A Plea for Agnosticism in an Age of Ardor

 

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Can we please, as a society, develop our agnosticism muscles a little more?

This country is deeply divided on so many important issues, we’re angry and alienated from both each other and ourselves, we live in a post-truth society where fake news is so insidious it’s not always clear what’s true and what’s not, we live inside artificially constructed Facebook bubbles, we don’t as individuals have the resources to fact-check everything we read, we know mostly everything we know through endless chains of testimony like a bad game of telephone, we can’t tell what’s click-bait and what’s another day in politics, the algorithms of social media determine what we believe more than our own quest for the truth – we live an age where truthiness reigns supreme as the epistemic value of choice.

But who can really blame us? We are after all just naked apes, fragile and error-prone apes at that, who often claim certainty about things we have no right to claim certainty to, who make sweeping philosophical claims with nothing to back them up, who take our experiences and generalize them to everyone and everything else – I mean our consciousness is a barely functioning ever-ready-to-topple piece of gooey machinery scrapped together out of spare parts, a fragile little piece of work that often goes wrong in so many ways.

But it is our home. We ought to respect our home and acknowledge it as a product of evolution, genetics, epigenetics, development, socialization, learning, etc, etc., and thus susceptible to *not getting things exactly right* when it comes to knowing the actual real truth of how the universe works or whether some complex philosophical claim is true.

Given what we know about ourselves as being what Nietzsche called “human, all too human” why the hell would we ever claim to know so many things with such strong convictions when we could alternatively just relax a little? As a society I just can’t recommend people thinking we know things with strong certainty. I mean, yeah, maybe it’s certain that 2+2=4 but it’s a lot more fuzzy on issues such as e.g. does God exist? Is happiness is valuable? What is consciousness? What is a soul anyway? Is nihilism false? Is democracy the best system of government? What is the nature of gender?

For any highly contentious subject that offers no clear methodology for settling the matter in a public, falsifiable manner we are left with a situation where eventually in any dialectic we just want to slam our fists down on the table and call it an argument.

The problem here is that strong moral convictions have led to a lot of good in our universe. But at the same time strong moral convictions have also led to a lot of bad in our universe. It’s near impossible to calculate the net effect but I think on the whole relaxing the strength of our convictions a little would still allow for community-benefiting moral truths like “treat others as an end in themselves” to continue to spread while warding off the moral convictions of, e.g., transphobes.

Thorough-going agnosticism is not an easy system to adopt fully for it bleeds into our personal lives rather quickly. For example, I have argued for a position I call gender agnosticism. Gender agnosticism is about refusing to make a stand on whether the gender/sex distinction is true or not. Is gender (“womanhood”) different from sex (“female”)? I can see the arguments on both sides. But there seems to be no way to come to a definitive conclusion that is amenable to public consensus. It’s not like we can build a measuring device and go out into the world to determine if gender is different from sex. If you try to operationalize the concept you are left with the question: why that particular operationalization? And if we used another how would we determine which one is better getting at the truth? We’d need a third source. But how do we determine the truth of that one as well? It goes round and round in a circle.

But if I truly believe gender agnosticism, I cannot even be certain of whether my body is male or female. The lack of positive belief renders my self-awareness devoid of content and I am left with less self-knowledge. But what remains is surely the truth. For what I am left with is the notion that whether I am male or female in an ultimate metaphysical sense is not as important as other things like: people using my preferred pronouns, being treated with dignity and respect, having secure employment, healthcare, housing, etc. Of course, whether other people believe I am male or female could impact the lives of trans people in virtue of stigma and the political ramifications of legislation that targets trans bodies.

Does the negative political impact of gender agnosticism render it false? One might think so assuming a pragmatic epistemology. But in my view whether gender agnosticism leads to social harm depends on the context of the community in which it’s believed. In some communities it’s easy for me to imagine the spread of something like gender agnosticism leading to more freedom and happiness. But in other contexts it could of course be used to harm as well.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating for apathy where we just stop caring about how things are defined or what’s true or not true. I care deeply about the truth. I just think it’s pretty difficult to arrive at the Ultimate Truth for topics that have some degree of philosophical assumption built in, which is just about every topic imaginable.

We should not stop having dialogue about these tough topics. We should not stop having strong moral convictions. But what drives me crazy is the arrogance of people assuming that they are in possession of the Whole Truth, and not what they actually possess: a distorted fragment. The truth might be out there, but it’s quite another thing to assume we have arrived at it in its entirety. The whole of human history shows us being wrong about just about everything – do we really think that early 21st century humans have finally figured everything out? Chances are we are also really really wrong about a great number of things many of which would probably be quite embarrassing if we had to stand in judgment of our future descendants and explain our way of doing things.

So above all I advocate for humility in the face of the daunting likelihood that many of the truths we cherish are deeply false. Epistemic humility is a trait that is undervalued in the modern social environment with the virality of media often being tied to the confidence of its proclamations rather than the veracity of its content.

And yes, I am aware that my conclusion renders the whole of this post less likely to be true. So fair warning: my own arguments for agnosticism could be wrong – don’t assume they’re true just because they seem convincing to you now. And if they were never convincing to you in the first place, bravo, you might be right!

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