Friday, November 25, 2011

Friendly Atheists and the Other Kind of Atheist

We've been discussing the perceived conflict between agnosticism and atheism. I believe they are compatible. Most prominent atheists are also agnostic about the existence of supernatural beings.

Part of the discussion has to do with how you define atheism. Many philosophers (professional and amateur) maintain that atheism is defined as "the view that there is no God." This is the definition taken from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which claims to be a "peer-reviewed academic resource" [Atheism]. It seems to me that this view of atheism is widespread among philosophers, lending support to those who use it to justify rejecting atheism.

Other definitions of atheism are discussed in the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy but they are given little credence.
It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God. Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.” So negative atheism would includes someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle.
I am an atheist. I do not "affirm the non-existence of God" because that seems like a very silly position to take. Apparently there are respected philosophers who take this position, otherwise the article would be describing an extinct version of atheism and that would be even more silly.

There's something else in the article on atheism that leads me to question whether philosophy is as rigorous as it should be.
Justifying atheism, then, can entail several different projects. There are the evidential disputes over what information we have available to us, how it should be interpreted, and what it implies. There are also broader meta-epistemological concerns about the roles of argument, reasoning, belief, and religiousness in human life. The atheist can find herself not just arguing that the evidence indicates that there is no God, but defending science, the role of reason, and the necessity of basing beliefs on evidence more generally.

Friendly atheism; William Rowe has introduced an important distinction to modern discussions of atheism. If someone has arrived at what they take to be a reasonable and well-justified conclusion that there is no God, then what attitude should she take about another person’s persistence in believing in God, particularly when that other person appears to be thoughtful and at least prima facie reasonable? It seems that the atheist could take one of several views. The theist’s belief, as the atheist sees it, could be rational or irrational, justified or unjustified. Must the atheist who believes that the evidence indicates that there is no God conclude that the theist’s believing in God is irrational or unjustified? Rowe’s answer is no. (Rowe 1979, 2006)

Rowe and most modern epistemologists have said that whether a conclusion C is justified for a person S will be a function of the information (correct or incorrect) that S possesses and the principles of inference that S employs in arriving at C. But whether or not C is justified is not directly tied to its truth, or even to the truth of the evidence concerning C. That is, a person can have a justified, but false belief. She could arrive at a conclusion through an epistemically inculpable process and yet get it wrong. Ptolemy, for example, the greatest astronomer of his day, who had mastered all of the available information and conducted exhaustive research into the question, was justified in concluding that the Sun orbits the Earth. A medieval physician in the 1200s who guesses (correctly) that the bubonic plague was caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis would not have been reasonable or justified given his background information and given that the bacterium would not even be discovered for 600 years.

We can call the view that rational, justified beliefs can be false, as it applies to atheism, friendly or fallibilist atheism. See the article on Fallibilism. The friendly atheist can grant that a theist may be justified or reasonable in believing in God, even though the atheist takes the theist’s conclusion to be false. What could explain their divergence to the atheist? The believer may not be in possession of all of the relevant information. The believer may be basing her conclusion on a false premise or premises. The believer may be implicitly or explicitly employing inference rules that themselves are not reliable or truth preserving, but the background information she has leads her, reasonably, to trust the inference rule. The same points can be made for the friendly theist and the view that he may take about the reasonableness of the atheist’s conclusion. It is also possible, of course, for both sides to be unfriendly and conclude that anyone who disagrees with what they take to be justified is being irrational. Given developments in modern epistemology and Rowe’s argument, however, the unfriendly view is neither correct nor conducive to a constructive and informed analysis of the question of God.
This seems very strange to me. As an atheist, I have not been convinced by any argument for the existence of supernatural beings. Since others have been convinced by those arguments, it seems to follow, logically, that one of us is either being irrational or our arguments are unjustified (or both.)

Is it true that the consensus view among philosophers is that the arguments of both sides could be justified and rational? Do most philosophers agree that to challenge the rationality and justification of theistic views "is neither correct nor conducive to a constructive and informed analysis of the question of God"?


  1. That should be simple. Suppose you had two robots that were entirely rationally hard-wired. None believed anything that was not based on sense data. Now, for some quirk of complex hard-wiring or exceptional environmental effects one of the robots gets the sense data telling him that there must be a god (in humans we call it an epiphany or revelation). Judging on its sense data alone, the robot is rationally concluding that god exists, even though the other robot is not. Moreover the mechanic who built the robots may be convinced that the ephipany is due to a 'bug'. It won't convince the robot with the epiphany of its falsity.

  2. Is affirming the hypothesis of atheism really silly?

    Sure in statistics the standard formulation is always: "We have no reason to reject the hypothesis".

    But in the real world if we can conclude that an outcome has a probability of 1 - epsilon, for very small epsilon, don't we say: This outcome is certain beyond reasonable doubt?

    Again, I think we need to make a quantitative argument. We need to ground the discussion in reality. The philosophical approach seems to me to be all about definitions and interpreting them. What's the point?

  3. One of those robots is not "entirely rationally hard-wired".

    Human epiphanies about god are not the result of external sense data, they are internally generated events (the word delusion describes this quite well).

    Or, from the aptly named Pink Floyd song "Brain Damage", There's someone in my head but it's not me.

  4. @joe: Replace word "god" in the above argument by "unicorns". Therefore, it is impossible to convince anyone of anything.

  5. It seems to me that this view of atheism is widespread among philosophers, lending support to those who use it to justify rejecting atheism.

    ... and giving reason to others to reject philosophers.

  6. Who Really Believes Jesus Existed Anyways?