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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…


  1. I just got this pingback from the YNH outing. Are you sure you didn’t misread it? Tribalism requires more than one person. YNH was a bunch of sock puppets.

    • Since I had used the word “tribalism” extensively in that post, not having known that I was actually dealing with a tribe of one person, I had thought you were referring to that. But I see the other context now.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      No, I was referring to YNH because he made the accusation of tribalism against PZ and Coyne, etc. But his blog is no longer accessible.

      • I always roll my eyes whenever someone responds too quickly, failing to sufficiently comprehend a post before commenting. Now I need to figure out how to roll my eyes at myself.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Not on this site, you don’t. I do that all the time…

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That’s very Welsh of you.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          There’s a difference?

      • The difference, sir, is geography and spelling. And, of course, the essense of The One True Pastyness.

        Furthermore “In 2002, the Cornish Pasty Association, the trade organisation for pasty making in Cornwall, submitted an application to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to obtain Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for the Cornish pasty. DEFRA has confirmed that it is backing the application and will be sending it to the European Commission for final approval. If PGI status is granted to the Cornish pasty (the same status that has been granted to Champagne, Parma Ham, Stilton Cheese, Arbroath Smokies, Cornish Clotted Cream, and many other items of regional produce) it would mean only pasty makers based in Cornwall who make in a traditional manner and follow a traditional recipe will be able to label their products as Cornish pasties.”

        So there.

        Come to think of it, I’ve decided that I’ll be a New Pastyfarian.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Ah, food! Well that matters…

  2. “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.”

    That’s a bit of a jumble, surely? We’re as tribal as anyone else and some of us are not tribal at all? And it’s actually only *movement* atheists who are tribal?

    Not that I disagree with the basic point.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Ophelia, I thought everyone knew that dispositions were distributed along curves in a population. Some are at one or the other of the tail of the distribution, while most are around the mode. It has a name: population thinking…

      • ianam ianam

        The distributions are not the same for every population. Thus “those who identify as atheists are as tribal as everyone else” is stupid and dishonest — a bait and switch between a tautology and an unsupported claim.

  3. I think it’s far better to distinguish the question of knowledge from the question of belief content. Agnosticism or gnosticism is about whether or not you think you (or anyone) can know or not. If you’re an agnostic you are saying either you (or, no one) can.

    But agnosticism cannot stop there where you want it to because you either go on to affirm the existence of gods despite believing knowledge is impossible (or not present in yourself) and thereby become a person of faith. OR you take either a principled, preferred, or apathetic stance that opts to not affirm belief in any gods (or about the specific gods about which you are agnostic). But that makes you an agnostic atheist about those gods, not an agnostic simpliciter because combined with your belief about the relative strength of knowledge you have, is a concomitant decision against theism and towards de facto atheism.

    And if you think that it is a matter of principle and not merely preference that people not believe when there is insufficient evidence and, therefore, have a normative epistemological and/or ethical reason to reject faith, you are even more resolutely not simply a neutral middle-ground dweller between theism and atheism but someone who on principle rejects agnostic theism (which is faith-based belief as opposed to gnostic theism which purports to be knowledge-based belief).

    So, if you think your agnosticism is a matter of ethical and/or epistemological principle that, as normative, everyone should adhere to, then implicitly you are against theists, at least in terms of the logic of your beliefs, regardless of whether you support them culturally or politically or on some overriding consequentialist ethical standards that override your deontic reasons for positing norms against unsupported belief ceteris paribus.

    And, in fact, as PZ pointed out, your beliefs are in substance nearly (or, maybe, fully) identical to those of Dawkins, Myers, etc. in that you are a gnostic atheist about Thor, Vishnu, Yahweh, Christ, et al. and only an agnostic atheist about the conceivably plausible “philosophers’ gods” of deism or Leibnizianism, etc. So in all the particulars you are the same as those calling themselves atheist as a matter of shorthand. Gnostic atheist about local deities and agnostic atheist about philosophers’ gods.

    So, you’re in the tribe by definition. Pick up a spear. Even if only to chuck it at Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens because you think they’ve got the tribe on a warpath.

    Ultimately, opposing all group behavior as inherently bad because it inevitably involves tribalistic dimensions only means that you will sabotage those who you naturally share a group with. If you think they have the truth or that truth at all is relevant to cultural, political, and ethical flourishing and you deny those who you think have more truthful categories from grouping against those extremely well-grouped others with falsehoods and worse cultural, political, and ethical goals, you shoot your culture, ethics, and politics in the foot when you spurn your natural tribe.

    Humans are social animals. Being human involves negotiating the realities of the groups to which you belong. Dropping out does no one any good, it only advances the cause of those you think are wrong.

    My full argument about the relationships between various forms of agnostic and gnostic atheisms and theisms is in this post, Disambiguating Faith: How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist, on which I would love your feedback if you have the inclination.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      There’s too much to discuss in the post you link to, or indeed in this comment, in a comment thread, but I would say this:

      It is not necessarily the case that one has an ingroup/outgroup distinction when one defines the ingroup in terms of what you and your “fellows” are not. I am not a rock, but that doesn’t make notrockism an ingroup. I am a vertebrate, so that makes Vertebrata an ingroup (but Invertebrata, being the group of things that lack vertebrae, is not a real outgroup).

      I do not need to attack anyone. I criticise what I think is a mistake, and leave people to believe what they like. Hitchens says a lot of good things, as well as his neo-con silliness. I won’t criticise him for the good things he says just because he’s a New, Affirmative, 20% Whiter and Brighter, Atheist. He is entitled to be one of those. He’s not entitled to attack people because they happen to have differing beliefs (although he can attack the ideas they espouse as ideas are not due reverence and respect like people are).

      You and PZ seem to have what I think of as a confused philosophy of classifying things. In biology, PZ is a good cladist, but in ideas he seems to rely on privative grouping and resemblance. It’s a pity and a mistake. Atheism, if it truly is a lack of deity beliefs, is not a real group, it’s the absence of a group. But if it has positive beliefs about deities (and from what I can tell, pretty well every atheist I have ever heard does), including the view that there is no god (a positive assertion), then they are a group that can be used and often is to exclude others and to denigrate them. Yes, it’s a human tendency. So is nepotism and genocidal behaviour.

      So I say, make the ingroupings harmless, like sport or party politics. Keep them civil (in the etymological sense of that term). Oppose hatred on the basis of beliefs. That’s bigotry. That way, we can have a decent society, one in which I would be happy to see my kids live.

      As to your distinction between gnostic and agnostic theism and atheism, I fear you are conflating the two distinct issues: existence claims and knowledge claims. But there is not a sharp boundary, I will agree.

      • This group thing is interesting and tricky. For example, there’s a group of literary critics flying under the bannar of “Darwinian literary criticism.” They use evolutionary psychology as their theoretical toolkit of choice. They also devote a fair amount of time and energy to criticizing deconstruction & postmodernism, etc.

        That, of course, is quite common in intellectual discouse. You criticize the folks you think are mistaken. However, the literary Darwinists, at least in the past, have gotten as much of their sense of themselves from their opposition to deconstruction, etc. as from their positive doctrine, which IMNSHO is rather thin stuff. And one of the reasons their positive doctrine is a mite thin is precisely because they’ve been so intent on being against those OTHER FOLKS. Criticizing THEM is one thing. Creating your own theory is something else, and much harder.

      • Daniel Fincke Daniel Fincke

        Thanks for your reply, John.

        Yes, there is a difference between lacking belief in a god or gods and believing there is no god or gods. The former can be more minimal and says either “I do not see enough evidence or think there can be enough evidence, so I abstain from positively believing” whereas the latter can be more conclusive and says, “I do see enough evidence and so I affirm that a specific god or gods does not exist.”

        I take it you want to call the former position agnosticism and the latter atheism. I think it’s just clearer to say that they are both atheisms, but one is an agnostic sort on the status of the non-belief in a specific god or class of gods and the other is a gnostic sort on the status of the non-belief in a specific god or class of gods.

        I don’t see where I am conflating existence claims and knowledge claims. If I were saying that your agnostic atheism committed you to the positive belief that you had reason to think there was no Leibnizian god, then, yes, I wouldn’t be respecting the difference between your simple abstention from belief in that god on the one hand and a gnostic atheist’s claim to have a proof there can be no Leibnizian god on the other hand.

        But the agnostic and gnostic atheism distinction is precisely there to prevent this conflation. By calling yourself an agnostic atheist, rather than either an atheist simpliciter or a gnostic atheist, you can distinguish yourself from the person claiming there is absolutely no Leibnizian god.

        You lack belief because of adherence to an epistemological principle and the gnostic athiest lacks it because of a metaphysical or physical or moral argument. There’s no conflation between your differences in epistemological conclusions.
        You think there is no warrant for belief, the gnostic atheist thinks there is warrant for active disbelief.

        This may stem from a difference in epistemological standards (since you and the gnostic atheist might agree on what the evidence is and yet you say it’s not enough for a positive disbelief, whereas the gnostic atheist thinks it is) or it may be in a different assessment of the evidence where you share the same epistemological standards (since you might share the same bar for evidence but disagree about what the evidence is actually saying).

        So, all of that disagreement which I think you want to stress is important between you and a positive disbeliever in philosophers’ gods is retained by allowing the distinction between agnostic atheists and gnostic atheists.

        But having conceded that distinction, it is not irrelevant that both the agnostic atheist and the gnostic one are both atheists in the sense that on another level convinced disbelief and rejection of belief are both species of non-belief. And this is not trivial, since both forms of atheists will omit any inclusion of even the Leibnizian god into reasoning about morality, science, politics, culture, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, etc.

        Maybe as an agnostic atheist, you might wind up a true fence-sitter who has a more paired down metaphysics in general, who will not posit certain constructive non-god accounts of metaphysics because, unlike the gnostic atheist, you think the remaining possibility of a philosopher’s god makes those questions inconclusive. You might commit yourself to less substantive positions in controversial areas where a possible god belief might be quite relevant. So, yes, in some ways the agnostic qualifier can pop up as relevant again. But on a whole lot of questions you will, as a matter of default, share more assumptions and methodologies with the gnostic atheists than you will with either the agnostic theists or the gnostic theists.

        If you think that atheism simpliciter features more gnostic atheists than agnostic ones then insist on the agnostic qualifier and draw the line. Say you’re a gnostic atheist about Thor and Yahweh but you’re an agnostic atheist about Leibniz’s god. Then PZ can say, as he seems to have, that he too is actually an agnostic atheist about various philosophers’ god conceptions and a gnostic atheist about Thor and Yahweh. Then you can say to PZ, “well if you’re really only an agnostic atheist about philosophers’ god conceptions, then stop writing as though you have positive reasons to reject that god conception. Your writing sloppily implies more than your supposed claims to epistemic temperance.” But that clarifies your position more and puts the onus on PZ to live up to his claim to metaphysical restraint. That can be a productive debate about the implications of shorthand writing for example. Dawkins and Myers may just be using God as equivalent to Yahweh most of the time and so broadly professing positive disbelief and not just lack of belief. That’s a matter of simplicity when addressing a culture in which God is shorthand for the Judeo-Christian god most of the time. You might demand more rigorous attention to the difference between that god and the possible philosophers’ gods in shorthand expressions. That would be productive.

        Or maybe it would force PZ and Dawkins, et al. to acknowledge that when pressed they really are gnostic atheists about the philosophers’ gods, even if they are not certain about the philosophers’ gods as they are about Thor. Maybe they are level 7 gnostic atheists about Thor but only strong 6’s about philosophers’ gods and so, therefore, gnostic atheists about both, with just degrees of certitude distinguishing the extent to which they make a knowledge claim.

        This puts the onus on them to either own up to gnostic atheism or to talk more consistently with their alleged agnostic dimension to their atheism. But as things stand you look like the one avoiding the issue because you won’t admit that your non-belief is logically an a-theistic sort, regardless of the epistemological and metaphysical differences that get you there.

        But as to the question of tribalism—-no atheists are saying that atheists should consider everything about the religious awful or everything they do terrible just because they’re outside of our group. That’s a strawman of the philosophical position. I concede some atheists behave that way and reason that way, but it has nothing to do with the strict definitional issues. Definitionally, I think you’re an agnostic atheist, whether or not you think other atheists behave well or badly.

        The fact that other Thor-rejecting atheists behave badly does not stop you from identifying as an atheist on the Thor question. So, why does their behaving badly stop you from identifying as an agnostic atheist on the Leibnizian god question?

        It seems like you want to define atheist simpliciter to mean a tribal affiliation which one takes to be the central ethical, epistemological, political, psychological, and cultural orientation point of one’s entire life. But that’s unnecessary. It is just one group to which you belong. You don’t have to pick only one “tribe”, but you belong to many tribes. On politics you can be in opposite tribes from Hitchens and in atheism/religion debates be with his tribe and in agnostic vs. gnostic debates be against his tribe if he is in fact a gnostic (which I’m not sure about).

        There is no obligation to vilify the Other or fall into the negative aspects of tribal thinking but you can still support those who you share common ground with and appeal to them to abandon the negative aspects of their tribalism. The only way to stop tribalism from being negative is to accept the fact of its ineradicable part of human nature and be a force for making its manifestations more constructive than destructive.

        You can be the member of the atheist tribe who says, “take your alleged agnostic dimensions serious my fellow alleged agnostic atheists” and “stop reflexively judging non-atheists as beneath you, my fellow atheists, your atheism only makes you right about a narrow set of topics.” etc.

        And comparing nepotism and genocide to all group behavior in their naturalness is a category mistake. Nepotism and genocide are vicious forms of in-group thinking. But in-group thinking itself is not inherently vicious nor virtuous. It can manifest itself virtuously or viciously. Virtuous in-group behavior is possible, it serves some important benefits.

        For example, it is better that we have some friends who we favor more at the expense of having time or resources for some other people, for example if this means that we can achieve certain goods of intimacy otherwise impossible if we were to spread our love evenly everywhere instead. Also competition is good in culture and in politics and in ideas and grouping into in-group teams helps competing ideas get consolidated efforts on their behalves.

        Yes, “tribalism” is the vicious form of “in-group” behavior. I was teasing wherever I may have equated it with a good thing itself. We shouldn’t be prejudicially tribalistic. But we also should not turn our back on our in-groups.

        And, finally, when you say that atheism does not have to define you any more than your not being a rock does, this strikes me as a willful attempt to pretend you are not in certain social and political and cultural and ideological and philosophical relationships that make some facts important and others not. Yes, in a hypothetical future or maybe on another planet, it could be utterly irrelevant whether one believes in god or not. But on our planet, innumerable kinds of social, cultural, philosophical, institutional, sexual, political, etc. relationships are impacted inevitably by religion or its absence. To pretend that your position on these issues does not have implications because you personally see it as as much a matter of indifference as your non-rockism, is to try to deny you are in those networks of relationships or that they play any constitutive role in who and what you are, whether you like it or not. That strikes me as an avoidance of realities.

        You may say the ideal is a day when atheism is as much a non-issue as non-rockism and that you oppose group identity along atheist lines because you fear that would only perpetuate atheism and religion questions as dividers between people when you long for the day when they’re entirely irrelevant, irrelevant as non-rockism.

        But I would argue that explicit activist atheism is the route to eventually making atheism irrelevant. It’s like with the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers set themselves up as part of a special group of people and yet now various Enlightenment ideas are so much the furniture of all western minds that they are no longer points of controversy.

        If atheism “wins” some day, the victory will make it as irrelevant and non-divisive as the idea of universal sufferage is in the West today, for an Enlightenment spirited but later-than-the-Enlightenment example.

  4. While I applaud your “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.” sentiment, a (if not the) problem arises with the fact that many of these “Others” will happily grab the power to be able to tell you how you can and cannot live your life, who you may or may not love, and make sure all education is Team Religious Majority certified.

    I would argue that your examples of PZ’s tribalism may in fact be a fiery attack on the tenets that support this type of “Other.” Not saying that tribalism doesn’t exist, it certainly does, but maybe your tribalism-radar is a little too sensitive?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      My tribalism radar is totally sensitive, and of course I am much more sensitive to the religious tribalism than anything that the atheists evince. I do not think we should contribute to the tribalism, though, if we want a cosmopolitan and open society. If all you want to do is take control politically, or at least organise for that fight, then tribalism is unavoidable. It is also going to be the death of liberal democratic countries. I’d much rather put tribalisms into sport, or party politics, or something else that doesn’t matter. That way we defuse the kinds of social disruption we saw in the Thirty Years War or Northern Ireland.

      In short, I don’t see how replacing one set of pigs with another will help, to use a trope from Animal Farm.

  5. PZ Myers PZ Myers

    But I wasn’t upset about being called tribal! What I said was that that tribal stuff was endemic to being human–so my objection is that it is not a legit complaint against atheists. I could turn it around & tell you that “philosopher” is an in-group designator intended to foster an us-vs-them mentality.

    Oh, & agnostic — even worse, you bone-in-the-nose tribalist, you.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      As always we must disagree to agree…

      • ianam ianam

        As always you must be dishonest. You claimed that PZ took much umbrage at the tribalism claim, he points out that that is false, and yet you fail to apologize for and retract the mispresentation.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      By the way, yes, “philosopher” is an ingroup marker. It marks us off from those who do not do professional philosophy. So is “developmental biologist”. However, while in a professional sense I may sneer at those who are not philosophers but try to do it, such as scientists who discuss philosophical matters in journal articles, I do not thereby think that nonphilosophers are a poor group of specimens who would be first against the wall when the Revolution came. In fact, I treasure a great many nonphilosophers.

  6. PZ Myers PZ Myers

    If you knew how much I hate that phrase…you’d use it more often.

    But what do you disagree with? That I’m not upset, that tribalism is everywhere, or that agnostic philosopher is another tribe?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      It was a pun, or play on words. Instead of saying “We agree to disagree” I cleverly said “we disagree to agree”. You were supposed to be impressed at my witty repartee. Alas, I had as much success this time as every other time I tried it.

      • ianam ianam

        You’re the one disagreeing (to agree), and being a hypocritical jerk about it and lending your support to that hypocritical jerk Rosenbaum.

  7. bad Jim bad Jim

    I’m confused. How can you cast aspersions on Huxley’s tea yet espouse militant agnosticism?

    According to one dictionary’s definitions, I’m neither atheist nor agnostic, being certain neither of the nonexistence of God nor the impossibility of knowing, but pagan. Fussing over these small distinctions is occasionally amusing but seldom satisfying.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I give my reason for the tea comment in that very paragraph. The very next sentence…

      Surely a matter of simple definition is ultimately boring, but this is about the substantive concepts and the sociological implications they carry. I would never have said anything if that execrable crap about “weak atheism” hadn’t hit the internet about 15 years ago and been widely taken up as if we agnostics were simply weak-kneed atheists. We aren’t. So I’m not playing with words, but with the ideas the words attach to, and what that does for my place, and the place of others, in society.

      When I was a kid, there was a confrontation game we used to play, when establishing dominance and ingroups. One kid would challenge another and draw a line in the dirt. “I dare you to cross over that line”, he’d say (girls do other things). When the challenger did so, the other would then weakly say “Now you’re on my side!” and we’d all chuckle. And then there’d be the Simpson’s moment of suspicious looks at each other until the next challenge.

      Atheists who call agnostics “weak atheists” are doing just that little game. And it’s about as convincing. We are atheists about some things, sure; everybody is. But we are not Atheists, weak or otherwise. We are agnostics. If PZ wants to say, “Well of course I also think that there’s a possibility there might be a god or two”, then he’s not bringing me over to his side. He’s coming over to mine, and very glad I am to have him here as an agnostic too. Of course, that now means he’s in no position to attack all theists, since that is not consistent with the agnostic position.

      • ianam ianam

        What PZ is doing is not being an idiot who isn’t able to grasp that “agnostic” and “atheist” are not mutually exclusive.

        “Of course, that now means he’s in no position to attack all theists, since that is not consistent with the agnostic position.”

        That’s false and stupid.

  8. I am on the verge of being embarrassed by the both of you, PZ and John. I cannot fathom why you must disagree to agree (or vice versa).

    John, you don’t think it is knowable whether God exists or not (though why you are then Thor-atheist, I doubly can’t fathom). PZ, you think that God does not exist (I know you wouldn’t ever claim that you knew for certain – saying an atheist must be someone who presumes to know for certain that God is merely hiding is disingenuous).

    So, seems to me you are both agnostic atheists. You don’t think God exists, but you acknowledge that you don’t know. I don’t see how freakin’ hard that has to be.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      *sigh*. No, I do not think that God does not exist. I think that most gods do not exist, but I think that some gods might. I’m fairly sure this is not something PZ would agree with. I’ll say it again: one is atheist with respect to a particular god existence claim; one is agnostic with respect to all possible deities.

      • ianam ianam

        Either English not your native language, or you are inept at simple logic, Wilkins. “You don’t think God exists” is not equivalent to “You think that God does not exist”. SIGH

      • ianam ianam

        Make that “English is not”. (A mere typo; nothing like a philosopher being unable to distinguish between a statement and its converse).

      • ianam ianam

        Or perhaps a more charitable interpretation is that Wilkins thinks he’s PZ and so he took “PZ, you think that God does not exist” to apply to himself.

        Of course Wilkins isn’t PZ, else he would not keep claiming that PZ would not agree that some gods might exist, when PZ has so often said that he does agree with that very statement.

      • Soren Soren

        Iam a bit confused, you say:
        “No, I do not think that God does not exist. I think that most gods do not exist, but I think that some gods might. I’m fairly sure this is not something PZ would agree with. ”

        PZ says :
        “(…) and he[John wilkins] also gives the very same answer about deist or pantheist gods that all the New Atheists give. Neither I nor Dawkins nor Larry Moran nor any atheist I’ve ever talked to will say that we have evidence that the remote and abstract God of Leibniz does not exist.”

        In the very post you are referring to it seems PZ claims that the God of Leibniz might exist, which is the same statement Dawkins made in the god delusion.

        It doesn’t seem to change the fact that neither of them do not believe in Leibniz God, whihc is why they still call themselves atheists, but I have yet to see either gentleman claim that no gods might exist.

      • So, you’re a Thor-atheist but not a Yahweh-atheist? Why? Because there is evidence that Thor does not exist, while there is none that Yahweh doesn’t? What?

        “but I think that some gods might”

        Translation: I think that there is a non-zero probability that some god or other exists. I’ll agree to that (and think PZ will, too) but that that probability is very small, and therefore when push comes to shove, the safest bet is that no god exists, and that we therefore think that no god exists, and that therefore we are atheists.

  9. jeff jeff

    The debate has become more about tribalism and social dominance than the actual subject matter. I have no doubt that PZ’s atheism is quite sincere, but it seems that he enjoys throwing his weight around a bit more than he enjoys atheism or biology (which might actually give Nietzsche’s Will To Power some credence). In addition, I lost a great deal of respect for PZ when he claimed to be a fan of Lady Gaga.

  10. ianam ianam

    “In which I upset PZ, again, by not knowing”

    Dishonest as always — he of course was not upset by that.

    • ianam, you display all of the unpleasant tribal characteristics of New Atheists including being totally unaware of how obnoxious you are.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Shh. Let him play on and demonstrate the point being made…

      • I hereby apologise for having pissed on the floor.

        Wont happen again guv’ honest.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      You didn’t, Thony, although be careful not to overgeneralise about the so-called New Atheists.

      • I did consider qualifying my comment by referring to the parrot as a denizen of the feces swamp that is PeeZee’s comment column instead of calling him a New Atheist but decided on the potentially dangerous brevity of overgeneralisation instead.

  11. As I understand the term, agnosticism is a faith-based assertion, a belief unsupported by evidence, that one _cannot_ know whether gods did, do, or may someday exist and that, as a consequence, one doesn’t know. More simply, it’s “I don’t know because I believe (without evidence) that one cannot know, now or ever. That seems to me to be a ludicrous belief.

    Me, I don’t know if some god or other did, does, or may someday exist and, crucially, I don’t know if it was, is, or will be become knowable.

    In the meantime, for lack of evidence, I don’t believe in any god or gods. I am not a theist of any stripe. I am without theism. Therefore I am an atheist.

    John, what am I missing?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Jennifer, if you look to the top of the page, you will see a page named “Agnosticism”. It links to all my posts on this topic. The way you understand the term is, in my view, special pleading and wrong (in particular read the one on Darwin and the essay by Russell).

      However, you are entitled to self-identify as an atheist if you find that agreeable. And I am entitled to self-identify as an agnostic.

      • And I, kind sir, am entitled to my identity as a Pastyfarian of Cornish descent, not Welsh.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          What’s the difference?

  12. Brian Brian

    John, have I asked you what you think of Norman Geisler’s (an apologist of some type) assertion that strong agnosticism is self-refuting? If not, he basically claims that strong agnosticism is the assertion that we can know nothing about God, which is a knowledge statement about God so self-refuting. Seems like rubbish to me. In fact his whole chapter refuting agnosticism seems like rubbish to me. Anybody who says nasty things about Hume and Kant must be speaking rubbish, it’s a law of logic isn’t it?

    On topic, if you’re arguments are correct then I’m an agnostic but atheist about any god such as the Abrahamic one.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I think that a lot of theist apologists tend to overestimate the importance of God in reasoning. C. S. Lewis once wrote that you can’t reason against God because God is what makes reason work, which is, well, a logical fallacy or three. Geisler as you report him (I don’t read him; where is it?) is failing to take care of the scope of agnosticism. If one were to be agnostic about everything, then, yes, it would be self-refuting; but that’s not at all what it is (any more than I am supposed to be agnostic about all deities). It’s agnosticism about one topic — God. That doesn’t mean one has to be agnostic about everything, including heuristic rules for reasoning about warrantable beliefs. It’s a bit like saying that because I don’t like broccoli I don’t like any vegetables, or because I can’t fly I can’t move. It’s a basic error, unworthy of a philosopher.

  13. I would like to go on record as stating that the term “New Atheist” as used by Thony above is a beautiful if ugly example of tribalism. Maybe its a negative tribalism, establishing the outgroup, contrasted with a positive tribalism, establishing the ingroup.

  14. Well, John, we’re all entitled to self-identify as whatever we want. I’m free to call myself a mollusc, if I want, but some obnoxious clever git will probably point out that I lack a shell gland and a single muscular foot, and have a backbone and hair, inconveniently messing up my delusion.

    Similarly, other obnoxious gits like to point out to you that you have all the taxonomic hallmarks of an atheist, and that the distinctions you make between Us and Them, such as the absence of absolute certainty, all seem to be shared traits, and so are a poor basis on which to split the taxon.

    And then you like to be obnoxious in turn, acting very tribally and drawing lines in the dirt and insisting that you’re one thing and we’re another, but we’re all right here playing on the same playground.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      One major difference between your tribalism and mine, is that you insist I am on your side of the line. I do not insist you are on mine, despite my tongue in cheek comments above.

      But you know this, and we have done this dance so many times online and in person that neither of us will convince the other. So, I will continue to make my case as clearly as I can, and hopefully so will you, without rancour or obnoxity, and we will both be ourselves in public, loudly and proudly.

  15. Wes Wes

    I may be too late to make any meaningful contributions to this debate, but I’ll throw in my two cents anyways.

    To me, it seems like debates over the compatibility issue with science and religion (which is usually what we’re talking about when we argue over whether we can “know” there’s a god), usually go like this:

    Atheist: Science and reason can show, and have shown, that religion is wrong.
    Agnostic: No, they haven’t.
    Atheist: So you think the Christian god is plausible?
    Agnostic: Well, no, of course not.
    Atheist: What about prayer? Miracles? Faith healing?
    Agnostic: Obviously none of those things are compatible with science. But science could never disprove the gods of Spinoza or Leibniz or Schleiermacher.
    Atheist: Well, I guess that’s technically true. But who actually believes in those gods?
    Agnostic: Some people in my philosophy department. [Turns to mostly Christian audience who didn’t hear previous conversation.] Religion and science are compatible! (Just don’t ask me what I mean by the word “religion”.)

    Am I missing anything? It seems to me that the anti “New Atheists”* position only applies to gods that almost no one believes in. I generally use the word “religion” to mean whatever religious people practice, i.e. what religion is, and not to mean what some philosopher or theologian says it should be.

    Religion, as practiced (especially in America), is pretty incompatible with what science is telling us about the world. I see no compelling reason to be agnostic when it comes to traditional theism. The whole edifice of science describes an impersonal world. The proposition that some kind of person, with intentions and purposes, controls the world is in conflict with this and, without some solid evidence of teleological direction in the universe, is untenable. That’s the affirmative atheist position as I understand it. And for the majority of religion believers, that amounts to saying that science and religion are incompatible, because by “religion” they don’t mean Spinoza. They mean traditional theism.

    Isn’t it a little dishonest to tell people that the “new atheists” are wrong, and that religion and science are compatible, without informing them that by “religion” you mean a highly attenuated form of belief which bears almost no resemblance to anything they would recognize as religion? That the “religion” you speak of is really more of a bit of philosophical speculation than the more intuitive supernaturalism that they have in mind when they say they are religious?

    * I thank you for your reluctance to use that odious term.

  16. “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.”

    The “movement,” as I understand it, isn’t about convincing anyone to be An Atheist. Or at least it isn’t about convincing *everyone* to be an atheist, or *insisting* that *anyone* be an atheist. It’s about making it permissible and acceptable and normal to be an atheist. It’s about making atheism a viable, even unexciting option – which means it’s about not having to be a movement any more. (One could say the same about feminism and other such movements. Then one could plunge into that despair that Mill did when he asked himself “if everything I hope for came to pass…” – but let’s leave that aside.) It’s about not being unreasonably othered and marginalized and beaten about the figurative head and shoulders and called stupid names for not agreeing with the majority about the fella in the sky.

    • Unfortunately the”movement” appears to me to be about vehemently and aggressively telling people that it impossible to accept the results of modern science and believe in (a) god at the same time so they better stop fucking believing in (a) god!

      • Really? Telling people that just out of nowhere? People who hadn’t asked, or who hadn’t claimed the opposite? 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!

      • Wes Wes

        I’ve never heard any new atheist make the psychologically false claim that it is impossible to believe in god and science. I have heard them make the claim that those who do believe in both are being inconsistent. But that’s a very different claim.

        I see nothing more wrong with arguing that people shouldn’t believe in god than I do with arguing that people shouldn’t believe any other false idea. People shouldn’t believe that blacks are genetically inferior, they shouldn’t believe the Sun goes around the Earth, they shouldn’t believe there was ever a global flood, they shouldn’t believe Lord Ram and his army of monkeys built the land bridge to Sri Lanka, and they shouldn’t believe that Giordono Bruno was a martyr to science.

        I included that last one for a reason. You understand as well as anyone the importance of slaying people’s holy cows, even their most treasured ones. You just think that certain holy cows shouldn’t be slain. Well, the theistic god is a holy cow that should be slain ASAP. You don’t have to do the slaying yourself or even like the people doing it, but making shit up about them and insulting them because they do isn’t right.

  17. This is just a suggestion, but it’s a well-worn trusim in philosophy that:

    Theoretically,we have three options concerning ideas: assent, dissent or withholding judgment. And,

    Practically, we have two options: (roughly) living by the idea or not living by it.

    It seems reasonable to say, and I think this is what Myers and his ilk are fumbling towards, that practical agnosticism is impossible. You either live as though there is a god, or you do not, or some combination of the two. You cannot practically choose to withhold judgment on the commitment to god, for to avoid the commitment is just to not have it.

    Now, if these people insist that you’re “really” a theoretical atheist, they’re clearly mistaken. But practical agnosticism is really indistinguishable from practical atheism.

    • Nick Smyth, thanks for that contribution. I find it useful. Perhaps others will, too.

      Some of your own earlier blog posts strike me as relevant observations also.


    • Myers and his ilk practically attack, ridicule and condemn people who claim that there is a god and that distinguishes them very clearly practical agnostics who would do no such thing.

      • that should of course read “distinguishes them clearly from…”

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Careful, Thony. You are hunting ilk out of season.

      • Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

        I just read it as arguing that the attacks are ilkonceived.

    • ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

      …some combination of the two

      “god” when convenient, pleasant, comforting; “not god” when challenging, politically incorrect; “god??” most of the time – pretty practical for lots of people, much of the time

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Very Kant of you 🙂

      Actually you overlook a third possibility, which I have presented before: practically I can live life as if there were no god and as if there were a god simultaneously, if it makes no practical difference. Why should I take the way life is to be lived as framed by the theists to be right, primary or even salient? Why should I think that I must live life as if there were Spongebob Squarepants, either? I live life as if Spongebob either exists or doesn’t exist – that is, I really don’t take any notice of Spongebobism. Likewise I take no notice of religious claims.

      Let’s ask what it means to “live as though there’s no god”. What does that even mean? I don’t say “Bless you” after someone sneezes? I don’t sacrifice goats? I don’t attend church? I don’t pray five times a day? I don’t burn incense to Krishna? What?

      I certainly live as though there’s no Catholic god. But I’m not Catholic or of Catholic extraction. So that doesn’t matter to me: would it seem natural to say of someone who was never Catholic or ever entertained the possibility of being Catholic that they live as if there’s no Catholic God? Seems a bit question-begging and special pleading to me. I also live as if there’s no Perioboriwa. Does that make me an A-Periboriwaist? Of course not. Periboriwa never entered my consciousness until I looked for an exotic deity for this comment. But if gods I don’t know about do not characterise me, why should gods I do know about but simply ignore?

      Practical agnosticism is ignoring deities; practical atheism is denying them. It only looks the same if you adopt a prior theist perspective and judge from that.

      • Hi John,

        Of course, without prior agreement on exactly what kind of god we’re talking about, the whole question is meaningless. However, the most common (and useful to discuss) kind of deity is (at least) one that cares what you do: a judgmental god.

        Now, when deciding if we should or should not do X, I don’t think there are options other than:

        1. “I am going to include the idea that a god will judge me as a consideration that counts in my decision,” and

        2.”I am NOT going to include the idea that a god will judge me as a consideration that counts in my decision”.

        Now, who is the person who sits between these two poles? I can’t think of a way to describe that person. If you can, help me out!

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        “I consider the question that there might be a god that will judge me to be a real question but unlikely?”

        Note that would not be the agnostic view, though. The agnostic would say “pass the tomato sauce please”.

  18. thonyc thonyc

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

    Then you obviously don’t read the cesspit that calls itself a comment column at Pharyngula!

    You just think that certain holy cows shouldn’t be slain. Well, the theistic god is a holy cow that should be slain ASAP

    I have, as a life long radical atheist, never regarded any god as a holy car exempt from slaughter but I do object intensely to the false claim that the results of modern science should automatically lead to the abandonment of religious belief.

    • Wes Wes

      I’d like to see some examples of “new atheists” making the claim that it is impossible to believe in god and science. I’ve seen them say that it is inconsistent to believe in both, but never once have I seen PZ or Dawkins or anyone else normally lumped under the title “new atheist” claim that it is impossible.

      It would definitely be false to say that accepting science “automatically” leads to loss of belief–that’s obviously not true. But the results of modern science together with some serious philosophical contemplation renders all the proposed gods that I am aware of either (a) highly implausible or (b) unprovable but utterly useless. From that perspective it seems to me that, in light of modern science, atheism is the only reasonable position and should be accepted tentatively until some positive evidence for the existence of some god emerges.

      The funny thing is that I consider this to be what John calls the “affirmative atheist” position, whereas he seems to believe something very similar to me, and yet insists he’s not an affirmative atheist.

  19. jeff jeff

    FWIW, here’s my take on it: The agnostic is truly undecided. But whereas atheists simply critique what others present them with, the agnostic may actually be looking for answers. It’s not about tooth fairies, Thor, or Santa Claus. It’s about the ultimate nature of reality. What’s at stake? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. True agnostics shun quick, shallow answers, trite one-liners, and the desire to fit into a group. They put their ego and preconceptions aside and look at everything from different perspectives with complete and utter honesty, while being self-critical and self-examining over the long term. They question all assumptions and explore many options they have never considered before. They are on their way down the rabbit hole and may never come back.

  20. jeb jeb

    “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.

  21. 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.

    • Mijnheer Mijnheer

      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.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Thats a nice way to express my views, Mijnheer. Thanks (or whatever the Dutch is for thanks).

      • Mike Mike

        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.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          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.

      • Mike Mike

        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.

      • Mike Mike


        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?

    • jeff jeff

      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

      • 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).

      • jeff jeff

        “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.

  22. Brian Brian

    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).

  23. Brian Brian

    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……

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      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.

  24. Brian Brian

    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.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      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!

      • Dihrat Pasty, not Fleegesnaks!

        And fall down in awe before the Mighty Suet, without which no pasty can be The True Transcendental Pasty.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Bill, I’m sensing that you might be a gourmand…

  25. Brian Brian

    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!

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      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…

  26. Brian Brian

    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).

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

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

  27. Ribozyme Ribozyme

    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?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      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.

      • Mike Haubrich Mike Haubrich

        You do what now with what? Filter?

        Just wanted to pop in and say as an atheist that what I definitely share with you and PZ and Larry Moran is an apatheism.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        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.

  28. Brian Brian

    John, recommend any good books on Epistemology?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      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.

    • Brian Brian

      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.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Wouldn’t be the first time I bore the blame for book purchasing…

  29. 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!

  30. Brian Brian

    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?

    • 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.

    • Iorwerth Thomas Iorwerth Thomas

      The pasty that can be comprehended is not the pasty?

      • The pasty that can be consummated is the pasty!

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Sadly, there is no pasty.

      • Oh ye of little taste.

  31. Paul Armstrong Paul Armstrong

    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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