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

Posted by shaunphilly 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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100% certainty and atheism February 25, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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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.