Is Faith As
Reasonable
As Doubt?
[unsigned]

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Reasonable to believe?
Date: August 18, 2001 11:14 AM

I suggest that the argument is not as balanced as your opponent maintains, simply because this is an existential question; that is, it's a question regarding the existence of something. When someone claims that a thing exists, the person claiming existence is required to make the strong arguments and bring forth the proof, whereas the one not claiming the existence of something need not lift a finger. This is how the Burden of Proof works.

Notice that I am not distinguishing between someone who claims that a thing exists versus another who claims that the thing does not exist. My distinction is between someone who claims that a thing exists versus the other who does not make any such claim. This is the big misunderstanding about atheism that we need to keep reminding ourselves (and our opponents) when discussing the god-question. I like to see the atheist as fully human, and the theist as fully human with one added attraction: the god-belief. Regardless, the theist is the one claiming existence whether or not the atheist counter-claims nonexistence, and thus the theist is still the one with the burden of proof.

Think about it: It is impossible to disprove an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists). Therefore, the nonbeliever's hands are tied. If Bertrand Russell claims that a china teapot orbits the Sun between the Earth and Mars, but that the china teapot is way too small for even the strongest telescopes to detect, all the more should we believe that Russell's china teapot exists, right? I mean, we cannot disprove his claim, so we've got to believe it, don't we?

Absolutely not! We'd be better off holding up the lamppost at the corner of Bedlam and Squalor and flipping a quarter trying to make up our minds if this were how things worked! Were it not for the Burden of Proof, then the more unassailable an argument was the more believable it would be! What if it were unassailable because it was unfathomable? What if you could not disprove it because it was pure nonsense? Then would we be forced to believe it because your opponent couldn't disprove it? Of course not!

The first order of business in making an existential claim is to provide a hypothetical method whereby your opponent could prove you wrong under certain circumstances. If you cannot provide such a hypothetical method, your claim is not scientific. That's how science works.

Let's say that I claimed that the Earth is a flat disc-shaped rock. I'd tell you some tests you could conduct:

First, I could tell you that if you sailed toward the south, and newer stars appeared on the southern horizon that you'd never seen, and stars on the northern horizon that we all knew and loved disappeared below the northern horizon, then you'd be on your way to disproving my theory and proving the theory that the Earth is a globe. If they didn't act this way, my point that the Earth is flat would be further vindicated.

Secondly, might tell you that if you watched ships sail to sea, and their hulls disappeared below the horizon first, while the masts remained in sight, and later all you saw was the crow's nest, then you'd be on your way to destroying my theory that the Earth is flat and showing that the surface of the Earth is curved. If the ships simply got smaller and we always saw the complete ship until it just became too small to see, then my argument that the Earth is flat would become stronger.

Thirdly, since we all know a lunar eclipse to be the shadow of the Earth cast on the Moon, I could then suggested that if that shadow always had a circular edge no matter where the moon was in the sky when a particular eclipse occurred, then you'd be well on your way to disproving my theory that the Earth is flat by showing that with a globe, the shadow will be curved from any angle. But if we saw a lunar eclipse with any shape of shadow other than the curve of a circle, the globe theory would go right out the window (be defenestrated) and this would look better for our disc theory than were we to find all the shadows to be the curve of a circle.

(By the way, these are the three proofs that Aristotle gave for the sphericity of the Earth 2,600 years ago -- almost 800 years before the Christian Church read their Bible and made the Earth so utterly flat that people were actually put to death for arguing its sphericity.)

Anyway, if I provided you with these tests, my claim would be scientific. It would be wrong, of course, but at least it would be scientific, simply because anyone willing to conduct the tests can test my proposition. Furthermore, anyone who conducted my tests would come up with the same basic results. Wrong as it is, my claim that the Earth is flat is a scientific claim.

So, if your friend cannot provide a test for the claim that a god exists, then the god-claim is not scientific. On this, it appears that your friend agrees. However, the Burden of Proof still lays the burden of proof on the one who makes the existential claim.

Thus, if somebody makes a claim for the existence of something but cannot provide a means of testing her or his claim, then we really have no business believing it. If we had any business at all believing such a claim, then we'd be required to give the same consideration to any and all untestable claims that came our way!

Now only one question remains: is there something about this one particular claim requiring us to approach it differently from Russell's claim about the china teapot? Can you think of any existential claims that are exempt from the Burden of Proof?

Just because a certain claim has been written down on scrolls since the days of papyrus and clay tablets does not mean it is exempt from the Burden of Proof. Although we only vaguely remember that for over 1,500 years in our Mother Land, anybody who denied this claim lost their life and their estates, or that anybody who today denies this claim still takes grave social risks in certain parts of the country, does not mean this claim has special protection from the Burden of Proof. Okay, so that same claim has been uttered in authoritative invocations at solemn assemblies every Sunday for the past two millennia: does that exempt it from the Burden of Proof? Some people would die rather than deny this claim, but that Burden of Proof still holds no matter how dead those people are.

And just because that very claim was told to you while sitting in intimate and absolute trust on your Mama's knee -- that her Mama told her, that her Mama told her, that her Mama told her, and on down the line for as far back as anyone can remember -- none of this absolves it from the responsibility of the Burden of Proof. I love my Mama, and I'm glad she didn't tell me that gods exist, because she would have said something that she knew she couldn't prove. I don't know how I would have handled this discrepancy, seeing how important truthfulness is to me. But the discrepancy would be against my Mama, not against the Burden of Proof -- no matter how I felt about the situation.

Here is the difference: The god-claim has an emotional attachment that runs very deep in our cultural and personal mind sets.

The tug is very powerful even in me -- and I was not raised with religion, I only flirted with it as a teenager and again as a young adult. Until a few years ago, when I tried some mental exercises developed by Albert Ellis, I'd sometimes pass by a beautiful church building and feel this strong urge to just give up my personal autonomy and join up with a group of people. That's exactly what the urge felt like -- to give up my responsibility for making certain tough decisions in my life. Sometimes if felt like I just wanted to join a crowd, but always was the feeling of giving up or surrendering my autonomy in some way. Then I would instantly realize that I've been there before! Any way I looked at it, I was still deciding, even if the decision was to stop deciding certain matters! The "burden" was still there! And as for loneliness, nothing I've been through is more painful and miserable than being "alone in a crowded room," as I once put it. Having tried both and if faced with the choice, I'd choose solitary confinement over being that one from whom all the others are shielding themselves to protect their salvation or their recovery or the common good or whatever.

So, if faced with a decision to believe or not to believe, and even disregarding the Burden of Proof (perhaps truthfulness was not a high priority with me), I'd still choose learning how to be strong and personally independent -- not in need of others for my happiness or anything else. I'd choose growing up into emotional maturity so that I can face any situation and still remain intact -- still remain me.

Joining a religious group would either take that away from me or rub my nose in it. I don't need either. I don't need to lose myself into a faceless group that was designed for nobody in particular. Neither do I want to stand up against a group just because I cannot fit in, to be that one thorn in their flesh just because I'm not cut out go along with the flow others seem to do so easily. I don't necessarily want to lead, but I certainly don't want to follow. I'd much rather be myself. If someone wants to hang with me, they probably know the basics of how to be a good friend (don't steal from me, don't lie to me, etc.). And if I want to spend time with someone (and they're okay with it), I know how to act (put the seat back down, smoke outside, etc.). But I just cannot see losing myself to anyone or anything. If I lose myself, I have nothing to give, because as it stands, all I have is myself. And even that isn't much, but it's all I have.

And if I believe apart from a group situation -- that is, if my belief is not there simply because a confession of faith is the key to becoming part of the group, then my faith is entirely personal and private. It doesn't matter what my reasons are. I don't have to talk about it to anybody. Nor would I want to talk to anybody about it, because any reasons I might have would probably be those mystical, wordless non-reasons that most of us never hear about anyway. I certainly wouldn't take something such as this into a forum and enter into a debate with someone about it, because it wouldn't matter what other people think about my private experience.

Should I ever reach the point where I'm debating someone over the existence of the God I "saw" or "felt," I would no longer be in this wordless realm of non-reasons. Thus, I doubt this is what your friend is talking about. I see the mystical, nonverbal experience and any debate over its validity to be mutually exclusive.

Are both sides equal? Is it just a coin toss? Not for me. But I'm just me. I'm not you and I'm not your friend. The logic is clear, as far as I'm concerned: the one making the claim must make the case or I not only don't have to believe, I am better off disbelieving than simply suspending judgement.

But logic is not the only element that goes into making a decision. I can easily see being in a family situation where to hurt Mama by even thinking other than what she told me on her knee would be the ultimate betrayal and could affect me for the rest of my life. I can see being in a family situation where the ones I loved had become convinced that I was God's gift to them. How would you respond to that? especially if you'd never loved like this before?

I don't know how I would respond to any of those situations, and won't venture a guess. (This is why I don't go out trying to deconvert people: I have no clue what might be behind their faith!) I can only tell you where I've been and where I am. I cannot do anything but open my heart, share my experiences with you, be as honest and truthful as I am able (hopefully getting something out of the process, another piece to the puzzle, perhaps), and trust you to be smart enough to scrutinize what I have to say, weigh it against what you think and what you hear from others, and wind up with what you think is best for you.

Thanks for the question and the opportunity to stretch this concept in a few new ways.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Reasonable to believe?
Date: August 20, 2001 8:56 AM

Ah, my approach to this stuff is mostly intuitive, and doesn't always involve my mapping it out like this and troubleshooting it -- almost like an electronic circuit and a schematic diagram!

Yes, if we define intellect as equivalent to reasoning, then the two statements contradict one another.

However, being one who could intuitively solve the "puzzle" (if you will) without resorting to a schematic diagram (of sorts), I will not go so far as to accuse the theist of playing word games and deliberately covering up the real situation. Rather, I think that the thinking style of theism itself is to blame (that is, some forms of theism). In this sense, a form of fundamentalism could be seen as prompting the theist to presuppose the correctness of his or her solution, thus opening the door to any reasonable-sounding answer to seem like it could be the key to the puzzle -- that is, the key to having the question result in the answer he wants.

I don't think that the theist is standing there, literally in a state of full awareness of the situation. I'm not convinced that the theist has a detailed picture of the situation and can see that she or he is presupposing the answer rather than seeking the answer.

This, I think, might be explained by showing a difference in the core values of the two individuals: for the theist, it is a good thing for one's faith in God to be vindicated; for the atheist, it is a good thing to more clearly see a situation even if what we find is not necessarily what we wanted to find or even what we expected to expected.

Thus the question might become, "Is faith in God morally wrong?"

Many atheists, at this point, might start saying, "Yes, I see that faith in God is morally wrong!"

However, I am not ready to go this far. While I'm not sure I could map it out in a schematic at this hour of the morning, I am holding back for two reasons that I can think of:

First, my working presupposition is that theists have or think they have valid reasons for believing the way they do. And my presupposition is deliberately this way. (In other words, I am making the same mistake in giving the theist the benefit of the doubt that the theist is making in presupposing the existence of God.) Yes, I am willing to accept responsibility and accountability for possibly being in error on this presupposition, but it is a presupposition that I choose to work within when discussing the god-question. In other words, this is a decision I have made in lieu of finding a compelling reason to revert to my earlier position of thinking that faith in God is morally deficient.

Secondly, knowing that reason is but a dim, flickering light (even though it is all we have, etc.), I am not ready to pass moral judgements on someone's ability to see. Yes, I agree that such "blindness" (if you will) does impact the lives of people who do not see, just as the "sins" of an irresponsible father impact the economic stability of the family and the consequences of those "sins" are passed onto the children. But, I am not at this point willing to call this a moral deficiency.

Perhaps this is tied in with my refusal to conclude that your opponent is deliberately covering up by knowingly distinguishing between two synonyms.

I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

"William James used to preach 'the will to believe'. For my part, I should wish to preach 'the will to doubt'. What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."
     -- Bertrand Russell

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Reasonable to believe?
Date: August 22, 2001 6:01 AM

Many skeptics have said that truthfulness is not necessarily the same ball game as beneficial.

Religion grows with the intelligence of man, but all religions of the past and probably all of the future will sooner or later become petrified forms instead of living helps to mankind. Until that time comes, however, if religion of any name or nature makes man more happy, comfortable, and able to live peaceably with his brothers, it is good.
     -- Luther Burbank, quoted from Edgar Waite, "Luther Burbank, Infidel

I like to think that in the long run, we are better off with the truth.

However, I am not going to tell somebody else how to live their life. I will use this standard to guide my own life and will require that people be honest in everyday affairs if they wish to associate with me (friendships, etc.). But I will refrain from judging others for using a different standard in their lives. I don't have to hang with someone if their personal ethic (or lack thereof) crosses a certain line, but I am not in a position to go any further than that: If I don't like a situation, I can always walk.

When I talk about honesty here, I am talking about day-to-day honesty, which is not the same as a philosophical discussion. I am willing to hang with someone who holds a completely different philosophical view -- even if I detect an element of dishonesty in that person's approach to philosophy. Philosophy, to me, is a different category from the sense of honesty in everyday affairs. I think it is possible for someone to be entirely trustworthy in day-to-day affairs and hold a completely whacko philosophical outlook.

This is especially important if we seek to get along with religious people. How many highly skilled, completely balanced, impeccably honest, entirely intelligent people have you known who were, when it comes to religion, completely off the wall? It's almost as if in matters of religion, it's open season on credulity. I don't know what it is, but I do know enough to see that I do well to separate everyday "honesty" from philosophical "honesty." Thus, I refuse to judge someone on their religious views when it comes to day-to-day matters (excepting political candidates, of course!).
 

Reasonable does mean what you say it does: "1. rational: sensible and capable of making rational judgments . He did what any reasonable person would have done in that situation" (Encarta). It also has to do with common sense, and this might be what he's striving at, but I doubt it: "2. in accord with common sense: acceptable and according to common sense . hoping to arrive at a reasonable time." Finally, it means several variations of "not excessive": "3. not expecting more than is possible: not expecting or demanding more than is possible or achievable . Come on, be reasonable! 4. fairly good: fairly good but not excellent . The food was reasonable. 5. fairly large: large enough but not excessive . He earns a reasonable amount of money. 6. not exorbitant: fairly priced and not too expensive . Three bottles for $12 is very reasonable."

Beneficial speaks to being advantageous, a completely different axis than what reasonable speaks to: "1. having good effect: producing a good or advantageous effect . The exercise should prove beneficial to his health" (Encarta). The only other meaning given is a legal definition: "2. LAW profitable: entitling somebody to or entitled to profits or property."

As long as he is using a definition that is among those listed as acceptable in a sampling of dictionaries, the best we can ask for is that someone at least let us know what they mean when they use a certain word. If somebody insists on using a quirky definition for a word, it is often best to just be patient with them. Usually you can tell what they mean by the context, but not always.

On the Forum, I often catch Christians in the act of changing the definition of a word in mid-sentence (although that doesn't appear to be precisely what your opponent is doing). Most often, the word being confused is faith: they accuse me, an atheist, of having faith. But what they mean when saying that I have faith is "trust": I have faith in my philosophical position or I have faith in my fellow humans or even I have faith that a certain elevator will take me to the proper floor. However, they then turn around and try to paint me as being hypocritical because I am denouncing "faith" even though they just showed that I have "faith"! But when I use the word, I am talking about religious faith, such as the saving faith in Christ that Christians tell us about (whatever they mean by that!), or belief in a proposition that goes beyond simply assessing the evidence (faith as opposed to reason or faith as opposed to knowing the facts). The best I can do is keep showing this to be the ruse that it is. So common is this particular shell game that logicians and rhetoricians have given it a name: "Equivocation." In fact, the "faith" ruse is so common on our Forum that I used it as my example of Equivocation in our write-up on logical fallacies.

I suspect, though, that your opponent is in the uncomfortable position of having been caught with his pants down in this argument, and is trying to bail out of the mess by retroactively changing what he was saying. If this was the case, I'd say it didn't work, because to make reasonable a synonym of beneficial is a stretch at best. I'm not going to take it any further because it could be an honest mistake -- but it sure doesn't sound like it after having looked up the definitions of the two words.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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