Gospel & Universe
The Crystal Ball of Science
This page argues that agnosticism is closer than positivism to the open spirit of science. It also uses a personal case of intuition to explore the distinction between experience and doubt.
Scientific Philosophers - All Things Large and Small - Man's Best Friend
Agnostics might be called scientific philosophers, since they experiment with the nature of being (ontology) and the nature of knowledge (epistemology). They realize that they're trapped beneath layers of perception, compounded by history and ideology. They realize that they're separated from the true nature of things by the veil of their own being. They realize that they're in no position to make any final judgment.
While atheists have a great affinity for science, agnostics are more scientific than atheists on one key point: in experimenting with God and the soul they don’t predict the outcome. They don’t say, Based on observation and experience -- my own and that of other people -- I can conclude that God and the soul don't exist. Agnostics may have various hypotheses, yet they haven't turned these into theses or conclusions. They may lean toward the godless or the mystical, yet they don’t believe these leanings prove any sort of absolute truth. They recognize that these so-called truths, however deeply we may fear or hope them to be true, can't be verified. In this sense they have a deep respect for science, at the core of which lies the quest to find verifiable truth.
Atheists, on the other hand, foretell the outcome of life, as if they had some sort of crystal ball. They affirm that there's no afterlife before they've actually died. And yet, physicists discuss the possibility of dimensions beyond the four that are common to our existence (the three dimensions of space, and the fourth dimension of time). Some even posit up to thirteen dimensions. Some astronomers speculate that the mass and energy pulled into a black hole implodes into a white hole that leads to another dimension. Given the mind-boggling discoveries of science, and given the mysteries that remain, it may be fair to weigh probabilities, yet it's premature rule out possibilities.
No one knows the ultimate nature of the physical universe, much less of any hypothetical metaphysical realm. Huxley's point is worth repeating:
Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the "bosh" of heterodoxy [anti-theology] is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy [theology], because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.
How can atheists be sure there's no essence that escapes our physical measurement -- especially since the concept of essence precludes measurement? How can they be sure there's no connection between the waves in our brains and the waves, forces, or fields that drift though the interstices of subatomic matter right under our noses, let alone float through the immeasurable distances of interstellar space? Anyone who professes to know the exact nature of the relationship between the universe (with its astounding mysteries, from gravity to dark matter and infinite space) and the body (with its intricate fusion of bones and muscles and its trillions of cerebral connections) knows more than the most learned cosmologist and neuroscientist.
Yet just because atheists can't disprove spirit or God, it doesn't follow that theists are right in what they say. There's a big difference between A) leaving the door open to a spiritual realm and B) accepting a specific doctrine about the spiritual realm -- especially if the doctrine is 1) countered by other religious doctrines, 2) accompanied by miracles that can't be verified, and 3) determined within specific historical circumstances that lack solid foundations (as with biblical references, from Adam to Moses).
The absence of proof denying God doesn't prove God, nor does it validate specific versions of God.
All Things Large and Small
We don't understand the brain or the cosmos well enough to rule out some sort of subtle -- even etherial -- connection between the two. The mechanistic computer model of the brain goes a long way in explaining thought, yet it doesn't necessarily explain how electrical impulses and mechanistic operations turn into emotion. Given that computers don't have emotions, it's hard to see how the constant interaction between thought and feeling -- which is after all the human experience -- can be understood strictly in terms of a mechanical circuit model, even if one complicates this model with bio-chemistry. The quandary of human emotion is crucial to the question of belief, since belief is as much a function of what people feel to be true as what they reason to be true.
The more we find out about the small and the large -- from common things like gravity and light to uncommon things like black holes and dark matter -- the more we see that we don’t see the complete picture. The brain's made of atomic and subatomic particles, and the world, like the universe, is awash in waves and particles. Can we state categorically that the brain doesn't connect, vibrate, or otherwise interact with other waves, fields, planes, or dimensions? From a scientific viewpoint, interaction with a higher dimension doesn't seem likely, yet scientists have learned not to rule out the unlikely. There may be little probability, yet there is always a possibility.
To categorically rule out essentialist possibilities repeats the kind of mistake made by 1) Medieval theists when they assumed that the earth couldn't circle the sun, and 2) Modern astronomers when they assumed that the Milky Way wasn't only one of many galaxies. In these cases, both the theists and the scientists eventually admitted the error of their assumptions.
Two things suggest that scientists are closer to agnostics than to atheists:
1) Unlike atheists, scientists and agnostics have learned not to rule out something just because it seems unlikely.
2) Unlike both theists and atheists, scientists and agnostics actively welcome the questioning of all their assumptions.
Both agnostics and atheists rely on the methodology of science, yet agnostics are open to the possibility that verification -- of God or soul -- may occur with reference to other planes or dimensions, or to other ways and means that we don’t understand in scientific terms. We may not understand them now, yet we may understand them in the future. Or, we may not understand them now, and we may never understand them.
The scientist would of course like to apply the scientific method whenever possible, but there are plenty of scientists who believe in God and the soul. These scientists accept that at the moment there are no physical explanations for the things they believe. There are also scientists who don't believe in God, or remain agnostic on all points theistic. Science, one must remember, is a method, not a belief system. It has established practices, but no rites. If it can be called a philosophy, it doesn't require its practitioners to predict the range or the nature of the things it will explore.
The hard-core atheist makes a fetish of science, turning it into the philosophy of positivism, in which truth can only be known through scientific verification. Yet scientists admit that science can’t at this moment explain many fundamental things, let alone explain everything. What exactly is the nature of gravity? There may be waves, forces, or fields drifting through us or around us that we may not even be aware of. We may be like the nineteenth century astronomers who weren't aware of the gamma rays travelling through them (like spirits travelling through the universe?) and who weren't aware of the Van Allen belt of magnetism that shields the earth from the sun's radiation (like God's protective arm in the vastness of outer space?).
To be fair, my argument works both ways: the atheist is correct that most things we imagined to be mysteries have in time been explained in physical terms. Yet it doesn't follow rationally -- and even less emotionally -- that our sense of love, being, soul or God must only be explained in purely physical terms.
Man's Best Friend
To explore this question further, I'll recount a personal experience I had several years ago. One afternoon I felt a very deep compassion for a good friend, even though I didn't have a clue where the depth of feeling came from. Later I found out that his dog -- who he loved very much -- had died that afternoon. I have to admit that I'm pretty oblivious to dogs, and that I wasn't aware that the dog was sick or even old enough to make death likely. The friend lived across town and I had no communication with him at all for several weeks. Yet still I felt this deep feeling of sorrow -- all connected very specifically to him. That afternoon I explained it away, thinking that it was just some flood-plain of memories, some complex overloaded loop of chemicals and neurons in my brain.
Thinking back on this experience now, the lack of any clear explanation makes me wonder about three things.
First, while this experience hasn't lead me to believe in a spiritual world, it does make me wonder if what others claim to be spiritual or metaphysical might actually have something to it. The soft agnostic in me accepts that others may experience spiritual or metaphysical things that I haven't experienced. Yet the hard agnostic in me says that even if their experiences were verified, it doesn't validate any larger claims they might make. I would still be skeptical of any claims about miracles or higher Truths because these lie beyond their individual experience and because these involve phenomena which contradict everything we see in the physical world -- for example, a virgin giving birth, or a man transforming water into wine. There's a clear distinction between 1) apparent metaphysical phenomenon which people say they experienced personally, and 2) metaphysical phenomenon which people have not experienced personally yet which they take on faith. The first involves ontology, that is, the state of our being which is by nature personal and subjective, while the latter involves epistemology, that is, the system of knowledge or meaning that we derive from 1) our subjective experiences, 2) our interpretation of these experiences, and 3) the larger system we use to contextualize or universalize our experiences.
We can claim that a metaphysical experience is true if we actually experienced it. Yet we can't expect others to believe that our experience is true in terms of their personal experience: after exploring the circumstances, others may conclude that our experience was a product of chance or delusion. Even less can we expect others to believe that the things we conclude from our experience are also true -- especially if we tie these conclusions to a bigger metaphysical system of meaning.
I suspect that many agnostics implicitly agree with the idea that ontology precedes epistemology. By this I mean that the ontological state of our experience and awareness is something we experience and can't explain away; what lies beyond -- in the realm of our interpretations and in the epistemological systems we use to explain our experiences -- is more doubtful. I would go further and say that epistemological systems are riddled by doubt. Perhaps even riddled to death by doubt.
Second, I appreciate that my inexplicable experience may be more common than I thought. For instance, my older brother -- a hard-core atheist -- can't explain why he knew the precise moment one of our grandmothers died. Such personal claims or anecdotes don't prove anything, yet let's say for the sake of argument that this type of experience could be verified. Let's say that something intangible -- an emotion felt on one side of a city -- caused a repeated and verifiable effect on the other side of a city. If this was verified by the scientific method -- through close observation and repetition -- scientists would accept that emotion can travel in some mysterious way, or that emotion can transcend time and space (if one could verify that the cause occurred at exactly the same time as the effect). Atheists, on the other hand, would insist that the experiment is flawed or the cause and effect can be explained in physical terms. Yet in this (very hypothetical) case, the atheist's belief in material causation would be a belief, not a fact. The fact would derive from the verified experiment, not from the belief that the experiment's observation and verification must be explained in physical terms.
Third, I wonder what might follow if such experiences could be verified. Would such verification unite the deep divide between spirit and matter, essence and existence, the ideal and the real? In his essay, The Metaphysical Poets (1921), T.S. Eliot writes about the unification of thought and feeling -- in what he calls unified sensibility. Could one experience a unified sensibility that included thought and feeling within the fabric of a physical world that slipped beyond its own form, then merged back into physicality? Once one had gone back and forth enough times, would the metaphysical energy or essence -- or whatever it might be -- become part of our habitual experience? Atheists would resist this speculation, but scientists would be eager to put it to the test.
It's not unscientific to acknowledge the limits of science. Agnostics respect this. They've no interest in turning science into a dogma by cloaking it in the pseudo-religious doctrines of infallibility or omniscience. They certainly don't want to pretend that this imaginary omniscience extends into the future or the afterlife, as if science were some sort of crystal ball.
The epistemological aspect of science is referred to as the scientific method. It isn't called the scientific belief. It's a way or method of verification, not a way of verifying a pre-established doctrine -- a positivist gospel, or what Huxley calls the bosh of heterodoxy.