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Posted by Harvey on May 15, 2003 15:47:21 UTC


I just excused that as an overstatement. But, now that you mention it, it's worth comments by both of us. I don't think his statement is patently false, but I do see it as misleading. But, it's not easy to explain why.

***Kyle: The luxury that I have as an agnostic is that I am free to choose to believe any theory which best fits the data, without prejudice***

This is the position that agnosticism pretends to take, but I don't think this is actually what happens. Humans are conceptual creatures, that means that we have conceptions of the world, and we interpret our sense impressions based on the conceptual scheme. Some of our conceptions are biological and are limited based on the fact that we are humans that evolved from primates, some of our conceptions are cultural, others based on sex, others based on educational background, others based on family background, etc. Conceptual schemes allow us to respond to the streams of conflicting data that pounds against us, and make our place in the world more comprehensible and therefore more survivable. Sometimes in an effort to make the world more comprehensible we invent structures in the world that aren't there (e.g., conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc), and this makes us even more comfortable since comprehension has traditionally put us at ease for our future survival. We, in effect, will exchange an uncertainty about reality for beliefs that provide more comfort.

Agnostics, because they haven't selected theism as a conceptual scheme, believe that they have a conceptual scheme that hasn't exchanged uncertainty for comfort. Therefore, Kyle might be one of those folks who think that they have the luxury of looking at the raw data instead of force feeding the interpretation of that raw data to fit certain theistic outlooks. In effect, they have the best conceptual scheme available.

The problem with this view is that any human philosophy is a conceptual scheme, and that any human philosophy provides a certain kind of comfort, regardless of the scheme. As I mentioned, one of the main purposes of a conceptual scheme is to make the world more comprehensible and therefore more comfortable. In the case of agnostics, the world is more comprehensible to refuse to commit to any metaphysical structure to the world that exists to explain what we see. The benefit is the same that one might experience at Las Vegas if you refused to bet. For example, I usually don't bet when I go to Vegas, and somehow the place seems incomprehensible in that sense since I don't understand why people actually like going there and spending tons of their money sometimes to their ruin (I go there for conventions), and yet I enjoy my lack of enthusiasm for the place. I feel a sense of freedom from not feeling bound to the frenzy that takes place there. Similarly, I suppose, many agnostics obtain a sense of freedom with regard to refuting any metaphysical ties.

However, the agnostic conceptual scheme is just as susceptible to prejudice as most theist conceptual scheme since the value of agnostic 'freedom' can be overestimated, thereby leading to a conceptual scheme that values comfort over the actual state of affairs of how things are. And, more so, the lack of commitment can actual be an opportunity missed.

The argument that science is based on an agnostic-like approach to theories is based on this misconception. When a theory finally has enough evidence to support it, then it is selected by most scientists as the case, and science moves from that point onward. The agnostic-like approach is often judged as a superior conceptual scheme because it is free to select the best theory. But, this is not a correct view of science. What happens in actuality is that a few scientists of a particular conceptual scheme commit to a theory that they believe to some degree, and they work in light of that belief. It is only when they have enough evidence to convince others that the other competing conceptual schemes are wrong that science as a collective body moves to the correct theory in question. The agnostic-like approach, I think, actually makes up very few scientists who actively work in a particular field. In order to get any kind of support, you must have a convincing argument why you think you are right. Most progress in science is achieved by those who are committed to a particular theory/hypothesis and think they are right.

So, whereas an agnostic-like approach to problems might be beneficial in some circumstances, it is not always beneficial, and if overly practiced it could derail scientific progress. The issue isn't one of agnostic approach vs. committed approach, the issue is having enough different approaches that the right one is somehow investigated by some committed set of followers. Once evidence is produced, the other teams review the evidence and with an open mind they make a decision to move in the direction that produced the evidence and achievement in understanding.

So, Kyle's statement is misleading since it doesn't properly represent the way science is best achieved, rather it leads us to believe that agnosticism is the best conceptual scheme for progress when, in fact, it is various schemes working in parallel with open minded individuals.

The positive argument for theism is that it does provide meaning to one's life, and it is a heck of an opportunity to take part in that. Unless it can be shown why an agnostic approach is better (and I don't think it can), then one should commit themselves to where the benefits are brighter.


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