Ayer, On Theism

So this Ayer piece is incredibly engaging – to the point that you be forgiven for thinking this was one of my CHID teaching documents, I have scribbled it so purple. (Fellow chiddies who took classes with me, or for that matter received graded papers from me, know precisely what I am talking about. “What do you mean, did I dip this in purple koolaid?…”)

So as Ayer goes through this chapter on the critique of ethics and theology, he says the following:

For it is characteristic of an agnostic to hold that the existence of a god is a possibility in which there is no good reason either to believe or disbelieve;… As for the agnostic, although he refrains from saying either that there is or that there is not a god, he does not deny that the question whether a transcendent god exists is a genuine question. He does not deny that the two sentences “There is a transcendent god” and “There is no transcendent god” express propositions one of which is actually true and the other false. All he says is that we have no means of telling which of them is true, and therefore ought not to commit ourselves to either.1

For someone who reads as though he studied at Russell’s knees, and is quite obviously influenced by him in many areas, this strikes me as a shocking misunderstanding of what agnosticism is.

Russell was an agnostic – at least a modern agnostic who felt that the non-anthropomorphic God is one that cannot obviously be disproven. He said later on in specific clarification to the idea that he was an atheist that he doesn’t think that there is a conclusive argument bu which one can prove that there is no God. Now granted, he was speaking to philosophers, but in theory that is what we – or at least Ayer – are. Russell was also willing to postulate a superhuman intelligence, noting that it might appear to us to be more than it is simply because it is outside the bounds of what we can know (which neatly traces to the root words of agnosticism). Ayer, on the other hand, wants to stick to a binary2 concept of true/false, known/unknown.

Going back to Huxley, credited with coining the term agnosticism, we see that it lterally means without knowledge, that it is futile to attempt to know the reality corresponding not only to our religious beliefs, but our scientific and philosophic ideas.

The agnostic is not saying that we have no means of telling which sentence concerning faith is true and which is false, and therefore ought not to commit ourselves to either, as Ayer characterizes. The agnostic is saying that I don’t know, I can’t know, and futhermore, don’t care! Ayer characterizes the agnostic as waffling, when in reality the agnostic has shrugged and walked away from the entire debate as being one not worth pursuing, except over rounds of Guinness.

  1. A.J. Ayer, “Criqitue of Ethics and Theology” in Language, Truth and Logic, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1952. pp 114-116 []
  2. and we all know how that concept makes me shudder []

If anyone doubts the accuracy of this account of moral disputes, let him try to construct even an imaginary argument on a question of value which does not reduce itself to an argument about a question of logic or about an empirical matter of fact.
-A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic

Ayer challenges us to attempt to construct an argument on a question of value that does not reduce down to either a question of logic or an empirical matter of fact – a comment that caught my attention precisely because of the continual use of “empirial” in this essay. Ayer places great stock in that which can be empirically confirmed, which seems to be rooted in Russell’s belief that it is not desirable to believe in a proposition when there’s no ground in believing its truth/factuality. But this reliance on the infallibility of empirical fact seems to be a flaw in Ayer’s philosophy.

The concept of empirical fact is flawed by the concept known as the observer’s paradox. At it’s most basic, this paradox says that the observation of an event, an experiment, of anything, is influenced by the presence of the observer. We bias what we see, and what we see is biased by us – the idea that there can be a control by observation has been critiqued for quite some time.

How we formulate knowledge, share it, and confirm it is certainly important – there wouldn’t be library shelves dedicated to it otherwise – but to say that the only thing that can be truly known is that which is empirically verifiable leaves itself open to critique from the area of philosophy that questions our ability to remove ourselves from the equation to allow for a truly neutral observation

in which I do academia

I’m taking a class on metaethics. I’m required to write a few paragraphs on the readings every week. I figure, might as well put the musings into the wild. Especially since I’m finding this to be much more interesting than I thought I would,..

Week One
Sign Theory, Moore & Frankena

While reading through both Moore and Frankena, I found myself catching on notions that I have recently read in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding – sign theory, determined definitions and his basic theory of ideas. I have to wonder if Moore is working from some sort of Lockean position when he writes? Specifically, I am caught by his idea of simple or complicated ideas – on page 52, he talks about how when “horse” is reduced down to the simplest of terms, “horse” becomes undefineable, something that cannot be spoken of, perceived or known by someone who does not already known the emerged property “horse” from those simpler properties.

I was also struck by the dual combination of sign theory and determined definitions that Frankena and Moore both seem to be using; Moore says he would be foolish to try to use “good” to mean “table”, and he’s not trying to challenge standard definition, but isn’t trying to force one word to mean a single thing trying to challenge the standard definition of a word? Moore seems to want one word to mean one thing, and to deny that two words can mean one and the same thing – but doesn’t language drift, both in use and context? Can we actually pick out a single word, remove it from all references and situations, and isolate the single meaning of the word? It seems too many words, and too many contexts, modify or explain the target word, and give too great a variety of meaning.

Surprises

Yesterday was the start of my academic year; I had a class then, and another today (Thursday, since technically the time stamp is going to read Friday). And,… it was hard. I had to field a lot of questions, repeatedly, about Mom, and I caught myself folding into shy, quiet, and withdrawn body language through-out the days. Be smaller, less conspicuous, just sort of hide and maybe it will all end.

But today, the larger class, more colleagues, the most amazing thing happened. Repeatedly, people walked in, looked around the room, did a double take when they saw me, and then lit up. Bright smiles, friendly and happy faces. Each one asked me how I was, almost everyone said they missed me, everyone said how happy they were to see me, they had been wondering if I would be back, hoping I would be back.

In two days, all the loneliness and isolation, the not fitting in or belonging, that plagued me all of last year, vanished. I felt welcomed and wanted, and… happy, to be on the receiving end of all that positive emotion.