Monday, August 22, 2011

Regarding Penn Jillette's Atheism

I am taking a look at three claims that Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) made in a recent opinion piece on CNN.

"I don't know" - Penn Jillette

The first, which I covered in my last post, is the virtue of "I don't know." Or, what I called, The Egotistically Arrogant Unwarranted Claim to Knowledge

The second, which I will cover today, is the claim that not knowing the origin of the universe justifies atheism.

Here is what Penn says on the subject:

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

In my own case, I take it further than this.

First, I reject the claim that "atheism" is a lack of belief. This may be its definition among of small club of self-important atheists who have adopted a particular (and peculiar) private language, but it is not the American English definition of the word.

In American English, an atheist is a person who believes that the proposition, "at least one God exists" is almost certainly or certainly false.

Atheists like to distinguish among strong atheists, weak atheists, and the like. This is fine for private discussions among themselves. But these are not a part of the public language.

I am an atheist in the American English sense of the word. I hold that the proposition that at least one God exists is almost certainly false.

I also hold the much of religion, as it is practiced, is immoral. However, that is not a part of atheism. It is a subsidiary belief.

So, how do I justify my belief that there almost certainly is no God?

I start where Penn starts. I do not know how the universe came into existence.

Then how can I say that it us almost certainly the case that no God is responsible? Isn't that a contradiction?

No. Not at all.

Let's assume I had a deck of cards. It is a special deck of cards with 1 billion different suits, and 1 billion and three cards of each suit (Ace through 1,000,000,000, J, Q, K).

You draw a card. Don't tell me what it is.

Somebody asks me to name what card you drew.

I answer, "I do not know".

They ask, "What do you think of the proposition that he drew the king of hearts?"

My answer, "I think that the proposition that he drew the king of hearts is almost certainly false."

There is no contradiction here. Both claims are be true. I do not know what card he drew, and the proposition that he drew the king of hearts is almost certainly false.

On the question of how the universe came into existence, I do not know how it came into existence, and the proposition that some "God" is responsible is almost certainly false.

And even if he did draw the king of hearts, and I said he drew the king of hearts, it would be utter absurdity for me to claim that I knew he drew the king of hearts. This is not knowledge. This is merely a lucky guess - no matter how "certain" I might be that my totally unfounded random belief is true.

On the issue of religion, here is something else that I know:

It is possible for a society to adopt what is substantially a fairy tale such that the whole population - or a substantial part of the population believes it is true.

This, I know.

The proof is really quite simple. Look at human history. Look at all the cultures in which whole masses of people have adopted a fairy tale story as true. If you are a Christian, look at Islam. If you are Muslim, look at Christianity. If you are neither, look at both. And everybody can look at all of the non-Christian and non-Islam fairy tales that have been widely adopted throughout history.

Now, if somebody wants to pretend to know that the card drawer drew a particular card - be it the king of hearts or ace of spades or any other card - then that is fine. If they use this pretend knowledge to determine what they wear, what they eat, when they eat, when not to eat, when to have sex, who to have sex with, what to wear while having sex, what to read, or what to not watch on television (or whether or not to have a television), there is no cause for complaint. They can be called foolish, but not immoral.

However, if somebody uses their pretend knowledge to defend conclusions on who to imprison, who to kill, who shall be permitted to kill with impunity, who shall be required to marry and who they shall marry, who shall be prohibited from marrying, who is fit for public office and who is unfit to adopt children, who shall be fed and who shall starve, who shall be permitted to drive a car, who shall get medical help and the types of medical help they shall be permitted, there is a lot of room for complaint. These people are immoral and unjust.

This is what I mean when I say that much of religion, as it is practiced, is immoral. Any religious practice that fits the description of the previous paragraph, is immoral. And there is a lot of that going on in the world. There should not be any.

Religion does not have to be practiced in ways that are immoral. And many people do not practice their religion in ways that are immoral. However, religious practice can be immoral. And much of it is immoral.

These are things that I can know - and that I claim that I do know - in addition to the claim that I do not know how the universe came into existence.


Camels With Hammers said...

I agree with you that we can know nearly certainly that a personal God (or all the personal gods claimed to be revealed by the existing religoins) does not exist. I think that constitutes enough to say that we know that there is no God.

But that does not mean that other atheists don't simply "lack belief". There could be some who have a different view and think that their confidence does not rise to the level where they are comfortable making a positive metaphysical assertion that there is no personal deity. For someone like that to say they are an agnostic atheist (someone who thinks that they cannot know and that the morally and epistemically appropriate response in that situation is to refrain from belief) is fine with me. They just have a different epistemology than I do. Who cares if the general public finds the distinction arcane. They are entitled to be accurate. And if they are accurate they will draw people who find their position more sensible than mine and yours but who otherwise might have thought they couldn't be atheists because they are not as "extreme" as you and I are.

I also am glad that the crew who say they just "lack belief" are calling themselves atheists and not just calling themselves agnostics simpliciter. It is valuable that they are at least willing to identify as atheists, which is the most accurate label for them and which does not represent an actual contrast with agnosticism even though it's traditionally been painted as such. Agnosticism and atheism are just answers to totally different questions, not alternative answers to the same question.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Camels With Hammers

Rocks lack belief. An individual in a permanent vegetative state such that they cannot even comprehend the question lacks belief. In American English, the term "atheist" does not apply to either of these.

I have found that people who say they "lack belief" as a way of saying they are typically using this as a point of intellectual laziness. "Because my position is that I "lack belief," I don't have to offer any arguments for my position. I don't have to intellectually engage the relevant material. 'Lack of belief' requires no justification - no effort on my part."

It is, then, very much like any faith position in that it is disconnected from any rules for evidence. A person can "lack belief in God" without evidence and without needing to say anything in defense of that position.

Dark Star said...

I must, in one small part, disagree with you here. I think this is a very minor sub-discussion of your whole post so don't take it as an attack on your post - it's just musing on this topic. I like this series of posts.

The question is on the definition of atheism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines atheism as: disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god and disbelief as: refusal or reluctance to believe, doubt about the truth of

But this is compatible with the usage you are rejecting.

NOTE: this is DISBELIEF, not mere lack of belief. Babies and Rocks are reasonably excluded. although when most people say "I lack belief in a God", they mean a state of disbelief and just aren't being precise. This suffices for informal discussions, it's only when people get pedantic that it matters.

Obviously, you can define it however you wish - but you cannot say that this definition is invalid when it is in fairly common usage AND clearly defined in a reliable and authoritative dictionary (dictionaries don't define language, usage does - but what I mean here is that OED tends to make fairly reliable and conservative claims about language usage and it's back up with references).

And I don't think this definition is unique to British English, the disbelief definition is in American English dictionaries as well. Merriam-Webster online: 2a a disbelief in the existence of deity 2b the doctrine that there is no deity

So even there your definition has only the second listing (1 is archaic : ungodliness, wickedness).

noklu said...

I suppose you might be interested to know that a professional theologian/philosopher has responded to and critiqued some of your claims in this post. Here:

It only refers to your post in about the first third, just after a critique of Penn.

noklu said...

Also, if one makes the case that atheism includes people who lack belief in God, then a theist could argue that theism includes people who lack disbelief in God. There is no reason to allow one and not the other, and so it allows for people who lack both to simultaneously be an atheist and a theist, which is quite absurd and leaves no room for agnosticism at all.

Emu Sam said...

Noklu, I'm fairly sure that agnostic does not represent the middle ground. It refers to a separate question - whether it is possible to know. In actual usage, I'm not sure how many people use it to exclude both theism and atheism, but I know a lot of people who tack gnostic/agnostic onto their theism/atheism. (Although I think Gnostic is something specific and different, and I don't know what the appropriate term is for believing we can know.)

Whether one can simultaneously be an atheist and a theist is an interesting question, and one that might not be so absurd as might seem. I'm going to be thinking that one over for some time. Is it like asking if plaid can be simultaneously black and white? Well, probably not. What about a person who some days actively believes and some days actively disbelieves?

noklu said...

Oh yes, I am familiar with the proper understanding of agnosticism. But it is popular for people who don't believe either way because they are unconvinced to say that they are agnostic, and so I was applying that connotation of the word. Properly, these people should say that they are ambiguous about the existence of God.

And being an agnostic a/theist would require one to admit as a part of one's world-view that they are irrational: they believe without possessing the rational means to do so.

Gnosticism is not considered the opposite of agnosticism. Try the wikipedia seems like a cross between traditional theism and pantheism.

If somebody believe some days and not some other days, then that isn't simultaneous atheism and theism. It's just varying beliefs. Re-read my post again, and you'll see that it hinges on the definition rejected by Fyfe of atheism == lacking belief. This definition I reject on the grounds that it is wrong over history and that it produces and absurdity of simultaneous atheism and theism. It also does nothing, as one would then return to discussing the merits of one system over the other.