In an influential book, W. V. O. Quine, one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote with his student:
It is important to distinguish between disbelief and nonbelief – between believing a sentence false and merely not believing it true. Disbelief is a case of belief; to believe a sentence is false is to believe the negation of the sentence true. We disbelieve that there are ghosts; we believe that there are none. Nonbelief is the state of suspended judgment: neither believing the sentence true nor believing the sentence false. Such is our attitude towards there being an even number of Paul Smiths in Boston. This is still nothing so contentious as believing the sentence to be neither true nor false; on the contrary, it is simply the absence of opinion.
The point so clearly expressed by Quine here is often the subject of considerable confusion amongst those who debate religion. If I say “I do not believe in gods”, I may be saying:
Not(Believe[I] Thereexist(Gods)) [¬(BI(∃x(Gx))]
Or I may be saying
Believe[I](Not Thereexist(Gods)) [(BI(¬∃x(Gx))]
In other words, the negation here may apply to my belief or it may apply to the content of my belief. If it applies to my belief, then there is simply an absence of judgement. In effect I am saying I have no belief on the matter. If it applies to the content of my belief, then I do have a judgement: that there are no gods. One might hold both views, since one can have no belief there is a god and a belief there is no god at the same time:
Let’s give these names. PZ Myers has called the former “dictionary atheism“. The latter has been called “strong atheism”. I prefer negative atheism and positive atheism because the latter makes a positive knowledge claim. Negative atheism is atheism in the same sense that a car manual that fails to mention the role of God in engine maintenance (despite the repeated imprecations of God’s name by mechanics) is atheist. It neither makes a knowledge claim nor doesn’t make one.
We do not need to make judgements about all possible claims. These unjudged claims do not define us. I have no opinion about the utility of, say, a foreign exchange instrument (I’m totally economically illiterate). This does not make me an “aforexist”. But if I reject, in a positive sense, forex trading, then I am indeed an aforexist. It all has to do with there being content of the sentence, proposition or belief. Dictionary or negative atheism is simply the absence of a belief (a positive belief) in a god. There simply is no content to speak of (or to believe). By contrast, there is a content to the denial of the existence of gods. This is not a contradiction. These are different issues: one is to lack a belief and the other is to reject a belief. If lacking a belief had a content, then it could contradict rejecting that belief. But one might reject a belief because one lacks [a reason for] a belief.
So positive atheism makes a knowledge claim. Let us call (with good historical precedent) the making of knowledge claims gnosticism (from the Greek for knowledge, gnosis), and the lacking of knowledge claims agnosticism. This meets the initial reason Huxley coined the term:
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.
However, in adopting an agnostic claim with respect to some belief, there are two subsidiary kinds: on one account one lacks an opinion because one simply does not, at the time of affirmation being asked for, know. This kind of agnosticism is a simple statement that one does not know. A more extensive and perhaps principled version is to claim that one cannot know. This usually goes by the name “the Unknowable”. This kind of agnosticism is usually based upon arguments against the very possibility of knowledge being gained for some domain. Initially Huxley seems to have thought that the divine was in principle Unknowable, possibly a byproduct of too much German romanticism in his tea, but later he disavowed that.
However, claims of agnosticism are often met with the schoolyard rejoinder “well are you agnostic about [insert silly supernatural entity here]?” Often this involves fairies, teapots orbiting around Saturn, or gods like Thor who makes thunder with his hammer. A point I shall return to later is that being agnostic about one or a finite number of claims doesn’t mean one has to be agnostic about all such claims. In fact, religious apologists occasionally try to argue that if one is agnostic about God, one must be agnostic about all beliefs! In other words, one not only doesn’t know anything, one can’t believe anything at all. The logic underlying this non sequitur escapes me. I shall later argue that all belief claims are indexed to the particular content of the belief with respect to which the belief is held. Consequently, an agnostic is making claims that some beliefs are not knowable. The agnosticism is limited to a class of defined claims, about which the agnostic asserts ignorance one way or the other. That is all.
So, the implication is that one may be agnostic about one claim (say, which child in the world is the most beautiful) and yet not be agnostic about other claims (say, that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have beautiful children). One may be an agnostic about some deity existence claims (which we will discuss in the next post) and yet an atheist about others. For example, I am not agnostic about Thor. Thunder is not caused by his hammer Mjolnir; not only is there no evidence of this, there is evidence directly contradictory to this. When the scope of the evidence speaks to the claim, then one can of course take a stance. Likewise, one cannot be agnostic about, say, human-caused global warming, because the evidence, the theory and the logic are all reliable and tested. There is warrant for a belief stance, one which if anything does qualifies as knowledge. But one can be agnostic about string theory, for which there is no evidence one way or the other and may even never be.
So let us try to formalise this. To be agnostic in the weak sense is simply to make no knowledge claim:
Weak agnosticism: Not A knows about God[i] [¬(KA(Gi)]
Strong agnosticism: Not A knows about Gods (or Not possible A knows about Gods) [¬(KA(♢x(Gx)] or [¬?KA(?x(Gx)]
So the first of our axes is whether or not one makes (or modally, can make) a knowledge claim about some or all gods. If one thinks a resolution can reasonably be made, one is a gnostic, and if not, an agnostic. Since we have not defined atheism here yet, one may be an atheist who is agnostic. To be an atheist will be specified as an existence claim, which is a matter of ontology, in the next post. To be a gnostic or agnostic is to make an epistemic claim, about knowledge and its possibility in the domain of deities.
The next post in this series: Four.