Monday, December 7, 2009

What’s Left to be Agnostic About?

Larry Brand, a documentary film maker, just interviewed me for a film he’s making about atheists. Our discussion got me to thinking about agnosticism. Here’s a clearer statement of my view of it than I think I’ve given of it before.

There are a lot of thoughtful people out there who claim to be agnostic about the existence of God. They will acknowledge that many of the more evangelical and traditional conceptions of God do not make sense. They are not comfortable with the more literal readings of various religious texts or with a strongly anthropomorphic god because they acknowledge the host of problems associated with that position.

But as they see it, there is still a live possibility lingering here that the atheist has been too quick to dismiss. It’s the idea of an absolute ground of being, a source of meaning, a force, a power, or something that exerts influence on the universe with some purpose in mind. It is something that is greater than us, and it is more than can be explained or understood in merely naturalistic or material terms. We’ll call this a supernatural force, or SF. And the omni-God that so many people believe but that this agnostic doesn’t accept is the OG.

First, we should note that we’re not really talking about any sort of recognizable belief in God any more. We’d be hard pressed to even call a belief in an SF a kind of theism. In mainstream religious movements in the West, God has (at least) five essential features. He’s all powerful, all knowing, all good, there’s just one of them, and he’s a personal, conscious being. This last one is the most important for this discussion. Traditionally, God is anthropomorphic—he has a mind or thoughts, he has a plan, and he forms personal emotional and loving relationships with humans. And it’s really this aspect of God that the SF agnostic has moved the furthest away from. This is probably because to the extent to which we endow God with personal, caring, teleological, and conscious motives we make it harder and harder to reconcile that God with the facts. In many people’s minds, suffering, evolution, randomness, and the relative unimportance of humans in the big picture seem to indicate that the world just doesn’t have one of those sorts of beings in it. If it did, there are too many things about the world that would be different. So the SF agnostic has, more or less, conceded the atheist’s point about the sort of God that the vast majority of humans believe in. The SF agnostic is actually an atheist about God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus, Thor, Sobek, Puluga, and all the rest. She only has reservations leading to suspension of belief about some much more nebulous, non-traditional and non-anthropomorphic thing. If she and the wide atheist are disagreeing about anything, it is about the conditions under which it is reasonable to suspend judgment about a hypothesis vs. simply disbelieving it.

We should allow that some of the difference in epistemic policy here can be legitimately due to different personal preferences. Experience may have led one person to want to be more cautious about lending her assent (or dissent) to hypotheses and generally taking her time in gathering evidence and formulating opinions. While another person may have more of a shoot first, ask questions later approach and be less inclined to suspend judgment about anything unless some relatively specific conditions are met. But if the former person’s policy leads her to think she should be agnostic about Zeus, Sobek, and Gefjun (the Norwegian goddess of agriculture), instead of simply disbelieving them, then she’s being too skittish, unrealistic, or just pretentious. And if the latter person is inclined to just reject everything unless some substantial evidence can be produced in its favor, then he’s being thoughtless and injudicious.

Personal preferences aside, what should it take for a hypothesis to warrant a serious agnosticism? I cannot be merely that it is might be true or it is some conceivable possibility. There are a host of other things that are possible, but reasonable people are not agnostic about them: elves, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and Chupacabras. It is possible that the Holocaust didn’t happen, or that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck. But it would be silly to be agnostic about any of these on the grounds that they are possible. In order to warrant a considerate agnosticism, there must be more in favor of a claim. There has to be at least enough evidence in its favor to elevate its likelihood from the merely possible into a range where it could turn out to be true. If the probability that a claim is true ranges from 0 to 1, and the tipping point from probably not true to probably true is .5, then surely the reasonable range for agnosticism for a hypothesis is in the vicinity of .5. Let’s just stipulate that it’s .4 to .6. Greater than that and you’ve got grounds to believe it, and less than that you should disbelieve it. You wouldn’t assign a .5 probability to the existence of Santa, or to the claim that wearing a raw steak hat wards off illness. Those are probably way down in 0 to .1 range. And you would assign a very high probability to the claim that Barak Obama is the President of the U.S.

So what does it take to elevate a claim into the .4 to .6 range? The agnostic we are considering has granted that the anthropomorphic, traditional conceptions of God that so many other people believe in are not real. So those fictions, and those people’s beliefs in them shouldn’t count as someone boosting the supernatural force hypothesis up into the suspension-of-judgment range. The widespread beliefs in Santa, or ghosts, or the view that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV don’t do anything to make those claims even slightly more likely to be true. So widespread belief in an OG shouldn’t influence the probability that we assign to an SF.

This hypothesis will seem ad hoc, nevertheless, I’m going to put it out there because I think it really is at the heart of agnosticism that some people claim to subscribe to. Some agnostics are actually people who want to be believers, but they just can’t bring themselves to disregard all the counter indications.

To be honest, I think that what happens for a lot of agnostics is that they started out believing in an OG. They were raised religious, participated in religion with their friends and family, and they even enjoyed it or found it fulfilling. But as they explored the question intellectually they came to acknowledge that really what’s entailed by those religious doctrines can’t be true. They couldn’t reconcile the religion that they knew with the rest of what they know about the world. So they, perhaps grudgingly, gave up on that notion. But a desire to be religious in some form lingers, and there is still a great deal of appeal in the idea of some transcendent, supernatural force that holds out hope for something more than just matter and the reality we are faced with here. So these agnostics back off of the traditional notion of a thundering, judging, Biblical creator God but hold some optimism for an SF. They remain agnostic about that possibility because that idea doesn’t have the glaring inconsistencies that sabotaged traditional belief for them. If it is these sorts of personal desires that have led to a person’s elevating the possibility of an SF to the agnostic range, then I think this sort of agnosticism is ill-founded. If what’s really going on in their heads is that they wish they could believe in God, but they can’t bring themselves to buy into the deeply problematic being who is the center of belief for so many other people, then they don’t really have any evidence that would warrant suspension of belief about an SF; they are, more or less, religious believer wannabees. Subjective motivations like desire, need, hope, or psychological affect should not be permitted to influence the objective probability value that we assign to some claim about reality. My wanting to win the lottery, no matter how bad, doesn’t actually change the odds in the slightest—Oprah and The Secret notwithstanding.

Maybe if we consider a paradigm case of suspension of belief about some other hypothesis it can shed some light on the appropriate circumstances for agnosticism about God. Not everyone will agree with me, but the existence of intelligent alien life seems like a hypothesis that it would be wise to be agnostic about. It is certainly possible that it exists, and there are many considerations that lead us to think that the probability could be much higher than zero. We know life developed in our case, and given the enormous numbers of stars and planets in the universe, those conditions could be found in many other places. But there is too much we don’t know about the prevalence of planets with life conducive conditions. Even when life develops, it may be extraordinary for it to develop into intelligent life. Evolving to the point where they can engage in space travel or interstellar communication may be very, very difficult even if life turns out to be relatively common. Some thoughtful people conducting the search for extra terrestrial intelligence are divided about the issue. And so on.

What does this example show us? The idea can’t be merely consistent with what we know. If we make goblins undetectable, or give Santa a cloaking device, those hypotheses can be made consistent with everything else we know. There has to at least some plausibility to the hypothesis such that it could fit in with the known facts. We need to have, at least in outline form, a sketch of how that thing could be true and how it might dovetail with the rest of what we know about the world. We can anticipate several different ways in which aliens could fit in the world we know. Xeno-biologists (how about that for a cool job?), physicists, chemists, and cosmologists can give us a number of plausible accounts for how they could exist (not merely that they might possibly). Liquid water does appear to occur naturally on other planets in the universe. And some of those planets and stars appear to be the right temperature, age, and type to support life. The molecular construction of life could take a number of different forms, and so on. All of those considerations lead us to give it higher initial probability than we would to an invisible elf hypothesis.

So if we can take a lesson from the example, what the SF agnostic owes us is some account of an SF that fits comfortably with the rest of what we know or experience. Or put less confrontationally, if order for the SF hypothesis to warrant agnosticism, there must at least be enough evidence in its favor and some account of how the existence of such a thing could comfortably fit in with the rest of what we know.

What do we have regarding an SF that might lead us to give it this status? We’ve already seen that it cannot be the prevalence of belief in an anthropomorphic God among other people. And it can’t be our hoping that there is something else that leads us to give the real thing a greater probability. Are there phenomena, experiences we have, or other evidence that could be explained by an SF? Here the SF agnostic may say yes. She may point to internal phenomena: human consciousness, feelings of the sublime, transcendent experiences, our moral facilities, or religiousness. Or she may point to external phenomena: the advent of life on Earth, fortuitous circumstances, or the alleged fine-tuning of the cosmos.

But it cannot be merely that it is possible that these things are brought about by an SF that will warrant agnosticism about it—they could possibly be the work of Sobek too. There has to be sufficient evidence in favor of the SF hypothesis over the others to elevate it to the neighborhood of .5.

Do we have that? Here’s why I don’t think we do. We have many natural (non-supernatural) hypothesis that are either the probable explanation of each one of these phenomena, or we know enough about them to know the vicinity where the natural explanation will be found. None of our substantial efforts to understand these phenomena and others in natural terms have pointed in the direction of a supernatural explanation. Quite the contrary, in every case where we thought there was some supernatural force or cause at work, investigation revealed a natural one. There are no ghosts, no evil demons, no spiritual possessions that cause disease. The alleged miracles that we have investigated have turned out to be the result of human fallibilism, enthusiasm, or deceit. 10,000 supernatural hypotheses have given way to natural explanations.

So the burden on the SF agnostic is to point to evidence that would warrant our not lumping the SF hypothesis in with all the rest of the non-natural forces or beings that have failed. The world, all of it, looks to be a natural place where everything can be accounted for in natural terms. What’s left to be agnostic about?


Explicit Atheist said...

Of course, you are correct about this. I would add that the likelihood we would ever ignorantly guess the right answer to any complicated mystery for which we lack any evidence is vanishingly small. What are the odds that someone would ignorantly guess how the sun gives off light and heat without having any evidence of how that happens? Even now that some scientists have acquired a good understanding of that process it would take years of study to acquire the knowledge to understand how that works. It should be obvious that any ignorant guess absent any evidence of how the universe was created is not going to be correct, the odds are astronomical against that happening, something like that has never happened in history. It should be obvious by now that supernaturalism has always been the fallback position of ignorance, that its a symptom and product of our own ignorance paired with our own intellectual limitations and not a concept that carries any weight as a source of non-fictional content.

Matt McCormick said...

Very nice points Explicit Atheist.


Web Wanderer said...

Thanks for the post. I agree with your basic point. But agnostics aren't the main problem. I'm a lot more concerned about fundamentalist Christians and the problems they cause.

Matt S said...

I think that, after a recent discussion with an agnostic, is that some of the people in the agnostic category never held religion in much regard, but through meditation or psychedelic drugs or "something" they feel like there's a force or something bigger than us.
I don't wish to discount meditative spiritual experiences, so I call myself a spiritual atheist. But I point out to the agnostics, Sam Harris often repeats the point that anyone can go into a cave and meditate. It's not a theist-only activity.

As for the "force bigger than us", if it's not telling you what to do or that it gives a darn or that it can do anything about it, it's not worth believing in anyways.

RA said...

I'm often curious about this agnostic thing that atheists have.

I consider myself an agnostic. I can't say that I've ever had a true belief in God although I was raised in a religious family.

I can't call myself an atheist because I can't say for certain how the world was created. I'm comfortable knowing that I have no ability to know how it was created and that no one else knows how it was created either.

I don't attribute it to any specific SF force but I can't say with 100% certainty that it didn't happen that way.

I think the best religious argument is that something cannot come from nothing. But, of course, this God apparently comes from nothing.

How did it happen? I don't know. Can't say. Wouldn't know where to begin. It's all a mystery, and I'm fine with it. I don't need to make a decision about it because it serves no purpose.

Explicit Atheist said...

Its not literally true that "something cannot come from nothing". Pairs of particles briefly come into existence, although they do so under strong time and distance constraints. In effect, "nothing" is an unstable status, it really isn't "nothing", its boiling with these virtual particles. See I think its reasonable to conclude that this notion of a stable "nothing" as an initial default state is wrong. We have conditions that suggest there is something close to a balance between negative and positive energy as would be expected if the universe originated naturally.

Explicit Atheist said...

Web Wanderer said...

"Thanks for the post. I agree with your basic point. But agnostics aren't the main problem. I'm a lot more concerned about fundamentalist Christians and the problems they cause."

Although his argument was expressed here in the context of a contrast to agnosticism, the argument is generic and can be expressed without any reference to agnosticism or in the context of a contrast with theism. As such it is a general argument for philosophical naturalism.

I don't share the view that we should restrict or narrow our focus to addressing any one subset of the public and their beliefs. There are number of reasons why that isn't a good strategy. Some atheist have difficulty articulating their atheism. Some agnostics misunderstand and are antagonistic to atheism. We benefit if we reduce that problem. There is almost no audience that would not benefit from better understanding atheism. If we are going to break the circle of popular antipathy towards atheists and the resulting legal establishment of monotheism and discrimination, we have to address every source of that antipathy, promote better understanding among everyone, seek potential allies everywhere. It seems to me to be completely counterproductive to say we should restrict ourselves to some subset of the american public when we compare beliefs or explain and defend our atheism.

ChrisAC said...

The whole atheist/agnostic distinction, to me, seems moot.

Construe atheism as "The lack of belief in God" then both atheists and agnostics are in there.

Construe atheism as "The belief that God does not exist" then you just get into a gradient problem.

No rational atheist is absolutely, 100% positive no supernatural being exists, so you get into a percentage problem. At what 'percentage' of certainty is one an atheist or an agnostic? I may be willing to state that at a true 50-50 belief, you would be an 'agnostic' but I don't believe that's a common, if at all possible, occurrence.

I've rarely met an agnostic who believes that there is an equal chance of the Christian god existing or not existing. Often times, it's just they fall upon the "Well, I'm not absolutely sure" card. Well, of course not, very few people are (or rather, should be) 'absolutely sure' about much of anything. How does that render your non-belief in God into something different?

So, how much 'disbelief' do you need to be an atheist, rather than an agnostic? 98%? 95%? 75%? 60%? 51%?

If you're below 50% on the 'disbelief' scale, are still an agnostic, or merely a theist with doubts?

At the end of the day. the answer to the question, for any agnostic, "Do you believe that God exists?" would be 'No.' Just as the answr to Zeus existing, or unicorns and dragons and any other mythical being you wish to name would be. The fact is, possibilities of existence aside, you don't have a belief that those beings exist.

So, then, where is that line between atheist and agnostic? To me, it seems to be (on an anecdotal level) the line between 'Don't want to cause a fuss' and 'Damned if I'll be ashamed of my belief'

Matt McCormick said...

A couple of comments, RA. First, it sounds like you're requiring that we know things with absolute certainty before we can claim to be justified in believing them or claiming that they are true. That's patently false. Consider every medical diagnosis that you or anyone in your family has ever gotten. Consider your justified, true belief that your car is sitting in the driveway where you left it. Put the other way, merely lacking absolute certainty about the origin of the universe doesn't justify someone in declaring agnosticism. Second, I've got no way to address your apathy. If you don't care about the matter, there's not much I can do to get you to acknowledge the importance of it, or see that it really matters what people think.

Explicit Atheist, who's proposing that we limit our focus or our comments to one little subset of the population? Web Wanderer said he's more concerned about fundamentalists. I am too. I've got almost 200 posts to cover the other topics.

Thanks all for your comments.


Anonymous said...

Matt, I think you are absolutely right. And I totally agree with Chris AC.

I think a lot of the disconnect is in one's definition of what an agnostic and an atheist is and one's preconceived notions on the subject.

I define agnostic differently than you do and others have the idea that agnostics are holding out some hope for a God and can't quite give up the idea.

To my way of thinking, an atheist has their mind 100% made up that there is no God or any chance of one. But from what I can tell that is not how many atheists see atheism.

Some of us prefer the term agnostic while others want a more certain label and go for atheist. The reality is that they are one and the same a lot of the time.

From the strict definition, I think my position is agnostic which is what Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell considered themselves. You may define it differently.

RA said...

That last anonymous post was mine.

Matt McCormick said...

If naturalism has taught us anything it's that no one should ever claim to be 100 certain about anything. And you can certainly have the reasonable belief that no god exists without being dogmatic or without having deductive certainty. You'd be way out of sync with the rest of the philosophical and theological discussion if anyone who lacks 100% certainty is an agnostic.


RA said...

So your definition of my belief would be atheism even though I consider the answer basically unknowable?

I'm not sure that qualifies as "a reasonable belief that no god exists."

It seems to me that what you consider an agnostic to be is actually a Deist which is a term that is no longer used and is now being assigned as agnostic.

Matt McCormick said...

Well, you can't have it both ways. If you don't know, then you don't know. That makes you an agnostic. But thinking that you cannot be absolutely certain about some matter is not grounds to think that you don't know, and it certainly isn't grounds for thinking that the answer is unknowable. We know that smoking causes cancer, but there is an outside chance that we've gotten it wrong. It would be silly because of that to conclude that we don't know that smoking causes cancer, or that it cannot be known in principle.

A problem with the "It's unknowable" position is trying to justify how it is you know so much about what can and cannot be known.

Deism is a form of theism. It's the belief that a particular sort of god exists. That's not relevant to this discussion.


Explicit Atheist said...

RA said..

"To my way of thinking, an atheist has their mind 100% made up that there is no God or any chance of one. But from what I can tell that is not how many atheists see atheism."

That is just wrong. There is no 100% proof, this isn't a tautology or a logical proof, and it would be nuts to think that way. This is about weight of the evidence. Its exactly like Matt McCormick is saying, we reach conclusions based on weight of the evidence and it would misleading if we were to reply "we don't know" when we have sufficient evidence to favor one particular conclusion. That doesn't mean we have proof, that we know for sure what is absolutely and totally factually true about something we don't have and can't claim to have complete knowledge about. It just means that we have a conclusion justified by weight of the evidence. If we the weight of the evidence available to us changes then we change our conclusion accordingly.

Matt McCormick said...

Damn straight, Explicit.

Explicit Atheist said...

ChrisAC said...

"The whole atheist/agnostic distinction, to me, seems moot.

Construe atheism as "The lack of belief in God" then both atheists and agnostics are in there.

Construe atheism as "The belief that God does not exist" then you just get into a gradient problem.

No rational atheist is absolutely, 100% positive no supernatural being exists, so you get into a percentage problem. At what 'percentage' of certainty is one an atheist or an agnostic? I may be willing to state that at a true 50-50 belief, you would be an 'agnostic' but I don't believe that's a common, if at all possible, occurrence."

Look, its simple. When the weight of the evidence favors one conclusion over another that is when you are no longer undecided or agnostic. We can't put numbers on a tipping point because there is no mathematical equation here. So this distinction is not moot and "The belief that God does not exist" is a perfectly valid position to take as long as we have the evidence to support that conclusion. And we do, we have the evidence. Its basically a combination of a complete lack of evidence for any ongoing interventions by gods, plenty of evidence that everything can be explained by laws of nature, plenty of evidence that gods are god beliefs have fictional origins, and the like. No one has to be certain that it will snow next winter to believe that it will snow next winter in Virginia, we just need weight of the evidence justification. We can all say we don't know if it will snow next winter, and literally we don't know in the sense of being 100% certain, but its more accurate to say we believe it will snow next winter when we justifiably think it will. And we should say what more accurately expresses our view, particularly when our view is justified by weight of the evidence.

Explicit Atheist said...

Richard Carrier does a good job here explaining why naturalism is a better supported and more defensible position than agnosticism and "don't believe anything" atheism

For those who don't have the inclination or time to read his entire interview, I will quote an excerpt here:

"I think the common mistake is to assume that claiming this is equivalent to declaring dogmatic certainty in naturalism. But that's the same fallacy I pointed out above. Saying naturalism is the most probably correct worldview on present evidence (and IMO, it is so by a large margin, no other competitor even comes close, a fact that isn't always obvious to those not well informed of the actual facts) merely means it is more probable than alternatives, not that it is itself decisively or undeniably certain. "More probable" does not mean "100%," or even "80%." It just means more. If the next most probable worldview is 20% probable, naturalism need only be 55% likely to be vastly more credible. I'm just making up numbers. But you see my point. Showing that we have better explanations for each peculiar fact is enough to refute Christianity. We need not assert that those explanations are therefore true, only that of all explanations so far conceived, those are far more likely to be correct than any others. That may change tomorrow as new information comes, showing some other explanation even more credible still. But right now, we ought to believe what the evidence makes most likely. And once you realize that naturalism has a better explanation of everything than Christianity, you'll realize it has a better explanation of everything than any other worldview. Which leads to only one rational conclusion: we all should be naturalists. At least for now. Maybe future evidence will change our minds, but we have to go on what we know now. Leave the future for later."

ChrisAC said...

Explicit Atheist -- I'm not sure exactly how you construed my post. From a quick glance at your response you seem to somehow believe I'm attacking atheism, for some very odd reason.

The whole point was that agnostics are atheists, because there isn't some percentage they can point to and say "See, I'm agnostic." That was the whole gradient-problem thing, you can't pick a property that all atheists have and all agnostics don't. Any agnostic which already lacks the belief in God, in a Christian filled society no less, already has a belief state against the existence of a God.

[i]"Look, its simple. When the weight of the evidence favors one conclusion over another that is when you are no longer undecided or agnostic. We can't put numbers on a tipping point because there is no mathematical equation here."[/i]

And I still don't see how you get an agnostic position then.

The whole point is what determines when the evidence is acceptable? You have the same gradient problem. Because, at 49-51% split, the evidence obvious favors atheism. Unless you're claiming every agnostic has an absolutely perfect 50-50 belief state. If you say they don't, then if you believe mere 'evidence favoring' position, then all agnostics seem to be atheists (or theists with doubt, if the stick falls the other way -- I find very few self-proclaimed agnostics have that position)

It seems fairly intuitive, to me, that if you lack the belief in a God existing, despite being surrounded by followers, any claim of 'unsure' seems absurd. Either you're going to be 'leaning' towards one side or the other, and it seems agnostics are going to have a greater weight towards atheism. The gradient problem shows that any distinction between the two becomes blurry.

As such, the central question really should be "Do you have the belief that God exists?" If the answer is 'No' then that person is an 'atheist.' Because "possibly God exists" just doesn't work as an answer, because it applies to *every* rational non-believer, which again leaves us with no distinction. An agnostic seems to me, in seemingly all cases, to be an atheist who wishes to avoid the social stigma with being labeled an atheist -- or simply is ignorant of atheism due to social factors; still I don't believe that changes their ontological status to something other than 'atheist'

Not that they don't have good reason to wish to avoid it, in America, unfortunately.

mikespeir said...

I figure that if I'm sure enough not to adhere to any religion, to not worry about the dire threats supposedly issued by some purported god against doubters, I'm sure enough to call myself an atheist.

Explicit Atheist said...

"[i]"Look, its simple. When the weight of the evidence favors one conclusion over another that is when you are no longer undecided or agnostic. We can't put numbers on a tipping point because there is no mathematical equation here."[/i]

And I still don't see how you get an agnostic position then."

I think we are arguing over different usages of the word agnosticism. Agnosticism as "we don't completely know and therefore we have insufficient basis for favoring one over the other" is the agnosticism that I am arguing does not qualify as atheism. Agnosticism as "we don't have complete knowledge" is not disputable, and its intrinsic to any "weight of the evidence" approach. In that sense, we should all be agnostics, even theists SHOULD be agnostics. For me, at the risk of nitpicking, someone who refuses to favor one view over the other on this question, for whatever reasons, is a "nontheist" while someone who favors no gods over any gods, for whatever reasons, is an atheist. I can certainly agree to other terminology like implicit versus explicit atheist, non-affirmative versus affirmative atheist, passive versus assertive atheist, and the like, but I think nontheist is actually more accurate for the former.

RA said...

Interesting viewpoints. We've all got our own version which is what I suspected.

Explicit Atheist said...

Correction: Agnosticism defined as "we have insufficient basis for favoring one over the other", regardless of the reason for reaching that conclusion, is the agnosticism that I am arguing does not qualify as atheism. I can agree with "don't believe in god" as qualifying as atheism provided we exclude the aforementioned agnosticism. However, I don't think there should be any objection or problem with the "belief that there is no god" definition. I think its unfortunate that some people object to that. The people who seem to object to "belief that there is no god" most strongly are "no beliefs" people who call themselves atheists and I consider "no beliefs" to be wrong, even silly.

The proper remedy for addressing the "gradient problem" is to adopt clearer definitions, not more murky definitions. By adopting the latter approach you are importing that problem into the definition of atheism and I don't see how importing the problem into the definition of atheism remedies the murkiness problem. I much prefer remedying the problem by using a different word for people who prefer no belief: Nontheism.

Matt McCormick said...

Hi folks. Thanks for the really interesting discussion. A couple of ideas. We do have a formula and a way to do the math on this: Probability theory and Bayes theorem. In general, the probability that some claim is true can be assigned a value for an agent between 0 and 1 where 0 is certainly false and 1 is certainly true. .5 is the tipping point. I don't really favor ChrisAC's account of agnosticism. It's like Flew's negative atheism--anyone who lacks a belief in God is a negative atheist. That would include agnostics in the classical sense. A positive atheist, on Flew's account, is someone who has the belief that there is no God. I'm fine with calling those people who are not sure and who neither belief nor disbelieve that God exists agnostics. I am just challenging some of the grounds for adopting agnosticism that are typically presented. I think a lot of self-identified agnostics are actually God believer wannabes, or closet theists. But they will rarely admit that to me when I press.

So we could say that people who carefully consider the available evidence and who judge that the probability that God is real falls, say, close to .5 are agnostics. As they see it, there's neither sufficient evidence to justify atheism nor theism. That might be just because the evidence isn't compelling, or it might be, they think, because such things "cannot be known in principle." I think this latter position is bullshit too, but I haven't really elaborated on why here yet. Thanks again.


Explicit Atheist said...

There is an issue of how much weight to place on the fact that we don't, and can't, know everything absolutely. For some agnostics this limitation carries a lot of weight. For me, it is an unrealistic and unbalanced insistence on perfectionism to demand that we can't justify our beliefs unless we are completely certain that the beliefs are completely factually correct. Of course, weight of the evidence provides no guarantee that we are absolutely, totally correct in some unmeasurable, and therefore impractical sense. But its foolish, in my mind, to take that all or nothing approach when there is lots of space in between those two extremes and as a practical matter, we necessarily live in that middle space. To me imperfection here is good enough, if only because imperfection is unavoidable, and I think agnostics are fooling themselves if they think are doing better by ignoring weight of the evidence simply on the grounds that it can't be a-priori guaranteed to achieve perfectly correct results.

Matt McCormick said...

Well put, EA. There's an asymmetry in the (faux) agnostic's invoking "we cannot know everything" to justify agnosticism about God when he or she would rarely if ever let that worry keep them from believing other things. It's trivial and uninteresting that we cannot know everything, but the agnostic/wannabe believer puts a disproportionate amount of weight on that concerning God and shies away from the obvious (atheism). But the same consideration doesn't lead them to refrain in other comparable cases. In a lot of cases, "We cannot know everything," and "We cannot have absolute certainty," are, I suspect flimsy, ad hoc rationalizations that conceal a longing to believe in God.

Reginald Selkirk said...

I think that, after a recent discussion with an agnostic, is that some of the people in the agnostic category never held religion in much regard, but through meditation or psychedelic drugs or "something" they feel like there's a force or something bigger than us.

Sure, i could name four forces bigger than us. Gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force. It seems a serious mistake though to presume that a force would constitute a person with consciousness, with ideas about how you should live your life.

I had dinner with an agnostic once. He stated that he didn't believe in any of the gods or religions currently on offer, but the Universe is a big place so he insisted on keeping his options open. He even refused to define what would qualify as a god. Since he refused to offer a definition of "godness," I attempted to flesh it out with concrete examples. "How about this pepper shaker here on the table, could this qualify as 'god'?" He said no. I pointed out that if he couldn't offer a definition of this property of 'godness', it was improper to state whether any person or object possessed it. That is not respectable rational discussion. I refer to this episode as "the terrible parable of the pepper shaker."

Matt McCormick said...

Hi Reginald. Good to hear from you.

Agnostics covet the insight, that they think is profound and uniquely theirs, that there could be something out there that we don't know about or understand. Of course, that's a trivial and uninteresting notion. Of course there are things out there that we haven't thought of yet that we will discover. Does that justify agnosticism about the gods that human religions have been presenting to us for centuries? The one they claim to know so well? Of course not. We should think of it this way--if some powerful, knowing, and apparently good being showed up tomorrow, is there anything it could say, any excuse it could offer that would lead us to think that yes, there was an omnipotent, omniscient, and all good being that existed all along. He just kept us in the dark, refused to exercise those powers, and let countless instances of suffering that a good being would have prevented slide by. If there were a God, he would have been here all along. So whoever shows up tomorrow isn't God.


Anonymous said...

The existential remains existential. There is no existence coming out of nonexistence, and existence cannot go into nonexistence. You can ask the physicists. They have not yet been able to destroy a single atom. You cannot destroy anything – and you cannot create anything either. You cannot destroy a grain of sand. Science has progressed so far, so much, but we are incapable of creating a single grain of sand or of destroying a single grain of sand. You can grind it, you can change the form, but it will remain in another form. Only the form changes; life goes on.

Alexander said...

There's been quite a bit of slapping around of agnosticism here, so let me see if I can't motivate their position a little bit. I'll try and come at it from two different approaches, so bear with me.

First approach:

In general, there are three types of arguments for and against the existence of God: Inductive, Deductive, and Observational. I want to focus on Inductive arguments here, as they represent the lion's share of arguments for or against the existence of God, such as the Cosmological Arg, the Teleological Arg, the Problem of Evil etc. Now the heart of all inductive claims is probability. Based upon past experience, One can make an inference as to what will happen in the future. Touching a hot stove hurt before, so it'll probably hurt if I do it again. I've got a bacon sandwich, and bacon sandwiches have been delicious in the past, so this sandwich is probably delicious. So these famous arguments are broken down as follows (roughly):

There is a Universe, and there's usually a reason for things existing, so there is probably a creator.

The Universe seems to be designed, and designed things typically have a designer, so there is probably a designer.

There is Evil in the World, and good things generally try to minimize evil, so there probably isn't a God.

Now, consider this:

Imagine you're a 10 year old girl. Its a warm August day and you really want a new doll. So you convince your parents to let you set up a lemonade stand in front of your house. You pick some lemons from the tree in your back yard and you and your mom squeeze them together and make a few pitchers of lemonade. Your dad sets up a card table in the front and you make a sign saying "Lemonade 25¢" As the day goes on, business if fairly brisk, and finally you have enough to buy your doll. Just as you're about to pack up, The President of the United States comes along and says to you, "Well missy you've done a terrific job of running this lemonade stand. In fact, you've done such a great job, that I have an offer to make. You see missy, the country is in a bit of a financial bind at the moment. There's a lot of concern on how the the economy has been doing as of late and we are in need of fresh leadership. So how would you like to be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve? You've clearly mastered selling lemonade, so you must be categorically qualified to run the Fed. Really, running a Lemonade stand is just like running the Economy of America."

There's a disconnect here. We've got stoves and sandwiches and the like down, and we've got a pretty good idea of how this particular instantiation of this particular Universe first started, but past that? There probably is or isn't a God? Based on what evidence? What sort of experience do you have that could possibly be even remotely analogous to not just the Big Bang, but whether or not something governed *That*? How many creations of universes have you seen recently? Because if you're anything like me, and given past evidence you probably are, no a hell of a lot.

Pardon me, but where are your base-rates?

Alexander said...

Second Approach:

If any kind of gods exist, then they will be one of two things: A Supernatural being, or a natural being, something inside our universe, but with knowledge and power beyond our comprehension.

Suppose a god is a supernatural being, how then do we confirm or deny it's existence? We have eyes, but our eyes see only natural things. Ears, but they hear only the natural. Brains, but they can only contemplate natural things. All the tools we have to confirm or deny assertions are natural, and thus limited to natural things. There's a bridging problem here: we have no means of verifying something that is ontologically distinct. Its a mind/body problem that's been around since Descartes and it's still a bit of a bitch. So are there any Supernatural beings out there? We have no way of knowing.

Suppose a god is a natural being with powers beyond comprehension, and they supposedly are or have in the past influenced the world. We can look around and find no credible evidence of any meddling. However, we have already established that we wouldn't understand how they would have influenced the world in the first place. Our lack of credible evidence would be fully justified. So how then would we verify their presence? Again, we lack the means.

Just a thought.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Alex. If it's a natural being, then it doesn't earn the name of God. Gotta be bigger than physics to warrant the title, be worthy of worship, be able to do miracles, be omnipotent, etc.

As for supernatural things: sure our eyes don't see those, but we've got lots of experience trying to determine the existence of those through reason, a priori proofs, as hypotheses to explain natural phenomena that remain unexplainable, and so on. And all of those efforts give us some substantial reasons to think that NO supernatural beings exist at all. Point to a single instance of an actual supernatural being that we think actually exists? We have enough evidence and failed attempts now to say that the very possibility of supernatural things is highly suspect. Even the so called agnostic has to find some grounds to move the hypothesis into suspension of judgment range, or else we have to treat it the same as all the ghosts, demons, gnomes, fairies, magic, and other bullshit that is on the trash heap of bad ideas.


Matt McCormick said...

The first premise in that designer argument is bogus, and you know it, Alex. The existence of a designer for the universe doesn't follow from the fact that things usually have a cause. Use your head, man. I taught you better than that. A fallacious argument with a false premise certainly doesn't give us enough evidence to elevate the base rate of the hypothesis into the suspension of judgment range. Geez.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Wilmot Sweeney here,
There may be other realms I don't know about, creatures with power
I can't fathom, an old man in the sky with power----but I've never seen such things nor am I concerned with them. I do however
see it as obvious that everything is----that existence is a basic
concept, a basic fact. And also that the world comes into being and goes out, changes, moment to moment. And the fact that people die. Well, the mind goes and the
body goes---and personal identity goes--just a temporary existence
that winks out. But I don't see that the sense of a personal self
cancels the fact that each of us is an integral part of what is--of
the universe---and so our identities are ultimately not limited to a personal level--but
we share being with all the rest of the forms of existence---and so are in some sense the whole thing. From a scientific point of view our substance is star dust----the basic building blocks of manifested existence. When it all ends, as science tells us it will,
due to entropy---still, existence will be--and so in some sense we all will be. Being never goes out of style. This just seems to me patently obvious.
I am definitely not an atheist---
nor an agnostic nor a theist---none of that matters to me, not an issue at all--unless anyone of those belief systems gains enough power to attempt imposing upon me its dogma, with penalties for refusal---then, I am prepared to say go to hell-- and to fight like hell.

Anonymous said...

I just think that the whole issue and concern about God existing or not is irrelevant---it's an anachromism.
Make certain assumptions--like you do MM, for instance that you
know what the probability is that God does or does not exist---and what that must bring you to conclude---and you can conclude as you are inclined.
But wake up at least to your own assumptions---premises.
Go ahead believe as you wish, no problem, but really, within the realm of the scientific viewpoint--and if you want to stay contemporary with modern thought--the God thing is a non-issue. Why not discuss how many angels on the head of a pin?

Anonymous said...

I'll copy and paste my response to this from another message board:

First, it assumes all agnostics are atheists (some are theists)

Second it assumes all agnostics are weak atheists (some are strong atheists).

Third, it uses an argument from probability fallaciously. Making no attempt to assign probabilistic values to things which have no empirical basis for such. IE "It is highly probable all that exists is the natural world because we have only found natural stuff".

It makes the assumption that any statement made a posteriori or from experience, is made from scientifically verifiable experience.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks anonymous. These objections aren't really explained so I don't understand them and can't say whether they are relevant to the argument or not. As for applying probability judgments, read up on Bayesian probability theory. We can and do attach a probability of truth to all sorts of claims including metaphysical and conceptual ones. But we can state the point just fine without any explicit mention of probabilities--given that every single magical, spiritual, supernatural, and religious being that has ever been proposed has turned out to have a better naturalistic explanation, what reasons do we have left to even be agnostic about God?


John said...

Interesting comments. Still, I'm left wondering about the central question of the title of this blog: how can one prove the negative? It seems that whenever an atheist is challenged regarding this point, he or she lowers the expectation, and states the criteria for discussion as "reasonable conclusion based on probability and logic, not proof." How can one who claims to follow scientific theory essentially pick-and-choose what ideas should be accepted based on proof and based on theory? For instance, consider the theory of evolution; the idea has volumes of evidence to support it, but we still hesitate to call it fact because such designation runs counter to the tenants of scientific logic. The structure of DNA, on the other hand, can be scientifically determined and proven. Now consider the aforementioned specious examples of medical diagnosis; a doctor makes a reasonable judgment based on the symptoms but, unless proven by a test, his or her diagnosis is still simply a hypothesis. In this sense, atheism requires us to take, on faith, the principle that God does not exist - thus undermining the central concept of the rhetoric based philosophy of proof. One cannot believe only in proof, and yet take things on faith.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for your input, John. I've written about this issue extensively. For starters, look at the essays linked in the upper left corner of the blog: The Basics: What is Atheism? and Influential Arguments for Atheism.

A great many deductive disproofs for the existence of God have been offered. And many inductive disproofs as well. I don't suspect you will find them convincing, but your question is, how can you prove the negative? The answer is, several ways, over and over and over again.

But I'd also offer that as I see it, what typically happens is that the atheist is artificially saddled with an inordinately high standard of proof that virtually no claims can meet, including lots of clams that we take to be proven and known, and then when the atheist (purportedly) cannot meet this unachievable standard, the critic proudly announces that atheism is not justified. Meanwhile the critic and everyone else take countless other obvious claims to be proven beyond any reasonable doubt even though they cannot meet that burden too. That may be why it seems like the atheist responds by trying to lower the bar.


Jay said...

"But it cannot be merely that it is possible that these things are brought about by an SF that will warrant agnosticism about it—they could possibly be the work of Sobek too"

This sentence seems weak to me. You've already established disbelief in an OG, so the second part of this sentence offers no support to the first. It's actually the presence of unexplained phenomenon, along with the inability to explain sources of the universe's existence, that warrant enough reason for many to feel agnostic.

And on the matter of a "supernatural force", I don't agree with atheists using the word "supernatural" in their arguments against something that could actually exist. I have a hard time understanding the concept of something that could exist being supernatural, since it can not be perceived and breaks the laws of nature. Rather, something that is supernatural either does not exist or simply has not been discovered. I am certain a pistol would have been perceived as supernatural to ancient civilizations, yet it is not.

The idea that science has not successfully presented a source of the universe's creation that is any more believable than a "supernatural" source is not an old one. An example would be Thomas Paine's questioning of perpetual motion. Even if the primordial elements somehow "always existed", somehow lacking origin, what set them in to motion? How is the universe moving when nothing pushed it? Do you ever see matter get up and move without a stimuli? And back to my former point, the claim that the universe was made by a supernatural source is less of a claim that some magic man wiggled his nose and planets appeared, and more an asertion that with the limited knowledge we have of the event, the cause is likely something scientists have yet to consider likely or even possible.

Oh, and saying you can prove a negative makes your line of reasoning look weaker to me, after everything I had read up to that point seemed very well thought out and explained. That would require more explaining, and it's likely that I still wouldn't agree with you. Logic seems to dictate that you can't prove there is no Santa, but I like your explanation that you can put him at .001 on your belief scale.

Nicholes said...

I think that your basic premise that most agnostics have dismissed the possibility of an anthropomorphized "God," to be a false generalization set up to make your attack easier. This is known in philosophy circles as a straw man fallacy. I think the truer statement is that most agnostics have chosen to reserve judgment on the subject of a higher power until they have found more evidence on the subject.

Unknown said...

Accepting only the atheists No God exists and the theists A God exists is an incorrect limitation of logical possibilities.
Let’s take this example: X is a man or X is a woman.
This is obviously true because we have only two genders. However if we have a reasonable doubt about the gender of X the question should be approached in this way: Can X be man? Can X be woman?
In our case: Can God exist? Can god not exist?
X could be male or female, but we do not know because of the insufficient data we have. What we know does not yet define the gender of X.
This third position of doubt and uncertainty is the essence of agnosticism, not knowing whether God exists or not.
Turning now to epistemology, we would say that the existence of a creator or intelligent designer of the material, physical, world, us humans included (the cosmos theory) is a possibility as valid as accepting that the material world is merely a physical random happening, without creator or designer (the chaos theory). Both possibilities, cosmos or chaos, are valid.
Since we have no certainty about the existence of rational creation (cosmos) all religions, whether natural or revealed, are unacceptable to the agnostic. Should God or the creators exist, either in their own interest or ours, they have chosen not to reveal their plans or designs for humanity. For the agnostic religion, any religion, is nonsense.
However for the agnostic a creationist theory (cosmos) is a possibility but not a certainty, just as materialism or physicalism is a possibility, but not a certainty.
In short, I would say that for the agnostic the ultimate meaning of the universe (be it a cosmos or chaos) is a mystery.
One day, when sufficient evidence exists, the agnostic will admit the ultimate truth of either a cosmos or a chaos.
Meanwhile, there remains the deep mystery of existence.
This position of uncertainty, of accepting the absolute mystery of our existence and the world around us, seems to me the best reason for being an agnostic.