A philosopher defends agnosticism

Paul Draper is a philosopher at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana, USA). He has just (Aug. 2, 2017) posted an article on Atheism and Agnosticism on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website.

Many philosphers use a different definition of atheism than many atheists. Philosophers tend to define atheism as the proposition that god(s) do not exist. Many atheists (I am one) define atheism as the lack of belief in god(s). The distinction is important but for now I want to discuss Draper's defense of agnosticism.

Keep in mind that Draper defines atheism as "god(s) don't exist." He argues, convincingly, that this proposition cannot be proven. He also argues that theism—the proposition that god(s) exist—can also not be proven. Therefore, the only defensible position for a philosopher like him is agnosticism.

But there's a problem ... and it's similar to the one concerning the definition of atheism. Here's one way to describe an agnostic according to Draper.
... an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false. Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic. Call this the “psychological” sense of the term. It is certainly useful to have a term to refer to people who are neither theists nor atheists, but philosophers might wish that some other term besides “agnostic” (“theological skeptic”, perhaps?) were used.
I wonder if there are any agnostics who adhere to this definition? Most people will, after considering the question, reach a conclusion about whether god(s) exist or not regardless of whether the conclusion can be rigorously defended. Most of those who choose to call themselves agnostics will have concluded that there are no god(s) and will act out their lives accordingly. They are atheists by my definition.

But this is not the definition of agnosticism that Draper prefers.
If, however, “agnosticism” is defined as a proposition, then “agnostic” must be defined in terms of “agnosticism” instead of the other way around. Specifically, “agnostic” must be defined as a person who believes that the proposition “agnosticism” is true instead of “agnosticism” being defined as the state of being an agnostic. And if the proposition in question is that neither theism nor atheism is known to be true, then the term “agnostic” can no longer serve as a label for those who are neither theists nor atheists since one can consistently believe that atheism (or theism) is true while denying that atheism (or theism) is known to be true.
I know a theist who is content to call himself an agnostic because he cannot prove the existence of his preferred god(s) even though he believes in them and acts accordingly. Similarly, there are many nonbelievers (atheists by my definition) who will accept the proposition that neither the existence nor the nonexistence of god(s) is knonw to be true for an absolute fact. Thus, you can have believers in god(s) who are agnostics and nonbelievers in god(s) who are agnostic.

This is why Dawkins refers to himself as an an agnostic atheist.

The simplest argument for this version of agnosticism is that you cannot prove a negative. Thus, although you can, in theory, prove that god(s) exist, you can never prove that they don't exist. If you define atheism as the belief that god(s) don't exist then that version of atheism is logically indefensible if you are in a philosophy class. In the real world, probabilities count so that if something is extremely improbable you can reasonably maintain that it doesn't exist. You can certainly act and behave as if it doesn't exist. We do that all the time. I'm not worried about being abducted by aliens in near-Earth orbit. See Russell's teapot.

I don't think philosophers like that argument so they look for better ways to defend agnosticism. Here's how Paul Draper does it ....
4. An Argument for Agnosticism
According to one relatively modest form of agnosticism, neither versatile theism nor its denial, global atheism, is known to be true. Robin Le Poidevin (2010: 76) argues for this position as follows:
  • (1)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is intrinsically more probable than the other.
  • (2)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence favors theism or atheism over the other.
It follows from (1) and (2) that
  • (3)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is more probable than the other.
It follows from (3) that
  • (4)Agnosticism is true: neither theism nor atheism is known to be true.
In my experience, the vast majority of agnostics, including agnostic philosophers, have judged that there are no gods. Unless they are being totally irrational, this means they have reached a conclusion concerning the existence of god(s) because they don't act as if they existed. Presumably they must have a reason for reaching this conclusion even if it's only a tentative conclusion.

I assume their reasons are the same as mine—there's no believable evidence for the existence of god(s) so there's no reason to believe in them. The evidence strongly favors the proposition that god(s) don't exist.

I reject propositions #1 and #2. I think there IS firm basis for judging that god(s) don't exist. Part of that "firm basis" is because of my understanding of how the natural universe works and my understanding of the main arguments for the existence of god(s). I reject conclusion #3 because there IS firm basis for judging that god(s) don't exist.

Therefore, in my opinion, strict agnosticism of this sort is false because nonexistence of god(s) is far more probable than existence of god(s). I have to ask myself why philosophers argue this way. I think it's because they want to set up a rigorous logical proof of their propositions and conclusions. They are uncomfortable with probabilities and they aren't overly concerned about how people behave in the real world where these discussions play out.

I think my view is similar to pragmatism but, as usual, when you read what philosophers have to say about a viewpoint it becomes very confusing.


Imagine 7


I'll be at Imagine 7 this weekend. Are you going? Contact me if you want to get together.


Ricky Gervais explains atheism

Watch Ricky Gervais explain atheism to Stephen Colbert. I like his explanation of the difference between science and religion. In fact, I like it so much I'm going to embellish it a bit and present it here ...

Imagine what would happen after a giant meteor strike that wipes out everyone except for a small native tribe in the Andes that had no contact with other people before the apocalypse. All books and all knowledge will be destroyed.

Ten thousand years later there will be science books and they'll be pretty much the same as the ones we have now because people will simply rediscover the basic truths of nature. There might be religious books but they won't be anything like the holy books we have now because the people will have invented entirely new gods. That's the difference between science and religion.



The best countries for atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is a collection of Humanist, atheist, secular and similar organizations from many countries. It publishes the Freedom of Thought Report, which purports to be, "A global report on discrimination against humanists, atheists, and the nonreligious." The group intends to highlight systemic discrimination.

We believe it is important to document discriminatory national laws and state authorities which violate freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. As well as affecting the overtly nonreligious, such as atheists and Humanists, such systemic discrimination also often affects the religious, in particular minorities and non-conformists, and the unaffiliated (those who hold no particular religion or worldview-level belief).

Systemic, legal discrimination can include such things as established state churches (resulting in religious privilege), religious instruction provided without secular ethical alternative classes in schools, through to severe punishments such as prison for crimes of “insulting” religion, or death merely for expressing your atheism.
There are four categories of systemic discrimination: Constitution and government; Education and children’s rights; Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals; and Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values. For each category there are six possible rankings [see Ratings System]:
Black = Grave Violations
Red = Severe Discrimination
Orange = Systemic Discrimination
Yellow = Mostly Satisfactory
Green = Free and Equal
Gray = No Rating
Here's the result for the entire world.


Canada is ranked as "Systemic Discrimination" in all four categories. The USA gets the best rating (Free and Equal) in two categories: "Education and children’s rights" and "Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values." It gets the second highest rating (Mostly Satisfactory) in: "Constitution and government" and "Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals."

The conclusion is obvious. If you are an atheist you are much better off living in the USA than in Canada!

Hemant Mehta, better known as The Friendly Atheist, published the same figure on his blog a few days ago [New Report Highlights the Worst Countries in the World for Atheist Citizens. Many Canadians responded in the comments. One of them, CanuckAmuck, said,
I am dubious about some of the standards of this report. Not to appear butthurt, but to equate Canada to Russia in terms of "Constitution and the Government" is to say the least, asinine. And to report that "Society and Community" is "graver" for the atheist here than in the U.S. is likewise so.
I agree completely. Read the other comments to see what others think of this report.

Respond in the comments if you think atheists are better off in the USA than in Canada.


A theology student doesn’t like Jerry Coyne’s book Faith vs. Fact

A theology student named Derrick has written a review of Jerry Coyne's book Faith vs. Fact. He didn't like it very much. (Duh!) You can read his review at: Jerry Coyne, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.

Before reading that review, let's make sure we understand Jerry's position. Here's what he says on page xx of his book.
My main thesis is narrower and, I think, more defensible: understanding reality, in the sense of being able to use what we know to predict what we don't, is best achieved using the tools of science, and is never achieved using the methods of faith. That is attested by the acknowledged success of science in telling us everything from the smallest bits of matter to the origin of the universe itself—compared with the abject failure of religion to tell us anything about gods, including whether they exist.
Jerry's position is that science is a way of knowing and it has been remarkably successful at discovering truths. There are no other ways of knowing that have found truths.
I'll argue that in fact science is the only way to find such truths—if you construe "science" broadly.
I agree with his broad definition of "science" and I agree that science is the only proven way of acquiring knowledge.1 I also agree with his view that science vs religion is a subset of the real conflict; namely, rationalism vs superstition.

Believers accept the existence of their god(s) without defensible evidence to support that belief. The science way of knowing rejects the idea that you would believe in anything without supporting evidence and logic. Thus, science and religion are not compatible.

Now, read Derrick's review to see how a "sophisticated theologian" deals with the main thesis of Jerry Coyne's book. What you'll see is the typical obfuscation and avoidance that characterizes such theologians.

Keep in mind what Jerry says about so-called "sophisticated" theologians, "... while theologians may know more about the history of religion—or the works of other theologians—than do regular believers, they have no special expertise in discerning the nature of God, what he wants, or how he interacts with the world." [my emphasis LAM]


1. We can quibble about whether mathematics is another way of knowing that falls outside of the broad definition of science. I don't think it does but that debate has nothing to do with the science vs religion conflict.

Can we ever know if god exists?

A recent issue of New Scientist (Sept. 3-9) is billed as "The Metaphysics Issue: How science answers philosophy's deepest questions." This is probably not going to make philosophers happy.

Several of the articles are devoted to the "big questions." According to New Scientist these questions are normally left to philosophers but the editors go on to say, "Now, though, scientists are increasingly claiming them as their own ..." Let's look at one of the questions: Can we ever know if God exists?. Here's the part I want to discuss ...
No one has proved that God exists, but then no one has proved there is no God. Is working out the truth a supernatural feat?

... Gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere. Belief in a god or several gods is a leap of faith. So is disbelief. The only coherent and rational position is agnosticism.
Really? Disbelief in Thor, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and Gitchi Manitou is a "leap of faith"? I have not been convinced by any evidence that these gods exist. Is that irrational and incoherent?

Agnosticism, in its simplest form, is the position that you can never prove that gods exist and you can never prove the negative. I am an agnostic and so is Richard Dawkins. It's the rational position you have to take in philosophy class when anyone asks if you can disprove the existence of all gods. But philosophy class is just about the only place where this stance is practical. In the real world you have to take a stance. You either believe in some of the gods or you don't believe in any of them.

In the real world, you can disbelieve in something without committing yourself to proving that it doesn't exist. For example, I don't believe there are fairies at the bottom of my garden. With respect to gods, this form of disbelief is the position of many (most?) atheists. They simply don't believe in gods. They have not been convinced by any arguments for the existence of any gods. Atheism, in this sense, does not mean that you deny the existence of gods. That's why many of us are atheists AND agnostics.1

It's just childish nonsense to say that failure to believe in something is a "leap of faith." The author of this article, Graham Lawton, may have been thinking of something else when he wrote "disbelief." Perhaps he was thinking more in terms of disbelief meaning "rejection of gods" but that's not a common meaning.

It is coherent and rational to say we can never prove there are no gods just like it's coherent and rational to say we can never prove the absence of fairies at the bottom of my garden. That's almost trivial. I don't know why everyone makes such a big deal of it.

It is also coherent and rational to be an atheist who doesn't believe in any of the gods. On the other hand, I don't think it's coherent and rational to reject 99.99% of the gods but believe in one of them. That's truly a leap of faith.


1. Some people—John Wilkins is one—adopt a different definition of atheism. They think an atheist must deny that any gods exist. This is why he is a nonbeliever but not an atheist. He is an agnostic who doesn't believe in any gods. According to his logic, he could also be a theist and an agnostic as long as he's willing to admit he can never actually prove his god exists. (I know a Jesuit priest who is a theist and an agnostic.)

God, Science, and the Universe

Today's the day we find out "What's Behind It All?" The decision will be announced at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) by Lawrence Krauss when he educates the audience at Convocation Hall starting at 7 pm. Stephen Meyer (Intelligent Design Creationist) and Denis Lamoureux (Theistic Evolution Creationist) will also be there to learn the answer. (Spoiler Alert: the answer is "nothing.")
It's not too late to buy tickets. Email me if you want to join some of us for dinner before the event.

The event is being sponsored by Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. This is an Anglican College that trains people to become Anglican Ministers (among other things). The college is the prime mover behind this series of events and it deserves a great deal of credit for the effort. Co-sponsors include the Centre for Inquiry, Canada and three Christian groups.


The event is being video-hosted at many locations around the world. See the list here. If you don't want to watch with others, you can see the live stream on YouTube at: Krauss, Meyer, Lamoureux: What’s Behind it all? God, Science and the Universe. It starts at 7 pm EST. (It's probably over already in Australia.)

The ID crowd is already anticipating defeat so they're preparing their audience by warning them that Lawrence Krauss will be nasty (i.e. refute their arguments) [see Watch Meyer Take on Krauss and Lamoureux, Streaming Live at Evolution News on March 19]. (Warning: check your irony meters before reading the first paragraph.)
Those on the Darwinist, materialist, atheist side of the debate that we follow here aren't normally very good at listening and responding to scientific perspectives at variance from their own. They are much more interested in condemning and ridiculing -- which has got to be a poor strategy for them if they want to persuade anyone.

With that as the background, as we noted already, it's refreshing that arch-atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has agreed to participate in a public conversation with Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer, joined by theistic evolutionist Denis Lamoureux. That will be March 19 at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall. We're looking forward to it -- and here's the even better news. You won't have to be in Toronto to enjoy the discussion. The event will stream live here at Evolution News.


God, Science, and the Universe

Hosted by Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, Canada): Religion and Society Series - God, Science and the Universe.
Has a scientific explaination of the universe replaced the need for God as cause of its origins? Could life on our planet exist apart from divine intervention? Is there evidence for a designer?

On March 19th, three big thinkers, well-known in their various fields, will be together for the first time, on the stage at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall discussing God, science and the universe:
  • Lawrence M. Krauss  World-renowned Theoretical Physicist
  • Stephen C. Meyer Cambridge educated author and intelligent design advocate
  • Denis O. Lamoureux Science and Religion professor from the University of Alberta
Questions like these will be posed to the panel:
  • How did the universe originate?
  • Does God play any role in the cosmos?
  • What is the relationship between science and religion?
You are invited to live-stream this event via YouTube at your venue free of charge. Once you register as an event host, Wycliffe College and our partners will be happy to provide you with promotional and follow-up material to help make your event a success.

As evidenced by our sponsors, this is an opportunity that spans the diverse interests and questions of the scientist, the scholar, the layperson, the young and the old, and the Atheist, Agnostic and Christian. Our goal is to be a catalyst in starting conversations around our country on issues of faith and their intersection with broader society. 

Join thousands in Toronto and around the globe to take part in this rare and exciting opportunity. 

God, Science, and the Universe

Hosted by Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, Canada): Religion and Society Series - God, Science and the Universe.
Has a scientific explaination of the universe replaced the need for God as cause of its origins? Could life on our planet exist apart from divine intervention? Is there evidence for a designer?

On March 19th, three big thinkers, well-known in their various fields, will be together for the first time, on the stage at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall discussing God, science and the universe:
  • Lawrence M. Krauss  World-renowned Theoretical Physicist
  • Stephen C. Meyer Cambridge educated author and intelligent design advocate
  • Denis O. Lamoureux Science and Religion professor from the University of Alberta
Questions like these will be posed to the panel:
  • How did the universe originate?
  • Does God play any role in the cosmos?
  • What is the relationship between science and religion?
You are invited to live-stream this event via YouTube at your venue free of charge. Once you register as an event host, Wycliffe College and our partners will be happy to provide you with promotional and follow-up material to help make your event a success.

As evidenced by our sponsors, this is an opportunity that spans the diverse interests and questions of the scientist, the scholar, the layperson, the young and the old, and the Atheist, Agnostic and Christian. Our goal is to be a catalyst in starting conversations around our country on issues of faith and their intersection with broader society. 

Join thousands in Toronto and around the globe to take part in this rare and exciting opportunity.