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Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe

Posted by TheThorn 
Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 03:58PM
In this post I will propose meaningful definitions of the key words in the ongoing discussion regarding Atheism, Theism and the Agnostic position.

In the case of Theism, I will argue for a broader and more inclusive definition which incorporates all religions and spiritual philosophies. For Atheism I will propose it be framed within this broader definition of Theism, but that it also be constrained to a single meaning, rather than its current status of meaning two very different things at once. Finally I will present a definition of the agnostic position, and argue that it should incorporate one of the two current definitions of Atheism. Finally I will comment on how how the three words relate to one another when it comes to a discussion of knowledge and belief.

Broader Theism

Theism means a belief in one or more God.

When taken at its most narrow definition, many individuals identifying themselves as religious - even priests and monks - are in fact atheists.

Some types of Taoists are atheists, some types of Hindus can be atheists, and - while there are some “minor deities” in both systems - neither Buddhists nor Jainists attest to a creator God. Both Taoism and Hinduism can contain some elements of Pantheism, which as a broader category can also be said to be atheistic in its denial of an anthropomorphic God figure. Furthermore many belief systems among the plethora of ‘New Age’ spiritual philosophies that litter modern culture can also be correctly described as atheistic.

The term Theism rose to common use in the 17th century when there was little widespread knowledge of religions beyond the dominant Abrahamic faiths, particularly Christianity, and for usage in a contemporary conversation we need to expand the concept and define a broader Theism which encompasses all known religions and spiritual philosophies as a group.

If our intention is to have a discussion about all religions and spiritual philosophies as a group, the narrow definition of Theism is not fit for use. A useful definition of a category of things would take all known examples, strip away aspects which are not present in all examples, and what is left forms our working definition. In the case of religions and spiritual philosophies, we are left with a very simple concept: that the universe has some purpose to its existence.

This is a useful exercise as it strips away many specific traits of particular religions which can detract from a meaningful discussion on the broader philosophical discussion. For example, a person who believes in purpose cannot be assumed to:

- Believe in one or more anthropomorphic God ‘character/s’;
- Believe in an afterlife;
- Believe in any creation story;
- Believe in any divinely received moral code;
- Believe in anything which contradicts known science;
- Believe the universe started at some point in time;
- Believe the universe has always existed;

I could of course continue this list for some time, but the point is clear:

A discussion regarding whether or not the universe has any purpose should not logically stray into any specific beliefs of particular religions. A meaningful discussion would focus on the simple core concept of a purposeful universe as a broader definition of Theism. From here onward, the term Theist in this post will apply this broader definition.

Any Atheist besides a ‘Strong Atheist’ is an Agnostic

Atheism is a tricky term to pin down a meaning for. It can be taken literally to mean ‘no belief in God/s’ but it can also mean ‘a belief that there is/are no God/s’. These are radically different positions, the former is a lack of a positive claim, the latter a positive claim in and of itself.

An otherwise useful discussion can spiral into farce when the definition is, as it often is, switched midstream. An extremely common feature of a debate on Theism and Atheism is for a self-identified atheist to repeatedly make the positive claim that there is no God and then, when pressed on the burden of proof inherent to any positive claim, hide behind the notion that all they are displaying is a lack of belief and refuse to come out. I would say that over several years of trying to have a clear minded and constructive conversation on this issue, there is not a single instance where little dance has not played out.

Clearly this is not ideal and if we are in the business of paving the way towards a constructive conversation, some clarity is needed. If it commonplace to use the word ‘Atheist’ without any qualifier, as it is today, then the word needs one definition and not two completely different definitions which can be strategically switched between during a single conversation.

Of course there already exists a qualifier to make the distinction: Strong Atheism. Also known as ‘Positive Atheism’, this term has traditionally been used to describe the belief that there are/is no God/s.

It should be noted at this point that a belief does not equate to 100% certitude. It is extremely rare to find a Theist of any kind who will not express that they understand that what they believe might be wrong, but they have faith regardless. At the same time, a Strong Atheist who adds a disclaimer that they accept some low probability that they are wrong but makes the positive claim all the same is still a Strong Atheist. That is what makes something a belief, rather than knowledge. If we only include that rarest and least rational of fundamentalist – who says they ‘know for a fact’ that there is or is not a God/s – then almost everyone on the planet is an Agnostic, and the term loses any useful meaning.

Agnosticism is not a belief system but an approach to knowledge and belief. At its simplest definition agnosticism describes a lack of belief; more specifically it is an assertion that the answer to the question being asked is not knowable. Any atheist besides a strong atheist is expressing an agnostic position. This raises the question why any atheist besides a strong atheist would identify themselves as such? If they lack a belief, why do they assign themselves to a belief system? Of course in practice, almost every person I have ever encountered who self-identified as an atheist was a Strong Atheist, which makes my proposal easier to make:

My proposal would be for people who project no positive claims about the fundamentally unknowable nature of universe should describe themselves correctly as Agnostics. People who assert a belief that the universe has a purpose should call themselves ‘Theists’ and the term ‘Atheist’ should be used to describe someone who asserts a positive claim that the universe is meaningless. From here onward, the term Atheist will apply this narrower definition.

Atheism is the Meaningless Universe Hypothesis

This is perhaps the most important point for me, as it is one that Atheists seldom seem to grasp or admit to.

If Theism in its broader sense means the belief that the universe has some purpose, then Atheism means the belief that the universe is meaningless.

Indeed this is undeniable.

If we assert any fundamental meaning or purpose to the universe (besides that subjective purpose and meaning we create for ourselves), then we slip instantly into the broader definition of Theism.

The conversation becomes completely meaningless is someone states that they believe in no God, but believes that there is a universal consciousness that we are all a part of – a position I have actually encountered before. If you believe there is a purpose to the universe whether it be an anthropomorphic God ‘character’ or an abstract concept is a fine detail and not a meaningful distinction.

Atheism, like Theism, is a positive claim regarding the fundamental nature of the universe, a detailed belief system which necessarily involves several concepts:

- The universe is simply here, and has no purpose or design;
- The physical laws which govern it also just exist without any intent or design;
- Life developed through happenstance; the meaningless physical laws of the universe converged and just happened to be perfectly weighted to allow the development of conscious, intelligent and meaningful creatures.

- This is not a lack of belief, it is a story, and it is one that Atheists must accept that they have a burden to argue in favour of.

Simply drawing a comparison between any given God and a teapot in space is not relevant, as God is not a facet of broader Theism. Even successfully arguing against belief in a God is not enough, as this is an argument for Agnosticism, not an argument to take up a new belief.

Questions Vs Stories

Agnosticism is sometimes erroneously referred to in a number of ways:

- Being 50/50 on whether the universe has a purpose
- Not being able to make your mind up whether the universe has a purpose or not
- The ‘middle position’ between Theism and Atheism

It is none of those things. It is in fact the opposite of both Atheism and Theism.

Atheism and Theism collectively represent a number of stories to choose from which claim to provide an answer to what the fundamental nature of the universe is, and what it is like.

Agnosticism is simply a state of accepting that the question does not have a knowable answer.



Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 02/18/2015 02:22PM by TheThorn.
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 04:15PM
Now you've gone and done it....

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Ponderer
Now you've gone and done it....

grinning smiley
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 04:51PM
Nice comment, Pondy. Very enlightening. The board really needed you to post that. I'm sure TheThorn is appreciative, as well. eye rolling smiley

Nice post, TheThorn. Assuming you actually want a spirited back-and-forth on your post (and not just a "Hooray for our side!" just let me start by saying that the term theism, as every dictionary with which I am familiar says, as well as wiki, means roughly "belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world."

To use 'theism' and not to include at least 'belief in god' in its meaning is a gross misuse of the term. The very term 'theism' itself is taken from the Greek word 'theos' which means God! Of course, you are free to use the term in any way that you want. I, however, will continue to use it in the way it's always been used.

If you simply want another discussion on whether the universe shows signs of having a purpose (and it clearly does not) then let's do that, but please drop the terms 'theism' and 'atheism' unless you want to include belief in God as part of the discussion.

Frankly, I don't understand your desire to drop 'belief in god' from the meaning of the term 'theism' unless you want to count yourself as a theist without admitting your belief in god. The reasons you list above do not hold water. It's difficult to know precisely what someone is talking about who says that the universe shows signs of having a purpose even though no god exists.

If you are using purpose in a subjective way then you're saying that the universe has, somehow, given itself a purpose. This seems wrong-headed because as far as we know only things that have self-consciousness are capable of inventing a purpose for themselves; and while the universe does contain creatures who have self-consciousness, to project this trait onto the universe itself commits the fallacy of composition.

If OTOH you're saying that the universe has an objective purpose then it seems to me that you're surreptitiously inserting god into the conversation without doing it honestly and transparently since God is almost always the entity associated with the universe's alleged objective purpose.
Sam
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 04:52PM
Is this the definition of the word "purpose" you are using?

purpose [ ˈpərpəs ]
NOUN
the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists:

"the purpose of the meeting is to appoint a trustee"
synonyms: motive · motivation · grounds · cause · occasion · reason

VERB
have as one's intention or objective:

"God has allowed suffering, even purposed it"
synonyms: intend · mean · aim · plan · design · have the intention · decide
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 04:53PM
Oh, now that I read your reply to Ponderer I see that maybe what you actually wanted was just a pat on the back for obfuscating the term "theism." In that case, feel free to ignore my comments.
Quote
Dick
Just let me start by saying that the term theism, as every dictionary with which I am familiar says, as well as wiki, means roughly "belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world."

To use 'theism' and not to include at least 'belief in god' in its meaning is a gross misuse of the term. The very term 'theism' itself is taken from the Greek word 'theos' which means God! Of course, you are free to use the term in any way that you want. I, however, will continue to use it in the way it's always been used.

If you simply want another discussion on whether the universe shows signs of having a purpose (and it clearly does not) then let's do that, but please drop the terms 'theism' and 'atheism' unless you want to include belief in God as part of the discussion.

Interestingly, my original draft of this post started out by trying to propose different terms that could be used in a meaningful discussion.

It all felt a bit silly though. I’m an anonymous poster on a forum, the idea that I have any power to invent new words and demand their usage seems a bit pompous.

Why not just accept that the original intention of the word Theism was to create a umbrella term to capture all religions, and that in order to operate in its intended purpose with our now broader understanding of world faiths, we need to broaden its definition?

If you want to dig your heels in, feel free to invent some terms to describe my definitions, and I will happily play along with this.

Quote

Frankly, I don't understand your desire to drop 'belief in god' from the meaning of the term 'theism' unless you want to count yourself as a theist without admitting your belief in god. The reasons you list above do not hold water. It's difficult to know precisely what someone is talking about who says that the universe shows signs of having a purpose even though no god exists.

The reasons given seem perfectly clear to me – to have a meaningful discussion regarding knowledge and belief. If we have the terms theism and atheism, and each incorporates a number of religions and spiritual belief systems then we are setting ourselves up for a confusing and fruitless exchange.

Quote

If you are using purpose in a subjective way then you're saying that the universe has, somehow, given itself a purpose. This seems wrong-headed because as far as we know only things that have self-consciousness are capable of inventing a purpose for themselves; and while the universe does contain creatures who have self-consciousness, to project this trait onto the universe itself commits the fallacy of composition.

I specifically pre-empted this point in my post:

Quote
Me
If we assert any fundamental meaning or purpose to the universe (besides that subjective purpose and meaning we create for ourselves), then we slip instantly into the broader definition of Theism.

Quote

If OTOH you're saying that the universe has an objective purpose then it seems to me that you're surreptitiously inserting god into the conversation without doing it honestly and transparently since God is almost always the entity associated with the universe's alleged objective purpose.

All claims of God/s propose objective purpose. Not all claims of objective purpose propose God/s. I gave specific examples of this.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/17/2015 05:02PM by TheThorn.
Quote
Dick
Oh, now that I read your reply to Ponderer I see that maybe what you actually wanted was just a pat on the back for obfuscating the term "theism." In that case, feel free to ignore my comments.

What you actually witnessed was one person making a joke, and the other smiling in response.

Pretty standard human interaction...
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:03PM
Gosh.

Now I feel ashamed. sad smiley

Where do I get off trying to bring levity into these discussions. How dare I poison this hallowed discourse with an attempt at amusing comments.

Well... I've been put in my place now boy. Such a soul-crushing admonishment by as eminent and widely honored a poster as Dick has truly pointed out to me the error of my ways. I shrivel in abject humiliation and mortification and shall harry the forum no longer.

Please forgive me, everyone. I was so foolish and unthinking.

Adieu...! Adieu........!

Quote
Sam
Is this the definition of the word "purpose" you are using?

purpose [ ˈpərpəs ]
NOUN
the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists:

"the purpose of the meeting is to appoint a trustee"
synonyms: motive · motivation · grounds · cause · occasion · reason

VERB
have as one's intention or objective:

"God has allowed suffering, even purposed it"
synonyms: intend · mean · aim · plan · design · have the intention · decide

I mean the notion that there is an objective purpose, or an objective point to, the universe. It seems to me to be the one aspect that all religions and spiritual philosophies share.
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:16PM
TheThorn wrote: Why not just accept that the original intention of the word Theism was to create a umbrella term to capture all religions, and that in order to operate in its intended purpose with our now broader understanding of world faiths, we need to broaden its definition?

What?!?! Are you really saying with a straight face that the word "theism," taken from the Greek word "theos" which means GOD, was originally intended NOT to mean anything like "one who believes in GOD"?

How is it even possible that you would think anyone besides someone like Ponderer and possibly Indy, will believe that?

I do give you an "A" for effort though in your attempt to define your way to your desired conclusion.

As long as we get to invent our own meanings for well-known terms then, alternatively, I propose that we use the term "atheist" to mean "one who uses logic and reason, as objectively as possible, to sort out the universe" and "theist" to mean "one who uses logic and reason only so far as it favors his own intuitive, emotionally-based position; otherwise, anything goes."

Does this work for you?
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:25PM
Okay, I'm back smiling bouncing smiley

dick [dik] noun
1. a boorish, tediously annoying person.

Quote
Dick
TheThorn wrote: Why not just accept that the original intention of the word Theism was to create a umbrella term to capture all religions, and that in order to operate in its intended purpose with our now broader understanding of world faiths, we need to broaden its definition?

What?!?! Are you really saying with a straight face that the word "theism," taken from the Greek word "theos" which means GOD, was originally intended NOT to mean anything like "one who believes in GOD"?

How is it even possible that you would think anyone besides someone like Ponderer and possibly Indy, will believe that?

I literally just - twice now - explained my point. You seem set on misunderstanding me.

The word Theism was chosen as an appropriate umbrella term for all religions, since at the time the religions being considered were Abrahamic, Greco/Roman, Hindu, Norse and so on, in other words, all religions which involved God 'characters'.

We now know that there are many religions which assert an objective purpose to the universe, but have no God characters, rather employing abstract concepts.

If we want to have a meaningful discussion, we need either to modernise the term (more sensible), or make up a new word.

Any reasonable person would accept this.
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:26PM
TheThorn wrote: All claims of God/s propose objective purpose.

You're smarter than this. You know very well that not everyone who believes in God believes that their God imbued the universe with purpose. Is it really necessary that I list examples of this?

Not all claims of objective purpose propose God/s. I gave specific examples of this.

This only means that some people who claim the universe has an objective purpose are not theists, not that all people who claim the universe has an objective puropose are theists.
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:29PM
Quote
TheThorn
Quote
Dick
TheThorn wrote: Why not just accept that the original intention of the word Theism was to create a umbrella term to capture all religions, and that in order to operate in its intended purpose with our now broader understanding of world faiths, we need to broaden its definition?

What?!?! Are you really saying with a straight face that the word "theism," taken from the Greek word "theos" which means GOD, was originally intended NOT to mean anything like "one who believes in GOD"?

How is it even possible that you would think anyone besides someone like Ponderer and possibly Indy, will believe that?

I literally just - twice now - explained my point. You seem set on misunderstanding me.

The word Theism was chosen as an appropriate umbrella term for all religions, since at the time the religions being considered were Abrahamic, Greco/Roman, Hindu, Norse and so on, in other words, all religions which involved God 'characters'.

We now know that there are many religions which assert an objective purpose to the universe, but have no God characters, rather employing abstract concepts.

If we want to have a meaningful discussion, we need either to modernise the term (more sensible), or make up a new word.

Any reasonable person would accept this.

Bull do do. You're merely (and clumsily) trying to smuggle in the concept of God where it doesn't belong. Either admit that the term theism always refers, among other things, to belief in God, or make up some other word that means "one who believes the universe has an objective purpose."
Sam
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:33PM
So you are not using the common definition of purpose? The one which requires a purposer? And NOW you say this: "Why not just accept that the original intention of the word Theism was to create a umbrella term to capture all religions, and that in order to operate in its intended purpose with our now broader understanding of world faiths, we need to broaden its definition?"

Wow. Did this "intended purpose" come from somewhere or did/does it just exist for no reason? I hesitate to get into all this again simply because the landscape for criticism is so vast and certainly will go nowhere towards understanding, meaningfulness or being constructive. You admit to being a theist but insist no godspeak is allowed and you believe in the story you're telling yourself AND yourself say the best most rational position to take is one of agnosticism AND that you know your beliefs are probably wrong. How the fukkkkk can we have a conversation about this with all that fuzz?

You know what would be great? If you just admitted that you believe in the godthing but just aren't sure what it is or why it's here instead of constantly trying to disassociate yourself from other believers and inventing this fuzzy logic just to do that. Humans naturally believe @#$%&. There's no shame in believing something and no shame in being wrong about something. It's all about curious people trying to figure out what's true, what's real. Once we do that we can ponderer all day long about how it got that way or even why but we have not even come close to agreeing on definitions of words much less how those words can be used to describe the actual way things operate.

This is what I believe. If it's a one or the other proposition we all tend to fall on one side or the other. We can even kinda measure this tendency with a polygraph. Ask someone "do you believe in god?" who's hooked up and it will show what that person believes. The size of the spike hardly matters except philosophically. But in the real world, in the practical sense of getting to the truth, it doesn't. Do you think for a TrueAgnostic it would freeze right on a flatline? C'mon.

My entire schtick when I first came here a dozen years ago was to propose that there are two kinds of believers in supernatural beings (or designs without designers), delusionals and pretenders, and that there were far more pretenders. Further, I proposed these pretenders believed one thing while claiming to believe another for psycho/social reasons and I still believe this is true. It is NOT irrational to naturally come down on one side of a claim or the other. The unnatural, irrational state is to force onself to deny their beliefs in order to escape some consequence for coming down on a certain side. I think just about everyone is a pretender, including myself sometimes, but if you want to keep up this masquerade please feel free but you won't get any reasonable people to take it very seriously.
Well I guess I was wrong when I felt it was woolly words that was holding us back from a constructive conversation.

It's people who hate to have constructive conversations that hold us back...
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:36PM
It's people who are simply addicted to arguing that keeps the stalemate going.

Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:38PM
Quote
Ponderer
Okay, I'm back smiling bouncing smiley

dick [dik] noun
1. a boorish, tediously annoying person.

Just wanted to repost Ponderer's latest witticism just in case anyone missed it. This has been her only contribution to the thread.

Yep, as attested to by post after post on the political board (posts which can be summarized as: conservative = evil; example, Satan is a conservative; liberal = wholly good; example, Jesus is a liberal) personal attack is almost all she's about.

What do you think about the gist of TheThorn's post, Pondy? Anything in it strike you as being particularly on point?

* * * crickets * * *
Re: Towards a constructive and meaningful conversation on the fundamental nature of the universe
February 17, 2015 05:44PM
Quote
Ponderer
It's people who are simply addicted to arguing that keeps the stalemate going.

I suppose that's sort of a comment on the thread. Probably the best you can do, at any rate.

But I can go with that. Assuming you, unlike the ones who are only here to argue or make silly snide comments, are here to pursue truth, I'd like to here your thoughts on redefining "theist" so that it no longer contains anything like the phrase "one who believes in God"?

You good with that?



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/17/2015 05:46PM by Dick.
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