Gospel & Universe

The Problem with Explanations

This page argues that while science has made great advances in explaining our existence, agnostics don't conclude that science will ever explain everything. Rather, they follow the agnostic notions of doubt and questioning proposed by Henry Huxley over a hundred years ago. 

Zhuangzi’s Butterfly - Thomas Henry Huxley


Zhuangzi’s Butterfly


While others boys were busy in the trees

yodeling from branch to branch

like Tarzan in the green

I counted iron nails

and two by fours

and the force

of the face










the wide

open space

where I might

ascend for awhile

and feed on sugary stars

and wondered how and where

the wings of the butterfly were held

by tiny points from thorax to windswept air

Butterfly and Chinese wisteria, by Xü Xi. Early Song Dynasty, c. 970

Butterfly and Chinese wisteria, by Xü Xi. Early Song Dynasty, c. 970


Thomas Henry Huxley

While astronomers use their telescopes to show us how small we are, anatomist use their microscopes to show us how complex we are. Microscopes, electron microscopes, and particle accelerators show us that the matter we once thought solid hides within it cells and membranes, molecules and atoms, particles, waves, and mysterious fields. While humans have made great advances in knowledge, we still don't understand the dimensions or the composition of the cosmos, and we still don't fully understand the matter that's right in front of our eyes. 

In time, science may supply the answers to where we are and to what we are. Or maybe it won't. In 100 years we may discover that our universe is part of eight universes, all orbiting a tiny, infinitely dense point of light. We may find that all the energy and matter of our brains is influenced by this Point of Light. And that in this Light lies the Meaning of the All Time and Space. I suspect, however, that we'll find nothing of the sort. 

Thomas Henry Huxley had this type of suspicion when he coined the term agnostic back in the 19th century. The more recent exploration of things like subatomic particles and dark matter in the 20th and 21st centuries only strengthen his three fundamental points:

1. Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.

2. Consequently 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.

3. I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is "Not proven." But true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which "are not dreamt of in our philosophy" [In Hamlet, Horatio says that the ghost's appearance is "wondrous strange," after which Hamlet remarks, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy -- I.v.] The theological "gnosis" would have us believe that the world is a conjuror's house; the anti-theological "gnosis" talks as if it were a "dirt-pie" made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

(from "Agnosticism: A Symposium," in The Agnostic Annual, 1884, at http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/UnColl/Rdetc/AgnAnn.html). 

We don't write Science with a capital S, except for grammatical purposes at the beginning of a sentence. Science doesn't come with a Magic Key that will unlock the secrets of the human psyche or the secrets of all the things we don't know. Science may even verify that some things can't be explained, that some things come from other planes or dimensions beyond the ones we can measure or quantify. These things, however, may be qualitative; we may be able to grasp or experience them in some way. But even if we experience them in some way, it doesn't follow that we can therefore place them into a universal Understanding or System.

In section 5, Almost Existential, I expand on this point, arguing that for agnostics experience precedes understanding. Playing on Sartre's famous phrase, existence precedes essence, I argue that for agnostics ontology precedes epistemology. We may think that in time we'll arrive at a complete understanding, yet agnostics suspect that this thinking is an illusion: we merely incorporate more information, wisdom, and experience into our sense of reality. Agnostics suspect that our reality remains a function of these things we accumulate, and that it never leaps into some greater unifying and totalizing Whole. Agnostics would gladly be wrong about this, but they're yet to be convinced.

Another way of putting this is that the totality of the universe isn't necessarily greater than the sum of its parts. We might try to put the totality of the universe into a unified framework, ascribing a hierarchy of some conceptions above others, and a crowning glory (and a capital letter) to the highest Conception. Yet agnostics believe that any such ultimate Conception -- be it God or Brahman, Reason or Revelation -- is probably an illusion. Agnostics don't see how one understanding is the culmination of all the others. God, the Dao, the Buddhist Full Void, the mystic's Absolute, or Shankara's That might be such a Conception, yet as almost all the honest mystics point out, we don't really know the first thing about That. As a result, the only conception agnostics might be willing to capitalize is Doubt. But, even then, they are reluctant to do this because they acknowledge the limitations of their experience and knowledge. Quite simply, they may be wrong.

Omar Khayyam put this eloquently nine hundred years ago in his Rubáiyát -- several stanzas of which are presented here in Edward Fitzgerald's 19th century free translation: 

Why, all the saints and sages who discussed
Of the two worlds so wisely -- they are thrust
Like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn
Are scattered, and their mouths are stopped with dust. 

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went. 

With them the seed of wisdom did I sow, 
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow; 
And this was all the harvest that I reaped -- 
"I came like water, and like wind I go." 


The Sum

Some people feel a love so deep and powerful that they give it a name and a history, and make of it a universal Meaning. So that when you drink the wine of the communion you feel the divine blood course through your body and you know that you shall be released. The sum of everything leads to Jesus.

Some people find empty pockets about them everywhere. Empty pockets in which being only appears to be born. A mockery of meaning amid the absurdity. The nausea of seeing that you will never understand the black root of a chestnut tree; that even the word black is an illusion you use to cover the ineffable face of things. We are all lost, adrift, condemned to freedom. The sum of everything leads to Sartre.

Some feel the desire to move beyond desire and suffering. Once you see that you're trapped in the paradox, you're released. You stand on the lake shore and feel the ocean. You stand on the edge of the world and hear the stars. The sum of everything leads to Buddha. 

Some see a slow, inexorable accumulation of facts. From stardust to revolving earth. From layers of sediment 300 thousand years old to the city of Edinburgh, with its geologist James Hutton measuring time. From a single-celled organism to a brain with over a hundred trillion synapses. Survival and evolution. After millions of years, you exist for a brief moment, pass on your genes, and disappear. The sum of everything leads to Darwin.

Some feel a flow of energy linking the waves of the electric air. Connecting and dissolving. Knitting and unravelling. Invisible and visible. Momentary and eternal. There is no you, or at least not in a personal sense. You are That, and all this is That. The sum of everything leads to Shankara

Some feel something of these but aren't sure how to sum it all up.

Should we calculate the relation between the perspectives in some sort of theosophical or Bahá'í way? Should we capitalize Way? Should we see the truth of all Grand Sums in some Greater Sum?

Agnostics suspect that this would just start the cycle again, so that the next thing we'd do is divide the One and argue the limited conjectures of Its design. 

Agnostics -- who seem destined to doubt till the end of time -- suspect that this will just bring about division. Just when we reached unity. Just when we summed it all up.



Next:n Two Sides of the Fence

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