Atheism and Agnosticism: a typology, and where Objectivism falls

Chris Cathcart's picture
Submitted by Chris Cathcart on Tue, 2008-06-10 05:16

I put this in the "Dissent" forum since this post arguably constitutes dissent against the "official" Objectivist line, although it's also a dissent against the way the terms "atheism" and "agnosticism" are so often thrown around and misunderstood in general.

Thanks to the Ayn Rand Lexicon now available online, we now have immediate access to the official word, including those statements available in Peikoff's 1976 lecture course (though these subjects also came up in essentially the same form in Branden essays in issues of the The Objectivist Newsletter).

The entry under Agnosticism says, in essence, that the Agnostic is one who treats arbitrary claims as "open," i.e., that since no conclusive evidence exists either way, or that no proof can exist either way, the rational stand is to remain undecided. Peikoff concludes that this is the most cowardly position one can take. However, there is something in Peikoff's critique that jumps out at me. He quotes our hypothetical agnostic saying the following:

“I can’t prove these claims are true, but you can’t prove they are false, so the only proper conclusion is: I don’t know; no one knows; no one can know one way or the other.
(my emphasis added)

I find this attention-grabbing because, in regard to claims that are arbitrary by their very nature, they are the sorts of claims about which knowledge is not possible.

I'm not saying this about claims that are merely arbitrary at present and may be translated into an epistemological context at some future point. I'm saying this about claims for which epistemological standards are not even applicable. Which is to say, the standard claims by those professing belief in God do not merely flout reason, they flout epistemology.

I'd like to quote myself here from a posting I made earlier today to the "off topic" forums at that inspired my thinking for this post. The subject was a short answer given by Richard Dawkins after a lecture, when an audience member asked him, "What if you're wrong?". Dawkins' answer, while pretty good, is incomplete. He answers, in essence, that all kinds of religious people believe things that other religious people disbelieve, meaning that we already know that the vast majority of believers are wrong just in virtue of the fact that so many hold views that conflict with other believers'. First, for some context, a post by another thread participant to which I respond, from a military man named "Garrett":

"Bottom line nobody fucking knows. Not the Christians and not the atheists. "Knowledge" be damned. I don’t care how high an IQ that crumpet eating and tea sipping man’s got. He still couldn’t fully answer her question because he has no answer and no real answer exists. So instead he went into some ramble for a minute or two to smoothly play it off and then he just re-directed the question back at her...........which of course she couldn’t answer either.

"So let’s get off the fucking high horse for a second and not think that people who don’t believe are any more intelligent or full of correct answers than those who do believe in a higher being."

I responded thusly:

"Here’s the thing: Dawkins says that claims about the supernatural don’t meet scientific standards. The believers, of course, say that this is true, that religious belief is beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry. But Dawkins’ point could be more widely applicable: we are fallible beings, and the reason that there is a scientific method in regard to inquiry about the natural world is to weed out errors, misfires, mistakes, etc. that we make as fallible beings. We need standards, criteria and methods by which we weed out the good from the bad. For instance, we used those methods to determine the relative merits of the geocentric theory (sun goes around the earth) and the heliocentric theory (earth goes around the sun).

"But the need for standards, methods, and criteria for weeding out errors is more than just a scientific issue: it’s an issue for anything humans believe. And when it comes to belief in the supernatural, how does one devise these standards to determine if one has erred? Has anyone come up with such standards that can make sense and can be applied by any human being? So far, the answer seems to be: no. Is it rational to commit oneself to some position when there aren’t known standards against which to establish the credibility of a position? I would think not.

"If Dawkins applies his wits to this question, he should define his atheism in terms of the reasonableness of belief in the supernatural, not in whether there is some supernatural dimension of reality. After all, if there isn’t a standard against which to test for error, taking the position that there isn’t the supernatural is not rational. How does one test that claim? But his atheism makes perfect sense if it’s a position about whether belief in the supernatural is warranted.

"In that regard, I’m an atheist, though given widespread confusion about terminology, I don’t mind calling it a strong agnosticism."

A subsequent visit to the wikipedia showed that there are actually types of agnosticism, and that my position falls into that "strong" categorization, although that categorization is not as specific as I am about what it means for these matters to be unknowable.

And I think it certainly contrasts well with the "weak agnostic," more akin to the Agnostic that Peikoff is targeting, who says, "I just won't take a position on the matter."

These types of agnosticism, both, still manage to introduce widespread terminological confusion when it comes to Atheism. In the most minimal terms, the atheist is one who does not believe in God. Both of the kinds of agnostic that I describe do not profess or commit to a belief in God, so why are they not atheists? I don't know of a satisfying answer here. I think that anyone who is an unbeliever/non-believer when it comes to God encompasses all self-professed atheists and agnostics. That certainly describes my view: I'm an unbeliever. But what's really more interesting to me as a philosopher is the reason someone gives. So this minimal, "weak" atheist position doesn't really mark out much interesting philosophical territory, and that's perhaps why the term "atheist" and "unbeliever" aren't treated synonymously in many of the discussions about belief in God.

Where does this leave Rand, by the way? Well, I think she would agree with me fully in substance about the epistemological status of any claims regarding the supernatural: the supernatural defies, by its nature, attempts to apply epistemological standards, criteria and methods.

But Rand goes beyond that, if you look at her, Peikoff and Branden's metaphysical argument, and it comes out to be the most hard-line position against belief in God that I can think of: namely, the existence of God would entail a contradiction.

Now, usually, in the common-and-confused discussions, the atheist position is considered to be the one that holds that God doesn't exist (or that, based on consideration of the evidence, the reasonable thing to believe is that God doesn't exist), not merely the absence of the belief that God exists. Such an atheism I would term "strong" atheism, and the number of people who actually hold this view seems to be very small, but smaller still is the number of those who hold such a view for the reasons that Rand, Peikoff and Branden do, and I'm not aware of who else holds it.

This position -- the Objectivist metaphysical one -- is more hard-line than just saying that claims to God's existence are arbitrary by their very nature. It says, in addition, that, to quote the entries under Atheism and God that:

"Every argument for God and every attribute ascribed to Him rests on a false metaphysical premise. None can survive for a moment on a correct metaphysics."

My main concern is whether the commentaries in these entries really are successful at showing this without assuming the truth of materialism -- that "physical world" and "existence" could be treated as synonymous. And I don't see how these commentaries would be seen as compelling by theists or even other metaphysicians. Branden's 1962 discussion on "the concept of God" is likewise pretty hard-line, concluding:

"Existence is all that exists, the nonexistent does not exist; there is nothing for existence to have come out of - and nothing means nothing. If you are tempted to ask, "What's outside the universe?" - recognize that you are asking, "What's outside of existence?""

These kinds of statements are odd considering that metaphysics proper -- a philosophical discipline -- is concerned with ontology and not cosmology, and equating "the (physical) universe" with "existence" assumes the very point in question, i.e., whether the physical cosmos is all that exists, or whether something beyond that is ruled out by principles of ontology. The Objectivist metaphysical argument against God amounts in essence to: God's existence would contradict the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness, so God can't exist.

I haven't given this argument extensive thought but my hunch is that theologians most likely discuss the "nature of God" in such ways that God isn't rendered incomprehensible and contradictory. However, I do think that the special, mysterious, exception-making sorts of features typically ascribed to God are the very things that make God epistemically inaccessible. My view is that on a number of grounds there is no reason to think there is a God, and that this suffices. One thing I'm not at all clear on, is how God's existence would contradict all that we know about the nature of reality. Folks here are free to try to show it, and I'm free to be skeptical about their attempts. Eye

But anyway, to get clear on the typology, and where the official Objectivist position falls: It is both "strong agnostic" for the reasons I've given above, and hard-line "strong atheist."

( categories: )


Leonid's picture

To know "A" means to demonstrate evidence of existence of "A" in reality-by using conceptual process based on perception or by simply self-evident percept. None of these epistemological tools are applicable to "God". If they were, they would provide God with identity, eliminate its divine status and turn it to an object, one among many others. The problem with agnostics is that by using epistemological tools of knowledge in regard to God they run into irresolvable contradiction. The statement “ I know/ don’t know that God exists” is meaningless.

A is A

James S. Valliant's picture

Identity and causality do not imply a physical world, Chris, and they are ontological.

The Primacy of Existence is itself an expression of these.

Insofar as a theist maintains ex nihilo creation, miracles, a God with no specific identity, as well as God as an "infinite" actuality, etc., the belief is a metaphysical contradiction in terms.

If a theist will deny miracles or infinite actualities, we are left with your epistemological case alone. But few theists believe in a finite God with measurable/quantifiable attributes unable to violate the laws of nature.

[edit.: But, yes, if all that the theist is claiming is the existence of a perfectly ineffable God, then only an epistemological case will do.]

More Rand

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Chris ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

I think you're barking up the wrong tree here.

The Objectivist metaphysical argument against God amounts in essence to: God's existence would contradict the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness, so God can't exist.

There is no Objectivist metaphysical argument against God, since, according to Objectivism, there's no need for one. There's no need for an argument against an arbitrary and meaningless postulate, since the onus of proof is on him who postulates. Objectivism says the arguments *for* God have been refuted, to be sure, but that's a different thing.

If God existed, he would be subsumed under "existence exists." But "existence exists" is meaningful, ostensively; "God exists" is not. There's no requirement to waste a second on it.

No disagreement from me.

gregster's picture

Chris why is typology important with regard to theism? Is it for clarification?

"the reasonable thing to believe is that God doesn't exist), not merely the absence of the belief that God exists. Such an atheism I would term "strong" atheism, and the number of people who actually hold this view seems to be very small"

How did you ascertain this? I put myself in this class. I only presume many others also do.

On the metaphysical argument and infinity (and some Kant)

Chris Cathcart's picture

I should note that I agree that it makes eminent sense that the concept of "infinity" refers only to a potentiality in a mathematical sense, and doesn't refer to an actuality. I do think that if theologians apply the notion of the infinite to God, it's untenable. Nevertheless, the notion of the infinite still present some good chewing-challenges for advanced students of Objectivism, and I can't proclaim to have thought through these things to anywhere near my satisfaction. I do like the idea of a universe that is "finite yet unbounded," which could make some good sense of how we think about cosmology. Interestingly, a Google on "universe finite unbounded" turns up a site from a student of Objectivism as the first result.

As just that one site shows, these matters are difficult to navigate and open to many slip-ups. Kant got into this stuff hardcore when he got to the Antinomy of Pure Reason in the second half of the Critique, arguing in effect that (a) we can't intelligibly make sense of the physical cosmos -- the extent of space-time -- being either finite or infinite, and (b) that this only goes to show that we can't pretend to apply our categories of understanding (including quantity) or the forms of intuition (space and time) to the "thing in itself" beyond the (limited) scope of our appearances. It's the most convincing-looking demonstration -- a negative demonstration at that -- in the Critique that there is an inherent breach between the (conditioned-by-subject) appearances and the (unconditioned) thing-in-itself, but it's rife with confusion, if only because it just ignores Aristotle's observation that the actual (as an ontological category, not just a category of the understanding applicable only to appearances) is finite.

And, as much as Kant was useful in demonstrating the failure of rational theology to apply our concepts to demonstrate something about a Being beyond the world of experience, it came at the cost of rejecting a realist ontology, saying that God is unknowable not merely because God is beyond the world of sense-experience, but that God is conceived as a thing-in-itself and that a thing-in-itself as such is unknowable. This rejection of direct realism should not be construed as a legitimate route to the "strong agnosticism" as I describe it. Kant's division (between appearances and the thing-in-itself) is an ontological one. The distinction I make (between the kinds of claims that are subject to epistemic methods of verification and those that are not) is an epistemological one: it makes the legitimate distinction between reason and faith.

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