On agnosticism and atheism: opening a can of worms

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.


19 Responses to On agnosticism and atheism: opening a can of worms

  1. Samuel Skinner says:

    Supernatural- a nice way of saying that you don’t have any evidence. Because once you do, it falls under natural. It is one of the cool things about science- it can cover anything, as long as it exists. I mean, “action at a distance” sounds occult when you think about it, but science deals with it perfectly well.

  2. armchairdissident says:

    Samuel Skinner: Bingo! I couldn’t have said it better. The supernatural used to be a satisfying explanation for things we didn’t understand. In the face of scientific enquiry, however, questions that could previously only apparently be answered by appealing to gods can now be answered with purely naturalistic explanations.

    It’s another reason why I don’t like the agnostic position; it’s saying that “God” (however that term may be defined) must be privileged as a concept; that there is something unique about the concept of god that cannot be addressed by science. But if god is a manifestation of something, and the actions of gods can be observed, it falls back into the remit of science. If it can’t be observed, then there is precisely no reason for pre-supposing that it exists.

    Of course, the fact that theists – and even some agnostics – attempt to take concept for which there is no evidence, and ascribe characteristics to the unobservable shows what a mockery of an intellectual pursuit theology is.

  3. VillagePlank says:

    Agree with most of what you say. However …

    First the notion of a null hypothesis. I note that you didn’t mention the alternate hypothesis which is critical to the burden of proof, too. Indeed there is some controversy over this very issue being that it gives rise to bias. I understand, from the sage, Google, that many papers are not published because the alternate hypothesis turned out to be true, and such papers are simply left in a draw, somewhere

    So, in context, what is the proposition? (null) The supernatural world exists, (alternate) The supernatural world does not exist. Well, to begin with the proposition is not falsifiable, either way, so one needs to tread very carefully before conducting even a thought experiment over the matter. In fact, as I said before, I think that this proposition is not a matter for scientific enquiry. If either the null, or alternate, turned out to be true, there is no (reasonable) test that would settle the matter.

    If the context is switched to change the proposition, if you’ll excuse the paraphrase: ‘If the supernatural world exists, then there must be evidence’ then the second part of your reply has much merit, but, perhaps from my own idiocy, I have had problems in reconciling what you say, with a practical reality.

    Firstly, and most obviously, the word ‘supernatural’ means/implies outside of normal nature. I can recall, vaguely, of an analogy that might be appropriate – that of the woman that lives in a two dimensional universe. Actually the analogy is about a man, but woman are such curious and beautiful creatures, I thought I’d use the opposite sex – I shall call her Cartesian Caroline.

    Now, Caroline, being that she only lives in two dimensions, cannot comprehend nor realise what life is like in three dimensions. It is not part of her life’s experience, and being that her reality is only two dimensional, she cannot, and has not, the tools to represent three dimensions.

    Then, if the supernatural world did exist it would, by analogy, be in another dimension from our own – being that, by definition, it is outside of nature – and that the chances are we would not have the tools to properly examine and understand such a place. This doesn’t exclude the second part of our proposition, though; the evidence may well be ‘out there’ Caroline might find a perfect circle in her 2D world and dream of super beings, but, in actuality, it was drawn by me with a pencil and a compass (Clarke’s law – indistiguishable from magic!!)

    So what’s the point? If evidence was available, then I am not so sure that we’d be able to recognise it, let alone understand it.

    Secondly what if the evidence is inside people’s heads? I will assert that I love my wife. You choose not to believe me -indeed, under the premise that I must tender evidence to that fact, the chances are you would not believe that I love my wife. De facto societal proof such as marriage or children can’t apply. Children, unfortunately, are sometimes born out of rape, and marriage is sometimes forced. Clearly, both are incompatible with a notion of love. I cannot provide evidence to support my assertion. You’d have to make your own mind up as the truth of the matter, and, once again, no (known) scientific method would assist you in your decision making.

    The same applies with, say, belief in the supernatural. Most Christians, for instance, might say that their experience of God is a personal one – that is, they are not claiming that a bush burnt for them, or arch-angels appeared in front of them – they are claiming that, for instance, a prayer came true. Clearly, only they know what they prayed for, so only they could know whether or not it came true. This, most obviously, doesn’t meet with any standard of evidence that I’ve come across that would meet the needs of a scientific inquiry. This, I must admit, is a little vague, so I must leave this point with a question: what evidence would be required to prove that the supernatural realm exists?

    There’s more, but that’s enough for now

  4. Samuel Skinner says:

    Actually, most of what people refer to as supernatural are things that are supposed to interact with our world. If there were actual supernatural forces, we’d be aware of them. It’s like… fantasy worlds. Supernatural covers a broad category, but if it existed than it would be treated like any other phenomena. For example, if the force worked than…

    You get the idea. Evidence required to prove something that is supernatural actually exists would be something that has no other possible explanation than the supernatural. Unfortunately once you show that it exists in the real world it is immediately classed as natural. Magic force moving the planets? Angels- no magnets… none of those. It’s a supernatural force caused by mass! But now it is natural…

  5. VillagePlank says:

    Yes, SS, what you say is true.

    Most people identify the supernatural with physical phenomena, and, therefore, the minute they do that the burden of proof, lies with them to demonstrate that such an event/action is the result of interaction with supernatural ‘things’ But that, therefore, begs the notion that if I cook dinner tonight because I love my wife, that physical manifestation or action has its roots in something that is ultimately unprovable, and, therefore is an irrational action (?) Actually on reading this love probably *is* irrational, anyway.

    (BTW, we don’t actually know what gravity is, yet. We know what it does, and we can see the effects. At this point (ignoring an inductive proof about the scientific method – that is that it has been so remarkably success that in all probability it will continue to do so) it may as well be angels invoking gravity 😉

  6. armchairdissident says:

    Most people identify the supernatural with physical phenomena, and, therefore, the minute they do that the burden of proof, lies with them…. But that, therefore, begs the notion that if I cook dinner tonight because I love my wife, that physical manifestation or action has its roots in something that is ultimately unprovable

    No, it doens’t. That’s a blatant non-sequitur.

  7. armchairdissident says:

    So, in context, what is the proposition? (null) The supernatural world exists, (alternate) The supernatural world does not exist. Well, to begin with the proposition is not falsifiable, either way,

    The propositions that there is no such thing as supernatural “dimension”, as you call it, and that there is no such thing as god (which is where this discussion started) are falsifiable. Provide sufficient evidence for their existence, and the proposition is falsified.

  8. VillagePlank says:

    OK, then. It will rain in a million years. Clearly a falsifiable statement. But it’s ridiculous all the same.

  9. VillagePlank says:

    Why is it a non-sequitor? Stating it does not make it so.

    Of course it follows.

  10. armchairdissident says:

    OK, then. It will rain in a million years. Clearly a falsifiable statement. But it’s ridiculous all the same.

    But it is, nevertheless, a falsifiable statement. Although, I would prefer you to be a little more specific before actually being surprised at its accuracy.

    Why is it a non-sequitor? Stating it does not make it so.

    P1; If a person claims that supernatural forces interact with the world, the burden of proof is on them to prove it. (true, incidentally, which is the opposite of what you’ve been saying all along)

    P2: If you make dinner for your wife because you love her it is an irrational act.

    These are two utterly unconnected statements.

  11. VillagePlank says:

    Re: falsification:

    Well, I was coming from an aspect of what is ‘reasonable’ Indeed the notion of supernatural ‘things’ existing is, in theory, falsifiable. If God turned up and said ‘Hey -look I’m God’ and demonstrated omniscence, and showed that he could be omnipresent then it is falsifiable. I cannot, for sure, say that this won’t happen, but any reasonable person would probably agree that it wouldn’t. In pure logic terms, you are, of course, quite correct.

    Re: non-sequitor:
    P1+P2 are taken out of context. The thread of the argument is about physical manifestations that have a root cause that is, ultimately, unprovable. Existence of god, and love of my wife, therefore, are ultimately tied – creation, and cooking dinner, repsectively, are the physical manifestations -and are not non-sequitors being instances and examples of the same.

    I am saying that the initial supposition: the existence of a supernatural, is not subject to the scientific method, because it is not (reasonably) falsifiable. I stand by that. The minute such a notion manifests itself physically, or, more accurately, someone claims that there is a physical manifestation then it becomes a matter that should come under the weight of scientific scrutiny, as you say.

  12. VillagePlank says:

    … incidentally, the transcendental qualities of God, for instance are nonfalsifiable because they exist outside of human existence.

    This guys says it better:http://amichael123.atwebpages.com/induction.shtml

  13. armchairdissident says:

    Well, I was coming from an aspect of what is ‘reasonable’

    What is un-reasonable about asking for evidence for something before believing it!

    You stated, “It will rain in a million years”. If you were to make that rather bland statement, I would have no difficulty in believing it, because – as far as I am aware – climatology is not predicting the end of precipitation in a million years time. It is a statement quite in agreement with the available evidence.

    If, however, you were to state, “On 1,002,008 AD, at 17:30 UTC, at latitude X, longitude Y there will be precipitation for 10 minutes followed by sunny spells with a cold front moving in from the south”, it would be rational for me to dis-believe you, because there is no evidence that it will, and meteorology is not currently able to make such predictions.

    What point do you think you’re making? Once again, it comes back to that magic word: Evidence.

    Yet you can see how unreasonable it is to make a prediction about rain on a specific date in a million years, but can’t see why it is unreasonable – and irrational – for someone to believe in the Magic Kingdom without a shred of evidence!

    And again, I covered this in my post. Seriously Mark, did you even bother to read it?

  14. VillagePlank says:

    [quote]What is un-reasonable about asking for evidence for something before believing it![/quote]

    Do you believe I love my wife? Prove it.

  15. VillagePlank says:

    I realise my last was a little obtuse. I’ll clarify: each and every one of us accepts at least one thing, without evidence. One of those things is ‘love’

    I have read your post, and it doesn’t deal with anything that exists of which there can be no evidence. I think that the existence of god(s) and love fall under that category.

  16. armchairdissident says:

    Do you believe I love my wife? Prove it.

    Okay. Let’s pretend you really are Mr Plank. Let’s pretend I don’t know you (which – frankly – isn’t far from the truth anymore). In which case:

    No, I don’t. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your wife. I have no evidence to believe that you do love your wife. I have no idea whatsoever as to what your relation is to your wife.

    I have no idea whether you treat your wife well, or whether you abuse her. I have no idea whether you see her as an equal or as an inferior. I don’t know whether you put her needs first or your own. I don’t know whether you spend your time down the pub on your own, or at home with her — or indeed, down the pub with her. I know nothing about you and your wife.

    You have provided me with no evidence one way or the other as to whether you love your wife or not. But that does not mean that you cannot provide me with evidence to persuade me one way or the other.

    I hope your wife does not share your opinion that your love for her exists independent of the evidence. Women’s shelters are full of evidence of what happens in those circumstances.

    You want me to believe you love your wife, show me the evidence. You want me to believe that God is even a probability, show me the evidence.

    Or are you just another troll.

    The existence of God and love most certainly do not fall under the category of things “of which there can be no evidence”, as I have repeatedly shown.

  17. mike says:

    Do you believe I love my wife? Prove it.

    “I love my wife” is not a truth claim about objective reality. It is a statement about your personal perceptions. Perceptions do not always coincide with objective reality. Furthermore, your perceptions exist only within your head.

    Statements about god-existence, depending on how god is defined, generally come with claims about that god interacting with objective reality (e.g., if you pray/tithe, good things will happen). But the typical evidence only exists in one person’s perceptions (e.g., I know in my heart that he exists). Reminds me of this post about emotional vs objective truth, which I just found a few hours ago.

    Still, the case for god-existence is in a worse situation. I can imagine a fMRI scan revealing activity in your brain which is usually associated with feelings of love, whenever you see a picture of your smiling wife. That would amount to some evidence for your claim. The same fMRI showing god-belief activity could only demonstrate that the subject really believed in god, but it wouldn’t be evidence for anything objective outside his/her brain.

  18. armchairdissident says:

    VillagePlank wrote:

    … incidentally, the transcendental qualities of God, for instance are nonfalsifiable because they exist outside of human existence.

    This guys says it better:http://amichael123.atwebpages.com/induction.shtml

    (This comment was automatically marked as spam by WordPress’s’s’s spam filters, which is why I’m commenting on it now)

    I really didn’t read much beyond the claim that until the Magellan Voyage, everyone believed the Earth was flat. Given that the Magellan Voyage began in 1519CE, yet the circumference of the Earth was calculated (remarkably well!) by Eratosthenes in the 200’s BCE, it’s a crap – and frequently debunked – claim.

  19. VillagePlank says:

    Yup – have to agree with you on that one.

    Read it with a more critical eye, and with your and mike’s comments, I have to say that instead of, say the 0.5 score on a scale of 0.0(utter atheist) to 1.0 (utter theist) I’ve now dropped a point to 0.4 the forever shrinking agnostic, I guess.

    Still can’t help feel that the existence of (a) god(s) is somehow different from the normal philosophical bent, but hey, as you say, there’s really no rational explanation for it.

    It amounts, I agree, to feelings and supposition. I guess we all have beliefs and if we have no evidential background, for them, then there’s no point in telling anyone else about them.

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