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Atheism, Agnosticism, and the Arbitrary

Atheism, Agnosticism, and the Arbitrary

4 Mins
January 23, 2001

Question: Why is Objectivism atheistic rather than agnostic?

Answer:  Objectivism holds that in order to obtain knowledge, man must use an objective process of thought. The essence of objective thought is, first, integration of perceptual data in accordance with logic and, second, a commitment to acknowledging all of the facts of reality, and only the facts. In other words, the only thoughts to consider when forming knowledge ofreality are those logically derived from reality.

People can come up with an infinite number of claims. Some claims have conclusive supporting evidence: evidence that is ultimately reducible to perceptual concretes (examples of well-supported claims include "the world is round" and "water is made of hydrogen and oxygen"). Other claims may have inconclusive supporting evidence (examples include: "Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy" and "an asteroid crash caused the extinction of the dinosaurs"). Still other claims have no supporting evidence whatsoever (e.g., "gremlins are green" and "souls are immortal"). In those cases in which the evidence is truly inconclusive, one may legitimately say with regard to a claim, "I don't know whether it's true." But claims that have no supporting evidence at all should be rejected as arbitrary rather than being evaluated or even entertained as hypotheses. This is basic scientific procedure: every claim must have some evidence in its favor before a scientist considers the possibility of testing it. And it applies to non-scientific inquiries as well. A claim that has no evidence whatsoever in its favor should not be rejected as false—rather, the very question of whether the claim is true or false should be rejected outright, for the claim itself is arbitrary.

Claims that have no supporting evidence at all should be rejected as arbitrary rather than being evaluated or even entertained as hypotheses.

Agnosticism—as a general approach to knowledge—refuses to reject arbitrary propositions. This is the general position behind the agnostic approach to the question of God's existence. Agnosticism holds that claims should be evaluated on the basis of evidence, and that claims should not be rejected unless there is sufficient evidence against them (in other words, a claim should not be rejected outright even if no evidence exists either to support or refute it).

The primary problem for the agnostic is that he allows arbitrary claims to enter his cognitive context. The fully rational man, on the other hand, does not seek evidence to prove or disprove arbitrary claims, for he has no reason to believe that such claims are true in the first place.

Agnostics will often respond to those who reject an arbitrary proposition by saying, "How do you know it isn't true?" The proper response is to point out that the burden of proof rests on he who asserts a proposition. No value is achieved by going around refuting arbitrary claims—it is a waste of time and effort.

And not only does it tend to be useless to refute arbitrary propositions; it is often impossible to do so. Since he who advances an arbitrary proposition sees no need to support his claims with evidence, he can invoke as many additional arbitrary propositions as he needs to ensure that you cannot disprove his original claim. To illustrate, imagine that I told you that there is a gremlin in your room. If you were to search the entire room and not find it, I could explain this away by saying that the gremlin ran so fast from place to place that you could neither see it nor catch up with it. I could construct my story such that there could not be evidence that the gremlin either exists or does not exist.

The agnostic position on the existence of God rests on this general commitment to agnosticism. Agnosticism holds that the God's existence has been neither proved nor disproved, or that it can be neither proved nor disproved. And it is true that the existence of God, as conventionally conceived, can be neither proved nor disproved, for two reasons. First, theists often adjust their stories about God ad hoc (as I adjusted my story about the gremlin) in order to ensure that no observations could contradict his existence, rendering the proposition that God exists untestable. Second, theists often characterize God in an incoherent manner, as, for example, a being of infinite dimensions who is not physical and exists in a supernatural realm—i.e., as a being that exists without any real characteristics or outside of reality. In other words, theism tends to be either meaningless (because it is untestable) or self-contradictory.

But even if the notion of God were formulated in a testable, coherent manner, the claim that God exists would be no less arbitrary and would be equally unworthy of evaluation. The proposition was formed not on the basis of evidence (i.e., perceptual data integrated by logic)—it could have been formed only on the basis of imagination. And if one chooses what to believe on the basis of imagination rather than logic, then one sacrifices the possibility of knowledge. Theists claim that God exists, but what do they cite as evidence in favor of their claim? Many point to no evidence at all, saying instead that we should accept his existence on faith. However, the doctrine of faith says not that we should evaluate arbitrary premises; rather, it says that we should accept arbitrary premises without evaluation. But knowledge must be grounded in facts—believing that something is true doesn't make it true. (For elaboration on the issue of whether God exists and of the lack of evidence for God, see David Kelley, " Is Objectivism Compatible with Religion? ".)

One may wonder why agnosticism is so popular if it is so non-objective. Some agnostics may be honestly mistaken in their belief that arbitrary claims should not be rejected. Others may wish, at some level, to evade the fact that there is no reason to believe that they are loved and protected by an all-powerful being or that they will experience eternal bliss after death. While this belief may give them a sense of security, it is a false sense of security. And by refusing to think objectively, to accept reality as it is, the agnostics thereby undermine their ability to take responsibility for their lives and to deal with the world as effectively as possible. For Objectivists, on the other hand, atheism is not a negation, but rather an affirmation of reality, of reason's ability to know it, and of man's ability to create meaning for himself.

D. Moskovitz
About the author:
D. Moskovitz
Religion and Atheism