Sunday, January 07, 2007

Agnosticism: a Cosmic Cop Out



[Thomas Huxley 1825 – 1895; coined the term “agnostic”]

Agnosticism seems to mean as follows: Throughout history millions of people have made endless different claims about the supernatural while others, more recently, have simply claimed that there is no such thing as the supernatural at all. Considering this, it would appear that the supernatural is something simply unknowable to the human mind. If it were something comprehensible, then surely we would already have some definite conclusions by now, however we apparently don’t. Therefore, the wisest choice is to just avoid the entire subject. We don’t know and we cannot know, so just forget the whole issue.

There are approximately a million agnostics in America.

Agnostics may be the only people who truly have no religion. (Atheists, I contend, do have a religion, however it is a naturalistic religion.)

Personally, to me, this seems to indicate a terrible mental laziness.

Take for example, diet and fitness. There are surely endless crackpot claims being made every day for all sorts of diet pills, fitness equipment, etc. However should a wise person just throw up his hands and say “Forget it! No one knows what is really healthy and what isn’t, so I am just going to eat and do whatever I want to do.” It would seem much wiser to examine all claims critically, attempt to separate the truth from the scams and behave accordingly. By the same token, regarding religion, there is plenty of nonsense and innumerable scams out there, however with careful, logical study one can reach a foundation of truth. This is what we all must strive for.

To do otherwise is to cop out on the cosmic purpose of our lives.

31 comments:

Henry said...

Agree 100%. Well said.

Baal Habos said...

>(Atheists, I contend, do have a religion, however it is naturalistic religion.)

>Personally, to me, this seems to indicate a terrible mental laziness

You are shameless.


What a contradiction. If someone chooses Atheism you claim they they simply chose another religion instead of YOUR religion. And you do it in a denigrating fashion. Implying it's just another belief with no proof. And then when someone claims there is no proof you accuse him of laziness.

Stop with the word ver. It's amillion keystrokes to enter a stupid comment in your blog.

Henry said...

Surely atheism is a belief? It is a firm assertion about the nature of the universe. What follows is worth examining, but ultimately, one must conclude from atheism that life is pointless, so one might as well go and jump off the pier. You cannot derive any system of values from the atheist proposition so you have licence to do as you please, for example to indulge in a life of hedonism. Which is an obvious attraction.

But you can't prove the existence of God either, in the way that you can objectively prove a geometrical theorem, or a proposition in physics, or a sequence of statements in formal logic.

jewish philosopher said...

I have to be shameless, Bos. I am fighting infidels and apostates. Check out Isaiah 50:6-7.

"I gave my back to those who strike me, and my cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover my face from humiliation and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps me, therefore, I am not disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed."

It's not easy, but someone's gotta do it.

Anyway, all I'm saying is that atheism is a false religion while agnosticism is a no religion; a neutral, non-religion which I think people fall into because they don't want to bother investigating the issues, or perhaps they are afraid of what they may find. To not decide is also a decision and I don’t think it’s a smart way to go.

About the comments, I don't know how else to filter out spam and nasty, irrelevant anonymous attacks.

Henry said...

You can moderate the comments. You change the settings for the blog, then you can look at them before posting. But it would be a mistake to filter out things you just did not agree with, I am sure you would not do that.

Also you can delete nasty anonymous stuff.

Cameron said...

Henry: Surely atheism is a belief?

CH: It's the difference between positive atheism and negative atheism. Negative atheism (or agnosticism) merely holds that no decision one way or another on the existence of God is possible. Positive atheism (which is what I practice) is the active belief that God's and supernatural beings do not exist. Agnostics are subset of atheists, but I'always thought of them as indecisive.

Henry: What follows is worth examining, but ultimately, one must conclude from atheism that life is pointless, so one might as well go and jump off the pier.

CH: And yet atheists don't typically jump off piers, or else why would 18% of the population consider themselves to be atheist or agnostic? The answer is that while we have no grand sky-god ressurection fable to give our lives meaning, we have instead found it elsewhere in the way we do our work, live our lives, and love our loves.

Henry: You cannot derive any system of values from the atheist proposition so you have licence to do as you please, for example to indulge in a life of hedonism. Which is an obvious attraction.

CH: I think your first point is arguable, and that you can reach both an explanation for morality and law from nature, but that it is not the kind of 'carved in stone' explanation fundamentalists prefer.

I do think your points about hedonism and even nihilism are well taken. When dropping ones religious narrative, the temptation to replace it with a destructive one (nihlism), or with a completely self-absorbed one (hedonism) cannot be denied. But all things are possible after a de-conversion, buddhism, agnosticism, humanism, etc. There are options with atheism to consider that don't inevitably lead to that long stare into a Nietzchean void.

Unlike some liberal thinkers who would pretend we have no natural tendencies and that we are blank slates, I instead recognize that we are creatures of nature, and that we do have a natural state of affairs. We prefer companionship to loneliness, comfort to deprivation,we enjoy our friends and families in unlasting ways, there are inummerable joys in parenthood and grandparenthood, etc.

Henry: But you can't prove the existence of God either, in the way that you can objectively prove a geometrical theorem, or a proposition in physics, or a sequence of statements in formal logic.

CH: On this we disagree, as I maintain the concept of god is ultimately incoherent.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't want to go as far as preapproving comments. I'm afraid that would discourage open discussion and I learn so much from hearing many points of view.

Adam Shajnfeld said...

Yes, it is ridiculous to refuse to adopt a position before one feels he has enough evidence. Better to just choose a side prematurely.

Henry said...

"We are creatures of nature" - Only in part. Humans have culture and transmit culture through representational systems. If you like, one can regard religion and its trappings as a representational system attempting to describe phenomena that are otherwise difficult or impossible to grasp. Typically, religions use a variety of media of communication - stories and other forms of words, actions, music, smells, architectural configurations, pictures - to put across the meanings it is trying to convey. This, incidentally, is my objection to text-based fundamentalisms, as they limit their representational systems and hence the range of meanings they can present.

The real problem with atheism, it seems to me, is that it leaves so much unaddressed and, having no explanatory narratives, does not equip people to deal with the vagaries of a lifetime.

jewish philosopher said...

Hi Adam! I was just thinking about you today.

The question is: Is it premature to choose sides about Judaism?

What if someone told you that they don't want to quit smoking because that would be "choosing a side prematurely"? Are they being prudent or do they just want to smoke?

Adam Shajnfeld said...

Well, obviously the prudence of choosing sides or not choosing sides depends on the available evidence. I don't believe that the evidence for god is as strong as you think it is, and under that belief, the only prudent thing is agnosticism.

jewish philosopher said...

I looks darn strong to me. But that's just my judgement.

Cameron said...

CH: "We are creatures of nature"

Henry: Only in part. Humans have culture and transmit culture through representational systems. If you like, one can regard religion and its trappings as a representational system attempting to describe phenomena that are otherwise difficult or impossible to grasp.

CH: Agreed - but the representational picture that religion gives of the world, though more comprehensive (they typically contain everything from morality, to diet, to what happens after you die), is nevertheless inaccurate. Where you use the words 'phenomenae that are difficult or impossible to grasp', I prefer to simply say 'impossible to grasp'.

Henry: Typically, religions use a variety of media of communication - stories and other forms of words, actions, music, smells, architectural configurations, pictures - to put across the meanings it is trying to convey. This, incidentally, is my objection to text-based fundamentalisms, as they limit their representational systems and hence the range of meanings they can present.

CH: My only objection to it is that it is factually wrong.

Henry: The real problem with atheism, it seems to me, is that it leaves so much un-addressed and, having no explanatory narratives, does not equip people to deal with the vagaries of a lifetime.

CH: In effect your criticism of atheism is that it does not perform the functions of a religion - fair enough - I have been arguing that it isn't a religion to little effect. In atheism there are no meta-narratives (despite JP's insistence on inventing them for us) intrinsic to atheism. It's just a starting point for moving towards the creation of a personal meta-narrative that doesn't require faith.

Adam Shajnfeld said...

"I looks darn strong to me. But that's just my judgement."

Ok, but then your gripe is not with agnosticism, it is with anyone who doesn't agree with you. Agnosticism would be just as bad as atheism, or humanism, is islam. Nothing peculiar about agnosticism that should draw ire.

Those who are thoughtful, principled agnostics do not subscribe to any view when they don't feel there is enough information to form a reasoned judgment. This is perhaps the most defensible position imaginable. Far from being a cop-out, it takes great power, wisdom, humility, and restraint.

Adam Shajnfeld said...

"The real problem with atheism, it seems to me, is that it leaves so much unaddressed and, having no explanatory narratives, does not equip people to deal with the vagaries of a lifetime."

Henry, you assume that in order to be true, a religion or worldview must provide these things. You offer no support for this proposition. You may wish that it did, but that doesn't mean it is any less true for not doing so.

jewish philosopher said...

Adam, let’s say in regards to the Holocaust, someone would tell you that he simply doesn’t know if it happened or not. He thinks that both sides of the Holocaust denial debate have good arguments, he himself wasn’t there and therefore he cannot take any side one way or the other. Would you regard that as “perhaps the most defensible position imaginable. Far from being a cop-out, it takes great power, wisdom, humility, and restraint”? Or would you perhaps be a little more critical of this type of statement? Like he’s looking for an excuse to avoid the whole issue?

Adam said...

Of course, but that depends on the amount of evidence available. We obviously disagree about the amount of evidence available.

I have spent much of my life studying, questioning, and thinking. I wouldn't exactly call it mental laziness.

Henry said...

In my experience, but I speak as a Catholic, those who are non-believers have problems making sense of the pain of life and the existential angst of unsatisfiable desire.

St Augustine described it as that feeling of restlessness that could only be found in God.

And so they fill their lives with activity - consuming, sex, psychoactive substances, etc, all to no ultimate avail, but it staves off the feeling of emptiness to the point that it is not noticed until they stop or are forced to stop.

If this sounds like nonsense, either, probably, you have led a very sheltered life so far or you are keeping the lid on things with busy-ness. So - nothing to do with god, religion or any of that stuff - go and sit in a quiet place, be silent for an hour and then notice what is in your head.

Adam said...

Henry, I understand that, but whether a religion provides those things really has nothing to do with it's truth value. It may have something to do with whether the religion survives and grows, but truth is not in any way, absent some convincing evidence, tied to how something makes us feel.

Henry said...

Unlike JP, I do not believe that religion can be proved in the way that one can prove a theorem in geometry. It is dealing with an area of knowledge that is not amenable to that kind of investigation.

The god of Christianity is one in which were are in relationship with. Christians would say they have in some way or other had an encounter with the risen Christ. Just as I have had an encounter with John Smith who lives across the road. And they will tell you about his personality, just as I can tell you whether JS is a really nice guy or a nasty piece of work. And you cannot deny my aquaintance with John Smith and experience of him, even though you have never met him.

Sceptics might say that this encounter is nothing more than an interesting neurological phenomenon, but a lot of people will vouch for the reality of the experience, and so to that extent at the very least it is real and accounts of it are true.

Catholic dogma states that Jesus is really present in the sacraments of the church, and I will support the truth of that claim.

badrabbi said...

Not all agnostics are created equal. Some agnostics simply don’t know much about theology. They haven’t thought about it much, and can not make up their minds whether there is a God or not. Here, JP may have a point that they are mentally lazy, having not thoroughly thought things through.

Others, like me, are almost certain that the God of the bible, one who listens to prayers and responds once in a while does not exist. We can not, however, completely rule supernatural entities. It is, after all, possible for a race of super smart people somewhere in this universe who can do amazing things. Supernatural things are conceivable and can not with certainty be ruled out. So, I classify myself as an agnostic. This does not signify my mental laziness. I simply can not for sure rule supernatural phenomena out.

As to whether Atheism is also a religion, then I would offer that all people, JP included, are atheists of some kind. I bet you that JP is atheist regarding the existence of ‘Zeus’. I bet you he is certain that “Ra”, the Egyptian God, does not exist. Never mind how he can be so sure – it is clear all religious Jews are atheistic regarding all Gods except Ya-eh (I hyphenated out of respect for you frumsters). As Sam Harris says, the atheists simply go one God further!

jewish philosopher said...

Atheists are sure that nothing supernatural exists. This is in a way much more close minded than other religions, which accept nature and also some supernatural phenomena.

badrabbi said...

Not believing in supernatural phenomena is not exaclty being "closed minded". So, if, for example, I do not believe in Santa Claus, who comes every christmas to give me gifts. Does that make me closed minded? Or is it simply that I do not believe that there were candles that lasted 8 days instead of the alloted one day during Chanukah - does that make me closed minded?

You have a warped definition of what "closed minded" is. Let me have you consider this: Please send me a thousand dollars and I will bless you to have 'parnasah'. If you don't give me the money that means you are closed minded!

jewish philosopher said...

Let's say I would tell you "I'll believe in Darwinism when I see a new species appear before my very eyes". Would that sound closed minded? That is the attitude most atheists take regarding religion. I'll believe in God when I see Him.

badrabbi said...

But Darwinian theory is a 'process', not an entity. The theory describes a process by which organisms can form variety. God is not a process but a form of existence. If he exists, then we should detect his presence in some tangible way. Or we might conceptualize his existence in som sort of a logical way.

You see, people say they beleive in the existence of the 'big foot'. Scientists want some kind of evidence to accept that this creature exists. People also say that there are aliens that abduct them and conduct sexual experiments on them. Again, JP, how should we approach these assertions?
Should we be 'open minded' and start preparations for the alien invasion? Should we devote a significant part of our day in following the rites and rituals of aliens? How do we decide what information to take seriously?

It is good to keep an open mind, I agree. But it also good to keep a reasoned mind sharp. When an orthodox Jew comes and says eating a cheeseburger is as buying a ticket to hell, it is good to be somewhat skeptical.

jewish philosopher said...

Every organelle in your body proves there is a God. Did He create you for no reason? Has He ever made an announcement telling us what our purpose is?

badrabbi said...

JP, you who believes in God, can you tell me what the purpose for life is?

jewish philosopher said...

The purpose of our lives is to be a loyal and faithful slave to God because we are overwhelmed by love for Him.

Zarnacy said...

I do believe in a Deity but I am not a member of Judaism. But I must agree that atheism is a religion, but a false religion. Although "Atheism" literally means "God does not exist", in practice it is a whole bundle of beliefs which go a lot further than just that (e.g. reality is ultimately purely material, there is no afterlife, morality is nothing more than our personal feelings, faith is illegitimate, the natural sciences are the model for all human thought, etc.)

But I would say, I am not sure agnostics are "lazy". Not everyone has the same degree of intelligence or education, and hence not always the aptitude to determine for themselves the answers to difficult religious questions. In the absence of any authority which they recognise as genuine, or any personal spiritual experience to guide them, for such a person, agnosticism may be the best option. I think rather than dismissing them as lazy, we should ask ourselves how we might reach these people with the truth.

jewish philosopher said...

At this point I would actually be more inclined to say that agnosticism is a transitional stage between monotheism and atheism.

Anonymous said...

Agnosticism is anti-dogmatism more than anything else.
Agnostic “without knowledge” is Socratic “I know that I know nothing” philosophy.
Agnosticism has 12 major tenants.
1. The only way to learn is to recognize our own ignorance.
2. Challenge authority. No one is above criticism.
3. Do not solidify your mind around a creed. Take things issue by issue and keep your mind fluid.
4. Do not bow down to peer-pressure or mob mentality. Always maintain your independence.
5. Ignorance that is recognized is ignorance that can be cured.
6. Continuously gather knowledge and wisdom.
7. Recognize which beliefs are aligned with knowledge and which ones are not.
8. Bravely place your thoughts into the cross-hairs of argumentation and criticism.
9. Having the humility necessary to abandon beliefs that cannot withstand scrutiny.
10. Continuously fortify the foundation of your beliefs with knowledge.
11. Make informed decisions based on empirical evidence and reason to the best of your ability.
12. No method of finding truth is a replacement for common sense.

When it comes to the god question, agnostics live as atheists and deists without reverence to any god or supernaturalism. We don’t believe in the validity of any religion. We only reserve judgment on the possibility of some kind of greater intelligence currently beyond our perceptions and philosophy.
-James Kirk Wall