1/ The person best equipped to think cooly and clearly about any given problem or question is the person who is, at root, agnostic about everything—i.e. the person who does not claim to know the Final Answers to any question.
2/ As soon as you commit absolutely to a single model or belief system in a given domain, you’re unable to see that domain with fresh eyes or through other lenses.
3/ When you commit to a single model or belief system in a given domain, your firm belief that you have found the Correct Viewpoint colors everything you encounter in that domain. Your overconfidence in your own view prevents you from really considering other data, values, and perspectives.
4/ Case in point: When a person commits firmly to libertarian politics, they frame every issue in terms of personal sovereignty and autonomy, and are often unable to see even the most minor infringements on personal freedom (for the good of the collective) as anything other than profoundly unjust violations of their most cherished value: personal liberty.
5/ Or conversely, when a person commits to leftist politics, they frame every issue in terms of the question of which groups have the least amount of power, and how to transfer power to those groups, often with total disregard for other relevant values and considerations, e.g. the unforeseeable consequences of making major, abrupt changes to a hyper-complex system, or the rights of those from whom money or power is to be extracted and transferred.
6/ Or take religion: When a person commits deeply to Christianity, they will see every problem in the world in terms of the values/ideas Christianity espouses, and will often lose all ability to understand that perhaps it’s possible for other belief/value systems to provide useful insights or solutions, or that perhaps Christianity does not contain the full picture of reality, all the answers.
7/ Conversely, when a person commits to atheism, they tend to become hostile toward any intimation that there might be some kind of “higher power” worthy of reverence, and often they are so vehement on this point that they lose the ability to perceive the cosmos as anything other than an empty, meaningless, random void; it should be noted that atheists have very diverse beliefs and many are not nihilists, yet nonetheless, their absolute commitment to the lack of a “higher power” colors their perception in ways which render all sorts of considerations “off limits” to their minds.
8/ This phenomenon is active even on the level of single, specific problems: e.g. If a person decides to believe absolutely that “abortion is murder,” they are rendered unreachable, forever unable to consider that some abortions (e.g. in the case of pregnancy via rape) may be overwhelmingly moral, or that the point at which a fertilized egg becomes a human being has always been a philosophical grey area. Conversely, if a person commits absolutely to the fullest pro-choice standpoint, they are often unable even to sympathize with the pro-lifers’ understandable concern regarding the sanctity of life/birth/pregnancy and their sensible idea that we are better off teaching personal responsibility in sexual affairs than handing out infinite ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards, as it were.
9/ As a final example, take the recent #googlememo controversy, in which a Google employee was fired for writing a memo suggesting that biological differences between men and women might partially explain the gender gap in the tech world. This memo caused an enormous uproar and seems to be a prime example of what some call an ideological Rorschach test—i.e. a thing/event with qualities such that what you see depends entirely on what you believe. People committed to social-constructionist feminism could only see the memo as a threat to the progress of women and refused even to consider that biological differences between the sexes might be a factor worth considering; conversely, those deeply committed to gender essentialism/anti-feminism refused to consider that sexism may be a significant factor contributing to the gender gap in tech. Only those who were agnostic about the ultimate causes of the gender gap seemed capable of thinking clearly about the situation (here’s the most impartial and comprehensive write-up I’ve found on the relevant science).
10/ “I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions,” Robert Anton Wilson once wrote. Being agnostic about everything does not preclude a person from having many strong inclinations about the best ways to frame and solve problems; one is still perfectly able to construct working models of reality and to marshal arguments of all sorts either strongly in favor of or opposed to certain ways of thinking or courses of action.
11/ The difference is that a person who is agnostic about everything has no dogma, nothing they hold to be incontrovertibly true; I would argue that this renders such a person’s ideas and arguments more credible, valuable, and trustworthy, because you know they haven’t signed an internal contract saying, “I will never stop believing X”; i.e. they have retained the ability to consider other viewpoints and to rethink their own viewpoint in every domain.
12/ To truly be agnostic about everything may actually be impossible; some would argue that the simple act of waking up in the morning and deciding how to spend one’s day reveals plentiful beliefs about how the world works and what is valuable; this may be true, though one could easily argue contrarily that these are working beliefs, functional beliefs, that are nonetheless subject to change.
13/ It is also perhaps true that we would not want most people to become agnostic about everything; to do so is often a thoroughly disorienting experience, at least for a period of time, and agnosticism can be a slippery slope to nihilism; it is entirely possible that if everyone in the world were to suddenly become agnostic about everything we would witness a rapid breakdown of our fairly miraculously high-functioning social order and a devolution into relative chaos; belief may well be a fundamental motivator and ordering mechanism for most of the global human community.
14/ But, on an individual level, if one of your highest priorities in life is to move closer to the truth and to think clearly about a given subject, you will likely find that absolute beliefs are akin to glass ceilings—artificially constructed barriers preventing you from developing an ever more accurate and nuanced worldview.
15/ I think it is imperative that at least a certain subset of the human population remains largely agnostic, so as to approach problems with a mind open to all possible solutions; this seems especially important for scientists, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, artists, technologists, and other innovators whose creative decision-making and openness to ideas (both new and old) are fundamental to catalyzing breakthroughs, advancing progress, and allowing adaptation to changing circumstances.
16/ It should be clear by now that I consider myself to be more or less agnostic about everything, though like R.A. Wilson, I have many suspicions and am eager to explore possibilities; I suspect there are probably a few things that I believe absolutely or close to it, though ironically I’m not certain about what those things might be.
17/ As I said, if given the choice, I don’t think I would snap my fingers and render the entire human population deeply agnostic; such a choice would doubtlessly have far-reaching unforeseen implications, potentially catastrophic; over time, however, I have nonetheless reached the tentative conclusion that absolute certainty has been, throughout human history, one of the principle causes of violence between human groups. Thus, while I would not prescribe total agnosticism to the entirety of the human populace, I do strongly suspect that we would all be better off if everyone were… a little less certain.
Featured image art: South Wind, Clear Sky by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)