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.