You can be 100% certain, and yet 100% wrong

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.


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…

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.

Atheist clones and “stock responses” in the evolution of the atheist community

Dawkins Clones?

In a conversation at another blog, especially the comments, a criticism I have seen before arose; we atheists are all repeating the same arguments that we hear from the arch-bishops of atheism make, and we are all Dawkins clones (or PZ clones, or whatever).  This got me thinking about how the atheist community has, over the last several years, started to coalesce.  I have seen the community start to come together in social, political, and memetic ways that may look like clones to the outside, but from the inside speaks of our growing unity, even among the various in-fighting about tone, strategy, etc.  Ultimately, I believe that our clone-like behavior is indicative of a strength, not in itself, but in that it is a symptom of that growing unity.

I remember back in the days of yahoo chat (does that still exist? I’m too lazy to find out right now…), while in the religion debate chat rooms, discovering the atheist community online (this was before the days of 9/11 or around the time of the start of the Infidel Guy show).  I remember how after a few weeks of listening to and talking with people who came in, I saw the same arguments occur again and again.  Christians (and sometimes Jews, Muslims, or even some pagans) would come in, make their arguments, and the atheists in the room would seemingly repeat what they said 5 minutes ago to another theist chatter.  What I began to realize was that these atheists who came in night after night were responding to a small set of claims, or set of related claims, made by theists of many different conclusions.  In other words, it didn’t matter what they believed, they had similar arguments, emotional appeals, and experiential anecdotes to present as proof.  There was very little actual difference between theistic claims in general.  It was around this time I discovered that I had always been an atheist, and that I just didn’t know it because I had misunderstood the term and its relation to religion and belief.

Once I started to become active in the IRL community (around early 2002), I saw a lot of the same thing happening.  And so finally, in around 2005-2006, the various atheist books started to be published by Sam Harris and so forth, I started to see, in print all over book stores, all the arguments I had been seeing for years.  Yes, the arguments were often a little different, sexed up, and given flare that they may not have had in yahoo chat and in my experience with the community at the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (now just the Freethought Society).  But they were really essentially the same.

Since then, atheists will freely refer to a concept of Harris, a quip of Hitchens, or a witticism of Dawkins when at meetings or in conversation with theists.  They do so for a number of reasons, whether because they like the way that person said it, that was the first way they heard it put, or because they are trying to identify themselves as being familiar with the work of said person.  But in the end, these memes that have become part of the atheist community are evidence that we are really a community with our own language, developing history, and shared experiences.  In many ways we atheists are often fiercely independent and strong minded (hopefully not stubborn, because many people think they are strong minded when they are actually stubborn), but we have developed a community that has shared ideas.  We share them because they work.  We are not repeating them merely to copy other people, but because we find them useful in conversation or debate.  It is a kind of evolution of atheist arguments, where memes which have a better zing or are more affective remain as part of our shared language.

Does this make us clones? No.  Yes, there is some fanboy behavior that occurs around Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, etc, but that is part of human behavior and is to be expected, even if it is silly.  Atheism, for good or ill, has celebrities, minor and major.  (As a side note, I was recently talking with a long time friend about the issue of science and morality, of which we share very differing opinions, and brought up Sam Harris to which he responded “I don’t know who that is.”  It just put things in perspective for me).  The fact that I may make a point in response to a theist that sounds like something Dawkins has said does not mean I am trying to emulate him or that I idolize or worship him.  It may mean I respect him and think the point which he has uttered is a good one, but that may be accidental;  remember that many of the counter-points to theists that Dawkins and others use in their books, lectures, or debates are not all original to them.  The fact that they made many of these ideas popular for the growing atheist community, as well as much of the general public, does not mean that when I use them I am a Dawkins clone.  The simple fact is that many of the points people like Dawkins make I knew of well before I knew Richard Dawkins was an atheist.  In fact, it is not impossible that the community I was a part of might have influenced Dawkins’ writing, or (more likely) the ideas were conceived independently or drawn from the many atheist books, communities, or internet resources from before the 21st century began (George H. Smith anyone?).

But, perhaps most interesting, the fact that our arguments are similar is possibly attributable to theism itself, at least n part.  After all, the atheist community is mostly a response to the largely theistic world in which we live.  Theology is old, complex, and erudite but in every day religious conversations the arguments foisted upon us (or invited) are simple and pretty similar themselves.  Sophisticated theology (which in my opinion is philosophical gobblygook, in most cases) is not exempt from this, but at least theologians make the attempt, in some cases, to dig into good intellectual soil.  And much of the popular atheist responses to theistic claims are mirroring the simplistic reasoning that we see day to day, which is largely poor reasoning or the simple lack of serious consideration of one’s beliefs.  Therefore, our clone-like memes and counters will seem repetitive…because the claims we are responding to are assertively repetitive.  What is worse is that when we try to engage with intelligent theists, their arguments are not much better; unsophisticated rationalization dressed up for the party, but essentially the same poor reasoning under the makeup.  They have good vocabularies, are educated, and present themselves well, but their reasons for belief are as weak as anyone else’s belief, but they have rationalized it by this dressing-up game they play with their explanations.  William Lane Craig is a great example of this.

We are not clones.  We are a community that is still evolving and finding our common voice in society.  Often, that voice will have focal points in people who use them and receive the most attention.   In many cases the atheist celebrities are channeling the larger community, sometimes the community channel the voice of individual leaders, but in most cases the distinction is irrelevant.  The question is whether the content of our voice is rational or not.  It does not matter who says it or how many people say it precisely some way.  It matters only a little how it is said, but the essential question is whether the idea is true. Responding to points made by atheists (or anyone else, for that matter) with anything except a criticism of the truth value of our claims is simply playing politics and rhetorical games.

I have little patience for those games.

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

I watched this video of a presentation by Greta Christina earlier this week and many of the points have been swimming around my brain since then.

I have heard many people compare the recent atheist activism to the activism of gays 20-30 years ago, and this is perhaps the best presentation on the subject I have seen to date. (This is not to say there are no more comprehensive presentations, only that I have not seen them. If you know of another comparable one, direct me to it, please.)

And certainly there are parallels between the two movements, but since I am not gay (even though I have done activism in support of issues relating to LGBT rights) my commentary will not carry tremendous weight, so I will not say much about how similar they are. I’ll leave that to more authoritative commentators, such as Greta Christina herself, who does talk about many of the same issues as this very blog.

I will point out that the OUT campaign, affiliated with the  Richard Dawkins foundation, is in part modeled on the movement to “come out of the closet” that was started by queers of all types, and which has become part of our cultural language such that atheists’ use of the phrase automatically draws the parallel for most people.  I often wear a scarlet letter T-shirt that signifies this coming out, and will often get asked if I’m an adulterer, making obvious reference to The Scarlet Letter.

(The irony, as some friends have pointed out, is that the concept of adultery takes on different connotations as a polyamorous person.  This is not to say that adultery is impossible within poly lifestyles, only that not all extra-marital sexual relationships will be considered infidelity, causing one to re-think the concept of adultery in such contexts.)

Now, the double reference of the scarlet letter and the coming out movement, wrapped in a symbol like this will cause confusion for most, but it is one that leads to conversations.  Conversations are important to have.  I have have countless (and often) short and friendly conversations explaining what the symbol stands for, what atheism is all about, and why I wear it.  Small steps.

Now, whether the larger atheist community will learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement or not, is yet to be seen.  I know I am certainly guilty of some of the errors of which Greta Christina speaks.  But it is important for us to keep in mind the lessons that previous social movements have to teach, so that the future will not reflect the past that we have learned from.

And I do believe that there will be a time when atheist (as well as polyamorous) social movements will be unnecessary.  As she says in the video, it is the goal of a social movement to make itself obsolete. Will this happen in my lifetime? I don’t think so.  But if we stop now, it may never happen.

Here’s to making social activism obsolete!