The Atheist Experience Gets It Wrong

The following is a rant against something I heard one of the hosts of the Atheist Experience say. I can’t find a place to post it on their blog, so I’ll post it on mine.


On the last show of The Atheist Experience, Jen stated that “belief is binary”. If I heard right, she went on to say that “either you believe or you don’t”.

Did I hear right? If I did, let me state unequivocally that she is dead wrong.

Belief is warranted only to the degree it maps to evidence, evidence arrives in degrees, and therefore warranted belief is not binary, but must be held in degrees.

If I don’t find my wallet after a night out, and don’t know whether I dropped it or it was stolen, I do NOT have to choose a default position. As the evidence for either side accumulates, I am only warranted in holding a degree of belief that matches the degree of evidence. There certainly can be a considerable time where I don’t have evidential warrant to place belief in either hypothesis, and may find myself at any position upon a smooth continuum of belief if I am to restrain my desire to “know” to fall in line with the evidence.

Let me recap. Evidence falls on a continuum. Warranted belief must follow the evidence. Therefore we can expect warranted belief to fall anywhere on a smooth continuum of certainty/uncertainty.

The only exception to this is where you have logical impossibilities. “Evidence” can be rejected in this case.

And let’s just get over the need to apply tags to ourselves. State what you believe. Language is a product of convention, words do not retain their original meaning, and we assert a denotation of a word against convention at the risk of being misunderstood.

And just so you know where I’m coming from, I believe the Abrahamic god is impossible, and have a very low degree of belief in the possibility of an Einsteinian god. The tag “Atheist” does not well capture who I am, though I might use it for the sake of simplification in certain contexts.

Done ranting.

Cheers, Phil


The fact that warranted belief is not binary except in logical contradictions is also fatal to religions who suggest that belief in a particular savior decides between 2 very polarized destinies. Since warranted belief falls on a continuum as evidence accumulates, to say that some god then designates some arbitrary threshold on that continuum to determine either salvation or torture makes that god unjust. If blessing/punishment is ultimately determined by belief, that blessing/punishment had better map to a continuum as smooth as the warranted-belief/evidence continuum. Anything else is unjust, and the biblical Jehovah is therefore unjust…or imaginary.

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24 thoughts on “The Atheist Experience Gets It Wrong

  1. Your confusion here is that you’re talking about choosing one of TWO possible positions. Jen was talking about belief regarding a SINGLE position. This is something I’ve gone over many, many, many times….and something you implicitly acknowledge when you write:

    “If I don’t find my wallet after a night out, and don’t know whether I dropped it or it was stolen. I do NOT have to choose a default position”

    Correct and you’re essentially saying that you ‘do not believe’ either possibility until evidence is presented for it. Belief for each possibility is binary – you either believe it or you do not. It’s definitional for ‘belief’…as belief is the acceptance of a proposition.

    The default position for the two possible claims:
    – I lost my wallet.
    – My wallet was stolen.

    …is to reject both claims until evidence is presented for one of them. This is true even if the two claims represent a true dichotomy (some god exists/no gods exist).

    Once you DO believe a claim, you can believe it to varying degrees of certainty (or even disbelieve it to varying degrees of certainty) but whether or not (look at that language…whether or not) you accept the position is, in fact, binary.

    The confusion here, which I see over and over and over, is that you’re assessing multiple claims, when belief addresses a single claim. You’re confusing the possible options with your belief regarding the possible options.

    • “Once you DO believe a claim, you can believe it to varying degrees of certainty”

      Clearly wrong.

      Evidence arrives in degrees. Belief is only warranted by the evidence. Therefore warranted belief arrives in degrees.

      Here’s a thought experiment for you.

      Some man claims to have the power of prophecy. (This is a single proposition.) He will demonstrate this by predicting the amount of local precipitation to the centimeter every day.
      — Day one he gets it correct. Could be a lucky guess.
      — Day two he gets it correct. Probably a coincidence.
      — Days 3 through ten he gets it correct. Amazing and improbable, but not conclusive.
      Here note that the evidence is arriving in degrees. We are warranted in assigning a degree of belief that matches the (here inductive) evidence.
      — Days 11 through 100 he gets it correct.
      Are you just going to emotionally flip some epistemic switch at some point? No. You are warranted only in following the inductive evidence as it climbs the smooth continuum to approximate though never reach certainty.
      — Days 101 through 10,000 he get it correct.
      At this point your belief should be high if it is to follow the linear continuum of the inductive evidence. But make no mistake. There is no epistemic threshold at which you suddenly “believe”.

      So belief is not and never will be binary.

  2. “Some man claims to have the power of prophecy. (This is a single proposition.) He will demonstrate this by predicting the amount of local precipitation to the centimeter every day.
    – Day one he gets it correct. Could be a lucky guess.
    – Day two he gets it correct. Probably a coincidence.
    – Days 3 through ten he gets it correct. Amazing and improbable, but not conclusive.”

    On day one, someone may believe or still disbelieve.
    The same is true on days 2-10….but at every given point, they believe or disbelieve.

    The degree to which the may be convinced (or not convinced) addresses a level of certainty and confidence that may eventually lead to a claim of knowledge (as knowledge is a subset of belief and is directly related to certainty).

    However, at every point in your example, any observer will either believe or disbelieve there is no third option for a single proposition. I don’t need a thought experiment it’s logic 101 and easily demonstrated on a Venn diagram.

    The fact that evidence may arrive in increments does not change the fact that one either believes or disbelieves. The fact that one may not yet be comfortable asserting belief is also irrelevant.

    Belief = acceptance of a claim.

    • “However, at every point in your example, any observer will either believe or disbelieve there is no third option for a single proposition.”

      You are saying there is a threshold between belief/disbelief on this continuum of evidence?
      There must necessarily be some point on the continuum where unbelief magically changes to belief?

      Clearly normal but clearly wrong. Human emotions find it rather unpalatable to not have a binary epistemic position. This is evolutionary beneficial.

      If our beliefs are to be warranted, they will be as certain/uncertain as the evidence available.

      In this respect, belief is like patience. You can suddenly lose your patience at some point upon the continuum of aggravation, but that response is emotional. Warranted impatience will map to the degree of the aggravation.

      I don’t know what else to do other than to place into a syllogism what I have already said and let you have a go at it.

      P1: Evidence commonly accumulates in degrees.
      P2: The degree of belief must map to the degree of evidence if it is to be warranted.
      CONCLUSION: Belief must be held in degrees if it is to be warranted.

      If you cannot address this syllogism, perhaps you could at least explain the dynamics of the transition you envision from unbelief into belief in the context of my prophet scenario.

  3. “There must necessarily be some point on the continuum where unbelief magically changes to belief?”

    Yes, but portraying it as magic is almost an instant lose. At some point one BECOMES convinced and that is the point at which one actually believes. Until that point, one still does not yet believe. You either believe or you don’t.

    Emotions, unpalatability, when one becomes comfortable with *professing* belief, analogies to aggravation are all irrelevant.

    P2: The degree of belief….

    Exactly. The DEGREE of belief. I’ve already said that those who believe can believe to varying degrees of certainty…but that’s only relevant after one believes.

    Belief can be held to different degrees but whether one is on the belief side of the spectrum or the disbelief side is a binary.

    • Yes Matt, I understand that at some point in the gradual accumulation of inductive evidence, you believe that you “become” convinced. This sudden transition does not follow the gradual accumulation of the evidence. It sounds too mystical and I’d like a bit of elaboration.

      I’d like to know the mechanism of and details about this “becoming” convinced. Keep in mind that, if the trigger is emotional, I will not accept it as warranted belief. If the trigger is not emotional, I’d like to know why it does not maps to the gradual accumulation of the evidence.

      Remember that my scenario starts with unbelief. After a few days I might say I “tend” to disbelieve the claim. After a 1,000 days I might claim I “tend” to believe the claim. But somewhere in the middle the inductive evidence does not “tend”. The veracity of the claim must be assessed as 50% probability at some point. If you were to ask me whether I “believe or disbelieve” the proposition at this point, I would inform you that your question was ill-formed. A proper question might me, what degree of confidence do you place in the claim based on the inductive analysis. I could then respond with “50% confidence”. If you were to insist that I choose whether I believe or disbelieve when my confidence is at 50%, I would inform you that the question is ill-formed, and that I hold neither belief nor disbelief in the claim. This would be an accurate reflection of my epistemic state.

      So unless you can give me some coherent explanation of why there is this belief switch that does not follow the gradually accumulating evidence, and why there can be no point at which you have neither belief nor disbelief in the claim, I have to say that your definition of belief appears suspiciously emotional, and is therefore unwarranted.

  4. Bolgoarth says:

    Matt, if you stipulate that there are degrees of belief, why the semantic battle over the label “binary”? In what way did that use of the word on your show provide meaning rather than being misleading?

  5. You’re pointing at different dots on that spectrum or you’re addressing when you might be comfortable placing yourself on that spectrum. I’ve not denied any of that. I’m simply saying that because of the definitions, you either believe the claim or you don’t.

    I’m not hung up on the term “binary”, I’m just saying that it’s an accurate term for what we were discussing.

    “The veracity of the claim must be assessed as 50% probability at some point. If you were to ask me whether I “believe or disbelieve” the proposition at this point, I would inform you that your question was ill-formed.”

    Nonsense. I’m pretty convinced that your 50% probability claim still addresses TWO claims – that it’s true or that it’s not true. If that’s so, you’re not only talking about something different (two claims verses one) but you’re also wrong…there is no guarantee that any two propositions will EVER have evidence balanced in that fashion.

    But, that’s beside the point. You either have sufficient evidence to believe the claim or you do not believe it.

    Claim: I have $7,283 in my bank account.
    Do you believe it?

    You may not have enough evidence to KNOW that it’s true or not true, but you either believe it’s true or you do not believe it’s true.

    Note that “do not believe it’s true” is NOT the same as “believe it’s false”.

    Have you watched the belief lecture?

    • I’ve watched several “belief” lectures. Not sure which one you’re talking about.

      Based on everything you’ve said so far, I’m forced to suggest are confusing the emotion of belief/disbelief (that includes a sense of conclusiveness but is not dependent on the degree of evidence), and the process of coming to a rational degree of belief/disbelief. There must logically be some point in the middle of the continuum of evidence in my scenario where there can be no rational belief/disbelief. This rational process of forming a warranted belief is not binary, and many who gradually leave christianity based on increments of evidence do not experience a binary flip where they suddenly realize they went from belief to disbelief. You don’t have to call this agnosticism if you’re uncomfortable with the connotations of that word, but it certainly isn’t belief or disbelief. Belief is not binary. I currently don’t know whether I believe or disbelieve string theory, even though I’ve read much evidence on both sides. Do you feel compelled to pin me down and demand that I take a binary position on string theory. I would hope not. The same holds for god-belief. There are stages in the processes of conversion and deconversion where neither “belief” nor “disbelief” do justice to the actual epistemic state.

      And the claim that you have $7,283 in your bank account? I will wait for more evidence to assess so that I might then determine whether I am warranted in holding a degree of belief or disbelief. If the evidence for the claim’s veracity or falsehood remains balanced, I am neither warranted nor obligated to hold belief or disbelief.

  6. “There must logically be some point in the middle of the continuum of evidence in my scenario where there can be no rational belief/disbelief.”

    There can’t be a middle with only a single proposition. You’re continually going back to two propositions.

    “I currently don’t know whether I believe or disbelieve string theory”

    The you currently do not believe – you have not been convinced. You’re defining “disbelieve” as “believe this is false” and that’s not correct because one can reject a claim without accepting the contrary claim. As I’ve said over and over: “I do not believe X” is not the same as “I believe x is false”.

    Not believing someone is guilty is not the same as believing they are innocent.

    “Do you feel compelled to pin me down and demand that I take a binary position on string theory.”

    You’re still looking at this is if I’d be asking you to choose between “String theory is true” and “String theory is false”. I don’t need to pin you down, you’ve already stated that you do not yet believe…that is, by definition, disbelief. You do not yet accept the proposition “String theory is true”.

    That says NOTHING at all about whether or not you accept the alternate proposition “String theory is false”.

    “And the claim that you have $7,283 in your bank account? I will wait for more evidence”

    Then you have not been convinced and, therefore, do not believe. The fact that you disbelieve my claim does not mean that you believe that its false.

    ” If the evidence for the claim’s veracity or falsehood remains balanced”

    This is what I’m talking about…you’re back to two claims: veracity or falsehood.

    Let’s try this:

    For a claim that is necessarily true or false (my bank account amount, for example), imagine a simple balance scale. One side of this scale is the claim “balance = $7,283” and the other side is “balance != $7,283”

    The scale starts off level. As you add evidence it may remain level (assuming we’re adding equally to both sides).

    Belief is the state at which one side is heavier than the other. This applies to BOTH sides.

    As long as the scales are balanced you do not believe EITHER side which means you disbelieve both sides…both propositions.

    There’s only a neutral state when you’re addressing two propositions – both sides of the scales. But belief addresses a single claim only. You believe or disbelieve a single claim.

    • “There must logically be some point in the middle of the continuum of evidence in my scenario where there can be no rational belief/disbelief.”

      There can’t be a middle with only a single proposition. You’re continually going back to two propositions.

      I have not left my scenario where the single claim from the man is “I can predict the local daily precipitation within a centimeter.”
      There is one proposition, yet 2 necessary poles on the continuum of unbelief/belief.

      “I currently don’t know whether I believe or disbelieve string theory”

      The you currently do not believe – you have not been convinced. You’re defining “disbelieve” as “believe this is false” and that’s not correct because one can reject a claim without accepting the contrary claim. As I’ve said over and over: “I do not believe X” is not the same as “I believe x is false”.

      Egregiously wrong.
      Do this. Create a graph with a diagonal line extending from “don’t believe” on the lower-left to “believe” on the upper-right.
      Hand this graph to 100 random people and randomly make 1 of the following 2 statements.
      1. I don’t believe in string theory.
      2. I don’t know whether to believe in string theory.
      Ask people to mark on the graph your epistemic position.
      This is what you’ll find.
      1. Don’t believe ___x_____________________________ Believe
      2. Don’t believe ________________x________________ Believe
      These are not equivalent statements.
      And your 100 subjects will not hesitate or tell you that the phrase “I don’t know whether I believe” is illegitimate or nonsensical.

      Not believing someone is guilty is not the same as believing they are innocent.

      And saying “I don’t know whether they are innocent” and ” I don’t know whether they are guilty” are regarded as equivalent and are both mapped to the continuum as follows.
      Don’t believe ________________x________________ Believe

      “Do you feel compelled to pin me down and demand that I take a binary position on string theory.”

      You’re still looking at this is if I’d be asking you to choose between “String theory is true” and “String theory is false”. I don’t need to pin you down, you’ve already stated that you do not yet believe…that is, by definition, disbelief. You do not yet accept the proposition “String theory is true”.

      Wrong. Reread. I clearly said I don’t know whether I believe in string theory. This is conventionally mapped to the continuum as follows.
      Don’t believe ________________x________________ Believe
      If I told people I don’t believe in string theory, that would be mapped completely differently.
      Don’t believe ___x_____________________________ Believe

      That says NOTHING at all about whether or not you accept the alternate proposition “String theory is false”.

      I’m sure you’ll agree this would be conventionally mapped as a stronger disbelief.
      Don’t believe x________________________________ Believe
      Sorry, but you don’t get to choose how phrases are defined. Convention is the arbiter. And if you don’t agree with my prediction of the results of the experiment I mentioned above, simply test it informally on a smaller sample size of 10 or so.

      “And the claim that you have $7,283 in your bank account? I will wait for more evidence”

      Then you have not been convinced and, therefore, do not believe. The fact that you disbelieve my claim does not mean that you believe that its false.

      If added to the survey experiment suggested above, the phrase “I will wait for more evidence” will be indicated as follows.
      Don’t believe ________________x________________ Believe
      Your repackaging of my “I will wait for more evidence” into “I do not believe” will result in the following.
      Don’t believe __x______________________________ Believe
      Two very different and non-equivalent results.
      Remember that convention is the arbiter. I have not conducted this test, and I doubt you will. But I doubt you need to. I think you’ll agree that the feedback from 100 random native English speakers will yield the results I’ve indicated.

      ” If the evidence for the claim’s veracity or falsehood remains balanced”

      This is what I’m talking about…you’re back to two claims: veracity or falsehood.

      No Matt. Don’t equivocate.
      The single claim is that you have $7,283 in your bank account. The fact that this single claim must be true or false does not make it 2 claims.

      Let’s try this:

      For a claim that is necessarily true or false (my bank account amount, for example), imagine a simple balance scale. One side of this scale is the claim “balance = $7,283″ and the other side is “balance != $7,283″

      The scale starts off level. As you add evidence it may remain level (assuming we’re adding equally to both sides).

      Belief is the state at which one side is heavier than the other. This applies to BOTH sides.

      As long as the scales are balanced you do not believe EITHER side which means you disbelieve both sides…both propositions.

      There’s only a neutral state when you’re addressing two propositions – both sides of the scales. But belief addresses a single claim only. You believe or disbelieve a single claim.

      You’ve unparsimoniously converted the perfectly coherent single statement “I have $7,283 in my bank account” that can be measured on the perfectly coherent continuum of belief…
      (Don’t believe ________________________________ Believe)
      …into 2 propositions.

      If your intent is confusion, you’ve succeeded.
      Let me reiterate how the average person (convention) approaches this.

      “I don’t believe he has $7,283 in his bank account”
      Don’t believe __x______________________________ Believe

      “I don’t know whether to believe he has $7,283 in his bank account.”
      Don’t believe _______________x_________________ Believe

      “I believe he has $7,283 in his bank account.”
      Don’t believe ______________________________x__ Believe

      You can, of course, create proprietary definitions of terms and campaign for their adoption, but you can’t argue them into conventional use by claiming they already are conventional.

      Belief is not binary.

  7. “Hand this graph to 100 random people and randomly make 1 of the following 2 statements.
    1. I don’t believe in string theory.
    2. I don’t know whether to believe in string theory.”

    How is that anything at all like what I was saying? Those 2 aren’t even talking about the same thing…and that’s the problem. Whether or not one is cognizant of what one believes is a separate issue from whether or not one believes a proposition.

    Let’s try this…

    I believe X is true.
    I do not believe X is true.
    I believe X is not true.

    Are any of those statements equivalent?

    • Our disagreement is whether “belief is binary”; whether “you either believe or disbelieve“, or whether there are epistemic points between belief and disbelief.

      Let’s look at your 3 statements.

      a. I believe X is true.
      This maps to…
      Don’t believe _____________________________x___ Believe

      b. I do not believe X is true.
      This maps to…
      Don’t believe ____x____________________________ Believe

      c. I believe X is not true.
      This maps to…
      Don’t believe __x______________________________ Believe

      You’ll find “c” has only a slightly stronger connotation than “b”.
      This is the way these statements are conventionally used. Convention, not dictionaries or private definitions, give language its power.

      After mapping your 3 examples, the question remains; Have we exhausted all possible possible phrases used to explain epistemic dispositions on a given proposition?

      No.

      Are there other phrases that reflect legitimate locations on this epistemic continuum?

      Yes.

      Here are some clear examples.

      d. I tend to believe X is true.
      This maps to…
      Don’t believe _____________________x___________ Believe

      e. I tend to disbelieve X is true.
      This maps to…
      Don’t believe ___________x_____________________ Believe

      f. I don’t know whether I believe X is true.
      This maps to…
      Don’t believe _________________x_______________ Believe

      Belief is not binary. We don’t either believe or disbelieve. There are epistemic points all along the continuum that can be reflected with available phrases.

      But perhaps I’m not understanding your position. Let me ask for clarification.
      1. Do you believe that there is this continuum of belief?
      2. If there is a continuum, what phrases might be used to describe someone square in the middle of this epistemic continuum?
      3. If there is an epistemic continuum, why would someone say “belief is binary” or “we either believe or disbelieve“?

  8. That’s what I thought…we’re still talking about two different things and you’re still mapping “disbelieve” to “believe X is false” instead of “does not believe”.

    I don’t know how else to explain this. Have you watched the belief lecture?

    Belief = acceptance of a proposition.

    You either believe X or you do not believe X. There are no other options.
    You may believe X to varying degrees of certainty, but you are either convinced of X or you are not yet convinced of X.

    I believe X is true.
    I do not believe X is true.

    Those are the ONLY two positions that map to the proposition “X is true”.

    The third option:

    I believe X is not true.

    …addresses a different proposition, the contradictory position that “X is not true”.

    Belief addresses ONE position, not two and in every single one of your responses you explicitly or implicitly map it to two.

    “X is true”
    “X is not true”

    Those are two DIFFERENT propositions. The fact that they are connected is irrelevant.

    “X is true” could map to: Y is guilty, there is a god, I have $7263
    “X is not true” could then map to: Y is innocent, there are no gods, I do not have $7263

    You believe or disbelieve (meaning does not believe) EITHER of them. I can disbelieve the claim that you are guilty AND the claim that you are innocent….but I will always either believe or disbelieve each claim.

    Your spectrum:

    Belief……………………………..Disbelief

    is being mapped to

    String theory is true……………………………..string theory is false
    You have $7263…………………………….You do not have $7263
    There is a god…………………………………there are no gods

    That’s not belief and disbelief, it’s belief and belief….it’s “believe X” and “believe !X”.

    I’m not the slightest bit concerned about colloquial usage or the common person’s misconceptions, I’m addressing the foundational principles of logical thought here.

    A or !A

    You either believe a claim or you do not believe a claim. That’s it.

    Your appeals to “how convinced you are” addresses an entirely different question.

    • Matt, our choice of language does not inform reality.
      Reality informs (or ought to inform) our choice of language.

      You make the statement…

      You either believe a claim or you do not believe a claim. That’s it.

      You couldn’t be more wrong.

      There is an epistemic continuum. (I still can’t decipher whether you agree on this point. It would be useful if you would simply clearly state your position on this.)
      Take the proposition “London exists.”
      As confirming or dis-confirming evidence arrives, the epistemic agent is entitled to a belief that maps to the available evidence.

      Disbelieve __?_____?_____?_____?_____?__ Believe.

      As weight of the evidence moves to any position on this continuum, so also must the belief if it is to remain warranted.

      The epistemic continuum is the reality. Language is not.

      If you attempt to manipulate this epistemic reality with language, you are jeopardizing your credibility.

      The logic statements…

      A or !A

      …are not epistemic statements. They are ontological statements.
      To equivocate between the two is fatal.
      The fact that something must exist or not exist in no way destroys the epistemic continuum for an epistemic agent.
      And to attempt to argue for such is an equivocation and has the appearance of an intentional attempt at distortion.

      So when an epistemic agent assesses his epistemic state, and wishing to position himself in the middle honestly says…

      I don’t know whether London exists.

      …don’t presume to tag and box him into an “alondonist” by invoking the logic of “L or !L“.
      Ontology is not epistemology.

      And this is the impetus for this blog post.
      There are epistemic agents at all points on the epistemic continuum of the god question.
      Let those agents employ conventional language to attempt to describe their own epistemic states.
      They do not need you equivocating between ontology and epistemology claiming that “you either believe a claim or you do not believe a claim” based on your “A or !A”.
      It is a matter of employing language to best reflect reality, rather than to over-simplify and distort it.

      Note also the nonsense in your statement…

      You may believe X to varying degrees of certainty, but you are either convinced of X or you are not yet convinced of X.

      You are treating “convinced” as if it were not a point on the epistemic continuum.
      Convinced maps as follows.

      Disbelieve [_____________________convinced] Believe

      Do you actually think “convinced” is a “binary” category? It can’t be. It is a description of an epistemic state on an epistemic continuum, not a bivalent ontological reality. It is a point at one end of our epistemic continuum.

      So, no, we don’t either believe or not believe. Belief is measured in degrees.

      Evangelicals state that belief is bivalent in an attempt to justify the bivalent destinies of Heaven and Hell. They are wrong. Non-believers are likewise wrong when they attempt to make belief bivalent, presumably with the goal of filling a certain illusory discrete ontological category called “atheism” up for boasting rights.

      I’ll tag myself an atheist if I think it accurately reflects my epistemic state in a given context, but you don’t get to tag me, especially since you erroneously sever belief into only two discrete categories.

      It’s all about reflecting reality, rather than distorting it.

  9. If you’re not going to address what I’ve written, I’m not sure how we can continue. I’ve tried to explain this a number of different ways, even clarifying that you’re talking about something different from what I’m talking about…yet you keep doing it. So, let’s just flatly answer your questions.

    Yes, “convinced” is a binary condition. One is either convinced of X or one is not convinced of X (note that this is distinct from being convinced of “not X”). Until such time as one becomes convinced, one remains unconvinced.

    “Take the proposition “London exists.”
    As confirming or dis-confirming evidence arrives, the epistemic agent is entitled to a belief that maps to the available evidence.

    Disbelieve __?_____?_____?_____?_____?__ Believe.”

    And I’ll ask again: In that example, does “disbelief” map to “does not believe London exists” or “believes London does not exist”?

    If it’s the former, then I’m absolutely correct. If it’s the latter, then you’re using a different definition of disbelief which actually maps to believing a separate claim – the contradiction of the claim in question.

    • Matt, in response to your question whether the far left side of the epistemic continuum marked “disbelief” maps to “does not believe London exists”, I respond “yes”.
      This clarification of a tag on the far left extreme of an epistemic continuum does not make your statement that “You either believe a claim or you do not believe a claim.” correct as you intimated. It only defines the extreme left point of the epistemic continuum. Most epistemic positions are shy of this point, even when employed on scales with artificial discrete categories such as Dawkins’ 6 of 7 position on his atheism scale.

      I’m willing to wait until I’ve had more time to reexamine your position.
      But I must be honest. As hard as I’ve tried, and with my fairly extensive readings into epistemology, I still currently do not see any justification for your statement…

      You either believe a claim or you do not believe a claim. That’s it.

      How belief, if following the evidence, can be discrete, I do not understand. Feel free to attribute this to my own lack of imagination if you must, but when I say “I don’t know whether I believe ‘x'”, it does not to me mean “I don’t believe ‘x'”. Is my understanding closer to convention, or is yours?

      To recap, here are your 2 categories that you seem to believe are the only ones that can exist based on your statement “You either believe a claim or you do not believe a claim.”
      1. “I don’t believe ‘x’.”
      2. “I believe ‘x’.”

      I am claiming that your 2 categories are a paltry representation of epistemic reality in which there is a continuum (rather than discrete categories) between disbelief and belief.

      These include but are not limited to the following statements.
      3. “I tend to believe ‘x’.”
      4. “I tend to disbelieve ‘x’.”
      5. “I don’t know whether I believe ‘x’.”

      The meaningfulness of these statements demonstrate the absurdity of claiming that a proposition must be either believed or disbelieve as you are claiming.

  10. — These include but are not limited to the following statements.
    3. “I tend to believe ‘x’.”
    4. “I tend to disbelieve ‘x’.”
    5. “I don’t know whether I believe ‘x’.” —

    The language with which humans speak about their belief has no relevance to the point I was making. What you’re talking about is how individuals tend to talk about their belief…I’m talking about whether or not they believe. The confusing, imprecise language you’re using, while accurately reflecting what people SAY, does not address the subject fairly.

    What does one actually mean by #3?
    I’d argue that they mean that they believe, but aren’t certain. Therefore, they believe.
    By #4?
    That they disbelieve, but do not necessarily believe the contradiction. Therefore, they disbelieve.
    By #5?
    That they don’t know whether or not they believe…which is entirely separate from whether or not the actually DO believe.

    #5 raises the question of whether or not someone can believe something yet be unaware of it. That’s an interesting discussion, but it’s different from this.

    My point is that if belief is the state of accepting something as true, one either believes something or one does not.

    The degree to which one believes something, is irrelevant to my point. That addresses whether or not one’s belief counts as knowledge (a subset of belief related to certainty).

    The language with which one equivocates about their beliefs is irrelevant to my point. Tending to believe, kinda believing, almost believing, kinda-sort believing…it’s all sloppy thinking at a meta-level.

    Your continuum deals with the process of becoming convinced. It ignores the burden of proof and default positions by implying that one doesn’t actually disbelieve until one has evidence to support disbelief. That’s nonsense. It is belief that must be justified, not disbelief. Disbelief (not believing) is the default state…and it exist right up to the point where one becomes convinced. After that point, one believes…but one may believe more strongly or less strongly, based on the supporting evidence.

    It is, therefore, possible to “barely believe” something (to use the colloquial) but that still means you believe it. Likewise it is possible to “strongly believe” something, because there’s mountains of good evidence…but it still means you believe it.

  11. Tons of typos in that one. Sorry. I’m at work and had to type that up very quickly.


    No problem. I corrected the few typos I found. -phil

  12. I’m taking a couple days to ponder Matt’s response (I’ll be disguising my ruminations with partying and romancing), and hope to provide a coherent and comprehensive response sometime next week, perhaps in a new blog post. Cheers.

  13. I’ve written a new post that addresses this matter in greater detail.

    https://philstilwell.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/is-belief-binary/

  14. […] The Atheist Experience Gets It Wrong August 201021 comments 4 […]

  15. […] address this issue previously here and here, but I think it warrants […]

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