Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Richard Dawkins gets mail, too

Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on September 18, 2008

Maybe he and I are going to have to have a competition to see who gets the nastiest letters. We do get a slightly different perspective on Christianity than most, I think, since our view is of a near-constant flow of letters like this one:

Warning! Uses Christian language!


The Agnostic debate

Posted in Uncategorized by Skepdude on September 18, 2008

Recently I commented on a post at the Atheist Blogger. The original entry was titled “An Agnostic Project“. I recommend readers to go over and read this entry and my subsequent comments in order to get a complete picture of what I am talking about here. Nevertheless, my comments caught the author’s eyes who in turn posted another entry, titled “Agnosticism: The Argument” in which he (I am not sure if it should be she, it is not clear from the blog, so I’ll refer to the author as a he from this point on. My apologies if this turns out to be incorrect!) directly addressed my comments. I am not very sure I agree with the author’s interpretation of what I was saying as such I am going to to over the his two entries, my comments and elaborate a little based on his answers to my comments.

One of the first things I had an issue with was the following paragraph from Entry #1:

Agnosticism isn’t a position on whether God exists or not, as theism and atheism are, but on whether it is possible to know if God exists or not. There is a big difference. A person who is an atheist says “I do not believe in God”. That is a generalization as I realize some atheists would say “I know there is no God”, or “I am certain there is no God”. A person who is agnostic says “I do not think you can prove or disprove the existence of God”.

My comment in regards to this point was:

Ok, first of all I think you’re making an overly broad generalization when you define atheism as a stance which proclaims either to know or believe that there is no God. I consider myself an atheist, among other things, but I don’t use either “know” or “believe”. I rely on the lack of evidence to come to the conclusion that such lack of evidence makes the probability of God’s existence very, very very tiny, next to zero. Until further convincing evidence is presented the only logical position is to say that very likely there is no God. This is not a matter of belief nor is it knowledge. It’s simple statistics.

To which he replied in Entry #2 as such:

I stated in the article “That is a generalization” in respect to my definitions. I also made sure not to mention atheism as a belief, which it isn’t. Atheism is a disbelief, as defined by the dictionaries. Whether or not you use the words “know” or “believe” personally, the definitions of atheism all rely on a disbelief of gods.

Let’s look at this for a moment. As you can clearly see from his first paragraph he defined an atheist as someone who says :”I do not believe in God”. Yes he did follow that by saying that this is a generalization, and that “some” atheist say that they “know” or are “certain” there is no god.  But that’s where he stopped. I did not accuse him of defining atheism as a belief. What I did do is to challenge his definition of an atheist and the choice of words he used in that definition. He uses a very extreme definition of atheism.

Richard Dawkins in his “God Delusion” talks about 7 levels (if my memory serves me right)  of belief/disbelief and level 6 and 7 are occupied by atheists, with level 7 being the kind who “believes” or “knows” that there is no God. Not even RD who is an ardent atheist sees himself as belonging to category #7, because that category is jsut as dogmatic as the ardent, dogmatic Sky Daddy worshipers. The way the “Atheist Blogger” defined atheism in his entry suggest that atheist are of the category 7 kind. That is what I am challenging. I am not that sort of atheist. Richard Dawkins is not. Anyone with a little bit of integrity cannot accept to be labeled as such.

My point is simple. Accepting that the probability of God existing is really really, infinitesimaly small is by leaps and bounds not the same as saying that you know, or are certain, or believe he does not exist.

He then follows that with this:

Forgetting the fact that statistics is a branch of science, science being a branch of knowledge, knowledge being a branch of belief…oh wait, you are talking about belief and knowledge. In fact, your admittance that the probability of God’s existence is “very, very, very tiny, next to zero” makes you an agnostic atheist whether you like the label or not.

I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Yes, as I said, my stance on god’s non-existence is of a statistical nature. Yes, I can’t claim to know that God does not exist, which is another way of saying that I don’t have the “knowledge” that god does not exist, specifically because non-existence is not a provable hypothesis. What does the fact that statistics itself is knowledge have to do with my lack of knowledge about gods non existence? That is a non sequitur.  Just beacuse statistics is considered knowledge, and just becasue I reach a conclusion based on statistics, it does not follow that my conclusion itself can be considered knowledge.  I can have perfect statistics but wrong premises, or an incomplete set of premises and my answer would be wrong, thus not knowledge, even though my statistics were impecable. I really do not see how he has addressed my point that I can’t claim to have knowledge of god’s nonexistence based on his answer.

Knowledge is a branch of belief? That doesn’t make any sense regardless how you define belief. Just what in god’s name does that even mean? How is knowledge a branch of belief? In what sense? I think the Atheist Blogger needs to elaborate on that point as he’s close to committing atheistic heresy.

Next, I had made this comment:

Why can’t we know about God, given how God is described by the major religions? Why would a God who’s always meddling in this universe and performing miracles and such not be provable? Of course we can know about God, as long as he is supposed to have some sort of direct effect on our reality, he or she is than well within the realms of science. Science and religion are not two separate magisteria ( I think I just butchered that word).

To which the Atheist Blogger replied as such:

Which is why we should carefully explain the kind of God we are being agnostic about. We are agnostic about the God who supposedly exists outside the realms of the observable universe. Why would a God who is performing miracles not be provable? Well, perhaps such a being made sure that his miracles, however highly unlikely, always had a basis in the natural world? By saying we are agnostic atheists, we are saying that we do not believe in gods, but at the end of the day, we cannot know about something that has been supposedly placed outside our observable universe, even if such a being acts on the observable universe.

I find it hard to believe that such things are being writen by someone who claims to be an atheist. This is the sort of apologetic goal post moving tactics you’d expect from religious people who are too embarrased by their religion’s earthly claims and hide behind a God who is out of reach, can never be touched by reason, logic or science. In other words the old definition of God does not stand up to logical scrutiny, so let’s make up a new god which is impervious to reason. This is exactly what Carl Sagan was talking about when he gave the example of the invisible dragon, who breathes heatless fires and leaves no imprints on the flour on the floor. This attitude is pointless, useless and it leads nowhere. We can postulate anything, claim that it is out of the reach of reason, and bam we have ourselves something to be agnostic about. I’m sorry that just makes me giggle.

Next I said:

Of course you can never prove that something does not exist, but does that justify taking the “we can not know” position? Are we to be agnostic about fairies, unicorns and Santa Claus? I don’t understand what you mean by an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. Both sound like oxymoron to me. What those terms imply is that I believe or not, while at the same time knowing that I can’t know if I’m right or wrong. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

To which the Atheist Blogger replied as such:

Given that we know the origin of fairies, unicorns, and Santa Claus in literature, we do not need to be agnostic about them. They have been proven to be false, at least in the context of their definitions.

Indeed, most gods have also been proved to have their origins in literature only. These are not gods I would say I am agnostic about. What I am agnostic about is the idea of a god, some kind of being, energy, whatever, which is outside the universe. I don’t believe such a thing exists, because for me that would be too easy. However, given the nature of philosophical thinking, I have to admit that the possibility is there, however remote. Even Dawkins admits his agnosticism by saying he is 99.9% certain there is no God.

Oh really? How about I redefine a fairy so that it exists outside our universe but can still manifest itself in our universe as it sees fit? How about a define a unicorn that way? How about I define Santa that way? Would they not then be worthy of your agnosticism? Why is it that only god deserves this way out, whereas all the other fairy tale myths “have been proven to be false, at least in the context of their definitions”? Why don’t you change their definitions the way you’re doing with god? Why the special treatment for god?

Secondly, I don’t think Dawkins would be caught dead using the word “agnostic” to describe himself, but that is my opinion based on what I’ve heard him say and his writings and I may be shown wrong on that.

More from the Atheist Blogger:

Whether the terms “agnostic atheist/theist” make sense to you or not isn’t the issue. They make sense to a lot of people, which is the reason for the article. Your definition is wrong though. What the terms imply is that whether we believe in God or not, the proof of such a being is impossible to find. Knowledge is different to belief. A belief does not need evidence to support it, merely ideas. Knowledge is a belief that has facts. You cannot know something if you do not first believe it to be true.

Ok, so there goes an ad populum fallacy. The term makes sense to a lot of people huh? First of all, for all those people it makes sense to, we can probably find just as many that it does not, as such that argument holds no water. Secondly, it does not matter how many people it makes sense to, I can still criticize it. How can you claim that agnosticism is a stance which says “we can’t know” and atheism is a stance which says ” I know” and still use the two words together? That my friend is the definition of contradiction, an oxymoron. You can’t know while at the same time saying that you don’t know. Just explain to me how, based on your two definitions, this makes any sense at all? On the flip side how can anyone be an agnostic theist? So this person knows there is a God because he’s a theist, but at the same time he know’s he can’t really know if there is a God? Something’s gotta give, and it seems simple logic is what is giving here.

And why do you say that knowledge is different to belief when at the very beginning you said that knowledge is a branch of belief? Can you please explain that contradiction to me? If knowledge is in fact, as you claim, belief with facts than if anything belief is a subset of knowledge not the other way around.

“You cannot know something if you do not first believe it to be true.” You’ve gotta be kidding me right? So this is how you think the process of acquiring knowledge works? We first start with something we believe to be true and then find the facts to add on top of our belief to turn it into knowledge? You have it completely backwards my friend. Knowledge and facts lead to belief (trust not faith) that something is infact true, not the other way around. It seems you’re not talking about knowledge of the scientific kind when you use that word. Maybe we are having a semantics battle over here.

Atheist Blogger:

Agnosticism isn’t a scientific method, it is a philosophical method. We do not use it on anything that is too hard for us to firgure out for the reasons you have stated. It is simply not useful. Philosophy has never strived to prove anything. Indeed, all it has done is prove the diversity of the human mind. Agnosticism is an approach on philosophical questions, not scientific ones. It should only be used as such. Agnosticism allows discussion of beliefs or disbeliefs, but states that as soon as you try to prove or disprove those beliefs, you are going to reach a dead end, and you really should stop wasting time.

The world was created by God is not a philosophical question, it is a scientific one. God performs miracles, raises the dead, walks on water are not philosophical issues but empirical ones. God’s existence is not a philosophical issue, it is an empirical issue unless you strip him of everything that’s ever been attributed to him, which seems to me that’s what you’re doing.  You know what you’re doing is akin to a group of guys creating their own “football” league, but with completley different rules and a square ball and still caliming to be footballers. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t call yourself an atheist and talk about a new imaginary God that most people don’t believe in.

Are you agnostic about ghosts? Are you agnostic about talking to the dead? Are you agnostic about UFOs? It seems to me the answers to those questions should be yes, yes, and yes. We just can’t know!

If I simply made something up I wouldn’t expect people to be seriously agnostic about it, simply because I pulled it out of thin air.

But that’s your whole point isn’t it? We can’t know where you pulled it from, therefore we must aknowledge the possibility. That is exactly what some guy thousands of years ago did, pulled god out of thin air and today you are agnostic about the same kind of thing that you wouldn’t expect people to be agnostic about if you came up with it. How can you as an agnostic tell when something was pulled out of thin air? How can you tell if your main philosophical stance is that you just can’t know?