Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens meet with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

The Philosophy Classroom: The Ultimate Safe Space

In the past weeks my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with articles about safe spaces and trigger warnings. My impression from the headlines and comments alone is that most people are understanding these things differently than I and my colleagues do. Very briefly, I understand a trigger warning to be a kind of heads up that the topic to be discussed will go into graphic detail about a topic, e.g., rape, that may “trigger” past trauma. The point being to allow someone who is not yet ready to hear, much less discuss, their experience to bow out—for even if they are not explicitly the subject of the conversation, if the subject concerns their kind of traumatic experience, it is their experience under discussion. I have not had occasion to use trigger warnings in my philosophy classroom simply because I have not discussed topics that deal with trauma. There seems to be some confusion or worry that trigger warning are used to allow students to avoid hearing things that make them “uncomfortable.” However, if some use them that way, that is unfortunate, but I do not have reason to believe it is the norm. There is, of course, a huge chasm between the uncomfortable and the traumatic. I’m guessing that most teachers would catch on that something disingenuous is up if they gave a trigger warning and half the class walked out.

Similarly with safe spaces: there’s a ton of confusion. Unlike with trigger warnings, I have used the phrase, “I consider this classroom to be a safe space.” What I meant and what I said to my students was that that means people can speak up, share their thoughts and experiences—fully be themselves—without worrying about being ridiculed, made fun of, or otherwise made to feel bad for what they have said or who they are. It most definitely does not mean that we won’t be discussing difficult or controversial material or material that will make them uncomfortable. As a philosophy professor, I don’t believe I’m doing my job unless I’m leaving my students confused if not also uncomfortable. Confused because I believe that they cannot deepen their understanding of the world and themselves without first working through confusion. Uncomfortable because my philosophy classroom is not about telling them how things are, but rather challenging them with questions they wouldn’t otherwise be asked to consider. Continue reading

Religious Practice and the Limits of Philosophy

In reading Siderits’s excellent Buddhism as Philosophy I have come to realize the following problem. If a religion has its base in philosophy, if its central tenets are supposed to follow from the use of reason and argument, then none of its conclusions can ever be firm enough to ground religious practice. There will always be difficult objections and questions that cannot be answered in a way sufficient to allow one to say, “I know this is true and I will base my life on it.” On the other hand, if religious practice is grounded in faith or pragmatic results independent of argument, then one has no reason to believe in the metaphysical claims made by the religion.

Consider the arguments. I take it that the arguments for God’s existence and a soul are familiar enough in their inconclusiveness. So I won’t go over them. But Buddhism is a different story. Central to Buddhism is the idea that there is no substantial self who is the subject of experience. Whatever you take the parts of a human to be, they do not form a whole that could be such a self. The self that we refer to by names and pronouns is a necessary fiction. On Siderits’s reading of Buddhism, the Buddhist view regarding ontology is mereological reductionism. Reality contains no wholes; it only contains indivisible “parts.” Siderits covers the arguments very well. But if you are at all knowledgeable about the debates concerning part-whole relations, then you will see objections right and left to the arguments and their premises. Yet, these are the considerations that are supposed to ground the Buddhist worldview and practice. Given how contentious these very abstract arguments are, how can they form the foundation for the way in which one interacts with the world? I’m claiming they cannot. Why? Because if you are properly intellectually honest, you will not be convinced by the arguments on either side. If you are convinced by the arguments on either side, then that is likely because of a bias for or against the sides in question. That is a strong claim, and one that invites resistance! It’s important to note, I think, that this latter contention doesn’t requires that all philosophical debate lead to aporia in the way it often seems to with Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues. That is, aporia would be sufficient but not necessary for not fully affirming a theory when doing philosophy.

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Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?

Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.

When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.

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Possible Reasons for Endorsing Some Kind of Theism

What follows is that outline considering possible reasons for endorsing some kind of theism. Importantly, it is just an outline; so its details need to be filled in. Were that filling in to occur, I’m sure that certain points might get modified, added, or rejected. Further, a lot of it is based on things I have written about more extensively in my notebooks and as such a number of things will be presented that might not make sense or for which I will not offer arguments. I hope to elaborate on and present arguments for those claims later on.

In Experiments in Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:

Now, in real life reasonable people will not hold most of their beliefs with the level of conviction that we call certainty. Most of us, most of the time, will allow that most of what we believe about the world could turn out to be wrong. So our actual reasoning is not from certainties to certainties but from the probable to the probable. (pp.51-52)

I believe Appiah is right about the above; so, I am not looking for certainty here, but rather what is reasonable to believe. All of the reasons given below may not be strong individually, but perhaps they add up to a strong argument, particularly when taken in conjunction with the objections and replies.  For that to make sense, the arguments need to be interpreted as inductive; a large number of invalid deductive arguments won’t add up to a strong argument.

Before getting to the reasons themselves, I want to distinguish between causes of belief, epistemic reasons for belief, and pragmatic reasons for belief. Roughly, the cause of belief is that which brings it about that a person holds the belief she holds. For example, Carol believes in God(s) because she was raised in a Hindu home. An epistemic reason for believing something is a reason that is supposed to make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over the infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics for treating his kind of infection. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well. A pragmatic reason for believing something is a reason based on a desired end and the idea that holding the belief in question will make more probable the achievement of that end. That is, for example, if a person has an epistemic reason to believe that if she believes she can make a particular jump across a chasm, then she will most likely be able to make the jump, then even if she doesn’t have an epistemic reason to believe she can make the jump, she may have a pragmatic reason. Almost all of the reasons considered below are epistemic reasons for and against affirmation of theism.

Reasons for believing in God:

1) The testimony of people, e.g., Gandhi, who are intelligent, sincere, and willing to explore and challenge religious dogma, and yet believe in God(s).

2) Cosmological reasons concerning an explanation of either the origin of the universe or a reason for its existing at all even if it has no origin per se.

3) Teleological reasons concerning the fine-tuned nature of the observable universe for the existence of life.

4) Connected to 3, the idea that the universe is morally valuable because of its fitness for life and that it actually contains conscious and self-conscious life; and that this indicates that if there is a God, that that God is in some way good. Further, we might think that a good universe is more likely the outcome of creation by a good God than by other means or reasons. So not only is a universe fit for life improbable given all the other possibilities, it is even more improbable that a good universe would arise “randomly.”

5) The wonder of nature, all life, and the fact that nature is not only conscious of itself (experiences itself, as animals do) but also conscious of itself as nature and conscious of itself as conscious of itself.

6) [This perhaps should be a part of objections and replies. It is not properly speaking a reason for belief in God] Regarding science and faith, Robert Pollack writes:

Science makes the following claim for itself, legitimately: most of what is knowable is unknown at this moment, and most of what is unknown will be knowable eventually through science. The faith of science makes a further claim: all that is unknown will be knowable through science. The distinction between the two turns on the question: Is there anything unknown now, whether or not it lies on the outer edge of what is knowable, that will never be understood, anything that is ultimately unknowable? No one denies that science will push the margin ever closer to full knowledge. The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith. [From Practicing Science, Living Faith, Eds. P. Clayton and J. Schaal. Page 229]

Importantly, he goes on to make clear that he does not think that all scientists make the claim that “all that is unknown will be knowable through science.” And that may simply be because there are questions that science cannot answer as a result of contingent human limitations (e.g., whether there are extraterrestrials). Thus he is not claiming that the practicing of science necessarily requires faith. Rather, his claim is that a certain way of viewing science and knowledge requires faith. The crucial move in Pollack’s argument is “The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith.”

“Science,” of course, might “say” that its “faith” is justified by the progress that science has and continues to make. However, against this we might point out that since the questions “Is all knowledge scientific knowledge?” and “Is there anything that will remain unknowable to science?” cannot be answered by science, and since their answers seem to be that no, not all knowledge is scientific knowledge and thus yes there are things that are unknowable to science—the latter may include things unknowable to any human—such faith in science is not only misplaced but simply wrong. And if science’s purview is the physical world and it cannot know everything, then it follows that there may be some things about the physical world it cannot know, e.g., its origin or reason for being, or that there may be something beyond the physical world that it cannot know simply because it is transcends the physical world.
Therefore, despite science’s successes, it is neither the keeper of all knowledge, nor the judge of all that can be known. Thus there is room open for God and science.

7) In the way that William James seems to argue in “The Will to Believe,” we might risk belief in God because once we do open ourselves to such a belief, new, religious/spiritual kinds of experiences may be opened up. So this is not an epistemic reason to believe in God; rather it is a pragmatic reason that may lead to epistemic reasons.

Reasons Against Believing in God and Replies:

1) God seems conspicuously absent from the world.

Reply: Well it depends on what one means by “absent.” There is no booming voice from the sky; there is no “person” making an appearance and saying, “Hey I’m God. Nice to meet you.” However, we might say first that God’s nature is so other that it does not make sense to think of God as being present or absent in the way that a person is present or absent in one’s life. Second, we might think that God is indeed present through God’s very creation—but this presence through nature is not necessarily one that can be seen unless the idea of God is given a chance. We, of course, have to be careful about the problem of seeing what we want to see (For example, when a spouse wants to believe that the marriage is working and so “doesn’t see” the evidence of infidelity). That is, seeing God’s presence may require an openness to God, but we have to be vigilant about not simply thinking we see God’s presence because we believe in God. How to distinguish the two in actual circumstances is surely difficult.

2) Sense cannot be made of God’s characteristics or attributes. What could it mean to say that God is conscious and outside of time? Doesn’t consciousness as we know it require successive conscious states of awareness? What could it mean to say that God acts, when God transcends space-time?

Reply: These are indeed troubling conceptual problems; ones that are difficult to sort out. Further, it is difficult to know whether they indicate the nonexistence of God or the limitations of our reason. We might notice that there are a number of conceptual problems in physics, particularly, quantum mechanics, ones that seem contradictory to reason, and yet they are not taken as evidence of the failure of quantum mechanics. One might reply to that by saying that quantum mechanics can be used to make true predictions, which give it credence; but the same cannot be said of God. That is indeed true, however, it might miss the point that in and of themselves, conceptual problems do not necessarily give us reason to reject a view. Further, one might say that the other reasons for believing in God are analogous to the true predictions made by quantum mechanics. That is, just as there are those predictions that keep us from rejecting quantum mechanics even though it seems to involve conceptual impossibilities, we might say that even though the idea of a transcendent God involves conceptual “impossibilities,” the other reasons given above mitigate the conceptual problems so that they do not give us reason to reject God solely on their basis.

Further, we might, and perhaps reasonably should, acknowledge that the human mind is capable of only so much, and is formed and limited in its thinking by the nature of the physical world. So we might not be too surprised if there is something incomprehensible about the idea of a God who transcends the physical world.

3) The world contains a great deal of evil, pain, and suffering; why would a good God allow such things? A good God wouldn’t; therefore, there is not a good God.

Reply: We might argue that while the world (the universe) contains much suffering, it is on the whole a good world in that it allows for conscious and self-conscious life, which are intrinsically valuable, and whose existence allows for still further goods.

Secondly, we needn’t conceive of God as omnibenevolent. God could be good in virtue of having created the universe and fine-tuned it for the evolution of life without being all-good such that we should expect there to be no suffering. Further, the existence of suffering might in some cases be seen as a good (Nietzsche), and secondly, in some cases it is the result of human free will (itself a good).

4) Belief in God is leftover from prescientific times. It was the result of earlier people’s attempts to explain the universe, its origin and workings.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy (which in this case means claiming that the origins of belief in God count against the truth of God’s existence–in a sense the genetic fallacy takes the causes of a belief to count as epistemic reasons for denying the belief; and that doesn’t necessarily always follow), this objection assumes that the only role of God in prescientific times was as an explanation of the physical world. That seems to be simply false. God has and does play a number of different roles in people’s lives.

5) Belief in God is the result of not being able to accept that the world is meaningless without God.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy, it is not at all clear that without God the world is meaningless. Even if there is not a God, conscious and self-conscious life is intrinsically valuable. I take this to mean that the universe itself is valuable and as such can “contain” a great deal of meaning.

6) Belief in God is the result of not being able to accept our or our loved ones’ deaths.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy, belief in God does not necessarily involve a belief in an afterlife.

7) Science can or will be able to satisfactorily explain the origin of the universe.

Reply: That is questionable given the limitations of our instruments to probe the depths of what we take to be the origin of the universe, i.e., the big bang. So it may not be possible to do more than offer speculative theories that defy confirmation or disconfirmation. Further, it is doubtful that science can offer a reason for why there is something rather than nothing, since that does not seem to be a scientific question; and it is not clear that science can explain the fine-tuned nature of the universe (multiverse theories are rather controversial, and there is always the rejoinder that a multiverse needs to be fine-tuned itself in some way).

8) Look at all of the atrocities done in the name of God. How could God permit such evil in his/her name?

Reply: Again, God need not be all-good to be good. Secondly, what humans do is what humans do. Presumably we act from free will; and our actions often stem from our nature, which is not through and through good—but that does not mean that we are fallen or full of sin. Religion does not equal God; evils done in the name of religion do not give us reason to think that God doesn’t exist—it gives us reason to think that people are often misguided, wrong, and at times evil.

9) You appeal to God as an explanation of the universe’s existence and for its fine-tuned nature; but how can you explain God’s existence?

Reply: This is a difficult question. I’m not entirely satisfied with the idea that God is some sort of necessarily existent being such that God could not have not existed. So, to this objection I don’t have a very good reply. I can only say that it makes more sense to me (even if I cannot explain exactly why) to say that God is in need of no explanation (God just is) in a way that it doesn’t make sense to me to say that the universe is in need of no explanation (it just is). That may well be the biggest lacuna in all of the above.

Conclusion:
I am by no means convinced by the above lines of argument for theism, though all of the above does get me closer to believing in God. However, even if the above were convincing, we ought to be left wondering what kind of God we have been given reason to believe in. I don’t think it is the God of any of the major world religions. But that, as with so much else, will have to wait for another time.