Monday, 3 September 2007

An Argument for Agnosticism (Martin)

The following is a cross-post written by Martin Cooke from Enigmania:

Either the world was deliberately created, so that some sort of theism is true, or else atheism is true, but both options involve us in such mysteries (as the two below) that to choose either, given only such evidence as is publicly available (and so worthy of being called ‘evidence’), would be to favour irrationally one mystery over another, whence agnosticism (i.e. the absence of a belief either way) is to be preferred.

The obvious problem with theism is that, when we look at the world we see only mundane things, no gods and not even angels or fairies. We don’t even see any clear evidence that the world was deliberately created, or is being guided from above, or even watched over. But more importantly our language is so orientated towards the world that we are unable even to form a clear idea of what its creator might be like.

Conversely we know a lot about the world. We even know that our brains are composed of many brain cells, each of which is composed of a lot of organic molecules, many of them highly complicated but all of them composed of atoms. Atoms themselves have a very tidy structure (as shown, for example, by the Periodic table of the elements), and they are the building blocks of, not just brain cells but rodents and radishes, rocks and raindrops, robots and radios.

But it is precisely because we know so much about how atoms behave that it is so troubling that (although we can see how information-processing mechanisms can be composed of them) we are unable to make much sense of the idea of their giving rise to such conscious individuals as we know ourselves to be. We might deduce that there must be more to them than we know at present, but it is quite mysterious even what sort of stuff there would need to be (or even its whereabouts, given how much we already know about atoms).

Perhaps the way that organisms have atoms is akin to how they have skeletons—if the X-ray photograph of an organism shows only its skeleton (which could account for all its scientific properties, had few enough of its properties been observed and measured) that does not mean that there is not more to the organism. But again it is difficult (and not so much because of the complexity as the conceptual obscurity) to make much sense of that idea, not without introducing some sort of non-physical substance (akin to the flesh on the skeleton).

Still, prima facie we are non-physical individuals, and the mysteries of how and why such mental beings interact with physical structures would seem less of a problem (less of an unlikely coincidence) were the world created because then both the mental and the physical would have had a common origin in a deliberate creation (cf. inventing trains and tracks together). So were we to reject the obscure possibility of atoms giving rise (via natural processes) to conscious beings like ourselves, then we might conclude that the physical world is (probably) a deliberate creation.

But of course, were we to reject the possibility of a creator for its obscurity, we could instead conclude that there must be some way in which atoms do give rise to us. After all, the considerable evidence that the world is Newtonian turned out to only be evidence that it is approximately Newtonian, and so it is not unreasonable to suppose that atoms might also be only approximately how we think of them, deviating from our simplest picture of them in some similarly unforeseeable way.

But similarly, neither would it be unreasonable to suppose that we might have been created (e.g. as below). So, it being completely obscure (at present) how either theism or atheism could be consistent with what we know of the world, it is surely impossible to tell, from the publicly available evidence, which one is most likely. And so although (for various reasons) each of us is actually quite likely to presume one of them, the more objectively rational option is surely agnosticism.

I shall end with an example of one such reason (evolution) for preferring one of those two options (atheism) that seems to be fairly common amongst philosophers (for fairly obvious reasons, e.g. see ScienceBlogs). (This example was suggested by Aaron's comment on the recent post that inspired this post.) Suppose that modern accounts of the evolution of life are (at least approximately) true (as a lot of quite varied evidence indicates). Even so, only such ideas of creation as a too-literal reading of Genesis would consequently be false (and even then, only correspondingly approximately). (In this post I considered one possible motive for creating a world via evolutionary processes, but of course any actual motive is likely to lie well beyond our imaginations.)

Similarly a simplistic, billiard-ball style of materialism is rendered improbable by our self-awareness, but I’m here considering theism vs. atheism, not literalism vs. materialism. It was once said (fallaciously) that incremental evolution could never explain our eyes, but we now have mathematical models of how eyes might arise incrementally. Nonetheless the likelihood of our being unable to provide any such explanation would surely (had it existed) have undermined this reason for preferring atheism. And so we return to the lack of any indication whatsoever of how an evolutionary explanation of consciousnesses such as ours might go.

2 comments:

THE FOOLISH PHILOSOPHER said...

Martin, after twenty six years of serious theological and philosophical search, I offer the following. Since I can't negate my subjective experiences because of a the mere lack of 'scientific evidence, I must conclude that I know nothing,'I only have hope!'

FIFTY-FIFTY PROPOSITION

by Jack Buno

IN CONSIDERATION OF ATHEISM

It may well be that God, if he exists, when making his plan for man, decided all that could be known of him, was an understanding that God-ness has a fifty-fifty chance of being.

If there is a God who is using planning above our understanding, he allowed in his plan, the freedom to develop logical conclusions based on our ability to reason. Reason makes demand that both sides of any argument be considered and argued equally, especially when it concerns the Godhead; to learn the difference between good and evil; right and wrong; God or no God!

Common sense allows that both sides can be argued equally well. Influences caused by the limiting factors of individual subjectivity, make us try to present arguments for or against God, as though one side held more than 50 percent of the evidence, when in fact, it is impossible to gain evidence that would outweigh either side. It is only when subjectivity replaces reason that we fall short of understanding. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, it becomes just as unreasonable to conclude that there is no God, as to conclude there is. Argument either way, can amount to no more then an exercise between egos! Our Ego, unfortunately, represents the part of us that does not require evidence when presenting what it calls ‘sound doctrine’. Reason alone, creates no unbalance with the status quo [50/50]. It is when our inherent ignorance is bolstered by our ego’s insistence that we can mistakenly accept mere opinion as evidence.

My premise implies that no one person or group knows any more about God than another. When a man teaches another what he knows about God, he tries only too more deeply convince himself. There can be no superiority among men when it comes to knowing about God’s existence, except that which the ignorance in others allows. Any claim to Godly understanding that is based on ‘blind faith’ amounts to no more than embellishments added to hopes imaginings.

This means that the least you can learn about God is equal to the sum of what all others have learned, the highest product of reasoning that can exist without evidence. Acceptance of this gives us the ability to set aside our subjectivity and weigh our conclusions tempered with sound consideration, acknowledging wisdom does truly begin and end with admitted ignorance.

It remains then; if a man reaches the highest state of learning, me assuming that to be man’s purpose, it will be to the crux that comes into view when a man knows both the lack of evidence concerning God, and Hope, on which all faiths are based. The definition of Hope outlines the full human containment of God’s potential. We can ascend to no higher a conclusion than the middle line that separates that which is known and, that which may be God-ness. Having weighed that which is known, and that which is not known, a man’s faith will have the purity of being based solely on Hope, a faith that is founded on the humility that shines before all that we don’t know. This allows man to express his faith, in a life that shows benefit from what he does not know! His faith exists in a life that contains both humility and confidence!

Lest someone should say that fifty-fifty is being lukewarm in one’s faith, the ‘fifty-fifty view’ is no less devout to the existence of God, than those who allow the excesses of Ego that cause them to preen in their faith. An avowed Atheist will also find himself in the same position, if, ignoring the equal lack of evidence concerning ‘no God’, he bounds in his belief to excess, likewise making claim to knowledge that exists beyond his sphere of learning. He [the Atheist] negates the human spirit of hope in exchange for nothing.

Hope adds to life its own germination. Allowed to grow in a world that has no God-ness [evidenced] of its own, it forms in a man the expression of Good, made manifest and seen, thereby creating a witness as from a Godlike influence!

The strength of ones hope/faith determines whether a person accepts death carrying a boldness formed in the transcendental fires of hope; or, there is nothing! In which case, the boldness so prepared, neither helps nor hinders; unless, you count it of value that a person lives as though worthy of having a God, with them being representative of the only Godliness to exist, human goodness!

Ron Murphy said...

Not knowing the outcome between two possibilites does not mean it's a 50/50 proposition.

If I ask you which of two teams, X and Y will won their next match, but I refuse to tell you who the teams are, your sensible answer is "I don't know." It isn't "It's 50/50."

If I entice you to choose, say £100 if you get it right, no loss to you if you get it wrong, you might use a coin toss to choose - but that doesn't mean the real outcome is 50/50, it just means you've used a mechanism for choosing that has an outcome of 50/50. It hasn't altered the underlying outcome, only your chance of picking the right one. Without changing the actual result, consider these scenarios and how your choice and method of choosing might change:

1) The match has been played, but I don't tell you who the teams are or the result. The actual outcome is decided, but you don't know it, as described above.

2) I tell you who the teams are, but not the actual result. If you know football you now have a better chance of getting it right by weighing up the teams, but if you know football you also know there is no certain answer.

3) I tell you the teams and the result. Now you know. I'd be wise at this point to reduce the winnings to £0.

Of course this analogy is useful only in my objection to the 50/50 proposition. It says nothing about God, because the God debate is skewed. Back in the dark ages the God option sounded pretty good, because so little was known about the real world. But now we know so much more, but not one scap of evidence for God is available, and plenty that is consistent with no God. It's not conclusive, because we still don't know enough, and maybe never will. We can imagine that there might be a God. But this is part of the problem. We can imagine many different Gods and multiple Gods.

Real agnosticism is simply saying "I don't know." The atheist is simply an agnostic who considers it worth acting as if there is no God, simply because there is no evidence - no matter what I do God has no effect on me, or at least no apparent effect.

There might be a butterfly beating its wings somewhere changing my local weather - but I can't tell the difference if there is or there isn't. So I act with disinterest. I can even say the butterfly doesn't exist, and I can tell no difference. I'm not being unscientific here. I'm not refusing to perform experiments with butterflies because of some faith in their ineffect. I am acknowledging that the problem is too difficult to resolve right now, and maybe always will be, so I'm not testing the proposition.

Similarly I'm not testing the proposition that there is a God (or any other first cause proposition) - how exactly would I test that? Where any test has been carried out (e.g. the power of prayer) the results are negative (i.e. no positive evidence), and even then one can't tell if the right test has been performed (e.g. in the face of a negative result theists claim God chose not to reveal himself to such tests.)

The problem with theism is that the theist being in the same position - doesn't know and can't tell the difference - he INSISTS there is a God. What's more deplorable is that the theist then takes that position, that belief, and invents a whole host of imaginable outcomes - the soul, heaven and hell, evil and good, angels, saints, resurrection, authoritative books, ... This is the part that is utter nonsense and discredits any idea that there might be a God, and attracts derision from atheists.

There's a clue that all this is nonsense. Just consider how much energy is spent debating about these very theistic inventions, within and between the different religions - each declaring their own understanding to be the real truth. This is comparible with declaring first, that there is a butterfly in Pacific changing our local weather, and second, debating whether it was his left wing or right wing beat at precisely noon two weeks ago that caused the rain today.