MWP 1.1.e: Distinguishing Negative Metaphysics from Agnosticism

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I have already mentioned the importance, when interpreting sceptical arguments, of distinguishing the denial of positive claims from the casting of uncertainty on those claims. This is a distinction that goes back to that between the arguments of Academic and Pyrrhonian types of sceptic in ancient times. Academic sceptics made assertions about the relativity of knowledge, whereas Pyrrhonians merely doubted the existence of knowledge and refrained from making claims about it. It is not clear, however, that the Pyrrhonians followed through their agnostic attitude in every respect[1]. I am concerned here not with historical claims about the Pyrrhonians, but with the possibility of making the distinction clearly and consistently.

In the modern context, it is the distinction between negative metaphysics and agnosticism that is crucial for distinguishing Middle Way Philosophy from naturalism, scientism, atheism, existentialism, nihilism, postmodernism, relativism, or any other theories that in one way or another deny metaphysical claims. The nature of metaphysical claims is such that the mere denial of a metaphysical claim only sets up another, converse, metaphysical claim that is equally distant from experience.

This point can be seen more closely if we analyse more fully what is meant by the denial of an assertion. If I deny a claim that is within experience (e.g. “I can see a dog in the room”), then the converse is also within my experience (“I can’t see a dog in the room”). When looking for the dog, I can take into account the possibility that the dog may or may not be seen in the room, without having to pre-judge the question. In contrast, a metaphysical statement (“God exists”) is neither easier nor harder to support through experience than its denial (“God does not exist”), because in either case, I can only interpret any particular experience as evidence for or against God by not taking into account the possibility of that evidence being interpreted the opposite way. For example, I can only take the evidence of the complexity of the eye as proof of God’s design if I ignore the ways it can be explained as due to a long process of random genetic mutation and environmental selection[2]. On the other hand, I can only take that explanation as disproving God’s design if I ignore the ways in which random genetic mutation and environmental selection can still be explained as the results of divine creation.

In the case of God, it can be illustrated relatively clearly and easily how the denial of a positive metaphysical claim only sets up a dualistic opposition and does not advance the discussion. Rancorous debates between theists and atheists are common, and in all cases each side merely proceeds by casting doubt on the metaphysical assumptions of the other, but nevertheless drawing the opposed metaphysical conclusion[3]. This can only be done when one fails to understand the difference between metaphysical assertions and assertions within experience, and that metaphysical assertions remain untouched by evidence.

One rather glaring example of this is found in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion: his rejection of agnosticism contains much rhetoric and only one argument, which is this one:

If he existed and chose to reveal it, God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his favour.[4]

Presumably Dawkins envisages a voice booming from the heavens saying “I am God” or something similar, so that everyone on earth could hear. We could hardly envisage metaphysical claims being proved in any way more explicit than this. But would it convince everyone? Should it convince everyone? Hardly. The experience of a big voice indicates that some being or thing has produced a big voice, not that a perfect and infinite being is producing it. No possible finite experience can provide the evidence to support an absolute claim – either about an infinite being or about an alleged truth that is said to be the case throughout the universe – it’s a simple as that[5].

Even if one appreciates this point in relation to the debate about God, it is less widely applied to other issues, but exactly the same considerations apply to metaphysical dualisms in philosophy of mind, the debate about freewill, in ethics, in political ideology, in scientific realism, and for other kinds of religious metaphysics (such as Buddhist claims about enlightenment). In all these areas, philosophy and related areas have often got fruitlessly caught up in disputes which admit of no possible resolution, because they consist only of one dogmatic assertion followed by an equally dogmatic counter-assertion. These assertions are backed up by the selective use of sceptical arguments which undermine the opposing position, whilst those which undermine one’s own are ignored.

The alternative to denying metaphysical propositions is to remain agnostic about them. Agnosticism involves a recognition that we do not know, and is the outcome of sceptical argument applied equally to all sides. As I have been arguing in the previous chapters so far, these sceptical arguments do not leave us unjustified in making any assertions whatsoever, but only unjustified in making metaphysical assertions, whilst provisional assertions remain justifiable. It is not possible to make a metaphysical assertion provisionally because a metaphysical assertion is necessarily absolute, and impossible to either justify further or to incrementalise.

As it is impossible to make a metaphysical assertion provisionally, soft agnosticism, in which one awaits further evidence for metaphysical claims, is practically mistaken. One would be waiting infinitely, simply having failed to get the message that metaphysical assertions do not admit of evidence. So the type of agnosticism I am recommending is hard agnosticism, in which one recognises that no evidence can ever be available on metaphysical claims. Such agnosticism is in no sense indecisive, but actually involves a decisive refusal of involvement in fruitless metaphysical disputes.

One possible objection to this position is that it involves agnosticism about trivial metaphysical positions as well as those that people are actually attached to. I need to be just as agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster as about God, even though nobody seriously believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so it may be claimed to be not worth being agnostic about. However, I think this confuses the question of what discussions are worth our attention from metaphysical agnosticism as a general approach. I can be in principle agnostic about the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (if it comes up), even though it is far more important to be agnostic about God, because a lot more people believe or disbelieve in God and their belief or disbelief has a lot more practical implications.

Another argument that has been used against hard agnosticism is that it is contradictory in “dogmatically” rejecting both positive and negative metaphysics. Here one needs to distinguish between dogmatism and a decisiveness justified by practical requirements. A belief is dogmatic if it is absolute, represses alternatives, and is thus inaccessible to counter-evidence, but hard agnosticism decisively rejects metaphysics precisely in order to maintain an accessibility to evidence which would be obscured if it were to accept metaphysics. Hard agnosticism itself is not a metaphysical belief, but rather is the avoidance of metaphysical beliefs, in order to make practical progress by focusing on non-absolute beliefs.  

In order to be maintained consistently, however, hard agnosticism requires a psychological state of provisionality. In practice, agnosticism even on important topics is difficult to maintain consistently because of the phenomenon of sceptical slippage, where positions that are in principle agnostic easily turn into positions of metaphysical denial the moment we lose a psychological state of provisionality. I will be discussing this further, with the ways in which many modern philosophies are subject to it, in 1.h. More positively, it is the balancing of sceptical agnosticism between positive and negative types of metaphysical claim that forms the basis of the Middle Way – which is, of course, a defining feature of Middle Way Philosophy. For more about the Middle Way see section 3 of this book.

[1] See Ellis (2001) 4.b

[2] Dawkins (1996) ch.5

[3] For example, Dawkins (2006) vs. McGrath (2007), which put together provide a veritable armoury of arguments for agnosticism

[4] Dawkins (2006) p.73

[5] I owe this point originally to Sartre, who points out our responsibility for the interpretation of all ‘signs’ of God as being such. See Sartre (1948).

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