Outline of the Case for Agnosticism

Via Leiter’s blog I found out about this Slate article on Agnosticism. I guess I agree with Leiter and a lot of the commenters that the piece is overly polemical and doesn’t address the arguments of either side. Being a card carrying agnostic myself I thought I might chime in.

I found myself in general agreement with the rhetorical position of the piece. People often associate agnosticism with either intellectual laziness (we haven’t thought about the issue long enough to have a view) or a certain kind of intellectual cowardice (we don’t have the guts to say what we really believe; i.e. we are secretly atheists/theists and are just too cowardly to admit it). Both of the charges are misguided. Agnosticism is simply the honest recognition that we do not have decisive reasons for thinking that there is, or isn’t, an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect being. I don’t, however, think the case for agnosticism consists in simple demanding that someone explain why there is something as opposed to nothing, though that is part of the case.

In short the situation seems to me to be this: There is equally compelling evidence on both sides of the issue. Given that we like evidentialsim in some form and that we agree that it is an illegitimate move to count belief in God as properly basic (if we do we must count any belief as properly basic in some noetic structure) it really seems to me that a rational disinterested person should conclude that there is an equal chance that there is a God and that there isn’t.  Since there are pretty compelling cases to be made on both sides people tend to find their antecedent beliefs easy to justify and so we get fervent believers on both sides when really we should all just admit that this is an unresolved question. You may have placed your bet on one side or the other but that is all there is to it; a bet.

The A Priori Case

  • The Ontological Argument: This much maligned and misunderstood argument has been the subject of countless attacks, defenses and reformulations. I am convinced that the “existence isn’t a predicate” attack doesn’t work. The basic reason that all versions of this argument are inconclusive is just that our intuitions about the totality of the space of possible worlds is extremely unreliable. We may be able to coherently talk about particular possible worlds –though this is hard in itself– but when we try to conceive of the entire space of possible worlds, as we must if we are to conceive of a necessary being existing in some possible world, we loose our grip on what is going on. This is, of course, the very same problem that the parody ontological arguments face. Just as we cannot trust our intuitions about what objects necessarily exist so too we cannot trust our intuitions about which don’t.
  • The Logical Problem of Evil: I sometimes hear people say that Plantinga’s response to the logical problem of evil involving trans-world depravity has successfully answered the logical problem. But the obvious problem with this argument is that it assumes that God has no control over whether the creaturely essences he instantiates have the contingent property of trans-world depravity. This just seems wildly implausible to me. The possible world where all creaturely essences have morally significant free will and always freely choose to do what is right is conceivable and we can further conceive that these creaturely essences have trans-world sainthood which is the contingent property of always freely choosing to do the right thing.
  • The Logical Problem of Omniscience: Perhaps less discussed is the logical problem of omniscience. The problem here is that God’s foreknowledge is logically incompatible with His own free will. This is distinct from the traditional problem of free will and omniscience in that the claim is that there is a formal contradiction entailed by the set of claims that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect. Here again we see the same problem as we did with the other a priori arguments: the opposition has different a priori intuitions and we do not have any way to adjudicate between them.

The a priori cases are therefore inconclusive.

    The A Posteriori Cases

    • The Cosmological Argument: The family of arguments here all suffer from well known problems. I won’t here rehearse them but it is clear to me that there is a stalemate here resulting from a clash of intuitions about infinite chains, what counts as an explanation, and the epistemological status of the principle of sufficient reason.
    • The Teleological Argument: Again there is well known and entrenched positions on both side of this issue. For myself I find the fine-tuning argument the most compelling and specifically in its evidential form. That is, fine-tuning gives us some evidence for God but it is defeasible. Of course it is possible, though highly unlikely, that this all happened by accident so the fine-tuning argument cannot prove that God exists but it does provide (defeasible) evidence for the existence of God as long as one accepts the claim that some fact F counts as evidence for a claim C just when F is more likely to have occurred given C. People who like the fine-tuning argument thus spend a lot of time justifying this principle. I find it fairly persuasive as an independent principle and so find fine-tuning to be persuasive empirical evidence for the existence of a God, though it is defeasible.
    • The Evidential Problem of Evil: Unlike the logical problem of evil this is the problem of whether or not the existence of the actual amount of evil in the world is evidence for the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect being. Using the same kind of reasoning that we did in the fine-tuning case we seem to be led to thinking that the existence of evil is string evidence for the non-existence of God. Even if one accepts that God must allow some evil in the world the shear quantity of evil in the actual world (whereby evil is just the suffering in the world considered over the history of sentient creation) is much more likely to exist in a world where there is no God. All of the standard reasons that God may have for allowing evil do not license the amount of evil we actually find.
    • The Argument from Religious Experience: It seems to me that we should count experience as a justifier solely to the extent that the experience is repeatable and public to the extent that it can be had by different people at different times. If one accepts this then it would only be legitimate to appeal to religious experience if it were a wide-spread and acknowledge phenomenon. For instance, if we all saw God descend from the sky and smite the devil then it would be ok to say we believe in God because of a religious experience. This *may* have been the case in the past if we take the various holy texts at face value. My hunch is that it was not the case then either but we can leave that aside. More problematic is the moral argument against private religious experience. What compelling moral reason can we give which would justify God’s hiddenness from us? If we take religion at face value God used to be present but now He is missing. Why? if one denies that God was ever present in the way various religious texts say then we still have to wonder why that is the case. Why would a morally perfect being leave us alone?

    Thus we again end up with a tie. We have two hopelessly stalemated arguments and two compelling lines of evidence pointing in opposite directions.


      16 thoughts on “Outline of the Case for Agnosticism

      1. I don’t fancy myself an atheist either, though I also don’t think of myself as a theist or an agnostic, at least in the philosophical sense. The reason’s simple. There’s simply no way the PROPER NAME ‘God’ could have gotten its reference fixed via a causal-historical chain and I’ve never come across anyone who could tie it down via descriptions, so I take the sentence ‘God Fs’ to express the incomplete proposition . And, of course, there’s no sense in taking an attitude towards such a proposition. With respect to religious texts, if they’re meant as historical documents, then, well, the parts that are meaningful refer to the false (though, I mostly take it as a bit of pretense that transmit bits about morality and politics that are so odious it would be good thing if they dropped off the planet. So, I guess I’m an atheist in the sense that I think religious texts are false and morally corrupting but, in the boring philosophical sense ‘Is the sentence “God Exists” true or false” I’m not becuase I think the question is as sensible as “Is the sentence ‘Empty Proper Name exists” true or false”.

      2. Frank, I think you qualify as a theological noncognitivist, which is sometimes called “strong atheism,” though some people say it isn’t a sort of atheism at all. I’d call it a variety of atheism, because–by some counts, at least–atheism is a self-aware lack of belief in God, and you consciously deny that any of your beliefs are belief in God.

        I’m a theological non-cognitivist, too. I don’t think the notion of a creator of the universe makes sense. I don’t think the idea of an atemporal, aspatial mind makes sense. I know a lot of people think these notions do make sense, but people are known to think lots of nonsense makes sense. So until I see some sense in these notions, I’ll have to remain a theological noncognitivist, and I’ll continue to call myself an atheist as well. I don’t see how anyone could believe in God, as (ill)defined.

        I don’t even consider so-called “belief in God” a belief at all. At least, I don’t think it’s a belief about whether or not any particular thing exists. If anything, it’s a belief that life as a whole is justified by something beyond life itself. That belief, though vague and perhaps ill-conceived, is easy to recognize and understand. And it’s easy to dress in rituals and traditions, and call it something else.

      3. Richard, this comment jumped out at me:

        “For example, if we all saw God descend from the sky and smite the devil then it would be ok to say we believe in God because of a religious experience.”

        How would you, or anybody else, know that it was God smiting the devil? Since these are supposed to be supernatural beings, their appearance–even to the entire world–would be miraculous. I think Hume made a good point here: we can never be justified in regarding an object of experience as a miracle. We can only regard it as an extraordinary occurrence in need of an explanation. No standard of evidence could qualify something as a religious experience, unless we are to regard religious experiences in wholly natural terms.

      4. Hi Frank and Jason, thanks for the comments!

        Frank, you say “There’s simply no way the PROPER NAME ‘God’ could have gotten its reference fixed via a causal-historical chain”

        I guess I find this a bit surprising…why isn’t the causal chain which leads back to the burning bush (or any other stroy about human/God interaction whether in the Bible, Torah, or Quaran) good enough?

        You go on to say, “and I’ve never come across anyone who could tie it down via descriptions”

        Again I am a bit suprised…why isn’t “The all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect being” a perfectly good description?

        Jason, interesting stuff about theological non-cognitivism…so is the idea that statements we take to be the expression of beiefs abut God and His existence are really just expressions of sentiment? “god exists” is just “yeah God”? Or is the non-cognitivism simply supposed to amount to the claim that there is no sense in the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect being?

        As for the miracle stuff, I suppose I am in basic agreement with the Humean point, but it still seems to me that there are observational criterion which if met would convince us that we were interacting with Jesus, or the devil, or God that weren’t miraculous…why isn’t the appearance of an agel who commands you to do something a religious experience (the kind Peter had)…if angels were regularly visible then there wouldn’t be an issue about religious experience, right?

      5. We could probably distinguish at least two varieties of theological noncognitivism. According to one, the notion of God is not defined enough to denote anything. For example, here is an argument that the notion of God lacks any primary attributes, and so cannot be meaningful. I haven’t spent much time analyzing that argument, and I’m not so concerned about it. My variety of theological noncognitivism is a little different. It’s based on the apparent fact that God is defined in terms of attributes that don’t make sense. When talking about this, I usually focus on the notions of “creator of the universe” and “atemporal mind.” But I think “all-powerful,” “all-knowing,” and “morally perfect” are also nonsense.

        This leaves open the question of how to interpret God talk. I wouldn’t dismiss expressions of belief as meaningless. I think they can communicate any number of sentiments and feelings. I think expressions of belief/faith have all sorts of functions and can be used in any number of ways. If there is a common thread, I think it’s the belief in something beyond life (and death) which justifies life (and death). I’m open to the possibility that there is a predominant psychological function of religious belief, perhaps something to do with giving up one’s sense of self, but I’m also inclined to think that religious belief isn’t just one thing.

        About religious experiences . . . If angels were regularly visible, they would be a natural fact. We could call them “angels,” but we would have no reason for believing they were supernatural. We just don’t have a standard of measure for the supernatural–that’s an a priori result of the notion of the supernatural.

      6. Although the fine-tuning argument is evidence for a god, it’s equally good evidence for other “out-there” hypotheses, such as pure chance, multiple universes, the Everett intepretation of quantum mechanics…

        I’m definitely not savvy with the science for these things, nor is there any consensus among scientists, and some of them may be as unyielding to further research as the idea of a god. I’m entirely agnostic as to between them and other ideas proposed. But they do seem to fit what we know more than positing a god does, most obviously the evidential argument from evil and why the creation of life took such a strenuous hoop-jumping route. None of this discounts a god like being at all, but going with parsimony and coherence with what we already know I lean more towards the lack of any god that interacts or has had interacted with the world.

      7. Those stories, I imagine, are either a bit a pretense or false histories. So, they don’t go back to anything. Or, worse, if they go back to things then they aren’t worthy of the name ‘God’ (e.g. Moses was actually talking to a scorpion). Moreover, the only thing that people, nowadays at least, agree upon is that ‘God’ is outside space-time. As such, we can’t have causal-historical contact with him (at least on that construal).

        I also don’t have any clue what people mean by ‘all-F’. And, I venture that they don’t either. In addition, those properties, indeed ‘prefection’ itself is contextually graded. So, there’s little reason to think that ‘morally perfect’ – whatever that means! – will denote the same thing across all contexts. Ergo, I could be God in one context (where the standards are extremely low), you in another (higher standards, I suppose), and others in other contexts. But, that, surely is not what people who use the term ‘God’ pretend to mean by it. Finally, such terms, even if they were intelligible, non-graded, and invariant, would, nonetheless, be massively indeterminate. So, again, what does that ‘description’ mean?

        Like Jason, I’m a non-cognitivist about God. I hold a thesis that some find extreme: It is very unlikely that anyone has ever believed that God exists since beliefs are attitudes toward structured representations and the term ‘God’ doesn’t represent anything. God-talk is either pretense or meant to pragmatically convey group-membership (e.g. like wearing an Italia jersey during the Worldcup) but it doesn’t semantically express anything.

        • Like Jason, I’m a non-cognitivist about God. I hold a thesis that some find extreme: It is very unlikely that anyone has ever believed that God exists since beliefs are attitudes toward structured representations and the term ‘God’ doesn’t represent anything. God-talk is either pretense or meant to pragmatically convey group-membership (e.g. like wearing an Italia jersey during the Worldcup) but it doesn’t semantically express anything.

          This is why philosophy sucks.

          • Ah! After thousands of years, we discover the cause of philosophy’s suckiness: ‘God’ is an empty proper name. Who would have thought? Well, at least we agree that the argument from evil’s unintelligible. You see, LOTS of things are unintelligible.

      8. Thanks for this post ! I’m very interested in these arguments. Do you know a suitable book to dive into a priori and a posteriori arguments?

      9. At the end of the day a human has to decide according to his intelligence.

        So which determination is more intelligent, when you are left with two alternatives both of which can be argued for endlessly without any possible final conclusion foolproof for one side against the other.

        And the choice of one side as against the other means you will live or die.

        You will now say that we have to be the most intelligent human to be able to make the most intelligent choice.

        That is true but if you are the only human around and no one else then is more intelligent than you, then you have to decide on the basis of your own intelligence.

        If there are several humans around then you can consult the the one most intelligent.

        How do you find out which human is the most intelligent?

        Administer IQ tests on the humans you have with you.


      10. Here is something I have never been able to understand about the “arguments from evil.”

        Out of one side of their mouths, philosophers will not shut up about, either the non-existence, or the complete relativity of evil.

        But then they will turn around and say there is too much “evil” for God to exist.

        I frankly do not know what evil could be if God’s opinion on the matter is left out. All we are left with is subjective preference. But even people like Mackie admit that our concept of morality is that of objective prescription. And you cannot just add up subjective preferences and get an objective prescription.

        The argument from evil is unintelligible.

        Also, regarding the point about Plantinga’s FWD… I didn’t much understand that book (GF&E), but I thought the point was that, despite the fact that there IS a possible world where free agents act (always and only) rightly, it is nonetheless not “fiatable.” I don’t see then how your assertion that such a world exists is supposed to be detrimental.

        But I found the book confusing, so I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I’m misunderstanding one or both of you.

        I’m done trolling for the night. Take care.

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