Sunday, 9 January 2011

Empirical and Rational

I found myself lost in a metaphysical fog. I wanted desperately to believe in something, and at the heart of that desire for belief I found an urgent need for consolation for my fears and for someone to give me a part in some grand cosmic purpose. Each time I constructed a new theology, it soon collapsed. I had to keep the cosmology in my focus by an exhausting mental effort. It did not come naturally, I had to impose what I thought was the great pattern and meaning upon the world as its interpretation; Naturally these theologies ultimately failed to accommodate science or the evils of the world. I recently struck out with the idea that I should give some liberal Christianity another try. But I found i still had no mental resources to believe. I realised then that 'faith' is simply not questioning, and not looking for reasons, but simply accepting in a child like way, on the authority of someone else, a set of beliefs about the universe and life. However as adults we have a choice of authorities - of many different beliefs - so why do we choose one belief over another? This requires a reasoning process. If I accept things on faith, why do I believe in Jesus, but not in Zeus or the Sugar Plum fairy? How do I distinguish which 'authority' to believe in or even recognise it to be an authority? If we accept one authority over another we are reasoning. So reasoning is prior to faith after all.
Reasoning leads us to believe someone is authoritative and on the strength of that, we then believe their futher precepts. We probably do that with science - we don't do the scientific experiments ourselves to check them or peer review scientific abstracts. Thus in practice we accept much science 'on faith'. However we think the scientific method is authorative because we know it provides reliable data. What religious leader or holy book can be considered authorative, and if so, why is it authorative? I suspect that in my religious periods I have simply not traced my 'reasonings' backs to their foundations. My reasonings have all been based on untested assumptions. An assume dfact is used to support a reasoned argument, the conclusion of which is assumed in another case and situation, so I have built a self supporting 'plausibility structure' but I have never questioned the foundations.

Why would Jesus and the Bible be authorative? We know Jesus existed - at least it is very likely that Christianity is not an effect without a sufficient cause. Most movements have founders, and though the true founder might have been the Apostle Paul, it does seem apparent there were Christians before Paul got on the scence following his mystical vision. We have the mystery that Jesus clearly died, but his followers were convinced he had risen from the dead. This is indeed a conundrum up there with the Loch Ness Monster and Alien abduction - claims made in the last 30-40 years and believed by many (the period after Jesus' ministry when the gospels were first written i.e. none were exactly contemporary). Jesus does then seem an anomaly that provides some reason to think his ministry and life had some supernatural aspect. But is this mystery enough to hang upon it the whole edifice of Christian theology and all the stories in the bible? There is a tension, I agree, that while Christian theology and the bible is not coherent, nor does it make practical predictions or have great explanatory power, Jesus and the founding of Christianity remains unexplained. However we have no idea whether the New Testament is given a true account of Jesus' life. In particular the New Testament deals with just 3 years of Jesus' 30 odd years life. In other words it gives next to no useful information upon which to build up a character picture, any more than if people read a biography of just 3 years of my or your life.

I have resorted to removing from my thinking all ideas and concepts of a metaphysical nature that are not empirically or rationally demonstrated. Such an approach must lead to naturalism and non-theism. Faith is excluded for the reasons given above - faith simply means not questioning, which is absurd unless it is faith in authority that we have reason to believe is telling us the truth, and such reason must be empirically or rationally demonstrated. Some religious concepts are more purely rational than others: belief in an absolute ground of being, a first cause, a monism or deism are not demonstrated by reasoning - a contrary view is possible - but can find some support as the result of reasoning alone. However all these philosophical notions don't give us a living, breathing religion, and often create as many questions as they appear to answer. They don't answer a need for consolation or purpose.

I rather take the view that there is an 'absolute' or 'ground of being' but it's real nature is unknown, and one can only proceed down a via negativa, specifiying what it is not. Positive statements are hard to come by. I accept the likelihood of an absolute because the universe is cotingent; there appears to be a need for necessary being. The absolute need not be a person or mind or consciousness - it could be energy or a void of pure potential. Because of my nature mystic tendencies some Taoist concepts are appealing, also a hindu monism or even a Buddhist sunyata or 'emptiness' seem to point to the absolute.

There is some reason for me to tend toward 'deism' and a 'first cause', but such a Deus is not a full bloodied 'God of religion' but again the philosopher's supreme being. And if one imagines the Deus has a mind, this begs the question of the reason for the lack of disclosure to humanity and Deus' purpose. Again, there is no consolation or personal purpose offered. A deist's supreme being is only necessary if non-personal causes are insufficient explanations of the cosmos. But since such a Deity is not itself explained, and persons are the result of experiences and development, and are highly complex if they are anything like humanity, we are left with a first cause as deity 'answer' that is an entirely unsatisfactory explanation but is even more question begging. Indeed it seems more parsimonious to simply say the universe or some quantum vacuum that preceded the universe is a brute fact that suggest it came about because of the will of some person. Clearly if the first cause or absolute can be said to have 'willed' the universe, its nature cannot in any way be analogous with a human personality

So my religion remains a naturalistic spirituality, with a strong tendency to believe in a metaphysical 'absolute'. I have largely lost my animistic and panpsychic tenendies following my realisation that consciousness cannot be fundamental but must be a 'state' of something 'else'. This allow for acceptance that consciousness emerges in complex biological entities or a neutral monism, but rules out idealism. The fact we cannot sustain our consciousness even while alive (e.g. when in deep sleep) demonstrates to me the dependence of the mind on a body. Belief in supernatural entities is only possible if there are disembodied minds. We have no rational or empirical justification for such. Thus even the absolute cannot be a purely idealistic concept. Indeed the notion of the absolute may be a construct of our use of language, a pure abstraction, like 'numbers' and not separable from human consciousness. Perhaps even a physical singularity, the cause of the big bang functions as a materialistic absolute and first cause.

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