More Definitions

Continuing on with definitions:

agnostic: As George Smith in “Atheism: The Case Against God” writes, the definition of this word can also be obtained from breaking it up into two pieces: “a-gnostic”, and thus means without knowledge.  It was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869 and he was using it in reference to theism, so in that application it means someone who doesn’t know if gods exists.  The differences between this and implicit atheism are actually quite subtle and I don’t think it’s too useful to go into too much detail, but one thing to keep in mind is that strict agnosticism with regards to theism claims that it is impossible to know anything about deities.  Implicit atheism does not make this claim at all.  Wikipedia labels this type of agnosticism as strong agnosticism (aka hard, closed, strict or permanent agnosticism).  Weak agnosticism (aka soft, open, empirical or temporal agnosticism) would then describe the view that the existence of gods is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable.  I fall into the weak agnostic category by these definitions.  And by currently unknown I am making a statement about my own knowledge and not a broad statement about what all of humanity knows (wasn’t quite sure if Wikipedia made that distinction).

Smith didn’t say it in exact words, but if you read his section on agnosticism (especially page 12) he is basically saying that the colloquial usage of this word has come to mean “implicit atheism”.  I agree with this assessment and that is one of the biggest reasons I most frequently use the term agnostic instead of atheist to describe myself.

possibilian: This is a very new word invented by David Eagleman, but already has a Wikipedia entry and a web page.  I first found this word on the Finding Truth blog and I liked it right away.  I really liked Eagleman’s 20 minute video on his website.  Here is his definition: “Possibilianism is a philosophy which rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground”. (as an aside, he is using the colloquial use of the word “atheism” here because he describes it as a position of certainty)  The main thing that hits me out of this is not the “rejection of stuff” part but the exploratory part.  While I do believe some aspects of the big questions in life are not capable of being found by scientific methods and critical inquiry I definitely do not believe it is true for all aspects of our big questions.  I am a huge fan of exploring these questions with the best objective methods that humans have found, and I hope that scientists give this more thought (though I realize the difficulties).  While atheism and agnosticism don’t necessarily rule out exploration, their definitions do not explicitly promote exploration, while possibilianism does, and this is why I am a big fan of this label.

Just a few more words about why I do not prefer the word atheist (beyond what I mentioned before).  While I know that the more vocal atheists of our time (seem to be called New Atheists) do not express certainty about the non-existence of gods, they do express that their beliefs are essentially close enough to certainty.  Not only do they express this about deities they express this about any supernatural or “spiritual” entities as well.  Most of them seem to be naturalists.  While I may lean a little bit in their direction I do not express anywhere near the level of certainty about naturalism they seem to express in their writings, and it is yet another reason I tend to stay clear of using the word atheist.  While I most definitely share their approach of using the objective methods of reasoning and science to find truth, that is very different than the philosophical statement of naturalism.

While the last word is not a label it is so important for me to define it here because I have and will continue to use it a lot:

epistemology: The study of human knowledge and understanding.  If you have ever thought “how can I or we really know anything at all” then you have thought about epistemology.  I tried to lay down a framework for my own very foundational beliefs about how to come to truth about stuff (i.e. epistemology) in my first 4 blog posts and now I plan to go back to that.  I plan on applying these methods later on (keep in mind no method is perfect), but I really feel it important to build a strong foundation first and I’m not sure how long that will take.


10 thoughts on “More Definitions

  1. Pingback: Secular Humanism | Truth Is Elusive

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  4. Hi Howie, I am working my way through a few of your posts and aiming to discuss John Schellenberg, and making the occasional comment.

    I understand the distinctions you make in this and the previous definitional post, and I think it would be helpful if we could all agree on terms. But it isn’t that easy.

    1. “Atheism” = a-theism doesn’t have to mean “without God” – it can equally mean against God, godless, etc. Check out these definitions:

    “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    “The term “atheist” describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists. …. Atheism is the view that there is no God” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    “In early ancient Greek, the adjective atheos (ἄθεος, from the privative ἀ- + θεός “god”) meant “godless”. It was first used as a term of censure roughly meaning “ungodly” or “impious”. In the 5th century BCE, the word began to indicate more deliberate and active godlessness in the sense of “severing relations with the gods” or “denying the gods”. (Wikipedia)

    2. 50 years ago I did 2 years of very basic philosophy at university, and then atheism definitely meant disbelief and agnosticism meant no belief. I feel modern atheists have tried to change the meaning of the term a little, and I think they have done this for apologetic reasons. Whether we should stay with the old meaning or go with the change is arguable. But atheism-agnosticism is simpler than explicit atheism-implicit atheism.

    3. I have found some atheists argue vehemently against my christian belief, sounding for all the world like explicit atheists. But if the discussion takes a turn where they don’t have a good argument, they can beat a quick retreat into implicit atheism, and say “I don’t have any burden of proof, I just lack belief in any gods.” But then when the discussion moves on, they argue vehemently against theism again. I think this is a tactic, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, that obscures the truth. I think a good way to clarify is to ask atheists these questions:

    (a) If you lack belief in gods, does this mean you regard the possibility of God or gods as being an even bet, just as likely as not?
    (b) If not an even bet, what probability of being true would you assign to each of the following statements:
    (i) God doesn’t exist.
    (ii) God does exist.

    I think most implicit atheists would not assign equal probabilities, but something more like (i) 0.9 and (ii) 0.1, showing that they are really much closer to explicit atheism.

    What do you think about that?

  5. Hey Uncle E – Welcome back to my blog. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit on this one (not laughing at you – just at the situation). It confirms the title of my last post “Labels Never Tell the Whole Story”. No wonder why nobody ever resolves anything in these discussions. We all want to define words in the ways that we think are right and we never end up communicating what it is that we truly believe.

    I’m not sure I have a probability number to assign for myself for (i), but I can say it is not near 100% and it is more than 50% at this point in my life. I’m not really sure how to assign a number to it. There’s no mathematical way I know how to assign it. I was recently asked this question at a neighbor’s evangelism event which I was invited to, and my response was that I really didn’t know what the number was, and it varies all the time, but if you put a gun to my head I guess I’d say it’s probably between 70 to 80 %. But frankly that’s just pulling numbers out of my ass to try and describe how sure I think I am in my conclusion – there are tons of things in this world that I’m just not that sure of and putting numbers to them is just way too hard.

    My hope is that instead of the labels we focus more on communication of what we believe and I think I have made an honest effort of this in these 2 posts. So whatever I wrote is truly what I feel, not an apologetic game. I have to admit though – if this is a tactic of other atheists then the history of this does interest me quite a bit – in the same sense that some soap operas interest me. ;-D That’s meant to make you laugh – I hope it does. 🙂 Let’s not take the labels too seriously and try more importantly to describe how we believe.

    I have several more things I could say about this, but I’ve been told my comments run too long (which I agree with) and have noticed that people don’t really read them fully because of this – I can’t blame them. I do have a post planned in the future that relates a little bit – but at my current rate I’ll write that in about 10 years! 😉 Let’s start here – if you say you understand what I’ve written here maybe I’ll comment further.

  6. HI Howie,

    I never thought you were playing an apologetic game, I hope I didn’t infer that, and I apologise if I did. And yes I agree, labels don’t tell the whole story. But unfortunately they do seem to be a necessary evil, as they do save a lot of time and hot air. So because I think that, I don’t generally argue much about the labels or definitions people give themselves, but let them self-identify. It’s just that if I accept the label they give themselves, I still have to work out how they define the label. Does that all make sense?

    I agree with you too that we cannot really put numbers on this stuff. But I think the concept is valid, and it is helpful to know where another person sits.

    So you would place yourself more than halfway (70-80%) along the scale (0-100%) of thinking God probably doesn’t exist. I might have guessed you would be more like 50% (i.e. midway between believing God is a 50/50 bet and being certain he doesn’t exist), but my perceptions mean nothing here.

    It seems to me that you have quite a strong disbelief. You are not certain, but you are closer to being an explicit atheist than an implicit one.

    Me? I guess I am at about 90% that God exists. But I think (for me at any rate) there are 2 questions – (1) How much do I believe God exists theoretically, and (2) how much do I live as if he exists? I think I am 90% theoretically, but I think we can’t easily live with uncertainty, so we naturally live in a more black and white manner, and on that measure I would be 99% certain. Does that also make sense?

  7. No worries, I was pretty sure you weren’t directing the apologetic tactic remark toward me but just wanted to be clear that I was making an effort to just express what my beliefs are. I really don’t want my blog to be a place where people feel they have to debate things out and use techniques to “win”, so tactics aren’t my thing. My blog is about exploring and having people express what they believe for the benefit of others to be able to try and see things from many different angles and hopefully learn from that (although I’m not naive so I know that unfortunately it’s sort of a natural human social dynamic that things end up going more toward the debate side of things – but to me that’s an inevitable drawback to the whole process).
    Yes, everything you wrote in your comment made sense to me. It’s nice to be able to find common ground of understanding when sometimes it seems like we may be worlds apart.
    You may be right about me being a bit closer to the explicit end although I never really looked at it from that angle. But I do know that I’m not like a lot of atheists on the internet who do express themselves as very close to 100%. I don’t judge them and I believe them when they say this, but my confidence level simply isn’t there.
    I found your last paragraph to actually be quite interesting and I don’t believe I’ve seen a Christian describe their belief in such a manner. It does make sense. I guess thinking about myself I do live my life pretty much as if God does not exist, because I think you are right about our brains sort of being wired naturally to live black and white even though we are able to realize that things really aren’t all that black and white. I struggle with this a lot, because lacking confidence in my beliefs actually makes for a bit of a disconcerting feeling. Please read this if you get a chance to see how I do express doubts and really kind of always have. I tried in that post not to push anyone toward any direction of belief. I think some of the disconcerting feeling actually comes from society looking down on those who say “I’m not sure” rather than taking a strong stance on things. I’ve noticed a lot of people get frustrated discussing things with me because it is not quite clear what my stance really is all the time.
    The only thing I may add to this is that I do make an effort to describe my beliefs relative to others rather than by numbers. In that sense I’d say that if the question you asked was more about the specific God you believe in then my percent goes a bit closer to explicit. I’m pretty sure your question was more of the generic “higher power” creative being, so that’s how I answered it.
    Your original comment was useful and I may look more into it because it would mean I may want to be a bit more careful using certain labels.

  8. I agree with you about avoiding adversarial debate as much as possible. I have rarely worked with other christians, but I get on with people and if we discuss religion we have managed to do it pleasantly. I would like people, including me, behave the same on the internet. The only difference between you and I is that I want to help people see what I believe is the truth – if they want me to.

    I agreed too with the blog post you referenced about different experiences of the same universe. I have often wondered, and tried to discuss with those who believe differently to me, how our experience and evidence can be very similar yet our conclusions vary so widely.

    I think drawing your attention to some possible anomalies was my main purpose on this post, so I’m not sure I have anything more to say on this. Thanks for the discussion.

  9. Pingback: But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic? | Truth Is Elusive

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