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Does not believing result in belief?

August 4, 2015

A while ago I was in a facebook argument about religious belief and agnosticism. For some reason one part of it popped into my head last night, so here are some thoughts.

Agnosticism is the position that we cannot know whether or not god exists. Theism is the belief that he does, and atheism the belief that he doesn’t (glossing over wrinkles in which god we may be talking about…). Now, it seems to be commonly taken to be there case that there are therefore three positions:

  1. I have the belief that god exists (theism);
  2. I have the belief that god doesn’t exist (atheism); or
  3. I have no belief whatsoever about whether god exists (agnosticism).

The first thing that bothers me about this is that it seems to be a category error. The first two positions in this list are statements about belief, but agnosticism is a statement of epistemology, how we come to form knowledge (hence the word “know” in the definition of agnosticism above). The agnostic is saying that they don’t think there is a way to transform a belief about god’s existence into knowledge. But they could still hold a belief on the matter. You could be an agnostic atheist, or, for that matter, an agnostic theist.

So, this traditional tripartite scheme leaves me uncomfortable. So, at one point in the facebook argument I was in, I said that I didn’t think agnosticism was a way of absolving yourself of any commitment, and that if you didn’t believe in god you were as good as making the claim that you believe god doesn’t exist. This got some quick push back, probably rightly at the time. Why? Well, it is certainly true from a logical perspective that denying a positive existence claim does not necessarily imply a commitment to belief that the opposite is true. So, saying “I don;t believe in god” does not commit you to saying “I believe god doesn’t exist”. But…

What struck me recently is that in a lot of other cases, this would not be the case. Suppose I say “I don’t believe in fairies”. You would, rightly, assume that that means “I believe fairies don’t exist”. Certainly that’s what I mean when I say it. Similarly for more mundane examples – if I say “I don’t believe there is a beer in the fridge” I mean, and I would assume be understood to mean, that “I believe there is no beer in the fridge”. If I say “I don’t believe homoeopathy works”, what I mean is “I believe homoeopathy doesn’t work”, and I would bet good money that if I said that to a homoeopath that’t what they’d understand.

So here we can see that denying a positive existence claim does imply a belief in the negative existence claim.

What is different in the god case that makes it different? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the issue of god has become so complicated by theologians and philosophers that we think it is some totally different concept that we can treat differently. Maybe people just don’t want to take a stand, they’re too unsure or don’t want to offend. Or maybe I’m just wrong about my examples above.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2015 6:27 PM

    Nice writeup. I like this idea of an agnostic as being someone who holds the position “Regardless of my belief, there is no way of knowing whether god exists”. Some days I feel like an agnostic theist and others an agnostic atheist.

    It would seem that there are now two more positions: gnostic theism and gnostic atheism. These would beliefs that is possible to know, and moreover that one can believe that god does exist and one could believe it is possible to know that god does not exist.

    I can’t help but think about belief in mathematics for comparison. Following Gödel’s Incompleteness theorems (and rejecting inconsistency as an option) one could believe that something is unprovable, but true or unprovable, but false. These would be the agnostic believers and unbelievers of proposition P. Likewise, one could say that one believes that proposition P is true, perhaps because one is working on a proof of it; these would be the gnostic believers of proposition P. Of course, if one successfully proves proposition P without error, then the position of gnosticism versus agnosticism is decided as is the truth of proposition P.

  2. August 12, 2015 12:06 PM

    Glad you liked it!

    I have a lot more time for agnosticism as the position “regardless of my belief, there is no way of knowing whether god exists” than the “I hold no belief” position. There are still issues – there are plenty of existence statements that we are not agnostic about, such as fairies, invisible dragons and the like – but I think it’s a respectable position.

    You’re right that there are those two extra positions – we basically have to decide on which side of two questions we fall – do we believe, or not, and is that belief knowledge, or not. Interesting analogy with math(s). You say

    Likewise, one could say that one believes that proposition P is true, perhaps because one is working on a proof of it; these would be the gnostic believers of proposition P

    Is it this simple? Wouldn’t you have to believe that the thing you are trying to prove is provable? You could work on a proof without believing that, hoping that it is provable. In that case you would be an agnostic believer of P. Then, as you say, a successful proof would settle the matter.

  3. August 12, 2015 2:47 PM

    Right, the gnostic believer would have the belief (but not the knowledge) that proposition P is provable if one was working on a proof (hopefully checkable by a computer), but didn’t have a proof yet.

  4. August 12, 2015 9:46 PM

    Got you


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