Category Archives: Truth

Agnosticism As Spirituality

The popular understanding of agnosticism is that it is a weak disbelief in god(s), and to a larger degree disbelief in the supernatural. Those who embrace agnosticism are accused of being uncommitted or intellectually-lazy atheists. They may counter that they have consciously arrived at their understanding of agnosticism and attempt to define it in such a way that it is distinct from atheism. I would like to suggest that agnosticism is more than that.

The trouble with seeing agnosticism as a “lack of belief” in certain beings or claims of truth is that it misses the point of the term. Gnosis means “knowledge” or “knowing.” Agnosticism, then, means “not knowing” or more accurately, that knowledge regarding certain aspects of reality are truly unknowable. Agnosticism is not a claim about belief or disbelief, but a claim about what can be known – about knowledge. The distinction is not merely a semantic one; it is fundamental to the nature of agnosticism.

In an earlier post, I defined faith as only being possible when doubt is present. I would like to refine this even further here by suggesting that this understanding of faith requires agnosticism. To understand faith as being beyond reason means that matters of faith are unknowable. This is the central claim of agnosticism. Unfortunately, this understanding of truth leads many to the conclusion that since certain aspects of truth (or perhaps Truth as a universal concept) are fundamentally unknowable to humans therefore faith and spirituality is impossible. I’m suggesting here that agnostic spirituality is possible – and even advisable. But what does it look like?

Agnosticism as a spirituality embraces mystery in the sense of the Greek word – “that which must be revealed.” Just because certain truths are unknowable to us does not mean that they are unknowable to greater beings than ourselves, nor does it mean that these truths do not exist. We cannot possibly know for certain whether or not god(s) exist – unless this knowledge is revealed to us from a being with greater capacity for knowledge than humans possess. Theoretically, if god(s) do exist and possess a greater capacity for knowledge than humans, then it is possible that we could come to “know the unknowable” in a sense. True, we could not understand fully these truths, nor could we have arrived at them by our own means.

Whereas a typical person of faith feels that he or she “knows” to a certain degree that what they believe is true, an agnostic knows that such claims are impossible and foolish to make. Nobody can know whether god(s) exist, what they might be like, why the world came into being, what the purpose of life or intelligence may be, or any other question or issue which philosophers and theologians have debated for millennia. But this does not need to stop an agnostic from embracing spirituality. The key distinction is that an agnostic must always be first an agnostic. They may be an agnostic-atheist, an agnostic-humanist, an agnostic-Christian, or any other flavor of belief or nonbelief, but being an agnostic is primary because it influences how they perceive any truth-claims such as those espoused by various religious, philosophical, or non religious systems of thought.

Mystery then becomes central to agnosticism. That which is unknown and unknowable becomes holy. The beauty of life, of music, of art, of the universe are all mysteries. We can explain them to a certain degree, but cannot comprehend them completely nor can we explain why these things are. The experience of life which brings a sense of wonder and satisfaction becomes worship. Meditating upon nature, the self, a mathematical problem, or a song becomes prayer. Everywhere we go is a sanctuary. All of life is available to become a deep well for agnostic spirituality, but like any practice of faith it must be cultivated and nurtured.

Agnosticism is an appealing and satisfying way of perceiving the world, but it can easily lead to a meaningless existence. If Truth is unknowable, why bother seeking it? If all meaning is subjective, why bother with meaning? For most humans, this is an utterly dissatisfying and discouraging way to live. Human beings are wired for pattern-recognition, meaning-making, and pursuit of knowledge – including knowledge about the ultimate questions of life and existence. Although the agnostic acknowledges that such pursuits will ultimately never be successful, they are still worthwhile. Humans desire meaning and truth. This is fundamental to who we are and cannot be changed no matter how hard we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. I suggest that those who are agnostic continue to pursue truth and meaning while maintaining skepticism about universal claims of truth and skepticism toward their own understandings of reality. The pursuit of meaning is one of the greatest strengths and one of the greatest liabilities of being human. It is a strength because it propels us forward to seek understanding and to challenge our assumptions about reality. It is a weakness because we seek to answer questions which are orders of magnitude beyond our ability to comprehend. But we should attempt the impossible, because to be human is to seek truth, even if those truths are impossible to find.

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Seeing and Perceiving

What is reality? Is it what a sane, rational person can perceive with their five senses? Is it something we can observe with instruments and measure? When we talk about something being “real,” what do we mean? Most of us take for granted that the things we perceive with our senses are based in reality, but how often do we stop and think about what is actually happening when we perceive something?

The sun’s gravity produces heat and pressure, causing hydrogen atoms to fuse together. This gives off energy in the form of light, a teeny sliver of which we call visible light. This light travels from the sun to earth. From its perspective the journey is instantaneous, but for us there is an eight and a half minute delay. This light then strikes our atmosphere, where it comes into contact with atoms and molecules which absorb and re-emit the light, changing its direction and frequency. This light can then strike an object within our sight, reflecting off its surface and striking the back of our eyeball. Nerves in the back of our eye respond to the light by sending a signal to our brain, which interprets the impulse. If we are paying attention to what we are seeing, our brain will automatically create an image from the impulse it received and begin the process of categorizing and understanding what we are seeing. When we see this object, our perception is dependent on all of these events coming together to produce a mental image.

With all of these factors coming into play, we have to wonder whether or not this process of seeing is reliable. When we see something, does it correspond to how another sees it? What if the makeup of our eyes is different? What if our brain processes the information differently? What if we were not paying attention and the image came and went without us even recognizing its presence? What about the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum which we cannot perceive with our eyes alone? There is a world of information which we cannot normally perceive, and even our perceiving is suspect.

Our senses and perception have brought us this far in life. Isn’t that proof that our perception is reliable? To a certain degree, this is a reasonable argument. Our senses are adequate for living our lives. But is adequate what we desire? No, we desire more – to see accurately what is true and what is real. “Good enough” is not good enough; we demand to know reality for what it is and not merely how we perceive it. Scientific investigation is a strong answer to this problem of our “seeing but not perceiving.” With scientific instrumentation we can observe the unobservable, making the full band of the electromagnetic spectrum observable to our eyes by converting it into data and sensations which we can understand. But even then we are left with the problem that we are perceiving these only indirectly. We know what color blue is, but what color is 99.1 FM frequency?

To a certain degree it is hopelessly pessimistic to dwell on the limitations of our perception. These are not problems we can solve or obstacles we can overcome. The human eye can only see what it can see and the brain can only interpret what it gets from the senses. But it is incredibly helpful – humbling – to remember that we are so limited. There is a vast amount of information in the universe. There are whole realms which we cannot explore without relying on instrumentation to interpret the data for us. We could talk about distant galaxies, black holes, and dark matter. We might consider quarks, atoms, and other particles. We might even consider the perceptions of the person who is nearest to us at this moment. Though they may be within speaking range of us, their perceptions of the universe are completely inaccessible to us. We cannot know what “blue” looks like to them because we do not share their eyes and brain. So we must remain humble.

Eyewitness testimony is one of the most unreliable forms of evidence. What we see, perceive, and remember – this does not necessarily correspond to what a camera sees or what a receipt or footprint might demonstrate. Yet much of what we believe most strongly relies heavily on our experiences of life and how we perceived them. It may be helpful for us to consider these limitations when dealing with others. Perhaps what they said was not really spoken in a harsh tone. Maybe they did not really roll their eyes at us. We give so much weight to our perception because it has gotten us this far in life. Maybe it would be helpful to question our perception more often – not to live in the ambiguity of never knowing if anything we perceive is reliable, but with less confidence in our own perceptions. We might try having a greater reliance on – and openness to – how others perceive things. And of course an openness to scientific insights can help us greatly.

What do you think? Is our perception reliable? Is it wise to seek out opinions of others to see how they perceive the world? Is science more or less reliable than our own perceptions?