The Mathematician in a trice
Created Earth and Paradise.
The abstract thinker said that Mind
And Universe were of a kind.
And the anthropomorphic sages
Think Deity both laughs and rages.
Idea into dogma grows,
And all believe and no one knows.
Agnostics are often seen as half-hearted people. They are asked why they don’t go the whole way and openly deny the existence of God. A well-known joke tells of a dyslectic insomniac Agnostic who lay awake all night agonising about the existence of Dog. In this chapter I outline my view of the relationship of agnosticism to other religious positions, and show that Agnostics have indeed gone the whole way and are neither covert believers nor Atheists.
A common way of representing the different religious outlooks is with two paddocks, one populated by believers and the other by non-believers. The Agnostics are sitting on the fence between them. I suggest a different picture.
Draw a triangle. One of the corners represents the point of view of all the people that I will call Supernaturalists. These people believe in the existence of something supernatural (which they may refer to as spirit), usually envisaged as one or more entities – God and/or various other kinds of supernatural beings. The supernatural is not part of the natural (i.e., material) world, which for this exercise is presumed to exist, but it may be somehow involved with it. (The issue of whether it exists will be touched upon in Chapter 3 Monism and Dualism – a case for the existence of the supernatural.)
Another corner of the triangle represents the Atheists. These are people who believe that there is no such thing as the supernatural; there is only the material world. Everything we are, everything we see, do, feel or think, everything that exists, is part of a material process in the material world. There can be nothing else.
There are various definitions of atheism. Some would fit within the description of agnosticism below, and some might even be compatible with the views of some Supernaturalists. The description used here is chosen to clearly differentiate between my three types of attitude concerning religion.
The third corner of the triangle is for the Agnostics, who don’t agree with either the Supernaturalists or the Atheists. Agnostics think, or believe, that it is not possible to know whether there is anything other than the material world. So the joke about the dyslectic insomniac Agnostic (the word agnostic meaning not knowing) implies an unduly simple concept of what Agnostics “don’t know” about.
In other words, if there seem to be “spooky” aspects to everyday life and/or to science, then Supernaturalists believe they really are spooky, Atheists do not believe they are at all spooky, and Agnostics think that sometimes they might be spooky but it would be impossible to tell.
What might those at each corner of the triangle conclude when they look across towards the other two?
From a supernaturalist point of view, atheism and agnosticism look very much the same. Neither will affirm the existence of any kind of supernatural entity.
From an atheistic point of view, supernaturalism and agnosticism, while being clearly different, have a crucial characteristic in common. Neither will deny the existence of any kind of entity beyond the material world.
From an agnostic point of view, the differences between supernaturalism and atheism are clear, as are the deep divisions within supernaturalism, but both have a crucial characteristic in common. Neither will acknowledge that it may be impossible to know whether any supernatural entity exists.
This is, of course, a gross simplification of the three perspectives. But there are different kinds of preoccupation that characterise them. Supernaturalists tend to be concerned with their particular subject of belief, concentrating, for example, on Jesus, or on the spirits of deceased ancestors, and on the behavioural requirements prescribed in their sacred texts. Atheists tend to be mainly concerned with the existence or non-existence of God. And Agnostics tend to think about knowability and the possible existence of some undefined supernatural entity.
Using the symbol of the triangle suggests there are three and only three possible attitudes about the supernatural and that they are distinguishable from each other. The issue here is whether agnosticism is sufficiently different from the other two to abandon the two-paddock analogy. These matters will be examined in this and following chapters.
The Concept of the Supernatural – God, gods and spirits
As implied above, the supernatural is a (hypothetical) entity that might exist separate from the material world, but which might be capable of affecting it. It would also be significantly different from the material world.
To meet these conditions, the supernatural would avoid some of the constraints that are usually thought to govern material phenomena, e.g., the natural laws or the rules of logic, in ways that might be beyond our imagination. It should be said that this is my concept of the supernatural. Most Supernaturalists would probably regard this concept as unduly abstract and remote, but I think it covers the spectrum, from God to ghosts to something out of which gods and ghosts and other things might be formed.
God is usually thought of as the supreme being, presiding over both a supernatural world and the material world. To at least some Supernaturalists, the material world might be part of God. The powers of God might be (and usually are) regarded as unlimited, but in some traditions they are shared with one or more similar entities in either harmony or opposition.
Throughout human history people have believed in the existence of a whole range of supernatural entities, not only God or gods, but also many lesser beings such as angels, fairies, souls, and demons, some ethereal and some embodied. Most of them are thought of as having some resemblance in appearance and behaviour to human beings. People and other living organisms (in the material world) may or may not contain, in addition to material bodies, supernatural components that are generally thought to separate out from the body when the body dies.
Some supernaturalists consider consciousness to be a supernatural entity. Indeed, they may regard the identity of each person (and sometimes each member of other species, and even rocks, mountains and watercourses) to reside in the, usually undying, supernatural component rather than in the material body or thing.
For Supernaturalists, belief in the existence of the supernatural is a matter of faith or innate belief. This is often bolstered by what they regard to be factual or persuasive evidence. But they also have a notion that there is something mysterious about the supernatural, so there is no point in asking questions about any aspects of it that might seem illogical. Those of a philosophical bent may include faith in the supernatural as one of the necessary foundations on which philosophy must be built, regarding it as an enrichment of life.
Most Supernaturalists are born into a culture or family that takes it for granted that some supernatural entity exists. In some cultures, affirming it is compulsory.
In addition, supernaturalism, in all its forms, is justified on one or more separate and independent grounds. These are:
- feelings or intuitive convictions that something exists separate from the material world;
- experiences (such as coincidences or “miracle cures” or very lucky/unlucky events, or “almost catching sight of” a lurking angel or fairy) that lead to the conclusion that some power exists that is different from the powers of the material world;
- acceptance of authority sources, such as respected people, writings or objects that affirm the existence of the supernatural;
- philosophical or scientific reasoning that leads to the conclusion that there is indeed “something else”;
- feeling a need for purpose, belonging, identity or certainty that is thought to be satisfied by, and only by, a belief in a supernatural entity;
- liking the idea that there is something in addition to the material world.
Some people who were not Supernaturalists have come to believe in some form of supernatural entity through one or more of these justifications.
Supernaturalism is a conglomeration of different systems of belief, ranging from those with extensive detailed descriptions of supernatural entities, to those with only vague ideas that there is something else beyond the material world. Most of its forms have supernaturally prescribed morals and religious practices. These can include loving and altruistic attitudes and practices, and/or cruel and punitive ones. The morals can often include prohibitions of apparently innocuous things that are said to displease a supernatural entity. The rules of morality and ritual are codified, and taught by religious institutions that may enforce their observance. Supernaturalists may expect intervention in their lives from supernatural entities, which they may trust to help them out of difficult or dire situations, and/or punish them for wrongdoing.
Supernaturalists generally regard certain places and things to be of spiritual significance, i.e., related to the supernatural. They often build great and beautiful edifices as places of worship and as sanctuaries for religious objects. Supernaturalists tend to regard feelings of awe and some other emotions as being spiritual. In general, religious practices include rituals that enhance such feelings, and the buildings and other places in which these practices take place usually inspire awe.
Belief in the supernatural promotes unity among those of a similar persuasion, often resulting in the production of great works and philanthropic endeavours in the name of their particular system of belief. Such unity also tends to create a feeling of certainty about what must be believed and about correct behaviour. This can result in tendencies to feel morally superior, including on matters not related to the actual teachings of their particular religion. It often results in hostility towards people of different beliefs, and to social repression. (Such hostility is not, of course, confined to Supernaturalists; it is common in all kinds of groups whose members find a sense of identity in their membership.)
Some Supernaturalists will willingly risk their life and die in defence of their particular religion. Sometimes their willingness is helped by an expected reward in an afterlife. But some people, irrespective of their beliefs, will willingly die in defence their country or their city or their family or some other cause. However Atheists and Agnostics are less likely to make a similar sacrifice in defence of atheism or agnosticism.
Supernaturalists who regularly engage in religious activities are more likely than the rest of the general population to regularly give help to disadvantaged people, not only to those sharing their religious beliefs but across the wider community. However, some religious groups are inward-looking and virtually ignore the wider community.
Some Supernaturalists proclaim their religious adherence by wearing distinctive items of clothing or symbols, by having religious texts or artefacts displayed in or outside their homes, and by making allusions to their belief in their conversation and other communication.
In denying the existence of anything beyond the material world (with particular concern about God) Atheists regard themselves to be very rational. They are disposed to want evidence, doubting anything that is not evidently true. They are very sceptical of claims of evidence or arguments of proof of the supernatural. They do not accept that coincidences are ever miracles, that is, that they are supernatural events. They reject any suggestion that faith and emotion are valid as evidence or of metaphysical significance. They would regard faith as the kind of belief that will continue unchanged no matter what happens. They take pride in their own declared readiness to change their opinions in the light of any new evidence that seems to be well founded. Nevertheless, Atheists are usually confident that they “know” there is no God or anything supernatural, although in accordance with their openness to new evidence they might express it as being “99.9 percent sure”. This is not covert agnosticism: Atheists are, in general, realists, and are aware that belief does not need to be absolute.
None of this stops them from having feelings or awe and great wonderment, but these arise from aspects of the material world – which, of course, contains an enormous range of things to inspire awe and wonder.
Atheism is not a single or agreed system of beliefs, but it is much less diverse than supernaturalism. It is founded on one or more separate and independent grounds. These are:
- feelings or intuitive convictions that there is nothing other than the material world;
- perceived lack of any evidence that any power or entity exists beyond the material world;
- acceptance of authority sources, such as respected people and writings that reject the idea of the existence of God or any entity beyond the material world;
- philosophical or scientific reasoning or principles that lead to the conclusion that there is no entity beyond the material world;
- rejection of (supernatural) religion on the grounds that some religious claims are untenable, which usually means refuted by science – such as the causes of various phenomena and the relationship of Earth to the rest of the cosmos;
- revulsion at specific claims or practices of a particular religion;
- rejection of the need to introduce any apparently surplus entity to explain aspects of the world or to give a feeling of purpose or identity.
A person might come to Atheism on any one of these grounds and yet reject others. Some people are born into a culture or family in which atheism is taken for granted or strongly encouraged.
Atheism has no need for rituals. It does not provide a foundation for goals or morality, but does not prevent or discourage the adoption of secular equivalents. In practice, Atheists generally agree with Supernaturalists on many moral issues. They may passionately engage in political activities, or in movements supporting civil or animal rights, etc., often alongside Supernaturalists and Agnostics, but not in the name of atheism. (Alternative foundations of morality are discussed in Chapter 6 Five Contesting Foundations of Morality.)
Some Atheists are hostile towards the practices or institutions of people who believe in the supernatural, usually out of a perception that such practices or institutions are unfairly privileged, socially disruptive or cruel. However, in countries where atheistic or secular attitudes prevail and are given higher status, socially destructive or suppressive acts have often been committed in the name of some non-religious principle. Unspeakable acts have, in fact, been committed in the name of all of the great bodies of belief, religious and materialistic, usually in violation of the ideals they are proclaimed to support.
Atheists do not build temples but may meet regularly to discuss or promote their ideas and issues, and sometimes to denounce belief in the supernatural, or certain practices of organised religion, or occult practices that are used to exploit susceptible people. They do, however, in cooperation with Supernaturalists and Agnostics, build edifices to secular pursuits that they think are important, such as sports stadiums and art galleries.
There are organisations, the Humanists and the Unitarians, whose members are mostly incidentally atheistic or agnostic. The emphasis of the Humanists is on developing practical systems of morality based on such principles as compassion and fairness, but not accepting moralities merely on the grounds of attributed revelation, divine or otherwise. The emphasis of the Unitarians is on living their lives in accordance with humanitarian principles.
Agnosticism does not accept any of the current justifications for affirming or denying the existence of anything beyond the material world. It is founded on one or more separate and independent grounds. These are:
- feelings or reasoning that is not possible to know whether anything exists beyond the material world;
- reasoning that there is (as yet) no known way of knowing whether anything exists beyond the material world;
- inability to see any way of knowing (which is not the same as claiming the impossibility of knowing) whether anything exists beyond the material world;
- inability to come to a conclusion about the great diversity of beliefs about the supernatural, or unwillingness to pursue the matter;
- examination and rejection of the beliefs and rationales of those who claim to know.
As with supernaturalism and atheism, there is no single agnostic viewpoint. Some Agnostics firmly believe that is inherently impossible to know whether there is anything beyond the perceived world. Some would consider arguments that invoke the supernatural. Others see no point in taking the matter further.
When Supernaturalists note a tentative agnostic acceptance of the possible existence of a supernatural entity they are inclined to say that all that is needed to become a believer is faith. One agnostic answer is that there are no reliable or persuasive criteria for choosing which version, if any, of the supernatural beliefs to put their faith in, even if some supernaturalist beliefs or practices might seem attractive.
While Agnostics accept the possibility of the existence of things that we as yet cannot know about, they are very sceptical about detailed descriptions of purported supernatural entities or processes. The supernatural must, of necessity, have characteristics distinctly different from those of the material world. So to describe it only in terms of the material world – and even things like intelligence are manifestations of the material – raises the question of whether it really is supernatural.
Like atheism, agnosticism does not provide a set of beliefs or rituals, or a particular system of morality, or a basis for a sense of purpose. And, like Atheists, Agnostics can feel awe and wonder at the material world and become actively engaged in secular movements.
In contrast to Supernaturalists and Atheists, Agnostics usually deny themselves the confidence of “knowing they are right”. They think that while faith may be a comfort and strength to believers of all kinds, it is seldom acquired by careful choice, and it discourages consideration of contradictory evidence. This means that Agnostics are much less likely to be militant activists in promoting or defending their persuasion than are Supernaturalists and Atheists. But that does not necessarily stop them from being activists on other issues.
Is Agnosticism Really Different from Atheism?
Some Agnostics have a very similar outlook to some Atheists, just as, for example, some high Anglicans hold very similar beliefs and practise similar rituals to some Catholics. So they are similar but different.
They share several outlooks, such as:
- reliance on scientific method;
- rejection of claims that feelings or emotions are evidence of the supernatural;
- rejection of claims that coincidental occurrences have supernatural significance;
- rejection of claims that religious texts are intrinsically true, and scepticism of all religious texts except where particular details are independently confirmed;
- scepticism of claims of paranormal powers or occurrences;
- scepticism of religious or other philosophy that assumes or purports to prove the existence of supernatural entities;
- reluctance to hold any belief as sacred, in the sense of having faith in its infallibility (although some Atheists and Agnostics of a scientific bent might regard some scientific “truths” as sacred, for example the second law of thermodynamics);
- ability to experience awe and wonder without associating it with supernatural characteristics;
- conducting their everyday life without reference to religious or devotional practices.
Given these similarities, Atheists are bemused that Agnostics should entertain the notion that anything supernatural might exist.
But that is not the issue. Agnosticism is different from atheism in that it:
- is reluctant to accept the rationales that atheism is based on because the assumptions behind them seem open to question;
- considers that all of our ways of knowing must contain some degree of uncertainty;
- allows the possibility of a supernatural entity and sees possible cases where it might be needed to explain observed phenomena;
- is less likely to induce a feeling of certainty in its outlook, or superiority over or hostility towards those who believe in the supernatural.
Atheists wonder why Agnostics don’t completely dismiss the idea of the supernatural, given that few, if any, would think there just might be a Santa Claus. But all the characteristics attributed to Santa Claus belong very clearly to the material world, as do those of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a hypothetical entity conjured up by satirical Atheists as an alternative to other purported supernatural entities. Atheists point out that human subjectivity seems to be continually haunted by the idea, or indeed the conviction, of the existence of “something else” and gives it material characteristics. This appears to be a genetically determined aspect of the brain, and also to be evolutionally beneficial. Specific regions of the brain have been identified as the seat of the “feeling of religiosity”, and such feelings have been induced by artificially stimulating the relevant regions. But there is no reason to completely reject the possibility of the supernatural on the grounds that some of the purported supernatural entities happen to be either figments of the imagination or material entities.
Atheists argue, and Agnostics accept, that each new entity that scientists propose is put forward to logically explain observed phenomena. Some Agnostics accept, but Atheists do not, that invoking a supernatural entity might be necessary to understand some unexplained observed events. Agnostics point out that established science has been overturned in the past and there is no reason to expect that all mysteries will soon be resolved. And there are indeed some serious mysteries for scientists to resolve.
Since the end of the 19th century, scientists (think they) have discovered many things about the universe that make it much stranger than we had ever thought, e.g.:
- curved space-time;
- the equivalence of matter and energy;
- a great range of sub-atomic particles that have a great range of strange characteristics;
- nuclear forces, dark matter and dark energy;
- that the basic elements of the universe do not behave consistently but with a probability that can be calculated, and that they can be in more than one place or condition at the same time.
So what else is there? One answer might be ‘some different kind of entity’. The atheistic answer would be: ‘yet-to-be-discovered aspects of the material world’. But when new kinds are things are discovered about the material world they often seem to lead to conflicting or incomplete explanations. Some people think the apparent illogicalities of quantum theory must have an underlying logical material explanation. Others think that quantum theory reveals an extension to what is logical, just as the idea of non-Euclidean space did more than a century ago, and before that, negative, irrational and imaginary numbers. These “illogical ideas” all have applications in science and technology. It could therefore be claimed that other apparently illogical aspects of the material world might account for the currently inexplicable observations, without the need for recourse to a supernatural entity. But there is no conclusive argument either way: and the useful application of an idea does not necessarily mean that the idea must be true.
According to a common atheistic view, agnosticism is nothing more than a provisional position pending scientific resolution. An implication of this is that science will progressively resolve all mysteries, including the existence or otherwise of the supernatural, and that it will be found that the supernatural does not exist. There’s a whiff of faith here. There is no justification for assuming that it will ever be possible for humanity to solve all scientific mysteries; indeed according to information theory this would be impossible. Nor, as I will argue in the next chapter, is there justification for believing that there could not exist some supernatural entity.
Four Issues of Scientific Concern
The concept of the cosmos seems to become less well understood at its deeper level with each major scientific discovery. We have seen a succession of “true scientific” cosmologies: the Ptolemaic Earth-centred world gave way to the mechanical but absolute Newtonian universe; which was replaced by the relativist universe that then had to accommodate a probabilistic, quirky quantum partner. Modern science has learnt a great deal about the material world, but four great scientific issues suggest that something is seriously wrong.
The first is that our two fundamental theories, relativity and quantum theory, which in every way have proved to be more exact and comprehensive than anything previous, are fundamentally incompatible. Many theorists are confident of an ultimate resolution, but all suggested solutions so far have failed. (This will be discussed again in the last section of Chapter 4 The Nature of the Supernatural.)
The second relates to the fundamental constants of physics. These are the numbers that represent such things as the strength of the gravitational force, the speed of light, the masses of the various sub-atomic particles and the electrical charge of protons and electrons. All of these, along with others, are thought to determine the nature and operation of everything in the universe. There is no way of calculating what the values of any of these constants should be. They can be precisely measured but there is no apparent way of discovering how the universe happened to have constituents with these particular characteristics and values.
Calculations using quantum theory and applying the values of these universal constants produce very precise matches to observed phenomena. There is however one exception. This is the value of the zero-point energy of the “quantum vacuum”, that is, of empty space. Zero-point energy is the smallest possible amount of energy that, according to quantum theory, any physical system is able to have. Quantum field theory, which is quantum theory applied to the special theory of relativity, predicts a value for the quantum vacuum that is much greater than the measured value. It is not just fifty percent more, or ten times or a hundred times more. It is an unimaginably large amount, about 10122 times more. This is known as the “cosmological constant problem”, and as yet there seems to be no solution to it.
(An explanation has been put forward to account for this enormous discrepancy. The explanation is that the energy is shared between all of the universes, including ours) in a multiverse. This does not seem at all plausible. According to quantum theory, the quantum vacuum began with the rest of our universe at the Big Bang. And no other feature of our universe is considered to be shared in a similar way. And while there are at least four theories that suggest there is a multiverse, there is no compelling evidence.)
The third issue is that either the part of the universe that we know about and theorise about is only about four percent of the total, or else what we think about gravity, and other phenomena, is seriously incomplete. The remaining 96% is the mysterious dark energy and dark matter. Some theories have been developed to dispense with the need for the missing dark energy and dark matter in accounting for the relevant observed phenomena, but in their present form they have serious flaws. (At the time of writing, neither dark matter nor dark energy has been unequivocally detected, but some scientists think detection of dark matter is very close. When or if these entities are discovered, more mysteries could arise from the discovery. But, even if the discovery were to dispel these particular scientific mysteries rather than create new ones, others would probably remain.)
The fourth great issue is that the mysteries of the origin and nature of life, of consciousness and of the beginnings of time and causation may be intrinsically inexplicable in materialistic terms.
There is no reason to believe that if something is intrinsically inexplicable to human beings there must be some supernatural explanation. We would never put any significance on the fact that something was inexplicable to cockroaches, or to any non-human organism. And humans can never expect to know everything.
Nevertheless, the lack of materialistic explanations re-opens a gap through which the existence of the supernatural might be presumed to be possible. Some objections to this are that:
- it ignores Occam’s razor;
- it does not propose any processes by which life, consciousness and origins might occur, and so it is not testable;
- if the supernatural is the agency of consciousness, then conscious beings should be directly aware of it;
- it does nothing more than shift the problems from material to the supernatural.
There are counters to some of these objections.
Although Occam’s razor is a useful principle, science has to ignore it whenever some new entity, such as dark energy, seems to be responsible for otherwise unexplainable observations.
The definition of the supernatural given earlier allows for processes that we might be affected by but could never become aware of.
The claim that conscious beings should be aware of the supernatural if consciousness is supernatural is speculative. Furthermore, some people are sure they are aware of the supernatural, and this might allow some kind of test to be proposed.
In this and the other cases, shifting the problem from material to the supernatural could be feasible if the supernatural has unknown and unimaginable characteristics that allow it to do what is not allowable in purely material processes.
As will be discussed in later chapters, some normally accepted logical constraints are violated in some branches of physics and mathematics. It could therefore be claimed that other apparently illogical aspects of the material world might account for the currently inexplicable beginnings (and aspects of life and consciousness), without recourse to a supernatural entity. But there is no conclusive argument either way.
None of this is meant to underrate science, merely to point out that, despite its enormous success in explaining the material world, there are areas of observation that are presently beyond scientific explanation. It might be argued that some as yet unknown (non-material?) discipline could explore the supernatural. Until this is decided, Agnostics reserve their judgment.
What all this boils down to is that Agnosticism differs from Atheism on three issues:
- the limitations of human beings to apprehend and understand reality, particularly a reality using different rules from the material world we are familiar with;
- the possibility that there is a “supernatural of the gaps” – a much less specific version of the idea of the “God of the gaps” – i.e., if there isn’t yet a sound scientific explanation for something, you might concede, temporarily, that it could be due to God or some other supernatural entity, or, as I argue in this book, some things might be inherently inexplicable by science;
- the uncertainty imposed by the logical stalemate that is reached when philosophical arguments are taken to their limit.
So, returning to popular ideas about agnosticism, Agnostics are not sitting on a fence between two paddocks, one containing Supernaturalists and the other containing Atheists. To continue that metaphor, Agnostics have a paddock of their own. Another common charge is that Agnostics are “neither one thing nor the other”, with the implication that this is an impossible or undesirable position. Agnostics are indeed neither one thing nor the other, and there is nothing unusual or undesirable about that because there are more than two possible categories, just as, for example, human beings are neither bats nor baboons.
Why an Eternal Triangle?
My description of three distinct types of belief and believers might seem a bit too pat. Might there be an additional type of entity in addition to the material and supernatural? Some people believe in extra-terrestrials – the von Däniken visitors who “built the pyramids”, and those who abduct people from their beds at night and return them in the morning, and the ones who the Raelians believe made the human race and who will come and collect the faithful in their spaceships when Earth becomes uninhabitable. But there would seem to be no reason to regard any of these (if they existed) as anything but part of the material world, along with the extra-terrestrial entities that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and other scientific endeavours are trying to discover.
Looking at the issue another way, I have described three perspectives:
- believing (which might not be absolute conviction) in the existence of some kind of supernatural entity;
- believing (which might not be absolute conviction) in the non-existence of any supernatural entity;
- not believing in the existence of any kind of supernatural entity and also not believing in the non-existence of any kind of supernatural entity.
Could there be any other perspectives? Could it be that Pantheism and some strands of Buddhism, which regard the material universe to be itself some kind of supernatural entity, should be a fourth category? If this means denying of the existence of the material world, it would be a mirror image of the atheistic position, and would be a supernaturalist position. But merely calling the familiar world supernatural, or any other name, does not make it any different; it is still just the same material world. So these Pantheist and Buddhist beliefs are either atheistic or supernaturalist, depending on the attitudes of the individual Pantheists and Buddhists.
Another challenge to my limit of three perspectives might be the idea of someone believing in both the existence of some kind of supernatural entity and also in the non-existence of any kind of supernatural entity. This hypothetical self-contradictory perspective is different from my third perspective – that there is no (present) way of knowing whether a supernatural entity might exist. Perhaps someone might sometimes believe in the existence, and at other times in the non-existence, of the supernatural, but I would regard that as shuttling from one perspective to the other. If someone actually claimed to believe both at the same time I would regard that to be either embracing two corners of the triangle instead of just one, or an odd case of confusion . (Perhaps Zen Buddhists would disagree with the second alternative, but I think their koans are purely figurative.)
Similarly, any claim that nothing exists, neither the material world nor the supernatural, would not be worth any further consideration beyond asking what non-existent person or entity is making the claim.
In this discussion I have bundled all Supernaturalists, all Atheists and all Agnostics into three groups, taking no account of the differences within the groups. There is another way of representing the groups that shows their differences and overlaps. It is based on individual persons’ assessments of the probability of particular beliefs and on the confidence the they have in their assessments.
This can be illustrated using a rationale in support of atheism that I will examine in the next chapter. It says that there can be no all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God because there is evidence of much evil in the world. This is assumed to be about the God of Christianity, along with eternal souls, Heaven and Hell. An Atheist relying on this rationale would assess the probability of this God’s existence to be very close to zero, with a confidence in this assessment at close to one hundred percent.
Now consider someone who has a fifty percent probability of the existence of this entity. Is this the Agnostic who “lies awake at night agonising about the existence of God”? Being in this situation would be a bit like being fifty percent sure that your house will burn to the ground with you in it. But none of the Agnostics I know are at all perturbed about being agnostic. And this is because, while they are agnostic about the existence of God, they are “atheistic” about eternal damnation for wayward souls.
Someone who has rejected this God because of concerns about the existence of evil might still accept the possibility of a God that cannot intervene in any way with the material world. There are multitudinous kinds of beliefs about the characteristics of supernatural entities, and believers in one kind of entity are usually atheistic or agnostic about all or most of the others. So distinguishing the different belief systems in terms of probability, and of confidence in the assessment of probability, is dependent on what particular beliefs are being considered. So in this type of analysis, there are not just three possible perspectives, but countless multitudes of them.
I acknowledge that this approach can be useful in distinguishing different kinds of Supernaturalists, Atheists and Agnostics relating to one specific set of beliefs. But it is not useful for my purpose of making a global distinction between the three perspectives. For a person to be a Supernaturalist it is enough to believe in only one version of the supernatural, and disbelieving or doubting all of the other versions does not make that person an Atheist or an Agnostic. Atheists and Agnostics disbelieve or doubt all versions.
Also, I have doubts about the relationship between the assessments of probability and of confidence. For example, someone who gives a probability value to the existence of some entity but has, say, only thirty percent confidence about it, is seventy percent confident that the probability is wrong. I would be inclined to think such a person had very little idea what to believe. As an Agnostic, I am quite unable to decide on a probability that anything supernatural exists. (But, like most Agnostics, I don’t agonise, because, while I cannot attribute probabilities, I think that of all the “possible” supernatural entities, the least likely are the ones that have characteristics similar to those of human beings.)
The triangle analogy might seem to imply that all members of each category are clustered at their appropriate apex. But, as has just been discussed, not all people hold their beliefs firmly and continually. Most hold particularly favoured beliefs more firmly than less favoured beliefs. Most have inconsistencies between their beliefs. Some Christians claim to be agnostic about their “faith”. Nevertheless there is a “heartland” of each perspective that makes me think that all three will persist, possibly in different forms from the present and possibly for different reasons.
People each have their own reasons for what they believe (and what they don’t believe). I think we each construct our individual criteria for (intuitively) deciding what are reliable sources of “truth”. These criteria depend on our individual sensory inputs, emotional disposition and mental processing power. In other words, what we believe depends on:
- our experiences, probably beginning from before birth;
- those factors that determine our personality;
- and those factors that determine how we arrive at conclusions in the light of experience and personality.
We are compelled, by the necessities of everyday life, to continually form beliefs on inadequate evidence. Most practical beliefs continue to be demonstrably true. So believing in the supernatural without complete “scientific” evidence is not much different from most practical beliefs, and to some people may often be indistinguishable from them. There is no shortage of occurrences, some very significant, in most people’s lives to support a feeling of some unseen process or entity being responsible. But most of our beliefs are about material matters, and for some people all their beliefs are.
In societies with strong cultural beliefs, religious or other, there are always people of a contrary persuasion, such as “unbelievers” in supernaturalist societies and “believers” in secular societies. Although Supernaturalists, Atheists and Agnostics each have their own reasons for what they think or believe, from time to time some of them change their minds.
Some Atheists and Agnostics become Supernaturalists because, having previously found satisfaction with life through some personal or societal interest, they start to find it no longer satisfying and are attracted to something that appears to be more noble or enduring and that happens to have a supernatural element. They then set about examining the evidence for and against that, and may find they are able to believe in it.
Some Supernaturalists become Atheists or Agnostics because some event or chain of reasoning conflicts with some aspect of their image of their particular supernatural entity. Rather than adjusting their image, which is the usual reaction, they discard it entirely. Whether they settle on Atheism or Agnosticism will probably depend on the rest of their beliefs and their personality.
Indeed, there is quite a bit of traffic between all three corners of the triangle, and a lot more around the Supernaturalist corner. And if we were to consider our own beliefs at different stages of our lives we would probably find many changes, resulting from significant experiences, or from thinking things through in different ways. So attitudes of mind usually change through life.
Significant new experiences, accumulations of small ones, and new thoughts continue to test our religious and non-religious beliefs. As long as we continue to have new experiences and new thoughts we will each continue to modify our own unique conclusions. I think (and hope) this is inherent in the human condition, and that the triangle, if not eternal, will outlast all of us here.