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Vernon vs. Warburton on agnosticism

You can, for a short time only, hear a discussion on the Richard Bacon show between Mark Vernon (agnostic) and Nigel Warburton (atheist) on whether agnosticism is a cop out.

Go here and then hit "listen again" for Tuesday, and scroll through to about 2hrs 13 mins through to end (with interruptions).

You can read Mark Vernon's brief comment on his appearance on the show.


Martin said…
You can be agnostic about anything, and in fact most of us are agnostic about most things. But when someone claims to be an agnostic about a particular question and wants to be part of a debate, they are saying they haven't or can't make their mind up, but they still believe they have a view worth hearing. This is a case of an empty vessel making the most noise. Once you sift out the agnostics from any debate, you are left with those who have opinions worth hearing.

Vernon sounds as though he believes being a lapsed Christian is equivalent to being an atheist. I don't think that one necessarily follows the other.

Warburton, who mostly came across as quite coherent and persuasive seems to lose patience with Vernon about halfway through and uses as a disparaging phrase "a vegetarian who eats fish". I'm one those, but that's my business, not yours. Perhaps you could say I am agnostic on the question of eating animals, and have taken a middle path. However since I never proselytise about vegetarianism, why would anyone else (Warburton in particular) need to find this objectionable?
Anonymous said…
Warburton, who mostly came across as quite coherent and persuasive seems to lose patience with Vernon about halfway through and uses as a disparaging phrase "a vegetarian who eats fish".

Actually, having listened and re-listened to that part, I don't think it was Nigel who made that comment. He has a very distinctive accent which was absent during that sentence.
Anonymous said…
Actually, having listened and re-listened to that part, I don't think it was Nigel who made that comment. He has a very distinctive accent which was absent during that sentence.

I agree, it defintely doesn't sound like Nigel.
Sally said…
Fascinating discussion, despite Bacon's dreadful interview style.

If anyone who reads Stephen's blog doesn't listen to Warburton's Philosophy Bites podcast... please do, it's wonderful.
M. Tully said…
I have always found the agnostic vs. atheist debate both fascinating and annoying.

I think in the end it's a cultural perception issue (at least it is for me). It comes down to what the audience I'm speaking to perceives the definition of the two words to be.

In most common understandings, I think I would have to be called an atheist (i.e. if I were asked, "Do you believe in god(s)?" I would answer, "No.")

However if someone's definition of atheist was, "someone who, beyond any doubt whatsoever, is absolutely positive, that there is no possible way any god(s)could exist..." I have to say, "OK, you got me. I'm only an agnostic."

But from my reading, the majority of people who self-describe as either atheist or agnostic fall into the same boat as I do.

It's a case of Bacon's, "Idol of the Market." Only it matters which market you happen to be in at the time.

Which is why if I'm not forced to chose between the two, I call myself a naturalist. It removes the ambiguity. The evidence to date does not support the god(s) hypothesis, therefore I disregard it in my worldview. If however, compelling evidence were to come to light that supported the hypothesis, I would accept that evidence and be willing to adjust my position.

Does my naturalist position make me an atheist or an agnostic? I'll let the audience decide (they will anyway, with or without my permission).
Anonymous said…
Agreed M Tully. I think this definition problem is very often an issue with debates where people are pigeon-holed into ****ists versus +++++ists. I'm not sure these labels are always useful. Better to deal with the specific issues and questions that led us to want to categorise ourselves and each other in the first place I say. Central to this particular debate I think, is disagreement regarding levels of proof. Or if proof of a 'god' is even possible. A common misconception about atheists I've found is this idea of defeasibility. It would seem Vernon hadn't really thought these questions through if his 'you can't prove a negative' comment was anything to go by.
Martin said…
I listened again, and I'm still certain it was Warburton who made the "vegetarian about fish" jibe. It wouldn't make sense for Vernon to have said it, and immediately afterwards Bacon says something like "Ok guys, let's speak to ...", breaking up the conversation which is getting a touch heated.

The terms "agnostic" and "atheist" are both self described here, so the definition problem when you apply these terms to other people doesn't apply. It makes sense for Vernon and Warburton, so that should be good enough for the rest of us when we try to look at what they have to say.

Bacon was picking on Vernon at some points during the interview, so I'm not surprised Vernon came away from it fairly disaffected. He says he can't remember what he said, which is as good as saying: "I don't want others to remember what I said".

Dawkins says God is a delusion, but then baulks at saying He/She/It definitely doesn't exist - I think Warburton puts it better by saying he doesn't believe in God, but you shouldn't be dogmatic about it and so leaves the possibility open if good evidence turns up.

I'm not convinced by Vernon's argument that Chartres cathedral is inspired by God. The people paying for it probably believed in God, but the stonemasons etc who crafted it may or may not have been devout. It's their work we celebrate, not the fundraising skills of the 12th century clergy. Near to me a church has recently been built which has all the architectural merits of a Tescos supermarket. Were it's builders inspired by shopping, and is this the shape of the modern God? Vernon tells us that God is an evolving human narrative, so surely it must mean anything to anyone. A wishy washy thought if ever there was one.
Hi there, just to let you know, it wasn't me who made the comment about fish!

Best wishes,
Nigel Warburton
Martin said…
Now I'm puzzled! Who did?
I've put the MP3 here or direct

It's the last 45 minutes of the show.
Anonymous said…
Great dialogue Nigel came across as very persuasive and a bit shirty!

Mark Vernon seemed to come unstuck when asserting that the Christian religion arose out of earlier forms of religion such as worshipped by the Romans and then Nigel interjected that Mark was not agnostic about the Roman Gods
with the implication that he should not be agnostic about the Christian God either but an atheist.

Agnosticism in a philosophical context (which tends to use terms in a slightly more rigorous fashion that ordinary contexts) is
often about having an opinion on what the available evidence supports. When the evidence no more or less supports two rival hypothesis P and Q then it is rational to be agnostic about both
P and Q rather than believe that P is true/false or that Q is true/false. Hence agnosticism is a kind of suspension of belief and you can be agnostic about any thing from the existence of extra-terrestrials to the existence of God.

The listener who phoned in was using the term 'agnostic' to refer to doubt but when used in this way it is compatible with atheism (someone who believes that God does not exist but retains some element of doubt that such a God could exist) and theism (someone who believes God exists but retains some element of doubt that God might not exist).

The listener mistakenly thought that this (doubt) was incompatible with atheism luckily Nigel was on hand to dispel the illusion.

More Philosophers like Nigel on the radio please.
Kosh3 said…
Just one comment (I listened to it last night, hope I get the details correct):

They were speaking about the evolution of thinking about god, and it was discussed whether shows simply that god is fictitious, and Vernon said something to the effect "well no, its the story of humans grappling with trying to understand the world" - as though the two are at odds with one another. It could be both that a) gods of any description are fictitious, and b) their postulation emerges out of efforts to come to terms with the world. In that respect, I thought the response from Vernon was off the mark (it is a kind of response that can be heard fairly often).

To give an example, when Blondlot thought he discovered 'N-rays', we can describe this as part of a human effort to scientifically describe the world. That wouldn't stop the existence of N'rays being fictional, however. And if it is a question of the truth of the existence of N-rays or not, it simply won't do to say 'well Blondlot was making efforts to understand the world' - true, but irrelevant to the question of the existence of N-rays.

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