Against Agnosticism

Agnosticism has a certain appeal as a more moderate form of atheism. Agnosticism, for our purposes, refers to the belief that the existence (or lack thereof) of god is unknowable.  I’ve generally found that theists tend to have more respect for agnostics due to their holding of a more “reasonable” position. However, this is misguided: When it comes to the belief in god, agnosticism is logically unsound at best and intellectually cowardly at worst. Many agnostics are cowardly in the sense that they use agnosticism as a cop-out for not thinking hard about religious questions. Many agnostics do not actually deal with the epistemological question of whether we—as humans with reason—can know whether there is a god; Rather, they deal with the subjective personal question of whether they believe in a god: “Do you believe in god?” “I don’t know!” And, because agnosticism is a more socially acceptable position to hold, there is an incentive not to think.

However, there are agnostics that actually make arguments for agnosticism. Past thinkers have demonstrated that these arguments are flawed but agnosticism has been popular enough that it is valuable to be reminded of the argument against agnosticism. Agnostics believe that the existence of god is neither provable nor disprovable. Thomas Huxley wrote how he came to develop the term:

“When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble…So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic.’ It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.”

The most effective way to respond to agnosticism is through reductio ad absurdum. If we ought to be agnostic on the existence of God because there is no way to disprove his existence, then we ought to be agnostic towards a lot of seemingly ridiculous things. We could start in the domain of religion: For one, if we are agnostic regarding the existence of a single god, the same argument holds for multiple gods. So, we must, to be consistent, be agnostic toward polytheism. Additionally, what about the argument that gravity is not simply caused by a really large number of ridiculously strong invisible fairies dressed in drag pushing down on you and other objects? Using the argument from agnosticism, this cannot be disproved so we need to maintain an agnostic stance…which is absurd.

The problem is that agnostics misapply the scientific method.  Bertrand Russell puts it best when discussing his famous teapot example:  Russell offers the example of a small (basically invisible given current technology) teapot between Earth and Mars revolving around the sun. Russell claims, “But if I were to go on to say that [the teapot exists], since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.” The presumption underlying Russell’s argument is that the burden of proving a deity’s existence lies with the theist. It makes little sense that the nonbeliever has a burden to disprove seemingly absurd arguments, whether they refer to a teapot, invisible beings, or a belief in god. In all other realms of science, the burden of proof lies with the individual who is making the assertion. Why should it be any different when it comes to religious matters?

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on June 30, 2009 at 10:22 PM

    not that i disagree with your argument, but the graviton could potentially be thought of as an invisible (spin 2) fairy. i’ll have to consult my physics books about the drag …

    also, i wouldn’t say the interaction is “simple” …

    Reply

  2. Posted by jane on July 1, 2009 at 5:35 AM

    Perhaps the perception is that atheists too confidently deny a) bewilderment (unlike agnostics) and b) the capacity to belief in/be moved to action by something bewildering (unlike the quasi/extremely religious). And perhaps neither strikes a society full of bewildered people as very attractive.

    But anyway, as for your argument: You could just as easily claim it intellectually courageous for one’s final position on ontology to take into serious account the limitations of epistemology, whether one chooses to apply it as a general rule or specifically to the God question. What is, after all, an objective measure of depth of thought? Hours spent reflecting? Not to mention, why frame the agnostic position as erring on the side of caution? An agnostic could go to hell for that, in plenty of traditions. Some quick points on your criticism of “many agnostics”:

    1. Sure many official agnostics assert with (what you consider) “untenable” certainty the ultimate uncertainty of all things, including God’s non-existence. Your thesis is an argument against the kind of agnostic who is certain about Uncertainty, yet what of the agnostic simply uncertain about Certainty? I don’t think the difference is semantic.

    2. You have a problem with those who aren’t making any sort of statement about knowledge or Knowledge but who are, simply, suspending their own belief or disbelief in God’s existence. But being uncertain about the definitiveness of one’s own knowledge or ability to know, or one’s very conception of knowledge or ability to conceptualize -need this grasp of the profundity of possibility be the product of less, rather than more, reflection?

    4. Plenty of believers and agnostics believe they have “proof,” i.e., confirming instances of God’s existence, e.g., after bearing witness to events with no “scientific” explanation. Your argument for the absurdity of uncertainty seems to discount the possibility that the agnostic has experiences and something more than abstract-robust skepticism, rendering God’s existence more probable than an orbiting teapot.

    5. “In all other realms of science, the burden of proof lies with the individual who is making the assertion.” Though framing science as something like a series of assertions and affirmations is a popular trope, equally popular is the conjecture and refutation model, no? And Quine-Duhem and all that good stuff making a case for the complexity in detangling one hypothesis from infinite auxiliaries, at least provide compelling evidence that the history of science is not built of concrete blocks of the self-evident (as opposed to creative) “proof” of which you speak. Here I’ll cite Arnold Davidson and David Hollinger as interesting sources re: the “ideology” of science.

    I am sleepy. But your post woke me up.

    Reply

    • Posted by Josh on July 1, 2009 at 3:15 PM

      Jane,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Now let me respond:

      -Regarding your first point on bewilderment, atheists can be bewildered too, just in a different sense. Many atheists are MORE bewildered than agnostics or theists when it comes to creation because while they recognize that there is the potential for a scientific explanation behind it, they also recognize that we haven’t reached the point where we could confidently assert a scientific theory that explains creation. The result is bewilderment, but a bewilderment of a much different kind than agnostics and theists.

      -Regarding your comment on intellectual courage: Agnosticism isn’t inherently cowardly. Just many people who are agnostics are. Most of them don’t even know what epistemology is, let alone think they are defending epistemological uncertainty. A lot of agnostics I meet use the term weakly as a subjective term to describe that they don’t know what they think about God rather than as an objective term about epistemology.

      -Finally, before responding to each of your points, let me acknowledge that agnostics do not have a monopoly on humility. Humility, where it is merited, is a good thing. I don’t think most people know how to “solve” the current economic crisis and I think having a sense of humility while talking about it is valuable. I get annoyed when people who know nothing about politics speak falsely about it: humility is good here too. But, I think when it comes to rejecting absurd beliefs this is not the proper place for humility.

      Now, a point-by-point response:

      1. Let me be clear. The first part of this post was a sociological observation about agnostics and not part of the logic of rejecting agnosticism, which I do after the beginning part of the post. You claim: “Sure many official agnostics assert with (what you consider) “untenable” certainty the ultimate uncertainty of all things, including God’s non-existence.” When you claim this, you are basically accepting my sociological observation. The second part (the philosophical rather than sociological part) of my post does respond to strong agnosticism, which includes individuals who are uncertain about certainty. My arguments about reductio ad absurdum and the scientific method ESPECIALLY apply to them. You critique the latter and I will respond to that below.

      2. You postulate: “But being uncertain about the definitiveness of one’s own knowledge or ability to know, or one’s very conception of knowledge or ability to conceptualize-need this grasp of the profundity of possibility be the product of less, rather than more, reflection?” No, it need not be. Someone could theoretically reflect a lot and reach a conclusion that human reason and observation is so fallible that one’s ability to “know” or “not know” cannot be trusted. Again, though, I was not making a philosophical point but a sociological one: Most agnostics do not think this way. Just saying that there IS a way to reach agnosticism through reflection does not mean that most agnostics DO think this way.

      4 [sic]. I don’t buy the underlying premise of this argument, that these “confirming instances” somehow make the agnostic’s position less absurd. Psychology has taught us about confirmation bias, where people tend to interpret new information as supporting their own (sometimes flawed) beliefs. I think this is very often the example with “confirming instances”. When I was a child, I believed that the prophet Elijah came in the house during the Jewish holiday of Passover and drank the wine we left out for him. Very often the next morning, I would comment to my parents how I heard wind blowing through the door and noticed the wine glass was slightly moved (even though no one had touched it since dinner). I looked and listened for things to justify my hope and belief that Elijah came into our house at night to drink the wine. That doesn’t make my belief any less absurd. And the fact that the belief in god as a whole is MUCH more widespread than the belief that Elijah physically drinks the wine, would mean that there are sure to be more examples of confirmation bias in terms of god. This cognitive error, rather than giving support to agnosticism and theism, helps to support their falsity.

      5. I reject that the scientific method is just a “popular trope”: It is the best method for testing scientific and metaphysical claims. Quine-Duhem is certainly not popular in science even though it may be popular among philosophers of science. Either way, its popularity does not necessitate its validity. Just so readers know, Quine-Duhem essentially holds that nothing is falsifiable because we could always go back and question auxiliary assumptions related to the theory posited. So, of course Quine-Duhem would support agnosticism, which leads to the same absurd conclusion that basically nothing is falsifiable. Just as I reject that conclusion from agnosticism, I reject the Quine-Duhem hypothesis. Since the “confirming instances” argument doesn’t hold water, you have to stand by the absurd claims about the teapot and the invisible fairies in drag as unfalsifiable too.

      Reply

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  7. […] Likewise, if it is false, then we should leave it up to argument so posts like these by John S. and myself may be produced, forcing adherents to critically examine their views. The Free Exercise Clause has […]

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  8. […] “Against Agnosticism” by Josh. Unlike the last one, this post was one where Josh and I are thoroughly simpatico. It is also Josh’s writing at its best: Taking something—in this case a line of thought—that is common yet thoroughly misguided and pointing out all the inconsistencies and problems with it. […]

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  9. Posted by Austin on December 13, 2012 at 8:55 PM

    1 – prove there is a god or 2 – prove there isn’t. Simple answer – you can’t.

    Reply

  10. Posted by mh2468 on December 21, 2014 at 12:29 AM

    The polytheistic religion of Hill Evidencism is only based on evidence and logic: http://hill-evidencism.blogspot.com/.

    Reply

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