CURRENT READING – WE ARE NOT ALONE

We Are Not AloneNational Geographic, March 20191

“There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours…we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world.” – Epicurus.

 

The March 2019 issue of National Geographic includes this article which updates us on the scientific efforts at finding evidence of life on other worlds and particularly intelligent life (known as SETI or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). For over 50 years scientists have been using radiotelescopes to scan the heavens for evidence of radio signals from other advanced civilizations without success. However the existence of other planets was confirmed in 1995, when 51 Pegasi b was discovered. Using the now silent Keppler Space Telescope, over 4000 exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have since been identified with about 25% being earth-sized and in the habitable zone of their stars. Projecting the Keppler data, there should be at least 25 billion such planets in our galaxy alone.

Current efforts at finding alien life are now directed at identifying biosignatures -physicochemical features consistent with life such as atmospheric oxygen and methane – and technosignatures –similar analyses suggesting civilization such as presence of pollutants – on exoplanets. There is also interest in sending tiny computers powered by solar sails to the nearest star systems. (The reader is referred to the article itself for more detail.) The author, Jamie Shreeve, closes with the titillating phrase, “… the first intimation of life from a distant planet feels thrillingly close.”

For the most part the article avoids the philosophical implications of the eventual demonstration of life and intelligence beyond Earth, but in an amazing coincidence, last week I happened upon a book at New Haven Books in Melbourne, Florida, titled Are We Alone?2, by Paul Davies, an Australian professor of natural philosophy, published in 1995. Davies explores the history of speculation on life beyond Earth, openly discussed by the ancient Greek atomists such as Epicurus (see quote above). In the seventeenth century, Richard Bentley reasoned God would not have made so many stars invisible to the naked eye for us, but rather for their nearby inhabitants, while Christiaan Huygens thought it befit the deity to endow other worlds with intelligent life. More recently people have been intrigued by the possibility that UFOs are evidence of aliens from other star systems

(continued next post)

Share this post:

SYNOPSIS ON THE QUESTION OF GOD (CONT’D)

In the last post, we began our summary by noting the inconclusiveness of  logical and subjective arguments for and against the existence of God, and revisiting our synthesis based on the question of why there is something instead of nothing, relationship with God, concerns regarding established religions, and the possibility of pantheism.

In the latter case of pantheism, there remains for us the hope that the universe may be the physical manifestation of a conscious being. If the human brain with its compact complexity has consciousness, perhaps the far more complex universe has consciousness not immediately apparent to us. In that case, the ultimate or totality of being of the Upanishads and Tillich, has a consciousness intertwined with its physical nature as occurs in humans. However, unlike us, it is indestructible as demonstrated by the laws of Thermodynamics and hence eternal. But perhaps it is also timeless as it includes facets (i.e. immaterial reality and its consciousness) beyond the physical universe where space-time is instantiated. In that case, our best means to understand God’s nature is by a combination of inspection (science) and introspection (meditation).

The philosopher, Daniel Robinson, in his lecture God-Really? expresses beautifully the choice between atheism and theism. He deploys pragmatism on the line of “inference to the best explanation- why is reality lawful, not lawless? A designer is the most logical explanation.” And then proceeds:

“One might ask …what one would chose as between a dead cosmos of meaningless statistical possibilities and one alive with promise and nurturing of hope. Now I would regard it as simply curmudgeonly to choose the former. Let me say it again we have these two choices,…we can choose to believe that the universe is a place of dead matter describable in purely statistical terms and having no point. There are arguments to that effect. But there are also warrants by way of Thomas Aquinas and many other arguments…for believing that the design feature, the nomic necessity, all of those things that allow one to negotiate space and time…offer ample evidence of design, intention, plan, intelligence. Remember that the Greek word, logos, can be translated as reason; it can be translated as a legal case. If two people are having a legal dispute in ancient Athens we would express the point of the dispute as its logos. And so the biblical phrase might have been translated not ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ but ‘In the beginning was the point of it all.’ There are good arguments for assuming the whole thing has a point, and that that point points ultimately to a divine and providential source. So that’s another conceivable scheme that we might entertain as to what the universe is all about. I choose that one. And so ‘God- really?’ Well, yeah –really.”

It is extremely tempting to follow Leibniz, Einstein, Becker, and Robinson. It is both more reasonable and more propitious to attribute the origin of everything to God as designer rather than austere chance. It corresponds better with the human disposition and offers more in terms of purpose, ethical foundation, contentment, and apotheosis… But the final decision remains to each alone.

 

1From A Conversation with Ernest Becker, Psychology Today, April 1974. Sam Keen interviewed Becker, the author of The Denial of Death, on his death bed.

2Robinson, Daniel R., The Great Ideas of Philosophy, Lecture 60: God-Really?. The Teaching Company, 2004.

 

Share this post:

SYNOPSIS ON THE QUESTION OF GOD

“I would add the qualification that I believe in God…the most immediate thing I feel is relieved of the burden of responsibility for my own life, putting it back where it belongs, giving it back to whoever or whatever hatched me. I feel a great sense of relief and trust that eggs are not hatched in vain.” –Ernest Becker1

In the last seven sections, I have delineated an overview of the basic issues related to the question of God. Logical proofs of God’s existence or non-existence prove unconvincing, although existential proofs incline to belief since arguments against His existence are in fact logical attacks on his traditional characteristics rather than existence per se.

Subjective warrants for the belief in God such as spiritual or mystical experiences are also unpersuasive (other than to the one who experiences them), but incline to belief as they are not counterbalanced by  an opposite. That is, other than passing feelings of a meaningless of life or the universe, it seems peculiar to assert the experience of God’s nonexistence.

In Truth in Religion, Mortimer Adler claims that philosophy demonstrates the existence of a ‘single supreme being as the indispensable, creative, or exnihilating cause of the cosmos.’ My analysis shows a careful synthesis of the logical and scientific answers to Leibniz’s question of why there is something rather than nothing leads one to the best answer that God, defined as the origin of the universe, does in fact exist. However traditional characteristics attributed to God appear to be at best metaphorical, although they can be reformulated as I did in the Table 3 in the Appendix or abandoned by applying the via negativa.

Once established, belief in God opens the door to interaction through prayer and advanced experience of the divine through meditation and contemplation. Historical practitioners describe these latter experiences as blissful and life-altering. One may want to investigate these further if the goal is the maximally meaningful life.

Religion however represents a philosophical challenge; especially as the truth of each is unverifiable and excludes the truth of the others. Religions depend on faith, often attributed to divine grace, which is contrary to justification by pure human reasoning. They result is a restrictive and questionable formulaic philosophy which may fail the need of an individual for planning a meaningful life.

This leads some to the alternatives of atheism and agnosticism, which remain difficult to defend if the preceding philosophical analysis is correct. However, that analysis does permit deism or pantheism. The latter appears to be the belief of Albert Einstein when he says: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”

(continued next post)

Share this post:

GOD – A PERSONAL SYNTHESIS – PART III

“He is neither number nor order; not greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is He still, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity, nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is he science  nor truth, nor a king, nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness; nor is he spirit according to our understanding, nor a son, nor a father ; nor anything else known to us…” – Dionysius, the Aeropagite 1

Given the conclusion that God, defined as the origin of the universe, does exist in one of the three forms, an inevitable question follows: is each of them compatible with the traditional idea of God and purported relationship of man to Him?   Let’s examine the traditional characteristics attributed to God which include:

1.   Eternal or timeless and necessarily existent

    2.   Highest or ultimate being

    3.  Changeless

    4.   Unitary

    5.   Omniscient (all-knowing)

    6.   Omnipotent (all-powerful)

    7.   Omni-benevolent (all-good)

    8.   Personal

    9.   Creative

Table 3 in the  appendix is my table of these traditional characteristics applied to the three possible forms of God. In general, I see no philosophical necessity for any of these terms to be absolute in the anthropomorphic sense that leads to logical inconsistency. For instance, omniscient need not mean a mind knowing what will happen in advance, but instead that all material and immaterial knowledge is held within the confines of the entity which constitutes God. Applying human parameters to the characteristics to God appears arbitrary or naive. Rather it should be the aim of man to understand as precisely as possible the characteristics of God as they manifest in  such a distinct being.

The medieval philosopher, Maimonides, in his book, The Guide for the Perplexed, points this out, arguing that biblical passages about God’s traits and behavior are metaphorical not literal, which I believe should be the approach to reconciling traditional descriptions of God’s features and actions. More importantly curiosity to understand and relate to God does not require a complete knowledge of divine properties.

Some early mystical Western  theologians take this further arguing that God can only be known by the via negativa. By this they mean, God is better understood as unlike common human experience, for instance, God is neither material nor immaterial. In this view, God’s qualities are not adjectives like those that apply to man – i.e. moral or immoral, mortal or immortal, personal or non-personal – but above or beyond such attributes. God cannot be seen by the eyes or known by the intellect, but only through a mystical transcendence. While this relies on a component of faith, the philosopher can reasonably assert that an entity comprising all being including the part unknown to man can only be imprecisely described in human terms.

This leaves the difficult issue of deciding whether purported spiritual and mystical experiences are in fact an experience of the divine. If and when these occur, each of us will have to determine how closely they fulfill our comprehension of God as origin of the universe. If the universe is either identical to God or is one of His manifestations, spiritual experiences seem to be a prefatory but vivid experience of the divine.

1Abhayananda, Swami, History of Mysticism, Atma Books, Olympia Washington. ISBN 0-914557-09-2,  pages 157-158

Share this post:

GOD – A PERSONAL SYNTHESIS – PART II

“Both religion and science need for their activities the belief in God, and moreover God stands for the former in the beginning, and for the latter at the end of the whole thinking. For the former, God represents the basis, for the latter – the crown of any reasoning concerning the world-view.”- Max Planck,  physicist and Nobel laureate

At the end of the day, we must decide which alternative seems most likely:

1.  An eternal but unexplained quantum flux led to a multiplicity of universes out of nothingness – at least one of which by chance permits the existence of life in general and ourselves specifically.

2.  The universe itself is eternal, notwithstanding scientific evidence of an origin in the big bang.

3.  There is an eternal agent, unexplained and unverifiable, which created or originated the universe.

Alternatively stated, if we define God as the origin of the universe, then God is either (1) the quantum flux or its cause, (2) the universe (or multiverse) itself, or (3) an eternal, unexplained, and unverifiable creator. For now, each reader will have to come to terms with these choices. It seems to me that each is reasonable and for the near future at least unprovable.

Up till now we have been talking about the origin of the material universe. Of course reality has a non-material nature as well, for example: mathematics, physical laws, ideas, imagination, abstract qualities such as beauty and justice, musical and literary composition, and perhaps consciousness. Traditionally God is not just the cause of the material universe, but also the source of the immaterial – via a property called by some in the West, logos  and some in the East, TaoOne of the weaknesses of scientific conceptions of the origin of the universe is that the immaterial remains unexplained or merely a fabrication of the human mind. But it seems a stretch to argue that the number π which does not exist in nature can be attributed solely to the human mind.

If we then revert back to the original question, “Why is there anything at all?”; for whichever cause we choose- the operative concept is necessary existence – a philosophical term that means a thing must exist by virtue of its own essence.  As Kant taught us, the word necessary is a category used by the human mind contrasted with possible and impossible. So to solidify this argument I would add that we should understand necessity uniquely in this instance, that is, any eternal being contains is in its essence the quality of necessary existence. Or in other words, an eternal being is by definition necessarily existent.

This leads us to a final conclusion – God does exist as the eternal and necessary ‘being’ that explains the universe, either the universe or multiverse itself or a creator impenetrable by current scientific means.

Share this post:

GOD – A PERSONAL SYNTHESIS – PART I

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

We now reach the difficult point of choosing a personal understanding of God’s existence, nature, and relationship to man.

It seems best to me to  transpose the question from a proof of God’s existence to a choice of the answer to the perplexing question of why there is something rather than nothing. Here are all the possible answers as I see it:

1.  The question is nonsensical.

2.  I don’t know.

3.  There just is.

4.  It cannot be known.

5.  Something may come from nothing.

6.  Something has always existed.

Each person will have to choose one of these answers, and since none is certain, it may be best to challenge each. First, is the question nonsensical? Logical positivists like A. J. Ayer certainly felt so but if this version of the question is the problem, we can change it to the simpler version,  “What caused there to be anything?” Most of us understand the words in the question with no difficulty, so the only conflict I can see is that the word “anything” implies a multitude in which case the cause of each may be different. On the other hand it seems unreasonable or disingenuous to argue that the search for the origin of all of the subatomic particles and energy that make up the universe is nonsensical when cosmology and physics continue to do exactly that.

Answers 2, 3 and 4 are essentially corollaries of each other, and may justify a need for more study or reflection, but also appear to be inconsistent with  modern scientific efforts as well.

Answers 5 and 6 seem to be the best choices for consideration by the earnest philosopher. That something can come from nothing appears to be illogical, but modern quantum science suggests that in a quantum flux, from time to time there will appear particles of matter and antimatter – hence something can come from “nothing.” This solution  leads to three problems:

(1) Where did the quantum flux come from?  (Isn’t the quantum flux something?)

(2) How can matter be created “from time to time” when time is a part of the fabric of space that would not yet exist?

(3) Statistically, the quantum flux would require an unimaginably large number of episodes of formation of matter before creating the singularity that led to our universe, thus requiring a massive if not infinite number of quantum events and resultant structures – which seems far more complex and less credible than an act of intentional creation .

Of course the possibility of an eternal creator has difficulties as well – there is the issue of explaining the nature or basis of the creator (presumably God) . There is no scientific justification for such an entity, and it defies investigation or scrutiny. The advantage of this choice is its simplicity as an explanation and the lack of requirement for the multitude of unknown universes.

The last possibility that the universe itself is eternal reality appears inconsistent with the fairly well-accepted theory of its origin in the big bang.

 

Share this post:

ALTERNATIVE BELIEF REGARDING GOD (CONTINUED)

Pantheism is the belief that everything that exists constitutes a unity and that this all-inclusive unity is divine. It appears to be the position of some ancient Greek philosophers (the Eleatic school), the Vedas of India, several 18th century German idealists including Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, but was perhaps developed most impressively by Baruch Spinoza. He argues that the structure of the universe involves only one substance (not a multiplicity) – which is ‘God’ and ‘Nature.’ God is the immanent cause of the world and divine by virtue of being the source of the infinite, uncaused and eternal. Opponents note that there does not appear to be a unity of things except in the predicate of existing, but existence is not a genus. Also the traditional concepts of divinity cannot be demonstrated by virtue of simple causality or duration.3

Finally there is the naturalistic reformulation of religion where one believes there is no supernatural reality, but one can substitute it with worship of nature meaning either (1) man’s prior achievements and ability – known as religious humanism, or (2) nonhuman nature. August Comte, the famous 19th century Positivist, following the former approach developed a religion modeled on Roman Catholicism, but based on service to humanity as the noblest ideal and universal love as the highest happiness. John Dewey embraced a less structured religious humanism where God can be seen as “the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and action.”

Alternatively, Julian Huxley proposed ‘Evolutionary Naturalism’ where the universe is seen as an indefinitely extending creative process and man serves as the chief agent in this process on Earth. Opponents including atheists such as Russell and Sartre counter that these views of religion makes no factual judgments at all, that man is a pallid substitute for God, and that they reflect a lingering attachment to traditional religion.4

This completes our brief review of the arguments and positions considered by most philosophers on the question of God. As in many philosophical areas, there is no certainty, but the importance of religious experience and the need for an ethical approach to ultimate reality will require a choice or even a decision not to choose. Personal reflection may incline you to one or another choice, but if not, the next three posts offer my formulation based on years of cogitation.

 

1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.26.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, pages 56-59.

3Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 6, page 31-35.

4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 7, page  145-147.

 

 

 

 

Share this post:

ALTERNATIVE BELIEF REGARDING GOD

“Reason does not prove to us that God exists, but neither does it prove that he cannot exist.” – Miguel de Unamuno

Many people on reflection do not come to a traditional belief in God. There are a variety of alternatives which we will now discuss.

The first is Atheism, which actually has two meanings: (1) the belief that there is no God, and (2) the belief there is no personal God.1 The historical use of the term is the second meaning while modern proponents typically are using the literal (first) meaning.  Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Jean Paul Sartre are among the most famous atheist philosophers. Buddha also appeared to deny the existence of God.

Atheism does not rest on proof, but rather the assumption that it is unnecessary or irrational to postulate the existence of God when there is no direct evidence or proof of God’s existence; and the universe can be explained without resorting to the supernatural. This creates a logical inconsistency as it requires a different faith – that overall reality requires no explanation if each part or event can be explained and that the spontaneous appearance of the universe or an infinite regress in cause is possible.

Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of God or that we do not know whether there is a God or not. It dates back to the skeptics of antiquity, was implied by Confucius in The Analects, and was argued vigorously by David Hume, but the term was coined by T.H. Huxley in the 19th century who based it on the theory that the human mind is too limited to know God.

Theoretically this leaves space for faith without knowledge of God, though this is not usual with Agnostics. However here two is an inconsistency:  since the Agnostic grants the existence of two types of reality – the knowable reality of human experience; and an unknowable reality beyond the human mind – the proposition of a deity is in fact a reasonable consequence of the latter (that is a divine mind that apprehends what is unknowable to the human mind).

Nonetheless, the inability of philosophy or theology to develop a generally accepted demonstration of the existence of God is a powerful argument in favor the agnostic position.

(continued next post)

Share this post:

RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD – PART III

“[In the highest degree of contemplation] the Soul not only becomes happy by the gift of philosophy, but since, so to speak, it becomes God, it becomes happiness itself.” – Marsilio Ficino

Beyond common prayer and incidental spiritual experience is the highest level of relationship to God or ultimate reality through meditation and contemplation. These forms of mystical undertaking are one of the reasons some believe in God, but are also methods proposed by great spiritualists to connect with the divine.

Meditation is the term used in Eastern philosophy for the process of “concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power… training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.” Therein we discover that we are not the body or the mind, and find through a “transcendental mode of knowing.” that we are a consciousness with an unbounded connection to the universe.1 For Hindus and Buddhists, the goal is enlightenment and Moksha or release from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). However this form of meditation is not aimed specifically at interacting with God.

For Christians and other religions, meditation can progress to contemplation.  Thomas Merton, a twentieth century Trappist monk,  defines it as “the union of our mind and will with God in an act of pure love that brings us into obscure contact with Him as He really is.”It is  “an awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.”3

Preliminary steps according to Merton are self-discipline and asceticism, detachment from exterior matters and goods, escape from the ‘false self,’ humility, and selfless love for others. The process is one of multiple steps including solitude, silence, emptying of the mind, and prayer for your own discovery. There is a darkness, unknowing, or wilderness before the light of God’s infusion. A spiritual guide may help one avoid the many pitfalls and confusion that results during the ascent.

Paul Tillich is perhaps less mystical when he refers to “contemplating the mystery of the divine ground, considering the infinity of the divine life, intuiting the marvel of the divine creativity, adoring the inexhaustible meaning of the divine self-manifestation – all these experiences are related to God without involving an explicit ego-thou relation.”4

You may wonder whether a philosophy site should discuss a specific religious act like contemplation of the divine which defies scientific or philosophical validation. My justification is the vital place of meditation and contemplation in the history of philosophy. Virtually every Eastern tradition identifies meditation as the means to peace, enlightenment or nirvana. The contemplative life is Aristotle’s ideal of eudaimonia, that is, human flourishing. Pythagoras, Plotinus, Spinoza, and other Western philosophers seem to practice a form of meditation, and the great works of Marcus Aurelius and Descartes are known as Meditations. Christian philosophers like St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, and Merton, and Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila, experienced an indescribable union with the divine. Sufis, such as Mawlana Jalal-al Din Rumi, also describe such a union as breathtaking and life-changing. This supreme of human experiences, if real, must be a consideration in any program of a meaningful life, at least for those who believe in God.

 1Easwaran, Eknath, Meditation.Nilgiri Press, 1991. ISBN 0-915132-66-4, pgs. 8-28.

2Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8112-1724-8, pg. 214.

3Ibid. pg. 4.

4Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol 1 pg. 289.

Share this post:

RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD – PART II

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” – Immanuel Kant,

Spiritual experiences (also called ‘peak experiences’) are another putative interaction with the God and the religious. A spiritual experience is an intense feeling of being uplifted, moved, or inspired often by a calm appreciation of beauty, nature, ideas, or the divine. About one third of the population admits to such experiences which typically include awareness of something larger than oneself, oneness, connection, awe, bliss, love, peace, or insight. Researchers have identified positive impacts from spiritual experiences that can be life changing and give a sense of meaning and purpose.1

These experiences are traditionally elicited by sacred places such as churches, holy relics, or absorption in natural beauty. One has an unmediated and impartial apprehension like that of a young child, but more intense. One is left speechless, and time seems to stand still. Religious experts claim they are facilitated in those who make themselves loving, pure in heart, humble, detached, and connect to the interior self.

If you have ever traveled to a peak in the Rockies, scuba-dived in the Caribbean, peered at the Milky Way in an unlit rural area, sat alone quietly in a large Gothic Church, listened intently to a truly beautiful piece of music, or beheld one of many similar sensations, you likely know the speechless wonder and transcendence that results. From personal experience, I can only say it is difficult to explain, but it feels like a fusing of reality, self, and time into a unit and a meaning which is unforgettable.

And spiritual experience is not antithetical to science – consider the following from Albert Einstein:

“…whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances in this domain [science], is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur or reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understating of life.”5

Therefore even in the absence of religion or church participation, we can increase our spirituality and spiritual experiences through communion with nature, study of the universe, reflection on existence, detachment from our everyday concerns, and opening a door to our inner self through love, humility, and virtue. Unexpected benefits of discovered meaning and purpose may follow.

1Henry, Jane, Quieting the Mind and Low Arousal Routes to Happiness in The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, edited by Susan David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers. Oxford University Press, 2015. Chapter 32; pages 411-421.

2Einstein, Albert, Out of My Later Years. Philosophical Library, New York, 1950, page 29.

Share this post: