Makes me want to be an agnostic

A good defense of agnosticism here. Excerpt:

Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved. And so atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Thomas Aquinas, who tried to prove by logic the possibility of creation “ex nihilo” (from nothing). His eventual explanation entailed a Supreme Being standing outside of time and space somehow endowing it with existence (and interfering once in a while) without explaining what caused this source of “uncaused causation” to be created in the first place.

I agree with the skepticism the author aims toward contemporary science and its ability to answer the deepest questions (though at the same time I’ll say we have no better guesses on hand). What bumps me over the edge into atheism, though, is the fact that we have pretty compelling ordinary ways of explaining why people end up being theists, and it would be just too weird a coincidence if theists ended up being right.

Example. I cup my hands together and tell you there is an invisible, massless, chargeless dancing demon in it. I ask you if you think I might be right. I think you ought to say “no, you are wrong” not only because the claim is obviously ridiculous, but also because you know I’m proposing this strange idea only because I’m aiming to make some sort of point about arguments and evidence and theism. You know my motives, roughly, and see how my motives lead me to making this ridiculous claim. Now if it turned out that there really was an invisible demon in my hand — well, shoot, that would really be something, wouldn’t it? Mind-bogglingly weird.

The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for theism. You know why theists believe (all sorts of psychological explanations available here). So if that fully explains why they believe what they believe, then it would be a truly bizarre coincidence for them to end up being right (since certainly the psychological explanations offer no reason for thinking the belief is true; only that it is believed).

Interesting question to raise here: can the exact same sort of argument be raised against the scientistic atheists? Aren’t their beliefs also explicable through psychology? Does that give us reason to discount their beliefs? (Here again I must say: Nz was way ahead of us on this! He ad hominems the scientists alongside the priests in BGE.)


Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

13 thoughts on “Makes me want to be an agnostic”

  1. Very nice post.

    Questions and rambling: If string theory and Zoroaster give the same result (at least to people that are illiterate in the natural sciences), that is they both provide a coherent framework for the existence of the universe, shouldn’t we simply follow William of Ockham and go with the one that is easier to remember?

    I would agree that deciding between Zeus and Zoroaster is difficult (and I am confining myself to religions containing a Z-name character) but then don’t we have a bit of a sorting problem there? We don’t have to impose homogeneity to questions of origin and related answers. The rank assigned depends on the chosen measure.

    If I believe that burning my hand on a rock that I took out of the fire is because I upset the fire demon that owns that rock, modern physics does little to improve on the lesson: don’t touch rocks in the fire. The goal of my understanding has to be slightly different if I want to realize the benefit from careful study of the physical properties of heat. Again, heterogeneity in goals (or metrics).

    What I fear is the hubris of my own desire to substitute science for the literary abstractness and simplicity of parable.

    It would take thousands of articles in social science journals to explain what is summarized in the story, “The Good Samaritan.” While this does not provide support for the notion of the Christian God it does offer some defense of the people who simply behave “as if” there were such a being. Some of the best “as if” believers are the ones that no longer care to make the distinction between fable and reality.

    Were I simply to believe that I could catch demons in my hands, this is only valuable should it result in some end defined subjectively. For us, the notion that you have not captured a demon serves to illuminate both our rhetorical aims. This is that mystery should be rejected when faced with demonstration. I guess I don’t see a distinction between the claim that there is no demon and the one that says there is given that we appreciate the competing goals implied by the respective affiliation. Were tolerance extended symmetrically and innocents not hurt in the process, there might be something to believing in demons.


    1. Great post, Michael. I like this line: “Some of the best “as if” believers are the ones that no longer care to make the distinction between fable and reality.”

      I was recently reminded of an interview with Alvin Plantinga where he notes that the arguments for God’s existence are not that compelling to him, but that it really just “seems” to him that there really is such a God. I have occasionally remarked on the need for a baptism of the imagination to fight off reductionism. I see the line between myth and truth as being quite fuzzy. I think Christianity is a myth, but it just “seems to me” that it is a true one. Tolkien is really good on this relationship between myth and truth. We all know the famous story of Tolkien and CS Lewis. Atheist Lewis told Tolkien that myths were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.” Tolkien replied that myths “are not lies” and are in fact the best and sometimes the only way of expressing deep truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible.


      1. Thank you for the C.S. Lewis-Tolkien story. It seems so compelling that I fear I have heard it before, lost the citation, and been thinking that I had an original idea.


  2. “Now if it turned out that there really was an invisible demon in my hand — well, shoot, that would really be something, wouldn’t it? Mind-bogglingly weird.”

    I think the root of my agnosticism shows in my intuitive response to your question: it would be terribly weird, yes, but how can I trust my intuition? When I first read St. Thomas Aquinas, I had the sense that he was building beautifully intricate bridges to nowhere. We take our understanding, which seems to work pretty well most the time on our plane (or maybe not). Psychologists, using their theories (which work well most of the time, as theories are wont to do), come up with explanations of why theists believe what they believe. Is a psychologist’s explanation of why a theist believes equivalent to a clear understanding of the theist’s motives? It seems to me that it is not. The only thing weirder than a dancing demon is a psychologist without an explanation for a psychic phenomenon.

    Since psychologists are bound to come up with some explanation, and since their explanation is bound to be a natural one, it doesn’t seem to me that their explanation counts as evidence one way or the other.

    When you look at any individual theism, it’s reasonable to say it’s probably untrue, as it has to compete with all the others. It’s the same intuition that tells me any given lottery ticket is probably a loser (although I am yet hopeful). Atheism seems a way out of this, since it is a way to mark “none of the above.” But it still seems like one option among others, and so I find myself wondering if I’m not just as bad off with atheism as with any other bet? Probably, (here’s where the agnosticism comes in), REALITY is something so weird, so foreign, and so out of my ken that I’ll never conceive it (and I probably can’t).


  3. I see your point, Huenemann, but end up being unmoved by it. Mostly I am simply unmoved by the over-psychologization of belief. I don’t quite know how to put my objection to this reduction. First, I think it is far too quick to say that you have “plenty of ordinary way of explaining” why people end up being theists. This attitude tends to infantilize theists. And I am interested in explaining things, not explaining them away. I don’t think having a psychological account (which I think is rarely a comprehensive account) of why a person holds a belief is sufficient reason to “discount” that belief. Call me old fashioned, but I am still hung up on that whole question of actual truth and all.

    Here is a question: what psychological fact about you (or Nz) leads you to insist on completely reducing beliefs from truth claims to mere psychological motivations? Once we have an account of your psychology sorted out, can we then “discount” your psychological reductions as simply arising out of your own psychology? That would be tidy. Theists and atheists alike could simply nod at your cute little idiosyncrasy and move on.


  4. To Kleiner – how dare you call my idiosyncrasy ‘cute’! Please, ‘brooding’ at the very least!

    But you’re right, and my psychological argument works only if there really is no independent evidence for taking theism to be true. For if there isn’t, then the only reasons for being a theist are the psychological ones, and that pretty much seals the fate. (Notice my deft sidestepping of the matter of ‘faith.’ Doh! Stepped in it again!)

    Unless Michael is right, that is, and someone can somehow retain theism solely for the ensuing benefits while acknowledging its utter groundlessness. Tall trick to pull off, I think. We sometimes talk about heuristic beliefs, but are there any, really?

    I *think* Nz does often reduce beliefs to psychological motivations, and then praises the motivations to the extent that they are life-affirming. He needs truth in order to sort these motivations out, but doesn’t value the object beliefs on the basis of their truth.


    1. I am sticking with “cute”. I have my reasons, and this is the sort of thing that probably could be fully “explained away” by my psychology! “Brooding” does make it seem cooler, but frankly I don’t see you as much a “brooder”. You are not weighed down by your skepticism, you hold things (and yourself) very lightly. You don’t “brood”. You laugh too much about yourself and philosophy to have this idiosyncrasy be “brooding”. That said, I grant that “cute” was a little demeaning.

      Rene Girard is very good on Nz because he manages to out-psychologize the great psychologizer. I have a paper on this that I wrote some years ago, maybe I will dig it up and present it to the USU Philosophy Club this year.

      I suppose the trouble is that “evidence” and reasons and psychology are all tumbled up together. We, the questioners, are also in question in asking the questions. There is no naked or psychologically neutral place for us to stand and see. But I don’t think this justifies a complete reduction of belief to psychology, it just means that you can’t work out the truth of beliefs without also thinking about psychology. I always think of Plato’s Republic – philosophers need to have a certain psychology in order to even begin to think about substantive truth claims, much less actually come to actually understand. Here might be the point in this case: the reasons for theism may only look like good reasons to the person who has already had a “psychological conversion” (metanoia is the word used in the allegory of the cave). In other words, there might be really good reasons for theism, and you just can’t see them because of your psychology.


  5. In defense of Huenemann’s brooding–I believe he is a brooder. In fact I have seen him brood. We have even brooded together on occassion. Perhaps he just doesn’t want to appear like a brooder so he doesn’t brood in public, I don’t really know.

    I did discover a cool passage from Mark Twain that speaks about the implications of learning anything. (Heidegger would have liked this.)I am just going to paste a little section from my thesis that also includes a Zen Koan regarding this subject as well.

    In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain poignantly describes the dilemma that occurs when we defer to rational, utilitarian thinking alone. In doing so he simultaneously lends credibility to other ways of learning, experiencing, and knowing. Ways which he apparently comes to esteem as equal, if not superior.

    “Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river…All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. [Speaking of his pity for doctors in this regard he continues,]…doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”

    When Joshu asks Nansen, “What is the Way?” Nansen replies “Ordinary mind is the Way.” “Shall I seek after it?” Joshu inquires. To this Nansen responds, “If you try for it, you will become separated from it.” Confused, Joshu persists, “How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” Nansen’s response is full of intrigue. He says, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is a delusion, not knowing is confusion.” He concludes by explaining that the Way is vast and boundless as space itself and that it cannot be talked about in terms of right and wrong; that the Way is an experience rather than a conceptual understanding—an understanding that somehow lies beyond right and wrong. (I don’t think Nz would have minded this sort of explanation.)


    1. Hi Sandi, this is intriguing. What’s the central thesis of your thesis? central characters? Sounds like something I’d like to read.


      1. Mike-Thank you for your interest. The central thesis of my thesis is Unity. Huenemann has suggested I call it something like: An account of unity throughout the discourses of religion, mythology, philosophy, and science. So the number of characters borders on the ridiculous as I am including every relevant example I can find. However, I am primarily springboarding off of Spinoza’s Natura Naturans and defering heavily to the pre-Socaratics and Hindu scholarship throughout. Right now it reads more like an anthology of examples (supporting evidence of sorts)but as it progresses I’d really welcome another set of eyes on it and some critical feedback, that is if you were serious about wanting to have a look at it.


  6. For ill-defined reasons this post reminds me of the work of Phillip K Dick, author of the sources stories of “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” and many others. He examined many of the related questions: how can you know you are part of a delusion when the substrate of your thought might itself be part of the delusion? How can you know when to, and when not to, jump out of the system and consider things on a more abstract level? In short, how do you know what is real and what is imaginary, and doesn’t it even matter? Or does it matter some times and not others?


    1. Your last two questions are particularly interesting. I too have been considering these things and am finding the “fact of the matter” to be very elusive and ambiguous–to the point of wondering if ambiguity itself is essential.


      1. Sandi, sure, i’d love to take a look at it whenever you have the inclination. I probably can’t provide the feedback of a more sanctified academic eye but I will tell you what I see.

        (email: mike at clichereality dot com)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: