Here's my take on it.
Agnosticism is illogical and refutes itself. Agnosticism and agnostics characterize God as unknowable, ineffable, incomprehensible to all attempts to understand him. This doctrine is self-refuting. The agnostic is making a knowledge claim about what he/she claims is unknowable. How do agnostics know that God is unknowable if he is unknowable ? How do they even know that God's existence cannot be disproved if God is unknowable, or that God even exists if he is unknowable ? To claim any attribute for God is knowledge and claims to know this unknowable God possesses certain attributes. That's a logical contradiction, and any being containing two incompatible attributes cannot possibly exist. So one need not resort to agnosticism. He/she would be justified in not believing in that God if the concept of it contradicts itself in any way. One is justified in accepting and adopting the atheist position.
The idea that you cannot prove a negative is not true logic as understood by actual logicians and philosophers. It is folk logic. Here are two links on the subject of proving a negative, one from Psychology Today.
I think it only strengthens the position that agnosticism is untenable.
It's an oversimplification of a question about existential and universal quantifiers. The claim is not that any negative is non-provable, but that negative existential statements are non-provable. However, this is false. The correct statement should be: there are negative existential statements which are unprovable as a practical matter.
The usual example offered of an unprovable negative existential statement is something such as there are no black swans. The idea was that to prove such a statement you would need to examine all swans in existence and such a task would be impractical. However that would depend on how many swans did, in fact, exist, and if there were only 100 and they were all located in Utah, it would be quite possible. (Then the question would become how do you know there are only 100.)
There is nothing intrinsically unprovable about a negative existential statement. To give a mathematical example, the statement, there is no rational number whose square is 2, might seem impossible to prove. Checking each rational number would be an infinite task, and impossible, but of course the proof is by contradiction—if you assume some rational number has square 2, you can draw an easy contradiction.
I can't see how this makes agnosticism untenable since no valid proofs or disproofs of the statement there exists a god seem to be known.
Gould also allowed that science and theology were non-overlapping magesteria, that they covered separate domains of knowledge and that they try to avoid each other's territory. He probably said it so as not to alienate religious individuals since science is funded in large part by money from the religious.
But his claim that science and theology seek to avoid each other's domain is not supported by the facts, as evidenced by such specialties (if one can call it that) as creation science and Intelligent Design science, again science. Religion does, indeed, intrude into science's domain. Dawkins, Stenger, Harris, and Harrison think likewise that if there is a supernatural entity responsible for the creation of the universe, it should be empirically verifiable, no way around it. Science can measure miracles, but apparently there are no miracles to be verified.
I believe it might have been Dawkins or Stenger who has said that it is not impossible for a statue to wave its arm according to the laws of physics, if all the atoms in the arm just randomly began moving in a way to cause the arm to wave. It's not impossible, but highly unlikely. If one saw something like that it's apt to be taken as a miracle, though it is really just a random fluctuation of atoms. Any apparent miracles can be naturally explained or dismissed as hoax or fiction.
Good post btw. I'd have to agree.
By the way, Huxley would have disagreed with Gould and sided with Dawkins, et al. on this point. For example, Huxley thought the question of what Jesus did and said was open to historical analysis, at the very least in principle, no matter how difficult it could be in fact to definitively resolve it.
By that definition, the non-existence of gods is a fact.
It's not hard to imagine that a particular concept of gods could be disconfirmed, but how would the non-existence of a generic god be confirmed? What test would allow you to rule out all possibility of the supernatural, which is what we would like?
Another question. Gould says "…it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." Why only provisional consent?
I believe by provisional assent Gould was basically saying that unless and until some discovery comes along to change what we know now we should agree with the confirmed facts as we know them. To put it another way, follow where the facts go whether you like it or not.
Karim R., I like David Eller. He is very down to Earth, and perceives natural atheism as a powerful force in one's life. He is also a cat lover. How is that for a great guy!
Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the term agnostic, was a scientist and always careful about knowledge claims. He wrote:
That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism.
He wrote at a point in history when theologians and the clergy asserted absolute knowledge of the truth of the Bible and Christian theology. His point of view was an advance over the dominating sentiments of his day and remains valid.
I consider myself agnostic in a sense that in our finite understanding of the universe, one can not say, "there definitely is no god." I am almost certain that there is no god, however, I cannot claim to know everything. This would make me just as guilty as the people who say, "there definitely is a god."
There are most likely, none of those. I can assert that there is most likely no god. Some people define this as atheism, I refer to it as strong agnosticism.
I avoid absolutism. The scientific method never asserts that something is absolutely true. A scientist will say, "this theory best explains a phenomenon and has never been disproven, however, If evidence presents itself otherwise, then the theory fails."
I'm using this method, however, I take the position of there most likely being no god and I live my life with this in mind much the same way I live my life knowing the theory of gravity keeps me on the ground.
I I see where you are coming from. One cannot seek proof of god because none can be provided on such an idea, nor for mythological beings. I define myself as agnostic since I don't take that step of saying, "this is the fact, and this is final."
I absolutely agree that believers put the emphasis on non believers. They then feel satisfied when you cannot provide proof of non-existence just as much as they provide proof on existence.
I believed with my whole mind, body and spirit the assertion that there was a god, that god provided me salvation, and promised heaven or hell ... until one fateful day I awakened to the fact that not one of my prayers had been answered, not mine, not my mother's and not my grandmothers. We were all screwed by delusions.
The funny thing is, when I let go of that cloud and stood firmly on Earth and all its realities, I was able to find safety and risk taking and thinking, and problem solving and conflict on as a decent and responsible thing to do. I grew out of faith in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy into reality, with all its thorns and blossoms. I am so much happier, more content, stronger, healthier than as a mere sacrificial lamb to some dominator force, human or imagined. I have no regrets.
To further strengthen my understanding, I worked with hurting people during my 20 years as a professional career and found that very many of the problems confronting modern civilization is people putting their beliefs into some other hands and in order to free themselves from the binding of their minds, the path was to explore their beliefs, do some reality testing with them, and then find a more mentally healthy, mature way to live. I am considered a successful teacher, counselor, therapist.
As Hitch stated during the last hours of his life,