What is Atheism? What is Theism?

I’d like to now give some thought to the what Atheism and Theism really are and how they relate to each other.

Many of you might wonder why we’d need to give thought to this subject. Isn’t a Theist someone that believes in God and an Atheist someone that doesn’t? Case closed, right?

A question to consider: Is a Buddhist a Theist or an Atheist? And defend your choice.

The problem is that, despite our intuitions to the contrary, Theism and Atheism aren’t always such clear cut concepts. And, I’m going to argue there is even (in some cases) overlap between the two words such that we might legitimately, say, think of Buddhists as either Theists or Atheists, depending on what nuance or connotation of the two words we have in mind at a given moment.

The Original Meaning of Atheism?

Back when I was researching Karen Armstrong for my posts on her, I remember her claiming that the word “atheist” has changed meanings over time. According to Armstrong (though I don’t have a refence handy) orginally an “atheist” was someone that often believed in some Ultimate or God but rejected the prevailing view of God for their culture. As I expressed in my posts on Armstrong, I can’t take her with more than a grain of salt. Though clearly well educated, she uses her education in ways that often seem deceptive to me. (See here, here, here, and here.) So I’m not prepared to accept or reject her claim here, though she did give some examples of people that labeled themselves as “atheists” but still believed in something that sounded a lot like God. So it is interesting to consider the (realistic) possiblity that perhaps the word “atheist” did not originally mean someone that rejected all beliefs in God.

Praying Atheists

Now consider this survey (or the news story on it here and here) that found that 21% of atheists believe in God, and 10% pray (even more meditate). 12% of atheists believe in heaven and 10% even believe in hell.

Some might claim these people obviously don’t know what the word ‘atheist’ means. Or that the term has come to represent merely an objection to organized religion. But is that really the case? I don’t think the answer is so clear cut.

Pantheists and Deists

What about Pantheists and Deists? Are they Theists or Atheists? Is a Pantheists really an Theists? Or are they really an atheists that feels spiritual feelings towards the universe? Or does it differ from Pantheists to Pantheist?

And how, exactly, does a Deist differ from an Atheist? If “God” wound up the universe and then let it go — leaving us all to our fate due to, say, indifference or impotence, and with no afterlife to speak of — how does this “God” differ from, say, the Big Bang?

And if the Deist G0d did not leave us to our fate out of indifference (perhaps creating even an afterlife for us), then how is it really all that different then how many look at the traditional Christian God who once interceded does not today? Again, the answers to these questions aren’t so clear to me.

The Secret and Buddhism

What about believers in “The Secret”?

The concept behind “The Secret” (aka the Law of Attraction) is that physical reality is ultimately mental, so what you think about is what “the universe” supplies to you. This can be a real boon if you think about how you’re going to be successful and a real drag if you spend all your time worrying that something bad is going to happen to you.

So here is the question. Is someone that believes in “The Secret,” but not in God, an atheist or a theist?

Do we consider them to be “Theists” because “The Universe” hears and answers their prayers? Or do we consider them “Atheists” because they don’t believe in God and (from their worldview) just believe that the “laws of physics” happen to bring you what you think about?

Buddhists

Going back to the example of Buddhists now, I have also sometimes seen the claim that Buddhists, because they don’t believe in a God, are really atheists. [1] But honestly, is this what we really generally mean by “atheist”? This is an example I wish to come back to later and consider in more detail, but my intuition is that most people would generally consider Buddhists to be a type of Theist, not a type of Atheist. And this seems about right to me.

Non-Literal Theists

Recently I’ve seen a rise of the theological liberal that insist that they are ‘non-literal theists’ rather than ‘atheists.’  And, frankly, I do sort of see their point. To call a non-literal theists an ‘atheist’ is to automatically associate them with certain entrenched political viewpoints that they may not hold to. (Perhaps militancy against religion.) Yet, still, wouldn’t we want to say that a non-literal theist is technically a type of atheist? And if we did insist that they are not atheists, might that be a significant departure from how we usually think of the word?

Supernatural Atheists

And what about what we might call ‘Supernatural Atheist’? I am thinking here of self-proclaimed atheists – they literally believe in no God – that believe in ESP or even in the existence of ghosts or an afterlife? Is an atheists that believes in an afterlife (like the 12% that believe in heaven!) really what we mean by the word “atheist” in the first place? Or are they really a type of Theist, like Buddhists are? And if not, then aren’t Buddhists really atheists after all?

Atheists as Hard Headed Rationalists?

Thinking through these ‘marginal cases’ (is one-fifth marginal?) helped me refine my own internal “stereotype” of what I normally think of when I think of the word “atheist.”

I think that when we normally say “atheist” today, what we usually (but not always) have in mind is not a Buddhist, nor a “Supernatural Atheist,” but someone that doesn’t subscribe to any supernatural views. What we normally have in mind (at least in western societies) is a naturalistic, materialistic, so-called “hard headed rationalist.”

But What is a Hard Headed Rationalist?

But other than conjuring up a stereotype, I am not sure I could easily define the term “hard headed rationalist” either.

Perhaps we have in mind a materialist that believes in nothing but what is known to exist through science. She doesn’t believe in any sort of afterlife nor in mysterious beings, ghosts, forces, or authorities that we’re subject to. Perhaps the essence of what we (usually) mean by “hard headed rationalist” is someone that believes in the natural world and nothing else?

Of course this poses a bit of a problem, as we’re constantly discovering new aspects of the natural world. For example, would one be a “hard headed rationalist” if they believed space was filled with Ether (i.e. the substance that was supposed to have filled space so that light had a medium to move through)?

If someone believed in Ether today, we’d laugh at them and we’d certain deny them the label “hard headed rationalist.” But back in the 19th century, when Ether was a required part of our scientific theories because we didn’t know about the laws of electrodynamics yet, if you were a “hard headed rationalist” you would have scoffed at the idea that a wave like light could move around without a medium. It’s would have sounded as absurd as having water waves without water.

Quantum Mechanics is for Nutcases

But consider a reverse example. If you believed in something like quantum mechanics (read here if you want a full explanation)back in the 19th century, people would be right to think you were a nutcase.

i.e. “Oh really? You think these little photon thingies can actually interact with counterfactuals due to the existence of waves of what!? Probability waves? Have you seen your alienist lately?

But the same could be said (depending on what time period we pick) of belief in gravity, atoms, quarks, gluons, or just about everything we accept as ‘scientifically real’ today.

And What if Ghosts Are Real?

Now consider this another way. Suppose there really are such things as ghosts, but we just haven’t discovered them yet. Now suppose someone just saw a pot fly across the room and claimed it was a poltergeist. His brother, the hard headed rationalist, starts to look for a ‘scientific’ or ‘naturalistic’ explanation. But if ghosts later turn out to be real under some future theory of science and we later find out that the pot flew because of a ghost, the the correct ‘naturalistic’ or ‘scientific’ explanation always was that a ghost did it.

So merely saying a “hard headed rationalist” is someone that believes “only in the natural world” is actually a fairly vague sort of definition that isn’t very helpful by itself. Though, again, it does seem to conjure up a certain image nevertheless.

Epistemology and the Hard Headed Rationalist

I have written at length on the subject of epistemology, which is the theory of how we gain knowledge. Now is the time to apply this to the concept of a “hard headed rationalist.” (You may want to read up on this summary of what we know about how we gain knowledge.)

My suspicion is that most people that consider themselves “hard headed rationalists” believe something like this:

The Baconian View of Hard Headed Rationalism: A hard headed rationalist is someone that doesn’t believe in myths but only in things proven by science.

The problem is that there is no such thing as “things proven by science.” That was the old Francis Bacon view of how science works though inductive reasoning. It is a false view. Karl Popper showed that science does not ‘prove’ anything.

What science actually does is take two theories — which are explanations of something — and compare the two and determine which of the two fits reality better. There a many ways to make such a determination, but the crown prize of critical inquiry will always be an experiment based on actual observations that is setup to judge between exactly where the two theories make differing predictions. The theory that made the correct prediction wins and the other loses.

By moving from better to better theory (or explanation) we can know that each theory has greater verisimilitude (i.e. closeness to reality) then the last. But it is impossible to actually prove an explanation to be correct. So there is no such thing as ‘scientific fact’ or ‘proven science’ in the sense that many “hard headed rationalists” have in mind.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that this Baconian view of rationalism is what gets us closest to what we mean when we say “Hard Headed Rationalists.” We mean “someone that believes only things proven by science.” But such a person would – by definition – be rationally inept when it comes to epistemology. So, again, I find myself questioning the concept of the “hard headed rationalist.”

I’m Popperian: What I Mean By “Rationalist”

Now let’s talk about what a true “Rationalist” is like. Using Karl Popper’s more correct epistemology (as opposed to Bacon’s false epistemology) I think a better understanding of a “rationalist” (maybe not so much the ‘hard headed’ variety) is something like this:

The Popperian View of Rationalism: A rationalist is someone that seeks out the right kinds of explanations, namely ones that have survived the strongest criticisms and are highly (preferably computationally) specific and hard to vary, yet is always open to new ideas or insight no matter what the source.

This view of “rationalist” works better even if it may not be what we originally had in mind when we thought of a “hard headed rationalist.” For one thing it helps deal with some of the above problems previously mentioned, such as 19th century belief in Ether or 20th century belief in Quantum Mechanics. Since a true “rationalist” believes “the… explanations… that have survived the strongest criticism…” the beliefs of a rationalist is always contextually specific to a given time.

And since there is currently no theory of science that demands the existence of ghosts, so we would never think of belief in ghosts as “rational” until some latest theory of science requires belief in ghosts.

Rationalism and Myth

But this means that we must accept that at any given moment that a “rationalist” might be proven entirely wrong on some point that, a moment before, seemed like pure myth. This has happened many times before. One famous example of this was the existence of meteors. At one time “rationalists” thought the idea of rocks falling out of the sky was nothing more than a frenzied mind. Later, it was what any rationalist believed.

This is why a true “rationalist” must always be ‘open’ to any source of new insight. Popper showed that ‘myth’ is the beginning of truth, not the opposite of it.

The Placebo Effect

An even better example of a myth turned science is what we now call “the mind-body connection.” At one time the idea that one can “think themself well” was something no one but an over-zealous Theist (like, say, Christian Scientist) would believe.

But today, the mind-body connection is an accepted part of science. To be sure, once the mind-body connection was documented we quickly cloaked it in scientific clothes and threw out the old religious ways of looking at it. We call it things like “the placebo effect.” Nevertheless, the mind-body connection is a great example of how rationalist can turn out to be completely wrong on some point and the believer in myths can turn out to be much closer to the truth.

That is why a true “rationalist” will not have disdain for myths and traditions even if they must sometimes disprove them.

Theism and Rationalism

This brings me to a point that I’m afraid I’m going to have to part ways with many a Theists over. Belief in God is not based in rationality. It’s an act of faith.

I am not suggesting that belief in God is in any way irrational, however. And I do buy into John Polkinghorne’s argument that the value-ladden nature of reality fits comfortably (and perhaps even fits better) if we assume the existence of some sort of “God.”

But belief in God is not currently a requirement of our current best theories and explanations.

Proving God Through Science

I have never been one to buy into the idea that science can’t prove the existence of God. Of course it could. If God decided to initiate the Second Coming today and we could interview Jesus on the 10 pm News, that would constitute a requirement that our best scientific theories must now accommodate the existence of God.

But that is not our current situation in mortality. We Theists all do accept the importance of faith in this life. And this is good, because we do walk by faith (2 Cor 5:7) in this life. When we choose to believe in God, we do not part with our rationality, but we do exceed it through a leap of faith. We are consciously choosing to believe in more than is required by our current best theories.

If you look over the suggested Popperian definition of a Rationalist, a Theist can be a rationalist if they can accept the faith-based nature of their beliefs. However, many Theists probably do not qualify as Rationalists if they don’t even realize the faith-based nature of their beliefs.

Atheism and Rationalism

But then, given that definition of Rationalism, probably most Atheists do not qualify as Rationalists either, for the precise reason they think of themselves as Baconian-style “hard headed rationalists.” (And, as we’ll see in future posts, there are other issues outside the scope of this post to consider.)

But I don’t think there is anything inherent in atheism that bars one from being a rationalist either. Indeed, being a ‘rationalist’ is really about use of correct epistemology [2], so rationalism is open to atheists, theists, agnostics, and even fideists alike.

Does Atheism Imply “No Leaps of Faith”?

This brings up a possibility for how one might look at an ‘ideal atheistic rationalist.’ Is, perhaps, an ideal atheistic rationalist someone that accepts our best scientific explanations as having the best verisimilitude (i.e. match with reality) but does not – unlike their theistic counterpart – believe in anything on faith?

For example, a Theistic Rationalist might believe in spirits for religious reasons, but not believe in more conventional ‘ghosts’ because they are not required any current scientific theory. They fully accept that their belief in spirits is faith-based. They also accept that this belief is not required by any current scientific theory. They are fully aware they are making a leap of faith on that point for religious reasons. (Though perhaps they have some ‘reasons’ for why they think spirits are real, like perhaps personal experiences.)

Might we then not view an Atheistic Rationalist as merely someone that did not make such a leap of faith? And might we then see an Atheistic Rationalist as someone that makes no such leaps of faith at all? So might we not define “Rational Atheism” as something like this?

Tentative Definition of Atheistic Rationalist (aka An Ideal Atheist): An atheistic rationalist is someone that seeks out the right kinds of explanations, namely ones that have survived the strongest criticisms and are highly (preferably computationally) specific and hard to vary, yet is always open to new ideas no matter what the source.

However, they do not accept any beliefs on mere leaps of faith and would rather not have their judgment (possibly) clouded by such faith-based beliefs. They’d rather see things as the naturalistically really are. Truth comes first for them. So they eschew all leaps of faith on the grounds that they may cloud our ability to find truth.

Might this be a pretty good working definition of a Rational Atheist? Does it at least maybe get us close to the Atheistic ideal?

At a minimum, I think this is typically how Rational Atheists see themselves (even if, being human, they don’t always reach their ideals).

A Spectrum of Atheism?

I know Practicing-but-Not-Believing Mormons love to talk about ‘spectrums’ and often even invent spectrums that don’t exist in real life. But might there not be a ‘spectrum’ of atheists? Maybe ‘ideal atheists’ are like we’re now defining them (above) and they are 100% atheist.

And maybe ‘praying atheists’ are somewhere between atheist and theist, as are Buddhists. Or maybe non-literal theists are 90% atheists and 10% theists?  And maybe Pantheists or Deists are 50/50?

I think these are question worth some pondering in some future posts. But for now, discuss.

 Notes

[1] Actually, some forms of Buddhism do accept the existence of “gods” but these are more the pagan concept of “god” and have more in common with something like a wind god then the Christian concept of God. They are not what we might call “creators” or even in any way “personifications of morality” like the Christian God is. So in some way using the word “god” in this sense is misleading to westerners.

[2] use of correct epistemology… The real truth is that no one uses the correct epistemology all the time. In fact, we’re probably lucky or blessed if we can on occasion think correctly. Luckily Popperian epistemology shows how we don’t have to individually be Popperians to have epistemology work in our favor. We merely have to have an open society where criticism can’t be squelched by violence. So there is probably a sense in which none of us are Rationalists. But there I no need to be cynical about this. A person who sincerely strives to be open and has that as a goal probably can make great strides in this regard (through, say, use of double blind studies) and in my opinion, such a person deserves the title ‘rationalist’ precisely because they know they aren’t always rational.

35 thoughts on “What is Atheism? What is Theism?

  1. A lot of good points here Bruce. You are really creating logical conundrums for people who describe themselves as “non-believers,” although I don’t know how many of them can see the conundrum.

  2. Interesting to try to define exactly what rational thinking is.

    I’ve talked to some rational Mormons and Evangelicals where the role of faith in their belief is practically non-existant. I would say there is little difference between them an atheists.

    They don’t “believe” in the supernatural, they “know” the supernatural exists, so it’s not supernatural. It’s natural. All spirit is matter. Measurable, rational.

    How do they know? If they are Mormons, through personal, empirical experience, (revelation) which they themselves are satisfied and tested according to their best rational mind. These kinds of Mormons are like visionary scientists who are satisfied of the rational truth of their theorems even if they have yet to devise an experimental proof that satisfies the skeptical.

    Or, if they are Evangelicals, they know because secular science is a Satanic conspiracy, and the true scientists are Biblical apologists. They trust their Biblical apologists using the same exact rational mindset as atheists trust their secular scientists.

  3. “Or, if they are Evangelicals, they know because secular science is a Satanic conspiracy, and the true scientists are Biblical apologists. They trust their Biblical apologists using the same exact rational mindset as atheists trust their secular scientists.”

    ROFL.

    I confess, I have a hard time with either of the two positions you describe as being ‘rational’ at all. Not that I am saying something negative about them here. There is probably a fair question whether ‘rational’ is all it’s cracked up to be. But I do not see a Mormon that through personal empircal experience (revelation) is satisifed ‘rationally’ in the sense I intended it here. There is still a substantial leap of faith (I’m pro-faith leaps, btw) going on here.

  4. There’s a spectrum of atheists, just as there’s a spectrum of theists. Speaking for myself, I’m 100% atheist… no god, heaven, hell, ghosts, etc. My perception of the universe is what I can see and what science finds. But my wife on the other hand, is spiritual… in that she believes in a god, heaven, but not really hell, ghosts, etc.

    Whether you’re an atheist or an theist, both are a leap of faith. Neither can be proven. It just boils down to what makes the most sense to you.

  5. I don’t think you can define rationalism by the conclusions that rationalists arrive at. Rather, rationalism is a method of acquiring knowledge (or adherence to the belief that a certain method is the only valid one).

    I find “rationalism” defined as the belief that “the human reason, or understanding, is the sole source and final test of all truth” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12652a.htm); or, “a method or a theory ‘in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive'” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalism). Thus a rationalist would refuse to believe an article of faith that could not be rationally demonstrated independently of a revelatory source.

    Therefore I don’t think of rationalism as a form of “openness” at all. Rather, it limits the available potential sources of truth.

    You write, “Belief in God is not based in rationality. It’s an act of faith.”

    On the contrary, belief in God may be arrived at through reason. Belief in specific propositions known only through revelation is (by definition) arrived at by faith, but belief in God is what St. Thomas calls a “preamble of faith”: Once you have placed your faith in a source of revelation, you proceed to believe specific articles of faith based on your faith in that source. But you can’t place your faith in a source which you have no *reason* to trust in the first place. Doing so would make faith completely arbitrary.

    You write, “If you look over the suggested Popperian definition of a Rationalist, a Theist can be a rationalist if they can accept the faith-based nature of their beliefs. However, many Theists probably do not qualify as Rationalists if they don’t even realize the faith-based nature of their beliefs.”

    Again you seem to be defining a rationalist by the conclusions he reaches rather than his belief in a certain mode of acquiring knowledge: You’re basically saying that a rationalist would not make a mistake in his premises or conclusions, whereby he erroneously arrives at the conclusion that his beliefs are not faith-based. Failing to always use reason correctly doesn’t take away your belief that reason is the only valid method.

  6. I agree with Agellius that rationalism cannot be defined by the conclusions rationalists arrive at. It is a method, which can be used to achieve both religious and secular viewpoints. And of course it is as prone to self-deception as faith is. Bruce, was it you who posted once the idea that the conspiracy theorist was the ultimate rationalist? I’ve always thought that a lot of religious belief in the world is focused on a conspiratorial mindset. Faith is unnatural and difficult for human beings. People are much more comfortable with rationality. They would rather live in a world of self-deceived rationality than one of true faith.

  7. “It is a method, which can be used to achieve both religious and secular viewpoints.”

    Maybe, theoretically. But if they refuse to believe doctrines of revelation that can’t be proven using reason alone, that does tend to prevent them being religious.

  8. Agellius,

    I’m actually suggesting that rationality has nothing to do with whether or not you draw the “correct conclusions.” That is obvious from the very nature of the this statement:

    “…seeks out the right kinds of explanations, namely ones that have survived the strongest criticisms…”

    This does not suggest that the explanation is correct or not correct, but rather is the best one so far to have survived (with the implication being that a better one will eventually follow that is more correct.) We can’t judge how correct a theory/explanation is, only that it’s more correct then all alternatives we currently know of.

    Therefore I am not talking defining rationalism by the conclusions one draws.

    But if that statement wasn’t obvious enough, consider this one:

    “The problem is that there is no such thing as “things proven by science.” ”

    This seems to be almost the opposite of of your reading of my post. (And, in fact, you have entirely misread my post.)

    In fact, it seems to me that a sizable portion of the post is directly at odds with your reading of my post. I spent considerable time talking about how a true rationalist can’t be judged by what conclusions they draw (and giving examples!) because what conclusions they would draw would change with time. I was actually including some of these points as a nod to views you’ve expressed to me and to try to agree with you. Yet you misread me anyhow.

    (Agellius, this is another example of our offline discussion about ‘debate modes’ relationship to overall comprehension.)

  9. Nate says:

    “I’ve always thought that a lot of religious belief in the world is focused on a conspiratorial mindset. Faith is unnatural and difficult for human beings. People are much more comfortable with rationality. They would rather live in a world of self-deceived rationality than one of true faith.”

    Compare to this statement of mine:

    “However, many Theists probably do not qualify as Rationalists if they don’t even realize the faith-based nature of their beliefs.”

    I believe we are in agreement on this point. I was being nicer. ;)

  10. Agellius,

    I seems to me we might have another point of agreement:

    “Belief in specific propositions known only through revelation is (by definition) arrived at by faith, but belief in God is what St. Thomas calls a “preamble of faith”: Once you have placed your faith in a source of revelation, you proceed to believe specific articles of faith based on your faith in that source.”

    I think this might be identical to what I mean by religion being based on a leap of faith. I.e. if it’s known only by revelation, there is a faith-based nature in accepting it, though you might also have reasons to believe in it

    I even gave a specific example in my follow on post (Can you find it? it’s in the ‘something-like-God’ post.) of how someone might have an experiential reason to believe in something that isn’t found within our current best explanations and isn’t repeatable yet. I think this might be the same concept you are explaining said in different words, so you didn’t recognize it.

    Or at least I’m going to probably end up believing we’re in agreement even though you probably won’t. ;) Because they look like the same or similar (or at least related) concept to me.

  11. Jason said: “Whether you’re an atheist or an theist, both are a leap of faith. Neither can be proven. It just boils down to what makes the most sense to you.”

    You are defining ‘atheist’ in a somewhat different way than my ‘idealized’ version. In fact, it’s somewhat similar to my ‘hard headed rationalist’ version. And, given that nuance, I agree with you 100%. Both atheism (in that sense) and theism are clearly leaps of faith. I can understand how someone might say “It makes the most sense to me to only accept that science accepts or only the natural world (as we currently understand it.)” But it’s certainly not a purely rational view. It is a leap of faith that we won’t find new theories that overturn the current ones in such a way that we must greatly expand our view of what the natural world really is.

    And, even my ‘idealized’ atheist actually is also making leaps of faith too (though I haven’t gotten to that yet) even if they don’t realize it.

    So I guess I’m basically agreeing with you.

  12. Bruce:

    You write, “Therefore we are not talking defining rationalism by the conclusions one draws.”

    Your post has several examples of defining positions by the conclusions people draw. For example you write, “That is why a true “rationalists” [sic] will not have disdain for myths and traditions even if they must sometimes disprove them.”

    The converse of this statement is that if someone does have disdain for myths and traditions he is not a “true rationalist”. Thus you define rationalism by the conclusions one draws about, for one thing, myths and traditions.

    Then you say, “… a Theist can be a rationalist if they can accept the faith-based nature of their beliefs.” Which implies, logically, that if you cannot accept the faith-based nature of your beliefs (in other words, if you draw an incorrect conclusion regarding the faith-based nature of your beliefs), then you can’t be a rationalist.

    You do say that being a ‘rationalist’ is really about use of a certain epistemology (which you call the “correct” one), which agrees with what I’m saying. But these other statements of yours seem to conflict with that statement, since they speak not to the method used, but to the conclusions drawn.

    However let me just say that I understand you are defining “rationalism” in a specific way to serve a purpose that you have in mind. I’m not disputing your right to do so. I was just offering what I consider to be the more conventional or traditional definition of rationalism.

    I’m going to disregard your comments about me being in “debate mode”, since whether or not I am is irrelevant to the validity of what I’m saying. Besides, stopping to argue about it would take us down a side track, which I know you don’t like.

  13. Bruce:

    You write, “I think this might be identical to what I mean by religion being based on a leap of faith. I.e. if it’s known only by revelation, there is a faith-based nature in accepting it, though you might also have reasons to believe in it”.

    It’s possible we agree and just have a difference in how we’re expressing it. But I have to say I don’t agree with your position as you have actually expressed it so far.

    We agree that if something is known only by explicit revelation (as opposed to God’s revelation of himself which is inherent in nature, for example), then “there is a faith-based nature in accepting it”. My dispute was with your seemingly blanket statement that “religion [is] based on a leap of faith”, which sounds to me like all religious belief is based on such a leap, which would include belief in God.

    Whereas my position is that belief in God can be arrived at by reason, which can then serve as a rational basis for placing one’s faith in God, and therefore in the things that he reveals. Thus one’s initial belief in God need not be a “leap of faith” necessarily.

  14. Well, if you hadn’t posted a book, I might be able to post a comment. As it is, I know not where to start.

  15. You know, Agellius, I wrote a lot, which means you’re going to find everything you think you disagree with me over and try to argue it point by point. So I shouldn’t have done that.

    I actually wrote all the above to try to clarify what I said for you, but it’s not going to work.

    So instead, let me tell you what I am really interested in: Do you actually believe there is a rational way to come up with the position that one should be disdainful of all myths and traditions? If not, then you’re as ‘outcome based’ as I am. Live with it. :) If so, then you should probably explain it so that I understand what you were really getting at.

    So here are the key points I made above that are worth noting as a way of explaining myself:

    1. Yes, you are a debater and it sometimes screws up your ability to try to grasp the forest so that you can understand what I am saying.

    2. On the other hand, I suck at explaining things. No doubt about that. Also, these are complex subjects.

    3. It’s impossible to actually state all caveats and nuances in real life, so we live with approximate statements. A debater like yourself can always choose to point out the ‘missing parts’ of a statement and make a logical argument out of it. This works well as a debating tactic but does nothing to advance the conversation. I would encourage you to do this less and ask more questions, if your goal is really to understand what I am saying rather than to just debate me.

    4. The two examples you used of where I was ‘outcome based’ had such implied caveats (i.e. they were approximate statements, not absolute statements. But this is common with a lot of statements because overly precise language becomes computational and can’t be understood by humans any more). One caveat was explicit in note 2: no one is truely rational in every case. The other caveat is implicit in that all rational statements are subject to change once we know more and have a new theory. (This is stated throughout the whole post.) Thus no rational statements (well, other than deductive logic) is truely ever outcome based. But to continually restate those caveats is impossible and to demand it of me is unfair. So just remember it’s always implied going forward.

    5. Faith is typically, for most people, based on both reason and faith. But it is not based on reason alone. I was claiming nothing more than this. Were you? I think we are agreeing, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps you do think there is some absolute proof of God out there that I am not aware of?

    6. A “preponderance of evidence” is not usually an objective thing. So it really means “given the evidence available, what conclusion did you personally draw?” Thus it’s not suprising that many people see the preponderance of evidence exactly opposite from each other and thus draw opposite conclusions at times.

    The above are not being offered up as points of debate, per se, but only as clarifications of my position since you were confused on what I was getting at.

    I hope they help clarify what I was saying. I would encourage you to ask me questions if you are confused on anything. I’ll be happy to explain further.

  16. I just deleted the previous two comments to avoid confusion and the potential for an endless pointless debate.

  17. Bruce:

    You write, “I just deleted the previous two comments to avoid confusion and the potential for an endless pointless debate.”

    Oh, there’s still plenty left on which to have an “endless pointless debate”. : )

    “Yes, you are a debater and it sometimes screws up your ability to try to grasp the forest so that you can understand what I am saying”; and “I would encourage you to do this less and ask more questions, if your goal is really to understand what I am saying rather than to just debate me.”

    Bruce, I comment on your posts specifically in order to discuss things. When I find things hard to understand, I ask questions, as I just did on your other post, concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics (when I asked, “Why is this incompatible with belief in a loving God?”). When I disagree with things, and if it’s a topic I think would be interesting to discuss, I express my disagreement.

    I don’t see how my raising points that I find interesting enough to discuss, gets in the way of my understanding you. If I misunderstand you, that’s a separate issue from me raising points to discuss.

    There could be various reasons why I misunderstand you. It could be my own denseness, or it could be certain shortcomings in your explanations or your thought processes. I don’t presume to say which it is, and I’m perfectly open to it being my own denseness. But if you’re so sure that I misunderstand you specifically because I enjoy raising points for debate, I think you need to demonstrate that and not just assert it. How do you know that the reason I misunderstand you is because I choose to debate certain points? How exactly are the two tied together? Why can’t I debate and understand at the same time?

    What is the purpose of a debate, in your mind? For me, its purpose is for people who disagree to come to an agreement, or at least a better understanding. Have our past debates not resulted in better understanding between us? If so, then why should I believe that debating things hinders understanding rather than helps it?

    Maybe you can persuade me otherwise, but for now I’m convinced that the reason I misunderstand you (when I do) lies elsewhere.

  18. As to the substance of your latest comment, after reviewing what I said previously, and your responses, I don’t think I can make my points any better than I already have, so I’ll just let it lie.

    I will answer some of your direct questions:

    “Perhaps you do think there is some absolute proof of God out there that I am not aware of?”

    I think there is proof of God’s existence, yes. I think Aquinas proved it. I’m not sure what “absolute proof” means. I won’t say that Aquinas’s proofs are absolutely compelling, in the way a self-evident proposition is. But I think that in themselves, they accomplish what they set out to do.

    “Do you actually believe there is a rational way to come up with the position that one should be disdainful of all myths and traditions?”

    Whether or not there is, is beside the point, in my view. The point is that rationalists (as I understand rationalism) were committed to the idea that nothing should be believed *except* what could be demonstrated rationally, without reliance on faith or revelation.

    Whether an individual rationalist correctly or incorrectly thought that something (such as myths and traditions) could be demonstrated rationally, that would only speak to his own powers of reason and the validity or invalidity of his conclusions. He may in fact be a bad rationalist, if while claiming to be rational he actually acts irrationally. But he would still be a rationalist based on his belief in “rationalism”.

  19. Agellius says: “There could be various reasons why I misunderstand you. It could be my own denseness, or it could be certain shortcomings in your explanations or your thought processes.”

    Why would it have to be either that you are dense or that I am a poor explainer?

    I can think of other alternatives. Perhaps, for example, you are not dense, but when discussing a subject that has deep religious significant to you, you use ‘debating’ as a form of defensiveness? True or not, it’s certainly a plausible possiblity that is neither of the above.

    By the way, I’ve now offered you a considerable number of examples of how you go into debate mode and how it shuts down your ability to comprehend me. But, of course, you then try to debate those examples…

    Anyhow, in next comment, let me try to respond to you.

  20. Agellius,

    Okay, your comment 20 actually suggests some things I don’t think you’ve explained before. But let me try to clarify so that I understand what you are saying.

    First, you seem to believe that there is a specific way that ‘rationalism’ is defined and that this specific way might be defined something like this: (Correct me on this and I’ll rewrite it until it’s to your liking.)

    Rationalists – Some that is committed to the idea that nothing should be believed *except* what has been demonstrated rationally. (i.e. without reliance on faith or revelation.)

    You have not said *how* such a rationalist is to demonstrate what is true vs. what is false in comment #20. But #7 you asserted that “rationalism” is defined as the belief that “the human reason, or understanding, is the sole source and final test of all truth”

    Based on this, can I assume that you are insisting that (as per Aristotle) that the correct rational source of truth is only found through internal introspection about the essence of things? You do not specifically state this, so I’m extrapolating.

    Also, can I assume that you are also insisting that you are not open to the possiblity that the word ‘rational’ or ‘rationalist’ can refer to anything but this school of thought? (You seem to not even consider the possiblity that I was not refering to this school of thought, even though that seems like a very plausible way to read me throughout.)

    If I am understanding you correctly above, then this leads to the next thing you say:

    “But he would still be a rationalist based on his belief in “rationalism”.”

    So, if I understand you correctly, you are asserting that given that there is only one way to understand the term ‘rationalism’ and therefore only one way to understand the term ‘rational’ that it can’t be the case that a ‘rationalist’ is determined by someone that ‘gets the right answer.’

    Now in saying this, you are (if I’m reading you correctly) not saying that there is anything uncertain about rational thought. One *can* know for certain if some propositions are true or not through proper rationalism.

    But rather you asserting that just because someone makes a rational mistake doesn’t mean they don’t believe in “rationalism.” They can, if you will, both believe in “rationalism” (i.e. that we should believe only in things established rationally) but can also falsely believe in something because they made a mistake in applying proper rational thought.

    Is that what you are getting at?

  21. Now I think *you* are making things way to difficult. As I said before, it was not my intention to debate you about what a rationalist is, nor to discuss my own beliefs about the “correct rational source of truth”. I said you have the right to define “rationalism” as you choose for your own purposes.

    My only quibble was that in my view, it seemed you were defining it based on what conclusions a rationalist would or would not draw, whereas I thought a rationalist would be someone who subscribes to rationalism, period. Two rationalists may disagree on whether a specific belief may be arrived at by reason alone, yet they can still both be rationalists based on their agreement that reason alone must dictate their beliefs. That’s all I’m saying and that’s pretty much all I have to say about it.

  22. Bruce:

    You write, “Why would it have to be either that you are dense or that I am a poor explainer?”

    I didn’t say it had to be either of those.

    You write, “By the way, I’ve now offered you a considerable number of examples of how you go into debate mode and how it shuts down your ability to comprehend me. But, of course, you then try to debate those examples…”

    Can you give me an example of your offering me an example of how my being in debate mode shuts down my comprehension, and of me debating your example?

    By the way, are you suggesting that I shouldn’t debate your assertion that this is true? That I should just submit to your judgment on the matter?

    Suppose I positively asserted that my lack of comprehension is not self-caused, but instead is caused by your failure to adequately express what you intend to convey. Would you submit to my judgment on that issue? Or would you instead ask me to demonstrate specifically where your language was deficient, and why?

  23. Agellius,

    Would you be comfortable with the idea that using a word like “rationalist” doesn’t have to be used in such a way as to mean someone is ascribing to a specific philosophy called “rationalism” but instead means someone that is actually using a correct epistemological approach when trying to discover truth instead of a false one?

    (I am not suggesting there is one particular definition here, nor denying yours. Just asking if you can accept that the word might also encompass what I am using it as.)

  24. “Can you give me an example of your offering me an example of how my being in debate mode shuts down my comprehension, and of me debating your example?”

    Yes, we are having an offline conversation right now over a specific such incident.

    Are you asking me to publish it here? Or are you okay with keeping it an offline conversation and example?

    “By the way, are you suggesting that I shouldn’t debate your assertion that this is true?”

    Not at all.

    I’m saying that there is danger in debating someone’s position that one doesn’t understand yet. One would end up making irrelavant debate points over items that have little or nothing to do with the subject. (Hypothetically speaking. I’m not talking about this thread.) The end result would be a sort of spiraling down of point of debate and point of debate, none of which would have been on topic.

    Instead, I’m suggesting that if you really want to debate a point, it makes far better sense to make sure you understand it first by finding common ground, verifying what premises we have in common, asking clarifying questions, etc BEFORE you launch into criticisms of it.

    Obviously AFTER you understand, the challenge then becomes valid since you are arguing over an an actual point of debate at that point.

    I suspect you at least in principle agree with me that this is a good idea and really just disagreemen with me that you often leap off into debating points that have no relevance.

    Not trying to pick an online fight with you over this.

    We can fight over this in our offline conversation where I believe I have a pretty dang obvious example of you falling into this ‘debate mode’ trap.

  25. In re-reading your post I had a thought:

    One thing you may be overlooking (unless I missed it) is the fact that determining what “our current best theories and explanations” are requires faith. Very few of us conduct our own experiments in order to learn all the things that science has arrived at. We take the word of others, who teach us based on things that they themselves have been informed of by still others whom they considered reliable sources of such information.

    It’s reasonable to do this, but taking the word of others for things that we don’t know firsthand is an act of faith, isn’t it?

  26. Bruce:

    You write, “Would you be comfortable with the idea that using a word like “rationalist” doesn’t have to be used in such a way as to mean someone is ascribing to a specific philosophy called “rationalism” but instead means someone that is actually using a correct epistemological approach when trying to discover truth instead of a false one?”

    Let me put it this way. Suppose you have an epistemological approach in mind, which you consider the best epistemological approach. Let’s say you decide to call this approach Rationalism. I have no problem with that. (I would prefer to use another term since there is already a widely accepted meaning for the word “Rationalism”, and therefore it might cause confusion, but that’s a matter of persoanl preference.)

    Now suppose you have someone who agrees with you that Rationalism is the best epistemological approach, and therefore identifies himself as a Rationalist. I have no problem with that either (other than the preference I already raised).

    If you want to bring it down to the level of practice instead of theory, you could also apply the term “Rationalist” to someone who happens to use the Rationalistic approach without consciously being an adherent of it.

    But I just re-read your post, including your note 2. And this reminded me of what my quibble originally was, since you say, “such a person deserves the title ‘rationalist’ precisely because they know they aren’t always rational.” So again, you seem to be basing whether or not they are Rationalists on something they know, rather than whether or not they subscribe to the Rationalistic method. This I find problematic. It seems you’re defining “Rationalist” as someone who subscribes to a certain method *and* knows he is not rational *and* knows his religious beliefs are faith-based *and* has no disdain for myths and traditions.

    This sounds more like someone who is a disciple of someone, rather than someone who subscribes to a certain method or philosophy. If someone taught that we should use a certain method and also that none of us is always rational and that religious beliefs are faith-based and that we should not have disdain for myths and traditions, then someone who agreed with all these positions might call himself after their author — supposing it was Popper who came up with all this, then someone who agreed might call himself a Popperian or a Popperist.

    These positions may all be consistent with one another, they just don’t all sound to me like components of a single epistemological *method*.

  27. Bruce:

    You write, “I suspect you at least in principle agree with me that this is a good idea and really just disagreemen with me that you often leap off into debating points that have no relevance.”

    To be clear, I would have no problem with you suggesting that I might want to consider whether I am so caught up in debating that it gets in the way of my comprehending the pertinent points; hopefully showing me specifically where and how you believe this has occurred (“If you had not been so occupied disputing this, I think you might have grasped that I meant that”). I hope I would be open to considering that possibility. Likewise, I hope you would be open to considering that my failure to understand could have some other cause.

    What’s irksome is the summary way in which you draw the conclusion that I *am* so caught up in debating that it hinders my comprehension; and when I dispute it, will not even consider it an open question requiring demonstration, but simply repeat the assertion as factual. And it’s all the more irksome, as well as presumptuous, since again, the only way you could *know* that one thing is hindering my comprehension rather than another, is if you were reading my mind. (You’re not, are you?)

    That being said, I do agree that it’s best to make sure you understand something before you dispute it. All I can say to that is, I never dispute things that I don’t believe I understand. When I don’t understand things that you say, I usually say something like, “I’m having trouble following your train of thought here”; or, “I can’t answer that question because I don’t feel that I know specifically what you’re asking”. If I were the type to go off half-cocked before feeling that I understood things, then why did we suffer through that long (offline) ordeal of making sure I knew what you were asking before I was willing to answer?

    Frankly I feel silly arguing over a thing like this publicly, rather than sticking with the issues. But since you keep bringing it up I feel compelled to defend myself.

    You write, “Not trying to pick an online fight with you over this.”

    Unfortunately I think it’s already been picked.

  28. @ Agellius #29:

    Agellius, I promise I’m not picking a fight now and will be on my best behavior.

    You didn’t quite understand my question:

    Would you be comfortable with the idea that using a word like “rationalist” doesn’t have to be used in such a way as to mean someone is ascribing to a specific philosophy called “rationalism” but instead means someone that is actually using a correct epistemological approach when trying to discover truth instead of a false one?

    In #29 you simply changed “rationalism” from being one specific philosophy to another. Which isn’t what I asked.

    What I’m really asking if you could be comfortable that maybe the word “rational” (and thus ‘rationalist’) has two meanings. One where it refers to someone that believes some specific philosophy (I’m not denying your view) and another where it’s a short hand for whether or not that correct philosophy was actually followed.

    Might one ‘rationalist’ say to another: you are failing to be a rationalist because of the following irrational error in your thinking. Could you be comfortable with language being used in that way?

  29. Bruce:

    I understood the question and answered it as best as I could. I’ll try again.

    I think you could say that a “true rationalist” would do such and such, “such and such” being a description of how the “correct epistemological approach” works in practice; just as you would say that a “true scientist” does such and such, i.e. follows the scientific method correctly; even if a perfectly good scientist might screw up once in a while and do things in a way that is technically “non-scientific”; and similarly, a perfectly good rationalist might mis-use the rationalistic method on occasion yet still be a rationalist based on his belief in the rationalistic method. (I’m aware that you admit this in your post, which is why I didn’t bother spelling this out before.)

    So yes, you could say to someone, “You’re not being a true Rationalist in this instance because you’re not following the method correctly.”

    My quibble, again, was not using the word in this way, but that you seemed to require that people hold certain opinions, seemingly not directly related to the method itself, in order to be considered Rationalists.

  30. Okay, I’m fine with the way you worded it.

    Can you then accept (if worded in this way) someone saying “A person that has disdain for myths and traditions is not being rational and therefore, in that instance, a true rationalist?”

    By the way, let me try to validate your point. I was definititely NOT saying that a person that makes a mistake (i.e. having disdain for myths and legends) is therefore not accepting a certain philosophical school of rationalism. That is certainly not what I meant. In fact the scare quotes around “rationalist” was supposed to suggest that I was speaking loosely and no longer about whether or not a person was, overall, accepting a specific school of philosophy.

    If you did read “rationalist” soley in that way, then I suppose one could read the sentence as “A true person that accepts Popperian epistemology would not have disdain for myths and legends.” Which is actually… I guess just fine now that I write it out. But, to your point, it implies “in this instance.”

  31. You write, “Can you then accept (if worded in this way) someone saying ‘A person that has disdain for myths and traditions is not being rational and therefore, in that instance, a true rationalist?'”

    You’re going to hate me, but in pondering this I realize some other problems that I have with your scheme.

    You talk about how atheists consider themselves “hard-headed rationalists”. Now this use of the term “rationalist” is not the one you have defined. If they were already calling themselves by that name, then they must mean it in a sense already widely in use. For that reason, I assume they mean it in the traditional or conventional sense of “rationalism”, which is, the belief that nothing should be believed except what may be demonstrated by reason.

    Ostensibly, it is this belief alone which makes them atheists, since they do not believe that religious beliefs may be demonstrated by reason alone. Though in reality, I suspect it’s more often the reverse: That they adopt belief in rationalism (as traditionally defined) specifically because they do not wish to believe in God, which belief they think cannot be proven using reason alone.

    You then say that a “true rationalist” is someone who accepts our Latest and Best Explanations (“LBE”) for things.

    But “rationalism” refers to reason. “Rational” in its most basic sense means simply, “capable of reason”; i.e. a “rational animal” is an animal that can reason. It doesn’t mean (obviously) someone who always reasons correctly, but merely, someone who possesses the capacity to reason.

    You go through all the nutty things that some atheists believe, striking them down one by one as not being in accord with the LBE. On this basis you say that these beliefs are not “rational”. But they *are* rational if they are arrived at on the basis of reason.

    What you mean (to my mind) is not that they are not rational, but that they are not arrived at through the “scientific method”, or something akin to it. Again you strike them down, not based on the method through which they were arrived at, but only on the fact that they do not comport with the LBE.

    The LBE, then, is your criteria, and not reason per se. Therefore I don’t see why “rationalism” is the appropriate term for it, rather than “scientism” or such like.

    I submit that even religious beliefs are rational in the sense that they are based on reason. Here is what I mean: I believe in God based on reason. I believe in Jesus based on the fact that he performed miracles to back up his claims about who he was, i.e. God. I believe everything Jesus says based on the fact that God cannot lie. Therefore I believe in the Church he founded, and I believe that based on Christ’s guarantee, that Church cannot teach error when teaching divine revelation. Therefore I believe everything the Church teaches as having been divinely revealed.

    All of these beliefs, I submit, are rational (based on reason), in that given the truth of my premises, they all follow logically. It’s true that I have also placed my faith in Christ, but that’s based on my believing that he is God, based on his miracles and his teaching. Believing that he is God, in a sense it would actually be *irrational* not to place my faith in him.

    Therefore I don’t see the need for a dichotomy between faith and reason, as expressed when you say that “[b]elief in God is not based in rationality. It’s an act of faith.”

    Now my premises may be false. They may be based on mistaken interpretations of things, or whatever. But everything following on those premises is perfectly rational in that they are logically valid conclusions, given the premises.

    It’s fine for you to define “Rationalism” as “the belief that one’s beliefs must conform to the LBE”. But I think it’s unwarranted to also define “Rationalism” as someone’s not acting rationally, since this seems to conflate “acceptance of the LBE” with “reason”. Someone may arrive at conclusions not in accord with the LBE, yet still based on reason and therefore (tautologically) rational.

    It may be that you don’t disagree with this: That when you said “rational” you didn’t mean it in the generic sense, but in your special, defined sense; and therefore you are not conflating “[generic] rational” as being necessarily “in accord with the LBE”. In that case, to avoid confusion I suggest always capitalizing “Rationalism”, “Rationalist” and “Rational” when referring to your special defined sense, and use lowercase only when referring to reason and rational behavior in the generic sense.

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