Sunday, 3 April 2011

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.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Obama Lexicon

I’ve noticed that Obama’s stock turns of phrase appear more and more often on blogs and coming from statements from other folks all over the place. To document, these are:

  • Let’s be clear
  • Make no mistake

I don’t believe this is confirmation bias. They’re used in the same rhetorical contexts, for the most part. It’s a subconscious sign that the person speaking or writing has a deep respect for (and very likely looks up to) the President.

Personally, I like it when he talks about teachable moments, when he’s dealing with thorny but morally important issues. I don’t know that I always agree with what he defines as a teachable moment, but I certainly appreciate the sentiment that there are times when it is important to learn a lesson, and to let the moment teach that lesson to you. Your reaction to that moment provides something you can teach yourself, and then others. It’s a good mechanism for thoughtful living.