Ingersoll’s Why I Am An Agnostic

This 1896 writing of Why I Am An Agnostic from “The Great Agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll is one of my favorite historic passages about agnosticism. I’m glad to have found a narrated version of this with a slideshow on YouTube even though it’s incomplete and completely misses my favorite sections of VIII (8 for the roman numeral challenged) to the very end. Hopefully, the creator of this picks up the project again and finishes it.

Why I Am An Agnostic by Robert Green Ingersoll — Part 1 (YouTube)
In the first part of this book Robert Green Ingersoll discusses why people believe in Christianity, heaven and hell, the absurdity and depravity of God, church revivals during the Second Great Awakening, and the horrible lesson of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Why I Am An Agnostic by Robert Green Ingersoll — Part 2 (YouTube)
In the second part of this book Robert Green Ingersoll discusses the effects that the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment in hell has had on society, and why the New Testament is even more barbaric than the Old Testament. He also discusses his hopes for the future of a secular society, and how he came to be the enemy of Christianity.

Unfortunately #2 was the last of what was to be a 10 part series. Here is the full writing as a public domain audiobook. I recommend starting around the 1 hour mark of it for my favorite parts focusing on the agnostic conclusion unless you’re interested in his deconversion from the Christianity of his ancestors.

Here are just a few gems if you don’t have the patience to read or listen through the whole thing. Ingersoll’s view of the nature of a god:

This God must be, if he exists, a person — a conscious being. Who can imagine an infinite personality? This God must have force, and we cannot conceive of force apart from matter. This God must be material. He must have the means by which he changes force to what we call thought. When he thinks he uses force, force that must be replaced. Yet we are told that he is infinitely wise. If he is, he does not think. Thought is a ladder — a process by which we reach a conclusion. He who knows all conclusions cannot think. He cannot hope or fear. When knowledge is perfect there can be no passion, no emotion. If God is infinite he does not want. He has all. He who does not want does not act. The infinite must dwell in eternal calm.

It is as impossible to conceive of such a being as to imagine a square triangle, or to think of a circle without a diameter.

Yet we are told that it is our duty to love this God. Can we love the unknown, the inconceivable? Can it be our duty to love anybody? It is our duty to act justly, honestly, but it cannot be our duty to love. We cannot be under obligation to admire a painting — to be charmed with a poem — or thrilled with music. Admiration cannot be controlled. Taste and love are not the servants of the will. Love is, and must be free. It rises from the heart like perfume from a flower.

What Ingersoll believes about supernatural power and gods:

Then I asked myself the question: Is there a supernatural power — an arbitrary mind — an enthroned God — a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world — to which all causes bow?

I do not deny. I do not know — but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme — that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken — that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer — no power that worship can persuade or change — no power that cares for man.

I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all — that there is no interference — no chance — that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.

Man must protect himself. He cannot depend upon the supernatural — upon an imaginary father in the skies. He must protect himself by finding the facts in Nature, by developing his brain, to the end that he may overcome the obstructions and take advantage of the forces of Nature.

Is there a God?

I do not know.

Is man immortal?

I do not know.

One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.

We wait and hope.

The final section is poetry to me:

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

Let us be true to ourselves — true to the facts we know, and let us, above all things, preserve the veracity of our souls.

If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine — with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy.

What Came Before The Big Bang?

There’s an interesting article about What Came Before The Big Bang? written by physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. I believe as an agnostic that we don’t have the final answer to this question. This article tackles the question of a first origin and if the concept of a first origin is valid. Science works to prove an answer and honestly weighs in as undecided where religion claims a supernatural answer. This is what Paul Davies opens with:

Can science explain how the universe began? Even suggestions to that effect have provoked an angry and passionate response from many quarters. Religious people tend to see the claim as a move to finally abolish God the Creator. Atheists are equally alarmed, because the notion of the universe coming into being from nothing looks suspiciously like the creation, ex nihilo, of Christianity.

Personally, it makes the most sense for me to believe that matter and energy is eternal. This possibility is touched on later but here’s Paul Davies’ explanation for why an eternal universe is problematic based on what we know of inside this universe.

The first point to address is why anyone believes the universe began at a finite moment in time. How do we know that it hasn’t simply been around for ever? Most cosmologists reject this alternative because of the severe problem of the second law of thermodynamics. Applied to the universe as a whole, this law states that the cosmos is on a one-way slide toward a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. Irreversible changes, such as the gradual consumption of fuel by the sun and stars, ensure that the universe must eventually “run down” and exhaust its supplies of useful energy. It follows that the universe cannot have been drawing on this finite stock of useful energy for all eternity.

It goes on to explain the Big Bang to reach this main point:

The key feature of the theory of relativity is that space and time are part of the physical universe, and not merely an unexplained background arena in which the universe happens. Hence the origin of the physical universe must involve the origin of space and time too…
Once this idea is accepted, it is immediately obvious that the question “What happened before the big bang?” is meaningless. There was no such epoch as “before the big bang,” because time began with the big bang. Unfortunately, the question is often answered with the bald statement “There was nothing before the big bang,” and this has caused yet more misunderstandings. Many people interpret “nothing” in this context to mean empty space, but as I have been at pains to point out, space simply did not exist prior to the big bang… …It is not merely physically, but also logically, non-existent. So too with the epoch before the big bang.

The article hits the real meat of the matter for the lack of a first cause with the big bang. It does make some sense but is ultimately dissatisfying compared to the mystery of existence and the ability for anything to exist at all coming from a nothing void.

In my experience, people get very upset when told this. They think they have been tricked, verbally or logically. They suspect that scientists can’t explain the ultimate origin of the universe and are resorting to obscure and dubious concepts like the origin of time merely to befuddle their detractors. The mindset behind such outraged objection is understandable: our brains are hardwired for us to think in terms of cause and effect. Because normal physical causation takes place within time, with effect following cause, there is a natural tendency to envisage a chain of causation stretching back in time, either without any beginning, or else terminating in a metaphysical First Cause, or Uncaused Cause, or Prime Mover. But cosmologists now invite us to contemplate the origin of the universe as having no prior cause in the normal sense, not because it has an abnormal or supernatural prior cause, but because there is simply no prior epoch in which a preceding causative agency — natural or supernatural — can operate.

Nevertheless, cosmologists have not explained the origin of the universe by the simple expedient of abolishing any preceding epoch. After all, why should time and space have suddenly “switched on”? One line of reasoning is that this spontaneous origination of time and space is a natural consequence of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that applies to atoms and subatomic particles, and it is characterized by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, according to which sudden and unpredictable fluctuations occur in all observable quantities. Quantum fluctuations are not caused by anything — they are genuinely spontaneous and intrinsic to nature at its deepest level…

…one may say quite generally that once space and time are made subject to quantum principles, the possibility immediately arises of space and time “switching on,” or popping into existence, without the need for prior causation, entirely in accordance with the laws of quantum physics.

My instinct and my belief in agnosticism tells me that humans are most likely wrong when they develop a final answer regarding the true nature and origin of existence. I just don’t believe we’re advanced enough to truly understand such things and relate to whatever ultimate truth may exist. Here’s where the article hits on a possibility that resonates with me:

If a big bang is permitted by the laws of physics to happen once, such an event should be able to happen more than once. In recent years a growing posse of cosmologists has proposed models of the universe involving many big bangs, perhaps even an infinite number of them. In the model known as eternal inflation there is no ultimate origin of the entire system, although individual “pocket universes” within the total assemblage still have a distinct origin. The region we have been calling “the universe” is viewed as but one “bubble” of space within an infinite system of bubbles…

Life itself could rise out of an infinite system of bubbles as it fights against the tide of entropy. I believe we exist as a happy accident despite the universe. Everything about our hostile and fragile environment screams to me a truth that we are an accident in the infinite explosions of pocket universes. Paul Davies doesn’t dwell on this and goes on to discuss a singular big bang and the various problems surrounding it including the origin for the laws of physics.

In my view it is the job of physics to explain the world based on lawlike principles. Scientists adopt differing attitudes to the metaphysical problem of how to explain the principles themselves. Some simply shrug and say we must just accept the laws as a brute fact. Others suggest that the laws must be what they are from logical necessity. Yet others propose that there exist many worlds, each with differing laws, and that only a small subset of these universes possess the rather special laws needed if life and reflective beings like ourselves are to emerge. Some skeptics rubbish the entire discussion by claiming that the laws of physics have no real existence anyway — they are merely human inventions designed to help us make sense of the physical world. It is hard to see how the origin of the universe could ever be explained with a view like this.

In my experience, almost all physicists who work on fundamental problems accept that the laws of physics have some kind of independent reality. With that view, it is possible to argue that the laws of physics are logically prior to the universe they describe. That is, the laws of physics stand at the base of a rational explanatory chain, in the same way that the axioms of Euclid stand at the base of the logical scheme we call geometry. Of course, one cannot prove that the laws of physics have to be the starting point of an explanatory scheme, but any attempt to explain the world rationally has to have some starting point, and for most scientists the laws of physics seem a very satisfactory one. In the same way, one need not accept Euclid’s axioms as the starting point of geometry; a set of theorems like Pythagoras’s would do equally well. But the purpose of science (and mathematics) is to explain the world in as simple and economic a fashion as possible, and Euclid’s axioms and the laws of physics are attempts to do just that…

…Although as a consequence of Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem of logic, one cannot prove a given set of laws, or mathematical axioms, to be the most compact set possible, one can investigate mathematically whether other logically self-consistent sets of laws exist. One can also determine whether there is anything unusual or special about the set that characterizes the observed universe as opposed to other possible universes. Perhaps the observed laws are in some sense an optimal set, producing maximal richness and diversity of physical forms. It may even be that the existence of life or mind relates in some way to this specialness. These are open questions, but I believe they form a more fruitful meeting ground for science and theology than dwelling on the discredited notion of what happened before the big bang.

The article doesn’t end with any answers other than to say we shouldn’t dwell on what happened before the big bang. Religions say this is the only question that matters and they have the answer. Atheists say religious answers are rubbish. As an agnostic, I agree religious answers aren’t the answer and scientifically speaking the jury’s still out.

Given the choice between an uncaused eternal creator and an uncaused eternal existence for matter and energy, I definitely choose the later. A singular big bang that brought forth matter, energy, time, and space with laws to govern them out of nothing makes no sense to me. Claiming an eternal uncaused being or any other uncaused event caused the big bang doesn’t solve anything. An infinite system of bubbles popping out pocket universes explains how we could rise out of infinity without a specific intelligent cause.

I would suggest we keep looking as long as religions and science both say “poof, we exist” is the cause of it all. I do have this feeling there is more to it… more out there to understand… but I’m fairly certain Christian/Muslim/Hindu/etc. gods didn’t do it. They still make much less sense than the big bang if existence did spring from nothing. All I really know is that we don’t know.

Something from Nothing

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. In order to make progress, one must leave the door for the unknown ajar.” -Richard Feynman, an American physicist known for his work in quantum mechanics and particle physics

I had an interesting conversation with Jamie Tighe (@rankine911) on Twitter. He asserted the ONLY logical answer for the creation of the universe is for it to come from an eternal self-existent being since something can’t come from nothing or itself. The universe requires a creator as a singular intellect based on a human understanding of intelligence since that’s the only logical answer according to him. He dismissed every counterpoint or view I suggested because apparently his logic is perfect and without question. I’m guessing the creator he made in his own image is too.

Regardless, I do agree something can’t come from nothing using the rules of logic within this universe. Something also can’t exist inside nothing if we speak in spatial terms without the time dimension. Logically, the eternal self-existent being violates these rules of “something from or in nothing” since the being is something. This little logic problem is easily overcome by simply calling it supernatural and exempting it from our rules of space, time, and logic. You also have to avoid any discussion about that being actually existing as something. Apparently space or time can’t exist forever but an eternal self-existent being can create those laws along with all matter and energy without a beginning or end to its own intellect and existence. It doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand we have a scientific non-theist view that a Big Bang went poof all by itself and the universe spontaneously came to be from… well, perhaps nothing and without a cause. I don’t buy that one as a final answer either for the same reasons. Namely, what the heck caused it to happen in the first place and what was the spark that ignited the universe into existence? I can’t wrap my simple human mind around nothing suddenly turning into something for no apparent reason, which is why I emphasize my agnosticism over my de facto atheism.

I suggested the only logical thing to me would be that the universe itself is an eternal self-existent thing. The laws of physics and logic would then be eternal laws governing the nature of the eternal everything. I also found some interesting cyclic models that conceptualize an eternal universe with big bangs marking off the aeons in a conformal cyclic cosmology. We don’t fully understand the true nature of everything. These cyclic models just hint at some possible answers and that’s another reason to proclaim my agnosticism. If the universe is an eternal cauldron of “everything” then eventually throughout infinity and the sparks of the big bangs there will rise some finite time periods of order out of the chaos on small scales. Small scale order can evolve into complex order as it fights against the headwind of entropy that exists in everything.

I was told I don’t see the logical errors I’m making so I can’t possibly know what I don’t know nor what others can possibly know. It’s just really hard to get concepts across through Twitter. All of the problems for the universe existing are the same problems for an eternal being existing.

Go ahead and exempt an eternal being from laws of space, time, and logic in this universe. Wouldn’t there be other laws we can’t possibly understand governing how and where that supernatural being operates? If not, then the supernatural being is “all things” and couldn’t just exist as a singular intelligent being (A is not not-A). “Intelligence” and “being” are specific constraints requiring some form of laws governing the ability to possess these traits. The act of creation logically requires governance of the processes used for the universe to be designed and created.

If there’s a supernatural realm outside this natural universe then it’s part of a larger everything including this universe and it’s laws. There wouldn’t be any logic for a singular self-existent thing in the supernatural realm to create this one bit of natural something with space, time, and logic only applying to this universe. It’s still creating something from nothing even if you pass it off as a supernatural act within the confines of a supernatural larger set of laws.

Our concepts of intelligence, logic, and being are all defined and relative to this natural universe or they’re eternal concepts in an eternal existence. It wouldn’t be applicable to use our logic to prove or disprove a supernatural anything outside space, time, and logic if they weren’t eternal concepts. How could the ONLY “logical” answer for this universe be based on a singular supernatural being conforming at all to our concepts of intelligence or being? It’s the same problem I have with the Big Bang. How can anyone say we can see back to the beginning of the universe and time when we’re looking at the problem from within this universe after time supposedly began?

Really, the only “logical” thing I can suggest after all of this mind bending is that everything would have to be eternal to completely overcome the “something from nothing” problem. An eternal self-existent supernatural being (poof!) doesn’t solve it since it would also be something from nothing. That actually makes the problem more complicated. The simplest and most logical answer is that matter and energy is everything there is and they’re eternal. There’s nothing supernatural. There’s nothing outside the universe or existence. The laws for space, time, logic, and anything else in existence that contributed to the rise of us stupid humans are the true eternal self-existent creators of this planet and our lives.

What I really know is we don’t know how or why existence exists. An eternal self-existent BEING with the power and intellect to create this universe as something from itself (or nothing) doesn’t make any logical sense.

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” -Albert Einstein

Why Robert Green Ingersoll Was An Agnostic

There’s a nice blog posting the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll at TheGreatAgnostic.wordpress.com

Below is an excerpt of the powerful and freeing words from Why I Am An Agnostic (full version) posted at TheGreatAgnostic here. It looks like a good blog to follow for more words of wisdom from Ingersoll.

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural and that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world – not even in infinite space. I was free – free to think, to express my thoughts – free to live to my own ideal – free to live for myself and those I loved – free to use all my faculties, all my senses – free to spread imagination’s wings – free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope – free to judge and determine for myself – free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past – free from popes and priests – free from all the “called” and “set apart” – free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies – free from the fear of eternal pain – free from the winged monsters of the night – free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought – no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings – no chains for my limbs – no lashes for my back – no fires for my flesh – no master’s frown or threat – no following another’s steps – no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds. And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain – for the freedom of labor and thought – to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains – to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs – to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn – to those by fire consumed – to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

Let us be true to ourselves – true to the facts we know, and let us, above all things, preserve the veracity of our souls.

If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine – with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy.

-Robert Green Ingersoll