Monthly Archives: October 2014

An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.

Advertisements

Is God or Humanity The Supreme Being?

Today we leave behind the first decision point on the path to Christian faith. Having made a reasonable and responsible decision to affirm the irreducible reality of mind and attribute the intelligible order of the physical world to an active and universal mind, we now need to consider the nature of that mind. In the most general sense, the issue can be stated as follows: “Is the mind that is evident in the intelligible order of the world impersonal or personal?” More specifically, is the mental aspect of reality an unconscious, primitive urge that drives evolution toward higher and higher order culminating in self-conscious human beings? Or, in another impersonal option, is the universal mind a kind of logical necessity, impersonal in itself, that develops automatically into a world that contains finite, self-conscious minds like ours? Or, in a third option on the impersonal side of the second decision point, does the universal mind possess a primitive consciousness—not yet self-conscious, personal, and free—that itself evolves into god. In this theory, God was not always as great as God is now and did not create the world in a sovereign and free decision; instead, God grows and becomes greater in a world process that includes God and matter evolving together according to impersonal laws not subject to God’s choice.

Or, to consider the personal alternative in the second decision point, is God always and forever personal? Obviously the term “personal” is derived from our experience in ourselves and other human beings of those qualities that distinguish us from nonliving things and life on a lower level. In contrast to other things, we possess self-consciousness, knowledge, freedom, and capacity for interpersonal relationships. Only if God possesses these qualities may we think of God as powerful, loving, merciful, communicative, responsive, and purposive. Only a personal God can create the world and accompany it to God’s intended destination. Only a personal God can hear our prayers, know our names, exercise providence in our lives, and guarantee that we will reach our God-given destination. Only a personal God can root our personal identity in an eternal reality and ground our worth in divine love.

But which alternative conception of God makes the most sense, an impersonal god or a personal God? I have conversed with people who deny being atheists, claim to believe in God, but insist that they cannot believe in “a personal God.” My first reaction to such a qualification is a bit flippant: isn’t the notion of an impersonal god a contradiction? Why would you call an impersonal process “God”? Isn’t this a rather confusing use of the word God? Why not say that you do not believe in God at all? Sometimes, I get the impression that people who claim not to believe in a personal God are not expressing the conclusion of a serious thought project; rather, they are expressing their feelings of discomfort with the idea of God. But let’s assume that those who think of god as impersonal believe something like one of the three alternatives I described above: God is an urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution.

Consider the following implications of the assertion that god is impersonal. To think of god as impersonal in one of these three senses is to insinuate that the god that produced us exists on a lower level of being than we do. Human beings, not god, occupy the highest level of being the world has yet attained. The implications of such a claim are rather eye opening. If god is impersonal, we know more than god does. We understand ourselves better than god understands “his” being. Indeed, we understand god better than god does. We are freer than god. We possess every noble, powerful, and desirable quality to a higher degree than god does. God doesn’t even know that “he” exists. Let me put it bluntly. We deserve the title “god” much more than an impersonal process does, however ancient, primitive, and productive that process may be. And, the deification of human self-consciousness may be the secret within the idea of an impersonal god. Humanity is the highest manifestation to date of the world process, and “God” is our imaginary image of the end stage of the world process.

The choice between a personal and an impersonal god, we can now see, is a choice between believing that there exists something infinitely greater and better than us or believing that we are the greatest and best existing beings. My intuition is that human beings possess an inner tendency to believe that there must exist something much greater and better than us, since that “Something” produced beings as amazing as us. How disappointing it would be to discover that we are the Supreme Being, that this is as good as it gets!

A Time for Decision: Is Christianity True? (Part 11)

For the past three weeks we have been standing before first decision point on path from nonbelief to Christian faith. We must decide whether mind or matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. Belief in God presupposes the background belief that mind is at least as fundamental as matter, and atheism presupposes that matter alone is fundamental and explains everything else. If it could be shown that matter is the final explanation for mind and all mind-like features of the universe, belief in God would be defeated. If, on the other hand, mind could be shown to be at least as ultimate as matter, atheism would be defeated.

I argued from three different experiences that it is eminently reasonable to belief that mind is as necessary to explain the world of our experience as matter is. We examined our experience of the intelligibility of the external order of nature. In our analysis we found no way to reduce the intelligible order of nature to pure, unordered matter, and we rejected chance as the explanation for that order. Afterward, we considered our experience of ourselves as initiating causes and creators of information. We argued from this experience that it is reasonable to believe that an active universal mind gives the world its intelligible order. Finally, we argued that our experience of other minds “strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial, active mind orders the world.”

We could dwell here forever endlessly debating the many issues involved in the choice between mind and matter as the ultimate reality: How could mind emerge from pure matter? How can immaterial mind exercise causality on a material world? But now it is time to decide. I am convinced that further discussions would not settled the issue definitively. There is no hope that further investigation would bring forward indubitable proof one way or another and remove the necessity for a fallible decision. The best we can hope for is a decision based on reasonable and responsible judgments. And I believe the three arguments we have considered make reasonable our belief that mind is at least as ultimate as matter and make responsible our decision to act on that belief.

Since there are no definitive arguments for either side, some would argue that a stance of agnosticism and indecision is the most rational position. This argument contends that agnosticism’s subjective uncertainty and indecision corresponds to the objective situation of our lack of absolute knowledge whereas a decision to build one’s life and worldview on either alternative goes beyond the evidence. And cultivating certainty and plunging into action beyond the reach of the evidence is abandoning reason in favor of irrational impulse.

I don’t think I need to enter an extended discussion of agnosticism at this point, but I’d like to make two points in response to the argument in the previous paragraph. First, one cannot be agnostic about everything. In the argument above the agnostic makes the judgment that both the evidence for and the evidence against materialism are inadequate to justify knowledge claims and decisive actions. Now either this agnostic judgment is fallible or infallible. If the agnostic judgment rises to the level of genuine knowledge, the agnostic must abandon agnosticism at least on this issue. If the judgment in question is fallible, the agnostic loses the right to criticize atheism or theism for going beyond the evidence; for the agnostic also acts on the basis of fallible judgments. Second, some decisions are so fundamental to the act of living that they cannot be avoided or postponed. Perhaps, I need never form a definitive judgment about whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. I can think of no practical difference my opinion on the subject would make. But we cannot avoid the decision between atheism and belief in God. If we live at all or do anything at all, we must live and act on one belief or another. For these beliefs define the origin and destiny and the meaning and purpose of human life. And these limits determine everything in between, defining the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and the worthwhile and the useless. The rationality of every human act or decision not to act will be judged by its consistency with these ideas. In the case of agnosticism, refusing to decide is to decide to act as if we could live without acting, a huge self-deception.

But I have argued that the decision to reject materialism in favor of belief is quite rational. Once we make this decision–especially since we see that further discussion would not change the necessity of making a fallible decision–we need not look back in doubt. We can move forward to build our thoughts on the foundation of reasonable judgments and responsible decisions made at the first decision point. We can now presuppose the existence of a universal mind that manifests itself in the intelligible order of the world. This forward-looking boldness will characterize each of the decision point decisions we make on the way to Christian faith. These points are watershed moments where one must take risks to move forward into decisive action. We are being prepared for the most demanding decision of all, the move into faith in Jesus Christ.

God, Matter, and Other Minds: Is Christianity True? (Part 10)

In the past two posts we examined a background belief that must be true if atheism is true, that is, that matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. We evaluated this materialist option from two different experiential starting points, our experience of the intelligibility and materiality of the external world and our experience of our own minds as active, free, and creative. In this tenth part of our series (“Is Christianity True?”), we will consider materialism from a third experiential starting point: our experience other minds, other intelligent human persons.

Amazingly, we can understand and think ideas that come from other human minds. We find ourselves not only able to read the passive information written into nature and able to write information into the physical world, we also encounter other minds like ours, active and free and able to communicate information from their minds to ours through language. Although there is no way to prove that a human body with whom we are speaking really possesses a mind like ours, we believe it so strongly that we think it absurd to doubt it. We recognize in others what we experience as self-evident in ourselves. What does our experience of other minds, that is, other intelligent human persons, add to our experience of the intelligibility of the physical world and of ourselves as active minds?

1. The existence of other minds confirms our internal experience of ourselves as active, free, and creative minds. Our experience of freedom, which seems so real experienced from inside, is confirmed as really real in encounter with other people who act and express that same freedom. Our mental encounter with other minds differs from decoding the structures embedded in the physical world. In our efforts to understand the intelligible order in the physical world we experience the order as passive and ourselves as active. But when we meet other minds we find that they are also active and creative. In encounters with other people we experience being understood by the thing that we are attempting to understand. We meet a new kind of reality, a person. Other minds/persons actively resist and protest any effort to reduce them to their ideas, sense impressions, or material constituents. We also resist and protest depersonalization. And, in encountering other persons we become aware of our own irreducible personhood more intensely than we can in encountering the passive intelligible order in the physical world.

2. The existence of other human minds and our ability to communicate with each other adds a new dimension to our experience of the intelligibility within the world. Our minds meet and transfer information through the medium of the external world in which we find an intelligible order that can be understood alike by many minds. In verbal language we encode information in the medium of air as sound impulses. Receiving information from another person through language gives us confidence that we know what the other is thinking, and we know it by rethinking the thought communicated.

Our experience of other minds as free actors and creators of information and as co-readers of the information encoded in the physical world reinforces our conviction that the order that structures the physical world is indeed intelligible and derives from an active mind. We experience minds other than our own creating information understandable by us and still other minds.

3. Encountering other intelligent persons introduces a moral dimension to our experience of mind, a sense of the inestimable worth of others. I will deal in greater detail with the moral dimension of human experience later. Here I will point out that encountering other intelligent persons introduces the idea that the universe is ordered not only in increasing levels of complexity but also in increasing levels of value, which in turn gives birth to the idea of a teleological order that moves toward producing greater and greater perfection.

Does our experience of other minds/persons add anything to the case made in the previous two posts for choosing the option that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit and rejecting materialism? Yes, I think it does. (1) In the previous post I argued that our experience of our own active minds gives plausibility to active mind as the explanation for the intelligible order in the world. Encountering other free and creative persons strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial active mind orders the world. (2) Our experience of other minds/persons opens up a moral and teleological dimension to our experience of the world. These dimensions cannot be perceived simply by using our reason to read the information embedded in the physical world or experiencing ourselves as creators of information. If the worth we perceive in other persons is a real property, independent of our subjective feelings, this worth must be the product of a valuing and purposive mind at least equally primordial with matter.

Next week, we will summarize the case for moving through the first decision point on the road from non-belief to Christian belief in the direction of belief. Though we cannot remove all possible doubt, we will take the road marked “Mind is at Least Equally Primordial with Matter” and leave untraveled the road marked “Matter is the Ultimate Reality that Explains Everything Else.” Now we are faced with the second decision point: is the mind that orders the world one or many, personal or impersonal?

Materialism’s Sacrificium Intellectus or Atheism’s Leap of Faith

Last week we pursued the hypothesis of materialism from the starting point of our experience of the world through the senses. We experience the external world as structured in intelligible ways we can understand through common sense and natural science. But we also experience it as external, as brute facts offering only resistance to penetration by mind or body. But as we examined physical objects we discovered that we can break them apart to experience their internal order as intelligible. We ended up unable to discover pure matter by way of the senses. Every object we thought might be pure matter ended up being internally structured and therefore at least partially intelligible, that is, partly an idea. Matter, we concluded, is the abstract idea of an unintelligible, unordered, and yet real, stuff we can never experience apart from its connection with intelligible structure.

Today I want us to begin our examination of materialism at another point. We experience ourselves as creators and causes, as initiators of movement and change. We possess a first person consciousness of ourselves as actors, as free. We are able freely to create information and through our bodies shape the material world according to this information. In other words, we experience ourselves not only as passive readers of information encoded in physical objects, human made or natural, but also as active minds and wills and creative powers.

Of course, some materialists deny that we really are active minds that can initiate change and create information. We are merely part of the material process of cause and effect. But those materialists who deny freedom always base their denial on their theory, as one of its implications. They never deny that it seems to our own consciousness that we are free and creative. In my view, denying what seems self-evident to consciousness because of one’s commitment to materialist theory strains credulity and calls into question the denier’s commitment to rationality. What can you say to someone who denies what we and they cannot help but believing? I view this denial as on the level with someone who denies the existence of the external world. For our experience of freedom is as primitive and irreducible as the experience we gain from the senses. You cannot verify one by the other or reduce one to the other.

Materialists, too, must begin with trust. They must trust the senses to tell them the truth about the existence and nature of matter. Such primitive experiences cannot be verified by more basic experiences, for there are none. But in order to be a rationally responsible adherent of any theory about the external world, including materialism, you have to believe you have a mind capable of taking the data from the senses and constructing a true theory. It seems to me, then, that affirming the truth of materialism requires also affirming the irreducible reality of free and creative minds; these two affirmations are clearly incompatible.

What does it mean to say that mind and intelligibility are real? Most people have no trouble believing something is real when they can experience it with one of the five senses. More precisely, we believe things are real if there are any possible circumstances under which they can be experienced, even if those means are not yet available to us. Even more generally, we consider something real if it possesses causal power, that is, if there are any possible circumstances under which it can effect change in something else or be changed or resist being changed by something else. We cannot know a “thing” that possesses no causal power, and we do not consider it real. When we think of it this way, we can see that our minds, our ideas, and the ideas that structure nature are real. We experience their causal power. Our minds create information, which can, then, in combination with physical power, create new things in the external world. New ideas arising from our own creativity or from other minds or from natural objects inform our minds, that is, they cause change in our minds. Hence, if to be real means to possess causal power, our minds, their ideas and the ideas that give the world its intelligibility are certainly real…just as real as stuff that creates change in our senses.

I think I am on solid ground, then, when I assume that our experience of ourselves as free causes of movement and change and free creators of new information tells us the truth. Not only do we experience in our own being a mind capable of abstracting and thinking the information that structures the external world, we experience directly our minds as active and creative. Just as I experience my feelings of pain or pleasure or fear as self-evident and undeniable, I also experience myself as a free cause with the same certainty. We make a difference between the automatic unconscious processes that go on in within our bodies and our deliberate choices and acts. We know the difference between being knocked to the ground by the impact of a physical object and our deliberate act of sitting down. There is a qualitative difference between the two.

In the previous post I showed that we cannot imagine a rational way to account for the intelligible order’s genesis from pure, amorphous, undifferentiated matter. For the reasons I mentioned in that earlier post, chance can’t do the job. Other than active mind the only option is the sheer absurdity of asserting that it happened, somehow, anyway. But why choose the absurdity of spontaneous generation when we experience our own minds as free causes able to initiate change and create information and place it into a physical medium? We know this can happen because we actually do it! Hence we have a simple and rational explanation for the intelligible structure that permeates nature: Active mind is at least equally primordial with matter. We do not need to resort to an arbitrary leap of faith made necessary by commitment to the metaphysical theory of reductive materialism.

Now we have a second rational reason to reject the materialist option and its sacrificium intellectus. We can take the road that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit.

Next Week: What do we make of our experience of other minds? Are other minds real? How and where do minds meet?