Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Analogies and weak atheism

A lot of atheists make a distinction between 'strong' and 'weak' atheism. 'Strong' atheism is where you claim there is no God. 'Weak' atheism is where there is no evidence for or against a God's existence, so the 'default position' is you go about life without any belief in God, with the help of Occam's razor (note that specific ideas of God may have lots of evidence against them, but the general idea of a God is neutral).

Atheist thinkers have given us a number of analogies to support weak atheism. A famous one is that we all assume there is no teapot flying around the Sun because there is no evidence for any such teapot. Not thinking there is a teapot flying around the Sun is the default position. Some argue it's the same with God.

But I don't think this analogy is appropriate because the claim, 'There is a teapot flying around the Sun', is not a 'no evidence for, no evidence against' 'default-position' issue. In addition to no evidence in favour of a teapot, there is a lot of evidence against it.

One piece of evidence against the teapot claim is that there seems to be no way for a teapot to get out into space unless some astronaut has put it there. But it seems unlikely that an astronaut has ever thrown a teapot into space which has found a stable orbit around the sun.

This means the teapot analogy is not really a good analogy to express weak atheism, because it doesn't express well the situation of something having no evidence for or against it. The teapot analogy is a situation where there is overwhelming evidence against something (the teapot's existence). But God's existence, in weak atheism, is a claim where there is no evidence for or against, and then Occam's razor gives you a bit of evidence against and that's it (although specific ideas of God may have more problems).

So the 'teapot' analogy only works if the idea of God has a lot of evidence against it and no evidence for it.

But if the idea of God's existence receives little evidence either way, then an analogy which is supposed to show what belief in God is like needs to be the same.

But it's actually quite hard to find such analogies, because most claims with no evidence for them also have evidence against them. Such as the fairies at the bottom of the well analogy (how could fairies come to exist except by divine intervention?) and the flying spaghetti monster analogy.

I think an appropriate one would be that believing in God if there's no evidence either way is like someone believing that there exists a place in Melbourne where an standard sized cappuccino cup of coffee costs $6. On the one hand, that is extremely expensive for an ordinary cup of coffee, but, on the other hand, Melbourne is a large city and maybe there's a place somewhere that charges that much. So perhaps this is an example of a claim with no real evidence for or against it.

Do I believe that such a place doesn't exist? Well, I don't really know. I wouldn't say that I believe no such place exists, because the truth is I just don't know. I wouldn't tell anyone that no such place exists in Melbourne because I don't have enough information either way to judge. I must be very agnostic about whether that place exists.

Another example would be someone believing there is an ocean-going cruise ship currently docked in Melbourne's harbour right now without having consulted any information. According to the Port of Melbourne website it is a common occurrence but there are more days without an ocean going cruise ship docked than with one (although the website can actually answer my question, but let's imagine it can't). But if someone forced me to give an opinion, although I would say there probably isn't one docked, my confidence about it would be very low.

I think this shows that if we are really careful to use an analogy where there is little evidence for or against the existence of something, then we are pushed towards a very agnostic view. Our confidence will not be great.

Also, we can see that many analogies used to support weak atheism often involve a fair amount of evidence against and not just a lack of evidence for, and that these analogies indicate a less agnostic, more confident position than more evidence neutral analogies would.



Blogger Shaun Mason said...

Considering there is no evidence for a god at all, the teapot analogy works pretty well. If you had proof, you wouldn't need faith as the belief in god despite no evidence to support it.


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