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Gary Gutting on Atheism and agnosticism August 31, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Gary Gutting is a professor at Notre Dame, in the department of philosophy.  About a month ago, he wrote this article for the New York Times.  I rather liked the article, as I remember.  But there was a small annoying catch that caught my attention.  It happens here:

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

*facepalm*

I have addressed this.  I even re-addressed this.

No, Dr. Gutting, this is not the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.  This is ignorance displayed as consensus by gobshites who are so far removed from the atheist community and feel the need to feel superior.  OK, maybe they just have not thought this through….

I was moved to respond.  And so I hopped on my keyboard and churned out a quick response, while including my link from one of my favorite posts about agnosticism.  You know, the one linked above.

I didn’t hear from him after a few days, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I happened to glance over at my left-hand panel on my gmail page and noticed that I had a draft email.

What could that be? I thought

For some reason, the email to Dr. Gutting had never sent.  It was just sitting there, unsent, all this time.  So, I decided to send it, finally.

He replied to me today:

Thanks for your thoughts.

Of course, you can use the terms the way you think best.  But your way of putting things ignores two importantly different ways of not believing that God exists. You might not believe in the sense that you withhold judgment as to whether God exists OR in the sense that you believe that God does not exist.  In ordinary usage, the first sense of not believing in God is called “agnosticism” and the second is called “atheism”.  It seems to me that this is a useful distinction, and I don’t see what you gain by eliminating it.
I also think you confuse the discussion by assuming that the agnostic claim “I don’t know whether or not God exists” must mean “I am not absolutely certain whether or not God exists”.  In most contexts, knowledge doesn’t imply absolute certainty; it’s consistent with at least a small degree of uncertainty.  So, if someone says he knows that Paris is the capital of France, but admits that there’s some small probability that a coup in the last few hours moved the French capital to Lyon, we don’t think he’s contradicting himself.  Of course, you can insist that anyone who allows the slightest bit of doubt about a claim is agnostic about it.  Then almost everyone becomes an agnostic about almost everything, and the term has little use.  But  that’s only because of the artificially strong sense you’ve given to “know”.  And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.
Best,
Gary

Well, nice.  He responded quickly, if not tersely.  Of course I didn’t give him much to chew on, and I have no way to know if he ever read my post I linked him to.  I doubt he did.

So, what about his response? I thought he was still missing the point, so I sat and started typing, and eventually replied with the following:

*sigh*

I think you have misunderstood my perspective, and would like to try and be more clear, if I can.  I’m mot saying that I am reserving judgment NOR am I saying that I believe that god does not exist.  Neither of those positions are those of the atheist who has considered the philosophical implications of the question at hand.   That’s what you are missing, I think.  The position of the vast majority of atheists I know from the atheist community is that we are not convinced that a god exists.  Our judgment (again, not a reserved one) is that the claim has not been sufficiently demonstrated towards rational belief, while recognizing that we cannot say with absolute or high certainty that the proposed being cannot or does not exist.

This goes to your second point; I am not using the term “know” in this absolute sense either, but rather it’s more fluid common usage accepted by philosophers of many stripes.  I’m an agnostic because I recognize that there is information I do not have, perspectives I have not considered, and because it is not logically impossible for many concepts of god to exist.  Thus some god might exist beyond my current level of knowledge (or not exist beyond my current state of knowledge, depending, of course, on whether I actually believe in such a being currently) but this is not the point.  Again, this is not a epistemologically absolutist position, but rather one of relative strength in the vein of scientific knowledge; overwhelming evidence is sufficient for using the term “know.”

You said:

And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.

This does not touch my use of the term agnostic at all.  In fact, it coheres with it, somewhat ironically.  Allow me to explain;

The first clause I will not grant aside from the trivial point that any word could be used in any way a person chooses to use it.  But if we are striving for philosophical precision, we must try to maintain a consistency of terms insofar as they do not stray too far from usefulness in distinguishing concepts in context to the discussion at hand.  ‘Agnostic’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’, and in the context of the question of god’s existence this term plays the role of the question of knowledge, rather than belief, because these are epistemologically different concepts (knowledge and belief) and thus need to be distinguished in being precise.  By allowing ‘agnosticism’ to bleed into the question of belief, one fails to recognize that this distinction is relevant.

And if you think that knowledge and belief are not that easily distinct, then you need to demonstrate why and how this impacts the question at hand.  I do not believe you have done so thus far.  However, I do think that this issue might be a point of our misunderstanding of one-another.  I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

In terms of your second clause from above,

There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.,

this is possibly trivially true, but again you miss the point.  You are creating the wrong dichotomy to understand how I’m using the term ‘atheist.’  I’ll try and pry apart the relevant issues.

I accept, from the start, that there is no rational way to demonstrate that there are no gods of any kind.  I cannot prove a negative, nor am I trying to.  The problem here is that the antecedent ‘dis-‘ in ‘disbelieve’ is ambiguous in that it can mean both “opposite of” or “absence of,” and the logical distinction between these meanings is the very heart of this misunderstanding.  It’s precisely why I use the terminology of “lacking” belief, so as to get rid of this ambiguity.  The term “lack” implies that I’m not saying “there is no god” or “I believe that there is no god” but rather that “the evidence is insufficient to believe, and so I don’t believe.”

The implication of this is that I will go about my day as if said being does not exist even if I know, when pressed, that I cannot logically believe that it does not exist.  The further implication is that the position of “believing that it’s false” is off the table; it is not a position under consideration.  (At least for me.  There are some that try to move in this direction, especially about specific concepts of gods, but this is beyond atheism and into another topic, perhaps anti-theism or some other term that may be more appropriate.  But I digress….).

Thus the dichotomy that you, and many others, draw between [edit*] belief in and the belief of absence (“in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.”) is not the same one that I draw.  You are drawing a distinction between two beliefs, while I am drawing a distinction between believing and not believing.  Again, this is a judgment, just not in favor of any belief.  My judgment is that the evidence and reasons proposed for the existence of any gods fail to demonstrate what they seek to demonstrate towards rational belief, and thus I lack belief. I disbelieve. I am an atheist.  I am without belief.  I do not ‘believe that their is a lack of gods’, I ‘lack belief in any gods.’  I hope you understand the distinction now.

So those that can fall under “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” do not make the point I think you wish to make.  Why?  Your formulation of the statement fits the definition of ‘agnostic’ in the same way that a ‘carpenter’ could be defined as a person who either believes in fairies or that the proposition of fairies is false; the term has nothing to do with the dichotomy at all.  That was my point; whether one is a theist (believes), an anti-theist (believes a god does not exist), or an atheist (simply lacks belief) any of them could be an agnostic because agnosticism deals with what one knows, not with what one believes.  The term ‘agnostic’ has nothing to do with “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” except in the trivial sense in which the formulation and the term are not mutually exclusive.  They do not touch each-other at all.

You make the claim that “there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge)” but do not support this.  I tried to show here why your subsequent clause did not wed agnosticism to belief in any way but a trivial one of non-exclusivity.  In other words, I have not seen sufficient evidence (or reasoning) for your claim, thus don’t believe it.  It may still be true, but that’s for you to demonstrate.  The burden of proof still resides with you.  See the analogy?

I’ll state my position again, and hope you’ll understand this time.  I’m an agnostic; I don’t know if any gods exist.  This is a given because nobody knows, either absolutely or by use of the term ‘know’ in a less absolutist sense.  The term is thus redundant and thus useless; I toss the word to the side because it does not clarify my position in any way, except in the semi-trivial sense of being clear about my use of the term.  Anyone who says that they know there is a god (or that they know there is not one) has the burden of proof, and I shall await their proof or overwhelming evidence.

I have not been convinced either way. The theist has not convinced me, and neither has the one claiming that there are no gods. I have judged both of their arguments to be insufficient to demonstrate their propositions.

Since I have not been convinced by the proposition (again, either one), even in light of attempts to demonstrate said being(s) existence (or against it’s existence), I lack belief in the proposed being (and the proposed lack of being), and lack belief.

Atheists are not going around trying to show why god does not exist (except in rarer cases, who are the extreme exception.  These people are atheists, in that they lack belief, but are trying to take a further step in presenting an argument that gods do not exist, which goes beyond the definition of ‘atheism’ when we are being precise).

No, atheists are going around talking and writing about why they don’t believe in gods.  They are presenting their arguments as to why the arguments proposed for gods fail to be rationally, empirically, or emotionally compelling.  They are reacting to theology, not doing some bizzaro-world anti-theology (again, except for rare exceptions).

Don’t get caught up in the strong language of people saying “there is no god” because they are saying this in the same non-absolute sense that you objected to using “know” in your response above; They are not saying “there absolutely is no god” but rather “there is no reason, as far as I can see, to believe in one.  Thus, I go about my days as if there is no god.”



*I originally wrote that his dichotomy was between the absence of belief and the belief of absence. This was an oversight and should read like this;

Thus the dichotomy that you, and many others, draw between belief in and the belief of absence (“in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.”) is not the same one that I draw. You are drawing a distinction between two beliefs, while I am drawing a distinction between believing and not believing.

We’ll see if further conversation ensues.  In the mean time, I’ll leave this here for others who may be interested.
[edit]
Gutting also has a follow-up that’s not much better.  This is why philosophers annoy me (and that’s from having been a philosophy student…and may yet be one again…)
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Comments»

1. Gary Gutting on atheism and agnosticism (part 2) « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic - September 21, 2010

[…] The post is here. […]

2. Penn Jillette agrees with me about agnosticism! « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic - April 4, 2011

[…] So, when I saw this video just now, I was getting ready to be frustrated, because I have had to correct people (namely, Gary Gutting in those links) on this question about agnosticism a number of times […]


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