Thursday, July 21, 2005

Why I am not an agnostic

This is an excerpt from a debate I've been having on Keith Devens' web log. The following was written in response to the claim that all atheists are actually agnostics.

Here are two of my core arguments. I will divide definitions of god into two kinds. The first is unverifiable and meaningless, and the second is naturalistic and unworthy of worship.

God Type I
How do we determine whether a proposition has any meaning? We can create propositions by stringing nouns, verbs and adjectives together, but following the grammatical rules of the English language is not sufficient. Pick some words at random, and you may get a proposition that is grammatically correct, but nonsensical, e.g., "humidity cogitates on libertarianism". Similarly, you cannot have a meaningful proposition created out of symbols that are undefined, e.g., "x = (5 p + 4 q) * 7".

So the question is, where does semantic meaning come from? I argue that when we learn language (even our native language), we are creating theories about what words and propositions mean. The first time you ever saw a guy say "what's shaking?" to his friend, and his friend reply "not much," you created a theory about the meaning of the expression "what's shaking?" Since you saw nothing physically shaking, you theorized that the expression meant "how are you feeling?" or "what is going on in your life?" You tested this theory by observing other people use the expression, or by testing it out yourself.

Our entire system of language is built out of many such theories, each one confirmed by empirical evidence.

So, we create theories about the meaning of every proposition, and these theories can only be confirmed or falsified by experience. If you deliberately construct a proposition whose theory of meaning can never be confirmed or falsified, then the proposition itself has no meaning.

If you claim X is true and that nothing we ever experience will ever confirm or refute X is true, then I can make the exact same claim for X is false. If you claim God is good and that nothing we ever observe can convince us otherwise, then I can equally well claim that God is evil and that nothing we ever observe will convince you otherwise. This is because you are saying that the meaning of God is good has nothing to do with anything we ever experience. If you believe such things, you have fallen into a trap where everything you see is interpreted as evidence for your proposition, and nothing can be seen as evidence against it. This is a fallacy. An observation, O, cannot be construed as evidence for a proposition, P, unless not observing O is evidence against P.

Now what I have said above applies to the traditional Christian God which is defined as being omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, perfectly good, etc. All these superlatives are stated to be unverifiable even in principle. So, all propositions about this god are nonsensical. We may intuitively think we know what they mean, but we are actually confused. Intuition alone is not an adequate guide to the meaning of language.

God Type II
The argument about semantic meaning does not apply when you are talking about a super-powerful alien being with technology so far above ours as to look like magic. For, in principle, we could attain technology comparable with the alien, and do experiments that expose his parlour tricks. However, neither you nor I would consider such an alien to be god, per se.

A second aspect of atheism is rejection of worship of pure power. Even if an alien created our universe, that would not justify our worshipping that alien. Might does not make right. Suppose that the devil was actually the one god/alien who created the universe. Would it be ethical to do evil because he says so? Would evil then become "right"? I don't think so. In other words, what an alien says is right isn't necessarily so. I don't think that it is right to hold slaves or to stone people to death like the Bible says we must. Even if I believed that the Bible wasn't just made up by humans, I still wouldn't agree with what it has to say. To follow a path arbitrarily specified by the almighty, I would have to sacrifice my conscience and become a collaborator.

In summary, I have made two points here. First, if your propositions about god are not falsifiable (not even in principle), then they are nonsensical. Second, if your propositions about god are falsifiable, then the god you're talking about is an alien subject to the laws of nature (even if those laws are different outside of our universe). In the latter case, you have to not only say why you think that alien exists (the burden of proof is yours not mine), but also why that alien is a god, i.e., why that alien deserves worship.


Robin Zebrowski said...

Without going to the link you posted, can you tell me (briefly) why the claim is made that atheists are really agnostic to begin with? I just don't get this argument, and I never have. (And I admit I'm being lazy by asking for a summary but I'm on vacation! I'm allowed to be lazy!)

Doctor Logic said...

Robin, I wish I could tell you, but no reason was given for the claim. :)

I'm just assuming that the other party believes that, to be an atheist, one must have proof that god doesn't exist.

I think that such an argument might have some validity if a) we were to assume that, if god did exist, that we would automatically worship him/her/it, and b) the proposition "god exists" were sensible. Under these assumptions, the proposition "god exists" isn't much different from the proposition "the jackalope exists." Personally, I would regard myself as an agnostic when it comes to jackalopes (we will probably genetically engineer them in the future).

However, even an atheist without logical positivist leanings could argue that divinity is in the eye of the beholder.

I would be interested in your views on this. What do you regard as the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

Robin Zebrowski said...

I called myself agnostic for a period in high school, when I actually thought, "hey, I'm a skeptic. I should expect proof before taking that atheist step." Then one day, I realized that I'm a skeptic about things that deserve skepticism: things that there is a reasonable question about in either direction. But I'm not a skeptic about being alive, being human, having red hair (or blue, at the time), etc. There were reasonable things I could believe were or were not the case. I had zero reason to believe there were leprechauns that magically turned on the lights when I flipped the switch (largely because there is a more reasonable, natural explanation). God went the same way.

My very favorite answer to this question, however, comes from Dawkins (isn't that always the case with me?) Somewhere in one of his essays he points out that if atheists should be agnostic about a Christian/etc. God, then those same people demanding agnosticism rather than atheism are forced, by their own argument, to be agnostics about things like Zeus and Poseidon. It's really brilliant. (I'll try to dig out the essay so I can point you to the title - I was almost gleeful when I read his argument).

Anonymous said...

Dawkins. I am so sick of agnostics quoting Dawkins as though he were the authority on the matter. His "Blind Watchmaker" thesis is bunk.

If you would bother to study the matter as opposed to taking Dawkins or Gould as 'gods,' you might have come across a response to Gould's defense of Dawkins, which Scientific American delined to publish, which can be found at:

This is from Phillip Johnson's brilliant essay, "The Religion of the Blind Watchmaker":
--- begining of quote ---
Is the blind watchmaker thesis true? To put the question another way, does natural selection really have the fantastic creative power which Darwinists claim for it? That seems an appropriate question, but persons like Gould, Dawkins, and Hull insist that the very definition of "science" rules the question out of order.

They say that science is inherently committed to naturalistic premises, that Darwinian evolution is the best scientific (i.e. naturalistic) theory of biological creation that we have, and even that Darwinism possesses a virtue called "consilience of induction"-meaning that it explains a lot if we assume that it is true.

One way or another, Darwinists meet the question "Is Darwinism true?" with an answer that amounts to an assertion of power: "Well, it is science, as we define science, and you will have to be content with that."

Some of us are not content with that, because we know that the empirical evidence for the creative power of natural selection is somewhere between weak and non-existent. Artificial selection of fruit flies or domestic animals produces limited change within the species, but tells us nothing about how insects and mammals came into existence in the first place.

In any case, whatever artificial selection achieves is due to the employment of human intelligence consciously pursuing a goal. The whole point of the blind watchmaker thesis, however, is to establish what material processes can do in the absence of purpose and intelligence. That Darwinist authorities continually overlook this crucial distinction gives us little confidence in their objectivity.

Examples of natural selection in action, like Kettlewell's observation of population shifts in the peppered moth, actually illustrate cyclical variation within stable species that exhibit no directional change. The fossil record-characterized by sudden appearance and subsequent stasis- is notoriously reluctant to yield examples of Darwinian macroevolution. The therapsid reptiles and Archaeopteryx are rare exceptions to the general absence of plausible transitional intermediates between major groups, which is why it is important to understand that even these Darwinist trophies are inconclusive as evidence of macroevolution.
---- end of quote ---

Where is the EVIDENCE for evolution? The feet of clay that Dawkins so proudly stands upon simply crumble away upon thoughtful examination. It amazes me that there remains a contingent of "scientists" who simply cannot abide the idea of a diety, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof for their own explanations. The leap of faith required to worship at Dawkin's feet is far far greater than that to become a studied Christian. And yes, there is a HUGE difference between an informed Christian perspective and a belief in Zeus. I'm not sure which is the more upsetting ... the fact that Dawkins resorts to a false analogy to make his case or the fact that you fell for it.

Doctor Logic said...

And you are?

Obviously someone with no understanding of science whatsoever.

I direct you and your fellow reality deniers to the Evolution Evidence Page.

Intelligent Design isn't science. ID's fundamental claim is that science will fail to explain some things. Every time science fills in a gap, ID conveniently moves the goal posts. "Ah! But can you explain this?!" They will forever move the goal posts because ID is not falsifiable, not even in principle. To falsify ID we would need to know everything about the universe, and that will never happen. ID makes no falsifiable predictions.

Yawn. Go back to high school! I have little patience for anti-intellectuals who are proud of their ignorance.