Noam Chomsky on Postmodernism

Since I’ve been thinking about postmodernism recently, I thought to share this fascinating interview from the youtubes. The most unfamiliar point that Chomsky brings up is the story about Bruno Latour and the ancient Egyptian tuberculosis death (read more about it here). Basically, Latour argued that since tuberculosis was not discovered until the era of modern medicine, it could not have existed in ancient Egypt! So much for constructed knowledge.

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5 Historical Documents on Universal Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the strong form of moral relativism, namely the idea that nobody, or no culture, is right or wrong. In this post, to continue the objective vs subjective truth discussion, I will look at five historical documents that have explicitly acknowledged universal truths. Moreover, all of these documents proclaim non-empirical truths, i.e. they are not documents of science that can be tested by the scientific method. (I include this caveat because it’s easy for a relativist to acknowledge that science can have universal truths but then claim arbitrarily that other subjects work differently than science and shouldn’t have universal or objective truths. So, I am addressing the claim that nonscientific truths cannot be universal.)

1. Euclid’s Elements (~300 BC)

euclid-elements

The Elements is one of the most influential books of all time, not just in mathematics but in the entire Western way of thinking. For this post, math is considered separate from science, in that math does not operate by the scientific method. It instead operates by a strictly logical method that was largely formalized by Elements. The steps of this deductive method, in contrast with the inductive scientific method, consist of:

  1. Listing axioms, or self-evident truths.
  2. Listing basic assertions, which also should be self-evident.
  3. Manipulating the axioms and assertions to obtain theorems, which are the end result.

(For a list of the axioms and assertions, see the wiki page.)

In Elements, the first “postulate,” or axiom, is that a straight line can be drawn from one point to any other point. This seems obvious enough. Clearly if we imagine two points, we can also imagine a straight line between them. Another seemingly obvious claim is the last “common notion,” or assertion, which states that the whole is greater than the part.

But to what extent are these axioms really self-evident or universal? On what basis do we have to judge their universality or objectivity? The last axiom, for instance, known as the parallel postulate, is not even true in certain geometries. These are questions that have been debated for centuries

2. The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Trumbull-Declaration-of-independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Note that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” sounds like something Euclid would have written two thousand years earlier. In fact, the similarity is likely more than coincidence. Thomas Jefferson was a reader of Euclid, as evidenced in a letter to John Adams: “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” Furthermore, the Declaration reads much like a mathematical proof in the style of Euclid:

  1. The introduction (“When in the Course of human events… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”) establishes the want for the “dissolution of political bands” and then acknowledges that they need to declare the causes for it, i.e. the need for a proof.
  2. The preamble establishes the self-evident truths.
  3. The indictment contains the various violations by the King of the self-evident truths.
  4. The denunciation gathers the above together and says a “therefore,” showing that the proof has been concluded: “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
  5. The conclusion notes that the proof has been completed; therefore, they will act on the result of the proof: “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.”

More can be found in a talk given by Noam Elkies. The interesting thing is to note how universal these self-evident truths are. Is it objectively true, for example, that all men are created equal? Is this view just a Western and/or Enlightenment construction? I would argue it is not (this is for a different post).

3. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

pride-and-prejudice

The reason I have included Pride and Prejudice over any other work of literature is the opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Yet again, we have a declaration of universal truth, though this time used in fiction to establish the setting for the story. In contrast with its use in the Elements and the Declaration of Independence, universal truth is used by Austen in a more sarcastic manner.

Indeed, literature in general tends to question truths that are universally held. In this context, Pride and Prejudice is special because it acknowledges this explicitly. The statement, of course, is patently false, but it raises the question of whether there are any universal truths in social relations. And what would “universal” even mean? If something applied to a certain group in early 19th century England but not to anyone else, is it still universal?

4. The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Karl_Marx

Back to serious documents, we have the strong claim by Marx and Engels that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The signifier is the word “all,” which again proclaims a universal truth, at least universal to a sufficiently large breadth (“hitherto existing society”). By the nature of their argument, it should not be an absolute universal in the sense of applying to all time: success would mean having a classless society, and therefore, class struggles wouldn’t exist.

This example and Austen’s example are both social/historical universals. Marx argues that history can be understood by looking at class struggles, but again, on what basis can we support this? The modern view is that history is complex and can be partially understood through many different means, not just on modes of production.

On the other hand, Euclid’s is a mathematical universal, and Jefferson’s is a moral universal, in acknowledging the rights of man.

5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Flag_of_the_United_Nations

This United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is among the most significant documents of the twentieth century, and it is also based on presumed universal truths. Its preamble consists of seven “whereas” clauses to establish several self-evident assertions much like in the introduction to the US Declaration of Independence. These are:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge….”

These set up the basis for the 30 articles, which are the “self-evident” truths or axioms. The first three articles, for example, are:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Note that the UN did not feel the need to prove any of these. They were simply obvious or self-evident. The theorems, however, are all implicit. It is implied that if these axioms are violated, the UN has the authority to intervene on behalf of human rights.

We could spend a long time debating which particular articles are true or false, but the big picture question is, Can any of them be objectively true? Is the discussion of them even meaningful? The intuitive answer is yes.

To be continued…

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The Flaming Laser Sword

I recently stumbled upon Mike Alder’s article “Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, Or: Why Mathematicians and Scientists don’t like Philosophy but do it anyway.” It was quite relevant to my view of philosophy. From a mathematical and scientific perspective, plenty of philosophical issues seem strange.

Alder uses the example of when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. From a scientific perspective, the thought process is something like, “We’ll test it: if the object moves, then it wasn’t immovable, and if it doesn’t, then the force wasn’t unstoppable.” Anyway, this is something I might talk about more later on.

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The Fountainhead

TheFountainhead

This has been a rough read. I’ve had a relatively easy semester, but every time I tried to read this book, I invariably got distracted. I don’t know if it says more about this book or the Internet.

The Fountainhead left me with more questions than answers. I’ve heard mixed opinions of Ayn Rand’s works, and this book was recommended to me twice, both times over Atlas Shrugged. I cannot comment on the comparison yet.

I’m really not sure how to react to what I just read. On one hand, I agree with the exaltation of the “prime mover” and the condemnation of the “second-hander.” But I cannot reconcile that with the rejection of altruism (though the concept in the book is slightly different from our contemporary notion of altruism).

From Howard Roark’s final courtroom speech (emphasis added):

Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.

I fully agree up to this point. However, the speech continues:

No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man’s spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness.

To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego. The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.

And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.

I’m not sure whether I agree that achievement is solely for oneself.

Later on, Roark talks about the parasitic nature of second-handers, that “the parasite faces nature through an intermediary.”

Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.

The statement that “the need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary” is debatable, but I definitely agree that in our society, the creator is undervalued compared to the gift dispenser.

On morality and altruism from Rand’s framework:

The ‘common good’ of a collective—a race, a class, a state—was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism? Does the fault lie in men’s hypocrisy or in the nature of the principle? The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere. They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man must be sacrificed for other men. Actors change, but the course of the tragedy remains the same. A humanitarian who starts with declarations of love for mankind and ends with a sea of blood. It goes on and will go on so long as men believe that an action is good if it is unselfish. That permits the altruist to act and forces his victims to bear it. The leaders of collectivist movements ask nothing for themselves. But observe the results.

I’m not as pessimistic about humanitarian efforts, and it’s important to note that in the 70 years since the book was written, there have been many changes to society. Among them, just the Internet has caused us to think much differently about others, and I’d like to continue thinking about what the correctness or relevancy of ideas in this book applies today.

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Out of Context

When talking about religion, I often get the “out of context” objection. It’s hard, for instance, to understand what the Bible says about women without bringing up 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” And it’s hard to talk about morality without this passage:

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

But of course, it’s just taken out of context so all the violence and rape is fine. Here is a hilarious YouTube video by NonStampCollector on this topic.

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Culture, Biases, and Empathy

A few disclaimers before I start:

  1. This is a complicated issue. While I may simplify definitions or arguments for the sake of making a point, I realize the truth is more complex than that.
  2. I’m not completely sure about the conclusions, and this is not a topic that I am an authority on. Still, there are some things that I find so disturbing that I feel the need to say something, even if it is just armchairing.
  3. Culture can be taboo, especially to criticism. I realize this.
  4. I am going to throw in more caveats than usual, particularly because of the first three reasons. The last post I wrote in this area, on the social construction of progress, seemed to strike the wrong nerve even among some of my friends, so I’ll be extra careful here. I feel that I shouldn’t need to make such disclaimers, and hopefully this will clarify understanding rather than confound it.

The topic for today is the criticism of other cultures. In particular, we are very reluctant to criticize even a tiny facet of another culture, and while this is for good reason due to the not-so-friendly history of cultural superiority, I think we have overcompensated in the moral relativism direction and have ended up shielding even the worst culture-specific behaviors from criticism.

Wariness in Criticizing Cultures

As noted in the social progress post, much of our (post-)modern reservation to proclaim objective truths is well intentioned: to prevent future atrocities from happening as a result of the feelings of cultural superiority. The Holocaust comes to mind immediately, and European colonialism is another.

However, to (theoretically) renounce objective truth altogether would go too far. Then on what grounds do we have to say that stoning someone for adultery is wrong? Or rather, how can we criticize a culture that practices stoning as punishment for adultery? Or a culture with the punishment of 200 lashes for the crime of being raped? (Yes, you read that right—200 lashes not for the perpetrator, but for the victim.) We don’t have any grounds to make such criticism on at all, if we subscribe to extreme moral relativism.

Of course, this is an extreme scenario. The average person doesn’t watch a video of a woman being stoned to death and then say, “That’s okay because it’s okay in their culture and we have to respect that.” The reaction is outrage, as it should be.

Cultural Anthropic Principle

I want to take one step back and talk about a peculiarity in the logic of cultural critique: a selection effect on what we are saying. It is similar to an effect in cosmology called the anthropic principle: given that we are observing the universe, the universe must have properties that support intelligent life. That is, it addresses the question of “Why is our universe suitable for life?” by noting that if our universe were not suitable for life, then we wouldn’t be here making that observation. That is, the alternative question, “Why is our universe not suitable for life,” cannot physically be asked. We must observe a universe compatible with intelligent life.

A similar effect is found in some areas of cultural analysis. We have, for instance, many critiques of democracy written by people living in democracies. One might ask, what kind of criticisms do people make within a totalitarian state? The answer might be none: given that a writer is in a totalitarian system, their critique of the totalitarian government may never be published or even written in the first place for fear of imprisonment by the state. The net result is, given that we are critiquing our own political system, we are most likely in an open political system. This seems to answer the question, “Why is political analysis democracy-centric?”

The same principle applies to the criticism of cultures. More intellectually advanced cultures tend to be more open to self criticism and be more wary of criticizing other cultures. So, a culture that is wary about criticizing other cultures tends to be more intellectually sophisticated, and thus often are concerned with epistemological questions of cultural analysis in the first place and can often give a better answer than one that is less self-aware.

Cultural Exclusion, Bias

In any discussion with one person criticizing another culture, the go-to defense is, “You are not from culture X, so you cannot possibly understand X.” This seems to be a very exclusionary argument that implicitly denies the role of empathy. By saying “you cannot possibly understand,” one implies that there is something mysterious that cannot be shared with someone outside the group.

I’m all for people of different cultures to communicate and get along with one another, but the mindset of “you cannot possibly understand” seems to reinforce cultural divisions and deny the possibility for mutual understanding.

Along the lines of “you cannot possibly understand,” a related argument is, “You are from culture X, therefore your opinion is biased,” where X usually equals Western culture.

Of course opinions are biased! But it’s not as simple as biased vs unbiased (and does an unbiased person even exist?)—there is a whole range of biases along different dimensions. To reiterate my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Interestingly enough, the context of this quote (source) is that it was in response to an English major who “…went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.” Asimov’s response signifies that wrongness exists as not a dichotomy, but a scale. (It is kind of ironic that Asimov was the one who argued that wrongness is relative, to an English major in 1989.)

So yes, we are biased, but that does not mean we should just abandon cultural analysis. As we understand biases more, we get better at working around them and minimizing their impacts. One example is the anchoring bias, which says that if you are trying to guess a number but think of some other number beforehand, your guess will move slightly closer to that other number. For example, in situation (1), I ask you, “What is 1000 plus 1000?” and then ask you to estimate the price of a car, versus (2) I ask you, “What is a million plus a million?” and then ask you to estimate the price of the car. You will give a lower estimate in the first case and a higher estimate in the second case, even though it is the same car! To work around this, try to not expose someone to arbitrary numbers beforehand if you want an honest estimation from them, for instance. (For more on biases, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Probably, we cannot eliminate all biases from our minds. But in regards to cultural criticism, bias cannot be used as a disqualifier. In 12th grade history, we had an essay where one of the points was to analyze and contextualize sources, e.g. looking for bias. Some of my classmates apparently had used the “you cannot possibly understand” mentality on the source analysis. Our teacher had to announce in class that “This author is not from country X and therefore must be biased when talking about country X” is not a valid scholarly argument. From my college experience, professors explicitly warn against doing this as well, so to be clear, my argument on cultural criticism is not targeted against academics (who I think are approaching things correctly), but against a popular/cultural sentiment.

This recent Buzzfeed article “Why Muslim Americans Are Giving ‘Alice In Arabia’ Major Side-Eye” is an apt example of this sentiment. It’s interesting that the criticisms are not of the content but of the context—that the writer is a white woman and therefore must be racist and cannot possibly understand Muslims. I won’t say too much more about it here, but it’s pretty interesting and solidly demonstrates the point of this post. It isn’t even criticism of culture so much as even portrayal of/writing about another culture. Which leads me to…

Personal Investment and Empathy

“You cannot possibly understand” as an argument seems to deny empathy. The point of empathy is you can understand someone else. More specifically, we are concerned with intercultural empathy, trying to understand another culture. There are plenty of people who come from multicultural backgrounds and who have adapted from one culture to another, so it happens all the time.

Recently, I also ran into the argument of “you are not personally invested in X, therefore you have no point in talking about X,” which is again a denial of empathy and an affirmation of total self interest. This argument was made in a comment to the social progress blog post, and the commenter ended with the following:

Your stakes in this critical project are low, and you’re yelling that from your desk chair for some reason.

I think the implication was that since I’m not a humanities major, I shouldn’t be interested in talking about the humanities. Really? In addition, this sentiment is simply historically wrong. From a previous blog post:

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

According to the commenter’s logic, these rights revolutions should never have happened because there was no personal investment for any white member of Congress to support rights for racial minorities, or for any male Congressperson to support rights for women, or for the straight Congress to support LGBT rights, etc.

And according to the commenter’s logic, pretty much everything I talk about should not be talked about. I’ve spoken in the past about LGBT rights and perceptions, women’s rights, and the wealth gap, even though I’m straight, male, and will be working on Wall Street. So why do I write on these topics? One word: empathy. (Arguably, even my atheism-related posts are not really personally invested: I’ve never felt discriminated against due to my atheism. It’s sometimes more of giving a voice to those who are prevented from having one.)

“You are not personally invested in X” is not as common as the other sentiments, but I feel that it needs an explanation. Maybe we are so well conditioned to look for biases that we assume everyone must have some personal vestment/personal reason for doing something. Perhaps it does stem from similar lines of thinking to “you cannot possibly understand.” If you assume that everyone is purely self-interested, then this argument is not as ridiculous, but it’s still shaky at best.

In all, we must be careful in analyzing other cultures, minimize the impact of our biases, and use empathy to even try to understand those whom we don’t normally associate with. And most of all, we need to move beyond “you cannot possibly understand.”

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Atheist or Agnostic: A Confusion of Terms?

I often hear things along the line of “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” usually followed by one or more insinuations of atheists, such as:

  • “I think being an atheist requires just as much faith as being a theist [so I'm an agnostic instead].”
  • “Atheists are just as closed-minded as theists [so I'm an agnostic instead].”
  • “Neither side can disprove the other, so it’s hypocritical for atheists to criticize theism [so I'm an agnostic instead].”

This misconception of agnosticism presumes that atheism and theism are diametrically opposed extremes, and that agnosticism is a sort of middle ground between them. Perhaps most believe the picture looks like this:

agnosticism_misconception

There are at least a couple of things wrong with this. First, neither theism nor atheism explicitly entail extreme, absolutely certain belief in anything. (Most theists I have talked to about this do not proclaim 100% certainty, and I do not know a single atheist who is absolutely certain that no gods exist. Though, the stats suggest that theism within the general population is more often than not accompanied with absolute certainty.)

Second, gnosticism deals with a separate issue from theism. Theism is concerned with belief, whereas gnosticism is concerned with knowledge. This is why I identify formally as agnostic atheist: I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). To repeat myself, atheism does not necessarily entail 100% certainty that no gods exist, neither does theism necessarily entail 100% certainty that one or more gods do exist. This famous chart categorizes the distinction between belief and knowledge:

Agnostic_chart

Agnosticism is not a third way between atheism and theism; it is a separate dimension altogether. This is usually as far as explanations of atheism vs agnosticism go. However, I would like to take this one step further.

More In-Depth

The chart above is misleading. It merely states what the areas are, not how the populace actually fits into them. Nor does it address the philosophical difference between the concepts of strong atheism and weak atheism (though it mentions strong atheism at the bottom). I will try to address these points here.

Here is the same chart but with areas adjusted for  the actual proportions of people within atheism and theism (crude estimation):

modified-agnostic-chart-2

In addition, I have drawn an arrow to simulate folding this chart into a line:

agnosticism_more_accurate

Again, it seems that most atheists are agnostic rather than gnostic, whereas most theists are gnostic rather than agnostic. That is, most atheists do not claim to know their belief, whereas a majority of theists are 100% certain that their god(s) exist:

Combining the two diagrams together allows for a comparison of misconception vs reality, where the sizes of the arrows attempt to match the correct proportions of people:

agnosticism-atheism-misconception-vs-reality

For this reason, I find the claim very unreasonable that atheism is “just as extreme” as theism. It is simply not true, since most atheists fall under agnostic atheism, whereas most theists fall under gnostic theism. Only a gnostic atheist could be possibly as “extreme” as a gnostic theist (gnosticism being a necessary condition), but I would still argue the gnostic theist position is more extreme.

Namely, the categorization above applies to a general concept of god, not any god in particular. It is very possible to be a gnostic atheist regarding a particular god, such as how most Christians are gnostic atheists with regards to Zeus or Thor. “I just know Zeus belongs in mythology.” I think Christians would agree that being a gnostic atheist with respect to Zeus is not as extreme a position as being a gnostic theist with respect to Zeus.

So this is where the misconceptions and the qualms of atheism vs agnosticism come from. The words “atheist” and “agnostic” as used in the wrong definitions actually point to roughly the same group of people—agnostic atheists. The primary misconception is additionally preserved by several factors, including:

  • People expect one-word answers for religious identity, thus it would be generally unwieldy for someone to answer “agnostic atheist,” and would instead answer either “atheist” or “agnostic.”
  • On surveys, “atheist” and “agnostic” are usually mutually exclusive. Thus, you are forced to pick one.
  • The word “atheist” has such a negative social stigma (mainly the result of religious propaganda) that many people would not want to deal with the repercussions of saying it, and would rather answer “agnostic.”
  • Since many people would rather answer agnostic, this leads to a harmful feedback loop: if an atheist says “I’m an agnostic because atheism is just as closed-minded,” this perpetuates the negative stigma of “atheist,” which in turn causes more people to avoid using the term “atheist.”
  • To some degree, the word “atheism” is also confused with the term “strong atheism,” and similarly, “agnosticism” is confused with the term “weak atheism.” Which brings me to…

Strong Atheism vs Weak Atheism

There is another misconception that atheism automatically entails the concept of strong atheism, which asserts that no gods exist. This is in contrast to weak atheism, which rejects the existence of gods without necessarily the positive assertion that no gods exist. The majority of atheists are weak atheists; in fact, I don’t know any strong atheists.

For another example, say you lived 4000 years ago and someone asserted that the Earth was a triangle. Without having to assert that Earth is not a triangle [strong], you can be doubtful that Earth is a triangle [weak]. To doubt the triangle Earth theory, you do not necessarily need some alternate explanation. This is why the claim, “Because they don’t believe in a god, atheists must believe that something came out of nothing and that everything is materialistic” is invalid—atheism doesn’t not entail any belief; it is nonbelief. In addition, note that gnostic atheism is even stronger than strong atheism, as it entails not only an assertion but also knowledge involved in making the assertion.

However, the atheism diagram is often mislabeled with strong atheism as atheism and weak atheism as agnosticism:

agnosticism-vs-atheism-strong-weak

In this terminology, I would identify as weak atheist with regards to belief (I don’t believe there is any god, but I don’t make the positive claim that there do not exist any), and weak agnostic with regards to knowledge (I don’t think it’s possible to know right now, but it may be possible in the future—it is provable but not falsifiable). And again, there is a distinction between the concept of a general god and the particular god of Christianity.

From my experience in talking to people, much of the time when they say “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” what they really mean really comes down to “I’m a weak atheist, not a strong atheist,” or “I’m an agnostic atheist, not a gnostic atheist.” Sure, this is a semantic difference, but it has a lot of real world implications due to equivocations of atheism with strong atheism and of atheism with gnostic atheism. It certainly confounds people who are thinking about these things and it enables completely wrong arguments to be made against atheists.

Of course, there’s still a lot more to cover. For example, I haven’t even addressed the atheist vs deist vs theist distinction yet, which is concerned with whether a god currently interacts with the world or not. A deist might believe an all-powerful being created the universe 13.8 billion years ago but hasn’t touched the universe since then, whereas a theist believes that a god still interacts with the world today. But this wasn’t too relevant in the atheist/agnostic distinction this post is concerned with. I hope this clears at least some of the confusion surrounding these terms.

In addition to “atheist” and “agnostic,” there are many more terms that can make the conversation even more confusing: humanist, secularist, freethinker, nonreligious, rationalist, etc., each with different connotations. This may be in a future post.

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