Friday, November 25, 2011

John Wilkins on Sandwalk

 
I like John Wilkins. If he lived in Toronto I would want to talk to him several times a week and I'd even pay for the the coffee and lunches. It's embarrassingly easy to teach me things I don't know, or correct my errors, but John has done way more than his fair share over the past twenty years.

I think he's mad at me [Prescriptions for atheists].
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.
My position is that one cannot prove the non-existence of supernatural beings; therefore, if forced to make the choice between knowing that gods exist and knowing that they don't, you have no logical choice but to be agnostic. If the choice is between knowing that gods exist and not accepting that claim, I choose to not accept any of the arguments of the theists. But I'm still agnostic when it comes to making claims for nonexistence.

The exact same logic applies to fairies. I cannot prove the nonexistence of fairies, so when talking to a philosopher I'm forced to admit that I am an agnostic when it comes to the existence of fairies.

In my case, my agnosticism about the existence of gods is just about the same as my agnosticism about the existence of fairies. In other words, it's simply an admission that you can never be absolutely, 100%, certain that something does not exist. I do not believe I can prove the non-existence of either fairies of gods but I am an atheist and an afairyist.

I'm not interested in positivism since some of its claims seem to be rather silly—at least the way John describes them.
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.
This relates to my previous post: Friendly Atheists and the Other Kind of Atheist.

John, if you think someone's views are false but they are "logically coherent," "not contrary to facts," and "rational" then where are they going wrong? Or is this a backhanded way of saying that your view must be incoherent, contrary to facts, or irrational? It's really hard for me to see how two opposing and incompatible views can both be logically coherent, consistent with all known facts, and rational. Isn't it generally true that when opposing sides disagree on important views, one side is usually making an error that can be identified? I though the whole point of most philosophical debates was to try and show why the other side is wrong.

You claim to be an agnostic, but not an atheist—at least in front of a philosophy seminar. Since I disagree with that view, I tried to find out where one of us is going wrong. I concluded that the difference is probably due to using two different definitions of "atheism." The question then becomes which definition is more rational in the 21st century. What's wrong with that?
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].
I pretty much agree with everything you say in this paragraph. I don't know who you are criticizing.

I think we should try and give reasons why we disagree with certain beliefs. Sometimes that might sound disparaging but that's only because some beliefs really are silly.

I am an atheist because I haven't seen any convincing evidence for theism. Since atheism is the default position, and since the burden of proof is on the theist, this seems like a logical position. So far in my life I have never been convinced of the existence of the god of the Bible, or the deist god, or any other god, sophisticated or not.

You, on the other hand, are pretty certain that some of the most ridiculous examples of gods don't exist. However, you are less certain about deism and the sophisticated gods of some philosophers. If I understand you correctly, you don't believe in any of those gods but you can't rule them out. By your definition of atheism, you have to be able to deny the existence of those gods before claiming to be an atheist. It's because we have different definitions of atheism that I can be an atheist and you can't.

Is that right? We could debate which definition of atheism is more rational in the 21st century but I don't think you're interested in that debate, right? Do you agree that by my preferred definition of atheism, you are an atheist?
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.
You posted links to three comments on Sandwalk. Be assured that I do not agree with everyone who comments on my blog but I do not censor comments. I find that it's good policy to address the arguments of the blogger and not the people who comment. That's why I'm ignoring most of the people who commented on Evolving Thoughts. They are 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.
That's my definition of atheism, but not yours, right? Nobody says that agnosticism is atheism. Using my definition of atheism, you can be an agnostic atheist. You can also be an agnostic theist. You say it's not possible to be an agnostic atheist. What about an agnostic theist, is that possible by your definitions?
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.
If someone believes that atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods then they can't simultaneously claim that atheism is the belief that all gods do not exist. Do you actually know people who define themselves as an atheist using both definitions simultaneously in front of a philosophy class?
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…
Apparently you do know such people. Can you give me an example of a modern philosopher who defends the proposition that gods do not exist (i.e. your version of atheism)?


18 comments :

  1. Note that I am speaking for myself, not for John, who probably disagrees with me on some of this.

    "Isn't it generally true that when opposing sides disagree on important views, one side is usually making an error that can be identified?"

    No, it isn't. I'll give an example. I happen to believe that it is around 1:20 pm. I expect you disagree. But neither one of us is making an error. We are simply in different time zones.

    Some of our facts are conventional facts, rather than empirical facts. The choice of timezone is conventional, not empirical. It happens that conventional facts can be important.

    In my view of how science works, there could be no empirical facts unless there were first conventional facts. The timezone example illustrates this. The conventions establish the standards by which we can have empirical facts on time.

    People can disagree on conventional facts, without either of them being wrong. And people can disagree on empirical facts, without either being wrong, if the disagreement derives from an underlying disagreement on conventional facts.

    Natural language itself is based on a large base of unwritten conventional facts. Your disagreement with John is over those conventions of language. With respect to "atheism", those conventions are far more complex than the choice between the two definitions that you mention.

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  2. Just because there isn't any convincing evidence for the existence of a god, why does that make atheism the default position? I agree that the burden of proof is on the theist -- but I think that the burden of proof is equally on the atheist (if an "atheist" is someone who believes there is no god, and not merely someone who does not believe in any god). The theist is like someone who claims there is life on at least one of the planets orbiting a star five hundred light years away, and the atheist is like someone who insists there is almost certainly no life on any of those planets. By contrast, the agnostic says, "We have no good reason to make a claim one way or the other." To me, agnosticism is the rational default position with regard both to life in that distant solar system and to the existence of an intelligent Creator. To say, "While I can't absolutely prove there is no god, the existence of such a being is highly improbable" -- is rather like saying you know it's highly unlikely there could be life on any planet in that distant solar system, even though at present we know virtually nothing about that solar system. (And to say, "Well, we know that the existence of non-material beings violates the laws of nature" is surely to beg the question.)

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  3. nwricket says,

    No, it isn't. I'll give an example. I happen to believe that it is around 1:20 pm. I expect you disagree. But neither one of us is making an error. We are simply in different time zones.

    Are you philosopher?

    Checking ....

    Yes, you are.

    That explains a lot. :-)

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  4. Aeolus says,

    Just because there isn't any convincing evidence for the existence of a god, why does that make atheism the default position?

    Do you believe in Zeus?

    If not, what is the opposite of believing in Zeus? Is it not believing in Zeus? Of course it is.

    What's the default position? If you had never heard of Zeus you would not believe in Zeus. Just like if you had never heard of homeopathy, you would not believe in it.

    Atheism is the absence of belief in supernatural beings according to the definition I use. It's the one I have defended in this blog for many years. Obviously it's the default position about gods.

    All newborn babies are atheists.

    ... but I think that the burden of proof is equally on the atheist (if an "atheist" is someone who believes there is no god, and not merely someone who does not believe in any god)

    I agree, but I think that version of atheism is silly so don't expect me to defend it.

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  5. "Are you philosopher?"

    Actually, no, I am not (except in the sense in which Larry Moran could be said to be a philosopher). Don't go by the name of my blog - I chose that name to express my disagreements with philosophy.

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  6. @nwrickert

    I think you make a false distinction between conventional and empirical facts.

    Even with your example of timezones, which are based on the empirical fact that the sun rises and sets at different times based on what your position on the earth is.

    Saying that it is 1:20 pm and then arguing about the time is like saying that the wind is moving at 20 km/hour and then arguing about what direction it's coming from. All good fun for philosophers but ultimately a waste of time.

    Most conventions have a firmly empirical basis.

    Even the fact that circular motion of clock hands is "clockwise" is based on the fact that clocks were first developed in the northern hemisphere and moved in the same direction as the sundials that were their predecessors.

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  7. If atheism is simply the absence of belief in supernatural beings (and that is indeed one definition of atheism), then I am an atheist and John Wilkins is too. However (correct me if I'm wrong), you believe, as does Richard Dawkins, that the probability of the non-existence of any supernatural being is "greater than 99.99%". I take it this means you think it reasonable to believe there is no supernatural being, just as I think it is reasonable to believe that the Leafs will not win the Stanley Cup this season. (Okay, so the Leafs are not THAT bad -- let's say, I believe with near certainty that a tornado passing through a junkyard would not produce a functioning Boeing 747.)

    This is where (I think) we part company. I have no idea how you or Dawkins or anyone else could assign any sort of probability to the claim that there is no god of any sort. Although I don't believe in any god, I also deny that it is reasonable to dismiss the existence of a god (i.e., some intelligence at the ultimate root of existence) as highly improbable. On what basis could one possibly make such a claim? One would have to know all sorts of things about how and why universes form (including how and why the multiverse, if it exists, could have formed -- and so on all the way down the stack of turtles). But one can't get outside nature, and one can't invoke the laws of nature to demonstrate that nothing but nature exists (or is likely to exist). That's why I call myself an agnostic and not an atheist, even though I'm an atheist on your preferred definition.

    As for our friend Zeus, who I understand was born on Crete and lives on Mount Olympus, this is like asking if I believe in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. If I'm sceptical, it's because I have reasons having to do with parsimony, consistency, and the laws of nature.

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  8. I know that people like to say things like 'an atheist just beleives in one less god than you do' or 'we're both atheists about zeus', but that's not really true right?

    I don't think any of us could be convinced that zeus exists. None of us would be agnostic about the existence of zeus.

    So there's some things we can be convinced of and other things that we can't. Wilkins's an agnostic, and on that only in the extremely detached, effete, god of leibniz, an abstracted *zeus oteous*, but an atheist Jesus. Moran's an atheist on all of it. Sure, Moran might say, anything's possible, but Jesus is just as likely as Thor. Wilkin's would say that the 'god of leibniz' is, maybe unknowable, but at least 'reasonable', and again Moran would scoff at it like a fairy.

    It sounds like you two guys are trying to say that your beleifs aren't all that different, but it really looks like you're both, effectively, belong to two different sects.

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  9. In the early stages of many scientific debates, the positions of both sides are rational and consistent with the evidence. As time goes on and new evidence arises, the balance tips. But this does not mean the debaters on the losing side were behaving irrationally prior to the arrival of this new evidence.

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  10. I've never seen the Zeus thing as a rigidly logical philosophical proposition - it's just away to explain an atheist position to a Christian: 'you know you don't believe in Zeus? Well, that's exactly my relationship to Christ'.

    When it *is* applied as logic, though, it quickly leads to a bait-and-switch from Christians. They'll start off talking about Jesus, God made man, the intense centrality of the Resurrection. But Jesus is clearly a local tribal deity, just like Zeus or Thor or Mithras.

    So when we ... well, *prove* that, suddenly, no, God is unknowable, extra-universal and so on. God isn't 'like Zeus' to a Christian, not some local weather god who lives up a specific mountain. Even though it's obvious that's exactly what God is in the Old Testament.

    The modern God of the theologians has been specifically designed *to* be impossible to pin down. And, to my taste, as such, any discussion, pro or anti, is a complete waste of time.

    There's a moral to this story: tell us one thing about your god, we can kill it in a sentence or two.

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  11. I don't think its really accurate to say that Zeus was some silly god that lived on a throne on top of a mountain to the ancient greeks. Most of their ideas about religion and god were very similar to modern man's religious ideas.

    Also, the greek religion is probably in a lot of ways comparable to modern Hinduism. A christian isn't a Hindu because they don't beleive in the hindu gods, and the reverse goes for the hindus, they don't beleive in Jesus or any of that stuff, so they're not christians. So it really seems like the atheist position is basically the same, they don't beleive in the gods of the hindus, for the same reason that the christians don't beleive in those gods, and at the same time, the atheist doesn't believe in the god of the christians for the same reason the hindu doesn't beleive in them.
    It doesn't seem so different. Thor might seem ridiculous to most of us, but heck Jesus seems pretty ridiculous to non christians too.

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  12. Isn't it generally true that when opposing sides disagree on important views, one side is usually making an error that can be identified?

    "generally true" or always true? Answers being maybe and no.

    I don't understand the attacks on philosophy and getting precise with definitions. Unless one prefers having things that sound pretty good until you break them down, in which case, yeah, precision can get in the way of thinking you've got things figured out. That would be a bummer.

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  13. Don't forget that there was actual evidence in favor of the Greek gods. Oracles of the gods famously gave interesting and prescient "predictions", recorded (though always long after the fact) by Greek historians like Herodotus. An ancient Greek might argue that it was therefore rational to believe in such gods, just like a pre-scientific Christian would have accepted mountaintop fossils of marine shells as evidence for Noah's flood and the truth of the Bible.

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  14. Hi, Larry.

    This is the formulation John has used that I've found to be the most useful.

    "Agnosticism, as I have previously argued on this blog, is neither an existence claim that p (realism) nor the denial of an existence claim that p (antirealism), but the denial of the possibility of knowledge regarding p, either now (weak) or ever (strong)."

    Contrast this with your formulation:

    "[Agnosticism is] simply an admission that you can never be absolutely, 100%, certain that something does not exist."

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  15. "the denial of the possibility of knowledge"

    Well, OK - the *possibility* of knowledge exists, obviously. It's claimed by most religions. So agnosticism is a nonsensical proposition.

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  16. If you are on such good terms, Larry and John, it should be possible for both of you to directly address each other in one and the same blog/thread.

    Why deliberately shoot past each other? Or is this mutually raising traffic on both blogs?

    Otherwise, nwrickert's blog could be a neutral site for your duell.

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  17. Of course, when somebody makes an argument for a conclusion you disagree with...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... I could have saved so much time just calling people silly poo poos.

    Indeed, which is right up there with pretending that ALL you got was an insult, and ignoring the reasoned argument as to why the label was added. Go a mirror around?

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  18. I know this is very old, and probably won't be seen, but if I am reading this now others might read it as well.

    The first comment here compared "Isn't it generally true that when opposing sides disagree on important views, one side is usually making an error that can be identified?" to the time of day, stating he believes it to be around 1:20 pm. Ignoring the fact that he is wrong based on timestamp of his message, he is still wrong. It may be a waste of time to argue about, as one poster claimed, but it is still a matter of truth/falsehood.

    If he believed it was 1:20pm locally, then he would be correct, and nobody would argue with him, but if he believed it was 1:20 pm generally, and was not referring to Coordinated Universal Time, then he would be wrong. There are no degrees of wrongness, he is either correct or he is not. This example does not in any way demonstrate a possibility where there is no wrong belief. He is either correct, or he is not.

    There is, so far as I am aware, no such thing as "local truth," which is why modern physicists are working on a unified theory rather than just being happy with general relativity and quantum mechanics. He may be correct in saying "It is 1:20 at this location" but that holds true anywhere else. No matter where you are, it would be 1:20 at that location, so it is not a "local truth."

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