© Chris Port, 25th May 2011
Atheism is an empirical viewpoint. Agnosticism is a rational viewpoint. Theism is a metaphysical viewpoint. The latter may or may not be absurd depending on what specific assertions are being made or refuted.
Debate between these three viewpoints is desirable, if only to define their respective claims on ‘truth’. Dispute is also desirable to identify logical fallacies or inconsistencies and clarify misconceptions.
Unfortunately, many disputes merely add to the confusion because they are often not playing the same ‘language games’ as each other.
For example, suppose a theist asserted a belief that ‘God’ is a generic label rather than a physical entity, encompassing various metaphysical phenomena such as ethics, aesthetics and meanings. If an atheist challenged this assertion on the grounds that such phenomena have natural explanations, and need no supernatural referent, what (if anything) would they be arguing about? Is the argument about the supernatural, or about meanings?
Alternatively, suppose an atheist asserted a belief that ‘the soul’ is synonymous with the mind, that the mind is synonymous with the brain, and that the soul is therefore destroyed when the brain stops working. If a theist challenged this assertion on the grounds that, according to the laws of conservation of matter and energy, the material of the soul is not destroyed but transformed, what (if anything) would they be arguing about? Is the argument about identity, or about thermo-dynamics?
Some find esoteric beauty in mathematics. An ‘elegant’ proof, to the uninitiated, looks like meaningless arcane squiggles. Alternatively, for some mathematicians, it is the equivalent of poetry in numbers. Beauty has a mathematical aspect - patterns, proportions, symmetries. It also has a metaphysical aspect - that which is expressed may allude to something profoundly inexpressible. It is this feeling of inexpressibility that I would call ‘supernatural’ rather than some undefined ‘entity’. To ask whether this feeling is ‘true’ would be as absurd as asking whether a mathematical equation is ‘beautiful’. It is if you feel it that way.
Empiricism delights in reductionist definitions. Metaphysics delights in expansionist feelings. Whether you delight in definitions or feelings, reductionism or expansionism, is a purely subjective experience. It is a personal response rather than an empirical ‘fact’ and has nothing to do with being ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. It is either well argued or poorly argued.
When an empiricist tries to refute a metaphysical assertion by restricting a debate’s terms of reference to empirical data, this is as absurd as an artist telling a scientist that E = mc2 is not art because it is not paint.
For me, the sensible ‘default’ position in any debate between empiricism and metaphysics is therefore agnosticism, at least until the direction of the debate becomes clear.
For example, evolutionists have clearly won the debate over creationists. Empirical data has rightly won out over doctrinal texts. While I might quibble with Richard Dawkins’ emphatic assertion that evolution is a ‘fact’ (yes it is, but in a world of many ‘facts’ I would lay the emphasis on selectivity) agnosticism here is no longer a sensible default position. The craven politician’s evasion of a straight answer to a straight question, “Do you believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old?” completely destroys their credibility and fitness to hold public office.
Richard Dawkins versus Young Earth Creationist Politician
(In repeated polls over the last 30 years, 40 to 45% of Americans have consistently stated that they believe the age of the earth is less than 10,000 years old…)
“It’s even worse than that because they actually believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and because the true age of the earth is 4.6 billion years old, that’s a non-trivial error... I’ve previously compared it to the width of North America is 8 yards…” (Richard Dawkins)
The direction of a debate often depends on the rhetorical skills of the interlocutors. A more wily politician could have played to their electorate by believing in the accuracy of the data then shifting the focus of the debate into asking what narrative should be told here? Perhaps the ultimate use of philosophy is simply to win control of the narrative and win power?
“Traditionally, the way people thought about power was primarily in terms of military power. For example, the great Oxford historian who taught here at this university, A.J.P. Taylor, defined a great power as a country able to prevail in war. But we need a new narrative if we're to understand power in the 21st century. It's not just prevailing at war, though war still persists. It's not whose army wins; it's also whose story wins. And we have to think much more in terms of narratives and whose narrative is going to be effective.” (Joseph S. Nye - speech on ‘Global Power Shifts’ at http://www.sweetspeeches.com/s/699-joseph-nye-global-power-shifts)