Advanced Search

Does it make sense to define atheism as "a lack of belief in a God" rather than as "a belief in the nonexistence of God?"

Every atheist lacks belief in a God; but lacking belief in a God is not sufficient to make one an atheist. Consider babies, squirrels, or stones. They lack this belief (and perhaps all beliefs) but it seems rather odd to describe them as atheists. We presumably want to reserve this term for those who have considered the arguments and evidence on both sides of the issue.

I believe it was Hume who made the point that reason cannot motivate us, only our feelings can. Supposing that's true, I have a far-flung conclusion that seems to follow from that: when the panelists on this site choose which questions to answer, they're motivated by some emotion, not by reason. But doesn't this corrupt the purity of the logic of the answer? Perhaps not necessarily so, but isn't it likely that of the 2,600+ questions a good number have been tainted? How is it not the case?

Hume's famous "motivation argument" does make the claim that reason -- at least on the traditional conception of this faculty, where its job is limited to making logical or causal inferences -- cannot motivate us to act. It would follow from this, as you rightly point out, that the panelists on this site must be motivated by passions when they choose which questions to answer. But it does not follow, however, that this must "corrupt the purity" of their answers. Let us distinguish between two roles that the emotions can have: (a) they can prompt us to answer a question, and (b) they can bias our answers. Hume does think that the emotions are capable of distorting our reasoning. Consider his famous claim about the development of our natural belief in gods and spirits. His argument is that our primitive ancestors would have arrived at this belief in order to satiate their fear and anxiety about their uncertain fates. This is a case of what philosophers refer to as "motivated irrationality". They...

I am perplexed by Alexander George's recent posting (http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/2854). He says "Your observation that we sometimes take pleasure in beliefs even if they have been irrationally arrived at seems correct but beside the point: it speaks neither to the truth of (1) nor to that of (2)." (2), in this case, is "(2) that actions guided by false beliefs are not likely to get us what we want. " I believe the science of psychology has shown us that we form many beliefs entirely irrationally. The mechanism for their formation is often a defense mechanism. The purpose of their formation is often to hide some truth about ourselves from ourselves - to hide some unpleasant information that we would have gleaned had we formed our belief rationally. I just can't see how the above information is "beside the point". The point is: 1) I want to be happy. 2) My beliefs are formed irrationally in order to reach that desired end. Perhaps what is beside the point is that the belief-forming...

This discussion has (so far) generated more heat than light. Let us all remember a crucial maxim: attack the argument, not the person. (Rationale: the latter is an ad hominem fallacy). Now about the philosophical issue. Perhaps I can first try to clarify what has been said so far (as far as I can tell). The original post argued that philosophers are in an awkward position, since they rely upon their reason, even though human beings are driven by an irrational fear of death. Professor Smith responded by clarifying (a point muddled in the original post) that beliefs are rational or irrational, rather than facts . He also ended his post by noting that we should not rely upon irrational beliefs, because they cannot get us what we really want. Then there was a reply which maintained that irrationally formed beliefs can sometimes get us what we want, provided that we want to be happy, etc. Then there was a back and forth about who is missing the point. In all of this, an...

If we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a 'God', is it rational to even consider the possibility that he/she exists? Without the dedication of the few who preach from the worlds' religious houses, the notion of a 'God' surely wouldn't cross the mind of even the most imaginative of thinkers?

You ask two distinct questions. The first is whether it is rational to assert that God is possible, assuming that you cannot prove or disprove that God exists. The second question is whether the concept of God would occur to anyone who is not influenced by the preaching of religious teachers. About the first question: when it comes to questions about "possibility", it always useful to distinguish various senses of this term. "Logical" possibility depends upon whether a statement involves a contradiction or not. So for example, a square circle is impossible. But a piece of gold that weights a trillion tons is not. "Epistemic" possibility is significantly weaker: it refers to whether or not a proposition is possible "as far as we know", or relative to our knowledge. It would seem that the statement "God exists" is possible on either interpretation. It does not appear that the concept of God contains any contradictions. And if you cannot disprove that God exists, as you stipulate, then God is...