Between atheism and agnosticism

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/08/04 03:01 -04:00, original URI:

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. :-)


This post brought to you by ܞ (U+071e, a.k.a. SYRIAC LETTER YUDH HE)

Adam on 4 Aug 2006 4:28 AM:

See also: Russel's Teapot.

Maurits [MSFT] on 4 Aug 2006 8:45 AM:

Ironically William of Ockham (after whom Occam's razor is named) was a monk.

Paul Clapham on 4 Aug 2006 11:21 AM:

When I decided I didn't care about the question, back in the 1990's, I coined the word "apatheism" to describe my point of view. Now I see (from the word's Wikipedia entry) that I wasn't the only one doing that.

Mike on 4 Aug 2006 1:29 PM:

"Joss"'s arguement is ridiculous.  You can believe anything you want as long as you don't let it get in your way of evaluating things rationally.  Active disbelief (or active belief) would be more likely to hamper you then simply being noncommittal.

A non-religious version from real life would be that I am firmly convinced that <other team> doesn't bother to even try to look at bugs that can be vaguely bucketed as <my component> even though <made up statistic> percent of them are actually thiers.  Regardless of the truth of this belief I have to approach each bug open to the possibility that it is mine, or thiers, or somebody elses, or a combination of any or all of the above, or not even really a bug.

CL on 4 Aug 2006 1:49 PM:

I'm a Pastafarian myself (church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

Nick Lamb on 4 Aug 2006 2:04 PM:

The best thing about Eric's post is the transition from philosophy to The Simpsons via Smashing Pumpkins lyrics.

All the hair-splitting about whether the Judean Popular People's Front are not-believing-in-god in the correct way has been done before, but that segue at the end is wonderful.

orcmid on 4 Aug 2006 3:38 PM:

I enjoyed both the movie and the book.  There were some things I preferred about the film.   First, she returned with too much blank tape rather than another kind of souvenir that would certainly have mucked about with causality (and the movie doesn't subject us to considerations of causality much at all).

Secondly, the conversation about what can be observed and confirmed is handled pretty neatly in the conversation when the presidential aide (the first time I ever saw Matthew McConaughey in a film) asks her if she loves her father, and when she says yes, asks her to prove it.

The business about finding a message in the digits of pi is now dated, because lots of unexpected sequences have been found in pi (including at least one 0123456789 so far), and was too geeky to use in the film, fortunately.

Keith Farmer on 4 Aug 2006 4:46 PM:

Contact was one of my favorite novels.  I've managed to get it in two languages, now.

I thought the pi message was elegant.  Geeky, yes, but it wrapped up the whole science vs religion theme of the book by making them a non-issue.

The thing I disliked about the movie was the complete change in family life for Arroway, and the standard (and unnecessary) foisting of The Love Interest, which didn't exist in the book.  Can't a movie be made nowadays without requiring the hero/heroine fall in love with the dashing guy from the opposite side of the fence?

Especially when it was perfectly well-written without it?

Incidentally, I preferred the pendulum-in-the-face part.

Maurits [MSFT] on 4 Aug 2006 8:17 PM:

> finding a message in the digits of pi

Every possible message (in every possible finite encoding) is somewhere in the digits of pi.

Michael S. Kaplan on 5 Aug 2006 8:55 AM:

Yes, that is true Maurits. The book talks about it -- and it actually discusses the issue. The idea is that a long string of zeros and ones that was too early to be likely to be a statistical fluke might carry a message -- a message thast even as skeptic could read. That anyone could independently verify....

Larry Lard on 7 Aug 2006 11:35 AM:

The normality (in the sense) of pi is conjectured, and generally believed, but nowhere near proven.

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