I have always been amazed at the swiftness with which atheists erase agnosticism from their thinking. Michel Onfray, in three conferences that summarize his thought1The pure pleasure of existing, Michel Onfray (audiobook), settles its fate in a single sentence: “Agnosticism is a refusal to decide, that cannot satisfy any true philosopher”. Well, I’ll talk later about Onfray’s great qualities and even greater flaws. Obviously atheists have a pending account with God and religion. As with psychoanalysis, at Onfray. The a-theist and the a-Freudian are much more imbued with the idea of God and Freud than the agnostic, just as the rebellious teenager is more imbued with the dictates of her parents than the non-rebel.
Agnosticism is the only opportunism
Not only is agnosticism the richest philosophical position, but pragmatism makes it the only possible choice. What for? Atheism is activism comparable to theism. God is declared non-existent or existing. A choice is made. Atheism is indeed the affirmation of the non-existence of God, and not simply that he is imaginary. God in the imagination has a neural existence. This does not imply that he has his counterpart elsewhere. But this does not prohibit such an existence. There is always an inaccessible unknown, part of which overlaps with our imagination. The unknown definitively forbids to know what this part is. It forbids forbidding God.
If God is neither forbidden nor confirmed by anything convincing in reality —the limits of “convincing” belong to each of us— the only pragmatic position is agnosticism. An agnosticism about the existence of God, not about its eventual usefulness as a concept. This is what makes this position so rich. Indeed the pragmatist can judge the concept useful or not depending on who receives it.
There are many personal worlds where the concept is precious, structuring a set of events that are not always cheerful, and allowing to regain confidence in an expanded future by this higher being, God. Whether it is purely imaginary or backed by a real being does not matter, for the pragmatist. Our mental world is inherently mythomaniac, even when it includes scientific concepts. The most rigorous of scientists uses more mimetic concepts than scientific concepts on a daily basis. We copy our myths. If they prove capable of increasing the happiness felt, why deprive oneself of them? Demystifying the universe is only one work among others. And above all, demystifying the universe of others is not necessarily in their interest.
Religious vs. technocratic collectivism
God is less often criticized than religions, which dress him in the way that suits them, with a somewhat outdated conservatism if we look closely at the sacred texts. Outdated but still powerful religions, this is indicative of a function as necessary as two millennia ago. Science and philosophy are less effective in structuring most personalities than folklore and religions. These deserve to be pruned from their precepts, violent, sexist, xenophobic. But why get rid of their collectivist injunctions? Social solidarity today is based on a technocratic prison organization. No one pays their taxes willingly. The collapse of technocracy would leave an every man for himself society. We have become accustomed to not taking care of charity ourselves.
Remain a piece of God?
The contemporary push of scientism has been accompanied by a push of the individual-king. It is not certain that they are linked, but scientism blows up certain pillars of collectivism. There is no longer anything superior to everyone to judge individual behavior. The collective consciousness is dissolved. It is an illusion, replaced by psychological micromechanisms, and ultimately physical. What do quantons have to do with morality and charity?
Science erases these teleological concepts without providing any replacement. Everything has an explanation, all reasons turn into equations. Not those. Religions tried to concretize the presence of virtues in living matter. Physics and biology see no trace of it.
Agnosticism, in this case, does not seek to protect God from disappearance but to protect ourselves, intentional beings, from extinction. That is to say: Why should I exclude God from the possible, on the faith of scientism, while the same scientism excludes me, with my consciousness and my desires, treating all this as illusions?
The specificity of the agnostic
The agnostic is often equated with the atheist, especially among the Anglo-Saxons, probably because the principle of secularism is less central in their culture. But the agnostic must refuse this assimilation. This is the “stiffness of the center” that I will talk about in a future article. For the agnostic, the discourse of the atheist and the theist are strangely similar:
The theist: “God explains everything. If something claims to be independent of God, it has not been created.”
The atheist: “Science explains everything. If something is not explained by Science, there is nothing to explain.”
Stooping to avoid invective, the agnostic asks, “What is this God?”
You got the suggestion behind this joke. Theistic/atheistic discord rests on the same erroneous assumption that there is a universal definition of God. In reality, humanity harbors as many concepts of God as individuals. Every moment increases this number, as aging changes concepts. Disputes take place between supporters of a particular image of God and those who reject it, not because of atheism but because they have another contradictory, scientistic one. Human is fundamentally a believer. Only the appearance of her sacred tabernacle changes. Science is an alternative way to strengthen one’s power over the world. Power delegated to the omnipotence of God in the theist, to the omnipotence of natural laws in the atheist. Spinoza confused the two.
The question doesn’t make sense
Honestly, science is devilishly more efficient than angels. At least for ontology, because it does no better than religion in the Theory of Everything, a whole that includes us. This has led many leading scientists into metaphysical considerations. It is never too late to build a personal image of God.
I’m reformulating, no kidding!
Theist = ‘I believe’
Atheist = ‘I don’t believe’
Agnostic = ‘The question makes no sense’
On the existence of God, theists and atheists share a common point that precipitates them into error: they answer the question. Even the agnostic is sometimes too “committed” in saying: ‘The question is not decidable’. That is already giving meaning to the question. Not. In the current field of knowledge, it has no meaning.
The firmness of non-commitment
Of course it finds some meaning outside the field of knowledge. Imagination goes far beyond knowledge. Knowledge sediments in successive layers. Their stability comes from their adhesion to other layers. How do I add new ones? Thanks to the principle of verification dear to Alfred Jules Ayer: for a question to make sense, it is necessary to be able to verify its potential answers, directly or indirectly by the other observable consequences they could have.
So to say that the existence of God is undecidable is already to go too far. In the absence of possible verification of the answers, the question does not yet make sense. This is the most correct position of agnosticism, which does not prejudge a future decidability of God.
Keeping meaning in the unknown
The agnostic sees a common problem among theists and atheists: that of the limit of the field of knowledge. Among theists, there is no limit: God is not knowable but real. No boundaries between known and unknown. Among atheists the limit is on the contrary abrupt, a real guillotine: what is not in their knowledge does not exist.
Theists and atheists share the same deficiency on a crucial ingredient of knowledge: uncertainty. This allows a little independence to the unknown.
God persists there…
The agnostic is however much closer to the atheist than to the theist. Why does it deviate from the center so? God is speculation. The essence of speculations is not to demonstrate anything but to exist as long as their impossibility is not demonstrated. Prohibiting it would presuppose a complete knowledge of reality. Unrealistic. However, a speculation weakens as it multiplies the weak probabilities in its determinants. Knowledge is thus a continuous Bayesian process that changes the weights of our speculations. The God with the different human faces of monotheisms today has little weight. Not God as a superior and incomprehensible entity, the one Spinoza confused with Nature. This one cannot undergo any Bayesian weakening, because it remains in the unknown.
God persists there, eternally. To make him human would be to collectivize our representations of him a little better.
See also: Atheist or agnostic? The sequel…