Why the famous atheism vs agnosticism chart is wrong
[UPDATE - My initial interpretation of the nature of this chart seems incorrect. See discussion at the bottom of this post. ]
The dreaded debate
This tumblr popped up in my newsfeed yesterday. It encapsulates the most common conversation between two types of non-religious people in the last couple of decades. I have had or been audience to such an exchange, the dreaded “atheism vs agnosticism” discussion, dozens of times. It usually goes like this. Self-described atheists says that if you lack belief you are an atheist, period. Self-described agnostic says that nothing can ever be known for sure, so really the atheists are agnostic and should identify as such. This gets resolved, apparently to the general satisfaction of nonbelievers, with the following chart which concludes both parties are right because “knowledge” and “belief” are separate.
Even Richard Dawkins recaps this discussion and its conclusion in The God Delusion. It seems like a coup for agnostics because the chart puts confident atheists on the same footing as fundamentalist Christians and, as in the tumblr, attempts to claim all reasonable people as agnostics. On the upside the atheist does still get to claim the agnostic disbeliever, so there’s a little win for everyone. The only problem is that its cheating. The chart doesn’t make sense, and its fundamental claim about the separable categories of belief and knowledge is completely wrong.
The basic logic of the chart, and any chart like it, is that the columns represent a property and each column a different (in this case opposite) form of that property. Same for the rows. In this case the columns specify a belief property and the rows a knowledge property. It’s just like those Punnett squares from high school about what color the peas are going to be →
Notice that each gene (allele), denoted by Y or y gets distributed across its row or column and that the meaning is precisely the same across the column or row.
Now let’s simplify the atheism vs agnosticism chart. Let’s say that,
K = Knows X
~K = Does not know X
B = Believes in X
~B = Does not believe in X
X = god exists (but X could be any proposition, does not matter)
Replicating the format of the chart above, we get:
Now let’s have a look. The atheism/agnosticism chart above says in the top left quadrant “100% certain there is a God or Gods”. In the simplified language of my chart, the quadrant contains “knows X, believes X”. So far, so good. The bottom row seems right, too. The agnostic theist does not know, but believes and the agnostic atheist claims neither knowledge nor belief. The top right, aka the strong atheist quadrant reads “Knows X, does not believe X” and as stated, X = “God exists”. So, “knows God exists.” Huh. That’s not quite right, that should be the atheist. That’s not even the biggest problem. There is no single proposition where this chart works and makes sense.
That’s because it’s cheating by inverting the proposition in at least one term without any justification. In this case, X has to be traded for ~X. It’s the only quadrant where that is done. Why?
You can wrestle with it a few different ways, mucking about with the X’s K’s and B’s, but you’re always going to be fudging exactly one term for it to make sense. The reason for this is the incoherence of a quadrant which will necessarily read “I know X, but I do not believe X”. This is a nonsensical statement. Something must be believed to be known.
If all items that are knowledge always subsume at least one belief, then knowledge and belief can’t be unrelated features like temperate and height, but are instead more like gradations of a single feature which we might describe as “how compelling is the rationale for accepting X”.
I would assert that the chart is sociologically useful, while being epistemologically incoherent. Belief and knowledge are meaningful in that context: I can have very good reasons to think something is true that I can’t prove to anybody, such as the contents of my own thoughts or the fact that I was holding a pen 10 seconds ago. I can never prove that to anyone. It can’t be knowledge per se. But surely, to me, it is a justified, true belief. It would be absurd to demand that I ignore the empirical evidence on the grounds of nonreplicability (many accepted bits of knowledge are one-of events that can’t be replicated empirically).
If the chart is bunk, who wins at Ath vs Ag?
Like Bob Barker used to say, I’m sorry, you’ve all philosophically overbid. OK, so I’m paraphrasing. The correct representation is a single axis continuum of confidence. Somewhere along that axis are markers that denote, at least psychologically, concepts like true, false, correct, nonsense,bullshit, certain, and yes, knowledge. This observation does not itself say where the lines should be, nor where the God hypothesis falls on that, but drawing my line for you might help you understand why everyone in the Ath vs Ag argument has lost. You might be familiar with the Dawkins Scale of belief. I must give the man credit for at least getting the type of representation right.
But still, not a valid representation. (With all due respect to the Dawkins, Peace be upon Him, e pluribus unum). As I explained in a previous post, this chart misleadingly suggests that the epistemological distances between the items 1-7 are comparable. In fairness, Dawkins does try to add nuance with the descriptions, but still the numbering is misleading. Belief space is vast and has to be described exponentially or logarithmically. Another problem is that Positions one and seven are philosophical fantasies: they do not exist in the real world, not for God belief, not for any belief. The reason we can change our minds, is that all propositions are inabsolute. Scientifically, the notion of “100% sure” is nonexistent. Here is a better scale I created, which I call the Sagan Plausibility Scale.
Nobody “won” because everyone from the very start thought that it was worthwhile to invent a labeling system and nonsensical chart for one single reason: to point out that a vanishingly unlikely, silly claim fails to be infinitely unlikely. The moment you started thinking absolution was the rightful yardstick for facts or truth claims, you were wrong and wasting your time. That isn’t what true means.
—————— UPDATE —————
A kindly Redditor (OK, more belligerent and rude than kindly) told me the object n question is not a chart or table, but a four-quadrant Venn diagram. After a bit of looking I found this similar representation.
I expect this is what the “standard” chart is meant to represent, but it has been distorted and abused over the years. I find this representation quite agreeable. Properly understood, the chart is a 4-square version of the above with the superset’s area outside of the 4 visible sets removed. Note some key differences, the bit about “100% certainty”, silly nonsense really, replaced with much more mundane and sensible “Does claim proof exists”. There is no juxtaposition of belief and knowledge because there is no mention of knowledge.
In light of this finding, I was incorrect to expect properties to be distributed across the table because it isn’t a table, but four sets that do not overlap with their opposing set. Such are the dangers in wading into the philosophical waters when you are not a pro.
I do maintain (and this particular diagram supports) that a belief/knowledge dichotomy isn’t necessary or important, and that the set including the agnostic sections are frivolous in practice.