A Case for Agnosticism

by Mac Tonnies

Many people secretly delight in the prospect of the unknowable. When a mystery is solved (or absence of mystery revealed), the resulting knowledge is greeted with uproar and discontent. Many religiously inclined people don't really want to know how the deity they worship operates--let alone if it actually exists or not. There is an unspoken suspicion that asking too many questions violates some cosmic statute; individual gods are not only jealous, it seems, but oddly insecure in their own existential status.

Our knowledge of the Cosmos' origins is admittedly inadequate, although profound leaps have been made in the last few centuries (each rejected by religious doctrine in a kind of tiresome ritual). The possibility that our universe is "someone else's" artifact is an enticing one worthy of thought. Theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking speculate that we may eventually be able to generate artificial universes.

For example, in Carl Sagan's novel "Contact," it's discovered that the seemingly random digits that comprise pi are an elaborate code scripted into the very fabric of existence, available to anyone with knowledge of basic geometry. The heroine discovers that the universe is the product of an "intelligence antedating the universe." But there is nothing intrinsically "divine" about this intelligence. Maybe, if it still existed in some unfathomable upward universal regress, it would exhibit something like the yearning for cosmic companionship that seems to be a hallmark of the human race throughout recorded history. (And probably even before: Neanderthals buried their dead in a religious manner. The craving for an afterlife is nothing new; apparently it isn't even confined to homo sapiens.)

But what of the very first universe, the one from which all others originate (assuming a finite regression)? After all, if we were to construct an artificial universe, we would do so using existing matter and energies. How could a Cosmos inhabited by beings capable of reflecting on this most fundamental of enigmas possibly arise from nothingness? But what do we mean by "nothingness?" How can nothingness exist? Rather than addressing this dilemma, an alarming ninety-five percent of the world's population chooses to invoke the supernatural.

It is as silly and unreasonable to condemn the potential existence of a Cosmos-creating being (or beings) as it is to embrace the idea by fleshing it out with ungrounded metalogic and superstition. "Faith" in the supernatural is disturbingly close to mental illness; the fact that it's widespread shouldn't scare us away from addressing it as such. Likewise, atheism requires a "faith" all its own: a rigorous refutation of deism. In any case, the notion of "divinity" is, I suspect, the most primitive of fictions.

Of course, both sides of the debate are typically smug in thinking they know something that the other doesn't. But there is so much we simply don't know, despite the anthropomorphic consolations of "holy" texts: Can regressive universes be created artificially? Are they formed naturally all the time? If other universes exist, can we visit them? Is the vast mottling of the cosmic microwave background radiation attributable to design or to quantum fluctuation during the first moments of the Big Bang? Will our universe continue to expand or will it eventually succumb to gravity and implode? If so, will it emerge again in renewed form? What are the implications of quantum mechanics' observer paradox? Does consciousness somehow define the physical world of which it is a part? Is consciousness "merely" a biological phenomenon confined to the brain or is it something more? In a universe governed by physical law, is the concept of "ethics" somehow degraded or invalidated?

Religions draw a sorrowful blank when confronted with the puzzles and horizons science has revealed in recent history. Similarly, science doesn't pretend to have the answers--yet. The triumph of scientific thought is its unflinching willingness to ask the questions certain doctrines consider best left unanswered--even if the findings do little to comfort their discoverers. (Albert Einstein never fully accepted quantum theory on the quasi-theological presumption that "God doesn't play dice with the universe.")

The notion of "God" can be a comforting and reassuring one, and our society invests little time questioning its validity. But just because something seems just or consoling doesn't grant it reality. The humility religions teach devotees to experience when faced with God is reproduced (albeit in a fundamentally different way) when faced with the absence of a perceivable God. I experience it when I consider the magnitude of time, or the depthless black between stars. Or, faced with the knowledge of my own self-awareness, wondering how such a magnificent and intangible faculty came to be.

What of the human spirit? If "spirituality" is defined as something transcending spacetime, then I suppose that I am a decidedly unspiritual person. But if spirituality can be equated to such familiar traits as intellect, emotion, foresight and empathy, then it's quite possible that even the most unreligious among us are capable of impressive feats of spirituality. In contrast, the visions of deities cranked out and perpetuated by generations of mystics appear dull and uninspiring: lazy caricatures that strip the universe of wonder not by explaining it, but by rendering it so suspiciously familiar.

I do not believe in "God" (whatever that word may ultimately mean), nor do I feel the need for a God, either to make sense out of the Cosmos or to justify my existence on a sometimes intolerably severe planet. Until the existence of a proto-universal intelligence can be empirically demonstrated, it remains an unknown. For the time being, jumping to conclusions of either polarity is an act of intellectual cowardice.

[ Start | Mac | Book Reviews | Esoterica | Transhumanism | Literature | Cultural Phenomena | Dead Letter Office ]