Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Default Position

I'm not going to give a deep dive into this. I just want to explain the concept well enough that it can be understood.  It is, after all, a rather simple concept, and once you have an understanding of it, you won't easily forget it.

Imagine, if you will, a jar full of pennies.

Got it? .... Good.

For a jar full of pennies, you wouldn't be able to immediately discern how many pennies are in the jar.  This is what you are picturing, correct? .... Good.

Okay.  The next statement is a true statement.

The number of pennies in the jar is either: even or odd.

Correct?  If it is not even, it is odd.  If it is not odd, it is even.

Those are the only two possibilities, correct?

No other possibilities exist, correct?

... Right.

So, let's evaluate a claim. 

Claim: "The number of pennies in the jar is even."

Do you believe this claim?

I expect that you do not.

But wait... are you saying you believe it is odd, then?


So you don't accept the claim that it is even, meaning you don't believe that it is even, and simultaneously, you don't believe it is odd, either?

But there are only two possibilities. So which do you believe?

Do you believe it is even or do you believe it is odd?

....You know one is the case, but you currently don't believe either way?

Welcome to the default position

You have no reason to accept either claim, as no evidence for either position has been presented for you to accept either claim.

The interesting thing about this is this:

While there remains only two possibilities in fact, there are three possibilities about what you believe about it.

The possibilities are:

  • It is even.
  • It is odd.
The possibilities of what you believe are:
  • You believe it is even.
  • You believe it is odd.
  • You have no belief either way.
What about God?

When you apply this to a god or gods, there are two possibilities:
  • At least one god exists.
  • No gods exist.
What you believe about it has three possibilities:
  • You believe that at least one god exists.
  • You believe no gods exist.
  • You have no belief either way about the existence of gods.
There's a word for having no belief either way about the existence of gods.  That word is atheism.

More specifically, it is what is called weak atheism, which is a subset of atheism.  But it is often shortened to simply "atheism", because most self-identified atheists seem to be weak atheists.  I happen to be a strong atheist, meaning I do happen to believe that no gods exist, but many, if not most atheists do not hold this position.

Notice, also, that this has not discussed what one claims to "know", that is a whole other discussion, but rather only what one believes about a claim.

In summary, when we talk about the default position, we aren't trying to establish a "default belief", but rather a default rejection of belief of any claim before evidence is presented.

This bleeds over into the burden of proof, which I plan to be my next post.

Thanks to Matt Dillahunty for this analogy for understanding the default position.