Claims of Knowledge

I received a quad chart on Twitter from @GodIsCosmos. If you’ve seen the somewhat popular chart with atheist/theist on one side and agnostic/gnostic on the other, then this other chart is just like it. This one replaces agnostic/gnostic with non-claimant/claimant.  It then asserts that agnosticism doesn’t equate to non-claimant because it’s supposed to be a distinct position with it’s own causes and effects.  I couldn’t find any more info to try to figure out what that’s trying to say since it doesn’t make much sense. The additional tweets on the subject didn’t help much since they were more convoluted ways to break down beliefs and knowledge.

My reaction to this different quad chart is that the agnostic “lack of knowledge” is the same as being a non-claimant of knowledge. “Lack of knowledge” was even written in the boxes on the non-claimant side.  I’ll just expand on what agnosticism means for making claims to work through my thoughts on this as something that adds little value to trying to understand what we know and should believe.

Let’s use the basic theistic question: do you believe in a creator, god, or gods?  Answering across the spectrum of “I don’t know,” “that’s unknown,” or “that’s unknowable” results in an answer of “unknown” regardless of why that answer is reached. This viewpoint equates to belief and disbelief like this:

  • “Unknown” doesn’t equate to “belief” (theism).  Belief implies having knowledge claims (verifiable or not) of a describable “it” to believe in. If “it” isn’t described then it doesn’t exist as a concept to be believed.  An unknowing person can’t logically be considered a theist since theism requires belief.
  • “Unknown” does equate to “lack of belief” (weak atheism).  You have no theistic beliefs if you don’t have any belief claims.
  • “Unknown” doesn’t equate to “disbelief” (strong atheism or anti-theism) since disbelief is defined as an active rejection which requires the ability to verify theistic claims are false.

I’ll provide a non-gods example of applied agnosticism.  Clear your mind for a moment.  Now all you know is that this blog post is some ramblings on the Internet and now the question is simply: what’s my age?  If you’re honest about your knowledge, you’d answer that with “I don’t know” or “that’s unknown because I don’t even know who you are.”  If you’re not fully honest about the limits of your knowledge then you might try to make some guesses based on what you think you know. You might consider what you think must be impossible answers like 2 or 200. You might wonder what assistance the writer had to write this which would turn a single age question into a false question because there could be various ages of various writers. You might wonder if I meant the age of the person writing this or the age of the post itself. You might even think of advances in Artificial Intelligence and wonder if there is a real person that crafted this nonsense.

Now what do you believe my age is? You still don’t know and any claims of knowledge you make as a basis for your belief is useless for finding out the real truth.  All of those thoughts are just fog obscuring reality. You only have guesses to fill that void in your knowledge. The truly honest approach is to admit you don’t really know and remain agnostic concerning the answer until you can find true knowledge.  There must be some sort of answer to the question even if the answer is that I’m not real and have no measurable age. Beliefs and disbeliefs are useless to help you answer that question.

Now back to the universe, I’ll bet my “soul” that we may be too simple of a being to ever know the truth about this universe.  Is there a beginning to it?  If there is, is there something we might consider to be a god or gods involved in that mess?  Nobody can really tell you because nobody really knows. Until we do, unknown is the answer.

Primarily Agnostic

“Answers two different questions, ‘agnostic’ answers epistemological question but not theological.” @PennJillette

See some thoughts of @TobiasPrinz regarding a short Twitter exchange on this subject on his blog post: Atheism and Agnosticism

I’ll go over this in a little more detail from my perspective since I can’t fully express my thoughts in the short attention messages of Twitter.  Yes, there are two questions that can be asked when it comes to religion.  Do you have knowledge about “god(s)” and do you have faith or belief in “god(s)”?  I want to stress that god isn’t just your own personal Jesus and God the father of the Bible or Allah or whatever other specific beings you may have a preconceived notion of when someone says… (cue menacing music) GOD.  Theism crosses the gamut from that to the vagueness of pantheism and a general view that “god” is this universe and we are all a part of god.  Also, when I think of creation, I see a possibility that this universe we know is just a small subset of a larger reality and existence.  Perhaps this little universe is a created thing in a larger existence.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix.  I just really don’t know enough to share anything with authority since I’m just a simple little human in such a large and mysterious universe.

These are the kinds of thoughts that lead to me to believe that the most important question  is the one concerning what we know.  What we personally believe is ultimately useless to humanity.  The whole reason for atheism is to be a disbelief response to theism.  There would be no need for atheism without theism.  That’s why I think agnosticism will always remain an important view for the big questions of existence, creation, and whatever may be our first cause and origin.  I’m not sure why there is an agnostic/atheist debate since they are both true to answer those different questions.  I identify primarily with agnosticism because of the importance of knowledge to me.  I share my view with the same amount of importance that primarily atheist people have for their view of it.  Who cares which path we take in our freethought when the answer is roughly the same?

  • Theist: I believe in this!
  • Atheist: I don’t believe you!
  • Agnostic: You can’t claim a verifiable truth (knowledge) for something like that!

Yes, by definition, the agnostic is not explicitly expressing disbelief.  However, if you’re agnostic and you profess your lack of knowledge then you are also expressing an importance for knowledge.  What type of logic or knowledge would then say it’s valid for an agnostic to agree with a theistic claim and engage in the blind faith required for god belief?  I know it’s not a hard and fast rule that agnostics aren’t theists, but it makes no sense to me that the agnostic wouldn’t agree with the atheist when it comes to specific claims made by theists.  We should all be in agreement for disbelief even though we come to the same conclusion from a different primary path.  Nearly all agnostics should come to the same conclusion as atheism.

If you’re an atheist and you’re arguing that I shouldn’t be agnostic, then you’re really just criticizing my path and methodology even though we’re arriving at the same general conclusions.  Instead of criticizing folks that say “I don’t know” as being weak and lacking enough commitment to be an atheist, why don’t you “real atheists” just help those that may be on the fence to understand that nobody should engage in or support blind faith and theistic beliefs when we don’t know.

I’m primarily agnostic and that should be fine for any reasonable person.  People shouldn’t believe in crap that they obviously can’t know anything about.  That crap is the religions of our ancestors.  Yes, that’s just like atheism, but for me it’s just the conclusion and the real reason why I think that way is agnosticism since unknown is the real answer for me.

A Defense of Agnostics – Jumping to Conclusions on the Marathon Bombing

There was an article on The Atlantic called Was the Marathon Bombing Terrorism? A Defense of Agnostics.  This is a non-religious example of applying agnosticism to the way we think and the way we live.  It was written during the heat of the moment with the Boston Marathon bombing story as people knew who the suspects were but didn’t really know what they we were thinking.  A key point made about agnosticism in general is:

“None of us is forced to bet or speculate or parse incomplete evidence right now. So why do it? Or if we just can’t resist, why mock those with stronger willpower?”

The agnostic viewpoint is stronger willpower to not jump to conclusions when further evidence is needed.  Too often people grandstand on their conclusions as truth and demand others agree with them to reinforce their unjustified leap from opinion to truth.  The assertion of the person or the number of people that agree with their opinion doesn’t make it truth.  We have been able to discover their true motivations because one of the suspects was captured and told us why they did it.  It’s interesting to read articles like this with the hindsight of actually finding out the truth:

That’s the part of Drum’s post that I wish everyone in America would internalize, myself included: “Just wait. There’s no harm in it.” It’s true. There really isn’t any harm in waiting for more facts to emerge. Whereas much mischief is the result of weighing in too soon and getting things wrong.

You’d never know that from Sullivan’s reaction. By declaring Greenwald’s agnosticism “left liberal self-parody,” he treats another writer’s failure to quickly take a position on the “terrorism or not” question as if it’s an example of a harmful ideological pathology that warrants a rebuke and mockery.

Why? What harm is Greenwald doing?

How much do we get wrong in our lives by weighing in as if we know specific things that we can’t possibly know such as what someone thinks?  Why are those that refuse to make final and complete judgement on a subject vilified as lacking conviction to make a judgement where one isn’t warranted?  We can discuss what is likely or not likely but that isn’t the standard for knowledge.

So I am grateful for reminders from cooler heads about how frequently what everyone “knows” to be true turns out to be false. At worst, those warnings delay the moment when an inevitable conclusion is reached, as I suspect will be true in this case. That delay is the worst thing that could happen. Is that so bad? At best, skeptics prevent wrongheaded assumptions from being treated as fact. That’s why I am especially grateful for skeptics when I catch myself making assumptions.

This paragraph can be applied to most anything in life to remind us that the cooler heads can withhold final judgement for when an inevitable conclusion is reached.  What harm is there in doing that compared to the harm of living with wrongheaded assumptions as facts?

I apply this to the big questions of religion.  The religions of humanity, given the available evidence, are most likely inventions of humanity that in my viewpoint are likely to be mostly wrong.  At their best, religions may be a faint echo or shadow of some unknowable truth about the true origins of this finite universe in an infinite existence.  Really though, I see no harm and only benefits for just waiting until I die to find out if there is anything more to me than this human body.  If there is, I’d bet my life that it has almost nothing to do with the religions dreamed up by our primitive ancestors.  I say almost because some religious views like those of the Native Americans or Taoism may have some elements of truth to them.  I see these as some examples of echos and shadows of a possible universal truth or they may also just be echos of very human desires for an eternal existence that isn’t true.

Who KNOWS?  Just wait.  Live your life in the here and now.  There’s no harm in it.  Make the most of this life and quit worrying about what we can’t possibly know.  I only know our lives are a precious gift from our parents and this gift shouldn’t be wasted or destroyed.