Archive for February, 2014

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 3)

February 19, 2014

Well, in this post I’m going to take a stab at explaining what the whole “Ground of Being” argument is, as best I understand it, in a way that hopefully might make it easier for others to understand. Hart and those who hold to classical theism may not thank me for this, as I am quite likely to get major portions of it wrong, but hopefully it can at least be used as a starting point for people to start thinking that, hey, maybe this thing isn’t totally insane, or that they really aren’t attacking what it claims when they attack, say, a notion of God directly causing each object to exist.

Anyway, the problem that classical theism is trying to solve is, well, the explanation of existence. Not the explanation of the existence of any particular object, although that question is related. Not even the explanation of the existence of any existent objects at all, although that’s closer. No, they want a explanation of existence itself. Or, to put it a bit facetiously, why it is that existence exists at all? Why is there existence? When we look at individual objects in the world, we can see that they exist of course, but the question still remains of why they exist. Again, not what directly caused them to exist, and so not a chain of causes back to a specific uncaused cause, but instead what explains their ability to exist and, in some sense, to not exist.

Hart points out that the argument, then, is that of all of the objects that we encounter in the universe, they are all dependent on something that underlies them to explain their actual existence. Again, not the direct cause, but the explanation of them and their existence. And that, the classical theists — and likely Aristotleans — think has to be some sort of something, a something that depends on nothing else to explain its own existence. Thus, it is the Ground of All Being, the thing we appeal to to explain why there is Being at all. Again, not beings, but Being itself.

Now, if the argument stopped at this point a very valid counter would be that that sort of thing doesn’t look a lot like any God concept. But the classical theist position points out that we can know an awful lot of things about what this Ground of Being must be like. To start with, it must be absolutely simple, meaning that it cannot be made up of parts that come together to form the whole. Why? Because if it did contain parts, then the explanation for its existence would consist, at least in part, of the parts coming together, and then you’d have to explain how each part exists, and those parts couldn’t be explained by the Ground of All Being since they, in part, explain the existence of the Ground of All Being, meaning that you hadn’t found the Ground of All Being yet. Additionally, there can be only one Ground of All Being, because if there wasn’t then you’d have two things that purport to explain all of the things that exist … including each other. So that can’t happen. Additionally, the Ground of All Being must be eternal, because if it ever ceased to exist you wouldn’t be able to explain the existence of the things that do exist, and nothing else could take its place.

Still, though, this wouldn’t look a lot like any kind of God, or at least any kind of theist God. Now, here’s where I’m speculating a bit, and here’s where it gets a little complicated, but to my mind it seems to work out like this: Just as all things that exist exist because they share in the existence of the Ground of All Being, every positive property we have we only have because we derive it in some way from the Ground of All Being. Note that here “positive” doesn’t mean “good”, but instead means that it is itself an attribute that we have, and not an attribute that we can be said to have only because we lack some positive attribute. So being able to act in the world, for example, is a positive property because it reflects an actual attribute or potential, but being unable to act in the world is not, as it is merely a lack of being able to act in the world. For every positive attribute, then, the classical theist position is that we get it from sharing in the attribute in the Ground of Being, and so the Ground of Being must have every positive property and, because we share in it to a limited degree, just as we do for existence, it must have it in as infinite proportion as it has existence.

Thus, since knowing is a positive property, the Ground of All Being must know, and know it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omniscient. Also, since acting in the world in a positive property, the Ground of All Being must have that ability as well, and have it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omnipotent. As intelligence is a positive property, the Ground of All Being is all-intelligent. And all-wise, and all-intentional. If the positive property exists in the world, then we know that the Ground of All Being has that property, and has it infinitely.

This, then, starts to look a lot like the theistic God. But what, then, about morality: is the Ground of All Being all-good? Well, if being moral is a positive property, then it is indeed all-good, and no empirical argument like that of the Problem of Evil can touch it because it is a logical necessity. You’d have to either deny that being good is a positive property, or deny that there exists any being in the world that can be good in even a limited way. Otherwise, the Problem of Evil reflects nothing more than our limited understanding of the good.

But can’t the atheist counter that the same argument for the Ground of Being’s morality can be used to establish its immorality, that it must be infinitely immoral since some of us are indeed immoral? Well, note that in order to make that argument you’d have to claim that being immoral is a positive property, and not merely a lack of some other property. And while it may seem a little odd to claim that being immoral is nothing more than a lack of morality (perhaps combined with some other property, like self-interest) it certainly seems completely and totally wrong to claim that being moral is simply a lack of being immoral. Thus, a strong case can be made that morality is the positive property, and immorality is primarily a lack of morality. And if that’s the case, then the Ground of All Being can be infinitely moral without having to be infinitely immoral as well.

So, then, this Ground of Being looks a lot like the theist God. But is this God comprehensible, or incomprehensible? Does it have anthropomorphic properties, or infinite ones beyond our comprehension? The answer, in fact, is both. Because we only have the properties we have because we share in the ones that the Ground of All Being has, there is indeed an at least conceptual link between our properties and God’s properties; they are not completely distinct from each other. So we can, at least, get some idea of what the properties of God are like by analogy to ours. However, that should not fool us into thinking that if we can just think really, really hard about our own properties, and study them really, really well, we can indeed find out what God’s properties are like. God’s are absolute and infinite, and ours are not, and ours are formed by moving us down the continuum from the infinite first to a finite and then to a flawed representation. We can discover things, again, by analogy, but we must never confuse the analogy for the reality.

This example might help, and lets me promote one of my favourite book series. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber series of novels, there is only one real world: Amber. All other worlds — including ours, where the first book starts — are mere reflections of the one true world. However, these worlds don’t look a lot like Amber, which is a more medieval, swords and sorcery kind of world while ours is, obviously, rather technological. You couldn’t look at this world and study it in detail and discover what Amber is really like, even though there is indeed a direct link between the two. You couldn’t know, for example, that gunpowder won’t work in Amber, even though it does here, just by looking at this world. And yet, there is a link, and a number of times people in the series move from our world and return to Amber by adding and removing properties until they get back to the real Amber, showing that there is a direct chain connecting us to Amber, even though our world is, at the end of the day, radically different from Amber.

I see the properties of God here as being the same thing. There is a link between our wisdom and God’s wisdom, but we can’t just look at our wisdom and round it up to get to real, infinite wisdom, just as we can’t round up the properties of our world and get back to Amber. But because our wisdom and God’s wisdom are still, in some way, conceptually wisdom, we can figure some things out looking at our world. How much we can do is a question that the philosophers would have to work out.

Note that after reading this, or even reading Hart’s book or any of the other books one the topic, you might still be unconvinced. That’s okay; I’m not really convinced either. There are at least potentially a number of lines of attack, such as questioning whether we need a thing to be the Ground of All Being or if that can be just a conceptual explanation. However, the point of writing all of this out is to hopefully explain a little better what the argument actually is and to hopefully get across the idea that while it may be wrong, it isn’t insane and, in fact, isn’t even anti-scientific or anti-empirical. As Hart says at one point, the purported physics that would refute this idea isn’t actually even addressing the same question that this is trying to solve, and so this view is, in fact, perfectly compatible with physics. It’s a different, perhaps, metaphysical view, but we really shouldn’t expect physics to say too much about metaphysics, right?

Anyway, that’s my limited understanding of “The Ground of All Being”. I’m sure I’ve gotten things wrong, but hopefully it’s close and clear enough to allow for real and meaningful discussion of the argument.

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Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 2)

February 18, 2014

Okay, I kinda lied yesterday, saying that there’d be two parts, because I’m adding a third. This one is going to take on the specific comments from Coyne about how the “Ground of Being” God isn’t, in fact, the God of the Folk, the one that the ordinary person believes in, and the distinction between the Sophisticated God and the Folk God that he and other Gnu Atheists rely on so much.

If you take nothing else from this book, you should take the idea that, yes, indeed, God in all of the major traditions has never been a simple “Being”. God has indeed never been a being just like us, only better in all ways. We’ve always considered God to be something transcendental, something special, something that we can only understand through analogy to us instead of being a progression from us. We’ve never thought that if we tried really, really hard, ate all of our vegetables, and evolved in just right way that we would, one day, turn into Gods ourselves. Sure, science fiction tropes loved to hint at that, but in terms of religion we never really believed that. But in order to think about God, we had to make analogies, and so we made arguments about God and about proofs of God’s existence through an analogy to ourselves. And one of Hart’s better arguments is that a lot of arguments against and for the existence of God are arguments that take the analogy too far, and treat the analogy as the reality … in short, arguments that treat God as us, only better.

We can see this clearly in arguments like Dawkins’ “God must be more complex than we are to do what He does”. One can easily see that that sort of argument clearly relies on God being just like us, only better, and if we have to be complex to do our things, God has to be more complex than us. But that assumes that God is indeed just like us, only better. But God is completely different from us, in a very transcendent way. There are similarities by analogy, but you can’t win the argument by assuming that the analogy is the reality. And many other Gnu Atheist arguments do that as well. But Hart points out that it isn’t only atheists that do that, but also theists, and cites the Ontological Argument — rightly, in my opinion — as an argument that at least risks making the same mistake. By stripping away the transcendental portions of God, God is turned into something that is easier to relate to and to argue about … but also something that is easier to refute or to point out contradictions in. In their attempt to make God more amenable to scientific or mechanical proof, many theists seem to have made God into something like us, just another part of the world, and so something that we can indeed dismiss as easily as we’d dismiss unicorns and leprechauns. But it is certainly reasonable to note that this takes away from God what critically makes God, well, God, and so a proof or refutation of God as one of us is proving or refuting the wrong God, the sort of God that no one actually does believe in but the sort of God that we use as an analogy to try to wrap our heads around the transcendental concept that we are really talking about.

So, yes, Hart is right that Gnu Atheists are going after the sort of God that no one actually believes in, and is right to note that they aren’t alone, and that many good philosophers and theologians are also talking about the sort of God that no one actually believes in. We mistake the analogy for the reality, and that confuses us. We may not need to go right back to the God of classical theism, but we do need to recall that God is transcendental, and is not just us, only better.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 1)

February 17, 2014

So, I finished reading David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”. It took me a little longer than it did to read “Why Evolution is True”, mostly because the chapters have more pages — even though a lot of that seems to be due to the spacing — and so if I wanted to read one chapter in an evening I had to plan more time to get through the extra pages. Anyway, I want to review the book in two parts, where the first is an actual review of the book itself, while the second is my humble attempt to clarify the “Ground of All Being” argument, as I understand it. And since this was spawned from Jerry Coyne’s comments on the book, I’d like to start by making reference to him specifically …

Jerry Coyne will not like this book. He will, of course, should he actually read and comment on it, mock it, and if he does comment on it I will be very interested to see if his mockery actually hits the points in the book or just ends up as general mockery. There are two big problems with the book:

1) The book is dense. Really dense. As someone who has read around the various issues and even read Aquinas, I had a hard time following the arguments and discussion at times. Someone who has less of that background will be completely lost, particularly if they aren’t familiar with philosophical arguments. This denseness also makes it seem rambly at times, where you aren’t really sure where the comment is going. This isn’t helped by Hart at times pointing out how he was drifting at times, but at least he cops to it.

2) Too little time is spent on his own arguments, as opposed to time spent attacking naturalism. The book spends most of its time attacking naturalism, and the attacks on naturalism are, in my view, fairly reasonable and do raise problems for naturalists and materialists to solve. However, in a book like this much more time should be spent arguing for and supporting his own position instead of attacking the alternatives. At this stage, you aren’t going to convince people of your view simply by pointing out the problems in the opposing viewpoint and saying that yours is the only viewpoint left standing; all that will do is get people thinking about the problems your viewpoint might have.

Ultimately, because of this, I can’t really recommend this to anyone except those who are deeply philosophically inclined. If you want an introduction to the “Ground of Being” God and the arguments for it, pick up Feser’s “Aquinas”, which I recall as being much better written. At the end of either of these books, you won’t be convinced, but hopefully, if read carefully, you’ll have a better understanding of the argument and how it works, and what it really says.

The Big Problem with Morality Based on Evolution …

February 11, 2014

I’ve been working my way through David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”, and while I’ll review it later, one point he raised in it summed up my problems with the claim that we have a morality because we evolved a morality, and why I accuse those who claim to derive morality that way of, in fact, basing their morality on their own personal self-interest, which isn’t right. While he said a lot more about it, it comes down to this: if the explanation for our moral sensibilities are that they evolved because they benefited the species, then our moral sensibilities have no authority on us. Simply put, if our moral sensibilities have evolved, then we have no reason to actually follow them if we can choose otherwise.

This is actually pretty obvious, and to deny this is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something evolved and was beneficial in doing so doesn’t in any way mean that it still is, in fact, beneficial. After all, take the oft-cited — by Dennett at least — example of our sweet tooth. It was beneficial, but now isn’t as beneficial anymore … and, in fact, is actually more often detrimental to us. So we should train ourselves to ignore our sweet tooth. But then it is quite possible that we really should train ourselves to ignore our moral leanings as well; maybe being moral had a benefit once, but maybe ignoring morality works better now.

But it gets worse. In the above paragraph, we were judging how useful the sweet tooth is or how useful morality is by personal benefit (even if for morality you’d generally count the individual benefits of living in a moral society as well). This is the obvious line to take if you follow from an evolutionary explanation, because that’s the reason we have them according to evolution. But note that it doesn’t follow that because we do have moral faculties that evolved that we ought to justify the authority of morality by that standard. All evolution says is that we have these faculties. In order to move to evaluating whether or not we should act morally on the basis of personal self-interest, you have to add the argument that this is how we ought to evaluate moralities and moral faculties, right down to the usefulness of moral faculties and whether we should be moral at all. This is why, for example, it can be rightly claimed that evolution does not support eugenics; while evolution describes the process, you need to make that normative link to saying that we ought to try to emulate evolution in dealing with people. The same thing applies here: if you want to justify us using our moral faculties or that our moral faculties are giving us the right moral answers using the fact that they have evolved, you have to add to the fact that they evolved for our personal benefit that it is moral and proper to act according to our personal benefit, and to judge morality accordingly. And that is Egoism, no matter how enlightened you try to make it.

Thus, evolutionary arguments for morality can only end in one of two places. Either you end up with an evolved faculty that we have to wonder about just as we wonder about our sweet tooth, and thus a faculty that we have no necessary reason to follow, or else you base it on what evolution did to produce that faculty and end up arguing normatively that what we ought to consider moral is that which most benefits us personally. Anything else moves quite beyond evolution and our evolved faculties, and leaves us evaluating our moral faculties on a basis that is neither demanded by evolution, nor is the basis evolution itself used to produce those faculties.