Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Marginal Utility of Agnosticism




Many young people today are ingrained agnostics. That is, they don’t have faith in anybody, or any thing, or any belief system. To them, all authorities are questionable and should be questioned. They are trained to be this way by an education system and culture that holds that all values are equal, and that any values you select should just be because it’s what those around you have arbitrarily chosen. Ironically, they also hold to the adage “knowledge is power.” Here I present my answering letter to a former student who thanked me for steering him away, not from agnosticism, but agnosticism for its own sake. I did this in the context of a discourse by renowned Atheist astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Hawking, in order to preserve his atheist beliefs, was constrained by emerging scientific evidence to advance increasingly unlikely scenarios in order to find a model where our universe could pop into being without the need of a Creator.

“Well have you written that "knowledge is power." That's a truth right there, and a truth that is going to smack headlong into the other idea that you have been toying with- the idea that deep down nothing is true, that one can stay "agnostic" about all truth claims. Either some of those claims are true and you must follow those claims to find the power that this knowledge brings, or nothing is true and therefore there is no power in knowledge.

For those who have spent years following the largest questions of the natural universe, such as Dr. Hawking and to a much lesser extent myself, knowledge narrows down the reasonable choices. In other words, when one knows little one can consider thousands of possibilities and they can all seem about equally probable or improbable. You can believe, or disbelieve, anything. But once one knows enough then only one thing, the truth, is fit to be believed.

What I am saying with all that is that agnosticism is only a virtuous position for a limited time in limited circumstances, to whit- to prevent one from selecting a wrong path too early and on too little evidence. Agnosticism is a temporary virtue in the degree that it allows one to more carefully select a right path. When made a permanent philosophy it acts as a barrier which prevents embarkation upon any path at all. As a life-time goal it is a vice more than a virtue, since it leaves one ever seeking but never coming to a knowledge of the truth.

You cannot find the power that comes from any belief system (and even false belief systems do have power, as you have noted) until you embrace one. I advise you use your questioning to choose wisely, not let the Devil flatter you into thinking you are so above it all that it is somehow beneath you to ever choose anything or anyone to believe in. Should your pride be used to trick you in that manner, the day will come when you are old and gray having lived without the power and the blessings that belief systems which are largely lined up with moral reality can bring.

But I don't say that power should be the highest goal. It far too often leads to the corruption of its possessors. Perhaps a more noble man should prefer truth to power. The study of the acquisition of power is the study of how to use people and systems rather than how to be of use. At least one system of thought I hope you would consider on its truth claims, Christianity, values love and service more than power.

Hawking wants badly to be an atheist, but he knows too much to imagine a thousand ways the universe could just pop up without a God. The knowledge he has obtained is power all right, it is the power to force him to a conclusion that he does not wish to accept. And he won't accept it. He will turn all his brilliance to finding some straw to grasp at, such as his latest speculations. That's because one's ultimate choice on belief systems is not determined on their knowledge of facts, but rather the condition of their heart. It is a question of the will, rather than the intellect. Your answer to these questions ultimately says more about you than it does about the available knowledge to answer them.”

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