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.
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.
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…