Friday, September 29, 2006

How wrong can you be?

Norm Geras (reacting to Stephen Unwin’s response to Joan Bakewell’s review of Richard Dawkins’s book on god – keep up at the back), says:

“Unwin writes that to be an atheist is to proclaim a form of certainty. It can involve that, but it needn’t. You can be an atheist on the grounds that you’ve not yet seen (or felt) a compelling reason, piece of evidence or anything of any other sort to persuade you of the existence of a divine being. That is still an open and fallibilist form of belief. It’s not the same as certainty of the non-existence of God; it’s just an attitude of economy - not to accept the existence of entities for which you can find no persuasive arguments or persuasive anything.”

There are two different distinctions that aren’t quite kept apart here (at least, not explicitly): beliefs held with unshakeable certainty versus those held in an open, fallibilist way; and absence of belief in god’s existence versus presence of belief in god’s non-existence.

Unshakeable certainty is usually best avoided if you want to stand a decent chance of being right. Getting yourself into a mindset whereby you will disregard any logical or empirical considerations to the contrary means that the correctness of your belief depends entirely on luck – on whether you happened to stumble across and embrace a dogma whose contents are factually accurate.

Now it is, as Norm says, perfectly respectable to withhold belief in something on the grounds that you’ve found no compelling reason to so believe. Occam’s razor will keep your face clear of all sorts of unsightly, straggly, uncontrollable hairs. And it is of course far harder to give evidence of absence than to establish absence of evidence.

But it’s also perfectly reasonable to be firmly and positively (but not dogmatically and unshakeably) convinced in the non-existence of something. That’s my own attitude to god: not only is there no good argument for god’s existence, but also there are strong grounds (the problem of evil) for affirming that there is no such being. Now, I might conceivably be wrong; there are certainly finer minds than mine, and if somebody thinks of a compelling response to the problem, then that would force me to think again.

One thing to note is that the problem of evil isn’t science; it’s philosophy. It still relies on rigorous logical thought, and even depends on observable data – but the observations are pretty basic, and as far as I know there’s no scientific way of measuring right and wrong, good and bad. But because the rigorous logical thought is essential, this isn’t ‘just another faith position’, as some theists like to say about atheism. The problem of evil has been discussed in different forms over centuries, by people with a vast range of opinions. Some of them have argued well and some badly. But the conclusion that it proposes remains open to debate.

My strong confidence in atheism is a result of the contestable process of analysing philosophical arguments for and against. But my belief is not unshakeable. In fact, its inherent shakeability is what gives me the strong confidence in the method that led me to it. The method is made less fallible because its fallibility is assumed. Reason beats faith because, in this way, it can guard against being captured by unlucky guesses.

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