O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Voltaire’s Stance

“The agnostic treats arbitrary claims as matters properly open to consideration, discussion, evaluation. He allows that it is “possible” that these claims are “true,” thereby applying cognitive descriptions to verbiage that is at war with cognition. He demands proof of a negative: it’s up to you, he declares, to show that there are no demons, or that your sex life is not a result of your previous incarnation as a pharaoh of ancient Egypt.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 170.
(There might be aliens on the dark side of the moon. Who knows? Claims devoid of any evidence should be disregarded. It doesn’t matter what you feel about it. Take your stance based on your assessment of reality and say what you know. You know there isn’t any alien civilization on the dark side of the moon, don’t you? Or are you going to tell me you are an agnostic with respect to that too?)

“Yo no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay”. That summarizes the agnostic’s creed. This is no attitude at all. It is sitting on the fence. It is renouncing the responsibility of judging, of choosing your path, of building and then standing behind your own convictions. In a word, it is evasion. I used to say I was an agnostic. No. Let’s take a stance. Let’s have the guts to say it. Let’s be bold for once. I am not an agnostic anymore. I am an atheist.

Agnosticism means not dismissing as false what you can’t prove to be false. It sounds reasonable. It’s like the onus of proof in a court of law: if you can’t prove the guy is a criminal, he is probably innocent. If I can’t prove God does not exist, He just might. And, of course, it is much easier to repent after a lifetime claiming “I don’t know” than claiming instead that God is a figment of man’s imagination motivated by his inherent weakness.

I remember reading one of my “formative” books, “Trinity”, by Leon Uris. It’s background is the conflict between the IRA and the British occupation of Ireland, but, as expected, it is a lot about religion too. Besides my father’s weird admonition when handing me the book, “Ireland is the birthplace of violence”, I remember little of it. But one thing stuck in my mind: how man weakens with age. The book begins and ends with an old man repenting on its deathbed: first, the protagonist’s father, and then, the protagonist himself, who had always vilified his father’s weakness.

If we can’t really know (because, of course, we can’t), why should we take such a radical stance and deny God? Much better would be to simply say we don’t know. At the very least, it would provide for a better case at our deathbed. Leonard Peikoff taught me otherwise in Chapter 5 of OPAR. And that has changed me for good. My wife regrets that fact, though. She wanted to baptize our daughter. I said “no”.

Agnosticism is not simply the pleading of ignorance. It is tacitly accepting that the arbitrary deserves the same cognitive respect as the logically supported. It is tacitly accepting the onus of proof of a negative. But the most we can do when trying to prove negatives is to fall on a sort of Cartesian doubt that leads us nowhere but to end up accepting what we are so inclined to accept anyway. For Descartes, it was God; for the agnostic, it is his coward “stance” of not dismissing arbitrary claims, claims not grounded in any evidence. Such an attitude, says Peikoff, “is incomparably more destructive than any error committed by a man devoted to reason who takes definite stands on the basis of mistaken arguments”. And there is this word “tacitly” I have used. A man should never make tacit propositions. I have erred a lot in life, but if there is one thing that makes me proud about my errors is that I erred by doing, not by sitting on the fence.

If I ever get the chance to have a deathbed (which, according to my lifestyle, is highly unlikely), I hope I won’t repent. But even if I do, I still have one last resort to rationality. In his deathbed, Voltaire is said to have been visited by a priest who urged him to renounce the devil. Voltaire considered it, but chose not to. Hard to deny his reasoning.

“This is no time,” he said, “to be making new enemies”.

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