First, a quick review. In my first two posts, I attempted to come to some reasonable definitions for both atheism and agnosticism. For atheism, I like “a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” For agnosticism, I settled on “the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.” Putting these two definitions side by side should give the reader some rather unsurprising insight into the position that I intend to illuminate in the course of this essay: properly defined, atheism and agnosticism should not ever be in conflict. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that should you find yourself thinking that the two stances are at odds, you are “doing it wrong.” In other words, you are either adopting an unjustified definition, or you are carrying some bias, or you are simply using words incorrectly. To put it yet another way: if you accept the two definitions above and still think that atheism and agnosticism are incompatible, you have some explaining to do.
Maybe a few examples of how belief and knowledge can coexist would be helpful. Let’s look at some mundane and not so mundane statements, bearing in mind the following conditions:
1. Absolute knowledge is in all likelihood impossible, and is therefore not a reasonable standard.
2. It is possible to know the status of one’s own beliefs.
3. The presence of a belief precludes the absence of that belief, and vice versa. In other words, you either believe X or you lack a belief in X. If you lack a belief in X, then you do not believe in X (either actively or passively.)
4. The burden of proof rests with the party making any particular claim (with respect to #1.)
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, on to the examples! Consider the following statements:
“I sometimes feel nostalgic.”
“I am not right handed.”
“Australia is a continent in the southern hemisphere.”
“The sun is an enormous cloud of hydrogen undergoing sustained gravitational collapse offset by nuclear fusion.”
“I love my girlfriend, and she loves me.”
“I love God, and God loves me.”
These statements represent a broad cross section of the kinds of statements that it is possible to make regarding belief and knowledge, running the gamut from subjective first person claims to objective claims about the natural (and supernatural) world. Let’s look at each one in turn.
When I make a claim about my own state of mind, this can be thought of as an objective claim about a subjective state (assuming that I am not lying.) Perhaps someday, neuroscience will allow us to somehow verify these claims in a way that we currently cannot. But for now, people have to be relied upon to report their own mental state, for there simply is no other way to gain access to it. In other words, to say that I sometimes feel nostalgic is for me to know that I am sometimes nostalgic. Belief doesn’t enter into the matter. The person evaluating my claim, however, is presented with a different situation. They must decide whether or not it is justified to believe that I do indeed sometimes feel nostalgic. If this evaluator was especially motivated, they might interview me, observe my actions for some period of time, or ask questions of my friends and family. But all of this seems rather involved an unnecessary, does it not? In general, people can be relied upon to know what they feel, think, and believe about their own state of mind. And as long as we have no reason to think that the person in question is being dishonest, we can be justified in believing their claim.
My claim about whether or not I am right handed is amenable to a higher degree of observable verification. By definition, to be right or left handed means that you are more proficient using one hand over the other. This makes it a rather simple matter to test this claim, by experiment and observation. If these observations bear out my claim, then it would be reasonable to believe it. Note that it might still be possible for the underlying truth of my claim to be false, however. I might actually be ambidextrous, and capable of hiding this fact from direct observation. So while it would certainly be possible for a person to believe my claim of not being right handed, this believe might be based on flawed observational knowledge.
Once we move to the continental scale, things become even easier. Yes, the Earth is a big place, but not that big. In the age of airplanes, cruise ships, GPS satellites, and Australians (!), it is simply not reasonable to hold any dissenting opinions about the status of Australia’s existence or relative position. There is a plethora of evidence attesting to both, and my beliefs about it are well informed by all sorts of mutually buttressing knowledge. Is it possible that we have, all of us, been deceived in some way about these seemingly indisputable facts about Australia? That is one awfully heavy burden of proof to bear, and I can’t imagine how it could be the case. But, even in this extreme case, some vanishingly small sliver of agnosticism might be (barely) reasonably entertained. But honestly, we would have to be talking about a Matrix or Truman Show level event. That is an awful lot of wool to be pulled over an awful lot of eyes. In other words, I’m not losing any sleep over the possibility.
The sun is a very similar case, though it is different in a few crucial ways. We cannot walk on the surface of the sun, obviously. We can’t talk to people who live there, or to anyone who has ever visited. We are forced to rely on the tools of science to extend our senses beyond what we are used to dealing with. We use spectrographs to peer into the invisible parts of light that our eyes cannot see. We propel spacecraft into orbit around the sun, studded with sensors that relay back enormous amounts of data that scientists then interpret. We use telescopes to peer out into the vast reaches of space, capturing other suns in various stages of birth, life, and death. Taken as a whole, these lines of evidence lead to a robust and growing body of knowledge about our sun. Using this knowledge, scientists can make accurate predictions about solar storms and sunspot cycles, centuries and even millennia into the future. With a simple almanac, anyone that cares to can judge for themselves the accuracy of this knowledge. Again, none of this precludes the possibility that we cannot be mistaken about particulars, or misinterpret specific pieces of data. In fact, this will surely be the case at some point. What it does indicate, however, is that our beliefs about the sun are very well informed by verifiable knowledge.
I love my girlfriend, and she loves me. Simple, right? As we have already established, I can be relied upon to be the judge of my own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. The thoughts of my girlfriend can be ascertained by her spoken words, her unspoken communications, and by judging her actions to be consistent or inconsistent with what it means to love someone (using some agreed upon definition.) This is all well and good, of course. I take all of these bits of data into account, and I form a belief (based on my knowledge of the perceived facts) that my girlfriend does indeed love me. Is possible that my belief is incorrect, that is to say that it is actually inconsistent with the actual facts? Yes, such a situation is possible (or at least conceivable.) The movie Total Recall is the example that immediately springs to my mind. The protagonist had suffered the loss of specific memories from his past, and found himself in the position of having had these missing memories replaced with false ones. His wife, who professed her love for him, was actually a double agent only acting as though she loved him. Thus, our hero found himself in a situation where his beliefs were not consistent with reality. Once the deception was revealed, he was free to revise his beliefs in order to bring them into line with this new knowledge. So to recap, a person can sincerely believe something, and know that they believe it, even if their belief is based on incorrect knowledge. Based on his knowledge of the world around him, the Total Recall protagonist was justified in believing that his wife loved him. But this belief couldn’t be reconciled with reality, once the truth was revealed.
Our final example is where things get really sketchy. At first blush, it looks to be very similar to the previous example, mainly owing to similarities in sentence structure. Our first problem, however, lies with the object of my love. When the object is my girlfriend, everything is peachy. She is a real person, just like me, available for observation, experimentation, inspection (careful, she bites), and conversation. In other words, the existence of my girlfriend is such that she is a valid object to be loved. God does not enjoy the same status of existence. He (it, she, they?) is not available for observation, experimentation, inspection, or conversation.
Maybe I am referring to God as a concept, like freedom or democracy? Certainly both of these things can be and have been loved by countless people over the years. But we cannot reach a reasonable agreement on what the concept of God is, not like we can with concepts like freedom. And to further screw the “God is a concept” pooch, how can you be loved in return by a concept? Someone is simply not using words correctly. Instead, they are using unverified and unverifiable statements of anecdotal and authoritative dogma that have been passed down from antiquity to construct their beliefs. Everything we “know” about God comes to us through indirect channels. We are unable to “go to the source”, as it were. Thus, we have no reliable knowledge about the person (or concept) of God. Therefore, any beliefs that a person has about God must necessarily be based on exceedingly weak knowledge.
The real rub, as we all know, comes in the unfalsifiable nature of knowledge claims about God. How can a person ever be proven to be wrong about their beliefs about God? They simply can’t, not as long as they are determined to believe things for bad reasons. Unlike our Total Recall protagonist, “God” could only ever be outed as a ruse after the person’s death. And that is just a little too late for our purposes.
So, where does that leave us? Good question, because we have drifted far afield of where we started. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
1. People form beliefs based on observed states of the world, which we call knowledge.
2. Nobody has perfect knowledge (you can’t prove a negative.)
3. It is possible to believe something, and have that belief be based on incorrect knowledge.
4. The best we can hope for is to remain open to new evidence, and adjust our beliefs accordingly.
Therefore, I can make the following statements:
I don’t believe in God, but I am always open to new evidence.
I believe that there is no God, but I don’t know that he doesn’t exist.
I don’t believe that God exists, and I live my life as though he doesn’t.
I can know what I believe, while also knowing that my beliefs are based on provisional knowledge.
I am an agnostic atheist.