‘Agnostic’ – what the term actually means

Today, I got an interesting and thought-provoking comment from JR (as a response to my reaction to a comment where I declined to participate in celebrating ‘Agnostic Month’ on the grounds that I found ‘agnosticism’ illogical and arrogant).

JR managed to ‘hit’ one of my really, really ‘big buttons’.  So, I thought I’d best answer him in a full-fledged post of its own…..because I suspect that philosophically, we are close.  It’s those danged ‘labels’ that are all over the place.

Which, of course, is the above-mentioned ‘button’ of mine….

JR’s comment was:

Have to disagree, Xanthippa. Of all the philosophical positions one can hold on religion agnosticism is the most rational. Based on what an agnostic rationally ‘knows’ about the world s/he forms an opinion that the objective evidence available to date does not conclusively prove the existence of a supreme being who consciously and deliberately created the universe as we know it and now, in some fashion or other, watches over and/or guides its existence. That last part would be my definition of “God” which I think covers most others’ definition also (if you can propose a more satisfactory one, please do).

Those who worship God, or just “believe” in God’s existence, do so based on their own objective knowledge of the world plus subjective internal “feelings” which are not directly accessible to anyone else. Their subjectively formed convictions are, by definition, unconvincing to non-“believers” who, clearly, have no similar “feelings”. A weak agnostic is one who is not convinced yet, but who thinks it possible that some time in the future, through new knowledge or, who knows?, even a religious experience or revelation, God’s existence will be satisfactorily proven (to him/her). A strong agnostic, on the other hand, believes that knowledge of the existence of God is forever beyond the human mind to grasp – it can never be objectively “proven”. Neither form of agnosticism constitutes atheism which I understand to require an absolute conviction or “belief “ in the non-existence of God – no “maybe” about it. The atheist requires an extremely strong faith – because there can never be any objective proof of a negative.

Your notion of a “militant agnostic” is interesting. I’ve never encountered one of those. It sounds oxymoronic. Is there an on-line example?

The problem, of course, is the disconnect between the popular use of these terms and their actual meaning.

THAT is my ‘big button’ that JR managed to really ‘push’!

Luckily, most of the terms to describe forms of belief or non-belief in all kinds of ‘thingies’ regarding God(s) have been artificially created, so we have their actual (i.e. correct) definitions and need not rely on the inaccuracies of their vulgar use…

Aside:  ‘vulgar’, of course, means ‘common’ or ‘as popularly used by ‘common’ people’.

Another aside:  Wikipedia used to actually have the correct definitions of these terms.  However, a few years ago, they changed them to reflect the vulgar usage of them rather than their accurate meanings.  Disappointing!

Refocusing:

The terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ do not refer to the same aspect of belief:  one addresses ‘BELIEF’ while the other addresses ‘KNOWLEDGE’.  Perhaps I should go back to the beginning….

First, there was the term ‘ATHEIST’.  It was specifically designed to express NON-BELIEF or NEGATIVE BELIEF regarding the existence of God(s).  Literally, ‘ATHEIST’ = ‘apart from the belief in the existence of God(s).

By definition, an ‘atheist’ does not hold the positive belief that God(s) exist.

The term was ‘coined’ with specifically THAT meaning:  it expressly did not address the PRESENCE of ANY specific belief – only the absence of belief in the existence of God.  Of course, the term became misused almost as soon as it was engineered…

The second term to have been ‘coined’  was the term ‘THEIST’ = someone who holds the POSITIVE BELIEF that God(s) DO exist.  It was designed specifically to be the opposite of the term ‘ATHEIST’.

‘Theist’ describes someone with the presence of belief in the existence of God(s), ‘atheist’ describes someone with the absence of belief in the existence of God(s).

The term which properly describes a person who holds the positive belief in the non-existence of God(s) is ‘ANTITHEIST’: though, naturally, this term, too, became misused shortly after it was invented.  Currently, the most popular usage of the term ‘antitheist’ is to describe a person who is opposed to all forms of organized religion.

It appears to me that JR has mistakenly used the term ‘atheist’ to label the positive belief system of the ‘antitheist’.  Common, if frustrating, mistake.

To recap:  we have visited the core definitions of three terms, two of which describe holding ‘positive beliefs’ and one which describes the absence of a particular positive belief:

  • ‘theist’ holds the positive belief that God(s) exist
  • ‘anti-theist’ holds the positive belief that God(s) do not exist

Thus,  the ‘theist’ and ‘antitheist’ both hold positive beliefs as to the existence of God(s) – just opposite positive beliefs.

  • ‘atheist’ does not hold the positive belief that God(s) exist

In this way, ‘theist‘ and ‘atheist’ are opposite:  one is the presence of a positive belief in the existence of God(s), the other is the absence of such a belief.  However, the term ‘atheist’ does not address the presence or absence of any other belief regarding the existence of God(s).  Thus, antitheists are one of the many sub-groups of atheists.

All these terms are focused on the belief in the EXISTENCE of deities – exclusively.

It would be ‘an error of omission’ it it were not mentioned at this point that ‘monotheism’ is actually a special case of ‘antitheism/theism’, as it is a positive belief that ALL BUT ONE Gods and Goddesses do NOT exist.  As such, it is a positive belief in the non-existence of so many deities, the belief in the existence of one last remaining one of them is so illogical as to defy comprehension.  That is why so many professionals in the field think that ‘monotheism’ can only be achieved through serious brainwashing during early childhood or through mental illness.  I am not a professional in the field, so I merely report this, without commenting on the validity of such an opinion.  (Note:  Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all forms of monolatry, not monotheism, and thus do not fall into this category if practiced according to their scriptures.)

In contrast, the term ‘agnostic’ addresses something quite different.

A‘ means ‘apart from’.

‘Gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’.

Aside:  It is important to stress that the Greek term ‘gnosis’ means ‘personal knowledge’ and has, throughout the millenia, been used to also denote ‘mystical knowledge’ when it has been used in the context of religion or religious experiences.  ‘Gnostic Christians’, for example, were a sect of Christianity which rejected imposition of the structure of The Church in favour of ‘personal knowledge’ or ‘gnosis’ of the divine.  Until the ‘Conversion of Constantine’, ‘Gnostic Christianity’ was the ‘norm’.  Several Crusades were authorized by various Catholic Popes to suppress Gnostic Christianity: ‘the Albigensian Heresy’ (Cathars), ‘Bogomils’ and Hussites, to name just a few.  (Reformations introduced by Martin Luther were a watered-down bastardization of the teachings of the Hussites, a century or so after the Hussite teachings went ‘underground’.  But, that is a different ‘button’…)

The term ‘AGNOSTIC’ refers to a person who holds the positive belief that it is impossible for us, puny humans, to ever achieve KNOWLEDGE whether or not God(s) exist.  It thus corresponds to what JR identified as ‘strong agnosticism’:  there is, by definition, no such thing as ‘weak agnosticism’ (according to JR’s description thereof).

In other words, an ‘agnostic’ believes it is UNKNOWABLE whether God(s) exist.

This positive belief does not address the actual existence of deities:  just our ability to ever KNOWfor sure, one way or the other.

As such, a person who believes s/he can never know if God(s) exist can still hold positive beliefs as to their existence itself! After all, these are beliefs regarding completely different aspects:  one is ‘belief’, the other is ‘knowledge’.

Thus, an agnostic can be a theist or an atheist (of the antitheist type or otherwise)!

As for the ‘militant agnostics’ I have encountered – I am sorry, but it was in ‘real life’, not online.  However, the vast majority (though not all) of them fit into the logical fallacy of ‘Pascal’s Wager’:  “we cannot KNOW if GOD exists, but I am safer/can’t loose if I believe in God, so I do!”

When I would point out to these people that this does not constitute actual ‘belief’ and is both a moral and logical hypocrisy (if I chose to use kind terms), these militant agnostics got downright crotchety!

.

Pat Condell: “The faith of idiots”

On a related note

I admit freely, I simply do not understand it:  with so much opportunity for factual learning, why do so many people insist on submitting their minds to dogma – whether secular or religious?

Spirituality is one thing.  But imprisoning one’s spirituality (and/or intelligence) within the cage of any dogma – that is not just shameful, it is immoral.

Musings on the existence of God – and of Richard Dawkins

A few days ago, Walker Morrow had a fun, humorous bit : Is there evidence for the existence of Richard Dawkins?

In it is embeded  this link to a video (scroll down a little) which, in what I am told is a humorous manner, mocks Dawkins’s way of questioning the existence of God to question the existence of Richard Dawkins himself!

The flippant answer would be, of course, that I’ve seen a YouTube video where Thunderf00t interviews Richard Dawkins, and, when I see a video of Thunderf00t interviewing ‘God’, I’ll believe in ‘God’, too!

But, of course, my real answer is a little wordier….and weirder!

I do not know that Richard Dawkins exists!

And, making that realization is essential!

OK – perhaps this is the Aspie in me, or perhaps it is the scientist in me – or, some combination thereof.  But, by the time I was 13 (I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, so I had no access to philosophical or theological writing of any kind – this was just my simple, peasant-brain reasoning), I realized that I could not objectively prove that I myself exist!

My original formulation was very clumsy and I have not really refined the wording much, just shortened it a bit (OK – a lot) :

  1. The only way we learn about/observe/get data from our surroundings is via our senses.
  2. Our senses are demonstrably subjective (I could demonstrate this to myself, as my right eye perceives colours quite differently than my left eye does…but only just  before the onset of a migraine headache.  So, I concluded that our senses necessarily colour (pun intended)  our perceptions, making them definitely ‘not objective’.)
  3. Since the only information reaching ‘us’ about our surroundings is subjective (through the senses), it can be manipulated and we cannot make any objective conclusions based on it…like, say, to assert that any self-awareness we think we perceive is ‘our own’.

OK – so the argument is a bit ‘rough-around-the-edges’, but, you get the gist of it.

Some people think this is pointless prattle –  nothing but what Scott Adams would have called ‘mental masturbation’…

I beg to disagree!

Before a scientists makes any observation, she/he calibrates the instruments to be used.  This is important, because it sets the ‘baseline’ against which any results can be evaluated:  how good were the instruments, the accuracy of any measurements, the error margins, and all that.  If, for example, a thermometer measures temperature to the nearest degree, it will not reliably show variations of one-thousandth of a degree, and so on.

Similarly, if we are aware that all our perceptions are subjective and that we cannot even prove that ‘we’ are the bit we think of as our ‘self’, that we cannot objectively prove anything ‘absolutely’, not even our own existence as we perceive ourselves to be, it ‘calibrates’ our credulousness of what we perceive – so to speak!

Thus, if we are ‘objective’ in our reasoning, we are forced to admit that we  lack the capacity to ‘accept anything as absolute truth’ – or, if you will, as a tenet of faith.   To do so regardless would be irresponsible, to say the least.

Therefore, I ‘do not believe that Richard Dawkins exists’, any more than I ‘believe that I exist’!

It is essential that we understand that this ‘calibration’ does not mean that I can assume any such foolish thing as ‘I do not exist’ or ‘I do not need to behave as if I exist’ – not in the least.  The absence of belief in something does not imply the belief in the non-existence of it!   That is an important distinction – one too often lost on people not trained in logic.

It simply alerts me that everything has an ‘error margin’ and that nothing ought to be accepted ‘absolutely’, without reservations, without an implied error-margin.

Perhaps this is the manifesto of the ever-questioning skeptic….  Still, it prevents me (and many others like me) from being able to just ‘believe’ things, to have ‘religious faith’ – of any kind.

Nature of ‘Faith’

In the last two posts, I looked at an alternate explanation of some statements in the Bible.  As the feedback showed, some Christians believe these statements literally, others figuratively.  And they are all happy holding onto their very different beliefs, even though all of them are inspired by the same passage in Genesis.   That is great!  

People ‘hold on’ to their ‘profound beliefs’, regardless of what others think of them or anything else – and I would not want it to be any other way.  This is called ‘faith’.  I have learned about this phenomenon.  I do not comprehend it, but I am ready to accept that some people are capable of it.

Yet, people often ‘hold on’ to ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’ on trivial or non-profound points which are demonstrably unsupportable.  I have tried, but I really don’t understand this aspect of human nature.  Personally, I have a hard time with this 100% one way, or 100% the other way mode of thought…..perhaps because I’m not ‘wired just right’…but I don’t think there is anything I’ve invested a 100%, non-conditional ‘belief’ in.

No, I’m not talking about everyday life things, like knowing I love my kids and so on….emotional investment is NOT what I am talking about.  Nor am I talking about the ‘ought to’ kind of belief, as in “I belive all humans ought to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law.”

I mean ‘factual’ stuff:  like physics, chemistry, history…that ‘stuff’…. and global warming, political implications, someone’s culpability in something, superstitions, trust in actual physical institutions …that ‘stuff’, too.  For example, when driving over a bridge, I am reasonably convinced that the probability that the bridge will collapse under me is so low as to be negligible – or I would not have driven onto it.  Yet, I do not believe that it will not collapse….there is a difference!

OK, I ‘know’ gravity is a ‘force’ – yet, if someone presented me with substantiated evidence that it wasn’t a force, but rather an aspect of, say, space, I would be sceptical, yet I’d want to know what they based their claim on.  They’d need solid evidence, but….I could be convinced by it.   Knowledge, conclusions, opinions – these are all subject to change as more information comes in.  I get that!  I understand that process, and have experienced it many times.  What I don’t get is ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

Perhaps this is a characteristic of us Aspergers’ people:  I recall some friends cutting out a comic strip in which a teacher is handing back a math test.  She reads one of the answers out loud:  “provided both trains are travelling in straight line, with no hills or curves, provided there are no accidents that slow them down along the way, provided we neglect to account for the curvature of the Earth, provided the clocks in both stations are synchronized, and that the whole path is along same height above sea-level and so no time diallation occurs, the trains’ average speed is XXX. ”  She hands the test to a boy, and he wonders:  “How did she know this was my paper?  I forgot to put my name on it!”

For some reason, my friends thought this was hillarious and wanted to show it to me….something about the comic basing a character on me… 

It seems many people have as much problems with ‘my’ processing of information into conditional conclusions as I do with ‘faith’.    This truly shocked me….after all, does not EVERYONE state the obvious limits under which any conclusion is valid?  Why do many people percieve such qualifications as ‘waffling’?  It certainly is not so!  Would not presuming such things be an oversimplification, to the point of error? 

Yet ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ seemed more natural to many people than my ‘conditional conclusions’!

What is it that allows one person to ‘believe’ or ‘have faith’, while another cannot even commit to a math-problem answer without stating all the assumptions and limitations?  Which one is the ‘normal’ one, and which the ‘anomaly’?  Or is this like a spectrum, where there are no discrete breaks, just a continuum….with my ilk falling squarely at one extreme?

These questions have haunted me, ever since I can recall formulating their cognitive pre-cursors in nursery shool.  Even back then, I simply could not understand the motivations and expected goals behind other children’s games – and when I asked, I got blank stares or the old ‘index-finger-making-circular-motion-by-the-temple’ gestures in return.  I can understand both the process and the motivation/expected goals behind a calcualted risk, problem analysis, conditional conclusion, that sort of thing….  But, for the life of me, I cannot understand either the process nor the motivation/expected goals behind ‘belief’ and faith’ – both profound and mundane.

Is this just another aspect of my ‘faulty wiring’, one that makes me so very Aspergers?  Or, are ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ simply a label for ‘I don’t understand and am not worthy/willing to think about’?  Or is there something entirely different at play here?

Epicurean, Epidurean…paradoxes everywhere!

As far as Greek philosophers go, Epicurus was pretty O.K. 

Contrary to the customs of his era, he allowed women as students in his school.  Though there is absolutely no historical fact to justify this, I would love to think that the legendary Xanthippe (of whom he most certainly knew) and her famous debates versus Socrates, may have influenced him in this.  After all, his philosophy was not really all that far removed from hers (at least, the few little bits of her philosophy that have survived).

But, unlike Socrates, who was busy gazing at the navel of his immortal soul, Epicurus saw humans as having physical, intellectual, spiritual and social needs:  the ideal, then, was to strike a harmonious balance in one’s life.  Frankly, this seems almost too reasonable an opinion to be held by a ‘philosopher’! 

After all, where is the brooding, the derisive scowl at the cares of the world – isn’t that the image the word ‘philosopher’ is supposed to evoke?  I bet his ‘reasonableness’ cost him a lot of ‘pretentiousness points’ among the lofty circles…

 

He would likely have been written off and forgotten, had he not also voiced some very provocative ideas.  Most (though certainly not all) of his contemporaries aspired to the creed of monotheism, describing God in a way modern day Christians would recognize:  omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent towards mankind, his creation. In the still predominantly polytheistic environment, this idea – coupled with the notion Socrates had taught of the immortality of one’s soul – seemed very deep and mystical.  Yet, Epicurus directed some very pointed questions at this creed…and none of them have been satisfactorily answered as yet!

 

            Is God willing to prevent evil, and not able?

                        Then he is not omnipotent.

            Is He able, but not willing?

                        Then he is malevolent.

            Is God both able and willing?

                        Then whence cometh evil?

            Is He neither able, nor willing?

                        Then why call him God?

                                                     Epicurus, 341-271 BCE

This is perhaps the most famous group of his questions and has been handed down to us under the name the ‘Epicurean riddle’, or the ‘Epicurean paradox’.  It has been much paraphrased over the millennia, but the above is one of my favourite renditions.

People say that pain can, at times, bring ‘things’ into a sharp focus.  This was true for me, as I deeply questioned every single one of my life’s decisions, whiling away the endless hours of late-stage labour.  Truly, I came to question everything!

And then, it occurred to me:  in order to make people (especially female people) truly comprehend the meaning of the Epicurean paradox, perhaps I could re-phrase it into terms that had more immediate impact on our lives.  It’s almost as if the words came to me of their own volition:

Is God is truly omniscient?  Then He must know the pain of childbirth! 

And if He is also omnipotent, and he did not invent ‘the epidural’ waaaay before inventing this whole childbirth thing, then he is most certainly not benevolent!

I like to think of this as the Epidurean paradox!

I would go on, but I don’t want to belabour the point….