Friday, April 05, 2013

Matt Dillahunty and disbelief by default

In his recent talk at the American Atheist convention on skepticism and atheism, Matt Dillahunty states (at about five minutes in) that skepticism does tell us what to believe in the case of untestable claims--that the default position is disbelief.

But no, the default position has to be nonbelief, not disbelief.  To disbelieve in a proposition is to believe in the negation of the proposition, to believe that the original proposition is false.  And Dillahunty already said that (a) we should proportion our belief to the evidence and that (b) the proposition in question is untestable, meaning there is no evidence for or against it.

The position he describes is logically inconsistent.

We know that there are untestable propositions that are true.  We shouldn't believe that they are false simply because they are untestable. We should only believe they are false if we have good reasons to believe they are false; in the absence of that we should be agnostic.

(Added 5:36 p.m.: What are the implications for the above argument if it is the case that untestability does not entail lack of evidence or reasons?  What about if we distinguish evidential from non-evidential reasons?  And if we take the latter course, what does that say about proposition (a), above? Left as an exercise for commenters.)


Unknown said...

I saw Matt's talk and I've been a follower of him for years. I think he (and I) would respond to this by saying you are splitting hairs between disbelief and non belief. The two are indistinguishable in practice.

He makes it clear in the talk that he is speaking of disbelief/belief in binary terms, I.E. you either believe or you do not believe. He did not assert that said lack of belief implied a knowledge claim.

It's also important to note that Matt mainly debates theists so he is usually engaged with people who are actively claiming a god exists, and not all god claims are untestable. Of course one can define a god in ways that are untestable but I read his rejection as being much along the same lines as Sagan's rejection of the invisible dragon in the garage.

I often found the argument about whether we should call ourselves atheist or agnostic to be a strange. It seems to be hair splitting. I've never met an atheist who cares about the argument, but quite a few agnostics seem to care about it quite a bit.

Lippard said...

Dylan: That's similar to the response that Tony Sidaway made on Google+. While there are no doubt cases where disbelief and nonbelief are indistinguishable in practice (for others, if not also for ourselves), this is certainly not *generally* the case--we often can and do make the distinction.

Tony said: "I don't believe in angels. In what sense is that nonbelief distinguishable from disbelief?"

Here's my response:

"Distinguishable for you, or for others? Are you saying that the distinction sometimes collapses, or always collapses? I think the distinction clearly holds up in some cases--for example, where we are in a state of ignorance about a proposition, we hear it asserted, and we find it surprising, ponder it, and then reject it. We've clearly gone from nonbelief (haven't even considered it) to disbelief (we've rejected it)--but we could have remained in a state of nonbelief even after hearing of it, where we were uncertain, where we considered the proposition and its negation to be equally likely, or noted that each have consequences which seem problematic. I suspect I would describe your case as disbelief based on lack of coherence with other things you believe.

BTW, I think scientific skepticism goes awry by placing too much weight on scientific testability. There are other sources of evidence and reasons."

To which Tony responded: "I do like to read your explanations of issues like this. I suppose I should explain that I am aware of the preponderance of non-existent things, so some unfamiliar concept is initially met with disbelief. I might want to be polite, and call it nonbelief, but really it's a strong scepticism amounting to a belief in the antithesis pending evidence. There aren't any goblins. Maybe that's wrong, but until I see a reason to change my mind I'll stick with it."

The question that arises here is--is there an *asymmetry* between the evidence required for belief and disbelief?

I agree that knowledge claims are different from mere beliefs (reasonable or otherwise), and if you look you'll see that yours was the first mention of them.

Lippard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lippard said...

BTW, in my previous, my asymmetry question is phrased ambiguously between a descriptive and normative sense. The normative sense is expressed by the question "is there an asymmetry between the evidence required for *reasonable* belief and disbelief?"

A descriptive asymmetry is no doubt easier to explain than a normative one.

Unknown said...

"BTW, I think scientific skepticism goes awry by placing too much weight on scientific testability. There are other sources of evidence and reasons."

I completely agree here. My knowledge is of course more in areas of philosophy, history, and theology than pure science so I don't have a problem with the suggestion that there are good reasons to rely on things beyond the question "can we test it"

On that note there is a further question of whether it is reasonable to consider god's existence just as likely as his nonexistence simply because we cannot demonstrate either with science. I obviously do not think this is the case, I think his instance is less likely than his non existence.

Of course I am speaking generally and most of the time we need more info. If someone says they believe in god, I cannot really respond until they tell me how they define god, since there are lots of different definitions. On Matt's show, if you have never listened, his first question to callers is usually "what do you believe and why"

I realize you didn't speak directly about knowledge, I just think you are implying Matt is holding a position that I don't think he actually holds.

Unknown said...

Sorry if my first post seemed combative at all, but this topic tends to get me going.

As a person who debates religion quite a bit I often hear theists use as very similar argument to basically say that since neither can prove their claim the claims of theists and atheists are logically equivalent.

Of course their version often involves moving the goal post since this argument requires that we assume an unfalsifiable god, and most religion involves specific claims about their deity (answers prayers etc.) which are, in theory, falsifiable.

I have no problem saying that an unfalsifiable god might exist, but I'm not sure would even care since such a being would have no interaction with us by definition.

Even so just because two claims might possibly be true doesn't mean they are equally likely.

Lippard said...

I am in agreement with your distinction between the gods people actually believe in and gods that are carefully designed to avoid any contact with empirical evidence that could test their existence. I'm an atheist with respect to the major former ones, agnostic about the latter.

I also agree that just because two claims might possibly be true doesn't mean they are equally likely. (Though, if they are contradictories that exhaust the space of possibility, and we have no evidence at all that bears on their truth, the correct response is to give them both epistemic probabilities of 0.5, isn't it?)

Unknown said...

"and we have no evidence at all that bears on their truth, the correct response is to give them both epistemic probabilities of 0.5, isn't it?"

That's an interesting question, I'm inclined to say yes, but one might also say that while this is theoretically true in practice we aren't likely to encounter such a claim very often if ever in real world scenarios.

Lippard said...

BTW, if one argues that the distinction between nonbelief and disbelief collapses (either in general, or just specifically in cases like nonbelief/disbelief in gods), then one cannot consistently argue that there is no burden of proof for atheism because atheism is a mere lack of belief. The burden of proof argument needs a different justification. I suspect that giving a lighter burden of proof to disbelief/nonexistence claims over belief/existence claims in general could lead to some unpalatable consequences (e.g., moral values, other minds, the past, etc.)


Unknown said...

Right, but if I say "I don't believe in X" on most any subject I assume that people understand that this statement is being made in a provisional way. That I reserve the right to change my mind if the evidence changes.

If I say "I don't believe in god," well first off I rarely say that unless it is offered in some sort of reactionary context to someones claim that he exists, and is thus refers to a specific god, but I would go further and say that to say I don't believe in god is not the same as saying I actively believe god does not exist. I'm referring to my lack of belief. I understand that all beliefs, or lack of beliefs are provisional and subject to change.

Perhaps this is a semantic issue since I don't see the term "disbelief" as the same as claim to believe that there is no god. (strong atheism some would call it)

Seganku said...

dis·be·lief /ˌdisbəˈlēf/ Noun
1. Inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real.
2. Lack of faith in something.

Neither definition appears to commit a disbeliever to a position defending the negative.

Lippard said...

Dylan: In your first comment, you said, "you are splitting hairs between disbelief and non belief. The two are indistinguishable in practice." In your most recent comment, you say, "I don't see the term 'disbelief' as the same as claim to believe that there is no god. (strong atheism some would call it)."

Aren't you just reintroducing the distinction you rejected?

Seganku: You similarly seem to be arguing that "disbelief" is what I've called "nonbelief." You can certainly use the word that way, but I'm pointing out that people who hold the position that gods don't exist are, indeed, taking a position that the proposition "gods do not exist" is true--they aren't necessarily claiming that to be knowledge or certainty, but they are claiming at least that it is more likely than not.

The argument that they aren't taking a position, that they have no burden of proof, that they don't need evidence to support their views, seems to me a disingenuous evasion.

Michael C. Rush said...

>>We know that there are untestable propositions that are true.

Theoretically, I suppose, but it seems to me that while we can acknowledge their existence, we can never know them in practice, can say nothing about their "truth."

>>I think scientific skepticism goes awry by placing too much weight on scientific testability. There are other sources of evidence and reasons

Such as?

Lippard said...


E.g.,: personal experience (observation and memory), philosophical argumentation, mathematical reasoning, historical investigation, investigative journalism, legal proceedings, etc. We have a huge dependence upon testimonial evidence.

These things are not completely independent of scientific investigation, nor are they without testability more generally, but there were ways of obtaining evidence and reasons prior to the development of modern science and they continue to be the way that most of us obtain our evidence and reasons--even when we're obtaining evidence and reasons about the conclusions of scientific investigations which we haven't performed ourselves. They are also necessary in order for scientists to practice science, since "reading something in a journal" is not putting something to a direct test of scientific methodology.

Michael C. Rush said...

Such methods may function (at times, with a high failure rate), but do they validate? I'm not sure the data they produce rises to the level of "evidence." Memory is rife with error by its very nature, argument is biased and circular, history is suspect, testimony often merely reports of delusion and misinterpretation. If "truth" is one's goal, I don't see how one gets around the essential centrality of testability.

Lippard said...

I was considering "scientific testability" to be more narrow and specific than "testability" in general.

If they don't validate or rise to the level of evidence, then doesn't that entail no knowledge about the past? No knowledge about the guilt or innocence of accused criminals? No knowledge about the results of scientific experiments of the past, known only through written records? No knowledge about the displayed results of measurements on instruments even at the time of an experiment being conducted? No knowledge from historical sciences? That doesn't seem right.

Unknown said...

Ah, I see how you must have been confused by what I wrote.

I did not mean to imply that there is no distinction between a lack of belief in a god and a belief that god does not exist.

What I meant was that you were splitting hairs over the use of the word "disbelief" and that Matt's use of the word did not indicate a position of "strong atheism"

I can see now how the way I worded it might have been confusing. On this point I think you would do well to listen to some of Matt's other work because I think it would show that what he was arguing for in this talk was not strong atheism.

Michael C. Rush said...

No, I don't think it would necessarily entail "no" knowledge about the past, etc., but it would call into question the accuracy and authenticity of all such knowledge. Which I think is legitimate. We "know" a tiny fraction of human "history," and a great deal of what we believe is false. Society is also demonstrably and notoriously bad at establishing guilt and innocence. So I would say that these examples support rather than question the notion that unprovable forms of data (or "gray data") do not provide the same caliber of result or "knowledge" as does the scientific method.

However, I certainly don't mean to suggest that that makes them useless to human thought and understanding (I'm a poet, for Pete's sake!).