David Bruce (born 1954) — Agnostism: A Good Option?

I. William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) and T. H. Huxley (1825-1895): Agnosticism — The Only Legitimate Response

Two people who believed that it is both illogical and immoral to believe in God are William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) and Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), both of whom were agnostics and advocated suspending belief in God because the evidence is not sufficient either to prove or disprove the existence of God.

Clifford came up with a vivid parable to illustrate his point:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old, not overwell built, and often had needed repairs. It had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. He thought that perhaps he ought to have her overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.

Before the ship sailed, however, he said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was safe and seaworthy: he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their new home; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

According to Clifford, the person who believes in God is like the shipowner. The evidence — according to Clifford — is not sufficient to justify belief in God; therefore, the only logical and moral thing to do is suspend belief in God. If you choose to believe without sufficient evidence, then you are like the shipowner who sent all those emigrant families to a watery grave and then collected the insurance.

Clifford was a very logical person — he was a mathematician as well as a philosopher — who believed that “it is wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.” And according to Clifford, everyone has the duty to be rational in his or her beliefs: “It is not only the leader of men, statesman, philosopher, or poet, that has this duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe.”

In many instances, I agree with Clifford. Before believing that crystals have the power to keep razor blades sharp, one ought to put the belief to the test — perhaps by performing an experiment in which one razor blade is housed in a crystal and another is not, and then seeing which blade — if any — stays sharp longer. (But when it comes to having belief in God, I think the evidence is sufficient to show that God exists.)

Huxley was also an agnostic; in fact, he invented the terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism,” as he tells us in these paragraphs:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these demonstrations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite certain that they had attained a certain ‘gnosis’, — had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Kant and Hume on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. …

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic’. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at [the Metaphysical Society], to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

Huxley agreed with Clifford that it is immoral to believe something without having adequate evidence to justify that belief. In fact, believing that holding an unjustified belief is immoral as well as illogical is what distinguishes agnosticism from skepticism.

Huxley tells us what he means by agnosticism:

Agnosticism is properly described as a creed in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to agnosticism.

Fortunately, William James provides an adequate response to the beliefs of Clifford and Huxley, as you will discover when you read James’ essay “The Will to Believe.” The essay about James follows the next essay, which is about psychics.

Sources:The quotations come from two essays: Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” and Huxley’s “Agnosticism.”

II. David Bruce (Born 1954): In the Year 2525, All Heads will be Triangular

In the previous essay, I wrote this:

William Kingdon Clifford was a very logical person — he was a mathematician as well as a philosopher — who believed that “it is wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.” And according to Clifford, everyone has the duty to be rational in his or her beliefs: “It is not only the leader of men, statesman, philosopher, or poet, that has this duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe.”

In many instances, I agree with Clifford. Before believing that crystals have the power to keep razor blades sharp, one ought to put the belief to the test — perhaps by performing an experiment in which one razor blade is housed in a crystal and another is not, and then seeing which blade — if any — stays sharp longer. (But when it comes to having belief in God, I think the evidence is sufficient to show that God exists.)

In this essay, I present some evidence that psychics are incorrect when they make predictions. I have always thought that looking at predictions by psychics is stupid, because they have one important disadvantage: They are quickly forgotten, and so who knows whether they become true? Well, that’s no longer a problem for me.

You see, I buy lots and lots of used books, and I purchased a 1975 edition of The People’s Almanacby David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace. A compendium of the unusual, The People’s Almanacdevotes much space to psychics, including their predictions.

Let’s see what the psychics predicted in 1975 about the then-future.

Predictions That Were Supposed to Become True in 1975-1980:

  • New York will be uninhabitable. The water level will rise and eventually flood the city out of existence. (Predicted by Malcolm Bessent)
  • From 1979 to 1982, the U.S. Government will control the mental activities of Americans through a “mind-shaping” program. All people who do not follow the line of thinking advocated by the Government will be brought before “Thought Courts” and be subject to “modified thought,” or brainwashing. … Individual thought impressions will be filed like fingerprints with the Government. (Predicted by David Bubar)
  • From 1975 to 1985, the devil will rule the Earth. (Predicted by Criswell)
  • In 1978, Lake Michigan will be drained for land use. (Predicted by Criswell)
  • By 1980, the internal combustion engine will be outlawed in all major American cities. (Predicted by Olof Jonsson)
  • In the 1970s or early 1980s, the Red Chinese will use atomic bombs on the U.S. The bombs will do damage, but major cities will be protected by sophisticated detection. (Predicted by Ethel Johnson Meyers)
  • Senator Edward Kennedy will be elected president of the United States in 1976. (Predicted by Alan Vaughan)
  • There will be no presidential election in 1980 because a constitutional amendment will change the presidential 4-year-term to a single term of 5 or 6 years. (Predicted by Alan Vaughan)

Predictions That Were Supposed to Become True in 1981-1990:

  • From May 11, 1988 to March 30, 1990, the Aphrodisiacal Era will flourish. Clouds of aphro-fragrance will float over the U.S. An aphrodisiac will also be put in water and heating systems. Sexual craziness will overcome the populace. Sex will be performed in the streets of Hollywood, and Florida will become a huge nudist camp. The Secretary of State will be caught in acts of perversion. The invention of an antidote will end the era. (Predicted by Criswell)
  • In 1982, a dying planet named Bullanon will come so close to earth that it will affect earth’s gravity, affecting the poles. It will also cause a 40-day snowstorm with ice, resulting in “white death.” (Predicted by Criswell)
  • In 1985, a Caucasian woman, called the Lady of Light, will become leader, 1st of the Orient, then of the world. Under her leadership, men will become slaves and women will hold the power. War will end; the world will become a near-paradise. (Predicted by Criswell)
  • The U.S. will have its 1st woman President. (Predicted by Jeane Dixon)
  • A comet will collide with the earth, causing huge tidal waves and mighty earthquakes. (Predicted by Jeane Dixon)
  • A neo-Nazi group with some Hitlerian ideas will take over Germany, both East and West. This group will fight a war that will extend from Europe to the U.S. (Predicted by Irene Hughes)
  • All major cities will ban private cars. Only medical and law enforcement personnel will be allowed to use cars, and those will be compact and electrically powered. (Predicted by Olof Jonsson)
  • By 1986, one of every 3 children will be deformed in some way by radiation. (Predicted by Dr. N)
  • In 1981, the U.S. will go to war with China. (Predicted by Alan Vaughan)

Were No Predictions Correct?

Several psychics predicted that people would become more concerned about the environment. Lest we be too impressed by this, let’s remember that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, people were very concerned about the environment. After all, the first Earth Day was held in 1970, fully five years before The People’s Almanac was printed.

My Prediction for Next Year

Next year, Americans will realize that psychics are full of digested food. Unfortunately, I think that my prediction has as much chance of becoming true as did the predictions listed above.

III. William James (1842-1910): The Will to Believe

One subject of interest to philosophers is the relationship between faith and reason. Is it reasonable and justifiable to believe in God? Some people such as William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) and T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) argue that it is immoral to believe something without sufficient evidence. These people tend to regard statements such as “God exists” and “God is good” as scientific hypotheses. One should examine the evidence, then on the basis of the evidence decide whether the hypotheses are true or false.

A philosopher who believes that we can have legitimate belief in God despite agnosticism is the American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his essay “The Will to Believe,” James provides a response to the agnosticism of Clifford and Huxley.

Definitions

As many good philosophers do, James begins his argument by defining terms important to his argument:

  1. A hypothesis: This is any thesis proposed for us to believe in. For example, God exists.
  2. A live vs. a dead hypothesis: A live hypothesis is a thesis that you have a chance of believing. For example, there is life on other planets. A dead hypothesis is one which you have no chance of believing. For example, your teacher can turn invisible and fly.
  3. An option: An option is a choice between hypotheses. For example, either God exists or God does not exist.
  4. A living vs. a dead option: A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live (possible for you to believe). For example, this Saturday evening you will either study or go to the movies. A dead option is one in which one or both hypotheses are dead (not possible for you to believe). For example, this Saturday you will either study or fly to the moon.
  5. A forced vs. an avoidable option: A forced option is one in which you are forced to choose between the two hypotheses. For example, this Saturday evening you will either study or not study. An avoidable option is one in which you can choose a third alternative. For example, this Saturday you will either study or go to the movies. You have a third alternative: You could go to a theatrical production.
  6. A momentous vs. a trivial option: A momentous option has three characteristics: The opportunity is unique, the stake is significant, or the decision is irreversible if it later prove unwise. For example, suppose an explorer asks you to ask to climb Mount Everest with her this summer — all expenses paid. Would you go?

In contrast, a trivial option is one in which the opportunity is not unique, the stake is insignificant, or the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise. For example, you are watching TV and a commercial comes on imploring you to buy a salad shooter.

  1. A genuine option: A genuine option is live, forced, and momentous.

Investigation of Options

Now we will investigate some options to find out what kind they are:

  1. To go to Antarctica or Moscow over spring break: This is a dead option for most students. Chances are, few students have a chance to go to either Antarctica or Moscow over spring break.
  2. To go to Florida or California over spring break: This is a live option for many USA students. Many USA students could go to either place over spring break. However, this is an avoidable option. A student could choose to go to New York instead.
  3. To buy this pair of pants or not: This is a live option for most of you. If you see a nice pair of pants in a department store window, you could buy the pants or not. In addition, this is a forced option. Either you buy the pants or you don’t. However, this is a trivial option. The opportunity is not unique: You can buy pants anytime. The stakes are not significant: Who cares a lot about a pair of pants? Also, if your decision later prove unwise, you can reverse it. If you buy the pants and they don’t fit, you can bring them back to the store. Or, if you decided not to buy the pants, later you can come back to the store and buy them.
  4. To operate on skin cancer or not: Now things are getting interesting. Suppose your physician tells you have a choice: either get the operation, or die of skin cancer. You get a second opinion, and the second opinion is the same as the first: either get the operation, or die of skin cancer. This option is live, it is forced, and it is momentous. However, in this case, we can examine the evidence, and the evidence very clearly tells us what we ought to do: Have the operation. Remember what Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said: If unnecessary suffering is avoidable, avoid it. Don’t die of skin cancer if you don’t have to.

James’ Thesis

However, not every genuine option is one where the evidence about what we ought to believe or do is as clearcut as in the option about being operated on for skin cancer. For those cases where the evidence is ambiguous, James defends a certain thesis:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional [emotional] nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision, — just like deciding yes or no, — and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.

In other words, if the evidence is there, believe it. However, if the evidence does not clearly support one hypothesis over the other hypothesis, then we must have recourse to our emotional nature.

Other Genuine Options

This is a genuine option:

To be benevolent or not to be benevolent: This is a genuine option. It is living, forced, and momentous. It is momentous because the opportunity is unique (the opportunity for a particular good deed will probably not come again), the stakes are significant (whether or not you will feel guilt later in life), and the decision is not reversible if it later prove unwise (I wish I could go back in time and erase some of the bad deeds I have done).

The Religious Option

The religious option — to believe or not to believe in God — is also a genuine option. It is living, forced, and momentous. It is momentous because the opportunity is unique (we have only one life in which to choose), the stakes are significant (the kind of life you will lead in the next life, should an afterlife exist), and the decision is not reversible if it later prove unwise (after you die, it’s too late to change your mind).

According to James, since the evidence on the question of the existence of God is ambiguous and inconclusive, we can have recourse to our emotional nature when deciding which hypothesis to believe. James decides to believe in God because he is unwilling to lose out on the benefit of believing in God, should God exist. Therefore, James rejects the rule that we ought not to believe something without sufficient evidence. As James puts it, “… a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there would be an irrational rule.

The agnostic, as represented by Clifford and Huxley, would say about the religious option that we ought not to believe in God, that the evidence is insufficient to show that God exists, and that therefore it is immoral to believe in God.

However, James states that both Clifford and Huxley fall back on their passional (or emotional) natures when they suspend judgment. After all, the evidence is insufficient to show that God does not exist. Therefore, Clifford and Huxley are also acting immorally when they choose not to believe in God.

Note: The quotations by William James that appear in this essay are from his “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910).

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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