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Bright Burdens

July 15th, 2003 · No Comments

In the wake of Dan Dennet’s fundamentally silly “brights” op-ed, blogosphere comment sections have been erupting with tired old theist-atheist debates. I got bored with these years ago, and typically stay out, but I do feel compelled to note one argument that always sticks in my craw.

You’ll often hear an argument to the effect that atheism, as opposed to agnosticism, is (at least) as unreasonable and dogmatic as theism, since, of course, “you can’t prove” that God doesn’t exist. This is stupid.

[Whoops… mistaken point excised.]The burden of “proof” (of a negative) in some full-blown deductive sense is one we’d find ludicrous in any other arena of belief. Indeed, you can be sure someone’s arguing from a weak position when the best they can do is attack the opposite position as not being succeptible to a 100% deductive proof. (See Glen’s recent musing on this point.)

I can’t even prove with apodictic certainty that the keyboard I’m typing on isn’t some elaborate hallucination, or that I’m not in the Matrix right now. I can’t prove that we’re not surrounded by invisible, intangible flying monkeys. And every scientific law is open to falsification by a new counterexample. In no other arena of human knowledge do we suppose that absent this kind of irrefutable demonstration, there’s nothing to choose between giving a proposition a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Indeed, if a perfectly analogous argument were deployed with respect to the existence of, say, fairies, or the Easter Bunny, it’d be laughed out of court without a second thought.

Which brings me to my second, and slightly more offensive main point: agnosticism is a weak-kneed copout. We can’t know with absolute certainty whether God exists? Well golly gee, what a fucking revelation. There’s precious little we can know with absolute certainty. But in most other arenas, we bite the bullet and make a choice based on the available evidence. And here, too, we do the same thing for practical purposes. You either live your life as though you expect there’s an afterlife and a grand design an all that jazz, or you don’t. Unless you address nightly prayers “to whom it may concern,” that makes an agnostic operationally indistinguishable from an atheist.

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