Evolving Thoughts

Agnostic still

So, in an obvious case of Scibling Rivalry, Jason Rosenhouse has taken me to task about my comments on Dawkins and agnosticism. Indeed, I have been fisked. Obviously one can decide about whether God exists or not, and agnostics are just inadequate atheists…

Let’s set the scene with some philosophical definitions. A scientific question is one that evidence can tell for or against. All else is a philosophical question, or as it is popularly known, navel gazing. What is at issue here is whether or not evidence can tell for or against the notion that God exists. Atheists (and theists) say that it can, and indeed it does. That certainly is Dawkins’ view. I say that it cannot.

Which is an absurd thing to say. Of course there is evidence against religious claims about God, if, and only if, those religious claims make empirically sensitive claims. For instance, if one’s idea of God involves the claim that the world is 6000 years old plus change, then that God is as certainly false as any claim can be, for the world is immensely older than 6000 years. That God is falsified. Whether or not the belief in that God can be shown to be wrong is something I’ll address in a bit.

So perhaps part of the problem here is ambiguity of reference. To be less ambiguous, and offer up a way to make sure we are all on the same page, allow me to do a bit of Philosophy-Speak, and index the term “God”: the certainly false deity is God[creationist]. But what about other Gods? How about God[ID]? This God is undetectable, empirically (apart from some vague property of “design” that we are able to somehow see but not measure). Can evidence tell for or against it? How about God[Spinoza]? That God by definition does nothing in the world that is not “natural” in its effect. No empirical evidence can distinguish between the world in which God[Spinoza] exists, and the world in which it doesn’t. Have we thereby been able to show that God[Spinoza] is false?

These are not scientific questions once you abandon all empirical import. If the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or Flew’s Gardener, or Spinoza’s God exist or not, that is not something that science can explicitly address. You may say that, as Laplace famously said of Newton’s divine intervention to maintain the stability of the solar system, “I have no need of that hypothesis”. You may say that parsimony leads you to deny the existence of these Gods. But these are philosophical answers, not scientific ones.

On what basis can we decide, if only for ourselves, these philosophical questions? The first step is, of course, to ensure that they are coherent views. The Problem of Evil is a major issue, for instance, with traditional Christian theism, but it is not a knockdown incoherence. But the best and most charitable view of God, for any religion, is not something that can be shown to be false using empirical data or logical coherence considerations. One has to assume that the centuries of very clever folk who are theologians have at least addressed the incoherences (although some incoherences, such as the Trinity, are “resolved” merely by declaration and arbitrary definition, but leave that to one side).

So let’s index that general class of deity conceptions as God[coherent] and ask if that class can be shown to be empty. I suggested that such philosophical questions are assessed by taking some set of prior assumptions and using a Bayes-like computation about the likelihood of the claim being true or false. Jason responds

Wilkins says that assessments about the likelihood of God have to be made based on prior assumptions, about the nature of the universe presumably. If people start from different prior assumptions, then they will come to different conclusions when assessing likelihoods. That is trivially true, of course.

But if we take Wilkins’ argument to its logical conclusion, we would have to say that agnosticism is the only legitimate position on virtually every question about the universe. If we are allowed to alter our prior assumptions at will, any proposition can be made to seem more or less likely. If I described myself as agnostic on the question of Zeus or unicorns, most people would think me rather odd. Yet I can provide prior assumptions about the universe that would make it likely that they exist.

Can he, though? perhaps if you redefine Zeus or unicorns in a manner that would make them a member of the class of coherent Gods. But Zeus is a locatable god who lives on Mount Olympus. Just climbing Oympus is enough to disprove his existence. Unicorns are harder to disprove, but at least the sort of large animal taxonomy we have done make it unlikely. These are gods and myths that are empirically sensitive. So it simply is not the case that virtually every question about the universe is open, if we accept, as we both do (and so too do many theists) that science can answer questions about it.

The mistake Jason and the vocal atheists make in asserting that agnosticism is a bad position, or is disguised atheism, is the same one that the fundamentalists who claim that science is a religion make. They think that it’s all about choosing one’s presuppositions. All the rest is just inference from an act of faith. But science is forced on us, epistemically, in virtue of the fact that it works as an explanation of the universe’s aspects that we have been able to get data on. It’s possible to choose presuppositions to reject science – Augustine makes a few such choices in the Confession, as Dawkins notes – but not to avail oneself of part of science and remain coherent. So assume that science can answer questions, because it has empirical resources. This does still not force us to accept that God is amenable to scientific investigation one way or the other.

The class of possible questions that are not empirically sensitive is indefinitely large. And I am not disposed, I admit, to think that these possible things might exist (as Quine once ironically asked, how many possible bald men are there in that doorway?). What counts as something one holds in abeyance depends a lot on what questions are “live” in a given discourse. I do not hold in abeyance Russell’s teapot in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, because that’s not a live question. But enough folk in my society think that a God might be true, and I think that humans are disposed to seek agency in the world enough that a God or spirit or something akin to it is a live question. Science makes that sort of physically-effective agency unnecessary, but it doesn’t disprove that it exists; the best and most charitable theology is not defeated so easily. Sure, the fundamentalist and popular forms of religion are pretty weak, but followers often, perhaps always, tend to fail to exemplify the best of their movement. What is at issue in the case of agnosticism is the best and brightest theology. And that is safe from Dawkins’ and Jason’s critique, because they do not address it.

I’m a philosopher. I think about abstractions. The “real” God of popular belief is possibly defeasible in terms of facts and inferences. But the existence of the most coherent God isn’t, and if I were to adopt a faith, that is the only kind of faith I would accept, anyway, so defeating the incoherent God won’t impress me much. Defeat a Tillich, or a Barth, or a Küng, and we can talk. Defeat a Falwell, and claim that defeats a Küng, and I will be right to laugh.

The vocal atheists who attack agnostics for being mealy mouthed wishy washy and all the other adjectives used in this “debate” are committing a fallacy, the Fallacy of Amphiboly. Sure, if God’s existence makes an empirical difference,, and the data do not confirm that difference exists, then God is disconfirmed. But what about all the conceptions of God that don’t? To shift, as Dawkins does, from one conception to the other is the fallacy. A similar move, in reverse, is made when Dawkins discusses the philosophical “proofs” of God such as the Ontological Argument, and then argues that this defeats the popular God, too. The popular, or the revealed, God of the best theology is not based on those “proofs”, but on revelation. Accept that as part of your Bayesish priors, and no empirical evidence or philosophical proof will defeat that belief, because they are part of a different conception.

Do I think there is a God? No, I don’t. Am I an atheist? No, I’m not. It’s not about probabilities of this or that outcome being likely to be true – there are an infinite number of potentially true claims of this sort, so the raw probability is 1/(n + 1) (the last is the view of pure and global atheism) which approaches 0. The problem is what empirical data can eliminate. None of these can be eliminated as viable hypotheses, and so the question whether there is a God[coherent] or not is only the form of a question, dressed up in the syntactic rags of an interrogative. It’s not a settleable question at all. This doesn’t commit me, or any agnostic, to holding that all questions are unanswerable in the slightest. Questions that evidence tells for or against are very answerable.

I wonder how Wilkins feels about fairies at the bottom of the garden?

I deny their existence merely because the empirical conditions for their reality do not obtain. What empirical conditions obtain if a God exists whose existence makes no difference empirically? Tell me how to answer that, and I will become committed to one of the n + 1 alternative views…

Comments

  1. #1 NJ
    November 14, 2006

    An interesting discussion, John, and it taught me a new word: Amphiboly. I would have thought it applied to double chain silicate minerals, as in “Hmmm. That piece of hornblende just doesn’t look amphibole-ly enough to me.”

    Now I’m curious about the etimology of amphibole and amphiboly…

  2. #2 MaxPolun
    November 14, 2006

    well put, but I think you are missing at least part of the argument: most atheists are technically agnostics, in that they concede that given evidence for god they would reconsider, and that some conception of god are undecidable. The point is that the abrahamic god has properties that are testable, and come out false, same for the gods of other major religions. Gods that have no effect, however can be eliminated by Occam’s razor, what does it add to believe in something that does nothing?

  3. #3 csrster
    November 14, 2006

    ‘The popular, or the revealed, God of the best theology is not based on those “proofs”, but on revelation.’

    You had me confused with this sentence. I thought you were arguing that the “best theology” is the
    theology of God[coherent] who is also, probably, God[non-empirical]. Are you saying that this God is or is not subject to a) revelation and b) philosophical proof?

    The issue of what is a “live” question is an interesting one. Popular God-ism clearly _is_ a live question – that’s why the Dawkinses of the world are selling well. But theological God-ism is only alive in very limited and rarified academic-theological circles. For most of us, religious or not, it is not obviously a more live question than any other obscure issue of academic discourse.

  4. #4 oldcola
    November 14, 2006

    Amphiboly/amphibole: from greek amphibolos “doubtful“. It is the adjective from amphiballein [verb] “to throw on either side” based on amphi [both] & ballein [to throw]

  5. #5 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    The popular, or the revealed, God of the best theology is not based on those “proofs”, but on revelation. Accept that as part of your Bayesish priors, and no empirical evidence or philosophical proof will defeat that belief, because they are part of a different conception.

    Thank you for picking out the very best of theology. If that is it, then I am justified in rejecting all of theology and calling myself an atheist. Revelation is not a reliable form of epistemology. Was Deanne Laney experiencing a genuine revelation when God told her to kill her children? How would one ever know if revelation was genuine? Is there consistency in the contents of revelation across time and across cultures? If you have a revelation and report it to me, I don’t have the revelation, I only have your testimony.

    This provides us another piece of evidence: if there really is a God, it is not a God who cares to deliver a consistent message to our species. I.e., it is a “god who does not matter.”

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    But enough folk in my society think that a God might be true,

    Please tell me I didn’t read that Argumentum Ad Populum on your blog.

    .
    If you search the archives over on Good Math, Bad Math, you can find several articles on how Bayesian probability is abused in the service of theism.

  7. #7 Baratos
    November 14, 2006

    Mustafa Mond: That reminds me how the church in the Middle Ages decided if a vision was true or false. If it agreed with what the church said, its true. If it doesnt, you are crazy and/or a liar and/or a witch. I have yet to see anyone make a better way to distinguish between “true” and false visions.

  8. #8 Robin Levett
    November 14, 2006
    But enough folk in my society think that a God might be true,

    Please tell me I didn’t read that Argumentum Ad Populum on your blog.

    That ain’t an Argumentum ad Populum he’s got on his blog, he’s just not particularly pleased to see you…

  9. #9 Bob O'H
    November 14, 2006

    For instance, if one’s idea of God involves the claim that the world is 6000 years old plus change, then that God is as certainly false as any claim can be, for the world is immensely older than 6000 years.

    Is this true, or are you just insufficiently paranoid? As Pratchett once suggested, perhaps God was just messing about with the pleistocene.

    Aside from that, thanks for making it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled agnostic.

    Bob
    P.S. nitpick: 1/n + 1 isn’t a probability. I guess you mean 1/(n+1).

  10. #10 johnc
    November 14, 2006

    I’ve just posted on Jason’s blog some excerpts from Australian political leaders during the last election about their religious beliefs. The point being that this is a cultural gulf wider than Carpenteria rather than a real theoretical dispute about the meanings of atheist and agnostic. I really do not envy our American cousins.

    Personally, I usually identify as a secular humanist, but would regard myself as an philosophical atheist about virtually all existing faiths on the occasions such discussions arise. This seems more useful than being an atheist “in general” – show me your god, and I’ll show you my disbelief :-)

  11. #11 Richard Wein
    November 14, 2006

    John Wilkins wrote: These are not scientific questions once you abandon all empirical import… You may say that parsimony leads you to deny the existence of these Gods. But these are philosophical answers, not scientific ones.

    I’m not convinced that appealing to parsimony is abandoning empirical import, since I would argue that the principle of parsimony is based on experience.

    By the way, I’m primarily interested in whether it is [i]rational[/i] to infer the non-existence of gods, and much less concerned with whether such an inference should be labelled “scientific” or “philosophical”.

    John Wilkins wrote: Of course there is evidence against religious claims about God, if, and only if, those religious claims make empirically sensitive claims. For instance, if one’s idea of God involves the claim that the world is 6000 years old plus change, then that God is as certainly false as any claim can be, for the world is immensely older than 6000 years. That God is falsified.

    The God who created the world 6000 years ago with the appearance of much greater age is not falsified. Surely by your own logic you should be agnostic about the age of the world.

    And I wouldn’t dream of calling you “mealy mouthed” or “wishy washy”. ;-)

  12. #12 Larry Moran
    November 14, 2006

    My take on this topic is Agnostics are Whimps. I’ll let you guess where I stand. :-)

  13. #13 johnc
    November 14, 2006

    The God who created the world 6000 years ago with the appearance of much greater age is not falsified … only if we are prepared to discard any and all claims to rationality. Even the hardcore Young Earth Creationists do not go barking up that termite-ridden tree since its corollory is that any and all knowledge of the universe (outside of that in the Bible) is impossible. See here for examples of the silly arguments they do actually use.

  14. #14 Richard Wein
    November 14, 2006

    Let me add a couple of questions for John.

    John Wilkins wrote: But Zeus is a locatable god who lives on Mount Olympus. Just climbing Oympus is enough to disprove his existence.

    What if no one has climbed Mount Olympus to look? Should we then be agnostic about his existence?

    What about the resurrection of Christ (and other claimed miracles in the past which have left no evidence for or against their occurrence). Should we be agnostic about those too?

  15. #15 johnc
    November 14, 2006

    Okay, Miracles 101.

    Hume defines miracles as “violations of natural law” and says “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

    Hume’s thought is equivalent to the demand for extraordinary evidence for extraordinary (empirical) claims. No evidence, hypothesis fails – and most importantly the onus falls on the person making the claim. When the miracle claims involve a deity of some sort, atheism would seem the appropriate label for the sceptic. The same argument can also be put in strict Bayesian terms.

    However, what John calls God[Spinoza], for instance, is immune to this line of argument since no empirical claims are being made – there is no violation of natural law. Whether one chooses to identify as agnostic or atheist or something else about such a claim is, IMHO, a matter of cultural context and political intent.

  16. #16 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    What about the resurrection of Christ (and other claimed miracles in the past which have left no evidence for or against their occurrence).

    You mean you don’t buy the claim that an empty tomb is convincing evidence that a dead body was placed in it and was resurrected? (snicker snort)

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 14, 2006

    An interesting post, but I’m still not buying it. Let me remind you that Dawkins presents his arguments in a section called “The Poverty of Agnosticism.” He did not call his section “The Philosophical Untenability of Agnosticism.” It seems like the sort of God you are agnostic about is one who is carefully defined to be empirically undetectable. I’d say that’s an impoverished view of God indeed.

    But even in this case active disbelief is the appropriate position. We should disbelieve in your empirically undetectable God for the same reason we actively disbelieve in Sagan’s invisible, floating, incorporeal dragon (or any of the similar examples people use to illustrate the same point). To come to this conclusion you need only accept the premise that the burden of proof lies with the person who claims that a certain entity exists.

    One question: You seem to be saying that an empirically undetectable God is not something for which we can obtain evidence one way or the other. Isn’t that claim equivalent to saying that the probability that such a God exists is equal to the probability that he does not exist? If we had a basis for saying one of either existence or nonexistence was more likely than the other, then it would have to be true that we have some piece of evidence to defend that conclusion. Yet you criticized Dawkins for saying that agnostics believe God’s existence or nonexistence are equiprobable.

  18. #18 David Harmon
    November 14, 2006

    Some general points:

    (1) Parsimony implies that “a difference that makes no difference is no difference”. Whither Spinoza’s God then?

    (2) I’ve been saying for a while that many agnostics could just as well call themselves atheists, by simply reserving the right to change their mind if evidence appears.

    (3) There’s another way to make “unicorns” quite real, by combining redefinition and manipulation. Supposedly, a Neo-Pagan named Otter G’Zell has actually taken up this practice. (a) There are certain breeds of goats with straight horns. (b) A new-born goat’s horn-buds are attached to their skin rather than their skull. Plenty of time for a bit of surgery before they set root…. (Of course, making them “breed true” would be tougher, but these days, it’s probably possible, at least in principle!) ;-) :-)

  19. #19 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 14, 2006

    (2) I’ve been saying for a while that many agnostics could just as well call themselves atheists, by simply reserving the right to change their mind if evidence appears.

    I, as an atheist, reserve the right to change my mind if evidence appears. Therefore the distinction seems to me more a matter of terminology than substance.

  20. #20 johnc
    November 14, 2006

    Parsimony implies that “a difference that makes no difference is no difference”. Whither Spinoza’s God then?

    A deity that does not intervene or reveal itself in the world may, for instance, be believed to preserve one’s “soul” after physical death, to take one example. This would make a big difference, particularly if the price of entry were believed to involve certain behavioural expectations of the believer. And certain strains of Buddhism and other contemplative traditions do not involve belief in deities but generate moral and behavioural norms that are conceptually embedded in a non-rational metaphysics. Sam Harris, if I read him correctly, would say that the “spiritual” aspects of such beliefs and practices are (1) in some sense real, and (2) will be found to be reducible to neurophysiological functioning. He may well be correct about the first, but the second is far less certain.

  21. #21 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 15, 2006

    David Harmon wrote:

    2) I’ve been saying for a while that many agnostics could just as well call themselves atheists, by simply reserving the right to change their mind if evidence appears.

    …and, equally, many atheists could call themselves agnostic. I believe Dawkins admits as much. So if the viewpoint is the same, why use different names? Could it be for political rather than philosophical reasons?

    While acknowledging that faith has inspired people to act with courage and compassion, atheists seem to argue that the net effect of religion has been malign.

    In any event, since there is no evidence for any of the gods which have been worshipped over the centuries, religious belief is little more than a mass delusion which has distracted mankind from the more fruitful pursuit of rational inquiry.

    In the US, of course, the religious right has become more than a distraction as it has accumulated considerable political power. Atheists see themselves in the vanguard of a struggle to repel the theocratic hordes that are hammering at the gates of the Enlightenment. And there is little doubt that the likes of Dawkins and Dennett and Myers and Moran revel in their notoriety as the hard men of evangelical atheism, the Provisional Wing of the EAC.

    As an agnostic, while I support the fight against creationism and its stalking-horse Intelligent Design, I believe the focus on religion is too narrow and misleading.

    The real threat is from absolutist thinking: the belief that there are absolute truths which have been revealed or are to be discovered that justify any acts, however vile, in their furtherance. It doesn’t matter whether the doctrine is religious or political, the danger lies in the way they lure their adherents into the arrogance of certainty.

    I prefer agnosticism because, while it may be little different from some strains of atheism, it emphasises doubt and uncertainty. ‘Whimpish’ as those qualities may seem to some, they nonetheless foster the virtue of humility.

    And it is that virtue which insulates us from the seduction of certainty. The people who perpetrated the evils of the Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms, gulags and gas-chambers were not humble folk. Those atrocities were born out of conviction not doubt.

    Atheists, as proponents of science, should convert to agnosticism because, as defined by Huxley, it was a deliberate attempt to distance itself from any taint of certainty and is little more than the scientific method writ large. It would be the scientific thing to do.

  22. #22 Robert O'Brien
    November 15, 2006

    If you search the archives over on Good Math, Bad Math, you can find several articles on how Bayesian probability is abused in the service of theism.

    Uh-huh. Mark fumbled in his criticism of Richard Swinburne. As I mentioned to him, assigning God’s existence a prior probability of 1/2 and working from there is perfectly reasonable.

  23. #23 Robert O'Brien
    November 15, 2006

    But the best and most charitable view of God, for any religion, is not something that can be shown to be false using empirical data or logical coherence considerations. One has to assume that the centuries of very clever folk who are theologians have at least addressed the incoherences (although some incoherences, such as the Trinity, are “resolved” merely by declaration and arbitrary definition, but leave that to one side).

    Right.

  24. #24 Flaky
    November 15, 2006

    Ultimately it makes little difference, whether a god exists or not, but what we should do about it and how it affects our lives. Empirically untestable gods are worthless in this sense, as for any such concept of god as one might care to worship, it is easy to construct another such that it would be ill-advised to worship.

    Take the concept of karma for example, good deeds in life are rewarded with good in the after-life and vice versa. It is unsupportable by evidence, so the same (lack of) evidence supports the converse of bad deeds being “punished” by good.
    Would it be rational to adopt either one of these views?

    Therefore, in my view atheism is more pragmatic than agnostism. An atheist makes a decision based on the (always insufficient) evidence that there is not god worth worshipping and sticks to it until such time that evidence to the contrary might appear.

    The distinction between atheism and agnostism is rather not in any subtle philosophical differences regarding metaphysics, but in the everyday sense of reason and rationality.

  25. #25 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    Flaky wrote in my view atheism is more pragmatic than agnostism. An atheist makes a decision based on the (always insufficient) evidence that there is not god worth worshipping and sticks to it until such time that evidence to the contrary might appear.

    The distinction between atheism and agnostism is rather not in any subtle philosophical differences regarding metaphysics, but in the everyday sense of reason and rationality.

    That’s fine for you. But do you want to say that theists are being irrational or unpragmatic? That’s something you can only say if you are of the view that atheism is the only rational view, or that all people have to have the same pragmata as you do.

    I’m in agreement with Ian’s comment:

    Atheists, as proponents of science, should convert to agnosticism because, as defined by Huxley, it was a deliberate attempt to distance itself from any taint of certainty and is little more than the scientific method writ large. It would be the scientific thing to do.

    Or, as Wittgenstein once said, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent…

  26. #26 Flaky
    November 15, 2006

    John Wilkins: But do you want to say that theists are being irrational or unpragmatic? That’s something you can only say if you are of the view that atheism is the only rational view, or that all people have to have the same pragmata as you do.

    I think it is rather evident that theists, at least the most vocal ones, often are irrational, however intelligent they might be.

    As to pragmatism, my concern is more about what values to base our societies upon and what sort of behaviour can we be expected to require from others. The only rational (as in common sense) view I see is that such values be based upon, or be coherent with, reason and evidence to such extent as possible and omitting anything in excess to those. This means that gods cannot be a part of governmental decision making. Furthermore, in any situation where a decision must be made between a particular theistic position and an atheistic one, the latter must be chosen. (There is no middle ground here, as the god in question either exists or it doesn’t and the course of action demands commitment to either view. E.g. Should homosexual males be stoned to death or not, as the God in the Bible commands?)

    I should note that in no way do I wish to claim that (strong) atheism should be held as some kind of an absolute truth. Rather that it should be a kind of a rule of thumb: “When in doubt, opt for no god.” (Doubt being measured as the lack of evidence, not the feeling of doubt.)

  27. #27 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    OK, some responses;

    Richard Wein wrote John Wilkins wrote: But Zeus is a locatable god who lives on Mount Olympus. Just climbing Oympus is enough to disprove his existence.

    What if no one has climbed Mount Olympus to look? Should we then be agnostic about his existence?

    What about the resurrection of Christ (and other claimed miracles in the past which have left no evidence for or against their occurrence). Should we be agnostic about those too?

    If it’s a live question that Zeus exists, and we haven’t yet ascended Olympus, then yes, we should be agnostic about Zeus (and Zeus has one thing in his favour over the unempirical God – which is that he’s testable). Now, though, the only way to retrieve Zeus is to shift ground so that he is in some “ideal Olympus”, which is to say, insulate him from empirical disconfirmation.

    On miracles, I go with Hume, but I do not think that those who believe in miracles (that are as yet not confirmed, or are in-principle unconfirmable) are being irrational. They would be if they continued to believe in miracles after those events had been shown not to have occurred. [And so I think the Lourdes believers are irrational.]

    Jason asked: You seem to be saying that an empirically undetectable God is not something for which we can obtain evidence one way or the other. Isn’t that claim equivalent to saying that the probability that such a God exists is equal to the probability that he does not exist? If we had a basis for saying one of either existence or nonexistence was more likely than the other, then it would have to be true that we have some piece of evidence to defend that conclusion. Yet you criticized Dawkins for saying that agnostics believe God’s existence or nonexistence are equiprobable.

    No, it’s not a probability claim at the metaphysical level. Metaphysically the probability of any belief being correct is 1/(n + 1), given that none of the priors are independently ascertainable. Suppose we given all gods a name: Albert, Betty, Chuckie, Diane… now the question is, is the existence of one of these individuals as probable as the existence of any others or none? It’s not a matter of “some individual exists or no individual exists”. It’s a matter of “Albert exists, Betty exists… or none exist”. And since there are an infinite number of these individuals, the absolute probability for any one case is almost zero.

    Mustafa: If you reserve the right to change your mind if evidence appears, then you implicitly accept that your atheism is provisional, and that believers are not necessarily irrational. Call it what you like, but that is agnosticism. I don’t have an issue with your kind of atheism, but only with those who insist that I am an atheist. For me the question is whether this is even a question or not.

  28. #28 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    Flaky wrote my concern is more about what values to base our societies upon and what sort of behaviour can we be expected to require from others. The only rational (as in common sense) view I see is that such values be based upon, or be coherent with, reason and evidence to such extent as possible and omitting anything in excess to those.

    That’s not atheism. That’s secularism. And I am totally in agreement with secularism…

  29. #29 Richard Wein
    November 15, 2006

    John, you didn’t answer all my questions , but I infer (from your answer on Zeus) that you think we should be agnostic as to whether the world is immensely old or was created 6000 years ago with the appearance of being immensely old, and as to whether Christ was miraculously resurrected. And since you think we should be agnostic on these issues, I take it that you are agnostic on these issues. OK?

    John Wilkins wrote: No, it’s not a probability claim at the metaphysical level. Metaphysically the probability of any belief being correct is 1/(n + 1), given that none of the priors are independently ascertainable. Suppose we given all gods a name: Albert, Betty, Chuckie, Diane… now the question is, is the existence of one of these individuals as probable as the existence of any others or none? It’s not a matter of “some individual exists or no individual exists”. It’s a matter of “Albert exists, Betty exists… or none exist”. And since there are an infinite number of these individuals, the absolute probability for any one case is almost zero.

    Such attempts at assigning probabilities seem futile to me, as they depend entirely on how you choose which possibilities to include in the set. As you’ve done it, we could say that the probability some god exists is almost one.

    Similarly, we could say that all these possibilities are equally probable: Albert created the world 6000 years ago with the appearance of being immensely old; Betty created the world 6000 years ago with the appearance of being immensely old, … the world actually is immensely old. So the last of these is just one of infinitely many possibilities, and therefore has a probability of almost zero.

  30. #30 Richard Wein
    November 15, 2006

    To clarify, when I said that “such” attempts to assign probabilities are futile, I meant attempts that involve assigning equal probability to all the possibilities.

  31. #31 MartinM
    November 15, 2006

    It’s not a matter of “some individual exists or no individual exists”. It’s a matter of “Albert exists, Betty exists… or none exist”. And since there are an infinite number of these individuals, the absolute probability for any one case is almost zero

    A) the total number of unicorns in existence must be a non-negative integer

    B) zero is simply one element of the infinite set of non-negative integers

    C) therefore, the probability that no unicorns exist is zero

    This is, of course, utter bollocks.

  32. #32 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 15, 2006

    Johnc:

    A deity that does not intervene or reveal itself in the world may, for instance, be believed to preserve one’s “soul” after physical death, to take one example.

    Since there is also no evidence for souls, I don’t see how that would gain you any traction WRT assembling a rational justification.

    Ian H Spedding FCD:

    And there is little doubt that the likes of Dawkins and Dennett and Myers and Moran revel in their notoriety

    Why is there little doubt about that?

    Atheists, as proponents of science, should convert to agnosticism because, as defined by Huxley, it was a deliberate attempt to distance itself from any taint of certainty and is little more than the scientific method writ large. It would be the scientific thing to do.

    Sure, Spedding. Just as soon as you announce to the world that you are agnostic about a flat Earth. It’s the scientific thing to do. I’ll be checking the news wires for your announcement.

    John Wilkins:

    Mustafa: If you reserve the right to change your mind if evidence appears, then you implicitly accept that your atheism is provisional, and that believers are not necessarily irrational.

    Of course I accept that my atheism is provisional. I do not see that this leads to accepting that believers are irrational.

    Flat Earth: My believe that the Earth is not flat is based on evidence, and is therefore provisional. I acknowledge the possibility that new evidence could arise, and if so I might change my mind. That does not mean that I consider the possibility to be likely, or that I consider those who hold to the flat Earth view despite the current lack of evidence in their favor to be rational.

  33. #33 Mike
    November 15, 2006

    John wrote:
    Mustafa: If you reserve the right to change your mind if evidence appears, then you implicitly accept that your atheism is provisional, and that believers are not necessarily irrational. Call it what you like, but that is agnosticism.

    No, confirming at some future time that God exists does not make present belief rational.

  34. #34 Katie
    November 15, 2006

    Seems to me the various positions can be summed up in a table tracking one’s view/position on the existence, idenitity and efficacy of God. (Many apologies for the icky formatting; it’s the best I could manage and was allowed).

    Person: God’s existence/God’s Identity/Any effects?

    True believer: Yes, so -> Yes, whatever, so -> doesn’t matter

    Pragmatic believer: Yes b/c …. b/c It works

    Irrational athesit: No b/c …. b/c No evidence

    Rampant skeptic: Can’t know b/c Can’t know b/c doesn’t matter or can’t know

    Empiricist: Depends on ID b/c ID matters but Not yet

    Rational atheist: No b/c ID matters & invalid b/c no & data matter

    Rational believer: Yes b/c ID matters & valid b/c yes/no/data matters

    So really it boils down to an investigation of both the evidence for and concept of God (or insert any other supernatural being here). Although I won’t let loose a whole rant on the formation of the concept of God, and valid concept formation in general, I’ll just say that the concept of a supernatural being is broken, no matter how many people hold it. This is because it was formed without accurate, thorough-going reference to reality, so it cannot claim a referent in reality.

  35. #35 Jim Harrison
    November 15, 2006

    I don’t the key criterion here is not a matter of logic, but of pragamatics. I take it a speaker should normally make the strongest claim he can warrant. I shouldn’t say “some men are mortal” when I know damned well that they all are since the weaker statement misleads the listener. If I say “I don’t know whether God exists,” when I would say “I know God doesn’t exist” if I were speaking about anything beside God with the same amount of warrant, I’d violate an important rule of discourse, presumably out of political calculation.

    Note: obviously “God” can and has been defined in ways so as to make the proposition “God exists” true, likely, or indeterminate. For example, Pliny the Elder defined God as man helping man. Since men sometimes help men. There is obviously a God. Unfortunately, speaking as if the special definitions of God that have been cooked up by various philosophers have anything very much to do with the object of popular devotion is a stretch. Talking this way may not count as an amphiboly, but it is definitely a paralogism.

  36. #36 Katie
    November 15, 2006

    Need I point out that pragmatics – which boil down to doing, saying, or believing whatever one “wishes” to designate as “working” or “being good”, the unswerving facts of a single reality (and therefore logic and standards) be damned (or mealymouthed into impotence) – are yet another variant of subjectivism? That kind of approach has no place in determining the existence or nature of anything (material or mental), because to determine is to evaluate, and to evaluate is to judge by reference to a standard. To have traction on reality, this standard must square essentially with reality, to the best of our present ability. Pragmatism is singularly unconcerned with what “actually” or “essentially” is (absolutes are dogmatic and irrational; truth is a myth; rationality a preference), only with what appears to work, “how ever” it manages to work; the *why* has been dispensed with.

    Yet that *why* is both the seed and soil of science. It seeks the causes of things, in reality, by use of a comprehensive logic combined with perceptual observation, and judged against an ultimate standard: reality. While Pragmatism might like to claim this standard, it fails as a philosophy because it’s not interested in *why* reality is THE standard (for science or Pragmatism or anything else), how that intersects with knowledge building, (or values or human relations) or WHY anything is as it is. “It works. That’s what matters.” But why? Not mechanistically or materially (that’s usually the job of a science), but conceptually, fundamentally, philosophically? Pragmatism’s got nothing to offer; it has defaulted on its job as a philosophy.

    Pragmatism is no friend of science – it acts as a parroting acolyte at best – and whatever success or consilience it claims is at the expense of consistency and integration of its own self-proclaimed tenets. But then, Pragmatism was never concerned with the confines of a single reality or the injunctions that reality imposes on those seeking life within its borders.

    An a-cerebral philosophy espoused by a philosopher becomes, in its promulgation, an anti-cerebral philosophy. It stops people from thinking, by example and by principle. I find this beyond unacceptable from any who are paid to think.

  37. #37 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    Katie (thanks for the organisation in Berkeley, by the way!) I think you are both misconstruing Jim, and deflationarily treating pragmatism. Jim is talking, I think, in the “praxis” sense – what is it we have to do, not what do we know or is everything subjectivist. He is (rightly) saying that I act as if there is no god/s.

    But pragmatism is the view that we are fallabilistic in our epistemology, and that we do not have access to absolutes when we know something. Truth is truth, not Truth, particularly in science. Instead, what we call “true beliefs” are beliefs that have a payoff in their use. It’s not too dissimilar from the Quinean view that “to be is to be a variable in a theory”. As long as the theoretical framework holds out, we can warrantably assert that the entities posited by our theories are “real”, for there is no other sense in which “real” has (according to the pragmatists) any meaning. [As an aside, I'd mix in a healthy does of the "new experimentalism" of Hacking and others - if we can manipulate things, they are also real.]

    If this is subjectivism, it is intersubjectivism – knowledge is a property of a community of knowers who interact with the world. It is not a postmodern denial that there is a real world, only the claim that what we know of it is what we know of it through experience and conjecture. It underpins science and protects it against metaphysical absolutisms that treat science as “just another social construct” – it surely is a social construct, but it is also so much more.

    Jim, the “paralogism” point is well taken. “God” is a homonym for many distinct and diverse concepts. Some of them I am definitely an atheist about. But Trickster gods are very likely to be true, or else Resistentialism is.

  38. #38 Jim Harrison
    November 15, 2006

    I’m not promoting the philosophical position called pragmatism. I’m writing about pragmatics. Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that deals with “the use that can be made of the formulae [i.e. utterances] by interlocutors seeking to act on each other.” (Ducrot and Todorov: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language). Grice and other authors have attempted to formalize the rules of pragmatics by pointing out, for example, that the listener is entitled to assume that what I say is not just true and coherent (logically OK) but relevant and informative.

    Old bit. The captain is fed up with the first mates drinking and finally writes in the log, “The first mate was drunk today.” The first mate finds out about the entry and gets even by writing in his log, “The captain was sober today.” What the first mate writes does not logically imply that the captain drinks all the time, but it suggests that he does because by the rules of pragmatics, an utterance should tell me something that is, well, remarkable.

  39. #39 Katie
    November 15, 2006

    Thank you for pointing that out. I wasn’t aware of the technical term, but mistakenly took it as a general term of being pragmatic, which I find to be a word so infused with poor thinking that I can run away with it. I did try to make a general statement of my views, since I thought there was a chance I misread you (bad habit on this end…), and since several on this thread take quite pragmatic stances towards the issue of god. Thanks for the clear-up.

    But taking the overall issue of philosophy+science (waaaay beyond god now…), I must say I disagree quite thoroughly with the view of knowledge, existence, certainty, etc. that you have outlined. Let me moderate whatever gasp you may be uttering by saying that I don’t see the usual alternatives to your view as logical or exhaustive alternatives. While I’m not a crusading absolutist of the secular deistic variety, I’m obviously not a subjectivist, relativist, or Humean empiricist, nor a Rationalist in whatever tradition(s) from Descartes or other (more impressive) sorts, and from that single quote of Quine, I’m thoroughly unimpressed there as well.

    Let me tread over the line here and say that what you describe sounds like a kind of half-blind operationalism, painfully aware of all that we don’t know, but (pardon me) not tracing exact origin, development, content and nature of all that we *do* know. Omniscience is a retarded standard; we will always and forever get nowhere in comparison. To track progress, we need to look at the other alternative – knowing absolutey nothing. Since we do know stuff, studying that which *already* exists is far more instructive than forever staring at the gap between humanity and an infinite consciousness. Now, I’m sure you agree with that, but I bet we disagree in what that exactly entails (operationally….). So let me leave it there and just say I disagree with the way many important words are conceived of and used, and to the extent that we disagree, I suspect it’s for using the same word different ways. Words like absolute, context, certainty, existence, truth, realness, properties – there’s a huge amount I could say about any of these, but this isn’t the place for it, so I’ll stop now :o).

  40. #40 Ian H Spedding
    November 16, 2006

    Mustafa Mond, FCD wrote:

    Ian H Spedding FCD:
    And there is little doubt that the likes of Dawkins and Dennett and Myers and Moran revel in their notoriety

    Why is there little doubt about that?

    Observation – years of reading Dawkins, Myers and Moran. How many here would disagree?

    Atheists, as proponents of science, should convert to agnosticism because, as defined by Huxley, it was a deliberate attempt to distance itself from any taint of certainty and is little more than the scientific method writ large. It would be the scientific thing to do.

    Sure, Spedding. Just as soon as you announce to the world that you are agnostic about a flat Earth. It’s the scientific thing to do. I’ll be checking the news wires for your announcement.

    Huxley argued – not that he was the first – that our belief in anything should be in proportion to the evidence for its existence. Plainly, that does not mean that an agnostic should be strictly impartial on all questions of knowledge. Acknowledging that the evidence for a spherical Earth is overwhelming does not betray any principle of agnosticism.

    On the other hand, arguing that the lack of evidence for the existence of a god is equally overwhelming proof of its non-existence is wrong. Our knowledge of the natural world is far from complete so it is possible that evidence for the existence of a god remains to be discovered. Lack of evidence in this case is suggestive but not compelling.

    Nonetheless, given that this suggestive lack of evidence is all we have, an agnostic is not being inconsistent with his or her principles by acting, like an atheist, as if gods do not exist.

  41. #41 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 16, 2006

    Here’s Mahlon Marr getting specific with the probabilities:

    The odds for God

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

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

  42. #42 Xanthir, FCD
    November 16, 2006

    I’m of the belief (hah!) that it’s a ton of quibbling over words that you aren’t defining in the same way.

    You say that atheism toward a subject is the denial of any possible conception of that subject. Rosenhouse is saying that atheism toward a subject is the denial of any rationally detectable/coherent conception of that subject. Essentially he’s taking the incoherent/undetectable conceptions and pushing them into the Useless Box because they don’t do a damned thing for us. Positivism? Possibly. But they really are useless. Under his definition, you’re an atheist. Under your definition, he’s an agnostic.

    Others have said it well enough. Empirically undetectable ideas don’t accomplish anything. They don’t interface with the universe that we can reason about. You can’t do anything more with them than acknowledge their possible existence. Devoting reasoning time to them is, by definition, a waste of time.

  43. #43 Mark Probst
    November 20, 2006

    Your probablilistic reasoning truly baffles me. Let’s look at three out of the n god-cases you’re reasoning about:

    1. There is exactly one god. His name is not Enrico.

    2. There is exactly one god. His name is Enrico. He doesn’t care whether you sing while you’re taking a shower.

    3. There is exactly one god. His name is Enrico. It makes him very happy if you sing Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song while you’re taking a shower.

    Do you honestly mean to tell me that, without any evidence, you take all three cases to be equally probable?

  44. #44 John Wilkins
    November 20, 2006

    I take them to be all equally empirically verifiable.

  45. #45 Mark Probst
    November 20, 2006

    So you choose to be agnostic about the god Enrico who derives happiness from your singing Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song in the shower?

  46. #46 John Wilkins
    November 20, 2006

    In exactly the same way as I am agnostic about a God who created the universe so that His Son could be sacrificed on the Cross, yes. Or about Brahmin, Allah or YHWH. Nothing tells for or against it, so why worry?

  47. #47 Mark Probst
    November 20, 2006

    So how about a teapot orbiting Alpha Centauri? Nothing we know yet tells for or against it, either, but aren’t you pretty sure it’s not there?

    What, then, is the difference, between the two propositions (teapot vs Enrico)? Only the fact that the first one might at some point be empirically settled?

  48. #48 Pierce R. Butler
    November 20, 2006

    Presumably, in order to maintain his standing in the esoteric cult of philosophy, Comrade Wilkins is obliged to worship at the altar of Logic.

    Just as geology gives the bum’s rush to the god who last put in a full week of work 60 centuries ago, logic expels the superduperultragod of Judeo-Christian-Islamic notoriety, the one who is omnipotent & omniscient. (The usual third attribute, all-good, will be set aside here along with the Problem of Evil, since research data on divine twins separated at birth has not yet been published.)

    Anyway, as a good Platonic archetype stretched to wrap around abstract archetypes of wisdom and power, this putative Personage knows it all: the Heisenbergian locus of every quark, what you did last night, and which asinine liars will be nominated for World Emperor in ’08. And gee-oh-dee also knows what he/she is going to do about all this, including just which quarks & other entities will be smote, or mercifully not smote, for this forthcoming behavior.

    Which tears up the “omnipotent” part to itty-bitty shreds, because the big G is stuck in a morass of utter predestination. Knowing that G will not re-arrange the stars to spell out,
    “Oh, Me! Not Hillary, please!”, G is bound to watch helplessly as the disaster unfolds – or, G could try to warn us after all, an act of compassion that would belie the earlier claim to omniscience.

    In short, to be truly omniscient is to be utterly impotent, or at least trapped in time, unable to change one’s mind or actions.

    Some believers try to get around this paradox with a lot of hand-waving about how their hyperphantasm lives “outside” of time, where there isn’t any Kryptonite either. Any philosophers who can’t rebut this with their mouths full have to carry the senior philosophers’ books for them all semester.

  49. #49 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 21, 2006

    John Wilkins wrote:

    In exactly the same way as I am agnostic about a God who created the universe so that His Son could be sacrificed on the Cross, yes. Or about Brahmin, Allah or YHWH. Nothing tells for or against it, so why worry?

    There is no need to worry about the beliefs themselves. There is reason to be a little concerned about the large number of people who want to persuade us to share them. There is more reason to be more than a little concerned about the smaller number of people who are bent on forcing us to adopt them or kill us if we don’t.

    The concept of the meme in this case is certainly very tempting. We observe the more aggressive strains of belief tending to propagate more quickly and effectively by creating a unity of purpose and will to co-operate which is largely beneficial to their hosts. Other strains have occupied different niches in the cultural landscape by adopting different strategies. Those of the Amish, for example, tend to isolate the host population from external influences whilst appearing so benign as to pose no threat to surrounding groups.

    On this view, we have to ask whether the actual content of these beliefs has any significance beyond its influence on the cohesion of human societies. If there is none and I can continue to watch Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, Firefly etc. in peace then, as you say, “why worry?”.

    Strangely, I think I like Stargate the best at the moment because the villains are almost always self-appointed ‘gods’ who turn out to be powerful, technologically-advanced but not very bright aliens.

    Hmmm, that sounds familiar…

  50. #50 Gruesome
    April 23, 2009

    A good discussion, a frenquently used argument against agnostiscm is the famous teapot anology of Russel, which must of you certainly know.
    My impression however is that Russel’s analogy is deeply flawed from the start.
    He want to prove the following philosophical principle:
    if we have no evidence for something, it is hugely unlikely that it exists, or other formulated, we can know beyond reasonable doubt that it does not exist.
    He give then the example of this celestial teapot rotating right now around Mars: each sensible person would agree this example is completely absurd, even if we could not disprove its existence since it is too small to get detected. There exists no argument against the teapot, but everybody would agree it is completely silly to believe it could exist, and this the case because of the lack of evidence.
    However, I think most people would believe it does not exist not because of the lack of evidence ( which by itself would only justify agnosticism: I don’t know if there is a teapot or not) but because we have many overwhelming argument against its existence:
    teapot are typically designed by human mind, they could not appear through natural process, whether on the earth or outside the earth. Moreover, we have also solid evidences that no men was on the Mars, and the arrival of alien from an other planet who turned out to have developed exactly the same technology at the surface of Mars just to let that is highly unlikely.

    So, if there was only no evidence about the CT of Russel, I would be only agnostic about its existence, I know with almost certainty it does not exist because of the existence of strong arguments against its existence.

    The same thing is true by the way of the flying spaghetti monster: I am quite certain it does not exist not because of the absence of evidence (we have never seen it) but because of tremendous arguments speaking for its utter impossibility: a monster is a living thing, and we know living thing need a very good organized brain to exist, or at least a system able to handle information and to direct the body.
    Of course, no such entity could be made up of spaghettis, it is physically impossible.

    However, I completely ignore what kind of animals could have evolved on remote planets far away from our earth, and if I am quite certain there is no unicorn on the earth (with its description, it is impossible that such species would not have been detected although we have found fossils of a lot horses), I am agnostic about the existence of unicorns everywhere in the universe, I have no evidence for it, but I see also no reason why such an entity could not have evolved on an other planet (there are no known limits to the cleverness of mutations and natural selection) , so I simply don’t know.

    So, my BASIC EPISTEMOLOGY could be summed up in the following manner:

    - I believe with almost certainty the existence of things for which I have many evidences (that the earth rotate around the sun, that the human species has more intellectual capacities than the other primates, that each species share a common ancestor and so on…)

    - I don’t know if something exists if there are neither positive nor negative evidences (a plastic teapot floating right now 50 km away from New York, the existence of an intelligent species somewhere in the space which look like bears, a parallel universe with fundamentally different laws of physics and so on and so forth)

    - I believe with almost certainty that something does not exist if I have not only no evidences, BUT ALSO if there exists strong arguments against its existence ( a stinking invisible cheese monster hiding his odor and situated just between the keyboard and the screen of my computer, that my supervisor is in fact a disguised alien planing to invade the earth etc…).
    In each case, my “a-monsterism” or “a-alienism” does not stem only from the absence of evidences, but also from the overwhelming arguments against them.

    So, I think that atheism can not been assumed as a default position, before affirming “I know there is no personal God”, atheists have to provide positive evidences, the mere absence of evidences only lead to agnosticism.

    Now, many insightful atheists accepts that, and have in fact provided strong arguments against the existence of a personal God, like the obvious imperfections in the nature, the facts that human minds completely depend on the brain and that parts of the personality is destroyed if parts of the brain are damaged, the religious confusion and so on and so forth.

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