Can Atheists and Agnostics Dispense with Metaphysics?

I don’t think so.

Human beings—atheist, agnostic, or otherwise—can never dispense with metaphysical questions because when we raise metaphysical questions we are speaking to questions about “ultimate reality.” What beliefs do we have about “ultimate reality”? Put another way: What propositions about “ultimate reality” do we accept as at least provisionally “true”?

Unfortunately, we are in a predicament—and it is one that no philosophical, religious, or scientific system can resolve for us—for all humans are embedded in the system that they are attempting to make ultimate statements about.

How do we get out of this embeddedness predicament? Answer: We don’t. So how can we know whether the system has a purpose or not? Answer: We can’t. But then what method can we use that will bring us, with certainty, to our unspecified destination? Answer: We have none.

You might say, “Well, you might not have one. But I’ve got a really good one! I’ve got this great method for setting us on the right path for discovering the questions about “ultimate reality.” You see, if we just do “x” we’ll get out of this maze that we are embedded in, and enter into the light! (You may wish to plug into “x” things like taking hikes in nature and listening to the voice of Mother Earth in the wind, or “the noble path” of Buddhism, or the “Roman road to salvation” in Protestant gospel tracts, or Hindu meditation, or the philosophical writings of Schopenhaur on the Will, or the Baconian methods of scientific induction.)

Whatever it is that we plug in, we then must practice its principles (perhaps with the assistance of a mentor or teacher) in the promise of achieving our ultimate goal: gnosis (knowledge) or the Great TOE (the theory of everything)—which we ain’t got yet.

To be an atheist (or agnostic) is to make some reasonable guesses about ultimate reality (metaphysics). We guess that the universe has either always been here, or made itself somehow. We guess that the universe has no purpose, and that our presense here is a contingent fact of the universe’s evolution. And we trust that the scientific method will bring us, in the future, to an ever greater knowledge concerning the material universe, and will somehow confirm, or at least lend some additional weight, to our current metaphysical assumptions.

But as the poet A.R. Ammons once wrote: “The universe has no floor / but we walk the floor.”

We are, by our very embeddedness in the universe, caught with both metaphysical and epistemic dilemmas of trying to pick ourselves up, as it were, by our own bootstraps. The wise move in such a situation (in my view) is the Socratic one: Stop pretending that you know things, and that you alone (or your group of like-minded individuals) see the nature of the whole clearly, and keep asking questions.

Or, as Stanley Fish so eloquently put it recently,

“The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.”

Aspiration within the conviction of frailty. This, in my view, is not just the proper religious stance, it is the proper stance of atheists and agnostics.

What, afterall, do we really know? There’s lots of black swans out there—and white rabbits:

When logic and. Pro-

Have. Fallen. Zom-

And the. White
Knight. Is talking


And the red. Queen’s.
On her. Head


What. The. Door-
Mouse. said.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Can Atheists and Agnostics Dispense with Metaphysics?

  1. waypangilo says:

    This is a weak supposition.
    1. The presentation had not established that metaphysics is one that is indispensable.
    2. That it is mandatory that metaphysics may only be explained through a religious perspective.
    3. That philosophy attested that metaphysics is one which is a speculation with precision.

    Failure to establish these would render the author’s intent a nugatory stand.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I wasn’t advocating mysticism for atheists and agnostics—only an acknowledgment that what we think we know, we may not, and that, being embedded in the system that we are describing, we are subject to some of the same types of “faith” moves as the, well, “faithful.”


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