100% certainty and atheism

So, there has been some discussion all over the web, especially the atheist blogosphere, about Richard Dawkins’ recent revelation that he is not 100% certain that god does not exist (actually, this has been his consistent view for many years, as many have already commented).

Much has already been said, so much of what will follow may be redundant, but in an email exchange today on a local email list, someone said the following:

I’m 100% certain god doesn’t exist as well. I’m also 100% certain that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and I’m 100% certain that gravity is not the cause of microscopic or invisible elves that apply glue to the bottom of my feet….

He went on, but this is the important part.  I responded to him and wanted to post that response here, because while it is not comprehensive of all the relevant issues, it addresses something that is overlooked by many atheists who claim more certainty than they can chew.

Here is my reply:

The problem with this 100% certainty is the meaning of the term ‘god’ there.  If you mean, by that generic term, the specific god as described in the Bible (for example), then you are on pretty firm ground.  But the term itself does not point to any specific god, but to the larger metaphysical/theological concept with many possible referents.

While it may seem trivial, I can point out that in history certain political figures have been thought of as gods.  The Sun has been considered god to many cultures as well.  You may argue that the definition of god does not allow such things to be meaningfully called “gods”, and there is some room for argument there, but my counter to most of them would be to say that the more transcendent, incomprehensible, etc concept of god that we think of today is basically a theological pull-back to vagueness as a response to the advance of empirical knowledge about the world.

What I mean by this is that while gods were once commonly thought of as either real beings which people could interact with (Zeus liked the ladies, for example) or general forces in nature which were directly responsible for events in the world, our understanding of nature, exponentially increased by the evolution of the scientific method, has pushed those concepts further and further from physical things which were super-human to completely transcendent and supernatural in nature (if that sentence can even be sensible at all…).

And even given the arguments against the supernatural in general (at least in terms of its ability to interact with nature and still be transcendent), there are still concepts of gods still used which either could not be dis-proven and which are also compatible with what we understand about the universe (therefore there is no way to be 100% certain of them not existing) or they are actualy physical things, like people, idols, etc which can be demonstrated to exist, even if we don’t think of them as being worthy of the title ‘god’.  It is not for us to determine what the definition of ‘god’ is for believers; it is for us to ask “what do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  Let semantics stand aside.

I am guessing that your certainty is pointing to very specific, and probably Abrahamic, definitions of gods.  If so, I will say that those concepts are logically incoherent, assuming you take all scripture to be equally valid.  Because if you consider some scripture more relevant, then all you need to do is decide which descriptions from scripture you like (based upon some logical criteria, say) and use those verses to define what god is.  And depending on how one does that, they could believe in a god which is logically coherent but which has no evidential support.   And many theologians do just that.

To such gods, all you can say is that “I have no proof that such a being does not exist, but I also see no reason to accept any claims that it does exist.”  That is what being an agnostic-atheist is; not 100% certainty, but lacking belief (whether due to lack of evidence or otherwise).  By making the broad statement that you are 100% certain that god doesn’t exist, you have not allowed for the possibility that the person who hears that phrase has a logically coherent concept of god which, technically, cannot be dis-proven. Therefore, claiming certainty of that level would seem unjustified to that theist.

And that seeming, by that theist with their logically-coherent god, would be correct.  Because even while they still have the burden of proof to demonstrate such a god, you then claim the ability to demonstrate that their god certainly does not exist, which you cannot do in every case, especially theirs.


10 thoughts on “100% certainty and atheism

  1. do you know WHY you can’t say you reject the god idea 100%?

    because you’re a mental midget who can’t isn’t as smart as a 1st grader.

    all you 2 digit IQ D=U=M=B=F=U=C=K=S have NOTHING of significance to say, so instead you just blather on about your vapid BORING existence.


  2. I recognize that many modern definitions of gods are untestable, as you say. So, i’m going to agree with the commenter you cited, but for a slightly different reason.

    First, there’s a pragmatic reason i reject the more extreme flavors of philosophical skepticism — that we acknowledge uncertainty of the existence of the external world in light of logically possible alternative scenarios like The Matrix or Last Thursday. These strike me as equivalent to more provincial hypotheses, e.g. the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the notion that microscopic elves use glue to keep us pasted to the Earth, since there’s no a priori reason to suspect any one aspect of the world of being an overt deception than any other, or all of them taken together. Given the limitations of our imaginations and memories, then, the collection of possible aspects of the world, or of unfalsifiable explanations for it, must be dense (in the real analytic sense) with examples we haven’t thought of. Why, then, grant even perfunctory plausibility to those we have, when we are incapable of being balanced in this approach?

    Given, furthermore, that we have fully satisfying explanations for the origins and persistence of the alternatives we have thought of (including deities, simulations, and elves), we should have no problem being as certain of their falsehood as we are of any as-yet-unconceived proposition drawn randomly from the dense collection i mentioned above, which has not been proposed merely because no psychological, sociological or otherwise ultimately biological reason exists for us to have contrived it. Being 100% certain of the falsehood of a subset of arbitrary untestable proposition from a collection of (mostly) mutually exclusive alternatives whose sheer size pushes the (again, real analytic) measure of the subset to zero isn’t making any leap at all; to assert some positive percentage of uncertainty would be the leap. (Analogy: Pick a real number uniformly randomly from between 0 and 1. The probability that you pick .5 is zero.)

    I hadn’t had the change to calcify this until now, so thanks for the prompt! Are there established rebuttals that i haven’t come across?

    Of course, i don’t think that most people should need to draw comfort with 100% certainty in the nonexistence of deities from this kind of reasoning; shouldn’t it be enough to ask if there’s anything at all that they feel comfortable asserting with 100% certainty is false? If so, how would gods fail to fall into that category, unless by having one’s reason contaminated by some variety of religious bias?

  3. Cornelius,

    I thank you for your thoughtful comment. I don’t know if you will see it, but I posted a new set of thoughts today.


    I do not agree with your points above. I think it might boil down to semantics or something, but perhaps my new post will clarify. If we are still in disagreement, then so be it. It’s not like we are always supposed to agree with each other or something.

    If you have more thoughts, please share them.

  4. OK, here goes an attempt at greater detail and clarity. The basic reason i’m unconvinced to acknowledge some nonzero probability for a god hypothesis has less to do with the evidence against it than with its implausibility in the first place. (Prior probability, rather than impact of evidence on likelihood? I only have frequentist training so i’d better not co-opt Bayesian terminology.)

    Let’s say that the nonzero probability of a certain god existing is P. Let M be some whole number greater than 1/P. There must then be fewer than M mutually exclusive explanations with probability at least P. Now, if we’re talking about the Christian god, with all its bells and whistles, then we have a plethora of parameters to freely adjust, concocting in the process a slew of mutually exclusive varieties of god, among them perhaps Allah and the original Yahweh. But even if we begin with a more nebulous theologian’s god, the attributes ascribed to this god will probably involve at least one specific feature (e.g. a moral position, or a gender) and exclusivity with respect to other gods, or explanations, that might be hypothesized. My contention is this: Given at least one feature, plus exclusivity, there is enough variability to be found in the feature to concoct at least M gods, all mutually exclusive and equally probable, contrary to our assumption that the god we began with exists with nonzero probability P.

    For example, let’s start with God 0, who finds gay sexual acts immoral but straight sexual acts moral, and classifies all sexual acts into one of these two categories.* The space of sexual acts has been demarcated, so we can concoct God 1, who finds precisely the opposite variety of sexual acts (im)moral. We can then make subtle adjustments to the demarcation to concoct further gods, each equally plausible given the arbitrariness of the original demarcation. The space of possible sexual acts is arguably infinite, which would imply no limit to the number of mutually exclusive gods we could concoct this way. We could play this game just as easily with modes of control, so that even the attribute of thought (in any sense that we could possibly mean, which is necessarily limited by our imaginations) would be too much for a god hypothesis to have positive probability.

    So, it seems to me that exclusivity destroys the god hypothesis. (Are there theological definitions of gods that do not assert exclusivity, by the way?) If you claim your god to be the only god and to have some specific provincial attribute, then i am 100% certain that it does not exist. I take this position cautiously, since i’m ill-versed in philosophy, and especially since it has negligible bearing upon my lifestyle, though for that reason i agree that it’s of no great concern to us if we cannot agree on this point. However, i agree with others that it is a poor attitude to take when engaging in the topic (with believers or with atheists), and i’d be glad to have it debunked for that reason.

    * This last bit isn’t necessary; it just cleans up the discussion.

  5. The problem here is not with your analysis, it is simply what I have been trying to say all along; theologically-minded people are really creative at avoiding all those pitfalls, and many people claim to believe in gods so nebulous that attributes is not even interesting to them. Even exclusivity becomes an uninteresting factor in such cases.

    Having talked with many people who believe in some sort of “higher power,” some vague “loving, intelligent, force” that they commune with during meditation, prayer,etc, or even a deity who is either completely tolerant of pretty much anything we do/believe or quite literally could not care less about us, I am pretty sure there is no way, Bayesian or frequentist, to even address these beings.

    So, when dealing even with the most liberal and ecumenical of believers from some traditional faith, at least you have a source from which to derive attributes (although people quite often don’t actually maintain any meaningful consistency with those sources). But with people who are merely feeling something and believing it to be a god, with little or no theological background, disproof is basically a laughable attempt to make. And in conversations, even Christians often retreat to this as the essence of their belief.

    Belief retreats to the safest position for believers, and that safest position is to move away from specific attributes, opinions, or even morality.

    There is this concept of the “Philosopher’s God,” something akin to the god of Spinoza, Deism, etc, which are often so vague and ill-defined in such a way to avoid conflict with science, logic, etc that trying to disprove them is sort of like trying to determine a particle’s momentum and position; the more you understand one aspect of it, the other suddenly changes! The very concept of the Philosopher’s God is to have a supernatural force which is unrelated to any specific religion or cultural tradition, but to essentially be the “Platonic Good,” an ultimately abstract idea that cannot be pinned down at all.

    A great example of some thinkers who do this are people like Karen Armstrong and Paul Tillich, who, while both from the Christian tradition, are pretty ecumenical theological thinkers.

    Belief in god, for many people, is not about a set of attributes that we can plug into an equation. It is an interpretation, perception, and experience which changes under scrutiny and survives co-existence with an often rational mind. Trying to disprove the god a person believes in is often difficult because even their own definition is not really known to them. God, for many people, is a desire for meaning and purpose in a world that shows no sign of such things, and so definitions retreat beyond the scope of such intelligent analysis as yours above.

  6. There have been two separate contentions:

    [T]heologically-minded people are really creative at avoiding all those pitfalls, and many people claim to believe in gods so nebulous that attributes is not even interesting to them. Even exclusivity becomes an uninteresting factor in such cases.

    Good! I am glad to concede this one, and we may consider the disagreement resolved.

    So, when dealing even with the most liberal and ecumenical of believers from some traditional faith, at least you have a source from which to derive attributes[.]

    To the extent that someone’s posited god has such attributes, i find myself still 100% certain that it does not exist. Note that this is my certainty at issue, not the consistency of someone’s god or my ability to convince them that they are wrong. I am happy enough to sort gods into the two bins of “certainly false” and “nebulous”.

    [T]rying to disprove them is sort of like trying to determine a particle’s momentum and position; the more you understand one aspect of it, the other suddenly changes!

    Nice analogy.

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