Sink the Agnostic?

Jerry Coyne over at “Why Evolution is True” kinda likes a new way to clear up the confusion over the terms “agnostic” and “atheist” that’s been cooked up by Mano Singham, which proposes this:


Singham’s solution: deep-six the term “agnostic,” and redefine “atheist” to eliminate these ambiguities:

atheist:  One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.

He explains the advantages:

This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say “no”, they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say “yes”, they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

Although this sounds like a rhetorical strategy to force people to admit they’re atheists, I actually like it.  It subsumes in a logical way both people like P.Z., who don’t think there can be evidence for a god because the very concept is incoherent, and people like me, who think that in principle there could be evidence for a god, but none has appeared.  Likewise, it subsumes those who are certain that there is no god (#7 on the Dawkins scale) with those, like Richard himself, who are highly doubtful but not absolutely certain.  And it’s not just conflation of wildly disparate views, for it separates people on a crucial axis: whether or not they think we need a god to explain and understand the world.”


There are a few problems with this, however:

1)  Agnostic was created by Huxley to delineate the ability to know about a proposition.  An agnostic claims that the truth value of a proposition is unknowable (either just at the current time or possibly permanently); someone who is not agnostic claims that we can know the truth value of that proposition.  Singham deep-sixes the term agnostic but his new definition doesn’t in any way fulfill that purpose; we still can classify people based on the meaning of that term.  So his redefinition of atheist doesn’t work if it has to replace agnostic as well; it simply cannot do that.  Thus, indeed, some agnostics may well reject is principle … but remain agnostics because of the link to knowledge.  They, then, would be agnostic theists, which is a classification that already exists today.  Simply put, the classification is useful and we can’t replace agnostic with this since it clearly doesn’t capture what the term “agnostic” was meant to capture.

2) The “unnecessary explanatory concept” isn’t actually all that clear, and again it is here that agnosticism raises an issue.  What does it mean to be a “necesssary explanatory concept”?   My first blush guess would be that that is a concept that is absolutely required to explain something, meaning that no other explanation could possibly be correct for that phenomena.  The problem here is that many theists will concede that there are other possible explanations for the things God did, but that the explanation “God did it” happens to be the right one.  This goes double for agnostic theists.  So a lot of theists that would believe in a God would suddenly be atheists by this definition.  That can’t be right.  But to weaken necessary will make some atheists theists because they’ll accept that if God exists He would be a necessary explanation … but they don’t think He exists and so isn’t.  So if you allow for God to be a possible explanation for phenomena, then you’ll have agnostic atheists and even some stronger atheists admitting that God is a possible explanation but not the right one.  So this doesnt work either.

So this doesn’t actually seem like a very good redefinition of atheist to eliminate the term “agnosticism”.

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