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I Had It Wrong

September 8, 2009

… and Evan rightly called me out. In the comments to this post, Evan pointed out that I don’t have it right in this post. The problem is that I wrongly assume that methodological agnosticism prevents one from offering reductionist explanations. He points out that methodological agnosticism would allow one to make reductionist explanations—presumably agnosticism would just prevent one from going one step further and saying that the reductionist ones are the right explanations (because we just can’t know for sure).

However, I think I had something right: I still think that those who are methodological sceptics are predisposed to look for explanations that agnostics are less likely to notice.

In addition, I think that there are sufficient reasons in some cases to judge the reductionist explanation as the right one, which the agnostic position forbids.

I doubt this will convince Evan to be a methodological sceptic or atheist, but have I corrected the bit that I’d obviously gotten wrong?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2009 10:09 am

    Thanks for the response. We deal with rather different subjects, obviously, but close enough for the occasional fun methodological skirmish. I’ve enjoyed reading MfM since running across it a few weeks ago, and I appreciate your willingness to engage, backtrack, etc.

    You write this:

    He points out that methodological agnosticism would allow one to make reductionist explanations—presumably agnosticism would just prevent one from going one step further and saying that the reductionist ones are the right explanations (because we just can’t know for sure).

    I wonder… perhaps I’m not using the term correctly, but I would say that a methodological agnostic could say that any particular reductionist explanation is the right one for any particular question/situation. What agnosticism couldn’t say is that the answer must be non-metaphysical/supernatural/etc. But I don’t know whether methodological agnosticism implies a strong agnosticism for any observations or theories whatsoever (what you seem to imply here), or whether it is a weak agnosticism that leaves the door open for all sorts of explanations as possible, even as it allows settling for one or another in any given case. I take it that because the agnosticism (or atheism) is prefaced by the qualifier “methodological”, it is the weaker form that I mention here, because what is agnostic or atheist/skeptical is the method rather than the conclusions. I don’t understand why a methodological agnosticism would “forbid” a reductionist conclusion. The only sort of methodology that would forbid that would be something like “methodological occasionalism“.

    For this reason, even religious believers can affirm methodological atheism if they believe that the situation warrants it. A Baptist economist could still affirm that market structures should not be explained by the wrath or favor of God, but rather purely through the immanent processes of the economy. That’s methodologically atheist- it brackets out supernatural explanations of what is being observed- but it doesn’t need to affirm an atheist response to all metaphysical questions whatsoever.

    As to whether skeptics are predisposed to look for more options than agnostics, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to over-psychologize beyond my competence. Even if this were granted, though, it should also be granted in the other direction that methodological agnostics are predisposed to entertain another set of explanations that methodological skeptics are not only not disposed to consider, but further as a rule are not allowed to consider. Granted, the set of possible explanations that agnostics are more likely than atheists to notice are not the sorts that atheists would be much interested in… but that’s the point of the whole dilemma, isn’t it?!

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 9, 2009 11:08 am

    About being predisposed: right! Agnostics would be more predisposed to explanations I’m probably not interested in. However, I find that most of those tend to be tendentious. Let’s say a religious practitioner prays and is healed. An explanation could be that the god he prayed to healed him. Or we could say maybe he has telekinetic powers to heal himself without knowing it. Or maybe another god he didn’t pray to healed him. And so on. What’s to justify one of the explanations over another, if we open the door to unverifiable explanations?

    About agnosticism being open to reductionist explanations, see this quote from Ninian Smart: “What we are concerned with is not the truth of religion, but its power. … We should be neutral as to whether the finger points at the moon or at nothing.”

    Or this from another intro to religion textbook: “At the outset, a phenomenological approach to religion as it is understood in this book resists all types of reductionism.”

    Both of these books repeatedly insist on “bracketing” epistemic considerations altogether.

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