Why 'Agnostic' Probably Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Why Agnosticism Probably Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Agnostics are often characterised as ambivalent or wishy-washy fence sitters who refuse to make up their minds. But there's much more to agnosticism than these tired misconceptions, including a stricter adherence to scientific principles than those typically invoked by atheists.

Top image: "The Eye of God" Helix Nebula (NGC 7293). Credit: Hubble/NASA/Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

The current culture war doesn't leave much room for agnostics. Atheists and theists are battling it out for memetic supremacy, each side making cocksure proclamations as to whether or not God truly exists. Theists make the case for God by appealing to faith, scripture, or any number of now-archaic arguments. Atheists take the diametrically opposed stance, arguing that there's no reason to believe that a supreme being exists.

And woe betide anyone who dares to complexify the polarised nature of this debate. As far as this battle is concerned, the answer is either black or white; there's no tolerance for nuance or doubt.

The vociferousness of these sentiments have largely forced agnosticism to the philosophical sidelines. That and some fairly serious misconceptions as to what it really means. These days, agnosticism is often mischaracterized as an undecided response to a question. And in fact, the term is frequently applied outside of a religious context when describing things for which we haven't yet made an opinion. For example, we can say we're "agnostic" about climate change, neither believing it or disbelieving it. Alternately, it's used to express our ambivalence about something, using the term to equate to such sentiments as, "I don't care," "I don't really want to know," or "I don't even want to think about it."

But this casual usage of the term betrays its original purpose, an epistemological stance and methodology in which scepticism and empiricism -- two hallmarks of the scientific method -- takes center stage.

'To An Unknown God'

To understand what it means to be agnostic about the existence of God, it's important to understand where the term came from.

Back in 1869, T. H. Huxley coined the term to counter the rampant dogmatism exhibited by many of his peers. Unwilling to subscribe to another "ism", and inspired by a reference in the Bible to an "unknown God," he came up with the word "agnostic." The word, said Huxley, was "suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant." And indeed, the term was never intended to be some go-between between atheism and theism; the absence of an "ism" was quite deliberate.

Huxley was convinced that humanity cannot and will never know the ultimate origin and causes of the universe. In this sense he was a Kantian sceptic -- a subscriber to the notion that we cannot know the world because the mind's structures are a distorting influence on our knowledge of what is real. This is what Kant referred to as the Veil of Perception -- an idea that's reminiscent (though not as severe) as Cartesian scepticism (i.e. 'the only known truth is one's own self-awareness'). Ultimately, Huxley thought that arguments about the transcendental and metaphysical (though possibly meaningful) were empirically untestable.

What's remarkable about Huxley's scepticism was his stance against certainty and those who refused to doubt -- especially those who insisted that their theism or atheism must be true.

Moreover, Huxley's agnosticism was more than just stubborn scepticism -- it was a methodology. As noted by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor:

He saw agnosticism as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. But he refused to see it as a creed in the traditional sense of the word, and saw it far more as a method. The method he had in mind is broadly that which underpins scientific inquiry. It means, on the one hand, taking one's reason as far as it will go and, on the other, not accepting anything as true unless it is somehow demonstrable.

Which he rightly compares to Buddhist philosophy:

All traditions of Buddhism agree that one should not believe something simply for the sake of believing it, but only if it can somehow be demonstrated as true, if it can be realised in some practical way.

The Unknown Unknowns

Indeed, many agnostics are sceptical of those who claim to have all the answers in regards to life, the universe, and everything. They view hardcore atheists and devout believers with equal scorn -- and they often see the two camps exhibiting the same kind of overzealousness when making their case and propagating their views. To the agnostic, it's just as important to prove the existence of God as it is to disprove God's existence; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

What's more, and as noted by philosopher Gary Gutting:

Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can't merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion. Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism...remains a viable alternative. The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.

Agnostics also argue that, because there are so many scientific questions about existence that remain unanswered, it's grossly premature to start speaking of incontrovertible certainties. For example, consciousness is a vexing "hard problem". And there's no shortage of metaphysical explanations for our existence and the presence of the universe, including quantum-fuelled multiverse theories, spontaneously forming space brains, computer simulations, string theoried multidimensionality, the presence of what appears to be a finely tuned universe, and black holes that spew out a never-ending chain of black hole-spewing universes.

Stunting Science?

But many atheists counter -- and with good reason -- that too much scepticism can be a problem. Indeed, when taken to an extreme, scepticism can be quite debilitating and even harmful to the scientific method.

Take, for example, the absurd verificationism of the logical positivists of the early 20th century. According to their theory of knowledge, the only statements that are cognitively meaningful are those that can be verified either logically or empirically. Though fashionable among epistemologists for a time, it was eventually counter-argued that such a strict criterion for verifiability made universal statements practically meaningless -- which would pose an unreasonable restriction on what could be considered science.

Karl Popper was a vociferous critic of logical positivism. He argued that science cannot move forward without falsifiable predictions. What's more, he found tremendous value in metaphysics, which he viewed as an important requirement for the development of new scientific theories. Popper believed that an unfalsifiable concept (and thus an unscientific and perhaps metaphysical concept) in one era can, later, through evolving knowledge or technology, eventually become falsifiable, and thus scientific.

As Bertrand Russell once said "Scepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it."

It's an important lesson that should be heeded by both atheists and agnostics. When it comes to "knowledge," a certain pragmatism is required; having knowledge is about believing with appropriate justification what is true. Knowledge can be highly probable, but never certain.

The Agnostic Atheist

Now, all this philosophizing is fine and well, but how are we to live? Just what, exactly, are we supposed to believe and value? Personally, my agnosticism on the matter of God is tilted heavily in favour of disbelief. My day-to-day is rooted under the presumption of atheism, which in turn has led me to adopt secular humanist and secular Buddhist values. But epistemologically, I know that I cannot know about God or other metaphysical unknowns. This is why I describe myself as an agnostic atheist, a "belief system" that's referred to as agnosto-atheism.

And I'm not alone. Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has admitted that he's agnostic because he cannot disprove the existence of God. On a scale from 1 to 7, he says he's a 6.9 in terms of the certainty of his beliefs, adding that, "I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low."

Nick Spencer of The Guardian also supports agnostic atheism, arguing that agnosticism can most certainly be accompanied by an overarching metaphysical -- or materialist -- conviction:

And that points us to a difficulty with agnosticism. Attitudes are fine but they need to be about something. Adjectives need nouns. If Huxley was indeed an agnostic, he was an agnostic atheist, tending away from the divine but unwilling (so he claimed) to be too dogmatic about it. Thus understood, we all need a dash of agnosticism -- of appropriate intellectual reserve in the face of the big questions. The dogmatic alternative, familiar to us as "fundamentalism", is neither appealing nor helpful.

But we should not imagine agnosticism is a complete and sufficient metaphysical position. The question is not simply whether you are an agnostic, but what kind of agnostic you are.

So what kind of agnostic are you?

Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [New York Times [Guardian | The Week]

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    This article goes into some great depth but misses some important nuances.

    Firstly, not all atheists are militant atheists, the article insists there is no variation in atheism (which is false). As an atheist, I have defended theists many times, especially the right to believe. This contradicts the article's narrow view of atheism.

    Secondly, the article does not address what Dawkins refers to as the fairies in the bottom of the garden. It's an important argument because there are some ideas that are so far fetched that pursuing them is meaningless. Fluorescent pink whales exist? Flying Spaghetti Monster exists? There has to be a point where you say "the probability is so small that a reasonable conclusion is to say no". If you keep every option open, your mind becomes cluttered and can't rationalise easily.

    The obvious counter to extremely small probabilities is that life can be surprising and an open mindedness on everything can lead to seeing things others can't. However, as adults we do rationalise most things so that we can cope.

    My last thought is the care factor. As an atheist, I don't doubt that God does not exist. However, I really don't care. I disagree this makes me an agnostic. Nor does it make me an agnostic atheist. To put it another way, you would argue "I should be open to the possibility the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists". My response would be "should I?". I would argue your firm belief that I consider it is militant agnosticism. Calling it scientific is a stretch as science also discounts the unlikely to narrow towards complex outcomes. Otherwise, it would test every permutation and combination, which is almost impossible.

      I don't think the writer is saying that all atheists are militant atheists. Hence the point that the writer considers himself an atheist but an agnostic atheist. I believe the point the article is making is that Agnosticism doesn't mean that you're a fence sitter but that you can't know if God exists or not. The obvious counter point you raised is that of logical fallacies. You can't assume any credit for something existing just because people believe it, but as the writer points out, this doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, just that it's highly unlikely that it exists.

      But as you pointed out, the article seems to be influencing an over acceptance of complete open mindedness but I think that wasn't the intent of the writer. I think the writer is just trying to point out that if you accept things as fact without empirical evidence then you're ignoring logic, but if you also only accept things from an empirical evidence point of view then you disregard philosophy and metaphysics.

      Your last point makes perfect sense to me and I think this is where the writer's argument collapses. The writer see Agnosticism as a point of scientific logic, but it's actually a point of philosophy. Agnosticism is just a view that God or other similar things are unknowable. This is a philosophical stance, not a factual one. While we can say that it's impossible to know if God exists or not, we can say from a scientific point of view that God does not exist. So an Atheist can be an Atheist or an agnostic Atheist depending on their view point.

      It's the age old problem of attempting to rationalise metaphysics.

        That word 'militant' is so flexible :)

        You're a 'militant atheist' if you draw a cartoon.
        You're a 'militant theist' if you murder that cartoonist.

    Re editing in new comment. The quotation tools are broken

    Last edited 11/05/16 8:36 am

    Is there a reason the quotation tools don't work in Giz? Because they work fine on LH

    Seems to me that this article has just muddied the waters.
    Indeed, many agnostics are sceptical of those who claim to have all the answers in regards to life, the universe, and everything. They view hardcore atheists and devout believers with equal scornstill brokenBeing an Athiest does not mean that you think you have all the answers, indeed for my part, truly believing that there is no Deity at all, does leave a hole that need to be filled philosophically. I may be an Athiest but I still consider myself to be spiritual. There are question that I'd like answered about the whole framework of existence.

    Last edited 11/05/16 8:47 am

    Agnosticism to me is the sensible option - you can't prove god doesn't exist any more than you can prove god does exist. There's so much we don't know - can't know or unable to understand - so any response other than 'I don't know' is can only be based on wild assumptions or speculation.
    You can believe but no-one actually knows, so all you can say is 'this is my opinion'. Anything else is just deluded and arrogant.

      Faith is all theists really have as an argument, faith is just a concept, not a form of truth. Common sense is all you need, just use Occam's Razer and it all fits into place.

    I always viewed it this way; I am an atheist, because I don’t believe in any gods, but I am agnostic, because I realise that I don’t ‘know’ that there is a good with 100% certainty. One is a statement of beliefs; the other is a statement of my knowledge. I have met atheists who ‘know’ there is no god, and theists who identify as agnostic.

    We are all born atheists, like all other animals on the planet. It's but the stories that we are told and the company we keep that that shapes our views on a deity.

    If you've read Dawkins, you'll realise that at least 3.0 out of his 6.9 of atheistic certainty comes from a very strong bias against religion. I think a good mark of a true agnostic is their capability to separate the belief in the existence or not of a god from religion. Once you remove religion and with the amount of evidence available for both arguments, no other conclusion than the existence of God being 50-50% can be achieved.

      There's a 50/50 chance Yaweh is the creator.
      There's a 50/50 chance Tonacatecuhtli is the creator.
      There's a 50/50 chance Heryshaf is the creator.
      There's a 50/50 chance Enki is the creator.
      There's a 50/50 chance Damballa is the creator.
      There's a 50/50 chance Gitche Manitou is the creator.

      I posit the possibility you ought revise your analysis.

        Thanks for proving my point by inserting religion in the argument. Names and conceptions of the nature of God, if there is one, are irrelevant to the matter of the possibility of his/her/its existence.

          1: I'm Inserting religion into the argument?
          The argument in which you explicitly used the word God?
          I have no idea who you expect to accept this accusation.
          Perhaps your accusation is aimed only at extremely stupid people?

          2: How can the definition of a thing *possibly* be irrelevant when assessing the percentage chance that that thing exists? This is some *very* strange sophistry.

            It is only a word, dude. God, Creator, Superior Being, Elder One, Higher Intelligence, Soul of the Universe. Call this possible existence whatever name, I don't care, I just picked one that's instantly recognisable in meaning and short. Moreover, who am I accusing of what? Take a look at yourself and considerate why are you becoming so defensive on this matter and what does that say of yourself.

            Second, you didn't use "definitions", you used names corresponding to different beliefs that flourished in very different cultures and who are as (un)likely of coming close to "defining" God (or whatever name, shhh), if God indeed exists, as the other. It's like saying that because there were different theories about the Higgs Boson before it was verified, it could be concluded that there was no Higgs Boson. It is possible to have speculative and even divisive opinions on the nature of an unknown but theorised existence without automatically invalidating it.

            Last edited 12/05/16 5:09 pm

              1: "Who am I accusing of what?" You accused me of inserting religion into the argument.

              2: Calling me 'defensive' is transparent passive-aggression, unworthy of engagement.

              3: Correct, I didn't posit any definitions. You did!
              When assessing a concept, that concept is a functional definition.
              (And if you don't accept that equivalence, I'm happy for you to substitute the word 'concept' for 'definition', it makes no difference to my argument.)

              You claimed (paraphrasing):
              'given paucity of evidence we ought conclude 50/50 likelihood'

              You clarified with (paraphrasing):

              'conceptions of a thing are irrelevant when assessing that thing's possibility'.

              Which is rat-biting insane!
              Of *course* the concept under consideration matters when assessing its probability!

              Are you host to undetectable arse-fairies? 50/50
              Is Obama an undetectable reptilian? 50/50
              Is there a space-unicorn orbiting Sedna? 50/50

              4: Yes, there were at least three competing Higgs models. Only an intellectual cripple would have claimed a 50% chance each was true!

                1. It was not an accusation, it was a fact. I specifically talked about leaving religion aside and the very first thing you present as an argument is the multiplicity of names given to the concept of "God" by different religions.

                2. Look man, this was basically our exchange Me: "let's talk about this matter without mentioning X, which I argue is tangential to it." You: "Oh yeah? what about X(XxX+(X-X)/X?" Me: "You are using X, I specifically asked to ignore X." You: "Are you accusing me of bringing up X? How dare you!?" If you feel that noting a fact is an accusation, yes, you are being needlessly defensive.

                3. Maybe you are mixing "definition" with "assumption"? We don't know anything about God. If we did know anything at all, then we wouldn't have to wonder whether there is a God or not as it would be obvious. And that's precisely why I don't want to bring up religion: religions make a lot of assumptions about God precisely because they part from the speculated fact that there is a God. As such, their "evidence" and "arguments" are useless to a scientific-method approach to the question of whether there is a creator of reality.

                In a nigh-infinity universe, almost any question posited about the existence of something needs an uncertain answer, even the aggressively sarcastic ones you posted. However, what we need to ask when presented with them is, "Do we have any reason to suspect that there are arse fairies?" and "Is further consideration on the possible existence of arse fairies a relevant matter? Does it have any use for us to spend time investigating and arguing the matter?" I'll be happy to let the people for whom those questions feel relevant to discuss further that matter while making an a-priori judgement myself. But a question about a creator of all that exists? Humanity has proven through millennia that that's a question that is relevant to most of us.

                4. You are fixated on the matter of 50/50 and specific scenarios. I never argued that each theory has a 50/50 chance of being the correct one. I argued that the existence of the Higgs Boson, irrelevant of theories or speculation had a binary outcome: There IS a Higgs Boson or there is not. Let's go with binary choice, then, to stop you getting hung up on percentages? Under that model we can say that each theory about the Higgs Boson had the chance to be either right or wrong. And yet, if even all the given models were wrong, it stil would have no bearing on the question of the boson's existence. That's what I argue about religion and why I say that to bring them into the argument is ineffectual if not outright distracting.

                (Also, using indirect insults when the person you have talking to has been unfailingly polite is another sign of defensiveness. I ask you again to, instead of feeling offended by my pointing your defensiveness, take a calm moment to reflect whether emotional biases are affecting your capacity to engage in rational discourse and that's why you are either consciously or not misinterpreting what I say time after time.)

                Last edited 12/05/16 11:06 am

                  1: I think I see what's happened. You mistakenly used a capital G. By using a capital G you named a god immediately after discounting religion. The only reasonable conclusion was that you believe that naming gods *doesn't* invoke religion. So I named some gods, with the understanding that I (by your own definition) wasn't invoking religion. Tell me you meant to use a small g, and it's sorted.

                  2: This 'defensive' accusation is a transparent attempt to force me to defend not being defensive. It failed, stop trying.

                  3: I made it quite clear that by 'definition' I meant the concept under evaluation. You could not possibly have thought I was equating 'concept' with 'knowledge'. May I request an actual response to my claim that:

                  'conceptions of a thing are irrelevant when assessing that thing's possibility'.
                  Is rat-biting insane!

                  If I'm hosting arse-fairies, I want to know everything about them, right now!
                  If Obama is a reptilian, that's earth-shattering and I want a huge worldwide investigation!
                  If there is a space-unicorn orbiting Sedna, I want NASA planning first contact, right now!
                  If an intelligence caused the universe, maybe we should consider more funding for CMB scanning?

                  4: I mustn't address the 50% likelihood of an intelligent creator which forms the basis of two of your threads on this page?
                  Are you abandoning the 50% claim?
                  Do you now think it's greater than 50% or less than 50%?
                  What was wrong with the old calculation?
                  May we see the new calculation?

                  I think I just worked out the main issue.
                  You don't understand how claims work.

                  Here's how they work:
                  'P has a 50% chance of existing'.
                  1: "I have a coherent concept of an entity."
                  2: "My concept models an entity which has a 50% chance of existing."

                  A: Because you don't have a coherent concept of the entity, claiming it might exist is definitionally incoherent.

                  B: Claiming a percentage then adds 'arbitrary' to 'incoherent'.

                1. If it makes you happy, I'll refrain from using a capital G. As I see it, the theorised concept of a creator of reality which is referred by a widely known word is ground enough to treat said word as a proper noun, in the same way I capitalise boson in "Higgs Boson". Regardless, if there's unnecessary contention on that matter, I'm happy to drop it.

                2. I'm not trying to make you do anything. Nevertheless, I'm happy to drop this matter as well.

                3. "'conceptions of a thing are irrelevant when assessing that thing's possibility'.
                Is rat-biting insane!" I'll answer by turning your own use of hyperbole to illustrate my point: If in addition to the three recognised models for the Higgs Boson, I also said "The Higgs Boson is actually god's own black spots that they squeeze out of their nose's pores every so often!" would my "theory" have to be given equal foot to the other three? According to you, it would be "rat-biting insane" not to consider all conceptions when assessing the likelihood of the Higgs Boson to exist.

                Also, as I said, if you /truly/ feel strongly about the questions you posit (god forbid that you are being sarcastic trying to prove a point, which would only make the point you are trying to prove moot), you should indeed pursue the matter and investigate it to your heart's content and I'm happy to let you. I predict that you'll have a bit of trouble convincing others of theories whose practicality and worthiness to be considered are nil (in their perception), but I wish you luck.

                4. I haven't abandoned anything. I simply moved from using 50/50 percentages, on which you were and still are being hung up, to talk about binary choices, for clarity. If you don't understand how those two things are equivalent, I'll ask you to review your Year 9 maths books before pursuing further argument.

                Last edited 12/05/16 5:08 pm

                  Good, you haven't abandoned the 50/50 claim!
                  Let's use your beloved binary choices to crush it!

                  Are all binary probabilities 50/50?
                  (Clearly not, contradict this if you disagree)

                  Are all binary probabilities where excellent information is available 50/50?
                  (Clearly not, contradict this if you disagree)

                  Are all binary probabilities where inadequate information is available 50/50?
                  (Clearly not, contradict this if you disagree)

                  Are incoherent binary claims 50/50?
                  (Clearly not, contradict this if you disagree)

                  Are impossible binary claims 50/50?
                  (Clearly not, contradict this if you disagree)

                  Given all of these facts, how do you justify assigning 50/50 to a binary decision about a god partaking in our universe's causation?

                  For bonus points, explain why you don't assign a 50% chance to the possibility that our universe is uncaused. (If you fail to explain that, your odds must be 25% as there are actually two 50% arms to the scenario!)

                Hmm I think I see now our point of contention now. You think I'm arguing that any given occurrence or statement has a perfect 50/50 chance of going either way. But I'm not. I'm not actually talking about likelihood of an occurrence in a statistical way. I'm talking about the amount of possible results, i.e. "yes/no", "1/0", "dead Schroedinger's cat/alive cat" . When reducing a proposed/imagined argument without any information about it other than educated guesses we cannot take bets on the likelihood of being right or wrong. We can merely say "it is right or it is wrong". There are no possible shades of grey in such statement.

                So what's the likelihood of god existing? 2.7%? 13%? 50.0000000000001%? 99%? I don't know. No one does. Is that actually a question that can be asked? But I can tell you that with the information we possess there definitely can be a god and there definitely can be not and as far as we know, bot prepositions are equally valid.

                  Cool, the odds are not 50/50, we've made progress!

                  I feel I should also address the idea you expressed that we know that an existent god is possible.

                  First: I've previously demonstrated that incoherent concepts cannot be true (they also can't be false, they're just worthless).

                  Second: Not all things are possible, as demonstrated by the following questions:
                  Is a square circle possible?
                  Is a four-sided triangle possible?
                  Could you know the last digit of Pi?

                  Third: Let's demonstrate that making claims about what is possible can be unwarranted:
                  Imagine I have an opaque bag of dice.
                  I ask you whether it is possible that I could roll all the dice, and get a total of 17.
                  As you don't know how many dice I have, you can't determine whether it is possible that I could total 17.
                  So, the honest answer is not "yes 17 is possible", nor "no, 17 is impossible", the honest answer is "I cannot determine whether 17 is possible".

                  So, be sure that you can check the following boxes:

                  1: Do you have a coherent god concept to analyse?
                  2: How did you discard the potential that it's impossible?
                  3: How did you decide that it is potentially possible?

                  Maybe you can check those boxes to your satisfaction, in which case, your claim is intellectually honest.
                  I just wanted you to understand that claiming X is possible is a non-trivial claim.

                  Incidentally, the exact converse questions should be asked about your claim that it's definitely possible there's no god!

    I wouldn't say that there's a 50/50 chance of there being a deity or deities of some kind. It's not really possible to attach a probability at all, which is frustrating, because although I consider myself an agnostic, I act no differently in most day to day situations to an atheist. If I wan't to know the chance of rolling a one on a six sided die I can work out that it's 1/6 (assuming it's not loaded.) If I want to estimate the risk of an accident, I can look at the number of accidents per event e.g. the number of deaths per flight kilometre. But how do I attach any probability to something that cannot be empirically measured, like, the probability that the world is one big simulation? For me to say that the probability is 6.9/7 is as meaningless as saying the chance that there is a god is 6.9/7. I'm just estimating the certainty of my belief, I'm not describing anything about the outside world.

    I try and look at it this way. If I have no way to know if, for example, this world is a simulation, then should I walk out in front of a speeding car? If it's a simulation, nothing will happen. If it's real, then I'll die. So given I don't know which is true, my safest bet is assume the world is real, because I have the most to lose if my assumption is correct.

    The problem is that many people tie up their beliefs with their ego, just like people who think their political beliefs are correct or their favourite football team is the best. Then they side with others who just push them to even more extreme views by confirming their biases.

    In my honours year of my science degree we did a bit of philosophy. The lecturer was a little German guy who had studied science and philosophy. None of the students took the subject seriously and that's unfortunate. I think that some scientists have a lot to learn from philosophers about what, a priori, can and cannot be known. It's not about teaching extreme scepticism but rather trying to make people more humble about what they assert about their field of expertise.

      I agree that scientists would be wise to learn a little philosophy, because it teaches many useful thinking tools.
      I also think just a little bit of psychology would be good, so one can better compensate for typical human mistakes in one's work.

      Incidentally, Dawkins wasn't assigning a probability.
      He was merely indicating his position on a scale.

      I say 50/50 because Occam's Razor makes the possibility of a creator being atop of an organised and highly functional system viable. When formulating theories about the formation of the universe, especially pre-big-bang, it is still one of the most readily available theories that exist. Only anti-theists (often mixed with atheists, whom they believe they represent) would pretend that it's an entirely unlikely possibility.

      As a reminder, I'm not talking about any of the gods of our human religions, but a theorised intelligence responsible total or partially for the creation of the universe.

        Please nominate your best example of an 'organised and highly functional system' which is more-likely the result of a creator-intelligence than of dumb physical processes.

          Your use of "dumb" betrays a bias. Whatever I nominate (my choice would be "the mathematical nature of the system") could easily be dismissed by your bias. And indeed, my nomination may be biased itself! "Dumb physics" still fail to explain how an entropic nothingness was excited into a climactic reaction, and while that doesn't prove by any means the existence of a creator, that existence is a viable and in fact, a readily apparent solution to the question. Going by Occam's Razor it would be foolish to dismiss that hypothesis when we have nothing better to go by. Hell, in fact, many of the available theories need to part from the /assumption/ that it happened automatically.

          It's perfectly alright to believe that there's no creator of the universe. It is scientifically viable. But so is to believe there is one. At this juncture neither of us can do any better than believing. An agnostic is someone who thinks that acknowledging the uncertainty is more important than taking sides.

            You don't like 'dumb physics'? Okie:

            "Please nominate your best example of an 'organised and highly functional system' which is more-likely the result of a creator-intelligence than of physical processes possessed of no intelligence."

            You've now predicted that I'll dishonestly dismiss your nomination, so this is the *perfect* time to bravely meet the challenge! You can now prove that I'm intellectually bankrupt when I unfairly dismiss your nomination!

            (Don't dodge a second time, it'll look terrible for your position.)

            Last edited 12/05/16 2:25 pm

              Er, I did present my nomination, did I not? Nevertheless I didn't say that you'd be dishonest or intellectually bankrupt, merely biased. I'm not trying to accuse you of malice (I'd say something about being defensive....but , yeah forget it) merely of bias, and I admitted that I must have my own bias myself.

              You are asking me to prove to you definitely that an argument can be presented that unequivocally can be only answered with "a wizard (god) did it". I'm obviously incapable of doing so, and so have people been through history, or we wouldn't be having this argument. People with your bias will be able to refute it with the same certainty that people with the opposite bias would support it. Now think how would you do if I asked you to present your own verifiable and unequivocal proof that "a god didn't do it".... but, "Ah", you'll say. "the onus of proof falls on you to demonstrate existence of your theorised entity, not on me to demonstrate its absence!" which is all good and fine, except we are dealing with a question where no answer can be dismissed, especially not one Occam's Razor-approved! Please note that with this I'm not meaning to say that this proves that there is a god. Merely that considering the option of the existence of a god is a perfectly fine, scientific-method-complying theory, as much as saying that there is not is one. Yes, you may then claim that the universe was created by your arse fairies and the only thing I would interject would be "why do you have a problem calling the arse fairies 'god' if that's the role that you are giving them?"

              Last edited 12/05/16 5:27 pm

                Did you make a nomination?
                I clearly missed it.

                Was it when you said "entropic nothingness was excited into a climactic reaction"?

                Sorry, I thought that was just flowery word-salad!
                Let's get some clarification in here.

                Do you mean our big bang?
                I'm guessing you mean our big bang.
                (But our big bang was definitonally not climactic.)

                1: What stuff do you claim was "highly organised and functional"?

                2: When did it stop being "highly organised and functional"?

                3: What do you mean by "nothingness"?

                4: Can you calculate an entropy for "nothingness"? If not, in what way is it entropic?

                5: Why do you claim our big bang was a reaction to an excitation?

                  enjoying your little spare!

                  Just as an interesting side note Occams Razor is attributed to a Monk and the Big Bang Theory was first theorised by a Belgain Catholic Priest who also happened to be a scientist at (I believe) the Vatican Observatory.

                  Dude you are so altered by this that you are not even actually reading. See, I'll quote myself

                  Whatever I nominate (my choice would be "the mathematical nature of the system")

                  plain like daylight. However, you went on a tirade trying to disprove (or make me prove) whatever you thought I was trying to say, completely ignoring the whole paragraph where I say that I decline from arguing about it, admitting that there's probably nothing I can throw at you that you cannot refuse with or without the aid of subjectivity.

                  I know that by now I have probably lost you and you are not reading this, too busy mulling how to better ridiculise or refute my mention of maths, but if by chance I still have you, stop. I'm not proposing to be the ultimate bearer of truth. If I could figure an unquestionable argument to prove the existence of a creator, for sure someone more intelligent than I would have come up with, centuries ago. In fact, your agitation seems to indicate that you believe that I'm trying to prove here that god exists, an idea that you clearly find unbearably offensive. But I am not. I only argue that the question about god's existence is valid and that it doesn't have a definite answer. I know I might not convince you to consider this, as you seem to be the kind of person that thinks that anybody who even entertains the thought of the existence of god is an irredeemably consummate imbecile. That doesn't take from the fact that such a staunch, baseless anti-theist position is ultimately unscientific.

                  @ Reptile:
                  Occam was a genius. It's a shame that his widely misunderstood razor is his best known legacy, because much of his (prolific) philosophy was phenomenal.

                  In 1328 Occam was excommunicated for calling Pope John XXII a douche.

                  Lemaitre studied engineering, math, physics, and theology.
                  PHD in in 1920, ordained in 1923.
                  Worked at Harvard College Observatory, not the Vatican.

                  In 1952 Lemaitre convinced Pope Pius XII to stop trying to combine cosmology with theology.

                Might want to compare our word-counts before you claim I'm tirading, your last response only needed to be one sentence...

                So, you'd like to nominate "the mathematical nature of the system"?


                1: Which system?

                2: Can you point to a part of the system's math which impresses you as indicative of intelligence?

                  Whoa... you actually skipped the paragraph where I predicted that you'd doggedly get hung up on the maths thing and I asked you not to, as I declined to elaborate because it will lead nowhere. I bet that you'll say that my refusal is indicative of my inability to prove my point (regardless of my argument that the matter is tangential to the point), but frankly at this point I don't care if you want to believe that. With confirmation that you're literally nitpicking my posts for stuff that you can possibly refute or question, I see no end coming to this discussion. There will always be a loose thread that you can pull on to distract from the point I'm trying to make and from which I'm starting to suspect you are intently trying to derail us until you can find an unconnected hole in my reasoning and use it to conclude that everything I say is bollocks.

                  I've made clear what my argument is several times. From all your opposition, I still don't know what is your point. That agnosticism is stupid? That being open to the idea that god may exist is a sign of mental obfuscation? That you and you alone have come to the self-evidenced and irrefutable fact that there is no god and that you are right and supremely intelligent for realising it? I seriously can't tell, it almost seems as though you're being contrarian for the sake of it.

                  I didn't skip the paragraph explaining why you won't answer, I ignored it.

                  Ignoring it was a little bit rude, but I chose to do so because I *really* *genuinely* want to know if there's any support for the claim you made (below).

                  I'll recap the reason for this thread:

                  You claimed (paraphrased): The universe is organised and highly functional, which supports the possibility that intelligence was involved in the universe's inception.

                  If your claim comports with reality, it is *fascinating* and I'd love to know more about it!

                  But each time I request a clear example, you react like it's an attack.
                  It's *not* an attack.
                  I genuinely want to know if there's a good example of our universe's organisation which implies an intelligent component to our universe's inception.

                  A: If you still think "the mathematical nature of the system" is the best example of this phenomenon:

                  1: Which system?

                  2: Can you point to a part of the system's math which impresses you as indicative of intelligence?

                  B: If instead you think there's some better example than "the mathematical nature of the system" please nominate it.

                  C: If you don't know of any good examples, that's fine, say so, and explain if there is any non-example support for the claim.

    It seems there needs to be a new category. Following the same Greek origins as "atheist" and "agnostic" the term "aniarist" would refer to someone who simply does not care. Literally it means "without interest" and probably sums up many people's approach to religion.
    I don't find that religion adds anything much to my life and really don't see that it makes much difference whether there is, or is not, a god (or gods). I would be carefully to say that I consider spirituality as a separate issue that is related to a sense of connection with the world/universe. The feeling is quite definitely real, albeit unmeasureable (at least at this stage) while not requiring belief in a distinct god.

      Ah, but an atheist *does* believe in religions!
      Religions exist!

      Atheism isn't about religions, its about gods.

      Would you greet proof that Zeus spams lighting from Mount Olympus with a 'meh'?
      Surely you'd be interested?
      I suggest that if you believed in Zeus you'd probably care about Zeus.
      i.e. Being a Zeus Aniarist is very closely bound to being a Zeus Atheist.

      Conversely, I accept that Aniarism is not bound to Atheism for irrelevant gods.

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