This post is a reflection upon this one by Bernard Beckett regarding his agnosticism.
First of all, I should point out those features that I appreciate and commend. The two features in Bernard’s post that resonated with me were tolerance and openness. In opposition to secular and religious fundamentalism, I think agnosticism is certainly in a much better position, philosophically, to cultivate those two features. I think Bernard’s approach puts him in a very good position to listen to others and also to be heard. The type of agnosticism he puts forth doesn’t carry the same aggressive tone that those who are committed sometimes bring to a conversation. The “True Believers” we can see coming for miles and most of us quickly look for hiding places. However his agnosticism is not threatening in that way. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. The honest statement: “I don’t know” is one we respect. It is humble and it’s that very aspect (“I don’t know”) that makes it teachable and open to learning. There is much we could learn from such an attitude and Bernard represents one of the better forms of agnosticism I have ever encountered.
That being said, however, I still find certain areas problematic and would need further unpacking and explanation. Clearly I could be misreading and misunderstanding Bernard. Where I think I understand him I will do my best to respond. And rather than just respond enmasse and in general, I will point to the key areas specifically noted by Bernard where I see problems.
If you were looking for an agnostic hero figure, you could do worse than Protagoras…It was he who was credited with the observation ‘the fire burns the same everywhere, but the law of the land differs from place to place.’ To an agnostic, and I suspect a good many atheists, the distinction Protagoras noted is a crucial one.
I don’t understand why this is a “crucial” distinction. It is a distinction noted by Christians too after all. It is when we unpack this distinction and ask ourselves what it means that anything of a crucial nature may arise. As I’ve noted many times now, if we keep the difference between methodological naturalism (the fire burns the same…) and ontological naturalism (because the material is all there is, that the laws differ must mean [fill in the blank] “there is no god or objective value or truth”) in mind, this so-called distinction, once it is understood, certainly doesn’t take away from a Christian or transcendental view of the world—or it shouldn’t. The fact/value distinction, in fact, disappears.
We are poets, story tellers, readers of mood and motivation, incurably social, curious and romantic. We move in a world not just of models, but of laws and lore. And it is this through this aspect of our nature that we experience a world that is much more flexible, where reality leaves us unconstrained in our speculations…
But is this really true? In reality I don’t think it is. There are constraints even in this aspect of our experience. There are some narratives that, over time, become so powerful they are believed as strongly as the fact one will get wet when it rains. Some narratives are not believed to the same extent. Some narratives seem to have some power for a time but then die out or are replaced by another. We take it as completely reasonable and perfectly normal that our Presidents/Chancellors/leaders in the West believe in God. However, if any one of them were to profess a serious belief in Goblins or floating teapots, they would never even see public office. So the idea there are no constraints here just isn’t true.
…to the extent that two entirely contradictory stances might be thought of as equally well supported by our collective experiences…
Well, that is the question, are they “thought of as equally well supported by our collective experiences”? Many times they are not. It is then up to each person to dive in and try to understand why they are not. In some instances (Santa Clause v. God) it is easy to understand. In others, where we are considering world-religions for instance, it is much more difficult. But what does this prove? It certainly doesn’t mean one should throw up their hands and declare them all false. From what vantage was one able to do that anyway? From what high and lofty place did one look down and declare all narratives (because they contradict) false except one’s own (which, by the way, also contradicts these others!)? I’m not stating Bernard is saying this explicitly but I do think the mindset is there. I think Bernard would say, “I’m not saying they are all false—I’m just saying because they contradict, and because both sides seem reasonable—it is fair to withhold judgment.” Notice though what is going on here. It is the view from the judge’s seat at trial or the umpire at a game. I’m sitting back and each of you go ahead and present your case and I will call it as I see it. This seems to me to be the very idea of what privileging one’s view would amount to. Unfortunately, in the real game of life none of us are neutral observers. We are all in the game. And we are looking at these other narratives through our own narrative—not as neutral umpires or judges.
And part of Bernard’s narrative is the restriction he’s talk about: “The link to agnosticism is that the agnostic seeks to restrict their beliefs to just these cases.” And “these” cases were represented by something like the observation that when it rains we get wet. In other words, an empirical observation, which in every way I can see simply erects an arbitrary faith-based boundary that would lead one to only entertain something as true if it can be shown to be true empirically. So how is this neutral?
Further, again, if we understand the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism that there are contradictory world-views is what one would expect and it is only problematizedby this boundary or restriction set up by Bernard. It needn’t be so.
The agnostic is defined by the way they respond to these contradictions. The response is to say ‘given that an equally reasonable and well informed person may validly reach the opposite conclusion, I have insufficient faith in my own conclusion to do anything other than suspend belief. I don’t know which of the competing viewpoints is more likely to be true, I can’t trust my own instincts on the matter, given others’ instincts take them in such opposite directions, and so I shall refrain from belief.
My first thought here is how is this (the reasoning reflected here) not instinctive as well? If one cannot trust his instincts regarding these other reasonable positions—how can he trust the instinct that tells him he should refrain from or suspend belief? Clearly, he must trust some instinct. Why trust one over the other? The other problem here is that while we all might have instinctive (or is this just cultural?) or gut reactions to differing world-views, most reasonable people don’t just leave it at that. They still ask questions, explore, and try to get beyond their instincts to see what reasons lay behind these differing beliefs. In other words, most of us ask, “Are (were) my instincts justified here?” How does Bernard answer that question? And by what criteria? Or perhaps that question is never asked. In past attempts to answer this question it always seemed to me it turned into a veiled attempt to privilege empiricism, but maybe I misunderstood.
To return to the metaphor I favour, a coin spins through the air. What will it be? I don’t know, is the agnostic answer.
I must again object to this analogy on the basis that it doesn’t capture what is going on when we process and choose world-views and I can’t think of a single philosopher familiar with the concept of world-views who would suggest it does. First of all, we are not neutral observers watching a coin—this thing—this object. Of course we don’t know which side it will land. Such is not the “agnostic” answer—it’s everyone’s answer if this is what we are really doing. But, is that how we choose world-views? No, it is not. We might even say that world-views choose us to an extent. There is something about it, about the narrative, which captured us. There is an experiential, intellectual, and practical aspect that connected with us and resonated—none of which can be captured or compared to a coin toss or a coin spinning in the air. We inhabit our world-views; we don’t see them from a distance as an object or concept that is inherently a matter of chance that we stand outside of somehow.
This is not to say this is how we should respond. Agnosticism makes no claim that its stance is superior, or indeed more likely to uncover the truth, than belief. Indeed, it is less likely to hit the target, given it isn’t even taking a shot.
I would counter that it is taking a shot. It is basically setting up a bar another narrative has to meet for the agnostic to agree with the person expressing their narrative (you passed the bar) and perhaps be moved. It basically says, “If you meet my personal criteria, I might consider it.” It is really asking others to take the shot, as the agnostic sits and waits to make his judgment as to whether it met his bar, his test. I’m not too sure this is a neutral position. To withhold making a decision is to…make a decision to withhold. It is also lends itself to being, almost without the agnostic realizing it, inherently judgmental because of the test it sets up that everyone else must meet.
For me, the first is to do with intellectual consistency. I just don’t buy the pragmatic argument. Yes, a certain type of belief might feel right, and this feeling might deliver up certain advantages, but I don’t know how to make an argument from the personally useful to the objectively true. And I enjoy going where an argument will take me. I find that satisfying. The only arguments I can construct take me away from pragmatism, and I follow them.
How is this not an argument…for pragmatism? After all, Bernard finds this path personally “satisfying.” That an argument not pass any test other than it seems to “work” or is satisfying seems, to me at least, to lie at the very heart of pragmatism. This argument, then, seems to contradict itself. Putting that aside, most do feel like they are going where the argument “takes” them. A Christian will say that he believes in some sort of final accounting or judgment, whether he wants, pragmatically, for such to be the case or not. We all want to think we would follow the truth regardless of how it made us feel or even if it were to depress us. Who is going to say, “Right, regardless of the truth, I just believe in whatever makes me feel good or is satisfying.”? No one.
A second advantage is that I don’t have to construct a case to explain why my intuition is superior to that of my fellow travellers’. I would find it extremely hard to construct such a case, perhaps impossible.
But Bernard is constructing such a case right now. It is his “intuition” that the better choice is to withhold belief. The fact he is holding his agnosticism out for us to consider (“what’s not to like?”) means he hopes we find it preferable, understandable, or at least likable. Why is hisintuition here superior? Is Bernard an agnostic because he feels he is taking the lessreasonable, less intelligent, less logical and inferior intuitive road? No, he feels just the opposite and has been publicly writing about it for the very reason that he finds it superior. Not superior in the sense of being above us or smarter than everyone else, but simply as the better choice for him. But we are all doing that. So, the point?
Further, regardless the subjective component and the place of intuition/instinct in our decision making, most of us believe our world-view is based also upon reasons and philosophical reflection too. No one is saying something as simple as, “My intuition is superior.” While we might all say, “I respect your intuitive sense here,” we would all follow with, “but can you explain your philosophical reasoning and how you arrived at your position?”
For me, agnosticism also support a special sort of curiosity. The less one has invested in an investigation, the more open one can be to its possible end points.
Imagine a crime scene. Three detectives are assigned. All three examine the evidence. Two of them believe firmly in a theory and have suspects in mind, although their theories are different and they have different suspects. The third detective doesn’t believe either theory and doesn’t think either suspect guilty. When he is asked why by the other two, he responds, “I just don’t know. My gut, my instincts, my intuition doesn’t line up here.” “Well,” they respond, “What then is your theory and do you have a suspect.” To this, he responds, “I don’t really have one. I don’t know what happened here.”
The other two detectives followed their theories. Often they came up short. Something didn’t make sense or fit. They would go back and go over the crime scene again, go over the evidence again, and chase down new leads and interview new people. They continued to revise their theories based upon what they were learning. Sometimes they were right on target and it led to new breaks and they began to get closer and closer to the perpetrator.
The third detective remained inactive. He could never get past his feeling that he simply didn’t know what had happened or who could have been responsible. And no theories seem to make sense to him. With nothing to go on (he felt), there was nothing further to do. He laid down on the couch, turned on the television, and eventually fell asleep.
My point here is that it is the person with a theory who is the one most curious. Why? Because he wants to know if he is on to something or not. He pursues it. He chases it. He believes in it. Until shown otherwise, he thinks he is on the right track. The person who says, “We can’t know,” is really done. Unless, he is willing to say, “But I’m going to try and find out more,” it is the sign of resignation. Even if they say they want to find out more, if they don’t even have a theory, an idea, some lead, some piece of evidence, then there is nothing to pursue. There is no reason to be curious. Nothing has sparked their interest enough to go further. If they see no tracks to follow in the first place, no journey ever begins.
There is a second consideration here as well. Historically I don’t think Bernard’s point holds up well at all. The fact remains that modern science wasn’t a result of an agnostic world-view. It arose from a Judeo-Christian view and it was inherently curious, thus the explosion of knowledge in the West. It meant that the cosmos made sense, was logical, mathematical, and orderly. Thus we could study it and learn more and more. All this did was generate more curiosity–as it still does today. We find nothing like that historically coming from a group or community committed to agnosticism.
So those are the key points where I see problems. I would also point out that it is a misconception to assume that Christians claim to have found certainty. Rather, they have discovered, or been discovered by, a profound and eternal mystery. Instead of closing a book, they find they have opened a book that never ends. The Christian never claims the case to be closed or solved. The journey continues into ever deeper labyrinths. Just as we “know” our spouse or significant other, we always know at the same time they are a mystery and we know them hardly at all. Curiosity and the journey are bound up with loving others. Existentially, if we don’t think anyone is there or that we can’t know if anyone is there, the journey never begins. Such seems profoundly sad to me. But beyond that, certainty is for fundamentalists.
One final thought. My theory is that Bernard’s agnosticism is a reaction to fundamentalist religion. I think most atheism is also a result of the same reaction. My thought then is that one should consider fundamentalism the problem rather than religion per-se or see this as a “God” or transcendental problem. I don’t believe in the god of fundamentalism either. When most atheists and agnostics explain to me the god they either don’t believe in or withhold judgment over, my usual response is that I don’t believe in that god either.
The problem is that anything born of a reaction, that is based in a negativity, that is born in an “against” type of sensibility or mentality is hard to sustain over time and is even harder to translate into something that can become positive, attractive, and winsome. Therefore, it can rarely become something that begins to impact culture, or even ourselves, in deep positive ways. Now, perhaps Bernard isn’t interested in impacting culture or being a part of something that is transformative. Perhaps his agnosticism is entirely personal and not translatable or transferable. In that case however, why these posts? Why the comments on this blog and others regarding this very issue? Does one protest too much? In other words, it would appear Bernard is saying something beyond something as banal and inconsequential as, “I like ice cream.” I would hope so anyway.