Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mid-Week Rant: Penn Jillette - Agnostic vs. Atheist


Anonymous said...

I think hat you are oversimplifying the argument.

Essentually you are asking

"Can you believe in something that cannot be proven" - forget God just focus on the underlying premise

There are three possible answers

1 - YES
2 - NO
3 - I cannot comment as the basic question seems preposterous.

clearly agnostics fall into bucket numner 3 whereas atheists fall into number 2.

Remember that all arguments regarding religion benefit greatly from removing God from the question. Once the basic religous question proposed had God removed fromit they are generally much more simple to answer. The reason for this is the insistence that God is in someway pertinent to the basic underlying philosophical premise which it is generally not the case.

Most moral dilemmas exist without faith/religion/belief/God etc.

Steve said...

I don’t mean to belittle you, but your comment makes no sense. How can the concept of God be removed from the question of whether or not a person believes in God?
It is a simple question that Penn Jillette poses: “Do you believe in a God?” It is either yes or no. It is not three possible answers. You must not have understood what Penn was getting at. One either believes or does not. That does not entail a third option. He clearly states that a separate question “Is God knowable or unknowable?” has different parameters. That would entail the three choices you outline. Again, however, that is not the question posed in the video.

Of course moral dilemmas exist without faith/belief/God, etc. That is a basic argument in secular, agnostic, atheist, antitheist, etc., circles. His point in the video is that people base their moral dilemmas on things that are unknowable and therefore very possibly incorrect. He uses the Abraham and Isaac example to point out the absurdity of basing one’s actions on that unknowable.

Anonymous said...


I don't feel belittled in the slightest

I feel that you are posing a question with an undeclared constraint when you introduce a non-empirical, non-factual conocept such as God to attempt to constrian logical debate.

Even within in science, the most empirical of all studies, it is only reasonable to say that one agrees or disagrees with a proposition (not an axiom or lemma) without understanding ones own current constraints.

When one poses a question such as "can one believe in X". If X is a truly clearly prescribed independent variable which does not include concepts such as faith etc. which it cannot if it is independent. Introducing God as X or even the prediciate "X does exist" then X is not a free varaible as it is not independent of the word believe. Kant etc demonstrated that belief cannot be logically demonstrated without faith.

without waxing lyrical further on this topic I do net believe that it is viable to discount the standpoint that a question posed where the question is not logically independent from the structure of the question then it is invalid to attempt to discount a third response i.e. one of the fact that the question is not sufficiently well formed in order to provide a simple binary true or false answer.


Anonymous said...

Let me put it another way.

without getting all caught up in modus ponens and modus tollens

1 God exists and
1 - it has been proven that he exists then empirically I have to accept this (religion)
2 - it has not been proven to me that he exists I can either accept this (belief) or not accept this (atheism), or decide that I am as yet undecided (agnostic).

2 - god does not exist and
1 - this is proven to be a fact, therefore I must be an atheist
2 - this is not proven to me so I refer to an agnostic viewpoint deciding that I am still not able to determine as to his existence without faith. Faith in atheism or religion.

I would guess that the only logical deduction from this argument is that belief and true or false regarding existence is always invalid. the only valid viewpoint is that of the agnost.


Steve said...

Thanks for responding. I see what you are getting at, however I still disagree. My problem has more to do with your definitions that set up your logic then your logic. Proof, in this respect, is an incorrect word to use in the argument and I say that objectively defending the theist perspective as well. There is no proof one way or another. Only evidence or faith. Therefore, your logical statements set up false premises.

Without getting in a very convoluted conversation about the various “kinds” of theism and atheism I’ll state it simply as such:

Agnostic theist: does not *know* that god(s) exist, but *believes* god(s) exist.
Agnostic atheist: does not *know* that god(s) do not exist, but does *not believe* god(s) exist.
Gnostic theist: *knows* that god(s) exist, so therefore*believes* god(s) exist.
Gnostic atheist: *knows* that god(s) does not exist, so therefore*does not believe* god(s) exist.

I think you and I agree that both of the gnostic positions are untenable. It’s the individuals’ claim of *knowledge* that is incorrect. The claim of belief is different, but I understand what you mean.

I am an agnostic atheist. I do not *know*whether or not god(s) exist, however I do not *believe*that god(s) exist based on a lack of evidence. I do not think that is an unreasonable/invalid position. Conversely, one can be an agnostic theist based on this and I believe that is a large portion of the population. However, due to the confusion of the definitions (and the usual stated requirement of absolute belief) most people would not label themselves that way especially while talking to the people they attend services with.

It won’t be any shock to you or any readers that I take issue with the concept of “faith” as it pertains to the belief in the non-existence of a deity. If that were true, as I stated above, it would take “faith” to *not* believe in nearly any claim that has no evidence. The problem is one of equal footing. If you view the claims that the existence of a god or the non-existence of a god are on equal footing then your position is correct. However, I do not see any logical, rational, or reasonable basis to put these positions on equal footing. Without the constant overt claims that a god exists by individuals, the default would likely be a complete absence of the concept of a god(s). There is no evidence that any supernatural “duelist” universe exists. It is an unreasonable request to require those that do not believe (since there is no evidence) to produce evidence that it DOES NOT exist. That burden falls on the claimant.

I am also an antitheist, but that has little to do with knowledge of a god (aside from the inferred rejection, but agnostics can be antitheists as well) and more to do with what many consider to be the detrimental effects of religion.

Anonymous said...


I think that we can agree to disagree as to whether or not the use of the word Proof is correct or incorrect to use. I certainly do not use proof in a loose sense, after all I agree that many faux evidential arguments have been provided. I refer more strictly to modus tollens arguments like "god must exist because you cannot prove he doesn't".

Of course we are not talking about this in the context of Penn's comments. I am also wary of being trapped in using logical constructs to argument with overt authority as after Kant et al. are/were qualified to do this and I do not consider myself amongst them. I am a mathematician with my own views. Superlatively I do not believe that my own views should be imposed on others. People are entitled to live their lives the way they want to on the understanding that it does not impose unnecessarily on the beliefs/views of others.

I too take issue with the concept of belief - especially where it is used with regard to forming inconsistent logical arguments as I am not of the opinion that it furthers discourse.

I can certainly agree with the sentiment that religion as implemented in our society seems to have caused more problems than it has solved. However it appears that this viewpoint is limited to agnosts and atheists alike.

As to the burden falling on the claimant this is of course always the case in debate and stands in a premise - the question is what constitutes evidence. Evidence has many definitions in the context of religion, law, science, politics etc. My response was to the claim that agnosts are really atheists. I do not believe that they necessarily are as the question is weighted towards the discussion of the existence or non-existence of God.

The claim comes from the fact that in accepted discourse (mostly scientific) the underlying premise is that any conclusion based on theoretic or empiric knowledge is true without a set of underlying assumptions. It is those very assumptions that enable us to formulate a framework whereby we can continue to investigate and question our own lack of knowledge. This is where I am of the opinion that both acceptance and denial are radical denialist concepts that hurt our progress.

Look at Ptolemy as he formed a very convoluted scientific view of the universe while appeasing the religious viewpoint that the earth was at the centre of the universe. Newton made great inroads into understandig the mechanics of the universe. We did not stop there we came up with Inertial frameworks, constants of motion, Langrangian and Hamilitonian mechanics and more recently we have relativistic and quantum mechanics - why? Because science has never been entirely satisfied the underlying assumptions although it is true to say that at many stages in this people have placed themselves in either one camp or the other.

After that lengthy soliloquy I would conclude that the main driving scientific viewpoint is that of that agnost. i.e. I can see your viewpoints but I would like to focus on what is in between your two absolutes.

I think that this is yet another reason why I cannot agree with the concept that agnostics are atheists. Especially if atheists take a similar hard stand which is similar to that of theists.


Steve said...

Thank you for the stimulating discussion. I agree with nearly everything you have said. I still think what divides us is largely the definitions of things and of course my overt denial. I accept that. I very much appreciate your comments and I will reflect on them further.

I will also brush up on my classical and symbolic logic...

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Thank you also for the discussion. I hope that I only gave the impression that I was expressing my own views and the reasons that I use to justify them and not trying to berate or disprove your own feeling on that matter. I too feel that we are both pretty much in the same place. I too was once a strong atheist and thought agnosticism was just a lazy way out. I guess over time my feeling on this have softened my understanding of my own belief system and motivations softened over time.

Good speaking to you.

Oh and by the way my name is Freddy. I posted as anonymous because I do not often post into these things as I feel that the web is full of too many trolls and often times bigoted people that do not want to listen to ideas whether or not they agree with them.


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