The Gnostic argument for agnosticism

by Jens Alfke ⟿ December 10, 2007

In some online forums I list as interests both gnosticism and agnosticism, which is a bit of a joke since the two words are literally contradictory, but is true in that both are interesting and important to me. Agnosticism as my attitude toward religion: that the existence of a God or gods is fundamentally unknowable, undecidable, unprovable. Gnosticism as a mystic tradition, a suppressed early fork of Christianity, whose beliefs have more recently had a large impact on the literature of the fantastic and on postmodern philosophy (notably Philip K. Dick’s SF novels, the Matrix films, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Jean Beaudrillard’s cultural theorizing.)

A few weeks ago I had the thought that you could combine Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law with some of the ideas of Gnosticism, and arrive at a “proof” (which I’m aware is a contradiction in terms) of agnosticism. I’m sure this isn’t entirely original, but it amuses me.

Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This idea has appeared in any number of science fiction plots, where time travelers from the future or astronauts visiting technologically-primitive planets are treated as wizards. It’s also been used in a way in mystery stories, by Dorothy Sayers and others, where a magical event appears to have happened — a murderer teleporting out of a locked room, a woman turning into a werewolf — but is discovered at the end to have been accomplished through mundane technological means. And of course, the professions of stage magicians and spirit mediums show that in some circumstances the technology doesn’t even have to be advanced.

So here’s a variant on that law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from deity. History is full of real-world examples of this, when explorers from one civilization (usually European) made contact with a less technological civilization and were taken for gods or angels. The most significant such encounter may have been Cortés’s defeat of the Aztec empire, which (according to many accounts) was made considerably easier by the Aztecs — including their emperor — taking the conquistadors with their horses and guns to be emissaries of the god Quetzalcoatl (and Cortés to perhaps be the god himself.) More recently, the cargo cult religions on Pacific islands sprang up in response to the presence during World War II of American soldiers — although in this case it’s the technology, not the visitors, that was considered divine.

A key belief of the Gnostics was that the entire human race were on the receiving end of a similar kind of exploitation. The Gnostics believed the material world to be the product of a Demiurge, a lesser deity who was not omnipotent or omniscient but bound by the laws of nature. The demiurge was seen as good (if flawed) by some groups, but more often as evil. He was often identified with Satan, and sometimes even as the God of the Old Testament. His existence explained why the world was flawed and filled with evil, and put a new light on the jealous and vengeful actions attributed to God in the Old Testament.

From a 21st century perspective, informed by Clarke’s Law, we could see the demiurge as being entirely mundane, technological. A sufficiently advanced technology could undoubtedly assemble planets, design life forms, part seas, smite unbelievers, instill mystical visions and control thoughts. At the extreme end of speculation, our world could be a simulation fed into the sensory nerves of brains in vats, or our minds could be part of the simulation too. (There has even been recent argument, which I do not buy into, that this is a likely scenario)

The Gnostics, as Christians, of course believed in a true omnipotent/omniscient God above the demiurge. Though of course, further intermediate deities could be interposed — the Wikipedia article describes “the introduction by emanation of further divine beings, which are nevertheless identifiable as aspects of the God from which they proceeded; the progressive emanations are often conceived metaphorically as a gradual and progressive distancing from the ultimate source, which brings about an instability in the fabric of the divine nature.” This puts me in mind of an infinite regress toward the final infinite God — a turtles all the way up cosmology.

In the end, unlike the Gnostics, I don’t see how there’s any way we could tell whether this is true or not. There’s nothing we can perceive as divine that couldn’t, possibly, be produced by some advanced technology. And any such “divinity” could conceivably, in turn, be eclipsed by something more advanced. We have no way of knowing.

But the Gnostics did believe that they had knowledge (gnosis) of the Word of the true infinite God. To me, this is their central mistake. Obviously, they had to believe they had a handle on the Truth, in order to be a religion. But most of their beliefs pointed to the inability of humans to discern such truth or tell it apart from the simulations/lies of the demiurge. The only way around this would be to posit that humans have an inbuilt mystic sense that can accurately tell the truth about religious beliefs … but the simultaneous existence of innumerable contradictory religious beliefs disproves this.

The only conclusion, to my mind, is to admit that we don’t know, and can’t know, no matter how compelled we may be by evidence or enlightenment or persuasion or insight. That’s agnosticism in a nutshell. Treat religious works, rituals, ideas as though they were stage plays or stage magic — draw from them delight, insight, compassion, wonder … even if you don’t believe for a moment that the lady was really cut in half and rejoined, the king really fell on his sword, the flowers were really transmuted into doves.