August 1, 2007

Agnosticism and Empiricism

I’m often challenged in my atheism – invariably by very religious types, often by a subset of religious types, who have bought in to the religious argument that “there is no such thing as an atheist.”*  They ask me to instead describe myself as an “agnostic,” defining that term as “One who does not know whether God exists or not.”  I typically resist this request, or at minimum, I demur to it.


An “atheist” is one who lacks a belief in the supernatural.  If confronted with actual evidence of God’s existence, the typical atheist would change that belief; that so few atheists do so is testament to the obscurity of such evidence (and those atheists who do adopt theological beliefs seem to do so based on emotional reasons rather than evidentiary ones).  It does not mean “one who affirmatively proposes the non-existence of God.”  That would be what humanists call “strong atheism.”  “Weak atheism” is the proposition that there is no evidence for the existence of God or alternatively that God’s existence has not been established and therefore cannot be presumed, which is different than saying “God does not exist.”


An “agnostic” is one who maintains that the existence of God cannot be known.  There is no possibility that evidence of God, whatever that might be, can be located which would satisfy the agnostic.  Alternatively (and not necessarily inconsistently), the agnostic thinks the question of God’s existence is not subject to objective analysis in the first place.  Thus, one could be an “agnostic atheist,” contending that there is no evidence of God’s existence, and there cannot be any such evidence, either.


By this definition, I am not an “agnostic atheist.”  I suspect that the existence of God could, at least theoretically, be determined.  While I’ve not taken the time to theoretically consider an experiment to test the hypothesis, it would necessarily include evidence of something that could not happen in nature; if it could happen in nature, there would be a natural explanation for it.  For instance, an omnipotent God could draw a circle (in two-dimensional space) whose circumference was measurably equal to its diameter.  I have yet to see such evidence and I do not see any reason to presume that in the absence of such evidence, I should assume the proposition is correct anyway.  (This includes Pascal’s fallacious and intellectually dishonest Wager.)


Notably, theists never seem able to identify any circumstance or fact in which God’s existence could be disproved to them.  That’s “faith” – belief in the truth of a proposition regardless of the state of the available evidence for or against that proposition.  It is this trait which I lack; I cannot maintain the belief in God in the absence of supporting evidence.  If you cannot come up with such a theoretical standard of proof, it may be that your faith is such that you are an “agnostic theist” – for you, there is not even the theoretical possibility that evidence exists which would convince you to modify your faith; entertaining the possibility of the non-existence of God is a meaningless exercise for you.


Variants of the ontological argument and the cosmological argument have failed to convince me, theistic Readers, so you need not propose them here; also, these are philosophical arguments rather than standards of proof.  What I’m interested in is what kind of empirical evidence would persuade you to give up your belief in God’s existence, as I have suggested above could compel me to do the same with respect to my own atheism.


* Another oft-repeated bromide is “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  An attorney with whom I work is a Vietnam veteran, and he assures me that during a time he was seeking cover from intense enemy fire, there was at least one atheist in his foxhole.  (There was one other guy in there with him.)  More on atheists in combat soon – a recent controversy about the death of CPL Pat Tillman has me pissed off enough that I want to calm down somewhat before writing about it.

1 comment:

freethoughtguy said...

Outstanding post. That could be me writing it. I wish it was, but you were first!

(But I did write about Pat Tillman!)