I’m an agnostic, which for me means the following: I take it that there is only one way the cosmos actually is, and I don’t know what that one way is. There are a gazillion logically possible ways it could be, but that one needle in the haystack eludes me. I therefore can work with appearances and probabilities, and say a multitude of interesting things about both, but I cannot lay claims to certainty.
Catholicism down to its last detail, for example, has a tiny probability of being true, and I can notice things and make observations about it without saying, “I’ve got the final word on this subject.” Or perhaps we live in a multiverse, or the simulation of a computer. It may be that mind and matter came into existence simultaneously. I don’t know.
What I actually can know are two things. First, I can interact with appearances and make observations, noticing relations and guessing at probabilities. Second, I can appreciate that it takes variety to make an interesting world, and not just work with my confirmation biases. I can talk to diverse groups of people to keep me on my toes.
So thank goodness there are Thomists, hedonists, leftists, materialists, Randians, and Hindus in the world. Things would be less interesting, not more so, without them. Each has a niche and notices different things about existence, and somebody has to be committed to perspectives different from my own–and long for the promises that accompany them. Without variety in belief, there would be threads of existence that would never get explored. It’s part of the gambit of evolution to give people different temperaments, proclivities (to be selfish or cooperative), interests, and beliefs (which are always related to actions).
Evolution is ironic, but with regard to our individual beliefs, we rarely are. And that makes for a lively world. And the Internet connects us in unprecedented ways, so we can talk to one another.
But as an agnostic, when someone comes under the spell of a belief, most especially a metaphysical belief, and says, “I now see the one reality behind the appearances,” I’m inclined to hear occultism and wishful thinking. How did that person get the spiritual or intellectual Horton ears denied to me, and then manage to pull out the one genuine signal from all the cosmic noise, attaining the ultimate truth? How did they get utterly beneath the appearance of things to arrive at the spookiest and most wondrous place of all, the absolute Ground of Being? Why do they think they’ve achieved so stupendous a feat? Hmm.
So to me it’s occultism. I doubt that the true believers have Horton ears, nor do I think it at all likely that they have the final truth, but I still want to hear what they have to say. There’s something true out there, but I don’t think anybody knows what that one truth is, and if they do know, well, how do they think they know? In all likelihood, if they’ve got it, they’ve stumbled on the needle-in-the-haystack truth, but might lose or diminish it in the next sentence that expresses their thoughts.
And yet they might be expressing something useful and interesting. And until the truth comes along, that will do.
So better, I think, to acknowledge our existential situation (we’re limited beings in a vast and ancient cosmos), and work with that as best we can. We should maintain some humility in assertion, and keep Galileo’s telescope pointing into the sky, hoping for more clues. That seems to me the best we can do when we’re not possessed by the fever and urgency to be certain.
And yet, paradoxically, if you’re not certain, or you never feel the urgency to arrive at certainty, you might not have the energy to work out lines of thought, and the life paths that accompany them, to their logical conclusions. If you’re agnostic and ironic about everything, you might not discover the value of a path that might have held up admirably under pressure, and actually been quite useful (if not completely corresponding to the absolute truth).
So I don’t know if it’s a good thing to be an agnostic all the time. But that’s the sort of person I mostly am. I’m happy to tell others to pursue “whatever works,” but most everything on offer looks like a dead end to me (“nothing works”). And the more a person expresses certitude–atheist or theist, left or right–the more I think, “Confidence game.”
There is a scene from the horror flick, Jacob’s Ladder (1990), that has long haunted me. A man is fleeing his demons, and he has tried every means of warding them off that he can think of. He wears crosses around his neck, garlic, Shivas, etc, and as he continues to be chased he finally stops running and says, “Nothing works.”
That, I think, is what it means to be an agnostic. It’s a way of putting an end to the running. It’s having a deep and abiding suspicion that, whatever one does to quell the suffering, emptiness, and anxiety that accompanies human existence, nothing on offer really works all that well. It’s being content to let others try their experiments, and you’re interested in observing their outcomes, but as for you, you keep your own options open and your bullshit detector set pretty high.