Following up from my last post on the logical and semantic aspects of agnosticism, I wish to make a comment regarding this ill-tempered piece by Jennifer Michael Hecht. It seems that one may not be an agnostic if one is a secularist or skeptic. Why? Because:
Agnositicsm points this excellent truth about all epistomology, at one single target, the supernatural invention of one particular hairless ape, at one particular moment in its culture. We don’t know if Zeus exists? Uh, yeah we do. He doesn’t.
Typos and missing words aside, the inanity of this claim about agnosticism is breathtaking. She continues
It is time we stopped using the term agnostic. If people want to retain it with the meaning “I personally have not yet made up my mind” that seems okay, but we have to stop parroting the notion that you “can’t prove a negative,” so you can’t be an atheist. It is not so. The argument is historical, not rational, indeed, not philosophically tenable.
As I noted in the last post, “agnostic” means something more than “I have no yet made up my mind”, but it need not be a universal claim about impossibility of knowledge. But the real confounder here is her claim that as a historian, because she knows when an idea was made up, she knows that the referent of the idea is false. At some point in history, somebody made up the idea of an absolute speed of light. It is not therefore false that light has an absolute speed. That is silly.
There is a fallacy known as the Genetic Fallacy: that the origin of an idea tells directly about its truth. If Hitler thought that exercise was good, that doesn’t mean it isn’t, nor that exercise buffs are Hitlerian. But Hecht thinks that because an idea (God) was created at some point in history (and how exactly does she know this, as a rationalist skeptic? She knows when one version of that idea is documented to have been written down, but that hardly indicates the idea was created then. In fact, the evidence is that something like gods has been a human idea from the very beginning of the species, if not before), it must be false, and that it is even more false because it was invented by prescientific people.
Let me be quite clear on this: I do not think there is evidence for a God, as an agnostic. And I certainly think there is evidence against many stories and characterisations of gods. But, and this seems to be the point that strong “skeptics” like Hecht cannot get into their heads, not all. So long as there is a formal possibility that some gods might exist, and no general evidence against it, the rational thing to do is hold off judgement on the (empirically permissible) claims. So Thor doesn’t exist, but Leibniz’s deity might.
This gets down to the problem of positivism: if a claim lacks empirical support, claim these positivists (a view that makes science the measure of all cognitive activity without further argument), then not only are we not to take it as a warranted belief, we are to denigrate those who do think it to be true, whether or not they claim scientific support for it. Positivism rejects, in its ultimate and most coherent form, all moral claims as being true (at best they are just statements of preferences), all aesthetic claims as true (mere convention), and all non-physical metaphysics as nonsense.
Now I happen to think moral claims, aesthetic claims, and non-physical metaphysics are wrong, myself, but I cannot presume this a priori, and I do not insist that those who believe that they can be true are idiots. That is just the usual thing about demonising those you disagree with (dysphoniously called “othering” by a certain kind of continental philosophy and sociology; but terminology notwithstanding, it is a critical failing of some modernisms).
Positivisms have a singular flaw, one that their adherents are often blind to or dismiss in a cavalier fashion out of hand when it is pointed out to them. They are self-defeating. Take positivism to be the claim P that “only scientific beliefs are true or warranted for our belief.” Ask yourself, “Is P true or warranted?” If you answer that it is, then you have asserted at least one non-scientific claim, because no science can demonstrate this truth or warrantability. Hence, if P is true, it is false.
If P is false, then claims that others are foolish for adopting claims that are non-P so to speak is hypocrisy. By the principle of parity, what applies to them must apply to you.
For this reason I think that agnosticism is a warranted view; in fact (as I demonstrate by adopting it) I think it is the only warranted view (or I would not have adopted it). But I would like to make one more comment before I leave you. Hecht writes:
The notion of Agnosticism has no intellectual pedigree. Huxley made it up a hundred years ago, stating plainly that he was taking the idea from Catholic Fideism which was itself a crazy (I’d say mis)use of Ancient Skepticism to fight Protestantism, holding that since we cannot know anything, even whether God exists, let us choose to believe not only that he does, but that so must the Pope.
Uh, excuse me? The worth of an intellectual idea depends upon how long it has been around? Really? Because, and correct me if I am wrong, Dr Hecht, but I thought, as a historian, that religion precedes atheism by at least 9000 years or so, and probably a lot more. That’s an intellectual pedigree. For the bulk of modern culture, let alone the existence of the species, the best minds of humanity have been religious, including Aristotle, Epicurus, Spinoza, Einstein, and Kant. You may disagree with them, as is your right, but you cannot say that religion has no intellectual pedigree. If new ideas are bad, then so too are irreligious ideas, as they are relatively new.
Huxley did not make up agnosticism to deal with Catholic Fideism, but to deal with all claims of knowledge where (he thought) knowledge was not possible. Granted, he was a strong agnostic who thought knowledge of God was forever impossible, but he was responding to all kinds of claims. That he coined a word for a view that was around for much longer (since the Greeks at least) during the period where the Catholic Thomist revival was in full force has no logical force whatsoever.
Arguments from history are usually either special pleading, whiggism, or ignorance. I leave it to the reader to decide which in this case.