Of Epistemology and the Varieties of Atheism

I’ve been working for the last 60 years on the complex of issues concerned with what we know—or think we know—and how we know it, which, of course, enlarges into the issues of the nature of consciousness, the differences and relationships between knowledge and belief, and the nature of reality—insofar as we are aware of reality, as distinct from what we think is reality. I think I’ve made a little progress.

Lately there have been some well-publicized “debates” between proponents of doctrinaire positions on science and Creationism. I use the quote marks because these exchanges have been as inconclusive as when stupid people yell at each other on the Jerry Springer show. Here I hope merely to encourage a few people to become somewhat more sophisticated about their own beliefs.

I have several times discussed the Popper/Gurdjieff argument that the scientific method can deal with only disprovable hypotheses, and that religious beliefs must instead comprise nondisprovable hypotheses. That is, any assertion about the existence, nonexistence, or characteristics of the divine is inherently nondisprovable, and therefore cannot be investigated by means of the scientific method, although practical corollaries deduced from such assertions may be amenable to it.

In the present context, what I mean is that when a “scientist” (such as Mr. Richard Dawkins) asserts that he can prove scientifically that God (or any other version of the divine) does not exist, he is speaking, not as a scientist, but as the devout believer in a particular philosophy. He is, in fact, being as ignorant and deluded as a man who thinks he can build a perpetual-motion machine, or who believes the Earth is flat, or who, for that matter, thinks that the parable of Adam and Eve was a front-page story in an ancient version of the New York Times. Now, dear reader, if that statement hurts your feelings, I am not sorry. You have the opportunity to grow up.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an atheist. I just think intellectual integrity encourages you to be well-informed about your philosophy and, if you know that you cannot know objectively whether or not anything divine exists, to label yourself accurately as being an agnostic.

In addition, in practice, a person’s atheistic style usually depends on his or her own cultural background. For example, an atheist raised as a Christian would need to disbelieve in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—although a Unitarian Atheist would need to disbelieve in only the first of those three. In contrast, a Pagan Atheist would need to disbelieve in many gods or, at least, disbelieve in the Goddess and, optionally, at least one of the Gods. Buddhists, at least those of the Vajrayana, already have it covered. A Hindu Atheist would also have many gods and goddesses to disbelieve in, or, for efficiency, could simply disbelieve in the Brahman. A Tantric Atheist would obviously have to disbelieve in both Shiva and Shakti.

But a Jewish Atheist? That’s utterly different, since Judaism does not behave like most other religions. Ask a question about such matters, and the response you will get will be, “Who’s asking?” or maybe “That’s none of your business”—and there are other possibilities.

Q: How many atheists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: That’s not funny!

So I’m poking the bear with a stick. I will shift gears.

An almost universal unexamined assumption is that the everyday mental state of most human beings is the only  “normal” one and that any other state is an hallucination. However, Gurdjieff argued that, instead, most humans beings live their entire lives in a state of delusion, and that the goal of spiritual development is to awaken from that delusion and become continuously aware of reality. This was also the central concept of the Gnostics.

One silly argument that rationalists come up with is that, since we now know that outer space goes on virtually forever, there is no “Heaven” in which a god could reside, and therefore there is no God. The problem is merely one of looking for the divine in the wrong direction.

Hippolytus at one point quotes a certain Monoimus as writing (I’ve tweaked the wording some),

To know what is true from what is false, you must know the Light. The Light recognizes its own; so you must seek the Light.  But if you look outward for the Light, you see nothing but the spheres of the angels, who wish to keep the Light hidden from you. Therefore do not seek among such spirits, such created things, but seek within yourself.  Learn who it is that takes to himself all things in you, who says, “My God is my mind, my understanding, my soul, my body.”  Learn where sorrow comes from, where joy and love and hatred come from.  Learn where wakefulness or drowsiness, anger or affection, come from, when they come unbidden, against your will. If you study these things with exactness, you will dis­cover God himself, one and many, within yourself. You will discover that he finds the outlet for godhead through yourself.  In this way you will discover that in your true self, you are one with the Un­knowable Light; then all things will be added to you, and you will say, “I am redeemed by knowledge.”

There is ample evidence for the existence of the divine. It is not the sort of evidence that a devout rationalist demands, but it is also not hallucinatory. It is not reasonable to demand that evidence must be perceptible to anyone in the vicinity. For example, one of my adult students, Mark, about age 50, recently trusted me enough to tell me this story. He was suffering from an agonizing spinal disorder that could not be corrected surgically and that made walking almost impossible. One evening, as he was lying in bed, in too much pain to sleep, Jesus walked into his room and placed his hands on Mark’s stomach. The pain vanished. Jesus smiled at him, turned around, and walked out. Mark has walked without pain ever since. Does that prove the truth of orthodox Christianity? Not at all.

Neither the presence nor the absence of Mark’s pain was an hallucination; that fact cannot be explained away. The actual problem is our human tendency to confuse a phenomenon with our interpretation of it. A classical Greek who had received such a gift of healing would no doubt have conceptualized the vehicle of delivery as being Asclepius or Apollo. A Hindu would see the person as one of his or her pantheon. And so on. So can an atheist receive such healing? Sure, happens all the time—because it happens so fast that the atheist does not have time to doubt it to death, then must struggle to account for it afterward. Jung’s perception that “flying saucers” are actually “flying mandala archetypes” was quite accurate; the phenomenon is real; interpreting as being alien spacecraft is a different issue.

Occam’s Razor applies here. We do not need metaphysical assumptions to account for such phenomena. We will understand them better as we come to understand consciousness better. Another unexamined rationalist assumption is that consciousness can exist only within physical brains. Wheeler’s experiments indicated otherwise. If one begins from the Hindu nondisprovable hypothesis that consciousness is the ultimate reality, as Goswami has pointed out, then all the apparent paradoxes of physics are resolved. And as Roger Penrose argued in The Emperor’s New Mind, the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox—which has made quantum computers possible—shows that we need a new theory of physics that is as far beyond quantum mechanics as that is beyond Newtonian physics; and only then will we have a chance to begin understanding how our minds actually work. The physicists are hot on that trail; there’s exciting news these days.

Finally, I’d like to ask difficult questions of Pagans who think they are atheists. Belief in the reality or at least the possibility of magic and psychic talents is certainly common in the Pagan movement—but such possibilities are robustly denied by the doctrinaire atheists. How do you cope with that?

 

 

 


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