Monday, May 09, 2005

A Challenge To Agnostics

You know what really annoys me? When intellectual timidity or laziness tries to pass itself off as "sophistication". As when Relativists refuse to face up to difficult philosophical questions, and somehow think themselves the better for it. Or when Agnostics proudly parade their non-committal as the only reasonable religious position, on the basis that the question of God's existence cannot be "proved" either way.

Belief may be reasonably justified on grounds that fall short of strict proof. After all, "you cannot prove a negative", as they say, but that doesn't mean we must always suspend belief. If one or the other option fits more coherently with the rest of our beliefs, then we may justifiably choose that option. Alternatively, we can appeal to parsimony, and reasonably reject the positing of a new entity simply on the grounds that there's insufficient reason to accept it.

Consider the Tooth Fairy, or an invisible intangible dragon in my garage, or a china teacup orbiting Pluto, or whatever. We can't prove they don't exist. So should we suspend belief? Of course not! We all know the Tooth Fairy isn't real, no matter that this knowledge rests on (fallible) justification rather than proof. The Tooth Fairy's existence would violate our naturalistic understanding of the world, and bloats our ontology unnecessarily -- it can be safely shorn away with Ockham's Razor.

So, my challenge to the agnostic: How is God relevantly different? Why suspend belief in that case, but not about the Tooth Fairy? And is it just the Christian God's existence you remain neutral about, or also Shiva, Thor and Poseidon? And what about the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs and alien abductions? Can you prove that Madame Psychic can't forsee the future? (What's that? You say you don't believe in astrology? *Gasp*! What presumption! You're just as dogmatic as those gullible horoscope readers! We true sophisticates never conclude anything one way or another!)

Many theists have personal reasons for believing in God (e.g. religious experiences), and I can respect that even as I disagree with them. But to recognize that there is no reason to believe in God, and nevertheless refrain from judgment, is entirely unadmirable. But hey, it's all "relative" anyway, right?


  1. The obvious answer is that the tooth fairy can be falsified in ways that God can not. (i.e. your parents fess up about leaving the quarter, you can put video cameras around, etc.)

  2. Focus on the other examples given then. There are plenty of unfalsifiable claims that we're nevertheless well justified in thinking false.

  3. I am amused that around this topic the matching google adds say "god loves you," " know the one true god ".. etc...
    obviously god is taking a hand in this? Or the add matching machinery.
    Yes well, I have been drifting into a position of agnostic such as you criticise. More or less because it seems impossible to prove anything. The traditional arguements for god seem pretty weak.
    What keeps me from outright atheism is certain occasional experiences and perceptions ( NOT artifically drug inspired!! and NEVER by direct intent ) that literally blow the mind and imply that that this apparently well defined 'world' is no such thing. That this mind is limited in the extreme, and simply does not grasp reality clearly. Such wider ( ?) experiences involves much more than just thoughts and requires the whole brain function, including presumably the temporal ( god sensing?) lobes of the brain and much more probably.
    A religious like feel and experiences and perceptions of this world ( though it is no longer a "world" but something quite other) that I would describe as subtle and beautiful and good beyond all belief ( and beyond reproduction in these crude words)
    It appears as 'the best that could ever possibly be in every way'.
    And "you" .. at least the thing you normally define yourself as is .. strangely absent.
    And there is more .. sometimes of a rather god like nature. .

    right. Enough,.
    the problem is that is does not PROVE anything about a god , simply that it could be a true experience. It makes sense of things that otherwise do not.
    But it could be tbe result simply of a brain state where the normal frontal lobe, or at least,thinking activity is alterd while the remainder of the brain is (for once) in a balanced and healthy state.
    I can well imagine that one might afterwards build a religion on such experiences, but I can only wonder and doubt.
    Hence it seems reasonable to me to be agnostic.
    I would suspect that other people who- quote " recognize that there is no reason to believe in God"
    non the less have hidden parts of their nature or emotions which just give them pause. Recognising that sometimes... just sometimes .. come hints that we haven't got it all 'taped' as well as we might. That there is always room for question when the emotions and understanding change.

    David L

  4. I think that most beliefs are defeasible, and that many "factual" truths are merely things that we *believe* to be factual truths, and are as such defeasible. That the world is flat of something once believed as truth which is no longer.

    Therefore I argue that it isn't inconsistent to believe that God does not exist, while still admitting that belief to be defeasible.


  5. Richard, you rather turn things in I think an inappropriate fashion. Avoiding the ever important question of falsification and its many problems, let me ask what an example of an unfalsifiable statement we justifiably ought think false? I'm not sure there are as many as you suggest.

  6. I guess I could say what David did.
    But that would be boring to read it all over again.


  7. Clark - "let me ask what an example of an unfalsifiable statement we justifiably ought think false?"

    Well, firstly there are all those things that we are not presently in a position to disprove (e.g. the china teacup orbitting Pluto). That's an extremely large group, and the sort of agnostic described in my post seems committed to suspending judgment on all of them. That's clearly absurd.

    But perhaps you were wanting to know about entities that are unfalsifiable in principle. Well, perhaps that still includes all of the above -- no matter how carefully you scan the space around Pluto, there's always a chance you overlooked the teacup. One can never prove that there is no teacup there. Alternatively, consider ghosts. Even if we have perfect empirical skills, the absence of any detectable ghosts doesn't disprove their existence, since we may stipulate that they are invisible, or whatever (just like God). Again, there are indefinitely many entities one could postulate in such a fashion. Surely we ought not to be agnostics about ghosts, invisible dragons, etc. We are well justified in simply disbelieving such nonsense.

  8. As for the other comments, I fully agree with MP that we may reasonably hold defeasible beliefs.

    And if David or Queenie have some positive reasons (e.g. from mystical experiences) for religious belief, then they are not the sort of agnostic I mean for this post to be aimed at. My target is the agnostic who "recognize[s] that there is no reason to believe in God, and nevertheless refrain[s] from judgment."

  9. > There is no need / waste to believe tooth fairies dont exist - as long as you accept that they didn't physically replace the tooth under your pillow with the coin (you can claim if that is the case they are not the tooth fairy but then you are into definitional issues).
    And to be a nit picker - maybe there is a thing that looks like a fairy somwhere in the universe, maybe our senses are lying about everything around us.

    sure its not all that practical but if someone threatens you with hell pascals wager kicks in (I know you dont like it but you were not exactly convincing).

    There is nothing wrong with being agnostic about the tooth fairy or anything else as long as you dont push it into theories without good reason. As such ockham's razor doesnt matter since it wont bloat theory - you wont even have a "tooth fairy does not exist" line in your text books.

  10. Quote " Religious experiences of the variety you are describing are not evidence for theological or religious claims."
    Hmmm.. I would just suggest though, that any experience could be considered an 'observation'.. in the scientific sense of looking for clues to nature of an object of study, where the object of study is the universe and the creatures in it. Who are also the means we have to know it. Their nature affects the perception
    I agree it is right to think that past 'conditioning' of mind/society alters what you make of such an experience, but I can still see that some natures of the universe are excluded by such experience and others more likely.
    You ask "what kind of a religion could you "build on" (inductively infer from?) experiences like these? .. etc."
    Aah .. don't tempt me to make a fool of myself by trying to explain ..
    anyway , I have got a bit off richard's topic here, he was aiming i gather, at the agnostics who lack apparently the fortitude(?) to adnmit to full atheism.
    I am not sure I have met such a person. I thought doubters were all a bit like me.

    david L

  11. Clark has a response here, and I clarify my position a bit in the comments there, if anyone's interested. In particular, I highlight that my complaints are directed at 'those agnostics who oppose atheism solely because religious posits cannot be "disproved"'

    David (ALTG) - I'm talking about the personal God of theism, who is part of (or at least interacts with) our universe. I'd probably agree with you that we have no grounds for saying anything at all about things purely external to our universe. The Creator could be a china teacup, for all I know ;)

    (On second thought, we still have parsimony, which could justify disbelief in anything outside of our universe. Yeah. I think I'll go with that.)

  12. Richard
    I think there is a certain ambiguity in the notion of God

    So for example I think it is perfectly reasonable to be an atheist in regards to Omin-God (The classic philosophers God) due to say the argument from evil, but open minded and agnostic about any other possible God.

    In any case Ockhams Razor doesn't clearly fall down on the side of the Atheist by the way, the Atheist actively disbelieves in the existence of God ie they believe the proposition: ~God.
    The Theist actively believes in the proposition: God
    The Agnostic doesn't believe either ~God or God
    I would argue that this position is ontologically simpler, since it requires less commitments than either Atheism or Theism

  13. Hmm, I always thought Ockham's Razor was concerned with minimizing the number of metaphysical entities, rather than cutting down on our epistemic commitments? I don't see that the latter has anything to do with ontological simplicity. (The agnostic isn't proposing a world with fewer ontological entities. He's proposing that there might be more [i.e. God], but he's not sure.)

    It's not clear that we should want to avoid such epistemic commitments, as was more or less the point of my post: does the agnostic really think we should suspend belief about Zeus, ghosts, and the indefinitely many other such unfalsifiable entities? If not, what's the difference?

  14. David Hunter wrote:
    "So for example I think it is perfectly reasonable to be an atheist in regards to Omin-God (The classic philosophers God) due to say the argument from evil, but open minded and agnostic about any other possible God."

    Why should the existence of evil mitigate against the omni-God? Surely if the existence of evil is a logical consequence of some benevolent omni-God motivation, then evil does not disprove omni-God's existence. Any god that wanted a universe governed by physical laws (which was thus comprehensible to the minds of its inhabitants) is going to permit evil. But that evil is a consequence of a benevolent omni-God.

  15. I'd invite further discussion of the problem of evil to continue here instead. (I don't want the present thread to get too far off-topic.)

  16. "Consider the Tooth Fairy, or an invisible intangible dragon in my garage, or a china teacup orbiting Pluto, or whatever. We can't prove they don't exist. So should we suspend belief?"
    Why not?

  17. Wow.

    I stopped after the first five comments because they were getting too stupid for me to handle.

    Rich, if you read this, keep up the good work. I don't claim to know you at all, but I agree with this post and it's fairly close to the conclusion I've come to.

  18. If you've correctly characterized these agnostics, then indeed they're wrong. The proper conclusion isn't that we don't know about God, the conclusion is that it doesn't matter what you believe.

    Humans don't deal with reserving judgment well. It's usually better to judge with reservations.

    Given that you either have to judge God or ~God, and neither are falsifiable even in principle, you should judge whatever makes you happy - with the reservation that the conclusion is meaningless, so no "God, therefore X," because otherwise we could modus tollens God away with X, in principle.

    These conclusions are mutually exclusive yet equivalent. There are other conclusions like this as well, such as the many-worlds idea.

    I believe Thor and Shiva also match this condition. Poseidon doesn't because he was supposed to live at the top of Olympus, and he wasn't there when we went to visit.

  19. I think a major difference between agnosticism about tooth fairies or dragons or Russell's teapot, and agnosticism about a God, is this: we know we exist in a physical universe, which seems to obey certain regular laws. Against that background, tooth fairies, etc., should be assumed not to exist because they violate those laws.

    Whereas, it is a seemingly open and unanswerable question whether there is anything beyond, outside of, this physical universe, such as a deist God. We can't use the laws of this universe against such an entity, since by definition it exists outside it. So it is reasonable to be an agnostic about such a God because we lack evidence, even as it is not so reasonable with respect to Russell's Teapot.

    Now, this is just about one concept of God - the deist one. Other conceptions, whether polytheist or monotheist, may involve God(s) subject to or contravening the laws of this universe, and so it makes more sense to reject such a God. Whereas the deist God is neither subject to nor contravening the laws of this universe, but by definition stands outside it.

  20. "After all, "you cannot prove a negative", as they say, but that doesn't mean we must always suspend belief."

    This is not strictly speaking true. I assume that by "a negative" you mean the negation of a proposition. Well, the negation of a proposition is in itself a proposition. There is nothing in formal logic to distinguish one from the other in any way relevant to what is provable. For instance, the law of non-contradiction is readily provable - given reasonable axiomatic assumptions - and is a negative. (It is not the case that both p and not-p.)

    But that's formal logic. I suspect that what "they" mean by this untrue 'truism' is something along the lines that "it is pragmatically difficult to prove the empirical falsity of an unrestricted existence-claim." For instance, we can prove that there is no purple unicorn in the fridge by looking, but we can't empirically prove that there are no purple unicorns simpliciter.

    However, it's an unjustified move to limit our epistemological resources to solely the empirical. We have other tools than 'looking' at our disposal, which could potentially let us prove the falsity of unrestricted existence claims. We could, for instance, show that the existence claim is somehow self-contradictory. Alternately, we could show that the claim contradicts something else which we know. If claim A and claim B are mutually exclusive, then if we are justified in believing B, we are necessarily equally justified in believing that not-A.

    So in the end it all comes down to what, exactly, is entailed by the claim "God exists." The problem of evil could be formulated as a philosophical proof for the unrestricted non-existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing being. At least inasmuch as we are justified in believing that there does, indeed, exist preventable, gratuitous suffering.

    Or if we understand "God exists" as "there is at least one person who knows the set of all true propositions" then if we can prove (which philosopher Patrick Grim thinks we can) that there cannot ever be a set of all true propositions, then we can prove the unrestricted falsity of God's existence.

    These are just examples and I would expect theist philosophers to nitpick the "proofs," but this is nothing which isn't done with any philosophical proof by its detractors. Inasmuch as you can prove anything at all in philosophy, you can also prove a negative.


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