Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The term "agnostic" literally means without knowledge. It is usually taken to mean not knowing God.

That's a no-brainer isn't it? What do I know about God? Only what others have said and most of them already had closed minds on that subject or were as confused as a termite in a yo-yo. So I am really on my own with respect to God. Well, if one doesn't know, what could be more honest than to say "I don't know"? Still, this point of view needs some explaining.

There is the famous problem of the First Cause. We are accustomed to events in this world where we generally see that everything that comes into being has been caused by something, or someone. "When I see a watch I look for a watchmaker" is the way someone expressed it. (William Paley's watchmaker argument) However, this explains very little. The first cause might be something or some entity that is unique and completely outside our experience and even beyond our imagination.

The rest is speculation or fantasy. I have one of my own but, unlike religionists, I freely admit that it is just an amusing fantasy and no more. Consider a universe that is much grander than ours and unknown to us. In that universe, there exist immensely more powerful computational devices than any we can imagine and grand experiments are carried out on these machines by entities of great intelligence. One of these entities, whom I shall call "IAM, the graduate student" for rhetorical convenience, is carrying out a very interesting experiment. It is the creation of a virtual universe in which the fundamental physical laws are probabilistic, so that the new universe can evolve in unpredictable ways. It is a very sophisticated evolutionary algorithm which happens to have produced us, an event of nearly zero probability. We are merely collections of symbols in that machine.

It is not at all clear that IAM intervenes in any way. He may merely observe. He may or may not permit the experiment to reach the finality of death. Perhaps he will terminate it sooner. We may have no possible way to discover this underlying reality, nor can we explain the mystery of IAM's existence.

This is not the whole story. There is another kind of religious belief which is pragmatic. That is, perhaps the rather weak human psyche needs religious belief as a crutch. Perhaps only some people feel this need. In any case, the beliefs they choose to hold may actually be useful to them. The popular singer, Frank Sinatra once, when asked what he believed in, replied "whatever gets me through the night." The philosopher, William James, spoke of "The Will to Believe."

My take on this theme is that, while some beliefs may fortify the spirit, human beings will also profit from "The Will to Doubt" [Bertrand Russell]. Many of us are curious by nature, especially scientists, who are trained to be skeptical. I see no particular difficulty in the human mind harboring both belief and skepticism, either of which can be summoned as needed. I suggest this in order to make it clear that we have some interesting choices. What is the goal?

old time religion

Nice song, but if the goal is to civilize human behavior nothing has yet been dicovered that is good enough. Nevertheless, liturgical music is a salient feature of a religious culture.

Kol Nidre

Lord's Prayer

Despite what I have said, if you think that tribal loyalty means nothing, think again!

Rivers of Babylon



  1. Thank you, I have read the link. It is clear that some kinds of faith are compatible with science and some cannot be because they have some articles of faith that flatly contradict scientific knowledge. A good example is Biblical fundamentalism.

    In saying this, I do not claim that a fundamentalist cannot be a good scientist, provided that his mind is neatly partitioned.