Is PanenDeism an Option for Agnostics?

Written by William A. Eckert III, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Jay Krasny, Professor of English at San Francisco State University, public radio host and author, describes his deep envy of people with a viable spirituality that he believes is unavailable to him as an Agnostic in his book, “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest1. He certainly is not alone in this thinking among Agnostics as many believe this to be the case, like I also did for many years. While it is not my aim in this article to attempt to convince you that some form of Deism or PanenDeism is probable (future articles will likely argue this), it is my sole intent here to, hopefully, persuade you that there is no necessary incompatibility between Agnosticism and PanenDeism.

To begin, I will define what I mean by “Agnosticism” while acknowledging that every Agnostic may think of it slightly differently and I am not claiming to hold the one “correct” definition. Put simply, an Agnostic is one who is “A”- meaning “not” + “gnostic” meaning “one having knowledge”. If this is the case, then we can immediately distinguish certain knowledge from rational belief. Deists of all types (including PanenDeists), like Agnostics and Atheists and unlike fundamentalist Theists employing faith, rely upon reason and evidence in forming rational beliefs. If by “rational beliefs ” we mean “propositions held as ‘probably true’ as derived from reason and evidence” then it can be argued that, while one does not have knowledge that there is a G-d, one may potentially have justifiable, rational belief in G-d. By contrast, many Agnostics believe they must automatically also consider themselves to be Atheists because they do not know with certainty that G-d exists, therefore they have no right to “believe” that G-d exists (they lack belief in G-d). Though I have no problem with Atheists and for several years identified as Atheist myself for much the same reason, I now challenge this notion and suggest that it is in contrast to all of scientific and philosophic reasoning. Even the most well-established scientific theories, such as Atomic Theory (that matter is composed of discrete units called ‘atoms’) is based in logical inferences, probabilities and statistics rather than certain knowledge. Likewise, the strongest deductive and inductive philosophical arguments start with premises and conclusions that would logically follow from the premises and, at best, suggest what is probably true.

I suggest that, with respect to G-d and nearly every belief, we are all ‘agnostic’, whether we acknowledge it or not. Like the French philosopher, René Descartes, famous for the statement “Cogito, ergo sum”2 which means “I think, therefore I am”, I believe direct experience of our consciousness is the one and only certain knowledge we can have. It is the starting point from which we then indirectly and less certainly infer all of our other beliefs and from which we can then conduct scientific experiments and philosophical reasoning. As Descartes said that we might be a brain in a vat being given our experience by an evil demon3, we also simply cannot rule out the possibility that we are living in a computer simulation as in the movie, The Matrix, in which all of our sense experience, including that of our own bodies, are not accurate representations of reality. Though I personally do not believe this is the case, it is logically possible that it is. When faced with these ideas, some Agnostics give up to the possibility of ever having any rational beliefs, whether in G-d, the universe or even their own sensory experience. In high school, I had an Agnostic friend tell me, “Nothing is true”, to which I responded, “Yeah, even that!” So, how do we even begin to formulate any rational beliefs with which to live our lives in the world and, in particular, with respect to G-d?

I have thoroughly evaluated many of the proposed philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of G-d and find every one that I have ever heard to fall far short of establishing certainty that G-d exists. However, as I said, the only certain knowledge we can have is that we are conscious. Even that, some materialist philosophers have suggested, we cannot be certain. I disagree but will leave it at that for now. The rejection of certain knowledge with respect to belief in G-d and related beliefs is not exclusive to Deism or PanenDeism but has also been expressed by some from traditional religions, including Christianity, as described by Daniel Taylor in his book, “The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment4. As Agnostics, we typically are not exactly at fifty percent in terms of our assessment of the probability of the existence of G-d. Instead, our sense of things, though not usually static for most, typically is over or under fifty percent, and in addition to our claim to not know with certainty whether G-d exists, Agnostics generally also believe either “G-d probably exists” or “G-d probably does not exist”. To formulate rational belief in G-d (as opposed to belief independent of evidence), at best, as with all of science and philosophy, we might be able to conclude ‘G-d probably exists’ though we definitely cannot have the level of certainty we do with our own consciousness. What we can do is formulate a reasoned and evidence-based “working hypothesis” as is routinely done in science. We can go back and evaluate philosophical and scientific arguments and employ the same reasoning as was used by Charles Darwin in his Theory of Evolution, namely “abductive reasoning” or “reasoning to the best explanation based on the presently-available evidence” with a more realistic expectation that does not demand certainty. Then, we can also employ an approach that is one of the greatest strengths of science which is that it non-dogmatically holds its ideas as somewhat tentative and is willing to correct and refine them. We do not need to wait until the existence of G-d is scientifically proven or disproven to hold speculative beliefs and develop a spiritual life around them. To do so would be a form of ‘scientism’ which is the idea that “all knowledge comes to us only from science”. The irony is that such a belief cannot be scientifically demonstrated itself. In fact, it is refuted when we realize that we have direct knowledge and experience of our own consciousness which is something that we cannot determine using the scientific method. We can observe behavior of people and animals and even scan their brain activity that together lead to a very rational inference that they may possess consciousness, but the only directly observable consciousness we have access to is our own. The mathematician and arguably one of the most respected philosophers of the twentieth century, Alfred North Whitehead, who was an Agnostic who dared to advocate speculation and tentative belief in a panentheistic or panendeistic G-d, writes in “Process and Reality”,

it must be one of the motives of a complete cosmology to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science.5

Whitehead also writes,

The importance of philosophy lies in its sustained effort to make such schemes explicit, and thereby capable of criticism and improvement6

and

in philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.7

In conclusion, for those of us who do not know with certainty whether a Cosmic Mind (or G-d of PanenDeism) exists, but who also find it plausible or likely that one does, we need not remain on the sidelines in envy of those enjoying a deeply meaningful spiritual life, as does Dr. Michael Krasny. Instead, we can reason to the best explanation of all the evidence we presently have and, perhaps with some reinforcement from intuition, choose PanenDeism as our tentative “working hypothesis”, amenable to criticism and improvement, which may allow us to abandon psychological and emotional difficulties associated with nihilism, apathy and indecision and, as an alternative, we can potentially enjoy the profound sense of connectedness, purpose and meaning that many PanenDeists describe.

Footnotes

  1. Krasny, Michael (2010). Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest. New World Library. ISBN 1-57731-912-5.
  2. Descartes, René (1644). Principia Philosophiae.
  3. Descartes, René (1641). Meditations on First Philosophy: In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated. Translated by John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  4. Taylor, Daniel (2000). The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment. InterVarsity Press.
  5. Whitehead, Alfred North, (1929; 1978). Process and reality. New York : Free Press.
  6. Whitehead, Alfred North, (1929; 1978). Process and reality. New York : Free Press.
  7. Whitehead, Alfred North, (1929; 1978). Process and reality. New York : Free Press.