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.
Yes I agree the definition of agnosticism is nebulous, and includes more than just one type. For the record, I am only concerned with the type who make a specific epistemological claim that we cannot be reasonably sure that there are no gods. We can. And you and your family agree with me here. What you are saying is that there is no such thing as absolute proof or knowledge of anything. I agree. I do not have an epistemology which requires absolute certainty to say that I have knowledge; if I did, I wouldn't be able to say that I know anything. So when you say you don't "totally" know whether you exist, or have two hands, or are not a brain in a vat, or are not dreaming, or are not in the matrix, etc., you are saying you don't have absolutely perfect knowledge that these things aren't true. I agree. But that doesn't mean that we can't rationally rule them out, at least until such a time as some evidence rules them back in. But at some point, it is irrational to believe that any such evidence will be forthcoming. Here is a good example I heard from one of my philosophy professors: Suppose someone is flipping a coin, and you watch as it turns up heads a few times in a row. Nothing completely out of the ordinary, but you might suppose that tails has got to start showing up soon or something fishy is going on here. But after a dozen or so more throws, only heads still. Now you start thinking the coin is probably double-headed, that it might really be a rigged game and that it can't possibly turn up tails in this case. But you are willing to suspend your judgment for a while longer still, you've got some time to kill. After a few hundred throws you have lost all interest. You have settled in on the conviction that the coin has two heads, it won't come up tails and that's the end of it. But supposing this is still not quite enough, and you are somehow capable of watching as the coin turns up heads trillions of times, and never comes up tails, not once. According to statistical probabilities, the chance of the next coin toss being tails is effectively 0%. If it came up tails at this point, it would be the mother of all outliers. At this point all we can say is that it is absurd, or outlandish, or incomprehensible, to believe that the coin will turn up tails. But is it unreasonable? I think you have to say yes, or you abandon all conceivable notions of what rationality means. If we cannot base our beliefs about the future based upon what has happened in the past, then we truly know nothing and all we have is beliefs and imagination, and no one belief is any better than another. This is the position of the skeptic and the type of agnostic I accuse of standing for nothing. As it turns out, this world where the coin always turns up heads is just the kind of world we live in. We are just now discovering that quantum particles can suddenly pop into existence, so whatever that means for our conception of reality, well I just don't know. But I do know a person can't suddenly pop fully-formed into existence. There may be a lot of weirdness going on on the quantum level, but on any level which we are capable of perceiving without the most fantastically high-tech equipment, things are pretty much as they appear, they are what they are, and nothing more. If we start suddenly to believe that whole realms of beings with some glaringly-bizarre features (like looking pretty much like us, only immortal??) and some glaringly-bizarre powers (invisibility, flight, thunderbolts from their fists???) could somehow coexist in the same world that we do, we may as well throw up our hands and despair of ever having a rational conversation with anyone again, including ourselves. We'd all belong in the looney bin.
So my short response is that you are effectively atheists, you have the convictions of atheists and even the skeptical attitude of atheists. I think you should stop calling yourself agnostics, you are justified in your rational beliefs that there is no such thing as deities or fairies or any other such preposterous creatures that men have come to imagine, and then mistake for reality!
LOL, in all fairness to fairies and leprecahns... :-)
Seriously though, i think it's worth noting that modern gods vs unicorns/faries have some key differences that make them harder to dismiss. And i suspect these agnostics might be picking up on that. They are similar issues that often come up when discussing the unlikelihood of gods with theists...
Honestly, i have a hard time outright refuting the most common gods because i'm not even sure what they are or how they are even defined. And if you can't pin down a definition and agree to what we're even talking about, its really hard to then draw any conclusions about whether that undefined thing even exists or not! Whereas magical critters seem a little easier to tackle because they are more well defined.
Not to say that it is a barrier to atheism. In fact, personally, this lack of definability contributes a great deal to my skepticism. Any attempts to say something concrete about a god seem to lead to fallacy. Any attempts to keep a god mysterious/intangible seem to lead to useless abstraction.
Well I mean you pretty much said it, just the kind of characteristics which make some gods "more believable" than other supernatural beings are the same characteristics which make them less believable. But let me take each of your points.
1. Originally, gods were tangible. The ancient Greeks, for one, believed that the gods walked around among people, taking on various disguises as people or animals, and having interactions and even plenty of intercourse with humans as well. As this became harder to believe, beliefs predictably began to shift from towards gods being intangible. And not to mention the problem with intangibility. Plus, with the creatures we both mention, there is nothing preventing them from being intangible when they want to be. As we have never seen them, we can attribute any characteristics to them that we want (and this is the whole point). perhaps unicorns naturally become intangible when they die. Or perhaps they are magically transported to their home in... wherever it is unicorns call home. We could always come up with an explanation for our observations about them! Obviously this is a problem (we have no observations to work with), and there is no substantial difference here between these creatures or gods.
2. Pegasuses (Pegasi?) can fly because they are aided by magic. Leprechauns are obsessed with gold because of a curse placed on their race/because they are in the service of the dragons, whom everyone knows hoard gold (aha! a perfect explanation for how dragons get all their gold!). Again, with no observations to pin them down to reality, we can come up with any explanations we want to, using any additional unobserved phenomena as a supplement, and weave stories as intricate as we want. But there is no reason to suspect that these stories bear any resemblance to reality.
3.The motivations of fairies and unicorns are completely unknowable or impossible for us to understand, but even if we took them to have motivations similar to our own, the gods too have similar motivations as "evidenced" by the stories of them. Yahweh was motivated by anger and jealousy and even love and could easily be mistaken for an actual person if you were only given glimpses of Him at certain moments. So this objection fails as well, on both counts.
Sorry, I see no substantial difference between any creatures of the imagination. All fantastical creatures differ only in how we imagine them, not in how likely they are to possibly exist. I'm glad you made this attempt though, I was hoping someone would try to come up with some defense of why one should believe gods to be somehow of a separate class of non-existent beings which were somehow more believable, because I wanted to see whether it would be difficult to make counterarguments. So far, I don't feel hard-put to counter any supposed exceptions gods might have over any other fantastical creature.
LOL, happy to be of service :-)
I do think it is interesting how gods vs magical beings have managed as humanity's understanding of the world has increased. As you noted, gods started off just as concrete as any other magical being, but have become more abstract the more individual concrete aspects of them have been disproven. Meanwhile the tales of fantastical creatures seem to stay much the same, but our belief in them has dropped significantly when compared to gods. We retain the old concrete ideas of them, but simply file them more frequently into the "imaginary" pile than the "real" pile these days.
To your original post, i'm not sure if it matters much, this side idea i brought up. I imagine agnostics are similarly agnostic about magical beasts as they are about gods.
Which brings up the million dollar question i suppose: who are these agnostics and where do they hang out? And how do they truly incorporate these philosophies in their daily lives? I feel like asking these things of an agnostic would answer a lot of these questions more than anything!
I mean, i've talked to a lot of people with a lot of different philosophies, but never anyone who genuinely has no beliefs/strong suspicionss about anything!
Yeah, and that's why your post matters. If they are agnostic about deities, then they should be agnostic about all those other things as well. That's just my point. A belief in a deity is no more believable than a belief in invisible unicorns. If you take the one, you've gotta take the other. I had a pet theist I'd been conversing with for a few years, he had his own take (it was interesting to say the least), but when I wrote to him that there was the same epistemic justification for Poseidon as there was for Yahweh, he seemed to get upset. Of course he denied this, but he didn't (because he couldn't) offer any counterarguments. Actually I took this from a Sam Harris argument.
You ask an interesting question though, Joe C. I expect, like theists, they live their lives just like we atheists do, grounded in the realities of daily life. Only they have some pretty fuzzy ideas when it comes to what to believe, either specifically about gods and religions or just in general.
I think that "agnosticism" is more complex of an idea than you let on. I know of four distinct versions of agnosticms: Strong agnosticism: the idea that it is obligatory for reasonable persons to suspend judgement on the question of the existence of god; weak agnosticism: the idea that it is permissible for reasonable persons to suspend judgement on the question of the existence of god (Graham Oppy does a fine job of defending this position in his book "Arguing About Gods"); Cancellation agnosticism: thew view that arguments for and against belief in god are equally strong and cancel each other out; Skeptical agnosticism: the rejection of both belief and disbelief in god because there are no good arguments either way.
I think all can be reasonably held, but some are certainly more convincing positions than others. So I disagree that agnostics stand only for "the idea that we can't know anything." That would be a philosophical skeptic, which is not necessarily the same as an agnostic.
A thoughtful post, but I disagree with your assertion that all 4 positions can be reasonably held, at least from the perspective of someone who is informed. Both cancellation agnosticism and skeptical agnosticism say the same thing in that that the arguments on both sides are about as good as each other, the only differences being whether they think the arguments on both sides are strong or weak. My argument is that the arguments are so lopsidedly in favor of atheism that no informed person, in my opinion of course, could hold either of these views. Someone could be largely ignorant of the arguments for atheism and consider themselves an agnostic, but these people are, as my OP suggests, either cowards or stupid (or willfully ignorant). I of course wholly disagree that it is obligatory for reasonable and informed people to suspend judgment - for reasonable uninformed people then sure, it is obligatory to suspend judgment until one gets themselves informed, but my whole position is based on the strength of the position of atheism. Weak agnosticism is permissible as a step along the way to atheism, but my position is clear - the more you understand the arguments for atheism, the more obligatory it becomes for you to be an atheist.
Cancellation agnosticism is the idea that there are good arguments for both sides, whereas skeptical agnosticism is there are NO good arguments for both sides, so I disagree when you say they are saying the same thing.
I certainly agree with you that atheism has the stronger arguments, but this doesn't mean that a reasonable person can't reject them (or think that there are equally as strong theistic arguments). I don't think a person is ignorant, a coward, stupid, or willfully ignorant if they consider themselves an agnostic, they just think certain arguments are better or weaker than others. There's no metaphysically objective standard by which to weigh arguments strength.
You clearly missed and/or did not read what I wrote. What I said was "Both cancellation agnosticism and skeptical agnosticism say the same thing in that that the arguments on both sides are about as good as each other, the only differences being whether they think the arguments on both sides are strong or weak", so they do say the same thing in that respect. I'm glad you agree with me that atheism has the stronger arguments, but then you may contradict yourself if you say that there's no objective standard by which to weigh the strength of these arguments. Are you then just stating an opinion? And why the qualification that there is no such "metaphysically objective standard"? Certainly you don't think that there are no objective standards for measuring the strength of all arguments? That would lead you to a very skeptical position indeed. So I think you must mean that there are no objective standards for measuring the strength of these kinds of arguments (the metaphysical sort). I disagree. Would you say that the argument "there are such things as invisible pink leprechauns" is objectively just as strong as the argument that "there are no such things"? I think what we get into here is an argument regarding the nature of reason, and if you don't accept the basic premise that it is far more reasonable to believe that there are no such things as things for which we have no evidence than that we must weigh the arguments for or against such things as being of equal strength, then I reject your understanding of what it means to reason.
I must have misunderstood your first point, then. I apologize.
I am certainly saying that it is my opinion that the argument for atheism are stronger. the reason I think this is a subjective stance is because I do think that reasonable people can reasonably disagree. I have a subjective standard, i.e. what I think is most rational, but not everyone would agree with what I think is a strong argument.
I wouldn't say there can't be a metaphysically objective standard, but I'm definitely not aware of one. I think that all beliefs must be based on foundational beliefs, and these are the standards by which you determine what is rational.
I think the best way to analyze arguments such as the existence of x would be Bayesian, because this is by it's nature subjective. This doesn't mean I reject metaphysics or the existence of metaphysically objective things, but I don't think that arguments have a metaphysical standard by which they're judged.
I appreciate the apology, and apologize myself for getting a little testy. I agree with you that reasonable people can disagree on many things, but I think if there is a stable and coherent meaning to "reason", then there are some things that reasonable people cannot disagree on, such as (at least the essence of) what it means to reason. Once you accept that reasoning requires justification and what counts as justification and so on, then the community of people who agree that all beliefs must be justified to be reasonable (this counts out all faiths) can agree as to which reasonable beliefs can be considered knowledge (beyond any reasonable doubt) and which of them can only attain the status of being probably true, or to put it another way, which beliefs are reasonably certain and which beliefs are more or less uncertainly true. My argument concerning gnosticism is that we can simply avoid the whole messy issue of whether we have to prove a negative claim false, because this (the whole issue including the fact that this is all the theist can offer up as a defense) becomes just one more sub-argument among a whole string of sub-arguments which constitute a body of evidence which provides overwhelming justification for the larger argument that beliefs in deities are so utterly silly and absurd that no reasonable (and reasonably-informed) person could possibly buy into them.
A discussion of this sort needs definitions if it's to accomplish anything. Unfortunately, I'm to lazy at the moment to offer any that might be of much use. I'll say that my concept of agnosticism is not quite "Agnostics only stand up for the idea that we can't know anything". I'd just change "anything" to "everything". The difference in the two words is the difference between accepting the idea of absolutes or not. For instance; I'm a strong atheist because that's where the overwhelming weight of evidence and my own sense points. But I'm agnostic about my atheism -- that is, I'm willing to be swayed by contradictory evidence (but it had better be pretty damn strong). Without even a tiny chink in certainty, science couldn't function. That is not at all a position of epistimological relativism, where all possible concepts are equal, but merely a matter of this being more likely than that, and absolute certainty the least likely of all.