[This is the first of several drafts in which I intend to spin out my belief system; it is very much a work in progress, even if I do decide to make it visible to my minuscule “public.”]

In several venues I have described my “faith,” belief system, religious self-identification or whatever you want to call it, as “Epicurean with a Gnostic streak.” What does this mean?

“Epicurean” in the sense that I consider the observable universe to be a self-contained whole, not needing to be “explained” or “justified” in terms of the will of any God or Gods. For most practical purposes, in other words, I line up with those who call themselves “humanist,” “secularist,” “materialist,” even “atheist,” even though none of these labels quite seems to describe me. I don’t use “humanist” because to my ear it suggests a kind of species supremacy which I do not share; I value humankind and acknowledge myself a part of it, but do not consider it nature’s last word on anything. Evolution is still speaking, to parody the UCC slogan; don’t put a period where nature has put a comma!

“Secularist” as a political position, OK; but not the kind of militant secularist you find in France and Turkey, to say nothing of Communist countries. I do believe in keeping religious dogma out of public decision-making as much as possible, but at the same time, religion is part of most people’s culture and there is no way in a democracy to keep it from having some influence, not as authoritative per se but through the values of the people who adhere to it. Citizens who happen to be religious believers cannot be expected to bifurcate themselves,  each into one person who prays and another who votes. That’s just the way it is.

“Materialist” yes as far as the observable universe is concerned; well, you ask, what else is there? That’s where the “Gnostic streak” comes in, of which more later. “Atheist” though? That depends on what you mean by “God.” I see no justification for categorically denying the possibility of one or more superior beings in the universe, even though I have no evidence for one. A “supreme” being is another matter, and seems to me more a theoretical construct than a real possibility; but certainly there is the possibility of some life-form having evolved somewhere which is so much more powerful, better informed, longer-lived etc than we, that if we were to encounter them we would have no way of telling that they were anything less than  “supreme.” I just happen not to be persuaded by any of the claims I’ve heard or read to the effect that humankind has in fact encountered one. “Agnostic” perhaps? Well, maybe the soft kind, who doesn’t deny the possibility of knowledge but merely confesses to not having it at the moment. But why define myself in terms of something I happen not to know?

The biggest proviso in my self-description though is that “Gnostic streak,” also expressed in such terms above as “for most practical matters,” and “the observable universe.” The one thing that it seems to me material science cannot quite account for is the self, consciousness, the person or persons who do the observing. In the first instance, ME. Yes, that’s right, in the last (or first) analysis I am an ego-centrist! I cannot observe myself, not my real self, the observing self; there is this physical organism of course, and I accept the findings of science to the effect that my mental functions seem to be linked to, and result from, the movement of ions or action potentials or whatever throughout my nervous system. And yet… none of that seems to be me. Of all the “new atheists” the one I respect most is Daniel Dennett, because he at least recognizes the consciousness problem and addresses it; maybe just because that is, after all, his field. But if all he can say is that consciousness is a sort of self-delusion, then – as Augustine, Descartes and Shankara all pointed out – there still has to be a self to be deluded! And what is that self? Nothing that can be described, because all description is in terms of something external to the self, some object or objects; and the self is not an object, it is an eternal subject. I can only be the self. And if it turns out that there is no such thing, so what? There is nothing lost by “believing” in it, because the “believer” is in that case  not ultimately real to begin with and so can suffer no loss! Although for me as yet it is still more of a Pascalian wager than a belief…

8 Responses to “Unpacking”

  1. Carty Says:

    But why define myself in terms of something I happen not to know?

    Because it helps us to counter intellectual pressure from those who insist that they have it figured out. Both the conventionally religious and the New Atheists share a confidence that is, based on the evidence, unwarranted.

    Of all the “new atheists” the one I respect most is Daniel Dennett, because he at least recognizes the consciousness problem and addresses it; maybe just because that is, after all, his field. But if all he can say is that consciousness is a sort of self-delusion, then – as Augustine, Descartes and Shankara all pointed out – there still has to be a self to be deluded!

    I need to learn more about Dennett, thanks. I am (very slowly) reading through Roger Penrose, he’s a mathematician who thinks a lot about consciousness. He suggests that we cannot create conscienceless even with arbitrarily powerful computing devices, that with consciousness there is something else going on that we do not understand, perhaps down around how neurons engage quantum physics.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts Peter.

    • allogenes Says:

      Thanks for reading my stuff, Carty, and letting me know! It emboldens me not only to keep on writing, but also to take the further steps of learning to tag things to publicize them more, and to get into dialogue with some of the many other interesting people out here in Blogland.
      You’re right, the term “agnostic” has its value. But for me it is only a contingent description – applicable to certain questions at a certain point in time – and not a fundamental identity. Maybe if I keep it with a small “a” and keep it qualified and adjectival…

  2. Lindsay Says:

    Hi Allogenes,

    “And if it turns out that there is no such thing, so what? There is nothing lost by “believing” in it, because the “believer” is in that case not ultimately real to begin with and so can suffer no loss!”

    I’m enjoying reading your comments both here and also in Christopher’s blog, and must admit your comment here, made me smile.

    Best wishes,
    Lindsay

  3. D. Ramsey Says:

    I “believe” that my understanding of spirituality and religion should not have to be classified. Every thing that is produced from our brain comes from our understanding of what we have learned from another human being, with their own beliefs, in one way or another. So I try not to think of myself as a certain “type” of believer. I simply open my mind and strengthen my filter from day to day. Nothingness is impossible, therefore, nothing is impossible.

    • allogenes Says:

      Thanks for the comment! Much there that I agree with. Classifications are useful, but as Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.” And dogmatists of all camps fail to recognize the social aspect of belief, the extent to which what we think we know is what we’ve heard from someone or read somewhere. As to “nothingness,” one of these days I’ll post some thoughts on how our minds confuse themselves with terms like “everything,” “nothing” and the like. “Possibility” also.

  4. D. Ramsey Says:

    I await your thought burst on “Nothingness”! My grandfather is the one who actually turned my attention to physics and pondering some of the possiblities.

  5. 時計 Says:

    コーチ アウトレット 公式


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