Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Argument for Agnosticism

Either the world was deliberately created, so that some sort of theism is true, or else atheism is true, but both options involve us in such mysteries (as the two below) that to choose either, given only such evidence as is publicly available (and so worthy of being called ‘evidence’), would be to favour irrationally one mystery over another, whence agnosticism (i.e. the absence of a belief either way) is to be preferred.
......The obvious problem with theism is that, when we look at the world we see only mundane things, no gods and not even angels or fairies. We don’t even see any clear evidence that the world was deliberately created, or is being guided from above, or even watched over. But more importantly our language is so orientated towards the world that we are unable even to form a clear idea of what its creator might be like.
......Conversely we know a lot about the world. We even know that our brains are composed of many brain cells, each of which is composed of a lot of organic molecules, many of them highly complicated but all of them composed of atoms. Atoms themselves have a very tidy structure (as shown, for example, by the Periodic table of the elements), and they are the building blocks of, not just brain cells but rodents and radishes, rocks and raindrops, robots and radios.
......But it is precisely because we know so much about how atoms behave that it is so troubling that (although we can see how information-processing mechanisms can be composed of them) we are unable to make much sense of the idea of their giving rise to such conscious individuals as we know ourselves to be. We might deduce that there must be more to them than we know at present, but it is quite mysterious even what sort of stuff there would need to be (or even its whereabouts, given how much we already know about atoms).
......Perhaps the way that organisms have atoms is akin to how they have skeletons—if the X-ray photograph of an organism shows only its skeleton (which could account for all its scientific properties, had few enough of its properties been observed and measured) that does not mean that there is not more to the organism. But again it is difficult (and not so much because of the complexity as the conceptual obscurity) to make much sense of that idea, not without introducing some sort of non-physical substance (akin to the flesh on the skeleton).
......Still, prima facie we are non-physical individuals, and the mysteries of how and why such mental beings interact with physical structures would seem less of a problem (less of an unlikely coincidence) were the world created because then both the mental and the physical would have had a common origin in a deliberate creation (cf. inventing trains and tracks together). So were we to reject the obscure possibility of atoms giving rise (via natural processes) to conscious beings like ourselves, then we might conclude that the physical world is (probably) a deliberate creation.
......But of course, were we to reject the possibility of a creator for its obscurity, we could instead conclude that there must be some way in which atoms do give rise to us. After all, the considerable evidence that the world is Newtonian turned out to only be evidence that it is approximately Newtonian, and so it is not unreasonable to suppose that atoms might also be only approximately how we think of them, deviating from our simplest picture of them in some similarly unforeseeable way.
......But similarly, neither would it be unreasonable to suppose that we might have been created (e.g. as below). So, it being completely obscure (at present) how either theism or atheism could be consistent with what we know of the world, it is surely impossible to tell, from the publicly available evidence, which one is most likely. And so although (for various reasons) each of us is actually quite likely to presume one of them, the more objectively rational option is surely agnosticism.
......I shall end with an example of one such reason (evolution) for preferring one of those two options (atheism) that seems to be fairly common amongst philosophers (for fairly obvious reasons, e.g. see ScienceBlogs). (This example was suggested by Aaron's comment on the recent post that inspired this post.) Suppose that modern accounts of the evolution of life are (at least approximately) true (as a lot of quite varied evidence indicates). Even so, only such ideas of creation as a too-literal reading of Genesis would consequently be false (and even then, only correspondingly approximately). (In this post I considered one possible motive for creating a world via evolutionary processes, but of course any actual motive is likely to lie well beyond our imaginations.)
......Similarly a simplistic, billiard-ball style of materialism is rendered improbable by our self-awareness, but I’m here considering theism vs. atheism, not literalism vs. materialism. It was once said (fallaciously) that incremental evolution could never explain our eyes, but we now have mathematical models of how eyes might arise incrementally. Nonetheless the likelihood of our being unable to provide any such explanation would surely (had it existed) have undermined this reason for preferring atheism. And so we return to the lack of any indication whatsoever of how an evolutionary explanation of consciousnesses such as ours might go.


Larry Hamelin said...

Read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.

The notion that even strict billiard-ball materialism is inadequate to explain consciousness is inept. Fundamentally, what's "hard" to explain about consciousness is our own ignorance. It should be no surprise that it's hard to explain a concept we refuse to define, that we wrap in reverential mystery.

But that is a flaw of our own ignorance, and, worse, our own prejudice, the consequence of taking the tropes of philosophy as revealed truths.

Larry Hamelin said...

Also, just the fact that consciousness is a mystery doesn't in any way suggest that agnosticism about theism is warranted.

Indeed no mystery by itself directly warrants agnosticism about theism, except in the sense that we never know in general what conclusions new evidence might lead us to. But that's true of anything; if we're going to profess agnosticism in the sense of refusing to come to a conclusion about God, we ought then to refuse to come to any conclusions about anything: i.e. epistemic nihilism.

We ought not to be agnostic about superficially supernatural theism, because supernatural theism is not an alternative explanation, it's just mystical mumbo-jumbo that says we don't have an explanation. The "cure" of supernaturalism is always worse than the disease of specific ignorance.

As far as naturalistic teleological pseudo-theism, the facts in evidence require that if a designer were to exist, we must conclude that such a designer is not only preternaturally powerful and intelligent, but also preternaturally stupid, wasteful, and evil.

Martin Cooke said...

Of course, I would counter that Dennett's arguments were inept. Also, I'm saying that billiard-ball materialism might be adequate, but that it is a mystery how it could be. And that the nature of the mystery is clearly not such that any further scientific information about the numbers of, and physical properties of, the billiard balls (so to speak) would clear it up.

Anonymous said...

Hey Enigman,

So, if I follow your argument it is that both theism and materialism are both so obscure that it is silly to pick one. Is that right?

If so, then this is the opposite kind of argument (if arguments have opposites!!) than the kind I want to give. I argue that we have good evidence for both claims and good evidence against both claims and that this is the reason that agnosticism is true...I don't know...maybe we are saying the same thing? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

ooopppsss, by 'obscure' I meant that we can't see how either could be true

Larry Hamelin said...

I would counter that Dennett's arguments were inept.

Can you give—as I did—an actual reason his arguments are inept? Or are we expected to take your word for in on your divine authority?

And that the nature of the mystery is clearly not such that any further scientific information about the numbers of, and physical properties of, the billiard balls (so to speak) would clear it up.

Well duh. We don't understand consciousness, it's undefined, so of course understanding billiard balls (or chess openings) is not going to help clear up the matter.

We know that we can build a general purpose computer out of billiard balls. We have no evidence that consciousness requires anything other than general-purpose computing: We've never seen a conscious mind do anything a general-purpose computer is, in principle, not capable of.

Anonymous said...

Feel honored (I hope), or feel annoyed, but I tagged you at

Martin Cooke said...

Richard, I doubt that there is a lot of evidence that, for example, an omniscient and omnipotent being (in your relatively strict sense) does love everything…(?)…but in any case, I hope that my argument is fairly independent of whether it concerns a lot or a lack of evidence, since that depends upon what is meant by ‘evidence’ (and other large and largely unresolved issues in the philosophy of science). The Barefoot Bum, for example, might say that it is a lot of scientific evidence that indicates that this Universe probably has no Creator, whereas I would say that the scientific data does not currently discriminate between these two families of hypotheses (even while agreeing on almost all the data itself). For a recent indication of the muddiness of such waters, it seems that top physicists think that the Universe might be a giant computer, which is a theistic hypothesis (in my sense) if that computer was deliberately created. (Not to mention more dubious data, e.g. accounts of crying statues etc.)

Martin Cooke said...

Re the Barefoot Bum's latest comment, well of course (I hope) you are not expected to believe, that Dennett's arguments are inept, just because I say so. But more, why do you call my authority ‘divine’? My arguments do not ever claim such authority. (You seem to be implying something that you are not actually saying, but it is not my place to speculate upon what that might be.) As regards Dennett, the argument of this post is entirely independent of the particular flaws with Dennett's arguments (most of which have been discussed in considerable depth by various philosophers, of course). But you mention something that seems (to me) to be akin to positivism (with your talk of seeing what consciousness does), so I would refer you to my reply to Richard, above.

Martin Cooke said...

Jean: I've not been tagged before, and now I know (barefoot's philosophy notwithstanding) what it's like to be tagged (e.g. I feel joined up), so many thanks (I don't think it's silly, but rather what blogging's all about:)

Martin Cooke said...

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Richard Y Chappell said...

Enigman, is your complaint that evolution fails to explain:
(1) how we evolved brains that function as ours do; OR
(2) why brains that function as ours do give rise to phenomenal experience?

Arguably, evolution can explain #1 just fine, and shouldn't be expected to explain #2 -- which is more a problem of physics/natural law than biology.

In any case, it isn't clear to me what theism adds to the explanation of #2. (Presumably whatever mechanism of natural law God is supposed to have employed to bring mind out of matter, could just as well exist in an atheistic universe. Perhaps you mean to suggest that it is more likely given theism. But then isn't this just the fine-tuning argument in new clothing?)

Martin Cooke said...

Hi Richard, I agree that the mystery of #2 (such as it is) lies closer to physics than biology (which is why I began by talking about atoms), but I wouldn't say that my complaint was that evolution fails to explain either #1 or #2.

Regarding #1, my question would have been, what sort of physical stuff would natural selection need to have been operating upon, in order for our brains to have arisen naturally? I haven't seen (and if you have then please let me know about) how a computer program (which might run on a computer built from billiard-ball-style components) could possibly contain something that would be like me in every respect (although I see how it might model my actions and reactions, once they are known).

Regarding #2, I don't see God as bringing mind out of matter, so much as creating minds and also matter, and as creating matter so that minds can be embodied (for some divine reason). Without theism, substantial (or Cartesian) dualism would find it much harder, than property dualism, to explain why mind and matter should be able to interact (via brains).

Martin Cooke said...

(incidentally, I'd also refer Barefoot to this post:)

Martin Cooke said...

...and you to the new location of this post, within the space of reasons