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You can be 100% certain, and yet 100% wrong February 26, 2012

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Apparently, Ginny was writing about this issue while I was also writing this post, but beat me to publishing.  I have not read hers yet, but here it is.

Also, see the A-Unicornist’s thoughts on the issue.

So, as a follow-up from yesterday’s post about certainty and atheism, I want t say a few more things. Also, apparently I wrote about this last year.  I’m so ahead of the curve…or something….

First, I want to give a nod to Christina over at WWJTD because she had some very good things to say about the issue yesterday.  Many of the thoughts I composed for this post came after reading her post this morning.

For example, she says:

Part of understanding science is understanding that we should accept things provisionally, or probabilistically.

Right.  To accept something provisionally is to accept that we might be wrong.  Now in all fairness, I have not heard anyone who is claiming to be 100% certain about a god not existing say that they would not be willing to be proven wrong, nor even that they could not be wrong.  Certainty is not the same thing as proof, after all.

But more importantly, to accept something provisionally should mean that we should not maintain 100% certainty about it.  How do we justify absolute certainty in the face of a probabilistic proposition? I really don’t know.

Christina concludes her post by saying that

Science is probabilistic – which is one of the things that separates science from dogma. That’s good. That means science does not close itself off to new information or evidence. A scientist who says, “I don’t care if my data falsify my hypothesis, I am 100% certain my hypothesis is true” needs to hang up hir lab coat, as ze is not doing science. Someone approaching the world rationally is therefore agnostic about everything.

Everything.

Now, here is where I think that the differences of opinion stem from.  For me, certainty is about recognizing our epistemic limitations.  It is about being provisional about all conclusions, even if the evidence is overwhelming. I am not merely hiding behind any sort of radical skepticism in saying that there is some non-zero possibility that I am wrong about any conclusion about the world.  I am simply being honest about my limitations, especially where I am not even sure what the thing being claimed is supposed to be in the first place (i.e. “god”).

See, here’s the thing.  If deities are scientific propositions (and I know that this has been a question of past blogosphere arguments), then any conclusions about them have to be provisional.  If the claim that a god exists is an empirically-testable one, then even after if is has not been demonstrated after hundreds or thousands of tests (assuming you have not proven it to be logically nonsensical), there is still a non-zero possibility that the proposition is true, even if believing it is completely non-rational.

Surely, you can have an extremely high certainty that it does not exist, and even more surely you are rationally justified in denying its existence, but the words “100% certainty” have to mean something, and what it means is absolute certainty.

Look, if this certainty is nothing but a mere rounding up to the nearest whole number…well fine, but make that clear. But what appears to be the claim is not merely a rounding up (at least in some case), but a finer logical error that I tried to dispel yesterday, but apparently was not able to.  So here we are again.

 

Noncognitivism and certainty

Even if I were to accept absolute certainty as a real and meaningful epistemological position, there is still the fact that the being in question (“god”) is not even defined.  What does that word mean? Theologians can’t agree on a definition, and that’s what they do academically and professionally.  Sure, the fact that they have no evidence, no body to dissect, is part of the reason why this is the case, but it’s not all of it.

Further, I am not even sure what the necessary criteria of ‘godness’ are to determine if a definition for ‘god’  is legitimate.  So, if I were to define god as my cat, then I can demonstrate god’s existence, right? But is this definition legitimate? And if not, why not? And if you have an answer why not, then what about Kim Jong Il? What about Q?

What are the boundaries of criteria for definitions of god?  And if those boundaries include definitions which are not in contradiction with known facts about the world, even if they are not demonstrated as real right now, then they are not disproved and therefore claiming absolute certainty about their non-existence is not a rational position.

The noncognitivist position makes this question that much more absurd.  The implication seems to be that not only do certain atheists know what the definition of god is (or at least the right criteria for definitions), but that they know that none of the referents for those definitions exists anywhere in the universe (someone alert Ray Comfort!*).

As I said yesterday, this is rational for specific concepts of god, but not for all concepts of god. Noncognitivism explodes the premises of any 100% certainty of a god’s non-existence by showing that because we cannot be sure what the term even means, we cannot say it does not exist.

In conclusion, the only way it is sensible to claim that one knows, or is absolutely certain, that gods do not exist is to start with a definition, or criteria-based set of definitions, of gods which allows one to do this.  But this move is not legitimate, because it is essentially begging the question.  All such a person can be 100% certain of, at most, is that the definition of ‘god’ they have in mind does not exist.

If these certain atheists** (see what I did there?) were to actually address real definitions of gods used by many real (“sophisticated”) theologians, they will find that those slippery sophists have created gods which survive logical scrutiny because they are designed to be non-disprovable.

And yet those sophisticated gods have still not been demonstrated.  Of that we can be absolutely certain.

*scroll down to “Why the Atheist doesn’t exist”

** certatheists? No? OK, fine…

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Comments»

1. Wes - February 26, 2012

Generally, when the definition of a word is open to several generally-accepted definitions (or there is no generally-accepted definition), the reasonable listener will defer to the speaker’s definition. For instance, if I say “your answer is irrational,” then (if you are being reasonable) you won’t make any judgments about the correctness of my statement until you determine whether I mean “irrational” in the sense of logical irrationality or mathematical irrationality. The only way you could make any (reasonable) judgments about my statement without doing so would be if your judgment would apply equally to both definitions.

The same applies to the word “god.” If someone says “I’m 100% sure that god does not exist,” then, because there are several things that “god” could mean, the reasonable listener will defer to the speaker’s definition when adjudicating the statement. Anything else would be to unjustifiably impose your own definition on the speaker (commonly called “putting word in her mouth”).

I think that people are obligated, when communicating, to use words to mean what they are generally accepted to mean. However, some words (such as “god”) have multiple meanings, or have no generally accepted meaning. In that case, it is impossible to evaluate a statement using such words without knowing what the speaker meant.

2. shaunphilly - February 26, 2012

The point is fair in general, but because we are talking about atheism here, there is another facet to this.

Atheism is merely a reaction to theism. That is, it is a rejection of a claim by other people—theists. In this case, the atheist position is in response to a claim about a being (god) which the theist claims to exist. The skeptical person should wait for the theist’s definition before claiming any level of certainty one way or the other.

So in this case (and possibly others logically similar to it), the definition must start with the theist since they are the ones asserting a proposition which a skeptic will react to. For example, we may start with what a specific god-concept that a theist believes exists, and the other person can either agree or say they don’t agree. More specifically, a theist says something like “the God of the Bible is real” and I say “I don’t believe you.”

For the atheist to preempt this interaction by assuming his or her own definition and then rejecting it is what I meant when I said that it was begging the question. It may be the case that the atheist has in mind what some theist somewhere believes, but when another type of theist sees the claim that some atheist is 100% certain about god’s non-existence, the theist will apply this certainty to their own god-concept which may differ drastically from the atheist’s preempted definition. And if that theist has a god-concept which is not incoherent nor at odds with known facts, then the atheist looks irrational to them to claim 100% certainty.

And it seems to me that since atheism is, by definition, a reactionary position, it should always be a reaction to specific definitions (when available) or to the set of best possible definitions (when a specific example is not given). The best possible definitions of god, in terms of making an argument for one, are not disprovable even though they lack any evidential support. So in my opinion a skeptic should, in general, not claim 100% certainty about gods in the name of consideration for the possibility of running into a concept of god which is not incoherent or at odds with known facts about the world..

The value behind this opinion is the hope for the best possible argument from theists. I want to assume that theists may have a definition of god that is not automatically logically incoherent, and therefore not disprovable. It’s just that I’m so often disappointed….

3. Cornelius Brunson - February 26, 2012

I have a slight problem with your last sentence. If you admit the possibility that the sophisticated gods could be demonstrated to exist, how can you be 100% certain that this hasn’t already happened, and just not everyone is aware of it yet? Anyway, i sympathize with the view that we should be agnostic about everything, though i disagree with it, and i have no problem with someone adopting that worldview. I think it gives too much credit to our imaginations, as i’ll try to illustrate.

You’re right that the gods contrived by theologians survive logical scrutiny — or at least, for someone who doesn’t study logic, i have no reason to think that they couldn’t. (By the way, what makes those gods “real” but the gods most people seem to believe in, which defy science and history and other empirical endeavors, not “real”?) My caveat is that the construction of an unfalsifiable proposition does not have any effect on its probability of being true. The proposition belongs in the same bin as unfalsifiable propositions people haven’t contrived.

I’ll put the rest at the old post, since it’s gotten a bit lengthy.

4. shaunphilly - February 26, 2012

Well, that last sentence was said with a touch of a wink, I suppose. You are right, I don’t know. All I can say is that I have not yet seen a definition of god which seems to have been demonstrated to exist and I would consider worthy of the title—which is, of course, a complicated question in itself!

As to our imaginations, well, I think the imaginations of those theologians are much more exercised than mine. BTW,nothing makes those sophisticated gods any more real than the more pedestrian versions, only the sophisticated ones are less directly absurd. One is forced to take those sophisticated versions at least a little more seriously when having an intelligent discussion, however. (Also, we have to take the pedestrian versions more seriously when considering things like public policy and cultural effects of belief).

That bin of unfalsifiable propositions is pretty stuffed, at the moment, but they keep finding more room to stuff more, it seems. And no, none of them necessarily have any truth value. The issue is whether it is rational to claim certainty that those propositions are not true, which many atheists seem to be trying to argue right now. I simply think it’s better to hold back that certainty for when we have a well-defined deity whose existence can be dealt with logically.

5. Wes - February 26, 2012

“So in this case (and possibly others logically similar to it), the definition must start with the theist since they are the ones asserting a proposition which a skeptic will react to.”

Really? You think that anyone who labels herself an atheist is reacting to one specific god-concept of one specific person? I think that’s a ridiculous proposition. I’d venture to say that most adopters of the label “atheist” are not reacting to any one person’s concept, but the concept of god that permeates our society. In our case, that would be the Christian god.

But even if that weren’t true, the phrase “I am an atheist” means only “I do not believe in god.” What specific definition of “god” the speaker is referring to (just like when someone says “I believe in god”) is not contained within that statement.

“when another type of theist sees the claim that some atheist is 100% certain about god’s non-existence, the theist will apply this certainty to their own god-concept which may differ drastically from the atheist’s preempted definition.”

Theists do a lot of unreasonable and stupid things. Does that mean that we should modify our language to suit them?

6. shaunphilly - February 26, 2012

Wes,

When I say I’m an atheist, what I mean is that I disbelieve in all the gods I have heard claimed exist. It is a cumulative reaction. Had I run into a definition of god that I thought existed, i would no longer be an atheist.

So, my atheism is no so much a reaction to one person’s god as it is a set of reactions to all god-concepts I have so far been exposed to. Atheism is the default position, and until a theist shows me a god to believe in, I stay an atheist. It’s just that it is up to the theist to propose the attributes of god, not me. To pick out a god which one has already shown to be impossible and say that they are 100% certain that god does not exist while pointing to only that god, one is begging the question.

And yes, theists do stupid things. But it is not that we modify our language to suit them, its that we recognize that the whole question of a god’s existence starts with the person making the claim, so we don’t assume the definition for them, but wait to hear theirs. In essence, we let them hang themselves, rather than supply the rope for them, in case the knot we make is not the right size for them (and we have to then re-make another knot).

In most cases, the god they believe in is one you have heard of hundreds of times (like you said, usually Christian), and you can reply with whatever level of certainty you have that it does not exist (unless, of course, you are convinced). But you have to at least wait to hear their god-concept before announcing which level of certainty you have for it. That seems the most rational approach.

7. Wes - February 26, 2012

Had I run into a definition of god that I thought existed, i would no longer be an atheist.

I call bullshit. Surely you’ve heard the silly new age definition of god as the energy which connects us all (which actually can be shown to exist). That doesn’t mean we are theists. That means that’s a stupid definition. Calling myself an atheist doesn’t mean that nobody defines god in a way that I agree exists. It means that I don’t believe in what I think of when I consider the word “god.” It is my definition that controls, not anyone else’s.

8. shaunphilly - February 26, 2012

The issue of what definitions of god are legitimate and which are not is really complicated. There are obvious definitions which we can throw out (my cat, for example). And there are obvious examples we leave in (Allah works). But when it comes to things that seem to sit in between, I don’t always know what to do.

One example is pantheism; the idea that the universe is god. This, in my opinion, is an equivocation fallacy. We already have a word for the universe (“universe”) and I see to compelling reason to use the term god there at all. I would demand a justification for that term’s usage there before I would accept it. I have not heard a good justification for that usage yet.

Similarly, if a person were to call god the energy of the universe (which is the same as pantheism, really), assuming their definition of energy was consistent with that of physics, then they are equivocating.

But what of powerful aliens like Q, techno-mages, etc? That’s where it gets sticky.

If someone were to tell me the god they believed in was something we can demonstrate to exist, but we already call it something, then I call equivocation. If they point to a thing or a set of things which exist, say some super-powerful aliens or all the stars, then I would be curious why they are using the term ‘god,’ which does have some historical set of criteria. But I would have to admit that their god exists, and then I would say “so what?” or even “so, why should I worship those things?”

So, am I still an atheist in the face of such definitions? I would be more concerned with that if the gods more people believed in and based policy on were those types of gods. The issue is a larger cultural question, so yes those major concepts of god are what we mean when we talk about atheism. But still, within those common definitions exist concepts which cannot be disproved, and that is my concern with the post above, not odd definitions of gods which cause this complexity.

9. Cornelius Brunson - February 28, 2012

[N]othing makes those sophisticated gods any more real than the more pedestrian versions, only the sophisticated ones are less directly absurd. One is forced to take those sophisticated versions at least a little more seriously when having an intelligent discussion, however.

Good point! Perhaps compatibility with reality — how “real” something might plausibly be — isn’t a terrible quantifier of how “real” something “is”.

10. Wes - February 28, 2012

The issue of what definitions of god are legitimate and which are not is really complicated

Legitimate for whom? I can decide for myself what definition(s) I will consider legitimate. I can’t make that decision for anyone else, and I am only a small part of that decision where society is concerned. You can make the case for what definitions *should* be legitimate, but you have very little effect on what definitions *are* legitimate, unless you’re talking about your own personal definition, which isn’t much use to anyone.

As far as society is concerned, the word “god” refers to specifically the god of Abraham. The definition is more malleable these days, but the collective force of society still tends to favor a monotheistic idea.

When I call myself an atheist, all I’m saying is that I don’t believe in *my own* conception of god, and I reject all conceptions of god that refer to things that I already believe in. Just because someone has a conception of god that I disagree with doesn’t mean that I need to change my own label. I think “atheist” is the most descriptive way to articulate my beliefs in as few words as possible, which is the whole point of having a label.

11. Skepticism: Orthodoxy v. Orthopraxy | atheist, polyamorous skeptics - August 13, 2014

[…] what is true (or at least what is likely to be true). And so once we have those answers, how certain should we be? Should we be willing, once a conclusion seems to be very certainly true, to defend it as the right […]


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