Ron Rosenbaum separates the sheep from the asses with one question: why is there something rather than nothing?

In a recent Slate article, Ron Rosenbaum affirms his agnosticism against both theists and atheists, and offers atheists in particular a “show me the money” question: Rosenbaum wants atheists to write and tell him how it is that something came from nothing

It’s amazing how the New Atheists boastfully stride over this pons asinorum as if it weren’t there. You know about the pons asinorum, right? The so-called “bridge of asses” described by medieval scholars? Initially it referred to Euclid’s Fifth Theorem, the one in which geometry really gets difficult and the sheep are separated from the asses among students, and the asses can’t get across the bridge at all. Since then the phrase has been applied to any difficult theorem that the asses can’t comprehend. And when it comes to the question of why is there something rather than nothing, the “New Atheists” still can’t get their asses over the bridge, although many of them are too ignorant to realize that. This sort of ignorance, a condition called “anosognosia,” which my friend Errol Morris is exploring in depth on his New York Times blog, means you don’t know what you don’t know. Or you don’t know how stupid you are. In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

And Rosenbaum then quotes Huxley’s definition of agnosticism to insist that any atheist who cannot reasonably answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing ought simply—if he or she is being rational and honest—to declare for agnosticism and stop being so obnoxiously confident and boorish before so perplexing an ontological mystery. Here’s Huxley’s definition of the principle of agnosticism (as given by Rosenbaum):

This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.

This strikes me as straightforward enough. My own definition of agnosticism (and to which I self-identify) is this:

God is dead, or not talking.

In other words, God’s existence, to my mind, is opaque: if he exists there are no particularly good reasons for thinking that he does; and even if he does exist, he is certainly not sending humanity any text messages. This, to my mind, is the sensible agnostic position concerning the question of God: it looks bad for God’s existence, and, in any event, he is silent. This brand of agnosticism is completely consistent with Huxley’s prudent principle, which I offer again:

This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.

Following his quoting of Huxley, Rosenbaum then says this:

Huxley originally defined his agnosticism against the claims of religion, but it also applies to the claims of science in its know-it-all mode. I should point out that I accept all that science has proven with evidence and falsifiable hypotheses but don’t believe there is evidence or falsifiable certitude that science can prove or disprove everything. Agnosticism doesn’t contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranted untested or untestable certainties. Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism.

I think that Rosenbaum is on target here: both theism and atheism have the same problem: unwarranted confidence. In the face of real ontological mysteries, both offer promissory notes on the future without offering any really good warrants for believing their respective positions now. At some point, both the theist and the atheist are certain that they will be fully vindicated.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that atheism is probably correct: we likely live in a monistic universe (one world) and it reduces to physics and chemistry (atoms and void). Or, as I said earlier,

God is dead, or not talking.

But it is taking both clauses of this sentence seriously that separates the confidence atheist and the confidence theist from the agnostic: one (the atheist) puts a period after “God is dead,” and the other (the theist) flatly denies that God isn’t talking.

I, however, am with Huxley.

And Ron Rosenbaum.

To echo Huxley, I want the evidence that logically justifies the certainty. If God is dead, why is there something when there might have been nothing? And if God is talking, show me the evidence.

At the end of Rosenbaum’s article he offers a plea for a new movement:

The agnostic moment has come.

I agree. Any time is a good time for the application of critical thinking to confidently expressed claims.

Where do I sign up?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Ron Rosenbaum separates the sheep from the asses with one question: why is there something rather than nothing?

  1. I think you and Rosenbaum are confusing atheism with scientism. Atheism doesn’t offer anything except a counter-argument to theism. It is not synonymous with science, either. And neither atheists nor scientists are in the business of claiming they know what they do not (though I’m sure you could find some money quote to prove me wrong.) For a wider view of what contemporary atheists think about a variety of topics, see 50 Voices of Disbelief.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Atheism, whatever its pretensions to science, is a metaphysical position in excess of the empirical: we live in a monism that reduces to physics and chemistry. Or, to put it another way: there is one world, not two, and it has no telos underwriting its existence. To the degree that atheism exceeds the empirical, it is promissory—a promissory atheism. Like the religious fundamentalist who says that Jesus will return and vindicate his metaphysical position, the atheist looks to the future to vindicate his metaphysical position. It is not that science cannot have all the answers. It’s that science is not ameniable to settling metaphysical disputes, and the conflict between atheism and theism is, wherever science has not settled a question, a metaphysical dispute.

    For myself, I think that atheism is more likely right than wrong, but as long as mysteries abide (the origin of something from nothing, the laws of physics—as in, where they came from—the origin of life and of mind), I think that the sensible position is to avoid overconfidence one way or the other (that is, Huxlian agnosticism).

    At minimum, God is dead or not talking. As a practical matter, it leaves the atheist and the agnostic in the same room together: we both agree that fundamentalism is crazy, but what shall we do with ourselves now?

    An excess of confidence that God is dead (and not merely silent and opaque) may be conforting to the atheist—it’s always nice to feel settled about a question—but as long as there are open mysteries unresolved by science, then atheism must abide, with the rest of us, in the realm of metaphysics. For myself, I still think that some sort of Deism, some sort of telos preceeding the universe, is a rational option. And it saves free will, which I would very much like to believe that I have. I just think that a cautious agnosticism, in the face of genuine mysteries, is wiser than confidence atheism or confidence theism.

    I would liken our human existential dilemma (where are we, who are we?) to claims about Mars: some people think that there is life on Mars, and others don’t. Until we send the right kinds of probes to the planet, and do some more science, we really ought to be cautious about our conclusions (circa 2010). I think that the same goes for questions about the ultimate origin of the universe and of mind. Nobody knows what surprises are out there. To foreclose options early is a metaphysical position.


  3. Gato Precambriano says:

    Atheism,… is a metaphysical position in excess of the empirica

    As ANY frankin metaphysical position (assuming “atheism” as a metaphysical position just for the sake of the argument) as far as I know. So what?
    However, even that position of yours, that “atheism is a metaphysical position in excess of the emírical” is flat wrong as “atheism”, that is to answer ‘no’ to the question ‘does gos exist?’ is a position that goes as far as the empirical goes. Theism actually is the metaphysical position that is in excess of the empirical (what ever that means). You people keep cloflating both just to have some justification for your dogmatic agnosticism.
    As for the question “why there is something rather than nothing?”, here, here, and here there are some refletions about it.
    Otherwise, here, and here, there are some critical remarks on Rosenbaum’s piece itself.

  4. Robert Huckabee says:

    Rosenbaum is pretty much a chickenshit in my estimation for refuses to provide an email for feedback and dialogue or even have the guts to show up in the comments on his own slate columns to answer for his tripe. He gets his clock cleaned on his dumbass reasoning about atheism and such here:

    It’s clear there is no shortage of far better minds than Rosenbaum’s. Too bad his is taking up so much space at Slate.

  5. Santi: You repeat, “God is either dead or not talking.” Leaving aside the quibbling that arises from wondering whether or not God can talk or die, or what kind of God we are discussing (a deist God is my guess), wouldn’t it make much more sense to simply assume that God does not exist? You – and Rosenbaum – basically agree with this proposition. I’ll add that I think your and Rosenbaum’s quarrel with atheists is over tone (their chutzpah, one might say), not belief vs. unbelief. Be nicer, less snarky, more open to Big Questions, we are always hearing from the Radical Agnostics. But all you seem to offer up is delight in Mystery.

    • santitafarella says:


      You offer a fair critique, and I do agree with you that the dividing line between the atheist and the agnostic is over the issue of the nature of mystery. For the atheist, mystery is merely an unsolved problem; for the agnostic, mystery—the ontological mystery—may be genuinely mysterious, and with some telos behind it.

      Then again, the atheist may be right and it is just a problem. That’s what it means to be an agnostic: saying “I don’t know if the mystery is a mystery, or just a very complicated problem.”

      Perhaps it is my coming at life via the side of the humanities (as opposed to the sciences) that makes me want to keep the ontological mystery in play, however vague or deistic.

      And I think that the atheist substitute of wonder for mystery doesn’t quite work. It is a pale form of mystery, and probably not sufficient for integrating the psyche to the universe as a whole.

      I’m also sobered by the ancient Greek tragedians. They have had a long and lasting affect on me and the way I see the world. They are always at my inner ear when I get too arrogant about my views toward religion.

      I can’t help but accept the lesson of, for example, “Oedipus of Colonus” not to ignore the furies, and to give the furies their due (and a place in the life of Athens). The ontological mystery can have a candle lit to it, and a grove with a little altar built to it, without irrationality or all the fundamentalist literalism and superstition attached to it.

      There does, indeed, seem to be an ontological mystery—a mystery of being itself—and whether it is just a very complicated problem or a genuine mystery keeps life popping and interesting.

      I think that the sickness at the soul of atheism is hubris, the same problem that Oedipus has in “Oedipus the King”: it dominates or kills the mother, the sphinx, the maenads, the dionysian, and won’t burn a candle to them, and so arrests the very fecundity that the furies, for all their danger, bring.

      And religions, even the patriarchal religions, have taken over the defense of the ontological mother—the Sphinx. Every cathedral and temple in the world is a vagina to the ontological mystery. Atheism misses this song for its fundamentalist words, and literalist religious believers, also tone deaf, miss what the psyche is pointing toward. The result is that you have a crassness at the heart—a masculine desire to strip fecundity from the earth and pave it with perfect rationality (or, in the fundamentalist case, with biblical literalism). It’s drill baby drill applied to the psyche. This rationality, however, is not fecund. It’s ultimately dead, and chokes off the cycles of life. It is not in accord with wisdom. Neither atheism nor fundamentalist literalism is in accord with wisdom.

      In my view, the great tension in life is between the Prometheans—Oedipus, Orestes, Pentheus etc.—and the opaque mother Sphinx—the holder of the riddle of existence. Think of the art that depicts Oedipus before the Sphinx. Both sides have to be honored, for both have their price if they go unrespected. Fundamentalists are top heavy on the side of the Sphinx—and kill her by literalizing her—and atheist are heavy on the side of Oedipus—turning her mystery into a mere problem. But the Greeks, I think, had it right. Their tragedies are meditations on how to reach some sort of compromise and integration between these contending forces in the psyche and society. For me, agnosticism is where that difficult balance can at least be attempted.

      Visually, my argument is embodied in the film Baraka. Have you seen it? That film, to my mind, is an attempt to meditate on—to have an experience of—the ontological mystery. What is depicted in Baraka’s silence is what is literalized by fundamentalists and minimized by atheists.


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