Absolute Agnosticism

Hello again.

“Yet you have resisted my attempts to get you to assign a degree of “workability and usefulness” to the supernatural or unproven.

Ah, but I do. I assign values of zero workability and zero usefulness. That is precisely the point, I believe. Any statements about the supernatural/untestable are, from a scientific viewpoint, meaningless noise. From an entirely subjective viewpoint of course one might consider “god” both workable and useful, but again, that has only personal, not objective, meaning.

“It looks like you treat the existence of bigfoot as equally likely as the existence of a deity that I have made up on the spot.”

I believe you have presented me with a false problem here. Bigfoot and your ad hoc deity differ qualitatively. The existence of Bigfoot could, at least theoretically, be testable – for example if we devised some means to examine every square meter of the earth simultaneously. Your deity on the other hand cannot even in theory be tested for.

Similarly, while no evidence has ever been produced for the existence of any deity ever, it is a common occurrence for previously unknown species to be discovered. Bigfoot may not exist or may exist but be elusive. The important point about Bigfoot is not that its existence has not been established, but that no supernatural characteristics have been attributed to it.

As to practicality, I don’t see how “practical” or any related word can be used in the context of discussing something purely theoretical.

So, I would say, in my present circumstance, I am equally agnostic regarding Bigfoot and your deity. I do not know (or care) and the “workability and usefulness” of either means nothing to me – equally. Should my circumstances change – say, I should decide to do a solitary wilderness adventure in the Canadian northwest – perhaps I would want to consider the so-called evidence for Bigfoot a bit more closely. But I doubt it.

Regarding your two different statements about UFOs you ask “so would you treat them as equally true/untrue?” I would treat them as neither true in any degree nor untrue in any degree, but as simply meaningless (for now). That is my whole point about agnosticism, is it not? A statement is true, as borne out by testing, false, as borne out by testing, or meaningless because it cannot be tested and ergo something about which I can have no knowledge and no informed opinion.

The degree of likelihood of various individual elements within a statement simply do not concern me if the central point of the statement is one about which I can have no knowledge. One may argue ’til the cows come home whether Jehovah is an all-loving and kind father figure or a vengeful, sadistic, egotistical scrotum. What does it matter if the root statement “Jehovah exists” is meaningless to me?

As for the balance of what you say:

Deities, faeries or whatever, of course there are degrees of likelihood if the entity being referred to is a purely objective, material, being. Science applies. If the entity’s description contains even a single supernatural element, then testability goes out the window and with it objective meaning. And with that, my caring. Add even a single untestable element and it is all angels dancing on pinheads to me.

Yours in Jesus, John

You say that you assign values of “zero workability and zero usefulness” to the supernatural. You also say that you are agnostic about the existence of the supernatural. But if a thing has zero workability, it seems to me that such a thing cannot exist, so saying you don’t know whether or not it exists makes no sense. That leads me to believe that something else is going on here, and I will get to that at the conclusion of this letter.

I don’t think that the bigfoot-versus-deity question is a false problem, but your response is a good one. As you say, the difference between bigfoot and a deity is that the existence of bigfoot could, in principle, be proven. I’d say that this is a good reason to assign the two subjects different positions on the spectrum of reasonableness, but you say that you are equally agnostic about both. This is an important point, as it is really the crux of our disagreement.

You say, “no evidence has ever been produced for the existence of any deity ever.” That statement seems false on its face. There is plenty of evidence for the existence of deities (reports of divine resurrection, apparent design in nature, the efficacy of prayer, etc.). Do you mean to say that there is no compelling evidence or that there is no possibility of evidence? (I’d say the former and am guessing you’d say the latter.)

Continuing with Bigfoot, you say, “The important point about Bigfoot is not that its existence has not been established, but that no supernatural characteristics have been attributed to it.” You may be interested to learn that this is not the case. A number of people have assigned psychic powers to Bigfoot or associated it with UFO sightings. To me, the “supernatural” and “non-supernatural” versions of Bigfoot have different likelihoods of existence. If someone came to me with a footprint that they said was evidence of Bigfoot, I would consider it to be potential evidence of non-supernatural Bigfoot, because such a creature’s existence is more likely. If I considered the likelihood of the existence of both types of Bigfoot to be equal, I don’t see how I could make such a distinction. This would compel me to say either, “That footprint might be evidence for the existence of a supernatural creature,” or “That footprint could not possibly be evidence for any kind of Bigfoot.” Neither statement seems to make sense from a scientific standpoint.

You ask how “practical” can be used in the context of something theoretical. To avoid confusion, what if we use the word “reasonable” instead? I am guessing that you would say that no concept of a deity is any more reasonable than any other. If that is the case — and because you do not categorically rule out the possibility of deities existing — then I’d say that it appears that you are denying the usefulness of logical investigation when physical investigation is impossible. Scientists use logic in this way all the time, and philosophers build their careers on it.

Turning to my question about two forms of UFO (visitors from another planet, and visitors from another planet who can travel through time). You say that you consider these concepts to be equally meaningless and imply that it is because they cannot be tested. This seems to deny us the ability to use Occam’s Razor when dealing with the unknown. By assigning zero probability to all untested things, you can conclude that any combination of unlikely things is equally unlikely. Doing this makes it much more difficult to decide how to go about investigating those things we currently have no information about, so it is only useful when the subjects at hand are truly, absolutely untestable (as is not the case with either alien visitations or time travel).

You ask why the attributes of Jehovah should make any difference to you if you think the statement “Jehovah exists” is meaningless (and by the way, in all of this I’m assuming that by “meaningless” you mean unprovable either way, not linguistically meaningless). In general, you are correct, so long as you assume that a deity cannot impact your life (or afterlife, should one exist). But making such an assumption is assigning an attribute to a deity, which you say you will not do.

Using logic to examine the attributes of proposed deities is also useful in discussions of moral philosophy. There are times, for example, when it is useful to be able to point out that there cannot logically be a deity who would never let a child come to harm but wants people to kill children. It is also useful when discussing deities with people who believe that there is subjective evidence for the existence of God (such as personal revelation).

In your concluding paragraph, you say, “If the entity’s description contains even a single supernatural element, then testability goes out the window and with it objective meaning.” I’d say that such a statement denies science the ability to reach conclusions on some subjects, such as dowsing, which are described in terms of the supernatural but are testable. Science does not say that all untestable things are equally likely, but rather puts the burden of proof on the person proposing something new and treats new phenomena as non-existent until there is evidence to the contrary.

Putting it another way, if science finds that Uri Geller uses slight of hand to bend spoons, its conclusion should be closer to, “Uri Geller most likely always uses slight of hand to bend spoons,” than to, “Uri Geller uses slight of hand to bend spoons when observed by experts, but may bend spoons by supernatural means at other times.”

Before corresponding with you, I had spoken with two types of people who I thought were valid agnostics: those who believe that the supernatural, if it exists, cannot in principle interact with the natural, and those who believe that the statement “God exists” has no linguistic value. You do not seem to fit precisely into either of these camps.

Rather, you are coming across as a philosophical materialist who refers to himself as an extreme agnostic because he enjoys the reaction that provokes in others. At this point, I feel that our conversation has gone on so long in part because you are trying to shoehorn pure materialism into agnosticism, and this is causing fuzziness along some philosophical boundaries.

To test this, and perhaps to bring us toward a conclusion, let me try to sum up your philosophy:

1) Science is the only valid method of gaining information about the world.

2) That which cannot be tested for might or might not exist, but there is no way to tell the truth so there is no point in discussing such things.

3) I have no opinion about whether or not things that cannot be tested for exist.

How close is this to correct?

Posted on March 4, 2008 at 11:26 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism, Discussion

One Response

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  1. Written by Mikel
    on March 6, 2008 at 1:54 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Isn’t Agnosticism the fear of God by an athiest?

    That’s a perplexing idea. I don’t believe in God, or a diety, but JUST IN CASE… I’m going to say that I can’t prove either way, so I don’t want to difinitively claim there is no god… hmmm…

    Just my thought on Agnosticism.

    Agnosticists believe that anything is possible… including erasing yourself with a pencil… just because they haven’t seen it done, doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

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