This is a further reply to Bernard, who stakes out some interesting ground for the reasons behind his agnosticism, which are in the various threads of comments on several of my last posts. I need to say up front that I think Bernard has a very reflective and thoughtful take on his position. All I can do is respond to what I think I “hear” in Bernard’s reasoning. I may be way off base. Also, even though I think Bernard to be off base here, I respect his honesty and the reasonable tone he keeps throughout. I think one thing Bernard is keen on doing is bringing some humility to these questions. What I am going to suggest though, is that there may be some hidden and unrecognized privileging going on that perhaps Bernard has never noticed or thought about. I don’t think it is overt or even intentional. I think it may just be there hiding in the shadows and part of the many unexamined presuppositions that we all have and carry with us. Here is the last quote from Bernard where he speaks of the reasons behind his agnosticism:
“The reasons I withhold belief at this point is because I have no taste for some of the logical implications of committing to one or other belief (theism or atheism). I don’t think it’s wrong to believe, there’s no should involved, but when I examine the implications, which I claim as logical necessities, I find myself thinking ‘I’d rather not… Because one of my claimed implications is the need to privilege one’s own beliefs”
First, I would suggest there are reasons (the “implications” you speak of) it bothers you (doesn’t suit your taste—or doesn’t sit well with you) that to commit to either belief or unbelief suggests, to you at least, that we must privilege one narrative over another if we were to choose. I would suggest to you that such a line of reasoning alone is a narrative based sensibility. It is hardly a coincidence that your “taste” happens to fit within the modern western sensibility (which is narrative driven) that “private” beliefs must remain so and to “privilege” one over the other as being true in a “public” way is just wrong or unwise, for various reasons. There are still “reasons” behind the distaste you feel at what you think is “privileging” one narrative over another. Of course, this even begs the question because it assumes you are in a neutral objective position to “grant” truth to this or that narrative—to even give it privilege. It posits one as the referee, the umpire. We should ask: How did you come to be thus? That is the modern conceit. We imagine we are neutral objective observers granting or taking away “privilege” based upon whether or not something “sits well with us”, or, if we are talking about some meaningful issue (like God’s existence, good, evil)—whether or not it might actually be true or false or even a serious matter.
I have already noted that I think using the word “taste” or “preference” to be inappropriate (because of dictionary meaning, common usage, and context) in this conversation (and using such already indicates a narrative source—more about that in a bit), but let’s allow it for a second. The word “taste” is a loaded word. I’m not sure if you are using it sometimes to mean “certain positions don’t sit well with me—I don’t feel good about them,” or if you mean poor or bad taste in the sense of laughing during a funeral. I think either use reveals much regarding hidden presuppositions. Even cultural matters of taste ( in either sense) are narrative driven although they address secondary matters that people care about but would never die for or would move them to overcome great obstacles or bring deep change to a culture (war, civil rights, slavery, poverty, etc.,). People might consider it bad taste to spit (or not “feel” good about doing the same) on the sidewalk. Where did that come from? Were we born with that sense of bad taste or sensibility? No, we were acculturated from within a grander narrative, part of which, included what counts as good or bad taste—or what should “sit well with us”. Something to consider: Why isn’t a logical implication of your position that if one believes one narrative to be truer than another- it is in “bad” taste—or they should feel uncomfortable doing so? Even on this secondary and rather meaningless level, how is that still not privileging your position? It could even be interpreted as a sort of cultural snobbery—again the word “taste” carries all sorts of baggage. Is it possible this is a hidden, unintentional, and just different type of privileging?
Another issue with using words like “taste” and “preference,” is that it, a-priori, signals that one doesn’t even believe the issue under discussion rises to any level of seriousness. To use those words telegraphs that issues like those discussed here, God’s existence, issues of good, evil, beauty, and meaning, do not even rise to the level of being different than a discussion over what type of wine is better or if it “sits well with us” to choose a French wine over a Napa Valley wine. When one says he doesn’t want to decide whether or not jazz is better than classical music because he thinks it would be in bad taste—or he doesn’t have the taste for choosing—we would all agree that such was a rational response. Why? Because no one really cares which one is better, other than on the most meaningless level. It is an irrelevant choice ultimately. Everyone knows that all such decisions are subjective matters of taste. To then approach the issue of God’s existence in the same way, already tells us that the person believes that choosing between atheism and theism is sort of like choosing between jazz or classical music.
We don’t privilege the truth that the earth is flat. We recognize the truth already present. To assume that it is different with matters of God’s existence is (besides committing a philosophical category error) to assume that no narrative can be true or a recognition of truth unless it can be proven empirically. In other words, one is already committed to a way of knowing (empirical) that then automatically leads to having to “grant” or “privilege” one narrative over another, instead of acknowledging that if one were really true—it is a recognition—not a “privileging.”
Both the atheist and the Christian are saying they “granted” nothing—they “privileged” nothing, but simply were captured by a truth that was already present—was already there. Truth is not created; it is discovered or revealed. If one sincerely and deeply believes a narrative to be true, how is that privileging? Are we to disavow the very thing many of us feel changed our lives for the better or touched us profoundly and deeply, because we might have the bad “taste” (or should feel bad) to not afford the same status to a narrative that is in complete opposition to ours? In my mind, such would be dishonest and completely in bad “taste.” It should not “sit well” for any person to do such. A person who would do so never believed in that narrative in the first place. He believed in a greater narrative that valued not “privileging” one narrative over another, which is rather ironic if one thinks about it. The very use of the word “privileging” is freighted with baggage that is entirely narrative driven and sourced. It assumes that a single narrative cannot capture the truth of existence. The whole idea of “privileging” one narrative over another is simply the conceit of modernity, in that it still holds the “secular” to be a neutral space from which it can grant this “privilige” to be true. It is entirely narrative driven.
Finally, one of the reasons I posit that we all live by faith, that the narratives by which we have been captured cannot be “founded” by a simple appeal to empiricism, is so that one cannot “privilege” their narrative. If we all stand by faith, in these ultimate questions of existence and meaning, then we all stand on equal ground. Why would anyone refuse to stand there? Why would they want to stand over “there” and point out that they are just a neutral, objective, observer who happens to have better “taste” than the rest who have committed? Now, one might say, “I’m not saying my taste is better, just different.” To which I am tempted to say, “Really?” Come on. Please. In telling someone that their taste (or feelings about something) is not poor or bad, just different, are we not just being polite? Isn’t this just a patronizing pat on the head—again, another type of privileging? Could it be interpreted that way?
I guess what I don’t understand is why you fear or are concerned if agnosticism were found to be narrative driven. You seem to be saying that you recognize in every other area of your life and beliefs that they are narrative driven (comprehensive world-view that tells a story that you believe is true and makes sense of existence), but in this one area, this one slice, you believe you step outside of that narrative—it is just a matter of taste (or feeling), completely floating outside any narrative. Untouched. Pristine. Does that really seem reasonable? Why the reticence to admit it is narrative driven? Do you feel you give something up? I just don’t understand. If we take narrative as I have talked about it, as it has been articulated by post-modern philosophers and theologians, why the need, in this one area, to argue that this rather important decision (to be agnostic) remains outside any narrative of meaning. In fact, if we take “narrative” to mean what I’ve been suggesting it means (comprehensive—and true) then how is this even possible? At one point, you wrote this regarding what you thought “narrative” meant:
“For the record, I think of narrative as the overarching framework within which we think. Not a story added on to our thinking, but rather the cultural superstructure upon which all of our thoughts, feelings and beliefs function. I doubt this is far from your own definition.”
It is not far at all. So how does “taste” escape an “overarching” frame? You noted “all” our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. And yet, in this one area, this (bad) “taste” (A feeling? A thought? A belief?) you experience as far as “privileging” one narrative over another, you are telling us it lies outside and escapes the narrative you inhabit? And at the same time, when we hear your reasons and lines of thought when you address every other area or topic—they spring from the Enlightenment/secular/scientific narrative of modernity. But we are to believe, in this one tiny area, none of that influences your “taste”?
Another telling point: I wouldn’t waste two seconds writing and conversing on a blog over differences of taste or because something just didn’t “sit well” with me. Who cares? Why would I waste a second trying to convince someone that the Twilight movies are drivel and a sure sign the demise of Western Civilization is upon us—in other than a cursory way as simple conversation over differences? Or why waste time trying to convince someone that Hawaii is a better vacation spot than Tahiti?
And yet, you do spend time on the issues discussed on this blog and those like Eric’s. You are reflective. You are serious. You care. This “privileging” aspect bothers you. Again, this leads me to believe that all these matters rise to a level far beyond mere taste or preference for you as well.
So that is where I am, as far as what I “hear” you saying and what I can gather. Again, I could be completely wrong. I don’t pretend to know your inner thoughts, will, or intentions. I am simply trying to understand where you are coming from. I hope I have not misrepresented your position to an unrecognizable degree. I think you still may have some hidden and unrecognized presuppositions that are completely narrative driven.
And thus is why I still maintain that we all live by faith.