Monday, December 14, 2020

Prometheus Rising exercise and discussion group, Week Ten

William James with his brother, the novelist Henry James 

By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger 

Funnily enough, the lecture that Wilson refers to at the beginning of the chapter almost certainly never occurred. Philosophers had been telling the story of the belief in infinite turtles since John Locke and it is highly unlikely that James ever encountered a sincere believer in the idea. In fact, James recorded  no such encounter and used a slightly different version of infinite regress in his essay “Rationality, Activity and Faith.” In James’ essay, the old woman believes that there are rocks upon rocks which, perhaps because of all those pesky geology lessons in grade school, makes her seem more reasonable than the fictitious old lady at the beginning of “The Thinker and The Prover.” 

In his famous lecture, “The Will to Believe,” James defends the proposition of faith against what he viewed as rampant agnosticism. Therein James argues that presupposing evidence to form a belief can possibly cut mankind off from further revelations. How does the chemist come up with a hypothesis, James asks, if they must rely on evidence before confirming a belief? James attempts a wily argument that for the chemist to take the time to test their hypothesis, they have already conformed to the belief that something will take place during the experiments. James paints the agnostics of his day as almost pathologically afraid of “being duped” and therefore cut off from any experience outside of those of mundane quality that can be empirically experienced. 

I have simplified the argument as I best remember it -- perhaps I am doing an insufficient job of presenting James’ ideas. That said, his lecture has attracted criticism from many thinkers, scientists, and philosophers since its publication. It doesn’t appear James was able to convince many of those in the opposite camp of his argument. James’ essay always struck me as an expansion of Pascal’s Wager, and considering that I find that old chestnut sensible long after its dark, mathematical creator passed into history, it isn’t surprising that I find myself agreeing with James, at least at certain points. 

While the agnostics of James’ day were in the mode of Thomas Henry Huxley and in many cases seemed to stray much closer to atheism than agnosticism, that breed has mostly died out. Today it seems those who do not have the will to believe, or rather have a willingness to disbelieve, just skip agnosticism and go straight to the non-existent horse’s mouth of atheism. Atheism, of course, is simply another form of belief that seems to pain the followers of that particular faith as much as the followers of faiths that presuppose the existence of god. In short, I find that the agnosticism that James argued against was little more than logical positivism and I believe that he would appreciate that attitude and experimentation espoused in Prometheus Rising

Unsurprisingly, I would suggest that model agnosticism transcends the petty boundaries of any other belief system which in turn makes me a dogmatist for the lack of dogma. I would also suggest that Wilson’s model agnosticism was heavily influenced by Aleister Crowley’s scientific illuminism which applied the scientific method to non-empirical states of consciousness and experiences. This is heresy, of course, because science demands more than subjective experience; no matter how many individuals claim similar results there is no worth to their experiences without solid evidence. This seems to me to be a limiting belief on the part of science. While it is certainly true that I would prefer any medicine that I take or food that I eat be developed and screened according to the methods of empirical science, the wider phenomena of existence seem to easily outmaneuver the approved scientific method. 

Consider The Amazing Randi’s “One Million Dollar Challenge” that he used to taunt skeptics of his atheistic beliefs; the contest is automatically unfair as it presupposes that the types of experiences he sought to undermine can be reproduced under his particular criteria. Randi’s debunking of hucksters and money-grubbing frauds was admirable, but his philosophy was vile. The atheist is perhaps the most ridiculous human, especially the atheist who conforms to the modern atheism espoused by Randi, Dennett, and Dawkins; these are truly the atheists who believe they have it all figured out. Certainly, they may mumble something about the continuing mystery of existence but the bulk of their work and actions scream “We Know! We have unlocked the key to our genesis and know for certain where the end is for all life! We have split the atom, tamed the earth, and explained consciousness. This is the end of knowledge and it's just those religious nuts, those paranormal dupes, those sheep who hold us back!” A basic understanding of human nature and the progress of science easily discounts any such ridiculous idea that we have arrived at a point where science has proven everything that is true and disproven all that is false. In a hundred years, in a decade, what will we have discovered that scuttles our limited knowledge? 

It is obvious to me, having read and reread this book over the years, that it is true: what the thinker thinks, the prover will prove. Perhaps I am spoiling the book, but Wilson is going to try to get your thinker to think as a model agnostic. Someone who can combine James’ Will to Believe with hearty skepticism of every experience, even those that are filtered through our five senses. While I’ve never succeeded at the tenth exercise, I do believe that the eleventh is incredibly important -- one of the great magical secrets. Fake it until you make it -- and if you can fake it, you’ll be surprised about what may be. 



Eric Wagner said...

From Wikipedia, “The Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the U.S. population.” Thank you for your interesting post.

Rarebit Fiend said...

Eric, I hope I didn't come across as saying that all agnostics are atheists. I think I might have awkwardly worded parts of my write up. I meant to demonstrate the difference between the "agnostics" that James was arguing against and modern agnostics. It is my belief that some of the agnostics of the late nineteenth century, such as Clifford, would have been more akin to today's atheist as opposed to today's agnostic.

BFHN said...

This is a very interesting and thought provoking post, Gregory, thanks a lot. i will have to read it again and let all this sink in.

I have to say that the difference between atheism and agnosticism, which I thought to be fairly clear and on par with this article, is getting more and more elusive to me over time as I get the impression that the overlap is so big that many people are kind of mixing both. From rationalwiki : "There is a frequent conflation between the idea of atheism ("I do not believe there is evidence for God") and agnosticism ("I don't know if there is a God") because the former is an expression of belief and the latter is an expression of knowledge."
I have heard atheists saying that they "do not believe in God" but that doesnt mean that they "believe in the non existence of God", which I would call agnosticism. Those tend to think of agnosticism as just saying "we can't know, so why even care".

I think you are very right about RAW trying to get us to accept model agnosticism, but if you really are doing so while being aware of the paradox of believing in the fact that all beliefs are self imposed and ultimately potentially deceiving, then you start getting the idea. When reaching this point, I usually start laughing maniacally, and Zen finally makes more sense hehe.
And indeed, if you can delude yourself into believing pretty much anything, why not believing that you are awesome. Easier said than done, and even if you do manage....well you have to stay grounded enough not to turn into a pretentious and self centered A-hole.
If nothing else, the endless paradoxes of having to filter Reality and oneself through our nervous system and consciousness are fascinating.

Everyone please have a great day ! :)

quackenbush said...

More than any other tool or technique, a serious commitment to using eprime for a year or two drove home the point that so much of human experience happens through subjective filters of perception.

Eric Wagner said...

Quackenbush, I agree with you about the power of E-Prime.

Oz Fritz said...

Great philosophical history and analysis in the OP. Scientific Illuminism works with constantly varying degrees of belief and skepticism moving as if faders on a mixing desk based on something like Flip Wilson's Church of What's Happening Now. The Soldier ! - belief and The Hunchback ? - skepticism. A typical ritual might start with a banishing to clear the space, then enter into a specific belief system based on the intention and reinforced by the symbolism used - fully surrendering (or at least 7/8ths) to the belief system - that fader goes to 11 - then closing with another banishing, completely banishing and leaving the belief system you just made up and so fervently believed in. Entering the experiment into your Lab Book finds the skepticism coming up and standing out more in the mix, like a Hendrix guitar solo, particularly when it comes to analyzing any results.

Crowley has been called a god intoxicated atheist. He wrote a poem to that effect, effusively praising the gods of various religions then delivering the punch line at the end: "Thank God I'm an atheist!"

In the online course on Scientific Illuminism RAW gave, he titled one section, "A Gnostic Approach to Agnosticism" or it may have been the other way around, I don't remember. The point being that model agnosticism doesn't have the attitude, we can't know, so we don't care. Let's find out what we can, expand our models, and move further in the unknown.

Oz Fritz said...

The turtles story shows up in The Book of Thoth in the description of the Princess of Cups who holds a turtle: "She bears a covered cup from which issues a tortoise. This is again the tortoise which in Hindu philosophy supports the elephant on whose back is the Universe. She is dancing on a foaming sea in which disports a dolphin, the royal fish, which symbolizes the power of Creation."

As I see it, the best thing The Turtles ever did was join Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; see great live footage of them supporting the elephant in the new Zappa documentary.

Psuke said...

I've always considered agnosticism to be more aling the lines of "I believe this, but I could be wrong and I'm open to argument." But I suspect that agnosticism, along with atheists and followers of religions, have as many flavors as people who identify as such.