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.