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Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 28 Oct 2010
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About the Author
Robin Le Poidevin took a first degree in philosophy and psychology at Oxford University, and went on to postgraduate research at Cambridge University. He is now Professor Metaphysics at Leeds Univeristy, and the author of a number of books and articles on metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. In 2007 he gave the Stanton Lectures in the Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge.
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Top customer reviews
Even within his own lifetime there were widespread misconceptions about agnosticism which, in 1889, obliged him to try and set the record straight. However the Oxford English Dictionary had already encapsulated some of these misconceptions and, even to this day, we find that clearing up these issues is frequently hampered by people quoting (mistaken) dictionary definitions of what agnosticism is. We are left wondering whether the very term itself is a help or a hindrance.
Robin Le Poidevin discusses the default position from which we should start and declares that, 'The initial position should be an agnostic one [...]'. However, the author does not make it clear whether the initial position should be one of agnostic theism or agnostic atheism or, indeed, whether that would matter. The implication appears to be that agnosticism is a third option which, of course, it isn't.
The statement is questionable on two further counts. As far as the default position is concerned, all of us are born atheists. We are born without language skills. This means we are unable to entertain theistic beliefs. Later in the book the author will describe 'practical atheists' as those who simply get on with their life with no reference to theism. A baby would be a pretty good example of a practical atheist!
Secondly, it is questionable whether a baby could be considered as an agnostic. To be an agnostic involves quite subtle considerations about the possibility of knowledge. The newborn baby is in an even more difficult position here. If we want to salvage anything for the author, maybe the best we can hope for is an impartial consideration of the evidence, for and against theism, when the child has the maturity to consider the issues.
Essentially, I would suggest that he is failing to fully acknowledge the broadest definition of atheism (namely an absence of belief in any deities) and, for someone who has also written a book supporting atheism, this does appear quite strange.
Nor does the author appear to be very clear about the philosophy of science. We find a number of instances (see pages 54, 82 and 98 for some examples) where he is portraying science as confirming or verifying results. My suspicion is that the book would have taken on a rather different complexion if he had employed a more realistic philosophy of science and placed the stress on falsifiability rather than verifiability.
The author seems to think that a theistic 'explanation' stands on an equal footing with the scientific explanation. This is mistaken. There are good reasons (as suggested by the philosopher of science Robert T. Pennock) to reject all supernatural 'explanations' as inadequate. Clearly, theistic explanations are just a subset of supernatural explanations.
A number of case studies are presented and, in my opinion, they are riddled with problems. As I read through them, I felt that this was an exercise in being even-handed but to the point where it was actually distorting or ignoring the available evidence. It is fine to be agnostic when the evidence is evenly balanced, but remaining in the balanced position, when the weight of evidence is heavily to one side, is just perverse.
The fifth chapter starts with the section 'Three assumptions' and then proceeds to list 'four vital assumptions'. A bit of a Spinal Tap moment? ("These assumptions go one higher!")
He makes a good case for agnosticism requiring the strength of character to live with uncertainty rather than plumping for the security of easy answers. And that agnosticism is the laudable position of admitting, honestly and openly, when we do not know something.
The author has something more to say about agnosticism within religion. He makes the bold move of suggesting that an agnostic approach to religion is similar to our response to literature or films: where, irrespective of the reality of the characters and the situation, they can elicit a strong emotional response. He suggests that the agnostic theist can actively participate in religious activities in the same way that someone enjoys a film or a good book. It would have been nice if he had also pointed out that some religions are non-theistic - so you can have religious people who are atheists.
In my opinion, there is a real need for a book like this: a short introduction which will dispel some of the confusion surrounding the terms agnosticism, theism and atheism. Unfortunately it only partly succeeds and, in certain respects, even seems to reinforce some of the confusion. I have now read this book twice and it has left me frustrated by the missed opportunity which I feel this book represents.
In any case, they cleared up my own thinking, and I am now a declared atheist and no longer an agnostic with respect to the Abrahamic deity. (Of course, extensive reading of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred scriptures, as well as of secondary works, contributed to the same conclusion.) As regards other conceptions of a deity, however, the matter remains agnostically open.
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