New Atheism Epistemology

by Brian 10. March 2012 19:26
New Atheism is not unlike the old except its members tolerate religion less and ridicule it more. The movement has been popularized by The Four Horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens. I have observed an expedient trait in the new atheists where they strategically shift position between strong and weak atheism. Weak, implicit or negative atheism emphasizes a lack of evidence for the existence of God rather than positively asserting the nonexistence of God. Strong, explicit or positive atheism requires good reason to make the claim God does not exist. I use the words “good reason” as a placeholder for that which provides warrant or justification for one’s belief.[i] In this post I will argue an element of duplicitousness exists in the new atheist movement. But first let’s look at the difference between strong and weak atheism. The following diagram should clarify the two positions:

The expressions on the right of the diagram provide examples of where one approximately falls in the spectrum using a statement of belief. On the left side of the bar are numbers (from 0 to 1) showing the epistemic probability for the proposition “I believe God exists (G).” On the far left of the diagram you will note a few popular positions including their approximate range in the spectrum. At this point you may be wondering: What is epistemic probability?
Epistemic probability (EP) provides a means to measure one’s confidence in the truth-value of a proposition. A value of 1 indicates certainty in a proposition (say P). Certainty in ~P (that is ‘not-P’ or the negation of P) is represented by 0. In the middle at 0.5 is equal confidence, or lack thereof, in that P and in that ~P.  We refer to this middle region as agnosticism, a word derived from the Greek a-gnosis meaning without knowledge. Being without knowledge in this context is not referring to background knowledge (though that may be lacking too) but rather knowledge of the truth-value of that P. Finally, EP is not to be confused with statistical probability:

On the one side it [probability] is statistical, concerning itself with stochastic laws of chance processes. On the other side it is epistemological; dedicated to assessing reasonable degrees of belief in propositions quite devoid of statistical background. Hacking (1975):

EP comes in at least two flavors: subjective and logical. Subjective EP is primarily based on one’s personal inductive standards and can lead to epistemological relativism. One may feel entirely certain about a matter, but their position may be merely subjective if it lacks an independent standard to ground it. The logical version of EP takes a more objective approach. Something independent of the knower provides warrant or “good reason” for their position. Now you may be wondering: What does this have to do with new-atheism? Here is my answer:

A duplicitous pattern exists in the new atheism movement where adherents display strong atheism based on a subjective EP in most areas of discourse. But when it comes time to rationally defend their position, they are compelled to retreat to agnosticism based on a logical EP.

In the April 2009 debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig an exchange took place where Craig asked whether Hitchens’ position was one of strong atheism or agnosticism. Hitchens replied: “Once I’ve said I’ve never seen any persuasive evidence for the existence of something…I will go as far to say, have the nerve to say, that He therefore does not exist.” When Craig then asked for arguments for the nonexistence of God, Hitchens continues: “I find all of the arguments in favor fallacious and unconvincing.” Hitchens’ attempt to evade the question is challenged again by Craig, but to no avail. Hitchens simply refuses to provide an argument. Craig finally asks him if he agrees “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” to which Hitchens replies, “I can’t say that I do.”[ii] This was one of the few candid exchanges I’ve witnessed by a prominent new atheist on this subject. In the absence of evidence for atheism, rationality pulls Hitchens relentlessly towards agnosticism. Yet Hitchens remained incorrigible and asserts a strong subjective atheism throughout the debate.

Hitchens is not alone. Recently Dawkins spoke at a debate at Oxford University with the Archbishop of Canterbury.The chairperson said to Dawkins “…you, Richard, believe you have a disproof of God’s existence” to which Dawkins emphatically responds “You were wrong when you said that.” Dawkins goes on to say that in the God Delusion he rates himself a six out of seven where seven is absolute certainty God does not exist. This would be equivalent to a 0.14 EP. Here Dawkins is suggesting that if he had a disproof he’d be a seven, but without it, he is just a six. The chairperson then suggests to Dawkins that he ought to call himself an agnostic, which is odd given someone claiming an EP of 0.14. Yet Dawkins astonishingly replies “I do!” When the chairperson seems unsatisfied with anything less than perfect certainty for such a prominent atheist, Dawkins half-jokingly relents “okay, I’m a 6.9.” Now that’s a very strong atheist position with an EP of 0.014. Quite frankly, I’m not even that certain of what I had for breakfast this morning! But then Dawkins says something extraordinary I think cuts to the chase:

“When you talk about agnosticism it’s very important to make a distinction between ‘I don’t know whether x is true or not’ therefore it is 50-50 likely or unlikely…and that’s the kind of agnostic in which I’m definitely not. I think one can place estimates of probability on these things and I think the probability of any supernatural creator existing is very very low.”
Yes, very, very low indeed with his brazen claim of strong atheism at 0.014. On the one hand Dawkins says emphatically he is an agnostic when asked about a disproof, but then he quickly distinguishes himself from a “50-50” agnostic. But here’s the problem with Dawkins thinking - he misconstrues EP with statistical probability. An agnostic does not hold there is a “50-50” chance God exists. An agnostic doesn’t know if God exists. The following thought experiment should help to clarify where Dawkins went wrong:

I tell you I have a box full of paper slips with numbers on them and later ask you to draw slips at random. But just prior to drawing, I ask you to assess the epistemic probability in the proposition "You will draw a seven" (P). Of course you have no idea. You do not believe you will draw a seven any more than you won't. I might have put all sevens in the box, or none. The correct EP is 0.5 because you have no justification for moving up or down without additional knowledge. However, this does not mean as you draw numbers from the box, the number of "sevens" drawn will approach 50%. The statistical odds in drawing a “seven” are not 50-50 just because you are agnostic and your EP is 0.5.

So why would Dawkins try to obfuscate and redefine agnosticism? Why was Hitchens so reluctant to be labeled an agnostic? The answer is obvious. You cannot legitimately speak, rally, write, argue and debate relentlessly about one of the most profound subjects if you simply don’t know. You cannot have integrity and be bent on the destruction of theism if you don’t know. You certainly cannot be one of the four horsemen of atheism if you don’t know. What recourse do they have other than to weasel out? Agnosticism, properly understood, is not a category any prominent new atheist is comfortable with.

If these new atheists have good reason to avoid agnosticism, why not just boldly claim strong atheism at all times? Why even leave the door cracked open on agnosticism? Again the answer is fairly obvious. Without good reason for atheism, the best one can rationally and honestly proclaim is agnosticism. Referring again to the above diagram, in the absence of good reason for G one is moved downward to 0.5. But in the absence of good reason for ~G, one is moved upward to 0.5. Merely on the basis of finding arguments for theism wanting, one cannot rationally infer strong atheism. A rational person ought not to believe a proposition is false just because they feel there is no compelling good reason to believe it is true, unless of course they also have good reason to believe it is false. [iii]

But if sound arguments are available for atheism, if good reasons can be shown, then the new atheists ought to articulate them. Hitchens should have presented his arguments at his debate with Craig. Dawkins should have presented arguments for atheism to the chairperson at Oxford. But as mere agnostics, perhaps new atheists should take down their signs and close up their shops in the marketplace of ideas. If they do not know, they simply have no business competing with those who claim to know.
[i] For more information see Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy.
[ii] Approximately 1:22:00 into the debate
[iii] The following from basic propositional logic demonstrates why in the absence of a good reason for P simpliciter, one cannot infer ~P. Assume the following statement is true: “If Annie goes to the movie, Connie goes to the movie.” (A->C). If the antecedent “Annie goes to the movie” is true, the consequent “Connie goes to the movie” is true. This is a very simple inference pattern called modus ponens. The antecedent A, if true, provides definitively good reason to believe the consequent C is true, given the conditional statement is true which we assumed at the beginning. But what if I said: “Annie does not go to the movie.” What should you infer? Well, if you infer, therefore, “Connie does not go to the movie” – you would be in error. This form of inference is fallacious and is called denying the antecedent. If Annie doesn’t go to the movie, it may be Connie goes with another friend, or perhaps she stays home. You simply do not know. On this proposition alone, if the antecedent is false, you ought to be agnostic on the consequent.

Reason Rally

by Brian 21. February 2012 06:05

Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers and other New Atheists are planning a “Reason Rally” in Washington, D.C. on March 24. They’re billing it as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.” My first thought was why in the world would I waste my time paying this noise any attention? After all, this is the likes of Dawkins preaching to a choir of the likes of Dawkins’ followers.

But on the Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA) someone pointed out to me there may be media coverage (even if it’s MSNBC and NPR.) There may also be an opportunity for rational discourse outside the polemics from the lineup of speakers. If you are interested, you may want to sponsor organizations planning to attend such as I know some of these guys from CAA and they are top-notch representatives of rational Christianity. Let’s hope and pray they will be given an opportunity to “share Christ person to person as opportunity arises.” I know if they have an opportunity, it will be capitalized on with 1Peter3 gentleness and respect.


Absence of Evidence

by Brian 26. December 2011 22:03

If you think Christians, creationists and proponents of intelligent design are the only ones guilty of arguing from ignorance – think again. True, some say; “I do not see how such and such could happen by unguided material-processes, therefore God did it.” But others will say; “Even though I do not see how such and such could happen by unguided material-processes, science will eventually fill the gap and show that it does.” Neither of these of course are good arguments and it is probably safe to say; arguing from ignorance cuts across worldview boundaries. There is a particular form of this kind of fallacious reasoning I want to touch on in this post. Last week I was reading about Alvin Plantinga’s new book[i] where an atheist stated without qualification: “an absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is more than good-enough reason for not believing something[sic].” But clearly such an unqualified statement is not true. It is in fact an argument from ignorance.

Absence of evidence simpliciter is not evidence of absence. W.L. Craig likes to use the following example; “If I say there is an elephant in the room, then you would expect to see a massive living creature shaped like elephant before you. If you do not see evidence of this sort, then you rightly infer there is no elephant present. But if I say there is a flea in the room; just because you do not see a small insect or have any other confirming evidence, you cannot rightly infer a flea does not exist in the room.” Of course you do not know there is one either! In Craig’s debate with Peter Slezak he put it another way: “The lack of knowledge for some entity X counts as positive evidence against X’s existence only in the case that if X did exist, then we should expect to see more evidence of X’s existence than what we do see.” The atheist Carl Sagan seemed to understand this as well. In the Demon-Haunted World he wrote, “This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." [Emphasis added] In fact: One cannot infer the nonexistence of P merely from an absence of evidence for the existence of P unless one can rationally show there is evidence Q we should expect to see if P exists and yet Q is found to be absent.

To clarify, consider the following hypothetical: If we have no evidence for [the existence of prokaryotic microorganisms on Mars] P, can one rationally infer merely from the absence of evidence for P that P is false? Of course not! Nor can we infer that P. If NASA develops an evidential test for that P; say a series of probes which land on Mars to take soil samples looking for P (where a positive result is evidence Q) then we can see if P is true. If it is, we should expect to see Q. If we run the tests and do not find Q, then that is a defeater for that P. But if NASA does not send the probes and run the tests for Q, we are no further along in knowing that P or that ~P. Our knowledge of that P has neither gained nor lost warrant.

So in summary, absence of evidence simpliciter is not evidence of absence. If someone makes this statement in an unqualified way, politely ask them to define what sort of evidence they were expecting to see but didn’t. Otherwise, when it comes to knowledge:  Gaps, ignorance and unqualified absence of evidence do nothing to move the ball on the field of warrant.

[i] Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga (Dec 9, 2011)


About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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