Wednesday, November 07, 2007

God part 2 of 3: the meanings of things

Preface, or 'pre-post tangential interlude': Before I get into blog post proper I wanted to share a discovery I made today thanks to David Webster's Gloucestershire Uni course blog. It is a discussion by academics of Socrates' life from BBC Radio 4. It was interesting for a variety of reasons: the problem of the written word (vs oral teachings), problems of democracy, questions of virtue and the good life, and (for me) connections with Kant and the nature of God.
One of the points made by Socrates, found in Plato's Euthyphro, is that we cannot reasonably place the gods (or in our case God) above morality. That is, if we can know right from wrong in human affairs, then we should judge the claimed actions and wishes of god(s) by these same criteria. As Socrates asks Euthyphro in that dialog (quoting from memory):
Is it right because the gods accept it,
or do the gods accept it because it is right? (my emphasis)
Socrates of course supports the latter option. Morality, virtue, rightness, goodness and the likes all supersede the whims of the gods.

But for the Greeks the gods (and Old Testament followers of God as mentioned in the radio show) were heavily personified beings, basically humans with certain qualities exaggerated and with added magical powers. They had their faults, inconsistencies, and foibles just as the rest of us. Socrates was thus a radical for saying, in effect, "don't waste your time trying to please them, put your effort into a virtuous life, a self-examined life, and you will find happiness."

Ironically, I noted in the last post that things hadn't changed much between Kant's time and our own, and it seems that even more so things remained amazingly constant between Socrates life and that of Kant.


Now, neither Kant nor Socrates denied the existence of God, both simply demanded a rational understanding of the deity. And while for Socrates this is mainly a moral matter, for Kant it is both moral and extends to the natural world (following the inspirational works of such thinkers as Newton, Galileo and Copernicus). But, once we have rationalized morality and the good life, as well as the physical world, what is left of 'God'?

And that exact question has been the prime battle ground for over two hundred years (at least) of Western theology.

Kierkegaard, for one, argued that Kant and others missed the whole point: that God and reason have nothing to do with one another (and for that matter God and morality). He famously retells the story of Abraham and Isaac. He admits that what Abraham is about to do, kill his own son, is morally wrong, but then says that in religious terms it is right. So for Kierkegaard 'God' means something beyond our categories of reason and morality.

A thinker closer to home (for me) is Albert Borgmann who, as it was explained to me, treats God as a moral necessity. For Dr. Borgmann it is God to whom we must give thanks that there is existence at all (recalling the Parmenidean question, "why is there something instead of nothing?"). Dr. Borgmann accepts that it is science to which we should turn to explain all that is in existence, but that it is God that has ensured that there is existence in the first place.
A good exercise you can do now is to to play:

Battleground God (a witty Q&A to see if your views are at least consistent with each other)
(a simpler, one-step game raising the typical objections to the Judeo-Christian notions of God)
As either game suggests (especially the second) 'God' has problems. If we give her the typical attributes that people have since time immemorial then she no longer seems to fit into our world (ruled by physics and rational ethics). If we strip her of these in the hopes of keeping her here (a God'ess' in the gaps) then the game-makers openly wonder if what is left deserves the name 'God' in the first place.

In the end I tend to just give up and join another former philosophy professor of mine (retired), Dr. Burke Townsend, and say that I don't believe in God because I don't know what that means. (It's not that I disbelieve, but only that I don't know what it is that I am supposed to believe in here.)

I believe in the fundamental morality of the universe, as I have felt it tugging at my own conscience and I have discovered practices that I have experienced to better attune me to that universal moral nature. I believe in the inexhaustible beauty of the natural world, from mountain sunsets to the ant's antennae, from the cosmic singularity to the evolution of human beings, it all makes me bright-eyed and grinning with wonder.

But that's it.

I must laugh at its simplicity, but also the sheer complexity when you get right down to it. It is simple because it is all right here, every action and item before me opens the worlds of morality and nature. It is complex because, in Kantian terms, I am heteronomous, pulled in dozens of directions at once, tugged by forces outside of my moral center, forces other than my own reason. And the physical world, too, reveals a depth of complexity that thwarts our eager probing at every turn. In Buddhist terms both (our understanding of morality and the natural world) are clouded by ignorance, clouds that are sometimes equated with language (conceptuality) itself.

But again, that's it.

For both Kant and Buddhism the task is thrown upon us, each of us, to lift our own veils of ignorance, to unravel the bounds of unknowing, to come face to face with reality. To appeal to God for either would be to side-step this responsibility, an escape from the here-and-now reality of our lives.

But then, that is just one conception of God, namely the traditional Judeo-Christian conception (and the roughly parallel Brahmanic/Hindu conception). There are other conceptions of God that bring him (or, preferably her) down to earth and into our lives. Think of Native American ideas of the Great Spirit, or perhaps certain gnostic ideas of God-within-all.

In the last part of this series I will explore other conceptions of God, asking if reconciliation may be found.


carla said...

These posts are interesting but a bit exhausting for me, having only taken one 3-hour class, Introduction to Philosophy. I have read Richard Dawson, though!

Anyway, I'm just wondering, don't you think it's enough to sort of shrug it off and say, 'The existence or non-existence of God has no relevance to my life in the present moment,' and just get on with it? That has been my approach for the last few years.

I used to be a Christian, or tried all my life to be a Christian, praying constantly for God to help my unbelief. It's been a supreme relief to realise I don't have to believe anything and it makes no difference.

Gary said...

Hi Justin.

I don't bother with the word 'God' much these days, for as you rightly point out, there's no universally agreed opinion on what the word (and it's associated concepts) actual mean. I have no experience of the entity that people refer to to as 'God', and when talking with those who claim to have experienced 'God' in some way, their experiences can invariably be attributed to non-theistic phenomena.

Believers in an absolute deity cannot agree with each other as to what this being is, either. Muslims categorically deny the possibility of the Incarnation, which not only nullifies Christian concepts of what God is, but also the Hindu Avatars such as Krishna. Christianity in turn, denies the existence of non-Christian gods, which negates Hindu conceptions of the gods such as Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Hanuman, Kali, etc.

They can't all be right, can they? Jesus is either God or He isn't. Vishnu and Shiva are gods or they are not. Allah is completely transcendent or He's not. Who's right? Nobody knows - they just take their pick and then rationalize it afterwards (if at all).

Philosophers are great thinkers, that's for sure, Justin. The Dhamma, however, isn't realized through thinking about it, but rather seeing and experiencing it in the world. And what is the world? According to the Buddha, this very body-mind is the world. Everything that we experience is experienced in the body-mind (including 'God'), and there's no world outside of this.

In meditation, a concentrated state can be reached where all thought ceases, and then life can be experienced as it actually is rather than how we think it is. Wisdom arises not out of individual intellectual achievements, for if it did, the Dhamma would be conditioned by and limited to certain types of mind. Dhamma precedes the human intellect, but is expressed through it, rather than the other way around.

From the Buddhist perspective, 'God' and philosophy are somewhat redundant. The Buddha compared trying to work out the various 'imponderables' of existence to a man wanting to know the details relating to a poisoned arrow that he was shot with before removing it - he died! Dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the ending of dukkha, and the way to the ending of dukkha are of paramount importance in Buddhism.

That some Buddhists through history have indulged in complicated philosophical endeavors simply reveals that Buddhists are subject to the same mental tendencies that all humans are. Christianity has some of the most complicated theology in world history, and yet the basic message of Christ about sin and the redemption of sin through belief in Him is very simple. Sometimes, we think too much!

I once talked to a philosopher -Buddhist who said that his intention was to 'destroy' philosophy from within through showing up its limitations. I do wonder what happened to him! Whatever your intent with regards to philosophy, Justin, I wish you well, but I worry that there's a risk of confusing Buddhism and philosophy, leaving a dry, thought-orientated 'Buddhology' as opposed to a living Path out of suffering.

With metta,
Gary at Forest Wisdom.

Carla said...

*blushing* Oops on my above post. I meant Richard Dawkins. As in 'The God Delusion.'

Carla said...

Just read through Gary's comment. Gary, that's pretty much what I meant in my comment above. I'm wondering what the use is in all this thinking about it.

Tom said...

I think if you truly get bit by an interest in The Big Questions, by itself that changes your life.

Maybe that is the very strategy God uses to coax us away from ordinary mindedness, you think? God is playing Hide and Seek with us and he is the ultimate hider.

Everything in the universe and the very fact of our existence is impossible. The nature of our existing is impossible. The experience of consciousness remains not only fully unexplained, but a problem without clues.

And yet we find meaning in so very much that goes on around us. Why!?

I am interested in psychopaths. They have no real emotional reactions to anything. No shame. No conscience. They simulate expressions of emotions from what they see in others. Themselves, they have no inkling of what love is, or grief, or sorrow.

It is pretty much the case that the only thing psychopaths can do with their lives is "game other people." Without ever having had empathy, they don't have morality; they can't even approach an understanding of what it is, or why anybody would create obstacles in their lives to deter them from going directly for whatever it is they want. And if it means destroying others along the way, why not?

Why aren't we all like that?

When gaining a personal relationship with God eludes us, there is the question of What is Good? Why among seekers do love and compassion trump fun in what we find important? And why do we know that we are onto something, we've taken a vital step, in our search when the nature of what we find to be fun or fascinating undergoes significant change?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Carla - can I shrug it off? Sometimes I think life would be easier if I could :) But no. There is, after all, Pascal's wager, which (if taken seriously) demands that we wrestle with this issue at some time or another.

And as Gandhi said,” "Truth is the first thing to be sought and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you.”"

Truth, whether in God's existence or nonexistence, must be sought.


However, as Gary well points out, sometime we think too much! :) hehe... The Dhamma, the Truth of Dhamma, and perhaps God if s/he exists, are all beyond the conceits/concepts of humans (philosophers included).

For my sake Gary, I too hope that I don't get caught up in the dry pretensions of so much philosophy. I hope I can count on you to keep me honest. But, as one teacher put it, we often must use on thorn (concepts and philosophies) to remove another (wrong views). So it seems that some of us will have to busy ourselves with abstract philosophizing if only to help ad some clarity and coherence to people's lives outside the meditation hall.



Yes, hooray for the Big Questions! I for one think they are as essential to the good life as the air we breathe.

I for one don't know why we're not all psychopaths - but would tend toward evolutionary explanations; eg. that without REAL feelings for others we as a race would have died out and the Neanderthals would now rule the earth.

And regarding your second questions I would think that some theory of moral development, such as that by Lawrence Kohlberg or even Maslow, could go to great lengths to answer why many of us would take love and compassion over fun.

Interesting, I am sure there are more 'Buddhist' explanations for these, but the Western scientific/psychological still seem most satisfying to me.

Tom said...

I agree that a world of psychopaths wouldn't work out well as a matter of evolution. Newborn babies wouldn't get cared for; they'd be roasted on a spit.

But if our REAL feelings are merely a matter of evolution, then life has no meaning. Our feelings would then only be 'tricks' of evolution that make us behave in advantageous ways to achieve something wholly pointless: the survival of the species.

The psychopath would be technically correct, then: Act only for yourself and screw the world is the sole valid rule of morality.

Life can only have meaning if our emotions are detached, are their own reality. If we love someone it has to be for 'no reason,' otherwise it isn't love, it isn't anything.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom, I am reminded by your comments of Sartre's line (attributed by him to Dostoevsky) that "If there is no God, then anything is permitted." I don't think it follows that the truth of evolution wipes out meaning; nor that psychopathic selfishness would thus be morally permissible.

On the other hand I do agree with Kant (and I take it Buddhism) that true morality is beyond all facts of evolution or human interaction or psychology. Morality, for Kant and Buddha, is in a sense transcendent - each use the term 'unconditioned'.

Yet I don't mind a purely evolutionary description at times - even in discussing my own love - as I do not think that it necessarily negates that transcendent dimension (it merely ignores it as 'beyond its limits' of discussion).

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hia Paul, thanks for stopping by and suggesting the article. I'm afraid it didn't help much. Yet while I don't like those forums much, I did throw together a short response. In my experience these things quickly disintegrate into cross-talk and flame-wars. Such is life :) Thanks again.