The rise of the new agnostics.

Scrutinizing culture.
June 28 2010 2:03 PM

An Agnostic Manifesto

At least we know what we don't know.

(Continued from Page 3)

Cue James Brown chords: Say it loud! We're agnostic and proud!

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. [Which is why the "are you agnostic about fairies?" rejoinder is just dumb.] But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

Advertisement

Fascinating. He dismisses Catholicism, but he won't deny outright the arguments of a philosophical believer such as Liebniz. I have been following with interest the argument of neo-Leibniz defenders of the existence of God, such as  Alvin Plantinga, and his critics, such as  John Hick. *

5. But does that mean no *possible* evidence could decide it [existence or nonexistence of God]? That's a much harder argument to make. Huxley thought it was in principle Unknowable, but that's a side effect of too much German Romanticism in his tea. I can conceive of logically possible states of affairs in which a God is knowable, and I can conceive of cases in which it is certain that no God exists.

Wilkins' suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

The courage to admit we don't know and may never know what we don't know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.

As Errol Morris put it in the conclusion of one his epic multipart New York Times examination of anosognosia—not knowing what we don't know:

We have "the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily forsee that this would lead to unending unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here's where self-deception [and] anosognosia ... step in. We wouldn't be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact."

Like I said, it's complicated. But the world has suffered enough from oversimplifications. The agnostic moment has come.

* Correction, July 2, 2010: This piece originally referred to John Wilkins as an Australian scientist. He is not a scientist. (Return to the corrected sentence.)