20 March 2007

Why did you end up agnostic? (Part 4)

This is Part 4.

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:


agnostic

/agnostik/

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.

24 comments:

ted said...

Settle down Dikkii, I've barely had a chance to get through this one, and you've ripped out another already...:)

Very nicely done, as usual. I haven't read it myself as yet, but you make some interesting points. At times it seems to me at times that the agnostic/atheist debate is almost as heated as the theist/atheist debate.

That surprises me because even people like Dawkins, should god come down and hand out a bit of smiting, would soon change their minds about whether god exists.

Dikkii said...

Ted, don't get me wrong, I do love Dawkins, and I will normally side with atheists in a good stoush with theists, but he frustrates the hell out of me sometimes.

I got the general impression from reading his work that his mind works in a very similar way to the Sagan-esque model agnostic.

But he would be the first to admit that he would have a seriously hard time self-identifying as such.

Is Dawkins stream of velvet-coated ridicule which he directs at agnostics a form of self-loathing? Or have I just read too much into this?

Are agnostics really viewed as pants-wetting fence-sitters by atheists?

And, have I just alienated my entire readership, given that most of them are atheist and quite a lot of atheists will not countenance any type of criticism of Dawkins?

ted said...

Dikkii: And, have I just alienated my entire readership, given that most of them are atheist and quite a lot of atheists will not countenance any type of criticism of Dawkins?

I'm hoping you've set the scene for a good discussion actually. As you know, I'm of the "I'll believe it when I see it" school of thought and I'm not sure if that makes me a "pants wetting fence sitter" or not. But it does seem odd to me that the two groups get stuck into each other.

Dikkii said...

Ted, it seems odd to me, as well.

Mind you, I've only heard a few derogatory comments from atheists about agnostics.

It's just a shame that Dawkins had to be one of them.

Anonymous said...

My one question is, how do you know that there aren't people who identify as agnostics who genuinely are wishy-washy fence-sitters?

I mean, I would admit that there do exist "fundamentalist atheists," at least metaphorically. I just think that the number of such people is exaggerated, and their actual positions caricatured.

Similarly, I suspect there are at least a small number of "agnostics" who really do think God's existence is likely. But they're probably not as bad or as common as Dawkins thinks.

Then there are agnostics like yourself who have trivial disagreements with atheists, who in turn have trivial disagreements with Atheists. If the major argument is about semantics, I think it's trivial.

Dikkii said...

My one question is, how do you know that there aren't people who identify as agnostics who genuinely are wishy-washy fence-sitters?

I don't. I've just never met one. But I do entertain the probability that they exist. Just not a 50/50 one. :-)

I mean, I would admit that there do exist "fundamentalist atheists," at least metaphorically. I just think that the number of such people is exaggerated, and their actual positions caricatured.

I used to like the term "fundamentalist atheist."

I don't anymore. Oh look, I agree that certain stereotypes can be applied to atheists as well, its just that agnostics appear to be represented by a much smaller group than theists or atheists, and as such, I'm not sure if we're well represented enough for such stereotypes to be presented.

I tend to apply what I've learnt about atheism from the atheist blogs that I read - are they stereotypes? I'm not sure that they'd agree. Then again, I don't think it's a representative sample, either.

Similarly, I suspect there are at least a small number of "agnostics" who really do think God's existence is likely. But they're probably not as bad or as common as Dawkins thinks.

Agree on both points.

Then there are agnostics like yourself who have trivial disagreements with atheists, who in turn have trivial disagreements with Atheists. If the major argument is about semantics, I think it's trivial.

Agree with this, except that I don't think that the argument is semantic. It most certainly is trivial, though.

Having said that, I do know atheists who understand agnosticism - but they appear to be very much in the minority, and almost without exception appear to be large-a atheists.

RickU said...

Really? Most atheists I've encountered are agnostic atheists (my wife uses the term scientific atheists to mean the same thing) and Dawkin's self described himself as an agnostic atheist on his recent "Fresh Air" interview. I've read a few, but never met any big A atheists. I find their point of view as irrational as any godder's.

Dikkii said...

Hi Rick, and thanks for dropping by.

Really? Most atheists I've encountered are agnostic atheists (my wife uses the term scientific atheists to mean the same thing) and Dawkin's self described himself as an agnostic atheist on his recent "Fresh Air" interview. I've read a few, but never met any big A atheists. I find their point of view as irrational as any godder's.

I'm still not sure if I really like the term, "agnostic atheist".

On one hand, I think it is a rather apt description of a small-a atheist.

On the other, it seems to be a bit of a mouthful, where the term agnostic on its own seems to say enough without having to flap your gums any more.

Agree with you about large-a atheists, though. They do appear to get a little, how shall I say, dogmatic about their belief in no gods.

Dikkii said...

Actually I'm going to qualify my last paragraph that I wrote in my response to you, Rick.

I don't agree that large-a atheism is irrational, per se. Is it irrational to believe in the null hypothesis?

Having said that, my last paragraph still stands, that is, that some large-a atheists get a bit dogmatic about their position.

ordinarygirl said...

It sounds like semantics to me. I consider myself an atheist, my husband considers himself an agnostic. We believe the same, from what I can tell.

Until there's credible evidence, I don't believe in a god. I'd rather say, "nope, it's not real" than argue of the semantics that it might be.

My husband, on the other hand, doesn't believe there's a god, but he won't rule out the possiblity that there isn't one.

It's never been an issue between us.

ordinarygirl said...

P.S. I came via Carnival of the Godless and I'm enjoying your series.

Dikkii said...

Hi OG, and thanks for dropping by.

You wrote:

It sounds like semantics to me. I consider myself an atheist, my husband considers himself an agnostic. We believe the same, from what I can tell.

Which is precisely the point that I made in Part 3.

And maybe it is "semantics". However, that wasn't the point that I was making in this part.

I think that semantics are important - one of the reasons I don't identify as an atheist, is that the definition of atheism seems to be so heavily debated that I'm not even really sure what it is that atheists (dis)believe in. I discussed this in Part 3.

The triviality of semantic arguments aside, that's a pretty powerful reason in my book.

You also wrote:

Until there's credible evidence, I don't believe in a god. I'd rather say, "nope, it's not real" than argue of the semantics that it might be. My husband, on the other hand, doesn't believe there's a god, but he won't rule out the possiblity that there isn't one.

Your husband is actually making two separate statements, here. Neither of which are inconsistent with each other.

You appear to recognise that - although you didn't mention, for comparison purposes, what kind of possibility or even probability you attach to non-existence.

This is important, yet most atheists these days seem to prefer to address the existence side of the equation only, and, as I pointed out in Part 3, this is problematic.

Again, though, I did actually (though you wouldn't believe it) attempt to steer clear of semantics in this part.

My main point of Part 4 was that some (most definitely not the majority) atheists have a rather low opinion of agnostics and Dawkins appears to be one of them.

And, just like Dawkins, this is usually based on misconceptions of agnosticism.

It's never been an issue between us.

Good to hear. And it shouldn't be, either.

And I'm glad you're enjoying my series.

ordinarygirl said...

I think this is the difference between my husband and I. I am absolutely comfortable with saying that there is no god just as I'm absolutely comfortable with saying that there's no santa claus or fairies or ghosts. The only difference I can see between them is that I was raised with a cultural bias towards believing in God. I may be wrong. That's ok. I'm ok with being wrong if someone can give me a convincing argument (with evidence) of why I'm wrong. But I'm not going to say there's a possibility that there's a god because I believe it's all made up, just like santa claus (in his current form) and ghosts.

My husband, on the other hand, doesn't want to rule out the possibility because he doesn't want to be wrong. So he leaves it as an open question. Perhaps he's even borderline theist, but I don't think he considers himself that.

I'm kind of new to the atheist debate, but from what I've read, I think most atheists have a problem when they see people define themselves as agnostic because they won't rule out some chance of a god, yet will rule out fairies, ghosts, superstitious mumbo-jumbo, etc mostly because we are raised with a cultural bias.

You obviously weren't raised with that bias. You're not holding on to a little bit of belief. You never had any (religious) belief to begin with.

The apatheist I hadn't heard of before and it's an interesting concept. I think many people are that way. They just don't care.

I haven't read Dawkin's book, btw, so I'm not qualified to compare your argument to what he wrote.

Dikkii said...

Hi OG:

I'm kind of new to the atheist debate, but from what I've read, I think most atheists have a problem when they see people define themselves as agnostic because they won't rule out some chance of a god, yet will rule out fairies, ghosts, superstitious mumbo-jumbo, etc mostly because we are raised with a cultural bias.

I guess this is true to some extent. Most people who were brought up Christian will poo-poo voodoo and hindu gods as superstition.

And I guess that, for me, anyway, this really hit the nail on the head:

You obviously weren't raised with that bias. You're not holding on to a little bit of belief. You never had any (religious) belief to begin with.

Which is a little sad in a lot of respects. I've never experienced a de-conversion which, from all accounts, appears to be a rather humbling, yet empowering experience. And I don't think I ever will.

The apatheist I hadn't heard of before and it's an interesting concept. I think many people are that way. They just don't care.

Having grown up apatheist, I agree with you on this. This probably represents a bigger threat to the traditionalist churches than anything else - religion doesn't register with this demographic.

I haven't read Dawkin's book, btw, so I'm not qualified to compare your argument to what he wrote.

You should read it. I personally think it's excellent. Except when he bags agnostics. Which is only a very small section.

ordinarygirl said...

Hey, thanks for coming by my blog to read my series. It was difficult for me to expose such a personal part of me, but the response has been so positive. It's made me feel good about expressing myself.

I hope you have a great day!

Dikkii said...

Don't mention it, OG. Thanks for dropping by mine.

Tom Freeman said...

Hi Dikki, nice bunch of posts you've got here.

I've not read the Dawkins book, but it does sound like you've skewered him pretty well.

But there's something that gets me about agnosticism, which is often presented as a sensible, modest sort of position - if it's the belief that nothing can be known concerning the existence of God, then don't there need to be arguments for that? How do we know that this can't be known (not that I want to get all Rumsfeldian on you).

Take the Jupiter scarecrow - maybe we could get some relevant evidence.

Say we train our best telescope on the planet but can't find an orbiting scarecrow. Well, that doesn't prove there isn't one. But say that we do see that orbiting Jupiter are a whole load of relaxed-looking crows (it's a really good telescope). Surely, if there were a scarecrow there, then the crows would have flown off to Saturn instead.

(Which segues into the problem of evil.)

So how do we know that there couldn't be any relevant evidence for or against god's existence?

Dikkii said...

G'day Tom, and thanks for dropping by.

But there's something that gets me about agnosticism, which is often presented as a sensible, modest sort of position - if it's the belief that nothing can be known concerning the existence of God, then don't there need to be arguments for that? How do we know that this can't be known (not that I want to get all Rumsfeldian on you).

Put simply, theists will always have an out. They're continually moving the goalposts on what gods are, and until we have an agreed definition as to what they are, it is impossible to even construct a hypothesis, let alone test it.

Given this kind of unreasonableness, why should we expect to ever be able to know?

Take the Jupiter scarecrow - maybe we could get some relevant evidence.

Maybe. The point that Russell was making with his teapot was that evidence showing it to be there is irrelevant. It was a thought experiment to demonstrate that you can't prove a negative. The teapot itself is a little like Sagan's dragon - how do you prove that it's there?

But say that we do see that orbiting Jupiter are a whole load of relaxed-looking crows (it's a really good telescope). Surely, if there were a scarecrow there, then the crows would have flown off to Saturn instead.

A scarecrowist would move the goalposts in this instance and they might say that the crows might not be necessarily scared of the scarecrow.

But at least a scarecrow is a definable object. Not like a deity. We know that in most instances, where there is a scarecrow, there aren't usually crows.

And, your point is well made, but what if there weren't any crows? Could we automatically say that the scarecrow scared them off? Or might it be that there weren't any to begin with?

So how do we know that there couldn't be any relevant evidence for or against god's existence?

Sagan's dragon is a good place to start. He postulates having a fire-breathing dragon in the garage.

After what seems like aeons of goalpost shifting, the "observer" will be forced at some point to cut their losses and say, "You cannot prove that there is a fire-breathing dragon in your garage. It is impossible to know."

And given that Sagan's claim in the extraordinary one, it's reasonable to totally not believe it until someone comes up with a way to test for it.

All we can do is to reject the claim outright, until someone gives us something we can objectively measure, which Sagan's dragon, or for that matter, Russell's teapot doesn't provide us with.

And as Russell's teapot demonstrates - you can't prove the null hypothesis, either.

Mind you, in the real world, the pressure would be on Russell, and Sagan for that matter, to provide evidence for their claims before making anyone attempt to disprove it. After all, they're the ones making the extraordinary claim.

Did that make sense?

Tom Freeman said...

in the real world, the pressure would be on Russell, and Sagan for that matter, to provide evidence for their claims before making anyone attempt to disprove it. After all, they're the ones making the extraordinary claim.

Absolutely right. And it's true, there is goalpost-shifting when you wave an objection at theists (or for that matter all sorts of people defending some belief or other).

But is there a way we can distinguish opportunistic goalpost-shifting with legitimate refinement of a hypothesis? I think there is a difference here, that would relate to 'core' and 'peripheral' features of a hypothesis (which I appreciate is a bit vague).

It kind of strikes me that if agnosticism is going to be based on the idea that goalposts can always be shifted, then what it'd come down to is 'nothing can be known concerning what those crazy theist guys are gonna come up with next!'

Dikkii said...

But is there a way we can distinguish opportunistic goalpost-shifting with legitimate refinement of a hypothesis? I think there is a difference here, that would relate to 'core' and 'peripheral' features of a hypothesis (which I appreciate is a bit vague).

I must admit, this is a concept that I haven't even considered.

Even so, the possibilities for goalpost-shifting still appear quite limitless from my point of view. It'll be a little while yet before we're able to construct a testable hypothesis from what I still consider to be outright speculation.

And, unlike what Dawkins thinks, I think that most agnostics will gladly admit to being wrong on that day.

Just think it's a long way off, is all.

It kind of strikes me that if agnosticism is going to be based on the idea that goalposts can always be shifted, then what it'd come down to is 'nothing can be known concerning what those crazy theist guys are gonna come up with next!'

Well, in a nutshell, yes. Sadly, theists have shown that that they can embrace irrationality on a level which can't even be guessed at, let alone forcast.

OK, you might get the odd Spong, or Collins who will attampt to throw some rational thought into the equation. But they're few and far between.

The onus for clarifying the deity definition does NOT fall on agnostics or atheists - it falls on theists. However, as only non-theist (that's non then theist, not nontheist) freethinkers appear to be willing enough to put the claim under a microscope, theists are going to be in no rush to assist with a workable definition.

Blake O'Brien said...

Enjoyed reading this. Just wanted to jump in quite late and point out a common misuse of "begs the question." I suggest it be replaced with "raises the question" as begging the question is an informal fallacy.

Now I've got to go back and read the first three parts. Cheers,

Blake

Anonymous said...

mannnnn, fuck agnostics

Dikkii said...

Hi Blake,

I'm well aware that the definition of "begs the question" has been strictly defined as the logical fallacy of using elliptical statements while leaving the contents of the ellipses implied.

I think that the English language is the poorer for this narrow definition of this phrase - and I choose to "misuse" the phrase as a form of protest.

Mind you, it's difficult to misuse a phrase that's already being mangled. You're the first person who's picked me up on this.

Dikkii said...

Anonymous - you clearly have a brain the size of a planet and I bow to your superior intellect.