To Christians and atheists on the DPSubmitted by LimitedGovernment on Wed, 04/11/2012 - 03:35
The primary purpose of this article is to show that many people on the DP are using the same words in their arguments, but are thinking of different meanings when using them.
Clarifying what meanings are intended will help to make discussion more civil. If you aren't sure that someone is thinking of the same meaning as you are, asking them about their definition could prevent a lot of hostility.
The secondary purpose is to lay out reasoning that leads to one conclusion: Personal beliefs change only in the long-term, and are not likely to be strongly influenced by what most people have the time and space to say in a few comments.
As such, we should recognize that fighting in the comments does a lot of harm, while very little else changes. It is better to hold long discussions about beliefs over private messages or email.
- A few of the things that I address below:
- Meanings for "Evidence"
- Meanings for "Faith"
- Meanings for "Proof"
- Meanings for "Science"
- Illustration: Explanation of my beliefs
- Requests that I make of the members of DP
The moment the word "evidence" is mentioned, a big problem can occur. That's because there isn't one meaning of "evidence" that everyone uses.
Colloquially, people say "evidence" and mean "anything that leads a person to think that something is true", which includes things like feelings, personal experiences, and so on - which is how many theists often use it.
Some people also colloquially mean "scientific proof" - which is how many atheists often use it.
Formally, "evidence" means a proposition that has been demonstrated to be right. That is, it isn't reliant on consensus by the community of academic researchers, but it also isn't simply up to one's personal feelings or experiences. It has to be something that has been carefully scrutinized.
The difference between scientific evidence and colloquial evidence seems to be one of the reasons why there is so much fighting going on. Several people feel that only positive scientific proof constitutes a reason to believe something, while others feel that feelings, intuitions, and personal perceptions of events can constitute evidence.
It's beyond the scope of this letter to get into philosophy of science and philosophy of epistemology to show that no one has beliefs that are based solely on verifiable scientific facts, but I encourage all of you to look both subjects up on the internet. There are plenty of online encyclopedias of philosophy and theses written by great philosophers and theologians that are available for free.
It must also be understood that the colloquial meaning of evidence and the meaning of faith are not necessarily the same. This is another mistake that people make.
Faith has one definition, but can mean three things colloquially:
The definition: confidence (or belief) in the truth or rightness of some proposition or person's character
The colloquial meanings:
(1) adherence to a proposition as true in light of a great preponderance of evidence that is not necessarily conclusive
(2) adherence to a proposition as true despite there being no confirming scientific evidence
(3) adherence to a proposition as true due to colloquial evidence
When a person follows meaning #2 and adheres to a belief in the face of disconfirming scientific evidence, or to #3 in the face of disconfirming colloquial evidence they are given a clinical diagnosis.
That clinical diagnosis may be that the person has an "overvalued idea" - such as the belief that evolution is a set of scientific propositions that are lies pushed by public and private researchers in every discipline. This is demonstrably false (there is disconfirming evidence).
When the amount of disconfirming evidence is great and the adherence to a proposition is great, a diagnosis such as "delusional disorder" may be given. This applies to people who think that they are Jesus, Hitler, the Devil, and so on.
Some people also equate "evidence" with "proof". It's beyond the scope of my letter to get into philosophical discussion about topics like "degrees of certainty", but I'll address this quickly.
Though many people use the word "proof" in daily conversation, very few philosophers would ever say that there are universally agreed-upon conditions that, when met, would allow someone to say that they have "proven" something.
In other words, almost everything that people believe is always subject to being shown to be wrong in the future due to new developments - or can never be shown to be "objectively right" because we are limited by things like our reliance on inductive reasoning.
Some people use the word "proof" to mean "confident without a doubt" about something. But not leaving any room for doubt is a really foolish idea. We don't have to be certain without doubt in order to believe something - we can be more confident in our beliefs as we get more evidence for them, and less certain of them (or more certain of alternatives) as our supporting beliefs/evidential propositions fall apart or evidence for alternatives arises.
In fact, this is how humans operate. It's called the "web of beliefs".
On a side note, some people say "objective" colloquially to mean "something that no one can deny". Formally speaking, objectivity is impossible for reasons stated above (re: degrees of confidence and our limited ability to experience things in the universe).
What people should focus on are "inter-subjective" facts - things that everyone who has had roughly the same amount of in-depth experience (research, personal application, etc) agree on.
Some people also get mixed up when speaking of "science".
Colloquially, people say "science" when they mean "generally the institutions that are regarded as scientific, and what the people in this institutions believe is true or is most important in determining what is true".
Others, when speaking colloquially, say "science" and mean "formal beliefs about what constitutes proper scientific processes" such as positivism.
Still others say "science" and mean "what most academics believe".
Formally, "science" means "the scientific method and disciplinary studies that employ it".
Science is not a thing that can be worshiped, just as atheism is not a belief about the world. Neither are a religion. A person who has dogmatic views about what science is or what atheists should do with their lives are simply dogmatists of their own intellectual or moral code.
Given all of the above noted possibilities of meaning, it makes little practical sense to say something like, "He is 'irrational' for having 'faith' when there is 'no evidence' for (or even 'evidence against') his belief." or "Only 'science' can provide 'objective' 'proof' about the things in our universe."
Rather, a good discussion must start with an agreement on the meaning of terms to be used.
I am an atheist. More specifically, I identify as an agnostic atheist. I am also a philosopher, a psychologist, and a communication specialist - by saying which I mean that I have done academic research and presented professional work in all of those disciplines. I also was once a Christian and intended to be a minister. I studied with religious officials and scholars from several Christian denominations as I tried to find what I called "the true path to a moral and pious life".
I have also studied anthropology and world religions including Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam, and others.
I bring this up because I'm often asked "Why is this any of your business?". The answer is: I know the issues in great detail from personal experience, and want the conversations to be civil.
Illustration: Explanation of my beliefs
I believe that the universe has always been present in some form, that cosmological and biological evolution got the universe to this point, that there is no residual experience of life after the particles that compose one's body are separated, and that there only the material things exist.
Simply put, I am a naturalist and a materialist. I don't believe that spirits, ghosts, etc are words that reference things that actually exist - I think that they are words for things that people have created through storytelling.
However, other atheists may believe completely different things. They may believe in ghosts, reincarnation, a universal consciousness, and so on.
Being an atheist doesn't mean believing in some specific replacement belief, or that one doesn't believe in other specific things. If you tell me a ball is filled with mercury and I see no good reason to think that (and probably some reason to doubt it), it doesn't mean that I do or don't specifically believe that it is filled with sand, water, a combination of sand and water, lemonade, or nothing at all.
My views on these things are kind of like my views on having a roommate: I can't say that there is no possible way that I would find someone that I would like to room with, but I don't have sufficient reason to believe that there is someone - especially given what I know of my incompatibilities with the way other people like to live.
Said another way, I have a lot of "colloquial evidence" that suggests that I'm not likely to ever choose to have a roommate. I don't have "scientific proof" that I won't choose to have one under any circumstances, and I wouldn't claim to have it. I'm agnostic about the idea in the epistemological sense, but I really don't believe that it's going to happen.
Q&A and Requests
I'll end by answering two questions and making two requests.
Question #1: What would convince you to become a spiritualist - whether a deist, theist, or otherwise? (I get asked this all the time, either by people who are genuinely curious, or by people who are trying to make me say something stupid, like "There's nothing that could ever convince me.")
Answer: For me, it could only be a personal experience with something that I could not explain. Any retelling of the experience to people who can't relate would make me sound 'out of my mind', and I would be ascribed a mental disorder or something of the like by nonbelievers. This is similar to the answer given by Søren Aabye Kierkegaard.
Given that, I cannot look down upon anyone who says that they are a theist because of their personal experience.
Question #2: What caused you to become an atheist? (Also a big question, as some people really struggle with the idea that someone who is knowledgeable and was once very devout is now an atheist.)
Answer: Every core pillar of my theistic and deistic belief systems fell apart in the face of research and reflection. This includes historical texts, supernatural events, explanations of how the universe came to be and operates, divine revelation of moral laws, and - most importantly - the poor initial physical and intellectual conditions under which life originates [whether with reference to evolution or traditional creationism, and whether we're talking about the first human or a newborn].
In other words, a lot of evidence - colloquial and scientific - that many theistic and deistic claims and arguments are wrong (morally, logically, or factually) in the light of.
Request #1: Please post your responses to this article below, both so that I can edit in any oversights and so that this article can be read by others who have been caught up in arguments on these subjects.
Request #2: Please stop attacking each other in the comment sections of posts on the Daily Paul.
Those of you trying to convince others to change their beliefs aren't even going to be that successful by posting a handful of comments, anyway. Belief change is a long-term process that requires a lot of resources. It's one thing to correct a misconception about a single, simple idea (like what the word "atheist" means). It's another to try to get someone to change their whole worldview.
Thank you for your time.