Questionable Motives

April 7, 2010

Is there a meaningful difference between skepticism and atheism?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism,belief,Debate,Faith,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 9:47 am

Steve Novella thinks so and argues the matter this way:

Science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism (MN), and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position.

The agnostic position is about method not beliefs; it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith. But whenever fact-based claims step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game.

Religions are multifarious – they often contain tenets of faith (the ultimate meaning of things), claims about history and the nature of reality, a source of cultural identity, and a code of morality. Freedom of (and from) religion means that people have a right to any tenets of faith they choose, they have a right to their own moral code (within limits, of course), and they also have a right to frame their personal and group identity how they wish.

People do not, however, have a right to their own facts. So when religions make claims about history or the nature of the material world, they are within the purview of science. Religions should not dictate to science, to limit its scope or its conclusions. It is also logically invalid to claim that faith is an appropriate approach to factual claims.

Philosophical naturalism (PN) is the position the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is (to know). It is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. All such beliefs are by necessity arbitrary, and most people end up believing whatever is taught to them by their parents and culture. But it has to be acknowledged that some people can and do accept and practice methodological naturalism and simultaneously maintain personal articles of faith for questions outside the realm of science. There is nothing inherently inconsistent in this position.

Skepticism, according to Steve, is not atheism but agnosticism. This difference is therefore meaningful.

Skepdude thinks not and takes a similar position about the method of science based on philosophical naturalism but argues that agnosticism is not a suspension of inquiry but a refusal to come to a decision on the merits of an unjustified faith claim. The reasonable position on faith claims, he argues, is atheism – non belief rather than a perhaps/perhaps not stance. He writes in the ninth comment about Steve’s article:

The heart of the issue as I see it is this (this applies to both the god hypothesis, not religion as that is too broad, just the god hypothesis): A claim of existence is being made (X exists); X is set up in such a way as to be undetectable by science, therefore, by definition, no evidence supporting the claim has or can be presented. The million dollar question is: What position do we as skeptics take about such existence claims that are set up as to be outside of science?

Now the options, as I see them are: Accept the claim, reject the claim or put it aside and take no position on it. Now, I think anyone that claims to be a skeptic will not accept any such claims (not to be construed to mean no skeptic will believe in god, but that skepticism must not accept claims presented without evidence, individual skeptics can still believe). It is the other two options that split us: some of us, me included, think that skeptics must reject (not accept) such claims, others think that this set up puts these claims outside of the scope of skepticism, thus we can’t know, thus they take the agnostic position, in essence not taking a position. As Hitchens famously says: What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

Veon, a poster who does not have a link, enlightens us still further a few more comments down:

When someone comes up to me with a god claim, I don’t respond by bringing up the difference between PN and MN. I simply ask them, “What do you believe and why?” Is their belief based on evidence and reason or personal experiences and anecdotes?

I will bring science up, but as the best method for determining whether or not something is true, not the only method. It has the best track record of everything we’ve tried. It has a way to self correct. It can weed out accurate claims from inaccurate ones. And that’s enough. I don’t need to fall back to some distinction between PN and MN. Methodological Naturalism is enough to dispense most god claims, even the most nebulous.

For example, Steve brought up the type of god people typically fall back on when debating non-believers: the god outside of the universe. Sure, it’s an untestable claim. It’s also a meaningless one. My first response to such a claim would be, “How do you know such a god exists?”

Either it truly does exist outside the universe and the person has no basis or reason to accept the claim of existence, or at some time, it interacted with our universe in such a way to provide the person with a reason to believe in its existence. If it’s the latter case, we can test for that interaction.

If its the former, and the god exists completely apart from the universe and has no interaction, how is it any different from a god that doesn’t exist? How would you distinguish a god apart from the universe from one that doesn’t exist? The invisible and the non-existent have a way of looking identical. The most reasonable conclusion to make at that point, the one which makes the fewest assumptions, the one that is based on prior plausibility, is that belief in such a god is unwarranted.

My position isn’t that these people shouldn’t hold these beliefs, or can’t hold these beliefs. It’s that no position, whatever it is, should be beyond scrutiny. Even in the instance of the “faith only” claims, you can still ask the person why they believe what they do. Do they have a reason for it? If not, why do they still believe it? Do they think that other people should believe the same thing? If so, why? What reason would they give to try to convince people to believe the same way they do? Should we behave differently based on that belief?

My point is, that even in cases where someone has a belief that is purely faith-based and separate from science and reason, that person is going to be making decisions and taking actions based on that belief. It’s not a “personal choice, and nothing else.”

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