Agnostics Or Apistics?

In the past, I have defended the idea that rather than classifying people simply as atheists, agnostics, and theists that we should separate the questions of the contents of beliefs (whether they are atheistic or theistic) from whether one’s atheism or theism is held as a matter of knowledge or not. If one’s theism is personally thought to be a matter of knowledge, that theist is a gnostic theist—i.e., a theist making a knowledge claim that she knows there is a god (or gods). If a theist thinks the evidence is insufficient for a knowledge claim and yet opts to have faith despite sufficient evidence for a knowledge claim (or, worse, against sufficient evidence against such a knowledge claim) then that theist is an agnostic theist who does not claim to have knowledge but believes anyway.

And I argued that an agnostic atheist would be an atheist who thought there was not sufficient reason to have a belief that a god (or some specific kind of god) either did or did not exist and so had no knowledge, or even belief, on the matter but had a default atheism in lieu of the lack of sufficient evidence in either direction. This made her an agnostic atheist. She was someone who does not take herself to have knowledge (“a-gnostic”) and who was nonetheless, by default, a non-believer, i.e., one living without gods, an “a-theist”. She does not have a belief that there are no gods, she just lacks the belief in gods.

In reply, Maryann thinks that we need another option between on the one hand agnosticism, which in the case of the agnostic atheist (but not in the case of the agnostic theist) denotes a lack of belief only, and gnosticism on the other hand, which denotes outright knowledge. She thinks this distinction is necessary to account for the fact that people have beliefs which constitute neither refraining from belief nor actually knowing. She writes:

Gnosis is to knowledge as “x” is to belief. We need a better word for agnostic that uses “x” as its root.

Maryann and

I guess the word for belief is the same as the word for faith…pistis. I googled a bit and I guess folks actually do use to word “apistic” already (and not just to refer to a pregnancy test) (har). Atheists (of the sort usually called gnostic atheists) are pistic about atheism. I think it makes more sense to use the word pistic instead of gnostic, when talking about “gnostic” atheists/theists, because they can’t both “know”–they can’t both be “right”–and we’re really just talking about what they believe, not what they know.

I’m sympathetic to this point, except that I think the gnostic is more than pistic is the sense that the gnostic makes a knowledge claim, not merely a qualified belief claim. Consistent with what I take to be the most dominant and compelling arguments from contemporary epistemology, I do not take knowledge claims to require an infallible certainty to count as knowledge claims. As long as your belief is formed using reliable belief forming mechanisms and it has certain specifiable features which could defeat possible Gettier problems, it can be a knowledge claim and expressed and judged as such. It will actually be an instance of knowledge if in fact the belief is not only so reliably formed but is also true in fact. We can already claim to have knowledge even without an infallible ability to get outside of our minds and “go check” reality as long as we have sufficient reason to think our belief reliably enough formed to be confirmed as true were that possible (or even a coherent proposition).

Even if we can never conclusively be certain about the truth in fact, we can be (and in fact frequently are) in possession of knowledge about a great many matters.

Now, I may think that on a given point that I have only insufficient evidence for a given belief and yet think I have warrant to be more inclined than not towards it. I may not want to call this knowledge but still want to affirm it for the time being as a belief. If my evidence is below a certain threshold, then I’m having faith. If it’s above a certain threshold, it’s a justified belief, but if it does not meet certain standards of assurance, I might not call it knowledge. If it attains to a certain level of strong confidence, I hold it as a matter of knowledge.

This is all about how I hold the belief. I might be wrong to do so if I miscalculate the strength of the evidence, etc. I think, for example, that the gnostic theist is quite wrong to claim knowledge of the existence of God since I think they have badly assessed the evidence. However, their claim is a knowledge claim, not merely a claim to belief. This distinction matters pragmatically, even if not logically because what is in dispute is not only the truth or falsity of god claims but also whether knowledge is possible with respect to such matters. Maryann is wrong when she writes against calling the “gnostic theist” and the “gnostic atheist” gnostics by saying “we’re really just talking about what they believe, not what they know”. What we’re in fact really talking about is what they believe they know, not just the contents of their claims themselves. Do they believe they know or not? Are they right to believe they know or not? These are as important questions as the ones about whether their beliefs and knowledge claims are in fact, correct, since they’re important questions about the warrants of beliefs and the possibilities for knowledge.

So, for example, I would say that in my case, I am convinced enough that I can as easily dismiss Yahweh and the risen Christ as pure falsehood as I can dismiss Zeus, et al. as such. I KNOW these are fictional characters. There’s no doubt in my mind. Of course on some wildly unlikely possibility, I could be wrong. But I take that possibility to be as unlikely as the possibility that I do not actually have feet or but only dream that I do. Possible, but only an infinitesmally likely scenario. I feel confident therefore in saying I know I have feet and I know there are no personal gods who have intervened in history or been incarnated as humans and risen from the dead. These are closed questions as far as I am concerned. Just as closed as whether or not Spider-Man is a real, existent person.

Now, the question of whether or not there is some unitary, impersonal source of all being worth calling a “God” is a quite a different one. I am an agnostic about certain definitions of this because I can neither believe in them nor not believe in them while they are inadequately formulated. If I cannot understand what they really mean or why they might be real or not, then I can neither assent to belief nor say I do not believe but can only say, I really lack an opinion about them. In those cases, my agnosticism is an atheistic kind since while I do not know or even have enough sureness even for a tentative belief, my default position is suspension of affirmation in those proposed divine principles and, so, atheism. So with respect to thosespecific god postulates, I’m an agnostic atheist.

Some other formulations of what divinity is I would believe are false, believe I have sufficient reason to reject them, but be open to changing my mind and so be somewhere between strong belief and weak, revisable knowledge when I make claims rejecting those posits of divine being. When I reject claims about the existence of those proposed divine beings, I am not having “faith”, neither believing nor disbelieving beyond the evidence, but calibrating my beliefs and my knowledge claims to meet the evidence as best I understnad it.

Finally, there are ways to define the divine that might make it either an observably or likely real part of reality, in which case I might have either a strong belief or, even, knowledge that that does exist and for anyone who calls that “god” might be a theist of some sort as far as they are concerned. For example, if someone just means by “god” “reality considered as a totality” then, on their definition I know there is a god since I know there is a reality conceived of as a totality. But I don’t think that’s enough to call me in general a theist since I don’t think that’s what most people mean by a god!

So, in sum, some of what people mean by “God” I am a gnostic atheist about, I simply know it is not real just as I know super heroes are not real. Other things that people mean by God are so vaguely formulated by them or unclear to me for some other reason that I refrain from actively disbelieving and default to an agnostic atheism. Other things that people mean by God are likely false and so I either have a revisable but nonetheless strong (evidentially based, not faith-based) belief or, even, a knowledge that such “God” concepts are false. With respect to those God concepts I am pretty much a gnostic atheist, or a pistic one if you like—but for evidential reasons, not faith ones.

And, finally, what some people want to call “god” or “divine” are things I do think are real and so whatever kinds of theists they are, they might call me one of them for believing in those kinds of realities. I wouldn’t begrudge them that unless their equivocation on the word “god” led others to think I believed in more usual “god” concepts that I do not. So, I’m happy to say, for example, that if by “God” you mean what Spinoza meant by God then, I’m however tentatively and qualifiedly, at least very close to affirming the existence of God. But I worry that saying that would mislead people into thinking I meant I believed in all sorts of completely different “god” concepts that I simply do not. So, despite my deep affinities for Spinoza and inclinations he might be right, I would rather avoid the word “God” since it does not mean for the vast majority what it means for him (or, at least, I don’t think it means that for them).

But in a closing clarification, I think it is helpful to make the following distinctions in response to Maryann’s interesting provocations. I think we can say there are two kinds of agnostic atheists. Some that are apistic and some that are pistic agnostics. An apistic agnostic claims to neither know nor to believe anyway that there are no gods (or no god of a specific kind at issue in a specific case), but to lack both belief and knowledge either way and to be a default atheist on that account. The contrast with an apistic agnostic atheist would be a pistic agnostic atheist. This would be an agnostic atheist who thought that there was not sufficient evidence to know outright that there are no gods (or no god of a specific type at issue) but that nonetheless she believed that there were no gods (or no god of the specific type at issue). This sort of pistic agnostic atheist, would claim to lack knowledge but not lack belief.

We may make a further distinction between two kinds of pistic agnostic atheists. One kind of pistic agnostic atheist would think that there was preponderance of evidence in favor of believing in gods (or no god of a specific type at issue), such that belief in the non-existence of gods (or a specific proposed one) was justified but not so justified as to rise to the level of knowledge. I would not called this a faith position, but a qualified, tentative belief. Were a pistic agnostic atheist to think that the evidence for the non-existence of gods (or a specific god) was either insufficient or outright in favor of the existence of gods, then that would be a pistic agnostic atheist who actually had faith. I’m not sure if I’ve actually met anyone like this, but that’s what they would be like.

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Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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