In which I upset PZ, again, by not knowing

Ron Rosenbaum has written a piece in Slate on agnosticism, in which he generously quotes an Australian “scientist”, that is, me. Oh dear. This is going to set the cat among the pigeons. And indeed one such cat, my friend and sparring partner PZ Myers, has already responded. Read and decide for yourselves. However, I reprint my email to Rosenbaum under the fold.

Ron, I would be pleased to write something for you, but on reflection – and this is before my morning coffee, so take it with a grain of salt – I do not think I can adequately explain it in less than an essay myself. I have, as by now you have no doubt discovered, tried to express my ideas in a series of posts, but if you ask me direct questions, perhaps I can answer.

For now my objections to the “New” Atheists (who are a vocal subset of the Old Atheists, and who I call Affirmative Atheists) are the same as my objections to organised religion:

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

2. It presumes to know what it cannot. More on this below.

3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, it tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of “weak” Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. [Which is why the “are you agnostic about fairies?” rejoinder is just dumb.] But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

5. But does that mean no possible evidence could decide it? That’s a much harder argument to make. Huxley thought it was in principle Unknowable, but that’s a side effect of too much German Romanticism in his tea. I can conceive of logically possible states of affairs in which a God is knowable, and I can conceive of cases in which it is certain that no God exists. All we are doing now is negotiating the price, as Shaw said.

The “map” that you will have seen on my blog divides those who make existence claims (God exists/does not exist) from those who do not (It is knowable/it is not), for individual claimed deities. It is vital to make sure that you realise each claim is indexed to a particular posited entity. One can be agnostic about one entity and atheist about others, and even theist about some, simultaneously. I happen to be atheist about most and agnostic about some (and theist about none).

There remains only the attitude one has to this subject: I am an apathetic agnostic (Greek for “don’t know, don’t care”). Ask me about something interesting, like the nature of species…


Now PZ has taken much umbrage against the tribalism claim, and I can well understand why, what with the You’re Not Helping debacle and all: accusations of tribalism are loaded with emotion. But let’s be serious; those who identify as atheists are as tribal as everyone else, some to a very vociferous and nasty degree, and some not at all, just like the rest of humanity. Including, were agnosticism to become a movement, agnostics. The fact is, atheists, new or old, simply do act tribally, denigrating the Other and all that. So too do Skeptics, Humanists, Secularists, and Pastafarians. And, were it to be the case that Ron’s New Agnostics became a coherent movemet, they would too. This is why I do not recommend a movement. All I want is to be be taken at my word. I don’t want to convince anyone else of anything about this. “Let each man hope and believe who can”, as Darwin, another famous agnostic, wrote before gender-inclusive language became the norm.

But the objection to being called “tribal” is not supported by starting out “Ron Rosenbaum [is] a chipper flibbertigibbet who is proudly agnostic (no problem with that) and as dumb as they come (which is a problem)” and calling agnostics “Same Old Ineffectual Wafflers”. That certainly looks tribalistic to me.

So, I’m not an atheist in the general sense. I’m not a faithiest. I’m not a “fellow traveller” or a Mysterian, or any of those. I am simply an agnostic. In fact, I am a Militant Agnostic. Not only do I say “I don’t know”, I rigidly insist that you do not either. Good thing, then, that I don’t care…

109 thoughts on “In which I upset PZ, again, by not knowing

  1. “It appears to *me* to be about responding to claims that it *is* possible to believe in (a) god and the methodology of science so anyone who disagrees better stop fucking saying it isn’t!”

    “I’ve never heard any new atheist make the psychologically false claim that it is impossible to believe in god and science.”

    I clearly need a hearing aid. All this noise seems to be having a detramental affect on my comprehension, which was never great to start off with on this issue.

  2. For the record, I am an atheist because I have not been convinced by any of the arguments in favor of theism. I don’t believe in any gods.

    I do not believe that I can prove the nonexistence of all gods although I do think it’s very probable that no gods exists. In that sense I am an agnostic atheist. It’s exactly the same definitions that Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers use.

    My friend, the Jesuit priest, is an agnostic theist.

    By *my* definitions John is also an agnostic atheist, although he’s a bit more adamant about the “agnostic” part than I am.

    John uses different definitions. He says that an atheist is one who denies the existence of all gods. That’s why there’s room in his worldview for three distinct mutually exclusive tribes: atheists, theists, and agnostics. John is an agnostic and not an atheist by his definitions. I can respect that, although I still think it’s fun to try and convince him to change definitions.

    John claims that my Jesuit friend and I can’t possibly be agnostics and something else.

    That’s fine. As I said above, John is entitled to use whatever definitions he wants. After all, he is a philosopher!

    What he’s not entitled to do, in my opinion, is apply his definitions to our viewpoint. Just because we call ourselves atheists does NOT mean that we say that there are no gods. That’s the fallacy of John’s argument. He’s applying HIS definition to people who use another definition.

    He’s been told about this many times but he continues to make this fundamental error. He knows full well that Richard, PZ, and I, have said on many occasions that we are agnostic atheists and he knows full well that I have discussed the impossibility of disproving deism.

    Thus, he knows that we are not atheists by his definition but he continues to say that we are. I don’t know why he does this but it demonstrates a lack of respect that I find very troublesome.

    1. Dawkins and Myers are “agnostic” atheists only in the weak sense that they say there is a faint conceptual possibility that god/s may exist. They are atheists because they believe that the balance of good argument is strongly against there being any god/s. So they are not agnostic in the way that John Wilkins and T. H. Huxley are. The latter — “real” agnostics — deny that there are good reasons to believe that no god/s of any sort exist. There’s a huge, yawning chasm between the two positions. In this crucial respect, agnostics deny what atheists assert. In my opinion, “real” agnosticism (i.e., Wilkins’ sort) is rationally defensible; atheism, even the “agnostic” variety, is not.

      1. This may be correct. But, do you hold the same views on things like “the appearance of age” argument for a young earth? Is this a faint conceptual possibility as the naive “new” atheists may claim or something that demands that we remain agnostic on the age of the earth to make it rationally defensible? AFAICT, this argument can always can always provide refutations of any “good reasons” that the scientifically inclined may put forth.

        1. No, I have always argued that if a religious claim conflicts with a scientific claim, so much the worse for the religious claim. But there is never a zero likelihood that a logically coherent claim might be true, it merely approaches zero.

          We do not need to remain agnostic about things that have been shown, to all reasonable standards of knowledge, to be true or to be false. Which is why I am not agnostic about fairies, Thor or homeopathy. I have said this more than a few times.

      2. That is the part I am struggling with – how do you calculate the likelihood of this claim and how close to zero it is? I don’t think “conflicts” with science is what the purveyors of the appearance of age argument think. It is an “explaination” that fits perfectly by definition with *all* the available data. The only difference that I can see from this and the type of god claims that you believe you should remain agnostic about is that there is *no* data by definition.

      3. John,

        Am I all wet on this? If so, I would like to understand why. Can’t we always make arguments that show that what we think we know is an illusion? Should the versions of god that meet this criteria be held to a different status?

    2. Some wisdom from Humpty Dumpty:

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
      “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
      “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

      -Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass

      1. John says,

        We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. [Which is why the “are you agnostic about fairies?” rejoinder is just dumb.] But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

        Like John, I think there are excellent reasons to believe that some gods don’t exist. I feel the very same way about tooth fairies and Santa Claus. Unlike John, I remain agnostic about the existence of tooth fairies because I know that it’s impossible to prove a negative. The probability that tooth fairies exist is extremely low and normally it wouldn’t even merit a mention but when arguing with a philosopher you have to cover even the smallest of bases. (Sorry, I can’t think of a cricket metaphor.)

        There are some subtle gods whose existence or non-existence is much more difficult to decide but, also like John, I don’t believe in their existence and I don’t worship them.

        In weighing the probabilities and consequences, I’ve come to the decision that those subtle gods don’t merit any investment in time and effort. John, apparently, has reached the same conclusion.

        I’m agnostic about the existence of those gods but I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in them. That’s exactly the same position that John takes. The only difference between us, as far as I can see, is that he defines atheism differently. He would claim that I’m not an atheist because atheists are supposed to deny that any gods could possibly exist.

        Now that he knows my position, he should henceforth refer to me as a fellow agnostic (his definitions) and not as a New Atheist. He now knows that I don’t fit his definition of atheist and he should stop referring to me by that term (his definition).

      2. “In weighing the probabilities and consequences, I’ve come to the decision that those subtle gods don’t merit any investment in time and effort. John, apparently, has reached the same conclusion.”

        A few posts down from here, John explores in some detail, the philosophical ramifications of a God creating the universe, foreknowledge considerations, etc. So… I honestly don’t think you and John have the same positions.

  3. John Wilkins:
    If one were to be agnostic about everything, then, yes, it would be self-refuting;
    That seems to be the scope he is groping for. He seems to equate God with reality. But don’t believe me, I’ll offer a quote.
    “Agnosticism is Self-Defeating
    Complete agnosticism is self-defeating; it reduces to the self-destructing assertion that “one knows enough about reality in order to affirm that nothing can be known about reality.”

    It’s only after reading your reply that I see how bad this is. We’re not talking about all of reality. What agnostic would say that they know absolutely nothing about reality, except in jest? Agnosticism about reality is not the same as agnosticism about God. Thanks John. Why is it that what was so obvious in the text, didn’t jump out to me, but just struck me as bad in some non-obvious way? I guess I was expecting more from a ‘top’ apologist or I’m not a philosopher (inclusive or).

  4. Just a follow up John. If I say I know nothing about God, then do I know something about God? That is, am I claiming some bit of knowledge? That seems to be a bit of trickery. What Geisler seemed to be saying is ‘I know nothing about God’ is a knowledge claim about God and thus self-refuting. But it doesn’t actually seem to be a positive claim of knowledge. I thought I had this clear when I last posted, now I’m not so sure. Coffee’s not working. Reminds me of Quine in ‘on what there is’ and what he termed ‘Plato’s beard’, some would argue that in claiming that unicorns don’t exist in some way means a unicorn exists or something……

    1. It’s a word game: “I know nothing about God” is parsed as “I know [nothing about God]”, so that “nothing about God” becomes an item of knowledge. But if you say in logical pseudocode “Not[I know about God]” you can see that it is not a knowledge claim. Not even a claim that “God” is a correct and meaningful category, if you replace it with a nonsense term: “Not[I know about Fleegesnaks]”; clearly I do not need to define “Fleegesnaks” to say I know nothing about it or them.

      This is first year logic. That Geisler thinks it is somehow deep tells you all you need know about Geisler. Now I am sure that you can play a semantic game with this (along the lines of Russell and the possible fat men), but when it gets down to an epistemic claim, there is no presumption that the object you do not claim knowledge of exists.

  5. Cool. So in a way it is like what Quine was talking about, and I vaguely recall.

    Not[I know about Fleegesnaks]

    I was thinking that I can say that I know nothing about whatever might be outside our light cone and that doesn’t seem to be saying I do know what is outside our light cone. Are Fleegesnaks tasty?

    Sorry to have dragged this off-topic. Thanks.

    1. This is directly on-topic! This is the core of the debate: am I making claims about knowledge, existence or what, and what must we presume?

      You don’t eat Fleegesnaks. You Dihrat them!

  6. You don’t eat Fleegesnaks. You Dihrat them!
    Aha! So you’re claim to be agnostic about Fleegesnaks is refuted by your knowledge of them. Trapped you in a Geisler-esque ploy!

    1. I would have been, if “Dihrat” had any content or meaning. Since it doesn’t, I am in exactly the same position I was before…

      And before you ask, “Dihrat” means 87A56FR…

  7. I believe you once studied theology. Is that where you learned to say stuff that doesn’t imply any knowledge claims? (Scampers away before being mashed by large, hirsute, white ape).

    1. Not at all. I was quite fluent in nonsense before I studied theology. That merely assisted me in this endeavour.

  8. John: I was fearing you’d be overwhelmed by the Pharyngulite hordes coming your way without you even directly provoking that yourself directly, but I’m glad to see that you seem to be enjoying the exchange. And an enjoyable exchange it is, because an extremely large majority of the people that have come to see what you are about are being intelligent and articulate (there is only one exception of several comments from a commenter that is behaving as a jerk and resorted to name calling without substantiating those accusations). Some of those comments I will have to read VERY carefully, as philosophical language is something rather difficult for me. That turns out to be a mixed blessing, because Pharyngulites aren’t acting according to the jerk stereotype that should be the consequence of the rabid tribalism acusations thrown against them, or are they?

    1. Most of them aren’t jerks. Nor is PZ himself. But the commentators often are. One difference is that I do filter comments, where PZ almost never does.

      1. I remove spam, abuse and stuff I rule arbitrarily out of bounds. So far that has been spam plus about two posters, one of whom I made public I was removing as a troll.

    1. I loved The Arch of Knowledge by David Oldroyd as a historical introduction. But here are some later books:

      Epistemology Richard A. Fumerton

      Epistemology: contemporary readings Michael Huemer

      Epistemology: a contemporary introduction to the theory of knowledge Robert Audi

      The first is probably the best introduction, but the last, by Robert Audi, is by a leading thinker on the topic.

    2. Thanks. I’ll try to order them second hand from amazon with out the missus finding out. If she does find out I’ll swear that you coerced me.

  9. In the name of all that is Holy, in the name of the Mighty Suet, and for the Glory of the True Transcendental Pasty, I hereby call for a New Pastyfarian Revival!!! Shout it from the rooftops and the mountaintops, from the trees and the skyscrapers, in the sewers and the salons, in the whorehouses and the countinghouses, the Mighty Suet is Coming! The Mighty Suet is Coming! The Mighty Suet is Coming!

    The day is drawing nigh when All the Faithful will sup day and night at the Table of the Transcendental Pasty!

    Let those who each quiche repent of their wicked ways. Let the eaters of kidney pie inhale the sacred aroma of Pasty cooling on the hearth. May the chicken pot pie heretics take Suet into their hearts and be filled with joy, for the Mighty Suet has come at last to set them free!

    Oh joy Oh joy Oh joy, the day of Pastyfarian Triumph has come.

    It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the end of times, it is Pasty Time!

    Pasty! Pasty! Pasty! Joy! Joy! Joy!

  10. Bill Benzon, in what way or how does the transcendental pasty be transcendental? Does it transcend all empirical evidence of pasty goodness (a la Kant)? Is it a pasty that is the ground of all pastyness? Or something else?

    1. Transcendental as in you go the dentist, he gives you the gas, and you have wonderful visions of Pasties dancing in the sky even as your teeth are being yanked out. You feel no pain and are bathed in the wonder that is the Mighty Suet.

  11. this is a ridiculous essay and Rosenbaum is a moron. the certitude of atheism is NOTHING like the certitude of theism. it’s like saying that the certitude of alchemists is equal to the certitude of chemists. it’s intellectually lazy.

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