Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I have been convinced of the orthogonality of "agnosticism" vs. "atheism"

A post over at Pharyngula finally pushed me over the edge into accepting the claim that agnosticism-ness is orthogonal to atheism-ness, i.e. whether or not a person is agnostic is independent of whether or not they are an atheist.

I have understood this claim for some time: those who are assert it are defining agnosticism as being about knowability, while atheism is about presumptive belief1. But I was hesitant to accept it, because it seemed to me that this was not the definition by which most people understood agnosticism.

I have changed my mind. And the reason is because I do not think there is any other useful definition of agnostic.

Using the orthogonal definitions, which I now believe to be the only acceptable definitions, very few atheists are not also agnostics. A non-agnostic atheist would be the rare bird who says something along the lines of, "Your claims may be unfalsifiable, but I have received personal revelation which says they are false!" Yeah, I don't know anybody like that either. Virtually all atheists explicitly reject falsifiable gods (like Thor or Yahweh) and tentatively reject unfalsifiable gods, while recognizing the by-definition unknowability of the verity of unfalsifiable claims.

The only alternative definition I can think of is one in which an agnostic not only insists that unfalsifiable claims are unknowable, but furthermore asserts that the odds of any given unfalsifiable claim being true are close to 50/50. First of all, I doubt many people actually think that. And second of all, if anybody does think that, they are grade A stupid.

I suppose we could also define it such that an agnostic recognizes the unfalsifiability of theistic claims, and at that point immediately stops pondering the question any further. But we've already got a word for that: "incurious".

1I insert the word "presumptive" to make it clear that I am talking about the "I believe there are five beers remaining in my fridge" type of belief, not the "I believe in Jesus" or "I believe emacs is better than vi" type of belief. (though emacs is indubitably better than vi, but I digress...) If I looked in my fridge and saw six beers, I would feel comfortable revising my estimate. On the other hand, if (hypothetically speaking) someone showed me scientific evidence that vi was superior to emacs, I would be forced to assume some supernatural explanation, e.g. that Satan, as a well-known vi user, tampered with the evidence to fool us into thinking vi was better, even though the man pages tell us otherwise.


  1. (cross posted from Pharyngula):

    I donno. I still think "agnostic" is one term too many to categorize the answers to the question "Do you believe in (a) God?". The term seems to me most commonly employed by a person who intellectually is an atheist, but emotionally wants to keep hope alive.

    And I see little point in retaining the term for the sake of distinquishing that minor subset of atheists who resemble theists: we already have good terms (of general applicability) for that.

  2. I donno. I still think "agnostic" is one term too many to categorize the answers to the question "Do you believe in (a) God?".

    That's kind of the point being made, no? I don't read Pharyngula much lately so I'm going off of what James said, but the point being made is that agnosticism is orthogonal to atheism, and thus no answer at all when it comes to "Do you believe in (a) God?". Agnosticism in this view would answer whether you believe it to be knowable whether or not there is a God, not whether you believe one exists or not.

    I long ago came to the same conclusion that this is the only useful definition of agnosticism. I lack the interest to try and shift parlance to match, though. It's too popular among people who don't want to be seen as mean atheists, but don't want to commit to a specific type of theism (I am not saying all agnostics fall into this, but it's by far the most common type of agnostic I've encountered in meatspace).

    By the way, James, I really enjoy your philosophy posts, even though I never comment here.

  3. Thanks Paul! It's really great to know that somebody actually reads them :D

    And yes, I feel like what I said is pretty much the same as what Divalent said. Unless possibly his or her point is that since so few nontheists are not agnostic by this definition, that it's essentially a useless term. (i.e. virtually everyone in the entire world who thinks that existential status of an unfalsifiable god is knowable are people who believe that that god does exist)

    And if that was divalent's point, I think he or she has something there... Really, why bother distinguish between agnostic or non-agnostic atheists when (in practice) the only people who are not agnostic by this definition are theists?

  4. I generally try to distinguish between the usage of agnostic and the definition of agnostic. In usage, agnostic is considered to be a polite or wishy-washy (same thing) term for atheist. By definition, agnostic is, as you say, orthogonal and essentially useless.

    Some people distinguish between temporary agnostic ("I don't know if there is a god") and agnostic-in-principle ("it's impossible to know if a god exists"). I always find it amusing that the agnostic-in-principle folks are essentially saying that the god they don't believe in is a non-intervening god, thus implying that an interventionist god is totally impossible. That's a stronger statement than many (most?) self-described atheists would be willing to make.

  5. Depending upon how one defines "god" in the phrase "interventionist god", I might be one of those atheists willing to say that it's totally impossible. Or at least, as impossible as it's possible to ever say anything is impossible. Oy, that was an awkward phrase...

    Anyway, much agreed overall. And I suppose the "temporary agnostic" is the one useful place for all of this. Indeed, there are people on the road away from religion who may find the "odds" pretty close to 50/50, and yet not be "grade A stupid" as I opined in my post. (Their assessment of the odds is a temporary result of an epistemological transition, rather than a stupid assertion that unfalsifiable claims are near 50/50 by definition)

  6. Some of the ambivalence I think is about specific possibilities of belief about the type of divine beings or non-being supernatural forces. Most atheists reject outright the idea of a purposeful agentic god, a being with direct power over the material world. In some ways, that belief is unsupportable, you can't falsify that there is some perverse being out there doing shit just to fuck with the universe. Yet, the ridiculousness of the claim that there is such a pervert borders on direct falsification (but it isn't really falsification--such a being could exist....har, har, har). On the other hand, supernatural forces are potentially non-agentic, and impossible to falsify. Yet, by sociological definition, those supernatural forces ARE NOT GODS. Gods, by definition, must have agency. They do stuff because they want to. They are a supernatural anthropomorphication. Gods are not the "essence of being" or "brahmin" or such. When defined that way, atheism can be more strict, and while still based on a core belief that cannot be fully supported (we cannot proved that fairies, ghosts, gods, etc don't exist), atheism can be agnostic about supernatural forces which are non-agentic, yet that does not undermine the atheism.