OK, so someone sent me a copy of The God Delusion and I have to say, I’m not impressed. Let’s get this straight, it’s not a work of science, but of philosophy. Dawkins is making a rhetorical case, not a logical or scientific one, that God is a hypothesis that can be tested and found wanting. I’ll talk about that later. What I want to deal with now is his claim that agnosticism is a weak and bad philosophical position.
A technical point. Dawkins says that a deist is someone who thinks God is deus absconditus – a creator who once acted and now sits back uninvolved in the world. As far as history is concerned, a deist is someone who thinks that God does not need revelation to be known. This is perhaps a fine distinction, but a deist need not think God is uninvolved, only that He (She, It) acts in a consistent manner, and that the laws of Nature express the nature of God.
But his discussion of agnosticism is just bad. He falls into the fallacy of black and white thinking (false dichotomy), that there are only two alternatives here – to believe in God or to deny God. And his argument relies upon overgeneralisation. If one God belief has been shown to be contrary to facts, that does not mean that all have. Spinoza’s god is not shown to be false just because Oral Roberts’ God has been.
I’ll begin by distinguishing two kinds of agnosticism. TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, is the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack the evidence to reach it (or don’t understand the evidence, or haven’t time to read the evidence, etc.). TAP would be a reasonable stance towards the Permian extinction. There is a truth out there and one day we hope to know it, though for the moment we don’t.
But there is also a deeply inescapable kind of fence-sitting, which I shall call PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle). The fact that the acronym spells a word used by that old school preacher is (almost) accidental. The PAP style of agnosticism is appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable. The question exists on a different plane, or in a different dimension, beyond the zones where evidence can reach.
Okay, I’m happy to distinguish these two. A temporary agnosticism is justified when the evidence is not in, and a permanent agnosticism is justified when there is no evidence that can count one way or the other. Then, however, he says:
Philosophers cite this question as one that can never be answered, no matter what new evidence might one day become available. And some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced – too eagerly in my view – that the question of God’s existence belongs in the forever inaccessible PAP category. From this, as we shall see, they often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of God’s existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right.
And this is not true at all. The philosophical agnosticism I adhere to does not say anything about probabilities at all. It says, instead, that nothing can count for or against either position decisively. Probabilities are based in this case on prior assumptions – one uses Bayes’ theorem to determine whether or not the hypothesis under test is likely to be true, given other assumptions we already accept. And here is where the problem lies – which assumptions? To adopt and restrict one’s priors to scientific assumptions is question begging. You in effect eliminate any other conceptual presuppositions from being in the game. This has a name in philosophy – positivism. It is the (empirically unsupportable) claim that only scientific arguments can be applied. As Popper noted, this is self-refuting. You cannot prove the basic premise of your argument that only provable (or, let’s be generous, supportable) claims should be accepted. As this is not a supportable claim in itself, you have contradicted your own position.
Dawkins is being a positivist. Now positivism is not an incoherent view if taken as a personal set of prior assumptions, but it certainly cannot be used non-circularly to reject the arguments of others. If (say) John Henry Newman has priors that make a God hypothesis likely, how can Dawkins reject those priors without begging the question? All he can say is that if you take his particular view of scientific rigour on board, they are unnecessary.
An agnostic says that since one can make God likely or unlikely by shifting one’s priors appropriately, at the level of metadiscourse there is nothing that can decide between them. As it happens, I share most of Dawkins’ assumptions about how knowledge is gained, and it does seem to me that God is unnecessary in scientific reasoning, but I cannot show, nor can he or anyone else, that scientific reasoning is all that should or can ever be employed. And that is not “fence sitting” but a recognition of the limits of this kind of metalevel argument.
Of course as an agnostic I behave as if there were no God. I also behave as if there were no Invisible Pink Unicorn, or personal angels. But that doesn’t make me a fence sitter – all I am doing is admitting that, at the level of philosophical discourse, I can neither affirm nor reject these entities, and that what makes them likely or unlikely depends crucially on the priors that one accepts. He says:
…agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.
It is true that either [a] god exists or not. There is no middle ground for existence. But it is not a scientific question, and all the examples he gives are not commensurate with the existence of a deity. That we can tell what the chemical composition of minerals is now, is a very different issue from whether there is a God, or at least, a God whose existence makes no empirical difference.
Let’s look at that last claim – a deity whose existence involves acceptance of the claim that the world is flat, or that stars are lights in the firmament is falsified by science. But a deity whose existence does not imply this is not, and believers are free to distinguish between the theological claims made in their scriptures and the “allegorical” language used or the cultural context of the writers of that scripture. This is formally analogous to the truth of moral claims. Whether it is true or not that murder is evil is in no way either proven or disproven by the behaviour of animals in the wild. The biological facts are not moral facts (a mistake often made, though, and which has been given a name: The Naturalistic Fallacy). It would be a silly argument that murder is OK, because it happens in animals (and humans are animals) and has been shown to be true scientifically. That’s a domain confusion. Moral truths (if they exist) are not founded on scientifically verifiable facts. Likewise, claims that a God exists are not, in the abstract, defeasible by empirical data, nor by probability assignments that exclude any desiderata that aren’t scientific.
Agnosticism is a form of skepticism, but one here not about evidence or practical worth. It is a skepticism about the very ability of philosophy and science to resolve the conceptual issue. I like to express it this way: a question that merely has the form of an interrogative, but which admits of no answer even in principle, is not a question. And the existence of God is such a question. The Proofs of God that Dawkins reviews in the book are not decisive, true. Neither are the Disproofs of God. Dawkins is confusing personal conviction with formal demonstrability. He may be convinced there is no God. But he cannot demonstrate that. At best he can set up the dialectic conditions in which his conclusion is shown to be justified. But, and here’s the kicker, so can theists. It’s all about what prior assumptions you feed into Bayes’ Theorem.
I suspect that what bothers Dawkins and other atheists who insist that agnosticism is “weak atheism” is that agnosticism is a hard position to maintain; it is vulnerable to instability and often adherents will find themselves “backsliding” (foresliding?) into theism or deism, sensu lato. The way I have reconciled it with my other beliefs is to become what is jocularly referred to as “apathetic agnosticism” (don’t know, don’t care). Sure, I act as if there were no gods. I also act as if there were. Neither position has any effect upon my moral, social and epistemic commitments. If there is a God, then I expect that I will change my epistemic content when that becomes testable, if ever. But in our present state of knowledge and capacities, until a Deoscope is invented, the issue has only the form of a question. It’s rather like asking “Is there a blurg?” The question is meaningless.
Back in the 1950s, a famous essay was written by Antony Flew, entitled “Theology and falsification”. In this, Flew considers an invisible undetectable gardener posited by someone trying to explain the order of a patch of plants. Flew asks the same question Dawkins does – what would falsify the existence of God, and concludes that if nothing will, then the assertion that there is a God is meaningless. But this also imports priors (in this case, the quasipositivistic metaphysics that only falsifiable claims are meaningful, something Popper did not hold). A theist might reply – a life that lacked meaning would falsify God (for me). Is this a scientific matter? I think not.
It is my view that agnosticism is the only viable metalevel hypothesis about God[s]. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think atheists are justified in disbelieving – just that I also don’t think that theists are unjustified. Justification of these claims is something that depends entirely on the game one is personally playing.
That said, let’s briefly look at NOMA (non-overlapping magisterial authorities, posited by Gould as a way to let theologians have something of their own that science cannot assail). I think that theology as I learned it is not a subject so much as a tradition of discourse within a faith community. And it simply isn’t true that science and theology have, or could have if everybody just calmed down, distinct non-overlapping fields of responsibility. Science and religion have always been elbowing each other for space on the dance floor, and probably always will, so long as scientists insist on doing theology and theologians insist on doing science. But it’s not a war of all against all – the bulk of both disciplines are distinct and known to be distinct by the protagonists. John Hedley Brooke has shown that the relation between science and religion, though sometimes hot, was not always competitive. Basically, it boils down to whether a theologian or religious leader makes claims that are empirically defeasible, or whether a scientist makes claims that are not. While I agree with Dawkins that NOMA is inherently false, both historically and conceptually, though, it remains true that there is a special subject of scientific investigation, and a special domain of theology, and the two do not overlap however much the periphery is contested.
And that’s what’s wrong with Dawkins’ claim that God is a testable hypothesis. He’s trying to claim the central domain of theology for science. It can’t be done, and still be doing science. By all means conclude that there is no evidence for God in empirical terms. By all means make the philosophical claim that one has no need for God in science. Even claim that science is all the philosophy one needs. Don’t think this proves anything, though, for it doesn’t…
Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives: Cambridge University Press, 1991.