Yesterday, I received a reply to a post, which raised the old question of agnosticism vs atheism (and, by extension, vs. theism). I replied briefly, but I feel that the question should receive a better airing.
Science *doesn’t* object to belief in a deity – although, I suspect, most people, on the basis of moral fortitude would find that organisng a belief in a manner to turn a profit highly objectionable!
This is perfectly almost true. Science doesn’t object to a a person holding a belief in a deity, but science most certainly does object if that belief is bought to the table of scientific enquiry as an explanation. But one thing is certain, the process of scientific enquiry has left the gods of the various religions known to man with vanishingly few places to hide. The question can reasonably raised then; where did these god beliefs come from, and why are they wholly inconsistent about what we now know of natural law?
This question sets the scene.
Science simply finds no basis for argument, in belief, either way. Belief, in a paranormal sense, is based on the existence of God (or a god, or a spiritual world (etc etc), whichever you prefer) and there are *no* grounds for a rational argument in either direction. [my emphasis]
This argument is simply untrue, but like a game of whack-a-mole, nevertheless frequently comes up to be hit on the rhetorical head. It is essentially a re-wording of the statement, “because science – or the scientific method – cannot search everywhere and ultimately disprove the god hypothesis, science cannot disprove the existence of god, therefore god’s existence is as equally likely as its non-existence”. However, this is not how science works, and it is not how rational enquiry works.
Science works on evidence, this much is true. However it emphatically does not work on the basis that a hypothesis should be considered valid until evidence invalidates it. It works in the other direction, on the basis of the null hypothesis: a hypothesis is considered invalid until sufficient evidence is provided to support that hypothesis. That hypothesis, however, does not then suddenly become an insurmountable fact, it is simply a more reasonable hypothesis than it was when the investigation began. As more evidence comes in, it may support or refute that original hypothesis, which may lead to it changing over time to more accurately reflect observations, or it may be discarded.
The existence of a supernatural realm can – and should – be approached in a similar fashion. The supernatural is simply a hypothesis in search of evidence. The question then is simply, what evidence exists for the existence of a supernatural realm? The answer, of course, is none whatsoever. People have claimed to have supernatural powers – whether it’s telekinesis, or mind reading (whether that mind is the mind of another animal, or the mind of the gods), but when those claims are examined they are found wanting.
Now it should be noted that the lack of evidence for the existence of something is not evidence that it doesn’t exist, this much is self-evident: there was no evidence for the existence of planets other than the five classical (naked-eye) planet before the invention of the telescope, but nevertheless they were there. However, the argument at hand is not, “does the supernatural realm definitely not exist”, but, “does science or rational enquiry have a rational basis for stating it almost certainly does not exist”
If you lived before Gallileo’s time and someone had told you that there were not, in fact, five planets but
nine eight, it would be perfectly rational to disbelieve them. As it happens you would be factually wrong, but your position would still be rational. This is a problem which is often overlooked; being rational – being properly skeptical – is no guarantee of being right, and the honest skeptic acknowledges this, it is simply saying that a proposition requires evidence before it should be seriously considered, and then should only be considered seriously in light of the strength of the evidence. The rationalist – the skeptic – is, or should be, prepared to change their position in the light of new evidence.
So back to the question of the supernatural. In the absence of sufficient – or sufficiently compelling – evidence it is perfectly rational to state that the likelihood is that there is no supernatural realm. This an entirely reasonable and defensible position. It may be that the theists or supernaturalists are correct, but they lack the evidence to support their hypothesis. Which brings us on to the last bit:
Agnosticism, I think is the word; but I’m sure that as an atheist you’d find that a little too ’sitting on the fence’ for your liking.
I don’t like the agnostic position for the reasons outlined above: in the face of an overwhelming lack of evidence for the existence of the supernatural, I do not find it a reasonable position as it is usually defined. I have to be careful here because, just as atheism is often misrepresented, so to do agnostics hold a wide array of positions. If by agnosticism it is meant, “The supernatural is as equally likely to be true as it is to be false”, I think it ignores the lack of evidence, and is simply sitting on the fence for no good reason.
If, however, it means, “The supernatural is highly unlikely to exist, but we can’t prove it doesn’t”, it appears to me to be saying, “although there is no evidence for X, I don’t want to right it off completely”. I can’t work in that framework. If I concede that this is a good way of reasoning for the supernatural, then why not anything else? Why should this be considered a reasonable perspective? If this is a reasonable perspective to have on the supernatural, then why not other claims with no evidence? But worse, I don’t even think this is an interesting proposition.
I may be wrong about the supernatural. I, of course, based on the overwhelming lack of evidence, don’t think I am. However, my position has been arrived at rationally. Provide me with sufficient evidence for the existence of the supernatural, and I will readily change my position. But remember the saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. So it had better be good.