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Another Reason against Methodological Agnosticism

September 4, 2009

That’s right; I’m against methodological agnosticism and in favor of methodological atheism or methodological scepticism. I posted about this once before. Here’s another reason to add to the case against agnosticism.

Agnosticism is not an appropriate response to certain theist claims to the effect that the gods divided people into essentially different groups, for instance, groups divided by sex or race. The sex example will be more controversial here than the race example (although not for anyone who’s read and understood Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body), so I’ll stick to the race one.

In brief: it is demonstrably false that essential racial differeces exist, so a claim that the gods created us and divided us into essentially different races is also demonstrably false. There’s no room for agnosticism about the claim, except for people who ignore all evidence.

The people who would insist on methodological agnosticism in cases like this are correctly labled as protectionists or apologists.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2009 11:14 am

    Perhaps you can clarify a bit, but I don’t know if I buy your earlier post against methodological agnosticism, or your point for methodological atheism here.

    The issue I have with your earlier post, on the “WWJD?” exercise, is how you framed the projection theory option:

    This is hard to understand if you’re employing methodological agnosticism. If you ask the students “What’s going on in the story,” they’ll tend to say “these people are doing what the Holy Spirit told them that Jesus would do,” which is possibly true if you’re a methodological agnostic. If you’re a methodological atheist, you can retort: “but if we assume that the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist, how can we explain what is going on in the story?”

    But that latter option is foreclosed if you start out with methodological agnosticism.

    As I see it, methodological agnosticism- if it is truly agnostic- would be open to the possibility of a pneumatological explanation as well as a psychological one. There’s absolutely no need to make an atheist assumption that the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist to explore atheistic theories, because a methodological agnosticism allows for the possibility of the Holy Spirit’s non-existence already. The only difference of a methodological atheism is its insistence that the explanation must not include the divine. But agnostism doesn’t assert that an explanation must dis-include the divine.

    For that matter, even someone like me- who believes in the work of the Holy Spirit and who does theology (and therefore works a methodologically theist mode)- even someone like me could assert that the WWJD exercise is best explained by some sort of projection theory. I don’t see why one needs to be methodologically agnostic… much less methodologically atheist… to conclude or theorize such a thing.

  2. September 8, 2009 11:24 am

    This latest post is even less to the point.

    A claim that a god divided us into essentially different races is false not because it is methodologically agnostic or open to theistic explanations, any more than a claim that we are self-divided into essentially different races is false because it does not employ a theistic explanation or is methodologically atheist.

    They’re both false, quite obviously, because of the idea of “essentially different races” that they employ. Their weakness has nothing to do with whether or not they approach “race” with a theistic, agnostic, or atheist method. It has to do with the false premise upon which they understand race in the first place.

    Think of it in a less provocative way. I’ve rewritten your example a bit differently:

    In brief: it is demonstrably false that grass is purple, so a claim that the gods created grass purple is also demonstrably false. There’s no room for agnosticism about the claim, except for people who ignore all evidence.

    Now, if a methodological agnostic wants to assert that God made grass purple, she may be perfectly wrong in doing so, but not because of any failure of methodological agnosticism that protects theistic explanation… it’s a failure of empirical observation, which makes any explanation- theist or atheist- nonsensical. Saying “Grass is purple because of evolutionary genetic selection” is also wrong, but it’s only wrong because grass is not purple.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 8, 2009 1:52 pm

    Not that I look back, I think you’re totally right about the earlier post—I’ve got it wrong. I’m less certain about this post: I think meth. agnosticism IS used in a protectionist way. I want to respond more substantially, so, more later …

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 8, 2009 4:30 pm

    Yes, upon reflection I’ll stick with this claim. Methodological agnosticism insists that we can’t know for sure, so we have to be agnostic about supernatural claims (at least the forms I’ve seen advocated). As a result, it sort of produces a rule that says supernatural claims cannot be falsified, and protects them from critique. However, I’m willing to admit that maybe not all methodological agnostics do this.


  1. I Had It Wrong « Missives from Marx

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