Not Knowing, and Comfortable Not Knowing

One must be discreet, but one also must be honest, and mention the surreal when it pops up. So it was last Sunday afternoon in Venice Beach and late lunch with a highly-respected writer from Boston, with two books, and himself a noted book reviewer and essayist – what we used to call a public intellectual, although God knows America seems to have no use for those now. No names of course – one does not identify the other party without that party’s permission. And it wasn’t anything he said that shifted things, but they did shift.

And you have to understand the setting. Venice Beach is a strange place, and perhaps the epicenter of all that is surreal about Southern California – see these pages of photographs – and this was the Sidewalk Café, right on Ocean Front Walk, with the second-rate and highly-amplified rock band right out front doing covers of Eagles songs – Life in the Fast Lane and Hotel California and all that – and that bearded fellow in a turban with his guitar rolling past on his neon-orange rollerblades now and then, and the tourists mixed with the studded and tattooed punks mixed with the bikini babes and skateboarders, and a few of the drug-addled homeless, screaming at the sky – all passing by, while small groups of two or three police, with holstered guns and their bulletproof vests, looked on, seeming a bit bored by it all. And the late afternoon murk was moving in off the cold Pacific, so the scene was getting a bit translucent. It was America, in an odd way. Think Götterdämmerung – sung by the Eagles.

And the talk was about writing – his books and essays and this site – and about exploring ideas in depth. And we agreed on many things, some of which had to do with the moral component of really looking into things, accounting for arguments one way and counterarguments the other way, and inevitably deciding what was nonsense and what had to be admitted was important, and right. It was more than thinking things through. It was deciding – after painstaking analysis – what needed to be said, to make things better.

Yes, it was a strange place to have that conversation, but maybe an appropriate place. That’s the American milieu, and no one turned and interrupted and said they couldn’t help but hear what was said about Chomsky on his side – or Swift on this side – and they had something to add, or a question to ask about what was really being implied, or maybe we should consider Korzybski or the French deconstructionists, or maybe Kant. Of course that wasn’t going to happen. America isn’t like that. And the band played on, as they say.

And the afternoon ended – off in the iconic Hollywood-silly Mini Cooper to get him to his car – and the drive back here to Hollywood thinking about it all. And the murk – the June marine layer – hadn’t reached Hollywood yet. It was brutally sunny, with everything in high definition – except for some of the ideas floating around. There was Noam Chomsky – an idiosyncratic but thorough thinker, who didn’t ever hide from where his logic led him – one of the fathers of modern linguists, but also a dissident and a bit of an anarchist. He never avoided the moral component of where the logic led him. That was the whole point.

And there was Jonathan Swift – he of The Digression on Madness – a sly and inside-out assault on expectations of authorial reliability:

For if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, it is manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth, and the reason is just at our elbow: because imagination can build nobler scenes and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or Nature will be at the expense to furnish.

And there are all the other satires where we’re all dupes of our own judgment – Gulliver’s Travels isn’t exactly a children’s book. Dig deep and you realize you don’t know much, and, if you think you do, you’re kidding yourself – a fool – or kidding others for gain – a knave. Swift was either a cynic of the first order, or a brutally honest epistemologist. Imagine him meeting Chomsky – Swift would disassemble him. Or maybe not – Chomsky is rather formidable.

But there was the public intellectual from Boston who was speaking of the moral component of the systematic analysis of ideas – and a lifelong Catholic, a man once deep into Opus Dei but now a skeptic. And, on the other side of the table in the afternoon haze at Venice Beach, a guy who did his graduate work on Swift, and on Swift using language against itself, to prove the systematic analysis of ideas could indeed lead to madness, and in Venice Beach the guy who never was very interested in religion, because his grandfather, the Congregational minister, gave his sermons in Slovak to his Slovak congregation in Pittsburgh, except on the high holidays when he switched to Czech. It was all a pleasant buzz, but without much meaning. So it was Boston and LA in Venice Beach, and we were coming to the whole idea of the importance of thorough analysis of ideas from far distant ends of some spectrum.

But as much as this site is about skeptical analysis – once you’re deep into Swift there’s no escape – the issue of what is right, or moral, has come up again and again over the years, and in relation to religion. There have been columns that have touched upon the New Atheism – you know, Richard Dawkins (see May 1, 2005 – Fossil Rabbits in the Precambrian) and Christopher Hitchens (see Sunday, April 29, 2007 – Finding Religion) – and that movement is fascinating:

Atheism, backed by recent scientific advancement, has reached the point where it is time to take a far less accommodating attitude toward religion, superstition, and religion-based fanaticism than had been extended by moderate atheists, secularists, and some secular scientists. According to CNN, “What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

Yep, in 2004, Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason – a bestseller. What happened on September 11, 2001, can be attributed to Islam – a “cult of death” – but Harris was no nicer to Christianity or Judaism, and he had no use for “religious moderates” – there really were no such people. And then in 2006, Letter to a Christian Nation. What are you thinking, folks? And there was The God Delusion – another bestseller. And others followed – Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett and God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor Stenger – then Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And then there was Bill Maher’s movie – Religulous – but that wasn’t argument, just nastiness.

Still, something is up:

The new atheists write mainly from a scientific perspective. Unlike the previous philosophers, many of whom thought that science was indifferent, agnostic or even incapable of dealing with the “God” concept, Dawkins on the contrary, in his book argues that “God Hypothesis” is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified. Other prominent new atheists such as Victor Stenger also insist that the personal Abrahamic God is a scientific hypothesis that can be tested by standard methods of science. They conclude that the hypothesis failed the test. They also try to show how naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe from the most distant galaxies to the origin of life and species or even to the inner workings of the brain that result in the phenomenon of mind. Nowhere, they claim, is it necessary to introduce God or the supernatural to understand reality.

So the new atheists dispute the claim that science has nothing to say about God – the absence of evidence is evidence of absence when evidence should be there, and is not. Intelligent design – we haven’t figured out how something works so God must have made it that way – is nonsense. The argument from divine hiddenness was always nonsense. Things actually look just as they would be expected to look if they were not designed at all.

And these guys want to be listened to:

The New Atheists are particularly critical about two non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), the view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that a “domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” In Gould’s proposal, science and religion should be confined to two different non-overlapping domains: science would be limited to the empirical realm, including theories developed to describe observations, while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.

But Dawkins argues that the Abrahamic religions constantly deal in scientific matters – how things came to be the way they are. And others gripe that Gould attempted to redefine religion as just moral philosophy, but that’s nonsense if you read the religious texts, like the stuff about the creation of the world. So if religion does more than talk about ultimate meanings and morals, well, then fair is fair – science is not somehow automatically forbidden from doing the same thing. Morals involve human behavior and that is an observable phenomenon, and science is the study of observable phenomena, so there you go. And maybe there’s an evolutionary origin of ethics and morality – there has been a lot of research on that (see January 22, 2010 – Survival of the Kindest and Least Righteous).

In short, this is all a bit of a mess. And all of it came flooding back on the drive back home from Venice Beach, thinking about how sure of things Chomsky is, always, and how skeptical Swift was, always. And there was the nagging thought that being sure of things was all tied up in being religious, or at least starting there. Or maybe there was something to faith in science, not faith in faith but faith in logic itself. But what of those of us who just don’t get the faith thing either way? It’s all Slovak (or Czech) to us.

But there may be a third way. See Ron Rosenbaum with An Agnostic Manifesto:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Somewhere Jonathan Swift is smiling. Yes, he was Dean of Saint Patrick’s in Dublin – Church of England, not Catholic – but he’d get what Rosenbaum is up to:

I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism” – as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Skeptics don’t throw out one religion for another, and that’s what Rosenbaum sees happening here:

Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence – the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities” – none of which strikes me as persuasive.

In fact, Swift covered that in the third book of Gulliver’s Travels – there the science is nonsense, and some of it horrifying. And now, Rosenbaum offers this anecdote:

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers, I found myself feeling more than anything unconvinced by certainties on either side – and feeling the need for solidarity and identity with other doubters. Thus my call for a revivified agnosticism. Our T-shirt will read: I just don’t know. (I should probably say here that I still consider myself Jewish in everything but the believing in God part, which, I’ll admit, others may take exception to.)

Let me make clear that I accept most of the New Atheist’s criticism of religious bad behavior over the centuries, and of theology itself. I just don’t accept turning science into a new religion until it can show it has all the answers, which it hasn’t, and probably never will.

Atheists have no evidence – and certainly no proof! – that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved. And so atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Thomas Aquinas, who tried to prove by logic the possibility of creation “ex nihilo” (from nothing). His eventual explanation entailed a Supreme Being standing outside of time and space somehow endowing it with existence (and interfering once in a while) without explaining what caused this source of “uncaused causation” to be created in the first place.

Yep, uncaused causation is Swift territory – this is using language against itself. The only way that makes sense is if those two words don’t mean what they mean, or at least one of them doesn’t mean what it means. But the real issue is that the new atheists, or New Atheists (in caps), are also going all Thomas Aquinas on us:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

The idea here is that agnostics suffer from association with atheists, by theists, and with theists, by atheists – but they are neither:

In fact, the term agnostic was coined in 1869 by one of Darwin’s most fervent followers, Thomas Henry Huxley, famously known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of evolutionary theory. Here’s how he defined his agnosticism: “This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.”

So Rosenbaum concludes this:

Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

And Rosenbaum rather likes the agnosticism blog of John Wilkins, an Australian scientist, because Rosenbaum discovered the ongoing debate between the New Atheists and the Newer Agnostics. And their email exchange about the New Atheists is revealing, and Rosenbaum ends with this:

The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.

And he cites the New York Times’ Errol Morris:

We have “the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily foresee that this would lead to unending unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here’s where self-deception steps in. We wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact.”


Like I said, it’s complicated. But the world has suffered enough from oversimplifications. The agnostic moment has come.

Now that’s odd. That was the substance of the conversation in Venice Beach, and you can get there from either end of the spectrum, and from either end of the country.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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8 Responses to Not Knowing, and Comfortable Not Knowing

  1. rick says:

    Agnostic Ron Rosenbaum:

    “Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence – the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”

    I beg to differ.

    I should explain that I, too, am an agnostic — certainly not a card-carrying athiest — but I do find it interesting that an agnostic commits the same error here usually attributable to theists, that is, that if you don’t believe in God, then how do you explain the existence of the universe?

    The point is, atheism has nothing to do with theories concerning the existence of the universe, and has everything to do with the existence of God. Atheists believe there is no God, regardless of however the universe may have come into being.

    And, of course, what the atheist has in common with the theist is certainty — in the case of the theist, that there IS a God, and in the case of the atheist, that there is NO God. The agnostic simply says that he doesn’t know either way.

    I was pleased a year or so ago to come upon a fourth way: Ignosticism.

    Essentially what it comes down to, as I see it, is this: the ignostic differs from the agnostic in that, while the agnostic claims not to know the answer, the ignostic goes a step further and claims not to even understand the question.

    In fact, I myself might be one of those.

  2. geo says:

    A lovely vignette of a stirring conversation. I felt wiser after reading your account of it.

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  4. Jim Harrison says:

    I’m no fan of strident atheism because I don’t think of it as much an accomplishment to notice that the world probably isn’t haunted. On the other hand, Rosenbaum’s reliance on the supposed inability of anybody to deal with the “why is there something rather than nothing” question is naive or dishonest. Whether you are an atheist, agnostic, or Trappist monk, you should be able to recognize that not all question are legitimate. To hold that why questions are automatically in order is already to subscribe to a very serious metaphysical presupposition. When somebody asks me why there is something rather than nothing, I feel like a bachelor who’s been asked when he stopped beating his wife. It isn’t necessarily my fault if I can’t figure out a snappy response.

  5. geo says:

    Nicely said, Jim. Strident anything is a bore, including strident agnosticism of the Rosenbaum variety.

  6. Nicely done. Thank you.

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  8. Hitch says:

    Rosenbaum really doesn’t get how most agnostics, or atheists think. That is the deep flaw here. Most so-called atheists do not exhibit rock hard certaintly. Many are Russell agnostics, a type atheism that for example also fits Christopher Hitchens. It can be simply summarized with “You did not give us enough evidence.” This is not some dogmatic certainty, it’s a rejection of certainties brought to an observer without sufficient evidence.

    What is worse in Rosenbaum’s piece is his butchering of Huxley, but to be fair many people butcher Huxley, also Dawkins.

    Huxley’s agnosticism is not a celebration of radical skepticism. Rather the contrary, it is the replacement of unfounded truth claims with a method. And that method he calls agnoticism.

    Rosenbaum quotes him quite correctly. But he doesn’t go into Huxley’s admittedly not very dense exposition of it. But Huxleyian agnosticism is not kind to believers. It denies them the ability to make any unfounded truth-claims, because they did not follow the method.

    In reality for many people the boundary between atheism and agnosticism is non-existant, and it is a matter of taste. Richard Dawkins calls himself tooth-fairy agnostic. It acknowledges that nothing that doesn’t exist can ever by universally disproven, we can still give a some extra information about it, that indicates how the information content about “I don’t know”.

    Certainly “I don’t know but I can get back to you by tommorrow with the answer” is a completely different kind of of “don’t know” than “really noone knows and there is a good chance that noone will ever know”.

    I personally am inclined to reject labels. If pressed I’m an agnostic of the Huxleyian type (which implies a mild variation of Russell’s agnosticism). But I also have much sympathy for Ayer who said that even the word “god” is as yet not properly formed so we cannot even form statements like “god exists” “god does not exist” “we don’t know if god exists” yet, because we make existence claims with respect to something that is hardly well defined.

    To see how Ayer’s concern is an eminentally practical one, one has to simply survey what people consider to be god. It is not a mononlithic concept at all. Even people within the same faith can drastically disagree what god means.

    As for the fights between people adopting the label atheist and those adopting the label agnostic, it largely boils down to psychological preference. Do I want to emphasize doubt, or do I want to emphasize the rejection of beliefs that are not well supported? In practical content it is virtually the same. And if one actually listens to Dawkins or Hitchens they are not dogmatic about the basic question, “does god exist”. They do not offer up the “religious” no. They really offer the agnostic answer, along the lines we don’t know and we have not seen enough evidence, so we consider it exceedingly unlikely. In fact in the cases where science made predictions, scientific explanations have turned out more useful.

    Science too is not a religion. Rosenbaum tries to make the case that it’s about science explaining everything. However one will not find, for example, Dawkins ever making that claim, nor Hitchens though not scientifically trained.

    In many arguments the “New Atheists” have become a sort of caricature. People don’t quote what they actually say, but rather we argue against the image that they are dogmatic, exhibit unwarranted, excessive certainty and so forth.

    I’m not averse to those arguments, but I would prefer if people cited their books, cited their articles, their debates, in the context it had.

    I for one have plenty of examples how Hitchens explains his, I would say clearly, agnostic position. Where Dawkins explains the limits of science and so forth.

    Reading Rosenbaum one would never know. But I’m not surprised. His article is a thinly coated repulsion of New Atheism without discussing its content. And it’s a rather shallow exposition of agnosticism. I personally think it’s basically sloppy research, but this is not so unusual in our world were we can write articles that are about the image of people, not what they actually say.

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