After a discussion on Facebook (thanks JB), I have changed my mind about agnosticism being the most respectable position to hold about the existence of God. Let me explain in a better way than my former “agnosticism is cowardice” argument…
Theism: X is true.
Atheism: X is false.
Agnosticism: Belief in X or not-X is unreasonable.
Notice that theism and atheism are saying something about a reality or possible reality, called X. Agnosticism is saying something not about the reality X, but about the knowability of X. The question drives at the nature of epistemology and what is reasonable to believe.
Even though his paradigmatic bent was very much opposed to exactly what his philosophy became in the modern mind, ever since the days of David Hume, empiricism has been valued over all other forms of knowledge. The development was never his fault, since his philosophy was funneled into positivism by people like Pierre-Simon Laplace, Auguste Comte, and Jeremy Bentham, but the result is undeniable: that which is not subject to verification and measure cannot be true.
Atheism picked up this theme and ran with it, arguing not that empiricism is the best form of knowledge, but that it is the only form of knowledge. Specifically, we have no right to believe anything that either we have not verified personally by experimentation or witness, that which is taken on “faith.” This obviously rules God out. Doubling down on positivism and how wrong anti-positivism is, one of the constant propagandum of atheism has been that organized religion has forever been opposed to empirical discovery – and for that, organized religion hinders truth, progress, and all that is good and holy for men. The theme is extremely popular today, as was seen in the debut of the new-old show Cosmos, and its origin can be traced back to the shabby works of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White at the turn of the 20th century. The thesis needs no refutation for those who are informed in history and theistic philosophy – those with no axe to grind don’t make such baseless strawmen assertions. There is no theology versus science – it would be akin to arguing that there is an ongoing debate between sociology and geology. Still, the lack of curiosity and depth of the modern mind is troubling, finding such theses convincing…
You can see from the empirical perspective why an atheist would hold that God does not exist – science cannot prove Him to be there, so he isn’t. The assertion, of course, is erroneous on two levels: the first being that God is a phenomenon within our universe that is subject to verification by experimentation, and the second being that science/empiricism is the foundation for all knowability, providing “proof” for something without having to use “faith” as a foundation for belief. We are concerned here with the second of these beliefs, but first a word on the second. No world religion yet believes in the rival-god thesis, that God is a being within the universe that is subject to the same physical laws and manifestations as matter. This mere belief alone visits great harm on the theory of pop atheism that holds that organized religion seeks to stifle truth-discovery because it is worried that if human beings find out truths about the physical nature of the universe they will abandon the idea of God. What awareness we gain about the internal workings of the system mean nothing to what is outside of it. Historical study can do the remaining obliteration of the religion-rivals-science theory.
Let’s move to the idea that science/empiricism is the only reason for belief in anything. If empiricism is the foundation for knowability, how do we not take empiricism itself for granted? How can I test or prove that this way is the best way to show faith is unneeded to believe things? There is no proof for consistency or truth of the scientific method or even perception itself. We cannot test if experimentation and subsequent perception of it are true – we merely have to take these things for granted. We cannot know that the world conforms to laws consistently. Karl Popper’s ideas about science ring true from a mathematical perspective: even verification of an experiment over and over again can only provide probability of the next observation being true – not absolute confirmation. Think thanksgiving turkeys and black swans. One must have faith to believe that empiricism is deriving the correct answers, even if our observations in a field are often correct. Examples aside, the nature of scientism’s philosophy undermines its own assertion. We cannot prove everything; we can only be reasonable.
Nor does the denial of all truth but that which is empirically validated address the self-evident fact that we take most things on faith every day. Think news reports, history lessons, economic laws, relationships with loved ones, mathematical laws, or really anything beyond our time or ability to prove. Thomas Aquinas made the most reasonable appeal in the world when he argued that we all have the ability (or even duty) to rely on an apparent authority for things we cannot research ourselves for a lack of brainpower and/or time. With the Dunning-Kruger Effect in tow (I would argue more prevalent than ever), perhaps it is wisest that those who believe themselves brilliant not head out into the intellectual woods alone. I know many an atheist who is much cleverer than I, but very few have had the wisdom to understand the implications of the forces and arguments with which they deal. Cleverness isn’t mental sophistication or emotional depth.
In truth, religious belief qua “faith” is no less reasonable than the other million beliefs that we hold and rely on in our everyday lives. Casting the same form of skepticism that is leveled at belief in God over our entire lives would lead to immobility of action, looming fear of mistakes, and ultimately solipsism – and we would be no better for it. Let’s not even approach Pascal’s Wager.
Enter agnosticism. For years, I have believed that this assertion was the most rational belief to hold if one is to ignore all forms of revelation. If God exists, generally it will take faith to come to that conclusion – whether that faith is a logical conclusion based on the evidence, or apathy toward all evidence and a simple trust in what one feels to be true. If God does not exist, there is a faith there as well, since nonexistence of such a being can never be proved by experimentation. Agnosticism, on the other hand, says “screw commitment, you can’t know either way, and I will admit it!” This belief system is avoiding the faith-based jump of both sides by saying “I am the only one who doesn’t need faith to believe what I believe! That seems extremely reasonable at first glance.
Agnosticism can also be a step up from the positivism of atheism, when it grants that empiricism is not the only form of knowledge. Of course, this belief is not requisite, and with the tendency toward empirical verification as truth, an agnostic is subject to the same pitfalls of atheism mentioned above. Science is not the only way of gleaning knowledge. But many agnostics believe that empiricism is not the only way of knowing, and what follows is the possibility of a proof for God arising in a realm outside of testable hypotheses. So we start from the same place as a theist does. All fine and good.
The problem with arguing “you can’t know either way” is that it is an assertion rooted in faith as well. How can you know what is not possible to know outside of scientific discovery? The statement is one of epistemology that has no roots except mere assertion. Most agonists saying it believe faith is silly on behalf of believers, while simultaneously believing atheism to require a jump of reasoning that should be condemned. But there is faith here, since it is impossible to know the limits of human understanding & reason as fully as it is impossible to prove via the scientific method that God does/doesn’t exist. At least atheists stick to scientific evidence. At least theists claim revelation. Agonists have nothing but the cowardly assertion.
None of us know God exists. Even the most faithful believer is an agonist of sorts. The commitment to the unknown is what separates the wheat and the chaff – but that topic has been done to death elsewhere, so I will let it lie.
Apatheism may now be the most respectable intellectual position to hold, in my opinion – but it is inevitably inconsistent with the experiences of life and can only lead to a reckless solipsism. Not only does it require a type of intellectual cowardice, it simply can’t be lived. But if you want intellectual consistency, there you have it – you just will end up a scumbag actually trying to believe and live it.