In a recent blog post, I said I don’t believe in the supernatural. This statement, I realize, takes a pretty broad swipe at the universe. But if you have read my previous statements on belief, unbelief, atheism, etc., you’ll understand my lack of belief is, for the most part, not characterized by active disbelief. Instead, I consider it a provisional judgment on how to deal with life. To me, the natural world is the world.
Similarly, when I say I don’t believe in gods, angels, demons, leprechauns, elves, or any other magical beings, I’m not saying I positively know they don’t exist; I’m merely saying I lack belief in them. Operationally, I find no need for them. Can I prove they don’t exist? No, I cannot — nor do I wish to waste time trying.
A commenter on Vridar, John MacDonald, recently wrote:
It’s just as much a paralogism to think (i) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is such a thing as the supernatural, as to think (ii) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is no such thing as the supernatural. Both theism and atheism are factually incorrect and intellectually lazy. Agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position.”
If you haven’t studied for the SAT, the LSAT, or the GRE recently, a paralogism is “A piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one which appears superficially logical or which the reasoner believes to be logical.” [OED] In the realm of logic, it normally refers specifically to an argument that is invalid, but unintentionally so. However, in the general sense, it has come to refer to any invalid argument as well as any invalid conclusion. I’ll assume he means that I have reached an incorrect conclusion, since I presented no formal argument.
MacDonald’s problem, and he is not alone here, is not understanding the current definitions of agnosticism and atheism. In addition, he does not understand that stating a provisional judgment is not the same as arguing that there is sufficient evidence to prove non-existence.
Agnosticism and atheism answer two different questions. I ask you: Do you think we have enough information to absolutely exclude the possibility that God exists? You probably don’t. That makes you an agnostic. Welcome to the club. Many honest theists and atheists agree that there is no possible way for humans to know with absolute certainty that God exists or doesn’t exist. I’m in that camp, too.
Now for your second question: Do you believe in God? If you answered, “I am an agnostic,” then I must remind you that I did not ask if you could know. This is a different question. I’m asking whether you believe or not. Let me quote from a previous post:
Do we [atheists] actively believe God does not exist? Actually, no. It takes no effort at all to lack a belief. For example, if you grew up as a Christian, you probably lack the belief in the transmigration of souls. Same here. People might reincarnate after they die, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. So I can truthfully say, “I don’t believe in samsara.” But I don’t spend any time thinking about it or actively disbelieving in it.
So, I’ll ask again: Do you believe in God? I’ll tell you plainly that I don’t, and I’ll also admit to you that I can’t know. If you think atheism means knowing God doesn’t exist, then you are not well informed. Many atheists subscribe to “weak” or “pragmatic” atheism. I prefer to think of myself as “operationally atheistic.”
Speaking as a veteran agnostic, I’m not sure I would call agnosticism “The Thinking-Person’s Position.” Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s the correct position, but I’m not sure that it takes us very far. It is insufficient. Yes, it’s a fine philosophical stance. It helps ground us and remind us that our knowledge is limited and our judgments are provisional. We could be wrong. Given the history of science, we probably are wrong. That took us all of what? 30 seconds?
The truth is that most of us are operationally non-supernatural. We solve problems assuming that the natural world is the world. Even the most religious among us will, upon waking with a toothache, visit their dentist and not their priest. Similarly, we may joke about gremlins, but during an accident investigation we assume (at least operationally) that only normal physics will apply.
I would be factually incorrect and intellectually lazy if I failed to mention the enormous amount of debunking work that James Randi has put forth over the years. The sad truth is that supernatural claims wither under review. We are justified in our skepticism. Our experience reinforces this fact. We must demand proof, and if the claims are real, they’ll stand up to scrutiny. Can the Amazing Randi disprove God? Nope. But he can tell you how faith healers fool their gullible crowds.
So, in a nutshell, I am a skeptic who is philosophically agnostic and operationally atheist. I demand evidence, but I’m willing to operate with limited knowledge, which is handy since that’s all we have. I live my life as if the supernatural world does not exist, but I admit that I could be wrong. I make provisional judgments, and then I get on with life.
On second thought I suppose agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position,” if by that MacDonald means thinking, but never acting, never making a claim. The intellectual Hamlet — sullen, brooding, posing, but never deciding, never getting off the fence.
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