One through seven

Okay more on agnosticism and doubt and certainty and ‘faith’ and dogmatism or fundamentalism. Dawkins has a good discussion of agnosticism in The God Delusion. Page 46:

There is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack evidence one way or the other.

He cites Carl Sagan on the question of the existence (or not) of extraterrestrial life.

…we lack the evidence to do more than shade the probabilities one way or the other. Agnosticism, of a kind, is an appropriate response on many scientific questions, such as what caused the end-Permian extinction.

He draws a distinction between two kinds of agnosticism: temporary-in practice, and permanent-in principle. The first kind is legitimate where there is an answer but we lack the evidence to find it. (He doesn’t add, but I would, that there are countless questions which we will always lack the evidence to answer. Who ate what for breakfast in some backwater village in China on some arbitrary date ten thousand years ago for instance – and a pretty much infinite number of questions of that kind.) The second kind is legitimate for questions ‘that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather’; an example is whether you see red as I do.

You can probably see where this is going. Some people think the question of God’s existence belongs in the permanent-in principle file, and they are the ones who are going to think Dawkins is too dogmatic and that he expects science to answer questions that it is unable to answer in the same way it is unable to say whether you see red as I do. Dawkins defends the view that agnosticism about the existence of God belongs in the temporary-in practice file. Either God exists or it doesn’t.

It is a scientific question: one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

People have thought before that various things were beyond the reach of science, sometimes at the very moment when someone was proving them wrong in the lab down the road.

Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other…God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice.

I think that clears a few things up. For one thing, I think it contradicts Mark’s* accusation that Dawkins doesn’t grapple ‘with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light’ – he labels a whole branch of agnosticism just for precisely those areas and gives an example of one. I think there are a lot of reviewers and columnists who think and say that – so if you encounter any, just turn to p. 47 and you’ll be able to show them wrong. (Maybe then they’ll just say ‘But I don’t mean things like whether you see red the way I do, I mean things like love and meaning.’ But you will have tried [and you can just say ‘but the principle is the same.’].)

Then he does the spectrum of probabilities, the 1 through 7 that Jean mentioned. 1. is ‘Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, “I do not believe, I know.”‘ 7. is ‘Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung ‘knows’ there is one.”‘ He would be surprised to meet many people in 7, but includes it ‘for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.’ Good point! And rather amusing.

6 is ‘Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that [it] is not there.”‘

I pondered 6 and 7 for a bit, wondering if I was being intellectually dishonest, if actually I might not be a 7 – but I quickly remembered that I’m not, because I really do have no difficulty with the thought that for all I know the universe is a piece of lint in God’s pocket. I might be close to a 7 on the question of an interventionist God though, a prayer-answering God, a God that gives a crap about humans. I think that God is so very very conspicuous for its absence that it’s very hard to believe it even could exist. I also think it makes a kind of sense to say that unbelief can be a 7 while belief can be a 6. I really, thoroughly don’t believe God exists – but that seems to me to be compatible with agreeing that I don’t know that it doesn’t. Is that coherent? I think it is – if only because belief is one thing and knowledge is another. The idea of God meets a wall of incredulity in me – but that still doesn’t amount to my thinking I know that no God exists. (Or maybe I’m just running the two Gods together here – I really don’t believe the interventionist, personal God exists; but I don’t know that there is no God in some other universe. No…I don’t believe that God exists either – but it’s a different kind of not believing – based in just not knowing. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t believe the local God exists and also that I believe it doesn’t, while I merely don’t believe the non-local God exists.

Dawkins says on p. 51, after his brief discussion of 7:

Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist.

That reminded me of a passage in George Felis’s article ‘What Atheism Isn’t’ in the New Humanist:

Every atheist I’ve ever encountered cares very much about evidence and reasoning and is deeply suspicious of faith. On the whole, atheists lack belief precisely because they find the reasons that religious believers give for believing to be insufficient justification at best…

That’s it you see. We want good reasons for believing things. That’s all. It’s not asking so much.

*I apologized to him for a revoltingly abusive email G Tingey sent him which cited and quoted me, and he answered very kindly, so now I feel repentent for being so, er, rough, myself.

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