Friday, April 2, 2010

Agnosticism and the Easter Bunny

I had a chat with a co-worker the other day about his upcoming wedding and he had confessed to me that he would be glad enough to simply do a Justice of the Peace ceremony without any religious officiant for the wedding.  However, his wedding was to occur in DC and he was frustrated because they make it hard to use a non-religious officiant.

It occurred to me that he had never mentioned anything about religion as long as I had known him. I was curious.  We continued to talk and I heard him describe himself as agnostic, so I shared with him my ideas on agnosticism, which one could sum up as this:
  • I have no reason to believe a god exists.  I don't have any evidence of it, nor does it square logically with the way that I think the universe works nor what life is about.  And no, I don't take it on faith.
Well, that as it happens is the cognitive summation of a-theism, which is nothing more than non-theism or non-(pro-position-on-a-god's-existence).  Atheism is the position that is consistent with reason (conceptual integration based fundamentally on sense percepts).

Well, agnosticism goes just a tad further.  It also has this bit as well:
  • I can't prove that a god doesn't exist and thus I am unwilling to call myself an atheist.
Well, this complicates things a good bit. But if you stop to think about whether you can ever prove a non-something, and what method you use to prove or validate anything at all, you can figure out the answer.  And the comparison I presented was this:
  • Do you believe that the Easter Bunny, this rabbit which delivers easter eggs (candy and toys) on a certain Sunday each year, exists?  Do you have any evidence of it?  No?
  • Can you prove that the Easter Bunny doesn't exist?  No?
  • Would you say that you are agnostic about it?  You're not sure whether the Easter Bunny exists or not?  (as it turns out, most people are not agnostic about the E.B.)
And the bottom line of belief comes down to this.  You use your reason to get there.  Facts get abstracted to concepts get abstracted to higher concepts.  Chair, Sofa, Furniture, Household Items, The Man-made.  You can also work the process starting from assertions and reverse-engineer it by stacking it against your store of conceptual data and looking for contradictions.  Basically, it is the same process.  If the data don't agree fully, you don't think the assertion is valid. 

If you think something probably is invalid based on your reason, that is called NOT believing it.  It is not agnosticism whether you are talking about a god, or jack-a-lopes, or man-bear-pig.  Even if you can conceive of its existence (and yes, the human mind is capable of pondering the preposterous - otherwise the entire field of comedy would be nonexistent and Eddie Izzard would just be a not-funny tranny).   That you can conceive of something doesn't mean it exists or that you believe it.

Agnosticism, as it turns out, is a non-position of wanting to have your cake and eat it too.  You don't believe something but you are not willing to own your position on the matter.  What makes agnosticism a non position is that you can never prove a non-existence without being omniscient.  But if you're omniscient, why bother with reason?

There you have it.  By taking some time to ponder the Easter Bunny this weekend, you might find that you're just a bit more rational.

(See also, Peikoff's thoughts.)