Clarifying The Relationships Between Dogmatism, Skepticism, And Properly Proportioned Belief

In a post last weekend entitled “Evangelical Atheism?” I explored the ways in which some atheists may both be called “evangelical” with some justification and yet deserve to be spared the moral approbation aimed at the most notorious kinds of theistic proselytizers.  In reply Greg Teed suggested to me that atheists could not be “evangelical” in any comparable way to religious people since unlike religious people we are essentially skeptics who do not affirm a position.  In reply I argued that Atheists Have Affirmative Positions On The Status Of Evidence And On The Standards Of Belief.

But knowledge of those posts is not necessary to understand Greg’s next round of arguments or my interspersed replies since he introduces a whole new set of distinctions into the discussion:

Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my use of the word “affirm,” but at the same time Dan didn’t honour the time-honoured tradition of the generous reading. I shall try to clarify. It isn’t a matter of talking “positively” or “negatively” as the religious folks would have it.

When I say “affirm” or “affirmation” I am pointing to something taken as true, usually *a priori*. The taking as true means it is not approached at all skeptically much less provisionally – as are most of the assumptions and even conclusions presented by, say, science.

Then the right word is “assume”, not affirm, no?  Or maybe posit a priori in some cases.

There is a radical difference in mindset between affirming some base supposition is unquestionably true (as in a dogmatic affirmation) and positing tentatively. This difference is the natural result of a thoroughgoing skepticism, which, as a philosophical skeptic, is where I am.

Fine, but my point is that even such a skeptic can be broadly “evangelical” if she elevates allegiance to skepticism itself to the level of epistemological and ethical principle worth confronting people over publicly and privately with a strong concern to persuade them to change their minds.  Changing people’s minds to make them stop holding positions dogmatically and instead hold them tentatively is still a change of mind one may zealously pursue.

While it is true that atheists can (and sometimes do) affirm their position as Truth(TradeMark) in much the same way that a theists affirm their position as Truth(TradeMark), it is by no means necessary that they do so, and a more thoroughgoing analysis will often lead to tentative positing rather than affirmation of truth. We actually do see this in a modern trend among atheists to define themselves in terms of “lack of belief” rather than “belief in lack.” This distinction is not trivial. Contained within this distinction is the understanding that what we are talking about is our “knowledge states,” not facts, and provisional potential for revision based on evidence.

This is a false dilemma.  The only choices are not dogmatic, over-confident claims on the one hand and complete lack of belief on the other.  There are degrees of proportional belief.  A gnostic atheist need not be a dogmatist who claims any more certainty than is warranted by evidence.  Not all knowledge claims are dogmatic or claim any more certainty than fidelity to evidence permits. I know plenty of mundane facts non-dogmatically and with an exceedingly high degree of certainty (even if it is not absolute).  For example, I know who the president of the United States of America is, the molecular composition of water, what the color purple looks like, etc.

And I know theoretical knowledge with high degrees of certainty, even if not with absolute certainty.  I know that unguarded exposure to the sun can increase the risk of skin cancer, I know that evolution is real, I know that the idea of a omnipotent and omnibenevolent God is consistent with the world we live in, riddled as it is with numerous wasteful, unnecessary evils which lead to no demonstrable goods that could not be conceivably created through other, less evil means (and often which lead to no apparent goods whatsoever).

This is not being dogmatic, it is being rational.  Dogmatism would require insisting others believe my positions without rational argument based in logic and evidence, or if I refused to seek or acknowledge all counter evidence, or if I claimed higher certainty for propositions than they merit.  But simply making knowledge claims is not itself denying that my knowledge may be corrected in the future.  Knowledge claims are revisable.

Now, some may complain that this makes atheism into agnosticism,

It is agnostic atheism.  Agnosticism and atheism are positions on two distinguishable question, not alternative answers to the same question.  Agnosticism is a reply to the question of whether justified belief in gods or justified disbelief in gods is possible.  The agnostic judges neither affirmation of the existence or of the non-existence of gods is evidentially warranted—either in principle or only given the current state of knowledge.  Atheism is most inclusively construed as the lack of belief in gods.   If one lacks belief in gods because one believes that knowledge on the gods question is unavailable (whether for the time being or always and in principle), one is an agnostic atheist.

but agnosticism does not, in itself, make any reference to the way people actually live (the assumptions they use to live their lives). What do you call someone who lives their life as if there is/are no god(s)?

An atheist.

While we know that Pascal’s Wager is a profoundly bad argument, it is entirely possible that some may live their lives based on it and we would definitely say these persons are not atheists.

Indeed, we would not.  I call them agnostic theists.  On the position of whether a justified belief on the gods question exists, they have an agnostic’s pessimistic verdict that it is not.  Yet they affirm belief in gods and that makes them theists in terms of their metaphysical affirmation (and possibly in terms of their religious practice, assuming they proceed to be religious).

So, While Dan may be correct that some, or even most, atheists may make dogmatic affirmations with respect to the question of god(s),

No, I adamantly deny that anything like most atheists make dogmatic affirmations.  Some make knowledge claims proportioned to their confidence in the scientific, metaphysical, and moral evidence they have.  Others agnostically reject an affirmation and lack belief since they think the evidence is inconclusive.  Few, if any, self-consciously embrace dogmatism, which would be a knowing and willful refusal to hold beliefs as true and immutable beliefs which one sees insufficient rational evidence for.

I put it to him that a more rigorous inquiry leads to an epistemology of skepticism (one will notice that I originally depicted atheism as “skepticism about a particular claim”). Under this perspective, assumptions are not put forward as truths, but as tentative positings and the possibility of error is always held firmly in mind, which is really the point of the tropes of skepticism as presented by Sextus Empiricus (even if some of them seem naive and dated to modern eyes). This permits the “provisional” in provisional claims. This recognition of the possibility of error (fallibility) is what maintains the possibility of correction. Some will note that I am pretty much describing an error-correction philosophical methodology that, when applied to the empirical realm, is often called science.

The recognition of the possibility of error is everything.

We can always keep the possibility of error in mind while still having truths.  Again, Greg’s dilemma is false.

At the dark heart of epistemological nihilism, we are not actually left with the assumption that anything, much less everything, is false. We have no more evidence of that than we do that anything is true. So, while wallowing in nihilism is a possible result, it is far from a necessary one – in fact it is one that proceeds from a faulty assumption. Instead, we find ourselves asking “What now?” The rational response is to start putting possibilities out there. Now there are (at least) two possible ways of putting stuff out there, but we’ll look at the two we (humans) have tried so far:

(1) Affirming as Truth: This is the way that holds that what is presented is unquestionable and True (with the quaint capitalization). This is the stuff of dogma and usually results in orthodoxy requirements rather than evidential standards, and precludes the possibility of error-correction based on anything external to the system. There is no error potential recognized to consider even the possibility of ever needing correcting. One can point to trivial logical errors, yes, but these are about as meaningful as trivial logical truisms, so it really only indicates internal consistency, not correction by comparison to external referent.

(2) Tentative positings: This is a way that holds firmly in mind that we may be mistaken about what we posit and that seeks not just to check our internal consistency logically, but also provides opportunity to hold any presumptions to testing on the basis of some external referent. In the case of science, that external referent is empirical reality. What is truly important is the holding of the possibility of error because that is what provides for change, growth and adaptation.

This is the difference between “affirmation” and “positing” that I refer to in my original critique of Dan’s article. When I speak of a critique-based mindset, it is not a case of denial about any facts. It is a case of persistent doubt. Now contrary to what we’ve been told for thousands of years by religious dogmatists who wish to set the terms of the discourse, doubt is not denial.

Some theses about personal gods merit more than doubt, they merit outright denial, theoretically provisional as that denial may be.

I welcome any further thoughts, critiques, or questions.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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