We haven’t finished our look at agnosticism and its overlooked lesson until we’ve looked at both sides of the coin, or else –again- one misses the full lesson. This will give us a chance to look more closely at a few of the logical fallacies involved in gnosticism.
Claiming to know the god(s) exist(s) without sufficient evidence is folly or farce. Claiming to know they don’t exist without sufficient evidence is also folly, and arguably worse, since nonbelievers don’t have the indoctrinated excuse of over-valuing faith. Those who speak of requiring sufficient evidence shouldn’t commit such errors in judgment as not requiring sufficient scientific evidence themselves.
Most theists are gnostic by definition, believing in things “revealed” to them upon or after “initiation” into the cult -though their initiation may often be nothing more than birth or baptism. Since no conception of atheism includes spiritual revelations or initiation ceremonies or requirements, no atheist can actually be Gnostic by its original (capital G) definition.
However, when certain atheists assert to know that there are no gods, they are making a truth claim regarding the nonexistence of any gods. Such atheists are known as gnostic (lower-case g) atheists for claiming knowledge of the gods which they cannot scientifically support. Somehow, these atheists missed the important lesson of agnosticism. It goes both ways!
Related points also apparently missed along the way by gnostic atheists include lessons on falsifiability, absence of evidence, burden of proof and can’t prove a negative. I want my readers to all be better informed than that.
To be clear, the majority of atheists are agnostic. They don’t believe in any gods, and they hold a position of nonbelief that makes no knowledge claims regarding the state of the gods.
And then there are gnostic atheists who believe there are no gods, and who claim to have certain knowledge regarding the nonexistence of the gods. We speak here of the logical fallacies in the position of the gnostic atheist, but the same fallacies apply to gnostic theists.
Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle is a standard in science and a principle touted by agnosticism. For something to be falsifiable, it must be testable.
The god hypothesis is ultimately quite neatly unfalsifiable; the nature of the claims are such that they cannot be scientifically tested. If a claim or the premises supporting it cannot be tested, then its scientific or truth value is lessened significantly, and it cannot be known.
The falsification principle in science helps to set a standard for empiricism by identifying what is good science methodology, and also to filter out less stringent “sciences” -such as astrology, theology and such. Claims that are only supported by way of limited observation and untestable hypothesis are limited in their accuracy by the limitations of observation -personal bias, interpretation problems, limited sampling range, etc. Basing our understanding of science on this approach left science open to too much error.
Absence of Evidence
Absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily equate to evidence of absence, but sometimes, it does. Not in the case of the gods, however, not with scientific certainty, at any rate.
Consider the question “Is it raining?” If you look outside and find an absence of evidence that it is raining, then that’s pretty good positive evidence of absence of rain, at least in your location and at that present time.
Things get more complicated when we consider questions on the level of “Do any gods exist?” In the case of the rain it was a simple question, with an easy answer -“Do you see any fucking rain?” Unfortunately, “Do you see any fucking gods?” just doesn’t work quite as well. (I tried it.)
A principle known as Hempel’s Raven Paradox helps illustrate the danger. The absence of apparent evidence for the existence of white ravens might lead one to conclude that there are no white ravens, just as the absence of apparent evidence for the existence of any gods might lead one to conclude that there are no gods.
However, in remote locations on the other side of the earth, white albino ravens do exist. They stick out so much that they get eaten rather quickly, and so evidence of their limited existence is not widespread.
Absence of evidence is not always conclusive evidence of absence.
Burden of Proof
Burden of proof works very simply – the person making the claim must back up the claim. If someone asserts that there are no gods, the burden of proving that there are no gods lies with that person, and we may wish the gnostic atheist good luck with that.
It’s better to let the believers make the dogmatic claims, so that the atheist may be the one pointing out that they have the burden of proof. Then we go take the dog for a good long walk, have a nice bath, or read a book, while they try and figure out a scientific way to prove what noone else is able to falsifiably demonstrate. The funny thing is, many will try, ignoring the entire requirement of falsifiability.
Proving a Negative
Not only has our gnostic atheist asserted an unfalsifiable proposition, relying only on the absence of evidence for the burden of proof, he or she also finds their self in the uncomfortable position of playing at proving a negative. Prove Bigfoot isn’t real. Go ahead, I’m just gonna go take my dog for a good long walk, have a nice bath, and read a book.
All the rhetoric and even the good sound logic all very relevant in any preponderance of the evidence doesn’t equate into falsifiable scientific propositions.
Consider that god is vaguely defined, ever-changing, all-powerful, apparently invisible, and has the whole universe in which to hide, and that we can see only a small part of that universe. While we may dismiss many concepts of gods as physically or logically impossible, and we may extrapolate most of those conclusions to the universe at large, the many and ever-evolving conceptions of “god” and the vast unknown make certainty less knowable.
Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot
These lessons are all perhaps best demonstrated by Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot. Russell proposed that if he asserted there was a small celestial teapot orbiting our sun, too tiny for our telescopes and probes to detect, no one could prove that there isn’t. It’s an unfalsifiable proposition; you can’t prove a negative from a mere absence of evidence on a vaguely defined concept. This touches on noncognitivism, which we’ll take a closer look at in a future post.
Fortunately, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Russell’s point was that as it is with his celestial teapot, it is exactly so with claims regarding gods as well. The unfalsifiable nature of such claims makes them as ridiculous and irrelevant as his little teapot in the sky.
Back to the Lesson of Agnosticism
To be fair to the gnostic atheists, a preponderance of all the evidence we do have -and the lack thereof- must lead the honest questioner to some likely probabilities and improbabilities. But that is all we can do. Any assertions of empirical fact must be based on actual verifiable knowledge.
We cannot be called upon to believe in every claim anyone ever makes. Pretty sure there’s only so many conflicting lies that we can swallow at once without completely losing our minds. If a proposition regarding the nature of reality cannot be supported with scientifically falsifiable evidence, it should not be held as a point of fact or knowledge.
This principle -the general lesson of agnosticism- applies not only for gnostic atheists, but also for gnostic theists, and not only to the question of the gods’ existence. The same principle should apply for gnostic alien believers, and gnostic 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and gnostic terrorists, etc. There is a difference between knowing and believing, and there is a difference between justified belief and unjustified belief. We’ll talk more about that in a future post as well.
The point is, the principle of agnosticism is not just a concern for scientists or applicable only to the question of the gods. It’s a mindset that facilitates honest and critical thinking in all areas of our lives.
On some things -many things, all things perhaps (but specifically the existence of any gods), we just cannot know with empirical scientific certainty. What we can do is analyze all of the evidence available to us, try and quantify what’s unknown, and apply logic. After a preponderance of these things, some conclusions one way or another are at least justified and rather unavoidable for most of us, as well as more likely to be true.
These are beliefs based on good thorough information and rational judgment, hopefully. But claims of knowledge or fact require application of the agnostic principle.