Saturday, December 6, 2008

Towards a Plausible Agnosticism


For whatever reason, I've somehow become embroiled in a few discussions recently regarding the possibility of God's (or a God's) existence, and I wanted to put my two cents out there to lower the transactions costs of having those debates (that is to say, I don't ever want to have to explain my position on this again). In this post, I'll first offer an intuitive reason why it's not reasonable to be an outright theist. I'll then turn to a discussion of atheism, offering a pair of thought experiments which I believe demonstrate the indefensibility of a strong atheist position. I'll conclude with some thoughts about the agnostic middle ground that's left, suggesting that the position doesn't end up providing much of a safe haven for theists, even though it defeats their principle opponent. In fact, I will suggest that by softening atheism in the ways suggested here, agnostics can actually provide a much more nuanced and fatal critique of religion and theism than ardent atheists can.


The first reason that I find it unreasonable to be a theist is that there is no theistic position which is clearly the most plausible one. I think that most theists are aware that this is true, but I don't believe that they truly recognize the significance of this fact. If one is to maintain belief in a particular account of God, then one is committed to the position that all other theistic positions must have been fabricated by people. That is, if I am a Christian, I am committed to the position that Islam is at least partly based on a fabrication (either by a mistaken individual or by a deliberate act of deceit). (The position of a Christian with respect to Judaism is an exception to this, but I don't think it's unreasonable to view Christianity as a variant of Judaism. Jews, however, are committed to the view that Christianity is a cultural -- not divinely inspired -- phenomenon.)

If it's true that from the standpoint of any given theistic account, it can be accepted that every other theistic account is a cultural phenomenon, then it seems reasonable to conclude that any given theistic account could plausibly be construed as a cultural phenomenon. But if any given theistic account could plausibly be construed as a cultural phenomenon, then it would seem rather unreasonable to select one to elevate to the status of "faithworthy," condemning all others to be mere fabrications. It would seem much more reasonable to conclude, "We have no compelling reason for accepting any one of these accounts; each could be a merely cultural phenomenon."


Turning then to atheism, we have to ask whether the unreasonableness of theism gives us reason to believe that there is not a God. And it seems like a fair answer is "Well, if we can say that every theistic account can be understood perfectly coherently as a cultural phenomenon, then doesn't it seem likely that there isn't actually this mysterious and powerful being out there, and that the real explanation for the widespread belief in a God really is just that religion is a cultural phenomenon?" And to be honest, I don't dispute that point. But a question remains: could a God exist?

And on this point, the atheist (if she is going to call herself an atheist, and not an agnostic) would seem to have to reply with some sort of explanation for why a God does not exist. But what kind of evidence could someone have for such a claim? As we have all had drilled into our heads, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It's pretty darn hard to prove that something doesn't exist. The only way I know of to do it is to prove that it could not exist; that there's something about the concept of the thing, or about a completely uncontroversial fact about reality, that is simply incompatible with such a thing existing.

Now, there are a bunch of reasons someone might offer as to why a God-like being couldn't exist, and I think it would probably be foolish to try to figure out what they might be and evaluate them one by one. So instead, I'm going to offer a pair of explanations for how something that I would be comfortable calling a God could possibly exist. Of course, these are simply thought experiments; I'm obviously not claiming that this will demonstrate God's existence, or even that if God did exist, one of these explanations would be the correct account of God's nature.

With those disclaimers aside, the first possible explanation goes like this. We currently know a lot about the kinds of things that exist in our universe, but there is a fundamental limitation on our ability to learn everything. That limitation is that the only kind of thing that we can detect is the kind of thing which directly interacts with physical matter, or which interacts with something that interacts with physical matter. That's why it can be so difficult to understand how things are composed; we need to somehow be able to detect stuff, and often that's not so easy. Neutrinos, for example, gave scientists fits for decades, and as far as I know, we still don't entirely understand what their deal is. So it's entirely possible that there's a kind of thing out there in our physical universe which we don't know about yet (and maybe never will).

I take it to be possible, that there is a type of thing in our universe which is composed of something which we do not yet know to exist, but which has the core properties of a God. For example, it's possible that such an entity could actively convert something we don't yet know about into energy or matter (I recognize that this would violate "laws" of physics, but those laws are based on an assumption that we know all the kinds of things that exist, and that assumption is technically not true), and could affect change in the material universe in a way that would violate the laws that govern the interactions of material objects. If such an entity existed, the basic concept of a God, I think, would be fulfilled: it could have created everything in the material universe, it could have powers that violate the laws of material physics, it could have the capacity to infallibly predict the consequences of interferences with the material world, it could have been responsible for the emergence of life and/or mankind, and it could even have been behind the development in humans of a moral faculty.

I see no reason to believe that such an entity could not exist. It may be argued that theists would not accept this sort of being as their deity, or that theist accounts of God involve the attribution of properties to God which simply make no sense. To that, I respond, "Fine, but the entity I discussed here is Godly enough to me, and I think could fairly be cited by nuanced and intelligent theists as the entity in whose existence they believe." One might persist, though, in arguing that God must have some qualities not captured in the above thought experiment, and on one count, I would hesitantly concede: Most theists believe that God created the universe, and not just all the matter in it. I say "hesitantly" because, well, oh come on! It's frikkin' close enough! But no matter; on to the second thought experiment.

I take it that for all the things we know about our physical universe, we don't know what sort of thing it is, or if it is a thing at all. To call the physical universe a "thing," I think, suggests that it exists in the context of a greater or more expansive sort of existence, which may include other kinds of things. That is, if we can coherently call the physical universe a "thing," then there would need to be some other kind of thing which is not subsumed under the heading of "the physical universe." We might say, "The physical universe exists within the context of a sort of meta-universe, in which other kinds of things exist." Now, trying to imagine the nature of a meta-universe makes my head hurt, but I take it to be possible that it could exist as I have described it -- that is, that other things exist which are not part of the physical universe.

If a meta-universe did exist, it would be conceivable to me that there might be something which is not a part of the physical universe, but which could have the power to create something like a physical universe, and to interact with it once it had been created. Such an entity, it seems to me, could have all the properties discussed in the previous thought experiment, with the added bonus of not having any sort of physical existence, and being the creator of the physical universe. It may be noted that this explanation still passes the buck in an important sense: God created the physical universe, but not the meta-universe, and we would not have provided ourselves with any explanation of how God came into existence, etc. But I take it that this is an inherent problem with theistic accounts: they simply can't provide an explanation of existence that doesn't start with God somehow existing. I say, "Deal with it."


So what are we left with? I've offered a pair of fanciful thought experiments which describe how an entity basically like a God could possibly exist. If there are no inherent flaws in either of them (or even one of them), atheism would not be strictly reasonable: we technically wouldn't be able to say with certainty that God does not exist. But as I said at the beginning of this post, I don't think this is going to be much consolation to theists. We've seen atheism to be mistaken, but in a way that doesn't cut to the core of the position. It's still true that it's unreasonable to place one's faith in any account of God's existence, and even if we can conceive of a being like God existing, it seems much more plausible to me that the reason people believe in such a being can be explained by cultural phenomena, and not the actual existence of a God. This position is technically an agnostic one, but I think that it shares much more in common than the atheistic one it replaces than any theistic account I've ever heard of.

For those who are hesitant to adopt a position like mine on account of faith, let me offer this: There's a lot of great stuff in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, in the Qur'an, or whatever other sacred texts you may study. But recognize that while that's true of the texts you hold dear, it's true of the ones that other religious groups study as well. Seeing religion as likely being a cultural phenomenon does not force us to abandon the teachings of our ancestors, or to condemn as mere mysticism the profound insights about life that have been passed down to us in the form of sacred texts. But what it does do is allow us to criticize our ancestors' views as perhaps having been mistaken, rather than misinterpreted or garbled. We can say that there really isn't anything wrong with homosexuality, and that the biblical condemnations were representative of an indefensible prejudice. We can say that it's really not necessary to avoid contact with women when they're having their periods, or that eating milk and meat in the same meal is really no different from an ethical perspective than eating them separately. We can say that Moses' purge of unbelievers during the exodus was barbaric. We can say that God's actions in the book of Job are deplorable.

And that's a good thing, because it allows us to be honest with ourselves and to trust in our ability to tell right from wrong. It encourages us to be open to ideas from other religions and points of view, and permits us to question what we believe. It forces us to listen to our religious teachers as representing opinions, and not the undeniable truth. It makes us think for ourselves.

In closing, I want to suggest that it's difficult to believe that a God worth worshipping would want us to ignore the evidence we have before us and to blindly accept what we're told. I think that if there is a God, He would want us to take the path described here.


Tony Morris said...

Atheism and Agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. There are Agnostic Atheists (e.g. myself), Gnostic Atheists, Agnostic Theists and Gnostic Theists.

Danny said...

You're going to have to elaborate a little bit...

I take it that "atheism" means the belief in the absence of a God. The mere lack of belief in a God (without belief in His nonexistence) would seem to fall into the agnostic camp, no? I mean, you could say "agnostic non-theist" to describe that point of view, but the prefix "a-" in "atheist" suggests a stronger position.

James Redford said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Danny said...

James, in order to avoid cluttering up this comments section, I've reproduced below the portion of your comment which was original to this posting. As the rest of the comment is basically a repeat of your arguments elsewhere, I'm providing a link to your comments on the LvMI forum.


Hi, Danny Shahar. Etymologically speaking, "atheism" means non-theism, i.e., lacking a belief in God. You're using the word atheism to mean antitheism, i.e, the extant belief that God doesn't exist, which seems to be the more common usage of this word.

You write, "The first reason that I find it unreasonable to be a theist is that there is no theistic position which is clearly the most plausible one." Actually, Christian theology is preferentially selected by the known laws of physics due to the fundamentally triune structure of the Omega Point cosmology and due to the universe having come into being a finite time in the past (i.e., creatio ex nihilo from the Big Bang singularity).

Regarding different cultures' take on religion, the ancients of course didn't have concepts pertaining to computer science, general relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. So they developed the concept of God using the intellectual tools they had available to them, including via revelation. They had knowledge of something real which they could not have more fully understood at the time (i.e., in the technical details).

Yet Christianity maintains that Jesus Christ is the second person of the divine trinity. If that belief in fact is correct, then he would be in a position to know far more about such matters, i.e., we would then expect Christianity to be more true than the other major religions. What the known laws of physics demonstrate is that Christian theology is more correct than the other religions.

But let's keep in mind what the major religions--Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism--have common agreement on: God exists, and God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. That is, God is infinite in power and mind, and is present everywhere it is possible to be. Furthermore, that God created the universe and everything in it. The known laws of physics demonstrates that this is correct.

"Faith" in the Christian sense means trust that God will fulfill his promises, i.e., that God is sane and just. It does not mean a lack of rationality in coming to belief in God. Indeed, Paul appealed to reason when he wrote in Romans 1:19,20 that an understanding of the natural world leads to knowledge of God. After all, some form of reason must be used in order for a person to convert in belief from one religion to another; or from any belief to another belief, for that matter. It can either be veridical reason, or false reason--but some process of reasoning must be involved.

Danny said...

James, it seems like you're suggesting that because the material universe apparently had a temporal beginning, it somehow follows that God sent his only son to die for the sins of man? I just don't see how you make that jump.

Anarcho-Mercantilist said...

As a gnostic atheist, I have proof that an intelligent god, for certain, does not exist.

As you all may know, it is extremely unlikely for the human species to evolve into the apparence that resembles exactly like an anthropomorphic god. Just as it is common knowledge of the impossibility that extraterrestrial life would resemble like humans.

We will now argue that an intelligent god, for certain, do not exist.

Intelligence requires perceptual modalities, such as vision and spatiotemporal perception. However, god does not have any perceptual modalities, such as eyes, to see things. It is impossible for eyes to see through buildings. Therefore, god, for certain, does not exist.

Moral judgement requires perception and intelligence. Therefore a moral god also does not exist.

Danny said...

It's not clear to me why you'd think that perceptual modalities can only come in the varieties possessed by humans, or even earth creatures. I mean, I agree that a God would need to be able to detect material events in order to fulfill some of the roles that would be needed to legitimately qualify as a God. But it's not as though eyes are the only way things can be's not even as if we necessarily have the knowledge necessary to be able to conceive of every possible way that perception can occur.

James Redford said...

Danny, you can't learn about such matters if you refuse to read what was written. Go over the text of mine that you deleted very carefully. It's not that hard. Contained therein are links to articles available for free on Prof. Frank J. Tipler's Omega Point Theory, including to peer-reviewed papers on it published in a number of the world's leading physics journals. I can't hold your hand and do your reading for you.

Danny said...

James, I honestly don't have time to take a course in physics in order to have this conversation with you. I am confident in simply asserting blindly that we don't know enough about physics to say things like "The laws of physics entail that God parted the Red Sea" or "The laws of physics entail that Jesus rose on the third day" or "The laws of physics entail that Paul was sent to convert the gentiles."

I'll further assert that the laws of physics do not entail that the choice of a conscious entity was responsible for the existence of the material universe. I'm not going to cite anything to back that claim up. I'm just going to say it.

So if the laws of physics don't entail that the choice of a conscious entity was responsible for the existing of the material universe, and if they don't entail that the content of the Christian account of history actually occurred, then I think I have a pretty good claim to saying that the laws of physics do not entail the truth of Christianity.

Doubt Is A Virtue said...

Danny, I'd highly suggest reading this:

I think you've misunderstood the position that most atheists hold. We don't claim to know god doesn't exist. We only claim that god-belief is not tenable.

Your statement "I take it that "atheism" means the belief in the absence of a God." is not correct.

Yes, SOME atheists believe that, but not all. That is the difference between a strong/positive atheist, and a weak/negative atheist.

Strong atheists claim god can't exist, and you can take issue with them all you like.

But attacking their position does nothing to attack the position of the weak atheist, who only asserts a lack of god belief. Not a belief that god doesn't exist. For a well-reasoned explanation of why the definition needs to be that way, see my link above.

Also, agnosticism is not a half way point between the two.

You either have a god belief or you don't. Which makes you a theist or an atheist.

There are two varieties of agnosticism.

Huxley's version, which basically states that the question of god is unanswerable in principle is commonly known as PAP. Permanent agnosticism in principle.

The modern version, which basically states that the question is currently unknown, is known as TAP. Temporary agnosticism in principle.

No matter what your position is on that issue you are still either an atheist or a theist.

So one could be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. Of either agnostic variety.

James Redford said...

Danny, your assertions are the logical fallacy of bare assertion, as well as being factually untrue. While lacking knowledge about a subject is not itself an error, what is completely unsound is to have vociferous opinions on an issue while remaining in that state of ignorance.

As well, your behavior is also dishonest, Danny. You desire that God not exist and are not open to information demonstrating the contrary. That's your choice, but then don't waste honest people's time by engaging them in debates on the matter. The honest course for you would be to not talk about the matter since you are ignorant on it and are uninterested in learning about it.

Danny said...

Doubt is a Virtue, if I understand correctly, you're defining "weak atheist" in the same way that the linked article defined "negative atheism." Is that right? In that case, it just seems like there's some redundancy in terms. There's theism (a positive belief in God's existence), weak/negative atheism (a lack of a positive belief in God's existence or nonexistence), and positive atheism (a positive belief in God's nonexistence); is that right?

But then we have a term "agnostic," which I understand to mean "an assertion of a lack of the knowledge necessary to reasonably assert whether God exists or does not exist." Is that a serviceable definition? If so, then doesn't that simply mean the same thing as "weak/negative atheism?" Or is there some other reason that someone would want to be a weak/negative atheist besides lack of the requisite knowledge to choose one of the positive positions?

Further, isn't it sort of odd to describe a position in a debate as a negative position? That is, there are destructive debaters out there who refuse to take a position, and just attack other people's positions. But it seems like weak/negative atheism is not a destructive approach to the God debate; it's a position of its own. It's not like weak/negative atheists simply lack an opinion; they have an opinion, and that opinion is that they can't reasonably believe in God, but also can't say that He doesn't exist. But that sounds like agnosticism to me. No?

Danny said...

James, you don't need to point out my logical fallacies when I admit to committing them as I commit them. The bottom line is this: I honestly don't think that it's worth my time to try to disprove your arguments. That's not so much dishonest as it is economical. I'm sure you have a really interesting point of view, but the claims you're making are matters of metaphysics, and not physics. And I know enough about metaphysics to know that it's simply not possible for the laws of physics to entail the things you claim that they do. They're simply not the sort of thing that the laws of physics can entail.

But that's just an assertion, and I don't intend it as an argument. My point is, I know you're wrong, and I also know it would be a lot of work to find out exactly why and to convince you of it. So I'm choosing just to ignore your challenge. Sorry if that makes me a jerk; I just honestly don't care enough about exactly why the laws of physics don't entail Christianity to spend any considerable amount of time looking into the matter.

Unknown said...

Personally I don't like to associate myself with any specific ideology or absolute belief, though I understand atheism would not be included as an absolute belief because it is the absence of belief (subtle, but significant difference). I accept that all religions and their gods/deities are likely false, but not with 100% certainty; I am not agnostic either. I prefer to align myself with the philosophy of fallibilism which argues that all claims of knowledge could be mistaken. It is not to be confused with skepticism, which implies an abandonment of knowledge, and is rather, quite the opposite: I admit that since knowledge can be revised by further observations, any of the things we accept as knowledge might possibly turn out to be false. Beliefs are dangerous; by simply making an attempt to understand things, and to realize that something can either be true, false or neither is a much more humbling and open-minded way to view the universe, in my opinion. I'd also like to add I understand that this philosophy overlaps with agnostic atheism, I just prefer not to label myself as so.

Danny said...

As you describe them, your position sounds pretty much like mine, but with a different name. Accordingly, I can't help but agree strongly :)

Anonymous said...

"(that is to say, I don't ever want to have to explain my position on this again)."
Amen to that. I think the next time I have to argue about whether logic is an arbitrary assumption or not I'm going to punch someone in the throat.

Danny said...

Hopefully the person with whom you're arguing! Gotta minimize that collateral damage :-D

Michael said...

What do you think of this argument?

1- God is omniscient and omnipotent.
2- If god is omniscient, he knows the future with absolute certainty. Thus, he cannot change the future absolutely.
3- If god is omnipotent, he can change the future absolutely. Thus, he cannot know the future absolutely.
4- It is logically impossible to be both omniscient and omnipotent.
5- God cannot exist.

Of course, this doesn't preclude the existence of a god that isn't both omniscient and omnipotent.

Danny said...

What if we redefine "omniscient" to mean "Knows what will happen to the physical universe without intervention, and can foresee the consequences of any intervention before He does it"? That way, God wouldn't have to possess knowledge of His own future, which is difficult of me to imagine being compatible with the nature of an acting being, without compromising the substantive aspects of omniscience as generally thought of by theists.

Unknown said...

I am an atheist. God probably does not exist. But, of course we can not prove that without a shadow of a doubt. You can call me a teapot atheist. God's existence is about as likely as the existence of a teapot orbitting Saturn. You can't prove it isn't there, but it probably isn't.

Anonymous said...

This whole debate seems to be grounded on the assumption that belief in God is always derived from reasoning, rather than experience. I agree wholeheartedly that most theists have no solid logical reason to believe as they do, but nevertheless I am a theist because I have experienced God. He has spoken to me on a few occasions. Now, this doesn't mean my knowledge is perfect (for example, I have no way of verifying that I have been contacted by the omniscient creator of the Universe), but the being who has contacted me is godlike, at the very least.

Danny said...

Hi RWW, thanks for stopping by! If you wouldn't mind, I would really love to hear more about your experience; it sounds like you have a very unique kind of perspective to add to this conversation.

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