Listing entries tagged with Agnostic

Agnosticism: "Because It Was Not the Sun"

posted on 09.05.2006 at 11:08 PM

Due sense of the general 'ignorance of man' would also beget in us a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever, which is real....If a man were to walk by twilight, must he not follow his eyes as much as if it were broad day and clear sunshine? ...He might lament that the darkness concealed many extended prospects from his eyes, and wish for the sun to draw away the veil: but how ridiculous would it be to reject with scorn and disdain the guidance and direction which that lesser light might afford him, because it was not the sun itself!

This is from a sermon by the 18th-century Anglican clergyman, Joseph Butler, in response to Ecclesiastes. Rev. Butler's point is religious: "Let us adore that infinite wisdom, and power, and goodness, which is above our comprehension."

But might not this powerful image be used by atheists to counter agnostic arguments? No we can't see into ever nook and cranny of the universe to say with absolute, 100-percent surety that no God lurks there, but can't we see enough to determine that the presence of such a being would be highly, highly unlikely?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:08 PM | Comments (1)

Agnostic Unfair to Atheists

posted on 08.29.2006 at 8:43 PM

Here is Thomas Henry Huxley's explanation for his desire to coin a new term, "agnostic," to express his relationship to religion:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker - I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis" - had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

But this is unfair to atheists, is it not? What about atheism implies a solution to the problem of existence?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:43 PM | Comments (3)

Curiouser and Curiouser?

posted on 08.23.2006 at 11:56 AM

"This is a mysterious universe, and the more we know about it the more mysterious it seems," the New York Times writes in a pretty little editorial on dark matter.

I wonder whether this is actually true. Is understanding gravity, as most of us do, but having no way to grasp the eleven dimensions of string theory really more mysterious than understanding what the sun and moon do, as educated Greeks did, but having no idea why the planets occasionally seem to zig or zag? Is the point that there are always going to be some things we, or our scientists, can get our minds around, and then, at the raggedy fringes, some we can't? Or are these forms of knowledge really accelerating beyond our grasp?

And then why do we continually try to squeeze even more primitive understandings -- Big Daddies in the sky -- into the holes that inevitably pop up in our increasingly sophisticated understandings?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:56 AM | Comments (2)

An Agnostic's Courage

posted on 08.16.2006 at 4:58 PM

thomas_huxley.jpg In July 1860, Thomas Huxley engaged in his famous face-off with the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, over Darwin's theory.

Bishop Wilberforce: "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?"

Huxley: "If then…the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."

A couple of months later Huxley's beloved eldest son died.

Huxley is responsible for the neologism "agnoticism." In defense of his new creed he proclaimed:

In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

However, Huxley was anything but uncertain in his opposition to "that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else,…is the deadly enemy of science."

And when a friend implied, gently, after his son's death, that the biologist might miss the comforts of religion, Huxley's response could not have been more staunch and unbending:

Had I lived a couple of centuries earlier, I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me…and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is: Oh devil! Truth is better than much profit….If wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (5)

Atheism Defined

posted on 08.12.2006 at 6:40 PM

Bradlaugh1.jpgHere's Charles Bradlaugh, one of history's most important atheists and a major character in my book, with an unusual description of his (lack of) beliefs:

The Atheist does not say "there is no god," but he says "I know not what you mean by god; I am without idea of god; the word god is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny god, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception."

Doesn't sound that far from agnosticism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:40 PM | Comments (18)

Death -- Part III

posted on 08.11.2006 at 2:23 PM

Euripides writes:

Who now can tell whether to live may not
Be properly to die. And whether that
Which men do call to die, may not in truth
Be but the entrance into real life?

This would seem to be among the aspects of religion the Europeans have outgrown? But shouldn't the "strict agnostic" acknowledge it as possibly true? Or do we have at least the right to say that it, like Martin Amis' universe-wide "intelligence," is hugely unlikely?

(Cited in Life of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laertius, trans. by, C. D. Younge)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:23 PM | Comments (3)

Waiting Out Religion

posted on 08.09.2006 at 11:41 PM

More from novelist Martin Amis (a nonbeliever who will no longer call himself an atheist), from a PBS interview with Bill Moyers:


MARTIN AMIS: I remember talking to Saul Bellow about this in his last years. And he did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel RAVELSTEIN, he said, "We all believe that. We just talk tough." And I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, "I don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, I don't believe that."

I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.

Cool. But "if ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature" to reject the possibility of a universe-wide "intelligence" -- as Amis states -- why is it okay to reject an afterlife? How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (6)

Too Many Questions to Be an Atheist?

posted on 08.07.2006 at 9:39 AM

Here's Bill Moyers interviewing one of my favorite novelists:

BILL MOYERS: You're not a believer?
MARTIN AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. Not a being, but an intelligence. And I don't mean intelligent design. I just mean why is it so vast, as Updike said, why not this attractive spattering of stars in the background be perfectly enough, you know? Why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes? These extraordinary quasars and black holes. What do we need all that for? So many questions remain, that I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more.

Pretty thoughts, as expected, but unexpectedly odd ones. In what sense would a cute, simple little universe (surrounded by what?) be more intelligible without "an intelligence"? (Wasn't it the apparent cuteness and simplicity of the pre-Copernican, earth-centered universe that supported the traditional notion of humans as God's chief concern?) Why should the universe be easily intelligible to two-eyed, one-brained us? How does the universe's lack of intelligibility increase the chances that there is "an intelligence" behind it? (The traditional religious argument was the opposite.) How might we have an "intelligence" that is "not a being"?

I love the notion that we'll need "eight more Einsteins." But hasn't the work of the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins we have already had been leading in one direction: away from a Prime Mover, away from a universe-designer, away from "some intelligence" (anthropomorphic or not)? Hasn't it been leading -- step by step -- toward a naturalistic, scientific understanding -- however difficult-- of an extremely large and complex universe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:39 AM | Comments (11)

"We Like the Story with the Tiger Better"

posted on 08.04.2006 at 6:32 PM

More from churchgoer Bill Moyer's PBS interview with "strict agnostic" novelist Margaret Atwood:

MARGARET ATWOOD: A book came out called THE LIFE OF PI, by a guy called Yann Martel. And it begins by saying, "I'm going to tell you a story that's going to make you believe in God." Then he goes off on this...seaman's yarn about getting lost in a life boat with a tiger and so on and so forth. And many strange and wonderful things happen to him until he pitches up on the shore of...South America. Where upon, according to him, the tiger jumps off the boat and runs off into the woods. And he's found starving on the shore, and he's put in the hospital. And then these three Japanese insurance inspectors turn up to find out what happened to the boat that blew up at the beginning of the story.
Then he tells them this whole story. And they confer it among themselves and they say, "We think that maybe your story isn't true. And that there was no tiger." And you know he says, "Well that may be so, but tell me this, which story do you like better? The story with the tiger or the story without the tiger." And the other men confer amongst themselves and they say, "Well actually we like the story with the tiger better." And our narrator starts to cry and he says, "thank you."
So we like the story with the tiger better. We like the story with God in it better then we like the story without God in it. Because it's more like us, it's more understandable, it's more human.
BILL MOYERS: More human with God?
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God because the story without God is about atoms. It's not about somebody we can talk with in theory, or that has any interest in us.... Whereas the universe, with an intelligence in it, has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are. How about that?

Is this how it is with the "strict agnostic" position: it is supposed to be about the impossibility of certainty, but it ends up being about the longing for a human-sounding story? How about that?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:32 PM | Comments (5)

"Atheism is a Religion"

posted on 08.02.2006 at 9:29 AM

While being interviewed by Bill Moyers recently, the novelist Margaret Atwood announced (thanks Esther) that she is an agnostic rather than an atheist because " a religion." Here is her explanation:

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.
BILL MOYERS: There is no God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.
BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what' a strict agnostic?


MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge.

And more:

MARGARET ATWOOD: ...Even, for instance, a physicist, will say: Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity." And you will say..., "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know."

I believe there are answers to her argument, which is primarily epistemological, in analytic philosophy and in the ancient Greek philosophy of Carneades and his argument about "plausibility": If not knowing about the Tooth Fairy and the origins of the Big Bang are judged the same thing, I fear we won't get too far. But my favorite answer would be that of all the things one might put before the Big Bang some omnipotent, omnibenevolent creature would be not only the least plausible but the most confounding.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:29 AM | Comments (12)