On Agnostic Truth
A theist, an agnostic and an atheist are having tea.
Agnostic: Frankly, I don't understand the convictions you two have.
Atheist: What do you mean?
Agnostic: Both of you are convinced of either the existence or non-existence of God, while there is no proof for one or the other. I know that is why it is called "belief", but it seems to me that both of you are conscious, critical people, so I can't understand how you can just accept something for which there isn't a shred of evidence.
Atheist: I wouldn't call my convictions a "belief"...
Theist: ...And I wouldn't say my beliefs are not founded on evidence.
Agnostic: Hold a minute. You are saying you have evidence for the existence of God?
Theist: Not objective evidence, mind you. Nothing that would convince you. But subjectively, I strongly experience the existence of God.
Atheist: Can you explain that?
Theist: I physically feel the existence of God all around me. I know he is there. I couldn't point him out to you, but there is a definite connection between me and God.
Agnostic: What do you mean exactly? Can you interact with God? Do you talk to him?
Agnostic: And does he talk back?
Theist: Not as such. But that doesn't mean I don't experience an effect.
Agnostic: All right. But you agree it is a subjective God? Not a God that has any meaning to me or the atheist?
Theist: I wouldn't say he hasn't any meaning to you or the atheist, but I agree that if you do not personally experience God, it would be very difficult to convince you he exists.
Agnostic: I can accept that. I must say, I envy you the strength of your beliefs, theist.
Atheist: I don't. Why would I envy someone his trust in something which I am convinced does not exist?
Agnostic: You mean, which you believe does not exist.
Atheist: No, as I said before, I would not call my convictions a belief.
Agnostic: But you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Hence, if you accept one or the other, you are holding a belief.
Atheist: Is the moon made of green cheese?
Agnostic: What do you mean, "Is the moon made of green cheese?"
Atheist: Well, is it?
Agnostic: No, the moon is made of rock, not of green cheese.
Atheist: You mean that is what you believe. The moon could very well be made of green cheese, but you believe it is made of rock.
Agnostic: No, astronauts have been to the moon and have shown it is made of rock.
Atheist: You mean that is what you have seen on the television. You have never been to the moon yourself, so you may have been the subject of an elaborate hoax.
Agnostic: That is rather unlikely.
Atheist: I agree it is. But there is a teensy weensy possibility that it is the truth, so the moon might be made of green cheese.
Agnostic: No, it might not. Cheese is produced by processing milk. It is physically impossible for people to produce a cheese the size of the moon, let alone transport it up there.
Atheist: How about a space cow millions of miles in circumference, milked by huge dairy space aliens with a rather odd sense of humour?
Agnostic: You are being silly.
Atheist: Yes, I am. But the point is, unless you test for yourself, you cannot exclude the possibility that the moon is made of green cheese, can you?
Agnostic: I guess not.
Atheist: So, you agree that you are only believing the moon is not made of green cheese?
Agnostic: I guess I do.
Theist: If I may butt in, I don't agree to that. For me it is an objective fact that the moon is not made of green cheese.
Atheist: And I agree with the theist on that.
Atheist: You see, while there is no solid proof, there are numerous indications that the moon is not made of green cheese, in the form of physical observations and theoretical reasoning, as you yourself so adequately pointed out. Furthermore, the assumption that it is actually made of green cheese does not explain anything that couldn't be explained in a simpler, better way with different assumptions. This makes it incredibly unlikely that we will ever be forced to conclude that the moon is made of green cheese. Therefore, the moon not being made of green cheese must be considered an objective fact.
Agnostic: And I assume you would venture equivalent reasoning about the non-existence of God.
Agnostic: But you said that it might conceivably happen that you would be forced to conclude that the moon is made of green cheese, albeit a terribly unlikely happenstance. Doesn't that mean that the moon not being made of green cheese is not actually an objective fact, but just a belief in something that is very likely true?
Atheist: In the strictest sense you are correct, but in the same strictest sense objective facts can never exist. For every fact we could come up with some sort of hypothesis, however far-fetched, that would disprove it, such as the hypothesis that a giant space cow could have produced a moon made of green cheese. However, what we consider facts are things that are so likely to be true that it would be just perverse to consider them falsehoods. Hence, the moon not being made of green cheese is a fact. And in the same vein, the non-existence of God is a fact.
Agnostic: The theist agrees with you on the moon. But obviously not on God.
Theist: That is because I have the same experiences as the atheist on the moon, but different experiences on God.
Agnostic: How come?
Theist: The atheist obviously does not feel the existence of God. Hence, his subjective experience of God is absent and for him there is no indication that God would exist. If I would be in that position I would probably also not believe. I, however, do subjectively experience God.
Agnostic: But you don't have any undisputable facts with which you can convince us.
Theist: No. That's why it is called a belief.
Agnostic: But still, if I turn that around, shouldn't I conclude that atheism is also a belief?
Atheist: Certainly not. We agreed that from objective observations there is no indication that God exists, and there are many indications that he does not exist. Hence, with respect to the existence of God, atheism is not a belief, but the only objective theorem that can be formed. The belief that there is a God is a theorem that can only be held in spite of all the objective observations.
Theist: Certainly. And while knowing the objective observations, for me my subjective experiences take precedence. Hence my belief. But let me ask the agnostic a question now. Do you subjectively experience God?
Agnostic: I... I don't know.
Theist: If you don't know, you obviously don't.
Agnostic: Well, sometimes I have a feeling... But I don't know if I can trust that feeling...
Atheist: Sometimes you subjectively experience God and sometimes you don't? Is that it?
Agnostic: I'd rather say I subjectively experience God but it is not as clear as in the theist's case.
Atheist: What do you mean with "It is not as clear"?
Agnostic: It means it could be my mind playing tricks on me. I have studied psychology a bit and I know there seems to be an inherent need for people to believe in things that aren't actually true.
Atheist: So you have a choice between ascribing these vague experiences to the existence of an actual God, despite all the objective indications that God does not exist, and the fairly straightforward process of your mind sometimes being in a susceptible state. Now what do you think is more likely?
Theist: I would be interested to know the answer to that question. Come on, agnostic. Are you a closet atheist who simply doesn't dare to own up to his convictions, or are you a closet theist who distrusts his personal experiences?
Agnostic: My! I thought I was on the middle ground here, but you two are ganging up on me now!
Atheist: That is because you are not on the middle ground. Both the theist and I have evaluated our own observations and have come to an inescapable conclusion. The theist's conclusion may be subjective while mine is objective, but both of us have acknowledged our own conclusions and dare to stand by them. You, on the other hand, have not made a choice.
Theist: Yes, why is that? Don't you trust your own observations? Haven't you given it enough thought? Do you refuse or are you too lazy to think about it? Do you actually believe in God but do you think believing is silly? Or do you not believe in God but are you afraid that will make you an outcast?
Agnostic: I... I don't know. It's not as simple as you two make it out to be. To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "There are more things under heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Atheist: True enough. But I don't venture assumptions on what those things are, while you two assume that there is a God somewhere. I can respect the theist's position in that, since he claims he subjectively experiences that God. You, on the other hand, have no redeeming experiences.
Theist: Yes, why do you suppose there might be a God? Why not a giant space cow?
Agnostic: Hold on! I never said I was choosing between God and nothing. I said I don't know. There might be nothing, there might be God, or there might be something else. I am not convinced of any of these. I try to keep an open mind.
Atheist: I try to keep an open mind. It's just that, according to my considerable life experience, I hold it terribly unlikely that it will ever happen that someone will present me with any fact that might make the existence of God likely enough for me to consider it a truth. Therefore, calling myself something else than an atheist would be presumptious.
Agnostic: Aren't you just stuck in your position?
Atheist: It seems to me that you are the one who is stuck. You claim you vaguely experience God but you are no believer. You claim you see no objective reason to believe in God yet you refuse to reject the belief in God. It seems to me that you stubbornly refuse to take any decisions at all, whatever observations you will make.
Agnostic: But you could be wrong in your conviction that God does not exist.
Atheist: Of course I could be wrong. I am not pretending I am infallible. Yet my stand is based on all observable objective facts, and there are no facts that ratify the existence of God, and only facts that refute the existence of God. So objectively the only conclusion that can be reached is that God does not exist. Subjectively you can believe God does exist, if that strokes with your subjective experiences, like the theist here does. But what do your subjective experiences tell you?
Agnostic: I... I am not certain.
Theist: Then how come you assign a considerable likelihood to the existence of God? Enough so that you feel you cannot reject the hypothesis of his existence?
Agnostic: Perhaps because many people are convinced God exists. I believe you are speaking the truth when you say you are personally experiencing God. If God is real to you, in a sense he gains reality for me.
Theist: It seems to me you are on shaky grounds there. The God I believe in is very different from the God people believe in in other parts of the world. Actually, I think the God I believe in is also different from the God most people believe in in these parts.
Agnostic: Sure, but the fact that so many people believe in some kind of God, even if all these Gods are different, means that many people experience God in some way, which makes the reality of some God, in whatever form, a likely possibility to me.
Atheist: So am I correct in assuming you are an agnostic because, while you personally don't experience God and therefore can't assign reality to him, there are people who claim God exists and you are afraid you might be wrong while these other people are right?
Theist: I suspect our friend the agnostic doesn't know that either.
Atheist: I assume it is difficult to defend a position if you are unable to take one.
Agnostic: All right, that's enough. I am not continuing this discussion right now. First I want to give it a bit more thought. And I have to leave now. See you around.
Theist: Maybe an adequate definition of an agnostic actually is "a theist or an atheist who hasn't given the matter of the existence or non-existence of God enough thought."
Atheist: So perhaps, the next time we meet, our agnostic is going to side with one of us, eh?
Theist: Given the nature of his subjective experiences, I guess it's going to be you.
Atheist: I am not so sure about that. You see, excluding the possibility of the existence of God gives those subjective feelings he seems to experience no easy outlet. Perhaps he would feel more comfortable as a theist.
Theist: Comfort alone, without conviction, won't make him a theist. Perhaps he is a die-hard agnostic after all.
July 19, 2003
© 2003 by Pieter Spronck
There are many different forms of theism, atheism and agnosticism. The ones I picked out are the ones I most often encounter in real life (although the theist is slightly more rational in his approach of his religion than most theists I know.) Among philosophers it is generally accepted that agnosticism is not "a middle ground between atheism and theism". Agnosticism is more of a refinement of both theism and atheism. The atheist in the dialogue is, in fact, an agnostic atheist, while the theist is a gnostic theist. The agnostic in the dialogue seems to be an agnostic theist, namely someone who believes in God but is also unsure about the existence of God. In my opinion this is a very strange position to take, for I can see no grounds for his belief. I can only explain it as the result of a conflict between ratio and emotions. However, many conscious, rational people in the past have acknowledged being agnostic theists, so it is probably not so strange a position after all. For more information on these fascinating issues you can go here.