Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Friday, June 3, 2011

What's the Default Position, Anyway?

Over on the discussion thread about this blog, one responder noted that

I think that agnosticism flows more naturally from skepticism than atheism, as the agnostic says, "I can't be certain" whereas the atheist says "certainly not," to say certainly not to something you have no means to be certain of is a failure to apply skepticism in all areas, such as your own certainty.

This objection was addressed in the introductory post of this blog.
Atheism, as I'm using the term, in no way implies certainty in any form. Atheism is merely the lack of belief in gods based on the lack of evidence for such beings. Additionally, some atheists (the so-called "strong atheists") additionally adopt the position of actively thinking that it is incredibly likely that no gods exist, based on the mountains of evidence against god claims, as noted in the introductory post.

"Certainty" doesn't enter into the discussion at all. It may very well be impossible to be 100% certain about any claim. That being the case, we can disregard the entire concept of certainty and focus instead on what is likely to be true, based on evidence, and whether there is sufficient evidence to accept a claim.

Another poster on that thread chimed in:

I very much agree that agnosticism is the proper default position.

This comment is not only incorrect: it is the product of a kind of sloppy thinking that a skeptic needs to be on guard against.

The "proper default position" toward any positive claim -- or at least those positive claims specifically about the existence of entities -- is to not accept the claim.

For example, if a person came to me and claimed that there is a gnome that lives in his garden and causes it to rain, the default position is to not accept the claim. Right away, as soon as I hear about this supposed gnome, I would be an atheist in regards to it. The "proper default position" is to remain an atheist -- that is, to continue to not accept the claim -- until that person can produce sufficient evidence.

It is the same in a court of law. The prosecution is the side making the positive claim -- that the defendant is guilty. As a result, they have the burden of proof, and the defense has no burden at all. Just as the skeptic desires to believe as many true claims and as few false claims as possible, the justice system has been established in order to convict as many guilty people and as few innocent people as possible. As a result, it operates much as skepticism does: it starts with the "proper default position" that the defendant is not guilty. In other words, it beings by not accepting the claim until there is sufficient evidence.

Would-be Thelemites and occultists love to claim that the "proper default position" on a particular claim -- usually a ridiculously stupid and outlandish claim -- is "agnosticism." This approach is a mechanism by which they can maintain the delusion that "hey, it's just as likely to be true as to be false," and hold out hope that their beliefs are true, even in the face of vast amounts of evidence that this is, in fact, not the case.

It gets even worse when these believers convince themselves that isolated subjective experiences in uncontrolled conditions could come anywhere close to being "evidence" for anything besides the extreme gullibility of the person in question. When this uncritical attitude is combined with the "agnosticism is the default position" fallacy (i.e. "Hey, it's just as likely to be true as to be false"), it leads straight to delusion.

A good example came up later in that very thread, when one poster writes, in response to my observation that some rituals he brought up were nothing more than ritual psychodrama and nothing at all that "defies logic," as he claimed:

Well, considering [magick] all a matter of states of consiousness and ritual psychodrama is one thing, having your state of consciousness and your ritual psychodrama manifest as a result in the physical world, such as that petition to a spirit of the Goetia for some emergency rent money resulting in a surprise check in the mail or your jerking off onto an Enochian square coinciding with a hot red head showing up in your life, is another thing entirely. Having experienced such simple and practical "folk magic" techniques of ritual "psychodrama" actually work, I have a hard time with the idea that it's all just some mental and emotional masturbation session or some form of Jungian psychology.

Now, the claim that a "state of consciousness and your ritual psychodrama" can "manifest as a result in the physical world" in the manner claimed here is an extraordinary claim about which one should be extremely skeptical and for which one should demand some very compelling evidence before accepting. In other words, the "proper default position" in this case is to not accept that claim until some compelling evidence is available.

The fact of the matter is an isolated experience of a coincidence cannot establish that a "state of consciousness" or a "ritual" can "work" or cause results in this manner. To establish such a claim, one would have to run multiple trials of these workings in controlled conditions. If a "petition to a spirit of the Goetia" could really, for example, cause money to unexpectedly appear, then you should be able to perform this operation every month and receive "surprise checks" without fail to pay for the rent every month.

If, after performing this ritual every single month, it was determined that "surprise checks" actually *don't* arrive every month and in fact just arrive rarely and unpredictably, then we can conclude that these magical rituals have no detectable effect on reality whatsoever. Naturally, our occult believers will have a myriad of ad hoc excuses for why the "magick" doesn't always work ("Oh, it only works in emergencies!" or "Oh! It needs the emotional power of a real can't subject it to your little boxed-in, rational 'science'"), but such flimsy excuses only reinforce the point I'm making: if the "magick" can never be tested, then it can never be demonstrated to have any effect on reality at all, so then no one -- including the practitioner -- has any basis for claiming that the "magick" is distinguishable from doing nothing at all.

Of course, it's not even necessary to get to such a stage. Our current knowledge of the universe does not leave any room for the existence of anything resembling this kind of lunacy, leading any halfway sane person to the conclusion that any attempt to "test" this subject would be very likely reveal that this "magick" accomplishes nothing at all.

And, incidentally, operations performed for the purposes of sex are -- without exception -- absolute jokes. Any person who sincerely desires a relationship or a sexual encounter and who puts in a bit of effort in the real world can be sure he will achieve his goal in a reasonable period of time (unless, of course, he is complete bumbling socially inept dumbass).

Peforming a working for a relationship is like performing a working to make the tides come in or to make the sun rise.

Anyone who is impressed by "experience" of this sort needs to seriously brush up on critical thinking.

These are the kinds of difficulties you will encounter if you seriously go around thinking that every outlandish claim is just as likely to be true as it is to be false and that a handful of ooky-spooky coincidences can support an outlandish claim, or even make it (shudder) "true to you."


  1. i've always translated 'atheism' as 'without gods', thereby circumventing the question of an objective existence of some divinity - though mostly just to avoid having one more tiresome discussion with someone who feels my atheism to be a challenge to their theism....

  2. Yes, the roots of the word atheism (a-theos) do literally mean "without gods." It's an absence of a belief, not a belief in its own right.

    Interestingly, this means that we can technically consider infants, animals, and inanimate objects to be "atheists," since they are also "without [belief in] gods." Sometimes, religious believers bring this up to mock the idea that atheism is a lack of belief and to suggest that atheism is actually a belief or a "faith," but -- as usual -- these believers are incorrect.

    We can make a distinction between implicit atheism and explicit atheism: implicit atheism is the atheism of those things that are *incapable* of considering the issue of gods. Explicit atheism -- which is what we are almost always talking about when we talk about atheism in discussions like this -- is the atheism of those agents capable of considering the issue and who have concluded that the evidence is insufficient for them to accept god claims.