Friday, August 24, 2012

Can atheists and believers both be right?

 Let's take a simple case where most people would want to avoid being relativists. Let's take the claim that the world is round. If someone thought the earth was flat, and then went around the world on a ship, it looks as if the sensible conclusion would be that they were in error about that, that the thought the earth was flat, but it turns out to be round.

Now, let's try something else. We may be unsure as to who committed the Jack the Ripper murders, since the case was never solved. But we do know that someone did. That seems to suggest to me that even in cases where we don't have sufficient evidence that something is true, sufficient to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt, we still believe that someone is right about it. Thus, many people believe that O. J. Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, even though the jury didn't think there was enough evidence for a conviction.

Of course, being right doesn't mean being justified in one's belief. Thus, I can get the right answer to a math problem by guessing. It's still the right answer, even if the teacher doesn't give me credit for it because I didn't show my work.

Now let's consider a scenario in the matter of religious belief. Suppose a person were to be an atheist throughout their lives, and a person who does not believe in life after death (as almost all atheists do). Suppose this atheist were to die, but continue to exist, and were then to experience the presence of a very powerful being on a white throne (let's say), and that being on the throne were to ask the atheist why he did not believe in his existence during his lifetime. (We can imagine this atheist being sent to overheated living quarters thereafter). Wouldn't the sensible think for this atheist to say be that those darned Christians were right after all?

29 comments:

BeingItself said...

The sensible thing would be for the atheist to think that he was wrong about life after death.

Crude said...

Wouldn't the sensible think for this atheist to say be that those darned Christians were right after all?

According to PZ Myers, he'd assign or hold out for a "naturalistic" explanation for this. And in principle, a "naturalistic" explanation is always imaginable or available. (It's a delusion, it's deception, it's a powerful being that is not god, it's I don't know but I'll hold out here.)

I'd agree with you entirely. But I also know from experience that people will quickly redefine 'the sensible thing' if they're motivated enough.

BeingItself said...

Also, most Christians I know do not think their god is a guy sitting on a throne. So if god is a being that sits on a throne, most Christians would be wrong about god.

finney said...

Yes, but if belief in God weren't warranted during life on earth, then the atheist (or the theist) had no opportunity to know that God exists. The dice may roll either way, what's the good atheist to do?

Papalinton said...

This OP is just another re-cast of Pascal's Wager.

The two initial examples given are naturalistic, in that they are based on physical facts. The final god bit is based on insubstantial ideation, and the two earlier examples are not analogous. A much more fitting analogy would be to posit that pink unicorns are real if only on the basis that you have nothing to lose.

This is the quintessential nature of religious belief, a mental state based on an epistemological misconstrual of religious-based knowledge and the improper use of the phrase 'religious truth' as fact or evidence. And we know that ain't so, because while substantial others regard the Ganesha elephant god as a 'religious truth', we on this site clearly all think this is a crock. And just as Resurrection is imagined as a 'religious truth' clearly many of us on this site know this to be a crock and for pretty much the same reasons.

unkleE said...

Of course I agree with you. And it would be possible to construct an alternative scenario, where scientists discover clear proof (I don't know how) that the universe is eternal, we find elaborate historical documentation to show how the early christians set up the stories about an actually non-existent Jesus, and the neuroscientists (I don't know how) are able to prove that free will is an illusion and we are no more than robots made of meat. We might then ask:

"Wouldn't the sensible think for a christian to say be that those darned atheists were right after all?"

In other words, both belief systems are in principle verifiable and falsifiable, it's just that the "proof" is very unlikely to occur in this life, and (perhaps) too late if it occurs in the next.

I'm unsure what your point is here Vic.

Crude said...

unkleE,

In other words, both belief systems are in principle verifiable and falsifiable,

No, they're not. The scenario you outline falsifies Christianity. Theism? No.

The scenario Victor outlines does not falsify naturalism, much less materialism.

There is a tremendous gulf between "I would change my mind given that evidence", "I think anyone should change their mind given that evidence", and "the claim has been falsified".

Ryan Anderson said...

This seems very weak, and like Papalinton said it's merely a recasting of Pascal's wager.

Since we're making all sorts of assumptions, let's assume, that a Christian, in the seconds before their death, has a profound sense that it is all is ending and there will be no more for them (let's say). In those last seconds, wouldn't the sensible thing for them to say be that those darned atheists were right after all?

What if the absolutely theologically correct Christian who totally is a real Christian (let's say) finds themselves in some sort of yet unconvinced version of hell? What should they think?

What's the point of all this?

Wouldn't you agree that there are in fact some things that cannot be known? If one believed in something that couldn't be known, and happened to be "right", they wouldn't actually be right.

Crude said...

Ryan,

This seems very weak, and like Papalinton said it's merely a recasting of Pascal's wager.

Linton's a moron. Don't follow his lead.

Where in the world are you getting "Pascal's Wager" from Victor post? Because I'm pretty sure Pascal's ****ing Wager isn't, "Die, and then if you see God, you should probably believe." He's talking about relativism and what he thinks the reasonable limits of it are.

Ryan Anderson said...

Crude, that may be true about Papalinton, but you've not demonstrated it.

Also, what does "recasting" mean to you?

Crude said...

Crude, that may be true about Papalinton, but you've not demonstrated it.

I don't need to, he demonstrates it all on his own. This isn't "he's an atheist, therefore he's dumb" talk. He's a freaking rube and attention whore, even by Cult of Gnu standards.

Don't take my word for it. Check archives if you like, and forget for a moment that he's an atheist and therefore on your side. I don't say what I say lightly, and especially when he's fresh in the middle of misunderstanding something, it's apt.

Also, what does "recasting" mean to you?

In this case, it means someone didn't really read the OP. Seriously, what's being addressed is relativism. It's not a take on Pascal's freaking Wager.

Ryan Anderson said...

You didn't read my full comment then.

Crude said...

Your comment starts off with an agreement that what Victor has presented is a recasting of Pascal's Wager. I'm calling that out as silly.

Even the end of your comment barely gets into the OP, since whether or not we're justified in our belief (which Victor leaves as an open question), surely there's a fact of the matter about whether one claim is, in fact, correct or incorrect. Or do you deny even that?

finney said...

And what exactly is the atheist right about in this picture?

Ryan Anderson said...

I still maintain he did, we'll have to agree to disagree.

But I think we tend to discount the whole "lost to the mists of time" thing. Certainly something either happened or didn't, but we're often in no position to even pretend to know if it did or not. So it's not a question of whether the atheist or the Christian is "right", it's that there cannot be determined who is "right" in any meaningful or practical way.

And punting to "well, when you die, you'll find out", besides being worthless, is in fact a form of Pascal's Wager (OK, so maybe I didn't agree to disagree).

rank sophist said...

Ryan,

Pascal's Wager is a wager. Reppert's post is not a wager. The end.

Victor Reppert said...

No wager here. You have to read all sorts of apologetical motivations into my statements which simply aren't there. I do apologetics sometimes, and just plain philosophy at others.

I am arguing against an idea that is probably more popular amongst undergraduates than amongst philosophers or scientists, namely, the idea that somehow everyone can be right in this religion debate, or rather, that no one can be wrong. In the absence of physical proof on way or the other, the question of God is relative to the person. Thus, if someone truly believes that God exists, then that belief is true for them, and if someone truly believes that God does not exist, then that is true for them also. The comment that I sometimes make about this position is that it turns God into Tinkerbell (a comment that I first heard in a class I took from Hugo Meynell about D. Z. Phillips's philosophical theology). My claim is simply that there is such a thing as having a correct or incorrect view of the matter of whether or not God exists, and that you have be correct or incorrect even if the issue can't be settled by argument one way or the other.

That's all there is to it.

Victor Reppert said...

What I am attacking would be every bit as anathema to Richard Dawkins as it is to William Lane Craig. Believe it or not, they agree on something.

Papalinton said...

Victor
It remains a Pascal's Wager because it presupposes, on the basis of a hypothetical, one can only find out whether life continues to exist post mortem, after death, and while one can opine equally for or against the proposition, there is no prospect, ever, of a resolution on this side of the existential barrier. But that does not make them equal propositions in the circumstances. One does not have to prove the negative to disprove the life after death proposition. One must assume the negative and it is incumbent on whoever posits the proposition, to prove, in this case, that life does indeed exist after death. Until proof for the existence of life after death is forthcoming, the proposition remains fully speculative and the case for the proposition is founded on nothing more than wishful thinking. The statement that clinches the Pascal Wager, is the qualifying sentence, "Wouldn't the sensible think [sic] for this atheist to say be that those darned Christians were right after all?", a statement with the same emotional sensibility expressed in, "What have you got to lose?"

You say, "In the absence of physical proof on way or the other, the question of God is relative to the person. Thus, if someone truly believes that God exists, then that belief is true for them, and if someone truly believes that God does not exist, then that is true for them also. "

I dealt with this perspective in my statement, "This is the quintessential nature of religious belief, a mental state based on an epistemological misconstrual of religious-based knowledge and the improper use of the phrase 'religious truth' as fact or evidence." Someone even simply 'believing', let alone, 'truly believing' that God exists, does not in any way make it true in the sense of fact or evidence. It is an improper use of the word 'true', a use that is very different from its definition and from that which is usually understood. The religious use of the word is an unsubstantiated conflation between the word 'true' used to denote factually correct, accurate, verifiable, in accordance with the facts; and the word 'true' meaning heartfelt, from the heart, faithful, constant, devoted, staunch, steadfast, true-blue, unswerving, and unwavering.

Your further explanation, "I am arguing against an idea that is probably more popular amongst ....." does not address these points.

The Wager stands.

Walter said...

The fact that the atheist and the Christian theist can't both be right is trivially true. Another option is that both of them might turn out to be wrong. There may be a God who isn't the Christian God, and this God may not provide an afterlife to anyone.

Syphax said...

As a fan of William James and a researcher of religion I must put in a plug for that mode of thinking. I do research in the psychology of religion, which examines the motivations, reasons, benefits, harms, and general effects of religion in terms of psychology.

The whole scientific enterprise of religion research gets held up if any of us are in the business of "proving" religion True or False (in capital T or F terms). Setting up an experiment to test to see if a soul exists or to see if intercessory prayer is effective are largely wastes of time for many reasons.

As such, it is a much more useful mindset to see truth the way William James did, and which is attacked in this post. Rather than trying to take one side or another, let's shelve that debate and redefine truth as something that is context- or individual-specific. So person X believes in God. What does this belief do for him? Why does he think it is true? Does it lead to behavior changes? Does it change his personality? Does it change his cognition? Does he regard it as true in the same sense that the external world exists? Does it affect his relationships with others? Etc.

So it is not a good way to discover ultimate truth, but the reason some researchers choose that mindset is because it frees up the researcher to do scholarship that circumvents the issue of whether you'll stand before the throne of God when you're dead.

I'm not a philosopher, so perhaps my explanation is not precise enough. What do you think?

rank sophist said...

William James was a bigger sophist than Protagoras.

Victor Reppert said...

"Wouldn't the sensible think [sic] for this atheist to say be that those darned Christians were right after all?

That was a statement I made about a situation in which an atheist experiences a last judgment. AT THAT POINT it would be sensible for an atheist to admit that he had been wrong. That hasn't happened to you, Papa, yet.

Nor do I think that it would be sensible for someone who looks at the evidence as you do to bet on God. I would never recommend to someone who thinks that theism is almost certainly false to force themselves to believe for pragmatic reasons. The point is something you and I agree on, that the proposition "God exists" can be true or false, and evidence is relevant.

This post actually started out as a reply to an online student.

Crude said...

Victor,

Your post was clear to anyone who bothered to actually read and reflect on it, and who isn't afflicted with some manner of learning disability. Don't sweat Linton's feet-stamping - it's borne out of rube-ism and (at this point) embarrassment more than anything.

Really, I think it's sad that such an innocent post can get people going off in all kinds of different directions.

Papalinton said...

True Victor, for me having to yet experience death. And were I to be asked why I didn't believe, my reply would be, "No evidence." As an atheist there is no concept of a last judgement. The last judgement is a purely theological construct. It seems to have been forgotten, Victor, that this lad was indeed bound to the same beliefs as you. So I understand where you are coming from. And as an atheist I have set aside all those constructs. The likelihood of this event happening probably has about the same prospect of my meeting Captain Piccard.

B. Prokop said...

"Make it so!"

Walter said...

The likelihood of this event happening probably has about the same prospect of my meeting Captain Piccard.

You actually can meet Captain Picard, but nowadays he goes by the name of Patrick Stewart. :)

BeingItself said...

"No, they're not. The scenario you outline falsifies Christianity. Theism? No."

Crude,

Could you please construct a hypothetical scenario that falsifies theism. Thanks.

im-skeptical said...

I agree with Victor. The first thing that popped into my head when I read his post is: Finally - some evidence that may be sufficient for me to change my mind. Of course, I'd first want to be sure it isn't just an illusion.