While I agree with, and vigorously defend, the notion that there is an important difference between lacking a belief in gods (as an agnostic atheist) and believing there are no gods (as a gnostic atheist), I also think that atheists should not, based on the best available scientific evidence and philosophical arguments, merely lack belief in most gods but actually believe there are no such gods. Only those gods that might still find a scientifically or metaphysically coherent formulation are ones we should, in all epistemic humility, confess to just lacking belief in rather than say we have a positive reason to say we know that they do not exist.
We should feel quite comfortable ruling out various kinds of gods, though, including all the ones that religion is actually invested in promulgating. I realized this was an important point to stress while in an exchange with cartooncorpse on Reddit in the comments responding to my yesterday’s post, No, I’m Not An Atheist By Faith, Here Are My Arguments. What follows is cartooncorpse’s comments and my slightly revised and then substantially expanded replies:
Still it’s not as assertion that there cannot be a god (eg things we do not understand that may or may not have an interest in our existence). Just that there is no reasonable evidence suggesting that.
I can reject various god concepts as all implausible. Thor is implausible, Vishnu is implausible, Yahweh is implausible. I can say that I know they’re false just like I know the tooth fairy is false. They’re about as well attested by the facts as the fairy is.
While not quite as strongly, I have other reasons to reject the idea of a personal God (as I explain in the post), plus reasons to reject the idea of an omnipotent omnibenevolent God, because I think the “problem of evil” is a decisive refutation of such a being. I can also take the inefficiencies and ill-fitness of our evolutionarily bequeathed human natures as compelling evidence there is not a prefect designer but rather only the haphazard, indifferent processes of evolution we observe.
And that leaves only the bare bones concept of some impersonal unified source of all being. Well, yeah, that might exist under some physical and/or metaphysically sensible conception, but I still think it’s less likely than an eternality of some sort to the universe itself and, even if real, provides none of the benefits from god-belief that any religions are built around, and so is absolutely irrelevant to anyone or anything. The only good it would do would be if somehow mathematically and physically understanding this source of all being contributed to our ability to predict, understand, and manipulate the world for our purposes better than we do presently without knowing it.
But yeah, that possible impersonal physical or metaphysical principle may possibly exist. But who cares?
And, to return to Ron Rosenbaum’s article in Slate, which occasioned yesterday’s post, for all his supposed skepticism which is supposedly so much intellectually and ethically superior to my supposedly arrogantly “knowing” form of atheism, he demonstrates no skepticism whatsoever towards the idea that the ground of all being concept he thinks is so important has anything to do with what the vast majority of non-philosophical religious people actually mean by “God”.
Even if there were some unified single “god principle” that accounted for why there was something rather than nothing, is the supposedly skeptical Ron Rosenbaum going to allow that the Catholics just might be right that that source of all being is daily turning itself into a cracker or that it sent a flying donkey to take Muhammad up to heaven or that it loves us omnibenevolently but still let the Holocaust happen anyway? What kind of a skeptic lets such nonsensical ideas stand and calls those who call for the outright, permanent rejection of such apparent superstition and fantasy “dogmatists” with “just as much faith” as those who believe such wild things?
The hypothetical formulation of a plausible god principle as the source of all being gives not the slightest credence to actual religious claims. Does Rosenbaum even understand this? Maybe he does. If he does, it would be nice if he tried demonstrating his skeptical bona fides by making clear his refusal to countenance clear religious falsehoods and not only his refusal to assume science will ever answer the question of the origin of being itself. But if what he means by “skepticism” is believing that anything whatsoever might be possible, even that the possible “god principle” is manifesting in cracker form in Catholic churches around the world at all times, then what he really means by the word “skepticism” is utter and complete lack of discrimination in dealing with belief statements.
And, even more importantly, if the agnostic is going to be hard line skeptic who rejects both facile and fantastic answers as insufficient, no matter where he finds them, then in practice he is going to have a miserable time trying to fit in with the religious because there is no way he can in good conscience tolerate all their superstitions and their glib habits of indiscriminately mixing myths and facts. And, so it is hard to see how the principled, hard nosed skeptical agnostic, will not wind up in practice an atheist.
Most religious practice excludes skeptical agnosticism (only allowing the kind of faithful agnosticism which claims not to know but opts to believe on faith anyway, which is the opposite ideal of that which one finds in agnostics simpliciter who are principled skeptics). Holding religion in suspense and not committing to it lest one be a dogmatist or believe that for which there neither is nor ever can be sufficient evidence, the agnostic who rejects faith cannot be properly religious. Or at least within the majority of strands of Christianity and Islam. Only religions that make belief secondary to practice can tolerate skeptical agnostics, but they can even tolerate atheists in their ranks for the same reason.
The person claiming to be an agnostic simpliciter is, therefore, to my mind, a de facto atheist to the extent that she lives with no god, regardless of how much she may want to protest that she is something wholly distinct from atheists or, even less plausibly, that her position is equidistant between theism and atheism.
But back to cartooncorpse’s defense of the possibility of a personal God, now in response to my having raised the problem of evil:
It’s perfect for torment (like the kid with the magnifying glass and the ant hill analogy). A personal god that takes ‘joy’ (or something) in your struggle for unknown reasons. It’s plausible. Doesn’t even take a god for that. Could be an advanced alien race, using us like rats.
A malevolent god (or at least an indifferent or an only partially benevolent one) is more plausible than an omnibenevolent one, yes. But, again as I spell out in the blog post, the idea of a personal god has no rational basis in anything but human projection and anthropomorphization. We’d might as well say it’s possible god does photosynthesis or is flammable. “Personhood” arises from complex physical conditions. If God is being posited as a non-physical something that can account for the physical, then it is not itself physical, it cannot do photosynthesis, catch on fire, or have neuron synapses fire in order to create consciousness in it.
I just don’t see any basis to say that even if there is some metaphysically eternal principle that causes the universe without being a part of it, that it is in anyway a “personal” being. There’s not a shred of metaphysical evidence for that idea and it has against it all our physical evidence about the nature of personhood as dependent on consciousness, which is itself an emergent property within nature, with clear physical correlates to its occurrence, which seem necessarily present for its occurrence.
The personal god hypothesis is just totally unfounded. I feel quite confident in saying I know there is no personal god. I might be wrong, but, having not yet heard any good arguments to show me how I am wrong, I feel comfortable saying that kind of god in all likelihood does not exist and we need not be merely agnostic on the question of its existence but say the evidence is decidedly against it.
You’ve never had a coach? “We” are coming to further understanding (however pathetic, it DOES progress) of the mechanations or our universe. Is it not possible (however unlikely) that some being sees some benefit in that progression? and therefore, that being its purpose?
Progress doesn’t require guidance or “coaching” and the sorts of progress we have had, both through natural and social forms of evolution, both show that no coaching was involved but purely natural selective forces, which evince the precise opposite of a cosmic coach and which actually sometimes select against objectively more powerful and actualizing instances of species whenever they are unlucky enough to get stuck in a situation where selective forces work against their abstract superiority. Whole superior species, with higher degrees of complexity and power and consciousness, such as dinosaurs, have gone extinct while inferiorly progressed, single cell organisms hang on.
Nature is not being guided by a personal being to progress. The process shows no intelligence is either required or would provide a remotely good explanation of how it works. And the outcomes show no intelligent guidance towards increasing progress either. Sometimes more complex and advanced species go extinct while less complex and advanced ones thrive. Sometimes members of species who more powerfully fulfill their species’ possibilities lose out to inferior members of their species where the luck of environmental factors ironically favors less fulfillment of the species’ potential in some respect, and so the hypothetically best and most species enhancing genes can lose to the most environmentally fit genes and define the species in that way instead going forward.
And, again, knowing what we do about how personhood arises, there is no reason to posit it as existing outside of physically based neural networks which work from within this reality. I see no reason yet to posit a comparable process in a disembodied, wholly alien, supernatural entity? Do you have any reason besides a coach analogy to think that that either makes sense or is remotely plausible as an explanation?
Until you have good reasons that make me think this scenario is at all plausible, I am comfortable saying I know it is implausible and such a god does not exist. Does that mean I claimed I know with certainty that such a god does not exist? Not at all, not all forms of knowledge involve certainty. I leave open the possibility of doubting my position should I encounter evidence that I should. But I do not have to claim complete agnosticism on the question.
And, returning to the agnostics like Ron Rosenbaum a second, if you do think you have reason to the personal cosmic coach is at least a possibility, is there any good reason to think that this personal coach actually introduced itself to superstitious ancient humans using myths and commands to genocide and slavery and misogynistic treatment of women? Is there any reason to think this “personal coach” decided to make itself known to us in the most opaque way possible and leave billions incorrectly informed about its real nature? Is there any reason whatsoever to think it has specially blessed any of the myriad religious institutions which claim to speak for it as its liaison to the world with the rights to do so? Is there any reason to think it incorporates itself into crackers or cures cancer? Is there any reason, agnostics, to think that even were such a being to exist, that the historical or contemporary religious understandings of it are at all authoritatively correct in any special way?