Monday, October 22, 2007

The God Question & Intellectual Honesty

The post "Please Tell Me What 'God' Means," at Cosmic Variance (a blog run by a group of physicists and astrophysicists), was fascinating for me to read and has sparked a great deal of personal journaling over the past few days. Not surprising, considering that the journey towards insight into the Divine is, in the end, one that takes lifetimes--a journey past the veils, a process by which we slowly prepare ourselves to perceive spiritual truths as they manifest and disclose themselves to our ever-seeking and reasoning self-awareness.

Yet, Sean Carroll's challenge is a fair one:

The trouble is not that such sophisticated formulations make our eyes glaze over; the trouble is that they don’t mean anything. And I will tell you precisely what I mean by that. Consider two possible views of reality. One view, “atheism,” is completely materialistic -- it describes reality as just a bunch of stuff obeying some equations, for as long as the universe exists, and that’s absolutely all there is. In the other view, God exists. What I would like to know is: what is the difference? What is the meaningful, operational, this-is-why-I-should-care difference between being a sophisticated believer and just being an atheist?

What does it mean, really, to say that "God is ultimate reality," that "God is the ground of our being" or, my personal mantra, that "God is (the freely-willed, creative activity of) love"? As seekers along a spiritual path--whatever our religion or spirituality, or lack thereof, might be--we have an obligation to consider this question, and to try at least to articulate a firm ground on which to begin a 'good-faith' discussion of opposing arguments. When Carroll asks for an intellectually honest, "sophisticated" and non-vacuous attempt to describe 'God' (or, I assume, any conception of deity or deities), we owe it not only to him, but to ourselves to give the best answer we can. If only because, with the work to continually articulate and clarify, we may stumble upon new ideas and new metaphors that carry us along in our own journeys.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be frustrating trying to convince a strict materialist that the idea of a spiritual reality actually matters, that a "ground of being" transcendent of the purely material really does "mean something" more than mere rhetorical poetry. It helps, in this case, to seek first for insight into the various assumptions on which the materialist-rationalist philosophy functions. So this is where my response to Carroll's challenge begins, with a passage in Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology that I stumbled upon just today.

In this passage, Sokolowski is discussing the idea of "evidencing," our activity as reasoning beings to allow the truth of things to disclose themselves to us. As he writes, "This activity is our achievement as transcendental egos, not simply our behavior as animals or our reaction as bodies embedded in a network of material causes. [...] We do something when intelligible objects present themselves to us; we are not mere recipients." Obviously, for strict materialists, the idea of anything being 'transcendent' of material causes is suspect, although it is important to note that here is a philosophy which appeals to such a concept without any need to resort to a straw-man conception of deity (or any deity at all) and yet remains non-vacuous. Perhaps in the search for a 'definition of "God,"' it would be easiest to explain to a materialist/atheist (noting that materialism and atheism are not synonymous) starting from this philosophical ground and working towards the spiritual, rather than trying to begin by debunking the straw-man theory and undertaking the difficult task of qualifying and 'waffling' from there. But I digress. Sokolowski proceeds to discuss two common ways of "trying to escape evidence." The following quote is part of his discussion of the second:

The second way of trying to evade evidence is to claim that the presentation itself is not enough to establish truth. We might think that a presentation gives us only an appearance or an opinion. We would then have to go on to prove the truth of what has been presented, and we would do so by giving reasons for it. We have to explain it; that is, we have to derive it from other, more certain premises, even from axioms, to show why it has to be the way it is. In this view, we do not know anything until we have proved it; we demand a proof for everything. [...]

This claim reflects the belief [my emphasis] that truth is reached by means of methodic procedures. Nothing is directly presented to us, but we can reach truths by reasoning to them. Descartes appealed to such method at the beginning of modernity, and he thought that method could replace insight. Even perception requires proof, he thought, because it involves an inference from the ideas we have to the putative causes 'outside' us that must have brought the ideas about. This confidence in method is part of the rationalism of modernity. [...] Such trust in method and proof is an attempt to master truth. It is an attempt to get disclosure under control and to subject it to our wills. If we can get the right method in place, and if our methodical procedures can be helped by computers, we will be able to solve many important problems. We will get a hammerlock on the truth of things, coercing consent in ourselves and in others.

[...] The rationalist may find the contingency of evidence unsettling and may reject the fact that we cannot master truth, but such is indeed the case.

This may be the heart of why Carroll, and others of his philosophical convictions, find any view of God more complicated than the straw-man approach to be vacuous and nonsensical. If a person's underlying assumption is that spiritual reality, like the material reality according to Cartesian duality, lies 'out there,' outside of the mind--then appeals to the "evidencing" of the Divine, the disclosure of spiritual truths as well as logical and material truths to a reasoning being, may seem impossible. No! one might insist, Of course if there were a God, we should be able to "prove" it, to arrive methodically at a complete and satisfying definition based on previously established premises... The down side of the conviction that truth can be mastered by method is that anything too slippery and fluid for method is utterly beyond one's grasp--not merely beyond the ability to understand, but even to conceive as being possible.

However, we might instead keep two things in mind as we consider the question of how to talk about God with intellectual honesty and rigor.

(a) Descartes dualism is founded in the notorious cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." But this is the mind affirming its own existence. If it is reasonable to believe the mind exists because we, as self-aware creatures, experience the activity of the mind (i.e. thinking), then is it not also possible that we can know of the existence of a spiritual reality because we experience the activity of this spirit within ourselves? Just as Descartes ran up against the thinking 'I' as an ultimate end to categorical doubt, so to do 'believers' of all spiritual ilks find that they cannot escape this basic truth as it discloses itself: there is a spiritual 'world,' and it is this very world. This is what it means to say, non-vacuously, that "God [or the Divine, or Gaia, or the Universe, or whatever] is the ground of being," and for some it holds even when the transcendental ego, the 'thinking I,' dissolves in the ocean of pure existence.

(b) Whatever the conception one has of the spiritual world, it is inevitably one that is not just 'out there.' It penetrates us, it saturates and overflows the individual herself, it is intimate as well as public--and, like each of us, it is never simple, nor easily defined and mastered. How could we define any person who has not completed the on-going process of living? And yet, what good is it to worry about mastering the truth of the dead? This is the paradox of the fluid, living truth of things. At this point we return, once again, to my obsession with attention--attending to the reality of things, to the way in which the world manifests itself, and to the process by which we prepare ourselves to receive and perceive this disclosure.

Intellectual honesty must involve careful observation and attention to our own inner lives as well as to the world around us, and a certain fundamental respect for the capacity for attention, experience and perception to discover truth. This is what I suspect Richard Skinner meant when, much to Carroll's frustration, he wrote that we must be careful "to sit light to definitions, hypotheses and images, and allow God to be God" [my emphasis]. This is not a scheme to escape honest discussion; it is a simple nod to the complex, subtle and often elusive processes by which truth is disclosed. When a scientist tests a hypothesis by performing an experiment, does he rig the experiment to confirm the results he desires? No, he allows the world to be the world, to act and respond according to its own truths, and he carefully observes this activity and tries to talk about it accurately and honestly, without presuming more than what he has truly witnessed or claiming to have once and for all defined the entire system in one fell swoop. What Skinner is saying is that the same must apply to our engagement in the spiritual life. We cannot seek easy answers, even if we feel bombarded by demands that we 'prove' the validity of our experiences and the relevance of our insight.

We must allow the Divine to be Divine. If we are looking for a reason why God "has to be the way it is," we will be disappointed. The glory and joy of the Divine world is that it doesn't have to be the way it is, that it holds paradox within it. Can we accept that, even if things don't have to be true, that doesn't mean they aren't? This is where we might have a place to start.


Now that I am a little more awake and refreshed than I was when writing this post last night, I would like to step back and explain. No, there is no time, let me sum up. Carroll's question was, in short, how does a world in which there is a (sophisticated conception of) God differ from a purely materialist world?

The beginning of my answer is that, in a world in which the "nonmaterial" has a non-vacuous, possible reality, the self-aware being has the potential to directly experience the disclosure of the truth of the existence of "God" in the same way it has the potential to experience the disclosure of, say, a funny-shaped rock which comes into view as that self-aware being rounds the bend of a wooded path. That is, if there is a "Divine," it can actually be experienced; one's "sense of the spiritual" is taken seriously as a possible perception to be explored further. In the materialist worldview, any "sense" of the nonmaterial is reduced to a fluke of body chemistry or other physical cause, and so it is dismissed as incapable of disclosing actual truth about the world. I feel like a cheater saying this, since I did not even have to think of it: it is presented clearly in the continuing reply and response in the comment thread to Carroll's post. To every nuanced philosophy of the nonmaterial, Carroll replies that it all amounts to the same (or perhaps, reduces to the same). In short, it does not matter because it is not matter. Differences in philosophical perspective and personal experience are dismissed as vacuous and non-meaningful in any "operational" sense, presumably because when the world is run by equations, our experience of those equations is irrelevant.

Sum 1: The difference between a strictly materialist view, and a non-vacuous view of the world as also nonmaterial, is that in the former, philosophy, perspective and experience are irrelevant, and in the latter, they are themselves potential vehicles of truth.

This summation is dedicated to Mr. Rude Anonymous, who I have no doubt remains unconvinced. It is accompanied with a reminder that this post's theme was largely about intellectual honesty, and whether or not being honest with ourselves includes acknowledging the validity of personal experience, perspective and philosophy.


  1. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...

    No where did you even begin to try and answer Sean's post. This is just more mental philosophisized masturbation which doesn't even come close to answering the question. I see nothing more than Skinner wrote, but with a lot more verbiage.

  2. Au contraire, Mr. Rude Anonymous, beginning to answer Sean's question is precisely what I did do. What I did not do was finish answering. As I wrote in the post, "Perhaps in the search for a 'definition of "God,"' it would be easiest to explain to a materialist/atheist (noting that materialism and atheism are not synonymous) starting from this philosophical ground and working towards the spiritual, rather than trying to begin by debunking the straw-man theory and undertaking the difficult task of qualifying and 'waffling' from there."

    This is what I have attempted to do in this post, to begin to clear the ground of the debate, and to establish the exact nature of the materialist objection to a "spiritual" reality. Once this task has at least been attempted, we can begin to look for the most fundamental ways in which a philosophy of the nonmaterial can find a foothold against pure materialist reductionism. No, I did not show that God is a logical necessity, or that any form of deity actually exists, and indeed I did not even begin to scratch the surface of what that term 'means' in a non-vacuous sense. Before I can do any of that, I have to establish that the claim of a spiritual world is non-vacuous in itself, for if we are going to find a non-vacuous 'meaning' for the idea of 'God' that is distinct from the materialist worldview, that is where we will find it.

    Furthermore, this was never meant to be a complete and comprehensive essay on the subject. It was my personal response to two interesting things I had read recently: Sean's post, and Sokolowski's discussion of "Reason, Truth and Evidence." It is my understanding that blogs are excellently suited to these types of half-formed, happy-circumstantial ponderings, becoming on-going records of the messy process of thinking, putting on public display the proverbial goo from which the first living cells of good ideas arise. Not everything in this blog is lively and gold; none of it is authoritative. And most of it assumes that my readers are also spiritual seekers who, like me, are concerned about how best to enter into an open and fruitful dialogue with people who disagree with them, rather than angry 'disbelievers' who enjoy flinging 'masturbatory' insults when they don't like, or lose patience with, another's ideas.

    Which reminds me: please read "Thank You for Sharing - Some Guidelines" for information on the kind of respectful commenting etiquette I expect on my blog.

  3. "indeed I did not even begin to scratch the surface of what that term 'means' in a non-vacuous sense."

    Truly indeed. Compare that with:

    "beginning to answer Sean's question is precisely what I did do"

    You are careless with words. The reason Sean's post grabbed you was because what he wrote and what he asked for were clear.

    My suggestion is to go back and reread Sean's post and then read yours. They are of a completely different quality. Sean is asking for an operational definition of God that does not involve:

    1) Little old man on a cloud straw man
    2) Complex and ultimately vacuous verbiage that renders God as an abstract philosophical concept that does not really touch the real world.

    In the end, what you've done is to write a ton of sentences that do not touch Sean's question. Rather your words dance around the question and form a complex and ultimately vacuous verbiage that renders Sean's question as an abstract philosophical concept... see it now?

    BTW, sorry you think I'm so rude, but I went ahead and read your guidelines and fail to see where I've crossed them. I'm just prone to call them as I see them.

  4. Ok, I've read your update. It is clearer than your original post. Good on that.

    However, I challenge your dichotomy of the 'materialist' VS the 'non-materialist' world view. Please provide an operational definition of non-materialist world.

    To be sure, Sean's definition of the world (and I think what you'd classify as the 'materialist' position) does not invite the supposition that, "If it ain't matter it ain't real!"

    Momentum is real. And it is not matter.
    Energy is real. And it is not matter.
    Beauty is real. And it is not matter.

    All of these things are recognized and are nice and cozy in the 'materialist's worldview.

    So similar to Sean's question: What do you mean when you say 'non-materialist' world and can your provide a definition which is non-vacuous and will touch the real world instead of just presupposing it?

    IOW, I think you've just played hopscotch by substituting 'non-materialist' for 'god' :)

  5. Mr. Anonymous,

    If Carroll's question regarding "the meaning of God" is not a philosophical one, what in the world is it? To accuse me of having turned that question into an abstract philosophical concept seems unfair. Perhaps all I did was make more clear the philosophical perspective from which he asked it. Please do not confuse simple sentence structure with intellectual clarity.

    In terms of defining a "non-materialist" world versus a "materialist" world, let me go back to your three examples of "things that aren't matter."

    Momentum: is not "matter," but it is a property of matter, and it is measurable. You are correct, it is perfectly consistent with, as Carroll describes, a world of "just a bunch of stuff obeying some equations."

    Energy: is not "matter" in the most literal sense, but it is, in a broader sense, a form of matter, and again, it is directly related back to matter through quantifiable measurement and the equation, that every fifth grader knows, E=mc^2. Again, there is no reason why this provokes any controversy from the materialist perspective. Energy is an alternate form of matter, matter is an alternate form of energy, this is consistent with what the materialist worldview includes.

    Beauty: is in a whole new order of ideas. It is, like momentum, a property of matter in a certain sense, but it is not one that is measurable or quantifiable, nor is it independent of the presence, mood and subjective experience of an observer. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe "beauty" as a property of the relationship between an object, event or experience, and a self-aware observer/experiencer. But in order to make such a claim about beauty, you'll notice we've had to introduce something which has no material definition: subjective self-awareness. "Beauty" is precisely the kind of non-material reality that materialists should have a problem with. It should be a puzzle. It should not fit, all nice and cozy and familiar, into a materialist worldview which offers no other explanation for the existence and function of self-consciousness.

    The fact that most materialists do not notice or understand the difference between "energy" and "beauty" as belonging to difference classes of things is indicative of their own failure to rigorously apply their worldview to all aspects of actual reality. As you point out, "beauty is real," and yet all attempts by materialists that I know of to address the idea of beauty result in concepts so clearly reductionist in nature (e.g. reducing beauty to mere physical and/or chemical attraction) that they can never be satisfactorily brought to bear on the actual experience of beauty in "real" life. So how do even the materialists know with full confidence that "beauty is real," despite its slippery definition? Because they have experienced beauty personally, they know of its existence firsthand.

    Which brings me once again to the real distinction between a(n honestly) materialist worldview, and a worldview that includes the nonmaterial. A worldview that allows for the nonmaterial makes room for the relevance and revelatory value of actual experience. If we know beauty is real because we have experienced it, it is possible that a person knows "God is real" because he or she has experienced it, notwithstanding the (in)ability of said person to accurately and clearly articulate that experience.

    Regarding my "carelessness" with language, I am sloppy because (a) I am currently sick, (b) I was, at the time of writing, tired, (c) this is an effin' blog, darling, not a graduate thesis. If your best objection to my arguments is that, at one point I say I have begun to answer, and at another I use a trite cliche to indicate I have only just begun--well, perhaps you need more practice in taking cultural idioms in stride.

    Regarding etiquette: You claim not to recognize your initial rudeness, but since you have now decided to refrain from insulting masturbation references and patronizing "blah blah blah"s, I assume you know better, even if you're not admitting it.

  6. "[Beauty]...nor is it independent of the presence, mood and subjective experience of an observer."

    This is a telling quote I think. Is it your contention that 'God' is similarly dependent on the 'presence, mood and subjective experience of an observer'?

    "If Carroll's question regarding "the meaning of God" is not a philosophical one, what in the world is it?"

    What on earth do you mean? It is a real and sincere question posed to those folks who truly believe in 'God'! What do they precisely mean by this term if they do not mean the straw man of a little old dude sitting on a cloud.

    Many Christians say Jesus is God. I am quite sure that a great many of them do not mean this in anything other than the non-philosophical literal sense. To them Jesus the man is omnipotent, omniscient and the creator of the universe.

  7. To make this a quick answer to your first question: in a simple sense, yes. Like my understanding of beauty, I think that the understanding of the spiritual/Divine/'God' is not independent from the 'presence, mood and subjective experience of an observer.' (Note that this is different from saying it is 'solely dependent on'). This sounds, superficially, like I am saying that man must have 'invented God,' since I seem to be implying that 'God' cannot exist without the presence of man to confirm its existence. I call this interpretation superficial because the explanation for why this is not what I'm saying will take too long, and I have plans this afternoon.

    I'm not sure we're using the word 'philosophy' in the same way (you seem to be using it in a largely derogatory manner, actually). What exactly is 'unreal' and 'insincere' about a philosophical discussion? As a person who truly and sincerely believes in the existence of the Divine, I consider the question "what does God mean?" to be a philosophical/theological one. If we were asking, for instance, what the etymology and usage of the word 'God' has been in various cultures, or how the concept of 'God' has functioned historically in different social contexts, then perhaps the question would be a linguistic or anthropological one. But Carroll asked "those folks who truly believe in 'God'" what they mean, and that is, by definition, a philosophical question, as is any discussion regarding meaning, truth, reason, etc.

    To pose a philosophical question and then complain when folks attempt to answer it with complex and subtle philosophy is, as I said, a bit unfair. Perhaps the widely varied and difficultly articulated responses his question has received is also an indication that, despite its appearance of simplicity and clarity, the question itself is not really the appropriate one to ask for the kind of answer he is seeking. (By the way, do you still beat your wife? Please answer with a yes or no.) You cannot ask people to give you a complicated explanation of God, and then get angry at them when you received a complicated reply.

  8. I guess my problem with this back and forth session you two have going here is that Mr. Rude Anonymous does not really proffer any form of an explanation him/herself. The difficulty with the question that Sean asks is that even though he asks for clarity in a very sincere way, he is not extremely clear in the question that he puts forth. To ask anyone to provide a statement regarding their own personal idea of "God" or the "Divine" really puts pressure on the individual providing such a response to generalize many things that led to their own ideas. For instance, if you take Ali's route of the philosophical/spiritual approach, you get a response that makes a lot of sense to somebody who has taken a similar path. Someone who is not familiar with this view of the world though, or just simply opposed to it, may disagree and therefore make statements about how the response is merely "mental philosophized masturbation." This puts more pressure on the person who is explaining things to try and explain them in more general terms that are unfamiliar or perhaps even beyond the knowledge/experience of said person.

    The problem, as I see it at least, is with the original question though and with those seeking an "answer" to a question that seems simplistic from a traditional standpoint: define the word that you are using (simple enough). What do I mean by this? Well, most of us are very familiar with the process of having a question being asked and then having to use a method to solve or answer that question. The unfortunate habit learned in this process is that questions have answers, which is almost never the case unless you are dealing with very fine details of a situation (ex. How did MLK die? He was assassinated) Questions that do indeed have answers, though, are typically very trivial and basically have no purpose but to appear on Jeopardy. Most other questions, however, and particularly questions like "What is the meaning of the word 'God'?" are meant more to inspire thinking and personal development than to actually arrive at a single answer.

    As a scientist by training I am continually frustrated by how often individuals, particularly scientists, assume that questions have one answer. Most of those answers are dependent on the view of the observer and therefore are restricted, or rather limited, to the question being asked. Not to mention, most problems are highly situational, so if I were to ask a kid, "If I drop an apple, will it fall to the ground?" that kid would probably answer me, unknowingly and based purely on his experience within a very small Newtonian world, "Yes it will." However, my question never asks or states where I am when I drop the apple, or the conditions under which the apple is dropped. For all the kid knows I could be on a planet with no gravity, and dropping the apple will simply do nothing to affect the apple's height until I were to impose a force on that apple in a particular direction. This creates a very complex and particularly frustrating task for the individual seeking to find out the answer to such a question. In the end, you have to basically clarify that "the apple will do this in such and such a case."

    As Ali said, you have to use observations to the best of your ability while making sure that you do not look further into the results of an experiment than is suggested by your particular observation. This is what is meant by intellectual and scientific honesty. From what I’ve seen most often, materialists, those who put more emphasis on empirical “truths” and observations, often tend to catalogue a number of observations so that they can then try to explain the world in terms of the results of these observations. If you see an apple fall from a tree, you start to think, “How did this happen?” or “Can this be repeated?” Then you start to wonder if this concept of the falling apple can be extended to other objects, like bowling balls or feathers. This type of questioning and thinking provides a person, or people in general, with a view of the world that is based on experience and then catalogued or described in terms of generalizations, laws, rules, etc. In my opinion, this scientific method often leads to an obsession with answers and an overall misunderstanding of the word truth. Unfortunately, though, people tend to rely on this distraction to the point where they bypass the search for actual meaning in life and therefore act as though the ultimate purpose in one’s life is to acquire as much knowledge regarding trivial bits of information as possible. This basically resorts to falling in line and following the masses in their uninventive approach to life.

    To search for truth, though, one need only learn to develop ideas on their own with as little influence from tradition as possible. In my opinion this will eventually allow someone to be able to even approach the question “How do you define ‘God’?” For this question has no actual answer that can be given in terms of language, so to ask it in that form, to actually ask of it that it be defined so is, as Ali mentions, the wrong question to be asking. It would be as if I were to ask you what a musical piece says when there are no words to describe things. Perhaps the song is beyond words and can only be expressed by experience of the song itself. To try and explain them directly in terms of a few sentences would then destroy that which the song itself intends to create in the person. So it is with the “Divine.” The “Divine,” as far as I know, can only be known or understood through contemplation and eventual dissolution of the self. Patience and perseverance is required, and after enough time, one will eventually start to unwrap a few mysteries behind the idea of what terms like “God” or the “Divine” refer to. If you are truly interested in knowing the answer to your question, I would consider looking into poets like Rumi, or philosophers such as Nietzsche and Russell, and finally saints and mystics like Eckart. Eventually the “vacuous verbiage” will start to make a bit more sense after paradox and metaphor have become more familiar, for these are the only ways in which to describe the ideas of the “Divine.”

  9. Sinth, That was a beautifully written response. I completely agree that, as with a song, poem or any other work of art, the attempt to reduce an explanation of the Divine into a few prosaic, precise sentences will always fall short of its goal. I have often heard writer friends of mine say that, if they could have said everything they'd meant in prose, they wouldn't have bothered writing the poem. The fact of it being a poem is an essential part of its meaning. Likewise, I think, the experiential quality of the Divine is an essential part of the meaning of 'God'.

    Well, the rest of this reply has turned into what might as well be a whole new post, so I will refrain from saying more now. But thank you, everyone who has been replying or just reading along. Believe it or not, this kind of discussion is exactly what I always hope my posts will spark--not just spouting off, but honest replies to one another's ideas, an honest-to-goodness give & take. Wonderful. Thank you. Please keep reading! :)