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The Agnostic Fallacy

Ville Kokko

Posted on March 21, 2019 08:22

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Paradoxically, it might be more agnostic not to believe in any gods than to be agnostic about them.

A headline from Scientific American: "Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prize-Winning Physicist Says".

Of course, Marcelo Gleiser won the Templeton Prize for spiritual contributions, as it were, not physics. Not sure whether that should make him more or less credible on this matter.

Anyway, he sounds like a deep and respectable thinker in that interview... except for this one thing I want to argue against. I'm sure my argument has been made many times before, but as long as esteemed thinkers keep disregarding it, it bears repeating.

He says: "I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. ... It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in non-belief. 'I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.' ... But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, 'Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.' And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. 'The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,' and all that."

To get a couple of things out of the way first:

Firstly, absence of evidence is evidence of absence in the sense that's usually relevant. Sayings are not arguments.

Secondly, atheists could claim they have evidence against the existence of god(s). But, all right, let's consider the case where absence of evidence is cited as the evidence.

If the case is that there's no evidence for the existence of any gods, then there is no reason to think gods exist. Anti-scientific, is it? What else is there in science that we believe in spite of lack of evidence? Not finding evidence in spite of trying to is cause to abandon a hypothesis. Having no initial evidence whatsoever suggests there is a reason not to even test it.

Further, if you're agnostic in the sense that we can't know anything about things like gods, that doesn't imply things like the gods we imagine could be real. There could be something unknowable out there, but if you say that something has a non-negligible chance of being like anything like gods, that only makes sense if we can know about it. If it's unknowable, what we imagine about it has no meaningful chance of being right.

Hence, it makes sense to be "agnostic atheist".

When people express belief in an unknowable god, they usually mean you can know about it somehow, can have some evidence, probably by inference or intuitions. But then others challenge them by applying standards to their evidence, and they retreat into saying the normal standards don't apply... and that they know it because it's unknowable.

Ville Kokko

Posted on March 21, 2019 08:22

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Source: Reuters

Brazilian physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser has been awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize, worth $1.4 million, for his...

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