(A)gnostic (A)theism

There is a chart which attempts to explain different forms of atheism and theism which has been floating around the internet for several years now. (See it here: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_QdYoufb0UsQ/TAimA3truGI/AAAAAAAAAA4/pcR-muRgp8c/s1600/Agnostic+v+Gnostic+v+Atheist+v+Theist.png). I have two major issues with this chart.

The first is the believe/know distinction. For “agnostic theist”, the chart says: 1) believes a god exists, and 2) doesn’t claim to know this belief is true. Consider this: have you ever heard anyone say, “I believe X, but I don’t know whether X is true”? Knowledge is generally accepted to be (barring outliers such as Gettier cases) something like “justified true belief”. So, consider the case of someone who believes X, yet doesn’t know X is true. This person would have to be in a very confusing mental state wherein he simultaneously believes both “X” and ” my belief that ‘X’ may not be justified or true”. Unfortunately for the chart, such a blatant mental contradiction probably isn’t possible (although, some people may claim to believe both things). Simply put, when we believe something, we also have a meta-belief that we know it.

My second issues is with the concept of belief itself. Beliefs are intrinsically tied to propositions, in that propositions are the things we believe (or not). When a theist says “I believe in God”, what he means is “I believe that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true”. Note that nothing is said about how confident (in an epistemic sense) the theist is that the proposition is true. Whether the theist is 60, 80, or 99 percent confident makes no difference here – he believes regardless. Now here’s where it gets tricky.

When we examine the proposition “God exists”, we’re going to have a confidence level that that proposition is true. If we’re atheists, it’s going to be less than 50% (otherwise, we’d be theists!) But then we have to consider another proposition: ‘God does not exist’. How do we assess our confidence in that proposition? Since it’s the negation of the first one, we can simply invert our confidence levels – so, if our confidence in “God exists” is 20%, it’s reasonable to say that our confidence in “God does not exist” is 80%, since these propositions are mutually exclusive. But, hey, that means atheists believe that a proposition is true. Oh, snap.

Of course, there is a third option – one might have no idea either way, and assess the confidence levels at roughly 50/50. Of course, this leaves us with a quite different set of terminology than the one laid out in the chart; one which consists of only atheism, agnosticism, and theism.

As a final thought, I leave you with this. It’s become quite popular since the release of The God Delusion to claim that while one is not 100 percent certain that God does not exist, one is 99.9 percent certain. This strikes me as being dishonest with oneself. It looks like nothing more than a rhetorical move deployed to avoid examination of one’s own beliefs. While it is important to have “wiggle room” to change one’s mind, 99.9 percent is effectively 100 percent, and any evidence or argument persuasive enough to shake such a high level of confidence would have to be not just extraordinary, but unreasonably so, especially when the issue in question is something like the existence of God, for which the answer isn’t immediately and obviously apparent.

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5 responses to “(A)gnostic (A)theism”

  1. Didgya (@Didgya) says :

    Good examination of the issue. Sometimes the 99.9 percent is given as an example of open mindedness but if truly skeptical you are always open minded no matter the percent. It is funny how you can make a nice concise post instead of a padded diatribe that has half the content. Cheers!

  2. Metalogic42 says :

    Thanks for the support! This blog is made possible by viewers like you.

  3. Matt says :

    “I believe X, but I don’t know whether X is true”?

    The unspoken position I frequently encounter is: ‘I want to believe X, and I don’t care whether it’s true.’

    “… someone who believes X, yet doesn’t know X is true. This person would have to be in a very confusing mental state….”

    a.k.a., “a state of Grace.” LOL. My hunch is, these people actually do both believe and disbelieve X, in separate parts of their brains, but cognitive dissonance inserts a bundling board to permit both beliefs to exist simultaneously.

  4. Hemisphere says :

    “Consider this: have you ever heard anyone say, “I believe X, but I don’t know whether X is true”? ”

    I frequently say things to that effect IRL. There are a lot of theories that I have hunches about that there isn’t enough data to make them wholly convincing either way. In the same sense I think (believe is such a loaded word) that gods do not exist, because I have encountered no evidence to suggest that they do, but I am not going to claim that I KNOW they don’t.

  5. Matt says :

    As Hemisphere notes, this issue is clouded by semantics — think; believe; know; guess; are poorly defined, and usually wrongly held synonymous. This seems part & parcel with the widespread practice of casually choosing things to believe in the way one chooses the color of one’s iPhone cover.

    Also lacking is a good way to indicate the the degree of confidence, something brought up in this blog’s inaugural post. The confidence derived from scientific data can be expressed as from “intriguing” to “persuasive” to “compelling” to “overwhelming”. Are there similar (not overly awkward) descriptives for everyday use?

    Consequently, hunches & wild guesses are acted on as if they were well-reasoned conclusions of high confidence. And so we, as individuals and as a society, make all kinds of terrible mistakes.

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