There was this writer from Argentina named Borges. He wrote poems and essays as well as some weird, mind-bending short stories. He said this once when asked about his personal beliefs:
Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity.
Gnosis is a Greek word meaning knowledge. But it has always been applied to metaphysical or divine knowledge. So to be a-gnostic is to accept not-knowledge. That is, knowledge that cannot be tested or arrived at by reason alone. The mystic claims knowledge of god but the ways of the mystic are not necessarily accessible or repeatable. The experience of god, although universal, is still personal. Just because one guy can sit under a tree for 49 days to find god doesn’t mean it will work for you.
I used to call myself an atheist. I distrust dogma, and I particularly distrust theologies (or any -ologies) that rely on elaborate logical scaffolds. To me, a-theism is not a rejection of god, just a rejection of the bullshit people have constructed about god. (I tend to think we made Him in Our image, not the other way around.) But in the end the notion of god is merely unscientific, nothing else. The fact that something is unscientific does not mean it is untrue, merely that it is not amenable to analysis. God cannot be part of an experiment. You can’t prove or disprove the existence of an omnipotent being. You cannot write a testable hypothesis. Since you can’t do that you can’t do science on the subject.
It was Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the word agnostic but he of course did not invent the notion. Humans have wrestled with such questions for as long as there have been humans. I used to think an agnostic was a Hamlet-like fellow who could not make up his mind. Atheists seemed to be sure of themselves, agnostics seemed wishy-washy. I used to think being sure of yourself was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure!
Since science cannot provide answers to questions like “why are we here?” and “is there a god?” or “what happens to our souls when we die?” a guy like me with a scientific-rationalist bent tends to think such questions are irrelevant. And as far as my day-to-day life goes, they are. I don’t think, necessarily, that such questions are unanswerable. They just cannot be answered by human reason. Any answer obtained will be about subjective experiences, and in science you have to have repeatability. This is why popular things like astrology and psychic powers don’t survive scientific study—their claims can’t be reproduced.
An atheist says no and an agnostic says I don’t know. There is a big difference between the two. Theism is the belief in a deity or deities. I don’t believe in deities but I’m much less of an atheist these days. Here’s more from Borges:
The world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny.
I can see the appeal of that. I would counter that the picture of the world that science gives us is far stranger than anything people have imagined. And I’m talking about all the things people have imagined since the beginning of human knowledge. What science shows us about the universe is, in my view, way more bizarre than the ghosts, demons, and monsters of our pre-scientific past. I used to think that because this was so that all that nutty stuff was pointless.
But having such an opinion, that such-and-such is pointless and such-and-such is not is rather pointless, don’t you think? In other words, it’s just an opinion, and everybody has opinions. We pay some people to spout their opinions on TV every night and they don’t have anything to say, really, their opinion is no more truthful or valuable than anyone else’s. This is the problem with opinions. This is why I like science. Your opinion of a scientific result does not change the result! It’s a repeatable phenomenon whether you want it to be or not.
But that criterion, true for everybody all the time, is a tough one. Only a limited set of our knowledge can pass that test. I think that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of stuff out there and winnowing it down to stuff we can really work is to our benefit. It’s not so much about what DO we know but what CAN we know. What kind of knowledge can we be the most sure of?
Just because we can be sure of some things does not mean that the other things have less value. Take love for instance. There’s no certainty in human relationships, they are entirely an act of faith. We spend much of our lives living in this subjective world of hope and belief. Clearly things we cannot be sure of, in the scientific sense, are of great importance to us. I’m guessing there are more people in the world with religious faith and belief in god than there are not.
So even though the probability of The Holy Trinity seems awfully low to me, I choose to believe in the possibility, no matter how remote. After all, I cannot say for sure, so to reject such a claim would be unscientific. I can put The Trinity on a mental back burner but it serves no purpose to dispose of the idea. It’s a powerful thing even if it is not part of my world view. I remember when I first learned of the Michelson-Morely experiment which was an attempt to find the so-called aether that people at the time believed filled empty space. The experiment did not verify the hypothesis. It showed that the aether was not necessary to the propagation of electromagnetic waves. It did not, as I first believed, show that the aether did not exist. It merely showed that such a description of empty space was not needed to account for what was known about nature. The aether may still be there, but it’s not what we once thought it was, so we put it on the back burner.
Here’s the last bit from Borges:
It makes me more tolerant.
I like that.