Excavating agnosticism

You may think you know what agnosticism is, but I think there is far more to it than meets the eye once you start digging. I have just finished producing a series of videos in which I try to make a comprehensive case in digestibly-sized chunks. Agnosticism

First of all, agnosticism is a practice, not a failure of decision. It is not just about God, but God just happens to be a particularly well-known example of a pair of metaphysical opposites (theism and atheism) to which agnosticism offers a third alternative. It does not involve hanging onto impossibilities, but rather coming to terms with them. Far from being passive, it involves an effort not to be sucked into the absolutizing extremes that dominate discussion (the diagram here, though it may remind you of a football referee, represents the potentially isolated position of the agnostic between dominant groups).

If those points surprise you, you will need to start by looking at the introductory video on agnosticism.

But there’s much more to be said after this. What, after all, is wrong with the extremes in the first place? I want to argue that it’s not simply a dogmatic failure of justification that’s wrong with it (though that is bad enough), but much more seriously, the role of metaphysical (i.e. absolute) beliefs in repressing alternatives, and thus constantly limiting the new conditions we can address, as well as creating conflict. In ‘what’s wrong with metaphysics’, I argue that metaphysics should not be confused with basic or prior claims (a common move by philosophers), that absolute metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally, and that their only function is to maintain unconditional loyalty to groups or authorities. Metaphysics is a power ploy rooted in a past era when it may possibly have been necessary – but it now greatly hampers us. It’s geared for ancient armies, not modern democracies. That’s why we really need to be agnostic.

But after showing what’s wrong with absolute belief, it’s then very important to rescue the meaningfulness of absolute terms. Terms like God, truth, Satan, nature, beauty etc. should not be objects of absolute belief, but they can still be fully appreciated as archetypes with crucial meaning in embodied human experience. That means that we really can have our cake and eat it: we can participate in religious life without compromising our integrity or triggering the repression and conflict that often accompanies religious ‘belief’. Metaphysical belief is in no way necessary to what religion has to contribute to human experience. All we have to do is separate absolute belief from archetypal meaning.

The practice of agnosticism also demands clarity about what it is we’re avoiding, and the balanced treatment of positive and negative kinds of absolute claim as equally unhelpful. This is the subject of the final two videos. ‘Sceptical slippage’ deals with the tendency to slip from agnostic to negative positions. It offers some explanations as to why we tend to do this, and thus why agnosticism is so unfairly treated in much dominant thought. The final video, ‘Even-handedness’ offers some practical principles for maintaining a clear balance so as to be able to practise agnosticism without giving too much weight on one side or the other.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Excavating agnosticism

  1. Hi Robert,

    I’ve recently been finding agnosticism a challenging state of mind to maintain. For me few questions arouse more raw anxiety than the old prime ontological question “why does anything exist?”, which has intruded, unannounced and unwanted, into my thoughts during the last week. My feeling is very much like suddenly being aware of the full force of reality as *reality*, and the sheer strangeness of it being here and being experienced, but the mystery of it isn’t of the pleasurable, Wittgensteinian kind. It’s the kind that sets your mind to work desperately trying to come up with an emotionally satisfying answer when of course there isn’t – not one that could possibly meet the demands stipulated anyway. Both scientific and religious answers fall short.

    Part of me recognises this; part of me half-believes that enjoyment of life and ability to function normally within it isn’t connected to these enormous, impossible questions. Life makes a lot more intuitive sense when I’m doing things I enjoy. However, the other half of me is refusing to let this question die – it sort of ticks away in the background; I often feel if I haven’t thought about it and put it to rest for that day, or kicked the can further down the road, so to speak, it will envelop me and I’ll start to panic.

    I suppose I’m not too far off the mark in saying that true agnosticism about reality within a Middle Way context is about accepting this kind of fundamental uncertainty, but when dealing with this ontological issue it has an unpleasant potency that makes that difficult.

  2. Hi Laurie, Good to hear from you again, and thanks for sharing your experiences of this.

    I can’t say that I’ve experienced the sensation you describe at all. Perhaps others who frequent this site have? The only thing it reminds me of is Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of ‘nausea’ in his novel of that name. I wonder if you’ve read that novel? The nausea he refers to is of a special existential type, and seems to be linked to the thingness of things (for lack of a more articulate way of putting it). But, as I say, this is beyond my experience, so I’m not sure that I have any basis to comment further!

  3. I’m familiar with Sartre’s philosophy without having read his works. I never quite got on with it. For me existentialism is good at the diagnosis but less sure-footed when it comes to the cure. I disapprove of the emphasis on authenticity and despair instead of pragmatic recognition that these sensations are transient, probably strongly connected to physical wellbeing, and exacerbated by the impossibility of having definite answers.

    My current perspective is that the world is strange, but as far as we know it’s all we have to work with, and ruminating on its ontology is pointless and irrelevant when it comes to living well. Is this related to any Middle Way approach?

  4. I’d certainly agree with you that ‘ruminating on ontology is pointless and irrelevant’, and the extremes avoided by the Middle Way can be seen as contrary ontologies upon which we ruminate. However, perhaps I have a bit more time for existentialism than you seem to have, though I agree that it doesn’t have a full positive vision of how to live our lives. I have a blog entry on Sartre here http://www.middlewaysociety.org/middle-way-thinkers-9-jean-paul-sartre/ and there’s also a video about authenticity, which I think is a useful idea, here http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/mwp-video-6-integration/mwp-video-6g-authenticity/.

  5. I think I understand what might be usefully extracted from existentialism a little better now, chiefly elements of its ethics. However, as I think you alluded to, these have to be moderated with acknowledgement of our limitations as human beings. Sartre saw freedom as all-encompassing, but I think we’re more constrained than that, which gives us a more clearly-defined space to work within and a better grounding for ethics.

    As for the experience of ‘Nausea’, now that I’m out of the grip of it, it sounds like trying to make a large philosophical mountain out of the molehill of depersonalisation experiences, which is a noted psychophysical condition. I’m wary of saying people with these experiences aren’t ‘living in accordance with reality’ because no-one can really define what that would look like, but this phenomenon involves people into seeing everything around them in a distinctly out-of-the-ordinary light, and probably causes the ruminations and feelings of being ungrounded rather than the other way around.

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