Life as an Extreme Sport

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. ((A.J. Ayer, “Criqitue of Ethics and Theology” in Language, Truth and Logic, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1952. pp 114-116))

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 binary ((and we all know how that concept makes me shudder)) 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.

One comment

  1. I agree with your assessment. I really paused when Ayer said “he does not deny that the question whether a transcendent god exists is a genuine question”. Perhaps “genuine” is philosopher-speak that I don’t understand, but as a Social Scientist my first thought was 1) this is wrong, since agnostics don’t actually care and 2) that it is a way of attempting to give validity to a meaningless question.

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