Militant agnostic: “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

Bertrand Russell, in his 1947 “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”, wrote:

“Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality. (…)

Militant agnosticism in action

“When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. (…) Complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless. (…)

“As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which to prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

And hence to his flying or cosmic Teapot, of course.

Russell’s contemporary, the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, did not believe he understood the structure of the universe, or that such understanding was even with human power. As he wrote in “Possible Worlds and other papers” (1927): “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

That admission of ignorance would qualify him as an agnostic. But, as he also wrote, “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.”

The farther we gaze and the closer we focus, the more we find that the Universe just keeps on going. From stars to galaxies to hypothetical multiverses in the one direction, from atoms to quarks to hypothetical strings in the other, there is no final limit to either vastness or foundational substance. More importantly, there is nothing to explain the existence of the Universe.

How can there possibly be anything? How can the Universe come from nothing? To say “God made it” just leads to asking where God came from. To say “It was born from the collapse of a previous Universe” or “It is automatically generated from the multiverse” just leads to questions of their origin, too.

A “First Cause” is as nonsensical a concept as “Before Time Began”. There are (fortunately) concepts that simply do not compute, questions that are fundamental to the nature of existence and yet are not capable of clear framing, let alone an answer. This is not new to us. They have stimulated and challenged human thought since reason began.

So it is perfectly in keeping with both today and the Greco-Roman time of Jesus to give “The Gospel According to the Romans” a skeptical protagonist with the personal creed of “Nescio et tu quoque” – “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

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In Praise of Ignorance

“All men, by their nature, desire to know,” Aristotle wrote. Knowing that we lack knowledge, we seek it. In seeking knowledge we discover things which often make our lives more dangerous, but overall better. We have longer, healthier and more richly diverse lives than our neolithic ancestors, and it is thanks to our search for knowledge.

The search for knowledge stops, in the individual and in society, when there is a sense that all the answers are known. While the Greeks questioned everything, knowledge (and speculation, even if it didn’t lead to proof, certainty or fact) expanded rapidly. Coupled with Roman organization and engineering, there were enormous innovations in everything from underfloor heating, to urban water and sewer systems for cities of a million inhabitants, to the use of anesthetics in surgery, to the invention of the safety pin.

Ancient Roman engineering was superior to Britain's until the 19th century

The Greeks and Romans allowed for a diversity of religions, or for none at all, all of which promoted free inquiry. Then monotheism got a strangle hold on the Empire; Christianity provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and (not coincidentally, according to historians in the line of Gibbon) the Roman Empire collapsed. Western Europe had 700 years of the Dark Ages.

Meanwhile Islam came out of nowhere in the 7th century and expanded into different areas and cross-fertilized Greek and Indian learning. “Seek knowledge,” the Prophet Muhammad advised, “though it be in China” – which was the ends of the earth to him. As it turned out, China indeed had a wealth of knowledge to add to the mix. Islam was in the forefront of science for a thousand years. Western Europe came into contact through the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Arabic culture and scientific texts kicked off the Renaissance. You can see it in the Arabic words that entered European languages as fresh concepts in the Middle Ages: admiral, alchemy, algebra… calipers, candy, chemistry, cipher, cotton… magazine, mattress, muslin… all the way to zenith and zero.

Arabic scientific advances led to the European Renaissance

And then Islam, being the most advanced, decided everything essential was known from the Qur’an… it provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and, not coincidentally, the various Islamic empires stagnated and were overrun.

And in both the US and the Islamic world today, the argument in several states is over who has the right to teach (Comparative) Religion and history in general… geology and biology and science in general… should it be those secular, agnostic or downright atheistic scientific types, or should it be those for whom Religion has provided Certainty and The Truth?

Let’s have a little more acknowledgement of our ignorance. Uncertainty and free inquiry have always produced better results than Certainty and divinely-revealed Truth.