My feels on writing.

This is my first ever re-blog (seriously!). Bear with me guys.  The original appears underneath my comments. I am assured by my tech-savvy daughter that that’s just the way it has to be.

Yup, sadly all too true. And philosophy attracts more than its fair share of arseholes who think if they throw a few bits of philosophical jargon into a post then they will appear intelligent. Take this example of priceless fuck-wittery :
Thanks. No, I think it’s acceptable. So we both agree the antecedent is necessarily false. But we don’t want to say it’s trivially true. So we need a semantics broader than possible worlds semantics. So we use something like impossible worlds semantics. We then go to the “closest” impossible world at which the antecedent is true, and my argument is that at that world atheists couldn’t raise a POE charge against God for “aborting” us because God can just use a bodily autonomy justification. The atheist will (intuitively) want to think the undefeated POE world is closer.
Another example. Plantinga argues against identity
theories where brain state = mental content. He then asks us to remove the content and replace it with another but leave same brain states. Both he and the identity theorist will think this is impossible (violating identity). He claims the closer impossible world is the one where the person does the same action, so he thinks epiphenomenalism follows. Here, again, both sides agree the antecedent of the counterpossible is impossible.”



The Agnostic, the Atheist and the Burden of Proof


1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.
Synonyms: disbeliever, nonbeliever, unbeliever; doubter, skeptic, secularist, empiricist; heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.
3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic:
Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality.

“Agnostic” comes up a lot in apologetics debates. Of the three definitions above, there is a divide along partisan lines with atheists claiming that only the first (meaning 1) is “right” and theists claiming that only the last (meaning 3) is.  Atheists often say that anyone who does not positively believe that God exists is an atheist.  It is not necessary, they say, to have a belief that God doesn’t exist in order to qulalify as an atheist. You can be both atheist and agnostic, because agnosticism (meaning 1) refers to what you know, atheism to what you believe. Apologists, on the other hand, are apt to insist that if you call yourself an atheist you must believe that God doesn’t exist. Unless you sign up to that, you are an agnostic  (meaning 3).  

Dictionaries are not “top down” sources of definition.  Words are defined by their use and dictionaries aim to reflect how a word is in fact being used, not to prescribe how a word “ought” to be used.  If enough people use the word in a particular way, that way of using it becomes correct. That is why all of the above definitions, although each is slightly different, are correct.  It may be necessary to clarify which definition we are using but there should be no need to engage in long debates about whether anyone “must” use the word in one way rather than another. 

Thomas Huxley, who coined the word, intended to emphasise the “gnosis” root and to distinguish himself from those who claimed to have knowledge of what he considered to be unknowable. But it would be fallacious to argue from the word’s root or it’s genesis that it “must” be interpreted as the first definition. 

Why does any of this matter? (To the two sides, I mean.  Whether and why any of this matters in the larger scheme of things is a different question).  

I think that a lot of it is to do with the burden of proof.  Both sides tend to approach the God debate as a game of tactics. The atheist is determined to place the burden of proof on the apologist.  That way the apologist has to make all the running and the atheist’s job is just to react to whatever the apologist puts forward. If the apologist fails to prove their case, then the atheist can claim victory.  Apologists find this irksome and wish to proceed on the basis that their opponent must also do some of the leg-work.  That way, unless the atheist can prove God’s non-existence, then the aplogist can claim at the very least, a draw.  

Atheists are wary of being bounced into taking on a burden which they instinctively (and in my view, rightly) feel isn’t theirs.  When the apologist says “So, if you’re an atheist, you must believe there is no God” the atheist thinks: “Ah ha!  I see your game.  But you shan’t succeed…..”  And from that point, even atheists who in their hearts believe that there is not, cannot be a God, will refuse to be pinned down on the issue. Apologists feel that their opponent is being deliberately evasive and they become understandably frustrated. Thereafter much heat and little light is generated in an “Oh yes you do!” “Oh no I don’t!” type exchange. 

Of course, some atheists may genuinely have no belief either way on God’s existence, however I suspect most of them believe he doesn’t exist, but they are unwilling to admit as much, thinking that they will be painting themselves into a corner.  

I think there is a way forward which might provide for a more honest and more productive exchange. I suggest that we start by recognising that “I believe x” is first and foremost a claim about me, not about x.  A belief is a state of mind.  Like an emotion, it is something we have, not something we choose.  

When I say “I believe x” that does not of itself impose a burden of proof on me any more than saying “I like chocolate” does. It is simply a report about my state of mind.  A challenge “Prove it!” would be an invitation to me to demonstrate that I truly believe x, not to prove x to be true.  

By now you may be thinking that I am being disingenuous. Surely it is implicit in “I believe x” that I am saying “X is true”?  Well, yes, but that by itself does not create a burden of proof. 

All burdens of proof are self-imposed.  In simple terms, only those who want to prove something bear a burden of proof. Being a theist does not impose a burden of proof.  But being a theistic apologist does. 

Being an agnostic will impose a burden of proof – if you want to argue that agnosticism (on whichever definition you use) is the most rational position to take. 

Being an atheist can impose a burden of proof, if you wish to persuade others, but what you are obliged to prove will depend on what you are trying to persuade them of. If your argument is limited to the assertion that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God, then all you need to do is to refute the apologist arguments that purport to establish his existence. The fact that you may personally believe that there is no God has no bearing on your burden of proof. But of course if you want to go further and persuade people that God does not exist, then start arguing your case, because you just took on a burden. 

More Gay Cake, Vicar?

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

From A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt

I wasn’t going to write about the Asher’s bakery case. I’ve posted on other sites,  here, here and here and there didn’t seem to be much to add.  But this post is going to be not so much about the case itself, as about the way those Christians who disliked the outcome chose to express their disapproval.

Overall, the reaction from the pro-Asher’s  faction was a prolonged howl of “It’s not FAIR!”  The law is supposed to be all  about fairness, so if this charge could be sustained, then it would be a very damning criticism. But although the protesters  were convinced that the law was wrong, they offered no clear explanation of how or why it was wrong. This made any kind of productive discussion with them a bit…..difficult.   What was unfair?  What did they wish to change to make it fair?

Maybe the legislation under which the case was brought needed changing in their view.  But which bit and how?

Well, if you changed the law so as to remove protection from sexual orientation, that would take away a major ground in the case.* But I did not get the impression that any of the protesters actually wanted to remove the protection of the law from people of different sexual orientations. Maybe they did, and just didn’t want to admit it, but I have to say that that was not the impression I got.  So what did they want?

I could not help feeling that, although they would not actually say so outright, many of those who protested at the judgment felt in their hearts that anti-gay prejudice was acceptable in a way that racial prejudice wasn’t. “Why didn’t he just go and get the cake from another bakery?” was a recurrent theme. There were some who suggested (without a shred of evidence) that it was a “sting”, that the plaintiff had gone to Asher’s in the hope of being refused so that he could sue them. The implication was that in that case, he was more deserving of condemnation than sympathy. 

But nobody would have suggested that a customer who was discriminated against for racist reasons “ought” simply to take their custom elsewhere. And nobody would suggest that someone who uncovered racism in a bakery’s supply policy had done a shameful thing, even if it was through a sting. We would regard the exposure of racism, however it came about, as a great public service. 

The chief ground of complaint seemed to be that the law should not oblige anyone to do anything contrary to their conscience. I think many of us will have some instinctive sympathy with this idea. But as always, the devil is in the detail. How would a conscience clause that over-rode all other provisions of the anti-discrimination law work (if that was what was wanted)?

“Conscience is King” is a fine thing to support when the conscience in question chimes with your own. But suppose the conscience belongs to a white supremacist? Must she also be allowed to refuse any service which conflicts with her values?  

Much was made of the fact that the refusal was not to provide a cake for a gay man but to provide a cake promoting Same Sex Marriage (SSM).  But if conscience is the determining factor, then this distinction is of no importance.  My conscience may tell me that it is not only wrong to bake a cake which contains a message celebrating SSM but it is wrong to bake a cake, however discreetly decorated, which is for a gay civil partnership, because even by doing that much I am helping to celebrate what is morally wrong.  Or my conscience may tell me not to allow my infant child to have a life-saving blood transfusion, because that is forbidden by the bible. Or my conscience may tell me that I should kill a young woman because her behaviour has brought dishonour to her family and the community from which she comes.  Are all these to be beyond the reach of the law?  If not, how will you frame the law so as to draw the line?

Let me return to Sir Thomas More (as represented in Bolt’s play) with whom I started. He also came into conflict with the law, also because of a marriage which his conscience would not allow him to support.  But what he recognised was that nobody was above the law and nobody was beneath it either. The law sheltered the greatest devil as much as it would the greatest angel. You could not dis-apply it to protect those you favoured or exclude those you didn’t.   

More was of course a lawyer himself and he would not have refused his services to the greatest villan that lived or to a cause which was directly contrary to everything he held dear.  That is because there has for hundreds of years been a rule at the Bar called “the Cab Rank Rule”.  Under this rule every barrister is obliged to take on any case which they are asked to, provided that it is within the branch of law where they profess to practice.  They may not refuse to represent a person, however profoundly they disagree with them. This rule is in place to ensure that nobody is denied representation because their cause is unpopular or because they are held in public contempt. The courts must determine whether the unpopular cause can be allowed or whether the alleged criminal is guilty.  

The McArthurs (directors of the bakery) were guaranteed the services of a lawyer when they asked for one. It made no difference whether the lawyer they wanted was a gay atheist, passionately pro-gay marriage or a Christain fundamentalist, utterly opposed to it.  Whatever the lawyer’s personal views, their duty was to represent their client as best they could.  If a lawyer can act to promote a cause that she profoundly disagrees with for the sake of a larger principle, surely a baker can decorate a cake with a slogan they disagree with for the sake of promoting a kinder, more tolerant society in which nobody has to fear that their skin colour, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or religious beliefs will cause them to be treated like a pariah? 

*Because the action was brought in Northern Ireland, even if sexual orientation were excluded as a basis of claim, the plaintiff could still have brought an action for discrimination based on his political views, which is also prohibited in N.I. -something which I was not aware of until I read Stephen Graham’s excellent blog post on the case (link above). But this didn’t seem to make much impression on the protesters, probably because most of them didn’t come from N.I. so did not perceive the political rights aspect as likely to impact on them.