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Friday, March 30, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist

In Douglas Hofstadter's GEB (Godel, Escher, Bach) he mixes some fairly deep discussions of math and programming with these real cool dialogs between various imaginary characters. One dialog that always stuck in my head was an unaccompanied conversation loosely based on a Bach solo violin composition. The idea is that you only hear half of the conversation or music but your mind fills in the rest so you have the effect of hearing the whole thing.

As an experiment I thought I'd post my half of some conversations I've had with various Christians. Partly this is so I don't have to feel bad for publishing someone's emails that were intended only for me and also for fun since it might be interesting to try to figure out what's going on in the other part of the conversation. Also I'd appreciate any advice on better ways of stating positions or factual/logical corrections.

In any case, here is part one. I'll refer to my interlocutor as OGNG (O great and noble genius) which might sound obnoxiously sarcastic, but it was actually mutually humorous title without malice in context, so I'll just stick with it. We join our conversation about 9 or so months in progress:

SUBJECT: Epistemological foundations of atheism - or not.

Perhaps epistemology is too "highfalutin" a term. Let me recapitulate how I initially arrived at my current beliefs and what my current beliefs actually are. Then we'll try to determine if this is epistemology and/or how this relates to positivism.

As I had mentioned before I was very active in church and Christian youth groups up until I went to university. I felt a strong conviction that I should start evangelizing. As a geek who was into math and science and computers I decided that I needed to prepare a logical argument for convincing others of what their beliefs should be. I was totally unaware of the vast literature on this subject, I was just a kid trying to figure out how to share the good news and being a self reliant, introvert I tried creating my own system for doing this.

So I thought to myself how would I convince someone that god exists and the importance of salvation etc. I role played both sides of the conversation between a believer and and non-believer. I realized after a while that much to my surprise that the hypothetical disbeliever in my head argued me out of my beliefs. It was then that I realized that all of my beliefs in god, bible, etc were merely things that I had been told were true and had just accepted them uncritically. I guess at the outset I was expecting to develop a Euclid's Elements of belief. Starting from certain obvious givens I'd be able to construct proofs on this, show how god must certainly exist, etc. Obviously not a well conceived plan, but as a geek it made perfect sense to me at the time.

In a sense I had independently discovered Cartesian doubt but unlike Rene I was unable to rebuild. That it what I mean by becoming a non-believer for epistemological reasons. I wanted to understand how you could verify that god exists and the bible is true. Using common sense and logic the best I was capable wasn't able to get me any where near my goal.

So how does that make me an atheist? It doesn't. In a sense I'm an extreme agnostic. I don't know if there is a god and I don't know how you would even go about showing that there is one. In fact I'm pretty extreme about my skepticism about everything. Maybe it's just a bad habit but I can doubt anything given the time and energy. So why do I call myself an atheist? I'm sure you are familiar with Russell's tea pot example. Also take the example of astrology. There is no word for non-believer in astrology or even agnostic about astrology. To me the words atheism and agnosticism are about marketing. It somewhat slants the argument to define yourself as a "not" something. I don't need the word, but atheist is a nice short hand for giving an interlocutor a clue as to what sort of conversation they are in store for. I'm an atheist in the sense that if I ask myself if think there is a god the answer I give myself is no. It is not a tightly reasoned position, it is just what I happen to believe. I am also an atheist about the tea pot, but I could be wrong. I fully expect someone to launch a teapot into space sometime just to defeat this argument. I have seen recently that a book called "God: The Failed Hypothesis" came out which aims to show that god doesn't exist rather than saying proofs for him are invalid, unsatisfactory. But that's a ways down my reading list.

So that is how I came initially to believe what I do and a clarification of what I do actually believe.

I guess if you want to call this positivism you are free to. As long as I'm sleeping in on Sunday morning, you can call it anything you like. When we get to your rebuttal of positivism I'm sure I'll have more to say.

Let me know if you need more details or clarification before we move onto the next item.

[NOTE: I did promise this individual that if he found it obnoxious for me to publish this other half like this I would stop, because I'd rather keep the conversation going]



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