Let’s make the village a concept and do this again. Rosalie is an agnostic. She has heard the argument that no one can prove a negative and believes it. Then she wanders into a café and reads a big book on doubt as she waits out the rain. Now she knows that the term agnosticism was invented only a hundred years ago by Thomas Henry Huxley, and has no intellectual pedigree to speak of. Huxley made it up having read about Skepticism, which is a philosophically robust proposition that asks how we can know anything at all, given the limitations of our minds and our tiny, animal perspective. Skepticism is thousands of years old and has been brilliantly explored in every age. Agnosticism is the logic of Skepticism applied to only one question, the question of whether one particular people’s imagined idea of the supernatural actually exists.
To be sensible, either you are a Skeptic about all things, which allows you to be a profoundly interesting thinker but does not allow you to claim to know anything about the world; or you are a rationalist, which means you gather evidence, try to minimize your cultural bias, and make conclusions. If you make your decisions by rationalism, you can certainly say that an idea is not to be considered as at all valid if it has no evidence to argue for it being true. In Skepticism I have to allow that possibly all of life is happening in the dream of a cosmic elephant; in rationalism, I do not. It is philosophical nonsense to take Skepticism and apply it to one belief. In rationalism, it is possible to rule on the validity of a conjecture that has no evidence.
Huxley made up agnosticism because he wanted to leave room for people to be atheists but still keep a line of hope. But that is massively wrong-headed. When people confront the truth they get used to it and see that it is not so bad. So there is no afterlife. Big deal. Life is enough. When you are dead, you are so dead that nothing should matter to you about it. When you are alive, you’re alive. Every moment is so huge, there is so much of it, and we take in so little of it. You want more life at the end? You’re hardly using the life you have now. None of us are. We already have more than we can handle. Your job is to try to know the present and the past, to expand into the now, in part by knowing what was.
Some people get on a plane to change where they are but you can transform your surroundings as well as your inner world with just a touch of new knowing.
It may be fated that my love for Jennifer Michael Hecht remain unrequited, but that’s okay. As long as she keeps offering up words like these to me, I can pretend she loves me too. Sigh…
Seriously, I wish more people could write about history and ideas in such an invigorating way. Doubt: A History and The Happiness Myth are two of the most fun books I’ve ever read. Philosophical stories of history as told by a caffeinated poet.