Tag Archives: agnosticism

Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.


Afterword
I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


References

  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits

Heroic Agnosticism

There seems to be a basic misapprehension, shared by traditional religion and Romantic narrative alike, that the absolutists are the heroes. Heroes stick up for what they believe in, regardless of what fate throws at them. They continue with the quest – across the oceans, deserts, and arctic wastes – they slay the monsters, and in the end they get their reward. Or, even if the hero does not get all he desires, his beliefs are at least upheld, even if he has to die for them, for the martyr too is a hero. It’s stirring stuff, constantly reinforced for us by Hollywood, by heroic literature, even by religion.

Who could question such a narrative? Nobody should underestimate the difficulties. But one of Jung’s visions in the Red Book confronts us with their full pain.

I was with a youth in high mountains. It was before daybreak, the Eastern sky was already light. Then Siegfried’s horn resounded over the mountains with a jubilant sound. We knew that our mortal enemy was coming. We were armed and lurked beside a narrow rocky path to murder him. Then we saw him coming high across the mountains on a chariot made of the bones of the dead. He drove boldly and magnificently over the steep rocks and arrived at the narrow path where we waited in hiding. As he came round the turn ahead of us, we fired at the same time and he fell slain. thereupon I turned to flee, and a terrible rain swept down. But after this, I went through a torment unto death and I felt certain that I must kill myself, if I could not solve the riddle of the murder of the hero. (p.161)Siegfrieds_deathJung is slaying, not a literal hero, but the archetype of the hero within himself. The belief that the hero will always succeed against the conditions, and that his desires and beliefs are intrinsically right according to some assumed cosmic law, is one that we may implicitly indulge every time we get caught up in the hero story. Not only do we absolutise the hero himself, but we may also identify ourselves with him. But if we are to recognise the limitations of this reassuring fantasy, we have to be able to recognise that the hero may be wrong in his assumptions. To recognise this may feel extremely painful, and the death of the hero symbolises this pain. The myths provide us with this death story as well as with the achievements of the hero, giving us the resources of meaning to be able to recognise it, but we may still have to go through that shock of dis-identification.

Jung identifies the death of the hero with the archetypal role of Christ, whose crucifixion plays a similar role: showing us that our absolutised idea of a human God must die so as to lead us on to an engagement with God that is no longer based solely on human projection. Jung puts it this way:

I must say that the God could not come into being before the hero had been slain. The hero as we understand him has become an enemy of the God, since the hero is perfection. The Gods envy the perfection of man, because perfection has no need of the Gods. But since no-one is perfect, we need the Gods. The Gods love perfection because it is the total way of life. But the Gods are not with him who wishes to be perfect, because he is an imitation of perfection. (p.171)

‘The Gods’ here are symbolic of our own wider recognition – of the limitations of our current egoistic view of ourselves and of our greater potential as more integrated beings. We do not attain perfection merely by imitating, because the model we imitate may have worked in the conditions it was produced but is unlikely to work in the very different conditions of our own lives. Only integrated creativity will do, and that requires us to let go of our identification with all heroic models of imitation.

Strangely enough, though, there seems to be an even greater heroism involved in this process. What could be more heroic, itself, than killing the hero? But if we reduce this to another model of imitation, an absolute set of beliefs about how the world is and how we should act in it, then we will find this new heroism just as limiting in the end, and find ourselves in a cycle of endlessly killing new heroes. The killing of the hero needs to be accompanied by the further development of integration in experience so that we come to rely positively on that rather than on absolute beliefs about the hero. Our heroism needs to become agnostic, but such heroism can be seen, not as abandoning heroism, but as finding a deeper and more adequate form of it.

I have often been puzzled by the way that agnosticism is frequently portrayed in popular discourse, as the very opposite of heroic. As Richard Dawkins describes agnostics (quoting a preacher with approval): “Namby-pamby, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” (The God Delusion, p.69). The assumption here seems to be that agnostics dare not attempt the heroism of belief, whereas I want to suggest that on the contrary, agnostics are even more heroic than the heroes caught up in their righteous assumptions. The dogmatic hero carries on against adversity in the certain feeling that God or the universe is on his side. The agnostic hero, on the other hand, has to manage without such delusory certainties, managing only with hope and embodied confidence. Nothing can be taken as determined about her success in the goals she takes up, and even those goals themselves have to be taken as provisional ones. The greatest hero ventures into the lands of uncertainty, and rather than just slaying the monsters, has the courage to question her own monstrous projections.

It is upsetting to find people like Richard Dawkins failing to recognise the heroism of agnosticism, when that very heroism is so central to science. The scientist always has to proceed in conditions of uncertainty, unless she constructs deluded assumptions of naturalistic ‘truth’ where none are available to us. The use of scientific method is distinguished for its heroic agnosticism. But this heroic agnosticism can also be a distinguishing feature of the very ‘religion’ that Dawkins so despises. The mystics, too, proceed on the basis of a faith that grows from their experience of what they call God, and have to slay their own heroic certainties in order to plunge into the cloud of unknowing. Religious believers and scientists alike may have to slay their own heroes on order to go on to a deeper recognition of human potential.

Picture: The death of Siegfried (public domain)

Excavating agnosticism

You may think you know what agnosticism is, but I think there is far more to it than meets the eye once you start digging. I have just finished producing a series of videos in which I try to make a comprehensive case in digestibly-sized chunks. Agnosticism

First of all, agnosticism is a practice, not a failure of decision. It is not just about God, but God just happens to be a particularly well-known example of a pair of metaphysical opposites (theism and atheism) to which agnosticism offers a third alternative. It does not involve hanging onto impossibilities, but rather coming to terms with them. Far from being passive, it involves an effort not to be sucked into the absolutizing extremes that dominate discussion (the diagram here, though it may remind you of a football referee, represents the potentially isolated position of the agnostic between dominant groups).

If those points surprise you, you will need to start by looking at the introductory video on agnosticism.

But there’s much more to be said after this. What, after all, is wrong with the extremes in the first place? I want to argue that it’s not simply a dogmatic failure of justification that’s wrong with it (though that is bad enough), but much more seriously, the role of metaphysical (i.e. absolute) beliefs in repressing alternatives, and thus constantly limiting the new conditions we can address, as well as creating conflict. In ‘what’s wrong with metaphysics’, I argue that metaphysics should not be confused with basic or prior claims (a common move by philosophers), that absolute metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally, and that their only function is to maintain unconditional loyalty to groups or authorities. Metaphysics is a power ploy rooted in a past era when it may possibly have been necessary – but it now greatly hampers us. It’s geared for ancient armies, not modern democracies. That’s why we really need to be agnostic.

But after showing what’s wrong with absolute belief, it’s then very important to rescue the meaningfulness of absolute terms. Terms like God, truth, Satan, nature, beauty etc. should not be objects of absolute belief, but they can still be fully appreciated as archetypes with crucial meaning in embodied human experience. That means that we really can have our cake and eat it: we can participate in religious life without compromising our integrity or triggering the repression and conflict that often accompanies religious ‘belief’. Metaphysical belief is in no way necessary to what religion has to contribute to human experience. All we have to do is separate absolute belief from archetypal meaning.

The practice of agnosticism also demands clarity about what it is we’re avoiding, and the balanced treatment of positive and negative kinds of absolute claim as equally unhelpful. This is the subject of the final two videos. ‘Sceptical slippage’ deals with the tendency to slip from agnostic to negative positions. It offers some explanations as to why we tend to do this, and thus why agnosticism is so unfairly treated in much dominant thought. The final video, ‘Even-handedness’ offers some practical principles for maintaining a clear balance so as to be able to practise agnosticism without giving too much weight on one side or the other.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 14, Mark Vernon

In this episode, the writer and journalist Mark Vernon talks about agnosticism, its relation to theism and why he feels it’s useful to adopt such an approach. He puts the case for why virtue ethics should play more of a role in how we live our lives. We also discuss influences such as Plato, Socrates, Jung and Iain McGilchrist and how he understands the Middle Way with regards to agnosticism.


MWS Podcast 14: Mark Vernon as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_14_Mark_Vernon

Previous podcasts:

Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1: Robert M. Ellis on critical thinking.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 2, Norma Smith

Norma SmithIn the first of a series of member profiles, retired art teacher Norma Smith talks to Barry Daniel about her life, why she became a member of the society, the middle way, the importance of art in her life, agnosticism, and the power of metaphor. With regard to the latter, she was especially enthusiastic about the work of George Lakoff. Please see link to a youtube talk he gave on metaphors as embodied meaning below.

George Lakoff: Frameworks, Empathy and sustainability

There is also a slide show version of the podcast available on Youtube.