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

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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4 Responses to “Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 3)”

  1. The Problem of Evil: Obsolete? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Except that it justifies the tri-omni God independently of the condition of this world; as seen here, they start from Ground of Being and derive their qualities from that. As long as that argument […]

  2. Shea B Says:

    I left (nearly) the same post at whyevolutionsitrue, but since I was responding in part to you, I thought I ought to post it here as well.

    In some sense, I agree with you that Hart is “onto something.” The thing he is describing is a general FEELING of “spirituality” or “transcendence.” This general feeling of transcendence is something that appeals to theists and to those “seekers” who aren’t associated with one faith or another. But it can also appeal to the skeptic/atheist if the terms are clarified just slightly (for instance, Dawkins frequently emphasizes the “appetite for wonder” as a kind of quasi-spiritual).

    For me, the big problem with Hart lies in the desire to call this thing “God.” He is clearly inching towards his own specific belief system (Christianity). At best, Hart’s view of god could lead one to a generalized pantheism focused on a god that exists-in-and-underlies-everything, but this would not be a god you could pray to or expect sacred instructions from or hope to interact with directly. How do you get from there to Christianity or any other specific faith? If all theists truly believed in nothing more than this pantheistic “ground-of-all-being” god, then we would not have such fierce debate over god, science, and public policy. Belief in the pantheistic god (or a Deist variant) would have essentially zero bearing on one’s cultural practices or political views. The main problems that many of us have with theism center on theist claims about how god directly intervenes in the physical universe or how we should (or MUST) live our lives. If someone wants to believe in such a non-intervening (but omnipresent) god, have at it.

    I, for one, will be very interested to read Sam Harris’ upcoming book WAKING UP: A GUIDE TO SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION, precisely because it promises to hit upon the importance of the feeling of “spirituality” without the unnecessary trappings of theism. That book should help the argument against those (like Hart) who would claim that ANY sense of wonder or enthusiasm or ecstasy is automatically a win for theism. And that’s basically what Hart’s “being,” “consciousness,” “bliss” triumvirate amounts to–if you in any way enjoy the experience of human existence, then you ALREADY believe in god, even if you didn’t know it.

    More generally, I think that Hart’s approach ignores the point that belief in this vague “spiritual grounding” god helps us not one whit when it comes to learning more about the universe and how it actually works. Sean Carroll has nailed this point in his recent debate with William Lane Craig and in his great essay “Does the Universe Need God?”s. Essentially, physicists keep searching for natural laws, and they keep getting closer and closer to deep, fundamental laws. One can say that god is the “the grounding for these laws,” but so what? Why not simply say that the universe (the totality of all that is) provides the grounding for these laws? Is this really any less magnificent or “spiritual” a claim? What a wonder it is that we exist, what a joy it is that we experience the complexities of consciousness, and what a pleasure it is to enjoy the blisses of life! And that’s all that needs to be said.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Sorry for not replying earlier, but I was busy and needed a little time to respond to this properly. However, I think you’re leveling two objections here that classical theists like Hart already have answers for:

      1) As outlined here, the God of the classical theists is conscious, good, and can, at least, act in the world, or else WE couldn’t be conscious, good, or act in the world. That’s at least potentially consistent with the Christian God, and is consistent with personal or somewhat anthropomorphic Gods. The problem is indeed getting to a specific God from that, but Hart is clear that he isn’t really trying for that (although I think he should).

      2) As I believe Feser has flat-out said, their claims aren’t scientific and aren’t really supposed to help us with science. They’re debating metaphysics, not physics. As for why make the claim, again as pointed out here they need to find a metaphysical grounding for existence, and when they do that they find that it has to be omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, all-conscious, all-intentional, etc, etc. Why not call that “God” instead of “The Universe”?

  3. God as a Gaseous Vertebrate? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] they think that God can plan, or have emotions, or act in the world? The Ground of Being — as I explained in my review of Hart’s book — is not some completely amorphous, blob without properties. For the Thomists, the Ground of […]

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