July 9, 2017


Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God? (Ross Douthat,  JULY 6, 2017, NY Times)

A little while ago the prolific and intellectually-promiscuous Tyler Cowen solicited the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and then with some prodding followed up with a post outlining some of his reasons for not being a believer. I can't match Cowen's distinctive mix of depth and pith, but I thought I'd take the liberty of responding to some of his reasons in a dialogic style, with my responses edited in between some of his thoughts. Nothing in here should be construed as an attempt to make the Best Argument for God, and the results are rather long and probably extremely self-indulgent, so consider yourself forewarned. But here goes.

Cowen: Not long ago I outlined what I considered to be the best argument for God, and how origin accounts inevitably seem strange to us; I also argued against some of the presumptive force behind scientific atheism. Yet still I do not believe, so why not?

I have a few reasons: We can distinguish between "strange and remain truly strange" possibilities for origins, and "strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized" origin stories. Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions. I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information (just look at how worked up they get over social media), so I stick with the "strange and remain truly strange" options.  I don't see those as ruling out theism, but at the end of the day it is more descriptively apt to say I do not believe, rather than asserting belief ...

... The true nature of reality is so strange, I'm not sure "God" or "theism" is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings.  That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can't define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an "I don't believe" attitude more than belief.  I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

Me: Perhaps, but since you raise the strangeness of subatomic particles you might consider a third possibility for thinking about origins: Alongside "strange and remain truly strange" and "strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized," there might be a category that you could call "anthropomorphic/accessible on the surface and then somewhat stranger the deeper down you go."

This often seems to be the nature of physical reality as we experience and explore it. When we work on the surface of things, the everyday mechanics of physical cause and effect, we find a lot of clear-seeming laws and comprehensible principles of order. When we go down a level, to where the physical ladders (seem to) start, or up a level, to our own hard-to-fathom experiences of consciousness, we seem to brush up against paradox and mystery. So up to a point the universe yields to our fleshbound consciousness, our evolved-from-apes reasoning abilities, in genuinely extraordinary ways, enabling us to understand, predict, invent and master and explore. But then there are also depths and heights where our scientific efforts seem to trail off, fall short, or end up describing things that seem to us contradictory or impossible.

And by way of analogy it might be that there is a similar pattern in religion and theology. The anthropomorphizing tendency that makes you suspicious, the ascription of human attributes to God and the tendency of the divine to manifest itself in humanoid (if ambiguously so) forms, the role of angels and demons and djinn and demi-gods and saints and so forth in many religious traditions - all of this might just reflect a too-pat, too-anthopomorphic, and therefore made-up view of Who or What brought the world into being, Who or What sustains it. But alternatively -- and plausibly, I think -- it might represent the ways in which supernatural realities are made accessible to human perception, even as their ultimate nature remains beyond our capacities to fully grasp.

Which is, in fact, something that many religious traditions take for granted (the Catholic Church, for instance, does not teach that angels are really splendid androgynes with wings), something that's part of the architecture of ordinary belief (most people who habitually visualize God as an old man with a white beard would not so define him if pressed), and a big part of what the adepts of religion, mystics and theologians, tend to stress in their attempts to describe and define the nature of God.

Note, too, that this stress on surface accessibility and deep mystery is not something invented by clever moderns trying to save the phenomenon of religion from its critics. It is present from ancient times in every major religious tradition, providing a substantial ground of overlap between them -- David Bentley Hart is good on this, in a book that offers a partial answer to the definitional issue you raise -- and in Western monotheism it shows up in such not-exactly-obscure places as the Ten Commandments (no graven images for a reason) and the doctrine of the Trinity. (You will not find something that better fits the bill of "strange and remains truly strange" than what the Fathers of the Church came up with to define the Godhead.) Or, for that matter, in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who in the gospel narratives is quite literally an anthropomorphic God, and then after his resurrection becomes, not a simple superman but something stranger -- sometimes recognizable and sometimes not, physical but transcending the physical, ghostly and yet flesh -- whose attributes the gospel writers report on in a somewhat amazed style without attempting to circumscribe or technically define.

Again, anthropomorphism is the initial layer, the first mechanism of revelation.

The peculiar genius of philosophy in the Anglosphere is that it goes further than Mr. Cowen there and says that his "I don't believe" posture is just as ungrounded as an "I believe" one at least as far as Reason and "reality" are concerned. It is precisely because reality as we perceive it rationally is so strange that one can hold no belief about it that is justified by reason.

But where does that leave us?  

The insight of the Anglosphere is that this Rationalist dilemma just isn't terribly important, because Reason itself is only a function of faith.  By disproving its own assertion, that reality must yield its secrets to reason, Reason refutes itself.  Instead of being a dispassionate system for the analysis of the world around us, it is a tool that we afford ourselves by accepting its usefulness as a matter of faith.  Thereby, it paradoxically proves the supremacy of faith.

Thereby we arrive at the genuinely interesting question : if we ultimately can only arrange our view of Reality by reference to faith, then what faith should we choose.  The answer, it would seem obvious, is the one that we find most beautiful and compelling.  Without putting too fine a point on it, to choose the Materialist faith is a monstrous embrace of anti-human ugliness.  The idea that each of us is only physical matter, wholly dispensable and wholly unimportant has unsurprisingly led to all of the murderous isms that plagued continental Europe: atheism, communism, Nazism, etc.

The Anglosphere avoided all this because we maintained our insistence that Reason/Materialism was not compelling.  Thus, David Hume:

But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Instead of Materialism then, we have always chosen the One Story: that Man was Created by God and given free will; that though we have continually used that freedom in ways that contravene His hopes for us, He has forgiven us and accepted that the ultimate blame lies with Him not us (as He proved prone to the same temptation on the Cross); that, therefore, each of us is a precious part of His Creation and that our endowments come from Him and can not be justifiably denied by fellow men; that we are commanded by Him to love one another.  

The beauty of this faith is sufficient unto itself.


Posted by at July 9, 2017 9:33 AM