Category Archives: Philosophy

Try Again

So I was reading this piece in the NYT: “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.”

I have some problems with its theory of mind:

Your brain engages in the same sort of prospection to provide its own instant answers, which come in the form of emotions. The main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgments, according to researchers in a new field called prospective psychology. Emotions enable you to empathize with others by predicting their reactions. Once you imagine how both you and your colleague will feel if you turn down his invitation, you intuitively know you’d better reply, “Sure, thanks.”

Ugh. I can see why this guy is all excited about this, but he’s missing some crucial ingredients. We may be planning creatures, true, and that is important, but our ‘plans’ are made up of present judgments that come very, very quickly, and the past is constantly bubbling up to influence those present judgments. To say we are prospective creatures is to oversimpify – rather, we are present creatures with complex pasts AND futures. Ask a victim of abuse or trauma whether or not they spent all their time thinking about the future, or whether someone from a poor background and low education (that pesky past) thinks about “the future” the same as someone from a middle-class background and decent education.

Emotions are not even remotely understood, but it’s a good starting point.

This article reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is that we are in the dark ages of understanding the brain. Let me give an example.

At one point in my research in grad school I was very interested in how people read. Not how to teach people how to read, but how reading worked in the brain. An analogy might be wanting to know how an internal combustion engine worked instead of wanting to know how to drive a car.

So I read a lot of reading psychology. I was massively disappointed. I discovered that no one in the field had more than a vague idea of how reading worked. The brain was effectively a black box to them – the input and output was known, but what happened between people’s ears – they didn’t have the foggiest. Lots of theories, no evidence. We are literally sentient beings with brains and we have little idea how our brains work, at all.

I have come to find that pretty much all research into the brain is at this state. We are not much beyond poking physical regions of the brain with fingers and electricity to discover what does what. So I look upon supposed new avenues as total shots in the dark. Again, this is the dark ages.

Ultimately I don’t see any major innovations in this area until we do the very-thinkable building of an artificial brain. THEN we will know how one works – or we won’t, because too much of what a brain does is emergent. Just wedding “emotions” onto a computer isn’t going to do it.

To leap into my field for a moment, rhetoric is largely a study of how decisions are made based not on ironclad logic, but on emotions.  When Mr. Spock says on Star Trek that “it is not logical,” he is mistaken – if he were really telling the truth, which Vulcans are supposed to, he would say, “it is not emotionally satisfying to me at the present moment.” That’s not nearly as quotable, of course, and pointing out that EVERY time Spock says he is being “logical,” he isn’t, would take me all day.

Suffice to say, it’s true we are emotional creatures, but our past influences said emotions and we also make WRONG decisions very often. Frankly, the emotions are not very good at making decisions, especially when the RIGHT answer is not blindingly obvious. Self-persuasion helps, but often turns into rationalization, like Spock and his supposed “logic” when all he really has is certain values.



Specious reasoning

There’s an interesting piece on William Lane Craig here at the Chronicle: it reminds me strongly of a piece that the NYT did on Rush Limbaugh years ago.

Both men are of interest to me as a rhetorician because of the power of their speciousness.  Craig is a master of the Gish Gallop and other debating maneuvers, which I first noted after listening to a debate between him and Richard Carrier. His modus operandi is both predictable and devastating. I have to wonder why anyone accepts a debate with him when the odds are so heavily weighted in his favor; Craig is an apex predator of sorts, almost perfectly adapted to his statement/rebuttal/rejoinder environment.

The only effective defense against his tactics would seem to be either disengagement or incredulity (either of which he can dispatch as intellectual bluster!)

Another person Craig reminds me of other than Limbaugh is Ayn Rand, who still has followers. Both are dangerous entities to encounter as an undergraduate, who may lack (although some have) the philosophical depth to recognize what is specious reasoning and how what is specious reasoning can be persuasive despite its nature.

Measuring acceptability of arguments

Here’s a question worthy of some thought. At what point does an opinion become unacceptable? I’m talking about Santorum, not Fish, mind you, from the link.

Fish points out that Santorum’s position on church vs. state matters is not an outlier or crazy because “a number of Supreme Court justices and A-list legal academics” that hold similar views. Fish ends his initial defense with the following summation:

This of course does not mean that Rick Santorum is right; only that he is not a total outlier or a nutcase. His views, although perhaps less well expressed than they might have been, are well within the boundaries of a legal and political debate that has been going on for more than a century.

Note the language – outlier, nutcase, within the boundaries. Fish acknowledges there are boundaries, and that it is possible to be an outlier or a nutcase (my favored term for this is ‘spewing horseshit’), but due to a number of /acceptable/ authorities that hold similar positions, Santorum is not, to use my term, spewing horseshit, but working within a larger intellectual debate.

This reasoning presents a problem. Apparently, in order for an opinion to become acceptable, it need only be vetted by the presence of a sufficient number of similar opinions that have already become acceptable, by dint of qualifications, charisma, etc. By this bandwagon-style reasoning, if Santorum espoused support of cannibalism, as long as a few Supreme Court justices and A-list academics held the same position, his position would be just dandy. That sounds a lot like the moral relativism everyone likes to bash, and reminds me of Hume’s discussion of taste standards, which my rhetoric class discussed earlier this week.

What would be preferable? Judgment on the merits of the argument, not its popularity or whether or not high-placed individuals happen to think the same way. Of course this is not always possible. Such a value is more of an ideal target than a daily standard. The standards of acceptability slip on a regular basis, even with the most objective and impartial – I recall many of my graduate school professors in particular had blind spots you could drive a bus through, some of which they knew about, and I make no claim to not having a few myself. But it seems to me that making acceptability arguments based on popularity is a particularly dangerous habit that breeds complacency and retards actually thinking about the argument itself.

Another standard I particularly dislike is dismissing acceptable arguments because they are old, sometimes even only twenty years or so. Sometimes this is warranted, for example pre-WWII history monographs, or discussions of technology, but it shouldn’t be automatic and reflective. I run into this kind of thinking in biblical studies constantly, but that field doesn’t have a lock on it by any means. The reverse is even more insidious – dismissing arguments because they are new and don’t match existing acceptable thought.

Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

Another vacation book review.

There has to be a reasonable middle ground between the cultural relativism that Harris dislikes and the “New Atheist” hostility to religion that he champions. I can understand the attacks on the NAs because the lot of them, especially Dawkins, are often crass. Then again they’re sort of the professional poker players of the intelligentsia – a certain degree of crassness kind of automatically comes with the position.

Now I think criticism of religion is more than fair game. As Harris says in the book, he comes off arrogant only because he takes the claims of religion, particularly Christianity, seriously, and he does have a point that the usual faith/reason attempts at synergy end up being pretty ridiculous, as his lengthy example of Francis Collins shows.

I can’t buy his total dismissal of relativism and religion, though. Relativism has its flaws, but it at least pushes us toward a default position of tolerance rather than an automatic imperialistic judgment of superiority. And religion certainly has its flaws, but good can come of it – I’m not yet prepared to throw it out with the bathwater. It may be a ‘flawed science’, but that can easily be flipped around – Harris’ science is at times an unpersuasive religion, largely powerless against the straightforward power of family upbringing. A lot of die have to fall the right way for someone to drop their upbringing, family, and core beliefs for the cold – if best currently around – embrace of scientific humanism.

Penn State

Ah, Penn State. You’ll riot for your football coach getting fired for not calling the police when his former assistant coach was molesting boys nine years ago and before and after, but where’s the riot for an assistant coach molesting boys on the job and afterward with tacit approval from administration through lack of action?

I could turn the knife a little more and say this is merely the sign of the bizarre moral system inculcated by a college with a large money-hungry football program. But I don’t entirely believe that. This kind of public anger is reactive, reflexive – madness for madness’s sake – and ultimately, inwardly directed. Who wants to be played the fool for so long, looking up to someone who ultimately falls far short of sainthood? That’s enough, I think, to flip over a few cars.

I am starting to get a little old, and I have yet to meet a saint. Everyone to me mixes some good with some bad. A good reputation to me seems but a carefully manicured lawn – a sign that maintenance is being done regularly, but not much more. We are creatures fond of summation  – that person is good, and that person is bad – and I don’t think that quite covers the usual features of human nature.

Cell phone companies don’t know where you are. Really.

I dislike alarmist stories like this. Of course cell phone companies know where your phone is pretty much all the time. The phone wouldn’t work otherwise.

This is not the same, though, as knowing where YOU are. We are not our phones.

Amazingly enough, it is possible to set your phone down and go somewhere else without it. People used to do it all the time, I’ve heard. As such, the records held by cell phone companies are of extremely limited usefulness in tracking anyone with a brain, especially if you consider the ease by which pay-as-you-go- phones and the internet can be used for anonymous communications, to name two easily accessible alternatives.

It is also possible, believe it or not, to turn your phone off from time to time, or, even, to place it in a so-called ‘flight mode’ or ‘airplane mode’ that disables cellular transmission.

The incommensurability of iphones and staplers

Interesting piece on Thomas Kuhn chucking an ashtray at a graduate student. It’s witty, but not really funny, as I have an big issue with the author’s seeming bewilderment with the term “incommensurability.” The endnote in the article ignores (or is possibly completely ignorant of) how the term has a long history that predates Kuhn, in favor of extending a poor joke – and, also, that Kuhn’s use of the term is pretty straightforward with minor context clues.

For an example of incommensurability as Kuhn  uses it, there’s an iphone and a stapler on my desk.

These are incompatible technologies. You can’t staple an iphone (at least not with a Swingline – your local Home Depot has some that would, though) successfully, and you can’t place a call to a stapler or connect to it via Bluetooth. You could bang them against each other, but I’d be hard pressed to call that compatibility; the stapler is meant to staple pages, and the iphone’s many functions have nothing to do with staples.

However, an iphone and a stapler are not incommensurable. You can TRY to make them interact – staple the iphone (not recommended), call the stapler. The failure is highly probable, but you are not precluded from trying.

Let’s imagine, however, an iphone forever separated from a stapler by a heavy, thick stone wall. The stapler can’t physically get to the phone to try and staple it, and the iphone can’t get a signal to the stapler. They can be aware of each other’s existence, but that knowledge is trivial, as interaction is literally impossible and this makes mere incompatibility also trivial. In this situation, the iphone and the stapler are not only incompatible, but incommensurable.

That Kuhn uses this word to define the relationships between scientific paradigms says, therefore, quite a bit. He is also leaning upon the older definition that suggests a weighing or measuring between theories that is somehow  rendered impossible.


I’ve been wanting to write something on merit for awhile. I think this has a lot to do with it, PR for her book aside. I don’t accept that parenting has only two extreme sides. Much of her claim comes from a ridiculously small sample size – well, her children excelled after her brand of parenting, so ALL children will, and all children who don’t have this kind of parenting will in turn not excel at anything. Or, rather, this is what is implied by the excerpt.

I have problems with the whole idea of a meritocracy, though I’ve not gotten to the point that I can articulate them quite yet. It has something to do with self-worth and external validation, citizens vs. non-citizens, percentage of the population with “talent” or “competence” at specific activities, the reliability of education, knowing something vs. using that knowledge, celebrities as role models, and the American ideal of everyone going to college. Something seems deeply wrong to me. It’s not an issue of the world being “fair,” because, frankly, it is not. The perpetuation of the American dream is a civilization-level lie, but again, that’s not quite what I’m disturbed by.

Perhaps it is that some people accept America as flawed, but hold that it is the best system available. This passive judgment sacrifices a half-ton of ideals. Flaws are rendered permanent. There is no need to look for better systems or progress. There is only the struggle between parties, between who is right and who is wrong. The rules don’t change.

This line of thinking reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Dirty Harry. When it came out, one of the main criticisms was that it was a fascist vigilante fantasy, which has always struck me as a classic example of a bad reading. The film isn’t about how Harry is some kind of ideal vigilante wantonly pissing on the law as he executes criminals without due process. It’s about frustration.

I’m hard pressed to think of a film where the protagonist is more frustrated. Harry hates his superiors for being ineffectual and cowardly. He hates mundane bank robbers who won’t let him finish his hot dog. He hates suicidal idiots that waste his time. He hates rapists. He hates serial killers. He hates getting a confession thrown out because he tortured a man to make him reveal the location of a woman who was buried alive, and didn’t have a warrant to search his lodgings. He hates that his wife was senselessly killed by a drunk driver. He hates that his partners regularly get shot and then drop out of the game. He hates society for being cheap and tawdry, and for letting innocents be terrorized and killed. And he really, really hates having to do something about it, because it corrupts him and turns what would be meritorious – a strong desire for justice – into a disgrace. He has the same line-crossing problem that Batman has, though Harry has a far easier solution due to his willingness to shoot people dead. Magnum Force explores the same idea, but not nearly as well, though the talk between Harry and Briggs at the end is interesting because it clarifies how he has compromised with what he calls “the system.”

I don’t like the system that much either. Human life is valued semi-randomly. It’s not universally cheap (the middle class is still quite large), but neither is it uniformly expensive (no shortage of homeless people). Class matters, race matters, gender matters, money matters, fame matters, beauty matters, ambition matters, intelligence matters, and education matters. Of these, only the last three are viewed as completely neutral and dependent on individual free will. The rest you are either born into, or acquire through luck, misadventure, and/or application of the last three.

Times are changing. We are not.

I saw the subject line of this post on a billboard north of Houston some time ago, advertising a local church, and I’ve continued to think about it since, in terms of the differences between the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” These terms are incredibly loaded, of course. But I want to discuss them first before remarking on the sign further.

I tend to think of “conservative” as a philosophy that rejects change for change’s sake, a sort of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” variant. Certain ideals, government structures, cultural values, etc. are seen as needing preservation in their present state. This philosophy is not opposed to ANY change – just change seen as unnecessary, destructive, or rushed. Change is recognized as inevitable, but in need of careful management and review. This philosophy naturally leads to a brand of individualism that ironically undercuts itself; you are free to be an individual as long as you toe the value line.

Likewise, I tend to think of “liberal” as a philosophy that sees certain kinds of change as being artificially slowed by conservative stances when they need to be sped up, even in the face of majority rule that disagrees. It’s not a ‘change for change’s sake’ philosophy, either, but change is viewed as less of a threat and more of an opportunity. This philosophy naturally leads to egalitarianism, which favors the whole over the individual.

I should note that neither of these philosophies is inherently democratic (and both are vulnerable to charges of utilitarianism.) Democracy is yet another philosophy that insists issues should be resolved through some kind of majority vote that is determined through representatives of the people, whether by election, lot, or some other method. Democracy, in other words, is built to subsume conservatism and liberalism.

Back to the sign – “Times are changing. We are not.” This is beyond conservatism, which recognizes that change is ok if controlled, and into the realm of fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, fundamentalism is an inherently modern philosophy; it does not try to preserve the past as much as demand a return to a past that may or may not have actually existed. As such fundamentalism requires the presence or perception of liberal-style change or it has no casus belli. Fundamentalism sees itself as an island preserve trying to hold the line against a jungle of chaos. It professes, even, a special, timeless, immunity to change. Change may even be characterized as cyclical and passing, something to be weathered until a future time.

The reason I like the sign so much is that it’s so vague and yet simultaneously quite specific. It’s a church advertisement, complete with a black and white photo of a white-haired man I assume is a leader in the church; therefore, the change referenced is almost certainly religious/theological in nature, even though it is not identified. As such, it is ALL religious/theological change of any kind. Furthermore, the verb in the second sentence, ‘are not,’ is also curious. It is not ‘will not’ or ‘can not’ or ‘have not’ or even ‘are not changing’ or ‘are not going to’ – it is the non-specific present ‘are not’. The verb in the first sentence is progressive, describing a process still occurring; if ‘changing’ is simply reduced from the second sentence, the sentence has the irony of having a progressive verb describe the absence of change.

Someone decided – a minister, a group of deacons, a church support organization, etc – to put up this sign and pay for it. Its message is therefore not trivial to them. And yet it is independent of history. Assuming it’s a Protestant organization of some sort, by definition the congregation’s values stem from the Reformation, which certainly qualifies as a pretty big religious change. So the sign’s claims must be more historically short-term, namely “Times are changing. We are currently advocating a religious worldview dating to year X that holds Y and has no current plans to deviate from its beliefs, unlike everyone else.” The colorful history of Christianity does not allow the sign’s claim; churches can seem to be bastions of non-change, but the plethora of versions of the religion that have exploded in the last few hundred years undercuts this claim. Religion is not immune to changes, whether temporary waystations want it to change or not.

However, the appeal of the sign remains to those who want to believe change can and should be held off, which is where fundamentalism and conservatism start to blend together. I could critique liberalism in the same way, as it can be pushed into a ‘change for change’s sake’ mode that is equally illogical.

Essay on ethics and agnosticism

I found this short essay of mine, written a year or two ago, while rummaging through some old files. I’d forgotten about it entirely. I may have abandoned it because it was getting too close to Kant ‘s categorical imperative. I don’t have time to revise it properly, but it’s sat in the proverbial trunk long enough.

Agnostic Morality

One of the most important questions that every human being must address in his or her lifetime is the question of morality. In other words, how do we know what is good and what is bad?

There are many positions on morality, of course, held by various religions, cultures, families, and individuals all over the world, but which one is the most advisable? And should we even try to pick, granting the assumption that some positions are better than others – or that any given one is better than most – but instead create our own? There are several common ways of resolving the question of morality, and I’d like to discuss these before arguing for an alternative that I believe is the most attractive.

The first method of resolving the question of morality is a popular one: subscription to a religion with a fixed moral code. The question of morality is resolved with an appeal to a higher power or powers that professes absolute moral standards and condemns, or forgives, those who disobey. Even a religion that professes a more “gray” moral code is functionally the same in terms of responsibility; either way, reliance on religion for moral authority shifts the onus for decision-making to a deity/deities or scripture instead of the individual or even a community. Adherence, of course, to this divine code may be spotty, but it at least serves as a guide for all but the worst hypocrites.

A second method of resolution is a stance of moral relativism. Relativism, simply put, holds that all meaning, including morality, is relative, man-made, and governed chiefly by context, culture, and language. The extreme case of cannibalism is a good illustration.  In some places cannibalism is morally acceptable, and in others, it is not; regardless, according to relativism, no locale or group can claim ultimate moral authority over the action. There is no absolute “good” or “bad,” only individuals and communities that agree on what is acceptable, and may very well clash if groups with different positions come into extended contact. It is not just man that is the measure of all things, as Gorgias put it, but acculturated humans in combination and dialogue with other acculturated humans that are the measure of all things. I should note that moral relativism should never be confused with nihilism, which discards morality entirely; relativism recognizes that the meaning agreed upon by communities, in particular, has value and authority within that community.

A third method of resolving the question of morality is the nihilism that I just mentioned, which takes relativism further, and too far for most. The nihilist throws out all moral standards, recognizing the authority of none, and claims that anything is allowable in a world where meaning is cheap. It is the individual, therefore, that enforces their morality onto the world. It is important to note that this may result in a philosophy of total unashamed selfishness, or a pattern of behavior undistinguishable from a saint’s. It is the refuge of both the insane and the fiercely independent.

A fourth method of resolution I will call, for the lack of a better term, physiological empiricism. It is similar to moral relativism, but its beliefs are grounded less in an understanding of the complicated and messy role of language and more in empirical observation. The physiological empiricist holds that morality is not quite entirely relative because it does have a traceable wellspring – the human body. Human morality, therefore, is an evolutionary byproduct of sentient beings that have two sexes, two arms, two legs, the limited perception offered by five senses, an omnivore’s diet, and a cognitively advanced brain and accompanying nervous system. In other words, evolution, a process following logically from the known processes of physics and chemistry, and game theory to explain how genes best each other in the reproductive cycle, produced the notion of morality. This position can be further extended by noting that religion and culture, as well as the other possible solutions to morality, are human inventions designed to allay nettlesome complications arising from the evolution of the body, including the very notion of morality itself.

There are serious problems with all four of these solutions.

For the first solution, that of religion, the sheer number of different religions, sects, and cults on this planet makes a choice among them a game of Russian roulette with a revolver that may or may not have a bullet in any chamber. You may be lucky enough to have been born in the “correct” religion, or not; in any case there is no way of determining validity besides faith. Untold numbers of people have no problem with this, but I do.

The second solution, moral relativism, has an uncanny ability to describe human interaction. On the other hand, it lacks the moral core that many people crave and runs into a significant problem when communities with different standards interact; it provides no method of resolution beyond, perhaps, a system of civic rhetoric (which I’ll get to later). It can also inconsistent with itself, by declaring an universal rule that there aren’t any universal rules.

Likewise, the third solution, nihilism, is hardly a balm for a feeling of spiritual emptiness, and the nihilist has no need of internal or external community resolution; it is generally not a philosophy for people who wish to live with and respect others.

The fourth solution, that of the physiological empiricist, too, can offer little solace or practical day-to-day resolution of conflict to the moral questioner, as it posits human beings are little more than fantastically complex machines evolved to promote the distribution and replication of genes. The situation it posits may be quite accurate, but it almost useless for resolving the question of morality.

Thus the question remains for the philosophically inclined. We are torn between a strong desire for certain, or at least reasonably certain, moral knowledge that can guide our actions and the actions of communities, and a recognition that the world is filled with innumerable moral claims that conflict, whether or not those claims are declared by deities or formed by humans through consensus. No obvious solution exists beyond a crude balancing of the urge for the divine and our flawed observations of the world.

Most people are not ethical philosophers, and yet most people, I would suggest, come to similar compromises, allowing as much faith-based spirituality or hard-nosed secularism into their lives as they can deal with at any given moment. Few of us have the luxury of being morally consistent in a world that constantly presents moral dilemmas that both challenge black-white morality as well as the gray alternatives. Ethics are expensive.

However, I would argue that the agnostic individual occupies a unique position in regards to the question of morality. Agnostics are skeptics, waiting for more information, and in that sense they are empirical and open-minded, natural candidates for the fourth solution of physiological empiricism. But at the same time, a consistent agnostic does not dismiss the possibility of some form of religion being an appropriate path.

Agnostics are not atheists, who by definition must hold onto a relatively firm position on a deity or deities; the agnostic reserves judgment and thus floats, unattached, between many viewpoints. This reservation of judgment comes from an interesting notion of responsibility to truths that may or may not exist, but at the very least are currently inaccessible. This agnostic conception of responsibility to the truth, I suggest, offers a possible fifth option for resolution of the question of morality.

The stereotypical center of Western morality is some form of the Golden or Platinum Rule, stated one way in Matthew 7:12: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” The ethic of reciprocity or fair play contained in this statement can be taken to be of divine origin, but it can also be construed in a relativistic or even physiological sense also; it is a rule derived from human behavior and the demands of living in communities filled with humans who are predisposed to react violently when their self-interests are not taken into account by others. It can also, however, be interpreted in terms of responsibility, in that those agreeing to the rule agree to take on a certain responsibility for their behavior, as well as for the welfare of others.

This maxim falls apart, of course, in many specific cases, as it has no notion of truth or how to manage what Greek stasis theory calls krinomenon, the point of judgment; the details of judicial enforcement of the rule in other words, are left to the reader. But the maxim becomes significantly stronger when its conception of responsibility is stressed. Each individual acceding to the rule has not only a right to be treated like all others given similar circumstances, but a responsibility as an agent to personally practice a policy of equal treatment. All actions in the Golden Rule’s bare-bones moral system are owned by their agent; there is no collective responsibility. Its moral system fails or succeeds based solely on individual moral decisions. In that sense, it is directly analogous to the success or failure of individual organisms in evolution; successful moral systems participate in an arena filled with many other reproductive strategies, and are replicated, marginalized, or rendered extinct through their direct contests with alternative strategies.

The Golden Rule might then seem to be a good choice for a moral core. The problem, however, is that it does not directly address altruism, another notion of responsibility that many are fiercely unwilling to abandon. There is no role in the rule for altruistic actions, only a careful measurement of the predicted response to the agent’s actions. Everyone must be treated fairly, but only according to a social cost. There is no moral charge to care for the poor, the sick, or the hungry; there is no responsibility not to kill if the agent is willing to be killed in turn (the Golden Rule technically allows wars without cause belli and even suicide bombing as long as the agent doesn’t mind reciprocation, which they hardly could in the case of suicide). In practice, then, as the agent is allowed to construct a moral system that pleases his or her standards and then willy-nilly inflict it on others, the Golden Rule (if isolated) can be attacked on grounds that it is fascist – or even nihilist.

How then, can the strengths of Golden Rule be combined with altruism in other to cover this loophole? I would suggest agnosticism is a pretty good answer. Agnosticism has a unique role of responsibility to the question of the existence/non-existence of God in that all options must be considered and all the evidence must be weighed before anything is resolved. However, agnostics must be moral agents in the world despite their doubts; pragmatic day-to-day decisions must still be made. These decisions, however, are made on the same moral basis of responsibility to the truth as the question of God’s existence, only quicker, through the means of a civic rhetoric that allows probabilistic decisions about questions that cannot be resolved unequivocally.

And thus, I would argue, agnosticism merges with altruism; the agnostic quest to find evidence for the existence/non-existence of God is best promoted through the successful spread of knowledge and ideas, which can only happen in a peaceful, productive society. In other words, agnosticism injects a peaceful morality into the Golden Rule through the concept of responsibility to the larger community. Indeed, there is no point to withholding judgment and operating on probability if there is no environment in which to further seek the truth. Therefore, the agnostic has a charge to create, maintain, and defend communities in which knowledge and ideas are celebrated and discussed. The disadvantaged, which under the more primitive and fascist Golden Rule could be disregarded, cannot be ignored; any and all of them may be part of the grand puzzle of existence, and the agnostic must, if he or she is to be logically consistent, acknowledge their potential to contribute to humanity and treat them accordingly.

Of course, this solution does not address the need for a divine presence, and a reasonable counterargument could be made that most religious people inject plenty of altruism into the Golden Rule all the time. What’s so different about agnostics? The difference is that in the place of a god or gods, agnosticism promotes a concern for the community and humanity as a whole. The agnostic fears not a supernatural power, nor the community itself, but a personal dereliction of his or her responsibilities to the community and the quest to answer the existence/non-existence of God. The purpose of the agnostic’s life, therefore, is adherence to the responsibilities of moral agency that he or she practices as a member of a community, in the sense that increasing knowledge and ideas are promoted by supporting the efforts of all the members of the community. Currently, I think this is the best way to promote a resolution of moral questions, if not the existence or non-existence of God. Your mileage may vary.