‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.4: Agnosticism

Peter-Boghossian-Manual-Creating-Atheists

So far we have noted that Boghossian wants to redefine ‘faith’ into something the vast majority of religious believers don’t mean by the word (Part 3.1), we’ve noted his lack of evidence for misreading Hebrews 11:1 and the strong evidence to the contrary for which he takes absolutely no account (Part 3.2), and we have noted his insistence that he be permitted to self-identify when using labels for himself and how his definition of atheism appears to exclude other people who would want to call themselves ‘atheists’ as well (Part 3.3). In this post we will look at what Boghossian has to say about agnosticism.

I must admit I’m mighty disappointed that I am now on my sixth part of this series and I’m still yet to have one single ‘Street Epistemologist’ so much as comment on my blog. I was rather looking forward to the odd one or two turning up but alas!

Having used an etymological study of the word ‘atheist’ to defend part of his definition it’s interesting to note that Boghossian does not offer the same courtesy to the word ‘agnostic’. Instead he opens by declaring that agnostics “profess not to know”. Now while it might be true that there are some such agnostics there are others and Boghossian chooses to ignore them. Why is this? Why does Boghossian ignore people who don’t fit into his labeling game? Etymologically ‘agnostic’ simply means without (‘a’) knowledge (‘gnosis’). So an agnostic could be someone who does not profess anything at all. They could just be someone who says “I don’t know” because they lack the subject knowledge to make any judgement at all. There are also people who could be labeled as agnostic who make huge claims to knowledge. A common form of this would be someone who says “No-one can know.” (Some call this militant agnosticism.) Now this is obviously a huge claim to knowledge (although people who say it often don’t appear to realize how) and is therefore very different to other forms of agnosticism. I am not going to analyze these forms of agnosticism currently but, unlike Boghossian I am noting they exist.

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It should also be noted that Boghossian’s definition includes a very controversial theological element which he does not make explicit but if you are reading carefully you will note. See if you can spot it:

“Agnostics profess not to know whether or not there’s an undetectable, metaphysical entity that created the universe.” [Loc.400]

Did you see what I’m getting at? Note the use of the word “undetectable” here. This definition of agnosticism is weird because this means that an agnostic who is unsure about whether any God who is claimed to be detectable (eg. Christianity) exists can no longer be an agnostic. He is excluding this category of people as having any views on most (non-mystical) religions since most theists think God is detectable! It is certainly a central doctrine of the Christian faith (here used in the context to mean ‘religion’) that God has revealed himself. So what are supposed to call a person who claims not to know whether a detectable, metaphysical entity exists? I’m sure that Boghossian would prefer it if traditional theism was more gnostic than it really is but this looks very much like an attempt to covertly change the landscape of the discussion. However, it might be a genuine mistake on his part. The problem is these mistakes are mounting up.

Since Boghossian prefers to define an agnostic to be one who does not know whether there is or is not a God [1] it’s pretty tough to see there being any sharp difference between this group and his definition of atheism. He said the atheist thought there was insufficient evidence for God (Loc.385) and he was at pains to point out they could be wrong. It’s therefore hard to see how his forthcoming criticism of agnostics is not also applicable to what he defined atheism to be as well. Apparently, the agnostic is committing some heinous crime for being open to the possibility of God existing whereas the Boghossian atheist is not. This is most curious. The curiosity disappears if you reconsider whether he is truly open to the suggestion that he might be wrong about God.

Agnosticism only gets three sentences before Boghossian launches a full-frontal attack. He says:

“The problem with agnosticism is that in the last 2,400 years of intellectual history, not a single argument for the existence of God has withstood scrutiny. Not one. Aquinas’s five proofs, fail. Pascal’s Wager, fail. Anselm’s ontological argument, fail. The fine-tuning argument, fail. The Kalam cosmological argument, fail. All refuted. All failures.”

[Loc.410]

I think the ‘Street Apologist’ (my bad: ‘Epistemologist) is going to be in a world of trouble if he tries that one on an informed theist. [2] For a start what is to stop someone using ‘Hitchen’s Razor’ (“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”) on it? Never mind the fact that these are only a small handful of the arguments potentially available to the theist and that some of these titles refer to families of arguments and not specific arguments, Boghossian has not explained why they fail. Why not?

If a SE tells me all the arguments for the existence of God fail I am going to ask them to explain to me why they do. If they refer me to Boghossian’s book I am going to point out that he merely asserted they were refuted.

This view (that all the arguments for the existence of God have been intellectually discredited) is quite popular among atheists outside of the academic discipline of philosophy of religion today. Dawkins was also dismissive of arguments for the existence of God in his 2006 book The God Delusion. Having said that, at least he did attempt to interact with some of those arguments to some small degree. The only problem for such popular atheist writers (who are not working in the academic field of philosophy of religion which Boghossian is not), and the atheist apologists who mimic them, is that their fellow atheists who do work in the academic field of philosophy of religion are nowhere near as optimistic that these arguments have been overthrown. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find any non-theist working in the field of philosophy of religion today who thinks, as Dawkins and Boghossian do, that all the arguments for God’s existence are completely discredited. It is still commonplace to find peer-reviewed papers articulating arguments for the existence of God and they appear in the finest journals philosophy has to offer.

Even worse than this is the fact that atheist academics sometimes find themselves having to point out that the popularists get the arguments wrong.

In an open letter written to Richard Dawkins, in February of 2011, Oxford University philosopher Daniel Came (who writes in the field of philosophy of religion) stated this in regard to Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument in his book:

“While I have your attention, may I also urge you to take another look at the ontological argument for the existence of God? On the basis of your brief discussion of the argument in The God Delusion, it appears you do not understand the logic of this argument. The ontological argument moves from the logical possibility of God’s existence to its actuality. Douglas Gasking’s parody of the argument, which you cite, moves from a logical impossibility to actuality and so is not parallel to the argument. In addition, you do not discuss the more sophisticated modal version of the argument advanced by the American philosopher of religion, Alvin Plantinga. Admittedly, you do say that some philosophers ‘resort to modal logic’ in an attempt to prove the existence of God. But this is a bit like saying ‘some botanists resort to looking at plants’ and so can hardly be said to constitute an objection to the argument.”

A record of the full letter can be viewed here at bethinking.org.

It is also worth quoting the atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt at some length here since he is another atheist academic working in the discipline of philosophy of religion:

“When I was a philosophy student, I once told my tutor that I would like to write an essay on the existence of God. “My interest in my maker ceased when I read Hume’s Dialogues”, he loftily replied, leaving me in no doubt that my interest should be similarly short-lived. I never wrote the essay, but nor, in spite of reading Hume’s Dialogues, did I ever lose interest. Since those distant days, the philosophy of religion has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. In those bad old days , with a few honourable exceptions, it was dominated by the woolly pieties and crass objections of third-rate thinkers. Since then, the field has been taken over by imaginative, creative thinkers who are themselves cutting-edge contributors in other areas of philosophy. These philosophers have brought with them an array of the sharpest weapons in the armoury of analytic philosophy. This combination of able thinkers and sophisticated techniques has transformed the field in the last few decades.”

Nicholas Everitt, ‘The non-existence of God’ p.xiii (emphasis mine)

He adds:

“The last few decades in particular have seen a philosophical resurgence of interest in the claims of theism. Contemporary thinkers about God have been able to draw on a wide variety of new ideas, from logic, from philosophy of science, from probability theory, from epistemology, and from the philosophy of mind.”

Nicholas Everitt, ‘The non-existence of God’ p.2

Now, of course, I want to read Boghossian with as much sympathy as I possibly can but he does not make it clear what he means when he says that all these arguments for God “fail”. He does say they have not “withstood scrutiny” and so that would appear to suggest he means more than just that the argument fail to convince him on a personal level. He does appear to be saying they all completely fail in some objective sense. If this is what he is saying then he is hopelessly out of step with modern philosophy of religion as an academic discipline. Everitt explains:

“…although it is certainly a possibility that none of the arguments in this area [he is referring to the traditional arguments for the existence of God such as the ontological/teleological/cosmological/Aquinas etc.] has any force at all, that would on the face of it be a rather surprising conclusion. The arguments, after all, have been produced by some of the most powerful intellects of (predominantly Western) civilisation; and although this does not of course prove that they are good ones, it does create a prima facie assumption that some of them will have at least some force. As we will notice shortly, even though the arguments taken singly may fall short of being conclusive, they may nonetheless have sufficient weight, especially if taken collectively, to make it rational to come down on one side or the other.”

Nicholas Everitt, ‘The non-existence of God’ p.9

In regard to the Kalam Cosmological Argument atheist philosopher Quentin Smith has stated:

“The fact that theists and atheists alike [Smith here is talking about in the context of professional philosophical literature] ‘cannot leave Craig’s Kalam argument alone’ suggests that it may be an argument of unusual philosophical interest or else has an attractive core of plausibility that keeps philosophers turning back to it once again.”

Quentin Smith, Kalam Cosmological Arguments for Atheism in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism p.183

All this is a very far cry from the bold pronouncement of Boghossian that the arguments for the existence of God are dead and buried. I do not wish to believe that Boghossian is deliberately misleading his audience by misinforming them on this matter so I must assume that, since it is not his academic field of study, he is unaware of the current state of affairs in the subject of philosophy of religion (which largely deals with the arguments for and against the existence of God as its primary subject matter). [3] However, this does mean that Boghossian is guilty of making judgements about a field of study based upon nothing other than what he does not know. But Boghossian made it very clear that to say things when one does not know what one is talking about is to display ‘faith’. So I really need to ask whether, on his own terms, Boghossian would have to diagnose himself as having the faith virus. Once again, he has failed to provide sufficient positive evidence for his claim and I can find good evidence in opposition to his claim. I think it’s worth asking whether Boghossian’s declaration on the arguments for God’s existence is an expression of ‘faith’ (as he defines the word).

Boghossian then makes, what I consider to be, an extremely weird suggestion to his ‘Street Epistemologists’. He suggests that they should try to avoid the term agnostic altogether! His reason? Because there are no Santa Claus agnostics neither should there be any agnostics regarding the question of God. This attempted analogy is really so pathetically inept that I am inclined to not lower myself to deal with it especially since Boghossian does not justify how this can possibly be considered to be a good analogy. Does a philosophy instructor at university level really need to have this pointed out to him? I sincerely hope not. [4]

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I have watched about 10 hours of Boghossian lectures on line at this stage and I have noted how he loves to suggest that theists are on the ‘children’s table’ and that if they can actually bring any evidence they might actually get an invite to the ‘adult table’. I think it’s the other way around. A good many theistic philosophers are already sitting at the adult table with their arguments in the peer-reviewed literature. The question is whether Boghossian is willing to mount some arguments in response to what they have been publishing for decades or whether he wishes to remain on the children’s table we call New Atheism.

Up next: ‘Epistemology and Knowledge Claims’ and the end of his second chapter.

————————————-

[1] I will ignore that he made it an “undetectable” God other wise there is nothing to discuss!

[2] This is reminiscent of the ignorance that was on display in The God Delusion when Dawkins claimed that the design argument was the only argument for the existence of God that was still in “regular use today” (p.103).

[3] Other academic books in the philosophy of religion which demonstrate mutual respect and dialogue along the lines of arguments from probability rather than crude attempts at ‘knock-down’ arguments and accusations of irrationality would be ‘Atheism and Theism which is a conversation between J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane and Knowledge of God featuring Michael Tooley and Alvin Plantinga (both published by Blackwell). A good, modern textbook on the main classical theistic arguments is the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology edited by Craig and Moorland. More technical stuff: The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology edited by Flint and Rea.

[4] Alister McGrath gives Dawkins a telling off over this analogy in his book Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life p.87.

Here are a couple of modern philosophers (British of course!) who defend the traditional arguments for the existence of God:

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About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Atheist apologists, Street Epistemology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.4: Agnosticism

  1. Pingback: Reviews of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian | Biblical Scholarship

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