Another discussion posed the question, do you:
A. disbelieve in gods? or
B. believe there are no gods?
The subtle distinction here seems to be whether you think we can know that there are no such things as gods, or whether you think we can't ever really know such a thing, but you nevertheless think that there aren't such things.
I prefer to ask the question in the more direct way then. Are you:
A. a Gnostic Atheist, or
B. an Agnostic Atheist?
Surely this question matters, and in the interests of full disclosure I am a Gnostic Atheist, with the qualifier that I do not think that absolute knowledge of anything can really be had, but rather that if we can know anything at all, we can know there are no such things as gods as surely as we can know that there are such things as cows and pigs and people and stars and viruses and rivers and such (all things we have plenty of evidence for), and as surely as we can know that there are not such things as leprechauns and unicorns and cyclops and fairies and hobbits and flying spaghetti monsters 9all things for which there is absolutely no evidence).
A lot of your response is about how "absolute proof," is unreasonable, and we agree. We both accept debate over theism takes place within the limitations of humanist knowledge, so no-one is arguing for a absolute proof or objectively certain knowledge (regardless of how we might feel about that knowledge subjectively). The limitations on humanist knowledge have more to with practical problems like induction than, say, radical skepticism about reality.
Given that, I do have to insist that demonstrating general non-existence is a tricky problem and, yes, that it is in fact easier to show (i.e. provide evidence) that you have two hands than it is to show that there is no teapot beyond Mars.
I also have to insist that the person making the claim is the one stuck with the burden of evidence. I mean, what evidence could a person NOT making a claim conceivably be responsible for? "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence" is simply a statement of where burden of evidence lies. You actually give a variation of this, although I think you set an unreasonably high standard for dismissing a claim ("no evidence of any sort even being possible")--you don't need to argue that future evidence is impossible to dismiss a claim.
I am also sticking with the line between agnostic and gnostic atheism being that gnostic atheists are making a claim ("there is no god") and, since they are making a claim, are stuck with a burden of evidence for that claim. Note there is nothing here about absolute certainty or impossibly high standards of proof. Simply, if you make a claim you need to present evidence or be dismissed.
Which means I disagree that agnostic atheists are doing theists a huge favour. I don't see how that logically follows, and empirically it doesn't hold. Some of the most effective proponents of atheism right now profess agnosticism about the existence of god(s). An agnostic position is in fact the more effective strategy, since it focuses the debate on the weakness of the arguments FOR the existence of god. Professing a gnostic position will automatically put you on the defensive.
We may be getting somewhere, so let me focus on the statement, "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence". As you say, this is a statement about where the burden of evidence lies. And as you also say repeatedly, the burden of evidence lies with the person making the claim. I will spare you a long and drawn-out argument backing up my previous claim and simply take your position for the sake of argument. So if the person making the claim bears the burden of evidence, then do you agree or not with the statement, "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence"? I think you must, but please correct me if I'm wrong. Assuming that you do agree, as far as what we know is concerned, we should be safe in dismissing such claims like the belief in the existence of deities on this premise. Ah, but, you will say, we are nothing like safe in dismissing outright any claims made without evidence, because they might be true. I agree. So what is required at this point is to do some investigation of our own, to see whether we can arrive at knowledge of the matter ourselves, regardless of whether the person making the assertion is willing to do the work themselves. For most claims, this is at least theoretically possible. We can't yet explore our own galaxy, yet alone others, to determine if there is life elsewhere in the universe, but it is at least conceivable that there might be. But there is no test one could even devise to determine whether imaginary objects might have an existence beyond our own natural, physical existence. You would be right in saying that this does not prove that there might not still be deities, but then there is still more evidence that the atheist can provide to successfully argue the case (not prove in any absolute sense mind you, as I have been harping on, but make it reasonably-secure knowledge) that there are no such things. Not only is there no evidence for any deities, but all the evidence which does exist suggests that man made god and not the other way around. What kind of evidence is there for this position, you may ask? The thousands of different gods men have created, the fact that paganism preceded monotheism, the fact that religions borrowed from each other, the fact that gods are given human-like characteristics, often completely implausibly so, the fact that religions all have ties to natural phenomena, the fact that they are all overly-concerned with what men are doing, and the list just goes on and on and on to the point that no reasonable person could believe that there really are any such things as deities. I've felt like I've been put on the defensive many times, and it can be an excruciating feeling, especially when one feels like one might not really have enough ammo in the can to make a convincing case. This just isn't one of those cases. I could literally make the case for hours straight without hardly having to pause to think of what to say next. And after all that, all the theist can say is, well, you still can't prove that there isn't a god, you can't prove a negative claim. Well so what?? If you are asking for absolute proof, again, I can't offer that even for my having two hands. but if you accept it as reasonable that I have two hands when I show them to you, the case for the nonexistence of gods is really just as convincing. Faith is the opposite of reason. There is no evidence to support their claim, but overwhelming evidence to support mine. Every faith has concern for human welfare as its absolute priority. Really, what more can you ask for regarding a belief in something for which there is zero evidence and for which evidence does not even seem possible? If someone tells you that a herd of pigs is flying out in space but they are hiding behind one of Jupiter's moons so we can't see them, not only does this seem to fly in the face of everything that we know about pigs and their abilities and probable locations, at least this is a claim we could possibly test for, but the theist doesn't even grant us this! So my point is this: we do not need to prove what cannot be proven to have reasonably-assured, completely-justified knowledge (on any definition of knowledge which is reasonable) that deities don't exist. Now you might call this being on the defensive, but it seems as advantageous and offensive a position as one could ever hope to be in. There is hardly a sensical position the theist can take that cannot be immediately refuted and destroyed by the knowledgeable atheist. But I appreciate your position, you have got a good head on your shoulders and you've got a good grasp of the argument on your side, so I respect that and don't begrudge your position.
I am an agnostic atheist. Knowing something exists is quite different to knowing that something does not exist. Can you know with absolute certainty that you have two hands? You'd have to be very pedantic to argue that you do not, (provided you're a normal person with no amputations).
The argument of the non-existence of "God", (let's assume that it's the Abrahamic god of Judeo-Islamo-Christian variety), boils down to: "How do you know that such a god does not exist?" I can't find any good reason to believe that such a one does exist. If we look at some of the properties theology assigns to that god, we can show that a god with such properties does not exist, either through evidence or logic.
But theists are persistently updating and making their definitions and the properties of their god ever more sophisticated. At times, I will come across some new approach to their notion of "God", which gives me pause for thought, but so far, in the end, I have rejected the new approach, and continued to claim that I have no good reason to believe that such a god exists.
But I have to have some approach for understanding what the universe is, how it operates, and how I can come to that understanding. I rely on science for that. In science, we accept that the ideas we have may need to be altered, in the light of new evidence. Nothing should be ruled out, nor ruled in, without good evidence. I leave the door open for some kind of evidence that a god exists - and I know not in what form that might be.
So to reiterate:I have no good reason to believe that a god exists, but for the sake of intellectual integrity I cannot rule out the remote possibility that a god might exist, and that persuasive evidence might one day come to light, which would demonstrate that such a god does indeed exist. Until then I live my life as if there is no god, and I am not holding my breath for that status quo to change any time soon. Since I am unable to PROVE the non-existence of a god, (which might be in a form I have not yet had proposed to me), thus I consider myself to be an agnostic atheist.
"So to reiterate:I have no good reason to believe that a god exists, but for the sake of intellectual integrity I cannot rule out the remote possibility that a god might exist, and that persuasive evidence might one day come to light, which would demonstrate that such a god does indeed exist. Until then I live my life as if there is no god, and I am not holding my breath for that status quo to change any time soon. Since I am unable to PROVE the non-existence of a god, (which might be in a form I have not yet had proposed to me), thus I consider myself to be an agnostic atheist."
Well said. I can appreciate that your goal is to find the truth. We should all follow your lead.
There is a difference between intellectual integrity and absolute proof, which is what I have been trying to draw out here. We should not need absolute proof of any of our beliefs to have knowledge, or else we really are shits creek without a paddle. On that criteria, none of our beliefs can qualify as knowledge, and all we have are our opinions, no better or worse than those of the theist. We should not follow the lead of people who would grant the theist permission to believe that there really just might be the possibility that gods exist, any more than we should give them our permission to believe that pigs can fly or that global warming is a myth. They are going to believe these things without our permission - they don't need our permission anyway to believe what they choose to believe. Telling them they are right, there really is a chance, doesn't help fight this insanity at all.
Suppose a crazy person tells you he is Napoleon. Are you going to feed his delusions by telling him, well, I can't tell you you're wrong, and you have my permission to believe this as much as you want? Isn't a better strategy to tell him that it goes against every reasonable belief that he could really be Napoleon, and that what he really needs is professional help? Would you tell him "I might be wrong but..."? Or wouldn't you rather just be honest with him and with yourself: YOU ARE NOT NAPOLEON! Plain and simple fact of the matter, and as good a truth as any other we could possibly have.
It is for the very reasons you state that I am a Gnostic Atheist. We cannot know with absolute certainty whether we have two hands (all exceptions granted of course), or whether gravity exists, or even whether we exist. But does this rule out all knowledge? Are you a skeptic when it comes to all knowledge, or just negative claims? In either case, asking for absolute certainty before we grant someone knowledge is too strict of a criteria. We would be led down the path of absolute skepticism regarding all beliefs, not just beliefs in deities, but the kinds of beliefs you mention - whether we have two hands, etc. If we abandon knowledge as being something possible, something we can justifiably have based on reason and evidence, then we give up all the ground - every belief is on equal footing, no matter how absurd. To repeat my argument from the last response, do you know you are not a brain in a vat? Must you prove to me that you are not in order to know that you have two hands? Or doesn't reason give us the power to know which beliefs are justified and which are not? Otherwise, aren't all beliefs rendered down to opinion?
It is not science that which gives us an understanding of the way the universe works, it is reason. Science is reliable and gives us justified beliefs because it is a rational system of investigation. We also use logic, and probably reason is more than even just logic and physical evidence. I agree with you, nothing should be ruled in or out with absolute conviction, but plenty of things can be ruled in or out within a reasonable degree of justified certitude, including science, our existence, and the non-existence of absurd propositions with no evidence or justification to back them up, like our being brains in vats, or the existence of flying spaghetti monsters, or deities.
If there were any rational reason why I should even suspect that a god existed, this whole issue would be another matter. As it is, the ONLY reason why we're discussing the possibility of there being a god is because someone thought up the concept sometime back. More recently, I thought up the concept of a left-handed zindlefinger, but I have ZERO expectation of running into one any time in the future, near or far. Hell, I thought it up, and I don't even know what it looks like!
The only existence god enjoys is that of a concept which some people entertain, SOME people, not me. So, until Yahweh, Zeus, Brahma or the Great Juju Who Lives Up The Mountain gives substantial evidence of himself, There Is NO GOD.
And if that makes me a gnostic atheist, then I'm a gnostic atheist.
Amen brother! Oh wait... :-)
This conversation is starting to have some things in common with the relativism discussion in the blog area. Having absolute certainty is slippery but as you alluded JW, it is not necessary to function.
My relationship with atheism is kind of like my relationship with calculus. Even though we don't really know how to divide by zero, we can still use calculus and it is safe to fly in planes that calculus has engineered. Absolute knowledge of what really happens when the denominator is zero is not necessary to function. I don't feel it necessary to qualify my feelings about calculus as agnostic.
Awe at stuff like Higgs Boson is about as god friendly as I can get. However when travelling at the speed of light or in a black hole, all bets are off.
I don't feel it necessary to qualify my feelings about calculus as agnostic.
Nicely put, annet (anne t?).