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Remembering Agnosticism
XHerakleitos - 11/15/10

Puzzling over a trend to dismiss agnosticism, I ran into a post by Caesar, the esteemed Imperator at Arstechnica:

Agnosticism is the most reasonable position to take with regards to the supernatural. Let me unpack this, because it’s possible to read that sentence in 1,000 different ways.

First, my view argues that certainty either that God does or does not exist is a less reasonable position than the position that we cannot and do not know with certainty one way or another.

For the purposes of this thesis, I am only speaking to certainty, to claims of knowledge. That is, I believe it is possible to be agnostic on the question and believe or not believe in God. So, belief is a state of assent based on something less than knowledge.

Further, I argue that the claim to know for certain that there is no “god” is no more rooted in reason than to claim to know for certain that there is a “god.”

Unfashionable as it may be, Caesar's thesis certainly appears most wise. Moreover, a robust agnosticism seems advisable when we regard it as likely one of the most spirited echoes of the beginnings of Western science. Is it merely an appeal to authority or is there something to this spark which bears remembering or rediscovering?

21c  I went looking for wise men: I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: 'This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.' Then, when I examined this man...my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: 'I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.'

One can say quite a bit about what's going on here, not to mention the strange tension where Socrates is on a mission from a god in trying to refute the god's oracle. But essentially, there in the Apology, Socrates underscores the importance of wonder (thaumazein) as wellspring of all wisdom... knowledge/science. And there in court the defendant is also speaking for justice, the kind we find as the proper organization of the soul in the Republic.

There with an imaginary city as a lens, the emergence of the highest element is foreshadowed (372a-376d) in the spiritedness of the penultimate warrior dimension (with its potentially troublesome negative power). The highest human element will lift a combination of opposites (the gentle and the fierce which turn on a criterion of knowledge and ignorance) into itself. With this organic move, rounding out the just morphology of the soul, the most human element turns the questioning on itself, seeking to know its own ignorance - to know that as a springboard to keeping wonder and inquiry possible.

Modern science takes up a negative movement within itself. And so it is that accepted theory isn't so much proven true as it has not been proven false yet (as competing theories have been, or discredited in varying degrees). Science works to immunize itself against dogma and preserve the space of wonder in a methodological way, insisting on reproducibility, sharing results and, amidst this, a cultivated skepticism whereby novel hypotheses can arise. But behind what gets methodologically explicit is a struggle to retain the eyes of a child, to find a pulse in throwing itself beyond certainty into a condition where the witnessing of evidence might be improved.

Thus when Fred Hoyle said "I exist, therefore the carbon-12 nucleus must posses an energy level at 7.65 megaelectonvolts", Willy Fowler summoned the wherewithal to suspend what he thought he knew - which apparently was that "the man was talking garbage". Fowler later won the Nobel prize for work stimulated and furthered by this encounter.

The Socratic injunction, that one may in one small extent be wisest insofar as one knows that that one does not know, was invaluable in sparking what would one day become the science we herald today as uniquely poised to know things best. Its echo makes for an ethos of science before science even begins to turn its eye toward ethics.

One can catch the scent of it in Aristotle, in the way everywhere he painstakingly tests and questions both the objective scope for a particular science and the exactitude of criteria we use in speaking well. This play, coming in fits and starts - even if to result in a "let us begin again at the beginning", shows a substantial style in the infancy of science that still outlives any particular conclusion. It's about justice, limits and knowing that one doesn't know - neither as a pure retreat into ignorance, nor as facile fence sitting, nor even an impediment to knowledge but, rather, as an amplified phronesis - a prudent, ethical way unto what knowledge we can gain.

But nowadays in mock battle with the contagion of retrograde religiosity this legacy is prone to being forgotten. While the neo-atheism of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins pushes the margins of philosophical vacuity in many ways, it's hard to find a better example than the amnesia with respect to what makes science science. For them agnosticism is either a "weak atheism" or some sort of pathetic, wishy washy sell-out. For them it really can't have any genuine spirit.

It can, however, pop up in some very strange ways. For instance, within Harris' vapid treatment of "relativism" and pragmatism in The End of Faith, he makes a remark that deserves meditation:

Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view... to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered - and thus that we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them (p. 180)

Now this guy is attacking religion (per se) for believing in what cannot be empirically verified or to which no evidence corresponds. And yet, he's saying he believes in truths that our experiential nature may be ill-equipped to know at all. So up against the obvious problem, what is he going to say- that we may believe in the possibility of facts we can't know, of "phenomena" we maybe can't even experience, but -hey- even though that's venturing belief in the untestable, we'll be better people (or physicists - or just make better predictions) if we believe that way?

William S. Burrough's Words of Advice come to mind: "If you're doing business with a religious sonofabitch, get it in writing".

But while Harris' may be comically sawing off his own limb, as well as saying stuff in an ontological style that hardly seems to jibe with the way of the mysticism he eventually attempts to embrace, we can see a real glimmer of agnosticism however awkwardly or unintentionally expressed - and despite the fact that he claims it's an intellectually dishonest position. 'I believe the situation could be thus that I might not know' is oddly close to 'I know that I do not know'. More important than the cogency of his "realism" is the show, when it suits him, where Harris can't help but reach for an evocative story, one that makes science better and, in his mind, preserves a way of being right and wrong.

Perhaps more in a more charitable mood, the words of Eden Phillpotts also come to mind: "The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper"

In Harris' case, this warrants cultivating an "intellectual holding pattern until more of the facts are in" (supplemented perhaps by doubt over whether possible faith-based facts can ever be in). Still, it bears the sense of a "non-committal attitude" he slights in other contexts. Socrates' agnosticism was not only self-conscious but very committed, willing to sacrifice for an opening to wonder and awe not just in the face of natural phenomena but also for the sake of knowing ourselves - or, what may be the same, the self knowledge of nature. It was also something that, as a warrior, he pursued in the face of death.

Back then, warped as the Platonic corpus is with the woof of mythology, it was neither obvious nor clear that, as Harris has said, "the spirit of mutual inquiry is the antithesis of religious faith". But at least the spirit was clear. It was bold. It changed our world - and it's forever bound up with a kind of agnosticism. If we all have the guts to explicitly hold on to that as a curative for pathology, maybe one day too we can say we owe Asklepios a rooster.

comment & analysis

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