Fragile Trappings

I stepped out of my house today on a chilly fall afternoon. After an unseasonably late warm spell, as if summer had lingered this year past its appointed time, autumn had arrived at last. The feel of the season was in the air: the misty cool, the forests defiantly ablaze with fiery color, the smell of fallen leaves, wet black and rusty gold, in the grass. There was a sense of hunkering down, of quiet activity in the stillness, as nature prepares for the coming winter foreshadowed in the bare gray branches of the trees.

In autumn, the mind turns naturally to impermanence. I’ve written about death from an atheist perspective before, but that was several years ago, and this seemed like an appropriate season to revisit the topic.

We must face the facts: our lives, in the grand scheme of things, are short. Like the leaves falling from the tree, we bloom, flourish, and inevitably wither. Vast expanses of time preceded each of us, and equally vast expanses of time will follow us. We were not there, will not be there, to know what happens; we will never meet the people who inhabit those times, as they will never meet us. Our existence is, as Robert Ingersoll said, like a narrow vale between two cold and barren peaks.

And yet, in that narrow valley in between, there is a wondrous thing: a creature who exists, who lives, and who is conscious of that life and that existence. We reflect on the fact of our being and know ourselves for who and what we are. That by itself is a miracle so great that it outshines all the lesser miracles invented by human beings ever since.

Our lives are hedged about with mysteries, many of which are so vast we completely overlook them most of the time. What is the ultimate cause of our existence? Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing? Why do we have the natures we do, and not another? How does the ephemeral crackling of neural activity give rise to a self-aware mind with a sense of what things are like? These are all deep and profound mysteries, and we should not trivialize them. Our species is still young, and we know, at most, a tiny fraction of all there is to know. There are whole lands of knowledge we have barely glimpsed in the distance. Given the limitations we are still under, it would be more than wise to keep an attitude of humility when facing all that we don’t yet know.

But our limitation cuts both ways. Religious people often invoke the admittedly imperfect state of human knowledge as reason to believe in God, but the fact remains that their knowledge is just as imperfect and their vision just as limited as anyone else’s. Why, then, should we trust them when they claim to have penetrated to the fundamental truths of our existence? What makes them so confident that they have already solved the deepest questions about who we are and why we are here? For, whether they admit it or not, that is precisely what they are claiming.

Apologists through the ages have extolled the beauty of religious myths and origin stories. And I suppose if one views them as imaginative collections of imagery, like poetry or folk tales, there is a kind of antique charm about them. But as actual, honest-to-goodness answers for the most profound mysteries of our existence, I find that they fall far short. When measured against the unimaginable expanses of space and time, against the staggering glories of the cosmos as we so far comprehend it, the stories of religion are so trite, so superficial, so small. Their childlike arrogance in imagining that we are the very center of creation is a dead giveaway to their origins in human imagination and ignorance.

In the face of our imperfect knowledge, what we need is humility and a candid admission of our ignorance. We do not need anyone pretending they know all the answers and dignifying that pretending with the name of “faith”. The mysteries we confront are far deeper than that, far too profound to admit of such shallow, simplistic, easily disproven answers. In truth, they are not answers at all; they are baubles, little diversions, stories invented for the comfort of children.

Even more absurd, in my view, is the oft-heard claim that only religion can hope to offer answers to these mysteries – that once we stand on that horizon, we must forsake reason and turn to faith. Richard Dawkins relates an example of this belief, and its refutation, in his book A Devil’s Chaplain:

“I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the Big Bang to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. ‘Ah,’ he smiled, ‘Now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the Chaplain.’ But why the Chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?” (p.149)

The fundamental questions of our existence stand before us, like a doorway to a vast and unknown realm. But that doorway is the common property of all humankind. We all have the right to look up at it in awe, to run our hands over its massive stones searching for keyholes. There is no clergyman serving as a gatekeeper, no velvet rope before the door limiting access to supplicants who come in the name of faith. If anything, it is only the application of reason that has levered it open even the tiny crack it has so far been opened up.

An even better analogy, to my mind, is this: It’s as if the self-appointed spokesmen of religion have hung tattered fragments of brocade on these great gates and then proclaimed that they own the things themselves. Not so! We, atheists, see that sham for what it is. We see through your fragile trappings, and we know that you are not the sole possessors of these gates. We know that you are just as ignorant of what lies beyond them as any of us. And while we may not know what the answers are, that doesn’t mean we can’t see what the answers aren’t.

Even the few, halting steps we have taken under the guidance of reason have revealed to us a wealth of knowledge and wonder, a world such as we never dreamed of in all our long childhood. What we have now are at best a few grains of the truth, a few sparks struck from its unseen surface. Yet they show us the way to go on, and give us confidence that the true answers, whatever they turn out to be, will be stranger, more awe-inspiring, and more wondrous and beautiful than anything we could have ever imagined. That great door may only be open the slightest hairline crack, but there is light streaming through that crack, and faint music coming from beyond.

And so I say, brush aside those fragile trappings. Pay no mind to the people who insist we already know everything, that the deepest answers have already been revealed. Ignore the flimsy and tattered scripts they offer. Those things are thin gruel for the hungry, when solid food is available.

Instead, join us in joyous acceptance of our humility, and exult in the awed recognition of how much there is still left to learn. And then, if the desire moves you, take up the tools we have and use them to strike a few more sparks from that surface. Merely to be able to attempt this is a noble privilege. But greater still will be the day when that door finally opens – whether it be in our lifetime or a million lifetimes from now – and when that day comes, all who step through will know that your work, no less than anyone else’s, brought us to that glorious threshold.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    Pay no mind to the people who insist we already know everything, that the deepest answers have already been revealed.

    I think it good to keep in mind that the people who say we know everything are not necessarily or only the religious. Sure, fundamentalists might say this, that everything there is to know is in the Bible, etc. However, the proportion of religious believers who would say that we know everything because of the Bible is probably at it’s lowest point ever, and will continue to drop. So then we also need to keep in mind the scientists and others who say (not from a religious standpoint) that we know everything there is to know, or that (more importantly) certain theories are the way things really are, period. Evolution by the mechanism of natural selection is by far the most plausible theory (fact,) supported by evidence, compared to other theories of how life formed. But it could be wrong, there could be some theory that is much better, and I think it important to keep this in mind. Natural selection should be viewed not as the way nature is, but the way we describe nature.

    Another example is the inconsistencies between relativity and quantum mechanics. They both very accurately explain what they purport to explain, but when they cross into each others realms they appear inconsistent with each other. Both are very successful, yet they may someday be replaced by a different theory that saves the phenomena yet has completely different explanations for those phenomena.

    My point in all of this is this: As Ebon says, we know very very little, and something that gets lost in trying to defend evolution is the notion that nothing is certain (with the case of evolution it is almost impossible to admit that for fear of being quote-mined.) I don’t think this to be a trivial point. There is a large chasm between how nature is and how we explain nature. We know very little. So pay no attention to the fragile trapping, as he so eloquently puts it, but also pay no attention to those who say that some theory about something is the way the world is. It can only be the way we currently describe it.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Ooh! Fizzy shiny breathtaking writing!

    :D

    This is a must-read post, right?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    This is a must-read post, right?

    Ah, so you can tell. :) (“Fizzy”? Heh.)

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    This has to be one of the most original outlooks on existence and religion that I’ve ever come across, and quite simply one of the greatest. An immediate favourite (and of course, must-read).

    I’ve always thought that faith comes down to a basic level: regardless of any ontological, historical or personal evidence you may think you’ve discovered, you are still basically believing it because you’ve been told to. (Speaking of which, I wouldn’t mind hearing the gardener’s ideas about the universe. Chances are they’ll have more merit than the chaplain’s.)

    So pay no attention to the fragile trapping, as he so eloquently puts it, but also pay no attention to those who say that some theory about something is the way the world is. It can only be the way we currently describe it.

    Indeed. Any scientist who asserts that they have uncovered an absolute truth would be just as arrogant. Science is the changing way in which we describe everything, with the conclusion at the end of the investigation rather than at the beginning.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse, you never cease to impress. Thank you once again for words of wisdom.

  • ex machina

    Doug and Dawn . . I’d say there is a large difference between things that are yet unexplained and things that are consistently demonstrated and overwhelmingly uniform. As an example of that which we have yet to explain, the Theory of Evolution fails altogether.

    I’ve always thought that faith comes down to a basic level: regardless of any ontological, historical or personal evidence you may think you’ve discovered, you are still basically believing it because you’ve been told to.

    I certainly don’t agree with that. It’s more than possible to gather a rudimentary understanding of certain scientific principles/phenomena to be able to make educated decisions as to there truth or falsehood. This is not the “faith” that religion asks of it’s constituents. They are categorically different.

  • Crazed Religious Freak

    Freedom of will and determinisim? You write in “Rat’s mazes” that atheism is freedom, while slaving under the Lord is not. But how to you justify freedom in a deterministic world?

  • Crazed Religious Freak

    After all, if the world is deterministic, all we will ever do is predetermined, if unknown.

  • Herb

    It’s important to remember that science is not about truth – it’s about finding good (accurate/useful) descriptions of the world. Are general relativity and quantum mechanics true? I don’t know. Are they accurate descriptions of the world? Absolutely. I think that most scientists would agree with this, although I myself did have to grow out of my “I’m on a quest for truth” phase.

  • jack

    Ebon,

    Beautifully and movingly written, as always! I hope this finds its way into your book.

    What the chaplain would say in answer to Dawkins’ question, something about a superhuman, supernaturally intelligent God setting off the Big Bang, explains exactly nothing. Why did God do this? How did God do this? Why is intelligence necessary or even useful for creating infinitely dense singularities of energy out of nothingness? From the best evidence we have, intelligence is a property of complex brains, and complex brains are the products of evolution over eons. Where and how did God’s complexity arise? The unanswered questions just go on and on…

    Crazed Religious Freak,

    Who said anything about determinism? Neither the word nor concept appear in Ebon’s post.

  • Entomologista

    Thanks for this post. It was somewhat lonely when my grandpa died, being surrounded by believers.

  • Damien

    It’s important to remember that science is not about truth – it’s about finding good (accurate/useful) descriptions of the world. Are general relativity and quantum mechanics true? I don’t know. Are they accurate descriptions of the world? Absolutely. I think that most scientists would agree with this, although I myself did have to grow out of my “I’m on a quest for truth” phase.

    “Jesus answered, ‘Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth…’ Then Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?”

    Those Romans weren’t rulers of the world for no reason.

  • Eric

    I live and make a living in the great North of Alaska and the Yukon. Not a day goes by when I don’t stop and take in the great beauty of this land. And many times when I am out for my sojourns into the backcountry or daily run I think of death and life. And I realize just how arrogant it is for humans to believe in any sory of afterlife. We are just another layer in the rock. We may have some form of sentience but it certainly is not exclusive to us.

    And when the religious apologists or zealous fanatics confront me with, “How can you look out at this, where you live, and NOT see a creator?” or “How can you sleep at night without believing in an afterlife?” I simply reply with, “How can you look out at this and have such a simple outlook to HAVE to have a creator?” and “I take great comfort and sleep better in my not caring about an afterlife and believing this isn’t just one big test to get the carrot on the end of a stick.”

    Death is just the ebb and flow. It is not the worst thing that can happen to us. And to shroud it with fable and fairy tale does no good.

    Eric

  • Christopher

    [QUOTE]Freedom of will and determinisim? You write in “Rat’s mazes” that atheism is freedom, while slaving under the Lord is not. But how to you justify freedom in a deterministic world?[/QUOTE]

    The “freedom” he speaks of isn’t necissarily “let do as thou wilt be the whole of the law” – but rather the freedom to think for yourself without a priori assumed beliefs dictate to you what is permisable.

    And for the record, I’m a determinist: I hold true “freedom to be an impossibility (as we all have our internal predispositions dictating our behavoir to us), but we can find freedom from external forces attempting to control us (at least to some degree).

  • Erika

    That was so beautiful that I had to post a link from my blog. It was then painful to have my friends react as if I was attacking their beliefs.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    It’s important to remember that science is not about truth – it’s about finding good (accurate/useful) descriptions of the world. Are general relativity and quantum mechanics true? I don’t know. Are they accurate descriptions of the world? Absolutely. I think that most scientists would agree with this, although I myself did have to grow out of my “I’m on a quest for truth” phase.

    Too bad, Herb. I am on a quest for truth. I will never get there, and to the extent that I get partway there I’ll never know for certain, but the fact that our current answers are imperfect doesn’t mean there’s no truth in them at all. That’s relevant to Doug’s comment, too.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I discuss my views of freedom and determinism in the post series On Free Will.

    Erika: I’m sorry to hear that. In my experience, religious believers often do react with hostility when a non-religious person offers an alternative. But that makes it more important that we speak out, because the only way we’ll ever end that prejudice is by getting people used to the idea that not everyone is a theist. What’s the address of your blog, by the way?

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    Too bad, Herb. I am on a quest for truth. I will never get there, and to the extent that I get partway there I’ll never know for certain, but the fact that our current answers are imperfect doesn’t mean there’s no truth in them at all.

    Well, of course. Of course evolution by natural selection could be 100% true, or 2% true, or whatever. However, whatever amount of truth some theory has means really nothing for me. The point is that the statement ‘current answers have some truth to them’ doesn’t mean much. It’s trivial, and should have no bearing on how we think about scientific theories. I argue that we should only think in terms of how well a theory describes nature, and I’m not willing to commit to much more than that. We can say we are on a quest for truth, and we are, but my arguement is that the goal of science should be that of describing nature, not a search for some ‘truth’, however you may define that.

  • Alex Weaver

    I think Herb is inappropriately conflating big-T and little-t “truth.”

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    I certainly don’t agree with that. It’s more than possible to gather a rudimentary understanding of certain scientific principles/phenomena to be able to make educated decisions as to there truth or falsehood. This is not the “faith” that religion asks of it’s constituents. They are categorically different.

    That’s true; the point I was trying to make is that religion often seeks to implant absolutes in young minds, to be accepted as basic premises for any enquiry into related matters. That is, the way in which theists open arguments with “Conclusion: God exists” and twist the evidence around it. Science obviously operates in the reverse of this process. We understand that we don’t have the luxury of freely deciding what the truth is and invoking the airy shield of faith to hold it up. Our conclusions will change as our knowledge and understanding of available evidence changes, and will always seek to provide the most likely answer.

    Statements like “evolution is true” aren’t used in science; evolution is comprised of thousands of sub-theories, any number of which may be improved with time to slightly change the overarching theory of evolution. Strong evidence that invisible aliens are subtly changing allelles with each successive generation may arise tomorrow, in which case much of the theory would be heavily reconsidered. Everything in science must be falsifiable. Just my thoughts.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I would agree that some science is most certainly a search merely for models to describe the universe. Large parts of solid state physics come to mind — if you could find a model that explained high temperature superconductivity in a useful way, it wouldn’t matter if it was known to be false in some particulars, it’d still be worth a Nobel. On the other hand, particle physicists and cosmologists are just as likely to consider themselves to be seeking the real truth. They even make statements like “We now know that the majority of the universe is composed of dark energy” — a bold statement if ever there was one! Personally, I think that particular statement is well beyond justifiability (I’d say ‘dark energy’ is a measure of exactly how far out our models are, no more — the exact cause of the discrepancy has to go in the ‘we don’t know’ box). But plenty of physicists would say it nevertheless.

    The point is that the statement ‘current answers have some truth to them’ doesn’t mean much. It’s trivial, and should have no bearing on how we think about scientific theories.

    See, now, if you say, regarding the above, that physicists should stop saying that the majority of the universe is composed of dark energy because “we don’t know for sure”, then I have to point out that “we don’t know for sure” is just as trivial as “current answers have some truth to them”. The interesting question is “How much truth do our current answers have?” And there, I think, we can make meaningful guesses.

    If I’m right that we can make meaningful guesses about the degree of truth in our scientific theories, then the question of how much truth we have is of interest to science. Personally, I think that “How much truth do we have?” can be just as important a question as “How good is our model?” The two questions are related, of course, but they tend towards slightly different ways of looking at things, both of which can be useful.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    That physicists can describe the universe as being composed of mostly dark matter (whatever that is), and that the universe is composed mostly of dark matter, are two subtle, yet quite different, assertations. I never said they should stop saying these things, only that it is misleading in a formal setting to say ‘the universe has/really is this.’ Yes, ‘we dont know how much truth there is to this’ or ‘there is truth to this’ or ‘there is no truth to this’ all have parallel justifications. But that’s my point; they all have no justification. They are metaphysical claims about scientific theories without any epistemological justification. Translation: They are claims about the truth status of theories that do not tell us how we are even supposed to know that truth status.

    I find the question “How much truth do our current answers have?” only superficially interesting, because it can have no justified answer. As far as the questions “How much truth do we have?” and “How good is our model?”, I consider the second far better because we can justify why we think the model is a good fit or a bad fit. But as concerns the first, we can’t justify any answers to it, so then I argue that it is trivial. Sure, if it helps explain science to say this is how the world is, yes, then do that. And sure, it is interesting in an informal sense to think about how much we “know” about what nature is really like. But it should have no place in the nuts and bolts of science. We should stick to the second question.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I find the question “How much truth do our current answers have?” only superficially interesting, because it can have no justified answer.

    There’s our point of difference. I think it can have a justified answer. Not one that is justified beyond all doubt, but a justified answer nevertheless :-)

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    There’s our point of difference.

    Indeed. We could go on debating this point, and I could give examples why I think no evidence can justify claims about the relative truth of certain theories (say electrons), and you could respond with something along the lines of ‘it’s absurd to think that there is no such thing as electrons, here we are justified in believing the truth of the theory,’ and I could respond that to remain consistent, we should hold to the line that says for any theory we cannot absolutely justify the relative truth status, so no matter how obvious the theory we should not try to ascribe a relative truth status, and so on…

    But as you said, that is the point of difference, and I don’t think either one of us is going to convince the other. So, I agree, let it be :P

  • theistscientist

    you say why not the gardener or the chef, and I say why do you want to exclude the chaplain? The chaplian is one of “you”, at least he has spent many years in university studying the best and brightest minds and the best and brightest thinking and literature on the issues at bar. Why do you exclude theist intellectuals? Theist theodocies pass logical muster just as well as naturalistic ones do.

  • OMGF

    The point is that the chaplain pretends to have an answer, but we could get just as good of an answer from anyone who has the ability to simply make things up.

    And no, theodicies do not pass logical muster. They are generally all based on begging the question in that they all rely on assuming god is present.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Douglas Paulsen

    Theist theodocies pass logical muster just as well as naturalistic ones do.

    Well, technically a theodicy is a defense against the problem of evil, so a ‘naturalistic theodicy’ really doesn’t make much sense. If you mean something along the lines of ‘reasons why we exist,’ then as OMGF pointed out, theist reasons really beg the question. If you claim the reason we exist is because of God, your begging the question by assuming God exists. Naturalistic reasons (if there are any) do no such thing.