Agnosticism, atheism and deism from the epistemological perspective

©

Leandro Castelluccio

 

                                                                    Imagen de portada: The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

 

This essay contains brief modified extracts from my work “Proposiciones” (see in the following link)


There are three fundamental aspects that we can naturally formulate regarding the notion of a deity. Within these three aspects, it appears the range of positions regarding God, Religion, Science and in itself our ability to know and interpret reality. First of all there is the question of whether or not there is a God or Gods (the first fundamental aspect). Regarding this question, there is the epistemological attitude that we have about this (second fundamental aspect). There are those who state that we cannot know if there is a God, there are those who consider the contrary, of these, some state that we can know God with our intellectual capacities through science, others say that science cannot know about God and that we must gain knowledge through faith or other forms such as intuition or mystical experience. And the third fundamental aspect is the personal position regarding the truth of the idea that there is a God, some simply do not believe in God (although this does not mean that they deny the possibility of its existence), others do believe, others directly believe that it does not exist (they deny the possibility of its existence).

One position is that we may never know if there is a God or not and what is its nature, in that case, one could argue that we should remain agnostic, we do not pronounce on the existence or not of a God. Regarding this, on the one hand we can say that we do not know something to make a judgment, but it is different to say how sure we are that we cannot know such a thing. We can always make absurd claims with some certainty of their falsity (given what we know about the world, they would seem very unlikely claims), but with no concrete experience of them, for example, saying that there are pink unicorns orbiting Pluto. The agnostic position on the knowledge of a proposition would fail to assume that different propositions or hypotheses of reality have to be considered in the same measure, at least, apparently, that is what it is manifested in that position.

In this way, the hypothesis that there is a God would not have the same consideration as the hypothesis, for example, that there is life in other parts of the universe, given that a hypothesis that has no argument and evidence or facts to back it up has another form of less direct generation, how is it that we then manifest a hypothesis from nothing? For this hypothesis can only be the result of associations established by the individual, not directly, say, of a fact identified in reality. Given what we know about the chemistry of matter, astronomical observations and what we know about life on our planet, the hypothesis that life exists in other parts of the cosmos is a valuable hypothesis, which is worth considering in terms of empirical weight (not in terms of personal inquiry, for example), and one should look for evidence to support it. That is, the skeptical attitude that I consider worth it, can only be justified by the evidence, that is, it would fit, I think, that one expresses doubt about the certainty of an event when the evidence of it is insufficient to establish a judgment about the truth of it, but it could not be doubted in the same way of something for which we cannot establish anything or make any kind of empirical affirmation. This would be the case for the question of whether God exists (having established a criterion of the term that does not imply evidence), given that there would be no valid evidence or argument for such a claim, so that nothing can actually be said objectively, only associations would be raised that do not refer to something in reality in last instance, and therefore, nothing can be asked or doubted about it. Skepticism, I believe, only represents a sensible position to those propositions that have some evidence and argument to back them up, and the doubt refers to the truth based on the available evidence.

Some agnostics may say that we cannot know if God exists, and take that as an impartial attitude. However, there is a problem, how do we know that we cannot know if God exists? To say that we cannot know if God exists supposes knowledge about God, and if such knowledge has a backing in the evidence, it would not be the case that we cannot know God or at least have an indication of the existence of God. Take the example of an affirmation present in many religions that I consider wrong, that God is unknowable, I do not mean the opposite, I mean that to make such a statement of fact, one must have some knowledge of the nature of God to affirm that it is unknowable, but if one knows something of the nature of God, it is not true that it is unknowable. This would be a paradox in many religions.

Clinging to experience is crucial for making affirmations, but to what extent can we remain agnostic about the possibility of obtaining certain evidence? (According to a criterion of the agnostic notion).

How likely is it that there are pink unicorns orbiting Pluto? What we say about probability is based on our knowledge of something and ignorance of something. If I could determine all the causal factors of something, we would not speak of probability, the only thing that probability tells us is knowledge in front of the succession of past or inferred facts given certain knowledge. The occurrence of something is such. We observe in general that the simplest things in terms of explanations involve the probability that other explanations of simple character reflect the world, it is thus based on our observation, but there is certainly no logical need for that explanation of reality to be true, in the sense of saying that it is the only possible thing. Although we should not understand the idea of ​​parsimony simply as explanations of simple things, we speak of simplicity not strictly in the terms that we usually refer to something simple or complex, but directly to refer to the notion that something should not have unnecessary aggregates in terms of explanation, if it is enough with what we already have, and what we already have is very complex, the point is not to add something else, when it does not contribute to its explanation, and makes it even more complex.

If we wanted to prove that there are unicorns, we can prove it if we see one (in a simplistic approach), but if we do not see one, we would not disapprove its existence nor would it approve it, so we could not prove its non-existence, that would not be possible defining the hypothesis so openly, although we could reach the point of stating that its existence is unlikely.

It is as if we had a screen that does not let us see what is behind, and what is said is that behind this screen there is a God. But if one has never even seen what is behind it, how likely is it that what is said is what really lies behind it? It could be anything, or nothing. I can know something or I cannot know it, if I cannot know it, because there is a screen that does not let me see, why maintain the position of affirming the impossibility of such knowledge if I do not know that this knowledge can or cannot be achieved? This is not strictly what the agnostic raises, but this criterion can be considered. I do not know the nature of what is behind, maybe I can know it in some way.

It could be considered that it would be more sensible not to consider the affirmation as true since not having evidence, for what one would say that one does not believe, which does not mean “I think it does not exist”, that is the same as “believe that it exists”.

So the question is this: we have an affirmation (that there is a God) that comes from associations of our mind, not from direct perceptions of reality, where there is no evidence of what is posed. It can be said that the knowledge of this entity is impossible, but that falls in the contradiction that to affirm that it is necessary to know something of God. And is it possible to be agnostic about the affirmation that there is a God when it is an affirmation that is not based on any evidence? Not all statements are considered the same way. Again, how likely is it that there are pink unicorns orbiting Pluto? Is it possible to maintain the position that it is something possible that should be confirmed when there is evidence in this regard? The same would happen with the affirmation that there is a God.

Now, can we prove the non-existence of God? Existence-reality, in the sense of what we usually call the world, refers to a set of certain entities (those things we say we perceive, for example), and also implies a spatial-temporal structure. When we talk about the non-real, what does not exist, we mean that something that one manifests, certain things that one associates for example, do not refer to entities that are part of what we call independent reality, or if we talk about the mental scope, we state that certain mental content, so to speak, of which one speaks, is not present, it does not refer to the entity being present at the moment, for example. We speak of mental entities that are part of what exists, of what we call reality, but restricted to the scope of the subjects, not outside of them. The non-existent, the non-real, is not possible to be perceived. In daily life, when we say that there is no cup on a table, that it does not exist in such a place, it is usually manifested that we have not perceived such a case, but in the ultimate sense of non-existence, it is to say that this is not perceived under any circumstance, because it does not refer to a relation of entities at such a moment that are part of the world. One can say that something exists but that for X reason we cannot identify it, but what does not exist in itself cannot be perceived. What does not exist, that which is not real, can also refer to what is illogical (what is not possible), such as a triangle having five sides.

Well, we can only know what exists, the notion of non-existence is an association that involves the fact that there is no possible perception of something thought or said, for example, in the world we inhabit, or a notion is logically contradicted, but one could never directly prove, so to speak, the non-existence of something, since it would need the notion of existence, since “something” implies reality, existence, and we talk about the non-existent. Now, we cannot prove this directly, the only thing that would be an indirect form of proof if you can call it that, is to prove the existence of something that we believe would exist, whose existence contradicts another fact, so that if A is the case B cannot be possible. That is, we can prove the inexistence of something, proving the existence of something else, whose existence contradicts the existence of the first. So we could prove indirectly the non-existence of God, by means of tests that contradict the affirmations regarding God. For example, it is said that God is almighty, however, can God change his own nature for example? Any change that God makes will be based on God’s own nature, so that its nature precedes the fact of changing its own nature, it would be its own nature that determines God to want to change it, so that ultimately this fundamental principle will condition and determine, and is ultimately responsible, any change is conditioned by this nature, so that ultimately God cannot change its nature, and can only behave according to its nature, and only if it includes a certain change, is that there may be some, but this is subordinate to the nature itself. So based on this logical fact, it is not true that God can change its nature.

Related to the above is the question of the truth, and why a person believes in God or not. If we consider that there is no evidence of the existence of a God, then nobody supports the idea that there is a God or believes in it because it is something true. The attitude of believing in God refers to the belief that God exists, that is, to consider that the affirmation that there is a God is true, but in the absence of evidence to support such affirmation. Here comes the question of faith, claims about reality may or may not be based on evidence, and consequently we can pronounce to a greater or lesser extent about the possibility of the truth of such claims, but in parallel to this one can have faith about something, that is, consider the veracity of something in the absence of evidence.

From a scientific or objective perspective from the side of the epistemological position that we adopt with respect to the knowledge of reality, the truth of an affirmation and how we arrive to it involves multiple factors oriented to the affirmations having correspondence with independent reality. People who are characterized by having scientific or objective positions or being more trained in the scientific method, tend to appreciate greatly the value or weight of the evidence in front of a multitude of affirmations, often including the affirmation that there is a God. So in the absence of evidence of such a claim, many adopt the position of atheism, in the sense of not considering such a statement as certain given that there is no evidence to support it. The agnostic would adopt a similar position, but as mentioned above, this position may have the problem of considering unlikely statements of equal value. In any case, an atheist or agnostic in the above sense simply does not consider that it is true that God exists, not because it cannot exist in fact, but because there is no evidence to support the affirmation.

Now, exercising acts of faith is something that can be considered as a daily thing. It is said that sometimes we are optimistic about something, we think that X is going to be the case, even if we do not have evidence of that, we could opt for the opposite, expect something bad, or not have expectations, but supposing the positive way can help us motivate us, face an obstacle or improve our mood. We hardly know what will be of our lives, one thinks that there will be good things and that motivates us to do things, in a way there is an attitude of faith, we would say, in such a position. So one would not dismiss faith as something negative simply because it is not necessarily the most objective. Although, I would wait for better examples to reach that conclusion. Let’s keep in mind that in the case of optimism there is not truly an act of faith, in the sense that what is often considered is not the fact that the good is going to happen, believing that the good is what is going to happen in the absence of evidence, what we have in mind is that the good can happen, which is based on evidence, we have the knowledge that the good is something feasible, that it can happen, it is not impossible according to reality, whether it happens or not, that’s what one will see later. In the same way one can cling to the possibility that God exists, as something motivating for a person, as an enigma to solve, but not necessarily believe that God exists, not until one has evidence of it.

On the other hand, one can say that the knowledge of God starts from one’s intuition, which is beyond the observable and that it is equally valid that we observe it within a standardized scientific framework. But let us think that intuition cannot be without knowledge, otherwise it would have no cause, it would not have previous associations in the process caused to activate it, if we think about the mental aspects that generate it. The intuition could be what before certain knowledge tells us, for example, that the Earth is flat and could also give us the clues to consider that it is not. So intuition is not a guarantee of certainty. It could be argued that certainty by intuition is the result of a coincidence. But is this so, or the consideration for example that the Earth is flat is a generalization or a wrong induction? Is it truly intuition? It depends on our definition, the criteria that we establish. Intuition may be the knowledge that I cannot explain, perhaps. In this case, then, it is a knowledge of which I cannot account for the associations that generated it. We are not aware of all the associations that generate a conscious update of the result in the associations of things. But this implies that it does not escape the mental reality and the functioning based on associations, it is not something else. Thus, all intuition can refer to associations (or rather relationships) of things in reality, but this does not imply that these associations of things generated refer to things that actually occur in the world.

The fruit of intellectual work may also be not true, but it can be true. Intuition can also be true, but that truth could be the result of coincidence, by itself, it is not a guarantee of the truth. That is, we should not believe that both the intellectual and the intuitive give us the truth, in the sense that the truth is usually something that requires time to grasp it, and neither the intellectual nor the intuitive are sources of certainty as such. The intellectual understanding referring to something true is such when it reflects reality, the relationships that occur in fact in reality. Sometimes there is a counter-intuitive aspect of reality, where what seems obvious does not turn out to be the case. A proposition about something is not in itself true, unless it reflects reality or results in a logical postulate in its terms, if we refer to this truth in a particular case. The way to determine with greater certainty if it reflects reality is through evidence and logic, because these are reality.

The belief in God does not have to be rejected, nothing concludes that a position of “believe that does not exist” must be adopted. The possibility of its existence has not been denied here, but we must take into account the reasons behind certain positions, from the epistemological perspective.

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