Monday, June 28, 2010

The courage to say that you don't know

Excellent piece in Slate today by Ron Rosenbaum, An Agnostic Manifesto: At least we know what we don't know. It's a powerful defense of the "ism" that never gets any respect, looked down on by believers and atheists alike, as well as their modern, more muscular cousins, the Creationists and the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. Rosenbaum calls for a new, less apologetic agnosticism.
Alas, agnostics still suffer from association with atheists by theists, and with theists by atheists. So let us be more precise about what agnostics are and aren't. They aren't disguised creationists. 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.
Huxley originally defined his agnosticism against the claims of religion, but it also applies to the claims of science in its know-it-all mode. I should point out that I accept all that science has proven with evidence and falsifiable hypotheses but don't believe there is evidence or falsifiable certitude that science can prove or disprove everything. Agnosticism doesn't contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranted untested or untestable certainties.

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.
Check out the full article, written by a natural-born skeptic and contrarian.
Why has agnosticism fallen out of favor? New Atheism offers the glamour of fraudulent rebelliousness, while agnosticism has only the less eye-catching attractions of humility. The willingness to say "I don't know" is less attention-getting than "I know, I know. I know it all."

Humility in the face of mystery has been a recurrent theme of mine. I wrote most recently about the problem of consciousness and found myself allied with the agnostic group of philosophers known as the Mysterians, who argue that we are epistemically, flat-out unable to know the nature of consciousness while being within consciousness. I'm reluctant to call agnostics Mysterians, much as I like the proto-punk ballad "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. But I do like that agnosticism, which in fact can be more combative than its image, does have a sort of punk, disruptive, troublemaker side.
I like Rosenbaum's phrase "humility in the face of mystery." I also think it points to another reason for the rise of the New Atheism that he doesn't mention.

Humility in the face of mystery pretty much describes the attitude of many scientists in an earlier era who patiently, skeptically pursued the scientific method. Not so much today, when cutting-edge science is a matter of high technology and big bucks. Tolerance of uncertainty doesn't help to nail down the big grants. Aggressive certainty does. After all, funding sources want to feel they're going to get something for their money. And since Creationism might have an effect on the politics of science funding, it's not surprising that many -- but certainly not all -- scientists feel obliged to join in the tribal response of the New Atheism. I suspect that many are closer to agnosticism in their personal beliefs, since its temperamentally closer to the scientific spirit than faith in any kind of certainty. But once they join the battle they don't want to lose credibility by sounding like wimps.

It's hard to stand up for ambiguity and uncertainty in the middle of a war. Especially a religious war. I admire Rosenbaum for trying.

1 comment:

Palmer said...

It seems that you swallowed Rosenbaum's straw man hook, line, and sinker.

Atheism is not the same as science being able to explain everything, contrary to Rosenbaum.

"Faced with the fundamental question: 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually."

This is patently false.

I fail to see the humility of straw men.