Thursday, September 20, 2007

Coherence and Atheism

Let’s reconceive proof in terms of what we now know about human beliefs systems, justification, and the progress of the human knowledge enterprise. Coherentists maintain that we can and should work to achieve a high degree of coherence within our belief structures. What that means is that the propositions we believe should be logically consistent, they must be probabilistically consistent, the system is improved in virtue of having more and stronger inferential connections between beliefs, it is less coherent in proportion to how many unrelated, and unconnected subsystems of beliefs there are, the system is less coherent by to the extent it has unexplained anomalies, and the system, above all, must be responsive to the evidence provided by experience.

It’s naïve and antique to think that a proof for a belief is a contained, modular entity, as if once we have a finished proof in hand, a person can stop gathering more justification and stop incorporating new information into their view of the world. Beliefs are not modular, autonomous entities. We only have them and they only become justified in virtue of being embedded in a larger framework that guides us with regard to principles of evidence, rules of inquiry, and standards of justification. Proof for a proposition that gives us perfect, deductive certainty and final justification is a myth from a simpler age. We do not simply accrete new pieces of knowledge that are then finished and laid down for the next layer. Euclid could prove propositions in geometry in the naïve sense until we discovered non-Euclidean geometries. Newton could prove the force of an accelerating object until quantum indeterminacy. Paley could prove the existence of God until Darwin’s natural selection.

What happens inside the head of a reasonable person should mimic the growth of science. As we leave childish beliefs and the over-simplified world of our youth, we incorporate more and more of the new experiences.

We do our best to catch up to the 21st century, which is considerably harder and more complicated than mastering the worldview of a 11th century goat farmer. We have to build and rebuild the raft of beliefs that are keeping us afloat. Sometimes our worldview is shaken deeply and we abandon many planks of our feeble vessels. But with time, patience, and honest inquiry, we can make it more robust and expand its boundaries. Various propositions, sometimes contradictory ones, appear to have been proven, and in a sense they are. But what constitutes proof is a function of the other things a person believes, and the principles of inference that they deem valid, and the contents of both of those categories change dramatically for a person. So what constitutes proof, and what a person takes to be proven change dramatically as they mature intellectually. Forward progress is possible, and more inclusive, coherent system of belief can be constructed as we ask and answer more questions. But this progress may not be acquiring more and more “proven” propositions as knowledge. In fact, progress may amount to abandoning much of what we thought before as we become more discriminating and struggle to achieve greater coherence.

What constitutes proof for us shifts with experience and the expansion of our ideas about the world. When we are young and understand little, we may be easily satisfied with simple answers to simple questions. When we grow intellectually, we become more discriminating. We make finer distinctions, see more subtle problems, and can foresee more distant implications and problems. If we are growing intellectually, what constitutes proof will become more careful too. If our belief structures are increasing in coherence along all the vectors listed above (logical and probabilistic consistency, fewer anomalies, more and stronger connections) incorporating a new belief into the system will require meeting more rigorous standards.

I submit that for a well-educated, reasonable person in the 21st century who can see the expansion of naturalistic explanations of the world into every corner of our lives—genetics, disease, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, and so on—atheism is a more coherent belief (and belief structure) than theism. This is so not because there is a single, definitive geometric style proof of the proposition, but because an atheistic, naturalistic, non-magical, non-supernatural worldview has more potential to achieve a higher degree of logical and probabilistic consistency, better internal connections, fewer anomalous beliefs, and a better incorporation of empirical experience. And that amounts to the most important and substantial sort of proof that humanity has ever had in its long, slow process of maturation.


Anonymous said...

Do you think Godel's theorem applies here? Does more coherence mean that we are more certain to have left something out?

Matt McCormick said...

I think that Godel's theorem helps to show that the old school model of our accumulating conclusive proofs for all facts in a uniform progression is mistaken. It also shows that we can't treat any formalized system that tries to represent the truth as definitive. Got to keep moving like sharks.

Thanks anonymous.


Brent Rasmussen said...

Hi Matt,

I have only recently discovered your blog. Very interesting reading. Thank you for writing it.

I am interested in one particular thing that you wrote in this post:

> atheism is a more
> coherent belief (and
> belief structure)
> than theism.

I have always considered atheism at it's most basic to be the simple lack of god-belief. In other words, I do not hold a positive belief that there are no gods. I agree with George Smith's explanation of the words "atheism" and "theism" to indicate the absence or presence of god-belief within a human being - and not (as they are commonly misunderstood to mean) an opinion on whether or not an actual deity exists in any real sense.

I fully realize that this is a rather idealistic way of dealing with the words, given their overwhelmingly colloquial usage by our generally theistic society. However, it accurately describes the way that I am with regards to the issue - and furthermore, I believe it to be correct.

I also understand that language evolves with use. Is it your opinion that the words "atheist", "atheism", "theist", and "theism" have evolved beyond their correct usage? And do you also recommend that atheists such as myself begin to use the words in the colloquial way that the majority of folks use them today? Regardless of what they are actually supposed to mean?

In other words, should I start calling myself "a person in whom god-belief is absent" instead of an "atheist"? Because I do not possess a positive belief that a god or gods do not exist. For me the question is truly neutral, and I could be swayed by hard evidence one way or the other. I do not think that it is likely that a deity of any sort exists, due to the complete and utter lack of evidence to this point in time, but that is a long way from proclaiming a "belief structure" out of my absence of god-belief.

In any case, I thank you in advance for your time.

Brent Rasmussen
Unscrewing The Inscrutable

Matt McCormick said...

Hi Brent. Thanks for the comment. I don't have a beef with the Flew usage of the term "atheist" that parallels "atypical," and "asymmetrical," really. But the distinction put this way lacks a lot of important detail. Having the belief that there is no God is an important category, and different than merely lacking a belief in God. And we need a way to distinguish them. And lots of people who would call themselves agnostics because they lack a belief in God would not accept the atheist label. Futhermore, I think it is naive to think that ALL that is involved is that a person lacks a belief in God. As the Coherence post should make clear, a person can't even have that sort of belief system without a whole host of other important related and subsidiary beliefs that reflect it. And all of those beliefs make that sort of person significantly different than the average American. It is not merely that they lack a belief in God.

Thanks again for your comments.


Anonymous said...

Is it possible to create "mirror image" beliefs that maintain the same coherence and justification as the belief structure mirrored? For example, for every a, can a coherent belief system of not a achieve the same justification by having the same number of beliefs and connections, all leading to an opposite conclusion?

JoshCadji192 said...

I'm going to have to agree with you here: an atheistic world view is more coherent and less susceptible to finding out one day that you were completely wrong about something. An atheistic world view IS more logical, but then again, that's not the question when it comes to accepting the existence of god. again, the theist will always point to fideism to show that you don't need evidence for god to have a coherent belief system that supports the existence of god. you need to make a lot of leaps of faith to accept god, but people are ok with that and claim that their beliefs are coherent with logic and the scientific evidence that's out there.

Anonymous said...

in your top ten myths column on the left hand side, #3 and #5 are the same; you've only listed nine.