Here now is my #3 all time most commented-on post, coming in at 210 comments. It’s about my religious views as an agnostic. Or an atheist? Or, actually, how should we think about whether we even *could* imagine a God. Read on.
A Revelatory Moment about “God”
January 12, 2020
I had a “revelatory moment” last week that I think may have changed my view about “God” for a very long time – or at least about the existence of superior beings far beyond what we can imagine.
As most of you know, I have long been an agnostic-atheist, and as some of you may recall, I define “atheist” differently from most people, at least in relationship to “agnostic.” The word “agnostic” means “don’t know.” Is there a God? I don’t’ know. How could I possibly know? How could you? I know a lot of you do “know” – or think you know. But my view is that if you’re in that boat you “think” there is a God – really, really think it, deep in your heart, and maybe even deeply “believe” in God – but really, at the end of the day, there’s no way to *know*, at least in the same way you “know” that you have two knees, live in Pennsylvania, or like lasagna.
Anyway, I’m not asking you to agree with me. I’m just saying it’s my view. We simply can’t “know” that there is a God in the same way we know other things, and I myself, long ago, came to the point where I had to admit I *really* don’t know. It’s not that I deeply believe there is a God but admit that technically I can’t know. I mean I really don’t know.
Over the past fifteen years or so (more? Less?) I’ve also been calling myself an atheist, but I have always meant something different by that from what other people say. Usually people think of an atheist as a more extreme agnostic, someone who doesn’t say “I do not know if there’s a God” but who says “I know there is not a God.” I’ve never meant that. How could I know that *either*? I’ve taken “agnosticism” to refer to what you KNOW and “atheism” to refer to what you BELIEVE. Do I believe in God? No, I do not. So I’m an agnostic and an atheist at the same time.
My revelatory moment has softened my view. I guess I’m still an agnostic and an atheist, but I think it makes much, much better sense to stress the “I SIMPLY DON”T KNOW” part, and stop implying that I firmly believe one thing or another. Here’s why.
I have a meditation practice and in it over the past year or so I’ve spent a lot of time meditating on consciousness, especially the marvel that I am a self-conscious being (you are too, but I’m usually not thinking about you when I’m meditating. Sorry….). Consciousness is one of the most mysterious and imponderable aspects of the multiverse, period. Philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, theologians, and all sorts of very, very smart people have written extremely erudite books about it, most of them disagreeing with one another. How does something made out of “matter” have the ability not only to think, reason, decide, achieve its own will, and so on – but be aware of doing so?
If you know the answer, you should write a book and you will receive many international prizes and be the greatest explainer of human existence who has ever lived. Many have tried.
So I ain’t goin’ there, to give my sophomoric, neurologically- / philosophically- / psychologically pathetically unnuanced views about it. But something did occur to me the other day during meditation that came as a revelation.
In my experience, one person’s light-bulb moment, when something really clicks, is completely *obvious* to everyone else. And so I’m always hesitant to share mine. Some of you will say, THAT’S what you finally realized? Uh, yeah, duh…. So, when you do think that, well, hey, I knew you would.
But here is the thought that occurred to my head, for whatever it’s worth.
In our way of thinking (this isn’t shared by all cultures), there are different orders of existence/being.
- An infinity of things that could exist do not exist – either they never did exist (an infinity themselves) or they once existed and do not any longer.
- Most of the things that do exist we would call “inanimate” – minerals and stars and black matter and so on and on. There may be even an infinity of that category too, depending on your view of astrophysics etc.
- Most of the things that do exist and are “animate” we would classify as … what? Non-animal? Most obviously to our senses (I’m simplifying), for example, plants: grass and oak trees and such.
- Some few things that exist are animals – however you define that (I’m not interested in refined generic definitions here or exceptions here). They can move themselves, they differ at the cellular level, etc.
- Some of these animals have brains and have instincts and some ability to assert a will, and so on.
- Humans, in our way of thinking, are on the top of the chain. It’s not that warblers, and copperheads, and orangutans are all the same – there are enormous differences, of course. But usually we conceptualize the human with, well, the ability to conceptualize and reflect on the past and future in systematic ways and so on. And yes, I’ve read Frans de Waal – fantastic! But still, on some level, I’m not doin’ the same thing with my brain as my cat is….. Still, it doesn’t much matter: arguing one way or the other on it isn’t going to change my revelatory insight.
So here is my “duh” moment. A rock has no way of recognizing that an animate object such as a dandelion exists. A dandelion has no way of recognizing that a panther exists. Now it gets a bit tricky. A panther has no way of recognizing that a superior intelligence exists. Yes, a panther does recognize in some instinctual sense that there are things out there to look out for. But it has no way of realizing that there are people who can engineer sky scrapers, or split atoms, or reconstruct the history of Rome. It simply is not in its purview.
Humans can and do recognize, analyze, study, think about, reflect on these other forms of life. You don’t need to say they are “lower” life forms or that we are “superior” to recognize this. We can understand all these things because in some sense (not all), our cognitive abilities are superior.
But here’s my point. Suppose you WERE to think (whether imperialistically or arrogantly or not) that we are talking about levels of existence, from lower to higher: rocks, trees, non-human animals, and humans. The fact is that the lower ones can never know about the higher ones, what they really are, what they are capable of, how they exist, what they do, and so on. They can’t even conceptualize their existence.
Then what in the blazes should should make me think that I could possibly know if there was a higher order above me, superior to me in ways that I simply can’t imagine? Not just one order above me, but lots of orders? If there are such orders, there is no way I could ever know. Literally. Duh.
And so really, agnosticism is the ONLY option. Not in the sense of a shoulder shrug, “Hey, how would *I* know?” but in the sense of a deep thoughtful response – I have precisely no way to adjudicate the view, one way or the other.
The PROBLEM is that we humans always imagine we are the pinnacle of existence. We’ve always thought that. That’s why we have no trouble killing other things to satisfy our needs. I’m not opposed to that in every instance: every time I eat a meal or scratch my arm (killing who knows how many microbes) I do that. But it has always led to some rather enormous problems, from massive destruction of others in war to, now, our rather determined efforts to destroy our planet.
This idea that humans are the pinnacle of “material” existence has always (so far as we know) been promoted in religion, especially those that dominate the West. In Genesis, humans are the ultimate goal of creation, the reason all other living things came into being.
This idea that we ourselves are all-important has ironically crept out of our religion into our secular epistemology. If we are the top of all existence, then there must be nothing above us. And so we can use our brains to figure out everything else that exists. In principle, our brains can figure out *everything*.
My revelatory moment showed me with graphic clarity that that just isn’t true, on epistemological grounds. Who says we’re the pinnacle? If quartz stone and maple trees and slugs could think, they would think *they* were the pinnacle – they wouldn’t have the capacity to imagine a Stephen Hawkins or a Steve Jobs or a Frank Lloyd Wright. But they can’t imagine something higher than them. So what make us think we would have the capacity to imagine whatever it is that is above *us* in the pecking order? Frankly, it’s just human arrogance. Pure hubris. And I must say, looking at the world today, I’m not a huge fan of human arrogance and hubris. It’s not doing too well for us.
I am obviously not urging a return to traditional religion. This insight decidedly does NOT justify anyone in saying, “See, I was right – my view of God is plausible.” Your view of God might be completely *implausible* and based simply on what you heard from people living 2000 or 3000 years ago who were generally far more ignorant of the world than we are and were simply doing their best to figure it out. So my insight does NOT argue that there must be a (single, Jewish or Muslim, or Christian) God, or archangels, or demons, or whatever. For me those are just mythological constructs that are trying to make sense of it all.
So I’m not at all advocating we return to the religious constructions of previous centuries and millennia. I’m just saying that the possibility that there really *might* be orders of existence higher than I can imagine strikes me just now as completely plausible. Why not? Who says *I* can figure it all out. If superior forms of intelligence and will do exist, I would literally have no way of knowing. And how many different forms/levels could there be? God knows. So to speak.