There is one persistent contributor to the comments in this blog who really wants to assert that Pharyngula is full of knee-jerk reactionary comments, and that agnostics are not cowards.
I have been monitoring this thread, and realise it is quite balanced with a few agnostics or people arguing for the rationality of the agnostic position as a statement of belief as well.
Challenge offered to kok and other agnostics to join the discussion and understand why Pharyngula is feared amongst people unwilling to bend to reason.
Update 9th November 2010
Despite my nearly desperate situation regarding cramming for exams, I found the time to not only join the fray, but read and analyse every single comment in the thread above.
Apparently Steven Novella of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe fame decided to chime in on the side of self-identified agnostics.
While my exam-addled mind slept, the thread has now reached 203 comments. But most of the important stuff has already been covered, although it appears that an epistemological argument is being put forward in the dying end of the thread.
To summarise, Novella was the most credible person arguing for the rationality of agnosticism. There were a few others, probably, but only one went far enough to show quite explicitly what I meant by intellectual cowardice without any prodding. Words in red are mine:
I am an agnostic by virtue of complete inability to make (any) leap of faith. Acceptable logic. It’s like not having an ear for music, but with belief. Sort of acceptable analogy, but could be better. And atheism is a faith OH NO YOU DID NOT!, since the absence of god still cannot be proven empirically. ***bites tongue. Prove a negative? And no, I don’t “hide” under the agnostic label to avoid saying that I’m an atheist. Even though I don’t believe in any specific (or even generic) god, I think that my views are very far from bona fide atheism. Your words say no, your logic says ‘I am an atheist’. I also don’t claim to be any smarter than people who do make various leaps of faith, because the difference is in the faith aspect and not in reasoning. Seeing as you are arguing on the basis that atheism is a faith, claiming a leap of faith here is really the wrong conclusion to make.
To be fair, I will default to Novella instead:
Mike wrote:“But you don’t manufacture uncertainty in other fields by inventing a position not postulated by any believers in said fields. Why go through the trouble for religion? ”
I thought I addressed this but since it keeps coming up.
I am not manufacturing uncertainty. Not even sure how you get there from anything I wrote. Agnosticism is about recognizing that unfalsifiable claims are outside of empirical knowledge. Nothing manufactured there.
I am also not inventing a position. First, there are deists — Martin Garnder, hello.
Second — hypothetical situations are used in philosophy to clarify and establish principles from which you can then proceed and apply to specific (messy)questions.
And finally — I do not make the (what I consider false) distinction between religion-based claims and other ideological claims — pseudoscientific, social, political, etc. Rather, my method is, for any particular claim, is to separate out the empirical claims and treat them like any scientific claim. And also to identify and non-empirical components and point them out — whether they are unstated assumptions or tenets of faith.
Agnosticism is not limited to theism or religion. I am agnostic toward the question of whether or not our universe is a primary particle in a far greater universe. I also recognize that is an unfalsifiable (and therefore useless, if interesting) idea and there is no basis upon which to maintain any belief about it.
And he ends it rather courteously:
All — thanks for indulging my agnosticism discussion. I seem to go through this every 6 months or so. I know I came out swinging, but we are generally on the same side, and we agree more than we disagree. There is an interesting perspective difference among groups in the skeptical/atheist community and I wanted to see if we could hammer that out a bit.
I do hope that at least there is general recognition that within the skeptical community there are self-identified agnostics who have very good philosophical and practical reasons for being so. And we all want the same thing — to promote science and reason. People can honestly disagree about the best way to do that.
Let’s get this out of the way. Even Novella, who claims that there is a reasonable position to use agnosticism as a philosophical position rationalises that placing a deity outside of the realm of falsifiable evidence makes it interesting but useless (ergo unscientific).
Unless I am reading it incorrectly.
Plus as I have found out myself via semantic hell, agnosticism is a statement of knowledge, and not of belief.
I can call myself an agnostic atheist, and it would be perfectly and technically acceptable. As they are mutually exclusive terms. The muddling comes from self-identified agnostics who confuse the position of agnosticism as a middle ground between belief and disbelief, or a position completely removed from the belief scale (which is correct, they are not on the same plane of questioning).
However, when I came to read through the thread above, I struck upon a rather insightful comment:
But to your main point, I agree. I am fine with Huxley’s definition. I’d call myself an agnostic atheist when it’s appropriate. I just don’t usually bother because personally I think the “agnostic” part is unnecessary. It borders on being a distinction without a difference, because it doesn’t seem to add much. I don’t use it for anything outside of religious discussions, so why even use it there?
So while it is technically correct to use “agnostic atheist” as a term, it is as good as saying “agnostic ateapotist” or “agnostic abatmanist”. Ultimately, nothing of value is added to the title as to be agnostic is to not possess any knowledge of the subject, but to be atheistic is to state your position of disbelief towards the subject, in this case, an unprovable and unknown deity.
To conclude for now, I am willing to concede that calling agnostics “intellectual cowards” may be excessively belligerent, and am willing instead to use the term “intellectually dishonest” instead when demeaning those who attempt to use “agnostic” as a position of belief.
I now leave you with a bit of rationalising using the term agnostic and extraterrestrial life:
I am agnostic about the presence of extra-terrestrial life in the universe because it is too large to know presently.
I however accept that there is probably no extra-terrestrial life as there is presently no convincing evidence to show that there are aliens out there.
Therefore, I am an atheist towards aliens.
I would add agnostic to it but really, it says nothing about my beliefs.