An Argument for Agnosticism

Immanuel Kant made me aware of the limits of the mind.

Immanuel Kant made me aware of the limits of the mind.

I went to a Catholic elementary and grew up in a Catholic household, but religion and I never really clicked.

That’s not to say I am or ever was actively against it. There’s something about the somber traditionalism of mass I find comforting to this day, and prayer can be a useful way to articulate concerns and desires — in my own head, if nowhere else — sending them up the ladder to Someone who can hopefully do something to help. And even if there’s nobody up there, there’s no harm in that effort, right?

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But I never felt the Holy Spirit rush through me, never had the sort of profound experience that turns the skeptical into scripture-quoting believers. Nonetheless, as a teenager, I remember being persuaded that some sort of higher power must exist thanks to the following type of argument.

Even if you acknowledge the Big Bang happened and initiated the sequence of events that ultimately resulted in the world we’re experiencing right now, there still had to be something that existed beforehand. In other words, the particles involved in the Big Bang must’ve been around before the event occurred. Since particles can’t originate from nowhere, something must’ve caused them to come into existence. And that something must be a higher power — whether it be God, Aristotle’s unmoved mover, or a different entity altogether.

I recall breaking out that argument at more than one college party where deep stuff was being discussed — believe it or not, my friend group at Hamline enjoyed talking metaphysics over beers — and feeling very secure about my reasoning.

But then I read Immanuel Kant and realized the notion that all effects necessarily have causes might be nothing more than a conceit of my brain.

Kant’s argument goes roughly something like this. Though we may not realize it, the human brain is hardwired to think in certain ways, and one of them is cause and effect. We can’t conceive of an effect without a cause — therefore, we can’t wrap our minds around the possibility matter has simply existed forever. But just because we can’t conceive of an effect without a cause doesn’t mean that such a thing is impossible.

In short, it’s easy to overlook that our minds are limited. Just because we can’t conceive of something doesn’t mean that’s how things actually are outside our heads. We may be the most highly evolved animal walking the face of the earth at the present time, but that doesn’t mean our brains have the ability to tap into Truth with a capital T.

Kant’s argument continues to resonate with me to this day as a great illustration of the limits of our knowledge. It’s the underpinning of why I’ve shifted from a person who believes there must be some sort of higher power to one who’s comfortable acknowledging I’m not capable of answering questions about alleged creators and first causes.

But my agnosticism leaves room for faith. Belief is distinct from knowledge, and an implication of Kant’s argument is that while we may not be able to prove that a higher power exists, we also can’t prove the opposite. It’s for this reason that I’m not an atheist — who am I to say that God doesn’t exist?

I’m pretty damn skeptical, but I try and remain open to those who say who say they’ve had or are having religious experiences. I’d also like to think my mind is open to the extent where I’d revisit my own viewpoints if I ever have did have one.

But an experience of that sort would instill me with faith, not logical or scientific proof that a higher power exists. I think it’s been helpful for me to understand where the line between the two is drawn, and I’d submit the world would be a better place if more people were willing to learn Kant’s lesson and acknowledge that some questions are simply beyond us.

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