If I were to locate myself within a “tradition” I would say that I fall within the pessimist tradition. I think that the generally pessimistic existentialists (as loosely grouped) see it right: Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel, Camus, Sartre. I include Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Marcel in this list because they are pessimistic about our ability to arrive at knowledge apart from either a “leap” or unmediated “direct” experience. I recognize that they were religious, and in this sense conventionally “optimistic.” Still, I think we have to start from the position of: (1) we’re fucked; and (2) now choose.
I think that the fundamental pessimism of the early and mid-20th century modernists is about right (the poetry of T.S. Eliot; the novels of Hemingway). And I think that the original MASH film of 1971 has it right: In the midst of horror, humor. I also think that this line from Woody Allen is a good summation of our actual condition with relation to the infinite:
“I don’t know how my toaster works, and you ask me whether or not God exists, and where the universe comes from!”
Now you’ll notice that some of the folks I’ve mentioned above are religious and some are not, but all of them “hit bottom” within the system that they are describing, and then make a decision of how to be in the world:
- Are things as bad as they seem? If your answer is yes, stop there and make your decisions from that position; or
- Will I, in the teeth of bleak appearances, nevertheless believe that the universe is somehow a cosmos and not a chaos?
What I don’t like—and why I don’t call myself a theist or atheist—is false confidence or a staged optimism. An honest accounting of the world as it appears must pass through both Auschwitz and the beauty of the rings of Saturn. I myself don’t know whether there’s some “telos” or “poetic justice” at the end of time, or whether all of this is just atoms and the void rustling about. And neither do you (and if you do, please share how you know this with the rest of us). But whatever the actual truth of the matter is, it is “wond’rous strange.”
I like this line (which I’m paraphrasing from memory) from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If matter came from mind, how strange a thing is that! But if mind came from matter, how much stranger still!”
And as a stranger, give it welcome.
That’s part of what agnosticism is for me: making room for the stranger.