Sunday, July 03, 2011




Sometimes you just have to wonder how otherwise intelligent people can let their personal beliefs chigger them into saying silly things.

Jerry Coyne, with a little help from a friend, Mano Singham, is about to instruct the world on the TrueTM meaning of the word "atheist" and thereby "deep-six the term 'agnostic'.” I don't have access to Singham's article, so I'll have to go by Coyne's description of it.

Coyne, like Singham, doesn't like the present dictionary definitions:

atheist: one who denies or disbelieves in the existence of a God.

agnostic: one who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.
Of course, these are dictionary definitions, which are reflections of how the terms are used, not logical categories. But it is the logical category that Coyne and Singham want to change.

First of all, this dictionary definition of "agnostic" (almost certainly not the only definition in the OED) certainly includes usages by people unfamiliar with any philosophical arguments about agnosticism. In any event, this definition is essentially identical to the logical category asserted by no less a thinker than Bertrand Russel:

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
Of course, Russel might have been wrong but, in matters philosophical, I'd bet Russel was more likely to be right than Coyne, especially based on the past performance of each. Certainly, when Coyne accuses agnostics of the crude assertion of "the [false] claim that “you can’t prove a negative,” he is wrong, not to mention papering over the difficulties of proving a negative.

I think Coyne is actually right when he admits that "this sounds like a rhetorical strategy to force people to admit they’re atheists." Strangely, he likes it because "[i]t subsumes in a logical way both people like P.Z., who don’t think there can be evidence for a god because the very concept is incoherent, and people like me, who think that in principle there could be evidence for a god." The urge to be a "lumper" seems strange for the "Coyner" of "faitheist," a term designed to distinguish one atheist from another.

Coyne has denied that "faitheist" is pejorative but he cannot hide his belief that "agnostic" is. He claims that "those who call themselves 'agnostics' [do so] because they adhere to the 'no -evidence-has-appeared' idea, but want to distinguish themselves from the nasty atheists who say the same thing, as intellectual cowards."

I personally take offense at that. Any reader of this blog knows that I am quite willing, as an agnostic, to confront religious beliefs and believers. My "cowardice" consists of not participating in a stampede of Gnus, who, as is the case with all human beings, fail in their aspirations to be totally rational.

I won't claim to have succeeded myself in that regard but to call me a "coward" for not conforming to Coyne's beliefs is the worst sort of labeling as the "other" anyone who doesn't hold to your ideal.


Here is some good material on agnosticism by John Wilkins:

Atheism and agnosticism... again

Agnostic still

What is an agnostic?

Another kind of agnosticism

The link to Coyne's article is broken - has an extra br/ tag on the end.
Opps. Fixed. Thanks.
I agree with the two Johns on this issue. In fact, since 'Ian' is the Scottish form of 'John', there are at least three, and probably more, Johns aligned against a motley crew of initials, Sams, Christophers, Jerrys and Dicks.

Although, in practice, there is considerable overlap between the usage of 'atheism' and 'agnosticism', 'agnostic' should be the preferred choice for the scientifically-inclined because, as originally intended by its coiner T H Huxley, it is more a claim about knowledge than belief. It also incorporates a recognition of the provisional nature of our knowledge which can be a useful corrective against over-confidence and even dogmatism.

Coincidentally, I was Googling the name 'Saul Alinsky' who is the bête noire of Uncommon Descent regular, kairosfocus. Described as a "community organizer and author" in the Wikipedia entry, it also quotes a passage from him which sums up the agnostic emphasis on doubt rather well, I think:

One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.
One of the favorite atheist quotes comes from Russell:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Because the truth is that while a China teapot may very well be orbiting Mars, there seems to be no reason why we should not, in practical terms, deny same.

Glen Davidson
To be fair, that quote from Russell is somewhat out of context, yet the context seems not likely to assist any case against atheism (if we accept his claims, at least):

The whole concept of an omnipotent God, whom it is impious to criticize, could only have arisen under oriental despotisms where sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties, continued to enjoy adulation of their slaves. It is the psychology appropriate to this outmoded political system which belatedly survives in orthodox theology.

There is, it is true, a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties. This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought. It is, in fact, to be found in Plato. I do not think this view can be proved to be false. I think all that can be said is that there is no positive reason in its favor.

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove...


I suppose somewhere he defends agnosticism, yet many of his arguments are little different from those of any atheist who simply thinks that it is the duty of theists to come up with some evidence for considering the "God hypothesis" before it becomes our responsibility to consider that idea.

Glen Davidson
Agnostics simply think that it is the duty of atheists to come up with some evidence for the proposition that the absence of empiric evidence for god(s) is the same thing as evidence of absence. Simply asserting it is no better than the assertions of theists.

P.S. I don't think all that highly of Russell's teapot anaology. But I am aware of it and make an argument against it, contrary to Coyne's ignorance of the arguments for agnosticism.
I suppose somewhere he defends agnosticism, yet many of his arguments are little different from those of any atheist who simply thinks that it is the duty of theists to come up with some evidence for considering the "God hypothesis" before it becomes our responsibility to consider that idea.

This is the opening to Russell's piece entitled What is an Agnostic?:

What Is an agnostic?
An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future
life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at
least impossible at the present time.
Are agnostics atheists?
No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God.
The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there
is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds
either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the
existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so
improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed
from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards
the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and
the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments.
An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case,
he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

Okay, teach me to skim rather than read carefully. John already quoted from the Russell's What Is an agnostic?.

The other apposite piece from Russell is Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? from which the 'money quote' is surely:

Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.

I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

I find it odd that Coyne's article brings up P.Z. Myers considering P.Z.'s rant on how he hates dictionary atheists.

I find agnosticism analogous to deism. Deism is technically theism, yet deists take a position that differs from the majority of theists. It would be absurd to say that deists are cowardly because they don't want to call themselves theists. They prefer deists because it better defines their position.

Of course, I think others deny they are atheists because they feel the concept of atheism is loaded with more than 'a lack of belief'.
If we're quoting brilliant arguments, I rather like this one:
One last try:
Initially, there are two problems here. There is a threshold question of whether there is even an issue to be considered and then there is a question of what evidence could possibly determine the issue. I thought we had gotten over the threshold question when I demonstrated that you use evidence (personal experience) of exactly same type and objectivity to support your own existence as theists cite to for the existence of god. Apparently not. Let me expand then:
I have much more evidence for the existence of god than I have for your existence, in that I have millions and billions of people telling me that they have experienced god, while I only have you telling me that anyone has had experience of you. Even if you rounded up everyone who personally knows you, there would be many more testimonials for god than for you. Still, I am willing to consider the real possibility that you exist. But how can I then ignore the possibility that god exists?
This is the answer to your "purple unicorns" (the favored trope is invisible pink unicorns, BTW), which is nothing but a logical fallacy known as "poisoning the well" and a cheap rhetorical trick to boot. You know that purple unicorns are not an equivalent case or else you'd be going around calling yourself an apurpleunicornist as often as an atheist. Do you do that? ..."
"The real problem here is that you are confusing belief with knowledge and knowledge with evidence. I believe in many things that I cannot have knowledge of, such as that I can have knowledge. I can have evidence for things I can never have knowledge of (say, what it is like to be physically at the center of a star) and vice versa (both the location and velocity of an electron). The notion that I or anyone else cannot form beliefs without evidence is simply itself empirically wrong since everyone, including you, do it all the time. This whole issue is one of epistemology, which you might consider looking into.
Now back to that evidence for god: it is not very convincing. There are many people (though not as many) who say they have had no experience of god and the proponents of god are not very consistent as to what he/she/it is like.
But what kind of evidence could there possibly be available to finite natural beings to determine with any certainty whether or not there is a an infinite supernatural being? I already told you that I would consider any personal experience of an entity claiming to be a god as the possible result of delusion and/or the acts of sophisticated tricksters. How would you set about demonstrating to me that I was wrong and this god entity was real? What other sort of evidence can you imagine? Is there an assay test for godness? What would it test? If you prove this or that claim for a miracle has a sufficient natural explanation what does that evidence go to? Does it logically bear on the existence of god?
Be my guest. Provide a believable test for the existence/nonexistence of god.
As to whether a god is "irrelevant" if there cannot be empiric evidence for or against it, why should I want to argue theology with you? Because that is what that claim is. Suffice it to say that there are very sophisticated people who will be happy to argue that with you at great length. But if I were you, I'd do some studying first, especially if any of them happen to be Jesuits.
Once again, you state you don't believe in god because there is no evidence for it. Agnostics neither believe nor disbelieve in god on account of evidence or the lack thereof, which they think cannot exist. This is a separate position but it is one on the issue of epistemology, not theology. I believe (opps!) that the only reason that you have been unable to see it is that you are thinking in black and white terms that any fundamentalist would be proud of. Agnostics don't take one or the other side, as you demand, because to us, it is a false dichotomy.
Not having a side is our side.
by: John Pieret | November 7, 2006 12:51 AM"
I think others deny they are atheists because they feel the concept of atheism is loaded with more than 'a lack of belief'.

To be fair to Coyne (fairer than he'd be to people who are principled agnostics) there is a long tradition of theists using thr term to mean something like "I don't like traditional religion."

Coyne's failure is less that he recognizes that there are people who fit his "definition" of agnostics, than his failure to consider that, like some people who call themselves "atheists," such people do not define the logical category. There may well be "intellectual cowards" who use the term "agnostic" to avoid the consequences of "atheism" (though I see little difference displayed in popular culture). If Coyne can define the logical category by reference to those who may be cowards, others can define "atheists" as those who are certain that there is no god. Coyne is claiming a privileged position to define his opponents while denying that anyone has the right to define his own position.

If that is not intellectual cowardice, it's at least intellectual blindness.
If we're quoting brilliant arguments ...

OK, I was reading through that and thinking "that's not bad."

Little did I know until the end.... It's not fair to dredge up old stuff someone wrote without a warning flag! ;-)
Your post title says it all. I think people who are allergic to ambiguity have a hard time with agnosticism, whether they are Jerry Coynes or Jerry Falwells. I would consider myself a Christian agnostic, and I am far from alone.

-- pew sitter
This comment has been removed by the author.
My "cowardice" consists of not participating in a stampede of Gnus,
the impression I got from the post is those who are atheists but choose to hide behind other labels like spiritual or agnostic(but not all agnostics) are the people being labelled as cowards. Which in my opinion is still an idiotic opinion to have.
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