June 30, 2014

On agnosticism - a boring semantic analysis (warning: boring)

Until recently, I've always seen agnosticism as a bullshit label erroneously self-applied by smug assholes trying differentiate themselves from atheists in order to appear open-minded, when in reality they're just being intellectually disingenuous, refusing to embrace the rationale of atheism yet lacking faith which is the only valid excuse (if there ever was one) not to look at the issue critically, or simply refusing to acknowledge the fact that their position is equivalent in every meaningful way to atheism, hiding behind obnoxious remarks like "well you can't know".

The way I saw it, and the way pretty much anyone who has looked up the "proper" definition sees it, agnosticism is either the position that it's unknown or that it's unknowable whether any deity exists, and atheism is simply the negation of theism, meaning you're either a theist or an atheist depending on whether you actively believe in the existence of a deity, regardless of whether you're agnostic. Certainly this definition makes sense from an etymological perspective; the prefix a- means 'without' or 'not' in this situation, so if you're not a theist, well, you're not a theist, so by definition you're an atheist, and gnosis means knowledge, so gnosticism and agnosticism are not simply positions of belief, but of knowledge (or "belief of knowledge").

But a definition doesn't just have to be etymologically correct in order to be appropriate. If a word has a useful place in the common vernacular, and the concept it refers to has no synonyms, but the word itself turns out to be a combination of the Italian slang terms for 'nose picking', 'public' and 'fortune teller', you don't redefine the word to mean 'fortune teller who likes to pick their nose in public'. If it doesn't need a word, don't give it one.

Let's apply that logic to agnosticism. All atheists are agnostic except the ones who fail to understand the concept of an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and we don't need a word for people who fail to understand a certain concept. By and large, theists believe that it's up to their god whether or not it wants to reveal itself. If a creator deity exists, surely it's powerful enough that it could make sure to leave no trace of itself in nature. Any transcendent god has the power to reveal itself to all mankind or conceal themselves from it, and even if you believe in a pantheon of immanent gods, some of which aren't capable of that on their own, surely the pantheon as a whole can do it. I suppose it's possible that there once existed some obscure pagan religious ideas that contradicted this, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in modern times who holds such beliefs, so we don't need a specific label just for that. So whether you label theists as gnostic because they believe the gods can choose to reveal themselves, or you label them as agnostic because they don't believe mankind can attain knowledge of the gods unless the gods will it, they're all on the same side of the gnostic fence, as are atheists, so it's a fence we can safely tear down without losing anything of value. Though, many theological and philosophical concepts that are now obsolete (or never made sense to begin with) still have terms we can use to refer to them, so I guess you could use something like 'classic (a)gnosticism' for these two.

The popular definition of agnosticism describes a position that's actually held by people today, that's philosophically distinct from other forms of non-beliefs. I've identified three main categories of non-belief that I believe classify pretty much all non-believers (phrased in terms of monotheism for convenience):
  • Agnosticism: the position that there are no particularly compelling arguments for either belief or non-belief. There's no evidence for the existence of God, but there's also no way to prove its non-existence, so it's best to remain neutral.
  • Weak atheism: the position that the God hypothesis can be dismissed based on a lack of evidence, but there are no particularly compelling arguments beyond that for non-belief.
  • Strong atheism: not only can the God hypothesis be dismissed, but the very concept of God can and should be discarded. Many philosophical quandaries and paradoxes point toward God's non-existence.
Weak atheism is similar to agnosticism in all but its conclusion, but whether you dismiss or remain neutral towards a (from your perspective) completely baseless claim is a significant philosophical difference, so I think it's warranted to have separate terms for these positions. And yeah, I know it looks like I just hijacked the terms of weak and strong atheism, generally defined as "non-belief in the existence of God" and "belief in the non-existence of God", respectively, but the way I see it I merely improved them, since the end result is that they describe roughly the same things. While I rely on descriptions of actual, plausible philosophical positions, the established definitions rely on a slight difference in phrasing and don't really specify the actual positions that well. To determine where you stand according to my definitions, you have to ask "how do I feel about God as a hypothesis, and how do I feel about God as a concept?", rather than "how would I phrase my non-belief?" which is much more arbitrary.

ADDENDUM: None of this necessarily implies that agnostics are not atheists; you could simply define atheism as "non-theism" and consider agnosticism to be a subcategory therein, along with weak and strong atheism.

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