What Might I Substitute for Empiricism in Getting at the Truth of Ultimate Questions?

I would say nothing. I think that empiricism and reason are the best that we can do.

So then why, as an agnostic, am I defending (in a previous post) Francis Collins’s explicitly theological gestures?

Here’s why: I think that, with regards to the ontological mystery and ultimate questions, we hit an impasse where empiricism cannot go (either because we lack evidence or because certain questions result in question-begging regardless of what answer you might give—such as whether matter precedes mind or mind precedes matter at the beginning of the universe). From my vantage, everyone should therefore be an agnostic and simply say that “we don’t know” what we’re embedded in. But obviously we are “overgoing” people, never content with stalled answers. Max Weber once spoke of the human “inner compulsion to understand the world as a meaningful cosmos and to take up a position towards it.”

I thus think of theology, philosophy, atheism, dance, religion, prayer, music, poetry, yoga, meditation, candle lighting, vows of silence, literature, art, zen koans, and song as very human responses to the “ontological mystery” (to use the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s phrase). I think that these are all different ways of “talking” to (and about) the mystery of being and this weird, absurd, and contingent “thing” that we find ourselves embedded in. A lot of this “talk” functions to bring the mystery under illusory control, to frame or cage the universe in such a way as to tame its strangeness.

We all know the kinds of moves that theists make. But what about atheists and agnostics? Here’s the the type of moves that atheists and agnostics tend to make: We might build, akin to theology, philosophical ways of talking about the world. We might, for example, speak about the world in the language of Derrida, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer. We might read the novels of Camus and meditate on the universe’s absurdity and decide to rebel against the indifferent void, embracing “the myth of Sisyphus.” We might become Buddhists who explore the mind via Vipasana meditation. We might become Stoics or Epicureans who read Roman “therapeutic” and philosophical texts like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, or Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, or the essays of Seneca. We might obliterate our despair in drugs or alcohol. We might read Nietzsche. We might join the environmental movement, or become Marxists or Objectivists.

Like atheists, religionists—including scientists who are religious—need “meaning” outlets too.

I just think that if we treat religious gestures (such as theology) toward the ontological mystery with literalness, rather than as just another form of language making—a placeholder—a poem—set before the “mystery”—then we are committing a category mistake. The genre of theology is poetry—it’s not science. It’s a form of beer drinking and dance. Perhaps to get overworked about it is akin to getting worked up over the atheist who reads Nietzsche instead of just science textbooks. Francis Collins, for example, is a moderate Christian, not a fanatic. I won’t say he’s an ironist about his Christianity, but he’s pretty calm about it. It is simply not a characteristic of wisdom to start fights with religious people like Collins—especially if their theology—as Collins’s is—is Kantian-like in nature. In other words, if the theology does not touch upon the empirical world in any practical sense, and if it doesn’t interfere with scientific practice or funding, maybe we should just shrug and let it be. Most atheists and agnostics do this with astrological charts sold in grocery stores. It’s irrational, it’s a stupidity, but it’s relatively harmless. Why not treat moderate and liberal brands of religion and theology with similar calm?

The forms of theology that we worry about (or should worry about) are those that inspire fundamentalist violence or the restriction of freedom. (Just as we would worry about a philosopher advocating terrorism or the restriction of freedom). But so long as the philosopher or theologian or poet or novelist keeps his/her “art” over “here” and sequestered in the form of a peculiar myth-making language—and science over “here”—we’ve got little (in my view) to worry about. We ought to take theology of the sort that Collins does for what it is: harmless poetry; another way of speaking to—and taming the psyche before—the mystery. Even if Collins himself doesn’t take it ironically, we should. Human beings, afterall, are always going to have eccentric outlets for addressing the ontological mystery. The key is to make all this eccentricity “harmless” and kept out of the way of the progress of academic and scientific empiricisms. We can have both, in my view, without getting all bent out of shape when we see non-empirical and culturally contingent languages at work among us.

I admit that I’m ambivalent about what I’m saying here. It may be that I should be more Manichean about irrationalism in society because it sets the mind into unhealthy habits that makes it susceptible to more malignant forms of bullshit (when it comes along). That’s certainly true. It’s a hard call. When to fight. When to let it go. There’s a part of me that cheers the rhetorically “militant” atheists who caustically take after religions. But only a part.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What Might I Substitute for Empiricism in Getting at the Truth of Ultimate Questions?

  1. josef johann says:

    I did a long post on the supposed gap between science and “all else” (like poetry).

    It’s here, and says most of what I would say here in response.

    Primarily, my response is that parceling off science from poetry involves a failure of imagination for the fact that poetry nonetheless is describing a real world with physical, biological inhabitants and that a genuine understanding of science inspires the same feeling toward the world that we think can “only” be done by poetry.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I’ll look at your blog post at your site soon, but I’m not sure that you could characterize poetry in the way that you are. Heaven, for example, is inhabited (in the religious imagination) by people and things (streets of gold). And poems like John Donne’s “Batter My Heart Three Person’d God” is about, well, the Trinitarian diety kicking the soul’s ass.

    I think it all depends on what poem we’re talking about. Is a poem by a Romantic atheist (like Shelley) praising “the temple of Nature” (for example) in accord with reality? Or is it just another way of talking—another language?

    I don’t know the answer. I’m just thinking.


  3. josef johann says:


    By poetry describing the real world, I didn’t mean it was a literal requirement of the verbal content of the poetry, which would be ridiculous. Rather, its that the “truth” in poetry suggested by its metaphors, its references to things like heaven, consists in its pertaining to the real world. It’s meaning is meaning for our world. Our physical, materialistic world.

    Its possible to recognize continuities across separate aspects of nature and blend them together and being moved to poetic sentiment, without actually saying anything that is antithetical to science, or in need of some separate, metaphysical “grounding”.

    I’ll again quote Feynman:

    It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

  4. santitafarella says:


    I’m with you (and Feynman) that we want more info. about mysteries. But when Feynman says—“What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”—I think that he is far too optimistic about a non-mythologized art. Sartre’s little book titled “Literature and Existentialism” (which you can get at amazon) I think suggests why a purposeless universe may be trickier for the artist than a purposeful one. Sartre notes that we read a book closely precisely because we know that, unlike with nature, every word is intended by the author, and so has meaning to plumb. A sphere of methane is an accident. A sphere of methane in a poem, linked to metaphors of human identification, and with purpose by an author, is meaningful.

    If the universe is without purpose, the artist must make a purpose that will go beyond the sphere of methane, however beautiful in its accidental existence. If Saturn is not a god, the poet must, as it were, make one of it, then incorporate it into the poet’s own meaning system. Otherwise there is no poetry to draw from its spinning. The methane sphere is ever only interesting in relation to us—that is, those capable of making meaning of it, or incorporating it into our own artistic meaning.

    Saturn must eat his children. Jupiter his wives.


  5. josef johann says:


    A sphere of methane is an accident.

    I object to this. Jupiter is what it is in virtue of the physical laws woven into it, and as such is a kernel of potentiality, promise of meaning.

    A sphere of methane in a poem, linked to metaphors of human identification, and with purpose by an author, is meaningful.

    I’m not sure why you think human intention isn’t something that can be identified with a physical universe.

    If Saturn is not a god, the poet must, as it were, make one of it, then incorporate it into the poet’s own meaning system. Otherwise there is no poetry to draw from its spinning.

    There are obvious cases, which I think you are leaving unmentioned, where nature stuns you with its overwhelming vivacity. The first time I ever saw mountains in Wales was one occasion for me. I was young and hadn’t seen real mountains before, and I was absolutely amazed. I didn’t (and don’t) consider myself a poet, and I don’t think I was “interpreting” it or trying to make something of it, it just was.

    If one wants to say its because of some inner poetic sense you always have, that seems to me quite different from making a positive effort to lay poetry over and against nature (the latter would suggest it wasn’t already there). I would follow the likes of Whitman in saying that poetry discloses a relationship with nature, and what we call “interpretation” is the struggle to make that relationship clear.

  6. santitafarella says:


    See, you can’t avoid it. You wrote: “Nature stuns you with its overwhelming vivacity.”

    Nature neither stuns, nor is it vivacious. Nature is blind and purposeless with us (and without us). Nature is a desert without the human imagination. The category of “us” as subjects with purpose is completely other in relation to nature as object. Historically, poets are always drawing us into pantheistic or theistic seductions, or the alternative move—heightening nature’s indifference to make us feel alone. It is a mother, psychologically. And it is always in relation to us. The energy is made powerful or sublime or frightening in relation to us.

    There is no listening to nature in the way that there is a listening to a book author—unless you posit an author behind nature. You can’t read a book that was typed by blind monkeys in the way that you do a book made by an author choosing every word carefully, even if those monkeys type Shakespeare.

    I wish it were better (existentially). But I think you are engaging in wishful thinking with regards to the consequences of atheism or naturalism for writing about nature. Think of the science writers who try to write about nature with an attempt to generate in readers a feeling of grandeur. It often results in something strained or maudlin. Nature must be a violent hell-mouth mother, red in tooth and claw, to get our attention, or a lover’s embrace drawing us into the mysteries of death and sex, or some other human projection or drama. Othewise, all that empty space and those gassy giant planets only illicits our feelings of smallness before a universe that doesn’t care about us. Icy humanless beauty. (Alas, the indifferent mother! No escape.)

    Even an atheist like Robinson Jeffers is drawn to write about nature as Shiva to get the energy going. Here’s an atheist writing about a wounded hawk: “He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, / asking for death.”

    Hawks don’t wander in the human sense, they don’t ask a man to shoot them to put them out of their misery.

    Anthropomorphism and anthropocentricism and mythology cannot go out of nature, and be written about very well. If you have an example that is contrary, please share. I can’t think of much of anything that is contrary to my generalization.

    Even physicists insist on “elegance” in their equations. Why is that?

    When we look at, say, a sunset, we come right up against the ontological mystery. And that mystery is about the ambiguity of meaning and our embeddedness in something larger than ourselves.


    • josef johann says:

      I agree, it is wholly and utterly “anthropocentric”- but this doesn’t help you. We are natural objects among objects moving through a natural world, so the fact that our interpretive faculties give us a nature appearing as “beautiful” is no less a fact of that reality we are a part of. To steal from Merleau Ponty- a bit of light hitting my eye is not my re-construction, but rather, the continuation of its own sovereign existence.

      See you in the next post, I guess…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s