Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is agnosticism really the default position?

This is somewhat in response to this thread at DC.

First, over the last few months I've decided to avoid the terms atheist and agnostic. Although I'm obviously failing here, this post will try to explain why I'm making the attempt.

There's something in the way that both atheism and agnosticism treat all god hypotheses as equivalent that bothers me. I can't imagine using similar terms in any other domain. There's also the complication that many people approach agnosticism as if it were a middle-ground between atheism and theism when its really on another scale altogether. When the question is whether or not one believes in any god, agnosticism is an irrelevant response. Agnosticism concerns knowledge, and for some god hypotheses we're all agnostic either by definition (for gods that are unknowable) or by ignorance (we've not been exposed to sufficient evidence either way).

The first kind of agnosticism applies even to our hypothetical gods for even they cannot know what is by definition outside of their fields of knowledge. For every god we're necessarily agnostic about, there's still yet an infinite set of gods out there that that god is agnostic about. As a personal description, the term simply states one's acceptance of that fact about the unknowable.

The second kind of agnosticism varies from person to person, supernatural entity to supernatural entity. It's a matter of pending human creativity in seeking evidence for each individual god hypothesis.

I also have a problem with the larger debate being framed as science vs supernaturalism (or dogmatic scientists vs dogmatic supernaturalists) in a way that implies one is true and the other false. The issue for me is methodology, not the specific claims. As someone engaged in science, my objective isn't to show that science disproves (or will disprove) all supernatural claims; that's obviously impossible, even if a few can be adequately demonstrated to be improbable. I'm fully prepared to admit some supernatural claims as true, given sufficient evidence. Rather, I aim to question those theists who dress their beliefs up as knowledge on the same epistemological grounds as scientific theories. Its not that I believe all scientific claims are true; in fact, I think the best only approximate truth and more than a few are simply false. But the methodology of science is the best way for entities in our position to evaluate claims. If we cannot approach supernatural claims with the same methodology, we are at a loss as to how to even evaluate one claim in comparison with another.

We have no reason to insist that agnosticism is anything more than a temporary position toward those supernatural claims that overlap with the physical world. Claims concerning interventionist gods, souls, free-will, etc can all be tested as we develop hypotheses and, with empirical support, theories. Of course we can never come to absolute conclusions, but we can begin to rule out the most probable theories until we're left with only the infinite set of hypotheses that are impossible to demonstrate (like invisible pink unicorns). At that point, I think we may as well accept whatever materialist explanation suits the phenomena best, but to each their own: its how the position is reached that's important, not what the position is. If one supernatural claim is adhered to more tightly than another without evidence to justify the acceptance of one and the rejection of another, there's something dishonest or impassioned happening in the reasoning that should have no place in a discussion aiming at objectively establishing the truth.

For those claims that do not overlap with the observable physical world, we have no way to discuss or evaluate them. Without evidence, we can't even state whether rationality and logic apply. (We'll never even be absolutely sure that our own universe is rational, much less anything beyond our experiences.) These claims are simply outside our field of knowledge by definition. No honest person has a position toward them other than agnosticism, regardless of whether or not they believe in any one claim. If any individual did acquire legitimate knowledge, then the claim has been removed from those claims about which we can only be agnostic. Suddenly we find ourselves in a position where more meaningful investigation can begin.

I don't believe that our inability to validate even the best scientific claims with absolute certainty is a reason to begin speculating on supernatural possibilities with abandon. Such speculation can be fun, but there's no a priori way to limit it. Considering all the contradictory possibilities, there certainly doesn't seem to be grounds on which one could legitimately use such speculation to justify violence, the denial of civil rights, or that any one claim is necessarily more sound than another. Its my concern that overstressing the possibility that some unknowable claims could be true may give rise to the public's willingness to respect faith in ungrounded speculation and to criticize those who dare point out that not all supernatural claims can escape empirical scrutiny. With a culture that values middle-grounds and compromises (here in the USA at least), even entertaining debate on the unknowable ends up sounding like an argument for some supernatural claim as being most probable simply because of the number of claims being put forward.

Supernatural claims differ in our ability to test them. Treating our current states of knowledge about the unknowable and about potentially knowable as equivalent is intellectually misleading. We should approach claims individually and avoid discussing universal default positions.