Feb 24 2012

Richard Dawkins – Agnostic

This is actually old news – Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, discusses atheism vs agnosticism at length in his book, The God Delusion (you can listen to the relevant section here.) In a recent debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, Dawkins acknowledged that he is not 100% certain of God’s non-existence, and when asked if he is therefore an agnostic, he said that he was.

These statements have to be put into context, however – which Dawkins did in his book and elsewhere. In The God Delusion he outlines 7 stances toward the probability that God exists. He put himself into category 6, a strong atheist but less than 100% certain that God does not exist. He states he is less than 100% certain as a matter of principle – because a mere human cannot be 100% certain of anything. Only fanatical belief results in 100% metaphysical certitude. So he is as strong an atheist as a rational and intellectually honest person can be.

How, then, can we make sense of Dawkins acknowledging that he is also an agnostic. A report of the debate states:

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

In the live debate Dawkins apparently decided not to get into exactly what he meant by that, but again we have the answer in The God Delusion. Dawkins distinguishes two kinds of agnosticism – temporary agnosticism in practice (TAP) and permanent agnosticism in principle (PAP). TAP is the kind of agnosticism you have toward a scientific question that can potentially be answered but we currently lack the information necessary to arrive at a firm conclusion. He gives the question of life on other planets as an example – we will eventually answer this question, but currently do not have enough information to do so.

PAP refers to questions that cannot be answered ever because they are simply outside the realm of science and evidence. Dawkins does not give an example of PAP, so I am not sure that he has the same concept of unanswerable questions as I do. One example I typically give is the notion that our entire universe is an elementary particle in a far greater universe. In short – any statement about reality that has no observable effect on our universe and therefore there is no observation we can make or experiment we can conduct that can be brought to bear either for or against the notion. Another common example is the claim that an all-powerful being created the universe 5 minutes ago but crafted it to look exactly as if it had evolved naturally over 13 or so billion years, complete with all of your memories.

So far so good – I find myself in agreement with Dawkins’ explanation of agnosticism. Where we disagree in on where to place the god hypothesis. Dawkins argues that the claim that a god exists is a factual claim about the universe and therefore is answerable by science. He is therefore a TAP agnostic with regard to any god or gods, because we can theoretically answer the question with evidence.

I disagree – but with a clarification. It depends on what kind of god you are talking about. An interventional god that messes with the natural laws of the universe is theoretically testable. At least we can determine that physical laws that appear to be fixed are at times arbitrarily suspended. A non-interventional god, however, would not be testable. The notion of a god that exists, is outside the laws of the universe, and does not interfere with the universe in any way, or manifests his will only in a way that is indistinguishable from events playing themselves out according to the physical laws of the universe, is not testable. The only philosophically tenable position one can have toward such a notion is PAP.

Dawkins states that God himself can manifest and settle the question definitively. This is wrong, however. If a god-like persona appeared, claimed to be the God of the bible, and manifested a few impressive miracles as evidence, we could still not know that this was actually God. It could be a representative of a fantastically advanced alien civilization pretending to be the God of our mythology. This all depends, again, on how you define God – perhaps God is a super powerful alien.

Dawkins, unfortunately, does not make such distinctions. Many agnostics, however, do. One might argue (and many people have certainly argued this to me) that all that matters is the kind of god believed in by most of the world’s religions, not some hypothetical god defined by nitpicking philosophers. Fair enough, depending on what your purpose is, but the point is that any position toward atheism and agnosticism should be philosophically sound. We can start from that position (clearly defining different concepts of god, just as Dawkins defines different types of agnosticism).  Then, when confronting any claim or belief in god, or any supernatural claim, the burden of clearly defining terms is on the believer.

If an individual or a religion professes belief in an interventionalist god, then that is a testable belief and science can be brought to bear, at least in principle. If they profess a more deist position, that a god exists or there is some undefinable spiritual dimension to the universe, then at least we can force them out of the realm of science and into the area of PAP.

Dawkins (sort of) acknowledges the agnostic position, but then states that where agnostics go wrong is in premising their agnosticism on the assumption that the god hypothesis and the no-god hypothesis are on equal footing. This, in my opinion, is a straw man argument. I certainly don’t believe that. Dawkins also acknowledges that some agnostics claim that you cannot even ask the question of probability with regard to PAP questions. This may be the correct position to take, but again we run into a problem of definition – what do you mean by “probability?” With regard to PAP questions there is no rigorous mathematical probability that can be calculated, because we are outside the realm of evidence. At best we can have a vague sense of high or low probability.

Dawkins then goes into a discussion of Russell’s Teapot, which is relevant – we can invent an infinite number of untestable hypotheses (either TAP or PAP), and there is no reason to think that any one of them is true or has anything other than a vanishingly small probability of being true. What are the chances that if I make up a fantastical story of the universe that it somehow turns out to be a true and accurate description of reality? Unless I am somehow being influenced to come up with something that describes reality, it seems obvious that the probability is pretty small, and gets smaller the more arbitrary, specific, bizarre, and at odds with what we already know the made-up belief is.

For example, I can come up with the idea that every planet in the universe is possessed by a spirit that lives at the center of the planet and monitors their planet’s goings on. I just made that up – what are the chances that it’s actually true? What if I went into extreme detail about the characteristics of each spirit, giving them names and personality quirks – the probability that those details are accurate would drop further.

Dawkins is correct that there is no reason to believe that any tenet of faith of any of the world’s religions are anything other than made up stories that happened to be endorsed by one or more cultures. There is no good reason to suppose that they are any more likely than any arbitrary fantasy that an imaginative person can invent.

All of this simply has nothing to do with agnosticism – it is correct, but a straw man. One can be a philosophical agnostic and still be an atheist in that they lack belief in any god or anything supernatural. In fact I put myself into category 6 right along with Dawkins. We both also accept the label of “agnostic” to describe our position. The difference is, Dawkins believes that the god hypothesis falls into the TAP category of agnosticism, while I say – it depends. It depends on the definition of “god” – for some TAP applies, for others PAP does.



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