Humble Tea: The determinist argument for humility

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In Professor Karen Carr’s class Rationality and Religious Belief, we’ve spent the past few weeks discussing different proofs and arguments from history pertaining to one of the biggest questions of all: “Does God exist?”.We’ve gone over abstract theories with impressive names like “The Teleological Argument” and “The Ontological Argument.” I always find these discussions interesting but, ultimately, not largely my cup of tea. 

I don’t particularly enjoy arguing against people, and I don’t particularly enjoy promoting my own beliefs in discussions like these where I personally don’t think there is a universally useful answer. I like fleshing out examples, coming up with new imaginative analogs and metaphors, asking questions about why we ask the questions we do and other constructive but inclusive thought experiments. Sometimes, I feel self-conscious if I think I’ve been too willing to prescribe my own feelings on any matter as opposed to just a healthy enlivening of the discussion. Disproving or affirming beliefs seems beside the point. In this article, I don’t want to promote my deterministic views but, rather, to try and explain how I live with them and harness their potential for growth and humility. 

If prompted, I self-identify as an agnostic-atheist. The agnostic part means I don’t have any particular beliefs about a higher power or its existence and the atheist part is because I live as if there were no higher power. When I sculpt my intuition or when I’m asked about the truth of a matter specifically (as opposed to opinions), I am always drawn to empirical arguments or ones that are based on human observation. I can’t say why I find them pleasing or comforting, but it’s probably because they are the most reliable and consistent even if they ultimately answer the least questions and with the least definition. 

The fact is that anyone can answer a question, but empirical answers always struck me as the least falsifiable even if least expansive (which is an important distinction from being “the most true”). I also just really hate being wrong about things; it’s one of my double-edged qualities. It certainly drives me towards a desire for honesty, but as close friends of mine may have seen before, it also just makes me very flustered when I am giving my thoughts on something and say something that’s not observably true or is just plain ignorant. 

Those were empirical views, but the title of this article promises determinist arguments. Determinism is the view that cause-and-effect relationships drive the universe, that in any action we humans do not have some essence or free will which drives us, but are merely a hodge-podge of things causing other things. While I have these beliefs, I don’t think they change many fundamentals of how I live my life except for giving me an outlet to release pressure of all forms and be more humble. It reminds me that I need not stress myself out or be mad at the world or others in my worst moments but also reminds me that getting to that place of stress relief is so dependent on the many comforts of my life in the global one percent. 

That’s the funny paradox about determinism and the notion of “determinist humility” — it depends on the hope that some amount of permitted inertia or passivity can keep your life on track, while at the same time saying that you can’t actually permit yourself to do anything, even be passive — it was bound to happen regardless.  

Going through these thoughts reminds me how silly I am. Truly, I think I’m as big a screwball as the next person when it comes down to it because even giving “reasons” for my “belief” in “determinism” runs into a lot of paradoxes and quandaries if you think about it. This too is a healthy reminder to not take myself too seriously, especially when I’m at my most pigheaded. I grew up on the internet with a lot of atheist content. Figures like Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens might be “destroying” someone in a recorded debate over God’s existence. 

Growing up and realizing that the “belief in God” means many things to many people has been key in detaching myself from what I thought I enjoyed about these debates. People believe in God scientifically, figuratively, literally and have infinite gradations in between these words, but they all self-identify as ‘believers.’ What does belief even mean? I’m at a point where I find paradoxes, improvable notions and similar unanswerables to be comforting — like a heavy blanket in chilly autumn. The limits of rationality, logic and reason remind me of our imperfection as humans — of my own imperfection as a human. 

Not every person will think like this and, to be clear, I don’t think every person needs to. I’ve found myself fitting into the embrace of a very particular place of belief, and I’m open to the idea I might be squeezed right out of it too.