Why I’m an Agnostic (as Opposed to a Confidence Atheist or Confidence Theist)

I don’t think highly of confidence men, especially on matters of metaphysics. I’m not at all confident, for example, that everything can be reduced to physical causes, as the confidence atheist proclaims.

Maybe there are two worlds–a physical and a spiritual world, and that God exists–exactly as the confidence theist proposes.

I lean, probability-wise, toward the view that everything can be reduced to physical causes (80%), but I’m not sure. If you forced me to bet $100,000 dollars on it, I’d vote for the idea that we live in a strictly physical world.

The following analogy is one reason I’d offer for thinking that the world is, at bottom, material before it is mental: water emerges from H20 molecules, and it might be that mind emerges from clumps of neurons.

This analogy seems plausible to me. Very different microscopic constituents evoke large scale phenomena that are quite different from those constituents. Why couldn’t this be the case with neurons and the mind? Certainly, we know of no mind acting in the world absent neurons.

But this line of argumentation doesn’t make me a confidence atheist. Perhaps the analogy seems plausible to me largely because it’s simple, and I’ve just reached for a nearby availability heuristic, taking up the first and most readily graspable idea that came to my mind. Maybe my brain is wired in such a way that I can make these sorts of simple analogies, but I’m not really capable of grasping the complexity of the brain-mind issue.

And here’s the important point: it’s okay not to know. I’ve always liked Thoreau’s quoting in Walden of Confucius: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

I have other reasons for thinking mind might emerge from matter, and for thinking that God doesn’t exist (the Holocaust being an obvious problem for the God-exists thesis), but I also see good reasons for thinking otherwise (unvarying physical law is surprising on atheism, for example, as is mind in the material cosmos).

I like the scene–I believe it’s in Annie Hall–where Alvy “Max” Singer (the character Woody Allen plays in the film) asks his father whether he believes in God, and his father says, “I don’t know how my toaster works!”

So I don’t know if, at bottom, it’s really all just atoms and void. I want to know, but I realize that epistemic humility is wise here.

In the spirit of Alvy Singer’s dad, I’ll highlight a personal example: I’ve picked stocks I thought were reasonably good bets that went south, so I’m not at all confident on a question like how the brain relates to the mind, or whether God exists. I’ve known myself to be mistaken so very many times in my life. That has to be taken into account in my own present expressions of confidence. I need more evidence, I await the deliverances of scientists, and I continue to weigh the new arguments and evidence that come my way.

What more can I reasonably do?

One key here is to keep Galileo’s telescope active (metaphorically). There are people who reach a conclusion and never revisit it. They’ve brought, in other words, Galileo’s telescope down. They no longer think grayscale. They don’t ask themselves, “On a scale of 1-100, my confidence concerning x is what?” And they don’t ask two other key questions:

  • What new information might change my mind on this matter?
  • Are there any competing hypotheses that have anything going for them?

In short, confidence men become very entrenched in their commitments. They express 100% certainty to those who might inquire of them, and, without any apparent twinge of conscience, indulge in confirmation bias (counting the hits–but ignoring, making excuses for, or setting aside the misses–surrounding their pet theories).

I think it’s always an error to stop looking, thinking, and talking. It’s the way to self deception. Instead, using grayscale reasoning, we should apportion our beliefs to the evidence, keep Galileo’s telescope pointing, and stay in dialogue with those who disagree with us. Two heads are better than one, and two heads that disagree are better than two that agree.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Why I’m an Agnostic (as Opposed to a Confidence Atheist or Confidence Theist)

  1. laura says:

    Great post. Most people may be afraid to challenge their own beliefs. Have you noticed how many of us have stopped having conversations? instead, we have an exchange of pre-fabricated constructs, derived either from key personal experience (Did I tell you the time my doctor told me that the government wants us dead by 65?) or by structural opinions distilled from both media, social prompts and personal attitudes (it’s terrible what the right/left is doing to our government…Obama is…I don’t believe in getting free money/giving tax breaks to the rich). When these constructs are challenged by one person in the conversation, it becomes really ugly. Generally speaking, i don’t think that most people enjoy challenging their own minds.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Laura,

      I agree that most are uncomfortable with reconsidering beliefs that already please them. I’m in that same boat. But that’s the work, isn’t it?

  2. Tim Addey says:

    An interesting post, but what makes you think that the world is material before its mental? Every theory of cosmology (as far as I know) posits immaterial laws before the emergence of material structure: therefore the objects of intellect are prior to the objects of sense. The Platonic tradition – the starting point of western science – suggests that exploring immaterial reality is just as important as studying material reality if you want to get to the truth. A Platonic dialogue may have greater resolution than any telescope currently available!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Tim,

      Your point is taken. Do you have a book (the more academic, the better) that you recommend that makes your general argument or point? I think of a saying in the Gospel of Thomas: “If matter comes from mind, it is a wonder. If mind comes from matter, it is a greater wonder.” I’m quoting from memory, but that’s the gist of it.

      I think my materialism is born somewhat of my temperamental pessimism. I just doubt that we could be so lucky as to have a purposeful intelligence looking after us. And the Holocaust doesn’t help one to think “all is for the best.”

  3. John Roper says:

    Good thoughts – I have spent a significant portion of my life on both sides of the fence. In the end it was a mystical experience that was the real tipping point. I do realize that such a personal experience can’t be considered as persuasive from a logical argument point of view, but the difference in the quality of my life after the fact is such that it becomes unarguable – at least in my own interior being. That said, it is the complete lack of satisfaction or nurture to one’s soul that a purely physical world can provide that I believe is a valid observation, albeit only an inductive argument. There simply seems no reason to believe that our needs for love, meaning, purpose, beauty, etc… could arise from a universe that has no such thing in it. To reword: if the only purpose of our existence is to replicate hydrocarbon chains, algae is much more efficient at that purpose than we are. In the end I could not find joy in the universe of the God of vapid materialism. So if we are honest, the fact is that there really aren’t any absolute compelling arguments (although there are some really good ones on either side), so in the end it seems to come down to what we choose to believe rather than what reality forces us to believe. Be Blessed.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      John,

      I agree with your surmise of the situation, and of course, I’d love to have a mystical experience that gave me a glimpse into the other side. I do think religion can be enormously helpful to the psychological balance of some people (perhaps the majority of people). But I am a sobered and broken being. When you hear from me, it’s like hearing the moon talk. Time has gone on wearing me down after an early trauma (I lost my mom to leukemia when I was five years old). The moon also had its early trauma in formation, the product of a violent collision, then a long encounter with time, cooling it to gray. I just don’t see (as you do) any fix for the trauma of existence. So, like Camus, I have to ask how I can go on living in a world where God and Nature don’t talk (at least to me). I have reasons–my own kids being among them–and I can also see where those reasons could run out. No deus ex machina for me.

  4. Tim Addey says:

    Hi Santi

    A good place to start is The Eternal Law from John H Spencer – a book that is really a reworked PhD thesis that was examined jointly (if my memory is correct) by the philosophy and theoretical physics departments of Liverpool University.

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