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What’s Wrong with Agnosticism?

August 7, 2010

Rereading an article by Ron Rosenbaum has reminded me that not all atheists (that is, people who don’t believe in a theistic god) like to be classed as non-believers, but rather classify themselves as non-n0n-believers. Agnostics. Whilst there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with saying “I don’t know”, in this case I don’t think that it’s the rational position.

In his article, Rosenbaum starts with the dogma asserted by anyone who doesn’t like atheism:

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

This displays the false dichotomy held by lots of people – that science claims that it will be able to answer all the big questions, or even that it will be able to explain everything! In a book I just read today (Why Does Man Make Gods and Dogs, written by a chap from my village in Somerset!) this claim was also made. The choice here was between the following: either

  1. Science will one day explain everything and there will be no place for religion; or
  2. We will realise that science cannot explain everything and become more spiritual and religious.

Why is this a false dichotomy? We are happy to accept that ants have a (very) small limit on the knowledge they can have of the universe. We are probably happy to accept that dogs have a slightly larger, but still limited potential knowledge of the universe. We are happy to accept that all life on Earth other than us has a limit to what it can know. Why should we make an exception for humans? I am more than willing to say that there is probably a limit to what it is possible for humans to know, now or in the future. This doesn’t mean that I will turn to religion to fill the gap, and I think that as the influence of science has spread this need to turn to religion has fallen. At least that’s what I’d hope.

So Rosenbaum is wrong. Atheists don’t necessarily claim that science will definitely answer the question of how or why the universe came to exist (although some might). What we say is that, if we can answer the question then it is through the scientific method that we will arrive at the answer, not through revelation or scripture.

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive.

Victor Stenger would have something to say about this. It might not strike Rosenbaum as persuasive, but that doesn’t mean that scientists haven’t got powerful theories giving example of how the universe may have started. Read anything by Stenger for more information, not got it with me to quote from.

Yet again, it’s not “faith that science will tell us eventually.” It’s “faith” that science is the right tool to attempt to answer the question. I put faith in “s because it isn’t belief in the absence of evidence – science has consistently proven to be the tool with which to answer these sorts of questions.

Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved.

Ok, that line of reasoning is getting old now.

You know about the pons asinorum, right? The so-called “bridge of asses” described by medieval scholars? Initially it referred to Euclid’s Fifth Theorem, the one in which geometry really gets difficult and the sheep are separated from the asses among students, and the asses can’t get across the bridge at all. Since then the phrase has been applied to any difficult theorem that the asses can’t comprehend. And when it comes to the question of why is there something rather than nothing, the “New Atheists” still can’t get their asses over the bridge, although many of them are too ignorant to realize that. This sort of ignorance, a condition called “anosognosia,” which my friend Errol Morris is exploring in depth on his New York Times blog, means you don’t know what you don’t know. Or you don’t know how stupid you are.

I would have assumed he had another argument, but it doesn’t appear so. Maybe in the next paragraph?

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

So, let me see if I understand this. I’m only able to honestly call myself an atheist if I can answer that question? His constant harping on about this issue suggests that he doesn’t necessarily view science as the only useful tool for answering questions about the material world. Sure, religion can try to answer these questions. But it consistently gets the answer wrong. Any other takers?

Once we view science as the best means with which to ask and answer these sorts of questions, Rosenbaum’s entire argument falls to pieces. He does move on though. Lets see where to:

Agnosticism doesn’t contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranteduntested or untestable certainties.

Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

Is Rosenbaum uncertain about the existence of fairies? About the existence of Zeus? Is he agnostic about whether he’ll get wet if he goes outside in the rain without an umbrella? How is agnosticism about the existence on the Judeo-Christian god any different to that of other gods? Or other truth claims? As I’ve said before, it’s not a 50/50 bet. We have lots of evidence that the universe follow natural laws. We have no evidence that a god exists, let alone interferes with our lives in a personal way. Intercessory prayer has been shown not to work. The “holy” books are the work of man. It gets to a point where I can rationally say that the hypothesis of the existence of a theistic god is false.

There’s room for another anti-atheist argument; it can make us evil!

And recently there was a stir occasioned by Paul Kurtz, the much-admired former editor of the agnostic/atheist publication The Skeptical Inquirer who had taken to the pages of the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry to attack the “true believer atheists,” whom he called “true unbelievers” for behaving just like religious zealots:

We need to ask: are there fundamentalist “true unbelievers”? Many secular-atheists in twentieth-century totalitarian societies were indeed fundamentalists in the sense that they sought to impose a strict ideological code and willingly used state power and brutal violence against anyone who dissented. Stalinism is the best example of the readiness to punish deviation in the name of “the holy secular doctrine,” which the commissars in the gulags used to enforce obedience. Fortunately, the extremes of this form of doctrinal terror have declined with the end of the cold war.

Stalin didn’t kill people in the name of atheism! He killed in the name of power, of his twisted version of Marxism. He was friendly with the Russian Orthodox church. He killed in the name of an ideology, the fact that he was an atheist was secondary to that.

Rosenbaum leaves us with some commentary on someone elses anti-atheist ideas. Here are the highlights.

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

2. [The New Atheism] presumes to know what it cannot.

The first point… I guess it is a bit of “Us and Them”, but when two people disagree, what else is there? A relativistic middle ground is the easy way out. There is an answer to the question, why pretend there isn’t? As to the second point, getting a strange sense of deja vu!

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. [Which is why the “are you agnostic about fairies?” rejoinder is just dumb.] But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

How is that a “long step”? As Dawkins points out, we’re all atheists about most gods, atheists just add one more to the list. Seems like a small and easy step to me.

Finally, this:

The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.

Taking the high ground based upon this oversimplification and misrepresentation… I won’t repeat my arguments above, but needless to say I think this statement is plain wrong (in that it doesn’t address any real issue).

So, I haven’t seen any rational argument that agnosticism is to be preferred to atheism. I freely admit that a deistic god might exist, but I don’t believe it does. I strongly believe that there is no theistic god, but I can list the evidence that would change my mind. I think organised religion is damaging and obviously false. I look at the world around me, the people in it, the progress that science has made answering our questions about the real world, and I see no reason to believe in god. Why should I say “I don’t know”?


Addendum: Having just read this post again, a few more points.

[On atheists] And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.

Really? Does it involve torture? Being burnt alive? Being forced to recant whilst denouncing friends and family for imaginary crimes?

The whole article strikes me as a massive “tu quoque” fallacy. I accuse you of basing your beliefs on faith, so you say “so do you!”, despite that being utterly fanciful.

I also want to clarify that I’m certainly not against the idea of saying “I don’t know”. It’s just that in this case there are substantial claims made by religions for which we don’t have to hold back on making judgement, and I’m of the opinion that the existence of god(s) is one of these claims.

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