But how? Part nine: Agnosticism

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 9

So, once again we depart a little from the typical structure of the ‘But How?’ series of posts. Most of the others examined how various aspects of life work without religious influence, but this one is going to delve into the topic of how and why someone may, or may not, deal with the question of a deity in the first place. So let’s look at agnosticism.

Briefly, agnosticism is the view that some facet of knowledge (typically religious, but not always) is unknown, therefore one really can’t have an informed opinion about it. For example, we cannot prove that there is, or is not, a god, so agnosticism is the only honest standpoint. A further view, sometimes called strong agnosticism, maintains that there cannot be any firm knowledge of god, which when you think about it is self-contradictory. Yeah, philosophy is only skin deep sometimes…

There are a couple of things that I want to highlight about religious agnosticism in general. The first is how often it relies on one of the bastardizations of Truth™, ignoring that the subject in question could very well be strictly imaginary. Imagine being agnostic over the existence of left-handed snorbloffers, which I just made up (and the spellcheck doesn’t like for some reason) – it’s easy to see that such an attitude can be applied to anything, which isn’t being open-minded, but simply vague and silly. Instead, there is a principle, largely considered scientific, that we actually use every day: the null set. If there is no evidence for something, then we can safely assume that it does not exist. I am not agnostic about there being no chocolate pudding in the fridge; I am quite sure there is none. Somebody trying to tell me that a certain kind of chocolate pudding exists in a magical realm where it can’t be detected is not going to be too convincing. This is the failure, by the way, of using supernatural as an explanation or property – if we can’t detect something, what’s the use or point?

The other assumption, far too commonly wielded, is that someone’s views must be an either/or situation, true or false, black or white, and without being able to definitively establish ‘false,’ then either ‘true’ must be openly considered, or no one should form an opinion either way. This is intertwined with a certain two-faced approach to religion that can be seen constantly. Many of the devout are more than happy to tell you every trait that their god possesses, but when faced with producing why they think this way, they fall back onto the aspects of “unknowable” and “mysterious.” Yet very often, anyone that dares say anything even remotely related to, “There is no god,” will be challenged to produce their scientific rigor behind the statement, or suffer the accusation of being closed-minded. This is essentially believing that agnosticism is the only viable viewpoint towards the non-existence of a god, but confidence in the existence of a god needs no support; exactly what ‘faith’ implies is virtuous. You might imagine the reaction should any firm atheist resort to “unknowable” or “mysterious ways” to explain their own viewpoint, but in what way is this different?

All of this ignores a supremely useful aspect of thought: the concept of probability. If you lose your keys and I ask, “Did you check under the couch in the Lincoln Bedroom?”, you’re going to look at me funny (unless you lead a very interesting life) – and with good reason. My argument that you can’t prove they’re not there means nothing; you’re going to look in the place where the keys are far more likely to be, and ignore me as an idiot. When we wield probability, we start looking at what we might choose to believe, or at least consider the possibilities of, in terms of likelihood and logical propositions. Viewing possibilities, not on a scale of ‘yes/no,’ but on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 1,000, allows for far more consideration, and almost by nature requires serious thought to be applied.

[I originally inserted a section on Drake’s Equation in here to demonstrate looking at something in probabilistic terms, but in skimming Dawkins’ The God Delusion while this was in draft form, I find that this was the specific example that he used while examining agnosticism. Since I’d read the book before, I suspect this remained in my subconscious, but I really don’t like copying or repeating other works and try to be original, so I felt obligated to produce a different example ;-) ]

We might ask what causes certain health problems, for instance, and then examine the various circumstances surrounding those who have fallen ill – what do they eat, where do they live, how active is their lifestyle, and so on. When a pattern emerges, we have some indication that the health issue and some particular factor may be related. Yet settling for this isn’t always very accurate, because it ignores the fact that we may simply have missed a cause with similar indications, so we can then do numerous tests to ensure that the correlation is indeed due to causation, often by trying to disprove the initial hypothesis. Given rigorous enough tests, we can form a probability that A leads to B, and take steps to reduce the appearance of said health issue. The agnostic approach to unknown causes would be to simply shrug, which makes asking the question (or any question) completely pointless.

It is entirely possible that this is why so much about religion is relegated down to ‘yes/no’ viewpoints – forming a firm opinion without access to any pertinent information, and without resorting to probability, must therefore rely on something else, usually emotion; in such cases, the response is no more than, “I believe this because I want to believe it,” but of what use is that?

Building a probability for the existence of a deity requires a bit of effort. First off, we can use the null set method to examine what exists in the way of evidence, or more importantly, why the idea is being proposed at all. For the judeo-christian-islamic god, this is based entirely on scripture. We might have some confidence in scripture if we can see it producing accuracy in numerous places, or demonstrating knowledge unavailable to the chroniclers in normal circumstances. We might find it convincing if the events related therein were unique, or original, or even the first example we can find in history. We might see some value in similarities between the various world devotions, indicating that the bulk of human experience recognized common religious origins. We might even take heart in accounts that demonstrated the superior foresight, understanding, emotional stability, and good intentions of the proposed god.

All those “mights” are what agnosticism considers important, including the primary one: that scripture might be true. It is that very point which the abrahamic religions are based on, in their entirety. But since none of those “mights” are demonstrated, none of them able to provide evidence against the opposing posit – that scripture might not be true – then our calculations of probability aren’t getting out of abysmally low numbers.

What if we, instead, skipped scripture and looked to the natural world? Can we see evidence of design, intent, planning, or control? Can we see the watermarks of processes that depart from basic physical laws, or indications of separate creation for different species, or specialization without commonality (like sea mammals without toes, or a wide variety among the number of phalanges for any species, depending on the need)? Do we have geological, cosmological, or even atomic records that indicate the sudden appearance of a created world or universe?

Or, given the complete lack thereof, do we have even a good reason why there would be the genetic variations, common descent, ages, extinctions, dwindling resources, and even constant competition that we do see? Can we view the vast expanse of the universe, with infinitesimal circumstances for life, and consider this indicative of life’s importance? Can we look at the laws of physics and the properties of chemical bonds and believe this was the most efficient plan? Can we even determine what the plan might have been in the first place?

And then, if we contemplate the other side of the coin, where religious tendencies may just be an artifact of natural human traits and scripture either a fable, or an attempt by early cultures to explain something that they had no tools to investigate, do we find the same problems there? Do these hypotheses fail as badly as all of those above? Is there anything that can be found that makes this idea tenable at best, if not outright impossible?

That’s how the concept of examining probabilities is applied, and hopefully it can be seen where it produces a lot more information than simple agnosticism. Instead of abandoning inquiry under the burden of unobtainable absolutes, the search for likelihood discards the oversimplification of either/or restrictions on answers, and applies everything that we can research, investigate, and reason out. Ignoring the overwhelming mass of information that we have discovered, and can still discover, in favor of simply giving up (or believing that every choice has equal validity) is not thinking at all, but just abject cowardice.

There is another consideration that needs to be made, too. To prove that something does not exist, it would either have to be very specific in nature, or we would have to discover everything there was to be known about the universe; we would have to be omniscient. Since this isn’t likely to happen, we either a) throw up our hands (which is agnosticism); b) accept the null hypothesis, ignoring the possibility until proven otherwise; or c) decide that there is a certain point in our investigation where evidence should have surfaced by now. We already know choice a) has problems. Choice b) is a fully functional option, used by everyone every day, only in terms of not believing in snorbloffers or that their missing phone is now on Pluto. But even choice c) has a certain appeal. How far does one have to go to establish that the abrahamic religions aren’t useful or likely to be proven correct? If we asked this two hundred years ago, most likely the ‘us’ back then would have been more than overwhelmed with finally knowing how stars form and the age of the universe, and our good understanding of human physiology and development. The remarkable advances in health from understanding bacteria and viruses, the identification of dangerous geologic areas from plate tectonics, and even the extraordinary development of life illustrated by the fossil record, could be quite convincing that we’d been supremely diligent in examining our world. All of those, it must be said, demonstrate the wild inaccuracies of scripture, and this is certainly an extremely brief selection of what could be used. If we asked about our advances from a thousand years ago instead, the list would take weeks to enumerate.

So is it fair to ask: how much is enough?