So. What do you get when an agnostic bordering on atheism has a crisis of faith? That would be me. A significant chunk of my self-identification as an agnostic, a rather defining label to affix to oneself if one can define by negation, involved an active choice to specifically not believe in god, God, G-d, or gods, or goddesses, or spirits or angels or demons or ghosts or souls and a whole host of other things in which to rationally disbelieve.
To see myself inclined to believe, if only in fits and starts, is to have a knee-jerk reaction in the other direction. For were I to believe, ultimately, in the irrational, and for the most subjective and indescribable reasons at that, I may have to seek the grounds for a personal ethics in a manner already subject to an extreme of doubt, wherein some other nebulous and unproven reality dictates the rules of the game here. I’ve tried this approach, and when challenged, I ask the same, “and why should it be so?” as I ask of philosophy.
That’s worry number one, that I get what I perceive to be glimpses into The Way Things Are at all. That rather jars one’s apprehension of reality at a rather fundamental level. To feel as though I receive useful information from these experiences is to push the bounds of reason. So I react in the negative. What I do not choose to be is that crazy guy on the street corner claiming to be a prophet spouting the inspired word of [insert entity here]. I would very much like to continue functioning in the so-called civilized world as a free man and am disinclined to do more than merely write of my experiences.
However, get them I do. Insights into The Way Things Are that, were they true, would indicate that the moral fabric of the universe is plastic, malleable not to the man, but to the spirit inhabiting the man absolutely so. The spirit is a free agent, not bound by man’s morality, not out of antipathy, but for lack of relevance. But to have these experiences wherein what is perceived is of the so-called “spirit world”, and which appears to have explanatory power when applied to the self-evident Universe we inhabit, is to have an utterly irrational experience. Yet they are not periods of insanity, either. They are more akin to modes of thought. They are states of consciousness having much in common with inebriation, but induced through the constructive use of symbols and patterns and rhythms. In this state of consciousness, the Virtues are readily personified. Their influence on the temporal world is readily imagined in symbol and metaphor. They are as we imagine them to be at first, but after familiarity is established these personified Virtues tend to take on often surprising characteristics for they relate to each other in the most amazing ways.
This is okay so long as I consider it all just a glorified thought experiment. What would it be like were I to believe this way? I imagine it would be worlds of fun, but only at pains of having everyone that knows me thinking I’ve finally gone completely off my rocker, even though that wouldn’t be true at all if it turns out that what I chose to believe actually turns out to be close to The Truth, or A Truth. But oh, the books I could write, and the audience I could develop, all just by claiming a Truth, as unprovable as any other Truth. I’d be another crackpot, but a crackpot with a publishing deal. Of this I have no doubt. But damn, I’d have to believe it first. Really and truly believe it. Otherwise I’d feel like any other charlatan milking the credulous of their hard-earned and ill-spent money.
I don’t, though. I don’t believe, yet, that there’s some underlying spiritual cause for All That Is and The Way Things Are. That way, however, nihilism lies. At least, that’s all I’ve ever found there. Without a spiritual explanation for the Universe, what we have is life apparently as an epiphenomenon of the physical Universe undergoing the conniptions of physics, with consciousness as an epiphenomenon of life. Without evidence to the contrary yet, we find it plausible that perhaps life exists elsewhere in space, and perhaps may even have evolved to a state of consciousness understandable to our own, but that’s it. Plausible. We don’t know it’s out there. For all we know, we’re it. Even if a quick glance at the headlines wasn’t enough to cause alarm about how well we’re doing, just the brutal facts of astrophysics would bode poorly for any sense of our permanence in the big scheme of things. Not just humans, but all life forms. If we don’t find a way to spread through space, when our sun explodes in a few billion years, that’s all she wrote. No more life. It was just an accidental blip and might never occur again. And the galaxies will continue through space, colliding with each other on occasion and all the while shining out their stellar glory with no one to watch ever again, and nobody would be around to give a rat’s ass.
Predicated on such a dismal view, how the hell do we derive an ethics? This secondary epiphenomenon, consciousness as we understand it, in only one (or maybe a handful) of species into which we’ve divided the primary epiphenomenon, life. Because of this second-generation mutation of physics, humans especially have an amazing capacity for putting themselves in positions where notions of right and wrong matter. Generally, what a human evaluates as “wrong” is avoided, until the human asks, “Hold on, what makes this wrong?” “What makes this right?” We’ve been through the divine right of kings, revealed religions, various forms of government and every imaginable creed or philosophy in between. And there are the aggrieved, for whatever their reasons, who either feel helpless in the face of what they can only see as iniquity, or fall back on the righteousness of Might Is Right to redress their grievances.
Every single one of these methods of evaluating right and wrong ultimately derives from one or more pleas from authority because, well, just because. That’s the best they’ve got. Philosophers and scientists are working on that. Others have pretty much given up and adopted whichever flavor of “just because” suits them, whether it’s from the gut or from some arbitrarily chosen authority.
That would be okay if it worked. But it doesn’t. The evidence is in those headlines and in how very much most of us feel very, very fucked with indeed, and so well, and so thoroughly that we’re dazzled by the very fuckedness of it all and can’t even tell for sure who’s fucking with us, but dammit, we know they are and when we figure out who they are, they’re damn well gonna pay for it. But how? And until then, what?
See, our personal ethics determines, apart from what we judge to be right and wrong, also the options available to us as we bide our time waiting for something called Justice to come along and set shit straight. To what, exactly, are we obligated? What, exactly, are we obliged to do? It all depends on what you think of as right and wrong.
Enter the philosophical world of ethics. Like I said earlier, they’re still working on that. Until then, there is no ethical system that logically derives from anything logically necessary to existence. More than a few hedge their bets and tuck a nice Giant Space Clam somewhere in the mix. All of their arguments logically cohere, it makes sense, it has explanatory power for the “real world” and oh, it’s because there’s this thing called [insert name of personified Virtue].
If I’m gonna go with Space Clams, I’ll go with my own, thank you. They’re mostly friendly and they’ve got a wicked sense of humor.
But I haven’t yet. Because if there’s a genuine ethics out there that applies because it actually is so, maybe just maybe I’m actually obligated to do something about whatever it is I see wrong in the world, and I see plenty. I don’t just mean living a green lifestyle with as little footprint as is practical, donating to charities, voting one ticket or another, writing letters, or protesting. That’s all well and good. But might I not be obliged to take up something more direct like clearing minefields? Or contributing to the general welfare by a more judicious use of my time and talents? Is free time a luxury? Is luxury a guilty pleasure? Because if so, I should rather be off my ass somewhere agitating for change for the better in some way. I should be placing myself in harm’s way commensurate with my ability to make a positive difference. Depending on which way a person believes, I may even need to join the military (a thought which has actually crossed my mind with varying degrees of seriousness in the past).
To what end? That bitchy question of mine comes to the fore again. “And what if I don’t?” At some point, sooner or later, I die. This epiphenomenal consciousness ceases to be at the same time as the epiphenomenal body ceases to be a living organism, and that’s all she wrote. I’ll be remembered in one manner or another in accordance with what I leave behind. It won’t matter to me personally as I’ll have ceased to be, but it would matter if it would please me that memory of me would last and would be favorable. I don’t know that it does. With no heaven, no hell, no infinite spiritual otherness in which to play with the genuine awareness of myself, intact and continuous, without all that, I live but yet another 40 or 50 years, my memory outlasts me maybe a decade or two, the sun goes nova eventually, regardless of what happens to the human species, and the galaxies wheel off into the sunset, never to be seen again.
I find a remarkable nobility in the human spirit when it finally asserts that This Is So Because I Feel It Is So. This Matters To Me. War. Economics. Politics. Religion. Animal Rescue Shelters. People Eating Tasty Animals. You name it. Not because some authority said it is so, but because They say it is so. It’s remarkable, and it’s beautiful, and it’s rare to see people take credit for it. Unfortunately, all these multifarious Goods can become just as brutal to the intellect as any authority-inspired Good and still breed zealotry, though for a cause no more or less arbitrary than any other.
I don’t have that. No one cause really grabs me. My jury is still out on what is right and what is wrong and who did what to whom when and why. I have grown numb and weary. I just don’t give a shit. None of it matters.
And when I think that, I remember you. You, my friend in New Orleans, my friend in Denver, my friend in Auckland, my friend in Washington, DC, my friend in Rio de Janeiro, my friend in Chicago, my friend in Iowa, my friend in Pittsburgh, my friend here and my friend there and all the friendly faces everywhere who, to me, are the very face of humanity. The nameless, faceless intangible horrors in the newspapers are two-dimensional to me. Caption their name and zoom in till I see the whites of their eyes, and they are still two-dimensional. The only time any of them mean anything to me is when, somehow, they have been transmuted into a symbol. What happens to the symbol matters. Oh my god, that’s not one person, that’s poor people, that’s hungry people, that’s refugees, that’s warmongers and heads of state and corporate executives and taxpayers and patriots and criminals. It looks like most of America is addicted to these symbols. Most of them just don’t hit me that way any more. Oh, another rich celebrity. Oh, another crooked politician. Oh, another religion and sex scandal.
But you. I know what your eyes look when you’re pissed. I know how you smile when you think something is stupid. I know how your head shakes when you laugh. I know your voice. Or I just have a very vivid mental picture of you based on what I know of you. Or I don’t even know you at all and you’re just one of the audience I imagine exists for my ramblings, shaking your head, maybe laughing, maybe outraged. The better I know you, the more I care. It’s from the gut, and from the heart. It’s the fountain of my right and wrong. Right is what is good for you. Wrong is what is bad for you. And I have only your self-report to know what those things are because it’s not my place to tell you.
That leaves a lot of latitude and wiggle room when it comes to what I’m obligated to do. I’m obligated to be a friend in return, and I’m happy with that. It’s enough to keep me from total nihilism and I don’t have to go blowing myself up with landmines or serving the poor in war-torn [insert nation here]. Life matters and the quality of life matters because you matter.
Does this solve the initial problem? The agnostic crisis of faith? Not by a long shot. It only makes it worse. Surely such marvels as yourselves are not accidents of the Universe, are you? Could be. I’d rather not think that, however, and that way lies the irrational all over again.
Image credit: Agnostic A in the public domain. Source: Wikipedia.