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Thursday 26 May 2016

Are Babies Atheists? Semantics and Communication.

It often occurs in certain discussions that atheism must adhere to this or that definition, and that any definition other than the one being supported by X is a dishonest attempt to evade the cogent points of arguer Y. These discussions only ever crop up in particular circumstances, generally in the sorts of venues where atheists and theists gather to debate.

In this post, I want to talk about what I mean when I say I'm an atheist, and to support my particular usage. It's going to be, quelle surprise, a post about semantics.

Semantics, oft-maligned in discourse, generally as a means of dismissing an argument or a position, is an extremely important discipline, and forms the basis for a huge amount of philosophical discourse. Semantics deals with what we mean when we say a thing. As such it's the very heart of communication.

The vast majority of philosophy (of which science is a subset, albeit the only one that's ever provided substantive knowledge of the universe) is concerned with semantics. Read any discourse on philosophy, and you'll find that a considerable amount of the time is spent defining and justifying terms.

Semantics is among the most important disciplines in philosophy. Dismissing an argument on the basis that 'it's just semantics' is, therefore, and to employ a favourite footballing analogy, the equivalent of diving in the penalty area. It's a cheat. A lazy cop-out indicating a lack of wherewithal to deal with an opponent's argument or the intellectual honesty to simply admit it. 

So, what does it mean to define something? Generally speaking, defining an entity means collating all the attributes that describe an entity, and working out which of them are both necessary and sufficient. These terms are fairly straightforward and should require no further explanation.

In the case of atheism, it is sufficient for an entity not to accept (regardless of whether or not they're actually capable of accepting) a specific class of truth-claim with regard to the existence of deities. Any entity that does not accept said truth-claims can reasonably be described as an atheist. It is also necessary, because if one does accept these truth-claims, one is a theist. This definition describes ALL positions that fall under the rubric of atheism, and excludes ALL that do not. Thus it defines what it is to be an atheist.

One of the common objections to this as a term is that, under such a definition, bricks and babies would be atheist, and it seems absurd to employ such terms to bricks and babies.

The simple fact is that bricks, electrons, sperm, eggs, are all atheist. It only appears to be silly to describe them as such because those are not useful concepts to apply to them. Everything in the universe that does not have an active belief in a deity is atheist, but most of the things in the universe simply couldn't possess a concept such as a deity, so to actually describe them as atheist is meaningless. This is because, absent a conception of a deity, the term itself is meaningless. One doesn't actually need to have encountered or formed an opinion on the concept of a deity to be atheist, because the term itself is a privative, as denoted by the privative prefix 'a', meaning that it's a word describing the absence of something. We say that it only applies to thinking entities because the opposing referent only applies to thinking entities. Indeed, it's not stretching the point to state that, absent theists, applying the term 'atheist' to humans would be equally absurd.

Atheism is simply the non-acceptance of a specific class of truth-claim with regard to the existence of deities. One doesn't have to be a conscious, thinking entity to qualify, and all entities that are incapable of forming an opinion, including bricks, are thus defined.

Is a brick bald? Of course it is, because it doesn't have hair. It doesn't have to be capable of having hair to qualify as bald.For it to be described as bald only requires that it be devoid of keratinous filaments.

Now, some apologists will say that this can't be correct, because if somebody tells you that they are atheist, it tells you that they've thought about it and arrived at a specific position. This particular fallacy, a form of category error, is a simple confusion of map with terrain. Certainly somebody that tells you they're atheist has given it sufficient thought to have arrived at this, but atheism doesn't require the ability to tell somebody you're atheist, only that you don't believe.

Another common objection is to appeal to a dictionary, which is a common twin fallacy I like to call the argumentum ad lexicum. The two fallacies being committed here are the argumentum ad populum and the argumentum ad verecundiam. This is because a) a dictionary only denotes popular usage, and b) it isn't a valid authority on what words mean, not least because dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. Aside from other considerations, if dictionaries were prescriptive, every word since Dr Johnson would be fixed, and future evolution of language would not be possible. This is clearly absurd.

Moreover, while many dictionaries do indeed give the definition of atheism as 'the belief that no gods exist' or some equivalent, they also generally contain the definition 'absence of belief or disbelief in the existence of deities' or some such, meaning that even applying the argumentum ad lexicum doesn't make the case for the more rigid definition.

On the other hand, the one attribute shared by the entire set of all entities that can be described as atheist is non-acceptance of a specific class of truth-claim with regard to the existence of a specific set of entities. This attribute is both necessary to be described as atheist (if you accept this class of claims, you're a theist) and it is sufficient (no further attributes are necessary).

Of course, there are various positions regarding what type of atheist one is, including the position that no gods exist. Such a position is still described as atheist, but now requires a qualifier to fully define the position.

Another important term, and one of the aforementioned qualifiers, is 'agnostic', often treated as some sort of middle-ground between theism and atheism, and defined as 'not knowing'. In the context of belief in a deity, such a definition would be redundant in the extreme, because nobody knows. Agnosticism, in sensu Huxley, who coined the term, is the position that knowledge is not possible. Agnosticism is, therefore, a position concerning the possibility of knowledge. 

For myself, I vacillate between gnosticism and agnosticism, depending entirely on the conception of deity being presented. For any interventionist deity, for example, I'd expect evidence of their intervention to be discoverable. Further, for specific conceptions of deity, such as the absurd entity described in the hokey blurble, I consider myself a strong, gnostic atheist. That entity does not - and cannot - exist.

There are those on the atheist side of the fence, most notably biologist PZ Myers, who suggest that atheism should mean more and, indeed, that atheists who argue on the basis of such a definition are doing a disservice to atheism. I can sympathise with this assessment, not least because of Myers' particular situation, as a professor of evolutionary biology who often has to defend his discipline against attack from supporters of well-funded organisations with significant political clout whose sole purpose is to undermine evolutionary theory in the fallacious belief that this will somehow confer validity on their myths. I entirely understand his position and, being something of a didact and somewhat concerned with the scientific education of the world at large, I share many of his concerns. However, I don't share his view on the definition of the term itself. Here's a portion of Myers' post, a follow-up to a talk given in Montreal:

If I ask you to explain to me why you are an atheist, reciting the dictionary at me, you are saying nothing: asking why you are a person who does not believe in god is not answered when you reply, “Because I am a person who does not believe in god.” And if you protest when I say that there is more to the practice of atheism than that, insisting that there isn’t just makes you dogmatic and blind.

This comes back to my earlier point about the distinction between an atheist and somebody who's given the matter sufficient thought to be able to self-identify as an atheist.

He continues:

In that Montreal talk, I explained that there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it’s actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It’s a consequence, not a cause.

And this is all well and good, and tells you about Myers' own journey to atheism, but this is not reflective of a large group of people whose journey was different. 

He goes on:
My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are. I think we also do a disservice to the movement when we pretend it’s solely a mob of individuals who lack a belief, rather than an organization with positive goals and values.

Here we see the real issue I have with this entire approach. Thing is, I never did become an atheist. I always was one. I never believed. For the record, I tried really hard to believe when I was young. I come from a very large Catholic family, and it seemed really important to all the people I cared about that I'd have an eternal life which, in their esteem, could only come about by accepting Christ as my saviour. I could never suspend disbelief sufficiently to be able to accept the central claims of Christianity. They were simply never believable to me. My scientific attitude and my valuation of evidence and reason, which I share with Myers, came later. Was I not an atheist until I held such attitudes? 

If I was born in London, and Myers got on a plane travelling to London, are we not both still in London?

I know that, while I'm certainly in the minority among atheists, my experience is definitely not entirely in isolation, not least because I know many atheists who've been atheists since birth, and have never believed. It's also worth noting once again the backdrop of Myers' atheism, because that informs his position.

As for the 'movement', it's difficult for me to tell whether I'm part of it. I certainly consider myself an activist in support of a scientific world-view, and have spent considerable portions of the last decade and more advocating against religious nonsense, and have garnered something of a reputation for being merciless to bad ideas generally, sharing Myers' idea that we should be organised with positive goals and values. However, these are separate from my atheism, which is neither a consequence nor a cause, it's a simple privative. These values are my love of science and reason, which inform my activism as an atheist, but have no impact whatsoever on my atheism itself.

There is another group of people who self-identify as atheists and who insist that atheism should be more, largely, I think, because of a need to feel superior. I have no such need (and I don't classify Myers in this group, to be absolutely clear).

In short, atheist isn't something I am, it's something I'm not.

Note: I'll shortly be compiling a glossary detailing common sources of equivocation and how I use the terms. They're not intended, in the same way that none of the terms I've defined anywhere in this blog, to serve as prescriptive definitions that everybody must use, but serve only to avoid ambiguity in what I say. I'll get this project completed once I have the five or six posts currently in development out of the way.

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