What gives you the right? (New Sticky)

“What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition.”

Hypothetical question from Effigy2000 on Metafilter, i.e. “So if I were to ask this person a question I’d ask…
…What gives you the right, f*%#-knuckle?”

Answer by SmartLX:
What gives me the right to speak for all atheists everywhere? Nothing. I don’t have that authority. And it’s not just me here either. Perhaps the site’s name suggests such things, but askANatheist.com was taken, as was asktheatheistS.com (to which I also contribute).

What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition. I can speak against arguments for the existence of gods when their flaws are evident. And as in all things, I can bloody well speak for myself.

It’s been helpful, I’m sure, to a great many people over the years. Some don’t have a single self-declared atheist in their lives that they could name, much less ask about atheism. This is how myths about atheism get dispelled in communities where it’s a negligible minority: some brave believer goes looking for a spokesperson. It’s also why the great big arguments don’t go unchallenged as often as they might.

Welcome to the Metafilter community, by the way. Thanks to Paragon, who I’d never heard of, for the link.

5 thoughts on “What gives you the right? (New Sticky)”

  1. SmartLX – or is it XLSmart?

    Thanks for the comment on the page – I find these topics fascinating and am glad to find someone with a fundamentally different viewpoint that doesn’t take offense to curiosity or well-meaning ignorance. I find, though, that as far as a format for on-going conversations, websites and comment boards provide a poor format for back and forth arguments, retorts, critiques, analysis, etc – do you know of anything better?

    I should mention this, that as a believer, I do separate my faith from science in one vital aspect, and that is that I don’t believe God’s existence can be demonstrated “rationally” or within the confines of what we define as “rationality.” So, in order to understand me, you must first attempt to see the world the way I do – and vice versa.

    Like I said, I appreciate your responses to my questions – so I’ll offer another. I’d like to get your thoughts. No matter how predictable, testable or useful science is, it must necessarily rest on some accepted axiom that cannot be proven. Some basic tenet which we accept for truth but cannot actually be demonstrated or tested. One example of such an axiom would be to accept that we exist at all, or that we actually share in a common existence (a la Kant’s critique of pure reason). I realize, of course, that I’m getting into questions of epistemology, but I think they are compelling nonetheless and have the unique quality of setting “science” and “religion” more or less on the same footing (that footing being that there is a unconscious or conscious jump that we make any time we begin discussing these matters). Anyway, I guess my point is that it seems that all humans make this jump. That the question has not been settled, and that all theories, laws, hypotheses etc should really begin with IF I exist, and IF I exist within an ordered world…. etc.

  2. No, Matt, I don’t know of anything better at the moment. My ideal discussion site would be arranged in a proper branching structure so that points and issues can be split off and dealt with definitively before moving on, but that wouldn’t work on a site that had anything to do with religion. That’s because some people, often people of faith, are so confident in their positions that they think any argument in favour of it must be sound, and/or they’re so eager to convert people that they won’t admit any argument isn’t sound, so they won’t concede a single minor point. On my ideal site, every offshoot could potentially go on forever. That’s hardly ideal.

    Your position is equivalent or at least close to fideism, the idea that faith is independent of or even in direct conflict with reason, but still justified. This differentiates you not only from us atheists but from a great many people of faith, particularly the armies of apologists at places like CARM, who think not only that faith is reasonable but that they can prove God through logic alone. I wonder whether you ever try to convince such people that they’re misguided?

    My question to you is, if God cannot be demonstrated rationally, what reason have the billions of people He hasn’t converted directly to even seek Him out, among all the other possible gods? And if they do have a “religious experience”, how can they know it isn’t the product of their own minds?

    The existence of universal axioms, by definition, does mean there are certain basic things we take for granted in our logic. However, although they may not be “verifiable” in the logical positivist sense, each one is falsifiable in the scientific sense. That means there’s something which could definitively disprove the axiom if it happened, but hasn’t happened so far.

    Take the mathematical axiom x+y = y+x, which means order doesn’t matter when adding. If pouring 2 pints of milk into a gallon container with 1 pint already in it gave you 3 pints when the total was measured, but pouring 1 pint into a container holding 2 pints gave you 3.1 pints in total, and measuring errors were ruled out, the axiom would be refuted and mathematics as a whole would need an overhaul.

    Something like this could conceivably happen every time two quantities are added multiple times, and yet it never does. Again, this doesn’t prove the axiom but it demonstrates it as reliable enough to base future predictions on, and take for granted in general. That’s falsifiability.

    Apply this to evolution and intelligent design. Evolution could be falsified by the well-known hypothetical discovery of fossil rabbits from the pre-Cambrian age, i.e. before the emergence even of mammals. The “tree of life” would be uprooted. Every new fossil has the potential to do this, but every fossil is unearthed from its proper place in the geological and chronological order. Unordered fossils haven’t even been convincingly faked.

    Meanwhile, how can intelligent design be falsified? If a possible method of evolution is found for one of Michael Behe’s supposed examples of “irreducible complexity” (as has happened in every case), who’s to say the designer didn’t make the thing to look designed? There’s no definitive way to establish that ID is wrong, which means there’s no way to be at all confident that it’s right.

    What of religion? How could the Christian god possibly be falsified? In other words, if you’re wrong about His existence, how could you ever possibly know? The answer is the same as for all the mutually exclusive gods others have believed in for centuries: you can’t. If there isn’t a god, you can live your whole life thinking there is one and never be authoritatively contradicted. If you’re already irrationally confident that there is one, that’s all you need, but it sure doesn’t mean you’re right.

    To summarise, certain things have very good reasons to be assumed and others don’t.

  3. SmartLX – it is certainly obvious you’ve spent more time thinking about this particular question and have done more discussing it than I have – but I suppose we must all start somewhere. Thanks again for deconstructing my argument point by point, it’s appreciated.

    The reason I ask about the format is that you are obviously responsive and interested – so I’d like to keep a conversation going. I don’t have much confidence that either of us would ultimately come to a different conclusion, but I think the dialogue would be beneficial nonetheless.

    Regarding your first point – I think it all depends on who you talk to. Conspiracy theorists and religionists, as I’ll group myself, can often have much in common – and that is the issue of falsifiability. A conspiracy theorist won’t “let” his argument be falsified. That is, if someone presents a logical argument that invalidates their hypothesis, they just simply change the hypothesis. I’ve no doubt that I’ll “beg the question” as such from time to time, but I try not to do it on purpose. Please call me out if I do.

    I think the “confidence” you refer to may, at times, be misunderstood. While there are those that are unthinkingly confident, and don’t care what anyone has to say, there are also others who may be seen as confident, when in reality, it’s only because their “knowledge” is not based on rational posits and conclusions. Which, I don’t doubt, is eminently frustrating to those who attempt to base all there knowledge on those logical constructs. With that in mind, a bit of a personal question. Do you feel that you have any beliefs or behaviors that cannot be justified or explained logically or rationally?

    I guess I should clarify or expound my points. 1) I don’t believe that humans are entirely rational creatures – in other words that are “truths” about us that can not be understood rationally. Our rationality is an abstraction, and our existence is based on a plane that precedes it (don’t know if my wording there makes much sense). By way of analogy, a telescope is wonderful for viewing the stars, but makes a poor instrument when it comes to discovering facts about itself. Now, don’t carry that analogy too far. I only mean to say that our minds, like that telescope, do a poor job of inspecting themselves. That is because regardless of the ingenious tools we devise to study it, it ultimately cannot look back in on itself. To me, what this means is that while I accept that logic and rationality can do wonders at “explaining” or at least organizing the world in which we live, they are helplessly handicapped when it comes to explain the why’s and what’s of existence. The primordial questions. The ones that drive so much of what humanity does. The ones that have lead to the very conversations we’re having now. 2) That “irrational” behavior (meaning behavior or beliefs that do not have a foundation in rationality) while invalid on the grounds of rationality, have their own foundation for validity. Just because I cannot explain something or prove something does not make it less true or less worthy of being pursued. It doesn’t make it true either. If we limit ourselves to only that behavior and those beliefs that can be “proven” within the confines of rationality, we would be forced to do some very odd things – and, I think – we would not have progressed to the point we have.

    So, when I have these conversations – I essentially separate my beliefs from my words and rational observations. I reserve the right to say “I cannot see how it can be and yet it is so.” In other words, truth, as I understand it exists at a level that precedes our rational observations of it.

    I’ll conclude my comment by saying this – that faith certainly can be reasonable, if you accept certain things. It depends, essentially, on the authority upon which you base your assumptions – those axioms I referred to previously. You say, “I do not believe in God because his existence has been proven, and it does not appear that his existence is likely” (I’m sure that’s not 100% accurate, so forgive me if I misrepresent). I say, “I believe in God despite that fact that I cannot prove his existence to anyone else nor do I believe that it can be. I believe that it must be revealed to them by exercises of faith.” Thus, you and I will always have that fundamental difference. I can, however, step outside myself and have a discussion with you about rationality and what we can or can’t know by way of it. Rarely, however, do I feel that the opposite happens. Rarely would a die hard atheist subject himself to the rigorous exercises of faith in order to determine if there really was something there. I have absolute no evidence to support that, but for some reason it seems highly unlikely that a “true” atheist would really try it.

    You say “to summarise, certain things have very good reasons to be assumed and others don’t.” I guess that ultimately (for the time being anyway), that is a fundamentally circular argument. “I can assume if something is a good reason because it is a good reason to assume.” Is that not the case?

    Anyway, I’m sure that I’m years behind when it comes to this conversation. My exposure to philosophy is somewhat limited – and almost entirely focused on political philosophy, so feel free to tell me to RTFM if needs be.

  4. The system on this site isn’t all that bad, really. If you want to continue to discuss a point raised in a question, comment and reply as you would in any forum. If there’s something different you want to bring up, do a quick search to see whether it’s been tackled before. If not, submit a new question. I’m not going anywhere.

    I certainly agree that a lot of people are more confident in their positions than they are rationally justified in being, and few of them are as honest about it as you are. Some go further than you suggest and refuse to alter their hypotheses in the slightest even when they’ve been completely discredited, or especially when this happens. It’s unofficially known as true-believer syndrome.

    I don’t know about beliefs, but I certainly have behaviours that I can’t explain rationally. I’ve got a mild case of OCD, so there are all kinds of habits and routines I get into. I feel like something awful will happen if I don’t do whatever I’m doing, like avoiding cracks in the pavement or matching the colours of my clothespegs. (The specific habits rise and fade from year to year.) I know on a conscious level that there’s no good reason to do these anal, symmetrical, neat little tasks, but I’m still an inhabitant of my own brain and these things are wired directly into my feelings. So I do them some of the time and get on with my life.

    Only someone with no self-awareness at all would claim to be rational about everything all the time. However, while accepting that total rationality is only an ideal, one can choose certain important issues and try to be as rational about them as one knows how. And as I tried to explain while talking about falsifiability, just because something can’t be 100% proven doesn’t mean all alternative hypotheses have the same level of logical or evidential support. More simply put, that there are two conflicting positions doesn’t mean they each have a 50% chance of being right.

    You misrepresent me completely, though unintentionally, by leaving out a rather important word: “I do not believe in God because His existence has NOT been proven, and it does not appear that His existence is likely.” Your counter is not quite equivalent: “I believe in God despite that fact that I cannot prove his existence to anyone else nor do I believe that it can be. I believe that it must be revealed to them by exercises of faith.” You’ve given a reason not to believe, but you haven’t explicitly said why you do. You merely imply that these “exercises of faith” revealed God to you. Elaborate, if you would. What happened?

    My suspicion is that “exercises of faith” involve praying; simply and literally asking God to reveal Himself. I suspect this because I’ve been told to do it before by evangelist visitors to the site. I did it, too. I tried as hard as I could to assume that there’s a God and to elicit a response from Him. I heard not a peep.

    I do think that if I did this often enough, I would believe. W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “If you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled.” Thing is, the reason for this is most likely that I’d eventually forget that I was merely assuming God’s existence and convince myself subconsciously through emotion. You don’t actually need a god for this to work if you can bring yourself around independently. It’s a hollow achievement, because where’s the indication that you haven’t simply convinced yourself? That the God you find isn’t just a part of you? We know that’s happened, because different people have prayed to different, mutually exclusive gods and come to believe in each.

    My summary about assumptions wasn’t meant to stand by itself, without everything that had come before. Good reasons to assume that something is true for the time being include, but may not be limited to, supporting evidence (e.g. successful testing) and falsifiability. These are two qualities scientific claims have which religious claims don’t. In the absence of total certainty, competing claims must be compared on their relative merits, and in the above respects scientific theories come out on top. In what respect, if any, do religious claims come out on top?

    Here’s one more way to make the point I’m attempting to make. You’re doing your best to erode the authority of all human claims, to bring them down to the point where they’re on level ground with the truth claims of religions. To fully achieve that, however, requires that you dismiss the merit of evidence itself.

  5. What an interesting discussion. I will only respond to: “Rarely would a die hard atheist subject himself to the rigorous exercises of faith in order to determine if there really was something there.”

    Even if you will never see this, Matt!

    Life itself is an exercise. Every day we see things, we learn of things, and we experience things that re-affirms our personal concept of reality. After many years of experiencing this, I have my idea of reality. This reality does not include magic, or miracles. This reality does include wondrous phenomena, and amazing beauty. But it does not include anything that breaks the physical laws. And these are things I observe every day of MY life. So to introduce a being or group of beings that break these laws, completely goes against my views of reality. And this is a reality defined by decades of hands on testing and verifying. If I am to really accept these beings which shatter my definition of reality that i’ve spent decades crafting, then they sure as hell better have some evidence to make them plausible.

    Otherwise, you may as well be trying to convince me that I’ll become a genie on another planet if I jump into a volcano. “Well how do you know you won’t become a genie on another planet if you jump into a volcano?” Well I know that given every event on this earth that I’ve perceived, that makes absolutely no sense, and isn’t even plausible. “Maybe if you came and worshiped the volcano with me, you would understand?. You know when you hug it, it is quite warm and comfortable.” I really don’t see the point in that, actually it seems dangerous. “You know, you will really be miserable if you don’t become a genie on another planet. If you don’t do this, you will just stop existing.”

    My point is, everything I said above, to me, is exactly how I feel about a god, praying, heaven, or just about anything supernatural. I’ve probably spent more time thinking about a god than most. But not once have I ever thought the idea had any merit. Any chance of even being close to the truth. What I see is human fear, human arrogance, and religions seeking more and more power. So if you asked me to pray, or go to church. That’s like the volcano cult asking you to come hug volcanos, bathe naked in volcano ash baths, and dance in cult wear to worship the volcano. Would you go through with this? Even though the very idea that they are proposing goes directly against your concept of reality?

    I wish I could get your response Matt. But this is an old thread. Maybe somebody will answer though.

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