Decisive Agnosticism

Last week I went a few comment rounds over on the Moment Matters blog under the Breaking Prejudice on Atheists post. The post’s lead topic—that a study showed that atheists are just as caring as theists—doesn’t surprise me at all. Atheists, after all, believe that all meaning in life comes from within and that the universe is a cold, empty, uncaring vastness dotted with little sparks of life here and there.

Now, I’ve always found fanatical atheists to be just as annoying—just as wrong (in my view, obviously)—as fanatical theists. If you are incapable of acknowledging that your worldview is not factually based and therefore could be incorrect, I basically consider you to be… well, insane. That is to say that the reality inside your head does not correlate accurately with the external reality.

But what I wanted to write about today was the idea that agnostics are indecisive. As an agnostic with spiritual leanings, I think that is bullshit.

Another lazy agnostic!

What set things off was a comment that “an agnostic is nothing more than a lazy atheist.” I’m an agnostic who has spent decades pondering the question of god, so I know that to be a false statement. Naturally I spoke up (to those of you who are beginning to know me, that hardly need be said).

One thing that’s interesting to me about the idea that agnostics are indecisive or lazy is that I’ve heard the same line regarding bisexuals. (And I just know that adding “bisexual” to the tag list is going to result in some really ill spam from the spam turds.)

Ever since high school, I’ve thought bisexuals were the smart ones. They have double the chances for sex and love! Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have the knack for it. As far as I can tell, I’m about as straight as they come (no pun intended, but ha ha, wink, smirk).

I’ve always taken the Frost poem as a life map, and the people who tend to interest me most are those whose life path is also less traveled. I’m (sometimes painfully) aware that I live on the fringe, and I’ve found others who live outside the mainstream more compatible, more understanding.

The point is, my bisexual friends have told me about how they get crap from both sides, how they are considered indecisive, on the fence. I think it may boil down to some straights finding them as threatening as they seem to find gay people, and some gays finding them “unsupportive” of the “cause.” While I find the first position stupid, I can at least grok the second one.

One reality here is that human behavior doesn’t pigeon-hole neatly. We vary not only in the mixture of our feelings, but over time as well. The infamous Kinsey Report graded sexuality on a seven-point scale, with only the first and last categories being exclusively straight or gay. The other five categories involve a mixture. Only the middle of the seven is truly bisexual.

Now, first of all, I suspect religious belief verses non-belief operates on a similar “grayscale” where only the end categories contain the ones who see only black or white. Those in the middle see some shade of grey.

X,Y marks the spot!

There is a key difference however! Back in the early days of this blog I wrote about Vector Thinking. Briefly, it’s a way to avoid thinking in terms of the push-pull of opposing positions. It’s a way to avoid being caught in the middle where it seems like one has no opinion. Or is indecisive. When you get off the number line and into two-dimensions, you can chart your opinion as two numbers: each representing your opinion on a single thing.

I first began using that concept when talking to my gay and bi friends, and in particular began using it as a way of showing how bisexuals were not at all indecisive. They could feel strongly on both the homo- and hetro- axes. (I hope to return to the topic of Vector Thinking in the near future.)

The key difference is that religious belief (or the lack thereof) is not a two-dimensional space. It is a true linear scale. To some degree, it is the presence of something (belief one way or the other) or its lack. In my early Yin and Yang post, I spoke about how some opposites are true opposites while others are “cup” opposites where the cup is empty or full (or half-full/half-empty). As you’ll see, belief forms a true opposite pair.

As I wrote in my initial comment to that blog post on Moment Matters, “I tend to view it as a circle (rather than a line). It wraps around such that devout atheists and devout theists seem equally off-base to me. I consider them both deep into (possibly misplaced) Faith in their worldview.”

This idea of a line being a circle that wraps around applies to political left and right as well. Political moderates and agnostics occupy the lower part, the middle of the line. Both sides wrap up and around until they almost meet at the top. The point being that both extremes, while very different in some regards, share being at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

And while I suspect that political left and right are actually two separate vectors, religious belief is not. It’s a bit like electrical charge in that there is positive electric charge (such as protons have) and there is negative electric charge (such as electrons have). There is also, of course, a complete lack of charge (such as with neutrons and neutrinostotally different particles, by the way).

[This, by the way, is different from electrical current, which is composed of electron flow. The positive pole on a battery is actually a lack of electrons and not a true positive charge. I mention this for those who’ve studied electronics, especially solid-state electronics with its hole-flow. Protons (their constituent quarks, actually) have true positive charge.)]

Believers have, shall we say, a positive charge, and non-believers therefore have a negative charge. Believers say yes; non-believers say no. Agnostics have no charge; they are neutral; they say the matter is undecided. As with sub-atomic particles, all three are valid positions as far as world views go.

And in a similar sense to my regard for bisexuals, I think agnosticism is the most valid intellectual position. One can certainly lean religious or lean atheist; one can even lean quite far in either direction (think of Kinsey’s seven-point scale). But to claim the matter—one way or the other—is certain is factually incorrect.

Stephen Hawking may have claimed that science has shown there is no place for god, but Hawking has (in my opinion) put his foot in his mouth more than once. Brilliance in one area doesn’t necessarily translate to brilliance in another. It’s just plain dumb at this point in our scientific understanding to make such claims with any certainty.

Science still hasn’t figured out some very basic things (such as exactly what those electrons and other particles I mentioned actually are). And in any event, any god that may exist certainly transcends physical reality, so science just doesn’t have much to say in the matter. (Although there are a couple of caveats to that. See previous articles.)

My bottom line is simply this: Strong Atheism is wrong, there is more to all this than just this. Yes, that’s an article of faith for me. Call it irrational if you must. Equally, I find that Strong Theism is wrong. I do not believe in a god that participates actively in our daily lives. (Although, to be honest, I do sometimes wonder. I have personal experience with things that could be coincidence or could be a case of being watched out for. Such experiences inform my tendency to lean towards belief.)

Note that there is a milder form of belief, called Deism. Deists believe in a god who created the universe, but not in a Daily Hand. Deists believe prayers are not answered, although they can serve as a form of meditation. I find I can accept Deism much more easily than Theism.

Namaste!

Mohandas Gandhi once wrote, “I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them.

He also wrote, “Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different road, so long as we reach the same goal.

And finally, “In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals.

Smart man, that Gandhi. If you want to know the nature of my belief, that sums it up pretty well. There are many paths up the mountain. I’m not sure if the mountain is one we’ve made ourselves or if it’s part of the universe or put there by whatever willed all this into being.

But I do know it’s a mountain worth climbing.

Let’s go fishing!!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

22 responses to “Decisive Agnosticism

  • thesauros

    “an agnostic is nothing more than a lazy atheist.”
    Or, an atheist is nothing more than an irrational agnostic.

  • Dan Bain

    Loving the term “spam turds” and the Trek ichthys. I never thought about it before, but it sounds like agnosticism doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with either atheism or theism. There’s overlap possible in the way you and Wikipedia define them, which means I might possibly have found the spot where I belong. So, thanks!

    This is really well-written and -reasoned, btw.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you, Dan, that’s nice to hear! I’ve found the world more analog than digital; there seem always to be shades of gray between abstract poles. We need to poles to name the ideas and discuss them, but I find most people actually live between the poles. (Such as is true for people living on the Earth.)

      Finding the language and metaphors to diagram ones life is a joyful thing! I’m flattered if I helped in some way.

  • Tim Fox

    Isn’t this just another take on distinguishing ignorance and apathy? An agnostic isn’t lazy, they just don’t care because they don’t see the need to commit to either side. And the folks on either end of the spectrum make their decision in ignorance, based on faith rather than actual knowledge.
    So how do you value one over the other?

    Couple thoughts…..
    1. If you consider Gandhi’s position that all religions are converging on the same point, you have to ask ‘what is that point?’. My sense is that the conclusion they all point to is that there is something bigger than us that makes this particular existence meaningful. But that is not actually the destination, just a way-point they have in common. From there they diverge on how to define the relationship between us as individuals and that something bigger. How that relationship is characterized within the respective religions is a key differentiator….
    2. I happen to believe that there is more than sufficient evidence in the world around us of a supernatural being. So then we have to turn to the question of this being’s involvement in our daily life. I believe it is true on a logical level, if for no other reason that the world runs on the rules established by the Creator and each of our lives is bound by those rules. But I also believe he is willing to participate intimately in our lives, but because we have the gift of free will we need to be willing to give up our control and let him. We are not mass produced – we are each an individual hand-crafted by the creator so of course he wants us to operate at our peak. And so he makes himself known to us in both general and specific ways. The million dollar question determines which way you turn once you reach the way-point – how are you going to respond to the presence of God?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I see what you’re saying. The terms “ignorance” and “apathy” carry pejorative connotations I’d rather avoid. The literal definition of ignorance is actually benign—we’re all ignorant of far more than not—but I’m not sure if most people internalize it thus. Apathy seems even worse; pathological!

      Certainly in my case, I don’t feel apathetic; I do care, but the lack of strong supportive evidence is a big part of my total picture. Believers on either side place less weight on that lack; they take the evidence they perceive on faith. (Which I think is a canonical definition of a believer.)

      What’s interesting is that, when I consider it as I think you mean it—that believers decide in ignorance of the reality—I find that I apply a fine shade of semantic to “ignorance” that would cause me not use it in this context. Somehow, and I can’t quite explain this, to not know the answer to a question you are asking isn’t ignorance (although in definition of the term, it is). I seem to reserve it for contexts where you aren’t even aware of the question.

      I think this goes along with my recognition of the pejorative flavor of the common usage. I perceive asking questions as good, and you obviously don’t know the answer to a question you ask. Even when the answer is unavailable (at least for now), I’m reluctant to hang any label with a negative flavor. [Interesting little twitch your idea surfaced! This is why I’ve always cherished our conversations!]

      To answer your value question, that’s a personal evaluation. I believe, as the Gandhi quote says, each of us makes that evaluation a bit differently. For me, for instance, the not knowing has a high weight.

      Your 1: Yes, I agree completely! They all have in common the sense that how you live your life matters in some bigger picture. And I think they share a similar moral orientation.

      Atheists can also hold that how you live your life matters and can have “good” morals, but for them the outcomes are local.

      Your 2: We diverge here. While I see evidence that could indicate a metaphysics, I don’t find it compelling enough to engender belief. Whether the universe was willed, whether that will is still around, and whether it has presence in our lives, I see as three very separate questions. I find Theism the hardest to swallow, so my response to the idea is highly provisional.

      Within the context of your view, do you think it’s free will that is surrendered? If someone asked me to define the Christian faith in the most general, inclusive way, I would reply it’s based on two thing: love and surrendering to faith. I think what you give up is accepting a worldview you can never prove.

      A huge problem I have is that, if there is a god that is present daily and cares for us, he seems pretty distant from the bad that befalls some of his most faithful, genuine followers. I have a hard time believing in such a god.

      • Tim

        Yes, you make a good point about terms. I didn’t consider the pejorative shadings of the terms. I think you picked up on the point I was trying to make, though, in that it is a choice between (1) whether you allow faith to inform your knowledge, knowledge to hold your faith in check (your two extremes) , and (2) whether you try to hold your faith in one hand and knowledge in the other and try to keep them balanced but independent. It interesting that you resist thinking of either extreme as a negative choice – do you think that is a characteristic of agnostics in general or your openness to consider alternatives to the one you have settled on for now?
        I agree with your three separate questions as being distinct and important in themselves. But are they independent or is it a linear dependency? I think it is linear, where they are hung together on the question of “why”. The answer to the “why” question is another differentiator between belief systems, I think.
        I don’t think it is free will that we surrender, but rather that by our free will we make the choice to surrender. So we do not give up control, we just make the choice to take direction from someone outside ourselves. The Christian life then is a constant learning to trust God’s direction and keep our hands off the wheel. I think your definition of Christianity is pretty good. Because of the evidence of God’s love we have the seeds to grow our faith. Its not easy and we’re not perfect, but it is the intention that allows you to experience the love and develop the faith.
        Dealing with the ugly part of life is tough and it is hard to see people who seem to be deeply faithful suffer. But the world is a broken place and the side effects of that brokenness are ugly and painful. But as a Christian I believe this is a necessary part of the process for us to recognize we are not in control and need something outside ourselves. If you read the book of James you will see it teaches that trials are necessary to show us the evidence that faith requires to grow. But the first thing to learn is surrender – it is not about us. When we put our focus on God and his perspective then the rest starts to come together….

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Interesting question. I think I see your 1b and 2 as being essentially the same thing. I think it’s a logic error to let faith inform knowledge (the 1a clause). I’d say I see knowledge and faith as a Yin/Yang aspect of life, opposing pairs. They balance each other; what we know keeps what we believe from going too far off the deep end.

        I mistrust faith and belief, because I’ve seen them run seriously awry too often. On the flip side, I think knowledge alone can also be dangerous without some sort of metaphysics to counter-balance it (I’m thinking a-bombs and genetic research, for e.g.).

        As to your question about openness, I suspect agnostics are perhaps more open-minded in general than those with a more gnostic approach. It’s easier to consider different options if you haven’t already decided on one.

        The three questions are definitely linear in the sense that they build on a progressive world view. If you don’t believe any metaphysical reality exists, then clearly there’s no point in asking about metaphysical beings. And absolutely they are key differentiators among major metaphysical views. That, in fact, is their purpose: sorting viewpoints into very different bins (a bit like the sorting hat in Harry Potter).

        On the matter of suffering, I just find too large a gulf between the idea of a daily guiding hand of a god who is said to love us so much and the way the world visibly operates. The explanations of “god’s mysterious plan” or “necessary trials” or any of the other explanations I’ve heard over the years just don’t satisfy me. (And I know many Christians who struggle with them. A lot.)

        That gap prevents me from accepting a religion with a Theist dogma (let alone a fundamentalist one). I just don’t buy it. I can buy the possibility of a god who is a lot more distant, especially one who put the universe in motion and then stood back to see what happens.

      • Tim

        I think all knowledge is based on at least a kernal of faith, a starting assumption of some “truth”. Is there anything we know or can know that absolutely true?

        Regarding the challenge of resolving the presence of suffering with the idea of a loving God. I agree that it is a big challenge for Christians and non-Christians alike. I’m sure I can’t do the apologetics justice – I recommend you read C.S. Lewis’ “Problem of Pain”. He speaks directly to that dimension of faith.

        When you consider the concepts of faith and the nature of a supreme being, on what do you center your perspective? Are your perceptions established in terms of who/what you are? Have you considered defining ‘self’ from the perspective of a higher-order creator? Think of how children go through the process of understanding the world around them, slowly moving from ‘I’ to ‘we’. Isn’t there a parallel metaphysical maturation process? I believe that is reflected in the scripture (I Corinthians 13) that talks about putting aay childish things. So, can you change the question from “what is God’s role in our world” to “what is our role in God’s world”?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Very true. There is only one fact which any of us can know with certainty. That’s expressed in Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum, that we only know for sure that we exist. (That was the subject of my third post on this blog, and even touched on in my first.)

        In the field of epistemology (the study of knowledge, what it is, how we can have it), “knowing” has a special meaning embodied in the term “justified true belief.” As you say, once you go beyond Descartes, some element of faith is required. All our physical knowledge is based on our faith that the external physical world is real and consistent. We base our knowledge on that consistency. The canonical example is that we “know” the sun will rise in the morning. How? In part, simply because it has done so every morning as far back as written history goes. Times when it apparently doesn’t rise have explanations (eclipses, heavy clouds, volcano eruptions, etc.). Our certainty increases as we explore space and see the solar system dynamics which explain why the sun rises.

        This gives us grounds for “knowing” the sun will rise. The fact appears to be true, we are justified (by history, by consistency, by orbital dynamics) in thinking that fact is true, and we believe in the history, consistency and science. Thus we have “justified true belief” that the sun will rise. Such knowledge may not be absolute (I could be a brain in a jar being fed false sensory information), but it is well-grounded.

        I’ve always had some interest in C.S. Lewis (it’s never quite risen to the level of knocking other interests out of line, so it’s remained a “someday” thing). I did do some poking around, and found some essays on The Problem of Pain (apparently it’s also good to read a second work, A Grief Observed, along with it).

        As far as perspective, that embodies assumptions about the nature of reality that I’m not willing to accept, particularly when my logical analysis finds so little grounding for them. As I think you know, I come from a Theistic background (dad was a Lutheran minister), swung hard-core Atheist during high school, and found a comfortable middle as I began to consider science, philosophy and theology more seriously. If I had to apply a label to myself, it would be Agnostic Deist. I find Theism a hard pill to swallow. I went through a period of re-awakened theistic belief quite a few years back, but it didn’t hold. Natural disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis, that kill thousands of innocents are hard for me to reconcile with a loving, daily present god.

  • Lady from Manila

    Agnostics exist maybe because they don’t know what to believe anymore. And then there are those who are simply scared to be labeled as atheist so they end up hovering in the middle of atheism and agnosticism.

    I’ve witnessed the reality of death of both humans and animals and it has only convinced me that our existence is nothing more than biological science. Still, there is this continuous longing in me to believe in God (although I am not religious in any real manner). I think it principally manifests of our human need to look up to a Higher Power – especially of a God that will serve a purpose; the need of a useful God by most people. That is how our creative minds were able to come up with different kinds of religion that somehow shape God in a more definitive form.

    I hope you don’t mind me going off on a tangent, but I’ve got a different perspective on the subject of bisexuality. For me, sexuality is a black and white matter in that I couldn’t go out with a guy who can “share a bed” with his co-gender. It’s either he likes women exclusively or not. Just to make things very simple. 🙂

    Your blog seems to advocate freedom of thought and expression which makes it all the more exciting, WS.

    I hope you are doing well.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m sure you’re right that those reasons drive people into agnosticism. Those reasons and myriad others, no doubt! For me it’s mainly finding gnosticism a real challenge on either side. I instinctively reject certainty on big, complex problems regardless of topic, and all the more so when it comes to the nature of existence itself.

      I’m very curious: what is it about death that convinces you our existence is merely biology? (I ask not in challenge, but to discover your view.) The question of “mechanism” is, I think, one of the greatest there is. How much of life is fully explained by science? And how much of that explanation is fully mechanistic? Are we just super-complex clock mechanisms, wound up at birth to run down throughout the course of our lives? Were our destinies cast in cosmic stone long before we were even born? That’s one extreme, the clockwork universe.

      Either there is something more than that, and just as you say, we yearn for purpose and meaning. A universe that “just is” seems somehow pointless. All the more so when one compares a single human lifespan to the whole of human civilization and then compares the whole of human civilization to the whole of life on Earth. (Let alone the Earth’s whole 4.5+ billion year existence (or the universe’s 13.8 billion).) It’s easy to get lost in all that vastness of space and time and to very much want it to all mean something.

      It’s no surprise we create God. It’s no surprise that would be almost inevitable. But there are a few things that leave the door open (at least for me). Something came first or somehow always was. Science has one explanation, religions have various explanations. No doubt that science has it mostly right, more than religions. But we know science is incomplete, and we know our two greatest theories (Quantum Physics and Relativity) conflict, so far irreconcilably. I can’t help but think the real answer lies somewhere between science and religion (albeit, no doubt closer to science).

      [I do go on… but I enjoy our conversations! Changing topic to…] Bisexuals were a key part of the article, so not really a tangent at all. (Although I suppose talking about preferences is a bit of a tangent. (But once you come to know me, you’ll see that I revel in tangents! (Although I’m not real big on tangerines. They’re okay, I guess. (I do rather like parentheses (especially nested ones), as you may have noticed!))))

      [Where was I?] Oh, right, so you only go for straight guys. If you mean that in the most literal sense (and if Kinsey was right), that limits you to 1/7 of men (just 1/14 of the total population). If you just mean guys who actually act on same-sex feelings, then your available pool is much larger… The number would depend on whether you include or exclude guys who’ve just experimented. (I turned down the only offer that ever did come my way… I just can’t imagine it with another guy. But I don’t have any objections to women who are bi… If I’m in a monogamous relationship, it doesn’t matter so much who you’re not having sex with so much as the not having sex with in the first place! :))

      But simplicity is good! Sex can get very complicated.

      Absolutely big on freedom of thought and expression around here, you betcha!

      • Lady from Manila

        Thank you for your insightful responses and at the same time for being tolerant with me. You’ve made me feel I could trust you with my thoughts, no matter how unconventional or unsophisticated they are.

        The way a human dies doesn’t differ much from the way an animal dies. My belief is we spring into existence mainly through biological causes – then we return, in the end, to mere dust. And what is this thing about souls? Does “soul” really even exist?
        We, as humans, have had this unending need trying to calibrate the supposed misaligned universe to work in our favor. We’d even go as far as conquering death under the sanctuary of our religious faith by conceiving of non-existing concepts such as life after death.
        I believe you’re thoroughly fair, though, in your assertion that there are still many more out there outside our comprehension, and which are beyond any explanation. Was it Carl Sagan who said, “The GOD (good old diversion) theory works for most who are too afraid to venture way past what their minds can process.”

        Please note that my use of potent words here doesn’t reflect any strong atheist doctrine of mine. My beliefs are continually evolving, and my uncertainty (plus confusion) in all this remains.

        On another note, I’m somewhat relieved to learn you turned down an offer for a chance to “experiment sexually” in your past. In my book: once a man sleeps with another guy, his cuteness factor diminishes. I could only swoon for men who (exclusively) like women. 🙂

        It feels good to be able to air my views here. Thank you very much, Wyrd. I owe you a lot. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        From a scientific perspective souls seem problematic. By definition, IF they exist, they must have some form of existence. But what is that form, which is apparently entirely non-material and which—so far—we can find no way to measure?

        The caveat—so far—is important. Our knowledge may progress towards a soul-free material understanding of reality, or it may find ways to comprehend non-material properties. Our consciousness, our minds, also seems distinct from our brains. What is this non-material thing, consciousness? Why do we experience anything?

        In my thinking, these two may be connected. You’re right, we’re very much like animals in our physical existence, but we also seem to be across a huge gap from them mentally. Surely animals are conscious and intelligent and experience things; anyone who’s worked with them knows this. But humans have language and music and art. More importantly, humans ask, “Why?”

        What is it that our consciousness so much richer than theirs? A soul? Maybe. It’s a theory.

        Is it possible that there is purpose in the universe, and that tiny, tiny living sparks within that vast universe are imbued with the potential to fulfill that purpose? Seems preposterous. But so is quantum physics.

        I have no idea what the reality is. I choose to believe there might be a point to the universe and that I might be a part of that purpose. I may be completely wrong; some days I’m sure I am. I accept that it’s even likely that I’m wrong (for exactly the reasons you detail). But believing this is all just machinery is boring. I like my version better.

        And taking a sharp left turn from the abstract to the physical, I find fascinating your feelings about men who’ve crossed the line (shall we say). It’s not uncommon to find people with strong aversions to crossing the line themselves, but I think you’re the first who would blackball someone even for just experimenting. (What can I say; I love finding out new things about the human race, and sex is probably one of its most interesting topics!)

        But you’re not standing alone in some field on this. More like standing at one end. I have met plenty of women who find gay male sex revolting (or just uninteresting). That seems to be one of the places men and women differ in their sexuality. Men generally consider two women getting it on to be pretty hot. (It’s a pretty simple equation for guys: woman + sex = good! More women just means more good.)

        I’m glad you’re enjoying the conversation and feeling comfortable! I don’t really have boundaries when it comes to conversation, and I believe a good conversation involves listening. (If we’re going to keep talking about sex, we should probably take it to email. My mother reads this blog! 🙂 (Actually, I doubt she’d see the comments in an old post; I don’t even know if she reads the comments. It’s more that I don’t put the intimate details of my life online, although I’m happy to discuss them with friends.))

  • Lady from Manila

    Some of the thoughts you’ve managed to share in the Comments section of your previous posts that also deal with the subject bowled me over. The one just above had the same effect. I respect your version and am actually pleased you are not a “purely science guy.”
    It’s just that I am having a bit of trouble stepping outside my belief that there’s something more other than our physical reality. What they termed as “soul” could, for me, simply be our consciousness.

    I don’t consider physical intimacy between two males who aren’t straight revolting. It’s a divine expression of their love for each other. It’s just that a bisexual man doesn’t appeal to me romantically. That’s all.
    I sometimes can be playful in my replies and appreciate a good joke – even if it touches on sex. But it’s not what occupies my head most of the time. I’m into so many other topics. Really. 🙂 Believe me. 😉

    I love that you are responsive and honest in your dealings with your fellow bloggers. That’s why this is the only blog that’s been keeping me preoccupied for the past few weeks :-). Unfortunately, I’ve ceased all my email correspondences not too long ago. I’m not sure if it’s proper for me to say this in a comment box, but I’ve had two significant email friendships in the two and a half years I’ve been here on WordPress. I’ve never ever initiated any of them. And sadly, that form of exchange could have also expedited the end of my blogging affinities with those WP writers (long story). So maybe it isn’t a good idea if I want to extend my fellowship with a very good blogger. I hope my camaraderie with you won’t be a flash in the pan, Wyrd.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It’s all very much an open question. Someday we’ll finally make an artificial brain, and then we’ll at least answer the question of whether a mind emerges from the complexity of a brain system. The outcome of that will be a strong indicator on the possibility of souls. I personally hope it fails. That will demonstrate that a mind is something special that transcends the wiring.

      But it may succeed. If it succeeds brilliantly, we’ll have lots of “human” robots running around, and the possibility of souls will seem pretty unlikely.

      Each of us ultimately experiences something at the end… might be nothing, like going to sleep and never waking up. Or it might be a door to a new kind of experience. Or who knows, but we’ll each answer that question eventually!

      I guess what I find intriguing is where you draw the line in labeling someone bisexual. If I understand you, a single experience, even just an experiment, pushes someone across that line. I draw the line quite a bit further away than you do, so it’s interesting to “compare and contrast” as our English teachers used to say.

      I know what you mean about email. No prob. I was just saying that I don’t want to get too detailed online. I’m pretty open about stuff, but I don’t live my life online, and some things are just between people I “know.”

  • Holistic Wayfarer

    I did say I’d be back. I appreciate your pointing out that all positions are assertions of faith and also that science has proven nothing conclusively.

    “agnosticism is the most valid intellectual position.” Of course I disagree but will leave it at that, as we won’t be able to resolve this timeless debate in a few volley of comments.

    You make statements of belief…I don’t see how anyone can say ANYthing is wrong, as you do some places here, while resisting a moral God in your life paradigm. What is wrong, then? What is right? If someone went over and socked you in the gut unsolicited, how could you claim that was wrong – apart from moral law?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Welcome back! It’s true that all worldviews are matters of belief, but our justification for believing in science is demonstrated constantly. We are presented with a logical, consistent physical world that still has (and may forever have) its mysteries, but we do not find it ever to be internally inconsistent. That’s an important fact.

      That’s not to say science removes or disproves god. Science deals only with the physical world. If there is a spiritual world that transcends the physical, there is no requirement it follow the physical laws of the physical world. What might someday happen is we discover within ourselves the “circuit” that causes our universal apprehension of the infinite to see god. Assuming such circuit exists. IF god is something we fabricate to face an existential universe, then very likely some day we’ll identify it, and if the identification is conclusive, that may end our relationship with god. Basically, the atheists will turn out to have been right.

      Of course, if they’re not and god has a real existence, our apprehension is based on reality, and maybe someday we’ll discover that conclusively, too. This is why I’m decisively agnostic. I can see it both ways, and to me the central fact of our existence demands explanation. As I said quite some time ago, I find the explanation so far provided by both “side” to be equally fantastic (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and improbable. I feel it’s the most valid intellectual position simply because there is no hard evidence allowing an reason-based decision. If you believe, it comes from the heart.

      And, anyway, Big Bang Theory and “Let there be light” sound weirdly similar to me. I can’t help but wonder and hope the reality involves both and is something far, far beyond our imagination. If something did will this universe into being, I have to believe it’s not likely to be in our image. We have only the merest of abilities to comprehend a tiny slice of reality. We can’t wrap our heads around much more. Something that can would not only comprehend but be behind the creation? Wow, the mind boggles!

      You touch on a point I’ve mentioned in my writing, but haven’t yet delved into here. You are correct that it can be difficult to define morality in the absence of spiritual law. Moral philosophy has struggled with that issue for a long time. Immanuel Kant is probably the one most people have heard of. His view proceeds from the idea of universal will or law. To determine if an act is moral, will that it be universal — that everyone do it.

      One of the canonical examples is: you need to pay your rent, but have no money and no job. Should you borrow money and lie about being able to pay it back? Is that moral? If everyone did it (in Kant’s view), then loans would be impossible and society would break down. Many find Kant’s views to be too absolute and possibly too reductionist. The real world is more complicated than that. More to the point, one can argue about the idea of universal application.

      That said, it turns out to be a pretty good metric. Many do feel he at least laid out the parameters of the issue better than any other. Still, it remains a challenge to, in the abstract, define good from bad in an existential universe. In such, the terms have no meaning.

      And that is, in fact, the position of atheists and existentialists. There is no over-arching morality, life is what you make of it, so you’d better find your own meaning. Atheists seem comfortable with this, although it can drive existentialists to despair and Nihilism. Much of existentialist writing is about how to find personal meaning.

      For me, there are two answers: Firstly, the presumption that all people are equal in the existential sense. We all exist, and in the abstract, none of is is more or less special compared to all others. From the presumption of equality comes what I call ethics (rather than morality, which I define as spiritually based). Secondly, an apprehension of morality that comes either from intelligence or from spiritual essence. Despite the difficulty defining morality in the abstract, a common theme in casual philosophy and art is that when it comes to morality… you just know. (Even Kant apparently recognized our innate moral faculty.)

      And there is the idea of harm or unwelcome interaction. A sock in the gut is bad because it harms me (it killed Houdini!) and we can apply Kant’s universal will: what kind of world would it be if we all did that all the time?

      • Holistic Wayfarer

        “Science deals only with the physical world. If there is a spiritual world that transcends the physical, there is no requirement it follow the physical laws of the physical world.”

        The difficulty in speaking out of a pardigm sans overt faith is that EVERY claim requires faith to stake, even what you say in this quote.

        In my worldview, the physical and spiritual are not readily divisible, as was the case in the incarnate Christ, body and spirit manifest. And as our God is a God of order, so does His creation, the cosmos, reflect His glorious order and intelligence. And the Bible nowhere speaks of God’s being made in our image. No, it’s the other way around, and the difference is all-important.

        I’m going back under. Homeschooling calls this new wk, and I’ve been trying to plan my next post in the cracks of time.

        Take care!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Faith in science and faith in religion are not on the same level. Science has justified our faith in it objectively time and again, and it self-corrects when it finds itself in error. Neither of those things are true with religion.

        It’s probably safe to say we both have faith the sun will rise tomorrow. Our faith is justified in that the sun has risen every day in recorded history without fail. Our faith is well-grounded in our knowledge of solar system dynamics. Given this objective support, our faith in the nature of the sun raises to the level of objective fact and, in most views, ceases to be a matter of faith.

        Science, in general, works like that. Religion does not.

        As for the Bible, here’s the problem: If the Bible is the unsullied revealed Word of God and faith is built upon it, there is the question, “How do we know the Bible is correct?” If the answer is, “Faith says so,” then we are caught in circular reasoning.

        Consider two facts: The stories of the Bible were written long after the events described occurred and were rarely actually witnessed by the author. Further, the Bible has been through several translations and considerable editing over the life of the Christian church. Combine this with the fact that the Christian god explicitly gives his creations free will and choice, and you realize that the Bible cannot be taken at face value without careful thought.

        (What I find in the Bible is the worthy kernel of an idea, a kernel that is shared across many forms of religious thought. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is an outstanding morality statement that stands very well on its own.)

        Let me ask a key question. Clearly you are a Christian. How do you feel about the validity of other religions? Are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Shintoists also on valid spiritual paths?

  • siriusbizinus

    I did enjoy reading this post, and I think it articulates a sophisticated and robust agnostic position quite nicely. That being said, I wanted to address this thought:

    “One can certainly lean religious or lean atheist; one can even lean quite far in either direction (think of Kinsey’s seven-point scale). But to claim the matter—one way or the other—is certain is factually incorrect.” (emphasis in original).

    While I would agree with the statement as it stands, I think adding different adverbs can illustrate my position on why I’m atheist as opposed to agnostic. For example, to claim the matter is absolutely certain would be factually incorrect. To claim the matter is reasonably certain can be factually correct.

    I recognize this is a slight distinction, but it’s important to me. And I agree that the distinction isn’t made very often, so that is why aggressive atheism can be intellectually dishonest at times. That being said, going to the extreme of absolute certainty on this issue isn’t even wholly necessary. Reasonable certainty, I think, is all anyone can ask for with this Great Question. Instead of walking around telling people, “I know,” I an walk around and tell people, “I think I know, and here’s why.”

    The why is quite important, because from there one can see exactly how far one’s view can be used to justify one’s other deeply held beliefs that depend upon it. For example, if I recognize that my faith in a deity is wholly subjective, I might be less inclined to assert my values are shared by that deity. On the flipside, if I recognize that my lack of faith is based on what I have been able to assess, I can keep my position of intellectual integrity intact.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I agree with every point you’ve made here. The “reasonably certain” phrase, I think, is key. Each individual has a threshold with a body of facts and observations where they feel comfortable justifying a belief in an interpretation of that data. I do find that mindset affects both the threshold and the interpretation — we tend to view favorably confirming data and negatively conflicting data. Human nature!

      The difficulty for atheists is certainty requires proving a negative, which is tough to do. (There’s a secondary difficulty in that atheists need ultimately to account for everything physically.) The difficulty for theists is that all evidence so far remains circumstantial or subjective. A key difference is that theism requires making stronger choice of faith. Atheists do have the support of the physical world; much less faith is required. I would agree that atheism seems a more “reasonable” view.

      Decisively spiritual people, I think, recognize that they choose to believe in something not rational, to be open regarding circumstantial evidence. (I think it’s Thomas Aquinas who says explicitly that accepting Christianity requires surrendering rationality — the same can be said of Buddhism or most religions.)

      A common criticism is: “Why do you need to believe in God?” It’s not need; it’s want. I don’t need to eat Tex-Mex or drink tasty craft beer or smoke the occasional quality cigar (or any number of other things). But I’d hate to live in a world where I couldn’t.

      Likewise, if all this just is… how incredibly boring. 🙂 Yes, I know, it’s endlessly fascinating. I deeply believe that. I’ve been a science geek all my life. But if all this ends up having no purpose, raison d’être, then what a waste.

      It may be the truth; I’ll accept it if it’s every proven. But I’m like a super-symmetry theorist; until the options are exhausted I’ll hold out hope! 🙂

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