Presented at the Services of the North Texas Church of Freethought on Sunday, January 5,1997
What if you could acquire "all knowledge" — but it would kill you? That was the scenario earnestly presented to me and some others recently by a professional couple I met while traveling. The idea was said to have come from some movie that they had seen.
But the idea — not just of omniscience, but of possessing absolute, timeless, ultimate, and immutable knowledge or truth — is much older than modern pseudointellectual chitchat. In Norse mythology, for example, Odin — Wotan in the Teutonic pantheon — seeks such wisdom. Ultimately, he gets it by drinking from the Well of Mimir — at the cost of an eye, so that Odin/Wotan is usually depicted as one-eyed.
In the better known Genesis myth, Adam and Eve acquire a certain kind of knowledge — the knowledge of good and evil. But it is a curse to them and they are punished for their successful quest. Among doctrinal Christians, this appropriation of moral enlightenment is considered "Original Sin." Also in the Bible, though perhaps tellingly ignored for the most part, is that in 2 Chronicles 1 Yahweh is said to command Solomon to "Ask what I shall give thee." The new king's only wish is for "wisdom and knowledge," which he is given "such as none of the kings have had that have been before thee, neither shall there any after thee have the like." The price Solomon paid was considerably less than that exacted of Odin, though. He only had to make "a thousand burnt offerings."
Now there are many ways that we could come at these interesting ideas and the questions they raise. But I want to focus on just two of them today: the notion of ultimate truth and the closely-related idea of revelation or revealed truth. Let me take revelation first.
Let's begin by admitting that some of the earliest knowledge about the world that any of us learned was by means of a kind of functional revelation. Our parents, or our teachers, or someone else told us what to believe. Later we learned to acquire knowledge from books, magazines, newspapers, radio and television, and other sources, many of which we continue to rely on as adults.
But as hard as it may be for some people to grasp, truth is not truth because an authority says it, any more than what's good is good because somebody's god decrees it. As with matters of morality, the role of authority where knowledge is concerned is that of a conduit, not a creator. Even Galileo's distinction was in reporting what he saw through his telescope and not just the interpretation he put on it. Likewise, we still honor Isaac Newton, even though his physics has been replaced by that of Einstein, because it was Newton who first called our attention to certain observable facts that demonstrated a unity of order that became the first theory of gravitation.
Consider again the situation of small children growing up. After at first seeing parents and other authority figures as virtual gods who know everything there is to know, we eventually come to understand that much of what they told us wasn't quite exactly right. Or complete. Or altogether uncolored by their own personal experiences and circumstances. At the same time, most of us honestly believe that a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom was imparted to us by others during the course of our lives, information that has often proven extremely useful to us.
It is the process of thinking which guides us beyond the idea of revelation, and that clarifies what it means to know something. That is what enables an authentic understanding. However rudimentary and tentative our knowledge of something may be, it's the feeling of having one's own sense of a thing that is what counts in the end. Simply appreciating that the notion of atoms comes from objective evidence of some kind, while that of angels does not, for example, is a kind of knowledge completely unlike the "knowledge" that atoms exist because scientists say they do and angels exist because theologians say they do.
Likewise, if there are good things in a book such as the Bible — a moral precept like "Thou shalt not kill," for example — it is because such things can be placed in their contexts. Killing someone for picking up sticks on the Sabbath is morally repugnant, even though Yahweh commands it at Number 15:32-36. Stealing is wrong, even though the Bible God told the Jews to despoil the Egyptians at Exodus 3:22. And genocide and slavery are wrong, even though the Judeo-Christian deity decreed them as well. So much for situation ethics. It says something for the power of human thought that we recognize drive-by shootings and armed robberies as wrong — even if the perpetrators insist that God told them to do it, claims that are quite plausible if one takes the Bible seriously.
Revelation, therefore, can never be more than a proxy — a temporary substitute — for real knowledge. Because revelation isn't knowledge. It's just naked, unsupported assertion. And if it's unverifiable as well ... Well, in that case it's utterly worthless beyond its face value as just something that someone said or wrote, no matter who the speaker or writer is or claims to be inspired by.
It may be well for American Freethinkers to remember, as they move through the surrounding sea of nominal Christianity, the story of Thomas in John 20. There, the doubting disciple flatly says that "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." For although Thomas was reproached for his skepticism, he wasn't damned for it.
Given that ultimate truth cannot be had by revelation, to who or what, then, can we look for such knowledge? Many Atheists and other Freethinkers are quite sure that they can attain such understanding from facts and reason, from a rational consideration of the evidence of our senses, and from the scientific enterprise. And, ultimately, this is the only way that we are ever going to acquire objective knowledge. But objective knowledge is not ultimate knowledge, precisely because objective knowledge depends on a context of human experience. That experience, in turn, is continually expanding and ramifying to an extent and in ways that no one has yet been able to anticipate. So how can we know which of our present beliefs are absolute, timeless, ultimate, and immutable?
Think of it! What can we be totally, positively, and unconditionally certain of? Descartes'cogito, that we think, therefore we are? What does that mean — that we "are?" Do we exist if we are a fleeting fancy in the mind of some extradimensional entity? Or perhaps between the synapses of a universal flatworm? Or a cosmic computer chip? Do we exist if we are a part of the ephemeral dreamings of an otherworldly sleeper?
Or how about Ayn Rand's "A is A?" Is that a meaningful statement, that a thing is what it is?
Others have suggested that it is undeniable that "reality exists." Yet what is reality? Isn't "reality" simply a term that we attach to "that which exists?" Is it helpful to us to "know" that that which exists exists?
Call it modern pseudointellectual chitchat, if you like. That's what it is. That's how absurd, how hollow, and how meaningless faith-based religions are when they claim to possess absolute, timeless, ultimate, and immutable truth. For those who advertise such wares are claiming to have nothing less than knowledge which is devoid of context, which is a bit like having a Euclidean triangle without corners. That's why faith is so necessary to maintain such belief systems, because experience can't be depended upon to support them. It's also why thinking is so deadly to such unreasoning creeds.
It's easy to have sympathy with the idea of attaining ultimate knowledge. As we've seen, it's a very old idea. Perhaps people have been dreaming of such a thing for as long as there have been people.
It's also easy to have sympathy with the idea of acquiring ultimate truth by means of some shortcut: eating divine fruit, drinking from a mystical well, or even somehow — for those who can persuade themselves that such a thing is possible — willfully believing what is told to them by others or what they read — selectively, of course — in a "sacred" book. Laziness comes so naturally to human beings.
But dreams cannot be simply dreamed. They must be followed, pursued, and aspired to. Nor are dreams often realized — if they are ever realized — by chance or happenstance, no matter what the folks at the Texas Lottery say.
There is nothing wrong, and everything good, in attaining knowledge and wisdom, and bettering ourselves and the world thereby. That is the legacy of the human condition. But our capacity to attain to real knowledge and wisdom begin and grow only from experience, and end only in the grave.
To suppose otherwise is to become blind to human experience, to misunderstand the nature of knowledge, and to thereby evade the human condition. Those who do so fool themselves and become fools. For they suppose that they know what they do not know and can do what they cannot do.
So where does this leave us? First of all, it leaves us with the recognition that all truth draws its legitimacy from evidence of some kind. To the degree that such evidence is not completely objective, the conclusions that are drawn cannot be either, of course. But nothing can claim the legitimacy of real knowledge — or offer the value of real knowledge — without a context in human experience. Therefore, for as long as human experience continues to grow and unfold, human understanding can be expected to advance and develop with it. Nor will any god(s) help us if we do not make this happen.
What this means in very practical terms is that we human beings have a birthright that is denied to the kind of omniscient being that the unthinking and impatient look to for an easy answer, a pleasing certainty, and an unearned and undeserved salvation from the fears and ignorance that it has always taken the courage and determination of human beings to overcome.
What it means is that we can celebrate the meaninglessness of the popular understanding of absolute, timeless, ultimate, and immutable truth unconnected to an evidential context in the recognition of the meaningfulness of our ability to grow, to learn, and to improve ourselves. No perfect god(s) can do that!
Thank you, and Good Morning.
© 1997 Tim Gorski