Bad arguments about agnosticism

“It’s arrogant to claim to be an atheist, since you can’t know that God (or gods) does not exist. It’s much more intellectually respectable to be an agnostic.”

I’ve come across that sort of claim in a couple of places on the net recently. What could it mean? Time for another post in the series on bad arguments.

Bad argument: Atheists must show beyond all doubt that ChristianGod or MuslimGod doesn’t exist

Perhaps the speaker is some sort of conventional believer, like a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. They think that it’s up to someone calling themselves an “atheist” to demonstrate with that the Christian (or Muslim) God doesn’t exist, and do it so convincingly that there’s no possibility that the atheist could be mistaken. It seems the theist is either saying the atheist has got something wrong, or saying that nobody should call themselves an atheist.

Say that an atheist thinks that the Christian God probably doesn’t exist. The theist might claim that the atheist has acted wrongly in ignoring Christianity’s claims on them, because this is only “probably”, not “certainly”. But the theist’s claim relies double standard, since nobody else is held to that standard of certainty before they’re allowed to act on a belief (the conventional theist certainly isn’t). Possibly what’s going on here is that the theist thinks the atheist should be more like them: it looks like there are believers who argue the mere possibility that their belief is true justifies their continued faith. I’ve talked about the “virtue” of faith and discussed whether God might be fond of soft cheese before, so I won’t go into that again here.

(The famous atheists who are often called arrogant don’t claim certainty, of course.)

Perhaps the theist doesn’t think the atheist has been unreasonable (given the atheist thinks it’s unlikely that God exists, it’s fair enough that they don’t go to church or whatever), but thinks that people who haven’t attained certainty shouldn’t be defined as “atheists”. Luckily, the theist doesn’t get to define atheism.

Bad argument: An atheist must deny the existence of anything that anyone has ever called a god

“Well, I’ll say it simple: a god is someone with enough power to say ‘I am a god’ and make other people agree. Mortal wizard, lich, emperor, dragon, giant, leftover bit of chaos… it doesn’t really matter what it is underneath. What matters is that it has the strength to enforce its claims.”
– Rebel Theology, from Tales of MU (Tales of MU is basically “50 Shades of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, so be advised that some parts of the book are sexually explicit, although the linked chapter isn’t)

If The Man’s definition of a god is the one we’re using, it’s much more likely that there are gods (pretty certain, in fact, since people have probably convinced other people of their godhood at various points in history).

Spot the godThere are people who identify gods with love or the feeling they get from looking out into the night sky or with the quantum vacuum (trigger warning for physicists: linked post contains quantum woo-woo). In these cases it seems fine for the self-described atheist to say “that isn’t what I meant” or “I don’t dispute that those things might/do exist, but it seems silly to call them gods”.

Some statements which look as if they’re claims about the existence of gods end up saying nothing more than an atheist might say, with some god-talk tacked on purely as decoration. As Simon Blackburn’s lovely (and short) piece on Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has it:

Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while the theists like Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal.

Cleanthes, the intelligent design theorist in the book, says that complete mystics are “atheists without knowing it”. Since some sophisticated theologians, like Hume’s Demea, call themselves theists, perhaps Cleanthes is a bit presumptuous. You can see his point, though: it’s odd that someone might be called a theist though they only differ from an atheist in calling some mysterious thingy “God”. Perhaps we should be a bit more resistant to the idea that anyone can “identify as” anything: that way lies Tumblr.

But we perhaps we shouldn’t assume that even people who go to church and say the Creed are assenting to a set of propositions (previously) or that their expectations of what will actually happen differ from those of an atheist (previouslier). If we still call those people theists, why not Demea?

Anyhoo: Philo and Demea are both agnostics (“we cannot … know”) about something, but just because Demea has called it “god”, it’s not clear that Philo couldn’t justly claim to be an atheist (though in the book, he doesn’t, of course).

Good argument: you can’t know what’s out there

Philip Pullman said:

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This seems fair enough. But often criticism of atheists is phrased like this:

Bad argument: you can’t know that there isn’t an X out there

where “an X” is some particular thing which would be hard to detect, like an immaterial being who made stuff but then doesn’t intervene, say. The problem with this is that the speaker hasn’t got enough evidence to even suggest X. Sure, we can’t rule out X, but what about Y or Z or a vast number of other possibilities? Why mention X as something special to be agnostic about? Often it’s because X looks like a god from a conventional religion, tweaked to be even less detectable. But that’s no reason to think that X is especially likely to exist. The error here is called privileging the hypothesis.

To anticipate a possible objection: a lot of people saying “I believe in X” may provide evidence to differentiate it from Y and Z. But we need to be careful about what X is here, as the range of things that people refer to as “god(s)” is pretty wide. Some gods (the conventional theist ones) have a whole lot of believers but have good arguments against their existence, so claims that an atheist who accepts those arguments should call themselves agnostic about those gods seem to be you must prove it beyond doubt arguments. “I believe in gods which are invisible gremlins in the quantum foam: you can’t show that those don’t exist” is privileging the hypothesis.

8 Comments on "Bad arguments about agnosticism"

  1. “Tales of MU is basically “50 Shades of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons””

    ROFL! That’s an awesome description. Although come to think of it, despite being very fanfic-y, it’s a better guide to life than AD&D or 50SG 🙂


  2. Thanks for linking to my site even though your snarky comment about quantum woo-woo shows you really missed the point of my post.

    Let me give you some quotes:

    “Virtual particles therefore exist”.

    “If we want to calculate the effect of virtual particles on empty space alone, we have nothing to subtract, and the answer we get is therefore infinite.”

    “… we too felt that when an ultimate theory was derived, it would explain how the effects of virtual particles would cancel, leaving empty space with precisely zero energy. Or nothing. Or rather, Nothing.”

    All from Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing.

    Now who is worshiping the Quantum Void or rather Nothing?


    1. Well, Krauss certainly isn’t, he’s just explaining what it is.

      I agree with the first part of your post, because it really does seem that, most of the time, faith statements aren’t propositions which people believe (previously).

      But I see no reason to identify the quantum void with any sort of divinity. It certainly isn’t a regular sort of divinity. As Cleanthes says, if your god has no mind, you’re an atheist by another name. It doesn’t seem much like Huxley’s Divine Ground either: you cannot detect it by introspection and it is material, not spirit. Your own ideas about the Divine Ground (that our neural system was made in its image) also don’t work if the Divine Ground is identified with the void.

      In general, I often see people who want some “scientific” backing for their odd ideas appealing to poorly understood concepts from physics. Quantum mechanics is a special favourite of these people (example), hence “quantum woo-woo”.


      1. I am not sure how much different Krauss’s statements are from the “words of belief” that I talk about in my post. Krauss is explaining the Quantum Void? Why did he capitalize “Nothing”? Perhaps a little joke, but also revealing. His Quantum Void is little more than the modern equivalent of God. It is responsible for the Universe in his view. And I love this: “Virtual particles therefore exist.” Let me show you some equations. You don’t think that “virtual particles” might be really be a mental construct, a theory, a model, rather than something that “exists”.

        The “words of belief” are pointers to feelings and shared experiences. They are the verbal currency of a community. When we speak them we feel ourselves to be part of the community and others recognize us to be part of it.

        Dawkins and Krauss’s community is physicists and atheists.

        They have simply swapped the “words of belief” of religion for the “words of belief” of atheism. Why else devote such psychic energy to such pointless arguments? The words in themselves mean nothing. In a sense the words are like mantras that make internal alignments in the psyche of the speaker but have no meaning in themselves. They are words that grow out of shared belief. The affirmation of others in the group is what makes the words real to the individual.


        1. His Quantum Void is little more than the modern equivalent of God. It is responsible for the Universe in his view

          This is true only if the meanings of the word “God” are exhausted by “whatever is responsible for the universe”. But this is false, and, as someone commenting on Facebook observed, “One thing from the article is a problem of moving the goal posts or bait and switch. A believer will try to gain agreement on a very abstract definition of “god” then assume the step from there to Jesus and all that entails is small. Yet the god of Christianity is quite specific.” If we just mean “whatever is responsible for the universe”, we should not use the word “God”, which smuggles in a bunch of other connotations.

          You don’t think that “virtual particles” might be really be a mental construct, a theory, a model, rather than something that “exists”.

          That’s an empiricist, positivist or maybe instrumentalist view, and I suspect Krauss is a realist of some sort, that is, he thinks that the success of a theory gives some evidence that the entities postulated by it exist. If you’re a convinced empiricist though, I’m a bit surprised by all the Divine Ground stuff you apparently believe in. Surely that too is a mental construct rather than something which exists? After all, I’ve never seen one.

          To reduce all statements to “words of belief” is just going nuclear by introducing global scepticism about arguments and reason. But this is self-defeating: are your own words not just re-inforcing your membership of the some community rather than attempts at argument? If so, I think there’s little point in carrying on the conversation.

          I’d prefer to think of it as Andrew Brown does: propositional consistency is a habit that must be taught, and a lot of people don’t learn it, so there is a lot of jeering at rival tribes masquerading as statements of belief. But the people who are trying to work things out by argument and who will respond to arguments with other arguments (the “intellectuals” in Brown’s piece) are at least trying for that sort of consistency. To dismiss everything they say as pure emotivism or community building is just insulating yourself from criticism without responding to it.


          1. ” I’m a bit surprised by all the Divine Ground stuff you apparently believe …”

            You might want to note that the first two words of my post are “Beyond Belief…”

            But fair enough. I think my use of the term Divine Ground might be a little bit idiosyncratic. Perhaps I did not explain it as well as I should have. This is not for me in anyway equivalent to the idea or concept of God. What I am really trying to get at is some core part of reality and how it merges with our experience of existing and being conscious in time – the profound moments of loss and love, the moments when we feel everything makes sense and the moments when we feel nothing makes sense. Our understanding of this is at a gut level and is beyond belief. It is to me what religion is about even though as I say the proponents of religion are as confused by this as the atheists.

            This isn’t to deny science and rationality their rightful place. As I have said, religion should leave the explanations to science. Whether I am a positivist or empiricist I’ll let you decide. In another post I write:

            “The fact is that everything we perceive really is phantasma. The red of the rose is not real. It is a particular wavelength of light. The sound of the distant thunder is not real. It is an acoustic wave moving through the air. Solid objects don’t really exist. We might kick a large rock and we might hurt our foot but physics says the rock is mostly empty space and the pain in our foot is the product of a nerve impulse. Our experiences are all in the past, delayed by a neurological time-lag and assembled into a coherent whole bearing perhaps no resemblance to what is actually “out there” in the world. The pattern forming process in the brain/mind mimics the pattern forming forces of nature. We are completely cut off from real cognition. We are trapped in our sensory equipment and the cognitive apparatus of our brain. We make sense of the world only because we are a part of it and constructed as it is constructed. We are from the same pattern forming processes that built the world. Small wonder that mathematics seems to work so well to describe scientifically the world since the mathematical knowledge springs from the same source as the world.”


  3. Mmm, yes. If there’s a virtue of faith, isn’t a positive belief in God’s non-existence potentially just as virtuous?


    1. Strangely enough, you don’t see much talk about the virtue of steadfast atheism from the “faith is a virtue” folks. This might mean that to them it is more the “heroic story” than the “epistemic slow filter” (previously): atheists don’t think there’s a tempter luring them to theism.


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