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.
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.
 For more information about agnosticism, please refer to a my piece “Agnostic thought”
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson