UCTAA churchlight

Site Search via Google

Discussion 1 to Meditation 810
An exchange on agnosticism and atheism

by: JT

To add to this exchange of views (or any other,) please use the Contact form. This discussion has been continued.

While writing Meditation 810, I got into an exchange with Massimo on Facebook about the quotation I opened with. I've reproduced it below - (up to the point of publishing this update).

John Tyrrell
"I think Michael is correct in defining atheism as a lack of belief in god, and as such, yep agnostics are also atheists." - That's what you get when you mis-define atheism. Agnostics tend to define atheism in the traditional way - as per my 1962 Websters - atheism: the belief that there is no god. And that definition is different than a lack of belief in god.

Nope! Agnostics are NOT atheists.

Massimo Pigliucci
but most atheists think of atheism that way now, things have changed since 1962, and dictionaries are descriptive as much as they are prescriptive...

John Tyrrell
And if you keep expanding your definition of atheist, you can eventually include everyone in the world without anyone having to change their opinion.

There are those who find the distinction between atheism and agnosticism meaningful. I remain NOT an atheist. (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Massimo Pigliucci
John, you are using hyperbole. Obviously it is *not* possible to expand the definition of atheism to include everyone (did you mean also the fundy crazies in Texas?)

You have of course a right to define your beliefs (or lack thereof) as you like, but the philosophical point remains. A-theism is just like a-unicornism. Tell me, are you agnostic about unicorns?

John Tyrrell
Based on the description of unicorns, the truth about their existence, could be established (in theory) through an exhaustive search.

Based on the description of gods, the truth about their existence, cannot possibly be established through an exhaustive search.

A fundamental difference.

Massimo Pigliucci
not as fundamental as you may think: you can't search the whole universe to establish that unicorns don't exist, so the practical epistemological limits of the enterprise aren't that different from in-principle ones regarding god. and it is sensible not to believe in god for exactly the same reasons we don't believe in unicorns: an extraordinary claim backed by no evidence...

John Tyrrell
There is a clear and fundamental difference between something in the material world (or universe) and something in a supposedly supernatural realm. A unicorn (as long as you don't endow it with supernatural powers) IS fundamentally different from a god.

In any event, since you chose to expand the location of your unicorn to somewhere in the universe other than Earth so as to eliminate the practical possibility of an exhaustive search (but not the theoretical possibility which I was careful to include) - then you are denying without any justification the possibility of an extraterrestrial lifeform which matches our description of a unicorn. You've reached too far - unless you reject absolutely the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

Massimo Pigliucci
John, of course there is a fundamental difference between a naturalistic unicorn and a supernaturalistic god. to me that makes things *worse*, not better for an agnostic, because the claim becomes even more extraordinary and the evidence even more impossible to gather...

John Tyrrell
Sorry - you lost me there.

If you are talking about the impossibility of gathering evidence for a god - then that's basic traditional agnosticism - the existence of god is both unknown and unknowable.

(Though just as the common usage of atheism has changed, so has common usage of agnosticism, and many who call themselves agnostics don't buy into "unknowable." But, I personally stick with the definition I grew up with.)

Look - I don't put the possibility of a deity existing very high. I suspect my subjective probability of the existence of anything supernatural, including gods (there really can't be a objective probability) is significantly lower than that assigned by many of those who go around today calling themselves atheists. But I remain adamantly an agnostic - the existence of god is both unknown and unknowable.

Massimo Pigliucci
if something is both unknown and unknowable, doesn't it make sense, as you say, to put its priors pretty damn low? that's all a reasonable atheist does...

John Tyrrell
It's been an interesting exchange - which would not have happened if you had not written "agnostics are also atheists." Perhaps I am old-fashioned and pedantic on this issue, but I think there continues to be a worthwhile distinction between the terms. You, on the other hand, don't. We aren't going to change each other's mind.