July 06, 2013

There's a Difference

Something I had drafted - wasn't sure of whether I agreed with myself or had switched analogies where I'd meant things in an opposite manner, so I originally didn't publish - but I'm going to publish it now with the caveat that this is not completely thought out, and is indeed, just a rambling.

In discussing atheism on the Internet, some people are making an assumption that atheists and agnostics and the nonreligious are one and the same.  There is a difference, and an analogy came to me that I though I would mention.  In computer science, there are three concepts that are similar but distinctly different.  The concepts are NULL, ZERO and EMPTY.  Some databases do not recognize the difference between null, zero and empty - after all, they are all void of any value, so why should I treat them differently?  Some recognize a difference between zero and empty, but not null and empty.

To store an EMPTY value, I must allocate memory appropriately sized to the type of value I intended to store in that location, and then not store any value there.  In many computer languages, this EMPTY value will default to a particular value.  In other languages, this particular action leaves an UNDEFINED value in the memory location that I have assigned.  No matter, I have actually allocated memory space to hold some value - I merely have not made any effort to store something there.  In our analogy, these are the nonreligious.  The way that English defines this state is, upon recall, the response to 'What do you believe to be the supreme being?' is 'I don't know'.  In some computer languages, this answer will be random gibberish.  This means that when asked who is the supreme being, their answer MAY be 'a flying spaghetti monster'.  The questioner has no way of knowing whether this value has been placed there intentionally or is a random response.  It is obvious, however, that this is a garbage response and not an actual value [with the assumption that no one TRULY believes that a flying spaghetti monster exists and created the world].  It is also true that this person may, on random chance, answer 'Jehovah'.  However, because this dimension is a known EMPTY value - the respondent will know that the answer holds no conviction, even though the questioner does not know this.  To test the EMPTY value response against an actual belief, it is necessary to ask many more questions about the nature of the stored value and attempt to determine how that value got into that memory location. (This is beyond the scope of this discussion).

Code sample for EMPTY value:
String supreme_being;

print supreme_being;

Sample output:
The Flying Spaghetti Monster
Mahatma Ghandi
Error: pointer exception!

A ZERO value is when I have made the effort to allocate memory to store information, and have made a conscious effort to store the placeholder which means OF NO VALUE, invented by the Babylonians in the 4th century BC.  So, I have set aside a location and stored a marker that is consistent with my data type that means this location is dedicated to the fact that the value of the dimension I am storing is void of any significant value.  In our analogy, this memory location is pointed to by the dimension 'supreme being' and the value we are storing is ZERO (non-existent, no-value added).  This is the atheist.  When asked 'Who is the supreme being', their response is 'There is none.' and this is a definitive answer.

Code sample for ZERO value:
String supreme_being;
supreme_being = "";

print("The supreme being is %s.",supreme_being);

Sample output:
The supreme being is .

The remaining concept is a little more difficult to comprehend at first - but it is best defined as the ignorance-is-bliss option.  Failing to set aside any location in memory, and failing to set aside any pointer to the value dimension, when attempts to reference a NULL value are made, computer languages will normally throw an error, which means that the question will have to be handled as an exception to the logic tree.  There simply is no dimension defined that meets the criteria of the question.  In our analogy, this is the agnostic.  The way that English defines this state is, upon recall, the response to 'What do you believe to be the supreme being?' is 'I don't care.'  Another potential answer may be 'I have never given that any thought' - but this answer may allude to the person beginning to provide some thought energy to the subject - which may immediately put them in the EMPTY category as they begin to think about it.

Code sample for NULL value:
print("The supreme being is %s.",supreme_being);

Sample output:
Error: Undefined variable.

One could argue that there are few people in modern western society who have truly given no thought or significance to the question 'Who/what is the supreme being' and will continue to do so.  Because of our society giving great weight to the discussion of this question, you could argue that it is difficult to find people who are truly agnostic and that people are either religious, nonreligious or atheists.  In fact, Richard Dawkins argued that one should not and can not logically define oneself as an agnostic.  And this holds true with these analogies.  The only agnostics are those that can not or will not self-identify because either they do not care, or have not heard of religion.  However, I disagree with Dawkins that all agnostics are atheists.  By my analogy, people who have identified themselves as agnostic are actually nonreligious.  If they TRULY are agnostic, they wouldn't identify themselves as anything - they would simply respond to religious queries with 'I do not care.' or 'You're not making sense - please leave me alone'.

Because of the nature of the true agnostic, it is impossible to include them in the debate field.  Rather than all four opinions, all religious debate automatically excludes them (because they don't care to get involved).  All debate, therefore, exists between three populations: religious/nonreligious/atheists.  It is also impossible for an outsider to know the difference between someone who is religious and nonreligious because of the possibility that a non-committal answer to religious questioning may come from a nonreligious population.  This discussion is important, but outside of the scope of this article.

No comments: