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Posted by on Sep 7, 2012 in philosophy, secularism | 17 comments

Agnosticism is untenable and irrelevant, part 1.

This writing is about why agnosticism is intellectually indefensible, and its mindspace competitor strong atheism is the most reasonable perspective. Frankly, there’s so much wrong with agnosticism I have to split into at least two posts. Unless you’re new to unbelief, you probably think you’ve heard every argument about agnosticism vs atheism (hereafter AvA): I promise in this part or part 2 you will read arguments or rationale that you’ve not seen articulated previously. This may be interesting for another reason: I am living dangerously by engaging in armchair philosophy on a network chock full of philosopher heavyweights who will be glad to swoop in and correct me. My hope is that they do so as necessary. I am not a professional, as they are, but these are topics I have been discussing and debating for about 20 years.

Caveats and definitions
This is not a primer on agnosticism. Please read a wiki if you are unacquainted. For the purposes of this writing, “agnostic” means someone who believes the god question cannot be answered, or else someone who has merely not been persuaded by evidence for or against the existence of god. “God” here means the god hypothesis, and refers to any transcendentally powerful creator being which people have sincerely believed in (no game-playing allowed). There may be other definitions of “god” or “God”, but they are not what I shall write about here.

I. The belief-knowledge false dichotomy

Agnostics often say that we can believe in a god (or disbelieve), but we can’t have knowledge there is or isn’t one. We shall set aside the obvious objection that if one existed, a God might pay us a visit and say hello, I am the creator! I think agnostics know that and discard it because it has never happened and is, prima facie, unlikely. So we have beliefs and knowledge. What do these words mean? In AvA discussions, belief is taken to be something we can’t prove or may not have evidence for; knowledge is a proposition which a rational observer is forced to accept by way of direct evidence or compelling argument. The agnostic tends to insist that knowledge and belief are categorically different. So different, they need to be put on different axes:

Except that they aren’t. Is there anything you would say that you know to be true, but do not believe to be? Why not? Aren’t knowledge and belief separate?  The set of things we call knowledge is a subset of the things we call beliefs. What differentiates the two is merely the degree to which we should collectively be confident that it is correct. What we have is not two axes, but a single continuum of confidence. Often, individual ideas slide back and forth as our understanding advances.

The Higgs Boson was just a belief a year or ten ago, but today or very soon it will be knowledge. In 1900, the idea that the continents are fixed in their positions and do not move was knowledge, and supported as such by the world’s leading geologists. Today, the idea is a mere belief, an incorrect one. What establishes a proposition as knowledge? That is to say, justified and true? The short answer is, no one knows. There simply is no hard-and-fast way to tell. Science proceeds on the reliability of knowledge, the assumption what was true through the yesterdays will be true through the tomorrows, but the conclusion remains provisional, not decisive.

In science, we can make judgement calls based on standards of evidence, but plenty of propositions exist outside of what science can examine, such as one-of events. What if I witnessed the real killer of John F Kennedy but have no physical evidence? Would you really tell me that I “believe” it but do not “know” what I saw with my own eyes, merely because it can’t be proven in a laboratory? Alternately perhaps you would say I can know it but that you cannot. Fair enough, but isn’t it strange that there is absolutely no means, even in theory, to decide whether that proposition is knowledge or belief? Not if we understand the distinction is actually an arbitrary, if useful, one.

So it is, the two words are just ways of expressing how sure we are about the veracity of a proposition. The chart collapses, and the remaining axis is “confidence”. Qualms about why we should or should not be confident are accessory, the same as any two opposed positions.

II. Thomas Huxley: a deity late, an Allah short

The word “agnosticism” was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869. This means that millennia of philosophical thought progressed without the need for a word for this position, including the entire Enlightenment period. Philosopher icons from Socrates to Spinoza, to Hume never uttered the word- not even the biggest contributors to the philosophy of theology and atheism. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people prior to 1869 did not fit the definition of “agnostic”- they surely did. But the big guys who tried to prove God by argument like Anselm and Descartes and big skeptical thinkers like Hume and Kant never once needed the term. The Greek word for atheist, conversely, is at least 2500 years old. This isn’t proof of much, but it is a rather curious fact.

Coming up in part 2: paradoxes, pretentiousness, and special pleading.

 

  • Achrachno

    What is the transcendentally powerful thing that supposedly creates? Until we know that, we can neither affirm nor deny that it exists. The word “God” remains undefined and thus god talk is simply meaningless. Theobabble.

    My contention is simply that I don’t know what theists are talking about, and furthermore I’m sure that they have no idea either. I’m a hard core agnostic. I don’t know, and neither does anyone else as far as I can tell.

    The god question cannot be answered because it is incoherent and there is simply no rational question there. Nothing can be observed or tested. No results will ever appear, positive or negative.

    That said, I have no belief in “God”, anymore than I do in bloofernooze, and thus am an atheist in that sense. Theism, as we have it, is obviously ridiculous.

    • Edward Clint

      You’re describing ignosticism, Achrachno, a perspective I find highly persuasive as well. I can see we’re in agreement on the irrelevancy part of my thesis.

      I don’t fully agree that the god question can’t be answered. You said that theism is “ridiculous”. I would posit that when we look closely at why this is true (and verily, it is) we find out that “theism is ridiculous” is semantically identical to “theism is false”. I will argue for that point in the next part.

  • Seymour

    You make some common comments, but I remain unconvinced and will remain agnostic as to the relevancy and tenability od being agnostic vis-a-vis God

    • Edward Clint

      I think you will be more interested in the next part.

  • Achrachno

    We probably do mostly agree, but I do not agree that meaningless = false. Meaningless = “not even false” (a worse condition). To be false a claim must be at least testable. The statement “Bloofernooze exists” is not false, it’s just meaningless (until someone gives a definition).

    To go back to one of your statements: “God” here means the god hypothesis”

    I don’t believe there is a “God hypothesis” because there is no idea there with either test or logical implications. Religion is not ridiculous because it’s false, it’s ridiculous because people sincerely “believe” strings of words that carry no meaning. They have faith that the words mean something and that whatever they mean is also a true description of reality.

    Lots of ideas manage to be false without being ridiculous. On the frontiers of scientific knowledge there are lots of things we believe which later experience will show to have been false. That’s why scientific ideas are often altered. But these “future false” ideas are believed based on the best available evidence now, and so are not ridiculous even though (if only we knew!) false. The ether seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, and even now is not usually considered ridiculous, even though clearly false. It was testable, was tested, and shown to be incorrect and then abandoned. God is not like ether.

    • Edward Clint

      Wouldn’t you agree though, that a meaningless statement is excluded from being factual or correct? In ordinary english a non-factual claim is by definition not true. Any not-true claim is a false claim. Why it’s false is interesting, but changes none of this.

      Also on the outset it’s often not clear, even in science, how coherent and concrete an hypothesis should be. Cognitive scientists talk about hypothetical mental mechanisms involved in things like perception or memory. They say, for example, that people mentally rotate an image to figure out if it’s left-handed or right-handed (i.e. if a letter is backwards or not). But when you ask them, wait WHAT precisely is doing the rotating? what exactly is being rotated? They don’t know, and most of them don’t try to know because that isn’t their field. Is the entire body of cognitive science research meaningless?

      • Achrachno

        “Wouldn’t you agree though, that a meaningless statement is excluded from being factual or correct? ”

        Yes, but it likewise is excluded from being false or incorrect. Lacking meaning, it cannot be evaluated for factuality.

        Blibber booshak bip. Meaningless. Neither true nor false. Sounds signifying nothing. God — pretty much the same story, IMO.

        Thus, hard core agnosticism is the only reasonable position! :-)

  • xtog42

    I am not sure your article supports your title.

    You appear to say that the belief/knowledge distinction somehow supports your title when viewed as degrees of confidence — with apologies I simply do not see the connection between the distinction you make between those two words and the stance that agnosticism is untenable, lacking in intellectual support and irrelevant.

    Untenable? Suspending judgement on the God hypothesis is as tenable as atheism. I could make the same argument about deism, theism, and atheism. I could easily make the argument that agnosticism is the only tenable stance of the three, despite the points you made above — deism, theism, and atheism are stances that propose knowledge — agnosticism proposes suspension of judgement, or skepticism, in that nothing we humans can ever do or think can ever be verified by some unbiased outside source. Hume himself IMO would agree with me on this one I presume.

    Intellectually unsupportable? This begs the epistemological question again, and until we have universal standards for what we all say “We know” we can even give the flying spaghetti monster intellectual support. For those of us skeptics who believe Truth is something we as lowly humans have no way of ever attaining it is the atheist, deist and theist who are positing intellectually insupportable ideas. When you are having a vivid dream do you Know that is is not real? When you are awake do you Know you are not just having a vivid dream?

    Irrelevant? Just because the term agnosticism wasn’t used in the past does not make it irrelevant. When false dichotomies are broken down third ways are found. Read the Greek skeptics and tell me again that agnosticism has no relevancy. You seem to place a great deal of importance on the use of the word agnostic, by saying “Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people prior to 1869 did not fit the definition of “agnostic”- they surely did. But the big guys who tried to prove God by argument like Anselm and Descartes and big skeptical thinkers like Hume and Kant never once needed the term.” In making that concession you totally lose your point.

    Let’s face it theism, deism, atheism and agnosticism were all born together whether those specific words were used by the people having those thoughts or not. Saying that agnosticism is somehow irrelevant, intellectually unsupportable, and untenable sounds a lot like a Republican and a Democrat saying that an independent voter is somehow irrelevant, intellectually unsupportable and untenable and it is no more true of politics than it is of theology.

    I’m hoping that in your next post you are more clear on precisely how agnosticism is unsupportable, irrelevant and untenable, because IMHO agnosticism is the skeptical way — so you appear to be bashing skepticism with this post. Maybe you could respond to Bertrand Russell’s comments on this issue since he has said things like this

    “Russell wavered between calling himself an agnostic and describing himself as an atheist. He evidently did not attach too much importance to this distinction, but he made it clear that if he was to be classified as an agnostic, it would have to be in a sense in which an agnostic and an atheist are “for practical purposes, at one.”

    “The interviewer asked Russell, “Do you think it is certain that there is no such thing as God or simply that it is just not proven?” “No,” Russell answered, “I don’t think it is certain there is no such thing — I think it is on exactly the same level as the Olympic gods, or the Norwegian gods; they also may exist, the gods of Olympus and Valhalla. I can’t prove they don’t, but I think that the Christian God has no more likelihood than they had. I think they are a bare possibility.”

    He explained his views more fully in an interview published in Look magazine in 1953. An agnostic, in any sense in which he can be regarded as one, Russell said, “may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice.”

    I feel the same way. On a scale of 1-100 with 1 being a total theist and 100 being an atheist,….an agnostic might place themselves at 98 or 99 on that scale,…so if an agnostic has ideas that are unsupportable, untenable, and irrelevant,….what does that say about atheism? And with the two stances being so totally close to each other in both practice and theory how can one be considered intellectually unsupportable, irrelevant and untenable and the other be the “most reasonable” alternative? I guess it depends on what you mean by the word “reason”.

    You’ll also of course what to deal with what Dawkins has said on this issue.

    “He said: ‘On a scale of seven, where one means I know he exists, and seven I know he doesn’t, I call myself a six.’ Professor Dawkins went on to say he believed was a ‘6.9’, stating: ‘That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely confident, that I absolutely know, because I don’t.’

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2105834/Career-atheist-Richard-Dawkins-admits-fact-agnostic.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability

    • Edward Clint

      Hello Xtog! Thanks for you comments, yours is just the sort of thoughtful agnostic perspective I wish to address. You’ve made many points here and I will just answer a couple in the interest of brevity and because I will expand on these in the next part.

      …with apologies I simply do not see the connection between the distinction you make between those two words and the stance that agnosticism is untenable, lacking in intellectual support and irrelevant.

      Agnosticism is predicated on the importance of those things being separate. If they are not, then the label has no content because it subsumed by existing labels. That is the point I was trying to make. This is also why there are no agdemocrats insisting that the ultimate ideal political theory can’t be known, or agrepublicans etc.., or ag any of a bajillion other polar labels.

      …deism, theism, and atheism are stances that propose knowledge — agnosticism proposes suspension of judgement, or skepticism,

      Actually, this is incorrect in at least two ways. Agnostics in fact do propose knowledge: there is no method of inquiry, and no existent evidence sufficient to compel the total rejection of theism. This is a very strong, and very indefensible claim about what methods of inquiry and evidence exist and are capable of. Second, none of these isms proposes a suspension of judgement. the agnostic merely says after judging the available epistemological avenues, we find the evidence uncompelling. Well, guess what, that’s a judgement. The atheist is not a whit less informed by skepticism (necessarily): she merely says, we find the evidence is adequately compelling. Now one of these two is incorrect; but you’ve provided zero basis for the claim that one is somehow “more” skeptical than the other. Skepticism is not denying any conclusion, it’s demanding good evidence prior to doing so, which I argue that I have, as an atheist.

      re: Russell’s remarks.
      The quote favors my position much more strongly than yours, whether Russell would agree or not. It hinges on us saying, with a straight face, that lightning-hurling Zeus is, in fact, not nonsense. I believe that were I to ask random people on the street or among my university faculty if they would agree the notion was nonsense, they would agree. The silliness we feel at making the contrary remark should be a red flag that something has gone wrong.

      re: Dawkins
      Dawkins is wrong. He is making an understandable thinking error owed to cognitive scale blindness. This is no great criticism of Dawkins because he’s a biologist and not a philosopher. The philosophy in The God Delusion is a bit 101, to put it kindly. That’s fine, because the book is clearly written for the lay person and it’s very readable.

      Also, elsewhere Dawkins makes it very clear that he isn’t agnostic about everything. He calls people who reject evolution “mad” or ignorant, even those who just want there to be a sliver of doubt that evolution is correct. When it comes to biology, Dawkins is a strong evolutionist. When it comes to philosophy, he’s a weak atheist. Now you’re thinking, well there is evidence for one and not the other but that isn’t my point: if we can, in principle, be sooooo very sure of a proposition.. then we can be just as sure of another, evidence withstanding. Well, according to Dawkins that is.

      • xtog42

        Hey Edward, sorry for the late response,…

        Let me challenge you on some of your replies, while at the same time being very appreciative that you didn’t take my comments as a personal attack (something that I got used to over at FTB and that I feel will be SB’s major selling point)

        In your first comment you say, “Agnosticism is predicated on the importance of those things being separate.”

        I do not see why you think this is the case. I can have gray standards for the difference between the meaning of the words belief and knowledge, and yet still take the position that the wisest stance on the existence of God is a suspension of judgment. I always hold my wallet when people state things like,…..X is based on this, or Y has a foundation of that, because the mechanical connection is rarely distinguishable so the argument comes down to a matter of opinion or taste as opposed to factual evidence-based.

        Next you write, “Agnostics in fact do propose knowledge: there is no method of inquiry, and no existent evidence sufficient to compel the total rejection of theism.”

        Agnostics do not have to do either thing. I may simply take the stance that the definition of God is simply self-contradictory as proposed by believers, or I may just be a skeptical in that while I will admit to valid methods of inquiry, and the possibility of sufficient evidence, I may just be unwilling to pass a judgment on the issue at this point in time. As Russell said,…the existence of God is possible, but not probable,….and I cannot prove that it does not exist (since proving a negative is logically impossible),…ipso facto I am agnostic, not atheist. And that position is certainly not untenable nor irrelevant which is what your post claims to be about.

        And just because I make the judgment that the existence of God cannot be disproved, does not mean I am proposing that I have knowledge. When Socrates said that the only thing he knew what that he knew nothing,…was he proposing knowledge? If so, it was the absolute most minimal kind of knowledge ever imaginable.

        Next in my opinion you misrepresent agnosticism again by writing,…”the agnostic merely says after judging the available epistemological avenues, we find the evidence uncompelling.” Maybe some do, but it is not necessary to say that and be an agnostic,…I may simply say that since you cannot disprove of an existing God, I am agnostic, not atheist – this is precisely the point Russell was making with his teapot analogy.

        On Russell: He could most certainly say Zeus is nonsense, at the same time admit Zeus’ possibility, in fact he does this in the quote I offered.

        On Dawkins: You appear to just state he is wrong with no argumentation offered. “Cognitive scale blindness”? While I only have a minor in philosophy, I do have a masters degree in psychology, and nothing in my psych education can help me understand your criticism here.

        And just because Dawkins is not agnostic about the efficacy of evolution, does not require him to be agnostic towards God’s potential existence, after all evolution is something that is clearly defined, God is not,….evolution is something which evidence can be discovered and evaluated, but the existence of God is not. The cosmos whether God is or is not could look exactly the same to the observing scientist. In the same way someone can be a skeptic and yet take the position that knowledge is possible, someone can be an agnostic on the issue of God, and yet not be agnostic on knowledge concerning other things – like knowing whether or not you are currently awake or having a vivid dream.

        I’ll finish by just repeating my scale point,….that being at 98 or 99 on the “Does God exist scale” where atheists are at 100 does not make one’s view untenable, irrelevant or intellectually unsupportable – for all practical purposes I presume most agnostics are atheists, just not absolute about it, and there is nothing untenable or intellectually unsupportable about that, nor are agnostics irrelevant – in fact I would make the case that it is agnostics who are in the best position to influence our God-believing brothers and sisters to change their short-sighted wishful-thinking ways.

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          It would be wonderful if SBs stood for honest discussion (stimulating banter?) such that we can all expect to be given a reasonable voice, and be treated with respect deserved. That is what I hope to achieve, and I’m sure we all do here.

          A Tippling Philosopher

  • Ed

    “but the conclusion remains provincial, not decisive.”

    Do you mean “provisional”?

    • Edward Clint

      Yes, thanks Ed!

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    Hi Ed
    For what it’s worth, my tuppence.

    I label myself an agnostic atheist. I do this because I am logically agnostic (I can no more disprove God than prove it) but am probabilistically atheist, such that my calculations of probability would balance in favour of there being no God.

    Now, the criticism of this is that all knowledge other than the cogito ergo sum requires us to not be 100% certain, such that we are technically agnostic on just about everything, but we don’t bother elucidating that idea. Why choose to be different here?

    My answer to that would be to highlight the idea that both positions (theist and atheist) require an amount of faith (as does every position),though belief in God may require an awful lot more. I don’t want to be seen as someone who attacks theists for their faith and then retreats to a similar position of faith. I also want to recognise that I could just be wrong about some key aspects of philosophy – kind of a position of humility.

    However, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist.

    This may also require a definition of atheism. I am in the strong or positive atheist camp which understands atheism as a positive belief (in a negative). In other words, one believes the proposition that “there is no God” to have a truth value. That is why we spend so much time writing about it. If it was just a “lack of belief in God” as many atheists like to claim, then they wouldn’t so vociferously deny God’s existence.

    I know the definition of atheism splits atheists down the middle, but I think it is vital for your argument here. I think you need to define atheism in order to declare that agnosticism is irrelevant (comparatively).

    But in some ways it is all splitting hairs because it is a label for a person who uses the same arguments, and it is the arguments that are important.

    Let me know if I am spouting bollocks though.

    • xtog42

      The negative atheist label fits me better. Taking a stance on predicates to a thing called God,…is akin to taking a stance on whether there exists a black white. The definitions of God that are most common are self-contradictory, so if I don’t even know what you are talking about, how can I take a positive stance on it?

    • Edward Clint

      Now, the criticism of this is that all knowledge other than the cogito ergo sum requires us to not be 100% certain, such that we are technically agnostic on just about everything, but we don’t bother elucidating that idea. Why choose to be different here?

      This is the essence of my allegation of the irrelevance of agnosticism. Reminding ourselves that nothing is 100% certain changes nothing about the likelihood of any given proposition. It rules nothing out, it suggests no truths. It is simply intellectually irrelevant to any consideration.

      My answer to that would be to highlight the idea that both positions (theist and atheist) require an amount of faith (as does every position),though belief in God may require an awful lot more. I don’t want to be seen as someone who attacks theists for their faith and then retreats to a similar position of faith.

      Now here I must disagree. Faith, in the sense of dependence on revealed truth, is not required for atheism, nor is “faith” in the sense of holding a proposition correct without evidence.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    Addendum

    All in all, though, the usefulness of calling myself an agnostic atheist is minimal, and oftentimes don’t mention it.

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