The Human Condition:

Believer or Seeker? – December 29, 2013

Ancient of Days by William Blake

William Blake, The Ancient of Days
(courtesy Whitworth Art Gallery,
University of Manchester, UK,
Bridgeman Art Library)

I took an online survey recently where, in the personal identification section, the pollster asked for my religious affiliation. Usually I enter “atheist,” because I don’t have a personal god I can name or envision or even talk about. But this survey question offered no such category. Along with the usual choices of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so on, it listed at the bottom “Seeker.” So I chose that one—and it may have changed my view of the whole religious question.

Some people have made a religion out of their atheism. They don’t believe in any god as described in established religions, but they nonetheless have an organizing principle, a belief system built around it, and usually a rite and a communion. In place of a sentient if invisible and transcendent Presence, they elevate a model of the world they experience and their human response to it based on politics, economics, physics, or some other intellectual pursuit. They center their life on that model and take guidance from its basic premise and its corollaries as faithfully as any Christian or Jew reading the New or Old Testaments or a Muslim reciting the Quran.1

I’m not one of these somewhat militant atheists. I don’t think I’m smarter than the rest of humankind because I’ve “seen through” their various mystery religions. Rather, I feel my body-mind complex lacks some gene or neural network that would let me sense and appreciate the god with whom others so easily commune. I am blind in that dimension.2

So “seeker” seems to fit me. But does that mean I will be satisfied to eventually latch onto one of the major religious doctrines and settle down? I don’t actually expect to “find” what I’m supposed to be seeking. Instead, to me, keeping your mind and your options open is a virtue. While I may entertain many small and varied beliefs (with a lowercase “b”), I reject the idea that intellectual completion requires me to embrace one great belief (with a capital “B”) as my guiding life principle, to which or to whom I submit myself, body and soul, whole and entire, world without end, amen.

In my view, the believer has either created for himself or accepted from others3 a particular model of the world. It satisfies or can be made to fit, through exposition, extension, or explanation, all circumstances. For the religious believer, the presence of a god and his laws, his will, his creation, and his omniscience are the driving forces in the believer’s life and in the universe itself. For the political or economic believer, the principles of democracy, free-market capitalism, or state-sponsored communism are the driving forces of the believer’s personal action and of society itself. God, or Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, or Karl Marx presents the model, the system, the template for future action and creation.

The seeker, on the other hand, either creates for himself or accepts from others models that are merely provisional. What keeps the seeker from becoming a believer is that, for him, none of the models best describes all actions and occasions. The seeker can see viable alternatives to the proposed model. He or she can also see places and circumstances where the model does not fit, and the explanations, corollaries, and work-arounds that the model maker suggests to cover them are either inadequate or defy logic and common sense.

In my thinking, the positions of the seeker vs. the believer are comparable to the underpinnings of inductive vs. deductive reasoning.

With deductive reasoning, the major premise serves as a rule that has been established and is not in question. It is up to the reasoner then to apply that rule to the data as they are found. Consider the logical syllogism “All geese are white; this bird is a goose; therefore, this bird is white.”4 The major premise about the coloring of geese is not in question. The minor premise about the inner nature of this bird is not in question. What is still to be decided is how the one affects the other. The proof is based on certain knowledge. The deductive reasoner works top-down, from the accepted general rule to the specific circumstance.5

With inductive reasoning, the reverse is true. The major premise is not accepted as a rule but as a supposition that may be tested and found wanting. The minor premise may be taken as a direct observation. And the conclusion is subject to testing and statistical verification. Consider the logical syllogism “Most all-white birds are doves, geese, or swans; this bird is all white; therefore, this bird is probably a dove, goose, or swan.” That’s not a rock-solid, take-it-to-the-bank conclusion but, coupled with other generalities and analyses, it will take you in the right direction.

I would maintain that most scientists begin with a set of general observations—for example, about the nature of white birds. From that, they form a hypothesis—do all of these birds actually belong to just one or two limited, definable types (doves, geese, swans)? And then they set about testing that hypothesis by trying to find one or more cases where it is wrong. If the scientist finds an all-white sea gull, the premise must be expanded. If he or she finds all sorts of all-white birds—without interference from a singular genetic mutation like albinism—then the premise may have to be abandoned.

Scientists on the verge of discovery are always working inductively, like the scientist trying to establish the nature of white birds. Scientists who have previously established the truth of, or at least the preponderance of evidence in support of, a rule or theory or mathematical or physical law are working deductively, like the scientist trying to establish the known attributes of a particular goose. Scientists may also work from deduction to define the limits and fill in the blank spots of the reality they are examining, in order to prepare for the next inductive leap. But true science—the sort that discovers new knowledge rather than categorizes and classifies what is already known—progresses by proceeding from observation to hypothesis to testing. It cannot begin with a major premise that is accepted as true without questioning how that truth was established.

I like to think that the seeker has the better grasp on the true nature of the world. It is necessary to accept some premises as proven either so solidly as to be true or by a preponderance of the evidence as to be likely. Those accepted facts are like the stones that stick up above the surface of the river: they provide stable places for you to put your feet for taking the next step. But if the river surface is all stones, side to side, like a pavement or a highway, then you have nothing more to learn, nothing to observe, hypothesize, and test. If the river is flowing on all sides with no stones at all, then you are left with an unknown surface that may hide a bed only inches deep or holes that go in over your head.

The world—and by that I mean the complexity of all human relationships and actions, observed and potential, the complexities of life on Earth, and possibly out among the stars, the complexity of the human mind which observes and analyzes it, and the complex nature of physical reality extending to the edges of the cosmos, if such there be—is more unknown than known, more watery surface than stable stones. So the safe bet is to limit the number of revealed truths and philosophical positions you’re willing to state positively and to allow for a maximum of doubt ameliorated by a working theory of probability.

It’s less comforting that way. You don’t get to pound the table and declare your beliefs as much as the true believer. You will live on a planet filled with wonders and question marks and under a sky that harbors unknown dangers and delights. But at the end of the day, you will get fewer rude surprises. It’s also more fun to dig in and enjoy the intellectual game of piecing this world together. Because that’s what the human mind is for—or so I believe.6

1. Truth be told, if I wanted to elevate a doctrine of scientific knowledge to the status of a religion, I might choose molecular biology. Its basis, the DNA molecule, with its associated mechanisms of RNA transcription and then translation of amino acids into proteins, is a majestic thing to contemplate. Coupled with the principle of evolution, DNA explains—at least for me—the creation of life on Earth in all its complexity. It provides a pattern—in principle, if not in exactly the same chemistry—for life elsewhere in the universe, too. But then, the molecule and its mechanisms are so complete and ubiquitous on this planet that I have argued elsewhere that they may not have originated here at all. (See, for example, DNA is Everywhere from September 5, 2010.)

2. This is not to say that I lack moral guidance. I tend to favor Buddhist principles, because they guide thought, speech, and action from rational ideals of complementarity and reciprocity, instead of from warnings of eternal judgment by a transcendent father or mother figure. Buddhism also relies on the individual, rather than dogma, to show what is the right thing to do in any particular case. The Eightfold Path has few specifics about what might be “right” or “wrong” action compared to, say, the Old Testament or the Quran, where injunctions on choice and preparation of various foods, styles of hair and dress, choice of pets, larger lifestyle choices, and other commonplaces abound. (See Gautama and the Godfather from August 5, 2012.)

3. Parent, teacher, religious practitioner—priest, pastor, rabbi, imam—political or economic guru, philosopher, literary lion, scientific thinker, or some other external source.

4. Okay, this is a silly—though still valid—example, because you can tell the bird’s coloring at a glance without reference to its genus and species. But consider the syllogism “All vampires feed at night; this creature is a vampire; therefore, it feeds at night.” Eating habits are not readily observable outside of direct action and its consequences; so it is useful to have a rule suggesting potential actions and a definition of the creature before you—then lock and bar your doors at night.

5. Notice that the syllogism does not work with the attributes of the major and minor premises reversed. You cannot say, “All geese are white; this bird is white; therefore, this bird is a goose.” The fallacy lies in the rules governing set theory. While “geese” may be a subset of the category “white birds,” it does not follow that the category “white birds” is limited solely to the type “goose.”

6. If I did believe in a god, he or she would be subtle, discriminating, and would allow for a world with more than one right answer. Everything I’ve experienced just seems to work that way.