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Friday, January 16, 2015
Philosophy ... Religion ...

I read an interesting article on the RealClearReligion web site entitled “The Decline of Philosophy“. Hmmm, so someone else thinks that philosophy today ain’t what it used to be. I am presently listening to a CD course from the Teaching Company on philosophical metaphysics, and I too have some reservations about what modern philosophy is concerning itself with. The course is taught by Dr. David K. Johnson, a young philosophy professor at Kings College in Pennsylvania. Professor Johnson goes out of his way to make ontology relevant to the masses, and specializes in integrating pop cultural into his lectures, especially movies (he also repeatedly mentions his love for the sweet potato fries at Johnny Rocket’s).

And yet, so much of Dr. Johnson’s discussion and argument just seem irrelevant to me (despite my penchant for “deeper meanings” to things). Johnson’s lectures mostly boil down to a word games and battles between philosophers as to how cleverly they can apply the rules of logic. I get the impression from Johnson that he and his fellow modern philosophers certainly are very clever, but they don’t convey much that gives a better understanding of our selves, our lives and the environment and universe around us. Johnson has a very excitable lecturing style, and his enthusiasm almost bubbles over whenever he leaves us in a tangle of contradictory propositions and unanswerable questions. Ummmm . . . whatever happened to the old Greek philosophical notion that philosophy is to help us understand deeper truths? If Johnson’s course is any indication, philosophers today seem to be saying “there is no truth”.

The RCR article was written by a Catholic priest named Robert Barron (who is President of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago). Fr. Barron hasn’t taken notice of David Johnson, but he does open up his article by zeroing in on Dr. Daniel Dennett, who is one of the more outspoken proponents of “the new Atheism“. Barron believes that Dennett promotes arrogance on the part of modern atheists by proposing that they call themselves “brights”. This was meant to highlight the fact that some of the most intelligent people in our society today, scientists and philosophers, are now predominantly atheist. Barron cites a recent article in Salon indicating that 86% of philosophers and 93% of scientists don’t believe in God.

Well, obviously, Fr. Barron doesn’t take that lying down; he says that scientists don’t really appreciate the metaphysical subtleties behind the classical notions of God, and thus focus inordinately on the lack of any evidence for the supernatural found in their labs and equations. As to philosophers, Fr. Barron concludes that modern philosophers aren’t so “bright” after all, and that many of their arguments against God don’t really hold water. So, the philosophers are ignoring God because their intellectual craft is in a state of decline. Barron sums it up this way:

I despise the arrogance of Dennett and his atheist followers who would blithely wrap themselves in the mantle of “brightness;” but I also despise the use of statistics to prove any point about philosophical or religious matters. I would much prefer that we return to argument.

Most interesting. Personally, I have noticed some things about the “New Atheists”. They take a strong stand against the harmful (largely Christian) forms of domestic religious intolerance, including attempts to block or distort scientific teachings regarding evolution, and denying access to live-saving medical research and interventions (e.g., stem cell therapies). And the atheists are right in this. But as to international religious fanaticism, including the rather virulent strain of violent Islamic militantism plaguing the world today . . . the academics seem a bit more muted, perhaps because of an imagined position of superior understanding and faux-sympathy for those who wallow in hatred and ignorance allegedly because of their historical exploitation by western civilization. Let’s face it, the front lines of defense against the most dangerous forms of religious activism today run through the offices of Charlie Hebdo and not thru the hallways of the Harvard philosophy department.

And toward those of us who still find reasons in our lives to believe in the divine (or at least to maintain hope, as in my case) but who don’t endanger society because of it, the modern atheists sometimes express a self-reassuring tone of condescending tolerance. After pointing out the errors of our intellectual ways, they put on their psychoanalyst hats and decide that given our mental weaknesses, we God-fearers should be allowed our irrational fantasies and imaginary friends in Heaven, given that we need them to cope with a complex and challenging world (again, so long as we don’t make any trouble about it). As Fr. Barron says, by calling themselves brights, atheists “distinguish themselves rather clearly from the dim benighted masses who hold on to supernaturalist convictions”.

And yet . . . I’ve seen plenty of believers take very disrespectful and closed-minded approaches towards atheists too. The atheists certainly have many stories of Christians acting in a rather un-Christian way towards them. And as the Salon author points out, the social and institutional culture that has accumulated around religious belief just doesn’t work for a lot of people in modern society (to be honest, it doesn’t work for me either — that’s why I hang out with a Zen sangha). But as to the intellectual sustainability of a belief in the existence of an ultimately benevolent God, or at least a hope in the possibility thereof . . . I myself feel that the philosopher’s concept of the ontological “brute fact” provides grounds on which such a hope may reasonably and rationally rest.

I myself have not spent years studying the fine points of philosophy, modern or ancient. But Dr. Johnson’s course has made me aware of the existence of the “brute fact” concept (and of the discomfort and disdain of many philosophers towards this notion, probably including Johnson himself). In an oversimplified nutshell, a “brute fact” is what you turn to when you can’t explain something any further. Perhaps ancient humans saw “earth, wind and fire” as the ultimate brute facts. Then along came the earliest Greek philosophers such as Democritus, who proposed the “atom” as the ultimate brute fact. The atom was to be the tiniest thing, of which everything else was made up. You couldn’t divide this kind of atom up any further (obviously, what we now know of as atoms turned out to be composites of various internal particles and energy states). What the atom was made of inside was forever locked in the realm of mystery. You had the atom and its characteristics, and no further explanations would be possible. That’s the “brute” of the brute fact at work.

Actually, there would be other brute facts in the reality that Democritus envisioned — such as the empty space in which these atoms existed. And what about time . . . but actually, time is ultimately a mental construct . . . so perhaps the mental backdrop to time and space and all the corporeal stuff made of atoms was another brute fact. (Thus taking us back to the classic problem of consciousness). And then what about energy and light, the stuff that tripped up Newtonian physics several millennium later?

Well, perhaps these could somehow be related to the primal atom, as some special configurations or arrangements of it that make the aggregate different from water or earth or air. But of course, the concepts of Democritus and the ancient Greeks ultimately gave way to Newton; and Newton’s world of physical and mathematical brute fact concepts gave way to Einstein’s relativity laws and also Bohr’s world of weird quantum physics. And these may yet yield to a higher “brute law” consisting of superstrings or loop quantum structures.

On the cosmological end, the earth-centered universe of the Greeks and Christian fathers thankfully yielded to a more vast world of stars and galaxies, with our own solar system occupying just a tiny and temporary niche within it. And even that picture of the universe matured from an infinite steady-state realm into an expanding big-bang space-time-energy bubble with no real center. Then came further refinement into an eternal cosmic inflation setting where the universe that we know reflects just another random roll of the dice on an infinite casino table (ah yes, the inflaton field as the cosmological equivalent of Los Vegas; so the ultimate nature of reality turns out to be poker chips, 24/7 buffets, legal hookers, and Tony Orlando and Dawn).

One could say that both scientists and philosophers are the sworn enemies of the brute fact. They try to keep on digging deeper, though their experiments, both thought experiment and physical experiment. Over the history of humankind, they have pushed the “brute fact” back quite far. But still . . . ultimately there comes a point where we have to say “we don’t know why it is that way, that’s just the way it is”.

But what if . . . what if there is an infinite chain of causes on deeper and deeper levels, and humankind will keep on digging deeper and deeper into the scientific and logical mystery of it all without hitting bedrock. If that is the case, then humans will still never know it all; we are finite creatures in a finite realm, and our species is not going to last forever. And even if we did — at all points in “forever”, there is still an infinite future to go. So, even if there is an infinite regression of causes behind reality and we had an infinity to work on them, all we could ultimately say is . . . just that. I.e., there is an infinite regression of causes, and we know a limited sub-set of them, with an infinite set that remains unknown (and this situation will never change). That sounds like a brute fact to me. If we don’t have an infinity of human time to work on this — same problem, perhaps even more brutal.

It would seem to me that no one can escape the “brute fact” behind it all. I will give scientists a pass on this, however. They are pledged to the empirical. They have the right to say “we only work on what can be know, we don’t focus on that lies beyond what we can know”. (Although that is not completely true either . . . scientists are always trying to take the next step into what lies just beyond their current body of knowledge.)

But as to philosophers . . . no mercy for them, it’s their job to speculate on the ultimate. So, for philosophers and anyone concerned with thinking like a philosopher, the ultimate brute fact problem remains. And it seems to me, from that perspective, that God is NOT such an unreasonable notion after all. At minimum, you are stuck with some sort of infinite regression of physical laws, causes and fundamental substances (more fundamental than on the previous level, anyway — fundamental is a relative term here).

To avoid the infinity of causes problem, perhaps you could bring back something akin to Democratus’ atom. But then you have to answer this question: when were they caused? If they are truly undividable and fundamental bits of reality, then they were NEVER caused, as that would require something more fundamental than them to precede them. So, they must have existed . . . guess how long? Right, FOREVER. Eternity. You can’t seem to get away from needing some sort of ETERNITY.

This eternity might be dumb and insentient, just a whole lot of limitless time and some invincible bits of things that swirl and interact to create reality. To turn this into God, you would need something akin to personality and sentience . . . something akin to . . . yes, akin to consciousness. So maybe it comes down to this . . . if human consciousness is ultimately just a side-effect of one particular level of physical laws and substances, with many layers (possibly an infinite number) of causes and explanations beneath it, then God does not exist. (No wonder then that Dr. Dennett argues so vigorously that human consciousness is entirely a physical phenomenon.) But if human consciousness does not ultimately break down into the physical (despite its being intermediated and manifested by it), if consciousness is ontologically fundamental . . . then it also exists in eternity. And an eternal consciousness sounds a lot like God to me.

To be honest, however . . . I don’t know which of these options is more likely. This is where I go TILT. But at least it leaves me in a state where the notion of God seems at least possible, if not proven. And so long as God is possible, then I personally choose to hold out hope.

As to God potentially being ultimately evil . . . I believe that evil ultimately tries to nullify everything else, and an infinity of nullification would make everything go away. Puff! But everything has NOT gone away. So I don’t think that a God, if God does exist, would be evil. If God exists, God would be about existence, in a universe of ultimate existence. That to me sounds pretty good.

So where does this leave me, Fr. Barron, Dr. Dennett, Professor Johnson and the brights and not-so-brights? Well, it seems to me that we all need a dose of humility . . . me too, mea culpa. There’s too much hubris on both sides of the fence (and the tone in Fr. Barron’s article isn’t any more helpful than Dennett’s “bright” suggestion). A lot of atheists are very smart (and I admire and respect that), but that doesn’t prove that they are completely right. Nor do their occasional condescending attitudes prove them wrong either. As to whether philosophy is in decline . . . well, I still have a few more lectures to go with Professor Johnson, so I should hold back my own conclusions, despite my misgivings about what I’ve heard from him thus far.

Interestingly, Kings College, Professor Johnson’s employer, is a Catholic school. But that doesn’t make Johnson an easy sell on God and a dualistic view of human consciousness. From what I’ve heard thus far in his lectures, he in fact seems to be quite fond of Dennett’s point of view (two recent articles by Johnson include “Why Religious Experience Can’t Justify Religious Belief” and “The Argument from Reason: C.S. Lewis’s Fundamental Mistakes”). A neo-atheist teaching philosophy in a Catholic college? Not impossible . . . Father Barron says “take a good look at the philosophy department at many of the leading Catholic universities: what were, in the 1950’s overwhelmingly theistic professoriats are today largely atheist.” And I think that’s actually a good thing. A Catholic institution where a differing point of view lives . . . that’s rather refreshing, in my opinion. Let the discussion continue.

Still, I hope that Professor Johnson leaves us with something more at the end of his course than a bunch of movie references, sweet potato fry hypotheticals, and a knot of word-game puzzles that all lead to dead-ends. I don’t expect him to make his listeners want to drop on their knees in prayer, but . . . hey, Prof, couldn’t you at least try to make us feel a bit better about our lives as thinking, reasoning human beings? Ain’t it all brute enough in life without some fancy-talking nihilism?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm      

  1. Jim, Ah, the “Is there a God?” topic and the connected topic of “consciousness”. When it’s all said and done, I find myself wondering if you just aren’t looking in the wrong place for an answer to whether there is a God or not. Science doesn’t answer the question, logic doesn’t, mathematics doesn’t – seems these only get one so far and then a person is “stuck” in a “tangle of contradictory propositions and unanswerable questions”, as you say.

    Now you are looking at philosophy. I don’t know about philosophy, which is supposed to have the answers to what? life? I understood it and understand it, but somehow I’ve always found it boring. Maybe it’s over my head and I only *think* I understand it; then again, maybe I’m bored for a reason: Philosophy (brute facts or not) seems to be using logic (there’s that word again) to tell us much about ourselves or life; pretty much the same thing you’ve said; and that doesn’t get us very far, it seems to me. Life itself, even on the human level, definitely cannot be explained logically, as I see it. Stuck again!

    There was a long period of time in my life when I didn’t believe in God. (Can’t say I believe in God now, either.) I searched in all the “far out” places and in a lot of the “not ‘far out’” places for a substitute; even practiced some (maybe a lot) of what was purported to give the answers. One day I realized that I was actually looking for a substitute for God. Didn’t get very far and “stuck again”, after all those years. Bummer. (Seems humorous to me now; but it wasn’t at the time.)

    I still don’t know if I believe in God – at least I *know* I don’t believe in a God as an old man sitting in “heaven” waiting until judgment day to tell us if we go to heaven or hell. (There’s enough hell on this earth for all eternity as far as I’m concerned; we don’t need another separate hell.)

    So I’ve come to the point where I ask myself: Does the intangible, or what might be termed the “spiritual” exist? Why could it not exist if all the things science talks about exist? Scientists come just up to the line of “spiritual” and then back off, never willing to cross the line over into “spiritual”.

    So, I find myself wondering why the spiritual could not exist. If it does, then might the spiritual be somehow intermixed with the physical? Thus, putting consciousness and the physical together in what has been termed “incarnation”? Could consciousness be a physical manifestation of the spiritual part of humans? Maybe “incarnation” is *not* “dualistic” but such that the mixture makes a “oneness”, that being an intermixing of both the physical and the spiritual in such a way that separating them is what death is all about. (Oh, boy! Now I’ve gone and added “death” to the set of topics. Not going further with that.)

    As to God: Perhaps one must look in the right place for God, which would bring us back to “faith”; and I can’t say I too fond of “faith” as an unthought-about “belief” in something. I really have no answer to what “faith” may be. But maybe it’s just that: The coming up against all the places where God is *not* and finding him in an “experience” of the spiritual. Frankly, I’d think that an “experience of the spiritual” might give us access to a “little god” of some sort – or maybe access to what is the spiritual aspect of the intermixture of what we are, leaving God separate and distinct from all that. (This, then, would make us akin [or “a kin”] to God. But I digress.)

    Perhaps God is actually what has been described by some as so far beyond anything we can understand that to even try is useless. Maybe that’s all we can say about God; but it’s something.

    As to “evil” in the world: That’s a whole other topic to which I haven’t come to any idea of what it might be. Maybe it’s an “if” it might be in the sense that it’s just humans missing something in the intermixture of physical and spiritual, the incarnation of the two, that causes “evil”. But then who is to say there may not be some beings in existence that are what we would term “evil”? I see no reason such beings could not exist.

    It seems the more one gets into the topic of God, the more the topics multiply that need explaining. Is God about “explaining”? Which question also makes me wonder if the cosmos is actually “explainable”.

    So, there at least I am: Uncertain if God exists but somehow sure he/she/it must exist in some form humans may not be able to understand. And finally, for me at this point in life, I’m satisfied with that. Of course, that does not speak for *you*. The most I can say for your search for answers is maybe you have not been looking in the right place for the answers. (Well, it’s a tho’t, anyway. Also, the above is a whole lot of unanswered questions that seem to me related to your question: Is there a God?) MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 16, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

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