Thursday, January 3, 2008

God Wouldn’t Leave Room for Agnosticism, There Are Agnostics, So There Isn’t A God.

Carlo Sclippa suggested this very interesting argument against agnosticism to me:

The agnostic concludes that neither the evidence for or against God is compelling. So the one thing that they think is reasonable to conclude is that the world is ambiguous concerning God. Is that fact consistent with the existence of God? Would an all powerful, all good, and all knowing being deliberately devise a world in which the evidence for God’s existence is obfuscated to the point that a reasonable person cannot form a clear view about it? That seems implausible. Such a being would certainly have the power to make the evidence clearer one way or the other. It would know how to make the world unambiguous with regard to its own existence. And presumably, if it was all good, or loved humanity, it wouldn’t leave them dangling in the wind, searching for answers but not finding them, depriving them of thing they want the most. So the agnostic has to reconcile the fact that they think the evidence is insufficient with God. God wouldn’t leave the evidential situation inconclusive. So if the evidential situation is inconclusive, then there is no God. The agnostic believes that the evidential situation is inconclusive. Therefore the agnostic should conclude that there is no God.

Here are some very powerful analogies that J.L. Schellenberg gives for why a good God wouldn’t leave the evidential situation inconclusive. This passage is from "Divine hiddenness justifies atheism," in The Improbability of God, eds. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier.

I. The Hiding Analogy: Imagine yourself in the following situation. You’re a child playing hide and seek with your mother in the woods at the back of your house. You’ve been crouching for some time now behind a large oak tree, quite a fine hiding place but not undiscoverable—certainly not for someone as clever as your mother. However, she does not appear. The sun is setting, and it will soon be bedtime, but still no mother. Not only isn’t she finding you, but, more disconcerting, you can’t hear her anywhere: she’s not beating the nearby bushes, making those exaggerated “looking for you” noises, and talking to you meanwhile as mothers playing this game usually do. Now imagine that you start calling for your mother. Coming out from behind the tree, you yell out her name, over and over again, “Mooooommmmmmm!” But no answer. You look everywhere: through the woods, in the house, down the road. An hour passes, and you are growing hoarse from calling. Is she anywhere around? Would she fail to answer if she were around?

Now let’s change the story a little. You’re a child with amnesia—apparently because of a blow to the head (which of course you don’t remember), your memory goes back only a few days—and you don’t even know whether you have a mother. You see other children with their mothers and think it would sure be nice to have one. So you ask everyone you meet and look everywhere you can, but without forwarding your goal in the slightest. You take up the search anew each day, looking diligently, even though the strangers who took you in assure you that your mother must be dead. But to no avail. Is this what we should expect if you really have a mother and she is around, and is aware of your search? When in the middle of the night you tentatively call out—“Mooooommmmmmmmm!”—would she not answer if she were really within earshot?

Let’s change the story one more time. You’re still a small child, and an amnesiac, but this time you’re in the middle of a vast rain forest, dripping with dangers of various kinds. You’ve been stuck there for days, trying to figure out who you are and where you came from. You don’t remember having a mother who accompanied you into this jungle, but in your moments of deepest pain and misery you call for her anyway: “Mooooommmmmmm!” Over and over again. For days and days. . . the last time when a jaguar comes at you out of nowhere. . . but with no response. What should you think in this situation? In your dying moments, what should cross your mind? Would the thought that you have a mother who cares about you and hears your cry and could come to you but chooses not to even make it onto the list?


Jon said...

Good stuff, that's the 1st time I heard this argument: Argument from inconclusiveness/abandonment or absence.

The agnostic might object that a God could appear absent or inconclusive on purpose in order to maximize certain virtues in humanity- like courage, or maximizing a continual striving/searching for the truth.

I suppose the rebuttal to that objection itself would be the burden of proof argument.

t.k.foster said...

In some instances, agnostics might have a problem with the idea or term of "God" as we tend to assume various characteristics of one. When I have stated that I am agnostic it was only to call attention to what everyone assumes about a higher power(s). I think the evidence that there are atheists, agnostics, and religious people of all colors is evidence that these gods that are asserted about must be wrong. If there was a true God, there would be no way that there would be so much diversity.

However, if culture and how we grow up affects our beliefs then it is more possible that are social upbringing affects what we believe the most.

Central Content Publisher said...

Maybe you folks can clear something up for me about agnosticism. The following, to me, seems true:

Belief in God is a binary. One either believes, or one does not believe. If someone doesn't actively believe, that person is an atheist. The observance that god is not knowable (the agnostic observation) doesn't say anything about whether one believes or not, but instead observes that conclusive evidence is lacking. So, there are atheist agnostics, and there are theist agnostics, but there's no such thing as an agnostic who is neither theist nor atheist (and, I think it goes without saying that there isn't a position which is both theist and atheist).

To draw a parallel, it's much like asking someone if they think a defendant is guilty. If they do not think a defendant is guilty, they think the defendant is not-guilty - though not necessarily innocent. Likewise, atheism means that one doesn't believe in God, though one doesn't necessarily disbelieve. Of course, many atheists do actively disbelieve, but that isn't an essential ingredient for atheism.

I'm asking this because agnosticism is often presented as a sort-of third position, which strikes me as incoherant.

Jon said...

To central content publisher:

Maybe another analogy to draw from is this:

Is there intelligent life that is at least as advanced as ancient Egypt besides us within a 20,000 light year radius of our section of the Milky Way Galaxy? Some may speculate/reason/calculate yes, some no, and some "agnostic".

To me that sounds reasonable, but is there anything wrong with that?

Central Content Publisher said...

Jon: I think the problem is that atheism isn't a "no" answer, but rather, it's a not-yes answer. A not-yes answer includes no, yes & no, and neither yes nor no. It's also worth noting that atheism is an answer to the question "do you believe in god" rather than "does god exist". So, if you do not explicitly answer yes to the question of god, you are answering not-yes, which means you're an atheist. You can be an agnostic atheist, but you are still an atheist.

If I apply this to the question of "do you believe in extraterrestrial life", the answer that's equivalent to atheism is "I don't believe in extraterrestrial life". You may be simply undecided, ambivalent, agnostic, or sure that there isn't extraterrestrial life, but all of these positions answer not-yes to the question of belief in extraterrestrial life.

(hope I'm not hijacking this thread too much)

Matt McCormick said...

Antony Flew made the distinction between positive atheism and negative atheism. By negative atheism, he meant someone who simply lacks a belief in God. So that would include people who aren't sure, who don't care, who never thought about it, and rabid, foaming at the mouth atheists like myself. But a positive atheist is someone who actually has the belief "There is no God." They affirm that no such thing exists.

I haven't ever found that distinction to be that useful. Seems to me that using atheist for someone who believes that there is no God, and using agnostic for someone who isn't sure works just fine. But as you guys have pointed out, an agnostic lacks the belief, "There is a God."

I posted this argument because argument against agnosticism, classically understood, are rare and a bit hard to work out. If someone is clever and really determined, I think it could be harder to force them off of the agnostic position. Showing the problems with theism is much easier, I find. It's just that most people don't seem to be bothered by the glaring problems with theism.

Another really useful distinction for reference: A wide atheist is someone who think there are not gods, no divine or supernatural beings whatsoever. And a narrow atheist is one like we've been talking about who just thinks that the classic omnipotent, omniscience, and all good God does not exist.

A lot of people, even skeptics and narrow atheists, think that wide atheism is unreasonable. Many people think that you just couldn't prove that NO gods whatsoever exist.

I don't think it's any harder than concluding reasonably that no elves, pixies, dwarves, fairies, goblins, or other mythical creates exist. I don't have to give a decisive proof against every possible mythological, magical being in order to conclude that none of them exist. In the end, I think that there are no gods whatsoever for the same reason. The omni God is the one that most people affirm and the one that is most philosophically interesting. And all the other lesser beings are silly (and don't exist.)

But my being so flippant will aggravate some people no doubt.

I gave a talk at an atheist club meeting once. They were fine with my ripping on God for an hour, but then I started to criticize the view that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico and a couple of them got really mad at me and started lecturing me about the government coverup.


Jon said...

Central: I will defend the agnostic position. I will stick to the alien analogy because it is a good one. Let the fun begin:

So, if someone asks me a series of questions: 1. "Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?" I would answer "yes". Then if that person asks: 2. "Do you believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life?" I would again answer yes. Question 3. "Do you believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life within our Galaxy?" My answer "I am uncertain".

Now lets break down that question and answer session. I cannot say that answering in the uncertain for Q#3 with reference to my answers in Q#1 & Q#2 will qaulify that "I don't believe in extraterrestrial life" or that "I don't believe that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists in our galaxy". Just because I am uncertain in Q#3 does not automatically qualify that I don't believe. I don't believe is not equal to not-yes, for being uncertain can contain possible-yes, or plausible-yes. Maybe these are just semantical differences. It is not clear to me that I can be an atheist with respect to Q#3 just because I am not certain, for I could believe that it is highly plausible/probable, i.e. 99.999% chance that it is true, although I am not 100% certain, and so do not want to jump to a strict yes or no.

So, I think that there are more distinctions and categories that we can chop up here.

Jon said...

The weakness in my argument above comes from saying "I don't believe is not equal to not-yes". I am going to stick to my general analogy however because of the semantical and probability problem with equating atheism with some forms of uncertainty.

Central Content Publisher said...

"Do you believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life within our Galaxy?" My answer "I am uncertain". - Jon

If you are uncertain, then you do not believe that the answer to the question is yes. That's all atheism says. I think the problem is that you seem to want atheism to be an unequivocal no to the question of god. It isn't. Much like one can't say that agnosticism means that there is no knowledge of god, god cannot be known, and will never be known, one can't say that atheism necessarily means that god does not exist, god cannot exist, or god will never exist (though some atheists may believe any or all of these).

But, if for a second, we imagine that atheism must mean that one unequivocally believes that god does not exist, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, Charles Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens all just became agnostics. Each of them not only acknowledges that the absence of god can't be proven, but they claim that things which do not exist cannot be proven. Subsequently, absolute certainty is impossible.

Jon said...

It is interesting to note that when Dawkins gets technical concerning his beliefs, he categorizes himself to be a class of agnostic and he calls himself an atheist for commen sense purposes and for simplicity. He uses probability: "It is very improbable indeed that a god exists". So he is not 100% certain.

I see what you mean, it is just funny to think that when someone flips a quarter in the air and asks you if tails will come up and instead of saying "I am uncertain" you instead answer "I don't believe". Instead of telling myself that I am uncertain if I will wake up next morning I instead tell myself "I don't believe". Do you believe that the next die roll will be a six? "Not-yes".

So, I come to agree that if we define athiesm as also incuding "not-yes" instead of no, then all agnostics are a class of atheist. But, not all atheists will define it that way, some will say that atheism is and should be an explicit 'no' answer.

Central Content Publisher said...

[...] instead of saying "I am uncertain" you instead answer "I don't believe" - Jon

The term atheist was coined by, and originally used almost exclusively by theists. So, it really isn't atheists responding, but theists responding for atheists. I, for example, didn't choose to be an atheist. I was born that way. It's simply the description of a belief I do not hold.

I suspect the problem is that belief is colloquially understood to equate to truth. But they're very different. I can be uncertain about a truth, but not a belief. A belief is a conscious agreement with a truth. Logically speaking, it isn't coherant to respond "I'm uncertain" to questions of belief, unless one is implying that a belief can he held without the conscious knowledge of the holder. A coherant conversation about god could look like the following:

party a) "Do you believe in god?"
party b) "No, but I believe it's possible."

Even though party b holds a belief that is in some ways similar to the belief party a questioned him on, party b's answer is still no. He does not hold the belief originally queried.

Thanks for taking the time Jon. I hadn't really grappled with the difference between belief and truth before (which feels kind-of embarrassing), but it's starting to make some sense - I think.

Unknown said...

I think the problem is that you seem to want atheism to be an unequivocal no to the question of god. It isn't.

In my personal understanding and a point I’d like to stress, atheism should be the unequivocal no to god. Someone who may come off as saying there is a possibility of god isn’t undermining this point, merely stating the obvious: you cannot prove a negative. Also, some are attempting to prove to an audience they are not dogmatic (ill-applied in this instance).

The second reason is needless in my book. The only reason why it exists is that the idea of God is so ingrained in our society (and most others) that it—for some—has to at least be considered—it doesn’t. "Philosophy has been corrupted by theologians' blood" ... "whoever has theologians blood in his veins, sees all things in a distorted and dishonest perspective to begin with" (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). To modernize this: we all have religious ideas in our minds by (1) our Culture and (2) our brains, thus our perspectives start skewed to one side (keeping things simple).

I needn’t concede to a slim probability that Santa Claus exists. Nor to ether (a substance literally created by scientists to deal with the propagation of light in space) since Einstein’s theory of relativity. The same applies to god, a made-up entity, for whatever purpose it was originated—fear of death, community, explaining the unexplainable, and so forth. Anyone who truly claims that there is a possibility of God is not an atheist (in my small book). If you want to sit on the fence about it or entertain that small probability, you’re agnostic. And if you cater to an audience to save the dogmatic classification, you’re either (1) being too concerned about others opinions and you should be pitied, or (2) not an atheist.

In any case, I dislike the term atheist, as it stands now, I find too many ignorant about it and are like a religious sheep to the “four horsemen” or “new atheists.”

R. Paul Wiegand said...

I suppose I am commenting far too late ... but here goes anyway ...

I feel the term "agnostic" is being categorized inaccurately here.

The popular notion of "agnostic" may suggest indecision, but the term was not coined with that in mind. Huxley meant something closer to what I call "empirical agnosticism", which has nothing to do with being uncertain, and is easily interchangeable with what some call "weak" or "negative" atheism: the lack of belief in [Gg]od(s)/super-nature (which differs, of course, from strong/positive atheism: the belief that there is no [Gg]od(s)/super-nature).

My view is that all things observable within nature are ultimately explainable by and through the laws that govern the natural world (whether I am capable of understanding the explanation or not). Which in my mind addresses something much deeper than whether there is or is not a God: Whether it is relevant whether God exists. Like Huxley, I see no logical way I could discern the difference between a deity that abides by my above view of nature and no such deity. If no difference can be discerned then the difference is not relevant.

This view can be fairly categorized as "atheist", but I will not do so (for describing myself, at any rate) for several reasons. First, the term was coined to describe this precise view, so it is a much more descriptive term for me. Second, most atheists I have met are strong/positive atheists, and it seems silly for me to foster an ambiguity in terminology when I needn't do so.

Finally, I don't find the more pointed and aggressive views of atheism so popular today among non-theists particularly useful (to me) and I'm happy to maintain a distinction between my views and theirs (with all due respect to Dr. McCormick).

Having said all that, it's clear that the original post wasn't aimed at what I call "empirical agnosticism". Still, I suggest a broader view of agnosticism than is implied here.

Judd said...

This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what agnosticism is. No agnostic would ever say that God, were he to exist, has any characteristics like "good" or "all-powerful" "all knowing" or any other anthropomorphic characteristics. If he does exist, then he's the god of the deists - created the universe, then he took off. Comparing the deistic god to someone's mother makes no sense.

Sophia's Lover said...

Professor, I am an agnostic with atheistic inclinations who's researched theism and religion since '97, yet throughout all my studies, one objection that theists make against nontheists which has given me pause on reflection is that they have chosen to disbelieve out of anger and/or frustration with negative life experiences or a desire to live free of restraints. The nontheist, on the other hand, tends to respond that the theist is holding onto God as an emotional/psychological crutch. Now this is definitely a facile explanation, however, the nontheist tends to minimize emotion and psychology's role in decision-making such that this becomes a double-standard. In other words, while it should never be the sole reason for coming to any position, wouldn't it be fair to say that it plays SOME role in both conversion AND de-conversion? What is your view on how we may discern whether someone adopts a belief solely out of desire or for psychological reasons?

I thank you for your time.

Matt McCormick said...

Great question, Sophia's Lover,
Being angry at religion, or clutching for emotional reasons are not sound reasons for adopting atheism or believing in God, respectively. But objecting to someone's belief by leveling the ad hominem at them: "You just believe because you're emotionally needy," or "You're just mad at religion because it abused you," or whatever, are fallacious objections. Those objections don't give us any reason to believe or not believe--they are about the person, not the evidence. Only the evidence gives us sufficient grounds for believing or disbelieving. We should keep it to that. Once we start attacking each other personally like that, we've lost sight of the important point: is there a God or isn't there?

Ron Cram said...

Suppose the child calls out for his mother but cannot hear her answer because he has his fingers stuck in his ears.