Worshiping the Mystery of the Mystery of Life: on agnosticism

I visit Fred Reed now and then because he usually makes me smile when he's not drawing foolish moral and intellectual equivalencies (see his essay on patriotism). I opened up his recent piece on evolution because the truth that Darwinism deadens everything cannot be repeated often enough. In fact, I was smiling even before I started reading, until I ran into another of those equivalencies:

This agglomeration of everything under one theoretical roof appeals powerfully to minds that need an overarching explanation of everything. The great intellectual divide perhaps is not between those who believe one thing and those who believe another, but between those who need to believe something - I am tempted to say believe almost anything - and those who are comfortable with uncertainty and even the unknowable. Adherents of Christianity, atheism, scientism (as distinct from science) and classical evolutionism fall into the first category; the agnostic of every sort, into the second. Unshakable belief seems to alleviate unease with the unfathomed, the anxiety that naturally comes of not knowing where we came from, or why, or whither.

After that, Christians pretty much fade from view as Fred goes after the scientistic assumptions undergirding evolution, but are left to wonder why they should be grouped with such a crowd, especially since most Christians would agree with Fred on virtually every point of attack. We are left to suppose that the Christian's belief in Jesus (and all the depending dogma that implies) and the naturalistic scientist's belief in Darwin's fairy tale are reflections of the same need: to believe in something, even though the things they believe in are polar opposites.

This, says Fred, "is very different from seeing the world as profoundly mysterious, as in many ways being beyond our understanding, as containing questions that have no answers."

I wonder what sort of Christians Fred's been talking to. The ones I talk to, even the semi-literate ones, utter the word "mystery" with a compulsive regularity exceeded only by that of a Tourette's sufferer. All you have to do is ask this semi-literate Christian a few questions about what he believes:
"I hear you Christians believe in God. Is that right?"
"That's right. We believe in the Holy Trinity."
"What's that mean?"
"Three persons in one God." (semi-literate Christian smiles; he knows what's coming next).
"How can that be? Sounds like a contradiction in terms."
"Well, it's a divine mystery." (Christian's face is glowing.)
"How can you believe in something so illogical?"
"Jesus told me to."

And should you go on to ask about Jesus, your Christian will try to explain the "mystery" of the Incarnation, which means that he can't explain it but still thinks it was real. Get into more detail and you'll hear about that God-human's virginal conception in his mother's womb, about a Transfiguration, a Resurrection from the dead, an Ascension into heaven and, from you adherents of the True Faith, about an Immaculate Conception, an Assumption, and a thing called Transubtantiation, all prefixed and suffixed by the word "mystery." Of the great mystery which is the source of all the others, the Trinity, you'll be told that it can be known but is ultimately unknowable. Christians even write books with titles like The Cloud of Unknowing, in which you're likely also to hear stories about miracles through the ages which are in themselves plenty mysterious, but only to a mind disposed to entertain their possibility. Even the mere fact of biological life on earth strikes many people as miraculous. The naturalist is not so struck. But I've heard many a Christian claim that the existence of life is so unlikely, the mechanism of even the simplest cell so complex, that God must have reached down and kickstarted the whole thing. That is, He performed a miracle. Now, even if one is convinced that this is probably not true, how does the assertion that "God did it" make the origin of life any less mysterious? To the naturalist it is a mystery only in the sense that it's a problem he has not yet solved. He has theories about it, has a story to tell, but he can't tell all of it. It's hard to see how he can blame the Christian for pointing out that the mystery remains, and that it might be more impenetrable than any naturalist wants to admit.

But what is Fred's objection? (I am assuming he would make one.) Is it that the Christian should not assign a cause to an effect without certain evidence that it (the miracle) is in fact the cause? Okay. But there is a level on which he should welcome the Christian's answer, even if it might be wrong, since it respects the mystery he is so adamant to retain. In fact, what such a Christian is saying is that the origin of life is so mysterious, that only another mystery can explain it. And, as I said before, the areas in which Fred finds Darwinism lacking explanatory power - concerning the problems of consciousness, volition, morality, and reproductive necessity - are the very same areas in which he will find the average Christian cheering him on.

Maybe the problem with Christians is that, like physicalists, they have a creed. The latter avow that there is nothing beyond the physical, while the former claim that beyond the physical hides the Source of all the nothing. Fred will have no truck with those materialists, but I don't know exactly where to pin him on the religio-philosophical specimen board. With his love of mystery, I thought he might be an adherent to mysterianism, a central tenet of which is that some problems are unsolveable, which is what Fred seems to prefer. It's a - I don't know what to call it - 'category of thinking' that I believe John Derbyshire embraced when he kicked Chrisianity to the curb. But I don't think it fits Fred because it's mostly drawn into service by the very materialists Fred despises, and usually in reaction to the mind-body (consciousness) problem. Ed Feser made mention of it at his blog:

...the conception of the Trinity as a "mystery" finds a parallel in the view of some contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Colin McGinn) that while an adequate naturalistic explanation of consciousness exists, our minds are too limited to understand it. This view even goes by the name "mysterianism," and it is motivated not only by a desire to sidestep the various philosophical objections to materialism, but also by the idea that natural selection is unlikely to have shaped our minds in a way that would allow us to discover everything there is to know about the world. It is far more likely, mysterians contend, that the contingent forces of evolution so molded our cognitive faculties that they are useful only for understanding a fairly narrow range of truths, and that there are barriers beyond which they cannot push. This is certainly a very reasonable view to take if there are good reasons to think naturalism is true in the first place. (There aren't, but let that pass...)

In other words it's a physicalist's trojan horse. We can't know everything there is to know about the relationship between mind and matter, but that doesn't prevent us from asserting that matter is all there is. (But since we can know only a narrow range of truths, how do we know that this very broad truth is one of them? Sorry, I got distracted.) No, that description won't fit Fred. As he says of its parishioners, "They are not immoral. They just can't explain why they are not."

But Fred is. He must be some sort of agnostic. Yes, there are different sorts. I just don't know much about them, except that they're always telling me how open-minded they are. I believe they are allowed to have morals, but can they explain why they have them, any better than a materialist can, by appealing to a vague sense of mystery? I had an agnostic in class this semester (I'm sure there were others), of Iranian extraction but with all the scales of Islam having fallen from his eyes, who wrote a paper full of resentment about having Christian (or any religious) values imposed upon society. I told him I didn't know what society he thought he was living in, but that over a million babies were slaughtered in their mothers' wombs in America last year against the wishes of most Christians, and wondered if he resented having atheist values imposed upon society. Because that's the fallback position, the default. I told him that the agnostic wish to be free of imposition was a fantasy freedom that existed only in his mind, and that most agnostics of my acquaintance were, in public policy terms, functional atheists. Remove Christian values and the atheist's "neutrality" will be substituted for them. Neutrality on certain issues is another way of issuing a death sentence. Was he okay with all that? I told him that Christians want to "impose" their values only because they cared about him, about his infinite worth as an individual in the eyes of God. That's the bottom line, the foundation stone on which all their other "culture war" positions are built. That's why those awful Christians don't like a law that would have allowed his mother to abort him, because that law doesn't care about his worth, does not consider that with his conception he occupied a purpose in God's plan, nor did it in any way allow for the possibility that his destiny is one belonging to eternity rather than the world. I asked him which vision he preferred, because it will be one or the other and the choice is rather stark.

Well, uh, he saw my point but, uh, he didn't want anyone's values imposed on him, and he hadn't really thought it all out yet, but uh...

But, uh, I'll tell you whatuh. Next Fall he'll walk into the booth and pull the lever for the Christian-atheist Obama, that's what. I can't tell you how hard these nuts are to crack.

Appearances aside, I don't mean to pick on Fred per se, but as a representative of a certain 'type.' Fred, as he avers, has morals. He doesn't like gay marriage, I don't think he likes abortion, he lauds homeschooling, and he despises feminism and all its rotten fruit. But why? I can't help but wonder. The 'type' I'm talking about won't be a materialist and won't be a Christian, but stands always in the middle. He will tell you that he cannot, "in good conscience," claim to believe what he cannot believe, and thus is bound to keep the proverbial 'open mind,' a stance that seems not quite akin to the purpose Chesterton thought it should serve: to close on something. Fine. I'm not here to attack anyone's conscience but to question his courage. How does a very vague appreciation for the "mystery of creation" (Charles Darwin claimed to have as much) lead to the conviction that gay marriage (or abortion, or any number of things,) is wrong?

I admit that a man who is willing to look at the world straight on (that is, with intellectual honesty) can come to the right conclusion. But what will bind his soul to this principle that he thinks he discerns? For what reason will he surrender his job, give up his friends, or lay down his life should circumstances ask it of him? That he perceives there is some great inexplicable mystery behind it all? I suppose it's possible. Aside from his great courage, Socrates may have had more than this, but by how much I'm not sure. But I do believe that had he an acquaintance with Christian revelation, he'd have known better than to lump their mode of thinking in with the materialist sort. Even if he'd rejected the revelation, I think he would have seen us as brothers.

Since Fred can be neither a materialist nor a mysterian (since too many of the former are also the latter), maybe we should call his sort "mysterialist." It's the worship of the mystery of mystery, weekly club attendance and participation in rituals of obscure origin not required. There is no dogma attached except the core tenet: It's all a great mystery. That is all ye know and all ye ever need know.

But at least one disciplinary rubric ought to be required of members of this communion: drop the resentment against Christian certainty. All those Christians are saying is that the mystery has content; that, within limits, it can be delineated; that it is a definite thing, though not of this world (and, if it were, you would not stand in awe of it); that it is worth revering because it is the source of all other things, which includes you. It is neither an indifferent nor impersonal "creative force", because such a phantasmagoric creature could never give birth to anything, never create. We know this (hold on now) because it has spoken to us, and it is trying to speak to you. And what the mystery has told us is that you instinctively revere it because it brought the world into being with a purpose, and that you are a part of that purpose. Thus it has a grip on your mind, your soul, that cannot be severed no matter how much you kick and scream. That, in essence, the Mystery loves you, and that this gratitude you feel for the creation in which you find yourself, and this reverence you feel for its unseen existence, is the impulse to love it back.

So, for God's sake, take a stand, and tell me once more how I think like a Darwinist.

William Luse