Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Open Letter to Ron Rosenbaum

... because I doubt I'll get a response from the man himself.

First, read his Agnostic Manifesto at Slate.


Dear Mr. Rosenbaum,

Rarely have I been so aggravated by an essay whose merits I mostly affirm.

I welcome your provocative reversal of the prevailing debate about faith: that atheism is a weaker form of agnosticism, not the other way about. However, your “Agnostic Manifesto” tries to put the New Atheists in their place without presenting any evidence from the source to do so. To the degree that I am sympathetic to your cause, I am aggravated by your rather thuggish line of attack. It seems, at best, disingenuous from a man espousing the virtue of humility.

You imply atheists cannot mean what they say until they acknowledge your something-or-nothing question. As you suggest, this question cannot be answered by logic or reason. But I fail to see how your ability to pose this question debunks atheism as a valid approach to existence. Most atheists, even the shrill New Atheists, are more than happy to engage the question of existence; they just don’t see how this question admits or necessitates the presence of a god. Certainly it admits the possibility of a god, but that’s not the same thing. If you’re saying the New Atheists have degenerated from a reasoned rejection of faith to an active assertion of non-faith, you will get no argument from me. But you won’t yet get an affirmation of agnosticism, either.

I will offer my own answer to your something-from-nothing question in the next paragraph, but indulge me on this line of thought first. We can conceive of an infinite number of possibilities; infinity itself is a pure conception, equally un-provable as a truth or non-truth. In an aside, you say the “are you agnostic about fairies rejoinder is just dumb.” Well, if we discover one day that fairies made something come from nothing, how dumb could the question be? I don’t believe that’s the case and I sense you don’t either, but once you make skepticism your ground of being – once you make nothingness itself the irreducible question – you leave yourself open to other people’s projections. For most people on this planet, that projection is god. Today, existence, ethics and aesthetics remain the only phenomena for which we have sufficient dispute to admit the possibility of god as an answer. But while existence, ethics and aesthetics may be inexhaustible ponderables (forgive the mouthy phrase), that still does not constitute sufficient evidence to compel the atheists from their position. In my experience, it is the atheists who stand ready to ponder such things, while the faithful find the question moot since they already have an answer of their own. Certainly saying “there is no god” does not cut off the larger mystery of being alive. So your rebuke to atheism involves accusing the atheists of an answer they never needed to ask for in the first place. This is why your something-nothing challenge is not just fallacious, but cruel and a little cowardly.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Becuase Nothing was the source and subject of our first conception. You mock Thomas Aquinas for positing a Supreme Being that exists in a timeless, spaceless, causeless realm, but your very question requires a timeless, spaceless, causeless juncture outside existence at which point the option of existence was acted upon. So of course any answer will be unsatisfactory -- whether it appeals to logic, reason or emotion -- because it can only trigger questions of infinitely regressing priority: What came before that? Who did the acting upon? How and why? The question is unanswerable - not because, as Terry Eagleton suggested, we don’t know what Time is, but rather because we can never experience nothingness to validate one answer or another. We can only conceive of nothingness or project ourselves into it.

I’m guessing a Hamlet aficionado like you can see the play on “conception” and “nothing” here. Not for nothing does he punningly call death “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (thus surpassing any oedipal coordinates for his affliction.) Hamlet’s enduring philosophical insight is that death can never guarantee a reprieve from thinking, feeling and suffering. For Hamlet, the possibility of perpetual, irreversible consciousness is a spur to re-engage with the fussy contingencies of life: to “bear those ills we have.” We can die, but we can never experience death; we can only know it. Once known, death loses its power as a guarantee of anything. Cruel as it is when it takes a loved one, death itself is nothing to fear because, as Hamlet says, the worse fate would be to experience something rather than nothing -- “the dread of something after death.” Which is to say: after thought.

Nothingness – conceptual negation – is the very source from which thinking gets its force and against which reason sharpens its cutting edge. Even if our own death turns out to be nothing more than the omnidirectional dispersal of our constituent carbon atoms, there will be no self apart from that disintegration to suffer it as such for it is that selfsame self that does the disintegrating. This disintegration happens all the time, within the psyche, well before natural death. It was the task of that polymath psychologist Hamlet to bear that disintegration honestly. As Hamlet reminds us, the most we ever know in life is that we may continue to experience consciousness after we die. Religion offers its followers the guarantee of such knowledge and goes further to describe the very content of an after-life: heaven, hell, etc.

What about any of this should make an atheist re-consider the existence of god? Atheism can reject the eager projections of religion without denying the mystery of the rest of waking life. Admittedly, many New Atheists fail to do this, but your manifesto does not yet make the case for agnosticism as a worthy antidote to their hysterical crusade. At most, it loudly announces the problem and surpasses it with a new magnitude of hysteria.

Here I wish you had cited some Neo-Atheist bombast to back up your charges against them. I say this because you are right to point out their smug, Spock-like dismissal of mystery. Dawkins, Dennet, Onfrey, Hitchens and Harris (hereinafter “DDOHH”) have quite a lot invested in the question of god, and have been discharging quite a lot of anger with their escalating reiterations of “There is no god!” Tragically, they seem to think a well-crafted syllogism can undo centuries of emotional attachment and they remain priggishly unconcerned with charting that emotional attachment to its root. Even if god is nothing more than a fictional concept to DDOHH, they still depend on it as the keystone concept for their shaky pons asinorum. At the end of the day, neither the faithful nor the rabidly anti-faithful is likely to be enlightened by the something-from-nothing paradox. Like all good paradoxes, it is a statement posing as a question. You bait your readers for a debate by challenging them to answer it. Since you know it was never a question in the first place, you get to declare victory in advance. Congratulations.

Just know that this is a victory for nihilism, not the radical skepticism to which you aspire. To take your view seriously, we would have to continue doubting the existence of god even after he breached the firmament to give Katie Couric an exclusive interview. Billions of people already have faith based on lesser spectacles than that, so why begrudge the atheists for wanting more evidence in the meantime?

I have no love for the New Atheists. They alternate between a crude materialism and a closed rationalism. My own spiritual journey owes more to the Nietzschean-Freudian strain of atheism. This camp approaches god and existence with more than reason and logic. It attempts to trace thoughts, beliefs and emotions to their root, while maintaining a position of openness and receptivity to the ecstatic mystery of life at the same time. It grants an axiomatic primacy to conflict, not mere skepticism.

As David Hart recently explained in First Things, Nietzsche was not content to reason his way out of faith. It was not enough to disprove god on rational or material grounds; he had to declare his death. (In an attempt to out-aphorize Nietzsche, Christopher Hitchens glides over this distinction: he teases Nietzsche for declaring the death of something that never existed! One then wonders why Hitchens titled his book “God is Not Great” since there was no god whose greatness needed negating, but whatever.) Like Nietzsche, Freud grounded our relationship to god in the dynamic of a larger drama so we could contend with the implications of faith and the horrors of existence in a meaningful way. Or, at least, in a way less superficial than, say, Ayn Rand’s bloodless abstractions (this seems to be the only level at which Sam Harris cares to think).

Faced with your something-nothing challenge, the neo-Atheists will simply maintain that they never believed in god, never had a crisis of faith, and that some transcendent principle of Reason backs up their present disposition. They would be wrong, of course, but your manifesto doesn’t begin to explain why. Again, I agree that the New Atheists are an obnoxious lot. They remain self-righteously mystified that so many other people could be so delusional to disagree with them. For Bill Maher, atheism is just a lazy way to smite the stupid because it spares him the trouble of wondering what, besides stupidity, accounts for their belief. Such an investigation would require more grace and introspection than Maher wants to grant; it would require a return to psychoanalytic-existential inquiry. Only then can we rise above this tired battle between the stupid and the smart.

And this is what most aggravated me about your manifesto: like Maher, you’re just calling your opponents stupid. While I was happy to see you reference Jim Holt, I was irritated to see you reference Errol Morris’s pointless ruminations on anosognosia. Like the Nothing we can never experience, the “unknown unknown” is the void into which we project what we want to be true. We are all beholden to unknown unknowns. I don’t need a five-part column to tell me that. Sometime around age two, it became painfully clear to me that I’m not omniscient and that my growth and fulfillment in this life depended on how I squared my limitations with my desires. The coinage “anosognosia” is meant to be a spur to new knowledge. But in your hands, it ends up being another way to validate what you already knew: that some people are really stupid. After all, anosognosia can only be diagnosed by people who know something (the smart) against people who can’t know something (the stupid). By definition, the stupid anosognosiac cannot be cured of his malady. So anosognosia also provides you the toxic jouissance that comes from damning the irredeemable: ye who cannot be saved from your stupidity. One may as well say that a wounded soldier deserves to die because his blasted hand prevents him from performing his own amputation. To say that stupid people are so stupid they don’t know how stupid they are (i.e., that they are “meta-stupid”) is to give stupid people a meaningless diagnosis and to give smart people a new epithet to express their contempt. This is sesquipedalianism at its finest. How humble!

I have no patience for this petty line of attack, especially when I agree with the attacker. Better to explore why we want something to be true. Why do certain falsehoods keep their grip long after they’ve been exposed? Why do so many New Atheists sound like fascistic cowards stuck in a self-induced autism? As I explain in the following link, better to explore the unknown KNOWN before we judge others from the vantage of the unknown unknown:

I write because I agree with you on almost every substantive point; I’m just saddened that there are so few of them. You get to contribute a longer-than-average column once a month at Slate. Surely you have the time and patience to craft something more than a personal screed against other people’s personal screeds (your Shakespeare and Hitler pieces are fantastic). The atheism-agnosticism debate is an important one to have – and I would love to see a bout between you and fellow Slater Hitchens, if he’s up to it these days. But from one Mysterian to another, I have to say this conflict is too important to leave at the level of conceptual gainsaying and nerd bullying.


Karl Miller