From UPA to Ineffable

I have a couple of books on the history of religious thought awaiting my completion of Daniel J. Boorstin's The Discoverers, which I am thoroughly enjoying, not least because Boorstin examines the history of dogmatic resistance to knowledge. Although it appears that others of his books would be too replete with American conservative hubris for my taste, his examination of human attempts to comprehend (and master!) the world seems quite balanced.

But, I digress. I intend to write on a hypothesis of mine concerning the evolution of the concept of the supernatural, and I want to commit myself before reading the books on religion. Obviously, this hypothesis will probably be subject to subsequent modification.

Humans appear to be distinguishable from other animals not by curiosity, but by a propensity for concocting explanations for that which we investigate. Obviously, I am assuming that your average kitty does not concoct metaphysical explanations for objects examined during fits of curiosity.

By UPA, I refer to Unidentified Physical Agencies, which I use to indicate those physical mechanisms that are not immediately obvious to the human observer. Grant LaFleche posted an interesting mention of Al Hazen's 10th century overturning of the notion that our eyes see by emitting rather than receiving light. It is extraordinary that none of those who viewed the eyes as actors rather than perceivers had never wondered why they could not see in the dark at the same time that others could not see in the dark! Surely, such miraculous eyes could have acted as the earliest flashlights – much more convenient than barking one's shins after nightfall.

My point as regards the UPA notion is that humans who could not explain mechanisms contrived explanations that were much more simplistic than the actual explanations for the phenomena. Understanding that the eye perceives incoming light is only the first step of the explanation for mechanisms of visual perception.

The simplistic, animistic UPA meme was amplified into the notion of Unifying Physical Agencies (deities) and ultimately into the notion of the Ultimate Physical Agency (Yahweh et al.) Now the UPA has come to be called the 'supernatural', a term that embodies both the purported supremacy of this 'ultimate physical agent' and the fact that this agent has proven physically undetectable.

When the best efforts of Christian theologians failed to construct an internally consistent theology that would account for the UPA's manifestations, a modification of the supernatural-meme proved useful as the concept of the ineffable. Now, not only was a supernatural agency conveniently removed by definition from physical scrutiny, but the failure of apologetics was explained away as demonstration of the perfection of an unknowable deity that defied explanation by we mere humans. Sneaky and as transparent a ploy as the cornea is to photons.

One wonders why a loving God – who wished to be feared, obeyed, and worshipped and who had accordingly dictated an admittedly inconsistent tome – would not have understood the frailties of his special creation and made matters clearer. He could have saved the discoverers a great deal of trouble.

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