Pharyngula

Freethought tag-team wrestling match

Make some popcorn.

Jason Rosenhouse says agnosticism is unjustified fence-sitting.

John Wilkins says he’s still an agnostic.

Larry Moran is egging them on.

Isn’t this fun? Let’s see if I can get them all pissed off at me. The agnostic/atheist conflict has been simmering for a long, long time so it’s always easy to fire up an argument.

I think it’s a semantic issue (there, I’ve already irritated Larry, who has this quote on his page: “The world is not inhabited exclusively by fools, and when a subject arouses intense interest, as this one has, something other than semantics is usually at stake.”) The problem is that agnosticism is really just atheism under another name (or vice versa), and the dissent arises from agnostics who assign a false certainty to atheists, and atheists who assign a mostly false hesitancy to agnostics.

I think what Wilkins is saying (he’s getting philosophical over there—it makes for heavy going for us feebly philosophized types) is that because there are god-concepts that are not internally inconsistent and have not been shown to be in conflict with empirical reality, he is not going to succumb to the sense of definitiveness communicated by the word “atheist”. He also places an emphasis on logical possibilities that are given some weight because he’s not going to assume the methodological biases of atheists and scientists are correct.

Sure. He’s right. We can’t disprove all ideas about god, and when Dawkins talks about probabilities, he’s applying scientific presuppositions about the way the universe works to estimate them, so it’s a little bit circular.

My rebuttal, though, is that any atheist who thinks about this stuff feels exactly the same way—we acknowledge the possibilities, leave open the chance that there is some weird cosmic thing-a-ma-jig, and openly admit that we are demanding evidence for it before will give it any credence. Wilkins errs, I think, in asserting that some kind of certainty lies at the heart of any kind of thoughtful atheism. It doesn’t—it’s indistinguishable from what he’s saying about agnosticism.

It’s simpler. I don’t believe in a god, therefore I’m an atheist. Wilkins says he doesn’t believe in a god, but he says he’s not an atheist…but it’s because he’s rejecting a collection of presuppositions he holds about atheists. He’s draping the terms with a lot of philosophical baggage that just doesn’t apply—if you don’t believe, you’re an atheist—and making the mistake of thinking that declaring yourself an atheist immediately closes off serious thinking about what it all means. It doesn’t.

Wilkins probably likes tangling up the terms in all that baggage, since that’s an occupational hazard for him, so go ahead and split hairs over the semantics. The bottom line, though, is that he and I don’t believe in gods, and we’d both get burned at the stake if we made the mistake of admitting that in a medieval culture. It’s all the same. My views on the matter are probably darn close to Wilkins’, but I choose to use the term with historical priority and less operational ambiguity, is all.

Comments

  1. #1 DaveMWW
    November 15, 2006

    It basically boils down to what you prefer to call yourself. If you think “atheist” implies unwarranted certainty, you might prefer the “agnostic” label. But when you realise that “atheist” does not imply any such thing, and that agnostics are atheists anyway, whether or not they wish to label themselves as such, it’s just a matter of preference.

    In which case you’d be a fool to call yourself anything but an “atheist”. Because atheists are cool and agnostics are dweebs who tuck their sweaters into their pants.

  2. #2 poke
    November 15, 2006

    Exactly. I don’t dislike agnosticism because it’s wishy-washy fence-sitting and we should all take sides in the Great War Against Religiosity, I dislike agnosticism because it buys into this misrepresentation of atheism as something unjustifiably certain. It’s like people who say they’re “not a feminist,” they “just want equal rights for women,” because they associate “feminism” with the Rightist misrepresentation of it as being rabid and unreasonable.

  3. #3 Despard
    November 15, 2006

    Good analogy, poke. I consider myself an agnostic atheist – I don’t know for certain and don’t think anyone ever can, but I certainly don’t believe in any kind of deity.

  4. #4 MorpheusPA
    November 15, 2006

    Interesting. I grabbed this from Merriam-Webster Online, which is not exactly a perfect reference but isn’t shabby, either.

    Agnostic:
    1 : a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god
    2 : a person unwilling to commit to an opinion about something

    Athiest:
    one who believes that there is no deity

    I think they bought into it as well.

    I define myself as agnostic because I am, proudly, a fence-sitter on this issue. I lack data, and I haven’t definitively gone far enough to move toward atheism. This is probably coming (hey, two years to agnosticism isn’t bad, give me some time). However, I neither disbelieve nor believe in an Ultimate Power of whatever form. My thoughts on the subject are still codifying and the jury still hasn’t returned a verdict.

    Functionally in the real world, my agnosticism is atheism. Given a real-world issue such as ID, I stand with the scientists and atheists and say, “Prove it.” I am happy to pull the lever voting against restricted rights, or increased special rights for religions.

    Philosophically, we each have a differing argument based on interpretation. Functionally, there is no argument. We stand at the same place.

    I’m content with that for the moment.

    Morpheus

  5. #5 Don Kane
    November 15, 2006

    You might think about the difference between those who beleive that there is no god and those that don’t beleive in god. I suspect sometimes that the superstitious (god-believers) think that the former is the proper definition whereas the non superstitious (atheists) the latter.

    We need names for people that believe in fairies and those that don’t.

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    November 15, 2006

    I think it’s OK to call yourself an agnostic, and people who do so aren’t fools (I’m not going to be the one to call TH Huxley a fool). I think the mistake is to make a big deal of the distinction, when there’s no substance behind it.

  7. #7 dale
    November 15, 2006

    Agnostics are merely latent athiests, in my book.
    I like to boil down the arguments for what we do-know-can’t-know arguments as an ethic of knowledge which I think is, “the ethic of respecting that which is known, acknowledging what is still unknown, and acting as if one cared about the difference”.
    If this ethic is considered, it would follow that there is not a goddamned bit of difference bx the two.

    At a more satyrical level, An athiest is a person to be pitied in that he is unable to believe things for which there is no evidence, and who has thus deprived himself of a convenient means of feeling superior to others.

  8. #8 Tim
    November 15, 2006

    I can certainly say that I do not believe in the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of monotheism. I also do not believe in Shiva, Cthulu, Thor, etc. So, when asked if I believe in God by any of these traditional ideas, the answer is a firm “no.” However, when someone asks me if I believe in a “higher power,” my reponse is generally to ask what the hell that means. I have no idea what a “higher power” or “something greater” might be, and as far as I can tell from talking to most people who ask, neither do they. So, I don’t think the question is a reasonable one to ask. I think this is roughly what Wilkins was saying (apologies to him if I am wrong). As to whether that makes me an atheist or agnostic, I don’t really know. I guess it just depends on which word I like better (still haven’t decided).

  9. #9 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    It’s that “latent” that I object to. There is a world of (probably philosophical) difference between “I know that Not-X” and “I don’t know that X or Not-X”. The former is a denial of some claim X. The latter is saying that the speaker has no knowledge either way. To say that an agnostic is the same as an atheist is to claim that knowing that Not-X is the same as not knowing either X or Not-X. That’s just fallacious.

    To assert that atheism is the same as agnosticism (philosophically) is to privilege the theist claim in order to deny it. Agnostics don’t do that – they don’t think that X is worth arguing over, because it cannot be resolved non-circularly. Sure, PZ Glyph and I both act much the same (although I’m not in the business of trying to convince folk that there’s something to argue over). But there remains a sensible definitional difference. Maybe some atheists are really agnostic about this. The ones I call “vocal atheists”, however, want to gather me into their circle against my will. And I’m really not there.

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    November 15, 2006

    I have to take issue with what seems to be the primary claim of those who consider themselves agnostic, that being that internally consistent ideas that are not empirically accessible present insoluble problems. Or, put more simply, you can’t disprove X through empirical means, so you have to sit on the fence.

    I don’t think either theists or agnostics have demonstrated that talk about God(s) and the supernatural in general is even justified. It seems to me that super-nature is a contrived category of things that are wholly partitioned from nature and thus not empirically testable. So since there is no way of knowing by scientific and rationalistic means whether supernatural things exist, we need to be agnostic with regard to their existence.

    But why stop there? Why not create a third category, call it “hyper-nature”, which is wholly partitioned from both nature and super-nature? You can talk about hyper-nature just as easily as you can super-nature, but that ignores the fact that I just pulled it out of my ass and haven’t demonstrated any particular worth of the category.

    And it doesn’t even stop there, as taking the above premise in summation implies that there is an infinite amount of things that can be made up that are not empirically testable. Are agnostics also agnostic about every single one? Or would I be right to say that a scientific mindset precludes giving credence to shit people just made up with no appeal to methods of rational inquiry?

  11. #11 Todd Adamson
    November 15, 2006

    I’ve always considered myself an agnostic atheist. Agnostic in knowledge of God and atheistic in belief of God.

  12. #12 Ruth
    November 15, 2006

    “To say that an agnostic is the same as an atheist is to claim that knowing that Not-X is the same as not knowing either X or Not-X. That’s just fallacious.”

    What is fallacious, as has been pointed out repeatedly, is your definition of atheism as ‘knowing that there is no God’. I have yet to encounter a single atheist who makes this claim.

    If ‘knowing’ is a necessary condition of atheism, then surely it follows that ‘knowing’ is a necessary condition of theism. The only true theists are those who ‘know’ for certain that their God exists. Which means that the only true theists are the rabid fundamentalists.

    All those ‘moderate’ Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc, who acknowledge the possibility that they might be wrong, are just as agnostic as Huxley and Wilkins.

  13. #13 Tim
    November 15, 2006

    I can certainly say that I do not believe in the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of monotheism. I also do not believe in Shiva, Cthulu, Thor, etc. So, when asked if I believe in God by any of these traditional ideas, the answer is a firm “no.” However, when someone asks me if I believe in a “higher power,” my reponse is generally to ask what the hell that means. I have no idea what a “higher power” or “something greater” might be, and as far as I can tell from talking to most people who ask, neither do they. So, I don’t think the question is a reasonable one to ask. I think this is roughly what Wilkins was saying (apologies to him if I am wrong). As to whether that makes me an atheist or agnostic, I don’t really know. I guess it just depends on which word I like better (still haven’t decided).

  14. #14 Bryn
    November 15, 2006

    Philosophers love semantic hair-splitting and it does make for some interesting discussions. In my mind, agnosticism is saying something like the following–”I don’t believe there are fairies at the bottom of my garden, however, there is a faint possibility that they may exist in spite of there being no proof at the present. Therefore, I believe that while it’s possible they are there and, proof forthcoming, I’m willing to change my mind on the fairy question, I’m reasonably certain there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden.” To be consistent, you’d have to extend that same reasoning to any other unknowable (Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, alien abductions, Bat Boy, Santa Claus, you name it). What’s so interesting is when people don’t; why does a Supreme Being get a pass?

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    November 15, 2006

    What is fallacious, as has been pointed out repeatedly, is your definition of atheism as ‘knowing that there is no God’. I have yet to encounter a single atheist who makes this claim.

    I think some agnostics take issue with Dawkins’ claim in The God Delusion that “there almost certainly is no God”. It seems to imply a sort of certitude (it even made me flinch a bit when I first saw it). But Dawkins’ talks about probability judgments involving God beings, and acting on those judgments. In a similar way, I think there almost certainly are no ghosts, so I didn’t plan around the possibility of getting bag-tagged by one as I went out to get my coffee.

    That is my problem with agnosticism: it works in that sort of super-abstract level of reasoning. Yes, you can’t be absolutely certain there is no God. But I’m Mr. Wilkins had to put a substantial amount of money down on the proposition, he wouldn’t come down on the side of God existing. He can correct me if I’m wrong.

  16. #16 Josh Nichols-Barrer
    November 15, 2006

    Deism in the 18th century was no less atheistic than modern agnosticism, or for that matter modern atheism. Discuss.

  17. #17 Mike
    November 15, 2006

    Fun to see you godless getting into your own sectarianism. Snarking at those nearest you for their insufficient purity is something we’re trying to move past, but I guess you guys are new at this stuff and nothing will do but you must learn for yourselves.

  18. #18 Tyler DiPietro
    November 15, 2006

    Deism in the 18th century was no less atheistic than modern agnosticism, or for that matter modern atheism. Discuss.

    I you were only to say that many of the Enlightenment era Deists during the 18th. century were actually closeted atheists trying to avoid persecution by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time, I would agree. But Deism is not an atheistic position, it is a theistic position that removes the more anthropomorphic aspects of the deity in question.

  19. #19 Tyler DiPietro
    November 15, 2006

    Fun to see you godless getting into your own sectarianism. Snarking at those nearest you for their insufficient purity is something we’re trying to move past, but I guess you guys are new at this stuff and nothing will do but you must learn for yourselves.

    Yes, rational inquiry and skepticism toward differing ideas is the exact same thing as sectarianism. We must suspect our analytic capacities right now, or else….well, you get the point.

  20. #20 George
    November 15, 2006

    Why I am an atheist:

    History. It is patently obvious that people made up God(s) sometime in the past to rationalize and explain things they didn’t understand.

    While agnosticism is a viable philosophical position, it is not necessary to go there, given the history.

  21. #21 Ben
    November 15, 2006

    Not to get on my high horse or anything, but why is this so hard to understand? Atheism is a position taken on a metaphysical question (does god exist?). Agnoticism is a position taken on an epistemological question (can we know whether god exists?). They are orthogonal – you can have any position you want on one without requiring a particular position on the other. The available positions, then, are four:

    - gnostic theist (I know that there is a god)
    - gnostic atheist (I know that there is no god)
    - agnostic theist (I can’t know for sure, but I think there is a god)
    - agnostic atheist (I can’t know for sure, but I think there is no god).

    Of the four, agnostic theists are probably the most rare – the standard example is someone who accepts Pascal’s wager. The next most rare is the gnostic atheist, for reasons PZ cited in his original post.

  22. #22 Caledonian
    November 15, 2006

    I would love to see the people who insist that we can’t know that there is no God to provide an example of something that they believe we CAN know doesn’t exist – and then to show that the evidence supporting that knowledge is actually stronger than the evidence against the existence of God.

    For that matter, I’d like to see them define ‘God’ before any other arguments are fielded.

  23. #23 tony
    November 15, 2006

    The atheist’s tombstone:

    All dressed up and nowhere to go…

  24. #24 Daephex
    November 15, 2006

    Two things:

    1) I tend to think about it much more simply– if you’re not a theist, you’re an atheist. Shades of gray need not apply.

    2) A friend of mine (though a non-believer like myself) often says that words like atheist and feminist are “tainted”, in the sense that they carry too much misunderstanding, baggage, and emotion when you use them. She says that for most people, they’re sort of a red-flag word that is rarely understood to mean whatever its being used for– so even if she IS an atheist, or a feminist, she’s not going to refer to herself as one.

  25. #25 Fox1
    November 15, 2006

    Fun to see you godless getting into your own sectarianism. Snarking at those nearest you for their insufficient purity is something we’re trying to move past, but I guess you guys are new at this stuff and nothing will do but you must learn for yourselves.

    Yeah, you guys have been working on that for how many centuries? And catholics are still the antichrist, mormons aren’t real christians, muslims and jews are/are not/might be going to hell?

    Meanwhile, we’ve still never moved from “snark” to “active homocidal action,” so, you keep plugging away, it’s still advantage “us.”

  26. #26 dale
    November 15, 2006

    “Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”
    – Thomas Henry Huxley, M.D., Essays on Controversial Questions (1889)

  27. #27 CCP
    November 15, 2006

    So…dispensing immediately with “certainty” which all thinking people reject as impossible in principle, it seems that one can believe or disbelieve in the existence of an un-knowable deity (or plural, at least for belief), and one can believe or disbelieve in the existence of a knowable deity/-ies. That’s 4 possible combinations and we need agreed-on terminology for each to avoid pointless semantic wanking.
    I’ll try it:
    disbelief in both: atheism
    belief in a knowable deity: theism (Gnosticism if really really knowable)
    belief in an unknowable deity: deism
    belief in both: pantheistic pagan infidelism

    huh…wasn’t so hard. No place for “agnosticism” in that system…all it could mean is a giant shrug and a “dunno.” Maybe a better term for that position would be “mugwumpism.”

    Because a mugwump is a bird sitting on a fence with its mug on one side and its wump on the other, dontcha know.

  28. All atheists will burn forever! It is or is not the will of God, who may or may not exist!

  29. #29 James
    November 15, 2006

    Ben and Todd know what’s up. Atheist and agnostic are two separate discussions. Agnostic is not the wishy washy middle ground, it is a statement of ones idea of whether it is possible to have the knowledge of a gods existence. Atheist is easy, either you have a belief in one or more gods or you don’t. There is no middle ground.

  30. #30 Caledonian
    November 15, 2006

    But by those definitions all agnostics are atheists, James.

  31. #31 commissarjs
    November 15, 2006

    It has always been a common rhetorical tactic to create a strawman for a contrary position. Those strawfeminists, strawatheists, and strawliberals certainly do make the rounds through the right wing crowd. After being repeated enough the label applied to the strawman itself becomes a pejorative term. Which of course was the point in the first place.

    If people have a negative opinion of a label many are less likely to accept the positions of those with that label. It’s really just an attempt to kick the feet out from under the opposition. If people won’t rally to the banner then there is no real opposition.

  32. #32 Robin Levett
    November 15, 2006

    Caledonian said

    I would love to see the people who insist that we can’t know that there is no God to provide an example of something that they believe we CAN know doesn’t exist – and then to show that the evidence supporting that knowledge is actually stronger than the evidence against the existence of God.

    OK. I believe we can know that no Hydrogen nucleus exists with two protons.

    Now show that the evidence in support of that proposition is weaker then the evidence against the existence of a God who has no empirical effect on the Universe.

    (This is a slight cheat, since i’m not sure I’m an agnostic – but I do feel that those who simply dismiss agnosticism just haven’t thought about it).

  33. #33 dale
    November 15, 2006

    Humans seem to be great mythmakers, and regrettably, great myth believers.
    I am trying to work out what survival skill this may have been linked to, but, the god myth like the jesus myth merely evolved like everything else.
    Certainly, back in the day, natyral phenomenon were classified as miracles or of supernatural origin by the pre-scientifics.
    The resurrection story is seen in other earlier systems before christianity.
    Christianity is just evolved from earlier astrological and cutural pressures
    What follows is a very basic article on this subject.
    When winter had passed and the sun was “born again.” The “Pagan” Easter is also the Passover, and Jesus Christ represents not only the sun but also the Passover Lamb ritually sacrificed every year by a number of cultures, including the Egyptians, possibly as early as 4,000 years ago and continuing to this day in some places.
    Easter is “Pessach” in Hebrew, “Pascha” in Greek, “Pachons” in Latin and “Pa-Khonsu” in Egyptian, “Khonsu” being an epithet for the sun god Horus. In Anglo-Saxon, Easter or Eostre is goddess of the dawn, corresponding to Ishtar, Astarte, Astoreth and Isis. The word “Easter” shares the same root with “east” and “eastern,” the direction of the rising sun.
    The principal Mexican solar festival was held at the vernal equinox, i.e., Easter, when sacrifices were made to sustain the sun. In India, the vernal equinox festival is called “Holi” and is especially sacred to the god Krishna. The Syrian sun and fertility god Attis was annually hung on a tree, dying and rising on March 24th and 25th, an “Easter celebration” that occurred at Rome as well. The March dates were later applied to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ: “Thus,” says Sir Frazer, “the tradition which placed the death of Christ on the twenty-fifth of March was ancient and deeply rooted. It is all the more remarkable because astronomical considerations prove that it can have had no historical foundation….” This “coincidence” between the deaths and resurrections of Christ and the older Attis was not lost on early Christians, whom it distressed and caused to use the “devil got there first” excuse for the motif’s presence in pre-Christian paganism.
    The rites of the “crucified Adonis,” another dying and rising savior god, were also celebrated in Syria at Easter time.
    “When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season.”- Frazier
    The salvation death and resurrection at Easter of the god, the initiation as remover of sin, and the notion of becoming “born again,” are all ages-old Pagan motifs or mysteries rehashed in the later Christianity. The all-important death-and-resurrection motif is exemplified in the “Parisian magical papyrus,” a Pagan text ostensibly unaffected by Christianity:

  34. #34 Aureola Nominee, FCD
    November 15, 2006

    Indeed. If one does not believe one or more gods exist, then one is an atheist. Period. I concur with the commenter that said the theism/atheism and gnosticism/agnosticism oppositions are orthogonal.

    Me, I’m an agnostic atheist (or, if you prefer, an atheist agnostic).

  35. #35 Robin Levett
    November 15, 2006

    CCP said:-

    So…dispensing immediately with “certainty” which all thinking people reject as impossible in principle, it seems that one can believe or disbelieve in the existence of an un-knowable deity (or plural, at least for belief), and one can believe or disbelieve in the existence of a knowable deity/-ies. That’s 4 possible combinations…

    None of which positions deals with whether existence or non-existence of a deity is knowable. Which is why you conclude:-

    No place for “agnosticism” in that system…

    Of course – you set the system up so there was no place for it.

  36. #36 Caledonian
    November 15, 2006

    OK. I believe we can know that no Hydrogen nucleus exists with two protons.

    Now show that the evidence in support of that proposition is weaker then the evidence against the existence of a God who has no empirical effect on the Universe.

    Easy: not only does that contradict the definition of ‘hydrogen’, the hydrogen atoms with two protons are ubiquitous but exert no influence on the rest of the cosmos.

    Stupid arguments work both ways.

  37. #37 CCP
    November 15, 2006

    oops. yeah. pants down.
    Actually the whole “system” thing was an elaborate setup for the hilarious mugwump joke.

    but seriously folks, I started by dispensing with certainty–we ALL admit that the question of existence/nonexistence is unknowable.

  38. #38 Steve LaBonne
    November 15, 2006

    The trouble with “agnosticsm” is that it unwarrantably singles out some particular notion of a god- generally, of course, whatever notion prevails in the “agnostic’s” society- as somehow being different in its epistemological status from an infinite number of other things, like invisible pink unicorns and fairies at the bottom of the garden, that are no more evidentially bereft, but merely less popular to believe in. That’s why it’s a blatant copout. It’s really a logical fallacy related to the use of opinion polls to assess the truth or falsity of a proposition.

  39. #39 Caledonian
    November 15, 2006

    we ALL admit that the question of existence/nonexistence is unknowable.

    No, we don’t. Some of know that knowledge does not require absolute certainty.

  40. #40 dale
    November 15, 2006

    Somebody said, “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a rather persistent one.” Einstein, I think.

  41. #41 quork
    November 15, 2006

    (This is a slight cheat, since i’m not sure I’m an agnostic…

    Of course not. Here’s a person who takes his uncertainty seriously!

  42. #42 Richard Harris
    November 15, 2006

    I go along with the argument based upon the improbability of any god’s existence. Quite apart from the obvious fact that the god of the Jews, Xians, & Submissionists (followers of Muhammed, piss be upon him) evolved out of earlier Mesopotamian gods, (Jahweh even had a wife originally), the acts of such a god as related in the bible etc, & the plain fact of evil in the world, when the god is also supposed to be omniscient, etc, & loving, show it to be a complete asshole if it did exist. So it couldn’t be as specified. The arguments from theodocy always fail.

    So the odds against any particular specified god are overwhelming, (although maybe not quite 100%), (& it couldn’t be as specified anyway because that’s logically inconsistent), therefore I call myself an atheist.

  43. #43 quork
    November 15, 2006
  44. #44 Peter
    November 15, 2006

    There is, of course, a perfectly good psychologial characterization of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism:

    Theism: belief in the existence of at least one god

    Atheism: belief in the non-existence of any god

    Agnosticism: (i) disbelief in the existence of at least one god and (ii) disbelief in the non-existence of any god

    (belief, not knowledge, thank you Ruth)

    An entirely separate question is whether there is any justification for being an agnostic which is not also a justification for being an atheist, or vice versa. (There may of course be a causal explanation of how someone came to be in one psychological state rather than another). As a result, the real issue is not whether there is a difference between atheism and agnosticism — there clearly is — but rather whether there is any reason for thinking one should be an agnostic instead of an atheist.

  45. #45 Mandolin
    November 15, 2006

    Among the people I know (or at least knew in college), the difference between atheist and agnostic was basically:

    Atheist: It’s impossible to prove for sure one way or another whether God exists, but since you have to prove positive claims not negative ones, it’s as fair for me to say God doesn’t exist as it is for me to say there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. There is no evidence for God; they are the ones who need to prove their claim; therefore, it’s easy for me to come down on the side of disbelief.

    Agnostic: The evidence for God and not-God is *equal.* Both sides have equally valid arguments. I couldn’t possibly say I don’t believe in God, because the argument for the other side is equally persuasive.

    with a side of:

    Agnostic: I want to believe there’s something spiritual out there — not a god, but — something. I don’t know what and I don’t really believe in it because I can’t identify it, but there’s probably something, you know?

    **

    I don’t know if these are functional outside the college dining hall, but more or less that’s why I tend to regard agnostics as actually giving me different information than atheists. They’re telling me that they reject organized religion and haven’t committed to a specific spirituality, but are interested in keeping that option open. They’re also generally telling me that Christianity, atheism, Zoroastrianism, and animism are equally valid possibilities and that the weight of evidence or non-evidence does not move in any direction.

    So, to the extent that there are stereotypes of agnostics as wishy washy, I think it may derive from that (since many agnostics of my acquaintance seem to want everyone to be ‘right’).

    And also, to the extent that there are stereotypes of agnostics as latent atheists, I think it may derive from a pattern I observed from many of my friends in high school and college: “I’m a Christian! Then: I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in hell! Then: I’m a pantheist — all the gods are right!” Then: “I’m an agnostic, can’t we admit that no one knows?”

    And then after an epistomologically tortured, but fun, couple years: “Yeah, I’m an atheist.”

    Someone upthread said that an atheist is someone answering the metaphysical question and an agnostic is answering the epistomological question — but it seems to me that which question you choose to answer is indicative of how you want your beliefs to be read, and to some extent, which question has the greater importance.

    This is not to say that everyone follows those patterns, of course, nor that agnosticism always has the baggage I described earlier. But given my prior experience with self-identified agnostics, I am not surprised when I probe further and discover they want to be spiritualist, or have recently been Christian, or believe the weight of evidence is equally distributed on all religious sides.

  46. #46 Rienk
    November 15, 2006

    Agnostics are the winners in a fence-sitting contest because agnostics make a 50/50 split decision: either some god exists or some does not. Atheists, even strong atheists, say that the probability of the existence of a god is so small that chances are bigger there is no god. The question is how small a chance there is that there is indeed a god.

    One thing I am rather certain about though: Although it might be impossible to disprove the existence of a deity, it is safe to say that we can refute the existence of all the gods conceived in the mind of man, from the Abrahamic God to Freya.
    And the probability of there being any god at all just got smaller.

  47. #47 CCP
    November 15, 2006

    “Some of [us] know that knowledge does not require absolute certainty.”
    Oh, I don’t know…are you certain?

    Actually, I agree with you. That’s why I think agnostics are mugwumps.

  48. #48 Steve LaBonne
    November 15, 2006

    There is a reason (a bad one) to declare onself an “agnostic”- residual fear of popular opinion. Nobody feels social pressure to declare himself “uncertain” about the existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden. And oddly enough, there are not a lot of self-proclaimed fairy “agnostics”. Coincidence? I think not. That’s why Larry Moran is correct- “agnostics” are wimps.

  49. #49 Ruth
    November 15, 2006

    “Yes, you can’t be absolutely certain there is no God. But I’m Mr. Wilkins had to put a substantial amount of money down on the proposition, he wouldn’t come down on the side of God existing. He can correct me if I’m wrong.”

    More to the point, is Mr. Wilkins worried about the fate of his eternal soul? If he isn’t, I’d suggest that it is because he doesn’t actually SERIOUSLY consider it possible that any of the various gods who would roast it in hell actually exist. If he thought hell was a serious possibility he would be devoting at least some part of his life to trying to work out how to avoid it.

  50. #50 Blake Stacey
    November 15, 2006

    Just so youse guys know, the article dale copy-and-pasted above can be found here. While I’ve heard a lot of this stuff before, I don’t yet buy the whole package, particularly the identification of “Passover” (Hebrew pesach) with the Egyptian “pa-khonsu” (“house of Khonsu”, maybe?). The article is wrong in claiming that Khonsu is an epithet or alternate name for Horus — Khonsu was the son of Amon-Ra and Mut, while Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris. Even when he’s wearing the Horus-style falcon head, he can be told apart by the crescent-moon hat.

    Furthermore, Isis is not a goddess of the dawn, and AFAIK connecting her with Astarte/Ishtar is extremely dubious New Age pseudo-scholarship. A much closer parallel to Astarte/Ishtar in Egyptian mythology would be Hathor.

    Pedantically speaking, it is also incorrect to treat Passover as synonymous with Easter, but that doesn’t matter so much.

    Our modern word Passover was coined, along with atonement, by William Tyndale. (You recall, he was the guy who dared to translate Scripture into English and got burnt to death as a result. Too bad he lived a few generations too early to work on the King James Version, a book which owes him a considerable debt.) The actual meaning of the Hebrew word pesach is, AFAIK, unknown; Tyndale coined the English word Passover to express how the vengeful Lord our God skipped over houses decorated with lamb’s blood instead of killing the firstborn sons of those families. Yea verily, the Good Lord works in mysterious, cruel and breathtakingly inefficient ways, as Penn Jillette has spoken unto thee.

  51. #51 Will E.
    November 15, 2006

    Bryn said: “To be consistent, you’d have to extend that same reasoning to any other unknowable (Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, alien abductions, Bat Boy, Santa Claus, you name it). What’s so interesting is when people don’t; why does a Supreme Being get a pass?”

    Easy–because Bigfoot, Nessie, Santa Claus, etc., are not wrapped up in the daily human round of birth, death, morality, eating, cleanliness, social interaction and so on. I think Boyers’ Religion Explained is a great book on how god(s) “explain” these realities, but other fictional creatures do not.

    dale said: “Humans seem to be great mythmakers, and regrettably, great myth believers.”

    Yes. Darwin/Dawkins did not make me an atheist; Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade did.

  52. #52 Ruth
    November 15, 2006

    “Of the four, agnostic theists are probably the most rare”

    They’re not rare at all. How many theists do you know who are absolutely certain that they are right? The ones who ARE certain are the ones who want to force everyone else to agree with them. Obviously they would, since they KNOW they’re right.

    Moderate theists are ‘moderate’ precisely because they acknowledge the possibility that they might be wrong, and that therefore other, potentially correct, belief positions should be respected. All such ‘moderate’ theists are agnostic theists.

  53. #53 Joshua
    November 15, 2006

    Personally, I think atheism and agnosticism are completely orthogonal ideas. You can have atheist agnostics as well as atheists who aren’t agnostic (the mythical 100% certain atheists) and agnostics who aren’t atheists (extremely heterodox, but out there nonetheless).

    But I don’t like the term “agnostic” precisely because of the wishy-washy connotations. I think that what agnostics mean when they describe themselves as such is actually skeptic. It’s the same epistemologic stance, essentially, that positions cannot and should not be held without evidence. The difference is really a matter of scope. “Agnostic” is a term that applies primarily to religion, whereas “skeptic” is quite general.

    Anyway, I’ve taken to called myself an “apatheist” just as a bit of a joke. I’m pretty sure God doesn’t exist, but frankly I don’t give a damn. If he’s anything like the Christian God, I want nothing to do with him anyway. I was quite disappointed to find that someone coined the word before me.

  54. #54 Francesco Franco
    November 15, 2006

    It is one of the classic debates of philosophy and it is fundamnetally a semantic issue. Since I lean strongly toward Wittgensteinianism, though, I think most philosophical problems are brough about by conceptual/linguistics confusions. Personally, I permanently abandoned agnosticism when I realized that most of my more left-leaning Italian relatives and friends who went to Church, prayed, explicitly called themsleves Catholics, took the Pope’s proclamations seriously, and so forth, constantly referred to themslves as agnostics. Then, I thought about it and also realized that they had a strong logical case going for them: they’re claim is simply that they do not know for certain,i.e. cannot empirically prove or matematically demonstarte the existence of god, but this obviously does not prevent them from beleiving (even strongly ) in the existence of god, hence they are observant Catholic agnostics!! Now, I do not believe in god and do not wish to be classified with this sort of pesudo-intellectual fashionable Catholic agnosticism, so I reasoned my way out of agnositicism very simply as follows: I do not belive that god exists (although I cannot claim anything close to knowledge in the sense of falsification of the hypthesis of its existecne).And that is to say: I beleive that god does not exist, therefore I am an a-theist. Period. Agnosticism is an intellectual cop-out and the term should be abolished from the langauge (all langauges). You either believe or you don’t. Period.

  55. #55 Southern Fried Skeptic
    November 15, 2006

    Social pressure is a powerful force in promoting the label “Agnostic”. There are those who say that atheism is offensive because it is the equivalent of saying, “I dismiss everything you find sacred and believe in.” and (though I disagree with the implications of that position)such people would most likely be able to honestly call themselves agnostic. But it is similar to those who say “I support traditional families” while campaigning against gay rights. I want to say, “Good for you! So do I! But I also support non-traditional families”. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. One can be a theist who admits that absolute certainty is not attainable. They proudly say that it is a matter of faith. One can also be an atheist who admits the same conclusion about ultimate knowledge. Both are agnostic. Agnostic is only important in a philosophical sense, but is a meaningless term in any practical sense. Still, it will be worn as a hat of convenience as long as anti-atheistic views remain socially prevalent.

  56. #56 Joshua
    November 15, 2006

    Oh, damn! I see the orthogonal thing has come up twice before.

    Well, here’s another meme (appropriate term, considering Dawkins’ name being thrown around here) for the thread: “distinction without a difference”. That’s been popping up lately, and I think it applies quite well here.

    “What’s so interesting is when people don’t; why does a Supreme Being get a pass?”

    Preeeeee-cisely. It shouldn’t.

    “Snarking at those nearest you for their insufficient purity is something we’re trying to move past”

    Obviously trolling, but still. How many sects of Christianity are we up to now? Just in the US? I believe it was PZ who wrote about churches as social centers and how they fail at that role because people from one church refuse to interact with people from the others. So I guess ostracism and isolation is supposed to be a better response to a difference in position than rational argument?

  57. #57 Grog
    November 15, 2006

    Back in University, one of my professors used the term atheist in a very specific way that I’ve always kind of liked:

    Atheism is simply to view something “without god” – in other words without regard for a particular theism involved.

    I’ve always felt that the religious crowd has mangled the term atheist to make it an epithet, a word used to condemn others who see the world through different lenses.

  58. #58 Doozer
    November 15, 2006

    agnosticism is unjustified fence-sitting

    Yeah, yeah, yeah.
    “Which side are you on, boy?”
    “Let’s ‘know’ something, even if it’s wrong”
    “You’re either with us, or agin’ us!”

    I like Eddington’s view better;
    “The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”

    I confess that people who profess to have it All Figured Out sorta irritate me…

    And just to be clear, all religions suck absolutely at all times and in all places. But I still defend their right to exist. Just, you know, leave the rest of us the hell alone, mkay? Thanks.

  59. #59 RickD
    November 15, 2006

    When I was in college, I had a friend who insisted he wasn’t cheating on his girlfriend with another girl, even if he and the other girl were in the habit of getting naked together and indulging in heavy petting. I always thought he was kidding himself.

    That’s sort of how I feel about agnostics who insist they are not atheists.

  60. #60 JY
    November 15, 2006

    When someone declares “I am an atheist” but then patiently explains that the word doesn’t mean what a large percentage of people think it means (hell, even the dictionary gets it wrong!), it makes me wonder whether they really care, or understand, that the purpose of language is to communicate. If you use a word that most people ‘misunderstand’ to mean “I know not-X”, and you know that they are apt to misunderstand, then what is the purpose, other than miscommunication?

    For better or worse, atheist connotes some thing much stronger to the typical listener than a ‘lack of belief’, and the most conscientious listener who turns to a dictionary for clarification will not be told it means ‘lack of belief’. Arguments from etymology, or historical usage miss the point if the point is to communicate.

    If you want people to come away from a conversation with you with the understanding that you reject any idea of God or abstract ‘higher power’, then by all means, atheist is the word for you. If you want people to come away from the conversation with the understanding that you regard the idea of God as unresolvable, and (perhaps) of little pragmatic usefulness, then your word is agnostic. If you want people to come away with the idea that although you believe that there’s no 100% certain way to show that there isn’t a God, you believe one should provisionally reject most ‘live’ God concepts as improbable, then you’re going to have to explain that position in detail. There’s no word currently in play that captures it unambiguously.

  61. #61 George
    November 15, 2006

    Theologians who spend their lives arguing for the credibility of a church and steering its policies, thereby furthering belief in God, could have spent their time on earth more wisely by denoucing religion as a farce and a fantasy. The Tillichs, Barths, and Kungs of this world are not high on my list of admirable people. I don’t care how liberal they are.

    No well-educated person should believe in God in this day and age, or feel in the least equivocal about whether he/she/it exists.

  62. #62 Joshua
    November 15, 2006

    As one of those semantic-splitting philosophers (who is also an atheist), I would like to preserve the (in my mind, real) distinction between atheism and agnosticism. The reason for this is that many people are self-described agnostics, or at least clearly hold the beliefs ascribed to agnostics, but are also theists. For instance, Kierkegaard is pretty clearly committed to an agnostic view of God. Any person believing in god on the basis of Pascal’s Wager or its variants (such as W. James) would also seem to accept agnosticism about God.

    It seems many people are mistaking agnostics for agnosticism in this thread. Agnostics might hold all sorts of other beliefs about god, but the relevant claims to examine are those specificially about agnosticism. And here it seems pretty clear that agnosticism is an epistemological position about the knowability of certain kinds of metaphysical propositions. It usually involves the claim that we don’t have an adequate epistemological method to ever have knowledge about certain kinds of entities (and laying aside another red herring, note that knowledge doesn’t have to equal certainty in the Cartesian sense of logical possibility). Generally this is interpreted as non-empirical entities (as most agnostics are empiricists), but it need not be.

    But of course this is a meta-religious claim. By acknowledging that we might never know that god does, or does not exist, the agnostic is not claiming that anything about the actual existence of god(s). It is still perfectly possible to believe in a god (a la Kierkegaard) or not believe in a god (as is the case with most self-described agnostics).

    So should we say that all agnostics either are also either theists or atheists? Here is where it gets a bit trickier. The nature of belief is a hotly debated topic, but it seems possible to pick out at least two possible ways of being an atheist (from George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God), either (1) believing there is no god (AtheistA), or (2) not having a belief in any god (AtheistB). Obviously, (1) is the stronger position, and one way of understanding Dawkins is that he is encouraging those agnostics who in fact are atheists in the sense given by (2) to embrace (1).

    Wilkins is correct that ‘god’ (and its supposed synonyms in other languages) refers to many different non-existent beings. Thus, it seems unlikely that anyone is AtheistA about all the gods that humans have believed in throughout history. However, we still lack a belief in them (as we don’t even know what most of them are) and so are AtheistB about these entities (it is perhaps possible in principle to rule out most or even all conceptions of god by holding certain presuppositions about the nature of universe–positivist views might qualify for this, but this possibility doesn’t affect my larger point).

    It seems to me that the error made by many agnostics is to think they are holding some sort of middle ground between atheism and theism–that their lack of belief in the various proposed deities describes a position that is substantially different than other atheists, just because the grounds they have for that disbelief are different. But that is an issue distinct from whether they actually do or do not belief there is a god.

    There is a simple test for this. If you ask Wilkins, “Do you believe that a god exists?”, he would likely respond with either “I don’t know,” or “no, I don’t.” He probably wouldn’t say (although he coherently could), “yes, I do.” Thus, since he would not be willing to assent to the claim that any particular god exists, we would say that at minimum he doesn’t have a belief that any particular god exists. And thus he is an AtheistB.

    And both the AtheistA and AtheistB positions are atheist (no god)positions–it is just that the AtheistB is more easily defeasible.

  63. #63 PZ Myers
    November 15, 2006

    When I was in college, I had a friend who insisted he wasn’t cheating on his girlfriend with another girl, even if he and the other girl were in the habit of getting naked together and indulging in heavy petting. I always thought he was kidding himself.

    That’s sort of how I feel about agnostics who insist they are not atheists.

    Agnostics get to get naked with two girls? Are you trying to get me to renounce my atheism? I think my wife will now carefully and thoroughly explain to me that yes, I am definitely an atheist, and I don’t get to be one of those wild, philandering agnostics.

    Wilkins, you rascal, you.

  64. #64 Joshua2
    November 15, 2006

    Oops. Evidently someone with my name already posted–and with a similar point. Good job, Joshua!

  65. #65 Ruth
    November 15, 2006

    “When someone declares “I am an atheist” but then patiently explains that the word doesn’t mean what a large percentage of people think it means (hell, even the dictionary gets it wrong!), it makes me wonder whether they really care, or understand, that the purpose of language is to communicate.”

    So, in the days when many people considered the word ‘homosexual’ to be synonymous with ‘peodophile’, homosexuals should have just accepted that, and called themselves something else, should they, rather than trying to educate the ignoramuses?

    Why should we have to give up a perfectly servicable, accurate word to other people’s ignorance?

  66. #66 MartinM
    November 15, 2006

    If you use a word that most people ‘misunderstand’ to mean “I know not-X”, and you know that they are apt to misunderstand, then what is the purpose, other than miscommunication?

    Right, it’s the people using the correct definition who are miscommunicating, not the people using the wrong one.

  67. #67 steve s
    November 15, 2006

    We’re atheists about all kinds of things we don’t believe. PZ correctly points out that this is not the same as being completely closed minded on the subject. You could get me to believe in Santa Claus if you had good enough evidence. (It would have to be some goddam good evidence, though) But in the meantime I’m an atheist about him, as I presume Wilkins is.

  68. #68 Davis
    November 15, 2006

    …but then patiently explains that the word doesn’t mean what a large percentage of people think it means (hell, even the dictionary gets it wrong!)…

    I’ll just point out that the OED gives the following definition:

    1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

    This leaves ample room for discussions such as the one here. Do atheists disbelieve: “I do not believe there is a god”? Do they deny: “I believe there is not a god”?

    While I do agree that common usage determines meaning, I don’t agree that there’s the broad agreement on the meanings that you suggest. That’s exactly the problem.

  69. #69 Tulle
    November 15, 2006

    Well, all I know is that I thank God everyday that my dad was an atheist and my mon was agnostic. Therefore I never had to put up with getting to the right place, I was already here. So I don’t want to hear anyone bad mouthing either one, or you gotta deal with me. Cause bad mouthing either one is the same as bad mounthing my mom or dad!!!!

  70. #70 Millimeter Wave
    November 15, 2006

    OK. I believe we can know that no Hydrogen nucleus exists with two protons.

    You’re cheating: this is a definitional question, not an epistemological one. There is no “knowing” in the sense of belief involved here. An atom with two protons is helium, solely for the reason that we have previously decided that that is what we will call such a thing when we see it.

    It’s like saying “I do not believe in the existence of any word ‘atheist’ which happens to be spelled a-g-n-o-s-t-i-c”.

    Oh, and by the way, I think I agree with several prior posters that “atheism” and “agnosticism” are orthogonal concepts.

    I also agree with many prior posters that much of what is going on here is based on a strawman definition of what an “atheist” is. I call myself an atheist, and have done for the past twenty years or so, but my position is that I don’t believe in the existence of a god, not that I believe in the non-existence of a god.

    I can’t say I’ve met anybody who takes the latter position. This is to be expected; atheists generally arrive at their conclusion because they’ve adopted a worldview that says they want to see evidence before they will believe assertions. Naturally, they’ll also tend to tell you that if they see evidence of the existence of a god at some time in the future, it would change their minds. It follows from the same mindset that made them atheists in the first place.

  71. #71 Steve_C
    November 15, 2006

    I believe Dawkins uses the term Tooth Fairy Agnostic to make his point…

  72. #72 ifriit
    November 15, 2006

    Personally, I think the term “nontheist” is a reasonably good one, for the reasons Theodore Drange explains in this essay. If for no other reason, it clears up the semantic confusion by presenting a word that is not in common use and therefore has little negative (or positive) connotation attached. Of course, one problem here is that it is in the best interest of the religious for semantic confusion to exist; adopting a term like “nontheist” might eventually encourage them to simply insist it is identical to the common definition of “atheist” through the ever effective “nuh-uh, does so” school of argument.

  73. #73 Owen Phelps
    November 15, 2006

    “If you want people to come away with the idea that although you believe that there’s no 100% certain way to show that there isn’t a God, you believe one should provisionally reject most ‘live’ God concepts as improbable, then you’re going to have to explain that position in detail. There’s no word currently in play that captures it unambiguously.”

    Yeah, what JY said.

    (That’s going in my quotes file.)

  74. #74 Lola Walser
    November 15, 2006

    I’m an atheist to the lynching mob, agnostic to my peers.

  75. #75 Jenn
    November 15, 2006

    All we’re really arguing about here is definitions. The definition of agniostic has been horribly abused over the years, to the point that everyone seems to have (or have heard) a different definition for it. Atheist has become almost a pejorative, which is part of why I’m reluctant to identify myself as one. All the “lay” people I know think of atheists as extreme deniers of even the possibility of a god, which isn’t me.

    I like Ben’s definitions, so much that I’m going to repeat them. They make perfect sense to me, and I can imagine when telling someone else, they would at least ask me to explain instead of making an erroneous assumption about what I mean. By them, I’m an agnostic atheist:

    “- gnostic theist (I know that there is a god)
    - gnostic atheist (I know that there is no god)
    - agnostic theist (I can’t know for sure, but I think there is a god)
    - agnostic atheist (I can’t know for sure, but I think there is no god)”

  76. #76 JY
    November 15, 2006

    @MartinM

    Right, it’s the people using the correct definition who are miscommunicating, not the people using the wrong one.

    Presciptive dictionaries went out of style almost a century ago. Words mean what most people think they mean, with the probable exception of ‘terms of art’ — technical words within a discipline. If the lexicographers are right, then most people use atheist to mean something like ‘denies the existence of god’; hence, this is what the word means. That you think it ought to mean something different is fine, but you can’t reasonably expect people to know what you think it ought to mean, can you?

  77. #77 Davis
    November 15, 2006

    If the lexicographers are right, then most people use atheist to mean something like ‘denies the existence of god’…

    Except that a quick scan of a few dictionaries shows that “denies or disbelieves the existence of god” is common. There’s a fine distinction to be made between those two positions, and I think a lot of people here are making it.

  78. #78 minusRusty
    November 15, 2006

    Ah, yes. The atheist/agnostic semantic holy war!

    Been there, done that! LOL

    AFFINITY FOR EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!

    -Rusty (atheist, but technically an “agnostic atheist” in the sense that I can’t prove that that vague something for which there is no evidence doesn’t really exist)

  79. #79 JY
    November 15, 2006

    @Ruth

    So, in the days when many people considered the word ‘homosexual’ to be synonymous with ‘peodophile’, homosexuals should have just accepted that, and called themselves something else, should they, rather than trying to educate the ignoramuses?

    There’s a difference between thinking that homosexuality implies pedophilia and thinking that the words are synonyms. You’d have to convince me that the terms were once defined synonymously (i.e. that the latter was the case rather than the former).

    Why should we have to give up a perfectly servicable, accurate word to other people’s ignorance?

    It’s already been ‘given up’. If you want to ‘win it back’ somehow, fine, but then you prioritize language politics over communication. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  80. #80 Bryson Brown
    November 15, 2006

    I’ve always thought that belief in something could only be justified by positive evidence (roughly, the hypothesis that the something exists should really do some cognitive work for us). Disbelief, on the other hand, comes cheap (at least for me): Je n’ai accune besoin de cette hypothese, as LaPlace supposedly said to Napoleon. Agnosticism seems to insist on a middle ground here, in which we hold open the door for some hypotheses that (as yet) do no work. The usual reasoning I get from agnostics (my father was one for a long time) reminds me of Darwin’s remark about dogs… roughly, it’s just beyond us to decide such questions. I’m more inclined to taking our human standards for belief at face value: If we’ve got no evidence for an entity’s existence, and no idea of that entity clear enough to even start up an inquiry whose outcome could decide the question, that’s an entity I cannot take seriously even as a possibility…

  81. #81 Liz
    November 15, 2006

    I think you are all forgetting a key part of the “hard agnostic” position–that it can be synonymous with theological noncognitivism. That is to say, in non-philosopher speak, that even asking the question “Is there a God?” doesn’t make any sense, and so it makes no sense to answer it–because the question isn’t worth taking seriously.

    I believe this is sometimes called ignosticism, and it is distinct from atheism in that atheism deigns to answer the “Is there a God?” question with “no,” whereas a theological noncognitivist will say such a question is just noise, or, if she’s into Wittgenstein, that asking if there is a God is an abuse of language. In this sense, agnosticism is distinct from atheism and must be treated as such.

  82. #82 AJ Milne
    November 15, 2006

    Others have said it, but:

    By the accepted definitions, I’m technically an agnostic atheist…

    But keep in mind that even bothering to keep that ‘agnostic’ in there is really just being excessively precise.

    As in: no (again, as pointed out), we can’t prove there are no gods in the sense of having a mathematical proof. But this is generally true for virtually any claim that can be made about reality which would need to be verified by observation… and that’s everything outside fully self-referential systems from mathematics.

    Allowed sufficiently unlikely premises, with no demand that you provide any evidence for those, you could make just about any claim you wish about the world, bizarre as you wish, and come up with ways it could, technically, be true. You could argue the moon is made of green cheese… but of a sort of green cheese which looks entirely like ancient rock. You could invoke some whimsically conspiratorial aliens to explain why this might be.

    I couldn’t quite prove you wrong. I could drag in all the moon rocks I like, go up there, you’d just say the aliens were that stunningly competent about their deception. Awfully advanced buggers. But really, it’s cheese…

    I use this metaphor because this is in essence the character of the contemporary arguments that keep wiggling gods out of the way of disproof.

    Historically, some of the gods once lived in the sky and moved the stars. Folks went there, saw nothing, Kepler worked out the laws of planetary motion, and then those who believed in those gods just moved them. Now, those gods are everywhere… and corporeal if and when they feel like it. Or never… Or they write, apparently, the laws of physics, since astral bodies have been observed to move happily enough on their own without giant hands pushing them about.

    There remains, however, no reason to suppose there are such entities, however–just stubborness and historical inertia. Old ideas people are reluctant to let go of, now long past utility, but neatly rejigged to get of the way of what we can negate.

    So if it makes sense to call myself an ‘agnostic atheist’, I’d have to call myself an agnostic disbeliever of the given moon green cheese theory, too, I guess, technically…

    But both labels make about equally as much sense, and that’s equally zero. In the absence of all evidence, and given such obviously tendentious argumentation for deities–reduced, finally, comically, to ‘you can’t prove they’re not there… because we can always define them so you can’t…’, even adding that ‘agnostic’ qualifier is a rather foolish concession to an utterly ridiculous argument.

  83. #83 Blake Stacey
    November 15, 2006

    I find the “theological noncognitivist” position appealing. Having never gotten a straight answer about the problem of evil or the paradoxes of omnipotence — can Jehovah make the internal angles of a Euclidean triangle anything other than 180 degrees? — I’m inclined to pull out the Wittgenstein and say, “That we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.” If nothing you say builds on logically coherent concepts, shut your gorram mouth.

    What does this mean, that I’m itheist about the highfalutin, philozawfigal conceptions tied up with the word “God”, while being atheist with respect to all gods yet invented by humankind? Tricky, tricky, tricky.

  84. #84 Mark
    November 15, 2006

    Personally, I don’t believe in the existence of Agdistis, Ah Puch, Ahura Mazda, Alberich, Amaterasu, An, Anat, Andvari, Anshar, Anu, Aphrodite, Apollo, Apsu, Ares, Artemis, Asclepius, Athena, Athirat, Athtart, Atlas, Baal, Ba Xian, Bacchus, Balder, Bast, Bellona, Bergelmir, Bes, Bixia Yuanjin, Bragi, Brahma, Brigit, Camaxtli, Ceres, Ceridwen, Cernunnos, Chac, Chalchiuhtlicue, Charun, Cheng-huang, Cybele, Dagon, Damkina, Davlin, Demeter, Diana, Di Cang, Dionysus, Ea, El, Enki, Enlil, Epona, Ereskigal, Farbauti, Fenrir, Forseti, Freya, Freyr, Frigg, Gaia, Ganesha, Ganga, Garuda, Gauri, Geb, Geong Si, Hades, Hanuman, Helios, Heng-o, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hod, Hoderi, Hoori, Horus, Hotei, Hestia, Huitzilopochtli, Hsi-Wang-Mu, Hygeia, Inanna, Inti, Ishtar, Isis, Ixtab, Izanaki, Izanami, Jesus, Juno, Jupiter, Kagutsuchi, Kartikeya, Khepri, Ki, Kingu, Kinich Ahau, Kishar, Krishna, Kukulcan, Lakshmi, Liza, Loki, Lugh, Magna Mater, Marduk, Mars, Medb, Mercury, Mimir, Minerva, Mithras, Morrigan, Mot, Mummu, Nammu, Nanna, Nanna, Nanse, Nemesis, Nephthys, Neptune, Nergal, Ninazu, Ninhurzag, Nintu, Ninurta, Njord, Nut, Odin, Ohkuninushi, Ohyamatsumi, Orgelmir, Osiris, Ostara, Pan, Parvati, Poseidon, Quetzalcoatl, Rama, Re, Rhea, Sabazius, Sarasvati, Shiva, Seshat, Seti, Shamash, Shapsu, Shen Yi, Shiva, Shu, Si-Wang-Mu, Sin, Sirona, Surya, Susanoh, Tawaret, Tefnut, Tezcatlipoca, Thanatos, Thor, Tiamat, Tlaloc, Tonatiuh, Toyo-Uke-Bime, Tyche, Tyr, Utu, Uzume, Venus, Vesta, Vishnu, Vulcan, Xipe, Xi Wang-mu, Xochipilli, Xochiquetzal, Yam, Yarikh, Ymir, Yu-huang, Yum Kimil, or Zeus. I refer to myself as an atheist.

  85. #85 Jenn
    November 15, 2006

    “So if it makes sense to call myself an ‘agnostic atheist’, I’d have to call myself an agnostic disbeliever of the given moon green cheese theory, too, I guess, technically…”

    I don’t really understand this line of thinking. If you find the concept of the moon being made up of cheese just as impossible as the existance of a god, and you aren’t willing to define your position on moon-cheese, why bother defining your position on god?

    I find it much simpler to say that in general anything is possible, but on the specific issue of god, I am an agnostic atheist. : )

  86. #86 Chris
    November 15, 2006

    Ben’s definitions are incomplete: they leave out the possible position that it is *possible* to know whether there is or is not a god, but the speaker doesn’t personally have that certainty.

    There’s so many ways to be uncertain…

    I don’t think it is possible to certainly know whether or not there is a god, but I think there probably isn’t. (Additionally I believe that if there were a god, he’d have to earn my trust or loyalty just like any other being if he wants to receive them. Might does not make right, even when it’s divine might.)

    Whether you call that position agnostic, atheist or both doesn’t really matter; the position is what it is regardless of how it is labeled. Nobody’s going to burn in hell, or even at the stake, for failing to actively deny that there is a god.

  87. #87 AJ Milne
    November 15, 2006

    No. Jenn, I’m quite willing to say what my position is on the moon cheese theory. I don’t believe it.

    I’m quite willing to say what my position on gods are. I don’t believe in those either.

    It is only because people argue–entirely without positive evidence–for the latter position in such a fashion that they can render it impervious to disproof that anyone uses the term ‘agnostic’ with regard to this question.

    But given that absence of a demand for positive evidence, people can exactly the same thing for the moon green cheese theory. And for any other equally absurd position, for that matter.

    So, no, I’d say atheist is simpler. Agnostic atheist is redundant. And, worse, deceptive, in that it implies there’s actually some reason to think the arguments made for gods are any better than any argument of the same ‘you can’t disprove it’ character. They aren’t.

    Rephrasing and extending: if it makes sense to say I’m an agnostic atheist, it makes equal sense to say I’m an agnostic disbeliever in the contention that the moon is made of green cheese, an agnostic disbeliever in the claim that Elvis is alive and well and living with a heavenly choir of leprechauns perpetually singing Heartbreak Hotel in E minor somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, an agnostic disbeliever in the claim that cichlids actually have the power of speech but only speak to middle-aged men called Earl and only if they say the right thing first (and this thing is yet undiscovered)…

    I could go on. I won’t.

  88. #88 Jenn
    November 15, 2006

    I think this is our communication problem: “…it implies there’s actually some reason to think the arguments made for gods are any better than any argument of the same ‘you can’t disprove it’ character. They aren’t.”

    I don’t think there are any valid arguments made either way. So I’m agnostic: I’ve yet to see or hear proof for either position.

    What about all of the discoveries we have made in the last however-long, for which previously there was no proof? Germs, and germ theory, come to mind first. People ascribed illnesses to all sorts of unseen forces before that one was finally figured out.

    My point is that there are and always have been many many things in existance that we don’t know. Why someone thought up the concept of god is almost moot: the fact is that the concept has been floated, and just to dismiss it because there is no proof (or just to accept it because there is no proof against it) seems to be over-simplifying the issue to me.

    To me, agnostic simply means not knowing either way. I’ll be adding atheist to my label in the future, to indicate that at this point, I don’t believe in a god. The agnostic is just a modifier to make my position more obvious to the random peeople who ask me, and only listen long enough for a one or two word answer.

  89. #89 AJ Milne
    November 15, 2006

    I don’t think there are any valid arguments made either way. So I’m agnostic: I’ve yet to see or hear proof for either position.

    The reason you haven’t–as I said above–is because of the way gods have been defined. And as I’ve said: I can make any number of absurd claims which will have exactly the same character: you can’t disprove them; I can just arrange them so you can’t. There’s no evidence for them, but no matter; the same is true of gods.

    Or, again: if you chose to call yourself an agnostic atheist for the reason you just gave, to be consistent, it would be only reasonable to declare yourself agnostic with respect to all of the absurd positions just given. Cheese. Elvis. Talking cichlids. Etc. You’d have to explain to me why it would be otherwise, as I can see no reason.

  90. #90 Kaethe
    November 15, 2006

    I agree with the position that come the religious revolution (any religion, doesn’t matter) atheists and agnostics will both be up against the wall. But, when I call myself an atheist, I’m saying there are no gods, nothing supernatural whatever. To the average religious adherent, I’m rejecting their particular god. Falwell doesn’t hear me saying “no mumbo-jumbo”, he hears “the devil is my master.” Sure, Falwell is a nutjob who has deliberately changed the meaning of the word “atheist” to suit himself. But he’s not the only one.

    I think what Huxley was trying to do, what people who still embrace agnosticism are trying to do, is move away from a conversation about the likelihood of any one privileged god existing, to a general statement about how pointless it is to argue about anything that irrelevant.

  91. #91 Jenn
    November 15, 2006

    “…to be consistent, it would be only reasonable to declare yourself agnostic with respect to all of the absurd positions just given. Cheese. Elvis. Talking cichlids. Etc”

    Exactly true, and I would. Absent proof in the affirmative, I choose not to believe. But absent proof in the negative, I choose to allow for the possibilty. Of anything, including god(s).

  92. #92 AJ Milne
    November 15, 2006

    Exactly true, and I would.

    Well, feel free. But as I started out by saying: the modifier is quite redundant. Given any claim so engineered–in the absence of evidence–precisely to resist negation, you will always be absent that proof in the negative. It’s nothing to write home about. Or, rather, what little is interesting such cases isn’t the substance of the claim itself, but why anyone would have made it in the first place.

    And, again, using it specifically with regard to the existence of gods (and not, as people generally don’t) with regard to all such claims gives too much credit to that one entirely unsupported claim in particular.

  93. #93 Jenn
    November 15, 2006

    As for it being used specifically about gods: that’s the circumstance for whch it was coined, so yes, it makes most sense to use it in regard to gods. I just say “anything’s possible” to other unproven (or unprovable) ideas.

    I agree that in practice, the word may be redundant, but I think it speaks of a very different philosophy than just atheism implies. In practice, I don’t believe in god(s) or arrange my life in such a way that reflects said belief (I don’t worship one, I don’t follow a moral code supposedly written by one, etc.) But in theory, I do think it’s possible there is one.

  94. #94 Charles Stores
    November 15, 2006

    It’s all Huxley’s fault for coining the term “agnostic” and using it in place of “atheist”.

    T.H. Huxley, in coining his neologism, failed to recognize that theism (having a belief in the reality of God) and a-theism (lacking a belief in the reality of God) are ontological concerns, dealing with what is or is not real, whereas the terms “gnostic” (having knowledge of something) and “a-gnostic” (lacking knowledge of something) are epistemological concerns, dealing with what we know or do not or cannot know. It boots argument ill when the apples of ontology are mixed with the oranges of epistemology and if we want to think and argue clearly, we ought not commit that rhetorical sin.

  95. #95 Damien
    November 15, 2006

    Yeah, it’s semantics. I used to argue with my best friend about these labels — he prefers agnostic to emphasize not being certain, I prefer atheist to say that I have no belief in gods.

    Dictionaries and definitions: 1913 Webster has “one who disbelieves or denies” for atheist; it also has “a godless person” with synonyms of “infidel, unbeliever”. Similarly for atheism: “1. Disbelief or denial… 2. Godlessness”. And WordNet joins in with “1. The doctrine or belief… 2. The lack of belief.”

    As for the population: if most people think A means X, but most of the people who call themselvs A think it means Y, who’s right?

    And as pointed out, ‘agnostic’ is not a safe house because it *also* has multiple meanings and connotations, from “I am a wimpy atheist” (what it meant the one time I used it) to “I’m an atheist with this philosophical position” to “I really want to believe but know I can’t justify belief, but at least I’m not one of those atheists.”

    *Neither word* is an unambiguous label. They’re almost as imprecise as liberal and conservative or left-wing and right-wing. They constrain the probability space of what someone believes, but not all that tightly.

    Which is why I’ve been starting to refer to myself as godless. Back to Anglo-Saxon clarity. Godless Epicurean or Democritan if I want to slip in something positive.

  96. #96 BMurray
    November 15, 2006

    I think that the importance of the label “atheist” is purely political. The dictionary definitions, the camping one side of the fence or the other, the precise categorization of ones beliefs, are all irrelevant. Choose “atheist” because it’s important to defuse its derogatory usage by using it seriously and positively.

  97. #97 Steve LaBonne
    November 15, 2006

    BMurray- amen, if you’ll pardon the expression. ;)

  98. #98 Ruth
    November 15, 2006

    “It’s already been ‘given up’. If you want to ‘win it back’ somehow, fine, but then you prioritize language politics over communication. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

    Well, it worked for gays and blacks.

    And I don’t accept that it’s ‘prioritising language politics over communication’ at all. It’s prioritising acceptance politics over appeasment politics. How are we supposed to convince people that atheism is nothing to be ashamed of if we avoid the very word because we’re ashamed of it?

    Incidentally, what do you think you think we SHOULD call ourselves? ‘Agnostic’ clearly won’t do, as that ‘popularly’ means something quite different from what we want to communicate, as well, and with more justification. Should we be calling ourselves ‘Brights’, after all? (I like ‘Rationalist’, myself.)

  99. #99 Ruth
    November 15, 2006

    ‘Choose “atheist” because it’s important to defuse its derogatory usage by using it seriously and positively.’

    Right on the button!

  100. #100 Joshua(1?)
    November 15, 2006

    JY, I think you go wrong with your prescriptivist/descriptivist discussion in that we’re not just talking about words but groups of people.

    “Atheism” is only usefully defined as what atheists believe. You could define it as what other people think atheists believe, but what utility does that have? It doesn’t tell you anything about atheists themselves.

    By that rubric, Democrats are “a bunch of pansies who want to surrender to the terrorists” and Republicans are “a bunch of corrupt fascists who want to set up a theocracy”. These are both things that people actually believe about those groups, but I would say that they’re entirely false characterisations. No Democrat or Republican would describe themselves in that way, and neither definition truly fits all Democrats or all Republicans. However, that’s exactly what you’re doing when you allow theists to define what it means to be an atheist.

    So, even from a descriptivist position, what you identify as the “common” definition of atheism doesn’t really have relevance. What does have relevance is the definition of atheism used by atheists, which is what everyone else here is talking about.

    “Oops. Evidently someone with my name already posted–and with a similar point. Good job, Joshua!”

    YES! The day of revolution is at hand! Let us go forth and smite the infidels! JOSHUAHU ACKBAR!

  101. #101 noema
    November 15, 2006

    I’m very much on board with Liz on this one. I grant that if you take the terms “agnostic” and “atheist” literally, it will seem like we’re dealing with apples and oranges– with one term expressing an epistemological commitment, and one term an ontological one– and it does seem to me that if anyone claims to be an agnostic (as opposed to an atheist) because they are not certain of their disbelief in God is just hedging their bets, or perhaps wanting to avoid the stigma often attached to the term ‘atheist.’ Such people, I think, only wind up reinforcing that stigma and thus deserve much disapprobation.

    But I’m not sure the epistemological/ontological distinction really cuts to the core of how we wind up using the terms in ordinary discourse nowadays. And I think one can understand that pretty simply. Theists, agnostics, and atheists can be classified according to their response to the question, “Is there a God?” Nowadays, if you decline to answer the question at all, you are an agnostic. If you answer in the affirmative, you’re a theist; in the negative, an atheist. Now, you might be tempted to say that declining to answer the question is really just another way of giving a negative answer– in declining, after all, you are refusing to commit to a belief in God’s existence, and that can look like atheism. And surely some kinds of agnostics deserve to be called atheists (myself probably included, for reasons I’ll give).

    But some people decline to answer the question of whether or not a God exists because they really, genuinely don’t know– or they think there is equal evidence on both sides. These people aren’t atheists, for obvious reasons. But as Liz suggested, there are also people who don’t take the question “Is there a God?” to be meaningful at all. If you’re more positivistic in your inclination, you might think that the term “God” in the question is not really a meaningful term, for whatever reason you might like– and thus you might dismiss the question as meaningless or an abuse of language or something like that. I think that this result winds up very close to atheism, because it’s a wholesale rejection of God-talk, and thus a rejection of religion all together– a sort of radical atheism for that reason. But another way to reject the question as genuinely meaningful is to take it to be radically ambiguous with respect to meaning (and this actually sounds like the more Wittgensteinian complaint to me). Then you should think that, absent a whole lot of clarification, given the question “is there a God?” it’s just radically unclear what is being asked about in the first place. It’s not that the term “God” is not ‘meaningful’ at all (hearing it, after all, is not like hearing a word spoken in a foreign tongue), but that there are lots of things you could mean by ‘God,’ and if you want to actually ask a meaningful question, you have to specify which one. This is thornier than it sounds. Someone could offer, as a candidate version of the question, “Do you believe in the Christian God?” but this is plainly inadequate, since there are probably hundreds of versions of “Christian” Gods (some tripartite, some not; some interventionist, some not, &c.) Or someone could say, “Well, do you believe in a supernatural entity?” but I don’t think this is very helpful either, because “supernatural” also seems like one of those terms that gets thrown around willy-nilly without anyone having a clue what they’re saying. And so on. In fact, you could be this sort of agnostic while believing that no-one has actually given a clear sense to the question, “Is there a God?” but admitting that one day, someone might do so in a way that would prompt you to answer in the affirmative. This would vindicate the ‘agnostic’ label, in any case.

    I actually hold the last position ennumerated. I think the question, “Is there a God?” is radically ambiguous with respect to sense, and further that probably very few people in history have succeeded in asking a definite question using those words. But it’s still an open question, from my point of view, whether someone could provide a respectable sense for talk about God, and further whether someone could provide a sense that would capture some of what attracts people to talk about God without thereby representing an entity that is extraordinarily unlikely to exist. Probably this position sounds very weasely to people, but I think that in my case it is a way of approximating atheism without comitting myself to some sort of positivistic theory of meaning (where God-talk is an abuse of language, full stop), which I reject, or to the meaningfulness of most contemporary talk about God, which I likewise deny. I combine this sort of agnosticism with a tendency toward– did we call it ‘apatheism’?– insofar as I think that any precise working-out of the meaningfulness of the question, “Is there a God?” that would prompt me to answer in the affirmative would probably render that question uninteresting. Insofar as I hold this commitment, I suppose it’s separable from my position on the meaningfulness of the God-question, and represents a modified form of atheism. That is, I do not believe that any entity exists such that it both is God and is worth worrying about.

    As far as political rhetoric goes, I will happily call myself an atheist in many cases, although I am trying to occupy a position that winds up being, in some respects, more radical than ordinary atheism. Or perhaps just more convoluted and confusing.

  102. #102 JY
    November 15, 2006

    @Ruth

    And I don’t accept that it’s ‘prioritising language politics over communication’ at all. It’s prioritising acceptance politics over appeasment politics. How are we supposed to convince people that atheism is nothing to be ashamed of if we avoid the very word because we’re ashamed of it?

    First, who says anything about being ashamed of anything? Not me. I only advocate using words that mean what people think they mean. If you ‘deny’ the existence of god, there’s no particular reason you should be ashamed, and no particular reason you shouldn’t call yourself an atheist.

    But what is it that you want to convince people of? That it’s okay to be an atheist? Or that your particular worldview, which you describe with the word ‘atheist’, is okay (i.e. it doesn’t imply that you are an evil sociopath). I assume it is the latter. If the word ‘atheist’, as understood by a large number of people, doesn’t accurately describe your worldview, then you have two tasks: change people’s understanding of what atheist means (i.e. in effect, change the definition of the word), and then convince them that what the new meaning applies to is not a bad thing. Or, you could just forget about the word ‘atheist’, and simply try to convince people that your particular take on belief/nonbelief/etc. is not evil.

    You’re treating atheist as if it were some sort of fixed affiliation (like membership in a club). You say you belong to the club, but lots of people think that belonging to the club means something it really doesn’t, which you don’t like. But atheist isn’t an affiliation, its a description, and self-identifying as an atheist no more gives you the right to define atheist as self identifying as a genius gives you the right to define genius.

    Incidentally, what do you think you think we SHOULD call ourselves…

    I gave three options above. It could be there’s no one word that accurately describes your position.

  103. #103 JY
    November 15, 2006

    @Joshua(1)

    JY, I think you go wrong with your prescriptivist/descriptivist discussion in that we’re not just talking about words but groups of people.

    “Atheism” is only usefully defined as what atheists believe. You could define it as what other people think atheists believe, but what utility does that have? It doesn’t tell you anything about atheists themselves.

    I think this is 100% backwards. As I said in my post addressed to Ruth, atheist isn’t a club or affiliation, its a description of a (for want of a better word) worldview. If I self identify as an atheist, does that make me an atheist? If I self identify as an atheist, and also claim to believe in Yahweh, does that mean that ‘atheist’ now means ‘some people who don’t believe in God, and along with at least one guy who does’? Or do I get kicked out of the club?

    Your analogies to Democrats and Republicans are not apt, because these are affiliations. You can be a (big D) Democrat and NOT be a (little d) democrat (i.e. not believe in democracy), but you can’t coherently self identify as a democrat, and not believe in democracy (i.e. self-identifying as a democrat doesn’t make you one). You can, however, join the EAC and not conform to the descriptive definition of atheist (if they’ll have you).

  104. #104 JohnnieCanuck
    November 15, 2006

    smite the infidels!

    Hey, wait a minute, that’s us!

    Do we try to reclaim ‘infidel’ as well?

  105. #105 Joshua
    November 15, 2006

    Ok, then let’s take this example. “Lolita”. Perfectly innocent name. Then Vladimir Nabokov used it in a book that a lot of people thought was very naughty. (Whether or not they’re right is irrelevant.) Suddenly, “Lolita” has all these weird connotations that just come out of nowhere.

    Say we have a poor real-world Dolores Haze. She got her name before the book was published. But then the book got published, and now everyone just assumes she’s a sexually-abused teenager.

    What does Dolores do? Does she change her name just because she happened to share a name with a character in a widely-read book, or does she politely explain that, no, that was fiction, and there’s no relation? Are the people who associate the real Dolores with Lolita being reasonable? Should she just accept the associations and the scorn and shame that people thrust on her because, hey, that’s what people think the name means? Or does she engage them and explain the difference between fantasy and reality?

    As an aside, I think you’re full of shit.

  106. #106 Todd Adamson
    November 15, 2006

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

    As ambivalent as the words agnostic and atheist appear to be, the real trick is to try and nail down an agreeable definition of God. It’s pretty easy to state unequivocally that there is no Allah or Jehovah. They are specific personifications of God requiring little more than a basic working knowledge of logic. But when you start introducing non Western definitions of God, things get considerably murkier. Naturalistic pantheism, which posits that God is nothing more than the Universe and all that is in it, certainly isn’t as easy to dismiss as the Abrahamic God. Words have meanings, but the more abstract the concept, the more flexible the meaning.

    All the philosophical definition hand wringing aside, I prefer the term godless heathen, myself. Or atheist scumbag. I’ll answer to either.

  107. #107 Damien
    November 15, 2006

    “Naturalistic pantheism certainly isn’t as easy to dismiss as the Abrahamic God”

    Arguably it is, but for different reasons, as we move from “empirically false and logically inconsistent” to “empirically irrelevant and logically vague”. And if someone just has a feeling of Something Out There, well, fine. If they start drawing policy conclusions from this they’re on the same ground as the followers of the Maker of Hell.

  108. #108 Jenn
    November 15, 2006

    “Should she just accept the associations and the scorn and shame that people thrust on her because, hey, that’s what people think the name means? Or does she engage them and explain the difference between fantasy and reality?”

    *She* should engage them, but I’m sure as hell not going to name my kid Lolita just because I think it’s pretty, and refuse to recognize its current connotations.

  109. #109 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    Joshua’s point is a good one, and if you want to call me an AtheistB, then that’s fine. I’ll call myself an agnostic, because I don’t think “atheist” has the right connotations (it doesn’t imply a lack of commitment either way).

    Also, he is right that “knowledge” doesn’t imply certainty. That is indeed a red herring.

    But, and you knew there was a but (we’re philosophers after all; it’s in the union rules), I don’t think that this is a mediate position between theism and atheism. It’s a denial of the scale between those two poles.

    Atheism is a privative set. It’s the complement of belief after theistic beliefs are taken out of the set of beliefs. Hence, it is defined purely in terms of theism. But if you say there are many beliefs in the set of all possible beliefs about which there is no way to resolve one’s commitments, then the denial of commitment one way or the other to those beliefs doesn’t define itself in terms of theism, but in epistemological terms. There are things we can know and things we cannot (and, presumably, things we are not sure if we can or not). I place questions about gods of the nonempirical kind in the second class – things we cannot know. There are lots of other things I place in that class (the eternity of the multiverse being one such), but I do not define my epistemology in terms of those items. I am not an amultiversist, for example. I just don’t know. That’s enough. I prefer to apply my epistemic goals to questions that can be resolved, or might reasonably be expected to be. That is a nonprivative (!) approach, a positive epistemology.

  110. #110 Todd Adamson
    November 15, 2006

    Damien strikes gold:
    “empirically irrelevant and logically vague”

    Best description of God I’ve ever heard.

  111. #111 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 15, 2006

    Steve LaBonne wrote:

    …That’s why Larry Moran is correct- “agnostics” are wimps.

    OHHHH no he’s not!

    And he can’t spell “wimp” either!

  112. #112 Margaret
    November 15, 2006

    “Moderate” Christians (“It’s not meant literally.”) are far more wishy-washy about their beliefs than agnostics are.

  113. #113 James Cheshire
    November 15, 2006

    I’ve always felt that “agnostic” was a politically-correct label for atheists that don’t want to risk calling themselves atheists.

  114. #114 miller
    November 16, 2006

    Some agnostics are simply atheists who have bought into the “atheism means certainty” idea. If that were really so, no one would be an atheist, so I think we might as well put the term to good use. Some agnostics genuinely are fence-sitters, who think that there is about 50-50 chance of God. People who think God is more like one in a million chance should leave the term “agnostic” to these true agnostics.

  115. #115 Ruth
    November 16, 2006

    JY: If the word ‘atheist’, as understood by a large number of people, doesn’t accurately describe your worldview, then you have two tasks: change people’s understanding of what atheist means (i.e. in effect, change the definition of the word)”

    Ruth: It isn’t a question of changing the DEFINITION of the word, but of changing people’s IGNORANCE about the word.

    Ruth: Incidentally, what do you think you think we SHOULD call ourselves…

    JY: I gave three options above. It could be there’s no one word that accurately describes your position.

    Ruth: Not in this thread, you didn’t.

    The only alternative you have suggested is ‘agnostic’, which is understood by theists as ‘not having any opinion’, and therefore as leaving the field to those who DO have an opinion, i.e. the theists. Pretty useless in fact.

    You may not LIKE the word ‘atheist’ because it has been used as a dirty word, like ‘liberal’ and ‘feminist’, but the solution is NOT to abandon the word and invent another. All that happens then is that the NEW word gets used as a dirty word, and has to be abandoned in turn.

    If you’re so scared that your views will offend people that you try and pretend your views are something less offensive, you’re simply giving in. You’re like the appeasement ‘feminists’ who tried to reassure the men that they only wanted a LITTLE bit of equality, but they still accepted that men ought to rule the roost, really.

  116. #116 Torbjörn Larsson
    November 16, 2006

    The nature of the agnostic/atheist conflict makes it more natural to state positions than always argue. Mine own is that there is, beneath semantics and philosophy, a noticeable difference.

    Being an atheist that means I see much worth in what Rosenhouse and Moran argues. Wilkins also acknowledges the difference, but wants to privilege the question of gods. This means putting assumptions on the question, such as asking for certainty, and on the answer, such as asking for a general answer. But I think we can give the question a better treatment.

    If this was a regular question we would start by asking if it is a good one – is it a question about nature and could we possibly answer it by observations? Certainly there are concepts of gods who makes statements about nature with observable consequences. This means we can defer the other views, and get to a default position.

    Answering this from a position of a regular question gives definitions of agnostic and atheism which differs from the philosophical one that first tries to lump them together and then split them. Easiest may be to describe it by a classic correspondence model observational fact – theoretical state. We can answer yes-no-don’t know to the question, and we will never be totally certain of the model or true state. To ask for philosophical certainty is futile here as in all other cases.

    With this model of the situation an agnostic is one who don’t know enough to give an answer. In a game he could give 50-50 odds on no gods-gods, while an atheist may have achieved certainty beyond reasonable doubt and could give 99.7-0.3 or higher odds. This is a qualitative difference.

    Accepting such view personally means that I’m not happy with being lumped together with agnostics based on a current philosophic or political preference, nor with the tentative or wishy-washy views espoused by some of the in-group. But there is such misery enough to go around. Meanwhile I try to demarcate my view by calling myself naturalistic atheist. ;-)

    What is the major problems with this view?

    - Agnostics could say that we can’t really make observations on an idealised god.

    Well, I think we can strengthen this model considerably, but that is besides the point here. Here the point is that most religions to support their god-view do in fact make statements about nature which can be tested or debunked, such as theistic evolution or deistic cosmology. Debunking is a regular method.

    - Agnostics could say that we have no good method to make observations, possibly apart from debunking specific claims.

    It seems Dawkins use bayesian methods to establish a probability, and Wilkins argues that the outcome goes to 0 for infinite choices. This is true, but that is only because bayesian probabilities (plausibilities) are by definition finitely additive while frequentist probabilities are a true countably additive measure. In such cases, like in the Ikeda-Jefferys argument, one must apply the method on a finite set of outcomes, a price to pay for not having to make a more detailed model of the situation. In this case, one could use the finite set of observations we will ever make.

    - Agnostics could say that it means accepting a theistic world view in order to refute it.

    So agnostics are mugwumpic wimps. :-)

  117. #117 Torbjörn Larsson
    November 16, 2006

    “- Agnostics could say that it means accepting a theistic world view in order to refute it.”

    Another retort is that agnostics embrace a philosophic certainty in order to refute it.

  118. #118 Robin Levett
    November 16, 2006
    OK. I believe we can know that no Hydrogen nucleus exists with two protons.
    Now show that the evidence in support of that proposition is weaker then the evidence against the existence of a God who has no empirical effect on the Universe.

    Easy: not only does that contradict the definition of ‘hydrogen’, the hydrogen atoms with two protons are ubiquitous but exert no influence on the rest of the cosmos.

    As you say, the existence of two protons in the nucleus contradicts the definition of ‘hydrogen’; hence we can be very sure that no such entity exists. Why you then try to change the entity to one which couldn’t be hydrogen even with the requisite number of protons I have no idea – could you explain?

    Your claim was that you could show that the evidence against the existence of N, where N was an entity of my choosing, is weaker than the evidence against the existence of a god. You’ve successfully proved that, in this instance, that evidence is stronger.

    Stupid arguments work both ways

  119. #119 Robin Levett
    November 16, 2006

    Quork replied to me:

    (This is a slight cheat, since i’m not sure I’m an agnostic…

    Of course not. Here’s a person who takes his uncertainty seriously!

    But seriously, folks…

    I believe no god exists. I am sure that the existence of any god with any empirical effects on the universe is knowable, at least in principle. I am unsure whether the set of gods with no empirical effects on the universe is an empty set – but for these purposes, I accept that the existence of such a god would be unknowable. Therefore as to that set of gods I am agnostic – but if that set is empty…

    My definition of agnosticism seems to differ from John Wilkins’, since he accepts that he would be agnostic as to Zeus if no-one had climbed Mt Olympus, even though in principle climbing Mt Olympus is feasible, and not finding Zeus there would disprove his existence. “In principle unknowability” doesn’t seem therefore to be a strict requirement of his agnosticism.

  120. #120 Robin Levett
    November 16, 2006

    Millimeter wave said:

    OK. I believe we can know that no Hydrogen nucleus exists with two protons.

    You’re cheating: this is a definitional question, not an epistemological one. There is no “knowing” in the sense of belief involved here. An atom with two protons is helium, solely for the reason that we have previously decided that that is what we will call such a thing when we see it.

    Of course I was cheating – but notice that caledonian didn’t even try to defend his original claim.

  121. #121 Caledonian
    November 16, 2006

    Of course I was cheating – but notice that caledonian didn’t even try to defend his original claim.

    Or the defense went right over your head…

  122. #122 Robin Levett
    November 16, 2006

    Caledonian replied to me:

    Of course I was cheating – but notice that caledonian didn’t even try to defend his original claim.

    Or the defense went right over your head…

    That’s entirely possible, of course – perhaps you could assist poor ignorant little me by showing where in your post you identified the evidence against a god that has no empirical effect on the universe. For the moment I’ll leave out the further requirement of any defence of your position that you should also have shown that that evidence was stronger than the evidence against the evidence against the existence of two-proton hydrogen.

  123. #123 JY
    November 16, 2006

    @Ruth

    Ruth: It isn’t a question of changing the DEFINITION of the word, but of changing people’s IGNORANCE about the word.

    Including the ignorance of people who write the dictionaries? I thought we’d been over this ground before: definitions are largely a popularity contest. ‘Theist’ once meant what ‘deist’ now means, and vice versa. I don’t accuse you of being ignorant for using ‘theist’ in its modern sense, and I suggest you shouldn’t accuse as ignorant those who use ‘atheist’ in its modern sense, either.

    Ruth: Not in this thread, you didn’t.

    I gave the option of calling yourself an agnostic if your position is, broadly, that the question of the existence of God is unresolvable, calling yourself an atheist if your comfortable with people thinking you deny the existence of God, or, if neither of those two options are suitable, assuming that you have to explain your position in detail for people to understand it. That’s 3 options.

    You may not LIKE the word ‘atheist’ because it has been used as a dirty word, like ‘liberal’ and ‘feminist’, but the solution is NOT to abandon the word and invent another. All that happens then is that the NEW word gets used as a dirty word, and has to be abandoned in turn.

    I neither like nor dislike the word atheist. It’s just a word. We’re not talking here about the negative implications atheist has in the minds of some theists. There’s nothing (inherently) ‘dirty’ about the broadly understood meaning of atheist. Being an infidel of any stripe (be it agnostic, atheist, or just a member of some other brand of religion) is enough to arouse the ire of the fundamentalist, so I have no illusions that by picking the description of infidel-hood that most accurately describes your position will save you any grief on that front.

    By the way, your choice of ‘liberal’ as an example is interesting. What do you think it means? In modern, American usage, it seems to mean a left-leaning progressive. It is also, as you say, used as a ‘dirty word’, but simply because lots of people have been convinced that left-leaning progressives are just plain awful. And yet the ‘left-leaning progressive’ meaning is not the ‘classical’ meaning of the word (nor is it the meaning attached to it in the rest of the world). So which meaning do you want to defend? When PZ calls himself a liberal atheist, he means ‘liberal’ in the modern, American sense (left-leaning progressive). But, by your argument with respect to the word atheist, that’s not what the word really means.

  124. #124 Caledonian
    November 16, 2006

    perhaps you could assist poor ignorant little me by showing where in your post you identified the evidence against a god that has no empirical effect on the universe.

    Woosh! There it goes again.

  125. #125 Keith Douglas
    November 16, 2006

    I’m with those who divide the space into at least four, though with the important caveat that I have a somewhat revisionary understanding of knowledge. I agree with the remark that if you characterize knowledge too strongly, you get philosophical skepticism as a result, and that’s a bit odd. (“I know that that’s a hand!”)

  126. #126 Robin Levett
    November 16, 2006

    Caledonian “answered” me:

    perhaps you could assist poor ignorant little me by showing where in your post you identified the evidence against a god that has no empirical effect on the universe.

    Woosh! There it goes again.

    Your point? Mine is that if you’re going to claim you have evidence against the existence of gods as a set, you don’t get to pick and choose which gods. You made a universal claim – where’s your evidence against the existence of the type of god I specified?

  127. #127 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    One of the things that is always interesting to me in these arguments is the ever-present question to each speaker, “But WHY do you believe this way or that way.” Agnostics and atheists alike can variously claim that they have demonstrated their side, or that they find a particular argument compelling, but what is not made clear is why the demonstration or argument is compelling. For example, looking around and seeing no evidence for god, one can be a mystic (“Invisibility is the form of god”), one can be an agnostic (“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”), or atheist (“See? Nothing.”) There are plenty of variations on these arguments, but I find it is very rarely the case that a rationally considered position is the starting point for imponderables like spirituality or god. Some believers are believers because the alternative is too horrible; some atheists are also believers because the alternative is too horrible as well; some agnostics are agnostics because choosing is too horrible.

    Of course, in the final analysis, atheists, agnostics, and theists (for want of a better term at the moment) are all believers–hence my curiosity in WHY they believe. I’m also fairly convinced that answering this question would shed a lot of light on the various, sometimes dogmatic, tones one finds in some of the foregoing. Again, the answer to the question is very unlikely to be a “reasonable explanation”. The atheist who says, “From everything I’ve seen, there’s simply no god,” has not explained the ground for their atheism, since a theist, looking at the same empty universe, declares that Yahweh (it’s usually Yahweh over here) exists. This is an inadequate explanation as well, of course.

    My sense is less that people’s beliefs about this stuff are rooted less often in what they find preferable or comfortable, and more in what they’re afraid might be otherwise. Of course, once this initial avoidance or preference provides a foundation, then one begins rationalizing, justifying, and accumulating more and more evidence on top of it to support the position, until finally it seems much later that one arrived at the conclusion through considered reflection alone. This doesn’t mean the conclusion is wrong, of course. It just means that the “considered reflection” explanation for one’s belief puts the horse after the cart.

  128. #128 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    Even Paul Tillich, the theologian, acknowledges that atheism has at least one valid sense, as a-theism, or the rejection of all limited conceptions of deity. What this form of atheism concerns is not the question of whether or not some kind of divinity exists–a question that is arguably undecidable–but the idea that ANY human notion of deity could be adequate. Thus, while “There is no god” might be problematic in an ontological sense, the assertion that “all human notions of deity are inadequate” is not. At its briefest, given that deities are supposed to be infinite, the non-infinite nature of human cognition guarantees that any human conception of a deity must fall short of their infinite nature.

    Inasmuch as “God exists” then is a self-invalidating statement, the theist position clearly mistakes its own limited conceptions as adequate to its unlimited aspirations. The situation is not improved by saying “Some god may exist,” such that half of the agnostic position is similarly untenable. The other half, “Or maybe some god doesn’t exist” meanwhile is a special-case recapitulation of the atheist position. Finally, the attempt (theist or agnostic) of trying to reach “past” the cognitive barrier that makes any human definition of deity limited and therefore immediately inadequate is untenable, precisely because whatever is fished up into consciousness will be limited as well.

    The above is an only summary presentation of the idea. Details could be, or perhaps even need to be, added, but the gist is still here.

  129. #129 llewelly
    November 17, 2006

    Of course, in the final analysis, atheists, agnostics, and theists (for want of a better term at the moment) are all believers …

    Atheists and agnostics are both defined in part by the lack of a belief. To class either as ‘believers’ requires a curious misinterpretation of the word. Bald is not a hair color, nudity is not a kind of clothing, and sobriety is not a kind of intoxication.

  130. #130 Ichthyic
    November 17, 2006

    To class either as ‘believers’ requires a curious misinterpretation of the word.

    meh, curious nothing, it’s simply projection.

  131. #131 Ichthyic
    November 17, 2006

    where’s your evidence against the existence of the type of god I specified?

    If I’m reading Cale’s argument correctly, you keep just missing it.

    whoosh!

    there it goes, over there in the corner behind the palm tree!

    didn’t you see it?

    man, you must be blind or something.

  132. #132 llewelly
    November 17, 2006

    To class either as ‘believers’ requires a curious misinterpretation of the word.

    meh, curious nothing, it’s simply projection.

    Curiosity satisfied, thank you.

  133. #133 MartinM
    November 17, 2006

    there it goes, over there in the corner behind the palm tree!

    didn’t you see it?

    man, you must be blind or something.

    Perhaps it’s completely invisible and intangible.

    Which would be the point, I suspect.

  134. #134 Robin Levett
    November 17, 2006

    where’s your evidence against the existence of the type of god I specified?

    If I’m reading Cale’s argument correctly, you keep just missing it.

    whoosh!

    there it goes, over there in the corner behind the palm tree!

    didn’t you see it?

    man, you must be blind or something.

    I must be – but since you can see his point, perhaps you can help me. Caledonian claims that the evidence against the existence of god is stronger than that against the existence of any other entity anyone cares to specify.

    I specify a hydrogen nucleus with two protons; and ask him, consistently with his claim, to show that the evidence against that entity is weaker than the evidence against one of the class of objects he is comparing with – namely a god wwho has no empirical effect on the universe. He shows that such a hydrogen nucleus can’t exist. Now, to make good his claim, he must show that the evidence against the existence of god – including the type I specified – is stronger than that against the existence of the two-proton hydrogen nucleus. He has identified no evidence against the existence of any god.

    Where have I missed something? If his attempted change to the terms of his claim – by changing my specified entity to one which is pervasive but not interactive – was meant to mean something, then it didn’t. Pervasiveness without interactivity was not among the attributes of the entity I challenged him with. A god that is not emprically detectable, however, is within the set of objects against the existence of which he claims there is strong evidence; I know of theists – Christians even – whose conception of god that is.

    If his point is that if he changes the terms of his claim he can meet it – fine. I’m not going to argue.

    If his point is something else entirely – please enlighten me.

    I gernerally find that creationists that dance around their point don’t actually have one other than cranially – I’m tending to view Caledonian in the same way on this issue.

  135. #135 Ichthyic
    November 17, 2006

    you’re overanlyzing your own argument, Robin.

    Martin has it right.

    Perhaps it’s completely invisible and intangible.

    Which would be the point, I suspect.

    bingo.

    anybody making a positive claim for the action of intangible entities has the onus on them to indicate, uh, what the point of even caring would be to begin with if the entitity under debate is entirely intangible?

    it’s a completely silly argument, and Cale is just making fun of you for making it to begin with, and expressing a bit of incredulity you weren’t able to grasp that point.

    hence, “whoosh”, as in both:

    -the point went right over your head
    -and the issue is moot if we are talking about invisible, intagible entities to begin with (it’s hiding in the corner, can’t you see it?)

    I merely elaborated for effect.

    dearie me, now I’VE overanalyzed my own response.

  136. #136 Robin Levett
    November 17, 2006

    anybody making a positive claim for the action of intangible entities has the onus on them to indicate, uh, what the point of even caring would be to begin with if the entitity under debate is entirely intangible?

    I made and would make no such positive claim – as looking at my other posts will show. It was Caledonian’s claim that he could prove a negative – by stronger evidence than could be brought to bear on any other negative, no less. He was trying to show that agnosticism – in the sense of the unknowability of the existence of god – is not a tenable position. To protect his claim by relying upon the very denial of that unknowability that he was trying to establish is a circular argument. It was a stupid claim to make, made no cleverer by his dancing afterwards.

  137. #137 Tulse
    November 17, 2006

    He was trying to show that agnosticism – in the sense of the unknowability of the existence of god – is not a tenable position.

    I think the point is that there is literally nothing to know about an entity that “has no empirical effect on the universe”. If that is a “quality” you are going to attribute to an entity, then it simply makes no sense to talk about knowing anything about it. By stating that such an entity is in principle outside empirical inquiry, you essentially put it outside the realm of existence — it’s not just that we can’t detect its effects, but instead that it has no effect. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t exist.

  138. #138 Caledonian
    November 17, 2006

    Ah, thank you, Tulse, for restoring my confidence in the existence of intelligent people on the Internet.

    Tell me, Robin Levett, how much evidence would you like me to produce in order to demonstrate that a logically impossible entity does not exist?

    Woosh!

  139. #139 Robin Levett
    November 17, 2006

    Ah, thank you, Tulse, for restoring my confidence in the existence of intelligent people on the Internet.

    Tell me, Robin Levett, how much evidence would you like me to produce in order to demonstrate that a logically impossible entity does not exist?

    What have you got? Your claim was that you had some – simply asserting that such a god is logically impossible doesn’t get you off the hook.

    The god concept in question is one that set up the universe and works within that universe through the operation of natural laws as we see them. It’s also a live concept – held by theistic evolutionists. Such a god would be impossible empirically to discover simply because we’d have nothing to compare – no default – but you can hardly say it had no effect on the universe.

    Your naked assertion that such a god is self-evidently logically impossible impresses me not. An argument in support might give it some clothes.

    Woosh!

    Woosh indeed.

  140. #140 Steve_C
    November 17, 2006

    Any god that interacts with this univers must be a part of it.
    How can a god be of the univers and outside of it at the same time?
    If the god is not outside of it… and if you are assuming god created the univers… who created god?

    This makes god logically if not impossible, highly improbable.

  141. #141 Steve_C
    November 17, 2006

    Universe… dropped the e for some reaason. Univers is a typeface.

  142. #142 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    llewelly & Ichthyic:

    Since the general assertion of atheism is “I believe that no god exists” or some variation, and the general agnostic assertion is “I believe that knowing whether god does or doesn’t exists cannot be determined” or some variation, self evidently belief is involved in this, as also in “I believe some god exists.” Apparently the word “belief” is believed to be a sticking point, and disallowable for atheists and agnostics. Perhaps that’s the root of why, when I say I’m an atheist, I’m occasionally told, “Well then you must believe nothing,” as if being an atheist immediately cancels the whole of the human capacity to believe something.

    Most of the time, if not more often, one can put “I believe” at the front of a statement, since it acknowledges that the statement arises out of the set of beliefs that one possess at the time. Everyone believes. You believe you’re reading this; you might even say, “I can’t believe I’m reading this.” The only people who don’t believe are dead ones.

  143. #143 Steve LaBonne
    November 17, 2006

    I would like to hear from Robin a principled elucidation of the distinction, whose reality he appears to assert, between the two predicates “does not interact with the physical universe and is in principle undectable by any empirical means”, and “does not exist”. Thanks.

  144. #144 llewelly
    November 17, 2006

    Re Snow Leopard:

    The only people who don’t believe are dead ones.

    Please explain to me the difference between living and believing.

  145. #145 Tulse
    November 17, 2006

    The god concept in question is one that set up the universe

    So far so good…this is just a variant of the Deist “clockmaker” view of god, who only was efficacious at literally the very beginning of time, then hid away. It a) doesn’t explain anything (or rather, just steps the explanation back to how that entity came to be), b) doesn’t provide any evidence of said entity, and c) is nothing like the god that any human being actually worships, but at least it’s not a completely empty claim.

    and works within that universe through the operation of natural laws as we see them.

    And now you’ve lost me. If they are natural laws, and are in principle full descriptions of how the universe works, I don’t see where there’s room for a supernatural entity — there is no gap in which the god would fit. If you want to argue that a supernatural being historically was efficacious, but is no longer (i.e., a clockmaker), that’s one thing, but if you want to say that this being is still efficacious, but we can’t in principle tell, then that’s incoherent. Your epistemic claim essentially involves an ontological implication.

    It’s also a live concept – held by theistic evolutionists.

    That the world was created 6000 years ago is a live concept held by Young Earth Creationists. Just because a group of people believe something doesn’t make it true — you need to provide an argument.

  146. #146 Steve_C
    November 17, 2006

    What’s hard about saying “I do not believe in god.”

    I am lacking in belief of that construct.

    Why does that become a belief?

  147. #147 JY
    November 17, 2006

    I would like to hear from Robin a principled elucidation of the distinction, whose reality he appears to assert, between the two predicates “does not interact with the physical universe and is in principle undectable by any empirical means”, and “does not exist”. Thanks.

    I would like to see you provide an argument (principled or otherwise) that shows that these two predicates are equivalent and doesn’t commit the fallacy of begging the question. Note — why we should *care* is an entirely separate question.

  148. #148 Tulse
    November 17, 2006

    Here’s a principled argument as to why non-interaction is equivalent to non-existence: If any entity can “exist”, yet have no impact on the universe, then an infinity of such entities can exist.

    This I take to be a reductio, or, at the very least, an argument that non-interaction doesn’t necessarily limit you to a god. Perhaps one non-interacting entity created the left part of the universe, and another created the right. Or perhaps five entities took turns, each in order creating one thing in the universe. Or perhaps a gazillion such entities was responsible for only one subatomic particle in the universe. The problem is that, if there is in principle no evidence obtainable for which of these situations is true, then we have no way of distinguishing among them. And if we’re going to play the “prior probability game” about god’s existence, it looks to me like the prior likelihood that only one exists is vanishingly small, given that literally any number up to an infinity could exist with exactly the same physical implications for the universe.

    For a shorter answer, there’s William James: “A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all.”

  149. #149 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    llewelly:

    You’re getting rather far afield here. And a summary presentation of the idea makes it seem glib–nevertheless, the basic steps are: meaning attaches to perception, and then one acts on that attached meaning.

    Simply, someone sees a “rabid dog” running toward her. This “image” in her mind consequent to perception is already a meaning itself of course. Based on that meaning, she takes the action of believing that it is a “rabid dog running toward her”. To this belief, which is of course meaningful, is added the meaning “dangerous,” which leads her to believe that the “rabid dog running toward her is dangerous”. This belief, which is of course meaningful, adds the meaning of the necessity of fleeing. Based on that meaning, she believes she should run away, and does. Etc. Etc. Etc. Happily, this all happens extremely quickly, giving her time to flee.

    This is not a complete list of the whole scene, of course: “rabid dog” itself could be further broken down to preceding steps (how, for instance, she arrived at the conclusion that it is a “rabid dog”), and it’s certainly not necessary to conclude one must run away. One could conclude the dog is a hallucination, and stand there. What’s being illustrated is the process of meaning as a basis for action, where taking as valid “a basis for action” constitutes belief.

    It is impossible to avoid meaning; everything in consciousness always means something, including the notion, “This is meaningless.” The meaning even of a self-negating or contradictory statement is that it is self-negating or contradictory, not that it means nothing. This meaning becomes the basis for action, which includes inaction, revision of the meaning, or rejection of it in favor of another starting point for action (in which case, something takes its place). This “basis of the action” constitutes “belief”–if you want to attach it to the Merriam-Webster’s definition of belief, then this is clearly not a religious conviction, but is something accepted “as true, genuine, or real” enough to constitute a basis for that action. Or you could say that it is “to hold an opinion” that the meaning assigned is sufficient (or not) for taking an action (or refraining from it).

    From this, it must be clear that living and attaching meaning are inseparable–to live is to attach meaning. One only stops attaching meaning when one is dead, or perhaps also in a vegetative coma. Inasmuch as meaning-making is synonymous with living, acting based on those meanings is similarly linked with living. While meaning is obligatory and unavoidable, there is no obligation to hold “as true, genuine, or real” that particular meaning, such that the decision to hold or reject that meaning is determined by that meaning itself and as such plays a necessary role both in the decision to be made, and also the belief to be drawn, about it.

    On this basis, one could attempt to argue that living and believing are separate. While living and meaning are inseparable, and living and acting based on those meanings is also unavoidable, does this introduce sufficient space to detach believing, as holding an opinion about the meaning or holding that meaning as “a true, genuine, or real,” from living? I’d be inclined to doubt it. Believing, as an act itself, depends upon meaning–I’ll be agnostic on the point for now, but I’m not at all convinced, therefore, that believing can be separated from life. So to answer your question provisionally, it’s not.

    Maybe it will seem this is too “small” of a definition of belief. In the first place, to the extent that belief as described above plays a crucial role in surviving (not being attacked by a rabid dog), it is hardly minor; BELIEVING that the threats one perceives are real, in order to run away from them, is an entirely life-or-death proposition. Second, “believe” is the appropriate word to use, even in these small cases, since there are excellent epistemological arguments that make faith in the evidence of one’s senses questionable. It may very well be that what we think we KNOW when we perceive is not in fact what IS; that we BELIEVE it’s what we think it is is what gets us over that hurdle of skepticism, at least at that critical juncture when running away has become a matter of life and death. At that moment, it is believing that relieves us of the duty in that crisis of trying to convince ourselves that that rabid dog really IS a rabid dog, really IS dangerous, really IS in the first place at all.

    So if this is going to have any relevance at all for this discussion, since to decide is an action, and decisions are made based upon the meaning presented to consciousness (either elementally as a new or immediate fact, or in the accumulated meaning of many years of reflection), then it is clear that atheists, theists, and agnostics alike are believing when they say “There is no god,” “There is a god,” “There may or may not be a god” or just about every other conceivable variation.

  150. #150 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    Steve_C:

    There isn’t anything hard about saying “I do not believe in god”. I say it all the time myself. But while you do not believe in god, however that is defined or not, clearly you believe in that lack of belief.

    X = “God exists”
    Y = “God does not exist”

    Which do you believe, X or Y? (One could add some Z, or infinitely multiply the attributes ‘exists’ etc as long as one likes.)

    W = “I believe X”
    Q = “I believe Y”

    Which do you believe, W or Q? (Again, don’t feel obliged to limit yourself only to my two choices)

    Belief in a lack of god is, precisely, a positive assertion of belief, NOT about the existence of god, but simply as an assertion itself. I’m sure there are good reasons for believing as you do; I have my reasons for being an atheist as well. Having good reasons doesn’t make it any less of a belief. Even A = !A is meaningful; precisely, it means that it is contradictory. “George Washington was the 30th president” is not meaningless; its meaning, precisely, is that it’s wrong.

    You could also answer your question in the converse. Your statement “I do not believe in god” … Do you believe that, or not? Presumably you must, or you wouldn’t make the statement, unless you’re just being perverse to make a point, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

    So you believe the statement. Of course. That doesn’t imply you secretly believe in god or reject the statement. “I do not believe in god” is not a negative statement; it is a positive assertion. In fact, there are no negative statements–a statement made, means. One can’t avoid it. And your statement means with such force that it has motive effect in your life, and contributes to your decisions about how to act, respond, live. Which is to say, you believe it. Or perhaps it’s not very important at all–still, you believe it.

  151. #151 Davis
    November 17, 2006

    JY,

    Including the ignorance of people who write the dictionaries? I thought we’d been over this ground before: definitions are largely a popularity contest.

    As I have pointed out twice in this thread, you are asserting broad agreement on the meaning of “atheism” exists, when it does not. Several dictionaries I’ve checked (including the OED) say atheists “deny or disbelieve” the existence of god, not just deny — those are distinct positions. And many people seem to think disbelief is sufficient to atheism. So I’m not at all convinced that common-usage is what you say it is.

  152. #152 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    Given “does not interact with the physical universe and is in principle undetectable by any empirical means,” and “does not exist” as predicates, on the face of it, non-existence is not a necessary conclusion from either (1) “failure to interact” or (2) “undetectability”, separately or in unison.

    (1) A person in one room may fail to interact with people in another; non-existence is not a necessary conclusion; thus, god may be located external to this universe. (2) The phrase “by any empirical means” is a sweeping generalization, but it still makes detection dependent upon knowledge of where to look, and the means available for looking; if I have an empirical means that can detect ANY thing, then that which is undetectable ceases to exist, by definition (as a knowable unknown). This, however, does not assure that there are not still objects, entities, or whatever that remain undetectable (i.e., unknowable unknowns). As such, “undetectable by any empirical means” does not justify non-existence as a conclusion.

    Since detection would presumably detect interaction (if it can’t, then it’s beside the point), then detection is a gratuitous addition to non-interaction; if god doesn’t interact, then it doesn’t matter if it’s non-detectable or not. This still does nothing to identify non-interaction with non-existence. However, it does mean that, for all intents and purposes, god does not exist, since non-interactivity assures that the number of events in the universe in which god will play any part whatsoever is zero. This pragmatic aspect, however, does not make the predicates equivalent. It seems to me that a non-interactive god, external to this universe, that is self-evidently non-detectable for that reason, is a non-point, or an empty category. As someone else notes, the unknowability of such an entity means there’s nothing to be known about it

  153. #153 Caledonian
    November 17, 2006

    (1) A person in one room may fail to interact with people in another; non-existence is not a necessary conclusion; thus, god may be located external to this universe.

    No, that’s wrong. A person in one room interacts with people in another in all sorts of ways. Just because you can’t perceive those ways doesn’t mean they’re unreal.

    Woosh!

  154. #154 Snow Leopard
    November 17, 2006

    Well then you wouldn’t have non-interaction, would you? But anyway, instead, we’ll just have have the person in the other room, NOT interacting with anyone else anywhere in any way, real, unreal, or imaginable, detectable, non-detectable, or potentially detectable. We’ll call this “person in the other room” god.

    So, the non-interactive god exists externally to this universe, and yet is interacting with it in all kinds of ways that can’t be detected? Hmm. Okie dokie. Something of a non-point, but sure, why not. In fact, let’s just say that god can interact with the world in ways that are all non-interactive too. After all, god’s god. Apparently, as they say, god can do such things.

  155. #155 Caledonian
    November 17, 2006

    The real point, which seems to keep going right over some people’s heads, is that if we permit ‘existence’ as a property to be applied to entities that don’t interact with anything in any way, what precisely does that property imply? How does the nature of the conclusions we can draw about a thing change when we assert that it ‘exists’?

    In short: it implies nothing, and it has no effect on our conclusions. It becomes an utterly meaningless label.

    ‘Existence’ as we actually use the term implies relative interaction. An existant but non-interactive thing is actually a contradiction in terms, just as a four-sided triangle is.

  156. #156 Snow Leopard
    November 18, 2006

    So the implication to be drawn from the point that existence is relative interaction is that that we have no existence relative to any hypothetical god situated beyond this universe as well.

    As such, this lack of a relative interaction between us and god may make for mutual non-existence with respect to one another, but that lack does not preclude any relative interactions with anything else. Thus, while god may not exist-for-us, and we may not exist-for-god, there are other mutual interactions by which we exist within our own domain, and which would be hypothesizable for god in its domain.

    Sure, this means that god’s existence is irrelevant for us, and that for all intents and purposes god does not exist, but it’s not a demonstration that god must not exist simply because of that irrelevance.

  157. #157 Robin Levett
    November 18, 2006

    OK; rather than produce individual answers to a number of similar questions, leading to an unwieldy post and duplicative, I’ll state a position to be shot at – if anyone thinks I’ve missed dealing with their point, say so.

    First – in case it needs stressing, I am an atheist with respect to any god thats is in principle empirically detectable. That means, inter alia, any revelatory god. The religions associated with such gods make claims for their gods that are investigable, and the absence of evidence for such gods, where evidence would eb expected to be, is in my view evidence against their existence.

    I am agnostic with respect to any non-empirically detectable god – and I see this as a necessary consequence of the fact that such a god is not empirically detectable. What I am unpersuaded of is whether that set of gods is other than empty. I do however know that glib dismissals of the concept, particularly based either upon a claimed ability to produce evidence either way, or semantics, don’t wash.

    To claim that one has evidence against the existence of any god, as opposed to any individual god or set of gods with defined characteristics, is an impossible claim to support; since one cannot rely upon the absence of evidence for such a god as evidence against its existence – one doesn’t expect evidence for it, so in this case absence of evidence cannot be evidence of absence.

    It is also worth pointing out that since we are talking here about claims that cannot even in principle be empirically investigated, the discussion here is not about science but about philosophy (or theology).

    To those who consider that a non-empirically investigable god is irrelevant and whose non-existence is therefore to be presumed, I first repeat the point above – we are not talking about science, but philosophy. While William of Ockham considered that reason could not establish the existence of the Christian god, he nevertheless believed in its existence as a matter of faith.

    As to both this, and whether we do/should care, I would introduce you to cosmology, and speculations that our observed universe came into existence as a quantum fluctuation in a previous universe. There is further speculation that our universe is spawning daughter universes as a result of quantum fluctuations within it.

    The existence of such universes, either mother or daugther, is not amenable to empirical investigation. It is true that there may be arguments that we can constrain the properties of such universes by reference to our own universe’s properties; but that doesn’t answer the question of whetehr such universe’s exist.

    I also wonder why the fact that an infinity of such universes (or gods) could exist, means that no such universe does (or did) exist.

  158. #158 Snow Leopard
    November 18, 2006

    Robin:

    Given that science is a special case of philosophy, a division of the question of god into a 2-god scenario, where a vanishingly small probability permits an atheistic conclusion for any “revelatory” god in this universe, and where a skeptical philosophical assertion permits an agnostic conclusion for any non-empirically detectable god in some alternate universe, seems to be an unwarranted mixing of methods. Inasmuch as one can (or must) assume that the laws governing any parallel, inaccessible universe should be identical to this one (if they’re not, there’s no cogent point in talking about them), then it is consistent to assume that the vanishing probability noted here exists there as well, in which case one is justified in drawing the same atheistic conclusion as here. If all bets are off, and things don’t work the same over there, then, then I’d say an agnostic conclusion still doesn’t follow, not because one doesn’t know or can’t determine the answer, but because in that case, the basis of the uncertainty itself is not known–that is, one can’t determine what one can or can’t know.

    I’m assuming that agnosticism does not generally on rest on the premise that it cannot determine what it can and cannot know; the basic point seems to be that god is, in principle, indeterminable, not unknowable. The expectation in agnosticism seems to be that god COULD become provable or known in the future in some way. Thus, in part, it seems as if the atheist-agnostic debate is a disagreement over the relative probability of god, assumed to be a knowable unknown, being discoverable (if not discovered). In this case, the non-discoverability to date informs the vanishing probability, but regardless both stances operate from the prior assumption that god is knowable (albeit for different reasons, it seems).

    To make a case for this, one would have to rule out as well that god is not unknowable and not unknown, i.e., the case of a knowable unknown, or an unknowable unknown. The last is impossible to rule out, and so can be considered irrelevant in this universe–it is, however, the basis for rejecting agnosticism about god in an alternate universe. One could add that one must also reject the possibility that god is a knowable known; it could be the case that god has already been empirically identified, but not recognized as such. Religious types of course claim precisely that they HAVE recognized god. This is not what I am talking about; if the universe itself, for instance, is god, then it has simply not been recognized (or demonstrated) as such. Lastly, if god is a known unknowable (e.g., like a variable in an insoluble equation), then one should be able to demonstrate those “knowns”; construing those knowns as god will still remain a problem, but it gives someone somewhere to start looking.

    The upshot of this is that accepting the argument of current improbability for god as a basis for atheism here is inconsistent with asserting skepticism in an alternate universe. There are no grounds for introducing the distinction between universes in the first place. The vanishing improbability of god here may be assumed to apply there, and the skeptical agnosticism there (if it is logically consistent in the first place) may still defeat the vanishing improbability here on the same grounds. As such, it seems to me that the distinction in your post doesn’t move anything forward.

  159. #159 MartinM
    November 18, 2006

    Robin, I think you’re still missing Caledonian’s point. He’s not proposing that we should assume the non-existence of any non-interacting deity. He’s proposing that non-existence is a necessary consequence of non-interaction. The basic argument is that the word ‘existence’ ought to actually mean something, and when one attempts to pin down a coherent, useful definition, one finds that the non-interacting deities inevitably end up on the ‘non-existence’ side of that definition.

  160. #160 Snow Leopard
    November 18, 2006

    Robin:

    Sorry for the double reply, but there are, of course, two main issues in your post.

    A non-empirically detectable god is self-evidently a detectable god–detectable by faith, imagination, fiction, something other than empiricism. All of these might be valid ways to “detect” god. If this is all you mean, then the problem remains of distinguishing between god and hallucinations or pure fancy.

    Philosophically, empiricism is not limited to its applied incarnation as science, but finds its root in observation. If “non-empirical” means not “validated by more than one person” or falsifiable, then an individual’s observations may rightly be called empirical. Thus you have the “proof” of god for individuals by experience, but the problem above still exists. (It’s a social problem. For the individual, the situation might be fine; for those who do not share the individual’s imagination, it will be a problem.) If by “non-empirically” you mean “non-observationally” then one begins to wonder what a “non-observationally observable” god would be. Observable here would not have to apply only to external sense data, but could be applied to all of the contents of consciousness. This could allow you a distinction between the “religious hallucinations” of the faith-types, and the “non-empirically detectable” god you are positing.

    I’m not going to be content to call a “non-observationally observable god” contradiction right off. Certainly a “non-observationally observable” god must, by definition, be unknowable (i.e., not a knowable product of the imagination, or else you’re back to the faith-types). That being so, it is either a known or an unknown unknowable. Since an unknown unknowable is not even conceptually admissible to human consciousness, one can tautologically say anything one wants about it. Maybe you want to plight your troth there, but your post suggests otherwise. So then, a “non-observationally observable” god could be a known unknowable, like a variable in an insoluble equation; something we are aware of, and can point to, but cannot (and will never) be able to characterize. At its most basic, this seems to be exactly what the word “god” is, so that an agnosticism based on it seems to mistake logical dependency for ontological dependency.

    But I’ll stop here for now. And could someone tell me if it’s bad etiquette to reply so much , or if there are restrictions on length here? Thanks.

  161. #161 Caledonian
    November 18, 2006

    There are no restrictions on length, Snow Leopard, as long as you post messages of “reasonable” length. But all things being equal, short is sweet.

  162. #162 Robin Levett
    November 19, 2006

    Snow Leopard

    You said:-

    Robin, I think you’re still missing Caledonian’s point. He’s not proposing that we should assume the non-existence of any non-interacting deity. He’s proposing that non-existence is a necessary consequence of non-interaction.

    The non-interactivity is Caledonian’s gloss on my two proton hydrogen nucleus, and wasn’t introduced by me. We need to be a bit careful what is meant by “non-interaction” before deciding whether it necessarily implies non-existence.

    The god concept to which I have referred doesn’t interact in the sense of doing something (empirically detectable) in the universe as it goes along. It does however act within the universe by means of the laws of nature which it set up when creating the universe. As I understand (or gloss) the argument, with omnipotence and omniscience it is possible so to act.

    My reference to “many universes” was not to suggest that this god might exist in one of those unverses – although I don’t accept your assumption that the same physical laws must apply in such a universe as in ours – but to demonstrate that the idea of a non-empirically detectable entity with effects on our universe isn’t special pleading by the theists amongst us.

    I use “non-empirically detectable” to mean not detectable by the methods of science; does that help?

  163. #163 Keith Douglas
    November 19, 2006

    A useful metascientific hypothesis that I have mentioned before concerning existence is the hypothesis that everything that exists is changable (or, in slightly more moder terms, possesses energy). Also, “outside the universe” doesn’t make any sense under the original understanding of universe; on the other hand, if you mean “outside the hubbe volume”, fine, but why call such a thing “god”, rather than “fred the hapless gronk”?

  164. #164 llewelly
    November 19, 2006

    The difference between Robin and Caledonian is the confidence and ferocity with which they wield Occam’s Razor.

  165. #165 Caledonian
    November 19, 2006

    We need to be a bit careful what is meant by “non-interaction” before deciding whether it necessarily implies non-existence.

    Translation: I’ve just realized what a fool I’ve made of myself in this thread, and I need to start damage control to minimize the number of people who notice.

    Non-interaction means precisely what one would think it means from looking at the word: the absence or lack of interaction. It doesn’t imply non-existence, it IS non-existence. The concepts are identical, only the direction we approach them from and the terms used to refer to them differ.

    Woosh!

  166. #166 Amy Alkon
    November 19, 2006

    I don’t believe in god for the same reason I don’t believe there’s a giant purple vagina hovering over my house: lack of evidence either exits.

    Of all the courses that should be required in middle and elementary school, logic would be at the top of my list.

  167. #167 Robin Levett
    November 20, 2006
    We need to be a bit careful what is meant by “non-interaction” before deciding whether it necessarily implies non-existence.

    Translation: I’ve just realized what a fool I’ve made of myself in this thread, and I need to start damage control to minimize the number of people who notice.

    Non-interaction means precisely what one would think it means from looking at the word: the absence or lack of interaction. It doesn’t imply non-existence, it IS non-existence. The concepts are identical, only the direction we approach them from and the terms used to refer to them differ.

    Caledonian, you’ve pulled out one sentence from my post and presented it as if I introduced the use of “non-interaction” in reference to a god concept; I didn’t. As I said in the sentence immediately before your quote: “The non-interactivity is Caledonian’s gloss on my two proton hydrogen nucleus, and wasn’t introduced by me.”

    I referred to a non-empirically detectable god; which isn’t quite the same thing, for the reasons I discussed in the post from which you quote-mined. Specifically, the TEist would say that such a god acts within – but arguably does not interact with – the universe, but that we see those actions as natural law, and hence cannot detect them empirically. That argument isn’t defeated by saying it’s wrong.

    If one can confidently and definitively reject the cosmologists’ (or even the quantum mechanics’) many universes speculations, then you can say that non-detectability means non-existence; I don’t have that confidence.

    Woosh!

    Woosh indeed.

  168. #168 Steve LaBonne
    November 20, 2006

    . Specifically, the TEist would say that such a god acts within – but arguably does not interact with – the universe, but that we see those actions as natural law, and hence cannot detect them empirically.

    That form of words carries about as much actual semantic content as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”.

  169. #169 Robin Levett
    November 21, 2006

    Steve LaBonne answered (part of) my post:

    Specifically, the TEist would say that such a god acts within – but arguably does not interact with – the universe, but that we see those actions as natural law, and hence cannot detect them empirically.

    That form of words carries about as much actual semantic content as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”.

    Do I take it that you just as confidently dismiss the cosmologists’ speculation that the universe began as a quantum fluctuation in some other universe?

    *If* you are an omnipotent, omniscient, entity that chooses to act through regularities in the universe you have created, then how would entities within that universe tell your actions apart from the “laws of nature”.

    I cannot see a reason for assuming that such an entity exists – but, given that assumption, there is a question there to be answered. It isn’t answered by saying that it isn’t there.

  170. #170 Steve LaBonne
    November 21, 2006

    I cannot see a reason for assuming that such an entity exists

    That’s the bottom line, everything else is a waste of electrons.

  171. #171 MartinM
    November 21, 2006

    Do I take it that you just as confidently dismiss the cosmologists’ speculation that the universe began as a quantum fluctuation in some other universe?

    Why would he do that? There’s a difference between a) positing an entity which works outwith the laws of physics, and b) positing a region of spacetime beyond that directly accessible to us, subject to the same laws of physics.

  172. #172 Dave
    July 31, 2008

    The difference is one of definition, rather than semantics.

    Theism is the belief that a god exists.
    Atheism is the belief that there is no god.
    Agnosticism is the belief that a god may exist, or may not.

    Whether Agnosticism manifests itself as Atheism in practical terms, is irrelevant. Philosophically, there is an obvious difference.

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