Agnosticism and certainty, Part 2

In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence. A relevant subject of inquiry within this major branch of metaphysics is the meaning of life. Many philosophers have tackled the question of life’s meaning, under the assumption that life must mean something. Religions provide maps for life’s meaning: you’re here to obey and serve God – however defined by Holy Scripture. Those who aren’t traditionally religious have to look in other directions to discover life’s meaning(s).

One of the central tenets of existentialism suggests that every philosopher who has attempted to identify the meaning of life has been on a wild goose chase. Existentialism posits that there is no objective meaning “out there” for us to apprehend and comprehend. If we apprehend meaning in our lives, it’s a meaning that we’ve created and superimposed on an intrinsically meaningless and absurd world.

As a young man I studied both existentialism and zen Buddhism. I was drawn to both philosophies, as their study made me look at the world in new ways. But, having abandoned the comfort of religious certainty, I initially saw a bleakness in both philosophies. In a world without intrinsic meaning, you have to grit your teeth and, like Sisyphus, just keep on truckin’, as if  there were meaning in your persistence.

I no longer perceive the bleakness I once saw in existentialism and zen. Reading books – fiction and non-fiction – by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) helped me to think my way through my existential dilemma. I eventually reasoned  that if you’re not wedded to a philosophy that provides meaning to your life, that frees you to find/create your own meanings. Play with it! This is my understanding of what guerrilla ontology means. My life is  an endless Grail Quest for knowledge, and that journey provides all of the meaning I need to keep on sweating with Sisyphus.

RAW introduced me to the principle :”The map is not the territory,” which I’ve written about in a previous post. Nobody’s mental map  (we all have them) is identical to what it depicts, and yet we often confuse the two. Wilson wrote that “all ideas are partly true, partly false, and partly meaningless – including this one.” He coined the term guerrilla ontology to describe “the basic technique of all my books. . . . an attempt to break down conditioned associations – to look at the world in a new way, with many models (maps) and no one model elevated to The Truth. . . . My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism – not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything.” Sometimes he purposefully and effectively used words to create cognitive dissonance, knowing a little initial confusion (fnord) can provoke you to think in new ways.

Wilson also introduced me to the concept of reality tunnels, saying that we all live in one at any given time. Reality tunnels are our circumstance- and culture-bound , lived -in mental constructs (maps) of what the world is and how we should behave. Irish Catholic reality tunnels differ in some significant ways from Italian Catholic reality tunnels. There are Inuit  reality tunnels, gypsy reality tunnels, suburban family reality tunnels, Sumo wrestler reality tunnels, etc. One can switch reality tunnels one or more times in one’s lifetime, if one’s life circumstances change. An Amish boy raised in a rural Amish community, shunned because he was gay, is likely to live in a significantly different reality tunnel after a year of living in Greenwich Village. I grew up in a military reality tunnel, but at age 25 I moved to a post-hippie psychology graduate school reality tunnel, with totally different customs and rules. The point is that we are all co-creators of our respective realities.

RAW made fun of the whole notion of “normality.” The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) offered money to anyone who could prove e.s.p. or another psychic phenomenon. Wilson ridiculed them by establishing the Committee for the Surrealistic Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) and offering a reward to anyone who could establish the existence of a normal day, a normal dog, a normal sunset, etc.

Wilson was a friend of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a spiritual heir  to the legacy of the Merry Pranksters. His thinking was broad and deep; but he often used humor as a teaching tool and never took himself too seriously. He remains, through his writing, my primary role model for universal agnosticism. You can learn more about him at rawilson.com. (The site has some great links.) If you want to read something by him, there’s no better starting point than the Illuminatus! trilogy, which I still consider the ultimate conspiracy novel. I’ve read it at least three times, and plan to read it again sometime. If you want to check out his non-fiction, I recommend The Cosmic Trigger or Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 1

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.