Monday, August 17, 2015

Robin Le Poidivin's "Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)This is a densely written, concentrated set of chapters by a British professor of metaphysics, reading like a series of lectures. Robin Le Poidevin balances theist and atheist perspectives as expected, while claiming ground for agnosticism as a respected and defensible perspective, rather than the one despised by some non-believers and dismissed as waffling by many believers. He reasons calmly and doggedly, in a philosophical tone. For me, some of this material was compressed too much, but I cannot be too harsh on the constraints, after all, of these erudite primers.

Yes, Bertrand Russell's teapot is here, and Carl Sagan's dragon, and from these, after a brisk introduction to the history of the concept, the author delves into the presumption of atheism if God's existence remains unproven. Then, he examines positive arguments for agnosticism, or whether it's based on a mistake. Faith, morals, and scientific theory follow, to see if these rest on grounds compatible with or conflicting with what may be false conceptions of agnosticism. Can you live religiously while remaining agnostic? Should schools teach agnosticism? What about religions: do these come across best when taught from an agnostic perspective? You get Pascal's Wager handled deftly, and you also get a nod to zombies.

All these topics gain some attention in 150-odd pages. I found this stimulating, and one part helps me in discussing the existence of evil with students. Le Poidevin wonders as to the "superfluity" of evil in nature, not only human but in the physical realm, if this might be an answer, from a believer's point-of-view, in why bad things exist in nature beyond the fault of what can be blamed on human action or inaction. "In so far as the world and its inhabitants are the product of blind (although not random) forces, it is up to us to shape them as we see fit. What good there is must come from us. Any indication that it will come from elsewhere might lead us into dangerous passivity. It is as if (so the story goes) God intends us to look at the world and feel alone, for only then will we realize that it is up to us to make heaven on earth." (75) That's a sample of the book's style.

As he presents agnosticism, it's "namely an uncertainty as to whether there is, or is not, a being that is quite independent of any human thought or activity, a being that would, if we understood its nature, provide a single unified explanation of why the world exists, what we are doing in it, and how we should live. That issue will not go away, even if every theologian decided to ignore it." (86) In such a direct, accessible style, Le Poidevin sets out his case. This compliments Julian Baggini's "Atheism" in this same "Very Short Introduction" series very elegantly, by the way (also reviewed by me). It's a pleasure to find such contributions that respect all sides in this eternal debate with consideration, tact, and seriousness.(Amazon US 8-5-15)

1 comment:

Jason Clark said...

//the author delves into the presumption of atheism//

I hope he doesn't promote the presumption of atheism, if he's writing about agnosticism.

"The introduction of this new interpretation of the word 'atheism' may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. 'Whyever', it could be asked, 'don't you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?'" ~Antony Flew, 1984

//Can you live religiously while remaining agnostic?//

No.

//Should schools teach agnosticism?//

They do. It's called demarcation.

"Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe." ~ Thomas Huxley, 1884

Huxley was a scientist, above all else. His agnosticism amounted to a form of demarcation. No evidence = untestable/unfalsifiable = unscientific/unobjective and inconclusive. Suspending judgement, due to lack of evidence, is not compatible with forming a belief.

Karl Popper was a self-described agnostic, as well...just agnostic.