Wednesday 4 October 2017

To be agnostic is a philosophical stance - but not a personal possibility

To assert agnosticism is to be an atheist; because agnosticism denies the centrality of God.

If you believe yourself agnostic but do not realise you are actually an atheist; it can only because you have not fully thought-through the implications; or aren't being honest with yourself.

To assert agnosticism is usually a way of trying to avoid what someone regards unpleasant, boring, inconclusive, futile arguments - to change-the-subject. But this is only possible to one who has already decided that the question of God is unnecessary, irrelevant, unimportant, even destructive.

There are no real agnostics.


Chiu ChunLing said...

While there are logical inconsistencies with the position of asserting as a philosophical proposition something that would contradict the validity of reason, the inherent impossibility of logically proving that reason is valid is not incompatible with the assertion that one does not really know whether the proposition logically necessary to the validity of reason is true.

One can and probably should reason without requiring that it be taken as a certainty that reason is necessarily valid. Clearly, a set of assumptions which definitively prove reason to be invalid result in a result that is not logically valid, not least since they prove that there is no validity to logic. But stating that you refrain from assuming something necessary to the validity of reason doesn't mean you can't reason.

I don't see agnosticism (about God specifically, or about reason) as being an insuperable barrier to sound reasoning.

It's true that most 'agnosticism' is mere pretext for anti-philosophical rejection of engaging in reasoning, but the same is true of pretty much any 'ism'. Used appropriately, the assertion of an 'ism' is merely a placeholder for a historically documented exploration of a set of arguments to allow focusing on some particular related question that isn't settled, but even then it is invoked to avoid exploring those surrounding arguments again. Nor are those arguments collected in an 'ism' usually themselves really settled in any conclusive sense.

When even the appropriate use of an 'ism' is to avoid re-examining the arguments it contains, it is to be expected that 'ism's will sometimes be invoked to avoid examining arguments that it is not appropriate to avoid.

Pascal's wager is a classic example of an argument that proceeds from agnosticism. I feel that the common conception of the argument is flawed in that it does not acknowledge both sides of the coin, there is no valid reason to want to go to Heaven after death if you'd rather not believe in God while you're alive, but it's certainly true that there is no reason not to believe in God while you're alive if you'd prefer to go to Heaven after death. Whether or not going to Heaven after you die is possible, you gain nothing by not following your desire to believe or disbelieve in God while you definitely still have the option.

There is also space in the argument for those who would prefer not to commit themselves to belief in God, though the common sharp binary of Heaven or Hell (which has been abandoned by most mature theologies, though that of course does not mean it cannot be true) would make it troublesome to distinguish agnosticism from atheism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I was making a distinction between philsophy and Life - of course one can have a philosophical position of agnosticism; my point was that in term of Life this is a form of atheism. The issue *has* been prejudged.

lgude said...

When I was in my late teens I thought of myself as an agnostic, but it was something I would say quietly and not as a way to avoid arguments or unpleasantness. Toward the end of this period I was going along to the Trotsky Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan - the one Trotsky founded there before going to Mexico to meet his maker. The meetings consisted of endless explanations of the elaborate rules that governed every aspect of the organisation. It was just like that scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail where King Arthur is harangued by a member of the proletariat explaining exactly those kind of rules rather than answer King Arthur's simple request for directions if memory serves. In any case my 'comrades' formally invited me to join. But there was one caveat. I had to be an atheist. Inwardly I knew I thought of myself as an agnostic and it took perhaps 30 seconds of 'soul searching' for me to realise I could not say I was an atheist and honesty demanded that I say so. 55 years later your post is helpful because I can see that being challenged on the subject forced me to think it through.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think what you are saying is that, ultimately, we have to choose to believe.

I think on the whole this may be a valid insight into most human behavior, but I have no personal experience of this phenomenon. I have often thought it must be fun to have the faculty to believe things in this human sense, but I'm always inclined to wonder if it can possibly be so pleasant as to serve as just compensation for all the trouble it so clearly causes. Both questions are, for me, equally idle musings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Ultimately we Do believe - the choice is whether we recognise that is what we are doing.

Most people nowadays choose not to acknowledge that their fundamental beliefs are assumptions; thereby falsely asserting that they are not choosing anything. They don't choose between beliefs; they do choose not to examine their belief.