What can we know?

I’ve noticed that a lot of the posts that begin with or mutate towards religious questions, and a few others, seem to get hung up on the sources of knowledge. Sarcastic, exaggerated example:

ImaXtian: Well, I KNOW that what I posted is the truth, 'cause it says so in I Chronicles 3!!
**RationalDude7[/b/]: Yeah, but that doesn’t prove nothing, because there is no God and all that is is a bunch of garbled myth.

Hello? Can we get a level playing field? What assumptions are you (each) making, and what would it take to get you to change them?

As I said in another post, Christianity (or any religion) and atheism are both matters of faith; agnosticism is the only rational path. Both the former make assumptions about the existence (or not) of God based on evidence (or its lack). Agnosticism simply says: “There is insufficient data to compute.”

And absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. (Which may be the first time anyone has quoted Stephen Jay Gould in support of organized religion!)

Anyway, I’m suggesting we look at the concepts that make us take different sides on some of the issues that have been addressed, and see if we have any common ground, or can learn something about what can be known from each other.

I tend to agree with you, but it is possible to say that something is so incredibly unlikely that you may as well call it zero. I think some/many atheists think this way, including myself. Although I recognize the possibility of a god, I consider the evidence against to be so overwhelming that I sum up the chance as being 0%. Does that make me agnostic (i.e. because I recognize the 1 in a googol chance)? Maybe, but probably only by the strictest definition of the term.

So, to sum up, agnosticism is not the only way that makes sense.

It’s bernard, just under new management

This was discussed in a thread a while back. It was called “Agnosticism: the only rational alternative?” I think. I can’t find it though…

Anyway, your assumptions about atheism as a whole are inaccurate, Polycarp. There are different types of atheism.

From http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/intro.html :

You are assuming all atheists are “strong” atheists.

And, of course, the flip side of Glitch’s answer is the answer given by religious people (or at least some of them).

Yes, exactly right jodih. In fact, I have on occasion had interesting conversations with various priests/ministers/etc. Only one that I can remember said that he knew 100% God existed, and I think he was just trying to make a point (i.e. I am 100% certain God exists because he does type thing). Many Christians recognize that it is the doubt that makes faith strong (still not convinced about the lack of modern day miracles though, but I choose to avoid opening that can o’ worms … or is that Pandora’s Box … again).

It’s bernard, just under new management

The thread mentioned by Alphagene can be found at: http://www.straightdope.com/ubb/Forum7/HTML/000149.html

We can know this: No matter what a stripper tells you, there is absolutely, positively, no sex in the Champagne Room.

(With thanks to Chris Rock.)

Thanks to Alphagene for the clarification, and apologies to all you varieties of atheists out there I lumped together.

I never realized that there were different denominations of atheists! :wink:

Anyone that states that there is a God is making an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. But I’ll settle for anything a shade stronger than hearsay.
So far, I ain’t seen nuttin’.

You are unique - Just like everone else.

Can someone explain the difference between “weak atheism” and “agnosticism”?


The emphatic atheists always amuse me: they tend to have such specific ideas about the God in which they do not believe! “There is no God because if there were God there would have to be physical manifestations of him and there aren’t”. “There is no God because since the earth is round there is no heaven above us because there is no ‘above us’ to speak of”. “God doesn’t exist because the world was created in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago instead”. Admittedly, most of these vivid images of who or what God is were first rendered by believers trying to convince them, but still…

I suggest that the question “Is God real?” is a meaningless question until/unless you define “God” for the purpose of the discussion. A more meaningful question might be “Do you find the concept of God to be useful to you in explaining/understanding reality, and why?”

It might be particularly useful to establish the following:

• When we speak of God, do we consider God to be a distinct entity separate from other entities, things, forces, etc., that are real? In other words, is God, whose existence we’re discussing, a “concrete noun”? or is God a characteristic of the universe (or of an aspect of the universe) that, once understood, causes the universe to make sense to us, an abstraction?

• If God is noun: do we consider God to be a sentient entity in the sense of having thoughts and consciousness of experience which flow with the passage of time? In other words, does God mull over something on Tuesday or get mad about evil behaviors in the 20th century, or create/destroy something for specific Godly reasons next week? or is God more like a force or a way that things work?

• If God is abstraction: is God best understood as That Which Is Powerful, i.e., as being (or being of) the underlying nature of power? Or more as That Which Is Good, i.e., being (of) the underlying nature of How Things Really Ought to Be? Or more as That Which Loves, i.e., the underlying nature of whatever is in this world that takes care of us and brings us happiness?

• If you yourself use the term “God” (other than to refer to silly belief systems of others, I mean), what would someone else have to believe against in order to be a true atheist opposed to God as you conceptualize God? When someone says “I don’t believe in God”, is this any more meaningful than for them to say “I don’t believe in Ishmakabibble”? Which of the atheists’ “Gods” in which they don’t believe has so little correspondence with the God in which you do believe that their “atheism” doesn’t really conflict with your beliefs at all?

Designated Optional Signature at Bottom of Post

I think you’re confused in one respect, AHunter: “Emphatic atheists” (?) are simply responding to the specific ideas about God which are constantly expounded upon by the people who witness to/proselytize to/discuss with them the concept of their God. Atheists didn’t set these ideas up merely to knock them down; these are ideas which come from the theists.

Keeves said:

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that a “weak atheist” would really not believe in the existance of a god while perhaps recognizing a possiblity of being wrong. An agnostic doesn’t believe that either possiblity is more likely than the other.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
– Henry David Thoreau

My Homepage: http://www.shsu.edu/~stdmed17/Home.html
My RHPS page: http://www.shsu.edu/~stdmed17/RockyHome.html

If you want to get picky, “strict agnostics” believes that we cannot (ever) know for sure whether God exists. “Empirical agnostics” believe the evidence is inconclusive. Neither one, I believe, say that the probabilities for/against God are the same.

“Eppur, si muove!” - Galileo Galilei

Well, I do. What does that make me?

Wait, let me clarify that. In that I don’t believe that we can ever know for sure whether God exists, it seems impossible and contridictory to say that one possiblity is more likely than the other.

Exactly the same odds? Wow, can I see your equations? :wink:

You’re an agnostic, that’s for sure; if you want to make up a special name go ahead. “equal-odds agnostic”? “balanced-scale agnostic” “pariterquam agnostic”? (everything in Latin sounds profound (“quiquid latine dictum sit altum viditur”)).

If you just can’t say which possibility is more likely (how can you say which is more likely after all, without enough evidence to make you lean one way or the other), you could just go with “empirical agnostic”.

“Eppur, si muove!” - Galileo Galilei

It’s interesting that the one word which lies at the crux of the matter here has been used very little: faith.

Allow me to clarify: I am an atheist; I do not believe in the existence of a supreme being in any way, shape or form. If that makes me a “strong” atheist, so be it. But the overriding factor is belief in the unknowable; i.e. faith.

I simply cannot ascribe to a belief system in which the unknowable is accepted on faith; my intellect rejects the concept. This is not to say I cannot see the benefit of such faith; I am often astounded at the travails people of faith can endure if their beliefs allow them to imagine there must be a purpose to it all. It’s quite powerful.

But I simply don’t have it in me. And I reject agnosticism simply because it seems equivocal - you either have faith or you don’t. An intellectual acknowledgement of the possibility of a supreme being begs the question. Since belief requires a leap of faith at the outset, if one withholds one’s opinion in anticipation of proof, one has just proven the absence of that faith. Confronted by the Supreme Being in the afterlife, would “I never said I didn’t believe” be a valid defense? Most organized religion would say no.

Of course, that’s just my opinion . . . But I know I’m right.

I think you’re correct about that. The way I view it is: there are an infinite number of possible unprovable, unfalsifyable things one could potentially believe in. I.e, maybe there are giant, invisible bunnies floating around in the sky, and they keep out of the way of airplanes and stuff, and we have no way to detect them, but once in a while they do stuff for us but always in a way that could be seen as random chance. Can’t disprove it! It might be true.

But should we take it on faith that they are there, sans evidence? Probably not. Even if people believe they’ve communicated with the bunnies? Still probably not; people believe all manner of demonstrably false things, so belief does not imply truth. Chosing 1 of the infinite number of such unfalsifyable ideas and believing it on faith alone, IMHO, demonstrates a lack of critical thinking skills. Even if it involves cute invisible fuzzy bunnies.

Well said. That in which faith is placed does not have to be true in order for the believer to derive benefits from it. Which is ok, I guess… but personally, I’d rather try to have my view of the world match the actual world as closely as possible, even if it’s less comforting and leads me to things like “When you die, that’s all she wrote. No afterlife, no reincarnation, sorry.” My sense of intellectual honestly allows me no other course. But I respect the right of people to believe whatever they want, if it makes them feel good, even if I chose differently myself.

peas on earth

Member posted 09-13-1999 04:00 PM

A weak atheist is someone who does not consider the “evidence” for God to be at all conclusive, and who is either unaware of or unbothered by the fact that some people have somehow reached the conclusion that not believing in God is the same as claiming that It does not exist. An agnostic is someone who is aware of this phenomenon, and is so tired of people jumping to erroneous conclusions that he or she has adopted the designation “agnostic” to avoid such ignorance.