Wilkins on Dawkins

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.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    November 13, 2006

    Jason, I will respond, but not for a while. Real Life interrupts.

  2. #2 RBH
    November 13, 2006

    Jason wrote

    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?

    In fact, I’ve had a Ph.D. molecular geneticist, a creationist, make almost exactly that argument to me: one’s interpretation of evidence is wholly determined by one’s presuppositions, and so any interpretation can be defended depending on one’s presuppositions. The result of that ploy, of course, is that there is no such thing as reliable knowledge — epistemology descends into solipsism.

    Further, if we are to speak of priors, then we have to consider how those priors are altered by evidence to produce posterior distributions. John neglects to mention that, as I recall from reading his post last week.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    November 13, 2006

    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.

    If you mean “evidence” in any scientific sense, I’d be interested in an example or two of evidence which points to the nonexistence of God.

    I agree that there’s a significant absence of evidence that points to existence, but that’s a different point.

  4. #4 steve s
    November 13, 2006

    I wonder if Wilkins is an atheist or an agnostic on the existence of Santa Claus.

  5. #5 johnc
    November 13, 2006

    The problem seems to be that there are two different Gods in play. The first, the personal God who is the subject of actual worship, acts in the world in varying ways depending on the specific flavour of one’s faith (eg answering prayers, designing flagella, curing cancer patients, smiting unbelievers, etc). Of this God it is possible to be a thoroughgoing atheist since His existence necessarily involves making empirical claims about which probability statements can be constructed. This is the God that constitutes a (failed) scientific hypothesis.

    The second God is a label attached to such non-empirical mysteries as “why does anything exist at all”. Of this God, one is of necessity an agnostic since “belief” is a matter of philosophical disposition and there is nothing to actually plug into Bayes’ theorem. About the only group of “believers” for this God (in the sense of an actual theology that goes beyond the vague sense of mystery we all share) are the philosophical Taoists, who are not big-time players in the religion game. But this God is nonetheless a favourite of professional philosophers who have nothing better to do, and Wilkins seems unhappily to fall into this category in this case.

    Theologians are of course past masters at sliding between these two different entities (see a really clear example in The Atheism Tapes, when Jonathan Miller interviews Denys Turner), and when pushed are only able to link the two via “revelation”, ie purely subjective assertion. Dawkins is of course aware of this problem, but probably slides into the trap himself by entertaining undecidable arguments (ontological, first cause, etc) that relate to the second God without making sufficiently clear that this has nothing to do with the first “real” God that people actually worship. He then compounds the confusion by allowing himself to speculate about multiverses etc to answer silly metaphysical questions that are currently (and perhaps forever) outside the province of science.

  6. #6 Grayman
    November 13, 2006

    If I could be so bold. Mr. Wilkins, like most agnostics since Huxley coined the term, misunderstands the term ‘atheist.’ Dawkins does understand it and that leads him to his position. Atheism is simply a position of absence. The word combines the Greek privative α which denotes a lack of something (as in atypical, amoral or asexual) and θεος or theos which is of course ‘god’. You either believe in the existence of a god or you do not. That is to say, applying law of the excluded middle, P ∨ ~P where P is the statement ‘I believe in the existence of a god’. Since ‘I’ is the only instance in the finite set of those to whom the statement applies, this is valid. Thus, if your beliefs cannot be accurately described as P ‘belief in the existence of a god’ then you have defined yourself as α θεος or without god. If you are in the position of being α γνώσις (a-gnosis), or without knowledge or certainty, in this case about a god or gods, then you are still defining yourself as ‘without god’ and an atheist.

    The term agnostic is used by some philosophers, Russell among them, to distinguish themselves from those ‘strong atheists’ so foolish to think they can prove a negative (in the sense of a negative proposition referring to a relatively unrestricted space or set of observations) and prove that a god does not exist. To quote Russell, “As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.” Most atheists, Dawkins among them, do not make that mistake and stipulate only that the possibility of the existence of a deist’s god is so vanishingly small as to be of no more interest than the possibility of the existence of the FSM. Better defined gods are a different matter. The scriptural authorities for these gods make so many falsifiable claims for these gods that have indeed be falsified that we can indeed say these gods have been proven to not exist.

    Thus Mr. Wilkins may indeed be an agnostic in Russell’s sense of the word, but he is also most assuredly an atheist in Dawkins’ sense of that word, and he’ll stay that way unless he is willing to make the big unintelligible leap into faith.

  7. #7 Josh
    November 14, 2006

    Two points:

    You rightly note that Dawkins doesn’t actually cite any agnostics who think that the probability of God’s existence equals the probability of God’s nonexistence. I couldn’t cite any of them either. It seems to me that Dawkins creates a straw man of agnosticism with his talk about probabilities.

    Point two: Bayes theorem allows new data to update our priors. An agnostic (a Popperian one, perhaps) would say that data cannot modify our priors regarding the supernatural. We have no way of predicting the probability that a supernatural would do things. Dawkins successfully argues that the universe looks the way that it would if Darwinian evolution were the only process that could generate complexity, but that doesn’t tell us about the conditional probability of the data given the God hypothesis (Dawkins’ claims notwithstanding).

    We can only get a posterior probability different from our prior if there’s a difference in the predictions of the two (or more) hypotheses. Since the agnostic argues that you can’t make predictions about the God hypothesis, you can’t modify your priors about supernatural claims.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t modify your priors in general. It’s simply false to say that “one can make anything likely or unlikely by shifting one’s priors appropriately.” Given enough data, the effect of the prior becomes almost negligible. In the natural world, we can make testable predictions and shift our priors toward the true probability.

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    November 14, 2006

    In the natural world, we can make testable predictions and shift our priors toward the true probability.

    Which brings the mind the distinction another poster made above. The purely transcendent and abstracted deity such arguments often assume as the one being questioned isn’t the one theists usually refer when they speak of “God”. The God of traditional theism is one that is supposed to have causative effects on the world through prayer, miracles, etc., which most Americans claim to believe in.

    It may be fun to think in the super abstract, and as a student of mathematics I certainly sympathize. But talking about a “God” who has no causative effects whatsoever is sort of like talking about undetectable, tiny elephants as an integral part of subatomic structure. Not only is it superfluous and extremely unparsimonious, it fits nowhere within the theological notions of most theists. Thus it’s pragmatic contribution to this debate is nil.

  9. #9 Richard Wein
    November 14, 2006

    Others have already pointed out that Wilkins seems to be considering only the question of a god who has made no observable difference to anything, and this is not the sort of god that most people have in mind when arguing over his existence.

    Even if we do limit ourselves to a god who makes no observable difference, I would suggest that we can make a rational inference to his non-existence, on the basis of parsimony. If scientific inference is cast in Bayesian terms, then perhaps we should take parsimony into account in setting our priors, since experience gives us reason to believe that parsimonious hypotheses are more likely to be true than unparsimonious ones (hence Occam’s razor). A god who makes no observable difference is an unnecessary and therefore unparsimonious hypothesis, just like an undectable pink unicorn in my garage.

  10. #10 martinlb
    November 14, 2006

    reading this blog makes it very clear one deficiency in contemporary scientific thinking, namely the complete reliance in empiri. The natural conclusion of this is endless and pointless discussions since the only thing you can really know is what is inside yourself. But since you can’t prove what is inside yourself this is seen as irrelevant. Wilkins says he will deal with god when/if it is proven. So what happened to the leap of faith? The plunging into the void? Is this seen as politically incorrect in the scientific community since it involves belief or feaith in something that is not empiri? And if you have a real religious experience (not necesseraliy a vision of god) should you then ignore it on the basis that you can’t prove it empirically? Read the history of filosophy and you’ll find that most of these people are talking about the inner world of man, not of what is outside. That is also the realm of god if it exists.

  11. #11 Richard Wein
    November 14, 2006

    Rational inference is the only way of knowing that demonstrably works. Other claimed ways of knowing are impossible to distinguish from hallucination and wishful thinking.

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    November 14, 2006

    Martinlb wrote, “the only thing you cna really know is what is inside yourself.” I dunno: it’s sure easier to convince myself that I have a computer in front of me than a pancreas inside of me.

  13. #13 JY
    November 14, 2006

    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.

    I don’t think Wilkins was being unfair; Dawkins was creating a strawman position, ascribing it to “some scientists and other intellectuals”. I think you’d be hard pressed to find intellectuals who call themselves agnostic because they’ve deduced that “the hypothesis of God’s existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right”. This is a not a characterization of any recognizable form of agnosticism, and, as such, is a strawman.

  14. #14 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    And if you have a real religious experience (not necesseraliy a vision of god) should you then ignore it on the basis that you can’t prove it empirically? Read the history of filosophy and you’ll find that most of these people are talking about the inner world of man, not of what is outside. That is also the realm of god if it exists.

    Since you do not wish to rely on the empirical, by what standard would you qualify a religious experience as “real”? Was Deanne Laney having a “real” religious experience when God told her to kill her children?

  15. #15 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    Both Dawkins and Wilkins sound sensible in comparison to Theo Hobson at The Guardian. He redefines words willy nilly to make them mean what he wants to say:

    What distinguishes the atheist from the agnostic is his belief that religion ought to be eliminated, that the world would be radically better off without it.

    Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history.

    Why does The Guardian continue to give column space to Hobson? Is this like an “open mike night”, or do they have a “hire the handicapped” program?

  16. #16 AJS
    November 14, 2006

    Wilkins says he will deal with god when/if it is proven. So what happened to the leap of faith? The plunging into the void? Is this seen as politically incorrect in the scientific community since it involves belief or feaith in something that is not empiri?

    First, let me say that I think scientists do have faith, but only in a limited number of propositions. It is only necessary to take two things on faith: that the laws of nature are universal, and that they are immutable. Everything else just follows from there. Even the articles of faith are justifiable: if the laws of nature aren’t universal, then observations conducted on marbles rolling down slopes can’t necessarily be applied to planets or sub-atomic particles, and if the laws of nature ever changed, we’d be shafted anyway.

    That’s not to say that “plunging into the void” is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we have to ask “What if ….. ?”, assume an untested premise is true and see whether it leads to an impossible conclusion. If so, then it is definitely false. (But if not, then it is not definitely true, unless assuming it false leads to an impossible conclusion.) This is also known as a thought experiment. Of course, a thought experiment may well suggest actual experiments by way of follow-up work!

    And if you have a real religious experience (not necesseraliy a vision of god) should you then ignore it on the basis that you can’t prove it empirically?

    Not ignore it, no: a good scientist doesn’t ignore anything. You should document it and discuss it. Are there alternative explanations, more consistent with what is already understood, for the phenomena?

    There are undoubtedly things that scientists currently do not understand. But it is only by experimentation (which includes thought experiments) that we can come to understand them. If “seeing ghosts” is at all a real phenomenon, it’s likely that the underlying mechanism will be used for something in the future that will be considered mundane and quotidian. Remember that the computer in front of you is powered by the same phenomenon as thunder and lightning …..

  17. #17 Ginger Yellow
    November 14, 2006

    I agree with pretty much everything in Jason’s post, with the caveat/additional point that I agree with Richard Wein that parsimony, rather than probability, is the better term for what justifies disbelief rather than agnosticism or theism.

    Regardless of whether Dawkins’s comment about equal probabilities was a straw man, his and Jason’s central point holds – the two hypotheses don’t have similar weight. Even if we can’t know for certain that God does not exist, precisely because God is defined as that which is unprovable, we can justifiably believe that he doesn’t. Believing in, or seriously accepting the possibility of, what JohnC calls “the second God” requires us to abandon the epistemological tools we use (or aspire to use) for everything else, and yet is completely futile. At least belief in the first God gets you into heaven. As Wilkins himself admits, the sophisticated agnostic is to all intents and purposes an atheist. To consistently behave otherwise would be to become neurotic, because you would never know there weren’t invisible fairy unicorns laughing at you behind your back. This is one of those areas, like modus ponens, where philosophical discourse can’t see the wood for the trees.

  18. #18 martinlb
    November 14, 2006

    “Since you do not wish to rely on the empirical, by what standard would you qualify a religious experience as “real”?”

    through practice one becomes able observe more objectively what is going on, that is, you notice how thoughts fly around in the head, how you react to situations etc, and you don’t identify with these things. If someone hits you you notice your own anger and you are master of it. You don’t react automatically. Same with religious experience (a misleading expression btw) you work for it it happens, you notice it happening. No need for standards. That is not to say that the area of inner experience hasn’t been mapped.

    Maybe this fits under “empirically” after all. I was thinking of the word as it is used in science.

    Was Deanne Laney having a “real” religious experience when God told her to kill her children? ”

    I don’t know this particular incident, but it sounds more like the subconscious is playing tricks on this person. The number of people who are capable of applying scientific standards to these sorts of experience are very few btw.

  19. #19 Richard Wein
    November 14, 2006

    I’d like to know how Wilkins responds to Pascal’s Wager. I can reject the wager because I’m confident that the god of the wager does not exist. If Wilkins has no confidence one way or the other, wouldn’t it be wise for him to accept the wager? (For the sake of argument, I take “accept the wager” to mean going therough the motions of worshipping god, regardless of whether you actually believe he exists.)

  20. #20 Ginger Yellow
    November 14, 2006

    To be fair to Wilkins, anyone with half a brain would reject Pascal’s Wager, regardless of their agnosticism. How could you know the God you worship out of convenience is the right one, or that God wouldn’t punish you for being such a calculating coward?

  21. #21 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    Wilkins has a response post up: Agnostic still

    Do I think there is a God? No, I don’t. Am I an atheist? No, I’m not…

    That rather strains the definitions.

  22. #22 johnc
    November 14, 2006

    I would like to suggest a slightly different tack: namely, that the labels atheist and agnostic cover essentially the same intellectual disposition and their usage is derived from the sociopolitical context. In Australia, where I live, public professions of religious faith – except by clergy and funny people who travel in two’s and knock on your door – are regarded with suspicion. Neither term is much in vogue, but most non-believers would probably opt for agnostic as a way of signalling not only a lack of belief but a lack of interest in belief.
    To get some flavour of this, at the last election the party leaders were interviewed about their religious beliefs by the national broadcaster (an unprecedented event). Responses were:
    Greens (minor party): humanism but with an open question about this lifeforce … To me evolution, creativity in the universe isn’t wasteful. So there is this concept of purpose which we as human beings have. And as best I can see it’s up to us to set that purpose.
    Democrats (minor party): Catholic upbringing. Went to Christian Brothers School … I’m not a big believer in any sort of organised religion of any sort these days …
    National (governing minor party representing farmers, and an adult convert from a non-believing family to Christianity): I thought you know, if you look at the secularisation of the West, if you’re going to say no there’s no higher authority you’re going to end up where the fascists did if you’re logical about it … You can call it crutch if you like. We need a story.”
    Labour (main opposition party): I’m a humanist, yeah that’s a good description of my philosophy … [and when pressed specifically on whether he was a Christian] No, I’m agnostic. I think there’s a force, a spiritual world beyond the material. But I’m not in a position to define it, let alone put it into a certain form of religious practice … In moments of quiet reflection umm, moments of particular hardship or emotional loss I think everyone reflects in that way, and I’ve done that in my time. Never said anything about it and I’m reluctant to talk about it in detail …
    The Prime Minister (governing Liberal): I come from the Methodist tradition of the Christian church. Although when I do go to church now, which is more often than Christmas and Easter, but certainly not once a week, I tend to go to an Anglican church. I don’t really care what denomination it is … [Interviewer asks: "Using God as a credential for office. It's pretty American isn't it?"] Yes well I don’t do that. We are quite different from the Americans in that way. There are things that an Australian political leader, no matter what his or her private beliefs are, there are things that an Australian Prime Minister would never say.

    In 45 minutes of interviews about their beliefs not one political leader mentioned God as an object of belief or disbelief. In this kind of environment “atheism” as a label is largely irrelevant and probably regarded as somewhat over-assertive. (Sorry for the length of the post.)

  23. #23 Larry Moran
    November 14, 2006

    I was going to comment here but then John posted on his blog so I thought I’d comment there. Then my comment grew to a size that was inappropriate for comments so I put it on my own blog at Agnostics are Whimps. Maybe you can guess whose side I’m on?

  24. #24 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    Maybe you can guess whose side I’m on?

    Hoq about a hint?

  25. #25 Damien
    November 15, 2006

    Those Australians may not have mentioned God, but they seem to have mentioned life-force and spiritual worlds an awful lot.

  26. #26 Phobos
    November 15, 2006

    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.

    I think this may get at the heart of the matter rather than the philosophical dancing. And the reason may be that the God question, for whatever reason, resonates stronger in our minds (esp. emotions) than do invisible pink unicorns and fairies under the garden.

  27. #27 MartinM
    November 15, 2006

    We can only get a posterior probability different from our prior if there’s a difference in the predictions of the two (or more) hypotheses. Since the agnostic argues that you can’t make predictions about the God hypothesis, you can’t modify your priors about supernatural claims.

    But that’s not correct. It’s not enough that the God hypothesis makes no predictions; if an alternative does make predictions, it can still gain or lose ground.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t modify your priors in general. It’s simply false to say that “one can make anything likely or unlikely by shifting one’s priors appropriately.”

    No, it’s entirely correct. Likelihood will dominate almost any given prior if you gather enough data, but one can pick a prior which will dominate any given likelihood too.

  28. #28 johnc
    November 16, 2006

    Those Australians may not have mentioned God, but they seem to have mentioned life-force and spiritual worlds an awful lot.

    One could ask, So what? But the question is not merely rhetorical since it goes to the issue under debate. If one genuinely wants to move further in the direction of a secular society then all this atheist “purism” is radically out of touch with the way most people actually disconnect from organised religion and its dogmatic claims. The quoted discussion, from across the entire Australian political spectrum, would be unimaginable in the US.

  29. #29 truthmachine
    November 16, 2006

    Russell among them, to distinguish themselves from those ‘strong atheists’ so foolish to think they can prove a negative (in the sense of a negative proposition referring to a relatively unrestricted space or set of observations) and prove that a god does not exist.

    There’s nothing foolish about it, any more than it’s foolish to think you can prove that there’s no greatest prime. The notion of God as creator of the universe (that is, of *everything*) is a provably illogical construct.

  30. #30 truthmachine
    November 16, 2006

    … the God question, for whatever reason, resonates stronger in our minds (esp. emotions) than do invisible pink unicorns and fairies under the garden.

    Well, yes, it’s religious. And agnosticism is still religious, because it treats “God” as a legitimate possibility worthy of consideration, when the source of the concept came from religion. Had there been no religion, and no religious believers, then the concept never would have come into play, and would not be a subject of philosophical discussion — or if so, it would be offered as a trivially obvious example of a fallacy of infinite regress.

  31. #31 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 16, 2006

    Here’s Mahlon Marr getting specific with the probabilities:

    The odds for God

    Let’s meet him halfway and assume for the sake of argument that there have been no supernatural events since the creation – the Big Bang in technical terms. Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
    .
    So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design (which brought the atheist/physicist Fred Hoyle to state that the existence of God is “almost beyond question”) and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.

    Let’s try a substitution exercise: there have been absolutely no reliable sighti – er, encounters – with invisible pink unicorns since the Earth was created. Therefore the odds that invisible pink unicorns exist is exactly 50|50.

  32. #32 Phobos
    November 16, 2006

    Well, yes, it’s religious. And agnosticism is still religious, because it treats “God” as a legitimate possibility worthy of consideration, when the source of the concept came from religion. Had there been no religion, and no religious believers, then the concept never would have come into play, and would not be a subject of philosophical discussion — or if so, it would be offered as a trivially obvious example of a fallacy of infinite regress.

    Interesting point, although I must wonder if the consideration came not from religion, but from human nature. (e.g., a human inclination to want to be connected to something bigger, which for many people manifests itself as a religion).

  33. #33 Robert O'Brien
    November 16, 2006

    The notion of God as creator of the universe (that is, of *everything*) is a provably illogical construct.

    No.

  34. #34 Russell Blackford
    November 23, 2006

    As another Australian I am constantly appalled by this aspect of American politics. Meanwhile, I can see arguments for taking a philsophically agnostic position, even if I disagree with them at the end of the day. I think the more interesting question is not whether we should somehow suspend our judgment about God’s existence, adopting a vague belief range from x to y where x is less than 0.5 and y is greater than 0.5. That may well be possible and rational. The more interesting question is under what circumstances we are going to say that someone’s beliefs are not rational.

    Is it good enough to say, as Graham Oppy seems to be arguing in his new book, that you can be rational as long as you never breach certain norms of rationality when you add new beliefs to your initial beliefs? I think there may be a sense of “rational” in which this is correct – Oppy has just about convinced me.

    But what if your initial beliefs, gained, perhaps through religious indoctrination before the age of reason, are wildly wrong and draw you to seemingly crazy conclusions? Onphalos theories, anyone? Or you may make no bad prudential errors in your day to day life, while supporting policies that seem terribly destructive. I’m looking for a way to say that such a person is (perhaps in a different sense) irrational precisely because they form new beliefs that cohere with the wildly wrong initial ones.

  35. #35 Russell Blackford
    November 23, 2006

    Ack, I meant Omphalos.

  36. #36 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 7, 2006
  37. #37 James Ogilvie
    December 11, 2006

    Mahlon Marr says:

    “Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
    .
    So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design (which brought the atheist/physicist Fred Hoyle to state that the existence of God is “almost beyond question”) and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.”

    Marr is missing the point entirely. He is attributing equal possibilities to each of the two hypotheses he suggests. However, his logic is demonstrably flawed:

    Firstly he makes the baseless assumption that there are only two possible hypotheses to be considered.

    Secondly, he asserts that the first hypothesis (God), which by lack of any empirical evidence in its favour must be judged under the rules of this type of argument as an abstract philosophical construct, is equal in terms of possibility to the alternative hypothesis (spontaneous existence), which of course has plenty of empirical evidence to suggest itself to us.

    He then presumes to weight the argument in favour of his preferred outcome (God) by citing undisclosed “evidence” from the ID set (who use the same flawed logic of attempting to use our current lack of understanding of something as evidence that it must be designed by another sentient entity). I won’t make comment on the arbitrary 0.1 percent increase in probability he generously awards God on the basis of this “evidence”, save to point out that he does.

    I’ll sign off now, but I’d also like to remind everyone that there are various sources that have been quoted as stating that Hoyle was not referring to the Judeo-Christian God of Marrs World, but of a more metaphysical generalisation. Einstein himself (a committed athiest who saw “God” as the natural beauty and balance of the physical Universe around him) is often quoted (and mis-quoted) out of context by the same ID set. “God does not play dice” is a favourite…

    Sorry for the long post.

  38. #38 John Wilkins
    December 11, 2006

    Richard Wein asked, unfortunately not on my own blog, where I’d have seen it:

    I’d like to know how Wilkins responds to Pascal’s Wager. I can reject the wager because I’m confident that the god of the wager does not exist. If Wilkins has no confidence one way or the other, wouldn’t it be wise for him to accept the wager? (For the sake of argument, I take “accept the wager” to mean going therough the motions of worshipping god, regardless of whether you actually believe he exists.)

    My response is this: There are an infinite number of possible faith positions to take. So while if you frame it as “God exists|God does not exist” the choice may be stark, if you frame it as “0 gods exist|1god exists|2 gods exist … n gods exist” the corresponding payoffs and the likelihoods any one is correct drop dramatically. Suppose we are asked to accept that i gods exist, and if we are wrong, and j gods exist and they are going to give you the worst possible payoff (WPPO) for ignoring god j, the entire set of choices is now changed. If every choice has a WPPO for choosing wrong, and there are 1/n choices, how could I be rationally compelled to choose one of them?

    My answer, being a w[h]imp, is that the rational choice is to not choose, because it’s not a choice at all.

  39. #39 James Ogilvie
    December 12, 2006

    In response to John Wilkins’ reply directly above:

    Your argument hangs on an irrelevance – the _number_ of deities does not matter when considering Pascals wager, merely the perceived likelihood of any or all existing. You are introducing a potentially infinite number of qualifying attributes without justification, then using them to back away from the question. You cannot attach arbitrary variables to the situation and then use their wild variance to nullify the question.

  40. #40 James Ogilvie
    December 12, 2006

    An interesting aside, vaguely on subject:

    http://www.physorg.com/news85048433.html

  41. #41 Tyler DiPietro
    December 12, 2006

    You are introducing a potentially infinite number of qualifying attributes without justification, then using them to back away from the question.

    Let’s put it this way:

    If the choice is binary (0, 1), where 1 would give you a million dollars and 0 would give you nothing, but take nothing away, 1 can safely be wagered upon in the absence of of other evidence.

    If the choice is decimal (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), where zero delivers no benefit nor detriment, and all proceeding values conferred a million dollars, then it is still rational to wager upon one of the nonzero numbers.

    However, what if choosing the wrong nonzero number (or zero itself) in the latter option cost you a million dollars? Given that you have a 1/10 chance of guessing the correct number, and you have no information, it’s not very wise to play the game at all.

    Now keep doubling the above option to around 10,000, and you have something analogous to guessing the correct God for salvation in the absence of information.

  42. #42 oyun oyna
    January 28, 2009

    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.

  43. #43 acne information
    October 2, 2009

    Interesting point, although I must wonder if the consideration came not from religion, but from human nature. (e.g., a human inclination to want to be connected to something bigger, which for many people manifests itself as a religion).