Paula Kirby on Dawkins’s “agnosticism”

I won’t summarize this because it’s a short read over at the Washington Post, but have a look at Paula Kirby’s “On Faith” piece, “Why Richard Dawkins is still an atheist.” Kirby and Dawkins worked together on the Ipsos MORI poll showing that UK Christians weren’t as “christian” as everyone assumed.  Those results, I think, infuriated many of the faithful in the UK, leading them to accuse Dawkins of all kinds of ridiculous things, including benefiting financially from slavery, becoming less atheistic than he had been, or even approving of deism.

Like Einstein, Dawkins is being subject to all kinds of invidious speculation about his faith.  Paula sets that all straight, explaining how one can be both an agnostic and an atheist at the same time:

So how can this be? How can an atheist also be an agnostic? The answer is simple. It is the simple acknowledgment that it is possible to be mistaken. An agnostic atheist recognizes that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of deities (agnostic), while also finding arguments for their existence utterly unconvincing (atheist). Likewise, if you are a Christian who finds arguments for God convincing but recognizes that his existence is impossible to prove and that it is at least possible you could be mistaken, then you are an agnostic theist. I strongly suspect that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself would be the first to acknowledge there can be no absolute certainty either way and, if I am right, this would make him an agnostic to precisely the same degree as Richard – yet I doubt anyone would claim this means he is no longer a Christian!

The irony is that all these comments that have been seized on with such glee are actually simple repeats of what was in “The God Delusion” all along. And so we have the delicious comedy of views which until recently were condemned by the religious as arrogant, aggressive and fundamentalist suddenly now being proclaimed by those same religious as signs that Dawkins is unsure of his position and halfway to accepting Jesus as his Lord and Saviour!

She then lists the three things that this whole kerfuffle tells us about the faithful, but I’ll send you to her piece for that.

97 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Ditto.

  2. DV
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    “…Dawkins is unsure of his position and halfway to accepting Jesus as his Lord and Saviour!”

    Thanks be to God! 🙂

    • TnkAgn
      Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Yikes.

  3. Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    “The irony is that all these comments that have been seized on with such glee are actually simple repeats of what was in “The God Delusion” all along.”

    Another good indication that Dawkins’ critics didn’t actually read his book before embarking on their crusade against him.

    • Ken Browning
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      When I was a Christian I could sometimes read something written by someone like Richard but the cognitive dissonance would be so strong that I could not really relax with the ideas long enough or deeply enough to understand them from the position of my “opponents”. For many years any little thing would have the power to pull my attention away and thus gain me respite from the pain of reasonable ideas.

      • Paula Kirby
        Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I can relate to that from my own Christian days too. I do think the ex-religious approach atheism differently from those who were never taken in by religion.

        There are two books I recommend regularly to anyone who is interested in understanding why it is so hard to get through to the religious.

        The first is Kluge: the haphazard evolution of the human mind, by Gary Marcus, which probably changed the way I relate to other people more than any other book I’ve ever read. If you want to understand why it takes almost heroic determination for humans to be able to objectively consider other points of view (whether religious or not), this is the book for you. It’s very short, very readable, and very disconcerting. But it’s hard to read it and not become a little bit more tolerant of our own and others’ intellectual failings.

        The other is Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which I have long thought has been underrated by many atheists. As someone who was once under the spell of religion, I can honestly say that his analysis of what makes religion so very very hard to shake off is second to none. Every word of his argument resonated with me.

        It really isn’t easy for the human brain to cope with challenges to its entrenched ideas: objectivity doesn’t come naturally to us. And religion exploits that mercilessly. While I get very frustrated and very angry with some of the tactics of the religious, and while I am sometimes filled with disgust at some of the dishonesty and hatefulness they exhibit, I do also see them as victims, caught up in something which has acquired very sophisticated ways of keeping them in thrall, and that it is very difficult for their ‘haphazardly evolved minds’ to break free from.

        • Paula Kirby
          Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          Oops. Sorry, Jerry: I’ve done it again. I should, of course, have ended the italics after “Breaking the Spell”. That’s dog-lovers for you 😦

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

            Yep, dog lovers are sloppy like their pets! (Insert smiley face here.)

            • Paula Kirby
              Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

              Thank you for fixing it so purrfectly.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          I, too, can recommend both of these books. Not that I ever was much of a believer. My Lutheran confirmation induction ceremony must have gotten messed up… probably an incantation failure of some sort.

        • wonderer
          Posted March 1, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

          Paula Kirby –

          “There are two books I recommend regularly to anyone who is interested in understanding why it is so hard to get through to the religious.

          The first is Kluge: the haphazard evolution of the human mind, by Gary Marcus, which probably changed the way I relate to other people more than any other book I’ve ever read. If you want to understand why it takes almost heroic determination for humans to be able to objectively consider other points of view (whether religious or not), this is the book for you. It’s very short, very readable, and very disconcerting. But it’s hard to read it and not become a little bit more tolerant of our own and others’ intellectual failings.”

          I also highly recommend “Kluge”, and in addition, as a way of getting through to the religious.

          I’ve been a long time regular poster at a theology forum, and was once asked by a Christian for a recommendation of one book for him to read to challenge his viewpoint. I recommended he read Kluge. A year later he considers himself a non-Christian theist, and seems to be thinking his way out of all the nonsense. (Of course he was one of the relatively rare Christians willing to so seriously face a challenge to his viewpoint in the first place.)

          “Kluge” is written in such a way that the reader is bound to see how the neuropsychological factors discussed, play out regularly in the reader’s own life. The personal relevance of the material make it hard to deny the merit of the scientific underpinnings. (It is harder to dismiss evolution, when you recognize its results playing out in yourself and those around you, all the time in everyday life.)

          Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” is another outstanding book along the same lines, but as a short book to try to get Christians to think outside the box, “Kluge” hits the spot perfectly.

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      As I said in an earlier post, I wonder if the organizers bothered to read anything of Anthony Kenny’s works (he sat between Dawkins and the archbishop, apparently taking the “middle” view). He clearly states in a number of his essays that he is an atheist in respect of the god of the bible and the koran, but an agnostic in respect of a “god of the philosophers” type of deity. I think then that he is the only one of the three panellists who publicly has acknowledged his atheism, at least in this restricted domain.

      • Ollipehkonen
        Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Dawkins’ comment about the case for a deist god (the reasonable one that he would still not accept himself) makes it totally explicit that Dawkins is an atheist about all gods ever dreamed up by people. If you can’t see how he can also be an agnostic, I suggest you read the Paula Kirby article that the original post refers to.

        • Llwddythlw
          Posted February 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

          I can’t tell from the manner in which the notes are positioned whether or not you (Ollipehkonen) were replying to my posting. In case you were, you should watch the video of the Oxford discussion again. Around the 1:12 mark, Dawkins talks about his scale of 1 to 7. He says that he considers himself to be a 6 (a 7 knows that there is no god, while a 1 knows that there is a god). Here is the dialogue.

          Dawkins: I constructed in The God Delusion a seven point scale, of which 1 was “I know god exists”, 7 was “I know god doesn’t exist” and I called myself a 6.

          Kenny: Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic then?

          Dawkins: I do.

          Kenny: You’re described as the world’s most famous atheist.

          Dawkins: Well not by me.

          In chapter 9 “Agnosticism and Atheism” of the book “Philosophers and God”, Kenny writes, “Most of us, I imagine, are atheists and not agnostics with respect to the Homeric gods of Olympus…..The God delineated in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths is obviously very different from the Olympians. I confess, however, to being an atheist with respect to the God of traditional Judeo-Christian natural theology: a being endowed with omnipotence, omniscience and supreme benevolence.”

          Both Dawkins and Kenny have clearly stated their positions, and I think both are rational viewpoints capable of being properly defended. The problem here, as illustrated by other contributors to this topic is that the definitions of atheist, theist and agnostic are not always used consistently, and in any case, Kenny’s professed atheism is clearly limited to the Judeo-Christian god.

  4. eric
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    When I hear about these attacks, I get a dread feeling that this is just the warm-up. The day (hopefully long in the future) when Dawkins dies, they’ll start rattling off their misquotes and cherry picks a hundred times worse.

  5. Larry LeClair
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the Paula. Much of this confusion would be settled if everyone would stop using “agnostic” to mean “I’m not sure”, as contrasted with “atheist” which they take to mean “I’m sure there is no god”. “Atheist” means simply “I am not a theist”, I do not have a belief in a god or gods. It is a statement of personal belief, not a statement about whether the existence of a god or gods can be proven or known to be true. “Agnosticism” is a position in epistemology. An a-gnostic is one who believes that neither he/she NOR ANYONE ELSE can know whether the propositions that theists make about their particular god or gods are true. It is a statement that knowledge about a god or gods is unattainable. Thus one can be an agnostic theist (a believer who recognizes that neither he nor anyone else “knows” that god exists); an agnostic atheist (a non-believer with a similar epistemological position); a theistic gnostic (a believer who knows he’s right) or atheistic gnostic (a non-believer who claims certain knowledge). The use of agnostic to mean “I’m on the fence” or “I can’t make up my mind” is what causes much confusion.

    • chemicalscum
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      At last someone who understands Huxley’s definition of agnosticism and since he coined the term, his definition is the correct one. I am an atheist but not an agnostic because I am not prepared to accept any arbitrary metaphysical epistemological limits on potential human knowledge.

      Like Jerry, I think that suitable evidence for the existence of God that could cause me to change my mind is possible. An example of this occurred nearly ten years ago when Weinberg attended a Templeton organised conference on science and religion. He was accompanied by a couple of burly sun-glass wearing post-docs as bodyguards. During the proceedings he called on God to strike him down with a lightening bolt on the spot to prove His existence. Needless to say the august Nobel prizewinning physicist survived and exchanged a few witticisms with the Rabbi who was chairing the session.

      If he had been struck down on the spot by a thunderbolt I would begin to start reconsidering my position. If it happened to a large number of other atheists who placed a similar demand on God, I could indeed change my mind and also to keep my mouth shut on calls for God to strike me down. Not likely to happen, certainly less likely than evidence for cold fusion using palladium electrodes or a well controlled double blind study supporting the clinical efficacy of homeophathic remedies.

      • Posted February 29, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

        …since he coined the term, his definition is the correct one.

        I have some sympathy for this absolutist linguistic mantra, but am rapidly returned to Earth by my acquaintances, who point out to me the sheer volume of verbiage that I employ, even though the meanings have morphed considerably from the intent of the original coyners’ [sic].

        The meaning of hastily cobbled-together neologisms changes from the metaphorical stone-tablets carved by their originators.
        Such is a failing of the written word which, once printed, is virtually immutable, even if the originator might arrive at a superior definition.
        This is also a benefit of publishing ‘on-line’: one may refine one’s definition ad infinitum; especially in response to cogent feedback.
        I seem to recall Jerry remarking on this very phenomenon recently. Or maybe I dreamt it? If I written that in a printed tome, then it may be possibly erroneously referred-to in subsequent influential treatises.
        But, appearing here in a fluid state, it is open to correction, or mere comment.

        Huxley may well have altered his ‘definition’ of his hasty neologism had he read but one learned criticism of it.

        So, let’s review:

        …since he coined the term, his definition is the correct one.

        No. That argument is based on at least two logical fallacies:

        Appeal to both Authority and Antiquity.

      • Posted February 29, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

        “I am an atheist but not an agnostic because I am not prepared to accept any arbitrary metaphysical epistemological limits on potential human knowledge.”

        Sounds like a circular reasoning.
        But If you would accept that human knowledge is grasped through a certain way, and that this way isn’t absolute, maybe you could find another way to transcend the limits of the average human mind.

        We can’t know what we don’t know. That is why we don’t realize that we are grasping the world through a certain mode. The only way to know this is to experience another mode. Only then you can compare and realize that our average mode is conditioned by some boundaries, dualistic boundaries that make us see the world and ourselves in terms of opposites.

        We can’t even imagine what would it be to have a non-dual perception, just like a bi-dimensional being can’t imagine what volume is, even if he is surrounded by it.

        Oriental teachings are all about reaching a non-dual perception. A non-dual perception would make see that you take a lot of things for granted about the world and your self that are not absolute as they look like…

        • Posted February 29, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like woo-woo to me…

          • GBJames
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 5:27 am | Permalink

            It is woo-woo. If you ask politely JF Fortier will, I am sure, provide links to demonstrate this fact.

            • Posted March 1, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

              It is well known that zen is woo woo…

          • Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

            I’d like to know why it would be woo woo that we grasp the world through a certain mode and that this mode isn’t absolute?

            As for a link about non-dualistic perception

            • GBJames
              Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

              Only two links? Surely you can do better that that.

              • Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

                Of course I can do better, but if i want you to listen to it, I have to eliminate all those who have clouds in the background, or flute new-agy music. Unfortunately, a lot of them have those insupportable music and images…

                But second link I think was put in animation by the creators of South Park.

          • Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

            That is the one…

        • MosesZD
          Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          We can’t know what we don’t know.

          Wow. That’s a massive fallacy. At one time we didn’t know about virtually everything that is part of our modern world.

          We didn’t understand the germ theory of disease. We didn’t understand gravity. We didn’t understand the basics of nutrition, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, farming, animal husbandry and if you go back far enough in time, it’ll include flint knapping and tying animal skins around us for protection and warmth…

          It also strongly implies that education is both pointless and worthless since we cannot learn what we already don’t know… Which begs the question, how did you learn to read and come up with such widdle?

          • Posted March 1, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            I mean that while you are ignoring something, it is hard to know that you are ignoring it, you are even not aware that there is something ignored.

            If I come to your house and a lamp is missing, I won’t notice because I didn’t know it was supposed to be there.

            So I can only know that I’m grasping the world through a certain mode until I can compare it with another mode. Unless that happens, I’m ignoring my own mode of grasping because again, I can’t compare.

            That is how we learn, by comparing.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 1, 2012 at 1:53 am | Permalink

        … called on God to strike him down with a lightening bolt …

        While exactly that occurrence might give one pause, I’m reminded of an article I read in Free Inquiry (or was it Skeptical Inquirer?) many years ago. IIRC, it documented some actual cases of atheists who had been proclaiming their disbelief at just the moment they suffered fatal heart attacks. Apparently, enough atheists invoke the, “and if there is a God, may he strike me dead on this spot” trope that, once in a while, coincidence does happen. To that end, if I find myself waxing passionate along those lines, I change the trope to, “I’ll sell my soul for a y-chromosome!” But I digress…

        Anyway, while lightning bolts might have been unlikely in this instance (tho outdoor strikes are more common than many believe) any adverse health event following such a proclamation would have been gleefully interpreted by the faithful as “PROOF!”

      • SLC
        Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        The question as to what would constitute evidence for a supernatural being of some sort is actually fairly easy to answer.

        In the Hebrew scriptures, a claim is made that Joshua got the Sun to stand still in the sky for a day. In modern terms, this amounts to a claim that the earth ceased its rotation and also its revolution around the sun for a day. Aside from the violation of the laws of physics, the consequences of such an occurrence would be catastrophic. The only explanation for such an event would be the intervention of a supernatural entity that was able to suspend the laws of physics and prevent the obvious consequences.

        Thus, if there were independent evidence that such an event actually occurred, via it being noted by other civilizations in existence at the time, one would have to reconsider the atheist position IMHO. Of course, thus far, no such independent evidence has been found and it is unlikely to the extreme that it will ever be found.

        • Posted March 1, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

          Yes, but, if God was able to suspend the laws of physics and prevent all consequences, what evidence would there be?

          /@

          • SLC
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            As I stated, if there were statements by people from other places (e.g. China, Egypt, the Western Hemisphere) in writing that the Sun appeared fixed in the sky for a day, that would constitute evidence that such an event occurred. The greater the number of such statements, the greater the evidence.

          • SLC
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            To expand my argument, the only evidence we have currently is the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew scriptures, which is totally insufficient in the absence of any other observations.

          • Posted March 1, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            Ah… you’re right. For some reason I didn’t read your whole comment.

            But then… God might have put everyone but His chosen people to sleep for the duration… maybe He has a magic boomerang… ? 😀

            /@

  6. Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    It is a pity that the real difference between agnosticism and atheism is a tad too subtle for the average punter.

    Distilled:
    (A)gnosticism is about Knowldege.
    (A)theism is about Belief.

    The two are quite independently orthogonal.
    The two are are continuous spectrum, not binary.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Knowldege -> Knowledge!

      • Don
        Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        In its most basic sense, “atheism” is the absence (not the “lack”) of theistic belief. In this sense, an agnostic is also an atheist, because he or she is simply without belief.

        In her provocative essay, “A Freethought Easter In Orlando,” Judith Hayes writes:

        “One cannot be an agnostic. Agnostic means ‘not to know’ and almost by definition all humans are agnostic about God in that no one can be sure whether a God of some sort really exists. I know I haven’t a clue. But no thinking person can say that he does not know if he acknowledges a God. We all know if we believe in a God. In our heart of hearts, we either do believe or we do not believe. Either way, we know if we believe. There is no such thing as not knowing if we believe. This supposedly ‘neutral’ position about the existence of God, agnosticism, is no position at all. The sooner it is eliminated the better, for all of us freethinkers, atheists, unbelievers, nonbelievers, humanists, or whatever.”

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      So the seven-point scale has become an Argand diagram? Well it figures, since the belief can go on the imaginary dimension. I’m a pure 0+i0.

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Doesn’t that mean that a believer with zero knowledge would have an infinite argument?

  7. Myron
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    So let’s get things straight:

    – An atheist in the broad sense, a negative atheist/nontheist, is someone who—for whatever reason or cause—lacks the belief in the existence of God/gods.

    – An atheist in the narrow sense, a positive atheist/antitheist, is someone who—for whatever reason or cause—believes in the nonexistence of God/gods.
    Note that positive atheism/antitheism is not the same as (what I call) superpositive atheism/super-antitheism: the belief in the necessary nonexistence/impossible existence of God/gods.

    – A positive atheist/antitheist may but need not be 100% certain or claim to know that God doesn’t exist/there are no gods.

    – An epistemic agnostic regarding the proposition p is someone who isn’t 100% certain or doesn’t claim to know that p is true/false.
    Both antitheism and theism are compatible with epistemic agnosticism regarding the truth-value of the proposition “God exists”/There are gods”. The reason is that belief doesn’t entail (absolute) subjective certainty; it doesn’t have to be absolutely doubt-free.

    – A doxastic agnostic regarding the proposition p is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that p is true/false. Doxastic agnosticism consists in the suspension of belief or judgement, and may thus be alternatively called agnostic neutralism.
    It is obvious that doxastic agnosticism/agnostic neutralism is not compatible with antitheism or theism, since someone believing in the existence/nonexistence of God/gods is anything but neutral.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s much too complex for most to grasp. Try this on for size:

      Gnosis: knowledge

      Theos: god (literally, Zeus)

      Gnostic theist: “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

      Agnostic theist: Thinks it’s more likely than not that at least one god exists. (Most churchgoers fit this category.)

      Agnostic atheist: Thinks it’s more likely than not that no gods exist. (Richard and most other atheists fit this category.)

      Gnostic atheist: There are certainly no gods. (This includes PZ along with all those who, like me, find the term, “god,” self-contradictory or otherwise incoherent.)

      I’ve also found that agnosticism comes in two flavors: those who haven’t given the matter enough thought or examined enough evidence to reach a conclusion, and those who believe that knowledge of gods is somehow impossible to ascertain. Most who pointedly self-proclaim as agnostics fit the latter category. They can also get annoying, such as by spouting nonsense such as, “You can’t prove a negative!” and getting all huffy when asked to prove said assertion.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 1, 2012 at 1:45 am | Permalink

        I think there may not be as clear a distinction between agnostics and gnostic atheists as you suggest, Ben. An agnostic (of the epistemological sort) believes that the question of the existence of god is unknowable to humans.

        Your description of yourself as a “gnostic atheist” is based on your finding that the concept of “god” is self-contradictory or incoherent. By this, I take it that you mean the concept(s) of “god” as put forward by other people. Thus, your position, at bottom, is not inconsistent with the position that the concept is unknowable. In other words, your version of “gnostic atheism” seems to say more about the state of man’s knowledge than about the underlying state of the universe itself.

        My own position is that I have no difficulty in rejecting (strongly, but provisionally) the existence of the gods of the major world religions — based on the lack of evidence that should exist if their claims were true, and the rational conclusions that flow therefrom.

        I am agnostic, however, on the issue of whether there is some transcendental aspect of the universe — some aspect beyond pure physicalism. I believe this question is unknowable to humans (although I also hold that position provisionally — subject either to the discovery of additional evidence of its existence or to a demonstration of its existence by a superior intelligence).

        • Posted March 1, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

          Thus, your position, at bottom, is not inconsistent with the position that the concept is unknowable.

          Sorry, but you couldn’t be more worng.

          As Dr. Ant points out, my position is that of igtheism — that the answers are conclusively knowable because the questions are provably bullshit.

          On the one hand, it is true that it is provably impossible to determine the “ultimate transcendental” nature of the Cosmos. We may well be part of a Matrix-style simulation running in a universe imagined by Lao Tzu’s butterfly as conceived of in Alice’s Red King’s dream. However, the same provable indeterminacy applies to Alice’s Red King, as well, and would to any hypothetical deities you might choose to propose. Even were it the case, as some Christians propose, that we are but actors on the stage of Jesus’s mind-theatre, Jesus himself has no way of knowing that he himself isn’t a minor subroutine on the Invisible Pink Unicorn’s (MPBUHHH) pocket calculator.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • GBJames
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

            I KNEW it! That damn unicorn is behind it all!

            • horrabin
              Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

              It’s unicorns all the way down.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

            “Sorry, but you couldn’t be more worng [sic].”

            Hold on now: It is certainly possible that I could be more wrong; indeed, I am frequently more wrong than this on a host of issues — although I am epistemically agnostic on the question of what is the most wrong I could possibly be.

            On a more responsive note, while, as you say, “the questions [posed by believers] are provably bullshit” — a proposition I quite agree with — it does not thus follow “that the answers are conclusively knowable[.]” I agree that the answer to a bullshit question can be conclusively rejected, but that is because a bullshit question yields a vexed answer, one that is “not even wrong.”

            Still, the conclusive rejection of someone’s bullshit question gives precious little information as to nature’s underlying reality. And as others in this thread have more eloquently stated, human perception grants us some approximation of the true state of the universe. Since we are armed with such an imperfect approximation — and, indeed, how close that approximation is may itself be a question with an unknowable answer — our answers to well-posed, non-bullshit questions are not “conclusively knowable.”

            I submit that whether the universe is as the physicalist supposes is such a non-bullshit question. There are, of course, plenty of bullshit answers — the existence of a personal god who intervenes in human affairs perhaps most salient among them. That I reject — very strongly (albeit provisionally), though not “conclusively.”

            What I am agnostic about is Spinoza’s god, Einstein’s god, the deist god, the philosophers’ god, if you will — although “god” is such a loaded, distracting, maladroit term in such circumstances, I see good reason to avoid using it.

            • Posted March 2, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

              In the sense you’re using it, there cannot possibly be any “ultimate” nature of reality. The question is meaningless, as meaningless (and for the exact same reason) as Turing’s Halting Problem.

              Sure, you can pick any given “reality” and / or computer program, and perhaps determine its nature / whether or not it will terminate given a certain input. But, even if you manage to do so, there’s still an infinite number of possibilities / other programs whose ultimate nature / termination it is impossible for you to determine.

              It really, truly, honestly is the case that we may all be parts of Alice’s Red King’s dream. And there is no way we can possibly rule that out as a possibility. But, even were it the case, the King himself has no way of ruling out the possibility that he’s himself a mere subroutine in a Super-Matrix.

              And so what sense can it possibly make to hypothesize some “deeper” reality that’s the “real” reality? There is not, cannot possibly be any such thing. All realities are equally real, whether simulated or imagined or what-not, and the best we can ever possibly hope to do is to create our own internal mental simulations of the realities we come into contact with.

              Fortunately, we all happen to share a rather impressively large and stable reality. Is there some other reality that underlies it? I dunno. Do you? Got any evidence to back up your suppositions?

              b&

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

        I’ve also found that agnosticism comes in two flavors: those who haven’t given the matter enough thought or examined enough evidence to reach a conclusion, and those who believe that knowledge of gods is somehow impossible to ascertain.

        I think you’ve left out a somewhat sizeable 3rd group–those who have recently transitioned and are still scared to death of the word “atheist.” Also, those who think (probably correctly) that “agnostic” is more acceptable in “polite society.”

        • Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:08 am | Permalink

          Yes! Both of those.

          And those who want to be Scout leaders… (A minority, to be sure.)

          /@

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

            😀

            Talk about cognitive dissonance…

          • GBJames
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

            I can relate to this. In my silent-but-honest atheist days I participated in all of my son’s scouting activities but declined to be an actual troop leader. I wasn’t willing to lie about not believing. But I was willing to stand there silently while they did their prayer things. I’ve since found my voice.

            • Posted March 1, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

              We never did prayers. It was only the promise and the oath that jarred.

              The group was so desperate for leaders that there’d a bit of politicking to get me appointed.

              But it was one of the cubs, about 8 or 9, who made me realise I wasn’t being honest with myself or the cubs when she said she was going to stop because she didn’t believe in God.

              /@

              • GBJames
                Posted March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                We were lucky in that my son’s troop was mostly focused on do-good projects (and camping). I probably gave off “don’t ask me” vibes although a friend (and the dad of a friend of my son who had gotten him interested) did directly ask me, and I told him … his view was that I should just lie! Kind of missed the point, didn’t’ he?

        • Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:13 am | Permalink

          Sizeable exactly how?
          0.1% of the globe’s population?
          Or appreciable to those parochialists who think that the backward countries such as the USA are the most ‘sizable’?
          Don’t forget that (officially) the globe’s most “sizable” country is officially atheist.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:20 am | Permalink

            Sizeable amongst the sort of crowd that always has these tedious semantic discussions. Western English-speakers, I guess. (Not that other cultures don’t have similar discussions, I suppose; I just can’t read them.)

            • Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:27 am | Permalink

              A fair and honest response.
              A Koala stamp for you, and an early minute!
              At least I managed to convey my message adequately.
              That there may only be a very tiny minority of folk who are scared to declare their assumed agnosticism.
              In fact, I would be willing to wager a large sum that such a group comprises less than 0.001% of the global population.
              Would anyone care to counter that wager?

              (No Rainchecks. Terms and Conditions Apply. Offer expires when I feel like it.)

      • Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:10 am | Permalink

        Ben, in a comment on another post, didn’t you describe yourself as an ignostic atheist? That probably avoids Ken’s criticism.

        /@

      • MosesZD
        Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        Gnostic atheist suits me just fine. Not only do I find no convincing evidence for existence, but I find a lot of convincing scientific evidence for non-existence because the archaeological record demonstrates, to a great extent, how ‘God’ and Judaism and its derivative religions got their start.

        And none of them were, in their beginnings, even remotely similar to what they are today. First and foremost, the Israelites werw polytheistic survivorsrs of the collapse of the Canaanite city-states. All this monotheism, escape from Egypt crap was added much, much later and was a politicalal power-play as anything else.

    • Myron
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      So, Richard Dawkins is an epistemically agnostic positive atheist, i.e. someone who believes that God doesn’t exist/gods don’t exist but isn’t absolutely certain and doesn’t claim to know that God doesn’t exist/gods don’t exist.

      • Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

        An EAPA? Snappy!

        /@

  8. Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    “And so we have the delicious comedy of views which until recently were condemned by the religious as arrogant, aggressive and fundamentalist suddenly now being proclaimed by those same religious as signs that Dawkins is unsure of his position and halfway to accepting Jesus as his Lord and Saviour!”

    Both of those positions seem the same to me. They seem like hasty reassurances to the faithful that this Dawkins guy won’t be a threat.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      Exactly! Because they feel the heat of satan incarnated(RD) and its hell(atheism) arrival…
      🙂

  9. Runst
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    This is precisely why I stopped calling myself an agnostic: Most people immediately assume that this means you almost believe in god, but just need a little push. At least when I call myself an atheist, believers don’t get their hopes up.

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      There may well be agnostics like that. At the other end of the agnostic spectrum, there’s Martin Amis who said, “I think the only rational position is to be an agnostic teetering on the very brink of atheism.” Would this latter position correspond to your own?

      The quotation comes from this video around 5:50.

    • Sigh
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, “that little push” is a giant leap of logic.

  10. Dave Ricks
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins is still an atheist

    Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead

    • MosesZD
      Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Ah, yes…. That was a great running bit..

  11. Curt Nelson
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    It was dumb of RD to say he’s agnostic. As Paula Kirby points out, the archbishop of canterbury might also say he’s agnostic because he can’t prove god’s existence either. In other words, we can all say we’re agnostic about everything we can imagine because no one can prove a thing does not exist. What a pointless word game it is to apply a scientific measure to a concept that is about belief, not evidence.

    It’s helpful to know what RD, and everyone including the archbishop of canterbury believes about god, and that is why there is a unique word for each of the three basic positions: theists believe in god, atheists don’t, and agnostics haven’t made up their minds. Why does everyone want to be cute by saying, actually I’m agnostic because I must admit that I do not KNOW god is not real? (Very true… barf.)

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      In other words, we can all say we’re agnostic about everything we can imagine because no one can prove a thing does not exist.

      ahem

      Nonexistence proofs are trivial and ancient.

      There is no such thing as “the largest prime number,” to use perhaps the hoariest of examples.

      Married bachelors, the lumniferous aether, phlogiston, Planet Vulcan, Martian Canals, the herd of outraged rhinoceroses stampeding through your room as you read this, and Rick Santorum’s sense of decency are all also perfectly non-existent and provably so.

      Unsurprisingly, fantastic fictional characters also fall into this same category, from Thor to Darth Vader to Jesus to Harry Potter…to leprechauns to angels to ghosts to gods and all the rest.

      All one has to do is figure out some sort of evidence that must be present were said entity to exist, and observe the absence of that evidence. Were there water canals on Mars, the many probes we’ve sent there would have returned pictures of them; the probes did not, ergo no canals. If Jesus were the human incarnation of the perfectly powerful entity that created Life, the Universe, and Everything, then the Bible would say exactly what Jesus wanted it to and be unambiguously perfect in all ways. However, no alleged Christian has ever demonstrated the “signs” of Mark 16:17-18, and so we know that Jesus is fictional as well — or, at the very least, that there are no true Christians, which again is incompatible with the Jesus theory.

      And so on.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted March 1, 2012 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        Don’t knock phlogiston.
        The exact same phenomena are considered real in electronics[1] and other areas in physics, where an absence of something is mathematically conjured out of the Jeanie’s Bottle as a negative “real thing”.

        No, Phlogiston theory is alive and well.
        The abscence of a thing posited to cater for our inability to cope with complex mathematics and statistics.[2]

        _________________
        [1] Electron ‘Holes’ as putative carriers of positive charge, for but one example.
        [2] This is a part of my beef with those who posit the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’. Especially those who claim this (sans any sort of evidence) and then proceed to conjure-up Jeebers from their rabbit-fur felted hat.
        They do not for a moment consider the very reasonable UTTER inefectiveness of mathematics to explain MOST of the universe! Chaos, statistics, odd-socks, uncertainty, indeterminacy, incalculability, dark matter, lost car-keys, etc RULE 99.999999999% of the universe!
        Choas theory quite clearly explains why mathematics is singularly unsuited to explain MOST of the universe, most of the time.
        Yet these xenophobic parochial badly-shaved-monkeys descendants of slime-mould have the utter hubris/chutzpa to assert that their ability to count off a few beans on their post-prehensile toes explains all of that?
        I could write a bloody book about it.
        And just have.

        • Posted March 1, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

          Eh, I guess you could look at positive charges like phlogiston in the sense that you have or lack something. But positive electric charge is really just a name arbitrarily given.

          As for math being a good tool to model systems, it is really good. It’s not that it isn’t perfect for modelling everything so people can’t claim it proves Jesus, it’s that it doesn’t matter if it perfectly describes things because it says nothing about existence of Jesus.

          We might fail at using math to model systems perfectly, but that’s only because systems can be too complex for us to know all the factors to account for. We make generalisations (“let’s treat this as a perfect sphere…”) and build simpler models that still describe a system well enough for us to use.

          As for the chaos theory you mention, are you talking about non-linear dynamical systems that can very a lot from small changes in initial conditions? It looks like you might be using the common usage of the term chaos, but in chaos theory the term is more precisely defined. Chaotic systems are completely deterministic, but due to rounding errors we might not be able to use the exact value of an initial condition, so we round off an initial value and the result is very different from the one if we could use the exact initial condition.

          • Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

            I am a qualified applied mathematician, as you seem to be. I employ “chaos” in this case as an absolutely infeasable finite computation, for the purposes of my argument, as you well spotted.
            It serves that even a trivial computation of even a few microseconds in advance of a chaotic system is computationally infeasible even if every atom of the universe were a Cray supercomputer. And that is sans the Heisenberg uncertainty principle!

            As I said, I could write a book about the subject and still not have plumbed its interstices, but: for the sake of blog-brevity, must attempt to distill my points to (almost) banal twitter level imbecility.
            Which I find to be a marvelous test of whether I truly understand the base concepts!

    • steve oberski
      Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      I think you have confused dumb with honest.

      • Posted March 1, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

        Politically dumb, intellectually honest.
        Same thing, perhaps?

        The corn-fusion lies in the limitations of the temporal scope of the listener, surely?

        • steve oberski
          Posted March 1, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

          I take the word “political” to describe the positive sum process that autonomous actors (i.e. people) engage in to achieve their interests and to maximize the well being of all.

          This process involves negotiation and compromise and the willingness to be honest sends a strong signal that ones position is not informed by ideology and is amenable to change should new evidence be provided and the lack of said trait is an indication that one has a hidden agenda and an intention to co-opt and subvert this process.

          Much like the words “belief” and “transcendence”, “politics” has been hijacked by sociopathic opportunists interested only in short term, negative sum, ideological gain.

          Just because the process is flawed does not mean that one has to adopt the tactics of those who seem to be intent on destroying our post enlightenment legacy.

          • Curt Nelson
            Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

            I don’t think I have confused dumb with honest. I’m pointing out that your “honest” answer (we’re all agnostic) is nonsensical because it leaves us not knowing what anyone believes about the god question. The pope is agnostic, Richard Dawkins is agnostic… What a wonderful world of agreement! (with no information content).

            • steve oberski
              Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

              The additional information provided by Richard Dawkins, in his own words, if you could be bothered to listen, is that he is agnostic about his belief in gods. That takes his answer out of the realm of the nonsensical and back into that of honesty.

              • Curt Nelson
                Posted March 1, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                Yes, additional information is needed to bring everyone back into the realm of usable information regarding what one actually thinks about the god question.

  12. Posted March 1, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins (et al) just needs to get off the fence and come out (again?) as a Bright.
    http://www.the-brights.net/
    We really have to move this debate to the next level.
    A-theism is unnecessarily offensive and agnosticism just plain meaningless.

    • Posted March 1, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      The Brights are tone-deaf and arrogant, and atheism is no more offensive than not collecting stamps.

      b&

      • Posted March 2, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        Ben,
        If you are not a Bright, what are you?

        • Posted March 2, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

          I’m a person.

          If you’re asking about my religious “beliefs,” I’d have to go with, “Evil Atheist.” Perhaps with some extra evil on the side.

          Or maybe, “Unicornitarian,” if I’m in that kind of mood.

          Cheers,

          b&

    • Posted March 1, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      A-theism is unnecessarily offensive? Time for B-theism then?

      /@

  13. Knuckle Pushups
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Yeah, well, if Richard’s on his way to gettin’ Baptized down at the creek, I’m a three-pecker’d billy goat.

  14. Knuckle Pushups
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Jeanie has a bottle?

  15. Posted March 1, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I think that any non-believer who gives even the tiniest of possibilities that Christianity’s God is real is in fact an agnostic. However, an atheist can still be an atheist and give some unknown entity with god-like attributes the possibility of existence.

  16. Dominic
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I am not convinced that the Ardship of Cambry –
    http://writing.ie/component/content/article/233-special-guests-speculative-fiction/480-a-remembrance-of-russell-hoban-1925-2011.html

    …really would consider that there is no proof of god. He would say that it was Jesus, surely.

  17. neil
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I used to think that I was an agnostic atheist. But all of this has got me wondering whether I might be an atheist agnostic.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    If it comes down to definitions of agnostic, if you have reason to suspect you can choose an alternative over another you can no longer call yourself without gnosis (“agnostic”). You have some form of knowledge or gnosis.

    So as I understand it it is some form of waffling to instead equate any form of uncertainty as agnosticism. In that case, everyone is agnostic about everything empirical, which makes the concept meaningless.

    Note that this is consistent. The majority of agnostics that claim that you can’t know anything about supernaturalism are making a theological claim, which is rejected by science shooting down one form of creationism after another, et cetera. So they have no more gnosis than agnostics that say they simply can’t decide in the matter.

    I think Dawkins and Kirby are identifying this waffling. But I don’t see that they have a firm handle on how to make it stop. Instead they seem to pick up the mess and try to stick it back on a higher shelf.

  19. Posted March 1, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I have identified myself as an atheist/agnostic for 60 years so I guess it is possible.

  20. James
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    NO ONE WHO CALL himself a Christian and says its possible that God doesn’t exist is a real Christian or is an extremely confused Christian.

    You cant have a relationship with someone if your not sure there are even there. Thats absurd.
    Real Christians come to God in faith with reasons to believe he exists–but not concrete fact belief. Then when they accept Christ– God puts it into their mind as fact. At that point it cant be unbelieved.
    This girl was never a real christian– thats why she makes such ridiculous statements. Her belief was based on a detective mission..not by a supernatural God turning her into one of her children.

    In short, she never gave herself to God. Christians are positive because they have this fact placed in their minds supernaturally. Just the fact that she doesnt understand how Christians believe show her story of being a Christian suspect.

    if God wanted this whole thing to be based on a detective mission he would just go on TV right now and settle it. You go to God in faith based on the obviousness of the Creation from nothing, to Christ because of the power of his message and that its by far the most credible and biggest religion professed by people who are not even from its land of origin(unlike most Muslims).

    You are not coerced to reach out to God because of fear because at that point Christs message is not a fact to you.

    It genius..its draws without coercion. Only a person who’s truly for God will take the move toward Christ and the pretenders are left with just enough doubt to call it all BS. In short..they are revealed for what they are. Yet if God was on TV..they’d all flock to him out of fear…which is not about loving God..its about avoiding punishment. Hell is only mentioned to let the lost know where they are surely going…its not a deterrent as no Christian goes to God because they are afraid.

    But once you go to God and tell him you will accept Christs offer–its a done deal. You are changed..there is turning back. You could possibly say you dont agree with God’s methods…but you can never ever say He doesnt exist because you know that as much as your own name.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Paula Kirby on Dawkins’s “agnoticism” (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] H/T: Jerry Coyne […]

  3. […] Paula Kirby on Dawkins’s “agnoticism” (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) […]

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