Knowledge vs. Belief

Another critical element of most of my arguments with atheists circles around what we mean by “knowledge” and “belief”. This comes up most starkly when atheists use the 4 category classification:

  • Gnostic Theist – You know God(s) exists.
  • Agnostic Theist – You don’t/can’t know, but you believe God(s) exists.
  • Gnostic Atheist – You know God(s) doesn’t exist.
  • Agnostic Atheist – You don’t/can’t know, but you do not believe God(s) exists.

This refined classification (from 3 – theist, atheist, agnostic, to 4 categories) hinges fundamentally on a difference in kind between knowledge and belief. But, I’m extremely skeptical of that difference. It seems to me that knowledge is a specific type of belief, a type that satisfies some (peculiar, particular, or arbitrary) constraints defined according to each individual.

These personal metrics for distinguishing knowledge from belief are founded on sliding scales. For example, let’s say one’s metric is stability. I.e. the more stable a belief is, the more robust it is to perturbation (to new facts, to falsified “facts”, in the face of comparison with others’ beliefs, etc.), the more it can be considered knowledge. E.g. that gravity exists as a force pulling matter together is a very stable belief. It is doubtable, yet adequately justified, only when dealing with very small amounts of matter like trees and trucks, which don’t seem to show measurable gravitational attraction. But it’s certainly measurable on large objects like asteroids. So, it’s a very stable fact, only challengable in very specific conditions.

But let’s examine something less stable, perhaps the fact that poblano peppers are spicy hot. Obviously, different people have different thresholds for what’s hot and what’s not. Personally, having been reared in South Texas, I don’t consider poblanos hot at all. I’d call most jalapenos hot, but many are not. Living in Oregon, now, I find most people around me very intolerant of spicy peppers. But this sort of instability isn’t very interesting, is it? Of course some people think poblanos are and aren’t hot. We’re very used to, comfortable with, different opinions of things. And we have ways of modifying the “knowledge” to make it more or less stable. For example, we can say “most people find poblanos hot” or “the average person believes poblanos are hot”, etc. This sort of re-statement removes some of the context provided by individual people and their belief systems. It seems to lift the factual, robust, more universal part of the context out. This makes it seem more like knowledge and less like belief.

But there are other aspects to the distinction. If we consider a piece of knowledge like “poblanos are hot to the average person” out of any context, it seems/looks like a fact. But if we put it in context, perhaps by considering how to use poblanos in various recipes, that knowledge is destabilized. Hot things can often be masked or changed by other ingredients in a dish, e.g. by adding something sweet. Similarly, relatively mild things can be heated up by adding an enhancer like garlic. Are these modifications, these destabilizing situations important? Well, it depends on the “knowledge” being considered. In this case, I think so. After all, who eats raw poblanos, out of the context of a dish like chile relleno? The context definitely matters. The lifting out of context ends up being a kind of rationalization, a post-hoc justificationism.

My position, here, is that concepts like God(s), souls, chi, essential human nature, etc. are all very tightly coupled to context. They simply cannot be lifted out of context and considered as Platonic ideals. What “God” means to one person will be largely nonsensical to another person. However, what one Catholic means by “being Catholic” or what one Buddhist means by “being Buddhist” will make much more sense to another Catholic or another Buddhist, because these “being X” statements are explicitly dependent on their context.

And it is the context that allows us to make the thresholds between knowledge and belief objective. The context is what allows us to compare our thresholds. If you don’t share context with another individual, you cannot compare what you consider knowledge vs. belief with what they consider knowledge vs. belief.

This is why the above refinement from 3 to 4 categories, seemingly based on an objectively defined difference between knowledge vs. belief, is a useless rationalization, a clever bit of sophistry. There are only 3 categories: those who believe X, those who believe not-X, and those of us who believe neither X nor not-X.

Suspension of Disbelief (SoD)

Spurred on by another thoughtful evening of conversation, 2 things popped into my head last night that have been major components in prior discussions, just without significant clarity. I write them, here, just to keep track. They are:

  • Agnostics and atheists seem to view SoD differently.
  • Agnostics and atheists seem to view knowledge vs. belief differently.

I’ll write about the SoD first and knowledge vs. belief later.

One of the prime drivers of my commitment to agnosticism, despite most of my acquaintances’ labeling of me as an atheist, is that I seem to have the ability to dive into others’ belief systems with relative ease. It’s just as easy for me to talk about mythical worlds as it is about, say, scientifically explored reality. And I don’t usually get them mixed up. I’m very aware of the boundaries of any particular fantasy world we may be exploring in any given conversation. For example, I have a fantastic time discussing things like the medical efficacy of acupuncture or glucosamine with those believers. I have fun discussing the Illuminati or the 10 rich and powerful men who rule the world. And I have just as much fun discussing Cthulhu and Yog as I do Yaweh or Zeus.

I can’t explain why I am capable of (and enjoy) adopting these fantasy worlds. I will admit that I played D&D as a kid. I even played some into adulthood. As kids, we spent a massive amount of time constructing fantasy worlds (some sci-fi, some ancient, some medieval, etc.) and teasing the imaginary details out of each others’ minds. We didn’t really obey the rules of the games. We just engaged in this kind of collaborative fiction. As an adult, I tried and failed to find like-minded players. Most of the people who continued to play into adulthood were more into the game of it, as opposed to collaborative fiction. Perhaps this childhood activity is where I honed my SoD skills.

I also spent way too much time reading sci-fi and fantasy novels. I read so much, my extended family used to make fun of me for it. Luckily, hard sci-fi lead me straight to speculative science and, from there, actual science and engineering.

In any case, I see my SoD (in one-off conversations with wackos or, even, entrepreneurs – or in long-term relationships with seriously deluded people) as a type of empathy. It’s one thing to have physical or emotional empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s immediate shoes… cry when others cry… make “ooomph” noises when you watch Jackass: The Movie, etc. But it’s an entirely different thing to temporarily believe the beliefs of another person.

Now, most atheists I talk to are quite capable of playing Devil’s Advocate, of adopting a set of assumptions, a hypothetical belief system, for a short time, to “play along” with another’s wacky ideas. And there is a subset of them, common amongst humanists, that really approach empathy while playing along. But, in the end, even the most sympathetic atheist will stop short of believing the belief system. These hypotheticals are firmly pigeon-holed as, demoted to, counterfactuals.

As an aside, I run into this sort of immovable commitment professionally, too. As a simulant, I am committed to an integrationist method(ology). Tools and techniques are chosen solely on the basis of whether and how well they will solve a particular problem, not based on prior familiarity with the tool/technique or any other bias. But I find the majority of my colleagues much prefer to limit the number of tools in their toolbox. My “agnosticism” toward tools/techniques seems undisciplined and ad-hoc to them.

To sum up, it seems to me that atheists make a clear distinction between SoD and temporary belief, much the same way as many of them argue that atheism is simply the lack of theism, rather than an anti-theism. But I don’t see that clear distinction. For me, the SoD implies temporary belief, a temporary adoption of the belief system. And that temporary belief is necessary to fully empathetic, active listening. You cannot understand another person’s perspective unless you actually take that perspective, honestly and authentically, if only for a short time.

Thus the way I think of SoD is core to my commitment to agnosticism. If you ask me what I believe, you’d better be ready to take notes on who’s nearby, where we are, what we’ve been talking about, and what I ate for breakfast, because if any of that changes, my beliefs will change … albeit usually in tiny imperceptible ways.

atheist/secular conversion story

Inspired by this.

I frequent a few atheism/humanism meeting groups and a common ice breaker is to ask someone how long they’ve been a [insert-group-name]. Both the humanist and atheist groups are awkward for me because I’m neither an atheist nor a humanist. I’m an agnostic and (I think) a post-humanist.

But what’s really awkward is that I have no conversion story. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve always felt the same way about both religious beliefs or the relationship between humans and our environment. I do have a conversion story from my proto-libertarian to my current political self. And that conversion was heavily influenced by both my agnosticism and ethical foundation. So, I usually tell that story.

To be honest, I often think the conjunction of a) my lack of a conversion story and b) the prevalence of everyone else’s conversion stories is a primary cause of my distrust of atheists (less so re: humanists). Most of the outspoken atheists I run across seem like jilted lovers or somesuch… still bitter about being stabbed in the back by their prior belief systems. It’s a bit like the way some of us view ex-smokers or ex-drinkers. Nobody is more anti-something than those who used to engage in that something.

If I don’t manage to offend the atheists I meet when talking about my non-conversion, and there is still some hint they want to continue the conversation, I usually end up telling them the story of my childhood friend. This friend had some serious issues with drugs and petty crime, and was eventually committed to a psych hospital. He struggled quite a bit with his life direction long into adulthood. But, he finally found God. We’d both been raised Catholic. But neither of us, as children, believed the silliness they tried to program us with. The God he later found was a much more personal one. I think he finally found a church/people who allowed him to participate in defining the God he would worship. That participatory relationship (with the other humans) seemed to give him the right mix of freedom and self-imposed constraint he finally needed to take control of his life.

The point of the story, as I tell it to newly met atheists, is that I think newly minted atheists are similar to my friend. They are basking in a new found freedom by which they can construct their own ideals and their own recipes for how to live their lives. As such, they define their selves as much by contrast against what they once believed as they do positively by the open horizons in front of them.

But most importantly, I’d like the story to demonstrate that they are not so very different from my “born-again” childhood friend. For what it’s worth, I’m rarely successful.