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A Revelatory Moment about “God”

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 recognized, 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 Job 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.

If you were a member of the blog, you could get five posts a week.  It’s an insanely reasonable membership fee, and all of it goes to charity.  So why not join?

 


Two Brief Comments on intriguing topics: the unknowability of God and scholarly subterfuge!
Blog Year in Review, 2019!

207

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Spiral  January 12, 2020

    My cat knows that I exist. So, if God existed, I might be able to know that he/she/it exists even if God is “higher” than I just as I am “higher” than my cat. Right?

    If a higher life form, aliens, visited the Earth, we would know that these aliens existed, even if we didn’t know everything about them. But at this point, we don’t have any empirical evidence that aliens exist. Similarly for God. We can speculate about God but we can’t know.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      Yup, you might. Or you might not. Until the modern world no one knew germs existed. We’ve only recently acquired the capacity.

      • Avatar
        jtaylor81284  January 24, 2020

        It’s this claim that I believe Spiral’s argument cuts against: “If superior forms of intelligence and will do exist, I would literally have no way of knowing.” Strictly speaking, it’s just not true. There are conditions under which we could know whether superior forms of intelligence exist. I would go further: the intelligence of a being is basically irrelevant as regards the question of whether other intelligent beings can grasp that it exists. Your revelation, I feel, is best addressed to arguments against God’s existence that centre around suppositions about His nature, for example theodicy.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 26, 2020

          I don’t know how we can know that there are such conditions. REally, how would we *know*? For me it’s like saying that if there are lifeforms in others of the infinite numbers of universes out there, we ahve ways of knowing about them. Maybe not, given the constraints of our knowledge. There aer lots of things we simplly can’t know. (E.g., there’s no way on earth you can know what your great-great-great-grandfather ate for breakfast on teh day of his 21st birthday. Just can’t know it. I’m not saying that’s teh same thing — all three exx. are vastly different. But my point is, there are soem things that we can’t know)

  2. Avatar
    Judith  January 12, 2020

    Wow!

  3. Avatar
    Steve Clark  January 12, 2020

    Well said !

    I identify as a pantheist – there are obviously some deep connections between things in this universe. Some of the very atoms in our bodies came from stars that exploded – as Carl Sagan used to say we are made of Star Stuff. The universe seems to recycle things in a creative way.

    And I like to pray. So, for me, when I pray I am praying to that connection. That’s what the word God means to me.

    Thanks for sharing this !

    • Avatar
      btparker  May 16, 2020

      Awesome Steve….As an ex-christian, but still spiritual person, I agree with you.

  4. Avatar
    Hamilton  January 12, 2020

    you’re right, it’s hard to share your enthusiasm for your sudden realization. I would suggest that the notion that humans are the pinnacle of anything is rather far fetched given both our propensity to destroy our very own earth and thus our own species, not to mention the many other species we have already eradicated, and the rather obvious point that you have already made, the unknown universe is vastly greater than the known and it grows disproportionately more vast as our puny understanding grows. We can’t even begin to suggest the limits of our own knowledge. In scale we are barely different to an earthworm in awareness. Perhaps we are only far greater in our inflated idea of ourselves.

  5. Avatar
    kostya_petrenko  January 12, 2020

    I think the problem is that we jumble our personal emotional experience with a lot of complex things — consciousness, intelligence, reality, multiverse, space-time, etc — and then we get the type of religious feeling of being completely lost and in need of a simple emotionally satisfying answer such as that there are probably superior beings of a higher order and that they may be sort of like Gods, that we can somehow get in touch with those beings or that universal consciousness, etc.

    We don’t just want to admit that we don’t know. We want a way to know what we don’t know. And that’s where all religions and all the mistakes begin. Yes, we do not perceive reality as it is. Yes, our consciousness is a pretty complex phenomenon we do not fully understand. Yes, quantum mechanics is mysterious, and who knows if space-time is the ultimate reality at all? Science gives us the best tools to try to begin to answer those questions, and certainly our intuitions will fail in comparison. When science gives us some good clues, we can start imagining what those other orders of reality could be and if there could be any superior intelligences or consciousnesses.

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 12, 2020

    How can one possibly know for certain that something doesn’t exist? There’s always the possibility that you can’t detect it, didn’t recognize it when you saw it or perhaps had the wrong impression of what you were looking for.

    You’ve written a lot about how you became an atheist due to the problem of suffering. I’ve always thought the strongest counter argument to that is to challenge the definition most people (when discussing the problem of evil at least) have for God. Why is God defined as an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being? How many people throughout history would disagree with that definition, including over a billion people living today? It seems a fair definition for the Abrahamic religions, although the book of Genesis suggests it might not be accurate. In the Garden of Eden, God has to ask where Adam is (doesn’t sound omniscient). Before the flood, he says he regrets making mankind (suggesting he can make mistakes, meaning he isn’t perfect). What if “God” is simply a higher being(s) that created and/or influence the universe we live in? I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but why not? It’s fair to say that compelling evidence is lacking or flawed, but how do you disprove it?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      Nope, can’t disprove it. For me the question is always why I should believe it.

  7. Avatar
    thelad2  January 12, 2020

    Hey, Bart: I take your point on a philosophical level. Of course, that means that the potential superior life forces beyond our perceptions would face the same issue as us with un-perceived life forces beyond their cognitive abilities. And on it goes ad infinitum. As has been said, I can not say for certain that an invisible dragon isn’t watching me this very moment. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.

  8. Avatar
    jluce50  January 12, 2020

    I had a similar thought recently, though I like yours a little better. I was imagining reality from the perspective of a single neuron. This neuron might be aware of other neurons it communicates with, but the emergent properties of the sum total interactions between trillions of neurons would be vastly beyond its ability to comprehend. It would have no awareness of thoughts, art, love, pain, or anything else that is produced at the scope and scale of our everyday perception. Now, think of all of the energy in our universe and the constant interaction, the swirling, morphing, changing states of matter and energy in the known universe (and add the multiverse on top of that, if you wish). If there were emergent properties that arise out of all of that, we would be able to perceive and understand them no better than a single neuron could comprehend the emergence and nature of the consciousness that arises out of it’s own interactions.

  9. Avatar
    amonro  January 12, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this!

    1 Corinthians 8:1-3 comes to mind. Obviously, Paul was not an “agnostic” in the sense you are using the word above, but those verses seem to describe an attitude towards knowledge that is similar to what you are describing. Do you agree?

    The other reference that comes to mind is “Who’ll Stop The Rain” by Creedance Clearwater Revival. It not only describes a kind of agnosticism (the title of the song is really a question), it does so while describing suffering and human hubris (including what I take to be a reference to the Towel of Babel).

  10. Avatar
    nichael  January 12, 2020

    I’ve seen the debate on the meaning of “agnosticism” summarized this way:

    – “Weak Sense of Agnosticism”: I *DON’T* know if there is (or is not) a God.
    – “Strong Sense of Agnosticism”: I *CAN’T* know if there is (or is not) a God.

    (I’ll just add that the second, “strong”, form of the term is the sense in which the term was originally used.)

  11. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  January 12, 2020

    In the words of Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Regan “ Bart don’t go all wobbly on us” … just kidding.
    Reading your books and others has made me realize that there are things said in both bibles that were not said by the people who claim to have said them.
    That alone in my view is an indictment.
    We have millions of voters around the country ready to vote based upon supernatural beliefs and one theocrat ( who I went to college with) one step from the whitehouse as Vice President.
    When a theocrat takes control of the government it is no longer a government of the people but a cult.
    I thank you and Richard Dawkins and others for pointing out the things that you do.
    I am alarmed by the information and I hope other are as well.
    Thanks

  12. Avatar
    ksgm34  January 12, 2020

    Great insight! I for one have never considered things this way before! What kind of meditation do you do?

  13. Avatar
    lobe  January 12, 2020

    Your definition of atheist is the one that nearly all atheists accept, at least in my experience. I’m not sure how anyone could really be otherwise. How could someone possibly *know* there isn’t a god? I can’t even imagine what such evidence would look like!

    It may well be that if a higher being (God, alien, whatever) exists that I’d have no way of knowing. But I would still lack belief due to a lack of evidence, even if such evidence isn’t possible. Practically speaking, it doesn’t make much difference beyond enforcing humility.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      A lot of atheists argue that there is *not* a God. Including some of our most famous authors….

      • Avatar
        lobe  January 13, 2020

        I mean, the world’s a big place. Look hard enough and you can find someone who’s willing to argue for anything. But there’s a difference between arguing that there probably isn’t a god, and arguing that we can *know* there isn’t a god. All of the prominent authors I’m aware of (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Carroll, Barker, etc.) fall into this camp if they’re speaking precisely. Though admittedly most of those don’t put the same emphasis on the “agnostic” part of “agnostic atheism” that you (and, usually, I) do.

        Your view isn’t that unusual outside of the r/atheism subreddit, at least in my humble, limited experience.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 15, 2020

          My sense is that most of them think that if there is no “evidence” of God (i.e., scientific evidence), that’s the end of the discussion.

          • Avatar
            jwesenbe  February 1, 2020

            Dr. Ehrman:
            Richard Dawkins Belief Scale
            Strong Theist
            De-facto Theist
            Weak Theist
            Pure Agnostic
            Weak Atheist
            De-facto Atheist
            Strong Atheist
            So where do you thing you now fall?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 2, 2020

            I don’t think Agnostic and Atheist are on the same continuum. I think they are different scales. I’m a strong agnostic and a reasonably strong atheist. But completely committed to being allowed to change my mind.

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  January 13, 2020

        I think there is *not* a God to all intents and purposes and by every measure we know of. Complete absence of any evidence whatsoever over millennia and billions of people. Your insight then still holds, but for all practical purposes people can live their lives as if there isn’t anything supernatural. As rocks and maple trees (presumably) do.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  January 14, 2020

        I wonder if that’s really true. Even Dawkins does not say that he absolutely, positively knows for sure that God does not exist (He has a 7-point scale from 1: Absolutely certain God exists to 7: Absolutely certain God does not exist, an places himself at a 6). I would say that I “know” that God does not exist in the sense as I “know” that the Universe was not created by two lobsters named Keith and Roger and I’m fairly certain Dawkins would say the same. It’s a colloquial sense of “know”.

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  January 12, 2020

    Your view seems to closely resemble that of Thomas Huxley who coined the word “agnostic” to critique believers who claimed to know more than they could possibly know about matters divine. It would seem to preclude revelation which is predicated on the claim that God has provided ample evidence of himself.

    The definition of “atheist” you cite, “I know there is not a God”, is of course a common colloquial definition but I hold a rather more philosophically rigorous definition. Atheism is the provisional assertion that gods do not exist. I am not merely describing my inner state of belief; I am making a statement about the world. But such statements are always provisional, subject to revision or disconfirmation in light of new evidence. Certainty is not a valid category here for or against. In the light of a lack of evidence my default position is that such an entity or entities do not exist. To commit to a belief will require some compelling reason to do so. I don’t think this goes too far at all.

    Interesting discussion!

  15. Avatar
    Randybessinger  January 12, 2020

    To me anesthesia provides the answer of what it is like to function (breathe, heart beat etc.) but not be conscious. It isn’t even nothing…it is non-existence, not even nothingness. I have no idea if there is something beyond us, but I think I do understand what it is like to not even “be” but still be alive. It is that place where even nothingness doesn’t exist. I think all our “insights” too are just in our highly developed brain.

  16. Avatar
    cookiegirl  January 12, 2020

    Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t believe in God. And I don’t know if there is or isn’t a god. I suppose that’s the point of faith. Faith provides the abstract. It’s the idea of worship that I find troubling about God. Faith is far different than worship. It seems worshipping is where it goes off the rails for so may religions. Worship makes god real. Faith makes god possible.

  17. Avatar
    Matt2239  January 12, 2020

    The cockroach who warms himself on the orange light on my surge protector has no idea who or what I am, but I’m very much here nonetheless.

  18. Robert
    Robert  January 12, 2020

    While we might have no way of knowing about beings ‘above’ us, we are relatively unique in imagining that there are beings above us. All too often our religions embody unworthy anthropomorphic deities, but some of the better theologians, even some foundational ancient ones, have tried to go beyond a merely anthropomorphic deity. Why do you ask my name? I will be who I will be. Make no images of me. Do not use my name in vain. We will not even pronounce the ‘his’ denial to be named. It is truer to say that God does not exist than that he exists, and he cannot be defined within any genus. Theism and atheism are totally irrelevant to the question.

  19. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 12, 2020

    “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.”

    Very true.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  January 16, 2020

      Adding to my last comment—

      I may not know with absolute certainty that there’s a god or if that is even the appropriate term, but I still must acknowledge that there’s more to my existence than what science can prove at this time. I‘ve had too many experiences that tell me there’s more and more to come concerning humanity.

  20. Avatar
    gbsinkers  January 12, 2020

    Love this! Near the end you stated “And so we can use our brains to figure out everything else that exists. In principle, our brains can figure out *everything*.” Our ability to observe, reason, test is amazing but as you stated we have no idea what consciousness is or how it works. Our brains can do amazing things but they are also limited. Our brains tell our fingers to type these words on the keyboard but try having your brain tell your heart to stop for 5 seconds, or tell your body to stop storing fat because you need to drop 10 pounds, or to quit producing cancer cells or a myriad of other things. The weight loss thing is what got me starting on this line of thinking last year. As anyone who has dieted knows, when you start limiting the amount of calories you take in your body recognizes this and adjusts your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight. So while your conscious brain knows it needs to lose weight to be healthy your unconscious body overrides your conscious thoughts and sabotages your efforts. Turning back to your revelation, it reminds me a lot of this clip of Rob Bell talking about Edwin Abbot’s “flatland” and his conceptualization of it. Near the end of the clip is a great bit about a being that exists in 3 dimensional time so please watch to the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKph4t62IIc . Enjoy!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      Yup, read Abbot in depth many years ago. Very interesting.

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