I feel like I’ve reached the home straight, in this attempt to explain my agnosticism. Thus far I’ve argued that none of the arguments for believing in either side of the theistic divide are compelling, and I’ve done this by attempting to look at what seem to me to be the strongest cases. That one can not be compelled by reason to choose a side is not sufficient to justify agnosticism, but it is necessary.
The next step is to consider why, in the absence of compelling arguments in its favour, one might still wish to adopt a belief. One reason might be pragmatism, that the belief simply works for the individual, so why not? In my last post I argued that in order to accept his argument, one needs to put some fairly severe pressure on the definition of belief. Hope feels like a more accurate term.
All that’s left is to first check that my own beliefs (and I have many) do not fall prey to the same criticisms I’ve levelled at religious belief, which is today’s task, and then show why, in matters of truth, I personally prefer to accepting uncertainty to committing to a contested position (and that’s next week). Then I’ll leave it there, and look for something lighter to write about for a while, by way of contrast.
One challenge to agnosticism is the rather obvious observation that one can not be agnostic about everything (or at least not without stretching the definition of agnosticism past breaking point). I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is hot, that being hit by a speeding bus would hurt, that my family are not figments of my imagination, and so it goes on. To live, to interact with the world, is to believe. There appears to be no way around this.
Belief is not the same thing as certainty, of course. If it were, then we would have no need for the word believe, we’d just say know instead. So yes, it is perhaps possible that all my beliefs are off base, that I am a brain in a vat, the play thing of a cosmic computer programme, a composite illusion stitched together from infinite partial versions… choose your favourite sci-fi geekiness and insert here. And of course, if reality really does exceed our perception in some fundamental way, then what chance it also exceeds our imagination, such that the above thought experiments are also hopelessly inadequate. Reality is not only stranger than we imagine, to paraphrase Haldane, but stranger than we can imagine.
Evolution gives us cause to consider our intellectual limitations, too. Just as the trees, the snails and the amoebas have evolved to process only limited amounts of the available information, so, we might imagine, have we. And just as the limpet can not ask, why do I not understand probability, we can not begin to wonder at the things our puny brains are missing.
Even our best guesses are continually subject to revision; the history of science reminds us concepts that once seemed central to our understanding (the ether, elan vital, absolute time and space) can go by the wayside, and one should expect there are more revelations yet to come.
So, when I speak of believing, I don’t speak of certainty. I speak of models that are both necessarily incomplete, and subject to future improvement. And yet, while remaining agnostic about so many things, I happily commit to belief in other areas. Why the difference?
For me it comes down to a phrase I’ve already used, that of the best guess. At the end of the last post I mentioned the problem of induction. Why is it justifiable to expect the world to be sufficiently uniform to reward expectations? Isn’t the only justification available the one I’ve already rejected, that of pragmatism? Some philosophers have offered a way around this problem by noting, that although we can’t justify this expectation, nor can we replace it. One put it this way: ‘to the extent that we can know anything, we know it through induction.’ That is to say, choose not to commit to the belief that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow (okay, depends where you live, but more east than west) and what is the alternative, and furthermore, how would you ground it? Natural Selection is itself a backward looking process, and that’s how we were put together. To use the past to predict the future (and where it’s important enough, knowledge of the past can be transmitted through our genes, look at our language instincts) is basic to the way we function. Yes, perhaps it’s all been a vast cosmic joke and tomorrow the rules will change, but if they do, none of us will see it coming, because there’s no alternative model on the table.
And this is what I mean by a best guess, a situation where there’s no serious alternative available, where it’s impossible, without mangling the language completely, to say a competing viewpoint is equally reasonable. Can we say, to expect the bus collision to do us damage is one perspective, but if others see it differently, that’s equally valid? I don’t think so. To see the child step out into the road and not pull them back because of commitment to some obscure philosophical point would requite a special kind of stupid.
And when I think about the things I believe, I find they have this characteristic, that they are borne of our collective experience, such that there is general agreement these represent our best guess for now. Take as your starting point, that the model that has worked best in the past represents the best bet for the future, and all else follows. Does standing in the rain make me wet? Yes. Do children need to be exposed to language in order to learn it? Yes. Is mine the only conscious mind in the universe? No. Do I share a common ancestor with rat in the ceiling (your days are numbered)? Yes. Is their regularity in the universe? Yes. And so it goes on. Not all these beliefs are empirically grounded, their characteristic is just that they represent, in some meaningful sense, our best current guess.
Sometimes it’s because we know of no alternative, other times it’s because the odds are weighted heavily against that alternative – I might be given a lottery ticket and could reasonably expect/believe it to not be the winner. To believe otherwise, and extend the mortgage on the back of it, would be nuts, even though the alternative expectation doesn’t represent an impossibility.
Another way of thinking of this is to consider reality a constraining force. For all its unknowns, reality is such that some beliefs appear to be forced moves, we’re left without an option. In such a case belief in a model can be justified as representing the best guess available.
The agnostic’s stance is to say, when we move beyond such constraints, such that contradictory beliefs may be reasonably held, then I choose to withhold belief. I would claim that such an approach has two major advantages (and of course a number of disadvantages, which is why agnosticism itself can’t be thought of as a forced move) and I want to look at these in my last post in this series.