Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why I Believe in God


I don’t know that it is possible to adequately define religion or differentiate it from philosophy. Does religion require belief in God(s)? Must there be a received practice? Is it primarily a solitary pursuit or a communal pursuit? What are the requirements of religion with respect to moral teachings?

I am not going to attempt to resolve these questions but instead argue on behalf of what I feel is most important in religion and which leads me to belief in God.

The basis of religion, I would contend, is the experience of life’s meaning beyond each transient moment. We experience a fundamental importance in our being that we cannot justify only in ourselves. As Whitehead says, “Conscious, rational life refuses to conceive itself as a transient enjoyment, transiently useful.” I think this sense points to the existence of God and the inclusion of the divine nature in our common, everyday experience.

In all experience we seek enjoyment of value. Here, value can be found in any number of goods, including sensual pleasures like eating or more abstract pleasures like art appreciation. The fact that every experience involves a striving toward value realization is the basis of modern economics in its subjective theory of value. The economic insight is that the value of a resource is not to be found inherent in an object but rather in how actors strive to employ it to achieve satisfaction (or enjoyment).

Experience without striving toward value realization is inconceivable. It cannot be intelligibly denied without self-contradiction, as the very act of denying it would itself reveal a value sought after. But the importance of value realization goes even further than the economic insight that all action seeks it. Economics only describes actions in relation to how they are used to realize value, but it does not have anything further to say about the nature of value itself.

I am going to highlight a couple of features of value and argue that these features can only be fully justified by appealing to a divine nature.

An Argument from Importance

In every moment of experience, we entertain possibilities that we might strive to realize as value. An essential feeling in this process is that of importance. That is, we experience values as important to realize and furthermore that different values carry different degrees of importance. I believe this sense of importance is the basis of moral experience and thought. It is the sense that a value attained transcends one’s own enjoyment of it; that it is contributing to something greater than oneself. This sense, universal to all people, points to the divine participation in our own experience. We all experience and include God (however dimly), and it is this inclusion that justifies the moral sense of contributing to something greater than oneself.

The denial of importance leads to the moral relativist notion that no value is more worthwhile than any other value. The relativist doctrine would therefore deny the transcendence of any value’s attainment and with it God’s own participation in our experience. I would contend that much like the position of determinism, the relativist doctrine is one that can be argued for intellectually but not really believed. One can deny importance but cannot avoid its haunting influence on all choice. Does anyone really believe that the choice of whether or not to kill a man in order to take his watch belongs to the same category as what flavor ice cream to prefer?

On the other hand are those who deny moral relativism but claim no need for God as the basis of moral experience. But we might ask such a believer: if not God, what? I see two potential alternatives: moral experience derives from perception of body, or moral experience derives from perception of some objective realm of moral values. The first position though really reduces to moral relativism. If moral experience is really just “secretions from one’s glands”, then there really is no basis in contending one value to be more worthwhile than another. Again, I would suggest that any philosophy which we have no choice but to reject in practice must be inadequate.

The “objective realm of morals” idea holds some appeal, especially to thinkers who seek strict logical deductive certainty, but I think this idea is also inadequate. First, how can it do justice to the feeling of importance? How can the experience of fundamental rightness and wrongness possibly derive from a pure object, which by definition does not act or itself value anything? Secondly, the idea of an objective realm of pure ideals violates the ontological principle that all causes be found in actual entities. Certainly a concept of God requires us to stretch our common-sense sticks and stones notion of what an actual entity can be, but at least this gap is not unbridgeable in principle.

I would note here that while I claim that our fundamental notion and experience of importance must derive from the inclusion of God in our experience, I am not claiming that this inclusion is necessarily vivid or even commonly available consciously. The voice of conscience as you ponder whether to give a little money to the Salvation Army bell-ringer is not God whispering in your ear, and the feeling of guilt as you avoid eye contact and walk away is not God wagging a finger at you. Rather, it is your experience of God that makes it meaningful to even have a conscience or feelings of guilt. God justifies the meaning of these but does not necessarily justify any particular choice you make. *

* An analogy can be made to causality. We feel causes from the physical world beyond us enter into our being, and we provide physical explanations on the justification that causality is real. The haunting sense of causality is what makes a statement like “the rock hurt me as it struck my cheek” meaningful. However, we also recognize that an experience of the rock is much more complex than a direct, vivid inclusion of the rock in one’s conscious experience. The rock’s “essence” may actually play only a minor, non-conscious role in the actual experience caused by it.

An Argument from Novelty

I have argued so far that the experience of importance (i.e. moral experience) points to God’s participation in our own experience. It is this participation that justifies the sense of transcendence and meaning as we strive to realize value. I want to highlight another aspect of value that I believe can also only be fully justified by an appeal to divine experience. This aspect is that of the lure of novelty.

We seem to attach special significance in novelty; that is, in realizing new forms and new appreciations. We don’t buy just one album or read just one book or draw just one picture. And when we do aim to repeat an experience (like watching a certain movie every Christmas), the passage of time and our essence as finite beings ensures the refreshment of at least some novelty in each actual experience. Surely there is some degree of novelty that is necessary in any experience, since it is by definition a unique moment apart from all prior. However, what we must explain is the degree of excessive novelty we find and strive for. Why is there a significant history of art and fashion? Once one good is discovered, why ever seek anything else?

We can first answer by pointing to novelty as itself a good. This can serve as a first-order explanation for “transiently useful” phenomena like “big hair”, A-Team: The Movie, and Linkin Park. But then the value of novelty itself requires explanation. Why is intensity of enjoyment so often tied to novelty of experience? Why does novelty seem to be an end and not just a means?

I contend that the lure of novelty points to the transcendence of a value attained. First, as discussed above, the very experience of importance suggests divine participation in experience. But the importance we feel in novelty furthermore reveals a significant aspect of the divine. In particular, the desire to realize new value must mean that old value is not lost. The perfection of God is that all good remains forever alive and relevant. We experience this divine nature in our sense that a value attained is a value immortalized.

The moral problem of addiction might serve to clarify the importance of novelty. The moral problem of addiction is why we should consider it morally bad. If one is merely attempting to replay a pleasurable experience or re-instantiate a value, where is the harm?

One solution to the moral problem of addiction is to proclaim the experience itself as a moral bad (or at least, not good) whether it is performed multiple times or just once. I don’t think this position works though. First, it would seem that addiction can operate with any possible pleasure. For example, many people are addicted to food consumption, and yet we must all eat. Should we all then strive to eat plain, calculated meals that only provide the most efficient nourishment? I think most of us would rightfully reject that idea. We feel that there is real good in the pleasure of eating, and more generally, there can be real good in any sensual pleasure. Secondly, we tend to think of addiction in terms of base physical pleasures, but I think this would be an unfair limitation. Surely addiction can occur for “higher” values we experience as well, such as for the cliché workaholic.

So if it is possible that an experience or value be good, how can we explain addiction to that good as bad? How is it possible that there can be “too much of a good thing”? I think the answer is to point to the loss of importance in the good. This is the essence of addiction: the near-complete loss of importance in a value that one nonetheless seeks to re-instantiate. One feels only the transient enjoyment of the value but loses any feeling that there is something “greater” about the value. There is no sense of transcendence in the value attained; no sense that it makes a positive contribution to the universe beyond the moment. This sense is justified on the basis of God’s inclusion in our experience: a new value attained enhances God, the same value attained does not. Ever there is the importance felt in striving for new value that can be added to the total good of the universe.

The Absurdity of Existence without God

We all experience the need to realize new value in the world. We experience gradations of importance in different possible values, and we sense that striving for higher values can make a better contribution to the world. The ultimate absurdity for existence would be if there really is no justification for this moral experience. If it really is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing” then we would all be just as well to spend our days high on drugs as any other endeavor.

Few people can accept that existence is really absurd. But to save existence from absurdity, we feel that the good we attain must not be lost. Whitehead: “The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil. It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing’.” To defeat this evil, many seek the propagation of value in human institutions. They seek (often frantically) to make their “ultimate” contribution to the universe through a human legacy: a name on a plaque, a footnote in a textbook, producing “good” children, or (most dangerously) serving the most illusorily powerful institution, the state.

But human institutions cannot fully satisfy the need to save value, for these will all eventually end. If the earth were hit by a comet and all life here destroyed, would what we do now have made any meaningful contribution to the universe?

God saves the world from absurdity by saving the meaning and relevance of all good that is realized. In so doing, God fulfills the deepest craving we all feel: that life be meaningful and never in vain.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Progress as Essential to Religion

This popular quote from Stephen F. Roberts in support of atheism delights me:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

I smile at how so much arrogance, condescension, and pseudo-intellect can be managed into such a short remark. If there really is more than self-aggrandizement at work here and an actual argument present, it would seem to go something like this: you would judge the vast majority of historical conceptions of God as untrue, so you might as well dismiss the possibility of any true conception of God. I’ve also seen the argument presented in list form: one column for the list of “gods” the atheist rejects, and one column for the list of gods the theist rejects. They are, of course, long lists with but one difference at the end, as if the atheist is pointing out, “Look, we’ve all moved on past the days of believing in Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the clouds. There’s really no essential difference between your idea of God and all these others, so why not reject this very last one as well?”

Now, we could just as well direct this line of argument toward science to dismiss the possibility of any true theory by listing failed or supplanted theories like Newton’s Law of Gravitation (not to mention that whole phrenology business). But of course in science we do not take this view; we don’t discard Newton’s Law as false and worthless but instead seek to understand its proper scope and interpretation in light of more recent progress. The correct target of Roberts’ type of argument shouldn’t be the possibility of God but rather the idea that we can arrive upon a final, perfect concept for anything of importance. I’d suggest we always meet claims to having the final theory or word with a raised eyebrow and should expect that in any human endeavor we allow for the possibility of genuine progress, improvement, and refinement. Why should concepts of God, or general religious ideas, be any different?

It’s not helping matters either that many vocal theists buy into just the sort of “one true religion” nonsense that atheists can use to discredit the entire field. If you believe in the literal truth and faithful recording of a book where God acts and speaks, then it can admittedly be a bit troublesome to allow for the possibility of an improved conception of God. The result is that between the demands of the atheists to produce a precise account of God subject to falsifiability, and the counter-claims of theists to infallibility, we get a fairly fruitless dialogue.

So to begin with, let’s allow for the possibility of progress in religion, as we do in science, and at the same time discard the notion that any particular concept of God is the final, perfect concept. Now an atheist might charge that if there really is no God, then there is no basis for religion to begin with, and as a result we should meet the request for permitting refinement and progress as we would for astrology or alchemy: better to do away with the enterprise altogether! I will next argue on behalf of a basis for religious belief and in fact belief in God, and furthermore I hope to ground these in common, everyday experience.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ancient Cults and The Secret

In ancient cults, gods were primarily conceived as impersonal forces that are unconcerned with people at a personal level but would condescend to bestow material abundance upon those who perform the correct ritual acts (and surely bestow ills upon those who do not). Judaism introduced the idea that there is just one God (or at least only one really powerful god), but more importantly, that God actually cared about humans. Still, though, there was the idea that the human covenant with God was an exchange of loyalty and service for material abundance. One of the core themes of Christianity that I identify with is the denial of this sort of relationship. We do not serve God so that we can get money and riches but because we voluntarily believe it is the best and right way to realize value.*  God calls us to enter into His being, and we can choose to do so or not to do so.

* With the denial that God acts by bestowing riches or punishments in the material world, some Christians took to the idea that the rewards and punishments must come in the next world: Heaven and Hell. These are even more egregious theological mistakes, but I do not take them to be core notions in Christianity but rather a corruption.

Rhonda Byrne sets religious thinking back three thousand years with The Secret. The universe is here conceived as an energetic force that physically manifests whatever you think about. This is the law of attraction: think good thoughts, and you will attract good things. Think bad thoughts, and you will attract bad things.
There are probably hundreds of self-help books that emphasize positive thinking, and I believe that there is more power to intention and mind than is usually given heed. The big problem with The Secret is that it goes far beyond the typical bromides of positive thinking and presents thought creation as the fundamental metaphysical law of the universe. Apparently we can do away with all other physical, biological, and economic categories of explanation because we now have the law of attraction! Why do rich people have lots of money? Because they think thoughts of wealth, of course. Why are fat people fat? Because they think fat thoughts, of course. Why were six million Jews murdered in Nazi Germany? Well, uh, because their thoughts were on the wrong frequency.

I am not making this up:

Often [people] recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. By the law of attraction, they had to be on the same frequency as the event. It doesn’t necessarily mean they thought of that exact event, but the frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event. If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they have no control over outside circumstances, those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the ancient cults, the fundamental attribution error occurred by explaining circumstances away by how pleased the gods were with someone. Why did the Smiths get a good harvest? Why, they must have pleased the gods well, unlike those Joneses down the street living in squalor. They must be the type of people that don’t please the gods well.

The Secret encourages you to perform the same type of error by explaining away all circumstances by attributing them to the thoughts of people. The universe manifests all that you think so that you can have all you want, and whatever happens in your life is brought about by your own thoughts. Byrne encourages you to use the law of attraction to get rich (there is a huge emphasis in the book on manifesting lots of money) and maintain your body exactly as you want it (apparently we only “age” because we think it has to happen). If good things happen to you; congratulations, you are using The Secret well! If bad things happen to you; well, you’ve got to try a little harder to avoid negative thoughts and just have positive thoughts.

Occasionally, I found a few sentences in The Secret that if lifted out and taken out of context might be agreeable. However, I found the total context of The Secret to be deeply offensive on philosophical, religious, scientific, moral, and common-sense grounds.