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Atheism Exposed: Agnosticism


“Ignorance is only proof of ignorance, not proof of non-existence.”

Xenocrates

agnosticism

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one present, does it make a sound? Scientifically, the answer is yes. Sound is basically the vibration of air. Philosophically speaking however, the answer is no. The concept of sound is meaningless without an audience. Using this extrapolation, Agnostics have cleverly crafted an ideology which boldly claims that because of our incapacity to detect or prove God, then one is not rationally inclined to believe in God. However, I think my agnostic friends have confused two essentially unrelated ideas. Ignorance is only proof of ignorance, not proof of non-existence. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. But that’s not the only thing amiss in this peculiar flavour of atheism.

Atheism 101

12As this is the first post examining the major theories of atheism, we need to establish some background on the various of schools of thought that govern this belief. The word “Atheism” is actually a derivative of the Greek word atheoi, which loosely translates into English as “those that are without God“. The terms atheist and atheism (like christian) were coined as contemptuous epithets in the 16th century to express disdain towards anyone who disavowed belief in God or religion. However, irrespective of the origin of the word, people who collectively belong to this category have varying beliefs and are more or less inclined to the humanist theories of philosophy.

We can’t collectively lump all atheists together. They can be loosely classified based on the specific nature of their beliefs. There are basically four schools of thought which govern atheism:

  1. Agnosticism
  2. Pragmatism
  3. Skepticism
  4. Naturalism

These four can be further categorized as either Strong or Weak atheists. Strong atheists very clearly and explicitly declare the absence of God using various rationale. Weak atheists on the other hand are everyone else. The first two (Agnostics & Pragmatists) are weak atheists while the second two (Skeptics and Naturalists) are strong atheists. Almost no atheist is 100% for or against any theory. Most take their ideas from overlaps of these schools of thought. Concordantly, this post is the first in a series of four which examine each school of thought.

Weak atheists are not to be confused with Implicit Atheists, who are just people who have no position about or awareness of any concept of a god or any other supernatural force of any kind. Implicit Atheists will not be discussed in this series of posts, since they have not put forward any position on the concept. This is unlike Explicit Atheists which essentially covers everyone else.

Agnosticism

18th Century Scottish Philosopher, David Hume

18th Century Scottish Philosopher, David Hume

Agnosticism is based on the tenet that nothing can be known for certain because of the inherent fallibility of humans. David Hume, one of the most prolific humanists to comment on the subject, postulated that declarations can only be certified once tempered by some degree of doubt. So we can say “I believe that a black hole is a collapsed star”, which is the same thing as saying “As far as we can tell, black holes appear to be the remains of a collapsed star.”

However, we cannot certify that statement because no one has ever been lucky enough to record a super-giant collapsing into a black hole. Similarly, no one lives long enough to see evolution in motion or the formation of a solar system. These are all theories that we believe tentatively. The only exceptions are where the declaration is inherently factual. For example; we can be certain that all squares have four sides and that all girls are female. However, every other type of declaration is debatable.

In the narrower context of this discussion, agnostics believe that the existence of any supernatural first cause, or “god” is contingent on proof that we may not be able to produce or even understand. However, they do not expressly reject the notion that some divine creator could possibly exist. This is because by virtue of the nature of such a being, its existence cannot be disproven either. In a way, it’s the perfect middle ground between atheism and theism.

Agnostics assert that because there is insufficient evidence to believe in God, then they are not rationally inclined to do so. It is not so much that they explicitly disavow belief in God (hence why they’re weak atheists). Rather, they assert that the burden of proof lies with theists to rationally demonstrate that God does in fact exist, using some methodology that is either empirically or logically traceable.

The Celestial Teapot Extrapolation

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Some Agnostics like to use Bertrand Russell’s “Celestial Teapot” extrapolation to demonstrate why belief in a god is no more quantifiable than belief in something that is equally unprovable. The basic idea suggests that there is a celestial teapot that orbits the sun. It is supposedly too small to be observed by any conventional means. Thus we are supposedly only limited to our faith to believe in its existence because of our inability to prove it actually exists.

The argument contends that if a demonstration of faith is required to believe in the existence of the teapot, it is no more or less provable than that of some god who may have been made up by similar means of conjecture. This Russell and his contemporaries argue is no different from any other faith out there, with the only difference being that most other faiths are spread through indoctrination and social engineering.

The trouble with this type of argument, is that it presumes that what we conceive is not provable just by virtue of how illogical it sounds. I suspect that when Bertrand Russell came up with this extrapolation, space exploration was not at the stage of advancement as it is today. In his time, men had not yet walked in space, nor had they sent probes deep into space to explore the outer planets. Today’s world would be science fiction in his time – which is probably why the celestial teapot paradigm has now been updated with the flying spaghetti monster and the invisible pink unicorn.

With today’s technology, it is not difficult to create a celestial teapot. With tomorrow’s technology, neither an invisible pink unicorn nor a flying spaghetti monster will be impossible to make either. Whether we chose to do so materially, genetically or with CGI is irrelevant. The bottom line is that eventually, these paradigms will evaporate and a new one will be created in its place as we advance cognitively, which exposes the inherent limitation of such an extrapolation.

Now while I understand the basis for the extrapolation, (that faith is moot) I contend that faith is the basis of our social evolution. After all, isn’t that how we derive theories about things that we cannot yet prove? Isn’t that the driving force behind science? Russell and his modern followers seem to have fundamentally ignored the capacity of human ingenuity when developing this postulation.

With that said, the quintessential problem with Agnosticism is that some subscribers assume that one can consider it proof that what we seek to prove is unprovable. I contend that our incapacity to provide proof only proves our incapacity to prove. It doesn’t prove that what we seek to prove is intrinsically unprovable. It’s the equivalent of saying that atoms don’t exist because they’re too small for us to see. That would make atoms everyone’s celestial teapot.

Declaring something unprovable only invites the temptation to desist all efforts to prove it. It defeats the purpose of pursuit. No one would welcome that more than people who don’t want to believe in a God or parallel universes for that matter – whichever invisible pink unicorn you prefer. I could just as easily declare that M-Theory’s concept of parallel universes implies that what is fiction in this universe is probably fact in some parallel reality. I have no proof of this obviously, and I probably cannot prove this to be true, even though some scientists think it’s a distinct possibility.

Of course, like the celestial teapot, the invisible pink unicorn and the flying spaghetti monster, I could declare that such science is equally unprovable for all the same reasons Russell’s extrapolation certifies the possibility of God’s existence as such. It’s curious that we say that religion oversimplifies reality and defeats the purpose of cognitive evolution. However, when we go around saying that certain things are unprovable, aren’t we effectively doing the same thing?

Is Agnosticism ≤ Atheism?

Theological agnostics like to declare an incapacity for knowing god, without explicitly committing to atheism. It’s a neat and covert way to opt out of the annoying tresses of religion without getting into the epistemological complexities employed by strong atheism. But for agnostics out there who think you are in a safe middle ground, you’re not. Even the Rational Response Squad agrees with this position. Allow me to elucidate:

Just as how an A-theist, (the ‘a’ prefix negates the word it precedes) is someone who declares to some degree that they don’t subscribe to the concepts of theism (that god exists), an A-gnostic is someone who declares that they do not subscribe to the ideas proposed by gnosticism, which (in a much broader context) governs the knowing of god or any other supernatural force.

The trouble is that theism and gnosticism are inextricably linked. This is because the knowledge of a thing is ultimately predicated by the recognition of its existence. If you do not accept (i.e. reject) the existence of a god, (irrespective of your justification), this automatically makes you an atheist. It doesn’t matter whether you do so because you think god is unknowable or unprovable.

Rational Responders assert that they are both agnostic and atheistic – which makes sense logically, since you can’t be one without being the other. However, some of the people who are agnostic want to believe that they can declare an incapacity to know God without implicitly declaring that such a being doesn’t exist. While we could simply say “I don’t know what to believe“, going any further than that automatically makes an implicit declaration of some kind.

Uncertainty

Epistemological Limitations

Another major problem with the agnostic position on theism is that it assumes that the absence of or the incapacity to derive knowledge of something constitutes proof that an idea isn’t knowable and thus isn’t real. In other words, it assumes that knowledge and reality are inextricably linked. This is a double edged sword, because science has proven more often than not, that this is most certainly not the case.

There are things going on right now in our universe, in our galaxy, nay, even on our own planet that we still don’t fully understand. However, our incapacity to understand (or even detect) the existence of such things does not eliminate them. We run the risk of being arrogant in declaring such, inasmuch as we were arrogant in disclaiming the existence of global warming, among other epistemological ‘legends’ for the same reason.

To better demonstrate this idea, I invite agnostics to consider bacteria;

We regularly take antibiotics to rid ourselves of these micro-organisms. However, the pathogens are not aware of the danger of the existence of antibiotics, as this automatically spells their doom. Those that become aware of it, die instantly. The survivors remain oblivious not because antibiotics don’t exist, but because there’s no way for them to detect it without also ceasing to exist. If bacteria were sentient, antibiotics would be a legend of sorts being propagated by the few strains resistant to it.

If we are like bacteria, we couldn’t possibly detect the presence of a god (or a hell, for instance) for exactly the same reason. Thus it would not be reasonable to assert that such an entity does not exist, as no human has come back from the grave. Because of this concept, our mortality becomes an obvious epistemological limitation. It inhibits our capacity to prove something because we have limited the proof to our capacity to detect it.

…and thus the second edge of the sword is exposed.

We may feel quite content saying that a fallen tree in a forest makes no sound, but what about the squirrel whose life it snuffed out? Is it that the tree only made a sound when the squirrel was beneath it, but suddenly went silent when the poor rodent failed to escape? Is it that the proof of the existence of god is tied to our mortality? If that is the case, then we can only certify death, only the dead know the truth and the rest of us are playing a potentially dangerous game.

Hypocrisy

The Hypocrisy of Agnosticism

Saying that we can’t know therefore it is not, is functionally limiting us to a cognitive box which acts as a glass prison for our minds. Most of the things we believe in science were developed based on theories which we have no way of proving – even though we believe them unquestionably. For example, some of us believe that black holes don’t go anywhere. Then again, none of us have ever traveled to a black hole, but we believe the theory anyway.

So I have to ask:

With respect to theism, why would some agnostics say that “I can’t believe because I lack the capacity to prove“, yet they almost categorically accept what scientists theorize about something that is equally unquantifiable? If one is agnostic about theism, shouldn’t one be equally agnostic about all things? I think that it would be hypocritical to be selectively agnostic, singling out theism while accepting other ideas in theoretical science. Unfortunately, there are few such impartial agnostics – most of them being hard core scientists.

We see the same quirky behaviour in science. A Large Hadron Collider was built recently in an attempt to discover the “God” particle. I don’t know how successful they were, but I would bet that most of the people working on the project would just as readily dismiss quantum gravity as they would as readily accept string or M theory. I say this only because the String Field Theory is in part responsible for this project in the first place.

While one theory certainly seems to make more sense mathematically than the other, neither theory is more proof worthy than the other. They are just as unquantifiable as the belief in God. We lack the tools to adequately prove either theory. Yet we have subscribers on both sides of the fence who would just as readily die for Stephen Hawking as they would for Michio Kaku. Blind belief, as I have demonstrated before, is not limited to religion, it seems.

I think that like many Atheists, most of the people who call themselves Agnostics are motivated against theology for their own personal reasons. This would explain the disparity between the larger number of Agnostics who are only theologically agnostic, but not scientifically so. It shows that their position is based on preference, not logic. Such Agnostics don’t fully appreciate the concept of agnosticism and like the scientists who prefer String Theory over Quantum Gravity, are only picking ideas out of a bag to suit their cognitive tastes.

Conclusively;

Like any other belief, there is a somewhat compelling justification behind every flavour of atheism – but none is more suspiciously uncommitted than that of agnosticism. Agnostics are supposed to be unconditionally committed to doubt, although this appears to be rare with most subscribers. While I agree that nothing can be certainly knowable, there is a point at which our knowledge is still useful. We built a civilization out of it, after all – and this puts doubt in doubt for the following reasons:

Firstly, as mortal beings, we may not possess the capacity to know God in the sense that we fully understand such a being if it existed (and perhaps, not before death). However this does not obfuscate our capacity to know of such a being or to recognize the possibility of its existence. The idea of God satisfies a philosophical (Aristotle’s first cause) and a mathematical (M-Theory) necessity, just as how scientists invent other ideas such as evolution to explain correlation between species. All of these ideas are subject to the same quantum of interrogation and evaluation.

Secondly, if the idea of God makes no sense just as much as invisible pink unicorns and celestial teapots, then so does evolution, string field theory and quantum gravity for all the same reasons. It’s all speculation based on correlational evidence derived from subjective interpretation. For if truth is relative to  proof and proof is relative to interpretation, then truth is effectively a product of our imagination – and there are no exceptions.

Thus this position of doubt is doubtful.  There isn’t any necessity in killing as many brain cells certifying the value of doubt with its inherent limitations. The cognitive gymnastics seem to serve for little more than to establish a straw man of epic proportions – especially when such doubt is only selectively applied. It only exposes the true motive behind the deliberations. To me, the simple answer of “I really don’t knowand  I really don’t care” is a lot more honest and a much more satisfying end to such a discussion.

Next: Atheism Exposed: Pragmatism

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  1. Sachiko Dahlheimer
    December 6, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks for this post. I thought it was good.

Comment pages
  1. October 5, 2011 at 12:25 pm

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