# Against Pantheism

In the comment mines I suggested, off-handedly, three possible metaphysical explanations for consciousness, without endorsing any of them.

A reader John responds to one of these suggestions:

To my primitive mind, this seems to be the most valid argument:

3. In fact, it is not possible to explain consciousness from nonconscious entities. Therefore, the most fundamental thing in existence is a mind, and we are parts of that mind. Matter is just a delusion which this mind believes in for some unknown reason. (I don't find this view plausible at all, but that's not the point.)

This is a longstanding view from oriental philosophy, and it intrigues me why you don't find it plausible.

Thanks for your comment.  My main reason for finding this type of Pantheistic/Idealistic view implausible are these:

1. Matter sure seems like something with a real, consistent, and objective nature, quite unlike a dream.  For example, when I wake up my furniture and stuff is always in more or less the same place.  There are trees by the road whether or not I care for them to be there.  As a physicist I can make precise models of how matter will behave under certain circumstances, and in fact it does those things.  It does not consult my wishes except when I act on it using my body, and even then things do not always go according to plan.

Matter is a very parsimonious explanation of practically every experience I have.  So considering it a delusion seems unjustified.  And even if matter were a illusion, it must still exist as an illusion; if I hallucinate a blue tiger, there may not be a real tiger in the room but there is still a real image in my mind.  So saying matter is an illusion doesn't actually reduce the number of entities which need to be explained!  Actually it makes things worse, because I cannot think of any reason why God would have the type of schizophrenia required to think he is multiple persons living in a common environment.  Nor can in turn be an illusion that I suffer from illusions, since that would be a logical contradiction.

(Speaking very broadly—since there are many varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism—a lot of these oriental philosophies don't really believe in logic in the first place, or only use it to argue for contradictions, so that we give up our dualistic forms of logic.  But I could never accept that perspective on logic in a million years---there is literally nothing more illogical than denying the validity of logic!  I refuse to be insane.)

2. If we define God as the ultimate explanation for the Universe, which cannot itself be explained, then to say that everything is God is to say that nothing at all can be explained.  But if a view explains nothing, it is less good than a view which explains, well, anything!  I touched on this point in my discussion of Pantheism in my series on Fundamental Reality.

3. The actual Creator of the universe has spoken to me both in the Bible and in personal conversation, and he does not seem to regard other people as as part of himself in the requisite fashion.  To Moses, he says "I am who I am" (Exodus 3:16), not "I am who you are".  In fact he seems to disapprove of a number of specific things which human beings do—we Christians call these things "sin".  And as I have argued, if God is good and we are not, then it follows that we are not God.  To think that we are parts of God might be gratifying to our pride, but it is more wholesome to realize we are not God, and instead accept that we are created beings loved by him.  As St. Chesterton said:

I want to love my neighbour not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I.  I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one's self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.  If souls are separate love is possible.  If souls are united love is obviously impossible.  A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship.  If the world is full of real selves, they can be really unselfish selves. (Orthodoxy, "The Romance of Orthodoxy")

Only in the case of one human being did God identify himself so fully with him, as to allow him to share completely in his divine titles and identity.  And Jesus was no ordinary human, what with being the Word of God, who pre-existed with him from the beginning!  If we were divine beings, we would know it.

True, by receiving the gift of Jesus's Spirit, we do become by grace "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).  But this is not the same as being the unique and uncreated Son of God.  To be commune with God is not the same as to be God.

So it's important for the distinction between the Creator and created to be sharply distinguished from the beginning.  Once that's 100% clear, we can allow the mystics the liberty to speak the "language of love" concerning the intimate union between themselves and God, without fear of being misunderstood.  I could say to my wife that I am part of her and she is part of me, without either of us thinking that we must be the same person in a literal sense.

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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### 38 Responses to Against Pantheism

1. David says:

I remember reading in a book (that I've been trying really hard to find again) that ancient Jews/Isrealists had a specific word for somebody who associated God with the sin of the world (e.g., pantheism), it was considered quite blasphomous.

2. John says:

1. " Matter sure seems like something with a real, consistent, and objective nature, quite unlike a dream. For example, when I wake up my furniture and stuff is always in more or less the same place."

A dream is a dream because we wake up from it; that is we are aware of a higher state of consciousness. If we did not wake up from a dream, then it would seem very real. Similarly, the phenomenal world could be a persistent dream from which most people do not "wake up" from. Why don't they wake up? Because they have not made an effort to experience a higher state of consciousness, eg. divine. Because your furniture persists when you wake up does not make it real because it only persists on the short timescale of a human life (it's not forever). I mention this because one concept of what is "real" is that which does not change. The atoms which make up your furniture will eventually change to form some other substance.

2. "If we define God as the ultimate explanation for the Universe, which cannot itself be explained, then to say that everything is God is to say that nothing at all can be explained."

This is partly true. If God is the cause of the universe and also makes up the universe, then the only way to fully comprehend anything is to comprehend God. However, this does not prevent us from making models which can approximate some of our observations of nature. Your quote: "As a physicist I can make precise models of how matter will behave under certain circumstances, and in fact it does those things." is quite idealistic (I'm a theoretical biophysicist myself) . I would say physics allows us to find correlations between things which we observe, but it still leaves bigger questions unanswered... Why was anything created in the first place?

3. "The actual Creator of the universe has spoken to me both in the Bible and in personal conversation, and he does not seem to regard other people as as part of himself in the requisite fashion."

This is your best piece of evidence, which I cannot refute because I haven't had such an experience. I think the best thing for all of us is to commune with God directly :)

3. Aron Wall says:

There are some significant differences between dreams and reality, and often it is possible to tell you are dreaming. The continuity editing and the resolution are not nearly so good as in real life. Anyway we dream that there are objects because we have met them in waking life, so in this sense dreams is parasitic on the existence of actual matter.

Just because something changes does not make it not exist. And even if a "higher state of consciousness" is able to perceive additional realities, that hardly means the realities perceived by ordinary consciousness don't exist. Just because there are "deeper questions" to be answered doesn't mean that the answer to the shallow questions needs to change.

We only ever believe in anything because somehow it helps explain our experiences. I think it goes without saying that postulating the existence of matter explains some of our experiences. I'm having difficulty seeing what possible sane worldview could deny this.

As for the experience of God speaking in the Bible, I think you underestimate how easy it is to have this experience. You need only read the Bible, and you will experience God speaking to you! Granted, you might not believe that this is what is happening, that that the words you read were authored by the Holy Spirit, but in fact they are. And you can verify for yourself, without relying on any kind of mysticism, that in those parts of the Bible where God speaks in the first person (e.g in the prophets, or in those passages where Jesus claims to be divine), for the most part God speaks as though he were a separate person from us, criticizes our behavior while claiming to be holy himself, and in general treats us as if we were distinct beings from himself.

4. kashya says:

Dear Dr. Wall,
You probably know about recent debate about divinity on Sean Carroll’s blog. Someone on that blog gave a link to your interesting blog. I am in the process of reading your blogs. But one comment caught my eyes right away. I have to disagree strongly with it.
“Speaking very broadly—since there are many varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism—a lot of these oriental philosophies don't really believe in logic in the first place, or only use it to argue for contradictions, so that we give up our dualistic forms of logic. But I could never accept that perspective on logic in a million years---there is literally nothing more illogical than denying the validity of logic! I refuse to be insane.”
I am a retired physics professor of Indian (and Hindu) origin. Perhaps I do not have to convince you that modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, does not sound rational and logical when expressed in (non-mathematical) human languages. There have been debates going on for some 90 years about interpretation of quantum mechanics without any resolution. As we know, the main reason is that our intuition, logic and idea of what is rational and what is not rational are based on our everyday life which is strictly classical. Obviously, quantum mechanics does not make sense when compared to our everyday life. Our concept of divinity may be just like that. It does not make sense when compared with everyday life experiences. To my great surprise, eastern sages and yogic visionaries realized this truth when they talked about divinity defying logic, made out of mutually contradictory qualities and our world being an illusion. I am happy to note that eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are lot closer to modern science than Abrahamic western religions are. That may be the main reason why practitioners of these religions do not have any problem with modern science. In fact you will have hard time finding a single Indian (or someone from many other Asian countries) who believes in 6000 years old universe or is against Big Bang theory or theory of evolution. In a brief comment, I cannot explain very much. If you are interested please look at my guest blog :http://motls.blogspot.com/2014/04/hinduism-for-physicists.html
Thank you.

Sorry! My full name is Kashyap Vasavada

6. Robert Childress says:

Difficult to follow. Are you agreeing with Aron that "a lot of these oriental philosophies don't really believe in logic in the first place," but disagreeing that "there is literally nothing more illogical than denying the validity of logic"?

If so, do you recognize that Aron's perspective and your perspective cannot at the same time and in the same sense both be true?

How are you even arguing for a position if not attempting to use logic and, in so doing, tacitly defending the validity of logic?

@ Robert Childress
I have no problem with Wall's theistic philosophy based on Christianity. But I disagree with his interpretation of beliefs in Hinduism and Buddhism. My main point is the following:
"To my great surprise, eastern sages and yogic visionaries realized this truth when they talked about divinity defying logic, made out of mutually contradictory qualities and our world being an illusion. I am happy to note that eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are lot closer to modern science than Abrahamic western religions are. "
Concept of divinity may be like quantum mechanics. Quantum logic is not classical and it cannot be understood by applying our everyday notions. If you are reading Sean Carroll's blog, you know by now that there are 435 comments arguing and using our day to day logic to understand divinity. I am sure even if it goes to 435 trillion comments, there will not be any resolution! I am not saying that such discussions are not good. But I want to emphasize that we human beings and our brains are so insignificant in the universe (made out of matter less than 4% of the stuff in the universe) that it is highly arrogant and perhaps stupid to believe that what we can find with our sensory perceptions and argue with our classical brains is all there is in the universe!

8. Aron Wall says:

But kashyap, if our world is an illusion then doesn't that mean it is false that we have brains and that we evolved, and that the matter we are made out of is less than 4% of the stuff in the universe? How can it possibly be compatible with Science to say that the entities our scientific theories are about are illusory and do not really exist?

Of course I am happy to admit that our theories are only approximate models for describing what exists, but to me that is very different from saying that they are illusions.

Part of this boils down to what we mean by that word "logic", which sometimes means something quite strict (e.g. the Propositional Calculus) and other times just means "common sense ways of reasoning". I am actually quite sympathetic to the argument that, because quantum mechanics is deeply weird and counterintuitive, we should not be surprised at all if the divine is also very counterintuitive and weird. As you know, Christianity also endorses a number of paradoxical seeming beliefs about God, including that the God is both One and a Trinity, and that Jesus was simultaneously divine and human.

But if by logic we mean the Law of Noncontradiction (that some statement X cannot be both true and false, about one and the same thing, in the same way and the same respect) then I maintain that this is quite non-negotiable; to deny it seems even more irrational than believing that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. After all, I could imagine some evidence which could persuade me that Earth was not billions of years old, but without the Law of Noncontradiction I can't reason through mathematical proofs or physical evidence at all. No matter how much evidence I receive that a proposition is false, that would still be compatible with it being true!

As you know there are many different interpretations of QM. All of them are weird in one way or another, but if one of them requires me to give up the Law of Noncontradiction, then so much the worse for that interpretation; give me another one. To give up the Law of Noncontradiction is equivalent to admitting that there is a logical proof that your position is wrong, and I cannot think of any better reason to abandon a position.

So what are the implications for talk about divinity? I would suggest that we can include quite a large amount of paradox in our worldview, without actually denying the Law of Noncontradiction. With poetic license I can say "God is both X and not-X simultaneously" so long as I bear in mind that this type of paradox is a clue that X does not mean exactly the same thing in the first and second half of the statement. Even if I cannot wrap my brain around how God could be that way, that is not the same as saying it is a direct contradiction in terms. In technical Christian theology (as opposed to poetic speech) we generally try to avoid the appearence of contradiction by coining different words for the different things we are talking about (e.g. we say God is 3 persons in one essence, not that he is 3 persons in one person). I discussed this in more depth in the comments section to my post about the Chalcedonian Creed.

For Christians, even though we acknowledge we are talking about mysteries which go way beyond human understanding, it is also very important to us that God has actually revealed to us some definite things about who he is and what he has done. We acknowledge a role for paradox; but we also want to be able to say that certain things are incorrect and should be rejected. Otherwise it's not clear that we are really making any definite assertions at all.

By the way, I want to emphasize once again that I am not generalizing about all sects of Hinduism and Buddhism. As far as I can tell, you can find schools of Hinduism which teach almost every combination of beliefs about what God is like and how we relate to him. For example, Madhvacharya, the founder of the Dvaita school, taught a dualistic logic in which matter, souls, and God are all distinct entities, and that salvation consists of being in relationship to God, rather than by realizing that you are the same as him. This is much closer to the Judeo-Christian view than many other sects of Hinduism.

Dear Aron Wall:
Thank you for your detailed reply. I realize your blog is about a Christian physicist’s views. I should not fill it up with eastern (Hindu) philosophy! But to answer the comments, I will have to give some background (more details are given in my guest blog).
First of all, Hinduism (correct name is Sanatana Dharma) believes that there are thousand paths to realize God. So I would not argue against your Christian belief system. But I would just say that most Hindus would have hard time believing that Omnipresent, Omni temporal, Omnipotent God would suffer for our sins. As you know, according to Hindu concept of Karma, you and only you will bear consequences of your action, not your spouse, children, parents or anybody else in the universe. But my little knowledge of Christianity is only derived from watching TV shows!! So I better not say too much! At the commandment level, need for ethics, morality, love compassion etc. there is absolutely no disagreement. Anyway, now about the philosophical points on “logic” and “illusion” etc.:
Hinduism is thousands of years old and there are numerous belief systems (philosophies) within it. Personally, I favor the original ideas mentioned in scriptures such as Vedas and Upanishads. They talk about formless, shapeless, attributes less, non-judgmental, ultimate super consciousness, called Brahman as ultimate reality (synonymous with laws of nature). Part of it is present (manifested not created) in every particle of the universe. Expression of consciousness would be different in various living and non- living systems. In early Vedic period there were no deities. They tried to communicate with Brahman using altars (using natural elements) and meditations. The concept of deities came later for people who found it difficult to worship a formless Brahman. I do not have any problem in going to temples and participating in rituals worshipping deities. Many of my friends believe that these were actually Avatars (incarnations) of Brahman (God) who came to earth, typically to get rid of evil and establish good behavior. Although I am theist, I have difficult time realizing the meaning of such a God coming to earth in a human form. But I am willing to accept it in some symbolic form. To my mind concept of Jesus Christ may be similar.
As I mentioned before, description of Brahman in these scriptures is astonishingly similar to the description of particles in the universe such as (a quote from a scripture) “It moves and it moves not; it is far and it is near; it is within all this and it is also outside all this.” No wonder, founding fathers of quantum mechanics such as Schrodinger and Bohr were deeply interested in eastern philosophy. Also the Hindu cosmology states that the universe came from Brahman with properties of (quantum, my word) vacuum. I should emphasize that in eastern religions philosophy, metaphysics and rituals are all mixed together.
Well the world is “illusory” in some subtle sense. It is real for us in the sense that if we bump into a wall, there will be a gash in our forehead which is as real as one could imagine. But as you know most physicists arrive at the conclusion from Bell’s theorem and subsequent experiments that “the particles are in some kind of suspended state devoid of any specific properties until they are observed.” Physicists have to give up concept of reality to save locality! We can keep on using scientific method to discover science. Admittedly it has been extremely fruitful for the last several hundred years. But the scientific method (logic!!) has its limitations. Once you realize the limitations, it is fine to do science.
We have to give up our day to day logic in discussing quantum systems. The moment you ask a question about meaning of the equations we are using, we get into a metaphysical mess out of which people have not been able to come out in spite of 90 years of effort. I do not know if you believe in MWI. To me it sounds very much metaphysical. My suggestion is that, in agreement with ancient Indian wisdom, when talking about divinity we have to give up our everyday logic. Prof Don Page found out on Sean’s blog (497 comments as of today) that it is not possible to convince anyone who does not believe in divinity about divinity using Bayesian or whatever form of our classical life logic. In that sense, the yogic visionaries said that our logic just would not work! Concept of divinity may be like some things in Gödel’s theorems. I believe, you cannot prove or disprove existence of divinity by our everyday logic.
This has been a long comment. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to express my views on your blog.

Sorry, I forgot to mention one point. According to eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) one has to use extra sensory perceptions to understand divinity. These may be accessible by meditation. Science, as currently done, uses sensory data for experiments and analyses them using our normal (worldly!!) faculties of brain. So it would be self-consistent though limited within its domain. Extra sensory data are outside the domain of current science. One interesting point which I do not completely understand is the role of mathematics. It is also using our brain. Yet it has proved superior to our languages in dealing with modern physics. Quantum mechanics comes out OK in mathematical language, but looks absurd in human languages! Even the great Wigner had the problem of understanding “unusual effectiveness of mathematics”! I suppose a reason may be that mathematics is using some different part of brain! Or as Plato said mathematics may be out there in the universe! Why this is so is not clear to me! Perhaps Tegmark is right! Finally, I believe, our consciousness has something to do with the universal consciousness which is around us in the universe.

11. Aron Wall says:

Kashyap,

You are quite correct that Christianity is in disagreement with the Hindu view of Karma. We very strongly believe that innocent people can and do suffer even though they are innocent (we do believe that all human beings besides Jesus are sinners, but that doesn't imply that everything bad that happens to us is because we did something wrong). See for example the book of Job. Or the Holocaust---the Jews suffered because the Nazis were evil, not because they had done something evil! If we believe that when people suffer, they must have done something wrong to deserve it, that takes away a lot of the incentive to try to change social conditions for the better.

Most religions say that if you are suffering, you must have done something wrong. Christianity says that inncoent suffering is part of life, but that it is also redemptive. So God came to Earth as Jesus in order to suffer along with us, and this is something which changes the whole history of the world. He was willing to share in our bad Karma and give us his good Karma, so to speak, because he loves us. Despite what you say about having the same commandments, I am not sure that this type of love is possible in Hinduism. To us, this kind of love for undeserving people (we call it grace) is the entire point. God is love.

Surely the fact that innocent people suffer is a pretty obvious fact in the world around us. If a man chooses to be cruel to his wife and children, obviously they will suffer as well (and so will anybody who cares about them), even if they don't deserve it! Karma tries to get around that fact by postulating many other past and future lives, but Christianity accepts the fact of innocent suffering as true, and talks about how God uses it.

It seems very dangerous to rely primarily upon extra-sensory perception in deciding which philosophy of life to adopt. I am not denying the existence of valid mystical experiences, but surely it is also possible to make mistakes when using that part of our brain, just as much as when using any other part. I consider myself a rational mystic, somebody who accepts the reality of a spiritual world but who also accepts the importance of using logic and reason to distinguish between true and false ideas. In mathematics there are OR's as well as AND's.

Aaron:
Thanks for your comments. I agree , in absence of clear cut evidence, one can argue either way. One can also argue that Jesus Christ' crucifixion did not help subsequent suffering of millions in the 2000 years since that time. Some 160 million people are said to have suffered and died unnaturally during 20th century alone. People suffering in earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, not to mention wars, is a frequent occurrence. So this is enigmatic at best and goes back to my point that such things cannot be understood from our everyday logic! By the way, Hindus do not regard death as ultimate end, because of reincarnation belief, not that any one is anxious to die before his/her time. To them death and subsequent rebirth are like getting a new computer with better memory and better operating system, basically a chance to improve your Karma and get out of Karmic bondage. Even in a basketball game, you are allowed multiple shots, not just one shot!
Thanks again.

13. Aron Wall says:

St. George MacDonald wrote that:

"The Son of God...suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection." (Unspoken Sermons, The Consuming Fire)

As I am sure you know, Christians also believe in a future life but not in reincarnation. We don't believe in a pre-existence, but we do believe in Death and Resurrection, that everyone will be given new and immortal bodies like the one Jesus now has. There is no second earthly existence of the same sort, but rather death will be swallowed up in victory and life. As for additional chances to repent of our sins, presumably it will be given to anyone capable of benefiting from them, but at the same time, the choices we make in this life help determine who we are in the next...

Aron Wall:
I guess we have to agree to disagree! One problem is that there are so many different religious theories and there is no way to find out which is right. This is unfortunately different from science, where there is nothing like Indian science, German science or American science; science is same for the whole human race. Scientists may have difference of opinion, but eventually, one theory wins. Hopefully someday, religion will be in similar shape. But I seriously doubt if this will happen in near future. Thanks for your comments.

15. Aron Wall says:

kashyap,
Well, I do think there can be reasons to pick one religious tradition over another, but of course this requires carefully sifting and weighing the evidence. Even though I think there is an objective truth to be found, for various reasons I agree with you that humanity is unlikely to come to a consensus any time soon...

I dislike that phrase "agree to disagree" because usually people say it as a conversation-ender a long time before all of the relevant and interesting things have been said! But indeed, fully hashing out the whole Christianity vs. Hinduism thing is a task for a lifetime, not a single conversation. So thanks for your time and for sharing your perspective.

Aron :
I reread one of your replies. Law of Karma is not as heartless as you think. It says that there will be unavoidable consequences to your past actions (action and reaction of physics!) But you do have free will to improve your future actions. Also in prayers people do ask for mercy, compassion and guidance from God that their future karma would be good.

17. Somak Mitra says:

How late is too late to comment on a thread?

Like Vasavada, I too arrived here from Luke Barnes' blog. Being a Hindu, whenever I see a blog with theological subtlety I look at what they say about Hinduism. I do this because I believe Hinduism has too little representation in the Western world and academia and what little representation is there is often wrong. And I try to correct it when I can.

This blog makes the usual mistake, and seeing as the author is a scientist, will hopefully not object to me clarifying some points. As to my authority, I have no formal training in this subject, but I have read materials on Hinduism on my own for over 5 years.

That introduction being done, onto the post.

Point No 1 of the author says that matter is very much like a real thing.

Now, I'm not scientist, but it seems like an elementary idea that if just because seems to be like something doesn't mean it is like that something. A mirage, for example, looks like water, but it is not water.

But that is not the primary point. The author mistakenly assumes that the options are either matter, or subjective mental images of some sort. If this were what Hinduism said, the critique would be correct, but it is not what is said. The school of thought the author refers to is called Advaita Vedanta, and it the primary principle of it is that there is one non-dual Reality, that appears to us to be many. This is the school the author calls pantheism, and this is the school I will thus talk about - and not about the many other schools of Hinduism.

An immediate clarification - this idea of one and many is an ontological distinction, not a distinction of instances. My vocabulary is not rife with the philosophical terminology, so I'll offer a commonly used illustration. Take all the clay pots in the world. Each of these are different in some way from each other. They are distinct from each other as pots. But as far as clay is concerned, they are all the same - clay alone. The ideas of Advaita Vedanta should be understood in this way.

So Advaita Vedanta says that this one Reality, through its power, appears to have changed into many things, though it remains unchanged. Saying "matter exists" is a perfectly valid statement, as long as one does not say "Both Matter and Brahman exist and they are ontologically different and independent from each other"

The author will probably say, "But this says matter is ultimately not matter". I do not think this is much of an objection, as the author will be right to point to a chair and say "That is only quarks" and be right - no chair exists apart from the quarks (possible Platonic forms aside) - but we do not deny the existence of chairs.

Now, the metaphysics and epistemology and the justifications for all these will take a long time to explain and I do not intend to do them here.

Also, the author says stuff about logic and Hinduism. While it is true that some Hindu thinkers have pointed out the problems in the various logical arguments and formulations of philosophers, claiming they contradict themselves is incorrect. They have all responded to this rudimentary charge in various ways - and none of them fall prey to the obvious charge of "Well if they are justifying themselves, they are using logic!"

Apart from these rare thinkers, the rest of Hinduism is filled with constant logical discussions which are both profound, nuanced, elaborate and can be mind bogglingly advanced. India is, incidentally, one of the three countries where a system of logic was developed independently, the other two being China and Greece. Saying that Hindu thinkers don't believe in logic is an indefensible statement.

Point No 2 of the author asks how if God is all there is, can the universe be distinguished from God? Simply by saying that God isn't a substance which changes into the universe, in which case now there is no God and only a universe. The universe comes from, subsists in, and returns to God - it does not have its own being. This is a point accepted in Advaita Vedanta. This point is to be read in conjunction with my comments on Point 1.

Point No 3 of the author argues from the Bible, and as a Hindu, I am not obligated to accept it as authority. It is a standard rule when debating in Indian philosophy circles that you cannot use a standard of evidence your opponent does not accept without showing due reason.

Later on, while going over the points with Vasabada, the author thinks the law of Karma says that it says that innocent persons cannot suffer. This is mistaken. The law of Karma cannot work without free will, and free will implies the right to do wrong to undeserving people, and also, to forgive people who do not deserve it.

The law of Karma simply says that we cannot escape the consequences of our actions, good or bad. Hinduism has strong notions of free will, justice - both worldly and divine, and divine grace.

I hope that has answered some of the concerns of the author, and hopefully clarified certain points, however superficially, on Hinduism.

One last point, I have made many assertions here and have not backed them up with sources. I can do that, but that will require me to go through my books and I don't even know if the author will see this comment. Add to that the fact that the author is likely busy and has no time for a reading list now. So if anyone asks for books backing up my claims, I will provide them.

Thanks.

18. Aron Wall says:

Welcome, Somak.

The answer to the question of when it is to late to leave a comment on one of my blog posts is never. However, I do wish you'd take a slightly less condescending tone. I recognize that I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to the nuances of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, and I tried to make it clear (several times) that I wasn't making a general claim about what all schools of thought believe. And I'm not at all surprised that the Western conception of "karma" is an oversimplication compared to actual Hindu thought.

I'm sure that there are ways of making sense of Pantheism without committing any direct logical contradictions. Please see my post linked to above about Chalcedon, discussing some similar issues which arise in the context of Christian theology (asserting that Jesus is both divine and human). And if I were ever to come to believe in Pantheism, it would have to be a kind that was not logically contradictory.

But I don't think that the idea that normal logic is invalid is a complete straw man, especially given that Kashyap Vasavada seems to have endorsed a similar intepretation of Hinduism above. It's certainly one that's easy to make, given that I've encountered it many times. If you believe this is a misinterpretation of Advaita Vedanta, perhaps you should start by correcting him rather than me. I'm sure, as a sensible person, you are most attracted to whatever version of Hinduism makes the most sense to you, but that does not necessarily mean it is the only interpretation which exists.

I am aware of the fact that Indians have made many contributions to logic and mathematics, even inventing calculus before the Europeans. (Although, one of my Indian coauthors tells me they didn't learn much about number theory due to suspicion of reductio ad absurdum arguments.) But this does not in any way contradict the idea that some Hindu philosophers explicitly disbelieved in conventional logic, even if they could also use it when they wanted to. But I wasn't trying to generalize to all Hindu philsophies, as I said.

When you say that: "Point No 3 of the author argues from the Bible, and as a Hindu, I am not obligated to accept it as authority. It is a standard rule when debating in Indian philosophy circles that you cannot use a standard of evidence your opponent does not accept without showing due reason." Surely this is a standard which reasonable people in all cultures accept! But you were not my opponent at the time I wrote that... my interlocutor as me why I didn't believe in Pantheism, and therefore it is perfectly reasonable for me to base my response on the Bible which I do believe. I've explained why I believe in the historicity of Jesus' Resurrection and the inspiration of my Scriptures, in other blog posts.

Starting just with what you have said: "The primary principle of [Advaita Vedanta] is that there is one non-dual Reality, that appears to us to be many." But to whom does it appear to be many? You say "us", but only answer consistent with the basic claims of the philosophy would seem to be, to the non-dual Reality itself! But then why is the non-dual Reality ignorant of its own nature? I don't see how it is possible to say that there is plurality in the appearences, if there is no plurality in the Reality. The very notion of "seems to" seems to imply a duality: namely between things as they are, and things as they appear to be.

But then you allow me to make claims like "matter exists" as long as I don't talk about matter and Brahman in parallel, as though they were ontologically distinct. Well, as a Christian I already believe that there is only one fundamental reality (God) and that all other realities are ontologically dependent on him (as I argued for here: this series). So thus far the two philosophies run parallel. But I would go on to say that the other things really do exist and are not identical to God, even though they do depend on him ontologically.

I probably don't have much time to read books on the subject of Hinduism, but you are free to provide reading recommendations if you want to. Perhaps one of my readers would have time to look at them.

Hi Aron,
I have said this before on this blog and on Sean ( Don Page)'s blog that our everyday logic is just not good to discuss divinity. I should not fill your blog with repeated arguments. But just once more if you let me!! It is astonishing to hear a physicist complaining about lack of logic in Hinduism when he deals with quantum mechanics which defies logic every day Bell's results show that the following everyday logic does not work in QM: If in a group of 200 people, 50 have brown eyes, then 150 do not have brown eyes. This inference fails in QM. This should end the debate!
In general most Hindus have high regard for ideas of love, compassion, ethics and morality in Christianity. Also Hinduism says there are thousands of paths to reach divinity. So Hindus should not have any problem with accepting Jesus Christ as one of the "Avatars". But it becomes difficult to accept God suffering because of our sins. This would be completely against e.g Newton's laws!! This implies that if I run into a wall, someone else will get a gash in his head! This is the main difference in the belief systems. As far as I can tell law of Karma is completely consistent with physics, but God suffering due to our sins is not. Thanks for allowing this dialog on your blog. As you know, Don Page's blog went on for some 960 comments without any resolution! Concept of divinity is subtle for human beings to say the least!

20. Aron Wall says:

So I write a post saying that some (but not all) Hindus disbelieve in logic. In response, two Hindus leave comments. One says that this is an error, a misunderstanding of Hinduism, and that pantheism can be explained in a way which does not violate any logical principles. The other tells me that Hinduism does indeed violate normal logical rules, but this is okay because so does physics. My conclusion is that some (but not all) Hindus disbelieve in logic.

To Kashyap,
Just because something appears at first sight (or hundredeth sight) to be illogical, does not mean that it really is. QM is, indeed, truly weird, but I don't think this necessarily implies that logic itself is invalid. As you know, there are many competing intepretations of QM.

But it becomes difficult to accept God suffering because of our sins. This would be completely against e.g Newton's laws!! This implies that if I run into a wall, someone else will get a gash in his head! This is the main difference in the belief systems. As far as I can tell law of Karma is completely consistent with physics, but God suffering due to our sins is not.

Come on! They're called Newton's Laws of Mechanics, not Newton's Laws of Guilt and Forgiveness! There's no way to deduce karma, or the impossibility of God suffering for our sins, from $F = ma$ or from the conservation of momentum. (Momentum $\ne$ merit). Any more than you can deduce that society is getting more unjust over time from the Second Law of Thermodynamics! If somebody wreaks my car, I can forgive him and pay for it myself without ever once violating any of the laws of mechanics.

And even if it were necessary to bend the laws of physics a bit, God is more than willing to do so in the cause of forgiveness. He's the boss, not Newton. As it says in our Gospels:

When [Jesus] entered Capernaum again after some days, it was reported that He was at home. So many people gathered together that there was no more room, not even in the doorway, and He was speaking the message to them. Then they came to Him bringing a paralytic, carried by four men. Since they were not able to bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above where He was. And when they had broken through, they lowered the mat on which the paralytic was lying.

Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

But some of the scribes were sitting there, thinking to themselves: “Why does He speak like this? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Right away Jesus understood in His spirit that they were thinking like this within themselves and said to them, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat, and walk’? But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He told the paralytic, “I tell you: get up, pick up your mat, and go home.”

Immediately he got up, picked up the mat, and went out in front of everyone. As a result, they were all astounded and gave glory to God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2)

In general most Hindus have high regard for ideas of love, compassion, ethics and morality in Christianity.

Great! If you believe in compassion, you shouldn't have any objection to God using miracles to forgive and heal the paralyzed man, without him having to do any great deeds to earn it. Our morality is rooted in the idea that Christ suffered for our sins. That is the explicit motivation for everything else. I'm sure you have a place for love and compassion in your system, but to us it has the highest place.

Also Hinduism says there are thousands of paths to reach divinity. So Hindus should not have any problem with accepting Jesus Christ as one of the "Avatars".

The trouble with this is that our historical records suggest that Jesus did not think of himself as an avatar of divinity, but rather as the unique Son of God who is the only path to God. There are numerous passages from the Gospels indicating this; here are just a few:

“I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure. All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.

Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt 11:25-30)

or

“I assure you: I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.

I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” (John 10)

or

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Aron:
Thanks for your reply. I will repeat something I wrote on Sean (Don Page)’s blog. In a dispute between theists and atheists, I will always side with theists any day. But we have different belief systems. Generally I do not engage in criticizing any religion, because these are mostly matters of faith. I started writing in your blog when I saw your article, by chance, on Hinduism described as Pantheism. Hinduism must be the most misunderstood religion in West. It is not Pantheism. There is just one God, but you are free to visualize as any of the various forms of deities, depending on your spiritual and comfort level. It is the most tolerant and flexible religion on earth (grated that I am biased!!) I do not know Somak Mitra. I do not even know where he is located. But Hinduism is so broad minded that many different beliefs are accepted under a big umbrella. So beliefs in different ‘Avatars” is ok with me. If you say Jesus Christ is the only representative (son) of God and yours is the only path to realize divinity then it is your belief. I would not argue that you should not believe that. Personally, I believe in the original Vedic concept of God (Brahman), formless, eternal, attribute less, synonymous with laws of nature and present in every particle of universe. It is difficult for me to visualize meaning of God coming to earth in a human form when there are billions and billions of planets and perhaps infinite number of universes. We do not have any idea of what kind of life exists in different parts of universe. It is quite doubtful that the earth is a specially chosen place. But I gladly join in prayers in temple with my friends who believe in specific “Avatars”. To me this is all symbolic and does not make any difference in the final analysis.
BTW, I never said you can derive law of karma from Newton’s laws! I said it is consistent. When you run into a wall, you and *only you* get a gash on your head! In the final analysis, honestly, nobody knows why things happen to people. So again these are belief systems.
As for QM being logical, my view is that our everyday logic does not apply. In fact right now an interesting debate between bloggers Lubos Motls and Florin Moldoveanu about quantum logic is going on!! If you say that the statement “particles have some kind of suspended existence without any properties before you measure them” is our everyday logic, then I do not have anything to say!! In Don’s blog I maintained that for modern physicists to call religions as “irrational and illogical” is ridiculous. If you want to defend the concept of God suffering due to our sins, that is your prerogative. As you know Don Page tried for months (960 comments) on Sean’s blog without any success. That makes my belief even stronger that “one cannot understand concept of divinity with our everyday logic”

Aron:
I forgot to mention one thing. I use the word "logic" in the sense of everyday life i.e. the kind of life experiences you get from the time you get up to the time you go to bed . This "logic" we use in dealing with such experiences. I am not using the word "logic" in the sense of pundits discussing Quantum logic, Boolean logic, propositional calculus etc.!! My understanding has been that both quantum mechanics and concept of divinity are beyond our ordinary life experiences and hence ordinary "logic".

23. Somak Mitra says:

Aron,

Thanks for replying to my post. I apologise if I sounded combative or condescending - it is a disposition acquired from seeing numerous representations of my religion all over the internet, and trying to correct as many as I can. I try to be as neutral as possible. I will address your points haphazardly.

Regarding Kashyapa, I really don't know what to say. As in any system, there can be different interpretations, and it then comes down to which is more cogent - decided by appealing to an impartial third party perhaps. The only other court of appeal in such intra-religious conflicts can be scripture.

I will say though, that Kashyapa makes certain claims that I do not agree with - such as accepting Christ as an avatara. This claim is partly right, insofar as if a Hindu is asked to make sense of Christ within the Hindu framework, the only two ways I can see of doing that is to consider him as (a) an avatara or (b) an yogi. You may have seen certain new age books propagating the second approach. As you point out however, this would conflict with the claims Christ made about himself, so the explanation must assume that he was lying, mistaken or his words were falsely reported. So there is no way to account for Christ wholesale in Hinduism. The only possible accounts need to chop off certain parts of the Gospel.

That this is so can be seen by the fact that nowhere is Jesus mentioned in any Hindu scriptures, and we have a definitive list(s) of avataras, in which Jesus does not feature. You can look up the Wikipedia article on the topic for the list(s).

Another claim made is that all paths can be used to reach God. This is true, but with qualifications. Hinduism accepts that, because there is one Supreme Being, seekers can only reach that one Being. However, this does not mean that all paths are equally valid, in the sense of efficacy or correctness. As Sri Krishna mentions in the Bhagavad Gita, all worshipers of other gods ultimately worship him, and they will ultimately reach Him.

Since Hinduism accepts multiple births it accepts that a person following an alternate religion will, through various births, come to Hinduism and then to God. Note that this accepts that there are valid paths and invalid paths. Hinduism has a long history of debates between the various sects over the nature and identity of God, metaphysics, epistemology etc. If these thinkers did not think others were wrong, they'd have no reason to write voluminous works refuting other positions and establishing their own.

The idea of God having various forms is present in Hinduism, though even here, sects differ on which form of God is ultimate and most expresses His divinity.

I do not know what exactly you mean by "disbelieving in logic". You will have to clarify that statement.

There is an idea of logic being limited in certain sects. For example, logic cannot be used to fully capture the nature of God. Some thinkers also spoke against natural theology, pointing out that no argument is immune from criticism and more certainty on God comes from Revelation. Some also spoke against the arrogance of philosophers who claimed to have built systems to explain reality through reasoning.

However, no thinker I know disparaged logic. The post I made earlier suggests this is not the case, but in the cases of those thinkers (only two of them of such views), what they claimed was they had to position of their own and were only using the opponent's methods, reasoning included, against him.

If we leave those two out the others all made their attacks via rigorous argumentation and defended their own positions as well.

I cannot speak for numbers, as my knowledge of math and the history of math is rudimentary. But I can say a few words on reductio ad absurdum. A form of reverse reductio ad absurdum was used frequently to discredit opposing positions. Instead of showing that non-acceptance of a thesis would lead to absurdity, it was shown that accepting the opponent's position would lead to absurdity. A type of supporting argument like reductio ad absurdum (it was called tarka) was used as support where it was assumed that the thesis was incorrect, but then that would lead to an absurdity, hence the thesis was correct. So I do not know if the thesis Indian logicians did not use reductio us correct.

Your objections to Advaita Vedanta were also made by the classical opponents of the system. There is a huge history of debate on this issue and I do not want to go over it all again as it is fairly boring for the regular person.

First, on the question of ontological dependence, unlike Christianity, Advaita Vedanta says that God is both the material and the efficient cause of the world. But God does not change into the world, which would contradict divine immutability, but appears as the world using divine power. That is, the world is dependent entirely on God for its being, so the relationship is asymmetrical, the world is God, but God is not the world.

An oft used analogy are clay pots, dishes, vases etc. All of these are different from each other, but all of them have their being in clay. They are dependent on clay, but the clay is not dependent on them.

So the world has certain features, that God does not have, like mutability. Among these features are the individual souls which inhabit bodies. It is these souls which are mistaken about the true nature of reality.

The issue is confusing, so at this point I'd like to recommend a book which though written by a person who has gone through traditional teaching on Advaita, disagrees with some interpretations within it, and writes for an audience unfamiliar with the terminology involved. This book is one that also coincides with my views on Advaita. Readers interested may read "The Advaita Worldview - God, World, and humanity" by Anantanand Rambachan. Readers interested in logic in Indian philosophy may read "The character of logic in India" and "Perception - an essay on classical Indian theories of knowledge", both written by Bimal Krishna Matilal.

24. Aron Wall says:

Dear Somak,
Thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay in responding, and thanks for the book recommendation. As you can see I'm out of my league in discussing the exact theology of Hinduism, but at least I know what many Westerners don't that it is an extremely diverse group with innumerable takes on religion. I still think pantheism is illogical, but I certainly recognize that someone can believe in things I think are logical contradictions without thereby explcity disbelieving in logic.

The thing about clay, which makes it different from divinity, is that clay is a substance which may be divided into pieces and the different pieces of clay are plural and distinct from each other. But it seems like the divine being must have more unity than that, if it is the uncreated source of everything else.

Given the pop-New Age books you mention, it's refreshing to see a Hindu admit that Jesus (as described by the Gospels) cannot fit into the Hindu system, given the records we have of him. But let me ask you this question (if you are still around and reading this thread):

Of all the various avatars which ARE listed in the Hindu texts to which you refer, are there any which have as much or more historical documentary evidence for their existence, and divine claims as we have for Christ? For example, all of the incarnations on this list I found seem to have taken place in a pre-historic mythological past, with the exception of Buddha, and Kalki who is placed in the future. But Buddha, although he certainly existed, was not described in written history until centuries later, and in my view probably did not claim to be divine.

So, if there is a conflict, why would you not accept the Incarnation for which there is the greatest amount of historical evidence that it really occurred?

25. Somak Mitra says:

Yes, the analogy on clay must not be pressed further than it was intended to be. Looking for the fundamental source of the clay is the job of physicists like yourself, and as far as I can say, nothing definite has been found. But here the philosophical arguments come into play, with the notion of something, a particle or something else, that is non-contingent, that is the source of its own existence, and only that will stop the search, philosophically speaking.

Now, the Advaitins decided to find the one thing that was undeniable in experience, and they came across the concept of Pure Being or Pure Existence. So they basically said that the pot and all other things are dependent for their existence on this pure Being or Existence, which is the only independently existent thing.

Going by non-duality, they then argued that this Being could not be separated from anything, and this was present in all manifestations that are possible. So while this Being is absolutely simple and changeless, and beyond any concepts we could use (via negativa), it was still the source and condition of all phenomenal things that exist.

The radical gap between the simplicity and immutability of this Being, called Brahman, and the phenomenal world is bridged by the concept of Maya, which is the power of Brahman to appear as it is not.

This would of course, mean that there was no finality in the concepts of change etc., which characterize the phenomenal world, and Advaitins argued against these concepts having any finality, though they are accepted as provisionally true. These arguments have a long history and are very technical and subtle and I do not want to go into them here.

I hope that answered your question somewhat, the Divine Reality is one unchanging simple reality, appearing as something else.

Regarding avataras, this cannot be understood without understanding the Hindu ideas of cosmogony. In Hinduism, as opposed to Abrahamic religions, creation is a cyclical event. Universes come into being, persist, and go out of being. This happens in an endless cycle, without beginning or end. Thus, the ideas of time in Hinduism are very fluid. This is opposed to the Christian model where the eschaton is basically the end of all history. In Christianity, the idea of the incarnation thus has a level of historical importance it does not have in Hinduism. We believe avatars descend in cycles as well. Krishna mentions that he descends whenever there is a need to re-establish righteousness. And because there are so many avataras spanning a huge length of time, the question of historical evidence becomes less significant.

None of this is to say that the idea of the reality of the avataras is not important. The average Hindu will not agree to the idea that Krishna is not a historical figure, and there is some evidence to suggest that he was historical. But this is more of a question of faith than a study of history. Again, a Hindu cannot accept Christ because as I've said, his words conflict with core Hindu doctrines. No Hindu avatara has claimed, or can claim, to be the final one.

26. Karol says:

OK but where's the argument against Pantheism exactly ?

27. Aron Wall says:

Somak,
Of course, philosophically Christians agree "pure Being or Existence, which is the only independently existent thing". And that, "absolutely simple and changeless, and beyond any concepts we could use (via negativa), it was still the source and condition of all phenomenal things that exist." All of this is pretty standard Christian theology as well.

The difference is that rather than postulate Maya, which you define as "the power of Brahman to appear as it is not.", we believe in Creation, the power of Brahman (if that is the name you wish to use for the Deity) to create contingent beings which are truly distinct from himself. Of course, these created beings are not separate from God; they cannot exist independently of his power and will. But that does not mean they are identical to God. To me, this seems far less paradoxical than saying that the Truth falsely appears to himself to be what he is not.

And because there are so many avataras spanning a huge length of time, the question of historical evidence becomes less significant

I can see why this would be true if there were several different avataras taking place in recent historical times, so that if one turned out not to have strong support, you could rely on the evidence for the others. But if NONE of them turn out to have strong support for their actual existence and/or divinity, that would seem to raise a problem. Surely one cannot deduce the existence of avataras from purely philosophical arguments! (How do you know that the "definitive list" of avataras you metioned is correct, after all?)

The average Hindu will not agree to the idea that Krishna is not a historical figure, and there is some evidence to suggest that he was historical. But this is more of a question of faith than a study of history.

Well, considering that Krishna is supposed to have departed in 3102 BC, I would be very surprised if the historical evidence were all that reliable.

I can understand why a Hindu might take the existence of Krishna on faith, if there were other aspects of the religion that seemed to make sense to him. But if we imagine somebody deciding whether to accept Hinduism or Christianity, the fact that there is a lot more historical evidence for Jesus seems like it could be an important deciding factor.

28. Somak Mitra says:

To an Advaita Vedantin, the notion of anything being separate from Brahman makes no sense, since Brahman is by definition an all encompassing reality. Saying that contingent things derive their existence from God, but are not God in any way, but are also kept in being by God would be nonsensical to an Advaitin.

Here, a host of problems can be raised by the Advaitin, such as the exact relation between God and the world, whether that relation makes sense or leads to contradictions, whether creation ex nihilo makes sense (all Hindu theologians agree that it does not) and so on. The issue is not simply decided by what seems or does not seem paradoxical.

Re avataras, I'll be blunt and say that the fact that none of the facts of Jesus' life, even if I accept that all of them are true, forces me into the conclusion that he was the Son of God. I am as baffled by this claim, made by respected philosophers like Plantinga and Swinburne, as you are of the claims of Advaita Vedanta.

Either way, the notion of time in Hinduism needs to be taken into account. Hinduism is not a religion with a linear cosmology, as I've said, so the urge to find the one truth, revealed at one time, by one God, in one region of the world, makes no sense in a cyclical framework. Perhaps this is a case of cultural barriers, but I have never had the supposition that one goes and analyzes the historical details of a religion, sees what its founder(s) did, verifies it, and then goes "I'll now follow this religion, all others are false".

To Hindus, God reveals himself all the time, through Creation, through avataras, through murtis, through a genuine guru, through personal experience and so on. Now, some of these things will be claimed by Christianity as well, but to Hindus, this process has been going on forever. Looking for the historical truth of an eternal process makes no sense.

29. Doubting Thomas says:

As a Hindu convert to Christianity I think you're not getting it. If a man promised to sell you something of great value for all your possessions you would definitely look at for evidence of his claims, to ensure that there is no fraud. Either this Jesus fellow rose from the dead, or Christians are the sorriest people alive. The historical record shows that no other explanation is possible. The Christians actually saw miracles or they wouldn't have done what they did. The strongest argument that the Jews could make is that it didn't happen, all the miracle accounts were tall tales. Instead they called him a devil or sorcerer. Why wouldn't they use the strongest argument? Because they couldn't. Anyone alive at that time could go around and verify that a man who called Himself Jesus did indeed do many astounding things.

Now here is the thing. When Christians deny every other religion they are taking Jesus at his word. Jesus Himself claimed to be the sole path to heaven. Otherwise the actions of the Roman Martyrs who refused to worship Caeser or Roman gods under pain of torture make no sense. If Jesus was not telling the truth He was not a noble man or Avatar but a madman or devil. But if He was God, and His miracles showed that He had power over all things (even death), then we have no rational choice but to fall down and worship Him. Christians don't conclude that Jesus was God, therefore every other religion is wrong. They say that Jesus is God, God doesn't lie, and Jesus claimed exclusivity, therefore every other religion is wrong.

What is the possession greater than everything else you possess? The kingdom of heaven. But you cannot get it without selling everything else. I think that all people, regardless of culture and race, would carefully weight the historical evidence for such a great gain or terrible loss.

30. Somak Mitra says:

First of all, Hindus are not in the business of "selling" religious truths - that is a largely Christian affair, one with a history of bloodshed, I might add.

Secondly, one need only think that they saw a miracle to act on it. There is no necessity of the miracle actually happening. As the common example goes, one need only see an imagined snake on a rope in the dark to run away from it. The effects are real, though the cause, the snake, doesn't exist.

Furthermore, we know that the Jews did believe in miracle work, even amongst their enemies, as the whole staff-snake business showed. So this being the case, the Jews did make the obvious argument, that miracle work doesn't make one God. If there were a band of atheists or materialists or anyone who denied miracles around, you'd see them making the argument the Jews didn't make.

Lastly, you still offer no evidence that these miracles would make anyone God. I see no necessary connection between rising from the dead, or any miracles, and being God.

So it is you who has not evaluated the evidence and arguments properly, not me.

31. Aron Wall says:

Somak,
Regarding your last point, let's try to do some Bayesian probability theory.

1a) Conditional upon somebody being the unique Son of God (and thus divine in a unique sense, not in a panthestic sense), I think the odds that he would perform impressive miracles to confirm their ministry, would probably be at least 30%.
1b) On the other hand, the odds that a random, not-special person would perform impressive miracles is very tiny (since most people don't).

Therefore, by Bayes' Theorem, performing impressive miracles significantly increases the chances of being divine.

2a) Conditional upon somebody being the unique Son of God, the odds that he would claim to be uniquely divine, would probably be at least 50%.
2b) On the other hand, the odds that some random not-special person would claim to be uniquely divine, is very tiny (since most people don't).

Therefore, by Bayes' Theorem, if a person claims to be uniquely divine that significantly increases the chances that they are, in fact, uniquely divine.

So assuming for the sake of argument that the Gospels are correct that Jesus did these things, then they serve as significant evidence that he was actually the divine Son of God. That is, it makes it significantly more likely that he is the Son of God, than if he had not done those things. So evaluating the historical evidence is relevant!

However, you are right to point out that there are worldviews (including Hinduism, though not Naturalism) in which fakers or decievers might be able to perform genuinely supernatural miracles, but without their other theological claims being correct. So I agree with you that even once you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, it is still necessary to perform a credibility judgment, to decide whether you trust this supernatural person or not. As St. Doubting Thomas said, If Jesus was not telling the truth He was not a noble man or Avatar but a madman or devil [or some other seriously bad thing]!

I trust Jesus because the character of the personality revealed in the Gospels seems to be manifestly good and not that of a madman or a deciever. His words are compassionate, insightful, and awe-inspiring, as even many Hindus such as Ghandhi have recognized.

(Also, you still have not explained to me why you think the person who made the definitive list of avataras got it right.)

Hi Aron!
Scientific discussion of miracles is interesting. But I doubt if it will go anywhere. Remember, last year Prof. Page discussed these for months (with more than 900 comments!) on Sean Carroll’s blog. My guess is that the number of people whose minds he was able to change was close to zero! To me miracle is by definition something you cannot understand intellectually, which would include all scientific arguments!
I think religious experience has to be extra sensory. To ask for sensory verification is oxymoron!! If somebody insists that all such miracles did not happen because science based on sensory experiences is the only valid thing, then the argument would end there. One has to accept that there is a limitation to the scientific method. There isn’t any way of convincing people about extrasensory world. This is completely consistent with my understanding of Hinduism. I am not sure about belief systems of other religions. This also would be consistent with our debate about logic (based on everyday experience) last year!! The real utility of religion is at the commandment level, morality, ethics, love, compassion etc. which would result in good personal life and hopefully well behaved society.

33. Aron Wall says:

Hello kashyap,

But consider the following: even if 900 commentators argue past each other and then believe whatever it is they would have believed anyway, as the 901st person, you still have the ability to decide your own opinion based on facts and evidence.

It happens all the time that invisible realities are confirmed by sensory data. For example, nobody has ever directly seen a quark, or the mantle of the Earth, but our sensory experiences still make it reasonable to believe they are there. So sensory verification of invisible realities is not an oxymoron at all! Christianity claims that certain features of the extra-sensory world are confirmed by miracles such as the Resurrection, which were sensed by ordinary mortals.

Even if we focus on the "commandment level", it also often happens that disagreement about the facts leads to different views about how people should behave. For example, anti-vaxxers sincerely believe that vaccines are harmful to children, and so decline to give their children vaccines. So with the best of intentions, they end up harming their own children. Therefore, we have the moral duty to try to learn what is true about the world.

If any religion is revealed by the true God, then he is presumbaly better equipped then we are to tell us what will lead to "good personal life" and "well behaved society". But beyond that, we also need to take into account the effects of our behavior on the life after this one. If Christianity is true, this is in fact more important than the effects of our behavior on this life.

34. Somak Mitra says:

Aron,

I don't know how you're getting your probabilities like that. How do you just assume that the likelihood that someone divine would perform miracles 30% of the time? Or the likelihood someone divine would say he was so 50% of the time? These seem to be taken according to your wishes and not based on anything concrete.

Regardless, it is not only fakers who can make miracles, or rather, fakers don't do miracles - they fake them. My point was, if I remember correctly, that people can make genuine miracles (let's assume) without being divine. There is no strong connection between a miracle worker and being divine. A person who makes miracles is miraculous, but not necessarily divine.

Again, assuming that Jesus did rise from the grave (a contentious assumption) and that all of his quotes are accurate (again contentious), there is no reason to think that this is evidence that he was God. He may have been genuinely mistaken about his purpose, or he may have been deceiving people with good intentions for some other purpose.

The fact is, it gets hopelessly muddy if we try to take this historical approach where the past is too murky to see anything clearly. Some critically important truth lies there, but we will never be able to resolve it - no matter how many Bayesian inferences we make. But without resolving it, why believe in the truth of Christianity, or any Abrahamic religion for that matter, all of which claim to to be exclusively true?

35. Aron Wall says:

Somak,
I'm estimating the probabilities by guessing them. My philosophy of probabilities is somewhat like that described in this link:

I'm sorry if it was alienating that I gave specific numbers. If I had said "as likely as not" for "at least 50%", and "doesn't seem improbable that" for "at least 30%", would that have worked better for you?

The point is, I have no good reason to think that a divine person would conceal his divinity, therefore the probability of him doing so isn't going to be orders of magnitude bigger than him revealing it. That's all one needs, for a Bayesian argument that claiming to be divine provides significant evidence of divinity.

Of course I agree that a person can do any number of miracles without being divine! In Christianity, there are lots of people who do miracles, and only one person (Jesus) who was divine. So it would certainly have been a fallacy if I had said "Christ did miracles, therefore he was divine". Rather, my full argument for his divinity is based on 3 pieces of evidence:

1) Christ did miracles
2) Christ claimed to be divine
3) Christ was a very good person

#1 by itself implies that he is in touch with supernatural forces, and is therefore, ceteris paribus, in a better position than us to know where his supernatural powers come from. #2 says that the explanation he provided was that he is the Son of God. And #3 implies that he would not do something unethical like lie about where his powers come from. Any 2 of these by themselves might not be sufficient, but taken together I think they make a strong case.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the New Testament is historically accurate, are your other proposed explanations ("He may have been genuinely mistaken about his purpose, or he may have been deceiving people with good intentions for some other purpose.") really more plausible than the straightforward explanation that he was telling the truth? The burden of proof is on you to explain why these more complex explanations are more plausible as the one I gave. (And how do you know Krishna and the other avataras in Hinduism weren't lying or mistaken? Are you only willing to use this argument when it comes to other people's religions?)

Even if these other explanations were as plausible, it still strikes me as somewhat unfair to go from the mere existence of alternative explanations to "no reason to think that this is evidence that he was God". The latter is a vastly stronger statement than the former. To give a hopefully uncontroversial example, if a woman gets a positive on a breast cancer test, there exists an alternative explantion (false positive on the test) which might equally well or better explain the data. But it would be quite wrong to say that therefore the positive test provides "no reason to think" that she has breast cancer. She is still far more likely to have it, than a randomly selected member of the population is.

In the same way, even if both your alternative explanations were equally probable to mine (which I do not concede), that would still leave a 1/3 chance of Jesus being divine, which I'm sure you will agree is much higher than the odds of a randomly selected member of the population being a divine avatar of some sort (one in a several billion? a trillion?). Thus historical evidence IS relevant, even if it doesn't take one quite all the way. It still rasies the probability that Jesus is divine by a huge factor, many orders of magnitude.

I don't agree that the past is too murky to see anything clearly (assuming we are talking about 33 AD, rather than 3102 BC). But even if it were, what do you propose to replace the historical approach with? Aren't approaches based on personal experience even more notoriously subjective?

There is an approach to argumentation which goes: first kick up enough dust to obscure the situation, then decide to believe whatever it is you would have believed anyway. I hope you agree that this is a potential problem in these kinds of discussions. Hopefully that didn't come across as too condescending---let me add that I respect your intelligence and your willingness to come over here and debate our views!

Peace, Aron

36. Somak Mitra says:

You said "I'm sorry if it was alienating that I gave specific numbers. If I had said "as likely as not" for "at least 50%", and "doesn't seem improbable that" for "at least 30%", would that have worked better for you?"

No, it would not. I see no reason to assume these things, and you have not provided any. Using made up statistics in this case is unjustified.

You said : The point is, I have no good reason to think that a divine person would conceal his divinity

But this is not how it goes. You must give a reason to think that a divine person would reveal his identity. And this reason must be more than a bare hunch you have to use in your Bayesian inference. I have no need of providing a reason against it, the mere possibility of other things is enough to require evidence from your end.

Again, you jump to the claim that the NT is accurate, when it is pretty much accepted in academia that it is not, apart from a few essential facts, none of which support the Christian case. So I don't see why one needs to argue based on a hypothetical where concrete evidence to the contrary is available.

Again, your "really plausible?" question depends on why one should think that Jesus was right in saying who he said he was. He showed human traits like ignorance etc. Why can it not be that he was lying, or mistaken about who he was? Remember, your case is one that is highly unlikely, and so any explanation that is naturalistic will have a much greater weight. I believe the same is the case in science, where a lot of evidence is needed to overturn time tested theories.

Again, this is all assuming the NT is historically accurate, which we know it isn't.

As for your cancer example, the analogy doesn't work as your central claim is itself highly unlikely. I'd compare it to the event a few years back where some neutrinos were tested and found to be faster than light, apparently. This test was done twice with the same results before they discovered the mistake, IIRC. As I said, here, the alternative explanations, which would have less weight in conventional cases, gain much greater weight.

As to your claims that the same dilemma applied to Hinduism, it clearly doesn't, as Hinduism doesn't rely on the Abrahamic approach of having one historical event on which the entire religion hangs. We hold that Krishna has come before and will come again. We also hold that god continually sends divine people to represent Him. This is why we don't think Hinduism had a beginning. So historical questions have much less importance us.

As to your question of personal experience, it indeed is more reliable, if it is systematic and always available. In the sphere of systematic spiritual practices leading to experiences of God (let's use the term broadly), Hinduism is more systematic than any other I know of. For example, I was recently pointed to a video where an Orthodox monk was describing four levels of spiritual attainment. Despite the fact that he was in a religion completely different to mine, I instantly recognized the four levels he was talking about, because they had been mapped out earlier in Hindu texts. I also knew what levels lay before and after these levels - levels of which this monk was ignorant of - though certainly not to any discredit on his part, I hasten to add.

I have seen unexpected confirmations like these from many other sources, which strengthens my convictions that we had gotten these things right.

This is a much stronger way, IMO, than the historical event/founder approach, as the latter stands or falls with one event, and thus need unjustified hypothetical reasoning to support them.

Krishna never claimed to start Hinduism, so his alleged lack of historicity doesn't damage Hinduism at all.

37. Aron Wall says:

But this is not how it goes. You must give a reason to think that a divine person would reveal his identity. And this reason must be more than a bare hunch you have to use in your Bayesian inference. I have no need of providing a reason against it, the mere possibility of other things is enough to require evidence from your end.

No. Bayesian epistemology does not involve assigning burdens of proof to whoever speaks first. And there is nothing wrong with using hunches, in the absence of any better data. If you neither have a good reason to think that something is true, nor have a good reason to think that something is false, then a probability assignment in the vicinity of 50% is entirely appropriate. (Remember, a Bayesian analysis must always assign a prior probability to every single statement. You are not allowed to withhold judgement.)

But leaving that aside, there IS a good reason to believe that an Incarnation would reveal his deity at some point. The point of a divine Incarnation, or at least a major part of it, is to reveal the nature of God to human beings. If nobody notices he is divine, what's the point of coming in the first place?

Remember, the number of people who say they are uniquely divine is very small (less than one in a million not-obviously-crazy people claim this, I would guess). In order to support your extremely strong claim that historical evidence is of NO value in determining whether somebody is divine, the probability that a divine person (assuming they are divine) would claim to be God would also have to be below one in a million. That's just how the math works. Jesus claiming to be divine raises the probability that he is divine, if and only if a divine person would be more likely than a nondivine person to claim to be divine. And that's before taking into account the ability to do miracles.

"The mere possibility of other things is enough to require evidence from your end." No. Stating two other possibilities does not come anywhere close to making it reasonable to think that the probability of what I said is less than one in a million. Do you think the probability that a divine Incarnation would reveal himself is very, very small? If so, I am curious to hear your argument for that proposition.

Again, you jump to the claim that the NT is accurate, when it is pretty much accepted in academia that it is not, apart from a few essential facts, none of which support the Christian case. So I don't see why one needs to argue based on a hypothetical where concrete evidence to the contrary is available.

Come on! YOU were the one who raised the hypothetical of what if the Gospels are historically reliable. Not me! Here are some quotes:

"...none of the facts of Jesus' life, even if I accept that all of them are true, forces me into the conclusion that he was the Son of God."

"I see no necessary connection between rising from the dead, or any miracles, and being God."

"Again, assuming that Jesus did rise from the grave (a contentious assumption) and that all of his quotes are accurate (again contentious), there is no reason to think that this is evidence that he was God."

If somebody says: "For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that X is true (even though I don't believe it), I think even then Y would not follow", and I say "Okay, let's have that conversation, I think Y does follow from X", you can't turn around and blame me for accepting this challenge!

(That being said, I understand that it is easy to fall into rhetorical inconsistency when a conversation takes place over several weeks, so I'm not trying to blame you either, just vigorously defending myself...)

As for why I would be interested in having such a conversation, obviously arguing for an entire religion is a pretty complicated business. It would be great if I could convince you in one fell swoop that both that the NT is historically reliable, and that if so then Jesus is divine, but that would be a huge conversation, so instead I'm focussing on the second thing. If I can persuade you that the historical question is of religious significance, then maybe that'll give you a reason to look into the historical question at another time. I've blogged about it before, but for now I'll just direct you to this recent comment.

He showed human traits like ignorance etc.

That's right. In Christianity, Incarnation means more than just appearing to be human to others. It means actually becoming human, including all of the weaknesses and frailties of human beings. His human nature was like ours in all respects, except that he never sinned.

Remember, your case is one that is highly unlikely, and so any explanation that is naturalistic will have a much greater weight

Neither of us is a Naturalist, so I don't see why we should assume Naturalism for the sake of this conversation. It is true that miracles are rare, but Jesus was not a randomly selected human being either. He was special in a number of other ways, for example in his claims to be the Jewish messiah.

As for your cancer example, the analogy doesn't work as your central claim is itself highly unlikely. I'd compare it to the event a few years back where some neutrinos were tested and found to be faster than light, apparently. This test was done twice with the same results before they discovered the mistake, IIRC. As I said, here, the alternative explanations, which would have less weight in conventional cases, gain much greater weight.

In the case of Jesus, there was a pre-existing theory (Judaism) which predicted a Messiah who would do miracles, whereas there was no pre-existing theory which predicted faster than light neutrinos. So the probabilities are not the same.

Even in the case of neutrinos, the experiment clearly raised the probability of FTL neutrinos, compared to if the experiment had not found those results. (I mean before the mistake was discovered.) So even though it was right to be skeptical of the experiment, it would have been wrong to claim it had no evidential relevance. It's just it would have had to be combined with further observations to take us all the way.

We hold that Krishna has come before and will come again. We also hold that god continually sends divine people to represent Him.

But how do you know these statements are actually true? What is your reason for believing them? It is circular reasoning, to say that you don't need history because Incarnations happen repeatedly, if you can't first establish the truth of the preliminary statement that Incarnations do in fact occur. You claim that many Incarnations are better than one, but you haven't established the existence of one Hindu incarnation, let alone several.

It is like saying that once every few thousand years the sun tuns blue, and you don't need to establish this with historical evidence because it has happened so many different times in the billions of years the sun has existed. If you said that, I would still be entitled to ask what's the evidence that it has even happened once?

In the sphere of systematic spiritual practices leading to experiences of God (let's use the term broadly), Hinduism is more systematic than any other I know of. For example, I was recently pointed to a video where an Orthodox monk was describing four levels of spiritual attainment. Despite the fact that he was in a religion completely different to mine, I instantly recognized the four levels he was talking about, because they had been mapped out earlier in Hindu texts. I also knew what levels lay before and after these levels - levels of which this monk was ignorant of - though certainly not to any discredit on his part, I hasten to add.

OK, but doesn't that actually prove my point? If two people (an Orthodox monk and and Hindu) can both have very similar spiritual experiences, but one of them interprets it as vindicating Christian theology, while the other interprets it as verfying Hindu theology, doesn't that show how "approaches based on personal experience even more notoriously subjective?" It means you need additional information, besides those expriences, to show who is right about their theology.

(By the way, is there a level of spiritual attainment where one stops arguing with people on the internet? Because if so, neither of us has gotten there yet!)

I am prepared to believe that Hindus have learned a lot about the different states of consciousness that can arise from meditation and various other techniques. I am prepared to accept its impressiveness as an intellectual task, but I don't see it as being of primary religious significance. In Christianity trusting and obeying Christ, and loving one's neighbor, are regarded as more important than any "spiritual attainment[s]" of a mystical kind.

The unique thing which Christians have, that other religions don't, is Jesus. Not esoteric experiences (even if those do happen sometimes.) It's Jesus who is capable of transforming people's hearts from the inside out.

38. Mattsmallshaw says:

You say that the existence of God in 3 forms including Jesus Christ is logical and Pantheism is illogical. Allow me to retort to this obvious Narcissism. Obliviously you have read Spinoza's Ethics and understand all of it. Which is an object lesson in reason. You see you can be logical and have no reason. Like a computer. A computer can be programmed to be unreasonable. And in fact when computers become faulty they become very unreasonable. I could program a computer to control Narcissists, it's not a problem- and the system of the technological age is doing right now. You have are not using the rational mind that God gave you. But how can can a divine creator outside the parameters of nature create nature? Or how did he create himself to create the boundaries of the Universe without knowing how a Universe might work? Or how do you know the divine is the divine and not a super Alien race that was created by another designer. Or how could the Creator create the Universe when there is no mass to constitute it, but importantly there is no time. How would he have time to create a Universe when there is no time within to exist to achieve it?