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.