There are three little words I love to hear. Three words that have the power to bestow transcendence. Words that are tacitly responsible for all the progress of humanity, that fill the heart with joy and wonder. Three words that humble the speaker and lift the listener. Three little words:
“I don’t know.”
Hi, my name’s Askelad and I’m an agnostic.
The glaze washes over the faces of people as they wonder, what’s an agnostic?, or else judge with a calm patronising look: aw, never mind. You don’t ponder the nature of life, and in return I smile and nod and move on to grab a muffin from the buffet bar.
These people are confused. While there must be agnostics who don’t reflect on their existence, I have good reason to be agnostic. In fact my agnosticism is rooted solely in good reason.
But first this.
Did you know there are around 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut right now? Take the seven billion people on Earth and times them by 14,286 – that’s the amount of beings that call your stomach their home. Amazing.
Consider those tiny beings for a moment. From their perspective, with the piddly sensory data available to them, they must be boggled by the nature of the vast organ in which they live, and utterly benighted as to the organ’s function within the greater system of your body. So just imagine how mind-blown they’d be if after explaining all that to them, you went on to teach them that your body was just one of billions of billions of animal lives in the wider sphere of a planetary ecosystem. The scale between a gut microbe and a planet is staggering and incomprehensible to the smaller guy.
But this scale is nothing compared to that between a human and the universe. There are up to 400 billion stars in our one galaxy and 100 to 500 billion galaxies in the observable universe. And before we forget a hell of a lot of space in between. Understanding such a massive, complex object is nearly impossible from the perspective of tiny ephemeral blips such as humans. And knowing what our universe’s function is, what might be outside of it? Pfff!
Do you think we know?
I hasten to add that to be agnostic is not to drum a dirge of despair for our ignorance. In fact I’m an agnostic precisely because ignorance is defeated – or at least reduced – first by owning it.
That’s why, wherever you are, I’d like you to stand up and declare in a clear voice: ‘I don’t know!’
If you did that, you are a marvel beyond comprehension and I commend you. If not, don’t worry. There’s still time.
You see, humans are indefatigably curious. The entire world has been mapped and linked, the breadth of human knowledge interchanged from one side of the globe to another simply because some humans thought, ‘what’s on the other side of the unending sea?’ – and had the cojones to get onto a log and push off to have a look. We’ve sent probes to Venus, Pluto and Mars, increasing our understanding of the universe greatly, simply because some humans asked, ‘what the bloody hell is on those balls in the sky?’ We’ve eradicated smallpox and reduced many previously life-threatening illnesses to mild nuisances because someone thought to ask, ‘why do some people go from being healthy to dead like this?’
Questioning is the key to enlightenment. But as important as the question is the first answer lying behind it, and that first answer must always be: ‘I don’t know.’
Take influenza, which literally means “influence.” Named because the influence of the planets was commonly decided as the cause of illness. According to the times, astrological machinations had sealed flu victims’ fates.
‘Why did she go from healthy to dead like this?’
‘’Tis the influence of the planets. (Nothing to be done. Problem solved).’
‘Why did she go from healthy to dead like this?’
‘I don’t know. (Keep questioning and we may find out).’
It’s easy to see which response is the best, truest and most useful. Influenza is now a highly treatable illness thanks to those who did not accept the planets as an answer. Those who continued to honestly say, ‘I don’t know.’
Eventually an essay on agnosticism must approach the sticky subject of religion. In I step.
Studies have shown that religion can help some live longer and happier. Removing all doubt and denying the unknown comes as a great relief to religious practitioners. But while religion can be beneficial to the individual, it is often a detriment to wider society because it suppresses free thought in favour of dogma.
Just about every religious doctrine (of which I’ve studied a few) categorically states that the nature of God/Gods/Allah/the Tao etc cannot be known. But interestingly they (for the most part) ask the Initiate to believe in a very specific vision of the universe, the exact one which they can never know. This is the very basis of a faith-based belief. It means to be an adherent of a religion you must do two opposing things: firstly, go to one extreme of a spectrum and deny an ultimate truth can be known (God is mysterious, you must not ask for proof); and secondly, simultaneously go to the opposite end of the spectrum and blindly believe in an “ultimate truth” with no evidence (God is real/jealous/all-forgiving). The result is a great chasm between two ends, a vacuum of logic in which questions must be swallowed.
I know believers out there will be tutting and shaking their heads (at the very least) and saying, ‘you poor soul. I know there is a God. I feel it.’ That’s all well and good but – however strong one’s feelings – I feel it is a poor answer.
We have strong and certain feelings all the time that turn out to be wrong. One moment someone is the infallible love of our lives, the next a hateful, cheating monster. This is why we have courts of law. We don’t punish people because we really feel they are guilty or let them go because we really feel they’re a good sort – we demand cold, hard evidence, logic and motive. Why? Because we realise that the fate of a human’s life is a serious business and only sound reason should condemn them.
Shouldn’t we value our own philosophical lives as much?
God escapes as a strong feeling we continue to have simply because from our micro perspective it’s difficult to prove one way or another. That’s a conviction made on sand.
And I’m not saying that God doesn’t exist. I’m saying I don’t know. I’m saying that no one knows.
Sadly, religion must answer for the death of Socrates, the oppression of Copernicus, the burning of the library of Antioch, the unmitigated spread of AIDs in Africa, etc etc – the suppression and retardation of knowledge throughout numerous ages. I don’t like to, and normally refrain from bashing religion, but when considering reason, logic and progress these are the answers I find. Religion has served a purpose in our emotional evolution, but as we get wiser dogma becomes a larger hindrance in our progress to enlightenment and happiness.
Similar aspersions can be cast onto the other end of that stick: atheism. While atheism doesn’t rely on the dichotomy inherent in religion, it still runs to an extreme that we haven’t yet learnt for certain – that there is no higher power. At any one time, science has the best minds in the world working on the questions of the universe, and our pooled knowledge so far clearly says in bold print, ‘I don’t know.’ In the face of this, atheism is as much a dogma as any religion. Generally it appears to be a reaction against religion (or a miserable personal situation) that goes a step too far.
In fact, the dilemma of “is there a God?” is a sideshow to more pertinent questions. We may as well ask, “is there a mingmong?” where mingmong is an unfathomable object.
If we don’t understand the concept we’re not really asking a question.
It may be, like our bacteria, that we are infinitesimal beings in an organ of a larger being. It’s possible that what we call our universe is a neuron of a super brain. It could be a pebble in a nook of a multiverse coral reef. Most likely, the universe is a system more complex and wonderful than any simile our human brains can yet come up with.
So what then, we sit around mumbling, ‘I dunno,’ while mawing with disinterest on our fingers? Those who have been paying attention know that this is far from the brand of agnosticism I’m talking about. All the beauty of life comes from its mystery, and if you’re curious you will find wonders and miracles greater than those spoken of in a religious treatise. How do the three simple ingredients of grass, air and water make a cow? How did evolution conspire to turn a single cell organism into a large tube with complex appendages that can communicate with others elsewhere by typing a sequence of shapes into an electronic box? The best part of agnosticism is the search for greater knowledge. I try to learn as much as I can every day and I feel more powerful, happier and full of wonder for it.
Humanity is ready to walk a balanced line between dogmas in a world of bewildering complexity, and I’m inviting you to hop on and give it a go. If we let ourselves not know for a while we invite the real answer to pop up. This way we build better knowledge and superior systems for both ourselves and posterity. And in a thousand million years, will the weird, enlightened descendants of humankind discover that they are living and dying in the colon of a God? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious:
I don’t know.