I’ve described this blog as a psychology blog, with a side of philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of knowledge, and how we know what we know. When it comes to religion, what true believers (whether Christian, Muslim, whatever) often claim to know, I see as beliefs, because they can’t be proven to non-believers. Faith is an important thing, and I respect people of faith on the whole. But, to me, faith in a belief is different than true knowledge. You may want to read my previous philosophical post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is,” for added context.
I was “properly churched” by my Christian parents throughout my childhood, but it didn’t take. I went through a brief spell of arrogant atheism as a young man, where I was convinced that people of faith were simply not thinking as rigorously as I was. But I was humbled when I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost and realized that people smarter than me believe in God. When I call myself an agnostic, I simply mean that there are a lot of things I don’t know. I tend to distrust the words of anyone who claims to know things that can’t be proven, such as the existence of an afterlife. I’m not just agnostic in religious matters, I’m agnostic about a lot of things – even some of the claims made regarding science.
Just as I find it arrogant for a true believer in this or that religion to tell me that they know what I need to believe in, I also find it arrogant for an atheist to assert personal knowledge that God doesn’t exist. If I ask a believer for the source of their authority, they’re likely to refer me to a book that they believe has all the answers. If I ask atheists how they know for certain that God is simply a myth, they’re likely to claim that people of faith have all been indoctrinated, and that there’s no hard evidence to support their beliefs. I’ve heard an atheist claim that agnostics are just atheists who lack conviction, but I’m living proof to the contrary. I’m strongly convinced of a lot of things. But I’m also very comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” It’s a whole different philosophical frame than religious or anti-religious convictions.
Confucius wrote, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Voltaire wrote, “Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” The Buddha is said to have said, “Doubt everything and find your own light.” I’m intelligent, well-educated and well-read, but what I know is finite, and always will be. What I don’t know is vast, endless. I believe, with Confucius, that this attitude is the beginning of wisdom. It’s what I described in a story in a previous post as continually “emptying the cup,” so that it can be re-filled. I’ve become very comfortable with ambiguity, shades of gray.
I think that a lot of people confuse opinion and fact. I try to rigorously organize my beliefs in this manner: what I know I know (my knowledge), what I think I know (my opinions), and what I don’t know (my vast ignorance). Instead of thinking dualistically – either this is true or that is true – I tend to think in terms of probabilities. It’s highly probable to the point of almost-certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s highly improbable (to me) that Jesus arose from the dead after three days and ascended into the heavens. But I don’t have the authority to claim sure knowledge
Back to epistemology: there’s no absolute definition of knowledge. St. Augustine wrote, “Man must know in order that he may believe; he must believe in order that he may know.” We all believe in premises (i.e. there is/may be/ isn’t a God),upon which we establish our values and opinions. Nobody can justly claim absolute authority for their belief system, although many try to. I believe in the merits of the scientific method, but I also believe that science has its limits. I’ve known scientists to whom science is a religion. I believe that science is a finely-ground lens that’s very good at examining some things – but not everything. Science can’t tell us what life is, or consciousness. It’s a branch of philosophy, as is metaphysics. Each has its own appropriate subjects for study and its own methodologies of exploration.
The key to certainty in the study of epistemology is authority. I know of nobody who has the authority to tell me what I should believe about matters metaphysical or theological – although, as a philosopher, I might be up for a discussion. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my usual response is “Define God.” All I’m saying here is that this is part of my personal philosophy; I’m not suggesting that everyone should (God forbid!) think like me.
I’ll conclude this post with a few introductory words about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson. He’s best known for his fictional Illuminatus! trilogy (which he co-wrote with Robert Shea), but wrote many non-fiction books of philosophy and satire as well. He’s the funniest philosopher I know of. Reading Wilson reassured me that there are other universal agnostics out there, and taught me everything I know about guerrilla ontology. More about that in my next post.
4 thoughts on “Agnosticism and certainty, Part 1”
I sometimes wonder why people who appear smarter than I, perhaps more successful than I in one area or another, believe in a god. Yes, we have finite knowledge but when I hear a teleological, cosmology..etc argument, I often wonder what they prove? Perhaps this is proof enough for those that believe.
Not all that are Atheist make a claim that there is NO god, rather they they evaluate the claim of the theist and reject it. It makes me wonder when a theist claims that God spoke to them, or they had a mystical experience- what are they seeing that I am not? Did their brain have a “blip”? 🙂 What exactly have they experienced? (Just questions I ask myself)
I see a little bit of me in your writing with a dash of Dillahunty.
David: I, too, wonder about visions. You might want to read my prior post on the mystery of consciousness. As you can infer from my post, I don’t have the authority to judge other people’s visions. I’ve had a few “mystical experiences,” but with no religious images or symbols or metaphors involved. A friend from my youth was an atheist until one day visiting an English church “on holiday,” while looking at a depiction of Jesus, she fell to her knees, an instant true believer for life. (She’s a Christian writer/blogger.)
An interesting thing that I read – probably in a book by Robert Anton Wilson – is that there used to be a lot more visions of the Virgin Mary back before the Industrial Revolution. As religious visions waned, UFO sightings, visions of Gray Men, etc. grew. Maybe it’s the same causative phenomenon, viewed through different cultural lenses. Thanks for the comment! It’s feedback like yours that keeps me blogging. Jeff
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I’ll read it. Just a short note… My grandfather build a replica “St Patrick’s Cathedral” (NY) out of Philly Cream Cheese crates (The crates were wooden in those days). The altar, the light fixtures, the wood…etc all intricately detailed. The first time I walked into St. Pats, I was in awe of how exacting it looked to what my grandfather created. It was temporarily a “Spiritual” experience for me. So I can see how people are overcome at times at thoughts of something mystical. But still… It was jut a wow factor for me, not a god coming down from the heavens, a beautiful ray of light coming through the stained glass windows etc 🙂
Visions and revelations are not that hard to pin down. Temporal Lobe seizures, hypnogogia, TBI’s and many other researches are honing in and reproducing these blips, as David said, in the field of neurotheology. Calculated church services designed to stir emotions through professional staging is easily reproduced with blatant, feel Good lies and stories, merely manipulating human emotions in times of stress or healing. It’s not really that complicated and the field, only a few years old now is making huge strides.