06 May 2011

Knowledge vs. Belief: Open Letter to Agnostics

The postcard to the right was among the Sunday Secrets on Postsecret this week.  It may be a secret for the person who sent it in, but it's a sentiment many self-labeled agnostics openly express toward atheism.

I personally think that splitting hairs over such labels is pointless; the bottom line is that people who call themselves atheists and people who call themselves agnostics are all not theists, period.  They don't believe in the personal gods or metaphysical forces of the various religions.  The agnostics intent on distinguishing themselves from atheists focus their argument on the ideas that 1) Postulating that no gods exist is a belief, and 2) It is impossible to know that there is no higher power, especially if you make its definition sufficiently vague.

I must admit that I'm willing to at least entertain the idea that there could be an intelligent entity beyond our comprehension that created or controls the universe. We humans have such short lifespans, and consequently short attention spans, when compared to the scale of the cosmos.  Our observations of the universe are based on photons that have been traveling longer than we've been writing down history, longer than our species has existed, and even longer than our planet has existed.  Suppose the universe itself is some sort of intelligent being whose every synapse takes ten million years to fire.  At our stage in scientific history, we humans couldn't even begin to make sense of such an entity.  How can you disprove that?

You can't, but there's also no reason to give credence to it.  It's fun to speculate about, but in reality I just made it up without any supporting evidence.  It's more plausible than Russell's Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but it's still probably false based on the fact that there's no reason to think it's true.  Is it a "belief" to conclude that none of the aforementioned entities exist, or is it simply the default position you'd have if I'd never mentioned the idea?

Now apply that logic to the existence of faeries, dragons, genies, demons, and duppies.  Apply it to homeopathy, divination, exorcism, and astrology.  Apply it to Yahweh, Christ, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, Thor, and the rest of the pantheon.  Are you selectively "agnostic" about the different items listed?  What criteria separates what you can know is false from what you can't?  Can you truly know that anything is false?  If someone presents you with a claim, you either accept it as true or do not accept it as true.  Not choosing the former is choosing the latter.

This is the thought process I went through that made me realize that calling myself an agnostic isn't really saying anything at all.  I discussed why I prefer the term "atheist" in a previous post. You can call yourself whatever you like to fit your personal philosophy, but don't try to create a division where there is none.

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Creative Commons License