Why I’m Not Agnostic

Written on December 8, 2008. Written by .

Is God there?
Clearing up the definitions.
Photo courtesy of gonzalo_ar

Many people believe that it is not possible to know that God does not exist. There are two arguments that I have heard for this. The first argument claims that you can’t know anything about reality because it is impossible to prove anything about reality. But people who take this stance tend to use the word “know” inconsistently. If you ask them something like, “Do you know the name of the nearest planet to the sun?” they will say “Yes, Mercury” even though they certainly don’t have any proof of this claim either. But perhaps that is because they speak loosely whenever they are not talking about philosophy. Even then, to require proof for the use of the term “know” is excessively restrictive and it makes the word lose meaning.

There is a difference between cases in which you have epistemological knowledge and cases in which you are justified in claiming to have knowledge. Epistemological knowledge is defined roughly as properly justified true belief. This means that your belief must actually be true in order for you to know it. Therefore many of your beliefs may be knowledge, but you cannot be absolutely certain which of your beliefs are knowledge. If you were to say “I know that I know X” = “I know that (I believe X, I am properly justified in believing X, and X is definitely true)” => “I am justified in believing that X is definitely true”. But this last statement is always false if X is a statement about reality because the best you can do is to be justified in believing that X is almost certainly true. Now making a claim to have knowledge of X is basically equivalent to saying “I know that I know X”, so it is meaningless to use the epistemological definition to verify claims of knowledge since it will always return a negative result. This is why I permit myself to say that I know something even if I cannot be absolutely certain that it is epistemological knowledge because there is a small chance that the belief may be false. Instead I just require that my belief is “justified up to philosophical uncertainty”, which roughly means that the probability of being incorrect is vanishingly small. I use the term “vanishingly” because it evokes thoughts of an active process, and that is often characteristic of cases of knowledge. For example, I would say that I know I speak the same language as the rest of America. Of course there is a small chance that I have been misunderstanding everything that I have ever heard and I am actually speaking a completely different language. However, every time I hear another sentence the probability gets lower; it is continually vanishing. Therefore, when I say that I know God does not exist, I mean that I know this up to philosophical uncertainty.

Let’s say we agree to use this definition of knowledge that accounts for philosophical uncertainty, at least for the sake of argument. The second argument then challenges the idea that the probability that God exists is vanishingly small. Consider the example of whether I speak English-the only evidence I have that I speak English comes from the self-consistency of all of my language-based interactions. In other words, I don’t have any sure fire way to test the meaning of any word (even the dictionary could be deceptive); I can only make assumptions based on the lack of contradictions. A schema is a self-consistent understanding of some aspect of the world and in this case I have a schema of language that tells me I am speaking English. Similarly, science gives us a schema of the world that explains many aspects of the world fairly well. Of course it can’t yet answer every question we have, but it does explain enough that it decisively excludes the possibility of intervention by God. In other words, any way that God could try to influence human affairs is impossible according to the laws of physics. In particular, it is not possible to “talk” to someone without either generating sound waves from some physical source or creating electrical impulses in the person’s brain. Therefore, there is no way within our scientific schema of the world for the prophets who first raised awareness about God to have actually been spoken to by God.* So one possibility is that our schema is wrong, but the chances of this are vanishingly small because it is being reconfirmed every day by our experiences and by new experiments. The other possibility is that the prophets just made up their stories but they happened to be right and they guessed the exact notion of the God that truly does exist. But this is also vanishingly small because there are so many possibilities for what a God-like entity could be that guessing the right one would be like a monkey at a typewriter accidentally producing the complete works of Shakespeare.

But does this prove that no God exists? Couldn’t they have guessed wrong, but God still exists? No because the term “God” refers to a specific concept in each religion that contains a God. Obviously if you generalize the term “God” enough you could make it something that exists. If you say God is whatever caused the big bang, then God would exist as long as the big bang had some cause, regardless of whether it has anything to do with our present understanding of the word “God”. But we can’t simply define terms however we want or conversation becomes impossible. So the argument of the last paragraph can be used to refute the existence of any individual instantiation of the concept of God, for example the Christian God. And by applying the argument several times it can be used to refute each and every instantiation of the concept of God that currently exists. Therefore, the probability that God exists is vanishingly small, thus I can be confident that God does not exist up to philosophical uncertainty, so I know that God does not exist.

* There is one final possibility to address, which is the idea that God could intervene with the world through quantum mechanics. One could argue that since we can’t deterministically predict the outcome of quantum mechanical interactions, God could utilize this freedom to manipulate the electrons in a prophet’s brain to send him or her a message. However according to our scientific schema, quantum mechanics is still constrained by the laws of probability. The probability that enough quantum fluctuations occurred to produce an audible message in a man’s brain is vanishingly small. Any violation of these probabilistic constraints would again be a contradiction to our schema, which also has vanishingly small probability.

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5 Comments so far
  1. Agnostic fanatic December 8, 2008 7:17 am


    Your concept of ‘philosophical uncertainty’ is interesting. And as a standard to justify the disbelief of God it is understandable, since it would otherwise be impossible to truly know you know something from an epistemological point of view.

    However, the main issue I see is that you don’t know what you don’t know, even from a ‘philosophical uncertainty’ perspective. Thus, this standard for ‘knowing with high probability’ that god doesn’t exist is reliant on the accuracy and breadth of the scientific schema of the time, and on the accuracy of a very limited set of data–your own experience.

    In that sense, an element of trust, or even ‘faith’, is needed to know that your corroborated ‘evidence’ which brings about probabilistic knowledge is hinged on an accurate schema.

    Needless to say, throughout history, the paradigm of the scientific community has changed (e.g., theory of relativity, quantum physics, etc.) which have brought about new schema on which to hinge your probabilistic knowledge on.

    In light of these inconsistent levels of knowledge and beliefs about the universe, can one really say they know what can or cannot be done by a ‘god-like’ entity in regard to manipulation of the physical world? Perhaps, at the moment, the schema cannot account for it, as it is inconsistent–as was once the case for floating, invisible ‘waves’ that can pass through your body and be picked up by a receiver. Sure, some scientist (or alchemist) several hundred years ago would scoff at that idea as the knowledge of the day had no corroborating evidence to support this. But, then again, he didn’t get the privilege of hearing the Beach Boys blasting from my car’s woofers to provide evidence of this reality.

    So, just because we haven’t explained or discovered mechanisms by which god could have ‘spoken’, for example, to so-and-so disciples, it doesn’t purport the non-existence of a mechanism by which he could have transmitted the information, or a way to to ‘tune in’–most importantly, the lack of a viable scientific explanation doesn’t purport his non-existence. After all, the default stance of science is skepticism.

    Lastly, which ‘god’ you chose to say you know doesn’t exist doesn’t matter, since given the reasons I stated above, the lack of empirical consistency between a ‘god’ and the physical world can only lead to ‘probabilistic knowledge’, of which the probability cannot be known since the evidence is based on ever-changing scientific paradigms.

    Put simply, despite one’s confidence in today’s information to provide knowledge of high probability of knowing something, we simply don’t know enough–and we don’t know enough of what we don’t know–to ‘know’, with certainty, something that would required an almost entire breadth of knowledge about the universe to explain–a breadth of knowledge, I would say, with high probability, that is far from complete thus far.

  2. neoanchorite December 15, 2008 8:46 am

    In the runup to Christmas this is a surprisingly uncharitable faith-bashing post. Of course the scientific paradigm is the dominant one in the West, and this inevitably skews public discourse so that Truth is more often than not identified with the scientific facts of the matter. But you will have to admit that our experience, including our experience of so much which is experienced as objective, goes beyond the scientific paradigm. A mundane example: the greenness of trees. Do those trees not have a lovely shade of green? In our experience the trees are green, but for science there is no greenness as such, just light of a certain wavelength. The experience is so powerful that we refuse to change our ordinary way of talking and adopt a more scientifically consistent talk of impressions of greenness created falsely in our minds. And: death. Our impending death is terrible. Probably the least spicy thing there is. From a scientific point of view death is just a moment in the recycling of organic matter. The scientific discourse, though, has done very, very little to assuage the terror of our very, very personal deaths. The experience is too strong.

    To be consistent in your aim of promoting our quality of life, I would suggest you need to adopt a discourse that does greater justice to our lived experience.

  3. cspice December 15, 2008 4:37 pm

    neoanchorite: To address your final point, I should say that I don’t fully doubt that religion could help to promote the quality of life of some individuals. That is, I believe in the possibility that deceiving oneself in certain cases could promote happiness. However, I feel that I am of the type that has trouble dealing with cognitive dissonance, and therefore cannot take advantage of this method. This post therefore, may only be applicable to the life quality maximization of those who share some of my aversions. In general, I think the problem of life quality maximization is not universal and needs to be tailored to the unique value system created by one’s genes and upbringing.

  4. Agnostic Fan attic January 26, 2009 6:35 am


    Your post about the inability of science to record and communicate certain aspects of human consciousness and experience has little, if nothing, to do with a rational debate about agnosticism vs atheism, other than, possibly, making a point in favor of agnosticism.

  5. Victorious January 26, 2009 6:53 am

    I’ll believe in science until my beliefs are proven wrong by a newer, more frightening science. Then I’m going back to my older, more comforting science.

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