Thursday, February 14, 2008

Speculations on the Path of Reason

In the previous post on this topic, the logic of contrafactory identity was introduced, but not much was said on what to do with it. Here I want to continue on with that discussion.

In monotheist religions, God is revealed as unknowable, because God is not an object (cannot be perceived, cannot be captured in discursive reason, etc.). Not being an object, one cannot apply Aristotelian logic to questions about God. If one does ascribe some attribute to God, that ascription must immediately be put "under erasure", as deconstructionists like to put it, that is, accompanied by loud warnings that the attribute is being used analogically. To do otherwise is to fall into idolatry. All this, of course, is familiar ground to theologians. Now the problem with this, for one without faith, is that it is all kicked off by the assumption that God is real yet unknowable, and so one might ask: who cares?

The reason to care is that bit about falling into idolatry. Another place this pops up is in Buddhism, where the problem is self-idolatry, that is, believing in the "inherent existence" of one's self, which causes attachment, which causes suffering. But here, the lack of inherent existence of the self is not just something revealed (though it is), but something one can work out on one's one, and indeed in one strain of Buddhism (the Gelukba sect of Tibetan Buddhism), this thinking is the primary practice.

The common sense way of thinking about the self is that it persists as one observes objects. I was not seeing the tree, and now I am. But in stating this, I have also stated that in seeing the tree the self has changed. Are there two 'I''s involved? If so, what lets me connect them? Nor can one say that most of the self has stayed the same, while just part of it has changed in observing the tree, for that would imply that the part that has stayed the same is totally unaware of the part that observed the tree (to be aware, it would have to have changed). And so, in order to persist when it observes objects, the self must not persist when it observes objects. Hence, one concludes: one cannot say that the self persists.

Can one just say that the self is an illusion, that all there really is is change? Then where does the illusion of the self come from? Or to put it another way: how is experiencing an illusory self different from experiencing a non-illusory self? In either case, there is a sense of persistence, which is to say consciousness. Yet if all there is is change, then there can be no spanning of the state before a change to after, for that which spans cannot be the change. Hence, one can cannot say that the self does not persist.

Now this sort of word-wrangling has been going on since there has been philosophy, East or West. Why shouldn't one, as Wittgenstein and contemporary pragmatists urge, just stop wrangling? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that by asking "does the self persist", or more generally, "what is self", and as one goes through arguments like the foregoing, one is in effect deconstructing the self, and that is, according to Buddhists, at least, a good thing to do. It is a way of breaking one's attachment toward self-idolatry. But there is another reason, which I think is more important, though I admit there is a touch of speculation involved. In an earlier post, I quoted Denys Turner in regard to Aquinas' view of intellectus with respect to ratio. Here is another quote from the same book (Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, p. 87):

For Thomas, ... reason's powers, pushed to their limit, open up into the territory of intellectus: and they do so, as I shall argue, precisely in the proofs of the existence of God. In those proofs, we could say, reason self-transcends, and by its self-transcendence, becomes 'intellect'".

As before, I have yet to see whether he can make the case that this applies particularly to Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God, but even if not, I would say they do apply to any exercise of the logic of contrafactory identity (LCI). Now I do not mean to imply that just by rattling off the above arguments over the persistence of the self one has transcended static intellect. All that that does is take one to the limit, but not beyond. On the other hand, what better place is there to contemplate what might be beyond?

At this point, consider again the quote from Merrell-Wolff: "It [the experienced flow of contradiction] seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures." What I hypothesize is that dynamic intellect just is the LCI, but seen from its own perspective. It is the LCI that creates the self, with its changing by not changing, etc., or one can say that the self (or consciousness) is LCI doing its thing. From our (fallen) perspective, we imagine our self as separate from that reasoning, which is to say we only perceive it as a nest of contradictions, and not as creative contrafactions. And that arises from our belief that we are an inherently existing self that is doing the reasoning, which is to say, is a result of self-idolatry.

Now I mentioned that, for me, this line of thought is speculation, though given Wolff's statement (which I assume is not speculative, but experiential), I have some confidence in it. What is missing, for me, is what Wolff calls a "shift in the basis of consciousness", which is one way he describes mystical states. From the discussion in the previous paragraph, I would say that the shift is from a basis of self-idolatry, to a basis of LCI. In seeing the LCI-type reasoning from this (self-idolatrous) side all one sees is limit. By "becoming" the LCI, one would then "see" the self being created by the LCI. But, of course, there is no button to push to accomplish that shift -- it just happens. Perhaps by living at the limit (i.e., engaging in LCI exercises) one makes the shift more likely, but that is definitely speculative.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Defining God

Sam Norton has started a series of post on "Reasonable Atheism", the intent being to see if the conversation between theists and atheists can be raised above that of Dawkins and company. The problem largely lies in the difference between how many atheists understand what is meant by 'God' and how many theists understand the word. The problem is compounded in that I had to use the word 'many' in both cases: the reasonable theist usually means something different from what most atheists mean, but also different from many of those who say they believe in God. Primarily, this disjunct lies in that (most) atheists think that theists believe in the existence of a being, while the reasonable theist says that God is not a being, and so the phrase "God exists" is problematic. (Note: by atheists' I am referring to secular atheists, not, say, Buddhists. Given the common usage in Western countries of the word 'atheist' as meaning someone who rejects all religion, a Buddhist might be better referred to as a 'religious non-theist' than as an atheist.)

What I want to do here is define some vocabulary that both reasonable theists and reasonable atheists can agree on. Or rather, suggest these definitions, and see what needs to be done in addition to either get to a common vocabulary, or to see where this attempt fails.

Firstly, I suggest making a distinction between the words 'real' and 'exists'. As I shall use the terms, something exists if (as its etymology suggests) it can "stand out", that is, can be an object of perception, in that it can be discerned from a background (where 'perception' is to be taken here more generally than sense perception, for example a mathematical object exists because it can be thought of, an emotion exists because it can be felt). The word 'real', on the other hand (admittedly despite its etymology) is to be taken as that which one takes into account in making decisions, in the way one lives one's life, and so forth. Needless to say, these definitions are rough around the edges, but I think they are enough to go on with.

I define God as at least the eternal (i.e., non-spatiotemporal), loving intellect that grounds all that exists. Thus, to believe in God (i.e., to be a theist) is at a minimum to claim that the ground of all that exists is to be characterized with these words (eternal, loving, intellective), while not believing in God is to claim that the ground of all that exists does not have these characteristics. And, given my distinction between 'real' and 'exists', while one runs into difficulties saying "God exists" (can something be its own ground? can the ultimate background "stand out"?), one can say without much difficulty, "God is real (or not real)".

Some comments:

I put in that "at least" because I recognize that many theists will demand that something more be put into that definition. In particular, the word "personal" might be thought to be required. But such objections, I think, are only relevant within the theological community. Similarly if words like 'omnipotent' are added -- additional argumentation is required to discern what is meant by such words.

On the other hand, I consider the three words used to be a minimum needed to distinguish a theist's God from, say, the God of Einstein. Also, just saying that God is "the ground of all that exists" does not make a difference that makes a difference.

Many theists may also object in that they take as given that God cannot be defined at all. To this I make two responses. The first, is that I am under no illusion that the definition I gave is final. It is only intended to provide a common ground for conversations between theists and atheists -- that is, to see if with this definition, the atheist can understand what the reasonable theist roughly means by 'God'. The second is to point out that all three words used to characterize God are themselves undefined. Again, my intention is to indicate that the difference between the theist and the atheist is in what each party considers the ground of all that exists is "like", and the three words serve as a minimum to understand roughly what is being claimed in saying that God is or is not real.

The effort that the atheist must bring to this is to understand that the words "loving" and "intellect" are being used analogically. Which is to say, we only know what these words mean insofar as they are applied to humans. Applying them to the ground of all that exists is, no doubt, problematic. And, of course, we are unable to imagine what non-spatiotemporal reality is like. But these limitations in our ability to think about God do not in themselves invalidate the possibility that God is real. They just indicate that the concept of God cannot be "thought through", which is to be expected concerning the ground of all that exists -- the same problem exists in trying to imagine a context in which a Big Bang might occur.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Aquinas and Intellect

I've just come across the following in Denys Turner's Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God:

...for Thomas, as for the long tradition which he inherits, you begin to occupy the place of intellect when reason asks the sorts of question the answers to which you know are beyond the power of reason to comprehend. They are questions, therefore, which have a double character: for they arise, as questions, out of our human experience of the world; but the answers, we know, must lie beyond our comprehension, and therefore beyond the experience out of which they arise. And that sense that reason, at the end of its tether, becomes an intellectus, and that just where it does, it meets the God who is beyond its grasp, is, I argue, the structuring principle of the 'five ways' of the Summa Theologiae [p. xv].
This is the same idea as in the Goethe quote in my last post: "one is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through", that is, describing what I am calling 'dynamic intellect'. But what also intrigues me is the idea that this is what Aquinas was getting at with the 'five ways'. Like any modernist thinker (which I am trying to cease to be), I had pretty much dismissed them as "proofs", but apparently, like Barthians, I have misinterpreted what is going on. But I haven't read Turner's book yet, just the preface, so it remains to be seen if his argument convinces.

Anyway, that such questions do arise out experience is what happened to me with respect to consciousness, as all-too-briefly discussed here. I conclude that consciousness could not exist unless the eternal is real, but that, of course, does not resolve the mystery, which is how the eternal and spatiotemporal relate, and that cannot be "thought through". Nevertheless, I can say that by reason alone, reflecting on normal, everyday experience, one can grasp that there are real mysteries to which "the answers...must lie beyond our comprehension, and therefore beyond the experience out of which they arise."