Knowing and not-knowing

2,000 words

The ancient Platonists proclaimed the unknowability of the “One” based on an analysis of the concept of Being.  The concept was absolutely universal and included everything that existed.  Since it included everything, Being was not different from anything and therefore could not be the object of human know­ledge which functioned by distinguishing one predicate from another.  The human mind knew realities by genus and specific difference, and “Being” had neither. Hence “God” could not be known by the human mind.  The concept of Being justified not only the characteristics of “God’s” nature that were derived from an analysis of the concept, but it also explained why no one knew “God”: he was unknowable.

If, now, I have decided that I cannot use “Being” as the ultimate definition of “God” anymore because, in contrast to Plato, I do not believe that concepts represent independent entities, where does that leave me? I not only have no basis for listing the properties of the divine nature, but I cannot explain why no one knows “God.” The characteristics of “God” that were associated with an analysis of the concept of Being are pure conjecture with no basis in fact. Not only do I not know “God,” I now realize that I don’t even know what “God” is supposed to look like. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for.

What am I left with? Experience. Relationship to the source of my existence ― Religion ― is not grounded in an intellectual premise, an “eternal conceptual truth,” it is just a emergent fact, the result of millennia of human living. My contention is that after all this time we know that we don’t know. We trust what we don’t know. The claims of “divine revelation” made by the various traditions across the globe all shows signs of fabrication or projection. They may legitimately be said to broker trust, but as know­ledge, none are reliable. Of course it is undeniable that we are related to the source of our existence which we have no choice but to trust, but what it is no one has ever known.

I also know that we have elaborated all the tools that one might need in finding what I am seeking. There is no new telescope, no “God” particle, no future re-arrange­ment of concepts, that will get us any closer to knowing what the truth is. That means we know that we will never know. At some point after ages upon ages of repeated confirmation, these facts become uncontestable, undebatable, indisputable ― not in some absolute sense of “principle” that would only be true in a Platonic universe where “ideas” had their own independent eternal reality, but in the real sense of a living organism having learned through experience what it can and can’t do on this earth, what is real and what is not real in real time. The human organism knows it will never see “God.”

There are many similar things we know beyond the shadow of a doubt. That we will all die, for example. It’s absurd for logic to insist that such a claim is “limited” because all we have to go on is past experience. It is said that no past experience no matter how universal and invariable can preclude the possibility that somebody alive today will not die. I’m sorry. After all this time anyone who would seriously make that statement is either a very young child, insane or acting with the sophistry that only abstract logic allows. (I leave out intentional fraud or pathological sub-conscious self-deception, which includes mass religious hysteria). It confirms the ordinary people’s mistrust of abstract thought. Similarly, I contend that it is as solid a conclusion as can be drawn about anything in life that “God” (a word I use reluctantly to refer to the origin, explanation and ultimate destiny of our material cosmos, including us) is simply and conclusively not knowable. The experience is so universal and so invariable that it effectively exonerates those who believe there is no “God.” There is nothing unreasonable about being an atheist. “God” is simply not there to be known.

Someone might object: then why talk about “God” at all? If your argument from experience is so compelling, why doesn’t the experience of never seeing “God” constitute a proof of “his” non-existence and therefore that the entire religion-project is just fantasy?

I would answer that I am very intentionally avoiding the word and concept “God” because I do not believe that the source of our being-here is credibly revealed by either mediaeval conceptual analyses or ancient tribal myths, which have been the source of the idea of “God.” I believe the existence (and character) of our existential source is revealed by the experience of being-here. Religion, in my view, is a collective human project of gratitude and appreciation at the fact of our existence as a family of human beings. That includes a trusting relationship to our source ― which is objectively established by the mere fact that we exist as we are ― even though we do not know what that source is.  We trust what we do not know because we are in awe at what we are and that we are-here.

There is an appropriateness in beginning with the results of human experience and not with somebody’s abstract philosophical “principle” or some ancient tribe’s imaginary “revelation” from another world, because the subsequent elaboration of the religious project continues to be the ongoing development of an empirical relationship occurring in this world ― further experience. Religion is our embrace of ourselves here and now ― our joy in being-here alive, our love and compassion for one another ― that is inseparable from our trusting relationship to our source, for it is all one and the same thing. Let me explain.

If I know that I am not the source of my being-here (because I didn’t put myself here, design my body or mind, and I can’t prevent myself from not being-here) and yet I am-here now, that means my source also has to be-here now because I am dependent on my source even though I do not know what it is. I have to trust it with my very existence. The source of my being-here must necessarily be contemporaneously co-extensive and commensurate with my being-here.

We are the human individuals we are because we are biological organisms. We are made of the living matter that enlivens and delights us. That living organic matter, whatever else might exist in the chain of causes responsible for us being-here, is the most proximate and it is taxative — i.e., it is exhaustive, there is no other evident source. Even if there were some unseen immaterial mind, some invisible rational designer-reality behind and beneath the matter that forms the parameters of our organism and the horizon of our lives, that source has chosen matter ― our matter, evolving autonomously in real time on this earth ― as the exclusive and impenetrable interface between us. From our side of the divide, matter is all we see, it is all we have ever seen. There is nothing else visible. Living matter is clearly the most proximate source of our being-here, but we also have to be prepared: it may very well be the only one. Are we willing to concede that our source may be exactly what it appears to be? Whatever it happens to be, we have no choice but to trust it with our material survival.

Whatever else might constitute our reality, we are matter in a world of matter and our survival is a material achievement. Matter is the reality we must live with. There is no way out. That is a truth we have learned from experience, and a truth that leads to more experience. Living matter is either our source or it is the exclusive instrumental extension of our source, its unique agent.

Religion, then, following this empirical path, shows itself to be the continuing evolution of human experience; it starts from experience and goes from experience to experience. There is no line of division between ongoing human experience and some fixed eternal “truths,” or some unchanging immaterial lawmaker residing in another world. So-called “eternal truths” are idealist fictions, the results of reifying our ideas, of believing our “thinking” somehow belonged to the world of the gods and was not an emergent property of matter. And the “revealed commands,” similarly, are in fact the result of millennia of human experiments in social living ― the wisdom of humankind ― imputed to “God” because they were “sacred.” (Yes, they are sacred. They are sacred to us because they are precious lessons learned from experience that allow us to survive and thrive as a family of human beings, not because they are the “will” of some non-human “person” who is telling us something we could not discover on our own.)

One of the great lessons we have learned is that we have virtually no control over the conditions of our lives. We are totally dependent on the near-perfect interlock between the matter of our organisms and the material in our surroundings on this planet: food, air, water, temperature, materials for shelter, etc. We emerged step by step from the very same earth and never lost our umbilical connection to it. Our destiny is inescapably tied to the material matrix that spawned and sustains us. As we are continuing to learn that the life-support systems on earth are fragile and vulnerable to our ever more demanding presence, our impact as matter on matter becomes undeniable. We can no longer afford fairy tales of belonging to another world. The very fact that our stories tell us that we need to die in order to get to that other world, should be enough of a clue of their origin in fantasy. It’s not hard to understand these imaginings or to have compassion on those who cherish them; they are the daydreams of people who feel trapped. But there is no way out.

 

So it begins to dawn on us that, in fact, we know all we need to know, because what we know about our source is all there is to know. There is nothing else to know. What we complain about not knowing are the imaginary projections of belonging to other worlds that do not exist and not belonging to this one as biological organisms that live and die. What we don’t know is not something that can be known, because it’s not there, and all we need to know is right here in plain sight.  We are-here together, with these incredible, astonishing bodies and the minds they evolved, having arisen from and remaining nested in an earth-matrix teeming with so many life-forms that we have still not been able to name and count them   . . .   and all of it spinning through an expanse of space so vast that we cannot translate the numbers that measure it into images that fit in our heads  . . . filled with spectacular galactic structures made of the exactly the same matter that constitutes our bodies which we are just beginning to explore and understand. That our human organisms emerged from all that tells us all we need to know about our source. If it could do that, it can do anything.

Those who see religion as an escape to another world are unwilling to look at the height and depth, the breadth and intensity of what we are and where we live. They refuse to acknow­ledge that this world is transcendently sacred, in itself, as it is, with us in it as we are, without reference to some other world or some other life, or even some source other than the living matter which constitutes us all.

Religion should be our shout of joy at being-here now, being together, and being free. We are the evolved product of living matter’s total autonomy. Living matter put us here. It can be trusted. Living matter continues to constitute us exclusively, sharing with us its own dynamism for more life, its own trial-and-error autonomy, leaving us free to love, to create, to sit quietly weeping in astonishment at what we are. We are living, autonomous, self-transcending material organisms because we are made of living, autonomous, self-transcending matter.

We know all this. It’s all in plain sight. None of it is hidden, esoteric or arcane. Unless what we’re really looking for is a way out, what more do we need to know?

a confession

2,000 words

In response to comments from readers, and despite the risk of accusations of duplicity, I would like to confess that I am really operating on two levels simultaneously and never refer to it. On one level, I try to elaborate a plausible physical/metaphysical worldview that is consistent with all the relevant data: modern scientific thinking, the core features of the religious legacy of our ancestors and the common consensus of the global community. The result of that work is a world­view that I call Transcendent Materialism. Its details can be found described and defended throughout these blogs and in my books. I work hard at assembling that conceptual system and try to cover all the bases, fill in the corners and tie up loose ends as much as I can. My goal is to construct a synthetic worldview that is consistent within itself and synchronizes with all aspects of reality as we understand it today.

I am convinced that there is an underlying concurrence among those sources which I try to uncover and bring to light. I am convinced it accurately represents reality. But I am quite conscious of the fact that it is a theory. I am only concocting something that is plausible. It is conjecture, well founded, perhaps and sincerely held, but still guesswork. I do it because I feel it offers a better explanation for our cosmos than all others that I have encountered. But at the end of the day I am well aware that I don’t know. The value of such a worldview, in my own mind and intention, is that it will be recognized as indisputably more plausible than the medieval world­view offered by Christianity since the 13th century to insulate the absolutist dogmas which are central to its theocratic pretensions. I want to make clear now, if it has not been obvious before this, that my primary purpose is to challenge arrogant Christian claims to absolute truth ― claims that have been used to justify the western domination of the globe.

Undermining the Catholic/Christian pretense to supremacy is the whole point of the exercise. At the end of the day I am hoping that people will come to the realization that Christianity’s absolutist declarations are self-serving and of dubious credibility. I am not saying its teachings are lies; the motivations are sincere. But I would like everyone to understand that, like the rest of us, the Christian Churches simply do not know. Christianity, like all other religions, offers symbols for the unknown source of our material universe and ourselves as its progeny. The best we can say is that some of that symbolic imagery evokes an attitude of awe and trust ― what I believe is an authentic human response to being-here.

 

Having said that, on another level altogether (the level where I personally live) my view on the unknowability of “God” implies a very simple response. I know that everything I write and most of what I read is speculation. I know that I know nothing. Beneath the sophisticated guesswork there is a very simple bedrock, and what can be said definitively about it is limited to very few words, for it is not knowledge about absent or invisible things, it is the description of the terms of a surrender.

For me not knowing is more than just the way things happen to be. Rather, it’s because things happen to be that way that there needs to be religion. Religion is not necessary in any absolute sense. Religion is necessary only because we do not know. Religion is the symbolic interface with a reality that is beyond the reach of our knowledge. Theology begins here. Far from being an obstacle or a liability, not knowing is the indispensable condition for the existence, authenticity and vitality of the religious quest. Religion is the poetic representation of a living presence that we experience in our material organisms but do not know.

We do not know the answers to the most fundamental questions of the source and ground of reality (which includes us), that have engaged enquiry for as long as humankind has been-here. But rather than a problem and source of contention and conflict, I maintain not-knowing defines and directs religion: it guides it. It’s a corrective that eliminates the wrong directions and false turns that have historically resulted in competing claims among traditions that have caused such violent conflict among us. In strictly methodological terms, The theology of unknowing that I am proposing is not a speculative system, it is a guide for making practical choices in the absence of knowledge. It is a religious pragmatism based on the solid conclusions of experience recognized by everyone, everywhere and at all times since the emergence of humankind on this planet. The authentic human response to LIFE is not knowledge and control but gratitude and trust. Growth in human authenticity (holiness) is growth in those attitudes and corresponding behavior.

Theology should be focused on clarifying and specifying what the terms of surrender are. Not-knowing, unlike “dogma,” is not a symbol or a conjecture or a plausible guess. Not knowing is a raw naked fact, perhaps the most significant and undeniable fact bearing upon our relationship to our source. Theology, insofar as it is committed to discovering and submitting to the truth, is built on this first and indisputable fact: we do not know. Religious universalism derives directly and unconditionally from that. No one knows . . . no one has ever known.

APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

The word “apophatic” is of Greek origin and is usually reserved for the mysticism of “unknowing” associated with the writings of an anonymous sixth-century Christian Syriac monk known as Pseudo-Diony­sius. The monastic tradition it comes from is actually much older and pre-Christian.  It is a neo-platonic pan-entheist vision focused on relationship to “God” as the transcendent source and matrix of our existence. While I personally disagree with the metaphysics, I propose returning to the fundamental contours of that theology ― its dynamic import and intention ― and assigning it the principal role for guiding our religious lives.

The word “apo­phatic” means “speechless” and immediately redirects the one seeking the face of “God” from the intellect to the will. The quest is not about knowing. It is about a surrender in trust impelled by an intuitive grasp of the abundant generosity of life.

“God” cannot be known. The word “God” itself is only a placeholder for the unknown source and sustainer of the cosmos. The conceptual, propositional, ritual and disciplinary edifice that we call “religion” should be constructed firmly on that basis: we do not know, and not-knowing is a desideratum, a gift to be embraced, the fertile ground in which our religion takes root and grows. Not-knowing is intrinsic to the authentic religious quest; it makes quite clear that the ascent is a growth in trust fed by an ever deeper gratitude for life and appreciation of one’s own material organism. To embrace oneself is to embrace that “in which one lives and moves and has one’s being.” It is to embrace whatever the word “God” might ultimately refer to.

Trust also corresponds to an ever wider circle of letting-go. Letting-go means accepting ourselves as material organisms subject to the unavoidable conditions of our materiality in a material universe. We have to let go of attempts to escape that fundamental reality. We have virtually no control over (1) our biological inheritance, (2) the material and social conditions required for our continued survival, and (3) that we will all certainly die. The “escape” we must let go of includes such fruitless reactions as self-aggrandizing selfishness, individual or tribal; the refusal to collaborate with others for mutual survival and the search for justice in society; and I personally would include as an escape the projection of a future life in another imaginary world as an excuse for exalting oneself over others and not cooperating with the universal human community. Learning to live within the parameters possible to us ― which includes the necessary self-regulation and communal collaboration that are necessary to survival ― is the human quest. There is no other, for there is no way out of being material organisms in this material cosmos. It is the human condition.

The correlate to not-knowing is trusting, just as its opposite, knowledge, seems to promise control. I am focused on building a theology on the foundation of an unknowing trust that besides setting us reliably on the paths that all our great teachers, east and west, have laid out for us, simultaneously generates two important by-products for the human community:

(1) it undermines any claims to absolute truth and the corresponding “supremacy” of any religious tradition and its ethnic-tribal adherents over others.

And (2) it establishes an unambiguous parity with those who, avoiding verbalized “beliefs” altogether, have been denigrated by self-exalting religious prejudice as atheists, agnostics, apostates, materialists, non-belie­vers, pagans, etc.

Everyone must trust. The material conditions of our lives is the great leveler. The most convinced atheists spend their days in trusting reliance on the common source of our living organic inheritance whatever that might turn out to be just like the rest of us; and they face death with the same apprehension and the same frustrated expectation to live on that comes from our biological organisms. We all have the same desire to live forever. Some think, despite every indication to the contrary, that we will live again after we die, and others, accepting the evidence of the universal experience of all organic life, don’t. The common denominator is that in each case we are dealing with opinion; no one knows.

The fact that religious people choose symbols to stand in the place of their ignorance and non-religious people refuse to use any symbols at all, doesn’t change the common condition that affects us all: none of us know; all of us live in a state of utter existential vulnerability; we all go reluctantly into that dark night; all of us have to reach out to one another if we are going to survive; and at the end of the day we all have to learn to let go because ultimately we have no idea of what is going to happen to us. “Religions” that exploit human insecurity and offer a quid pro quo of one kind or another that supposedly guarantees a control over our destiny after death, are in fact, working in direct opposition to the objective of authentic religion which is to trust despite the darkness. At best, such guarantees may be acceptable as symbols for the trust that our awe of life evokes in us.

At the same time it must be said that those who take the absence of knowledge as justification for a nihilistic disdain for life and contempt for the struggle of people to survive in a just society, have to suppress their own bodies’ natural joy in living, instinct for self-preservation and empathy for others. Not knowing is just that. A nihilistic response is an unwarranted claim to know.

 

That is the theology I pursue and propose. The rest, which includes physical/metaphysical theories of reality and the polemics they generate is optional, conjectural, somewhat arbitrary and at all times secondary to what I consider authentic religion. That doesn’t mean such “scientific” pursuits are invalid, just that they are not religion. Religion is surrender in darkness driven by the awe and appreciation of being-here. It does not depend on what we think we know or don’t know about the ultimate source and destiny of it all. Once that premise is clearly stated and understood, the wider discussion can proceed. Otherwise, the elaboration of a compelling worldview that correlates to our real condition will necessarily become distorted in the vain attempt to assign it absolute value and turn it into religion. For, without a clear and universal acceptance of the supreme value of not-knowing, conjecture will be conscripted by our insecurity to play the role of “the answer” ― knowledge ― skewing everything that follows and re-instal­ling the conflict of warring absolutes (built on fictional securities) that now characterizes religion.