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…