Agnosticism Revisited

When I was young, my mother told me a story about my grandfather. I believe this story until today. I believe that it happened. There are a lot of other stories I believe. Many of these stories, for instance, can be found in our Torah. Among the many things the Torah tells me, I am told that there exists a God who created this world and that he is worthy of my love. I let these stories inform the way I live. Stories of this sort, however, do not sit well in the guts of many people who claim to keep themselves in line with reason, with logic, and with scientific rigor.

To these skeptics, I would like to advance an argument. I would not like to strongly claim, like some of them do, that there is no God. I would rather like to present a more rationally appealing approach that would be classified as an argument for agnosticism. By presenting this argument, I intend to show the folly in strong skeptical arguments, and the strength in agnostic ones.

The argument supports the following notion: if I cannot adjudicate between two or more incompatible religions, then I am free to abstain from asserting belief in each of them.  Furthermore, if I were to go ahead and believe in a particular theology, while there exist other incompatible theologies, then I would not only be believing at the risk of asserting a historical falsehood, but I would be negligent with a paramount principle of logic: the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction states that no contradiction can be true. In this case, one would be violating it by affirming two contradictory beliefs.

One tactic espoused for a skeptics’ abstention from revealed religion is based on the notion that incompatible religions refute one another. With the initial assumption that the miraculous stories that religious texts relate are plausible, they nevertheless negate one another so long as they each bear incompatible theological theories explaining their respective miraculous events.

Some philosophers retort with an appeal to investigate and determine which religious texts are historically reliable and which are not. It is through a process of investigation, defenders of revealed religion argue, that only the most reliable, most legitimate miraculous accounts will prevail and, consequently, whichever religious theology that best explains the story. We may look to experts in the fields of archeology, ancient languages, anthropology, philosophy, and perhaps many more diverse disciplines to assist us in critically evaluating the credibility of supernatural claims.

This lead me to my first proposition: If we (1) accept the historicity of α, where α is “a story with miraculous claims from which we infer a particular theology,” and (2) α is part of β, where β is “a set of stories with miraculous claims that lead us to infer contradictory theologies with one another,” and we also assume that (3) we must not accept the historicity of β, then (4) we must critically evaluate the historicity of β.  Each α within β must be scrutinized so that inconsistent theologies can be discarded along with the false history that some α may relate.

Now if (4) we must critically evaluate the historicity of β, but (5) many of us lack the ability to critically evaluate the historicity of β, then (6) we must rely on expert opinions to assist us in evaluating the historicity of β. This means that we are basing our knowledge on others. In essence, we are relying on others to be proper conveyors of truth and knowledge, like a talmid might feel about his rebbe. In my argument, let the expert in the field of X be an individual with a PhD in X. This is a reliablist account of knowledge: we can gain knowledge by relying on other people’s expertise or intellect.

If (6) we were to rely on expert opinions to assist us in evaluating the historicity of β, then by the rules of reliability, (7) the expert opinions concerning the historicity of β must be neither inconclusive nor contradictory with one another. We require this since otherwise they wouldn’t be a concrete and decisive source of knowledge: how could we rely on them and claim certainty in something with which they patently disagree?

In our case, (~7) here are at least two experts bearing PhD’s in fields relating to stories bearing supernatural claims that wholeheartedly disagree. Hence (~6) we cannot rely on the expert opinions to evaluate the historicity of β since they disagree. This now means either that (~4) we need not to critically evaluate the historicity of β or that (~5) many of us do not lack the ability to critically evaluate the historicity of β.

Since (5) most people do not have PhD’s (even if we want to have PhD’s), then (~4) we must not need to critically evaluate the historicity of β. The reader’s personal experiences should show instances where people must cease or withdraw their efforts from an important endeavor, such as evaluating the historicity of supernatural claims, either because they are cognitively or emotionally incapable of performing the task, or they have no time since they must engage in other pursuits.

Going back to the first claim made in the argument, the above results in the following: either we (~3) must accept the historicity of β, or (~2) α is not a member of β, or (~1) we must not accept the historicity of α. This results from the above since we said that (4) we must critically evaluate β if all three of those things are true. Since we concluded that (~4) we need not, then one of those three conditions must not be true.

First, accepting the historicity of β (~3), where β is a set of all miraculous stories which together lead to a contradiction, cannot be done. Contradictions can never be true. Second, α by definition is part of β since α is a story with miraculous claims (2). This leaves the last option as the only viable one: we must not accept the historicity of α (~1).