Embracing our radical ignorance

Philosopher Bryan Magee embraces the unanswerability of those ultimate questions.

Dolan Cummings

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In February this year, Australian former cricketer Shane Warne turned his thoughts to some big questions while appearing on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here. In particular, he wanted to know why, if humans evolved from monkeys, other monkeys have not also evolved into humans. For Warne, this question cast doubt on the theory of evolution and strongly suggested the involvement of aliens (his tongue may have been in his cheek by this stage). The Guardian helpfully pointed out that ‘Darwin’s well-settled theory of evolution does not propose humans evolved from monkeys, but rather that monkeys and humans share an extinct common ancestor’. This is quite right, but take a moment to think about it.

Is it really any less amazing that we share an ancestor with monkeys than it would be if we were directly evolved from them? It still means our own biological ancestors possessed none of the qualities that make us human. At some point, they were not even animals. You are allowed to marvel at this strange thought without signing up to Warne’s alien theory, or indeed Creationism. After all, the process did take millions of years. But I am reminded of the Christian apologist GK Chesterton’s objection to ‘the false atmosphere of facility and ease given by the mere suggestion of going slow’. For Chesterton, ‘there runs through all the rationalistic treatment of history this curious and confused idea that difficulty is avoided, or even mystery eliminated, by dwelling on mere delay or on something dilatory in the processes of things(1)’.

Of course, evolution is the best explanation we have for any of the big questions about our origins, but it only deals with one of them, and partially, leaving plenty of difficulty and indeed mystery elsewhere. Once we have lifeforms reproducing themselves in particular environments, we are on a roll. But how did they get there? How did there get there? And what happened next?

Creationism might be thin on science, but it does have the neat advantage of dealing with three fundamental questions all in one go. Naturalism on the other hand gives us first the appearance of lifeless, purposeless, impersonal matter and energy, and then bits of that matter spontaneously coming to life. And finally, at the other end of the evolutionary process – and despite the protestations of evolutionary psychologists – the evolutionary roll comes to a shuddering halt. Dumb animals somehow ‘evolve’ into conscious, self-aware beings with personhood, a sense of purpose and the ability to produce things like the works of Shakespeare, and indeed Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions.

Of course, we are not obliged to accept mythology just because it claims to answer questions science cannot. Maybe the grown-up thing to do is to admit we just don’t know, at least not yet. But Magee argues there are some things we will almost certainly never know. Magee is a British philosopher at the end of a long career that also took in broadcasting, music and theatre criticism and even time as an MP (Labour and SDP), and the book is haunted by his consciousness of his own mortality.

As he ponders eternity, the ‘ultimate questions’ Magee discusses are not only the big, cosmic questions that are easy to ignore: ‘The unknowable and unconceptualisable spill over into our empirical world. We live in among them all the time. We are mysteries to ourselves, and to one another. In our sexual relationships the miraculous happens, and happens again in the creation of new life. We do not understand life or death. Nor do we understand time…’ (It goes on, but buy the book for the full effect.)

Those of us who have grown up in largely post-religious societies like Britain have learned to shrug off such problems. We accept the theory of evolution in much the same way our forebears accepted the belief that God created everything. And most of the time we manage not to notice that while evolution has the advantage of scientific evidence – indeed, precisely because it does – it answers a very different set of questions. So, as Magee acknowledges, it is still possible that God really did create everything. He just doesn’t think so.

Indeed, Magee shows that agnosticism does not have to be wishy-washy. He insists bluntly that, ‘In any honest intellectual enquiry there is no place for religion’. But his approach offers no more succour to the certainties of militant atheism. Nor indeed to what often passes for common sense. For example, he argues that we are wrong to take it for granted that our experience gives us anything like an accurate view of reality. Our knowledge is limited both by our particular location in time and space, and more fundamentally by what Magee calls ‘the apparatus we have for understanding’ – namely our five senses and the forms of knowledge derived from them: ‘That all living things are limited in their potentialities by what they are is obvious to human beings about any creature other than themselves.’

Of course, humanity is a far more capacious way of being than is doggitude. We transcend our animal nature by acting consciously on the world, which is thus unimaginably different from the one we evolved in. Science has allowed us to perceive things our natural bodies cannot, from the microscopic to the cosmological. And yet, if human beings emerged from chaos for no reason, there is no reason to believe we will ever be able to perceive anything like the whole of reality. As Magee argues, we can only be confident that we have access to total reality either if it is rooted in our own minds (the unfashionable philosophical position of absolute idealism) or if a creator God made us in his own image. Otherwise, we could be like congenitally blind, alien visitors to an art gallery, with no one there to explain what we’re missing.

The corollary of this is that the reality we do experience is as much part of us as it is of the external world. So Magee argues against the commonsense view that the empirical world would go on without anyone in it. The empirical world is not the same as objective reality – most of which we are probably oblivious to. It is our particular experience of that reality. And we might add that, as well as being limited by our humanity, it comprises the products of our humanity. Would a DVD of The Matrix still be ‘a DVD of The Matrix‘ if there were no DVD players, televisions or people to watch them? Would it make much more sense to insist that it would still be a shiny silver disc if there were no beings capable of perceiving those qualities?

This subjective aspect to empirical reality has an important consequence. Paraphrasing a view common to Locke, Kant and Wittgenstein, Magee argues that, ‘the experiencing subject cannot be wholly within the world of its own experience, and… things as they are in themselves cannot be wholly within that world either’. The very fact of experience implies a perspective outside or beyond what is being experienced (just as it qualifies perceptions of things as our perceptions of things), leading to the odd-sounding conclusion that, ‘we humans are partially in this world and partially not’.

This means a relationship with another person is not a relationship with a material object, but with something in some non-literal sense ‘inside’ it. ‘The person is, as it were, coming from somewhere “else” to meet me halfway (and I to him, or her).’ Magee suggests that the insight that the self is not to be found in nature explains the common conviction (which he shares) that the self is not a thing, and should not be treated as such. He argues that such moral imperatives are not rooted in reason as such, but in ‘some sort of sharedness of inner being’, a recognition that other selves have the same unworldly quality as ourselves. Therefore, ‘any account of “I” needs to be an account not just (and perhaps not primarily) of a knowing subject but also of a moral agent’.

This is surely a far more realistic, and humane, way of talking about human subjectivity than the reductionist accounts found in over-reaching naturalism, such as the attempt to understand human morality in terms of evolutionary adaptation. And despite the fact, or perhaps because, he is so dismissive of religion, Magee is refreshingly comfortable acknowledging the uncanniness of human experience, including the aesthetic as well as the ethical. He describes his first memory of hearing music: ‘I was struck into stillness by it, as if a dog or a horse had spoken to me.’

Of course, anyone could patch together a naturalistic account of how music might have evolved through imitation of birdsong, our own heartbeat, etc, and the useful functions it came to serve in primitive societies, before becoming ever more sophisticated for all kinds of perfectly unmiraculous reasons. But does that really explain JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion? Or even Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’? You don’t have to hear the voice of God in music to share Magee’s conviction that it suggests something other than atoms and genes randomly doing their thing. And it would be perverse to deprive ourselves of human wonder in the name of ‘humanism’. Magee adds opera, Shakespeare and teenage orgasms to the list of phenomena that are ‘directly, unmistakably experienced as coming from outside the natural order of things’.

So Magee argues both that it is almost certain that most of reality is unknown to us, and that from the knowledge we do have it is impossible to account for most of what really matters to us. But he rejects an imaginary reader’s suggestion that the two arguments have an obvious inference, namely that those things that matter to us have their roots in that part of reality that is unknown to us. (That imaginary reader might have been CS Lewis, who famously wrote, ‘If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world'(2).

Magee rightly insists that there is no logical necessity here, and certainly not one that requires us to believe in a creator God or even immortal souls. But nobody sensible would argue that faith is dictated by logic. People believe for all kinds of reasons, and Magee’s own arguments at least allow that what they believe is not as implausible as a rigidly naturalistic worldview would suggest.

He goes on to defend the philosophical tradition of Locke, Hume, Kant and Schopenhauer from the charge that it is a waste of time because it does not provide us with knowledge in the sense of justified true beliefs. On the questions this tradition asks, ‘knowledge in the traditional sense is not available; and even if it were, it would not be the only precious possession a mind could have; there are also insight and enlightenment’. Of course, throughout history, many great minds have found those things in religion, too.

Magee quotes Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding: ‘The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often on very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.’ But then he wants to correct him: ‘It would have been better if Locke had talked not of “the necessity of believing” but of the necessity of provisionally assuming, the inescapability of “as if”.’ You can see his point, but in practice, provisional assumptions only get you so far. Intellectual enquiry often involves a leap of faith, a full-blooded commitment to think and act ‘as if’, not merely ponder it. Without a degree of what Magee calls ‘evasion’ (of our radical ignorance), it might be difficult to get anywhere at all. My guess is that at least as much intellectual progress will have been made by the sincerely wrong as by the candidly clueless.

Ultimately, the reason debates about the existence or otherwise of God are sterile is that the positions of both sides have a taken-for-granted quality. For atheists, the lack of hard evidence for the existence of God makes it obvious that no such entity exists. For those who believe, searching creation for evidence of the existence of God is like poring over King Lear or Hamlet in search of evidence for the existence of Shakespeare. It is nowhere and everywhere. Magee’s heroic agnosticism is unlikely to catch on. It seems to go against human nature, whatever that is. But his case for acknowledging the extent of what we do not know is a useful corrective to ‘jolly hockey sticks’ humanism as well as religious dogma. If nothing else, the thought of the world we do not know ought to inspire us to look differently at the one we do.

Dolan Cummings is a writer based in London.

(1) The Everlasting Man, by GK Chesterton, Hodder and Stoughton, 1925

(2) Mere Christianity, by CS Lewis, Geoffrey Bles, 1952

Picture: The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh (1889).

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