Fundamental Reality XIII: Surprised by Something

Having described briefly the bearing of both Ethics and Consciousness on the nature of the fundamental reality, let's ask whether the source of these things would really be the same thing as a god, to whom one could have a religious and/or personal relationship.  There are various half-way houses for people who see defects in the conventional materialistic narrative, but aren't willing to go “all the way”.

I've had people tell me that they believe there is “Something” out there, but not God.  This is about as vague of a worldview as can be conceived, but I assume from context that they are not merely asserting that there exists at least one object (such as a rock or a tree)—no, their “Something” is more transcendental than that, and is intended to fill a quasi-religious niche.  Whether through mystical experience, philosophical argument, or just wishful thinking, they feel that there is something numinous or spiritual about existence, but organized religion turns them off and they feel it must be something quite different from conventional religious concepts of God.

My Ph.D. advisor, Ted Jacobson, who considers himself an atheist, nevertheless tells me he thinks there is some type of “cosmic consciousness” in which we participate.  I guess the Universe is observing itself through us, or something like that.  But I feel that this view is getting dangerously close to Theism.

One of the recurring themes in this exploration is this: even if the existence of God cannot be proven conclusively by pure Reason, there are plenty of things which nonreligious people are motivated to believe in, which turn out on inspection to be dangerously close to Theism.  Universal laws, objective ethics, cosmic consciousness: all of them smell in certain respects like a certain Somebody.

And if the Something really is a Somebody, then even when you are most alone, your life is a dialogue rather than a monologue.  One day, that seemingly impersonal brightness that hovers over existence, may suddenly manifest as a voice speaking to you, that knows your name.

Of course you cannot force God to reveal himself to you.  Any approach must be on his side.  In retrospect, it is clear to those chosen by God that nothing they did beforehand caused them to deserve or merit the experience of God.  It is gratis, an undeserved gift, which comes in spite of human resistance and even deliberate ignorance.

And yet that does not mean that preparation is unimportant.  The freedom of God is not an excuse for human laziness.  Even at the level of human experience, you cannot force somebody to fall in love with you, nor force yourself to fall in love with somebody else.  But you can be the sort of person to whom it happens more easily—fortune favors the prepared.  "Ask, and you will receive.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and the door will be opened to you."  It matters if you have a heart which is receptive to truth, and beauty, and ethical goodness.  Those who practice certain disciplines are more likely to find God, or rather more likely to be found by him.  These disciplines can include:

  1. philosophy not as an intellectual game, but as a genuine search for truth that makes a difference to how you live your life,
  2. an attitude of attentive waiting, not forcing yourself to have spiritual experiences, yet being open to them when they occur, and choosing to remember and ponder them,
  3. diligently choosing to expose yourself to various religious communities and texts, in order to see whether any of them know something you don't, searching for serious truth and holiness rather than conformity to your personal prejudices,
  4. prayer: speaking to God and asking him to reveal himself to you, if he exists, in a way of his own choosing, and also to help you with whatever problems concern you,
  5. and most importantly, genuinely trying as best you can to be an ethical person who is open to serving, loving, and welcoming other people (note: if you feel you have succeeded, then your standards are probably much too low).

From the outside, it may appear that religious believers trick themselves into having religious experiences by a sort of self-hypnosis: that the preparation is what causes us to believe.  Presumably that is true for some.  Yet many of us on the inside know that the most earnest preparation can lead to seeming dryness and absence, and then at other times God breaks in on us in a completely unexpected, surprising, and perhaps even unwelcome way.

Perhaps Ted will have an unpleasant surprise at some point in the future, as St. Lewis did. The following excerpt is from Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy.  We pick him up after he has already been led out of a materialistic form of Atheism into philosophical Idealism (a position similar to Pantheism) which he arrived at partly by means of Owen Barfield's “Argument from Reason” (which I do not myself accept as valid, by the way).  St. Lewis describes his conversion to Theism (not to Christianity, that came later) as follows:

I was now teaching philosophy (I suspect very badly) as well as English.  And my watered Hegelianism wouldn't serve for tutorial purposes.  A tutor must make things clear.  Now the Absolute cannot be made clear.  Do you mean Nobody-knows-what, or do you mean a superhuman mind and therefore (we may as well admit) a Person?  After all, did Hegel and Bradley and all the rest of them ever do more than add mystifications to the simple, workable, theistic idealism of Berkeley?  I thought not.  And didn't Berkeley's “God” do all the same work as the Absolute, with the added advantage that we had at least some notion of what we meant by Him?  I thought He did.  So I was driven back into something like Berkeleyism, but Berkeley with a few top dressings of my own.  I distinguished this philosophical “God” very sharply (or so I said) from “the God of popular religion.”  There was, I thought, no possibility of being in a personal relation with Him.  For I thought He projected us as a dramatist projects his characters, and I could no more “meet” Him, than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare.  I didn't call him “God” either; I called him “Spirit”.  One fights for one's remaining comforts.

Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man [online] and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.  Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken.  You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity”.  Now I veritably believe, I thought—I didn't of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.”  But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me.  Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good.  “Rum thing”, he went on, “All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God.  Rum thing.  It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”  To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since showed any interest in Christianity).  If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the tough, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn?  Was there then no escape?

The odd thing was that, before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears as a moment of wholly free choice.  In a sense.  I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus.  Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.  I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out.  Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster.  I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable.  The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears.  In a sense I was not moved by anything.  I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein.  I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite.  On the other hand, I was aware of no motives.  You could argue that I was not really a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done.  Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is the most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, “I am what I do”.  Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.  The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle.  I rather disliked the feeling.

The fox had been discharged from the Hegelian Wood and was now running in the open, “with all the woe in the world”, bedraggled and weary, hounds barely a field behind.  And nearly everyone was now (one way or another) in the pack: Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself.  Everyone and everything had joined the other side.  Even my own pupil Griffiths—now Dom Bede Griffiths—though not himself yet a believer, did his share.  Once, when he and Barfield were lunching in my room, I happened to refer to philosophy as “a subject”.  “It wasn't a subject to Plato”, said Barfield, “it was a way.”  The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my own frivolity.  Enough had been thought, and said, and felt, and imagined.  It was about time that something should be done.

For of course there had long been an ethic (theoretically) attached to my Idealism.  I thought the business of us finite and half-unreal souls was to multiply the consciousness of Spirit by seeing the world from different positions while yet remaining qualitatively the same as Spirit; to be tied to a particular time and place and set of circumstances, yet there to will and think as Spirit itself does.  This was hard; for the very act whereby Spirit projected souls and a world gave those souls different and competitive interests, so that there was a continual temptation to selfishness.  But I thought each of us had it in his power to discount the emotional perspective produced by his own particular selfhood, just as we discount the optical perspective produced by our position in space.  To prefer my own happiness to my neighbor's was like thinking that the nearest telegraph post was really the largest.  The way to recover, and act upon, this universal and objective distinction was daily and hourly to remember our true nature, to reascend or return to that Spirit which, in so far as we really were at all, we sill were.  Yes; but now I felt I had better try to do it.  I faced at last (in MacDonald's words) “some thing to be neither more nor less nor other than done”.  An attempt at complete virtue must be made.

Really a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully.  Dangers lie in wait on every side.  You must not do, you must not even try to do, the will of the Father unless you are prepared to “know of the doctrine”.  All my acts, desires, and thoughts were to be brought into harmony with universal Spirit.  For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose.  And what I found there appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.  My name was legion.

Of course I could do nothing—I could not last one hour—without continual conscious recourse to what I called Spirit.  But the fine, philosophical distinction between this and what ordinary people call “prayer to God” breaks down as soon as you start doing it in earnest.  Idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.  It became patently absurd to go on thinking of “Spirit” as either ignorant of, or passive to, my approaches.  Even if my own philosophy were true, how could the initiative lie on my side?  My own analogy, as I now perceived, suggested the opposite: if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare's doing.  Hamlet could initiate nothing.  Perhaps, even now, my Absolute Spirit still differed in some way from the God of religion.  The real issue was not there, or not yet, there.  The real terror was that if you seriously believed in even such a “God” or “Spirit” as I admitted, a wholly new situation developed.  As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel's, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its grave-clothes, and stood upright and became a living presence.  I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer.  It might, as I say, still be true that my “Spirit” differed at some point from “the God of popular religion”.  My Adversary waived the point.  It sank into utter unimportance.  He would not argue about it.  He only said, “I am the Lord”; “I am that I am”; “I am”.

....You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Next: Conclusion

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics 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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4 Responses to Fundamental Reality XIII: Surprised by Something

  1. I really enjoyed this post thanks. It is a fitting follow-up to what you have been exploring lately. I was thinking of referencing CS Lewis in a comment until I saw you had done that very thing.

  2. charlie says:

    Is it just me or is quantum gravity an area that's especially atheistic. With very few (vocal) theists.

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Supposedly a little under 40% of US scientists believe in a God who answers prayer, but this doesn't match my personal experiences at all. As far as I can tell, the large majority of my collegues are atheist/agnostic/nonreligious, although I know of a couple exceptions such as St. Don Page, as well as a couple less outspoken people. But that doesn't mean that they are all like Sean Carroll, Laurence Krauss, or Lee Smolin. Most of the atheists aren't particularly vocal about it either, and they are usually fairly respectful towards those with religious beliefs, even though they don't share them. (I've heard that the climate is much more hostile in Biology than Physics, presumably because of Creation/Evolution wars.)

    It might be that quantum gravity is different from other areas of physics, but I actually suspect it has more to do with the cultural differences between those who end up at major research universities and those end up in other places, such as teaching in smaller colleges or going into industry.

  4. TY says:

    Thank you Dr Wall.
    I share the same thoughts as you on the virtual absence of atheists in the recent comments on your series, Fundamental Reality. And then I recalled what you said in Fundamental Reality XIII: Surprised by Something, in a reply to Charlie:

    “Supposedly a little under 40% of US scientists believe in a God who answers prayer, but this doesn't match my personal experiences at all. As far as I can tell, the large majority of my colleagues are atheist/agnostic/nonreligious, although I know of a couple exceptions such as St. Don Page, as well as a couple less outspoken people. But that doesn't mean that they are all like Sean Carroll, Laurence Krauss, or Lee Smolin.”

    I think the 40% is not an unrealistic figure, but what I can say is that in academia, the figure must be much, much less. At the same time, the population of US scientists is much smaller than general population, so the number of academic scientists must be even smaller. So I see the glass half full and in, fact, I’m delighted most of the comments came from theists and Christians who seek reassurance that their faith rests on a solid foundation, and your posts answer that need convincingly.

    Brother Wall, Did you get any feedback from Sean Carroll, Laurence Krauss, Lee Smolin, Richard Dawkins, or any atheistic philosophers? I wouldn’t think so because you were not making proof statements but putting forth plausibility arguments, and dyed-in-the-wool atheists abhor plausibility. In your survey of the cosmological; models you showed it is more plausible to make the case that the universe had a beginning. I didn’t see any counterarguments from atheists in the Recapitulation:

    I think if you want feedback from atheists, take the project, so to speak, to the next level in the form of a book, then watch how the atheists will be coming out of the wood work. Fairly recently, Eric Metaxas wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God, and it quickly drew the criticism of Laurence Krauss (and a blog post by Cosmologist, Luke Barnes showing that Krauss’ critique was baseless).
    A book will do it nicely.

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