Monday, May 11, 2009

Where does agnosticism fit in?

If you ask 3 different people you'd get 3 different answers. There is no general agreement about the place agnosticism is supposed to occupy and I think this is due to the way agnosticism and atheism can overlap each other. There is this gap between the way people use words and the meaning words have in their most formal definitions and this always gets in the way of any discussion about belief.

Agnosticism can be either:
  • A wider philosophical concept that deals with the nature of knowledge. In this context, an agnostic is someone who thinks that we can never be certain about the truth of a god's existence but he may still either believe in a god or don't believe in a god. (let's call this the soft-agnostic)
  • A narrower concept in a religious context that simply says that there is not enough data to presume neither that a god exists nor that a god does not exist. It can also mean someone who thinks that answering the question is irrelevant. (let's call this the hard-agnostic)
Atheism can be either:
  • disbelief in a god's existence (let's call this the soft-atheist)
  • the belief that that god does not exist (let's call this the hard-atheist)
It can be argued that the difference I pointed in the atheist definition is only a linguistic one and it sure is tricky to make that distinction but I think the distinction should be made. Actual belief in gods nonexistence requires the atheist to present evidence in a positive case that show that a certain god does not exist while general disbelief in that god only requires one not to be convinced by theist arguments but doesn't require that him to argue for its nonexistence.

As you can see, depending on the kind of definition you're using, logical problems can arise since one can occupy the same space as the other. For example, a hard-agnostic automatically entails being also a soft-atheist since neither can believe in a certain god. The fact that one can be an agnostic and an atheist at the same time is not a problem by itself unless they're being used in a way that overlaps them as above.

So I think that only two frameworks are really logically valid.

Framework one:
Agnosticism deals with knowledge, not with belief. It's just a general stance that says that the truth of some statements can't be known.
Atheism deals with belief, not with knowledge. You can only either believe that gods exists or not believe that gods exist.
In this view we have:
  • Agnostic atheist: is one that thinks that the truth about gods existence can't be known but believes that gods do not exist
  • Gnostic theist: thinks that the truth about that statement can be known and he believes that gods exist.
  • Agnostic theists: thinks that the truth about the statement can't be known but believes that a god exists.
  • Gnostic atheists: thinks that the truth about the statement can be known and believes that a god does not exist.
By using words in this manner they don't overlap in their meanings, they are complementary.

Framework two:
  • Agnosticism is the stance that believes neither that gods exist nor that gods do not exist. It doesn't commit to one side or the other and thinks that the truth of the statement as undetermined or even irrelevant. It's the middle ground between believing on gods existence and believing that gods do not exist or in other words, it's the disbelief in both views, or the lack of persuasive arguments from both sides leaving the question open.
  • Atheism is the belief that there are no gods, not simple disbelief in gods. An atheist believes that gods do not exist and reasons should extend beyond the weakness of theist arguments into actual arguments for atheism.
  • Theism is, as always, the belief that a god does exist.
The first is more formal and the second is more coherent with the way people actually use those words in their lives. I believe that there is a gap between both and either people should start to adopt the formal concepts or the formal concepts should adapt to the way people actually use them.

Now, which one to use is up to each person. I consider both valid but I prefer the second choice because of the following reasons.
  1. There's a higher chance that people will understand what you're saying if you use the 2nd approach.
  2. People use the 2nd more often for a reason, there's a gap between belief in gods and belief in their absence that can't be expressed with the 1st approach.
  3. The appendage of the agnosticism concept in the 1st approach is irrelevant for a discussion in a religious context. What's important is the belief and what side are people committed to rather than if they philosophically think that the ultimate truth can be known or not.
These are my arguments for the one I'd prefer but the important thing is that people generally agree with one because this problem usually gets in the way of a discussion and much time is spent arguing over what people should really be labeled because of this gap which makes these discussions about God to be entangled in linguistic difficulties.

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