Is Atheism Merely a Lack of Belief in God? Not According to the Best Scholarly Sources.

NOTE: I didn’t make this chart. I found it on Twitter, and thought it worth archiving here. It has been noted that this “no” may not be entirely unanimous, but it is nevertheless highly significant that the “lack of belief” definition of atheism has really made very little headway among professional scholars, except when they note it as a variant definition, which is highly contentious, and thus usually used only by those who are ideologically motivated in their arguments.

DefAtheismAcademicSources

My Favorite Atheist Meme

So, this has got to be my number one favorite atheist meme:

Jesus vs demigods

Basically, it tries to show how Jesus is an utterly derivative mythological figure, with almost all his legendary attributes being drawn from various mythological demigods before him.

I have to say, it would be pretty persuasive … if any part of it were true.

Unfortunately, not a bit of it is. It is basically an atheist fabrication from whole cloth from beginning to end.

Here are the refutations, if you want to go through them all.  They are pretty interesting.

Probably the most interesting thing to know is that there are some parallels between Jesus and Krishna, but the dating in this meme is misleading. Krishna’s story in its original ancient form in he Mahabharata is only about 25 lines long and says almost nothing.  It really gets filled out around 200 A.D.— definitely after Christianity had reached India, which it did in the time of the Apostles, with Saint Thomas journeying there and founding one of the earliest Churches, where he remained, and Saint Bartholomew making an extended journey there. Indeed, the oldest Christian church still in existence (in the sense of church building) is located in India.

Similarly, there actually is a story of Dionysus turning water into wine, but that part of the Dionysus story is post-Christian and is a borrowing from the Christian story, in a late pagan attempt to jazz Dionysus up to appeal to Christians or even pagans, who by then had mostly lost all interest in the old myths.

Jesus vs Horus

Jesus vs Mithra

Jesus vs Krishna

Jesus vs Dionysus

And then I made this for Twitter replies. I may as well stick it on the end here:

Jesus vs demigods

Shane Killian’s Misstatement of the Law of Non-Contradiction

About 0:50 in his video “Libertarianism and Property Rights from First Principles”, Shane Killian states that the Law of Non-Contradiction is “the foundational principle of all logic and reason.” That’s going a bit far. To be sure, the LNC is one of the first principles of all logic and reason, but so is the Law of Identity, the Law of Difference (aka the Law of the Excluded Middle), and the Law of Ground (aka Principle of Sufficient Reason). However, this is a minor point, so let’s let it go.

The problem is that Shane gets the LNC wrong. He states it as follows: “Something cannot be A and not-A at the same time.”

He then adds “Also, if something is A, it cannot be B, if A and B are mutually exclusive.” This latter part is not necessary and is actually an argument:

1 ~(A & ~A)    [LNC]
2 A                  [Posit]
3 B ⇒ ~A        [Posit]
4 B                  [Posit]
5 ~A                [3, 4]
6 A & ~A         [2, 5]
7 ∅                  [1, 6]

This too is a minor side issue. Here he’s just trying to add something that follows from the LNC as part of it. But since it does really follow, we can let that go too. I point out these two small errors because they tend to show that Shane doesn’t actually have a very good grasp of logic. And that’s a problem when you are trying to make a purely logical argument.

So here is the real problem with Shane’s statement of the LNC. He states it as “Something cannot be both A and not-A at the same time.”

But the actual Law of Non-Contradiction runs “A thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect.”

Let’s do some quick sources:

“It is not possible for the same thing at the same time both to belong and not belong to the same thing in the same respect.” – Aristotle, Metaphysics Γ 4, 1005b 18ff.

“[The] law of non-contradiction states that the same property cannot at the same time both belong and not belong to the same object in the same respect. So “S is P” and “S is not P” cannot both be true at the same time – unless we take “S” or “P” differently in the two statements.” – Harry J. Gensler, Introduction to Logic

“[The LNC] states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.” –Wikipedia

We could go on (and on), but we need not. The point is clear. Shane has left out the crucial clause of the LNC “in the same respect.” And it isn’t hard to see why this clause is necessary. For example, I am charged with a crime, and found to be not guilty; however, I really did commit the crime. Thus I am both guilty of the crime, and not guilty of the crime at the same time. If Shane’s formulation were correct, this would be impossible. But here the “respect” clause kicks in: I am, at the same time, guilty of the crime in respect to my having done it, but not guilty of the crime in respect to my legal status of having been found not guilty.” We could multiply examples at will.

Now, at about 1:55, Shane attempts to apply his incorrect version of the LNC to the propositions “Consistency is preferable” and “Consistency is not preferable.” He states “One or the other must be true, but both cannot be.” But unfortunately he is wrong. And he is wrong because of the respect clause of the LNC. For one thing, he uses the term “preferable” as if it were an absolute, and not a relative, term. But “preferable” is relative to the preferences of beings capable of having them. One person may prefer something which another does not.

But even worse, there are situations in which consistency is manifestly NOT preferable—e.g. when one has bad, evil, or insane principles, inconsistency might be much preferable to consistency.  If one lived in a society with a particularly unjust law, it would be preferable if this law were applied inconsistently, because it would do less harm overall than a thorough and totally consistent application of the law would.

We may also cite Emerson’s famous remark:

Emerson2Hobgoblin

Clearly, Emerson means something like “Consistency is not preferable, when it is foolish.”  I take him to be describing those people who adopt one or more principles which they then hold to be completely incorrigible regardless of the amount of evidence produced against them. They will reject any argument and any evidence that contradicts the previously accepted principle—in the name of “consistency is preferable.”

Or, to take a rather different example, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass every character, as far as I can tell, behaves with complete logical consistency.  And they are all (as the Cheshire Cat notes) quite mad.  The charm of these books is in part this juxtaposition of total logical consistency with complete madness.

Or, again, to take another wildly different example, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are mutually inconsistent. Each one seems to logically entail that the other is false. However, we simply don’t know which one is false, if both are false, in what way one or both are false, or if there is some over-arching theory that could reconcile the two.  Given our limited knowledge and the fact that without General Relativity we cannot deal with large-scale cosmic phenomena at all, and without Quantum Mechanics, we cannot deal with small-scale subatomic phenomena at all—it seems that our (provisional) acceptance of these two mutually inconsistent theories is preferable to throwing out one or both of them on the simple ground that they are inconsistent.  So in this case “Consistency is preferable” may be true in respect to our wanting to reconcile Relativity and Quantium theory, but “Consistency is preferable” may be false if it were taken as a directive to throw out one or both of the theories in order to have “consistency.”

On the other hand, it is obvious, I take it, that one ought to have consistent beliefs, and if one’s beliefs can be shown to contain a contradiction, then one needs no reevaluate one’s beliefs, because at least one of them is false.

So Shane is wrong to say that “Consistency is preferable” and “Consistency is not preferable” is a “true dichotomy” (to use his term) that one could decide on the basis of a priori reasoning.  Shane attempts to prove that “Consistency is not preferable” is itself a consistent principle, and therefore self-defeating, since if it were true, we should reject it, since it is consistent.

Now, I’m the last person to object to principle being shown to be false by way of retortion (that is, applying the principle to itself in such a way that shows it defeats itself). But what Shane has actually done is shown that “Consistency is never preferable in any respect” is a self-defeating principle. He has not shown that “Consistency is not preferable at some times and in some respects.”  (Note that he hasn’t even shown that “Consistency is not preferable” is self-defeating by his own incorrect statement of the LNC, since he should have stated it “Consistency is never preferable at any time.”  Even by his own misstatement of the LNC, he has not shown that consistency isn’t preferable at some times and not at others—he simply dropped the time clause, as if “preferable” could be treated as an eternal, invariant property (without any argument for such).

Shane’s argument is meant to be a logical step by step argument, starting with Principle 1: The Law of Non-Contradiction.  That would be, I admit, a good place to start. You couldn’t find a better first principle.  But Shane gets the Law of Non-Contradiction wrong.  So his Principle 1, on which his entire argument rests, as a misstatement of the Law of Non-Contradiction, is false.  So we really don’t need to see anything more to know that the rest of his argument is worthless, since it rests entirely on a false first principle.

We have seen how he attempts to derive Principle 2: The Principle of Consistency from his Principle 1, but his argument fails both because he has got Principle 1 wrong (by omitting the in the same respect clause) and even gets the argument wrong with respect to his own incorrect statement of it (by omitting the at the same time clause)—therefore his Principle 2: The Principle of Consistency is not established.

I didn’t go further than this. There is no need to do so. Shane is next going to attempt to establish a Principle 3: The Burden of Proof on the basis of Principle 2, but since he has not established Principle 2, and Principle 1 is false anyhow, there’s really no point in going further with his argument.

 

The Argument from Contingency: A Brief Synopsis

Definitions:

Def 1: A contingent being is a being such that if it exists, could have not-existed or could cease to exist.
Def 2: A necessary being (or non-contingent being) is a being such that if it exists, cannot not-exist (and therefore could not not-have-existed and cannot cease to exist).

Note: I use ground-reason essentially to do the work of the German Grund, a word which neither the English “ground” nor “reason” sufficiently captures in meaning, since it unites the sides of being and knowing, the ontological and the epistemological, in one.

The Argument 

1. A contingent being C exists.
2. This contingent being C has a ground-reason for its existence.
3. If C were the ground-reason for C’s existence, C would not be a contingent being, but a necessary one, since C, as self-grounding, could not not-exist—contrary to 1.
4. Therefore, the ground-reason for C’s existence must be something other than C.
5. This ground-reason for C’s existence other than C must either be another contingent being or set of contingent beings alone or it must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
6. Contingent beings alone cannot provide a completely adequate ground-reason for the existence of any contingent being (neither ontologically as ground nor rationally as reason), so the ground-reason for C’s existence is not any contingent being or set of contingent beings alone.
7. Therefore, the ground-reason for the existence of contingent being C must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
8. Therefore, a necessary being N exists, because without such a necessary being N, C could not exist, contrary to 1.
9. The universe and every part of the universe is contingent (as is “the multiverse” and every part of it, if this concept is supposed to subsume “universe”).
10. Therefore, a necessary being N which is something other than the universe or one of its parts (or “the multiverse”), must be the ground-reason for its existence.
11. Therefore there exists a necessary being N which is the ground-reason for all contingent beings, including the universe or cosmos or multiverse, as well as all their parts, whatever they may be.
12. Et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.

Commentary: 

Premise 1: This premise is empirical but evident. As long as anything at all exists which could have not existed or could cease to exist, it is a contingent being. It is obvious that physical beings are contingent.

Premise 2: This is simply a statement of the Satz vom Grund or Principle of Ground (usually expressed in English as the Principle of Sufficient Reason), although perhaps the Principle of Ground-Reason would be better as I use it.  This principle can be expressed negatively as “nothing happens or comes about FOR NO REASON.” It is a core principle about reality, that things cannot happen for no reason at all, just as it is about reality that a thing can’t both be and not be the same at the same time and in the same respect—and because Being is like this, thinking (which follows being) has the Principle of Ground and the Principle of Noncontradiction as basic first principles.

Premise 3: Evident. If C were its own ground-reason it could sustain itself in being and never cease to be, and would thus be a necessary being; but C is already posited in 1 as contingent, so it can’t be the ground-reason of itself.

Premise 4: Also evident. Since C is not its own ground-reason, the ground-reason of C must be something other than C.

Premise 5: By the Principle of the Excluded Middle, this something other than C is either fully contingent or contains a necessary being.

Premise 6: This is the premise that would take the most argumentative work to establish and to get clear about. Since in contingent beings, existence is a property that is “passed on” from another being, if a contingent being got its existence from another contingent being, that being would have to be either contingent or necessary. In this scenario in Premise 6, no necessary beings are in play.  So one would have to hold either that there is an infinite regress of contingent beings each passing on their being to another being and receiving it from the one before—most philosophers think the idea of an actual infinite is  absurd (conceptual or abstract infinites are not).  Or the passing on of existence would have to be circular, where A causes B to be and B causes C to be and C causes A to be.  This becomes more clear, perhaps, when we look at it from the side of explanation, as the reason for C: I want to explain how C got here, so I say C₋₁ explains C, but C₋₁ is explained by C₋₂ and it by C₋₃ and it by C₋₄ … infinitely C₋∞. But this “explanation” never actual explains anything. In simply passes the buck infinitely backwards.  It is as if I wanted to know the origin of a magic book that contains the secrets of the cosmos, and someone tells me he got it from his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father … who … etc.  No matter how long you make this chain of fathers passing down books to sons, you never answer “Yes, but where did the book originate?”  We need something it terminate the infinite regress, where the “buck” of explanation can no longer be passed.  Similarly, it would be famous for the possessor of the book, Dave, to explain he got it from Mary, who got it from Josh, who, is it happens, got it from Dave. If I said to Dave, “Yes, I know Mary gave it to you, but where did it come from?” it would not do for Dave to say “I always get it from Mary, who always gets it from Josh, and I always give it to Josh. This circuit is itself the origin of the book.”

Premise 7: If it is correct, then, that the ground-reason for a contingent being cannot be nothing but other contingent beings, whether in the mode of an infinite regress (which is a non-explanation) or a circular explanation (which is a non-explanation), then it must be the case that there is a necessary being which terminates the regress.

Premise 8: Since C requires there be a necessary being N in order for C to be, and C is (premise 1) then there is an N.

Premise 9: The argument from 1-8 applies to every being without the universe, all of which are contingent, as well as the whole ensemble of contingent beings called the universe. A whole made entirely of contingent beings cannot itself be necessary, since it is susceptible to change—which a necessary being cannot be.  Someone might say that an inference from the things that make up the universe to the whole universe might be a fallacy of composition, but this cannot be the case, since the universe is an aggregate that contains contingent parts and therefore changes.

Premise 10: The same argument 1-8 reapplied to the universe as contingent. There must be something other than the universe, a necessary being N, which is the ground-reason for the universe.

Premise 11: So there is such a necessary being N which is other than the universe and is its ground-reason.

Premise 12: Bit of a joke. This is a variant of how St. Thomas Aquinas ends each of his Quinque Viae or “Five Ways” of proving the existence of God: “And this everyone understand to be God.”

As a piece of natural theology, the argument from contingency will indeed not get one straight to the Christian God—but then, it isn’t meant to. It will get is to “there is a being other than the universe such that it is the ground-reason for the universe’s existence and is in itself a necessary being, such that it has the ground-reason for its own existence in itself.

From there we can go on to flesh out what other things this entails about such a being: if we work through it will find out it is timeless, spaceless, unchanging, and perfect.

In other words, it is very certainly AT LEAST what Jews, Christians, and Muslims call “God, what Hindus call Brahman, what the Chinese call “The Tao,” what Plato knew as “The Idea of the Good,” Etc.

The argument from contingency isn’t enough to settle the theological question of what God is like, but it is enough to show that atheism is false and agnosticism unwarranted.

Intellectually Dishonest or Defective Atheists

As philosopher Edward Feser has pointed out, some atheists are simply not intellectually serious. They may be very ignorant or uneducated, directly dishonest, deeply confused, ill-informed, willfully obtuse, ideologically dogmatic, or just plain stupid; the end result is the same: it is not possible or fruitful to have a serious, rational discussion about God with such people. Here are some red flags which will alert you that you are dealing with an intellectually dishonest or defective atheist:

✅ 1. A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from a god or gods. This is a distinction 3 or 4-year-old children can easily grasp, so any atheist who claims not be be able to grasp it is either severely intellectually impaired or lying. In almost all cases, the atheist is simply attempting to conflate God with a god in order to set up a strawman and/or trying to annoy you by belittling God—while ignoring the basic conceptual distinction that all European languages mark by differentiating the word “God” from the word “god” by capitalization. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, in the entry written by atheist philosopher J. J. C. Smart:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. I shall here assume that the God in question is that of a sophisticated monotheism. The tribal gods of the early inhabitants of Palestine are of little or no philosophical interest. They were essentially finite beings, and the god of one tribe or collection of tribes was regarded as good in that it enabled victory in war against tribes with less powerful gods. Similarly the Greek and Roman gods were more like mythical heroes and heroines than like the omnipotent, omniscient and good God postulated in mediaeval and modern philosophy.

Theists have little to no interest in discussing gods, at least not when God is the topic of discussion. If an atheist wants to discuss gods, he is free to do so, but he cannot pretend talk of gods has any bearing on or relevance to a discussion about God.

✅ 1.1 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from such things as imaginary friends, faeries, wizards, spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, or other fabulous, fictitious, or mythological entities.

✅ 1.2 A persistent habit of paraphrasing religious ideas in ways which are deliberately ludicrous, derisive, or tendentious, e.g. describing the resurrected Christ as “a zombie,” or God as a “sky daddy.”

✅ 1.3 Persistent use of the fallacious “I just believe in one god less than you” rhetorical trope.

✅ 1.4 Persistent use of tendentious and irrelevant rhetorical mischaracterizations of Christianity, e.g. as “Bronze Age mythology.” Christianity, of course, dates from long after the so-called “metallic” ages, in fact from the prime of the Roman Empire, on of humanity’s civilizational high points. And Judaism, its precursor religion, derives almost entirely from the Iron Age up through historical times—not that the age of a teaching has any bearing whatever on its truth-value.

✅ 1.5 Persistent dishonest characterization of God as some kind of “cosmic tyrant” or “cosmic oppressor” (interestingly enough. the position of Satan).

✅ 1.6 Persistent dishonest characterization of God, especially in the Old Testament, as a moral monster.

✅ 1.7 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish miracles from magic, usually paired with a tendency to attribute magical powers to nature, e.g. in such claims as “the universe created itself out of nothing” or “properties such as consciousness just emerge out of unconscious matter, because they do.”

✅ 2.0 Belief in scientism, the logically incoherent claim that “only scientific knowledge is valid/real/genuine knowledge” or that “only science or the scientific method can establish the truth-value of propositions,” claims which are neither themselves scientific nor established by science, and hence, self-defeating, and which entail such absurdities as “no human being knew anything before Europeans in the 1600s.”

✅ 2.1 Persistent claims that science, which studies physical nature by means of empirical observation and quantitative measurement, has any bearing on the question of the existence of God, who is by definition, beyond nature, not empirical, and not measurable in terms of quantity. Persistent insistence that claims about God must be proven “scientifically” or that any evidence for God must be “scientific” fall into this category.

✅ 2.2 The claim that Galileo Galilei’s run-in with the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 proves (somehow) that there is some kind of natural antipathy between either (a) science and religion, or (b) science and Christianity, or (c) science and Catholicism. This indicates a complete ignorance of the history of the Galileo affair, and is merely a recycled weaponized meme of the early Enlightenment.

✅ 2.3 Use of the non sequitur that the multiplicity of religions proves that no religion is true, either wholly or in part. By this logic, of course, one may also “prove” that no scientific theory is or can be correct, wholly or in part, since there are always rival theories.

✅ 2.4 Claiming or assuming that the atheist, a finite being who is not all-knowing, is not all-powerful, is not all-wise, and is not all-good, nevertheless is in an epistemic position to know with certainty what an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, all-good being would or would not do or have done.

✅ 2.5 The belief the atheist knows the true or real origin of religion in human pre-history, a matter which, since it occurs far in human pre-history, we have no certain knowledge of, but only conjecture.

✅ 2.6 The peculiar belief held by some atheists that their total ignorance with respect to God and divine matters is in fact an infallible indication of their intelligence or wisdom or knowledgeableness precisely about the things about which they know nothing.

✅ 2.7 Repeated assertion of the evidently false claim “there’s no evidence for God.”

✅ 3.0 Persistent use of the burden of proof fallacy, that is, the rhetorical trope which combines an argument from ignorance (“my position is the default position,” i.e. “my position is true until proven false, so I need not argue for it) with special pleading that the atheist be allowed to use arguments to ignorance in support of atheism (i.e. “atheism is true because I am totally ignorant about God or divine matters”).

✅ 3.1 Chronological bigotry, i.e. the absurd belief that human beings who lived prior to (say) Richard Dawkins were one and all somehow mentally inferior to anyone living today, up to and including the greatest minds of the past. This would also include the belief that all human beings in the past were incapable of skepticism or critical thinking, or were somehow exceptionally gullible or credulous in a way we, the Enlightened Moderns, are not.

✅ 3.2 “Arguments” that consist wholly of posting atheist memes, e.g. “Eric the God-Eating Penguin.”

✅ 3.3 “Arguments” that consist of no more than exercises in blasphemy or obscenity.

Atheists vs Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An atheist who goes by [theresidentskeptic] is one of many atheists who have demanded that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy change its definition of atheism to their preferred one, namely, the dishonest “lack of belief” definition.  Here’s how the SEoP’s definition reads:

AtheismStanfordDEF

And here is [theresidentskeptic]’s email and Stanford’s reply:

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Stanford,

I am constantly having your definitions of atheism and agnosticism regurgitated to me by people who don’t seem to understand what they mean and your authoritative definition completely muddies the waters.

Your definition which can be seen at the the following link states:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheis…sticism/#1

“‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.”

I am forced to point out to you that agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, not claims of belief. Why are you conflating the two? A belief necessarily deals with a single claim; God exists is one claim; God does not exist is another claim- or String theory is true is one claim; string theory is not true is another claim.

A cosmologist who does not know if either position about string theory is true would be considered an agnostic. The cosmologist then disbelieves claim 1; string theory is true, therefore, for lack of a better term, is an atheist with respect to string theory. They do not necessarily believe that claim 2; string theory is false, is true.

Similarly, with respect to god claims, a person who does not know if either claim (god exists / god does not exist) is true would be an agnostic. The person who disbelieves claim 1; God exists is an atheist and this does not say anything about their acceptance that claim 2; god does not exist, is true.

I will use an analogy:

If I made the claim that there are an odd number of blades of grass in my front yard, would you believe me?

No, you wouldn’t unless I could substantiate that claim (if you are rational). Does that then mean you believe the opposite of that claim? That there are an even number of blades of grass in my front yard? No, you wouldn’t accept that claim either. With respect to your belief in the true dichotomy of the nature of the grass then, you are an atheist; you disbelieve claim 1; there are an odd number of blades of grass. If you don’t know which claim is true, you are an agnostic. The terms are not mutually exclusive.

With respect to god claims, I identify as an agnostic atheist; I do not know if a god exists or not, and I disbelieve the claim that a god does exist.

Gnostic: Of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. –> Therefore it’s opposite, agnostic, relates to a lack of knowledge.

Theist: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures –> Therefore it’s opposite, atheist, relates to a lack of belief in the existence of gods and not necessarily the belief in the opposite claim, that no gods exist.

Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists

Source [for definitions]: Oxford English Dictionary*

Kindly update your definitions to reflect this.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
[theresidentskeptic]

*EVE NOTE: [theresidentskeptic] is being dishonest here: his definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is an important distinction—the OD accepts and uses much looser standards than the OED. The OD is what you get from Google. The OED requires a hefty fee to access.

———————————-REPLY FROM STANFORD BELOW———————————-

Dear [theresidentskeptic]

Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be adjusted.

That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the term “atheism” is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature. Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry—that ‘atheism’ means the denial of the existence of God—is correct in the philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as “positive atheism” and contrast it with the broader notion of atheism” which has the meaning you suggest—that ‘atheism’ simply means not-theist.

In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972). In that work, he noted that he was using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand “atheism” as a default position.

Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew’s way simply on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves atheists in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to re-label them “atheists”—a term they rejected.

All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry.

All the best,
Yours,
Uri

——————————————————-
Uri Nodelman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Senior Editor
CSLI/Cordura Hall editors@plato.stanford.edu
Stanford University ph. 650-723-0488
Stanford, CA 94305-4115 fx. 650-725-2166
——————————————————-

[EVE NOTE: Emphasis mine.]

[EVE NOTE: You also have to admit that “Based on a false etymology of a word, one grammatically plausible but as it happens, etymologically incorrect in the word’s history, I argue that we should give an established term a totally new definition, because doing so would have the advantage of making the position that I happen to hold (in 1972—I’ll change my mind later) a distinct rhetorical (but not substantive) advantage in arguments and debate about the subject.” If this is not special pleading, there is no such thing as special pleading.]

The Analytic Problem with Personal Moral Relativism

I sat down to write a blog post about this, and realized that I had already done it.  Here’s the original: Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg. But I can give a more succinct account here, for easy reference.

Here’s the basic point: Anyone who claims that moral judgments of the form “X is wrong”  reduces to personal opinion, personal belief, personal view, etc. seems to be saying something incoherent. That is, the attempt to reduce moral judgments to the status of personal belief or opinions fails because it ends up being incoherent.

Why is this the case?

(1) Anyone who makes a claim like “A proposition of the form ‘X is wrong’ (e.g. ‘rape is wrong’) stated by P means only that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’,” is claiming that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’ gives the analysis or meaning of the expression “X is wrong.”

This analysis necessarily fails because “X is wrong” is supposed to be explained as “P believes that X is wrong” which contains the the proposition “X is wrong” embedded within it—and so this embedded portion of “P believes that X is wrong” still needs to be explained. If it is true that “X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong” then the “X is wrong” embedded inside “P believes that X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong,” which yields the analysis “P believes that P believes that X is wrong.”  And “P believes that P believes that X is wrong” itself still contains the embedded “X is wrong” and so becomes “P believes that P believes that P believes that X is wrong” … which still contains the embedded “X is wrong,” which is therefore never explained at any level.  All that is done is to set off an infinite regress which explains nothing at any point.

So attempting to analyze or give the meaning of “X is wrong” as someone’s belief or opinion or view that “X is wrong” is failed pseudo-analysis of moral propositions, being both infinite and failing at every point to give the meaning of “X is wrong.”

(2) Alternately one could attempt to analyze “X is wrong” stated by P as “P disapproves of X.” But now one needs to give the analysis or meaning of “P disapproves of X”—it should be clear that “P disapproves of X” cannot mean “P thinks that X is wrong” because this analysis would be both circular and generate same infinite regress problem above.

(3) One could hold that “X is wrong” stated by P means “P disapproves of X” where “P disapproves of X” is treated as a brute psychological fact without any rational content—it need not be analyzed because it has no rational content. But if the relativist makes this move, he is embracing emotivism, which entirely removes moral judgments from the sphere of reason altogether, which is not what the relativist meant originally when he said that moral judgments were personal judgments.  He did not, presumably, mean at first to deny that they are judgments.  He only wanted to claim that they were “personal” judgments.  But clearly one cannot coherently hold that “all moral judgments are really only personal judgments and are also not judgments at all.”

The UPSHOT: The “personal relativist” needs to give a coherent analysis of moral judgments of the from “X is wrong” that (a) does not set off an infinite non-explanatory regress, (b) is not circular, and (c) does not collapse his position into a different position entirely, viz. emotivism.

Here is philosopher Davis S. Oderberg saying essentially the same thing:

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular.

On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.