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 might 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 cards with either heads or tails depicted on them and ask you to draw one at random. But just before drawing a card, I invite you to assess your confidence as a epistemic probability (EP) in the belief: "You will draw heads." Of course, you have no idea. You do not believe you will draw "heads" any more than "tails." I might have put all "heads" in the box or few. The heads-tails distribution is unknown to you. The correct EP is 0.5 because you have no justification for moving up or down without additional information. However, this does not mean as you draw cards from the box; the number of "heads" drawn will approach 50%. The objective (statistical) probability in drawing "heads" is unknown and not necessarily 0.5 just because you are entirely unsure and your SP 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 without some other prior information (like Connie rarely goes to the movie.) 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, without other good reason one way or the other, if the antecedent is false, you ought to remain agnostic on the consequent.

Atheism a worldview?

by Brian 31. December 2009 19:13

I just finished watching the April 4th, 2009 debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. I must say Craig gave Hitchens such a serious beatdown it was truly embarrassing by the end of the DVD (the photo hints at the juxtaposition.) In fact Hitchens ran out things to say and forfeited his time during the concluding remarks. Even though this was not a fair matchup, (Craig is a top-notch philosopher and Hitchens simply isn’t) the debate generated excellent material for discussion. I hope to cover some of it in the coming days. For now I want to focus on the statement: Atheism is a worldview. Craig alluded to this in his rebuttal by stating one should not judge a worldview, Christianity or atheism, by its social impact. Rather one should judge a worldview by whether or not it is true. Hitchens agreed. Yet in the exchange portion of the debate when Craig pressed Hitchens to clarify his position as an atheist, you saw an angered opponent trying to backpedal. Hitchens was clearly trying to have his cake and eat it too and show atheism as a positive assertion (i.e. "there is no god") without the use of sound argumentation. When arguments are lacking, the best one can do is retreat into atheism as a default position (i.e. "you have not convinced me there is a god, therefore we should assume there isn't.") Unfortunately the later leaves a lot to be desired for such a debate.

So which form of nontheism does Hitchens fall under?

1.       A-theist - one who positively asserts the nonexistence of God (i.e. one who claims to know there is no god)

2.       Agnostic – one who has no net belief in the existence or nonexistence of God, in other words, no decisive knowledge on the matter due to balanced-belief or ignorance

3.       Skeptic (new atheist) – one who has no belief or insufficient belief in the existence of God to justify the extraordinary and momentous implications resulting from affirming said belief

Now clearly #1 is a worldview as much as theism is. It makes foundational claims about ultimate reality - such as the material universe being the initial brute fact by which all existence is based. There is no objective morality. There is no ultimate justice. Life ends at the grave, etc. As for #2 and #3, their relation to worldview is unclear. But, I have yet to meet an honest agnostic. Those who claim to be one usually live their lives as #1-atheists and reveal the doubt of #3 far more than honestly required to null out any positive belief. So apart from the truly ignorant, most nontheists are honestly in camp #1 or #3. However, based on my once self-proclaimed skepticism and my experience with others; under the cover of #3 is usually a closet #1-atheist. For the most part, nontheism is a worldview or foundational to one's worldview.

During the debate Hitchens claimed to be in camp #3 – which was not really fitting. After all, the title of the debate was “Does God exist?” Craig's opponent really needed to present a valid argument for the nonexistence of God and rebut the arguments for the existence of God. Craig prepared himself for this approach to only be disappointed. Since Hitchens did not rebut Craig or offer anything resembling an argument (apart from several assumptive ones with appeals to emotion), he showed he was not prepared to answer the question. By using the cover of #3 he exempted himself from having to take on Craig substantively and deal with the real debate - Does God Exist?

If Hitchens claims to be a #3-skeptic, why does he vehemently fight theists? Why did he debate Craig? He said during the debate that he didn't want a bunch of fellow primates telling him what to do in the name of God and basically he is on a mission to free us all from the shackles of religion. Fair enough, I do believe this is his real motivation. But it sure seems to me a genuine worldview clash between Hitchens and theist is key to that motivation, and such a clash only seems reasonable if Hitchens were a #1 atheist with a good degree of certainty about the nonexistence of God. But if he has that sort of certainty, he sure didn't substantiate it at the debate. Interestingly, he said to the audience multiple times during the discourse, “you are perfectly free to believe” as a backhanded way of saying “if you are an idiot, I cannot stop you.” Hitchens would like for you to think he cannot stop the believer because of their dogmatic ignorance, but the truth is; Hitchens is ill-equipped to defend atheism and it is a lot easier to simply bash the believer.

Finally, Hitchens commented on how he does not like to argue with liberal protestants because, in effect, their worldview is so watered down there is not much left to clash with his. I completely relate, but would point out it cuts both ways. Hitchens ought to come out of the closet as a rip-roaring #1 atheist and boldly proclaim what he already believes and not hide behind default #3 atheism. But if he does so, and decides to debate Craig again, he should come prepared. 


About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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