The Problem of God

I’ve been thinking about a few ideas about philosophy and religion, trying to draw them together in a sharper synthesis. It is a good exercise. What follows is not meant to be a polished essay, not even a draft, more of an exploration. I might do a few more like this and try to tighten up the ideas as I go.

Man is the animal that wonders.

Human beings wonder about the world in which they live, and about their own existence in it. The primordial question: why is reality this way? When they wonder about themselves, they ask what separates men from the rest of reality; on the one hand we are immersed in the world and dependent on it, on the other we have the capacity of abstracting ourselves from it, of stepping back and regarding it and ourselves. This power of abstraction gives humans the capacity to speak, create, form societies, and tell stories.

Other beings do not do these things. Humans alone are capable of wonder, and wonder is the source of the human notion of the sacred.

Humans almost universally express wonder through myth. Myth is a “sacred” story, which means that it deals with the origins and foundations of reality and in doing so provides a template for human action. The sacred story is necessarily ahistorical. It does not take place in the quotidian, “profane” world. No one who told the stories of Zeus or Loki thought these things really happened at some point in human history, rather they see the myth as taking place in a dreamlike golden age, or “time before time” or outside of time. The myth is a timeless archetype beyond daily life, to which daily life should conform. Myths are ritualitic: the ritual serves to create, within profane daily life, a space in which profane reality is made to conform to the archetype.

But myth tends to be unsatisfactory: the dreamlike narratives don’t add up to a coherent whole and resist systematization. And while they serve a purpose for explaining why reality is this way, and not another way, there is still a deeper question that can be asked: why reality, and why not nothing.

In the seventh and sixth centuries BC there was a widespread reaction against mythology which took place in several unrelated cultures, and the anti-mythological movements took three forms which form the basic human attitudes towards religion to this day. These attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but only one can be dominate in a given religion.

1. Mysticism. The mystic is a conservative: he wants to keep the myth in place, but he redefines it as a vehicle through which the worshiper comes into contact with a deeper, unknown and unknowable reality, the very roots of being which simply “is”. It cannot be known, but the mystic has the experience of being united to and blended with this ultimate reality. This is because just as all myths are vehicles for encountering the ultimate reality, so all individual beings are illusory expressions of the one ultimate reality. The mystic is a pantheist. This is typical of Hinduism and late Classical religion.

2. Rationalism: The rationalist simply decides that the myths are false. It is not a matter of saying “they never happened” because even the mythologist never believed they “really happened” in our world. Rather, the rationalist no longer sees the use of the myth beyond an allegorical or sociological role. In the ancient world the rationalist was often called an atheist because he rejected the common mythologies, and there were ancient materialists, but the ancient “atheist” was just as likely have been something like what today we would call a Deist. (The distinction between materialism and deism in the ancient world was not clear.) Rationalism was typical of ancient Greece.

3. Faith: This approach to religion came about in ancient Israel (and perhaps in Persia with Zoroaster). It is the claim that the myths are false and must be rejected because now the real God is present and is speaking to us. Unlike the myths, this god is intensely personal, active in human history, and interested in individual human beings. Since he is personal, the essential religious act is not mystical experience, nor rational contemplation, but faith, which is an interpersonal act. The main tension of ancient Judaism is between the tendency to mythologize Yahweh, to cut him down to being just any old mythological divinity, and to believe in him.

As I mentioned above, the ultimate question about the world is: why does the world exist, and not nothing. For the rationalist, who tends towards materialism, the question is unanswerable: the world just is, there is no ultimate reason for it. All the human mind can do is move from one curious question to the next, with no terminus, because underneath all the complexity and apparent order there is just matter in a state of chaos.

For the mystic, who tends towards pantheism, the answer is nearly the same: the world just is, rational explanation is impossible, there is only the experience of unity. Underneath the apparent complexity all is but an expression of the One.

For the believer there is an answer: God simply is, there is no reason for his existence, because he is reason, he is goodness, he is being. The world exists because he wants it to exist.

Since each of these approaches deals with the problem of “why being”, each claims universality in spite of the fact that they are all local cultural phenomena: Socrates, Zoroaster, Democritus, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the Buddha are all products of unique times and places. None can claim to have the default position, but they all claim to have the basic answer to human wondering.

At first glance, the mystic has the best claim to universality since all religions and human experience can participate in his claim that all is one and mystic experience is the key, with the exception that he cannot really believe in any of them. A religion that makes interpersonal faith its essential act cannot be subsumed into mystic pantheism. All religions are equally good for the mystic, except ones that claim to be true.

The rationalist proposes the rules of logic and evidence as being universal, and this would be convincing, except that humans all have the same rational tools of logic and observation, and yet come to radically different conclusions because their points of departure are different. This is because rationalism is only about the tools of the human mind, it has very little to say about where the tools come from or where they should go. But because he is convinced of his intellectual superiority, the rationalist will always assume that his point of departure is the default one, when it is not.

Faith has no claim to being the default human position. It can only claim to be a concrete, historical group of believers living in specific times and places. Nobody can think it up out of nothing, someone else has to tell him about it, share the Good News, as it were. Were it not for those pesky Jews, none of the contents of the monotheistic religions would exist. But as the Jews came to the conclusion that their god was not the best god but the God, they become conscious of the notion of a universal vocation: the Jews become a sign among the nations, the bearer of a message with a universal responsibility that went beyond simple cultural chauvinism. As a result, history itself takes on a meaning and a direction: there is a mission and a goal towards which God is mysteriously drawing the whole of humanity through his suffering servants, through his community of believers.






  1. Logic and evidence are universal, it’s just that some people have a better grip on it than others. It’s something that has to be learned. It’s the understanding of measurable cause and effect.

    Of course, it is a futile method when used in attempt to understand something that is lacking in evidence, such as the reasons for existence. This is where a faith that is humble to existence and receptive to knowledge would ideally come in.

    1. So if two people have a grasp of logic and are examining the same reality they will come up with the same conclusion?
      Then why do Aristotle and Democritus, Kant and Hegel, Compte and Wittgenstein all come to different conclusions about the world, God, and human nature? They all had access to the same rules of logic. They were all observing the same world, the same humanity.
      The problem is that the rules of logic are one thing, the relationship of those rules to realities outside our heads, and what the point of departure is for applying the rules, and to what sorts of things they can be applied, is all up for grabs.
      Even in mathematics it is possible to create mutually exclusive systems, each of which is “correct” and yet contradicts the others. Even physics, hardest of the hard sciences, is subject to radical paradigm changes.
      The soft sciences, forget about it.
      I’m not trying to piss on reason but to point out that the scope and value of human reason is not a simple question.

      1. If logic was subjective, science wouldn’t be able to function. Science can only cover what is studied though, which tends to leave room for interpretation until other angles are explored.

        Philosophy works loosely with logic, as there is not enough information to form a completely consistent view of existence, which is why those names you mentioned arrived at different conclusions. We simply aren’t capable of fully understanding the bigger picture, but we are continuing to take small steps closer with every scientific discovery.

        Logic works though – I just watched a documentary the other day about Bill Bailey, a man who came to the same conclusions about evolution as Darwin independently from the other side of the world at around the same time. He ended up sharing his findings with Darwin which aided Darwin in being able to confirm and publish his own findings with confidence.

        I’m not sure where you’re coming from with mathematics. Sure, there may be instances and circumstances that bring variability at times, but again, if there wasn’t consistency in how math functions, it would be useless – which is not the case. The European space community did just land analysis equipment on a comet – something that strongly relied on mathematics being rock solid in order to successfully rendezvous with the comet.

      2. It is not logic that is subjective, everybody knows that if A=B and B=C, then A=C. The problems are 1) how this applies to realities outside our heads and 2) what the point of departure is.
        It may be that what passes for philosophy in an average university is fluffy, but real philosophy from Aristotle to Wittgenstein is extremely rigorous: those guys were very serious about logic. The fact that they came to different conclusions is not a result fuzzy thinking but of different points of departure, and different ideas of how logic applies to reality.
        Science is more about results than “truth”. You land a rocket on a comet using Newtonian physics. Does that make Newtonian physics rock solid and true? Einstein and Hiesenburg would not agree. If you want to navigate a ship by the sun and stars you have to use the Copernican system, but that does not mean the earth is at the center of the cosmos.
        As for math, here is an easy example: Euclidean geometry relies on the unproven proposition that parallel lines never meet. Without this point of departure, you can’t do Euclidean geometry. But non-Euclidean geometry assumes the unproven proposition that parallel lines do meet, and you wind up with a completely different geometrical system. The irony is that both systems of geometry are necessary if we are going to function in the modern world. The rules of logic are the same, the conclusions completely different.
        What is at the heart of the problem is that there is no default point of departure. Whether the world is only matter, or whether the world is rational (and therefore, in some sense, created) is an unprovable proposition that determines how logic is applied to the world.

      3. Okay, so there are some differing contexts things function in that need to be factored in to be sure the proper information is being used. Just another layer of understanding and you’re back to things being solid again.

        As for rigorously assembled philosophies having different points of departure – I get the impression it may be along the lines of the mathematical contexts. It’s another layer of information one must be aware of.

        Possibly a better understanding of the points of departure more specifically will lead to a more cohesive understanding of things.

        Science may be about results, but the sum of those results helps to paint the picture of truth as well.

      4. Except that the various points of departure are unprovable. You can understand them all you want, but you are still stuck choosing which one to believe.
        Just to continue some of musing: one of the reasons modern science is so successful is because it is so narrow. Back at the beginning of modern science people like Bacon and Newton decided emphatically that they were not going to concern themselves with the nature of the universe, just how it can be measured, predicted and manipulated. That has led to some wonderful improvements to human life, but it narrows the scope of rational discourse.
        For example: back in Plato’s day it was thought that the best use of human reason was to contemplate Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Everything that exists was thought to in some way participate in those qualities. But in the modern world those are not subjects for rational study: goodness is reduced to practical ethics, truth is reduced to provisional scientific theories, and beauty is pure subjectivity or emotion.
        The tendency of rationalism is to constrict more and more the field of what is considered rational. It has its positive effects but what is lost is the sense of meaning.

      5. When rationalism is utilized as an all-encompassing view, I would agree. It’s just as out of hand as those who use Holy texts to promote world views that have been clearly demonstrated to be false or troublesome.

        Unfortunately, the world we live in seems to one that tends toward polarities rather than embracing what is understood in all areas of study and thought.

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