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Atheism = Untheism + Antitheism

85 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2009 02:19AM

One occasionally sees such remarks as, "What good does it do to go around being angry about the nonexistence of God?" (on the one hand) or "Babies are natural atheists" (on the other).  It seems to me that such remarks, and the rather silly discussions that get started around them, show that the concept "Atheism" is really made up of two distinct components, which one might call "untheism" and "antitheism".

A pure "untheist" would be someone who grew up in a society where the concept of God had simply never been invented - where writing was invented before agriculture, say, and the first plants and animals were domesticated by early scientists.  In this world, superstition never got past the hunter-gatherer stage - a world seemingly haunted by mostly amoral spirits - before coming into conflict with Science and getting slapped down.

Hunter-gatherer superstition isn't much like what we think of as "religion".  Early Westerners often derided it as not really being religion at all, and they were right, in my opinion.  In the hunter-gatherer stage the supernatural agents aren't particularly moral, or charged with enforcing any rules; they may be placated with ceremonies, but not worshipped.  But above all - they haven't yet split their epistemology.  Hunter-gatherer cultures don't have special rules for reasoning about "supernatural" entities, or indeed an explicit distinction between supernatural entities and natural ones; the thunder spirits are just out there in the world, as evidenced by lightning, and the rain dance is supposed to manipulate them - it may not be perfect but it's the best rain dance developed so far, there was that famous time when it worked...

If you could show hunter-gatherers a raindance that called on a different spirit and worked with perfect reliability, or, equivalently, a desalination plant, they'd probably chuck the old spirit right out the window.  Because there are no special rules for reasoning about it - nothing that denies the validity of the Elijah Test that the previous rain-dance just failed.  Faith is a post-agricultural concept.  Before you have chiefdoms where the priests are a branch of government, the gods aren't good, they don't enforce the chiefdom's rules, and there's no penalty for questioning them.

And so the Untheist culture, when it invents science, simply concludes in a very ordinary way that rain turns out to be caused by condensation in clouds rather than rain spirits; and at once they say "Oops" and chuck the old superstitions out the window; because they only got as far as superstitions, and not as far as anti-epistemology.

The Untheists don't know they're "atheists" because no one has ever told them what they're supposed to not believe in - nobody has invented a "high god" to be chief of the pantheon, let alone monolatry or monotheism.

However, the Untheists do know that they don't believe in tree spirits.  And we shall even suppose that the Untheists don't believe in tree spirits, because they have a sophisticated and good epistemology - they understand why it is in general a bad idea to postulate ontologically basic mental entities.

So if you come up to the Untheists and say:

"The universe was created by God -"

"By what?"

"By a, ah, um, God is the Creator - the Mind that chose to make the universe -"

"So the universe was created by an intelligent agent.  Well, that's the standard Simulation Hypothesis, but do you have actual evidence confirming this?  You sounded very certain -"

"No, not like the Matrix!  God isn't in another universe simulating this one, God just... is.  He's indescribable.  He's the First Cause, the Creator of everything -"

"Okay, that sounds like you just postulated an ontologically basic mental entity.  And you offered a mysterious answer to a mysterious question.  Besides, where are you getting all this stuff?  Could you maybe start by telling us about your evidence - the new observation you're trying to interpret?"

"I don't need any evidence!  I have faith!"

"You have what?"

And at this very moment the Untheists have become, for the first time, Atheists.  And what they just acquired, between the two points, was Antitheism - explicit arguments against explicit theism.  You can be an Untheist without ever having heard of God, but you can't be an Antitheist.

Of course the Untheists are not inventing new rules to refute God, just applying their standard epistemological guidelines that their civilization developed in the course of rejecting, say, vitalism.  But then that's just what we rationalist folk claim antitheism is supposed to be, in our own world: a strictly standard analysis of religion which turns out to issue a strong rejection - both epistemically and morally, and not after too much time.  Every antitheist argument is supposed to be a special case of general rules of epistemology and morality which ought to have applications beyond religion - visible in the encounters of science with vitalism, say.

With this distinction in hand, you can make a bit more sense of some modern debates - for example, "Why care so much about God not existing?" could become "What is the public benefit from publicizing antitheism?"  Or "What good is it to just be against something?  Where is the positive agenda?" becomes "Less antitheism and more untheism in our atheism, please!"  And "Babies are born atheists", which sounds a bit odd, is now understood to sound odd because babies have no grasp of antitheism.

And as for the claim that religion is compatible with Reason - well, is there a single religious claim that a well-developed, sophisticated Untheist culture would not reject?  When they have no reason to suspend judgment, and no anti-epistemology of separate magisteria, and no established religions in their society to avoid upsetting?

There's nothing inherently fulfilling about arguing against Goddism - in a society of Untheists, no one would ever give the issue a second thought.  But in this world, at least, insanity is not a good thing, and sanity is worth defending, and explicit antitheism by the likes of Richard Dawkins would surely be a public service conditioning on the proposition of it actually working.  (Which it may in fact be doing; the next generation is growing up increasingly atheist.)  Yet in the long run, the goal is an Untheistic society, not an Atheistic one - one in which the question "What's left, when God is gone?" is greeted by a puzzled look and "What exactly is missing?"

Comments (179)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 01 July 2009 12:38:23PM *  11 points [-]

So the universe was created by an intelligent agent. Well, that's the standard Simulation Hypothesis [...]

I've been thinking about a slightly different question: is base-level reality physics-like, or optimization-like, and if it's optimization-like, did it start out that way?

Here's an example that illustrates what my terms mean. Suppose we are living in base-level reality which started with the Big Bang and evolution, and we eventually develop an AI that takes over the entire universe. Then I would say that base-level reality started off physics-like, then becomes optimization-like.

But it's surely conceivable that a universe could start off being optimization-like, and this hypothesis doesn't seem to violate Occam's Razor in any obvious way. Consider this related question: what is the shortest program that outputs a human mind? Is it an optimization program, or a physics simulation?

An optimization procedure can be very simple, if computing time isn't an issue, but we don't know whether there is a concisely describable objective function that we are the optimum of. On the other hand, the mathematical laws of physics are also simple, but we don't know how rare intelligent life is, so we don't know how many bits of coordinates are needed to locate a human brain in the universe.

Does anyone have an argument that settles these questions, in either direction?

Comment author: AllanCrossman 01 July 2009 01:08:24PM *  4 points [-]

Suppose we are living in base-level reality which started with the Big Bang and evolution, and we eventually develop an AI that takes over the entire universe. Then I would say that base-level reality started off physics-like, then becomes optimization-like.

Hmm? The base-level that the AI is running on is still physics, right?

[ETA the word "on", which I missed out]

Comment author: MichaelVassar 01 July 2009 03:36:10PM 0 points [-]

No. That's the point of the question.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 July 2009 06:16:16PM *  2 points [-]

I'm confused by your comment, but I'll try to answer anyway.

As an agent in environment, you can consider the environment in behavioral semantics: environment is an equivalence class of all the things that behave the same as what you see. Instead of minimal model, this gives a maximal model. Everything about territory remains black box, except the structure imposed by the way you see the territory, by the way you observe things, perform actions, and value strategies. This dissolves the question about what the territory "really is".

Comment author: cousin_it 02 July 2009 09:12:47AM *  0 points [-]

Your answer strikes me as unsatisfactory: if we apply it to humans, we lose interest in electricity, atoms, quarks etc. An agent can opt to dig deeper into reality to find the base-level stuff, or it can "dissolve the question" and walk away satisfied. Why would you want to do the latter?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 July 2009 10:04:41AM *  1 point [-]

The agent has preferences over these black boxes (or strategies that instantiate them), and digging deeper may be a good idea. To get rid of the (unobservable) structure in environment, the preferences for the elements of environment have to be translated in terms of preferences over the whole situations. The structure of environment becomes the structure of preferences over the black boxes.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 01 July 2009 06:58:54PM 0 points [-]

Two models can behave the same as what you've seen so far, but diverge in future predictions. Which model should you give greater weight to? That's the question I'm asking.

Comment author: robzahra 02 July 2009 12:23:58AM 2 points [-]

The current best answer we know seems to be to write each consistent hypothesis in a formal language, and weight longer explanations inverse exponentially, renormalizing such that your total probability sums to 1. Look up aixi, universal prior

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 July 2009 08:18:15PM *  1 point [-]

In behavioral interpretation, you weight observations, or effects of possible strategies (on observations/actions), not the way territory is. The base level is the agent, and rules of its game with environment. Everything else describes the form of this interaction, and answers the questions not about the underlying reality, but about how the agent sees it. If the distinction you are making doesn't reach the level of influencing what the agent experiences, it's absent from this semantics: no weighting, no moving parts, no distinction at all.

For a salient example: if the agent in the same fixed internal state is instantiated multiple times both in the same environment at the same time, and at different times, or even in different environments, with different probabilities for some notion of that, all of these instances and possibilities together go under one atomic black-box symbol for the territory corresponding to that state of the agent, with no internal structure. The structure however can be represented in preferences for strategies or sets of strategies for the agent.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 02 July 2009 08:52:47AM 0 points [-]

Vladimir, are you proposing this "behavioral interpretation" for an AI design, or for us too? Is this an original idea of yours? Can you provide a link to a paper describing it in more detail?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 July 2009 09:53:37AM *  1 point [-]

I'm generalizing/analogizing from the stuff I read on coalgebras, and in this case I'm pretty sure the idea makes sense, it's probably explored elsewhere. You can start here, or directly from Introduction to Coalgebra: Towards Mathematics of States and Observations (PDF).

There are many similarities (or dualities) between algebras and coalgebras which are often useful as guiding principles. But one should keep in mind that there are also significant differences between algebra and coalgebra. For example, in a computer science setting, algebra is mainly of interest for dealing with finite data elements – such as finite lists or trees – using induction as main definition and proof principle. A key feature of coalgebra is that it deals with potentially infinite data elements, and with appropriate state-based notions and techniques for handling these objects. Thus, algebra is about construction, whereas coalgebra is about deconstruction – understood as observation and modification.

A rule of thumb is: data types are algebras, and state-based systems are coalgebras. But this does not always give a clear-cut distinction. For instance, is a stack a data type or does it have a state? In many cases however, this rule of thumb works: natural numbers are algebras (as we are about to see), and machines are coalgebras. Indeed, the latter have a state that can be observed and modified.

[...]

Initial algebras (in Sets) can be built as so-called term models: they contain everything that can be built from the operations themselves, and nothing more. Similarly, we saw that final coalgebras consist of observations only.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2009 04:21:16PM 2 points [-]

Can something be optimization-like without being ontologically mental? In other words, if a higher level is a universal Turing machine that devotes more computing resources to other Turing machines depending on how many 1s they've written so far as opposed to 0s, is that the sort of optimization-like thing we're talking about? I'm assuming you don't mean anything intrinsically teleological.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 01 July 2009 06:25:55PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, I think if base-level reality started out optimization-like, it's not mind-like, or at least not any kind of mind that we'd be familiar with. It might be something like Schmidhuber's Goedel Machine with a relatively simple objective function.

Comment author: Leon 19 March 2013 07:10:36AM 0 points [-]

What does "intrinsically teleological" mean?

Comment author: Peterdjones 21 April 2011 02:27:21PM 3 points [-]

The universe presumably isn't optimised for intelligence, since most organisms are baceria, etc, and isn't optimised for life, since most of it is barren. See Penrose's argument against the Anthropic Principle in Road to Reality.

Comment author: samineru 19 January 2012 07:23:11AM 0 points [-]

we don't know whether there is a concisely describable objective function that we are the optimum of

I think Wei_Dai was trying to suggest an objective function beyond our ken.

Comment author: Drahflow 02 July 2009 01:19:35PM 1 point [-]

The physical universe seems to optimize for low-energy / high-entropy states, via some kind of local decision process.

So I think your two options actually coincide.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 July 2009 06:06:15PM 5 points [-]

The universe doesn't optimize entropy, it is people who make strong inferences coming out this way. See e.g. E. T. Jaynes (1988). `The Evolution of Carnot's Principle'. Maximum-Entropy and Bayesian Methods in Science and Engineering 1:267+ (PDF)

On the other hand, you can always look at how something is, and formulate an optimization problem for which the way things are is a solution, saying that "so, the system optimizes this property". This is called variational method, and it isn't terribly ontologically enlightening.

Comment author: Sideways 01 July 2009 05:07:28PM *  -1 points [-]

How about both?

If I understand your terms correctly, it may be possible for realities that are not base-level to be optimization-like without being physics-like, e.g. the reality generated by playing a game of Nomic, a game in which players change the rules of the game. But this is only possible because of interference by optimization processes from a lower-level reality, whose goals ("win", "have fun") refer to states of physics-like processes. I suspect that base-level reality be physics-like. To paraphrase John Donne, no optimization process is an island--otherwise how could one tell the difference between an optimization process and purely random modification?

On the other hand, the "evolution" optimization process arose in our universe without a requirement for lower-level interference. Not that I assume our universe is base-level reality, but it seems like evolution or analogous optimizations could arise at any level. So perhaps physics-like realities are also intrinsically optimization-like.

Comment author: mathemajician 01 July 2009 09:58:14AM *  21 points [-]

One of my favourite posts here in a while. When talking with theists I find it helpful to clarify that I'm not so much against their God, rather my core problem is that I have different epistemological standards to them. Not only does this take some of the emotive heat out of the conversation, but I also think it's the point where science/rationalism/atheism etc. is at its strongest and their system is very weak.

With respect to untheistic society, I remember when a guy I knew shifted to New Zealand from the US and was disappointed to find that relatively few people were interested in talking to him about atheism. The reason, I explained, is that most people simply aren't sufficiently interested in religion to be bothered with atheism. This is a society where the leaders of both major parties in the last election publicly stated that they were not believers and... almost nobody cared.

Comment author: curiousgeorge 14 January 2013 12:01:44AM 2 points [-]

I enjoyed this post very much as well as I am interested in this topic. I am not a mathmatician and only had entry level college philosophy, so 80% of the discussion is over my head. I wanted to say that your comment that "most people aren't sufficiently interested in religion to be bothered with atheism" in New Zeland was very helpful.

This may make no logical sense, but the meaning I took away is that if that if an individual is not sufficiently interested in religion (or feel he has sufficient reason to disbelieve Christianity in my case) then that individual should not be bothered that he is an atheist. I know the point of these discussions is to discuss and not compliment, but I wanted to say that your comment helped me tremendously.

Comment author: Sideways 01 July 2009 04:49:13AM 8 points [-]

If you could show hunter-gatherers a raindance that called on a different spirit and worked with perfect reliability, or, equivalently, a desalination plant, they'd probably chuck the old spirit right out the window.

There's no need to speculate--this has actually happened. From what I know of the current state of Native American culture (which is admittedly limited), modern science is fully accepted for practical purposes, and traditional beliefs guide when to party, how to mourn, how to celebrate rites of passage, etc.

The only people who seem to think science conflicts with Native American belief systems, are New Age converts coming from a Western religious background. From the linked article:

A Minnesota couple who refused chemotherapy for their 13-year-old son was ordered Friday to have the boy re-evaluated... Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg found Daniel Hauser has been "medically neglected" by his parents, Colleen and Anthony Hauser, who belong to a religious group that believes in using only natural healing methods practiced by some American Indians.

Comment author: Kevin92 16 February 2016 02:07:49AM 3 points [-]

I've always thought saying that babies are atheists is like saying rocks are atheists.

Comment author: MendelSchmiedekamp 01 July 2009 11:27:01PM 3 points [-]

Could you be more precise than ontologically basic mental entities, I've read over the Carrier article on the subject and more and more the concept appears like a subtle rhetorical trick - where the term (especially what qualifies as mental) takes on slightly different meanings at different times.

As it is, I'm tempted to treat the whole idea as dangerously shaky - especially as depending on your ideas of "mental" and "basic" you could consider thermodynamics to be unambiguously supernatural and the medieval Christian God as natural.

I apologize, though, as I realize is somewhat off topic. But it might be important to note that it is unlikely for pure Untheist to develop rhetorical strategies based on Theism without having encountered them before.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 April 2015 09:49:49PM 0 points [-]

Mental entities can be modeled as Agents — with a utility function.

Thermodynamics can't. It's an entropic process, all it does is uniformly increase entropy in the universe. It does not do work in order to shape reality into a set of desirable states.

In fact all basic laws of (continuous, Hamiltonian (if I got that one right)) physics are entropy increasing and are only poorly modeled as agents.

Humans are much better modeled as agents. As are fictional deities and spirits.

An ontologically fundamental mental entity is 1) inherently indivisible (like an electron or a photon) and 2) an agent.

Comment author: Jack 02 July 2009 12:16:31AM 6 points [-]

Two points.

First, I've also heard antitheism defined as the position that religious belief is harmful (think Hitchens book). So that one could without logical contradiction be an antitheist and a theist.

Second, my understanding of the current experimental data is that humans have hardwired religious tendencies that would make an Untheistic society very unlikely to appear. Obviously it works for a thought experiment but but saying "Babies are natural atheists/untheists" is problematic because while that might be true strictly speaking babies are likely natural animists and possibly immortalists.

Comment author: ciphergoth 03 July 2009 07:37:46AM 23 points [-]

humans have hardwired religious tendencies

Remember, religion is adapted to the wiring, not the other way around. As I've said elsewhere, it's not a God-shaped hole, it's a hole-shaped God.

Do you live in the USA? Few people from Sweden conclude that religion is an unshakeably deep part of the human psyche.

Comment author: Jack 03 July 2009 10:22:17PM 2 points [-]

I didn't say it was unshakable. Just innate. I'm not convinced religion didn't spring from the wiring... where else could it spring from? The only option is the external world and I think we agree there is nothing there to generate religion.

Sweden, as I understand it, is a civilized land with a scientific mindset. The fact that they've overcome a bias says nothing about the existence of that bias.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 July 2009 05:13:15AM 18 points [-]

hardwired religious tendencies

Hardwired anthropomorphic tendencies. Hunter-gatherer superstitions don't much resemble what we think of as religions. The gods are often stupid.

Comment author: ragnarok 24 July 2012 10:48:34AM -1 points [-]

Jack, there's a difference between knowledge and belief which your post doesn't address. I've sometimes seen it argued that antitheism is a faith in the same way as theism is, but where there is evidence we do not speak of belief. I don't think you can be an antitheist and a theist without contradiction because antitheism doesn't contradict the knowable.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 July 2009 03:40:52AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: MichaelVassar 01 July 2009 05:24:51AM 2 points [-]

"is there a single religious claim that a well-developed, sophisticated Untheist culture would not reject?"

I propose "suffering requires attachment" as a VERY well developed VERY non-obvious example. "Don't murder" is a very poorly developed and very obvious example. "It's bad to hate" is probably the most important idea that appears to me to have originated with Christianity, but its a pretty important idea. Another pretty important Christian idea, I think, is "literal truth is underrated", ironically, but then again, I'm not entirely joking when, building upon Hume, I call those who call themselves Atheists "Christians" and those who most emphatically call themselves "Christians" "Pagans" (Roman for Hicks).

Comment author: Psychohistorian 01 July 2009 05:58:22AM 2 points [-]

I propose "suffering requires attachment" as a VERY well developed VERY non-obvious example.

That doesn't seem like a religious claim so much as a claim originally (if so) made in a religious context. It's an (admittedly fuzzy) empirical claim about suffering, once you define your terms.

More generally, claims made within religions seem to break down into three categories: claims about God, claims about the world, and claims about God's relation/action within the world. It seems clear that Untheists would find nothing useful in the first or last of those, and it seems improper to call claims about the world "religious." Claiming the Earth is six thousand years old is not a religious claim; it's an empirical claim that some religious people believe irrespective of evidence. Similarly, true empirical claims made by religion are hardly religious by nature; if you disproved the religion to a believer, it seems unlikely he would give up those empirical beliefs, too.

Moral statements like "It's bad to hate," are a bit more complex. If they're categorical (like, "Don't murder"), they have no truth content ; I doubt Untheists would have categorical imperatives. If they're hypothetical (don't murder, or else people will murder you/society will collapse/baby Jesus will cry), then they can be evaluated empirically, and should be accepted or rejected based on supporting evidence.

More succinctly, EY's claim seems right. I doubt any strictly religious claim would be accepted by Untheists.

Comment author: prase 01 July 2009 08:43:44AM 5 points [-]

It is worth to clarify what exactly counts as a religious claim. Else we are in a risk of arguing along the lines "whatever claim unreligious society accepts is by definition not religious". Then clearly the question whether there is a single religious claim that Untheist culture would not reject would be empty.

Comment author: Zubon 04 July 2009 06:21:16AM 1 point [-]

To give a concrete example of non-theistically coming to "suffering requires attachment," see Epicurus' ethics. I don't know if you would describe the ancient Greeks as untheists, but their view was certainly something other than modern monotheism. Epicurus was an atheist against a pantheon; I presume that monotheists were occasionally killed as ~atheists in that kind of environment.

Comment author: MBlume 01 July 2009 06:35:37PM 1 point [-]

I actually took "It's bad to hate" as an empirical statement, cashed out as "It is a fact of human psychology that dwelling constantly on negative feelings toward others will generally make you miserable, and lead to outcomes which you would not currently rate highly". This is an insight which I think is strongly implied by some of the Greek dramatic literature, though.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 01 July 2009 03:37:58PM 1 point [-]

I doubt you have spoken to many untheists if you don't expect them to have categorical imperatives.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 01 July 2009 07:45:33PM *  0 points [-]

I doubt you have spoken to many untheists if you don't expect them to have categorical imperatives.

An example would be nifty.

I tend to read "categorical imperative" in the strongest, Kantian sense, an imperative statement that is a priori valid irrespective of context or reasoning - i.e. murder isn't wrong because people don't like it, or because it reduces happiness, or because it makes baby Jesus cry; murder is just wrong and you just shouldn't do it period. Perhaps I should not have raised that distinction without defining what I meant more rigorously. Unless there's some counterexample I'm overlooking, of course.

Comment author: greim 02 July 2009 07:11:12PM *  0 points [-]

I tend to read "categorical imperative" in the strongest, Kantian sense, an imperative statement that is a priori valid irrespective of context or reasoning - i.e. murder is just wrong and you just shouldn't do it period.

If "murder"=="the wrong kind of killing" then "the wrong kind of killing is just wrong and you just shouldn't do it period" is a tautology. It would seem you can get cheap categorical imperatives by jumping to tautologies, but they're mostly useless since you still have to establish whether it's murder in the first place (presumably by resorting to context and/or reasoning).

I suspect non-tautological categorical ethical imperatives are rare, and furthermore hotly disputed among ethicists. For example some groups hold that "killing is categorically wrong," but that view is under heavy debate.

Edit: I retract my statement about non-tautological categorical ethical imperatives being rare, at least in per capita terms. Anecdotally, premarital sex and disobeying your parents would seem to be examples of things that are widely held to be categorically wrong, but certainly not universally agreed-upon.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 02 July 2009 11:56:16PM 1 point [-]

Plenty of people hold essentially categorical imperatives to be true. I sincerely doubt any of these people are untheists. The essence of a categorical imperative is that it is completely divorced from evidence; categorical imperatives are by nature a priori. I believe they have no place in a rational mind, though I would love to see contrary evidence if it exists.

Comment author: thomblake 01 July 2009 02:37:13AM 1 point [-]

"Atheism" is really made up of two distinct components, which one might call "untheism" and "antitheism".

This distinction is isomorphic to the traditional distinction between negative and positive atheism, respectively. Of course, the Catholics would use "positive atheism" in a slightly different sense, referring to those who believe in God but reject him anyway, so perhaps newer jargon is in order (not that this field of inquiry has any lack of distinctions)

Comment author: Alicorn 01 July 2009 02:52:08AM 4 points [-]

I'm wary of calling any use of this region of vocabulary "traditional". There might well be some unbroken progress from etymological origin to well-defined current use of those terms, but if there is, it's lost in a sea of neologism, and arbitrary new definitions of old words, and rampant use or misuse by the completely or partially ignorant.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2009 04:00:53AM 3 points [-]

To make the distinction clear, if "weak atheism" aka "negative atheism" is lack of belief in God, and strong atheism is belief in lack of God, then:

Weak Untheism would be having never heard of God, but having already invented such epistemic rules that, faced with the proposition of God / religion, you will fail to accept it.

Strong Untheism would be having never heard of God, but having already developed epistemic rules of sufficient strength that, first faced with the proposition of God / religion, you will pass definite negative judgment on it.

Comment author: swestrup 01 July 2009 09:45:59AM 4 points [-]

To echo scientists who say that something is "Not Even Wrong" if its untestable and/or non-scientific to the point of being incomprehensible, my position on the whole religion question is one that I tend to call Ignosticism in which I say that religions definitions of God are so self-contradictory that I don't even know what they mean by God.

Generally, when some asks if I believe in God, I tell them to define it. When they ask me why, I ask them if they believe in Frub. If so, why? If not, why? Without me giving them a definition, how can they possibly give a rational answer.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2009 04:18:46PM 4 points [-]

Well, sure. By the time the Untheists had talked with any theist from our world for a short period of time, they would deduce that "God" could not be cashed out as a consistent model of anything but rather consisted of the conversational rule "Agree with extreme positive statements".

Comment author: prase 01 July 2009 08:52:13AM 0 points [-]

I have never understood the difference between weak and strong atheism. Either I think God probably exists or that he probably doesn't, but what's the difference between lack of belief in a proposition and a belief in its converse? Is it that, say, who thinks that God doesn't exist with p=0.8 is a weak atheist while with p=1-10^(-9) he would be a strong one? Or is a weak atheist only who has suspended judgement (what's the difference from an agnostic, then)?

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 02 July 2009 05:09:18PM 4 points [-]

Is it that, say, who thinks that God doesn't exist with p=0.8 is a weak atheist while with p=1-10^(-9) he would be a strong one?

A hypothesis: the people who coined the terminology didn't have this concept that you have, of probability theory as normative reasoning.

Comment author: AlexU 01 July 2009 01:54:37PM 3 points [-]

Quick: is there an 85 year old former plumber by the name of Saul Morgan eating a breakfast of steak and eggs in a diner in North Side of Chicago right now? Who knows, right? You certainly don't have an affirmative belief that there is, but it's also true that, perhaps up until this moment, you didn't affirmatively believe that there wasn't such a man either. Lacking a belief in something is not the same as believing in its converse. To affirmatively believe in the non-existence of every conceivable entity or the falsity of ever proposition would require an infinite number of beliefs.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 July 2009 02:00:06PM 8 points [-]

Beliefs are procedural, you don't need them all written out explicitly. This allows to hold infinite number of beliefs, each of them equipped with a specific level of certainty. I never before thought about the question of what the value of 385+23 is, but I still have a belief that 385+23=408 and also that 385+23 is not 409.

Comment author: MBlume 01 July 2009 06:41:51PM 3 points [-]

I reservedly agree. Taken to extremes your position implies logical omniscience -- that I already have a belief one way or the other about the truth of the Riemann hypothesis because I know the basic axioms of complex mathematics, for example.

On the other hand, if I have a random number generator about to spit out a number between 1 and 10^12 I do assign an implicit probability 10^-12 to each number in that range, even though I (couldn't possibly) explicitly list them out.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 July 2009 08:11:29PM 1 point [-]

The way beliefs are "procedural" includes the requirement that you must be able to instantiate them, but permitting this bounded step vastly increases the number of possible beliefs. Beliefs are answers to questions, and epistemic mind is a question-answering engine. Without logical omniscience, the process of computation increases information about statements over time (even without learning new facts from environment). When first confronted with a question of what 385+23 is, the one-second reply is "about 400", and only then "408".

Comment author: thomblake 01 July 2009 04:41:45PM 0 points [-]

I believe that would still be a contentious position in epistemology, but I agree.

Comment author: prase 01 July 2009 04:09:06PM *  2 points [-]

As V. Nesov said, not having thought about it isn't important. I have no evidence about plumbers in Chicago, but if I am presented with the question, I can think for a while and assign some probability to the proposition. I assume population of cca. 1 million, out of which former or present plumbers are, say, 1%, from what the age group select another 1%, the name and surname make another factor... so I am almost sure that there isn't such a man. Affirmatively, if you want.

Another point is that even if I accept that I hadn't had an affirmative belief about Saul Morgan before you have presented the question, I find the analogy misleading, because practically all atheists have heard about the hypothesis of God.

Of course you can meet a claim and decide to not care about it. But it seems to me that it's almost always case of very unimportant questions. I can't imagine a person who wilfully suspends judgement about eternal damnation and torture in hell, meaning of life, basis for morality and all other important subjects traditionally associated with religion. You can quickly conclude that religion is bogus and then go thinking about something else. But to leave the question genuinely open?

Comment author: eirenicon 01 July 2009 02:15:29PM 2 points [-]

A weak atheist thinks there is no reason to believe God exists. A strong atheist thinks there is reason to believe God does not exist. The practical difference is that the strong atheist defends his position while the weak atheist doesn't think he needs to.

In a way, it's the difference between not wanting to eat spinach and thinking spinach should not be eaten. The former position does not require an epistemological defence.

Comment author: prase 01 July 2009 04:15:30PM 2 points [-]

Liking spinach (or a spinach-free society) is a statement about one's values. Belief in God is a statement about external world.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2009 04:22:18PM 2 points [-]

Wouldn't it be nice if that were the way it actually worked.

Comment author: prase 01 July 2009 04:32:11PM 1 point [-]

OK. Belief in God should be a statement about external world.

Comment author: tut 02 July 2009 12:42:24PM 0 points [-]

The difference is what would happen if they were to encounter evidence for the existence of a deity. A weak atheist would start to believe no matter how weak the evidence, wheras the strong atheist would only start to believe if the evidence was stronger than his prior evidence against god. And the strong atheist would probably be much more dilligent in trying to defeat arguments for god.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 July 2009 05:55:26PM *  1 point [-]

The difference is what would happen if they were to encounter evidence for the existence of a deity.

But then it won't be God, it'll be the specific thing which this is evidence of. "God" is a word gone wrong.

Comment author: prase 03 July 2009 09:38:43AM *  0 points [-]

Assuming that "believe" in your usage means "p(God exists)>0.5" in my usage, and similarly "disbelieve"="p<0.5", this would mean that weak atheists are at exact p=0.5, which is a zero measure set. Such people don't exist.

Seriously, it is difficult to imagine an opinion which can be reversed by literally any evidence against, no matter how weak.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 31 October 2011 06:28:47AM 1 point [-]

"I don't need any evidence! I have faith!"

"You have what?"

And at this very moment the Untheists have become, for the first time, Atheists.

In another thread, someone called himself an "Afaithist". I think it's rather catchy, and much more to the point than atheist.

Comment author: Paamayim 08 September 2009 02:08:10AM 1 point [-]

I changed my official religious status, funnily enough, from "atheist" to "antitheist" about a week after this was posted without reading it. What's more odd is I was attempting to spare the Goddists of the same ambiguity you're discussing. How about that?

Comment author: sershe 09 January 2013 02:53:43PM 0 points [-]

Is there a Russian translation of this article? I'd like to make one, wanted to double check in case if it already exists.

Comment author: IcyDragon 15 September 2011 08:42:54PM 0 points [-]

I don't remember whose comment that I read, but I can say I grew up without hearing about religion until the end of middle. And with saying that I didn't have a religion or even think about anything close to that. I was told to join different religions by different kinds of people when thay learned of that and I took the ideas as a childrens story and think of it like that. I don't really have a point, but just wanted to put out there that growing up without hearing about religion doesn't mean we don't believe they're just unaware and if it weren't told from generation to generation religion wouldn't last long. Newly developed ones over the times are taken from past ones and are just personalized versions of pasted ones. I have quite a few opinions on these, but for now this is it.

Comment author: zaph 02 July 2009 12:39:09PM 0 points [-]

"What's left, when God is gone?" is greeted by a puzzled look and "What exactly is >missing?"

I think that this is a very important question to ask, and to really seek answers on, if this discussion is to advance any. Obviously, there are believers of all stripes who are in some sense getting a reward for their beliefs, be it socially rewarding for the culture or subculture they are in, psychologically rewarding by allowing them to be more hopeful about the future, etc. Saying their metaphysical beliefs are unlikely doesn't get at the heart of what their belief is based on, in my opinion. As has been pointed out, they don't have a robust logical structure to their beliefs to start with. So, what's "missing" from the rationalist worldview in the eyes of a believer in the supernatural is not necessarily the gods, fairies, etc., as much as the sense of safety, community, what have you, that their particular faith grants them. So, in addition to EY's equation, I'd like to suggest that atheism != anti-community or anti-loyalty or anti-love, though in the current political structures and fights we're having in the US, it almost definitely does equal anti-religion (see the teaching evolution in schools and the gay marriage debates). Untheism, by disregarding the supernatural, can still claim a lot from the territory that supernaturalists refer to as "spiritual".

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 03 July 2009 02:01:09AM 0 points [-]

"I think that this is a very important question to ask, and to really seek answers on, if this discussion is to advance any."

The thing which is missing, "when God is gone", is any explanation as to why the universe exists. And the thing which is missing, when nothing is felt to be missing in the absence of a God-concept, is any awareness that the existence of the universe is even an intellectual problem. The world is merely perceived as consisting of already existing things, and the cause of their being is to be found in other things that used to exist, and the question as to why the whole big causal network exists - why there is anything at all in the first place, not just this or that particular thing right now - is not noticed or is shrugged off in various ways.

Comment author: Furcas 04 July 2009 02:00:02AM 6 points [-]

Uh, even if that were a valid problem, isn't it obvious that God isn't a good explanation? If the universe exists because God caused it or sustains it, why does God exist?

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 04 July 2009 03:52:12AM 6 points [-]

And the original gods weren't even supposed to be causes of the world-as-a-whole - they were just anthropomorphic hypotheses to explain aspects of the world.

However, that sort of thinking eventually got us to the point of asking about where existence as such, the world as a whole, came from.

Which in turn - thanks to basic questions like the one you just asked - led to concepts such as "first cause" and "necessary being" and so forth.

So, the human race already has had a few ideas regarding why existence exists. You may not find any of them persuasive. But my real point is to warn against complacency. Rationalist materialists such as congregate on this site have a deplorable tendency to regard some combination of mathematical physics and quantitative epistemology as a closed and complete philosophical system, and they need a periodic prod in the third eye to remind them that there are questions which are not addressed even in principle by that particular synthesis - and that it is possible to think about them, rather than just rationalize them away.

Comment author: pjeby 03 July 2009 03:19:36AM 0 points [-]

The world is merely perceived as consisting of already existing things, and the cause of their being is to be found in other things that used to exist, and the question as to why the whole big causal network exists - why there is anything at all in the first place, not just this or that particular thing right now - is not noticed or is shrugged off in various ways.

But the question itself only arises from the nature of human mental models, which have to contain "why's". The universe itself doesn't have things labeled "causes" and "effects"; these are labels that human brains attach.

Or to put it more pointedly - the universe doesn't need a why. That's just something (some) humans want.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 04 July 2009 01:16:00AM 1 point [-]

Focusing on names, and on the contingency of the names we give things, or whether we even notice them for long enough to give them a name, is a great way to shrug off "metaphysical" problems like this.

P.J. Eby, are you really saying there's no such thing as cause and effect? That the smashing of the glass on the floor has nothing to do with the dropping of it the moment before?

Comment author: Cyan 04 July 2009 04:18:15AM *  3 points [-]

Judea Pearl's perspective on this question is that causality is best viewed as an intervention originating from outside the system in question, and not as a mode of behavior within that system. In this view, causality is related to counterfactual queries we might ask about the system, e.g., if an intervention had forced situation X, would Y have occurred? Because the intervening agent always stands outside the system, causality is always relative to where we draw the boundary around the system, and thus is not a property of reality.

Comment author: pjeby 04 July 2009 02:04:47AM -2 points [-]

are you really saying there's no such thing as cause and effect? That the smashing of the glass on the floor has nothing to do with the dropping of it the moment before?

"Smashing", "glass", and "floor" also only exist as labels, because reality only has one level.

(See also Timeless Physics for why "cause and effect" aren't what we think they are, either.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 July 2009 10:20:59AM 2 points [-]

That territory has only one level (a thesis of reductionism) means that it doesn't compute in terms of high-level concepts, but the high-level concepts still refer to the real clusters of configurations of territory.

Comment author: orthonormal 04 July 2009 02:31:37AM 1 point [-]

We know that "the glass smashed on the floor" is a high-level interpretation, a genuinely complicated cluster in thingspace. In the vast majority of cases we encounter, it's a pretty useful and well-delineated cluster, which is why it all adds up to normality. So too with cause and effect in timeless physics.

Comment author: pjeby 04 July 2009 04:05:28AM -1 points [-]

You're drifting off topic. My original post in this thread was saying that "the universe doesn't need a why". Are you actually disagreeing with that conclusion?

(Heck, I can't even tell if you're disagreeing with what I just said.)

Comment author: orthonormal 04 July 2009 08:33:16PM 3 points [-]

I do agree that the universe as a whole may not have what we would consider a "why"; however, I think it's quite ridiculous to argue for that conclusion by attempting to discard talk of causality within the universe.

Comment author: thomblake 02 July 2009 02:02:06PM 1 point [-]

Untheism, by disregarding the supernatural, can still claim a lot from the territory that supernaturalists refer to as "spiritual".

It should be noted that not all "untheists" disregard the supernatural. Many buddhists are atheistic but accept the supernatural, for instance. And I'm sure there are atheists out there who believe in various flavors of magic or the paranormal.

Comment author: zaph 02 July 2009 02:37:58PM 0 points [-]

Point taken, Thom. In my eyes, those positions (atheist magicians or supernaturally minded Buddhists) are still seeking the same things as a single-deity theist, such as, a sense of control of their destiny or the possibility of being reunited with lost loved one. In saying "we can speak about those things you want when you look for God (or magic, or the paranormal)", I believe rationalists open up a better avenue of dialog than by saying "you aren't talking about anything important". This might help people to improve their lives not by looking into the arcana of the faith they were raised in, but the possibilities held in the world around them.

Comment author: Catherineiam 12 August 2012 06:14:12PM -1 points [-]

"What's left, when God is gone?" I'd assert that it might be pretty anti-climactic and people and societies might be very similar to how they would be without a God concept. I doubt that people would be any more motivated to understand their environment than they wouldve been and probably as irrational as ever, however without the excuse of religiosity. I see wars as being men's sexual frustrations in part and societies evolution happening in stages however the world is becoming less violent and induvidual rights becoming more universally accepted. Im with AC Grayling when he says words to the effect of religions are dying out, like a cornered animal they are becoming louder and more frantic however religion is in decline. As for "whats missing?" More ways to love and be creative, more ways to enjoy living, better treatments for diseases, cures for depression and the common cold, cancer etcetera, longevity, meaning, fulfilment, ethics...

Comment author: jchristimd 29 August 2012 10:03:33PM 1 point [-]

Hi: Did anyone read the recent Science paper looking at adherence to religious endorsements among two groups one faithful and the second athesist who first had to perform tasks ? The study did baseline endorsement assessments and found that religious people endorsed concepts like 'my life could be influenced by supernatural forces' and atheists did not. The two groups then had to do two sets of tasks before being reassessed on religious endorsements. The first set of tasks was mathmatical calculation. They had to multiply and divide, calculate speeds, do puzzles etc. The second set of tasks was to listen to music, chant and meditate, hear a motivtional speaker etc. Turns out that ALL subjects decreased their 'supernatural' endorsements after performing calculations and they ALL increased endorsements after listening to music, meditation etc. Turns out activating the frontal lobes inhibits our more cognitively 'creative' hindbrain. Thus we can explain the music, incense, chanting, preaching found in most religious settings. You guys will never agree because both functions are legitimate, spatially separated in brain and to a certain extent they appear to be mutually exclusive. Likely some individuals release more dopamine in their nucleus acumbens than others when they chant or like me when they solve a math puzzle. That is why we have Mother Teresa and Steven Hawkings. God will never be gone because that valuable hindbrain cerebral real estate will be occupied with something in some people and little in others. Importantly the data imply that however we self identify, we are all susceptible to faith as well as reason under the right conditions.