I am an agnostic. But let us start from another point.
In my everyday life I am atheistic. I practice no rituals; do not attach special, ‘mystical’ value to items; never think that certain moves, words, thoughts, circumstances, signs, and the like, have any connection to some ostensible “higher being”. My quotidian experience is not influenced or governed by beliefs of something ‘other’.
And I am similarly ‘atheistic’—if I may broaden the term—towards all the expected formalities of our time. I do not keep track of birthdays, anniversaries, the “International Day of [insert theme]”, and whatnot. Today is another day. The Earth is still orbiting the Sun. Sure, that does not give me any social points, but who cares anyway?
I live like an animal, say, a dog. Canines react to stimuli. They are hungry, happy, excited, scared, in relation to some phenomenon that may be internal, external, or [most likely] a feedback loop between the two. I just do what is within my power, what my nature renders possible. Those who talk about spirits, ethereal beings and the like, those who when pressed to prove their points inevitably muse about the ineffable and neighbouring concepts, will accuse me of ‘materialism’; maybe even of disrespect for my audacity to think that I, a mere human, can defy the divine.
Atheists are certain that there is no higher being whatsoever. Which is unacceptable, as they put forward a positive proposition that is not objectively verifiable. In that sense, they are epistemologically equivalent to the theists. They too have no proof, other than tradition, widespread superstitions, and stories that blend a kernel of truth, say a meteorological event, with sheer fantasy.
Agnosticism is the view that we remain aporetic towards theological propositions. We can neither approve nor disprove them. We do not know. However, agnosticism is not to be conflated with the superficially compromising attitude of many eminent scientists: “science does its job, while religion has a moral role to play”.
No, I am sorry! We are not friends any more. That is just a shrewd way of not turning fanatics against you. Tactically sound, but a spurious statement nonetheless. For if we can neither prove nor disprove the claims of theology, then it follows that religions and quasi-religious groups are overreaching. They are abusing their power. They do make positive statements. They do, indeed, claim to have answers and be certain of things—usually of all things that trouble us.
If agnosticism is to be upheld, then religions cannot possibly be anything other than cultural-historical constructs with a decisively political function. Let us discuss them in the same vein as all social structures and institutions. If they are deemed useful or surplus to requirements is a matter of value judgements within the domain of interpersonal experience. In terms of their content, however, they speak nonsense. No religion has ever objectively substantiated its claims. None of the world’s major religions has furnished proof covering the totality of their propositions.
Which is also why agnosticism should not be misunderstood as passive indifference, as “everything goes”.
I will return to the point of the “moral role”, after elaborating on positive statements in general. You see, agnosticism does not really claim anything new. It simply observes the fact that there are many religions and conflicting accounts of theology, while there is no mechanism of ever resolving the disputes (fire and steel notwithstanding). Some say there is one god, even though they are not united on what that really means. Others suggest that there is a plurality of gods. Then there is a whole host of spirits that rank below god[s] but still partake of divinity. Some are good, others are evil, or whatever the binary/spectrum is. They have passions and feelings, mood swings even, and they draw up plans for various courses of action in pursuit of their ends. Furthermore, there are all sorts of views on the origins of the world, the role of humanity in it, the life of human beings now and in eternity. And so on.
Agnostics take account of this corpus of work to state the obvious: controversy implies unresolved tensions about the thing being studied. It is not clear what the object is. There is fundamental disagreement about what should be discussed and the method to be used. Agnostics do what every sceptic does: they conclude that we need more work before we can arrive at a satisfactory starting point, let alone a comprehensive framework. In this case, we would need to reach a broad consensus on the thing being studied, as well as agree on a method that would lead us to objective ways of approaching it. Until then, the agnostic can only state the readily apparent fact that when theology is taken as a whole, it shows that we do not know anything about it.
Thus, unlike the atheist, the agnostic remains open to the possibility that we might come to the point where we can acquire knowledge in this domain. It cannot be evaluated in prior, without clear reasons as to why. Atheism is a dogma similar to the Academic Sceptics of yore: they were certain that they did not know, knowledge being an unreachable Ideal and all that. Yet, certainty of not knowing is knowledge in itself, which would disprove the very notion of knowledge being unattainable. But I digress.
To me, atheism only makes sense as a term that describes certain types of lifestyle, such as my own: the life of a dog. It is not philosophy: just a set of modes of living that do not rely on any kind of mysticism. Live like an animal, for that is what humans are. Our intelligence is a difference of degree, not category when compared to the rest of the species.
Whereas agnosticism is a philosophical statement. And philosophical statements are essentially analytical propositions, i.e. do not really tell us anything new, other than dissecting the stock of knowledge—or “justified true beliefs”, if you will—we have already accumulated to discern its abstract structure and any possible constants therein. Whatever findings the philosopher may come up with are already intrinsic to the items of inquiry.
Think of it like observing a painting at a museum. Your first impression gives you a general idea. Upon second look you start seeing some finer points, the direction of the strokes, the thickness of the brush, the hues, the texture. And the more you study, the more you discover, to the point where your final view of the painting has little in common with your original impression. All while the work of art remains constant. That is analysis.
Philosophy is an analytical venture. Here is a four-fold rule of thumb for identifying charlatans:
- They claim something about the world that cannot be tested or studied in an objective way. “This is how things stand and I know because reasons“. To support their claims, they may even synthesise between vastly different traditions or fields of endeavour, often picking and choosing the parts of science that superficially support their case.
- They allude to philosophy, as a proxy for authoritative wisdom, either claiming they are philosophers themselves, or selectively interpreting the words of some well-known thinker who may remotely give credence to their views.
- They change the criteria when pressed on a core tenet of theirs. Such as that their truth being ineffable, the absolute ‘other’, or just the oft-cited “god acts in mysterious ways”. Otherwise they attack your person: who are you to question the divine? “Our feeble mind cannot comprehend the workings of god[s]”, and similarly convenient tricks of anti-science or anti-dialectic.
- They treat subjective experiences as equivalent to universal truths and take offence at any hint that subjectivity is neither sufficient nor reliable. The usual defence is that “well, I am not crazy!” or “how can you prove that I did not have these experiences?”. Which either attempt to end the discussion or force you to disprove them.
Making positive statements means bearing the burden of proof. You talk about the will of the divine? How god[s] bestowed upon you the power you wield, which further justifies your special status in the social order. And so on. How about you prove all this? Oh, blasphemy! I know, I know…
Though this is exactly what we do with everything in life. We ask for evidence. Your partner in life demands confirmation of your love on what seems like an hourly basis. You can’t just get away with empty statements.
Here is more: a traveller went to the village on the other side of the mountain. They stayed there for a while, presumably because they had a good time. Upon returning, they raved about the otherworldly crops and animals those people have. Bananas that can be pealed off and on. Donkeys that take flight and recite poetry. Mice that turn down invitations to infest your household. Tomatoes that are all kids find tasty. Sugar that is good for your health, especially when consumed in great doses. In short, the traveller regaled us with all those wondrous stories. And we threw a party to indulge in the amusement. Then at the height of it all, this one person who apparently detests fun addresses the traveller: why didn’t you bring any specimen? How about we go fetch some for ourselves? Money is not an issue. Did you at least capture any video footage so that we can see for ourselves in the meantime? You know what kind of person asks these questions: a nag! For it is annoying to have to prove such nice stories.
Same with all positive propositions: they are nonsensical for as long as it is impossible to test and/or examine them objectively.
With that noted, let me return to the scientist qua infamous apologist of the status quo. This cliché that religion has to stay in place in order to provide moral guidance to the masses. Such a blatant double standard by people who make a living off of the scientific method! Think, if you will, what would happen if courts of justice would no longer care about facts. What kind of justice would they deliver? The judge ought to be a sceptic, only arriving at a judgement after examining the available evidence. Without facts there is no adjudication of the case.
And the same is true for everything. We trust engineers to build boats that do not sink, or airplanes that stay aloft. And we expect consistency of results that approaches near perfection. Performance, which is to say, a verifiable state of affairs, is the measure by which we decide whether to trust their work or not. Even in politics, the domain where countless opportunists have made a successful career, people ultimately care about the truth. Over the long term lies are exposed by reality—and societies suffer the consequences.
Our entire collective experience rests on verifiability. And yet, those who are supposed to be champions of a method that yields verifiable results mindlessly repeat this much-touted platitude that organised religion—a social class whose power rests on unverifiable claims and baseless assumptions—has a tutelary role in our society. It is better they remain silent if they have not thought things through. Because we live in an era where science is exalted as a new god of sorts. The nuance is lost, the methodological caveats are dismissed as pedantic details. “Scientists prove that [insert supposed certain truth]” is the kind of news item you get in every media outlet.
The scientist must assume the responsibility their role entails. They need to be extra careful, else the pervasive scientism of our times will twist their words in support of profoundly anti-scientific ends. If, however, the scientist wishes to speak their mind, they can do so provided they make it explicit they do not opine in their capacity as a scientist, nor do they represent science as a whole. It just their opinion and should be taken as such, however whimsical it may be.
Some never learn though and will go to great lengths to defend their frivolous attitude. It is common to hear eminent scientists dismiss philosophy altogether, while simultaneously holding some ridiculous view about an item outside their narrow field of expertise. The scientist who shows unshakeable conviction about unverifiable theories is lauded as a genius, the philosopher who recommends a rethink and to exercise caution is publicly ridiculed as absent-minded and an armchair commentator, deprived of funding, forced out of universities because of their uselessness, put in the same league as astrologists and theologians, etc.
The very fact that the scientist thinks they have all the answers is a clear sign why they still need a philosopher by their side. Make their research interdisciplinary. Inject some self criticism and restraint. For those scientists are like balloons filled with helium. If you let them loose, there is no telling where they will go.
I guess, sometimes, when all is said and done, the best kind of philosophy is this: oh, $#@% off!