The scientific method and hardcore empiricism do not provide a satisfying vocabulary to explain or comprehend or even articulate the mystery of existence; yet there is ample religious literature that has taken up speculation about it as its main task. This is why many scientific skeptics always inevitably end up using mystical language when talking about the mystery of existence.
Let me explain.
This past Monday April 14, Neil Degrasse-Tyson delivered a lecture at Tulane University, packed with 2,300+ people. Among the many points that he made, he insisted that, in his words, “the universe is trying to kill you.” He described all the things out there that seem almost designed to destroy living things, from earthquakes to hurricanes to tsunamis. And that's just earth. Consider, he told us, outer space itself, everything that our atmosphere protects us from, devoid of oxygen. And even beyond that, there are black holes, the real-life Dementors, entities capable of swallowing anything that stumbles into their fatal fields. Hence, even though it’s scientifically inept to say so, it’s as if the universe had the actual intention to “kill us.” As if it were actually “trying,” though from a skeptical mindset we should restrict ourselves to asserting that it’s just being itself.
Whatever it is, we know it’s dangerous.
In light of this, the fact of life coming about seems… well, strange. Unlikely. Weird. Miraculous.
Carl Sagan, Degrasse-Tyson’s intellectual dad, was well aware of this. He made a living out of spinning this insight into beautiful turns of phrase: “We are start dust,” “a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam,” our home is “the pale blue dot.” For this, he insisted that we should be grateful for being alive in such cosmically hostile circumstances. He was hesitant to bring the G-word or any kind of theological vision into play. But he insisted on gratitude.
Now, Sagan and Degrasse-Tyson both claim to be skeptics. Unlike Dawkins, Dennett and co. (the so-called “new atheists”), they don’t like to rule out the reality of the divine. Sticking to the scientific method, they say that those kinds of things simply cannot be investigated. Both claim to be agnostics, not atheists. Hence they are not aggressive towards religious language. They’re merely hesitant about it. They're curious, but only about things that can be investigated by science. There is no room for those things we can be curiously speculative about. Speculation is only good if there is any hope of scientific verification. Without that hope, speculation is uncalled for. Hence we should not speculate upon the great Why of existence. We should not be speculative about God.
Yet Carl Sagan tells us to be grateful for this mysterious thing called conscious existence. Despite the strictures of the scientific method, he can’t help but use the kind of language that has been shaped by centuries of mystical/theistic traditions, words like “grateful,” "humble," etc.
I can find you psalms upon psalms in the Bible—not to mention (quite literally) hundreds of poems written by religious mystics from many theistic traditions—that express similar sentiments: the smallness of the human person within the cosmos; the almost absurd feeling that one was “chosen” to exist; the accompanying feeling that one is “stranded” in the middle of something vast, mysterious, and threatening, a reality that one can only begin to comprehend; the utter “givenness” of existence, as David Bentley Hart writes. Whenever anyone today speaks of gratitude in such a way, using language that describes the awe-fulness of existence, they are using theological resources, whether consciously or not. They are pulling words from theological dictionaries, dictionaries written not by scientists but by the religious mystics, the first investigators of existence. So despite his measured skepticism, when it came to the mystery at the heart of life—the mystery of existence itself, and more so, human existence—Carl Sagan could not help but use Biblical language.
I’m not going to try to mine Sagan’s writings now to claim that “he was a theist all along” or anything like that. I respect his claim to agnosticism and would not want to insult or undermine it. However, I do put forth the question: why is it that, in the face of the great mystery of existence, of consciousness, of awe, we can’t seem to help but use the language of the mystical?
Well, for one, scientific language is deficient when it comes to expressing these emotion-ideas; indeed, by definition it cannot. So the skeptic turns begrudgingly, unknowingly, to the next-best thing, which is mystical language. He says: we must be grateful.
Now I, the annoying theist, must ask: grateful to what? Gratitude is useless if it’s not directed at anything. Science cannot, and must not if it is to keep its strict fences up (and remain coherent), answer this. It must stand agape, mouth atremble. It must stand silent.
The religious mystic, too, stands silent. Yet he makes poetry out of that silence. And he envisions that, somewhere, a Something that both encompasses the whole universe yet is not equivalent to it, is carefully pondering that poetry. That is, when the theistic mystic gazes at the mystery at the heart of existence, he senses that Someone is gazing back at him, even though he cannot begin to picture what or who this Someone is. But if this Someone is gazing back at him, and if this Someone is the same One responsible for his existence, then this Ultimate Source must be the very fountain of Love. For to truly live is to love.
Ah, but I’ve donned by theologian’s hat. I’ve ventured too far. And anyway, this engenders a series of question, such as: if I was loved into existence, why is it that now existing things seek to kill me?
So I’ll stop. Those questions have been pondered by literally every single mystical poet. I mean, there’s a whole book in the Bible called the “Lamentations,” which is thoroughly depressing. So I'll stop and give you the direction to look at for those answers, which is essentially the history of theology.
I will only say one more thing: I did not come up with that paragraph by myself. Said understanding of the self/God relationship has been developed over the course of centuries by thinkers, poets, philosophers, saints. I am condensing the beauty of my own theistic tradition into one little paragraph.
There are a couple of things I've been wanting to say with this, but if there's one that I want to harp on, it's this one: Before denouncing the theistic point of view as “merely superstition,” we must pay careful attention to the fact that it’s been shaped by many very wise people, that such language has accompanied us all along, and that it accompanies us still, feeding us with the conceptual vocabulary to articulate our own existence to ourselves when we find ourselves incapable of expressing it. And for this reason, the language of mysticism will never quite leave us, even if we leave it. If God is indeed dead, the word "God" never quite will be.