Atheism Polemics

Book Review

GOD: Being. Consciousness. Bliss.

By David Bentley Hart. Yale, 2013

Every atheist should read this book. Hart is a Christian polemicist whose cheeky prose and muscular philosophical effortlessness goes right to the heart of things you’ve thought about, but perhaps have been unable to express.

Warning: You will need a (thick) dictionary. I was a philosophy major and Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree, and found myself looking up a new word every few pages. Hart’s working vocabulary rivals that of Churchill.

Tough sledding, but so entertaining that I just kept reading…

Hart divides his book into three major sectors:

  1. Being. Why there is no natural explanation for the existence of the universe.
  2. Consciousness. Why your private, durable, unassailable vantage point form which to view everything is much more than brain activity. Consciousness will always be the perennial mystery.
  3. Bliss. Why beauty ties 1 and 2 together (they open to one another) and may be behind almost everything we try to do.

First the down-sides:

  • Hart does not do justice to the design argument for the existence of God. He almost makes fun of it “on his way to bigger fish to fry.” Many of us find the design argument quite compelling.
  • He does not deal with the continuum of consciousness from sub-atomic particles up through (the very high self-awareness levels of) dogs, dolphins, great apes, and some birds. I get the feeling that he only sees (perhaps out of habit) human consciousness.

For the rest, it’s a magisterial work. Rather than comment extensively, I’m going to lift out some ideas to give you a taste of the book you will want to buy and mark up for yourself. Think of me as a tour guide, not a critic.

A little vocab work for those of you not trained in philosophy:

  • Naturalism is not love of nature. Also called physicalism, materialism, mechanism, or positivism, it is the belief that the physical world (what you can measure or observe) is all there is.
  • …as opposed to theism, or belief in a supernatural reality.
  • Form and finality. The “form” of the concept “dog” is not any one dog, but a generic sense of dog-ness. Finality (or teleology/aetiology/etiology) is the sense of a thing’s purpose. It often comes out in nature documentaries, e.g.: “The hummingbird’s beak is perfectly designed to work with flowers…”
  • Category error. Ascribing things, if one really thinks about it, to a mistaken category. E.g.: My car does not want to start. (Cars don’t want anything)
  • Pleonastic fallacy. The idea that a difference in kind/quality can be produced by a difference in degree. One of the root problems with artificial intelligence or understanding the human brain.
  • Homunculus. Latin “Little Man.” Alchemy term. Too complex to go into here. LINK:
  • Entelechy. From Aristotle’s distinction between matter and form. Think of a recipe: There are ingredients, but they must be combined in a certain way to create a dish with a purpose. Entelechy is that which makes actual what is potential. The process or the purpose. In most of the great traditions, the SOUL is the entelechy of the human, it animates us. Latin for soul is “Animus/Anima.”
  • Genetic fallacy. Using something from someone’s/something’s obscure origin to discredit it. E.g. Christians should not use Easter eggs because they used to be pagan symbols of fertility!
  • Qualia. A major concept in the philosophy of mind. A subject conscious experience (singular: Quale). E.g. how a headache feels, the taste of wine, how one grasps a color, etc.
  • Triadic Semiotics. The idea that every communication has a 1) Sign/symbol, an 2) Object it describes, and an 3) Interpretant. All three are necessary for communication to function.
  • Strong Artificial Intelligence. Creating machines that have consciousness identical to humans.

Some of the better quotes/concepts from the book:

  • I see it (atheism–DH) as a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity… (16)
  • (Atheism is –DH)…often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a  world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations. (16)
  • If, moreover, naturalism is correct (however improbable that is), and if consciousness is then an essentially material phenomenon, then there is no reason to believe that our minds, having evolved purely through natural selection, could possibly be capable of knowing what is or is not true about reality as a whole. (17-18)
  • The 20th century gave birth to fundamentalism in religion, but also in politics, social theory, economics and countless other spheres of abstract conjecture and personal commitment Radical materialisms bred mass murder, radical political movements and  radical religious fideisms bred terrorism; never before had abstract ideas proved to be such lethal things. (23-24)
  • In truth, Prabhavananda’s comparison to the gods of India to Christianity’s angels is more apt than many modern Christians realize.
  • God (in the great theistic traditions–DH) is not a “being”…rather all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is….he is beyond being….in another sense, he is being itself. (30)
  • …..these three words (being, consciousness, bliss–DH)…perfectly designate those regions of human experience that cannot really be accounted for within the framework of philosophical naturalism without considerable contortions of reasoning and and valiant revisions of common sense. (44)
  • The most a materialist account of existence can do is pretend that there is no real problem to be solved (though only a tragically inert mind could really dismiss the question of existing as uninteresting, unanswerable, or unintelligible).
  • …the educated class is usually, at any given phase in history, the most thoroughly indoctrinated…. (47)
  • By the latter half of the 19th century (because of Darwin–DH), however, very few persons remembered how to ask either the question of being or the question of nature’s lawfulness properly; both had been largely lost sight of. (63)
  • As a purely practical matter, physical science has never been able to proceed very far with some reference to form and finality. Both may be excluded from consideration as objectively real causal agencies, for ideological reasons, but both still retain an indispensable interpretive power for making sense of the objects of scientific analysis (consider Linnaeus and taxonomy–DH). In the end, pure induction is a fantasy. (65-66)
  • We tend to presume that if one can discover the temporally prior physical causes of some object–the world, an organism, a behavior, a religion, a mental event, an experience, or anything else–one has thereby eliminated all other possible causal explanations for that object. But this is a principle that is only true if materialism is true, and materialism is true only if this principle is true, and logical circles should not set the rules for our thinking.
  • My purpose…is to make a simple but necessary point. One of the most persistent and inexcusable rhetorical conceits that corrupt the current popular debates over belief in God is the claim that they constitute an argument between faith and reason or between religion and science. They constitute, in fact, only a contest between two different pictures of the world: theism and naturalism… (76-77)
  • ….”chaos” could not produce (natural) laws unless it were already governed by laws. (81)
  • Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. (92)
  • One knows of oneself…that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and existence come from elsewhere–from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward–and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming… (92)
  • …it cannot possibly the case that there are only contingent realities. (100)
  • The ultimate source of existence cannot be some item or event…but must be a constant wellspring of being, at work even now…the unconditional reality underlying all conditioned things at every instant. (104)
  • Whereas our being is totally contingent, God’s is necessary. (109)
  • In the simplest terms, no contingent reality could exist at all if there were not a necessary dimension of reality sustaining it in existence, and that is the dimension to which the word “God” properly points.
  • However one expresses it, though, one is affirming a principle on which, again, all dominant intellectual traditions of the major theistic faiths are more or less unanimous: the simplicity of God. (134)
  • In the Sufi tradition: God is al-Ahad, the One. (DH: Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. Deuteronomy 6:4. Hebrew: Echad, or singularity). God is at once both nearer than what is inmost to me and beyond what is highest in me. (141)
  • Si comprehendis, no est deus. -Augustine. (If you can fully understand it, it is not God)
  • Where did God come from? It makes perfect sense to ask what illuminates an object, but none to ask what illuminates light. It makes perfect sense to wonder why a contingent being exists, but none to wonder why Absolute Being exists. (143)
  • Quantum mechanics should be a far graver trial to materialists than theists have been. (145)
  • All physical reality is contingent and the existence of the contingent requires the Absolute at its source. (147)
  • Above all, one should wish to know whether our consciousness of that mystery directs us toward a reality that is, in its turn, conscious of us. (151)
  • No less wonderful…(is) our ability to know the world, to possess a continuous subjective awareness of reality, to mirror the unity of being in the unity of private cognizance… (152)
  • Ascribing consciousness to chemical reactions in the brain is a gross category error. (153)
  • Vague appeals to the power of cumulative complexity (in artificial intelligence) is probably just anther version of the pleonastic fallacy. (156)
  • Our consciousness is made up of inaccessible subjectivity. No one can observe yours. (158)
  • Consciousness (qualia) cannot be reduced, through any legit scientific model, to electromagnetic impulses without subtracting something. (174)
  • But the real mystery of qualia lies entirely in the subjectivity that is the site of those impressions, an hence in the irreducibly subjective character. (175)
  • The redness of the rose is not in the rose…it exists as a feeing of what it is like (a quale). (179)
  • The reality of subjectivity is a Primordial Datum that cannot be denied without a descent into nonsense. (181)
  • That the human intellect is capable of discovering mathematical truths (without physical observation), which again and again prove themselves able to describe the realities that physics explores, is a marvel that might very well exceed anyone’s best powers of exaggeration. Mathematics is an angelic language of limitless intelligibility. (186)
  • The issue is not just how the mind experiences things, but how the mind has any continuous experience at all (190).
  • Materialism, mechanism: neither is especially hospitable to a coherent theory of mind. This being said, the wise course might be to reconsider our commitment to our metaphysics. (204)
  • At what point does the supposed “chaos” of random, non-intentional sensory processes acquire a singular point of view of itself? (207)
  • The living mind is imperturbable in its incommunicable subjectivity and awareness, still the mysterious glass in which being shines forth as thought. (207)
  • The materialist position is the least coherent metaphysical position on offer, and the one that suffers from the greatest explanatory poverty. (212)
  • Unfortunately for Strong Artificial Intelligence proponents, there is absolute dependency in all computational processes on the prior reality of intentional consciousness. (217)
  • We are the victims of our own optimistic metaphors when talking about computers. They have no real “memory.” They don’t store any semiotics, just binary code. (218)
  • All computation is dependent on human consciousness, thus it can never provide the foundation upon which consciousness rests. One might as well try to explain the existence of the sun as a result of the warmth and brightness of summer days. (223)
  • The defense of naturalistic rationalism requires the denial of the existence of reason. (226)
  • I can doubt that the material world exists, but I cannot doubt that I have intentional consciousness, since doubt is itself a form of conscious intention. (228)
  • Good science, and philosophy of mind, is fueled by the intuition that being/existence of the universe and human consciousness are open to each other (231).
  • A search for truth is thus really a search for God, in the best sense of the word. (233)
  • To believe that things are infinitely intelligible (like it or not) is to believe that being emanates for a source of infinite intelligence. (234)
  • A mechanistic picture of reality is nothing more than an intellectual adherence to a limited empirical method that has been ineptly mistaken for a complete metaphysical description of reality.  (236)

Please forward this to people you know with an expansive mind.

I welcome your comments below.

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