Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stipulating Stipulations

Daring to Talk About Something Else...


So, let's take a short break from the ideological campaign seeking to sweep through atheism/skepticism and talk about something else, related, but not specific to that onerous topic.

Given that my primary means of promoting my blog is Facebook, it is likely that many of my readers, are themselves Facebook participants and internet debaters just like yours truly. How many of you have experienced the joy of the theist who tries to tell us what atheism is, using definitions that hobble inquiry and do not align with atheists' understanding of atheism?

Hell, even within atheism we have people trying to impose a definition of atheism that includes ideological content ... Sorry. That slipped out. ;)

Atheism Qua Denial


One common ploy is to claim that atheism necessarily represents a knowledge claim (which they will then, apparently unaware of the excruciating irony, say is unsubstantiated), a denial - which leads to all kinds of stuff about proving a negative, etc., etc.. From there, theists will often claim that atheism is a dogma and a faith. Now, let's be honest. There are dogmatic atheists out there, who claim that they know there is is/are no god(s). Personally, I see these folks as making the same epistemological error as the theists, and, sadly, these dogmatic atheists do offer ammunition for theists' complaints. However, that there are dogmatic atheists does not entail that all atheists make that error. Actually, in most case I have encountered, most seemingly dogmatic atheists are really expressing their view forcefully because that is what is expected in what people call argument.

And this is, in part, why my preferred definition of atheism is "lack of belief in god(s)." It has many benefits:
(1) It is ideology-free.
(2) It is inclusive.
(3) It is focused on a precise subject matter.
(4) It avoids epistemological issues surrounding most certainty claims.

This ploy of conflating atheism with knowledge claims is why we often see apologists unable to distinguish coherently between atheism and agnosticism. No, agnosticism is not just a weaker version of atheism. They are about different subject matters. For the record, yours truly is an agnostic atheist. The definition of God does not admit of verification/refutation, so knowledge of God's existence is impossible. I make no knowledge claims. At the same time, I lack belief in god(s). Despite the mewlings of apologists, this is not a contradiction.

Axiomatic Truths


Some people treat definitions like they are written in stone, absolute, inflexible, inviolable, immutable truths. In fact we create and revise definitions based on utility. As someone who has studied philosophy, I can tell you that often philosophers create new terms to express new ideas or refine existing ones. When one is working with abstract or very precise concepts, it is often necessary to make sub-distinctions and/or new definitions in order to more precisely describe or advance the subject matter.

The matter becomes even more ... interesting ... when we are speaking of definitions about social constructs or conventions (especially normative ones) which do not have any firm empirical basis.

However, even if we are talking about a field with hard empirical reference, our understanding of the empirical data may change over time, and new terms are created to reflect that. There was a time when earth, wind, fire and water were considered the "elements." Modern chemistry and physics now uses "elements" to refer to over a hundred precise atomic entities. What is it, 118 as of last count? Further, energies and forces and a host of other words have been added to the repertoire in order to deal with yet another feature of reality. As our understanding expands, our lexicon grows and becomes more precise.

Now, one can easily see how absurd it is to have the Funk & Wagnalls (a common dictionary) dictate the discourse in a very specialized subject matter. Your average theoretical physicist is not going to constrain their work to the dictates of the Funk & Wagnalls. The Funk & Wagnalls was a *general* reference, not one precise to a specific subject matter with very precise terminology. The same is true of any specialized field of study, including philosophy (epistemology). For these there are specialized texts including much more precise language. This is why course materials include textbooks, and not just the Funk & Wagnalls. So, if you want to talk about philosophical definitions, it might be wise to refer to something a little more specialized than the Funk & Wagnalls. How about http://plato.stanford.edu/ for starters. Even then, we must keep in mind that there is developing work, not yet represented in the encyclopedia. As atheism develops, it might be wise to consult the negotiations among atheists about what it means - and there are very, shall we say, vigorous negotiations underway...

Funk & Wagnalls is no longer, but its name is fun to say, so... ;)
Insert your favourite general dictionary name as desired.

It's Chaos, I tells ya! Pure CHAOS!


The language is not static. However, there are folks who don't like new ideas and latch onto previous definitions with a fanatical tenacity - usually from an agenda-driven perspective. Dictionaries change over time as natural usages of words evolve. It is not the case that language adheres (with fanatical devotion) to the dictionary; the dictionary evolves as the language does. Dictionaries, by necessity, lag behind the current state of the language. The internet perhaps reduces this lag (yes, gamers, bitterly laugh away), but doesn't eliminate it altogether.

While it is true that common definitions are, to some degree, necessary for conversations to occur (there's a reason why your average Joe is not a theoretical physicist and rarely converses coherently about technical matters with theoretical physicists), this does not mean that the language is forever fixed. To fix our stipulations in place would be to deny ourselves opportunity to advance any subject matter. Of course, that's what some people want...

I discuss we atheists defining ourselves now in another of my earlier blogposts:
By Atheists, of Atheists, and for Atheists

Dicktionary Theists


Now, religious apologists often choose to use definitions that service their desires, but all that's going to do is leave them bereft of understanding. If you want to find out what atheism means, consult atheists, not theists who contrive their understandings specifically to counter atheism. If you consult atheists, you might learn something about what we think and how we think (as opposed to what you think we think and how you think we think).

It seems to me that what we have here is a case of talking past each other (put more charitably perhaps, a negotiation of what the word "atheist" means). So, what does "atheism" mean? The word is even under negotiation among atheists, with "lack of belief" being the rising star (it avoids certain epistemological traps theists are prone to and try to set for us). Otherwise, enjoy choking on the dust of the rest of us leaving you behind. I'll wave to you in the rear view mirror as a passing courtesy. :)

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly enough, I had it pointed out to me today that Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy's definition of atheism doesn't seem to mesh with many atheists' understandings of atheism, including my own. As a result it has a thoroughly confused comparison of atheism with agnosticism. I wrote to them recommending they reconsider their definition, perhaps with the use of another contributor, to more accurately reflect actual atheists' understanding of atheism. We'll see if they deign to respond... :)

    ----------

    This was the response I received from Stanford's Dictionary of Philosophy:

    "Dear Greg,

    Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and
    agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and
    are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be
    adjusted.

    That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the
    term "atheism" is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our
    entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature.
    Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry--that 'atheism'
    means the denial of the existence of God--is correct in the
    philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as
    "positive atheism" and contrast it with the broader notion of
    "negative atheism" which has the meaning you suggest--that 'atheism'
    simply means not-theist.

    In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was
    introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in "The
    Presumption of Atheism" (1972). In that work, he noted that he was
    using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to
    follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe
    the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand "atheism" as a
    default position.

    Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew's way simply
    on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves
    atheists in the traditional sense, Flew's efforts seemed to be an
    attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who
    consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew's efforts
    seemed to be an attempt to re-label them "atheists" -- a term they
    rejected.

    All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding
    the definitions as presented in this entry.

    All the best,
    Yours,
    Uri"

    A definition under negotiation. For the moment, they are working on an understanding of atheism prior to more modern considerations. Note, in the response, that they are continuing to evaluate "whether and how the entry might be adjusted," and that they "are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry." And this, is how honest inquiry works.

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