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Meditation 645
Knowledge, Belief, Existence and Faith:
The Theist, Atheist, and Agnostic

by: Paul W. Sharkey, PhD, MPH, MPG*

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I am a philosopher, which is to say that it is very awkward for me to provide an answer when someone asks: “What do you do?” In that respect it is even worse than being “retired” – which I also am – though not from philosophy.[1]

Etymologically, ‘philosophy’ is the ‘love of wisdom’ and wisdom, in the Socratic tradition at least, begins [and perhaps ends] in knowing and acknowledging the difference between what one knows and what one doesn’t. It is the ever persistent striving for and commitment to intellectual honesty. At minimum it consists in not claiming to know what one does not, nor to claim not to know what one in fact does.[2] Nothing could be more pertinent to understanding the differences between theism, atheism, and agnosticism.

I propose in the next several of my Meditation submissions to explore some of these differences, not so much to try to “convert” anyone to anything but rather for my own (and perhaps others) desire for me to “explain myself” and to try to bring some simple clarity to what otherwise seems to be a morass of unfounded belief, metaphysical speculation, vague opinion, emotional ejaculation, and personal invective.[3] In short: the “debate” between theists, atheists, and agnostics.

Returning to philosophy– if we ever left it – it should be obvious that if one is going to follow its call to know and acknowledge the difference between what one knows and what one doesn’t, then the first thing one needs to know is what it is to know something – anything.

Though the history of epistemology has been at least as complex and contentious as any other area of philosophy, it has nevertheless centered around a fairly well agreed upon “definition” of knowledge as “justified true belief.”[4] Simply put (though agreement on the exact nature of each of these elements has been anything but simple), in order to truly know something: 1) one must believe it to be true, 2) it must in fact be true, and 3) one must be able to provide evidence sufficient to establish the truth of what one claims to know. Given these requirements, it should be pretty obvious that there is very little that any given one of us actually “knows” as individuals. Whether it is a question about the existence of god(s) or even about whether the earth goes around the sun (or the sun around the earth), most of us would be hard pressed to personally provide evidence sufficient to establish the truth of any of these claims but rely instead on what we believe others to have proved or to be able to prove. In short, most of our conventional and individual “knowledge” is based upon hearsay. How and whether it is electrons or angels that make our computers work is, for most of us, not something we could individually explain, let alone prove, though those familiar with even the most rudimentary principles of logic can know that neither may in fact be true.[5]

From the above it should be quite obvious that it is much easier to not know and even to know that one doesn’t know something than it is to know it.[6] Anyone can fail to know something either because they don’t believe it; or even if they do believe it, it isn’t true; or even if they believe it and it were true, they do not personally possess and cannot provide the evidence and explanation sufficient to prove that it is. I don’t know about you, but there is much besides the “Existence of God” that I don’t know.[7] Hence, I am an agnostic. In all “intellectual” honesty, I couldn’t be anything else.

One of the fundamental differences between theism, atheism, and agnosticism is that the first two begin from a perspective focused on a claim about the existence of something, the third about knowledge. It is a difference at least as big and certainly more important than that between those idiomatic “apples and oranges” we keep hearing about – which are at least both fruit and round and all other things being equal, are probably good for us.[8] However, the “debate” between theists and atheists on the one hand, and agnostics on the other, isn’t even about things as similar as apples and oranges and if not properly understood, is certainly not as wholesome. It is as different as that between two people vehemently engaged in an argument with each other over the color, taste, texture odor and shape of some disputed fruit while a third wonders that if there were such a fruit, whether he would be able to see, touch, taste and smell it.

What’s the color of wonder? How does curiosity taste? What’s the texture of perplexity? How does analysis smell? What is the shape of discernment? These sorts of nonsensical questions, like “What is the odor of round?” or “How does blue taste?” are known in philosophy as category mistakes.[9] To view the “debate” between theists, atheists and agnostics as being on the same footing or about the same “thing” is to commit just such a mistake. It is to engage in a logically fallacy. Theists and atheists are at odds with each other over a claim about the existence of something; agnostics over their knowledge of it, and even here there is an ambiguity depending upon who the “their knowledge of it” is understood to be.

There can be at least two kinds of agnostics: 1) those whose agnosticism is only about what they personally do not know and 2) those who claim that neither does anyone else. The first, I would think to any fair and honorably minded person, is unassailable and should always be respected. The second too I would argue deserve respect, at least to the degree that they are willing to remain open to hearing and evaluating – in terms of what it means to know something – the evidence others may put forth for their claims about god(s) – that they exist (theists) or not (atheists).[10] As far as the putative existence of a god or gods is concerned, the theist and atheist are at odds and in debate; the agnostic, however, is at odds with neither but in dialogue with both.

In philosophical terms then, the focus of the theist and atheist is ontological – on what does or does not exist, that of the agnostic is epistemological – on what is or is not known or knowable. There is much more to faith and philosophy than either or both of these and just how important either or both might turn out in the end is a matter for further exploration.


* It is not out of mere vanity alone that I put all these letters after my name but rather that having discovered that there are actually quite a few “Paul W. Sharkeys” listed on the web – most of greater note and accomplishment than I – I would not want any of them to be mistakenly associated with or held accountable for my peculiar (at least in the sense of not being the norm) views on these matters.

  1. Though I am “retired” from a number of academic positions [see: www.appa.edu/proshar.htm ], I seem to have caught the dis-ease of philosophy early in life and will no doubt carry it to my grave.
  2. Claiming to know what one does not in fact know seems to be fairly common for a number of reasons, sometimes because we don’t want to appear ignorant (“Of course I know Shakespear.”) and sometimes because we are simply ignorant about what it is to actually know anything at all. We also all too frequently claim not to know things we may in fact actually know in order to try to escape responsibility for them (“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t know that was yours. ”)
  3. Unfortunately all one has to do is look on the web – even within the contents of this site – to find such examples, let alone reflect on the long history of “religious debate,” its tone and consequences.
  4. See Plato: Theatetus, Sophist; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology or http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/ or just about any introductory text of philosophy or epistemology.
  5. As an example of a false dichotomy neither of these but perhaps some other explanation may in fact be true. This is a fallacy often committed in “theological” arguments: Not believing in a particular “god” does not make one an atheist, though “theists” of all kinds seem to like to label their adversaries such and thereby even to confuse agnosticism with atheism. More about this later.
  6. This was the crux of Socrates’ wisdom and why he could know that others didn’t know what they were talking about (e.g., Euthyphro on piety, Thrsymachus on justice, etc) even though he didn’t claim to know these things either. See also note 10 below.
  7. Just how profound my – and perhaps your – ignorance is should become abundantly clear in ensuing chapters.
  8. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apples_and_oranges/
  9. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category_error Or for the more philosophically ambitious: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/categories/
  10. See for example “Talk Back 11" whose author does not seem to understand that it is not only possible for an individual to know that he does not know something but also to know that others don’t know it either, even if they claim or think they do. Without some common understanding about what it is to know or not know something, all such disputes become nothing more than hopeless and meaningless exercises in shouting and name calling. See note 3 above.