Friday, February 27, 2009

On agnosticism

In a post the other day I spoke of the finality of life, and wrote: "And then oblivion."

Our friend Carmen, who always nudges us in interesting directions, gently teased me:
"Doesn't agnosticism yen for a qualifier? I.e.,:
"And then, perhaps oblivion."
"And then, possibly oblivion."
"And then, probably oblivion."
"And then, for bloody sure, oblivion."

Without any adjective or adverb (or gerund or gerundive) would the statement still qualify as "agnostic?"
One could chew on Carmen's question for quite a while, and I did. Certainly, few things are as widely and ardently believed as personal immortality. The idea is deeply ingrained in human culture, and is at the heart of most major religions. Simple humility would seem to dictate a qualifier: "And then, most likely, oblivion." To state unequivocally the mortality of self does seem to violate the agnostic's attachment to "I don't know."

So I go back to Thomas Huxley, who invented the term. Agnosticism, he insisted, is not a creed, but a method. "Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable."

What are the observable aspects of a self? A unique physical body and innate behaviors that are the products of an inherited genome in interaction with a supremely complex environment. A remembered store of lifetime experience. Emotions. An immune system. All of these science has shown to be inextricably embodied. Negatively, science has recorded not a shred of reproducible, non-anecdotal evidence for the continued existence of a self after death. I would go so far as to say that no matter of presumed knowledge has less scientific credibility than the immortal immaterial self.

Do not make a leap of faith beyond what can be reliably demonstrated, says Huxley. There is a sense in which adding a qualifier to "And then oblivion" legitimates the leap.

To be agnostic is to be prepared to admit the unthinkable when the evidence requires it. It does not require hedging our every belief with what Anonymous described as a possibly tiresome and disingenuous wobbliness. Or at least that's what I'm inclined to believe. Maybe. For the moment.