Comment Roundup: Caring whether answers are actually true

Comment Roundup: Caring whether answers are actually true December 22, 2014

As occasionally happens, a commenter pops in with discussion that I feel warrants breaking off into an official channel. In this case, Verbose Stoic addresses the contention that accepting religious answers, without validating them, means a person doesn’t care whether those answers are actually true.

This the gist of my initial comment.

You’ll get a theist who says something like, “atheism couldn’t give me any answers to life’s big questions, but the Bible did”

“Do… do you care whether the answers are actually true?”

There’s actually quite a lot the commenter says that I agree with, but I see those points as mostly red herrings. So, of course, I’ll focus mainly on points of disagreement. For the sake of organization, those points may not be in order.

His initial response:

I think they care whether or not the answers are true, but they aren’t going to wait for humanism, atheism or science to come up with reasonable answers when answers that have worked for many people for many, many, many years and that they actually do feel work are available right there for the taking. Sometimes, we take answers that work without worrying if they’re certainly right or not. Which seems to be the main principle of science, come to think of it.

I rightly point out that there’s a difference between absolute certainty (Science works on demonstration beyond a reasonable doubt), and putting in no effort at all – just accepting whatever answers one likes,that one comes across first.

A big point of confusion comes in the repeated assertions that these answers are ones “that work” for them – a phrasing that makes little sense to me. What do you mean “that work?”

More on that later.

Accepting Answers – Caring

I’m not sure why this [stopping at the first answers the person likes]  is a problem when it comes to at least some of those big questions, especially when you are asking them to validate their answers without being able to tell them what the right answers are. How do you expect them to validate their answers?

That’s part of the point.

I can see two reasons why someone might accept an unverified answer – they can’t, or they won’t. Among those two, we have the permutations – taking a position is needed, or not. In other words:

  1. One doesn’t need to accept an answer on a question, but does anyway; can be supported by sufficient evidence, but hasn’t/won’t.
  2. One does need to accept an answer on a question; can be supported by sufficient evidence, but hasn’t/won’t.
  3. One doesn’t need to accept an answer on a question, but does anyway; can’t be supported by sufficient evidence.
  4. One does need to accept an answer on a question; can’t be supported by sufficient evidence.

By “need”, I mostly mean that real life essentially requires a decision, like deciding on what type of car to buy in order to commute to the job the person finally managed to get. There’s many things we don’t need an answer to, but are rather just uncomfortable not having.

The people of #1 through #3 do not care whether the answers are true.

#3 is mostly what the comment is talking about. Deciding that God does (or not does not), exist is not a requirement, no matter how much the religious doctrine may say otherwise. That’s something they’d need to demonstrate, before it can factor into the validity of their position.

We aren’t forced to make that call (I can make an exception in cases where oppressive religious societies require the citizens to believe, but that pushes the person into #4). That means that we aren’t required to accept an answer that cannot be validated. Doing so means that the person doesn’t care about its truth-status.

To clarify, I also recognize that we all have limits to time, energy and resources, and not all questions are that important to us. That could loosely qualify someone under #4. So when I’m talking about caring whether the answers are true, I’ll be referring to singular questions, rather than making some overall judgement of the person.

It Works

I find it odd that you challenge the notion of “that work” since that’s the exact same phrasing that many use to defend science — in much stronger terms

This is a subtle equivocation. When I say that “Science works”, I know what I mean (because I said it), but when Stoic says things like:

Most of them get these answers from their culture, which has adopted them for often thousands of years and have mostly worked.


Most people accept science for the same reason that they accept the answers to these big questions: it works for them.

It seems to mean something starkly different than my statement. The main problem is that to say something “worked” implies a premise as to the function that was expected. For science, this is commonly understood. Its purpose is to study reality and accurately understand it, better than it did before. In that regard, “science works”.

To just uncritically accept whatever answers you come across, that you like first, without verification – if we were to apply the same expected function – accurately understanding reality – this does not work any better than a broken clock “working” twice a day.

It seems more like “it works for them” means is “gives them something they can plug into the question-slot, regardless of whether it’s true“, in which case – fine – it “works”. That’s not a rebuttal against the assertion that they don’t care whether the answer actually true.

Commenter sheds some light:

The way I use that is pretty much the same way most non-philosophers of science use it wrt science: when we act as if the propositions are true, things generally work without problems or without contradictions.

This is where we dive in head-first into the muddied waters of religious thinking – that somehow, this is roughly equivalent to how science operates, or even what I’m talking about.

Me and my Snowblower

He continues:

The problem is that for most of the big questions while they impact our behaviour there aren’t a lot of ways we can test to see that the work out, at least in our everyday lives. The answers don’t generally lead to direct contradiction or lend themselves to technology. So it is easy to adopt a set of answers, have them generally work, but not really have verified it.

“Generally work?” I suppose that falls under the definition he/she provided, although that definition also recursively included “generally work” without specifying what that means. It’d help if I was provided some examples, otherwise, I’m having difficulty fitting this in with reality.

I have a snowblower. The intended function of my snowblower is that, after it snows, I start it up, and go blow some snow, removing the snow from my driveway.

In that sense, “it works” – the anticipated function is fulfilled.

Suppose that I had a question – “How do I make sure the snowblower starts?“, and I got it in my head that the answer was “Pray over it first.” This isn’t contradicting anything, nor is it leading to technology, etc… and guess what? I keep praying over my snowblower, and it keeps starting! Would we say that this answer “works”? After all, we have the intended result – the snowblower starting, and the overarching result – snowblowing my driveway – that both came true, as intended and expected.

That becomes essentially a Genetic Fallacy – that because the overall outcome “worked”, that every associated component aspect “worked” too. In reality, the action may have been benign, or it could even have been detremental (as in, does the opposite of “work”). Maybe the answer was to add a drop of water to the gas, because your answer is “Snowblowers get thirsty too!”

A single drop of water probably won’t kill its function, and it may work despite that… that doesn’t mean that adding water to the gas “works” at starting up the snowblower.

Keep in mind that “verification” includes falsification. If one actually cares whether something is true or not (and if one is able), one thinks of ways to disprove the notion. This is where we get controlled experiments with placebo effects, for instance. Did I try not praying over the snowblower, for example, and seeing how well it started?

If we looked into it, and found that the prayer had no statistical effect, then the prayer was, definitionally, not working. Until that point of verification, we couldn’t even have any knowledge of whether it was working or not. At best, we’ve established some kind of correlation, and that’s it.

So what the commenter apparently thinks “generally working” means, is “we think it’s working, but we don’t know.” We could use an example of something “generally working” where the thing that’s “generally working” isn’t merely assumed to be “generally working” because it’s associated with something that is.


Science actually directly deals with that – trying to resolve correlation in favor of demonstrable causal mechanisms. It can’t make progress otherwise.

Most people accept science for the same reason that they accept the answers to these big questions: it works for them.

I accept the findings contained in the Theory of Evolution because it’s been sufficiently verified by evidence. To say it “works for me” is unintelligible to me. I don’t accept it because the notion answers a question, makes me feel good about things, or whatever else. I accept it because it’s demonstrated by a consistently effective peer-review process that establishes actual functional usable knowledge.

We aren’t talking about some abstract answer that exists in a vacuum, like “we go to heaven after we die”. We’re talking about real-life applications of that knowledge – agriculture, genetic algorithms, vaccinations, etc.

If you demand that they verify these things, why not science as well?

I do, and it has. Religion has not.

 If you demand that they doubt these things if they can’t [verify], then why not doubt science as well?

I do. There’s an armful of things in science that I doubt. Both Quantum Physics and General Relativity contradict each other, bring into question whether they’re complete models. String theory is still very fringe, and I heavily doubt Punctuated Equilibrium for no other reason than that I don’t know much about what’s supporting it.

If science asserts something that cannot be verified, I do not believe it. I will mercilessly hunt down that belief and destroy it.

Beliefs are not sacred to me. They hold no value to me, merely as beliefs. They will only be held as beliefs if they earn that status, and can maintain it.

I’ve gone on record, talking about how I think the scientific peer review process has problems. I don’t think science is perfect, flawless, or absolutely true. In terms of effectively investigating reality, though, it’s not just the best tool we’ve got, it’s the only tool we’ve got, despite its shortcomings. Nothing else comes close.

The only way around that is to argue on a philosophical basis … which then has to allow philosophy of religion and sophisticated theology as well, which make things much less clear that the theistic claims are accepted for unacceptable reasons.

Science is a philosophy, and I’m arguing philosophy. I just happen to be arguing a philosophy that has been – over centuries – honed and sharpened into the most demonstrably effective tool for learning about reality that we currently have. Because it’s an applied philosophy doesn’t make it on an even playing field with other philosophies – not where that intended function is concerned. Sure, they can be allowed to compete, but are immediately disqualified for having zero efficacy.

I’m open to discussing a Theological Epistemology. I’ve given this challenge a number of times – explain how it works, and then demonstrate that it works  – as in, it accurately reveals knowledge about reality. Otherwise, we’re talking apples and oranges, function-wise.

In short, everyday reasoning is not skeptical, and once you try to be more skeptical things are not as simple as they seem.

I tend to find that skepticism clears the waters very nicely. It cuts through all the tangled convoluted ad hoc rationalizations for that which has no evidence, no testability and/or no falsifiability and replaces it with requiring sufficient demonstrable evidence before accepting it as true.

The problem is when people aren’t doing that, for a proposed answer. That’s when the murkiness thickens.

Convincing them otherwise

Here’s where we tend to get into the more irrelevant parts (but wrap up with a very relevant point).

But the issue is that the atheist isn’t in any better shape when it comes to the answers, and generally can’t actually give any good reason for theists to abandon it.

Of course – atheism isn’t a worldview, a philosophy or a religion. Atheism isn’t going to answer any “big questions” any more than being a bald-headed person would.

Believing for no reason

One of the main issues here is that you — and many atheists — conflate “unverified” (by whatever method you claim to prefer) with “random”, and so essentially treat theists as if they are adopting these answers for no reason. They aren’t. Most of them get these answers from their culture, which has adopted them for often thousands of years and have mostly worked.

Let’s pause for a moment of unhinged indignation.

I cannot think of a single atheist, myself included, who thinks that. We’d agree with you (outside of the “mostly worked” part). I’m usually the one babbling about Darrel Ray’s “The God Virus”, that makes an analogy about how childhood indoctrination, evangelism and peer pressure, are functionally similar to a how a computer virus spreads.

I’m mystified where you’d get that notion, outside of maybe sloppy language on our part.

We have linguistic shortcuts that cause problems. Suppose a employer tosses out a resume from a potential employee, saying “This person has no qualifications for this job.” In reality, that person did meet some qualifications – like being a citizen, and being of legal age to work, so the employer’s statement is technically false. What he/she meant was that the person did not meet all the needed requirements to qualify.


  • If we say, “Bob believes in God for no reason“, it’s short for “Bob believes in God for no good and sufficient reason.
  • If we say, “You’ve given no evidence of God“, it’s short for, “You haven’t given anything that meets the minimum standard epistemic requirements for “evidence”, and the value of the “evidence” you provided is insufficient to make your case

But we get lazy and assume people are going to get what we mean. If you find anyone making those short-statements, and push them, you’ll find out that the latter version is what they actually meant.

Believing based on reasons

There’s actually a second subtle equivocation here:

They [atheists] need to give the theist good reasons to abandon a belief that they accepted for reasons, and the same sorts of reasons that they accept other beliefs.

It’d be better to say that they believe due to “causes”, than “reasons”, because “reasons” is too similar to “they used reasoning“, which is distinctly different than believing something because something caused one to believe it.

I could believe that there’s a God because a magic 8-ball said “All signs point to yes”. That would be my “reason” for believing, but it’s not reasonable.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

But the issue is that the atheist isn’t in any better shape when it comes to the answers, and generally can’t actually give any good reason for theists to abandon it.


What better answers do you think you have? Remember, the whole context here is that the atheist DOESN’T have an answer. So if the theist sticks with an answer that they like, where like essentially means “Fits in with my worldview and so far is at least leading to answers that aren’t directly contradictory”, how is that a problem?


How is the atheist doing anything better, other than by not having any answers to those questions at all? In the context of the comic, having no answer and saying “I don’t know” is acceptable because it’s a fairly meaningless question. The big questions have a major impact on our lives and our actions, so staying neutral doesn’t seem to be an option.


So, unless the atheist HAS a better answer, they need to give the theist good reasons to abandon a belief that they accepted for reasons, and the same sorts of reasons that they accept other beliefs. That’s very hard to do by just saying that it might be wrong, or that you have a better epistemology.

I agree, though it’s not all that relevant. The question here isn’t whether we can convince the theist to adopt alternative answers, or to enter a “pending” state for those answers. That’s quite difficult, given that a lot of human psychology is working against us – confirmation bias, emotional investment, hyper agency detection, etc. I’ll agree with the commenter point-blank: it’s extremely difficult for people to give up culturally-entrenched, emotionally-satisfying invalid or unverified “answers” for epistemically sound and valid ones.

As atheists, we get bizarre questions like “What does atheism have to offer me?” Apparently “not being delusional” is insufficient.

The question, rather, is whether they actually care that their answers are actually true. Nothing in the above quotes argue that they do.

Burden to disprove the consensus

We also get the argument that:

Theists have been around and held that God exists for a long time, then atheists come along and insist that they provide evidence. No, the atheists have the burden of proof to challenge the status quo.” (or worded something like that).

The problem is that they never met their burden of proof in the first place. Like price-gouging companies, they all just winked and nodded at each other to all agree that a god exists, and at no point, ever met that burden. The fact atheists were late in actually pointing out their burden of proof, is irrelevant.

So none of the above quotes establish that their positions are valid, verified, or demonstrate any desire to ensure their beliefs are accurate.

Believing the Unverified

To wrap up, where the points become relevant again is here specifically:

How is the atheist doing anything better, other than by not having any answers to those questions at all?

It’s more complex than that.

We can construct a scale of preferability, from most preferable, to least preferable, of answers for a particular question.

  1. Accepting answers that are demonstrably true.
  2. Not accepting any answers because none available are demonstrably true.
  3. Accepting answers that are not demonstrably true.
  4. Accepting answers that are demonstrably false.

This isn’t just some personal preference; each can be argued.

Your ability to survive driving to the grocery store depends on #1. You making decisions on what’s actually real is critical. If your beliefs do not accurately align with the reality around you, you’re dead.

Choosing unverified answers over no answer

The difference between #2 and #3 (or #4), is often the difference between accepting an unverified answer, versus accepting some other verifiable answer. Since there’s often more than one available answer, there may be verifiable answers, that may not be as desirable, and are otherwise passed over for unverified ones – often leading to harm.

An example would be parents who believed in the unverified notion that prayers could heal people. This lead to the deaths of two of their children, on two different occasions.

Yes, atheism itself doesn’t provide answers. On the other hand, we do have a secular world, with secular reasoning, secular evidence, etc, that virtually everyone – even the religious – employ on a daily basis. That’s our default.

When you’re driving down the road, wondering where one should stop for gas, the person doesn’t pray to God or consult the Bible… one analyzes actual demonstrably reality in proximity, and uses that to make a decision.

Religious “answers” interfere with, and override that process. Atheism doesn’t need to provide the answers, because the typical secular answers and methods are already present. The unverified answer of “God will heal our child” would have been replaced with “we should take him to a doctor“. It’s not as though they weren’t aware of that possibility. Many who believe in the power of prayer consider going to a doctor a slap in the face of God, an act of faithlessness.

The contention between #2 and #3 is essentially what Pascal’s Wager is about. The point where #3 is inferior to #2 is that when people think they have “the answer”, they tend to stop looking (if you think you know where your car keys are, why continue looking?). #2 allows the person to keep looking, without committing that person to an answer that has a high likeliness of being wrong.

As an atheist, I am not trying to create more atheists. That’s not what I’m arguing for. I’m not arguing for nihilism, that people don’t believe anything, and have no answers on any topic. I’m arguing in favor of adopting scientific skepticism, logic and reason, when accepting which answers are true, since they so often fundamentally affect our lives.

You say that these “answers work for them.” Do they really? Does the woman who was essentially enslaved into being a broodmare think it worked for her? How about the people who were effectively forced to “stay in the closet” with their disbelief, out of fear of being murdered by disagreeing with those unverified answers? Maybe it “works” for those in power, but for the masses, it doesn’t. We’re not always talking about benign superficial “answers”.

The only case that could be made that modern day religious “answers” don’t do this is because their power has been curbed by secular societies, which has disallowed them from forcing the answers upon unwilling citizens.

Heaven and Hell

Even if we’re talking about “Heaven” as an answer to “what happens after we die“, that unverified answer can negatively affect people’s lives. People who think that we’re due to be raptured at any moment are bound to care less about environmentalism (why bother when the world is going to end anyway?). There’s Christians who essentially worship Armageddon, cheering on anything they think will lead to the end of the world, and they will be transferred to eternal paradise. Such unverified beliefs devalue the life we know they have.

If one doesn’t accept any answer as to the afterlife, that means the one life left is the one we have here and now, and thus becomes a focus of importance.

The unverified belief in Hell has been traumatic to many, needlessly causing grief, anxiety and fear. Some need therapy for this.

In these cases no answer is better than having one.

Once these unverified “answers” are rejected, atheists often adopt reality-based answers.

Questions with no Secular Answers

There’s some questions that don’t have secular answers – an obvious one being “is there a god?”

I’d contend that if there’s no possible secular answer, it’s not an important question. “Is there a god” is no more important than “is there an interdimensional sapient burrito?

One might object, saying that the existence of a god has all sort of potential consequences, so is therefore important, but that just means we can add “the interdimensional sapient burrito will electrocute you forever if you don’t believe in it“, and now it’s important. Then, someone else can assert that there’s a metaphysical ham sandwich that’ll clone you 4 times, and torture each of those 4 forever, therefore, is 4 times more important of a question than God’s existence.

The importance of a question cannot be established through made-up fantasy assertions. At least, not without any seriousness.

If a question has no possible secular answer, that’s because it doesn’t have any demonstrable relevance to reality… thus, no answer is even needed. Contrary to common belief, we don’t have to have answers for ever conceivable question. We have enough actual legitimate questions that need addressing, without adding in new fantasy ones.

Dr. Who
“Answers are easy. It’s asking the right questions which is hard.”



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