Friday, May 13, 2011

More about the Agnostic Position

A recent comment on one of my earlier posts (“Agnostic or Atheist”) arrived just as the Google blog site experienced technical trouble, and was unavailable. It appears that the comment has been lost on the blog site, but I did retain a copy in the form of the gmail notification I received.

I deemed the comment sufficiently interesting and insightful that I want to devote a new blog entry to it. The writer of the comment was one “Rufus Otis”, who has visited and contributed good comments (some tinged with humor such as his hyperbolic likening of one of his own essays to “Principia Mathematica”) to my blog on other occasions.

Here he wrote:
“I don't consider agnosticism as partway to theism or atheism -- but rather an end position. In my opinion, you can't get past the question of what it is that one does or does not believe in. As you said, it's easy to profess disbelief regarding Zeus, Odin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Man In Robe in Clouds, etc. I also reject any "God" with whom one can talk, ask favors of, expect to intervene in human affairs, or help my team win the big game. This very concept is offensive to me. I'm not so sure I can equally and summarily reject an "ultimate reality" to which all is connected.”
“But as a human with the limits of human consciousness, I can neither believe nor disbelieve what can't be expressed in terms relative to my experience. In my essay, "What is Faith to an Agnostic", (now considered, of course, one of the primary documents of Agnosticism - much as Principia Mathematica is to classic mechanics), I can accept "that which is", without being able to enclose it in some "ism" that may be believed or rejected. All of our knowledge amounts to explaining one concept with another one, or a collection of concepts... defining words with other words.”

While there is not a lot here that I can take issue with, there are a few places where I have subtle disagreements with Mr. Otis’s position.

In my earlier blog discussing agnosticism, I believe I made the classical, long accepted distinction between two kinds of agnostics. There is one camp, which he appears to belong to, which maintains that not only do they not know whether there is a God, but they further deem that it is impossible to know. However, a second type merely asserts that they do not, at present, know whether there is a God, but they leave open the possibility that they may later decide that sufficient evidence has come to light allowing them to swing one way or the other.

Philosopher Robert Nozick has made the interesting, even to me stunning, observation that there does not seem to be any way that a Deity could demonstrate his existence within the confines of this universe. Anything such as huge writing across the heavens asserting his existence would be plausibly ascribed to some super advanced alien life forms, or to simple trickery on the part of clever humans. So maybe the second type of agnosticism is untenable, that is, no possible definitive data could ever emerge,and Mr. Otis is right in ignoring that branch of it. And as I recall Bertrand Russell, in his famous essay “What is an Agnostic” , also only considers the first type of agnostic.

Now, I believe Mr. O’s “end” position of agnosticism is that the concept of God is sufficiently lacking coherence that he cannot even ascribe belief or disbelief to the existence of such a being. To consider an example that might illustrate his position: suppose Bob asserts “I believe in the ‘Marpled Fleezer’”, and he then fails to give any of this being’s characteristics. Or maybe he does try to, but they lie well outside of any known combinations of properties that we can imagine. Or maybe the properties are nonsensical, or even seemingly contradictory, such as “The Marpled Fleezer can make an unstoppable force that moves an immovable object”. We can see, I believe, that Mr. O. would be quite right in asserting that he neither believes or disbelieves in the existence of the Marpled Fleezer. He might well say something like, “Well perhaps there is a mighty being that might be recognized as constituting the Marpled Fleezer, but I deny that he can have the contradictory and/or incoherent properties that Bob claims he possesses. But as described, I am not even going to dignify the concept by saying I believe or disbelieve its existence.”

But does this really apply to the concept of God, held by the theistic religions Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (perhaps others to that I do not know about)? They do not, to my notion, provide a detailed or definite description of God, only claiming that such a being is infinite (in some sense), good, omniscient (in some sense), and eternal. I see nothing contradictory or incoherent in this. And, it is definitely part of their concept, as far as I know, that such a being does intervene in human affairs, and can bestow certain favors on humans that entreat him to do so, and that further, this being created the universe and us humans. It is not clear to me that these added beliefs involve any inherent contradictions or vagueness (although the idea of communication with God does seem to have an element of hubris in assuming that such an august being would have any interest in us).

Now I am certainly not saying that I believe in such a being. In fact, my belief is that such a God probably does not exist. However, I am by no means certain that he does not, and it is conceivable that such a being does exist having at least some of the above properties. When i say I am an agnostic I mean that I do not know if such a being exists, and feel that I understand the general concept of God well enough to assert that. So when I state my lack of belief in the Judeo-Christian God;s existence, i am asserting something along the lines of saying that I disbelieve in the existence of purple tigers, but can sufficiently well imagine what a purple tiger would be. This is where I appear to differ with Mr. O.

When Mr. O. says he rejects as “offensive” the idea that such a personal God exists I fear he may be confusing his aesthetic ideas of what a God might be like with what might actually exist. The question should be, not whether we find some particular concept offensive or appealing or agreeable, but whether it is in fact true. By the way, Mr. O. is in good company here, as Albert Einstein is on record as asserting something to the effect that he found the idea of a “personal god” as distasteful, and as representing the egotistical imaginings of “feeble souls”. But at the risk of blaspheming one of my intellectual heroes, maybe it should be noted that Einstein also rejected quantum mechanics based partly on preconceived notions of what truth must be like (“god does not play dice with the world”). So incredibly brilliant though he was, he was not always right (unless it turns out that in the future scientists find that quantum mechanics is wrong).

Oddly, a closely related mistake is made by some Christians when they seemingly convince themselves to believe Christianity because they find it comforting, that is, agreeable, not because they deem it true.

I largely agree with his claim that a concept, to be considered respectable, should relate to the common sense level that we humans inhabit. However, it should be realized that most all ideas of modern physics and cosmology involve ideas way beyond the common sense level. Of course, the experiments that must be done to verify these ideas must at some point “come down” into the realm we inhabit. That is, to verify the concepts we must measure a wiggle on an oscilloscope, a flash of light in a detector, a click in an ionization counter, trace in a bubble chamber, and so on.

Mr. O. wades into deep and troubled waters when he asserts that “All of our knowledge amounts to explaining one concept with another one, or a collection of concepts... defining words with other words.”

I do not agree with this. Consider the humankind’s understanding of quasars, laser, DNA, quantum mechanics, evolution...we could go on and on. True, these theories or ideas do have some circularity in that they assume or rely on, in our explanation or understanding of them, other ideas or hypotheses. But there is real knowledge there, it is not just a bunch of word games. While a lot of philosophy (not all!) might involve such word games, science does not. But to be fair to Mr. Otis, he may have intended his remark to apply to only to the realm of metaphysics, where we probably do not have any real knowledge, and it is indeed mostly a word game.

When he says “But as a human with the limits of human consciousness, I can neither believe nor disbelieve what can't be expressed in terms relative to my experience.”, I have to quibble. Take an electron. We have no way of even dimly comprehending what these little entities are like in experiential terms. They are believed to be point particles (having no spatial extent), and all electrons are exactly alike. We only know of these indirectly through theories that seem to hang together and make overall sense. But can I say I “believe” in them. yes, I think so---but I would not be devastated or upset in any way if tomorrow some rival theory and experimental result came along to cast doubt on their existence. My only point here is that we must be careful in insisting that our concepts relate directly to experience. In this case, the idea of an electron does relate to our experience, but in a most indirect way.

His remark “I'm not so sure I can equally and summarily reject an "ultimate reality" to which all is connected” is an interesting one, though I must confess i do not understand exactly what he means from such a short sentence. Let me try to establish a common ground with him here, and say that my own position is what atheist Victor Stenger derides as being “Something-or-other-ism”: That is, I believe in a very vague notion, without being able to prove or support it, that something is behind the universe, and there is some reason, probably least as unfathomable to us as quantum field theory is to a dog, for why consciousness (e.g., us and perhaps other forms of it) and the universe exist. I believe it did not “just happen”, though I recognize that as being a possibility. To what extent this is “wishful thinking”, I do not know, as I have trouble looking at my belief objectively. I’ll leave this to the psychologists, who might indeed, in the spirit of a certain Gary Larson cartoon, decide I am “just plain nuts”.

To conclude, I want to thank Rufus Otis for adding a provocative and insightful comment to my blog. It is to be hoped that he will make many future contributions. And I intend to carefully read his (touted as highly influential) “Principia Agnostica” essay as soon as I can locate it on the web (no success so far).