Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dogma versus Defeasible Belief

I think this is a distinction which avoids some of the debates between atheists and believers in which the participants just talk past each other. You know how they go, the believer wants to portray the atheist as occupying a faith position. The motivation seems to be a perception that atheists are trying to argue from some kind of rational high ground. Keen to resist the portrayal, atheists sometimes attempt a distinction between a lack of belief in god and a belief that there is no god. I don't think that really works, but if instead the atheist concedes that they can't be certain that there is no god, then sometimes they are characterised as agnostic, which causes confusion. So consider the analogy with your drinking water. Assuming you live in a country where it is safe to drink, it is still the case that you can't be sure that the water supply hasn't been contaminated or poisoned without your knowledge. This doesn't mean you are agnostic about whether the water is safe, at least not according to the normal usage of the term. If you were, you wouldn't drink it. Nor are you dogmatic in your view that the water is safe, if evidence becomes available that suggests otherwise, you'll stop drinking it. So what you have is a defeasible belief that your drinking water is safe. Similarly, the atheist can argue that given a specified god, they have a defeasible belief that this god does not exist.