Yet Another Reason Why I’m an Agnostic: Who’s Question Begging Whom?

Who designed the designer?

H. Allen Orr is Professor of Biology at the University of Manchester, and he questions Richard Dawkins’s famous “Ultimate 747” argument against belief in God:

[T]he fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?

Orr has an interesting way of putting it:

  • God made the universe , and
  • The universe made the universe

are both forms of question-begging that leave us baffled—and yet one of them is a brute fact.

How can we possibly know which one is right? Orr wonders why Dawkins isn’t as “troubled” by his materialist assumption as he is about the theist assumption.

As an agnostic, I wonder too.

I actually think that the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, can be helpful for thinking about this question by introducing optimism v. pessimism into the equation. Here’s Niebuhr, from the beginning of his essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” (1940):

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

In other words, Niebuhr sees optimistic belief in the universe’s meaningfulness as an important factor for psychological vigor. The universe must, in some ultimate sense, hold together as a cosmos rather than a chaos for people to be happy in it. But it may be that Niebuhr is making universal a need that many people, in fact, do not feel. They are able to find meaning in much more narrow and less ambitious terms. In light of Niebuhr’s quote, I think it is telling that Orr intuits a personality issue at the bottom of expressions of belief (and disbelief): “What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations.”

Do we need to believe that the universe possesses some ultimate meaning for us to be happy in it—or not? Who’s question begging whom?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Yet Another Reason Why I’m an Agnostic: Who’s Question Begging Whom?

  1. Logicel says:

    “They are able to find meaning in much more narrow and less ambitious terms.”

    To realize and accept that our coming into the world was not intentional and that the existence of the universe is a topic about which is little known is not a narrow and less ambitious view. It is a view full of curiosity, flexibility, courage, exhilaration, questng, and wide-openness. Such folks fashion meaning out of the meaninglessness, instead of what religious folks do which is to accept out of hand some arbitrary standard of belief or view (religion is man-made, after all). They have nothing but faith, that is, clinging to a belief system so they can have a short cut to meaning. Many religious people are not curious, they are satisfied with their regurgitated and well cherry-picked belief systems. They are so filled with confirmation bias that it is not funny.

    You identify as an agnostic despite the fact that you do not have (as far as I can make out) a theistic god belief. You emphasis the agnostic aspect more than the atheistic non-belief in god (many atheists are agnostic, including that ‘militant’ one, Dawkins). You are more fascinated by the lack of knowledge/inability to know something like a god than highlighting your functional lack of belief in a god. For me, it’s the reverse. It is more telling regarding our personalities that we have such different emphasis. You are a teacher by occupation. Your emphasis is fitting; you want to expand your students’ minds as well as to sharpen their critical thinking. You are much more concerned that if the emphasis is wrong, your students will court close mindedness. I am more interested in changing the zeitgeist, enlarging the Overton window, not by teaching professionally, but by challenging directly the status quo, including the one that religious beliefs get deferential respect for no other reason other than they just do.

    Essentially, you believe in religious belief. And yet you have little solid evidence that belief in religious belief has any hard standing. Not long ago, there was the belief that in order for a woman to be fulfilled she had to have children. That belief is no longer held. Once, there was belief that one needs to have a job for life. That belief is no longer held. You are saying that we need to believe in an alpha sky daddy because of evolutionary psychology, not because that belief is true. And yet those strongly held beliefs, that women must have children to be fulfilled and that we need an occupation for life also conceivably have their basis in evolutionary psychology. Goodness gracious, rape has a basis in evolutionary psychology! Are men, who do not rape, are they less fulfilled than ones that do?

    And to cheer you up–the one that believes in religious belief–many religious believers are thankful for the the new atheists, because they are making them think and clean up their act, in other words, make their religious practice more meaningful, more consistent, more authentic to them.

    As for cosmology, it is a study on-going, unlike religion, which knows everything, and such useless information too, whose answer to the so-called big quesitons is that goddidit. There is no indication whatsoever of a god interacting with the universe. If religious people can take in stride the idea that god always existed, then why is it so difficult for them to accept possibly that the universe always existed? The importance difference, is that we do see the universe; we do not see god nor its supposedly finagling in the universe. Cosmology is not an dead-end, like religion. Cosmology deals and accepts with what we do not know and continues its search for answers.

    • Aki Tuomaala says:

      (Brothers and sisters)here some solutions to yuor questions,The everlasting cyclic and cosmic superreallity terrain foreground natures simple and complecatet parts are intimate connected together in the long ron and clearly confirm for.ex the behind lyin cosmic taos verifyin works.In the ineradicable natures entirity reallity terrain and its everlasting “dance ,play and mating” with it self,Right?!! (Amen)(Aki.T. gigles)Greetins son off cosmos Aki.T.on more might later.

  2. santitafarella says:


    That was a beautiful response. You hit numerous nails on the head in succession. Bravo. I can’t quarrel much with anything that you’ve said.

    I agree that religious people are frequently incurious. But here’s a dirty little secret based on a decade of trying to get college students to step over into the shoes of others intellectually (however briefly) or to read an essay or piece of literature with critical attention and detail: a lot of adults are not terribly curious or interested in thinking. It was one of the deep shocks of my first semester of teaching college to discover so many people satisfied with secondhand/borrowed beliefs that had never been seriously scrutinized by them. I genuinely just assumed that everybody worried and fussed over their beliefs the way that I did. And when I asked adult students to write me an essay explaining this or that subject critically, or to respond to a writer’s essay or story or poem, it was a complete revelation.

    You perhaps have no idea how rare what you and I are doing in this thread, or at, say, Dawkins’s website threads. Thinking and challenging one another to think, and to justify your thinking with probable arguments and creative anecdotes is something that a lot of people have little (or no) patience for. An outsourced opinion and a cliche will do.

    Dawkins is doing the work of the angels. He is making people think across the board, provoking thought in smart non-religionists as well as religionists, forcing people to be more robust in their thinking and less sloppy. I, for example, think it is great the way Dawkins forces moderate pro-religious “courtiers” to squirm (such as Eagleton, Miller, and Chris Hedges). I generally side with these three people, but only because I like “courtier” nitpicking and want to keep probing and not deal a death-blow to religion, removing it from the field of reflection.

    Here’s something else compounding the problem: A lot of people, because they do not practice formal critical thinking or writing on a day-to-day basis, make lots and lots of errors when they try to do it. “Logical fallacies” and failures to draw ideas to some of their larger consequences abound. It’s kind of like making poor chess moves when you don’t play chess but once in a blue moon. You don’t look very far ahead on the board.

    You also said: “Such folks fashion meaning out of the meaninglessness . . .” Yes. There is a robust existentialism at work in atheists. And saving religion to some degree entails a flight from freedom and appeals to take into account “nature.” In other words, the arguments of this century are rehashes in different forms of the last century’s arguments. Sartre, in literature for example, was trying to make room for an existential literature of freedom that would replace the determinism inherent in realism and naturalism. Dawkins is likewise saying that we don’t need overriding and “pre-given” meanings, we can make our own.


  3. santitafarella says:


    If you’re okay with it, I’d like to make your long response here a stand-alone post. I’ll title it “Dissent of the Day” and subtitle it something like “A reader takes after my wishy-washy agnosticism.”

    That might be a fun feature to add to this blog once a week (a particularly vigorous or interesting dissent to something posted gets highlighted as a stand alone post).

    Anyway, I’ll make use of your post in this way only if you tell me okay.


  4. Veronica Abbass says:


    What a good idea. I hope Logicel gives you permission to post his response.

    Re: God made the universe , and
    The universe made the universe

    If I rephrase this and narrow its range to read
    Either God made the earth , or
    The earth made the universe

    My question is “what does it matter?” We are here now on the earth and we should take full, benign, advantage of this fact. What happens to us after we die is an unknown; no mortal has ever returned from the dead to tell us what happens after death.

    For reasons unrelated to this blog and this post, I looked up the lyrics to “Signs” (1971), a song by the Five Man Electrical Band. I also found another song by the same band: “I’m A Stranger Here” (1972).

    I hope it is obvious that I am sharing this song with you and your readers to make the point that, God or no God, we should concern ourselves with the earth and the life on it and worry about the hereafter if we get there.


    • Aki Tuomaala says:

      I got interestig songs to yuo also.My sweet lord ,done by Gearge Harrison might 1970-2.I still ha vent found what Im looking for done U2 might 1981-86 do you regognize them?Now some solutions to your diskussions,The everlasting are everlasting,something always exists,like energy and natural laws.things whichs always exist dont have a creator.creation dont exist.From nothing comes nothing.Onlysomething result in something.The reallity terrain have one and true suorce.There is an absolute trueth suorce and a relative trueth,the relative trueth are depending on the absolute trueth.I think a power tao or somekind off God exists,but we cannot communikate with it intellectually like with human beens,it dont care about us ,about our personal problems etc.The moust things I can observe in cosmos have A automatic natural law or force as a suorce,even yuo and me our bodys and souls etc.Thats something I moustly believe and can prove,what do yuo think about that?More might later on Greetings Aki.T.

  5. santitafarella says:


    I don’t think you can prove it, but you belong to a respectable Hindu position (the world consists of Atman and Brahman).

    And I like your song recommendation.


    • Aki Tuomaala says:

      Well,I dont know what yuo want be to prove or not,but I belong to cosmos for.ex and I think like a taoist,but are not 100%toist either,its better to not but etikets on people we dont know.I never heard about hinduism,atman and Brahman,mayby yuo can explain later what it is about,it sounds to me like it is a religion from India?I think hinduism got a god named shiva whos doing a kind off cyclic cosmic dans ,one brahma cycle are might 10billion years and that are near the scientific big bang theory.Am only guessing, are I on the right track?I should mension am a finlander who lives in sweden and scandinavia,so yuo understand my situation better.anyway in every area im interested in what really are true and I dont like and respect liers.To begin with I want to prove to yuo that E=mc2 and that E=energy are everlasting and noncreated its more locical E always exists instead off it existing sometimes for.ex right?!!

  6. santitafarella says:


    I checked out the link you sent us to, and I watched the YouTube video that went with it. Thanks for that.


  7. Aki Tuomaala says:

    If yuo think God made the Universe,who or what made the God?what kind off God do yuo mean and are talking about?A god who always existed and therefore dont have to “make a god from an other God or something else?

  8. Aki Tuomaala says:

    I get very impressed if yuo can show me a God who can wipe out only one natural law or energy for.ex!

  9. Pingback: Is Faith Ever a Virtue? « Prometheus Unbound

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