Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster

Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster
"Sorry guys...you haven't seen a small metal ball with wings flapping around by chance, have you?""

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Embracing mystery to have certainty

What attracted me to the label "atheist" to begin with was what I perceived as a certain level of intellectual honesty. On one hand, you had people who claimed to know very specific things about all kinds of invisible beings that they called Gods. People could tell you their personality traits, what foods they liked and what drinks they would reject, their favorite numbers, their superpowers and with whom they thought we should or should not sleep.   I admired the atheists' movement for saying, "How do you know any of this?" and for having the courage to admit that we have no known basis to believe in any of that.

My my, how things have changed.   Recently I have wondered if I should continue with the "atheist" label. Not because I feel that my outlook is no longer atheist. (And not because of the so-called Atheist+ controversy.) It's just that, to be honest, some attitudes among many self-proclaimed atheists and naturalists are starting to annoy me. I feel as if we are often guilty of the same dogmatism that we criticize in many versions of literal monotheistic or polytheistic faith, and often for the same reasons.

Many dogmatic monotheists who claim to take the Bible or Qur'an or other holy book reject phenomena such as evolution of life forms, for example. They do this because they do not want to deal with the emotional consequences of accepting a truth in the world that contradicts their established worldview. There is emotional attachment to the certainty of knowing what one knows, and the identity and social connections one forms around it which gives them an incentive to exclude information.

As it turns out, many so-called atheists or naturalists are the same way. I say this not because atheists and naturalists loudly defend science--science is a very good thing and has given much to humanity. However, science answers only three things to any question asked of it: yes, no, or I don't know. Whether magical practices can have an effect on the outside world fall into the third category, although many atheists would attribute it to the second. If someone casts a money spell, and they note no change in their finances, many atheists would smugly deride him or her for believing in irrational non-sense. If a change was noted, many atheists would chalk it up to coincidence. And if the person consistently has success in money spells, many atheists would either consider the person to be delusional or imply that the psychological effect trained the subject to make more sound financial decisions, hence increasing his or her revenue. Those are all good hypotheses, and they may be true. However, it doesn't change the fact that there is insufficient data to draw a definitive conclusion. I think that part of the reason many atheists decide not to leave it at that is because it produces emotional discomfort in a similar fashion that evolution does for some religious fundamentalists.

This world is more complicated than any of us have understood and possibly will ever understand.  For proof of that, we have only to look at ourselves. Most, if not all of us, are at some point troubled by our own inner worlds. We do not know why or how we feel certain emotions, which are often conflicting and contradictory. We have crises of conscience and identity. We either hesitate to act or leap into action, often against our conscious will. If consequences arise out of our behavior, we do our best to explain it to ourselves after the fact, all the while knowing that we still might repeat the same behavior that got us into trouble in the first place. Our scientific understanding of our own consciousness and memories is still  limited, despite the lifelong experience we all have with them and their undisputed interest. So is it really a surprise that comprehensive scientific explanations of dark matter, dark energy, abiogenesis and quantum mechanics continue to elude us? We still can't explain ourselves.

Some respond to this dilemma by claiming that we will certainly one day explain all of human experience through our existing scientific conceptual frameworks. Some deny the reality of any experience or belief that cannot explained (but not disproved) through existing scientific frameworks, and assume anyone claiming otherwise to be either delusional, ignorant or lying. They would justify this by claiming that many people have been proven to be just that while highlighting the dangers of sacrificing "rationality" for the emotional comfort of religion.

What is ironic about this stance is that it actually shows a lot of emotionality and subjectivity.  With such pending mysteries in areas which are so fundamental, it seems silly to not even be open to the possibility of even very fundamental ideas that we have about the universe being completely turned on their head in the future.  It is also seems risky to attempt to usurp "rationality" or "objectivity".    Whether we like it or not, none of us are completely objective.  We are all influenced and limited by a lifetime of subjective experiences.   

Some people would say that we should still strive to be as objective as possible in all circumstances.  But there's a tiny problem with that stance as well.  It's not tenable for any human being; it doesn't work. There's a reason why Descartes said "I think, therefore I am" to explain consciousness.  It may technically be a non-explanation, but it's a hell of a lot more satisfying than "No double-blind study shows that I think, so who knows if I am?".  My thoughts, my feelings, my experience are as real to me as anything else in the external world.  So I have to find a way to fit them into my conscious worldview.  An explanation of the world that completely excluded them would be pretty useless to me. 

So I think that the most tenable stance is to accept the truth---there is mystery out there, and subjectivity is a source of workable truth.  Objectivity doesn't assign a purpose to life? Well, I guess my subjectivity will have to make one.  But not in opposition to objectivity, even though it may seem that way.  It's simultaneously holding two ideas, even contradictory ideas, that leads to truth. It leads to mystery, which leads to certainty at the same time.

So are you a polytheist, an atheist, a pantheist, an agnostic or a monotheist? You could be them all at the same time.  That's how you understand the universe.  Just like a 3-dimensional object can look different from different angles or perspectives, the universe can be validly understood from different perspectives which are all valid and all limited at the same time. Realizing that it can validly be understood in many ways leads to greater understanding.  Not understanding makes you understand. 

You know, I think I'll keep the "atheist witchcraft" label.   It's contradictory, but it highlights that simultaneous contradiction can lead to truth.  And I'm cool with that.


  1. Well written and well said, AW.

    I would go a little further about Descartes' argument, myself: it's not only that it's comforting. I think it is also a very intelligent standard (essentially "if we are basing knowledge on observable evidence, and thought is evidence of a conscious being, I have observed evidence of at least one conscious being").

    To that end, I've never found it as week as some other philosophers do.

  2. I just wanted to leave a comment here and let you know that I have just gone through the entire contents of your blog and have found it to be rather inspiring. I too am an atheist and I came from a very conservative Southern Baptist evangelical upbringing. It has been a long while since you have posted, but I hope that you get this and know that your words are still effective in at least getting people thinking. :)