Positivism about agnosticism

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.

18 thoughts on “Positivism about agnosticism

  1. As an agnostic, I wholeheartedly support your campaign for a non-cartoon version of agnosticism. But does it have to be supported with a cartoon version of positivism? Both J.S. Mill and H.T. Mill can be counted as positivists; neither of them were moral anti-realists or non-cognitivists. I’m given to understand that Carnap’s views on aesthetics are quite complicated. And then there’s the whole recent cottage industry of historians working on Neurath, Frank, and the rest of the Left Vienna Circle.

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  2. Reading the first paragroh of Hecht’s piece only, I also found her conception of skepticism ill-conecived. I dunno, maybe she can claim historical priority for her concept of skepticism, but I used to regard it as an attitude of asking questions, raising doubts, and demanding evidence that suits a scientists rather well, whereas she seems to make it into an “absolute” relativism, where every belief is just one kind of truth as good as any other.

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  3. I generally agree with this but I have a minor nitpick in the context of the genetic fallacy:

    In some contexts the genetic fallacy isn’t necessarily a fallacy. Any human asserting a stateent A is evidence for A since humans are more likely to say true statements than false statements. (I’m using here a somewhat Bayesian notion of evidence). But how strong that evidence is is mitigated by the individual in question. If for example, the person in question is a known con-artist or a schizophrenic, we’d be justified in taking the evidence as substantially weaker.

    In that context, if the primary reason that anyone thinks there’s a deity turns out to be fully explainable by a combination of history and by humans overactive agency recognition tendencies, then one would be justified in taking the idea substantially less seriously.

    In general, most informal fallacies are actual evidence for the claims in question. But they are such weak evidence that humans can’t correctly incorporate such small pieces of evidence into evaluating claims, or the resources involved is simply too much. It might make sense to think this from a Bayesian perspective where this amounts to saying that A is evidence for B if P(A|B)>P(A) but is weak evidence if P(A|B)/P(A) is close enough to 1 for us to be able to treat them as equal for all purposes.

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  4. The Jennifer Michael Hecht who wrote Doubt: A History and the Jennifer Michael Hecht who wrote that blog post hardly seem to be the same person. The former was articulate and thoughtful. The latter writes like, well, the person who went half-cocked at Massimo Pigliucci a while back. I’m not sure what has happened to her, or if it’s a manifestation of some mental illness, but it seems to have been happening over the past several months.

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  5. Nice post. I find that some of my fellow atheists seem to put agnosticism in the ‘I can’t see how it’s possible for any intelligent person to hold this view, therefore he/she is a scoundrel and to be bemoaned more than a literal bible-basher who at least has the redeeming feature of being an easy intellectual target’.
    I guess I shouldn’t say too much, when I first got into the skeptical intertoobs I was pretty much a freshly minted positivist armed with God Delusion and little more.

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  6. “So long as there is a formal possibility that some gods might exist…” Isn’t there a formal possibility that we’re brains in vats? Yet we agree that it would be absurd to believe we are (don’t we?).

    Whatever else one might say about Hecht’s post, I think she’s right to put god conceptions on a level with fairies. Different cultures have had different conceptions of beings we would likely call fairies; yet we reject the category fairy. It is an empty set. How many conceptions of god have to be rejected before we can reject the category of gods as vacuous?

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  7. I see ThonyC has been over there poking her with questions that seem to reveal her real agenda. She replies with assertions about when the “first recorded talk of life after death” occurred and when gods “having attributes including universality and afterlifing” arose. In short, she is, as so often happens, talking about the origins of what might be called “extant religions” instead of any possible referent “god.”

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  8. TheDudeDiogenes:
    How many conceptions of god have to be rejected before we can reject the category of gods as vacuous?

    For me it is an empty set until shown otherwise. I think were the problem arises is if I, or someone else who is an atheist, tries to impose upon agnostics the same position. It seems to be intellectual imperialism of some type. But it could just be that I don’t understand the issues.

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  9. “Take positivism to be the claim P that “only scientific beliefs are … warranted for our belief.” Ask yourself, “Is P … warranted?” If you answer that it is, then you have asserted at least one non-scientific claim, because no science can demonstrate this …. warrantability

    Of course it can, simply by observing the track record of those who follow said edict and those who don’t, ie, look at modern society and all the verified knowledge contained therein, born of science. It’s not as if its a close call.

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  10. Science Avenger:
    “Take positivism to be the claim P that “only scientific beliefs are … warranted for our belief.” Ask yourself, “Is P … warranted?” If you answer that it is, then you have asserted at least one non-scientific claim, because no science can demonstrate this …. warrantability

    Of course it can, simply by observing the track record of those who follow said edict and those who don’t, ie, look at modern society and all the verified knowledge contained therein, born of science.It’s not as if its a close call.

    If you reread John’s text a bit more carefully you’ll notice the word “only”. That creates far stronger claim than the one you’re supporting, and John is correct in saying that it is not a claim open to scientific validation.

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  11. TheDudeDiogenes:
    “So long as there is a formal possibility that some gods might exist…” Isn’t there a formal possibility that we’re brains in vats? Yet we agree that it would be absurd to believe we are (don’t we?).

    Whatever else one might say about Hecht’s post, I think she’s right to put god conceptions on a level with fairies. Different cultures have had different conceptions of beings we would likely call fairies; yet we reject the category fairy. It is an empty set. How many conceptions of god have to be rejected before we can reject the category of gods as vacuous?

    Some conceptions of god are on the level with fairies. Most aren’t. If the only concepts of god you’re familiar with are fairy-like ones, then agnosticism can indeed seem to be a puzzling choice.

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  12. Barry Rountree: Some conceptions of god are on the level with fairies. Most aren’t. If the only concepts of god you’re familiar with are fairy-like ones, then agnosticism can indeed seem to be a puzzling choice.

    Depends on what you mean by familiar with, I suppose. I was raised Catholic my whole life, and even got a BA in Theology. (I also double-majored in Philosophy.) Is that familiar enough? But that’s beside the point…

    I’m of the mind that non-fairyish “sophisticated” concepts of god are so vague as to not really qualify as concepts at all. As far as I’m concerned “god” has no more meaning than “ouhtanhfgfqgasd”.

    Maybe my problem is, if no one believes in a given conception of a deity, in what sense is it a formal possibility? To me, only those conceptions of god which someone actually believes in matter. In my experience, one either believes in the fairyish god of fundies or the vacuous gods of Eagleton and Armstrong.

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  13. TheDudeDiogenes: Depends on what you mean by familiar with, I suppose. I was raised Catholic my whole life, and even got a BA in Theology. (I also double-majored in Philosophy.) Is that familiar enough? But that’s beside the point…

    No, no, I think that’s very much on point.

    I’m of the mind that non-fairyish “sophisticated” concepts of god are so vague as to not really qualify as concepts at all. As far as I’m concerned “god” has no more meaning than “ouhtanhfgfqgasd”.

    I had thought that meaning was imputed to symbols by the rough agreement of the language community who used the symbols.

    Maybe my problem is, if no one believes in a given conception of a deity, in what sense is it a formal possibility? To me, only those conceptions of god which someone actually believes in matter. In my experience, one either believes in the fairyish god of fundies or the vacuous gods of Eagleton and Armstrong.

    I would have thought a theology degree would have exposed you to the several branches of Judaism as well as the Gnostics and a few of the other interesting early Christian sects. I would have also thought you would have studied — however briefly — the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, and some of the more liberal protestant theologians.

    I would have also thought your philosophy degree would have involved examining how both Greek and Roman philosophers thought about God and Gods, then forwards through more recent philosophy (Leibniz, Hartshorne, Spinoza, etc.).

    Instead, you’ve limited the whole of human religious experience to a minority sect of Protestants and the beliefs of two popular authors writing for a lay audience.

    [As an aside: “vacuous” is a label, not an argument.]

    So I think I’ll say that I’m unpersuaded and leave it at that.

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    1. Didn’t mean vacuous as an argument; just how I feel as a result of my experiences. So far all conceptions of god I’ve encountered are incoherent or so obviously human imaginings I can only laugh.

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  14. I’ve never in my life met believer in a concept of god that I’d say warrants the respect that agnosticism bestows upon it. Oh, I’ve read plenty of proposals for such beings (frequently from non-theistic philosophers no less), but I’ve never come across anybody who actually believes in it (John Shelby Spong comes close). There is always a bit of the Trinity snuck in, or a bit of a real historical Jesus, or other a few intentionally obfuscated “deepities” to make contradictions appear profound. The god concepts that pass the “sophisticated” smell test are invariably ill-defined, defined in contradictory ways, or have protean definitions. Why grant those concepts with attention they haven’t merited? The reason I often find agnosticism so frustrating is because it seems to concede the most important ground before the battle is even begun. To be fair, this also makes me frustrated with atheism as well, though I feel a closer kinship to self-proclaimed atheists than to self-proclaimed agnostics. I’m not sure what you call what I believe, but the term “ignosticism” seems close.

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