Skip to content

Atheism, agnosticism and theism 3: Knowledge claims about gods

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

Previous posts in this series: One and Two .

In an influential book, W. V. O. Quine, one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote with his student:

It is important to distinguish between disbelief and nonbelief – between believing a sentence false and merely not believing it true. Disbelief is a case of belief; to believe a sentence is false is to believe the negation of the sentence true. We disbelieve that there are ghosts; we believe that there are none. Nonbelief is the state of suspended judgment: neither believing the sentence true nor believing the sentence false. Such is our attitude towards there being an even number of Paul Smiths in Boston. This is still nothing so contentious as believing the sentence to be neither true nor false; on the contrary, it is simply the absence of opinion.

The point so clearly expressed by Quine here is often the subject of considerable confusion amongst those who debate religion. If I say “I do not believe in gods”, I may be saying:

Not(Believe[I] Thereexist(Gods)) [¬(BI(∃x(Gx))]

Or I may be saying

Believe[I](Not Thereexist(Gods)) [(BI(¬∃x(Gx))]

In other words, the negation here may apply to my belief or it may apply to the content of my belief. If it applies to my belief, then there is simply an absence of judgement. In effect I am saying I have no belief on the matter. If it applies to the content of my belief, then I do have a judgement: that there are no gods. One might hold both views, since one can have no belief there is a god and a belief there is no god at the same time:


Let’s give these names. PZ Myers has called the former “dictionary atheism“. The latter has been called “strong atheism”. I prefer negative atheism and positive atheism because the latter makes a positive knowledge claim. Negative atheism is atheism in the same sense that a car manual that fails to mention the role of God in engine maintenance (despite the repeated imprecations of God’s name by mechanics) is atheist. It neither makes a knowledge claim nor doesn’t make one.

We do not need to make judgements about all possible claims. These unjudged claims do not define us. I have no opinion about the utility of, say, a foreign exchange instrument (I’m totally economically illiterate). This does not make me an “aforexist”. But if I reject, in a positive sense, forex trading, then I am indeed an aforexist. It all has to do with there being content of the sentence, proposition or belief. Dictionary or negative atheism is simply the absence of a belief (a positive belief) in a god. There simply is no content to speak of (or to believe). By contrast, there is a content to the denial of the existence of gods. This is not a contradiction. These are different issues: one is to lack a belief and the other is to reject a belief. If lacking a belief had a content, then it could contradict rejecting that belief. But one might reject a belief because one lacks [a reason for] a belief.

So positive atheism makes a knowledge claim. Let us call (with good historical precedent) the making of knowledge claims gnosticism (from the Greek for knowledge, gnosis), and the lacking of knowledge claims agnosticism. This meets the initial reason Huxley coined the term:

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.

However, in adopting an agnostic claim with respect to some belief, there are two subsidiary kinds: on one account one lacks an opinion because one simply does not, at the time of affirmation being asked for, know. This kind of agnosticism is a simple statement that one does not know. A more extensive and perhaps principled version is to claim that one cannot know. This usually goes by the name “the Unknowable”. This kind of agnosticism is usually based upon arguments against the very possibility of knowledge being gained for some domain. Initially Huxley seems to have thought that the divine was in principle Unknowable, possibly a byproduct of too much German romanticism in his tea, but later he disavowed that.

However, claims of agnosticism are often met with the schoolyard rejoinder “well are you agnostic about [insert silly supernatural entity here]?” Often this involves fairies, teapots orbiting around Saturn, or gods like Thor who makes thunder with his hammer. A point I shall return to later is that being agnostic about one or a finite number of claims doesn’t mean one has to be agnostic about all such claims. In fact, religious apologists occasionally try to argue that if one is agnostic about God, one must be agnostic about all beliefs! In other words, one not only doesn’t know anything, one can’t believe anything at all. The logic underlying this non sequitur escapes me. I shall later argue that all belief claims are indexed to the particular content of the belief with respect to which the belief is held. Consequently, an agnostic is making claims that some beliefs are not knowable. The agnosticism is limited to a class of defined claims, about which the agnostic asserts ignorance one way or the other. That is all.

So, the implication is that one may be agnostic about one claim (say, which child in the world is the most beautiful) and yet not be agnostic about other claims (say, that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have beautiful children). One may be an agnostic about some deity existence claims (which we will discuss in the next post) and yet an atheist about others. For example, I am not agnostic about Thor. Thunder is not caused by his hammer Mjolnir; not only is there no evidence of this, there is evidence directly contradictory to this. When the scope of the evidence speaks to the claim, then one can of course take a stance. Likewise, one cannot be agnostic about, say, human-caused global warming, because the evidence, the theory and the logic are all reliable and tested. There is warrant for a belief stance, one which if anything does qualifies as knowledge. But one can be agnostic about string theory, for which there is no evidence one way or the other and may even never be.

So let us try to formalise this. To be agnostic in the weak sense is simply to make no knowledge claim:

Weak agnosticism: Not A knows about God[i]   [¬(KA(Gi)]

Strong agnosticism: Not A knows about Gods (or Not possible A knows about Gods) [¬(KA(♢x(Gx)] or [¬?KA(?x(Gx)]

So the first of our axes is whether or not one makes (or modally, can make) a knowledge claim about some or all gods. If one thinks a resolution can reasonably be made, one is a gnostic, and if not, an agnostic. Since we have not defined atheism here yet, one may be an atheist who is agnostic. To be an atheist will be specified as an existence claim, which is a matter of ontology, in the next post. To be a gnostic or agnostic is to make an epistemic claim, about knowledge and its possibility in the domain of deities.

The next post in this series: Four.


  1. Ah! Now you seem to be addressing the question I raised in response to your first post. But I don’t believe that “the negation here” (ie in the statement ‘I do not believe in gods’ ) “may apply to my belief or it may apply to the content of my belief”.

    Or at least I don’t agree with the permissive use of “may” since I think that the statement of non-belief should be logically unambiguous. (I suppose that you may be right in terms of the probabilistic use of “may” though, since many people may indeed use the language incorrectly. So I do agree that for some audiences it may be necessary to make the point that “I don’t believe x” is not the same as “I believe notx”. But I didn’t think that this was that kind of audience.)

    Certainly there is a colloquial use of “don’t believe” that is weighted towards disbelief – as when one says “I don’t believe it’s raining” to mean “I suspect that it not raining”, but that use rarely implies the certainty that would come with “I believe it is not raining”.

    Another problem with “believe” is that is commonly used both for extremely strong and relatively tentative opinions, with other words like “think” occupying the middle ground (as in “Ah Buhleeve that I have just been annointed by the FSM” as opposed to “I believe you may have just spilled some pasta sauce on your shirt – but it could be ketchup instead”, but “I saw you eating french fries a while ago so I *think* it’s probably ketchup”)

  2. Josh Hayes Josh Hayes

    Those not accustomed to formal logic formulations may find the distinction more easily understandable in an unfortunate terminology which has pervaded advertising copy lately. We hear the voiceover earnestly tell us “all toothpaste is not the same”, when what they really mean is “not all toothpaste is the same”.

    In short, it’s not the case that every single variety of toothpaste differs from every other variety (“All toothpaste is not the same”), but rather, that one brand, their brand, differs from the hodge-podge of other toothpastes (“Not all toothpaste is the same”).

    So it’s the position of the negation that makes the difference. It’s worth noting, however, that “I believe there is no God” and “I do not believe there is a God”, while logically distinct, may both be true. That is, one might not believe there is a God because one believes there is no God – this overlap is illustrated nicely in the Venn diagram.

  3. Thanks for a very clear discussion. The distinctions are often blurred, and sometimes one suspects that blurring is deliberate.

    There’s an additional problem. Words do not get their meaning from clear logic, but from usage within the culture (or subculture). It seems rather clear that in USA, the culture takes “atheism” to mean “strong atheism” and is not sure what to make of “agnosticism.” To avoid that problem, I sometimes just say that I am non-religious, a term that does not seem to be as easily misunderstood.

    • Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

      The problem with non-religious is ambiguity. With that statement, you may also be a believer who follows no formal doctrine or a lapsed Catholic. Non-religious is not the same as non-believer.

  4. Discussions of this issue always seem to make atheism vs agnosticism a matter of logic. It seems to me that what matters here is pragmatics. By the normal rules of discourse, which are more restrictive than those of formal logic, I’ve got no business misleading my listeners by claiming “I am an agnostic” when what I mean is that I don’t entertain the existence of God* for a second but I acknowledge that statements of fact are always dubious in principle. The logic/pragmatics distinction matter a lot in these debates, or so I argue, because what keeps otherwise educated people endlessly talking about God is the presumption that the existence of God is a reasonable prior, not only for the people, for whom it obviously is, but for philosophers, for whom it mostly isn’t.

    The new atheists™ cheat in a different way. They try to collapse together atheism = disbelief in God (well D’uh!) with atheism = a social movement with a whole bunch of other ideological baggage. Since religion, at least in its traditional forms, is easy to make fun of, one can effortlessly further other political and social goals by acting as if the rejection of religion is somehow equivalent to accepting the new atheist program whole hog. This is what they used to call a paralogism in the trade.

    *Since the concept of God is both vague and ambiguous, I hesitated to be so absolute here since there is surely some sense of the word God that somebody could cook up that would make me a theist. I have been told, for example, that the affirmation of God amounts to admitting that being is, on the whole, better than non being. On my better days I incline to that opinion so I guess I do belong to the faithful…

  5. Thanks for a wonderful article. This echoes exactly my thoughts on the matter, and it is gratifying to read it stated so much more clearly than I’ve ever been able to write it.

    One note, with regard to Alan Cooper’s comment. I think there are two issues here: one is the language that people use, and the other is the logical representation of those statements. One might say “I don’t believe it’s raining,” but I would say that this is an idiomatic use based on the inherent vagueness of English (and natural languages generally). However, when presenting arguments being careful to ensure the greatest possible consistency, I say we must be more clear than “I don’t believe it’s raining.”

    It may be that the author of the utterance has just been told that it is raining, and he replies “I don’t believe it’s raining.” It may be, as Alan suggests, a suggestion, or even a belief, that it is in fact not raining. One cannot say from the statement alone, out of context, and without being able to query the author to explain what was actually meant.

    Put another way, no matter what the person actually means by “I don’t believe it’s raining,” it will be one of only a very few possibilities, depending on context. And those more crisp statements will fall within the alternatives noted by John in this post.

  6. Bill Benzon Bill Benzon

    I plugged this [(BI(¬?x(Gx))] into Google translate and you know what it said? “ET, phone home,” that’s what.

    • Sorry for that, Bill. My software did not like the logical symbols so it put ?s instead, and I messed up fixing them. I have now done so.

      Either that, or you were asserting the incoherence of QL, in which case you should have realised it was “Live Long and Prosper” in the original Vulcan.

  7. In fact, religious apologists occasionally try to argue that if one is agnostic about God, one must be agnostic about all beliefs! In other words, one not only doesn’t know anything, one can’t believe anything at all. The logic underlying this non sequitur escapes me.

    It would follow if the existence and nonexistence of God each entailed alternative beliefs none of which precisely overlapped (similarity would still be possible, as long as the alternative beliefs were mutually exclusive as to details), such that for any possible belief there was an alternative possible belief, and these were mutually exclusive at least in some detail, and which was true depended on whether God existed or not. Scenarios of this general type are certainly logically possible: as you’ve depicted it here, it’s logically possible to have an incoherent agnosticism, being agnostic about a class of claims, A, while not being agnostic about a class of claims, B, while agnosticism about A actually entails the impossibility of knowing anything about B. Belief doesn’t exhibit closure properties, and your indexing approach would seem to rule them out, anyway. The massive scale in this particular scenario shows a bit of chutzpah, and on that scale is likely doomed to fail due to facts about how beliefs relate to other beliefs, but while it’s unlikely and extreme, it’s not as if it’s an utterly absurd suggestion. Indeed, whether or not an agnostic could consistently reject it as a suggestion would depend greatly on how extensive the agnostic’s agnosticism about God was; rejecting it definitively requires knowing a large body of facts about what follows from God’s existing or not, which requires knowing quite a bit about what God would have to be like if God existed, and what could be true about the world given God’s existence or nonexistence, etc. Think of it as a Cartesian challenge to the agnostic; and it’s one of those challenges where one has to step carefully to avoid Pyrrhic victories — even if it’s not literally true that one must be agnostic about everything, if the agnostic could only salvage beliefs having to do with his immediate state of mind, that’s a vanishingly small amount that for most purposes is as good as nothing.

    It is, again, a meetable challenge; but it can only be met if one knows certain specific things about how the class of claims that one is agnostic about relates to other classes of claims, and the class of agnosticisms that can meet that sort of challenge is necessarily smaller than the class of agnosticisms possible. For an agnostic to reject the claim is equivalent to the agnostic claiming to know a lot of fairly specific things about what God’s nature must be like if God exists, and a lot of fairly specific things about what a Godless world would allow. So it would always be reasonable at least to ask the agnostic to show that he has formulated his agnosticism sufficiently precisely that he can claim to know things that would rule out global agnosticism or anything too close to it.

    I’m worried about your agnosticism formulations; as it stands, given the conception of knowledge you’re working with, most theists are weak agnostics: they would claim to believe that God exists, either fideistically or on evidence, not to know that God exists, and many would be perfectly happy to say that it is unknowable (although some would say that we still can have evidence insufficient for knowledge). Given your remarks about Nicholas Cusa in a previous thread, I’m suspecting that you’re doing this intentionally, but at present it seems a bit like a kind of agnostic imperialism, laying claim to anyone who would allow any doubt.

    • It would follow if the existence and nonexistence of God each entailed alternative beliefs none of which precisely overlapped (similarity would still be possible, as long as the alternative beliefs were mutually exclusive as to details), such that for any possible belief there was an alternative possible belief, and these were mutually exclusive at least in some detail, and which was true depended on whether God existed or not.

      Brandon, I’m not getting this. Is it possible that there are some small (but meaningful) typos? Like, should the “none” be “neither”? If not, could you rephrase in terms that a person with only a doctorate in engineering might get? I’m not being snide; I honestly do want to understand what you’re saying.

      • Like you I had trouble tracking the claims and counterclaims in Brandon’s comment. But from what I did get, let me say this:

        We can assert that we do not know some things, or else claims of knowledge are meaningless and empty. So if I can say I do not know one class of things it is completely opaque to me how that can imply I must know nothing. Why claims about God are any different to claims about, say, string theory or the content of the breakfast Julius Caesar ate on the ides of March, I fail to see.

        As to the content of God claims, these rely on those who make them. I don’t have to claim to know anything about Thor – I merely need to be able to show that the claims made fail to be true in order to be a Thoratheist, or that I cannot show them to be true or false to be a Thoragnostic. Perhaps Brandon could rephrase the point for those of us who are a little slower.

        • John, I’m exactly at the same point you are. We’ll wait together for a bit more help from Brandon.

      • Fil Salustri,

        ‘None’ can be replaced in ‘neither’ when there are only two alternatives. I’m not sure that this will always be true given how broadly John takes the term ‘god’.

        We can break it up and simplify it in this way. Suppose the following:

        (a) two claims, God exists (call it G) and God does not exist (call it ~G) which are taken to be contradictories;
        (b) G and ~G have rigorous implications — there are things that necessarily follow from each;
        (c) these implications directly or indirectly affect everything;
        (d) these implications do not at any point overlap.

        These would mean that the choice between G and ~G is so significant for your beliefs that if you accept G (and are consistent) all of your beliefs will be a little different than if you accept ~G (and are consistent). We could call the beliefs that follow from G, {G}, and the beliefs that follow from ~G, {~G}. We said above that {G} and {~G} don’t overlap — every belief in {G} is at least a tiny bit different from any belief in {~G}. Thus by supposition it would follow if you are consistently agnostic about whether G or ~G is true, you will be agnostic about everything (because, by supposition (c), everything is affected by the decision between the two).

        In other words, it’s a matter of how much impact the question has on the rest of your beliefs. If it’s an isolated question (doesn’t affect much), it’s easy to be agnostic about it and only it. If it’s a very, very significant question (affects lots of things), being agnostic about it alone may well be impossible (assuming you are consistent). And if it affected everything, even a tiny bit, agnosticism on the question can affect everything. Which of these is true can only be known if lots of things are known about how the question relates to everything else.

        As to John’s question about how God claims would be different from claims about Julius Caesar, I don’t think this is a difficult question at all: some claims about God affect lots and lots of things in ways that no likely claim about Julius Caesar does. If you think there is a God, and that God must be a Cartesian evil deceiver, then being agnostic about whether there is a God entails being agnostic about anything you could possibly be deceived about. To rule this out, the agnostic at least has to know that if there is a God, God can’t be a Cartesian evil deceiver. There is absolutely nothing analogous to this with Julius Caesar, unless someone thought that Julius Caesar is Descartes’s evil deceiver or something like it (and if they did, then claims about Julius Caesar wouldn’t be isolated, and would be a very bad example of limited agnosticism). By assuming that it’s easy to isolate the question of God, John is assuming that the agnostic knows a great deal about what follows from God’s existence or nonexistence, and that what is known implies that the alternative chosen doesn’t make much difference to (at least most) other things.

        John used the example of religious apologists making the argument, but, of course, atheists make it, too; every time an atheist argues that we can’t be agnostic because then we couldn’t know whether there were stable laws of nature (as opposed to regularities God could change at whim) or indeed much about the world (since we haven’t ruled out an evil deceiver God) is making a similar (although slightly weaker) argument. I don’t know how popular it is today, but it used to be a fairly common one; and it appeals to the same point about agnosticism, namely, that to be a consistent limited agnostic about a question you have to know a lot about how the question relates to everything else. As I said, some agnostics would have no problem with this. This is not true of agnosticism generally, though; there are plenty of possible agnosticisms that are not sufficiently developed or precise enough to have any response to this kind of argument.

  8. Thank you so very much Brandon for taking the time to write this out. This is much, much clearer to me.

    I don’t see any problems with your statements #1 & #2, but I’m not sure about #3 & #4.

    For #3, I can see why someone would suggest this: one would think that god had to create everything so he’s had some impact on everything. However, if god doesn’t exist, I don’t see that changing some things, because they already are. That is, if god doesn’t exist, something still had to make those squirrels that I keep chasing off the bird-feeder.
    …that’s not very clear. Okay; take 2. Maybe the question is not whether god does or doesn’t exist, but rather what would replace him if he doesn’t exist. That is, if we say god created the universe, but then we deny god exists, then we’re left with a hole: what created the universe? So comparing a state with and a state without god is a little like comparing apples & oranges.

    As for #4, I’m not sure that the implications have to be disjoint. God explains some things that are also explained by science. The implications are the same; it’s just the source that’s different.

  9. For (3) (or c) it has more than just to do with issues of explanation. Remember that agnosticism in this context is really an epistemological claim, not a metaphysical one: it doesn’t (necessarily) say anything about the universe or reality, only about what we can know, so a belief can have an effect on a lot of other beliefs if it affects whether we can accept them, regardless of whether they are about things that have much to do with each other in reality. Now, some hypotheses about what could be the case if a god existed mess with our knowledge directly — the idea, as noted above, that this god could be an evil deceiver, deceiving us about everything we could possibly be deceived about, is just one. Some people hold that God is the only thing that exists, and that everything else is an illusion that comes from the fact that we are only part of God’s mind, and thus do not see how it is all one. Being agnostic about this is going to make us agnostic about whether everything else is really an illusion or not. Likewise, some hypotheses about what could be the case if no god existed mess with our knowledge directly: if Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is taken to work, for instance, a similar result obtains on the no-God side. Thus to limit agnosticism requires not just the indexing of agnosticism to a particular question (is there a God or not?) — it requires the resolution of all these issues about what could be true about all our beliefs and (alleged) knowledge if either option were the case. Given the way John’s formulated it, it’s certainly possible for an agnosticism to be limited in this way; but it’s also clearly the case that nothing about the formulations requires that the agnostic have done the work to prevent agnosticism explosion, in which case it might sometimes be entirely reasonable to challenge the agnostic on it.

    As to 4 (or (d)), you are quite right that they need not be disjoint. But we can’t take it as self-evident that they aren’t, either, and knowing that they are or are not requires knowing the sorts of things we’re talking about.

    In other words, I’m really just arguing for the position that the limitation to a particular question is not really built into agnosticism as John has defined it: you can have agnosticism about X (John’s indexing of agnosticism to a class of claims), but you can’t tell from this whether it is really only about X, because that depends on a lot of other beliefs and knowledge about how X relates to other things. It is this, and this alone (assuming that we demand consistency), that can limit agnosticism to one class of claims, preventing it from exploding into other classes of claims. Whether agnosticism explodes depends on assumptions about what you are agnostic about, and how that relates to other things.

  10. Ah. Okay. I see what you mean now.

    Being an engineer and not a philosopher limits my ability to engage in much more than a naive discussion about this sort of thing, so I hope I’m not saying anything (too) out of place.

    Brandon, I see you’re argument – as I see John’s. I know just enough to know how little I really know about this. More importantly, I think, is the recognition of the implications for everyday life and decision making. That is, I think it’s safe to say that if your version of things holds, Brandon, then there are many, many, many people in the world who are inconsistently agnostic. What are the implications of this in, say, politics? In marketing? In urban planning? In…..

    This is, I think, why some people tire easily of philosophical discussions – they cannot connect the arguments (if they can even understand them) back to something that “matters” to them. Actually, I think science has exactly the same problem these days. The more we “know” as a species, the (proportionally) less individuals know.

    So I would respectfully suggest that whether you’re “right” or John is, the result needs to be useful in some pragmatic way, if for no more than pragmatic reasons. That is, if philosophy can’t be made plainly relevant to non-philosophers, then philosophy may well become extinct.

    I say this as a person who would see the extinction of philosophy as a bad thing.

  11. Well, at this point I’m merely trying to see the implications of John’s way of doing things here; it’s very different from the way I would go about it, so I’m sorting through what might be some of its odder implications or more controvertible assumptions to see how the whole thing works.

    I agree that one result could be that many people are in fact inconsistent agnostics in the sense given above, but I don’t see that this is any more remarkable than that many people are logically inconsistent in general. Inconsistency is a logical matter, and whether it has practical significance is simply a matter of what, practically speaking, you are doing. If you are trying to propose an alternative view in an argument or prove something definitively, it’s very important. If you’re trying to decide what to wear, not so much. (It’s the same thing with mathematical matters; if you’re balancing your checkbook, you don’t need a proof that arithmetic is consistent. But for knowing how arithmetic relates to other mathematical projects, it can be pretty important.) In this context, think of it as the quasi-technical background for an engineering problem, but with the engineering problem being the potential problems the agnostic would have to build his position to avoid, if he wants to have a coherent view. If agnosticism explosion is a genuine worry, it would affect the sort of challenges agnostics can be expected to face in defending their position. If agnosticism is capable of explosion, then any agnostic may have to make an effort to show that theirs doesn’t; if agnosticism is nonexplosive (limited just to one class of claims by its very nature), then any such challenge to the agnostic becomes merely absurd and easily dismissed, and the agnostic can focus on other issues. If there are circumstances where you can only avoid explosion of agnosticism by being logically inconsistent, that’s a pretty important thing to know, if you think knowledge is important.

    I am skeptical of the view that philosophy needs to be plainly relevant to non-philosophers or become extinct; this sort of thing is manifestly untrue of pretty much every other field in existence, and many mathematicians and quantum physicists can thank their lucky stars for that. And philosophy has seen the rise and fall of civilizations, dark ages and golden ages, technical periods and popular periods, natural catastrophes and manmade disasters, and nearly 2500 years of jokes about starry-eyed philosophers never watching where they are going and ending up in ditches like the impractical people they are; it seems to be doing just fine. But I do agree entirely that philosophy in its most complete form cannot be merely a technical exercise.

  12. Wow. I’m glad to see that my comment on agnosticism sparked this intellectual undertaking. I had not seen or thought about formal expressions of agnosticism before. I hope you don’t mind the instigator chiming in two years late.

    Your stated goal was to explore the semantic landscape a bit. You have formalized two common notions of agnosticism. I find myself weakly agnostic for some classes of gods but strongly agnostic for others. As long as I get to vary the proposition G, your formalisms hold for me in this regard. You might represent that with a subscript index j on G, so that I can sometimes apply one form of agnosticism, sometimes others — Gj(i). Even so, there are additional nuances that seem to be missing.

    When someone asks me to answer a question within the context of a notion of god, my immediate reaction is not a stance of either weak or strong agnosticism. My immediate reaction is, “I have no idea what this person means.” So I ask questions. Gj(i) is not yet even available to me — it is not yet defined. While undefined, it’s merely an uninstantiated variable, and I hold no opinion. Is that a form of agnosticism? A theist would not likely respond this way: a theist would likely assume that he understood the meaning of “god” and proceed. An atheist also would not likely respond this way, but instead assume a negative position on what is otherwise an uninstantiated variable. Or rather, the theist and the atheist automatically instantiate the variable with their respective assumed values. Do we ascribe their behavior to their beliefs or to a failure to communicate? Or are belief and communication too intertwined for pragmatic distinction? If these behaviors are a consequence of belief, then does the questioning response warrant yet another belief label? I’m often withholding judgement not because I don’t know the truth of Gj(i), but because I have not yet formed a representation for Gj(i).

    I get into some interesting conversations. I find myself especially trying to be open-minded and listening on dates. When I finally come to understand some of what the person means by “god,” I usually find myself with a reaction. “Violates known laws of physics.” “Unfalsifiable but possibly true.” “I don’t like.” “I kind of like that.” Sometimes I am really surprised by the person’s answer. On occasion what the person means seems to be synonymous with “universe” and I am a strong believer. The person used the word “god” but did not intend any supernatural baggage, at least for the context of the conversation. And sometimes the process does not leave me with a coherent representation to evaluate. Whatever the person means by “god” remains undefined for me.

    If I do seem to get an understanding of what the person means, I am rarely without an assessment. I am rarely entirely agnostic on the matter. As a result of the conversation, I have built a construct for me to examine. I’m not sure I can be entirely without judgement of construct painted in my mind. But my judgements are rarely black or white. The concept of “god” that a person presents tends to be multi-dimensional, and my evaulation of each dimension is multi-dimensional as well. My assessment tends to be complicated at that point. I might assign a low probability to one aspect and a high probability to another. There may also be aspects for which I have no evaluation at all. So maybe I have a probabilistic function associated with each aspect presented. If there’s a way to assign a probability to the whole as a function of the probabilities of these aspects, then maybe I have a level of agnosticism for each Gj(i) and not just a value of true, false, or indeterminate.

    Well, there’s some more food for thought, should you ever care to revist the subject. It blew me away to see my comment show up on Andrew Sullivan, and it warms me that a philosopher thought it was a helpful line of inquiry.

    BTW, in your definitions of weak and strong agnosticism here, the universal quantifier is showing up as a diamond, and the existential quantifier is showing up as a question mark — or this is some notation I’m not familiar with.

Comments are closed.