Agnosticism - Study Notes
AGNOSTICISM by Robin Le Poidevin [OUP Very Short Introduction Series, 2010]
Robin Le Poidevin is Professor of Metaphysics at the University of Leeds. He is the author of various books and numerous articles, mainly in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. In the Preface to his book on Agnosticism he states that he offers a defence of ‘an agnosticism that is compatible with a religious way of life and outlook’. We shall see where this rather interesting statement leads.
In the Introduction to his book he notes that ‘a common view is that (agnosticism) is nothing more than ticking the ‘don’t know’ box on the question of God’s existence’. It often seems to stand for ‘lack of belief or commitment’ or ‘for indecision, for non-engagement’, sitting on the fence or the compromise position of ‘flapping around in the middle’ between theism (belief in a God) and atheism (belief there is no God).
But Le Poidevin points out that the first people to call themselves ‘agnostics’ were in fact concerned with a question of principle relating to the nature of knowledge itself and how we acquire it. He quotes Richard Dawkins who says ‘there is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack evidence one way or the other. It is the reasonable position.’ He goes on, ‘it is currently reasonable to be agnostic about the existence of extra-terrestrial life.... agnosticism is not confined to the religious domain.... it is a proper part of the scientific attitude’. I would merely add that it is only commonsense to be ‘agnostic’ about anything at all where the evidence either way is lacking or inconclusive.
However, Dawkins goes on to argue that agnosticism should only be a ‘purely temporary position while we wait for the evidence to arrive.... once it does, neutrality is no longer defensible’. And in connection with up-to-date scientific evidence on how life evolved, he says there is no longer a need to believe in a divine creator, so that ‘atheism is now the most reasonable stance’. So there are anti-agnostic arguments advanced not only by theists who believe in God but also by atheists who do not. Therefore Le Poidevin says we have plenty of questions to consider, for example is agnosticism a belief or the absence of belief? If God’s existence cannot be established, ‘shouldn’t there be a presumption of atheism?’ And, ‘how should agnostics live their agnosticism?’
Chapter 1 is ‘What is agnosticism?’ The two views mentioned earlier were (i) the ‘don’t know’ position on God’s existence and (ii) a compromise between theism and atheism (usually vaguely worded and not really meaning one thing or another). The ‘don’t know’ position may be a response to the question ‘does God exist?’ but it is not an answer, it is an admission that one doesn’t have an answer. It could be a comment or an attitude towards the debate between theists and atheists, but it is not a position within that debate.
Much more interesting is ‘strong agnosticism’. The ‘weak’ position is the simple ‘don’t know’ position; ‘strong agnosticism’ on the other hand specifically asserts that we cannot know whether or not God exists. Of course, this position has to be based on a criterion by which we can determine what counts as knowledge. How stringent should this criterion be, and how can it be defined or identified?
The ‘balance of probabilities’ means we assess the evidence for our beliefs in probabilistic terms. Le Poidevin gives two examples from science: in cosmology, the ‘steady state’ theory of the universe versus the ‘big bang’ theory, and in biology the theory of evolution versus divine creationism as explanations for the way different species are adapted for survival in their various habitats. In each case, the critical factor in determining which theory we adopt is evidence rather than speculation or conjecture. Evidence, of course, means observation and test (where possible) which confirm or disconfirm a theory as the case may be. Sometimes a theory has to spend a long time in what we could call the ‘pending tray’ so to speak while further observations may be needed and we have to be ‘agnostic’ about its outcome for the time being. This is ‘evidential agnosticism’.
Le Poidevin says, ‘belief in God, you may point out, is not belief in a hypothesis, any more than belief that there is a world out there in front of us is a hypothesis’. People can believe there is a God without claiming this is a ‘hypothesis’ of any sort; it is often a matter of ‘faith’ which we’ll come back to later. On the other hand he could have mentioned that belief in a God often is a hypothesis as when a theologian says for example that everything in the universe is ‘explained’ by its having been created by a God.
Le Poidevin relates Richard Dawkins’ distinction between Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP), the same as our ‘pending tray’ analogy, and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). PAP deals with questions that are permanently undecidable, for example whether we all see the same colours in exactly the same way. If the evidence is mixed or indeterninate, this would lead us to permanent evidential agnosticism.
Chapter 2 is ‘Who were the first agnostics?’ Le Poidevin records that the first people to call themselves ‘agnostics’ were the biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), the one-time priest Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). They formed the ‘Metaphysical Society’ in 1868. Huxley coined the term ‘agnostic’ as a derivative from the word ‘gnostic’. This denoted a pre-Christian religious sect which claimed a special understanding of the nature of God.
But the origins of agnosticism as an idea go back much earlier than 1868. Le Poidevin briefly outlines the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) whose Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788) led to the conclusion that knowledge is limited to objects of ‘possible experience’ and that we can say nothing of any realm beyond this. Attempts had been made to establish the existence of God through rational arguments, but Kant showed how they failed. But Kant was mainly concerned with the limits of knowledge as such, rather than to specifically advocate agnosticism.
Earlier than Kant, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) outlined arguments against religious belief that were decidedly sceptical. Hume was an empiricist, meaning that all knowledge has its ultimate source in experience – what we see, hear, touch, taste or smell. More complex ideas such as measurement can then be developed. What is called ‘Hume’s Fork’ means that all possible objects of knowledge can be divided into two kinds, matters of fact and relations of ideas. These are very different. It is a matter of fact that there is a tree in my garden, but this state of affairs could have been otherwise (if I had decided to chop it down for example). Relations of ideas concern things that could not be otherwise in any conceivable circumstances, e.g. the square root of 36 is 6, all bipeds have two feet and so on. These are necessarily true because they are true by definition.
It is important not to confuse these two very different types of knowledge. In particular, ‘necessity’ only applies to relations of ideas; it cannot apply to matters of fact which can always in principle be otherwise. These ideas are the basis of Hume’s scepticism towards religious belief in a deity whose existence is supposed to be ‘necessary’. As a present-day analytic philosopher might put it, the sentence ‘God does not exist’ is not self-contradictory, therefore the sentence ‘God exists’ cannot be ‘necessarily true’. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779, contain incisive critiques of the traditional theological arguments for God’s existence (the ‘cosmological argument’, the ‘ontological argument’, the argument from ‘design’ and so on).
However, Hume astutely avoided outright atheism. That is because to assert ‘there is no God’ has no more hard evidence in its support than asserting that there is. Hume would also have been aware of the difficulties of conclusively proving negative existential statements of a generalized nature.
Le Poidevin concludes this chapter with a brief look at the Pyrrhonian sceptics in ancient Greece named after Pyrrho (365-270 BC). The most influential leader of the ancient Greek sceptics was Sextus Empiricus who lived around 200 BC. Le Poidevin says ‘there is clearly a connection between agnosticism and scepticism, but there are also important differences’. He says that ‘agnosticism is a state of mind; scepticism a method’. Here I would disagree: agnosticism is often a set of ideas or conclusions, not simply ‘a state of mind’.
Chapter 3 is entitled ‘Is agnosticism necessary?’. Le Poidevin starts with American writer Carl Sagan’s ‘fable’ of the dragon who lives in his garage. You cannot see it, hear it or touch it, but if you conclude it doesn’t exist you’d be wrong. That is because it is invisible, inaudible and intangible – but it exists, and you haven’t disproved it although you might think you have. Then Le Poidevin relates Bertrand Russell’s example of an object for which there is no positive evidence. This is the idea of a teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars, too small to be seen by the most powerful telescope but its existence cannot be disproved. Russell drew a parallel between belief in a deity and belief in his fictional teapot: in both cases, the fact that neither can be disproved does not amount to a proof ‘by default’ of their existence.
There is another ‘moral’ to be drawn from these stories. The fact that we cannot prove there is no dragon or no teapot does not make the likelihood of their existing equal to the likelihood of their not existing. That is because neither of them have been seen, so there is a presumption against their existence which requires no further defence. The onus of proof lies with defenders (if any) of the dragon and/or teapot to provide positive reasons for believing in them. By implication, the same should apply to belief in a deity.
Richard Dawkins maintains ‘theism is in a similar position to belief in the teapot (or dragon).’ But Le Poidevin raises another question: is the analogy between religious belief and Sagan’s dragon or Russell’s teapot a fair one? He says that the existence or otherwise of Sagan’s dragon or Russell’s teapot makes no difference to anything at all in the real world, but the question of God’s existence or otherwise does make a significant difference to such questions as what is the purpose of life, why do we have a moral conscience, and so on.
This may be so, but I do wonder if Le Poidevin has missed the point. Russell and Sagan were primarily concerned with a question of principle - the impossibility of claiming that something exists without tangible, unequivocal evidence for it, arguably the most basic point of all and directly relevant to the question of God’s existence or otherwise. I would add that on questions such as the purpose of life, having a moral conscience etc., secular answers are available, particularly from Bertrand Russell who wrote on them at length!
Le Poidevin concludes Chapter 3 with a longish discussion of whether atheism is the ‘default position’ – that is, to maintain it is ‘up to theists to convince us that there is a God’. But what is the ‘default position’ in any debate? He itemizes various possibilities:- (i) Whatever both parties to a debate can agree upon; (ii) The ‘negative’ position which says that such-and-such is not the case; (iii) Whatever belief is held by the majority; (iv) Whichever view is less likely to be true. After considerable discussion, Le Poidevin arrives at agnosticism as the most viable ‘default position’ because it makes no presumption of either theism or atheism (although atheists might still argue that atheism should be the default position).
Chapter 4 is ‘Why be agnostic?’ Le Poidevin starts by saying ‘it is a mark of a good scientific hypothesis that it is subject to tests whose outcome would confirm or disconfirm it’. He gives two historic examples from astronomy and chemistry where positive results were established. But he asks, ‘is such a test available in the theological sphere?’. He takes ‘a brief look at a selection of case studies which illustrate the unavoidable ambiguity of the evidence’.
Case study 1 is intelligence. This could be defined, perhaps, as ‘conscious representational thought’. Intelligence was once held to have been created by Divine Providence, and could not have come about through the random behaviour of atoms. But as Dawkins says, the ‘random or designed?’ dichotomy is a false one. The answer is evolution – ‘it gradually emerges by a series of small steps, a gradual increase in complexity in living systems and their capacity to adapt and survive’. Le Poidevin goes on: ‘natural selection, then, appears to make theism redundant as an explanation of intelligence’.
Case study 2 is life and the laws of nature. Life could not even have started to evolve unless the conditions were ‘just right’ – they had to be ‘fine tuned’ for it, and this could not have come about by chance, but only through God. After some rather inconclusive discussion of ‘multiverses’, Le Poidevin concludes ‘we are just reduced to guesswork’ on this question.
Case study 3 is the moral conscience. The theological explanation is that the conscience is created in us by God. The naturalistic explanation is complex, but Le Poidevin identifies social conditioning as a key factor. This means understanding and applying behavioural rules – hence, the ‘conscience’, although that is of course a very simplified account.
Case study 4 is the presence of God. This relates to ‘religious experience’ where people report direct perceptions of the deity. But not everybody has such experiences (in fact few do), and what tests can there be that distinguish between whether they are authentic or illusory?
Case study 5 is the absence of God. God is supposedly benevolent, yet the world we live in can hardly be the creation of a benevolent deity with its ‘famines, floods, disease, earthquakes, war, terrorism, political instability, religious intolerance’ etc.. We could add that although human beings are responsible for many of these evils, why did God create human beings like that in the first place? Many people regard the existence of evil as an open-and-shut, no-argument prima facie case against the existence of a benevolent God.
Many atheists regard the points raised in this chapter as sufficient to justify their atheism. Le Poidevin, however, says ‘the five pieces of evidence [as just quoted] show how ambiguous that evidence is’. I do not agree, but he goes on, ‘the case for agnosticism is... there is no firm basis on which we can judge atheism to have a greater intrinsic probability than theism’ (p76). I think many atheists would regard that as very debatable.
Chapter 5 is ‘Does agnosticism rest on a mistake?’. Le Poidevin identifies some basic assumptions about the ‘God hypothesis’:-
(i) It is either true or false;
(ii) It is to be understood literally;
(iii) Belief in its truth is only rational if based on reasons that don’t just assume that God exists;
(iv) Those reasons must appeal to sufficient evidence for the hypothesis.
These assumptions seem very obvious and reasonable, and most theists, atheists and agnostics would probably agree with them. But they have been challenged, in particular by the Logical Positivists. Logical Positivism, which originated around 1930 at the University of Vienna, held that any sentence purporting to convey or describe a fact had to be subject to the verification principle. Verification meant observation and/or test, and if a purportedly factual sentence could not in principle be verified or falsified through observation and/or test then it was, literally, neither true nor false but meaningless. See Language, Truth and Logic (1936) by A.J. Ayer. Very similar to Hume’s ideas, the only sentences which the Logical Positivists allowed outside of observation and/or test were ‘analytic’ sentences which were true by definition (e.g. ‘2+3=5’, ‘a husband is a married man’, etc.).
The logical positivist criterion of meaning excluded ethical and aesthetic discourse which were held not to express moral or aesthetic ‘facts’, but purely emotions of approval (or otherwise). Likewise theological and metaphysical discourse was held to be literally meaningless as its content was external to any possible human experience based on observation and/or test. ‘Inner experience’, intuition etc. were ruled out as methods of obtaining objective knowledge for the simple reason that different people’s intuitions etc. are notoriously contrary to each other and therefore unreliable in the absence of objective criteria. Contrariety also occurs in the various sacred writings of all the different religions.
But as well as excluding theism from the realm of the meaningful, logical positivism also excluded atheism. That is because if it is nonsensical to assert ‘there is a god’ it is equally nonsensical to assert ‘there is no god’, for exactly the same reasons. In both cases statements have been made which are beyond the scope of observation and/or test, and therefore have no literal meaning. The same applies, by parity of reasoning, to agnosticism which, as Le Poidevin puts it, is ‘completely redundant’ (see Language, Truth and Logic, Chapter 6). And so far as the Logical Positivist is concerned, that is the end of the matter.
A counter-argument which Le Poidevin puts up against Logical Positivism is to query the status of the Verification Principle. Can it be used to test or verify itself? If not then it too is meaningless. This was one of the earliest criticisms of it, but the answer is very simple which Ayer made perfectly clear. The Verification Principle is not itself an empirical hypothesis which requires verification; it is simply a semantic distinction between different types of discourse – the empirical, the analytic and the emotive. Logical Positivism is, incidentally, the direct ‘ancestor’ of present-day analytical philosophy.
Le Poidevin then relates how Theology in the 20th century seemed to ‘re-invent’ the meaning of theological discourse. Theologians such as Bultmann, Tillich and Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson sought to ‘demythologize’ Christian scripture and doctrine. Religious language was re-interpreted as not making assertions but ‘expressive of a commitment to certain values, a desire to live a certain kind of life, a willingness to view things from a certain perspective’ (p84). Le Poidevin goes on, ‘it looks very much as though from this perspective, the God hypothesis isn’t a hypothesis at all. It isn’t, that is, intended as a theory about the origin of the world’. Obviously, the ‘new theology’ invited criticism.
At this point Le Poidevin diverts into a brief account of how French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) sought a method of seeking absolute certainty for his beliefs. This was to start from a small set of premises which were indubitably true. He failed, and Le Poidevin makes the point that in such a system the premises had to be true beyond question. But he goes on, so long as there is uncertainty, ‘God beliefs’ cannot belong ‘to the foundational level of any system of rational belief’.
Le Poidevin concludes this chapter with a curious line of argument developed by William James (Harvard philosopher and psychologist, 1842-1910). He attacked the principle that it is wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. He pointed out that very few of our beliefs meet this very high standard. This is a persuasive argument, but where exactly does it lead? Even if it is true that many of our beliefs in everyday life ‘lack sufficient evidence’, this does not give us a warrant to believe anything at all without critical scrutiny. But James is concerned that on this basis, we might easily miss some ‘momentous truth’. However – James cautions against ‘uncritical credulity.... we should still continue to exercise our critical faculties’. His views (on Le Poidevin’s account at any rate) do seem rather ambiguous. James suggests that ‘agnosticism may be rational, but it is not emotionally sustainable’. But it is not clear why not, and I imagine some agnostics would challenge that assertion.
James’s view seems to be that passion, or feeling, is an integral part of religious belief. This may be perfectly true in a psychological sense, but to have a passion or a feeling does not in itself make a belief objectively true. As Le Poidevin puts it, ‘God is not Tinkerbell, who is kept alive by professions of belief in fairies’. I would add that the philosopher simply asks whether the sentence ‘God exists’ is true as a matter of fact, or not. This question is not answered by making enquiries as to the strength of feeling of religious believers – which can be very misleading. The sceptic could cite ample evidence that the greater or more intense the feeling that supports a belief, the likelier it is to be mistaken (as with fanaticism of one sort or another). The ‘argument from feeling’ can easily backfire.
In Chapter 6 Le Poidevin asks, ‘How should the agnostic live?’. I think the main problem with this chapter is that Le Poidevin does not seem to answer his own question. He tells us about how the agnostic might live or could live, but not much seems to be said about how the agnostic should live. He suggests an obvious answer to this question is to live the same way as an atheist. So the question then becomes, how should an atheist live?
The short answer is: the same way as anyone else, in any society, anywhere. One of the most ancient and timeless moral rules is the Golden Rule. This is to behave towards other people the same way as you would expect them to behave towards yourself (within reason, of course). This is not an abstract principle of moral philosophy – it is a basic moral obligation to be found in all human societies. Other moral rules follow from it – do not steal, do not murder, do not deceive and so on. Note that insofar as the Golden Rule makes no reference to a deity, it is particularly relevant to how atheists and agnostics should live. It could perhaps be augmented by Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” – on moral questions, always ask yourself ‘what if everyone did that?’ The answer is usually very instructive. Le Poidevin does not discuss any of this, although I think it is relevant.
His preoccupation in this chapter seems to be how should the agnostic, specifically, live? Obviously one would not expect an agnostic to ‘engage in prayer, worship, refer to religious ideas in deciding what they should do, and so on’. But he notes that some agnostics seem to retain, consciously or unconsciously, elements of their earlier religious conviction(s). Analogously in science, ‘Newtonian physics may continue to be used to calculate motions and forces, even though it was as a theory superseded by relativistic physics’. A useful analogy. Moral agnosticism, however, is entirely different. The ‘scientific agnostic’ who is ignorant of post-Newtonian physics could still (just about) be called a ‘scientist’ in a manner of speaking, but there is no way a person who literally does not know the correct answer on moral questions could in any way be described as ‘a moral agent’. We can readily agree, but Le Poidevin does not make it clear what conclusions are supposed to follow from this.
Le Poidevin then diverts, somewhat, into giving an account of Pascal’s Wager. This is to say it is better to wager that God exists than to wager that he does not. If you wager that he does not exist but it turns out that he does, then you could be punished and spend the rest of eternity in Hell. But if you wager that he does exist but he doesn’t, you’ll be none the worse for it. Therefore it is more prudent to wager that God exists.
William James objected that this would be to believe in God on the basis of ‘cold-blooded calculation’, rather than ‘a passionate commitment to something for its own sake’. This brings us back to his ‘argument from feeling’ which we noted a moment ago. It only tells us what you feel – but nothing else.
But it seems that Le Poidevin is very concerned with the question of feeling. And from a logical point of view, I see no problem here except for one potential pitfall. Logic and philosophy do not, of course, prescribe what you should or should not feel. Therefore as Le Poidevin says, ‘a religious life is possible for the agnostic’, and I would add that this does not involve any logical contradiction at all – as far as it goes. The only proviso is the impossibility of deriving an objective, factual statement (such as ‘there is a god’) from a feeling you have such as faith or hope. Likewise a feeling of enthusiasm for the supernatural is not the same as evidence that ghosts exist....
Chapter 7, Le Poidevin’s concluding chapter, is ‘How should agnosticism be taught?’. It is difficult to summarize this chapter briefly, but the following quotation from it seems to put across the basic idea very neatly:-
‘Agnosticism should be presented as something positive, not simply a shrugging of the shoulders, but an honest recognition of uncertainty, where uncertainty itself is shown to have benefits: coping with uncertainty makes us more creative, more resilient, and leads to genuine intellectual progress. It also makes us more tolerant, and this is the key to understanding what effect agnosticism should have on religious education.’