I don’t believe in ‘agnostics’


As someone who believes strongly in his opinions, and who doesn’t shy away from debate, I often find myself having heated discussions with friends. They’re not always about atheism (in fact they rarely are), but they often end up back at the same point: “look, you believe that, but other people disagree – I think there’s truth on both sides.” They seem to think this is some kind of profoundly meaningful truth that I, in my zeal, couldn’t possibly comprehend. “Here I am,” they say “happily ensconced in my island of neutrality, not dirtying myself by having an opinion on something.”

I’m not a big fan of theists as a group, but I have a great deal of respect for honest ones who are at least willing to expose their beliefs to scrutiny and will drop a bad argument once it’s been exposed as fallacious. There’s precious few of those around, but when I find them I go out of my way to express my appreciation. I hold those kinds of people in much higher esteem than I do self-proclaimed “agnostics” who are just soooo over the whole religion question. Indeed, there are few people I have more contempt for than someone who archly sits on the sidelines, piping up only long enough to shit on people on both sides for being so crass as to believe in something being true or not.

First, I would be remiss if I didn’t clear up an important issue of semantics. Atheism is a response to a claim: that there is a god. If you are going to classify yourself with respect to the god question, simply ask yourself “do I believe in a supernatural entity responsible for the creation of the universe that involves itself in human affairs?” If the answer is anything besides “yes”, then you are an atheist. If your answer is “I believe that there is some kind of superior intelligence out there responsible for the universe, but not one as defined in any religious tradition” then you might describe yourself as a deist, provided you also believe that this ‘intelligence’ doesn’t interact with humans in a meaningful way. Deism is incredibly lazy, but whatever I don’t care.

“Agnostic” is not an alternative to “atheist”. It is a question of how strong your response to that question is. If you are operating from a position that you know there is such an entity, then you are ‘gnostic’. The same goes for ‘gnostic’ atheism – if you know there is no god/gods, then you are a gnostic atheist*. If you don’t know that a god exists, but you believe and behave as if there is one, then you are an agnostic theist – my suspicion is that most moderate theists fall into this category. If you aren’t convinced that there are no gods, but you don’t believe that there are and behave accordingly, then you are an agnostic atheist. There is no such thing as “an agnostic”.

For some reason, we are conditioned by arch-liberalism to eschew any impression that we have a position on an issue. While I recognize the need for nuanced understandings of the world, and that nobody’s opinion is the complete truth, that does not mean that all positions are equal, or that we have to pretend as though we live in a fuzzy cloud of “well I’m not sure”. We can, and should, take positions on things. That does not mean we can not be talked out of those positions, only that it’s going to take something aside from “well I see it differently” to achieve that. Incidentally, the fact that I refuse to acquiesce to this completely nonsensical approach to life is the reason many people here in Canada think I’m an American upon meeting me.

It is this pathetic, mewling, Quisling approach to discourse that I find so distasteful in “agnostics”. While they think they are saying “I have a much more nuanced and mature outlook on religion”, what they are actually saying is “I haven’t bothered to think my position through.” It is the glorification of the middle ground, the haughty refusal to stand for something, the arbitrary elevation of the half-assed from vice to virtue. It is nothing more than trumpeting your own intellectual laziness and cowardice, and I have less patience for it than I do for someone who disagrees with me, but does so for honest reasons.

Possibly the most galling part of dealing with “agnostics”, but really this is the problem when dealing with most people who have half-baked opinions they’re proud of, is that they seem to have a hard time understanding that their argument isn’t new. It’s not that atheists don’t understand the idea that the world is complicated, it’s that we (for the most part), have already been there. We get that dogmatic certainty is foolhardy – that’s why we don’t claim it. We get that there are times when there is truth on both sides – that’s why we ask for evidence. We get that not everyone sees things the way we do – we’ve never said otherwise.

Someone who proclaims themselves to be “an agnostic” would perhaps do better to apply the label “an ambivalent” (although the term “apatheist” is pretty good too). It’s not that you don’t know about a god, it’s that you don’t care. You see the whole debate as being a waste of time – what does it matter what people believe? Let them believe what they like! Those atheists who are so gauche as to bother speaking up against religion are just as bad as fundamentalists who try to convert everyone to their beliefs, right?

This is why I can’t take self-identifying “agnostics” seriously. It’s one thing to say that you’re not interested in putting a lot of energy into the debate – I am growing less and less interested in the question of the gods in my personal life. I have a bunch of Youtube debates between atheists and theists sitting in a folder, unwatched, because I just don’t find the constant restatement of the same arguments/counterarguments interesting anymore. I have been pretty much convinced of where the truth is, and the question isn’t relevant to my day-to-day life. That being said, simply because I don’t have a burning desire to hash out the issues doesn’t mean that I am somehow licensed to shit on others who do.

And the reason why I don’t have that license is because the issue of gods is important. There are still crazy people out there who, every day, are doing crazy and illegal and harmful shit to the world and their fellow creatures because they have selectively blurred the line between fantasy and reality. The debate is crucial to moving forward as a civilization, and at arresting the backward slide we see in many places across the globe. Saying that the debate about god doesn’t matter is announcing that you proudly live your life with your head up your own ass, all the while chastising everyone else for arguing about turning on the lights.

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*I am, for the record, a gnostic atheist. Insofar as I ‘know’ anything to exist or not exist (I ‘know’ my apartment exists, I ‘know’ that my mansion doesn’t), I ‘know’ that there are no gods. I find the dithering over 100% confidence in something as a qualification for ‘knowledge’ to be a bit ridiculous, but I don’t really care all that much.

Comments

  1. pikeamus says

    Agree with basically every word here, except that I would say whether I’m an agnostic or a gnostic atheist depends entirely on which definition of God is being used.

  2. Librarivore says

    I’ve been ‘preaching’ essentially the same explanation for awhile now. Very well put. This is worth bookmarking for future reference/sharing. Thanks.

  3. Najamnik says

    I agree. The definition is important. In terms of an Abrahamic god, there is no question about it, I am a gnostic athiest. I would never refer to myself as just an “agnostic” in any case, but the use of it alone is often just a mistake by those who do not realize that the word is not supposed to be used independently.

  4. cholten99 says

    “Take sides! Always take sides! You may be wrong – but the man who refuses to take a side must always be wrong! Heaven save us from poltroons who fear to make a choice.” R. A. Heinlein, Double Star

  5. says

    I hear this opinion a lot, and it makes quite angry.

    I spent a number of years professing myself as an agnostic. I did this not because I thought I was impressed by my own neutrality, but because I honestly did not want to commit myself to one ideology or the other. I didn’t do this because I thought I was better, but because I did not know whether I believed there was a supernatural component to the universe, or whether we were truly alone.

    Yes, for me agnosticism was just a stepping stone towards atheism. It is for many others as well. And yes, there are annoying agnostics. But the worst people of all are the people who refuse to even acknowledge the beliefs of others. Telling an agnostic to grow some balls and make a choice is just as bad as an agnostic telling an atheist that he or she is just as dogmatic as religious folk.

  6. Ariel says

    You start with discerning several variants of a view (attitude?) called “agnosticism”. These variants are:

    (1) agnostic theist – he doesn’t claim to know that a god exists, but he behaves as if there is one.
    (2) agnostic atheist – he isn’t convinced that there are no gods, but he behaves as if there are none.
    (3) apatheist – he doesn’t care about gods. He thinks that the whole debate is a waste of time.

    And you comment that the proclaimed agnostics irritate you because they adopt an attitude of the sort “I will not dirty myself by having an opinion on something” – you accuse them in fact of being too lazy to form an opinion. I understand your irritation, but I find your approach overly uncharitable to the self-proclaimed “agnostics”. In fact all three variants may correspond to some quite definite opinions – which may not be to your liking, of course, but that’s a completely different story!

    (1) may correspond to the opinions: (a) arguments for the existence of a god are not strong enough to constitute knowledge, but (b) they are strong enough for practical purposes (hidden assumption: in everyday life knowledge is sometimes a tall order – too tall in fact). Both opinions are of course questionable, but in principle I don’t find any reason for irritation and strong accusations here. A debate with such an agnostic theist is certainly possible.
    (2) may correspond to the opinions: (c) arguments for the nonexistence of a god are not strong enough to constitute knowledge, but (d) they are strong enough for practical purposes (the same hidden assumption as before). The rest of my comments also remains the same.
    (3) may correspond to the opinions: (e) the issue is forever undecidable (f) debating undecidable issues is a waste of time, especially that (g) religion is not so harmful as the atheists claim, neither atheism is so harmful as the believers claim. Again, these opinions are obviously debatable, but the accusation “they are too lazy to have an opinion on something” seems misplaced.

    Now, you could answer of course that this is all theoretically possible, but in practice the self-proclaimed agnostics are too lazy, and that’s it. You could say that in fact they are using the label “agnosticism” – not necessarily connected with the lack of opinions – as an excuse. And I think this is quite correct. My problem with this is that I don’t find the “agnostics” very special in this respect (it may be a difference stemming from our personal experience). I would rather say that there is a general tendency to substitute group identification for critical thinking. From what I see, this tendency is realized in practice by accepting labels like “agnosticism”, “Christianity” or even (more and more often) “atheism”. In relation to the question whether it really happens more often with “agnostics” than with the other groups, my personal experience orders me to remain an agnostic atheist :-)

  7. Crommunist says

    I spent many years not knowing one way or the other what I believed. I think it’s absolutely defensible to say “I don’t know what I believe yet”, but that is a separate issue from saying that you are “an agnostic”. I am, for example, not educated enough to be on one side of the Israel/Palestine issue – I avoid such conversations when I can because I simply don’t have the right answer. I do not, however, say “well both sides are equally wrong and people should just stop fighting about it” – such a statement is completely illegitimate and minimizes the problem.

    I don’t think I’ve refused to acknowledge the beliefs of others – I am responding to a position that has no philosophical legitimacy. There might be some solipsists out there – solipsism is a stupid position, and making that statement (so long as I explain why) is not refusing to acknowledge their beliefs, it’s refusing to respect them.

  8. mbj1 says

    Well, I can see someone being an agnostic in a transitional phase between beliefs (or lack thereof), but in practice, I’ve found those who self apply the label to be wafflers and fence sitters, who don’t ever intend to make a decision, right or wrong. While this is purely anecdotal, I’ve found the attitude insufferable.

  9. says

    I won’t claim to know the reasons any person would be agnostic. When I briefly identified as agnostic it was for the sort of “you can’t disprove a negative, there’s no certainty” reason you mention above, but after exploring that idea more, I realized that it’s akin to saying “it’s possible that gravity won’t work today for some reason.” I realized that we all, in various ways, settle on the assumption that considering the existing track record and barring any new information, it’s safe to assume X and consider it fact for now. For instance, north is probably still north, my parents were acting as santa, and everyone is mortal. I cannot constantly check the location of north, it’s possible that there really was a santa who just happened to not like milk just like my mom doesn’t and who prefers my mom’s favorite cookies and it’s also possible that someone right now is immortal, but it’s far too cumbersome to live life constantly doubting everything that has been observed to date. (and yes, I know the magnetic poles do flip at times, but that wouldn’t be magical in any way, it would be consistent with known physical phenomenons.)

    I feel the same way about the supernatural. It is possible gods and ESP and astrology and homeopathy are all real and work as believers think and they just evade all detection and have no explanation that bears any resemblance to the physical world we know. It’s possible, but not probable and the probability is so low as to be effectively non-existant. Therefore, until evidence is provided to the contrary, I will live my life as though there is no magic, only a physical universe.

  10. David says

    I am gnostic agnostic. I know that I don’t know what triggered the big bang: random perturbations in the space-time that didn’t exist; a giant computer existing outside our universe in a dimension where systems can self-create; a duck sneezing; All these things can have the same result and until science can tell me what it was I’m not going to definitely say it isn’t some guy living in the clouds. I am entity-that-created-the-universe agnostic.
    Consider, for ages the atom was the smallest particle of matter. Then someone smashed it open and out fell an electron, proton, and neutron. “Ahah! These must be the smallest particles” and they were for some time again, until they were smashed open and even smaller stuff came falling out. Now the quark seems to be the smallest particle, but the LHC was built to try and prove otherwise. I am quark-is-the-smallest-particle-of-matter agnostic.
    Science has proven that evolution exists both on the micro and macro scale, and that we did have branching ancestry with several other species: anyone who argues this is deceiving themselves and I will fight them tooth and nail. Science has also proven that it is possible to manipulate environments to guide evolution to develop specific traits. Can we say, absolutely, that at no point in the history of the world that there wasn’t some external force? Sci-fi is also full of tales of aliens that pushed evolution in certain directions, can we say without doubt that none of these might be right? I am human-evolution-was-unguided agnostic.

    I can make a huge list about the things I know that I can’t know (in direct contrast to the things that I don’t know but could find out). That is the nature of my agnosticism: it isn’t some wishy washy “I haven’t decided”, it is a very firm “I don’t know”. You say “ask yourself do I believe in a supernatural entity” thinking that there is only two possible answers, yes or no, but that neglects the very real, very human response “I don’t know”.
    Now, a lot of these things are very important “I don’t knows”. We don’t know if the quark is the smallest thing or not, so lets build a super collider and smash them together and see if anything falls out.
    On the other hand, and about this you are right, there’s a lot of ambivalent “I don’t know”s. I don’t know if there is an all powerful entity which created the universe, but at the same time I don’t care.
    That isn’t the same as not having an opinion on the matter, of course. I know that it is possible to be a good person without any influence from a higher power at all; in fact, the Christian bible more or less says that God cannot influence people to be good, that they have to make that choice on their own, so I will fight anyone who spreads such a false belief tooth and nail if I have to. I know evolution is provably true, and will stand firm on that subject against any onslaught. I know from psychological studies that being gay is not damaging to anyone, but being told that it is does significant harm, and I will stand up for the rights of every individual that deserves the same happiness that I have.

    And this is the point where I become a complete asshole, but please bear with me through it for a moment so I can explain myself fully, but feel free to counter. When you are an atheist, basically your only real counter to “X is wrong because God says it is” is fundamentally “that is invalid because God doesn’t exist”, right? You can try arguing the logical points, why something is the way it is, but in the end you will “lose” because they “know” that no matter what you say, God has said X therefore it must be true. But what if you accepted the possibility that they were right and talked to them on a level they understand: “God didn’t actually say X, God said Y but sometimes that can be interpreted as X and here’s all the passages that prove it.” An atheist, under the definition of someone who states there is no higher power, can use this tactic as well but it is an act to change the course of the discussion: a very excellent debate technique but not quite the same thing as actually knowing that they don’t know the answer.

    I once encountered an argument against agnosticism based on the assumption that an agnostic necessarily had to doubt everything. It was a fairly well written piece but missed the point entirely. I know the sun will rise tomorrow, same as it always has; I know that if I drop a ball, gravity will pull it downward; I know that if I engage in a philosophical debate with a deist they will never accept my arguments unless I can word it in ways that focus on the bible. There is evidence for all these things and more, enough evidence that I can reasonably say I know them, or at least that I know their opposite to be false. There is no evidence that aliens live on other planets, nor evidence that they do not: I will not say that aliens do not exist, I can’t know that. There is no evidence that time travel is possible, no evidence that it is not, but lots of theories in both directions, how it could or could not be possible: I will not say that time travel is not impossible, I can’t know that. There’s no evidence that a higher power exists, but no evidence that we aren’t a simulation in a computer with the big bang being triggered by a scientist performing various experiments in cosmology, biology, and sociology: I won’t say there isn’t some intelligent entity that created the universe, I can’t know that any more than I can know if there are aliens, or time travel, or particles smaller than a quark.

    That is why I’m agnostic, if you asked me if I believed in a higher power I would genuinely say that I don’t know.

  11. Crommunist says

    I am gnostic agnostic.

    Dr. deGrasse Tyson, care to respond?

    If the concept of “knowledge” has any practical use, we have to be able to separate the ideas of “there is no evidence to suggest that this is true” from “we are 100% irrevocably certain that this is true”. Outside of mathematics, this second definition is wildly impractical and nobody uses that as the standard. Your repeated calls for absolute irrevocable truth for matters of science are therefore dismissed.

    By your own standard, the number of things you are “agnostic” about is infinite. You say that you know the sun will rise tomorrow, and that gravity exists. Are you “agnostic” about the possibility that the sun is an illusion created by a race of super-intelligent space lemurs, or that gravity is actually the combined pulling of untold trillions of invisible gremlins that cannot be detected by even the most powerful microscopes? To remain consistent in your logic, you would have to be agnostic to those possibilities. That’s a ridiculously cumbersome way of going about it, and for all practical purposes it’s not that you “don’t know”, it’s that you “know” to the same degree of certainty that you “know” you won’t fall through the floor every time you take a step (but then again, you’d have to be agnostic about that too).

    There are certainly things that we can honestly answer “I don’t know” to, because there is abundant possibility that evidence will be found some day. Every investigation into every god concept that has been proposed has yielded no evidence. Dithering over whether or not non-falsifiable hypothesis can be rejected as untrue or not is a waste of time. For practical purposes, in the sense that we use the word “know” in every other context, we can “know” that there are no gods. Waxing at great length otherwise is perhaps an enjoyable masturbatory exercise, but it fails to persuade.

  12. quantheory says

    I vaguely agree with some of the other commenters that there are “agnostics” that don’t say or think the sorts of things you were complaining about.

    That said, I completely agree with you otherwise. And I’d go so far as to say that most of the time I see the label “agnostic” used as a cover for apatheism. It looks just another example of rationalized apathy towards issues that are important to others.

    It’s not particularly different from any other time you criticize a common practice, and people dismiss your concerns, not by arguing against them, but by sneering at the very idea of having concerns.

    “He just has a chip on his shoulder.”
    “Ooh, sounds like I struck a nerve!”
    “Oh God, she’s talking about politics. Here we go again.”
    “Well, it’s pointless. The system is broken and it’s never going to change.”
    “Everyone does/experiences X, so it’s not just members of [group disproportionately affected by X]. It’s just how things are.”

    It’s a shallow sort of logic: “I don’t care either way about that, and I’m a perfectly good person. There must be something wrong with people that do care so much. Maybe they have some personal issues that makes them overreact. Maybe they have bad information.” It is, of course, stressful to care, and more so to argue. Controversy is annoying. It’s easier to just rationalize how people who care must have some kind of intrinsic flaw.

    And that rationalization gets easier if you enforce a social norm that says that caring about certain issues is actually bad and dogmatic in and of itself, that you shouldn’t talk about politics and religion in mixed company, and that the civility of discourse should be measured not by honesty and fairness, but by how well you can spin your position so that it sounds like you hardly disagree with anyone else at all. Except for those meanies who strongly disagree with others on purpose.

    You end up with a lot of rhetoric about “moderates” who will “heal the divide” or “strike a compromise” between two sides, whether or not the middle ground is a particularly reasonable position at all. A population of people who could help settle the issue by actually learning about it and picking a reasonable position, in the end only prolong the argument by throwing in a lot of noise about the dangers of “extremism” and “polemic”, and the virtues of hearing out “both sides”, as if opinions derived their value solely from the social meta-discourse about how common or centrist or moderate they are.

    “Reasonable” should mean “derived from good reasons”, not “causing as little controversy as possible”. Mixing these two up not only prevents people from drawing a correct but non-moderate position, but can cause them to take the wrong moderate position even when a different moderate position is relatively workable.

  13. Riptide says

    Dr. Degrasse-Tyson, care to respond?

    That’s deGrasse Tyson (fucked up Frainche-iste capitalization, no hyphen). But I’m totally stealing the hell out of that gif, good sir!

  14. quantheory says

    I actually think that the disagreement here is much simpler than people make it out to be.

    Science is underdetermined by evidence. Rhetoric aside, you can’t actually just naively look at the evidence and pick the right theory. After all, geocentrism matched the evidence better than heliocentrism until after Kepler. In principle, I could “tune” a geocentrist theory to match any observational data even today, just by adding enough extra features to the theory.

    The way you pick between models that are similarly good at explaining/predicting the evidence is with Occam’s razor. The more features a model requires in order to work, the more likely it is that at least some of them are wrong, or even invented as “cheats” to match the evidence to an otherwise bad theory. Credibility is established by having a few, clear, applicable principles or assumptions, and showing that they predict a large amount of evidence.

    God doesn’t work like this. Start with the universe (probability that it exists: more or less 100%). You add the idea of something being outside it (I think a small step in light of modern physics). You add the idea that something out there is supernatural (a huge step; we don’t know what the supernatural is, that it even exists, or that it can even be defined in a coherent manner). You add that something in this supernatural realm is an intelligence (a huge step; most things are not intelligent, because intelligence is very complex and requires a lot of good parts working together just so). You add the knowledge and ability to create a universe (a huge step) and the idea that this universe is among those created (a huge step). You add the idea that there is only one such being with power over this universe (a huge step; how can we say that such a being can exist, and yet be sure that there can be only one?).

    I’m skipping some steps, and not going through all the qualities of a God. But you can see that this is a long road, and each step along it reduces the probability of God existing. Each theological argument that attempts to explain how God fills one of these requirements, if it makes an additional claim but fails to invoke additional evidence, is actually an added step, and therefore decreases the probability of God at best.

    Just like I know geocentrism is wrong, because it would require too many epicycles and other arbitrary features to work, and is therefore incredibly unlikely, I also know that there is no God, because the number of propositions that would have to be established to show that he exists is massive, and so many of them appear so unlikely that the probability of God being real is tiny. Especially since I have every reason to believe that God was not invented for any rational reason, but made up as part of prescientific superstitions; what is the chance, really, that people guessing about the ultimate nature of the universe, totally uninformed and unskeptical, by sheer luck, got it right?

  15. Gentry says

    It’s situations like the ones you present above that prevent me from even bringing up religion in polite conversation.

    I recognize that you firmly believe what you believe, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, I encourage people to strongly examine their stance on topics/beliefs/etc to ensure they stand up to scrutiny.

    The point where I draw the line and just kowtow to them until they change the subject is when they prod at me to take a stance so there can be “discussion” on the topic. That part of the conversation typically ends with a whole lot of back patting, or an extended monologue about how I should view that subject from exactly the same viewpoint as the person I’m talking to.

    I really hate when people do that.

    I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. I’ve mentioned that I just don’t care, and I’ve been prodded by atheists and theists alike about how I need to take a stance on the subject (or they espouse the virtues of their viewpoint in the hopes I’m converted). I’m so apathetic about it I couldn’t care less if I was labeled atheist, theist, agnostic or apatheist.

    I’ve always thought that your beliefs are yours to examine and change when you’re open to the idea of change. Can’t force a fundamentalist to change by using force. They have to want to change to accept a differing viewpoint. Until that time, you shouldn’t foist a viewpoint on them or demand they take one by asking a question like, “do you think a supernatural entity created the universe?” and making them run with a black-and-white answer. “I don’t know with any degree of certainty” is, and should be a perfectly acceptable answer as long as you’re not pushing that answer on other people every time you have the chance to say your peace.

    Long story short, people who don’t know shouldn’t have to be pegged into one camp or another by zealots on either side, but they also shouldn’t go around telling other people that in smug superiority. I know that last statement was dripping with irony. :P

  16. David says

    Wasn’t trying to persuade, nor get hyper-existential (what does it mean to know something? I think therefore I am? pfft, whatever), just explain. It’s just a different way of thinking about possibilities, not one I could ever accurately explain, probably. I’ll try again anyway.
    There’s exactly the same amount of evidence that proves God exists as there is that proves aliens exist: absolutely none. Until recently we couldn’t even prove planets outside the solar system existed.
    There is at least some evidence that I won’t fall through the floor. There is at least some evidence that the sun will rise tomorrow. I can draw some kind of conclusion to those things based on things that can reasonably be known. There is scattered “evidence” that aliens exist in the same way that there’s a bunch of writings from a thousand years ago as “evidence” that a god exists. If I can’t say that aliens don’t exist (and I don’t want to say that) then I can’t realistically say that I’m not just a brain in a jar being subjected to stimulus by a mad scientist.

  17. Crommunist says

    Your position is that all non-falsifiable hypotheses should be granted some plausibility because they can’t be disproved. By their very nature, non-falsifiable hypotheses cannot be falsified – it’s right there in the name. There are an infinite number of non-falsifiable hypotheses, and to be “agnostic” about every single one is cumbersome and silly. If you say that you grant god concepts the same likelihood as invisible gravity gremlins, then while 0.000000000000001% isn’t zero, it’s close enough to zero that it may as well be zero.

    There is scattered “evidence” that aliens exist in the same way that there’s a bunch of writings from a thousand years ago as “evidence” that a god exists

    This is false. We have an intelligible mechanism by which aliens could come into existence. There is abundant evidence supporting the contention that, given certain conditions, life may arise and evolve. We have no mechanism whatsoever by which we could infer that a supernatural creator of the universe exists. The extraterrestrial life question is still an open one – plausible but not yet proven. Any definition of ‘god’ that resembles what people mean when they use that word has probability so remote as to be best described by an ancient Babylonian concept – zero.

  18. David says

    “Any definition of ‘god’ that resembles what people mean when they use that word has probability so remote as to be best described by an ancient Babylonian concept – zero”
    You’re probably right, the probability that any religion is correct is vanishingly small. In the same way that I have no reason to believe that I’ll fall through the floor or monkeys might fly out my butt, I can reasonably say that such a God doesn’t exist: it just doesn’t fit with what we can know. Your question didn’t mention anything about any assorted definition of god though; you asked a very general “do I believe in a supernatural entity responsible for the creation of the universe that involves itself in human affairs?” and that if I answer anything other than “yes” I must be an athiest. That is what I strongly disagree with, that is something that we cannot know yet. If you want to play the statistics game, suggesting that there’s a reasonable creation method for aliens and therefore we can’t discount it, then I’ll have to say that I play God everyday: I poke my Sim and he goes pee, and I fully believe that there will come a day when we build a computer which can simulate the human brain. They’re already closing in on it, able to simulate parts of the brain, recently simulated a small rodent (I think it was a mouse) brain entirely. There’s your method of creation right there. What are the odds that that has already happened and I’m just a computer simulation? Significantly more than 0.000000001%, I’m sure, high enough to make me go “well, maybe it is”. There’s been thoughts on the subject dating back thousands of years, and even recently papers out of York University by someone much smarter than I have suggested that it is actually the most likely scenario.

    More fundamentally, I disagree with your overarching suggestion that the agnostic mindset simply cannot exist, that the way that I think about things is a lie I tell myself. It is possible to be pretty-much-everything agnostic, as well, I believe. Make up something silly. I’ll think about it, see if there’s any reason to believe such a thing could be true, and depending on whether I can or not I’ll either decide it is something I can reasonably say is not true because it contradicts other things I know, or I’ll see that it doesn’t contradict anything I’ve already decided I know, tell you that I don’t know the answer, and then I’ll forget about it. Your argument against everything agnostic seems to be that I would have to carry around a lot of things I don’t know in my head, and that’s not true. If I don’t know something, I don’t worry about it. If I encounter something worth thinking about, I will. You tell me about gremlins that hold me to the Earth but I already know about how massive bodies interact so know the gremlins can’t be reasonably considered true, and just like that the gremlins are gone from my head: I don’t care about them anymore. There isn’t some massive baggage of things I don’t know in my head, all I carry around is the things I know, and a few of the things I don’t know but wish I did or think there’s a reason to keep thinking about. Some kid comes up to me, tells me he’s got a unicorn in a box. Maybe he does, I haven’t seen the box, maybe he’s got a unicorn which is really just a horse with a spot on its forehead. Maybe he didn’t mention it was a toy. Maybe a slew of other possibilities, including the chance that he’s lying. Doesn’t matter, I tell him “that’s nice” and two minutes later all thoughts of Unicorns have been replaced with what I want for dinner. I don’t need to be encumbered by what I don’t know: what I don’t know can be inferred from what I already do.
    You were right, agnosticism requires a great deal of ambivalence: I will frequently not care about the things I don’t know about, gremlins, unicorns, what the Prime Minister ate for breakfast. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about all the things I don’t know about. I care about whether aliens exist because the idea is sufficiently foreign and amazing to me; I care about whether there’s a supernatural entity that created the universe if for no other reason than people on both sides telling me I need to pick a side; I care about whether it’s possible to rewrite this algorithm to save my company money; I care about when my wife will get her PR card.
    To use an inverse demonstration, you can ask me what the force is between an apple and a basketball sitting on the table. I could calculate this force, measure it, know it, tell it to you, and then forget it. That there is a gravitational force acting between the apple and the basketball is known but I don’t have a “apple and basketball have a gravitational force” fact in my head: just the general knowledge about gravity which I then infer onto our question. If I regularly dealt with apples and basketballs I would care, I’d probably keep that fact in my head, but I don’t care, so once you’ve got your answer out it goes, making room for something I do care about.
    There is an infinite number of things I don’t know. There is an infinite number of things that I do know. There is an infinite number of things that I don’t care about. There is a finite number of things that I do care about, and this is subset containing things that I know and things that I don’t.
    There’s an infinite number of things I don’t know, and an infinite number of things I don’t care about.

  19. Crommunist says

    What are the odds that that has already happened and I’m just a computer simulation? Significantly more than 0.000000001%

    Why would it be higher than that? What evidence do you have to suggest that you’re a brain in a jar? I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “none, and I’m talking absolute nonsense that every stoned first-year psychology student comes up with in the privacy of her dorm room.” You’re right, the argument for “how do we know if the world is real” is not a new one. It is, however, stupid.

    You tell me about gremlins that hold me to the Earth but I already know about how massive bodies interact so know the gremlins can’t be reasonably considered true, and just like that the gremlins are gone from my head

    And yet god concepts don’t get similarly dismissed. Why?

    Of course what I should do at this point is realize that I’m talking to a solipsist, and stop wasting my time.

  20. David says

    If you think that I could consider myself a solipsist then you obviously still don’t understand how I think. This is probably my fault, I just can’t seem to explain it well enough. I apologize for wasting your time, I just don’t like when someone tells me that I’m wrong for reasons that are different from the reasons that I think I’m right.

  21. Crommunist says

    You’ve said several times that you can’t rule out the possibility that you’re just a brain in a jar – that the likelihood of this being the case is far enough above zero that it becomes a compelling idea. I understand your position perfectly. It’s still nonsense.

  22. David says

    Or that we’re all a computer simulation, yeah. Or that some extra-dimensional scientist discovered a method of stabilizing energy which triggered a universal explosion. Or that a duck sneezed at just the right moment. Or that it is possible for literally absolutely nothing to separate and become two somethings. All these things sound quite absurd, but that last one has gained a lot of ground in the scientific community and they’re actually planning an experiment to (at least partially) test that last one, assuming I’ve understood this paper correctly; They’re looking for something else but I can see how that could be a convenient bit of evidence as a side effect. We can come back to this specific discussion after the results of that experiment.
    Point is that there’s more than enough things I don’t know about what triggered the big bang that I’m not comfortable making a statement one way or the other when science is still working out the mechanics and don’t like being told that this way of thinking doesn’t actually exist, or at the very least cannot be applied to this one specific situation. As far as I’m aware, the only thing we know is that some 15 billion years or so all the matter in the universe basically occupied a single point, and then something caused it to destabilize and matter goes flying everywhere. What caused the explosion and where that matter came from have a lot of hypotheses but until recently I don’t remember hearing about any experiments to actually test any of these hypotheses.
    I have a sports analogy that might help, but I doubt it.

  23. Crommunist says

    There’s a line between saying “we have a scientific question that has not yet been tested” or “we aren’t certain about this issue” and saying “a duck sneeze and the interaction of high-energy subatomic particles are both equally-likely causes of the origins of the material universe”. It’s not even a fine line. Understanding the difference between unanswered questions and questions that are unanswerable is the difference between scientific thinking and pseudoscientific fantasy. I will certainly accede that this “type of thinking” exists. It is, however, exceedingly pedantic and unwieldy, and certainly unworthy of serious consideration.

  24. David says

    Thank you. I’m happy we can disagree because at least you’re disagreeing with what I’m saying rather than what you believe I’m saying, finally, and to that end I can now start understanding where my thinking goes wrong that causes you to disagree. I only hope I’ve understood what you’ve said as equally well.

  25. Crommunist says

    You’re pretty level-headed for someone I’m unrestrainedly insulting. I doff my cap to you for that.

  26. David says

    Well yeah. You say that that form of thinking is pedantic and unwieldy but to me it feels entirely natural. To use an analogy, it’s like I’ve been wearing nothing but trackpants my entire life and you were saying that you couldn’t understand why anyone would wear trackpants because of reasons A, B, and C. My response was I like trackpants because of reasons X, Y, and Z though, A, B, and C aren’t major factors in my choice. Until I could get you to concede (thus validating) that maybe someone could enjoy wearing trackpants for reasons that have little to do with A, B, and C (even if it was a snarky insult that X, Y, and Z are stupid reasons to do something in the first place) I couldn’t really trust that you weren’t just some guy who had been wearing jeans his entire life and therefore felt that those were the only natural thing to wear. But you made some compelling arguments that I’ll have to think very carefully on: are my X, Y, and Z reasons for wearing trackpants worth more than the A, B, and C reasons to wear jeans? Is there some kind of loose fitting jean that might work better that neither of us have considered? Other analogy related comparisons that make sense in the context?

    Mind if I post that sports analogy I mentioned earlier? It’s kind of stuck in my head now, feels like it needs to get put out where it can be properly debunked but I don’t really know where to put it.

  27. Crommunist says

    My response was I like trackpants because of reasons X, Y, and Z though, A, B, and C aren’t major factors in my choice.

    Except that if X, Y, and Z are not legitimate reasons, or have no connection whatsoever to pants-wearing, then while it is certainly a statement of preference it is not a valid one. I treat that kind of preference statement with the same amount of regard as I do someone who says they are religious because “if feels right” or that they use homeopathy because it “works for me”. The reasons provided are either empirically or philosophically without merit.

    Sports analogies are always welcome.

  28. David says

    That’s just the point though, you were discounting the X, Y, and Z because they were stupid. I had to work around making sure that you actually understood that that was why I felt the way I did before I could tell that the reasons you were saying were stupid were stupid for the reasons you were saying they were, and you weren’t just saying they were stupid because you still don’t accept that anyone could possibly like wearing trackpants all the time. :P
    And now I need to think and decide if you’re right about them being stupid or if there is maybe something more going on in my head that even I’ve missed.

    Anywho, I think this is a fairly accurate depiciton of my brain on the origin of the universe. Feel free to point out flaws where needed.
    So imagine the baseball season has literally just opened and someone asks a sports commentator on his opinion on which team is going to win. At this point we have not seen any of the teams play, not even a practice, all he has to go on is the description. “Team A,” he says “says to have a good pitcher. B has a bunch of good outfielders, and I hear C has a backcatcher that can’t be stopped. At this point I can’t say for certain, but I am certain it will be one of these three.” “What about X, Y, and Z?” someone might ask. At this point we pause: the atheist commentator says “X’s pitcher has a broken arm, Y is a bunch of crack heads, and Z only has 8 players. There is no way they could possibly win.” He’s probably right, but the backlash from those teams home towns will be huge and he’ll be justifying his position for a long time. The true agnostic commentator looks at those teams, teams he’d never considered before because they were really weak but since someone is asking he’ll consider them, and responds “well they’re all weak, really really weak, but I can’t really dismiss them without seeing them play.” This commentator is also drawn and quartered by rabid fans, but that was going to happen anyway because that’s how sports fans get sometimes.
    We move ahead to practices, teams have started throwing the ball around and showing what they can do, and again the question is asked to which the commentator responds “A’s pitching isn’t as good as we’d hoped, but B and C are excellent on their defense. If it comes down to these two it’ll be a good match.” “What about X, Y, and Z?” again is asked. With new evidence on the field, regardless of what he said before, he responds “X’s pitcher throws nothing but balls, and Y really is a bunch of crack heads that can’t find home plate. Neither stands a chance.” But then he pauses, looking at team Z. They’ve found a ninth player, a rookie that will need a lot of work, but at least they’re back in the running. The atheist revises his original stance, I would hope, accepting the new evidence and suggesting that Z might have a chance, albeit slim. The agnostic does the same, except now he is actually thinking about Z whereas before they were just some team with such a low probability that he just didn’t care.
    That is where I see us sitting in terms of cosmology, with respect to the origin of the big bang at least. There’s a lot of teams, some are strong, some are weak, some started out seemingly strong but then you realize they’re not quite so good when they start to actually play the game. And then of course there are those that started out with weak chances and just got worse when put under test. Seriously, I mentioned sneezing duck, but that’s only because I was trying to make a point: I thought it would resonate a little with you since you said the same thing in a different context, but when actually pressed I could come up with examples in the known universe why that specific scenario couldn’t work.
    There are even a lot of teams that no one even knows about, and halfway through the season it’s entirely possible that some broadcaster says “wait a sec, who are these guys on team M and how did they get so good?”
    Bubbling nothings and string theory are the B and C teams (can’t think of anything that might qualify for the A team at the moment, pity the fool), Abrahamic Gods and cosmic ducks are the X and Y, but a science team (or perhaps one resourceful individual) having created our universe through whatever means they have in this outside universe as some kind of experiment (and all the variations on this theme), that’s my Z. When I was younger, X and Y could still theoretically be possible, at least in my mind, but that’s why you’re young and stupid: I just didn’t know enough so accepted the things I couldn’t prove as possibilities. Now, I’m still not sure I’m ready to discount the Z, but maybe it’s time to re-evaluate my thinking on the matter and actually take a stance: pick my team to win, or at least hype up the ones with the significantly greater chances and stop acting like Z has any chance whatsoever.
    M is probably a time traveler going back to 1 second before the big bang and throwing a lit firecracker into the ball or something.

  29. says

    I generally find all the mental gymnastics necessary to come up with alternative explanations for “truth” and “reality” to be a fun drinking game, not a particularly effective tool for understanding the world around us. Whether we are a brain in a jar, the result of a duck’s sneeze or any other far fetched explanation that flies in the face of occam’s razor, the truth remains that any supernatural claim held up to any sort of rigorous testing, has failed to produce supernatural results. The physical world, as we know it, consistently and reliably responds in ways consistent with some core principals and those ways can be reproduced by anyone willing to try. Further, people who share one set of beliefs and rituals in the name of a particular interpretation of a god or gods are no more likely to have their magical wishes granted than people who hold different views.

    If there is some sort of untestable, unverifiable, unfalsifiable explanation for the universe, it behaves in no way that is distinguishable from any sort of non-natural explanation.

    And even if true it has served no purpose in furthering our understanding of the universe. We can all opine on the most far fetched explanation for life and the existence of the universe and none of that would teach us anything about the cosmos that we can experience, it wouldn’t do anything to improve the longevity and quality of life for humans, nor deal with climate change, nor take us to other planets or galaxies or anywhere else. It’s a useless knickknack cluttering the shelves of your mind.

    Without some sort of testable, repeatable, falsifiable, hypothesis that serves to give us some meaningful understanding of our universe (or other universes?) and how it functions, a theory is useless as anything but pure entertainment. It’s horoscopes and auras and palm reading and life forces. It has as much value as the most strict and hateful interpretations of religious text and as much validity as homeopathy.

  30. David says


    This is the sound of me considering something that I’d never thought of before, the theoretical jeans/trackpants hybrid I mentioned that lets me keep my comfortable “yeah, that’s possible, technically, I guess” yet still be able to stand on one side: it doesn’t matter. Whether we’re a simulation or brain in a jar or whatever, it still behaves in exactly the same way for me as if it were a random perturbation in the nothing of the cosmos so it may as well be so. Thank you Marnie. It’s probably going to take me a few days to properly digest this idea, stretch it out a little so it fits better, but I think I like where this is going.

  31. says

    @David

    the theoretical jeans/trackpants hybrid I mentioned that lets me keep my comfortable “yeah, that’s possible, technically, I guess” yet still be able to stand on one side: it doesn’t matter.

    This is getting dangerously close to a theory of jeggins. I don’t know if I can live with the idea of a jeggins based universe.

  32. David says

    By the code! Such a thing actually exists? What have I gotten myself into?!?!
    Uh… I meant oranges vs bananas, yes. Bananas are delicious but don’t help fend off the scurvy very well. Oranges are also pretty good, but I’m not a fan of peeling the skin.
    Some kind of orange/banana hybrid that lets me avoid scurvy but exists in a comfortable, hand gripped, easily peelable form would be perfect. Perhaps it will be more orange than banana or vice versa (I’m not exactly sure which thought process is which in this analogy), but I like the concept.

  33. says

    That said, I completely agree with you otherwise. And I’d go so far as to say that most of the time I see the label “agnostic” used as a cover for apatheism.

    I’d say that’s true, too. Whenever someone says to me that they’re “an agnostic”, I explain to them – as Crommunist says – that that’s not an answer to the question. I ask them, “An agnostic what? An agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist?” Then I explain that (a)theism and (a)gnosticism are orthogonal concepts: where you are on the theism-atheism axis has absolutely no relationship to your position on the gnostic-agnostic axis. I tell them they can be:

    Gnostic theist: “I believe it is possible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist. I believe God exists.” This would be about where Ray Comfort is at, since he apparently believes he can “scientifically prove God”.
    Agnostic theist: “I don’t believe it is possible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist. I believe God exists.” This is the standard “you have to have faith” crowd.
    Gnostic atheist: “I believe it is possible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist. I don’t believe God exists.” This is someone who either believes it’s theoretically possible to prove God exists (if God actually does exist) but hasn’t yet seen that proof… or someone who believes it is possible to disprove God (and may or may not have seen that proof).
    Agnostic atheist: “I don’t believe it is possible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist. I don’t believe God exists.” This is the default position – the logical starting point until you see evidence that it is possible to prove that God does or doesn’t exist (which would make you gnostic), or you abandon reason and just assume God exists without proof (which would make you theist), or both (which would make you an irrational gnostic theist), or you see evidence that it is possible to prove God exists and see the proof (which would make you a rational gnostic theist – a theist without abandoning reason… but what are the odds?).

    (Sometimes I even throw in strong versus weak agnosticism and strong versus weak atheism.)

    I stress that:
    (A)theism is about answering the question: “Do you believe in gods?”
    (A)gnosticism is about answering the question: “Do you think it is possible to prove whether or not gods exist beyond a shadow of a doubt (regardless of what your belief is)?”

    Then I tell them, “Answer the question: ‘Do you believe God exists?’ If you say yes, you are theist. If you say anything elseincluding ‘I’m not sure’, ‘I don’t know’ and refusing to answer, then you’re an atheist.” Be polite but firm, and you’d be surprised how many people you can get to admit being atheist, even if they still refuse to use the a-word to publicly identify themselves. At the very least, that makes it harder for them to discriminate against atheists.

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