Atheism and Epistemological Humility

I’ve been thinking about the limits of knowledge and power lately. Inspired by the Stoic dichotomy of control, I find that focusing on what I can’t do, know or influence brings clarity to that which I can.

Brian Eno discusses the last illusion (hat tip to Jorge Arango):

Well, I’m an atheist, and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is someone knows what is going on. That’s the last illusion. Nearly everyone has that illusion somewhere, and it manifests not only in the terms of the idea that there is a god but that knows what’s going on but that the planets know what’s going on. Astrology is part of the last illusion. The obsession with health is part of the last illusion, the idea that there’s that if only we could spend time on it and sit down and stop being unreasonable with each other we’d all find that there was a structure and a solution underlying plan to it all, for most people the short answer to that is God.

Well, what I want to indicate by that word godless is not only god in the religious sense but I am trying to accept and enjoy the idea that we never will reach that condition of agreement of certainty, that actually we’re unanchored, we’re floating around, and we’re actually guessing. That’s what we’re doing. Everyone is making guesses, and trying to make the best of it, watching what happens and being empirical about it. There won’t be a plan, so godless, like most of those words, have a lot of resonance for me.

I disagree with calling this atheism; it’s epistemological humility. I’ve met plenty of atheists who, along the lines of the New Atheists, doubt nothing. At the heart of the woke tech scene is a belief that science can know everything and there’s no problem without a technological solution. This is embracing the last illusion as much as any simplistic caricature of theism.

On the flip side I’ve met theists for whom God is an abstraction for that which can’t be known. For them, there are things beyond human control and knowledge. That doesn’t lead to an old man in the sky, and there’s a long tradition of embracing powerful uncertainty within theistic traditions.

Early Buddhism had its famously unanswered questions, openly claimed not to be a complete system of knowledge1 and the Buddha rejected claims he was omniscient2. This is in stark contrast to the later forms of Buddhism evolved into omniscient theism.

Non-Contact popped up in my RSS reader next to original post about the last illusion. We have no idea what Oumuamua was all about, and there’s a chance we never will.

It looks increasingly likely that Covid-19 started as a lab accident. This should be another cause for epistemological humility. The official expert opinion has made multiple reversals in the past year. I still don’t see the humility, caution and plain egg on their face this ought to have engendered.

  1. The Buddha claimed to teach only that which led to the end of mental suffering (SN 56:31

  2. Over the centuries the Buddha went from being a still very human spiritual figure to a god-like being with omniscience. This is especially the case in the Mahāsāṃghika school. Analayo makes a compelling case in The Buddha and Omniscience that omniscience was something added centuries after the Buddha’s time.