"A Man's a Man for all that!" - Rabbie Burns

"Religion? No thanks. I prefer not to outsource my brainwashing." - Bunc
Trying to get your average Joe creationist to understand the phrase scientific theory is as hard as getting a fish to enjoy mountaineering. Its an unimagined world for them - it requires a complete reversal of their normal modes of thinking and being. The fact that humans could explain the complexities of this world without a creating God is a world view they cannot grasp. It's like asking a tuna if it appreciates the view from the top of Mount Everest. Bunc

Jan 8, 2010

Atheism or Critical Thinking

Is Atheism the same as Critical  or Rational Thinking? Should atheists organise around atheism or around the ideas of rational thinking? It's a debate that crops up regularly in atheist circles. My view is that atheism and rational thinking are closely related but distinct things.  Atheists should not therefore simply organise under a banner of "rational thinking" or "critical thinking".

Atheism at it's most basic is simply defined as an absence of belief in a god - any god of any kind. There can never be absolute proof or disproof of the existence of god.  The non belief of Atheists is, in it's deepest roots, always a conclusion that rests on probabilities. Atheists see no evidence for the existence of a god and are unafraid to conclude that there is no probability worth speaking of that there is a God. Absence of evidence though is not conclusive evidence of absence. It does not prove that God is absent - it merely makes it highly unlikely that there is a God.

For most people who choose Atheism ( and few Atheists were brought up as Atheists) the lack of absolute proof either way is not a problem. Atheists by and large in my experience generally understand that the realm of absolute proof doesn't apply to the real world. The idea that humans may not posses the absolute truth is not one that many religious believers, and particularly fundamentalist literalists, are comfortable with. Their faith rests on believing that they have been handed down absolute truths - that our ancestors had dealings with gods and that we have been handed down holy works which contain absolute truths.

So atheism and rational or critical thinking are very closely related but even so I think it would be misleading  to wholly equate the two.   It is entirely possible for an Atheist to be less than rational on other issues.

The essential elements of critical or rational thinking is a willingness to examine arguments rationally and, importantly, a willingness to change your views if  the evidence points in another direction.

This is the essential contrast between rational thinking and most fundamentalist type religious thinking. For believers faith is the key - not evidence.  Religious faith without faith becomes merely the following of ceremonies and rules. The religious believer must have faith if they are to believe and faith is not the same as evidence.

Just like an atheist may be rational in their atheism but not rational on other subjects then also a god believer may be irrational in that respect but perfectly rational in the way they think about other issues.

A prime example of this is the way that most of the mainstream churches have accommodated to science over the last few hundred years. As the evidence about the real nature of the earth, the universe and man's place in it has stacked up so most non-fundmantalist believers have accepted this evidence.

If atheists try to grab for themselves the "rational thinking" label then we deny the rationality of the many millions of people around the world who are rational enough to understand basic scientific evidence and theories but who happen also to be less than rational in their god believing.

For me Atheism is the rational conclusion that I come to when I consider the evidence for and against the existence of a god - any god.  I am also anti - religious because again I think that on balance religion is a more destructive force in the world than a constructive one.  Not all religions or religious views however are equally damnable.  I know that I share many political and ethical views with moderate believers of different faiths.   There are also atheists whose political and ethical views I may not share.

Essentially Atheism is a subset of rational or critical thinking.  It is rational or critical thinking as applied narrowly to one question - the existence or non existence of a god - any god.


Delirious said...

Actually, I would think that absence of proof would logically, at best, make you agnostic. I mean, if you can't find proof of His existence, it doesn't mean He doesn't exist. I think that even good scientists wouldn't be so black and white about their research. If they found no proof either way, they would at least remain open minded. But athiests have taken a stand, and say there is no God.

Bunc said...

Atheism and Agnosticism are not about the same thing D.

Atheism is defined as the ABSCENCE of BELIEF in god. Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God is essentially unprovable. These are not mutually contradictory views.

Essentially I would say that I am an Agnsostic Atheist. I don't see anything that suggests that an ABSOLUTE proof of gods existence or non existence is possible. Some Atheists think such absolute positions are defensible so they are not in that sense agnsostic.

In my view there are many compelling logical arguments that show how self contradictory and paradoxical the notion of an almighty god is. Non of the arguments is an absolute proof though.

However absolute proof is not the the most commonly used form of proof by humans. In fact the field of absolute proofs is largely confined to self contained logical systems like mathematics.

Most of Human knowledge is built on a different type of proof which is essentially probabilistic.

For example there can be no such thing as an absolute proof that the sun will rise tomorrow. One day it may not ( in fact in the long term that outcome is almost certain) In the short term however the probablity that the sun will not rise tomorrow is for all practical purposes close to zero. Hence we don't all go round worrrying that the sun wont rise tommorrow.

The position in respect of the existence of God is similar. The only evidence we have for the existence of God is old "holy" writings.

Given that there are perfectly good explanations for how such views arose as part of human development there is no compelling logic that suggests that one should interpret these texts as literally true - not unless your starting position is one of belief - which is what god believers do. but don't kid yourself that that is rational thought - it's faith and that is a different thing.

In my view such faith based beliefs are ignorant - but you are of course entitled to bask in your ignorance if you wish.

A belief in God is simply a faith statement - it is not a belief that is based on rational interpretation of evidence. This is of course why believers stress the importance of faith so much.

If you find that position satisfactory then well and good for you. I don't find it satisfactory and became an atheist because I applied critical and rational thinking to the xtian beliefs that I was raised with.

If you can't put your belief aside and engage in critical thinking then that is a matter for you. I do understand though why most god believers find it so difficult to examine things without starting by assuming the existence of God even before their enquiry has begun.

Your god belief is such an integral part of your identity that it must be a scary thought to contemplate setting that aside and using your own rationality as the basis for your beliefs.

While I respect that as a being a position that a decent human being can be in I have no respect for it as an intellectual position and it would be laughable to try to defend it as a position based on rationality.

Delirious said...

You know, as I first read this post, it seemed that you were really just trying to show how athiests are better "critical thinkers" than people who believe in God. I feel that your last comment just perpetuates this same notion. I know many "critical thinkers" who still believe in God. You said there are only a few holy writings, which can't be considered proof. But those writings are testimonies of eye witnesses of God. Even an eye witness will hold up in court.

Bunc said...

D - if you read what i wrote you will see that I precisely didn't say that Atheists are better critical thinkers than god believers - except on the subject of the existence of god where atheism is clearly the rational approach. Your faith is precisely that - faith - it is not based on you applying a process of rational thought to reach a conclusion.

As for eye witness testimony - this is notoriously unreliable when it is influenced by peoples pre-disposed beliefs. I take it that if you believe in eye witness testimony then you also believe in alien abduction because this is also supposedly backed by eye witness testimony?

I was very careful in this piece to explain that on matters not related to the subject of the existence of god then atheists can be just as irrational as anyone else.

That was precisely the point of my post which you seem to have missed. That is the reason that I don't think that Atheists should term themselves rational thinkers rather than atheists because rational thinking covers a larger set of issues.

People who believe in god are perfectly able to be intelligent and rational about a wide range of issues. However if you claim that your belief is based on rationality you are not being true to your FAITH and you are not being entirely honest with yourself let alone me.

Faith , by defintion, does not require evidence. That's why it's called faith D.

Delirious said...

We do have a modern day eye witness, by the name of Joseph Smith, who was the first prophet of this modern day. Just because some eye witnesses might not tell the truth, doesn't believe they all do not tell the truth. But you are right, it does come down to faith, which is one of the main reasons of our existence. We believe that one of the most important reasons for mortality is to develop faith. We believe that we existed before we were born, and lived with God as His spirit children. In that situation, we could believe in Him based solely on fact. It was like having spiritual training wheels. But here we are, in mortality, with no remembrance of God, and we are forced to rely on faith. But being someone who does believe in God, I can tell you that faith is a real power and is something worthy of the struggle to gain.

And so I remain one of those who can think "critically", but can also think spiritually. I may not have the kind of "proof" that God exists, but neither do you have the proof that He doesn't. Only time will tell which one of us is right. :)

By the way, today I was relating to my son (almost 20 years old) about this conversation I've had with you. He said, "Wait a minute. So basically you and him argue all the time about this. Why would you want to follow each other's blogs?" I said, "Because we like each other." :D

Bunc said...

Hi D -
Let me say first of all that although I am sometimes "robust" in dealing with these issues I do very much agree with your comments to your son.

Belief or non-belief in god does not make the totality of a person in my view. I enjoy being able to have knock-about arguments about these subjects without us falling out or either side taking a huff.

Marf said...

Here's the flaw with the whole "no proof doesn't mean He doesn't exist" way of thinking: It means you'd have to give every wild claim anyone has ever made the same way of thinking, and believe in that, too.

Russel's Teapot is the classic example. There's no way you could prove there's not a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. That doesn't mean that you must then believe the teapot exists.

You may ask who made the teapot? And submit there is no record of someone making the teapot and placing it in orbit around the sun as proof of non-existence. Then I could submit "Who made God?" "Always has been," or "He made himself" are a few answers I've heard. Well, guess what? The teapot always has been or it made itself.

And make no mistake, the idea of a teapot making itself in space is no more preposterous than the idea of a God existing. That's why I'm not an agnostic.

Although one of these days I expect astronauts to throw a teapot in orbit around the sun just to spite the argument. But I could make the same example with an invisible pink unicorn or a flying spaghetti monster.

Looney said...

Living in Silicon Valley, I am quite used to the presence of a large number of highly educated R&D professionals in conservative churches. Even when I lived in the Tennessee backwoods, the conservative churches had R&D professionals working at Oak Ridge National Labs or on Nuclear Power Plant design at TVA or as professors at the university. What would you think if the concentration of those with expertise in science was higher in the conservative churches than the mainline/liberal ones which embrace evolution?

Bunc said...

Marf - the teapot argument is a good one but it is still in essence a probabilistic argument and not a deductive proof. There are lots of strong probabilistic argument that collectively in my view make the existence of god so unlikely that to all intents and purposes the probability of the existence of god approaches zero. That is not the same as an absolute proof though.

The problem with arriving at an absolute proof is that god believers will simply move their definition of gods' "properties" as soon as you prove that any given property is illogical.

Also by defining a god as all powerful they obtain a get out of jail free card by being able to say that god can do anything including doing things that appear logically impossible. In short they define god in such a way as to make such a "being" invulnerable to such proofs.

Bunc said...

Looney- the fact that people can be rational in one area of their lives and completely irrational in other areas is exactly the point of my post. The fact that there are a large number of people who are technically very competent in any particular R&d subjects makes them no more likely to be knowledgeable or rational in other areas of their life. Some of the dumbest people I have met were technically very competent people.

(also your example only really applies in the US and some very religious countries were there are such high concentrations of god botherers. In fact world wide the alternative is the case - there have been studies of that.)

For a fuller exposition on the subject of the blindness of "experts" to wider rationality for example try reading "The Black Swan" by Nassin Nicholas taleb.

Looney said...

Bunc, regarding "the fact that people can be rational in one area of their lives and completely irrational in other areas is exactly the point of my post.", I am in full agreement.

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