Agnosticism is a middle ground, or something much better

I recently had a very brief but interesting (and amusing, if I must admit) conversation with somebody who goes by the name Flying Free on Twitter. It was about one of my articles on Richard Dawkins and atheism.

In that article is is a statement which I believe sparked the whole debate that follows. I quote myself:

Agnosticism is the safe line bordering both atheism and theism …

I have gone on to say that the existence of higher beings or their lack thereof ought to be of no consequence to the work of a scientifically-minded fellow. (I was, of course, talking of science and religion then.)

Not a middle ground?

Somebody who had clearly read my article (because this particular sentence comes round the end anyway) had this to say:

That got me thinking. As far as I knew, agnosticism, atheism and theism were on the same page even if they defined themselves slightly differently. The definition of an agnostic, according to the Cambridge dictionary of English goes thus:

Someone who believes that it is impossible to know whether a god exists.

Looking into the annals of religious social development, one finds a slightly different definition taking equal prominence:

A person calling oneself ‘agnostic’ is literally stating that he or she has no opinion on the existence of God.

The closest I had ever come to reading about agnostic atheists and agnostic theists (as I could recall at that time, phone in hand, Twitter app opened) was George Smith’s, Atheism: the case against god. Honestly, it was one of those books that I had read almost half-heartedly between two better books (that is not to say this book was bad by any measure) but that work was my only compass at that moment.

So I replied:

And, as expected, I received a reply. Several, actually.

Believe is binary

One of the replies I received was from the same person, and went thus:

Now that is faulty premise. Whoever defined agnosticism on the basis of belief in a god? Agnosticism is one’s position on the knowledge of existence of god, not in the belief in one.

To elaborate (or dumb it down): you decide whether you are an atheist or not by asking yourself if you have faith in god. You decide whether you are an agnostic or not by asking yourself if you think god’s existence can be ascertained as knowledge not falsifiable.

So I tweeted back:

And then there came more.

What’s your favourite number?

I actually got several more tweets at this point, but there are two I will mention, as follows,

I chose to ignore the ignorant or dishonest dish mostly because I never was able to figure out where that came from; and it sounded more like an insult. A moment later, however, this pinged on my phone:

Ah, that is a clever way of putting it; but a little effort into lateral thinking will bring out something else, as I pointed out.

I think that is a question that deserves some thought. I can have an opinion on something, or I may just not care enough to have an opinion in the first place. That would suggest neither belief nor disbelief, i.e. a middle ground.

But we soon reverted to the original question in an attempt to explain by example:

Sounds reasonable, but this was really a demonstration of his (or her — how do you determine gender by a handle like @FlyingFree333 anyway?) previous point, so I demonstrated my own point in return, just in case my previous 140 characters had not been as clear as I thought.

Finally, we are getting somewhere.

I’d rather be a moron, thank you

Clearly, by this point I had either been right enough to be hard to argue with or foggy enough to want to run away from, so my honorable debater stooped down to insults once again:

Without picking on the grammatical errors in that Tweet, if I absolutely have to answer, I’d say I’d rather be a moron than a liar. In any case, neither my IQ nor my trustworthiness was the point of this discussion. So let me bring it to a more decent closure than what I received with the person above.

To quote Dawkins, “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there”. That seems like it sums up the issue quite well, so where do agnostics stand on the scale from atheists to theists?

Without touching up on gnosticism, I would say that agnostics can take a permanent stand or a temporary one, somewhat similar to Dawkin’s own TAPs and PAPs. As I said before, I do not care to judge right now whether god exists because whatever proof we have (for or against it) is meagre. That would put me down squarely within the definitions of a TAP.

And to wrap it up neatly in one sentence, I would simply state that being an agnostic draws definition based, not on faith or belief in something, but in the knowledge of its existence, thereby providing a middle ground.

What are your thoughts on this?

 Cover image: Flickr/Jennifer Boyer  VHBsign

 

In God we Trust?

[NB I often reblog my older articles—those worth a read—from my previous, fleeting weblog addresses. Today I give you one of my most controversial articles addressing the issues of the belief in a higher presence: scientists, theism and atheism. I, for one, am quite the atheist although they are, where I live, the persona non grata!]


We have seen, and not rarely at that, that the sensitive question of the presence of god has been openly debated by physicists. And, unlike it may appear at first, not all have debated against it. Indeed we have had a good number of them who have been firm believers in a God.

From Newton, who was an ardent believer in a supreme deity (in fact this belief in the unseen was what made Newton fall so easily for an unseen force in nature he called gravity,) to Einstein, who often referred to God as the old man in his writings, some of the greatest minds in physics have been ardent believers in the existence of God.

Perhaps we have not seen them speak very often or be carried away by His existence, but this is not the only reason why people often picture physicists almost as atheists. The actual reason, as physicist Michio Kaku points out, is a slight misunderstanding. It is because, when physicists speak of a God, they speak of a God of a kind dramatically different from that which the common man refers to. 

“Because the hyperspace theory has opened up new, profound links between physics and abstract mathematics, some people have accused scientists of creating a new theology based on mathematics.”

–Michio Kaku, in his book, Hyperspace

I find it rather surprising that I only recently read Hyperspace. But, in my defense, I was perhaps a little over one-year of age when the book was first written.

What particularly struck me about the book was its intense examination of science, society and religion towards the concluding end of the book.

‘We have rejected the mythology of religion,’ Kaku says, masterfully putting what I, myself, often tell many people, ‘only to embrace an even stranger religion based on curved space-time, particle symmetries and cosmic expansions.’

This is indeed true for it is not the first, and certainly will not be the last, time that any student of physics viewed his subject as his religion. While it may appear interesting to some to point out, at this juncture, at figures like Newton, we must understand that, while these physics giants did have extremely strong religious views and beliefs, they also studied physics with equal intensity.

I have brushed upon the question of physics replacing a Godly figure once before, in my earlier weblog, when I had commented on Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design (you can still read the article here.)

When I wrote that post there was a verbal cold war raging between Hawking and various factions siding with what I thought were extremist views of religion. The misquote (or perhaps misunderstanding, for that is one of the subtler talents of our media) of Hawking’s statement that the need for a supreme being has been replaced by physics, to mean physics has disproved the existence of God, kept fanatics of religion occupied for a good thirty days.

By the time the debate subsided (I would not say ended for nobody really knows which side won) Hawking’s book had shot to fame, I had read it, recommended it and reviewed it enough to know that what these two physicists had spoken of was really the unanimously approved idea among physics circles.

I had struggled with a good explanation for the concept because it was the kind that, while really being clear to us, was not something we could explain. But my struggle (not a literal one!) ended in rather a shock when I realised that the book that held a remarkable means of explanation of this idea had actually been written years ago. (This, in fact, reminded me of Veneziano’s and Suzuki’s stumbling upon mathematics that was decades old to explain a very modern problem–the string theory.)

Physicist Kaku’s idea, as he explains in his book, Hyperspace, is to create a distinction between the picture of God that scientists have in mind and the common man has in mind when debating this issue. He believes we can fork the word God as (i.e. to mean) either aGod of Miracles or a God of Order.

The common man’s idea of a God is of the God of Miracles. But, as is well-known, miracles  being hardly periodic, or even repetitive for that matter, are out-of-bounds of the explanation of science. In science we only explain things that are periodic, or at least repetitive, simply because only such phenomena really aid our technique of questioning, observation, theorising, prediction and experimentation.

The God of Miracles is what is supposed to correct unfavourable situations out of the blue, is supposed to take care of things you have disregarded yourself and is supposed to help you get rid of reaping the rotten harvest you sowed. I trust I have made my point.

Now the God of Order is the God most scientists refer to when debating such matters and it is the God they believe the common man has in mind too.

Let me explain this with an example: Einstein was a firm believer, unto death, that there was a certain divine order in the universe; that there was a subtle principle governing the universe. He likened the universe, therefore, to marble. He said that what we ought to do is clear out what is existent on the surface and uncover this underlying order.

This strikes me to be somewhat along the same lines as the freemasonry belief of ordo ab chao, meaning order from chaos.

The God of Order, thus, is that divine being (if such a being does, indeed, exist) who is responsible for the order in the universe.

The pivotal aspect here is not in the type or the classification of a God, which might even seem blasphemous to some, but is in the fact that, while the God of Miracles cannot be explained by science–and indeed we do not even attempt to do so–the God of Order is what we have been trying to understand in all the thousands of years of studying physics.

The God of Order is synonymous to order in the universe, the laws, the concepts and the ideologies that exist in physics; and this is our attempt at understanding how this being (if, I repeat, indeed there is such a being) works–and it is possible merely because, within our known, visible universe, this God of Order has a remarkably constant manner of functioning.

Our exploits, be it classical physics, relativistic physics or string theory, all are attempts (I daresay they are quite successful ones) at understanding how things work.

Some have asked me why we even need to do that; why can we not just let things work as they do? Why bother taking the trouble to understand them?

This question, it turns out, is not a new one. In fact the astronomer Johannes Kepler had answered this question finely back in the 16th century.

He likened the human mind to birds. His words, as best as I recall them, are these:

“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens.”

–Johannes Kepler

Returning to our present day (still ensuing) debate, I expect that this distinction (while some may detest it) will no doubt help reduce our misunderstandings; and also our problems with regard to blasphemous physicists trying to oust God from his omnipotent seat in some place as unknown to us as the underlying principles that the universe operates on.

What are your views?