Cartography by Shadow
Trigger warning: philosophical/theological struggling by an amateur.
It’s interesting to me that as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to think about the underlying logic and reason behind faith more and more, rather than just sort of having faith. This is not to say that I ever subscribed to the idea of blind faith, and I’ve always tried to square my beliefs with my own impressions and intuition. As an aside, it’s strange to me that some people are perfectly comfortable forming an ethical system based ultimately on their intuition, but not a broader worldview.
Anyway, I’d definitely become more of a skeptic lately, the result of laziness in cultivating my religious life. Faith requires nurturing as much as anything else, and it’s easy to turn too much towards the material, and become too “worldly” in a sense. And interestingly enough, as I’ve been making up for lost time (or trying to, at least), I’ve actually been most convinced by the less reason-based arguments, namely Kierkegaard’s idea of the absurd.
This section may be skipped if you’re already familiar with the subject, although it may be useful insofar as it shows my own understanding (and thus assumptions and/or errors).
The Ontological Argument is, in this context, a logical or philosophical proof that God exists. I’ve seen versions of this in formal logic (including in the link that started all this), but I haven’t even a minimal background in that, so am not going to go down that particular rabbit hole. The first version of this argument is usually attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, a Catholic monk living in the 11th century. His version of the Argument has been summed up thus:
1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
6. Therefore, God exists.
It’s been refined and debated over the centuries since then, with major formulations and tweaks being proposed by Aquinas (sorta), Descartes, Leibniz, Gödel, and others. This hasn’t been limited to Christianity, either; a 17th century Islamic philosopher, Mulla Sadra, had his own formulation (summarized here by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):
1. There is existence
2. Existence is a perfection above which no perfection may be conceived
3. God is perfection and perfection in existence
4. Existence is a singular and simple reality; there is no metaphysical pluralism
5. That singular reality is graded in intensity in a scale of perfection (that is, a denial of a pure monism).
6. That scale must have a limit point, a point of greatest intensity and of greatest existence.
7. Hence God exists (= existence).
Assuming We Assume
Where I’ve been iffy on this whole framework is the assumptions about what words like “good,” “better,” or “perfection” mean. The more I think about it, though, I don’t think this actually affects the logic of the argument. Really, it would work regardless of the adjectives or qualities chosen. The only real exception would be in point 3 of both formulations described above, where we have to make certain potentially arbitrary assumptions about God’s nature (i.e. either as “perfection” or that a being that actually exists is per se more God-like than something that only exists in the mind). I should add that later philosophers have taken a slightly different tack that doesn’t necessarily have the same problems (see, for example, Alvin Plantinga’s version, which uses two different value terms (“greatness” and “excellence”)).
There are some other interesting implications to this, however. For example, doesn’t the same reasoning also hold true for any other extreme? In other words, couldn’t it just as easily prove the existence of an extreme evil? I don’t suggest that this contradicts the Ontological Argument, but I do think there are some interesting theological implications that I haven’t been able to find much about one way or the other. The problem of evil usually either focuses on the human component, or spends its time using “evil” as a mental shortcut (e.g. Daesh is evil, so we don’t have to treat them like people).
So while the Argument makes some sense to me, and is fairly compelling, I can’t help but think that there are some things missing. I should add that I don’t believe that its proponents would say otherwise, so this writing isn’t intended to be any kind of refutation of anything, and certainly not to create any straw men. Instead, I’m ultimately concerned with how this may influence my day-to-day existence.
Where I think the argument becomes problematic is actually one of its perceived benefits, namely that it gives the religious a way to argue with the non-religious on a common ground. Plus, and I think rightly, the inability to find a more objective, or at least logical, framework for religious life would be the cause of some serious questions about whether faith itself is a valid part of human life. All that being said, it’s important that faith doesn’t become purely rooted in modal logic or some other set of rules. I muse emphasize “purely” here; I’m a firm believer in the idea that we were given reason and intellect with the intention that these faculties be used. At the same time, however, faith is not something that is solved.
I like this quote from Martin Luther’s commentaries on the beginning of Genesis, talking about the question of what God was up to before the Big Bang:
What will you assume to have been outside time or before time? Or what will you imagine that God was doing before there was any time? Let us, therefore, rid ourselves of such ideas and realize that God was incomprehensible in His essential rest before the creation of the world, but that now, after the creation, He is wishing, without, and above all creatures; that is, He is still incomprehensible. Nothing else can be said, because our mind cannot grasp what lies outside time.
This could easily come across as some variation of “just trust me,” which we religious people often have kind of an inferiority complex about. We come back to the problem that I think the ontological argument is trying to address, and it sort of all goes around in a circle. The religious and the not end up talking past each other.
This problem, is ultimately something we (meaning religious folks) need to just move past. I think we’d all be a lot better off if we stopped coming out and trying to prove our point than just living and saying what we feel, and letting that speak for itself. Granted some traditions think non-belief is a pathway to hell, but since I don’t subscribe to that any more than an atheist does, I don’t really have anything for them. But we shouldn’t water down our own beliefs just make them more accessible to people who don’t see the world the way we do.
Back to Kierkegaard. In reading Fear and Trembling, I’m starting to get a feel for this idea of the absurd. The book deals with the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God apparently asks the former to take the latter up to a mountain and kill him in sacrifice to God. Let me first add that I don’t believe the Bible (or any other holy writing) is to be taken literally, so that’s where I’m approaching this. But regardless, the story of Abraham and Isaac is never one I’ve particularly liked; I don’t believe God somehow needs us to prove our faith to Him that way, and certainly don’t think He would ask us to kill someone.
Kierkegaard’s narrator has a different take, though. He argues that Abraham doesn’t obey because he’s willing to kill his son on God’s command, but rather because he doesn’t believe he’ll actually lose his son. And not in the sense of being reunited in the afterlife, but in this world, and now. This is the “absurdity” Kierkegaard is referring to — basically that faith only means anything if it’s in spite of what reason tells us to expect. He adds an idea that I mentioned above, namely that faith is the end, not a means to something else.
This works for me somehow, and fills some gaps that the Ontological Argument leaves. As I’ve thought about this, I came back to this lecture on four dimensional shapes. The gist is that we can mathematically explain shapes with four dimensions (rather than the three we can perceive), but not visually. To display them visually we see only shadows or the extrusions of these shapes into our visual universe, but in so doing they often seem to be nonsensical (such as the Klein bottle).
Faith is our math in this analogy. It’s how we describe a bulge into our universe of something that exists only partially in and in many ways beyond it. Just as we’ll never be able to entirely perceive four dimensional shapes while we’re still human, we’ll never be able to entirely perceive the Divine, either. Intuition is the best we can do; it’s the place where the indescribable lives in us, whether we’re talking about particle physics or God.
With this in mind, I’d like to propose a slight modification to a wonderful line from Frank Herbert’s Dune series:
Scientists seek the lawfulness of events. It is the task of Religion to fit man into this lawfulness.
The context for this quote is significant. It’s from one of the appendices to the first book in the series, talking about events from several thousand years before the first book. Specifically, he gives us a tantalizing glimpse of an attempt to unify human theology. One piece that is emphasized in the few quotes available is that there must be an intuitive basis for our relationship with God: “All men must see that the teaching of religion by rules and rote is largely a hoax.” There’s only but so much that can be explained in words, which is something that I imagine most religious people recognize on some level or another. A big part of religious experience is how it feels, or (to again crib from the same author), “You can know [the truth] without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you’ve always known.”
Where this gets hard is in being honest with yourself. Too often, we mistake our own human desires with those of God. Sometimes that’s okay; God isn’t going to punish us for having a doughnut when we’re trying to diet, which is of course not to say there aren’t consequences for this plane of existence. But again, it’s all too easy to take our own human imperfections and justify them as “this is what God wants!” Prejudice is the obvious example, but there are plenty of other, more prosaic ways this can manifest.
The problem, of course, is that this universe is an honest one. We can lie to ourselves all we want, but reality remains unmoved. The good news is that it’s never too late to let go of our own nonsense and be honest about God. The longer we reinforce bad habits, naturally, the harder they are to break, but there’s always that opportunity. We just have to train the mind to get out of the way. I like the way the Japanese Zen tradition describes it, with this book being a wonderful example. The idea is that you have to train your mind to work properly, after which you just have to get out of its way. The book is written in the context of martial arts (and is great for that too), but it applies to religious life or moral life as much as anything else. Training the mind requires honesty too, but here too we always have the chance to go back and change or refine. We just have to be willing to do so.
Returning to the more analytical arguments, they can be a form of training, but we have to recognize how incomplete they are. You can’t argue for heliocentrism by using Ptolemic terminology, and by the same token our rational minds only get us so far. Even if we can describe God’s existence in symbolic logic, think of how much this leaves out. We shouldn’t reduce our relationship with God to a mundane, worldly framework, especially if we’re doing so because we feel the need to justify it. Being able to calculate the area of a sphere is good and useful, but what does A = 4πr² tell us about what it’s like to play catch with our children?
I said before that I’d like to modify that quote slightly. I don’t think it’s inaccurate necessarily; religion is how we find our place in the universe that contains us right now. But I prefer to think of it a little differently. Science tells us the laws under which the universe physically operates, yes. But religion should do more than help us find our place in it, and we shouldn’t underestimate the benefit it has in figuring out the structure of the universe.
We may one day evolve or change to the point that we exist in a different way from what we can imagine now (this implications of which are explored in this story), which will require changes in theology as much as in physics or biology. But in the meantime, we just have to muddle through while trying to make sense of the shadows.