Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Agnostic About Atheism

There's been an outbreak of back and forth among the science bloggers about the difference, if any, between agnostics and atheists. The discussion, as might be anticipated, was occasioned by Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion.

John Wilkins, the unabashedly antipodian philosopher of science, led off the latest round with a review of The God Delusion that particularly focused on Dawkins' discussion of agnosticism that John found to be "just bad." Jason Rosenhouse responded to Wilkins, agreeing with Dawkins that agnosticism is unjustified fence-sitting. Wilkins responded to Rosenhouse, further expanding on what he sees as the crucial question: what issues empirical data can eliminate. Larry Moran has chimed in, as has PZ Myers.

It is an interesting discussion, no matter which side you come down on. I'm firmly on Wilkins' side and I can not improve on his explanation of the agnostic position. Instead, I'd like to explore one of Dawkins' arguments that I think shows the real difference between agnostics and atheists.

In his article "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," which can be found at many places on the web, Dawkins discusses Stephen Jay Gould's notion of "NOMA" - "non-overlapping magisteria." I'm not at all sure that Dawkins is fairly characterizing Gould's position, but I have no interest in that here. Dawkins, however, makes the following claim:

To see the disingenuous hypocrisy of religious people who embrace NOMA, imagine that forensic archeologists, by some unlikely set of circumstances, discovered DNA evidence demonstrating that Jesus was born of a virgin mother and had no father. If NOMA enthusiasts were sincere, they should dismiss the archeologists' DNA out of hand: "Irrelevant. Scientific evidence has no bearing on theological questions. Wrong magisterium." Does anyone seriously imagine that they would say anything remotely like that? You can bet your boots that not just the fundamentalists but every professor of theology and every bishop in the land would trumpet the archeological evidence to the skies.

Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle - and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't.
First of all, the vast majority of Christians hold to a theology that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. If you demonstrated that Jesus had human DNA, that would not disturb any competent Christian theologian, anymore than the observation that he had human eyes and human ears and a human heart would. That some Christians might, faced with the opposite situation, fall into the heresy that Jesus was not fully human and that such a fact somehow supported Christianity does not demonstrate that NOMA is false, any more than the fact that some pro-evolution debaters make bad arguments in its favor demonstrates that evolution isn't science. But that is not the point I really want to make.

The mere fact that some people may practice internally inconsistent theology also does not, by itself, establish that Dawkins' proposed evidence logically bears on the issue of Jesus' divinity. Let's turn Dawkins' argument around and ask what the reaction of the scientific community would be to such evidence. Dawkins' posited evidence would have to be, to some degree or another, inferential evidence, since we do not have the subject to draw the DNA from directly. Would the scientific community, based on non-direct evidence of the DNA of someone who might have been the person known to history as "Jesus," leap to a consensus that Jesus was God because of some anomalous evidence? Or would other hypotheses be explored, such as whether some sort of contamination of the evidence occurred, or even wilder possibilities, as in a metamutation occurring that permitted human asexual reproduction? Even if you try to posit some unusually certain evidence that is somehow shown not to be contaminated or mistaken or misreported or any of the other myriad ways that scientific evidence is questionable in the real world, would the scientific community still come to a consensus that Jesus was God? Ultimately, the way science is actually practiced on the ground, if no reasonable naturalistic explanation is uncovered, a single anomalous result will be put down merely as an unknown phenomenon needing further investigation.

To form a scientific theory takes more than one unexplained result. How much more so is that the case when the proposed theory is an ultimately radical one that denies any possibility of a naturalistic explanation? In point of fact, any action by an infinite, omnipotent being not restrained by the laws of nature must, of necessity, be an anomalous result beyond resolution by science.

Thus, if the scientific community would not treat the example posed by Dawkins as one amenable to formation of a scientific theory, in what sense can Jesus' divinity, or any other miracle, be called a scientific question or an empiric issue of any sort? And would that reaction by the scientific community be justly called "fence-sitting"? I don't think so.
Of course, the same lack of scientific rigor can be attributed to the claim that Jesus was God. But the internally consistent theologians aren't claiming their position is amenable to scientific investigation, the way Dawkins is.

Finally, in a bit of irony, after claiming that there is no real difference between atheists and agnostics -- "if you don't believe, you're an atheist" -- a couple of posts later PZ is complaining: "I keep being told what I believe."

We agnostics feel your pain, PZ.

Ok, I will buy into this discussion.

My understanding of the word "agnostic" is that it describes a person who says that they do not KNOW whether a god exists or not, and an atheist is one who does not BELIEVE that god exists.

Personally, I have 2 bites of the cherry. I call myself an agnostic atheist, as I consider that no one KNOWS if god exists or not, and I don't BELIEVE in the existence of god either.

But, I don't worry if people call themselves agnostic or atheist. It means their critical thinking thinking are working, and that is the prerequisite.
The problem with all such terminology, of course, is that people keep insisting on using it ... but not consistently across the board.

I am reminded of a well-known law professor who said that the law would be a wonderful profession ... if it wasn't for clients. Philosophers must think about the same of people in general.

Anyway, like Wilkins, I believe that it is more than just that we do not know (Dawkins' Temporary Agnosticism in Practice) but that the question, for coherent theologies not making defeasible empiric claims, is, itself, incoherent. Dawkins' dismisses that position as fence-sitting "Permanent Agnosticism in Principle."

But what I think Dawkins' own example (inadvertently) demonstrates is the correctness of PAP. The scientific community itself, through its practices, recognizes that miracles (assuming, as you must for the sake of this argument, that they exist) cannot truly be addressed by empiric investigation. "Miracles" may be debunked (at least by showing fraud or trickery -- merely showing a sufficient naturalistic cause for something does not mean you have shown the phenomenon is not miraculous) but they may not be empirically confirmed. That inability to truly engage the issue means that empiricism is not capable, in the end, of answering the question of whether God exists.

And since I share with Dawkins the view that empiric investigation is the only game in town for obtaining knowledge, and that the rest is mere opinion, refusing to claim knowledge of God's status is not fence-sitting, it is good scientific practice.
Ah, you're not saying what John believes, you're just saying what his interpretation is. It all becomes clear ...
Yes, that's what PZ is saying.

He's saying that John has a completely unworkable and unrealistic view of atheism. He believes, incorrectly, that lack of belief in the prevailing superstition of religion means that you can disprove the existence of God.

That's nonsense. I am an atheist and an agnostic—agnostic in the same sense that I'm agnostic about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. So is John. How about you?
I feel no need to respond to attempts to "poison the well".

The only certainty I'll express about Santa is that the roots of the story of the elf and his reindeer are historically known and non-spiritual. As to the tooth fairy, the only known purveyors of that account are admittedly faking its existence.

Why should I consider those cases as even remotely equivalent to a God sincerely believed in by people I personally know to be honorable and intelligent?

As I said in my earlier comment, the problem can be one of terminology but if, as I and John believe, these questions are not amenable to scientific/empiric determination at the level of real "live questions" (as John calls them), then there are real "live" differences between us and Dawkins and [cough] others who think these issues can be treated as scientific questions.

John and I might, coincidentally, wind up at the same practical point that Dawkins does (not that we have to -- agnosticism doesn't necessarily bar belief). But the method of how we got there does count. Just as you have no mercy on those people who make bad arguments in support of evolution, a mere agreement on the outcome does not make someone spouting New Age crap as evidence for common descent the equivalent of some hard-headed biologists I've known.
One has to wonder how the omnipotent designer being ever would have thought of even designing the laws of nature ... Not to mention the fact that the mere act of having some thoughts about anything at all would in and of itself have required some laws of nature right there.

Well, (ala Spinoza) there may be no difference between God and the laws of nature.

But I'm curious as to why you say "the mere act of having some thoughts about anything at all would in and of itself have required some laws of nature."

Anyway, thanks for your contribution to the silly argument.
I am a Jedi Knight. Please learn a bit about my group at
The interpretation I am rejecting is his idea of what atheists like me believe.

I thought that was perfectly clear.

I'm sorry ... I thought his interpretation of your belief that "if you don't believe, you're an atheist" was spot on.

But that's just my interpretation, of course.
The example of Jesus's virgin birth was probably unfortunate for illustrating the vacuousness of the non-overlapping magesteria proposition. Imagine that we found out, in controlled experiments, repeatably, that prayer (let's say some very specific christian prayer) can heal sick people. Can you really imagine Christian theologians ignoring that evidence?

Another point: John Pieret said

The only certainty I'll express about Santa is that the roots of the story of the elf and his reindeer are historically known and non-spiritual. As to the tooth fairy, the only known purveyors of that account are admittedly faking its existence.

Why should I consider those cases as even remotely equivalent to a God sincerely believed in by people I personally know to be honorable and intelligent?

First of all, we have a pretty good idea where the story of Jesus comes from, and its origins are entirely non-spiritual. Most elements in the story predate the supposed life of Jesus and can be found in various pagan myths abundant at that time.

Which brings me to the second point: Are you suggesting that given two stories which, given all the available evidence, are equally unlikely, one automatically becomes more likely if lots of "honorable and intelligent" people believe in it? Because what other reason would you have to be agnostic about that one while dismissing the other?

Or are you automatically agnostic about all stories whose origins are not completely accounted for?
As to the question of prayer actually shown to be correlated with some physical phenomenon, sure the theist will try to incorporate it into his/her theology. So will atheists, just in a different way. We all try to incorporate the "facts" of the world into our worldviews ... what else? (And if prayer was shown to work by a definite regularity, it would become part of the natural world -- but that's a whole different argument).

It's been a long time since I read Gould's book but, if I remember right, he wasn't splitting NOMA by subject matter -- the natural world exclusively belonging to science and religion cannot even mention it. He split it by who had the "authority" to determine what the "facts" of the natural world are. Religions can accommodate their theology to the Earth being round and common descent having occurred. That's not a violation of NOMA in my view. If science produced those results on prayer, why shouldn't they incorporate them in their beliefs?

As to the Jesus story, you do realize that many people dispute those claims and none of them actually go to his existence or divinity, right? In any event, as John Wilkins has said over at PZ's place, there is no absolute scale of belief/nonbelief to agnostics. These aren't either/or propositions. There is a sliding scale of credulity, with, in my case, Santa on the very low end, a virgin-birthed man-god somewhat (but not much) more believable and something like Spinoza's God almost probable.

If sincere, honorable and intelligent people tell me that they have experienced something that science admittedly can't address, why wouldn't I consider that as good, evidence-wise, as, say, my experience of pain when I dropped something on my foot? I should at least put that claim higher on my believability scale than the tooth fairy, where equally sincere, honorable and intelligent people have told me that they snuck into their kid's room and put money under the pillow in exchange for the tooth.

As to the rest, I am technically agnostic about everything because I cannot prove to myself that I am not a brain in a tank. As I said somewhere recently, I don't understand why people are so afraid of doubt.
'If sincere, honorable and intelligent people tell me that they have experienced something that science admittedly can't address, why wouldn't I consider that as good, evidence-wise, as, say, my experience of pain when I dropped something on my foot?'

Oh puh-leez. You are one confused guy.
Oh puh-leez. You are one confused guy.

And I would know that from your "comment," exactly how?
Ah, those militant agnostics!

The Darwin Correspondence Project has an interesting article about his belief, which puts forward evidence that he and Emma shared active doubt, in her case as a Unitarian approach to religious faith, and in his case a more materialistic science – though materialistic in the early 19th century usage which could include deism. Both seemed reasonably comfortable with doubt.
I take it you mean this article.
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