Fundamental Reality: Index

Here is an index for my now complete series on the metaphysical question of what is the most fundamental aspect of reality, giving my own take on the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Consciousness, and the Argument from Ethics.

I. Prologue, or Why Even Bother?

II. Causes and Explanations
III. Chains, Parsimony, and Magic
IV. Necessity, Eternity, and Power
V. Some Candidates, and a Math Test
VI. Comparison of the Finalists

VII. Does God Need a Brain?
VIII. The Hard Problem of Consciousness
IX. Stories and Atoms

X. Theories of Ethics
XI. What's Right is Right
XII. The Good, and the Not

XIII. Surprised by Something
XIV. Conclusion

[This post has been backdated to appear next to the series itself]

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Fundamental Reality XIV: Conclusion

Putting everything together, I have argued—using plausibility arguments, not strictly deductive proofs—that it is reasonable to believe in a metaphysically ultimate being, and that given the reality of Ethics or Consciousness, it is probable that it is more like a mind than like a set of equations.  More specifically, my arguments pointed to just one eternal God, existing necessarily, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, who is the source of all other things, yet is distinct from them, and who appreciates mathematical beauty, conscious life, and ethical behavior.

Of course there are a lot of mysteries left in this view.  Even though God is supposed to be the explanation of all other things, we cannot predict, from this information alone, exactly which laws of physics God would select, nor whether he would intervene in the Universe thus created in other ways.  Not sharing the divine knowledge about what is best, we have to make additional stipulations about the world he has created, adding to the complexity of any specific Theistic worldview.

But then again, Naturalism by itself cannot tell us either (apart from experiment) which specific laws of nature to expect.  All views contain a certain amount of irreducible mystery.  The difference is that Naturalism hides or denies the mysteries, and pretends to solve problems that it cannot possibly really solve, while Theism puts them up-front and center and does the best it can to fit them into a consistent picture of the world.

It does not matter so much whether you are convinced that my conclusions have to be right.  Maybe there were several places in the argument where I selected one of two paths, but you think it was a toss-up, or that the other way was somewhat more plausible.  That's part of the hazards of armchair reasoning.  Personally I am primarily concerned with the arguments for Theism as a prelude to Christianity, which is founded on the Resurrection of Christ and the testimony of God's Spirit, not philosophical discourse.  But plausibility arguments still have their place.  If you are thirsting after goodness and beauty and meaning, and if you learn that there could well be a fountain capable of slaking that thirst, shouldn't this increase your incentive to search for it?

A purely intellectual philosophy can only get you so far.  Actual religion involves opening yourself up to the divine being, over a continued period of time, allowing God to get hold of you.  Any approach must be by his initiative rather than yours, but your attitude can determine whether or not you are receptive to his advances.  Without this, philosophy is sterile.  If it advances only to savoir, conceptual knowledge, it might as well have remained atheistic.  All of these philosophical arguments are only there to help you make further steps, to connaître or knowledge by acquaintance.  Arguing for the existence of the Good is one thing; tasting the reality of the Holy is another.

When that happens, the purely intellectual arguments—and the doubts which are a necessary corollary of any honest attempt to evaluate them—can be kicked aside like a ladder that has served its purpose, and replaced with something far better.

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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

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Several Random Things

Speaking of the Hard Problem of Consciousness, there's going to be a new Tom Stoppard play about the "Hard Problem".   I'm so excited!

Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brainscience institute, is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness? This is ‘the hard problem’ which puts Hilary at odds with her colleagues who include her first mentor Spike, her boss Leo and the billionaire founder of the institute, Jerry. Is the day coming when the computer and the fMRI scanner will answer all the questions psychology can ask? Meanwhile Hilary needs a miracle, and she is prepared to pray for one.

Tom Stoppard is the master of geeky, postmodern-in-the-best-sense intellectual theatre.   For purposes of the preceeding sentence please ignore (but only for the duration of this paragraph) the existence of Stephen Sondheim, who also fits the above description...

This interview with a convert from Hinduism to Eastern Orthodoxy (and the accompanying article) is by far the most useful and informative thing I've ever read about the vexed question of the extent to which Yoga is compatible with the Chirstian faith.

From the same program, a discussion of whether ancient Christians distinguished between insanity and demon possession.

On a similar note, the testimony of a Catholic Christian with a schizophrenia-like condition and how it relates to his faith.

Heartwrenching: The Spy who Loved Me.  It's difficult to know what is real and what is not in a relationship, when the person in question has been trained in dissociation to the point where he may not even know who he is himself.

A video about a man with cerebral palsy who makes paintings using a typewriter.  (The 2014 article is in the present tense, but actually Paul Smith died in 2007.)

Be My Eyes, an iPhone app that allows sighted people to help blind people from afar.

Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science.  The evolution of the characteristically modern movement in Christianity called Fundamentalism, named after a publication called "The Fundamentals".  (While I do not share the Fundamentalist approach to interpreting Scripture or Nature, it seems unnecessarily insulting to them to use the same term to describe fanatics in other religions, that like to blow people up.)

Wonder and the Ends of Inquiry.  The surprisingly ambivalent relationship between wonder and scientific inquiry.

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Fundamental Reality XII: The Good, and the Not

It is not surprising that the Laws of Physics don't have anything to say about right and wrong, given that the world they describe is an abstraction from our own.  Physics describes the world in one aspect, as a pattern of interlocking relationships, but it doesn't tell us what are the actual entities in those relationships, and what their meaning and signficance is.

If there are any moral truths at all, then reality has to combine them with other facts in a unified way.  Physical truths and moral truths, considered in isolation, are just abstractions from the actual reality, but real situations contain elements of both.  Furthermore, since you can't derive an “Ought” statement from a a purely factual “Is” statement, the moral aspects of reality must be present in the fundamental principles of reality, whatever they are.  (Here I am using Hume's Is-Ought dictum in a manner which he would have thoroughly disapproved of!)  This type of argument is a form of the Argument from Ethics (also called the Moral Argument) for the existence of God.  It is similar to the Cosmological Argument except that it involves tracing back ethical reasons rather than physical causes.

Notice also that the concept of good is more fundamental than the concept of evil.  There is an asymmetry here.  In every situation where we identify something as evil, there is some good behind it which is perverted or threatened by that evil.  For example, if it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on a dog, that is because the dog is itself something good and valuable, so that something which harms it is an evil.  Existence, sensation, consciousness, will, and knowledge are all themselves inherently good and desirable things.  It is only when these things exist that evil can also exist, parasitically.

This lends support to something like the Platonic view of reality, in which all goodness is derivative from a fundamental type of goodness. Although aspects of a Kantian or Aristotelian outlook could be included as well, both men being theists after all.  (This “Platonic” view of Ethics should be distinguished from another idea attributed to Plato, that all abstract concepts correspond to their own “Platonic Form”.  Here I am only concerned only with the transcendent reality of goodness.)

But now observe that morality is at least a little bit like a mind, insofar as it approves or favors certain things, and disapproves or disfavors other things.  So a fundamental morality would have something analogous to will or desire, and in that respect it would be more like a mind than like an equation, as in Theism.

And indeed, if we are Monotheists, then it is not possible to have one Ultimate Fact, and a distinct Ultimate Goodness, as two separate and independent principles not joined together by any common tie.  They must be rooted in one and the same Ultimate Being.

Conversely, if we conclude for other reasons (e.g. the Argument from Consciousness) that the Ultimate Being is something like a mind, then this being's desires would be rooted in the fundamental nature of reality, and would therefore be objective in a way that our desires are not.  Such a being's desires would therefore potentially be capable of grounding morality, since there would be a notion of ought that transcends our own wishes and desires, and exists necessarily.

Before anyone even tries to throw the Euthyphro dilemma at me, let me observe that this dilemma was introduced into philosophy by Plato, as an (indirect, Socratic) argument for Platonic Monotheism!  When Socrates asked whether good actions are pious because the gods love them, or whether the gods love them because they are pious, he was highlighting an absurdity in the idea that morality could be connected to the collective will of multiple, finite beings who (like us) are not the most fundamental entity in the Universe.  How the dilemma mutated into its current existence as a standard tool in the arsenal of Atheism, I don't know.  But if God IS the fundamental principle of goodness, then he neither commands it arbitrarily, nor is he beholden to any more fundamental ethical principle outside of himself.  God is the Good; indeed in a certain sense he is the only Good, all other goods being images or reflections of his splendor.

If this conclusion is correct, this forms a secondary argument against Pantheism, since the world, and we ourselves if we examine our consciences, contain much evil.  Freedom from immorality is thus a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to be divine.

Of course, the evils in the world are also a powerful prima facie argument against the idea that the world comes from a being that is essentially good.  This is the Argument from Evil. How could a good God produce a creation which has any evil in it at all, let alone the amount which we see?  This isn't the place for an extended theodicy, but I think something must be said here lest the Argument from Ethics be drained of all credibility whatsoever.

If we view God as merely an impersonal source, out of which goodness flows, like water from the tap or light from the sun, then perhaps the problem is insoluable.  But if God is conceived of as being like a mind, then he is allowed to use long-term planning: in particular he can allow evil so long as it contributes to the greater good.  So if there is some good which cannot be had without evil (e.g. if it turns out that suffering is the best way to build character—a thesis I find, with some regret, to be quite plausible) then God might be expected to allow the evil in question.

Secondly, the moral philosophy associated with the Platonic view is not quite so unconducive to the existence of evil as it is supposed.  I said above that God is the only Good; all other things are good only as they participate in his goodness.  That means that any created thing, not being God, could potentially be turned away from God and become evil.  For human beings in particular, the possible temptation to idolatry, seeking our final goodness in created things rather than in the (necessarily invisible) Creator, is built into the very nature of a world containing lesser goods, reflecting God's more perfect yet less accessible goodness.  Indeed, the better a created thing is, the more easily it can be turned into an idol.

God could, of course, act to prevent anything from “going bad” in this way, but since the whole point of Creation is to make a Universe which is, to some extent, independent from God, this would plausibly sabotage the artistic integrity of his work.  Even in the realm of fiction, few of us are interested in reading stories where nothing bad ever happens.

Finally, note that the existence of evil is part of the very premises of the Argument from Ethics!  When you indignantly condemn the evil in the world, are you appealing to real objective ethical truths or merely to your own personal private sensibilities?  If the world really contains evil, then it contains moral facts, and the Argument from Ethics says that the fundamental reality must be capable of grounding ethical truths.  Then who are you, O man, to think you know more about goodness than Reality itself does?

On the other hand, if you say it is merely your own subjective feeling about the world adapted to the needs of primate communites, then you undercut not only the Argument from Ethics but also the Argument from Evil along with it.  In that case, God is merely indulging his own personal preferences in creating a world with butterflies and mosquitos, cancer and laughter.  Then who are you, O ape, to judge Reality based on your own standard of right and wrong?

Next: Surprised by Something

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