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Posted by on Sep 25, 2012 in philosophy, secularism | 15 comments

Agnosticism is untenable and irrelevant, part 2

This is a continuation of a previous post, which you should read first if you have not already. Arguments in section III pertain to the sociological problems with self-describing as agnostic. IV and V criticize the philosophical basis more directly.

III. Label me incredulous

The label paradox
This is a linguistic phenomena whereby it can be observed that as labels become more specific and confer more information, they become less useful and less powerful. This is counter-intuitive because isn’t it better for a label to convey more information than less? It turns out not, because the linguistic power of labels largely derives from how big a set of people or objects they describe.

Broad labels let you generalize knowledge about a person. Let’s say you meet someone and they tell you that they are a Christian. Now, because there is an enormous group of Christians to have previously interacted with, you can make many inferences. True- your inferences are only statistically valid at best, but that’s still quite a bit better than being guided by nothing.

Compare this to when someone says to you that they’re an “Episcopalian”. How much information does this convey? The number of Espiscopalians is comparatively small. Most people have no background knoweldge to generalize from, if they even know the word at all. If you subtract out everything already given by the label “Christian” of which it is a subset, the label only specifies a handful of church doctrines that separate that shard from other shards of Christianity. In terms of utility for a speaker and hearer, “Episcopalian” is specific, but just too small.

As labels get more precise, they say more and more about fewer and fewer people, until they say virtually everything about almost nobody: Welcome, we’re the Southwest Oregon Reformed Episcopalian Church of Hats. We’re like the larger church, ‘cept we like hats a lot. What, you’ve never heard of us? Examples of the label paradox in action: everyone knows what doctor means, but fewer know how an ophthamologist differs from an optrician or even what a gastroenterologist is; consider attourney vs. securities lawyer; liberal vs. neoliberal; atheist vs ignostic. Highly specific labels only prosper in isolated sections of society, such as professional environments where it is useful to know them on a daily basis.

The pretentiousness of why versus what
“Atheist” or “theist” is an answer to a what question.  What do you believe? “Agnostic” does not answer a what question, which is why many have observed you can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist. Agnostic answers a why question. As in, “OK, so you’re an atheist. Why? Oh, because you don’t believe there can be evidence supporting the god idea. I gotcha.” The pretentiousness creeps in any time a person insists on always answering a what question with a why answer. The asker has not requested an explanation for your position, just a word or short statement describing it. By insisting on answering “agnostic”, or similar, you are ignoring their request and taking it upon yourself to share your personal philosophy with them. But, they didn’t ask. If they want to know the why, they will ask you why.

Imagine if people commonly did this in answering other questions. A1 actually answers the question asked, and A2 gives an agnostic-type answer.

Q:  So, are you part of a political party? dems? gop?
A1:  Mostly libertarian, but conservative fiscally…
A2: I think people should be responsibility for their own welfare and the deficit is out of control, and we shouldn’t have to support blah blah with taxes…

Q: Are you from the city?
A1: No, just visiting.
A2: Well my family is from Cliffton a half hour southwest of here and my dad always said it’s not worth it with the pollution and traffic and all that.

These sorts of A2’s are not always a bad thing to say, you might just be making small talk. What makes it presumptuous is insisting on always giving that reply whenever the question is asked, and not being able to give the answer you are actually being asked for.

IV. Agnosticism is special pleading

Special pleading is an informal logical fallacy best described as changing the rules in the middle of the game to preferentially benefit one’s position. It plays on the social acceptance that rules often have sensible exceptions- dog’s are not allowed in the store, other than service animals for the disabled.  Special pleading is the assertion of exception to the rules without justifying the exception:

There must be a God because all things need a cause, therefore the universe needs a cause. God does not, because God is non-contingent. 

Here the theist posits a premise shortly before contradicting it. Why a pre-universe condition is not permitted to be “non-contingent” but God is, is not explained nor should we hold our breath waiting. So how is agnosticism special pleading?

The Santa clause
When atheists compare Jesus to Santa, they are alluding to the special pleading of agnosticism. We don’t pay philosophical lip service to the possible existence of Santa. We don’t invent titles describing the disposition. We don’t correct people around us when they speak of Santa as an incontrovertible fiction. The silliness in doing so is obvious; but wait, why is it so silly for Santa and so serious for God? This implicit exception needs a closer look.

Here the agnostic replies that we do have to correct people and invoke terms about Santa, we just don’t because there are no Claustians bombing abortion clinics. This, however, mistakes the scope of the problem of agnosticism. The justification for using the term “agnostic” and condemning definitive statements of any sort lies with a useless idea called absolute truth. Since we can’t know for 100% sure that there is no god, we must remain uncertain and play the accessory reindeer games any time the discussion of a/theism comes up. Virtually no agnostics I have ever met think through the implications of this seemingly reasonable position. It isn’t just Santa that you must defend as a possibility; it isn’t just atheism that you must demean as “unknowable”: it’s all ideas and all positions. We don’t absolutely know anything.

When people insist evolution and global warming are untrue, the agnostic must defend them as potentially correct in the face of criticism. I’m very serious about this. The agnostic cannot ever say “evolution is true” and be an honest person. We don’t know it’s true; it only seems to be. I can say that the Earth is definitely 4.5ish billion years old. An honest agnostic can’t. Do vaccines cause autism? They might, an agnostic must report, any time the subject arises. I am not playing a game nor suggesting a thought experiment. This is literally what a person must do in order to subscribe to the idea of agnosticism, and act in a manner consistent with that idea. Except for showcase use or during imaginative exercise, the non-hypocritical agnostic is forbidden from the use of the words true, false, fact, certain, knowledge, untruth, falsehood and similar terms when they refer to the status of a proposition.

V. Huxley Reduxley: Pointless philosophical asceticism

No one carries on like that, nor could they. When people use words like “know” and “true” they aren’t speaking to absolute truth. They’re talking about things which it is more reasonable to assert than to deny, and for which there sufficient support in evidence and/or in reason.  We accept that evolution is a fact, and scientists did this long before DNA had been observed nor any kind of speciation event. We can do this, because of a preponderance of evidence and because we can make sound inferences. That we aren’t absolutely sure is not relevant because that is not what the word “know” or “fact” means. It isn’t even what the word “truth” means, in ordinary conversation. A reasonable review of the evidence leads us to conclude evolution happened and is happening. A reasonable review of history, science, and philosophy leads us to conclude god didn’t. There is no tenable justification for banishing either conclusion, nor the degree of certainty which prescribes the verb “know”. One famous man you might know denied such conclusions about both evolution and god: Thomas Huxley. He said of evolution[1],

[…]until selection and breeding can be seen to give rise to varieties which are infertile with each other, natural selection cannot be proved.

Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog” and coiner of “agnostic” never in his lifetime accepted natural selection, the engine of evolution, as true. Huxley was not a philosopher, he was an anatomist. He applied an anatomist’s empiricism to Darwin’s theory, rendering it mere speculation. If your epistemology is so crippling that Darwin himself can’t convince you that the basic mechanism of evolution is real, maybe it’s a bit on the irrational side.

 

1. Huxley, Thomas Henry (1860a), “On species, and races and their origin”, Proc. Roy. Inst. 1858-62 (III): 195

PS- I will read responses in the comments and likely write a part 3 based on objections and feedback.

  • Nick Reymann

    If there was a phrase that was like “ad hominem”, only for attacking the characteristics of a position instead of a person, then I think that would apply here. When do you get to the part where you tackle the actual argument of agnosticism, or can you?

    • Edward Clint

      Did you read the article? I made what you ask about a section heading in bold letters: “Agnosticism is special pleading”. Special pleading is a type of faulty reasoning, as well as an “actual argument” against agnosticism.

      I’m not sure you understand why ad hominem is unsavory. Implying a person’s argument is wrong because the person is deficient is unsound. Implying a position is bad because it has deficient characteristics is part and parcel of critical thinking.

  • xtog42

    I’m having trouble seeing the support for your title again.

    The first section doesn’t appear to address the title at all.

    The second section includes premises like, ““Atheist” or “theist” is an answer to a what question. What do you believe?”, which is simply incorrect. If atheist or theist is an answer to a question the question would be,….”Do you believe in God, or Gods?” The agnostic answers, “What are you talking about?”, or “I don’t know.”

    The Santa Claus issue is even more troubling, because agnostics are not guilty of special pleading,….the difference is clear — I know what you are talking about when you say Santa Claus,…I do not know what you are talking about when you say God. That is not special pleading at all.

    The you write,….” The agnostic cannot ever say “evolution is true” and be an honest person.”

    Being an agnostic about belief in God does not imply extreme skepticism about everything. It does not imply that agnostics have no grounds for stating something true. Agnostics may support evolution or climate change because they know what those things are, and they accept the scientific evidence supporting them.

    Quite frankly in these two posts I am wondering if you are a skeptic at all. Both of these posts clearly appear to bash skepticism. Skepticism does not demand atheism in any way shape or form, nor does it exclude the possibility of truth.

    And the Huxley point also escapes me. Huxley wanted more proof before saying he thought evolution true,….so tell me again how that makes agnosticism untenable and irrelevant? I am really sorry to come off like a curmudgeon but you have made all kinds of points that simply do not support your thesis in my honest opinion .

    • Edward Clint

      The first section doesn’t appear to address the title at all.

      Perhaps you missed my clarification: Arguments in section III pertain to the sociological problems with self-describing as agnostic. The label paradox explains why the usage may be untenable, from a linguistic standpoint.

      If atheist or theist is an answer to a question the question would be,….”Do you believe in God, or Gods?” The agnostic answers, “What are you talking about?”, or “I don’t know.”

      “I don’t know” is a fine answer, with respect to this point.

      I know what you are talking about when you say Santa Claus,…I do not know what you are talking about when you say God.

      I don’t see the distinction. One magical made-up being versus another.

      Being an agnostic about belief in God does not imply extreme skepticism about everything. It does not imply that agnostics have no grounds for stating something true.

      Actually it does. If the bar for asserting something might exist is infinitely low (god get’s a “maybe” no matter how many observations people make of naturalism, religious fraud, or the clear, irrefutable evidence that humans manufacture gods). Once you make the bar that low, then everything gets the same pass. Nothing can be excluded.

      Agnostics may support evolution or climate change because they know what those things are, and they accept the scientific evidence supporting them.

      Scientific evidence is provisional and mutable. Moreover, a potentially existing trickster deity could be playing with you. You’ve no right to be any more firm about one than the other.

      Quite frankly in these two posts I am wondering if you are a skeptic at all. Both of these posts clearly appear to bash skepticism.

      Asserting that a position is unreasonable on the grounds of self-contradiction isn’t applying a skeptical approach? This is certainly my aim, and it would be so whether I am correct or not.

      And the Huxley point also escapes me. Huxley wanted more proof before saying he thought evolution true,….so tell me again how that makes agnosticism untenable and irrelevant? I am really sorry to come off like a curmudgeon but you have made all kinds of points that simply do not support your thesis in my honest opinion .

      Yes, you are rather curt and dismissive. My point was that Darwin’s theoretical and evidential support for natural selection was more than reasonable. In denying it, Huxley shows the weakness of his extreme empiricism. He was wrong. He was wrong in 1860 as much as much as now.

  • xtog42

    Look, I am not trying to be a jerk. I just feel you have not offered support for your headline, despite seriously reading and rereading your posts over and over again.

    When I wrote,…”I know what you are talking about when you say Santa Claus,…I do not know what you are talking about when you say God.”

    You replied,….”I don’t see the distinction. One magical made-up being versus another.”

    The distinction is that I know what you mean when you say Santa…I do not know what you mean when you say God. Whether they are both magical and made-up is of no account and it is the actual question you are asking, so to assert it in the way you have appears circular.

    You said answering “I don’t know” to the question of God’s existence is “fine”, but you seem to say that answering “I don’t know what is meant by the term God.” Is not acceptable. Why is this?

    People can be agnostic for a number of reasons — for some it is definitional problems, for others it is involves a weighing of the evidence that does not result in a clear position for the answerer. To call an agnostic’s position untenable, intellectually indefensible and irrelevant you should have to deal with all sorts of agnostic responses. An agnostic may say,…”I don’t know”, or “It depends”, or I don’t know what you mean by the term God.” These are all not only intellectually defensible, but also relevant and tenable. Spinoza’s God may exist, St Augustine’s may not,…it depends.

    Next you imply claims must always have the same epistemology bar,…”Once you make the bar that low, then everything gets the same pass. Nothing can be excluded.”…but they don’t — extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. There is a reason why famous skeptics like Carl Sagan, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Michael Shermer have used that phrase frequently in the past.

    Next you say something that is totally untrue,…”Scientific evidence is provisional and mutable.” No it’s not,….scientific evidence is NOT provisional and mutable,….scientific CONCLUSIONS are. Are you actually telling me that if I and others measure a temperature with a thousand types of thermometers and they all tell us the same thing that the reading is “provisional and mutable”?

    If I appear curt and dismissive it is because you have made an incredible assertion concerning agnostics and you have given IMHO no reason for anyone who didn’t already agree with you to accept your assertion and you have not addressed the concerns of literally hundreds of learned intellectuals who have pronounced on this subject through the years. You seem to simply take the Dawkin’s position and ignore the Hitchen’s/Russell/Ingersol position. In the very least you could have mentioned them and what they had to say.

    You have done this by misstating the definition of agnostic, going off on tangents that have little to do with the headline at hand and making fundamental epistemological mistakes. I only have a minor in philosophy, but I teach physics and psychology and so like to think I understand logic, and yours is escaping me on this issue – not to be rude, I just don’t understand how you are supporting this very bold position. In taking a bold position, shouldn’t you expect some aggressive challenges like mine and be a little more reserved in calling my comments ‘curt’?

    I am not any more dismissive of your points than you have been mine, but not curt, that implies brevity and rudeness,…and while my comments may have been brief,…they have not been rude,…next I hope you will not be calling me a troll of some sort aka FTB (kidding).

    In my honest, humble and genuine opinion,….you have not supported your headline. That doesn’t mean I won’t agree with you on everything else you will ever write here, but on this one issue I believe you owe us a more direct and concise exposition of your thesis.

    So, could you in a few clear and concise sentences sum your thoughts up and tell us why answering “I don’t know” or “It depends” or “What do you mean by God?” to the question of God’s existence like agnostics do to is untenable, intellectually indefensible and irrelevant?

    I feel I have addressed the first 2, but the third ‘irrelevant’ I had also addressed but you chose not to respond,….the idea that agnosticism may be just the bridge atheists need to get theists to moderate their opinions on this question something I am sure we would both appreciate.

    Also,…being called curt I feel was unwarranted,…could you point out to me what I said that was rude, so I will not do it again as I am not in anyway some sort of troll, and I do appreciate people like yourself putting out a position and defending it, but your calling me curt makes me feel like I will get the same sort of back and forth here as I got at FTB when I tried politely to challenge an author’s post.

    For the record I agree with Russell that the distinction between the terms atheist and agnostic is not that big a deal,…here are two key quotes from him,…

    In the television interview mentioned earlier, 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 never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.”

    So, tell me how Bertrand Russell’s position is intellectually indefensible and untenable.

    Also,…here is famous skeptic Michael Shermer on this issue,…

    “Agnosticism was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe his own beliefs:

    When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist…I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
    Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.

    When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history. As well, people tend to equate atheism with certain political, economic, and social ideologies, such as communism, socialism, extreme liberalism, moral relativism, and the like. Since I am a fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, and most definitely not a moral relativist, this association does not fit me. The word “atheist” is fine, but since I publish a magazine called Skeptic and write a monthly column for Scientific American called “Skeptic,” I prefer that as my label. A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise). I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed.”

    So Shermer himself certainly attests to the relevancy and intellectual defense of the agnostic position,…in fact in this passage he appears to accept the agnostic position as the skeptical position!

    Tell me what has he gotten wrong here?

    Also,…PLEASE read this article that makes the point that Christopher Hitchens himself can show us that agnosticism is not only intellectually defensible, but also tenable and,…..relevant. Here is the key graph for the last of these,…

    “A later chapter reinforces the point when Hitchens discusses “American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists” with almost ostentatious use of the connective “and.”

    Uniting agnostics and atheists not only made good political sense — given the size of their combined populations — it also underscored Hitchens’s firm grasp of history. As Susan Budd put it in her excellent study “Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 1850-1960,” “the conversion to atheism in those years usually followed two distinct phases: the conversion from Christianity to unbelief or uncertainty … and the move from unbelief to positive commitment to secularism.” Arguably, a similar two-step exists today.”
    I’ll take Russell’s, Hitchen’s and Ingersol’s side,…and I would enjoy taking on Dawkin’s position which you appear to have,…maybe we could have some fun with this, rather than having this discussion get all FTBy.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-lane/hitchens-vs-dawkins-agnosticism_b_1235368.html

    I’ll take a closer look at Dawkins points on this since

    You appear to be taking his position and reply as soon as possible. That is if you are up for this discussion and do not wish to just move on.

    • xtog42

      On reflection, after reviewing Dawkins’ comments regarding his 7 stage scale from theist to atheist it appears he himself is an agnostic since he claims to be at 6.9 on that scale which would qualify him as agnostic not atheist. So while Dawkins has bashed agnosticism in the past it seems he was speaking hyperbolically.

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

      While he states that a 6 means one is “de facto” atheist, clearly one must have absolute certainty of god’s non-existence to be a full atheist, since any movement away from personal certainty could just as easily be portrayed as ‘de facto agnosticism’.

      http://www.inquisitr.com/198162/atheist-richard-dawkins-slightly-agnostic-after-all/

      • http://twitter.com/ourdailytrain Our Daily Train blog

        If I can interject briefly: I believe Dawkins in his book makes the distinction that a person can call themselves an atheist (because they believe there is no god or gods) while not knowing with 100 percent certainty in so much as no one can know with 100 percent certainty, whatever they might believe to be the case. He also said that while many believers will surely put themselves in the category of 100 percent certainty that there is a god, very few nonbelievers would be so bold as to claim the opposite for themselves. In the Inquisitor article posted here, I would guess that Dawkins was just reacting in the moment when he answered in the affirmative that he considered himself an agnostic. Unless he has had a change of heart, he has long labeled himself an atheist as far as I know.
        – Jeremy

    • Edward Clint

      Hello xtog. I don’t think I can reply to all of your points, I just don’t have time, but I’ll try to hit the high notes.

      The distinction is that I know what you mean when you say Santa…I do not know what you mean when you say God.

      I defined what I meant by “God” in the introduction on the first post about agnosticism:

      “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.

      You said answering “I don’t know” to the question of God’s existence is “fine”, but you seem to say that answering “I don’t know what is meant by the term God.” Is not acceptable. Why is this?

      Because I’ve offered a working definition. One that’s as good as that which “Santa” enjoys. Also, “I don’t know” might be an honest answer; that doesn’t make it a good one.

      To call an agnostic’s position untenable, intellectually indefensible and irrelevant you should have to deal with all sorts of agnostic responses. An agnostic may say,…”I don’t know”, or “It depends”, or I don’t know what you mean by the term God.”

      I’m prepared to deal with any agnostic responses anyone wants to posit. I dismiss all of them as untenable, and all of them, including Spinoza’s, as cases of special pleading.

      Next you imply claims must always have the same epistemology bar,…”Once you make the bar that low, then everything gets the same pass. Nothing can be excluded.”…but they don’t — extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. There is a reason why famous skeptics like Carl Sagan, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Michael Shermer have used that phrase frequently in the past.

      The phrase about “extraordinary evidence…” is not meaningful here. Skeptics use it to describe a truism that any evidence capable of compelling belief in something that amazes us, must also in and of itself amaze us. But these statements are about personal psychological feelings about evidence and claims. They can be a function of fashion and culture. They have no precise meaning epistemologically. Our standard for accepting things are true should be good evidence, period. What we feel about the evidence is not relevant. It is either adequate to substantiate a claim, or it isn’t.

      Once we’ve decided what that is (and we tacitly have, because elsewise we would not use words that describe the veracity of ideas), then we must apply it fairly to ALL topics, regardless of our biases about them, their social acceptability, their social import or anything else. Failure to do so, is dishonesty and it is special pleading.

      In my honest, humble and genuine opinion,….you have not supported your headline. That doesn’t mean I won’t agree with you on everything else you will ever write here, but on this one issue I believe you owe us a more direct and concise exposition of your thesis.

      You are welcome to your opinion. If you’re unconvinced, then you’re unconvinced. You’re not obligated to discuss anything further of you find absolutely no value in my remarks. I will not be offended.

      So, could you in a few clear and concise sentences sum your thoughts up and tell us why answering “I don’t know” or “It depends” or “What do you mean by God?” to the question of God’s existence like agnostics do to is untenable, intellectually indefensible and irrelevant?

      Well, “what do you mean by god” is something that ought to be sorted before the discussion starts. In the introduction to the first post I specified my definition.

      Why is it irrelevant? Partly because it fails to answer a “what” which is generally the point of interest. Beyond that, it is irrelevant because it relies on an epistemological standard which is infinitely low (or high, depending on your POV). When using such a standard, nothing can be said to be true, and nothing false. An epistemological position fundamentally and intrinsically incapable of evaluating almost any notion is a pretty good definition of irrelevant.

      Why intellectual indefensible? Because we have functional standards of evidence which we all (especially scientists) use constantly; we also have evidence on this issue. When we apply our evidence (including from argument, inference, etc) using our functional standard, we arrive at atheism.

      You cite people like Hitchens and Shermer; People I value and respect, but disagree with on points. This is one of them. Perhaps you do not believe that famous intellectuals can be mistaken; I do. They’re wrong and I will defend that position. You said then corrected yourself about Dawkins. He shares your view and not mine, but he is a biologist not a philosopher (neither are Shermer or Hitchens). Nonetheless, Richard Dawkins absolutely epitomizes my position. When he is talking to or about creationists re: evolution, he is quite passionate. He says (paraphrasing) that the idea of YEC is barking mad; that evolution is true, it happened; that those who do not accept it are mad or ignorant. Dawkins might be an agnostic, but he’s a strong evolutionist! When talking about it, he is sure of it. We know it is true, it happened!

      Now if you can understand what makes him speak that way about evolution, then you understand what makes me speak that way about atheism.

  • xtog42

    What happened to the 7 comments? Only three appear here. Were the other comments deleted?

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      I am migrating to the comment system Disqus. It takes time to import old comments (Disqus says up to 24 hours). So everything should get saved and reappear. No comments have been deleted.

  • http://twitter.com/ourdailytrain Our Daily Train blog

    I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts in this series, and I’m thinking about responding via my own blog post, not in complete disagreement or anything, since I’m not an agnostic, but just to add some thoughts in fuller detail than I can in the comment section. Anyway, you may want to edit parts of this. You have “attouney” in this post, and unless I’m reading it wrong, I think this sentence, “OK, so you’re an atheist. Why? …” should read: “OK, so you’re an agnostic. Why? …” Cheers!
    – Jeremy

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      Hello Jeremy.

      Thank you very much, I am glad that you like it. I would be glad to hear your thoughts and perhaps to remark on them here.
      Thanks for finding the typo. The instance of the word “atheist” you mention is actually correct as is. Maybe it could be clearer; the first question is always the “what”. So, the answer has to be atheist or theist. The why comes next (if at all).

      • http://twitter.com/ourdailytrain Our Daily Train blog

        Maybe I misunderstood. You said the first question is the “what” question: “What do you believe? ‘Agnostic’ does not answer a what question.” Fine and we are done with atheism for now. And then you proceeded to the “why” question and you said:

        “Agnostic answers a why question. As in, ‘OK, so you’re an atheist. Why? Oh, because you don’t believe there can be evidence supporting the god idea. I gotcha.'” This, I thought, was to be asked to the agnostic because the agnostic believes that there can’t be evidence to support the god question because for the agnostic, that is essentially an unknowable proposition.

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  • bobthechef

    While I may agree with the spirit of your criticism of agnosticism, I think you botch things in a few places. First, there is a peculiarity to the verb “to know”. When it is said that “we know”, it can mean various things. When someone says “we know that evolution is true”, what that can only mean, understood in a reasonable way, is that there exist authorities we trust who have come to know. It’s almost too obvious to mention; I haven’t personally examined the evidence and drawn inferences, but I trust that certain authorities have and thus my knowing is in the strictest sense an act of faith. Now this is where some of you start to squirm and say “It’s not faith and it’s not authority because I can verify the belief!” Oh, but it is and they are! Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have done something, and second, in the strictest sense, you are begging the question and presuming you can verify the belief. If you knew the same way an authority knows, then there would be no difference between both of you and thus nothing you could learn. Again, I don’t agree with the agnostic that the position I should accept here is that I don’t know, but rather that I know through faith in the authorities which teach or tell me that evolution is in fact the case. You can’t squirm your way out of that one, nor should you, just because you don’t like the conclusion. Now, the thing with labels like “atheist”, “theist (amateurish and armchairy as it is), and “agnostic” is that they are contingent in some complicated way on knowledge, meaning, that a teenager who declares himself an atheist or whatever isn’t really someone we take seriously. The reason is that teenagers are often stupid because they lack wisdom and maturity (in several senses). This doesn’t mean adults are automatically wise and mature, but the general tendency is that age is required for wisdom to form. Agnostics are a bit like teenagers. They are fascinated by their discovery of skepticism of the Pyrrhonian variety (not the misnomer adopted by people and websites like this one). Maturity, however, does serious damage to agnosticism. It’s foolishness loses its luster of juvenile cleverness and the position grows tiresome and stupid. Fallibilism might have seemed like a major discovery to certain academics (though many still persist in their dismissal of it), but every mature adult is more or less fallibilistic in practice as evidenced by the way he lives his life. Yes, we can make mistakes, but because we can make mistakes does not make knowledge categorically impossible. Methodological doubt (the wholesale and unconditional application of doubt) can’t be cured expect by seeing it for the nonsense that it is. However, the thing about evidence is that it is inductive and its interpretation subject to the observer. That I may be an atheist today may be changed by some event tomorrow, but the agnostic falsely believes that this possibility must imply agnosticism. Wrong, what is implies is an agnostic’s pride (not humility to which he likes to lay claim) and unwillingness to take the chance of being proved wrong. He can’t be wrong, in his mind, because he hasn’t taken a position. He refuses to. Ah, but he can because he assumes no evidence is ever sufficient. He thinks he’s better because he’s chosen to sit in the bleachers instead of playing the game. False uncertainty is no better than false certainty.

    Now, given that, and if you’re honest and care about correctness above the belief that you can’t err, you will have to concede that God is not a case of special pleading when it comes to first causes. The fact that you make this claim like many others before you is merely a demonstration of your ignorance. I don’t think your ignorance here is an occasion for derision or ridicule — we’re all born ignorant and perceptually ignorant of so much — but it is a problem when ignorance is coupled with arrogance, that is, the refusal or failure to see one’s ignorance. That’s when it become obnoxious. Here, no one says everything has a cause EXCEPT God just because we need to say that for the argument. Wrong. The cosmological argument, and there are a few variations of it, argues that a first cause must exist if we are to remain logically coherent. Now if there is a first cause (and you shouldn’t understand this first cause to be temporal but existential), then by DEFINITION it must not have been caused or it wouldn’t be THE first cause. The conclusion is that God is this first cause. Whatever one might say about this argument, it can’t be said that it is a case of special pleading by any stretch. Please take the time to honestly evaluation this argument. More often than not, I see no real interest in understanding it because the aim is to misconstrue in order to ridicule and dismiss. That’s not intellectual upstanding behavior.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      Thanks for your comments Bob, I will address a couple points quickly.

      Now this is where some of you start to squirm and say “It’s not faith and it’s not authority because I can verify the belief!”

      Some perhaps, but not me. Your observation that few people have expertise about things they hold to be true does not undermine the arguments I am advancing. If we have some sort of standard about what gets to be called “knowledge”, then we must apply it fairly and consistently. Makes no difference to my argument what the standard is, or what its features are. Moreover, it may be correct to say almost nobody “knows” most of the things we take to be true, but it’s also useless. I see no point in wasting time on topics that do not advance or further understanding.

      Please take the time to honestly evaluation this argument.

      I don’t think this is an area where I have ignorance or arrogance. I am familiar with the cosmological argument. And I have no particular need to be right. The primary reason to write these three posts is to share ideas and see what others think. I could be wrong, or have missed important pieces. Anyway..,

      The conclusion is that God is this first cause.

      This can’t be defended. There is nothing about a first cause that logically requires that it have the properties of a deity, creator, sentient being, etc.., in fact all evidence is to the contrary: wind back the causes and effects of the cosmological clock and things get simpler, not more complex. I am also not interested in semantic game-playing. Yes, there is a God if to you a tree is God, but I can’t be bothered with this. I am speaking to real human beliefs, real religions. Not philosophical game pieces. I specified as much in the first part of this series:

      “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.