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11 May 2012


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Philosophically Insecure

Hi! Great post! I'm hoping you can clear up a few confusions for me though. You say "Atheism is per definition everything that is not-theism." Is this one of Draper's premises or have you inserted it to explain his argument? The premise needs a more precise articulation because atheism is usually take to be a specific type of non-theism; followers of it hold an active belief that god does not exist. Those who are agnostic believe claims about god are unknowable, non-cognitivists belief statements regarding god are meaningless, etc.

I'm not sure it matters however, because epistemic modesty is contrastive, so we need to make sure we have the right contrast class when assessing such modesty. If we compare the statements "The world is N" and "The world is S" both are roughly as modest. The theistic statement "The world was created by an O3 God" is less modest than "The world is N", because the theistic statement is more informative. So if these two positions are being compared, the burden of proof is on the theist (according to what I gather is Draper's argument).

This kind of argument can be run for any position so long as it has a lower degree of epistemic modesty. Someone who believes "There are non-physical entities" is epistemicly more modest than one who believes "There is an O3 God" (regardless of if the former statement is committing oneself to atheism or not). The point then to be made is that theists have a very specific ontology since god is supposed to have very specific properties.

The commitment to these specific properties means that, for most statements, the theist is always going to be less modest, and bear the burden of proof. The atheist (or other non-theists) are not tied to such informative descriptions and can always just assert "The world is N, and I'm not really sure about the specifics." The theist however cannot retreat to "The world is S, and I'm not really sure about the specifics" because that is to abandon what makes them theists.

Is that line of argumentation in the spirit of what Draper was arguing, or is the definition of atheism here more important than I know?

Helen De Cruz

PI, thanks for these comments. I can't really speak for Draper, but in our correspondence and discussion on this argument, he takes atheism to be per definition non-theism. So an atheist is someone who rejects theism. The active belief "God does not exist" is represented by the gray area minus the tiny black speck that represents theism. I think that your semi-final paragraph captures what Draper wants to say, since that would make his argument really interesting (if however, atheism is also epistemically immodest, for instance, if in practice most atheists are scientific naturalists, then such specific atheists would, like theists, carry a burden of proof).

Eric Winsberg

Doesn't all of this presuppose a form of a logical interpretation of probability, according to which the probability of a hypothesis, prior to there being any evidence, has something to do with how fine grained the statement is in a state space of possibilities? (forgive me if that's a bad formulation--I haven't read this stuff since school.) And aren't there a million reasons (that have nothing to do with the specifics of this case) to be suspicious that there is a non-arbitrary way to settle disputes of just the kind that obviously come to mind here?


Draper's argument strikes me as problematic. I agree that, as you say, most atheists do not hold generic world views. They believe not only that the universe originates non-theistically, but that it originates in a very specific non-theistic way--according to whatever the currently accepted best (astro?) physics says. They are, as you say, scientific naturalists, at least of some stripe. In terms of the greyed-out diagram above, that seems prima facie equally as epistemically immodest as the theistic belief in a 3-O god.

The response you attribute to Draper is that the scientific naturalist is, indeed, equally epistemically immodest as the theist, and hence has no burden-of-proof advantage; it's just that the generic naturalist does. But this is untenable--it ignores the role that evidence plays in the contraction of the generic naturalist's view into the scientific naturalist's. To illustrate: imagine someone starts out as a generic naturalist. They think that there was a physical origin to the universe (if any at all), but have no idea what it was. Then, upon reviewing data about background radiation, stellar observations, and etc., they come to settle on the currently accepted big bang story, whatever that is. This is, presumably, a process of learning and epistemic improvement. But then how could it be that, before this process they had a burden of proof advantage against the theist, yet afterward they lacked it? How could improving their view destroy that epistemic advantage? On the face of it, what they've learned doesn't even have anything to do with the theist/atheism debates; they are becoming immodest only by ruling out other naturalistic stories, and those are stories which are genuinely ruled out by the evidence they have come to possess. It's hard to see how doing this could undermine any epistemic advantage they formerly held against the theist.

I think that a better critique in the area is that the theist is immodest not by virtue of occupying a tiny slice of the total possibility space, but by virtue of not having narrowed it down on the basis of good evidence. I suspect that theists do not, in fact, narrow down their half of the possibility space in an epistemically responsible way, but rather, are lead to their particular conception of god by virtue of its consonance with their cultural and personal values (that people persist in a 3-O conception in the face of the problem of evil seems to me strong evidence for this; the most famous problem for theism could be circumvented by positing a somewhat different god, but of course no one wants to). This does strike me as some form of epistemic immodesty. But, although I suspect this to be true, it does not seem particularly helpful--it is just a version of the old many-gods problem, and it assumes that the purported arguments for god's existence and specific 3-O nature fail. So I doubt it will convince anyone or move anything forward.

The upshot then, is that I don't think Draper has identified a novel form of epistemic immodesty that favors the atheist; to the extent that there is one nearby it is the old (highly contentious) one.

Dan Kervick

I never thought atheists as a group had any characteristic beliefs about "the original cause" of the universe.

I also have trouble understanding, if there were such an original cause, what could determine whether it is natural or supernatural.


I find these characterizations of S/N and T/A rather odd for the following reasons:

(1) The original cause of the (our?) world can be mental but not supernatural (e.g., if something like the simulation hypothesis is true).

(2) Since N and S have been defined in terms of the original cause of the world, I don't see how belief in elves is relevant here (unless we think that elves created the world).

(3) Suppose that I believe that the world has always been in existence but that it is ruled by Greek gods. According to these characterizations of S/N and T/A, I am not a super-naturalist (perhaps not even a theist). That seems odd.


I couldn't see how the last sentence was supposed to be supported by the other considerations in the post. How does one proposition occupying a relatively tiny chunk of logical space give me reason to reject it without evidence? (And even setting aside Eric Winsberg's apt concerns about where the measures over logical space are coming from.) Wouldn't similar reasoning suggest I can reject "I will win the lottery" without evidence?

Helen De Cruz

Moti: I don't know the specifics of Draper's characterizations, but here's a suggestion
1. I'm not sure if the simulation hypothesis would not ultimately be a naturalist account (suppose our simulators were natural entities), or supernaturalist (e.g., a Cartesian evil demon). So the simulation hypothesis could be under either S or N depending on what type of entity you suppose the simulator is
2. I introduced belief in elves to suggest that I think atheism is not a generic position. Most atheists do not believe in elves. So I think atheism in practice is more specific than just not-theism, even though per definition atheism is not-theism
3. The origin of the world does not need to be a temporal origin (e.g., Augustine was a theist who believed in eternal creation). It's a causal dependence relation.

Helen De Cruz

Draper takes atheists to be, per definition, non-theists, so their beliefs about the original cause of the universe are not specified at the outset. In practice, most atheists today are probably scientific naturalists. So they believe, for instance, that the existence of the universe is not caused by anything outside of itself. That makes the original cause of the universe natural, since the universe is natural.

Helen De Cruz

Jason: Hmm...I'm not sure how Draper would relate this to the lottery paradox. I think that nevertheless, having the burden of proof does not straightforwardly correlate with probabilities (although there is clearly a relationship between epistemic modesty and probability). It does seem reasonable to say that I do not have the burden of proof when I say I will not win the lottery (assuming a fair lottery and a tiny chance of winning), whereas I do have a burden of proof when I say I will win the lottery.

Philosophically Insecure

Thanks for clarifying for me.

I do get the sense that responses which appeal to popular atheistic beliefs are red herrings. It is right to say that those who claim "The universe was created by the big bang" bear a burden of proof, and may or may not be more modest than the theists claims. It just doesn't really matter if they do or not, at least, not if my semi-final paragraph is accurate. Even if it follows that atheists have immodest beliefs, the point is that a version of atheism can always be constructed that is more modest than theism.

This doesn't mean the argument works. I think Eric Winsberg's point below is correct and much of this argument is moot.


Thanks for the response, Helen.

1. Is there room in the figure for a naturalist simulation hypothesis? Would it be under S or N?

2. Wouldn't it make more sense to separate beliefs in entities such as gods, elves, etc.? For example, I can believe that God exists but that elves don't (or vice versa).

3. Suppose I believe that the world is self-caused (e.g., oscillatory world) but I also believe that a supernatural being governs the world (though that being is not a creator), am I a naturalist or supernaturalist, theist or atheist?

Michael Drake

I think I agree. It's difficult to see how you can have a purely formal assessment of epistemic modesty, i.e., without looking at the substance and methods that inform the competing baselines.

And what's wrong with immodesty, anyway? If you got it, flaunt it!


I agree that if I say "I will win the lottery" (or "God exists"), then I've got a burden of proof. I'm not getting why if I say "I won't win the lottery" (or "God doesn't exist") I don't have a burden of proof. In the absence of any evidence, why isn't agnosticism the default position?

Dan Kervick

So they believe, for instance, that the existence of the universe is not caused by anything outside of itself. That makes the original cause of the universe natural, since the universe is natural.

OK Helen. But to me that seems a a fallacious inference from the premise that the universe as no cause outside of itself to the conclusion that it is self-caused.


Yes, Dan, I'm not sure I would've put naturalism and supernaturalism in terms of original causation (if the universe's existence is just a brute fact, for instance, nothing caused it - I suppose such a brute fact universe is still compatible with some forms of supernaturalism, e.g., the existence of non-creating gods (or demiurgs that work with existing matter).


Jason, I'm no expert on the lottery paradox, but it seems what you are proposing is quite strong. It would not be rationally acceptable for me to say "I won't win the lottery", but it still seems that I don't have a burden of proof to assert that won't win the lottery, given a tiny chance of winning. Of course, an agnostic is arguing for something even more epistemically modest, since her position is just the whole area on the figure (gray + black). But I suspect to Draper theism is such a tiny speck in the realm of epistemically possible world views, it doesn't make much difference with atheism. I keep on finding it a bit problematic that Draper seems to get higher probability (or acceptability, or whatever) out of being less informative.
Michael: Immodest views, of course, are not problematic in themselves. Swinburne would argue that 3O-theism is elegant and simple, and therefore a very plausible hypothesis. .


Hi Helen,

While taking all this in, I found myself reflecting on C.S. Lewis's autobiographical account of how he became a Christian. I think Draper, though he might disagree with Lewis's reasons, would approve of his methodology. Lewis moved from an atheist position to Idealism, to Pantheism, to Theism, to Christianity. We could describe it as moving from N to S, narrowing it down to P, then T, then C.


I agree with Eric Winsberg about the problem of why, in the absence of prior information, a more specific statement always has a lower probability of being true than a general statement. I'd like to add to his observation the problem of how much probability to allot to naturalism in relation to supernaturalism. One can think of an infinity of supernatural entities. But there is not an infinity of actually existing natural possibilities, by which I mean there are some basic physical laws governing the universe. So then it would seem supernaturalism should be granted infinitely more probability than naturalism. Of course, one could say that similar to natural entities all sharing basic physical properties, supernatural entities have in common their supernaturality. Yet, this seems an implausible way out of the problem, since we can imagine many non-contradictory physical laws (and therewith many natural entities) which are not the case in reality, and they all share with the physical laws and natural entities that actually do exist their physicality. So if one thinks all possible things sharing physicality should be granted equal probability to all possible things sharing supernaturality, the actually existing physical entities take up much less probability space than all possible supernatural things. It seems to me that similarly, one could argue that even under a rather specific theistic position, there are infinitely more possibilities than under atheism. Since most religions leave much about their god or gods unknown, within that range infinity is possible.

Why should epistemic probabilities be real ones?
In order to speak meaningfully on real probabilities one has to admit the principle of sufficient reason. If not anything could happen without any reason and thereby destroying the whole idea of probabilities. When anything could happen at any moment, everything would be equally highly probable and highly improbable at the same time and hence the idea of probability itself would be meaningless. Without reason for regularity you cannot stick to a notion of probability. The problem then is that the principle of sufficient reason leads inevitably to necessitarism, which means that there is only one possible world that is necessary. Therefore the grounding of ontological probabilities leads to modal fatalism and renders only epistemic possibility possible, which is only a sign of our epistemic finitude.
But to accept the principle of sufficient reason leads to a causa sui and one can interpret maybe in both ways a theistic and a natrualistic one (see Spinoza: deus sive natura).

On the other hand, rejecting this principle and accepting the contingency of everything (see Quentin Meillassoux) can lead to a non-existent god still to come or to the ex nihilo emergence of supernatural events in our world (for Meillassoux: life,the mental, etc.).

To conclude: Rejecting the principle of reason which grounds probabilities and can lead to theism implies to accept the opposite: a principle of unreason, where everything can happen that is non-contradictory, including the supernatural, extra-physical, etc. and nothing could happen as well, because the idea of probability became meaningless and it would be impossible to attribute real measures of probability on events that have non because every is totally contingent, even the measure of probability.

So, if you try to ground probabilities ontologically you either make them necessary probabilities implying a necessetarism that leads to theism or some ultimate reason at least, which can be nature as eternally existing maybe too. Or you destroy the idea of real probabilities by making reality totally contingent and chaotic, making naturalism and supernaturalism or mixtures of both possible.

Either there is a necessary entity or there is none. If there is non god could come to existence contingently.

I excuse me beforehand not to be very clear, but hope I was able to show that to argue with probabilities can be problematic. Ontologically ungrounded probabilities don't posses any epistemic value, and are without grounding mere opinions. If grounded the grounding itself may lead to a necessary entity.

Paul Draper

Moti and Helen: my definitions of "naturalism" and "supernaturalism" are actually a bit different from the ones Helen attributes to me. Roughly, naturalism is the view that something physical is the original cause, not of something called "the world", but instead of mental entities. Similarly, supernaturalism says that the original cause, not of "the world", but of physical entities is mental. I think this helps with some but not all of your concerns.

Francois Tremblay

Since the mental is a specific subset of the physical, S is always less modest than N. Therefore supernaturalists always have the burden of proof.

Helen De Cruz

I'm not sure about that. Let's take, for instance, eliminative materialism, according to which the mental does not have a separate ontological status, or eliminative idealism, according to which the physical doesn't have a separate ontological status. I don't see how either of these extreme cases is less epistemically modest. Your view that the mental is a subset of the physical expresses a particular ontological viewpoint (e.g., emergentism - I'm not saying this is your viewpoint, just that it's compatible with the assertion "the mental is a specific subset of the physical"). But the supernaturalist might say that the physical is a subset of the mental.

Francois Tremblay

All I am saying is that minds are the result of physical brains. Are you denying that? I don't really see what metaphysical views have to do with what is really a scientific claim.

Helen De Cruz

No, of course I don't deny the scientific explanation for minds. But we're talking about the ultimate causal structure of the universe, which is either physical or mental, and about the ontological status of minds and physical objects. Draper is suggesting that whether we take the mental or physical as ultimately basic is equally epistemically modest. It's true that when we look around us minds are the result of physical brains, and one could, on the basis of this, say that it's unlikely that a mind (such as of God or the gods) would exist without a brain. (I think Dawkins makes an argument like this). But this is more an argument from analogy, and no longer appeals to epistemic modesty;

Francois Tremblay

"But this is more an argument from analogy, and no longer appeals to epistemic modesty;"

Why not? It seems to me like this is pretty arbitrary.

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