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Agnosticism: I just don't know

Let's get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the "New Atheism" — the high-profile denunciations of religion in bestsellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens — I believe it's important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

It's time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as "a theism" — as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety. Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence — the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?", atheists have faith science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas.

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers, I found myself feeling more than anything unconvinced by certainties on either side. And feeling the need for solidarity and identity with other doubters. Thus my call for a revivified agnosticism. Our T-shirt will read: I just don't know. (I should probably say here that I still consider myself Jewish in everything but the believing in God part, which, I'll admit, others may take exception to.)

Let me make clear that I accept most of the New Atheist's criticism of religious bad behavior over the centuries, and of theology itself. I just don't accept turning science into a new religion until it can show it has all the answers, which it hasn't, and probably never will.

Atheists have no evidence — and certainly no proof! — that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved. And so atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Thomas Aquinas, who tried to prove by logic the possibility of creation ex nihilo (from nothing). His eventual explanation entailed a Supreme Being standing outside of time and space somehow endowing it with existence (and interfering once in a while) without explaining what caused this source of "uncaused causation" to be created in the first place.

Alas, agnostics still suffer from association with atheists by theists, and with theists by atheists. So let us be more precise about what agnostics are and aren't. The term agnostic was coined in 1869 by one of Darwin's most fervent followers, Thomas Henry Huxley, famously known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his defense of evolutionary theory. Here's how he defined his agnosticism:

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.

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 to dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

The courage to admit we don't know and may never know what we don't know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know. As Errol Morris put it in his epic multipart New York Times examination of anosognosia — not knowing what we don't know:

We have "the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily foresee that this would lead to unending unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here's where self-deception (and) anosognosia … step in. We wouldn't be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact."

Like I said, it's complicated. But the world has suffered enough from oversimplifications. The agnostic moment has come.

Agnosticism: I just don't know 07/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 11:56pm]
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