Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Agnostic Hypothesis

The Agnostic view of gods is that, while there may be no evidence for them, this does not prove their non-existence; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You cannot prove a negative therefore you cannot prove non-existence.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, the same case can be made for any possible notional idea. The universe of all possible 'truths' is bounded only by the limitations of human imagination. For example, you may imagine your loft to be full of scientifically undetectable hippos.

The Agnostic purist would argue that the hypothesis that this proposition is not true cannot be proven and so we must allow for the possibility that your loft is indeed full of invisible, weightless, odourless hippopotami. Indeed, it would be dishonest, even bigoted, to argue that the idea is nonsense; that there are absolutely no undetectable hippos, in your loft.

Despite the absurdity of the conclusions to which this this argument can lead, it seems, on the face of it, a logical, irrefutable and intellectually honest position to adopt. Certainly you can't prove a negative, so is the Agnostic right to believe that there may indeed be lofts full of undetectable hippos, and there may be gods, even the Abrahamic god of the Jews, Moslems and Christians, and their various offspring sects? Is it right to take the view that those who DO believe those things MAY be right and that their beliefs can't be challenged with science?

But hold on a minute; are we really seeking here to do the impossible and prove a negative? Isn't there an assumption underlying the Agnostic argument that any notional idea MAY have a physical reality? Aren't Agnostics assuming something positive which they must prove, and which IS falsifiable in a scientific manner?

Are they not assuming that there is some mechanism by which anything which can be imagined by the human brain can leave that virtual world of human imagination and gain physical reality?

If so, their claim becomes a positive, testable hypothesis which can be falsified by science.

If not, then what exactly is the basis of the assumption that any proposition which can be dreamt up MAY have a physical reality, the possibility of which should be acknowledged?

So, a challenge for Agnostics: establish by science that this transfer mechanism exists and the human mind can create physical reality by thought alone, and you have proven the underlying assumption behind agnosticism. The test will require you to demonstrate repeatable instances of a physical reality brought into existence by thought alone, which did not pre-exist your imagining it.

I await the result with interest.


  1. Here's how to disprove agnosticism.

    It's quite easy to imagine a large number of possible truths, each one contradicting all the others (i.e. so that only one of them could be true).

    e.g. "gravity is caused by undetectable hippos;" "no, it's caused by undetectable leprechauns;" "no, it's caused by undetectable aliens;" and so on

    If one has to be agnostic about all of them, then one must treat them all the same. With no way to distinguish them, the odds of any one idea being correct is 1 divided by the number of competing possibilities.

    So, by merely imagining additional possibilities, you lessen the odds of any one possibility being true. Keep imagining, and eventually you'll have so many possibilities that the odds of any one being true is, for all reasonable intents and purposes, ZERO.

    In this way, agnosticism merges with atheism, a-fairy-ism, and a-astrology-ism.

    The only way out is to distinguish one idea from the myriad possible competing ideas. And the only way to do this is with EVIDENCE.

  2. I think a purist Agnostic would argue that, whilst the number of possible explanantions can approach infinity, it can never actually reach it. It follows than that the probability of any one explanantion being the right one only approaches zero but never actually reaches it. Hence no explanation is ever technically impossible.

    And,of course, evidence only ever supports a hypothesis without ever proving it.

    But that's by-the-by. My challenge to Agostics is to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the necessary condition for any notion to leave the virtual world of human immagination and gain physical reality are present, i.e., that a mechanism for this exists. If not, there is absolutely no reason to consider mere notions as possible realities in the first place.

  3. Thanks for this. As an "open" agnostic who writes about it, I look forward to reading and digesting when I get a chance.

    Appreciate your emphasis on reason and logic - resonates with me.

    Jonathan from spritzophrenia :)

  4. Rosa, you've made me think, and that's good. I don't have a developed response at present. I will ponder.

    I'm thinking of Bertrand Russell who preferred to be called an atheist, but for reasons you've mentioned called himself an agnostic, but "with atheist tendencies", ie he put the probabilities as most likely there are no gods.

    Allow me a small amount of pedantry, I understand negatives can be proved, it's *universal* negatives that can't be proved (allegedly).

    Your concept of 'mind not able to create reality' - which I don't think agnostics claim, but needs refuting - borders on philosophy of mind stuff and even the ontological argument - which i've never understood! ;)


    Jonathan from spritzophrenia

  5. Ok, ok i'll bite. Your focal point lies at the centre of the article, to quote: "Is it right to take the view that those who DO believe those things MAY be right and that their beliefs can't be challenged with science?"

    WHY do you assume agnostics believe this? No, of course it isn't right - agnosticism is an admission of ignorance, where ignorance exists. What can be conclusively proved scientifically or a priori through logic, tends to be considered sufficient proof. Where scripture makes an empirical assertion which coincides with the realm of scientific inquiry (frequently in the books of Moses for instance), then one is able to test that for accuracy and to see whether it contravenes rigorous scientific knowledge. If it does, we can discard those elements of scripture as being NOT LITERALLY TRUE. For all but the most hardline literalist interpretations of scripture however, we must remain agnostic, since confirmation of indeed ANY kind of knowledge of the existence of a god or gods of almost any variety is entirely impossible to garner through the scientific method. To assume that 'Science disproves God' in any way is the most naive, dogmatic teenage assumption, and it appears to at least some extent you have subscribed to that error here, and consequently mischaracterised agnosticism as I see it.

    The part you highlighted in bold is a rewrite of the Ontological Argument and has NOTHING at all to do with agnosticism. To suggest that this is an implication of agnosticism is little more than a distraction and demonstrates a childish understanding of the subject.

    Agnosticism is the only position which can in good conscience be held, it deflates the pretensions of idiotic atheist militants and the grandiose moralising of religious zealots with a simple admission of sheer honesty.

  6. Shatakan.

    You might have done better if you had read the blog instead of attacking a single sentence on the grounds that you didn't want it to be true.

    Incidentally, If you don't use science to distinguish between reality and wishful thinking, what method DO you use, and how can you have any confidence in it?

    It would appear you use whichever 'method' gives you the answer you want.

    Which, in effect, is assuming that reality is just what you want it to be.

  7. Naturally I read the entire blog post, I ought to add that I broadly agree with all that you had written before my quoted point of contention, it's quite true. But as I stated previously, you make a false assumption (starting from the point I quoted) and go off on a tangent away from agnosticism afterward.

    Let me clear up something else: Agnostics believe in an infinite multitude of known AND unknown possibilities which have been neither proved nor disproved; it has nothing to do with whether they have been previously thought up before by anyone, or not – but rather an acknowledgement that such innumerous possibilities may well exist, despite our ignorance of them.

    Perhaps you should have read MY comment, I said that science (and logic/mathematics) are standards most agnostics use as positive proof FOR the definitive nature of certain facts (a majority of agnostics accept the truth of evolution, quantum mechanics et al). Science can only prove that certain elements of religious texts are not LITERALLY true, however, and does not discredit any religion as a whole. Just because we can be scientifically assured in our repudiation of biblical or qur'anic literalism, science says NOTHING at all about the existence of a god or gods in any looser sense. While ever there are still possibilities left on the table, we have to be honest with ourselves.

    Your article would be a pertinent challenge for any agnostic to come to terms with - it's a good thing that they don't have to.

  8. When you have found the mechanism whereby any daft notion humans can dream up can leave the human mind and take on physical form, please let me know.

    Of course, it would greatly increase factory productivity and industrial output, not to mention solving any possible energy, food, housing or water shortage so you should be in for fame and fortune.

  9. If you TRULY believe that agnosticism amounts to people generating fictional realities from their own minds; I... I really can't help you, I guess. It would appear I can't convince you of the true meaning of agnosticism. This is sad, but I guess I can't FORCE you to believe it's something other than what you wish it were. I really did give it my best shot, but it's not worth the bother, you're happy blindly and mercilessly attacking religion on a minute by minute basis, I guess I wouldn't want to deprive you of that pleasure. Have a nice time, I hope that atheism continues to fulfill you :)

  10. Shatakan

    What other possible reason can you propose for even considering that any daft notion anyone can dream up could be true?

  11. Simply because there's no proof to the contrary; so however unlikely many of them may seem, we have to accept every possibility until we can conclusively rule them out, however unlikely we think they are. I'm not suggesting you ought to BELIEVE them, simply to entertain the vaguest of possibilities that they may be true. How does that sound unreasonable? It's fully in accord with science.

  12. Shatakan.

    In other words, once again you assume the impossible is possible just because you want it to be.

    You have yet to propose a mechanism whereby any daft notion can transfer itself from human imagination into physical reality, by the way, nor why, if this WERE possible, we don't use it to manufacture goods and natural resources as and when we need them, by thought alone.

    Aren't you embarrassed needing to cling to such an absurdly childish idea simply to justify belief in an imaginary friend?


    2. Thank you for your contribution.


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