The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Steve vs St. Thomas

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ETA 8-Apr-15: I am informed (see comments) that the argument I attribute to St. Thomas was in fact made by St. Anselm, and that Thomas refuted it.  I take some consolation in not being the only one to make this mistake (again, see comments).  But I’m leaving the post alone, because it seems sort of jerky to change it at this point, and because the basic argument remains unchanged.

One thing I’ve noticed in the atheism, agnosticism, theism debate is that it is generally the agnostics who frame the question. That is, the question, as it is normally put, is, “Does God exist?” Put this way, one must answer yes, no, or I don’t know. Small wonder that the “I don’t know (and neither do you!)” crowd finds it so easy to claim to be the only rational kids on the block. Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas took the opposite view: using pure reason, he proved that God exists. His argument ran as follows: God is, by definition, perfect. One aspect of perfection is existence. Ergo, God exists. Neat, isn’t it?

But let’s take a moment to look at it. In fact, God is never examined by St. Thomas. God is never placed under a microscope, or studied through a telescope. Skin and hair samples are never taken, blood is never drawn. St. Thomas never even shakes His divine hand. So then, what is St. Thomas actually basing his conclusions on? Not God, but the idea of God. The idea of God includes perfection; hence, we have now proven that the idea of God exists. This, of course, was never in doubt. The idea exists.

But, stay. The idea exists. What does that mean, exactly? Well, an idea is nothing more than the mind’s reflection of the objective world. In the last analysis, ideas are the result of sensuous activity, reflected in our material brains. So, have we now come to the conclusion that God is real because the belief exists? Well, no. There are many ideas that are simply wrong, but are nevertheless reflections of the objective world. At one time, it was supposed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. This idea came from nowhere except observation of the movement of heavenly bodies, as best they could be observed and understood at the time. To put it in more contemporary terms, some guy truly, honestly believes that the world is dooooomed unless a Republican is elected. Another guy believes the same about a Democrat. I, myself, disagree with both of them. Assuming we are all in general agreement about what dooooomed means, two of us must be wrong; but we are all taking our ideas from our interactions with the world, coupled with our method of understanding information, and all of the material factors that have influenced how we view the world.

But that, you see, frames the question entirely differently. If instead of saying, “Does God exist?” we say, “Where did the idea of God come from?” we are now having a different conversation, and, in my opinion, a much more interesting one. We can bring up the degree of knowledge at various points in human history (aye, and pre-history); we can talk about fear of death; we can talk about personal experiences that make one feel one has transcended one’s normal, mundane life, what causes such experiences, what determines how our brains interpret them. But now, instead of the negative (“Prove God doesn’t exist!”) we are putting the question in positive terms (“Whence comes the idea of God?”).

What becomes clear at once is that the answer is knowable. By “knowable” I do not mean, “will someday be fully understood with all i’s crossed and t’s dotted,” I mean that we have taken the question out of the realm of the numinous. We can approach this question as we do any other question of science, and use our best efforts to understand it. We can understand that endowing nature with consciousness is a very reasonable, indeed, inevitable consequence of living under conditions where nature dominated all aspects of life, and could not be controlled; and that confirmation bias would certainly have an effect when attempting to influence whatever aspect of nature was of concern. As the size and complexity of the brain increases, as emotions such as fear become more complex and nuanced, as our capability for imagination grows and the capacity for more robust and powerful forms of communication increases, the creation of phantasms of all sorts, as an explanation for the unknown and a balm for uncertainty, has nothing mysterious about it. And the other side of the coin is that, as more has been learned about the natural world, as we have gradually used the discoveries of science to control more and more aspects of the natural world, the sphere of influence of God–the things that God is in charge of–has sensibly diminished. We can even use the history of religion to draw important conclusions about society; for example, the relationship between the development of early capitalism and the Protestant Reformation–how the first flowering of the commoner as an individual was necessarily accompanied by a faith that permitted an individual, personal relationship with God.

And so we come to method. Do we approach knowledge from the perspective that the world is a reflection of ideas, our own or God’s? Or do we approach it from the perspective that ideas are a reflection of the world? Or, to put it another way, can there be an idea before there is a brain to think it? And to answer that question, we do not go to our thoughts (we cannot prove the reality of our thoughts by thinking), but to our actions–socially, as a species. As we have understood more and more of our world, we, as a species, have used this knowledge to alter our world. We have modified food to make it more easily digestible. We have built bridges to cross rivers. We have created machines that permit us to fly. We have created complex infrastructures of power and shelter, which we use in our constant fight against the destructive forces of nature to keep us warm and healthy and safe. We learn, we act on our knowledge, we correct our understanding based on the results of our actions, we act some more. This process is not only how we improve our world, and not only how we learn more about the workings of the universe (and ourselves), but also, in passing and almost by accident, it answers the question of the relationship between our thoughts and the world around us. Or, as it has been sometimes put: Man answered the question of the relationship between his thoughts and reality thousands of years before it occurred to him to ask.

In comments on the previous post, Nathan S says this: … one wouldn’t say that “I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of leprechauns, yet I do not disbelieve in them.” Why is that sentence unacceptable with something as silly as Irish faerie spirits yet completely acceptable with deities? An astute question, and one we are now able to answer: at one time in human history, belief in Irish faerie spirits was perfectly acceptable and reasonable; but we have gained knowledge, and one thing that has gone by the wayside (with some regret in this case) is the need to find an explanation for certain fortunate or unfortunate events in the actions of the Good People.

When we now return to our old friend God, we find him exactly where He belongs: as another aspect of human thought, of human culture, of the struggle for understanding. We reject God as a being who exists apart from human thought, as we also reject the ahistorical attacks on religion that tell us man “should” never have believed in God–as useful and as scientific as saying that stone-age man “should” have built a superconducting supercollider. We understand God as an idea that has emerged from and changed with certain stages of the development of knowledge and culture as a distorted reflection of the material world, heavily influenced by the needs of the society that produced Him. As Feuerbach said, Man created God in his own image. We have taken the unknowable out of God, and what is left is: us. For me, that is quite sufficient.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

54 Comments

  1. The idea of god exists? Or lots of different ideas of god exist? Some which agnostics are agnostic about, and others which they are atheistic about.

  2. Was it not the apocryphal Twain who said, “God created Man in his own image, and Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

  3. Logical, well thought out, sober reflection on the question(s). I have to admit, however, I prefer Tom Smith’s humorous approach to the whole thing:
    http://tomsmith.bandcamp.com/track/the-here-and-now-intro
    http://tomsmith.bandcamp.com/track/the-here-and-now
    Call it a character flaw. I just don’t worry about it any more.

  4. Which leaves hanging the question of what utility the idea has, once one has reached the point in analysis you do your in final paragraph.

    Sure, it’s a useful idea to be able to talk about in a historical/anthropological context, but is there any use beyond that?

    Has our altered (and I would say improved) understanding of the relationship between our thoughts and reality completely superseded the value provided by the old one?

    (I’m a cocky atheist, so I’d say No and Yes to the preceding two questions. I am consciously ignoring the aesthetic components–there’s definitely aesthetic value there, but then you get into the whole thing about what happens when understanding of ideas move from ‘understanding them as an explanation of reality’ versus ‘understanding them in an artistic context’.)

  5. I’m not sure I’d agree that this does much against the agnostic position. At what point have you proven “God” does not exist? Not that I see this as possible; any actual proof will simply result in the definition of “God” being adjusted such that the proof no longer applies.

    Also, Aquinas argued against the ontological argument, not for it. This appears to be closest to Descartes’ version of the ontological argument.

  6. skzb

    Good question, Chris. I’d answer the same as you–in general. The caveat is,I think historical/anthropological contexts are very useful, so we shouldn’t just let me slip by. But the real point is, I think, one we agree on: In attempting to comprehend our world, and alter it according to our wishes, God has no place.

  7. Well put! I often find myself falling down that same rabbit hole, of trying to disprove the existence of the supernatural, when the real point is, if it can’t be PROVED then we don’t need to disprove it.

    I posted a quick link in the other thread to a discussion of the 1944 Heider-Simmel experiment, in which they showed 100 people a short film. Three people saw geometric shapes moving randomly. The other 97 saw living creatures, fighting, falling in love, chasing, fleeing… in short, they saw stories.

    Some recent theories say that one of the primary evolutionary strategies that drove the development of our big, calorie eating brains is the tactic of modeling the behavior of the other. Guess which way the antelope is going to jink, and you are more likely to hit it with a thrown rock. Guess that the rustling in the tree ahead is a tiger and you are less likely to be hit by three hundred pounds of muscle and claw. That evolved into guess what that other hominid really wants and maybe we can trade, or guess what that cute female would laugh at and maybe I’ll get to make some little hominids.

    Why did we come to believe in fairies, anima, gods, ghosts? Was it because we were seeing something liminal, something only a special few could perceive, or common people could only see at special times, something barely of the world but affecting it? Or because that is what our brains do, turn random input into stories, stories about things with intention and will? Sometimes those stories help us actually model the world and better exploit it. Sometimes they don’t. On the whole, they are advantageous or the trait would not have persisted.

    Like any other trait we have inherited, it arose by chance, persisted because it offered an advantage. It is also a really fun trait to exercise! But like most other adaptation, It arose when we lived in a very different environment, with very different challenges. If we want to maximise the advantage it gives us now, we have to recognize the mechanisms that underly our love of narrative, recognize when we are telling stories that reflect reality effectively and when we are just telling tales that are fun to hear. That is where empiricism can help.

  8. Thank you! That’s a beautiful way to frame it!

    So you skip the whole argument about what the unknown reality is and how we can know.

    Instead you look at what we can know — the relationship between the idea of gods and the human environment. Independent of what might be “true” outside of the physical world, you look at how the idea of gods probably evolved, and how that meme fits into the whole ball of wax.

    Instead of arguing about what — almost in principle — can’t be known, you turn it to what definitely can — in principle — be known.

    Brilliant!

    So it becomes not “Can we be completely certain that no godlike properties exist in any universe or outside all of them” but instead “Is this particular example of religious belief worth doing, given our current understanding of history”.

    It is a better question.

    I’m not certain about answers, though. If you want to lead the proletariat to revolution, is it good to tell them you are an atheist and they have to be too? Some of them are very religious. In the short run it might be better to respect their beliefs. If you waited until almost all of them share almost all your beliefs you would get a better society afterward, but can you wait that long?

    Is it better to have a sort of ecumenical revolution, where everybody participates who can agree on the material problems? Or is it better to require that all your allies have ideological purity or they can’t play with you?

    There’s a big variety of proles. But with a lot of them, telling them they can’t have religion is like telling them they can’t have beer.

    Is there a way to attack religion that will damage the unity of the ruling classes more than it damages the proletariat?

    There’s a big collection of practical questions. We don’t have to argue out answers — the real answers will come from experience, try things different ways and see what works.

    And that might be an important reason why there are so many small bands of Marxists who don’t get along with each other. They don’t need to get along with each other. If they could create some sort of homogenized approach they could all agree on, there still wouldn’t be all that many of them. But any one of them might create something that the masses will support, and then all the others become irrelevant.

  9. @Rob

    “I’m not sure I’d agree that this does much against the agnostic position. At what point have you proven “God” does not exist?”

    It doesn’t matter. The idea of god exists, and we can stufy how it evolved. With scientific study of how the idea evolved, it becomes not a legitimate stand to discuss among equals with all due respect, but a phenomenon to observe. Religious people are not your peers, they are your experimental subjects, your lab rats. You can encourage them to talk about how it happened that they fell into religion, and then if you are feeling helpful you can explain back to them how their experiences provoked them into such irrationality and how they can recover from it. You are not there to debate eternal truth with irrational people. You are there to improve the world, one irrational mind at a time!

    On the other hand, it might be more practical to educate them about the banking system. Anybody who isn’t rich on first understand banking is likely to get enraged. And that gives you a pratical opening that’s harder to get from experimental animals.

  10. Larswyrdson wrote:
    On the whole, they are advantageous or the trait would not have persisted.

    More exactly, on the whole they are /not disadvantageous/ or the trait would not have persisted. A trait that is useless but harmless, like, oh, green eyes or perfect pitch, can stay around for many generations, until perhaps the day comes when, as with the tolerated oddball in a teen movie, {it saves the day and gets the girl | a change in the environment makes it relevant and a useful survival trait}.

  11. Steve, wasn’t that St. Anselm’s ontological proof?

  12. Steve, I’m a great admirer of the human ability to rationalize beliefs, and yours is excellent, but it doesn’t change the debate. When talking about agnosticism, one ought to start to start with Huxley, who said, “Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

    So, yes, agnostics can be called atheists by theists, and moderate atheists by atheists, but I tend to think people should respect the terms that other people find useful for themselves (unless they fail to provide any, of course). So I’ll happily stay an agnostic and try to respect the beliefs of theists and atheists alike.

  13. skzb

    J. Thomas: ” If you want to lead the proletariat to revolution, is it good to tell them you are an atheist and they have to be too?” What I’ve told them is that I’m an atheist. Why tell them they have to be when they don’t? Those advanced elements of the proletariat, those who study and work to become part of the vanguard, at some point come up against their religious beliefs, and then make the best decision they can. If they want to talk about, I oblige. Many–in fact most, in my experience–at this point either overtly reject religion, or simply put it aside as not useful.

    thnidu: I’ve heard conflicting stories about that. I was first introduced to the concept by Marty Helgesen, a respected (by me) Catholic apologist, who attributed it to St. Thomas. I’ve since come across other references to it being Thomas in various works, and also references to Thomas opposing it in others. So, I dunno.

  14. Hmm. I think the simplest definition of an agnostic is a person who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to be defined as a theist or an atheist.

  15. “What I’ve told them is that I’m an atheist. Why tell them they have to be when they don’t?”

    Good! For what it’s worth, I approve.

  16. thnidu, “More exactly, on the whole they are /not disadvantageous/ or the trait would not have persisted. ”

    Well, I would say that since our vastly overdeveloped brains consume about 20% of our resting metabolic activity, I’d say the disadvantage is built right in! So, given the cost, if there wasn’t a powerful advantage offsetting it, I think we would all still be lemurs, or something of the sort.

  17. Lots of interesting stuff here. The notion of which came first (ideas or the world) is a fascinating one that many have struggled with and argued about. (Does the world as we know it exist apart from us?) You raise some fascinating ideas.

    One quibble: the argument you attribute to Aquinas is explicitly rejected by him. That argument is offered (in different forms) by both St. Anselm and Descartes (among others). But Aquinas found the argument flawed and offered other arguments. (His arguments were based on observations of the world, but still leave open many avenues of objection.)

    Aquinas may be criticized for many things, but this isn’t one. Still, that isn’t your main point. The heart of your post remains a forceful one.

  18. skzb

    jbnimble: Re: St. Thomas, see earlier comments.

  19. This is what I get for trying to think before caffeine, I suppose; get distracted by little things and miss the main point. Herp.

    @J Thomas

    “With scientific study of how the idea evolved, it becomes not a legitimate stand to discuss among equals with all due respect, but a phenomenon to observe. Religious people are not your peers, they are your experimental subjects, your lab rats.”

    This sentiment makes me uneasy–it suggests a level of dehumanization of the religious. I’m all for avoiding involvement in pointless debate, but I worry this level of arrogance could lead one to overlook one’s own irrational beliefs.

    @Will Shetterly

    I appreciate the desire to remain aloof from the theological conflict, but it mostly looks like an attempt at social respectability rather than an actual position on the topic. By Huxley’s agnosticism, most atheists *are* agnostics, and it would appear his coining the term was mostly so that people wouldn’t call him an atheist because it was socially unacceptable.

  20. Thomas Aquinas’s supposed proofs of the existence of God are at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm . As jbnimble says, Thomas argues from things such as the existence of the universe and the existence of motion. He says, “Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature — namely, by effects.” Ontological arguments don’t depend on effect.

    This does not constitute a proof that Thomas rejected all ontological arguments at all times. However, it does make the agnostic position somewhat less comfortable. There is a clear proof that I’m not about to read everything Thomas ever wrote to look for dispositive evidence, but I can’t find a margin to give the proof in.

    By the way, it’s “superconducting supercollider” (the beam is steered and focused by superconducting electromagnets), though I suppose if there were any point to a semiconducting supercollider, stone-age people couldn’t have built one of them either.

    I hope to come back later with something relevant to your main point.

  21. skzb

    Jerry: Re: superconducting supercollider: fixed. Thanks.

  22. This is probably self-evident, but “the proposition [that] is not self-evident to us” is the proposition that God exists. Also, the last word of that paragraph was supposed to be “effects”, plural.

  23. Rob Coon, the fact that not all atheists are agnostics should be enough to justify the position—if you drew a Venn diagram, you would need three circles. I tend to think atheists who get upset with agnostics are validating the distinction. Some atheists think agnostics are smug, but I find agnostics refreshingly not-smug and suspect the atheists who get upset are upset because their own smugness is not being reinforced. It’s just being human—we tend to prefer people who validate our worldview.

  24. “heavily influenced by the needs of the society that produced Him”

    One of the things that I would be most interested to focus on, if I ever took up a serious study of history, is how the power brokers have changed the course of the evolution of belief in deity.

    I would also be very interested in how (whether?) the hard line stance of conservative (i.e. anti-gay, anti-other reasonable things) Christian churches (particularly Catholicism) has accelerated the spread of atheism and agnosticism, not unlike the planetary sand slipping through Darth Vader’s fingers.

    As a believer, I really hope no one is actually arguing that god exists because the idea of god exists so therefore QED or something. : – |

  25. Is it wrong that I first thought, “Awesome, Sonny Rollins cover,” when I saw the title of this?

  26. I am a Christian of sorts. My brother is an atheist of sorts.

    Once, I asked him, “How can you be so certain there is no God?” Because we’re both comfortable with the concept of statistics, he compared it to a concern of dying during his daily commute. Compared to the number of people who make a commute each day, the number of deaths is practically a rounding error (statisically. Obviously it is much more than that on a personal level). He said he thinks the likelihood of there being a god is much lower than the likelihood of him dying during his commute.

    Another time, I asked an internet friend about ethics and morals, a sort of a “why are you a good person if you don’t have to be?” I have fantasized about there being no god and me being able to do whatever I want. He explained to me that getting along with other people and making the world a better place can (and perhaps should) be it’s own reward.

    These were epiphanous moments for me, if only because I’d never thought about these questions before. Those two points seem obvious to me now, but at the time they were questions I really needed answers to. (The latter point led me to what I hope is a better path in my own faith and desire to live better.)

    I would suggest that these are just two of the things that many of the religious right don’t understand about people who don’t share our superstitions. I would further suggest that some people will be interested and willing to embrace the answers that made sense to me, and some will not, and that attempting to convince people who are not open to alternative worldviews is like trying to teach a pig to sing: it wastes your time, and annoys the pig.

    The few times I have talked to people about embracing my particular flavor of superstition, I’ve always tried to be sensitive to whether they are interested or not interested. The only time I’ve ever argued with anyone was the time we were 14 and 15 when my brother and I came to blows over the question of god or no god (though I suspect that incident was more about brothers of a particular age).

    Once, when I was one of the young men in ties irritating everyone on a particular street, I met what I’ve always called a belligerent atheist. My partner at the time was also pretty belligerent, but much younger. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I’m always grateful to interact with folks who don’t share my beliefs, but don’t feel like we need to fight about it.

    Welp, I’m no longer sure where I was going with any of this. I’m probably just avoiding work at this point.

    Mostly though, I apologize for overusing parenthesis.

  27. I didn’t see the previous post, but I have to respectfully disagree with Nathan S.: “one” would indeed say that about leprechauns. Back when I considered myself an agnostic, that’s exactly what it was about for me – anything was possible unless disproven. It was possible there was a god, it was possible there were many gods, it was possible there were no gods … and yes, fairies were also a possibility since they’re said to hide from humans. How can you prove that something which is good at hiding doesn’t exist? Now, werewolves on the other hand – extremely unlikely since their victims would be all over the news, ha.

    I always thought that people who called themselves agnostics and then went on to base their definition entirely around the question whether one random god out of many existed were hypocrites. Why that one? Popularity? But then, I wasn’t raised by religious parents … or in America.

  28. “In comments on the previous post, Nathan S says this: … one wouldn’t say that “I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of leprechauns, yet I do not disbelieve in them.” Why is that sentence unacceptable with something as silly as Irish faerie spirits yet completely acceptable with deities?”

    The problem with this comparison is that some of the “values” often assigned to God include (i) the power to remain unproven and (ii) the desire to remain unproven. God is therefore a sorta souped-up version of the Silence from Doctor Who, with no interfering Timelord to point at definitive proof.

    Can you prove no such thing exists or doesn’t exist? No, by definition – which is different from leprechauns. Thus I am formally agnostic. However, I don;t think it does exist, I recognise arguments for It existing as serving social or psychological agendas of very human entities, and I can certainly argue against claims of revelation as proof. Therefore I am, for all practical purposes, atheistic.

  29. @Will Shetterly
    I’m not sure I’d say I’m upset with agnostics, I just think it tends to be a bit of a dodge. The summary I’ve seen is that the atheism/theism distinction is one of belief: do you believe in a deity or some other specific set of beliefs. The agnostic position, on the other hand, is a bit beside the point: it is one of how certain one is of one’s beliefs, how much stock we put in those beliefs and how well we think they map to the objective world. So when someone asks “do you believe in God?” and the answer is “I’m agnostic,” it looks a lot like avoiding the question in favor of one you’d rather be asked in order to avoid offending anyone–or, perversely, try to appear like the better person for staking out “the middle ground” (though it isn’t, really).

  30. I like Terry Pratchett’s concept of gods in his Diskworld series. Namely that gods are a creation of people and become real. With belief being the power source for gods. The more popular the god (based on belief), the more powerful the god.

    I’m not saying that this is the case, but I like the concept.

  31. skzb

    David: Leiber did that in the Lanhkmar stories.

  32. Rob, for me, it’s not a dodge. It just means I’m comfortable with uncertainty. It doesn’t mean I feel like anyone else is obliged to think the same way. I identified as an atheist for a long time, and never noticed that it created any social awkwardnesses.

  33. “I identified as an atheist for a long time, and never noticed that it created any social awkwardnesses.”

    As Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman’s physician said while looking at his xrays, “What’s one more spot on the leopard?”

  34. The notion that agnosticism is a dodge annoys me a great deal. Here, we seem to have spent most of our time referring to agnostics as a sort of fake atheist, or atheist lite, or atheist in denial.

    As for me, I’m an agnostic theist. That is: on average, day in and day out, I am more likely to believe in a deity of some flavor and description than not. I am not always sure how to best describe my god. I have doubts, and I wish to acknowledge them. I am a strong secularist, a strong humanist, and as much as I find personally possible a rationalist, and I wish to acknowledge that as well. I believe that any ethics worth having must function in the absence of a deity, that given the unknowability of religion it has no place in government or many aspects of public life, and that reason, not faith, is the tool best suited to arriving at a description of our world.

    But I do believe in a transcendent divine entity, probably conscious, possibly with some sort of personality, and with a positive bent towards humankind. I’m just not SURE, I don’t feel the need to convert anyone, and I don’t think anybody but me should base decisions on my religious beliefs. It’s not a dodge. It is honesty and precision. If I said anything else, I would be misleading you.

    So, if y’all would stop implying that admitting doubt is any kind of intellectual dishonesty, I sure would appreciate it. i don’t mind if you think my beliefs are ridiculous. Shit, some days I agree with you. But the notion that they are a pretense, cover, or refusal to engage strikes me as more smug and self-congratulatory than any of the smug agnostics I’ve run across (and I firmly believe in unbearably smug agnostics, I know plenty and sometimes am one).

  35. J Thomas, 🙂 To be accurate, I got a lot of shit being an atheist as a kid in a small town in the deep South in the ’60s when prayer in school was an issue. But that ended when my family moved away, and after that, being an atheist was socially inconsequential.

    Matt Doyle, well said. When I mentioned Venn diagrams earlier, I considered complicating the picture with agnostic theists and agnostic atheists, and only didn’t out of laziness.

  36. “So when someone asks “do you believe in God?” and the answer is “I’m agnostic,” it looks a lot like avoiding the question in favor of one you’d rather be asked in order to avoid offending anyone–or, perversely, try to appear like the better person for staking out “the middle ground” (though it isn’t, really).”

    I doubt that there’s any philosophical or political stand whatsoever that cannot be assumed as a dodge by someone under some circumstance.

    Like, consider the people who support third parties in the USA. As far as advocates of the two significant parties are concerned, that’s entirely a cop-out. The only thing tht matters for elections is which of the two parties win. If you aren’t willing to commit to vote for the second-worst candidate over the worst candidate, what’s wrong with you? Why are you refusing to commit to do the right thing, the only right thing?

    And yet the third-party supporters reject that whole line of reasoning, even though it’s objectively true that the main result of their actions is to help the worst candidate win instead of the second-worst candidate. They aren’t just dodging the question, they reject that question.

  37. If I were a materialist, I would approach the question of “does god exist” in from a broader perspective, that is more measurable. We can clearly demonstrate that the belief in god exists – as Steve says, we clearly know that the idea of god exists. We can then approach the question of the existence of god as being a subset of the question “does belief alter reality”. We can then measure this, and draw a reasonable conclusion of the facts – that belief only affects the social and historical realities and not the physical world.

    I also want to call back to what larswyrdson said about the Heider-Simmel experiment. It’s an intersting thought, but I strongly suspect that if you were to re-run the same experiment today, you would get a vastly different set of data. Because we are accustomed to living in a world full of screensavers. So does the experiment demonstrate an indelible fact about human cognition or perception? Or merely a measure of the social reality of the time?

    Also, note that I do not specify whether or not I am a materialist.

  38. Jeff- actually, from what I understand, the film is still used as a teaching aid in psychology courses. It has also recently been used as a tool for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder. Anthropormorphising the inanimate is definitely an enduring human trait.

    Here is their website:
    http://www.all-about-psychology.com/fritz-heider.html

  39. @Will Shetterly
    There’s nothing wrong with uncertainty, it’s just often not the point. From several informal polls I’ve seen, most atheists are also, to one degree or another, agnostic, and most agnostics are, to one degree or another, atheistic. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories. There is also some overlap of theism with agnosticism as Matt Doyle shows, but they tend to be less frequent–at least in Christian circles–as agnosticism is frequently viewed as heretical (a lack of faith). However, all that said, by common definitions it is nonsensical to state that an agnostic is neither theist nor atheist.

    @J Thomas
    How is rejecting the question different than dodging the question?

    I’m also not sure how your analogy applies. The question of belief has a binary answer; either you accept the entire set of contextually-implied propositions which compose the definition of “god” or you do not. Saying that you are agnostic doesn’t really answer the question. For political parties, on the other hand, it is completely coherent to belong to any political party or none at all.

  40. Rob Coon, Yes, some atheists are agnostics and some theists are agnostics; this does not invalidate agnosticism, because some atheists and some theists are not agnostics. As a socialist, I don’t find a lot of use in the capitalist distinctions of conservative and liberal and right-libertarian, so I could argue that these are all just terms for the same thing, but if I did, I would be destroying clarity while claiming to pursue it.

    I would also be rude, because people who value those distinctions should be able to call themselves whatever they please.

    So let me try again, using politics as an analogy. The atheists here are arguing that belief is linear, so you’re either atheistic or theistic. The agnostics disagree, much as libertarians disagree with the notion that everyone’s authoritarian. Belief is better seen on a graph. Just as right and left libertarianism are quadrants, theistic and atheistic agnosticism are quadrants.

  41. “How is rejecting the question different than dodging the question?”

    Similar to the way that trying to diplomatically refuse to say whether it’s the Democrats who’re right versus the Republicans being right, is different from bluntly asserting that there isn’t a damaged rat’s stomach’s difference between them and you wouldn’t make a single mouse click to choose one over the other.

    “The question of belief has a binary answer; either you accept the entire set of contextually-implied propositions which compose the definition of “god” or you do not. Saying that you are agnostic doesn’t really answer the question.”

    The gostak disdimms the doshes. Yes or no. It’s a binary answer, which do you choose? You can’t very well refuse to choose either one, when there are in fact only two answers and only one right answer.

    Here is an online version of a story written in 1930. It appears to be still under copyright, and it appears to be somewhat difficult to get a legal copy. You could read it or look for a way to buy it.
    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Avon_Fantasy_Reader/Issue_10/The_Gostak_and_the_Doshes

    Here is a delightful text game based on the gostak concept. It’s extremely well done and fun to play but to win you must empathize with a very alien being, and people may accuse you of Aspergers.

    http://ifwiki.org/index.php/The_Gostak

    “For political parties, on the other hand, it is completely coherent to belong to any political party or none at all.”

    Not at all! In both cases, it’s a titanic fight against ultimate evil! How can you stop yourself from allying with the good to defeat evil? “All it takes for evil to win is that good men do nothing.”

    It is not just a philosophical question. There are bad men who say they believe the wrong answer, and they are trying to destroy the world or at least make it not worth living in. Proving they are wrong is part of the fight against them. Anyone who refuses to fight them is taking a stand in favor of their victory.

    The two are intimately connected.

  42. On the social utility of religion: Peter Watts once posted about research which suggests religion ups the bar for entry to a community and makes it harder for parasites to game the system. (Even parasites/sociopaths get to the top, they have to work harder and contribute (?) more to get there.) Having to do 53 things every week instead of 5 ensures a greater level of commitment.

    Perhaps Gene Wolfe came at this the other way round when he posits that demons who pretend to be gods eventually take on some or all of the aspects of the god. Praxis trumps some inherent, immutable nature.

  43. With regard to agnosticism about other religions, Catholic orthodoxy actually allows some odd speculations. For instance, an orthodox Catholic can believe, but does not have to believe, that Zeus was a real entity who duped the Greeks into worshiping it. As long as you believe all the other “gods” are way beneath The Trinity and are not worthy of worship, you can believe that most of the other religions on Earth have a kernel of reality to them. Of course, you are still an “atheist” about their ultimate truth, but you can be an agnostic about their “superficial” details.

  44. I’ve been an atheist as long as I thought seriously about such questions which was about age 7. My parents sent me to the Ethical Culture society whose creed was agnosticism and the belief that society could be improved greatly by persuading people to act for the greater good (ethically) and a strong adherence to a form of :Progressive Education and the pragmatism of philosopher John Dewey. Politically they were ardent liberals–some of them considered themselves some sort of socialists– but certainly not Marxists or revolutionaries. While I dutifully paid lip service to their beliefs, I always said (at least to myself), ‘there cannot be any form of god–seeing such belief as simply a form of belief in the supernatural, magic, superstition etc and I still see no use for agnosticism and agree with Mr Coon that, it is a “dodge” and that people like Huxley wanted the cover of the “respectability” of agnosticism. Agnosticism has its philosophical roots in Kant, the skepticism of Hume and is logically leading to solipcism and is antithetical to philosophical materialism. As I went through college grappling with questions of the nature of reality, etc, my atheism evolved into Marxist dialectical materialism (Trotskyism) because it provided the basis for an unyielding belief in science, the belief in a knowable natural (material) universe, a theory to explain and study the evolution of human society and a means to act on my passion for social justice, an end to war, racism etc etc and the conviction that capitalism had to be replaced by the socialis reorganization of society.

    dannyfree

  45. skzb

    Well said, Danny. I agree on all counts.

  46. I don’t understand the logic of the original post at all. Certainly the origins and effects of various ideas about God can and should be studied, even studied scientifically to the extent that that’s possible. But that doesn’t mean we should reject the idea of God in general–it’s a non sequitur. For example, we can study how Democritus came to the idea of atoms for reasons that seemed valid to him at the time and how that influenced Lucretius, but that study doesn’t lead us to reject the idea of atoms. Likewise I once saw a letter to the editor of a Marxist journal that argued on a Marxist basis that there could be no intelligent extraterrestrial aliens! Understanding how the author’s beliefs and flawed logic led him to that conclusion doesn’t lead us to accept or reject the belief that there are aliens. We don’t know–a scientific statement, not a dodge.

    The idea that agnosticism is a dodge or cover is simply ridiculous. In Huxley’s time, agnosticism wasn’t more socially acceptable than atheism, and it isn’t now anywhere I’ve been. It’s not a dodge to say that we don’t know how much rain we’ll get next year–it’s the only scientific response.

    Incidentally, your comments that the question of the origins of beliefs in God has answers that are knowable, and “we have taken the unknowable out of God”, suggest agnosticism on your part. It sounds like you believe that answer to whether God exists is not knowable, which is agnosticism in Huxley’s original, strong sense.

    The reason not to believe in God is that the evidence and arguments don’t hold up, and the reason not to deny the possibility of God is exactly the same.

    In science you make the assumption that what you’re trying to understand is not supernatural, but that’s not a philosophical argument about the existence of the supernatural.

  47. Well, saying that the answer to whether God exists is unknowable doesn’t seem to be Huxley’s sense of “agnostic”, but it is the strong sense.

    As for the respectability of agnosticism at the time, he wrote to Kingsley, “I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel.”

    https://books.google.com/books?id=BqVDAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA347 (and thanks to Wikipedia)

  48. Jerry et al., all I can say is, any rational approach to a subject requires axioms, givens. You can’t do math without defining a point, a line, and so on. You can’t study physics without defining time and space.

    As far as I can see, there is no set of axioms that logically leads to both the idea of a phenomonological universe and a supernatural one. Any set of assumptions that lets you build a consistent understanding of an universe operating by natural law does not allow for supernatural influences. Any set of axioms that permit supernatural influences does not inevitably lead to a phenomenological universe, one that would exhibit conservation of energy and all the other natural laws that make scientific understanding of the universe possible.

    Again, I don’t deny that there is justification for agnosticism, but if you have really chosen your axioms, your core beliefs, your irreducible assumptions, then you should know whether there is a supernatural, as much as it is possible to know anything.

    You said, “In science you make the assumption that what you’re trying to understand is not supernatural, but that’s not a philosophical argument about the existence of the supernatural.”

    That is exactly the statement that I fundamentally disagree with. I recognize that there are limits to human knowledge. I recognize that all systems include questions that cannot be answered within that system, just as Godel told us. But I think that saying that the universe you are trying to understand is natural, not supernatural, is a philosophical argument against the existence of the supernatural. By choosing empiricism and its axioms as your method for understanding the universe, you are saying that everything that can be known is part of the natural world, and that there are no influences outside of it.

    Saying that maybe there are supernatural entities that cannot be detected experimentally is a rationalization, not reason.

  49. “Again, I don’t deny that there is justification for agnosticism, but if you have really chosen your axioms, your core beliefs, your irreducible assumptions, then you should know whether there is a supernatural, as much as it is possible to know anything.”

    Once you say “I have assumed there is no god”, that does not in any way mean you know whether there is a supernatural.

    There is always a question how well your assumptions fit reality. You don’t know whether they always fit, until you have measured everything and shown that they fit.

    Just as you can assume there is nothing supernatural, you can also assume that there is no such thing as consciousness. Nothing in physics or chemistry or psychology has yet measured consciousness in any way that proves there is such a thing. Isn’t it just as rational to assume that there is no consciousness of any kind, as to assume there are no gods?

    And yet many people assert they are conscious even while many of them appear not to be….

  50. larswyrdson: It’s perfectly consistent to think of a universe where a Creator created the natural laws and is not bound by them, and can suspend them but usually doesn’t.

    You wrote, “Again, I don’t deny that there is justification for agnosticism, but if you have really chosen your axioms, your core beliefs, your irreducible assumptions, then you should know whether there is a supernatural, as much as it is possible to know anything.”

    Maybe you mean something by “know” that’s different from what I mean by it. Some people make the core assumption that there is a supernatural, and some people that there isn’t. Do they both “know” that their assumption is correct?

    In any case, I see no need to have an axiom on the subject. It seems much more scientific to me to have an axiom that most other beliefs are working assumptions, to be abandoned if necessary.

    You wrote, “But I think that saying that the universe you are trying to understand is natural, not supernatural, is a philosophical argument against the existence of the supernatural. By choosing empiricism and its axioms as your method for understanding the universe, you are saying that everything that can be known is part of the natural world, and that there are no influences outside of it.”

    Choosing an assumption isn’t an an argument. It won’t convince anyone else, for example. And maybe choosing axioms is making a statement, but that doesn’t change the facts.

    (What you wrote seems consistent with the belief that there are no objective facts, that a statement about the universe can be true when made by one person and false when made by another. I do have an axiom that there are objective facts, and I’m going to be very surprised if you don’t share it, but I’m mentioning it for completeness.)

  51. I have a science and engineering background. Still, every time I read about the “Big Bang Theory” (Physics, not the TV show), I am struck with the notion that physicists are invoking magic. Out of nothing – Bang – now everything. I do understand that physicists have come up with equations which can be worked backwards to that very moment. But still, at that moment, magic happens.

    I’m not saying that this is justification for believing in God. I suppose one could think of it that way. I am saying that even something like physics involves a belief system, some of which cannot be fully justified (as yet) by the physical laws we understand or properties we can measure.

    Dark matter and dark energy also fall into the belief category (because they have not been directly observed) as convenient concepts to help explain things we do not understand as yet.

    So religion is not the only area with unprovable belief systems.

  52. That point is right in line with the subject of agnosticism, because what physicists should be saying is that they don’t know what if anything was before the Big Bang, though they can speculate. Maybe some do say something too definite, though. Also, if somebody comes up with a reasonable alternative to the Big Bang, they’re not excommunicated. http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html

    Likewise dark matter and dark energy are unprovable now, but they aren’t matters of faith. They’re things that physicists hope to learn more about or possibly replace. Similar examples from the 19th century are atoms, a theoretical construct that some physicists doubted but eventually could be proved, and the luminiferous ether, a theoretical construct that was eventually refuted (not without pain for some inflexible physicists, I believe).

  53. I’ve successfully resisted my desire to comment earlier, just to see if anyone else picked up on this. I’m amazed, people.

    @SKZB: Excellent example of an ontological proof, this time of the non-existence of God. I’m not saying you’re wrong, mind; I am, however, asserting that the whole structure there is precisely as logically valid as St. Anselm’s, because you used the same method. Clever. Very clever.

    I do have an opinion, but you’re going to have to ask (or read my own post) to know what it is. At least today; it’s quarter to three.

    (singing) No-one in the place ‘cept you and me… So set ’em up, Joe; got a little story I think you should know…

  54. Jerry, good article. I do believe scientists over state things like the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy. One reason things like dark matter and dark energy are unprovable right now is that scientists do not specify properties which could be used to detect them. That makes it a poor theory. That is also why they are articles of faith to some extent. I’m glad to see some scientists looking for alternate explanations.

    Detecting atoms only required better scientific tools. I suspect that some undergraduate in physics who rejected the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy, would get a poorer grade because of it.

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