Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Apologetics of Pantheism

To any readers that I may still have: I apologize that it has been so long since I have posted. Those of you who are familiar with this blog know that it is more or less a thought-journal. These posts are not rigorous, though they are often technical. This does not mean that the thoughts themselves are not rigorous. Rather, it means that I expect the reader to do some of the work in reaching the same conclusions I do. Anyhow, the informal nature of this blog should suggest that it is something of an experimental test-grounds. My notions are often controversial, and I like to use this space to lay them out in fuller detail than I normally would in conversation. In short, one simply cannot remember everything, so one must begin to write.

The long hiatus is not because I have run out of ideas. Far from it. Rather, I have been spending my time researching and branching out into other fields. Now that I am no longer pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, I have discovered that my interests are quite broad: it is these interests which I am now developing. I am also developing my thoughts on them. When I have developed my thoughts on these subjects, I will post about them.

This post is the first in a series of posts which seek to explain to a reader what a consistent pantheistic spiritual position would look like. In my philosophico-spiritual journey, I have arrived at a zen-influenced pantheism underpinned by Wittgenstein, Collingwood, and a broad notion of fictionalism (or "virtualism" as some call it). The series includes five posts whose subjects will be as follows:

1. Rational Support and Apologetics
2. Theology
3. Creation Story
4. Prayer and Ritual
5. Ethics

1. Rational Support and Apologetics

Why am I a Pantheist? To answer this question is to answer two questions embedded into a single one: Why am I a theist? and Why do I believe that God is everything?

1.1 Medieval Proofs of God's Existence

I am a theist not because I find myself compelled by any proof of God that I have ever seen. I find these proofs to be uncompelling because they all make critical assumptions of the nature of the world. The famous five proofs of Aquinas all make the Prime Mover Assumption. The Prime Mover Assumption is the the assumption that large-scale events which we imagine via metaphor to be congruent to events typically caused by human action are, themselves, caused by some large-scale being similar to a human. So the appearance of design in the natural universe suggests a designer (the metaphor of human action); the infinite causal chain suggests a first causer (the metaphor of free-will); the apparent teleological nature of the world suggests a being driving it to its end; etc. These arguments all make the mistake of sharply defining the very entity for which they are searching. They also assume the small-scale notions (such as freedom) have large-scale doppelgangers. For these reasons, they are more like scientific experiments than proofs. They make some assumptions and then test human reason to discover whether these assumptions lead to a favorable test result (does God exist?). In short, these proofs are too narrow in scope and they ignore too much evidence.

The ontological proof, on the other hand, strikes me as entirely pathetic. There is no reason to think that humans have any such concept as "the being than which no greater can be thought." We might imagine a being and apply the label to it because we are hoping that such a concept really does exist. But it is obvious that it doesn't make sense: there is no objective standard by which to measure "greatness". And it is this word which effectively sneaks God into the proof. Whatever else God is, he is certainly great (says the theist), so it is his standard of greatness which informs our standard of greatness: circularity. Without God fixing his own standard of measurement, then we have no reason to think that the being imagined is God. Perhaps "greatest" is largest. We will have Sun-worshippers. Perhaps "greatest" is greediest. We will have divine dictators. Etc. Etc. If there exists any compelling proof, it is the inexplicability of the genesis of life and matter.

1.2 A Modern Proof?

While I have seen compelling arguments that the Big Bang did not, in fact, happen; the question is not as crucial as most think. If it did happen -- that is, if all matter and energy erupted into existence rather than maintaining eternal existence -- then either there is another being outside the universe which caused it or else the universe itself caused it. The simpler explanation is that the universe caused its own creation. This explanation is typically thought to be nonsensical because no being is known to cause its own creation. Creation is always creation by another. It is for this reason that creation by an external God is often adopted: we can allow God to be eternal and uncreated, thus avoiding the problem of a self-creator. Hence, if the Big Bang happened, we have two options: if we can accept the existence of a self-creator, then the universe caused its own existence; if we cannot, then we must posit an external being with which we have no direct contact (for we cannot escape the universe). Most theists go the second route, so they experience major problems in their efforts to define God. We have no direct access, so really we can only guess.

Suppose the Big Bang did not happen? Well we have another genesis to deal with: the genesis of life. This is equally unexplained because no random event has yet generated a strand of DNA, which all life forms (and even viruses) have. Nor have proteins been randomly generated. These critical molecules are basic building blocks of life which seem to have simply appeared in the universe without good explanation. Either (1) they created themselves, (2) the universe created them, or (3) a being external to the universe created them. But because DNA strands are part of the universe, (1) and (2) effectively collapse into a single alternative: (part of) the universe created (part of) itself. Typically, theists again choose the mystical, inaccessible alternative.

So if the Big Bang happened, the universe was either self-created or another being (possibly eternal) created it. If it did not happen, then the universe is eternal and uncreated. Even so, the existence of life demands explanation as much as the existence of the universe: Big Bang or not, we are still confronted with the notion of a creator.

1.3 Pantheism vs. the External God

The simplest explanation, then, is pantheism -- unless there cannot exist a self-creator. But if it can be demonstrated that there exists a self-creator within the universe, then it must not be impossible that the universe itself is a self-creator. If we have evidence that such a thing exists, then it must not be as logically impossible is many philosophers will have us believe.

Interestingly, there exists such a being. The first act of any conscious being its coming into consciousness. A human being fully becomes a human being (read: a child grows up) when it becomes aware of itself as a human being. This is the very act of self-creation. It is not an inevitable event during a human lifetime, because there are many persons who never emerge from childhood. It is an event that one chooses to enact. Nevertheless, it is not an absolute act of self-creation because it always occurs within the context of a community which contributes to the choice. So the community and the individual collaborate in the act of creating consciousness. Nothing else need be credited with causing consciousness because, as physicalists love to remind us, the physical world does not need consciousness in order to continue operating: physical causes seem to be quite sufficient to drive all the events in the universe. And yet we are conscious. While I believe this physicalist story to be an oversimplification, suffice it to say that there seem to be very few actions which are directly impacted by conscious activity: most of the time we are merely reacting based on prior conscious precedent. Consciousness, like life and matter before it, seems to have burst onto the scene without any particular reason. Yet, we have direct experience of its creation. As its creators, we know that we are the ones who choose to become conscious (this applies to anything about which we may become conscious: an eminent lifestyle change, a major breakthrough in self-knowledge, etc.).

In any case, this is a metaphor for the kind of self-creation I have in mind. The means by which an entity creates itself is specific to the kind of entity that it is. Consciousness thinks itself into existence. Matter and energy burst themselves into existence. Life organizes itself into existence. Each of these entities has a different modus operandi, and it is according to the modus that the entity acts -- even if the act is an act of self-creation. It is these metaphors which support my conclusion that self-creation is not a nonsensical notion.

Consequently, I am a theist because I find the evidence for some form of creation (be it matter, life, or consciousness) to be compelling. I am a pantheist because Occam's razor prevents me from adopting extravagant theologies.

1 comment:

Gorm said...

Long time, no read. But my google reader does not forget.

The topics you are exploring in this series are close to my heart, but sadly, they have become almost strangers to my mind. So I'm glad you bring them up. And I'm looking forward to the next posts. The titles look promising!