Friday, July 1, 2011

Against Agnosticism: Pink Floyd, Bertrand Russell, Battersea

There is nothing stranger you can do to your mind than to give it history. Take Rosalie, for instance. She is walking through a village early morning in England and looking at the charming houses and ingratiating streams. She walks a long time as the grey sky mists and clears to blue, and back to grey and misty. Rosie's okay and her good shoes are holding up too. She smells the world and feels it in her belly. Her mind is rattling around in there, wondering what it’s doing here, but the rest of her is feasting on the moment.
Now Rosie goes into a café and starts reading the big grey book on the counter beside her, a history of this same town in which she’s been wandering. The sky starts storming outside, inside they seem glad to have her, so she gets comfortable and lunch hours go by.
By the time the sky gets light again, it is already getting dimmer, past tea, before dinner, and she heads out to snake the streets home to her hostel. But now she knows everything about Battersea. Why is Battersea inland, for instance? Because it used to be on the coast but the sea was so brutal in its marauding erosion that the townspeople picked up and left, stopped in a quiet place just south of London and named their dry new encampment with the old wet name they’d always known. Much later Bertrand Russell would deliver, here, one of his most powerful and influential speeches on the purposes of man under the godless heavens.
As Rosie walks homeward the aspect of the natives changes. Now she everywhere sees the odd pluck it must require to lift yourself up and all your neighbors and redirect your browser to another world, inland, and name it Battersea again. Battersea forever.
The human mind, I think, has two modes: Present and Historical. Both are good. In the first you are an animal, in the second, just a god. The first smells baking bread. The second knows this is the same bread Henry the Fifth smelt just before he dealt his quiverblow against the fearsome French, who were all man and five times as many but their arrows, ahem, fell short. Englishmen now in their beds have wished they’d been there to see it for centuries now. Englishmen, for Chrissake, get out of bed already.
Let’s make the village a concept and do this again. Rosalie is an agnostic. She has heard the argument that no one can prove a negative and believes it. Then she wanders into a café and reads a big book on doubt as she waits out the rain. Now she knows that the term agnosticism was invented only a hundred years ago by Thomas Henry Huxley, and has no intellectual pedigree to speak of. Huxley made it up having read about Skepticism, which is a philosophically robust proposition that asks how we can know anything at all, given the limitations of our minds and our tiny, animal perspective. Skepticism is thousands of years old and has been brilliantly explored in every age. Agnosticism is the logic of Skepticism applied to only one question, the question of whether one particular people’s imagined idea of the supernatural actually exists.
To be sensible, either you are a Skeptic about all things, which allows you to be a profoundly interesting thinker but does not allow you to claim to know anything about the world; or you are a rationalist, which means you gather evidence, try to minimize your cultural bias, and make conclusions. If you make your decisions by rationalism, you can certainly say that an idea is not to be considered as at all valid if it has no evidence to argue for it being true. In Skepticism I have to allow that possibly all of life is happening in the dream of a cosmic elephant; in rationalism, I do not. It is philosophical nonsense to take Skepticism and apply it to one belief. In rationalism, it is possible to rule on the validity of a conjecture that has no evidence.
Huxley made up agnosticism because he wanted to leave room for people to be atheists but still keep a line of hope. But that is massively wrong-headed. When people confront the truth they get used to it and see that it is not so bad. So there is no afterlife. Big deal. Life is enough. When you are dead, you are so dead that nothing should matter to you about it. When you are alive, you’re alive. Every moment is so huge, there is so much of it, and we take in so little of it. You want more life at the end? You’re hardly using the life you have now. None of us are. We already have more than we can handle. Your job is to try to know the present and the past, to expand into the now, in part by knowing what was.
Some people get on a plane to change where they are but you can transform your surroundings as well as your inner world with just a touch of new knowing.
Having researched and written Doubt: A History and The Happiness Myth I find myself in a land unexpected. Richer and twisty. Aware of how an inland people still braves battering by the sea. History emancipates and reconfigures so the way home looks different than the way we’ve just been.
Russell’s speech (in 1927) was “Why I Am Not a Christian,” and it was published and republished and for several generations it was a downright sacred text for those flying their kite with nothing but wind and skill. For more on that and a thousand other inspirations, see Doubt: A History andThe Happiness Myth.
It was, btw, over the Battersea Power Station that Pink Floyd floated their pig on the wing. On the Animals cover (1977). Life, friends, is boring. That’s why John Berryman drank so much, so much of the time. His mother was right too: Ever to admit you are bored means you have no inner resources. I admit now that, like everyone else, I have no inner resources. By contrast though, I have quite a lot of outer resources, and not always in the tankard. With history hissing gory about the storied past, and the smell of the bread, baking in one’s olfactoric imagination, it begins to be possible to still the spinning day down to something distillable, and store it, and become your own oracle.
Rosalie notices that everything has changed, but that she, in some ways, at least, is the same, and has kept her name. It’s still me. It's still Rosalie. It's still Battersea. It’s still you too, and since it is, you need to know your history. It makes the run from the gun to the sun a lot more fun.


  1. I think Huxley's invention of "agnosticism" is far more pernicious. It comes from Hume's epistemological position, which is just a hair's breadth from subjective idealism. Huxley disavowed materialism, particularly French materialism, which he termed "Catholicism without God". And this is quite in tune with the conservative Enlightenment of Hume & what Engels referred to as the "shamefaced materialism" of the British. Huxley as an empiricist eschewed any truth claims about what he considered to be metaphysical questions, e.g. the existence of God. Agnosticism, then, was a broader concept than reference to God alone. I think it is also a pernicious philosophical position.

  2. Please keep on writing while I keep feasting.

  3. Epistomolo You rock thanks for that cool response.



    You are welcome.


    Pernicious! Right you are. But he got it from Catholic Fidism. Look it up, say, in Doubt: A History.

    Epistomolo thanks again you made/are making me grin. Good for the ink flow!



  4. "The first smells baking bread. The second knows this is the same bread Henry the Fifth smelt just before he dealt his quiverblow against the fearsome French . . . " Yes . . . . this is what parts of England feel like. Cultural stratigraphy: layers upon layers of life, each layer resting on what has gone before.

    Come to York, visit the Minster, spend some time at the juxtaposition of time.