"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, February 04, 2008

On agnosticism

From an interview with David Attenborough in the current edition of 'New Humanist':

Yet he had never openly declared himself to be an atheist. “That’s right. I’m an agnostic. In the strict sense that I don’t know. And I don’t know a lot. And I certainly don’t know about the existence of a supreme being or about the existence of an afterlife. The absence of evidence does not mean that there is a god. The absence of evidence means two things. It means that we don’t know but it also means scientifically that it would be interesting to find out.” There are those who accuse agnostics of hedging their bets. But this would quite unfair to Attenborough. His agnosticism is not a way of saying that there might be a god; it is rather a statement about the necessary humility and open-mindedness of the scientific attitude. It is a prescription for action rather than a refusal to enter the argument.

Labels: ,

6 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

Hey there Matt,
Hope you are coming out of your sickness. I was sure I was going into a bout of it yesterday, but thankfully I pulled out of it. (Especially since I'm away at classes at the moment and will be for the next two weeks)

A couple points:
"...it is rather a statement about the necessary humility and open-mindedness of the scientific attitude."

In one sense agnosticism can be claimed within whatever sphere of "knowledge" we are able to doubt in any way whatsoever. Given our finite situation that amounts to an awful lot. Thing is, we can't live that out. In order to act on anything we must place our faith in something. (and by faith here I mean the act of the will in which assents to a reality that cannot be certain) So what we are left with is a reality in which we must maintain an epistemological humility but also ontological commitment.

When we then turn this to the question of God an interesting dynamic emerges. In the realm of epistemological certainty I do believe we (the vast majority of us) will remain agnostic until the day we die. Thankfully I don't believe Christ ever called us to be certain and thereby receive salvation. Not at all. Our redemption depends upon our ontological commitment. Or in other words, what does our life betray? What is our faith in? Where is our ultimate concern?

Either we will live as though there is a God who is love (and thereby place our faith in him) or we wont. If we reject God all we are left with is making gods of ourselves. And that is simply theological talk for placing our own desires and preferences at the heart of what we are living for.

"It means that we don’t know but it also means scientifically that it would be interesting to find out."

Interesting perhaps. Though I'd say that would be much like trying to discover the dynamics of black holes by conducting a archeological dig. The methods employed in the study of any given topic must be appropriate to that of the object of study. I'm afraid using science to try and find (or not find) God will be an ill fated task.

If Jesus is the Son of God as I claim him to be, he will not avail himself to be weighed and measured as the object of mans experiments. He is Lord and he will be known on his own terms. His desire is a filial relationship appropriate to his being. As I have said earlier I have come to see that knowledge of God is knowledge born of participation. This is the method appropriate to the object of study. That of faith. That of trust. That of participation. That of surrender.

9:14 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hi Alex,

Yep, feeling a lot better now. Just got a new blender, so I've been making myself regular fruit smoothies which are hopefully boosting my immune system a bit.

In order to act on anything we must place our faith in something.

I agree, and I think this chimes with what Norman says in the other 'New Humanist' piece I've linked to:

"But faith can also refer to our readiness to accept beliefs on grounds which are not conclusive. This covers a range of cases, from a hunch which you think will be confirmed, to a well-founded expectation based on past experience. A creationist website links to a video clip of Dawkins saying that he has "faith" that fossils will be found to fill gaps in the fossil record. He didn't mean faith in the creationists' sense of believing it without evidence, but it's a perfectly legitimate sense of the word – a belief backed by previous experience, for which further confirmation is sought. And though it's not the creationists' sense of the word, there are plenty of religious believers who would say that they have faith in this sense. They can't prove that there's a god, so their commitment goes beyond the evidence, but it's not unsupported."

I'm agnostic in the sense that I believe the best we can say is that God probably doesn't exist, but an atheist in the sense that I base my actions upon a non-theistic naturalist account of the universe.

As I have said earlier I have come to see that knowledge of God is knowledge born of participation. This is the method appropriate to the object of study.

This leaves you with an awkward Catch-22 situation thought - If trust in the reality of your God is necessary for evidence of his existence, then what justifies that initial trust?

If I were to say that from now on I'm going to base my life around another God or Gods, trusting that he/she/it/they will reveal themselves to me in the long run, how would you persuade me that your God is more likely?

8:57 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Mmmm! Sounds like a great way to combat the bug!

"This leaves you with an awkward Catch-22 situation thought - If trust in the reality of your God is necessary for evidence of his existence, then what justifies that initial trust?"

That's the right question. First a clarification. I wouldn't say that evidence of God requires trust. By no means! It is filial knowledge of him which requires trust. (aka the sort of knowledge you'd want to have.)

As for initial trust... I'd say that will be different for each person. My story will be different from anyone else's. I'm not so sure that's a question that can be adequately answered in the abstract. Some encounter some existential experience. Other's might simply be moved by the person of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. The beauty of creation can play a role. The search for meaning. In the end I think its probably a holistic combination of all of these.

"If I were to say that from now on I'm going to base my life around another God or Gods, trusting that he/she/it/they will reveal themselves to me in the long run, how would you persuade me that your God is more likely?"

A lot of ways. The same ways you challenge my own convictions. Again, keep in mind the distinction between "evidence" and filial knowledge. In some many ways our "personal experience of God" is somewhat "off the table" when it comes to rational discourse. But I think it would be a mistake to say that our "personal experience" is divorced from the aspects of our commitments that ARE up for rational discussion. That is simply to say that the process of faith is dynamic. We begin with our experience. We then reason from our experience. The other voices of history are consulted in an effort to gain perspective. Scripture is considered. The process then goes on in an effort to bring all the voices to the table.

10:55 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I just want to pause for a moment to clarify things, my understanding of your argument is this:

There is empirical evidence for the Christian God. This evidence is not conclusive however, and requires faith (in the sense Norman refers to) for us to commit to it. Once this commitment is made, the nature of God is gradually revealed to us.

Is this right?

8:54 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I would also like to pause for a moment to say: I don't know. I'm right in the middle of our first of four systematic theology classes with a professor who recently finished up at Cambridge. He's a big Barth/Bonhoeffer guy. I'm doing the best I can to synthesize all this but I'm not there yet. It's a great class as it is exploring a realm of my own thought that has remained somewhat fuzzy and unexamined. Yesterday was all on epistemology of God and today is exploring modes of revelation. All of this is very pertinent to our discussion, but as of yet I have not made peace with the subject matter. I'll let you know what I come up with. (If I come up with anything ;-)

Sound like a plan?

9:49 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Sounds good to me.

10:21 AM

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home