Agnosticism does not discount the possibility of god, soul, afterlife, etc, because "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"

What are the arguments against that position?

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    Based on your perceptual experience criterion to judge existence, direct realism could be invoked. But in your "car accident" example, it doesn't apply since many others have already actually experienced many such accidents unless you adopt solipsism rejecting others' reported experiences... Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 3:31
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    Some people might deem that if the conditions we observe are inconsistent with the claimed qualities of a particular deity, then one is able to dismiss the deity as non-existent. The most famous example of this is likely the 'problem of evil', which asserts the suffering we witness is inconsistent with Christianity's tri-omni god. A Christian might argue that we are simply unable to comprehend God's motives; that the suffering we observe is necessary for a greater good we don't yet understand (although this calls God's omnipotence into question). Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 3:35
  • Does this answer your question? When is absence of evidence not evidence of absence?
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 6:18
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    We can easily say there are no square circles. No black swan fallacy. Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 15:00
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    "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" is often misused. If I told my wife there was an elephant in the living room five minutes ago, and she pointed to the absence of broken furniture, smell etc to argue that it's impossible she would be rightfully using this absence of evidence as an evidence of absence. In the case of religion, it depends on what claim is made. Some deists have very ethereal definitions of god. But some people assert the bible is entirely true, yet there are no traces of exodus, the flood, etc... Those can be dismissed by arguing the absence of evidence.
    – armand
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 4:04

5 Answers 5


The bind that gnostic atheism always encounters is the need to define its terms, and the problems of accepting a community definition without in turn prioritizing certain theological communities over others. If you presume that the definition that matters is a Christian one (a position often taken by anglophonic thinkers on the topic), and you say with conviction that it is false that the Christian God exists (a position which I happen to think is reasonable), why should this position be taken as decisive as regards Theology in general?

A certain amount of substantial Theological positioning is needed as a prerequisite to this stronger claim - some community understanding needs to be held up as archetypal or canonical in order for challenges to that understanding to be informative as regards the wider scope of the claim.

  • Maybe everyone should just make up their own mind?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 20:10
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    @ScottRowe, I don't think even that is the right approach, because what are we asking people to make their minds up about? I would prefer the idea that people should always seek to understand alternative perspectives; there is always the possibility that the question is based on a false preconception that someone outside of the debate could tell you.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 7:08
  • Sort of the "No one is as dumb as all of us" idea, I guess. They used to call it The Man from Mars, but soon there will be idiots there too.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 13:27
  1. Agnosticism states: I do not know whether God exists. Hence an argument against agnosticism must
  • either prove that God exists – typical arguments result from ontology, cosmology, teleology or morality (see Richard Swinburne: "The Existence of God.") –
  • or it must prove that God does not exist – a typical argument is from logic: The concept of an omnipotent and omniscient and omnigracious being is contradictory (Problem of theodicy).
  1. Atheism states: God does not exist. Until now the question of God’s existence could not be decided by proving his/her existence or non-existence. I expect that the situation will not change in future.

    Arguments for atheism can follow a different approach:

  • Which phenomena can be explained when taking God’s existence as the basic hypothesis of my worldview?
  • Which new problems are created by the hypothesis itself, before it can unfold its explanatoric power?
  • Do there exist more simple hypotheses (Ockham‘s razor) with less internal difficulties and more explanatory power?

For the whole topic see John L. Mackie: "The Miracle of Theism. Arguments for and against the Existence of God."

  • So, Agnosticism is sort of the Judo approach of deflecting any claim for or against. Cool. I might be agnostic about everything. Maybe not though. Hmm
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 20:09

Agnosticism is often misused in arguments about God. And there is a current movement labeling themselves Agnostic Atheists, which I think is what you are basing this question on.

Agnostic atheists generally base their views on the thesis that without certainty, they cannot claim knowledge (a-gnostic), and they cannot ever know a negative with certainty. And without certainty, they can reject God clams, as the default view should be to reject unproven claims.

This rationale fails to follow any of the principles of knowledge that we use in science. First, negatives can be known all the time -- and is actually the most common method of doing existence tests. Postulate an effect, object, or phenomenon, derive predictions from its presumption, and then look for whether they obtain or not. If not, then the postulation is refuted. This is "proving a negative". Second -- we cannot be certain of AYTHING in science -- but that does not prevent our gaining knowledge through the science process. Certainty is not necessary for knowledge.

Additionally, a-gnostic atheists apply two mode logic to propositions, of proven/unproven to empirical questions, while empiricism operates on a four mode logic:

  1. Supported well enough to accept as a working hypothesis
  2. Evidenced against sufficiently to reject it as a working hypothesis
  3. Currently insufficient supporting or opposing evidence to reach a tentative conclusion relative to the proposition
  4. The proposition is untestable, or unevidenceable in principle, and is therefore it is incoherent to even make the claim.

Relative to God claims, status 3 is ignorance, and is the default view one should have of a proposition about God(s). And moving off ignorance does not require "proof". Status 4 relative to a god claim, was given the name Agnosticism by Thomas Huxley. If Agnosticism applies to theism, that is the most decisive rejection of a God thesis one can have in empiricism.

To argue for gnostic atheism, the testing method is difficult to apply, because of the huge range of possible types of Gods. Tests for some, will not exclude others. Gnostic atheists therefore take different tacks.

a) The most common of these tacks is to argue that the type of being a God is -- a spiritual being, does not exist, because our world is physical. Therefore there can be no Gods. Physicalism is widely assumed within philosophy, and by gnostic atheists, but the justification for accepting physicalism is true is more frequently presumed than argued. Papineau's insightful essay The Rise of Physicalism notes that physicalism is supported by its greater predictive power vs. spiritual dualism, but that dualism is not refuted. Also, two recent books by now ex-physicalists mote that physicalism appears to be explicitly UNtrue -- one based on Hempel's dilemma plus modern physics not really being material, and the other based on qualia: https://www.amazon.com/Physicalism-Problems-Philosophy-Daniel-Stoljar/dp/0415452627/ref=sr_1_1?crid=CNB58ZC0B32A&keywords=physicalism+stoljar&qid=1644390992&sprefix=physicalism+stoljar%2Caps%2C150&sr=8-1 https://www.amazon.com/Physicalism-Something-Princeton-Monographs-Philosophy/dp/0691133859/ref=sr_1_8?crid=CNB58ZC0B32A&keywords=physicalism+stoljar&qid=1644391022&sprefix=physicalism+stoljar%2Caps%2C150&sr=8-8 So the "physicalism is proven" route may be a rocky one.

b) An alternative route takes the Papineau argument further and argues that physically based science has been so successful, and left so few "gaps", that it is reasonable to simply assume physicalism is true. Or alternatively if it turns out there are spirits or Gods, they are so irrelevant to our world that they can be ignored.

c) A third route to arguing gnostic atheism is to perform falsification tests on the Abrahamic Gods, the Hindu Gods, the Shinto gods, and the Gods of classical Paganism, and then draw an inference that if these most widely accepted as plausible Gods all are refuted, then it is reasonable to infer that all God claims are refuted.

d) There is a route of direct knowledge, that is available to atheistic spiritual dualists. This is implicit in Buddhism, as the Enlightened Ones discern the reality of our universe, and that reality has no Gods or spirits.

So -- A-gnostic atheism is based on a poor understanding of the scientific/empirical process, but there are a variety of paths available to support gnostic atheism.

  • Very nicely put, I will reread this a few times.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 20:19
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    @ScottRowe — thanks! I am a theist, but as Aristotle says, educated men can consider and discuss views they do not hold. :-)
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 1:23

There is a contemporary dialectic regarding the "hiddenness" of God that turns on the contention that if a certain class of divine being existed, It would surely (or at least "probably") makes Its existence known not only to some people, but everyone without almost any distinction. At the very least (per that dialectic), what is called "nonresistant nonbelief" is contraindicated in the event that a particularly loving and capable deity exists.

Kant argued somewhere (although I'm having trouble remembering where exactly) that even if God exists, It created our faculties of knowledge in such a way that It cannot prove Its existence to us (his phrasing is, I think, something like, "Even if we could prove to ourselves God's existence, we would not know how to communicate the proof in public"). Some people who use higher-end psychedelics (e.g. DMT) claim to undergo such a profound transformation of their consciousness that they do bear direct and absolute witness to divine reality (they even have a fancy, if clunky, adjective for it: kalonkinesioöptic, AKA "my senses of sight specifically, and beauty overall, were crossed with my skin so it was like looking in every direction out from my body at once, at the eternal light of glory"). On the other hand, they also tend to go on about perceiving things "outside of space and time" while nevertheless being able to precisely situate their perception within spatiotemporal brackets (from the moment they took in a sufficient dose of the drug until the moment the drug wore off enough).

But so in turn, there is something suspicious about phrases like "outside of space and time." I understand (not in great detail, but not too obscurely either) what talk of higher-dimensional (even infinite-dimensional, perhaps even V-dimensional) spacetime would refer to; talk of something having no such character surpasses my understanding completely, however. I presume that claims like, "Time is an illusion," are using Time and illusion in a special sense, and so the claim can be said to go through in some context, but in more ordinary terms, such claims are inherently unscientific (no experiment can ever be timelessly conducted apart from our empirical position in space). With respect to the possibility of knowing such a God, then, I would be hard pressed to take mystical revelations at face value: one of the classical legends does not say that Moses always saw God's face inside his own human spirit, but specifically when he ascended a certain mountain. (I waive the Maimonidean rationalist gloss of Moses/prophets, here.)

Taken altogether, then, these lines of reasoning lend support to an atheistic argument from asemanticism: if the word "God" has no intelligible possible reference, then it's not so much that no one knows whether God exists, but that the very question, "Does God exist?" has no substantial answers, and hence is vacuously solved for by, "No, no such thing exists." When and where sense can be attached to words like, "God," though, the question opens up a little more, and we might find ourselves in the position of trying to presume that we know what God would do, relative to our epistemic capacities, in order to know what God has, or (if nonexistent) has not, done. The argument from love resonates with a lot of people at least insofar as their motive for even hoping that God exists is for the sake of such transcendent love.

But so it seems like the most that could be ruled out, in this event, is the existence of a God Who has a reason to reveal Itself to us. Whether there is a God as a unitary creator of worlds would advert to whether divine unity or creativity depend on such reasons: Nicholas Rescher's theory of axiogenesis would have that said creativity is quintessentially caught up with divine benevolence, for example. With respect to Rescher's own theory, he can't have abstract goodness at all without possible creativity (and vice versa), so his argument would require God to exist just on account of either possible attribute. If a different concept of such creativity and goodness is correct, "Does God exist?" opens up again, though.

  • You don't need drugs, ordinary non-dual awareness will give one the same experience.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 20:16
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    I tried arguing along such lines on the DMT Nexus forum years ago, but because I hadn't used DMT, much less "broken through," the responses to my posting were pretty hostile and my longest post was moved to the humor/jokes subforum there, after which I gave up contributing to that site. Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 20:46
  • Ok, well, that is unfortunate. Regarding benevolence, anyone who finds most of this planet benevolent, let alone the rest of the universe, must be pretty sheltered.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 22:50
  • I was so excited to read Rescher's book, because it sounded like it contained a line of reasoning I had independently arrived at. While faint pre-echoes of my argument were to be found there, he also burdened the thesis with a target conclusion of "metaphysical optimalism," which seemed quaint at best but disturbing at worst. I've read Candide and so expected "this really IS the best of all possible worlds!" talk to face a much greater plausibility hurdle than Rescher tried jumping over... Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 22:55
  • I guess since this is the only world consistent with life, it is the best of all the worlds we know if. One estimate sets the probability that this is the only world with life this complex in the entire universe at 50%. Pretty chilling. God could have been more generous.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 0:03

There are infinitely many magic entities that could exist without being seen. The Yeti, Smurfs, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and so on.

Most of those infinitely many possible magic entities are rejected by rational people in any case, without proof. Atheists just extend this approach to all those entities, without illogical arbitrary exceptions. As auch atheism is a consistent approach to the problem of not being able to disprove infinitely many possible but unseen entities, whereas theism is a logically inconsistent approach making a convenient exception for one magical creature but being atheist about all others.

  • How many imaginary entities can dance in the head of a... Well, nevermind.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 20:12

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