Second order knowing

Another thing about the two sheds – I’ve mentioned this before, I think, so apologies if you’re bored with it – is that even if we can’t know there is no god, we can know other relevant things, such as, that no one has managed to convince us (“us” being atheists) that god exists.

You could say that you don’t really know that because maybe way down deep somewhere you are a little bit convinced. But I don’t think so: being convinced is entangled with being aware of being convinced – being aware of the conviction is part of the conviction. It seems nonsensical to claim you can be convinced of something without being aware of it.

I know that no one has convinced me that god exists. Maybe that knowing is the “good enough” kind of knowing we use for things like knowing we prefer raspberries to cotton candy, or maybe it’s stronger than that, but at any rate “agnostic” doesn’t seem like the right word for it. I wouldn’t just spread my hands and shrug my shoulders and look blank if someone asked me if I’d been successfully convinced that there is a god. I would say no, definitely not; I find the whole idea conspicuously implausible.


  1. says

    This promises to be an interesting discussion. Ophelia, may I share a few of my thoughts on this matter? (Disclaimer: these are absolutely my personal opinion, and I may well be partly or totally wrong – in which case I shall submit to being corrected.)

    (a) We all know Carl Sagan’s immortal words: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If we apply that Sagan Standard to religious belief, we find that the theists, followers of religions and believers in one or more deities, have so far presented only indirect, circumstantial evidence in support of the presence of god. Ergo, it cannot be a burden on the atheists/agnostics to have to provide direct evidence in support of absence of god. Indirect and circumstantial evidence should be fine to meet this challenge.

    (b) Let’s consider how theists of all descriptions have defined god in their scriptures and other writings. If you brush off most of the superficial oddities and differences, even disregard the dichotomy between male and female gods in various cultures, the three most fundamental properties of god that all god-focusing religions agree upon are omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence.

    (c) (I am not going into any natural science argument yet.) Let us consider the import of these terms. “Omnipresence”: not a mere word. It means, the presence at all spaces across time, everywhere at every moment, simultaneously; presence in every particle of every conceivable form of matter, in a perfect, unbroken continuum of time. “Omniscience”: the knowledge of everything that has happened, that is happening, and that will happen, across space and time. Again, not a mere word. Take for example a biological event. An Omniscient Being knows exactly when and where a teratogen or a carcinogen causes a cellular signaling event or binds to which DNA strand from which chromosome to effect a change in nucleotide incorporation leading to a mutation event, which would eventually result in a cancer or a congenital disorder in a newborn. Imagine this: an Omnipresent, Omniscient Being would know exactly down to the last second when and where that Taliban bastard would whip out his gun, point it at Malala’s head and squeeze the trigger. What’s more, such a Being would be there, right at that very moment when this is happening – not only out and about, but in the Taliban bastard, in his finger, in his gun, in the bullet, and in Malala’s skin, tissue, cranial bones and brain matter that the bullet would pierce.

    (d) Now I consider the Omnipotence: the power to do anything and everything – across space and time. This is what inspires the most fear in the theists; this is why all religions across the world sing paeans to the Supremely Powerful being in appeasement; this is why since the beginning of human civilization, some folks have been attributing unknown, ill-understood, fearsome natural events to some god. This is the reason behind all those genuflections, sacrifices, confessionals, promises to be good, and so forth amongst the religious believers.

    (e) So, going by contemporary events, what do I find? This Omnipotent Being, despite being Omnipresent and Omniscient, couldn’t lift a fucking finger to stop the brutal, murderous shooting of an innocent little schoolgirl? Couldn’t stop the carnage in Columbine, Arizona, Aurora, Newtown, the Pakistan Church? Couldn’t prevent or stop the brutal, murderous violence on that Delhi woman, or other women across India and elsewhere who are being sexually violated, tortured and murdered every single day without relent? Couldn’t prevent those Evangelical parents who murdered their children by refusing them live-saving medications or beating them to death – on concordance with their chosen child-rearing practices derived from their Holy Book? What price fucking Omnipotence?

    (f) Regardless of whether such a being could not perform as advertised or chose not to, the neat result is the same: the three fundamental claims that theists make in support of god are bunkum, untenable, and frankly, unnecessary. God or godliness or god-bothering is not even necessary for morality, ethics and empathy – characters embedded in basic human nature, that religions have tried for long to shanghai, in order to prop up a fear-based set of rules. Because as we know well, fear makes it easier to control people.

    For the agnostics, therefore, the god hypothesis becomes a matter of omphaloskepsis, or more appropriately, intellectual onanism. For atheists, it doesn’t matter. I often come across this allegation, “Atheists are desperate to disprove the existence of god.” “Bollocks,” I say.

    Discounting the obvious obnoxious idiots that one finds everywhere in all sides of all camps, I submit that by-and-large, atheists are not bothered about god – except, and this is an important exception, when the devout, the theists, make it a point to lavish their proselytizing zeal on the sundry public, or engage actively in a practice that would bring harm to another individual or a group. Religion-inspired-and-abetted hate and bigotry against LGBTQ communities, and religion-enabled marginalization and disempowerment of women across cultures jump to the mind as instance when vocal atheists have been prompted to speak out in excoriation of religion and god.

    I am, of course, totally preaching to the choir here, but I wanted to get these thoughts off my chest.

  2. says

    There is a place for knowledge without epistemological defense, and that’s aesthetics. I know that given a choice between pizza and liver with onions, I will always choose pizza. But, since it’s an aesthetic decision, I don’t expect to have to buttress my knowledge beyond: “liver, uck. pizza, yum.” So I think it’s reasonable to say that we can have knowledge about things that we’re not really aware of, until we decide to raise it to a level of awareness.

  3. Brian E says

    Most religions that matter, seem to have someone or something claiming a direct line to the old dude in the sky.
    If it’s a person, then as no person can as yet, read the thoughts of any other person, we cannot take their word for their religious experience. It is more probably that they are deluded, mistaken or lying. Each religion rejects prophets or the sayings of prophets of other religions, so religious agree on this too, except with the glaring exception of special pleading for their own prophet posse. I think Thomas Paine wrote and Ophelia quoted him saying this, but much better than I.

    Even a person, let’s call him Mo, who experiences what he believes are revelations should not take himself seriously in this day and age. We know that the mind can do pretty weird shit. I think it was German philologist/philosopher that religious don’t like (can’t remember his name, lived 19th century, wrote about Zarathustra, sorry, brain failure) who said that the lunatic asylums are full of prophets. It’s only special pleading that this Mo, or that John Smith are exempt.

    As for scriptures, books and other textual stuff, well, unknown authors, known alterations, no external historical collaboration of the special claims of the religion. If the Bible attests to the existence of Jesus the godman, then equally Sherlock Holmes was a real dude.

    I think we can say we know specific god claims are false, even if we are technically agnostic to claims about religions not yet known to us or not yet sprung from a latter day Mo or John.

  4. Brian E says

    corroboration not collaboration, d’oh! now I’ll check my bookshelf for the name of that guy…..Nietzsche!

  5. Brian E says

    Well, that’s enough name dropping, authority arguing, pseudo intellectual stuff from me. I’ll end with this, David Hume. ‘Nuff said. 🙂

  6. hjhornbeck says

    Kausik Datta @1:

    So, going by contemporary events, what do I find? This Omnipotent Being, despite being Omnipresent and Omniscient, couldn’t lift a fucking finger to stop the brutal, murderous shooting of an innocent little schoolgirl?

    The obvious counter to your stance is to argue God knew something worse was coming due to his omniscience, and flexed His omnipotence to substitute something less bad? Why didn’t He skip the disasters entirely? He had a greater plan in mind, perhaps giving us all a test of faith.

    This is jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

    Because once you pull the “God works in mysterious ways” card, you remove any ability to predict how that god would react in a situation. And if you can’t predict how it could effect you, it becomes a useless premise with no predictive power, easily sliced away by Ockham’s Razor.

    A less obvious one is to ditch the omni’s; by stating your god is merely able to see or do lots, instead of everything, you dodge past nearly every paradox within theodicy and come out with a much more defensible god.

    Provide you can predict how it will effect you….

    Marcus Ranum @2:

    There is a place for knowledge without epistemological defense, and that’s aesthetics.

    Hmmm…. I’m not convinced. What about self-prediction? “I like pizza” is a theory about how you’ll react in the presence of pizza, and like any theory can be tested for truth and assigned a certainty.

  7. aziraphale says

    I agree it would be strange to be agnostic about whether one has been convinced of X, whatever X is. But most people don’t use ” agnostic” in that way, they say “I am agnostic about X”.

    For instance, no-one has convinced me that ET exists in this Galaxy. I am not agnostic about that fact, but I am definitely agnostic about ET’s existence. It seems to me that there is no conclusive evidence either way.

  8. Al Dente says

    Many gods lack the various omnis. The Greek and Norse pantheons could be stupid, ignorant and helpless, which didn’t stop them from being vicious and reprehensible.

    Most gods, including the Abrahamic ones*, are savage thugs who kill people just because they can. It certainly says something about the people who imagined these gods that benevolence and kindness are not primary attributes of their deities.

    Hygeia p.n. In Grecian mythology the goddess of health–the only one of the goddesses whom it was healthy to have anything to do with. -Ambrose Bierce The Devil’s Dictionary

    *I know Christians claim to be monotheists. They’re not.

  9. Doubting Thomas says

    Not an original thought from me but, I cannot imagine what would constitute evidence of a god. Any evidence put forth by ‘believers’ would have to be scrutinized to the extreme to convince me that it was not a hoax, that I am not mentally ill or under the influence of some drug, or that what I perceive as ‘evidence’ of a god is not explainable without a god.

  10. hjhornbeck says

    Doubting Thomas @9:

    A few years ago, I was working on an argument that said there was no possible evidence in favor of any god, and feeling like a brilliant lone-wolf. Then I caught sight of this piece by PZ, and realized my train of thought was actually quite common in atheistic circles. My ego shrank three sizes that day… :'(

  11. says

    Yes I remember when that argument was going back and forth between PZ and Jerry Coyne. Anthony Grayling is on the “no possible evidence” side of the question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *