Agnostic Front

Why the new atheism tends to get on my nerves.  A piece by Julian Sanchez called Agnosticism and the Varieties of Certainty counters the idea that atheism is really just agnosticism – i.e. it’s not a fundamentalist belief that God doesn’t exist, because that can’t be proven either.  His basic premise is that because God can’t be proven, it’s not worth believing.  Different than: God could exist.

To the extent that it is a meaningful question, I have no reason to expect that science either eventually will, or even in principle could answer it. But I am not sure why I am supposed to care, except insofar as it’s interesting to mull over, if you go for that sort of thing. Suppose I allow that it is a genuine mystery—radically uncertain, even. It’s outside the realm about which we can talk meaningfully or offer evidence. So what? If there were some part of the world about which we couldn’t even in principle gather information, would I have to declare myself a basilisk agnostic because, after all, they might be there?

Trouble is God isn’t a thing like a basilisk.  Here’s a basilisk, by the way, a mythical serpent.

God is (potentially) everything – including good and evil.  It’s not an entity that answers prayers like a fact-checker.  God is consciousness, time, space, beyond our current understanding. To suggest that concept is not worth exploring – because it can’t be proven – is sort of a slap in the face of scientific inquiry. When have scientists ducked from a good challenge (don’t answer that)?  So, taking spiritual questions out of life doesn’t make life more concrete, it makes it less so.

I will admit that I am a weirdo who believes that what we imagine has the potential to be real.  A mythical creature doesn’t exist in Newtonian reality.  But maybe…one day.  We won’t need a helmet to access virtual reality.  We’ll be able to project it with our minds (possibly).  If matter is just energy, perhaps the energy of thought can one day become material. And once the imagined becomes real – everything becomes imagination.

That’s a science fiction story, though, and won’t fix my TV if it breaks.

He goes on:

I don’t know why there’s something instead of nothing, if the question is even intelligible, any more than I can prove I’m not a brain in a vat. These are interesting facts to reflect on in an epistemology seminar. They have very little to do with my ordinary assertions about how to get to The Passenger or whether the details of any particular cosmology seem persuasive, or whether praying to Mecca or confessing to a priest seems like a sensible thing to do.

Keep religion out of it.  Religious ritual has little to do with the debate about the possible existence of God, which is a far cry more important than something to merely be debated in an epistemology seminar.  No, the debate doesn’t give you directions to some place on the map, but neither does art or music.  The question of God is fundamental to human existence – proven, of course, by the interest in the new atheism.  Obviously, it’s a vital topic.  But the premise of much atheism seems to be that God is too unknowable to even bother thinking about, let alone believing.  What separates us as humans is the ability to think about these topics, so depriving us of this seems to trivialize a fundamental aspect of being human.

It’s also telling that he says, “I don’t believe in…psychic powers either.”  So he discounts all anomalous phenomena? There’s a whole host of puzzling and fascinating information about general esoterica.  If he’s discounting all instances of anomalous phenomena, how are we to believe it when he discounts all evidence of God?  Again, these types of topics are currently unprovable, but unprovable today doesn’t mean unprovable tomorrow.  Saying otherwise is a sort of arrogant view that what we know today is all we will ever know.  But that has never been the case with human knowledge and progress. To not keep looking – and to not acknowledge that it’s worth looking for – is anti-knowledge as well as anti-theism.

He ends, “There’s still no reason to treat God talk as anything more than another bit of human storytelling.”  That would suggest that storytelling is a triviality – which is why it seems like the new atheists suck the fun and magic out of – not just God – but life itself. It’s the condescension that gets to me: God is just a story.  There’s no such thing as just a story.  Yes, but you can say – God was invented, just like a work of art.  Until you can answer me why a particular work of art came to being, where in the dreamworld of the imagination it came from – not just the how, but the why – God is an inspiring topic and worth investigation. That’s my belief – not: God exists.  But: God is worth exploring.

4 Responses

  1. TaoJones says:

    “God is consciousness, time, space, beyond our current understanding.”

    But you seem content to claim to know what gods are. If they are truly beyond our understanding, how could anyone make any statement that begins with “God is…?” How can you make such a statement?

    “To suggest that concept is not worth exploring – because it can’t be proven – is sort of a slap in the face of scientific inquiry.”

    It’s not that it’s not worth exploring because it can’t be proven. It’s that it’s not worth exploring on your say-so. There is not one iota of objective evidence for the existence of gods. The only thing close to “evidence” we have is subjective or anecdotal and these testimonials are far more elegantly explained using terms related to psychology than the supernatural. Your definition of gods also makes it impossible for science to do anything at all with gods. This is not science’s fault.

    I agree with you that anything we can imagine (and a lot that we can’t) has the potential to be real. Only I am not so arrogant as to assume that all I imagine is real. There is no reason at all why the existence of gods should be more likely than the existence of basilisks. There is no reason for the belief in gods to be more respected than belief in basilisks.

    The real question for scientists and philosophers is not to determine whether or not there is a god. The real question to answer is, “what are gods?” That is the only truly open-minded question one could ask on the subject. The only objective, verifiable, falsifiable and useful answer is that gods are ideas that exist in the minds of believers. And yes, that is an idea definitely worth exploring.

  2. Henry Baum says:

    Thanks for writing. If you check what I say, I write, “God is (potentially) everything.” That “potentially” is important. I don’t know what God actually is, but I think atheists should be a little more forward-thinking, taking into account the new science that will possibly rewrite the new atheism. We could have the tools to provide evidence one day, and if that’s a possibility, then God is a possibility as well.

    The only thing close to “evidence” we have is subjective or anecdotal and these testimonials are far more elegantly explained using terms related to psychology than the supernatural.

    This strikes me as anecdotal as well, as subjective. It’s not like psychology is an exact science, and there is very much elegant writing on “science as the language of God.” That’s what keeps me going. I’ll admit it’s an endless path, but I can’t say it’s fruitless, even if unanswerable, as it’s increasing my knowledge of the universe and myself. It doesn’t seem very useful to deny anyone that experience.

  3. TaoJones says:

    Don’t confuse fanciful with elegant. “Science as the language of god” is a completely unnecessary way of looking at science. I can see why a theist would want to make such a claim to give themselves credibility but science doesn’t gain anything from the association.

    In your original article, you argue gods are not miracle machines that can be fact checked. Thats why science will never be able to test for gods as you are defining them. Its the definition of god that is the problem, not our understanding of science or logic (I’m in favour, for example, of exploring multi-valued logic but that’s not at issue here.) Definitions of god that wish-away the lack of evidence are tautological. If god is everything and therefore all our measurements of the universe are measuring the universe (and) god then our measurements of the universe with god are indistinguishable from our measurements of the universe without gods. All this is doing is taking the equation y+2=4 and turning it into y+2+x=4+x where x is god. Both equations resolve with y=2 but one is needlessly complicated. That the math still works with x doesn’t mean you should consider x in the equation. You can also add z where z is the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You can also never isolate and solve for x.

    If you can come up with a definition for gods that can be isolated, then yes, maybe we will be able to find evidence one day. So like I said in the comment above, what is god?

    My own definition of god as an idea that lives in the minds of believers works quite well in this regard. You may take exception if I were to say “just” an idea but that is not denigrating ideas but acknowledging the grandeur of definitions of gods where they are supernatural. My definition also explains the religious experience as it explains the vision of Jesus I had in my youth.

    I’m not saying it is impossible that gods are not something more than an idea that lives in the minds of believers. I’m saying there is nothing about god-belief or the religious experience that can’t be explained with the god-as-meme definition. It is conceivable that god exists outside of the mind in the same way it is conceivable basilisks exist outside the mind, or Hogwarts, or Celestial Teapots, or Invisible Pink Unicorns.

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