Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Weak-Sense and Strong-Sense Atheism

In response to a discussion as to whether Atheism is a scientific or a philosophical position, Jerry Coyne says:

I’ll call “weak sense atheism” the position that, I think, most atheists hold. It is this: “There is no convincing evidence for God, so I withhold belief.”...Now I don’t know anyone who is a strong-sense atheist. Even Dawkins, as I recall, is a “70% probability” man — he thinks it pretty improbable that God exists, but adds that he can’t disprove the existence of some kinds of gods. I’m pretty much on board with him. You’d be a fool to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all, including one that doesn’t interfere in the workings of the universe.

So let’s take weak-sense atheism (WSA) as the default stance. In its very weakest, “no-evidence-for-God” sense, WSA is absolutely scientific. After all, what is science but the claim that one needs empirical evidence before accepting something as a reality? When one says, “I see no evidence for a god, and therefore refuse to accept his/her/its reality,” one is saying nothing different from, “I see no evidence for the view that plants have feelings, and therefore I don’t accept the idea that they do.”


Now, I really enjoy this sort of article because it sharpens my thinking about things. Before I read that, I would have said that atheism is a philosophical position. But the distinction between WSA and strong-sense atheism (SSA) is a very good one, and I agree with Coyne that WSA is scientific and SSA is philosophical.

I agree with Coyne to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all (we're looking at you, Hitchens). But that doesn't mean that there aren't SSAs like me out there who believe firmly that there is no being up there.

If you ask me what I believe (and that's the key word in that sentence), I'll say that I believe that there is no God. And I do mean that in a stronger sense than "I have seen no evidence, so I withhold belief."

Recently, the author of Why Does E=MC2 And Why Should I Care? was on the Colbert Report, and he said of Einstein that there's a high likelihood that Einstein was somewhat wrong, somewhere among his theories. He also said that this was okay, because Science was the story of slowly exchanging one model for another, making the models better and better as we go along. This fits nicely in line with the philosopher at the center of my heart, William James. Our world-view is a collection of suppositions based on our experiences and our reasoning faculties.

Do I know absolutely that there is no God? No. Would it be scientific for me to assert so? No. But on a philosophical level, the world-view with which I take a look at the world around me not only doesn't include a God or gods, but doesn't have room for one.

For instance, Coyne invokes the possibility of a "god" who does not interfere with the workings of the universe. From my philosophical perspective, what does "exist" mean if you do not interfere with the workings of the universe? After all, in order to be detected, you have to leave some footprint on the universe (we can't measure existence directly, we only measure existence by effect -- light emitted, heat emitted, spaced occupied). If there's a diffuse "god" that cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and does not affect the world, in what way could he be said to exist?

And then, if you have a god or gods who do affect the world, then not only have I not seen evidence for that (with the brief exception the uncanny choice of music my iPod makes when I put it on shuffle), but there is no room for it in my current philosophical model of the world. If evidence came along, my hope is that I would be open to it, but it would take a severe reconfiguring of the world as I currently see it. I would be, in other words, grievously wrong about my core assumptions of the universe.

This is what makes me a SSA and not a WSA. I recognize that this is a philosophical position and I would never confuse it for science. I would never use it as an opportunity to call other people's philosophical worldviews a dangerous virus threatening to poison our children (I'm looking at you, Dawkins).

And to make my pedantic point that I try to keep making, the more we make these sorts of distinctions, the more fruitful our discussions of the issue become.

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