Archive for September, 2011

On the existence of God

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Attended a talk the other night on whether it was possible to demonstrate the existence of God. Very rambling – but he was one of those speakers whose digressions are interesting. He ran out of time but he seemed to be suggesting that, with an unusual combination of platonic idealism, Anselm’s Ontological argument and Descartes’ Meditations, one could demonstrate the existence of God.

I would have taken a different route. I think that philosophically all one can do is demonstrate that belief in God can be reasonable. Because God is transcendent he does not exist in any sense that we can understand existence. Therefore his existence cannot be demonstrated. To paraphrase Luis Nordstrom

transcendence leaves no conceptual (or conceptualizable) trace – no trace of what has been transcended, what it has been transcended toward, nor any trace of the experience itself. True transcendence can neither be understood in terms of anything else nor in terms of itself.

Which is to say more or less the same, in less elegant terms, that Taoism, the Upanishads, Zen, Eckhart etc. say.

I would have gone down the religious experience road. With regard to the religious experience argument Caroline Franks Davis in her The Evidential Force of Religious Experience concludes –

If the evidence other than that of religious experience does not show theism to be improbable, then the evidence of the many religious experiences which escape pathological and other challenges will be sufficient to make some relatively unramified theistic claims probable.

However you explain it religious experience has been a factor in human awareness as far back as we can go. There are many kinds of altered states of awareness (why they always call them ‘altered states’ I don’t know. They are just different.) of which some are mystical, i.e. they are an experience of God. This is the extraordinary thing. The transcendent God somehow enters human awareness.

Lonergan explains it this way – that there is a distinction between knowledge and experience. Mystic experiences are precisely those that are conscious but unmediated, conscious but unknown. Consciousness refers to experience, whereas knowledge is a composite of experience, insight and judgement. Knowledge occurs only when experience is mediated by images and ideas and brought to reflective awareness.

To say that dynamic state [of mystic awareness] is conscious is not to say it is known. What is conscious is indeed experiences. But human knowing is not just experiencing. Human knowledge includes experiencing but adds to it scrutiny, insight, conception, naming, reflection, checking judging… the gift of God’s love ordinarily is not objectified in knowledge, but remains within subjectivity as a dynamic vector, a mysterious undertow, a fateful call to dreaded holiness. Because that dynamic state is conscious without being known, it is an experience of mystery. (Lonergan, Bernard, Method in Theology, Herder & Herder, New York 1972  p. 106)

Mystical experience, because it transcends conceptual knowledge, leaves no trace of itself within the memory, except a sort of aftertaste, a fading glow. This is that of which one cannot speak. This subliminal awareness sometimes hovers at the threshold, there but not there, a sort of corner of the eye experience which, when looked at is not there. These experiences do not come with any labels, like God, or Jesus, Krishna, or whatever. Labels are the product of later reflection, efforts to understand and make some sort of sense of what really is ineffable. This is why above all others I prefer the Buddha’s approach.