Saturday, June 2, 2007

On Agnosticism and The Meaning of Life

Quasi in response to the June 2, 2007 God and Quarks post in Chicken and/or Waffles. And, yes, Greg, I have added my "response" to my MoL paper, for your reading pleasure, even though I said you couldn't read it, EVER(!) because of its abrupt ending, poor format, and overly narrative tone... (is this where the o_O face would be appropriate??) So, it might not exactly respond to your post, but whatever. (You read my "Is it Rational to Question Belief in God" paper, which deals more with rationality...).

Metaphysics, Epistemology, Personal Experience, and Tolstoy

You’re right. Metaphysics is, definitionally, unprovable. However, I maintain that metaphysics does not attempt to answer WHY questions. Metaphysics is not an explanatory theory in the “why” sense. Rather, it is an explanatory theory in the “how it actually is” sense. Among philosophers, the commonly agreed to difference between metaphysics and epistemology is as follows; metaphysics is the “study” of the way the world really is, regardless of what humankind actually knows, and/or thinks we know, or believe through egocentrism about the world; epistemology is the study of what we claim to know and believe about ourselves and our world as we perceive them, taking into account that human perception may be incapable of understanding the metaphysical world entirely. I guess it would follow that human perception is necessarily incapable of understanding the metaphysical world. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be a metaphysical world. Our epistemic beliefs about the world extend to every aspect of our lives, from personal perspectives to scientific theories that we maintain and build upon.

** I wonder, as an aside, if anything can be truly proven to have “epistemic existence.” Couldn’t demonstration of such existence really just be a fallacious mistake made on account of our flawed, imperfect human reasoning and ability to test things? Demonstrating epistemic existence of an object doesn’t seem to truly “remove it from the realm of the metaphysical.” Rather, I would argue that it just becomes something which people claim to be relativistic about. The problem inevitably encountered with being a relativist in every domain is that it conflicts with falliability, which cannot and should not be denied. There are domains which are purely objective! (Natural science) For example, take the realm of physics, because it is one of which you are particularly fond. A Scientific realist would hold that scientific theories describe objects and phenomenons (electrons, genes, gravitational pull, quarks, etc.) but assert that they would exist (metaphysically) even if we did not have any epistemic theories about them. Scientific theories, such as ones that physics surround are things that we think we have proven epistemically, but they may be metaphysically totally different. This is not a plea towards utter skepticism, it just attempts to shed light on the true delineation between metaphysics and epistemology which I believe you may have somewhat confused. There is no “removing from the realm of the metaphysical,” instead, there is merely making things more epistemic within our human perspectives. Desire to make things more believable within the epistemic realm seems to follow from our human nature towards knowledge and discovery.

It, of course, doesn’t make sense to be a total skeptic and doubt everything… Furthermore, it’s impossible. Descartes tried.

When it comes to discovering and touting knowledge of The Meaning of Life, theists and atheists seem to have always been at odds, butting heads for at least for the last 2000 years. With regards to belief in God, theists and atheists are clearly in two different camps. Theists purport to believe in God: an omnipotent, omniscient, psychological being that created the universe, created humankind to have a perception of him/her, etc. etc. Atheists, on the other hand, do not believe in the Judeo-Christian psychological omni-God of the theists. The obvious problem with this disagreement is that, metaphysically speaking, either the theists or the atheists are wrong. According to rules of fallibility, when two parties disagree concerning whether or not something exists, one party has to be incorrect because the world is one way metaphysically, regardless of our perception of it otherwise.

While theists shout “God!” from the rooftops, many atheists and evidentialists praise the virtues of modern science, adding as an aside that many of them would be wholeheartedly convinced of at least the existence of God (aside from being an omni-, psychological being) if the theists simply offered a little uncontroversial, epistemic proof beyond claims of personal “miracles” and images of Christ in grilled cheese sandwiches. When Bertrand Russell was asked what he would do if he were to find himself in the presence of God he famously remarked that he would ask why God didn’t give him and other skeptics more evidence of His own existence!

It has been suggested by some theoretical “peacemakers” that perhaps we can seek and find meaning in our lives which is entirely separate from the existence or non-existence of a deity, be it the Judeo-Christian God or otherwise. In his essay, published in the July/October 1983 issue of Metaphilosophy, S. Jack Odell supports and explicates such an idea, claiming that indescribable, self-justifying, personal experiences that we may have upon experiencing great art, music, or even sexual encounters give us reasons to live and, dare say, even enjoy life. A perspective such as this one, which allows individuals to take personal responsibility for finding or experiencing meaning in our lives through self-justifying experiences, can be appealing to both atheists and theists alike. “Scientific atheists” can find this sort of meaning whilst concurrently denying that God or any other supernatural being has given rise to these experiences. Theists and others inclined to spiritualism can have these self-justifying experiences and attribute them to God, if they so wish. As a simultaneous aside, Odell’s view quiets the incessant pessimism of atheist existentialists who mourn that life is wholly and hopelessly absurd, no matter what. Personally, I wholeheartedly believe that we have such indescribable, self-justifying, personal experiences which have meaning only to us and, to give a nod towards the existentialists, perhaps the “insatiable striving” we are “doomed” to experience ad infinitum until death is really just deep-rooted, Freudian-esque psychological desire to have such experiences throughout our lifetimes.

Unfortunately, I cannot help but wonder if adherence to a perspective such as Odell’s is merely an intermediary move in the game of discovering The True Meaning of Life. Perhaps getting both theists and atheists alike to concede to the possibility of finding meaning in life through personal experience is merely the first step in getting both sides to realize that their views are both foolhardy until they can disprove their competition. Perhaps a true answer as to who is correct in their assertions will come through compromise and a little concession from both sides. The real, rational, default position for all mankind seems to be an agnostic middle ground, until existence of a higher deity can be proven or disproven once and for all, one way or another.

In The Essays: Of Atheism, Francis Bacon wrote that “A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion.” I like this quote because, as a student graduating with a degree in philosophy, I have personally run this very gamut that Bacon seems to support. I was raised Roman Catholic and, though I never considered myself a true believer in the Judeo-Christian God, I followed and participated in the religion as a child until I began to gain the cognitive skills needed for logical reasoning [Early. I like to think I'm a smart girl. ;)]. Once these skills began to emerge, I began to question the grounds for people believing the seemingly absurd things that they do. Jesus feeding an entire crowd with a couple loaves of bread and some fish!? Moses parting the seas?! Wandering through the desert for forty days without water and surviving? Has the human race really evolutionarily regressed so much in the last two thousand years that we now can go no longer than a week without water? I have certainly never heard anything of this sort in science classes or in discussion of Darwinian theories of evolution.

Because of this personal confusion and incredulity, I chose not to be confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church as a young adult and it was at that point that I first began to consider myself “non-religious.” I would not go so far as to claim atheism at that point, partly because I think atheistic stance is a bit contradictory – a view that I will explain later. Rather, I did not really see any point in thinking or arguing about religion at all. Any discussion of the religious or spiritual sort between believers, skeptics, and non-believers seemed to be an exercise similar to a trapped monster truck spinning its tires in ever-thickening mud. As Russell once claimed, arguments for religion will only convince those who already believe. Likewise, if someone is a true believer, pointing out religions’ obvious incompatibility with science is unlikely to convince them otherwise.

I began my undergraduate studies in philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. As Francis Bacon predicts in his quote, after an intro class, a few classes in logic and ethics, and close study of a number of modern and ancient philosophers later, I was apt to officially tout support, if not belief, in the atheistic stance. But, being a big supporter of a “rounded education” (and secretly fearing for my future if I chose to only major in philosophy), I studied other subjects in addition to my classes in philosophy. I added psychology as a second major and took classes in physics, mathematics, sociology, and music as well. I am now about to graduate with degrees in both Philosophy and Psychology (which some claim to be a science, though arguably not a “hard” science because of its many subjective, rather than objective practices), and after four years of study I seem to be coming out on the latter end of Francis Bacon’s quote.

It is not that through “depth in philosophy” I have suddenly come about, abandoning my former confusion to become a religious zealot. I am certainly not packing my bags for Tibet or planning a trip to Mecca. Nor have I been convinced by the arguments of Descartes and others who try to prove the existence of God through seemingly methodical and logical, but ultimately flawed, reasoning. But, I have begun to think about religion and spirituality again and have decided it is ultimately worth thinking about and discussing. I am particularly interested in the Religion vs. Science debate and the fact that many people tend to align their support towards one or the other, rarely, if ever, both simultaneously. I wonder if they are really as incompatible as some people argue. I wonder on which side, religion or science, the burden of proof really lays in regards to universal creation, for it seems to me that there are a number of assumptions based on “faith” on both sides. As I mentioned previously, I have also wondered recently if atheism, as commonly described, is even a legitimate, non-contradictory point of view. I reiterate my feelings that perhaps it would be accurate to say that all of humanity is agnostic until one side can prove their argument, while subsequently disproving the other side, one way or another. In this essay, I will try to explore some of these thoughts and considerations and work through some of these questions.

In his essay, My Confession, Leo Tolstoy writes about his own experience, which is similar to my own, with the incompatibility of science (which he consistently refers to as knowledge) and religion. Tolstoy is a financially well-off and well-learned man who comes to the realization that there is no meaning to his life, that nothing will come of it, and that he cannot justify, with knowledge alone, the reasons for his own existence or the existence of anything else. He seems to be at quite a low point in his life and, believing that human life is “infinite and incomprehensible” through scientific knowledge alone, he searches elsewhere for answers as to The Meaning of Life. In Tolstoi [sic] and the Meaning of Life, Anthony Flew summarizes Tolstoy’s confusion, saying “that “rational knowledge” deals only with the finite, whereas “irrational knowledge” is always concerned with the relation between the finite and the infinite.”

As a result of his confusion and in what I feel is a fervent, hasty attempt to establish meaning in his life, Tolstoy is no longer drawn to those who embrace rational knowledge because he believes that they have or are inevitably bound to eventually deny or write off The Meaning of Life, as he himself has done. Rather, he renounces reason and looks towards “the enormous masses of men, all humanity, recogniz[ing] this meaning in an irrational knowledge,” faith in God. Tolstoy abandons his rational, knowledge-based life to go live with his servants, with whom he feels the secret to The Meaning of Life rests. Living with his servants he finds that this irrational knowledge, or faith, makes it possible for them to live. They express happiness in living “according to God’s law” and striving for eternal paradise. Tolstoy seems pleased that, despite the contradiction he acknowledges between irrationality with rationality, religion and science, faith in God gives humanity answers to questions regarding The Meaning of Life and provides him and others with a sense of purpose.

At one point in his essay, Tolstoy describes the discrepancy between the pull of science (the rational) and religion (the irrational) and their incompatibility as feeling as if one has if one has jumped into a waterless well to escape an infuriated beast. Once in the well, it is discovered that a dragon waits with open jaws at the bottom of the well. I believe that this metaphor can be used as an analogy to describe where we are today regarding some issues between science and religion, namely arguments about the beginnings of human existence. Either way we turn, we hit cognitive road blocks, or face dual sets of gnashing teeth at both ends.

Argument from Design vs. The Big Bang Theory

Scientific discoveries obviously disprove religion in countless ways. Even religious zealots must admit that a number of Biblical teachings defy many of our well-known, largely undisputed laws of physics. But, inevitably, I feel that in some situations until either religion or science can make claims while subsequently disproving the arguments of the other, both come up rather short. This proof/subsequent disproof is simple to observe in dozens of situations, with science clearly winning out over religious claims by presenting scores of contrary evidence. Walking on water, for example, has been shown multitudes of times to be impossible. The same holds true for human beings having the ability to traverse through deserts for forty days without water. Moreover, one does not need to have an advanced degree in a “hard” science to test either of these claims, though I do not recommend testing the latter. Though it seems difficult to find situations in which science is not a clear victor over religious claims, I maintain that there are a few. The most notable example of this science vs. religion proof/subsequent disproof clash lies in the arguments from both sides regarding the beginnings of existence of the universe. Supporters from both sides make interesting and appealing points, yet remain unable to do so while subsequently disproving the other.

The Argument from Design is a teleological argument for the existence of God that claims that, because the universe exhibits design, there must be a designer, God. Supporters claim that God created the universe analogously to how a watchmaker may create a watch. Moreover, God created the universe ex nihlio, out of nothing, simultaneously putting into creation the laws of science, evolution, etc. that we have since discovered through scientific means. This is often an argument used to lend support to monotheistic religions, though it seems it could be applied to polytheistic religions as well, in which case the Gods (and Goddesses) would presumably be working conjointly to design the universe and the properties and laws that it subsequently follows post creation.

The Big Bang Theory is a scientific theory based on scientific observations of universal expansion that proposes that the universe came from the explosion of an infinitely dense, infinitely hot mass of matter and energy billions of years ago. Many members of the world’s scientific community support this theory, though there are a number of issues and problems associated with it that have not yet been solved by modern science. As I am not a physicist, astronomer, chemist, or biologist, I will leave arguments about specifics aside and work only with the primary theory of an ever-expanding universal explosion of mass and energy.

With Whom Does the Burden of Proof Lay?

In the court of law, the defendant of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to find enough evidence to convince the jury that the defendant is, indeed, guilty of the crime they are accused of committing. With which party does the burden of proof lay in the case between the Argument from Design (the religious argument from the theists) and the Big Bang Theory (the scientific argument from the atheists and evidentialists) in explaining the creation of the universe?

The problem I see with both of these arguments is that both supporters of religion and supporters of science tend to purport these views as “first cause” arguments regarding the existence of the universe. Yet, I feel that there are at least two problems with both arguments. First, both purport that the universe was created ex nihlio, which clearly goes against scientific theories that claim matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Following the idea of the Big Bang Theory, it seems just and reasonable to question where this mass of matter and energy was before it exploded and became the universe? Second, both theories seem to commit the fallacy of false analogy. Philosopher David Hume explicates this fallacy, claiming that the only legitimate basis for a causal inference, for example to infer that B because A, is our having observed numerous times that A precedes B, or that whenever A occurs, B occurs.

Returning to the watchmaker analogue of the Argument from Design, the obvious discrepancy here is that we have evidence for the existence of human inventors prior to our discovery of a watch because we have observed numerous times that A (the existence of a watchmaker) precedes B (the existence and our finding of a watch). So, if we were to find a watch, it would seem reasonable to infer that the watch is likely to have been made by a human inventor, the watchmaker. The “watch,” in the Argument from Design is the Universe. Because we have never been able to observe causal inference in regards to universal creation and thus have no observable independent evidence, the argument is circular because we cannot determine if A (the watch/universe) precedes B (God/the maker/creator), vice versa, or neither.

Likewise, it seems that the Big Bang Theory can be subject to similar falsely analogical criticism for a number of reasons. First, as far as I know the Big Bang theory has yet to be replicated in a lab, even on a very small scale. Thus, we have not been able to observe it numerous times, so we have no basis for causal inference. Second, the Big Bang Theory is a theory based on scientific theories and laws that have been found to exist in the world today. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, for example, is highly undisputed in the scientific community based on strong inductive reasoning (this is also one of the most significant reasons explaining why we cannot walk on water!). However, theories regarding laws of universal expansion, etc. that have led to the Big Bang Theory are based on undisputed laws such as these that have been observed since creation. Because scientists are unable to replicate infinitely dense balls of matter and energy that expand into infinitely large universes in a lab, it seems that it must be, at least technically, impossible for them to claim without a doubt that the scientific laws that currently govern the universe were in absolutely in effect at the time of creation. It seems entirely possible, both logically and scientifically, that these laws were established during the Big Bang, not prior to its explosion and subsequent expansion. Finally, even if the Big Bang were replicable and therefore empirically provable as the origin of the universe, it seems we would still be left asking a rather obvious question. Based on our present scientific knowledge, we know that matter must reside somewhere in time and space as it has been theorized that it cannot be created nor destroyed. Even Georges Lemaître [theist, interestingly - Belgian Roman Catholic Priest], of the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker solution to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (which describes universal expansion and/or contraction), conceded that universal beginnings were a result of a “primeval atom.” Following from our present knowledge about the nature of matter, it seems reasonable to assume that even a primeval atom had to reside somewhere in space and time. I am a human being, made of matter. I reside on Earth, which resides in the Universe, which resides… where? Following this reasoning, one must wonder where that ball of matter and energy originated, and where it was before it exploded and created a universe, or, place for it to be!

At this point, theistic supporters of God as creator of the Universe might smile smugly at the scientists and claim that, simply, God created the primeval atom which gave rise to the Big Bang. Unfortunately for the theists, scientists can easily retort that notions of God ultimately fall away into a state of infinite regress, obviously suffering from the same problems of the primeval atom. Where was God when he was creating the Universe? This ultimately results in discussion of the whether or not we have minds, and that perhaps God is just a matter-less mind, etc., but the mind/body problem is not an avenue I wish or intend to explore in the context of this paper. The point I believe I have made clear is that it is apparent that arguments from both sides ultimately suffer from similar predicaments of infinite regression. Neither supporters of the Argument from Design (which I am claiming is ultimately theistic) nor the Big Bang Theory (ultimately seems atheistic) can prove their position while subsequently disproving the other.

Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism

For purposes of this paper, I will define belief in a religion (the theistic position) as a set of ideas regarding the existence of one of more Gods or deities that one would reasonably assert to if asked. For example, in the set of ideas that could be labeled “Christian Ideas,” a believer in the set would assert that “There is only one God.” I will define atheism as the absence of belief in a set of ideas which includes one or multiple Gods or deities. This is the position of many academics, scientists, and intellectuals, many of whom feel that there is simply not enough evidence to support the theistic position, thereby reducing it to absurdity. Though I am aware that there are many different “kinds” and sub-sects, I will define agnosticism loosely as the choice not to assert belief or disbelief in a set of ideas regarding the existence of one or more Gods or deities. Note here that I am differentiating between “absence of belief” (“I believe there is no God” – atheists) and “disbelief” (“I don’t believe in God” or “I am not sure if there is a God” – agnostics).

I mentioned previously, though science seems to empirically support it, that I feel complete atheism is an invalid stance because it results in a contradiction of sorts. To explain, it seems that for an individual to claim atheism on the basis of scientific explanation they are essentially committing themselves much to the same sort of, perhaps incorrect, reasoning as a theist. Essentially, atheists claim that if there is no evidence supporting the existence of God, then one may reasonably draw the conclusion that God does not exist. As previously elucidated, I feel that until scientific atheists can prove that their theories hold while subsequently disproving the theistic claims regarding the existence of a God, they seem to be purporting their own kind of omniscience about the universe. By not allowing for the possibility of God, they are ruling the possibility out, and they seem to be doing so based on insufficient claims, at least in the case of universal creation.

Many theists continue to claim support for God based on a number of personal, distinctive religious experiences and intuitions relating to “feeling” or “sensing” the presence of God that are not measurable with scientific means. These personal, individualized experiences may be well and wonderful, but it seems obvious that they clearly do not establish anything outside of an individual’s narration of such an experience because they cannot be proven or shown to anyone else. But, one is naturally apt to wonder if perhaps miracles are examples of such experiences that can be exemplary cases of God’s presence in the Universe. Many theists are apt to tout the wonders of God after a story has leaked that someone diagnosed with a terminal illness has made a “miraculous” recovery through prayer and their unfaltering belief in God as a savior and bringer of salvation to those deserving. Their prayers and plea to God for their life seem to have been answered! This may be an obvious example of the availability heuristic at work, but perhaps not. How can we know for sure, especially if their miraculous recovery has seemingly defied science?

I have previously entertained you, dear reader (to borrow a literary phrase of origin unbeknownst to me), with a narrative of my personal feelings regarding theism and religion, as well as those views held by Leo Tolstoy. I empathize with Tolstoy’s plight. As an academic, and (I would like to imagine, in the best of all possible worlds) an intellectual, I have questioned belief in God on the basis of it being difficult or absurd from a very young age. I have run the gamut between atheism and agnosticism at different points in my life. However, based on reasoning regarding both the theistic and scientifically atheistic perspective (as I have attempted to do with the Argument from Design and the Big Bang Theory), I have concluded that a stance on agnostic middle ground is truly the most rational default position for all of mankind, until existence of a higher deity can be proven or disproven once and for all, one way or another. Until this happens, I feel that the perspective put forth by Odell in his Life is Not Absurd essay remains a valuable perspective, regardless of one’s religious or a-religious stance.

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