Wednesday, May 20, 2009

God Talk

Stanley Fish enlists French postmodernists to take on the atheists. Friends of Sam Harris take note. God Talk, Part 2
(I warned Big Pete this was coming.)


Ted said...

I don't particularly like Hitchens or Dawkins or Harris(although I have read a few of their works), and their "proof" of god's non-existence is nor more relevant than "proof" of god's existence: both are impossible tasks. There are a number of notes I jotted down while reading this (including the fact that BOTH theists and atheists struggle with the same moral and ethical questions and neither "side" should be accused of being happy-go-lucky) but I would especially like to refer to the 4th to last paragraph. In response to the quotes used by Fish (“To experience personal transformation that in turn can truly move and shake this world, we must believe in something outside of ourselves”; The kind of religion that moves me,” says Shannon . . . is the story of hope and love . . . not the idea that any particular story describes concrete historical ‘truth.’” “It isn’t about moral superiority,” says Richard. “It’s about humbly living an examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth. It certainly does not seem to be about comfort.”) I wonder why it is necessary to include belief in god or some type of deity or higher being in these moments of transformation. I have found far better ways of arguing, not necessarily against religion but for atheism, than what Hitchins or Dawkins (or any of Fish's readers) offers. For example, try Andre Comte-Sponville's "A Little Book of Atheist Spirituality" not a perfect book, but certainly opens up the discussion far better than Dawkins or Hitchens or Sam Harris. Among other things, he argues we don't need god but there is a need for faith (or as he calls it, "fidelity"). There also is nothing inherently wrong with god, only we don't need him to have fulfilling lives. In other words, simply because there are ignorant people arguing against religion (as there are ignorant people arguing for religion) doesn't mean that there are coherent and relevant arguments for atheism.

Big Myk said...

Both theists and atheists make the same error in reducing God down to a "thing" -- that is, just another part of creation. And that's what they end up arguing about. Just to use the male pronoun in describing God throws us off-course. Certainly, the feel-good God who hates all the same people who do hardly qualifies. I am convinced that Sarah Palin -- who believes that we are doing God's work in Iraq -- can't possibly believe in God. She believes in something but it's not God.

God, rather, is the wholly other, the inspiration for Jim's company, Mysterium Tremendum. Nikos Kazantzakis describes God: "We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence."

God is in a sense the metaphor we use to describe our moments of transformation.

I always like what brother Bob said about God (and I paraphrase due to an imperfect memory): Because anything we say to describe God is so inadequate, perhaps the most true thing we can say about him is that he doesn't exist.

Ted said...

So are you saying it is simply a question of semantics? God is merely the name we give the moment of transformation? That doesn't seem to be what religious apologists think, and if it is then both "sides" seem to think the same thing, only they proscribe a different name to that moment of transformation. Atheists seem to be able to experience that inspiration or witness what is wholly other, as well as any theists.

james said...

Ah, good old Post-Modernism. I think it’s the only school of thought that manages to obscure as much as it educates. I’ve always thought post-modernism lost a bit of its stature after this:

Fish claims that religious belief can be excused from tests of veracity because 1) no independent verifiable facts can ever disprove it because facts are just beliefs anyway, and 2) criticism of religious belief only ever falls under the category of mere caricature. (I hear this all the time: “No, you’re being ignorant! You’re not talking about real Catholicism. I’m a Catholic and I actually believe [insert pastiche of religious beliefs chosen a la carte].)”

So, I guess Fish is right. You can’t possibly argue with someone who asserts solipsism and defines religion in the most mealymouthed tone possible.

Frankly, his argument doesn’t seem all that compelling. As Ted pointed out, if religion is mostly about “humbly living an examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth,” then couldn’t you do that without positing that the unknowable exists? Why wouldn’t you drop the extra, unnecessary step?

Big Myk said...

I liked the article even though I agree with Jim that never was there an emperor who wore less clothes than postmodernism. Still, there was always something that bothered me about Dawkins, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I read the Fish piece: Dawkins has this incredibly presumptuous idea that scientists alone posses "unchained" minds and are able to see the world as it really is.

Way back when, Thomas Kuhn pointed out that any science operates with it own set of rules and assumptions which prescribes the avenues of inquiry, the methods with which to examine questions and the areas of relevance. In a sense, scientists already know what they're looking for. So, they don't get to say that they have the last word on everything.

And why bother with religion? For one, it lends discipline to living the examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth. For me, I have to spend at least one hour a week thinking about weightier matters, whether I'm in the mood for it or not. That's probably not nearly enough but it's a start.

Finally, in response to Ted's question, there is a real difference between a believer and a nonbeliever. The Dawkins-type nonbeliever is convinced that the universe is nothing more than a vast extremely complicated machine that we could eventually dissect and figure out. The univere is interesting but not miraculous.

The believer, on the other hand, has this sense of the holy about the world and universe around him -- what Goethe called "the weird portentous," that something inexpressible lies beyond our knowing. My feeling is, if the universe gives you goosebumps, you're a religious person; if not, you can stay home Sunday mornings.

Peter Harvey said...

Michael Himes, a priest who taught at ND, wrote a straigtforward little book called Doing the Truth in Love. He emphasizes God isn't a noun but a verb. Anytime you love unconditionally -- there's God. He sites a passage from the Brothers Karamzov in which an old woman tells a monk she is tormented about having lost her faith in God. The monk says go out and love the people you meet concretely every day. You will find God.
My second point is that believing in God may be useful in the same way that following sports is useful. I don't have much interest in the sports pages but there's definitely social captial in being conversant about the latest winning or losing streak etc. Last weekend Lisa and I went to visit Zainabo, a neighbor who grew up in Sierra Leone. She is quite a character, full of life and stories, walking everywhere and dropping in unexpectedly. Last month she was diagnosed with cancer. Lisa and I carried some food into her dark curtain-drawn living room. Her son Abbas was there,trying to cope, but the prevailing mood was one of spiraling descent. i was reminded of some of the dark huts I had ducked into in Senegal. Zainabo lay on a bed in the center of the room. She was so shrunken she seemed to have disappeared into the matress. She spoke in heartbreaking strained whispers. I'd never seen anyone laid low so quickly. When we were ready leave Zainabo said, "You're Catholics, you pray. Would you say a prayer?" I'm glad I didn't have to respond, "I'm sorry I don't believe in God." So I said a prayer and as I did so I felt I was kind of outside myself, the words coming from somewhere else, and when I finished I felt, trite as it seems, that love, for a moment at least, had replaced the sprialing descent. So even if you can't bring yourself to believe in God, be conversant on the topic.

Peter H of Lebo said...

"nonbeliever is convinced that the universe is nothing more than a vast extremely complicated machine that we could eventually dissect and figure out. The universe is interesting but not miraculous."

Why is it that knowing, understanding somehow goes hand in hand with a less wondrous? Why do we need this "inexpressible something" that lies beyond our knowing to make something wondrous? A vast complicated machine that is knowable is still awe-inspiring.

What is more awe-inspiring, the knowledge that all life is from the remnants of a long dead star-dead stars that still exist when we look into the past or some the unknowable thing taking dirt shaping it into his image grabbing a rib and making women.

Knowledge adds complexity and compliments the universe. Is knowing that the very stardust pattern found in you is also shared by your children and every living thing on earth less wondrous than an unknowable thing creating other lifeforms as playthings for humans?

Religion is fine if it leads to a discipline examined living, however more often than not religious beliefs are nothing more than an attempt to justify ignorance of the universe around us.

Big Myk said...

I never claimed that understanding makes things less wondrous. Off the top of my head, quantum mechanics comes to mind. To the contrary, religion says that no amount of knowing can eliminate the awe and mystery of the universe. I personally think that knowledge is always better than ignorance.

Loren Eiseley tells two stories that are really the same story with different characters.

The first involves a giant orb spider whose web he discovered along the edge of a gulch while he was looking for fossils:

"Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the [spider] web. Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist."

The second involved a moth at an opera:

"While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. 'He doesn’t know,' my friend whispered excitedly. 'He’s passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He’s in another play; he doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.'"

Science errs in thinking that there is some ultimately objectifiable universe out there that, given enough time, we can fully grasp and understand. The fact is, just like the orb spider and the Cecropia moth, we see things only as we are capable.

Religion asks only that we recognize this, that: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," and that we show a little humility and respect.

Peter H of Lebo said...

Sorry, I thought you meant that since nonbelievers see the universe as understandable it becomes "interesting but not miraculous". I was arguing that whether one believes or does not believe in a "higher truth" (or what ever term you use for God) they still feel the same wonderment about their universe even though to them it is a finite and completely understandable universe.

Why does it matter that "we see things only as we are capable"? That is our existence. For the spider story, whether the man is there or not there does not matter. The man has no influence on the spider. Though he plays with the web the spider does not and cannot perceive that the man exist therefore the spider's universe is unchanged-there is still no man in it.

For example, there are little green men undetectable by science-outside 'our universe' who has the power to destroy all oxygen at their whim. I am not going to dress up in silly robes, determine how these green men think of sexual orientation and marriage or even bother to "show a little humility and respect" for green men that do not exist to me. I personal don't hold my breath for things that have no influence on my universe. Others think differently and fill needs concerning their existence with other beliefs which is great. When science fails at explaining "my universe", when rain falls up instead of down, when pigs can fly without scientific explanation maybe then I'll need other beliefs to help understand my universe.

Independent of whether God exist or does not (I hope he does) some people need a God while others do not, thats great for both sides. Why does a person need to believe in a God, Gods, green men etc. to feel wonderment about their existence? Why can't an understandable finite universe without a higher order be enough?

Mike said...

I completely agree that to have transcendental, life-changing moments, and to be in awe of the universe are not things that must find their justification in a higher power. To me the scientific realities of the universe are so much more fulfilling than many simple religious explanations (especially those that operate to the exclusion of science).

To take this whole thing in a somewhat different direction though, my issues with the Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris camp is that it is reactionary to the point of betraying obvious questions regarding the existence of life in the universe. I am thinking here of my own difficulty (inability?) in imagining a universe without a designer. The idea of some kind of 'big bang' event eventually leading to sentient beings is so beyond my imaginative abilities that some sort of deus ex machina is necessary to smooth this whole equation out. Atheism, in skirting this question ('clearly random chance gave rise to life'), seems disingenuous... then again they might just have better imaginations.

james said...

But who designed the designer?

Big Myk said...

Last night for the very first time -- believe or not -- I saw Kevin Smith's Dogma. I think it pretty much answers all the questions raised in the comments here, and then some.

Mike said...

I guess I just mean to say that there are conceptual/theological/philosophical questions regarding the existence of God that are worth asking... even though they are outside the realm of the scientifically testable. To me it is strange to say those questions are not worth pursuing because there they are not subject to the scientific method. I go back to my point above, how do we suppose that self-referential beings came into existence based solely on the cold mechanics of the universe? If it doesn't point us toward a designer, at least it can inform future scientific hypotheses.

I feel like the neo-atheist movement has this disdain for anything that approaches theological inquiry.

On the other hand, I completely agree with their assessment of religion as a huge potential force for bad in this word. I just think they take the argument too far.

James R Harvey said...

I like this discussion. Perhaps we can carry it on during Ted's wedding. I have a number of thoughts. I'll mention two personal ones for a change. (Note: these are more on the side of religion, but I will happily supply ideas on the other side as well.)

1. I had a psychology professor who said that if he knew the movement of every atom in the universe, every electronic impulse in the brain, every chemical reaction, etc, he could predict a person's behavior. I completely disagreed with him—it was about this time I formulated the material for my book, "The End of Determinism"—only later to find out that science itself disagreed with him in Quantum Theory.

2. Every Nobel scientist I have known was religious. Of course that 'religion' was different than most people see religion. Here I'm reminded of the priests I knew at Notre Dame. Not only was their 'religion' much different than what people expected, but it was hard, if not impossible, to understand if you had not done a lot of studying and thinking about religion (and life).

Ted said...

Going back to Mike's point for a moment, I have always wondered why it was possible to imagine a grand designer but impossible or at least extremely difficult, to imagine no designer at all. It seems one would be just as difficult as the other.
I also agree with Mike that Hutchins et al are extreme and add as much to the discussion as the most adherent and unbending religious. In other words, very little. The only defense I can think of for them, is that there have been so many extreme arguments for relgions over the past thousands of years, that the non-religious and atheists need their own extreme arguments. That's all I have.

James R Harvey said...

Oops...I forgot the name of my was "The Death of Determinism." Ah...that's much better.

Big Myk said...

Re: Mike's comments, I get real nervous when we think we can deduce an intelligent designer from the complexity or enormity of the universe. To me, that is simply projecting a human "masque beyond the planets." Obviously, by intelligence, we mean something intelligible to us humans; otherwise it would be irrational. And design -- ask Steve -- is a human activity. So, to speak of an intelligent designer is to put essentially a human -- albeit, a really really smart one -- at the helm. And so, "we are where we began."

You may find the following casts some light on this, or maybe not:

If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. . . . It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word “God.” Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheistic scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians, who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.

Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 4-5.

James R Harvey said...

Myk wins best post or at least best post using Wallace Stevens references. (Now there is someone who knows something about God or, perhaps, knows he knows nothing about God.)

Mike said...

Re: Myk - I agree. (Especially after seeing the video Peter just posted.) And even questioning how "the cold mechanics of the universe" gave rise to self-referential beings assumes that we (or I) have much of an idea of those forces. Perhps it is the inclination of the sum of those forces to move toward such "living" creatures, we just haven't found any others - or we really are extreme statistical anomolies - or some mixture of the two.

Its still puzzling though. "Big Bang" --> Creatures contemplating that event. Weird.