Monday, February 27, 2012

Wholly Agnostic

A friend of mine recently wrote a post on his blog that touched on the terminology of belief, and he briefly touched upon the terms of atheism and agnosticism (you can read his post HERE), and it got me thinking about how I generally label my thinking, which has over the last few years become entirely dominated by a growing commitment to a very deep sense of agnosticism. (I touched on this briefly in my year in review post HERE). This isn't a rebuttal to my friend's post as I generally agree with him, but more a closer look at what a deep commitment to agnosticism really looks like, and why the term is I think generally misunderstood.

When you say your agnostic most people only think this applies to some ideas about religion, and worse they often take it to indicate that you are kind of on the sideline and haven't looked close enough to have made up your mind one way or the other. In short most people look at agnostics as something akin to undecided voters the day before the some big election....the assumption is that they don't have a great grasp on the arguments that are being presented or are slightly lazy people that just haven't been paying any attention to something that is potentially quite important. This I think though is an unfortunate misconception, and while it may be applicable to a few people out there, I would make the case that anyone that has taken the time to at least come to a point that they are not just accepting what ever cultural stories were put before them has done more thinking on the topic than maybe the average person.

More unfortunate is that the connotation gets caught up in the discussion of religion at all. As I've stated several times on this blog, I increasingly find  it hard to take any religion very seriously, and I really have little use for tradition, ceremony and all that goes with it. Many people find it fun, comforting, or important as a part of their identity, but personally I have no use for any of it. I even tend to think that the part of it that we make as part of our identity is a bit dangerous (more on that later). In some circles I may be called an atheist, but I don't like the term, not because it's not somewhat accurate (while I'll rule nothing out I see no evidence nor do I expect there to be any kind of God like what is presented in most common religious traditions) but that I don't like a label being placed on me about a somewhat silly negative assertion. I mean I don't go around asserting the existence of invisible people that are responsible for creating all wind either, but surely you wouldn't define me by that would you? Now let's suppose that the standard cultural tradition asserts that wind is created by invisible people and this belief was called windism. Am I now an awindist? What if i claimed that, I was leaving myself open to persuasion on the issue, but I would need some kind of direct experience or hard evidence to back up such a belief, and until then I would just be happy to suspend any judgement on the issue. In the technical sense this makes me agnostic as to the belief of windism, but because nothing in my experience would cause me to act in a way that would ever take into account the beliefs of a windist, I would act in much the same manner as any awindist. It's all kind of a silly debate mostly having to do with just slight personal preferences and semantics.

What's unfortunate is that most people's thoughts of what agnostics are agnostic about ends at religion, when in reality there is a whole lot that is worth being quite agnostic about. A deep agnosticism doubts just about everything to at least some degree, always being open to persuasion and realizing that there is no final truth or ultimate answers that can be perceived by our brains or experience. One of the most influential schools of thought for me over the last few years has been that of Pyrrhic Skepticism, which has been likened to a western form of Buddhism. A core part of both is that as important as the pursuit of knowledge is that understanding you also do not have all the answers (or possibly any of them). That our biases, perspectives, biological basis for experience, and a host of other factors work to often provide us only fractional understanding of what we are actually a part of. The concept of "emptiness", for example, in Buddhism is to assert that we have no direct experience of anything beyond our experience- that it is a fallacy to assert or deny that we experience every day is or is not the shadow of a "real world" that exists outside of ourselves, which is the standard model most people go about their existence with. This is asserted for the simple fact that we have no direct experience with this "real world" and it can only be inferred through our experience.

More important, and socially applicable is agnosticism's role in beliefs. For the deep agnostic the answer is that we simply don't hold on to any, we are even open to dropping agnostic values, it exists not as a belief itself but as a model with which ideas, concepts and experiences are to be approached. When people begin to internalize beliefs and make them personal or part of themselves they tend to defend them as such, and when their beliefs are made a part of their identity they defend them when challenged as if they were defending themselves, it gets caught up in our ego. Over the ages this has caused untold damage and it is not just how societies like Cambodia had mass genocide committed because some people were too proud to admit that a system they had fought to install their whole lives was an unprecedented failure, but it is that part in all of us that becomes willing to give up a pursuit for truth due to a defense of ego.

There are nay number of beliefs one attaches themselves to that they do without certainty. Maybe it's their political views or a certain leader, maybe it's their views on science, religion, or economics, social issues or human nature. I'm not arguing that some stances aren't without much more credence than others and should be argued as a point in decisions, but that they should not be internalized, that they should not define you. While labels can often be used to define our thinking, more often though it makes us feel part of a "team" and that team gets defended rather than actually seeking to answer questions honestly. It allows us to overlook the shortcomings of theories, actions, and results because of a biases toward what we see ourselves invested in. By remaining uncommitted, undecided and honestly open to revising what our mental model of our experience is we can better approach real solutions, and engage in honest debate without becoming defensive. The goal becomes finding the truth, and not "being right".

Some people reading this that know me might find this funny to read coming out of my mouth, as in the past I have been more than a passionate debater known to defend very deeply certain views. Generally I argue very much in line with what would be considered something close to a Libertarian political philosophy, defend something akin to a free market economic system, support politicians & public policy with a similar view, am something just short of hostile toward religion and religious philosophy, am a strong supporter of the scientific method, think biological evolution is very important to understanding the human condition and the underlying basis of human society, and I have a strong preference to the writings of the Greco Roman Stoics, Pyrrhic Skeptics, and  philosophical Buddhism when it comes to discussing ways to best address the human condition. No doubt I'm as guilty as anyone about at times overly internalizing some of these thoughts and I have, looking back, defended positions I had no legitimate reason to defend. But increasingly I have made a conscious effort to distance what I think experience and evidence best suggest as a correct mental model to use, and making it a part of my identity.

Let me take one of the more controversial positions I have normally held that usually annoys my other scientifically minded liberal leaning friends; global warming. I am entirely unconvinced that data shows conclusively (even in the loose sense, such as rather conclusive evidence that biological evolution does take place) global temperature rising due to man's involvement on the planet. Our data points on the topic seem wholly lacking in that the span of years that we have accurate data for (not to mention the changing environment of the few stations we do have data from over time), on a geological scale we have had vastly higher and lower concentrations of CO2 and those time lines and global temperatures don't seem to correlate, I also tend to have a problem thinking of carbon as a dangerous gas and it's rising and falling values would seem to have vastly more complex interactions with the planet as a whole. Mostly I think climate and what its underlying causes are is a vastly complex web of cause and effect, and claiming with certainty at this point with the data that we have seems to be jumping the gun a bit. This said, I'm not closed to the idea that man does in fact have a direct cause and effect role in global temperatures, in fact on some level I suspect it is quite likely. More importantly though I don't think the way this issue is normally discussed is helpful at all.

Lets say global warming is true, and carbon emissions do in fact have a direct effect on global temperatures. Are rising global temperatures a bad thing? Over even human history the earth has been both warmer and colder, with more death and hardship coming to humans during cooling periods. The world is a dynamic system and is always changing, but lets say it can be shown that it would be in our best interests to try and reduce the rate of change, that we should try and slow global temperature changes- then what? Policy wise this is a dead end issue on a global scale. Anyone who has spent any time in Asia, knows that regardless of what kind of policies or rules are agreed to, there will be no implementation. I would be just as surprised to see any real changes in the West either. It's unlikely that we will reduce output from global transportation, or even industry by any marginal amount,especially with a rising population, which also becomes tricky as a another key polluting element are also living things such as people and food stocks. Taxes, carbon swapping plans, and other policy instruments are unlikely to have any nominal effect on global output, and pacts such as Kyoto seem more like a way to say "well at least we did something" than a way to actually make a meaningful reduction.

The key problem with anthropomorphic global warming, is mostly with the "global" component of the phrase- because it makes it almost meaningless to discuss in a meaningful way as far as solutions. What I mean to say is that it is still worth researching in order to discover what is happening and where temperatures might be going and to have a better understanding of the causal nature of climate and our role in it, but I think it's usefulness ends there- from a policy standpoint as a global issue that complex it is simply out of reach of unified human action. While an issue like this gets so much attention it's too bad that more localized, easier to study, just as impactful (if  not more), go under researched. For instance here in Nepal, the role of pollution drifting up from India's Gangeatic plane on the climate and snow levels in the Himalaya is an issue that is easier to study, identify, and more importantly do something about as it includes just a few countries with a vested interest in the melt waters of the Himalaya. The receding snows of Kilimanjaro have more to do with the replacing of moisture laden rain forest around its base with coffee plantations than with rising global temperatures, and it seems again if keeping those glaciers there is important, it's an issue that the governments of Kenya and Tanzania could affect more easily. We only need to look at the localized disaster of the Aral see caused by the Russians planting cotton crops (to feed a market that was denied cotton from the southern US during the civil war) to see that addressing localized environmental issues are of great importance and man certainly can have a huge lasting affect on the environment in this manner without any doubt. (For those that don't know, the regions of Central Asia around the Aral sea were once quite fertile, and after the waters of the rivers that fed the Aral sea were diverted to feed cotton crops, the sea, all but dried up, and the resulting change in the local climate due to that body of water disappearing turned much of the land into arid desert.)

So what was my point with this very long aside? While I remain uncommitted to a belief one way or the other about global warming, there are other aspects to certain questions that are more important than their truth one way or the other, and a part of that is what practical application does the knowledge impose? If something is true, how would it affect your actions, how does it inform about your role in the world? From a practical standpoint, while the answer may be interesting to know, it seems to have little practical application, especially to me personally. It certainly doesn't have enough for me to get my panties all in a bunch one way or another, yet people have made such ideas a core part of who they are. They are people committed to fighting the rising temperatures of the earth. Well that's fine, and good luck, but the commitment one seems to make here seems vastly disproportional to the affect one seems to actually be making, or more importantly is capable of making. More importantly, and more to my original point is that as a scientific matter it becomes horribly compromised when people become so attached to the outcome of inquiry going one way or the other- be it because of personal investment in your own identity or the more mundane capital investment of companies or research grants. The truth suffers for the love of money and ego. Both sides.

Another form of belief that becomes over internalized is religion. As someone who views things more for their philosophical rigor than for anything else, it has always struck me odd how many people claim to be of a certain religion, and then proceed to go about their life with only the culturally applicable aspects of that religion being observed. For instance, most people where I am from are "Christian", but beyond occasionally going to mass, observing certain holidays, and participating in required rituals it plays almost no role in their life and plays no role in informing their actions. It's become clear to me that most people spend more time deciding what to do with their hair in the morning than the role that their belief structure plays in their life. At one point I thought this was more of a characteristic of an increasingly secular America, but after traveling around the world, I can assure you that it is quite true anywhere.

 Religion is not as much about a philosophical underpinning of a belief system but is instead by and large a cultural attachment that gives gives the holder an identity within his or her community. This shouldn't really be all that surprising since religious practice has much more to do with the geography of your birth than anything else. Precisely because what is essentially a cultural phenomena that the individual strongly identifies with has attached to it an absurd and largely indefensible belief set, it causes people to defend crazy things that they would never otherwise consider doing so. The most passive unobserving "Christian" will defend value sets that are the antithesis of their lifestyle not because they actually believe what they are saying (well they may believe they do, but any clear headed analysis would show that they couldn't support the position they are taking and the way they live at the same time) but because they defend these beliefs as a part of their cultural identity. I've observed much the same thing here in Nepal, where very few people actually consciously believe any thing about Hinduism, but as a cultural tie it is extremely strong, and should you make a statement that threatens the coherence of its beliefs be ready for a backlash- not because people can defend the idea that a blue guy with a trident looks over the world, but because it's their culture, and how dare you insult it or question it, which to me seems like a rather unhealthy approach to life in general. They defend these things not because they know they are true, but because of their personal investment in them being true, and that in my opinion is a bit of a tragedy. Our decisions are not based on what seem to be true, but in line instead with what we have taken into our self, how we have increased the bounds of our ego, and how even in the face of insurmountable evidence we are willing to deny our errors or change our views because we hold to them like we cherish our own limbs.

I submit that we are better off casting all such thoughts outside of ourselves and to let practicality, experience and reason guide us through life thoroughly uncommitted to that which has not been proved, and remain uncommitted even to that which you think is most likely. Doubt is not weakness, it is not wishy-washy, it is not a lack of caring about the importance of what is true. To the contrary, it is about being as open as possible and as unbiased as one can be in approaching and creating mental models of ones experience in a way that is as devoid as humanly possible of your own bias, about being able to engage in a discussion or a debate and being truly open to discovery and not to defending part of our ego. That Pyrrho was probably right when he said that atraxia  ( a Greek term referring to a lucid state free from worry) was attained by those who always doubt what they experience. Life free from belief, not one filled with it, is it seems closer to the answer of what is "the good life".


  1. Great post. I especially like the reminder about where we draw the limits of our ego. Always important to say again, and well articulated here.

  2. I think agnostic with regard complex issues is a slippery slope. Take CO2 for example. The concerns of current research are 20+ years ahead of the public debate. I wonder if a largely agnostic public can ever gain a deep enough understanding to overcome initial opinions of any complex issue. Do hard core agnostics inescapably have a case of the 'god complex' in every issue presented that surpasses some measurable level of complexity? A lot of people do seem to base lifelong opinions of complex issues on an instant coin toss in their brain based on their own knowledge at that moment. Complex issues we find obvious today only became widely accepted by waiting for a few generations to cycle through. Some balance of trusting those we know have deep understandings and healthy skepticism is needed somewhere in all that. BTW the Montreal Protocol has been extremely successful and is constantly monitored globally.

  3. For so many reasons, a devoted atheist here! Mero dharma science ho!! But that's a long debate, warranting a few (at least) beers!

    More to the point -- what's the opening date of the Grill House looking like??

  4. i don't have any idea when we will get to open the Grill House, I'm hoping soon, but Nepal is so tough to predict. I mean who would guess that a front door would take over a month to get installed correctly? The good news is that most everything is installed in the space, we are just waiting for a water pump in the building (you know so we can have water come out our taps) and for the elevator to become operational (they did test runs this week). My hope is that private events and training in March and a full opening by mid April, but really it's hard to guess here.

    As for the discussion over beers, this sounds like a promising way to pass some time.


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