What is Atheism? II

0. Introduction

Recently I wrote a blog post about different ways of thinking about the definition of the terms ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’. I was interested in the relation between belief and degrees of belief. Does lacking a belief mean lacking all degree of belief? To me, it seemed like the answer was ‘no’; one can lack a belief that p, yet still have some small degree of belief that p. That was how I describe my own internal doxastic state with regards to the proposition that no gods exist. I don’t feel like it is correct to say that I believe that no gods exist, but I have a small degree of belief that they don’t.

Part of my reasoning behind why I am only slightly in one direction rather than the other is because it is a proposition in metaphysics, and this seems like the most one can ever really have about such propositions. For example, it seems at least conceptually possible that there exists some god who is entirely unverifiable, some sort of deist god who never intervenes in the world and has left no trace of his existence for us to find. How could I ever know if such a god existed? Obviously, I couldn’t. But this type of god would also be the sort of thing that I couldn’t get any information about at all, either for or against. For this type of thing, there couldn’t be any evidence, and so one can never be confident that it doesn’t exist. So while I have an intuition or feeling that they probably don’t exist, it is not strong – after all, I don’t think that I know what the world is like at the most fundamental lever, so I don’t place much weight in what my pre-theoretical intuitions about that sort of thing say. They do lead me in one direction, but only slightly. That’s my view anyway. (An interventionist god who cares about human suffering seems far less likely to me than this epistemologically inaccessible god, and I would have a far lower degree of belief in such a personal god).

So I would say that my degree of belief that there are no gods is more than 0.5, but not much more. It seems to me that this doesn’t qualify as a strong enough belief for saying “I believe that there are no gods”. To me, saying that requires a higher degree of belief than I have. It is a declaration of a certain level of commitment to something to say “I believe that p”, and while it is not saying that you are utterly convinced that p, it is saying more than that you are minimally convinced; belief means something like ‘somewhat convinced’. I’m not sure that there is a precise numerical value which is the cut-off point between non-belief and belief; certainly not for all possible circumstances anyway. However, I just feel like my degree of belief is not strong enough to qualify in this context.

This is just like a situation where you may feel quite sure that a given person has not enough hair to count as hirsute, even though you are not sure whether there really is a precise number of hairs that one has to have in order to count as hirsute, or if so what that number of hairs is. Yet you just feel quite sure that this amount of hair isn’t enough. That’s how I feel about the god proposition.

Before getting to that point though, I spent some time explaining how there is some controversy about the definition of ‘atheist’, and this caused a bit of discussion on the comments below my past blog post on this – quite a lot longer than the actual article itself (and is still continuing as I write this), where people continued to discuss how they saw the right and wrong ways to define ‘atheist’.

My main point in the first section of that post was actually to argue that what seemed like a significant discussion between the atheist and theist is actually just a trivial definitional exercise on which nothing of any significance hangs. By this, I mean that it doesn’t matter if people disagree about whether someone should be called an atheist, a lacktheist or a hard-atheist, etc. The doxastic stance that the person holds, and any burden of evidence that comes with it, is what is actually important, and it remains the same regardless of what definition is used for the terms involved. We should just agree on a definition at the start of the argument and then move on into the interesting stuff.

Here I want to make that point as clearly as possible. So I will visualise a set of related positions – not a comprehensive list, but a reasonably thorough and precise list – so that we can see clearly what the different definitional positions are. I also want to express how this area is actually surprisingly rich from a logical point of view, and the various combinations of positions makes for an interesting enough landscape to categorise as a purely academic exercise. However, once we have a good grasp of the different definitions we could plausibly have in mind (the ‘landscape’), we can see how a particular person’s view gets classified. As we shall see, on some views I am an atheist, on some I am an agnostic atheist. The ability to translate between the different schemes considered provides the potential for more than just an academic classification exercise. It suggests the ability to help people stop talking past one another by providing a precise translation manual. All too often people hold different but not clearly articulated ideas about what it means to be an ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ when they are in discussion and hopefully by setting out the landscape clearly we can be of some help here.

  1. Degree of belief

First, let’s consider the scale of belief about some proposition p (which will remain fixed as ‘some god exists’. The scale ranges from 0 for absolute conviction that p is false, to 1 for absolute conviction that p is true, with 0.5 being the middle point:


We can consider, for some agent a which we will keep fixed, that there are various propositions about a‘s beliefs and knowledge claims that we are interested in:

  • Bp      = a believes that p
  • B~p    = a believes that not-p
  • ~Bp    = it is not the case that a believes that p
  • ~B~p  = it is not the case that a believes that not-p
  • Kp       = a knows that p
  • K~p     = a knows that not-p
  • ~Kp     = it is not the case that a knows that p
  • ~K~p   = it is not the case that a knows that not-p

We will track where these propositions go under the belief scale, and then move on to add labels for various positions in as well.

2. Visualisations

Although the pair p and ~p are dichotomous (so that ‘p v ~p‘ is a tautology), this is obviously not the case for Band B~p; it is quite possible for neither of them to be true. Our agent might not believe that Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and might not believe that Kuala Lumpur is not the capital of Malaysia. The same goes for Kand K~p. This leaves room in the middle for a ‘belief-gap’. We will visualise this on our belief scale with a penumbra (or grey area) in which they a neither believes p nor believes that not-p. We could add this to our diagram as a shaded area underneath the section of the range to which it applies:


So in the diagram above, the grey area (the penumbra) extends beyond 0.5 degree of belief to some extent in either direction. This reflects that someone could have a degree of belief which is (say) 0.51 that p but that this would not be enough for it to be true that “believes that p“. For that to be true, a‘s degree of belief has to be greater than this. Precisely how much greater is vague and impossible to give a precise number to. All that we can (or need to) say is that for a to believe that p, their degree of belief has to be greater than the extent of the penumbra.

On either side of the penumbra, we would find the regions in which a holds a positive belief, either that p or that ~p:


We can add in knowledge claims here as well, where as we go along the scale towards 1 (or 0), we get to some (vague and impossible to make precise) point at which a doesn’t just believe that (not-p), but knows that p (not-p):


So our fully annotated diagram of the situation looks like this:


Given what I outlined in the last post on this topic, I sit just to the left of 0.5 on this scale (where p is ‘some god exists’). The green line is me:


It seems like my degree of belief is such that I don’t believe that p and I don’t believe that not-p. All this is rather uncontroversial*. The controversy, what there is of it, comes in when we decide which labels to apply to which position on the scale. We will do this by adding shaded areas to the top of the diagram. The first proposal we will consider (call it View 1) is where a ‘theist’ is someone who believes that p and an ‘atheist’ is someone who believes that not-p, which makes an ‘atheist’ a ‘hard-atheist’:


This has the consequence that theist/atheist is not an exhaustive distinction; it is possible to be in the area not covered by either (which is where I sit on this diagram). I am not an atheist on this picture (I am unclassified on this picture).

We might want to say that there is no such area, and that everyone is either a theist or an atheist. This sort of line has been put to me in the past. The idea is that if you act as if there is no god, then this makes you an atheist. Actions, it might be thought, are binary, in that you either act like you believe in a god (by going to church, praying, etc), or you act as if there is no god (by not going to church, praying, etc). This may make us think that everyone’s actions either make them an atheist or a theist (depending on how plausible we find this reasoning), in which case there should be no gap between the two positions on our scale (call this View 2):


On this view, a theist is not necessarily someone who ‘believes that p‘, but is just someone whose degree of belief that p is greater than their degree of belief that not-p. Similarly for the definition of ‘atheist’. I would count as an atheist on this view, even though I don’t believe that not-p. I count as an atheist just because my degree of belief that p is slightly less than 0.5. The definition of ‘atheist’ on this view is neither the same as ‘hard-atheist’ nor ‘lacktheist’.

As another option (call it View 3), we could think of the theist/atheist distinction as exhaustive, but draw the line between them on the point at which we switch from not believing that p to believing that p. This would make the definition of ‘atheist’ that of the ‘lacktheist’:


On this view, I count as an atheist, and interestingly so would someone whose degree of belief that was on the positive side of 0.5 but still in the penumbra; the sort of person who would say that they have a very weak degree of belief that some god exists, but not enough for them to say ‘I believe that some god exists’. That person would count as an atheist on this view.

We might think that the term ‘agnostic’ comes in here somewhere, and that it should come in to fill the gap between theist and atheist on View 1, like this (call it View 1.1):


On this picture, an atheist is someone who believes that not-p, a theist is someone who believes that p, and an agnostic is someone who does not believe either of p or not-p. On this picture, I come under the agnostic category, and not the atheist category.

We could add this version of agnostic (i.e. someone who does not believe either p or not-p) to View 2, to make View 2.1, as follows:


On View 2.1, all agnostics are also either atheists or theists; nobody is just an agnostic. On this view, I am an atheist and an agnostic.

Continuing the series, we could include the agnostic in the diagram and have ‘atheist’ pictured as a lacktheist (View 3), resulting in View 3.1, like this:


On this view, I would count as an atheist and an agnostic. On this view all agnostics are also atheists; there are no pure agnostics or agnostic theists.

However, one might think that the term ‘agnostic’ does not relate to a lack of belief but instead to lack of knowledge; it means that you don’t know if p is true, or if not-p is true. If that were the case (View 1.2), we would want to draw the agnostic area as follows:


On this view, there are ‘pure’ agnostics (and I would be one), but there are also agnostic atheists and agnostic theists (in contrast to View 1.1).

If we add this notion of agnosticism to Veiw 2, then we get View 2.2:


In this view, everyone is either an atheist or a theist (there are no pure agnostics) and there can be both agnostic atheists and agnostic theists. This only differs from View 1.1 in that the definition of agnostic is tied to knowledge, not belief.

Lastly, for completeness, I will consider View 3.2, which combines this agnosticism with the lacktheism of View 3:


On this view, an atheist is a lacktheist, and there can be agnostic atheists and agnostic theists. I am an agnostic atheist on this view.

Here are all 9 of the views for comparison:


3. Logical relationships

We have 9 views outlined above (View 1, 1.1 & 1.2; View 2, 2.1 & 2.3; and View 3, 3.1 & 3.2), but what are the relationships and differences between them? Here is an incomplete table showing some of the various properties of the different views and how they differ from one another:


Each view is unique in some respect or another. The difference between View 1.1 and View 1.2 (for example) is just whether agnostic means not believing either way that p or not knowing either way that p. This difference decides whether there are agnostic atheists/theists or not.

According to that summary, I am an there are two views according to which I am antheist, one according to which I am an agnostic, four according to which  I am agnostic atheist, with one where I am not classified. It is noteworthy how many different classifications one and the same doxastic attitude can come under. No wonder there is often confusion as to the usage of the terms involved.

4. Motivations

What we have is a landscape of different definitions and their various combinations. These are just the combinations I could see as being remotely justified. Each combination has something which backs it up conceptually.

  • There seem to be decent reasons for thinking about atheism and theism as being dependent on believing p and on believing not-p, which is the characteristic of View 1, 1.1 and 1.2.
  • However, the idea that belief is tied to action, and is thus binary, gives rise to the motivation for View 2, 2.1 and 2.2.
  • Then again, the definition of atheism as ‘lacktheism’ is clearly very popular among contemporary atheists, and this motivates View 3, 3.1 and 3.2.
  • There also seems to be some intuitive support for the idea that agnosticism simply fills in the space between atheism and theism, such that everyone is either an atheist, and agnostic or a theist (with no overlap), which informs View 1.1.
  • While this view of agnosticism seems fairly intuitive here, there is also something to be said for modelling agnosticism as relating to knowledge. Thomas Huxley, the person who coined the term ‘agnostic’, seems to have this association in mind when he said the following:

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.

Thus, there is a sort of exigetical support for the idea that agnosticism is epistemic rather than doxastic (i.e. about knowledge rather than just belief). If that is motivational for you, then you may be drawn to thinking of agnosticism as in View 1.2, 2.2 and 3.2.

5. Conclusion

It seems like a simple question, so often gone over, but so rarely gone over methodically:

What does ‘atheist’ mean?

But it has a surprisingly large number of potential, plausible-looking combinations of positions on the table. The benefit of classifying the various possible logical combinations is that we can translate between people’s usages. Here’s how:

First, one needs to assess internally what their level of belief is in the proposition being considered. Decide as best you can what your degree of belief is. Next also try to decide what you think (roughly) the thresholds are for belief and knowledge. Test yourself. For example, if you feel quite confident that you believe that p, do you also feel like you know that p? If not, then you believe without knowledge, and so you are in the middle section, etc.

In this way, we can get a feel for which region in the bottom part of the diagrams you fit into without too much need to quantify your degree of belief precisely. All you have to do is find which region of the belief scale you fit on. Once you have this in place, you can see how you are classified according to the various views. I did this in this post, and showed my results. So if someone asks me if I’m an atheist, I think my reply will now be ‘I’m an agnostic atheist on most definitions of the key terms, but on some of them I am an atheist’. This qualification doesn’t mean that I am changing my mind about what I believe, or trying to dodge any burden of proof for my claim. All the different views indicate is different ways of describing the same thing. 

There is no such thing as the ‘correct’ definition of what an atheist is. There is no such thing as the ‘correct’ definition of anything. Definitions are all arbitrary. One can use a definition in a way that fits the practices of a language using community, but other than ‘fitting in’ there is nothing else to decide whether a definition is correct or not. So there shouldn’t be a debate about what the definitions mean, from a logical point of view. We should only be interested in what people actually believe, and why.

There may be a larger political issue about the definition of ‘atheist’ due to the idea of an ‘atheist community’, but this is an issue I am not interested in. If I don’t classify as atheist enough for the atheist community, then so be it. I’m not going to change my sincerely held views just to be part of a club, and any club which is defined in terms of belief which requires people to adopt beliefs merely for the purposes of joining seems like an inherently contradictory institution.

It may be that people hold that the definitional game is more significant that I think it is for the following reason. It may be that when one joins a religion (or a new church, etc), that one sort of fits their beliefs to the community. As if someone says to themselves, ‘Now I’m part of the Calvinist community, I better figure out what beliefs I have’. This would make the beliefs follow from the belonging to a group. For all I know, this is how people view beliefs, and are happy to let themselves hold beliefs just because they are told that ‘people like us believe in such and such’. To me though, this gets the direction of travel the wrong way. First you have to have certain beliefs, and it is only because you antecedently do (or do not) hold whatever beliefs you do that you qualify for belonging to a club that is defined by beliefs. So one should say something like ‘I believe in the doctrine of predestination and original sin (etc), so I better figure out which group I belong to’. For me, beliefs come first, and labels (such as ‘Calvinist’ or ‘atheist’) follow after.


*From here on out, I will assume this basic picture to be correct. One could argue that the penumbra could really just apply to the 0.5 point and extend no distance in either direction. Even if you do so, this would still mean that the grey area has some extension. The reader should feel free to imagine the grey area being larger or smaller if  they so wish if they disagree with the extent I have given it above. It should be agreed by all parties that there is some penumbra, even if it only apples to 0.5 and nowhere else.


0. Introduction

In my recent discussions with Jimmy Stephens (here and here) we discussed his version of presuppositionalism. According to Jimmy, a non-Christian like myself makes a very fundamental assumption which he sees presuppositionalism as challenging. That assumption is about autonomy. When I reason about things, I presuppose that my use of reason is ‘autonomous’. But what does ‘autonomy’ mean?

  1. Kantian Autonomy

One way of thinking about what autonomy means is with reference to Kant’s classic article, What is Enlightenment? In that, Kant describes the opposite of autonomy as ‘nonage’, and defines it as such:

Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.”

Given this, we could think about autonomy as the ability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.

Kant is quite explicit about the reasons for nonage:

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”

The idea is that resting your understanding on that of others, and not thinking about something for yourself, makes life easier. One simply does not have to bother with all that ‘disagreeable business’, and can get on with something else more fun.

Despite the obvious attraction of nonage, Kant strongly recommends against it. He considers it to be a kind of intellectual immaturity. This state of immaturity has an intrinsic vulnerability associated with it, as it requires that one is beholden to ‘guardians’, authorities such as ‘books’, ‘pastors’, ‘physicians’, etc, to be making decisions on your behalf. If you do not understand how your diet works, if you have no idea what makes eating one thing better than eating another, then you are entirely dependent on someone else to tell you what to eat. In this way, you are vulnerable to them exploiting you.

Of course, we are all in this position when it comes to many things, and nobody can be an expert in everything. I am dependent on my doctor to tell me which treatment to take, on my mechanic for what to do to my car engine, etc. Kant is not suggesting that everyone becomes entirely dependent on nothing but their own understanding.

What Kant is promoting is the idea that society as a whole should be such that it has no authority too sacred that it cannot be challenged in public. The reason he is making this plea is that the supposed benefit that nonage can have for the ‘minor’ has as a correlate a benefit to the guardian that she defers to. The guardian is given power through the authority they gain when one let’s them make decisions on their behalf. Thus, each guardian of knowledge has an interest in restricting the public use of reason:

I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” … We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.”

So while it is in the tax collector’s interest if you do not question too much what your taxes are going on, and they will encourage you not to, we must not resign ourselves completely to the position that they cannot be questioned. It is a central pillar of ‘enlightenment society’ that these aspects of the state can be called into question by citizens. In fact, the freedom to be able to do so is constitutive of enlightenment. One must be free to use one’s own reason, to question all authorities, otherwise we are vulnerable to being exploited, like a mechanic who charges you for work that does not need to be done, or a tax collector who takes more money from you than is needed and keeps it for himself. The only way to avoid such things from happening is to remove any restrictions from the public use of reason. It is the only possible check and balance that there is against the pitfalls of nonage.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant makes the following memorable comments on this:

Reason must be subject, in all its operations, to criticism, which must always be permitted to exercise its functions without restraint; otherwise its interests are imperilled and its influence obnoxious to suspicion. There is nothing, however useful, however sacred it may be, that can claim exemption from the searching examination of this supreme tribunal, which has no respect of persons. The very existence of reason depends upon this freedom; for the voice of reason is not that of a dictatorial and despotic power, it is rather like the vote of the citizens of a free state, every member of which must have the privilege of giving free expression to his doubts, and possess even the right of veto.” (A738/B766)

2. Scientific Authorities

Take an example from our time – scientific authority. Most of us are relatively illiterate when it comes to scientific explanations of complex phenomena, such as climate physics, etc. Most of us do not know what the relevant equations are that govern the climate, and have not looked in any detail as to the data gathered on the topic. So when it comes to questions like climate change, are we not in a position of nonage, where we defer our decision making to authorities outside of ourselves? To some extent, the answer is yes. Climate change could be, as Donald Trump once famously remarked, a conspiracy generated cynically to deprive the United States of economic productivity by the Chinese. For those of us who are not climate scientists, we have to defer our judgement to those who are. Fortunately, there is a very large consensus in the relevant sciences that (unfortunately) man made climate change is not a conspiracy.

This consensus is not inherently suspect only to the degree that the scientific community is such that it is open to challenge its own dogmas. If this science is enlightened, then if someone had a rival model for climate change which could explain all the data just as well which showed it to be not man made, then this would not simply be suppressed due to it calling into question a ‘sacred principle of science’. Rather, it would be given the same treatment as a proposal which is in keeping with the current accepted wisdom in the field. If we are of the opinion that the scientific community allows rival explanations of phenomena to get a fair public hearing, and is subject to the scrutiny of public examination, then we should also be happy to defer to the majority (especially when there is an overwhelming consensus on a subject).

Of course, the conspiracy theorist also calls into question this aspect of the scientific community, as is demonstrated here. The point is though that they need to call this into question in order to avoid the reasonableness of holding to the position of the consensus in the field. If scientists are of one mind about man made climate change, then the only way to avoid going along with them (for us laypeople) is to call into question their public use of reason. In this way, the conspiracy theorist tacitly accepts Kant’s formulation of enlightenment, and the benefits of the public use of reason. All they want to question is whether the relevant science actually is as free and enlightened as it pretends to be. This is why it is part of the conspiracy is that peer review is flawed.

The line of thinking outlined here suggests a distinction between enlightened guardians and unenlightened guardians. The conception of climate change scientists honestly appraising competing theories, publicly critiquing each other’s ideas, and coming to an overwhelming consensus, is an example of a legitimate guardian. If this is the case, then when we defer our understanding to these guardians of knowledge, we do so with the safeguard that this public scrutiny affords. We do not have to have inspected all the arguments personally, because they have been publicly dissected by others. On the other hand, if the guardians are in fact such that they actively suppress any dissenting views, and apply criticism only to those who question the accepted dogmas, then they are unenlightened guardians. Those of us who defer our understanding to them, and transfer them power as a result of doing so, are more at risk of becoming exploited or mislead as a result.

3. Religious Nonage 

Jimmy wants to argue that when I use my reason to try to understand something, I am presupposing that I am autonomous. One scenario that I dogmatically refuse to entertain, according to Jimmy, is one where I am in fact not able to reason at all without God; a sort of necessary nonage.

This phrase ‘without God’ is somewhat ambiguous, and it requires a few words of clarification. One one hand, it could mean a sort of metaphysical dependence. If God exists and created everything, then I would not exist at all without God. If I did not exist, then I would not be able to use my reason. Thus, I could not use my reason at all were it not for God. In this sense, perhaps, my reason cannot be used without God existing.

This doesn’t seem to me to be the type of dependence that reason is supposed to have on God here though. After all, I have this same relationship to my parents. If they had not conceived me together, I would not exist. If I did not exist, I would not be able to reason at all. So I could not reason were it not for my parents existing. My ability to reason is dependent on all sorts of contingent happenings in the past, such as the chance meeting of my great great grandparents, etc. Thus, in this sense I am dependent on many things as well as God for my ability to reason.

I think that when Jimmy says that I am assuming that I am autonomous, that I can reason ‘without God’, he means that I can reason without believing that God exists. What he is saying is that if I do not believe in God then I could not form a coherent view of the world. My way of thinking would be inevitably contaminated with the false starting point and would be doomed to being incoherent somewhere along the lines as a result.

And it is not just the belief in a single proposition, ‘God exists’, that I think Jimmy thinks is required for coherent thought; it is not that some general theism is required. Rather, what is required is Christian theism. I have to believe that God exists, for sure, but I also have to believe that he has revealed himself to me in the bible, etc. It is a God who has shown himself and provided a way of thinking about things that I should accept. Thus, when you believe in God, as Jimmy does, you do not just differ from an atheist on the truth-value of one proposition, but you accept the intellectual guidance provided by God. In addition to believing the core propositions of Christianity, you treat it as an authority, as a guardian and defer your understanding to it. You use your reason only with the guidance of the religion. That is what it means to not be autonomous.

When Jimmy says that I assume that I am autonomous, he is saying that I assume that I do not have to listen to the guidance of God, as offered in the bible, but can make up my own mind about how the world works independently.

4. Do I Assume Autonomy? Should I?

One of the things that is attractive about Kant’s enlightenment vision is that it is utopian. The fully enlightened society is one where everyone is an equal, nobody has any authority which is above the public scrutiny of reason, and as such this mechanism roots out injustice and falsity. Nothing should be beyond question, and everyone should be equally free in this regard. This seems to be the only way to mature intellectually and socially, and to protect ourselves from exploitation by unjust rulers (or even covert conspiracies). I must admit, I find Kant’s utopia very attractive myself (for one thing, it makes me think of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of society depicted in Star Trek).

If we go any distance down this path, then when someone tries to say ‘Do not question – believe!’, we become immediately suspicious. Although I am not accusing him of conscious wrong-doing, Jimmy’s contention seems to have something of the quality of the person trying to restrict reason about it, and for this reason I am suspicious of it. When he suggests that maybe I am not autonomous, it feels like he is saying that I should give up my right to question his doctrine. He is saying that maybe I can’t question his doctrine. If I question whether I can question it or not, he says that I am presupposing that I am autonomous, and therefore begging the question against him.

However, I feel the strong urge to push back here. For one thing, it exposes me as maximally vulnerable to exploitation. The suggestion is that I accept a guardian as having authority over me in precisely my ability to use reason. There cannot be, by definition, any further justification for this, as it is suggesting itself as a standard of justification, or perhaps as a presupposition of justification. So I have to accept the doctrine for no reason. Thus, I am placing myself in a position where I could not know whether I was making the wrong decision, as my usual defence mechanism (thinking about it for myself) is being taken away from me. How would I know if I was being mislead? It seems like I couldn’t.

In addition, the doctrine in question, if it is being suggested as taken for no reason, is on par with every other potential doctrine. It may be that some other religion, or another sect of the same religion, etc, is suggested by someone else to me. Perhaps I meet a Muslim presuppositionalist who argues that I should accept his standard instead. There can be no question of deciding between the two, as to do so would either presuppose that I can make my own assessment of the situation (which is effectively to deny the proposition they are each offering), or to presuppose that one of them is right, and reason from that perspective, which begs the question against the other proposal. Thus, there can be nothing in principle which one could use to distinguish between two different proposed ultimate authorities like this. They have to be accepted without using your reason at all, which means accepted without reason, as a leap of faith.

If a dialetheist tried to argue that there could be true contradictions, then I seem to be faced with similar difficulties. On what grounds could I oppose their suggestion? It would be of no use for me to resort to my usual method of refutation, which is the derivation of a contradiction, as this is exactly what is being proposed to be rejected in the first place. The dialetheist does not just propose a different proposition, but a different standard of evaluation. So much is called into question, one might think, that nothing can be used to arbitrate between the positions. Thus, the decision to accept or reject the proposal cannot be made with the usual kind of justification.

But now, when faced with the proposal on the table in such stark terms, a problem seems to present itself. If I accepted Jimmy’s offer, and shrugged off my autonomous pretensions, and took on his doctrines as authorities, then what would the status of that acceptance be? It would have been an act of volition – I would have acted myself, under my own guidance. If I surrender my autonomy, then this act is my final autonomous act. And it is, in the final analysis, something which I have to do under my own guidance. It is only after I have made the leap that I can be under the guidance of the new guardian. Before hand, when I am do not accept this authority, I must act without it as an authority. Otherwise there would be no transition from one state to the other, as I would already be under the authority of the doctrine. So for the idea of transition to make any sense, it must be from a state of autonomy to a state of nonage. Even if the reply comes that there is no real transition, as we are all under the authority of God whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it seems that I have to make my own decision to acknowledge it; indeed, all that can be asked of me is to acknowledge it. If I am under the authority of God, then there is nothing I can do about that. The only thing left is to willingly submit to it or not. Yet this is an act which presupposes autonomy. Surrender to the inability to surrender is impossible without the ability to surrender. And this seems to make the proposal paradoxical.

The proposal from Jimmy seems to be to acknowledge that I do not have the ability to acknowledge anything; he wants me to do something which presupposes autonomy, to accept that I could not do anything with autonomy.

5. The Paradox of Love

This reminds me of a paradox which comes from Sartre. The idea is that love is a paradoxical state. It means wanting two incompatible things at the same time. Firstly, it is desired that your lover love you because of some quality that you possess; perhaps your kind heart, or your gentle nature, etc. If your lover loved you without there being any such quality, it would seem like there was nothing they loved about you. This would seem to evacuate the attitude of all content; there would be nothing stopping them falling out of love with you, as nothing motivates it in the first place. The decision seems no better than a random act.

So the lover needs to love you in virtue of something about you; your good qualities, etc. Yet this also faces grave difficulties. If your lover loves you because of your good nature, then if some disaster befalls you and you lose this disposition, then your lover will lose their motivation for loving you. If they loved you in virtue of your lovely appearance, then this may be doomed to be undermined as you age. Thus, the only alternative to loving you for no reason places the love unacceptably at the mercy of your continued possession of various properties. Again, this seems to evacuate the attitude of its content.

What is wanted is a paradoxical combination of being valued for some good quality or other, but also being valued over and above any of these qualities. You want to be valued in virtue of something, yet not in virtue of something. Such is the paradoxical and irrational nature of love, we might think.

Similar paradoxes affect the sexual attitude, according to Sartre. What is desired for the sadist is the objectification of the partner. A resisting partner is one who refuses to be objectified, and defies the basic desire of the sadist. Instead, what the sadist is after is for a willing partner, one who will freely, willingly, subject themselves to the objectification. What is desired is a willing surrender of will. What is desired is an object that it not an object.

While one may simply harbour a irrational desires like this in virtue of being a human with irrational drives and psychology, one cannot be rationally compelled to take on a position such as this. To the robot, or alien, if these human practices are indeed irredeemably paradoxical, then there is no way to rationalise them. They can only be things that make sense to those who are disposed to do them; one has to be built the right way for them to make sense.

It seems to me that the apologist who tries to get you to accept their doctrine, that you are not autonomous, is akin to someone with a romantic or sadistic desire. They want something which is irredeemably paradoxical. They want a willing suspension of will; the autonomous choice to renounce autonomy.

6. Conclusion

There is no real conclusion here. What is left after all of this is the vision of Kant’s utopia, where the use of reason is the only thing that keeps us free, pitted against a suggestion to willingly surrender this protection, without reason or justification. It seems to me to be an intrinsically paradoxical thing to be proposed with – yet this judgement will doubtless be deemed to be a product of my own rebellious perspective. To me it seems a paradoxical and dangerous thing to do; to not do so probably appears just as paradoxical and dangerous to Jimmy.

The Semantics of Nothing

0.   Introduction

The word ‘nothing’ has interesting semantic features. It is a ‘negative existential’, in the sense that it refers to a non-existing thing. This is perplexing, because if ‘nothing’ is a simple referring term, then the semantic role that it plays in contributing to the meaning of a sentence it features in is to point to its referent. As it has no referent, how can it play this role successfully? There are two general strategies for dealing with this puzzle; one is to treat the idea of nothing as a sort of thing, and the other is to treat it as a case of failure to refer at all.

1.   Creation from nothing

The term ‘nothing’ is deployed as part of one of the supports for the Kalam cosmological argument. The first premise of that argument is: ‘whatever begins to exist has a cause’. One of the lines of support for this premise is the familiar dictum ‘nihilo ex nihilo fit’, or ‘nothing comes from nothing’. When pressed on why this is true, a typical line of defense is that ‘nothing has no causal powers’. I say that this sentence is ambiguous, due to the word ‘nothing’. On one account the sentence treats ‘nothing’ as a referring term; something like ‘the complete lack of any object’. On the other account, the term expresses a failure to refer to any thing. The first reading (which I shall call the ‘referential sense’) is the intended sense, but it strikes me as ad hoc (and I will explain this more below). The second sense (which I shall call the ‘denotative sense’) expresses a different proposition altogether – one that fails to support the premise in any way.

2.   A Toy Example

The ambiguity can be brought to the surface if we consider the two semantic accounts of the word in more detail. Before we look at the sentence ‘nothing has no causal powers’, I want to first play with a less controversial example, to get the distinction clear. So my toy sentence is:

1) ‘Nothing will stop me getting to work on time’

First, let’s look at the referential sense of ‘nothing’, as it applies to this sentence. On this account, ‘nothing’ is just another referring term, like ‘John’, or ‘Paris’, or ‘my favourite type of ice cream’, etc. The referent of ‘nothing’ is ‘the complete absence of any things’, or something along those lines. It’s like an empty void with no contents whatsoever.

The sentence is essentially of the form ‘x will stop me getting to work on time’, where ‘x’ is an empty variable waiting to be filled by any constant (or referring term), like ‘John’ or ‘my favourite type of ice cream’, or ‘nothing’ etc. Let ‘Wx’ be a predicate for ‘x will stop be getting to work on time’. If ‘a’ is a constant that refers to my friend Adam, then the proposition ‘Wa’ means that Adam will stop me getting to work on time. I will not get to work on time, because I will be stopped by Adam from doing so. Something that Adam will do, such as physically restraining me, or hiding my keys, or just distracting me with an interesting philosophical discussion, etc, will prevent me from getting to work on time. That’s what Wa is saying.

Let ‘n’ be a constant that refers to ‘the complete absence of anything’. We could put the logical form of 1) as follows:

Ref)   Wn

Ref says that I wont get to work on time because ‘nothing’ is going to stop me. This mirrors the logical form of the sentence above where Adam prevented me from getting to work on time. But this seems wrong, as 1) doesn’t seem to say that I won’t get to work on time because of nothing (i.e. the complete absence of any thing) getting in my way. We don’t seem to be expressing the idea that ‘nothingness’ is going to hide my keys, or engage me in a philosophical discussion, etc. We are not expressing that I will not get to work on time. Rather, we are expressing something close to the opposite of that; the sentiment expressed by ‘nothing is going to stop me getting to work on time’ is that I will be on time to work, come what may. So the referential way of reading the term ‘nothing’ is not appropriate here.

Let’s look at the second account, the denotative account. On this reading 1 gets analysed out as the following (note that we still have the predicate Wx, but use a quantifier and a bound variable and so don’t need the constant ‘n’):

Den)    ~(∃x)(Wx)

On this reading, we are saying that it is not the case that there is a thing such that it will stop me getting to work on time. We could re-write Den as follows:

Den’) (∀x)~(Wx)

Den’ says that for every x, it is not the case that x will stop me getting to work on time. This captures very well the sentiment that come what may we will not let anything prevent us from getting to work on time. We would say that the denotative proposition is true in this situation, and that seems right.

Thus the two analyses are very different. They render propositions with a different logical forms and different truth-values in this case. In the referential case, we are referring to an entity, and saying of that thing that it will succeed in preventing me from getting to work on time. So the logical form of the proposition, when analysed referentially, is wrong. In addition to this semantic or logical issue, we also have a metaphysical or ontological worry. We may feel that the entity referred to in Ref is of dubious ontological status. Nothing doesn’t exist; it isn’t a thing as such. Successful reference seems to have as a presupposition that the referent exists in some sense or other. If that is right, then when we successfully refer to ‘nothing’ then there is something which is the referent for the term ‘nothing’. But if there is some referent, then ‘nothing’ doesn’t mean the complete absence of any thing. It may be that the combination of this model of reference with the insistence of ‘nothing’ meaning the complete absence of any thing is incoherent. So we can feel dissatisfied with Ref here for both ontological and logical reasons.

We may want to avoid this problem by postulating that ‘nothing’ refers to an entity, yet what it refers to is not an existing thing. Nothing is, even though it doesn’t exist. It is a something, just not an existing something. I find this way of talking almost unintelligible. It seems to me as a bedrock metaphysical principle that there are no non-existing things. There is not two types of existence; rather there is only one type of existence. If ‘nothing’ is, then it exists. The terms ‘is’ and ‘exists’ are synonymous. In this regard, I find Russell (On Denoting) and Quine (On What There Is) to be instructive.

Den, on the other hand, does not refer to any thing of dubious ontological status. When recast in the form of Den’ it clearly and explicitly quantifies over all the things that there are and says of those things that none of them are going to stop me getting to work. So it has going for it that it captures the intention behind the sentence, in that it captures that I will not be stopped. Den doesn’t require postulating two types of existence. We don’t have to say that ‘nothing’ is yet does not exist. We do not directly refer to ‘nothing’, we just refer to what there is (and say that it is none of those things).

The difference between Ref and Den could be put like this: the former is a successful reference to something that does not exist, the latter is a failure to refer to anything which does exist.

3.   The Main Case

Let’s apply this to our example of ‘nothing has no causal powers’. Let’s rewrite having no causal powers as being ‘causally inert’, and represent that as a predicate, ‘Ix’. On the referential reading, the sentence has the form:

Ref2)   In

This says ‘nothing is causally inert’. As we have seen, the model of reference used here treats nothing as a referent of the term n, which means it is the thing referred to by n. The proposition is true only if the referent of n, i.e. nothingness, is actually causally inert. And nothingness, as conceived as an empty void with no contents whatsoever, is plausibly causally inert. So the claim seems to capture well the intention behind the apologist’s assertion here. The reason that the universe couldn’t have ‘popped into being from nothing’ is that ‘nothingness’ has no abilities to make things pop into existence. It cannot do anything; it is causally inert.

The denotative reading would be as follows:

Den2) ~(∃x)(Ix)

This says that it is not the case that there is a thing such that it is causally inert. Recast in universal terms, it says:

Den2’) (∀x)~(Ix)

This says that everything is such that it is not causally inert; everything has causal powers. On this reading, we are effectively saying that abstract objects, and similar proposed causally inert entities, do not exist; there are no abstract objects, etc. This is because abstract objects are causally inert, and Den2 says that there is no causally inert thing.

One would suppose, looking at this that in the case of nothing having no causal powers, we should take the referential reading, as this makes sense of the apologist’s claims about how the universe had to have a cause. It is clearly not their intention to assert that causally inert objects don’t exist; they mean to assert that the complete absence of anything cannot itself cause something.

In the toy example, when we distinguish the referential and denotative sense of ‘nothing’, it is clear that the referential sense is incorrect. It entails something which is clearly not intended by the speaker, that I will not get to work on time, when we meant to express that come what may I will get to work on time. In the apologetical example, the analysis seems to go the other way; the denotative sense seems to entail a proposition which clearly isn’t what the apologist intends. So, while the toy example is denotative, the apologetical example is referential.

I have two worries with this conclusion:

a) If we take the referential reading of ‘nothing’ in the phrase ‘nothing has no causal powers’, then we are referring to an entity that is of questionable ontological status. It is the referent of the term n, yet it is the complete absence of any thing. So it is a thing that does not exist. We might want to follow Russell in On Denoting, and Quine in On What There Is and disallow such talk of non-existing things. Indeed, we may consider such talk of nothing as a dubious case of reification. Nothing is not a thing of any type whatsoever.

b) This is my main worry. It seems to me that most cases of the word ‘nothing’ are denotative, and almost none are referential.

Here are a few examples:

  • ‘There is nothing to split the two candidates with only days before the election.’
  • ‘There is nothing I like better than ice cream’
  • ‘Nothing pisses me off more than ice cream’
  • ‘You mean nothing to me’
  • ‘There is nothing in the fridge’

The first four cases are clearly denotative (just plug in the different readings of ‘nothing’ and see for yourself in each case). Possibly in the last example, we may want to use the referential sense, but the denotative sense seems at least as plausible. Are we expressing that there is an absence of any thing in the fridge, or that there is not any existing thing in the fridge? Neither seems preferable.

My question is: can there be an example of a sentence that uses the word ‘nothing’, and isn’t the clearly apologetical ‘nothing has no causal powers’ etc, or some other esoteric metaphysical example, for which the referential reading is clearly the correct one (and not the denotative one)?

Are there ever cases where the referential sense is the correct one, apart from the use in things like supporting the Kalam? If the answer to this question is ‘no’, then the use by the apologist is ad hoc in the support for the Kalam case. This is an open question (feel free to suggest candidate sentences in the comments section). If there is a plausible looking case, then the charge of ad hoc-ness can be deflated.