In praise of uncertainty

If you were looking for an agnostic hero figure, you could do worse than Protagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher from the 5th century BC. It was he who was credited with the observation ‘the fire burns the same everywhere, but the law of the land differs from place to place.’ Without wishing to become hopelessly romantic about the classical age, snippets like that still take my breath away. To an agnostic, and I suspect a good many atheists, the distinction Protagoras noted is a crucial one. In this last post of agnosticism, I want to do nothing more than nod towards the joys of an agnostic stance. Joys for me, that is, I don’t for one moment expect everybody else to feel the same.

The nature of fire is one of those areas where reality constrains our models to such an extent that we are left with little, if any, wriggle room. Fire burns, rain makes us wet, collisions redistribute energy and that’s just the way it is. Of course, to be human is to be interested in much more than physical relationships. We are poets, story tellers, readers of mood and motivation, incurably social, curious and romantic. We move in a world not just of models, but of laws and lore. And it is this through this aspect of our nature that we experience a world that is much more flexible, where reality leaves us unconstrained in our speculations to the extent that two entirely contradictory stances might be thought of as equally well supported by our collective experiences.

The agnostic is defined by the way they respond to these contradictions. The response is to say ‘given that an equally reasonable and well informed person may validly reach the opposite conclusion, I have insufficient faith in my own conclusion to do anything other than suspend belief. I don’t know which of the competing viewpoints is more likely to be true, I can’t trust my own instincts on the matter, given others’ instincts take them in such opposite directions, and so I shall refrain from belief. To return to the metaphor I favour, a coin spins through the air. What will it be? I don’t know, is the agnostic answer.

This is not to say this is how we should respond. Agnosticism makes no claim that its stance is superior, or indeed more likely to uncover the truth, than belief. Indeed, it is less likely to hit the target, given it isn’t even taking a shot. Many believers, whilst acknowledging their belief is no more reasonable than the alternative, nevertheless choose to take the plunge, to respond to that model of reality that most deeply resonates with their own experience of the world. I accept such a stance may bring the individual many advantages. Before leaving this topic, all I want to do is offer for consideration some of the advantages that might accrue to the non-believer.

For me, the first is to do with intellectual consistency. I just don’t buy the pragmatic argument. Yes, a certain type of belief might feel right, and this feeling might deliver up certain advantages, but I don’t know how to make an argument from the personally useful to the objectively true. And I enjoy going where an argument will take me. I find that satisfying. The only arguments I can construct take me away from pragmatism, and I follow them.

A second advantage is that I don’t have to construct a case to explain why my intuition is superior to that of my fellow travellers’. I would find it extremely hard to construct such a case, perhaps impossible. Were I a Christian, I would have to explain how it is the Christian intuition is superior to say the Islamic one. I have no idea how I’d do that. More broadly, how to explain why the theistic instinct is better than the atheistic one? How indeed to explain why, in a God-centred world, some fully informed and open individual can find no hint of their creator? Yes, one could try to get by without explaining the difference. Perhaps it’s just a mystery. But for me this only shifts the problem (whose mystery explanation is the best?) Agnosticism gives me a way of avoiding this problem.

For me, agnosticism also support a special sort of curiosity. The less one has invested in an investigation, the more open one can be to its possible end points. Take life after death. One way to attack a problem like this is to first work out what we mean by life, and indeed consciousness, and attempt to build a model of how that works. From there, we might look at what constraints such a model places on the soul, and away we go. I may be poorly read in the area, and jump in with counter examples, but I don’t see a lot of this happening amongst those who are presumably most interested, those who believe in an afterlife. To cite a slightly shallow example, if I had a soul, and I died, which version of my conscious state would the soul recover had I slowly deteriorated with Alzheimer’s? Would my continuing soul be thus afflicted, and if not, would it therefore be bereft of the memories accumulated during the declining phase? And in what sense am I still me, if disconnected from my memories? Clearly I’m not at all well versed in theology, but whatever the current answer to these types of questions, it hasn’t seeped out into the public arena. My fear would be, that having made a belief commitment, I’d stop asking those questions that most challenged the belief. That’s the sort of nature I have to contend with, at least, and agnosticism offers me a certain protection from my innate intellectual cowardice.

Agnosticism also elevates story in a way that I find deeply satisfying. If I can not know, then I must understand my world not through knowledge, but through speculation. Agnosticism frees me to embrace the essential romanticism of the story teller, loving the story exactly because of its pragmatic appeal, of the way it resonates, sings even, makes my life richer. It is to embrace that aspect of the self that is the inventor, loving the product no less because it is an invention. Indeed, perhaps loving it more, for how glorious is our capacity to invent?

Agnosticism supports tolerance, it supports curiosity, it supports intellectual humility and it supports playfulness. Believers will of course find their own way to these same qualities, but for me, as best I can tell, agnosticism is the vehicle that can take me there. What’s not to like?

4 thoughts on “In praise of uncertainty

  1. Mandy Hager says:

    Thanks Bernard, I have read all these posts with great interest and pleasure – have appreciated the lucidity of your arguments and found them fascinating. You’ve put into words my own feelings about the topic and given them a framework of philisophical thinking that is stimulating and reassuring to an old cynic like me!

  2. Cheers Mandy


  3. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts here and sort of summing up the reasons for your agnosticism or for how you feel about it. Very interesting and informative. I would still like to see a post about the whole “taste” issue and how you reason through that–but perhaps another day. I do plan to respond to your current post but I will probably need to do so with my own post–as the comment section is really not the place to take up that much room.

    Again, thanks. Cheers.

  4. Thanks Darrell

    I’ll look out for the post, and perhaps there’ll be a chance to resume the ‘taste’ conversation there.


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