The Virtue of Doubt. An Agnostic’s Call For Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Ontological Mystery

Being an agnostic, I am very far from wishing to defend theism, but if I were to attempt to do so I think I would start with love.

I know that sounds corn-ball, and like you, I can come up with a highly coherent mechanistic and strictly evolutionary accounting of existence. But the very fact that we live in a universe that includes love, language, poetry, narrative, breathtaking natural beauty, and Shakespeare seems to resist mechanistic reductionism, and to beg us to recheck our premises at every turn.

The sheer fact that anything exists at all is stupifying, and to add conscious experience on top of it leaves me humble. I just don’t want to be so cocksure that I’ve figured all this out yet.

I think that living with the ambiguity of our existence is an important way to grow intellectually. I think that where we are sure, we should be sure (as in knowing that the earth is billions of years old, and that plants and animals have changed over time). But I think that we need not engage in the folly of overreaching, and to strip mystery from the universe in a too quick attempt to vanquish, once and for all, the Bronze Age religions.

I think that the Bronze Age religions are almost wholly wrong in the way that they conceived of the universe, and God, and yet we are living at the edge of a profound ontological mystery, and we should not be glib about the fearsome nature of our own very peculiar existence.

In short, if there was no mind prior to the existence of this universe, that is flabbergasting. And if there turns out to have been some mind prior to matter that is also flabbergasting.

But I just don’t think we know yet exactly what the hell is going on. And being embedded in the system that we are trying to comprehend makes it all the more difficult.

Noam Chomsky, no slouch intellectually, and not a theist, thinks that consciousness and language is not to be accounted for by standard evolutionary means. He thinks it’s like one of Gould’s cathedral spandrals (a lucky accident of the architecture of the mind).

If so, what a lucky accident!

Doesn’t the universe, and your own body, and the bodies of your spouse and children, and the responses of your soul to the things that you love, sometimes leave you utterly awestruck?

The sheer existence of things and their capaciousness is too much if we let them enter our consciousness in a sustained way.

And where does all this excess come from?

I think, for example, that the poetry of Wallace Stevens is a route into this mystery.

I know it’s not science, but I think that those of us who are part of the skeptical community have to work very hard not to “demystify” our world to such an extent that something important dies in us.

I think that ultimately that is what religion is pushing against (as well as poetry and literature): “The palm at the end of the mind” (to use Wallace Stevens’s phrase).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to The Virtue of Doubt. An Agnostic’s Call For Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Ontological Mystery

  1. Mike P says:

    I found this post when looking for a way to explain my agnosticism to a friend. I think you pretty much hit what I wanted to say on the head. I shared this on my FB page and will be bookmarking it.

  2. Luke says:

    Very well said.

  3. adambnoel says:

    This is a very interesting post (And one I can agree with in most regards).

    The interesting undercurrent in modern thought is a belief that the universe is universally intelligible to us. Although not all atheists (and agnostics) will profess to such belief (Perhaps those believers are the minority!) it is often one I hear professed. I am unsure if you have ever heard of Chomsky’s view on the mind-body problem before (We cannot even address the mind body problem since we don’t even have a coherent definition of matter let alone mind) but my views are aligned on that end of the spectrum.

    I spent a few years as an atheist and a skeptic, moved slowly towards agnosticism and now find myself moving towards… a sort of mysticism grounded in the ineffable. Things such as love, wisdom, truth, justice, will, consciousness and morality are all things we seem to experience but we cannot express. It is only when we try to put such things in words do we find ourselves grasping at their incoherence. Perhaps all we can do in face of them is remain silent and appreciate their beauty?

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