Buying a Toaster at Walmart (or, WHAT’S IN THE BOX??!)

Have you ever had a conversation about what “Atheism” means? I have, thanks to my many fans on social media, and it leads me to this thought experiment about buying a toaster.

I argued long ago that knowledge and belief are two sides of the same Metaphysical Nickel– they CANNOT be separated.

To Believe is to have confidence/faith in the Truthfulness of information one can recall and understand.

To Know is to be able to recall and understand that which is believed to be true.

If you do not choose to accept a proposition as TRUE, you will not say you believe it. Also, if you cannot remember, nor understand it, you cannot honestly say you believe it. On the flip side of the nickel, if you do not believe a proposition to be true, you will not say you KNOW it.

Imagine I come into the room with a nondescript box, taped shut. It’s a little bigger than a bread box. I say, “Do you know what I have in this box?” You say, no, for how could you know?

“Do you believe I have a toaster in this box?” I ask. Again, you say, no, as you have no knowledge about what is in the box.

At this point, I would say you were Agnostic about the box. You don’t KNOW that there ISN’T a toaster in the box, but you don’t know that there IS. You lack a belief in the toaster, only because you can’t honestly say one way or another. You have no intellectual foundation for making that call.

Now, you may decide you don’t like the looks of me and assume I’m a big liar- the kind of liar that would make up a story about having a toaster when he clearly does not have a toaster. If you choose not to believe my story, it’s not an intellectually founded rejection of the existence of the toaster. It’s an emotional response to me. You still would have to admit that there is no REASON why there COULDN’T be a toaster in that box. You just think you have reason not to trust ME. It’s a thin line which is hard to see, but it’s there.

Now imagine you are walking through Walmart, and you see a very similar box, taped shut, and sitting on a shelf. Only, this box has a picture of a toaster on it, and it is labeled, “Toaster.” In this scenario is it not IMPOSSIBLE that there is something else in the box, but now you would say you KNOW what is in the box. The reason is not direct observation- the box is still shut. But it’s still a kind of scientific assurance- every time you open a box from the store which was taped shut until you open it, it contains what the packaging claims it would contain. Once again, you see a box at the store with a clear label, and because of past experience (and other reasonable arguments about truth in advertising) you believe that the box is accurate, and you would say you know what is in the box, even though you have not seen it.

William Lane Craig makes the useful distinction between 100% confident, mathematical certainty, and a proposition which is clearly more probable than its opposite. In this case, you can be far more certain that there IS a toaster than you could be certain that someone put something else in this box at the factory. It’s not impossible, but it is so unlikely that you would not hesitate to buy the box and take it home if you needed a toaster.

Now a third scenario- I show you the box, as above, but this time I open the box and show you. This time you would also say you know that there is a toaster in the box. If I asked you, “Do you believe there is a toaster in the box?” you would, of course, say YES. You can SEE it. Now, whether this equates to 100% confident, mathematical certainty depends on what kind of skeptic you are. There are people out there who will doubt their own existence and REFUSE to admit that it’s possible to prove one’s own existence with 100% certainty. What about “I think, therefore I am?” These people will say, “That only proves that thinking exists, not that there is a self doing the thinking.” At some point, you need to stop trying to convince other people of what they refuse to believe. This guy won’t believe HE exists. Good luck getting him to accept anything else.

Popular YouTube Atheist Thunderfoot had a long conversation with Creation spokesperson Eric Hovind where in he (Thunderfoot) admitted that his atheistic worldview means he could be wrong about EVERYTHING he knows, and the universe, all of reality, might not be real. I’m not sure if he would buy a toaster at Walmart, but his position must give you pause.

Have I proven that Knowing and Believing are two sides of the same Metaphysical Nickel? Consider this, if I show you there is a toaster in the box and ask if you know what is in the box, would you say, “I know there is a toaster in the box because I can see it, but I don’t BELIEVE it.”

Or would you say, “I believe there is a toaster in the box, but I don’t know if there is a toaster in the box.” What sense would that make?

Now, you may say of the box at Walmart, “I believe there is a toaster in this box, but because I have not seen it, I do not KNOW.” If you say you do not KNOW, wouldn’t you really be saying “I believe there is PROBABLY a toaster in the box.”? I propose that we CANNOT separate our belief from our knowledge in order to really mean “I believe FULLY something which I cannot know.” We do say things like this, but if we think about it, what we MEAN  by such statements is just that we consider it far more likely that the expected thing is actual as opposed to the opposite. This is why we buy items at the store without opening them at the store. We KNOW what is in the box- in a sense. It’s also why we love magic tricks or a really good punch line. We KNOW there is no rabbit in the hat, or we KNOW how this story is going to end, but we are delighted to find out that what we knew and believed was wrong.

So how does this relate to the discussion over the way we use the word “Atheism”? My friendly commenter suggested that, by saying he was Agnostic, he had NOT answered the question “do you believe God exists?”. He had said what he did not know, but did not say what he believed. I am suggesting that it is impossible to do one without doing the other. I know God exists, and so I believe God exists. That commenter does not know, and so how can he believe what he does not know? Further, how can he know what he does not know? Specifically, how can he believe God does not exist, or say he KNOWS God does not exist if he admits to being agnostic?

The agnostic says, “I don’t know what’s in the box, so it MAY be a toaster. But I don’t believe it IS a toaster because I don’t KNOW what is in there. I only know that it is not impossible, but that is too little knowledge to have a flip side of belief.”

Or in a sense- I’m not shelling out $25 to Walmart until I look in the box.

For the atheist to be rational- what I call an intellectual atheist, one with reasons for his atheism- he would have to say, “I do not believe there is a toaster in the box because the box is a match box, and it is far too small to fit a toaster inside. It is IMPOSSIBLE for a toaster to be in that box.”

I hope this helps to clarify my position, and again I want to thank all of the Atheists and Agnostics who reached above name calling to actually try to help me understand what they are thinking. When I look at you, I don’t see a toaster, and I hope you do not either.

Now go have a pop tart! You’ve earned it.

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