Robert Charles Wilson, Owning the Unknown: A Science Fiction Writer Explores Atheism, Agnosticism, and the Idea of God. Pitchstone, 2023.
Accomplished science fiction writer Robert Charles Wilson’s new book Owning the Unknown is equal parts memoir and philosophical meditation as Wilson recounts his own brushes with the mystery of the universe through vignettes from his life interwoven with the burgeoning fortunes of science fiction in the modern age.
Wilson is an engaging writer, and his stories are always engrossing, whether it is the personal remembrance as a doubting child of being tricked into attending a milquetoast evangelistic presentation or being awed on the edge of the Barringer crater.
One chapter centers on Wilson’s conversation with an imaginary Christian named Chris. Thc chapter ends: “The light is fading quickly, and so is Chris. Like all imaginary things, he is elusive. He loses definition; he begins to dissolve into the shadows creeping from the corners of the room. His last words are a soft diminuendo: I deserve an answer! And he’s right. He does.” (119)
That eloquent passage captures perhaps the central theme of the book: metaphysical proclamations and religious doctrines, like Chris himself, seem to dissolve into the shadows of mystery and transcendence. So what is Wilson’s answer?
He frequently frames that answer as atheism, but it seems to me his stance is really a form of skepticism, specifically skepticism about metaphysics. Wilson asks: “Do I possess reliable knowledge about metaphysical reality?” His answer is “an easy no.” (107) The skeleton of Wilson’s argument is summarized in chapter 10 and he seems to view it as undercutting God and other metaphysical religious claims with the vanishingly small likelihood that any one of them is true: “The effect of this argument from inadequate knowledge is to explain and justify the intuitive atheism of those who ‘simply don’t believe in God.'”(146)
I was really engaged with Owning the Unknown and a sign of my own engagement is that I took the time to offer some extensive reflections and rebuttals. So take this critical response as a compliment to the author:
- First, atheism is as much a metaphysical claim as theism. Thus, if metaphysical claims are all very unlikely given the boundless horizons of possibility space, then our epistemic justification for accepting any particular atheistic metaphysical postulate is undermined as surely as our ground for accepting a theistic one.
- Second, the boundless horizons of possibility space apply no less to physical reality than to metaphysical reality. Thus, if Wilson’s skeptical argument undercuts any substantive gnosis-infused conversation about the realm of metaphysics, it does so as well about the realm of physical reality including the scientific enterprise for which Wilson is an articulate and empassioned spokesperson (as an aside, I loved his account of the origin of the Hale Telescope).
- Third, I am not sure that Wilson appreciates the implications of his skepticism. If we were to apply consistently this degree of skepticism to all metaphysical claims, we could have no beliefs about basic matters such as whether human beings have free will, whether we exist through time, and thus whether (for example) our memories of what we did yesterday are our memories or merely echoes from an earlier timeslice causally unrelated to us. I can’t help but think that Wilson tends to think of metaphysics as that realm of discussion lampooned by naturalists like Carl Sagan as a “supernatural” sphere of God, angels, souls, and heavens. But metaphysics is concerned with the substructure of literally all of existence, and thus Wilson’s skepticism would apply to all claims derived from or in proximity to that substructure.
- Fourth, Wilson appears to view metaphysics and religion as together closely attuned to metaphysical gnosis or knowledge, as if metaphysical gnosis is like the sun of the religious solar system. Not only is that a very reductionistic view of religion, but it is even a deeply misconstrued understanding of Christianity. Many Christian theologians have distinguished between knowledge claims and faith claims and have never suggested that doctrine provides gnosis as such (for we now see darkly as through a glass…). Further, there has always been a discussion among theologians as to the meaning, nature, and function of Christian doctrine including various realist and antirealist (e.g. pragmatist) perspectives. Does doctrine provide us with metaphysical truth description or is it a form of life to orient us individually and communally to the divine, or is it something else altogether? Religionists disagree. They always have.
One thing we can agree on: narrative is key. We are storytellers by our nature. Wilson recounts a fascinating datum about a group of south African tribes people who have largely practical and perfunctory dialogue during the day but who lapse into narratives as the night falls and the stars begin to twinkle overhead. I agree with Wilson that we all do face a great mystery in the beyond, and for whatever it is that we do know, there is undoubtedly an infinite sea of mystery that lies beyond. Owning the Unknown is an excellent invitation to find your own place around the crackling fire and to reflect on the transcendence that abides in the haunting halls of eternity.