Saturday, November 19, 2005

Relativism and Atheism

It's important to be clear what we're talking about. I'm using the following definitions:

atheism - the belief that God does not exist

relativism - the belief that no one point of view is more valid than others

agnosticism - not being sure whether God exists or not

When two or more people have a discussion or an argument, they are usually coming from different points of view. Each of them will have their own experiences; each of them will have their own backgrounds; their own reasons for believing what they believe. Sometimes one point of view will be "better" or "more valid" than another For example, the view of a professor of engineering on how a car engine works is probably going to be better than the view of a six-year old child, because they have had more opportunity to become well-informed, and to experience the car engine itself.

But sometimes neither person is in a better position to know, and then it just comes down to people's background, what they assume and what they believe. If we find ourselves in that situation - where the only reasons for disagreement are background and assumptions, then it is a good idea to admit that at the end of the day we don't know, we can just have an opinion.

If God doesn't exist, then no-one can have a "better" or "more valid" experience of God than anyone else, which means that we are all groping in the dark. We could have two people meeting one another and one of them believed in God, and one didn't believe in God. Neither of them could have any real evidence for their claim; they would both be believing things entirely on the basis of their backgrounds and assumptions. But that means that we couldn't tell who was right.

At the end of the day, the only way that Atheism cannot explain why many people do believe in God is by saying that people sometimes believe wrong things because of their experiences, or because they want it to be comfortable to them, or something. But whenever they admit that, they are cutting the ground from under themselves, because if those reasons can make other people wrong, it can make them wrong too.

If an atheist is being logically consistent, they can never be sure. They can never say categorically "God does not exist" - it can only ever be "I can't see how God can exist" or "I don't think that God exists". But I wouldn't call that atheism; I'd call that agnosticism, as it's saying that at the end of the day, you're not sure.


John said...

A friend e-mailed me about this entry - here's my reply. His words are in italics.

Why do you think that if God doesn't exist neither the theist nor the atheist could have any real evidence for their claim? Why couldn't the atheist have suffering as his or her evidence? This is what most of my colleagues claim. And why couldn't the theist have evidence, even including some of the six reasons you present elsewhere?

That wouldn't seem to amount to believing things entirely on the basis of backgrounds and assumptions, surely?

I think there are several different questions here, some highlighting assumptions I've made, which I probably should have stated to be clearer.

It could certainly be argued that if we could prove that a God who was made of cheese didn't exist, then that would decrease our perception of the probability of God existing, as it ruled out a previously possible version of God.

But I'd disagree with that, as I'm only really considering views which are consistent with the data.

I guess I'm saying that if there is no God, then it's impossible to tell whethere there is actually no God or whether there's a God of whom you have no direct experience and who chooses to allow the current state of affairs. The two theories would predict the same situation, so it's impossible to tell which is true. It's also definitely possible to argue the Ockham-type argument either way, so I'd say it's safest to discount neither.

So the observation that suffering happens discounts views of God which say that suffering doesn't happen. But I, for one, don't hold such a view of God. There are views of God which allow the reality of suffering, therefore suffering doesn't work as an argument against the existence of God, only against whether or not God (if extant) permits suffering.

Why does logical consistency mean that an atheist can never be sure?

Essentially because if there is no God, they cannot show that there is no God, merely that he permits the current situation. To use a scientific analogy, they are left with at least two theories, which predict the same results and with no experiments which can tell the difference.

Steven Carr said...

Many people are not sure about the existence of leprechauns.

I think claiming that leprechauns do not exist is a bit stupid.

And as for the people who claim that Santa Claus does not exist.

How can they be so sure? They are stupid to say that.

John said...

Next time try reading and understanding the argument first.

I haven't yet seen a decent atheist epistemology that doesn't end up hopelessly relativistic.

Steven Carr said...

What argument is there?

That for all we know, there might be a God who passes by on the other side when disaster strikes?

The Bible says not.

Psalm 89

8 O LORD God Almighty, who is like you?
You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

9 You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them

Those words were as true on Boxing Day 2004 as when they were written.

John said...

Lets put it this way....

You seem to believe that God does not exist. You'd say (I guess) that this belief is fully consistent with the evidence, and the contrary belief isn't.

Plenty of other people (myself included) believe that God does exist, that this belief is fully consistent with the evidence, and the contrary belief isn't.

Put yourself in a meta position for a minute. What grounds do you have for believing that one group is right and the other is wrong. Both groups seem to be equally capable and to be considering the same evidence. There are no grounds on which you can distinguish the two views, from a meta position, unless you postulate the existence of an external observer.

Steven Carr said...

How can there be evidence against a God who passes by on the other side when humans suffer?

If you claim there is a God, who does not intervene when children are tortured, then the burden of proof is on you.

John said...

The concept of directionality of burden of proof is in this case a subjective one, as with Occam's razor.

I could equally well say that if you believe the universe came into existence uncaused, the burden of proof is on you.

As you know, the God I believe in is a God who can exist alongside the suffering of the world - even a God who came to share in the world's suffering.

Anonymous said...

So your god by definition is evil, and the cause of suffering. Since he created everything in it. Since it is by his actions that we are made to suffer. Since it is his choice to send his alter ego to earth to atone to himself for what he chose to do.

Also, science's position is that the universe did not spring into existence uncaused. It has always existed in some form. Natural law dictates that via conservation of mass energy. Read Atheist Universe for a fuller explanation if you have the balls.

John said...

Woah - I love the science comment.

You know, I've met a fair few cosmologists, back when I was studying that stuff. Some were atheists, some weren't.

No-one thought the universe was eternal, thuogh some argued it was cyclic.

Many of them would have used the second law of thermodynamics to show that it couldn't be either eternal or cyclic.

Having said that, I think there's a way out of the problem of the second law with cyclic universes if you hit it hard enough with General Relativity, so there's nowhere for the energy to disperse to...