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On Julian Sanchez’ Agnosticism Post

John on July 13, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece on atheism and agnosticism for Slate a couple weeks ago titled An Agnostic Manifesto. His basic argument is that neither religious believers nor “new atheists” make a very convincing case for their beliefs, so it makes more sense to be agnostic.

Of course the word agnostic has a particular history. It was coined by T. H. Huxley, a friend of Darwin and one of the “new atheists” of his age. Huxley wasn’t simply announcing his ignorance, he was a partisan in the debate who wanted to level the playing field by starting from the idea that no one knows (especially not those damned idiot religious people!).

But Rosenbaum has something else in mind. He’s arguing for a redefinition of agnosticism to mean something like humble uncertainty. And again, his argument for this stems from his own sense that this is something the new atheists lack. On the contrary, they often seem overconfident based on a limitless faith in science to answer all questions. But by Rosenbaum’s estimation, there are simply some questions science can not answer including the most fundamental question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing?

In response to this plea for greater humility, Julian Sanchez writes a thoughtful, but ultimately flawed, rejoinder which concedes some of Rosenbaum’s point and attempts to set aside the rest. First the concession:

One is just the commonplace observation that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris &c. can come across as arrogant jerks, which is fair enough, but then, who else is going to really proselytize for the absence of a belief? It’s like starting a non-chess-players club; plenty of people fit the membership requirements, but only those with an active hostility to the game are going to feel the need to make a point of joining.

Sanchez’ analogy makes perfect sense, and the observation that atheism is merely anti-theism is nothing new. But I’m not sure Sanchez realizes how much of the game he’s given away. It’s no small thing to stipulate that the anti-chess club frequently come across as “arrogant jerks.” Of course it doesn’t follow from this that everyone should run out and join the chess club, but it does suggest that the anti-chess club seems to attract the least appealing characters from the larger set of those who don’t play. Maybe that should tell us something about the club.

And here is where metaphysical near-certainty comes into play. People don’t join the anti-chess club because it’s fun, they do so (supposedly) because they are compelled to by reason and (supposedly) by science. This is why Rosenbaum’s fundamental question matters (Why is there something rather than nothing?). But here is where Sanchez tries to sidestep the point:

Punting to the non-local question of why there’s anything at all is, ultimately, just changing the subject—a fact that may be obscured by gesturing at the realm of mystery and calling the question mark that lives there God.

The idea that this is a “non-local” question belies its long and storied connection to the history of science, religion and philosophy. It’s not clear that Sanchez is aware of this or, if he is, he certainly doesn’t seem to grasp why it matters:

To the extent that it is a meaningful question, I have no reason to expect that science either eventually will, or even in principle could answer it. But I am not sure why I am supposed to care, except insofar as it’s interesting to mull over, if you go for that sort of thing. Suppose I allow that it is a genuine mystery—radically uncertain, even. It’s outside the realm about which we can talk meaningfully or offer evidence. So what? If there were some part of the world about which we couldn’t even in principle gather information, would I have to declare myself a basilisk agnostic because, after all, they might be there?

Rosenbaum’s mistake is to suppose that atheists are committed to providing some kind of utterly comprehensive worldview that explains everything in the way religious doctrine sometimes purports to. But why? Can’t we point out that claims made on behalf of one brand of snake oil are outlandish and unsupportable without peddling an even more wondrous tonic?

There are actually multiple problems here. First off, the fact that Sanchez doesn’t care about the question (or believe it has any real meaning) probably places him in a minority of humans, not to mention cosmologists past and present.

Second, some of the very individuals he has admitted can be (or at least seem to be) “arrogant jerks” have indeed suggested that science can wrestle with and potentially answer the question. This is Dawkins view, for one, and it is an idea about which both the chess club and the anti-chess club agree. Chess matters!

Third, Sanchez breezily compares belief in God to the existence of basilisks. The idea in the latter case is that, because no one has ever seen one, it’s entirely reasonable to conclude they don’t exist. If they did exist, someone would have stumbled across one by now. The world is simply too crowded for them to avoid detection for this long.

But this simplification overlooks the very thing that makes God distinctive. God, in the monotheist conception anyway, has never been described as something hiding out in a cave or a nest which an unwary traveler might come across and flush out of hiding. So it’s no real surprise that God hasn’t been found in this way. It’s an analogy based upon a category error.

It is true that God has often been used to explain gaps in our knowledge of nature and even human behavior. And that is where science has born fruit, i.e. removing some of the mystery of existence and replacing it with knowledge. This has often been a boon to us in the form of technology and medicine, but ultimately it doesn’t resolve the question so much as kick it backwards. Atheist astronomer Arthur Eddington–who helped Einstein confirm aspects of relativity 100 years ago–summed it up well in a speech he gave in 1930:

The picture of the world, as drawn in existing physical theories, shows arrangement of the individual elements for which the odds are multimillions to 1 against an origin by chance. Some people would like to call this non-random feature of the world purpose or design; but I will call it non-committally anti-chance. We are unwilling to admit in physics that anti-chance plays any part in the reactions between the systemes of billions of atoms and quanta that we study; and indeed all our experimental evidence goes to show that these are governed by the laws of chance. Accordingly, we sweep anti-chance out of the laws of physics– out of the differential equations. Naturally therefore it reappears in the boundary conditions, for it must be got into the scheme somewhere. By sweeping it far enough away from the sphere of our current physical problems, we fancy we have got rid of it. It is only when some of us are so misguided as to try to get back billions of years into the past that we find the sweepings all piled up like a high wall and forming a boundary–a beginning of time– which we cannot climb over.

Julian Sanchez may see the question of our ultimate origin as nonsense, but the fact is that the success of science has made this question more important rather than less, as Eddington understood. The “sweepings” of anti-chance have all piled up there at the beginning. To ignore them now is to shrug off a questions which has driven much of the history of science and religion since at least Plato. This is why Sanchez’ conclusion is such a cop out:

Rosenbaum’s challenge—explain, atheist, why there is something instead of nothing!—may well be unanswerable, but it doesn’t require an answer.

At least 2500 years of science and philosophy suggest otherwise. The names of those who had an abiding interest in the question of our existence–Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Averroes, Galileo, Newton, Hume, Voltaire, Darwin, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking–reads like a who’s who of the best and brightest in history. In fact, the question is so central to our history that dismissing it would make most of our cultural story inexplicable. The fall of Rome, Monastic Europe, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism, Post-Modernism–all of these cultural shifts and paradigms have the questions of science, religion and ultimately the nature of our existence at their core. They involve how we look at the world and, therefore necessarily, our place in it. But it is always philosophy, religion, and (later) science that sits at the center of these debates.

I don’t know what Sanchez has in mind, only what he says. In this case, the idea that the central question of existence isn’t a real question or isn’t worth our time is contradicted by both history and present reality. To return to his own analogy, one way or another, chess matters. It always has and probably always will. Claiming not to care about the lacunae in our metaphysics and epistemology doesn’t show one to be wise. On the contrary, it’s a back-handed rejection of the intellectual vigor that built Western civilization. We’d literally be nothing without it.

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