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.


Sam said...

I think it's silly to argue over what the real meaning of atheism is. I'm more concerned about the substance of a person's point of view than with the label they put on it--whether they want to call themselves atheists, agnostics, or both. If I'm unclear on what somebody means by "atheist" or "agnostic," I can just ask them.

Speaking of which, what do you mean by "agnostic"? I assume you mean something like 50% where a person could go either way. But what if it's 49% or 51%, in which case a person has a small inkling of a belief in one direction or the other. Does they have to be in perfect equilibrium before they're agnostic, or can they be agnostic while leaning in one direction or the other? If they can lean and still be agnostic, how far can they lean? i don't imagine you'd consider somebody agnostic if they were 90% sure of something.

Psiomniac said...

Yes I agree that arguments ove labels are silly, since if there is honest communication in dialogue we can just ask each other what we mean and what our positions entail.

These arguments continue nonetheless and I wouldn't blame one side rather than another. Sometimes the theist side tries to get the atheist to admit to a faith position and they respond by saying they just have an absence of belief; the whole argument is just daft really.

By 'agnostic' I usually mean that to be agnostic with respect to X is to lack knowledge of X. So if I say I'm agnostic about X then I'm saying something about my awareness of a lack of my own knowledge of it.

So I'm not agnostic about Thor, I have a defeasible belief that Thor does not exist and I'm pretty certain about it.

Since my theory of knowledge is fallibilist, I don't need to be absolutely certain in order to avoid being agnostic on an issue.

Agnosticism occupies a middle band of probability that I assign to the likelihood of something but it has fuzzy boundaries and I'd hesitate to put a figure on it.