Back…to the Future!!!!

This will be my last post here. This blog has moved to the brand new Skeptischism network, joining the hosts of the Chill Girls in Pink Corvettes podcast as well as several other new or returning bloggers. Check us out!

As a final piece of news, atheist activist Justin Vacula is no longer blogging at the Skeptic Ink Network. He’s moved as well – you can find him here.

(A)gnostic (A)theism

There is a chart which attempts to explain different forms of atheism and theism which has been floating around the internet for several years now. (See it here: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_QdYoufb0UsQ/TAimA3truGI/AAAAAAAAAA4/pcR-muRgp8c/s1600/Agnostic+v+Gnostic+v+Atheist+v+Theist.png). I have two major issues with this chart.

The first is the believe/know distinction. For “agnostic theist”, the chart says: 1) believes a god exists, and 2) doesn’t claim to know this belief is true. Consider this: have you ever heard anyone say, “I believe X, but I don’t know whether X is true”? Knowledge is generally accepted to be (barring outliers such as Gettier cases) something like “justified true belief”. So, consider the case of someone who believes X, yet doesn’t know X is true. This person would have to be in a very confusing mental state wherein he simultaneously believes both “X” and ” my belief that ‘X’ may not be justified or true”. Unfortunately for the chart, such a blatant mental contradiction probably isn’t possible (although, some people may claim to believe both things). Simply put, when we believe something, we also have a meta-belief that we know it.

My second issues is with the concept of belief itself. Beliefs are intrinsically tied to propositions, in that propositions are the things we believe (or not). When a theist says “I believe in God”, what he means is “I believe that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true”. Note that nothing is said about how confident (in an epistemic sense) the theist is that the proposition is true. Whether the theist is 60, 80, or 99 percent confident makes no difference here – he believes regardless. Now here’s where it gets tricky.

When we examine the proposition “God exists”, we’re going to have a confidence level that that proposition is true. If we’re atheists, it’s going to be less than 50% (otherwise, we’d be theists!) But then we have to consider another proposition: ‘God does not exist’. How do we assess our confidence in that proposition? Since it’s the negation of the first one, we can simply invert our confidence levels – so, if our confidence in “God exists” is 20%, it’s reasonable to say that our confidence in “God does not exist” is 80%, since these propositions are mutually exclusive. But, hey, that means atheists believe that a proposition is true. Oh, snap.

Of course, there is a third option – one might have no idea either way, and assess the confidence levels at roughly 50/50. Of course, this leaves us with a quite different set of terminology than the one laid out in the chart; one which consists of only atheism, agnosticism, and theism.

As a final thought, I leave you with this. It’s become quite popular since the release of The God Delusion to claim that while one is not 100 percent certain that God does not exist, one is 99.9 percent certain. This strikes me as being dishonest with oneself. It looks like nothing more than a rhetorical move deployed to avoid examination of one’s own beliefs. While it is important to have “wiggle room” to change one’s mind, 99.9 percent is effectively 100 percent, and any evidence or argument persuasive enough to shake such a high level of confidence would have to be not just extraordinary, but unreasonably so, especially when the issue in question is something like the existence of God, for which the answer isn’t immediately and obviously apparent.

Logic and Presuppositionalism

Author’s note: this article was originally written in April 2012.

Theists who employ what is known as “presuppositional apologetics”, and more specifically, the transcendental argument for God, often make confused claims about logic. John Frame claims that logic is based on the nature of God[1], and Matt Slick says that the laws of logic are absolute and independent of the human mind[2]. There are others who use such argumentation in slightly different ways (such as Eric Hovind and Sye Tenbruggenate), but the general view seems to be that theism, and specifically Christianity, is needed in order to
justify one’s use of logic.

But this view of logic is sorely mistaken. The so-called “laws of logic” are merely conventions that exist within a man-made, formal system. To see why, we merely have to look at “logic” for what it really is – an entire field dedicated to the study of inference and relation. In the past century, many methods of doing this have appeared. Graham Priest writes:

Despite this, many of the most interesting developments in logic in the last forty years, especially in philosophy, have occurred in quite different areas: intuitionism, conditional logics, relevant logics, paraconsistent logics, free logics, quantum logics, fuzzy logics, and so on. These are all logics which are intended either to supplement classical logic, or else to replace it where it goes wrong.[3]

Relevant logic, for example, differs from classical logic in that it attempts to solve the paradox of material implication. The paradox of material implication is the observation that “If the moon is made of cheese, then 2+2=4″ is true, even though the antecedent is in no way related to the consequent. Material implication just does not capture what we really mean by “if…then” – yet it is classically valid. Relevant logic attempts to solve this by saying that andecedents must be “relevant” to consequents.

This seems to make sense, but it leads to an interesting feature of relevant logic. Relevant logic is not explosive, which means that unlike classical logic, you can sometimes have contradictions which do not entail the trivial truth of every proposition. Thus, “~(A & ~A)”(the so-called “law of non contradiction”) is not a theorem of relevant logic (while it is a theorem of classical logic).

This is important because it shows that the unchanging, transcendent view of logic that presuppositionalists talk about just isn’t the case. These logical and mathematic systems are just models we invent to examine different ideas. We can and have changed them, or even thrown them out and started over with different “laws”, many times in the past. Relevant logic is just one example. Some other logics even change the definition of truth. Four-valued logics (often used in computing and electronics) don’t have “P v ~P” as a theorem; and fuzzy logics even have an infinite range f truth values. Intuitionist logics aren’t even concerned with truth, but justification. And these all have real-world applications.

Even mathematics does this. In elliptic geometry, for example, the sum of the angles of a triangle is more than 180 degrees; and Euclid’s parallel postulate is false – there are no parallel lines in elliptic geometry. Now, one might object by saying, “well, that’s just a thought experiment, and doesn’t obtain in reality”. The problem with this is that neither does Euclidean  geometry. When’s the last time you saw a triangle? You haven’t. You never have. The only thing that exists in reality is an approximation of a triangle. A “real” triangle would have to have infinitely thin sides in order to have angles that add up to exactly 180 degrees; and would also have to be infinitely flat. We live in a 3-dimensional (at least) universe, and triangles exist in 2 dimensions. A triangle is just a concept, a thought experiment.

All this points to a simple fact: logic and mathematics are made up. We invented them to describe what we see, and they are only approximations.
——————————

[1] http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/apologetics/martin/frame_contra_martin.html

[2] http://carm.org/transcendental-argument

[3] Priest, Graham. An Introduction to Non-Classical Logic. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xvii.

Skepticism First

So, first post. I have to be honest, the motivation for starting this blog isn’t very positive. As my readers are no doubt aware (do I even have readers right now?), I’ve been involved in the “deep rifts” for a little over half a year now. The lies and hypocrisy coming out of FTB/Skepchick/A+, often documented by the Slymepit, is certainly something important. But it’s even more important not to forget that there are also other issues that need to be tackled, issues in view of many more people than the rather insular “atheist movement”. There are still people who think vaccines should be avoided. There are still people who think separation of church and state is a bad idea. There are even some people, within our very own community of atheism, who still think “you can’t prove a negative”.

The problem isn’t that people are believing things that are false. The problem is that they’re thinking uncritically, that they’e failing to put in the intellectual legwork required to have a well-defended position. Recently, I’ve been “branching out” on Twitter, looking around for people saying things which I disagree with, and challenging them to defend their ideas (all the while trying to promote the hashtag #SkepticismFirst). While I’ve sometimes been a bit antagonistic, I’ve noticed that in almost every instance, I’ve been faced with non sequitors, shifting goalposts, and straight up avoidance in the form of all-caps shouting, name calling, and even blocking. Many of these people identify as atheists.

We should be atheists, yes, but only peripherally. Skepticism is more important than Atheism. Atheism protects you from false gods, but skepticism inoculates you against all forms of bullshit. It’s time to put skepticism first.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.