Atheist or agnostic? The sequel…

Abstract: In this sequel article of a previous debate, I still maintain that a pragmatic scientist must call herself an agnostic and not an atheist, despite the contrary opinion of zetetics who goes beyond the scope of its postulates.

Zetetic classification

Perched on his Observatory of zetetics, Christophe Michel does an excellent job of defining atheism and agnosticism (video in french). It shows that believers and non-believers do not use the same:
Atheism = ‘does not believe in God’ in the non-believer; turns into ‘believes in the non-existence of God’ in the believer
Agnosticism = ‘has no proof’ in the non-believer; turns into ‘don’t know’ for the believer.

Knowledge (gnosis) and belief being independent, they determine for Christophe 6 categories:
1) Atheist agnostic = has no proof, does not believe
2) Theistic agnostic = has no proof, believes (pure faith)
3) Anti-theist = has no proof, believes that God does not exist
4) Theist = has proof, believes
5) Denigrator = has proof, does not want to believe
6) Incoherent = has proof, believes that God does not exist

A very unreasonable humanity

This beautiful work finds its limits when looking closely at the definitions of “proof” and especially of “God”. The classification is indeed a problem: only positions (1) and (4) are logical. The others are not very coherent, and yet they contain a lot of people, the majority of people even. Most believers actually belong to category (2), hold their faith without being really convinced by the evidence. Similarly, most atheists are in category (3), anti-theists who are reactionary to religion and convinced that God does not exist. How to explain this general irrationality?

Everyone calls ‘proof’ what enchants them. Scientists reduce it to “scientific proof”. Minority but proud of their rigor, they are the ones who rank in (1). The religious see evidence in tradition, a much older authority. They settle with the same aplomb in (4). The others, ultimately, are less certain about what proof is. Divine apparitions are rare, but science has also been wrong on many occasions. It is the mixture of the origin of evidence and the intermediate degrees of requirement that sprinkles most people towards the other categories.

Is your God exactly the same as mine?

Second pitfall: the definition of ‘God’. Is it a question of the Christian God, of a unique God without further precision, of an unknowable Creator thus sheltered from all anthropomorphism, of a blind but generative force, of the symbol ‘origin’ or ‘termination’ of Universe? In this very well-stocked market, we easily find the Big Bang, the fundamental forces of physicists, as well as a bearded patriarch, or even nothingness. The deified nothingness, do you believe it?

Just because someone enters a church does not mean that their version of God is the one that is read in the Gospels. Given the persistent malignity of the world, the good word makes its listeners feel like it needs to be repeated to be persuasive. Listening is done in groups. Prayer is a social act before being an act of faith. The images of God come together. In a scientific congress too.

Escape from one’s exclusive ontological condition

By narrowing the notion of “proof” to that of science as Christophe Michel does, we can still find the 6 categories. But by loosening our epistemology and giving everyone their version of God, the classification explodes. This is to say that the theism/atheism/agnosticism discussion is not itself very scientific. It uses postulates outside the ontological field of science. Science does not know how to transform a ‘belief’ into a scientific object, any more than a ‘thought’, or a ‘proof’ in the broad sense. It postulates, for example, that the fundamental forces are immutable. The slightest irruption of a postulate in the field of analysis means that there is an alternative mode of knowledge to the one chosen. A discreet switch of knowledge has been crossed.

As I argued recently, a scientist must choose a philosophy to escape his ontological condition, more fragile than he thinks, between a inaccessible real per se and a way of knowing inherited from her training. For this reason I tend to place scientists among believers, with experimental results that place them ahead of theists in the race for truth. But philosophically they are in the same category: stuck in the straitjacket of their unique way of knowing. It is not a mystical guru who holds this speech but a M.D, warm supporter of the rigorous application of science in his practice.

Choose pragmatism

I recommend that Christophe Michel combine pragmatic philosophy with scientism. Pragmatism says this: only decide a question (believe or disbelieve) if deciding has explicit consequences for our subsequent endeavor to know. Agnosticism settles quietly into this philosophy. Don’t know (DK) is neither YES nor NO. The notion of belief has nothing to do with this stage, that of gnosis. The choice between ‘I believe’ and ‘I don’t believe’ has no meaning yet. It can be installed over a YES or a NO, but not an DK. There is a hierarchy between agnosticism and atheism. No knowing, no question of believing.

This is why Christophe’s positions (1) and (4) are the only logical ones. Both provided an answer to the question of knowing. Religious and scientists looked at their evidence and said YES or NO. They can take the next step, which leads them directly to ‘believing’ and ‘disbelieving’. The true agnostic, having answered DK, can no longer advance. There is no next step. It is imaginary. Reason why the categories then explode. Everyone is individualized in their imagination.

What are the consequences for our quest for knowledge of separating atheists from theists? None. The pragmatic scientist therefore remains… agnostic. Without any additional epithets.


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