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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Thinkers in an Indeterminate Cosmos

The Agnostics: Thinkers in an Indeterminate Cosmos


David Lane

“A map by definition is less than the territory to which it points.”
However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery.

If such a topographical depiction were exactly the same in detail, size, and description to the area it wished to cover, then it would be superfluous and redundant. Therefore, if we accept this definition of maps, we know that each of them (no matter how sophisticated) will have gaps. Which is another way of saying (perhaps less politely) that all models are in some sense wrong. They will have key pieces and vital information missing. So, like the recorded warning to oncoming passengers in the underground tube stations in London, England, we are told to “mind the gaps.”

In my critical thinking and philosophy classes, on the first day we make the argument that all academic subjects from mathematics to sociology—are to some measure incomplete (including the Professors lecturing on them) because each have their own limitations. In mathematics, for instance, Kurt Friedrich Gödel at the young age of twenty-five published two incompleteness theorems that demonstrated “the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories” and that “a formal system cannot prove that the system itself is consistent.”

This sentence is false.
If (A) is true, then "This statement is false" is true.
Therefore, (A) must be false
Either way, (A) is both true and false,
which is a paradox.

In 1927 Werner Karl Heisenberg introduced the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics which showed there was a fundamental limit in physics in knowing precisely the position and momentum of any elementary particle. This caused Albert Einstein endless headaches, no doubt, since as he informed his good friend, Max Born, Heisenberg's mentor and collaborator and grandfather to Olivia Newton-John (the famous pop singer of the 1970s and 1980s whose signature song was coincidentally entitled “Let's Get Physical”), that he didn't believe that the ultimate laws of nature were due to probability.

Davide Lane (ed.), The Agnostics

Yet, as repeated experiments have shown over the past century, we cannot yet bypass the uncertainty restriction, since chance is indeed at the heart of quantum theory.

In the 1850s Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided us with a tremendous insight into how biological forms evolve and adapt over time due to natural selection. One of the great consequences of their pioneering work was the realization that much of what drives human beings and other animals is the result of previous trials and errors of our ancestors trying to do their best to survive long enough to pass on their genetic codes. Because of this winnowing process (which, lest we forget, is predicated on being able to navigate and acclimatize to ever-changing eco-niches), only certain DNA strands were able to make it through evolution's unpredictable maze.

We are the living historical result and as such have been shaped and molded by a series of untold journeys. Hence, we are limited creatures not only by circumstance (where and when we are born) but by the very nature of our hardware.

Given this diversity, some have differing cognitive abilities, some have varying physical impairments, and the list goes on. In sum, we are limited creatures by the very nature of our biology. Perhaps a good way to see this clearly is to imagine that we are squirrels who have the newfound ability to talk about our condition, but with the necessary caveat that we must do so within the limitations of our cranial capacities and our central nervous system. Would anything we thought or said tell us about the universe as it “really is”? Or, would all our speech be more reflective of how bounded we are by our circumscribed anatomies?

In psychology, we are informed that humans on average have the ability to only hold four to seven things in their mind at one time. Given this parameter, is it not the height of hubris to believe (even for a nano- second) that our mind-models of the cosmos and all that it contains are transparently accurate? To the contrary, perhaps the greatest error we make as humans—what some have termed as the “original” sin of humankind—is to confuse our neurology with ontology. Our brain states tell us much, but in comparison to the totality of the multiverse that surrounds and inhabits us, it is but a quantum drop in an almost infinite sea of possibilities.

“The truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”

Nicholas of Cusa in his deeply insightful book, De Docta ignorantia, written in the 15th century C.E., and beautifully translated from the Latin into English in 1981 by Jasper Hopkins under the title On Learned Ignorance, explains that anything which is finite cannot in itself grasp that which is infinite. Using the analogy of comparing a polygon to a circle, Nicholas of Cusa argues that no matter how much we augment the polygon it will not (by definition cannot) become the totality of the circle unless it changes and becomes it.

“Perhaps for this reason Pythagoras deemed all things to be constituted and understood through the power of numbers. Both the precise combinations in corporeal things and the congruent relating of known to unknown surpass human reason- to such an extent that Socrates seemed to himself to know nothing except that he did not know. And the very wise Solomon maintained that all things are difficult and inexplainable in words.”

We are nevertheless virtual simulators since it is the one great advantage we have over other species, even if our modeling projections will always be limited in their import. As I have argued in a number of essays on Integral World and elsewhere, in- sourcing varying trajectories (in our own Sherlock Holmes like “mind palaces”) before outsourcing them in a treacherous world, where eat or be eaten is endemic, has tremendous evolutionary benefits, not the least of which is having more options in a world of feeding, fleeing, fighting, and fucking. Yet, this same asset also contains within it a dangerous downside, where we far too often confuse our imaginations with how things really are. The problem is that it is difficult to acknowledge our limitations and be open at each and every turn for necessary corrections to our predisposed world outlooks. Instead we tend to believe that whatever we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is the sum-total of the world and because of this we mistake our infinitesimally small slice of reality for reality itself.

“Those who know don't talk. Those who talk don't know. Close your mouth, block off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. This is the primal identity. Be like the Tao. It can't be approached or withdrawn from, benefited or harmed, honored or brought into disgrace. It gives itself up continually. That is why it endures.”

The electromagnetic spectrum, which includes a wide array of possibilities— ranging from cosmic rays to gamma rays to ultra-violet rays to infrared micro waves to radar to radio waves to broadband waves—almost entirely escapes our direct perception. It is roughly estimated that we access less than .0035 percent of the total electromagnetic spectrum. We are mostly blind creatures acting as if we are fully sighted.

Take, for instance, the total number of books that have been written in modern history, whether in Guajarati, English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, German, French, or Hindi, and Google estimates it to be roughly around 130 million. If this is even relatively accurate, it means that no matter how much we read, over 99.9 percent of all the written texts around the globe would remain unread. Even if we are avid bibliophiles we cannot even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the human library.

Although we possess the most complex physical virtual reality headset known to exist—our three pounds of glorious tissue known as our brain—it is remains but a jerry- rigged filtering data mechanism that conceals much more than it reveals about what surrounds and inhabits us moment to moment. With 86 billion neurons and trillions of synaptic connections, we no doubt get a glimpse of the cosmos, but it is mere a shadowy peep hole of the cosmic cinema that is projected to us.

What, then, are we to make of our cranial limitations? The answer is perhaps simpler, yet more profound, than we may at first appreciate. Focus on our unknowingness and make that (not illusions of all-knowingness) as the foundation of how we approach the universe without and within. Ancient philosophers, such as Socrates and Lao Tzu, realized this dictum, as have scientists in the modern era such as the physicist, Richard Feynman. There is a wonderful bliss that is available to us if we can feel the mystery of our own being and how very little we know about the how, why, and wherefore of existence.

RICHARD FEYNMAN “But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is, so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.”

Yes, certainly, there is much we can ascertain and much that is valuable in our pursuit of knowledge, but even here we should remind ourselves (almost mantra-like) that our ideas are always open to revision. We far too often latch on to dogmatic thinking in hopes of finding certainty and security in all that remains beyond our control. But as science, that most humble of enterprises, has shown us: we can always be wrong in our purviews and thus should remain tentative in assuming any idea or positional attitude as absolute. Uncertainty is a virtue if it allows us to keep open to new information and not fasten ourselves to one purview only, since we are afraid to change. Revising when new data arises is key.

Contemplating on our ignorance is what Nicholas of Cusa advised centuries ago because knowing our limits is the elemental to our enlightenment. By doing such, we can then escape from delusions of grandeur and keep open to learning more, not less, in the process. We are an unknowing creature at every stage of our lives, even if we can articulate our ignorance better as we age. Feel the bliss of this infinite ignorance and it gives a joy that has no bounds since one wakes up to the very mystery of being and the sheer wonder of all that precedes and exceeds our capacity to grasp it as “it is.”

"No human being will ever know the Truth, for even if they happen to say it by chance, they would not even known they had done so."

We felt this as little children when we first came out of the womb and felt the magic touch of our mother, the sights and sounds of people and animals, and all sorts of unexpected happenings. But as we grew up we mistakenly duped ourselves into believing that knowing the “name” of something meant that we fully understood it. This, of course, is sheer nonsense. Any object and any subject, including ourselves, is unknowable to us in its totality. We have never fully comprehended the simplest of objects, since every material structure has component parts we cannot grasp. We may see a tree in the distance, but we don't see its molecular roots or the atomic lattice that coheres it together.

Richard Feynman, the well-respected physicist and professor at California Institute of Technology, described a great teaching lesson from his father when he was quite young: “The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, 'See that bird? What kind of bird is that?' I said, 'I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.' He says, 'It's a brown- throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything!' But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: 'See that bird?' he says. 'It's a Spencer's warbler.' (I knew he didn't know the real name.) 'Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it's a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing—that's what counts.' (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)”

“You could just as well say that an agnostic is a deeply religious person with at least a rudimentary knowledge of human fallibility.”

Diogenes Laertius reported that Protagoras also said: "As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life."
There is a Mystical Dimension that runs through all aspects of life. Eventually every human endeavor directly encounters an impenetrable Mystery, where knowledge turns into ignorance and control into wonder. Indeed, no matter how much science or technology may advance, the essential mystery of life will never change. The reason why is simple: Reality is always greater than our conceptions of it. Thus, contrary to our popular notions of mysticism, genuine spiritual practice is not concerned with increasing knowledge, per se, but rather reconciling man with his fundamental state of ultimate ignorance.

“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”

We are born into a Mystery; we live in a Mystery; and we die in a Mystery. Although we may learn about things, achieving various levels of technical proficiency, we apparently can never know what a single thing is. For instance, what ultimately is matter? What is a thought? What is a self? The essence of everything eludes us because our perceptions are always limited.

As the late Baba Faqir Chand, the great sage of Hoshiarpur, once told me personally,

“Nature is unfathomable. No one has ever been able to know it completely. No one has known it. A small germ in a body cannot know the whole body. Similarly (a) human being is like a small germ in a vast Creation. How can he claim to have known the entire Creation. Those who say that they have known are wrong. No one can describe or even know the entire Creation. It is indescribable.”


Often in the philosophy classes I have taught in undergraduate and graduate school, I would bring up this point of “unknowingness.” Pointing to a crumpled piece of writing paper, I would ask the class, “What is this?” Almost in unison, the students would respond, "A piece of paper." Taking this as my cue to lead into a deeper philosophical investigation of materialism, I probed further, "Yes, but what is that?” Catching my drift, one student invariably answered, “Oh, it is actually a transformed sheet of wood.”

Not wanting them to stop there, I asked, “And wood is made of what?” “It's comprised of molecules," the more scientifically oriented students would shout. Connecting to the now forgotten inner space ride at Disneyland, which takes one through an imaginary voyage inside a snowflake molecule, I queried, “But what is a molecule made of.” By this time, we had gotten down to the subatomic level, and our words began to betray our modicum of knowledge (electrons, protons, quarks, lucky charms, superstring). The final question I asked was quite simple, but given the line of investigation it led to some severe complications: What is matter?

Well, it should be obvious to the reader as it was to my class and to myself that there's only one truly appropriate response, “I don't know.” Now, this is exactly the response not only of most mystics, but most quantum physicists as well. As Sir Arthur Eddington, the distinguished astronomer put it, “Something unknown is doing we don't know what!”

To be sure, mystics have said that the world (or matter) is nothing but consciousness. But, what is consciousness? Not even a sage as enlightened as Ramana Maharshi of South India could answer that question. To such queries, Ramana would often sit in silence. Ultimately, matter leads to consciousness and consciousness to God or Nature (with a capital N) and both to Mystery. However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery, and nobody apparently (not me, not you, not Einstein) knows what that Reality is. We are sitting right in the middle of the Mystical Dimension.

A crude, yet perhaps accurate, example of this new kind mysticism-- where science directs religion, and not vice versa--can be seen in the analogy of the ocean and the bubble. The ocean, in this metaphorical case, represents the total reality of all that exists (call it God or Nature or Whatever), whereas the bubble (our self or anything which is less than the totality of what arises) exemplifies a seemingly bound existence. Now as the bubble it has two primary options: 1) surrender to the ocean which is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of its separate life; or 2) recoil and live in the (illusory) belief that as a bubble it has a distinct, autonomous existence.

“Not Jesus, not Moses, not Mohammed, not Gautama Buddha, not Krishna, not Tukaram, not Bubba Free John, no one has ever known what a single thing is. Not the most minute, ridiculous particle of anything. No one has ever known it, and no one ever will know it, because we are not knowing. We do not know what anything is. The summarization of our existence is Mystery, absolute, unqualified confrontation with what we cannot know. And no matter how sophisticated we become by experience, this will always be true of us.”

While both postures are not mutually exclusive, the unassailable fact remains that the former option is our necessary end game, whereas the latter position is to some measure our Darwinian necessity. It can be argued that self-realization is when the bubble intuits its subservience to the ocean and that it has no real life except in relationship with the larger environment. However, there is one very important catch here: the bubble (self) must be prepared to “burst” in the sea (Nature) from which it manifested. The ultimate physics which brought us into the universe are the same physics which will draw us out of it.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about how certain leading edges of science are re-discovering the Mystical Dimension. In physics, we find the strange world of photon entanglement; in neurophysiology, the processes of memory and altered states of awareness; in astronomy, the theory of black holes, antimatter, and inflating universes; and in biology, the intricate code of life--DNA--and the morphological emergence. But the rediscovery of that which remains unknown is a changing proposition and reflects more on our own limited cranial capacities than on what the universe or multiverse ultimately portends. In other words, the deep mystery we must first confront is epistemological.

What this means, of course, is that all the delineations we make about the world around us are potentially wrong because they are not perfect transparencies. This why science always rediscovers the unknowable, because no matter how sophisticated our maps may become they will have a margin in them which will reveal something hitherto undiscovered. This is also why Karl Popper's notion of falsifiability serves us so well when appraising most scientific theories. We know a priori that human speculations (even if amazingly well grounded in physics or math) are always liable to error. It is this liability which, ironically, allows science to progress. We build upon mistakes, even if we will continue to make them.

A new technological product, for instance, isn't accepted as flawless but is rather closely examined by hackers and others to reveal some uninspected flaws. And because of this ongoing dialectic we have seen breathtaking changes in a variety of objects, from computers to cars. All academic subjects have their epistemological cul de sacs. To know something is to a large degree to know its limits and that one cannot yet ascertain what may lie beyond it. In some ways, it is similar to a voyager who comes upon an undiscovered island and yet intuits that there must be many more besides, even if his/her ship doesn't have the necessary supplies or the capability of venturing beyond.

Science will undoubtedly expand our previous limits and horizons, but we will inevitably be stuck with our own neural constraints from the very beginning. And herein lays the great human dilemma: the limits of our skull are the limits of our understanding. Yes, we may augment our brains with artificial devices in the future, but even here we will only confront a new limit in time. If we don't know what a single thing ultimately is

Even if we can know various things about a material item, we are circumscribed in our knowledge about comprehending all of its various dimensions and connections do we even know where we are ultimately? What kind of GPS will provide us with precise coordinates? Yes, I may say something such as I live in Huntington Beach, but that is merely a section in Southern California which itself is part of a state of 50 in the United States which is part of a continent that is located on a planet that orbits a sun some 93 million miles away. However, where is that sun? It is but part of a galaxy which is part of a huge milky way which is expanding in a universe of untold size that some 13.8 billion years ago was collapsed into a space tinier than the 16-point size of the Didot type on this page. Yet, where is that naked singularity located? Does it make any sense to even use such framing questions at this miniscule level?

“I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”

And, if some theoretical physicists are correct, then this universe of ours isn't singular at all, but part of innumerable, fantastic universes of unimaginable dimensions. Where we are we has a simple answer:


What this means is that even if we forego religion and spirituality and opt for a purely materialistic understanding of what surrounds us, we are still touching moment to moment a mystery that transcends our ability to grasp it. Which brings us to that most revealing of queries: Who or what is living us right now? Who or what is beating our hearts? Who or what is firing our neurons?

Several immediate answers come to mind, of course, ranging from Jesus to biochemistry, but when we closely inspect how our bodies operate we soon realize that our “I” has very little to do with the day to day functions of our life. We don't consciously grow the hair on our hands or digest our food. We witness something that supersedes us even as it literally lives us. Whatever that is, of course, is unknowable in its entirety. Thus, we don't know what a single thing is, we don't know where we are, and we don't even know whom or what is actually living us. We live in a Mystery, even as we act as if nothing is Mysterious.

“The only thing that guarantees an open- ended collaboration among human beings, the only thing that guarantees that this project is truly open-ended, is a willingness to have our beliefs and behaviors modified by the power of conversation.”

The descriptive term agnostic was apparently first coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 at, ironically, a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in London, England. It is derived from the longstanding Greek term, gnostic (“having knowledge; to know”) where such “knowingness” is canceled when an “a” is placed in front of it. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the longer-term agnosticism as “The doctrine that humans cannot know of the existence of anything beyond the phenomena of their experience.”

Today in the 2020, agnosticism is no longer viewed disdainfully as it once was. Indeed, even atheism (a lack of belief or disbelief in god or gods) is much more widely accepted than ever before, especially among the young generations who have rejected traditional religious beliefs and dogmas.

The following biographical essays, each written by a different author, focus on such notable agnostics as Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Dewey, Lynn Margulis, Leo Szilard, Isaiah Berlin, Thomas Kuhn, Enrico Fermi, Herbert Spencer, David Hume, G.E. Moore, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl, Michael Schmidt-Salomon, and John Maynard Keynes.

I think if we are honest, all of us are to some measure agnostics, since we are limited creatures with limited cranial capacities and as such what we know ultimately is but very little. Perhaps as a species we would all be better off if we got less conceited about our so-called “knowing” ways and opened our minds and hearts more to the very mystery of the universe. Learning about our own ignorance, as Nicholas of Cusa opined centuries ago, and which Socrates made a cornerstone of his philosophy, is the surest path way for us to becoming wiser in this most unusual universe in which we find ourselves.

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