Monday, April 14, 2008

[Xanga] "atheism"?

What does it mean to be an atheist?

If I am living in a predominantly Christian country, the statement "I am an atheist" seems to very likely equate to the statement "I do not believe in the Christian god", or perhaps, "I believe that the Christian god does not exist," largely because the only conception of god to which I may have been properly exposed (at least, to the level at which I feel comfortable rejecting it) is the Christian conception.

But, if I am living in a predominantly Hindu country, the same statement seems to equate to "I do not believe in the Hindu god(s)," or, "I believe that the Hindu god(s) do not exist," for much the same reason.

To generalize: for atheist thinker T exposed to a set of n religions R: {R1, R2, ..., Rn}, to the degree of being comfortable rejecting them, T's statement "I am an atheist" actually equates to proposition A1: "I believe that god, as defined in any member of R, does not exist" (the former reading, "I do not believe in..." is treated below).

If this reading is true, the atheist claim A1 is merely a specialized form of agnosticism, which identifies the negative aspects of (a possible-existing) god: it leaves open the possibility of belief in "god, as not defined in any member of R." In fact, A1 is a stronger claim about the nature and character of god (as Maimonides might point out) than an agnostic view wants to admit: in labelling (possibly-existing) god with negative characteristics (eg., "if god exists, he is nothing like such-and-such a religion's conception of god"), such an atheist runs the risk of ascribing characteristics (albeit negative) to god, and thus subconsciously accepting a certain definition of god (if he exists), opposed to the agnostic claim that god (who may or may not exist) is unknowable and indefinable in character and attributes (both positive and negative).

But my intuition on this may be off, and perhaps the claim "I am an atheist" is actually the claim A2: "Any god, conceivable or inconceivable to me, conceived or not conceived by me, does not exist." However, there are still problems with this statement: primarily, it seems unreasonably difficult to support a proposition regarding an entity that is explicitly inconceived by the speaker (because of limits either anthropological or epistemological in nature). Perhaps what is actually being claimed is A3: the denial of the possibility of knowledge of or belief in that entity described in A2. But in asserting A3, we find ourselves back at agnosticism, for this is not actually a claim regarding god, but rather a claim regarding the limits of our own knowledge. Moreover, it is a claim which seems unintuitive, and not actually the natural interpretation of the self-descriptive statement in question.

All three interpretations of the atheist statement seem problematic: A1 and A3 reduce atheism to a special (and even perhaps weakened) form of agnosticism. A2 differentiates itself from the agnostic claim, but does so by making a claim that seems both unsupported and irrationally accepted.
Boris responds:
"...[1] In short, you really should seek an analogy between the atheistic/God claims and Higgs boson/AIDS vaccine. Perhaps a better example is a "negative" or "nonexistence" claim, like the late 19th/early 20th century claim "the ether does not exist".

Or for another example, "God does not exist" should be similar to "a (living) jackalope does not exist on Earth".

[2] And, of course, if your argument is correct, what is wrong with atheism being a special sort of agnosticism?..."
I respond:

(1) I agree that the nonexistence claim A2 is the strongest reading of the statement but, at the same time, it's also the most difficult claim to stake. You're right that I should explore further the analogy between god and a Higgs boson, etc.

And one of the things that I find when exploring the analogy between "a god" and "the ether" is that, no, i'm actually uncomfortable in staking the claim that "the ether in no way exists: whether in a way conceivable or not, conceived or not," simply because I'm not that confident in the ability of the human mind to rule out, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the existence of many things. I realize that this may cause problems with the positive assertions of theism (and thus I may be actually indirectly advocating agnosticism, through rendering both atheism and theism rationally undesirable), but I think that those problems (a) exist anyways, and so I am merely noting, not promoting, them, and (b) can be answered on the part of theism (in short: that theism is, in its best form, a "relation of the finite to the infinite" and thus defiant of rationality).

I find a fundamental difference between a jackalope (living or dead) and god (existing or not) being that the actual existence of the jackalope compels absolutely no reaction on my part, whereas the actual existence of a god may very possibly necessitate some sort of reaction on my part. To be more specific: The existence of jackalopes, Higgs bosons, or AIDS vaccines, are propositions of actual existence (PE with general form "entity X actually exists/has existed/will exist in the real world," and its negation). (This is undeniably loose categorization, and it would be good for me to rigorously categorize PE, because actually there are several propositional types that fall under PE, differentiated according to temporal and metaphysical status: "Jackalopes have never existed," "Higgs bosons cannot exist," "An AIDS vaccine will never exist").

There is strong evidence to believe, however, that the existence of god entails not only claims of the sort that fall under PE, but also metaphysical and moral propositions. I think that the analogy is at least as properly drawn between "God exists" and "Murder is morally wrong," as between "God exists" and "The United Kingdom exists," and possibly even more properly.

(2) I don't think there's anything wrong, per se, in atheism being agnosticism: but that doesn't make it a meaningless statement. Rather, what makes it an interesting claim, is that people are identifying themselves, or others, as believing in atheism, and that has certain ramifications. Rather than this, I'd prefer we "call them like we see them".

Just because "Judaism actually turns out to be equivalent to Zoroastrianism" isn't necessarily bad for Judaism or for Zoroastrianism doesn't mean it's meaningless to state and support that claim: it may affect those claiming to be Jews, when they understand the reality of their assertions. Someone may be completely comfortable with Judaism, as he conceives of it, but strongly averse to Zoroastrianism (and rightly so): the realization that asserting the tenets of Judaism entails some degree of acceptance of Zoroastrianism may lead him away from Judaism. Likewise, if someone is thinking to herself "I am an atheist!", and thinks that she can, as a result of this, prima facie rule out any notion or concept of God as obtaining, the realization that the proposition she asserts by claiming "I am an atheist" does not actually grant her the right to claim "and therefore the existence of God is false," might lead theoretically to a shift in her metaphysics and, pragmatically, make her receptive (and here's where I put on my normative-Christian-belief hat) to her experiencing God in a way that defies both explanation and doubt (but might be rejected under the assumptions of her atheism).

1 comment:

Grand Master - 108 Tongues, Bustout! Family said...

note: i now largely disavow this line of thinking as based on an improper and incomplete understanding of criteria for knowledge.