Friday, August 19, 2011

Types of Atheism, Religion in History, and Philosophy Today

J.T. asks,

"Should atheism be defined as an absence of belief in God (or gods)? Or should it be defined as as an explicit affirmation that gods do no exist? Is there a true distinction between these two definitions? And finally, should agnosticism be truly considered distinct from atheism"
From a post a good while back distinguishing between four different types of atheism.

Negative inductive atheism, we can call the first stance, is exactly the sort of inference you describe here. Are the respondents on this blog aliens from another planet? There is no evidence in favor of this hypothesis (well, little evidence) and since there is no good reason to believe it, I don't. In the same way, one could argue as you do that there is someone making a claim of the existence of a being and therefore assumes the burden of proof for it and if they have not met that burden then rationally, one ought not believe in the existence claim.

Positive inductive atheism would be what we could term the position in which one argues that there is evidence to believe in the falsity of the magical, invisible man in the sky hypothesis. Folks with this view often point to the incredible successes of purely naturalistic explanations for phenomena that were thought at earlier times to be entirely unassailable by scientific methods. With all the things that had been thought to be the result of magic, spirits or supernatural causes that we now understand and can control by the use of science, there seems to be reason to be suspicious of claims that any part of the universe is beyond scientific understanding. This is an inductive argument based on the historical relation between science and religion, and judging that the successes that science has had in the past in realms like astronomy, biology, geology, and psychology will thus probably go all the way down to eliminating non-naturalistic elements in all our beliefs.

Deductive atheism would then be the name for those who claim to be able to show that the notion of an all-being is self-contradictory, that the Judeo-Christian God or any supernatural being could not exist. Those who champion arguments like the problem of evil are taking this line. A world which contains terrible suffering by innocent children, the argument goes, could not have been created by a being who is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful because if He knew about it and could stop it, but didn't, then he would not be all-loving. This is a deductive argument to show that it is impossible for a particular type of god hypothesis to be true.

Linguistic atheism would be a name we could apply to those folks like the Logical Positivists of the first half of the 20th century who were atheists, not because of deductive arguments or the lack of evidence, but because, they contended, God talk -- indeed metaphysical talk of any sort -- was simply meaningless. It isn't, as Saint Anselm argued, that the atheist and the theist both agree on what is meant by God, they just disagree on whether one exists. According to Carnap and company, the whole question is really a pseudo-question. It looks like a question, it sounds like a question, but it really isn't. A question is a request for information, if there is no such information to be had, then the string of words is not a real question even if it is grammatically proper. If you and a friend were to get into a huge screaming battle over what color my sister's car is, you would be debating forever, not because it is a deep mystery of the cosmos, but because I don't have a sister. In the same way, the Logical Positivists argued that questions like the existence or non-existence of god were simply meaningless squabble, linguistic muddles that were the result of taking anything that looks like a question seriously.

Matt asks,
"Has there been a time where there was no religion in the world? If not, where do you think the need for believing into something super natural comes from?"
The word "religion" has a number of meanings and those meanings a number of aspects. We could mean belief in a supernatural deity. We could mean a set of cultural practices and rituals. We could mean organized social institutions of a certain sort. We could mean an approach to living. We could mean a set of myths and explanations about the nature and origin of the universe. I think elements of all of these have always been a part of the life of rational social beings and likely always will. That does not mean that the place of social power they now occupy has always been theirs, nor will it always be. Religion is a reflection of cultural elements -- wealth, threats, power distribution -- and religious beliefs and religious institutions will change as culture changes. As such, I do not think that humans a couple centuries from now will be responding to the same sort of questions or religious structures, but it is not something that will cease to be a part of the human community in some way either. It will just look very different.

Jynx asks,
"What do you perceive to be the most interesting question debated within the purview of philosophy today and what is your position on the question?"
The philosophical world has been split for the last hundred or so years into two camps -- the analytic and the continental -- which differ on the basic methodology of philosophy. I think that in recent decades there have been moves to bridge the gap and I think that reconciliation or synthesis of the approaches -- something of a social epistemology -- provides what I myself find to be the most interesting project around. What would a foundation for philosophy look like that is in some ways a hybrid?