Part 3 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 1 is here.
I've complained over the past three posts in this series that atheists don't appear to understand agnosticism. It's still a bit of a loose end, so in this part, hopefully the final, I'm planning to demonstrate, using a particularly well-referenced example, exactly the level of misunderstanding that exists.
The Oxford defines the word agnostic as follows:
• noun a person who believes that nothing can be known concerning the existence of God.
• adjective relating to agnostics.
— DERIVATIVES agnosticism noun.
As can be seen, there is a belief held by most agnostics that at no time will we know the truth about the existence (or otherwise) of God.
Any agnostic worth his (or her - but I'm going to dispense with the time-consuming task of doing this herewith) salt understands that this is a perfectly reasonable belief to hold. Theists are constantly moving the goalposts on what a god is, and thus this makes it very difficult to actually test in a consistent fashion for deities.
(And before anyone pulls me up, everyone knows that although God - who is normally the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God - is specifically mentioned, this statement refers to all supernatural deities. Don't make me smack you.)
In ancient Greece, the gods were said to live on Mount Olympus.
When people started climbing Mount Olympus, people just moved the goalposts on the home of the gods to an alternate Mount Olympus which existed on another plane.
Richard Dawkins, in his excellent book, The God Delusion, believes that we can test for the existence of God. I say, good luck, because religious folk will always have an out. This makes the agnostic point of view so much more important. Dawkins even says that to 'give up' in such a fashion is intellectual cowardice, and quotes all sorts of arguments as to why we should strive to find a way to test for supernatural deities.
The reason I mention Dawkins is pivotal to this part.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins, who is, pretty much, the world authority on atheism, engages in character assassination of the lowest order on agnostics and essentially invites atheists to join in the fun and games.
In the process, Dawkins uses some surprisingly weak arguments of his own in order to justify this. Which is really a surprise, because for most of the rest of the book, Dawkins nails everything correctly. (I also took exception to his definition of Religion which appears to include Acupuncture and Feng Shui at the expense of Confucianism and Buddhism, but this post isn't about that)
The first thing that Dawkins does when he lets fly at agnostics in chapter 2 is some serious poisoning of the well when, in the first paragraph he issues the following epithets about others' perceptions of agnostics:
[Atheists, at least, compared to agnostics] had the courage of their misguided convictions.
Namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid, fence sitters.
Wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.
Dawkins then issues a weak disclaimer, however, like the lady who advertises "massage" in the Personals section of the classified advertising pages along with the phrase, "no sex", this first paragraph is clearly designed to get the word, "sex," metaphorically speaking, out there for all to see.
At pains to exonerate class acts like Carl Sagan, himself a self-proclaimed agnostic, Dawkins creates a delineation between what he calls Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP), and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP).
Basically, agnostics are OK, Dawkins is saying. Really, they are, as long as they're TAP agnostics, like Sagan, and not PAP agnostics.
Where this leaves Temporary Agnosticism in Principle and Permanent Agnosticism in Practice is really anyone's guess. But we'll leave this point unanswered - Dawkins certainly makes no attempts.
(Incidentally, I completely and utterly accept that Dawkins uses the PAP acronym innocently.)
In a nutshell, a TAP agnostic believes that they can wait until the evidence is in before deciding what it is that they want to believe, whereas PAP agnostics supposedly uphold the dictionary definition on principle, only.
It's fairly early into the chapter that Dawkins leaps to the astounding conclusion that "PAP" agnostics apply an equal probability to the non-existence of God compared with the existence of God.
What evidence does Dawkins give that this is the case? None whatsoever. Dawkins' delineation between TAP and PAP agnostics notwithstanding, this appears to be an attempt to create a pejorative stereotype of an agnostic that simply does not exist.
To point out that all claims may one day be capable of testing, Dawkins repeats Auguste Comte's oft-repeated quote about never being able to know about what stars were made of. So what? Comte was most certainly incorrect, but what's wrong with this?
Never mind that Comte's quote didn't involve metaphysical concepts, nor did he consider goalposts that get moved around like crazy. Comte's quote was straightforward, and wrong, but again, so what?
Dawkins seems to be indirectly implying that agnostics would be unable to accept being wrong about their belief regarding no evidence for or against the metaphysical. Where the hell does he get this idea?
Another gratuitous mention of 'cowardly agnosticism' later, Dawkins then wheels in the big guns, starting with T H Huxley.
Dawkins pours scorn on Huxley for ignoring the question of probability. Then, somehow, Dawkins magically puts two and two together on this and comes to the amazing conclusion that this non-consideration of probability means that Huxley automatically assigns equal time to both existence and non-existence.
Let's take a breather from Dawkins' complete misunderstanding of agnosticism for one moment, and examine his somewhat befuddling fixation with probability.
Suppose I make the statement that I neither believe or disbelieve that the Reserve Bank will either lift or reduce interest rates this year. And let's assume that leaving the rates unchanged is not an option.
Because I haven't mentioned probability, Dawkins would have you believe that I assign an equal probability to either outcome - a situation that is, for anyone who knows me, completely improbable verging on impossible.
Not only that, but in the two archetypes that Dawkins has drawn up, unless a TAP agnostic specifies their allegiance up front, one is now entitled to assume that an agnostic attaches a 50/50 probability to the (non-)existence of God.
Dawkins then appears to contradict himself by creating a spectrum of probabilities, where he considers that a PAP can't be placed on it at the 50/50 mark, because they consider themselves outside such assessment of probabilities.
It's my view that Dawkins is consciously contradicting himself here. He is deliberately misrepresenting agnostics in order to paint them in a pretty poor light.
And then, when most readers of the agnostic persuasion are tearing their hair out in frustration at Dawkins, he invokes Bertrand Russell's teapot. This is folly and Dawkins knows it. Particularly in light of the reverse ferret that Dawkins does at the end.
Let's assume that I'm having a conversation with Russell:
Russell: Let's say that there's this scarecrow and he's orbiting Jupiter...
Me: Hold on, Einstein, why a scarecrow?
Russell: Well, it sounds good. I had to make up something that sounded silly.
Me: OK. Well, go on.
Russell: Let's say that there's this scarecrow and he's orbiting Jupiter. How would you, Mister Agnostic, disprove it's existence?
Me: Well, that's easy, you said, 'Let's say that there's this scarecrow,' and then you said, 'I had to make up something that sounded silly.' You've created what is normally considered to be a hypothetical proposition. It therefore only exists as a figment of your imagination.
Russell: Look, forget what I said. In any event, you haven't actually disproved it. What if one is actually there?
Me: Well, it would be up to you to prove it, wouldn't it?
Russell: Why me?
Me: Well, you're making a pretty extraordinary claim, aren't you?
Russell: Let's forget who is making this claim, the important thing is that if this claim is made, how would you disprove it?
Me: What do you mean, 'Let's forget who is making this claim?' This is pretty important. Why should I bother attempting to disprove this claim if you won't tell me who made the claim in the first place?
Russell: The claim itself isn't important.
Me: Well, clearly it is, if you want me to disprove it.
Russell: Look, just assume that the claim has been made. Now, how would you disprove that a scarecrow is out there?
Me: I wouldn't.
Russell: You mean you couldn't?
Me: No. I mean I wouldn't. I wouldn't even make it as far as showing that I couldn't. First of all, a claim has been made that a scarecrow is orbiting around Jupiter. Secondly, you, Bertrand Russell, come in and ask me, an agnostic, to disprove this claim. Lastly, you tell me that it's not important that the claim has been made, nor who made the claim.
Russell: What's wrong with that?
Me: Well, on the last point I beg to differ. Disproving an unimportant claim is a waste of everyone's time. And in the 'absence' of the person who made this claim, I propose that you're a good proxy for that person, being that you brought this claim to my attention in the first place.
Russell: I'm not sure where you're going with this.
Me: Simple. The onus is on you to present evidence for this unimportant scarecrow claim, and immediately after, I'll work on disproving it. Do we have a deal?
Russell: But... but...
Me: And may I suggest that you use something far less controversial than a 'scarecrow'? An inordinate number of people have this phobia of them. Might I suggest a teapot instead?
It's interesting to note that, as Dawkins himself admits, it is perfectly reasonable to be agnostic about Russell's teapot. Russell cannot provide evidence for the claim, and it is a claim that is impossible to disprove. Dawkins, however, introduces this to set up an amazingly patronising assault on agnostics in the closing paragraphs of the section.
It's in the closing paragraphs of this section that Dawkins, quite offensively, lectures agnostics on what constitutes an extraordinary claim.
Dawkins vicious attack on agnostics during this section nearly had me throwing his book at the wall.
The thing that overrides Dawkins' merry trip to stereotypeland is that all his generalisations about agnostics mean diddly-squat in the real world.
In the real world, the vast, vast majority of agnostics recognise what part is the extraordinary claim.
Dawkins' premise about probability, upon which he has built this entire section, comes crashing down like a house of cards when this knowledge is taken into account.
But I wonder if Dawkins knew this all along.
Dawkins is also smart enough to know that an ad hominem attack is unlikely to be called if it is concealed within an argument of some sort, no matter if that argument is as weak as halal beer.
And I wonder if that was what Dawkins intended. Which begs the question - what would he have against agnostics?
Footnote: I only just noticed upon re-reading this section that Dawkins admits to using that witty yet depressingly banal "one less god..." argument that I discussed in Part 3. I have to admit that I lost a bit of respect for him, here.