I’ve told you about my atheist neighbor. Let me tell you now about my agnostic friend.
Like atheist, agnostic is also a compound term. It’s formed by the Greek word to know, gnosis (pronounced, no’-sis), and the negative prefix, a. Thus, agnostic means, I don’t know.
Of course, there are any number of things all of us are agnostic about. I’m agnostic about how the transmission works in my truck. I’m agnostic about calculus. The weather man on TV is agnostic about the weather. Ha. That was unkind, but I couldn’t resist.
Agnosticism is more opaque than atheism. It’s not as narrowly defined or clearly evident, at least not without additional discussion.
Thinking again about my truck’s transmission: I’m agnostic about how it works, i.e. I don’t know about the mechanics of an automatic transmission. My truck transmission is important, which implies I should learn about transmissions so that I’m in the know. However, while I’m happy my truck has a transmission, I don’t really want to know the ends and outs of what makes it work.
In my agnosticism about my truck transmission, I have the choice to educate myself, choose to be indifferent about what I don’t know, or I can land in the middle: I only want to know enough to get me by. What’s common to these options is that I have a choice. I can delve into transmission function. I can look into the subject just so far. Or, I can simply shift the truck and drive.
In the simplest definition of terms, atheism is an either-or decision. Agnosticism exists on a spectrum.
My friend very deliberately denied being an atheist. “I don’t think I ever believed,” he told me.
My friend who is agnostic about God has the same choices I’ve described about my truck’s transmission. But while the choices are the same, the fundamental difference between a transmission and God is that one is inanimate and the other animate, i.e. alive and existing. This means, I can make a terrible mistake by not knowing about God while I can get through life just fine leaving the mechanics of my truck to a mechanic. Thus, the importance of this discussion.
At first, my agnostic friend struck me as more open-minded than my atheist neighbor. My neighbor was resolute and closed-minded. My agnostic friend seemed to be saying, I’m not so arrogant as to speak categorically of that which is unknowable to me. It seemed the perfect forum to explore what there is to know about God.
Except, my friend and I have different definitions of, know. To me, know means to explore, discover, find out, examine, and be open-minded, i.e. it’s possible to know some things, but not everything. To my friend, know means to control, to prove, to reproduce reliably and repetitively in a managed environment. If this isn’t possible, then it is not possible to know.
My friend is a scientist, an optical physicist more specifically. And, he’s brilliant, not just smart. I’ve met lots of smart people who couldn’t remember to comb their hair before leaving the house, let alone tell me what they know. My friend is smart, but what makes him brilliant is that he can translate the scientific world and its nuances so that [even] I understand.
I asked him about string theory the other day. He said, “Well, you’ve got this really long piece of string, see.” No. I’m kidding. I did ask him about the subject though—this marriage of Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics—and I came away with something rudimentary that I could ponder. (I think it’s more like monofilament, but that’s a different blog subject.)
I also asked my friend about God—does He exist, can you know Him, is He engaged?
My friend very deliberately denied being an atheist. “I don’t think I ever believed,” he told me. (How can you stop believing if you never started?) He claimed instead, agnosticism.
For my atheist neighbor, God was metaphysical, i.e. His existence/nonexistence was philosophical, theoretical, indefinable, and existing in the realm of belief. For my agnostic friend, the existence of God is an empirical problem, not a philosophical consideration. He’s a scientist, after all.
He thinks of science like my accountant thinks about accounting. There are rules. Nothing good comes from creative accounting, e.g. creative accounting is what landed Al Capone in prison. Nothing good comes from a scientific method that is not systematic, i.e. controlled. If you mess with the system’s rules, you can’t know—i.e. scientifically assess—the outcome.
Scientific method is about controlling variables in order to test a hypothesis. If that proves profitable, and the test is replicable with reliable results, the hypothesis becomes a theory, and if further tests are reliable, and replicable results occur, then eventually you declare your theory a law, meaning your initial idea (hypothesis) is now a fact (law), i.e. it is consistently reliable and replicable. For example: The Law of Gravity states that if you drop your mobile phone, it is going to hit the ground every time. (Murphy’s Law says the screen will also break (smile).)
What my friend doesn’t know about God is how to control Him, i.e. how to prove Him so that He is predictable, managed, understood, and His behavior replicable in that he gets the results about God that he desires. It’s the view stated by Voltaire, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”
With scientific method as his definitive test, my friend prioritizes, a) what he knows, b) what he hopes to find out based upon his best thinking, and c) his ability to test what he doesn’t know by controlled experimentation. If something he tests surprises him, then because he began with a controlled experiment, he can retrace his steps to discover if he, a) made a mistake, or b) discovered something new. But knowing all begins and ends in the mind of my friend.
As you would surmise, there were agnostics long before Huxley coined the term in 1869. Discussing the concept, he said, "[Agnostic] simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe."
Like my atheist neighbor who was thoughtful about atheism, my agnostic friend is as true as true can be to Huxley’s definition. Since there are “no scientific grounds” for believing in God, the existence of God is not known nor is His existence knowable. Therefore, belief is unscientific and irrational.
Reliability could be determined, and more importantly, replicated.
Huxley’s definition is not only misguided, it is arrogant, i.e. if God is not definable by mankind’s scientific method, then God doesn’t exist. By this standard of methodology, even if God could be proven, He wouldn’t be qualified to be God since the supreme seat in the universe is already occupied by science.
My friend would be offended if I told him I thought his agnosticism was arrogant. He would defer to the many great minds of science—and to the collective of magnificent minds that make up the sciences. He would identify himself and his thinking as a drop in the bucket at best. By arrogance, he would think I meant him in particular, but what I mean by arrogant thinking is the notion that [even] the cumulative cogitating by the best and brightest among us is capable of determining, defining, and legitimizing the divine. It’s arrogance born of the Enlightenment Age (1685-1815).
Scientific method has been around a long time. Newton figured out gravity by dropping things, over and over. Magellan demonstrated the Earth to be round by sailing over the horizon and coming back home. But recognized, scientific method didn’t become pervasive until the Enlightenment, aka the Age of Reason. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. Did enlightenment occur because mankind was more scientific or vice versa?
The point is, mankind began employing scientific methodology and grand results occurred. There was an industrial revolution. Systems were created. Reliability could be determined, and more importantly, replicated. The mysticism and superstition of the Dark Age was wrong—so brutally wrong. Through reason and method, mankind has more control than indicated. We can figure this out. In fact, man has so much power that he can determine destiny. The challenge is simply to manage trial and error.
Through scientific methodology, mankind advanced in an ordered world. Power was predictable, attainable, and manageable. The rule of law could govern the soul. Money could be made, a middle class developed, and wealth distributed. Dark succumbed to light—man’s enlightenment, and now that the methodology for reliable, replicable progress was known, man could reliably advance, and keep on advancing. The humanitarian ideal of eventual utopia appeared realistic.
All that is required is diligence to method, control, law, and confidence in systems.
Science declared that we can know, and if we don’t know, we can methodically test until we discover and increase knowledge. While there are mysteries today, there is no need for faith in tomorrow. We will figure it out before tomorrow comes. Everything is regulated. With enough time—and science will help us gain all of that we need—we will achieve what we need, want, and desire.
This seems like a good idea. It’s hopeful. What troubles me most isn’t the science behind the idea but the history. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced the wars of the twentieth century. Before that, the pinnacle of rule-by-empire collapsed with the Romans in 476, and the world descended into the horrors of the Dark Ages for several centuries. Contemplating ancient history, the first iteration of this pattern culminates with the great flood in Genesis. The means of man’s demise have been different, but repeatedly man’s best practices have been insufficient to protect our sand castles.
It was a big question, but it was not a hard question.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the rule of law, and scientific methodology, and humanitarian effort. We should all pull together, by all means; and in so doing, we can make our world a better place. But in doing so, to believe mankind is capable of mitigating what ails us and achieve utopia, is historically unlikely and strikes me as unattainable. We’ve been in pursuit of this humanitarian goal for several thousand years and the survivors of our last world war are not yet all deceased—and that war followed the war to end all wars.
Let me say again, I’m a fan of science. I believe in it. I just don’t think it is grand enough to legitimately boast of being the last word about humanity. Philosophy, theology, and history indicate that humanity isn’t confronted with a systems problem, but an inherent problem.
My friend said that astronomers don’t know what comprises ninety-six percent of the universe. I had to think about that: Ninety-six percent of what is beyond our atmosphere hasn’t been identified, let alone understood. Whatever else this means, I gather it indicates the people on the International Space Station have job security.
I asked my friend, “Do you suppose it’s possible that in that unknown 96% there might be room for God to exist?”
Immediately. Without consideration. Instantly. Definitively, my friend replied, “I see that differently.” And, he signaled his answer was final and the conversation concluded, even though that’s all he said.
That response didn’t make sense.
It was a big question, but it was not a hard question. He could have said, “Perhaps,” or “Maybe,” or “I don’t think so because of XYZ.” I wanted to ask, “What do you see differently regarding that which you admit knowing nothing about?” But, I didn’t.
It wasn’t even a hard question to consider. I might have asked, “Do you suppose there might be a larger fish in deeper water?” He’d say, “Perhaps.” “Maybe.”
But it was a probing question, not about the universe, but about the potential for God in a vast space of unknown. The terminal and definitive nature of my friend’s reply indicated that he didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and didn’t want to consider if he could know.
The response was so wildly uncharacteristic of this most-thoughtful and deliberate friend, I grasped that he was actually indicating, “I don’t want to know if God exists because then I would have to recognize that I’m not in charge of my destiny, God is.”
For all the piety, intellectualism, and distinguishing intrigue associated with both atheism and agnosticism, it boils down to this: Neither my atheist neighbor nor my agnostic friend want there to be a God. For varying reasons, both adhere to a philosophy of self-determination. As Henley put it in “Invictus,” “I’m the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.”
As the Enlightenment dawned brighter and brighter, the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century transformed how the world worked and lived. The wars in Europe concluded. The philosophers looked forward, and intoxicated on scientific success, they declared God dead. (God had been in charge during the Middle Ages and that hadn’t worked out too well. But with the Enlightenment, mankind was in charge.) The old monarchies were bankrupt and overthrown and the ideological promises of Socialism were thrilling to contemplate.
All of culture was being enlightened, even faith. Philosophers and theologians embraced the wave of societal advancement and determined to submit the Bible and faith to a “higher critique” based upon scientific methodology. Mostly Germans came up with the idea, so the movement is called, German Higher Criticism.
They formed a new orthodoxy, a new way to approach the Bible and faith, based upon reason and science. Faith was irrational. The message of the ancient book was relegated to myth, on par with the Greek myths, or the myths of Native American culture. Moral value remained, but nothing more.
Agnosticism is an attitude narrow enough to exclude God but broad enough to enable self-determination.
It’s an arrogant attitude, when you think about it. How is it that ancient authors were supposed to write using a modern historical method that incorporated scientific methodology? It’s like arguing that your great grandmother was dumb because she didn’t have a smart phone.
I’m not a science hater in the least. It’s a good tool and interesting area of study. Particular tools apply to assist us with certain problems. If I want to understand black holes in the universe, astronomy is just the tool I need. If I want to know if I’m in love, scientific method is awkward at best. Using scientific method to evaluate mental ascent, or to discern an affair of the heart, makes as much sense as using knitting needles to work on my bicycle.
But this perspective misses the point. To argue with my atheist neighbor over how large the leap of faith is—as if by making it a reasonable step, he would take it— is not the point. Nor is it the point to present what is known to my agnostic friend, thinking that if God becomes more reasonable, he will be more open to God.
Let me say again: Atheism and agnosticism are not about unfaith or unknowing; they are about not wanting to believe or know.
Considering my friend’s agnosticism: It’s unreasonable. It relies upon science to deliver something it can’t. Agnosticism is an attitude narrow enough to exclude God but broad enough to enable self-determination.
Here’s the incongruity that helped me understand my friend: He’s not short-sighted. Neither is he narrow-minded. He simply doesn’t want to know, or consider, or even turn and think about God, or sadly, even step outside the known control of scientific methodology where he is confident to consider that which by definition is so wild that the universe can’t contain Him.
My friend’s agnosticism means that he can’t test for God in a controlled environment—i.e. the laboratory of his own mind, preferences, wishes, comfort levels, experience, predispositions, and knowledge. If God exists, then by definition He is in charge. If God doesn’t exist in my friend’s constructs, then my friend remains god.
Thus, when I ask, my friend is clear: “I see that differently. I’m an agnostic.”
It’s a test of wills, in reality. My friend demands control in order to know. God requires faith as the first step in knowing.
As of this writing, neither is willing to change methodologies.