Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Agnosticism and Coherent Belief

The problem of divine hiddenness attempts to answer the question of God’s existence in the absence of direct evidence. One of the first philosophers to formulate the problem was Saint Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century but it was J.L. Schellenberg who revitalized the debate in 1993 with the following argument:

1. If there is a God, He is perfectly loving.
2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
3. Reasonable non-belief occurs.
4. No perfectly loving God exists.
5. Therefore, God does not exist.[1]

In Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (2002), editors Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser present arguments from various philosophers and theologians that respond to the problem of divine hiddenness and Schellenberg’s claim. Paul Draper, one of the authors from the collection, responds from an Agnostic viewpoint with the following argument:

1. There is no direct evidence of God.
2. There is evidence that supports theism over naturalism.
3. There is evidence that supports naturalism over theism.
4. Comparative strength of the evidence cannot be determined.
5. Suspension of belief is justified when it is not clear which side is supported by stronger evidence.
6. Therefore, suspension of belief in God’s existence is justified.[2]

Schellenberg’s argument is problematic for Draper because, according to Schellenberg, reasonable non-belief supports the denial of God’s existence, not justified suspension of belief.

Draper’s argument distinguishes itself from both atheism and theism as a distinct point, not a point on a dichotomous spectrum. Theism and atheism support a metaphysical position in that God’s existence or naturalism respectively explains the ultimate nature of being and the world. Draper’s formulation of the agnostic position does not support a metaphysical but an epistemically uncertain position. This epistemic position holds in balance both evidential arguments in support of theism and those in support of naturalism. This is not to say that evidence supporting the existence of God and the evidence supporting naturalism both have a value of .5 but only that the relative weights of the evidence cannot be determined. Since the comparative strength of the evidence is unclear, agnostics make no metaphysical claim. From the agnostic viewpoint, either God or naturalism may be explanatory to the nature of the universe but no conclusion from individual evidence, at least at this time, is possible. This is clearly different from the Schellenberg’s reasonable nonbeliever because the nonbeliever still makes some metaphysical claim concerning God’s existence.[3]

Schellenberg represents the agnostic position in two different ways, neither of which represents agnosticism in quite the same way as Draper intends. First, Schellenberg represents one type of agnostic as weighing the evidence in support of the existence of God as equivalent to a probability of .5 against the evidence supporting the nonexistence of God.[4] This would lend support to his argument; however, as mentioned above, this is clearly not representative of Draper’s formulation in that a measure of probability is impossible because the relative weights are indeterminable. Secondly, Schellenberg represents another type of agnostic who argues against the atheist conclusion and claims that there is no way of telling what the evidence shows.[5] This may seem to be the same position that Draper takes but there is a distinct difference between the two. The agnostic, as Schellenberg describes, would not be able to defeat the atheist because to do so requires a defeater that would entail at least some theistic belief. According to Schellenberg, this is out of line with the agnostic position because holding to an atheistic defeater that theism provides is “confused” so atheism wins out either by the lack of a defeater or incoherence. Schellenberg would be correct if Draper took a metaphysical position but again, he holds to an epistemic position that is, by definition, without theistic or atheistic defeaters. Defeaters entail some conclusion of the evidence that Draper finds impossible to discern. For example, 20th century cosmology may support theism but that does not entail a conclusion that cosmology is evidence of theism.[6] Only if Draper made such a conclusion could he use that as a defeater against atheism. This has already been shown to be incoherent. Therefore, an agnostic must defend the agnostic position of epistemic uncertainty, not a particular conclusion of either theism or atheism against the opposing side. Atheism and theism both support a conclusion as their positions. How can an argument concerning a truth claim of atheism over agnosticism ever be meaningful if the agnostic does not make a truth claim? As long as Draper and other agnostics remember this key point, they will withstand Schellenberg’s claim that agnosticism really is just support for atheism and maintain agnosticism as a unique, distinct position that is not along a spectrum between atheism and theism. In this sense, an argument of the type Schellenberg described between the atheist and the agnostic would never happen and is not valid support of his claim.

According to Draper, it is both coherent and necessary that an agnostic engage in certain religious practices such as prayer because as he stated, “… unlike an atheist, I believe there just might be a God listening.”[7] This may seem like a contradiction related to the argument detailed above; however, action is distinct from belief and the agnostic position would preclude certain religious and atheistic activities that required a certain kind of faith. Faith requires belief and for the agnostic, belief only goes as far as knowledge that one of two possibilities must be true. Faith for the agnostic then must be limited within the scope of this belief. As it concerns theism and atheism, let us say that prayer, attending church, or not doing either (atheism) are first order activities while accepting a religious post, serving a mission or volunteering to speak out against religion (atheism) are second order. The distinction between first and second order activities is the level of faith necessary to not create a contradiction with the activity. If one is seeking or allowing for the possibility of theism, any first order religious activity is justified while no second order activity could possibly be justified. The same may be said of atheistic activities but it is simpler to classify because first order atheist activities involve no action while second order atheist activities involve some form of activism that either promotes atheism or speaks out against theism. Both of the latter are clearly not in line with the agnostic position but inaction is coherent with the agnostic position because of the possibility that God does not exist. Agnostic practice is a problem for Schellenberg because a person of reasonable nonbelief could not perform religious activities without contradiction. It is here that the distinction is made between Draper and Schellenberg’s nonbeliever because of Draper’s lack of contradiction in regards to holding both possibilities within an epistemically uncertain position.

In his essay, “Seeking but not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic” Draper responds directly to Schellenberg in the following way:

1. “A theist might counter that ambiguous evidence … is actually evidence for theism.”[8]
2. “… ambiguous evidence has other implications besides reasonable nonbelief … it makes theistic practice possible.”[9]
3. “ … let’s assume that ambiguous evidence is much more likely on naturalism … so is strong evidence supporting naturalism … Does it follow that my agnostic stance is unstable? Again, the answer is ‘no’. The answer would be ‘yes’ if it could be shown that, prior … naturalism and theism are equally probable.”[10]

Draper’s response is problematic on (1) an (2) because he somewhat appeals to theism to counterbalance Schellenberg. He does eventually revert to and justify suspension of judgment based on ambiguous evidence along with inability to weigh opposing support (3); however, as mentioned above, it is important that the agnostic respond solely from the agnostic position. To answer the problem of agnostic instability from a theistic position to counter Schellenberg only strengthens the theist claim. He concludes by rightly defending the agnostic position in (3) showing that prior assumption cannot be made concerning the probability of naturalism or theism. Further defense of the agnostic position by Draper should include a discussion of assumptions made by both camps that lend support to their respective claims. Arguably, one of the strengths of the agnostic position is the lack of assumptions it holds in regards to evidence used to support its position. It could even be said that agnosticism makes no assumptions because it makes no metaphysical truth claim.

[1] J.L. Schellenberg. “What the Hiddenness of God Reveals: A Collaborative Discussion.” In Divine Hiddenness: New Essays, edited by Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Moser, Paul K., 33-61. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[2] Paul Draper. “Seeking but not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic.” in Divine Hiddenness, 197-214.

[3] Schellenberg distinguishes between the inculpable non-believer who does not believe in the existence of God through no fault of her own and that of the culpable believer who may be stubbornly blind to divine evidence. See Divine Hiddenness, 43.

[4] J.L. Schellenberg. “What the Hiddenness of God Reveals: A Collaborative Discussion.” in Divine Hiddenness, 55.

[5] Ibid, 56.

[6] Paul Draper. “Seeking but not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic.” in Divine Hiddenness, 201.

[7] Ibid, 210.

[8] Ibid, 209.

[9] Ibid, 210.

[10] Ibid.

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