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The Careful Agnostic

February 2, 2020
Written by Michael J. Masucci

This online museum holds the works and stories of many persons who have died, many far too young, others tragically, as well as those who lived full and long lives on this earth. The pervasive stories of mortality force our own thoughts towards what beliefs, if any, we hold, or should hold, concerning human mortality, and the coming possibility of a trans-humanist enhanced and extended life.
I used to believe. I believed in all sorts of things. Messiahs, angels, spirits, avatars, demons. All of the above.
I didn’t feel any need to understand the makings of such entities, I only knew I believed.
In time my beliefs, softened, were questioned, modified, sometimes dramatically, still I believed. I started to try to integrate some sort of pseudo-sophistication into my dogmas, so as to convey some sort of presentation that I believed by way of a greater understanding than mere faith. I was wrong, because I still believed. I stopped calling myself religious, and started saying I was ‘spiritual’. This semantics also evolved, until I stopped calling myself anything at all.
In my youth there was a fashion, to fancy oneself a “Buddhist”, although I found difficulty finding two individuals who could agree as to exactly what Buddhism meant. They did seem, however, to often proudly believe one thing- they believed that Buddhism was not a religion, but a philosophy. They wore this as some badge of honor. To this day, I fail to understand the distinction. In its purest form religion is nothing more than a belief concerning the existence of god, if you don’t believe in such existence than that is a belief concerning god as well. The sheer self-congratulatory stance that those who felt themselves superior to those who claimed a religion, but still adhered to a system of beliefs which correlated more to religion than the opposite, baffled me.
What was shared in common, by those who believed that there was a god or gods, and those who equally emphatically believed there was not, was dogma. A conviction, that they had deciphered the most complex questions of the universe, its absolute causality. Therefore to me, even atheism is a religion; it is simply that religion, whose dogma contends that there is no god. I realize that this notion absolutely infuriates atheists, and I really do enjoy seeing their often hostile reactions when confronted with this assertion.
I don’t believe in intelligent design, although I must confess noticing a seeming intelligence in the nature of the universe. I prefer to say ‘elegant design’ to intelligent design, because I can’t say if the universe was designed intelligently, or is, or ever was intelligent, but it certainly demonstrates elegance in whatever design is there.
Today I don’t believe, at least I believe that I don’t believe. I have come slowly into a philosophy which confronts the sheer insurmountable massivity of information which one would need to truly form any opinions concerning what to, or not to, believe. Therefore, I am open to anything and believe nothing.
Curiously, I have found a great deal of comfort knowing how much I don’t know. It is the first perspective which seems more correct than not. We as a species, perhaps would benefit from seeing ourselves in a less lofty way they we often do. If we think of ourselves as a simple organism, infesting the outer layer of a minuscule speck of dusk in an insignificant part of a galaxy, a galaxy that is only one of hundreds of billions of such known galaxies, the we start to see how, ‘chicken shit’, we all are.
How can any so measly an organism, such as humanity, expect to be even close to become conclusionary as to the working of any of the profound questions- what is life, where did we come from? We simply cannot, and therefore must face the, at first uncomfortable position, that it is far too early, for us to really believe in much of anything.
Of course I believe that you and I exist, although I don’t claim to know what this existence actually means. I believe that I will likely die, and unless you are extremely rich or connected, that you will likely die as well. And I believe that the certainty of our mutual mortality will change over time and that some humans, certainly not I, are facing an event horizon, through which death will be an ever postpone-able option.
And I believe in something called love. Despite how corny that may sound. Perhaps that is all that I believe in that really matters. It seems to be the cure for all that troubles humanity, yet as so many other remedies, there is widespread resistance to its use.
EZTV has been a meeting ground for so many, that being part of it has distorted the amount of people that one might reasonably expect to know, into a large extended family of literally many hundreds of people. Many I recall only by face, never knowing them by name, others became not just colleagues, but friends.
Yesterday I learned that yet another of my colleagues and friends had died. It has happened so many times in my life, especially during the AIDS pandemic, but now, more and more, through old age, or some long-developing illness. When ever someone I know dies, I come back to the questions which led to my beliefs, or lack thereof. Of course, it would be so much more comforting, to believe that we go on, in other forms, ascending a ladder unto the heavens, where our loved-ones greet us and we exist, forever, in peace and joy. Maybe this is the case, but I cannot expend energy believing it so. Perhaps neuroscience will vindicate the claims of numerous people, who have ‘come back’ from near-death experiences, claiming the wonders and joys of the afterlife. Or perhaps, as many scientists expect, they will be proven to just be experiencing a brain function that simulates such experiences, meaning that nothing awaits us after we pass.
If all sensation ceases upon death, then questions such as the ‘meaning of life’ seem moot. There is no meaning in such a scenario. What a strange and existential reality that would be. A universe which simply came to be, without cause, without purpose. Someday, in some unseen and uncertain future, this may be demonstrated to be the case. That day would be a sad one indeed, no matter how currently likely.
Only if the conflicting stance prevails, and life becomes proven to be some sort of continuum, will any meaning apply. But whether we survive death or not, what we have left for others, by definition will.
Archives which accumulate and pass on, the works and ideas of those who have died, is seen, correctly, by some, as a type of immortality. I don’t agree, it’s a bit dramatic for my tastes, but I do see that useful ideas and creations should not die with the person who developed them. Yet they are only an extension of the life of these thoughts, and can never be seen as immortal. The cultural crimes which led to the destruction of the Library of Alexander and the burning of the writings of the Maya come to mind. They can exist, for only as long as they are preserved, and are not destroyed by competing beliefs. We, as a species are perhaps the only on this planet to see that we can pass on our works to others, and that these works can not only be aggregated, but improved upon over time.
Throughout my life I have seen that the great minds of science, as they accumulate data at ever increasing rates, are forced into reevaluation of many principles assumed to be taken as sure beliefs. The expansion of the universe is a perfect example. For sometime now, the logical and prudent belief was that the universe was, as it expanded, slowing down. However measurements made a quarter of a century ago have disputed such a belief, forcing an opposite belief, which has become the logical and prudent belief of our time. Will this belief survive further, even more accurate tests? I cannot say.
Because I, and no one living, can yet produce a test which either proves or disproves the existence of a god or gods, I cannot have any definitive belief concerning such an existence or lack thereof. I merely sit by, awaiting any plausible update of evidence, in either direction. Personally, my suspicion (unlike belief) is that there is no such ‘personal’ god, or gods, and that we somehow, inexplicably, came to be through a series of improbable accidents, in which what we call the universe was born. Strangely, such a belief seems even more implausible, but has become the comfortable and expected belief of those of us who fancy ourselves sophisticated intellectuals. What blatant rubbish. For even though this is my adopted position, at this time, I understand that it is equally froth with un-provable beliefs, unmeasured by any scientific inquiry which it claims allegiance with.
So I do not believe that ‘in the beginning god created the heavens and the earth’. But nor do I believe in the big bang, as any sort of beginning to all of ‘this’. A chapter’s beginning perhaps, but hardly the beginning. The questions which scientists and philosophers must ask, as to what was ‘before” (a word I understand that physicists are uncomfortable with), such a big bang (or great expansion as is now the more commonly used modification), remain contentious, because it assumes belief in a continuity of scientific laws, in which we are told, to put our belief.
Stephen Hawking recently gave e a lecture at CalTech, where he definitively asserted that god was unnecessary for the creation of the universe, and that only one ‘big-bang’ occurred. Such confidence in something that is believed to have occurred almost 14 billion years ago, and at a time when very little of the presumed universe is even able to be perceived, let alone measured. It must be great to have such belief, based on so little tangible information.
Of course, critical thinkers will be quick to point out, that everything I have just said is a belief, and they would be right. I just don’t believe that my beliefs will stand the test of time. I believe them, provisionally.
I am an agnostic. But I wear my agnosticism carefully, not as some badge of honor, or shield of defense, proof of intelligence, or delusion of superiority, but as a dubious symbol of the ineptitude of my species. A species trapped by its own ego and insecurity, currently supposedly alone, or at least ignored, in the vastness of a universe whose very properties are still being discovered. Insignificant in our self-absorption. I believe, provisionally, that humans may continue to learn to measure and advance our ideas, so as to come closer to whatever there is, out there, that we can put true belief in.