Ignorance & Agnosticism

There isn’t a lot of dif­fer­ence between the root mean­ings of igno­rant and agnos­tic; but there is a vast dif­fer­ence in their mod­ern con­no­ta­tions. Igno­rance is essen­tial­ly the result of hold­ing a point of view due to lack of facts or a rea­son­able thought process. For the most part, it is a pas­sive sit­u­a­tion. We are, by nature, igno­rant. At some point in our devel­op­ment as peo­ple, we reach a place where we have a choice to remain igno­rant or to edu­cate our­selves on a giv­en top­ic. Since edu­ca­tion is always a dif­fi­cult task, it’s often eas­i­er to remain igno­rant, and mask that igno­rance by accept­ing what­ev­er posi­tion appeals most unique­ly to our­selves and then sound­ing author­i­ta­tive about it.

Agnos­ti­cism is a bit of a dif­fer­ent beast. I can see two ways of defin­ing agnos­ti­cism, but they both have the same result. The first angle is the result of hav­ing plen­ty of facts about a cer­tain top­ic, but when apply­ing rea­son to those facts, there is insuf­fi­cient evi­dence to meet the stan­dards of rea­son set by the mind try­ing to make that judg­ment call. The result is absten­tion from mak­ing a deci­sion. The sec­ond angle is a bit broad­er in its appli­ca­tion and effects. It prob­a­bly shouldn’t even be called agnos­ti­cism, but I can’t think of anoth­er word that fits. It is a gen­er­al prin­ci­ple of which any fact-gath­er­ing and sub­se­quent deci­sion is a spe­cif­ic case.

What I’m try­ing to say is that once some­one has cho­sen to edu­cate them­selves, and if they do so agnos­ti­cal­ly (gath­er­ing facts but mak­ing no judg­ment), at some point it is pos­si­ble to be agnos­tic about any top­ic on which you are igno­rant. Once you’ve come to the con­clu­sion that you’re agnos­tic about a few things, you can start to assume agnos­ti­cism about any top­ic instead of igno­rance.

Here’s a spe­cif­ic case:

I went to the shoot­ing range with some cowork­ers today. I hadn’t used a firearm in over 20 years, and through­out my life those clos­est to me have had igno­rant views regard­ing firearms. Guns are bad, full stop. I could have cho­sen to accept that for a vari­ety of rea­sons, but my knowl­edge didn’t meet the stan­dard for me to make that deci­sion. So, I remained agnos­tic about guns. I need­ed more infor­ma­tion, so I went to the shoot­ing range with my cowork­ers and learned more. I’m still agnos­tic right now, or rather, I still haven’t ful­ly thought through my feel­ings on the mat­ter.

By rec­og­niz­ing my igno­rance, I was able to turn it into agnos­ti­cism. I will make no judg­ment until I feel that I know enough to do so.

Agnos­ti­cism is basi­cal­ly the stance of open-mind­ed­ness. It is capa­ble of see­ing both sides and none, is sym­pa­thet­ic, empa­thet­ic and the inher­ent­ly most respect­ful posi­tion to take on a top­ic where one is not an expert. It is hard to be an agnos­tic though; espe­cial­ly in regards to reli­gion. You get caught between the mys­tics (like myself and oth­er believ­ers) and the skep­tics. So it goes for reli­gion, and so it goes for any oth­er top­ic.

Fideli­ty to your own stan­dard of truth is hard to hold on to when you’re a big hair­less mon­key that like to con­vince and be con­vinced with all the oth­er hair­less mon­keys in your world.

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