• Agnosticism is untenable and irrelevant, part 2

    This is a continuation of a previous post, which you should read first if you have not already. Arguments in section III pertain to the sociological problems with self-describing as agnostic. IV and V criticize the philosophical basis more directly.

    III. Label me incredulous

    The label paradox
    This is a linguistic phenomena whereby it can be observed that as labels become more specific and confer more information, they become less useful and less powerful. This is counter-intuitive because isn’t it better for a label to convey more information than less? It turns out not, because the linguistic power of labels largely derives from how big a set of people or objects they describe.

    Broad labels let you generalize knowledge about a person. Let’s say you meet someone and they tell you that they are a Christian. Now, because there is an enormous group of Christians to have previously interacted with, you can make many inferences. True- your inferences are only statistically valid at best, but that’s still quite a bit better than being guided by nothing.

    Compare this to when someone says to you that they’re an “Episcopalian”. How much information does this convey? The number of Espiscopalians is comparatively small. Most people have no background knoweldge to generalize from, if they even know the word at all. If you subtract out everything already given by the label “Christian” of which it is a subset, the label only specifies a handful of church doctrines that separate that shard from other shards of Christianity. In terms of utility for a speaker and hearer, “Episcopalian” is specific, but just too small.

    As labels get more precise, they say more and more about fewer and fewer people, until they say virtually everything about almost nobody: Welcome, we’re the Southwest Oregon Reformed Episcopalian Church of Hats. We’re like the larger church, ‘cept we like hats a lot. What, you’ve never heard of us? Examples of the label paradox in action: everyone knows what doctor means, but fewer know how an ophthamologist differs from an optrician or even what a gastroenterologist is; consider attourney vs. securities lawyer; liberal vs. neoliberal; atheist vs ignostic. Highly specific labels only prosper in isolated sections of society, such as professional environments where it is useful to know them on a daily basis.

    The pretentiousness of why versus what
    “Atheist” or “theist” is an answer to a what question.  What do you believe? “Agnostic” does not answer a what question, which is why many have observed you can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist. Agnostic answers a why question. As in, “OK, so you’re an atheist. Why? Oh, because you don’t believe there can be evidence supporting the god idea. I gotcha.” The pretentiousness creeps in any time a person insists on always answering a what question with a why answer. The asker has not requested an explanation for your position, just a word or short statement describing it. By insisting on answering “agnostic”, or similar, you are ignoring their request and taking it upon yourself to share your personal philosophy with them. But, they didn’t ask. If they want to know the why, they will ask you why.

    Imagine if people commonly did this in answering other questions. A1 actually answers the question asked, and A2 gives an agnostic-type answer.

    Q:  So, are you part of a political party? dems? gop?
    A1:  Mostly libertarian, but conservative fiscally…
    A2: I think people should be responsibility for their own welfare and the deficit is out of control, and we shouldn’t have to support blah blah with taxes…

    Q: Are you from the city?
    A1: No, just visiting.
    A2: Well my family is from Cliffton a half hour southwest of here and my dad always said it’s not worth it with the pollution and traffic and all that.

    These sorts of A2’s are not always a bad thing to say, you might just be making small talk. What makes it presumptuous is insisting on always giving that reply whenever the question is asked, and not being able to give the answer you are actually being asked for.

    IV. Agnosticism is special pleading

    Special pleading is an informal logical fallacy best described as changing the rules in the middle of the game to preferentially benefit one’s position. It plays on the social acceptance that rules often have sensible exceptions- dog’s are not allowed in the store, other than service animals for the disabled.  Special pleading is the assertion of exception to the rules without justifying the exception:

    There must be a God because all things need a cause, therefore the universe needs a cause. God does not, because God is non-contingent. 

    Here the theist posits a premise shortly before contradicting it. Why a pre-universe condition is not permitted to be “non-contingent” but God is, is not explained nor should we hold our breath waiting. So how is agnosticism special pleading?

    The Santa clause
    When atheists compare Jesus to Santa, they are alluding to the special pleading of agnosticism. We don’t pay philosophical lip service to the possible existence of Santa. We don’t invent titles describing the disposition. We don’t correct people around us when they speak of Santa as an incontrovertible fiction. The silliness in doing so is obvious; but wait, why is it so silly for Santa and so serious for God? This implicit exception needs a closer look.

    Here the agnostic replies that we do have to correct people and invoke terms about Santa, we just don’t because there are no Claustians bombing abortion clinics. This, however, mistakes the scope of the problem of agnosticism. The justification for using the term “agnostic” and condemning definitive statements of any sort lies with a useless idea called absolute truth. Since we can’t know for 100% sure that there is no god, we must remain uncertain and play the accessory reindeer games any time the discussion of a/theism comes up. Virtually no agnostics I have ever met think through the implications of this seemingly reasonable position. It isn’t just Santa that you must defend as a possibility; it isn’t just atheism that you must demean as “unknowable”: it’s all ideas and all positions. We don’t absolutely know anything.

    When people insist evolution and global warming are untrue, the agnostic must defend them as potentially correct in the face of criticism. I’m very serious about this. The agnostic cannot ever say “evolution is true” and be an honest person. We don’t know it’s true; it only seems to be. I can say that the Earth is definitely 4.5ish billion years old. An honest agnostic can’t. Do vaccines cause autism? They might, an agnostic must report, any time the subject arises. I am not playing a game nor suggesting a thought experiment. This is literally what a person must do in order to subscribe to the idea of agnosticism, and act in a manner consistent with that idea. Except for showcase use or during imaginative exercise, the non-hypocritical agnostic is forbidden from the use of the words true, false, fact, certain, knowledge, untruth, falsehood and similar terms when they refer to the status of a proposition.

    V. Huxley Reduxley: Pointless philosophical asceticism

    No one carries on like that, nor could they. When people use words like “know” and “true” they aren’t speaking to absolute truth. They’re talking about things which it is more reasonable to assert than to deny, and for which there sufficient support in evidence and/or in reason.  We accept that evolution is a fact, and scientists did this long before DNA had been observed nor any kind of speciation event. We can do this, because of a preponderance of evidence and because we can make sound inferences. That we aren’t absolutely sure is not relevant because that is not what the word “know” or “fact” means. It isn’t even what the word “truth” means, in ordinary conversation. A reasonable review of the evidence leads us to conclude evolution happened and is happening. A reasonable review of history, science, and philosophy leads us to conclude god didn’t. There is no tenable justification for banishing either conclusion, nor the degree of certainty which prescribes the verb “know”. One famous man you might know denied such conclusions about both evolution and god: Thomas Huxley. He said of evolution[1],

    […]until selection and breeding can be seen to give rise to varieties which are infertile with each other, natural selection cannot be proved.

    Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog” and coiner of “agnostic” never in his lifetime accepted natural selection, the engine of evolution, as true. Huxley was not a philosopher, he was an anatomist. He applied an anatomist’s empiricism to Darwin’s theory, rendering it mere speculation. If your epistemology is so crippling that Darwin himself can’t convince you that the basic mechanism of evolution is real, maybe it’s a bit on the irrational side.


    1. Huxley, Thomas Henry (1860a), “On species, and races and their origin”, Proc. Roy. Inst. 1858-62 (III): 195

    PS- I will read responses in the comments and likely write a part 3 based on objections and feedback.

    Category: philosophysecularism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.