The Great Debate: Arguing for the sake of it

Argument is the product of displaced conversation; it is the product of two or more ideals coming into collision with one another. The collision of these ideals sets in motion a conflict of interests, one at which can only be resolved with the surrender of one ideal to another. The over praised version of argumentation – this is to say the version of arguing that expects praise – is debate; debate is argument masquerading as civilised dissension. Whereas normal argumentation may have periods of cease fire, debates act like informing performances for audiences. The purpose of debate is to convince, not the opponent of one’s position, but the audience who happens to be the spectators of the performance. Debates take many forms, with each form employing rhetoric, persuasion and various other tactics to give prominence towards a specific case. In each debate there are opponents who take positions, and these positions vary for each discourse. One of these discourses is philosophy, which differs in style to other discourses, because of its emphasis on the burden of proof. The burden of proof is an epistemic tool used in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge, to assign a party with a necessary requirement to justify the case they put forward. This justification is necessary in debate to establish the validity of a certain position. If a claimant –a person who puts forward a claim – puts forwards a claim like, “Pink pixies exist” it is the duty of the claimant in question to justify their reasoning for asserting such a claim. The claimant may justify their claim through evidence, which can be taken in the form of observational recorded data of the claim they posit, or through reasoned argument that would warrant a belief in the claim. If a claimant wishes to posit a negative claim like, “Pink pixies do not exist” they will need to provide negative justification for their claim. The method, by which they can provide warrant for their position, is through appeals to the impossibility of the claim’s positivity in question (i. e. provides evidence why a positive claim is impossible), and the appeal to the notion: “The absence of evidence equals the evidence of absence”. The claimant’s duty, in this sense, will be to provide warrant for why the positive proposition is invalid. In both the positive, and the negative claimants’ cases, they both will have an obligation to meet their onus, which is their ‘burden of proof’.

The assessor for each claim has no obligation to provide a counter onus; and if the claimant attempts to shift their burden of proof upon the assessor then the assessor has no obligation to assess the claim, as the claimant at that point would have committed a logical fallacy known as, “Shifting the burden of proof”. If no justification has been brought forward for a claim then the default assumption towards that claim is that the claim is ‘not-true’, and thus a suspension of acceptance in it by the assessor is to be made (this is out of principle); the onus is on the claim barer to validate their claim, not on the assessor of the claim to make a counter onus. Furthermore, the default position towards any claim, especially a claim that wishes to establish a relationship between two separate phenomena, is that there is no relationship between those phenomena – this is what is known as maintaining the ‘null hypothesis’. In order to establish a relationship between two phenomena, the claimant in question will have to disprove the null hypothesis and establish an ‘alternative hypothesis’, through the providing of evidence for the relationship. In the philosophy of religion, which deals primarily in argumentation over the existence/non-existence of a supreme supernatural being, known as a “God”, the onus is a primary consideration in the debate.

The ‘Great Debate’, as it has become to be known as, is essentially a debate that has been waged between theists and atheists over the existence of a God, for almost two millennia. Theists prepose arguments for believing in the existence of a God, well atheists provide arguments for rejecting a belief in a god’s existence, and anti-theists prepose arguments for believing in the non-existence of a god– now, this is not strict of all theists, atheists or anti-theists, it only refers to those individuals who are inclined to engage in debate over this matter. Regardless of who is providing the arguments, the same principle is at play that was at play for those claimants, claiming the existence/non-existence of pink fairies; there is still a requirement for parties to provide reasons for their case. Furthermore, for individuals who do believe in a God’s existence (theists), and for individuals who do not believe in a God’s existence (atheists), this debate is important to understand in order for one not to be hoodwinked by faulty logic, sophistry or dishonest argumentation.

If you do not believe in a God’s existence, meaning that you are an ‘atheist’, there is no obligation for you to provide an onus for your non-belief (only reasons for it, but that is not the same as the onus, as the onus deals with justifications being met for a claim), as you have not made any claim; if you believe in a god’s existence, meaning that you are a ‘theist’, there is equally no obligation for you to provide an onus (only reasons, but that is not the same as the onus), as you have not made a claim. However, if you are a theist and have stated that a “God exists” you will have the burden put solely on your shoulders, and will be thus obligated to provide justification for your claim; if you are an atheist, who has made an anti-theistic claim like, “God does not exist” then you will have the burden put solely on your shoulders, and will thus be obligated to provide justification for your claim. Both atheists and theists alike are not required to provide an onus unless they have made a claim; if they have not made a claim the only obligation on them is to provide their reasoning for why they believe/don’t believe in a proposition. Furthermore, in the great debate the line of positions may be expressed as so:

Theist: A belief in a God’s existence is warranted.
Atheist: A rejection of a belief in a God’s existence is warranted.
Anti-theist: A belief in a God’s non-existence is warranted.

For every claim made an assessment of it must be made in isolation to other claims i.e. you can’t assess two claims at the same time, especially claims in opposition to one another. One must assess an individual prong in isolation to from other prongs, to assess for its ‘truth value’. A ‘truth value’ in logic, is the value assigned to a proposition on the basis of its ability to be true (valid): The proposition “pigs can fly” is assigned the value of “true”, if and only if (iff), it is able to be substantiated. The proposition will be assigned the value of “untrue”, if and only if (iff), it is unable to be substantiated. In relationship to the great debate, truth values are important to understand when assessing each proposition, both the negative and the positive. Take the below as an expression of two different prongs:

First prong: God’s existence.
Person A proposes that a ‘God exists’.
Person B assesses Person A’s proposition.
Person B asks Person A to substantiate their proposition. Person A substantiates their proposition through the form of evidence to its favour.
Person B assesses Person A’s proposition, and assigns it the truth value of “true”.

Second prong: God’s non-existence.
Person A proposes that a ‘God does not exist’.
Person B assesses Person A’s proposition.
Person B asks Person A to substantiate their proposition through the form of negative evidence to its favour.
Person A is unable to substantiate their proposition through the form of negative evidence to its favour.
Person B assesses Person A’s proposition, and assigns it the truth value of “untrue”.

In both the aforementioned cases the assessor, person B, is only making an assessment of the truth value of the proposition, and is not advocating for the counter proposition i.e. they are not advocating for the falseness of the proposition, only assessing its truth value. A person may find no substantiation for a claim, and thus reject it on that basis, but they are not advocating for the counter claim. Despite this clarity, there will be those who will unintentionally argue for the counter proposition to a proposition; rather than assess a proposition in isolation, they will bring a negative proposition, and will thus become a claimant instead of a mere assessor. One needs to be careful not to fall in the trap of changing their position, from an assessor to a claimant, as it is especially important to maintain a middle ground – a place where one can be objective in their assessment. This middle ground is called the ‘default position’.

In the God debate the default position is atheism. Atheism, in its most inclusive definition, is the“lack of belief in a God’s existence”; well in its most exclusive definition, which is the definition we will discuss in detail, it is the “rejection of belief in a God’s existence”. The theist posits the claim of a God’s existence, and the atheist rejects its validity on the grounds that there is insufficient clause to believe it; atheists are not always anti-theists, they do not all advocate for the case of a God’s non-existence, they simply reject a belief in a god’s existence. However, when they make a claim they will be asked to bring forth evidence for their claim. The reason why atheism is the default position on the God question – the reason why the presumption of atheism is to be made – is because without theism atheism would not exist, as atheism rejects theism as a basis; the word is adds the prefix ‘a’ to the word ‘theism’, to form a new word ‘atheism’, which is the literal rejection of the word ‘theism’. Furthermore, if we consider the fact that every individual born on this planet is born without a specific belief in a god’s existence – this is to say they are born implicitly atheist – and is introduced to a belief in a specific God after they are born, then it is necessary to assume that the default position is atheism.

It is at this point that one must shift the conversation for a moment, and lend time to explanation; this explanation will purely be made for the sake of agnostics, or those who are still puzzled by this default position of atheism. Those who solely identify themselves as agnostics, and who would like to think of themselves as a third party in this debate, one would just wish to shed light as to why agnosticism is, and will never be, a third party option. Agnosticism strictly deals with knowledge, and what one can claim to know about matters that regard existence. Well the positions of atheism and theism deal with a belief and lack of belief (respectively) in a God’s existence, agnosticism and Gnosticism, on the other hand, deal with absolute knowledge and a lack of absolute knowledge (respectively) in a subject’s existence; agnosticism and Gnosticism deal in the factual account of a subject. Knowledge is a subset of belief; before one can know something one must believe in that something. Furthermore, agnosticism is not mutually exclusive to atheism and theism; it is instead compatible with them. If one does not believe in a God’s existence, but does not claim to know that a God does not exist, then they can be said to be agnostic atheists. If one does believe in a God’s existence, but does not claim to know that a God exists, then they can be said to be agnostic theists[1].

The debate over God’s existence seems clear cut, but this is not entirely the case. Ignostics – or those who find the concept of “God” troublesome – have sought to negate the debate all-together. They argue that the concept is meaningless, because of its inability to be able to be verified. Ludwig Wittgenstein, A.J Ayer and other logical positivists argued that the concept of a “God’s existence” was nonsensical as it did not pertain to factors within reality; all mentions of God were based off of metaphysical suppositions, which were in themselves incoherent and illogical. Furthermore, ignostics argue that the concept has no literal significance, and does not have properties that can be found referred to in existence, thus making it incomprehensible; properties like “transcendent being” does not refer to anything which can be comprehended. The concept is as literally insignificant as is the word “fez”, which has no meaning and had no value. A.J Ayer expressed the ignostic view succinctly in his book, Language, Truth and Logic (1936):

What is not so generally recognized is that there can be no way of proving that the existence of a god, such as the God of Christianity, is even probable. Yet this also is easily shown. For if the existence of such a god were probable, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis. And in that case it would be possible to deduce from it, and other empirical hypotheses, certain experiential propositions which were not deducible from those other hypotheses alone. But in fact this is not possible. It is sometimes claimed, indeed, that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. But if the sentence “God exists” entails no more than that certain types of phenomena occur in certain sequences, then to assert the existence of a god will be simply equivalent to asserting that there is the requisite regularity in nature; and no religious man would admit that this was all he intended to assert in asserting the existence of a god. He would say that in talking about God, he was talking about a transcendent being that might be known through certain empirical manifestations, but certainly could not be defined in terms of those manifestations. But in that case the term “god” is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot be even probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance. (A.J Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, p.73, 1936)

As one can tell by the aforementioned extract, Ayer has applied rigorous analysis to the concept, and has come to the conclusion that the concept is meaningless. This rigorous analysis was common place in Ayer’s time, which was at the height of logical positivism. Ayer has since died, but this analytical thought line has run continuously in modern day logic and philosophy.

Although ignostics wish to adhere to the notion that they are of a different clad than atheists, agnostics and theists, they are – to their misfortune – still in this debate. If one cannot comprehend a concept, then one does not believe in that concept. It is for this reason that Ayer, and others who are ignostics, are in fact atheists. If one does not accept a claim’s validity on the grounds of that claim being nonsensical, then they are inadvertently withholding their belief in the claim. In other words, if ignostics view the claim of a God’s existence as nonsensical, then they are involuntarily suspending their confidence in the claim’s validity, and hence are in that instance enacting atheism. The ignostic is not let off the hook that easily.

The God question, though it may bring a plethora of criticism and great debate, can be said to be a very interesting question. It is really a question that addresses the origins of the cosmos, the nature of the cosmos and humanity’s place within it. How one answers it will determine the way they perceive the world. Though there are plenty of individuals who like to argue over the question, posing arguments for or against it, the question still manages to create a vibrant amount of discussion and interest. For one like myself, who loves arguing for the sake of it, the question has another meaning than the popular perception of it. The concept forces one to assess the philosophical model of thought they have; and forces one to assess one’s ideas of cosmology, ontology, morality and so forth. For me the question is not meant to be answered more than it is meant to be reflected upon; though I may be an atheist, the question still resonates with me. It is for this reason that individuals should assess the question more closely, and seek to gain a deeper understanding of the question rather than reject it outright.

 [1] For more information about agnosticism, please refer to a my piece “Agnostic thought”

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson

Knowledge Blast: Understanding atheism

We all at some point in our life when discussing religion or some aspect of belief, will be asked the trivial yet important question, “Do you believe in a God?”. To some the answer is “yes”, to others the answer is “no” and then there are those (especially igtheists), that question the meaning of the word, “God”, which they argue needs first to be defined before any enlisted answer can be provided. Generally to those who answer this question with a “yes”, they are presumed to have an active belief in that God and they are generally referred to as a “Theist” (an individual who holds a belief in a Deity); to those who answer with “No”, they are generally referred to as “Atheist” (an individual who are without a belief in a Deity or ‘lack a belief’ in one.). These are the only two positions when it comes to belief in a God, you either are actively believing in one (or many) making you a theist (or any branch attached to it) or you do not actively believe in a God, making you an atheist. Simple is it not? Yet some people, even academics, seem to be fine with theism but not atheism…why is that? Let’s find out shall we.

We are all born not believing in any notion particularly associated with a God/Gods; implicit atheism, is what we all are born with. We all are born with an absence of belief in a God/gods, this is the default state of belief for every child born into this world. Generally the notion of a God is introduced via cultural means; either one will learn it from parents, learn it in a religious studies class and so on. No matter where we learn the term it is still introduced from the culture we are born into, if not, another culture, but culture none-the-less. It is only when faced with the notion, that one can either accept it (with good merit and reason; as no one chooses to believe or not believe in anything, they are brought good reason as to either reject or accept the notion, this goes for the god notion as well) or reject it (with good merit or reason etc); however it should be noted that before the introduction of the notion, the default stance is non-belief i.e. atheism. When one rejects the notion of a God, with whatever reason or argument; they are enacting explicit atheism, which is the active rejection of belief in a God/gods (disbelief). Agnosticism (the epistemological position concerned with whether we can know a notion to exist or not) can be associated with atheism; as agnosticism concerns knowledge (a subset of belief) well atheism concerns belief itself. One may ask the question how this is possible, in which the reply can be that atheism rejects the belief in the notion of a God/gods, well agnosticism concerns itself on whether that notion of God/gods can be known at all to exist. Agnostics may wish to distance themselves away from atheists but the fact is this; if one actively believes in a God they are a theist (or any branch of theism) if one does not believe in a God, they are an atheist. There is no middle position when it comes to belief, either belief or non-belief, they cover all positions. Agnosticism is thus not mutually exclusive to atheism, rather it is compatible with atheism; as it concerns (and here it will be repeated) itself with whether we can know a God to exist at all, whereas atheism concerns itself with lack of belief in that notion, not on whether it exists or not.

“This is where the difference between ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist’matters: Theism and Atheism deals with belief. Gnosticism and Agnosticism deals with knowledge. Gnostic think they KNOW the existence/nonexistence of a god, agnostics claim to not know. Theists and Atheists can be on either sides of that, were they believe or not believe in a god while also either claim to know or not know for certain if that belief is true. There are agnostic atheists, agnostic theists, gnostic atheists and gnostic theists.”-Fooly’s Mind

Positive atheism is where the problem resides, it is the explicit or strong conviction that a God/gods do not exist. This is what most anti-theists (or those actively who hold a disdain for religious beliefs.) hold when they refer to their atheism. Negative atheism includes all forms of irreligion or non-belief, from the absence of a belief in a God/gods and so on. Both positive and negative atheism are but two side to the same coin, they are both ways of defining non-belief or “atheism” (as already mentioned); they are both varying degrees of the same thing such as the case with hot water and warm water. The problem really resides around those who look from the outside into atheist thought, they may have the tendency to view it as a religion (which, if so makes them under a grievant misapprehension) by the way it may conduct itself in the world; it may be called “dogmatic” or by more ‘sower opponents’ as “dogmatic as religion”. Yet, let one dispense with the critics; to all those who do not believe in a God for whatever reason, you are an atheist. One can take this as a breach of one’s ‘personal beliefs or lack of’ but that is the fact. It is more common to see fellow atheists criticize atheism itself by the way many who hold to the title may act. Yet, many may hold to their non-belief as ‘a means to an end’ or may promote it, however the case it must be noted that atheism should only be considered a block of non-belief. It should not press issues, it should not be given so much attention as it has been given (this goes for theism to); it should not be even mentioned. Now this may seem strange given the previous words and advocation in the last couple sentences of this piece, but let me explain what I mean. Atheism, as already mentioned almost countless of times before, is simply “the lack of belief in a God/gods” that would be the end of it, yet so many individuals have labelled those who do not believe in their god as being ‘atheist’, this is why the word exists at all! And for this reason it is important that those who do hold onto the word must understand why it exists, and what it means now. What atheism means today is the stance against oppression; the stance of those willing to not be contempt in their thinking, it is the stance against those willing to die for their belief; for the word ‘atheist’ may be a ‘means to an end’ for some, to others it is simply another way of promoting defiance when needed and the stance against oppression (this is not an over-exaggeration of the word either, given its history, atheism has been on the receiving end of tremendous intolerance). Yet, It does not affect political beliefs (not by itself), what one does when he gets up in the morning, It is the starting block. Those who live their life as if there is no notion of a God existing are known as practical atheists or apatheists, and one can say that there are a great deal of practical atheists in both the non-religious and religious circles.

Nietzsche gives an important note on belief in God as “not being necessary any longer”; does one see those who believe in a God, when crossing the street, look both ways? Yes. It seems that everyone now in the modern age lives as if there is no God. Believers put on their seat belts, look both ways well crossing the road; they live their lives as if the belief in God is not necessary. Putting the cross on, on Sundays, and flipping it upside down on Mondays. the notion that is often promoted by believers is the façade “You need god to have meaning in your life” but what is the gross double standard they are setting? Atheism, is the underpin of all religions, no one actively believes in a God twenty fours a day, seven days a week, do they? Of course not! If one really had to do a study on the amount of “prefaced believers” in this world one could almost certainly say that the numbers of “real believers” would be “0”; as no one actively can believe in a notion every hour of every day.

New atheism, (a movement started from the post years of 9/11, popularly called a movement by the media) Is a movement set on the notion that; religious belief should be held to the same criticism as any other belief, and it should not be given respect just because of its own sake this means it must be laid to the same standard amount of scrutiny as any other subject. “The End of faith” and “Letters to a Christian nation” (2004) can be credited as the books that started the movement. This breed of atheism is a prolific atheism the kind at which wishes to dispense with religion. Yet, despite such vitriol by the religious to this “new” form of atheism, it must be noted, that if the religious think their views are untouchable and thus cannot be scrutinized; then let it be said that such “privileged delusion” needs to be quelled effective immediately. New atheism does not attack the belief in God per-seas, then it attacks what the belief in God does to individuals; atheists who are a part of this movement do not care what the individual believes in, they care about what the individual does with that belief. This is why the aim in recent times has been for social justice and equality, to replace organized belief that demands it cannot be criticized, with practical humanism. To dispense with the notion, that you need a God to find meaning and happiness, that the universe can only have come from a deity and morality could only be dispensed by a deity; is to dispense with the final hook that holds man in his infancy. The modern atheist movement seeks to show that individuals can indeed be good without God, find meaning in their lives, and gain a greater understanding of the world through enquiry. New atheism brings with it, not just atheism, but secularism, humanism, liberalism, gender equality and the slogan “Good without God”. They argue that “Religion and the belief in the supernatural have crippled society, crippled the need for enquiry and scepticism, resulting in the overall denigration of progress among humanity and thus must be made rid of as soon as necessarily possible.” Religion as it stands has morphed into a form of practical humanism, and any good that the religious hold, is in fact a goodness of humanism and the two are not to be confused with one another. Science and healthy scepticism is overall better than an impermeable faith in a God, this in a sense, can be summed up as the movement’s main aim; which is to push the need for religion out of society.

What is the point of a belief in God, when individuals who preface such a belief as being the “be-all-to-end-all”, are not even acting as if there is a God in their daily life? This incipient need to believe in that which, at the end of the day, does nothing overall to affect one’s character; is useless. If one harbours any form of belief or disbelief for not any good particular reason or any particular justification, it can be said that such individuals have no reason to be who they proclaim they are. Those who wish to keep their belief for the sake of security and moral fulfilment, need to realise that they are holding onto to the notion of a God for the sake of psychological need, and not because of whether it is true or not. Belief in anything is acquired through substantial evidence to prove and good reason to accept that evidence’s notion, non-belief comes as a default from not finding that evidence substantial and zero reason to believe in the notion. This is with all claims, we believe because we have substantial evidence to provide good reason, which is the standard ‘evidence’. Without evidence in the form of justification to believe in any notion that departs from justification, no matter sincere, is done so for stupid reasons. No amount of belief in the prospect of any notion makes that notion so. Every adult and child has to come to this realisation that you only believe in something because of justification and good reason, and you stop believing in something when the notion or belief departs from that. This is why non-belief will always be the default when it comes to notions like God(s), anyone who says otherwise has no idea what he or her are talking about. No one chose to not believe in anything, as they did to believe in something, they were given good reason to believe, and zero reason not to believe, it was not an active “oh I’ll decide not to believe” or ‘I’ll start to believe” are brains do not work like that, and it is naïve to think they do.

Every individual expressing their belief in any form of matter will need to know this when talking to an atheist of any sort unless to foolishly lump an atheist into a camp or an ideology he/she is not a part of. Though criticism (valid ones) have been made by people like Sam Harris, who say non-belief should not be given a label, just like not believing in Zeus should not be given the label “A-zuesist”. Valid criticisms like these do highlight the point that labels do carry baggage, sometimes unwanted baggage. For example, when theists use the argument that atheists are immoral because Stalin was an atheist, and he killed in the name of no God. Though this argument (if it can be called that and not a grievance whine) is not true, Stalin was indeed an atheist, but he had other motivations for doing the things he did that are too multiple to mention here. This goes for both atheist and theist a like who make claims that certain “bad guys” in history killed because of their faith or lack of it, must remember that there are a lot of facts that go into each event and each context, that it has become naïve to try use the Crusades to lump the evils of Christianity, or communism to lump the evils of atheism and so on. Ladies and gentlemen from across the aisle, hear me when I say that the only way we are going to unite, is if we dispense with belief being a dividing block on issues (this may be hypocritical given the amount of things that I write against “organized religion”, but that can be justified as I am against social injustice perpetrated by theocratic fascists) we should try to help one another and care for the merit of arguments alone, and not on whether they are uttered by a believer or a non-believer. We should love all despite what they believe, and only hold them accountable for their actions. This is why one has to say that humanism is the greatest uniter of both non-believer and believer, and that is what we should all aim for, a state by which we can obtain some form of unity based on humanism.

Knowledge is Power

Use it

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson