36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Please bare with me as I work through my thoughts on Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.  I’m a suburban housewife, not a philosopher.  The only philosophical discussions I ever have are with people on-line, so I realize Goldstein’s arguments are completely out of my league.  But I have a ton of jumbled thoughts after reading the book and I just want to try and sort through them.

Overall, I genuinely enjoyed the book and had a good time reading it. One of the major points is that religious experience has very little to do with religious arguments. I think this is an important point. However, I suppose the implication, given that Cass’s book is called The Varieties of Religious Illusion and that all of the theists are somewhat delusional (or at least extremely manipulative), is that all religious experience is based on delusional emotional experience.  Much religious experience is delusional.  There’s no getting around that.  But is all religious experience delusional?

St. John of the Cross and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing immediately come to mind.  St. John of the Cross had a very specific method for achieving mystical transcendence and it doesn’t look anything like what Goldstein presents in her book.  In fact, he functions very much like an early psychologist, cautioning against the standard magical experiences of his time and counseling those who are ready on how to get through the “dark night of the soul”.  Transcendence is a transcendence of the ego. It is a sort of unknowing which demands we let go of all definitions and labels of  God, the Universe, existence, etc. in order to experience it.  It is not a rational experience because reason demands definitions, symbols and labels in order to make sense.  The experience is not magical.  In fact, St. John of the Cross cautions that people be very careful about proceeding if they experience magical events.  He warns that the existence of magical events is more likely a decent into madness than a movement toward transcendence. A fine line divides the two.

Goldstein shows Cass having a euphoric experience toward the end of the book, and equates this to religious euphoric experience.  But simple euphoria is nothing like the transcendent experience that many mystics report.  What Cass experiences is more akin to the experience of gratefulness – a feeling of overwhelming well-being and love.  According to Meister Eckhart and modern day mystics like David Steindl-Rast, gratefulness is a form of prayer.  It is a practice that can give us an inkling of the ground of our being.  But an inkling of transcendence is not transcendence.  It’s just a glimpse of it.

That remains my problem with the so-called “New Atheists” who lump all religious experience together and claim it is delusional.  If they have not experienced what St. John of the Cross or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing have experienced, how can they know it is delusional?  Just because the experience is nonrational/nonpersonal (an experience from nowhere, nowhen, no center, and no “I”) does not mean it is irrational.  It is transrational/transpersonal.  Although it looks similar, the transpersonal state is very different from that which is experienced in prepersonal state.  The prepersonal state is that which comes before the emergence of a stable, coherent, individuated self . The transpersonal state can only occur after the self is fully individuated.  What Goldstein is arguing against is religious experience based on prerational thought, not transrational thought.

As far as I can tell, the closest she comes to touching upon transrational thought is Spinoza’s argument (No. 35).  I’ve never read Spinoza so I don’t know if she adequately dismisses his argument or not.  All I know about Spinoza is that he is credited with saying that we live, move, and have our being in God/Reality.  Whether or not this implies Spinoza’s God is the universe, I cannot say.  If this is Spinoza’s God, then I don’t see how it can be considered transcendent since the universe is tangible.

You can’t reasonably argue that transcendence exists because reason relies upon either/or thinking.  Either it is true OR it is false.  A transcendent God “is” AND “is not”.  Either/or thinking cannot comprehend that which “is” and “is not”.  All religious people who claim God IS and refuse to acknowledge that God IS NOT are likely stuck in either/or thinking, just as the atheists who claim that God IS NOT.  Most people who claim to have had a transpersonal experience, however, have no trouble understanding what is meant by God “is” AND “is not”.  Outside of either/or thinking, the question, “Does God exist?”, makes no sense whatsoever.  Whichever way you answer it, the answer does not point back to a truth.  It merely points back to a demand that things be one way or the other.

I agreed with every single one of the arguments, obviously.  There is no way to prove that God exists.  I have no problem with that.  And I don’t really care if people think God exists or not.  I just don’t like people telling me I should believe what it is they believe.  I took some notes on a few of the arguments…

Argument #1: The Cosmological Argument.  Everything that exists must have a cause.  The universe must have a cause.  Nothing can be the cause of itself…   Goldstein says this argument begs the question, “Who caused God?”  She calls this the Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another.  So why not just let the buck stop with the first mystery, which she says is the universe?  I don’t necessarily disagree, I just wonder if the universe is truly the first mystery.  We perceive the universe as extant. Maybe the buck should stop at the perception of the universe rather than the universe itself.   Or maybe that’s just splitting hairs.

Argument #11: The Argument from Miracles.  I have no argument with this, but different religious folk define miracles differently.  According to A Course in Miracles, for instance, miracles are strictly distinguished from magic and what this argument refers to (according to ACIM) is magic, not miracles.  A miracle, according to ACIM, is a shift in perception.  There is nothing magical about a shift in perception.  Yet a shift in perception is truly miraculous because it allows us to see things completely differently than we saw them previously.  Miracles happen “in time”.  They do not defy our sense of time, nor do they require transcendence.   A revelation, on the other hand, is beyond a miracle because it collapses our sense of time.  It is transcendent.  But it isn’t magical or irrational.

Argument #22:  The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics.  Goldstein says that it is not unreasonable to think that mystics are all deluded in the same way because non mystics can be made to have mystical experiences in scientific lab experiments.  Euphoria, Nature Oneness, Benign experiences of Oneness like Cass experienced, or experiences of Oneness like those experienced at political rallies are not transcendent experiences even though they are often termed “mystical”.  I’m sure such experiences can be mimicked in a lab.  But I highly doubt that transcendent mystical experiences have been mimicked in labs simply because an immense expansion of awareness is usually accompanied by such experiences.  People don’t just feel euphoric, they are completely changed by the experience.  Have lives been completely changed through lab experiences?

Argument #27: The Argument from the Upward Curve of History.  This argument relies on the idea that there is an upward moral curve to history.  I don’t really have a problem with the argument, just the assumption.  Are we more moral?  Starvation exists on a scale never before experienced.  The wars over the past century have killed more people than could ever before been imagined.  We have the potential to kill ourselves several times over thanks to nuclear technology.  Ethical treatment of animals is at an all-time low thanks to the massive food industry.  We are potentially destroying the environment beyond repair.  Slavery still exists in various forms around the world.  Maybe its just plain arrogance that makes us believe we are more moral than our ancestors.  Things were handled completely differently when the world was divided into tribes.  The emergence of civilizations required a new way to deal with moral issues so ethics came into being.  But that doesn’t mean civilized folks were more moral than tribal folks – just that the tribal ways did not work within civilized societies.

Anyway, my jumbled thoughts for what they are worth.

No Excuses: Lecture 24, From Existentialism to Postmodernism

Is Existentialism just a fashion? Something that came from France and struck the American fancy and then passed on? Does it just belong the ’40s and ’50s? Is it passe?

Solomon says it isn’t passe – that it’s just what America needs right now. We need to recover our sense of personal responsibility. Existentialism is a welcomed antidote to the wave of victimization and the sense of blame manifested in our legal system, tort law liability suits and every day life.

Existentialism started as a European movement but it’s real home is now in the U.S. Americans are staunch individualists but are keenly aware that there is a strong sense of community that lies at the basis of American society. Americans are very concerned with the idea of self-realization and self-improvement. The idea of making something new of oneself; self-improvement; trying to pick yourself up by the bootstraps defines a good deal of American society. Social mobility is distinctively American and also distinctively Existentialist.

Existentialism is considered passe in the climate of Europe and in American Universities because it is eclipsed by two generations of philosophers since Sartre. The first generation is dominated by Claude Levi-Straus (1908). He came up with Structuralism which is an anthropological insight. He was concerned with the structural similarities which all societies shared in common. He says Sartre is not the universal picture of humanity, but a hyper-intellectual Parisian who is taking his phenomenology as an unwarranted generalization of what human consciousness and human life is like. For instance, could someone who comes from a totally different culture, perhaps a deprived culture, be expected to make the same choices of someone who is already familiar with more choices? Levi-Straus hits an important point here.

But Sartre’s second generation critics are more problematic. In particular, these critics are Michel Faoucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Roland Barthes. They have a number of theses in common, two in particular:

  1. “The Death of the Author”. This is the idea that when we read books, the idea that books are written by an author is an absolute way of misunderstanding what a book is about. We shouldn’t confuse the writer of books with the author.
  2. An impersonal play of forces replaces an emphasis on agency and responsibility.

These notions together intend to kill subjectivity – especially the notion of subjectivity as Sartre understood it. Solomon says there is a sort of conspiracy of silence going on here because clearly, this philosophy is based upon Sartre’s philosophy. Whether he is the model or the target, Sartre’s importance in philosophy since his death has been a well-kept secret.

The Postmodernists reject subjectivity and phenomenology and say that there is really only a third person way of looking at ourself. The first person way is corrupt. But this is something that Sartre anticipated. He makes clear very early in his philosophy that there is a distinction between consciousness and subjectivity on the one hand and the self on the other. The Postmodernists reject consciousness and the self altogether.

Postmodernists also reject rationality, objectivity, truth and knowledge (although this has to be carefully stated). The rejection of rationality goes back through the history of Existentialism – that rationality is not adequate to answer the substantial questions we have about life and this pervades all the authors of Existentialism. Sartre is the most rationalistic of the Existentialists discussed in the lecture series, but even he says that when it comes to fundamental choices, there is no ultimate criteria or rational standard or rational guideline to deal with. Rationality doesn’t have the privileged place that it has had throughout history.

Foucault and Deleuze both reject what they call Sartre’s “Enlightenment Project”. It is clear that in Sartre there is a raging sense of rationality and monism – of fitting things together. Sartre says that each of us has a fundamental purpose in life. To understand our fundamental project is to understand why we act the way we do so it has a sort of liberating affect. The Postmodernists seek liberation, too. But they seek it in a very different way. Instead of the monistic gathering together, the Postmodernists seek to get rid of “totalization” or the “rage for unity”.

What the Postmodernists are referring to in terms of Sartre’s “Enlightenment Project” is his idea of Purifying Reflection as a way of thinking about ourselves, personally and politically, which removes us from prejudice and takes us into the realm of pure freedom. But Solomon says a purifying reflection is absolutely essential in understanding the sense in which we must try to get ourselves up by the boot straps and to understand what it is we are doing and why. In an age of mindless consumerism, it becomes essential to ask ourselves what we are doing to our planet, our world, our selves.

No Excuses: Lecture 15, Husserl and Phenomenology

Husserl [1859-1938] created a method called Phenomenology which is a version of Cartesianism and includes a strong emphasis on subjectivity and consciousness. Simply defined, Phenomenology is the examination of consciousness. Or literally, the examination of phenomena – that which appears to consciousness.

Intentionality is the thesis that consciousness is about something. If you believe, you believe something or other. If you perceive, you have to perceive something or other. If you have an emotion like anger, you have to be angry at something or someone. All consciousness for Husserl is intentional in this sense.

Husserl gets dangerously close to the problem of solipsism except he does not examine things as objects of the world, he examines them as objects of experience. Ontology is a study of the things of the world. Phenomenology is a study of the objects of experience.

Husserl was not an existentialist. He came into philosophy through mathematics asking questions like: What is it that makes 2+2=4 true? Is it a matter of convention? A matter of logic? Husserl says it is none of these. Phenomenology is a way of talking about mathematical truth in terms of necessity, and necessity in terms of the structure of consciousness.

Husserl seeks certainty. Husserl needs an archimidean point and this place turns out to be the transcendental ego. This influences Heidegger and then Sartre. But the ways in which they use it is very different than how Husserl used it.

A Passion for Wisdom – Robert Solomon

A Passion for Wisdom: A Very Brief History of Philosophy is another excellent overview of Philosophy from Solomon (and also his wife Kathleen Higgins).

I’m not going to summarize this book – there was far too much information. But I do have to mention a few things I found to be very interesting. The book starts with Abraham, makes its way through Thales who is often considered to be the first Greek philosopher, and ends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, really it ends with Postmodernism which claims Philosophy is now obsolete, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is the last person listed on the time-line. It covers all the continents, too and it’s a short little book.

What’s interesting is to see how all of these ideas fit together. We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors – the ideas don’t just come out of the blue. They develop.

A few points of interest:

  • Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was the first to use the term theology in the modern sense. It refers to a rational investigation of the mysteries of religion.
  • John Calvin (1509-1564) took the idea of fallen man and Original sin one step further and came up with the doctrine of predestination which became standard within Protestantism. Only those God chose, the elect, would be saved. Election couldn’t be earned. But despite the Protestant de-emphasis of human efforts and good works, Protestants became obsessed with work. Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that the harsh Christian philosophy o Calvinism condemned millions of people to unresolvable anxiety. They felt it necessary to “prove” their worth in this life, working feverishly and living ascetically. No amount of success could quash the anxiety but one could at least make a lot of money which offered a nice distraction from the anxiety. Weber’s most famous thesis is that capitalism and the very structure of modern Western society is the product of Protestantism. [I most definitely grew up with that Protestant work ethic. When I once dared to mention that happiness was the purpose of life, I was quickly put in my place and told in no uncertain terms that it is work that is the purpose of life.]
  • Descartes created a problem that troubles scientists and philosophers to this day. It’s called “Cartesian dualism” and refers to the thesis that the mind and the body are separate substances. However faulty and problematic, this dualism was the product of many centuries of intellectual development and the progress of science. At the time it came about, it created a new-found respect for individual autonony. Religion was in the way of science until this idea came about and this provided a way for science to proceed unhampered by religion because it likewise provided a way for religion to not be threatened by science. At that particular time in history because of the authority of the church and the threat of science, it was much more important to get the mind and body apart than it was to get them together. [But as Mindwalk says, Descartes was wonderful because he provided something very necessary in his day, but it’s time we got over our Cartesian mechanized world view. It no longer serves us.]
  • Feminist philosophy challenges the entire Western tradition. While claiming to be universal and all-inclusive, philosophy has not even included or taken account of the woman next door. It certainly has not asked whether she sees things differently or whether she would ask the same questions in the same way as male philosophers. Thus one of the most radical changes that feminism has provoked in contemporary philosophy is the centrality of the notion of a personal “standpoint” – what Nietzsche called a “perspective”. Different people, in different positions, might “see” the world very differently. Thus, a plurality of perspectives might replace the competing demands for a singular “objective”. [I’ve often wondered about this. How often do you learn about theology or philosophy from the perspective of a female? I think it is very likely that we’d offer an important alternate perspective.]
  • Solomon & Higgins conclude: Philosophy has always been representative of what is most human about us. Perhaps what we need is not more sophistication but more openness. We need to be not more clever, but, rather, better listeners. What philosophy is, after all, is a thoughtful openness to the world, a passion for wisdom.

Introduction to Postmodernism

My husband and I went to the Half Price Bookstore (my favorite place in the world) today and I now have four more books to add to my ever growing “Waiting to be Read” list. I finished one of them already: Introducing Postmodernism by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt .

It was quite interesting.

I’ve never really known what Modernism or Postmodernism is. I’m aware of the basic time periods, but not so much about what differentiates the two. And it’s no wonder! The terms aren’t so readily understandable. Modern comes from the Latin term “modo” which means “just now”. Modernism began in the 1890s and 1900s with the onslaught of mass technological innovations. Modernism is about innovation. The problem is that at some point what was “just now” becomes post-”just now”.

There were three fundamental stages of modernism’s progress in Art: crisis in the representation of reality; the presentation of the unpresentable (abstraction); non-presentation (abandoning the aesthetic process). This succession of progression created a consecutive series of posts-modernism and the desire for innovation increased its speed. Eventually, art altogether vanished because art can only “progress” toward its own annhilation and there was no more “modern” (just now). Reproducibility rather than innovation became the name of the game and Postmodernism was ushered into art.

The dilemma of reproducibility in the age of mass consumerism (image consumerism) is one of the most urgent issues of Postmodernism. It was thought that the ability to mass produce would make the value of an actual item of art worth nothing. But it actually turned out to be the opposite. A massed produced cliche poster of a Van Gogh painting just makes the real Van Gogh painting that much more valuable. Reproducibility has created a consumerist aura for things with nostalgia value (Marilyn Monroe’s panties, for example) and for reproduced items of the past. This is image consumerism. The reproduced is taking place of the reality and replacing it with a hyper reality. “We are living what has already been lived and reproduced with no reality anymore but that of a cannibalized image.”

Another concern is representation. There are no longer any rules to judge the experimentally unfamiliar. You have to work without rules in order to find out the rules of what it is you’ve done. But the central concern is Legitimation. During the Modern Art period, a urinal could be hung in an art gallery and called art. What made this legitimate art? The merchants of art and its collectors. Art got turned into a commodity for sale. Even anti-art (like the urinal being hung on the wall) hasn’t been able to undermine the art dealing system. The more experimentation diminished the aura and autonomy of art, the more aura and autonomy became the exclusive properties of exhibitive power (the critical establishement, curators, art dealers, and their clients.) Even the most outrageous anti-art gets reproduced as art by the institutional powers of legitimation. (And herein lies the problem with an Oprah Book-club label.)

The writers of the book say we have entered an amnesiac zone of “postmodernity” which should be called hypermodernism because the meaning of postmodernity, as it turns out, is actually a technological hyper-intensification of modernism. Technology and economics have merged and have contributed to the hyperreal processing and simulation. (Example: olestra – tastes like fat, acts like fat in cooking, but it’s not a food because it is undigestible.) We have hyperreal finances where takeover specialists can raid a giant corporation that took years to build up and strip it to nothing in no time. It doesn’t matter what it produced or how long it took to become established. And of course there is the hyperreality of cyberspace.

The last 25 years of the 20th century are unique because they are symptomatic of a total lack of originality. Invention has been confined to reproduction. Everything “new” feeds on the originality of the past. Because everything postmodern depends on reproduction, the only way the continuity of production can be maintained is for businessmen to hide their intentions from one another. The game is about fabricating a sort of knowledge, which although it looks to be expanding and becoming accessible to a vast public on the internet, it is in fact becoming industrially controlled. When the traditionally trained knower is replaced with the “knower as consumer”, the omnipotence of the free market economy must be acknowledged. Those who are born into postmodernism, (the new-born consumer) come in with amnesia to the already established game of deceit. As far as they are concerned, there is no other game.

The ending of the Cold War was supposed to liberate the world from Marxism’s oppressive grand narrative. But what remains is the unmovable grand narrative of the United States. This is the final postmodern irony – that we end up captives of an empire of perpetual postmodern hybridity. What we mean now when we say something is history is that it has no history at all. It’s obsolete. History isn’t. This is all there is and how it is and how it will be.

We worry about becoming McDonalized junkies, but this is just a superficial problem. The real problem is the global addiction to the prosperity on which America’s dominance relies.

The writers end the book with “Nothing, either postmodern relativist or regressively fundamentalist, can apparently resist that finality [the Grand Unified Theory of Globalized Capitalism] in the 21st century. Relativism and fundamentalism might indeed be the complicit twins of postmodernity.

These are just very sketchy notes and thoughts from the book. There is a lot of interesting information on fundamentalism and politics and much more on modernism and the sketchy lines between modernism and postmodernism. Also, included is the use of advertising that takes advantage of old stereotypes but packages them in a new way (that was actually quite scary). Very interesting little book. And I think there is a more recent edition than the one I got at Half Price Books.

Mindwalk – Discussion of Descartes

Dreyfus said Sartre didn’t create any new ideas. What he did was put Heidegger’s Existentialist thought into Cartesian terms. I watched the segment on Descarte from Mindwalk (my all-time favorite movie) again. (Descarte’s Latin name was Cartesius therefore Cartesian thinking is that espoused by Descartes.) The segment did not help me understand what it means to put Heidegger’s existentialist ideas into Cartesian terms, but maybe it will make sense, later.

The discussion is interesting…

The segment begins in a giant clock room from the middle ages. Jack (the politician) tells Thomas that the clock is a different type of time than what Thomas had been talking about previously – no longer sunrise to sunset. Thomas (the poet) agrees and puts forth the idea that the mechanical clock was the first real break for humans from the natural world. Sonia (the scientist) adds that not only that, It became the model for the cosmos and then the model was mistaken for the real thing. People started thinking of nature as a giant clock.

Descartes was the primary architect of the view that sees the world as a clock. It is a mechanistic view that still dominates the world, today. The idea is that you can reduce things to parts, figure them out, and then put all the parts back together and understand the whole. This way of thinking presented a revolutionary break with the Church. Descartes said he didn’t need the Pope to tell him how to figure things out because he could do that for himself.

Descartes considered the human body to be nothing more than a machine. He said a healthy man was like a well-made clock, an unhealthy man like a poorly made clock. And so we came to think we were nothing but machines and that thinking carried into everything.

Sonia clarifies that Descartes was a godsend for the 17th century, but times have changed since then and we need a new way of thinking about life. The pendulum on the clock has been replaced by a quartz crystal the wheels have been replaced by microchips. Science has left mechanistic thinking behind, but politicians and the rest of the world are still stuck inside the mechanistic worldview. 

Mindwalk (1990)

Mindwalk is, without a doubt, my favorite movie of all time. I’ve watched it more than 20 times and have noticed there are philosophy classes offered on it. It came out in VHS in 1991 but was never converted to DVD format so you really can’t get it anywhere any more except for on-line at Google Videos. (I’m so excited to provide a link for this movie!)

This is such a great movie – it juxtaposes all sorts of perspectives: political, scientific, poetic. It also juxtaposes the theorization of how things should work with actual practice (social issues).

I wrote a long piece on Mindwalk a while back that brings me more traffic than any other post. I seriously love this movie! It was definitely a life changing film for me.

Watch it on youtube. (Google Video is no longer available.)