Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Agnostic Manifesto

First we had the New Atheism. Now Ron Rosenbaum at Slate is calling for a New Agnosticism. There are a couple or three things to say about his interesting essay.

First, Rosenbaum is at pains to define agnosticism in a way that, I think, distorts the word.

Second, his piece is largely given to criticizing the New Atheists, people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (who, parenthetically, is reported to be suffering from esophageal cancer), an enterprise of which I heartily approve, but when he mentions theism, he mostly fires at a straw man.

Let me explain my objection to Rosenbaum's definition of agnosticism. He starts his manifesto with this:

Let's get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the "New Atheism"-the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens-I believe it's important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

I don't think this is correct. An atheist is one who lacks a belief in a God or gods. Since agnostics lack a belief in God or gods they are atheists, ab defino. To be sure, there are two kinds of atheists - what we might call strong and weak.

The strong atheist, like Dawkins, et al, claim, often dogmatically, that there is no God. The weak atheist allows that God may exist but that even if he does there's not enough evidence to justify belief that he does. This is precisely the agnostic's position and there's really not much practical difference between it and the stronger form of atheism.

Although his critique of the strong atheists is quite good (despite placing a little too much weight on the atheist's inability, or failure, to come to grips with the question why there is something rather than nothing, a criticism which a lot of atheists will probably dismiss with a shrug of indifference) his problem with Christian theism seems to stem from a profound misunderstanding of Christianity.

For instance he says:

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers, I found myself feeling more than anything unconvinced by certainties on either side. And feeling the need for solidarity and identity with other doubters. Thus my call for a revivified agnosticism. Our T-shirt will read: I just don't know.

I don't know which theists he was talking to or what they said, but when I hear intelligent people talk about their Christianity I rarely hear them speak in certainties. I hear them mention their "faith commitment," or a "leap of faith," or "wrestlings with doubts," or "seeing through a glass darkly," or the fact that God's existence is the "best explanation for a host of facts about the world," but I don't hear them talking, as the New Atheists often do, as if they just couldn't be wrong about God's existence. If Rosenbaum thinks Christianity is about certainty he hasn't read Kierkegaard.

He seems to think that Christian commitment is something one makes once they arrive at some proof of the truth of the Gospel, but I don't think that's the case at all. Christians place their trust in God because they're convinced he's there, they have good reasons for believing he's there, and they hope they're right. But what they don't have is certainty. No one is vouchsafed that luxury this side of the Jordan. That's why Scripture says that believers "live by faith."

I did enjoy Rosenbaum's essay, however, and I recommend it for the many good things he says about the New Atheists. Here's one example:

You know about the pons asinorum, right? The so-called "bridge of asses" described by medieval scholars? Initially it referred to Euclid's Fifth Theorem, the one in which geometry really gets difficult and the sheep are separated from the asses among students, and the asses can't get across the bridge at all. Since then the phrase has been applied to any difficult theorem that the asses can't comprehend. And when it comes to the question of why is there something rather than nothing, the "New Atheists" still can't get their asses over the bridge, although many of them are too ignorant to realize that. This sort of ignorance, a condition called "anosognosia," which my friend Errol Morris is exploring in depth on his New York Times blog, means you don't know what you don't know. Or you don't know how stupid you are.

Pons asinorum. I like that.


Free Will and Murder

Victor Reppert, author of C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea and keeper of a blog called The paper is relatively short and does a good job of covering the main issues.

It opens with the horrifying account of a murder that took place in England in 1993:

On February 12th 1993, British toddler Jamie Bulger was enticed away from his mother at a local shopping center and led away by his abductors on a short journey that would end in his tragic and horrific death on the railroad tracks three hours later. Evidence at the trial of the two perpetrators indicated that there were points along the way that they could have changed their course of action. Instead, they brutalized, sexually molested, and battered the child to death with bricks and an iron bar before laying his body across the tracks in hopes of hiding evidence of their involvement in his death. The two murderers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were ten years old (Scott).

From a determinist point of view, Jon Venables's and Robert Thompson's fate was set even before their birth. Born to ill-educated, working class parents, the details of the boys' lives constitute a veritable catalogue of social ills. Venables's parents were unstable and depressed and the father eventually abandoned the family. The boy's older and younger siblings were both developmentally challenged and he suffered the brunt of his suicidal mother's physical and verbal abuse. When arrested for the murder of Jamie Bulger, Venables was described as "nearly illiterate" (Slaughter). Thompson's environment was even worse. The second to the youngest of seven violent and aggressive boys, he was, early on, exposed to the criminal habits of his brothers, one of whom was an arsonist and another who was a master thief. Both parents were alcoholics and the father beat the mother regularly. Given the effects on the boys of the atrocious environments and their family histories of alcoholism and abuse, could Venables and Thompson be said to be morally responsible for the actions which led to the tragic death of Jamie Bulger?

The difficulties in trying to navigate between free will and determinism seem intractable. The determinist challenges the libertarian (one who believes in free will) to explicate the nature of a genuinely free choice. Is a free choice one that is completely uncaused? That can't be because our choices, especially our moral choices, arise out of, and are in some sense caused by, our values and beliefs. If our choices are uncaused then they would seem to be spontaneous, unrelated to anything, and, if so, how can we be responsible for them? So, the challenge for the libertarian is to explain how a choice can be influenced by our character, and how our character can be influenced by our environment and genetics, without being determined by these influences.

On the other hand, determinism, if true, has several very unpleasant implications. If it's true then reward and punishment are never deserved since if our choices and behavior are determined by environment and genetics and not freely chosen, an individual is not responsible for anything he does. He's just a passive piece of flotsam swept along by forces outside of his control. Moreover, if determinism is true there can be no moral obligation for one cannot be obligated to do what one cannot do. Finally, determinism is dehumanizing because it tells us that that which makes us unique as humans, the ability to choose our behavior, is just an illusion. On determinism we are essentially robots which means that the idea that humans have dignity and worth is also an illusion.

There's one more problem with determinism. The determinist holds that we always act upon our strongest motives, but the only way we can assess which motives are strongest is to see what it is that we choose. For example, if I choose to have cereal for breakfast the determinist would tell me that my strongest motive was to eat cereal, but if I chose instead to have pancakes he would say that my strongest motive must have been to eat pancakes. In other words, we can only discern our strongest motive by looking at the choice we made. If this is true, however, it means that determinism reduces to a tautology. Since our strongest motive equals whichever motive we act upon the above italicized claim says nothing more than that we always act upon the motive that we act upon. This is true but not very edifying.

So what's the upshot? Philosophical reasoning seems unable to settle the question. There's no compelling reason, if one is a libertarian, to give up one's belief that one is free. One must decide on other than philosophical grounds where one will stand on the matter. If, for example, one believes that we are all accountable for our actions, that people are not just robots, that there are genuine moral obligations, and that at many moments in our lives there really is more than one possible future, then there's no compelling reason the determinist can give to persuade us otherwise. Nor, for that matter, is there reason, if one is a determinist, if one believes that at every moment in our life there's only one possible future, to give up that belief as long as one is willing to accept the existential consequences.

Anyway, read the article at the link. It's quite good.