Thursday, June 05, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 12

Agnosticism. Peikoff has this to say of agnosticism:

[There is] a widespread approach to ideas which Objectivism repudiates altogether: agnosticism. I mean this term in a sense which applies to the question of God, but to many other issues also, such as extra-sensory perception or the claim that the stars influence man’s destiny. In regard to all such claims, the agnostic is the type who says, “I can’t prove these claims are true, but you can’t prove they are false, so the only proper conclusion is: I don’t know; no one knows; no one can know one way or the other.”

The agnostic viewpoint poses as fair, impartial, and balanced. See how many fallacies you can find in it. Here are a few obvious ones: First, the agnostic allows the arbitrary into the realm of human cognition. He treats arbitrary claims as ideas proper to consider, discuss, evaluate—and then he regretfully says, “I don’t know,” instead of dismissing the arbitrary out of hand. Second, the onus-of-proof issue: the agnostic demands proof of a negative in a context where there is no evidence for the positive. “It’s up to you,” he says, “to prove that the fourth moon of Jupiter did not cause your sex life and that it was not a result of your previous incarnation as the Pharaoh of Egypt.” Third, the agnostic says, “Maybe these things will one day be proved.” In other words, he asserts possibilities or hypotheses with no jot of evidential basis.

Peikoff here misrepresents agnosticism. He equates agnosticism with the creed of “I don’t know” and “Anything is possible." Is Peikoff right in his description of agnosticism? Perhaps we should turn to some actual agnostics to find out. And there is no better witness to call to the stand than the man who originally coined the term, Thomas Henry Huxley. Here is Huxley’s description of agnosticism:

Agnosticism … is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, "Try all things, hold fast by that which is good" it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Now many Objectivists will protest Huxley’s use of the word faith, but here it is important to understand that Huxley is not advocating a blind faith (he was scientist, after all) but a justified faith—justified by the fruits of experience. Huxley understands that you cannot prove your starting points; that you have to begin with faith and then see how it works out. If your faith is corroborated by experiential trials that you subject it to, you are justified in keeping fast to it. Otherwise, you try something else. Agnosticism, then, for Huxley is simply the critical method of thinking. It means always keeping an open mind to new evidence. As Huxley puts it: “The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproven today may be proven by the help of new discoveries to-morrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction.”

“Do not block the path of inquiry!” insisted philosopher C. S. Peirce. This is the great danger for those who believe that knowledge, in order to be useful, must be "certain:" that they will close their minds to new evidence, because, after all, the debate is over, certainty has been achieved! The path to inquiry is blocked by the de facto dogmatism of all claims to certainty. All Huxley’s agnosticism is trying to insist upon is to keep the mind open, keep the path to inquiry clear.

Peikoff mischaracterizes agnosticism as insisting on the proof of negatives. But that’s not in the least true. Agnosticism is merely pointing out that lack of evidence does not constitute proof that something doesn’t exist. This is not the same thing as saying that the all things are possible. Nor is it claiming we can’t have any beliefs or suspicions about extra-empirical entities such as the God of the Bible. There is nothing contradictory in an agnostic saying he doesn’t believe in that sort of God. But he doesn’t regard this belief as “certain” and determined for all time. The agnostic remains a steadfast fallibilist. He remains open to any new evidence that might be brought forth on the question. And so, when the agnostic H. L. Mencken was asked what he would do if, following his earthly demise, he suddenly found himself confronted by the twelve apostles, he answered: “I would simply say, ‘Gentlemen, I was mistaken.’”


JayCross said...

All Huxley’s agnosticism is trying to insist upon is to keep the mind open, keep the path to inquiry clear.

That's good advice. Unfortunately, the agnostics I've yet don't really fit that mold. Instead, they seem much like Peikoff alluded to: using agnosticism as a politically correct "shield" to protect themselves from any real, deep thinking about life's big questions.

meg said...

hey guys,
what's up??
- meg

quark schiz said...

>> as a politically correct "shield" to protect themselves from any real, deep thinking about life's big questions.

It's like they fear having a perspective or a conviction, but they try to make it seem as if they are intellectually rigurous instead.

Although I am more of a weak atheist, I agree with Peikoff on this one, and so with many critics of agnosticism.

Daniel Barnes said...

Greetings young Meg,

I am on Sabbatical from the Dreaded ARCHNblog whilst I work on my new business launch. Probably for another month or so, so my interest in things Randian is on hold till then. Still drop in on your site occasionally tho...;-)

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Unfortunately, the agnostics I've yet don't really fit that mold. Instead, they seem much like Peikoff alluded to: using agnosticism as a politically correct 'shield' to protect themselves from any real, deep thinking about life's big questions."

So what if people are trying to "evade" real, deep thinking. Maybe they are incapable of deep thinking. In that case, they are probably better off evading it.

There is another side to this issue as well. Perhaps in some cases the motivation is not so much to evade deep thinking as it is to avoid useless and acrimonious discussion. People nowadays are so thin-skinned about disagreements, that it's often better to presume a wishy-washy form of agnosticism to avoid futile rancor. I'm in complete sympathy with H.L. Mencken who, whenever he received a letter challenging or criticizing his writings from someone who was obviously in over his head, would reply: "You are probably right."

Dragonfly said...

Strange as it may seem, I'm also with Peikoff in this regard. The religious agnostic today is not just stating that no certainty is possible (in that sense every scientist would be an agnostic), but he is avoiding a controversial viewpoint about religion, there is something weasely in that attitude. There is a time to say outright that something doesn't exist, even if we never can claim complete certainty. Would those religious agnostics also be agnostic with regard to the existence of Zeus, Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? I doubt it, as these entities are not controversial today and therefore they wouldn't hesitate to relegate them to the realm of fantasy.

JayCross said...

Perhaps in some cases the motivation is not so much to evade deep thinking as it is to avoid useless and acrimonious discussion.

Is avoiding useless, acrimonious discussion a good reason to straddle the fence? I'm an atheist, and I don't waste time trying to convince religious people. They're True Believers, so it's a waste of time.

Many religious people take the same approach with atheists.

khomus said...

As an agnostic close to what you're talking about, I think, let me try to sum up my position. I don't think it'll do any better here than elsewhere, but I'll try it anyway.

I'm a pagan. I believe there are gods, spirits, what have you. Why do I believe this? Did somebody tell me, and I accepted their telling as truth? No. Did I read it in a book somewhere and assume the book was true? Again, no. I believe it quite simply because of experience. I have tried things suggested, and they have led me to the things they were supposed to, i.e. they produced the results claimed. I'm not talking levitation or other whackiness, please give me some credit for being a bit more serious than that about my religious convictions.

Suppose I read or am told that ritual X does thing Y, be it an internal change, something external, communication with a god, whatever, it doesn't actually matter. I do ritual X, and Y happens. Yes, I've heard all the reasons. Coincidence, hallucinations, etc. But let me offer just one example of why I think that's not necessarily a valid argument. People like to say you're hallucinating or experiencing some sort of abnormal brain state or such if you claim to communicate with a god, let's say. Let me ask you something. Where else does this claim come up? Counter with, "a bunch of people claimed to have experienced this" and you get "oh, mass hallucination". Again, where does this come up outside of arguments against religious experiences? What's the mechanism for said mass hallucination? I've yet to hear any real explanation.

Anyway, my point here is not to get into a debate about religious experience, whetherit does or doesn't exist and so on. What the previous paragraphs attempt to do is briefly sketch the reasons I feel the way I do, and the fact that I have indeed thought deeply about it, I am not just blindly accepting it but attempting to deal with the philosophical arguments behind it. This out of the way, let us finally turn to the question of agnosticism.

I say I am an agnostic. Bit wait, didn't I just say I was a pagan and believed in spirits and such? Yep, I sure did. However, I also realize two things. One is that I do not have irrefutable proof, and the other is that since I do not have that, evidence may be found that conclusively proves I am wrong. But I do not ask anybody to prove a negative or convert or what have you. To my mind if you haven't had an experience, I don't see what you're doing having a religion in thefirst place. Well, you could be working towards it, e.g. you may be practicing Buddhist meditation and be new at it, thus having no experience. But I think eventually, and this eventually is different for all, if you're not having an experience, you're not getting anything out of it, well I don't see why you'd keep doing it.

Anyway, regardless of how any of you feel about my depth of thought or rigor of inquiry or whatever we might name, I hope I have demonstrated the following. 1. Some of us who claim to be agnostics aren't anything like what Peikoff is talking about. 2. You might be mischaracterizing agnosticism when you claim it's a politically correct shield. 3. Yes, some of us really are trying to confront the philosophical issues involved with the questions under consideration.