Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Just wanted to share....

While researching sources, definitions, and novel arguments for my forthcoming post on agnosticism, I found this interesting tidbit regarding strong agnosticism (as opposed to weak agnosticism,) and thought a few of you might have something to say about it.

Weak agnosticism makes the uncontroversial claim that a person may claim to personally have no knowledge of gods. Strong agnosticism, however, goes considerably further by claiming that knowledge of gods is impossible to acquire.

"One interesting criticism of this strong agnosticism is that for a person to adopt the position that knowledge of gods is impossible, they essentially concede that they know something about gods — not to mention the nature of reality itself. This, then, would suggest that strong agnosticism is self-refuting and untenable."

Well how about that.


  1. For example, if an agnostic were to say "Knowledge of gods is impossible to obtain," is this a statement of his belief or of his knowledge? How can a person know that knowledge of gods is impossible? He could only ever *believe* that, no?

  2. My opinion of strong agnosticism would depend upon the context in which it was used and how the terms were defined. From what I understand, strong agnosticism is a belief about knowledge--opinion based epistemology. Usually and unsurprisingly, there is no mention of facts or verifiable evidence present in these conversations.

    This is a cheap parlor trick used by theists in an attempt to make an atheist or agnostic claim absolute certainty about agnosticism. What's weird is it's hard to imagine why one would think a you're-just-as-bad-as-me argument would be a satisfying intellectual position--but to each his own.

    I guess it's just more of the many exceptions made for gods flying directly into the unforgiving teeth of reality.

  3. I'm just still unclear on when it is ever ok to declare knowledge impossible *in principle*, even in cases dealing with gods or whether or not we see red the same way. Saying something is impossible, it seems, could only ever mean "I can't think of any way in which it might be possible."

  4. I think you're in danger of being dragged into an argument demanding absolute certainty as proof in a world where probability works just fine. That sword can cut both ways.

    "Saying something is impossible, it seems, could only ever mean 'I can't think of any way in which it might be possible.'"

    I think the implication here is that the meaning of the term "impossible" has a connotation of certainty, and one might imagine that a possibility of a god (or garden fairy) could exist beyond our present understanding--no matter how remote. This doesn't prove a damn thing but I think it would be imprudent to dismiss the possibility wholesale.

    The safe bet is declaring a metaphysical claim "impossible" based on evidence, probability, and past precedent.

    On the other hand, metaphysical claims are, by their very definition, beyond knowledge as we generally understand it so claims to the contrary are simply presuppositional assertions.

    Evidence is the only means of acquiring knowledge--at least the only one that counts and is reliable.

  5. And on one other hand (like in Patrick's vlog photo), taking this course of argument is contra to Russell's teapot analogy and implies accepting the burden of proof for every outrageous unfalsifiable claim.

    I guess it would come down to triviality, which, for me, puts teapots and gods in the same supernatural boat. Others would disagree because of emotional investment.

    Your line of argument could hinge loosely on another Russell's distinctions: whether you were addressing philosophers at a philosophical association or drunk Christians at Toot's during happy hour--admittedly, a loose distinction.

  6. I guess I just get uncomfortable when dealing with absolutes. The word "impossible" makes me antsy, since we regularly engage in activities that would have been deemed impossible only a few short years ago.

    I think the faint whiff of perceived certainty in some atheistic pronouncements is what makes Nagy twitchy, too. This is (to me) easily remedied by focusing on what is actually being asserted: I don't *know* that all metaphysical claims are false, but I do *know* that I haven't seen any good reason to believe any of them.

  7. Absolutes aren't necessary. Better to err on the side of circumspection, though perhaps an enhanced version: I haven't seen any good reason to believe any metaphysical God claims and can't now imagine that any are forthcoming. But the door is crack'd...

    But admittedly, I'm more likely to say that to my agnostic friends. When in the company of atheists I'm less circumspect. "We could be wrong" then goes without saying. I'm ok with "knowing" things I could be wrong about, but I'm not going to assert that confidence when in hostile company. Still trying to win hearts and minds here.

    1. This is something that I've talked with Rabbi Rami about a few times. Is there a responsibility to be "honest" (in the loosest sense of the term) with different audiences? Or put another way, if you "know" something but always say "I could be wrong" isn't that sort of a cop-out? That's always been the atheist/theist stances I've seen, people SAY they "could be wrong" but they don't really actually believe any such thing, they're quite sure that they're right.

      I guess that probably depends on the individual in question.

    2. A person can be sure (or firmly believe) that they are right, while admitting the *possibility* that they could be wrong. This is what science does, day in and day out. It not only admits the possibility of error, but then actively tries to prove itself wrong.

      This is all I was trying to get it, ultimately.

  8. David,

    Check out Shermer's piece in "50 Voices..." entitled "How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science" (Page 65).

    There's a section called: Theist, Atheist, Agnostic--What Is in a Name?

    You might find something in there for your midterm series.

    1. I'll check it out, Dean. My Web Development class is eating my lunch at the moment, I'm afraid.

  9. Also worth a look: Shermer's "Why I Am An Atheist" -

    I AM AN ATHEIST. There, I said it. Are you happy, all you atheists out there who have remonstrated with me for adopting the agnostic moniker? If “atheist” means someone who does not believe in God, then an atheist is what I am.
    But I detest all such labels. Call me what you like — humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nontheist, freethinker, heretic, or even bright. I prefer skeptic. Still, all such labels are just a form of cognitive economy, a shortcut into pigeonholing our fellow primates into tidy categories that supplant the deeper probing of what someone actually thinks and says...


    Also note some thoughtful comments, including #22.