by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/08/04 03:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/08/04/688138.aspx
I was over on Language Log the other day and I read Eric Baković's Between Good and Evil. Somewhere between the points in the post and the reference to Carl Sagan's thought experiment about the dragon I was reminded about a bit in Sagan's Contact (not the movie but the book, which was free of both Hollywood simplifications and the type of things one imagines Jodie Foster wants out of parts she takes).
I think it puts the question of atheism vs. agnosticism in a slightly more reasonable light than a purely scientific, a purely linguistic, or even a purely religious standpoint might:
"You don't want to believe in God." Joss said it as a simple statement. "You figure you can be a Christian and not believe in God. Let me ask you straight out: Do you believe in God?
"The question has a peculiar structure. If I say no, do I mean I am convinced God doesn't exist, or do I mean I'm not convinced that he does exist? Those are two very different statements."
"Let's see if they are so very different, Dr. Arroway. May I call you 'Doctor'? You believe in Occam's Razor, isn't that right? If you have two different, equally good explanations of the same experience, you pick the simplest. The whole history of science supports it, you say. Now, if you have serious doubts about whether there is a a God -- enough doubts so you're unwilling to commit yourself to the faith -- then you must be able to imagine a world without God: a world that comes into being without God, a world that goes about its everyday life without God, a world where people die without God. No punishment. No reward. All the saints and prophets, all the faithful who have ever lived -- why, you'd have to believe they were foolish. Deceived themselves, you'd probably say. That would be a world in which we weren't here on Earth for any good reason -- I mean for any purpose. It would all just be complicated collisions of atoms -- is that right? Including the atoms that are inside of human beings.
"To me, that would be a hateful and inhuman world. I wouldn't want to live in it. But if you can imagine that world, why straddle? Why occupy some middle ground? If you believe all that already, isn't it much simpler to say there's no God? You're not being true to Occam's Razor. I think you're waffling. How can a thoroughgoing conscientious scientist be an agnostic if you can even imagine a world without God? Wouldn't you just have to be an atheist?
"I thought you were going to argue that God is the simpler hypothesis," Ellie said, "but this is a much better point. If it were only a matter of scientific discussion, I'd agree with you Reverend Joss. Science is essentially concerned with examining and correcting hypotheses. If the laws of nature explain all the available facts without supernatural intervention, or even do only as well as the God hypothesis, then for the time being I'd call myself an athesist. Then if a single piece of evidence was discovered that doesn't fit, I'd back off from atheism. We're fully able to detect some breakdown in the laws of nature. The reason I don't call myself an atheist is because this isn't mainly a scientific issue. It's a religious issue and a political one. The tentative nature of scientific hypothesis doesn't extend into those fields. You don't talk about God as a hypothesis. You think you've cornered the truth, so I point out that you may have missed a thing or two. But if you ask, I'm happy to tell you: I can't be sure I'm right."
Anyway, it just occurred to me while I was reading and thought I'd share. :-)
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Adam on 4 Aug 2006 4:28 AM:
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