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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

new atheism goes down the Drange

The original 1998 essay by Theodore M. Drange entitled
Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism
that challenged the viabilty of the new atheism:

Suppose you are to answer the following two questions:

(1) Does the sentence "God exists" express a proposition?
(2) If so, then is that proposition true or false?

If you say no to the first question, then you may be classified as a noncognitivist with regard to God-talk. If you say yes to it, thereby allowing that the given sentence does express a proposition, then you are a cognitivist with regard to God-talk. (Let us henceforth abbreviate these expressions, simply using the terms "cognitivist" and "noncognitivist".) All theists, atheists, and agnostics are cognitivists, so the second question applies to them: is the proposition that God exists true or false? You are a theist if and only if you say that the proposition is true or probably true, you are an atheist if and only if you say that it is false or probably false, and you are an agnostic if and only if you understand what the proposition is, but resist giving either answer, and support your resistance by saying, "The evidence is insufficient" (or words to that effect).

One virtue of this way of characterizing the three groups of cognitivists is that it captures the way the terms are commonly used in ordinary language, and, in particular, it makes the groups mutually exclusive. No one can consistently be both a theist and an agnostic, or both an atheist and an agnostic. Some other ways of drawing the distinction fail to capture that important feature. For example, if the term "agnostic" were defined as anyone who claims that there is insufficient evidence to know whether or not God exists, then it would be possible for a person to be both a theist and an agnostic. He could be what is called a fideist and say, "I realize that the evidence is insufficient, but I believe in God anyway." (Incidentally, I am here taking the expression "believe in God" simply as shorthand for "believe that God exists.") Alternatively, such an "agnostic" could be a "fideistic atheist" and say, "Though the evidence is insufficient, I deny God's existence anyway." That would make it possible for someone to be both an atheist and an agnostic. This result is a drawback to such a definition of "agnostic," for it conflicts with the way the term is commonly used.

...An agnostic could also be an atheist if the term "atheist" were defined more broadly, for example, as anyone who lacks a belief in God, or who classifies the proposition that God exists as anything other than true. Such a definition is recommended by George H. Smith in his book Atheism: the Case Against God.[2] Other writers who support the definition are cited in Michael Martin's book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification.[3] According to this usage, people would be "atheists" even if they answer the question whether it is true that God exists with "no one knows." This is a departure from the most common use of the word "atheist" in ordinary language, which is in itself an important reason to avoid it. Another reason is that infants and fetuses have no belief in God, yet it would be perverse to say that they are all atheists.

Sometimes the use of the term "atheism" to mean "lack of theistic belief" is supported by an appeal to etymology. For example, Martin, in the book mentioned above, says the following:

In Greek a' means without' or not' and theos' means god.' From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God.[4]

This argument is rather unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. First, it is not completely clear that the correct translation of the Greek prefix "a" is "without." It might also mean "no," in which case "a-the-ism" could be translated as "no-god-ism," or "the view that there is no god." Note that there is no "ism" in Greek. Second, even if the etymology of the word "atheism" did indicate that it once meant "without belief in God," that is still not a good guide to current usage. It is quite common for words to acquire new meanings over time. It seems far more important what people mean by a word today than what it once meant long ago.

Another argument sometimes put forward is that we should ascertain what the word "atheist" means by taking a poll among atheists. But that is an unclear suggestion. How are we to decide who is an atheist (and thus to be polled) prior to ascertaining what the word "atheist" means? Let us assume that the poll is to be taken among all those native speakers of English who are not theists. It is still not clear what the result of such a poll would be. I have never seen any statistical result presented on the matter. My conclusion here is that no good case has ever been made for using the word "atheist" in the sense of "one who is without belief in God."

In this essay, I shall use the term "atheist" in its (more common) narrow sense. Martin draws a distinction between "negative atheists," who are without any belief in God, and "positive atheists," who deny God's existence.[5]) Applying that distinction, it could be said that I (and most people) use the term "atheist" in the sense of "positive atheist." It should be noted that all positive atheists are automatically negative atheists, which may sound somewhat peculiar when those expressions are used.

In place of the expression "negative atheist," I shall use the term "nontheist." That seems to be a better term (than "atheist") for capturing the more general concept of "one who is without belief in God," for several reasons:

(1) Almost everyone who employs the term "nontheist" already uses it in the given way.

(2) As indicated in dictionaries, most native speakers of English use the term "atheist" for the more definite concept of "one who denies that God exists." It is desirable that we abide by common usage and it is foolish (and probably futile) to try to reform people's usage of terms.

(3) It would be more natural to call infants and fetuses "nontheists" than to call them "atheists."

(4) It is desirable to have a system in which the familiar three classes, theists, atheists, and agnostics, are mutually exclusive, and that would not be possible if the term "atheist" were instead used for the more general concept.

...The reason I call the view "noncognitivism with regard to God-talk" rather than "noncognitivism with regard to religious language" is that the sentence "God exists" occurs in contexts other than religious language. One such context is the field of metaphysics. The existence of God is a standard topic in metaphysics, and there need be no reference within that context to religion or to religious discourse. Thus, the noncognitivist is rejecting the cognitive meaningfulness of various sentences that contain the word "God," whether those sentences occur within religious discourse or not. Consider now the sentence "God1 exists," where some definition has been previously given for the subject term "God1." Relative to that sentence, we may put forward the following definitions:

A noncognitivist is someone who declares that the sentence does not express any proposition at all.

A theist is someone who allows that the sentence expresses a proposition and who classifies the proposition as true or probably true.

An atheist is someone who allows that the sentence expresses a proposition and who classifies the proposition as false or probably false.

An agnostic is someone who allows that the sentence expresses a proposition, and who grants that he/she knows what that proposition is, but who is noncommittal about its truth or falsity on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

It is to be borne in mind here that each category is relative to a particular interpretation of a sentence of the type "God exists," A person may be in one category relative to one interpretation (or one sense of the word "God"), but in a different category relative to another interpretation.

To illustrate these distinctions, consider the following four responses to a request for a definition of the term "God":

God1 = the universe itself (all that exists). [Or, alternatively, God1 = love.]

God2 = the powerful being who created the universe.

God3 = the omnipotent creator of the universe whose highest goal regarding humans is that they believe that he has a son who died for them so that they might obtain salvation.

God4 = ? (No definition is possible; the word is indefinable.)

Now suppose there were a philosopher who examined these four responses. When asked the question "does God exist?" he might very well respond as follows:

In the case of God1, yes, God definitely exists, for it is obvious that the universe [or love] exists. In the case of God2, I understand the question but have no answer to it since the evidence is insufficient. In the case of God3, there is good evidence that such a being does not exist, for most humans do not believe in his son, etc., yet, if such a being were to exist, then probably he would have done things to cause them to have the given belief. And in the case of God4, I do not understand the question. Since no definition of "God4" has been given, the sentence "God4 exists" expresses no proposition whatever.

Given this response, we should say of such a philosopher that he is a theist relative to God1, an agnostic relative to God2, an atheist relative to God3, and a noncognitivist relative to God4. I would say that these answers to the four "does God exist?" questions are reasonable, though they are not necessarily the correct (or "best") answers.

It should be noted that the term "theist" is here being taken in a broad sense, one which includes what are often referred to as "deists" and "pantheists." In a narrower sense, a theist only affirms the existence of a certain type of deity (a personal deity who rules the universe). The distinction between different types of theist (or different senses of the term "theist") is outside the scope of the present essay.

A question might be raised here. Suppose "God5" is defined as "a transcendent spirit capable of thought, feeling, and action," and suppose there is a man who says of the sentence "God5 exists" that it is cognitively meaningless and expresses no proposition. When he says that, does he mean to speak just for himself or does he mean to speak for everyone? In other words, is he merely claiming that he himself does not understand the sentence, whereas there may be others who do? Or is he, instead, claiming that no one understands it? We can initially refer to these two types of noncognitivist as the "subjective noncognitivist" and the "objective noncognitivist." When the man claims not to understand the idea of a transcendent spirit capable of thought, feeling, and action, we need to ask him: Do you mean just that you personally can't grasp that idea (at the present time), allowing the possibility that others may understand it (or that you yourself may come to understand it in the future)? Or, alternatively, are you claiming that the idea is inherently unintelligible, so that no one can possibly grasp it or think it? These are two essentially different types of claim, and so we have here a fundamental distinction between two essentially different types of noncognitivist.

The objective noncognitivist is making a bolder claim, one which is in the public arena and in need of support. His view could be refuted by showing that the term "God5" can be understood sufficiently to allow the sentence "God5 exists" to express a proposition. There could be philosophical debate about such an issue. In the case of the subjective noncognitivist, presumably he is not making a claim in the public arena. He only says that he himself fails to grasp the concept, allowing that possibly others might (or perhaps that he himself might come to grasp it later). Of course, if he were to have very strong doubts about such a possibility, then his position would come close to that of the objective one. In expressing such doubts, he would be making a statement in the public arena.

A similar distinction could be drawn in the case of agnosticism. Subjective agnostics would be people who simply make autobiographical reports regarding their own situation. Each of them says, for example, "I don't have enough evidence one way or the other to give an answer to the question whether God5 exists." In contrast, objective agnostics would be making a statement in the public arena. It is the statement that there just does not exist sufficient evidence to warrant an answer to the given question, and if anyone at all were to answer the question with a yes or no, then that would be a mistake, and perhaps irrational.

The way I have been construing agnosticism, it is the objective view that I have in mind. And similarly for noncognitivism. When I speak of that position, it should be understood that it is the objective form to which I mean to refer. Thus, given a specific definition of "God," agnostics are people who claim that no one has sufficient evidence to warrant acceptance of either theism or atheism. And noncognitivists are people who claim that no one understands the sentence "God exists" in a way that would allow it to express a proposition.

One objection to my definition of "atheism" is that it seems to allow no way for anyone to simply proclaim, "I am an atheist" irrespective of the definition given for "God." It seems to force one to always listen to a definition of "God" before saying, "I am an atheist relative to that definition." A better way of defining "atheism," it is claimed, is "denial of the existence of all gods." I have two replies to this objection. First, to define "atheism" as the denial of the existence of all gods is unsatisfactory, because there may be gods that clearly do exist. Some people say, "God is the universe" or "God is love." The reasonable response here should be to grant that God does exist when defined that way. Consider also primitive tribes who worshiped huge statues as gods. We should be able to say, "Their god was a huge statue." But if we say that, then we need to grant that their god did indeed exist. Second, discussions of the existence of God almost always occur within linguistic contexts in which a certain particular concept of God is understood. So one could legitimately proclaim "I am an atheist" in such a setting without first agreeing on a definition of "God," for the simple reason that some definition of "God" is already being assumed. For example, if one is discussing the topic with Christians, then it might be assumed that it is the Christian concept of God that is at issue. There would then be no problem in simply proclaiming, "I am an atheist," for it would be understood within that particular context that what is meant is "I am an atheist with regard to the God of Christianity."

As indicated previously, agnostics allow that "God exists" expresses a proposition, but they regard the evidence as insufficient to warrant committing oneself one way or the other about the truth value of the proposition. They are not even willing to say that the proposition is probably true or that it is probably false. If a person were to say that it is probably true, then I would call him a "theist," even if he is not willing to go so far as to say that he "believes in God." He may just say that the evidence presently available favors the proposition that God exists (where the term "God" is given some particular definition). I would call him a "theist" so long as he leans to that side. Similarly, I would call a person an "atheist" even if he is not willing to say that he believes in God's nonexistence. He may just say that the available evidence favors the proposition that God does not exist (given some particular definition of "God"). I would say that's enough to classify the person as an "atheist," at least relative to the given definition of "God." We could draw a distinction here between "weak theists" and "strong theists," and between "weak atheists" and "strong atheists," depending on how strongly they proclaim their view. But in contrast to these positions, the agnostic does not claim that the available evidence favors either side, even to the slightest degree.

11:44:00 am