Saturday, January 07, 2012

What is Agnosticism?

I thought it would be good to follow up my recent post on atheism with one on a spiritual position many more seem to hold, which is agnosticism.

Thomas Henry Huxley was an English biologist who was nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his staunch support of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Huxley is also credited with coining the term “agnostic”. Following in his footsteps, his grandson Julian Huxley wrote the following about when a person should assume a position of agnosticism:

I believe that one should be agnostic when belief one way or the other is mere idle speculation, incapable of verification; when belief is held merely to gratify desires, however deep-seated, and not because it is forced on us by evidence; and when belief may be taken by others to be more firmly grounded than it really is, and so come to encourage false hopes or wrong attitudes of mind.”[1]

Huxley felt that, “All our life long we are oscillating between conviction and caution, faith and agnosticism, belief and suspension of belief.”

A formal definition of Huxley’s “agnostic” term today is: “a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.”

From this description, it can be said that an agnostic’s position is one where they say they do not know if God exists. Speaking more broadly, some agnostics state that it is difficult to hold any truth with certainty.

Agnosticism typically takes one of two forms – hard and soft. The hard agnostic says that a person can’t know anything for sure. However, this is a self-defeating position as the hard agnostic says that they know for sure that they can’t know anything for sure. Hard agnosticism simply has no container that can keep its universal solvent, and therefore it becomes an untenable position to hold and must be discarded.

In contrast to hard agnosticism, the soft agnostic says he/she doesn’t know anything for sure. At issue is not the lack of human ability for knowing a particular truth, but rather the agnostic struggles with how a truth claim can be verified or shown to be true. It is the ancient pursuit of what in philosophy is called epistemology – how do we know, and how do we know that we know? When the issue of determining the existence of the Christian God is added to the mix, things get even stickier.

But perhaps that doesn’t need to be the case. What if a person truly follows and applies Julian Huxley’s criteria for determining when to be agnostic about a particular truth claim? What would be the end result when Huxley’s measures are applied to the claims of the New Testament, and specifically its account of Jesus Christ?

Huxley’s first condition is that a belief cannot be mere idle speculation or be incapable of verification. This first standard seems reasonable as pure conjecture or hearsay should not be a basis for committing oneself to a belief. The second condition appears logical also and is sometimes termed the principle of falsification, which was used by philosophers such as Anthony Flew in his initial writings on religion.

How do the claims of the New Testament and Christianity hold up under Huxley’s first criterion? When the legal/historical methods for determining truth are applied to the New Testament, it stands very firm under Huxley’s standard.

The writers of the New Testament never state that their beliefs were based on hearsay or were events that could not be authenticated. Quite the opposite, apostles such as Peter say, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). The disciples recorded occurrences that happened in actual space/time, saw these events with their own eyes, and recorded Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection so that others would know the truth of what happened.

In terms of falsification, the apostle Paul gave the enemies of Christianity a single truth claim that, if proven untrue, would crumble and destroy Christianity in an instant: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13–14). Paul says if the resurrection of Christ did not occur, then the Christian faith is literally “empty” (vain). That, Paul says, is how Christianity can be falsified: find the body of that Jewish carpenter, and the Christian faith is undone.

But earlier in that same chapter, Paul actually challenges his readers of that day to go check for themselves that the tomb of Jesus was truly empty: “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:5–8). Paul is literally asking his readers to verify his claims with many others (over 500) alive at that time who saw Christ and could act as witnesses to validate the fact that Jesus’ resurrection actually occurred in space / time history.

But, given that we cannot do that today, how can modern day people know that Paul and the other apostles were telling the truth? The apostles answer that question through their grave markers. All except John were martyred for their testimony. People may be deceived and die for a lie, but no one dies for what they know is a lie. All the apostles had to do to save their lives was recant their testimony, and say they didn’t see Jesus alive, but none did. Greater evidence for believability cannot be had.

Moving on from Huxley’s first criterion brings the discussion to his second and third standards, which are nearly identical in nature. Huxley says that a belief should be discarded if the sole purpose is to satisfy some psychological desire, and if the belief is not well-grounded from a reality perspective, and thus produces false hopes in its target. This benchmark measure for a belief is certainly rational as the only reason to believe anything is because that particular ‘thing’ (truth claim) is true.

Oftentimes, the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud is quoted to show how religion fails such a test. Speaking of religious beliefs, Freud said: “They are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. We call belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.”  

However, Freud’s criteria do nothing to prove or disprove God as Freud’s sword cuts in both directions. Could it not be true that the atheist has wishes and urges of their own? Perhaps a wish that a God does not exist who will call them to account one day for their actions? Such a desire can be very motivating and drive a person to hold an atheistic position. So in reality, Freud’s words have no power whatsoever to determine if the truth claims of Christianity are valid or not.

Freud’ thoughts aside, how does the New Testament stand up against Huxley’s second and third standards? As it does with Huxley’s first measure, the New Testament does extremely well.

First, from a legal/historical perspective, no document from antiquity comes even close to the New Testament where passing the general criteria for judging the validity of a historical work is concerned. The New Testament passes the bibliographical test (manuscript reliability and early dating), internal evidence test (multiple key testimonies all of which match), and the external evidence test (outside evidence that corroborates the document’s testimony) with flying colors.

Second, as many have said, the New Testament is not written like a lie. The New Testament writers would not have invented accounts such as Jesus being buried by a member of the Sanhedrin, women being the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, and other such things.

Rather, what is found is a strong commitment to accuracy no matter where the evidence led them. Such dedication is seen in the pen of Luke: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4).

Lastly, as has already been pointed out, the New Testament writers died for their testimony. As theologian and professor Peter Kreeft points out: “Why would the apostles lie? . . . If they lied, what was their motive . . .? What they got out of it was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!”

The treatment Kreeft lists certainly is not desirable from a psychological perspective, and would produce no false hopes in the disciples as they would obviously know their claims were false if they were lying. Adding this to arguments above, we see that the New Testament accounts overcome Huxley’s second and third hurdles for being agnostic.  

In the end, a person who claims to be agnostic about Christianity, but uses Julian Huxley’s own criteria for determining whether one should be agnostic, will have to seriously reconsider their position. With the hard agnostic position being ruled out as self-defeating, and the soft agnostic position being challenged by the compelling evidence of the New Testament, the more reasonable conclusion for the agnostic to reach once everything has been examined seems to be that Christianity is true.

[1] Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation. (New York,NY: Mentor Books, l957) p.l7. 


Ben Wallis said...

Robin Schumacher,

As an agnostic myself, when I came upon your blog post here I went ahead and read through it to see what you had to say. I've detected several problems, some serious.

First, you seem to be using an odd definition of agnosticism. You take it to be the view that we cannot or do not know anything, but in fact it is commonly understood to be the view that we cannot or do not know one particular thing---whether or not God exists. The term can of course be applied more generally, but an agnostic with respect to the existence of God---even a hard agnostic like myself---need not deny knowledge of other things. So, for instance, your complaint (which is invalid anyway) against universal (i.e. with respect to everything) hard agnosticism isn't relevant to a hard agnostic to the question of God's existence.

Second, you seem to be conflating the failure to prove a belief false with verification that the belief is true. I cannot, for instance, disprove that the Gospel of Matthew was first published in an odd-numbered year. This is not some kind of in principle difficulty where we are somehow fundamentally unable to know the publication year of the first Gospel. Presumably if we had enough documentary evidence we could determine the year, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt whether the Gospel was published in an even- or odd-numbered year. But clearly I'm justified in remaining agnostic about the parity of the year of the first Gospel's publication, even when I cannot prove it one way or the other. The point, of course, is that my inability to discover the corpse of Jesus (assuming a corpse can even last 2000 years without being luckily preserved) does nothing to help undermine the justification for my agnosticism.

What's more, such falsification isn't possible anyway. In the case of the Resurrection of Jesus, where the event defies natural law by hypothesis, it really is a matter of principle. We just can never speak to that, no matter what the evidence. If you're going to say that God can defy natural law, then we can't trust those knowledge deliverances which are based on it. So for instance if I tried to identify the corpse of Jesus, I would have to do so on the basis of things like physical evidence, recorded testimony, etc., and these things in turn depend on the laws of nature. But if God exists, he can transcend those laws. And even if somehow I could convince you that I had found Jesus' corpse, well, that would only show that you were wrong about the kind of resurrection Jesus had. It could be, for instance, that the resurrection of Jesus was spiritual and not bodily; or it could be that he took on a new and different body, leaving his old one behind; or it could be that he did rise with his old body, but the ascent into Heaven later on was not bodily in that way; etc. Once we throw out the regularities of our experience and invoke a supernatural being who can violate natural law, we have no way to distinguish between the likelihood of these competing possibilities. If we ignore the regularities of our experience, anything goes.

(continued in next post...)

Ben Wallis said...

(...continued from last post)

Third, we know next to nothing about the circumstances of the deaths of the original Apostles. Our sources are late, romantic, and, let's face it, ridiculous. For instance the earliest extant story of the Apostle Thomas' martyrdom comes from the risible Acts of Thomas, a third-century romance which features, among other amusements, an episode of mistaken identity where Jesus is thought to be Thomas (they are identical twins in the romance). Are you seriously suggesting that we should trust this document? Do you perhaps have an earlier or better source for Thomas' martyrdom? I should think not.

Of course, even if they did die for something they knew was a lie, well, people do strange things all the time. But which is stranger: a close-knit religious group exhibiting irrational behavior, or the spontaneous resurrection of a dead human body? In fact, once we dip into the paranormal, things can't get any stranger! Hence the difficulty in showing that a particular paranormal event ever actually occurred.

Fourth, the idea that the New Testament is historically reliable when compared to other documents of its day is ludicrous. The NT has one great strength, which is mss. representation. In other words, there are lots and lots of copies of the NT, and this helps us correct many (though not all) of the errors which crept into them. But it fails in almost every other respect. It's completely implausible, packed full of magic and other supernatural nonsense, partially forged, partially anonymous, hopelessly biased, internally inconsistent, and its narrative material was authored at least a generation late, if not several generations! Now perhaps you take issue with this assessment, but just to put it in perspective, we can read Xenophon, who wrote centuries earlier, and yet reports events in a far less biased and more plausible light about events which he himself witnessed. The fact that we have more manuscript copies of the Gospel of Matthew than we do of Anabasis is hardly important in light of the historical veracity of Xenophon's work when compared to Matthew's.

Fifth, you cite Luke's introduction as evidence that he was an accurate historical reporter, but this is wholly unwarranted. Luke, like many religious authors, claims to have special access to the "exact truth," which he promises to finally deliver after what he apparently regards as insufficient past attempts by his predecessors. This is not the mark of an accurate historical reporter committed to resisting possible bias.

But even if we did have good reason to think Luke was doing his best as a historical reporter, what he actually wrote down is quite sufficient to undermine whatever trust we might have otherwise placed in him. Consider for instance a modern historian whose expertise and training is second to none. Medieval historian Philip Daileader comes to mind. Suppose that Prof. Daileader---who is otherwise very trustworthy---writes a book in which he defends the historicity of the monster Grendel and the dragon (from Beowulf). I think it's clear that once he crosses the line of obvious fantasy, he loses whatever respect we once granted him. Well, in the same way, regardless of whatever other impression we may get from him, it would be utterly irresponsible for us to trust Luke once he starts talking about voices coming from the sky, bodies reanimating, demons being cast out of peasants, etc.

The bottom line is that we have no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity. Appeals to testimony won't help, because human behavior exhibits weaker regularities than do mechanistic functions such as in Newtonian physics or biology, both of which are violated by the numerous miracle stories in the NT (and the OT, for that matter). Indeed we are in principle unable to evaluate claims regarding the suspension of natural law, because only by appealing to natural law can we know anything about the external world.


Robin Schumacher said...

Ben – First, thank you for taking the time to read my post and critique my arguments. I know that reading anything that challenges a personal worldview can be hard, so I appreciate the time you put into your response.

I’ll try my best to respond in a succinct fashion to the major criticisms you raise.

You say hard agnostics don’t doubt everything, but I’ve been in discussions with those who do; even those who doubt they exist! So trust me, they’re out there.

As to your assertion that I’m trying to say a failure to prove something and evidential verification that such a ‘thing’ exists are the same, I’m not. I’m simply saying there are good reasons to trust the New Testament.

You raise the issue of bias several times and how that undermines the credibility of the New Testament. I respectfully disagree. For example, why can’t a holocaust victim write an accurate account of the holocaust?

You talk about a spiritual resurrection of Jesus as being a possible defense if His body was found, but Scripture never gives this as an option (cf. John 2:19-21).

As to the death of the apostles, why is the testimony of Eusebius (AD 263-339) not trustworthy? Or how about Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, Hegesippus, Josephus, and Clement of Alexandria? They all refer to the apostles’ deaths in one form or another. Please do not use when they lived as an argument against them either as many biographies and personal narratives exist of individuals that were written hundreds of years after they lived and are considered trustworthy.

You claim that it is ‘ludicrous’ to believe the accounts of the New Testament and assert they are inconsistent. I disagree. Can you point me to a gospel that says Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? Or one that says He isn’t the Christ? The fact is, the New Testament is completely consistent on all core facts that comprise the Christian faith. Do they contain divergent accounts? Of course. If they didn’t we wouldn’t have/need four gospels. But remember that all historians are selective in their writings so this is to be expected. Also a divergent report is not a false report. However, if you can provide a list of inconsistencies in the New Testament that challenge any core doctrines of Christianity, I’d be happy to review it.

You question Luke’s capabilities as a historian. Have you read the historian and scholar Colin Hemer whose work completely refutes this claim?

Your example of historian Philip Daileader and Grendel commits the logical fallacy of faulty analogy as it and the historicity of the New Testament are completely different.

Your assertion “The bottom line is that we have no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity” is completely at odds with reality and the educated world. There are very good scientific, philosophical, and historical reasons to believe in God. And all the Christian and non-Christian universities that have history tracks devoted to the historicity of Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and Christianity in general would love to hear your arguments as to why their departments should be discontinued.

Ben, here’s what I see in your post: I believe you to be a philosophical naturalist and a likely devotee to scientism who brings his anti-supernatural presuppositions to the table when evaluating articles such as this one. You complain about bias but are biased yourself against anything that goes beyond the natural world. Because of this you reject testimonies that stand against your bias in an a priori manner regardless of the weight of evidence that is behind them. Therefore, the New Testament is out, Jesus is out, and so is God.

Ever consider the possibility that your presuppositions could be wrong?

Thanks again for writing.