2010-08-29

By any other name

I've spent quite a bit of time lately arguing that some atheists have lost their way or that they are calling themselves by the wrong name. One particular atheist went as far as to say that "atheism" has nothing to do with faith. That's absolutely untrue, and I doubt that it will ever be true, even with the current rate of language evolution. It seems that most atheist bloggers and blog-commenters, however, don't deny atheism's roots in faith and put forth some version of the statement, "gods almost certainly don't exist".

If this is one of the main positions of atheists as a group, then that puts atheism much closer to a faith or belief than to a scientifically empirical position, due to the fact that there is no formal framework for cetainty or probability that allows such statement without any evidence at all. And, no, lack of evidence of existence is not evidence for nonexistence. A conclusion based on no evidence is one of two things: (1) a belief, or (2) wrong.

So, given these facts:
  • Most atheists agree that the scientific method is the only justifiable way to gain knowledge.
  • Self-proclaimed "atheists" cannot seem to agree on their position with respect to belief in gods (despite the definition of the word "atheist"), and the most popular position (above) is a statement of faith, not science.
  • There is no widely popular politcal movement whose main motivation is the scientific method and reason and whose roots or main positions do not lie squarely in beliefs or faith.
  • I don't want to talk any more about the existence of gods.
I propose that all proponents of the scientific method and reason join together under a different name, one that holds no position with regards to faith and deities, but takes a position only in the case of real, measurable evidence in its favor. I know it's not a perfect name--though surely better than "atheism"--but I think "rational empiricism" represents the cause well. "Empricism" because we draw conclusions if and only if there is evidence, and "rational" because we use formal logic and reason to draw any number of conclusions from a collection of evidence.

Yes, we might also be skeptics, agnostics, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, and Communists, but the one thing all rational empiricists have in common is a set of arguments (politically, socially, interculturally) based only on empirical evidence and logic.

The term "rational empiricism" has a well-developed philosophical background, and the difference between this philosophy and what I propose here is mainly political activism. The philosophy does not have a goal, but I do. My goal is:

All laws and regulations enacted by the power of any government should
  1. guarantee personal freedoms insofar as they do not harm others, or,
  2. given (1), guarantee fairness and equal opportunity for all participants in economic, social, and political exchanges, or,
  3. given (1) and (2), promote the general welfare.

We can adapt rational empiricism to a political ideal by using the principles of the established philosophy to achieve these goals.

Many of these ideas are not at all new, but it seems obvious to me that politics are driven by opinions and beliefs, which is something I'd like to see changed. The solution is of course reason and the scientific method, neither of which has their own political voice, as they are constantly bent and mingled with other less desirable ideologies.

In case anyone was wondering, no, I am not planning on putting my name on any ballots in the near future, but I do plan to spend more time here in the background, analyzing and commenting, preparing myself for a future where things might change.


Notes and references:

Atheism is a religion, my first post focusing on this topic
Atheism is not science, a second attempt at clarity
One more time, on atheism, a stab at the politics of atheism

A very good Blag Hag post, under which I put forth and defend some of my positions using the name "Brian".

Rational empiricism, a good description of the philosophy
Ignosticism, a word I learned today that describes some of my personal views very well

6 comments:

Ben said...

Brian - I haven't read all of your posts - but one issue I don't think you've brought up is the problem of proving unrestricted negatives. It's almost impossible to prove that a thing does not exist anywhere because it's pretty darn hard for anyone to examine every place in the universe. This is why generally we say that the burden of proof is on someone stating that something exists - rather than the person claiming something doesn't exist. And that's why the belief that something exists is fundamentally different than belief that something doesn't exist.

The main problem I have with your statement that "atheism is a religion" is that I think society is better off when we value empiricism over belief in supernatural explanations and by calling atheism a "religion" you at least appear to be saying that the two are equally valid. You seem to focus on atheists who forcefully proclaim that there are no god(s) - atheists are also defined as simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. The absence of a belief is not a belief, much less a religion, which is understood to include traditions, narratives, symbols, laws etc - none of which are present in atheism.

THE KRIS said...

i knew if i waited long enough ben would come along and put into words what i couldn't quite articulate.

also, although i don't think that it's possible for most people to subjugate emotion(most people's political views seem to be shaped by their feelings on issues, not evidence... or most people selectively choose the "evidence" that justifies what they feel to be true) to logic, i'm on board with trying to bring the scientific method into politics. i hope this idea catches on.

The Other BG said...

Ben, while I agree that a household "proof" that no god exists is in some sense harder than looking for and finding a god in a cabinet somewhere, as a mathematician and wannabe philosopher I don't see a difference. We can prove that no planet that has a mass equal to 10^1000 times that of the earth exists because there isn't that much mass in the entire universe. Existence and non-existence differ only with assumptions and frame of reference.

But, that's beside the point. This post was intended to draw the attention away from the god question. Regardless of the definition du jour of "atheism", I don't think it will ever escape God completely. That is, the word "atheism" will always be defined--at least in one of the main definitions in major dictionaries--with respect to belief/disbelief/lack-of-belief in gods. I do not want to argue about the definition any more, so suffice it to say that the idea of a god will always have some place in the Atheist Manifesto, however small. This is the problem. Empiricism cannot be successful until gods are left completely out of the conversation. I said in my post "Atheism is a religion", linked above, that unless we have a vested interest in proving that there is no god, the "burden of proof" that you mention is not on me, you, or them; it is nowhere.

Yes, I think that atheism and theism (not religion particularly) are equally valid, precisely because neither will ever have any evidence supporting their belief--but then again I'm an ignostic, so we're talking about an undefined god that may very well be your shoelace--and thus probably exists. However, empiricism is a completely different animal. Empiricism is not the complement of theism, religion, or atheism. Empiricism is using the evidence you have and ignoring evidence you don't have but might like to have. Assuming a "god" that is inherently unobservable, empiricism will never assign or even approximate the certainty of the existence a god... ever.


Kris, you're on board?

THE KRIS FOR MAYOR!!

THE KRIS said...

Mayor? I don't think so, I'm more of the behind the scenes type.

The Other BG said...

What, you don't want to join the prestigious lineage of Baltimore mayors? Afraid of pulling the average down?

THE KRIS said...

No, i think i would want to be mayor of somewhere classy, like D.C.