Overcoming agnosticism: parsimonious monism

From agnosticism to atheism via the principle of simplicity

or Occam's razor

On the borderline between philosophy and religion

The two central questions of philosophy are "1. How do we deal with the uncertainty of the future, i.e. what to do with our ignorance?" and "2. What rules will I adopt to govern my life?"

  • The response of the believers is "Ignorance no longer exists since the Revelation". The rules to be followed have been recorded in The Book.
  • The response of agnostics is "Since we know nothing, we renounce engaging in religion, but we do not exclude that God exists and judges us. According to the precautionary principle, it is better to take this into account and act with the prudence of the believer". The rules to be followed are multiple and contradictory. Each person chooses those which seem essential to him or her. Often, the agnostic defines himself in relation to a religion he has left, but with which certain links remain.
  • The atheists' answer is "Since we know nothing, we are not going to conform to mere hypotheses and we will act outside any religion". There are no rules to follow, except those we freely make for ourselves and freely consent to.

Agnosticism is an easy position to take, but it is difficult to argue that credit should be given to simultaneous and contradictory assumptions. And declaring that the Last Judgement is tainted by uncertainty does not relieve one of one's sense of guilt. We will show that atheism is an extension of agnosticism through the principle of simplicity.

Agnosticism

The agnostic is aware of the limits of human knowledge and accepts them. If our parents' beliefs had been different, what would it be like for us? The wonder in front of the beauties of nature tells us that the complexity of reality is beyond us, which contributes to throwing fog on beliefs. What do we know about the existence of deities: God, god or gods? The supernatural offers an unlimited number of explanations. We are fed with various assertions, without credible proof. If there is "something" in the afterlife without our knowing what it is, it is because "the afterlife" has not informed us of it. So we don't have to worry about it.

What happens to the human soul when we die? We do not know. Among the countless religions that exist, which is the right one (assuming one is true)? If we accept to believe in one religion, wouldn't it be just as justified to believe in another? Isn't faith a cultural heritage which, like a language or a tradition, is neither true nor false, but simply given to be practised as a socio-cultural conformism?

The existence of evil is an offence to divine perfection. Christians verge on incoherence by simultaneously maintaining that God is necessary to explain the world and that the existence of evil is a mystery (see : Is God good or paradoxical ?1) But the theologians have a universal method 2 capable of solving any problem: "It is a mystery, but he who has faith places his trust in Jesus Christ". Implausibilities and contradictions dissolve in faith. Since the goodness or omnipotence of God should not be betrayed, would it not be more sensible to simply say: "The explanation of the world and the existence of God are mysteries"?

To believe is to adopt one doctrine among countless doctrines. He who says "It is true for me" renounces objectivity to confine himself to a subjectivity, generally shared by a community and maintained under the name of "Tradition". Not to accept the limits of our knowledge is unreasonable. A question is interesting to the extent that it can constitute a field of research. On the other hand, when dealing with a desperate question, investment should be limited. Multiplying hypotheses ad infinitum is sterile. Adopting one narrows the field of vision. To believe in a multi-pack of ready-made dogmas is to submit to the arbitrariness of the chance of birth and often, in the name of tradition, to allow one's private thoughts to be dictated by one's social environment. It sometimes means renouncing the use of one's critical spirit out of loyalty to one's surroundings or in response to the expectations of one's family. Many people feel constrained by the positions of their loved ones and protect their free will through discretion, silence and seemingly conformist behaviour. Even if a person declares himself or herself a member of a religious community, lack of commitment can sometimes be seen as a passive form of agnosticism. Just as a true democracy can only be established if every citizen feels free to distance himself or herself from the political party of his or her parents or community, religious freedom can only be individual and affirmed.

1  https://www.deleze.name/marcel/en/philo/theologie/theologie-en.html

2  A universal method to solve all problems, mathematicians dream of it, but, knowing that it does not exist for them, they look at the theologians with envy.

3  If you argue that your religion is based on serious evidence, ask yourself why countless others brandish as much "evidence" as yours.

Random historical circumstances are not enough to define a truth. One must remain open so as not to feel too bothered by new scientific hypotheses. It is foreseeable that even greater upheavals than heliocentrism or the theory of evolution will soon arise.

Agnosticism is superior to faith in mysteries. In the midst of uncertainty 3, let us avoid taking sides. In spite of the ardent desire to fill the gaps in our knowledge, it is better to be satisfied with our modest attested knowledge rather than resort to religious expediencies. Faith is a bulwark designed to mask the abyss of our ignorance, but wearing doctrinal glasses narrows the field of vision. The agnostic is often a partisan of relativism: "All religions are equal". The believer has given in to the temptation, in a pretentious drunkenness, to imagine himself in God's confidence. Adherence to a belief is a leap beyond reason, a plunge into the emotional unconscious, an irrational act.

In the first instance, agnosticism is the only rationally defensible philosophical position. Any other attitude, subject to what follows, is merely ideological propaganda, since it lacks founding evidence.

The principle of simplicity [or Occam's razor]

What would you think of a person who would maintain that "When no one is watching, the doves' heads are covered with a halo"? As the assertion cannot be disproved by observation, it seems compatible with reason. For the happiness of those who believe in the spirit world, everything that is unverifiable is compatible with reason. But inevitably there will be an opponent with sectarian tendencies to claim "No, it is not a halo, but a pointed hat made of pink felt", which will highlight the arbitrary nature of the assertion. No biologist would argue that, in the absence of formal proof, it cannot be decided. Science is not agnostic.

4  The principle of revision makes it possible to adapt the theory to new data. Saying that "an object does not exist" implies "within the framework of our current knowledge". The principle of revision responds to an evolving truth. Unchangeable truths exist only in a few restricted fields, mainly in mathematics. But believers claim that they are at the foundation of their respective religions, which shows that they are not only absolute, but also multiple.

5  The irrational has a place, for example in the arts, psychology and so on. Perhaps this is the ultimate dilemma: in philosophical matters, do we trust reason or feelings? The practice of several genres does not require mixing them.

A foundation of all science is the principle of simplicity. If we have no credible evidence, it is because neither the halo nor the pointed hat exists. This is not a matter of deduction or absolute certainty, but of intellectual attitude, of logical posture: subject to revision principle 4, our way of seeing the world must be as simple as possible that is compatible with observation. The elimination of arbitrary assumptions [or Occam's razor] allows the emergence of a purified vision of the world, stripped of subjectivity 5 and adapted to the exchange between individuals. Simplicity is necessary for the understanding and rationality of reality, as well as for the establishment of science. By avoiding quarrels whose origin is imaginary, but whose consequences can be sadly concrete, the principle also has a pacifying effect that can be seen in scientific activity. Consider the following statement which we will use below:

The whole of what could potentially exist is contradictory and therefore cannot constitute exploitable material. Rather than tolerating objects or beings whose existence is unverifiable, it is more reasonable to reject them from the corpus of knowledge and ignore them. Thus, their possible existence, without being denied, is deliberately set aside.

The agnostic's embarrassment

Doubting means giving some credence to contradictory assumptions. Reason feels unsatisfied. Faced with the great diversity of religions, the agnostic is perplexed. Living in a universe confined by opaque curtains behind which friendly, hostile or indifferent, but unknowable spirits may be waving, gives rise to an unpleasant, burdensome and agonising feeling.

The agnostic is often in an ambiguous attitude with the religion of his social origin:

  • on the one hand, he has severed the formal administrative ties and no longer participates in the community's worship activities;
  • on the other hand, it gives its consent to essential constitutive elements of this religion, typically a deism which retains certain acquired cultural traits, for example the idea of a possible Last Judgement; to name this state, it would be appropriate to use the expression "Christian agnosticism".

Desiring to be ready in the case, not established but not excluded, where he should undergo divine judgment, the agnostic may feel morally bound to lead a virtuous life, which, given his upbringing, is not unrelated to the religion he has left. Guilt remains as an eventuality, and therefore as a permanent feeling. In this way, the agnostic keeps part of the weight of religion in his heart.

Is the agnostic right not to get involved? If a person hesitates between several beliefs and obeys the adage "Two precautions are better than one", why wouldn't he try to practice several religions in parallel? Some agnostics say they do not believe in God, but in the Great Enigma. Would this expression designate a superposition of deities which, in the manner of a quantum object, would be formed of states "exist" and "do not exist" simultaneously?

Cultivating doubt is good, but developing critical thinking is necessary. For example, it cannot be ruled out that flamingos turn blue when no one observes them, but anyone who wants to avoid drowning in mental confusion will refuse to integrate this option into his or her world view.

Does any belief have sufficient relevance to be considered a credible hypothesis? If one of them is true, but without knowing which one, should we respect all religions, including those that despise human rights? Are the most educated people entitled to a wider range of possible futures?

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to draw up a hunting plan, even though they had no guarantee of success. The attitude "I don't know, so I don't do anything" is untenable. Although philosophically founded, the position " Only the uncertain is sure" is pragmatically infertile, and the principle of simplicity pushes us to overcome it. Making choices and taking action, even when the available information is incomplete, are necessities of the human condition. Uncertainty and indeterminacy, which generate discomfort and stress that take us away from happiness, can be overcome by choosing sides. It is possible to choose to shake or stop shaking.

In the absence of a doctrine, it is necessary to have a definite attitude towards the challenges of life.

Against moral relativism

In moral matters, from the moment that the application of Sharia law is rejected, a position has been taken against relativism: religions and the various religious currents are not equivalent and can be judged according to their respect for human rights. A commitment inspired by the critical approach of the Enlightenment can be the basis for a reasonable choice.

Towards atheism

Life is a strange thing: we all have to play a game where nobody knows the rules. Reason, according to the principle of parsimony, requires us to adopt only a minimum set of necessary rules 6 rather than adhering, by chance of birth, to a voluminous package of traditional beliefs. The desire for certainties can give us the promise of mirages. Limited in understanding the real world, unable to see the future, but far-seeing in the spiritual world of a community, this is the state that most humans attribute to themselves.

"Living without fairy tales is more difficult, that's why it is so difficult to live in the 20th century."
Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard

When the truth is incomplete or unpleasant, faith cannot fill it in or embellish it with imaginary knowledge.

6  I am thinking of the secular morality that flows from human rights. See the document Some shortcomings of the Catholic Church in secular morality.

After passing through Occam's razor, the agnostic becomes an atheist. Personifying good and evil is a literary process that should not be taken literally. If God doesn't interfere with us, it makes no difference whether he exists or not. If God exists, He is playing hide-and-seek with us, and if He wishes to hide, we must respect His will of incognito by completely ignoring Him. The universe remains confined by opaque curtains, but the decision is made to ignore a hypothetical presence in the afterlife as long as no clear signal is perceived. Unlike the followers of relativism, he thinks "Since religions that refer to the divine are not seriously founded, I dismiss them all".

The simpler the explanation, the better. All alternative explanations that use a complex and arbitrary apparatus such as that provided by religions should be rejected. To be wise consists, among other things, in remaining lucid on the frontier between what we know and what we don't know, and thereby avoiding believing.

God, the meaning of life and freedom

7  Without excluding the existence of an impersonal and blind force.

8  What is the purpose of the bird you saw passing by? If you are a little discouraged, you can say that it is useless. If you have an ecological mindset, you will say that it fulfils a function in a global system. If you are in a poetic phase, you will say that its beauty delights you, and that this is enough to justify its existence. In any case, it is not the bird that makes sense, but you decide what it means.

9  In the 20th century, the Catholic priest still exercised ecclesiastical birth control in confession. Every married woman of childbearing age had to justify herself if she had not had a child for more than a year.

10  There are at least three reasons not to know what you want:

  • lack of knowledge of the physical and social environment;
  • lack of self-knowledge;
  • the absence of desire, as long as it can be distinguished from the desire for inactivity, carelessness or laziness.

The last case being a pathological one, I'll leave it out of my remarks. So there are two remedies left:

  • information, training and culture;
  • introspection and psychology.

11  Switzerland does not go down this path because, in order to maintain their influence, Christians prefer the state to support certain well-chosen religious communities.

12  «Wie man wird, was man ist», Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche.

The limits of our universe are defined by the cosmological horizon. From the afterlife, we can draw nothing, neither knowledge nor matter to guide our lives. The "Word of God" comes from the collective imagination. Since we have no tangible sign of the existence of God 7, we can refuse to settle our lives on an improbable being about whom opinions disagree. Religious feeling, probably selected by evolution to strengthen the cohesion of the clan, reveals our ignorance of the human brain. The "something" that we guess beyond what our consciousness perceives is not a spiritual entity, but our unconscious. Filling the inner void with an idol solves nothing. Transcendence is less a matter of philosophy than of psychology or the fantastic arts. The frenetic search for an ideal, and therefore unreal, father figure expresses a form of immaturity. Man is not governed by fatality like a toy subject to the whims of the gods, but a free being, responsible for his destiny within the binding limits of the laws of nature. Life does not have a meaning in itself, nor does it have the same meaning for all humans, but it can have a meaning for every person. When it comes to the question of the meaning of life, the most common attitude is to adopt the ideology of one's social environment, without the critical hindsight to perceive the arbitrary nature of the collective imagination. The fact that the meaning of life is beyond comprehension does not mean that "Someone" is taking care of it. The meaning of life is not revealed by a Book: produced by personal consciousness, it is up to each person to define it. Only man is the generator of meaning 8. Without desire, life empties itself of all constructive impulses. Infinity exists in what we can build, create or love. When man carries love in his heart, it is not the love of God, but the love of life. In contrast to religion, which is the feeling of having a boss to whom one can be accountable, atheism consists of perceiving oneself as an independent entrepreneur. In a first approximation, there are two kinds of individuals: on the one hand, the assisted (the sheep) who call upon their religious authority (the good shepherd) for guidance 9: "What meaning should I give to my life?"; on the other hand, the autonomous who build a future for themselves: "What life projects will give meaning to my existence?" The believer must follow a predefined model; obedience allows him to escape the responsibility of choice. The unbeliever can exercise a kind of "spirituality" that is broader, more creative, less stereotyped, more personalised. Values are not exclusive to the Churches. There are so many things to love, to understand or to build! To find a path of personal development, religion is only one option among others, probably not the most judicious. For example, committing oneself to the common good often allows one to value oneself. For my part, I give meaning to life with the aim of achieving my fullest potential on all levels: physical, emotional, intellectual and social. Everyone has an idea of what a successful life is and tries to get closer to it but, along the way, has to correct his orientation out of necessity or by changing his tastes, the most important thing being to bring his intentions and actions into harmony.

Let us illustrate the point with the following analogy: a person received a travel voucher as a gift. If the destination is not prescribed, should he complain about it and refer to an institution that will define the route imposed by tradition? As far as I am concerned, the freedom of travel left by the travel voucher is a value I refuse to give up.

Freedom is demanding as to what to do with it. If life has a definite meaning, I am condemned by the duty to follow it. If life has no given meaning, I am free, either to grumble against the nonsense of existence, or to build a life project that gives meaning to my life. The most beautiful freedom is that of creating. The one who is not interested in anything engages in the impasse of nonsense. "The nonsense of existence" is a feeling of lost, jaded or depressed people who don't know what to devote their time to 10. The expression "the search for meaning" is to be replaced by "the construction of meaning". A secular education 11 for spiritual autonomy could, according to the principle "Become who you are" 12, help those who think vicariously and find comfort in delegating to an authority the task of regulating their lives. In the end, life has no other purpose than to live it, but it still needs to be organised so that it can be lived in its fullness.

The unity of the real is opposed to immortality.

13  Do people with a split identity with two distinct consciousnesses have two souls or two half-souls?

14  In the " dissipative systems" introduced by Ilya Prigogine.

15  See for example Collective intelligence [in French]

16  In religion, the idea of "connecting" is central. If one thinks one is a stranger to this world, one can feel connected to the beyond. I prefer to think that there is only one world and, as we are all on the same planet, I feel directly connected to other humans.

17  Those who like to file what they find in labelled drawers will say that it is a form of "philosophical materialism", but I prefer to use the expression "parsimonious monism" which means monism based on the principle of parsimony.

The claim that human beings are endowed with an immortal soul is arbitrary. To convince ourselves of this, let us look at the answers given by various cultures. Specifically, let us examine how many souls we possess:

  • no immortal soul
    • in Buddhism (the soul does not survive after death; reincarnation does not imply an immortal soul);
    • at Epicure;
    • for atheists;
  • an immortal soul in the religions of the Book;
  • six souls among the Yekuana of Venezuela;
  • ten souls among the Vietnamese;
  • 90 souls in the Tai-Deng of Laos.

Where several souls exist, they generally have different fates depending on whether they are good or bad.

By simply saying "the soul" for all the cases considered, it can be immortal, or disappear and then resurrect, or be reborn a certain number of times and then dissolve. From another point of view, it can live spiritually without a body, or live in a new body, or live in the old resurrected body. Such diverse becoming is a sign of imaginary theories without any serious basis.

By resorting to the unverifiable, the supernatural offers great possibilities of explanation. Here I propose one more: men are transformed into Peter Pan and women into Mary Poppins.

Finally, the notion of "soul" is a cultural trait without any objective foundation. Since we have no observable clues as to what happens to the human soul 13 when we die, the immortality of the soul must be eliminated by Occam's razor. We do not have to consider the survival of the soul.

Immortality is a utopia, a fantasy, a denial of death. Carried away by their revolt against reality, believers plunge into a wonderful and paradisiacal world. I prefer to limit my desires to what is possible and stick to the truism "When you are dead, you are dead".

Let us not be the victims of a rigorous Cartesian division between "material things" and "things of the spirit". I cannot envisage life as being the intersection of two worlds, one being material and made up of inert atoms, the other being immaterial and containing life-carrying or life-infusing entities. The universe cannot be reduced to what can be seen through the spyglass of Catholicism: matter is not inert like the components of a clock, but is capable of spontaneously self-organising 14, structuring and ordering itself: life and intelligence are natural phenomena. Thus, the main organ of vision is not the eye, which is certainly necessary, but the brain, which processes and analyses visual information. Just as life does not need the divine breath to appear, the mind can emerge when the necessary conditions are met 15. The universe in which we live includes our emotions and thoughts, which do not require a separate spiritual world to exist. Supernatural beings and other spirits exist only in the psyche of individuals. The spiritual dimension exists, but it is subjective. We are parcels of the natural world where a little reason and freedom has been formed. Since our consciousness only lights up for a limited period of time, we have the impression that we are only a passing observer. Beyond this appearance, consciousness does not come from another immaterial world, man is not an itinerant spiritual being, but a conscious part of the universe 16. It is foolish to believe that we would be "foreigners and exiles [1 Peter 2:11]", beings of an extraterrestrial nature undergoing trials. The parallel worlds that some people see as spiritual are in fact inner, dreamlike, mythical and imaginary worlds that are modulated in infinite subjective variations. The body and the soul are two aspects of the same reality, as we say the front and the back. Nature, which gave birth to man, societies and their cultures, is much richer and more complex than the human being. If the universe is not enchanted, there is nothing to prevent us from perceiving it as enchanting and marvelling at it. I am convinced of the profound unity of reality 17. This point of view has the advantage of opening up to science the study of the interactions between body and mind. For example, when we describe software as immaterial, we must remember that information is part of the physical world. Fake, the opposition between the material and the spiritual is detrimental to a correct understanding of the universe in which we evolve. Natural selection has favoured our attachment to survival. By phantasm, our life would be immortal. Religions were built to support this unrealistic hope. Neither the Earth nor the Sun, nothing is eternal. Immortality, outside the universe in which we live, does not concern us. Surviving in a spiritual world means living in the imagination.

Religion, Damnation and Redemption

18  If we can enter into the subject of the human nature of Jesus Christ, it is difficult to do the same about his "divine nature". How to disentangle historical fact, myth and belief? It is of course legitimate to cultivate myths, but only on the imperative condition of admitting that they are allegories.

19  According to Sigmund Freud, religious rites, like the obsessive manifestations of neurosis, serve to protect oneself from anxiety.

20  Sometimes I envy the believer: I wish I could have prayed "Lord, protect me from all those who practice proselytism".

Since we have no credible evidence that at least one of the religions is true 18, it is very likely that none of them is true. Unestablished elements cannot be used as a basis for a rule of life. Where the agnostic, avoiding judgement, says "I am not a believer because I don't know what to believe", the atheist is more categorical: "Better nothing than the first religion that comes along", i.e. "I am not a believer because no religious current is credible enough to merit adherence, so I reject them all". Isn't it vain to seek happiness in a place where it cannot be? Belief is a particular mode of mental functioning whose function is, like psychosis, to escape from reality. Apart from its role in the struggle for power, religion is an archaic therapy designed to relieve people in whom existential questions cause emotional disturbances 19. "At first sight you are damned, but religion can save you; it gives meaning to your life". It's an aberrant procedure to bring comfort by means of an escape from a decree of damnation. Isn't it better to observe that the so-called damnation is a nightmarish myth with no connection to reality? We are not damned, we are mortal. It is a drift in values to devalue our lives in favour of a mythical elsewhere. Our concerns are better invested in the "here now". Becoming an atheist is a way to avoid being blackmailed by religion about what would happen after our death. While religious ideology may be good for some people, it has devastating effects on others. Just as a healthy person is not subjected to medical treatment, a man who has established his inner peace has no need to commit himself religiously. While myths are an inexhaustible source of culture, inspiration and reflection, it is not reasonable to become so involved in a particular myth that it becomes an Absolute. Religious obsession is a pathology, even though it has been culturally and socially valued and is still widespread. It is a characteristic of childhood that the confusion between the real and imaginary worlds. People who are dependent on religion can be prescribed treatment by means of a substitute spirituality: Adepts of Terminus. On the other hand, too many believers are keen to share the benefits of religion with others 20. The teaching of religion should be limited to religious facts, without any partisan spirit.

We can't let a myth dictate our behaviour.

21  Allusion to Candide, by Voltaire.

22  According to the expression of the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves.

23  To explain the Big Bang, theorists propose, among other things, models in which our universe would be a spatio-temporal bubble appearing in an infinite and eternal meta-universe which would generate, via an infinite big bang, an infinite number of universes endowed with different physical laws. The Big Bang from which our universe comes from would be a white fountain, that is to say the rebound following the collapse of the black hole where the universe that preceded ours would have been concentrated. Another hypothesis could be more plausible: quantum mechanics does not deal with reality, but only with the information we have about it. Physics also tends to become modest.

24  Nothing to do with religious mysteries: these are mere gaps, and not theological expedients to hide inconsistencies and contradictions.

25  Aware of the limits of science, I do not associate myself with positivism or scientism. I do not claim that science can explain everything. On the contrary, I affirm that, in our modest and hypothetical knowledge, gaps do not have to be filled by acts of faith.

26  An ironic expression for the opposite, namely religious anxiety, see Overcoming the fear of death.

Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds 21, because there is no other. But we can, to some extent, choose our future. Atheism is not a belief, but a reasoned choice where the utopia of faith is overtaken by freedom. If we are not children of God, we are born of stardust 22. An organising principle exists: the laws of nature. By asserting that man is a natural being, research on the human being is placed on fertile ground. Despite the spectacular progress in biology, our understanding of life remains superficial. As for the explanation of intellectual faculties, we are still in the early stages. While explanations based on pure spirits are sterile, science aims to explain why and how order and regularity emerge from chaos. Fundamental questions, such as the origin of universe 23, are for the moment beyond the reach of human knowledge. Reality still conceals many mysteries 24, but we have no other credible way, no magical shortcut, no divine revelation 25. To go far, we have to go a long way in the same direction. How can we choose our course and keep it? My only compass is rationalism, which is not a doctrine, but an intellectual attitude, a way of approaching problems. The effects of this method can be appreciated in the choice of arguments and the logical articulation of discourse: sticking to the facts and exercising a systematic criticism of any argument of authority or transmitted by a tradition. Beyond our knowledge lies only ignorance. Additional hypotheses are nothing but arbitrary complications that fuel fuelling futile quarrels. We cannot allow a myth to dictate our conduct. For a better adaptation to the human condition, let us replace the supposed quietude of religious certainty 26 with the jubilation of exploring the unknown.

By engaging in the arts, we can humanise and enrich reality and, through a poetic vision, achieve wonder.

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