Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Of agnostics and unicorns

I am not agnostic about this. It is a horse with
a narwhal tusk as a rather showy bit of bling
Every now and then the hoary business of religion and science rears its head. I am generally quite happy with Stephen Jay Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria, and if we stuck to that we'd have a lot less bickering (and hopefully hear a lot less from Richard Dawkins), but I made the mistake of commenting on a Facebook post after someone was promoting atheism as the best scientific viewpoint. I retorted that I thought the only true scientific viewpoint was agnosticism. (This doesn't mean, by that way, that scientists can't be believers or atheists - merely that when they do so, they are not being scientific. NOMa.)

I got a kick-back moaning that you couldn't be agnostic about god, and if you did, you might as well be agnostic about unicorns. This irritated me and I made a rather snippy remark, asking if they knew what 'agnosticism' means. The dictionary definition of agnostic is 'A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God' - so to say you can't be agnostic about God doesn't make a lot of sense, because it is inherent in the definition of the word.

In fact, the comparison with unicorns misses the point. I believe that sloths exist, even though I have never seen one, based on indirect evidence. I similarly believe that unicorns don't exist based on a total absence of evidence. Although as they (irritatingly) say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, we would expect there to be some physical evidence of unicorns because they are supposed to be physical creatures. But we don't.

God is a whole different ballgame, and the proper comparison would be an invisible dragon in my garage that does not trigger any kind of sensor, not a unicorn. As these are hypothetical non-physical entities, the absence of physical evidence is clearly not enough to establish non-existence of either God or the dragon. So the starting point really ought to be agnosticism. In principle I am agnostic about the existence of invisible, undetectable dragons. But I tend towards atheism on the matter of there being an invisible dragon in my garage, because no one is making this claim. Certainly not me.

There is a difference of scale, though, between God and the dragon. Billions of people claim that God exists. This doesn't make it true. Lots of people used to think the Sun went around the Earth. Lots of people still believe the Earth was created in 4004 BC. There is good evidence they are wrong on both counts. But the point is that there is no evidence that the God believers are wrong - merely absence of evidence that they are right. And this being the case, I genuinely believe that agnosticism is the only scientific view to take.

If you want to tell me there is an invisible dragon in your garage, and you genuinely believe this to be true, then I am happy to be agnostic about that too.

Image from Wikipedia

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