God and Man in the Times
Oh, boy. This is really, really good.
A little while ago the prolific and intellectually-promiscuous Tyler Cowen solicited the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and then with some prodding followed up with a post outlining some of his reasons for not being a believer. I can’t match Cowen’s distinctive mix of depth and pith, but I thought I’d take the liberty of responding to some of his reasons in a dialogic style, with my responses edited in between some of his thoughts. Nothing in here should be construed as an attempt to make the Best Argument for God, and the results are rather long and probably extremely self-indulgent, so consider yourself forewarned. But here goes.
I am going to write about this again at greater length when I have more time. For now, I first want to applaud Douthat for opening the kimono as wide as he does in this artificially-constructed dialogue. I feel I know him better, and appreciate him better, and I am genuinely humbled by the combination of seriousness and humility with which he has approached his subject, and his sort-of interlocutor.
I’m going to react to one bit here:
What I’m looking for when I gamble on a world-picture is something that makes sense of the four major features of existence that give rise to religious questions – the striking fact of cosmic order, our distinctive consciousness, our strong moral sense and thirst for justice and the persistent varieties of supernatural experience. The various forms of materialism strike me as very weak on all four counts, and the odds that what Thomas Nagel called “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature” is true therefore seem quite low. All these numbers will be a little arbitrary, but for the sake of the game I’ll set the probability that a hard materialism accurately describes reality at 2 percent (and I think I’m being generous there).
So what does? Well, if you decide treat every religious revelation as essentially equally plausible or implausible and decline to choose between them, the best world-picture candidates are either a form of classical theism as it would have been understood by most pre-modern thinkers and continues to be understood by many theologians today (again, read David Bentley Hart for a recent and compelling case), or else a form of pantheism or panentheism or panpsychism in which God/consciousness/the universe are in some sense overlapping categories, and all spiritual/supernatural experiences are partial and personal and culturally mediated glimpses of a unity.
Both of these possibilities seem to have more explanatory power across my four categories than does, say, a hard deism (which makes the varieties of religious experience a lot harder to explain) or a dualism or a gnosticism (both of which seem a little unparsimonious, and also somewhat poor fits for the “data” of religious experience) or a literalist polytheism (which begs too many questions about cosmic order, which is why philosophically-serious polytheists often tend to be pantheists or classical theists at bottom). And the latter possibility, some sort of pantheism, seems to be where a lot of post-Christians who are too sensible or too experienced to accept a stringent atheism are drifting – it shows up in different forms in writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel, Anthony Kronman, even Philip Pullman, and it pervades a great deal of pop spirituality these days. Indeed it might be where I would end up if I radically changed my mind about the credibility of the Christian story; I’m not entirely sure. (It would probably come down to questions of theodicy; I’ll spare you the provisional thought process.)
For now, I’ll give odds as follows (again, treating all revelations equally): Classical theism 45 percent, the pantheistic big tent 40 percent, gnosticism 6 percent, hard “no supernatural” deism 4 percent, dualism 3 percent. Which still leaves that 2 percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.
I’m genuinely touched that Douthat has let panpsychism into the tent of religion, as I have pronounced inclinations in that direction myself. But I’m not totally sure it’s earned. At a minimum, to my mind, religion is the conviction that whatever we term the entity responsible for the fact of existence has a mind, and that is mindful of us. For a panpsychist, that entity is the universe itself, and it has the property of mind inasmuch as consciousness is understand as a universal property of being. But can one truly have a relationship with that universal consciousness? Maybe Bill Murray can, but for the rest of us I’m not sure.
More, as I say, when I have time for more.