For the final installment of my Dawkins series, let’s have a look at what my SciBling, John Wilkins has to say. In this post, Wilkins takes issue with Dawkins’ discussion of agnosticism. Dawkins believes that agnosticism is unjustified fence-sitting. Wilkins thinks Dawkins is wrong.
I’m with Dawkins. Let’s have a look at the details.
Wilkins quotes Dawkins as follows:
Philosophers cite this question as one that can never be answered, no matter what new evidence might one day become available. And some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced – too eagerly in my view – that the question of God’s existence belongs in the forever inaccessible PAP category. From this, as we shall see, they often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of God’s existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right.
Wilkins demurs. He writes:
And this is not true at all. The philosophical agnosticism I adhere to does not say anything about probabilities at all. It says, instead, that nothing can count for or against either position decisively. Probabilities are based in this case on prior assumptions – one uses Bayes’ theorem to determine whether or not the hypothesis under test is likely to be true, given other assumptions we already accept. And here is where the problem lies – which assumptions? To adopt and restrict one’s priors to scientific assumptions is question begging. You in effect eliminate any other conceptual presuppositions from being in the game. This has a name in philosophy – positivism. It is the (empirically unsupportable) claim that only scientific arguments can be applied. As Popper noted, this is self-refuting. You cannot prove the basic premise of your argument that only provable (or, let’s be generous, supportable) claims should be accepted. As this is not a supportable claim in itself, you have contradicted your own position.
Let us begin with the observation that it is rather unfair of Wilkins to say that Dawkins statement is not true at all, simply because it does not describe the sort of agnosticism he subscribes to. Dawkins was clearly describing the views of certain unnamed scientists and intellectuals. He was not making a blanket statement about what all agnostics believe.
More to the point, however, Wilkins’ argument has several problems. The first is that word decisively. The implication is that atheism is unjustified unless we can provide decisive proof of his nonexistence. But that is not a view you will find many atheists defending. Certainly Dawkins does not defend that view. After all, he claims only that it is almost certain that there is no God.
If you will permit me to speak on behalf of a large and diverse group of people, let me say that atheists believe that the facts of nature as we know them justify the conclusion that there is no God. The existence or nonexistence of God is something we can meaningfully address by collecting evidence from nature, and such evidence as we have points to his nonexistence. I would note that by saying that there is nothing that can count decisively for or against either position, Wilkins gives the impression that he accepts that we can talk meaningfully about evidence on this subject. There are many questions that we cannot answer decisively one way or the other, but where we can say nonetheless that one conclusion is more likely than another. But that is all atheists claim about the nonexistence of God.
There’s a bigger problem. Wilkins says that assessments about the likelihood of God have to be made based on prior assumptions, about the nature of the universe presumably. If people start from different prior assumptions, then they will come to different conclusions when assessing likelihoods. That is trivially true, of course.
But if we take Wilkins’ argument to its logical conclusion, we would have to say that agnosticism is the only legitimate position on virtually every question about the universe. If we are allowed to alter our prior assumptions at will, any proposition can be made to seem more or less likely. If I described myself as agnostic on the question of Zeus or unicorns, most people would think me rather odd. Yet I can provide prior assumptions about the universe that would make it likely that they exist.
Here’s a less fanciful example. Suppose a prosecutor presents incontrovertible DNA evidence pointing to the guilt of a certain suspect. One juror chooses to ignore this evidence. When asked why he replies, “Given your prior, science-based, assumptions about the universe, I can understand why you would find DNA evidence convincing. But please understand that I start from the assumption that human beings are primarily spiritual creatures, with souls given to them by God. Given that, it seems implausible to me that some trivial physical marker can adequately distinguish between us.” Does anyone think that juror is being reasonable?
Of course not, and the reason is not hard to spot. Some prior assumptions about the universe are more reasonable than others. The standards of evidence Dawkins is bringing to bear on the question of God’s existence are precisely the standards most people are willing to accept in any other context. For example, he points to the sufficiency of natural causes to account for the world as we know it. He argues that it is easy to imagine discoveries which, if they were made, would convince everyone that God existed. That we have made no such discoveries can be considered evidence against God’s existence. (In this case absence of evidence really is evidence of absence!) In any other context, if a person asserts that something exists but can provide no rational argument to back it up, we feel justified in rejecting the assertion.
Does God get a pass? Can we merely assume that God is supernatural, that he works his will undetectably in the natural world, and that he has the full complement of properties he needs to have to make him immune to rational scrutiny? If Wilkins believes this is reasonable, then I assume he is likewise agnostic about the existence of any sort of supernatural entity. As Dawkins himself wrote, “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” I wonder how Wilkins feels about fairies at the bottom of the garden? But if this line of argument is not reasonable, then there is nothing here to make agnosticism more reasonable than atheism.
Continuing with this theme, we later find Wilkins writing this:
An agnostic says that since one can make God likely or unlikely by shifting one’s priors appropriately, at the level of metadiscourse there is nothing that can decide between them. As it happens, I share most of Dawkins’ assumptions about how knowledge is gained, and it does seem to me that God is unnecessary in scientific reasoning, but I cannot show, nor can he or anyone else, that scientific reasoning is all that should or can ever be employed. And that is not “fence sitting” but a recognition of the limits of this kind of metalevel argument.
But one can make anything likely or unlikely by shifting one’s priors appropriately. As already noted, this is an argument for agnosticism on virtually any question you would care to name. Wilkins goes on to say:
Of course as an agnostic I behave as if there were no God. I also behave as if there were no Invisible Pink Unicorn, or personal angels. But that doesn’t make me a fence sitter – all I am doing is admitting that, at the level of philosophical discourse, I can neither affirm nor reject these entities, and that what makes them likely or unlikely depends crucially on the priors that one accepts.
If the level of philosophical discourse does not permit one to reject the existence of Invisible Pink Unicorns, then so much the worse for philosophical discourse. The fact remains that the sort of prior assumptions you need to make for Invisible Pink Unicorns to be likely are unreasonable ones.
But here we see again the basic problem with Wilkins’ approach. He seems to think if we can not state definitively, with the same level of certainty that we have in asserting the Pythagorean Theorem, that God does not exist, then we must remain agnostic. This is a ridiculous standard, for the reasons already discussed. If the existence of X can only be defended by rejecting every common standard of evidence and making extravagant, baseless assumptions about the universe, then I think we are justified in concluding that, actually, X does not exist.
Wilkins goes on for several more paragraphs, but I think we have hit the major points. He seems very fond of his observation that Dawkins can not demonstrate conclusively that God does not exist. Dawkins himself never claimed that he could. Instead he merely brings to bear the same standards of evidence that are brought to bear on any other question of this sort. When someone asserts that there are Bigfoots, or Yetis, or unicorns, or ghosts, there are certain standards of evidence that got brought to bear on the assertion. The conclusion that God does not exist is justified on the same basis that claims about those other entities are justified. We don’t claim that we have demonstrated that Bigfoots do not exist, only that the facts available make their existence unlikely. Sure, there are metaphysical assumptions at the heart of Dawkins’ argument, but they are metaphysical assumptions people are almost unanimous in accepting when they are applied to anything but God.
As a final aside, I would mention that I don’t think most religious people defend their belief in God by saying that Dawkins is basing his argument on unreasonable metaphysical assumptions. In my experience they are perfectly happy to play on Dawkins’ turf. They say he is wrong in his belief in the sufficiency of natural causes. They point to consciousness, or free will, or morality as providing rational reasons for God’s existence. They say the Bible is a reliable source of information, as judged by the same standards historians use to judge the validity of other historical documents. I don’t happen to agree with any of those assertions, but the conflict has nothing to do with metaphysical assumptions. Frankly, in addition to finding Wilkins’ argument unreasonable, I also find it rather condescending to religious people.
To be an agnostic you have to be willing to treat the question of God’s existence differently from every other existence claim people make in everyday life. Forgive me, but I’ll stick with atheism.