Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Purpose and Process of Belief

In my recent post about intellectual honesty in the quest for a 'meaning of "God,"' I explored the preconditions for any such discussion as the ability to accept personal experiences as relevant disclosures of truth, and from this condition, the acknowledgment that, therefore, any attempted discussion will be necessarily complex, even messy and confusing. The post provoked some very interesting responses from readers, and as the discussion continued, my own thoughts in response to Carroll's initial question "What does 'God' mean to the 'sophisticated believer'?" have continued to coalesce and clarify.

In particular, a beautifully phrased response by 'Sinthetic Aesthetic,' put me on, once again, to the metaphor of the 'work of art' in discussing the spiritual experience of 'God'. He writes:

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.”

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 writers, myself included, 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 the work's meaning. Likewise, I think, the experiential quality of the Divine is an essential part of the meaning of 'God', and the function of aesthetic 'framing' in the creation of a work of art is a useful metaphor for the process and purpose of 'belief' in the spiritual life.

'Belief' as Beginning: A New Way of Attending

Indeed, I think it is a mistake to talk about 'belief in God' as if belief were the goal of the spiritual life, the end result of religiousness. Rather, belief in the possibility of the existence of 'God' is really the belief that the human beings have the real potential for spiritual experience, that such experiences are not illusions or bio-psychological misunderstandings to be explained away. This belief is the beginning of the spiritual life, which makes the experiential relationship with the Divine possible. Belief is the frame--the edge of the canvas--which presents a particular idea or image as distinct from the casual, familiar everyday. It calls our attention to the 'work of art' and says, "This. Pay attention to this. This is special. This is set-apart, consecrated, made sacred." Here, within a framework of belief, the ordinary is made holy, the particular elevated to become a bridge to the universal. Religious belief says: in this man or deity, the image of humanity is made godly, whether in creation or in sacrifice; in this garden, the fecundity of nature is made paradisiacal, then painful and obscene; in this fall, the imperfections and limitations of living beings are made mythic and essential.

The most simplistic of 'believers' begin here, attending to just these stories and images. Through these particular beliefs, they allow for the possibility of spiritual experience of the 'mundane,' material, present world.

Breaking Down 'Belief': The Dark Night

But the mystics and seers, those who have begun the journey into experiential relationship with the Divine that belief initially makes possible, eventually abandon the framework of belief. The spiritual growth of the journey towards 'God' demands it, for in the end any name, word, image or idea falls short of the whole. For some, this step away from belief is painful; it presents itself as a crisis of faith, the long dark night of the soul. The mystic Sufi poet, Rumi, writes, "You cannot know your self and God’s Self; either die before God, or God will die before you, so that duality will not remain." In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes, "God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?" The straw-man belief in a simplistic, anthropomorphic 'God' cannot withstand the reasoning mind; but more than this, neither can it withstand the honest search for experience of the spiritual.Reflection: Crucifix, Candle, Iris & Globe

Even for an atheist or a materialist, the inadequacy of a simple belief in 'God' to satisfy the spiritual and intellectual needs of the self-aware creature can be cause for anger, and even grief. This secret anger, I think, is behind demands such as Carroll's for 'believers' to explain themselves, to justify their seemingly easy faith. These educated thinkers and scientists must certainly have noticed all manner of ignorance rampant in the world, and yet it is this supposed religious ignorance that galls them, that provokes attack. C.S. Lewis said of his atheistic youth that he lived "in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world. Why should creatures have the burden of existence forced on them without their consent?" It is this contradiction--that self-aware creatures seem to possess an inherent need for a 'meaningful' existence, and yet mere belief in meaning, mere belief in a 'God' which might bestow meaning, quickly ceases to satisfy--that incites the loss of faith, the loss of that simplistic belief.

Beyond 'Belief': The Persistence of Spiritual Experience

But that same self-awareness, the sense of longing and dissatisfaction itself, can also become the vehicle by which the mystic, the spiritual seeker, emerges from this dark night. One begins to realize that spiritual experiences--experiences of loss, longing and grief regarding the meaningful nonmaterial--persist even in the face of lost faith, even when we no longer have confidence in or use for the words and images we once used to describe and provoke such experiences. The mystic has abandoned 'belief,' and yet the life of the spirit continues. The frame has broken, and the workings of art spill over, off the canvas and into everything, everywhere. The line between observer and observed is erased. The Divine is no longer something 'out there' to be carefully packed away into definitions of 'belief' and carried around like a small worry-stone in the pocket of the faithful.

To the mystic, all things are consecrated, everything is holy--divinity no longer means duality, separating out the sacred from the profane; it means union, the encompassing of all creation and creativity, all potential and activity, within the Divine. To speak of 'God' as the 'ground of being' and the 'ultimate reality' is to speak of spirituality beyond the framework of belief itself. Rumi, who knows that the risk of self-conscious belief is the death of 'God', continues, "But as for God’s dying, that is both impossible and inconceivable, for God is the Living, the Immortal. So gracious is He that if it were at all possible He would die for your sake. Since that is not possible, then you must die so that God can reveal Itself to you." For we are not merely aware of the self, we believe in it. We see others and ourselves as defined creatures, defined by bodies and ideas, emotions and memories--we see "the burden of existence" as something thrust upon us, as if we were something else besides, and our first, simplistic 'belief in God' is our clumsy attempt at absolving us of the burden. This belief, too, must be broken open, so that the Divine that is existence, including our own, might be made manifest and experienced fully.

'Belief' and Non-belief: The Difference

Perhaps, then, the most honest response to the question posed by Carroll and others like him is that there is no difference between a universe full of 'God' and a universe empty of it. Though Buddhists conceive of 'enlightenment' as an escape from samsara, the cycle of life, death and rebirth in the world, the Buddha is recorded as saying that, upon reaching nirvana, the enlightened one recognizes it not only as the here-now, fully present within this world, but as having always been present, even within the suffering of samsara. This paradox is akin to the paradox of 'sophisticated belief' for which Carroll demands explanation. For in the end, any description of complex spiritual life that extends beyond the straw-man belief is not simply a new and better definition of 'belief', but a description of spiritual process itself. When we talk about 'the meaning of God,' what we are really talking about is the relationship between ourselves, as self-aware, creative beings, and the world, as both the work of art we create with our awareness, and the work of art of anOther, in which the Other is manifest and made present and which inspires in us new ways of being.

The difference between the mystic's perspective and the materialist's perspective is the difference between object qua work of art, and object qua incidental machine--but this is not a description of the external reality. It is a description of our attitude towards reality. The world itself simply is as it is. It is not belief in 'God' that makes a difference to the world, but the world that makes a difference to us. The 'belief' of a complex understanding of the Divine is, more accurately, a suspension of disbelief and cynicism, a release of conviction that the universe "has to be" only one thing or another. The same kind of suspension allows the experience of beauty to move a man to tears; allows the fretting and strutting of actors upon the stage to coalesce into meaningful drama, while still being only the movements of actors; allows, in short, the work of art to become the work of art, to reveal itself as such in response to the perception and experience of the self-aware viewer.

A New Purpose for 'Belief': Story-Telling as Sacred Activity

Yet to say that 'belief in God' is, in some ways, irrelevant to the spiritual experience is not to reduce all mystics to atheists and, by some strange extension, materialists. Firstly, not all atheists are materialists (Buddhists, here, being a case in point). Secondly, after all atheism is, like 'God' itself, "just another story that we tell." It is in choosing those stories that we actively participate in the nature of our spiritual experiences.

What is the purpose of 'belief' to the religious mystic? As an artist might consciously choose the composition of the still life, the light and shadows of the portrait, so the mystic recognizes the particulars of 'belief' as functional, ways in which this truth of the Divine is highlighted, or that experience of 'God' is inspired and invoked. The artist sees the world and says, "I will show this to others, and even though it is in some ways only a copy, it will also become something in itself, something else within the world to which I am a witness." The mystic sees the world and says, "I will show this to others, I will teach them to see the Divine within the very world itself, but I must begin somewhere, so I will begin here, with this metaphor, with this story, with this belief. I will give others a taste of what it means to feel 'God' and only trust that they will take up the search on their own from there."

For some, the defining experience of the spiritual life is that of loss and longing, the dark night, and so these atheistic mystics turn to stories, images and ideas that break open and destroy the 'belief in God,' in order to instigate a greater awareness and engagement with the present world. This is the insight offered by Nietzsche when he declares that "God is dead," for he continues (in the Prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra):

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under. [...] I love him who does not hold back one drop of spirit for himself, but wants to be entirely the spirit of his virtue: thus he strides over the bridge of spirit. I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe: for his virtue's sake he wants to live on and to live no longer. [...] I love him whose soul is deep, even in being wounded, and who can perish of a small experience: thus he goes gladly over the bridge. I love him whose soul is overfull so that he forgets himself, and all things are in him: thus all things spell his going under. I love him who has a free spirit and a free heart: thus his head is only the entrails of his heart, but his heart drives him to go under.

Yet for others, the dark night is flimsy inspiration compared to the glory and joy of the experiential union with--and the creative love of--the Divine. And so we have Rumi, who writes:

Look how desire has changed in you,
how light and colorless it is,

with the world growing new marvels
because of your changing. Your soul

has become an invisible bee. We
don't see it working, but there's

the full honeycomb!

And Mechtild of Magdeburg sings:

Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world,
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings--
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings
Which are touched in Love
Must sound.

'Belief' & Art: Th Full Circle

It is no wonder that the mystics, whatever the religious tradition, seem to inevitably resort to the language of poetry, expressing the 'meaning' of the Divine not in prosaic logic, but with the artistic techniques of metaphor, striking imagery and musicality. Here again we see how the aesthetic experience can be a model for and evocation of the spiritual experience, and the creation of a work of art--whether poetry, music, dance, sculpture, drama, etc.--is akin to the spiritual experience of participating in union with the Divine in the becoming of the world, and the becoming of oneself and of 'God' in the world.

Now, dear reader, you might find that we have come full circle again. But before anyone begins throwing despaired accusations of vacuous 'circular logic,' perhaps we would do well to remember that in cultures all across the world, the circle has always been a symbol of the completed, the Whole, the One, the perfected.


  1. Ali, very thoughtful and beautiful. Really, gives more "nourishment" than the sort of high-falutin' "mumbo jumbo" about God proceeding from necessary existence, and about contingency and modal realism etc. ad mysterium that I've been throwing around at Cosmic Variance.

    I had an insight of a message from "God" once, which you can think of as an intuition about the Highest Good and by no means depending on God "really existing" as a Person or thing etc. It was:

    I am your eyes and ears,
    You are my hands and feet.

    Later I found similar sentiments had been experienced by Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross. It means, "God" gives or is our insight and conscience, but we must do the good in the world. No March on Washington: no civil rights will just fall from Heaven. If we screw this World up or let it get screwed up, it will be screwed up. Just maybe, we can "all" agree on that?

  2. Ali, thanks for a thoughtful response. I'm traveling and can't really engage with it right now, nor do I suspect it would be very fruitful for me to do so anyway. I appreciate your acknowledgment that ``there is no difference between a universe full of 'God' and a universe empty of it.'' To me, then, the important question becomes a very different one: given what we experience and how we approach the world, is it useful or helpful to think in God-terms or other terms? I personally strongly believe the latter, and hopefully some day I'll get around to articulating why.

  3. Sean, I very much appreciate you stopping by to read in spite of other pressing activities. In response to your question about the usefulness of thinking in God-terms or other terms, I have never found that the former necessarily interferes with the latter. There's a quote by Feynman that I particularly love (you may have heard it) about how understanding the various levels of scientific complexity of a flower doesn't "reduce" it but actually enhances his appreciation of its beauty. I feel similarly about thinking in terms of the spiritual--it doesn't need to obscure or replace other ways of thinking. Really, I don't feel an urgent need to find only one, "most" useful way of talking and thinking about the world. Sometimes God-terms are useful; at other times it is more useful to talk about aesthetics, history, psychology, biology, or just relax and make a few good puns to make sure we're not taking ourselves too seriously.

    In any case, thank you again for the interesting post. It's generated far more writing than I could ever in good conscience post to a blog! I look forward to reading such thoughtful entries in the future. Meanwhile, happy travels!

  4. Dear Ali, this is a great post. I have been moving through some of the states you describe, but would not have been able to articulate the process in such a nuanced way as you do here. I think if we call All That Is by the name "God" it somehow limits it, because we expect it to be manifest in one place, or outside the universe, or male-only, or some other weird thing - all of which ideas can have catastrophic consequences.

  5. Michael Glenn10/27/2007 12:41 AM

    I was really interested to read Sean Carroll's piece at Cosmic Variance and then your response. I usually don't get involved in these things, but this time felt moved to make a few comments.

    You express the view that Carroll is secretly angry at the "seemingly easy faith" of believers. This seems odd to me, based on everything I've read by him. I think I know what you're getting at, I just don't see it in Carroll.

    However, there are atheists and materialists of a certain stripe who do exhibit a kind of defensiveness, or need for control. You know the type: the atheist who breaks out in hives at the word "spiritual"; the materialist who denies that consciousness exists in order to sustain the thesis that neural correlates of consciousness actually tell us what consciousness is. This type of atheist/materialist is sort of the flip side of the monotheist/supernaturalist. Each seems to be saying, one way or the other, "I know what the score is; you don't."

    Still, "atheism" and "materialism" cover a variety of perspectives. For example, saying as Carroll does that 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" can sound colder than ice. But consider this—you have a "bunch of stuff" (which at both the micro and macro scales seems less and less like "stuff" at all) that, "obeying some equations," produces not only life in myriad forms but also consciousness and moral agency.

    Doesn't that seem pretty darned miraculous? Even supernatural, in a sense? And there's nothing about that thesis, in and of itself, that denigrates any mystical experience by any human being anywhere, ever. You'll recall William Blake: "That called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses." The stuff that obeys equations becomes a problem only when so-called materialists insist that knowing how it works is the same as knowing what it is.

    Still, in a way aren't the monotheists/supernaturalists doing that too? Telling us that they know positively what this stuff is—that it's dead, inanimate, unless there is "spirit" to move it?

    Don't the doctrinaire on both sides seem equally positive about this?

    I get the feeling that neither Carroll nor you is like that, which is why your assertions about "God" and "belief" seem a bit problematical to me.

    Carroll isn't arguing against mystery, I think, but against the loaded concept "God."

    What if we were to take whatever this stuff is that is the universe, that is simultaneously orderly and creative while being both nothing—at the quantum level mostly empty space, after all—and everything, and call it "Zeus"? Marcus Aurelius, considered by many to be a profoundly philosophical and even spiritual human being, did. And, indeed, why not? "Zeus" is as worthy a term, surely, as "God"! Yet I suspect that most people pushing their allegedly sophisticated version of "God" would be uncomfortable with "Zeus." It represents a different culture, you know, a time long past and dead, and why, after all, seek to rehabilitate the sky deity of the Greeks and Romans as the Zeus of Spinoza and Einstein, so to speak?

    Isn't that the basic point Carroll is making about "God"? There is nothing about what you describe as the "spiritual process itself" that is incompatible with the mystery "stuff." Calling it Zeus or God or the ground of being or ultimate reality makes no difference. Since it makes no difference, why use so loaded a term as "God"? After all, at bottom it represents the dynastic deity of a particular point in the history of ancient Judah. Remember that what it means for the majority of people who use it bears little if any resemblance to your meaning, or Richard Skinner's.

    "The difference between the mystic's perspective and the materialist's perspective is the difference between object qua work of art, and object qua incidental machine—but this is not a description of the external reality. It is a description of our attitude towards reality. The world itself simply is as it is." Who could argue with that? Not I. Nor Carroll, I suspect (though I really shouldn't be speaking for the man, obviously).

    Moreover, what if you're a mystic who sees no distinction between matter and spirit, indeed sees that distinction as an artificial one imposed by Christian theology that has infected Western thinking ever since. Are you then a materialist? Because a mystic like that would have no need or use for God or Zeus, yet clearly would not have the perspective of object qua incidental machine.

    One possibility to consider is that the theologically (as opposed to mystically) inclined such as Richard Skinner may be doing the realities of spiritual process no favors. Another is that, just as seeing "belief in God" as irrelevant does not reduce all mystics to atheists, it does not in fact reduce anyone to anything. What reduces people is hostility toward possibility, as when "materialists" dismiss as "Woo" the suggestion that a type of human experience might appropriately be termed spiritual, or when "supernaturalists" dismiss with anger or even as blasphemy the suggestion that "God" solves no problems, neither scientifically, philosophically, nor spiritually.

    What you write about story and metaphor is well put. Please just remember, as with "God," story and metaphor are not what most people mean by "belief." The late philosopher Walter Kaufmann took "liberal" theologians to task fifty years ago for much the same reason Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Sean Carroll take people like Richard Skinner to task today. Kaufmann wrote of Paul Tillich that "he redefines the crucial terms and cultivates a kind of double-speak. Literalists thus feel reconfirmed in their beliefs and are pleased that so erudite a man should share their faith, while the initiated realize that Tillich finds the beliefs shared by most of the famous Christians of the past and by millions of Christians in the present utterly untenable; and some unbelievers conclude that unbelief is no reason for renouncing Christianity."

    It may come as a surprise to you that I think of myself as a pagan rather than an atheist. Yet I really see no conflict between a perspective like Sean Carroll's and any spiritual process. The conflict lies rather between his perspective and the proposition that God "exists," when no one can say what that proposition means.

    Apologies for the length!

  6. Michael,

    You certainly do not need to apologize for the length of your comment. It shows a thoughtfulness and thoroughness that I appreciate greatly. I should be the one apologizing for not having responded sooner (I'm not sure you're still even checking back for a reply at this point), but work and illness have been a bit daunting recently.

    The other reason I haven't responded before now is that I find very little to argue with in your comment. I agree that materialists and monotheists alike can be too "positive" in their claims of knowing what the world really is (or is made up of, or whathaveyou). You write, for instance, "The stuff that obeys equations becomes a problem only when so-called materialists insist that knowing how it works is the same as knowing what it is." I agree completely; on the other hand, however, I find that this is exactly the subtle distinction many materialists refrain from exploring too deeply, sometimes ignoring it altogether as irrelevant (which it certainly isn't by any stretch!). My frustration with materialists largely stems from this seemingly small blindspot, which could, were it more readily acknowledged, actually provide some common ground to start from in a conversation about meaning between 'believers' and 'non-believers'.

    I also agree that the word 'God' is an emotionally and culturally 'loaded term,' but then, I do not see this as a very convincing reason to abandon it as meaningless or useless. Indeed, its potency seems like exactly the kind of very good reason one should have to engage it honestly and consider it carefully, to tease out the underlying assumptions it carries with it and how those assumptions speak to (or even help to create) the reality of those experiences to which it is applied. After all, even if 'most Christians' do not see 'belief' as metaphor or 'God' as the complexity of spiritual relationship that I have described, I know very few people who have ever "experienced God" in the literal sense which many materialists accuse them of meaning. If we deny the possibility or importance of unpacking these loaded religious terms, we relegate them to the realms of dusty theological corners, the same place plenty of fundamentalists would like them to stay. This is no way to explore, deepen and eventually discard literalism, it seems to me (which I thought was exactly the process Carroll was asking us 'sophisticated believers' to explain). Instead, it will continue to be all too easy to accuse anyone who attempts to bring religious language into better light of using duplicitous double-speak over the heads of 'ordinary believers.' It's almost as if the very ability to articulate a complex spiritual life disqualifies one from being able to discuss what the spiritual life is like.

    Underlying this accusation is the belief that 'normal believers' do not have complex spiritual lives, that to be religiously 'normal' is to be spiritually shallow, and that loaded religious terms are loaded precisely because they are, in the end, empty, vacuous. Any time we attempt to unpack them, to discover what we might possibly mean by them, we are accused of now talking about something else. I cannot possibly mean 'God' when I talk about metaphor and experience, apparently, because 'God' does not mean that--although exactly how we are so certain what 'God' does not mean, when we are engaged in that very question to begin with, is difficult to justify.

    Instead, I find it much more fruitful (not to mention respectful of the potentially meaningful experiences of others) to assume that the term 'God' is loaded not because it is meaningless, but because it is the word we have been taught to use when describing experiences that are incredibly powerful and full of meaning, in this very world in which we are living right now. In what sense, exactly, does the word 'God' "at bottom represent the dynastic deity of a particular point in the history of ancient Judah"? Why should that particular meaning of the word be any more substantive or relevant than any of the evolving and multifaceted theological concepts between the beginnings of monotheism and today? Once again, this dismissal seems to rest on the assumption that religious experiences of 'God' today are incapable of being authentic and meaningful, that 'meaning' was definitively determined sometime in the past and has since grown irrelevant and vacuous in today's world. Once again, though, do the 'majority of believers' actually experience 'God' as some ancient, anachronistic, foreign deity, or is this just what 'non-believers' accuse them of in the face of affirmations of the continuity of and community between 'believers' of the past and present? Similarly, words like 'love' or 'beauty' are not simple, single abstract concepts that can be established as meaning one thing eternally, to be universally agreed upon and applied, and yet even the most uneducated and inarticulate among us seem to have some grasp of what those words mean and how they tend to manifest, even if we are sometimes mistaken or misled in identifying examples of them in our own lives.

    (Incidentally I do happen occasionally to employ the word 'God' as part of the language I use to discuss my spiritual life, though hopefully you've noticed that, when speaking abstractly, I tend to put it in scare-quotes and lean more heavily towards phrases like 'the Divine' or 'Spirit.' When I do use the word 'God,' it is most often in the privacy of my own prayer and contemplation, and as such it has become almost a term of endearment--like 'snuggly-poo,' for example--that is in many ways nonsensical, childish and sentimental, but speaks volumes about the level of intimacy I experience between myself and whatever that 'stuff' is that is the world. Despite its inaccuracies in some ways, plenty of 'believers' can relate in a meaningful way to the experiences from which this usages arises, and in the end, isn't this really the goal of language anyway? To communicate our experiences of reality, not to replace them.)

  7. Michael Glenn10/30/2007 2:09 AM

    Thanks for the response, Ali. (Now I'm the one who doesn't know whether you're checking back.) I was away from computers for several days (I notice a lot of additional activity as Carroll's original post), and work keeps me from doing this often even when I'm at a computer.

    I don't find much to argue with in what you say, either. My main concern—and fascination, even—is with the way people seem to talk past each other and to make assumptions about each other. That was why one of my points of reaction to your post was your ascribing a kind of secret anger to Sean Carroll.

    I myself have no problems with terms like "the Divine," "spiritual," and "mystical." Carroll probably wouldn't use them, but I'm not sure he would react with the kind of outright hostility typified by atheists like PZ Myers and Tom Flynn (the editor of Free Inquiry). Sam Harris has no problems with "spiritual" and "mystical," and even the redoubtable Richard Dawkins granted during his Time magazine debate with Francis Collins that "God" is "a worthy idea," but that "if there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed." (Dawkins also has remarked—I can't remember where, alas—that on a scale of one to seven, with one being absolute conviction there is a "God," and seven absolute conviction there is not, he would rank himself a six.)

    However, I myself normally avoid using the term "God" because it is so "overcharged with meaning," as Walter Kaufmann termed it, and accordingly so likely to be taken by so many people in ways I don't intend.

    But what Kaufmann meant by "meaning" is not what Carroll means when he says of the "sophisticated formulations" that "they don't mean anything." On the one hand "God" is like a conceptual magnet for all kinds of emotions, experiences, perplexities, and concerns, and therefore intensely meaningful. On the other hand, the "sophisticated formulations" don't add anything to our knowledge about the world in which we live.

    Beyond those formulations are the experiences and states we call "spiritual" and "mystical" that have been part of the common human heritage all around the world and throughout history. Clearly that heritage can't be dismissed as meaningless—the fact that we have such a heritage tells us something about the world in which we live. But jumping from that heritage to "God exists" as a truth proposition, especially when so many other possibilities are available, doesn't seem to be a particularly meaningful move either. I don't get the feeling that's a move you're making, but it does seem to be the kind of move made by people like Richard Skinner, who then can't explain what they mean by such moves, which is why Carroll says "they don't mean anything."

    Anyway, I unfortunately have to leave it there for now. I'm really glad you posted at Cosmic Variance so that I could discover your blog, and through yours some other great links as well.

    Maybe one of these days Carroll will take that stab at articulating the terms he finds useful and why, and we'll both have time to respond to it.

  8. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”

    Epicurus BCE 341-270

  9. "I remember specifically the well known scene at the end of [Wiesel's] Night with its chilling description of the hanging of three prisoners--one a young boy who did not immediately die because his body was too light to snap his neck. The other prisoners are forced to march by the corpses and this child's half-dead body. Someone asks 'Where is God now?' And Wiesel hears a voice within answer, 'Where is He? Here He is--He is hanging here on the gallows...'"

    - Robert Inchausti, from The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People

    (In other words, to conceive of "God" as an anthropomorphic entity whose main purpose is to "fix" people's suffering (a) misunderstands the issue of morality and justice, and (b) denigrates human free will and, thus, the uniqueness of each human being as an individual capable of meaningful action. In my opinion, God lies within human responsibility, that is, within our response-ability to act lovingly and creatively, even in times of suffering. Our capacity to do so is the space in which 'God' exists.)

  10. The question of "whence comes evil, if 'God' is good" is only troubling if you believe in "evil." I don't. Suffering and pain are real; 'evil' is just the name we give to them to make them seem inevitable and mysteriously beyond our moral responsibility.