An agnostic viewpoint

  (31 August 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

A comment from David Miller as a prelude to an upcoming Melbourne Sea of Faith discussion titled ‘Secular Atheism contra New Age Religion’:


Some New Age gurus tell me that the way to ascertain Truth is to meditate, stop thinking and ‘go within’. The originating alpha seers of the traditional religions used this, and other methods, to ascertain their Truths. And the rest of us, sheep-like, have followed the seers' visions. Secular religions have fared no better. Our Nationalist patriots tell us that our nation embodies Truth and Virtue and is therefore superior. The Communists tell us the same about our class. And the Fascists say the same about our race. Where have all these competing imaginary truth-claims got humanity? Into constant war and bloodshed!


Those amongst my Atheist colleagues who suffer from a bad dose of Scientism tell me that science answers everything. Science, they believe, is building the ‘rock of certainty’ on which they can securely stand. ‘We will soon know everything’, they intone.


My preferred stance is that of the Agnosticism. From the Agnostic viewpoint, Truth, Absolute Knowledge and Ultimate Reality are unattainable ideals. Nevertheless, the quest for these ideals is perpetrated by the 'agnostic' methodology of science. Out of our imagination, our fantasies, our intuitions, our hunches, our guesses and our speculation, together with observation and measurement, we hone hypotheses that can be put to the test. If these tests and experiments are successful, and can be replicated, they may in time achieve the status of becoming ‘scientific theories’. However, these theories are open to analysis, to challenge, to modification and to refutation, as well as to new discoveries.


Truth, as an ideal, may be unattainable. But the quest goes on.






A peaceful conclusion. At 19, arriving in Blighty I discovered GBS who introduced me to the word agnostic - I didn't know then and he suggested that there was no way of finding out. Ho Hum! I became agnostic and since I couldn't know I lost interest until I discovered evolution. That was a feast of not knowing enuf and wanting more. Somewhere we invented gods - we couldn't know them - there were handy ideas - gave us explanations we could never understand - and we believed them - they gave us the satisfaction of believing together - very bonding for our insecure little tribes. We have so many exciting and fascinating things to learn about this world and the sky - why would we waste time finding something we can never know to believe in. Cheerily G

Posted by Glen McBride

If we can obey the golden rule of agape-symbiosis, then it doesn’t matter much if we believe in a god or not. If we can’t we’re screwed, no matter what we believe or not. Cheers, Doug0

Posted by David Miller

Thankyou Doug Ogilvie. Your email response is appreciated. Yes, I agree that universal love could save us. But where are we going to find it? I must confess to being rather pessimistic about the future of humanity.

Posted by

David has a point: scientism is no more scientific than Christian Science is scientific. Human beings have limited, fallible minds and often have inflated notions of their abilities. And how on earth or elsewhere would you know (reliably) when you “know everything”? Science is essentially about offering natural explanations for essentially natural phenomena, based on careful collecting of real-world data and using largely rationalist or “agnostic” reasoning with a dash of Ockham’s Razor (going for the simplest but adequate explanation). Scientific theories are essentially tentative, liable to be discarded or altered as new information becomes available. Science teaches young scientists to respect the work of their elders, as long as it was painstaking, and then to build on that work by helping to correct the errors and supply the omissions of previous workers. A classic example of what I am on about is that a distinguished mycologist in England once described (1880s or 1890s), with spore details, a new species of red fungus from dead wood in Australia. (The specimen had been sent to him in England.) Years later (1950s?) a New Zealand mycologist examined the original specimen and declared it to be a dab of red (oil-based) paint! “Great men” can get it wrong. Lord Kelvin once “proved” that denser-than-air flying machines could not work! Science can tell us how best to do some things; but we need ethics to determine whether or not we should do them! Believing or not in God or in the supernatural is essentially a philosophical opinion or judgement. The ineffable mystery for me is simply that anything exists. There may not be a reason why, and why in this context may be meaningless anyway.

Posted by Nigel Sinnott

Nevertheless, my Atheist side does tend to be scientistic. Its way of dealing with this issue is to view religion as natural. Religion, then, becomes the means that humans have always used to uphold, apprehend and manifest their highest values, loftiest ideals and areas of ultimate concern. Religions need not necessarily be supernatural. For example, Truth is one of my highest values and science is one of the religions I utilize to honour, realize and actualize Truth.

Posted by David Miller

A comment via email from Charles Reither: "For us human beings there is no 'ultimate truth'; the ultimate truth for us is the highest and most noble truth that we can comprehend 'at our level of consciousness' at any particular point in time. So, for anyone to talk of the ultimate truth is nonsense. I do believe the answers that we are all seeking are being provided slowly but surely by a combination of: Science which will give us the systematic structure, aided by observation and experiment Philosophy which will give us the logic and reasoning behind the phenomenon, and Psychology which will give us the mechanics of the 'Soul and the Personality', or if you like 'Higher and Lower aspects of the Ego', or if you like 'Immortal and Mortal selves'. These three instruments are the handmaidens of spirituality. All religions need to be perceived in their ESOTERIC purity, rather than their EXOTERIC political contrivances. From an esoteric perspective, you will find that all religions are bound in a common spiritual truth. Sofia or other instrument may be interested in seeking out the Esoteric perspectives of the major religions. For example, the book entitled - Esoteric Buddhism by A. Sinnett, which is identical in philosophy and content to Theosophy. Also, we need to understand the difference between our 'Intellectual' mind; and our 'Intuitive' mind which is superior to our Intellectual mind and which has nothing to do with our - imagination, fantasies, so called intuition, hunches, guesses or speculation - but rather, is the mind of pure reason - that which Patanjali (the father of Yoga) defines as the 'rain cloud of knowable things'."

Posted by David Miller

James Randhi once descibed the New Age as Old Age placed in the microwave for three minutes. I agree with his opinion. As for 'supernatural" I think it depends on how we use this word, ambiguity being a bi gproblem in this area. Do I believe in the supernatural? Well, as has been pointed out, science deals with researching hypotheses (that can be falsified )and good theories become cornerstones of pragmatic value and enjoy high degrees of probability within our secular world. The ethical component of scientific research can be highly questionable. Back to the supernatural; I cannot confirm or deny it.Many things are possible out there in the cosmos, good, bad, and indiffernt, some of which could relate to human kind. Maybe if this phenomena exists it will be trapped one day by science and sanitized, I don't know. As for God, if such could possibly exist, I would argue that this belongs to a realm totally beyond our comprehension and ,as such, should be placed tentatively on the back burner.

Posted by Paul Murchison

On the issue of New Age beliefs, atheism and agnosticism, the real question to ask of the New Age beliefs is: how do you know that? How do you know that channeling involves conversations with the souls of the dead? How do you know that if you talk to a philodendron it flourishes better? How do you know that if you sit inside a pyramid you will be more energetic? The kinds of answers usually forthcoming are all about intuition and gut feelings anecdotal evidence and revelations, none of which has any validity in establishing factual statements about how the world works. Many of the belief statements of the New Age group of iconic beliefs are of this sort. The rest are meaningless statements full of pretty words and feel-good sentiments, but no solid basis at all. On those grounds, the appropriate response is that the whole approach to working out what to believe is wrong so does not deserve to be taken seriously Robert Bender

Posted by Robert Bender

An 'ultimate limited truth' geared to secular beings is obviously inadequate, even in the short term, by virtue of the great diversity of views held by the human population. In proposing such a "truth" I take it that Charles Reither is concened primarily with moral issues. It is always possible to look to gurus , masters, and the kind popularised by Theosophy, to take the little steps needed to reach higher plateaus. One is requires to respect and learn from their 'superiors' in order to gradually gain enlightenment. One might ask enligthenment relevant to what? The bigger question relates to an ultimate Universal truth; I would suggest that this issue suffers the same fate as does the pusuit of absolute secular truths. An absolute truth implies infinite knowledge never to be surpassed; this, in turn would lead to stagnation irrespective of what great heights in development had been reached. Hence an impasse! Perhaps we need to look how we define things and develop more realistic goals. As for science, psychology, philosophy etc, these secular disciplines can be of moral pragmatic value in terms of their probability and endurance factors Metaphysics, on the other hand,by virtue of potentialities inherent within infinity, does not lend itself to dogma, even subtle dogma,and needs to be handled with both respect and caution.

Posted by

Name re above post ....Thank you.

Posted by Paul Murchison

A response via letter from Geoff Forster:- "WHAT IS TRUTH? There are different types of truths. There are truths of logic and mathematics. There are factual truths, e.g. whether or not today is Monday. Or did it rain in Sydney yesterday? Sometimes the viewpoint of the speaker involves a difference. From an everyday use, consider: The sun is or is not shining. But a physicist will describe the situation in terms of the refraction of light waves. Each is valid in its own context. Or consider: "I have a toothache". This reports an essentially subjective experience. A dentist will give a physiological explanation., i.e. an objective account. Each is valid for its own particular purpose. Or consider the search for truth in a court of law or a period in history. In the former case,the testimony of a variety of participants in the episode being examined must be evaluated and weighed. In the latter, the reliability of written records must be evaluated. Obviously this is far more complicated than ascertaining the veracity of a particular fact. Sometimes there is discussion of moral truths. Is compassion better than indifference? Is altruism better than selfishness? Perhaps this is stretching the meaning of the word truth. Perhaps validity of principles might be a better form of terminology. Then there are scientific truths. These usually involve the regularity of certain processes of or features in the world of nature. But more generally, it might involve asking: how true is Darwinian evolution? Here there is a wide-ranging overall principle. Then there are the philosophical debates about theism versus atheism; freewill versus determinism; immortality versus extinction. Are these philosophical truths? There is also the practical question as to whether not telling the truth is ever justifiable. e.g. about someone's impending death. Aldous Huxley has identified spiritual truth with a realized union with what he calls the ultimate ground of our being - together with his famous comment that in spiritual things, knowledge is a function of being. Huxley also warns against confusing a verbal description of a reality, with the apprehension of that reality itself. Hence it would appear that "truth" has a variety of valid meanings.

Posted by David Miller

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