Practical Atheism vs Philosophical Agnosticism
by John Pariury
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I have long participated in a religion discussion forum, rising from forum moderator to site moderator to administrator. Frequently, there will arise debates on philosophical or logical “proofs” in favor of deism. In one of the arguments against atheism, one particular believer suggested that atheists will "fall back" on agnosticism when they can't come up with answers. For some reason, they seem to feel that I, in particular, was, in some manner, "copping out". In this regard, I think that he is missing the point, as I believe many people do, on the distinction between the two stances: agnosticism and atheism.
When I say that I am a "practical atheist and philosophical agnostic", I mean this in a very literal sense of the phrase. I will not make claims to how others approach their atheism, but I will define exactly how I mean that terms.
Philosophical Agnosticism - Essentially, I hold that the truth of whatever ultimate reality exists is unknowable. In order to ascertain its validity as truth, we must necessarily possess the same level of awareness that theists hypothesize and believe exists in their deities. Thus, being that believers make no such claims to "knowing" whether or not it is true, they are left with "faith". One can as easily be a theist as well as an atheist and still hold to philosophical agnosticism. The alternative to agnosticism would be to hold that they are knowledgable of, with 100% certainty, the truth of the nature of the universe. Some do, in fact, hold to this belief set, but I am not among them, in either direction.
A point that could bear expanding on, with regards to theism, atheism and agnosticism: A favored argument of theists is that atheists are not aware of everything there is to know about the cosmos. One might phrase this argument as "have you tested this in all its possibilities" or some variation thereof. When the atheist returns with a sensible answer of "No", the theist will often then reply with "Aha! Then you don't really know, do you?". The flaw in this argument is that it can equally be applied to theists as well. No theist argument that I have seen purports to have applied every potential test to their belief, thus, a "knowing" atheist would be equally right/wrong to apply the same rebuttal.
Practical Atheism - Breaking this one down a bit, in practice, I am not a theist. I do not abide by any particular set of values handed down to me from "on high", nor do I subscribe to any set of rituals or rites by which I petition a higher power, internal or external, for guidance or comfort. Thus, I can rightly be called a "practical atheist".
Agnosticism cannot be considered a "fallback", because suggesting so presumes a prior belief. If I can be claimed to have any particular initial belief set, it would be "I know nothing". It is from the position of ignorance that I then seek to gain confirmation of what others hold to be true. Agnosticism (in the natural sense, rather than the philosophical one) is not a "fallback", because it holds exactly to that very statement: "I know nothing".
When asked if a god exists, I must necessarily answer "I don't know that to be true". From nothing, I do not create wholecloth any particular belief. Saying "I don't know that a god doesn't exist" to support my belief is as sensical as saying "I don't know that a monkey with two functioning penises doesn't exist". My lack of evidence to the contrary is not evidence of substantiation.
Now, if one wishes to claim to hold the superior position by virtue of my self-admitted ignorance, they are welcome to it, but ultimately, does it really accomplish anything, beyond feeding one's own ego? Probably not. No amount of philosophical argumentation will cause there to be a god anymore than sufficient arguments regarding additive light theory versus subtractive light theory will suddenly turn a green shirt into one that is all colors BUT green. Arguments are not evidence. You can bally words all you wish, but in the end, I am left with things I have evidence for, and those I don't.