We all know how frustrating arguing with a theist can be. They are just really bad at reasoning through an argument, or sometimes, they are actually so good at it that it defies our ability to understand why they can't (in general, don't want to) see the force of our arguments. But the agnostic can be especially frustrating in their own way. They generally do not argue for any particular position, they simply stand back and pick apart everyone else's arguments. In this way they set themselves up as the "rational" party, the one's who "just demand a higher degree of evidence" or certitude before they grant us the pleasure of their consent. With the theist, at least, we know where they stand, and we can condemn them for their willing ignorance or their obviously bad arguments, but be satisfied afterwards that we have a clear advantage over them in clarity and coherence of our own viewpoint (that of the truth!). But the agnostic is particularly infuriating because they take skepticism and run with it. They argue that truth is something which is hard to come by (true enough), and in the case of deities there simply isn't enough evidence to back up the claim that they do or do not exist. Wrong! Belief in deities is just as silly and absurd as belief in any other hypothetical nonsense, like trolls or fairies or hobgoblins, unicorns, leprechauns, ghosts, superheroes/supervillians, dwarves, elves, Nasgul, orcs, Cauldron-born, talking animals, ogres, witches, wizards, warlocks, dementors, etc., ad nauseum. The entire realm of magical and supernatural beings and their "powers" falls into the same class, and no specific deity is granted some special privilege or right to a degree of doubt about their non-existence as any other. If you rule one in, you rule them ALL in. And let's not forget that Yahweh has a host of angels in his "kingly court" as well, not least of which was Satan. There seems to be no single reason why we should entertain the idea of creator-deities and their prophets, nor distinguish "ours" (Yahweh/Jehova) from any of the other ones which have existed in the minds of men throughout history. Why not Uranus and Gaia, or Tiamat and Marduk, or Enlil the "father of the gods" in the epic of Gilgamesh, or Amon-Ra? So here's the thing, agnostics: shit or get off the pot. If you don't know what to believe, then have the courage to settle the matter for yourselves, because agnosticism is not a mature position to take. It is a resting point on the road to having some actual convictions about the way the world really is, and what it means to be rational or not. Do you think it is rational to believe that there could really be a Zamp in the lamp, or a Woset in the closet? What is the substantial difference between the whole host of supernatural beings and the Wocket in my pocket?
It is really easy to sit back and remain uncommitted to any particular belief, but at some point we all have to decide whether to believe in evolution, or global warming, or what our own sexual orientation is, or a million other things that are relevant to how we decide to live our lives. If you approach a topic of which you are ignorant, then just say you really aren't sure, you don't know all the arguments, you don't have all the information. You're still trying to figure it all out, still trying to make sense of things. But don't sit there and say that suspending judgment is really the only rational conclusion we can reach about what kinds of things are real and what kinds of things are fantastical and imaginary. It's not sophisticated to claim that there is any merit to looking at the world from a supernatural perspective, it's just annoying, and in my opinion, cowardly.
At least the theists stand for something. Agnostics only stand up for the idea that we can't know anything. Skepticism is great, but only up to a point. After that, it means you have no convictions.
It's funny you mention that there is "some transcendent something beyond the natural, physical universe," because some physicists will sometimes equate the 11-dimensional hyperspace of M-Theory to a concept like Brahman which is, in a certain sense, a "transcendent something beyond the physical universe." The concept of Brahman in Hinduism is synonymous with what is called in Zen Buddhism "sunyata." And although these things have come to be named, although things like Hinduism and Buddhism are regarded as religions, the adherents of these religions will always explain that whatever this transcendent something is, it's truly nameless, but if you will notice, that most of the scriptures in eastern religion are in the nature of a dialogue, usually between a disciple and a guru or between two or more spiritual masters, and this dialogue is always in a dialectic form of these supposed transcendent realms.
So, for the purposes of these discussions, they have come to be named things like "sunyata, Brahman, non-duality, etc.," but in essence, they are really without names. The point being that having the label of "religion" muddies the way people think about these things, and so people might have the misconception that because something like Christianity and Buddhism are each labelled as a "religion", then they must be similar in some ways, which is not the case at all. Brahman is not God in the western sense of the word God, although Brahman may have some attributes that we may apply to the God of Christianity, such as eternality, absoluteness, etc., it is thought of entirely antipodal in comparison to the Christian God.
So, even some language I've used here, such as "spiritual master," is misleading. "Teacher" might be a better word. And this realm they talk about is better described as "ultimate reality" rather than using a term such as "divine" in the "divine plateau" to describe this "ultimate reality" or "the Self," because the word "divine" has certain connotations and is also misleading. If you've ever been to India, it's funny the way the so-called gurus will approach people who will seek them. The goal, you see, of the guru is to remove any foundation you've place your beliefs on or disbeliefs for that matter. So, it's sort of like the guru has start out from the position saying, "If you believe in God, I don't, if you don't believe in God, I do," but they won't let you in on that secret. Eventually, they will aim to dissolve both the theist and atheist perspectives into this "ultimate reality," where in which you will find there was no guru or teacher or disciple, both of you are equal on a certain plane so that no one holds a inferior or superior perspective, you can also view this as the dissolution of ego. Well, I'm being all quite brief here, but if you're interested, here's a link on that:
Buddhism is sometimes referred to as "the religion of no religion" for the reasons I've tried to point out. But anyway, as Alan Watts said, you don't understand Buddhism by reading about it or studying scriptures so on and so forth, because the ultimate goal of this religion is an experience in which this sense of "the Self" or "ultimate reality" is directly intuit. Another suggestion:
I suppose the point of all that is because there is a position called Perennial Philosophy in which this is also emphasized. That the source behind all religion is essentially this experience, but it transcends all religion because it's ultimately a phenomenon in consciousness, and religion is sort of a by-product of this experience when individuals attempt to transduce it into language. It's an experience of the "ineffable," nevertheless people always attempt to describe it, and so you have the various religions and their languages in attempt to describe this one thing.
And here's a talk on Perennial Philosophy, if you're interested in that:
Thanks for the interesting and informative reply. Needless to say, when it's the first thing you read in the morning, not a whole lot is bound to sink in, but I am interested in learning about eastern philosophies and have learned a little of what you have said already. I'll have to come back to this post when I have more time, to check out the videos and stuff. Thanks again!
So you don't believe there are deities, but if there are, you don't know what they would be like, but you're sure they're not like anything anyone else imagines.
That sounds like an agnostic outlook to me. ;-)
Yeah yeah. :-P What I said was "Even if there were something "beyond", whatever that is even supposed to mean, it surely would be nothing like the absurd notions of deities people have imagined". So what I was trying to say was that if there were something "else" (and I'm reasonably sure there isn't), it wouldn't be a deity or some conscious being, but maybe there are infinite universes or some such crap like that. No gods. Better?
The lack of belief in a deity in itself makes someone an atheist. The "agnostic" may not say they disbelief alright but the fact that they do not make the positive claim of the existence of a given deity is good enough (based on the definition of "atheist") to point out to that person that in practice he/she is an atheist.
I don't think agnostics are cowards, I am basing my comment on the fact that agnostics in general do not profess a positive belief in deities.
As for the "lack of evidence" well, yes, there is lack of evidence in deities, even if we have yet to explore the 99% of the universe. This could very well be a temporal matter. If we care about our beliefs based on some sort of evidence, then we cannot based them in some sort of speculation, even if we have yet to explore the whole of the universe. Until then, and if the evidence presents itself for a given deity, atheism is an honest position.
It's a tricky thing, that's why I mentioned that the issue may boil down to semantics. While one could say that the agnostic (or empirical agnostic, in the case of N. D. Tyson) does not profess a positive belief in deities, at the same time, it does not profess a positive disbelief. So, it doesn't really seem to be fully irreconcilable with either theism or atheism. Belief or disbelief seems to be irrelevant to empirical agnosticism in that the empirical agnostic does not adhere to belief nor disbelief. It seems to be similar to the case of apatheism, except without the apathy.
I consider myself an agnostic atheist, and I believe it is the most logical position to take. It is a position with least assumptions. I am not a fence-sitter that doesn't know what to believe; in fact, my beliefs are committed and resolute.
We believe there is no God because:
1) There is no evidence of God.
2) It is not necessary to believe there is God (Occam's razor).
However, there is no positive proof that there is no God. Yes, you could substitute "God" for any myth, and it would be a bit silly, but to say absolutely that it doesn't exist is a leap of faith, and illogical. I don't perceive my position as cowardice, but I do perceive gnostic atheism as inherently contradictory; adhering strictly to the scientific method, yet faithfully trumpet the non-existence of something without proof.
Just in case it's unclear, science is only applicable to empirical entities, and therefore it is impractical to presume anything other than physicalism. But that doesn't mean we, as atheist philosophers, have to accept physicalism on a more basic level. For example, one could logically argue that we cannot prove anything to exist outside of the mind -- a position based in a realm beyond what science could capably measure, yet doesn't require God. What's more, it is conceivable to fully prescribe to the scientific method, yet still follow panpsychism.
I don't agree that agnostic atheism is the "most logical position to take." There were some problems I had with some of the things you've said here, for instance that it's "impractical to presume anything other than physicalism." At the very frontier of science, you arrive at what's called String Theory or more contemporarily "M-Theory," and the physicists involved with this don't even adhere to the Scientific Method when dealing with these things, that is because these theories imply something beyond physicalism, and although the experiments pertaining to M-theory are ultimately done in the physical universe, the mathematical hypothesis and conjecture are implicative to a realm beyond the physical, a higher topoligical manifold that is suggested through certain predictions in experiment, the Higs Boson is a good example of this.
Theists are often fond of saying, "God resides beyond space and time," but to a physicists, this does not mean an entity of some sort, the notion of the Brahman in Hinduism is often equated to the 11-dimensional hyperspace of M-Theory, and I'll leave a link below on a way to think about that, if you're interested... Just listen out for the "final Self."
I will admit that I'm not very familiar with m-theory, but I don't think that it is beyond physicalism. What I understand is that physicalism describes the theory that the only thing that exists in the world are what could be described by natural sciences, and since m-theory is grounded in physics, that should be included. What is not included, for example, is Buddhism, which describes the mind as being part of a separate reality, and the "truth", as opposed to what naturally occurs in the universe. Buddhism is idealist monism.
I say agnostic atheism is the "most logical position to take", precisely because I think it is impossible to disprove idealism, except by the same mechanism that attempts to disprove agnosticism. It assumes that we could prove facts about an "objective" world that lies beyond our senses. It's a leap of faith, but much less so than religion.
By the way, I disagree with Buddhism because I disagree with the premise of the 4 noble truths, namely "life is suffering." I disagree with the answer it presents. But thank you for the link, I will watch it anyways.
Well, I'm not sure how theoretical physics relates to physics in terms of what is essentially physical. In other words, the "beyond physicalism" may be intertwined with what's ultimately physical. I mentioned the idea of Brahman of Hinduism, and I'll try and give an example of that.
I'll use a quote which I think is attributed to Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist. He once said:
The way I think of mind is as a 4th dimensional organ of your body, you cannot see it, because it resides in a higher dimension, but you experience a sectioning of it within the phenomenon of consciousness, but that is only a partial sectioning of it in the same way a plane is a partial sectioning of a cone when it transects it.
For instance, to illustrate what is meant by the use of the word “sectioning” in the quote, when you imagine, say, a tree in the daytime spring scenery, you can see it in your mind’s eye quite vividly, can't you? You can make out brilliant colours and and even almost hear the wind as it brushes against its branches and leaves. But where is this tree, really? Where is it being projected? We can’t make the analogy from the computer’s output to a monitor, you see, because the tree isn’t really anywhere in your mind. If we were going to take a look at the physical brain, we wouldn’t find the tree, instead we may find certain electrical neural patterns, the breaking and forming of chemical bonds and various other fast chemistries, etc. But if we were going to use the computer analogy, then the monitor, where the image is being projected is in within this “sectioning” of hyperspace while the hardware is a direct correlate in the physical brain, they go together. So, what seems to be happening here is that the potentiality to imagine the tree was already there, perhaps had always been there. Graham Hancock had an interesting take on this issue, he said, “I don't believe that consciousness is generated in the brain any more than that television programs are made inside my tv.” So, it may be that the brain is the dipstick into this field of potentiality, and can entertain a certain degree of this potentiality.
The idea of Brahman in Hinduism is synonymous with what is called in Zen Buddhism "sunyata," this word is translated to void, but not void as in nothingness or empty space, but void as in the same way a physicist would describe void, as pure potentiality. A way to think about this, Rob Bryanton of the 10thdim channel on YouTube had an awesome metaphor, he said, "Think of this 11-dimensional hyperspace as a place where all possibilities are contained." Well, this is precisely how the Brahman is defined in Hinduism. So, an experience of "the void" is what I think is meant by Buddhism describing the mind or consciousness as being part of, not a separate reality, but separate from reality or the physical, and yet also intertwined with it as in the example I gave.
So, in that video I linked you to, I'm not sure if you got to watch it (it's not very long), but this is what Watts means when he says, "The than-which-there-is-no-whicher," a phrase he often used to eff what's often called the ineffable. This is what supposedly glimpsed in samadhi, satori, nirvana, ego death, etc. It is, after all, the goal of these eastern religions, but I believe that this phenomenon transcends the religions itself, because it is ultimately a phenomenon in consciousness, and when a person undergoes this experience, religion is what follows, back in the day, a man would go on to become a founder of a religion, but if you were to have it today, it's possible you may end up in an psychiatric ward. Well, at least, that's what Perennial Philosophy is arguing for.
Great post. Agnostics get the same respect as true believers -- "might believe" is almost as good as "does believe."
Agnostics claim to practice a noble uncertainty, whereas what they want is to be socially accepted (by other Catholics, Jews, etc.) while still not having to do all the religious silly stuff. It's a win-win for them, but they haven't won my respect.
I suppose the only true agnostics (except the Orthodox who keep their doubts to themselves) are the ones who engage in minimal religious practice but ignore the rest of the program. Their occasional appearance at church or synagogue is a gesture in God's direction that gives them the apprearance of belief, but the rest of the time they can ignore religion completely. They don't know whether God exists, but just in case...
Thanks Alan. Yeah I started this post with the theistic agnostic in mind, but somewhere along the line (immediately?) it turned into a discussion about atheist agnostics. A much more honest bunch those, and not who I had in mind in my provocative post title. :-P