Dawkins is Agnostic – So What?

Posted by on February 25, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 16 comments

I can’t believe that The Telegraph calls this news.

Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist

He is regarded as the most famous atheist in the world but last night Professor Richard Dawkins admitted he could not be sure that God does not exist.

Right, and if anyone at The Telegraph had bothered to read his book The God Delusion, they’d already know this. In his book he wrote at length about this very topic. The problem comes when we misuse the term “agnostic”, and load it with more meaning than it deserves. It is the antithesis of “gnostic”.

gnos·tic adjective /ˈnästik/

  • Of or relating to knowledge, esp. esoteric mystical knowledge
  • Of or relating to Gnosticism

This is the claim to knowledge about god and his definite existence in the universe. Since it’s an untestable claim to know for sure that there IS a god, I’d say the term “gnostic” when applied to the existence of god is either one of two things: a disingenuous position of knowledge on an untestable claim, or a delusion about the definitive existence of god based in faith. Neither of these two standpoints are relevant in the proof of a god or gods.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, while Dawkins says he is “agnostic”, he is merely being truthful that when pressed about his knowledge of the existence of a god that there is no certainty either way. He is merely stating a fact of semantics, and NOT coming out of the closet as a “possible believer”. People incorrectly extrapolate the word “agnostic” in this sense as an admitting that there may be some credence to theistic claims of which, as I see it, there is none. Anyone who thinks this weakens Dawkins’ position doesn’t understand the position at all.

As a practical atheist, and a semantic agnostic, I understand completely what Dawkins says here, but it in no way concedes that god might exist. Look at the scale of probability again.

1.  Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”

2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”

3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”

4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”

5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”

6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”

7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

Dawkins considers himself a “strong 6” in this scale, and this is called “practical atheism”, because in his view there is no reason to live life as if God exists. If one is to be completely honest about their knowledge, then it is the only sensible position to hold. This is because the total possible knowledge that is available in the universe is completely beyond human capabilities of comprehension, and much of this knowledge is yet to be discovered. There is a possibility the much of the knowledge may remain hidden from humanity forever. (We may never know what an alien insect feels as it feeds on the other side of the universe, for example.)

Many people are outraged at the idea of being agnostic, but I think if one is truly genuine about the semantics of the term, the amount of possible knowledge in the universe, the amount of knowledge one person CAN have, and the multiplicity of possibilities in the universe, there is no way for certain to have absolute knowledge of this question. However it is completely possible to live life in practical atheism, and refute claims of knowledge from those who claim to know the unknowable.

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16 Comments

  1. Well you took the words right out of my mouth, I was planning to sit down and write about this tonight but you beat me to it. very well written, and dead on. Thanks.

    Matt, also a strong 6.

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  2. This is silly. By that definition even I’m a 6, and I am more certain than Dawkins. We can’t know everything. How absurd. Newton thought he understood gravity but Einstein found it relative, and there may be even more factors involving how gravity works, how physics in general works, to which we are currently oblivious. None of that changes the fact that what goes up must come down.. on Earth anyway.

    As I often find myself saying to insistent believers, I can prove their god does not exist by the fact they can’t prove their own god. No, this is not clean & perfect and philosophers have all kinds of excuses why this is unacceptable to them, but it works for me. No believers can prove their own god. Common sense dictates that’s way more than enough proof. If their god happens to exist despite their inability to prove it, this would be pure coincidence. The equivalent of winning a lottery on a guess of numbers. It would not mean they were right the whole time. It’d mean they were lucky.

    It doesn’t mean in the mean time anyone should give them the benefit of the doubt. I am more sure than Richard Dawkins that no god exists, because I know that if something another person might call a god does exist, I will refuse to call it that. I’ll make up a word if I must, but I won’t use ‘god’ and i certainly won’t bow before it. In fact I’d probably formally announce I was putting it on humanitarian’s arrest for crimes against mankind.

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    • “but it works for me” is usually something I try to avoid saying.

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    • There is a difference between practical statements such as “leprechauns do not exist” and their philosophical equivalent. For all practical purposes we can state “gods do not exist” and go about our everyday lives. However, this does not detract from the correct logical deduction that such a claim cannot be demonstrated. We shall forever be nearing gnostic atheism while never actually arriving at that point. Science works the same way in the opposite direction; nothing is proven beyond all doubt but we provisionally hold things as true until evidence to the contrary is presented.

      Lastly, defining words to avoid calling something “god” is not much more than a game of schematics.

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      • schematics, semantics, let’s call the whole thing off. As I pointed out in my previous statement, I ALREADY KNOW that’s not enough for hoity toity philosophy know it alls. I don’t care, and this is one of the reasons why i scoff at a lot of philosophy. Someone else may superglue a horn to a horse and call it a unicorn. I don’t have to call it a unicorn. I don’t have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

        The literal description of the abrahamic god as depicted in holy texts like the quran and the bible can be and has been demonstrated to not exist. When you pin them down, Believers say you can’t take the whole bible literally and they get vague and interpretty. Screw that. We have enough evidence that these works are fiction. I don’t need an electron microscope to hammer nails in this coffin. Just give me a big enough rock.

        Now some day in the future we might find some entity that can prove it created the universe. I ain’t holding my breath but crazier things have happened. It may or may not be humanoidish. It may or may not currently exist (it mighta created the universe & then died). It will have to somehow be able to have manifest in the universe & affect it, otherwise we’d never know and so what’s the point?

        If that day comes, then we can argue semantics, but even if it did, it won’t be Yahweh, Jehovah, or Allah. That ship has sailed. It sailed thousands of years before any of those texts were written, when mankind started fermenting grapes before the bible claims a god made an Adam.

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        • Not to beat a dead unicorn with semantics, but you’re arguing two different things here; the notion of particular gods versus the notion of any god at all. The scale is relating to the latter, and no matter how many coffins you shut it doesn’t change the fact that the probability of any existing at all is non-zero. Mathematically indistinguishable from 0, perhaps, but non-zero.

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          • It’s a convenient mis-reading of TGD to argue that Dawkins has merely debunked a caricature of God that’s found in popular religious texts, but not what the religious have in mind (a believable character based on that caricature).

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    • I think Dawkins is making two good points …

      First, he’s a scientist, and so he has to be careful about claiming absolute knowledge, he can’t say he knows God does not exist when there is no direct evidence of this. Therefore, he’s forced to be a 6 by scientific discipline. He does qualify this by saying he’s agnostic in the sense that he’s agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.

      Second, he’s making a point that “agnostic” is not some 50/50 position in the middle of a certain theist and a certain atheist, it’s a sliding scale. In the case of theism, God is overwhelmingly unlikely to exist according to evidence, but it is not proven. Dawkins shows that we don’t need to sit on the fence just because of an absence of certainty.

      Also, although he doesn’t argue it here, we can be technically agnostic (not KNOW that God does/does not exist) and still BELIEVE that he does/does not … belief and knowledge are not the same thing.

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  3. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain my atheism/agnosticism on the 7 point Dawkins scale (I’m a 6). This is something that all 6s just have to get used to unfortunately.

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  4. I like the analogy here with the hypothetical alien insect. I’ve used a sillier one along those lines of our inability to know what’s currently on sale on at a shopping mall in another galaxy, but the point is the same. Given a finite lifespan of human beings, a finite number of them (at any one point in time), and a finite lifetime for the universe, which itself may or may not be infinite in extent, it is simply not possible for us as a species or as individuals to know everything, so we’re all agnostic in practice if not in principle, or maybe ignostic would be a better word.

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  5. teapot teapot teapot

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  6. Press making something out of NOTHING. Glad you did a posting . . . but, honestly, the media is AGAIN creating the impression of controversy where there is NONE. I am in a group on fb and someone joined just to ask about Dawkins “defection”. lol.

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  7. Actual story: Famous professor of science demonstrates understanding of basic scientific principles; gormless hacks working for the Daily Telegraph don’t, at all.

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  8. Wait, that article was serious? I thought it was a joke. I mean, “In his frustration, [Dawkins] resorted to a helpless: ‘Oh, God.’” Really?

    He’s already admitted he can’t know for sure. Why is this news? Like most atheists (99.999999999999999%), he’s technically an agnostic atheist.

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  9. I think the aliens that rule the universe are looking down on us, reading everyone’s thoughts, and laughing at how incredibly stupid we are to believe in them; even though they created us as a joke!

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  10. It’s all semantics in my opinion. No real difference between 6 and 7. Because Dawkins is a scientist, he knows it would be “technically” incorrect to express 100% certainty, just as we can’t have 100% certainty that tomorrow won’t be the end of the world.

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