What Does It Mean To Be An Agnostic?

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to What Does It Mean To Be An Agnostic?

  1. Bob Shepherd says:

    It’s clear enough to us, when we look at the cognitive and perceptual abilities of, say, a tick, that this creature doesn’t have access to a lot of what’s going on. A tick can neither smell nor see, for example. Well, we are no different from ticks in this regard. Why should we be? All animals, ourselves included, have direct access to only a tiny portion of what’s there, and that access takes the form of a simplified interface in consciousness that happened to be useful to our primitive ancestors. In other words, as Donald Hoffman puts it, reality probably bears about as much relation to what we perceive as the internal operations of your computer do to the file folders, trash cans, and other icons of your computer’s graphical user interface. There is no docs folder inside your computer. That folder is a convenient (useful) fiction masking a completely other reality. By building prostheses, we enable ourselves to have access to other icons–suddenly, we have access to other parts of this thing we’ve called the electromagnetic spectrum, for example. But those are also just icons, generated by an altered cognitive/perceptual apparatus and operating system.

  2. Mikels Skele says:

    Well said, although I do detect a bit of vacillation with regard to the value of what we may call “certaintists.” Is what you’re saying that it is possible to regard any given certaintist as utterly deluded, while at the same time appreciate the value of them as a whole? If you are philosophically committed to agnosticism, that is, that it is impossible *in principle* to know true reality, then the value of exploring all of the options becomes mere entertainment. I say “mere” advisedly, aware that entertainment can result in profound insights. Anyway, this is just a quibble; well done!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hmm. Yes, I think deluded people often have interesting things to say. They tend to have a few things right even if their general conclusion is batshit crazy. I’ve learned a lot from deluded people. They notice things that are blind spots for people committed to more conservative or saner hypotheses.

      I like Stephen Hawking’s notion, expressed in his Grand Design book, of “model dependent realism,” and I also like the analogy with computers and reality that Bob Shepherd shares in this thread immediately above.

      I think, as evolved animals, we overlay reality with models that are useful to us in some way, and when we’re doing science, and achieving high levels of predictive power, we’re certainly in the ballpark of that needle in a haystack (truth).

      But given that the truth beneath appearances looks to be elusive and complicated, I think the goal of speech (ideally) should be: say things useful and interesting, and try very, very hard to never be BORING.

      I love this, for example. Lionel Abel, contributor to Partisan Review, in an interview from the mid-1990s, said this about the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky: “He had a literary verve which was unmistakable. He was a great journalist. And the intellectual power of his criticism of the Stalin regime . . . [is] accepted nowadays as justified, that he was right. But we didn’t know he was right. We knew he was interesting. And, in a way, if you lived in the Village [Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1930s], what was interesting was right. Certainly, the uninteresting was wrong. I’m not willing to altogether give that up, even today.”

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Bad ideas also function as a foil for good ideas. If something is a bad idea or belief, what makes it so? What makes for a better idea or belief?

      • Mikels Skele says:

        What do “good” or “better” mean in the context of committed agnosticism?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I think, because agnosticism is basically a commitment to ongoing critical thinking and probabalistic forms of reasoning, that good and better ideas are those committed to critical procedures of investigation (empiricism, Occam’s razor, Bayes’ Rule, etc.), thereby apportioning belief to the evidence. You don’t really know what you’re warranted in being agnostic about until you’ve engaged in some investigation surrounding a matter.

        An example of a bad idea would be epistemic closure (listening only to the side you’re inclined to believe), and a good idea would be to actively seek alternative explanations to your favored hypothesis.

  3. Johnboy says:

    Reality is far too ambiguous for us and far too ambivalent toward us for us to imagine we could draw any coercively compelling inferences regarding the precise nature of its primal origins. Metaphysics can be a great way to probe reality but is not a reliable way to prove reality.

    Human authenticity, in my view, realizes that we are radically finite and horizon-situated. For any given encounter of reality, 1) intellectually, one expects there’s more to be known beyond my thoughts about this event 2) affectively, one suspects one’s feelings haven’t fully evaluated it 3) morally and practically, one suspects more good might be extracted beyond one’s view 4) socially, one opens oneself to wider circles of relationships and perspectives 5) religiously, one celebrates, beyond any orthodoxy, that there are manifold and multiform ways to celebrate love, polydoxically, thereby sustaining authenticity. There’s a certain experience of poverty and humility that inheres in this horizon-situated orientation, a disposition of openness, a surrender to mystery.

    Human authenticity realizes life’s highest values – like truth, beauty, goodness, unity and freedom – in abundance. A lack thereof frustrates those value-realizations.

    • Johnboy says:

      How openness came to be epistemic virtue (maybe?) Not sure I can express this accessibly, but I’ll try.

      If we associate these intellectual, affective, moral and social encounters as a hermeneutical spiral, whereby we describe, evaluate, norm and interpret reality, turning to evolutionary epistemology, we can see how these faculties are instinctually hard-wired, closed-circuited and algorithmic in the way organisms
      model and respond to their environment.

      What might happen if such organisms, still hard-wired, emerged with short-circuits,
      where various sensations, perceptions, emotions, motivations, learning and/or got confused, faulty, erroneous, where its experience of reality became, in varying degrees, mistaken?

      That would change the equation, Organism X Environment = Behavior, where E1, E2, E3 represent verisimilitudes of reality? O X E1 X E2 = delta (changed) Behavior

      From the standpoint of adaptive
      significance, this “enhanced” behavioral repertoire, this “versatility” of response, this plasticicity of behavior would not likely be successful. It would be an evolutionary dead-end. Evolution’s not wholly constrained by regularities, however, precisely “exploiting” irregularities. That’s exactly what I propose marked the dawn of consciousness, the open-ended processor of the human brain (more correctly, distributed nervous system).

      As a still hard-wired but modestly open-ended processor, the circuits of which are variously shorted, the enhanced behavioral repertoire, versatility and plasticity added what we experience as abductive possibilities (E1, E2, Eetc). Prior to these “mistakes,” organisms experienced only the rough equivalents of induction (experiences) and deduction (memories = regularities).

      What set H. sapiens apart, then,
      was that closed-loop, inductive-
      deductive algorithms became irreducibly triadic, its epistemic suite modeling – not only actualities and necessities, but –
      possibilities. Why might nonalgorithmic processing be successful? If reality’s regularities present moreso as probabilities than as necessities, then any incremental versatility and plasticity in the organism’s repertoire would enjoy adaptive significance.

      Hence, openness becomes the hallmark of the authentically

      Complexity emerged all the way up our phylogenetic ladder. It took something of a quantum leap with the emergence of consciousness. In both cases, “mistakes” were exploited to enhance the texture of experience.

      This is why a cascade of metaphors in storytelling, why nonliteral signs, those “mistakes” we call symbols, can work to bring us closer to reality. They
      can also take us on fanciful flights from reality. Hence we’ve developed rubrics like rules of evidence, burdens of proof and axiological epistemology.

      Thus the instinctual spiral of descriptive, evaluative, normative and interpretive faculties would, in our species, transcend its own reality, with a reflexive consciousness that could symbolize it-SELF.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I like your first response above. You said it nicely. The longer second response is a bit hard for me to follow. In any case, I think you’re hitting on the fact that we’re all contingent beings.

      I wonder if you buy Rorty’s pragmatic argument that we’re never out of touch with reality because, in fact, every human response to reality is a tool for interacting with that reality. It serves a purpose; it’s a strategy for dealing with reality. Obviously, some strategies achieve goals better than others, and strategies in competition will result in winners and losers. For example, we stopped talking about Nature in Newton’s language when Einstein’s language became available, etc.

      Rorty is not enamored of the appearance-reality distinction. He’s more interested in asking, “What work is this or that human tool achieving upon reality?”

      In other words (if I read Rorty correctly), he’s suggesting that any language we overlay on reality to interact with it achieves a purpose. It gets work done (so it must be in relational contact with “the real” at some level). The language or tool put to use on reality doesn’t have to reach reality “as it really is” in an ahistorical sense, it just has to achieve something. I find Rorty’s argument convincing (again, insofar as I think I’ve summarized it correctly).

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