that communism and capitalism fail as ‘ideals’, but the more relevant ideal in canadian society is capitalism. So I am a critic of capitalism. That doesn’t mean if I run into a communist, that I am on their team.
> How do you know the universe was created?
I don’t know that it wasn’t. If the vast majority of Canadians were Kraussians, I would be a non-kraussian.
I am an agnostic atheist! But I don’t believe in gods. So I’m an atheist.
And I’m intellectually honest enough to note I cannot disprove some claims. This is philosophy.
Technically, we cannot disprove some constructs of fairies either.
And philosophically speaking it is incorrect to say we know they don’t exist. This is simply true, regardless of if you like it or not.
However, colloquially the difference between the above statement and saying ‘it does not exist’ is almost meaningless.
So if you are trying to be honest and intellectual, you cannot say that there are no deities.
If you are just shooting the breeze and being everyday about it you probably can say it. (Like when you say ‘did you see that Gerald brought us all cupcakes? He’s the best.’ You don’t mean he is actually the best. It’s a turn of phrase.) Just be ready to defend the statement philosophically or admit you cannot prove it, you just mean that it’s practically true.
I just reread the title and there is a false dichotomy.
Is anything possible? No.
Are somethings impossible? Yes.
Is a specific thing impossible? That has to be shown.
If you randomly string words together and then work back from that to create a concept of a thing it probably doesn’t exist. But to say it’s impossible, or won’t be created in the future is an odd claim to make.
Life is too short to get into hairsplitting. I spent 25+ years looking for God(s) and when all the layers were peeled back, there was nothing at all to suggest they exist. Can I positively prove that they do not exist – no of course not so I guess that makes me a dictionary agnostic. Do I have any evidence that god(s) do exist? No and I have gone looking so pragmatically, I am a pragmatic atheist.
While the agnostic debate has meaning and value for some people, I have better things to think about and that is a statement of personal choice not the merits of the question.
Amusingly, folks like myself who said ‘you cannot disprove a god, philosophically speaking’ think it’s the ones like BillyBob who are hair splitting, trying to be pedantic, and not letting it go.
They just will not let go this small thing that barely matters: you cannot disprove the god concept.
Though, sometimes hair splitting is fun.
Yup, that it can be. 😉