Friday, July 23, 2010

The God of the Agnostics

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Some people who self-identify as non-religious still believe in the possibility of some kind of supernatural deity. This generally takes the form of either pantheism or agnosticism. I touched on this in The Strawman of the Faithful Atheist, but I want to explain further the agnostic’s flawed conception of God and their even more flawed notions of skepticism.

To begin, an allegory – something that I first came across in a teen sci-fi book but is apparently quite an old idea. Imagine that instead of being three-dimensional people, we only existed in two dimensions; left-right and forward-back, like drawings on a piece of paper. We would go around only being able to perceive the edges of other objects, and if someone drew a box around us we would be trapped. Now, imagine if a normal, three-dimensional person came along – they could pick us up out of the box and set us free. We would never have been up or down before – indeed, the mere concept of this third, up-down dimension wouldn’t really exist for us, except perhaps as a mathematical abstraction. This three-dimensional person would seemingly be able to defy physics – perform things that we had hitherto thought impossible – with the greatest of ease…but there would still be rules, limitations. That three-dimensional world would still have gravity, thermodynamics and all the other rules that govern us in the real world. Although the existence of such a being would rock the worlds of the Flatties, and would change their understanding of the universe forever, it would still be scientific – would still follow logical, cause-and-effect rules that could eventually be understood.

Not-so-thinly veiled, of course, is the comparison with the agnostic God; although it’s obviously not the only possibility, if beings existed in higher dimensions than us then they would seem to the untrained eye to be all-powerful gods. This is, essentially, what the agnostics claim to be keeping an eye out for; they are skeptical of organised religion but dissatisfied with the answers science has given us, so they propose that God might fill some of the gaps – generally not the God of any of the organised religions, but the kind of God that philosophers and scientists have spoken of. Agnostics (like our friend Rosenbaum) criticise the atheists for discounting the possibility of such a god, because one cannot disprove its existence, and seem to think this shores up their ethos.

One of the primary reasons that agnostics use God to fill in the blanks is because there are blanks that science is seemingly fundamentally incapable of answering. There is, for example, the question of the First Cause – if every effect, in a rational and scientific universe, has to have a cause preceding it, then what was the first cause? And what caused the first cause, and so on ad infinitum. Similarly, if time began at the Big Bang, what happened a few seconds before that? These seem, upon first glance, to be insurmountable by the basic tenets of our scientific logic (although less so when you consider that time can be bent and manipulated in very similar ways to the physical dimensions). And so a God, who is not held to the same rules as matter in our universe, is proposed as a solution. Just let that sink in for a moment; these people believe absolutely in logic; logic dictates that each effect must have a cause but science cannot provide this; so they propose a being that can circumvent logic. Yes, that’s right folks, their insatiable appetite for logic has caused them to abandon it completely. Even if this being cannot circumvent logic (ie is just a highly-powerful being that exists on a higher plane) all this answer does is take the question back a bit. We solve ‘what caused the Big Bang?’ by proposing a god. This only gives us a reprieve for about ten seconds, at which point someone asks ‘okay, then what caused God?’

As I’m sure people who disagree with me will notice, this does not necessarily say anything about the veracity of the statement – it may well be that the big bang was caused by a higher being and that the real question is indeed as to the origin of that being. But still – amazing and almost-incomprehensible as such a being may be, it must still follow scientific principles. It may have vastly different laws to us but it will still follow predictable, consistent, scientific laws of some kind. Which makes the God Hypothesis a scientific theory.

So now we have the agnostics and the atheists and their competing views. The agnostics criticise the atheists for discounting the possibility of a god, but as I’ve said in the past, only a tiny minority of atheists would completely discount the possibility of a god. Atheists simply believe that there is no evidence for a god; in the event that we get picked up out of our boxes, rest assured we will believe it. But when you look at the situation anew, you see that both the atheists and the agnostics are generally skeptical people who value their own skepticism. They will believe in something if swayed by evidence and evidence alone, or so they claim. And yet here we have a scientific theory with zero evidence to support it, and you have one group looking at it and saying “Well, I guess I won’t believe in that any more than I believe in dragons” and the other saying “Well, there isn’t any evidence for it, but we’re still going to consider it a legitimate possibility, even a highly likely one.”

Skepticism requires you to keep an open mind, but when all the evidence points one way, you need to accept it until something new comes along. Otherwise, it’s not skepticism at all – it’s faith.


  1. I think you've left out a fundamental group of people. There are a number of people out there who consider infinite creationism; that is to say: every god has a god to which they must answer. It's an incredibly difficult position to take, because we all have a weakened support of a 'beginning'. However, a beginning is not necessary, nor is it likely to solve anything.

    As far as skepticism is concerned, I think you are quite wrong in your final paragraph. The theological notion of skepticism merely relates to the rejection of certain theological ideas like omnipotence. There is no suggestion that a skeptic should accept a principle if there is solid evidence thereof.

  2. I couldn't find anything on the subject of Infinite Creationism, but as you've described it, it runs into the exact same problem. Infinite Creationism is an infinite regression. Now, we certainly could argue about whether a First Cause is necessary, but that's a topic for another day. The point of this article was not to solve this problem, merely to show that if you accept that a First Cause is necessary (as the agnostics do) then proposing a god does not help the situation at all.

    Again, I could find no references to your definition of Theological Skepticism, but to clarify I wasn't using a theological notion of skepticism, just the regular, scientific kind. I might try to argue against theological notions if I were talking about theists, but I was focusing on agnostics, who I would suggest are using the term in the same way I am.

    (on Infinite Creationism and Theological Skepticism - I understand that these may be technical philosophical terms that I haven't yet come across and that Google/Wikipedia will be useless for, so if you can point me to where you came across them, I will read it)