Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Agony of Agnosticism or: Why Not Mature Thoughtfulness?

It’s common for apologists to market their theism in terms of dichotomies between two self-servingly construed hypotheticals, branding the undesired horn as degrading and deplorable and the option they prefer as though it were unquestionably virtuous and in touch with the secret answers to all of life’s mysteries, available just by signing on. 

This is the same kind of tactic a snake oil salesman would use: why suffer in your inevitable demise when, for the cost of a few pennies, you can unlock the powers of health by buying a bottle of this special elixir, a concoction whose ingredients could only be discovered after making the purchase and taking the substance to a lab (a la “we have to pass the bill in order to find out what’s in it”). 

With religious induction, it’s a never-ending booby-trap-laden spiral of “but wait, there’s more” as the initiate is led down the granddaddy of all rabbit trails, traveling the labyrinth of self-delusion managed by way of myriad distractions such that he is deliberately kept unaware of just how far he has been led from where it all started out. By the time he’s a mile in, he doesn’t realize how deep he’s sunk in his descent into the depths of what is the essentially a mind game.

Key to the success of this psychological manipulation is what Cohen calls “the persona of the Bible,” which he describes as:
an apparent relevancy of teaching and promise of benefit that finally turn out to have totally different meanings from what the new inductee was [originally] led to think… Little by little, newcomers are brought along to understand the teachings to mean something altogether different from what appeared on the surface – and oriented toward the next life, not this one. (The Mind of the Bible-Believer, p. 171.)
Promises of peace, love, relief from burdens, etc., are deceptively allowed to be understood as having a this-worldly reference point and meaning when the initiate is first engaged and proselytized. In fact, this understanding is typically implied deliberately in order to secure a catch. However, once a new initiate has been hooked by the bait and drawn deeper and deeper into the net, the meaning of these promises and their reference point quietly shift from this-worldly affairs (“you couldn’t possibly expect God to make things easy for you! After all, it rains on the wicked as well as on the elect! We all have to earn our stripes…”) and towards a realm which one is to imagine lying in wait beyond the grave (“he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” – Mt. 24:13). Meanwhile, while still “in the flesh,” the new believer finds himself increasingly mired in psychological scandals he never experienced before biting the bait! Suddenly he finds himself scrutinizing every word of his conversation in a vain effort to settle whether or not his speech (and his intentions behind his speech) would be approved by an all-knowing, all-seeing supernatural consciousness which forever holds the power to rescind said promises and in their place allow the adherent to drop into everlasting flames. That may not be the entire world resting on one’s shoulders, but it is a significant form of pressure to say the least.

The evangelist is constantly trying to sharpen his hooks, not always so that they dig deep (for that can always come later), but so that they take irresistible hold on a potential inductee, just enough to start reeling him in so he can be netted in the fisher’s net. The more those hooks strike at the foothold of one’s psychology, the better, for that will better ensure a crippling hit. Like a paper cut on a fingertip, scratching the surface in such a way that one never loses awareness of the strike is often sufficient.

Fortunately, if armed with rational philosophy, i.e., a logically integrated set of fact-based principles pushed away by those who seek to live by a sacred storybook, not only can an individual protect himself from the mind-eating hooks of the evangelist’s fishing line, but actually turn the tables on the evangelist and expose just how arbitrary his mystical dichotomies really are.

A recent example is instructive. Triablogue’s Steve Hays provides an exemplary dichotomy as just such a hook, though from where I sit it’s quite dull. Nevertheless it offers an occasion for instructive correction. In a short post titled simply Agnosticism, Hays writes:
I'm going to expand on a point made by philosopher Christopher Kaczor in a recent interview. A problem with agnosticism is that either we live as if God exists or we live as if God doesn't exist. So the agnostic is living out the answer to that question just as much as the Christian.  
Even if, intellectually, the agnostic suspends judgment, he can't suspend judgment in practice. He must live as if one answer is true while the other is false. Although he can be agnostic in his head, he can't be agnostic with his feet.  
To be consistent with how he must live, an agnostic should try harder to resolve the indecision. His actions ought to match his beliefs, and vice versa.
Hays does not provide a link to the interview with Kaczor that he has in mind, so we are free to suppose that familiarity with what Kaczor actually says in it is not crucial to Hays’ point. And I’m not going to hunt for it. But the context here seems clear enough: since agnosticism is essentially the view that certainty on some matter is unattainable (in the case of theism, in particular, the view that certainty as to whether or not a god exists is not possible to man), anyone who confesses agnosticism still needs to make a choice: does he “live as if God exists or… as if God doesn’t exist.” Opting out on certainty on the matter does not exempt a person from living his life the one way as opposed to the other. Hopefully I’ve got that at least close. (Disclaimer: I haven’t downloaded the latest prayer app, so I may not be up on recent trends in hermeneutics.)

Mind you, I don’t think this is the real problem with agnosticism as such; rather, the problem with agnosticism is the underlying epistemological assumptions which drive the assessment that certainty is not possible. Agnosticism is often thought to represent the view that one simply does not know whether there is a god or not. I have come to view this interpretation of agnosticism to be a misunderstanding. Rather, agnosticism, in the present context, is the view that one cannot know whether or not there’s a god, which is more than simply a confession of ignorance. Rather, agnosticism entails a global estimate about the nature of the human mind, its purported untraversable limitations, a condition that’s thought to affect everyone, even people one has never met. This is not akin to the statement that we cannot know the depth of a methane lake on a distant planet, for it is not a statement affirming that a human being doesn’t know simply because he’s not in sufficient proximity or in possession of necessary tools to take such measurements. On the contrary, it’s a statement that we can never know regardless of where one might travel or what tools someone might invent someday in the future. It’s simply not knowable, and ironically the agnostic expects us to accept this assessment as knowledge. The whole affair seems to suffer from the fallacy of the dangling presupposition – an unwitting assumption that simply doesn’t cohere with the rest of what’s being asserted. And here I would question proponents of agnosticism (of which I clearly and not one) whether or not they affirm such limitations to human cognition in other fields of human inquiry, and if so, what are those fields and how does one determine when they apply or not.

In reaction to Hays' pronouncements, I would encourage thinkers to adjust their scope and focus to shake away the dichotomous quandary which agnosticism supposedly invites, and instead consider one’s thoughts, choices and actions in terms of a binary which has real philosophical import, namely:
Do I live as if reality conformed to conscious activity, or as if reality persists regardless of anyone’s conscious activity?
Or, to bring it to a more familiar level:
Do I live as if wishing makes it so, or as if wishing is irrelevant to what is actually so?
If the reference to wishing is bothersome, we could adjust the question as follows:
Do I live as if reality conformed to imagination, or as if reality persists regardless of what anyone imagines?
Thinkers need to answer these questions for themselves, and they should do so honestly, apart from party affiliation concerns. 

I can answer for myself on all counts: I do not live as if reality conformed to conscious activity just as I do not live as if wishing makes it so, and just as I do not live as if reality conformed to anyone’s imagination, and in each case for the same fundamental reason: existence holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity. And my entire worldview is wholly consistent with this fundamental outlook, and self-consciously so. No gods need apply, and no need to apply a god.

But suppose I believed in a conscious being which, albeit invisible and beyond the access of all scientific instrumentation (cf. “unknowable”), exists in some realm beyond the one in which I live and move and have my being, and yet controls everything that happens by its thoughts, desires, wishes, designs, etc. Could I then consistently say that I do not live as if wishing makes it so? No, I don’t think so, for I would essentially be claiming that there is a being’s whose wishes make it so, and if I affirm such a view and yet live as if wishing did not make it so, then my actions would not match my words.

And if I probed this belief a little deeper, and with a healthy dose of honesty, and find that what’s really happening here is that I’m actually imagining the invisible conscious being which has the power to control everything that happens by its thoughts, desires, wishes, designs, etc., wouldn’t this suggest that, at least in some areas of my life, I’m living as though reality conformed to imagination? After all, wouldn’t I essentially be saying that reality conforms to the thoughts, desires, wishes, and designs of something that is merely a figment of my imagination? If I imagine that there’s an invisible conscious being controlling reality and eventually persuade myself not only to believe what I am imagining is real, but live my life as if reality were being controlled by such a thing, wouldn’t I essentially be acting on the unacknowledged assumption that reality ultimately conforms to imagination?

There’s that dangling presupposition again!

Suppose someone asked you if you live as if Harry Potter is true, or as if it isn’t true. I don’t think Harry Potter novels are true, and I know that I don’t live as if they are true. But does it truly follow that I therefore live as if those novels are not true? In fact, Harry Potter novels couldn’t be more irrelevant to my life now any more than they were before they were written. I’ve never read a Harry Potter novel, nor have I watched more than maybe a few minutes of a Harry Potter movie (and only because I admire John Hurt’s work). Generally fantasy movies do not excite me. Regardless, I certainly do not go through a mental checklist weighing every option and alternative I face with a list on one side that says “as if Harry Potter novels were true” and the other headed by “as if Harry Potter novels were not true,” and checking things off in one column or another as I go. There’s simply no relevance.

Suppose someone asked you if you live life as if Lizzie Borden were guilty of her father’s murder, or as if she were innocent of his murder. What would you say? Again, where’s the relevance? Maybe you’ve never even looked into the matter to have an opinion either way. Maybe you’ve never heard of Lizzie Borden to begin with! Would that mean that you live your life as if Lizzie Borden were innocent? Or perhaps as though she were guilty? If we’re left with such a dichotomy, how does one know one way or the other? What would living as though Lizzie Borden were innocent even look like, and how would one tie any relevance to what you do in your life to the Lizzie Borden story?

The theist of course can be expected to insist that things are different when it comes to his theism. It’s not anyone else’s theism that he thinks is relevant here; he’s not urging you to consider whether or not you live as if Krishna or Osiris exists. On the contrary, he’s very self-centered here, pushing you to be concerned exclusively with the deity which he has enshrined in his imagination. And upon his insistence, you’re supposed to take what he imagines seriously and answer questions about whether or not you live your life as if what he imagines is real, or as if you live as if what he imagines is not real. It’s just that arbitrary.

But the theist’s arbitrary bifurcations do not mean that I do not have an underlying principle, a stable guide, and objective fundamental. It does not mean that I do not have reliable grounding, a firm core, or a moral compass. On the contrary, given my informed adoption of Objectivism, it is precisely this that I cannot in good conscience ever shake, for the axioms and the primacy of existence constantly and continually remind me and help keep my mind focused on the distinction between the things I’m conscious of, on the one hand, and the activity of my consciousness on the other.

Tell me, reader, do you live as if Elvis Presley were dead, or as if he were in fact still alive? As if Vishnu preserves the world, or as if there were no Vishnu to begin with? Does going about your life, making the decisions you make on the basis of inputs you discover with your senses as they impact your values and your goals, suggest that you go through life as if Vishnu is doing his thing behind the scenes, or as Vishnu is just a myth? Or do such “as if” scenarios have anything to do with your existence in the first place? Does dealing with reality on its own terms as we discover it imply any “as if” scenario that someone can come along and underwrite with mystical implications?

There is in fact a fundamental decision each thinker needs to make, but Hays has not isolated it here. On the contrary, if one accepts his premise that the reality we observe around us, including our own selves, is a product of supernatural conscious activity, the decision will be to attempt to align one’s views with a self-contradictory metaphysics. He will be attempting to conform his life to the view that things are the way they are because they’ve been made that way by the conscious activity of an omnipotent supernatural agent, while insisting that this is how things are regardless of what anyone thinks, feels, wishes, prefers, believes, etc. And therein lies the deepest contradiction of them all. And a mind which is seeking to convince himself of all this doesn’t even realize he’s stuck in a fundamental self-contradiction.

The real question which thinkers need to resolve does not hinge on the notion “that we either live as if God exists or we live as if God doesn’t exist,” but rather:
Does existence exist independent of conscious activity, or does existence find its source in and/or conform to conscious activity?
A more simplified way to look at this is:
Does wishing make it so?
If one replies to this latter question with a “No, wishing does not make it so”, what is his philosophical basis for selecting this as his answer? Does he have an explicit rationale for his answer, or is he just guessing, groping, or gerrymandering?

Each individual needs to ask himself: Do I live as if wishing makes it so, or do I live as if wishing had no causal effect on the things we observe and the truths we discover?

Again, if the theist resents the use of “wishing” here, we should wonder why. But we are free to use other tokens of religious doctrine to make the same point. For example:

Do I live as if the world conformed to my faith, or do I live as if my faith has no causal bearing on what happens and what is true?

Or: Do I live as if the world conformed to my prayers, or do I live as if my prayers have no real effect on the world?

Again, it’s not what the person professes to believe here. It’s how does he actually govern his own choices and actions that is in question.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...


Even though I haven't finished reading your latest due to time limitations, I think I've read enough to justify jumping in here to say: Thanks again!


Joe said...

Thanks Dawson for another insightful blog post. It appears that some physicists are trying to argue for a view that claims consciousness is the primary nature of reality. There is a new book coming out titled "The Case Against Reality" by Dr. David Hoffman. Michael Shermer interviewed Dr. Hoffman recently and can be listened to here I would be interested on your thoughts on this sometime as I see this kind of so-called science being used by the religious to argument for a scientific basis for some primary of consciousness view. I am not sure it would be used by theism but I can see it being used by some Panpsychism views. Hope all is well. -Joe Patterson