Agnosticism Is For Wimps

Remember that scene in A Fish Called Wanda, where Kevin Kline, talking to a British woman who has cornered him in rhetorical combat, says, with maximal sarcasm, “Oh, you British are soooooo superior.”

That’s pretty much how I feel when I read essays written by agnostics. By all means make whatever arguments it amuses you to make for not taking a stand on the God question. But please stop acting like you’re soooooo superior. You’re not the sensible middle ground between two extremes, and you’re not the clear-thinking pluralist calmly sifting the evidence. You’re just a wimp.

The latest case in point is this essay from Gary Gutting in The New York Times. We pick up the action in the fifth paragraph:

A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them. Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular. Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. Religious knowledge offers a metaphysical and/or historical account of supernatural realities that, if true, shows the operation of a benevolent power in the universe. The account is thought to provide a causal explanation of how the religion came to exist and, at the same time, a foundation for its morality and system of understanding.

There are serious moral objections to aspects of some religions. But many believers rightly judge that their religion has great moral value for them, that it gives them access to a rich and fulfilling life of love. What is not justified is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading of this belief, implying that the life of a given religion is the only or the best way toward moral fulfillment for everyone, or that there is no room for criticism of the religion’s moral stances.

But why, exactly, is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading not justified? Let us take evangelical Christianity as an example. It is part of their teaching that the Bible is inerrant and lays out the basic truths of the human spiritual condition. To the extent that it provides the basis for community or helps believers make sense of their world, it does so by uniting them around a series of factual propositions. Exclusivity and infallibility are built into those propositions. You can’t have one without the other.

That’s precisely the problem. Either the metaphysical and historical accounts a religion provides are accurate, in which case they should be exclusive, or they are not accurate, in which case they provide a poor basis for community.

Of course, evangelical Christianity is hardly the only form of religion out there. Regular readers of this blog know that I am a mild fan of cultural religion. (I devote a chapter to that subject in Among the Creationists.) Especially if religion is part of your upbringing, it is likely that some of the tropes and symbols of that religion will retain some meaning for you. That’s nice, but the fact remains that cultural religion is not the sort of thing that provides a rich and fulfilling life of love. If religion is that central to how you see yourself, it is hard to be moderate about the truth of your religion’s teachings.

Gutting’s next paragraph is better:

Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims. This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support. But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause. Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge. But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.

That’s more polite than I prefer (I would have said the metaphysical arguments for God are based on very disputable premises, while the historical arguments rest on laughably limited data), but I think that paragraph looks pretty good.

Alas, things go downhill from there:

Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.

The comparisons to Santa Claus and whatnot might be overly snide, but the atheists are absolutely right with regard to the basic principle. When one side of an argument claims a certain entity exists, bearing attributes that are utterly contrary to anything with which we have regular experience, the burden of proof lies with that side. Gutting, I suspect, would accept this principle with regard to virtually every other sort of supernatural or paranormal entity. I don’t believe he is agnostic with regard to ghosts and poltergeists. The reason for actively disbelieving in such things, as opposed to remaining agnostic about them, is precisely the lack of evidence for them, coupled with the affront they pose to our best scientific understanding of the world. Those are precisely the reasons for not believing in God. That is an argument. Unless Gutting thinks people who deny the existence of ghosts and poltergeists are just dogmatic and unreasonable, then he does not have much of an argument here.

But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people. (For some powerful contemporary examples, see the essays in “Philosophers Who Believe” and “God and the Philosophers.”) Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them. But believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion. Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny. We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.

Now, I don’t agree that Plantinga, Swinburne and van Inwagen are making well-thought out arguments. I’ve read all three gentlemen, and I think their arguments, while certainly expressed with greater elan than most religious apologists can muster, are not very good at all.

More to the point, serious discussion is all well and good, but the fact is that we’ve already had those discussions. Readers who like that sort of thing (and I happen to be one) can certainly find careful, scholarly refutations of the major arguments made by Gutting’s paragons. Most philosophers are atheists, after all, and I would think that atheists who are not academics could reasonably infer that if these arguments were any good, more philosophers would endorse them. Life is short, and atheists don’t have endlessly have to reinvent the wheel.

For example, recently I read Jordan Howard Sobel’s book Logic and Theism. It’s a large, dense tome, and is definitely one of the most detailed and scholarly attacks on religious arguments ever written. Sobel devotes something like 130 pages to the various ontological arguments, and he kills them all stone dead. Is it really necessary, then, that the average atheist on the street wade through all of this material before feeling confident that the ontological argument does not work? Or can he confidently maintain his atheism knowing that properly trained scholars have done that work for him?

The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories. Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects. Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion. Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative. The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.

But, again, we don’t claim simply that there is no “decisive” evidence for the claims of religion. We claim instead that there is no credible evidence at all for those claims. If we’re talking about God as an abstract intelligent designer, then I don’t know what else atheists can do beyond noting that there is not the slightest reason to believe such an entity exists. If we’re talking about the Christian conception of God specifically, then we add the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, both of which pose serious challenges to Christian faith. Gutting’s “no-arguments” characterization of atheist thought is just a silly caricature.

His analogy with political arguments is also very weak. Yes, of course, people on opposite sides of a political dispute make arguments that are persuasive to them while not convincing the other side. But I’m willing to bet that Gutting does not think that’s a reason for remaining agnostic on hot political issues. I’m sure he doesn’t say, “Democrats say one thing, Republicans something else, and since neither side has decisive arguments I guess we just have to remain agnostic.” No way! I’m betting he dives right in and says, “My side makes better arguments and the people on the other side are just wrong!” That’s all atheists are doing.

Gutting goes on for several paragraphs, but I think it’s time to wrap this up. The title of this post is meant tongue in cheek, but only slightly. I really don’t think agnosticism has much going for it as a philosophical position, and in practice it often functions as a way for pedants to act superior. Of course, in most cases agnostics are functionally indistinguishable from atheists, and so I feel I have a lot in common with them. The fact remains, though, that at the level of abstract argument I think even theism has more going for it than agnosticism.

Comments

  1. #1 Frank
    Portland OR
    January 23, 2013

    This is a good article, I have thought these same thoughts on agnostics. 3/4 of the way down however, is a typo.
    “Life is short, and atheists don’t have endlessly have to reinvent the wheel.”

  2. #2 MNb
    January 23, 2013

    Gutting is guilty of exactly what he accuses atheists of: he doesn’t know his literature. Swinburne has been addressed in detail by Dutchman Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science. Final sentence, after some 340 pages: “if we aim at being reasonable and intellectually consientious, we should become strong disjunctive universal atheists”.
    Agnosticism has one big advantage: in debates it makes you less vulnerable to believers. I always start out as an agnost, claiming that there are no decisive arguments pro or con and that I just don’t have faith. Thus the burden of proof is on the believer.

  3. #3 Lenoxus
    January 23, 2013

    Another problem with comparisons to politics is that political debate only rarely involves truth claims as such, and even when it does, the claims are usually fuzzy, along the lines of “X would make us safer/less safe.” (What is the precise measurable difference involved? Whose statistics are more reloable? If the claim is true, perhaps we can negotiate a middle ground in the trade-offs between safety, practicality, efficiency, fun, and freedom?) We don’t have to be dismissive if there’s nothing to dismiss.

    No one is arguing over whether some politician actually exists. (Birtherism may be the closest we’ve come to that, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the time of day any more than religion.)

  4. #4 Richard Wein
    January 23, 2013

    Well written, Jason.

    Gutting: ‘The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.’

    The cases are of the same basic type, but there are differences of detail and degree. One can take this position and still recocognise that the case against the Easter Bunny is stronger than the case against God. I’m not as convinced of the non-existence of God as I am of the non-existence of the Easter Bunny. (But also there are different conceptions of God, and some of the more scripturally literal ones are not much less implausible than the Easter Bunny.)

    Jason: ‘…I don’t know what else atheists can do beyond noting that there is not the slightest reason to believe such an entity exists.’

    I think we can say more. We can say that intelligent designers of the universe (as well as Gods and Easter Bunnies) are unparsimonious additions to our evidence-based picture of reality, and that our experience of successful evidence-based thinking (especially in science) gives us good reason to exclude such entities from our picture of reality. What’s more, the evidence which leads us to this (scientifically-informed) picture of reality and way of thinking can be considered indirect evidence against such entities.

    The distinction between atheism and agnosticism seems important to Gutting, but it’s very unclear in what this distinction consists. As you say, agnostics like Gutting seem (in a sense) functionally identically to atheists. I would say that sense, roughly, is that both have no place for God in their picture of reality. How they differ seems mostly in what they feel inclined to say about their state of belief. It doesn’t seem to run much deeper than that.

  5. #5 J. Quinton
    January 23, 2013

    What it boils down for me: Agnosticism is a reason for atheism. There’s no dichotomy between the two.

  6. #6 Ça alors!
    January 23, 2013

    I certainly don’t feel superior because I believe my senses and my intellect are limited… It doesn’t mean I endorse books that were written thousands years ago, but the oriental approach gave me sufficient hints so I no longer consider myself an atheist…

  7. #7 Mu
    January 23, 2013

    We live in a universe which consists to 95% of stuff we have no clue about as to what it is and where it came from. And you’re absolutely sure there’s no superior being, anywhere, so sure that you don’t even have to disprove it, it’s self evident. To me that’s even more preposterous than the evangelical who’s absolutely sure there is one. At least the latter has a holy book to go by, You have science that evolves on a daily basis, but you’re sure you already know it all.
    I wonder, every time you read a headline “observation Y contradicts model Z”, does it at least give you a slight feeling of insecurity?

  8. #8 eric
    January 23, 2013

    We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.

    That’s not necessary to show, though. Normally rational people can hold irrational beliefs. Newton and alchemy is a good example; the fact that he was Newton does not mean alchemy calls for serious discussion. The fact that Plantinga is smart and well educated does not mean this particular belief of his is credible.

    Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion

    The argument is this: the most effective model of force we’ve ever discovered is F=ma+kG, where G is ‘God’s action,’ and k = 0. And this is true for every single equation of physics, biology, and chemistry we’ve ever put together: k = 0. Always. Every single time we look. In every circumstance we test. The evidence is clear, for kG, the most empirically supported value for k is 0.
    Now sure, there can be Gods that are consistent with these (voluminous and indisputable) observations. But one cannot be emprically agnostic on the existence of Gods for whom it is asserted (in public, or in the privacy of churches when those damned skeptics aren’t around) that k /= 0.

  9. #9 Reginald Selkirk
    January 23, 2013

    The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.

    Put more simply: atheists reject special pleading for religious claims.

  10. #10 Reginald Selkirk
    January 23, 2013

    The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories.

    One of those is not like the others. Scientific theories are about what exists; the characterization of nature. They are about facts. Speculative scientific theories may not yet have accumulated enough evidence to decide the questions of fact, but that does not negate that the issue is fact.
    In contrast, political positions and ethical decisions may be about values, in which case it might be proper for two persons to hold different positions, neither one being ‘wrong.’ Sometimes political arguments and value arguments are based on factual claims, but it should be possible to separate out the factual claims from the values claims.
    Religious claims then, are more like scientific claims, in that they are claims about what actually exists, and they should be judged on that basis by their factual merit, or lack thereof.

  11. #11 Reginald Selkirk
    January 23, 2013

    Richard Wein: One can take this position and still recocognise that the case against the Easter Bunny is stronger than the case against God. I’m not as convinced of the non-existence of God as I am of the non-existence of the Easter Bunny. (But also there are different conceptions of God, and some of the more scripturally literal ones are not much less implausible than the Easter Bunny.)

    Yes, and the more science advances, the more nebulous and apophatic God becomes. And the less relevant. That there are so many different conceptions of God is strong evidence that no God exists who can or will impart to us a clear concept of who He is or what He wants from us.

  12. #12 Reginald Selkirk
    January 23, 2013

    Mu #7: I wonder, every time you read a headline “observation Y contradicts model Z”, does it at least give you a slight feeling of insecurity?

    Very no. That scientific knowledge advances is not a weakness of science, it is a strength. If our current scientific knowledge allegedly came to us through divine revelation, this might be a problem, because it would call into question the source of that knowledge, and the reliability of that revelation. But it didn’t. Our current scientific knowledge came to us through the thinking of fallible people, and the performance of fallible experiments. That we can make any progress at all is a triumph.

  13. #13 RBH
    pandasthumb.org
    January 23, 2013

    Mu remarked

    I wonder, every time you read a headline “observation Y contradicts model Z”, does it at least give you a slight feeling of insecurity?

    Well, no, it doesn’t. In fact, it happens often enough that there’s a technical term for it: It’s called “learning.” Try it: you might like it.

  14. #14 Lenoxus
    January 23, 2013

    We live in a universe which consists to 95% of stuff we have no clue about as to what it is and where it came from. And you’re absolutely sure there’s no superior being, anywhere, so sure that you don’t even have to disprove it, it’s self evident.

    God is usually defined in such extreme terms (he’s all-powerful, and he knows and loves each of us personally) that it’s safe to say that if he’s “hiding” somewhere, he isn’t really God. This argument of yours seems to redefine God as “any superior being”, with “superior” left undefined. Well, I certainly don’t dispute the existence of beings “superior” to myself in numerous ways. Benedict Cumberbatch is taller than me. Hilary Clinton is more politically powerful than me. Jason Rosenhouse is better than me at chess. My dog is better at smelling. (Alongside numerous other variables for each of these beings.) There is quite likely a planet out there with intelligent life, and that life could be “superior” to all humans in all (or nearly all) nameable ways. Maybe dark matter (to which 8 assume you were referring) involves intelligence (though I see no reason to suppose so).

    Yet none of these things should qualify as “God” by the standards of the actual proponents of God-belief. God is supposed to be the creator of all things but itself. God is all-powerful and all-loving. When we die, we supposedly meet God or come to terms with its existence. I dispute each of these claims, and I think they arise out of human cognitive biases, like overactive agency detection and social-rule-enforcement. And it’s a hypothesis which comes coupled with its own set of rules we are supposed to use to think about it, rules like, “Just take this on faith.” All of which helps to make this oft-argued point irrelevant:

    I wonder, every time you read a headline “observation Y contradicts model Z”, does it at least give you a slight feeling of insecurity?

    Not really. Maybe a little? But that’s a question about my personal psychological state. Reality doesn’t listen to our psychological states to determine truth (this is the fallacy of which the golden mean fallacy is a corollary). An ignorant person, an irrational person, and an evil person can each make any number of claims, and any one of these claims could be true. So even if all the world’s scientists feel “insecure” about the conditional nature of their claims, that doesn’t diminish the actual apparent success of science at explaining things.

    More to the point: When does a church ever change its views based in the evidence, rather than on the political zeitgeist? Occasionally a lone Protestant minister will go “rogue” by denying the compatibility of Hell with a loving god. But he’ll usually be forced to leave and maybe start his own sect; there isn’t room in the system of religion for collective change in the direction of logic and evidence. Science always seems to lead the way on that front.

    Does science keep changing? Yes, and this is often its strength. But even if it changed willy-nilly and was useless as explaining anything, that would lend zero additional credence to the God hypothesis. The God hypothesis merely has the advantage of existing popularity, and the universe doesn’t care about popularity. So until actual strong positive evidence for it comes along, coupled with something that somehow undoes the very problematic underlying philosophies involved, then we have no reason to bother even considering the claim.

  15. #15 eric
    January 23, 2013

    @7:

    And you’re absolutely sure there’s no superior being, anywhere, so sure that you don’t even have to disprove it, it’s self evident.

    Who claims this? Even Dawkins is only a 6.5 on the Dawkins scale, not a 7.

    I would be as surprised if there was one as I would be if, tomorrow, I flapped my arms and flew out the window. But that’s philosophically possible. If you’re asking about absolute, philosophical certainty, no I don’t have that. Never claimed to have it. Never knew any non-believer who claimed to have it, either.

    To put it in scientific terms: my beliefs are tentative and subject to revision should new evidence arise. As are every other scientists’. If that is not obvious, its because it is incredibly boring to have to repeat it over and over again to every religious believer that comes around asking about God. Not only boring, but hypocritical: you get that the hedge is implied when I talk about gravity. You get it when I talk about QM. Why don’t you get it when we talk about God?

  16. #16 MNb
    January 23, 2013

    @Mu 7: “And you’re absolutely sure there’s no superior being”
    Who is absolutely sure? Not me. I’m not entirely sure either that my computer is run by little demons – something I understand for 5% at the max as well.
    Smells like you’re pulling off a god of the gaps.

  17. #17 sean samis
    United States
    January 23, 2013

    Since I am a fan of “A Fish Called Wanda”, I read your post to see how it connects to agnosticism. It’s just a lure. I can’t object to that.

    Perhaps because of agnostic essays like Gary Gutting’s, I avoid the term agnostic; it comes with too much baggage. I call myself a doubter; which I describe as a person with no beliefs about the existence of gods. I am unpersuaded by those who do believe in one or more gods (whom I refer to as theists) and I am also unpersuaded by those who believe there are no gods (atheists in my vocabulary).

    I just recently extracted myself from a lengthy thread at Why Evolution is True about the standardness (or not) of my vocabulary. See: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/atheists-who-wont-admit-it-2-kyrsten-sinema/#comment-359197. That is neither here nor there. But what got me involved at all was a question that no one there had a good answer to; perhaps you could try it.

    What is the Urgency of Atheism? Why should anyone abandon agnosticism (or their stance as a doubter, if they are not the same) in favor of outright atheism? Why should I feel any need to decide to abandon my doubter stance in favor of embracing atheism?

    I can understand why theists feel an urgency to convert others: they believe that their God makes demands on our conduct and belief, and therefore it is essential to reform one’s belief and behavior while one still has time to satisfy the God’s demands. Regardless of whether one shares those beliefs or not, GIVEN THOSE BELIEFS, a sense of urgency is reasonable.

    If atheism is correct, there is no god who has any commands for us nor expectations of us. Therefore, if one has reached the stage of being an agnostic (or doubter as I am) I see no urgency to “move on” to atheism. Obviously there might be some urgency in freeing people from the constraints of false religious belief, but if you’ve reached this doubter/agnostic stage, you’re pretty much as self-liberated as you can be. So what is the urgency of going further?

    I’m a doubter because, at the end of the day, I see no reason to take a position on the existence of gods. I see no advantage in going further. I see no gain. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no opportunity cost to simply remaining an agnostic (or a doubter as I am).

    A few hardy souls opined that agnostics and doubters should embrace the label “atheist” if only to bump up the atheist demographic and thus help alleviate the social disproval of atheists. That’s an incoherent purpose. Others insist that semantics de-legitimates distinctions between agnosticism, my doubter-status and atheism; we are all atheists whether we like it or not. I’m not buying that, and apparently neither do you.

    So: is there any urgency for an agnostic (like Gutting?) or a doubter (like me) to embrace atheism?

  18. #18 Mu
    January 23, 2013

    Smells like you’re pulling off a god of the gaps.
    The topic today is not “bash the bible thumper” but “bash the agnostic”. And as a scientist, I think agnosticism is the only way to go. I’m not nearly as convinced of my own opinion’s infailability as the dogmatic atheists. For you, there might be a gap, but it will sure be filled somehow without a god. For me, there is a gap, and it might be filled by science, it might be filled by something else, I don’t know, I wait and look forward to more data. That might be the wimpy way out for some, but again, in science “insufficient data to draw a conclusion” is a very valid result of an experiment.

  19. #19 Lenoxus
    January 23, 2013

    sean samis: Your (understandable) mistake is the assumption that only if deities exist would our conclusions about deities be important. Now, if religion were just a fringe thing, the distinction between atheism and agnosticism would be academic, but it’s not. So there are a host of reasons why an atheist might “proseletyze”.

    They may feel that religion has bad effects, and agnosticism is an insufficient counterargument to religious claims. They may simply be committed to truth for truth’s sake; I know that that’s my “official” motivation for my proselytizing of evolution, although I imagine that subconscious smug superiority also plays a factor. Yet another motivation for gnu atheism is to pull the Overton window away from the theist extremes; the more outspoken atheists there are, the more respectable agnosticism looks in the eyes of believers.

    Mu: Part of the problem is that simply considering a hypothesis in terms of “Let’s wait and see” already elevates it. Yet not all hypotheses are created equal; they have to accumulate a certain amount of plausibility and, yes, evidence to even merit serious consideration. That’s how it is with the true open questions in science.

    My own feeling about God is that it’s like postulating an invisible brown squirrel which left those tracks in my yard and which caused the earth to be maximally flat. You’ve got internally contradictory premises, supposed evidence which is better explained by simpler causes, and a strong contradiction to known facts. (The earth does not seem maximally flat, but a defender of squirrel-belief might explain that things are not as they seem, and/or that our round earth really is maximally flat. The earth also does not seem maximally just.) On top of all that, the “fundamentalist” squirrel-believers have all sorts of bad political and ethical ideas. In light of all this, I’m not about to try to find the magical golden mean between our views. At best, it may be politically expedient, but the Overton window point suggests that even this is the wrong way to look at the situation.

    I understand why most atheists are agnostics of the Dawkins type, and I respect that. I am similarly “agnostic” that the Mayan pyramids were built by aliens; it’s possible, but we are completely entitled to say “No, it didn’t happen,” as a matter of practical thought and discussion. Aliens making pyramids? Maybe yes… but definitely no. If that makes sense.

    But I personally place God in a special category, as not even wrong, not even “maybe yes”. If God exists, then not just the content of my beliefs but the whole foundation of my thinking is flawed, just as it would be if a largest prime number existed. Knowing that I’m far from omniscient, I’m equally “open” to either possibility; In this sense, of course God might exist. And perhaps colorless green ideas do sleep furiously. Again, I’m a mere human; if my dog can think in fundamentally wrong ways, so can I. But I try not to bother too much about such matters unless evidence leads there, as with my (lessening as time goes by) difficulty grasping quantum mechanics.

  20. #20 Darth Dog
    January 23, 2013

    @#1Sean
    “why should anyone abandon agnosticism in favor of outright atheism?”
    Well, you should if you think there is a strong enough case for you to form a reasonable conclusion. As stressed elsewhere in the thread, atheism is not about a logical disproof of God/gods, it’s about being convinced that they don’t exist. We all agree that it’s not something you prove, like a mathematical theorem. Of course there is always some doubt, just not a reasonable doubt.

    There are questions where being an agonstic is a very reasonable position. Is there intelligent life on other planets? Maybe. I don’t know. It is certainly possible from what we currently know. But what we don’t know could also rule it out. Or it might come down to probabilities. So you might have an opinion, or you might just say I don’t know, you’re an agnostic.
    But to claim to be an agnostic in everything that is not logically proven is to cheapen the word to make it meaningless. I think you, Sean, are probably a real human being, but you might be an evil artificial intelligence commenting on this thread. I think the sun will come up tomorrow, but I can’t prove it. But I wouldn’t say that I am agnostic about it.

    So moving from agnostic to atheist is not a question of urgency. I think most people who are atheists would say that they don’t believe there is any reason to believe that god is real, and lots of counterevidence to the claims that various religions do make. Maybe you don’t find the case compelling. But if you asked me if I believed if there were a herd of wild unicorns living undiscovered in Central Park and I answered that I was agnostic about it, you would probably think that strange. Of course, I could respond “what’s the urgency of not believing in unicorns in Central Park?” The correct response is that there is no urgency, but the agnostic position is still silly.

  21. #21 MNb
    January 24, 2013

    @Mu 18: nice how you circumvent my main point and prefer to address a minor one.
    My question was: who is absolutely sure?
    It now becomes: who are those dogmatic atheists, who you apparently suppose to be absolutely sure?
    Not Dawkins. He doesn’t give himself a 7 on his own scale, meaning he isn’t absolutely sure either, as Eric pointed out.
    As long as you don’t answer this question it looks like you’re the dogmatic guy – fostering a dogma about atheists.

    As for the minor point: we don’t know so there may or may not be a god is still a version of the god of the gaps argument. Your “insufficient data to draw a conclusion” doesn’t apply because science by definition has nothing to say about the god question – only that god is not necessary for its theories.
    That’s why I think the god question in the end an existential one, like pointed out by Feuerbach and Kierkegaard. Atheists have made a choice; agnosts haven’t. So it seems like JR has a point and there is something wimpy with agnosticism indeed – afraid to make a choice, so to say. Of course the wimpy choice still can be valid. As I already remarked, when debating believers I always start out as an agnost.

  22. #22 MNb
    January 24, 2013

    @Len 19: “But I personally place God in a special category”
    Sounds too religious in my ears. I want to minimize the influence religion has on me and have learned that indifference is the best way to establish that. Now complete indifference is obviously impossible. Still placing god (and using a capital) is too much honour.

    “If God exists, then not just the content of my beliefs but the whole foundation of my thinking is flawed.”
    Not for me. No god is part of the foundation of my thinking. In fact I already have sorted out the god of my choice, might I ever have to convert for whatever reason: The Flying Spaghetti Monster. He fits best with my convictions. On second place after him come the ancient Greek gods. The Abrahamistic versions no way.

    @DD 20: “So moving from agnostic to atheist is not a question of urgency.”
    No. It took me about 10 years to make that move.

  23. #23 MNb
    January 24, 2013

    placing god in a special category.

  24. #24 eric
    January 24, 2013

    Mu @18:

    For you, there might be a gap, but it will sure be filled somehow without a god. For me, there is a gap, and it might be filled by science, it might be filled by something else, I don’t know, I wait and look forward to more data.

    I think most atheists accept that the likelihood of those two possibilities is not anywhere near equal. If you do, I’d argue that you really aren’t basing your belief on empiricism, because there is no past history, ever, for any successful human explanation of an observed phenomenon, of “something else” being the right answer.

    This is a horse race that’s been run millions or billions of times. The same horse keeps winning. Every day its run thousands of times, and the same horse keeps winning. Empirically, there is a clear favorite in the next race. That is not opinion, its a fact: based on the empirical evidence, there is one horse we should favor. Could the non-favorite win the next race? Yes. Is it rational to bet even money on it? No. Atheists are the people who think that the odds of the favorite losing are so long that one would have to be a fool to bet any money on it whatsoever. But, you are utterly wrong in implying or believing that to be an atheist, one is required to think that those odds are mathematically zero.

  25. #25 Blaine
    January 24, 2013

    Since religious ‘knowledge’ seems to be unconstrained by evidence, I propose the following:
    God once existed but he/she/it commited suicide. That was the big bang.
    Wouldn’t that make everyone happy?
    The atheists are right because god doesn’t exist (any longer).
    The believers are happy because god was the unmoved mover who started the process. They could still endlessly argue over what he had in mind when he suicided himself.
    Agnostics be happy because they could remain unsure about the whole thing.
    Cosmologists would be happy because its consistent with the evidence.

  26. #26 sean samis
    January 24, 2013

    Mu is exactly right, “…there is a gap, and it might be filled by science, it might be filled by something else, I don’t know, I wait and look forward to more data. That might be the wimpy way out for some, but again, in science “insufficient data to draw a conclusion” is a very valid result of an experiment.

    Like Mu, I am not convinced of my infallibility, so I refuse to go beyond the evidence until I have to. The question of the Urgency of Atheism applies here, what is the urgency of embracing a conclusion not sufficiently supported by the data? Why should I go beyond the data?

    And of course, there is nothing wimpy about holding steadfastly to proper scientific processes.

  27. #27 sean samis
    January 24, 2013

    Lenoxus,

    You misunderstand my question. I am not asking why atheists might proselytize, I’m asking why an agnostic or a doubter should feel any need to change their position short of conclusive evidence.

    Atheists may believe that religion has “bad effects”, but as I noted, agnostics or doubters have already escaped these putative “bad effects” as much as they ever will. No one is helped if I decide to embrace atheism, nor is anyone hurt if I remain a doubter. In fact, efforts to change agnostic or doubter minds detracts from the time atheists could spend more profitably persuading theists.

    Atheists may be committed to truth for truth’s sake, but then they must recognize that the truth is that the proposition “there is no god” is insufficiently demonstrated to be regarded as conclusively true. The truth is we just don’t know, so resistance to accepting such an unsubstantiated conclusion is reasonable.

    Lenoxus, no one has an obligation to avoid “elevating” the idea that gods might exist. One’s rational obligation is only to evaluate it fairly and truthfully and accept the results, conclusive or not.

    The mere fact that the vast majority of humanity believes in some god is more than sufficient to “elevate” that idea; neither Mu nor I could significantly affect that.

    If you are actually committed to truth for truth’s sake, then you understand that a “wait and see” attitude is justified, and that your effort to depreciate theism comes at the cost of commitment to truth for its own sake.

    Meriting “serious consideration” and meriting “rejection as false” are two very different things. There may not be enough data to support further consideration of a question but still insufficient data to just reject it. It may be inconvenient, but that’s just the way it is sometimes. To rip off Johnny Carson, sometimes you just have to put an idea in a mason-jar, put it on a shelf and see what it turns into.

    I try not to bother too much about such matters unless evidence leads there”. Exactly why I don’t embrace atheism! The evidence led me to become a doubter, the evidence does not lead further, and I see no reason to bother much about this matter until something more develops.

  28. #28 sean samis
    January 24, 2013

    Darth Dog

    The essential difference between being a doubter about gods and a doubter about herds of wild unicorns is that the vast majority of the human race believes in some god while I’ve never met anyone who said they believe in herds of wild unicorns. How many people believe a proposition has absolutely no bearing on the truth of the proposition, but how many people believe a proposition should have great bearing on how seriously you should consider a proposition. If a lot of people believe in some god (which is the case) then it’s reasonable to treat that idea seriously, even if you can’t reach a conclusion.

    Also regarding the proposition that there are herds of wild unicorns living undiscovered in Central Park; if the reason you think it’s silly to be “agnostic” about that is because the idea is too “out there” then that’s a poor reason; it seems you are calling it silly not because of data but because of a concern about social acceptance or rejection. That is wimpy and not rational. Are there “herds of wild unicorns living undiscovered in Central Park”? [Shrug.] I don’t know. Is that silly? [Shrug.] Why should I care?

  29. #29 Michael Fugate
    January 24, 2013

    Really Sean, you need more evidence? How do you ever make a decision about anything? Do you really have enough knowledge to know if you do or do not have enough knowledge?

  30. #30 MNb
    January 24, 2013

    “there is nothing wimpy about holding steadfastly to proper scientific processes.”
    Also happily ignoring what I wrote: science cannot decide this issue (Eric in 24 is referring to religious claims which can investigated by science, like the age of the Universe; in the end this does not prove that there is no god though). So holding steadfastily to proper scientific processes has nothing to do with it.
    Making a choice has. And refusing to make a choice is somewhat wimpy.
    I’d like to know if all you agnosts apply youir standpoint to The Flying Spaghetti Monster as well. If yes you’re a bit ridiculous, because the whole thing is a parody. If no you’re inconsistent, because every single argument about not knowing if the christian god exists also applies to FSM.

  31. #31 Kel
    January 24, 2013

    I do wonder whether the “no arguments” atheism (I thought it was a “burden of proof” argument; not really “no arguments” when the argument is by analogy) can be dismissed with what would constitute good evidence for God. If someone were to say “there’s no transitional fossils”, they’d be wrong because there are clearly transitional fossil. Do the arguments of Plantinga et al. constitute a refutation to that analogy, or perhaps is it missing the point of the burden of proof argument to begin with?

  32. #32 eric
    January 24, 2013

    sean samis:

    Like Mu, I am not convinced of my infallibility, so I refuse to go beyond the evidence until I have to.

    Atheists don’t claim infallibility. The evidence is: every phenomena for which we’ve discovered an explanation has had a natural explanation. So we are inductively justified in thinking phenomena that are not yet explained have one too.

    Why should I go beyond the data?

    Don’t go beyond the data. You don’t have to. Apply the same old, normal, boring induction that you use on every other problem to the problem of God. God has never explained anything before, so God is unlikely to be the explanation for the things we don’t understand.

    there is nothing wimpy about holding steadfastly to proper scientific processes.

    The scientific process would indicate that if one type of explanatino has a history of being spectacularly successful, and aother type has been dismally unsuccessful, that the spectacularly successful type of explanatino will continue to be successful and the unsuccessful type will continue to be a bad bet.

    why an agnostic or a doubter should feel any need to change their position short of conclusive evidence

    Let me respond with a question: why are you using a higher standard of “conclusive evidence” here than you are for any other topic? If you feel comfortable saying you have conclusive evidence that humans cannot flap their arms and fly, then you should feel equally comfortable saying you have conclusive evidence there is no (interfering) God. If you demand absolute philosophical certainty in the latter but not in the former, you are treating the concept of God with a favorable bias. You’re giving that claim benefit of the doubt you don’t give to any other clam of equal empirical status.

  33. #33 Michael Fugate
    January 24, 2013

    I am sure Mu and Sean will claim agnosticism on evolution; we haven’t looked at every inch of Cambrium rock to see if cats existed back then or we haven’t sequenced the genome of every organism alive now and can’t for all of the extinct ones to see if a mammal exists that is more closely related to fungi than other mammals.

    Maybe they can write a counter to Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” with titles such as “Why Evolution is probably True” (that might be too bold) or “Why Evolution is possibly True” or “Why Evolution might be True.”

    How many other nooks and crannies could gods be hiding in that we haven’t looked?

  34. #34 Lenoxus
    January 24, 2013

    The analogy to Santa Claus, if occasionally overdone, does seem apt. Should kids consider the Santa hypothesis, in the sense of “Seems far-fetched, but it can’t be altogether ruled out?

    In a sense, yes; many of them lack the data to see what’s wrong with it, and everyone they know, young and old, appears to believe.

    In another sense, no. Many kids do recognize the implausibilities, and when they raise them, adults and other kids tend to try knocking the arguments down.

    A sufficiently well-informed kid who remains “agnostic” about Santa is a puzzle; maybe they’re being difficult, maybe they’re holding out of subconscious hope, or bowing to social pressure, or a million other possibilities, including their actually having a better sense of the truth than the Santa-atheists do. (Admittedly, my parallel here is rather unfair, because the Santa hypothesis is maintained by an actual conspiracy of liars rather than an honestly-held wrong belief, so it’s a lot more understandable and less problematic for someone to be agnostic about God, or even a believer, than it would be with Santa.)

    Santa-belief also outright contradicts so much known reality. It would be one thing if the Santa hypothesis amounted to “A man with a beard lives at the North Pole,” but it’s so much more than that. How are we supposed to render “Every Christmas, Santa personally delivers toys to billions of children” compatible with “Every year, those same childrens’ parents buy them toys made in factories and place them under trees, never observing Santa in any form”? Yes, such reconciliation can be done. It can! But why?

    When it comes to God, the related problems are why there is evil, why biology appears entirely explicable from evolution, why religions disagree so much, why religious texts seem like flawed human documents, why prayer has no measurable effect, why prayer would be expected to have an effect in a theistic world, etc. At the very least, you have to acknowledge that Christianity, for example, can’t possibly be entirely true, Trinity-and-ethically-necessary-blood-sacrifice-and-all. (Maybe Jesus was a magic alien, but that’s distinct hypothesis from “Christianity is true,” whatever that could even mean.)

    TLDR: Atheism isn’t always about a lack of evidence, but also the positive contrary evidence. Many atheists tend to focus on the former, perhaps so as not to go overboard in their claims of knowledge (or not to appear so).

  35. #35 Ça alors!
    January 24, 2013

    First, I wouldn’t rely on books written thousands years ago to dismiss God… How opposing God to science is somehow relevant because of what some men wrote many centuries ago..? I don’t get how science can reveal or invalid anything about God since science can only investigate what can be measured.

    2nd, if God exists, it implies it would be an uncreated phenomenon, a “no-thing” that can never began and can never end, beyond the opposites by which we can grasp the world. That cultural differences appeared through the ages concerning that “no-hing” is just normal. That isn’t an argument against God.

    3rd, all the mystic branches of abrahamic religions and even eastern religions talk about that “no-thing” and our natural condition that prevents us to “get in touch” with it. This was for me a big surprise. Some traditions also give technics to overcome our limited condition and see beyond the opposites (good vs evil for example) by which we can grasp the world.

    4th, I used to be a hardcore atheist. And this is no big deal when you live where I live. I really thought that my mind was able to see the whole picture and have the final word about it. Of course, no one can know what he ignores. I could only realize how blind I was until I was able to see colours, to make a short story…

  36. #36 MNb
    January 25, 2013

    I don’t get how science can reveal or invalid anything about the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the human unability of flying by flapping arms.
    So, Ca Alors, regarding these matters you plead for softcore atheism as well (whatever that is – or whatever you plead for)?

  37. #37 Verbose Stoic
    January 25, 2013

    eric,

    Atheists don’t claim infallibility. The evidence is: every phenomena for which we’ve discovered an explanation has had a natural explanation. So we are inductively justified in thinking phenomena that are not yet explained have one too.

    Unfortunately, this is a prime case where you CAN’T use inductive reasoning to justify your claim. You can use inductive reasoning to say that, say, the sun will come up tomorrow because it has always come up on all the previous days or that when you throw the rock at the window it will break because all other cases of rocks hitting windows breaks them because you can posit or suggest a law-like relation between the events, and so that it is some kind of law — natural, likely in these cases — that that event will always occur. Science’s method, then, is to go after these sorts of laws and flesh out all of their conditions, so that essentially your induction is justified by “There is a rule such that because A happens B will happen in all cases”. So, as long as the Earth keeps rotating, the sun will keep rising, and so on.

    But you simply cannot make such a law about natural and supernatural events. There is, as far as we know, no actual natural or conceptual rule that indicates that if you discover a group of things that turn out to have natural causes that the next thing you encounter will also have a natural cause. These are unrelated occurrences, at least in the important sense, and so you don’t have any law-like link between them to justify your induction, and thus you would run right into the inductive fallacy: you cannot say that just because something has always been the case that it must always be such. The law-like relations save induction for science, but you don’t have a law here to fall back on.

    Basically, it would be like saying that since the only tool you’ve used in the past was a hammer it is reasonable to think that you will only ever need a hammer. Although if you are trying to calculate which tool to take if you can only take one you have a decent argument for playing the odds and taking only the hammer, for most cases most people will say that you should definitely not only take the hammer with you unless you know that that’s the only tool you need, and even in the former case would probably ask you to think about the job first before making your decision.

  38. #38 Lenoxus
    January 25, 2013

    3rd, all the mystic branches of abrahamic religions and even eastern religions talk about that “no-thing” and our natural condition that prevents us to “get in touch” with it.

    A hypothetical Venn diagram of the content of all the world’s religions would have a very small place of overlap. At best, they touch on the “supernatural”, though many religious people would object even to that description. So the agreement amounts to: There is something Beyond, something Out There, something Bigger than ourselves, something Spiritual, something Elsewise. I know I’m supposed to be awed by these ideas, but the truth is I’m not terribly impressed by Magical Capital Letters, and I think most of these ideas are just elaborate ways of saying nothing meaningful.

    Which connects back to the original problem: Theism isn’t just a statement about simple brute facts of the world which I am free to accept or reject. It is (or involves) a notion that some nebulous phenomenon divides all existing things into at least two categories (while of course Wisely and Sagely remarking that these two categories are really One at Heart), combined with the implication that the more slippery of the two categories, the spiritual dimension, is inherently “superior” in indescribable ways to the physical dimension. Theism is tangled up with connotations, not just propositions. It’s like if you wren’t “allowed” to believe that World War I happened without also believing the victors were the good guys.

    This was for me a big surprise. Some traditions also give technics to overcome our limited condition and see beyond the opposites (good vs evil for example) by which we can grasp the world.

    I won’t dispute that humans have spiritual capabilities, but this is just a simple fact of our psychology. We can meditate, we can dream, we can have near-death experiences, we can have drug trips, we can have a sober spiritual reaction to music, and so forth. All of this could be seen as evidence of something Out There — or “merely” as evidence of something In Here. There are enough problems with the Out There hypothesis that I reject it entirely.

  39. #39 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    We live in a universe which consists to 95% of stuff we have no clue about as to what it is and where it came from. And you’re absolutely sure there’s no superior being, anywhere, so sure that you don’t even have to disprove it, it’s self evident. To me that’s even more preposterous than the evangelical who’s absolutely sure there is one. At least the latter has a holy book to go by, You have science that evolves on a daily basis, but you’re sure you already know it all.

    Are you 100% ghosts don’t exist? Do you believe in ghosts?

    I’m not 100% sure ghosts don’t exist. I’m not 100% sure God doesn’t exist. But I’ve never seen any reason to believe ghosts exist and I’ve seen a lot of reasons why they shouldn’t. If someone asks me whether I believe in ghosts I say “no.”

    Ditto for God. That’s all atheism means for me.

    I wonder, every time you read a headline “observation Y contradicts model Z”, does it at least give you a slight feeling of insecurity?

    Of course not. Asserting that something like “God does not exist” is true does not mean that I have to go on believing that regardless of whatever other evidence may come to light. THAT would be preposterous.

    For you, there might be a gap, but it will sure be filled somehow without a god. For me, there is a gap, and it might be filled by science, it might be filled by something else, I don’t know, I wait and look forward to more data.

    No, my take is that whatever ends up filling the gap it will be science that discovers it. Is there such thing as the supernatural? If there is, can we know it? If both answers are yes, that simply means to me there is a possible science of the supernatural. While VS will take this as a contradiction in terms because it’s convenient to his worldview to do so I think it’s pretty fucking obvious that “science” just means “methodical knowledge gathering” and that the object of methodical knowledge gathering — whether or not it’s “natural” or “supernatural” — is irrelevant to whether that gathering should be considered “science”.

    @VS:

    But you simply cannot make such a law about natural and supernatural events. There is, as far as we know, no actual natural or conceptual rule that indicates that if you discover a group of things that turn out to have natural causes that the next thing you encounter will also have a natural cause. These are unrelated occurrences, at least in the important sense, and so you don’t have any law-like link between them to justify your induction, and thus you would run right into the inductive fallacy: you cannot say that just because something has always been the case that it must always be such. The law-like relations save induction for science, but you don’t have a law here to fall back on.

    I think you misunderstand. This is probabilistic induction on evidence. There is no evidence for supernatural causes and there is much evidence for natural causes. Thus, when we want to consider potential causes for unexplained phenomena we are fairly confident in finding a natural cause and also quite confident that no “supernatural” cause will be found.

    Do you have a coherent, non-question begging definition of “supernatural” yet? If you define “supernatural” to mean “stuff that isn’t accessible to science” then your arguments about the limits of science are tautological. Otherwise they’re invalid.

  40. #40 Ça alors!
    January 25, 2013

    Would you agree that our intellect functions within a certain frame, a certain mode?
    Oriental traditions call our average mode “dualism”, but not in a cartesian sense. It describes our propensity to grasp the world through opposites and discontinuity. Because of our senses and later language, we have no choice to believe that our mode of perception is somehow absolute, or at least, the only way we can relate to the outside world. The myth of the fruit of knowledge of what is good and evil (opposites) turns around that too.
    But one of the main differences between abrahamic and oriental traditions is that the oriental developed technics so you can see beyond the default average dual mode we adopt (christian’s original sin). And that is what mostly mysticism is about. This is why judaism, christianity and islam, through their mystic branches share a lot in common with the oriental traditions when it comes to experience by yourself directly that “no-thing” that is within/without you. Yes there are some conceptual differences but in the end, when you realize that language itself is a dual mode of communication that cannot speak for what is non-dual, those differences appear like minor details.

    For example, that extract of an essay about Kabbalah below sounds very buddhist, just like the concept of fanaa in sufism is (the annihilation of the self) , or like Eckhart when he talks about the Void that you need to attain in order to grasp the divine nature hidden in you. Nothing supernatural here by the way. It is just super natural. But hard to reach. For some training reasons, but mainly because the idea of erasing its ego will never be a popular one…

    “The key to rational mysticism in the Kabbalah is the notion of ha-achdut hashvaah, the “coincidence of opposites,” an idea that not only “deconstructs” the poles of the various oppositions through which the world is ordinarily understood, but which also suggests that each term of an opposition (e.g. God/man, word/thing, freedom/necessity, good/evil, etc.) is completely (and logically) dependent upon its opposite, i.e. dependent upon the very ideas and things that the term was meant to oppose or exclude. It is the rational articulation of these reciprocal dependencies, as opposed to a purely experiential comprehension of them that distinguishes the rational from the ordinary mystic.
    Jewish Mysticism, especially as it is embodied in the Lurianic Kabbalah and its Chabad Hasidic interpretation, provides a unique framework for overcoming the antinomies of ordinary thought, and for climbing the ladder of mystical ascent. This ladder leads to a form of thought in which all oppositions and antinomies, indeed all things whatsoever (whether they be natural, cultural, axiological or conceptual) are understood to be critical moments in a developing, meaningful and divine whole (what the Kabbalists refer to as Ein-sof, the Infinite, literally: “Without End”).”

    http://www.newkabbalah.com/coinc.pdf

  41. #41 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    @Ca Alors:

    I am also very interested in Buddhism, Taoism, and mysticism, but I don’t think anything I’ve learned from studying them has contradicted (my version of) the atheist worldview.

  42. #42 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    @Ca Alors:

    Also, language is not always a dualistic form of communication. Consider:

    “What is the Buddha?”

    “Three pounds of flax.”

  43. #43 sean samis
    January 25, 2013

    Michael,

    If you re-read my other comments, you will see that the reason I’ve commented on anything here is to ask “why should I cease to be a doubter and become an atheist?” Clearly nothing is ever perfectly known, evidence is always incomplete. In most of life one has to choose what to do in spite of the incompleteness of information. But not always. With regard to atheism, as a doubter I see no reason to make any choice; not only is the information insufficient, but there’s no opportunity cost to remaining neutral.

    I (and everyone else) don’t need conclusive proof that evolution is true. Given our current knowledge, the evidence of evolution is sufficient to accept it as true barring some later, very unexpected discovery. Like any scientific theory, evolution might be disproved–which is highly unlikely–but only the future knows.

    Given our desire to explain the development of life on earth, evolution is the best explanation we have. Unless some radically unexpected discovery is made, evolution will be accepted because not only does it appear to be true, but it’s been enormously useful in explaining what we find, and predicting what we will find. That’s enough to firmly establish its credibility.

    Every scientific theory is similarly provisional. Some (like evolution) are so well documented that their disproval would be monumental and shocking, but at the end of the day, that is just how it is.

    Conversely, there is no compelling need for anyone’s opinion to go from “gods are doubtful” to “there are no gods”. The shift makes no useful predictions, it facilitates no explanations of observed phenomena. So why bother? That’s the question I came here to find an answer to: why bother?

  44. #44 sean samis
    January 25, 2013

    MNb,

    If you re-read my other comments, you will see that the reason I’ve commented on anything here is to ask “why should I cease to be a doubter and become an atheist?” Clearly nothing is ever perfectly known, evidence is always incomplete. In most of life one has to choose what to do in spite of the incompleteness of information. But not always. With regard to atheism, as a doubter I see no reason to make any choice; not only is the information insufficient, but there’s no opportunity cost to remaining neutral.

    What’s the need to take a stand for its own sake? It seems this whole “wimpy” argument is a feeble attempt to bully or embarrass. I outgrew that crap in middle school, and this feeble bullying is a reason to refuse to embrace atheism, not a reason to embrace it.

    Although I am not an agnostic (I’m a doubter, which you’d know if you re-read my comments) I DO “apply my standpoint to the Flying Spaghetti Monster”. I don’t take a position on the FSM or gods. Why should I?

  45. #45 sean samis
    January 25, 2013

    Eric,

    Regarding your “inductive justification” I believe Verbal Stoic already refuted this. Simply because all currently observed phenomena is believed to have a natural explanation is not any proof that all future observations will be of the same kind. Therefore, to go beyond the data is to make an unwarranted assumption about the as-yet-unknown. Why would I do that?

    Regarding: “you have conclusive evidence there is no (interfering) God”; No. First, you’ve changed the subject from ALL GODS to a subset: interfering gods. Second, even then your claim is too broad, no one has conclusive evidence that no interfering gods exist. All we have is a lack of conclusive evidence that they DO exist. Much less do we have conclusive evidence that NO gods of any type exist.

    For example: biologists can explain to you why leaves turn colors and fall off trees in the autumn. They know because they’ve studied a few. But it is pure inference to say that every leaf that falls off every tree fell off for natural reasons. Such an inference may be perfectly reasonable and “justified”, but it remains an inference, an assumption. Reasonableness does not transform an assumption or an inference into conclusive proof.

    If, hypothetically, some god chose, for whatever reason, to make some particular leaf fall off some particular tree “magically”, you might actually see the leaf fall but not ever know why it fell. You’d reasonably assume it fell due to natural causes, but in this hypo you’d be wrong. I am not saying such things happen, but you cannot demonstrate that such things do not.

    So we all assume the leaf’s fall was natural because it seems a safe assumption, and there’s no good reason to assume otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with that assumption, the only error is to deny that it is an assumption; or to claim that this assumption cannot possibly be wrong.

  46. #46 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    Conversely, there is no compelling need for anyone’s opinion to go from “gods are doubtful” to “there are no gods”. The shift makes no useful predictions, it facilitates no explanations of observed phenomena. So why bother? That’s the question I came here to find an answer to: why bother?

    From my perspective, there’s not a lot of difference between the two statements. I don’t claim to be 100% sure there’s no gods. But if you ask me whether I believe in gods, I say “no.”

    In other words, you seem to be working from a definition of “atheism” that self-identified atheists don’t agree with.

  47. #47 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    In other words, being an atheist is not mutually exclusive to being a doubter. I consider myself both. So I think the question: “why should I cease to be a doubter and become an atheist?” doesn’t really make sense. Why would anyone have to cease to be a doubter to become an atheist?

    Usually, it’s the first step.

    Regarding your “inductive justification” I believe Verbal Stoic already refuted this.

    I wouldn’t rely too much on that. VS has this weird perspective where using natural language words can only be used to refer to things that don’t exist and cannot be used to refer to things that actually exist. His worldview seems to be more or less completely unhinged from reality.

  48. #48 sean samis
    January 25, 2013

    Dan L,

    In the context of this topic, I find it odd to argue that there’s not a lot of difference between “gods are doubtful” to “there are no gods”. If there’s not a lot of difference, then why is the first considered “wimpy” and the second not? Or do you agree that neither are wimpy?

    Perhaps, for you Dan, the difference between being a doubter and an atheist is too small to consider, for me it is significant. C’est la vie. And if they are so alike, why bother moving from one to the other? I remain a doubter; that is the clearest, most succinct description of my position.

    As for your comments about Verbose Stoic, well, that little bit of argumentum ad hominem is not meaningful. Even if Verbose Stoic were a true nut-job, even a blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn. If you think his comments on inductive reasoning are in error, then describe the error please. If there’s no error, then shame on you; apparently Verbose Stoic, with “his worldview … more or less completely unhinged from reality” got it right when you didn’t.

  49. #49 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    @sean samis:

    I think that Jason used “wimpy” as a bit of a joke and as clickbait. In fact, he even said so:

    The title of this post is meant tongue in cheek, but only slightly.

    My position as I’ve explained already is that I don’t understand why I shouldn’t also be agnostic to the existence of ghosts, genies, leprechauns, etc. if I’m going to be agnostic as to the existence of God. In all cases I have no particular reasons for believing in these things and many reasons not to. To the extent that there is a reason for believing in these things it’s primarily as a result of very old and factually unreliable folklore.

    So why would I make a special allowance because someone wants to insist his or her fantasy is a “god” and therefore oh so very much more special than a leprechaun? That’s clearly special pleading. If I don’t have good reasons to believe in gods then I don’t have good reasons to believe in gods: in this case, I don’t believe in gods and I am an atheist.

    Perhaps, for you Dan, the difference between being a doubter and an atheist is too small to consider, for me it is significant.

    I’m not saying there is a small difference. I’m saying there is no difference whatsoever. If there were any kind of difference I could not claim to be both simultaneously, but I did claim to be both simultaneously so I clearly don’t think there is a difference. I think they are not mutually exclusive categories. Same with “why move from one category…” No “moving” involved. One can hold both positions simultaneously with no contradictions.

    As for your comments about Verbose Stoic, well, that little bit of argumentum ad hominem is not meaningful.

    I am just kidding around with VS. I’ve argued with him many times, it is all in good fun.

    I already described his “error” in a previous comment. He misunderstood how “induction” was being used.

  50. #50 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    @sean samis:

    This “I have to choose between being a doubter and being an atheist” stuff sounds to me like “I have to choose between being round and being a ball.”

  51. #51 Deepak Shetty
    January 25, 2013

    Let me say , as an agnostic I dislike Gutting’s article , but I dont care what he thinks. You on the other hand are usually more nuanced.
    The reason for actively disbelieving in such things, as opposed to remaining agnostic about them, is precisely the lack of evidence for them,
    Are you agnostic or atheistic towards aliens. After all there is zero evidence for aliens.

    Is it really necessary, then, that the average atheist on the street wade through all of this material before feeling confident that the ontological argument does not work? Or can he confidently maintain his atheism knowing that properly trained scholars have done that work for him?
    It is seriously surprising to see you push this style of argument. Ken Ham acolytes probably believe that Ham has done their work for them in evaluating complex scientific theories. You have tried to hedge your statement with “trained” – but then Plantinga at all are trained philosophers too. So all you are saying here is follow the scholars who have the same biases as you do.

    I really don’t think agnosticism has much going for it as a philosophical position,
    Lets leave God aside. Do you believe multiple universes are a possiblity? Do you think they have life? Are you agnostic or atheistic ? How exactly do you go about taking a strong stance on things that you cannot observe or even form hypothesis around?

    Note That taking a position on God is different from taking a position on religion. I can take a position that the religions we know off are false/illogical whatever without having to take up a position a poorly defined “god”

    The fact remains, though, that at the level of abstract argument I think even theism has more going for it than agnosticism.
    Ha!. As a great man once said
    But please stop acting like you’re soooooo superior.

  52. #52 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    @Deepak Shetty:

    Are you agnostic or atheistic towards aliens. After all there is zero evidence for aliens.

    Only for especially restrictive definitions of “evidence”. The discovery of the prevalence of extrasolar planets and probabilistic arguments based on the number of stars are evidence for, the Fermi paradox is evidence against.

    It’s also not clear what you’re asking, quite. I think there’s quite good reason to believe there’s things we would recognize as living elsewhere in the universe — and so I believe that’s probably the case. But the Fermi paradox involved some pretty good arguments as to why there aren’t any intelligent forms of life in this galaxy besides ourselves. If someone asked me whether I believed there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way I would say “no.”

    For other galaxies I would say I am indeed agnostic as there is no way to know. But there’s a crucial difference between this and the case for God: life has already been demonstrated to exist. Whereas I have literally no reason to believe there might be such a thing as God or gods I do think there’s good reason to believe that life could exist on other planets.

    Do you believe multiple universes are a possiblity? Do you think they have life? Are you agnostic or atheistic ? How exactly do you go about taking a strong stance on things that you cannot observe or even form hypothesis around?

    No one said anything about a “strong stance”. I can believe or disbelieve in multiple universes without doing so strongly. Anyway, they’re clearly a possibility — but so is God.

    If we’ve already decided that such multiple universes can’t be investigated empirically then we’d have to default to whether they’re theoretically likely — whether our best theories predict their existence. Ideally, it might be mathematically demonstrated that there are no single universe theories that make sense or that multiple universe theories make no sense — something along the lines of Goedel’s theorem.

    But it’s also possible that a theory that predicts multiple universes would also be empirically distinguishable from theories which don’t, such that we might even be able to investigate empirically in some hypothetical future scenario.

    Again, there are at least theoretical reasons for believing in the existence of other universes but still not theoretical reasons for believing in God or gods.

    I can take a position that the religions we know off are false/illogical whatever without having to take up a position a poorly defined “god”

    You seem to take this as an argument for agnosticism while I take it as my most compelling reason for being an atheist. “God exists” is essentially meaningless. Unless a definition of God is provided and stuck to, “God exists” is consistent with any possible set of observations. And, in fact, most actual definitions of God that are considered are also consistent with any possible set of observations. “God exists” seems to me rather like the assertion “flub groobs”. Am I agnostic as to whether not flub actually groobs? No, I don’t think there’s any such things as flub or groobing.

    Great questions, though.

  53. #53 Deepak Shetty
    January 25, 2013

    Dan L
    It’s also not clear what you’re asking, quite.
    Merely that the lack of evidence is not the determining factor on how strong a stance someone is willing to take. You say no evidence(though I dont know what would or wouldnt constitute evidence) of God => god probably doesnt exist.
    No evidence for aliens ==> maybe there are , maybe not, Agnostic!.
    What a wimpy position to take!

    while the definitions of agnostic and atheist may imply that most of us are technically agnostic atheists – the fact is these two terms, in practice, usually indicate how strong a position you are willing to take on this matter. That’s why someone like me who is anti religion still identifies as agnostic. I cant define God – i cant begin to hypothesize as to what a universe created by a God looks like compared to one where there is no God (and Im certainly not going to restrict myself to a religious God) so I am an agnostic.

    I do think there’s good reason to believe that life could exist on other planets.
    Which is what? that life exists on earth? (Or i could rephrase as do you believe there are lifeforms that are non carbon based?)

    No one said anything about a “strong stance”.
    In practice , that’s what it works out to be – As before most of us are technical agnostic atheists , no? Yet some prefer “agnostic” and other “atheist”.

    Again, there are at least theoretical reasons for believing in the existence of other universes
    Evidence?

    You seem to take this as an argument for agnosticism while I take it as my most compelling reason for being an atheist
    Unfortunately for you , an Ignostic falls under the category of agnostic.

    But see I dont really care if you want to call yourself an atheist or agnostic or none or spiritual or whatever(so long as you think the religions are false!) – and so i dont really go about saying you are philosophically naive or wimpy or dogmatic (well except to Jerry Coyne!) . The atheists feel the agnostic is acting superior to atheists and theists. Whereas all i can see are articles by self identified atheists who feel the need to use derogatory terms.

  54. #54 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    You say no evidence(though I dont know what would or wouldnt constitute evidence) of God => god probably doesnt exist.
    No evidence for aliens ==> maybe there are , maybe not, Agnostic!.
    What a wimpy position to take!

    This is such a terrible misrepresentation of what I said I’m hesitant to continue reading your comment.

    Which is what? that life exists on earth? (Or i could rephrase as do you believe there are lifeforms that are non carbon based?)

    That life exists at all. I don’t believe there are non-carbon based life forms because I think there are really good arguments as to why such organisms would not exist. Si-based is vaguely possible but much less likely than carbon.

    For various reasons, I think that life is basically what carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen do when they’re put in water and bombarded with radiation for a few hundred million years.

    In practice , that’s what it works out to be – As before most of us are technical agnostic atheists , no? Yet some prefer “agnostic” and other “atheist”.

    Maybe. I don’t really think of myself as a “strong” atheist, though. I prefer “atheist” but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the strength of my convictions. Maybe I can explain better if we clear up some up the confusion in your first paragraph.

    Unfortunately for you , an Ignostic falls under the category of agnostic.

    Under some particular ontological schema, but there’s no reason I should constrain myself to that schema if it doesn’t seem like a useful way of describing things to me.

    The atheists feel the agnostic is acting superior to atheists and theists. Whereas all i can see are articles by self identified atheists who feel the need to use derogatory terms.

    Well, that’s a nice thought but from my perspective I’ve seen a fair number of self-identified agnostics screaming about how atheists are stupid and agnosticism is the only sensible position.

    I’m not taking as strong an anti-agnostic position as Jason does, mind you, but I rather agree that agnosticism often seems to be an excuse to act smugly superior. Present company most definitely excluded.

  55. #55 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    Clearing up your misrepresentation:

    You say no evidence(though I dont know what would or wouldnt constitute evidence) of God => god probably doesnt exist.

    No, not a mere lack of evidence. A lack of evidence coupled with a lack of definition coupled with a lack of a concept of what would constitute evidence coupled with a lack of conceptual clarity. One problem is that it is not entirely clear what people are talking about when they say “God”. But I have SOME idea, and based on that bit of an idea I don’t believe in that (or those) thing(s).

    No evidence for aliens ==> maybe there are , maybe not, Agnostic!.
    What a wimpy position to take!

    Actually, I was quite explicit:
    atheistic with respect to intelligent life in the Milky Way
    faithful with respect to non-intelligent life elsewhere in the universe
    hopeful with respect to non-intelligent life in the Milky Way
    agnostic with respect to intelligent life in other galaxies

    The crux of the difference between intelligent life and god such that I think agnosticism is a reasonable position here is that the category “intelligent life” is coherent and non-empty already. I have no such guarantees with respect to God or gods.

  56. #56 Deepak Shetty
    January 25, 2013

    This is such a terrible misrepresentation of what I said I’m hesitant to continue reading your comment.
    Yes that misrepresentation is deliberate.
    But it is on par with Agnosticism is for wimps. Or for people who are afraid to take a stance or are intellectually dishonest.

    I’ve seen a fair number of self-identified agnostics screaming about how atheists are stupid and agnosticism is the only sensible position.
    Oh I don’t deny that – there are some. But I expect better from Jason. The fun part about the XKCD cartoon that everyone loves is that people don’t think it applies to them.

    agnostic with respect to intelligent life in other galaxies
    even fairies? Are you now agnostic to fairies?

  57. #57 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    even fairies? Are you now agnostic to fairies?

    You seem to be using private definitions of “fairies” and “life in other galaxies” that suit your rhetorical purposes.

    Do I think the creatures described in Gaelic mythology exist? No.

    Do I think tiny humanoid creatures with tiny wings live in other galaxies? Actually, no. i think the odds are so ridiculously remote that even without evidence I’d be confident saying “no.”

    Do I think there might be little winged, intelligent aliens in another galaxy? Sure, agnostic.

  58. #58 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    But it is on par with Agnosticism is for wimps. Or for people who are afraid to take a stance or are intellectually dishonest.

    And since I didn’t assert any of that I’m a little curious why you decided to deliberately misinterpret me.

  59. #59 Patrick
    January 25, 2013

    “Most philosophers are atheists, after all, and I would think that atheists who are not academics could reasonably infer that if these arguments were any good, more philosophers would endorse them.”

    From chapter 9 of the following contribution, written by philosopher Edward Feser, one can see that with respect whether or not philosophical arguments for God’s existence are successful this observation is irrelevant:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/07/so-you-think-you-understand.html

    “For example, recently I read Jordan Howard Sobel’s book Logic and Theism. It’s a large, dense tome, and is definitely one of the most detailed and scholarly attacks on religious arguments ever written. Sobel devotes something like 130 pages to the various ontological arguments, and he kills them all stone dead. Is it really necessary, then, that the average atheist on the street wade through all of this material before feeling confident that the ontological argument does not work? Or can he confidently maintain his atheism knowing that properly trained scholars have done that work for him?”

    For all I know Sobel was an agnostic and not an atheist, so it’s somewhat strange that he is mentioned in a blogpost arguing against agnosticism.

    “We claim instead that there is no credible evidence at all for those claims.”

    As for evidence for Christian theism, in the following thread I provided some of it:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2013/01/what-good-evidence-for-the-supernatural-would-look-like/

    “If we’re talking about God as an abstract intelligent designer, then I don’t know what else atheists can do beyond noting that there is not the slightest reason to believe such an entity exists.”

    There may not be conclusive arguments pointing to the existence of an intelligent designer, but this doesn’t mean that there are no such arguments. One of them is the argument from the fine-tuning of the Universe, which is presented in the following link:

    http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Fine-tuning/FINETLAY.HTM

    “If we’re talking about the Christian conception of God specifically, then we add the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, both of which pose serious challenges to Christian faith.”

    In the following thread I dealt with the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness:

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2012/08/01/the-only-reasonable-reply-to-the-problem-of-evil/

  60. #60 Ça alors!
    January 26, 2013

    Dan. L.

    I understand that you find no contradictions between atheism and buddhism. But for a western atheist who believes that spirituality is just a crutch (like I used to), buddhism doesn’t quite fit with a western definition of what implies atheism. Yes buddhism claims there is no exterior God. But it also claims that your nature is at its basis uncreated. And that being a human, you are in a avery good position to recognize this…

  61. #61 MNb
    January 26, 2013

    @Sean S: “why should I cease to be a doubter and become an atheist?”
    Yes and I applied that to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    Eric applied it to the human skill to fly by flapping arms.
    Dan L applied it to ghosts.

    “I don’t take a position on the FSM. Why should I?”
    Because the FSM is a parody and thus not taking a position is somewhat ridiculous, albeit consistent and valid (and if you reread my reactions you’ll find that I have written that before as well).
    Now how about ghosts and the human skill to fly by flapping arms? How about little demons running my computer? Little gnomes living in my backyard? Movement of the stars influencing human behaviour? Why should you take positions on these issues? If you do, why and why don’t you apply these reasons to god?

    “Simply because all currently observed phenomena is believed to have a natural explanation is not any proof that all future observations will be of the same kind.”
    Simply because all currently observed things falling towards the Earth (iso upward) is not any proof that all futere things will fall towards the Earth either. Still in daily life you assume that, I suppose – like I suppose there is no god.

  62. #62 MNb
    January 26, 2013

    @Dan L: “In other words, being an atheist is not mutually exclusive to being a doubter.”
    Of course not. That’s why I called atheism an existential choice.

    “The atheists feel the agnostic is acting superior to atheists and theists.”
    Formulated this way I don’t.

    @Patrick: “As for evidence for Christian theism, in the following thread I provided some of it.”
    Evidence that as well can be used pro the Flying Spaghetti Monster, because it’s self-referential.

    “One of them is the argument from the fine-tuning of the Universe”
    which is based on statistics with population one. The fine-tuning argument isn’t any better than throwing dice, getting a six and concluding that god is with you.
    Moreover the fine-tuning argument is a teleological argument and thus anti-scientific.

    Your “anser” to the Problem of Evil is not convincing either, but I don’t feel like repeating that one here.

    You provide a typical case of special pleading, Patrick. Arguments you never would accept as evidence for Hinduism or the Flying Spaghetti Monster are good enough for you to back your christian belief system. In all the links you give that has been pointed out; your reaction is to tighten your blinkers.
    That’s a well known version of self-deception (and before I take issue, I know I am capable of such self-deception as well – the difference is that I know it).

  63. #63 MNb
    January 26, 2013

    before you take issue.

  64. #64 Michael Fugate
    January 26, 2013

    Feser as an authority – do make me laugh!

  65. #65 eric
    January 26, 2013

    sean:

    Simply because all currently observed phenomena is believed to have a natural explanation is not any proof that all future observations will be of the same kind.

    See, there you go again, assuming atheism requires “proof.” It doesn’t. No atheist is that philosophically certain in their atheism – well, I haven’t met any. They seem to be a figment of theist, deist, and agnostic imaginations.

    What atheists point out is that the arguments and evidence for god is no better than the arguments and evidence that I will be able to flap my arms and fly tomorrow. So, I conclude that god is just as likely.

    And I’m perfectly comfortable calling myself a non-believer with that level of confidence. It isn’t “proof.” It isn’t philosophical certainty. It a tentative conclusion that could be revised if new evidence comes to light. But it also the best conclusion the evidence I do have. Do you dispute that?

    But it is pure inference to say that every leaf that falls off every tree fell off for natural reasons.

    Great example. Yep, its inference. Every claim about the empirical world is. Atheism is an inference. But, like an explanation for leaf-fall, its the best inference from the data.

    If you want to argue that proof/absolute certainty is required for atheism, that no ‘mere’ inference justifies it, then you have defined atheism in a way that makes it a rationally impossible belief. But that’s okay, because there are also no atheists according to your definition of what it takes to be one.

    You have also made it impossible to be ‘atheist’ about anal-probing, cow-exploding aliens. Bigfoot. Faeries in the bottom of our gardens. Invisible dragons in the garage. Are you agnostic about those things? Do you want to claim that a-belief in those things is irrational?

  66. #66 Verbose Stoic
    January 27, 2013

    Dan L.,

    I am just kidding around with VS. I’ve argued with him many times, it is all in good fun.

    You probably should make that clearer, because to me it looked like you were horribly misrepresenting something I said in that past — so badly that I can only guess at what you were actually referring to — in an attempt to basically convince someone to ignore me because I seemingly didn’t know what I was talking about. It might be nice if you could avoid that in the future.

    I already described his “error” in a previous comment. He misunderstood how “induction” was being used.

    And on that …

    I think you misunderstand. This is probabilistic induction on evidence. There is no evidence for supernatural causes and there is much evidence for natural causes. Thus, when we want to consider potential causes for unexplained phenomena we are fairly confident in finding a natural cause and also quite confident that no “supernatural” cause will be found.

    And this is exactly the sort of case where that doesn’t work, because induction only provides justification for claims like that when you can posit that there’s a LAW-LIKE RELATION between the past cases and the present/future ones, and your phenomena are so diverse that it is rather implausible that there would be one (and, in fact, there being such relations would likely be evidence of some sort of teleological figure who makes those relations, or a God, in other words [grin]). So you would basically be arguing that because it HAPPENS to be the case that what you’ve found so far is natural that you are justified in thinking that you will NEVER find anything supernatural … and that’s the inductive fallacy in a nutshell.

    Or, to put it this way, it’s the same mistake as saying that because you’ve only ever seen white swans that you are justified in thinking that black swans don’t exist. The flaw in that case was that there was no reason to think that there couldn’t be black swans, and so all that they had was what they had seen. If they had been able to posit a law about why swans couldn’t be black, then it would have been more justified and their justification would have risen and fallen on the justification for thinking that that law held true as opposed to on their observations.

    Do you have a coherent, non-question begging definition of “supernatural” yet?

    As I’m very sure I told you, the definition of “supernatural” depends on the definition of “natural”. So you find me a non-question begging definition of “natural” that doesn’t refute naturalism, and then I’ll tell you what things are supernatural.

    If you define “supernatural” to mean “stuff that isn’t accessible to science” then your arguments about the limits of science are tautological. Otherwise they’re invalid.

    Well, first, my arguments about the limits of science here are not, in fact, predicated on my defining supernatural in any way, but are predicated on outlining the limits of induction. Define it however you want and the claim that you can use induction to justify claiming that there aren’t supernatural things, even as a probability, still fail. Second, I would never argue that what it means for something to be supernatural is that it is something that science can’t study, especially considering that I think there are many things science can’t study (like, say, normative claims). Rather, I argue that, again, no matter how natural and supernatural are defined if science insists on being naturalistic then things that are not natural will be excluded by it by ITS definition, which seems a fair tautology to rely on, wouldn’t you say?

  67. #67 Michael Fugate
    January 27, 2013

    Some of the self-named agnostics claim not to consider any of the known religions to be true, yet the adherents of these religions are very ones who propose gods exist. Some of the best and brightest theologians have worked on the god problem for centuries and agnostics must claim that these efforts are not convincing. If all of this intense study yields no results (is basically apologetics), then why would one still think there is anything behind the word god other than something humans have created as a catchall explanation?

  68. #68 couchloc
    January 27, 2013

    VS and sean are right about the issue of induction and I don’t know why people can’t see the point. You cannot make an inductive argument that because every phenomena explained so far have been explained in terms of natural causes, that therefore no supernatural causes will be found in the future. In order for an inductive conclusion to be justified, we have to know that the instances over which we’re generalizing are REPRESENTATIVE. But, by hypothesis, natural events are fundamentally different from nonnatural events. So how could one make an inductive inference over the set of natural events to reach a conclusion about a completely different kind of entity? You can’t and this is not touched by anything others have said so far. You could make such an induction if you knew antecedently that the universe only contained natural phenomena. But there is no way to assume this point here without begging the question.

  69. #69 eric
    January 27, 2013

    Couchloc:

    You cannot make an inductive argument that because every phenomena explained so far have been explained in terms of natural causes, that therefore no supernatural causes will be found in the future.

    Well then, its good that nobody actually makes that argument.

    Of course its possible that such things are discovered. The question is whether I should treat God as a more likely future discovery than, say, anal-probing aliens. Or faeries. Or the ability the flap my arms and fly around the room tomorrow.

    All of those things are possible. Induction cannot absolutely rule out any of them. But if you think induction leads to rational nonbelief in the case of the last three, then you should also think induction leads to nonbelief in the God case.

    THere’s no reason to be more agnostic about god than about the other things. THey’re in the same boat. So, you’ve basically got three choices. One: stick to your agnostic guns and declare yourself agnostic about God, fairies, bigfeet, anal-probing aliens, and my ability to fly tomorrow. Two: be consistent the other way and dismiss all of them equally. Three: treat one or more of them with exceptional agnosticism you don’t treat the others with, and accept the fact that you’re doing so out of an irrational bias.

  70. #70 couchloc
    January 27, 2013

    eric,

    There is a difference in the cases that is relevant to the issue I think you’re overlooking and which has been mentioned already. Examples like bigfoot and aliens are examples of possible physical entities we might discover, and as such we can make inductive inferences about them on the basis of our experience with other physical entities. But this is NOT the case with the nonphysical God being talked about. Because it is a nonphysical entity outside the universe, you cannot logically make inductive inferences about it from evidence concerning physical entities. To make inductions you have to know your sample is representative, and this is what is denied. This point is independent of whether the conclusion is that “no supernatural entities exist” or merely that “it is unlikely they exist.”

    I have not myself defended anything about agnosticism (though others have). But the kinds of inductive arguments being bandied about here aren’t doing what you think they’re doing.

  71. #71 Deepak Shetty
    January 28, 2013

    @Dan L
    Do I think tiny humanoid creatures with tiny wings live in other galaxies? Actually, no. i think the odds are so ridiculously remote that even without evidence I’d be confident saying “no.”
    And perhaps that the difference. Once I have reached I dont know to “are there humanoid creatures” elsewhere , I will stop speculating on whether they are tiny and have wings. You on the other hand feel confident enough to make assertions based on one data point – How life has evolved on planet Earth. To me that’s speculating based on a single anecdote.

    And since I didn’t assert any of that I’m a little curious why you decided to deliberately misinterpret me.
    I had assumed you were in agreement with Jason. But reading your comments to me , there is nothing to imply that, so i apologize for the misrepresentation.

  72. #72 Deepak Shetty
    January 28, 2013

    @eric
    So, you’ve basically got three choices. One: stick to your agnostic guns and declare yourself agnostic about God, fairies, bigfeet, anal-probing aliens,
    I don’t know about the anal probing part, but are you agnostic or atheistic towards aliens? Be consistent now.

  73. #73 eric
    January 28, 2013

    couchloc:

    Examples like bigfoot and aliens are examples of possible physical entities we might discover, and as such we can make inductive inferences about them on the basis of our experience with other physical entities. But this is NOT the case with the nonphysical God being talked about.

    The faeries in my garden are nonphysical. So is the dragon in my garage. So, are you agnostic about them now?

    I’ll repeat my basic question: why are you more agnostic (and less atheistic) about God then about all such other possible entities? Why the exceptional absention for God, when you are probably perfectly comfortable coming to an ‘atheist’ conclusion about faeries?

    I’d also point out that you’re now clearly not discussing miracle-working Jesus types of Gods, because the claim of Christianity is that he was clearly physical and did things that (in principle) left emprical, physical evidence around to test. Are you saying you’re agnostic about desitic deities, but atheistic about theistic ones?

    Because it is a nonphysical entity outside the universe, you cannot logically make inductive inferences about it from evidence concerning physical entities.

    If you want me to say that God is inductively just as likely a discovery as every other nonphysical, outside-the-universe entity, okay, I agree. I don’t think that helps your case any, because you still have no rational reason to be exceptionally agnostic towards god than you are any other similar entities which we might posit.

    I’d also argue that one can still make a solid inferential rejection for God in terms of explanatory power. This is more a response to Mu than you, but the fact that all successful past explanations of phenomena have been natural does in fact lead to an inductive conclusion that the explanation for the next (currently unexplained) phenomena will be natural too.

    Deepak Shetty:

    are you agnostic or atheistic towards aliens? Be consistent now.

    Sure. We observe organic chemical reactions producing complex polymers on earth, in space, on meteorites, etc. so I infer similar reactions take place wherever there are physical conditions similar to the ones we’ve observed such reactions to take place in already. I have no problem thinking some other multi-billion-year-old bubbling cauldron might have tossed up replicators, since we already know of one that did.

    And I’ll give God the same treatment: show me just one example of a little-g god – the analogous equivalent to observing life on earth – and I’ll revise my atheism towards big-G God (the analogous equivalent to alien life).

  74. #74 couchloc
    January 28, 2013

    “The faeries in my garden are nonphysical. So is the dragon in my garage.”

    If they are *in* the garden or garage, they are not outside of the universe in the way the God is supposed to be that Gutting is talking about. So clearly there is a difference here that is relevant you are overlooking. The last time I checked the word “in” was a spatial term.

  75. #75 eric
    January 28, 2013

    couch, why the dodge? Okay, my fairy-concepts and dragon-concepts are just plain nonphysical. Now, are you agnostic about them?

    C’mon man, discuss the meat of the matter. Why do you privilege this one belief with your agnosticism when you are essentially atheist about rationally equivalent beliefs, like fairys etc.?

  76. #76 Michael Fugate
    January 28, 2013

    Do we know any more about gods than we did 3000 years ago? If we do, then what do we know and how do we know it? This is basic philosophy. If we don’t, then either we knew gods perfectly 3000 years ago (which is doubtful) or theology is dead. If one is agnostic, then there must be some evidence that keeps one thinking gods are out there.

  77. #77 Michael Fugate
    January 28, 2013

    Oh and by the way, why would anybody take the “gods are outside the universe” trope seriously? So fairies are in, but gods are not and yet gods come down and walk the earth? One should take what theologians say with a grain of salt.

  78. #78 Deepak Shetty
    January 28, 2013

    So I infer similar reactions take place wherever there are physical conditions similar to the ones we’ve observed such reactions to take place in already.
    So alien life forms, if they exist , must be similar to life on earth? what is your position to alien “life” that is not similar to that on earth? Is it possible(and are you atheistic or agnostic towards the position) that replicators exist in the universe that have arisen using a set of circumstances completely different than that on earth?
    Note you are giving reasons , not “evidence”

  79. #79 Deepak Shetty
    January 28, 2013

    @eric
    Why do you privilege this one belief with your agnosticism when you are essentially atheist about rationally equivalent beliefs, like fairys etc.?
    Its not a question of privilege – if you take specific testable observations (does santa claus as specified exist ? then we expect to see coal/toys in every home with a kid – we dont . Is there a dragon in my garage? we dont see any, no matter what test we try) v/s is there a being outside our universe (how would you test this?)
    Note that I can reject theism on the above grounds but I cannot reject a God (in general). A question would be why should I care about a being , who doesn’t interact with our universe (even if he exists?) – The likely answer is we shouldn’t – which is the apathetic position.
    I can also ask why do you specifically privilege the God question above others. it is perfectly respectable to say I don’t know – even if the concept is a weird , fantastical one – and you probably do it for other questions. (Again Im not asking why you would do it for religion , there are good reasons to challenge religion)

  80. #80 eric
    January 28, 2013

    If you’re asking if I am agnostic on silicon life or whatever, nope, I’m pretty atheistic about such things. Perhaps not quite as dismissive as I am about flapping my wings and flying around the room tomorrow, but happily dismissing them as not supported by any evidence.

    Note you are giving reasons , not “evidence”

    I think I must be misinterpreting this sentence. The observation of organic life on earth is evidence for organic life. Surely you agree about that?

  81. #81 eric
    January 28, 2013

    Deepak Shetty:

    Note that I can reject theism on the above grounds but I cannot reject a God (in general).

    So, you’re an atheist, just not an adeist? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    Back on topic: you cannot reject a noninterfering fairy eiither. So I’ll try to ask the same question again: you have some conception of God. So far, we have that its non-physical and non-interfering. But there are an infinite number of other conceptual entities in this class. Nonphysical nonintefering dragons. Nonphysical noninterfering X’s, where X can be just about anything. Why do you consider yourself agnostic when it comes to God but not agnostic when it comes to them?

    I can also ask why do you specifically privilege the God question above others.

    If someone picks a single entity out of a set of equivalent ones, and implies that they are agnostic about that entity but no other, then its perfectly reasonable to ask why. I’m not privileging the God question, I’m asking you to explain your reasoning as to why God gets a bye that you don’t give to these other things.

    Now look, if you want to say you give God equal credence as you do Noninterfering Tinkerbell, then I will agree with you. I do too. Its then just a matter of semantics whether this type of ‘pragmatic dissmissal + philosophical uncertainty’ should be called atheism or agnosticism. But as long as you keep not agreeing to equivalency, as long as you imply by omission that you give one such concept more credence than you give the others, I’m going to keep asking why.

  82. #82 Deepak Shetty
    January 28, 2013

    @eric
    The observation of organic life on earth is evidence for organic life.
    evidence for life on earth not elsewhere.
    Are the circumstances on earth unique (how would you/I know)? Are earth like conditions a prerequisite for life (how would you/I know). There simply isnt enough evidence one way or the other.

    So, you’re an atheist,
    Technically Im an agnostic atheist . So are you.

    Back on topic: you cannot reject a noninterfering fairy eiither.
    On planet earth – I can. Somewhere else in the universe I don’t know. There moight very well be a planet whose intelligent life form is human like and has grown wings and

    Now look, if you want to say you give God equal credence as you do Noninterfering Tinkerbell,
    I dont.

    ‘pragmatic dissmissal + philosophical uncertainty’ should be called atheism or agnosticism.
    Which i tend to agree with. But it seems both sides want to stick to the label of their choice and berate others for not adopting their labels.

  83. #83 couchloc
    January 28, 2013

    eric,

    I’m not trying to dodge anything; I am making a strictly logical point about inductive inference. To wit: that any inductive inference to the “nonexistence of X” or the “likely nonexistence of X” depends on using a representative sample over which you are making your induction. And VS, sean, and I are all saying that your sample (physical entities) are insufficient to reach your conclusion (nonphysical entities) as a matter of principle. It’s the same reason that scientists don’t study toasters and then draw conclusions about black wholes in their articles. The sample over which you’re inducing must be representative of the “kind of” thing you are making inferences about. Your example of faeries or dragons are not similar to the traditional, judeo-christian conception of God Gutting is talking about, which refers at bottom to a nonphysical, transcendent entity outside the universe. You are using the term “nonphysical” in a completely different way than Gutting is and hence changing the subject.

    There may be other problems with the existence of such nonphysical entities (indeed I think so). But the “past success of science” idea doesn’t work.

  84. #84 Michael Fugate
    January 28, 2013

    Why is Gutting’s idea of a nonphysical, transcendent entity outside the universe even legitimate? Why privilege that view over other views of gods?

  85. #85 Ça alors!
    January 28, 2013

    Micheal,
    the reason why you may not have more evidence now than you could have 3000 years ago could have something to do with the limitations humans have since that time. We grasp the world in a certain, on a certain mode. Our senses aren’t absolute sensors. If God is a a “no-thing” beyond space and time, an uncreated phenomenon, it could be here right now , at the heart of any conscious phenomenon and still be undetectable from our limited perspective.

    But some people work very hard to overcome those limitations. And what they report is quite different from what we usually see. Of course, the scientific method is useless in this case. But it doesn’t make the case untrue or unreal.

  86. #86 MNb
    January 28, 2013

    “the traditional, judeo-christian conception of God Gutting is talking about, which refers at bottom to a nonphysical, transcendent entity outside the universe.”
    Then you (Gutting, whoever) have two options.
    1. That nonphysical transcendent entity outside the universe somehow influences what’s happening within that universe, for instance by creating it. Then it has a physical nontranscendent aspect and Eric’s question is legitimate.
    2. That nonphysical transcendent entity has no business at all with what’s happening within that universe, including creating it. Then it becomes meaningless for us humans, something like a square circle. You can call yourself an atheist after all.
    You can’t have it both ways. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to assign to Eric’s fairies physical features, but not to the god whose option you want to keep open.

  87. #87 MNb
    January 28, 2013

    Moreover we can doubt that the conception of a nonphysical, transcendent god Gutting is talking about is the traditional, judeo-christian one. Quite a few guys in the Bible were capable of communicating with him. Now you can argue that we should read those stories as a metaphor, but 1) you will have to prove that the authors of those stories meant them as metaphors (which is impossible) and 2) if you want to be consistent you’ll have to conclude that that whole concept of god is a metaphor, after which you again can call yourself an atheist.
    Not that I mind about labels – if you guys feel more comfortable calling yourself agnosts, go ahead. I did so for about 10 years. But Eric is right that there is no fundamental difference between agnosts and atheists, unless the first accept an inconsistency.

  88. #88 eric
    January 28, 2013

    couchloc:

    any inductive inference to the “nonexistence of X” or the “likely nonexistence of X” depends on using a representative sample over which you are making your induction. And VS, sean, and I are all saying that your sample (physical entities) are insufficient to reach your conclusion (nonphysical entities) as a matter of principle.

    So, if induction is insufficient to reach a conclusion on this class of entities, then you must be equally agnostic on the existene of non-physical fairies and dragons, yes? You give them equal credibility as you do God?

  89. #89 Michael Fugate
    January 28, 2013

    Ça alors!,
    Was that supposed to mean something – was it transcendent of meaning?

  90. #90 Michael Fugate
    January 28, 2013

    Ça alors!,
    Could you also please outline the methods used to study gods – the philosophy of theology? What are the basics? I have yet to find a very useful summary.

    It seems like any method assumes gods exist and they can contact us. Given that, I think this works as general method. Have a problem that needs solving. Think about it long and hard. If that doesn’t produce a workable solution, then do one or all of the following: sleep on the problem, do something unrelated to solving the problem, take hallucinogenic substances, go without sleep, go without food, meditate – preferably on a mountain top or out in the desert. Wait for an answer. If answer works, assume it came from the gods. If it doesn’t work, assume you misheard and repeat the process. An answer will come.

    I have no problem with methods other than science, but I do want to know how those other methods work.

  91. #91 couchloc
    January 28, 2013

    MNb: “1. That nonphysical transcendent entity outside the universe somehow influences what’s happening within that universe, for instance by creating it. Then it has a physical nontranscendent aspect and Eric’s question is legitimate.”

    This is an interesting suggestion, but I don’t think it will work. I don’t see how the second sentence follows from the first. The claim that anything that influences the universe must have a physical aspect is speculative and not one I’m sure you’re entitled to. In virtue of what do you know this to be true? It sounds like a broad philosophical claim and not one you could know scientifically (what experiments could establish it?). This point likely raises a larger issue than I want to get into here, but I’ll say I’m skeptical you can make a case for “1″ like this without begging the question.

    eric: The god Gutting is talking about is really nothing like your faeries or dragon in the garage. I don’t want to keep repeating this point, so I’ll just leave it here, and let others pick up the issue.

  92. #92 Ça alors!
    January 29, 2013

    Micheal, it looks like I don’t need to tell you how many oriental traditions developed technics to overcome our default mode of grasping.
    Obviously, you don’t think they work and can produce something valuable. Of course, you can believe what you want. Like thinking that your intellect is not limited in some ways and cannot grasp the world differently…
    But maybe you already tried and it didn’t work. This would be the only way to know how those methods work.

  93. #93 Michael Fugate
    January 29, 2013

    Ça alors!,
    I am not saying they produce don’t something valuable – just that they don’t tell one anything about gods – that is what we are talking about – isn’t it?

  94. #94 Ça alors!
    January 29, 2013

    A nonphysical transcendent entity doesn’t need to be outside the universe. And it can be as well immanent.

    But trying to define what is beyond space and time just can’t work. Language needs boundaries and contrast to make sense. And an uncreated phenomenon escapes both. If it never started, it can never end. This is what eternal means. But since everything we experience seems to take place in time and space, we just can’t figure what being conscious outside time and space would look like.

    We know a bit, we have moments where the present never seems to stop, but they usually don’t last very long.

  95. #95 Ça alors!
    January 29, 2013

    That is not a response to comment #93.

  96. #96 Ça alors!
    January 29, 2013

    I think we all experience subjectively God, or in other words, God uses humanity and everything that is created to put distance between itself and itself and be self-aware. But our ego prevents us to realize it.
    Some cultures tried to define God as an exterior force but when you look at all the mystic branches of non-oriental religions and the oriental traditions, God becomes something that can be experienced when you become able to “see” beyond your personal, familial, cultural “self” and have a direct superjective (beyond subjectivity and objectivity) look at the world.
    And yes, there are many ways to achieve this. My link at comment #40 talks about how the Kabbalah can bring you there, but sufism and buddhism have similar path…

  97. #97 eric
    January 29, 2013

    couchloc:

    The god Gutting is talking about is really nothing like your faeries or dragon in the garage. I don’t want to keep repeating this point, so I’ll just leave it here, and let others pick up the issue.

    You have not made the case, you’re simply repeating your own exceptionalism. You admit that Gutting is talking about the traditional Judeo-Christian god. That god is in the same class as fairys and dragons because it is claimed to interact with our observable world. That influence or interaction is the characteristic that matters in terms of agnosticism vs. atheism. We are perfectly happy to dismiss the fairy in the garden because everything we observe about the garden is adequately explained by non-fairy forces. We see no influence. The same is true for God. All that stuff about being outside of time or nonphysical is merely a distraction from this key point.

    Gutting says:

    Religious knowledge offers a metaphysical and/or historical account of supernatural realities that, if true, shows the operation of a benevolent power in the universe.

    My emphasis. That’s an interacting deity. A deity that performs ‘operations that demonstrate benovolence’ is exactly like a fairy that tends a garden.

    So if you’re going to claim that they are in different classes, you’re going to have to do better than just repeat that assertion. You’re going to have to do what Deepak did, and claim that the deity you’re agnostic about is more deistic and not theistic (because deistic entities that do nothing at all would be in a different class), or tell me why we cannot tentatively rule out an influential deity based on the fact that we see no influence.

  98. #98 Michael Fugate
    January 29, 2013

    Here is a response to “do gods exist?” by Anglican priest Anthony Freeman (God in Us) which I think is appropriate:
    “I return finally to the questions with which we began: ‘Do you believe in God? Are you not an atheist?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, I do believe in God, and one of the things I believe about God is that he does not exist.’ This is not just my being clever. A very important point is being made. Our view of religion as a human creation — let us call it Christian humanism — still stands firmly in the Christian tradition, and sees itself as a legitimate heir to the New Testament.”

    We do see an evolution of gods from physical entities walking the earth to non-physical ones outside the universe, and in the case above, to products of our imagination. I am quite sure science has much to do with this; it is no coincidence that science studies physical things inside the universe. I ask once again, if gods are non-physical and outside the universe and don’t just exist in our imaginings, how do we know anything about them?

    Another thing is there seems to be positive feedback between assuming agency in nature and the existence of gods. As with all systems, the cause-effect relationship is unclear, but belief in agency reinforces a belief in powerful agents (gods) and belief in gods reinforces agency as an explanation of events. This plants gods or other powerful agents solidly in our imaginations. If we can imagine what a fairy or a dragon looks like, we can do the same for gods – and have.

  99. #99 couchloc
    January 29, 2013

    eric, this will have to be my last reply since I’ve got work to get to. I understand what you are saying, but I still have reservations. You write that “[the judeo-christian] god is in the same class as fairies and dragons because it is claimed to interact with our observable world.” I don’t think this will work, as I have said already. If your fairies and dragons are *in* the world (your word) then when they interact with it, they do so in competition with other physical entities. To see this, suppose we ask why the flowers in the garden wilt on a particular day? Was it the dragon’s fiery breath or the heat from the sun? Once we have the scientific explanation (the sun’s heat) this rules out any other explanation. So once we have this explanation there is simply no room left for another explanation and we infer that the dragon explanation is likely false.

    Now, you assert that this same approach applies to the god Gutting is talking about. But you’re not entitled to flatly assert this. If the judeo-christian god is nonphysical and outside the universe, then one possibility is that when it interacts with the universe it does so *behind* the scenes (there may be others). For instance, maybe god guides the evolutionary process by intervening to guide mutations in some undetectable way (Sober argued for this view way back). This type of interaction with the physical world is entirely unlike your dragon example because the interaction is not in the world and in competition with physical events but THROUGH them from behind. So, again, you keep wanting to assimilate the god case to fairies and dragons in ways that beg the question by assuming all interaction must be on the basis of some model you have not argued for at all.

    Now, there may indeed be concerns one can raise at this point about such a view. I’m not saying that there are no concerns with such an account. What I’m saying is that such arguments will not make appeal to your “success of science” induction and will have to be on very different grounds. (cheers)

  100. #100 MNb
    January 29, 2013

    @Couchloc: “I don’t see how the second sentence follows from the first.”
    Quite obvious. The universe is not transcendent by definition. So messing around with it can’t be done with transcendetal means, unless those means don’t have non transcendal consequences. In that case we won’t notice, can happily ignore them en call ourselves atheists.

    “not one you could know scientifically”
    Of course not. That’s why we non transcendental humans will never notice if some god is influencing the universe by pure transcendental means.

    “when it interacts with the universe”
    Either this has physical consequences and Eric will ask about his fairies and dragons or it hasn’t and we can act like this interaction doesn’t take place – call ourselves atheists. Once again this doesn’t prove atheism, but it means there is no fundamental difference between atheism and agnosticism.

    @Ca Alors: “A nonphysical transcendent entity doesn’t need to be outside the universe. And it can be as well immanent.”
    That’s irrelevant wordplay. In this case “outside the universe” doesn’t necessarily refer to a spacial feature. After all a transcendental space doesn’t have to have space. But if a nonphysical transcendental entity, immanent or not, has space it belongs at least partly to the universe itself and the question rises: why don’t we notice? And we’re back at Eric’s fairies.

    “I think we all experience subjectively God”
    And here we have the arrogant believer again, who knows better what I experience than I myself. This perfectly illustrates the major failure of christianity – it preaches humility but leads to arrogance.

    @Michael F: that same point has been made by the Dutch theologian Klaas Hendrikse.

  101. #101 eric
    January 29, 2013

    Couchloc

    then one possibility is that when it interacts with the universe it does so *behind* the scenes (there may be others). For instance, maybe god guides the evolutionary process by intervening to guide mutations in some undetectable way (Sober argued for this view way back).

    Okay, so you hypothesize God acts in undetectable ways. I hypthesize a different being that acts in undetectable ways. Maybe I hypothesize a million of them. Why do you give more credence to one single God hypothesis than the one (or many) non-God hypothesis? Shouldn’t we be equally dismissive of both?

    That’s my main point. I’m going ot quibble now, but if you have limited time, I’d much rather you dealt with the main point rather than the following. I think you are mischaracterizing mainstream Christianity’s God and that the being you are agnostic about no longer really resembles what a mainstream believer calls “God.” When someone claims a miracle-working person rose from the dead, they are not asserting a God that works merely in the noise of our detectors. To use your words, that is a god that very clearly interacts in competition with other physical forces. So, a question and suggestion: are you agnostic about the sort of god that (is claimed to) sometimes bodily walk the earth, having a physical, measurable impact, and doing things like rising from the dead? If the answer is yes, then my suggestion is you’d better also be agnostic towards fairies or be prepared to be labeled as irrationally biased. If the answer is no (you are not agnostic towards that type of god, but atheist), then my suggestion is: when some Christian asks you if you’re agnostic or atheist, the answer that best reflects your opinion on theirtype of god is “atheist.” Answering “agnostic” when you know exactly the sort of god they are talking about and knowing you dismiss such an entity with the same force you dismiss a fairy, is to respond somewhat disingenuously to them.

  102. #102 MNb
    January 30, 2013

    “God acts in undetectable ways:
    And my point is this: if they are undetectable ánd the universe is non transcendental this means these ways don’t have physical consequences (or we could detect them), so we can safely ignore them and call ourselves atheists.
    This is an additon to Eric, not a contradictiion.
    The inevitable conclusion is that it’s rational to call yourself a philosopihical agnost (not existing has not been proven beyond doubt), but an atheist in practice. That’s exactly what I decided to do about 25 years ago; nothing changed for me. I didn’t need to come out of any closet nor suffered from repercussions. I doubt if anyone noticed the difference.
    But that might be because I’m Dutch.

  103. #103 eric
    January 30, 2013

    Mnb:

    : And my point is this: if they are undetectable ánd the universe is non transcendental this means these ways don’t have physical consequences (or we could detect them),

    I believe Sober (and Couchloc) are talking about God interfering with stochastic processes but so rarely that we could not determine from the result that any interference has taken place. While such interference is detectable in principle, its impossble in practice because there are just too many such events to watch. Example; altering the outcome of one throw of the craps dice in Vegas per month. That would certainly have a measurable effect, but we couldn’t detect the deviation from randomness based on results alone. Another example: giving a single person cancer. Again, hypothetically detectable (if every single human spent their life living in an MRI), but not detectable based merely on cancer rate or prevalence.

    Such a god is at least consistent with our observations of the world. Not supported by evidence, but consistent. But it certainly isn’t what most people consider to be Yahweh, and it may not even be a scientific hypothesis, because it skirts pretty close to the edge of unfalsifiable/untestable.

    so we can safely ignore them and call ourselves atheists.

    Here I agree. There is no rationale for being agnostic towards un-evidenced entities that do nothing. There is even less rationale to be agnostic towards one of them but not any of the others.

  104. #104 Ça alors!
    January 30, 2013

    MNb
    (I wrote) “I think we all experience subjectively God”

    And here we have the arrogant believer again, who knows better what I experience than I myself. This perfectly illustrates the major failure of christianity – it preaches humility but leads to arrogance.

    I said I think, not that I was sure. And this way of seeing God has nothing to do with christianity. This is more oriental. And from what I can tell, if you are able to say this about God
    - that it is not exterior to you, that it is a “no-thing” that can only be seen when the ego is removed – it is because you did a hard and long training where arrogance is something that would prevent you to reach that goal.

  105. #105 MNb
    January 31, 2013

    What you write only make things worse, Ca Alors – so not only christianity is a failure, but your more oriental nonsense as well. Whether you think you know what I experience or are sure, you display arrogance.

  106. #106 MNb
    January 31, 2013

    @Eric: “Such a god is at least consistent”
    I can imagine fairies in your backyard with the same consistency, who have in principle measurable but in practice undetectable effects on your plants and grass. Then we are back at were you started.

  107. #107 eric
    January 31, 2013

    I can imagine fairies in your backyard with the same consistency

    Yes, that is my main point in arguing with Couchloc. The characteristics he describes still allow for many possible entities. Its irrational to be agnostic towards one but not the others. One should dismiss them all with equal force – whether that’s not much force (agnosticism) or great force (atheism).

  108. #108 Ça alors!
    January 31, 2013

    Mnb
    No way nowhere I’m commenting about your experience. I’m just saying that some people do change their default mode of perception we commonly share. I don’t think and act like a deer or an ant because I’m human. Being human implies that you and I share common biological and cultural conditions. Those conditions aren’t absolute. And you could see that on another level if you would learn to do it the way oriental traditions teach. By doing so, you could also see that your mode of perception is a dual, egotic mode, based on opposites and discontinuity, and that this mode leads us to think in a certain way that is more limited than we believe…

    But who knows, maybe I’m already talking to someone who knows better than me what I’m talking about…

    Let’s forget about this…

  109. #109 MNb
    January 31, 2013

    @Ca Alors: you can deny it as much as you like with phrases like
    “No way nowhere I’m commenting about your experience”

    but you wrote
    “I think we all experience subjectively God”.
    and that “we all” obviously includes me. While I don’t take offense I would appreciate it if you withdrew it. The second quote simply doesn’t apply to me in any interpretation and I’d rather have you accept that. Then I’m immediately ready to forget about this.
    I don’t know what you are talking about with your oriental stuff and I don’t understand how this applies to the first quote. Neither am I interested. So I’m not going to comment on that part.
    I just get itchy when debating partners try to create an atmosphere of harmony with “we all” phrases without asking me if I’d like to join the party. Blame it on my nasty character; I don’t feel like joining “we all”. I can expand this much more, but I’m afraid already that I’ve bored everybody to death.

    Now back on topic:

    The god our agnostic friends don’t know about anyhow isn’t the god of Biologos:

    http://biologos.org/questions/category/gods-action-in-the-natural-world

    He/she/it is directly interfering with the universe, like Eric’s fairies are dealing with his beloved flowers. So it looks like our agnostic friends have the same attitude to this liberal-christian god as we atheists.
    Once again: this doesn’t make agnosticism invalid, but separating agnosticism from atheism doesn’t make sense. I suspect that applies to all religions bar pastafarianism, which has gone to great lengths to make itself unfalsifiable. If any god matches the in principle measurable but in practice undetectable god it’s TFM.

  110. #110 Ça alors!
    February 1, 2013

    Well, if you are not familiar with the oriental perspective on God, I understand why you are saying what you are saying. My “we” implied that “we” all feel like “we” are distinct and separated from each other. And because of this egotic veil, “we” can’t see that all the different “we”s are just one big “I”, an uncreated awareness that is experienced subjectively through anything that is conscious. That you would be aware of this or not wouldn’t change anything to its reality. In other words, it wouldn’t be “God’s” problem if you can’t realize that your “I” is just a projection, even if you would certainly be glad to know why your mind built that “I”, why the ego has to stand in God’s way … So of course, we are far here from Biologos, christianity (but not Meister Eckhart), and all the dual logic behind questions like: how can a divinity interfere with the exterior world if it has to be outside it..? That kind of reasoning is caused by our default mode of thinking and we don’t even realize we are trapped in a logic that sets artificial conceptual absolutes that don’t exist by themselves…

    Like I already wrote, when it comes tho mysticism, religions become much more similar because of the concrete experience and training it requires. That being said, you are maybe not aware that buddhism is considered like an atheist religion, atheist because there is no separated exterior God in buddhism. But still, the “uncreated nothing” that is pursued in buddhism is far from the nihilist atheist perspective. No such thing can exist accordingly to buddhism, that is a projection of our dualistic mode of thinking that naturally opposes existence to non-existence. Nirvana is beyond the opposites by which we grasp the world. Escaping that natural given dualism is what mysticism is all about in the end, no matter the tradition who teaches it.

  111. #111 Deepak Shetty
    February 1, 2013

    @eric
    One should dismiss them all with equal force – whether that’s not much force (agnosticism) or great force (atheism).
    Which I agree with.
    But you should note that stating you must dismiss God with the same force as Santa Claus is logically incorrect. You are making specific testable assertions with respect to Santa Claus – that you cannot make for a potential creator of the universe who exists outside of it.

  112. #112 Michael Fugate
    February 1, 2013

    How do you know it exists outside the universe?
    How do you know anything about gods at all?

  113. #113 eric
    February 1, 2013

    Deepak:

    But you should note that stating you must dismiss God with the same force as Santa Claus is logically incorrect. You are making specific testable assertions with respect to Santa Claus – that you cannot make for a potential creator of the universe who exists outside of it.

    I didn’t compare God to Santa Claus – you did. Go look through the thread if you don’t believe me. But sure, I’ll accept that a deist type god is “merely” lacking evidence while a theist type god may have associated claims that actually contradict evidence. When that happens, nonbelief in the atheist type god is stronger.

    But you should also, rationally, treat every deist-type being with the same level of dismissal. What I argue is that you and Chouch and others don’t really do that. So, if you are agnostic about your potential creator who exists outside the universe , you should be equally agnostic about multiple creators that exist outside the universe. About dumb creators who etc.About nonsentient creators who etc. About evil creators who etc. About warring pantheons of creators who etc.

    Are you? When someone asks you about nyarlathotep (a nonsentient creator concept) or about the idea of groups of dumb-ass demigods who exist outside the universe warring against each other, do you accept that possibility with the same level of acceptance you accept your notion of God?

    I think you’re probably going to dismiss those ideas out of hand. You are pragmatically atheist about them. But they are no better than your idea of God. I think what you have is a cultural bias that makes you want to treat this one idea with less skepticism than you might treat others that have equivalent absence of support.

  114. #114 Orac
    February 2, 2013

    That’s pretty much how I feel when I read essays written by agnostics. By all means make whatever arguments it amuses you to make for not taking a stand on the God question. But please stop acting like you’re soooooo superior.

    Funny, that’s exactly the same feeling I get when I read posts like this by atheists attacking agnostics for being squishy wimps, too afraid to “take a stand.” It’s an obvious, “I know you are but what am I?” retort, I know, but it fits so well that it must be said.

  115. #115 Michael Fugate
    February 2, 2013

    Orac, thank you for that insightful comment. i understand the agnostic position so much better now.