Bryan Magee: The Agnostic

Bryan Magee (1930 – 2019).jpg

Bryan Magee (1930 – 2019) has had a multifaceted career as a professor of philosophy, music and theater critic, BBC broadcaster, public intellectual, and member of Parliament. He has starred in two acclaimed television series about philosophy: Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). He is best known as a popularizer of philosophy. His easy-to-read books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages, include:

Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper;
The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy;
Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers;
Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper;
The Story of Philosophy: 2,500 Years of Great Thinkers from Socrates to the Existentialists and Beyond;
and Men of Ideas.

Now, at age 86, he has written Ultimate Questions, a summary of a lifetime of thinking about “the fundamentals of the human condition.” Its basic theme is that we know little about the human condition since reality comes to us filtered through the senses and the limitations of our intellect and language. The most honest response to this predicament is agnosticism.

Magee begins considering that “What we call civilization has existed for something like six thousand years.” If you remember that there have always been some individuals who have lived a hundred years this means that “the whole of civilization has occurred with the successive lifetimes of sixty people …” Furthermore, “most people are as provincial in time as they are in space: they huddle down into their time and regard it as their total environment…” They don’t think about the little sliver of time and space that they occupy. Thus begins his meditation on agnosticism.

Furthermore, we are ignorant of the knowledge of our ultimate nature: “We, who do not know what we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know little and understand less.” Yet this situation doesn’t lead Magee to despair. Instead, he calls for “an active agnosticism,” which is “a positive principle of procedure, an openness to the fact that we do not know, followed by intellectually honest enquiry in full receptivity of mind.” If he had to choose a tag he says, it would be “the agnostic.”

However most people can’t live with uncertainty, with pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle as Magee puts it, and they replace the unknown with religion. But religion “is a form of unjustified evasion, a failure to face up to the reality of ignorance as our natural and inevitable starting-point.” The challenge of life is to live and die in a world that we don’t understand “without either … denying the mysteriousness of it or … grasping at supernatural explanations.”

Yet he takes comfort in what he calls the “us-dependent,” rather than the independent or isolated: “One essential aspect of our situation is that we are social creatures, indeed social creations: each one of us is created by two other people. If we are not cared for by them or someone taking their place, we die. Our existence and our survival both require active involvement by others.”(What a beautiful rejoined to all those who banter on and on about being self-made men. Those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.)

In the broadest light, the book attempts to reply to the assertion: “I know that I exist, but I do not know what I am.” But Magee, after decades of searching, replies that none of us know the answers to the big questions. As for faith, Magee answers firmly: “I can think of no other context in which people are commended for the firmness of beliefs for which there is little or no evidence.” Magee accepts that some need the comfort of religion because, for example, they can’t accept their own death, and he leaves such people undisturbed. “But I do regard such people as no longer committed to the pursuit of truth.”

Magee believes contra Hume that he has a self “but I am unable to fathom its inner nature, and I have no idea what happens to it when I die.” But he rejects the view that being unable to answer ultimate questions implies that asking them is worthless, inasmuch as some understanding of ourselves and the world can still be attained. “We may not know where we are, but there is a world of difference between being lost in daylight and being lost in the dark.” Still, none of this implies relativism, as reason and evidence support some ideas and theories over others. Some things are more likely to be true and rational people proportion their assent to evidence.

As for death, “the prospect of permanent oblivion” is painful. In death, the magic of the world and our consciousness of it vanishes. Nonetheless, the brave face this truth without comforting themselves with false narratives. Magee says that at the moment of death “I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch blackness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.”

These are the words of a brave and fearless intellect. What a wonderful book.


Note. This post first appeared on this blog on May 26, 2016.

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7 thoughts on “Bryan Magee: The Agnostic

  1. Today one can create a designer religion for oneself/family/friends. It doesn’t appear that there’re rules anymore, only laws.
    No rules means one can create a designer religion without feeling some residual guilt. (“Wherever two or more are gathered…”)
    Family and friends can own robot Christs, Allah/Muhammad/Hindi bots, etc, that won’t harbor the universal ulterior motives that are in the larger world—in every house of worship.
    That’s the key for me: no dislike of religion per se, only ulterior motives involved. Or one can own an agnostic bot that recites and reminds the owner what the reasons are for being agnostic or atheist.

  2. I like your comments Al, I enjoy your ‘irreverent’ attitude and points of view!

    I think Bryan Magee (To comment on one part of his post) falls into the trap many of the earnestly Intellectual are prone to, and agonize and suffer Angst over, he knows that he is intelligent, everything and all the people in his World reinforce his (Deserved) belief in his own prowess, He is in command of words and can make them express ‘Almost’ anything he would like to read and believe, and yet, he suffers the interminable frustration of the Intellectual ever on the hunt for, and capture of, the ‘Holy Grail’ of Philosophy the ‘irrefutable Meaning and Purpose of life’! Oh what a Prize, what a Trophy! Unfortunately ( Or perhaps not) never to be realized, because as soon as you think you have it, it changes!

    This has been an irresistible quest for all ‘Thinkers’ Great and small, where ever, and when ever, when Language became complex enough to discuss abstract concepts there surely were People looking at the sky and trying to understand their part in the Great Scheme of things, did they come to conclusions? Well what ever they were, they weren’t irrefutable, perhaps because as Words remain the same the meanings and emotions connected to them are in continuous flux !

    I will repeat a theme I’ve posted before, we have all been Born, where were we before that? Yes you can mention your parents Physiology but the events that ultimately led to your birth started long before that, far far back in the mists of time! So now we are here, in this little place in time and space and this is all we really know and can know, we can imagine other realities but this one is the one that holds the keys to our fate, what will that fate be? Who can know? But we do know that whatever it is, we, like all who passed this way before us, will face it when it’s time comes! Courageously or Fearfully it matters not, Time passes and things change! People come and People go! Species dominate the World and then they don’t, what happened to the Trilobite and the Dinosaur I never see them at the Walmart anymore!

    No matter how you think about it or worry about it, you can’t impart or garner any more importance to yourself than that which you have already, so relax, be a good and kind person do the best you can and trust that which placed you here to take care of the future! It is a very interesting time to be alive!
    All the best to everyone!

  3. John,
    irreverence is the new reverence. [Disclaimer is I have a feel for the social sciences and Humanities, but not philosophy]
    The key word here is reverence. So many wonder why someone such as Trump would even be considered for president, let alone be in a position to thumb his nose at us continually, with no end in sight.
    But we can see right away that his religious followers are attracted to his syncretisation of patriotism and irreverence. He is sincerely patriotic though misguided. The focus of this comment is how irreverence is the new reverence, and Trump is emblematic.
    As you write, John, Magee is looking for a holy grail of philosophy (that ended in the Middle Ages). Since the Enlightenment, people have gradually realized that searching for a philosophical holy grail is self-defeating—like cutting one’s chest open to discover how one’s heart beats.
    As you conclude in your comment, we try to be relaxed and kind; yet I do think candor in the complicated future will be lacking. We’d like to think the insincerity of Trump and the MAGAs are a cause, but rather:
    a symptom of the future to come.

    A symptom of the decline of reverence, piety, candor. We cannot radically change—as we are doing—the world and expect the reverence of the past; however such is precisely what the majority want. Read Trump’s statement issued yesterday after his impeachment: a witch-brew (with apologies to wiccans) of patriotism, Irreverent Reverence, confederate piety, a Caesar complex. The 20th century syncretised with the 21st. Must have repeated the following a half dozen times: if you want reason in the future you can have it, but not meaning.
    If you want the peace and justice that religionists and progressives want, you can have peace—but not justice. If you want purpose in the future, you can have it—but not Truth. You can surely have pleasure but not necessarily happiness. You can have excitement—but not necessarily peace of mind. You can find companionship, but not necessarily love.
    You can find entertainment, but not necessarily Art.
    You mentioned the trinity of relaxation, kindness, and goodness. The first two we can have. Goodness is problematic:
    as with peace, definitions of relaxation and kindness can be agreed upon. But in the 21st century, whose definition of Goodness?

  4. You might find the classic Robert Axelrod book “The Evolution of Cooperation” interesting.

  5. It’s not all that bad, but to go into detail digresses yet more from Magee’s piece. Digression is at the core of my being.

    Magee is correct, agnosticism is so far the best way to go. We think of the ‘infinite’ cosmos, but think of the Earth’s crust—a thin shell covering the molten interior. Considering this adds a new twist: it’s almost as if we have a mild star under our feet. Stars out in space and a star under us. Life could exist outside of Earth, as well, but perhaps not meeting our definition of life. Even gaseous planets could have methane-substrate life; methane is carbon related, isn’t it?

    Not to dismiss religion, though, entirely. There’re highly educated religious people worth conversing with. Unfortunately, the more prevalent highly uneducated religious are becoming an embarrassment. During the postwar period we didn’t notice them as much, they were like the Soviets: almost wallpaper. Now, after three decades we notice it more: on January 6th, the embarrassment came out into the open.
    Christians are very common in America, they can’t be avoided—what they don’t understand, and what makes it increasingly difficult to communicate with them, is how living as a self-sacrificing Christian in the high tech 21st century makes one an outcast. They don’t want to know.
    At any rate, I see religion of the future as being in cyberspace and chatbots/robots. Agnostic AI spirituality.

  6. Magee was one of those special, rare species of people of the highest intelligence, plain-speaking, truth-telling,honest, principled, like Chomsky, Gore Vidal, my father and hopefully some more

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