Friday, January 31, 2014

Agnosticism Revisited

18 months ago I wrote about why I’m not an agnostic.  You can read that here if you want.  In the middle of writing another post a few months ago I accidentally discovered I might be one after all.  This post will be heavy on quibbles and semantics, so apologies in advance.

As discussed in that post from 2012, agnosticism is not just a state of being unsure or confused.  It’s a philosophical position that the question of “does God exist?” can’t be answered one way or the other for a variety of reasons.  One reason would be that the scientific method requires tangible things that can be tested.  God(s) are by most definitions not part of the physical universe, and therefore can’t be tested.  Should God(s) show up and talk, as described in various religious books, that would certainly be something that the scientific method could use.  But they don’t, so they can’t be tested in that manner. 

My agnostic realization is more philosophical than scientific.  When we discuss things in our every day life, most of the time we’re talking about something with which we have real life experience.  We can talk about coffee or sports or sex because we have experience with these things.  With God(s), I’m not sure the language we use is so accurate.  What, for example, is omniscience?  We have a vague idea of what we mean by it, but we don’t have any real life points of data.  An adult knows more than a child, a computer “knows” more than an adult, but none of us has seen or met anyone with knows everything about everything all the time.  Same goes for omnipresence and omnipotence.  We’ve experienced varying degrees strength and presence, but nothing close to what would be defined as being able to do anything, and being able to be everywhere at once.  So when we speak of these things, are we saying anything sensical?

The response to the ontological argument for the existence of God gives us another way to view agnosticism as an appropriate position.  To steal from Anselm, the ontological argument goes like this:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being that exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.


There are many reasons the argument doesn’t work (presumably a 50 foot zombie that eats babies would not be made greater by existing in reality instead of just the mind), point number 2 being the most discussed.  Most theists would not claim that they fully comprehend God.  They have rough outlines of what they God is, but not so much knowledge that they’d be comfortable saying they “know” what God is.  This lack of clarity is an example showing agnosticism is how people operate in real life.

Douglas Gasking had an interesting (and mostly sarcastic) critique of the ontological argument, postulating that the more difficult it was for God to create the universe, the greater accomplishment it would be.  The greatest challenge would be to create the universe while not existing.  The universe exists, therefore God does not exist.

Most definitions of God(s) also contain an element of being infinite.  We certainly don’t have a real grasp on what infinite is.  As the old riddle goes, if there’s a library with an infinite number of books, and you take one off the shelf, is it still an infinite number of books?  The existence of the infinite is still a debated topic among philosophers and mathematicians.

So, if we can’t be sure we know what we’re talking about with any of the defining characteristics of God(s), how can we make positive statements such as “God exists” or “God does not exist”? 

For now, even if I accept that I’m an agnostic atheist (agnostics still don’t believe in God(s)), it doesn’t change anything but the label.  But labels are fun, and useful for clarification.

If you had to give yourself a label, what would it be?

No comments:

Post a Comment