I’ve been meaning to post on this topic for a while when bits and pieces of discussion plucked the strings of my thinking, but the topic in itself requires lots of thinking, so I’ve been putting it off.
ponygirl2000 commented that some people see agnosticism as a “cop-out” position. Such people are obviously not agnostics. Chosing to withhold judment on such statements as “There is a God” rather than say definitively, “True” or “False” leaves one dangling in life, without a secure footing. It is not an “easy” place to be. I envy people who are not agnostics their faith in things unseen or unprovable. But most people who identify with the agnostic position can’t really help being in it. It’s part and parcel of who they are.
What an agnostic believes in (well, at least what I believe in), is the importance of withholding judment about things for which there is no strong evidence. It’s a faith in the empirical, I suppose, although, at least in my case, there is also a certain skepticism towards what can count as legitimate “proof” and “evidence” as well. I will not follow blindly the claims of science, for example. It is a human endeavor, after all, and fallible.
I’ve been examining what my agnosticism means to me, and the first thing to note is it took me a LONG time to realize that it wasn’t just a temporary state of affairs until I found the Right Set of Spiritual Beliefs for myself. From my college days on up to about last year, I studied a lot of different spiritual and religious schools trying to find something that spoke to me. I WANTED to be spiritual.
But all the religious and spiritual paths I studied seemed to have one or both of two elements I couldn’t abide:
(1) They made definitive statements about the existence of things which cannot be proved–spirits, souls, God, heaven, what have you.
(2) Some claimed to have the inside track on the nature of reality and human existence, the “ultimate truth”, as it were.
I am inherently predisposed to having problems with the first element for reasons I stated above, and the second one strikes me as very naive. One statement of belief I will stand behind is that humans are inherently fallible; our knowledge is limited. To claim we have the right answers for all time in the here and now is a shot in the dark at best. And people who claim (2) usually back up their claim with a statement of type (1). We know we’re right ’cause God told us these things.
Well, you can see where I’m going to have a problem with religion.
That doesn’t mean I’m an atheist, a science-worshipper, or a rabid skeptic, however. I want something like (1) to be the case. I want it badly. You can see this part of me in my fantasy fandom. BtVS, AtS, Harry Potter, all the stories I love–whether novels, films, tv shows–have a common theme I’m always harping on: they take place in our world, but reveal underneath the mundane reality a whole world of magic and supernatural creatures and events that the average “rational” person denies are real.
So there is a part of me that longs for, wishes for there to be more to the world than spiritless physical matter and natural laws touted by science. That’s one reason why I cannot be an atheist. And I freely admit that that reason for rejecting atheism is emotional. I don’t want their view of reality to be true.
But because their view of reality is ultimately not any more proveable than a religious view of reality, I don’t have to embrace it, either. Their view is certainly consistent with science as we now understand it, but anyone who has studied the history of science and knowledge knows that the way science conceives of things is a limited model with specific guidelines and standards. Science, by definition, cannot disprove the existence of spirits and other non-physical realities, because science is designed only to measure only those phenomena that act according to its basic assumptions (material, capable of reductionistic analysis), and anything that does not fall under these assumptions (assuming there is anything) is outside its perview. Paraphrasing something I said on the ATPo board,
Trying to prove or disprove things that don’t fall under science’s perview is like looking for your lost bracelet under the street lamp at 2nd Avenue and California St. at night even though you lost it on the other side of town because, “at least I can see the pavement here.”
It is for this reason, and others, that I cannot throw my towel in with the skeptics, either, those people who feel the need to run around poking holes in anything that smacks in the least bit of the supernatural or the unscientific. As if constant vigilance will keep them safe from all epistemic tyranny. There will always be things that we as a society believe in and believe are well-proven that are dead-on wrong, and won’t be shown wrong until long after we’re dead. That’s life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful about what we believe in, and demand some standard of proof be met before we believe. But some people seem to believe too strongly in skepticism itself and in their own ability to tell all truth from falsehood with a few carefully wielded tools.
So I have neither faith in religious tenets nor absolute faith in science, and where does that leave me? Like I said, dangling. Having a cautious respect for science but still wishing and hoping that there is something more to the universe than science reveals.
Behind my attraction to the fantasy genre is the desperate wish for the things I read/see in it not to be fiction. I want there to be magic and the fantastic in the world. But more than that, I wish that magic and the fantastic would present itself to me the way the mundane physical things in my world do. Come on up out of the hidden places and plop itself down on my living room couch.
I’m not saying I’d like to meet a vampire or a demon; a friendly spirit or a good witch would suffice. If one would pop on over for tea and show me a few spells that defy all known laws of science, I couldn’t be happier.
But see, that’s the agnostic in me again. Refusing to believe in (or not believe in) such things until I see them with my own eyes.
And even if I did see them with my own eyes, I’m not sure that would be proof of the “super”-natural. I would not deny the evidence of my eyes, but I don’t think I’d be entirely convinced there wasn’t a natural explanation for what I was seeing.
There was something Scully once said on the X-Files that stood out in deafening contrast to every other close-minded science-worshipping utterance she ever made. She said, “Nothing happens in contradiction to nature. Only to our understanding of it.”
She actually, in that moment, admitted science was fallible. That it was limited. That science as we understand it today does not have all the answers. I’ll go beyond this and say that science as we know it today could not have have all the answers, even if had a bazillion years to work at it. Again, for the reason I stated above–“science” as we know it today has defined those things it is capable of studying and knowing about by its methods, and those methods limit it.
However, it is conceivable that some new method of learning about the universe could be developed down the line that would open our eyes to all sorts of phenomena science and so-called rational thought today can’t explain or study adequately (after all, science opened up our eyes to things that the pre-17th century mind couldn’t conceive of. It is certainly plausible that some futuristic way of conceiving the universe will open our eyes to things modern science is inherently incapable of conceiving of).
That wouldn’t make these newly discovered phenoma “super”-natural, however. It would simply broaden our understanding of the natural.
So I will make these claims, even though I cannot prove them empirically:
(1) everything is natural, but nature contains wonders that are at present, beyond our understanding.
(2) the true nature of nature is not the sort of thing that can be grasped by what we today call “science” or “rational” thought.
So there’s a part of me that must embrace some metaphysical positions despite the fact that they are inherently unprovable. I’ll leave you with a quote by Jane on the ATPo board that inspired this post to begin with:
My own position is somewhere in the murkiness of “I’m sure there is more to this life than we know, I’m just not sure what it is.”
Unlike Jane, I’m not sure that there is more, but I’m almost sure.