Best guesses

I feel like I’ve reached the home straight, in this attempt to explain my agnosticism. Thus far I’ve argued that none of the arguments for believing in either side of the theistic divide are compelling, and I’ve done this by attempting to look at what seem to me to be the strongest cases. That one can not be compelled by reason to choose a side is not sufficient to justify agnosticism, but it is necessary.

The next step is to consider why, in the absence of compelling arguments in its favour, one might still wish to adopt a belief. One reason might be pragmatism, that the belief simply works for the individual, so why not? In my last post I argued that in order to accept his argument, one needs to put some fairly severe pressure on the definition of belief. Hope feels like a more accurate term.

All that’s left is to first check that my own beliefs (and I have many) do not fall prey to the same criticisms I’ve levelled at religious belief, which is today’s task, and then show why, in matters of truth, I personally prefer to accepting uncertainty to committing to a contested position (and that’s next week). Then I’ll leave it there, and look for something lighter to write about for a while, by way of contrast.

One challenge to agnosticism is the rather obvious observation that one can not be agnostic about everything (or at least not without stretching the definition of agnosticism past breaking point). I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is hot, that being hit by a speeding bus would hurt, that my family are not figments of my imagination, and so it goes on. To live, to interact with the world, is to believe. There appears to be no way around this.

Belief is not the same thing as certainty, of course. If it were, then we would have no need for the word believe, we’d just say know instead. So yes, it is perhaps possible that all my beliefs are off base, that I am a brain in a vat, the play thing of a cosmic computer programme, a composite illusion stitched together from infinite partial versions… choose your favourite sci-fi geekiness and insert here. And of course, if reality really does exceed our perception in some fundamental way, then what chance it also exceeds our imagination, such that the above thought experiments are also hopelessly inadequate. Reality is not only stranger than we imagine, to paraphrase Haldane, but stranger than we can imagine.

Evolution gives us cause to consider our intellectual limitations, too. Just as the trees, the snails and the amoebas have evolved to process only limited amounts of the available information, so, we might imagine, have we. And just as the limpet can not ask, why do I not understand probability, we can not begin to wonder at the things our puny brains are missing.

Even our best guesses are continually subject to revision; the history of science reminds us concepts that once seemed central to our understanding (the ether, elan vital, absolute time and space) can go by the wayside, and one should expect there are more revelations yet to come.

So, when I speak of believing, I don’t speak of certainty. I speak of models that are both necessarily incomplete, and subject to future improvement. And yet, while remaining agnostic about so many things, I happily commit to belief in other areas. Why the difference?

For me it comes down to a phrase I’ve already used, that of the best guess. At the end of the last post I mentioned the problem of induction. Why is it justifiable to expect the world to be sufficiently uniform to reward expectations? Isn’t the only justification available the one I’ve already rejected, that of pragmatism? Some philosophers have offered a way around this problem by noting, that although we can’t justify this expectation, nor can we replace it. One put it this way: ‘to the extent that we can know anything, we know it through induction.’ That is to say, choose not to commit to the belief that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow (okay, depends where you live, but more east than west) and what is the alternative, and furthermore, how would you ground it? Natural Selection is itself a backward looking process, and that’s how we were put together. To use the past to predict the future (and where it’s important enough, knowledge of the past can be transmitted through our genes, look at our language instincts) is basic to the way we function. Yes, perhaps it’s all been a vast cosmic joke and tomorrow the rules will change, but if they do, none of us will see it coming, because there’s no alternative model on the table.

And this is what I mean by a best guess, a situation where there’s no serious alternative available, where it’s impossible, without mangling the language completely, to say a competing viewpoint is equally reasonable. Can we say, to expect the bus collision to do us damage is one perspective, but if others see it differently, that’s equally valid? I don’t think so. To see the child step out into the road and not pull them back because of commitment to some obscure philosophical point would requite a special kind of stupid.

And when I think about the things I believe, I find they have this characteristic, that they are borne of our collective experience, such that there is general agreement these represent our best guess for now. Take as your starting point, that the model that has worked best in the past represents the best bet for the future, and all else follows. Does standing in the rain make me wet? Yes. Do children need to be exposed to language in order to learn it? Yes. Is mine the only conscious mind in the universe? No. Do I share a common ancestor with rat in the ceiling (your days are numbered)? Yes. Is their regularity in the universe? Yes. And so it goes on. Not all these beliefs are empirically grounded, their characteristic is just that they represent, in some meaningful sense, our best current guess.

Sometimes it’s because we know of no alternative, other times it’s because the odds are weighted heavily against that alternative – I might be given a lottery ticket and could reasonably expect/believe it to not be the winner. To believe otherwise, and extend the mortgage on the back of it, would be nuts, even though the alternative expectation doesn’t represent an impossibility.

Another way of thinking of this is to consider reality a constraining force. For all its unknowns, reality is such that some beliefs appear to be forced moves, we’re left without an option. In such a case belief in a model can be justified as representing the best guess available.

The agnostic’s stance is to say, when we move beyond such constraints, such that contradictory beliefs may be reasonably held, then I choose to withhold belief. I would claim that such an approach has two major advantages (and of course a number of disadvantages, which is why agnosticism itself can’t be thought of as a forced move) and I want to look at these in my last post in this series.

27 thoughts on “Best guesses

  1. Burk says:


    “And this is what I mean by a best guess, a situation where there’s no serious alternative available, where it’s impossible, without mangling the language completely, to say a competing viewpoint is equally reasonable.”

    I guess the word you are groping for here is “empirical” as in empirically-supported.

    This might be taken as a brand of pragmatism, since whatever works in the world we find ourselves in is also a form of pragmatism. But pragmatism has psychological meanings as well, allowing practices and rituals and views through the door to acceptability that do not pass any test of empirical truth for the sake of their psychological utility. Empiricism doesn’t get interpreted that way.

    Theism is highly pragmatic, if your aim is to maximize, say, reproduction or social hierarchy or some screwy version of “hope”. That doesn’t make it empirically supported, philosophically compelling, or reasonable- which is how I would take your construction having no “serious” alternative.

  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I have to admit I really don’t see where you are going here. You have told me over and over that you are not an empiricist and that you don’t hold to the fact/value distinction, so I can’t really make heads or tails of this. Again, if we keep the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism in mind, most of the issues you raise here disappear. Yes, we should expect one to get wet when it rains. Such, however, does not help us when it comes to the question of whether or not God exists and we shouldn’t expect it to.

    “And when I think about the things I believe, I find they have this characteristic, that they are borne of our collective experience, such that there is general agreement these represent our best guess for now. Take as your starting point, that the model that has worked best in the past represents the best bet for the future, and all else follows.”

    Unless one has a prior (faith-based I might add) commitment to empiricism and the fact/value distinction, why doesn’t this argument work for belief in God? It is the collective experience, for all cultures throughout time, that God or some transcendence exists. There is a general agreement that it does represent our best guess. Agnosticism is a minority view—how can it claim the advantage of “collective” experience? In fact, doesn’t your argument here completely undercut agnosticism and atheism?

    As to a model of prediction, what do you mean? Predict what? Again, if we keep the difference between the two types of naturalism in mind, if you mean what I think you mean here (empirical results in the physical world) then, again, the issue disappears.

    So, again, I am at a loss as to where you are going here given your past representations.

  3. Hi Darrell

    The best guess argument doesn’t work for God simply because we can demonstrate the alternative viewpoints/guesses (agnosticism, atheism) and, I have claimed in this series, can show they are no less reasonable. Not so when it comes to getting wet in the rain.


  4. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    But the “point of the rain” only works with a prior commitment to empiricism, which you have claimed you don’t have. You are suggesting that “alternative” means “empirical” right? Again, given the difference between the two types of naturalism, this shouldn’t even be a problem. Or, should you just admit that you are an empiricist and hold to the fact/value distinction? Now, that may mean some backtracking as far as many of your other communications, but there is no dishonor there.

    Besides, the other side would only say that the “alternative viewpoints/guesses (God, theism, transcendence) are demonstrated. Perhaps not to your liking, but, that is the whole point, right? How does that help move us forward?

  5. Hi Darrell

    Yes, to be clear, I do think standing in the rain makes you wet, and I do base this belief upon observation. To this extent I’m an empiricist (aren’t we all?)

    I don’t however believe observation is sufficient for knowledge, it needs a framework (in my case, that of the best guess) and non-empirical assumptions (for me, induction) before we can make the link between observation and belief.


  6. Darrell says:

    Thanks Bernard for the further unpacking here. Yes, with the rain, we are all empiricists. But how does that apply to belief in God? I still don’t see your point. The consensus, as far back as one wants to go, is that the best guess is God or some transcendence when the question is not, will I get wet if I stand in the rain, but rather why is there anything like rain or “wetness” at all.

    As you know, induction is the process wherein one begins with some data, and then determines what general conclusion(s) can logically be derived from that data. But both theist and atheist alike proceeds this way. The “data” is ourselves, the entire physical existence, history, and every other area of existence and knowledge one might want to consider.

    Induction does not help us because it invariably becomes an argument over what can be “logically” derived from the data and how one should interpret the data. That is the whole point of noting why empiricism and evidentialism get us nowhere in a discussion like this. We see the data through the narratives we have adopted by faith.

    I still don’t see your point or how you are justifying your agnosticism here, unless it is simply to say that unless one can prove something in the realm of metaphysics (God’s existence) empirically you feel one should withhold belief.

  7. HI Darrell

    Yes, exactly my point. On the rain issue, we don’t argue interpretation. There is a best guess. Not so much with God. That’s all.


  8. Darrell says:

    What does any of that have to do with belief in God, non-belief or agnosticism? Of course there isn’t interpretation with the rain and we shouldn’t expect there to be. So what? God is not an object like rain.???

  9. Hi Darrell

    The only point I was making is that in some cases reality constrains us such that only one belief appears reasonable. We can believe such things, despite our uncertainty, on the grounds that no competing belief appears to be available.

    The link to agnosticism is that the agnostic seeks to restrict their beliefs to just these cases. There are of course alternatives, one can choose to believe even in unconstrained situations, but by understanding the role constraints play, we are in a better position to understand the price we pay for other types of belief, which is the topic of my last post in this series.


  10. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    But no one is contesting the constraint when it comes to questions of whether or not we will get wet in the rain.

    And if we restrict (artificially) all our beliefs to only those that can be proved empirically, how does that not make one an empiricist?

    By the way, it is here, with this “restriction” where we can see one’s narrative, one’s faith at work. There is nothing about induction, deduction, reason, or logic that requires it. It is a choice to “see” things this way.

  11. Hi Darrell

    Yes, clearly one can use any labels one chooses. I’d resist using empiricist for the reasons given previously, I don’t restrict my guesses to empirically established beliefs, some best guesses are not empirically grounded (induction is the obvious example).

    And absolutely, there is a choice at play. Choice does not imply belief, however. I may choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla without holding any beliefs beyond those of anticipated pleasure. I’ll cover the singular pleasures of agnosticism next time.


  12. Edwin says:

    Hi Darrell

    You’re a moron. Your argument about “collective experience” is simply if a large number of people believe something, it becomes true. You might think truth is purely in people’s minds, but I and most people think that truth is something objective, something that although it can only be viewed through our own perception of the world, is fundamentally true and will continue to exist without us – the world does not disappear when we close our eyes.

    Empiricism is wrong in that there are facts that should be accepted without solid evidence in front of our eyes. However, this does NOT mean I believe in things other people tell me blindly, no matter how many there are. Instead, I look at the reasons they have for believing such things, and if it is grounded in logic and not random guesswork, I hold it as probably true until proven otherwise. I accept induction as true, because it can be considered a fundamental law of nature in the same way the other laws of physics can – it has always held true in every experiment conducted about it.

    Your problem is, you argue that faith is necessary. The definition of faith is belief that is not substantiated by fact. Fact is truth. Therefore you are believing in lies and fairy tales. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if you and your ilk kept your beliefs to yourself, but when religion attempts to discriminate against homosexuals, attempts to prevent abortion even when it is the only way to save a woman’s life, attempts to murder millions of innocent women in the witch hunts or has the Crusades which looted and slaughtered countless innocents living in and around the so-called Holy Lands, then I object to it. Religion is the enemy of peace and freedom in this world, and any intelligent individual should not just reject it, but reject those who partake in the opiate of the people.

  13. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I’m not labeling you personally; I’m trying to pinpoint your argument. And I disagree—your very framing of this choice as similar to choosing chocolate over vanilla, is the very belief (that belief, or doubt, or non-belief are analogous to that sort of choice) in question. And doing this-is not what most people have in mind when discussing this issue. Most people, regardless of where they come down on this issue, don’t liken it to something like choosing vanilla over chocolate. So, you would seem to also be violating your principle of “collective experience” here.

    When your “restriction” seems to be for the very purpose of allowing you to believe in only that which can be proved empirically, how are we to understand it in any other way? Please unpack this for us.

    Just as an aside Bernard, how is your “distaste” issue for certain types of responses and narrow-minded negative fundamentalism doing right now with some of the most recent responses or comments directed to me? Is this an example of the enlightened tolerance of most of your readers?

  14. Hi Edwin

    Ironies abound here. Whatever you may think of Darrell’s views, he’s no moron. To argue against religious belief on the grounds of perceived harm is to argue truth from a pragmatist’s perspective. Is this what you intend? To claim induction is established from experience is circular. And to argue against dogma so dogmatically is, well, problematic.


  15. Darrell says:


    Thank you.

  16. Edwin says:

    Hi Bernard

    Why, by no means. That was intended not to justify the truth, but rather to justify my lack of enlightened tolerance towards other people’s viewpoints. I don’t feel I need to argue as if this was a true debate, because no arguments that can be considered mildly valid have been presented to the contrary. Instead, I was expressing outrage at the actions of the institution(s) centred around the opposing side.

    I am aware of the circular logic involved in my induction statement, but that doesn’t make it illogical, if one accepts the law of induction as a fundamental rule of logic. Which it is. Logic cannot function without it – otherwise, any and all logical statements would be invalid. Yes, this is pragmatic, but it is no less pragmatic than the assumption that the world will not end in the next four seconds and therefore there is a point to performing actions.

    So you believe in acceptance and tolerance of other people’s religious beliefs? Despite the harm you know they have done to the world? I am not proposing militant action (that would be hilariously ironic), but rather a refusal to allow it to dictate any part of my life, especially the impact of Christianity and Islam on the laws and governments of many countries even in our modern world.

  17. Hi Edwin

    I guess the fun thing about agnosticism is you get to argue with everybody.

    Yeah, I agree that treating induction as a fundamental rule of logic (perhaps the fundamental rule) is the best way of ‘justifying’ it. And ultimately the reason is on one level pragmatic. The trick is to find a way of doing this without accepting that pragmatism is a valid method of establishing truth. Best guesses is perhaps one way around this.

    Do I believe in tolerance of alternative world views? Absolutely. We’d all make exceptions, I think, where we see the view creating harm, as you clearly do. The difference between us, perhaps, is that in this matter I think the causal relationship is far more complex, and that treating all religious thought as in some way equally culpable creates problems. Is it not akin to observing that many terrible things are done by governments, and hence opposing all government?


  18. Hi Darrell

    I agree that for those who choose to believe, be it in God or no God, the issue is not one of taste. Rather it is one of faith. Believers do not see themselves as guessing or picking between alternatives. Rather they are committing to the thing that their experience of the world tells them is true.

    It is demonstrably true that by following such methodology, people are led to contradictory claims, and hence another level of belief is required, one that explains away why my instincts are correct, while the other’s are wrong. I’ve never been able to construct such a narrative myself, or at least not one which I can personally stomach, and in this sense my agnoticism is a matter not of belief, but of taste.


  19. Edwin says:

    The method you call “best guesses” is seemingly just assuming that if there exists no observed viable alternative, something is true. Which is fair enough, but is not I think a logically valid proof, as such.

    Your analogy depends on how far we are willing to step back. If we observe a person of a specific group committing atrocities, we cannot lay the blame at the entire group. Similarly, when I observe the Catholic Church or Al Qaeda, both religious groups, committing atrocities sanctioned by the accepted leadership and the vast majority of members, I don’t blame all religion, simply those organisations culpable. Therefore, my problem is not with religion, it is with institutions such as those above. Contrary to my earlier statement, and for that, I apologise.

    Lastly, you are wrong in stating atheism involves faith. It does not, any more than not believing in the Loch Ness Monster, or in Russel’s teapot, involves faith. But we’ve been through this argument before.

  20. Hi Edwin

    What I’m working towards is not the idea that a best guess suggests truth, you’re right, there’s no necessary logical connection. Rather a best guess represents just that, and we are logically justified in backing a guess when it’s the only game in town,so to speak.

    And I agree, in order to maintain atheism is a faith position, one must answer the challenge of Russell’s teapot. There are a number of responses to this within the various philosophical traditions. The one I find most convincing is that I mentioned in that post, which claims a different category, when we are dealing with an hypothesis which responds to an existing problem. At the point where we can fully deal with the standard challenges (existence, morality, consciousness) then the distinction disappears. I’m not convinced we’re there yet, and if the theists are right, we never will be.

    Perhaps you do have a solution to how consciousness works, for example, or why there is something and not nothing. Feel free to try to convince us.


  21. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “I agree that for those who choose to believe, be it in God or no God, the issue is not one of taste. Rather it is one of faith.”

    I certainly agree and would go one further. The need (insecurity?) to treat one’s beliefs in these areas (the key being “these areas”) as founded empirically and evidentially is the hallmark of the great majority of fundamentalism, religious or secular. And it is this privileging that leads (on either side) to intolerance and bigotry—as is so clear from some of the responses here.

    “Rather they are committing to the thing that their experience of the world tells them is true.”

    And, so are you.

    “It is demonstrably true that by following such methodology, people are led to contradictory claims…”

    Here is where I think your reasoning breaks down. If one understands the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism that there are contradictory claims in these areas should be expected. Why? Because there is a difference in the claims-not all claims are like, “If we stand in the rain, we will get wet.” So another level of belief is not required, just an understanding of the difference.

    And, as we’ve pointed out before, your “tastes” do not arise magically somehow. They are based upon a myriad of factors and reasons (I would hope!). Those reasons you have articulated over and over and they are based in a narrative arrived at by faith.

    I still don’t see why this is a problem. It doesn’t denigrate your position. It doesn’t cast any aspersions whatsoever upon it. What it does is not allow it any privilege. Like noted above, it put us all on an equal standing. We must then discuss these narratives in other ways.

    What you have told us you cannot “stomach” is the sort of attitude, sensibility, and mindset cemented in dogmatism and strident hostility toward others—the hallmarks of fundamentalism. You may wish to consider my point that it is the need for empirical and evidential certainty (in these areas—not if we’re talking about rain) that leads to the very mind-set you cannot “stomach.” And I would say that on this front, it is here we agree the most.

    Consider this in light of some of the participants’ arrogant and intolerant responses/rants (and I would make this claim against someone who said they were a Christian or an atheist) and their indebtedness to empiricism/evidentialism/scientism. Is there a link? I think there is.

  22. Burk says:

    Darrell, Bernard:

    “What you have told us you cannot “stomach” is the sort of attitude, sensibility, and mindset cemented in dogmatism and strident hostility toward others—the hallmarks of fundamentalism. You may wish to consider my point that it is the need for empirical and evidential certainty (in these areas—not if we’re talking about rain) that leads to the very mind-set you cannot “stomach.””

    Let me say a word for empiricism. The claims that are in question are those about empirical “truth”- truths about how reality works, what is real within reality, etc. When story tellers make claims about alternate realities (Narnia, Oz), we do not get exercised, because they are not making empirical (in principle) claims.

    Fundamentalists cite evidence because that is naturally the gold standard for demonstrating/supporting empirical claims. Thus miracles are so valuable for the believer, and science is so valuable for everyone else in adjudicating what exists in reality (excepting for the moment that hazy world of social and subjective reality).

    The problem is that there are great differences in quality between the empiricism of theists (miracles, resurrections, talking snakes, mystical feelings) and the empiricism of their antagonists, who decline to take myth as evidence, and to the contrary see lack of evidence as evidence of absence, at least when it comes to the consistently unsupportable claims of supernaturalism.

    I am reading a book that lays this out in an interesting way- Robert Belah on the evolution of religion. He refers to Maslow’s theory of Deficiency cognition vs Being cognition, with the latter clearly our spiritual/religious mode. But it isn’t really a way of cognition, but rather a way of projecting and imbuing meaning and symbologies and beauty into our surroundings. It is fundamentally creative, not analytical and thus not in a position to make claims about empirical issues at all.

  23. Hi Darrell

    Yes, we do disagree regarding what tastes entail. While a taste may be founded on reasons (I may like a particular book because of the the way the naive narrator slowly comes to understand what the reader already knows) the reasons themselves may not represent a commitment to a disputed belief. That is to say, all readers may agree upon this aspect of the book, but not all will share my view this makes the book great.


  24. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Yes, indeed, this is where our disagreement lies. I would counter that presuming these sorts or questions are matters of taste is really the heart of the matter. Every time you use an analogy like literature or types of ice cream, you seem to think you are justifying or explaining your position, whereas, you, in my view, are really simply demonstrating mine (that this is the very belief in question).

    Further, again, since many people (both in the academy and on the street) don’t view these sorts of questions as matters of taste, you forego your “collective experience” test. You seem to like this test when it meets your restriction (which is not demanded by induction or any other logical reason in my view) but you do not like it when falls into areas that no one ever claimed (except fundamentalists) could be proved empirically to begin with. In other words, you like it, except when you don’t.

    But perhaps I misread you and you could address these concerns in your last post or at some other point. Thank you for unpacking your position and articulating what are, while I might disagree, much more reasonable positions than the others I have encountered here or in other places. And those I could have encountered on any creationist/fundamentalist food-fight blog where the Christian and the atheist try and call the other’s (“gold standard”) evidence into question using the very same philosophy, but walking away certain the other is a moron. And that, I have determined, is probably an earthly view of what hell (or maybe purgatory?) is all about. Cheers.

  25. Hi Darrell

    Because our disagreement turns on a matter of logic, it is in principle resolvable, although in practice this may prove beyond us.

    A starting point might be for you to clarify what you mean by viewing an issue as ‘a matter of taste.’ As far as I can see, this reduces either to something that is trivially true, and hence uncontested, or to something that I have never claimed (for example the claim that there is no objective truth to the matter of God’s existence).

    So, if you’re of a mind to clarify what you mean by ‘presuming these sorts of questions are a matter of taste’ we can perhaps make progress.


  26. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I thought we had covered most of that. I think we should see what your last post has to say and maybe you could unpack it more there. We can always pick it up from there. One thought though: I’m not sure, like most of the issues in this conversation, that it turns “just” on a matter of logic.

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