I got an email the other day from someone who came across the Xanga blogring for Agnosticism
, which I started way back in 2001. There are 655 members now...go figure.
Anyway, the author of the email asked me to defend my description of agnosticism and how it made more sense than atheism.
I talked about it a lot on this blog, but I think this entry
from two years ago is one of the better ones, so enjoy:
Periodically I find myself having to defend my designation as "agnostic" to atheists who consider me an atheist.
Their argument goes that even if you're not sure whether or not there's a god, you have to live your life one way or the other. So even if you're an ideological agnostic, you're still a practical atheist.
Well, I think this view is wrong. There are many conceptions of a god or gods. I reject most of them. I don't believe in Jesus or a Christian god. I don't believe in Allah, or a divine Buddha, or the Greek or Native American gods. But it seems like enormous hubris to categorically rule in favor of a state of the universe that you can't possibly know. And there are other conceptions of god that I can't rule out, such as Voltaire's impersonal clockmaker, a vast alien intelligence that started the universe but doesn't interact with it on a regular basis. Can I rule such a god out? No. To do so, I would have to have nearly god-like knowledge of the universe myself.
So do I believe in any of the organized religious conceptions of god? No. But can I rule out the existence of all possible conceptions of god? No. And if there were an impersonal, first-cause god, would it significantly alter my behavior anyway? Probably not. If there were a god that existed that didn't pay the slightest attention to my existence, then I would still go on trying to figure out the best way to live based on experience and reason.
My favorite parallel example of agnosticism deals with the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Do you believe that life exists somewhere other than earth?
Are you an alien believer, agnostic, or atheist? Well, you can't be an alien agnostic, right? Because you have to live your life as if aliens either exist or don't exist.
You see the silliness of the argument...I hope. Because we only have a single data point for the origination of life, and we still don't understand extremely well the underlying mechanisms for its origin, we can't claim with any good degree of certainty what the odds are that life exists elsewhere. And though conspiracy theories abound, there remains to date no good evidence of the existence of alien life. So the most intellectually honest answer to the question of whether or not life exists somewhere else in the universe is: I don't know.
People generally don't like saying those words, but there are many, many things we don't know, and the honest search for answers about the world begin with admitting ignorance and the limitations of our knowledge. The fact is, we don't really understand how life originated. There are some good working theories, but none have been fully validated. Fossilized amino acids don't exist. We understand quite a bit better how life evolved once it originated, but for all intents and purposes we're still very much in the dark on the actual origins. Which is all right. It's a fascinating scientific question, and one that I wish had gotten as much popular attention as the Big Bang. But it's still a very open question.
And if you don't know how something originated, you can't reasonably predict the liklihood of it occurring again, especially if in your scope of knowledge, it has only happened once.
So perspectives on extraterrestrial life are similar philosophically to those on the existence of god.
Well? Are you an alien believer, agnostic, or atheist?