Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Agnostics Are Wimps

Jason Rosenhouse over at EVOLUTIONBLOG has challenged John Wilkins' position on agnosticism in Wilkins on Dawkins. It didn't take John [Evolving thoughts] long to respond with Agnostic Still.

They are both discussing an issue raised by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. In his section on "The Poverty of Agnosticism" (pp. 46-54), Dawkins describes agnostics as fence-sitters, and this was not meant as a compliment. Dawkins knows full well that there is a deep metaphysical sense in which we can never know anything for certain.

If we're all being perfectly philosophical, then we have to admit to being agnostics about the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. But what good is that? Do we really go around telling everyone that we just don't know whether Santa Claus will visit on Christmas Eve? Of course not. We don't believe in Santa Claus, even though we can all write an essay in Philosophy 101 about not being able to prove a negative.

This is what Dawkins means when he says, "I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden" (p. 51). He makes the same point a few pages later when he says,
That you cannot prove God's non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his existence is probable. That is another matter. Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things.
John knows this but, nevertheless, he says, "Do I think there is a God? No, I don't. Am I an atheist? No, I'm not."

John, with all due respect, if you walk like an atheist and talk like an atheist then, to all intents and purposes, you're a practicing atheist, whether you want to admit it or not. You can be an agnostic atheist in the sense that you act as if there's no God but still want to be true to your profession. They won't drum you out of the philosophers' union if you confess your atheistic lifestyle as long as you make the right noises from time to time. I've was with you at a conference of philosophers last year and we met several atheists who were still card-carrying philosophers.

We spent a whole Sunday together and I know you didn't go to church. You are not a theist. The word that describes that non-believer lifestyle is "atheist," not "agnostic." Please join Jason Rosenhouse, Richard Dawkins, and me, and come all the way out of the closet. :-)

18 comments :

  1. Take a look at how Theo Hobson redefines words to suit his purpose over at The Guardian:

    ...What distinguishes the atheist from the agnostic is his belief that religion ought to be eliminated, that the world would be radically better off without it.
    ...
    Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history.

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  2. "That you cannot prove God's non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his existence is probable."

    This whole thing seems a bit like a conflict of terminology, then. So you, Rosenhouse and Dawkins say that Wilkins is actually an atheist by your definitions, but by Wilkins's definition, you three are agnostics, since you admit that God is not disprovable.

    A silly thing for relatively like-minded fellows to choose sides on, although a very interesting exchange.

    In my opinion, since no one asked, is that agnosticism is not fence-sitting nor whimpy, it is simply the acknowledgement that the abstract notion of God is not a scientific issue, it is one best addressed in halls of philosphy. Atheism is absolutism ("God does not exist"), and that for me is where the wheels come off.

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  3. Atheism is absolutism ("God does not exist"), and that for me is where the wheels come off.

    I don't think I would agree with this assessment. Dawkins and others are very clear that they acknowledge the impossibility of disproving God's existence. Thus, rather than the above contrived statement, they would say something like, " I don't believe that god(s) exists, due to the lack of evidence, but would happily change my mind if someone could produce some convincing evidence." Since the evidence continues to fail to appear, that seems a very reasonable position to me.

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  4. George Smith's position is that atheism and agnosticism are the answers to different questions. In his system, an atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods. An agnostic is someone who disbelieves in the knowability of god(s). Therefore, in SMith's system, there are agnostic atheists, agnostic theists, gnostic (or whatever the oppositie of agnostic would be) atheists and gnostic theists.

    Wilkins has stated clearly that he does not believe in any gods. Therefore, according to Smith's classification, he is an atheist.

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  5. Well, Larry, that's a very unappetizing can of worms. We're supposed now to assign probabilities to not just God, but everything else for which existence is posited? On what basis? What constitutes evidence?

    Nothing I want any part of.

    And as for those "probabilities", and based on Dawkins's papers he wouldn't know a conditional probability if it bit him on the nose, I'm willing to nail down the Biblical God at zero -- internally inconsistent and therefore impossible -- but "Things we know not wot", well, again, on what basis can we make an estimate?

    Nobody said agnostics have to throw their collective hands in the air like they just don't care. I for one think of myself as an agnostic, but if asked, I'd say that I find the existence of some "God" who cares about humans in general and me in particular to be vanishingly small.

    Maybe I'm a wimp (or as you Canadians apparently spell it, whimp), but I'm not willing to take that leap of faith and say that the probability is zero.

    -JAH

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  6. Wilkins has stated clearly that he does not believe in any gods. Therefore, according to Smith's classification, he is an atheist.

    As I just said on PZ's blog, there's a difference between not knowing something and knowing that there is not something. I don't disbelieve in any gods, either (apart from the ones that have been falsified). This is a scope issue, as the logicians would say.

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  7. When I was a Christian, I called myself a Christian agnostic: I had no proof that Christianity was true, but it (at least the liberal version that I followed) made sense to me at the time . It stopped making sense, so I stopped being a Christian. Now I am an atheist agnostic. Call me a w[h]imp if you like; I'm not actually sitting on the fence, but I can certainly see the fence from where I sit.

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  8. I changed the title back to "wimps" 'cause it was distracting for Americans. "Wimps" seems to be the preferred spelling in most countries. It comes from the verb "whimper," which I guess is spelled "wimper" in the USA. :-)

    I can see I'm going to have to make an effort to use USA English on this blog if I want to avoid spelling flames. This will be hard since I prefer to make up my own spelling most of the time.

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  9. John Wilkins said,
    As I just said on PZ's blog, there's a difference between not knowing something and knowing that there is not something.

    We agree on this.

    However, if you don't believe in God then you are not a theist. You are a non-believer in God, also called an a-theist. This does not commit you to "knowing" for sure that there is no God. It simply means that you haven't bought into the superstition.

    Agnosticism is an untenable lifestyle no matter how intellectually appealing it might be. Everyone has to make a decision about belief in God and act accordingly. If you choose to act as if there were no God, then you have made a conscious decision to reject superstitious nonsense and you should be proud of it.

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  10. As I just said on PZ's blog, there's a difference between not knowing something and knowing that there is not something.

    This does not get you out of teapot-land. Do you know there is not ( orbiting teapot | invisible pink unicorn | santa claus | fairies at the end of the garden)? For some reason, God is being given special status by being excluded from this group. There is no rational basis for the exclusion.

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  11. I changed the title back to "wimps" 'cause it was distracting for Americans...

    I prefer it the other way. It's interesting to reminded that there are peoples and places besides Americans and America. I viewed a Richard Dawkins presentation the other day and enjoyed the way he pronounced bestiality with a short first vowel. There are many words that I know only from reading, so I am not even sure if that is an American|British difference, or whether I've just been pronouncing it incorrectly all these years.

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  12. Larry writes:

    Agnosticism is an untenable lifestyle no matter how intellectually appealing it might be. Everyone has to make a decision about belief in God and act accordingly. If you choose to act as if there were no God, then you have made a conscious decision to reject superstitious nonsense and you should be proud of it.


    What? "Everyone has to make a decision" about God? Why?

    Does "I don't know and I don't care" count as making a decision? This is probably as good a description as any for my perspective, so, you see, it's Terribly Important that I find out if I've properly made a decision in the Larry-scheme of things.

    If not, then, sigh, another thing to put on the list for tomorrow, I guess.

    -Josh

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  13. Josh asks ....
    Does "I don't know and I don't care" count as making a decision?

    That depends. Do you say this to yourself while taking communion or while playing golf on Sunday morning? :-)

    Do you "not know" when you're praying for the health of a loved one or when attending a meeting of the humanist society. :-)

    If you are acting like a non-believer and talking like a non-believer, while immersed in a religious society, then it sounds to me like you've made a decision.

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  14. There exists a significant confusion amongst different people regarding the definition of the word "belief."

    What exactly does belief mean? Does it mean something you choose over other potential explanations because it is probable? Or does it mean something you consider to be 100% true but without evidence in proving so?

    If it's the former, then everybody who believes is an agnostic. Dawkins is an agnostic.

    If it's the latter, then everybody who believes is an absolutist thinker, and such thinking is unreliable and dangerous. Dawkins would be unreliable and dangerous.

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  15. Semantic nit-picking aside, the distinction between atheism and agnosticism has become more than the simple doctrinal point of whether or not one asserts "there is no god." I used to consider myself an atheist, because I don't believe in God (nor any other religious doctrine), but the fundamentalist Dawkins fringe has hedged me out. Atheism has become the religion of Orthodox Materialism, and like all orthodoxies, its primary dogmas are Incuriosity and the Presumption of a Monopoly on Truth.

    The reason I am not a Dawkins-style atheist, and I suspect I never will be, is because of the eerie similarity between Dawkins' narrow-minded creed and that of other religions. The "you're either with us or against us" attitude of Dawkins and his apostles isn't significantly distinct from that of other religious fundamentalists. I do agree with him on many points, and find that some of his arguments against dogma are quite compelling ... if only he'd apply them to his own dogmatic creed.

    I also agree with him that there isn't as much common ground between staunch atheism and true skepticism (i.e. agnosticism) as a lot of people think. Anyone who is an actual scientist (and not an ideologue playing scientist in order to advance a specific ideology) is, necessarily, agnostic about all things - including the "supernatural."

    "Impossible" things keep happening ... flight, instantaneous global communication, longevity. I'm an agnostic, and not an atheist, simply because I accept that we don't know the Truth yet - nor even how "probable" a certain truth is.

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    Replies
    1. I agree with a lot of what you're saying here but it could do with more detail. They stayed away in droves.

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  16. so dawkins reckons agnostics are wimps?
    Fuck off dawky. Prove yourself! turn that spotlight on Islam!
    Oh, whats that!? You're not that stupid! better not invoke the wrath of millions of muslims.

    Yea, better off go for agnostics who don't really give a toss. Tabloid book shilling opinions-as-facts can't deter the fact that we all know that you can never really know. But yea its all about terminology and catagories...

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  17. The problem I have with Dawkins simplistic diagram consists of the fact that there are many possible things for which we have no evidence but can not even evaluate the plausibilty because of our ignorence.

    Of course, it is also true we can be almost certain that certain entities don't exist because they utterly conflict with our knowledge.

    This is the case for the flying spagueti monster (spagueti is a inert stuff which rapidly decomposes and can not be the base of any kind of living organism, and for any type of unicorn living on our earth: will all our present knowledge of paleontology and all numerous explorations and observations that have been undertaken until now, we should have found them if they really existed.

    Now, let us consider the following possibility: among all existing universes, there exists at least one with at least one planet where yellow unicorns live: there are two basic attitudes one can have:

    - the likelilhood may be evaluated

    one can then believe with 90%, 60% , 20%, 1% and so on of probability that this creature does exist somewhere

    - one can also be strong agnostic about it and either believe that the probability is not calculable or that this concept would be meaningless due to our lack of knowledge.

    I rather tend towards the second position. While it may be unlikely that an unicorn would evolve on an other planet, it is not more unlikely than the evolution of horses on our own, and unlikely things happen every day and every minute !

    In fact, if I was convinced that the multiverse version of Deutsch is true, then I would believe with certainty that such yellow unicorns do exist, for in this case all possible physical configurations are realized !

    But to be honest, I am quite not sure there are parallel universes, let alone ones where all situations (or many) become possible, so I can not know if such entities or many other ones really exist or not.

    If someone came up and told me he is almost certain that there exists somewhere a yellow unicorn, then I would expect of him to bear the whole burden of proof.

    But the same thing holds for an "a-unicornist" who boldly claims he know beyond every possible doubts there exists absolutely no unicorn in every existing universe: he would also clearly have the burden of proof to show me why this is so.

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