Ben the Agnostic…uh…Atheist…uh…Whatever Means I Don't Have Anything to Prove!

There is a somewhat humorous exchange between Ben and Paul here. I have posted it below. As you can see, Ben has resorted to just sticking his head in the sand with respect to the problem. Ben is aware of the difficulties with defending an atheist position and I think uncomfortable that his agnosticism is likewise untenable. Note again two of his statements from my debate with him and tell me if he has a clue what his position even is.

“I’m an agnostic, in particular, of the negative atheist variety, by which I mean that I
neither believe nor disbelieve that there is a God.”

“So, if you want to be strict about it, yes, I’m denying that his particular idea of
God exists, at least insofar as it includes the idea that I really believe in God|
because I know that I don’t!”

Oops!

Ben ends his discussion with Paul as follows:

That said, if Brian wants to call the position of the negative atheist with respect to the doctrine of universal knowledge of Calvin’s God a “burden of proof,” I suppose I cannot stop him. But it is the sort of “burden” that I for one don’t care about, and which makes no difference to a conversation about whether or not we have reason to think God exists.

First, “burden of proof” has an actual meaning. Ben’s attempt to escape from the accepted definition through his use of quotation marks is telling.

Second, whether or not Ben cares about satisfying a burden of proof is irrelevant to whether or not Ben has a burden of proof with respect to his position on the existence of God. Clearly, Ben does have such a burden, and his hand waving through the expression of his apathy with respect to satisfying that burden goes nowhere to make that burden go away.

Third, Ben’s statement that this makes no difference to whether or not we have reason to think that God exists is patently false. In a discussion or a debate on the existence of God the claim that God does not exist is certainly relevant! Ben’s thinking here is particularly confused if he really believes that asking the question as to what reason we have to think that God does not exist has nothing to do with any reason we have to think that God does exist.

In any event, perhaps these things can be fleshed out in some future debate, though it does not appear that Ben cares to do so.

___________________
Paul said…

Having trouble following here:

Aside from the merits of Knapp’s understanding of Romans 1, let’s just assume it says what he says it says.

So you brought up your lack of belief about a 5th moon of Pluto. Do you know of anything that asserts that you do believe in a 5th moon?

So, here’s a disanalogy:

(Assuming) Knapp’s interpretation, the Bible says you do not lack belief in God. But, you say you do. Thus, you are committed to the claim that the Bible is false. Which commits you to the claim that either its God is mistaken, or that the author simply made this up. Either way, the existence of the kind of God revealed in that Bible can’t exist if you do lack the belief in his existence. Thus, you are committed to a positive belief that that God doesn’t exist. So you bear a burden. If you’re right that you lack belief, then you must believe that that God doesn’t exist. So how would you argue for this? You could either argue directly against that God, or you could say, “Okay, yeah, since I don’t have a belief, then it follows that that God doesn’t exist.” Let’s say you take the latter posture. The response will be that you’re self-deceived, and suppressing the truth. You will say, “No, I am not. I mean, I guess it’s possible, but you could say that about any belief, what affords this one privileged status?” The response will then be that this situation is quite unlike the Pluto situation, for your actions and beliefs show that you actually do believe in this God. They will then go TAG on you and claim that your moral beliefs provide evidence that you’re not totally successful at suppressing your belief, same with your belief in laws of logic, etc.” You will no doubt say that this must be wrong, and the two of you will be entangled in a debate, one where you share a more interesting burden than you suggest in this post.

Now, I’m not saying anything here about the merits of Knapp’s case, just that it doesn’t seem to me you’ve adequately answered the position.
August 11, 2011 3:36 PM
Ben Wallis said…

Paul,

Thanks for the comment!

When a theist presents an argument for the existence of God, the atheist (even the negative atheist) often has some conversational responsibility to respond to the argument in question. For instance, suppose a Christian trots out the Kalam argument in a debate. An atheist might be tempted to shrug it off and say, “well that just doesn’t persuade me,” or something similarly noncommittal. But ideally, provided the atheist is genuinely interested in having a fruitful exchange of ideas, he should address the argument with specific criticisms, and explain why he doesn’t think the argument is sound, or cogent, etc. So in this sense he does have a burden in the conversation. But this role is largely *responsive* to attempts by theists to justify their god-belief. If the theist doesn’t bother to even try to provide any reasons to think God exists, then there’s not much the atheist needs to say.

On the other hand, I don’t see even what conversational burden the atheist has to respond to arguments which are only indirectly related to the existence of God. For instance a zealous Christian might argue that atheism is an evil force in the world which causes enormous suffering. But with respect to the question of whether or not God exists, such a criticism (by itself) is simply not relevant. Similarly, a presuppositionalist might (as you suggest) argue that I really do believe in God, despite my insistence to the contrary. But, again, this isn’t going to help us determine whether or not belief in God is *justified*.

Now, maybe the atheist and theist want to discuss whether or not we should outright reject the Calvinist doctrine of universal knowledge of God. But that would be a very different conversation from whether or not we should believe in God, i.e. a debate over negative atheism versus theism. Moreover—and this is what my plutonian moon analogy is meant to illustrate—the conversation seems distinctly uninteresting. I can see why it might be worthwhile to discuss how we can know whether or not we hold a given belief, but there seems to be no reason to direct any extra skepticism on unbelief in God, as opposed to unbelief in a fifth plutonian moon, the fact that some people *claim* we all believe in God notwithstanding. I’m just not interested in that kind of conversation, and I doubt many others are, either. Instead, I want to talk about whether or not we should believe in God—and in this regard, the onus is ultimately on the theist to provide a reason to do so.

–Ben
August 11, 2011 9:44 PM
Paul said…

Hi Ben,

I’m not sure that gets at things, I probably didn’t put it well. You wrote,

Similarly, a presuppositionalist might (as you suggest) argue that I really do believe in God, despite my insistence to the contrary. But, again, this isn’t going to help us determine whether or not belief in God is *justified*.

But the presuppositionalist who takes this line will say, “And here’s the evidence for thinking you do, in fact, believe in God while claiming not to: _________ and _________ and, etc. Now, what goes in the blank not only

(a) supposedly provides evidence that you in fact believe in God at some level

but,

(b) attempts to show the belief is justified since the argument is that your ethical evaluations and behavior, your cognitive evaluations and behavior, etc., show that not only (a), but also that those things “require” God (in some sense).

So you can see that your claim,

but there seems to be no reason to direct any extra skepticism on unbelief in God, as opposed to unbelief in a fifth plutonian moon, the fact that some people *claim* we all believe in God notwithstanding.

doesn’t get at the matter since a relevant disanalogy is not *just* that some people *claim* you believe in God while no one makes a similar claim about your belief in a fifth Plutonian moon, but that there’s *evidence* that you hold that belief, evidence which you must deny, along with holding the positive belief that the God of the Bible (on this interpretation) does not exist (rather than merely lacking belief).

Any better?
August 12, 2011 8:45 AM
Ben Wallis said…

Paul,

Perhaps we don’t disagree as much as it might appear. If the theist can present enough compelling evidence to get the atheist interested in doubting his very unbelief in God, then may both of them enjoy discussing the matter! I’m only pointing out that this seems a detour from the central question of whether or not we should believe in God. Only if the theist wants to use universal belief in God as one part of a larger case for the existence of God would it become relevant.

Consider what would happen if the atheist granted the presuppositionalist all his points, just short of having reasons to believe in God. So in this case the atheist might say something like,

“Suppose you’re right that I really do believe in God. But this doesn’t change the fact that I have no *reason* to believe in God. It just makes me—like you—irrational for being a theist when we should both be negative atheists.”

Now, maybe the theist can use this admission to construct an argument for the existence of God. But unless he does so, the self-professed negative atheist has no need to further justify negative atheism.

–Ben
August 12, 2011 10:52 AM
Paul said…

Hi Ben,

“I’m only pointing out that this seems a detour from the central question of whether or not we should believe in God.”

I understand, but it’s not so much a detour as it is a *response* to the claim of *the atheist* that he has no burden because he lacks a belief. This claim itself entails a positive rejection of at least one God: the God that claims the atheist does not lack the belief. Upon hearing of this God, he must, if he wishes to maintain his claim of lack of belief, say, “Okay, fine, I believe that God doesn’t exist.”

The Plutonian moon rejoinder isn’t analogous since it’s not a bare assertion that you believe in a moon without any reason for thinking so. It’s a claim that your behavior and beliefs betray the claim of unbelief. It’d rather be more like a man who claimed he didn’t believe in a 5th moon of Pluto yet was overheard mentioned a 6th moon (which presupposes a 5th), and was seen to have astronomical charts hidden in his mom’s basement that included a proposed orbit of a 5th Plutonian moon, not only that, but he wore a t-shirt to a kegger which read: “I visited Pluto’s 5th moon and all I got was this stupid t-shit.”

So, I’m not sure how much we disagree or not (hopefully not much), but it just seemed to me that Brian’s point wasn’t totally engaged with. Thoughts?
August 13, 2011 8:35 PM
Ben Wallis said…

Hello again Paul!

I understand that presuppositionalists think there is a special reason to doubt a person’s professed unbelief in God which is not analogous to a fifth Plutonian moon. But remember that from the perspective of this atheist, the two appear no different. Indeed it seems unsurprising that many of us would be disinterested in talking about it, in which case, what burden do we have?

Now, as I mentioned before, the presupp’ist may well manage to change the mind of the atheist, and get him interested in the topic by presenting evidence and arguments, and such. Or it may happen that the atheist is already interested, for whatever reason. But in my case, I’m just not that interested in discussing (with presupp’ists) their case for my alleged crypto-theism. I’m looking for evidence that God exists, not that I secretly believe in it.

–Ben
August 13, 2011 9:47 PM
Paul said…

Hi Ben,

Hmm, let me try to get at it another way.

The issue was whether atheists have a burden of proof. It’s been admitted that Strong Atheists *do* have a burden of proof, since they believe that God does not exist. However, the Weak Atheist is said to escape this burden because they do not believe that God exists. These two can be put like this

[SA] = S believes(God does not exist).

and

[WA] = ¬(S believes that God exists).

The distinction here is between ‘believing not’ and not believing. SA has burden since belief has wide scope, WA doesn’t. WA says, “Oh, but I simply do not have a belief that God exists, I lack it. Now, one might quibble that this is actually agnosticism (as many atheists have), but we won’t quibble here.

So, the question is; does WA have a burden? One way we can show burden is to get WA to hold a SA. Since it has been admitted that SA has a burden, then this would mean that WA has burden.

So, let’s do it (and let’s bear in mind I actually don’t think *all* men know that God exists, if we define ‘know’ in JTB, or WTB terms. If it’s defined in some other sense, okay, I don’t know what that is so I’ll wait until the philosophical analysis is supplied. I say this to show I’m not committed to their argument, as construed above, but am a neutral 🙂 party):

CONT BELOW:
August 14, 2011 6:36 AM
Paul said…

CONT FROM ABOVE:

WA: I lack a belief in God, so I don’t have a burden. However, my strong atheist brothers do have a burden.

PRESUP: Okay, so you are saying you do not believe God exists rather than you believe that God does not exist?

WA: That’s right. If I held the latter, I’d have burden.

PRESUP: I see. Well, from my worldview, you don’t lack a belief in God, because all men believe that God exists; hence, etc.

WA: That’s ridiculous! You must understand, from my perspective, this sounds like you’re saying I believe in a 5th Plutonian moon.

PRSUP: Well, I am not claiming you believe in a 5th Plutonian moon, but in the God of Christian theism. Aside from that difference, my claim isn’t really about your perspective. I fully agree that from your perspective it sounds like I’m saying you believe in a 5th Plutonian moon, or even Santa Clause.

WA: Okay, go on.

PRESUP: Right. Okay, so you believe that you lack a belief?

WA: Yes.

PRESUP: So we can assign a T to this proposition:

∂ = WA believes(WA lacks a belief that God exists).

WA: Yes.

PRESUP: Okay, so, since you believe that ∂ is true, then you must believe this is false

ß = WA believes(that God exists).

WA: Yes. By the way, I love the level agreement we’ve reached!

PRESUP: Me too. So let’s go for more. Given ∂ and ß, you must believe that for any person P, if P says you believe that God exists, then P is wrong.

WA: Yes!

PRESUP: Good. So this would entail that you believe that for any person P, if P says you believe that God exists, and it is essential to P that P not utter a falsehood, then either: (i) we are mistaken about what P has uttered, (ii) you believe that God exists, or (iii) P does not exist (by definition, it would not be a compossible state of affairs for an inerrant x that says y, if ¬y obtains).

Now, since we have granted ad arguendo my interpretation of what God says, and since you’re not willing to affirm (ii), that leaves us with (iii). So, through a proof by cases, that leaves us with:
You believe that for any person P, if P says you believe that God exists, and it is essential to P that P not utter a falsehood, then . . . (iii) P does not exist.

Since in this case, God can be substituted for P, then it follows:

* = WA believes(God does not exist).

But, * = SA. So, WA entails SA when it comes to the Christian God, and since it was admitted that SA has a burden, then WA has a burden too. Right?

WA: I want to say “No,” but, “Yeah.”

PRESUP: Right. Look, the presuppositionalist hears you say you don’t have burden since you lack a belief, and the presuppositionalist believes that according to his worldview, you don’t lack a belief, so you could only say what you say if he were wrong, but to hold a position that implies that your opponent is wrong, places a burden on you.

[/imaginary dialog]
August 14, 2011 6:36 AM
Paul said…

CONT FROM ABOVE:

Now, saying one is not interested in talking about it doesn’t get to the issue, then. It looks to the presuppositionalist like a dogmatic stance, one where you (WA) refuse to meet the burden it appears you have. On that score, the presuppositionalist might as well assert to atheists that the atheist believes in God and this is so obvious that the presuppositiuonalist isn’t interested in talking about it. That stance would receive howls from atheists. Perhaps your stance receives howls from presuppositionalists? On that score, fruitful dialog has broken down, and thus it’d be better for both sides to meet their own burden 🙂

Lastly, as you can see, this isn’t directly an issue over the justification for belief in God, it is a rejoinder to the claim that some atheists do not have a burden because ‘¬’ has wide scope rather than ‘believes’. To ignore the rejoinder because it’s not directly about positive reasons to believe in God is to misunderstand the nature of the dialectic.

I’ll take blame for the bad transmission of my side of the covo, does that help explain more clearly what I’ve been struggling to get at above?
August 14, 2011 6:36 AM
Ben Wallis said…

Paul,

Thanks for the clarification, but I still must stand by my previous comments. You seem to be suggesting that if the presupp’ist can show that we believe X about God, then we ought to go and defend X. But this is not necessarily so. Now, if a negative atheist happens to disbelieve in a particular concept of God, then I agree the onus is on him—-should he wish to convince others to join him in disbelief. But this all depends on what conversation he is interested in having! If he doesn’t think it’s important to convince others that the God does not exist, then in what sense does he have a burden of proof? Even a full-blown positive atheist doesn’t have a burden of proof should he choose to merely defend negative atheism. It is simply not the case that we have to prove all of our beliefs—even all our related beliefs—in every conversation about God. And if that seems cheap or unfair, well, I would suggest that it seems to the negative atheist even more inappropriate for the presupp’ist to try to shift the topic of conversation from the justification or lack thereof for God-belief to some kind of bizarre skepticism towards unbelief itself.

–Ben
August 14, 2011 8:21 AM
Paul said…

Hi Ben,

This will be my last comment on the matter since we probably won’t make any headway! I’ll make some final remarks:

“You seem to be suggesting that if the presupp’ist can show that we believe X about God, then we ought to go and defend X.”

I make no claim about ‘ought’ to defend a burden, only that if you believe that God does not exist, you do *have* a burden. I showed that on the presuppositionalists’ assumptions, WA = SA via transitivity. This, if it is admitted that SA has a burden, then so does WA.

“Now, if a negative atheist happens to disbelieve in a particular concept of God, then I agree the onus is on him–should he wish to convince others to join him in disbelief. But this all depends on what conversation he is interested in having! If he doesn’t think it’s important to convince others that the God does not exist, then in what sense does he have a burden of proof?”

I find this very odd, to say the least. On this view, an objective fact of the matter (whether one *has* a burden) dissolved into a subjective psychological state (whether one wants to defend a view!). This doesn’t seem to be what most people have in mind. You don’t lose a burden of proof simply because you don’t want to prove what you assert is the case.

The context that Knapp and others are making their claims in is the well-known claim by atheists that: “He who asserts has burden.” We can see that here:

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/logic.html#shifting

It is likewise the position of Flew in The Presumption of Atheism. Or as Michael Martin says in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification: “The Burden of proof should instead be on the believers, since the negative atheists are not making any claims to knowledge that believers are” (p.30).

Thus, the context of Knapp and others’ claim arises in a *context of dialog* between theist and atheist, where the theist says God exists and the atheist says, “Well, that’s a positive claim, and I only claim not to believe, so I don’t have a burden, thus you must sit back and do all the work.” I have shown above that this claim, on certain presuppositionalist understandings, actually is a positive assertion; thus, if the claim is: “Whoever makes a positive assertion has the burden,” then I have shown that on this understanding, which is the context of Knapp’s comments, the weak atheist has a burden too.

“It is simply not the case that we have to prove all of our beliefs—even all our related beliefs—in every conversation about God.”

Of course, that position hasn’t been argued here, so this move does no work for you.

No, the matter is simply this: those who claim that they have no burden *because they lack a belief* have been shown, by me above, to actually not have a lack of belief, but a positive belief that God does *not* exist. Now, if they don’t think they have any job to do in arguing that God does *not* exist (which is a strong claim), then that’s fine by me. But let’s not pretend the atheist only lacks a belief, for as I showed, this isn’t so (on the presuppositionalists position). Therefore, the atheist who comes into the debate and says, “He who asserts has the burden, and I don’t assert since I merely *lack* a belief,” is wrong and simply unable to follow the logical steps laid out so clearly above. And *that* is the context Knapp et al. are responding to, and it is *that* context that I have demonstrated shows a dual burden (on presuppositionalist understandings).

Now, if you want to *redefine* the position of burden to the one who psychologically wants to prove or justify his position to the other, you are free to do that, but FYI, *no one else* means that in this discussion, which has a fairly long history, longer than you’ve been involved in the game.

That probably didn’t help either, but I hope it did!

Thank for the convo
August 14, 2011 12:36 PM
Ben Wallis said…

Paul,

Thanks for the conversation. I will try to wrap things up as best I can.

I’m pretty sure there is no hard and fast conception of a “burden of proof,” but I should probably clarify that I agree at least it involves more than just our psychology.

That said, if Brian wants to call the position of the negative atheist with respect to the doctrine of universal knowledge of Calvin’s God a “burden of proof,” I suppose I cannot stop him. But it is the sort of “burden” that I for one don’t care about, and which makes no difference to a conversation about whether or not we have reason to think God exists.

Consider the following analogy: Referring to your latest comment, you have asserted that

“This will be my last comment on the matter”

On your view, by asserting you have inherited the burden of proof. Suppose I complained that you had not met your burden, and sardonically pointed out that you could not possibly do so, since it would require you to disprove the very proposition you must show. In that case, what should be your response?

I think it’s fairly clear that demanding you to justify that assertion would be inappropriate and unhelpful. It would still be a “burden” (on your view), but obviously it is the sort of “burden” we should ignore. Similarly, if Brian wants to argue that he has some precise definition of the phrase “burden of proof” which atheists happen to satisfy, then he is welcome to do so. Label it what you will—I’m only pointing out that such a “burden” isn’t worth shouldering.

Thanks again for the exchange. Feel free to come back some time!

–Ben
August 14, 2011 3:18 PM


Leave a Comment