Archive for the ‘Catholicism For Atheists’ Category

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Nietzsches Nietzsches Everywhere — Patrick Connelly

March 17, 2014
Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche's contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.

Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche’s contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.

Patrick Connelly is associate professor of history and director of the Honors Program at Montreat College. This is a reblog from books and culture.com. He reviews Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas below.

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Zarathustra in America.
The tragic and ironic final chapter of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life began with a spectacular collapse into debilitating insanity on the streets of Turin, Italy. It ended with the incapacitated philosopher occupying the second floor of a Weimar villa that housed the archives from which his sister Elizabeth would assume controversial control over his legacy. Prior to his breakdown, Nietzsche balanced his expectation of being a seer and facilitator of a civilizational crisis with the conviction that he was criminally underappreciated in his lifetime.

The European “Nietzsche vogue” of his incomprehensible final years, however, gave credence to the notion that his time had indeed come. Among the witnesses of this phenomenon was Wilbur Urban, an American doctoral student at the University of Leipzig and son of an Episcopal priest who discovered The Genealogy of Morals in a local bookstore. Urban later described the resulting personal encounter with Nietzsche’s ideas, as he read through the night and undertook an intellectual and spiritual reevaluation of everything he held dear.

Urban’s experience of reading Nietzsche is recounted in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s richly textured and absorbing American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas. The juxtaposition of Nietzsche near death in Weimar with a young American graduate student transfixed by his writings just miles away captures the importance of biography in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account. Nietzsche’s “persona” became a focal point for readers and reviewers who “interpreted his philosophy through the lens of his biography.”

Yet American Nietzsche is also about the stories, emotions, and longings of Nietzsche’s readers and the “strong affective dimension” involved in how his ideas were received. The act of reading Nietzsche is narrated through published sources, personal recollections, marginalia, and fan letters written to Nietzsche and his sister. They give evidence of a thinker who struck a nerve with American readers due to his unconventional biography and singular vision of a modern world without foundations.

“Antifoundationalism” is a foundational idea in American Nietzsche, which explores how a motley crew of readers in the United States appropriated Nietzsche’s “denial of universal truth” in a distinctly American context. Academic philosophers, literary radicals, clergy, and political thinkers of various stripes are among the cast of characters concerned with the implications of Nietzsche’s ideas for “the moral and cultural grounds” of modern Americans. Ratner-Rosenhagen draws a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche helping Americans understand themselves. This transatlantic intellectual and cultural exchange began, as Ratner-Rosenhagen tells the story, with an American thinker providing a transformative reading experience for Nietzsche himself.

Other commentators have noted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche and discussed the affinities between the two thinkers, but no one has made such a forceful case that Nietzsche’s encounter with Emerson was so decisive and transformative. Ratner-Rosenhagen analyzes Nietzsche’s heavily annotated reading copy of Emerson’s Essays and notebook of Emerson quotations.

She credits Emerson with teaching Nietzsche about the “external forces that constrain individual autonomy.” Emerson is presented as providing Nietzsche with the example of the intellectual as provocateur, as one who doesn’t provide direct answers but provokes from a position “without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.” Emerson’s influence, Ratner-Rosenhagen speculates, was particularly crucial in Nietzsche’s loss of faith, with his discovery of Emerson seemingly “the turning point” leading to his decision to abandon Christianity.

 Nietzsche biographers may wonder whether Ratner-Rosenhagen overstates Emerson’s role in Nietzsche’s personal and professional development (a recent biography by Julian Young contains only two references to Emerson in 562 pages of text), but American Nietzsche persuasively portrays Emerson as the “exemplar of the aboriginal intellect” abroad who helped Nietzsche to feel at home. It was a favor that Nietzsche would return to American readers in the decades to come.

Ratner-Rosenhagen does not exhaustively record every reference to Nietzsche in American print, though she examines in great detail how Americans experienced Nietzsche’s ideas. Her thematic and somewhat chronological survey begins with “the making of the American Nietzsche” by literary radicals and cultural critics. Literary radicals fretted over the state of American culture while hoping for a “cosmopolitanism” that would look to the example of Europe, which they believed had already been transformed by Nietzsche’s “challenge to all external authority.”

H. L. Mencken was among an eclectic group of cultural critics who focused on “the persona of Nietzsche.” Mencken’s influential monograph on Nietzsche refashioned the philosopher in Mencken’s image while suggesting that Americans desperately needed Nietzsche’s “fearless independence and fierce intelligence.” American Nietzsche later returns to the allure that Nietzsche contained for literary radicals and critics. Once again, Nietzsche’s biography educates these enthusiasts, who gravitated toward his paradigm of “the unaffiliated intellectual” changing the world through “literary expression and the social efficacy of ideas.” Writers and activists such as Emma Goldman, Kahlil Gibran, Randolph Bourne, and Walter Lippmann drew deeply from Nietzsche’s model of “the antifoundational intellect” and expressed hope that he could help them renew an impoverished American culture.

Mencken and other critics believed that religion was significantly to blame for that cultural poverty and were gripped by Nietzsche’s extraordinary attack on Christianity. The repercussions of Nietzsche’s critique were taken up by American clergy and theologians, who used the occasion to take inventory of Christianity’s future prospects and “to reassert their flagging moral authority in modernizing America.” Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account of Nietzsche’s religious readers is heavily weighted toward liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers, though she does consider Catholic apologists who viewed Nietzsche as the natural consequence of Protestantism.

Liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers understood Nietzsche as a “fellow seeker” and a “challenging doubter” who remained a vital instrument “for refitting their faith to the modern world.” Protestants less interested in this refitting, with a few exceptions, remain largely on the sidelines in American Nietzsche. Conservative Protestants are mentioned, but their collective perception of Nietzsche as an insidious force in the culture-shaping institutions of Germany and the United States remains underdeveloped.

Fundamentalists, who frequently lumped together Nietzsche and Darwin, are virtually absent from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s story. The addition of these neglected constituencies would strengthen the case that Protestants of all theological persuasions worried about the prospect of a civilization adrift from Christian foundations — even if they defined the problem and solution differently.

“A world after God” meant the arrival of the Übermensch for Nietzsche and his enthusiasts. The most ambitious section of American Nietzsche unites seemingly disparate individuals, discourses, and events around their fascination with one of Nietzsche’s signature ideas. Harvard philosophers, political radicals, and conservative New Humanists are portrayed as wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of the superman.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch later appeared in wartime debates less as a “constructive ideal” in antifoundational discourse than “a symbol for the German imperial temper.” The Übermensch seeped into the popular imagination through events such as the Leopold-Loeb trial, where the defendants murdered a boy due to their belief that “they were Nietzschean supermen.” Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a good case for the importance of the Übermensch for American readers, though as an interpretive construct it occasionally feels stretched.

Creating a coherent narrative is an arduous task for any reception study, of course, let alone one regarding a remarkably pliant thinker like Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s post-World War II examinations of the American reception illustrate that elasticity by focusing on the creation of numerous Nietzsches.

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was liberated from the taint of National Socialism, established as a serious philosopher who negotiated the analytic/existentialist divide in professional philosophy, and credited with transforming “American cold war culture” and fueling the discontent of the Sixties. Harold Bloom’s Nietzsche helped the critic move beyond the postmodern literary theories of Europe while enabling America to embrace its “alienated majesty” in a world without authorities beyond the self.

Richard Rorty’s Nietzsche inspired a “pragmatic antifoundationalism” that explored the tensions between self-creation and social solidarity in a world shorn of transcendent grounding. Stanley Cavell’s Nietzsche served as “a midwife of Emersonian philosophy” who helped Americans to rediscover their native antifoundational thinking. Allan Bloom’s Nietzsche was misappropriated to sustain “an unwholesome, lighthearted and softheaded ‘nihilism with a happy ending.’ “

Given these and other appropriations, can the real Nietzsche be discerned in an America awash in Nietzsches? It certainly goes against the grain of many of the thinkers discussed in American Nietzsche to suggest that a single understanding of Nietzsche is necessary or even possible. Epistemological and critical humility are needed — we do, after all, see through a glass darkly — but it is difficult to criticize misappropriations or misunderstandings of Nietzsche without having some sense of what he meant. This is especially challenging for a reception study.

Ratner-Rosenhagen contends that her book “is not even a book about Nietzsche” but rather “about his crucial role in the ever-dynamic remaking of modern American thought.” American Nietzsche is certainly about the latter — and engagingly so — but it is about Nietzsche as well. Ratner-Rosenhagen resists a full-fledged exposition of Nietzsche’s ideas, though she does selectively elaborate, taking several opportunities to correct perceived misreadings and resisting fashionable assumptions about the “death of the author.”

The emphasis on the act of reading Nietzsche also leads to questions about how to understand the cultural and intellectual setting those acts transformed. What impact did Nietzsche have on American culture as a whole, as opposed to select individuals? One instance where this issue becomes problematic is Ratner-Rosenhagen’s discussion of celebrity.

She discusses, in fascinating detail, letters from the Nietzsche Archive that were written to Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche by her brother’s American fans. Ratner-Rosenhagen suggests that the letters reveal “Nietzsche’s emergence as a celebrity in American culture.” Historians of celebrity, she argues, have focused inordinate attention on musicians and actors and their respective industries while neglecting the emergence of “the prophetic thinker” as celebrity. But it is difficult to see how a relatively small sample of letters can be used as evidence of celebrity, which by its very nature is about mass appeal and consumption.

How then does one gauge Nietzsche’s broader impact on American culture? Ratner-Rosenhagen provides much food for thought on this question throughout American Nietzsche, particularly when she discerns a larger popular effect as in the case of Walter Kaufmann’s monograph and translations. I wonder whether a more specific distillation of the notion of cultural authority would be instructive as well.

“Cultural authority” is an amorphous term that sociologists and historians have used more than defined. It involves the authority of individuals, ideas, and institutions to promote certain understandings of meaning and values in the culture at large and to shape core assumptions about God, human personhood, social and political order, science, economics, law, and other spheres of public and private life.

Protestant Christianity had long informed the American cultural milieu but faced substantial challenges to its authority by the time Nietzsche’s ideas first registered in the United States. Sociologist Christian Smith writes that a “secular revolution” was afoot, involving “secularizing activists” seeking “to overthrow a religious establishment’s control over socially legitimate knowledge.” Many of the same American academics, critics, activists, and clergy who appear in American Nietzsche were participants in the seismic shifts of authority in culture-shaping institutions.

Nietzsche’s early American admirers may have questioned whether the European “Nietzsche vogue” would take root in the United States, but they recognized his awareness of and contribution to the larger story of secularism. William Mackintire Salter wrote in 1917 that “a subtle, slow secular revolution in the mental and moral realm was what Nietzsche had in mind.”

Nietzsche himself realized that uprooting Christianity’s cultural authority was a long historical process involving more than simply rejecting traditional beliefs. It would be overreaching, of course, to suggest that Nietzsche’s ideas singlehandedly accomplished this revolutionary aim in the United States, but many of the subjects of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book were willing to utilize his ideas to accelerate the process.

The result of this secular revolution, along with the rise of competing authorities and understandings of the world, meant further openings were created for Nietzsche’s antifoundationalism to gain a hearing in the decades to come. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s wonderfully written and stimulating American Nietzsche compels us to reckon not only with what he said, but with what we have become.

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Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe — Peter Woit

January 21, 2014
The Multiverse theory for the universe has been a recently accepted theory that describes the continuous formation of universes through the collapse of giant stars and the formation of black holes.  With each of these black holes there is a new point of singularity and a new possible universe.  As Rees describes it, "Our universe may be just one element - one atom, as it were - in an infinite ensemble: a cosmic archipelago.  Each universe starts with its own big bang, acquires a distinctive imprint (and its individual physical laws) as it cools, and traces out its own cosmic cycle.  The big bang that triggered our entire universe is, in this grander perspective, an infinitesimal part of an elaborate structure that extends far beyond the range of any telescopes."  (Rees)  This puts our place in the Multiverse into a small spectrum.  While the size of the earth in relation to the sun is minuscule, the size of the sun, the solar system, the galaxy, and even the universe, could pale in comparison to this proposed Multiverse.  It would be a shift in thinking that may help explain our big bang theory and possibly give light to the idea of parallel universes.

The Multiverse theory for the universe has been a recently accepted theory that describes the continuous formation of universes through the collapse of giant stars and the formation of black holes. With each of these black holes there is a new point of singularity and a new possible universe. As Rees describes it, “Our universe may be just one element – one atom, as it were – in an infinite ensemble: a cosmic archipelago. Each universe starts with its own big bang, acquires a distinctive imprint (and its individual physical laws) as it cools, and traces out its own cosmic cycle. The big bang that triggered our entire universe is, in this grander perspective, an infinitesimal part of an elaborate structure that extends far beyond the range of any telescopes.” (Rees) This puts our place in the Multiverse into a small spectrum. While the size of the earth in relation to the sun is minuscule, the size of the sun, the solar system, the galaxy, and even the universe, could pale in comparison to this proposed Multiverse. It would be a shift in thinking that may help explain our big bang theory and possibly give light to the idea of parallel universes.

Mr. Woit is the author of “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.His review of Our Mathematical Universe is a report from the front lines of mathematics and physics.

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It’s a truly remarkable fact that our deepest understanding of the material world is embodied in mathematics, often in concepts that were originated with some very different motivation. A good example is our best description of how gravity works, Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity, in which the gravitational force comes from the curvature of space and time.

The formulation of this theory required Einstein to use mathematics developed 60 years earlier by the great German mathematician Bernhard Riemann, who was studying abstract questions involving geometry. There’s now a long history of intertwined and experimentally tested discoveries about physics and mathematics. This unity between mathematics and physics is a source of wonder for those who study the two subjects, as well as an eternal conundrum for philosophers.

Max Tegmark thus begins his new book with a deep truth when he articulates a “Mathematical Universe Hypothesis,” which states simply that “physical reality is a mathematical structure.” His central claim ends up being that such a hypothesis implies a surprising new vision of how to do physics, but the slipperiness of that word “is” should make the reader wary. Mr. Tegmark raises here the age-old question of whether math just describes physical reality or whether it defines physical reality. This distinction is of relevance to philosophers, but its significance for practicing physicists is unclear.

“Our Mathematical Universe” opens with a memoir of Mr. Tegmark’s own career in physics. He’s now a cosmologist at MIT whose specialty is interpreting data about the structure and evolution of the universe, much of it gathered from new space and earth-based instruments.

His book, however, quickly turns to the topic of the “multiverse” — the idea that our universe is part of some larger unobservable structure. Multiverse theories come in a baffling number of different versions. They have been a hot topic for the past dozen years, with Brian Greene’s “The Hidden Reality” (2011) a good example of a recent book covering this material.

Mr. Tegmark categorizes different multiverse proposals in terms of “Levels,” a useful method designed to keep track of the various theories. Many of these include some version of the idea that our universe is one of many unconnected universes obeying the same physical laws. This “Level I” type of multiverse is like Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel,” which contains all possible books, though most remain inaccessible to his story’s narrator due to their remoteness. As far back as 1584, Giordano Bruno proposed a universe of this sort, provoking mind-bending paradoxes involving infinite copies of oneself acting out completely different lives.

A much different type of multiverse arises in what is sometimes called the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum theory. This is one way of thinking about the relationship between quantum mechanics and conventional human-scale physics. The idea is that while any quantum system is described by a single mathematical object called a quantum wave-function, this can contain within itself a description of an infinity of different possible worlds.

These correspond to the different possible states we may observe when we probe a quantum system with a macroscopic experimental apparatus. This multiverse is more like the “Garden of Forking Paths” that Borges describes in his story of that title, with each world branching off when we make an observation. Philosophical debate rages over what to think of such possible worlds: Are the ones we don’t end up in “real” or just a convenient calculational fiction? Mr. Tegmark calls the multiverse of such worlds a “Level III” multiverse.

These Level I and III possibilities fit reasonably well within variants of conventional views about our current best understanding of physics. The controversy surrounds what Mr. Tegmark calls “Level II” multiverses. At this level, different parts of a multiverse can have different physics — for instance, different fundamental forces, as well as different fundamental particles with different masses.

The problem: There is no experimental evidence for this and, arguably, no way of ever getting any, since our universe likely interacts in no way with any universes whose physics differs from our own. When someone is trying to sell a Level II multiverse theory, pay close attention to what exactly is being marketed; it comes without the warranty of an experimental test.

Since 1984 many physicists have worked on “string theory,” which posits a new unification of general relativity and quantum theory, achieved in part by abandoning the idea of fundamental particles. Early on, the new fundamental objects were supposed to be relatively well-defined one-dimensional vibrating string-like objects. Over the years this theory has evolved into something often called “M-theory,” which includes a wealth of poorly understood and mathematically complex components.

As far as one can now tell, if M-theory is to make sense, it will have so many possible solutions that one could produce just about any prediction about our observable universe that one might want. Such an unfalsifiable theory normally would be dismissed as unscientific, but proponents hope to salvage the situation by invoking a Level II multiverse containing all solutions to the theory. Our observed laws of physics would just represent a particular solution.

Mr. Tegmark wants to go even further down this rabbit hole. He assumes that what we observe is governed by something like M-theory, with its multiverse of different physical laws. But he wants to find a wider view that explains M-theory in terms of his “math is physics” hypothesis. He argues that his hypothesis implies the conclusion that “all mathematical structures exist.” The idea is that every example mathematicians teach in their classes, whether it’s a polynomial equation, a circle, a cube, or something much more complicated, represents an equally good universe. The collection of all mathematical structures he calls the “Level IV” multiverse, the highest and most general level.

Interpreting the meaning of “exists” in this way — to include all possible worlds — is a philosophical position known as “modal realism.” The innovation here is the claim that this carries a new insight into physics. The problem with such a conception of the ultimate nature of reality is not that it’s wrong but that it’s empty, far more radically untestable than even the already problematic proposals of M-theory. Mr. Tegmark proposes abandoning the historically proven path of pursuing a single exceptionally deep and very special mathematical structure at the core of both math and physics in favor of the hypothesis that, at the deepest level, “anything goes.”

Mr. Tegmark’s proposal takes him deep in the realm of speculation, and few of his fellow scientists are likely to want to follow him. There’s a danger, though, that his argument will convince some that “anything goes” is all there is to ultimate reality, discouraging their search for a better and more elegant version of our current best theories.

To be fair, Mr. Tegmark acknowledges he is going beyond conventional science, even including pithy advice about how to pursue a successful career while indulging in speculative topics that one’s colleagues are likely to see as beyond the bounds of what can be taken seriously. It’s worth remarking that not taking itself too seriously is one of the book’s virtues.

A final chapter argues for the importance of the “scientific lifestyle,” meaning scientific rationality as a basis for our decisions about important questions affecting the future of our species. But the great power of the scientific worldview has always come from its insistence that one should accept ideas based on experimental evidence, not on metaphysical reasoning or the truth-claims of authority figures. “Our Mathematical Universe” is a fascinating and well-executed dramatic argument from a talented expositor, but reading it with the skeptical mind-set of a scientist is advised.

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On God and god 2 – David Bentley Hart

October 3, 2013
By giving the name "God" to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. He has taught at the University of Virginia, Duke Divinity School, and Providence College (RI).  A selection from his book The Experience of God from Yale University Press.

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At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticisms of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or `All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” Once, in an age long since vanished in the mists of legend, those might even have been amusing remarks, eliciting sincere rather than merely liturgical laughter; but, even so, all they have ever demonstrated is a deplorable ignorance of elementary conceptual categories.

If one truly imagines these are all comparable kinds of intellectual conviction then one is clearly confused about what is at issue. Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.

Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found. We can, if nothing else, disabuse ourselves of belief in certain gods by simple empirical methods; we know now, for example, that the sun is not a god named Tonatiuh, at least not one who must be nourished daily on human blood lest he cease to shine, because we have withheld his meals for centuries now without calamity.

God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him, or at least find out his address.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

Now, manifestly, one should not judge an intellectual movement by its jokes (even if one suspects that there is little more to it than its jokes). But exactly the same confusion shows itself in the arguments that many contemporary atheists make in earnest: For instance, “If God made the world, then who made God?” Or the famous dilemma drawn, in badly garbled form, from Plato’s Euthyphro, “Does God command a thing because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?”

I address both questions below (in my third and fifth chapters, respectively), so I shall not do so here. I shall, however, note that not only do these questions not pose deep quandaries for believers or insuperable difficulties for a coherent concept of God; they are not even relevant to the issue. And, until one really understands why this is so, one has not yet begun to talk about God at all. One is talking merely about some very distinguished and influential gentleman or lady named “God,” or about some discrete object that can be situated within a class of objects called “gods” (even if it should turn out that there happens to be only one occupant of that class).

As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. In Plato’s Timaeus, the demiurge is a benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he looks to the ideal universe -the eternal paradigm of the cosmos -and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow.

He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part. Later Platonism interpreted the demiurge in a variety of ways, and in various schools of Gnosticism in late antiquity he reappeared as an incompetent or malevolent cosmic despot, either ignorant or jealous of the true God beyond this cosmos; but none of that is important here.

Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe “back then,” at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.

And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell. To be fair to all sides, however, I should also point out that the demiurge has had some fairly vociferous champions over the past few centuries, and at the moment seems to be enjoying a small resurgence in popularity. His first great modern revival came in the Deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a movement whose adherents were impatient with the metaphysical “obscurities” and doctrinal “absurdities” of traditional religion, and who preferred to think of God as some very powerful spiritual individual who designed and fabricated the universe at the beginning of things, much as a watchmaker might design and fabricate a watch and then set it running.

In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion this is the view of God advanced by Cleanthes and then elegantly dismantled by Philo (the traditional metaphysical and theological view of God is represented by Demea, though not very well, and against him Philo marshals an altogether different -and much weaker -set of arguments). And, while Deism had more or less died out before Darwin’s day, the philosophical support, has never entirely lost its charm for some.

The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time. I know that it is fashionable to heap abuse upon this movement, and that is not my intention here. After all, if one looks at the extraordinary cornplexity of nature and then interprets it as a sign of superhuman intelligence, one is doing something perfectly defensible; even some atheists have done as much (the brilliant and eccentric Fred Hoyle being a notable example).

Moreover, if one already believes in God, it makes perfect sense to see, say, the ever more extraordinary discoveries of molecular biology, or the problem of protein folding, or the incredible statistical improbabilities of a whole host of cosmological conditions (and so on) as bearing witness to something miraculous and profoundly rational in the order of nature, and to ascribe these wonders to God.

But, however compelling the evidence may seem, one really ought not to reverse the order of discovery here and attempt to deduce or define God from the supposed evidence of design in nature. As either a scientific or a philosophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and, from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction.

To begin with, much of the early literature of this movement concerned instances of supposedly “irreducible complexity” in the biological world, and from these developed an argument for some sort of intelligent agency at work in the process of evolution. That would, of course, be a fascinating discovery if it could be shown to be true; but I do not see how in principle one ever could conclusively demonstrate such a thing. It could never be more than an argument from probability, because one cannot prove that any organism, however intricate, could not have been produced by some unguided phylogenic history.

Probability is a powerful thing, of course, but notoriously difficult to measure in the realm of biology’s complex systems of interdependence, or over intervals of time as vast as distinct geological epochs. And it would be quite embarrassing to propose this or that organism or part of an organism as a specimen of an irreducibly complex biological mechanism, only for it to emerge later that many of its components had been found in a more primitive form in some other biological mechanism, serving another purpose.

Even if all this were not so, however, seen in the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, “gaps” where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God’s creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intellect but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos.

For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, God creates the order of nature by infusing the things of the universe with the wonderful power of moving of themselves toward determinate ends; he uses the analogy of a shipwright able to endow timbers with the power to develop into a ship without external intervention. According to the classical arguments, universal rational order — not just this or that particular instance of complexity — is what speaks of the divine mind: a cosmic harmony as resplendently evident in the simplicity of a raindrop as in the molecular labyrinths of a living cell.

After all, there may be innumerable finite causes of complexity, but a good argument can be made that only a single infinite cause can account for perfect, universal, intelligible, mathematically describable order. If, however, one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organizing hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation.

It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. It certainly would not show that the universe is the creature of an omnipotent wisdom, or an immediate manifestation of the God who is the being of all things. Frankly, the total absence of a single instance of irreducible complexity would be a far more forceful argument in favor of God’s rational action in creation.

As for theistic claims drawn from the astonishing array of improbable cosmological conditions that hold our universe together, including the cosmological constant itself, or from the mathematical razor’s edge upon which all of it is so exquisitely balanced, these rest upon a number of deeply evocative arguments, and those who dismiss them casually are probably guilty of a certain intellectual dishonesty. Certainly all of the cosmos’s exquisitely fine calibrations and consonances and exactitudes should speak powerfully to anyone who believes in a transcendent creator, and they might even have the power to make a reflective unbeliever curious about supernatural explanations.

But, in the end, such arguments also remain only probabilistic, and anyone predisposed to explain them away will find plentiful ways of doing so: perhaps the extravagant hypothesis that there are vastly many universes generated by quantum fluctuations, of the sort Stephen Hawking has recently said does away with any role for God in the origin of the universe, or perhaps the even more extravagant hypothesis that every possible universe must be actual (the former hypothesis reduces the odds considerably, and the latter does away with odds altogether). But in a sense none of this really matters, because ultimately none of these arguments has much to do with God in the first place.

This is obvious if one considers the terms in which they are couched. Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice.

So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events.

From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God.

By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems.

The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

Anyway, at this point I shall largely leave the new atheists, fundamentalists of every adherence, and Intelligent Design theorists all to their own devices, and perhaps to one another, and wish them all well, and hope that they do not waste too much time chasing after one another in circles. If I mention them below, it will be only to make a point in passing. From here onward, it is God — not gods, not the demiurge — of whom I wish to speak.

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On God and god 1 – David Bentley Hart

October 2, 2013
Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God -especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God -especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. He has taught at the University of Virginia, Duke Divinity School, and Providence College (RI). A selection from his book The Experience of God from Yale University Press.

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There are two senses in which the word “God” or “god” can properly be used. Most modern languages generally distinguish between the two usages as I have done here, by writing only one of them with an uppercase first letter, as though it were a proper name -which it is not.

Most of us understand that “God” (or its equivalent) means the one God who is the source of all things, whereas “god” (or its equivalent) indicates one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos and reign over its various regions. This is not, however, merely a distinction in numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were merely that of determining how many “divine entities” one happens to think there are.

It is a distinction, instead, between two entirely different kinds of reality, belonging to two entirely disparate conceptual orders. In fact, the very division between monotheism and polytheism is in many cases a confusion of categories.

Several of the religious cultures that we sometimes inaccurately characterize as “polytheistic” have traditionally insisted upon an absolute differentiation between the one transcendent Godhead from whom all being flows and the various “divine” beings who indwell and govern the heavens and the earth. Only the one God, says Swami Prabhavananda, speaking more or less for the whole of developed Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, is “the uncreated”: “gods, though supernatural, belong … among the creatures. Like the Christian angels, they are much nearer to man than to God.”

Conversely, many creeds we correctly speak of as “monotheistic” embrace the very same distinction. The Adi Granth of the Sikhs, for instance, describes the One God as the creator of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In truth, Prabhavananda’s comparison of the gods of India to Christianity’s angels is more apt than many modern Christians may realize.

Late Hellenistic pagan thought often tended to draw a clear demarcation between the one transcendent God (or, in Greek, ho theos, God with the definite article) and any particular or local god (any mere “inarticular” theos) who might superintend this or that people or nation or aspect of the natural world; at the same time, late Hellenistic Jews and Christians recognized a multitude of angelic “powers” and ,,principalities,” some obedient to the one transcendent God and some in rebellion, who governed the elements of nature and the peoples of the earth. To any impartial observer at the time, coming from some altogether different culture, the theological cosmos of a great deal of pagan “polytheism” would have seemed all but indistinguishable from that of a great deal of Jewish or Christian “monotheism.”

To speak of “God” properly, then -to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth -is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, untreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all.

Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things.

Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

By contrast, when we speak of “gods” we are talking not of transcendent reality at all, but only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted -how some rose out of the primal night, how some were born of other, more titanic progenitors, how others sprang up from an intermingling of divine and elemental forces, and so on -and according to many mythologies most of them will finally meet their ends.

They exist in space and time, each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one, in the way that a finite object might be merely singular or unique, but is oneness as such, the one act of being and unity by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together. He is one in the sense that being itself is one, the infinite is one, the source of everything is one. Thus a plurality of gods could not constitute an alternative to or contradiction of the unity of God; they still would not belong to the same ontological frame of reference as he.

Obviously, then, it is God in the former -the transcendent sense in whom it is ultimately meaningful to believe or not to believe. The possibility of gods or spirits or angels or demons, and so on, is a subordinate matter, a question not of metaphysics but only of the taxonomy of nature (terrestrial, celestial, and chthonic).

To be an atheist in the best modern sense, however, and so to be a truly intellectually and emotionally fulfilled naturalist in philosophy, one must genuinely succeed in not believing in God, with all the logical consequences such disbelief entails. It is not enough simply to remain indifferent to the whole question of God, moreover, because thus understood it is a question ineradicably present in the very mystery of existence, or of knowledge, or of truth, goodness, and beauty.

It is also the question that philosophical naturalism is supposed to have answered exhaustively in the negative, without any troubling explanatory lacunae, and therefore the question that any aspiring philosophical naturalist must understand before he or she can be an atheist in any intellectually significant way. And the best way to begin is to get a secure grasp on how radically, both conceptually and logically, belief in God differs from belief in the gods. This ought not to be all that difficult a matter; in Western philosophical tradition, for instance, it is a distinction that goes back at least as far as Xenophanes (c. 570–c. 475 BC).

Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God — especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side — is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

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Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God? — Stephen M. Barr

August 23, 2013
If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?

If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?

A reblog from the site Big Questions Online

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Not in any direct way. That is, it doesn’t provide an argument for the existence of God.  But it does so indirectly, by providing an argument against the philosophy called materialism (or “physicalism”), which is the main intellectual opponent of belief in God in today’s world.

Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities — if any there be.

Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”

Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things.  No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism — at least with regard to the human mind — is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being … including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.”

How, one might ask, can quantum mechanics have anything to say about the human mind?  Isn’t it about things that can be physically measured, such as particles and forces?  It is; but while minds cannot be measured, it is ultimately minds that do the measuring. And that, as we shall see, is a fact that cannot be ignored in trying to make sense of quantum mechanics.

If one claims that it is possible (in principle) to give a complete physical description of what goes on during a measurement — including the mind of the person who is doing the measuring — one is led into severe difficulties. This was pointed out in the 1930s by the great mathematician John von Neumann.  Though I cannot go into technicalities in an essay such as this, I will try to sketch the argument.

It all begins with the fact that quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic. Of course, even in “classical physics” (i.e. the physics that preceded quantum mechanics and that still is adequate for many purposes) one sometimes uses probabilities; but one wouldn’t have to if one had enough information.  Quantum mechanics is radically different: it says that even if one had complete information about the state of a physical system, the laws of physics would typically only predict probabilities of future outcomes. These probabilities are encoded in something called the “wavefunction” of the system.

A familiar example of this is the idea of “half-life.”  Radioactive nuclei are liable to “decay” into smaller nuclei and other particles.  If a certain type of nucleus has a half-life of, say, an hour, it means that a nucleus of that type has a 50% chance of decaying within 1 hour, a 75% chance within two hours, and so on. The quantum mechanical equations do not (and cannot) tell you when a particular nucleus will decay, only the probability of it doing so as a function of time. This is not something peculiar to nuclei. The principles of quantum mechanics apply to all physical systems, and those principles are inherently and inescapably probabilistic.

This is where the problem begins. It is a paradoxical (but entirely logical) fact that a probability only makes sense if it is the probability of something definite. For example, to say that Jane has a 70% chance of passing the French exam only means something if at some point she takes the exam and gets a definite grade.  At that point, the probability of her passing no longer remains 70%, but suddenly jumps to 100% (if she passes) or 0% (if she fails). In other words, probabilities of events that lie in between 0 and 100% must at some point jump to 0 or 100% or else they meant nothing in the first place.

This raises a thorny issue for quantum mechanics. The master equation that governs how wavefunctions change with time (the “Schrödinger equation”) does not yield probabilities that suddenly jump to 0 or 100%, but rather ones that vary smoothly and that generally remain greater than 0 and less than 100%.

Radioactive nuclei are a good example. The Schrödinger equation says that the “survival probability” of a nucleus (i.e. the probability of its not having decayed) starts off at 100%, and then falls continuously, reaching 50% after one half-life, 25% after two half-lives, and so on — but never reaching zero. In other words, the Schrödinger equation only gives probabilities of decaying, never an actual decay! (If there were an actual decay, the survival probability should jump to 0 at that point.) 

To recap: (a) Probabilities in quantum mechanics must be the probabilities of definite events. (b) When definite events happen, some probabilities should jump to 0 or 100%. However, (c) the mathematics that describes all physical processes (the Schrödinger equation) does not describe such jumps.  One begins to see how one might reach the conclusion that not everything that happens is a physical process describable by the equations of physics.

So how do minds enter the picture?  The traditional understanding is that the “definite events” whose probabilities one calculates in quantum mechanics are the outcomes of “measurements” or “observations” (the words are used interchangeably).  If someone (traditionally called “the observer”) checks to see if, say, a nucleus has decayed (perhaps using a Geiger counter), he or she must get a definite answer: yes or no.

Obviously, at that point the probability of the nucleus having decayed (or survived) should jump to 0 or 100%, because the observer then knows the result with certainty.  This is just common sense. The probabilities assigned to events refer to someone’s state of knowledge: before I know the outcome of Jane’s exam I can only say that she has a 70% chance of passing; whereas after I know I must say either 0 or 100%.

Thus, the traditional view is that the probabilities in quantum mechanics — and hence the “wavefunction” that encodes them — refer to the state of knowledge of some “observer”.  (In the words of the famous physicist Sir James Jeans, wavefunctions are “knowledge waves.”)

An observer’s knowledge — and hence the wavefunction that encodes it — makes a discontinuous jump when he/she comes to know the outcome of a measurement (the famous “quantum jump”, traditionally called the “collapse of the wave function”). But the Schrödinger equations that describe any physical process do not give such jumps!  So something must be involved when knowledge changes besides physical processes.

An obvious question is why one needs to talk about knowledge and minds at all. Couldn’t an inanimate physical device (say, a Geiger counter) carry out a “measurement”?  That would run into the very problem pointed out by von Neumann: If the “observer” were just a purely physical entity, such as a Geiger counter, one could in principle write down a bigger wavefunction that described not only the thing being measured but also the observer. And, when calculated with the Schrödinger equation, that bigger wave function would not jump! Again: as long as only purely physical entities are involved, they are governed by an equation that says that the probabilities don’t jump.

That’s why, when Peierls was asked whether a machine could be an “observer,” he said no, explaining that “the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge, and knowledge requires somebody who knows.” Not a purely physical thing, but a mind.  

But what if one refuses to accept this conclusion, and maintains that only physical entities exist and that all observers and their minds are entirely describable by the equations of physics? Then the quantum probabilities remain in limbo, not 0 and 100% (in general) but hovering somewhere in between. They never get resolved into unique and definite outcomes, but somehow all possibilities remain always in play. One would thus be forced into what is called the “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum mechanics.

In MWI, reality is divided into many branches corresponding to all the possible outcomes of all physical situations. If a probability was 70% before a measurement, it doesn’t jump to 0 or 100%; it stays 70% after the measurement, because in 70% of the branches there’s one result and in 30% there’s the other result! For example, in some branches of reality a particular nucleus has decayed — and “you” observe that it has, while in other branches it has not decayed — and “you” observe that it has not. (There are versions of “you” in every branch.)

In the Many Worlds picture, you exist in a virtually infinite number of versions: in some branches of reality you are reading this article, in others you are asleep in bed, in others you have never been born. Even proponents of the Many Worlds idea admit that it sounds crazy and strains credulity.

The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.

If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.  It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?

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The Many Splendored Blobs of Neurocentrism — Matthew Hutson

June 17, 2013
Neuroimaging isn't the hard science we like to think it is. Our interpretations of those splotches of color depend upon multiple assumptions about the human mind, and applying fMRI insights outside the lab requires many more. To some degree, the blobs are a cultural construct, a useful fiction. In other words, they're all in our heads.

Neuroimaging isn’t the hard science we like to think it is. Our interpretations of those splotches of color depend upon multiple assumptions about the human mind, and applying fMRI insights outside the lab requires many more. To some degree, the blobs are a cultural construct, a useful fiction. In other words, they’re all in our heads.

A review of Brainwashed by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld most recently in the WSJ. Yes, love IS a many splendored blob…

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Humanity is under attack by blobs. Nestled in our brains, they appear to control our emotions. These infiltrators remain invisible without sophisticated technology, but when discovered they often make headlines.

Actually, to say that we discover them isn’t quite right. We create them: They are the bits of color seen in brain scans, or “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” in the parlance of the scientists, doctors and marketers who conduct this research. By measuring, analyzing and making inferences, scientists can learn that one part of your brain lights up when you wrestle with a decision; that another is exercised when you shop online; or that a third part makes you fall in love. (One branding expert used fMRI data to claim that Apple users literally adore their devices.)

Such neuroscientific techniques — fMRI is one of many — provide plenty to be excited about. The authors of “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,” while sharing in this enthusiasm, offer a more skeptical take. At issue for psychiatrist Sally Satel and clinical psychologist Scott Lilienfeld is “neurocentrism,” or “the view that human experience and behavior can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain.” In their concise and well-researched book, they offer a reasonable and eloquent critique of this fashionable delusion, chiding the premature or unnecessary application of brain science to commerce, psychiatry, the law and ethics.

Brain scanning — at least as the technology stands today — suffers from a number of limitations. For starters, it often relies on a one-to-one mapping of cognitive function to brain area that simply doesn’t exist. Most thoughts are distributed, and “most neural real estate is zoned for mixed-use development,” as Dr. Satel and Mr. Lilienfeld write. So just knowing that disgust lights up your insula — a part of the cerebral cortex involved in attention, emotion and other functions — doesn’t imply that whenever the insula lights up you’re disgusted.

Despite such complexities, several firms have profited from selling, and perhaps overselling, fMRI’s capacity to peer into our souls. “Neuromarketers” try to suss out what drives us to buy one product rather than another. But there’s little public data to indicate that their methods work any better than the old standbys of surveys and focus groups. And they can blunder: In 2006, a neuroscientist declared a racy GoDaddy.com Super Bowl ad a flop after it failed to activate viewers’ pleasure centers. It had increased traffic to the site 16-fold.

If neurocentrism’s worst result were inspiring facile, gee-whiz headlines or bilking corporate advertisers out of cash, we could all go home with a good laugh over our obsession with Lite-Brite phrenology. But the neurocentric worldview has also crept into law enforcement and criminal justice. Predictably, defense attorneys try to use brain scans to prove that their clients lack rationality or impulse control and therefore can’t be held legally responsible. Companies such as No Lie MRI and Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories even claim to offer fMRI methods of lie detection.

One process looks for signs of recognition in a suspect’s brain as he views key evidence. This technique is fairly accurate in controlled conditions but requires evidence that has not been altered or leaked — i.e., details that the perpetrator and only the perpetrator would recognize. Another method looks for signs of neural conflict during questioning, indicating suppression of the truth. But no indicator is consistent across all liars or across all types of lies — spontaneous, rehearsed, remorseful, glib. The authors argue that fMRI lie detection is crummy legal evidence, and several courts have excluded such data because their accuracy outside the lab hasn’t been demonstrated.

Mr. Lilienfeld and Dr. Satel, who has worked in methadone clinics, spend a chapter confronting the popular model of addiction as a chronic brain disease. The trouble, they point out, is that most addicts eventually quit. In short, you can choose to stop using, but you can’t choose to stop having, say, Alzheimer’s. Those who promote the brain-disease model of addiction, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, mean well when they strive to destigmatize addicts. But the authors say this model has distracted from behavioral therapies. Until a cocaine vaccine is available, they write, “the most effective interventions aim not at the brain but at the person.”

There are still more profound perils associated with the neurocentric vision. If the brain is just a biological machine, we have no free will and thus, strictly speaking, no claim to praise or blame. This violates both social norms and our own moral intuitions, and in the book’s final chapter the authors wade deeply into the philosophical debate about this new neurological determinism.

Moral responsibility, they argue, has practical benefits: “No society . . . can function and cohere unless its citizens exist within a system of personal accountability that stigmatizes some actions and praises others.” The position that Dr. Satel and Mr. Lilienfeld adopt is “compatibilism,” which holds that free will may not exist in an “ultimate” sense but exists in an “ordinary” sense, in that we feel free of constraints on our behavior. In everyday life, they argue, we should act as though the “ghost in the machine” were real.”

In a book that uses “mindless” accusatively in the subtitle, you might expect an excitable series of attacks on purveyors of what’s variously called neurohype, neurohubris and neurobollocks. But more often than not Dr. Satel and Mr. Lilienfeld stay fair and levelheaded. Good thing, because this is a topic that requires circumspection on all sides. Neuroimaging isn’t the hard science we like to think it is. Our interpretations of those splotches of color depend upon multiple assumptions about the human mind, and applying fMRI insights outside the lab requires many more. To some degree, the blobs are a cultural construct, a useful fiction. In other words, they’re all in our heads.

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God, Gods, and Fairies — David Bentley Hart

June 4, 2013
Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.

Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.

This is a nice follow up to the reflections of Giorgio Buccellati on the Trinity Spermatiké we posted a short while ago. A reblog from First Things.

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One of the strangest claims often made by purveyors and consumers of today’s popular atheism is that disbelief in God involves no particular positive philosophy of reality, much less any kind of religion or creed, but consists merely in neutral incredulity toward a certain kind of factual asseveration [vocab:  The solemn or emphatic declaration or statement of something: "a dogmatic outlook marks many of his asseverations"].

This is not something the atheists of earlier ages would have been very likely to say, if only because they still lived in a culture whose every dimension (artistic, philosophical, ethical, social, cosmological) was shaped by a religious vision of the world. More to the point, it is an utterly nonsensical claim — so nonsensical, in fact, that it is doubtful that those who make it can truly be considered atheists in any coherent sense.

Admittedly, I suppose, it is possible to mistake the word “God” for the name of some discrete object that might or might not be found within the fold of nature, if one just happens to be more or less ignorant of the entire history of theistic belief. But, really, the distinction between “God” — meaning the one God who is the transcendent source of all things — and any particular “god” — meaning one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos — is one that, in Western tradition, goes back at least as far as Xenophanes.

And it is a distinction not merely in numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were simply how many “divine entities” one thinks there are; rather, it is a distinction between two qualitatively incommensurable kinds of reality, belonging to two wholly disparate conceptual orders. In the words of the great Swami Prabhavananda, only the one transcendent God is “the uncreated”: “Gods, though supernatural, belong . . . among the creatures. Like the Christian angels, they are much nearer to man than to God.”

This should not be a particularly difficult distinction to grasp, truth be told. To speak of “God” properly — in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.

To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted — how they arose out of the primal night, or were born of other, more titanic progenitors, and so on — and in many cases their eventual demises foreseen. Each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one — not merely singular or unique — but is oneness as such, the sole act of being by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together

Obviously, then, it is the transcendent God in whom it is ultimately meaningful not to believe. The possibility of gods or spirits or angels or demons, and so on, is all very interesting to contemplate, but remains a question not of metaphysics but only of the taxonomy of nature (terrestrial, celestial, and chthonic). To be an atheist in the best modern sense, and so to be a truly intellectually and emotionally fulfilled naturalist in philosophy, one must genuinely succeed in not believing in God, with all the logical consequences this entails.

And the question of God, thus understood, is one that is ineradicably present in the mystery of existence itself, or of consciousness, or of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is also the question that philosophical naturalism is supposed to have answered exhaustively in the negative, without any troubling explanatory lacunae, and that therefore any aspiring philosophical naturalist must understand in order to be an atheist in any intellectually significant way.

Well, as I say, this should not be all that difficult to grasp. And yet any speaker at one of those atheist revivalist meetings need only trot out either of two reliable witticisms — “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden” or “Everyone today is a disbeliever in Thor or Zeus, but we simply believe in one god less” — to elicit warmly rippling palpitations of self-congratulatory laughter from the congregation. Admittedly, one ought not judge a movement by its jokes, but neither should one be overly patient with those who delight in their own ignorance of elementary conceptual categories. I suppose, though, that the charitable course is to state the obvious as clearly as possible.

So: Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans.

Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found.

God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for photons and (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

All of which is to say (to return to where I began) that it is absurd to think that one can profess atheism in any meaningful way without thereby assenting to an entire philosophy of being, however inchoate one’s sense of it may be. The philosophical naturalist’s view of reality is not one that merely fails to find some particular object within the world that the theist imagines can be descried there; it is a very particular representation of the nature of things, entailing a vast range of purely metaphysical commitments.

Principally, it requires that one believe that the physical order, which both experience and reason say is an ensemble of ontological contingencies, can exist entirely of itself, without any absolute source of actuality. It requires also that one resign oneself to an ultimate irrationalism: For the one reality that naturalism can never logically encompass is the very existence of nature (nature being, by definition, that which already exists); it is a philosophy, therefore, surrounded, permeated, and exceeded by a truth that is always already super naturam, and yet a philosophy that one cannot seriously entertain except by scrupulously refusing to recognize this.

It is the embrace of an infinite paradox: the universe understood as an “absolute contingency.” It may not amount to a metaphysics in the fullest sense, since strictly speaking it possesses no rational content — it is, after all, a belief that all things rest upon something like an original moment of magic — but it is certainly far more than the mere absence of faith.

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Faith of the Fatherless – Meredith Rice

April 10, 2013
In a fallen world, every father fails in some degree to reflect and interpret the fatherhood of God, and yet many children implicitly or explicitly reconcile that gap with trust in the providence and faithfulness of God. Yet for many others the likely effect of the loss of the father is a distance from and doubt of God, which leads in many cases to profound atheism.

In a fallen world, every father fails in some degree to reflect and interpret the fatherhood of God, and yet many children implicitly or explicitly reconcile that gap with trust in the providence and faithfulness of God. Yet for many others the likely effect of the loss of the father is a distance from and doubt of God, which leads in many cases to profound atheism.

A review of Paul Vitz’ Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, a reblogging of a article in HumanumMs Rice holds a B.A. and an M.A. in theology from the University of Dallas and The Catholic University of America, respectively.

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With the prevalence of divorce and the ever-rising rate of out-of-wedlock births in the US, sociologists have begun to study the effects of growing up without a father in the home. In seemingly every measurable category, the lack of a sustained, committed father-child relationship puts the child at a disadvantage: lower IQ, lower academic achievement, higher anxiety, higher rates of disruptive behavior, lower self-esteem, higher rates of drug use and violence, and an increased chance of child abuse have all been linked with the absence of fathers from their children.

In his 1999 book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist Paul Vitz proposes another likely effect of the loss of the father on children: a distance from and doubt of God, which leads in many cases to profound atheism. Vitz develops his proposal as an inverse to Freud’s projection theory of belief in God, which proposes “wish-fulfillment derived from childish needs for protection and security” as the major psychological factor leading to religious belief in God (p. 6).

Without giving credence to Freud’s conclusion that psychological factors in belief render the belief itself suspect or false, Vitz notes that the projection theory in fact offers just as plausible an explanation for unbelief as for belief. Taking up the insight that a child’s “psychological representation of his father is intimately connected to his understanding of God,” Vitz proposes to test a “defective father” hypothesis, in which an “atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God” (p. 16). His method is a historical survey of the biographies of prominent atheists and theists, particularly major figures in the development of modern atheism and their interlocutors on the side of faith.

In the column of founders and major proponents of modern atheism, Vitz addresses nineteen cases, from Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume, to Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Stalin, and Sigmund Freud himself. In each case, the “defective father” hypothesis holds to some degree. Each of these men experienced a rift in his relationship with his father: whether the early death of his father, or abuse, neglect or abandonment at his hands, or an unattractive weakness or overbearing character in his father, which led to a personal break and rejection of the father’s values.

In a few cases, these men themselves draw a parallel between the absence of their fathers and the absence of God. Explaining his mother’s inability to impart her waning faith to him in the face of her husband’s careless neglect of the family, H.G. Wells relates: “My father was away at cricket, and I think she realized more and more as the years dragged on without material alleviation, that Our Father and Our Lord, on whom to begin with she had perhaps counted unduly, were also away – playing perhaps at their own sort of cricket in some remote quarter of the starry universe” (p. 51). The lack of stability from a father’s care appears to leave a void that a discredited God cannot fill, and that instead requires the search for a new principle of order and flourishing, e.g., mathematics (Russell), existential philosophy (Sartre), totalitarian political order (Stalin), and so on.

In his selection of a “control group” of theists, Vitz focuses on prominent intellectual defenders of faith against the atheism or skepticism of their times and reveals a more varied set of circumstances. Blaise Pascal’s father retired from the law on the death of his wife to devote himself to the education of his children, while Edmund Burke was separated from his father at a young age because of health, but was instead raised with the help of three maternal uncles who impressed him with their integrity, benevolence, and faith (p. 65).

G.K. Chesterton spent his childhood at his father’s side, imbibing his love of literature and beauty, while Martin Buber lost his mother and was separated from his father at an early age but was raised by grandparents who were attentive and loving. Albert Schweitzer was able to describe his father as “my dearest friend” (p. 86), while Abraham Heschel lost his father at the age of ten but felt himself from an early age to be following in the spiritual footsteps of several Hasidic rabbis whose example guided his growth.

In the examples of theists Vitz cites, the lives of those whose loss or estrangement from their fathers that would seem to locate them in the “defective fathers” category also included the secondary influence of some kind of substitute father figure. And although many of the theists were sons of devout, and even ordained, men (Paley, Schleiermacher, Schweitzer, and Barth were all ministers’ sons), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was raised by a devoted father who was himself agnostic and in a household whose Christian practice was mostly nominal. The commonality appears to be that a father or father-figure in each of these cases was able to provide a stability, affection, and attention that at the very least did not impede the development of faith in God.

The initial conclusion to be drawn from Vitz’s survey is that the historical evidence appears to support his hypothesis that the childhood experience of a “defective father” is a contributing psychological factor to the rejection of God in adulthood. Further, Vitz is able to contextualize this formative experience of the prominent atheists he identified with several further shared personal characteristics that appear to contribute to their skepticism regarding belief: high intelligence, overweening ambition, and the free choice to reject the strictures that belief in God might place on the realization of personal development.

Indeed, many of his examples would seem to share the understanding of God’s role in their lives that Sartre attributed to fatherhood in general: “‘Had my own father lived, he would have lain on me full length and crushed me’” (p. 30). In this way, the modern “romance of the autonomous self,” free from all restraint, plays directly into a rejection of belief in God (p. 136).

In substantiating his hypothesis of a projection theory of atheism based on the experience of a “defective” father, Vitz shows that the Freudian dismissal of religious belief based on psychological projection is illegitimate: the ultimate truth (or falsity) of religious belief cannot be determined by psychological factors (p. 145). However, for the general reader, Vitz might have strengthened his presentation by stepping outside this Freudian frame.

His discussion of the relationship between family dynamics and belief in God is interesting not primarily for polemical reasons, but insofar as it resonates with the experience and truth of the human person as such. In a fallen world, every father fails in some degree to reflect and interpret the fatherhood of God, and yet many children implicitly or explicitly reconcile that gap with trust in the providence and faithfulness of God. A discussion of this universal human experience would have added a greater depth and credibility to the selective historical survey of exceptional figures that forms the bulk of Vitz’s observations and argument.

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God the Creator 2 –Benedict XVI

April 5, 2013
Staring across interstellar space, the Cat's Eye Nebula lies three thousand light-years from Earth. One of the most famous planetary nebulae, NGC 6543 is over half a light-year across and represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star... “We must not in our own day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God is the Lord of all things because he is their creator, and only therefore can we pray to him. For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are sustaining forces of reality.”

Staring across interstellar space, the Cat’s Eye Nebula lies three thousand light-years from Earth. One of the most famous planetary nebulae, NGC 6543 is over half a light-year across and represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star… “We must not in our own day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God is the Lord of all things because he is their creator, and only therefore can we pray to him. For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are sustaining forces of reality.”

The Unity of the Bible as a Criterion for Its Interpretation
[Continued from previous post...] So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?

Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook.

It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time.

Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step.

Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect — as a way — the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear.

Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end — from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is .

What significance, now, does this insight have for the understanding of the creation account? The first thing to be said is this: Israel always believed in the Creator God, and this faith it shared with all the great civilizations of the ancient world. For, even in the moments when monotheism was eclipsed, all the great civilizations always knew of the Creator of heaven and earth.

There is a surprising commonality here even between civilizations that could never have been in touch with one another. In this commonality we can get a good grasp of the profound and never altogether lost contact that human beings had with God’s truth. In Israel itself the creation theme went through several different stages. It was never completely absent, but it was not always equally important.

There were times when Israel was so preoccupied with the sufferings or the hopes of its own history, so fastened upon the here and now, that there was hardly any use in its looking back at creation; indeed, it hardly could. The moment when creation became a dominant theme occurred during the Babylonian Exile. It was then that the account that we have just heard — based, to be sure, on very ancient traditions — assumed its present form. Israel had lost its land and its temple.

According to the mentality of the time this was something incomprehensible, for it meant that the God of Israel was vanquished a God whose people, whose land, and whose worshipers could be snatched away from him. A God who could not defend his worshipers and his worship was seen to be, at the time, a weak God. Indeed, he was no God at all; he had abandoned his divinity. And so, being driven out of their own land and being erased from the map was for Israel a terrible trial: Has our God been vanquished, and is our faith void?

At this moment the prophets opened a new page and taught Israel that it was only then that the true face of God appeared and that he was not restricted to that particular piece of land. He had never been: He had promised this piece of land to Abraham before he settled there, and he had been able to bring his people out of Egypt. He could do both things because he was not the God of one place but had power over heaven and earth.

Therefore he could drive his faithless people into another land in order to make himself known there. And so it came to be understood that this God of Israel was not a God like the other gods, but that he was the God who held sway over every land and people. He could do this, however, because he himself had created everything in heaven and on earth. It was in exile and in the seeming defeat of Israel that there occurred an opening to the awareness of the God who holds every people and all of history in his hands, who holds everything because he is the creator of everything and the source of all power.

This faith now had to find its own contours, and it had to do so precisely vis-a-vis the seemingly victorious religion of Babylon, which was displayed in splendid liturgies, like that of the New Year, in which the re-creation of the world was celebrated and brought to its fulfillment. It had to find its contours vis-a-vis the great Babylonian creation account of Enuma Elish, which depicted the origin of the world in its own fashion.

There it is said that the world was produced out of a struggle between opposing powers and that it assumed its form when Marduk, the god of light, appeared and split in two the body of the primordial dragon. From this sundered body heaven and earth came to be. Thus the firmament and the earth were produced from the sundered body of the dead dragon, but from its blood Marduk fashioned human beings.

It is a foreboding picture of the world and of humankind that we encounter here: The world is a dragon’s body, and human beings have dragon’s blood in them. At the very origin of the world lurks something sinister, and in the deepest part of humankind there lies something rebellious, demonic, and evil. In this view of things only a dictator, the king of Babylon, who is the representative of Marduk, can repress the demonic and restore the world to order.

Such views were not simply fairy tales. They expressed the discomfiting realities that human beings experienced in the world and among themselves. For often enough it looks as if the world is a dragon’s lair and human blood is dragon’s blood. But despite all oppressive experiences the scriptural account says that it was not so. The whole tale of these sinister powers melts away in a few words: “The earth was without form and void.”

Behind these Hebrew words lie the dragon and the demonic powers that are spoken of elsewhere. Now it is the void that alone remains and that stands as the sole power over against God. And in the face of any fear of these demonic forces we are told that God alone, who is the eternal Reason that is eternal love, created the world, and that it rests in his hands. Only with this in mind can we appreciate the dramatic confrontation implicit in this biblical text, in which all these confused myths were rejected and the world was given its origin in God’s Reason and in his Word.

This could be shown almost word for word in the present text — as, for example, when the sun and the moon are referred to as lamps that God has hung in the sky for the measurement of time. To the people of that age it must have seemed a terrible sacrilege to designate the great gods sun and moon as lamps for measuring time. Here we see the audacity and the temperateness of the faith that, in confronting the pagan myths, made the light of truth appear by showing that the world was not a demonic contest but that it arose from God’s Reason and reposes on God’s Word.

Hence this creation account may be seen as the decisive “enlightenment” of history and as a breakthrough out of the fears that had oppressed humankind. It placed the world in the context of reason and recognized the world’s reasonableness and freedom. But it may also be seen as the true enlightenment from the fact that it put human reason firmly on the primordial basis of God’s creating Reason, in order to establish it in truth and in love, without which an “enlightenment” would be exorbitant and ultimately foolish.

To this something further must be added. I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.

In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days. Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act.

In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

Christology as a Criterion
One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).

John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless.

We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.

The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind — with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images.

Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten — this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole.

In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward — that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source.

As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith.

This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation. What the pagan Aristotle said four hundred years before Christ — when he opposed those who asserted that everything has come to exist through chance, even though he said what he did without the knowledge that our faith in creation gives us — is still valid today.

The reasonableness of the universe provides us with access to God’s Reason, and the Bible is and continues to be the true “enlightenment,” which has given the world over to human reason and not to exploitation by human beings, because it opened reason to God’s truth and love. Therefore we must not in our own day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God is the Lord of all things because he is their creator, and only therefore can we pray to him. For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are sustaining forces of reality.

And so we wish to cite today, in thankfulness and joy, the church’s creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Amen.

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More On Divine Hiddeness — Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser

December 6, 2012

whats essential invisible

Our Expectations Regarding God
We have suggested that the argument from divine hiddenness is rooted in our expectations regarding God, specifically how a perfectly loving being would reveal Himself.
Different expectations may be motivated by different analogies. People who emphasize that God would do whatever it takes to prevent inculpable non-belief frequently regard God’s love on analogy with parents who wish to comfort their young children in distress.

Others, however, see God’s love by analogy with familiar adult love, where the lover primarily wants certain attitudes and behavior to accompany any reciprocation of love on the part of the beloved. Any old reciprocation won’t do. Those pushing the latter analogy will focus on different kinds of human attitudes and motivations that God, in His unsurpassable love, might wish to promote or to prevent prior to bringing the nonbeliever to belief.

On this view, it is not belief that God exists per se that is primarily important but rather the attitudes and motivations that accompany belief. On this view, the loving thing for God to do is to bring the nonbeliever to belief in such a way that serves these ulterior divine purposes. If their fulfillment is not in the offing now, God may patiently wait until they are before bringing the nonbeliever to belief.

God As A Benevolent Reconstructive Surgeon
Another analogy sees God as a benevolent reconstructive surgeon. As such God will not aim to bring one to belief unless one’s volitions are in line with God’s purposes in one’s believing in the first place. Specifically, God seeks a human’s willingness to obey, to serve, and to trust Him, as seems fitting for His being the Lord of all.
Mere curiosity, or double-mindedness on the matter of giving oneself humbly and obediently, will not do. Only those prepared to respond appropriately to personal divine revelation are its genuine recipients.

For all that, God may well give general revelation sufficient to move people to query about one’s relationship with God, but even here volitional matters enter into the picture. The unduly skeptical as well as the modestly indifferent may not appreciate what divine light is given them, owing to their resistance or apathy. Passionate striving and setting aside all else for the pursuit of available divine light are mandatory. God will not trivialize the supreme value of divine light.

In reply, those emphasizing the parent analogy will submit that a perfectly loving God would empathize with the plight of those who seek Him but who through no fault of their own come up empty-handed. Would it not be in the very context of an ongoing, developmental relationship with the seeker that God’s redemptive purposes are best fulfilled, as in the case of a mother and child? At any rate, we can see that one’s operative analogies can make a big difference in what one expects of a perfectly loving being.

What Do You Mean God Is Hidden?
We have suggested that a response to the argument from inculpable non-belief might deny that God has failed to make Himself sufficiently known. “What do you mean God is hidden?
Just look around you and at yourself. What more could you want?” This response might seek inspiration from some biblical sources. “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork,” declares the psalmist (Psalm 19:1, NRSV).

The apostle Paul remarks: “Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20, NRSV). Aside from what the psalmist and Paul actually had in mind (itself a matter of ongoing debate), if God is evident through creation, we need an explanation of why many normal people fail to believe that God exists. Some theists recommend their theism with arguments to the best explanation that have to do with historical events, like the history of Israel or the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Still others insist that God makes Himself sufficiently well-known through more internal means, such as one’s conscience.

Why People Fail To Believe
If God is sufficiently well-known in any of the ways suggested, we need an explanation of why so many people fail to believe. A traditional answer is that, generally, failure to appreciate the evidence of creation and history or to hear the internal witness of conscience is a consequence of a person’s sinfulness. This could be taken as a denial of the premise of the argument from hiddenness implying that some people fail to believe inculpably. The thesis would be that every (normal adult) nonbeliever culpably fails to believe. Exactly how sin enters the explanatory picture here will vary, some emphasizing volitional vices, others cognitive. An explanation emphasizing one thing may apply to one person but not to another. In addition, different explanations may apply to the same person at different times, and several explanations may apply to one person at one time. Naturally enough, those who find such explanations unconvincing think charges of culpability are best laid elsewhere.

Another suggestion is that every human being can believe that God exists, by implicitly believing in Him, even though one does not know that this is what one is doing. This can be done by pursuing a moral life and thus relating to God by way of relating to His chief attribute, goodness. Alternatively, one can implicitly believe by acting as one would if one were explicitly to believe in Him. In these ways, one can enter into a developmental relationship with God that will become more fully realized and explicit in the future.

Explaining Inculpable Non-Belief
Some people grant that God fails to make Himself sufficiently well-known, and that non-belief cannot be written off to human sinfulness – non-belief is at least frequently inculpable. The goal, then, is to explain inculpable non-belief, the fact that many fail to believe through no fault of their own. The general strategy here is to articulate the benefits of God’s causing or permitting inculpable non-belief, as against the benefits of belief that God exists and the attendant availability of a personal relationship with Him. Variations on this strategy include developing and defending one or more of the following:

  • God hides and thus permits inculpable nonbelief (at least in principle) in order to enable people freely to love, trust and obey Him; otherwise, we would be coerced in a manner incompatible with love.
  • God hides and thus permits inculpable nonbelief (at least in principle) in order to prevent a human response based on improper motives (such as fear of punishment).
  • God hides and thus permits inculpable nonbelief because, if He were not hidden, humans would relate to God and to their knowledge of God in presumptuous ways and the possibility of developing the inner attitudes essential to a proper relationship with Him would be ipso facto ruled out.
  • God hides and thus permits inculpable nonbelief because this hiding prompts us to recognize the wretchedness of life on our own, without God, and thereby stimulates us to search for Him contritely and humbly.
  • God hides and thus permits inculpable nonbelief because if He made His existence clear enough to prevent inculpable nonbelief, then the sense of risk required for a passionate faith would be objectionably reduced.
  • God hides and thus permits inculpable nonbelief because if He made His existence clear enough to prevent inculpable nonbelief, temptation to doubt His existence would not be possible, religious diversity would be objectionably reduced, and believers would not have as much opportunity to assist others in starting personal relationships with God.
  • Inculpable nonbelievers are either well-disposed to love God upon believing or they are not. The well-disposed either are responsible for being so disposed or not. If not, God lets them confirm their good disposition through choices in the face of contrary temptations before making Himself known. If so, they are well-disposed for unfitting reasons and He waits for them to confirm their good disposition in a purer source before making Himself known. Inculpable nonbelievers who are not well-disposed to love God upon believing and who are not responsible for failing to be well-disposed are given the opportunity by God to change before He makes Himself known.

No Single Explanation
One theme that has emerged is that no single explanation may be the whole explanation of divine hiddenness.
Different people, given their different stances toward God, might call for different explanations. Moreover, all of the explanations might fail individually for any particular individual and yet, to some extent, apply to a single individual, totaling up to a complete explanation. It thus won’t do to object to an explanation that it does not apply to certain kinds of people; nor will it do to object that each explanation fails to apply to each candidate for inculpable nonbelief.

An objection to such explanations must invoke something like the claim that they fail, collectively as well as individually, to account for what we take to be, at first glance, inculpable nonbelief. Here a distinctively epistemic problem for the proponent of the argument from hiddenness arises. Human beings are enormously complicated, and it is no easy task to tell whether any particular candidate for inculpable nonbelief possesses or fails to possess those motivations, attitudes, and dispositions that putatively explain their inculpable nonbelief.

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