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Sunday, June 03, 2018


[Excerpt from a group email I sent a few years back...]

Let's set aside the atheist/agnostic terminology for a moment because when it comes down to it that's not what I care about.

What I object to is that if someone asked any one of you in the course of normal conversation, let's say about physics, let's say because they don't understand centripetal force:

"Do you believe the moon will crash into the earth tomorrow?"

You would all say "No".

But then if they asked:

"Do you believe in god?"

Half of you would equivocate in the many ways we've seen here, when almost without exception your actual certainty about the moon not crashing into the earth is *less* than your certainty that the god they are actually asking about does not exist. Let me support that:

There is the objection about what does "believe" or "know" really mean anyway... It's all probabilities... Which is its own answer: Believe/know means whatever you are stating has, in your estimation, some high probability. What that probability is exactly depends very much on context and is generally implied; sometimes we add words like "certain" to mean really really high probability. Anybody with sound epistemology assigns NOTHING to 0% or 100%, even logical contradictions, because, among other things, you can never fully trust your own reasoning.

The fact that there are people with bad epistemology who are impervious to evidence does not undermine the normal utility of the word "belief". The name for them is "dogmatic" and it exists because it describes a way of thinking that is considered not the default. If you were describing dogmatic to someone, you might say "It means they believe something with absolute certainty, beyond any possible doubt, such that no evidence whatsoever could ever change their mind." Note you do NOT say "It means they believe something." Clearly "belief" in its common meaning is actually quite reasonable and implicitly probabilistic, and does NOT mean dogmatic certainty.

The irony in this is if someone asked more plainly "Will the moon crash into the earth tomorrow?" While most would answer "No", some of you might, in order to express epistemological humility, say "I don't believe so." The term "belief" at its core embodies acknowledgment of the uncertainties of mental processes. Is there *any* way to answer the question that isn't at least implicitly prefixed with "I believe"? Even if you're going to state probabilities, you're just stating what you believe the probabilities to be.

Next, there is the objection that "god" means all sorts of things. Well, "cold" means all sorts of things too, but if someone asks you whether it's cold out, you don't say "I don't know" because they *might* be asking if it's less than 10 Kelvin. I'm gonna make a strong claim here, and maybe this is wrong but in all of my experience when you really dig in this is what you find:

Nobody who asks if you believe in god is ever asking if you believe in physics. They aren't even asking if you believe the universe is or might be a simulation. They are *invariably* asking if you believe there are supernatural (specifically: outside of science, aka outside of rationality) forces at work here and now, and/or whether spirits/mind in some meaningful way pre- and post- exist the physical human body. The ploy of de-focusing the definition until rational types are willing to admit it is *a ploy* and invariably once you accept it the focus dial starts spinning the other way and you learn what you've just approved. [Someone's comment] was a classic example of this here: Zoom out zoom out zoom out until ok, we have buy-in on maybe the universe is a simulation... so that means The Law of Attraction is just as likely as not, right? This is what you sign up for when you pretend--and I mean pretend--that god does not have a clear definition *in practice*.

Clearly despite my use of "invariably" there will be exceptions. I have, admittedly, met someone whose definition of god was truly not supernatural. But they are *diminishingly rare* and even if they weren't, the fact that a few people use the term oddly is no more relevant than that I misused Reductionism earlier. My mistake, and you don't all have to stop believing in Reductionism because it's now an ill-defined term thanks to me.

Next there is this equivocation over not believing god exists vs. believing god does not exist, and the related "can't prove a negative": This is a false dichotomy. For any X, there's going to be a P(X|Evidence), and if you want to get really specific you could even have [something like] P(P(X)|Evidence) which averages to the former but expresses meta- confidence. That's the foundation regardless of what words express it. All positive assertions are negative assertions of their dual and vice versa, so "I do not believe X" and "I believe not X" are *synonymous* (adhering to the common and reasonable use of "belief" as established above) and just summarize (in context) the approximate region where P(X) falls. One phrasing does not automatically imply dogmatism. When you treat it otherwise, it goes like this: "I cannot say there is no god, because I can't know a negative" and they say "So the moon *might* crash into the earth tomorrow after all, because god might get pissed and throw it down." You've just told them you can't rule this out; so now suddenly you can't rightly even say you believe you'll be alive tomorrow.

I believe there is no god because that's what's implied in spades by all of the evidence I have seen to date. This makes me an atheist. I wouldn't (in contrast to Kyle) even say I'm agnostic, because I do know there's no god, by exactly the same mechanism I know the moon will not crash into the earth tomorrow. In fact, the former *is a prerequisite* to the latter for the reasons illustrated above. So it is absurd for me to say I know one and equivocate over whether I know the other. (And I reiterate: I'm not using the lame definition of "know".)

I get that Kyle and others here are preferring the "philosophical definition" of agnostic, but between that and going soft on the use of know/believe when theism crops up, and assuming arbitrarily broad definitions of god, y'all are lending false credence to common supernatural beliefs by implying that despite all your smarts, you still don't know if god's going to throw the moon at us tomorrow, or whether everything that happens to people happens because reality conforms to our expectations.

Agreeing with the quote I pulled out from those essays, when y'all (who are in my opinion atheists) decline to call yourself atheists, and to a lesser degree when you call yourselves agnostic, you are (incorrectly!) implying that those that do are dogmatic atheists. The theists (and mystics) go for that wedge with a sledge hammer, and the conversation veers immediately away from evidence and toward: well nothing's really knowable (you said so yourself) so I guess faith is all we've got.

If you want to help people learn to think well, then stick with good definitions of these terms. Knowledge and belief is evidence-based probability. Theists don't *know* that god exists, they *feel* that god exists. At most, they feel they know that god exists. This is accurate and consistent and important. (I'm less fussed about what is a "good" definition of agnostic given it's historic roots, though I maintain that a *useful* definition is one who assigns non-trivial probability to an earth-relevant supernatural god.)


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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com