Gospel & Universe

Ontology Precedes Epistemology

This page suggests that being is more crucial to the human condition than seeming or philosophizing.

I Know Not Seems - Jean-Paul Revisited - With Flu, at 100 Degrees - This Quintessence of Dust


I Know Not Seems

Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not seems. / 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, / Nor customary suits of solemn black, / [...that] can denote me truly. These indeed seem, / For they are actions that a man might play: / But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (Hamlet 1.2.78-89) 

To be is always better than not to be

although no cables stretch from one side to the next

(it's only in children's tales 

that one can go through a mirror

or enter a magic wardrobe

that takes you, as if in a conjurer's trick

to another world, wide as England)


You can never see both sides at once

unless you’re like that little boy in the movie

who has a magic sixth sense

I see dead people

or unless you believe the religious dreamers

whose dreams seem to mean all sorts of things

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28.12)

It’s so hard to see the things they dream about

that one might conclude there are more things in the starry heavens

and on the watery Earth than are dreamt of in their theology


In the mean time

while we're still wearing these inky cloaks

here on the lowest rung

dreams are only dreams 

and to be is not to seem


And so it seems to me that being 

not seeming

may be the most authentic thing to be


All those other numbers

the 7 veils of mysticism, the 12 tribes

and the 666 evils of the secular world

all dissolve upon closer inspection


Yet still, they sound so fine

when they add up to Perfection

and when Plato’s mathematics climb

like spiritual bodies

in a laddered Resurrection


Jean-Paul Revisited

Agnostics share the existentialist sense that we have no idea what the universe is about. Nor do we know the meaning of own own existence. In Words (1963), Sartre says that "Without more precise information, no one, starting with me, knew why I came to screw around on this earth." In Nausea (1938), he puts it even more fundamentally and succinctly: "the world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence." 

Agnostics share with existentialists the notion that our lives in this world around us — this seventy-odd years on planet Earth — may be all we've got. Existentialists would say it is all we've got, whereas agnostics would say it’s probably all we've got. Nevertheless, in both cases this awareness can make life seem absurd, but it can also make life seem extremely precious.


With Flu, at 100 Degrees


Even in the harshest light
with pounding head and bloodshot eyes
I'd rather see

In death we may be the same as limestone
or silicon in space ten billion years away
so breathe, albeit smog-choked air

Those who live are here to feel the moment
and give it meaning
for in the vast scripts and logs of time
numbers are but numbers and cannot breathe
so smell the moment's air
though it smells like burnt rubber
and doesn’t care

This Quintessence of Dust

Essentialists, on the other hand, believe 1) that physical existence isn’t all we’ve got, and 2) that there's a meaning to your life, the key to which lies in the discovery of your soul and divinity. They believe in spiritual realities that exist beyond the individual body with its thoughts and needs, and beyond the body politic with its ideologies and laws. They believe in the higher reality of the soul, and the higher dictates of Holy Law. For the orthodox and the fundamentalist, these dictates include details of geography and history, astronomy and long stretches time. For instance, many believe that God chose the Hebrews and Jesus to deliver His Plan, which includes a code of laws and beliefs, personal redemption from sin and death, and a timeline that extends from Creation to The End of Time. 

For the less orthodox — many average believers, ecumenicals, mystics, etc. — these dictates emanate more generally from a higher Realm, which is beyond the understanding of humans and doesn't have to be specific in space and time. Many believe that God has touched humanity, but they aren’t sure that God limits His actions to Hebrews, Jesus, the ten commandments, and the Rapture. Nevertheless, like fundamentalists, they believe essence precedes existence. The soul comes before the body, just as God comes before the universe. The physical universe is important because it’s the material through which God brings to fulfilment His divine Scheme of Things.

Agnostics, if they believe anything, believe that our appreciation of existentialism and essentialism depends on the state of our awareness, or state of being, at any given moment. Our state of being differs according to such things as 1) where we come from — our human and family history, our DNA, etc., 2) our time of life — childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or old age, 3) our present location — whether we're at work, at home, on a roller-coaster, on a beach, etc., 4) time of day — morning, afternoon, or evening, 5) who we're with — whether we're alone or with friends, parents, co-workers, etc, 6) our present situation — whether we're waking, sleeping, eating, making love, arguing with our boss, etc., and 7) the hormones and chemicals that are circulating in our brains and bodies. For instance, if we're born in Waziristan we're likely to believe in Allah and the Koran; if we're born in Killarney, we're likely to believe in Jesus, Saint Mary, and the Bible. As children, we don't actively formulate our philosophies, and when we're 90 we're doing well if we can remember our names. When we get up in the morning and haven't yet had any food or coffee, we may believe in charity and forgiveness, yet we cannot appreciate these concepts in the same way we can an hour later sipping coffee with a friend at Starbucks. 

For agnostics, systems of meaning (the domain of epistemology) are determined by states of being (the domain of ontology). In other words, ontology precedes epistemology.

Agnostics remain open to what both existentialists and essentialists are saying. Like existentialists, they believe that we’re limited by our physical bodies and yet we have the freedom to become engagé, that is, to become involved in the body politic and world around us. Agnostics are also open to the essentialist idea that we aren't limited to our physical bodies (that our spirits transcend these) and that these spirits exist within a greater framework of spirits, gods, demons, etc. These spirits may even exist within the even greater framework of God. Agnostics suspect that these two states — the existentialist's disbelief and the essentialist's belief — aren't mutually exclusive, and that we shift between them — either momentarily or from one longer period of time to the next. We might feel trapped, rebellious or engagé for any given amount of time, and then feel liberated, reconciled, and connected the next. These feelings and thoughts might depend on where and how we were raised, what stage of life we’re in, what our present state of mind is, whether we're hungry or sleepy, etc.

Our bodies may define and limit us, and in some ways they trap us — in the existential machine or in the darkness of this low world, ce bas monde, far from the light of Heaven. Yet our bodies throb with life, thoughts, urges, inner visions, and dreams. Inspired by the outer world, these vibrations return to the outer world, having tripped through the circuits of the nervous system, the currents of the blood, and the caverns of the skull. Agnostics think of the body as synonymous with being or life. Its vibrancy is proven by the fact that as it succumbs to entropy so do our thoughts and feelings. For instance, for the last two years I've watched my father go from a coherent, happy man to an incoherent hallucinating shell of his former self. All because of the chemicals that circulate, or no longer circulate, in his body.

Made from the water, earth, and air of the outer world, our bodies are constantly drinking in this outer world — drinking it, eating it, seeing it, hearing it, touching it. The neurons of our eyes, ears, and hands bring the outer world into the circuits and chambers of our bodies. And, simultaneously, our bodies stretch outward so that we become part of the body politic — from talking with friends to managing the systems that provide economic and cultural meaning to our existence. From the body to the body politic, we’re porous by nature: the inner body slides into the outer, and the outer body slips into the inner. 


Next: The Permeable Self

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