Monday, May 12, 2014

Agnostic vs. Atheist

Michelangelo: Creation of Adam (c.1511-12)

There was an embarrassing moment at our house this Christmas when I opened up one of my presents only to find that it was a copy of Richard Dawkins' autobiography. My mother - who is religious - made a few muttered remarks about Dawkins' general arrogance and "refusal to debate," and even my brother - who isn't - started in on poor ol' Rich.

What is it about Richard Dawkins? Why is he such a bugbear? I guess there's a certain intransigeance in his defence of the strict Darwinian party line, but it's interesting that other equally inflexible ideologues don't seem to generate the same amount of heat.

Richard Dawkins: An Appetite for Wonder (2013)

I was reading his book The God Delusion last year - "The statements was interesting, but tough," as Huckleberry Finn remarked of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress - when I had a little epiphany (so to speak).

Essentially, I suddenly understood the true meaning of the word "atheist," and the reason why people who label themselves thus are so resistant of the apparently more placatory term "agnostic."

An atheist, I'd always been taught, is someone who asserts the absolute impossibility of the existence of God. Given that providing an absolute proof of the non-existence of anything is a virtually impossible task, Thomas Huxley's compromise term "agnostic": one who simply refuses to claim definitive knowledge on the subject, had always seemed more intellectually defensible to me.

Dawkins, however, asks how many people nowadays would claim to be "agnostic" on the subject of the existence of Zeus, or Odin, or Osiris, or any other member of the traditional mythological pantheons? Not many, if any (to paraphrase our local rapper Scribe). In other words, we don't take the question seriously enough to bother with entertaining the notion that Hermes or Aphrodite might actually be hovering about, listening in on our thoughts and conversations.

They could be, mind you. It's ridiculously improbable, but not by any means impossible. So perhaps one should declare agnosticism on the question of the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction also ...

Why don't we? Because (I suspect) in these cases, at least, we don't feel that the burden of proof should lie on the unbelievers. It should lie firmly with the true believers (if there are any). If Odin is real, I'd need to see some proof of it. And it had better be pretty convincing proof.

David Hume, in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) reminds us that "A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence." This principle has been popularised by Carl Sagan (among others) in the form: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." In the absence of that extraordinary evidence, I'm going to go on assuming that there's no Odin. I don't know there isn't - but I see no legitimate reason for postulating the possibility in the absence of really compelling evidence.

Allan Ramsay: David Hume (1711-1776)

How does this apply to the atheist / agnostic debate? Well, my epiphany (if that's what it was) consisted simply of the recognition that the term "Atheist" should be taken to apply to a default position, rather than being confused with a statement of belief.

I don't know that there's no God. But my default position is that there isn't - since no-one has yet shown me the extraordinary evidence required to substantiate such an extraordinary claim (and not for want of asking, either). Occam's razor states that "It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer": in other words, as a basic postulate of argument, one should always go for the most economical of the various hypotheses available, the one which requires fewest assumptions.

This default position seems to me best labelled "Atheism". Like a Huxleyan Agnostic, I claim no special knowledge, assert no conviction of non-existence: just as none of us bother to with Odin, Thor, Hermes and the rest. They could all be real, but there's no particular reason to suppose so. The real problem with the Huxley position, however, is that it implies an equal probability for the existence or non-existence of God (in whatever form one wants to conceptualise such a teleological being - or "law of the universe", impersonal ethical principle, etc. etc.)

I don't think that it's reasonable to see these positions as equally plausible. Given two models of the universe: one naturalistic, subject to verification by scientific experiment, and deducible from phenomena which do indeed demonstrably surround us; the other dependent on a nebulous Catch-22 notion called "faith," which by its very nature precludes the necessity (or even possibility?) of objective verification, there's really no contest for me.

History, too, is on my side in this, I'm afraid. When one looks at the number of people throughout the millennia who have claimed to have a hotline to some almighty spirit who just happens to be in accord with everything they're planning to do, while being irrevocably opposed to everything their opponents are up to, I would ask simply how many of those people you actually still believe in? The rivalry between the twin tribal deities "God" and "Gott" on the Western Front in the First World War is one classic example, amusingly outlined by Robert Graves in his war memoir Goodbye to All That.

Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That (1929)

I really don't want to be unnecessarily provocative on this subject, obviously a sensitive one. I simply want to explain why atheism is a perfectly sensible intellectual stance, and does not imply that one is automatically an adherent of a complete alternative belief system comparable to a religion. Nor, I would argue, does it involve any assertion that one is in possession of absolute proof of the non-existence of God (or any other supernatural entity, for that matter).

In the absense of convincing proofs, however, one has to position oneself somewhere. Virtually all of us moderns have already decided, willy-nilly, to take up an "atheistic" position on Ishtar, Amun-Re, Tangaroa and all the others. If you think for a moment, I think you'll acknowledge this to be so.

Why, then, should you be indignant if someone takes up the same position vis-à-vis any other belief system? You may well be making an exception in one particular case - and you might even be correct in doing so. But until you can actually prove it, can't we just continue to examine the evidence of the natural world - which should be a complex enough task to satisfy anyone?

Fantasy literature can be fun, and rewarding in many ways, but you don't have to believe in the objective existence of the Kingdom of Westeros to enjoy watching Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones (2010- )


Richard said...

I'm interested in this. I like Dawkins's books (those I have read) but I disagree with his "hard Atheist" position. Hume and others (and that would include many philosophers and scientists who look into epistemological questions) would show that the existence or non-existence of God is inherently impossible to prove. The probability is the same. Hence you can even jump to Keat's "negative capability".

The real problem that Dawkins and those like him are concerned with are various kinds of absolutism that says "this is so" or that is so but he is thus "hoist with his own petard" unfortunately as the position of an absolute atheist is, well it is that, absolute, it is a fundamentalist position.

The poet Ashbery, asked about his beliefs, said that he loved the idea that one could never know [the ultimate nature or reality, why there is something and not nothing as Spinoza, and many others, asked; what consciousness is, and other cosmological-ontological questions (Heidegger tried to solve the problem of Being which Wittgenstein also said was problematic but he simply by passed it, saying we (philosophers) cant talk about what we cant know (but I have some admiration for H's attempt myself): Ashbery's whole way of writing hinges on this sense of the strangeness, the mystery, and the impossibility of "fundamental knowledge".]

I can live with people believing in God, and not accepting evolution: or not believing. It is impossible to know that something is not true or cannot be (at some time) discovered to be true. It is, to deepen the problem, also virtually impossible to establish that any human being has knowledge of something. For Hume it was commonsense. Scientists such as Newton discovered and describe things, they have no explanation of reality that ends in what is basically a chase of signifiers and symbols.

Richard said...

However there are some areas of knowledge where we act with what is really a higher certainty. But there is always a probability density function problem as well as Hume's point that any thing we take to be true could stop being so at any time. There is no reason that at some point in time, when we go to drop something, it may simply stay in mid air. This is a probability problem, it is real, because it is hugely unlikely doesn't remove it's reality.

I take no position for or against G - but if you see evolution say as a kind of "closed system", then Dawkins is right, it is proven. But that doesn't move one iota to any real knowledge of origin, God, consciousness etc.

For me these things will always remain mysterious and ambiguous, beyond human understanding: hence both terrible and beautiful.

I write on this as my long poem 'The Secret of Being Unpopular' is primarily about these issues (the rhyming poem inside it of The Hopeful Song takes off from the old problem that say, all of Shakespeare's poems could or might one day be created by monkeys or robots randomly and mindlessly typing ('The Blind Watchmaker' syndrome) but later I under cut it all. Also the argument from design is both satirised and postulated (that's not in Brief)

Here is the start of The Hopeful Song

If a million million automatic typers typed
every second every minute every day and endlessly
Something sometime somewhere perfectly
Would on all that surge of words and marks appear –
In someway somehow mysteriously
As hands are formed or infinity, is made by giant minds
To disappear.

The formatting suffers on here! So an interesting post Jack. I did briefly discuss this issue with your mother. My son believes strongly in the soul and so on: it is hard for him and many people I think to accept "uncertainty" so that thus they and most humans want to believe in some kind of after life. (My problem is with the statements that say "I know": but how can I really argue with Faith that might come via revelation? I don't think we will ever be able to have any sureness re that.

My family were mostly "atheists" and I think I was when young with some Romanticism thrown in via Wordsworth and art and indeed Spinoza's Ethics which is laid out like Euclid's beautiful theorems (some now disproved such as that parallel lines never meet).

For the most part Occam's razor is Watson's logical refuge, but there are things Dr. Watson, that I, Holmes, know about - through my - genius. My genius for knowing I don't always (ever?) know!

Dr Jack Ross said...

I accept what you say, Richard. My point was really one of terminology. I don't (any longer) believe that the word "atheist" implies any kind of absolutist stance. It's simply a perfectly reasonable default position in the absence of definitive proof either way.

I assume that the Christian God is as mythical as all the other historical deities mentioned above because no clear proof of his/her existence has been put forward by those who do claim certainty on the matter: the religious. It's not for me to refute or defend their view, but for them. I will continue to examine evidence from a Wittgenstein-ian position: "Whereof we do not know, thereof it behoves us to be silent."

Richard said...

Yes. I see, I dived in a bit there. My position is similar. The terminology for certain "believers" is irrelevant as they assume (in my case I've come up against it) that any thought that there might be no afterlife puts me in that camp - the term agnostic is one my son for example cant understand but in families even there are such misunderstandings.

It is interesting that in some ways other W was right: that the problems of knowledge (and in fact of Russell and Whitehead's attempts to get mathematics on a logical basis - which he already told them was impossible before, strangely, he enlisted to fight for the Austro-Hungarians! - and indeed they were stumped. This is in a book by Perloff the literary critic which Scott Hamilton read some time back and was very excited about. This lead him away from any more postmodernism etc and then towards politics, Marxism etc ): but the Langpos used the disconnectedness and his point that language itself was the reason that the philosphic-scientific problems couldn't be resolved.

So as it is a kind of linguistic minefield, indeed the terms need to be clear. Intersting turn of events in your life given your own history in religion and your flirtations with ghosts etc!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Quite so -- all the ghost stories on this blog should at least show people that I'm not some gloomy materialist! The truth is, of course, that I don't actually believe in ghosts, but I'd love to find some actual proof of just what (possibly many things combined) they are …

best, jack