Evolving Thoughts

What is an agnostic?

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.

Dawkins says:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 John Pieret
    October 26, 2006

    You are on some roll.

    I could never have said it that well … until now.

  2. #2 Ian H Spedding
    October 27, 2006

    Again, well said.

    Agnosticism is routinely dismissed – not least by atheists like Dawkins – as a weak and ineffectual position. More specifically, they mean that it is impotent in the political struggle against the conservative wings of Christianity and Islam. But is this true?

    As we know, Huxley wrote of his newly-coined term:

    When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” — had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.[...]So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic”. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant;…

    In other words, Huxley was, in one sense, trying to distinguish his position of uncertainty from claims of complete knowledge made by various religious traditions.

    And this, to me, is where agnosticism could become an effective political strategy.

    Atheism is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as opposing one form of certainty – that of belief in God – with another – that of denying the existence of such a God.

    Agnosticism, on the other hand, could be presented as a reasoned rejection of all forms of unjustified certainty. Atheism is more narrowly-focussed on religious belief but and agnostic campaign would be directed not just at religious extremism but any form of political totalitarianism as well. What is that famous scene from the “Knowledge or Certainty” episode of Ascent of Man other than Bronowski’s impassioned statement of such a case?

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    October 27, 2006

    Nah, you haven’t convinced me of anything yet.

    Dawkins does not claim to have proven or disproven anything, so that end of the argument seems entirely irrelevant.

    You say he’s trying to claim the central domain of theology for science; yet above that you define theology as “a tradition of discourse within a faith community”. You think he’s trying to seize a tradition of discourse from the faith community? Or is there some other central domain you’re talking about?

    You seem to be playing games with what god is. You say he’s not going to be able to touch “a God whose existence makes no empirical difference”…well, yeah, and who cares? This hypothetical god who doesn’t do anything doesn’t seem to be a pressing interest for either atheists or theists. Is that the god of agnostics?

  4. #4 Julia
    October 27, 2006

    Well-said!

  5. #5 Dave Carlson
    October 27, 2006

    Wow. That was an excellent post. While I consider myself an atheist, I have not been impressed by what I have of Dawkin’s latest book (the first half or so), and agree with many of your criticisms of it (although I would not have had the ability to express them as you did). Nicely done!

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    October 27, 2006

    Oh, come on, Ian. Have you read the book? He specifically explains that atheism is not about certainty.

    My objection to agnosticism is that it is effectively nothing but a political term…rather like “brights”, a way to avoid the negative connotations of the word atheism. Atheists do not claim absolute knowledge; they claim that there is no evidence for a deity, and that gods are most unlikely and illogical things. When people claim an agnostic is just an atheist without the certainty, they are mangling the term “atheist” to take the same position that atheists do, but under an assumed name.

  7. #7 GW
    October 27, 2006

    Some serious doubletalk going on here. The mental aerobics required to maintain your viewpoint must be exhausting.

    Don’t think this proves anything, though, for it doesn’t…

    Maybe that’s why Dawkins says God *almost* certainly does not exist.

  8. #8 Davis
    October 27, 2006

    Atheism is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as opposing one form of certainty – that of belief in God – with another – that of denying the existence of such a God.

    It really annoys me when people conflate certainty with knowledge, especially in discussing atheism. I can know something without being certain of it — those are two different epistemological categories. In fact, I know a lot of things, yet I would not claim certainty about most of them (mathematical statements are perhaps the only ones I would claim certainty for, and even those could be debatable).

    Atheism is a claim to knowledge, not certainty.

  9. #9 Nova
    October 27, 2006

    I agree with PZ Myers. The God which forces the position of agnosticism is a non-acting entity (expect, perhaps at the beginning of time). But the atheism of Dawkins is perfectly suited for the God believed by a large majority of the humans. The God that allegedly *has* an impact on our physical world.

  10. #10 Katie
    October 27, 2006

    Pardon an amateur’s interjection here, Davis, but if one can’t be certain that God does not exist, it puts atheists in a mighty risky metaphysical position – one which opens the door to Pascal’s wager, and enabling the half-hearted theism of millions or billions worldwide. If atheism claims that the non-existence of God is uncertain knowledge, then anyone claiming to possess a method for (some kind of) certainty has an edge, logical, philosophical, valid or not – and in a world of poorly or uneducated billions, it’s no-contest between unevaluated certainty and unevaluated uncertainty when the whole of existence is at stake. (I say unevaluated to suggest that most theists do not or cannot bother themselves with the nature of certainty). Is this the best humanity can hope for, given the nature of things, and the nature of philosophy and logic and knowledge? I don’t think so.

    To me, the whole question of the existence of supernatural-anythings boils down to a question of concept validity. We have loads of concepts, and among more mundane concepts, we recognize valid ones and invalid ones. Bunnies vs. Easter bunnies, chemistry vs. alchemy. Is the same possible for less mundane concepts? Yes. It’s all a question of standards for knowledge. And these standards are prior to the more specific questions and topics of science, so I’d agree with John (and others) who say that you can’t refute God on the basis of science. Quantum theory or evolution or materials science will never, in principle, touch the concept of God, though they can be co-opted willy-nilly once the God decision has been made.

    But you can refute God with what underlies science – that is, with standards of knowledge. The standards then determine what is a valid concept, and what isn’t, no matter how abstract or grandiose it claims to be. So, for example, if Nature is existence regarded as a system of interconnected entities governed by law, that is, acting and interacting in accordance with their identities – then the supernatural is a form of existence beyond existence – one or more things beyond entity-hood – a something beyond identity.

    How then, would you know it? You can’t. All knowledge is ultimately derived from perceived reality (developmentally and logically), and the regularities perceived or discovered in it, in which entities convey their identities. Any concept that invalidates that which is perceptually self-evident (i.e. I am conscious; existence *is*), is itself invalid. If we give it validity, out of generosity or laziness or ignorance, then we have severed the tie between consciousness and reality, the single tie that makes consciousness possible and powerful (although, philosophically, this is highly secondary to the previous sentence). Any jump of imagination or conceptualization beyond what is correct is certainly possible – but imagination is by itself no basis for knowledge, obviously.

    I used to have an extremely strong and clear concept of God (and many other souls, since I was Catholic). Strength of vision is not, as Descartes would have it, proof or certainty or a statement about reality beyond your meninges.

    So: I think certainty IS possible – within a specified context. (I hold a-contextual certainty to also be an invalid concept). And here I’m specifying as context all my perceptual experiences, and those of all other people whose knowledge and perspectives are available to me. This great summation of concretes we can extend to infinity, like an integral – the sum of all human experience, from zero to infinity (infinity being an epistemological concept, not a metaphysical statement). Within this context, the context that is the basis for building all knowledge, the very concept of God (or ghosts or gremlins or goblins) is in contradiction to the nature of reality and therefore the standards of knowledge. This is the widest possible (conceptually valid) context. Thus I am, for one, an atheist who is certain that God does not exist.

  11. #11 Elizabeth Liddle
    October 27, 2006

    Excellent.

    My two pence: it seems we cannot falsify the proposition that God exists by the scientific method, or at least not all God-propositions can be so falsified. To that extent the domains of theology and science do not overlap. However, we can evaluate the utility of the proposition, just as we can evaluate the utility of Newtonian physics, and conclude it is useful, despite the fact that we know it does not explain all the data.

    I’d argue that the proposition that free will exists cannot be falsified any more than the proposition that God exists can be falsified. And yet free will as a model has proven utility (those who lack belief in their own self-efficacy tend to become deeply non-functional). And while I’d argue that some God-models also produce dysfunction, others are extremely empowering – for good. And who is to say that something that empowers us for good “does not exist”?

  12. #12 MartinM
    October 27, 2006

    An agnostic says that since one can make God likely or unlikely by shifting one’s priors appropriately

    Well, that’s an enormous unsupported assertion, isn’t it? I submit that the only ways to make God likely are a) picking a pathological prior, such that no data will ever change one’s mind, and b) retrofitting one’s theology to match the observed data. Neither is good Bayesian analysis.

    I don’t see any other way one can formulate a God hypothesis without it falling to a truly massive Occam factor.

  13. #13 david1947
    October 27, 2006

    This whole discussion is irrelevant except to the degree that we choose to make it relevant. Bear with me.

    It is impossible to hold meaningful discourse on some concept without first establishing and agreeing upon the base axioms, theorems, and lemmas involved. There are many concepts around that fundamentally fail to provide such bases, and of those the concept embodied in the word “God” has to be the most egregious.

    First, on the subject of falsifiability. This is a core concept of the Scientific Method, and refers to the possibilty of conducting an experiment that demostrates incontrovertibly that some hypothesis cannot be supported by reality. Another core concept of the SM is that this universe operates according to a regular set of describable mechanical laws (mechanical in the sense that they are enumerable and operable, by which definition quantum mechanics and “spooky action at a distance” qualify). The pursuit of Science is an exercise in elucidating those laws. By definition, then, supernatural agencies are excluded from the search, and Scientific Method cannot be used to dissect/analyse/falsify a concept that originates outside its expressed domain. So both atheists such as Dawkins and theists such as the ID folks are SOL trying to apply Scientific Method to the question of the existence or otherwise of “God”.

    Second: “God”. I have yet to find two people who actually agree in all respects on what they mean by the word, once you get them past their dogma. The most cogent comment I’ve encountered about that is “well, you’ll have to look inside ypurself for what satisfies you”. John C. Lilly gave me a useful idea: “god: that which mysteriously determines your experience of life”. Note the lower-case ‘g’.

    Third: Epistemology: Since my mind is housed in a machine that is smaller than the universe (I consider this axiomatic for the moment), I know (Kurt Godel proved it) that I cannot in my mind model in detail even just myself, let alone the Universe. Positing that the word “knowledge” refers to the combination of both information and how to use it, then, I have to accept that I cannot actually be certain – i.e. know – about anything that I perceive from the outside world, nor most of what occurs internally, and most certainly not about the inner experience of another human being. I have to assume this is true for everybody else. The only recourse I have to dealing with the world is via simplifications and approximations and generalizations. I am successful at this to the extent that I can avoid bad things and find good things. And survive to tell the tale.

    So, how to summarize and conclude? “god” is the label for a class of concept which can have only personal meaning. Approximating some measure of agreement with my fellow beings can help one’s sense of community, but as a concept class it is used to explain away (note: not predict) those external forces for which I have no other functional model. Therefore I can not actually have anything to say to anyone else about the existence or non-existence of “God”. So none of those four labels – (a)theist or (a)gnostic – apply, since It cannot be spoken of in such terms. Whether or not I hold any beliefs on the matter can be of no significance to anybody else, nor theirs to me, since at root we would not be talking about the same idea.

    So I must be a member of the fifth column. Which has to be another story.

    Fill in the holes. I know there are many. Books worth indeed. But getting here removed a lot of stress from _my_ life.

  14. #14 John Pieret
    October 27, 2006

    … retrofitting one’s theology to match the observed data …

    Like how the theory of evolution has been modified to take into account new data, such as genetics?

  15. #15 John Pieret
    October 27, 2006

    You seem to be playing games with what god is. You say he’s not going to be able to touch “a God whose existence makes no empirical difference”…well, yeah, and who cares?

    Believers.

    Just because you (and I) find empiric evidence the only compeling evidence doesn’t mean others have to. That is what (I think) John is saying when he says Dawkins is trying to claim the central domain of theology for science. “Ruling” that empiric evidence is the only admissible evidence in theological discourse is an attempt to turn theology into science (of a sort), which (rightly) appears silly and aggressive to theists given their priors.

  16. #16 MartinM
    October 27, 2006

    Like how the theory of evolution has been modified to take into account new data, such as genetics?

    No.

  17. #17 ChuckO
    October 27, 2006

    I agree with david1947, especially on the point of defining what is meant by “god”. I don’t really believe that it is possible to give a coherent definition of the term and I’ve certainly never seen one. In that case, discussions about the existence of god don’t really make any sense and, when someone asks me if I believe in god, I just smile. If they press me on the issue, then I tell them that I can’t really make any sense of what they’re talking about.

    This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a spiritual dimension to human existence. There most certainly is. Even as a child, I would get this incredible feeling of being part of something so much larger when I looked up at the stars in the night sky. To make the leap from such feelings to positing the existence of god says more about how the human brain works than it does about anything else.

  18. #18 Phil Thrift
    October 27, 2006

    ChuckD: “This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a spiritual dimension to human existence. There most certainly is.”

    I was thinking: is this one of the ten or eleven dimensions in string theory?

    But I think it may be harder to believe that there is such a thing than to believe there is a God (who could be material).

  19. #19 Thony C.
    October 27, 2006

    “I know (Kurt Godel proved it) that I cannot in my mind model in detail even just myself, let alone the Universe”

    He didn’t prove anything of the sort! I find it fascinating what people claim Goedel did or did not prove. Very, very seldom are they even remotely right!Come on Dave1947 have you ever read Goedel’s original paper?

  20. #20 Orac
    October 27, 2006

    Nice post.

    I too found Dawkins’ dismissal of agnosticism to be perhaps the weakest part of his book.

  21. #21 bob koepp
    October 27, 2006

    I think discussion of these issues would benefit if people gave some serious consideration to a point John makes about the cognitive status of positivist assumptions. In a similar vein, while it’s true that attempts to define ‘god’ seem always to be problematic, we should have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that ‘matter’ is a similarly slippery “metaphysical” concept that can’t be reduced to a nice, neat set of “protocol sentences.” This isn’t an argument for either theism or materialism — just an observation about the shaky foundations of all our knowledge.

  22. #22 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 27, 2006

    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…

    Interesting, I have only ever encountered the definition that Dawkins is using.

    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.

    A great many people over the centuries have had trouble differentiating Spinoza’s god from atheism.
    .
    I do not see that mentioning the great number and variety of god-concepts works in favor of existence. It reinforces the impression that every believer invents his/her own god(s), and weaknes the impression that there is any underlying truth.

    Katie said:

    Pardon an amateur’s interjection here, Davis, but if one can’t be certain that God does not exist, it puts atheists in a mighty risky metaphysical position – one which opens the door to Pascal’s wager…

    No, the door to Pascal’s wager is blocked by a great number of obstacles. One of them is the plurality of god-concepts. Pascal’s wager does not merit the large volumes of ink spent on it over the centuries.

  23. #23 Phil Thrift
    October 27, 2006

    bob koepp: ” … This isn’t an argument for either theism or materialism — just an observation about the shaky foundations of all our knowledge.”

    Let’s say we don’t know if there is a “spiritual dimension” or a “God”, but we do believe at least in a physical world (even if we can’t know it). One could argue pragmatically: A “God” belief doesn’t buy you anything, and in fact, it could only hurt — that is, one should act as if materialism is true even if it isn’t.

  24. #24 bernarda
    October 27, 2006

    Agnosticism is a sort of atheism lite.

    Sam Harris’s critique of moderate or liberal religioneers can be applied as an analogy. Agnosticism is implicity an enabler of the superstitious.

  25. #25 John Wilkins
    October 27, 2006

    Mustapha, I totally agree about Pascal’s Wager. In first year philosophy of religion I was taught that it fails as a payoff matrix as the number of possible gods rises, and as it approaches infinity (as it must, since all you have to do is map the number of possible gods onto the set of integers, even if only by saying that there are n gods), the probability of any one position being right approaches zero. Unfortunately this also makes the existence of 0 gods equally improbable :-)

    But I would put in a good word for Spinoza here. His god is not an atheistic god by any means. God for him appears to mean the underlying true nature of the universe, yes, but it is more than just the assertion that the universe exists. As I recall (and it’s a while since I read the Ethics) God has infinitely many properties, which the universe doesn’t. God is in effect for him the space of logical possibilities. But I might be recalling it wrongly.

  26. #26 MartinM
    October 27, 2006

    we should have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that ‘matter’ is a similarly slippery “metaphysical” concept that can’t be reduced to a nice, neat set of “protocol sentences.”

    If you’re talking to a classical materialist, sure. If you find one, be sure to let me know.

  27. #27 bob koepp
    October 27, 2006

    Geese, ganders and a basic sense of fairness in all things epistemic prompt the following… Pragmatically speaking, what does the posit of so-called “theoretical entities” buy us? One thing it buys is called “the theoretician’s dilemma.”

    but we digress…

  28. #28 Larry Moran
    October 27, 2006

    For over twenty years I have been arguing against the Dawkins version of evolution. I have pointed out that his assumptions (priors) are unsound; his logic is faulty; his science is over-simplified; and he uses his own unique definitions to support his case.

    Many philosphers have defended the Dawkins version of ultra-Darwinism, ignoring the complaints of other experts in evolutionary biology. Some of these philosophers include Daniel Dennett, Michael Ruse, and Kim Sterelny, but there are many others.

    Now Dawkins publishes a book about philosophy and the philosophers are highly critical. They point out that Dawkins is making unwarranted assumptions, he is over-simplifying, his logic is flawed, and he makes up his own definitions.

    It’s like they have just discovered that the emperor is wearing very few clothes. I’m loving it.

    Now that they’ve seen for themselves how Dawkins constucts an argument it will be interesting to see if the philosphers are prepared to re-evaluate their defense of Dawkins’ science.

    There’s no difference in style between The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker. I happen to agree with his conclusions about religion but that’s almost in spite of, rather than because of, Dawkins’ arguments.

    Nevertheless, there is much of value in The God Delusion just as there are occasional snippits of good stuff in The Blind Watchmaker.

    One of the good things is the attack on agnosticism. I agree with John’s philosophical position, but so does Richard Dawkins. He’s very clear about this on page 51 when he identifies himself with the position of agnostic but de facto atheist. He says, “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

    We all know the importance of avoiding the trap where you claim to be able to prove a negative. That’s a fine position in a philosophy class but in the real world you have to make choices. Either you take your children to synagogue on Saturdays or you don’t. If you walk like an atheist, act like an atheist, and talk like an atheist, then, for God’s sake, don’t call yourself an agnostic. :-)

  29. #29 John Farrell
    October 27, 2006

    Excellent post, John–and great comments too.

  30. #30 John Pieret
    October 27, 2006

    I agree with John’s philosophical position, but so does Richard Dawkins … he identifies himself with the position of agnostic but de facto atheist. … If you walk like an atheist, act like an atheist, and talk like an atheist, then, for God’s sake, don’t call yourself an agnostic.

    Then shouldn’t that be “If you walk like an agnostic, act like an agnostic, and talk like an agnostic, then, for God’s sake, don’t call yourself an atheist? ;-)

  31. #31 jeffw
    October 27, 2006

    Then shouldn’t that be “If you walk like an agnostic, act like an agnostic, and talk like an agnostic, then, for God’s sake, don’t call yourself an atheist? ;-)

    Nah, you have to take a stand. If we had to formally “prove” everything we think, we couldn’t function. I’m not even sure I can prove that I exist. And playing around with the definition of “god” is not very useful. If god is love, or physical laws, or the set of all possibilities, then no one is an atheist. But we’re talking about the christian/jewish/muslim god here. Even though I can’t prove it, I’m convinced that he doesn’t exist. That makes me an atheist.

    To some extent, the whole question may be cultural. If you were to ask it in ancient rome or greece, they’d say, “God? Don’t you mean Gods?”

  32. #32 John Pieret
    October 27, 2006

    [W]e’re talking about the christian/jewish/muslim god here. Even though I can’t prove it, I’m convinced that he doesn’t exist. That makes me an atheist.

    Besides the fact that we may not all be restricting ourselves merely to the multiple Gods espoused by “the People of the Book,” those of us who don’t feel a need to “take a stand” concerning something we are not “convinced” about should not have to withstand attempts by atheists to dragoon us into your ranks when we don’t share your convictions. It is quite as bad as one minority set of Christians telling the world that all Christians are like them.

  33. #33 jeffw
    October 27, 2006

    should not have to withstand attempts by atheists to dragoon us into your ranks when we don’t share your convictions.

    Well, we all have the right to free speech, but in general I agree. If you are actually undecided on the existence of such gods, then you are truly agnostic. My argument is with those who would alter or obscure commonly understood definitions of God, so that they can call themselves agnostic, rather than atheist. If you cannot clearly define the word God, then words atheist, theist, and agnostic have no meaning.

  34. #34 Uber
    October 27, 2006

    Number one Dawkins is not wrong and I feel you are not fully understanding his point as another poster has mentioned.

    I do think science has a allot of say in all matters of theology especially those who make real world claims. Now on the existence of a God there seems to be no evidence so I do feel one can be as Dawkins has said agnostic to the idea but functionally a ‘weak’ atheist.

    I don’t understand John Pieret’s position at all however, it seems he argues against a word rather than an idea as if being an atheist is a bad thing. It’s a line of thought. Big Deal.

  35. #35 PZ Myers
    October 27, 2006

    Then shouldn’t that be “If you walk like an agnostic, act like an agnostic, and talk like an agnostic, then, for God’s sake, don’t call yourself an atheist? ;-)

    Nah. “Agnostic” is the johnny-come-lately neologism. If we’re going to follow the fads, why not just call ourselves “Brights”?

  36. #36 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 27, 2006

    In first year philosophy of religion I was taught that it fails as a payoff matrix as the number of possible gods rises, and as it approaches infinity (as it must, since all you have to do is map the number of possible gods onto the set of integers, even if only by saying that there are n gods), the probability of any one position being right approaches zero. Unfortunately this also makes the existence of 0 gods equally improbable :-)

    Compare to:

    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…

    ;^)

  37. #37 John Pieret
    October 27, 2006

    I don’t understand John Pieret’s position at all however, it seems he argues against a word rather than an idea as if being an atheist is a bad thing. It’s a line of thought. Big Deal.

    Oh, good. We can just call you a failed theist then, instead of an atheist. No big deal, right?

    In fact, I think there is a real difference between an atheist and an agnostic (which John so excellently set out) and I do not think I am a “weak atheist”. While I don’t consider “atheist” is an insult, I resent being, in effect, told that I don’t know my own mind.

  38. #38 John Wilkins
    October 27, 2006

    Mustapha, my first comment is about Pascal’s Wager. The second comment is about epistemic assertion. I don’t think Pascal’s Wager is worth much. But I do think that one can neither demonstrably affirm nor deny the existence of Gods, in ways that have nothing to do with Pascal’s Wager.

  39. #39 Pete K
    October 27, 2006

    An agnostic is literally someone “without knowledge”. Maybe such knowledge is impossible anyway?

    “It’s rather like asking “Is there a blurg?” The question is meaningless….” Yes it’s meaningless because blurgs and gods are human terms. One of the reasons you don’t hear atheists/theists/agnostics/pantheists defining Gods is that gods may be impossible to define, since gods are by definiton “beyond” reality, and when we define something, even “Platonic entities” such as “Wednesdays” and “numbers” talk about it in ordinary, finite, human-invented language, we’re implictly assuming the entity we’re describing is “natural”. It all comes down to defintions. It comes down to the most paradoxical prior possible – that gods can be reduced to a human definition.

    For example, what sense does it make to speak of God existing or not, when God is supposed to be “beyond”, or underpinning existence? Yes it’s influenced by culture. Polytheism, monotheism, therio-theism (animal/human hybrid deities) etc. But they all share a common paradox. When ancient writers referred to deities, they obviously had in mind beings in the sky, or “out there” someplace, but still in this reality, i.e. comprehensible enough to describe. They were “natural” in a sense. They had physical atributes, anthropomoprhic attributes. A supernatural being would be infinitely beyond human (finite) understanding, beyond any “natural” human definiton/logic/human comprehension/description, etc… To even discuss deities drags them to natural domains. And this immediately negates the whole thing.

  40. #40 jeffw
    October 27, 2006

    An agnostic is literally someone “without knowledge”

    I think the word “ignorant” would be a better fit for that.
    According to the american heritage dictionary:

    agnostic (ăg-nŏs’tĭk)
    n.

    1. a. One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God. b. One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.

    2. One who is doubtful or noncommittal about something.

  41. #41 RBH
    October 27, 2006

    John wrote

    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).

    That puts me in mind of a political party I once thought about founding: Apathetic Anarchists. However, I never got my act together well enough to get around to actually do it.

  42. #42 david1947
    October 28, 2006

    Thony C: yes I have. There are several corollaries, but the essential core is: for any given mathematical system, there exist theorems that cannot be proved. The stronger the system, the more this is true. In this sense, a “theorem” is a valid statement in the syntax of the system.

    This can then be equivalenced in various ways.

    One of the first one encounters in a Computer Science course is related to the Halting problem: the application of Godel’s proof is that for any program that claims to evaluate whether or not any other program will halt, one can generate a new program that causes it to fail. This leads to an infinite recursion, causing the evaluation program to not halt.

    Another path leads to the modelling conclusion I used: no computing system can emulate any system equal to or larger than itself. This derives from the expression of the emulation program as a statement in a language of the system that has to at least be able to represent itself. Since any valid statement requires certain meta-statements to be accepted as valid tokens by the system, it can not include itself.

    Another way: the statement that represents any given system will take n bits to represent precisely, therefore any system that is to represent that statement must have at least n bits available for the representation. So it cannot represent itself, or anything larger.

    Thus, since the world includes my brain as a proper subset, it is bigger than my brain, therefore I cannot precisely model the world in my brain since that would require also modelling my own brain. Approximations do not count if one is to have certainty for all events. And the word “Emulation” means to model correctly in _all_ respects. Distinct from “Simulate”, which permits of approximations and is therefore not valid for all cases.

    For fun, I refer you to Douglas Hofstadters classic “Godel, Escher, Bach”. And if you can do the proof in the introduction, let us know. I know a correct formulation of the response. Finding it was one of those glorious “Aha!” moments that set Godel’s theorem viscerally for me for the rest of my life.

  43. #43 david1947
    October 28, 2006

    back on subject: interesting how asserting that there is nothing to discuss because there is no hope of truly common ground is something we humans can talk about all day, is it not? And ignore. And accept approximations as precisions.

    re Godel: “God exists” is a theorem in the English language. That is, it is a syntactically correct formulation of symbols. And it cannot be proved. meaning, there is no sequence of re-write rules in the formalism of the language that can derive “God exists” from the true axioms of the system. Nor can it be proved by negation. But English is a very lax language for this purpose, so proofs in it are weak things anyway. Anybody got any idea what those “true axioms” might be? Inquiring minds wish to know …

    Note that I am saying nothing about my own personal inner experiences of the mystical sort. And what they might be can only be my business, and is pre-verbal ayway.

  44. #44 orangeguru
    October 28, 2006

    Thanks for the posting and interesting discussion. I am not sure I understood everything, but many interesting points have been made. Cheers!

  45. #45 Richard M. Corke
    October 28, 2006

    Just read Bertrand Russell’s why I am not a Christian, and give it up. We are alone here, and that’s ok. Just enjoy life and do good things with it while you have it.

  46. #46 MartinM
    October 28, 2006

    gods are by definiton “beyond” reality

    Which is just a silly way of saying that they don’t exist.

  47. #47 ashaktur
    October 28, 2006

    As to the contrast between agnosticism and atheism, indulge me in a little hypothetical (not a likely one, but that is beside the point):

    Assume that a god (any one will do) appears in front of an agnostic and an atheist. The agnostic was right, the atheist was wrong.

    What is the probability of this event occurring? We don’t know. I assume it is extremely close to zero. I could be wrong. Note also that there is no scenario in which an atheist can ever be proved correct.

    Atheism, like theism, is essentially a position that assumes knowledge that the believer simply does not possess.

  48. #48 Pete K
    October 28, 2006

    “Which is just a silly way of saying that they don’t exist”

    Yes, they don’t exist in the usual, inside-the-box sense of the word, since, by definition, nothing exists beyond reality! Think OUTSIDE the box! We can’t!

    If gods are defined as existing inside this reality, and amenable to measurement, cientific analysis, quantification etc, I’m certainly an atheist. But if you can’t define supernatural beings (which is impossible since “natural” beings we’re using “natural” “inside-the-box” language) then I’m agnostic. Define “god(s)” first before you accept, reject, or aren’t sure about gods!

  49. #49 Robin Levett
    October 28, 2006

    As to the contrast between agnosticism and atheism, indulge me in a little hypothetical (not a likely one, but that is beside the point):

    Assume that a god (any one will do) appears in front of an agnostic and an atheist. The agnostic was right, the atheist was wrong.

    In fact, both are wrong – but in different ways. Think about it.

  50. #50 Robin Levett
    October 28, 2006

    PZ said:

    You seem to be playing games with what god is. You say he’s not going to be able to touch “a God whose existence makes no empirical difference”…well, yeah, and who cares? This hypothetical god who doesn’t do anything doesn’t seem to be a pressing interest for either atheists or theists. Is that the god of agnostics?

    No; it’s the god of a number of Christians on talk.origins, and no doubt elsewhere. Michael and Stanley, frex, have both said that their God is such a god.

    There is a difference between a god whose existence makes no empirical difference – that is, a difference that is in principle detectable from within the universe under discussion – and a god whose existence makes no difference.

  51. #51 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 28, 2006

    Assume that a god (any one will do) appears in front of an agnostic and an atheist. The agnostic was right, the atheist was wrong.
    .
    What is the probability of this event occurring? We don’t know. I assume it is extremely close to zero. I could be wrong. Note also that there is no scenario in which an atheist can ever be proved correct.
    .
    Atheism, like theism, is essentially a position that assumes knowledge that the believer simply does not possess.

    Other games we could play:

    1) Repeat the exercise. Replace “a god” with “invisible pink unicorns” or “orbiting teapot” or “tooth fairy.” See if any of these conceivable entities are granted the same sort of slack that is granted to god(s). God, if he exists, is the most powerful, wisest, most absolutely stupendous being ever. And he needs to have the hurdles lowered? Lame.

    2) Repeat the exercise as originally stated. Do you think the atheist, with a god standing right in front of him, will change his/her mind? If it were me I think I would.

    Now look at the billions of theists who have inhabited this earth with absolutely no credible evidence for the existence of any god. And yet the vast majority of them have not changed their minds. It’s enough to make me believe the human brain is the imperfect product of evolution, not the creation of an almighty being.

  52. #52 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 28, 2006

    3) Assume monkeys fly out of your ******. The disbelief that monkeys could fly out of your ****** is essentially a position that assumes knowledge that the believer simply does not possess.

  53. #53 Ian H Spedding
    October 29, 2006

    Larry Moran wrote:

    One of the good things is the attack on agnosticism. I agree with John’s philosophical position, but so does Richard Dawkins. He’s very clear about this on page 51 when he identifies himself with the position of agnostic but de facto atheist. He says, “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

    So if Dawkins identifies with the position of agnostic, what’s the problem with saying he’s agnostic?

    We all know the importance of avoiding the trap where you claim to be able to prove a negative. That’s a fine position in a philosophy class but in the real world you have to make choices. Either you take your children to synagogue on Saturdays or you don’t. If you walk like an atheist, act like an atheist, and talk like an atheist, then, for God’s sake, don’t call yourself an agnostic. :-)

    Because maybe that doubt, even if it’s just a sliver, is what’s important. Maybe it’s what we need to emphasise in order to immunise us against the arrogance of certainty.

  54. #54 Ian H Spedding
    October 29, 2006

    PZ Myers wrote:

    Oh, come on, Ian. Have you read the book? He specifically explains that atheism is not about certainty.

    I’m waiting for the paperback.

    And, yes, I understand that he isn’t claiming certainty, but that isn’t certainly how he is perceived.

    My objection to agnosticism is that it is effectively nothing but a political term…rather like “brights”, a way to avoid the negative connotations of the word atheism. Atheists do not claim absolute knowledge; they claim that there is no evidence for a deity, and that gods are most unlikely and illogical things. When people claim an agnostic is just an atheist without the certainty, they are mangling the term “atheist” to take the same position that atheists do, but under an assumed name.

    Huxley defined agnosticism as embodying the principle that belief should be in proportion to evidence. You and other atheists agree.

    Agnostics believe that we have, as yet, no evidence for the existence of any kind of deity. You and other atheists agree.

    Following that, some – though not all – agnostics act on the assumption that there is no God. When push comes to shove they are functional atheists. You and other atheists agree.

    So where is the difference other than in the label?

    As far as I can see, agnostics are being criticised for indulging in wishy-washy fence-sitting that is undermining the sturdy atheists struggle against the ignorance and superstition of the religious.

    In other words the difference is political. You atheists enjoy a good punch-up with the pious and agnostics could spoil the fun.

    The problem is that the word ‘atheist’ makes the debate about religion. But, as an agnostic (as well as a “de facto atheist”) I see the problem as being about totalitarianism. When an Islamic or Christian fundamentalist proclaims their intention of spreading their bigotry by fire and sword then they should be stopped by whatever it takes. But the same applies to a Nazi or Ku Klux Klansman or Stalinist or Maoist. The proper target is not just religion but any creed or ideology that presents itself as being some sort of absolute an unchallengeable truth. It is the arrogance of certainty that is the danger and that is what agnostics are against.

    The peculiar problem in the US is that it seems to virtually impossible for an agnostic or atheist to be elected to public office, in spite of the Constitutional prohibition against a religious test. That certainly needs to be addressed as does the privileged position of religion itself. For a country that was founded in part by people who had fled religious oppression in their homelands it is ironic indeed, although not perhaps unexpected, that it should tolerate the oppression of the irreligious by the religious.

    Again, it is the arrogance of certainty that is the problem. The Kenneth Millers of the world may have a problem reconciling their faith with their science but they aren’t trying to impose their beliefs on anyone. The right-wing evangelists, the Fred Phelps of this world, the creationists, the Christian Dominionists/Reconstructionists and Isamic fundamentalists are. If Miller and others like him are prepared to fight against them then so much the better and they should be welcomed as allies.

  55. #55 johnc
    October 29, 2006

    “… it boils down to whether a theologian or religious leader makes claims that are empirically defeasible …”

    Yes it does, and the fact is that in the real world Christians and Muslims do not worship the desiccated philosophical entity under discussion here. Their God is an entity who acts in the world, who answers prayers. The etymology of the word prayer still vivifies believers’ understanding of the practice today: precarius (Latin) – obtained by entreaty. Of this God, the real God (in the sense, that he is God that people actually believe in), not only am I a thoroughgoing atheist but will assert that the burden of proof (in a genuinely scientific sense) rests with believers.

    But one of the problems with The God Delusion is that it wants to extend the object of its attack from this real God to the concept of God in general. This lands Dawkins in a couple of difficulties:
    1. He is philosophically ill-equipped to prosecute the level of argument required.
    2. It creates an escape hatch for the faithful, who just shift gear from defending the God they actually believe in to a concept of “god” that is little more than a catch-all for the mystery of existence.

    So while I concur with PZ’s “so what” about the philosophical argument, I sheet at least part of the blame for the confusion back to Dawkins for overstretching his argument beyond what he is capable of defending.

  56. #56 Thony C.
    October 29, 2006

    David1947 I almost agree with almost all you say about formal languages or formal systems however your jump from those to your own brain and the whole world involves a whole barrel full of very questionable assumptions, which very much effect the validity of your conclusions.

    My copy of GEB is extremely dog-eared and more than well thumbed but I’m affraid I don’t understand what you are refering to in the introduction. Can you elucidate please?

  57. #57 david1947
    October 29, 2006

    Thony C: Glad of your response. And that your copy of GEB is as dog-eared as mine.

    The problem is in chapter 1: the MU-puzzle. (for lurkers) This chapter is focussed on introducing formal Propositional Calculus, the MU-puzzle is a concrete example. He does not give the solution in the book. A clue: the book is inspired by Godel’s Theorem. The MIU system is sufficently strong for the purposes. The solution is out-of-the-box. Remember absence of proof != proof of absence, your solution must prove what it says.

    Jumping from formal systems of representation to my brain and its place in the world: I stated as axiom pro-tem that “Since my mind is housed in a machine that is smaller than the universe (I consider this axiomatic for the moment)”. In the absence of proof to the contrary, and much supporting evidence, I have to conlude that my mental processes take place within my body at least, if not solely within the even smaller bit that is my brain. Further, whatever the computation matrix is, what language(s) are used, what underlying hardwre model(s) are implemented, it has to be true that my one brain is less than the sum of the brains of two people, etc etc. therefore I cannot model exactly within my one brain the processes of any one or more brains, my own included. The point being: In order to claim conclusive certainty about some subject one has to either experimentally demonstrate it physically or via a complete model that maps reality without exception; since one cannot do that for things that are subjective experiences (other brains, remember?), it is therefore fundamentally impossible to claim certainty about what goes on in anybody’s mind, and that is where the “God” concept resides. At least, until “God” is demonstrated as a physical reality by objective repeatable experimentation. That realization freed me from the evangelical phase of my search for spiritual fulfillment – I get fun out of the language play talking about these things, but no longer expect to get or give any certainty on the subject. Most especialy re claims to the only truth.

    it might be fun to map this out as a formal proof. I’ll think about it.

  58. #58 Roadtripper
    October 31, 2006

    I’ve never understood why so many people insist that agnostics are actually atheists. If the two are so nearly indistinguishable, it could very well be the other way around–all those atheists might be just a bunch of confused agnostics. But I can’t prove it.

    Excellent post.

  59. #59 bernarda
    November 1, 2006

    The ancient Greeks, among other peoples, had totally anthropomorphic gods and goddesses. They believed in them as much as monotheistists believe in their amorphous god today.

    Yet the monotheists can’t decide. Mostly they like to describe their god as “he”? Why? So their god is sometimes sort of anthropomorhic and sometimes not. At least the Greeks were clear about their conception of gods.

    Why would monotheists’ god have a gender, and what would “he” do with “his” sex organs if “he” had them?

    Is this god a master masterbator?

  60. #60 SmellyTerror
    November 1, 2006

    My position is that “not believing” is the default state. You “don’t believe” in an infinite number of possibilities, and only come to believe those things you do believe for… reasons.

    If you have not heard or seen a good enough reason, you do not believe. Of course, the possibility always exists that you will eventually be convinced, but “not believing” is what you do until or unless you eventually come to believe.

    Don’t believe in god? You’re an atheist. Are atheists absolutely sure god doesn’t exist? No! They just haven’t been made to believe. They are still in the default state of “not believing”.

    Using the term “agnostic” is lazy and imprecise, I think. You’re not convinced of god’s existence – well that means you don’t believe in him, doesn’t it? You don’t believe in pink unicorns, or fairies either. Are you “agnostic” about them, or do you simply state that you don’t believe they exist? Of course you aren’t utterly cetain – you can’t be utterly certain about anything. Actually going to the effort of stating you are not sure about the non-existence of everything that doesn’t exist is just a huge waste of breath. It can safely be assumed.

    Saying “there is no god” or “there is no pink unicorn” is a shorthand way of saying “I do not believe in the existence of god/unicorn, but I will if sufficent evidence is provided”. It’s so obvious it shouldn’t need to be explained…

    So what’s the difference between atheist and agnostic points of view? Do atheists state that there is absolutely no god? No. They just say there’s no reason to believe in one, so they don’t. Is the difference found in an agnostic saying there is no way it will ever be solved? No! That’s the same – surely! – as saying there is no god. If a thing and the non-existence of a thing is exactly the same, then the thing doesn’t exist. Or at least, there is not sufficient reason – and there never will be – to move from “not believing” to “believing”. Such an agnostic not only fails to believe in god, but believes there is no chance of ever believing in god.

    So agnostics are, in fact, atheists with a different name.

    Convince me otherwise…

  61. #61 John Pieret
    November 1, 2006

    So agnostics are, in fact, atheists with a different name.

    Convince me otherwise…

    Convince me that “not believing” is the default state.

    For example, do you believe you exist? On what basis? How do you convince yourself that you aren’t just the dream of some other entity? And convince me that you aren’t my dream or illusion.

  62. #62 Ian H Spedding
    November 1, 2006

    SmellyTerror wrote:

    Using the term “agnostic” is lazy and imprecise, I think. You’re not convinced of god’s existence – well that means you don’t believe in him, doesn’t it? You don’t believe in pink unicorns, or fairies either. Are you “agnostic” about them, or do you simply state that you don’t believe they exist? Of course you aren’t utterly cetain – you can’t be utterly certain about anything. Actually going to the effort of stating you are not sure about the non-existence of everything that doesn’t exist is just a huge waste of breath. It can safely be assumed.

    Can it? I suspect a lot of people don’t. I think they assume that atheists are certain God doesn’t exist and a lot of atheists are content to let them go on thinking just that.

    Of sure, when push comes to shove atheists will admit that technically there’s doubt but still believe that for all practical purposes there isn’t.

    But it’s that sliver of doubt that’s important. It’s what stops us sliding down that slippery slope into totalitarian certainty with all that we know can follow. It’s what that scene from the “Knowledge or Certainty” episode from The Ascent of Man is all about.

    So agnostics are, in fact, atheists with a different name.

    or atheists are really just agnostics. They’re just a bit more into macho posturing.

  63. #63 SmellyTerror
    November 2, 2006

    Does a rock believe anything? No. Lack of belief is the default state. Does a rock’s lack of belief in god constitute a philosophical position?

    As I said, you “don’t believe” in an infinite number of things. Do you believe in purple flying hippos? No. Do you believe in magical fairies? No. Do you believe in talking dogs? No. Do you believe that a giant asteroid made entirely from whipped cream is going to impact the earth at Canberra, Australia, at 7:42am on the 3rd of January 2008?

    I’m guessing…. no.

    You do not believe these, and an infinite number of other things, because you have never been subjected to experience that would make you do so. You do not start by believing in everything and then proceed to whittle that down as they are disproven. You’d still end up with an impossibly vast number of beliefs…

    But are you saying, in not beleiving in magical unicorns, that you would utterly reject empirical evidence of a unicorn? Of course not! But you don’t need to say that when you say “I don’t believe in Unicorns,” because to append the qualifier “…but I would if one stepped out in front of me” is redundant. It is assumed.

    Atheists would not be required by their position to deny the existence of god if it could be proven. This is not a point of differnce between atheists and agnostics. Agnostics do their colleagues a disservice to think they’d necessarily be so stupidly dogmatic.

    Now to go to the question you asked – do I believe I exist? Yes. I have a great many experiences which have convinced me I do. But your perfectly reasonable doubt illustrates well the issue here: does my belief completely reject any possibility that I’m wrong. NO! If that’s what you mean when you say “belief” then the word becomes useless. We’d have to qualify everything we say at all times. It’s pointless.

    It’s this extreme view of belief that, IMO, gives us the false distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Atheists are “not sure” in the same way we must be unsure of *anything* – even our own existence. Both positions say “I do not believe in god (but I could be convinced).”

    There is no difference.

  64. #64 SmellyTerror
    November 2, 2006

    Ian: Exactly! But remember, it’s agnostics who are intentionally differentiating themselves from atheists. The term was invented to make the distinction.

    Do you see that, by saying “We and the atheists are both unconvinced that god exists… but *we* are open to the possibility” – agnostics imply that atheists *aren’t* open to the possbility. Which is false. At it’s heart it seems to be an attempt to avoid the stigma that comes with atheism by throwing the atheists to the wolves, presenting them as dogmatists when they are, in fact, no different.

    Imagine another persecuted minority playing on false assumptions to divert hostility to his fellows: “We’re both Jews, but *I’m* not a money grubbing miser – so let’s make up a term for “non-miserly Jew” and I’ll insist I be known as that.”

    It’s a false distinction. It’s imprecise. It not only fails to correctly identify the adherant as an atheist, it makes (other) atheists sound like pig-headed idiots – which helps no-one. Sure, there probably are atheists who are pig headed idiots, but it’s not what atheism means.

  65. #65 John Pieret
    November 2, 2006

    [D]o I believe I exist? Yes. I have a great many experiences which have convinced me I do.

    So you tell me. Millions and millions of people tell me that they have had similarly personal experiences that convince them that there is a god as surely as you are convinced that there is a you. Why should I not accept that as at least some evidence of such a god in the same way that I accept your claims of experience as some evidence of your existence?

  66. #66 SmellyTerror
    November 2, 2006

    John, I’m talking about the difference between an atheist and an agnostic. Neither group has experienced anything to convince them there is a god – otherwise they wouldn’t be agnostic or atheist, would they?

    The possibility of a god is also something they both agree on. There might be one (or lots), we just haven’t had any reason to think there *is*, and until such evidence comes to light it is fair to act on the assumption there is no god. It’s not like an atheist is unable to see all those believers, just the same as an agnostic, but both the atheist and the agnostic agree that they themselves do not – at present – also believe in that god, despite any “evidence” that widepsread belief in god might suggest.

    The idea that all those people of faith *may possibly* be onto something is not something the agnostics have a monopoly on. Again, there is no difference in viewpoint here.

    Whether or not we are right to dismiss god – or to believe in our own existence – is another discussion althogether.

  67. #67 John Pieret
    November 3, 2006

    I am also talking about the difference between an atheist and an agnostic. An atheist (of your flavor — all these terms are used by people to mean different things) focuses on the lack of evidence for a god and an agnostic (of mine and, I think, Wilkins’ flavor) ask ‘What is evidence?’

    If you want to dismiss that difference we can just take Dawkins’ point that we are all atheists about most gods and declare everyone to be an atheist and make the term utterly meaningless.

    As Darwin noted, defining the diference between a variety and a species can be difficult but species still come to be tolerably well-defined.

    More importantly, perhaps, the organisms know their own and I am not an atheist.

  68. #68 SmellyTerror
    November 3, 2006

    So you’re saying that atheists don’t bother to ask what the evidence is, they just refuse to even consider the possibility?

    That’s flat out wrong, and even a little insulting. It is exactly the lack of evidence that prevents atheists – and agnostics – from believing in the existence of god. They are exactly the same!

    If that’s what you think of as the difference between atheists and agnostics, then *again* they are the same. The whole concept of agnosticism seems to exist separate only from some strange, straw-man parody of atheism.

    So one person focuses on the lack of evidence, and the other asks what the evidence is…? Abuh? When the answer to the question “what’s the evidence?” is still evidently
    “not enough” (you wouldn’t be agnostic if it was enough), then aren’t you doing the exact same thing? The entire position of agnosticicm REQUIRES that there is not enough evidence – so how are you *not* focusing on the lack of evidence?

    Hell, how can atheists actually focus on a lack of evidence if they never asked what the evidence was in the first place???


    …and as I understand it, the point made about believers in “one true gods” being atheists minus one god is a good one, and not meaningless at all. Most believers see all the other religions and reject them. They see them as the silly supersticions of deluded people – in fact agree completely with any atheist about every single religion on earth, hundreds, even thousands of religions… except their own. Just as all those other religions think the same about their’s.

    So if you can see evidence X for theory Y and reject it, over and over and over, to suddenly accept it the same evidence X for your own identical theory Y is just silly.

    And it works! It’s not perfect, but it can open eyes. I talk to my local Mormon and Catholic door knockers. A line of conversation can go like this:

    Me: So you don’t believe in Zues?

    Elder Bill: No.

    Me: Or Odin or Osiris or any of that lot?

    EB: No!

    Me: All silly supersticions, right, deluded folk just trying to explain the world as best they can, right? And maybe getting scammed by their priests…

    EB: Yeah.

    Me: Hindus, wrong. Presperterians, wrong. Catholics, wrong. All of these thousands of religions, over thousands of years, wrong.

    EB: (If he’s good): something about a flawed view of god through a cracked lens, but basically yeah, wrong.

    Me: So to me, I see all of these other religions, and I agree with you. They *are* wrong. But from where I’m standing, you are the same. I think the same about your religion, and I’m guessing all of those other religions folk think the same of you that you do of them. What have you got that they don’t?

    EB: blah blah, faith, magic book.

    Me: But they have faith! If I asked one of them they would be just as committed, every bit as sure of their own belief as you are. And they have magic books, some a lot older that yours, some a lot more recent. Some more poetic, some more clear. You and me, we agree on all those other religions – that depsite faith and magic books, they’re still wrong. What I don’t understand is how you stop applying the same logic when you come to your own religion.

    ….and the thing is, too many of these people never look at other religions from the point of view of the believers of those religions. The (to us) obvious fact that others are just as sure of their own relgions can come as a bit of a revelation.

    This whole line of reasoning is an important path to doubt – and doubt is *my* religion.

  69. #69 SmellyTerror
    November 3, 2006

    …though where I get by blind spot for spelling “superstition”, I’ll never know.

  70. #70 david1947
    November 3, 2006

    Atheist, Agnostic, *ist: Belief. There are three modes of belief: absence of belief, belief in absence, and belief in presence. Then there is the difference between philosophical belief and functional belief. There is the degree to which the arguing parties agree on the definition about that for which they are claiming (non-)existence. And finally there is the degree to which their definitions, whilst rendered differently, may actually map onto the same entity. There is no point in arguing about mode or type of belief until these last two are congruent, since arguing about different things is pointless. So the initial purpose of resolving any apparent differences of opinion has to be to arrive at the agreements on the definition and that the same entiy is being defined. Precisely. Only once we determine that we are in the same field can we progress to debating the evidence.

    As was pointed out by several recent posts, every culture has its own definition for “God”. I would go further and claim that evey individual within every culture has their own shading on their culture’s definition. In fact, on this particular subject, I know for sure that various time-slices of myself disagree with each other on this one. I have to conclude that every definition of “God” is created by a human, that as all such definitions are at least as different as humans are from each other, that all are equally specious/true.

    But does this support Dawkins’ point above? not if we consider that this particular argument is about the definitions of theist, atheist, and agnostic. Separated by belief in existence, belief in non-existence, and absence of belief, in in the face of a total absence of evidence. Well, the third one actually splits into waiting on evidence, which is I think the most common understanding of agnosticism, and simpy not having any belief at all about the matter, neither for nor against nor waiting on evidence, i.e. those like me for whom the subject is or has become irrelevant.

    For me what makes this whole debate interesting is not the definitions of ists but the underlying process of arriving at an understanding of why and how this class of argument can arise in the first place. Speaking as an amateur cognitive scientist here (found computers in the 60’s so took a different track). Emotions always run high, which points me firmly in the direction of the amygdala. Which is where the concept I mentioned at top of “functional belief” comes into play. I would describe a functional belief as the actual model used at the pre-conscious level for recognising certain features of the environment and developing an appropriate response. So, functional in the sense that it actually does control our behavior. Philosophical beliefs tend to be the conscious rationalizations for the behavior. When the environment is perceived to be following the scripts of these models, we are comfortable (amygdala generating/detecting null error signals). When the external stuff departs from the inner script we get very uncomfortable, our stomachs rebel (also amygdala) we get emotional (again) and start fighting the preceived wrongness in an attempt to put it right again. So John C. Lilly’s definition of “god” as that which controls our behavior, seen in this light, makes a lot of sense for me.

    A long enough rant for one morning. if it sparks anything I’ll engage.

  71. #71 SmellyTerror
    November 3, 2006

    I’ll just quickly mention the distinction:

    Atheism: the belief in non-existence
    Agnostisim: the absence of belief

    You, along with most people and all inanimate objects, have no belief in purple unicorns. That doesn’t mean that everyone has a belief that there are no purple unicorns, because most people may have never considered it – and inanimate objects are unable to consider it.

    When you consider the possibility, but continue your non-belief, you are now in the position of believing in the non-existence of the purple unicorns.

    (Or do you hold out the position that, because you can’t be absolutely sure there are no purple unicorns, you’ll need to call yourself agnostic in regards to the subject, as you still have no belief at all? Again, belief that something does not exist does not completely preclude the possibility that it does – any good scientist will reconsider any position based on new information, agnostics and atheists alike).

    “Not believing in the truth of a position” becomes “believing it is untrue” the moment you consider the possibility and fail to accept it. The only way you could stay agnostic would be to refuse to even think about the possibility of the existence of god, and I don’t think that’s what people are doing. I don’t think it’s possible once someone has presented the idea.

    Imagine I tell people “Well you may believe there are no purple unicorns, but I’m reserving judgement. Oh sure, I am no more convinced by the evidence than you are, but *I* am going to keep an open mind and will change my position if a purple unicorn steps out in front of me.”

    Am I actually expressing a different point of view, or am I just trying to make a false distinction to (dare I say it) make myself sound more reasonable to the purple unicorn believers?

  72. #72 John Pieret
    November 3, 2006

    So you’re saying that atheists don’t bother to ask what the evidence is, they just refuse to even consider the possibility?

    … It is exactly the lack of evidence that prevents atheists – and agnostics – from believing in the existence of god. They are exactly the same!

    You have it exactly backwards. The lack of evidence for any gods is of no concern to agnostics, since the very meaning of agnostic entails that they do not expect there to be any (at least any compeling) evidence one way or the other as to their existence or non-existence. Thus, I would not base any judgment on a lack of evidence, since I wouldn’t expect to find any in the first place. For example, I cannot imagine any evidence that would convince me of the existence of a god, since any personal experience of one could be the result of delusions on my part and any other evidence could be the result of sophisticated tricksters.

    My own indifference to whether or not any god exists is based on a judgment, rooted in part in logic, but not on evidence, of what any god would be like if he, she or it exists. In short, I reason, in the absence of evidence, to the conclusion that I would not do anything differently whether or not any gods exist. My views have nothing to do with any evidence … which is the difference I was pointing out.

    It is an interesting question but there is no logical bar that I can see to an agnostic being a believer or, at least, religious. The defining quality of an agnostic, as I understand it, is the certainty that the question of whether or not gods exist cannot be answered by human means. A religious person who felt that way might tend to think of him/herself as a “doubter” or something like that, instead of an agnostic, but …

    As to the reference to Dawkins, the only point was that, if you really want to, you can deny the existence of a differences between even the most opposed viewpoints. I was not saying that Dawkins actually did it (in that case, at least) but that is the process you have to engage in to deny any difference between agnostics and atheists.

  73. #73 SmellyTerror
    November 3, 2006

    By saying that you don’t think it can ever be shown, you are (from my point of view) saying that you are not only an atheist, but do not ever believe you could be anything else. You’re an uber-atheist!

    Let me put it this way: if there *was* evidence of god – if god materialised to the world and subjected himself to any test asked of him – you’d be a believer. So evidence – or the lack of it – *is* a consideration. You can’t be agnostic in the face of sufficient evidence for god – sure, you can put “sufficient” at any level you like, but the failure to reach this level is what prevents you from believing. Denying it is… I dunno what it is, but it’s not useful.

    The point I’m making – in the terminology I think you’re using – is that atheists are not truly making a judgement based on evidence, either, because there is no evidence; that non-belief is, by definition, the lack of a decision. You begin with non-belief, and only change that state when sufficiently convinced. As long as there is nothing to convince you (and especially if you don’t think you could ever be convinced) you remain a non-believer.

    The agnostic position that the existence or non-existence of god can’t be proven is… pointless. As you said, any believer could state the same, and any atheist can say it, too. An atheist can happily recognise that god, as some people define it, cannot be proven – but that’s still not enough to make an atheist believe that such gods actually exist.

    So how does this define agnosticism as a separate belief? Again (again) it is a false distinction. Saying something “might” exist is, again (again) pointless: anything “might” exist, purple unicorns “might” exist, but once you agree that you do not believe such a thing “does” exist, you must follow through with the conclusion that you believe it does *not* exist. To do less is just prevarication, you’re intentionally avoiding the obvious and inevitable conclusion. It’s imprecise and lazy.

    Which was in my opening remark.
    :)

  74. #74 John Pieret
    November 3, 2006

    [I]f god materialised to the world and subjected himself to any test asked of him – you’d be a believer. So evidence – or the lack of it – *is* a consideration. You can’t be agnostic in the face of sufficient evidence for god …

    So, you are going to ignore everything I and Wilkins said and tell me not only what I believe but what I’d believe in some unspecified hypothetical case. What’s more, you totally ignore what I said about evidence and belief and substitute your own ideas as if they are mine.

    Sorry, I don’t think there is any evidence that you are worth discussing this with.

  75. #75 SmellyTerror
    November 4, 2006

    You said: “The lack of evidence for any gods is of no concern to agnostics, since the very meaning of agnostic entails that they do not expect there to be any (at least any compeling) evidence one way or the other as to their existence or non-existence.”

    So because you do not “expect” there to be any evidence, that means it’s impossible for there ever to be evidence? Every definition of agnosticism, and especially the one you’ve given, ***requires that there is no evidence for god*** – whether or not you believe it’s imposible for such evidence to exist.

    Have you even thought about your position?

    “Sorry, I don’t think there is any evidence that you are worth discussing this with.”

    Ah yes, the last word of a lost argument.
    :/

  76. #76 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 4, 2006

    SmellyTerror wrote:

    Ian: Exactly! But remember, it’s agnostics who are intentionally differentiating themselves from atheists. The term was invented to make the distinction.

    The term was invented, in part, to emphasise that the existence of God is in doubt and it is that doubt that is the barrier between knowledge and unjustified certainty.

    In practice, as Dawkins and others have explained, many self-declared atheists share the agnostics doubt. They agree there is no evidence for the existence of a God and nor, in the case of an omnipotent deity like the Christian God which is more than capable of hiding its tracks, should we expect to find any. To that extent, agnostics and atheists like Dawkins believe the same thing and even he agrees that he could also reasonably be desribed as agnostic.

    Even the argument that an uncaused God is an even more improbable entity than an uncaused universe is not a problem for agnosticism. Neither is the suspicion that, from a philosophical viewpoint, God was invented to put a stop to an infinite regress of cause and effect.

    So why do he and Mayazz and others insist on calling themselves atheist if it is not really just to tweak the noses of the faithful? In other words, it’s as much a political badge of distinction as the use of Protestant or Catholic was in Northern Ireland.

    Do you see that, by saying “We and the atheists are both unconvinced that god exists… but *we* are open to the possibility” – agnostics imply that atheists *aren’t* open to the possbility. Which is false. At it’s heart it seems to be an attempt to avoid the stigma that comes with atheism by throwing the atheists to the wolves, presenting them as dogmatists when they are, in fact, no different.

    I think this is a good point. This stigma of atheism is much more an American problem, though. An atheist would not have a problem being elected to public office in the UK. A candidate’s religion is usually simply not an issue and there is no question of them having to appease a religious right.

    Imagine another persecuted minority playing on false assumptions to divert hostility to his fellows: “We’re both Jews, but *I’m* not a money grubbing miser – so let’s make up a term for “non-miserly Jew” and I’ll insist I be known as that.”

    So you are agreeng that this is a political rather than an epistomological distinction?

    It’s a false distinction. It’s imprecise. It not only fails to correctly identify the adherant as an atheist, it makes (other) atheists sound like pig-headed idiots – which helps no-one. Sure, there probably are atheists who are pig headed idiots, but it’s not what atheism means.

    It does to some people. More to the point, though, it is what the religious right thinks atheists believe and, by not doing much to disabuse them of that belief, atheists are effectively conniving with their opponents to keep the war between them hot.

  77. #77 John Pieret
    November 4, 2006

    Ah yes, the last word of a lost argument.

    There is no argument when you do not listen at all to what others say and merely respond to the voices in your own head. For what it’s worth, I already explained earlier why there could be no evidence and the fact that you can say “because you do not “expect” there to be any evidence, that means it’s impossible for there ever to be evidence?” shows you have not read and/or bothered in the slightest to attempt to understand.

    Merely spouting the same thing over and over until people get frustrated and annoyed enough to walk away is not winning an arguement, except to the highly deluded.

  78. #78 SmellyTerror
    November 6, 2006

    Ian: I believe it is a flag of convenience. A distinction that is, in fact, not a true distinction at all. It’s a descriptor, not a separate philosophical position. See below.

    John: Look, John, you keep presenting an argument that supports mine, and then you say it refutes it. Saying it does, over and over, does not make it so.

    I’ll number the arguments I’m making here:

    [b]1. Agnostics cannot ever believe in god. That makes them atheists.[/b]

    By saying there cannot possibly be evidence for god, and assuming this is true (how you do that I have no idea), you are unable to ever begin believing in god. You don’t just form a belief out of nothing, without some reason to do so. So, since you will never be given a reason to do so, you will never believe. You keep saying “but we don’t think there will ever be evidence” – as if this somehow means you don’t need to think about it, but what I’ve been saying all along, and which you don’t seem to be able to answer, is that you [b]start by not-believing[/b]. Without something to change your mind, you will never believe. And you are saying that can never happen, so… you’re an atheist. Not just an atheist – an atheist who can never be anything but.

    (Now, regarding the definition of agnostic as someone who believes that, if there is a god, he (she/it/they) cannot by his nature be proven, so the whole argument is invalid):

    [b]2. The “no-interaction god” is a pointless invention.[/b]

    First, let’s explore this by analogy:

    Someone proposes the notion that tomorrow the planet Earth will turn into a giant marshmallow.

    The atheist position: Um… no, it won’t. I do not believe the world will turn into a marshmallow, because I have no reason to start believing that.

    The deist position: I do believe the world will turn into a marshmallow, because I have faith (or gullibility, or some “spiritual” experience, or indoctrination, or (*gasp*) evidence that satisfies me, or whatever).

    The agnostic position (as characterised by the “god is unknowable” argument): I the only marshmallow I can conceive the world turning into is marshmallow that is completely indistinguishable from the normal substance of the earth. The entire argument is therefore irrelevant, because there will be no way to tell if the world is marshmallow or not.

    So what I’m saying here is – wait, I’ll bold it because it’s pretty important:

    [b]If you arbitrarily define “god” as something that is meaningless and cannot be proven, then YES, the question of god’s existence becomes meaningless and impossible to prove.[/b] This does not tell us anything. This is a completely useless, vacuous argument. I might equally believe that the world *may* have turned into a kind of marshmallow that is exactly the same as dirt, or that invisible fairies exist but can’t interact at all, or – well, any of a million silly, unprovable hypotheses. You can equally apply the method to any question at any time, and refuse to ever answer anything.

    Do purple unicorns exist? I chose to define “purple unicorn” as something that cannot be proven, so I have no position on the matter.

    Is the world made out of marshmallow? I chose to define “marshmallow” as something indistinguishable to the components of the earth, and so I consider the question irrelevant.

    It’s just a long way of saying nothing at all. It is a pointless argument.

    [b]3. Agnostics are not in a different group to atheists or believers.[/b]

    But hell, even if it wasn’t a pointless argument, it still doesn’t help. As you said, a believer could be an agnostic (if we define “agnostic” as “doubter”, or “believer in only that type of god who can’t be seen”). An atheist could be an agnostic. Agnosticism is not, then, a separate position. It may further define a person with a certain position, but it’s not a sustainable position on its own. All it’s really saying is “I am [b]not[/b] one of the rare fundamentalists who cannot possibly conceive of any doubt in my belief”. Well, uh, great. So is almost everyone.

    So analogy time again. Some men are happy. Some women are happy. But I can’t say “No, I’m not a man because I’m happy”, and I can’t say “No, I’m not a woman because I’m happy”. Being happy is something either group can be, it’s a descriptor, but it is not a separate state.

    PS: John, where have you “explained earlier why there could be no evidence”? I’m keen to see it, and I know you’re angry with me for not paying attention to it, but I’m having problems finding it. I can see where you’ve said:

    “…since the very meaning of agnostic entails that they do not expect there to be any (at least any compeling) evidence one way or the other as to their existence or non-existence. Thus, I would not base any judgment on a lack of evidence, since I wouldn’t expect to find any in the first place.”

    (But then you got angry at me putting the “expect” word into your mouth)

    …and I can see where you’ve said:

    “Why should I not accept that as at least some evidence of such a god in the same way that I accept your claims of experience as some evidence of your existence?”

    …but at the same time the very idea that there could possibly be evidence is (apparently) offensive to you. I am, apparently, failing to read what you’ve said.

    So I don’t see how I can possibly address your points without both offending you and being accused of actually ignoring your points.

  79. #79 John Pieret
    November 7, 2006

    One last try:

    Initially, there are two problems here. There is a threshold question of whether there is even an issue to be considered and then there is a question of what evidence could possibly determine the issue. I thought we had gotten over the threshold question when I demonstrated that you use evidence (personal experience) of exactly same type and objectivity to support your own existence as theists cite to for the existence of god. Apparently not. Let me expand then:

    I have much more evidence for the existence of god than I have for your existence, in that I have millions and billions of people telling me that they have experienced god, while I only have you telling me that anyone has had experience of you. Even if you rounded up everyone who personally knows you, there would be many more testimonials for god than for you. Still, I am willing to consider the real possibility that you exist. But how can I then ignore the possibility that god exists?

    This is the answer to your “purple unicorns” (the favored trope is invisible pink unicorns, BTW), which is nothing but a logical fallacy known as “poisoning the well” and a cheap rhetorical trick to boot. You know that purple unicorns are not an equivalent case or else you’d be going around calling yourself an apurpleunicornist as often as an atheist. Do you do that?

    The real problem here is that you are confusing belief with knowledge and knowledge with evidence. I believe in many things that I cannot have knowledge of, such as that I can have knowledge. I can have evidence for things I can never have knowledge of (say, what it is like to be physically at the center of a star) and vice versa (both the location and velocity of an electron). The notion that I or anyone else cannot form beliefs without evidence is simply itself empirically wrong since everyone, including you, do it all the time. This whole issue is one of epistemology, which you might consider looking into.

    Now back to that evidence for god: it is not very convincing. There are many people (though not as many) who say they have had no experience of god and the proponents of god are not very consistent as to what he/she/it is like.

    But what kind of evidence could there possibly be available to finite natural beings to determine with any certainty whether or not there is a an infinite supernatural being? I already told you that I would consider any personal experience of an entity claiming to be a god as the possible result of delusion and/or the acts of sophisticated tricksters. How would you set about demonstrating to me that I was wrong and this god entity was real? What other sort of evidence can you imagine? Is there an assay test for godness? What would it test? If you prove this or that claim for a miracle has a sufficient natural explanation what does that evidence go to? Does it logically bear on the existence of god?

    Be my guest. Provide a believable test for the existence/nonexistence of god.

    As to whether a god is “irrelevant” if there cannot be empiric evidence for or against it, why should I want to argue theology with you? Because that is what that claim is. Suffice it to say that there are very sophisticated people who will be happy to argue that with you at great length. But if I were you, I’d do some studying first, especially if any of them happen to be Jesuits.

    Once again, you state you don’t believe in god because there is no evidence for it. Agnostics neither believe nor disbelieve in god on account of evidence or the lack thereof, which they think cannot exist. This is a separate position but it is one on the issue of epistemology, not theology. I believe (opps!) that the only reason that you have been unable to see it is that you are thinking in black and white terms that any fundamentalist would be proud of. Agnostics don’t take one or the other side, as you demand, because to us, it is a false dichotomy.

    Not having a side is our side.

  80. #80 SmellyTerror
    November 7, 2006

    Do you believe I exist? I think you do – despite, apparently, more evidence for the existence of god. So what’s stopping your belief in god? Because god can’t be proven? Well neither can I be! Do you believe in *anything*?

    Your belief in my existence is based on a lot more experience than one person saying I exist. You have rational reasons, based on experience, to think I do. Can you be certain? No. But do you believe I exist (don’t you?).

    You won’t accept any evidence of god (to use a common example: the accurate prediction of specific and unlikely future events – or to continue, the ability to make anything happen even if those things are in violation of physical laws), even though some evidence could overwhelmingly suggest that the entity displaying that evidence was, as per common usage, a “god”. Sure, it may mean something else, but by putting your requirements of evidence at such a level you wouldn’t (consistently) be able to believe in anything at all. How do you know, absolutely, that the sky is blue? You can get “evidence”, but could it be some vast and sustained hallucination? Yes, it could. Could we be in some vast computer simulation, and there is, in fact, no sky at all? Yes, we could. Can you prove otherwise?

    But do you believe the sky is (often) blue? I think you do. If you reject – in advance – all evidence, though, based on your own arbitrary requirement (eg. prove we’re not in the Matrix), then of course any test of evidence will fail.

    You wheel epistemology out on me – on noes! – but seem to fail to realise that just because something can’t be accepted as knowledge (with absolute proof) doesn’t mean it can’t be accepted as belief. Have a good hard look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Classical-Definition-of-Kno.gif and show me where a proposition is neither “belief” nor “not-belief” – or where it is both simultaneously. It’s not there. Once a proposition has been made, your position must logically be either belief or non-belief. There is no other option.

    Regarding purple unicorns (sorry if I don’t use the favoured trope): the point I was making is that the moment the proposition is made (and I’ve had a moment to consider) regarding the existence of purple unicorns I must then fall into the state of believing or not-believing. I might change my mind based on new experience, but at any particular time I must either: 1. have not yet considered the proposition, 2. rejected it (not-belief), or 3. accepted it (belief). So yes, as long as the proposition continues to be offered, I *am* apurpleunicornist.

    “I have much more evidence for the existence of god than I have for your existence, in that I have millions and billions of people telling me that they have experienced god…”

    So, again within the terms of epistemology, you are stating that a proposition has been made, and that some (tenuous) evidence has been provided. Great! You are on the chart! Now, *where* are you on the chart?

    Some weight of experience convinces you that I exist. You “believe” I exist – don’t you? Although it’s possible, you don’t refuse to answer, and say to yourself “Well, these words I’m reading could be a hallucination” – do you? Because if I am a hallucination, no amount of evidence is sufficient to lead to a correct conclusion. ZOMG, it’s impossible to be sure! Therefore you should not even make the attempt…

    (If you do follow that reasoning, and believe nothing, then you make the whole concept of “belief” meaningless, which is as good an indication as any that you’ve misunderstood what the word means).

    No, you don’t follow that line of reasoning, because it would be pointless. It would make any belief in anything at any time impossible. And you *do* have beliefs, don’t you? So you don’t apply that extreme proof requirement to everything else, do you?

    So why do you apply that rejected line of reasoning to the single question of god? How is that logically valid? You’re the one confusing knowledge and belief, here: very few people are saying it’s (presently) possible to have knowledge that god must or must not exist. The entire argument is about belief, so uncertainty is completely valid.

    You DO, according to your post, have some (admittedly spurious) evidence of the existence of god (ie people’s belief). Is it enough to make you believe, or isn’t it?

    If it’s not, you don’t believe in god. If it is, you do.

    If evidence can have no bearing on this one question, then why does it have bearing on any other question? Why are you applying an impossible burden of proof to this one question, but not others?

    “But how can I then ignore the possibility that god exists?”

    That is exactly what you are doing! No-one is asking you to put your answer into the realm of “knowledge”, but to decide between “belief” and “non-belief”. There are ***no other options*** from a epistemological point of view, and you can only avoid putting yourself in one category or the other – however provisionally – by ignoring the whole question.

    Do you think an atheist “ignore[s] the possibility that god exists”? No – considering the possibility is how he came to be defined as agnostic.

  81. #81 John Pieret
    November 9, 2006

    This has become tedious and unproductive and this will be my last post on the subject. Feel free to go on arguing with yourself, which, after all, is what you have been doing all along since you obviously have not been listening to me. I will leave you some parting points to ponder — or not — as you see fit.

    It is not that there can’t be evidence about god (certainly there can be evidence that people claim for and against god). It is that no human evidence can ever bear on the real question: does such a being exist in reality. Certainly, your dismissal of the problem of epistemology, without any attempt to understand it and based on nothing more than personal incredulity, is not evidence on that point. I must say , though, that it is amusing to see you arguing so vociferously that I (and a boatload of philosophers) are wrong, when your original position (which is what I objected to) was that there is no difference between our positions.

    Once a proposition has been made, your position must logically be either belief or non-belief. There is no other option.

    Sorry, I don’t live in your black-and-white semantics-is-king world. But consider, if there is such a stark dichotomy, the weakest and totally unsupported belief in god is on the exact same epistemological plane and has the same logical backing as the belief of a scientist in the efficacy of the scientific method after a lifetime of seeing it work. They are equally mere belief.

    But if there can be differences in the degree of beliefs, there can be differences in the degree of non-belief. And there must be a point where non-belief and belief are perfectly balanced and there is neither belief nor non-belief. And if, like me, you think that there is no possible evidence that bears on the issue of the existence of god, it is quite easy to inhabit that point.

    Once a proposition has been made, your position must logically be either belief or non-belief. There is no other option.

    One can only hope that you are not a police officer or forensic expert. If you really act as you claim, it would be quite a spectacle as you constantly swing back and forth between believing suspects are guilty or not guilty or rapidly and contradictorily believing great swathes of the population are murderers and then not as the evidence accumulates and changes. Personally, I’d prefer to withhold any belief or non-belief about guilt until there is something to base it on. Oh, wait …

  82. #82 SmellyTerror
    November 9, 2006

    “I must say , though, that it is amusing to see you arguing so vociferously that I (and a boatload of philosophers) are wrong, when your original position (which is what I objected to) was that there is no difference between our positions. ”

    That’s the point! The positions are the same, it’s just your irrational interpretation that tries (and fails) to make it different. Congratulations on missing the point over and over and over…

    If both atheists and believers can be agnostic (something I’ve repeated several times and you’ve not even tried to refute – you’ve even made the case for beleivers), then ****how is it a different point of view?****

    You hate the other arguments, but they’re the only ones you focus on – so I’ll keep away from them. You’ve never even tried to address this point, not once, except to say it amuses you. Does it? Well how’s about you try to address my “original position”?

    And you wonder why I’m repeating myself? Pfff.

    You’ve contradicted yourself over and over, you’ve responded to most reasoned arguments with “well, you just won’t understand – so here are some (hopefully) intimidating terms and appeals to authority”, you’ve been insulting, and have completely failed to show that you actually have any idea what you’re talking about.

    Maybe that “boatload of philosophers” do have valid and sustainable arguments to support agnosticism. But *you* do not.

    So yeah, let’s hope that was your last post.


    And (in abject fear that this will let you ignore the main argument – again) I’d just like to repeat the following statement you made that shows, clearly, that you have no understanding of epistemology (show it to anyone who knows what they’re doing, and they’ll tell you why – there, that’s *my* appeal to authority):

    “But consider, if there is such a stark dichotomy, the weakest and totally unsupported belief in god is on the exact same epistemological plane and has the same logical backing as the belief of a scientist in the efficacy of the scientific method after a lifetime of seeing it work. They are equally mere belief.”

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.