Agnostic! Are you sure? (The atheist delusion)

by ima sceptic, Wednesday, January 16, 2008, 18:49 (4553 days ago)

Having read the first couple of pages of this, I have a strong suspicion that the author is not agnostic at all but is in fact hiding behind that label to have a bash at athiests in general and Richard Dawkins in particular.

In my experince, the true (informed) agnostic is more open to reason and less likely to deliberately misinterpret others arguments in scoring points. (By saying "informed" I am leaving aside the large number of agnostics who hold that position simply because they haven't really bothered to think about the arguments and more importantly the evidence either way).

Dawkins himself states in the God Delusion (if I may paraphrase) that the only intellectually honest postion to hold is agnosticism because there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence of a god. He goes on to assess the probabilities that a god exists based on the available, verifiable, evidence (virtually zero) and concludes that the likelihood is very low. Certainly not the 50:50 choice that is presented by some opposing arguments.

Evolution while still described as a theory in scientific terms, is as close to a proven process (fact) as it is possible to get. Any truly open minded assessment of the evidence available would have to conclude this. That said, it is true that the origin of life is still a mystery and might remain so forever. I can live with that. I don't need to invent an imaginary friend to explain how life began (and if I did I would invent a much nicer one than any of the current favourites).

While the man made nature of most religions is blatently obvious from the way their holy texts are stuck in the time and place of their writing and their evolution over time, this does not necessarily disprove the existence of a creator. It does however undermine the arguments of organised religions, that their version(s) provide the answers. Science has repeatedly overturned strongly held religious dogmas over the last few centuries and if allowed to by the zealots, may well continue to do so.

So in conclusion, I agree with Dawkins that the only honest position is that of agnosticism. My agnosticism is of the type that rejects theism on the bases of insufficient supporting evidence along with significant evidence of man made origins. Deism remains a remote possibility but there are more plausible alternatives.

To the author, if you wish to attack Richard Dawkins arguments please do it accurately and honestly. Then you will earn his and respect and that of free minded readers.

Agnostic! Are you sure?

by whitecraw, Friday, January 25, 2008, 10:48 (4544 days ago) @ ima sceptic

Evolution while still described as a theory in scientific terms, is as close to a proven process (fact) as it is possible to get.

A fact is not a 'proven process'. A fact is that which is the case. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a fact of history, insofar as it is the case that such a theory exists. In this respect it has the same factual status as the theory of evolution by intelligent design and the theory of creation.

The key question is which (if any) of the rival theories is true. The truth of a theory depends on a number of things, not least its ability to explain the facts as we find them. A theory which is successful in explaining the facts does not thereby become itself a fact; it remains a theory which has not yet been falsified by some fact that it cannot explain.

The trouble is that rival and contradictory theories can be equally true, insofar as they are each able to explain the facts as we find them. In evaluating these rival theories we must compare their other virtues: the economy of their explanations, for example, the better theory being deemed the one which provides the simplest explanation; the degree of falsifiability of their explanations, the better theory being deemed the one which is more susceptible to being falsified by newly discovered facts; and/or the heuristic value of their respective explanations, the better theory being deemed the one which generates the greater number of problems requiring further research. All such considerations need to be taken into account in calculating a theory's explanatory power; and it is the theory which has the greatest explanatory power of the range of available alternatives that is deemed the truest.

This of course means that the truth of any given theory is only ever provisional and holds only for as long as no one can come up with a better theory. Such is the nature of the scientific enterprise, which isn't in the business of producing truth in the absolute sense but only the best shot at truth we can currently take.

In my judgement, the theory of evolution by natural selection is (properly understood) the best theory we currently have to explain the process of life on the planet. It by and large explains the facts as we currently find them, it does so with greater economy than its rivals can manage, and it guides us in the direction of future research into unanswered questions which may or may not in the longer term lead to its falsification.

What amuses me is how the theory has come to be held dogmatically by many refugees from religion, to the extent that it has become for those refugees a substitute for religious belief. I suspect it is thus held because it satisfies a residual need for certainty, and also because it is perceived to be a stick that can be used to beat religion over the head with; that is, for therapeutic and ideological reasons, rather than for good scientific reasons. But, of course, I may be wrong.

Agnostic! Are you sure?

by George Jelliss ⌂ @, Crewe, Saturday, January 31, 2009, 16:02 (4172 days ago) @ ima sceptic

I've been prompted to revive this thread after hearing an interview with David Attenborough on the radio this morning. It was in the context of his coming programme on Darwin and the Tree of Life to be broadcast on TV on Sunday, and his having admitted to receiving obnoxious letters and emails from creationists.

The interviewer made the mistake of assuming that he was an atheist, and he responded that he was an agnostic. He explained this in terms of an analogy of himself looking down on a termite nest and the termites being unaware of his presence. In a similar way he suggested there could be things we are not aware of because of the limitations of our senses and limited brains. He gave the example of telling a Victorian that one day it would be possible to transmit televisual pictures or to have the music of a symphony orchestra playng in your front room; he would regard you as a lunatic.

In this I completely agree with him, yet I do not call myself an agnostic, but an atheist. Where we disagree is thus in what we are agnostic or atheistic about. He has clearly expressed his view that he does not believe in a benevolent creator, else why the worms that bore into the eyes and blind people in Africa? I think this is sufficient to call oneself an atheist, since this is the sort of god that most theists believe in. Though of course I go further, maintaining that there is no evidence for any creator, benevolent, malevolent or indifferent, and that our mental abilities are up to the task of deciding this.

I also think that there will be developments in future, discoveries and inventions, that we would regard now as impossibilities. But, thanks to the Victorians (Mary Shelley, Jules Verne etc), we now have the world of speculative science fiction where such ideas can be debated and imagined.

I conclude that David Attenborough prefers to call himself an agnostic rather than an atheist purely for political or social reasons, in that the term atheist attracts more abuse than agnostic.

--
GPJ

Agnostic! Are you sure?

by dhw, Sunday, February 01, 2009, 08:11 (4171 days ago) @ George Jelliss

George writes: [David Attenborough] has clearly expressed his view that he does not believe in a benevolent creator, else why the worms that bore into the eyes and blind people in Africa? I think this is sufficient to call oneself an atheist, since this is the sort of god that most theists believe in. Though of course I go further, maintaining that there is no evidence for any creator, benevolent, malevolent or indifferent, and that our mental abilities are up to the task of deciding this.

Thank you for reopening this thread. We're constantly coming up against the problem of definitions, and I did try to address it again under "Common Ground", but no-one followed that up.

Let's have another go. Theism, as I understand it, means the belief that the world was created and is ruled by a god or gods, though a narrower form is the belief in one supreme god whom we call God. Atheism is the belief that there is/are/ no gods/god/God. Agnosticism takes two possible forms: 1) the impossibility of knowing whether or not there is/are gods/a god/God; 2) the inability to decide whether there is/are...etc.

Not believing in a benevolent god does not, in my view, constitute atheism, since it's possible to believe in a god without insisting on its having personal qualities. In any case, you said "most theists", which means that other theists are atheists! It's the last sentence of your statement that makes you an atheist. I can't disagree when you say that "our mental abilities are up to the task of deciding this", but of course some mental abilities decide that there is a benevolent god, others decide that there is some kind of god, and others decide that there isn't a god, so that doesn't help us much. My own agnostic view has been formed through a series of negatives, and that's why it's so difficult for people like "ima sceptic" and also, in an earlier discussion, John Clinch to understand that one can oppose a belief without espousing its opposite, so once again I will try to explain.

Continued in Part Two

Agnostic! Are you sure?

by dhw, Sunday, February 01, 2009, 08:23 (4171 days ago) @ dhw

Part Two

There are two major factors that make me argue against atheism: 1) I find it impossible to have a full, genuine, gut-felt, intellect-approved belief that chance initially could combine all the elements needed to bring inorganic matter to organic life with the ability to reproduce and develop the astonishing variety of organs and creatures that has evolved. This was my position even before David Turell confronted us with the many scientific complexities that are being or have yet to be unravelled. My scepticism prompted David himself in an earlier post to point out that I had no alternative other than to believe in design, but that is the equivalent of the atheist saying that if I argue against atheism I must be a theist. My agnosticism functions through negatives ... through what I cannot believe, not through what I can. 2) The paranormal is the second factor, though that is a misleading term, since it presupposes that we know what constitutes normality. This is sneered at by some, but I take it seriously enough to say that I cannot believe all such experiences are fake or illusory or self-deluding, and therefore I cannot believe that we already know all the dimensions of existence. Like Attenborough, I would say that "there could be things we are not aware of because of the limitations of our senses and limited brains."

Why am I not a theist? Because, again like Attenborough (Darwin had a similar problem), I cannot believe in a benevolent deity when I see a world that proceeds with random cruelty through a system that entails the destruction of the innocent. That knocks out most religions. But my non-belief (agnosticism), which is not the same as disbelief (atheism), goes further. If life, despite the love and beauty that randomly balance the horror, is proceeding without any evidence of a designer's interest let alone benevolence (and that's how it appears to me), it doesn't actually matter whether we were designed or not. An indifferent or absent designer might just as well be called Chance. And finally, although it is not a reason for a decision, I can no more believe in a never-beginning, never-ending intelligence, or an intelligence that magically sprang into existence, than I can in the creative genius of non-intelligence.

There is, in this respect, no way forward. None of the alternatives gives me enough certainty to be able to say: I think this one is true. But I see myself as a category 2) agnostic, in so far as mankind is still learning, and I hope to go on learning too.

I see no reason to assume that David Attenborough (or Charles Darwin, for that matter) calls himself an agnostic "purely for political or social reasons, in that the term atheist attracts more abuse than agnostic". In my experience, some theists and some atheists can be equally abusive to each other and to agnostics, because there are some irrational and aggressive fundamentalists on both sides. Whereas agnostics, of course, remain evenly balanced and sweetly reasonable and free from the terrible affliction known as "confirmational bias". I would have thought it quite possible that when Attenborough says he's an agnostic, it's because he's an agnostic.

Agnostic! Are you sure?

by George Jelliss ⌂ @, Crewe, Thursday, May 21, 2009, 21:19 (4062 days ago) @ dhw

Another discussion of the meaning of "agnostic". The author thinks it is more an adjective than a noun:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/20/atheism-agnosticism-thomas-h...

I just find it an unnecessary and confusing term.

--
GPJ

Agnostic! Are you sure?

by dhw, Saturday, May 23, 2009, 08:44 (4060 days ago) @ George Jelliss

George has kindly drawn our attention to an article on "What is agnosticism?" He finds it "an unnecessary and confusing term".

As we all know, language is an inadequate instrument, but it's the best one we have for enabling communication. Partly because of its inadequacy, it's constantly evolving, and that's what's happened to "agnostic". In the context of religion, every dictionary definition I can find runs along the lines of "someone who believes that it is impossible to know whether God exists". However, since we do not have a word that means "someone who is unable to decide whether God exists", we tend nowadays to give it that meaning as well. There are lots of people in this position, and so I would say the term is necessary. I don't find it confusing, but if people do get confused, then we simply have to define what we mean ... as we constantly do in all our discussions.

The author of the article, Nick Spencer, writes: "...we all need a dash of agnosticism ... of appropriate intellectual reserve in the face of the big questions. The dogmatic alternative, familiar to us as 'fundamentalism', is neither appealing nor helpful." I agree.

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