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This topic is way beyond the official remit of this blog, but what the heck, I’m hoping we’ll get some interesting comments on it.

I’ve been trying to grasp the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for some time, and I’ve come to the conclusion stated in the title of this post. My reasoning follows.

Define atheism as “the view that spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, probably do not exist.” Define agnosticism as “the view that it is not possible to know with certainty whether spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, exist or not.” Finally, define theism as “the view that at least one spiritual or supernatural entity, such as God, probably does exist.” (The excluded category is the view that a supernatural entity, such as God, is equally likely to exist and not to exist. I’m not sure what to call this view.)

So what is the difference between atheism and agnosticism? I do not believe that any atheist would reject agnosticism as defined here. Is there any atheist who would say with 100% certainty that God does not exist? If so, please comment with a citation. I’m not aware of one.

The more controversial statement is that most theists are agnostics. Certainly, some theists would claim that they know with 100% certainty that God exists. But I wonder if they would maintain that view if they thought about it for a moment. The only way that we can be 100% certain about any proposition’s truth is that the proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false. If God is said to exist necessarily, that means that it is logically impossible for God not to exist, that God exists in all possible worlds. We cannot be 100% certain about the existence of any object of human experience, because it is always possible, however unlikely, that our experience is mistaken. But logical necessities are true by definition, i.e., features of human grammar, not entities, not objects of human experience. However, theists believe that God is an object of human experience, an entity, not a feature of human grammar. Therefore, God cannot be a logical necessity (this is the reason why the ontological argument doesn’t work). It is therefore possible, indeed plausible, that most theists realize that they can never be 100% certain of God’s existence, and therefore that they accept agnosticism. Now, some theists will probably reject the premise that human experience is fallible. They may assert that some type of human experience, such as faith, is infallible and can therefore generate 100% certainty. This claim, of course, is impossible either to prove or to refute. So I cannot claim that all theists would, on reflection, accept agnosticism as defined here, but I think that most would.

So “agnosticism” doesn’t seem to be a very useful category, if it can encompass atheists and theists. Is there another definition of the term that would be more useful? According to Wikipedia, here are some other definitions of agnosticism:

“Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” -Thomas Henry Huxley

Well, again, who would disagree with that, besides hardcore fideists?

Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.”

Again, I know of no atheist who would not be agnostic by this definition.

Agnostic theism – The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.”

Again, how many theists would really disagree with this, if “know” means “know with 100% certainty”?

Ignosticism - The view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable.[19] A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept ‘a deity exists’ as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.”

If these guys are professional philosophers, this must be a total bastardization of their claims. The claim that “at least one entity not bound by natural laws exists” is obviously not logically impossible. It’s not self-contradictory. There may be some definitions of deities that are self-contradictory, like “a deity is a square triangle,” but to show that meaningless claims about meaningless entities are necessarily false is not to prove that no supernatural entity in the aforementioned sense exists.

Strong agnosticism – The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, ‘I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.'”

Again, if “know” means “know with certainty,” who would disagree with this? We’re all (almost all) strong agnostics about everything.

Weak agnosticism – The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until/if any evidence is available. A weak agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, when there is evidence, we can find something out.'”

If “know” means “know with 100% certainty,” then this claim seems obviously wrong. I’ll never be able to know with 100% certainty whether any other human beings exist; what evidence could possibly make me 100% certain that a supernatural entity exists?

But maybe “know” in some of these definitions simply means “be able to assign some probability value whatsoever to the proposition that.” But since supernatural entities are potential objects of human experience, we should be able to assign some probability to their existence, even if we believe we have no experience of them whatsoever. We can at least venture a guess with a very wide confidence interval. Then as more evidence comes in, we can improve the quality of our guess. The strong version of this form of agnosticism doesn’t seem to make sense either, because it does not seem possible for anyone to know with 100% certainty that there will never be any evidence either for or against the existence of supernatural entities.

In the end, I don’t understand how agnosticism isn’t either obviously true and therefore uninteresting or almost incoherent. I should like to abolish the term from philosophy of religion altogether.

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There has been no shortage of corporate enemies in the past few years. There appears to be an ongoing search for firms that can be targeted as representing all that is vile, evil and oppressive. There are some good companies out there, to be certain. For example, Ross Douthat (New York Times) describes one company that has been celebrated for its humane practices. The company

was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course, he is describing Hobby Lobby (“the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1”). While Hobby Lobby appears to have taken the role of good corporate citizen seriously, one should not expect the empirical record to matter much.

One might argue that Hobby Lobby can’t assume the position of “liberalism’s public enemy No.1″ because it is already taken by the Koch brothers. Kenneth Vogel (Politico) has an interesting piece on the behind-the-scenes calculations involving the ongoing attacks by the Senate majority leader.  While Senator Reid’s wild claims (presented in 22 floor speeches since January) are described by staffers as Reid “getting out ahead of his skis,” Vogel describes

a highly unusual election-year campaign against a couple of relatively unknown private citizens whom Reid and his Democrats are seeking to make into caricatures of a Republican Party that, on issue after issue, caters to the very rich at the expense of everyone else.

For those who do not have Senator Reid’s expansive knowledge of Charles and David Koch, Politico has an interesting quiz that provides some useful and odd background information.

 

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I returned Sunday from the Porcupine Freedom Festival, and here’s a selection of PorcFest stories that have come out so far (I will continue updating this post over the next days and weeks – I know New York Times Magazine, Concord Monitor, and The Economist will have stories as well):

  • Union-Leader on the “DIY” theme
  • Yahoo.com: brief story on Bleish-Bush family
  • “Guns, Weed, and Bitcoin: Among the Freestaters” from Free Beacon – a fairly well-rounded piece, but mixes some ironic commentary in with the reporting and focuses on the outre
  • “Inside the Libertarian Version of Burning Man” – from the Washington Post, focuses very one-sidedly on the outre – yes, there was one guy in a loincloth, and apparently another guy had an extreme mushroom trip with no long-lasting ill effects, but what about the 200 kids and their families, the new technologies on display, the great speakers including overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, etc., etc.? And gotta love “majority white male.” I would guess only a very narrow majority of attendees fit both categories. Basically meant to make smug proggies feel superior to scary libertarians.
  • Update: The Economist story now out – short but largely fair, despite the silly headline, & well-written (“I’m an incrementalist,” explains Jason Sorens, the subdued intellectual who dreamed up the Free State Project while he was getting his PhD from Yale. Now a lecturer at Dartmouth College in Hanover, he is eager to use New Hampshire to test libertarian theories about enlightened self-interest and reciprocal altruism, small government and large networks of voluntary institutions. “We don’t have all the answers,” he says, “but it’s worth the experiment.”)
  • Update #2: Two Concord Monitor stories

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Various

In Search of a Name

The US Patent Office has ruled that the Washington Redskins name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and the federal trademark for the name must be canceled.

If the ruling is not overturned on appeal, I would assume that this would lead to more Redskins swag on the market rather than less, at least in the short run. But ultimately, if the Redskins lose the right to market gear with their own logo, this will create powerful incentives for Dan Snyder (and other NFL owners who profit from revenue sharing) to change names.

I could imagine a few possibilities for a new name (the Washington Rent Seekers, the Washington Overlords) but I am sure there are better ones out there (suggestions?)

 

The Surveillance State

Thanks to the Snowden revelations, we have learned much about the comprehensive data collection and storage programs run by the NSA. At the same time, one might suspect that the technological savvy of the federal government is not quite as great as one might fear. Yes, the IRS loses email records (when convenient). But even more striking, the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit has developed the extremely useful glossary of internet slang. Why go to  http://www.urbandictionary.com/ when you can spend taxpayer money? As the document (available here) notes: “This list has about 2800 entries you should find useful in your work or for keeping up with your children and/or grandchildren”). Caitlin Dewey (Washington Post) has a fun piece about the glossary, that was obtained through a FOIA request. Some of the selections, like IAWTCSM (“I agree with this comment so much) have been used rarely, in this case, 20 times in the history of Twitter. Others like NIFOC (“naked in front of computer”) may be used rarely (1,065 tweets) but might nonetheless be useful if you are investigating some members of Congress. Speaking of Congress, there is TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”) that might be most commonly used in connection with the legislative process (e.g., “ACA…TLDR”).

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Video of last week’s panel discussion of “Expanding Opportunity in Oklahoma,” sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, is now up.

Things got rather feisty among the three Oklahomans (two progressives and a conservative). I tried to play peacemaker on occasion.

P.S. I did not get any Koch money for participating in this panel, for those who are wondering.

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Twenty-Five Years

It is hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Tiananmen Square Massacre.

 t01_90605094

The picture of an unidentified man standing before the tanks has become something of a symbol of the individual versus the state.

Much has changed in China over the past quarter century, particularly with respect to economic growth, per capita GDP, and life expectancies. Yet, the fact remains that most Chinese may never hear of what happened in Tiananmen Square. As the anniversary approached, access to various Google services was blocked (along with a variety of other internet services).

There is some coverage of the anniversary at Reason and the New York Times. The Washington Post has a piece on what has become of some of the key players in the protests. I often wonder what happened to the man who is pictured above (known only as “Tank Man”). Was he one of the victims of the massacre? Was he detained an executed? Is he languishing in a prison? Perhaps he escaped detention and has lived a quiet life. While the identity of “Tank Man” remains unknown, Lily Kuo provides some background and some speculation.

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Waiting for Paul

Has anyone noticed that Paul Krugman has been strangely silent on the scandal at the VA, in which there seems to be a massive fraud in the failure to accurately report the real time that veterans have to wait for needed health care.

Perhaps this has something to do with this column, in which he said:

The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.

And…

For the lesson of the V.H.A.’s success story — that a government agency can deliver better care at lower cost than the private sector — runs completely counter to the pro-privatization, anti-government conventional wisdom that dominates today’s Washington.

And…

Cries of ”socialized medicine” didn’t, in the end, succeed in blocking the creation of Medicare. And farsighted thinkers are already suggesting that the Veterans Health Administration, not President Bush’s unrealistic vision of a system in which people go ”comparative shopping” for medical care the way they do when buying tile (his example, not mine), represents the true future of American health care.

Paul, I’m sure, has been holed up in his office trying desperately to show how the scandal is the result of right-wing extremists who are blindly ignorant to the facts and bludgeon reality with their ignorant, ideological hammers at every opportunity.

Of course that is the basic argument of every Krugman column, whether the “scandal” at issue is climate science, banking reform, austerity policies in Europe, income inequality, etc. etc.  He cycles through his pet lists of topics, but the argument is the same–cut and pasted from one article to the next.  Even if you think that the other Times columnists are whacky, too, at least the others come up with different whack from time to time and don’t expect to get paid for writing the same column every day.

So, Paul, we’re waiting.  Should be a doozy.

 

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