This was said by Sam Harris in response to somebody who said they were agnostic. I won't present his argument or question, but it did contain the following phrase

You are obviously agnostic to a lesser degree when it comes to Poseidon than you are when it comes the god of Abraham.

What I don't understand is, since agnosticism is the belief that we simply do not know and hence any belief in existence or non-existence is inherently irrational, surely there's no such thing as being agnostic "to a lesser degree"? If something is not known, then it is not known. End of story.

What I mean is, imagine knowledge as a mathematical set. If we are agnostic, we say that the knowledge of the existence or non-existence of Poseidon is an empty set, a set with no elements, and hence we do not believe in existence nor believe in non-existence. Similarly for god of Abraham. And it is well known that there's only one empty set. Two empty sets are identical.

So if there was a difference in the "degree" to which something is known, that must mean the two sets are not identical, that the set of Poseidon-related knowledge is strictly smaller than the set of god of Abraham-related knowledge. But then that set cannot possibly be the empty set... but that is a contradiction with our premise.

Or am I wrong?

  • This either seems like merely an English question: "agnostic to a lesser degree ..." --> "more certain in the knowledge that Poseidon doesn't exist than that Abraham's god does not exist." – virmaior Oct 2 '17 at 7:30
  • Or if you understand the English correctly, then it's a really weird theory of knowledge that states we know everything with equal certainty, which seems to be patently false. – virmaior Oct 2 '17 at 7:31
  • @virmaior Goodness me, you understood nothing in the question. – DonkeyKong Oct 2 '17 at 17:42
  • It is not so that we know everything equally, since knowledge can of course come in different shapes of forms ... but, as an agnostic, since the PREMISE is that you don't know at all, i.e. that there is a total nonexistence of knowledge (as far as you know, of course), then that nonexistence is surely equal for all matters. There's no such thing as "two different empty sets", if you are empty, you are empty. – DonkeyKong Oct 2 '17 at 17:45

You've run into the "more unique" issue. If an item is unique, it means only one of its kind exists. In other words, unique is a binary condition.

However, the phrase "more unique" does have a meaning: if there are two examples of X in the universe, and three examples of Y, then X is "more unique" than Y. Of course, you could say X is "closer to being unique" than Y, but "more unique" is a reasonable way of saying this.

Belief could also be considered a binary condition, but we often qualify it:

  • The weatherman believes there is a 20% chance of rain tomorrow.
  • I'm 90% sure I heard Bob say...
  • I'd bet 10:1 odds that my team will win today; however, I won't give 100:1 odds because I am not that sure.

So, if someone is a "hard Agnostic", they are equally unsure of the existence of all gods. That doesn't mean they believe there's a 50% chance any/all Gods exist because of the principle of insufficient reason fallacy. Rather, an hard Agnostic believes you can not even assign probabilities to the possibility of the existence of God, since that would indicate you have some knowledge of whether God(s) exist.

In your case, Harris is accusing someone of being a soft Agnostic by saying the person has assigned such probabilities (not necessarily numerically), and has assigned Poseidon a higher probability of existence than the Abrahaminic God.

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