A road map to nowhere

Despite being all about not believing, Agnosticism still requires certain beliefs to get it off the ground. Hence, although I would only say agnosticism is one of a number of reasonable options, when it comes to belief in God, I still need to make an argument as to what’s so reasonable about it. And here, in outline, is how that works:

First up, the agnostic rejects the idea that one can simply examine the evidence, and reason one’s way towards either theism or atheism. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of pertinent evidence available, nor is it to say that reasoning isn’t vitally important, rather it’s a claim that, inevitably, a great big unknown remains, and it can’t be dislodged by appeals to proofs, or even likelihoods.

At this point, it’s important to notice that the agnostic may not be agnostic with regard to all aspects of religion, and I’m certainly not. Whether there is an extra-physical element to existence that in some sense makes sense of it, whether there is a reason we exist, whether the universe has a purpose, these are the sorts of issues I am agnostic on. But, consider something like the power of prayer to heal the sick, and we are, it seems to me, very much in evidence based territory. Set up an experiment, pray for some and not for others, don’t let the subject know whether or not they’re being prayed for, and measure the results. On this matter I’m more than happy to be swayed by evidence.

I’m arguing, however, that there are some metaphysical questions that sit beyond the scope of measurement or logical inquisition, and we ought to accept this. To make this claim, is to implicitly reject some very common arguments, and the only way to do this fairly is to address them.

So, a common atheistic line is that, all things considered, God is a much less likely scenario than no-God. This is the slogan you’ll find on atheist sponsored buses, ‘there probably isn’t a God…’ I think this is a very important case, in that it reminds us that reasonable belief is almost always probabilistic, rather than certain. Most of the things I believe to be true, I can not be entirely certain of. I believe that’s my car out the window, sitting where I parked it. I’m assuming it hasn’t been stolen, and an identical looking car has since parked in its place, but I can’t be sure. I believe it’s my car because it seems overwhelmingly likely, given what I know. In order to refute the atheist line here, I need to be able to show that probability doesn’t apply to the big metaphysical questions. And that will be my next post.

Another very common atheistic line invokes a principle of doubting those things for which we have no evidence. If we can find no evidence in favour of a proposition, then we ought to lean towards that thing not existing. This approach leans heavily on Occam’s razor, the idea that one shouldn’t add unnecessary elements to an explanation, but rather should favour only those aspects absolutely necessary to get the model off the ground. While I think this is often a handy principle, moving from ‘we have no firm ground to believe this does exist’ to ‘therefore we have grounds for believing it doesn’t exist’ is to me a slightly sneaky trick, that doesn’t always work as well as one might hope. And there’s the curly question of what counts as evidence in the first place. So that’s worthy of a post too, I imagine.

In terms of the strongest theistic arguments, I think I’d include the potential of a theistic world view to make sense of the question ‘why is there something and not nothing?’ Some argue that given we can not establish a physical model that explains why the rules of the physical model are as they are, or exist at all, this in itself should count as evidence in favour of something existing beyond the physical world. That seems to me to be an argument worth considering, and so I will.

The argument from morality also appears at first blush to carry some weight. The basic point the theist makes is that we mostly hold to notions of right and wrong, especially in extreme cases, and yet the very notion of right and wrong makes little sense if removed from the context of a higher power. None of these four arguments mentioned appear to me to be compelling, which is to say I think each is vulnerable to reasoned attack, and the agnostic, who implicitly rejects them all (along with any other number of pro and anti God arguments) needs to be able to establish this vulnerability. I’ll have a crack.

Even if we can make it this far, the job still won’t be fully done. A great number of atheists and theists would also accept there are no compelling logical reasons for taking sides, but would still suggest there are compelling practical reasons. They might argue in general, that belief is better than no belief, and then, specifically, that their version of belief offers particular rewards. These are essentially the arguments from pragmatism. Theists will often offer the very fact that their belief gives them a sense of purpose and meaning as reason enough to believe. Against this, the atheist often likes to push the slippery slope argument , that says, practically speaking, once you’ve let in one appeal to intuition and meaning, you have to let them all in, on the grounds of consistency, and this is a bad thing.

I have to admit, that was I ever to be pushed one way or the other, it would be because of this type of argument. I find the pragmatic case tempting, but not ultimately a clincher, and I’ll try to show you exactly why I think this is. Once we’ve got past the idea that one side of the God debate really is much more intellectually compelling than the other, we arrive at a place where agnosticism becomes an option.

And, in the spirit of openness to all challenges, I also need to accept that some people claim that agnosticism is flat out impossible. That even though we pretend not to believe, actually we do have a preference and our very actions betray this. I don’t think this is the case, but again need to make that case.

Finally, having hopefully established the intellectual respectability of agnosticism, I will write a post or two, on the personal benefits of thinking this way, for me. This is where we move from logic to poetry, and I try my very best to explain the beauty I find in uncertainty. I do hope you’ll read along.

8 thoughts on “A road map to nowhere

  1. Burk says:

    Bernard- Thanks for an excellent outline and a promising series. Could I add a psychological dimension- that, looking a the history of theism, it is the most obvious brew of wishful thinking, social domineering, father-worship, jumping to conclusions, human-centered meaning-building (and community-building), etc.? There is a track record of dismal analysis of reality, retreating step by painful step as better models arrive. Which all conspires to suggest that “reason” didn’t really have a great deal to do the structure that is pre-templating all this argument for those who now admit they are assuming on faith what they wish to conclude?

  2. RonH says:

    You’re setting some lofty goals for yourself. Are you sure you want to cover this territory in a blog series, or actually write it up as a book? 😉

    Truly consistent agnostics might have a valuable position as “neutral parties” in some of our current society’s most contentious issues, as illustrated here.

  3. Edwin says:

    Here are a few questions I’d like you to also answer along the way (in addition to what you’ve got there):
    Do you believe that the existence of a God in the Christian sense is any more likely – that there is any more reason to believe in this – than any other form of God, such as Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If not, why do you continually refer to the argument as being between God or no God, thus implying the Christian God?
    What is your definition of agnosticism exactly? Your post on this didn’t cover it precisely, that is, do you have no belief as to the existence of a supernatural deity which created the universe, or no belief as to whether or not the Christian God exists, or no belief as to which of the major religions or atheism is correct, or simply no belief as to whether or not there exists something unexplainable by science no matter how much we advance technologically?
    How can you justify your earlier claim that agnosticism constitutes no claim about reality, when you are alleging that it is impossible to simply examine the evidence, and reason one’s way towards either theism or atheism? That is a claim about reality.
    Show me your evidence about the “power of prayer”. The placebo effect is definitely true, but if the parties don’t know if they are being prayed about or not, then you are alleging it still has a noticeable effect? Where is your evidence for such an outrageous claim?

    Keep up these posts, they’re very interesting.

  4. Hi Burk

    I agree. At some point in the process anybody examining these issues does need to get their head around which aspects of their personal story are in fact well disguised responses to psychological needs. Not always easy, however.


  5. Hi Ron

    Lofty goals indeed, and I’ll doubtless fall well short of them., That’s the beauty of the blog format though, in cyberspace, nobody hears you scream.


  6. Hi Edwin

    let me have a preliminary crack at your questions one at a time, and doubtless these will be expanded upon during the series.

    I think the question of which form of God is more likely is subsequent to the question of whether there’s a God at all. Although the question of which types of God are more plausible is potentially interesting, it sits outside the scope of this series, although maybe it’s worth a look right at the end. In the meantime, this is absolutely not about Christian God versus no God. I think the more general notion of i’s the universe in some sense purposeful’, is enough of a starting point.

    With regards to what precisely I’m agnostic about, it’s those big questions. ‘Does the question: why is there something and not nothing? have a sensible answer?’ ‘Is the universe benign?’ ‘Is it purposeful?’ So, I’m not agnostic on the existence of questions that will always be beyond the scope of scientific understanding. This, given what we know about evolution, strikes me as likely.

    With regard to prayer, you may have misunderstood my point here. My understanding is that there is no good evidence regarding the effectiveness of intercessionary prayer. Were some to emerge, however, I’d be most open to it. In the meantime, I would consider it an unjustified claim and most likely not true.

    And finally, I’m not asserting that agnosticism involves no claims about reality. This post was in part designed to show that very many claims about reality must be established in order for agnosticism to get off the ground. What I am agnostic about are those bigger questions mentioned above. On these matters, the focus of my agnosticism, I make no claims regarding reality.

    Thanks for the questions, that help me see where I’ve been unclear.


  7. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Very good. It will be interesting to see how you proceed from here. I look forward to the further posts.

    “At some point in the process anybody examining these issues does need to get their head around which aspects of their personal story are in fact well disguised responses to psychological needs.”

    Would you agree that is also something that atheists (and even agnostics!) need to get their head around?

  8. Hi Darrell

    Yes, I agree entirely. none of us are immune from this challenge, no matter where we might choose to shelter.


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