In The Cavern
Stories or parables are helpful for explaining abstract concepts, particularly if you can use a parable to show concepts from alternative viewpoints. Imagine a self-sufficient ecosystem deep under the ground in a fully enclosed cavern. It has water, plants, and animals perfectly balanced to sustain human life. The cavern has humans in it that are very much like ourselves except for one key difference. These humans have senses of touch, hearing, smell, and taste but lack the use of sight because the cavern is completely devoid of light. They can feel their eyes but they believe they’re as useless as tailbones and tonsils.
The ancestors of these mysterious people were sealed in the cavern and didn’t share the secret of sight with their offspring because they believed their future was going to be forever without sight. They also didn’t share the truth of an existence outside of the cavern and taught their children that the cavern was the complete physical universe. Eventually the first generation died off and everyone that remained was content with their sightless existence in the cavern. This is a story of three of those humans.
The “More Than This” Hypothesis
Life inside the cavern was simple with plenty of time to ponder the environment they could touch and smell. Thos has developed a new hypothesis about their universe and wants to present it to his friends Athos and Agos for their feedback. Thos says, “We’ve explored our universe and have touched and smelled the walls surrounding us. I’ve put aside for the moment what our ancestors have taught us and now propose our universe exists somewhat like a fruit. I believe we are inside the fruit and there might be more things outside our universe just like we can touch all of the things outside a fruit. I’ve listened against the walls and I think I hear the sounds of things that aren’t inside our universe. Sometimes I think I can make out voices that are talking to me.”
Athos replies, “You only hear the echo of our known universe. Your hypothesis doesn’t make much sense because our universe feels complete as we’ve explored it. There can’t be anything outside of it because where would the universe end if the walls weren’t that outer boundary?”
Agos offers, “Maybe it goes for a while longer and we could feel another wall just like a piece of fruit can be closed inside the walls of my mouth. Perhaps there are multiple universes outside of each other and there really is something more than what we know.”
Thos continues, “Well, that’s not my complete hypothesis, but I guess we could start there. I feel that there’s more than this universe and it makes sense that something should be beyond the walls around us. An alternative would be that it’s just wall material forever outward. Another possibility is if the walls are the end of the universe then we’re still in a limited space like a fruit and I think it must be surrounded by something else. It isn’t logical to think of anything like a fruit to be suspended in a void so that should apply to our universe as well.”
Athos retorts, “We can’t pass through the wall so the wall is simply the end of the universe. There’s no reason to develop a hypothesis that there’s anything beyond it without observations to suggest it’s true. You’re imagining a reality beyond what is perceptible to our senses here so you’re proposing that there’s a metaphysical reality beyond it. Your hypothesis is invalid because it’s beyond our experiences and scientific experiments. There’s no point in having an untestable hypothesis concerning the existence of the metaphysical so I reject the hypothesis.”
Agos concludes, “Well, I think there’s logic to support having a ‘More Than This’ hypothesis. I can’t conceive of a way to prove the metaphysical from our physical universe but I also don’t think it can be disproven that there isn’t more than this out there that we’re incapable of experiencing with our senses. Our inabilities may be overcome some day or it may be a permanent limitation of our physical bodies. I think it’s a valid hypothesis but you won’t be able to test it and turn it into a theory. What’s the rest of your hypothesis?”
The “First Mother” Hypothesis
Thos continues, “We can feel the size of our universe like the size of a fruit. I didn’t think of the possibility for multiple universes like Agos just did, but I did think of the problem of anything outside the universe continuing on forever even if it’s just the rock wall. I thought of questioning where our bodies came from as a possible explanation for the origin of our universe. We know that we come from our mothers and that our parents came from their mothers, but could that origin go back forever in time? That isn’t logical to me, so I propose a hypothesis that it isn’t possible and there must have been a first mother at the start of it all. I also think the universe can’t go outward forever even though there might be more than this universe we can feel. I think there must be a ‘First Mother’ out there in what you call the metaphysical and the First Mother explains how all of this physical universe came to be.”
Athos simply replies, “That makes even less sense on top of your first hypothesis and there’s no point in offering a rebuttal since there aren’t observations to support any of it.”
“Then where did humans and our universe come from?” Thos challenges him.
Athos thinks about this and replies, “I don’t have an answer or a testable hypothesis to answer those questions other than to say there must be a natural origin for it all. I must reject your hypothesis because it’s not based on any evidence or observations.”
Agos adds, “I have to agree with Athos that even your logic is a stretch on this one because you’re adding guesses and feelings on top of an already hypothetical explanation. Our knowledge and senses are limited so the ‘More Than This’ hypothesis has merit simply because it’s an acknowledgement of those limits of our knowledge and abilities. However, this additional ‘First Mother’ hypothesis relies on ‘More Than This’ being proven true and it just isn’t valid to develop an untestable hypothesis based on another untestable hypothesis.”
Outside The Cavern
One day, a part of a wall crumbles to reveal a passageway to the surface of the planet. The friends venture out and their eyes are opened for the very first time as a new sense in their lives. They look up at the sky and their new sense of sight extends their experience even further than touch and sound could ever provide them. They find themselves to be alone in this expanded universe.
Thos exclaims, “There is more than this out there! The metaphysical is real!”
Athos is in awe but remains grounded to a natural existence. “This is just more of our physical universe that we didn’t yet know. I was wrong that we hadn’t reached the outer boundaries of our universe but there really isn’t any more than this.”
Thos isn’t deterred. “This outside realm is a part of our physical universe now, but there could be even more than this if we continue to keep our minds open to the possibilities. We just found a sense of sight to experience what was a metaphysical realm. We could have a sixth sense and beyond that we haven’t tapped into yet. The ‘More Than This’ hypothesis continues to hold and this test has supported it as a theory.”
Agos looked up at the sky with wonder and concurred, “I agree that the hypothesis continues to hold that there could be more than this as well since this was the type of expansion to our known universe I imagined, though I had no idea what it would be like.”
“Since you see that hypothesis is proven then I propose that my ‘First Mother’ hypothesis is now based on a proven theory,” Thos eagerly offers.
Agos replies, “No, it’s still based on guesses and feelings instead of any logical observations. The ‘First Mother’ hypothesis remains untestable and finding even more beyond the physical universe around us remains a challenge we may not be able to overcome again. I propose a ‘We Don’t Know’ hypothesis in place of your hypothesis. It says there may be proof of a first origin for this universe and our bodies in a metaphysical unknown, but to develop a more specific hypothesis isn’t possible from this physical universe since the metaphysical by definition is beyond our experiences. The test for this can be seen in what we just experienced. We knew nothing about this fifth sense of sight or this strange world we now see outside the cavern. We had to cross over into what we previously saw as a metaphysical realm to understand any of this. I have to say your hypothesis was falsely developed because of the truth we see in my hypothesis and the results of the test that we didn’t know anything about this new aspect of our universe until we got here.”
Athos adds, “I can only trust in our physical universe and don’t agree with the ‘We Don’t Know’ hypothesis since it implies that ‘More Than This’ continues to be true. We’ve only discovered more of our physical universe and to say our sense of sight and this new world outside the cavern is a proof for the metaphysical is just playing with semantics of our knowledge. We only expanded our ability to experience a greater physical universe and it proves nothing. There is no ‘First Mother’ or any other link to such an idea here. Until we expand our understanding of the universe there’s no logic in saying there might be anything more beyond it.”
Thos sadly concludes, “I’m disappointed with both of you. You both disagree with my ‘First Mother’ hypothesis and that’s the one that matters most since I believe that our First Mother must be all powerful and eternal in order to have caused everything else to exist. Agos, I had hope for your ability to reason on this problem since you seemed to be open to my ideas. You believed the basic premise that there was more than this out there. We found out it’s true and yet you continue to not believe me. I agree with the basis of the ‘We Don’t Know’ hypothesis but I see no other answer besides the supernatural origin for how we came to be. We couldn’t have magically appeared out of nothing without a supernatural cause. Athos has rejected my ideas the entire way and is completely close-minded. In the end, you’re both the same since you reject the most important answer I believe I’ve discovered. I imagine the First Mother probably wouldn’t be pleased that you both refuse to acknowledge what has to be the truth. I’ll teach my hypothesis to my children so they may continue to seek the proof.”
Athos laughs, “Now you’re turning a hypothesis into a fairy tale. Where did the First Mother come from if we couldn’t have magically appeared out of nothing?”
Thos answers, “The logic is obvious to me. Nothing can’t come from nothing, so everything had to come from something. If there ever was a time that nothing existed then something couldn’t have come into existence from that. Since there never could have been a time of absolute nothing then there had to have been an everlasting thing to cause the universe. The First Mother is the one uncaused being that created everything else.”
Athos just shakes his head. Agos replies, “But if an uncaused thing that must be eternal has the intelligence and power to create everything else, can’t that same uncaused trait be attributed to the universe itself as the eternal thing that created us or had the conditions for us to develop?”
Thos replies, “Something as complicated and amazing as us couldn’t have just happened by chance.”
Athos is growing tired of these arguments concerning things well beyond human abilities and knowledge. He offers, “Given an eternal universe and adaptations over time then we could have developed in that environment. I’ll gladly work on some hypotheses to show how we could have evolved in this universe since we don’t have all of the answers for that.”
“I think that’d be useful since there’s still so much we don’t know about which Thos keeps trying to claim knowledge about.” Agos concludes.
Thos replies, “It probably won’t matter what you discover since it all comes from the first cause in my hypothesis. If you both reject that then you’re both missing the most important answer for the biggest question of the universe.”
What’s the point of this odd story? It’s to illustrate the meanings of theism, atheism, and agnosticism since some people think they’re three distinct viewpoints that answer the same question and don’t overlap. I used to share in that misconception so I wrote this story to illustrate what each one means.
Thos and Agos both believe there could be more than this physical universe based on their agnosticism that says we don’t know. Thos developed his First Mother belief from this and it is a theistic belief. Since Agos and Athos both lack a belief in the First Mother hypothesized by Thos then they’re both without theism and are considered atheist. More specifically we could describe Agos as a weak atheist because he agrees with the basic premise that there could be more than this even though he didn’t develop a theism from it. Athos is a strong atheist or anti-theist because he believes there isn’t any reason to think there could be more than this.
What does any of them actually know in comparison to what they could know? There was a giant leap in knowledge gained in the story that changed their entire universe and how they could experience it but they each held true to their beliefs in the story. Both Thos and Agos saw it as proof for the possibility that there could still be more we don’t know. Thos believed in that idea so much that he developed a faith that it must be true since he couldn’t imagine that the universe is all there is.
Can we really know if there’s anything more to reality than the natural physical universe we currently experience? This question of metaphysical knowledge can be answered as yes, no, or maybe and is the reason it seems like agnosticism is mutually exclusive from atheism. However, atheism doesn’t answer this question at all since it concerns disbelief in theism. The question of our possessing metaphysical knowledge is answered by the gnostic as yes and the agnostic as no. If we were to experience something beyond our universe and add that to our experiences like this story, then was it really metaphysical? The agnostic position leaves it as a possibility that there could be a metaphysical realm beyond this universe that isn’t dreamt of in our philosophy. The maybe answer adds to this the idea that the possible metaphysical could be transcended in the future for us to know about it even though we have no knowledge of it today.
In contrast, it’s not the theistic position to just say there could be something outside the physical universe. The theistic position states a belief in a supernatural first cause for the universe. The atheist counter to that is simply that there’s no reason to believe in anything beyond our physical existence without evidence. The agnostic addition to that disbelief is that we shouldn’t believe in a specific supernatural first cause or theistic belief because we don’t know if there is a first cause and if such a cause would be natural or supernatural. Agnosticism doesn’t actually say what a person believes regarding these possibilities despite the viewpoint on our current knowledge of these things.
If Thos were to say that he doesn’t have knowledge of a supernatural being and only has faith in his belief, then he’s acknowledging he holds his belief despite the fact it’s not a justified true belief or knowledge. Adding agnosticism to the theism claimed by Thos is countered by a blind faith that he can describe some specifics of a knowledge that isn’t actually known. The agnostic theist sees knowledge of the metaphysical as unimportant since it is replaced by faith. This is why an atheist arguing that an agnostic theist can’t believe because they don’t know and then use knowledge arguments to prove the atheist position are actually talking past each other since the agnostic theistic belief is based on faith instead of knowledge.
Both the agnostic and atheist viewpoints lack any justifiable reason to believe in a supernatural first cause even though their reasoning for the lack of justification in the theistic claims comes from different viewpoints. The agnostic view stems from our lack of knowledge on the subject and the atheist view stems from the lack of validity and faith for the claims of belief. All non-theist disbelievers share in agnosticism concerning metaphysical knowledge and atheism concerning theistic belief. I see the truth in both agnosticism and atheism when presented with any theistic belief.