Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope