Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson and agnosticism

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the living people in this world that I admire the most. He's a brilliant astrophysicist, he is extremely intelligent, sharp and eloquent, and who can express himself incredibly clearly and understandably, yet never sounding patronizing (ie. like he's "dumbing down" what he's trying to say in order to make more common people understand.) He knows how to speak, he has an amazingly good ability to popularize science, and he always has excellent arguments.

There is only one thing that I have to criticize him for. It's nothing of much importance, but it still bothers me a bit. And it's his stance on atheism vs. agnosticism (and whether he considers himself one or the other.)

From what he has spoken on the subject, I'm completely certain that he knows perfectly well what the accurate meanings of the terms "atheism" and "agnosticism" are (and it would be pretty presumptuous from me if I were to claim otherwise.) However, regardless of this, he still willingly chooses to use them in the incorrect manner, seemingly just to avoid controversy.

To clarify, and make sure that there's no misunderstanding: The popular view among many people (especially theists) is that there's a range of world views with respect to believing in God. On one extreme we have theism, on the other we have atheism, and right in the middle we have agnosticism. It is also a popularly held view that both theism and atheism are world views with their own dogmas and ideologies. Agnostics are like those who don't care or don't want to take a stance on either side.

This, however, is completely wrong. Theism vs. atheism is a true dichotomy: You are either a theist or you are not. If you are not a theist, then you are an atheist by definition. Gnosticism and agnosticism describe a completely different category of philosophy, namely that of views about knowledge. A gnostic is someone who is certain that knowledge is possible, eg. on the existence of gods, while an agnostic is one who either denies having exact knowledge on the subject, or even claims that certain knowledge is not even possible. Gnosticism/agnosticism are in no way mutually exclusive with theism/atheism. All four combinations of them are perfectly possible positions. Moreover, what's popularly called "agnostics" are by definition atheists. Saying "I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic" is like saying "I'm not a human, I'm a man." It makes no sense.

Also, there is no "atheist dogma." Atheism is a personal stance on the existence of gods, nothing more. If you don't believe in their existence, you are an atheist by definition. It doesn't matter what other world views you might have. You may be a Buddhist or a Raelian if you want, but if you don't believe in the existence of gods, you are also an atheist. That's the very definition.

As said, I'm convinced that Mr. Tyson knows all this perfectly well. However, he still chooses to ignore it, and use the popular, mistaken meanings. He has explicitly said that he wants to distance himself from the "atheist community" because he doesn't think like them (in a context where he means that he doesn't want to fight for the word "God" to be removed from dollar bills and so on.)

It just sounds to me like he wants to avoid describing himself as "atheist" and instead uses "agnostic" for the sole reason that the latter causes less controversy among the general populace than the former. It doesn't matter what those words really mean, what matters is the impression they give.

I could perhaps understand this if it weren't for the fact that in most other topics Mr. Tyson has no qualms in being as controversial as it gets. For example, he has given excellent lectures on the "god of the gaps" argument, he has no qualms in talking against religious nonsense, and so on. In other words, he doesn't seem to worry if he's displeasing religious people in other subjects, except this particular subject of terminology, which I find strangely inconsistent.

If he really wanted to avoid controversy and upsetting people, I don't think he would be attacking the god of the gaps and other similar arguments, and giving lectures against intelligent design and religion. I'm really glad he does, but I just find it a bit inconsistent.

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