This is the first in a series of posts where I try my best to convey my (nearly) 5-year struggle with faith and God. I’ve left out the autobiographical details pertaining to my gradual departure from the Baha’i community and resignation from the Faith — which I have recorded in a private journal for my own future reflections — and have focused here solely on the introspection that followed. You will note that, true to the maturing character of this blog, I’m not attempting to meet any common standards of scholarship. Rather, this is a true introspection, if you will. I’m conveying to you a raw expression of human consciousness, with all the turmoil, inadequacy, and incoherence that should characterize the mind of any individual – no matter how well that mind has been cultivated.
The year 2014 sent my spiritual life spiraling out of control. This is my attempt at regaining a sense of control – so to speak. My aim is not to strike a victory in some petty intellectual battle over what is True, nor to raise doubts in the hearts of those with certain convictions; rather, I simply wish to externalize my mind as an act of freedom – to empty myself completely before my light is extinguished and this inner life is lost to the world. Although it is inevitable that my perspective will be narrow and, in many cases I’m sure, ill-informed, I have committed myself to being honest and fearless in this reflection. By doing so, I hope to negotiate a resolution that will put an end to my inner torment.
All that being said, this account should not be viewed as final. It would be hypocritical for me to state that I am on a journey of self-examination while, at the same time, to state that my journey has come to an end. On the contrary, I think it is because I see this as a journey that I’ve resolved not to believe in something without compelling reasons.
Some, after spiritual struggle and physical toil, ascend from the lower reaches of “no God is there” to the lofty bowers of “but God”, flee from the shadow of negation to abide in the limitless realm of affirmation, and abandon the privation of a transient existence for the bountiful assemblage of reunion. This is the uttermost limit of the realm of effort and striving.
Baha’u’llah, From the Letter Bá’ to the Letter Há’.
In the shadow of negation, lost in the privation of a transient existence, I struggle and toil, yearning to ascend out from the lower reaches of – “no God is there…”
No God is there
I must admit at the outset that I enter into this introspection with a profound yearning for God. It is my bias, whether by nature or nurture. The desire to be part of some grand intention is within me; to be a purposeful protagonist born of Divine love and cast onto the shores of creation – destined, immortal, and bathed in grace – resonates with a deep longing. I wish to find myself, indeed all of creation, as part of an epic narrative of cosmological proportions, to regard my life as meaningful not only to myself, but to the universe. I want the universe to desire me, to recognize my significance…and I wish this to be true for all who can reflect on such things.
Yet, I am led to believe that I am a bastard born out of wedlock, an accident, abandoned on the doorstep of life naked, vulnerable, and left to find my own way. Wailing and bemoaning my plight, I petition the world:
Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of the world? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations and just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in the big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? If I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager – I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?
Soren Kierkegaard (1843). Repetition.
I find that there is no manager to hear my complaints. No authority amongst the great luminaries of humankind who can pull aside the obscuring curtain to reveal the true nature of reality. For every argument, there’s a compelling counter; for every explanation, a reasonable alternative; for every proof, an apparent falsification. What seems to remain is me, my thoughts, my concepts, my inner reality, and this maddening sense of hunger, unsatiated; this thirst, unquenched.
For some, the resolution to this existential quandary, i.e., the dialectic between the human desire for purpose and an apparent purposeless reality, is a reorientation of the mind to find meaning in new experiences and the quest for knowledge.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
Sharon Begley (August 15, 1977). Seeking Other Worlds. Newsweek Magazine.
Indeed, if all that can be known is what is available to the mind, and if all that can be available to the mind is what is encountered through the senses – which, some would say, includes a priori judgements as these come to our minds as statements and pictures via senses, not as innate ideas – then the only absolute purpose that can be said to exist is the accumulation of experience.
“To what end?” one might ask. Well, if we are knowing beings by chance, and our capacity to know co-evolved with the complexity of our experiences, and the accumulation of knowledge through experiences contributes to our reproductive success, then William of Occam would declare that “He who accumulates knowledge will cause the tree of life to flourish; therefore, experience all things, know all things, and achieve a perception of totality – thereby thou wilt father perpetuity.”
This drive to “achieve a perception of totality” for the purpose of perpetuating existence could explain the genesis of religious and (if a distinction must be made) spiritual traditions. Spirituality, in this sense, might be described as a state of continual search, a longing for meaning and knowledge, a struggle against falsehood where the seeker peels away the veils imposed between the heart and some Ultimate Reality. Not to nurture the growth of an immortal self, but to secure the immortality of a hopeful species.
My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts (as well as unable to take such a course of action) if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential for the welfare of the human species.
Frank Wilczek, (2016). A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.
The great desire of Spiritual Man then, it could be said, is to gaze with an unfettered heart upon the wholeness of being; that is, to be in “the presence of God.” Such a mysticisms could safely be spoken without violating the agnostic convictions that conceived it. Indeed, some might go so far as to argue that it was, in fact, such experiences of awe and mystery before the apparent unity of totality that gave rise to expressions of sublimity; and that, in turn, gave birth to spirituality. Faced with our utter insignificance in relation to the cosmos and the futility of our quest to understand its totality, it is no wonder that humanity has entertained countless speculations with no more evidence than the testimony of prophets and believers.
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.
…the cosmic religious sense. … is hard to make clear to those who do not experience it, since it does not involve an anthropomorphic idea of God; the individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. He feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance.
This enterprise of knowledge (as Wilczek puts it) even seems to be accompanied by an etiquette or an ethic of virtue, if you will, that would be familiar to both believers and unbelievers. An ethic that admonishes conceit and pride, and fosters humility and awe before the mysterious. This is, perhaps, further evidence that humanity’s quest to know “All Things” — in order to preserve the immortality of our species — was the antecedent to religion.
We are not certain of all we suspect, just as Socrates was not sure of the spherical nature of the earth. We are exploring at the borders of our knowledge. Awareness of the limits of our knowledge is also awareness of the fact that what we know may turn out to be wrong, or inexact. Only by keeping in mind that our beliefs may turn out to be wrong is it possible to free ourselves from wrong ideas, and to learn. To learn something, it is necessary to have the courage to accept that what we think we know – including our most rooted convictions – may be wrong or, at least, naive. Shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave.
Science is born from this act of humility. Not trusting blindly in our past knowledge and our intuition. Not believing what everyone says. Not having faith in the accumulated knowledge of our fathers and grandfathers – we learn nothing if we think that we already know the essentials.
Carlo Rovelli, (2014). Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity.
Wilczek waxes poetic in describing this ethic with words that stir the heart and then fold us into a submissive posture before the cosmos, as we perform the “work of Eternity.”
Happy is the man who can recognize in the work of today a connected portion of the work of life and an embodiment of the work of Eternity. The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been made a partaker of Infinity. He strenuously works out his daily enterprises because the present is given him for a possession.
Thus ought man to be an impersonation of the divine process of nature, and to show forth the union of the infinite with the finite, not slighting his temporal existence, remembering that in it only is individual action possible, nor yet shutting out from his view that which is eternal, knowing that Time is a mystery which man cannot endure to contemplate until eternal Truth enlighten it.
Finally, this spirit of humility and insatiable curiosity is captured quite wonderfully by the embodiment of inquisitiveness himself, Sir Isaac Newton:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Yet, there is a sense that these worshipers of experience, these paragons of sense-perception, these devotees before the altar of appearances, have altogether abandoned the fundamental problems of metaphysics. That is, the quest to know the reasons for knowing, to spar with the essence of experiences, to war with questions that cause the gut to wrench into contortions. While I write this, I find myself experiencing a similar visceral sensation as the strings transition from A minor to A major in the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A.
Even if the greatest mind of our species were to accumulate the totality of knowledge (to the extent that such knowledge is restricted to all that can be experienced through the senses), that mind would still be imprisoned behind the veil of perception. Imprisoned thus, s/he would never know what lies beyond that which envats it.
In case you are unfamiliar with the thought experiment, here is a brief retelling.
As the story goes, a mad scientist has removed your brain from your skull, put it in a vat, and enriched the containing liquids with such chemicals as would be required to preserve your life. Dr. Mad then proceeds to connect the nerve endings of your brain to a powerful computer and stimulates your brain. As a result, you cannot tell that anything has changed about your experience. You go about having completely ordinary experiences, but you are radically deceived about your actual situation. Dr. Mad is feeding you virtual experiences, which you think to be real, through his powerful computer.
Adapted from text retrieved from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/
Now, suppose I were to tell you that the passages quoted earlier were actually drawn from envatted brains? Suddenly, the idea that our purpose is the accumulation of knowledge through sense perception seems untenable – if not altogether ridiculous. What is knowledge? Of what can we be certain? By what standard does one prove what is known? Can experience serve as reliable or adequate proof of what is “out there” in the world? The “envatted brain” thought experiment does not suggest (so far as I understand it) that nothing can be known for certain, or that we should succumb to some existential nihilism given that we might be nothing more than brains in bottles. Rather, a more appropriate response is to embrace hyperbolic doubt in what can be known through sensory experience. To regard knowledge accumulated thus in its rightful place; that is, secondary and inferior to that which is behind the veil of perception, things in themselves, as it were.
Suddenly, the enterprise of knowledge extends beyond the realm of appearances, but also engulfs all propositions that lend themselves to serious inquiry. The object of knowing matures beyond mere childhood curiosity about the world, like Newton’s “boy playing on a sea-shore,” and reignites the faint flame of metaphysical inquiry that seeks to meaningfully reconcile knowledge and sentiment.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the spirit of skepticism that pervades contemporary thought and scholarship. We have every reason to doubt the veracity of fanciful speculations, or the motivations of those who would exploit the trusting nature of good people in order to indulge their rapacious appetites. If there is something to which we can all agree, I hope, it is that the enterprise of knowledge ultimately seeks to discern what is true from what is false or, in a less dogmatic form, to reduce the error in our inferences about what is true. However, this enlightened dedication to “knowing with precision” did not require the complete abandonment of pondering things beyond the standards of empirical testing. To doubt the truth-teller is one thing, to doubt the existence of Truths is a another thing altogether.
My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of truth-teller or truth-telling as an activity. By this I mean that, for me, it was not a question of analyzing the internal or external criteria that would enable the Greeks and Romans, or anyone else, to recognize whether a statement or proposition is true or not. At issue for me was rather the attempt to consider truth-telling as a speciﬁc activity, or as a role. […]
It has raised questions like: Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and to be considered as, a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth? (About the world? About nature? About the city? About behavior? About man? ) What are the consequences of telling the truth? What are its anticipated positive effects for the city, for the city’s rulers, for the individual, etc.? And ﬁnally: what is the relation between the activity of truth-telling and the exercise of power, or should these activities be completely independent and kept separate? Are they separable, or do they require one another?
Michel Foucault. (1983). Concluding Remarks to the Seminar in Discourse & Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia. Retrieved from: https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT6.conclusion.en/
To be continued…