The Shackles of Dogma: Top-down Thinking

I’ve often wondered about what philosophers generally believe, as well as why they generally believe them, especially with respect to religious philosophers. And thanks to the largest survey of philosophers ever done back in 2010 with the Phil Papers survey, I will use that information to speculate about the latter question. Sources:

Okay, so I’ve a sort of annoyance with apologists’ use of philosophy. Now, as I quite like several areas of philosophy, my reason isn’t their usage of philosophy per se, but what motivates them I guess. So why is that, you ask? Well, let’s take into account the following sorts of considerations:

Most philosophers hold to, for example, a compatibilist conception of free will (~60% of philosophers polled). That is to say, they think free will and determinism can be reconciled in a meaningful way that does not result in bloating our view of the world with absurd metaphysical acts, as libertarian free will does. So why don’t religious apologists and philosophers of religion (we shouldn’t confuse the two as synonyms, of course) tend to hold to compatibilism (only 25.5% of philosophers of religion hold to compatibilism, and most of them (19.1%) are atheists) given its evident success in philosophy in general (~58% of philosophers of religion hold to libertarian free will)? To me, the answer is fairly obvious: The Problem of Evil.

If agents are also determined like the rest of the natural world, yet compatibilism still offers an “out” of sorts for free will, why didn’t God determine the world to be good? Clearly, most Christians just cannot accept compatibilism as true because the majority of their religious beliefs just don’t work with it, given the way the world is. And this extends beyond the free will debate:

* Why do most philosophers of religion tend to hold to an A-theory of time (~40%)? It’s often thought that the universe necessarily needs a cause, and the B-theory of time is simply not generally thought allow for this sort of thing, since the universe doesn’t “begin to exist” so much as it has a spatio-temporal boundary. So it’s no surprise that this view is more popular amongst them.

* Why do most philosophers of religion tend to avoid consequentialism as a normative ethical theory noticeable less than philosophers overall? Probably because doctrines like Hell would seem to mean, for consequentialists, that God is massively immoral.

* Why do most philosophers of religion reject physicalist accounts of the mind (63.8%) in stark contrast to philosophers generally (56.5%!)? I think it’s clearly because physicalist accounts of the mind are fundamentally in contradiction to the notion of an afterlife.

You get it. So what’s my point about all this? Contrary to many atheists online, I’m not her to say all religious apologists are charlatans or that theist philosophers of religion are disingenuous or something. My concern here is primarily that given the constraints their prior beliefs, the scope of what positions they can find reasonable or be open to become severely limited. That is, they end up unwittingly engaging in top-down justifications for their beliefs by tending towards positions that can allow for those positions to at least be plausible. Just look at William Lane Craig. His positions bear out this exact sort of thing, since he’s a:

-Substance Dualist
-Libertarian on free will (I THINK; he sometimes sounds like a compatibilist)
-A-theory of time (to support his Kalam Cosmological Argument)

And I think non-religious philosophers have, at least prima facie, less inherent constraints upon their thought, and hence are more able to consider the various positions (like those listed above), even if they tend towards a naturalistic, physicalist view (rightly, I think). This is not to say they don’t have their biases, it’s just I don’t think they have ones that as narrowly constrain them (generally) as their religious colleagues.

I think I initially had more to say on this topic, but I’m too tired to remember. Oh well.



Defining Atheism

Okay, so I was asked about this topic and it’s one better handled where I have more character space than Twitter. 🙂

So, what exactly does atheism mean, and what should it mean? The former question is a little variable (just the nature of language really), but there are more reasonable answers to give, even if there are no definitive, “correct” answers. Whenever this topic comes up, many atheists that run the argument seem to think that this should be known by everyone. “The ‘a’ nullifies the ‘theism’, don’t you see, because it refers to those lacking belief in gods?”, they’ll say (or something like that). The problem here is that they are, sometimes consciously (I think) and other times not, just falling for a trick of language. They’re conflating the the ambiguity in the English language between “don’t believe” (in this case meaning “not affirming as true”) and “believe to be false”. For example, if someone asks me “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”, I think it’s fairly obvious to everyone that when I respond “No, I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” that I mean the proposition “Santa Claus exists” is false, or more likely false than true. Whereas in other situations, such as if asked “Is person X a good person?”, it would be ridiculous to assume that if I refuse to answer “Yes” to the question that I’m saying they’re not a good person. I just don’t know which is the case, so I abstain from going either way, and this is EXACTLY what “lackatheists” are notorious for claiming: That is you don’t believe “God(s) exists” then you are an atheist.

Now, it’s clear to me from everyday interaction with theists on this topic (and just experience in life in general) that when people refer to “atheists”, they’re NOT referring to those who merely “lack belief”, because they don’t go around calling dogs and babies atheists (as some of these “lack of belief” atheists often do, at least for babies); in addition, this is the general sort of definition use by professional philosophers in the Great Debate. This is because the usual conception of the belief spectrum being referenced here is:


With the theist and atheist giving a yes and no, respectively, concerning the existence of God, andnthenagnostics believing neither position is epistemically justifiable. So, it’s perfectly fine for these lack of belief people to go with their preferred definition, but this causes several issues. Firstly, they remove themselves from the conversation inadvertently. Why is this? Well, given that (as far as I believe) we use words as placeholders to convey ideas/concepts to other people, it doesn’t really matter in and of itself what sound or characters we use, so long as our recipients get what we’re trying to convey. So when you guys use this atheism as “lack of belief”, you guys are ignoring the question when asked to justify your atheism. They’re not asking why you merely lack belief, but why you believe it is more likely that gods don’t exist. If you reject their definition, then they can merely make up a new word to refer to that position of going beyond lacking belief. William Lane Craig has made this point before by pointing out that then he’d just ask people who are, quote, “Shmatheists – that is, people who believe gods don’t exist – why they believe gods don’t exist?” And this makes sense, it’s not a trick. If you don’t fit the definition of the word people are using because YOU mean something else by the word, then they’ll simply use another word not in contention to ask their question. If by “red” you mean what I mean by “green”, I’m going to alter my terminology in response so that the conversation is sensible.

Secondly, there’s the issue of coherence. One favorite of these lack of believers is to say that they’re “agnostic atheists” or (rarely) gnostic atheists, meaning they “don’t claim to know, don’t believe” and “know, don’t believe”, respectively, regarding the existence of gods. But don’t you guys see the immediate contradiction here? You guys are saying that the ONLY thing atheism is, is a lack of belief and hence is an either/or situation, but then you’re modulating your atheism with modifiers you intend to denote degrees of difference, which is a clear contradiction. After all, you guys say that you’re either a theist or you lack belief and hence are an atheist. This demonstrates another shortcoming of this definition, I think, which the standard and philosophical definitions maintain easily, as it allows for one to have degrees of belief and disbelief not conflict with the definitions themselves.

My own preferred definite of atheism would be anything along the lines of the following:

“An atheist is one who believes the existence of gods is less probable to be the case (lesser probability than 0.5 on a 0 to 1 scale) than their existence.”

Lastly, some atheists are motivated by or claim that this lack of belief definition nets them some epistemic advantage, since they’re not the ones moving from some default or null position. Well, this is silly. Once you’ve been acquainted with the usual meaning of the word God,as well as the ways by which people try to argue for or against is existence, to claim that you still merely lack belief (because this is what you mean by “atheism”) is to say that you haven’t been affected by the arguments either way, which is a very strange claim indeed, unless you’re merely affirming agnosticism.

Anyway, those are my general thoughts on this topic. Leaves your comments below. Peace 🙂