Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Event report: 'Is agnosticism a logical stance?' - a sit down debate

Time: 17 May, 19:00 - 21:00
Place: G17 Pearson Building, University College London

The usual informal discussions in the pub during our society meetings (and the many amusing directions they can take, ref. Kieran's panda analogy of the Queen) define the essence and drive of this society, namely intellectual curiosity and exchange of ideas. For our second event, we decided to keep a slightly less informal debate out of the pub, centered around a single topic: agnosticism - more specifically, is agnosticism the only logically valid approach to viewing the world?

The impossibility of certainty was compared with the need to establish a pragmatic degree of certainty in order to lead a productive life - "Should scientists abandon their jobs by acknowledging everything they don't know?" The existence of god cannot be disproved, hence from a purely logical point of view, there is no right way to live your life other than agnosticism. However, it was pointed out that there is a difference between actively following agnosticism - considered non-progressive - and merely having it in the back of your head. As with all scientific reasoning, where in this case the non-existence of a god is the null hypothesis and the existence of a god is the alternative hypothesis, definite support for the null hypothesis cannot be established. Instead, a certain confidence level to reach conclusions is set, from which you choose a direction to act on and live your life by.

The extent to which something supports a particular hypothesis was further discussed. On one hand, it was argued the concept of proof can only be found in mathematics and logic. In remaining domains, presumption is a matter of how appropriate the justification for something is. This was questioned with the argument that overwhelmingly strong evidence for something, e.g. fossils, is the closest one can get to truth, hence should be considered proof. However, evidence such as fossils is only proof in a pragmatic sense, it was countered, and conclusions are always open to interpretation.

The difference between having a passive stance and an explicit stance with regards to religion was also considered. People who declare themselves to be "not religious" were observed to often dissociate themselves from the "atheist" label, i.e. not knowing is not the same as believing it is impossible to know, and not believing in god is not the same as believing there is no god. Also, it was mentioned that atheists in the U.S. seemed to be more likely to explicitly declare their view on religion compared to less religious societies.

In conclusion, there was a general agreement that agnosticim might be the only logical stance, but not necessarily the most pragmatic stance. Emphasis was put on the importance of clarifying, when discussing religion - particularly with religious people -, that the vast majority of atheists do not claim there is definite proof against the existence of god.


  1. Did you consider ignosticism?
    This is based on Hume's statement, "I proportion my belief to the evidence available".
    As there is no evidence for the existence of supernatural beings, "souls" or an after-life, a rational conclusion is that they do not exist and, therefore, it is pointless to think about or discuss these non-existent entities.
    As we humanists say, "We only have one life" so we should not waste any of it on pointless and fruitless debates or discussions with individuals who choose to believe in non-existent things. They are "nuts".
    We should, instead, try our best to be good people, live good lives and create a good society.
    That is far more useful, productive and fruitful than wasting time on matters of such little consequence as religious beliefs.

  2. Hi John, thanks a lot for your input. I have reposted your comment in our Facebook group, http://on.fb.me/ffxzt7. Feel free to join the group if you'd like to discuss this further, as the society members don't use this blog's comments function.

    Personally, I hadn't heard of ignosticism until now. It does sound like a rational view and one that is very close to my own. I'll make sure to read up on it.