Friday, May 26, 2017

Tyler Cowen on Agnosticism

Tyler Cowen was recently asked why he doesn't believe in god and wrote an interesting response:
1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories. Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions. I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information, so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options.

I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims. In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that

2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.” It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs. I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated. Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification. . . . This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent.

That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance. That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from. I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience to everybody — it’s one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other..

Add all that up and I just don’t believe. Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe. It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life. 
Like Cowen, the root of my unbelief is that positing "God" does not make the world more understandable to me. It simply moves the discussion to even more abstruse mysteries. I regard the origin and nature of the universe, and of human life, as profoundly mysterious, which is why I also avoid the term atheist, but I just don't see how the concept of God helps us understand anything. Plus much about all religions feels to me too much like what we might wish to be true, and I always rebel against any theory that seems emotionally pat.

Also like Cowen I think that religion fulfills very important social and psychological roles and I wonder what will happen to human societies as it fades. (Conversion to Mormonism has been found to be the most effective anti-poverty program ever tried.) I also sometimes miss the richness added to the world by beliefs in the spirits of springs and groves, the ghosts that haunt old houses, fairies who cross between this world and some other. But maybe most future people will feel as he and I do, and as my children seem to, comfortable with our lack of belief.


G. Verloren said...

For crying out loud, how are people still trying to define agnosticism?

T. H. Huxley coined the term, and he explained it perfectly well way back in the 1860s.

"I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter ...

It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions ...

That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth."

"I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them."

"When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis"–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion ...

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. ... To my great satisfaction the term took."

szopen said...

While I do understand the sentiment, I have a feeling that it would be inappriopriate for me to say "I neither believe of not believe" and define myself as agnostic. I have no valid reason to expect actually anything besides me exists - yet I do take a particular stance and act as if other people in fact exist.

John said...

It's not about defining Agnosticism, it's about defining what particular people believe. Which may not be exactly what Huxley believes.

G. Verloren said...


It's really very simple, though.

Do you insist that there is a god, despite a lack of compelling evidence for one existing? If so, then you're a theist.

Do you insist that there is NOT a god, despite a lack of compelling evidence for one NOT existing? If so, then you're an atheist.

Are you willing to admit you don't know whether or not there is a god, because there's no compelling evidence either way? If so, then you're agnostic.

I'm not sure what else needs to be defined, or how exactly a particular person's beliefs can meaningfully deviate from those options.

leif said...

why just 'a god'? we should not forget there have been thousands of gods. believers in one of them are atheists to all the others.

G. Verloren said...


Belief in a god or multiple gods is still theism.
Belief in the "wrong" god or gods is heathenry, but even heathens are still theists.
Belief in a different kind of "gods", like spirits, is also still theism.