Ask the Atheist (round 6)

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 6, 2010 in Ask the Atheist

Because I know everything, obviously.

Because I know everything, obviously.

Earlier, I invited my readers to ask me anything. You may ask more questions here, but please read the instructions first. Or, submit an audio question! Here is my sixth round of responses.

Question 021

Silver Bullet asks:

What is meant by “contra-causal” in the phrase contra-causal free will?

“Contra-causal free will” is another term for “libertarian free will.” I prefer the term “contra-causal free will” because:

  1. The term “libertarianism” makes people think of politics.
  2. The phrase “contra-causal” is sometimes sufficient to explain what I mean by itself.

Contra-causal free will is the power to do something without yourself being fully caused to do it. This is what most people mean by “free will.” Contra-causal free will is distinct from what you might call caused free will, which is the type of free will compatibilists like Frankfurt and Dennett accept. Those with caused free will are able to do what they want. But this doesn’t mean that their actions are somehow free from causal determination. What you want, and therefore how you act, are totally determined by the causal chain of past events (neurons firing, atoms moving, etc.) Basically, if humans have only caused free will, then we are yet another species of animal. If humans have contra-causal free will, then we have a very special ability to transcend the causal chain to which the rest of nature is subject.

Question 022

Silver Bullet asks:

Why isn’t philosophy of religion just another way of talking about the emperor’s invisible clothes? I mean, there is no interest in philosophy of tea reading, or philosophy of witchcraft, so why all the fuss about philosophy of religion? Its just a lot of thinking about BS isn’t it? And where it isn’t clearly BS, the only answers can come from science, so where’s the need for philosophy of religion?

Much of “philosophical theology” is indeed talking about the emperor’s invisible clothes. The philosophy of religion I focus on tends to argue over whether or not the Emperor is, indeed, naked. Theists think they have shown the Emperor is wearing clothes, even if we can’t see them. I think theists haven’t show any such thing. There is no philosophy of tea reading because there just aren’t enough educated people who accept tea reading for there to be any professional philosophers who defend tea reading. In contrast, most people are religious, so there are lots of these people who become professional philosophers, and want to argue about religion. Very few philosophers think that answers can only come from science.

Question 023

Gabriel asks:

Do you believe in no God, or not believe in a God? Do you think there’s a difference?

I’m going to rephrase your question. I think you mean: “Do you believe there is no God, or do you simply lack a belief in God?” I certainly lack a belief in God. But so does my bed. So lacking a belief in God isn’t sufficient to use the label “atheist.” Unless you believe there are atheist beds. Maybe an atheist is someone who has considered the existence of God and come away lacking a belief in God. I’m certainly an atheist in that sense. Or maybe an atheist is someone who positively believes there is no God. In that case, I’m still an atheist because I think there are good arguments to show it’s very unlikely that God exists (under the usual tri-omni definition of God).

Question 024

Silver Bullet asks:

What do you consider to be the best or most persuasive argument you encounter from theists and why? Can you gauge for us how persuasive you find it to be?

On My Scale of Dumb Theistic Arguments, I listed cosmological arguments as the most persuasive. Since I don’t buy the Principle of Sufficient Reason on which Leibnizian cosmological arguments depend, I suppose the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is the most persuasive for me. But it’s so full of holes I really must say I don’t find any theistic arguments to be at all persuasive. Why is the KCA the best theistic argument I know of? First, because there are lots of arguments I haven’t studied in as much depth as the KCA. Second, because all the other arguments I’ve studied are just soooooo bad. And yes, that includes the teleological argument.

Question 025

Rick asks:

Suppose [somebody conclusively disproves the existence of God.] What do you hold the chances to be that humanity in general will give up their false religions and beliefs? In particular, that the radical and violent fundamentalist sects will lose membership and influence?

A conclusive disproof of God would hasten the death of religion in educated circles, which would in turn hasten the death of fundamentalist faith. (Moderates do their best to legitimize the faith of extremists while condemning their specific actions.) I disagree with Brian Hayden on this. I think humanity can live on without religion, especially if we develop safe, stable societies like those in Scandinavia. A conclusive disproof of God would hasten the arrival of a godless world, though many other things would have more effect.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony March 6, 2010 at 6:59 am

Luke: A conclusive disproof of God would hasten the death of religion in educated circles, which would in turn hasten the death of fundamentalist faith.

Unfortunately I think it would take a very long time before fundamentalism would disappear (and I mean multiple generations, maybe longer, or if ever). I say this because so many of them are so committed to their faith that no disproof (even if it was conclusive) would cause them to reject their beliefs. Take the case of evolution, the evidence from science is, for all intents and purposes, conclusive but how many religious people reject it for some time of creationism.

So, I have to take a less optimistic view of religious people, especially fundamentalism going away any time soon even in the light of conclusive contrary evidence.

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lukeprog March 6, 2010 at 8:08 am

Anthony, I don’t think I disagree.

People still believe in astrology, Zoroastrianism, and Oprah.

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Rich Griese March 6, 2010 at 10:47 am

WHAT!

You don’t don’t worship that sacred COW Oprah!

BURN HIM!

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Scott March 6, 2010 at 11:51 am

But sacred cows make the best hamburgers!

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Alec March 6, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Hey Luke, my question is, who has written, in your opinion, the best critique of the kalam so far? Thanks!

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lukeprog March 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Alec,

I probably won’t be able to answer that until I finish my ‘mapping the kalam’ series… in 2015. :)

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ildi March 7, 2010 at 6:58 am

Very few philosophers think that answers can only come from science.

What relationship do you see between science and philosophy in advancing human knowledge? In particular, what are the questions that philosophers consider to be unanswerable using the scientific method?

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Hermes March 7, 2010 at 10:36 am

Luke: I’m going to rephrase your question. I think you mean: “Do you believe there is no God, or do you simply lack a belief in God?” I certainly lack a belief in God. But so does my bed. So lacking a belief in God isn’t sufficient to use the label “atheist.” Unless you believe there are atheist beds. Maybe an atheist is someone who has considered the existence of God and come away lacking a belief in God. I’m certainly an atheist in that sense. Or maybe an atheist is someone who positively believes there is no God. In that case, I’m still an atheist because I think there are good arguments to show it’s very unlikely that God exists (under the usual tri-omni definition of God).

The word “theist” (and by extension, atheist) explicitly covers a person, just like other nouns used for categories that people are placed in, but unaware objects such as beds and rocks are not.

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Josh March 7, 2010 at 1:36 pm

I’ve always wondered what makes contra-causal free will any different from just behaving randomly?

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lukeprog March 7, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Josh,

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘randomly’, but contra-causal free will refers to freely and willfully choosing to do something you intended, without being caused to do so by the prior state of the universe.

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Josh March 7, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Luke,

Consider the following thought experiment:

Start a person off in a T maze ( http://www.physics.uwo.ca/science_olympics/images/amarod02.gif ) and let them go forward. They will go one of either left or right. Now repeat the experiment with the exact same initial state (physical and mental state) 10000 times (this is why it’s a thought experiment). There are 2 possible outcomes: either he goes one way every time or he goes left with probability p and right with probability 1-p.

On the former, that is certainly determinism. The latter however, doesn’t seem distinguishable from randomness. What does it mean to “choose” to go left or right in this case? To me it doesn’t seem to capture willfully choosing…

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lukeprog March 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Josh,

Oh, gosh, that question I must leave to those who believe in contra-causal free will. I’m not sure the notion is coherent. :)

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Josh March 7, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Luke,

Do you have anywhere you think I could look? I feel like I’m short changing the idea (obviously wrong though it is…) but it just seems totally incoherent to me too!

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Edson March 8, 2010 at 12:16 am

Qn #23: Do you believe in no God, or not believe in a God? Do you think there’s a difference?

May be Gabriel meant to know the difference between somebody who believes there is literally no such thing as God (at least the God as understood by many religious people, particularly Christians), and the one who believes such a God may exist but there is no sufficient motivation/reasons/evidence to believe/trust adore in such a thing.

If I were to respond to such a question, I think many atheists who subscribe to fundamentalist atheism are cocksure there is absolutely no such thing as God. Liberal atheists (including liberal christians) do not see there is a compelling evidence for existence of such a God, but they lack enough motivation (for purely emotional reasons) to rally against religious beliefs. Sometimes they are sympathetic to religious beliefs.

As far as I’m concerned – because I am a Christian – there is no difference between liberal atheism and fundamentalist atheism.

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Edson March 8, 2010 at 12:39 am

Qn #25: A conclusive disproof of God would hasten the death of religion in educated circles, which would in turn hasten the death of fundamentalist faith.

It will depend on what someone defines as the conclusive proof that there is no God. For me, conclusive proof is to show that Jesus did not rise from the dead.

Antony: Take the case of evolution, the evidence from science is, for all intents and purposes, conclusive…

See what I mean when I say it will depend on what it means by “conclusive proof”. Antony, if someone sees there is enough evidence for trusting God exists, what are taken to be evidence for evolution (e.g. common ancestry) can no more be used to indicate Darwinism (i.e. strict naturalism). In fact, the Intelligent Design theory does a better job to show holes in Darwinism and to reveal the presumptions and incredulity behind freaking evolutionism zealotry. This is not to say that I am a supporter of ID, no, I’m not shying away to name who the Designer is.

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lukeprog March 8, 2010 at 5:24 am

Josh,

Start here.

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Hermes March 8, 2010 at 7:20 am

Edson, it’s not clear what precisely Gabriel was asking or if he(?) was looking for additional content to be added to the answer he expected from Luke.

That said, when you use the words “liberal” and “fundamentalist”, those are political and theistic terms that don’t really apply to all generic atheists. Someone can be liberal politically and an atheist, yet they can also be conservative politically and an atheist. Someone can be an atheist and firm in their position, but not fundamentalist as atheists don’t universally have sacred texts.

Keep in mind also that someone could be a Buddhist and strictly follow Buddhist scriptures yet not consider Buddha a deity. Such a person would be a fundamentalist atheist, but that’s probably not what you were aiming at.

In my case, I can state unequivocally that some deities do not exist and I think I have sufficient support for that position to convince most people that are interested in evidence. The time required to convey that explanation may be anywhere from a few minutes to weeks or even months to provide depending on the person. For most deities, though, most people have not considered them at all so there’s not much to ‘convince’ them of; they have already dismissed those other deities and only cling to their own as being credible for some reason, though I doubt many have done the work necessary to understand why those other deities are not likely or credible.

Yet, I don’t claim that no deities can exist. There are some that are possible (deities of the pantheists and deists come to mind), there are some that can not exist (too numerous to list), and there are some that do indeed exist but (to me) seem to lack enough support to merit the term ‘deity’ being applied to them.

So, what am I?

First, let’s talk about what I claim to know as opposed to what I believe.

I’m an agnostic towards those deities that I consider possible, based on what I know.

I’m a gnostic towards those deities that I consider impossible, based on what I know.

Yet, Gabriel’s question was not about knowledge. It was about belief. So, what about that?

I’m an atheist because no deities are ones I believe exist.

Thus, I’m an agnostic atheist to the general question “Do any gods exist?” Meaning; I don’t know for certain that there are no deities, but I believe there are none.

Yet, I’m a gnostic atheist to a small set of specific deities; “Does [deity Y] exist?” Meaning; I know for certain that [deity Y] does not exist, and I believe [deity Y] does not exist.”

So, how many atheists are ‘cocksure there is absolutely no such thing as a deity’? Very few, though if they found any deity claims credible enough they would be theists and not atheists even if not specifically your variety of Christian. How many are certain that some deities do not exist? Quite a few. Context matters; it’s not always about the Christian deity.

To put this in context of your closing sentence; to a Muslim, there is no difference between all Christians that deny Allah and all atheists that deny Allah. Either they both acknowledge Allah and turn to Him, or they are both Kafirs as they ‘cover up the truth of Allah and His prophet Muhammad’.

Point being: Just as it makes no sense to lump all Christians and all atheists into the same group, it makes no sense to call all atheists ‘liberal’ or ‘fundamentalist’. There are better words.

For reference, here’s a chart used on this web site that can give a general idea about the forms of theism (of which belief in Yahweh existing is one example of theism) or atheism (of which there are no theisms or even religious texts, minus some atheistic religions such as a segment of the Buddhist population), and knowledge claims (gnostic=knowing, agnostic=lack of knowledge currently or a claim that no knowledge is possible for whatever reason).

http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/atheism-agnosticism.png

As it is impossible to simultaneously both believe and not believe that any deities exist, everyone is either a theist of some sort (with belief) or they lack belief (and thus are atheists). The same can be said of a great number of categories that people are in by definition, regardless of if people appreciate those categorizations or not. For example; humans being part of the great ape family in biology.

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Hermes March 8, 2010 at 7:30 am

Edson, also keep in mind that you are probably ‘cocksure’ that many deities (not including Yahweh) do not exist.

This is normal.

I would bet that most people — atheists or theists (Hindus, theistic Buddhists, Scientologists, Christians (Catholics, Mormons, Baptists …), …) — have similar cocksuredness.

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Edson March 9, 2010 at 12:18 am

Hermes, I tend to agree with you on almost everything there. Sure, it may not be useful to label at face value an atheist as a liberal or a fundamentalist. Because the term itself “atheist” is a reactionary, parasitic term whose survival entirely relies on the existence of other independent and active belief systems.

Yet, we shouldn’t make a mistake of ignoring that for any given ideology, be it secular or religious, active or reactive, atheist or theist there are in it the so-called moderates and the fundamentalists.

In fact, it is not even an issue to be a moderate or a fundamentalist of any particular ideology unless UNLESS the ideology itself is rotten to the core. After all, fundamentalist Buddhists, conservative democrats (small “d”) or Genesis 1 literalists pose no threat to society at large and that is because their belief system is not aberrant or threatening.

But when a belief system is fundamentally flawed, such as Communism (read: concentrated form of Atheism), Nazism (read: applied Darwinism) or Jihadism (read: Islam in action) then fundamentalism becomes a big problem.

What a particular moderate in a putrid belief system does now and again, including something which looks intellectual e.g. common sense atheism, can be nothing more than a tactic to explain away a deeply flawed philosophical world-view which if left to prevail, the survival of human race is at stake.

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Leo March 9, 2010 at 1:46 am

What is your reason for not accepting the PSR?
Not that you have to have a reason, since you don’t accept the PSR :-)

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WillieG March 9, 2010 at 5:45 am

You totally didn’t answer #24. What’s up with that? You can’t just say it’s the best because it’s the one I’ve studied. You sound like a theist!! :-)

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Hermes March 9, 2010 at 7:03 am

Edson, you are my doppleganger and occasionally a good advertisement for my side when you overreach.

Agreed on extremists of any stripe, yet I strongly recommend a better choice of words because the connotations of the ones you have chosen lead to inaccuracies. I’m not a moderate or a fundamentalist. My actions flow from what I think first, then the energy applied to those actions are the notches on a dial. By focusing on the heat at the exclusion of the idea, the reasons for the actions are ignored.

A few clarifications in no particular order.

The word ‘theist’ is never capitalized in normal usage, except at the start of a sentence. Correct? The same goes for derivative words.

Re: Communists. They have never had my sympathy, nor do any other strident and inflexible dogmas (read: mythic ideals implemented and followed with religious zeal). As I’ve said many times, even the communists aren’t communists anymore, with a fraction of the world population under that banner and trying to get that idealistic and irrational boondoggle to work. Like many dogmas, they attempted to ignore human nature while reaching for some kind of Platonic otherworldly ideal.

This is the reason that while I generally agree with the libertarians (capitalized or lowercased), I can’t agree with where they go with their ideals nor with followers of Ayn Rand. Consider me libertarian flavored; a light vanilla spice added to the basic capitalist and individual liberty cream.

No idea what you’re talking about re: ‘world-view which if left to prevail, the survival of human race is at stake.’ Flawed ideas burn themselves out when applied. Worlds — realities — can’t be swapped in or out by labeling them ‘worldviews’. Can bad ideas cause damage? Certainly. I refer back to the general category of dogmas as an example. They can rally the troops to defend the perfect leader (who strangely enough needs protection from mere mortals), but they can’t actually deliver the goods except on a short term basis.

In the end, may the best, most in touch with reality, ideas win in the marketplace of ideas. They usually do, or some variations of them, and are replaced when better ones come along. I would contend that the better idea is to drop dogmas of all types.

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Silver Bullet March 9, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Josh: I’ve always wondered what makes contra-causal free will any different from just behaving randomly?  

Me too.

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Rhys Wilkins March 10, 2010 at 12:19 am

Silver Bullet:
Me too.  

Ditto :D

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