Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dialogue with an atheist (2): what about agnosticism?

This is part 2 of a fictional dialogue between two friends: a Christian and an atheist. Sam is a fictional character. As usual, comments and corrections are welcome!

Read part 1

Sam: This coffee is great, thank you!
Kevin: Well, it’s not as good as the stuff you get at Mug n’ Bean, but it gets me out of bed in the morning.
Sam: If I don’t have my cup when I wake up, I can get really grumpy.
Kevin: At least you and I have something in common: we both have faith in caffeine.
(both laugh)
Sam: I will have another cup later on. Getting back to our discussion: you said earlier that you don’t believe in the existence of God, but you also said that you don’t claim that God doesn’t exist. Can you explain further?
Kevin: If it is okay with you, I will answer with a question. Do you believe in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster?
Sam: Well, no.
Kevin: Why?
Sam: Sufficient evidence is lacking. All we have are a few eye witness accounts and a couple of fuzzy photos that are somewhat suspect in nature.
Kevin: So after some examination of the evidence you are not convinced?
Sam: Yea, kind of.
Kevin: But let me ask you this: do you know for certain that the monster does not exist?
Sam: No. I don’t know for certain that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist. Although I don’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, I could be wrong in my belief. I’m not omniscient, and I don’t know every nook and cranny of the Loch Ness. It is probable that the Loch Ness Monster does exist, but it is hiding away quite effectively somewhere in the depths. I need more knowledge in order to justify belief.
Kevin: Exactly. The same applies to my belief in gods: if someone asks me if I believe in supernatural beings, I will reply no. In this sense I am an atheist, as I’m not convinced in the claim that a god or gods exist. However, if someone asks me if I know that gods do not exist, I will answer that I am not certain. I can’t say “there is no God” – I can only say this if I search the entire universe and find that there is no God. But this is impossible for me to do.
Sam: But aren’t you an agnostic if you not certain that God exists?
Kevin: Yes, I am an agnostic.
Sam: But you said that you are an atheist. How can you be an atheist and agnostic at the same time?
Kevin: I am an agnostic in terms of knowledge of a god or gods. I am an atheist in terms of belief in a god’s existence. There is a commonly held belief that agnosticism sits on the same scale between theism and atheism, that it differs in degree from these two extremes. However, others have argued that agnosticism sits apart from theism and atheism totally. It differs in kind. One can be both a theist and agnostic, or an atheist and an agnostic. I am an agnostic atheist. Ellie Arroway, the main character in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, makes a distinction between being convinced that God doesn’t exist, and not being convinced that he does exist. At the moment, I fall into the second camp.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Free will and omniscience

I’ve written the following dialogue that outlines the common interaction I see between theists and atheists when discussing the doctrine of free will. What do you think? Is the skeptic’s argument valid?

A short discussion about free will . . .

“God allows evil,” says the apologist, “because he has given us the ability to choose him or reject him. He has given us free will. God is not responsible for evil; we are responsible for evil through our choices.”
“Okay,” replies the skeptic, “but let me ask you a question.”
“Sure,” says the apologist.
“If you were a character in a book,” asks the skeptic, “would you, as a character, have the ability of free will?”
“Well,” replies the apologist, “if I was a character in a book, I wouldn’t really exist. I would just be a figment of the author’s imagination.”
“Fair enough. But let’s say, for sake of argument, that you and I are conscious beings but are also characters in a story. Our very dialogue, the words that I am saying to you right now, has actually been written down by a writer. However, we don’t know that this is the case. Would we have free will?”
The apologist answers: “No, I don’t think we would.”
“Why?” asks the skeptic.
“Well,” replies the apologist, “once the story is written, it can never be changed. Whenever the story plays itself out in the eyes of the reader, it will always follow the same path.”
“Well done,” says the skeptic. “Let me now ask you this: does God know the future?”
“Yes, the Bible clearly states that he is omniscient.”
“So God knew, from the beginning of the universe, every little detail that would happen in the future?”
“He knows everything,” replies the apologist.
“Let me explain the problem with that,” says the skeptic. “If God knew everything in the future, then he would know all the choices that you and I would make in our lives – including the choice of choosing or not choosing him. The universe would be like a story already written, and the normal sequence of events playing themselves out would be like someone who is reading the story. If God knew from the beginning of the universe that I would not choose him, then how can I have free will?
“Even if God knew,” replies the apologist, “he still left the choice up to you.”
“But how can that be?” says the skeptic. “If God knew – from the beginning of time and with absolute certainty – that I would reject him, then no matter what I do in my life, there will be no way in which I can choose otherwise. As humans, we don’t have free will. However, God, as the author of the universe, had a choice what to include in the story. He chose that suffering and evil would be a part of this world.”