Agnosticism Wins the Debate: ‘Does God Exist?’



It has been the consistent teaching of the Church that the existence of God can be known through nature apart from revelation. “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made”, Rom 1:20. It would seem then that in a debate: ‘Does God Exist?’, agnosticism would prove to be untenable and the pro side would win.

Every debate presents two opposing arguments of which the same meaning of the topic of debate must be stipulated by both of the opposing sides.

To establish the thesis expressed in the title of this essay, I intend to set the context of a debate with an illustration from Richard Dawkins and to establish the validity of the title’s assertion with an illustration from St. Thomas Aquinas. In other words, although the argument outlined in Romans 1:20 is valid and its conclusion, the existence of God, is true, its rationale does not lend itself to the debate format, but to the format of an inquiry.

The Context of Debate: The Spectrum of Contradictories

Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”, p 50) illustrates a spectrum of contradictories, with the positive form of a proposition at one end and its contradictory, or negative form, at the other end. In a debate, these two extremes are the pro and con views, respectively. In the middle, is the ideal audience. It is agnostic with respect to the proposition, the topic of debate, but open to persuasion.

Dawkins labels the middle position of being open to persuasion, TAP, or temporary agnosticism in practice. He also distinguishes another form of agnosticism with respect to a proposition, namely, that which declares the proposition to be permanently beyond human ken (p 47). He labels this PAP or permanent agnosticism in principle. I would distinguish another subset of PAP, namely those who declare that the proposition itself is meaningless or at least insufficiently defined to serve as a topic for debate.

I admire Richard Dawkins for his penchant for arithmetical analysis through which he often proposes a fascinating perspective. However, with his inclination to err in arithmetic, Dawkins, in this instance, mislabels the spectrum of contradictories. Having labeled the positive form of the proposition, +1, Dawkins mislabels its opposite, 0, rather than the arithmetical opposite of +1, which is -1. He has mistakenly used the arithmetical labels for contraries rather than the arithmetic labels for contradictories.

The contradictories, -A and +A are opposites, ranging from -1 to +1. In contrast, the contraries, A and non-A, designate fractions of a whole. The fraction, which is A, is its probability ranging from 0 to 1. The complementary fraction of the whole is the probability of non-A, or synonymously, the improbability of A, ranging from 1 to 0.

Due to his mislabeling of the spectrum, there is no place for agnosticism of any type in Dawkins’ spectrum. In the case of PAP, Dawkins correctly acknowledges this absence. However, he fails to recognize that this absence of a place for agnosticism is due to his error in arithmetic. His error is using the arithmetical values of probability to label the arithmetical spectrum of contradictories. In a properly labeled spectrum of contradictories, agnosticism, both TAP and PAP would be at the midpoint of 0, between -1 and +1. The midpoint of Dawkins’ mislabeled spectrum is +0.5, which is the midpoint of the probability of contraries.

In practice, such as that of decision making, contradictories may be treated as if they were alternatives, rather than opposites. This eliminates the agnostic middle. In a quiz, a student may be required to judge between the ostensibly opposite true and false, when in fact he is required to choose between the alternatives, correct and incorrect. The PAP middle of zero, expressed as abstention, is disallowed. Agnostic abstention is judged not to be the zero between opposites, but a variant of one alternative, incorrect.

The Topic of an Inquiry Need Not Be as Specific in Initial Definition as a Topic for Debate

Prior to presenting his argument, affirming the existence of God, St. Thomas poses the objection that we do not know the essence of God and therefore cannot demonstrate his existence (Summa Theologica, Q2, Art 2, Obj 2). This would be a valid objection in the context of a debate, where the topic of debate must be clearly defined and agreed upon by both sides.

As an analogy to a debate, consider a trial to determine which of the contradictories is true: ‘Jack did it’ and ‘Jack did not do it’. Unless Jack is fully identified, no determination of the truth between the two contradictories can be made. In contrast, an investigation or inquiry into ‘Who did it?’ is not a trial of two contradictories. Rather the inquiry is an attempt to ascertain knowledge of the cause beyond its known effect.

St. Thomas is not about to debate the proposition, ‘Does God Exist’. Rather, he is going to initiate an inquiry, ‘Whether God Exists’ (Summa Theologica, Q 2, Art 3). To the objection, St. Thomas answers that identifying the cause by its effect is sufficient knowledge of the cause when the inquiry seeks to further identify the cause of a known effect.

St. Thomas lists five avenues of inquiry. Each of these reaches the conclusion that there must exist a being beyond our experience, whose essence and existence are identical. Such a being is the only explanation of the existence of those entities which are within the scope of human experience.

The word, God, is not used by St. Thomas in the course of inquiry. This is further evidence that the word, God, in the title of the inquiry, need not be fully defined in initiating the inquiry. It is only after reaching the conclusion of the inquiry that St. Thomas applies the word, God, to the being identified by the conclusion, e.g. “This (being) all men speak of as God.” The full meaning of the word, God, is only reached as the conclusion of the inquiry. That is not to say the meaning cannot be known prior to and external to the formal philosophical inquiry. Prior knowledge can be had in two ways. One is by having reached that meaning through a previous, perhaps implicit, inquiry. The other is by revelation, as St. Thomas notes, “It is said in the person of God, ‘I am Who am.’ (Ex 3:14).

Agnosticism Wins the Debate

Where the debate topic is ‘Does God Exist’, the PAP agnostic is right. Agnosticism wins because the topic is not sufficiently defined for a debate. This is seen in the fact that the philosophical conclusion, ‘God Exists’, is that of an argument of inquiry, in which God is initially identified merely as the cause of a known effect. The entire argument is to identify the cause more fully. A debate requires that fullness from the start.

Any philosophical pro argument is necessarily an inquiry and, as such, is based on an initial lack of the fullness required in defining a topic for debate.

The con side does not win by default. The topic is insufficiently defined for debate. The negative contradictory, ‘God does not exist’ can only be fully defined in light of an inquiry, which has established the truth of the opposite and positive contradictory.

Thanks to Richard Dawkins, we have a greater appreciation of the contrast between the arithmetical notation applicable to contradictories and the arithmetical notation applicable to contraries. Thanks to St. Thomas, we have a greater insight into the contrast between an argument of debate and an argument of inquiry.

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6 thoughts on “Agnosticism Wins the Debate: ‘Does God Exist?’”

  1. As a fanatical agnostic myself, I’d suggest that Agnosticism doesn’t “Win,” because it’s not a game. “Winning” is meaningless in this context. Agnostics don’t know if there is a God or not – or, if there is – what qualities He(?) possesses.
    Anyway, it all depends on what is meant by “God.” Ask Spinoza.
    Voltaire sums up the Agnostic position neatly: “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd one.”

    1. I fully agree that agnosticism with respect to the existence of God is not a game to an agnostic. However, the essay addresses argument in the context of a debate, which is a contest and, in that sense, a game.
      One point of the essay is that from a philosophical perspective, there is no meaning for ‘God’ initially, so that the word is not used in the course of inquiry. It is in the conclusion of an argument of inquiry into the explanation of the existence of the entities within our experience that the word, ‘God’, is given meaning.

    2. “I fully agree that agnosticism with respect to the existence of God is not a game to an agnostic.”
      Well, Bob, I’d have thought it was even less of a game to a believer. But what do I know? (Montaigne.)

    3. Agnosticism still isn’t really the winner in a game analogy. As you touched on, the agnostic is more like the audience, watching the game. In a scoreless game, it’s not that the agnostic has won, it’s that the two teams playing didn’t win.

      Huxley, ever the scientist, defined agnosticism as a form of demarcation. No objective testable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: inconclusive. Claimants not having evidence isn’t a win for the agnostic, that’s a non win for the claimants.

    4. Touché. The audience can’t be said to be the winner in a scoreless tie between two contestants. This would apply to those in the audience, to whom Dawkins applies the label, ‘Temporary Agnosticism in Practice’.
      However, the essay claims, not that the two nominal contestants tie, but that they are disqualified. These two contestants are both gnostic, one claiming to know at the start of the debate that God exists, the other claiming to know that God does not exist. The agnostic position, which Dawkins labels ‘Permanent Agnosticism in Principle’, is not disqualified at the start, but rejects both of the disqualified gnostic positions and could thereby said to win by default as an implicit third contestant in the debate.
      The philosophical transition from agnosticism to theism is not by an argument of debate, entitled, ‘Does God Exist? pro and con’, but by an argument of inquiry entitled, ‘What is the explanation of the existence of this entity within my experience?’

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