Friday, 5 September 2008

The F word

This is something that keeps coming up by theists who don't know better: atheism is a faith. Now given that faith is a virtue in theism, maybe a theist wouldn't be so quick to paint atheism with the same brush. Could it be that believing without evidence is no longer a good idea in this age of reason, so instead of abandoning faith they wish to paint non-believers with the same brush. The post-modern approach to philosophy. "I believe in something crazy, but it's fine because you do too." Now it must be recognised why this is such a poor argument, not only misrepresenting the atheist position, but incorrectly using the word faith.

Facts and faith
First and foremost it should be established that a theists believes in a personal deity. Atheism is the rejection of that belief, it's the "not belief". So there are two sides of the coin here: on one side a belief in God existence, on the other God's non-existence. So because a theist makes a leap of faith in the absence of evidence, surely an atheist does too right? Well, no. Faith is indeed belief in the absence of evidence, and there is as much evidence of God's existence as there is of God's non-existence. i.e. no evidence at all. But there is no evidence for Thor. Nor is there any evidence for Zeus. Nor Santa. Nor Ziltoid The Omniscient. Turns out there isn't any evidence for any supernatural entity at all. So is it a leap of faith not to believe in Ziltoid? This is where two fundamental laws in logic come in.
  1. Positive claims require positive evidence
  2. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
For the first point, it comes about because absence of evidence doesn't equate to evidence of absence. Yet the two look so strikingly similar that it's impossible to tell the difference. So taking a position of ambivalence and using coin flip logic will mean the existence for God will never drop below 0.5. But the same could be said of any deity, pantheon or paranormal entity. That's why the burden of proof is on the one making the claim. Right now we have knowledge of the natural world, the facts that we have gained through empirical observation. While our interpretation of those facts may not be perfect, they are are a gauge of how credulous subsequent ideas are. The further transposed from reality, the more evidence that is needed. So claiming the existence of something that goes against everything we know about reality or is not tied to the bounds of our reality requires some extraordinary evidence to support it.

So where does that leave atheism in the question of faith? Belief in it's most basic form is a binary option. Either you believe in a proposition or you don't. In that, atheism is simply a descriptor for someone who doesn't believe in God. God is the positive claim, atheism is the position of not being convinced by the proposition. Just as if we were in an Islamic country and Allah was the positive claim. Atheism is simply the position of being without faith. But while belief can be simply a matter of a binary decision, the unbelievable complexity of how and why people come to those beliefs and the ramifications for what they mean show that the question of belief and not belief is inadequate on it's own to explain that position.

Knowing the unknown
Agnosticism is not a state of of fence sitting between theism and atheism. It's another question entirely, it deals with the state of knowing. Now with this term the context of atheism can be defined. Since God is defined as supernatural and beyond our realm, that puts the question of God into a strong agnostic position. As natural creatures, we can't know the supernatural. Any attribution to God (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) is just giving attributes to an unknown entity. There's no way we can know an entity that's beyond all human measure.

Though while theists state that God is this way, it's not entirely certain that many believe it. Otherwise, how would they come to know God at all? A theist god is an interventionist god, and this god would have to change the universe in order to perform. People attribute many events to this kind of god across many cultures. We call these miracles. A miracle would be great evidence for a god if there was one. This brings the discussion to weak agnosticism. In the face of no evidence at all, a position of weak agnosticism should preferred. But when something interacts with the natural world, then predictions become falsifiable.

So when people say that God answers prayers, and praying seems to have no effect, then that seems to indicate an absence. Likewise calling God all-loving in a world full of chaos and indiscriminate suffering would indicate that such a God isn't there. There's always the problem of evil, again indicating that a personal God cannot logically be given some of the parameters of this world. An all-powerful God can cause cancer to go into remission while it can't regenerate lost limbs? Even a salamander can do that. So this points to more and more the unlikelihood that such a God exists. Of course we can't say for sure that God doesn't exist, just that such a deity is incredibly unlikely.

A theist fires back that God is beyond all measure, but that only puts God into the realm of strong agnosticism again. To make God untestable is to make God unknowable, to make God unknowable means any attribution is nothing short of speculation. And with that comes the unlikely question: what does the word God mean anyway?

Who is this God guy, anyway
Now to explore one other area of non-belief: the position of ignositicism. This is a form of agnosticism that instead of answering the question in regards to belief, it's defers it for lack of clarity. So in effect, without having a coherent definition of the concept of God, asking "do you believe in God" is a meaningless question. It's a very pertinent point to make, that we can't be clear on what position to take without knowledge of what the concept even means. This is not to say that no position on God could ever be established. There are many who have defined coherent definitions of not only the entity called God but what role that God plays in the universe. On this grounds a decision can be made. I need not ask for a coherent definition of the Judeo-Christian God, it's quite clearly defined in the bible and by it's followers.

Consider the following quote by Carl Sagan:
The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.
This is the true nature of the question. What do we define God as? Do we take the personal deity of the bible? What about Thomas Jefferson's deistic view of God? Spinoza's pantheistic view? Is the term God a description of the limitations and laws to the universe as Sagan suggests? Or even further still, is God simply the transcendent nature of humanity? Certainly there is no universal meaning to the word, it's incredibly subjective and culture-specific. We can't answer a question of belief without anything to define it. So while for specific incarnations of the concept both a position of atheism and agnosticism can apply, for the term itself, there's no way to be able to answer that question in a meaningful way without a meaningful definition.

1 comment:

John Knight said...

Well, the word “faith” is used in different ways. In one sense, faith is inevitable. Any philosophy must begin with certain core propositions. And these core propositions are not based on evidence, since their role is to evaluate & interpret evidence. In that sense, all philosophies rest on faith.

Of course, not all faith-commitments have the same implications...