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Why Sam Harris is a Moron, Part 2: Objective Morality

Someone actually gave Sam a PhD, for his moral landscape thesis. I hope all the universities aren’t giving out PhDs for theses based on not knowing the definition of a word. The word Sam doesn’t seem to know the definition of is “objective”.

Science can answer moral questions

I’m going to speak today about the relationship between science and human values. Now, it’s generally understood that questions of morality — questions of good and evil and right and wrong — are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value. And, consequently, most people — I think most people probably here — think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, “What is worth living for?” “What is worth dying for?” “What constitutes a good life?”
So, I’m going to argue that this is an illusion — that the separation between science and human values is an illusion — and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.

Some of Sam’s fans have the strange notion that Sam is only arguing that science can be used to help us reach moral decisions. But, as he clearly states here, Sam acknowledges that people already use science in such a way. I’ve never heard anyone argue that you can’t use science in such a way. So, no, that is not the gist of Sam’s argument. That would be a Captain Obvious line of argument, that would deserve little attention, and would be even less worthy of a PhD. What he is setting out to do, “the separation between science and human values is an illusion”, is to argue that you can get an “ought” from an “is”. He laughingly thinks he has solved the is/ought problem.

In case you haven’t heard of the is/ought problem before…

The Is / Ought Problem

How does Sam manage to bridge this gap? Through make believe, is how he does it.

Well being is not new concept, but Sam likes to pretend that he has found the perfect objective definition for “well being”. And, if you don’t believe him, well then, you’re an “imbecile”.

Now, many of you might worry that the notion of well-being is truly undefined, and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed. And so, how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being? Well, consider by analogy, the concept of physical health.

Okay, let’s consider the concept of physical health. Science can show us that, if you do what is healthy, and avoid what is unhealthy, then you have a better chance of living longer. So what? I also have a better chance of living longer if I never go sky diving. That doesn’t mean I ought to never go sky diving. Science will also show us that, if we find a cure for all sickness, disease, and aging, that we will likely have a serious population problem on our hands. Nowhere does science tell us that we ought to prolong the lives of as many people for as long as possible. That’s just something we decide to do, all on our own because we, as individuals, would like to live as long as possible.

Science doesn’t actually care about you, or me, one little bit. While science can show that someone is riddled with cancer it, in no way, tells us what we ought to do about it. I could just as easily use facts to support putting them out of their misery immediately, as I could to support prolonging their lives as long as possible. It would reduce suffering and save money, if we just put them down, as quickly as possible. I could use that argument to put down a lot of people, which is the slippery slope that led to Social Darwinism or euthenasia which some of Sam’s critics have previously mentioned. Sam just ad homs those arguments away, without taking them seriously.

Well think of how we talk about food: I would never be tempted to argue to you that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a range of materials that constitute healthy food. But there’s nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison.

Sam seems to be suggesting that we ought to avoid putting poisons into our bodies. This is a very strange notion. I’m glad he’s not an actual medical doctor. I take it Sam has never heard of treatments for cancer, or that death due to over-dosing is listed as death due to poisoning, by the CDC. We put “poisons” into our bodies constantly. You are only actually “poisoned”, if you take too much of something. Aside from drugs and alcohol, you can also “poison” yourself with things like caffeine, and black licorice. You can even “poison” yourself to death with too much water. I would hope Sam doesn’t suggest that everyone avoids water.

At best, we can objectively state that, if you put X amount of substance A into your body, you will likely die. Now, if you don’t want to die, then it might seem obvious that you ought not do that. But, what if dying, or killing, is exactly what you want to do? Some places that have deemed capital punishment a valid punishment for certain crimes, poison people to death. Sometimes we are in favour of compassionate assisted suicide and poison people to death. If we bend the rules for certain things, does it cancel out any objectiveness? I’d say yes. I’d say the end goal is relative to the situation.

According to Sam, the answer is no. He believes you actually can bend “objectivity” all you want. Another very strange notion…

Consider, by analogy, the game of chess. Now, if you’re going to play good chess, a principle like, “Don’t lose your Queen,” is very good to follow. But it clearly admits some exceptions. There are moments when losing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments when it is the only good thing you can do. And yet, chess is a domain of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions here does not change that at all.

What actually is objective, about chess? The board is 8 squares by 8 squares. A certain piece is allowed to move in a certain way. If your king is captured, you lose the game. And, that’s about it. A good principle is not objective, at all. What you ought to, and ought not, do is totally relative to your goal, and the situation you are in. Even winning being the goal isn’t “objective”. If you are playing your child, and want to let them win, then you ought to let your king be captured. If you’re in a situation where you believe the best move is to lose your queen, then you ought to lose your queen. There is no “perfect objectivity” to chess. You make your move relative to the situation you are in, and relative to your end goal.

Sam seems to have a serious problem understanding, exactly, what “objective” means. It should mean that something is true, independent of a mind. Something that is true should always remain true. If a mind is deciding that something is true sometimes, but false at other times, to suit them, then that something should not be considered “objective”.

Now, this brings us to the sorts of moves that people are apt to make in the moral sphere. Consider the great problem of women’s bodies: What to do about them? Well this is one thing you can do about them: You can cover them up. Now, it is the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community that while we may not like this, we might think of this as “wrong” in Boston or Palo Alto, who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? And who are we to say, even, that they’re wrong to beat them with lengths of steel cable, or throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege of being smothered in this way?

Sam likes thought experiments, so let us imagine that someone we love is doing something that almost anyone on the planet would consider immoral…something absolutely vile, disgusting, horrid. You can pick the worst think in your own mind. Now, would it be an “objective” fact that we ought not hurt said loved one, in an attempt to stop them? I don’t know about anyone else, but I can think of reasons why I might hurt, or even kill, someone I love, in an attempt to stop them from doing the unthinkable (molesting a child is my pick for the worst). So, I don’t see the “objective” ought not beat, harm, or even kill someone you care about, should the worst be happening.

Again, we’re faced with a subjective and relative judgement. In my personal opinion, a wife or daughter going out whenever they want, wearing whatever they want, shouldn’t be grounds for resorting to such extreme behaviour. Someone else might consider those things terrible. There is no “objective” truth, here. If I want them to change, I have to convince them of the validity of my truth. Or, if we both change a bit, we might be able to come to some kind of subjective consensus about what is, and isn’t, acceptable, that we can both live with. That’s how the democratic process works. If there were objective, scientifically demonstrable, moral truths we wouldn’t need democracies.

Now the irony, from my perspective, is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues of one form or another.
But the demagogues are right about one thing: We need a universal conception of human values.

This “irony” becomes somewhat less ironic the more Sam’s arguments land him on the side of religious demagogues. It’s becoming expected. While “we need” is a swell appeal to emotion, it won’t make your argument any more true. Sam has provided zero evidence of any kind of objective morality.

Now, what stands in the way of this? Well, one thing to notice is that we do something different when talking about morality — especially secular, academic, scientist types. When talking about morality we value differences of opinion in a way that we don’t in any other area of our lives. So, for instance the Dalai Lama gets up every morning meditating on compassion, and he thinks that helping other human beings is an integral component of human happiness. On the other hand, we have someone like Ted Bundy; Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping and torturing and killing young women.

Sam goes on to suggest that we can just discard moral opinions that we don’t agree with, just like we can discard the opinions of scientists who aren’t specialists in the field we’re discussing. Now, is science going to tell us which voices we can discard? According to my science, we can discard the opinions of someone who justifies torture, justifies more guns, justifies financial support of the worst Islamist country in the world, justifies a nuclear first strike, justifies profiling, justifies fear mongering, etc. By Sam’s own “logic”, I say we can discard The Moral Landscape, and all opinions on morality, presented by such a morally inept person.

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Why Sam Harris is a Moron, Part 1: Islamophobia

It is hard to know where to begin, with Sam Harris. He is so addled, that it’s going to take multiple posts to describe just how addled he is. Let’s start with Islamophobia.

When I recently asked Sam Harris what he thought of the word ‘Islamophobia,’ he directed me to a tweet that noted the following: “Islamophobia. A word created by fascists, & used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
“I don’t think [the tweet] overstates the case by much,” said Harris

You know, one thing I’d expect a neuroscientist to have somewhat of an expert opinion on is phobias. Yet, Sam Harris constantly rejects Islamophobia as not a thing. To argue that it doesn’t apply to you, and describing why it doesn’t apply to you, or describing why it doesn’t apply to certain criticisms, would be a valid line of argument. However, to just suggest it doesn’t exist, is moronic nonsense.

Arachnophobia: In a basic sense, arachnophobia is an irrational fear, or hatred, of spiders. Yes, some spiders are very dangerous, and some will try to kill you. But, to have a fear of all spiders is quite irrational.

Islamophobia: Likewise, an irrational fear, or hatred, of Muslims, or anything Islamic. Yes, some Muslims are very dangerous, and some will try to kill you. But, to have a fear of all Muslims is quite irrational.

To argue that there are no people that have an irrational fear of all Muslims, or anything Islamic, is utter nonsense. Even if only one person in the world was afflicted with it, it would still be a thing. People standing outside a mosque with automatic weapons aren’t doing it out of bravery. They’re doing it out of fear. These tough guys, can actually be considered chicken shits. They’re truly scared to death.

islamophobe1
Another way to look at is that, like racism and sexism are specific kinds of bigotry, a number of phobias can be seen as specific kinds of xenophobia. Some specific things seem so strange, or foreign, to some people’s minds, that they form an irrational fear, or hatred, of it.

Xenophobia: an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange

Homophobia: an unreasonable fear or hatred of homosexuals or of that which has to do with homosexuality

Judeophobia: an unreasonable fear or hatred of Jews or of that which has to do with Judaism or anything Jewish

Islamophobia: an unreasonable fear or hatred of Muslims or of that which has to do with Islam or anything Islamic

For Sam Harris to just outright deny the existence of Islamophobia indicates he’s somewhat of a moron, who fails at his own speciality, neuroscience. Can Sam, himself, be considered to have an irrational fear of Muslims, or anything Islamic?

On the one hand, Sam does sometimes differentiate between Jihadists, Islamists, Muslims, etc., in some of his writing. On the other hand, he sometimes doesn’t differentiate very well, and does some broad brushing. Where Sam seems to have the biggest problem, as many other people do, is differentiating between a religion and a holy book. A book is not a religion.

“My honest view is that Islam is not a religion of war or of peace – it’s a religion. Its sacred scripture, like those of other religions, contains passages that many people would consider extremely problematic. Likewise, all scriptures contain passages that are innocuous. Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice. I subscribe to this view whether I’m interpreting Shakespeare or interpreting religious scripture.” ~ Maajid Nawaz

A religion is a belief system practised by an individual, or a group of individuals. To get from point A (book) to point B (religion), you need people. In this case, specifically Muslims. To say that “Islam is the mother load of bad ideas” amounts to saying that Muslims came up with “the mother load of bad ideas”. For “Islam”, itself, to be “the mother load of bad ideas” would mean that what all Muslims are practising is a religion that is “the mother load of bad ideas”. You can see how this could be taken as a somewhat irrational generalization, that might get someone labelled a bigot, Islamophobe, or what not.

It seems somewhat ironic that non-believers have been pointing out contradictions in religious texts, for centuries, yet now we have some coming along and claiming there is one correct way to interpret those religious writings. Even more ironic, is that he helps promote the extremists’ interpretation of Islam as being the correct form of Islam, rather than promoting the most moderate interpretation possible. Sam actually helps Islamists and Jihadists argue that theirs is the “true” Islam, while complaining about imaginary “regressive leftists” that he strawmans, claiming they are the ones who support Islamists, simply because they criticize him.

Constantly expressing his interpretation of the Qur’an as the true correct Islam would suggest that we should be afraid of every Muslim. Whether, or not, he has the phobia himself (I think he does), Sam sure as hell does his best to help spread irrational fear.

Sam admits that anti-Muslim bigotry is a thing, while claiming Islamophobia is not a thing. The problem here is that, if you take the Islam out of the Muslim, they’re no longer Muslim. The actual irrational fear is that all Muslims follow the exact same worst interpretation of Islam that you can think of. Sam definitely helps spread that irrational fear around.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from history, as analogies.

Firstly, at a specific point in history, we could say that almost all Japanese people on the planet were following an ideology that wanted to see the fall of the Western world. Now, even though there was such a large percentage of Japanese people in the world against us, was it right to spread fear of all Japanese people? Was it right to start fearing the Japanese people living in our own countries? Even Dr. Seuss got in on the propaganda.

drseussjapan1

Taking that path, down the road of fear, led to us treating Japanese citizens absolutely horribly. Now, I know Sam’s version of utilitarian morality allows for torture, so he may think this was a reasonable course of action, but I think it was a deplorable way to treat our own citizens. Some of them were even vets of WWI who had clearly shown loyalty to their country. Even at that point in history where you might have been able to say that the majority of Japanese people in the world were against us, punishing those who did no wrong was, in my opinion, immoral. Of course, my morality is only subjective, or relative. I don’t have “objective” morality, on my side, like Sam (that’ll be Part 2).

Another point in history we can look at is the early years of the Cold War. Even if one could say that the USSR, and their brand of communism, were some kind of threat to the United States, an irrational fear of everything to do with socialism/communism led to treating people horribly. People were spied on by the government, encouraged to spy on each other, people were blacklisted, interrogated, imprisoned, banished, etc. It was a terrible way to treat people.

america-under-communism

Not only did it lead to people turning on each other, but it led to bomb shelters, and a constant state of fear of nuclear war. It was emotional abuse, for the government to bombard people with so much fear, and hate, mongering.

I’ll Godwin myself here, as I point to another example. The Nazi party took their fear of communism even further. Hitler blamed an entire religious group, Jews, for communism. This is very much comparable to blaming an entire religious group, Muslims, for religious extremism. Now, I’m not saying Sam is about to throw people into ovens, here. However, the 1920s and 1930s propaganda, put out by the Nazis, may not have seemed too bad to some people, at the time. They may have considered it rational criticism of the Jews. They may have considered some of it just harmless cartoons.

naziboycott

Those guys don’t even look as threatening as the first guys, above. Just a couple of smartly dressed fellows, no assault rifles, innocently boycotting Jewish establishments, expressing their freedom of speech, and handing out some flyers. No big deal.

So, what is Islam?

Islam is whatever the individual Muslim makes of it. If their version of Islam allows for other ideas, like secularism and democracy, to be incorporated into their world view, then their version of Islam is a more moderate interpretation. There are as many versions of Islam as there are Muslims.

Historically, Muslims have indeed allowed for other ideas to be incorporate into their beliefs, so have practised a more moderate form of Islam. Many of the problems we’re seeing today, in certain parts of the world, were results of our own (Western civilization) actions.

Syria, had a democratically elected government. They voted against an oil pipeline. The US backed a coup, to get them out. Iran, had a democratically elected Prime Minister. He wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil. The US and UK backed a coup, to get him out. These people are demonstrating, in favour of nationalizing the oil, in 1953, before the coup.

iran19532

Iraq had a populist leader, who had just overthrown the British puppet dictator. He was talking about nationalizing Iraq’s oil. The US backed a coup, to take him out, and install the Ba’ath party. When Saddam later also decided to nationalize Iraq’s oil, the US and Israel encouraged a Kurdish uprising. When their puppet Shah fell, the US then turned to help Saddam, who used Western weaponry against the Kurds, and then started a war with Iran.

In Afghanistan, a communist party, friendly to the USSR, ousted the Afghan King, and the US immediately started backing Jihadists, to help draw the USSR into their own Vietnam. Cabul, in the 1970s, before the Jihadists took over.

cabul1970s

Western interference started even earlier, with the break up of the Ottoman Empire. There was a reason why most Jews felt safer in a Muslim empire, and many Muslim countries, than they did in many Christian countries. The Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic Caliphate, treated them okay, for the most part. It had also legalized homosexuality. Plus, it provided women with rights they didn’t have in many Christian countries. The Ottoman Empire was fairly liberal, for its day, before it was carved up. It was, for the most part, on par with the rest of the world.

Now, imagine that you were trying to overthrow the United States and, in an effort to do that, you made a deal with a bunch of their ultra conservative, 2nd amendment worshipping, gun-toating, evangelical Christian, private militia types, to get them to help you. Then, after the war, you carve up the US and put those people in charge of various smaller countries. That is, basically, what happened with parts of the Ottoman Empire.

And, of course, there is what has happened in Palestine, which is too complicated to get into. Suffice to say, that there are some valid grievances on the Palestine side of the equation that often get overlooked.

The point being, that a more conservative, Islamist form of Islam, coming to power in many places, is not entirely the fault of Islam itself. Now, so I don’t get straw manned, I’m not saying that more radical extremist Muslims didn’t exist before Western interventions. I’m saying that, if you’re going to remove the moderates from power, and help suppress them when they’re not in power, then you’re helping create a more ultra-conservative environment, where radical Islam becomes more dominant.

Every situation should be evaluated on its own. Blanket statements about how horrible Islam is, aren’t very helpful. It is not helpful to support women by telling any oppressive rulers that they are practising the correct form of Islam. It is not helpful to tell the women that any oppression or mistreatment they’re experiencing is the fault of their own religious beliefs. Tossing groups like Hezbollah in with groups like Al Qaeda, and talking about them as if they’re the same thing, also not helpful, and fairly dishonest. Especially in, and around, Israel, there are some valid grievances that need addressing.

Like the Qur’an, there are many violent passages in both the Bible and the Tanakh. However, Quakers are Christians who practise Christianity. To argue that the real Christianity is itself inherently violent would mean that Quakers couldn’t be real Christians. The same goes for Islam. To argue that the real Islam is itself inherently violent would mean that moderate Muslims couldn’t be real Muslims. This makes for the No True Scotsman argument put out by many.

What is “agnosticism”?

Those who promote “atheism” as a-theism also have a tendency to promote “agnosticism” as a-gnosticism. This makes “agnosticism” everything that is not pure gnosticism and makes it compatible with having beliefs. Again, these atheists are reconstructing words. “Agnosticism” comes from the Greek word “agnostos”. That is the root word, with the a- already permanently attached, and -ic and -ism suffixes added.

agnostos = no/not/without knowledge

ic = someone who is

ism = a belief system or doctrine

What did Huxley mean by “someone who is without knowledge”? He clearly defined it as a form of demarcation. No testable objective evidence = an unfalsifiable subjective claim. Results: inconclusive, no belief either way. Karl Popper, who also self-identified as an agnostic, cemented this line of thinking into the scientific method. This is “I don’t know”, as in a complete lack of certainty, not “I don’t know”, as in a lack of complete certainty.

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.

That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions.

Still speaking for myself, I add, that though Agnosticism is not, and cannot be, a creed, except in so far as its general principle is concerned; yet that the application of that principle results in the denial of, or the suspension of judgment concerning, a number of propositions respecting which our contemporary ecclesiastical “gnostics” profess entire certainty.

The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as “unknowable.” What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty–the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities –is far more extensive than I could wish.

Huxley’s agnosticism clearly covers the question of belief, and positive disbelief, not just knowledge. He outright stated he thought it immoral to form a belief, without evidence to support said belief. He outright stated it was a suspension of judgement. His agnosticism was very clearly not compatible with theism, nor the narrow definition atheism of the time.

Theism and Atheism; the doctrine of the soul and its mortality or immortality–appear in the history of philosophy like the shades of Scandinavian heroes, eternally slaying one another and eternally coming to life again in a metaphysical “Nifelheim.” It is getting on for twenty-five centuries, at least, since mankind began seriously to give their minds to these topics. Generation after generation, philosophy has been doomed to roll the stone uphill; and, just as all the world swore it was at the top, down it has rolled to the bottom again. All this is written in innumerable books; and he who will toil through them will discover that the stone is just where it was when the work began. Hume saw this; Kant saw it; since their time, more and more eyes have been cleansed of the films which prevented them from seeing it; until now the weight and number of those who refuse to be the prey of verbal mystifications has begun to tell in practical life.

What is “atheism”?: Word Reconstruction

Root words are supposed to be the smallest base word, with all the suffixes and prefixes removed. The definition of the root word is supposed to be maintained, and is the base for any new words created by adding suffixes and prefixes.

The suffix -ist = a person with a particular set of beliefs or way of behaving.

The root word for theist is theos (god). Attaching the suffix -ist defines a person. Literally, a person who believes “god”, is true.

The prefix a- = without, no, or not.

The root word for “atheist” is still stated to be the Greek word “atheos” (no/not/without god). Maintaining the root word, and attaching the suffix -ist defines a person. Literally, a person who believes “no/not/without god”, is true.

When we turn to talk about “theism” and “atheism”, then we have swapped out the -ist suffix, for an -ism suffix, while maintaining the root words.

Well, okay then. What does a-theist mean? It literally means “not a god believer”. To attach an a- prefix, the new root word, for this new definition of “atheist”, should actually be “theist”. And, instead of swapping out the suffix to discuss “atheism”, we’re actually discussing a something with a different root word. The root for “a-theism” would be “theism”.

Because personhood is attached to the -ist suffix, and an a-theist isn’t an -ist, this word has not defined a person. A rock is “not a god believer”. It has also not created a philosophy that people are following. Unlike athe(os)-ism, which described a philosophy, a belief that we are without gods, a-theism, “no/not/without” “god belief” describes every non-sentient thing in existence, and most of the sentient ones, as well.

To make a-theist describe a person, you have to rip the personhood out of the “ist” suffix and transfer it to the “a” prefix, so that “a”= “someone without” and “theist” = “god belief”. Wait a minute, though, “theism” = “god belief”. Now the “theist” in a-theist and the “theism” in a-theism mean exactly the same thing, and “a” sometimes includes personhood and sometimes doesn’t. Either that, or “atheist” and “atheism” mean the same thing.

Broad definition atheist supporters argue for the word to be constructed like no other similar word. Many compare it to the word “amoral”. The problem there is that there are such things as amoral-ists and amoral-ism. “Amorlaist” means “someone who believes we are without morals”. “Amoralist” doesn’t mean”not a moralist”.

What is “atheism”?: Etymology

16th Century

An Athe(os)-ist is someone who believes that gods do not exist. In the 1570s, the French pulled the word “atheos” (no/not/without gods) out of Greek antiquity and added the suffix, “iste” (someone who believes, a believer), which became “someone who believes no gods exist”. The English followed suit.

atheist (n.)
1570s, from French athéiste (16c.), from Greek atheos “without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly,” from a- “without” + theos “a god” (see theo-).

John Florio, A World of Words (1598)
Atèo, Atheo, Atheista, an atheist, a miscreant, godles, one that thinkes there is no god.

17th Century

Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1611)
Athée: m. An Atheist; one that beleeues there is no God.

John Bullokar, An English Expositor (1616)
Atheist. He that wickedly beleeueth there is no God, or no rule of Religion.

Henry Cockeram, English Dictionary (1623)
Atheist. That thinks there is no God, or rule of religion.

Thomas Blount, Glossographia or a Dictionary (1656)
Atheist ( from the Gr ἄδεος. id est Sine Deo, godless) he that beleeves there is no God or rule of Religion, and that the soul dies with the body.

theist (n.)
1660s, from Greek theos “god” (see theo-) + -ist. The original senses was that later reserved to deist: “one who believes in a transcendent god but denies revelation.” Later in 18c. theist was contrasted with deist, as believing in a personal God and allowing the possibility of revelation.

^The word “theist” finally came into existence. The English pulled the word “theos” (god) out of Greek antiquity and added the suffix, “ist” (someone who believes, a believer), which became “someone who believes god exist”. Prior to this, for almost a full century, there was no word “theist” to attach an “a” prefix to.

18th Century

John Kersey the younger, A New English Dictionary (1702)
Atheism, the Opinion of
An Atheist, who denies the Being of a God.

An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Nathan Bailey, R. Ware, 1756
ATHEIST (from Gr. without God) one that denies the exiftence of God.

A dictionary of the English language., Samuel Johnson, 1768
A’the-ist, f. One that denies the existence of a God.

19th Century

A primary-school pronouncing dictionary of the English language, Noah Webster, William Greenleaf Webster, J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1857
A’the-ist, n. one who denies the existence of a God.

Atheism in pagan antiquity by Drachmann, A. B. (Anders Björn), 1860-1935

ATHEISM and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek ; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotes ; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation ; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed ; we even meet with philosophers bearing atheos as a regular surname. We know very little of the men in question ; but it can hardly be doubted that atheos, as applied to them, implied not only a denial of the gods of popular belief, but a denial of gods in the widest sense of the word, or Atheism as it is nowadays understood.

20th Century

Atheism: The Case Against God, by George H Smith, 1973

“As here defined, the term “atheism” has a wider scope than the meanings usually attached to it.”
“First, there is the familiar sense in which a person is an atheist if he maintains that there is no God, where this is taken to mean that “God exists” expresses a false proposition.”
“This immediately raises the question of agnosticism, which has traditionally been offered as a third alternative to theism and atheism.”
“An agnostic is not an atheist. An atheist denies the existence of God; an agnostic professes ignorance about His existence. For the latter, God may exist, but reason can neither prove nor disprove it.”
“Notice that agnosticism emerges as a third alternative only if atheism is narrowly defined as the denial of theism.”

The Presumption of Atheism, by Antony Flew, 1984

In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.
The introduction of this new interpretation of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. ‘Whyever’, it could be asked, ‘don’t you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?’

21st Century

Now, although a broader definition has gained some popularity over the past 30 years, it is still not the only definition. The narrow definition is still usually included, and the broader definition is still sometimes not included. The broad definition is most popular in atheist circles.

“one who believes that there is no deity”

“a person who believes that God does not exist”

“someone who believes that God does not exist”

“a person who believes that God does not exist”

“someone who believes that God does not exist”

“one who believes that there is no God or gods.”

“someone who denies the existence of god”

SEXTUS EMPERICUS

Outlines of Pyrrhonism

” If one defines a system as an attachment to a number of dogmas that agree with one another and with appearances, and defines a dogma as an assent to something non-evident, we shall say that the Skeptic does not have a system. But if one says that a system is a way of life that, in accordance with appearances, follows a certain rationale, where that rationale shows how it is possible to seem to live rightly (“rightly” being taken, not as referring only to virtue, but in a more ordinary sense) and tends to produce the disposition to suspend judgment, then we say that he does have a system.”

“Let the Dogmatists first agree and concur with one another that god is such and such, and only then, when they have sketched this out for us, let them expect us to form a concept of god. But as long as they do not settle their disagreements we cannot tell what agreed-upon conception we are supposed to get from them.”

“Furthermore, if we go by what the Dogmatists say, even if we form a conception of god it is necessary to suspend judgment concerning whether he exists or does not exist. For it is not pre-evident that god exists.”

“Further, even if someone should grant that it is possible to form a concept of cause, because of the disagreement it would be considered not to be apprehensible. For some say that there are examples of causation, some say that there are not, and some suspend judgment.”

“From these points we conclude further that if the arguments by which we show the existence of causes are plausible, and if those, too, are plausible which prove that it is incorrect to assert the existence of a cause, and if there is no way to give preference to any of these over others – since we have no agreed-upon sign, criterion, or proof, as has been pointed out earlier – then, if we go by the statements of the Dogmatists, it is necessary to suspend judgment about the existence of causes, too, saying that they are “no more” existent than non-existent.”

DAVID HUME

“That Prince of Agnostics, David Hume” ~ T H Huxley

 Hume, with Helps to the study of Berkeley, by Thomas H Huxley

“He said he never had entertained any belief in Religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke. I asked him if he was not religious when he was young. He said he was. . . . He then said flatly that the Morality of every Religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said ‘that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’” ~ James Boswell

The Natural History of Religion

The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment, appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny concerning this subject. But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld, did we not enlarge our view, and, opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy.

The Reception of David Hume In Europe

According to Diderot, as recorded in a letter to his mistress, Sophie Volland, 6 October 1765… The first time that M. Hume found himself at the table of the Baron, he was seated beside him. I don’t know for what purpose the English philosopher took it into his head to remark to the Baron that he did not believe in atheists, that he had never seen any. The Baron said to him: “Count how many we are here.” We are eighteen. The Baron added: “It isn’t too bad a showing to be able to point out to you fifteen at once: the three others haven’t made up their minds.”

KARL POPPER

“I don’t know whether God exists or not. We may know how little we know, but this must not be turned or twisted into a positive knowledge of the existence of an unfathomable secret. There is a lot in the world that is in the nature of an unfathomable secret, but I do not think that it is admissible to make a theology out of a lack of knowledge nor turn our ignorance into anything like positive knowledge. Some forms of atheism are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism–to admit that we don’t know and to search–is all right.”

Karl Popper, The Enemy of Certainty, by Liz Williams

The search for truth was, Popper considered, the strongest motivation for scientific discovery. His role was to determine how we can ascribe truth to the claims made by science, religion and politics. He did not, however, become a member of the Vienna Circle, that group of intellectuals who, following on from the work of Wittgenstein (the Tractatus mark-one version of that philosopher) aimed at the unification of the sciences and the wholesale rejection of metaphysics. Popper’s antipathy to Wittgenstein meant that he was not invited to become a member of this particular group, but being cast in the role of the formal opposition seems to have honed his own thinking on logical positivism. Following on from Hume and the latter’s rejection of induction, Popper took a stand against an empiricist view of science, endeavouring to show via his rejection of verificationism, and consequent espousal of falsificationism, how scientific theories progress. We will be looking at this more closely in future articles, but the fundamental principle of falsificationism is this: any contradictory instance to a theory is sufficient to falsify that theory, regardless of how many positive examples appear to support it.

The Problem of Demarcation

Popper accordingly repudiates induction and rejects the view that it is the characteristic method of scientific investigation and inference, substituting falsifiability in its place. It is easy, he argues, to obtain evidence in favour of virtually any theory, and he consequently holds that such ‘corroboration’, as he terms it, should count scientifically only if it is the positive result of a genuinely ‘risky’ prediction, which might conceivably have been false. For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory. In a critical sense, Popper’s theory of demarcation is based upon his perception of the logical asymmetry which holds between verification and falsification: it is logically impossible to conclusively verify a universal proposition by reference to experience (as Hume saw clearly), but a single counter-instance conclusively falsifies the corresponding universal law. In a word, an exception, far from ‘proving’ a rule, conclusively refutes it.

AGNOSTICISM ACCORDING TO THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY

Science and Religion (1859, pre-agnosticism)

I warn you solemnly against both of these evils. Despise both bigotry and scoffing doubt, and regard those who encourage you in either, whether they wear the tonsure of a priest, or the peruke of a Voltaire, as your worst enemies. And if you seek a preservative against these snares, I say, strive earnestly to learn something, not only of the results, but of the methods of science, and then apply those methods to all statements which offer themselves for your belief. If they will not stand that test, they are nought, let them come with what authority they may.

Agnosticism: A Symposium (1884)

1. 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.

2. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.

3. I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is “Not proven.” But true Agnosticism will not forget that [6] existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not dreamt of in our philosophy.” The theological “gnosis” would have us believe that the world is a conjuror’s house; the anti-theological “gnosis” talks as if it were a “dirt-pie” made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

Agnosticism (1889)

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes. To my great satisfaction, the term took; and when the Spectator had stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people, that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened was, of course, completely lulled.

If any one had preferred this request to me, I should have replied that, if he referred to agnostics, they have no creed; and, by the nature of the case, cannot have any. Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Agnosticism and Christianity (1899)

The people who call themselves “Agnostics” have been charged with doing so because they have not the courage to declare themselves “Infidels.” It has been insinuated that they have adopted a new name in order to escape the unpleasantness which attaches to their proper denomination. To this wholly erroneous imputation, I have replied by showing that the term “Agnostic” did, as a matter of fact, arise in a manner which negatives it; and my statement has not been, and cannot be, refuted. Moreover, speaking for myself, and without impugning the right of any other person to use the term in another sense, I further say that Agnosticism is not properly described as a “negative” creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism. That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions. The justification of the Agnostic principle lies in the success which follows upon its application, whether in the field of natural, or in that of civil, history; and in the fact that, so far as these topics are concerned, no sane man thinks of denying its validity.

Still speaking for myself, I add, that though Agnosticism is not, and cannot be, a creed, except in so far as its general principle is concerned; yet that the application of that principle results in the denial of, or the suspension of judgment concerning, a number of propositions respecting which our contemporary ecclesiastical “gnostics” profess entire certainty. And, in so far as these ecclesiastical persons can be justified in their old-established custom (which many nowadays think more honoured in the breach than the observance) of using opprobrious names to those who differ from them, I fully admit their right to call me and those who think with me “Infidels”; all I have ventured to urge is that they must not expect us to speak of ourselves by that title.

The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as “unknowable.”2 What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty–the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities –is far more extensive than I could wish. Materialism and Idealism; Theism and Atheism; the doctrine of the soul and its mortality or immortality–appear in the history of philosophy like the shades of Scandinavian heroes, eternally slaying one another and eternally coming to life again in a metaphysical “Nifelheim.” It is getting on for twenty-five centuries, at least, since mankind began seriously to give their minds to these topics. Generation after generation, philosophy has been doomed to roll the stone uphill; and, just as all the world swore it was at the top, down it has rolled to the bottom again. All this is written in innumerable books; and he who will toil through them will discover that the stone is just where it was when the work began. Hume saw this; Kant saw it; since their time, more and more eyes have been cleansed of the films which prevented them from seeing it; until now the weight and number of those who refuse to be the prey of verbal mystifications has begun to tell in practical life.

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