Absolute Agnosticism

My my. A big one.

Let’s consider the basic question: Is the universe:- (A) something created by a sentient, all powerful being, (B) the result of naturally occuring process containing no element of will – like the Big Bang or vacuum fluctuations (C) something that always has existed as we find it (a la steady state theory)?

To me (stress “me”), a theist says the answer to that question is A. An atheist says the answer to that question is B or C. My answer to that question is: I don’t know. I neither believe nor disbelieve any of the three explanations and have no explanation of my own.

Now, you and many others aver that makes me an atheist. As you said before, we are reduced to what definitions we are willing to accept for words. (And i DO acknowledge that several dictionaries support your position. I just think they are inadequate.)

I would suggest that one possibility is that rather than us agnostics being mistaken – i.e. that we are really atheists – that the truth may be just the other way around – that many many people who call themselves atheists are, in fact, agnostic.

The truth is that, just as there are those who wake up every morning with an unshakeable belief that a supreme being created the universe in a week, there are others who wake up with an unshakeable belief that the universe was not created and, ergo, there is no creator. I think it is critical here to stress the word “belief”. Not logical conclusion. Not hypothesis. Not notion. Not desire. Belief. Belief is involuntary. It should not be confused with a decision to take a position and behave as if it was a belief. Those we call Christians can be people who absolutely believe in the scriptures’ account or they can be people who adopt that story as some sort of behaviour guide or cultural identity without actually believing that some guy created a fast food outlet from a loaf of bread and died, was resurrected and his corporeal body shuffled off to heaven.. Only the former, in my view, are actually Christians.

As I said, it may well be that many atheists lack that unshakeable belief that one or the other of the latter two explanations for existence is the explanation. I would call those people agnostics; you call them atheists. As you said earlier, we must agree to disagree on definitions. Frankly, I wish the words ‘atheist” and “agnostic” would be replaced by something else.

Deities etc.

I accept your position that deities need not be super-universal or omnipotent. But, really,so what? As they relate to my belief about them (i.e. unknowingness) it matters not at all. My position is the same regardless of their purported characteristics.

“However, I don’t see how even a supernatural being could not be bound by logic.” So?

“For example, could a deity be so simple that a child could completely understand its nature, but at the same time impossible to comprehend? Please explain further.” I would think (A) yes, and (B) it cannot be explained. That’s what a paradox is – something for which no explanation will suffice. That people are capable of conjuring up such paradoxical questions means nothing other than that some people are capable of conjuring up paradoxical questions. An arrow in flight is in motion, yet at any point in time it must “be” in some location. How can it both be somewhere but be moving (i.e. not be somewhere)? But, somehow, the arrow gets from the bow to the target despite having to “be” at an near infinite number of locations en route. Meaningless noise.

Now, let me, just for fun, turn that one on its head for you: Could deep reality be so simple that a Buddhist or Taoist monk can completely understand its nature, but at the same time impossible for a quantum physicist to comprehend?

As to philosophy and consistency, probably my favorite quote sums up my philosophy (at least to the extent required by this conversation): “We are here and it is now. Further than this, all human knowledge is moonshine.” – H.L.Mencken.

I know I exist. Everything else I accept or reject according to its degree of workability and usefullness, and that acceptance is subject to change. I may not “know” that there are fish in the Atlantic, but the cans of tuna I buy say that’s where it came from, so I’ll go along until shown otherwise. Should I come across a can of tuna saying “Made from the best tuna picked from sycamore trees” however, I’ll probably change stores until I get a good explanation.

“Once the possibility of something being true is small enough, I treat it as if it is not true. You, it appears, do not do this. ” I have not made myself clear. This is precisely what I do. I treat it as if it is not true. (Usually that just means ignoring it.) But I do not insist that it is not true – as an atheist does – I simply use the data at hand, which does not include proven truth of the “something”.

“For example, would you remain strictly agnostic when asked, “In our universe, are the laws of physics unchanging?” ” Yes, I would remain agnostic, which is to say my answer to the question would be “I don’t know.” And would that answer be thus in order to remain philosophically consistent? No. That would be my answer because I don’t know if the laws of physics are unchanging. If the question were “Do you conduct yourself as if the laws of physics are unchanging?” my answer would be “Yes, I do.”, because thus far they have appeared to be unchanging. That, however, does not mean I believe it is impossible for them to change tomorrow – only that I don’t have any evidence to make me expect them to change tomorrow or the day after etc. so it would be perverse to behave as if I expected that change.

(I also assume that you use the phrase “I would never state anything absolutely” rhetorically and not as a statement of your philosophy since it is self contradictory.) No I do not use it rhetorically. And its self-contradictory nature is irrelevant. But, to avoid the verbal pardox, let me reword: Other than the aforementioned “I know I exist”, I have not yet stated anything absolutely and have no plans to do so in the future.

“Likely enough that you act to avoid the possibility of eternal punishment (as per Pascal’s wager)?” If I am ever actually confronted with that situation I will answer. For now, I have no idea how I would answer.



These letters are indeed getting long, but I feel that progress is being made, so it’s worth it!

You are incorrect when you say that I would call you an atheist because you take no position on how the universe came to be. If you neither believe nor disbelieve in a supernatural creator, I’m fine with calling you an agnostic. That fits my definition of the term.

I also agree that some people who call themselves atheists are really agnostics, so long as we are using your definitions of the terms. This is because you define atheists as only those who categorically rule out the possibility of deities. It also apparently leaves us with no word for my philosophy, which is why I’m sticking with my set of definitions.

I agree that there are dogmatic atheists, those who have an unshakable belief that there are no deities. I disagree with these people.

I understand your wish that “atheist” and “agnostic” could be replaced. However, I think that the problem is largely solved if we do not treat atheism and agnosticism as mutually exclusive. One can be an atheist, an agnostic, a theist, a dogmatic atheist, a dogmatic theist, an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist. You would be an agnostic. I’d be an atheist. I think that covers the bases reasonably thoroughly.

Regarding the qualities of deities you say, “so what?” Well, it’s pretty important that we know what we are talking about. For example, some agnostics define deities such that deities would have to be purely supernatural and have no impact on the physical realm. That’s a very important distinction. Also, it would be good to know how wide you are drawing the net when you say deity — are fairies included? The human soul?

You answer “So?” to my statement about not seeing how a supernatural being could not be bound by logic. I’m not sure if you mean “So what if you don’t understand” or “So what if supernatural being are bound by logic”. I’m going to assume you didn’t mean to be insulting.

I disagree with your discussion of paradox. “1=2” is not a paradox; it is a logical contradiction. Your example of a Zeno-type paradox is not a contradiction, and in fact it is only an apparent paradox — with more knowledge, the situation makes complete sense.

I feel that you are not directly answering my question about why logic should not apply when examining deities. This is a question of rather large import. For example, let’s say that a theist makes the following series of statements: “Killing babies is always evil. God is all good. God wants me to kill babies.” If logic does not apply to deities, then we cannot discuss these statements, even within the context of theology. In fact, it seems that we would also have to accept the possible truth of such statements as, “God is pink, and God is tall, therefore God wants me to kill babies.” Such a statement is indeed meaningless noise (to use your phrase), but only because it fails within the laws of logic.

You ask, “Could deep reality be so simple that a Buddhist or Taoist monk can completely understand its nature, but at the same time impossible for a quantum physicist to comprehend?” Yes, that’s possible, given that these two people would be looking for different kinds of understanding. However, my original question was posed as a logical contradiction, as I’m sure you understand, and this question does not appear to be.

I understand what you mean about accepting or rejecting things according to their degree of workability and usefulness. This brings us right back to the questions I keep asking — how workable and useful do you find the concept of deities? Do you find any concept of a deity more workable and useful than any other?

I feel that I can now answer these questions to some small extend on my own (and ask you to correct my reasoning where necessary). You say that you do indeed treat small possibilities as not true. Since you do not treat deities in this way, I would conclude that you believe there is more than a small possibility that deities exist.

You say that the statement “I would never state anything absolutely” being self contradictory is irrelevant. You then rephrase your statement in a way that really doesn’t improve the situation so far as logical contradictions go but does reinforce my growing sense that you might be over-defining your philosophy. Your answers to the questions in this e-mail will help me see if I am wrong about that (and I hope I am).

Regarding Pascal’s wager, you say, “If I am ever actually confronted with that situation I will answer. For now, I have no idea how I would answer.” That answer surprised me. The whole point of Pascal’s wager is that you ARE being confronted with that situation. You, right now, can choose to act as if God exists so as to avoid eternal punishment if the existence of God turns out to be a fact. There is nothing to wait for. If you are waiting for certainty, then if God exists it will be too late to change your behavior when you are confronted with the truth and you will be eternally punished. So how do you answer right now?

Continuing along this line of thinking, do you feel that you behave in a way consistent with the belief that deities may or may not exist? Or to put it another way, what is the difference between your behavior and the behavior of an atheist who tries not to make absolute statements?

I look forward to your response.

Posted on January 15, 2008 at 2:37 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism, Discussion

Leave a Reply