Contemplation: The Agnostics Dilemma

“In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion”  ~Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting provides us with a comparatively short piece on philosophy and religious faith in The Stone this week.  While I feel a slight need to criticize Mr. Gutting in that his piece seems to suggest that “faith” lies almost solely in the realm of the religious experience (a stance that I strongly disagree with) I would like to extend credit to him for an all-around good piece of contemplation on the merits, or lack there of, of using the “faith” argument as a form of proof for premise.

The above quote, extracted from Mr. Gutting’s piece, I think is one worth further discussion (though I recommend reading Mr. Gutting’s work itself before putting too much credit in my writing here.  He is, in fact, a professor of philosophy.  I’m just some dude with a blog).  What Mr. Gutting points out in his piece, and especially in the above quote, is that there comes a point in logical discourse that an open and critical mind has to conclude that there really is not a good argument for or against the existence of God.  This is not to say that one side or the other is correct, but instead to point out, that the most reasoning solution and stance is the middle ground, which concludes, that there is not sufficient evidence one way or another.

The problem is, that this stance, the central agnostic ground, tends to get its fair share of criticism.  It is non-committal, it doesn’t really assert itself, it brings nothing to the table.  The religious believer may strongly criticize atheism, but at least atheism can adhere to a strong belief (that there is no God).  Agnosticism on the other hand holds that, the way the current arguments are framed, do not provide a sufficient proof for or against God.  Until such a time that said proof one way or the other can be presented, the best perspective is the middle ground.

Agnosticism is the most certain conclusion of an honest logical determination of the premises for and against God.  In this logical discourse faith alone does not provide any sufficient evidence that God in fact exists (faith might be great for the believers, but due to its personal nature, it really tells us little beyond what a specific person believes).  On the flip side, atheism has produced no hard facts that negate God.  With these two conflicting views we gravitate toward the center.  It becomes less of an issue of whether or not God really does or doesn’t exist and more a matter of our existing methods.  None of the arguments hold sufficient water in a logical discourse.

So what then does the agnostic believe?  If they don’t believe in the existence, or lack there of, of God, then do they in fact believe anything, or are they just nihilists?  I would say that the agnostic view believes quite a lot.  I think that the agnostic world view believes strongly in the benefit of logic to provide sound understanding of the world.  The agnostic world view is one that avoids jumping to conclusions, but instead prefers to evaluate the propositions as they are presented.  If a premise lacks sufficient support then an agnostic would simply point that out and suggest that it must be further refined to actually be offering a firm fact.  In many ways I think that agnosticism is in fact the more logical belief system for the science, especially in considering the scientific method.  With the scientific method we seek to expand our understanding of the world by formulating hypotheses and rigorously testing them to determine outcomes.  A good scientist will avoid inserting personal bias and belief into scientific inquiry, and instead allow the empirical evidence speak for itself.  While there are many in the fields of science who may take a hard-line against religious belief, instead asserting to a truly atheist world view, the practices of good science at this time have not produced results that definitively disprove God.  A claim then, that science should be atheistic is really rather unfounded in regards to good scientific method.  Agnosticism becomes a much more natural area, in that it points out that at this time there is neither good evidence for or against God.

If people were to look at my personal religious views (or, in my case, lack there of) I would more often than not be regarded as a steady agnostic.  I personally tend to live in what I call general non-theism.  In this personal perspective I am willing to take the logical agnostic stance that the arguments for or against God, as they stand, are insufficient in either way.  However, in regards to a practicing religious life I side much closer to atheism.  I consider there to be few real merits of spending my time in religious practice and would rather invest my lifestyle in more secular pursuits.  I can reasonably imagine a social benefit from participating in organized religion, but I think that one can achieve the same degree of healthy socializing from completely non-religious activities. 

As far as my criticisms of either religious belief or atheism stand it is in regards to what I’d call fundamentalist tendencies.  Both religious believers and atheists can be prone to these tendencies in my view.  On the religious end of the fundamentalist tendencies I think than any religious view is capable of doing so. It doesn’t matter if you are a christian, muslim, hindu, Jew, etc.  All religious belief can potentially be leveraged in a fundamentalist way.  Likewise for atheism.  I have long been uncomfortable of the hardline stances of many of the new atheists like Richard Dawkins because I see them as essentially creating a fundamentalist view of atheism.  In an agnostic perspective neither religion or atheism are necessarily bad things, but instead they are just views that do not appear to be as solid as they may claim to be.  Fundamentalism is the dangerous extreme of views which become uncompromising.  In a fundamentalist view anyone who disagrees with the central belief is concluded to be wrong and potentially dangerous.  An agnostic must almost always shy away from fundamentalism because, until a fundamentalist belief can produce real sound evidence there is a logical failing to any of the central beliefs that claim absolute truth.

I admit (and in fact have never tried to deny) that the agnostic world view is almost inevitably relativistic, but not so much in the idea that “all views have their validity” but more in the line, that all things being equal, no arguments are at this time sufficient to proclaim an absolute belief in any one thing.  I have been fine with a relativistic world view, though I realize that there are issues and critiques that can occur with it.  I take no major issue with adherents to either religious or atheist belief, unless such believers decide to take a view that I see a fundamental and potentially allowing for damaging biases.  As always I enjoy hearing other views on the matter. Feel free to drop a comment.


~ by Nathaniel on August 3, 2010.

9 Responses to “Contemplation: The Agnostics Dilemma”

  1. “the most reasoning solution and stance is the middle ground, which concludes, that there is not sufficient evidence one way or another”

    I agree for the most part, but I have a slightly different conclusion. We’ve had this conversation a number of times, but I think it bears repeating based on my disagreement with what you refer to as “relativism.”

    Logic is a machine, not an arbiter of reality or a way to distinguish what is ultimately right and wrong (right and wrong in microcosmic cases, yes, but we’re talking “ultimate” realities here). Logic is computational and allows us to navigate a world of possibilities, but that navigation is always based on fundamental axioms (like using a nautical chart). In many cases, theists and atheists are equally “logical” based on their beliefs and the foundations from which they begin. The problem is not always their reasoning (though it can often be faulty), but that their axioms/beliefs are different (they’re using different charts to navigate the same body of water). So in any discussion of logic and what is “reasonable”, we often forget that our beliefs underpin our logical systems, not the other way around. Neither side can prove anything ultimate, because the chart they’re using precludes the ultimate and there is not unbiased chart for the whole body of water.

    Agnostics, I think, claim the middle space not always because theistic and atheistic arguments are equally weak, but because they can be equally strong. Agnostics recognize the validity of each chart, even as they recognize the charts as the finite things that they are. In a way, agnosticism is a position that isn’t a position, it’s a paradoxical position that denies the possibility of ultimate knowledge, but the most profound and powerful agnostic position is the one that still recognizes the necessity of beliefs (theistic or atheistic). You said “I admit (and in fact have never tried to deny) that the agnostic world view is almost inevitably relativistic”, but I think “relativism” is kind of a dirty word that lacks nuance, implying a person sailing without a mooring or harbor to call home. I prefer a more dynamic view, one that lives in the paradoxical position of both occupying and valuing ultimate-seeming positions while recognizing their status as less than ultimate. It’s not a perfect position, and should never be understood as a perfect middle path or systematic rotation between belief and skepticism, but it does value the give and take between belief and skepticism. It’s a messy position, but profoundly, dynamically livable.

    • I’m glad you’ve commented on this. I’ve tried a number of times to share your perspective, which I think I generally hold (as we’ve discussed on many occassions), with other people, but have, time and again, failed to articulate it with the clarity you offer here. I totally agree that logic is a tool as a opposed to an arbitrator. Likewise with things like the scientific method. These are devices that allow us to understand the universe and existence in a consistant means. In this way then theist or non-theist world views can both have a “logic” that provides a sound understanding of existence. As we’ve discussed before, issues often come-up between the two world views due to a fundamental failure to realize that the world views are completely different.

      As far as reletivism goes I don’t know that I totally agree with you on it “implying a person sailing without mooring or harbor” but that may be partially a semantic issue. I think when I say I view things more “reletivistic” what I mean is that same idea of “valuing ultimate-seeming positions while recognizing their status as less than ultimate.” Again, I admit that using the term “reletive” or “reletivistic” creates certain perspectives, and perhaps I need better terminology or articulation (or both) to clarify my specific stance.

      We need to talk stuff like this more often. It has been way too long.

  2. It is impossible to falsify the existence of God. Therefore, it’s not allowed into the realm of science. Logic can come to the God discussion, but, he needs to wear a collared shirt and close-toed shoes.

    We, as a conscious diplomatic often rational species, can’t agree on a clear definition of God. It’s something different to just about anyone you ask. (S)He’s a slippery one. Suffice to say, there are an infinite number of God-constructs. You can create a new one every minute. And so can I! Here watch: God is an invisible Yiddish-speaking Shetland pony named Lars. He lives in a volcanic cave near the bottom of the Mariana trench. He speaks directly to narwhals and humpbacks through a complex series of rhythmic flatulence and his only human vessel is Jimmy Carter, to whom he bestowed the gift of weather control.

    On one side you have an infinity of unfalsifiable fantasies (just choose one…I like mine the best).

    On the other side you have those who share an opinion that goes something like: What’s the likelihood that any one of the infinite and arbitrary possible God-constructs is correct? Where x is the number of God-constructs, the limit of 1/x as x approaches infinity = 0.

    Agnostics hold on to that most vanishing of vanishingly small shreds of possibility that all unfalsifiable assertions have built in. It’s possible that there is a Christian God. It’s equally possible there’s a Shetland pony God named Lars. And more likely that neither are correct. It’s my opinion that most self-avowed agnostics simply want to appear considerate in mixed company–not offending either extreme too badly. Plus, they get to play the field and be wooed by all suitors while appearing thoughtful. Grow a fucking sack.

    The best I can offer is that we’re here. That’s pretty amazing. Why embellish that?

    • From my experience agnostics actually do offend more often than not. While I agree that there are some agnostics who just want to be a “happy neutral” I think there are others who would very quickly point out that a “no-god” situation is yet just another God-construct as you put it. In that regards they would argue that the playing field is still remaining even and no strong case has been made one way or another. But then again, as I have replied to Nate, I tend to take the issue that it is less about the idea of “right” or “wrong” considering that those conclusions are dependent clauses based on logical axioms. I think concluding, as you have “I am here, we are here, things are happening” provide a good anchoring point, but fuck if it ain’t all that uncreative. It is like a bland bowl of oatmeal. At least a little embellishment through discourse keeps things a little interesting, regardless of whether any agreed upon results come out of it.

  3. “there are others who would very quickly point out that a ‘no-god’ situation is yet just another God-construct as you put it.”

    But they’d be wrong. “Construct” clearly implies somethingness. Whereas those who hold the opinion that there is no God are asserting nothing. Nothingness. The null hypothesis. This should be the default stance from which to build.

    “In that regards they would argue that the playing field is still remaining even and no strong case has been made one way or another.”

    There is no case! There’s no serious evidence to support anything but the vaguest of alternate hypotheses.

    “I tend to take the issue that it is less about the idea of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ considering that those conclusions are dependent clauses based on logical axioms.”

    Let’s apply some logic. (1) Is there one truth? (2) Are there many truths? (3) Are there infinite truths? (4) Are there no truths?

    (1) One truth: One truth in an infinite sea of unfalsifiable possibilities provides a practical probability of being “right” at zero. Basically, you’re always “wrong.”
    (2) Many truths: Basically, the same as 1-truth because of infinity. Only listed here for sake of completeness.
    (3) Infinite truths: everyone is always “right” so let’s have a party.
    (4) No truths: paradoxically similar to infinity! You can’t be right or wrong.

    Take your pick and the outcome is not very satisfying. Now replace “truth” with “God”

    I think Joseph Campbell said it best:

    “There is a condescension on the part of the infinite to the mind of man, and that is what looks like God.”

    • “The null hypothesis. This should be the default stance from which to build on.”

      This is the problem you’ve presented right here. There is no amount of evidence to suggest that that is a true statement one way or another. An assertion of no god is still an assertion. In lieu of evidence one way or another, regadless of the number of possible truth you want to consider, you cannot make any reasonable assersion and suggest that it is a better starting point than another. Certianly, a no-god hypthesis is the idea of no higher power or divinity or what have you in those terms, but that is not the same as pure nihilism. The reason I’d say a no-god stance would still be considered a god construct is because to even make the claim that there “is no god” one must first have a gaudge of the claim that there “is a god.” A denial or regection of a premise requires a starting premise in the first place. A premise does not neccesitate a truth mind you, but it does set a stage. In a reasonable debate on the existnece or non-existence of “God” there is not anything that constitutes siginificant evidence for one side or the other. In that way it is just a reasonable to start from an existing god premise as from a non-existing god premise. The problem is, at this point, that neither starting premise really offers a better claim for being the base. I think this is where the logical axioms come in and where major disagreement occurs. It becomes less and less about the actual matter of “god,” if you will, and more about which starting premise is the correct one to work with as a world view.

      I love that Joseph Campbell quote.

  4. William Egginton’s response to comments on his previous piece “The Limits of the Coded World” offer some interesting arguments to much of the above (especially the end of his response).

    Whether I fully agree or disagree with him, I think he’s pieces both add to the overall value of The Stone. Definitely the best new blog/column to be added to the New York Times this year.

  5. “An assertion of no god is still an assertion”

    When there is no evidence for or against, you don’t have to make an assertion of nothingness. There’s simply nothing to assert. Suppose I wanted to see if the local BI-LO grocery sells pickled ostrich eggs. I honestly have no idea if they do or not. Since it’s such an obscure thing to carry in inventory, my null hypothesis would be that they do not. Of course, they might, but I have absolutely no evidence to support either case until I walk into the store and have a look around. Until that point, there is no assertion being made.

    “The reason I’d say a no-god stance would still be considered a god construct is because to even make the claim that there ‘is no god’ one must first have a gaudge of the claim that there ‘is a god.'”

    Let’s continue the example. To be fair and precise, I would/should never say “the grocery has no pickled ostrich eggs” without proof. I’d be more correct to say “I possess no direct evidence to prove that this grocery stocks pickled ostrich eggs, and what evidence I do have available would suggest a vanishingly low probability of them carrying that product at all.” If you insisted there were ostrich eggs in the store, I would look for some proof. If you or I could not produce any evidence, or worse, you claimed that the eggs are invisible. Then I’d feel more comfortable asserting that you’re likely a liar, insane, or that the universe is conspiring against my ability to perceive reality or some combination thereof.

    In short, I agree. For me to say “there is no god” would indeed be an assertion that has no evidence to support it. But I can, with a clear conscience, say “I possess no direct evidence to prove there is a God (or Gods), and what evidence I do have available suggests a vanishingly low probability of God’s existence.”

    “In that way it is just a reasonable to start from an existing god premise as from a non-existing god premise.”

    Yes and no. If we go back to the pickled ostrich eggs (they’re starting to sound appetizing) we could easily assume that they are in the grocery store sitting on aisle #4 right next to the beef jerky. You could be a glass-half-full kind of person. That’s fair. And that’s a fine position to take in this example because we could both search the store and quickly determine if they exist or not. In other words, it’s falsifiable. But if they are INVISIBLE pickled ostrich eggs then it’s no longer falsifiable. You can’t assume they exist anymore. Well, I guess you can, a lot of people do… but that seems insane to me. The best you can do is hope that a technology emerges that measures the total mass of the grocery store and subtracts out the mass of the visible items and shows a difference.

    Am I making sense?

    • I think that you’ve made perfect sense in all your comments and I really don’t disagree with you. We’ve discussed the very matter before and are in, I think, the same general agreement on the subject. However I would have to challenge your claim that “what evidence I do have available suggests a vanishingly low probability of God’s existence.” I don’t challenge it in regards to a right to believe that but I question whether, the nature of the matter, one can even make as bold a claim that the evidence, or lack there of actually, “suggests a vanishingly low probability of Gods’ existence.”

      Does that make sense?

      Essentially, speaking of my own stance, the argument for or against god becomes the better focus because it looks at limitations of logical methods. Logic can do a lot to help us understand the universe and set rules for how we determine if something is a good or poor claim, but the problem is, that we have to first and foremost assume that logic itself is a correct tool to run our understanding and premises through. Is it fair for logic, or the scientific method, or religious faith, or whatever else you have, to assert its own degree of accuracy? Can any of the methods actually defend themselves against the other methods? I think a philosophical agnostic perspective, does not necessarily have to have as much to do with the actuality and truth of a god/no-god arguments, but can instead focus more specifically on the tools that are being deployed. Logic can be just as slippery as faith in an attempt to explain the world. One can make a logically sound argument and yet it can still be entirely false (ie. the premises are not true in themselves).

      I think Nate’s point that agnosticism is “a paradoxical position that denies the possibility of ultimate knowledge” is well made because I cannot see anywhere where humanity has reached an “ultimate knowledge.” I certainly side with science, math, logic, etc. more often than not because it appears to work very well for my world view. But I am careful not to take it for granted, which is something I think happens too often. I have to side, almost entirely, with William Egginton (in the previous comment’s link).

      “While fundamentalisms of all kinds are unified in their belief that the ultimate nature of reality is a code that can be read and understood, religious moderates, along with those secularists we would call agnostics, are profoundly suspicious of any claims that one can come to know reality as it is in itself. I believe that such believers and skeptics are neither less scientific nor less religious for their suspicion. They are, however, more tolerant of discord; more prone to dialog, to patient inquiry, to trial and error, and to acknowledging the potential insights of other ways of thinking and other disciplines than their own. They are less righteously assured of the certainty of their own positions and have, historically, been less inclined to be prodded to violence than those who are beholden to the code of codes. If being an accomodationist means promoting these values, then I welcome the label.”

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