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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 5: “Christian Sources”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we explored some of the Hebraistic and Hellenistic contributions to the formation and onset of existentialism within Western thought.  In this post, I’m going to look at chapter 5 of Barrett’s book, which takes a look at some of the more specifically Christian sources of existentialism in the Western tradition.

1. Faith and Reason

We should expect there to be some significant overlap between Christianity and Hebraism, since the former was a dissenting sect of the latter.  One concept worth looking at is the dichotomy of faith versus reason, where in Christianity the man of faith is far and above the man of reason.  Even though faith is heavily prized within Hebraism as well, there are still some differences between the two belief systems as they relate to faith, with these differences stemming from a number of historical contingencies:

“Ancient Biblical man knew the uncertanties and waverings of faith as a matter of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks.  Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason.”

Once again we are brought back to Plato, and his concept of rational consciousness and the explicit use of reason; a concept that had never before been articulated or developed.  Christianity no longer had reason hiding under the surface or homogeneously mixed-in with the rest of our mental traits; rather, it was now an explicit and specific way of thinking and processing information that was well known and that couldn’t simply be ignored.  Not only did the Christian have to hold faith above this now-identified capacity of thinking logically, but they also had to explicitly reject reason if it contradicted any belief that was grounded on faith.

Barrett also mentions here the problem of trying to describe the concept of faith in a language of reason, and how the opposition between the two is particularly relevant today:

“Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man.  Fortunately, we are able to recognize it when we see it in others, as in St. Paul, a case where faith had taken over the whole personality.  Thus vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life itself.  The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational-and stated in these terms, the opposition is a crucial problem today.”

I disagree with Barrett to some degree here as I don’t think it’s possible to be able to recognize a quality in others (let alone a quality that others can recognize as well) that is entirely incommunicable.  On the contrary, if you and I can both recognize some quality, then we should be able to describe it even if only in some rudimentary way.  Now this doesn’t mean that I think a description in words can do justice to every conception imaginable, but rather that, as human beings there is an inherent ability to communicate fairly well that which is involved in common modes of living and in our shared experiences; even very complex concepts that have somewhat of a fuzzy boundary.

It may be that a thoroughly rational mind will not appreciate faith in any way, nor think it is of any use, nor have had any personal experience with it; but it doesn’t mean that they can’t understand the concept, or what a mode of living dominated by faith would look like.  I also don’t think it’s fair to say that the opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational, even though this may be a real view for some.  If by vital, Barrett is alluding to what is essential to our psyche, then I don’t think he can be talking about faith, at least not in the sense of faith as belief without good reason.  But I’m willing to concede his point if instead by vital he is simply referring to an attitude that is spirited, vibrant, energetic, and thus involving some lively form of emotional expression.

He delves a little deeper into the distinction between faith and reason when he says:

“From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.”

It seems that Barrett is guilty of making a little bit of a false equivocation here between two uses of the word faith.  I’d actually go so far as to say that the two uses of the word faith are best described in the way that Barrett himself alluded to in the last chapter: faith as trust and faith as belief.  On the one hand, we have faith as belief where some belief or set of beliefs is maintained without good reason; and on the other hand, we have faith as trust where, in the case of reason, our trust in reason is grounded on the fact that its use leads to successful predictions about the causal structure of our experience.  So there isn’t really any paradox at all when it comes to “faith” in reason, because such a faith need not involve adopting some belief without good reason, but rather there is, at most, a trust in reason based on the demonstrable and replicable success it has provided us in the past.

Barrett is right however, when he says that faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.  But this doesn’t mean that they are isolated from one another: for example, if one believes that having faith in God will help them to secure some afterlife in heaven, and if one also desires an afterlife in heaven, then the use of reason can actually be employed to reinforce a faith in God (as it did for me, back when I was a Christian).  This doesn’t mean that faith in God is reasonable, but rather that when certain beliefs are isolated or compartmentalized in the right way (even in the case of imagining hypothetical scenarios), reason can be used to process a logical relation between them, even if those beliefs are themselves derived from illogical cognitive biases.  To see that this is true, one need only realize that an argument can be logically valid even if the premises are not logically sound.

To be as charitable as possible with the concept of faith (at least, one that is more broadly construed), I will make one more point that I think is relevant here: having faith as a form of positivity or optimism in one’s outlook on life, given the social and personal circumstances that one finds themselves in, is perfectly rational and reasonable.  It is well known that people tend to be happier and have more fulfilling lives if they steer clear of pessimism and simply try and stay as positive as possible.  One primary reason for this has to do with what I have previously called socio-psychological feedback loops (what I would also call an evidence-based form of Karma).  Thus, one can have an empirically demonstrable good reason to have an attitude that is reminiscent of faith, yet without having to sacrifice an epistemology that is reliable and which consistently tracks on to reality.

When it comes to the motivating factors that lead people to faith, existentialist thought can shed some light on what some of these factors may be.  If we consider Paul the Apostle, for example, which Barrett mentioned earlier, he also says:

“The central fact for his faith is that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is conquered-which is what in the end man most ardently longs for.”

The finite nature of man, not only with regard to the intellect but also with respect to our lives in general, is something that existentialism both recognizes and sees as an integral starting point to philosophically build off of.  And I think it should come as no surprise that the fear of death in particular is likely to be a motivating factor for most if not all supernatural beliefs found within any number of religions, including the belief in possibly resurrecting one from the dead (as in the case of St. Paul’s belief in Jesus), the belief in spirits, souls, or other disembodied minds, or any belief in an afterlife (including reincarnation).

We can see that faith is, largely anyway, a means of reducing the cognitive dissonance that results from existential elements of our experience; it is a means of countering or rejecting a number of facts surrounding the contingencies and uncertainties of our existence.  From this fact, we can then see that by examining what faith is compensating for, one can begin to extract what the existentialists eventually elaborated on.  In other words, within existentialism, it is fully accepted that we can’t escape death (for example), and that we have to face death head-on (among other things) in order to live authentically; therefore having faith in overcoming death in any way is simply a denial of at least one burden willingly taken on by the existentialist.

Within early Christianity, we can also see some parallels between an existentialist like Kierkegaard and an early Christian author like Tertullian.  Barrett gives us an excerpt from Tertullian’s De Carne Christi:

“The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it.  And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.  And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

This sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, despite the sixteen centuries of separation between these two figures, and despite the fact that Tertullian was writing when Christianity was first expanding and most aggressive and Kierkegaard writing more towards the end of Christianity when it had already drastically receded under the pressure of secularization and modernity.  In this quote of Tertullian’s, we can see a kind of submission to paradox, where it is because a particular proposition is irrational or unreasonable that it becomes an article of faith.  It’s not enough to say that faith is simply used to arrive at a belief that is unreasonable or irrational, but rather that its attribute of violating reason is actually taken as a reason to use it and to believe that the claims of faith are in fact true.  So rather than merely seeing this as an example of irrationality, this actually makes for a good example of the kind of anti-rational attitudes that contributed to the existentialist revolt against some dominant forms of positivism; a revolt that didn’t really begin to precipitate until Kierkegaard’s time.

Although anti-rationalism is often associated with existentialism, I think one would be making an error if they equivocated the two or assumed that anti-rationalism was integral or necessary to existentialism; though it should be said that this is contingent on how exactly one is defining both anti-rationalism (and by extension rationalism) and existentialism.  The two terms have a variety of definitions (as does positivism, with Barrett giving us one particularly narrow definition back in chapter one).  If by rationalism, one is referring to the very narrow view that rationality is the only means of acquiring knowledge, or a view that the only thing that matters in human thought or in human life is rationality, or even a view that humans are fundamentally or primarily rational beings; then I think it is fair to say that this is largely incompatible with existentialism, since the latter is often defined as a philosophy positing that humans are not primarily rational, and that subjective meaning (rather than rationality) plays a much more primary role in our lives.

However, if rationality is simply taken as a view that reason and rational thought are integral components (even if not the only components) for discovering much of the knowledge that exists about ourselves and the universe at large, then it is by all means perfectly compatible with most existentialist schools of thought.  But in order to remain compatible, some priority needs to be given to subjective experience in terms of where meaning is derived from, how our individual identity is established, and how we are to direct our lives and inform our system of ethics.

The importance of subjective experience, which became a primary assumption motivating existentialist thought, was also appreciated by early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine.  In fact, Barrett goes so far as to say that the interiorization of experience and the primary focus on the individual over the collective was unknown to the Greeks and didn’t come about until Christianity had begun to take hold in Western culture:

“Where Plato and Aristotle had asked the question, What is man?, St. Augustine (in the Confessions) asks, Who am I?-and this shift is decisive.  The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed natural and zoological order, in which man was included; and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was added.  Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from an altogether different, more obscure and vital center within the questioner himself: from an acutely personal sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detachment with which reason surveys the world of objects in order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it.”

So rather than looking at man as some kind of well-defined abstraction within a categorical hierarchy of animals and objects, and one bestowed with a unique faculty of rational consciousness, man is looked at from the inside, from the perspective of, and identified as, an embodied individual with an experience that is deeply rooted and inherently emotional.  And in Augustine’s question, we also see an implication that man can’t be defined in a way that the Greeks attempted to do because in asking the question, Who am I?, man became separated from the kind of zoological order that all other animals adhered to.  It is the unique sense of self and the (often foreboding) awareness of this self then, as opposed to the faculty of reason, that Augustine highlighted during his moment of reflection.

Though Augustine was cognizant of the importance of exploring the nature of our personal, human existence (albeit for him, with a focus on religious experience in particular), he also explored aspects of human existence on the cosmic scale.  But when he went down this cosmic road of inquiry, he left the nature of personal lived existence by the wayside and instead went down a Neo-Platonist path of theodicy.  Augustine was after all a formal theologian, and one who tried to come to grips with the problem of evil in the world.  But he employed Greek metaphysics for this task, and tried to use logic mixed with irrational faith-based claims about the benevolence of God, in order to show that God’s world wasn’t evil at all.  Augustine did this by eliminating evil from his conception of existence such that all evil was simply a lack of being and hence a form of non-being and therefore non-existent.  This was supposed to be our consolation: ignore any apparent evil in the world because we’re told that it doesn’t really exist; all in the name of trying to justify the cosmos as good and thus to maintain a view that God is good.

This is such a shame in the end, for in Augustine’s attempt at theodicy, he simply downplayed and ignored the abominable and precarious aspects of our existence, which are as real a part of our experience as anything could be.  Perhaps Augustine was motivated to use rationalism here in order to feel comfort and safety in a world where many feel alienated and alone.  But as Barrett says:

“…reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult.  In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modern revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modern recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital…”

And so once again we see that a primary motivation for faith is because many cannot get the consolation they long for through the use of reason.  They can’t psychologically deal with the way the world really is and so they either use faith to believe the world is some other way or they try to use reason along with some number of faith-based premises, in evaluating our apparent place in the world.  St. Augustine actually thought that he could harmonize faith and reason (or what Barrett referred to as the vital and the rational) and this set the stage for the next thousand years of Christian thought.  Once faith claims became more explicit in the Church’s various articles of dogma, one was left to exercise rationality as they saw fit, as long as it was within the confines of that faith and dogma.  And this of course led to many medieval thinkers to mistake faith for reason (in many cases at least), reinforced by the fact that the use of reason was operating under faith-based premises.

The problematic relation between the vital and the rational didn’t disappear even after many a philosopher assumed the two forces were in complete harmony and agreement; instead the clash resurfaced in a debate between Voluntarism and Intellectualism, with our attention now turned toward St. Thomas Aquinas.  As an intellectualist, St. Thomas tried to argue that the intellect in man is prior to the will of man because the intellect determines the will, since we can only desire what we know.  Scotus on the other hand, a voluntarist, responded to this claim and said that the will determines what ideas the intellect turns toward, and thus the will ends up determining what the intellect comes to know.

As an aside, I think that Scotus was more likely correct here, because while the intellect may inform the will (and thus help to direct the will), there is something far more fundamental and unconscious at play that drives our engagement with the world as an organism evolved to survive.  For example, we have a curiosity for both novelty (seeking new information) and familiarity (a maximal understanding of incoming information) and basic biologically-driven desires for satisfaction and homeostasis.  These drives simply don’t depend on the intellect even though they can make use of it, and these drives will continue to operate even if the intellect does not.  I also disagree with St. Thomas’ claim that one can only desire that which they already know, for one can desire knowledge for it’s own sake without knowing exactly what knowledge is yet to come (again from an independent drive, which we could call the will), and one can also desire a change in the world from the way they currently know it to be to some other as yet unspecified way (e.g. to desire a world without a specific kind of suffering, even though one may not know exactly what that would be like, having never lived such a life before).

The crux of the debate between the primacy of the will versus the intellect can perhaps be re-framed accordingly:

“…not in terms of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or the intellect over the will-these functions being after all but abstract fragments of the total man-but rather in terms of the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete and total man himself who is doing the thinking…the fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought.”

Here again I see the concept of an embodied and evolved organism and a reflective self at play, where the contents of consciousness cannot be taken on their own, nor as primary, but rather they require a conscious agent to become manifest, let alone to have any causal power in the world.

2. Existence vs. Essence

There is a deeper root to the problem underlying the debate between St. Thomas and Scotus and it has to do with the relation between essence and existence; a relation that Sartre (among others) emphasized as critical to existentialism.  Whereas the essence of a thing is simply what the thing is (its essential properties for example), the existence of a thing simply refers to the brute fact that the thing is.  A very common theme found throughout Sartre’s writings is the basic contention that existence precedes essence (though, for him, this only applies to the case of man).  Barrett gives a very simplified explanation of such a thesis:

“In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to grasp.  Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence.  Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed.”

I think this concept also makes sense when we put it into the historical context going back to ancient Greece.  Whereas the Greeks tried to put humanity within a zoological order and categorize us by some essential qualities, the existentialists that later came on the scene rejected such an idea almost as a kind of categorical error.  It was simply not possible to classify human beings like you could inanimate objects or other animals that didn’t have the behavioral complexity and a will to define themselves as we do.

Barrett also explains that the essence versus existence relation breaks down into two different but related questions:

1) Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse?

2) In actual existing things is there a real distinction between the two?  Or are they merely different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing?

In an attempt at answering these questions, I think it’s reasonable to say that essence has more to do with potentiality (a logically possible set of abstractions or properties) and existence has more to do with actuality (a logically and physically possible past or present state of being).  I also think that existence is necessary in order for any essence to be real in any way, and not because an actual object needs to exist in order to instantiate a physical instance of some specific essence, but because any essence is merely an abstraction created by a conscious agent who inferred it in the first place.  Quite simply, there is no Platonic realm for the essence to “exist” within and so it needs an existing consciousness to produce it.  So I would say that existence has primacy over essence since an existent is needed for an essence to be conceived, let alone instantiated at all.

As for the second question, I think there is a real distinction between the two and that they are different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing.  I don’t see this as an either/or dichotomy.  The mind can certainly acknowledge the existence of some object, animal, or person, without giving much thought to what its essence is (aside from its being distinct enough to consider it a thing), but it can never acknowledge the essence of an actual object, animal, or person without also acknowledging its existence.  There’s also something relevant to be said about how our minds differentiate between an actual perception and an imagined one, even between an actual life and an imagined one, or an actual person and an imagined one; something that we do all the time.

On the other side of this issue, within the debate between essentialism and existentialism, are the questions of whether or not there are any essential qualities of human beings that make them human, and if so, whether or not any of these essential qualities are fixed for human beings.  Most people are familiar with the idea of human nature, whereby there are some biologically-grounded innate predispositions that affect our behavior in some ways.  We are evolved animals after all, and the only way for evolution to work is to have genes providing different phenotypic effects on the body and behavior of a population of organisms.  Since about half of our own genes are used to code for our brain’s development, its basic structure, and functionality, it should seem obvious to anyone that we’re bound to have some set of innate behavioral tendencies as well as some biological limitations on the space of possibilities for our behavior.

Thus, any set of innate behavioral tendencies that are shared by healthy human beings would constitute our human nature.  And furthermore, this behavioral overlap would be a fixed attribute of human nature insofar as the genes coding for that innate behavioral overlap don’t evolve beyond a certain degree.  Human nature is simply an undeniable fact about us grounded in our biology.  If our biology changes enough, then we will eventually cease to be human, or if we still call ourselves “human” at that point in time then we will cease to have the same nature since we will no longer be the same species.  But as long as that biological evolution remains under a certain threshold, we will have some degree of fixity in our human nature.

But unlike most other organisms on earth, human beings have an incredibly complex brain as well as a number of culturally inherited cognitive programs that provide us with a seemingly infinite number of possible behaviors and subsequent life trajectories.  And I think this fact has fueled some of the disagreement between the existentialists and the essentialists.  The essentialists (or many of them at least) have maintained that we have a particular human nature, which I think is certainly true.  But, as per the existentialists, we must also acknowledge just how vast our space of possibilities really is and not let our human nature be the ultimate arbiter of how we define ourselves.  We have far more freedom to choose a particular life project and way of life than one would be led to believe given some preconceived notion of what is essentially human.

3. The Case of Pascal

Science brought about a dramatic change to Western society, effectively carrying us out of the Middle Ages within a century; but this change also created the very environment that made modern Existentialism possible.  Cosmology, for example, led 17th century mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal to say that “The silence of these infinite spaces (outer space) frightens me.”  In this statement he was expressing the general reaction of humanity to the world that science had discovered; a world that made man feel homeless and insignificant.

As a religious man, Pascal was also seeking to reconcile this world discovered by science with his own faith.  This was a difficult task, but he found some direction in looking at the wretchedness of the human condition:

“In Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the direction of faith.  And where Pascal finds such a signpost, significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition of man himself.  How is it that this creature who shows everywhere, in comparison with other animals and with nature itself, such evidence marks of grandeur and power is at the same time so feeble and miserable?  We can only conclude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his (his fundamental premise is the image of man as a disinherited being).”

Personally I see this as indicative of our being an evolved species, albeit one with an incredibly rich level of consciousness and intelligence.  In some sense our minds’ inherent capacities have a potential that is far and beyond what most humans ever come close to actualizing, and this may create a feeling of our having lost something that we deserve; some possible yet unrealized world that would make more sense for us to have given the level of power and potential we possess.  And perhaps this lends itself to a feeling of angst or a lack of fulfillment as well.

As Pascal himself said:

“The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” 

Furthermore, Barrett reminds us of Pascal having mentioned the human tendency of escaping from this close consideration of our condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.”  Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence itself.”

Barrett describes our state of cultivating various habits and distractions as a kind of concealment of the ever-narrowing space of possibilities in our lives, as each day passes us by with some set of hopes and dreams forever lost in the past.  I think it would be fair to say however, that the psychological benefit we gain from at least many of our habits and distractions warrants our having them in the first place.  As an analogy, if one day I have been informed by my doctor that I’m going to die from a terminal illness in a few months (thus drastically narrowing the future space of possibilities in my life), is there really a problem with me trying to keep my mind off of such a morbid fate, such that I can make the most of the time that I have left?  I certainly wouldn’t advocate burying one’s head in the sand either, nor having irrational expectations, nor living in denial; and so I think the time will be used best if I don’t completely forget about my timeline coming to an end either, because then I can more adequately appreciate that remaining time.

Moreover, I don’t agree that religion is the only possible cure for dealing with our “ordinary mortal existence”.  I think that psychological and moral development are the ultimate answers here, where a critical look at oneself and an ongoing attempt to become a better version of oneself in order to maximize one’s life fulfillment is key.  The world can be any way that it is but that doesn’t change the fact that certain attitudes toward that world and certain behaviors can make our experience of the world, as it truly is, better or worse.  Falling back on religion to console us is, to use Pascal’s own words, nothing but another habit and form of distraction, and one where we sacrifice knowing and facing the truth of our condition for some kind of ignorant bliss that relies on false beliefs about the world.  And I don’t think we can live authentically if we don’t face the condition we’re in as a species, and more importantly as individuals; by trying to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

When it comes to the human mind and how we deal with or process information about our everyday lives or aspects of our overall condition, it can be a rather messy process with very complicated concepts, many of which that have fuzzy boundaries and so can’t be dealt with in the same way that we deal with analyses relying strictly on logic.  In some cases of analyzing our lives, we don’t know exactly what the premises could even be, let alone how to arrange them within a logical structure to arrive at some kind of certain conclusion.  And this differs a lot from other areas of inquiry like, say, mathematics.  As Pascal was delving deeper into the study of our human condition, he realized this difference and posited that there was an interesting distinction in terms of what the mind can comprehend in these different contexts: a mathematical mind and an intuitive mind.  Within a field of study such as mathematics, it is our mind’s ability to logically comprehend various distinct and well defined ideas that we make use of, whereas in other more concrete domains of our experience, we rely quite heavily on intuition.

Not only is logic not very useful in the more concrete and complex domains of our lives, but in many cases it may actually get in the way of seeing things clearly since our intuition, though less reliable than logic, is more up to the task of dealing with complexities that haven’t yet been parsed out into well-defined ideas and concepts.  Barrett describes this a little differently than I would when he says:

“What Pascal had really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction was this: that man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp…By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. “

In the case of logic, one is certainly limited in its use when the concepts involved are probabilistic (rather than being well-defined or “black and white”) and there are significant limitations when our attitudes toward those concepts vary contextually.  We are after all very complex creatures with a number of competing goals and with a prioritization of those goals that varies over time.  And of course we have a number of value judgments and emotional dispositions that motivate our actions in often unpredictable ways.  So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that one should acknowledge the limits we have in our use of logic and reason.

Barrett makes another interesting claim about the limits of reason when he says:

“Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally.  Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience.”

And I think the last sentence is most important here, where we try and understand that the limitations of reason include the inability to examine all that matters and all that is meaningful within religious experience.  Even though I am a kind of champion for reason, in the sense that I find it to be in short supply when it matters most and in the sense that I often advertise the dire need for critical thinking skills and the need for more education to combat our cognitive biases, I for one have never made the assumption that reason could ever accomplish such an arduous task of dissecting religious experience in some reductionist way while retaining or accounting for everything of value within it.  I have however used reason to analyze various religious beliefs and claims about the world in order to discover their consequences on, or incompatibilities with, a number of other beliefs.

Theologians do something similar in their attempts to prove the existence of God, by beginning with some set of presuppositions (about God or the supernatural), and then applying reason to those faith-based premises to see what would result if they were in fact true.  And Pascal saw this mental exercise as futile and misguided as well because it misses the entire point of religion:

“In any case, God as the object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do with the living needs of religion.”

I admire the fact that Pascal was honest here about what really matters most when it comes to religion and religious beliefs.  It doesn’t matter whether or not God exists, or whether any religious claim or other is actually true or false; rather, it is the living need of religion that he perceives that ultimately motivates one to adhere to it.  Thus, theology doesn’t really matter to him because those who want to be convinced by the arguments for God’s existence will be convinced simply because they desire the conclusion insofar as they believe it will give them consolation from the human condition they find themselves in.

To add something to the bleak picture of just how contingent our existence is, Barrett mentions a personal story that Pascal shared about his having had a brush with death:

“While he was driving by the Seine one day, his carriage  suddenly swerved, the door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down the embankment to his death.  The arbitrariness and suddenness of this near accident became for him another lightning flash of revelation.  Thereafter he saw Nothingness as a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any moment.  No other writer has expressed more powerfully than Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence-a contingency that may at any moment hurl us all unsuspecting into non-being…The idea of Nothingness or Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in Western philosophy…Nothingness had suddenly and drastically revealed itself to him.”

And here it is: the concept of Nothingness which has truly grounded a bulk of the philosophical constructs found within existentialism.  To add further to this, Pascal also saw that one’s inevitable death wasn’t the whole picture of our contingency, but only a part of it; it was our having been born at a particular time, place, and within a certain culture that vastly reduces the number of possible life trajectories one can take, and thus vastly reduces our freedom in establishing our own identity.  Our life begins with contingency and ends with it also.

Pascal also acknowledged our existence as lying in the middle of the universe, in terms of being between that of the infinitesimal and microscopic and that of the seemingly infinite lying at the cosmological scale.  Within this middle position, he saw man as being “an All in relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All.”  I think it’s also worth pointing out that it is because of our evolutionary history and the “middle-position” we evolved within that causes the drastic misalignment between the world we were in some sense meant to understand, and the micro and cosmic scales we discovered in the last several hundred years.

Aside from any feelings of alienation and homelessness that these different scales have precipitated, we simply don’t have an intuition that evolved a need to understand existence at the infinitesimal quantum level nor at the cosmic relativistic level, which is why these discoveries in physics are difficult to understand even by experts in the field.  We should expect these discoveries to be vastly perplexing and counter-intuitive, for our consciousness evolved to deal with life at a very finite scale; yet another example of our finitude as human beings.

It was this very same fact, that we gained so much information about our world through these kinds of discoveries, including major advancements made in mathematics, that also promoted the assumption that human nature could be perfected through the universal application of reason.

I’ll finish the post on this chapter with one final quote from Barrett that I found insightful:

“Poets are witnesses to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into thought.  And what these particular poets were struggling to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being that are ours historically today.  They were sounding, in poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era.”

It is the voice of the poets that we first hear lamenting about the Enlightenment and what reason seems to have done, or at least what it had begun to do.  They were some of the most important contemporary precursors to the later existentialists and philosophers that would soon begin to process (in far more detail and with far more precision) the full effects of modernity on the human psyche.

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 2: “The Encounter with Nothingness”)

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In the first post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism, where Barrett gives a brief description of what he believes existentialism to be, and the environment it evolved within.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

Ch. 2 – The Encounter With Nothingness

Barrett talks about the critical need for self-analysis, despite the fact that many feel that this task has already been accomplished and that we’ve carried out this analysis exhaustively.  But Barrett sees this as contemporary society’s running away from the facts of our own ignorance.  Modern humankind, it seems to Barrett, is in even more need to question their identity for we seem to understand ourselves even less than when we first began to question who we are as a species.

1. The Decline of Religion

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, religion as a whole has been on the decline.  This decrease in religiosity (particularly in Western civilization) became most prominent during the Enlightenment.  As science began to take off, the mechanistic structure and qualities of the universe (i.e. its laws of nature) began to reveal themselves in more and more detail.  This in turn led to a replacement of a large number of superstitious and supernatural religious beliefs about the causes for various phenomena with scientific explanations that could be empirically verified and tested.  Throughout this process, as theological explanations became replaced more and more with naturalistic explanations, the presumed role of God and the Church began to evaporate.  Thus, at the purely intellectual level, we underwent a significant change in terms of how we viewed the world and subsequently how we viewed the nature of human beings and our place in the world.

But, as Barrett points out:

“The waning of religion is a much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of man’s total psychic life…Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual’s life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual.”

We can see here how the role of religion has changed to some degree from medieval times to the present day.  Rather than simply being a set of beliefs that identified a person with a particular group and which had soteriological, metaphysical, and ethical significance to the believer (as it is more so in modern times), it used to be a complete system or a total solution for how one was to live their life.  And it also provided a means of psychological stability and coherence by providing a ready-made narrative of the essence of man; a sense of familiarity and a pre-defined purpose and structure that didn’t have to be constructed from scratch by the individual.

While the loss of the Church involved losing an entire system of dogmatic teachings, symbols, and various rites and sacraments, the most important loss according to Barrett was the loss of a concrete connection to a transcendent realm of being.  We were now set free such that we had to grapple with the world on our own, with all its precariousness, and to deal head-on with the brute facts of our own existence.

What I find most interesting in this chapter is when Barrett says:

“The rationalism of the medieval philosophers was contained by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were altogether beyond the grasp of human reason, but were nevertheless powerfully real and meaningful to man as symbols that kept the vital circuit open between reason and emotion, between the rational and non-rational in the human psyche.”

And herein lies the crux of the matter; for Barrett believes that religion’s greatest function historically was its serving as a bridge between the rational and non-rational elements of our psychology, and also its serving as a barrier that limited the effective reach and power of our rationality over the rest of our psyches and our view of the world.  I would go even further to suggest that it may have allowed our emotional expression to more harmoniously co-exist and work with our reason instead of primarily being at odds with it.

I agree with Barrett’s point here in that religion often promulgates ideas and practices that appeal to many of our emotional dispositions and intuitions, thus allowing people to express certain emotional states and to maintain comforting intuitions that might otherwise be hindered or subjugated by reason and rationality.  And it has also provided a path for reason to connect to the unreasonable to some degree; as a means of minimizing the need to compartmentalize rationality from the emotional or irrational influences on a person’s belief systems.  By granting people an opportunity to combine reason and emotion in some way, where this reason could be used to try and make some sense of emotion and to give it some kind of validation without having to reject reason completely, religion has been effective (historically anyway) in helping people to avoid the discomfort of rejecting beliefs that they know to be reasonable (many of these beliefs at least) while also being able to avoid the discomfort of inadequate emotional/non-rational expression.

Once religion began to go by the wayside, due in large part to the accumulated knowledge acquired through reason and scientific progress, it became increasingly difficult to square the evidence and arguments that were becoming more widely known with many of the claims that religion and the Church had been propagating for centuries.  Along with this growing invalidation or loss of credibility came the increased need to compartmentalize reason and rationality from emotionally and irrationally-derived beliefs and experiences.  And this difficulty led to a decline in religiosity for many, which was accompanied with the loss in any emotional and irrational/non-rational expression that religion had once offered the masses.  Once reason and rationality expanded beyond a certain threshold, it effectively popped the religious bubble that had previously contained it, causing many to begin to feel homeless, out of place, and in many ways incomplete in the new world they now found themselves living in.

2. The Rational Ordering of Society

The organization of our lives has been, historically at least, a relatively organic process where it had a kind of self-guiding, pragmatic, and intuitive structure and evolution.  But once we approached the modern age, as Barrett points out, we saw a drastic shift toward an increasingly rational form of organization, where efficiency and a sort of technical precision began to dominate the overall direction of society and the lives of each individual.  The rise of capitalism was a part of this cultural evolutionary process (as was, I would argue, the Industrial Revolution), and only further enhanced the power and influence of reason and rationality over our day-to-day lives.

The collectivization and distribution of labor involved in the mass production of commodities and various products had taken us entirely out of our agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots.  We no longer lived off of the land so to speak, and were no longer ensconced within the kinds of natural scenery while performing the types of day-to-day tasks that our species had adapted to over its long-term evolutionary history.  And with this collectivization, we also lost a large component of our individuality; a component that is fairly important in human psychology.

Barrett comments on how we’ve accepted modern society as normal, relatively unaware of our ancestral roots and our previous way of life:

“We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past.”

And he goes on to talk about how our ratcheting forward in terms of technological progress and any mechanistic societal re-structuring is what gives us our incredible power over our environment but at the cost of feeling rootless and without any concrete sense of feeling, when it’s needed now more than ever.

Perhaps a more interesting point he makes is with respect to how our increased mechanization and collectivization has changed a fundamental part of how our psyche and identity operate:

“Not only can the material wants of the masses be satisfied to a degree greater than ever before, but technology is fertile enough to generate new wants that it can also satisfy…All of this makes for an extraordinary externalization of life in our time. “

And it is this externalization of our identity and psychology, manifested in ever-growing and ever-changing sets of material objects and information flow, that is interesting to ponder over.  It reminds me somewhat of Richard Dawkins’ concept of an extended phenotype, where the effects of an organism’s genes aren’t merely limited to the organism’s body, but rather they extend into how the organism structures its environment. While this term is technically limited to behaviors that have a direct bearing on the organism’s survival, I prefer to think of this extended phenotype as encompassing everything the organism creates and the totality of its behaviors.

The reason I mention this concept is because I think it makes for a useful analogy here.  For in the earlier evolution of organisms on earth, the genes’ effects or the resulting phenotypes were primarily manifested as the particular body and bodily behavior of the organism, and as organisms became more complex (particularly those that evolved brains and a nervous system), that phenotype began to extend itself into the abilities of an organism to make external structures out of raw materials found in its environment.  And more and more genetic resources were allotted to the organism’s brain which made this capacity for environmental manipulation possible.  As this change occurred, the previous boundaries that defined the organism vanished as the external constructions effectively became an extension of the organism’s body.  But with this new capacity came a loss of intimacy in the sense that the organism wasn’t connected to these external structures in the same way it was connected to its own feelings and internal bodily states; and these external structures also lacked the privacy and hidden qualities inherent in an organism’s thoughts, feelings, and overall subjective experience.

Likewise, as we’ve evolved culturally, eventually gaining the ability to construct and mass-produce a plethora of new material goods, we began to dedicate a larger proportion of our attention on these different external objects, wanting more and more of them well past what we needed for survival.  And we began to invest or incorporate more of ourselves, including our knowledge and information, in these externalities, forcing us to compensate by investing less and less in our internal, private states and locally stored knowledge.  Now it would be impractical if not impossible for an organism to perform increasingly complex behaviors and to continuously increase its ability to manipulate its own environment without this kind of trade-off occurring in terms of its identity, and how it distributes its limited psychological resources.

And herein lies the source of our seemingly fractured psyche: the natural selection of curiosity, knowledge accumulation, and behavioral complexity for survival purposes has become co-opted for just about any purpose imaginable, since the hardware and schema required for the former has a capacity that transcends its evolutionary purpose and that transcends the finite boundaries, the guiding constraints, and the essential structure of the lives we once had in our evolutionary past.  Now we’ve moved beyond what used to be a kind of essential quality and highly predictable trajectory of our lives and of our species, and we’ve moved into the unknown; from the realm of the finite and the familiar to the seemingly infinite realm of the unknown.

A big part of this externalization has manifested itself in the new ways we acquire, store, and share information, such as with the advent of mass media.  As Barrett puts it:

“…journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand.  Information usually consists of half-truths, and “knowledgability” becomes a substitute for real knowledge.  Moreover, popular journalism has by now extended its operations into what were previously considered the strongholds of culture-religion, art, philosophy…It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the secondhand from the real thing, until most people end by forgetting there is such a distinction.”

I think this ties well into what Barrett mentioned previously when he talked about how modern civilization is built on increasing levels of abstraction.  The very information we’re absorbing, in order to make sense of and deal with a large aspect of our contemporary world, is second hand at best.  The information we rely on has become increasingly abstracted, manipulated, reinterpreted, and distorted.  The origin of so much of this information is now at least one level away from our immediate experience, giving it a quality that is disconnected, less important, and far less real than it otherwise would be.  But we often forget that there’s any epistemic difference between our first-hand lived experience and the information that arises from our mass media.

To add to Barrett’s previous description of existentialism as a reaction against positivism, he also mentions Karl Jaspers’ views of existentialism, which he described as:

“…a struggle to awaken in the individual the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life, in the fact of the great modern drift toward a standardized mass society.”

Though I concur with Jaspers’ claim that modernity has involved a shift toward a standardized mass society in a number of ways, I also think that it has provided the means for many more ways of being unique, many more possible talents and interests for one to explore, and many more kinds of goals to choose from for one’s life project(s).  Collectivization and distribution of labor and the technology that has precipitated from it have allowed many to avoid spending all day hunting and gathering food, making or cleaning their clothing, and other tasks that had previously consumed most of one’s time.

Now many people (in the industrialized world at least) have the ability to accumulate enough free time to explore many other types of experiences, including reading and writing, exploring aspects of our existence with highly-focused introspective effort (as in philosophy), creating or enjoying vast quantities of music and other forms of art, listening to and telling stories, playing any number of games, and thousands of other activities.  And even though some of these activities have been around for millennia, many of them have not (or there was little time for them), and of those that have been around the longest, there were still far fewer choices than what we have on offer today.  So we mustn’t forget that many people develop a life-long passion for at least some of these experiences that would never have been made possible without our modern society.

The issue I think lies in the balance or imbalance between standardization and collectivization on the one hand (such that we reap the benefits of more free time and more recreational choices), and opportunities for individualistic expression on the other.  And of the opportunities that exist for individualistic expression, there is still the need to track the psychological consequences that result from them so we can pick more psychologically fulfilling choices; so that we can pick choices that better allow us to keep open that channel between reason and emotion and between the rational and the non-rational/irrational that religion once provided, as Barrett mentioned earlier.

We also have to accept the fact that the findings in science have largely dehumanized or inhibited the anthropomorphization of nature, instead showing us that the universe is indifferent to us and to our goals; that humans and life in general are more of an aberration than anything else within a vast cosmos that is inhospitable to life.  Only after acknowledging the situation we’re in can we fully appreciate the consequences that modernity has had on upending the comforting structure that religion once gave to humans throughout their lives.  As Barrett tell us:

“Science stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, to his human purposes.  Religion, before this phase set in, had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, providing him with a system of images and symbols by which he could express his own aspirations toward psychic wholeness.  With the loss of this containing framework man became not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being.”

Although we can’t unlearn the knowledge that has caused religion to decline including that which has had a bearing on the questions dealing with our ultimate meaning and purpose, we can certainly find new ways of filling the psychological void felt by many as a result of this decline.  The modern world has many potential opportunities for psychologically fulfilling projects in life, and these opportunities need to be more thoroughly explored.  But, existentialist thought rightly reminds us of how the fruits of our rational and enlightened philosophy have been less capable of providing as satisfying an answer to the question “What are human beings?” as religion once gave.  Along with the fruits of the Enlightenment came a lack of consolation, and a number of painful truths pertaining to the temporal and contingent nature of our existence, previously thought to possess both an eternal and necessary character.  Overall, this cultural change and accumulation of knowledge effectively forced humanity out of its comfort zone.  Barrett described the situation quite well when he said:

“In the end, he [modern man] sees each man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death.  Admittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic things are always learned with pain, since our inertia and complacent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until they are forced upon us.”

Modern humanity then, has become alienated from God, from nature, and from the complex social machinery that produces the goods and services that he both wants and needs.  Even worse yet however, is the alienation from one’s own self that has occurred as humans have found themselves living in a society that expects each of them to perform some specific function in life (most often not of their choosing), and this leads to society effectively identifying each person as this function, forgetting or ignoring the real person buried underneath.

3.  Science and Finitude

In this last section of chapter two, Barrett discusses some of the ultimate limitations in our use of reason and in the scope of knowledge we can obtain from our scientific and mathematical methods of inquiry.  Reason itself is described as the product of a creature “whose psychic roots still extend downward into the primeval soil,” and is thus a creation from an animal that is still intimately connected to an irrational foundation; an animal still possessing a set of instincts arising from its evolutionary origins.

We see this core presence of irrationality in our day-to-day lives whenever we have trouble trying to employ reason, such as when it conflicts with our emotions and intuitions.  And Barrett brings up the optimism in the confirmed rationalist and their belief that they may still be able to one day overcome all of these obstacles of irrationality by simply employing reason in a more clever way than before.  Clearly Barrett doesn’t share this optimism of the rationalist and he tries to support his pessimism by pointing out a few limitations of reason as suggested within the work of Immanuel Kant, modern physics, and mathematics.

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he lays out a substantial number of claims and concepts relating to metaphysics and epistemology, where he discusses the limitations of both reason and the senses.  Among other things, he claims that our reason is limited by certain a priori intuitional forms or predispositions about space and time (for example) that allow us to cognize any thing at all.  And so if there are any “things in themselves”, that is, real objects underlying whatever appears to us in the external world, where these objects have qualities and attributes that are independent of our experience, then we can never know anything of substance about these underlying features.  We can never see an object or understand it in any way without incorporating a large number of intuitional forms and assumptions in order to create that experience at all; we can never see the world without seeing it through the limited lens of our minds and our body’s sensory machinery.

For Kant, this also means that we may often use reason erroneously to make unjustified claims of knowledge pertaining to the transcendent, particularly within metaphysics and theology.  When reason is applied to ideas that can’t be confirmed through sensory experience, or that lie outside of our realm of possible experience (such as the idea that cause and effect laws govern every interaction in the universe, something we can never know through experience), it leads to knowledge claims that it can’t justify.  Another limitation of reason, according to Kant, is that it operates through an a priori assumption of unification in our experience, and so the categories and concepts that we infer to exist based on reason are limited by this underlying unifying principle.  Science has added to the rigidity and specificity of this unification, by going beyond what we’ve unified through our unmodified experience (i.e. seeing the sun “rise” and “set” every day), that is, experience without the use of any instruments, telescopes, microscopes, etc. (where the use of these instruments has helped give us more data showing that the earth rotates on an axis rather than the sun revolving around the earth).  Nevertheless, unification is the ultimate goal of reason whether applied with or without a strict scientific method.

Then within physics, we find another limitation in terms of our possible understanding of the world.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed us that we are unable to know complementary parameters pertaining to a particle with an arbitrarily high level of precision.  We eventually hit a limit where, for example, if we know the position of a particle (such as an electron) with a high degree of accuracy at some particular time, then we’re unable to know the momentum of that particle with the same accuracy.  The more we know about one complementary parameter, the less we know about the other.  Barrett describes this discovery in physics as showing that nature may be irrational and chaotic at its most fundamental level and then he says:

“What is remarkable is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experimentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the ordinary and banal fact of our human limitations emerges.”

This is indeed interesting because for a long while many rationalists and positivists held that our potential knowledge was unlimited (or finite, yet complete) and that science was the means to gain this open-ended or complete knowledge of the universe.  Then quantum physics delivered a major blow to this assumption, showing us instead that our knowledge is inherently limited based on how the universe is causally structured.  However, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a human limitation per se, but a limitation of any conscious system acquiring knowledge in our universe.  It wouldn’t matter if humans had different brains, better technology, or used artificial intelligence to perform the computations or measurements.  There is simply a limit on what can ever be measured; a limit on what can ever be known about the state of any system that is being studied.

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem likewise showed how there were inherent limitations in any mathematical formulation of number theory that was rich enough where, no matter how large or seemingly complete its set of axioms are, if it is consistent, then there will be statements that can’t be proven or disproven within that formulation.  Likewise, the consistency of any formulation of number theory can’t be proven by the formulation itself; rather, it depends on assumptions that lie outside of that formulation.  However, once again, contrary to what Barrett claims, I don’t think this should be taken to be a human limitation of reason, but rather a limitation of mathematics generally.

Regardless, I concede Barrett’s overarching point that, in all of these cases (Kant, physics, and mathematics), we are still running into scenarios where we are unable to do something or to know something that we may have previously thought we could do or thought we could know, at least in principle.  And so these discoveries did run counter to the beliefs of many that thought that humans were inherently unstoppable in these endeavors of knowledge accumulation and in our ability to create technology capable of solving any problem whatsoever.  We can’t do this.  We are finite creatures with finite brains, but perhaps more importantly, our capacities are also limited by what knowledge is theoretically available to any conscious system trying to better understand the universe.  The universe is inherently unknowable in at least some respects, which means it is unpredictable in at least some respects.  And unpredictability doesn’t sit well with humans intent on eliminating uncertainty, eliminating the unknown, and trying to have a coherent narrative to explain everything encountered throughout one’s existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.

The Experientiality of Matter

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If there’s one thing that Nietzsche advocated for, it was to eliminate dogmatism and absolutism from one’s thinking.  And although I generally agree with him here, I do think that there is one exception to this rule.  One thing that we can be absolutely certain of is our own conscious experience.  Nietzsche actually had something to say about this (in Beyond Good and Evil, which I explored in a previous post), where he responds to Descartes’ famous adage “cogito ergo sum” (the very adage associated with my blog!), and he basically says that Descartes’ conclusion (“I think therefore I am”) shows a lack of reflection concerning the meaning of “I think”.  He wonders how he (and by extension, Descartes) could possibly know for sure that he was doing the thinking rather than the thought doing the thinking, and he even considers the possibility that what is generally described as thinking may actually be something more like willing or feeling or something else entirely.

Despite Nietzsche’s criticism against Descartes in terms of what thought is exactly or who or what actually does the thinking, we still can’t deny that there is thought.  Perhaps if we replace “I think therefore I am” with something more like “I am conscious, therefore (my) conscious experience exists”, then we can retain some core of Descartes’ insight while throwing out the ambiguities or uncertainties associated with how exactly one interprets that conscious experience.

So I’m in agreement with Nietzsche in the sense that we can’t be certain of any particular interpretation of our conscious experience, including whether or not there is an ego or a self (which Nietzsche actually describes as a childish superstition similar to the idea of a soul), nor can we make any certain inferences about the world’s causal relations stemming from that conscious experience.  Regardless of these limitations, we can still be sure that conscious experience exists, even if it can’t be ascribed to an “I” or a “self” or any particular identity (let alone a persistent identity).

Once we’re cognizant of this certainty, and if we’re able to crawl out of the well of solipsism and eventually build up a theory about reality (for pragmatic reasons at the very least), then we must remain aware of the priority of consciousness in any resultant theory we construct about reality, with regard to its structure or any of its other properties.  Personally, I believe that some form of naturalistic physicalism (a realistic physicalism) is the best candidate for an ontological theory that is the most parsimonious and explanatory for all that we experience in our reality.  However, most people that make the move to adopt some brand of physicalism seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak), whereby consciousness gets eliminated by assuming it’s an illusion or that it’s not physical (therefore having no room for it in a physicalist theory, aside from its neurophysiological attributes).

Although I used to feel differently about consciousness (and it’s relationship to physicalism), where I thought it was plausible for it to be some kind of an illusion, upon further reflection I’ve come to realize that this was a rather ridiculous position to hold.  Consciousness can’t be an illusion in the proper sense of the word, because the experience of consciousness is real.  Even if I’m hallucinating where my perceptions don’t directly correspond with the actual incoming sensory information transduced through my body’s sensory receptors, then we can only say that the perceptions are illusory insofar as they don’t directly map onto that incoming sensory information.  But I still can’t say that having these experiences is itself an illusion.  And this is because consciousness is self-evident and experiential in that it constitutes whatever is experienced no matter what that experience consists of.

As for my thoughts on physicalism, I came to realize that positing consciousness as an intrinsic property of at least some kinds of physical material (analogous to a property like mass) allows us to avoid having to call consciousness non-physical.  If it is simply an experiential property of matter, that doesn’t negate its being a physical property of that matter.  It may be that we can’t access this property in such a way as to evaluate it with external instrumentation, like we can for all the other properties of matter that we know of such as mass, charge, spin, or what-have-you, but that doesn’t mean an experiential property should be off limits for any physicalist theory.  It’s just that most physicalists assume that everything can or has to be reducible to the externally accessible properties that our instrumentation can measure.  And this suggests that they’ve simply assumed that the physical can only include externally accessible properties of matter, rather than both internally and externally accessible properties of matter.

Now it’s easy to see why science might push philosophy in this direction because its methodology is largely grounded on third-party verification and a form of objectivity involving the ability to accurately quantify everything about a phenomenon with little or no regard for introspection or subjectivity.  And I think that this has caused many a philosopher to paint themselves into a corner by assuming that any ontological theory underlying the totality of our reality must be constrained in the same way that the physical sciences are.  To see why this is an unwarranted assumption, let’s consider a “black box” that can only be evaluated by a certain method externally.  It would be fallacious to conclude that just because we are unable to access the inside of the box, that the box must therefore be empty inside or that there can’t be anything substantially different inside the box compared to what is outside the box.

We can analogize this limitation of studying consciousness with our ability to study black holes within the field of astrophysics, where we’ve come to realize that accessing any information about their interior (aside from how much mass there is) is impossible to do from the outside.  And if we managed to access this information (if there is any) from the inside by leaping past its outer event horizon, it would be impossible for us to escape and share any of that information.  The best we can do is to learn what we can from the outside behavior of the black hole in terms of its interaction with surrounding matter and light and infer something about the inside, like how much matter it contains (e.g. we can infer the mass of a black hole from its outer surface area).  And we can learn a little bit more by considering what is needed to create or destroy a black hole, thus creating or destroying any interior qualities that may or may not exist.

A black hole can only form from certain configurations of matter, particularly aggregates that are above a certain mass and density.  And it can only be destroyed by starving it to death, by depriving it of any new matter, where it will slowly die by evaporating entirely into Hawking radiation, thus destroying anything that was on the inside in the process.  So we can infer that any internal qualities it does have, however inaccessible they may be, can be brought into and out of existence with certain physical processes.

Similarly, we can infer some things about consciousness by observing one’s external behavior including inferring some conditions that can create, modify, or destroy that type of consciousness, but we are unable to know what it’s like to be on the inside of that system once it exists.  We’re only able to know about the inside of our own conscious system, where we are in some sense inside our own black hole with nobody else able to access this perspective.  And I think it is easy enough to imagine that certain configurations of matter simply have an intrinsic, externally inaccessible experiential property, just as certain configurations of matter lead to the creation of a black hole with its own externally inaccessible and qualitatively unknown internal properties.  Despite the fact that we can’t access the black hole’s interior with a strictly external method, to determine its internal properties, this doesn’t mean we should assume that whatever properties may exist inside it are therefore fundamentally non-physical.  Just as we wouldn’t consider alternate dimensions (such as those predicted in M-theory/String-Theory) that we can’t physically access to be non-physical.  Perhaps one or more of these inaccessible dimensions (if they exist) is what accounts for an intrinsic experiential property within matter (though this is entirely speculative and need not be true for the previous points to hold, but it’s an interesting thought nevertheless).

Here’s a relevant quote from the philosopher Galen Strawson, where he outlines what physicalism actually entails:

Real physicalists must accept that at least some ultimates are intrinsically experience-involving. They must at least embrace micropsychism. Given that everything concrete is physical, and that everything physical is constituted out of physical ultimates, and that experience is part of concrete reality, it seems the only reasonable position, more than just an ‘inference to the best explanation’… Micropsychism is not yet panpsychism, for as things stand realistic physicalists can conjecture that only some types of ultimates are intrinsically experiential. But they must allow that panpsychism may be true, and the big step has already been taken with micropsychism, the admission that at least some ultimates must be experiential. ‘And were the inmost essence of things laid open to us’ I think that the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are experiential would look like the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are spatio-temporal (on the assumption that spacetime is indeed a fundamental feature of reality). I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things. In fact (to disagree with my earlier self) it is hard to see why this view would not count as a form of dualism… So now I can say that physicalism, i.e. real physicalism, entails panexperientialism or panpsychism. All physical stuff is energy, in one form or another, and all energy, I trow, is an experience-involving phenomenon. This sounded crazy to me for a long time, but I am quite used to it, now that I know that there is no alternative short of ‘substance dualism’… Real physicalism, realistic physicalism, entails panpsychism, and whatever problems are raised by this fact are problems a real physicalist must face.

— Galen Strawson, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?
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While I don’t believe that all matter has a mind per se, because a mind is generally conceived as being a complex information processing structure, I think it is likely that all matter has an experiential quality of some kind, even if most instantiations of it are entirely unrecognizable as what we’d generally consider to be “consciousness” or “mentality”.  I believe that the intuitive gap here is born from the fact that the only minds we are confident exist are those instantiated by a brain, which has the ability to make an incredibly large number of experiential discriminations between various causal relations, thus giving it a capacity that is incredibly complex and not observed anywhere else in nature.  On the other hand, a particle of matter on its own would be hypothesized to have the capacity to make only one or two of these kinds of discriminations, making it unintelligent and thus incapable of brain-like activity.  Once a person accepts that an experiential quality can come in varying degrees from say one experiential “bit” to billions or trillions of “bits” (or more), then we can plausibly see how matter could give rise to systems that have a vast range in their causal power, from rocks that don’t appear to do much at all, to living organisms that have the ability to store countless representations of causal relations (memory) allowing them to behave in increasingly complex ways.  And perhaps best of all, this approach solves the mind-body problem by eliminating the mystery of how fundamentally non-experiential stuff could possibly give rise to experientiality and consciousness.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be The Biggest Yet

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Back in 1859, Charles Darwin released his famous theory of evolution by natural selection whereby inherent variations in the individual members of some population of organisms under consideration would eventually lead to speciation events due to those variations producing a differential in survival and reproductive success and thus leading to the natural selection of some subset of organisms within that population.  As Darwin explained in his On The Origin of Species:

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

While Darwin’s big idea completely transformed biology in terms of it providing (for the first time in history) an incredibly robust explanation for the origin of the diversity of life on this planet, his idea has since inspired other theories pertaining to perhaps the three largest mysteries that humans have ever explored: the origin of life itself (not just the diversity of life after it had begun, which was the intended scope of Darwin’s theory), the origin of the universe (most notably, why the universe is the way it is and not some other way), and also the origin of consciousness.

Origin of Life

In order to solve the first mystery (the origin of life itself), geologists, biologists, and biochemists are searching for plausible models of abiogenesis, whereby the general scheme of these models would involve chemical reactions (pertaining to geology) that would have begun to incorporate certain kinds of energetically favorable organic chemistries such that organic, self-replicating molecules eventually resulted.  Now, where Darwin’s idea of natural selection comes into play with life’s origin is in regard to the origin and evolution of these self-replicating molecules.  First of all, in order for any molecule at all to build up in concentration requires a set of conditions such that the reaction leading to the production of the molecule in question is more favorable than the reverse reaction where the product transforms back into the initial starting materials.  If merely one chemical reaction (out of a countless number of reactions occurring on the early earth) led to a self-replicating product, this would increasingly favor the production of that product, and thus self-replicating molecules themselves would be naturally selected for.  Once one of them was produced, there would have been a cascade effect of exponential growth, at least up to the limit set by the availability of the starting materials and energy sources present.

Now if we assume that at least some subset of these self-replicating molecules (if not all of them) had an imperfect fidelity in the copying process (which is highly likely) and/or underwent even a slight change after replication by reacting with other neighboring molecules (also likely), this would provide them with a means of mutation.  Mutations would inevitably lead to some molecules becoming more effective self-replicators than others, and then evolution through natural selection would take off, eventually leading to modern RNA/DNA.  So not only does Darwin’s big idea account for the evolution of diversity of life on this planet, but the basic underlying principle of natural selection would also account for the origin of self-replicating molecules in the first place, and subsequently the origin of RNA and DNA.

Origin of the Universe

Another grand idea that is gaining heavy traction in cosmology is that of inflationary cosmology, where this theory posits that the early universe underwent a period of rapid expansion, and due to quantum mechanical fluctuations in the microscopically sized inflationary region, seed universes would have resulted with each one having slightly different properties, one of which that would have expanded to be the universe that we live in.  Inflationary cosmology is currently heavily supported because it has led to a number of predictions, many of which that have already been confirmed by observation (it explains many large-scale features of our universe such as its homogeneity, isotropy, flatness, and other features).  What I find most interesting with inflationary theory is that it predicts the existence of a multiverse, whereby we are but one of an extremely large number of other universes (predicted to be on the order of 10^500, if not an infinite number), with each one having slightly different constants and so forth.

Once again, Darwin’s big idea, when applied to inflationary cosmology, would lead to the conclusion that our universe is the way it is because it was naturally selected to be that way.  The fact that its constants are within a very narrow range such that matter can even form, would make perfect sense, because even if an infinite number of universes exist with different constants, we would only expect to find ourselves in one that has the constants within the necessary range in order for matter, let alone life to exist.  So any universe that harbors matter, let alone life, would be naturally selected for against all the other universes that didn’t have the right properties to do so, including for example, universes that had too high or too low of a cosmological constant (such as those that would have instantly collapsed into a Big Crunch or expanded into a heat death far too quickly for any matter or life to have formed), or even universes that didn’t have the proper strong nuclear force to hold atomic nuclei together, or any other number of combinations that wouldn’t work.  So any universe that contains intelligent life capable of even asking the question of their origins, must necessarily have its properties within the required range (often referred to as the anthropic principle).

After our universe formed, the same principle would also apply to each galaxy and each solar system within those galaxies, whereby because variations exist in each galaxy and within each substituent solar system (differential properties analogous to different genes in a gene pool), then only those that have an acceptable range of conditions are capable of harboring life.  With over 10^22 stars in the observable universe (an unfathomably large number), and billions of years to evolve different conditions within each solar system surrounding those many stars, it isn’t surprising that eventually the temperature and other conditions would be acceptable for liquid water and organic chemistries to occur in many of those solar systems.  Even if there was only one life permitting planet per galaxy (on average), that would add up to over 100 billion life permitting planets in the observable universe alone (with many orders of magnitude more life permitting planets in the non-observable universe).  So given enough time, and given some mechanism of variation (in this case, differences in star composition and dynamics), natural selection in a sense can also account for the evolution of some solar systems that do in fact have life permitting conditions in a universe such as our own.

Origin of Consciousness

The last significant mystery I’d like to discuss involves the origin of consciousness.  While there are many current theories pertaining to different aspects of consciousness, and while there has been much research performed in the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, psychology, etc., pertaining to how the brain works and how it correlates to various aspects of the mind and consciousness, the brain sciences (though neuroscience in particular) are in their relative infancy and so there are still many questions that haven’t been answered yet.  One promising theory that has already been shown to account for many aspects of consciousness is Gerald Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (NGS) otherwise known as neural Darwinism (ND), which is a large scale theory of brain function.  As one might expect from the name, the mechanism of natural selection is integral to this theory.  In ND, the basic idea consists of three parts as read on the Wiki:

  1. Anatomical connectivity in the brain occurs via selective mechanochemical events that take place epigenetically during development.  This creates a diverse primary neurological repertoire by differential reproduction.
  2. Once structural diversity is established anatomically, a second selective process occurs during postnatal behavioral experience through epigenetic modifications in the strength of synaptic connections between neuronal groups.  This creates a diverse secondary repertoire by differential amplification.
  3. Re-entrant signaling between neuronal groups allows for spatiotemporal continuity in response to real-world interactions.  Edelman argues that thalamocortical and corticocortical re-entrant signaling are critical to generating and maintaining conscious states in mammals.

In a nutshell, the basic differentiated structure of the brain that forms in early development is accomplished through cellular proliferation, migration, distribution, and branching processes that involve selection processes operating on random differences in the adhesion molecules that these processes use to bind one neuronal cell to another.  These crude selection processes result in a rough initial configuration that is for the most part fixed.  However, because there are a diverse number of sets of different hierarchical arrangements of neurons in various neuronal groups, there are bound to be functionally equivalent groups of neurons that are not equivalent in structure, but are all capable of responding to the same types of sensory input.  Because some of these groups should in theory be better than others at responding to some particular type of sensory stimuli, this creates a form of neuronal/synaptic competition in the brain, whereby those groups of neurons that happen to have the best synaptic efficiency for the stimuli in question are naturally selected over the others.  This in turn leads to an increased probability that the same network will respond to similar or identical signals in the future.  Each time this occurs, synaptic strengths increase in the most efficient networks for each particular type of stimuli, and this would account for a relatively quick level of neural plasticity in the brain.

The last aspect of the theory involves what Edelman called re-entrant signaling whereby a sampling of the stimuli from functionally different groups of neurons occurring at the same time leads to a form of self-organizing intelligence.  This would provide a means for explaining how we experience spatiotemporal consistency in our experience of sensory stimuli.  Basically, we would have functionally different parts of the brain, such as various maps in the visual centers that pertain to color versus others that pertain to orientation or shape, that would effectively amalgamate the two (previously segregated) regions such that they can function in parallel and thus correlate with one another producing an amalgamation of the two types of neural maps.  Once this re-entrant signaling is accomplished between higher order or higher complexity maps in the brain, such as those pertaining to value-dependent memory storage centers, language centers, and perhaps back to various sensory cortical regions, this would create an even richer level of synchronization, possibly leading to consciousness (according to the theory).  In all of the aspects of the theory, the natural selection of differentiated neuronal structures, synaptic connections and strengths and eventually that of larger re-entrant connections would be responsible for creating the parallel and correlated processes in the brain believed to be required for consciousness.  There’s been an increasing amount of support for this theory, and more evidence continues to accumulate in support of it.  In any case, it is a brilliant idea and one with a lot of promise in potentially explaining one of the most fundamental aspects of our existence.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be the Biggest Yet

In my opinion, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was perhaps the most profound theory ever discovered.  I’d even say that it beats Einstein’s theory of Relativity because of its massive explanatory scope and carryover to other disciplines, such as cosmology, neuroscience, and even the immune system (see Edelman’s Nobel work on the immune system, where he showed how the immune system works through natural selection as well, as opposed to some type of re-programming/learning).  Based on the basic idea of natural selection, we have been able to provide a number of robust explanations pertaining to many aspects of why the universe is likely to be the way it is, how life likely began, how it evolved afterward, and it may possibly be the answer to how life eventually evolved brains capable of being conscious.  It is truly one of the most fascinating principles I’ve ever learned about and I’m honestly awe struck by its beauty, simplicity, and explanatory power.

The Properties of God: Much Ado About Nothing

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Having previously written about various Arguments for God’s Existence, including some of the inherent flaws and problems with those arguments, and having analyzed some of the purported attributes of God as most often defined by theists, I decided to reiterate some of the previous points I’ve mentioned and also expand further on the topic. Specifically, I’d like to further analyze the most common definitions and properties of God as claimed by theists.  God is often defined by theists as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent being that is also uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial among other attributes.  God is also defined by many as some form of disembodied mind possessing free will.  Since this list of terms is perhaps the most common I’ve seen over the years within theological circles, I’ll simply focus on these terms to analyze within this post.

Omniscience, Omnipotence, Changelessness, and Free Will

The property of omniscience is perhaps the single most significant property within this list because if it is taken to be true, it inevitably leads to the logical impossibility of some of the other attributes in this list.  For instance, if God’s knowledge includes complete knowledge of the future, then God is unable to change that future.  That is, whatever future that God would be aware of must happen exactly as it does, and God would not have the ability to change such a fate (otherwise this God would have failed to know the future without error).  This leads to the logical impossibility of God possessing both omniscience and omnipotence, as God loses the ability to enact any kind of change whatsoever that isn’t already pre-ordained or known by this God in advance.  God would not only know the future of all events occurring within the universe (presumably mediated by the very laws of physics that this God would have created) thus eliminating any possible free will for all of humanity, but this God would also know the future of all his other actions, thoughts, intentions, etc., and thus God wouldn’t be able to have free will either.  One can try to preserve the theological property of omnipotence or free will by denying that of omniscience (by limiting God’s knowledge of the future in some way).  However, even if this God didn’t have the ability to know the future with 100% certainty as implied with omniscience, the absence of omniscience wouldn’t negate the possibility that this God may still have no choice or ability to act any other way (even if this God doesn’t know ahead of time what those actions will be).

Even if we accepted that God doesn’t have omniscience, and if we also ignored the possibility that God may still lack free will or omnipotence even in the absence of that omniscient foreknowledge, one must still explain how a definitively changeless being could ever instantiate any kind of change at all, let alone to create the entire universe, space, and time (which is dependent on change).  Is it even logically possible for a changeless being to instantiate change?  That is, could a being possessing a de facto property such as changelessness simultaneously possess a modal property or capability of change?  Even if it were logically possible, there doesn’t appear to be any way at all for the modal property to ever be self-instantiated by a de facto changeless being.

An outside causal force may be able to instantiate the change in the previously changeless being, but I see no way that this could be accomplished by the changeless being itself.  One may try to resolve this dilemma by positing that one aspect or component of the changeless state of God was the constant or changeless intention to eventually cause a change at some future time x (e.g. to eventually create the universe), but this attempted resolution carries with it the problem of contradicting the supposed theological property of timelessness, since there can’t be some future moment for any change to occur in any kind of timeless scenario.  This would suggest that some kind of temporal delay is occurring until the change is eventually realized, which is logically incoherent in a timeless scenario.  Thus, I see no reason or logical argument to support the claim that a de facto property of changelessness could ever co-exist with a modal property or capability of self-causing any kind of change, and thus a timeless or changeless being would be causally effete thereby negating the property of omnipotence.

Omnibenevolence

One major problem that I see regarding the property of omnibenevolence, is that the term itself isn’t well-defined.  Sure, one can easily grasp the basic concept of being all-loving or all-good, but exactly what standard is one using to define goodness, or love, since these are not objectively defined concepts?  Another way of describing this problem, within the context of Divine Command Theory, is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma (from one of Plato’s dialogues), where one must ask: Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say something is good because of some other quality it has?  If the standard of goodness comes from God (i.e. “it’s good because God says so”), then it is entirely arbitrary and this would also mean that the definition of omnibenevolence is circular and therefore invalid.  If the standard of goodness comes from some other cause or being, then that means that goodness is dependent on something other than God and this would also undermine the idea that God is uncaused or beginningless, since the property of God’s benevolence (even if omnibenevolent) would have been dependent on something other than God.  Beyond these problems it would also undermine the idea of God being omnipotent since God wouldn’t have the power to self-instantiate this standard of goodness.

Another problem with positing that God is omnibenevolent, is the oft mentioned Problem of Evil, which ultimately refers to the problem of how to reconcile the supposed existence and omnibenevolence of God with all of the suffering that exists in the world.  If God was truly omnibenevolent, then how can one explain the existence of any “evil or suffering at all?  If God doesn’t have the ability to create a universe without any suffering, then this is another argument against God’s omnipotence.  If God does have the ability to do this but doesn’t, then this is an argument against God’s omnibenevolence, assuming that the elimination of all suffering is in accord with the standard of goodness, as one would expect.

Some philosophers have attempted to form various theodicies or defenses to reconcile the Problem of Evil with the idea of an omnipotent and/or omnibenevolent God, but they are ultimately unsuccessful.  For example, some attempts to resolve this problem involve asserting that good simply can’t logically exist without evil, implying that they are relative to and thus dependent on one another, which basically reasserts the old adage “you can’t have the sour without the sweet”.  The problem with this argument is that, if taken further, it would also imply that an omnibenevolent being (as God is often defined as) is also logically dependent on the existence of an equal but opposite omnimalevolent being, or at the very least, that it is dependent on the property of omnimalevolence.  This would mean that if God is indeed omnibenevolent, then this property of God is logically dependent on the existence of omnimalevolence, and this is another argument showing that God is not uncaused or beginningless, because this particular property of God wouldn’t even be a possibility without the existence of something that is definitively not a part of God (by definition).

Beyond all of these problems mentioned thus far, there seem to be at least several possible solutions that God (if omnibenevolent and all-powerful) could employ to eliminate suffering, and if these possibilities exist, the fact that none of them have been implemented argues against God being omnibenevolent.  For example, why couldn’t God simply feed our brains (even if just a brain in a vat) with a sensory input of nothing but pleasurable experiences?  Even if pleasure was dependent on some kind of contrast with less pleasurable experiences in the past (or if we would unavoidably become desensitized to a particular level of pleasure), God could simply amplify the magnitude of pleasurable sensory inputs with each subsequent moment of time indefinitely, thus producing an experience of nothing but constant and equally potent pleasure.

Moreover, if the God that most theists propose truly exists, and some kind of heaven or eternal paradise is within God’s capabilities (filled with a bunch of disembodied minds or souls), then there’s no rational reason why God couldn’t simply create all of us in heaven from the very beginning of our existence.  This is basically the case already with many miscarried or aborted fetuses (if theists assume that fetuses have souls and go to heaven immediately after their death), since many of these fetuses aren’t even alive long enough to have developed a brain with any level of consciousness or ability to experience any suffering at all.  Thus, they would represent a perfect example of individuals that only experience an eternity of pleasure completely void of any kind of suffering.  One would think if this is already a reality for some individuals, God should have the power to make it the case for all people, so nobody has to suffer at all.  This is of course if God couldn’t simply create all humans in heaven from the very beginning and skip the creation of the physical universe altogether.  If God lacks this ability, it is yet another argument against this God being omnipotent.  In addition to this, if it were the case that any conscious being created by God is ever destined to any kind of eternal torture (i.e. some version of “hell”), due to no chance of forgiveness after death, this would be perhaps the strongest argument against this God being omnibenevolent.  So as we can see, if eternal paradise and/or eternal damnation are actually real places created/mediated by God, then their very existence argues against God’s omnibenevolence and/or God’s omnipotence since we’re not all created in heaven from the very beginning of our existence, and/or since there are people destined to suffer for eternity.

Another attempt to resolve this Problem of Evil is the argument that humans wouldn’t be able to have free will without the existence of “evil” or suffering.  However, this makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons.  For one, as mentioned previously, classical free will (i.e. the ability to have chosen to behave differently, given the same initial conditions, less randomness) is already impossible based on the laws of physics and our level of causal closure, and this is the case whether our physical laws are fundamentally deterministic or random.  So this attempted resolution is a desperate objection at best, because it also requires us to assume that we’re constantly violating the laws of physics and causal closure in order to be causa sui, or self-caused intentional agents.  So we’d have to grant one absurdity in order to explain away another which doesn’t solve the dilemma at all, but rather just replaces one dilemma with another.

Finally, if “heaven” or some form of eternal paradise is still a possible product of God’s power, then the free will argument is irrelevant in any case.  After all, presumably we wouldn’t have free will in heaven either, for if we did have free will to rebel or cause “evil” or suffering in heaven, this would contradict the very idea of what heaven is supposed to be (since it is defined as an eternal and perfect paradise without any “evil” or suffering at all).  If one argues that it is still possible to have free will in a heaven that is guaranteed to be void of evil or suffering, then this simply shows that suffering isn’t necessary in order to have free will, and thus the free will argument to the Problem of Evil still fails.  If we didn’t have free will in heaven (which would seem to be logically necessary in order for heaven to exist as defined), then we can see that infinite or maximal “goodness” or eternal paradise is indeed possible even in the absence of any free will, which would thus negate the free will argument to the Problem of Evil (even if we granted the absurdity that classical free will was possible).  So no matter how you look at it, the property of omnibenevolence appears to be ill-defined or circular and is thus meaningless and/or it is incompatible with some of the other purported theological properties used to define God (i.e. uncaused, beginningless, omnipotent, etc.).

Omnipresence

If God was omnipresent, one would think that we would be able to universally and undeniably detect the presence of God, and yet the exact opposite is the case.  In fact, God appears to be completely invisible and entirely undetectable.  In cases where there are theists that claim to have actually experienced or detected the presence of God in some way, it is always in a way that can’t be validated or confirmed by any physical evidence whatsoever.  Science has demonstrated time and time again that when people experience phenomena that do not correlate with reality, i.e., phenomena that do not occur outside of their minds and thus that can’t be independently verified with physical evidence, they are the result of perceptual illusions and other strictly mental phenomena (whether they are full blown hallucinations, delusions, mis-attributed emotional experiences, etc.).  In general though, the basic trend exemplified by theists is that whenever they have an experience that is seemingly unexplainable, they attribute it to being an act of God.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely weak position to take (and increasingly weak as history has amply shown) simply because this “God of the gaps” mentality has been demonstrably proven to be fallacious and unreliable as science has continued to explain more and more previously unexplainable phenomena that were once attributed to one god or another.  So in Bayesian terms, the prior probability that some unexplainable phenomenon is the result of some kind of God is infinitesimally small, and that probability has only decreased over time and will only continue to decrease over time as scientific progress continues to falsify supernatural explanations and attributions by replacing them with natural ones.

So unless we are talking about some kind of Pantheism (where God is basically defined as being equivalent to the universe itself), then we have theists claiming that God is everywhere when this God in fact appears to be nowhere at all.  The simple fact that nobody has been able to demonstrate or verify the existence of God with any physical evidence whatsoever, is a strong argument against the omnipresence of God (if not an argument against the very existence of God).  Ultimately, the theological property of omnipresence is a meaningless term if this type of presence is one that is completely undetectable and unfalsifiable, which would make sense regarding a being that doesn’t possess any properties of space, time, or material, but unfortunately it also means that this term doesn’t adhere to any reasonable convention of what it means to be present, and it also means that the property of omnipresence is incompatible with the properties of being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.  If the type of omnipresence is that which is claimed to be experienced by theists from time to time, experiences that have been shown to be strictly mental with no correlation to the external world, then this is actually nothing more than a limited type of presence (and one that is strictly mental), and one likely resulting from mis-attributed emotions combined with various inherent human cognitive biases.

Abstract Objects, Disembodied Minds & God

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered regarding these theological properties pertains to the subset of properties that specifically describe God to be uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial (which I’ll now abbreviate as simply UBTCSI).  These terms have also been formulated by theists in various arguments for the existence of God (such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument), with theists trying to argue that the origin of the universe must have been brought about by a cause having this particular set of properties.  What I find most interesting is that contemporary philosophers of ontology have ascribed this set of terms to certain abstract objects such as numbers and properties.  It is also notable that these properties seem to result by way of negation, that is, by removing all (or nearly all) aspects of our perceived reality.

The fact that these terms are used to describe the properties of abstract objects in general, which are almost universally agreed to be causally effete, actually supports the idea that God is nothing more than an abstract object.  Even if abstract objects have some kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, they have still been shown to be causally effete.  If abstract objects do not have any kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, then they are actually the product of brains which possess the converse of the UBTCSI properties, that is, they are the product of brains which possess the properties of being caused and thus having a beginning, as well as the properties of time, change, space, and material.

If abstract objects are nothing more than constructs of the brain, then we may expect that the minds that produce these abstract objects would have similar properties ascribed to them as well.  Sure enough, many philosophers have indeed also used the aforementioned UBTCSI properties to describe a mind.  So, if it is true that abstract objects as well as the minds they appear to be dependent on are ultimately products of the physical brain (with the latter being well-nigh proven at this point), then ultimately they are both produced from that which possesses the naturalistic properties of causality, beginning, time, change, space, material, etc., thus arguably challenging the claim that either abstracta or minds can be defined properly with the UBTCSI properties.

Many theists have taken advantage of the aforementioned “ontology of mind” and posited that God is some kind of disembodied mind, thus presumably adhering to these same UBTCSI properties, yet with the addition of several more properties that were mentioned earlier (i.e. omnipotence, omniscience, etc.).  However, one major problem with this tactic is that the term, disembodied mind, is simply an ad hoc conceptualization, and one that doesn’t make much if any sense at all when thought about more critically.  After all, if the only minds that we’re aware of are those demonstrably produced from the underlying machinery of physical brains, then what exactly would a disembodied mind entail anyway?  What would it be composed of if not physical materials (and thus those which lie in space)?  How would it function at all if the only minds we know of involve an underlying machinery of constantly changing neuronal configurations which subsequently cause the mental experience that we call a mind?  How can this mind think at all, when thinking is itself a temporal process, known to speed up or slow down depending on various physical variables (e.g. neurotransmitter concentrations, temperature, Relativistic effects, etc.)?

These questions illustrate the fact that the only concept of a mind that makes any sense at all is that which involves the properties of causality, time, change, space, and material, because minds result from particular physical processes involving a very complex configuration of physical materials.  That is, minds appear to be necessarily complex in terms of their physical structure (i.e. brains), and so trying to conceive of a mind that doesn’t have any physical parts at all, let alone a complex arrangement of said parts, is simply absurd (let alone a mind that can function without time, change, space, etc.).  At best, we are left with an ad hoc, unintelligible combination of properties without any underlying machinery or mechanism.

So the fact that there exist strong arguments and evidence in support of abstract objects being nothing more than products of the mind, and the fact that minds in general are demonstrably the product of physical brains and their underlying complex neuronal configurations, illustrates that the only things in our universe that philosophers have ascribed these UBTCSI properties to (minds and abstract objects) are in fact more accurately described by the converse of those very properties.  It would then logically follow that God, claimed to possess the very same properties, is most likely to be nothing more than a causally effete abstract object — a mere mentally simulated model produced by our physical brains.  This entails that the remaining properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence, which are themselves abstract objects, are ultimately ascribed to yet another causally effete abstract object.

Much Ado About Nothing

As we can see, the properties commonly ascribed to God suggest that this God as described is:

1) Ill-defined since some of the properties are ultimately meaningless or circular, and

2) Logically impossible since some of the properties contradict one another, and

3) Likely to be a causally effete construct of the mind.

So overall, the theist’s strenuous endeavors in arguing over what the properties of their purported God must be, has ultimately been much ado about nothing at all.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

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Previously, I’ve written briefly about some of the cosmological arguments for God.  I’d like to expand on this topic, and I’ll begin doing so in this post by analyzing the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), since it is arguably the most well known version of the argument, which can be described with the following syllogism:

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause;

(2) The universe began to exist;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

The conclusion of this argument is often expanded by theists to suggest that the cause must be supernaturally transcendent, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and perhaps most importantly, this cause must itself be uncaused, in order to avoid the causal infinite regress implied by the KCA’s first premise.

Unfortunately this argument fails for a number of reasons.  The first thing that needs to be clarified is the definitions of terms used in these premises.  What is meant by “everything”, or “begins to exist”?  “Everything” in this context does imply that there are more than one of these things, which means that we are referring to a set of things, indeed the set of all things in this case.  The set of all things implied here apparently refers to all matter and energy in the universe, specifically the configuration of any subset of all matter and/or energy.  Then we have the second element in the first premise, “begins to exist”, which would thus refer to when the configuration of some set of matter and/or energy changes to a new configuration.  So we could rewrite the first premise as “any configuration of matter and/or energy that exists at time T and which didn’t exist at the time immediately prior to time T (which we could call T’), was a result of some cause”.  If we want to specify how “immediately prior” T’ is to T, we could use the smallest unit of time that carries any meaning per the laws of physics which would be the Planck time (roughly 10^-43 seconds), which is the time it takes the fastest entity in the universe (light) to traverse the shortest distance in the universe (the Planck length).

Does Everything Have a Cause?

Now that we’ve more clearly defined what is meant by the first premise, we can address whether or not that premise is sound.  It seems perfectly reasonable based on the nature of causality that we currently understand that there is indeed some cause that drives the changes in the configurations of sets of matter and energy that we observe in the universe, most especially in the everyday world that we observe.  On a most fundamental physical level, we would typically say that the cause of these configuration changes is described as the laws of physics.  Particles and waves all behave as they do, very predictably changing from one form into another based on these physical laws or consistent patterns that we’ve discovered.  However, depending on the interpretation of quantum mechanics used, there may be acausal quantum processes happening, for example, as virtual particle/anti-particle pairs pop into existence without any apparent deterministic path.  That is, unless there are non-local hidden variables that we are unaware of which guide/cause these events, there don’t appear to be any deterministic or causal driving forces behind certain quantum phenomena.  At best, the science is inconclusive as to whether all phenomena have causes, and thus one can’t claim certainty to the first premise of the KCA.  Unless we find a way to determine that quantum mechanics is entirely deterministic, we simply don’t know that matter and energy are fundamentally causally connected as are objects that we observe at much larger scales.

The bottom line here is that quantum indeterminism carries with it the possibility of acausality until proven otherwise, thus undermining premise one of the KCA with the empirical evidence found within the field of quantum physics.  As such, it is entirely plausible that if the apparent quantum acausal processes are fundamental to our physical world, the universe itself may have arisen from said acausal processes, thus undermining premise two as well as the conclusion of the KCA.  We can’t conclude that this is the case, but it is entirely possible and is in fact plausible given the peculiar quantum phenomena we’ve observed thus far.

As for the second premise, if we apply our clarified definition of “began to exist” introduced in the first premise to the second, then “the universe began to exist” would mean more specifically that “there was once a time (T’) when the universe didn’t exist and then at time T, the universe did exist.”  This is the most obviously problematic premise, at least according to the evidence we’ve found within cosmology.  The Big Bang Theory as most people are familiar with, which is the prevailing cosmological model for the earliest known moment of the universe, implies that spacetime itself had it’s earliest moment roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and continued to expand and transform over 13.8 billion years until reaching the state that we see it in today.  Many theists try to use this as evidence for the universe being created by God.  However, since time itself was non-existent prior to the Big Bang, it is not sensible to speak of any creation event happening prior to this moment, since there was no time for such an event to happen within.  This presents a big problem for the second premise in the KCA, because in order for the universe to “begin to exist”, it is implied that there was a time prior in which it didn’t exist, and this goes against the Big Bang model in which time never existed prior to that point.

Is Simultaneous Causation Tenable?

One way that theologians and some philosophers have attempted to circumvent this problem is to invoke the concept of simultaneous causation, that is, that (at least some) causes and effects can happen simultaneously.  Thus, if the cause of the universe happened at the same time as the effect (the Big Bang), then the cause of the universe (possibly “creation”) did happen in time, and thus the problem is said to be circumvented.

The concept of simultaneous causation has been proposed for some time by philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant and others since.  However, there are a few problems with simultaneous causation that I’ll point out briefly.  For one, there don’t appear to be any actual examples in our universe of simultaneous causation occurring.  Kant did propose what he believed to be a couple examples of simultaneous causation to support the idea.  One example he gave was a scenario where the effect of a heated room supposedly occurs simultaneously with a fire in a fireplace that caused it.  Unfortunately, this example fails, because it actually takes time for thermal energy to make its way from the fire in the fireplace to any air molecules in the room (even those that are closest to the fire).  As combustion is occurring and oxygen is combining with hydrocarbon fuels in the wood to produce carbon dioxide and a lot of heat, that heat takes time to propagate.  As the carbon dioxide is being formed, and the molecule is assuming an energetically favorable state, there is still a lag between this event and any heat given off to nearby molecules in the room.  In fact, no physical processes can occur faster than the speed of light by the principles of Relativity, so this refutes any other example analogous to this one.  The fastest way a fire can propagate heat is through radiation (as opposed to conduction or convection), and we know that the propagation of radiation is limited by the speed of light.  Even pulling a solid object causes it to stretch (at least temporarily) so the end of the object farthest away from where it is being pulled will actually remain at rest for a short time while the other end of the object is first pulled in a particular direction.  It isn’t until a short time lag, that the rest of the object “catches up” with the end being pulled, so even with mechanical processes involving solid materials, we never see instantaneous speeds of causal interactions.

Another example Kant gave was one in which a lead ball lies on a cushion and simultaneously causes the effect of an indentation or “hollow” in the cushion.  Again, in order for the ball to cause a dent in the cushion in the first place it had to be moved into the cushion which took some finite amount of time.  Likewise with the previous example, Relativity prevents any simultaneous causation of this sort.  We can see this by noting that at the molecular level, as the electron orbitals from the lead ball approach those of the cushion, the change in the strength of the electric field between the electron orbitals of the two objects can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and thus as the ball moves toward the cushion and eventually “touches” it, the increased strength of the repulsion takes some amount of time to be realized.

One last example I’ve seen given by defenders of simultaneous causation is that of a man sitting down, thus forming a lap.  That is, as the man sits down, and his knees bend, a lap is created in the process, and we’re told that the man sitting down is the cause and the formation of the lap is the simultaneous effect.  Unfortunately, this example also fails because the man sitting down and the lap being formed are really nothing more than two different descriptions of the same event.  One could say that the man formed a lap, or one could say that the man sat down.  Clearly the intentions behind the man were most likely to sit down rather than to form a lap, but nevertheless forming a lap was incidental in the process of sitting down.  Both are describing different aspects of the same event, and thus there aren’t two distinct causal relatum in this example.  In the previous examples mentioned (the fire and heated room or ball denting a cushion), if there are states described that occur simultaneously even after taking Relativity into account, they can likewise be shown to be merely two different aspects or descriptions of the same event.  Even if we could grant that simultaneous causation were possible (which so far, we haven’t seen any defensible examples in the real world), how can we assign causal priority to determine which was the cause and which was the effect?  In terms of the KCA, one could ask, if the cause (C) of the universe occurred at the same time as the effect (E) or existence of the universe, how could one determine if C caused E rather than the other way around?  One has to employ circular argumentation in order to do so, by invoking other metaphysical assumptions in the terms that are being defined which simply begs the question.

Set Theory & Causal Relations

Another problem with the second premise of the KCA is that even if we ignore the cosmological models that refute it, and even ignore the problematic concept of simultaneous causation altogether, there is an implicit assumption that the causal properties of the “things” in the universe also apply to the universe as a whole.  This is fallacious because one can’t assume that the properties of members of a set or system necessarily apply to the system or entire set as a whole.  Much work has been done within set theory to show that this is the case, and thus while some properties of the members or subsets of a system can apply to the whole system, not all properties necessarily do (in fact some properties applying to both members of a set and to the set as a whole can lead to logical contradictions or paradoxes).  One of the properties that is being misapplied here involves the concept of “things” in general.  If we try to consider the universe as a “thing” we can see how this is problematic by noting that we seem to define and conceptualize “things” with causal properties as entities or objects that are located in time and space (that’s an ontology that I think is pretty basic and universal).  However, the universe as a whole is the entirety of space and time (i.e. spacetime), and thus the universe as a whole contains all space and time, and thus can’t itself (as a whole) be located in space or time.

Since the universe appears to be composed of all the things we know about, one might say that the universe is located within “nothing” at all, if that’s at all intelligible to think of.  Either way, the universe as a whole doesn’t appear to be located in time or space, and thus it isn’t located anywhere at all.  Thus, it technically isn’t a “thing” at all, or at the very least, it is not a thing that has any causal properties of its own, since it isn’t located in time or space in order to have causal relations with other things.  Even if one insists on calling it a thing, despite the problems listed here, we are still left with the problem that we can’t assume that causal principles found within the universe apply to the universe as a whole.  So for a number of reasons, premise two of the KCA fails.  Since both premises fail for a number of reasons, the conclusion no longer follows.  So even if the universe does in fact have a cause, in some way unknown to us, the KCA doesn’t successfully support such a claim with its premises.

Is the Kalam Circular?

Yet another problem that Dan Barker and others have pointed out involves the language used in the first premise of the KCA.  The clause, “everything that begins to exist”, implies that reality can be divided into two sets: items that begin to exist (BE) and items that do not begin to exist (NBE).  In order for the KCA to work in arguing for God’s existence, the NBE set can’t be empty.  Even more importantly, it must accommodate more than one item to avoid simply being a synonym for God, for if God is the only object or item within NBE, then the premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is equivalent to “everything except God has a cause”.  This simply puts God into the definition of the premise of the argument that is supposed to be used to prove God’s existence, and thus would simply beg the question.  It should be noted that just because the NBE set must accommodate more than one possible item, this doesn’t entail that the NBE set must contain more than one item.  This specific problem with the KCA could be resolved if one could first show that there are multiple possible NBE candidates, followed by showing that of the multiple possible candidates within NBE, only one candidate is valid, and finally by showing that this candidate is in fact some personal creator, i.e., God.  If it can’t be shown that NBE can accommodate more than one item, then the argument is circular.  Moreover, if the only candidate for NBE is God, then the second premise “The universe began to exist” simply reduces to “The universe is not God”, which simply assumes what the argument is trying to prove.  Thus if the NBE set is simply synonymous with God, then the Kalam can be reduced to:

(1) Everything except God has a cause;

(2) The universe is not God;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

As we can see, this syllogism is perfectly logical (though the conclusion only follows if the premises are true which is open to debate), but this syllogism is entirely useless as an argument for God’s existence.  Furthermore, regarding the NBE set, one must ask, where do theists obtain the idea that this NBE set exists?  That is, by what observations and/or arguments is the possibility of beginningless objects justified?  We don’t find any such observations in science, although it is certainly possible that the universe itself never began (we just don’t have observations to support this, at least, not at this time) and the concept of a “beginningless universe” is in fact entirely consistent with many eternal cosmological models that have been proposed, in which case the KCA would still be invalidated by refuting premise two in yet another way.  Other than the universe itself potentially being an NBE (which is plausible, though not empirically demonstrated as of yet), there don’t appear to be any other possible NBEs, and there don’t appear to be any observations and/or arguments to justify proposing that any NBEs exist at all (other than perhaps the universe itself, which would be consistent with the law of conservation of mass and energy and/or the Quantum Eternity Theorem).

The KCA Fails

As we can see, the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails for a number of reasons, and thus is unsuccessful in arguing for the existence of God.  Thus, even though it may very well be the case that some god exists and did in fact create the universe, the KCA fails to support such a claim.

Here’s an excellent debate between the cosmologist Sean Carroll and the Christian apologist William Lane Craig which illustrates some of the problems with the KCA, specifically in terms of evidence found within cosmology (or lack thereof).  It goes without saying that Carroll won the debate by far, though he could certainly have raised more points in his rebuttals than he did.  Nevertheless, it was entertaining and a nice civil debate with good points presented on both sides.  Here’s another link to Carroll’s post debate reflections on his blog.