Saturday, August 31, 2013

A FEW DEFINITIONS

I’ve been using a number of related terms in this blog and thought that it might be helpful to describe a bit more carefully what I mean by each of those terms.

Agnosticism.  Originally, this was an epistemological term.  It stood for the idea that we cannot know whether God exists or not.  This follows from the idea that the only “truth” we can know with certainty is mathematical truth, because we make up the rules. 
Truth about the outside world is fundamentally uncertain and that includes the existence of God.  Under this definition, an agnostic would be one who ascribes to this view.  And in that sense, I would consider myself an agnostic.  

However, the term agnostic has popularly taken on another meaning, namely, that the individual doesn’t have enough evidence to believe either in God’s existence or nonexistence.  The verdict is still out.  This differs from the epistemological one in that under this “popular” definition the agnostic accepts that there could be evidence to sway him one way or the other, he just hasn’t seen it, whereas the more formal agnostic would argue that God’s existence or nonexistence is simply beyond proof.

Atheism.  While agnosticism is about the nature of knowledge, what one is able to know, atheism is about the individual’s actual personal beliefs.  Initially, I thought that one should not call herself an atheist unless she felt she had absolute proof in God’s nonexistence.  But there are logical problems with getting to that position.  So, since I have about the same confidence in God’s nonexistence as I have in that of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny, I feel I should refer to myself as an atheist.  

Skepticism.  Skepticism is not so much a statement of beliefs.  Rather, it is a description of how one goes about deciding what to believe.  It addresses the question of what weight to give various kinds of evidence in trying to understand the world.  Skeptics favor points of view arrived at through an objective review of the evidence and through rational thought.  Perhaps most importantly, skeptics do not accept evidence simply because an “authority” has asserted it.  Instead, any assertion, from whatever source, must be established through an objective review of the evidence.  

One could argue that skeptics have simply adopted a different authority: They have put their “faith” in scientific reasoning and rational thought rather than in religious authority.  In a sense that is true, but I believe there is a fundamental difference between adopting science as authority and adopting, say, scripture as authority.  And the history of the success in applying the scientific approach to the advancement of knowledge is a powerful testament to the advantage that that approach has had.  This is something that I hope to explore further in a later essay.

Science.  Science is an important tool used to evaluate evidence.  In its purest form, it involves systematic observation, formulation of hypotheses, testing of those hypotheses, and drawing conclusions based strictly on the evidence.  Again, in its purest form, science does not have an “agenda.”  The scientist does not have any ulterior motives other than the advancement of knowledge.  But of course science is conducted by human beings who do have points of view and who may have agendas and ulterior motives.  And so both good science and not such good science take place.  The greatest thing, though, is that over time “good” science has prevailed.

© 2013 John M. Phillips

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