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Atheism and Uncertainty

Uncertainty

How important to atheism is the difference between absolute confidence and a fragment of uncertainty?

How important is the difference between the statement, “I think some gods are hypothetically possible, but I think they’re wildly implausible and there’s no good reason to think they exist, and unless I see some better evidence I’m going to conclude that they don’t exist”… and the statement, “I am 100% convinced that there is no God or gods”?

As regular readers know, I’ve been doing an Atheist Meme of the Day project on Facebook. (BTW, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!) Yesterday I posted the following meme:

We can acknowledge that something is hypothetically possible, and still reject it in any practical sense if it’s implausible, unsupported by any good evidence, and inconsistent with what we know about the world. Including God or the supernatural.

And it sparked a debate with an atheist who insisted that no god was even hypothetically possible, and that she was 100% certain of the non-existence of any god. A position I found myself opposing almost as passionately and stubbornly as I oppose religious beliefs.

Why?

Why do I think this difference is important? Why do I think it’s important for atheists to acknowledge that — as wildly implausible as it is, as utterly unsupported as it is by any good evidence, as thoroughly inconsistent as it is with everything we know about how the world works — at least some God hypotheses are hypothetically possible? Is there any practical difference between being 99.9999% sure that there is no God… and being 100% sure?

I think there is.

Here’s why.

For one thing: When atheists claim they can be 100% sure God does not exist, it gives theists — especially progressive and moderate theists — a big piece of ammunition. “See!” they can say. “Atheists are just as dogmatic as hard-core believers! They claim to have 100% certainty about something we can never be certain about! Atheism is just as much an article of faith as religion!”

More importantly: I think “We can’t be 100% sure that there is no God, but we can be sure enough” is a much, much stronger argument than “I am 100% sure that there is no God.”

God failed hypothesis

“We can’t be 100% sure, but we can be sure enough” puts the God hypotheses squarely into the category of any other hypothesis that’s theoretically possible but wildly implausible. It removes the question of God’s existence or lack thereof from a simple matter of opinion or faith, and projects it into the realm of real-world hypotheses: hypotheses that are always provisional, always subject to change if new evidence appears, but that we’re nevertheless willing to accept if the evidence supports them — and willing to reject if the evidence doesn’t.

In other words: It nudges believers into seeing their belief as just one more hypothesis about the world… one that, when you look carefully, isn’t very likely. It lifts the ridiculous burden of proving that atheism is 100% definitely right from atheists… and puts the burden of showing why religious belief is probably right onto believers. It pushes religious belief out of the lofty realm of “You can’t prove this, you shouldn’t expect to prove this, this is special and beyond our powers to comprehend, that’s why we need faith”… and into the down-to-earth realm of “This is a claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is — what reasons do we have to think it’s probably true?”

A realm where it doesn’t stand a chance.

And that is hugely powerful. Much, much more powerful than expressing atheism as simply one more opinion in a sea of opinions. The more we can get people to see religion as simply another hypothesis about the world, the more rapidly it’s going to dwindle.

Finally — and maybe most importantly of all –

I heart truth

I think it’s true.

I think it’s true that we can’t be 100% absolutely certain that there is no God.

Yes, there are some specific God hypotheses that are logically contradictory, and therefore impossible. (I’d argue that the all- knowing, all-powerful, all-good God who nonetheless causes great suffering and permits evil to flourish is one of them.) But many religious beliefs are textbook cases of unfalsifiable hypotheses: hypotheses that can’t be proven or disproven one way or the other. Invisible visions, inaudible voices, intangible beings, a final proof that happens after people die… all of that adds up to a big fat set of moving goalposts, beliefs that we have no evidence for but that, by their very nature, can’t be disproven with absolute certainty.

And yes, I agree that, in any useful or interesting or important sense, the possiblity that God might exist is so remote as to be… well, useless and uninteresting and unimportant. In any practical sense, I feel entirely confident in rejecting religious belief. This debate about whether atheism is 99.9999% probably true or 100% definitely true is entirely theoretical. But sometimes theory matters. And given the 99.9999% probability that we’re right, I don’t see any reason to insist on a 100% theoretical certainty that we can’t have.

Flying_Spaghetti_Monster

I mean, it is hypothetically possible that there is a God who communicates through imprecise prophets and will punish or reward us in an invisible world after we die based on how well we followed his vague, contradictory instructions. It is hypothetically possible that the fossil record was placed there by the Devil to tempt us (or by God to test our faith). It is hypothetically possible that gravity is caused by the Flying Spaghetti Monster holding us down with His invisible noodly appendages. It is hypothetically possible that we’re living in the Matrix, and everything we experience is a maliciously induced hallucination. We have absolutely no reason to think any of that is the case… but we can’t disprove it with absolute 100% certainty. That’s true.

And I care about what’s true.

The whole reason I became an atheist is that I care about what’s true. The whole reason I became an atheist is that I think reality trumps everything. Reality, by definition, is far more important than any of our opinions about it. And it’s a lot more interesting to boot. I became an atheist because I cared about reality, more than I cared about being comforted by my spiritual beliefs… or about being right.

I became an atheist because I care about what’s true.

And if we can be models for caring about what’s true more than we care about absolute certainty that our opinion is right, then I think we’re far more likely to make atheism a force to be reckoned with.

Comments

  1. llewelly says

    And it sparked a debate with an atheist who insisted that no god was even hypothetically possible, and that she was 100% certain of the non-existence of any god. A position I found myself opposing almost as passionately and stubbornly as I oppose religious beliefs.

    Gods with infinite attributes – such as infinite power, infinite mercy, infinite knowledge – lead inescapably to severe logical contradictions. It’s possible, I suppose, that our understanding of logic is woefully incomplete. But for practical purposes, we can have as much confidence in the nonexistence of gods with infinite attributes as we can in any other proposition.
    From a philosophical perspective – the “100% certain” belief sounds asinine – but I suspect the 0.000000000000000000000000001% of wrongness makes little practical difference.

    For one thing: When atheists claim they can be 100% sure God does not exist, it gives theists — especially progressive and moderate theists — a big piece of ammunition. “See!” they can say. “Atheists are just as dogmatic as hard-core believers!”

    How often do you see a theist listen when it is pointed out that this is a strawman argument? Almost never. For practical purposes, theists already have this piece of ammunition. If people were reliably taught to recognize strawman arguments, it would be very useful to deny theists this piece of ammunition. But that’s not the world we live in (yet).

    More importantly: I think “We can’t be 100% sure that there is no God, but we can be sure enough” is a much, much stronger argument than “I am 100% sure that there is no God.”

    Those of us who understand that absolute confidence is not obtainable will doubtless agree with you. But many – probably even most people – do believe absolute confidence is obtainable. In their eyes, these sorts of qualifiers are symptoms of weakness. As before, it is a tactic which works well with the well educated, but backfires or works poorly with the more numerous poorly educated.

    It is hypothetically possible that the fossil record was placed there by the Devil to tempt us (or by God to test our faith). It is hypothetically possible that gravity is caused by the Flying Spaghetti Monster holding us down with His invisible noodly appendages. It is hypothetically possible that we’re living in the Matrix, and everything we experience is a maliciously induced hallucination.

    Occam’s razor slices all of this away. It’s all possible, in some sense, and it might be interesting, but until some evidence is provided, there’s no reason to take any of it seriously. (This has already been covered here, but I felt it needed saying again.)

  2. Maria says

    I agree with all that you say, and have no problems with it at all. It’s not really hard to understand this ‘technical difference’ between what is hypothetically possible and what it means to reject god claims in practicality. Why being “only” 99.99999% sure is good enough to be confidently atheistic.
    But many times when I have seen debates between atheists and theists the theist seem to have not really understood that not being 100% sure about the non-existance of the Christian god is the same as not being 100% sure about the tooth fairy! They instantly grabs this straw and goes “AHA, you admit it’s possible, so…” and make much too much of it, thinking the atheist is half way to being a believer now.
    I agree the disctintion is important but I can see why some atheists just don’t have the patience to explain it the way you do here. For all intents and purposes I am as sure about the non-existence of god as I am about the non-existence of the toothfairy and that’s pretty close to 100% (though technically still not 100%) and not such a big gap to put their god in, as they think it is when you say you are “only” 99.999% sure.
    Though that didn’t seem to be the case with your discussion with this atheist?
    “See!” they can say. “Atheists are just as dogmatic as hard-core believers! They claim to have 100% certainty about something we can never be certain about! Atheism is just as much an article of faith as religion!”
    I never quite understood this argument from believers. Don’t they think dogma and faith are good things? So why is it positive when they do it, but suddenly turned into something negative when they accuse atheists of it (because it does turn into an accusation)? Faith seems to be the best thing ever for them, so why suddenly do they admit that it’s a bad thing, which is what is implied in statements like: “See? Atheism requires faith too! (Implied – you are just as bad as us so why do you attack us!)” They never admit otherwise that they are bad.

  3. says

    Looked at the right way, the difference between between 99.999% sure and 100% sure isn’t some small amount like 0.001% – it is an *infinitely large gap*. It only takes a finite amount of evidence to move me from 50% to 99.999%, but it would take an infinite amount of evidence to move me from 99.999% to 100%.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ban_(information)
    As I’ve said on Facebook, I don’t think that God is even hypothetically possible. But I can’t be certain that my reasoning is correct – so, it’s hypothetically possible that it’s hypothetically possible :-)

  4. says

    Talking about the odds of god existing is like using the Drake equation to argue with UFO abductees, it just gives the subject far more credibility than it deserves.

  5. David D.G. says

    Paul Crowley wrote:

    As I’ve said on Facebook, I don’t think that God is even hypothetically possible. But I can’t be certain that my reasoning is correct – so, it’s hypothetically possible that it’s hypothetically possible :-)

    Brilliant! I am *so* stealing that!
    ~David D.G.

  6. Jeff Satterley says

    A god that is all-knowing, all-powerful and maximally-good is logically impossible, whether he/she/it causes suffering or not.
    If he is all-knowing he would know the outcome of all possible actions he could take.
    He’s maximally-good, so he would have the chose the action which results in the greatest good (and being all-knowing, would know how to determine this)
    Therefore, God does not have free will. His actions are determined by the goodness of them. A being without free will is not all-powerful.

  7. says

    I tend to agree with Greta, for the simple reason that the word “God” has many different meanings to different people. The omni-everything God of the philosophers is not the God posited by many theists. So while the omni-everything God may be logically contradictory, the arguments against it are not an effective against a someone who already has a different conception of God.
    Much easier to turn the argument around and say, “convince me.” What is your God, and why should I believe in it? Make them do the work.

  8. says

    Your words: “We can acknowledge that something is hypothetically possible, and still reject it in any practical sense if it’s implausible, unsupported by any good evidence, and inconsistent with what we know about the world. Including God or the supernatural.” …are good enough for me. 100% is seldom 100% anyhow.

  9. Zipi says

    There is nothing that we can be absolutely, 100% certain of. And yet we do not need to point this out when we make a statement.
    When we make statements about the real world (and not about mathematics) the phrase “I am absolutely certain of X” rarely means that my certainty is of 100%, or even of 99.99999999%, and in many cases not even 99%. For example “I am absolutely certain that he is not cheating on me” or “that I will fail this test tomorrow” or even “that the woman I call ‘mom’ is my biological mother”. In all those cases there is some non-zero possibility that I am wrong. I understand that, and everybody understands that I understand that when I say “I am 100% certain that…” Why should the existence of God be any different?
    If I do not need to add an explanation of what I mean when I say “I am absolutely certain that the woman I call ‘mom’ is my biological mother”, then it bothers me that I have to add an extra explanation when I say “I am absolutely certain that there is no God”.

  10. says

    One comment I would like to bring up is that 99.9999% is way too low. This probability is akin to winning a lottery, which is not that low. The odds for the existence of God are more to the order of 10^(10^30):1.

  11. Bruce Gorton says

    The big thing that needs to be said is this:
    Possibility does not equal actuality.
    If I say your hypothesis is very technically possible, to the point that the Easter Bunny is very technically possible it does not mean that your hypothesis is right, or even justified.
    In fact if your best bet is to get me to admit that what you are saying is possible, then there is a strong chance you are deluding yourself or trying to delude me.
    When I say there are no gods, I say this in the same way I say there are no dragons, show me evidence and I will revise my opinion.

  12. J. Allen says

    This whole line of reasoning is pointless for me. Everything conceivable under the sun is hypothetically possible, including the concept that life is all a computer simulation.
    I should be able to say ‘I don’t see any evidence for God, and the very concept undermines my understanding of the laws of physics’ without being called dogmatic.
    I just feel like there’s a better argument in here somewhere then making sure theists understand we’re not believers in the same sense that they are.

  13. says

    There’s a good entry in h2g2 on Occam’s Razor.
    The person who wrote that, Giford, once said (and this was in a conversation, not an entry, so it’s harder to find) that he is an “igtheist”. When asked whether he believes in God, he’ll reply “What’s that, then?” He says he has yet to receive a coherent answer.
    TRiG.

  14. says

    Having thought about it for a bit, I’m not exactly comfortable with saying that we should believe something in order to fight off criticism of dogmatists, even as a reason among others. Different wording, different presentation, sure, but as a reason for what sort of thing we should believe? It’s a terrible reason because by the same token, we should stop promoting ourselves, because that too is making people believe we are fundamentalist. There are other reasons as well (such as alienating those who ‘believe in belief’, and feel that an atheist worldview shouldn’t worry about what others think), but that doesn’t make it any less of a bad argument. A better formulation would be ‘Believers would say that we’re being just as dogmatic as they are, and they’d be right

  15. says

    I think your facebook disputant is missing something very important, and it’s sort of implied in what you said but not stated very forthrightly. I’d put it this way:
    The main reason why you or I or anyone else is an atheist generally boils down do this: There’s simply no evidence for (or other reasons to believe in) the existence of any god or gods. Such forthright denial of claims that many people want very badly to believe are true simply because evidence and reason doesn’t support them is all about our commitment to certain epistemological values: In general, atheists’ rejection of supernatural beliefs is deeply rooted in a view of the world that it is right and good – or at least better than any alternative ever suggested – that one allow evidence and reason to shape one’s beliefs, and that the strength of one’s conviction about the truth of any claim should be proportional to the evidence and reasoning which supports that claim. Such respect for evidence and reason also demands openness to new evidence and reasoning: One must necessarily change the degree to which one is convinced a given claim is true in response to new evidence and reasoning relevant to that claim.
    These epistemological values are the same ones that govern science, which is why atheism and science are so closely intertwined. These epistemological values are also directly opposed by any view of the world which says it is permissible (or even good!) to believe or live by or otherwise embrace claims about the world without substantive evidence for them, or even in spite of substantive evidence to the contrary – in a word, faith. This is why faith and science are incompatible, no matter how many individual people manage to embrace or ignore the serious cognitive dissonance involved in holding and living by these directly opposed values.
    There are lots of arguments why the epistemological values at the heart of both atheism and science are good values to embrace and live by, but they are beside the point here. The problem at hand is that rigid claims of certainty beyond any shadow of a doubt – such as the 100% certainty you’re claiming here – are at odds with your own deepest epistemological values, the ones that make you an atheist in the first place. Atheists who claim to be 100% certain about the nonexistence God (or of all gods by any definition ever given for such beings) are embracing confused and necessarily conflicting epistemological values as much as any working scientist who embraces religious faith beliefs.
    In stating his famous “problem of induction,” David Hume argued that one could not know with absolute certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. In his honor, I often phrase my degree of certainty about atheism in those terms: I’m as sure there is no God as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow – and I’m not holding my breath waiting on any surprising new evidence on either front.

  16. GeorgeRic says

    A hundred and sixty-six years ago Edwin Abbott wrote ‘Flatland ‘ so that any logical person would understand that contiguous dimensional worlds allows any thinking person to geometrically know how Christianity’s’ spiritual world could be right beside ours. Now ‘Techie Worlds’ examines Christian phenomena: Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, Soul, and finds that Abbott’s concept provides mechanistically for those phenomena. This is the approach science uses: establish understandings of the real world by testing facts in the context of the theory. With such logical understandings, thinking people can accept Christianity’s teachings without bending their intellectual integrity. ‘Techie Worlds’ gives pause to Moslems and pagans by showing how and why the Trinity is. It explains realities that profit all mankind.
    ‘Techie Worlds’ is available at http://www.amazon.com.
    GeorgeRic

  17. Bruce Gorton says

    Posted by: GeorgeRic | October 02, 2009 at 09:12 AM
    Utter twaddle. You have managed to fail science, theology and philosophy in one fell swoop.
    Could does not equal is, which is how you fail philosophy.
    Aside from that you still don’t have any evidence for the God assertion, which is how you fail science.
    Science does not work by speculating theories to fit your preconceptions, it works off of evidence leading to theories.
    Scientifically, as Occam’s razor puts it, you do not multiply entities uneccessarily and you cannot assume your beliefs to be true.
    Your adaption of a wierd interdimensional theory fails because you do not have evidence, you have a holy book.
    And aside from that
    Theologically God is not some entity out in another universe, the Bible describes an entity in this universe which has definite impacts on the lives of the tribals it interacts with. A God of another dimension would not fit the Biblical account.

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