Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Existential God

I was introduced to Don Cupitt on Stephen Law’s blog, about a year ago, or even earlier, when he provided a link to a radio interview with Cupitt on a BBC philosophy programme. Cupitt is a theologian, and he was being quizzed on his particularly unorthodox view of God, which, from memory, was more humanist than sacred.

More recently, I acquired his book, Above Us Only Sky, followed by a Chinese hieroglyph, which I assume means ‘sky’. Inside, the book is subtitled, The Religion of Ordinary Life, which pretty well sums up Cupitt’s entire philosophy. The book’s title is obviously a direct reference to the line in John Lennon’s song, Imagine, which also includes the line, ‘And no religion too’, and, despite being a theologian, that line could equally apply to Cupitt’s book. Right at the start of his book, he provides 27 points in, what one might call, a manifesto for living. Point 22 is headed:

“Even the Supreme Good must be left behind at once.

I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonumm, the Supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one’s whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!”

His book, as the above quote exemplifies, is even more humanist than his interview, and, in fact, I would call it existentialist, hence the title of this post. I have also called myself existentialist on more than one occasion, but then so is Viktor Frankl in my view, who is not entirely an atheist either. Existentialism is not synonymous with atheism, by the way, but most theists think it is. By existentialist, I mean that we are responsible for our own destiny, which makes God less significant in the overall scheme of things. In other words, a belief in God is less relevant when one considers that moral choices, and any other choice for that matter, are completely dependent on the individual. I take the extreme view and suggest that we are responsible for God rather than God is responsible for us, but that’s so heretical I’ll desist from pursuing it for the sake of continuity.

But Cupitt’s book was a genuine surprise, because, despite its glib title, it’s actually a very meaty book on philosophy. For a start, Cupitt puts emphasis on language as the prism, or even filter, through which we analyse and conceptualise the world. To quote his point 6:

“Life is a continuous streaming process of symbolic expression and exchange.

The motion of language logically precedes the appearing of a formed and ‘definite’ world. It is in this sense that it was once said that ‘In the beginning was the Word’.”

I don’t entirely agree with him, concerning his implication that language determines our reality, but I need to digress a bit before I can address that specifically.

A central tenet of his thesis is that our Platonic heritage of a ‘perfect’ world is an illusion that we are only just starting to shed. Life is exactly what we get and that’s all it is. His philosophy is that once we realise this ‘truth’, we can live the ‘religion of ordinary life’ as his title suggests, and his manifesto specifies. In fact, he argues that this is what we already do in a secular humanist society, but we just don’t articulate it as such. Curiously, I made a similar point in a post I wrote on this blog almost 2 years ago, titled, Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy (Oct.07). Basically, I contended that, following the global Western cultural revolution of the 1960s, we adopted an existentialist philosophy without specifying it as such, or even realising it. We effectively said that we are responsible for our actions and their consequences and God has very little to do with it. I believe Cupitt is making a similar point: we achieved a revelation that humanity’s future is in our hands, and, unless we accept that responsibility, we will fail it.

But it’s in his discussion on rejecting Plato and the illusion that we inherited from him, that he returns to the significance of language:

“You can have more-or-less anything, provided only that you understand and accept that you can have it only language-wrapped – that is, mediated by language’s secondary, symbolic and always-ambiguous quality.” (Emphasis in the original.)

In highlighting this point, I’ve skipped a lot of his text, including an entire chapter on ‘Truth’ and a discussion on Descartes, and, in particular, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant famously contends that we will never understand the ‘thing-in-itself’, which is a direct reference to Plato’s ‘Forms’.

Like many dissertations on epistemology, Cupitt glosses over the significance of mathematics, which is arguably the most stubborn relic of Plato’s philosophy, and one that effectively side-steps Cupitt’s ‘language-wrapped’ dependence that I quoted above. I’m not a physicist but physics has interested me my whole life, and I’ve long believed that, as a discipline, it provides us with the best means of interpreting the universe and revealing its mysteries. In fact, without physics, our knowledge of the universe would still be stuck in the dark ages. But Cupitt alludes to a deep scepticism when he describes it thus:

“The physicist sets out his definitions of matter, space and time, then his laws of motion, and then his formulae for making calculations. But when he has developed his system of mathematical physics – a system of ideas – how is he to prove that there is a Real World out there of which the system is true and to which it applies? …whence do all its ideas get their ‘objective reality?”

In other words, Cupitt is sceptical that a ‘system of ideas’, even one imbedded in mathematics, can provide an ‘objective reality’. But there are 2 points that Cupitt fails to address in his dissertation on ‘truth’ and ‘language’. Firstly, mathematics is not a language in the normal sense, although many people refer to it as if it is. Mathematical symbols are a language of sorts, but the concepts they represent, and, in particular, the relationships that mathematics describes are the closest we will get to ‘“God-given” truth’ to quote Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind). In other words, they have a universal quality unlike any other epistemic system that we know of, that arguably contain truths independent of the human mind. Now, I know many philosophers dispute this, but mathematical ‘truths’ (wherever they come from) are arguably the only abstract truths we can rely on, and do rely on all the time, in every technological marvel we exploit.

So mathematics provides us with ‘truths’ as well as a window into the ‘reality’ of the universe that we would never otherwise possess. It is on this point that I believe Cupitt and I epistemologically differ.

But it’s not epistemology per se that Cupitt is challenging when he explicates: ideas are ‘language-wrapped’; he has a deeper, theological motive. He points out how absurd it is to think that God provided us with scriptures using a language humans invented. Especially since God should be outside language in the same way ‘He’s’ supposedly outside the very universe in which we exist. What’s more, Cupitt challenges the very notion that our experience of ‘God’ by praying can be validated without language. I believe Cupitt makes a very good point here: if our ideas are language-wrapped then so is our idea of God.

In an earlier post (May 09) I referenced an essay by Raymond Smullyan called Is God a Taoist? In my post, I made a connection between Smullyan’s idea of God or Tao as ‘the scheme of things’ and the mathematical laws at different levels of scale that the universe appears to obey. This particular concept of an impersonal, non-language-wrapped God in combination with a Platonic mathematical realm is entirely compatible with Cupitt’s stated philosophy, though I doubt he would accept it. Cupitt provides an allegorical tale of a large group of Buddhist monks, one of whom gets up to speak about the Tao (Cupitt uses the term, ‘Supreme Good’), saying that: ‘No words can speak of it… It is beyond speech, it is even beyond all thought.’ When he sits down, another monk stands to address the same crowd: ‘Did the last speaker say anything?’

In a recent post on Storytelling (July 09), I made the point that without language we would think in the language of dreams, which is imagery and emotion. In fact, I argued that the language of dreams is the language of storytelling, only we are unaware of it. The story is ‘language-wrapped’ but the emotional content of the story is not, and neither is the imagery it conjures in our minds. Without these 2 components, the story is lifeless, just words on paper – it fails to engage the mind as story.

I’m not surprised that many cultures include dreaming as part of their religion – the American Indians are possibly the best known. Australian Aborigines use the term ‘Dream-time’ (at least, that’s its English translation) as the reference to their religion, full of mythical creatures and mythical tales. In recent posts on Larry Niven’s blog, there have been a couple of references to the comparison between religion and music that people often make. Many people have made the observation that music transcends language, and to some extent that is true. The only reason, we can say that, is because music moves us emotionally, and whilst language can describe those emotions it can’t convey them, whereas music can. So I would argue that religious experience is not language-wrapped in the same way that musical experience is not language-wrapped. Again, Cupitt would beg to differ. In fact, he would dispute the religious experience and call it illusion, and he is not alone. Most philosophers would agree with him completely.

Cupitt devotes an entire chapter to the subject, ‘Religion’, where he describes it as a ‘standard’ (as in a flag) to which people rally and identify, and, to which he rightly acknowledges, represents a view of God that is no longer tenable or of value. This is the religion that divides people and incorporates an infinite being who stands outside the world and judges us all. On this point, Cupitt and I are in agreement: it’s an entirely outdated, even dangerous, concept.

“…those who split the world between good and evil in effect split their own psyches too, and the puritans, the wowsers, the morality-campaigners, the condemners and the persecutors end up as unhappy people, Bible-bashers who are themselves without religion.”

This is the origin of the neurosis that made people of my generation revolt. Cupitt also makes reference to the 1960s when he describes the change in the zeitgeist that is effectively the theme of his book. Neurosis is like hypnotism – your brain tells you to do one thing but you do something else over which you feel you have no control. If you put your mind in a strait-jacket then it will revolt in a way that will shock you. Religion can do exactly that. To quote Cupitt again:

“In one form or another around the world, organized religion still manages to keep a large percentage of humanity locked in the most wretched mental poverty and backwardness.”

Cupitt goes on to express his individualistic philosophy that he calls ‘solar living’ (as in solo or solitary) but I would call existentialism, or a variant thereof. The fundamentals of his religious philosophy is to replace ‘God’ with ‘Life’, and rather than have a relationship between an earthly existence and an immortal one, to have a relationship between the individual’s life and the continuing stream of life that involves the rest of humanity.

My own approach is to refer to the internal and external world, which is the cornerstone of my entire world philosophy, but is effectively the same concept that Cupitt expresses here, albeit using different language. (Later in the book, Cupitt rejects the inner life concept altogether.) However, unlike Cupitt, I would contend that religion is part of one’s inner world rather than the external world. This makes religion completely subjective, and, in many respects, in conflict with organised or institutionalised religion. I’ve made this point before on previous posts, and Cupitt makes a similar point, arguably the most important in the book for me:

“The only ideas, thoughts, convictions that stay with you and give you real support are ones you have formulated yourself and tested out in your own life… In effect, the only religion that can save you is one you have made up for yourself and tested out for yourself: in short, a heresy.”

Cupitt always brings the discussion back to language, and this is the source of my personal dissent with his philosophy. He makes the apparently self-evident point: ‘…there is no meaning, no truth, no reality, and no knowledge without language.’ Which is true for us humans, cognitively, but the unstated corollary is that because none of these things can exist without language, they can’t exist without humanity either. This is the crux of his entire epistemological thesis.

Language is the most obvious bridge between our internal and external world, and almost nothing can be conveyed without language, but lots of things can be felt and experienced without the intervention of language. But Cupitt would argue that any experience is meaningless, quite literally, if it can’t be expressed in language. In other words, because it comes ‘language-wrapped’, that’s what makes it real. One needs to be careful here to distinguish epistemology from ontology, and I think the 2 are being confounded.

I think religion, as it is experienced by the individual, actually has little to do with language and more to do with emotion, just like music or even storytelling. As I described above, a story is written in words, but if it doesn’t transcend the words then it’s not a story. On the other hand, Cupitt argues, categorically, that there is nothing meaningful ‘outside language’.

Religion, and therefore God, is a psychological phenomenon, just like colour. Now, everyone thinks this is a misguided analogy, but colour does not exist out there in the external world, it only exists in your mind. What exists in the external world are light waves reflected off objects. You could probably build a robot that could delineate different wavelengths of light and associate a range of wavelengths with a label, like red for instance. But the robot wouldn’t actually see the colour red like you and I do. Some monkeys can’t see colours that we can see, because they only have bichromatic vision not trichromatic, but, if we genetically engineer them, they can. Yes, that’s a fact, not internet bullshit – it’s been done.

Anyway God is an experience that some people have that ‘feels’ like something outside themselves even though it only occurs in their minds. Many people never have this experience, so they don’t believe in God. The problem with this is that some of the people who think they have this experience believe that makes them superior to those who don’t, and likewise some of the people who don’t, believe they must be axiomatically superior to those who claim they do, because they’re obviously nuts.

Cupitt doesn’t address this, but I do because it’s what creates the whole divide that is actually so unimportant. I contend it’s like heterosexuals believing that everyone should be heterosexual, because it’s unimaginable to be anything else, and homosexuals arguing that everyone should be homosexual, even though they never do. But, in the same way that I think people who are heterosexual should behave as heterosexuals and people who are homosexual should behave as homosexuals, I believe that people who have an experience that they call God should be theists, and those who don’t should be atheists.

At the end of the day, I think God is a projection. I believe that the God someone believes in says more about them than it says about God (I’ve made this point before). That way people get the God they deserve. I call it the existential God.

I’ve now gone completely away from Cupitt’s book, but don’t be put off, it’s a very good book. And it’s very good philosophy because it provokes critical thinking. Another person would write something completely different to what I have written because they would focus on something else. This is a book to which, I admit, I have not done justice. It is worth acquiring just to read the essay he wrote for a symposium on Judaic Christian dialogue – not what people expected, I’m sure.

Cupitt ultimately argues for a universal morality that ignores identity of any kind, just like Lennon’s song. Accordingly, I’ll give Cupitt the last word(s):

“Our moral posture and practice must never be associated with a claim to be… an adherent of some particular ethnic or religious group, because all those who retreat into ‘identity’ have given up universal morality and have embraced some form of partisan fundamentalism – which means paranoia and hatred of humanity.”

“…any philosopher who is serious about religion should avoid all contact with ‘organized religion’. …Which is why, on the day this book is published, I shall finally and sadly terminate my own lifelong connection with organized religion.”


The Rambling Taoist said...

Wow! What a great book review. I'll have to add this one to my wish list. It sounds like a most interesting read.

Diogenes said...

As a disciple of Spinoza (if I must characterize myself in any way) I have to contend with the existentialist philosophy of "being responsible" - implicit is a regard for our power that is disproportionate to it's actuality. "Freewill is the consciousness of a stone falling from a rooftop" (paraphrase of Spinoza's view on the matter).

I also disagree with the characterization of the power of mathematics. Mathematics does not correspond to what is – the count must be wrong on every single point – the relation of what we sense to what is can not be established, and what we sense may have little to do with anything at all. Math can only help to establish probability and that can only help with the management of our affairs.

So metaphysically speaking I think Kant is wrong - we are not seperate from the "thing in itself" - we are part of it. There is no thing in itself. There is only one.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Diogenes,

"Freewill is the consciousness of a stone falling from a rooftop"

Sounds like Spinoza is being a bit obscure here, but if one concedes that consciousness is a prerequisite for free-will (which I do) and that stones don't have consciousness (which I do) then the statement is syllogistically false, whatever the context.

In regard to your point, "Mathematics does not correspond to what is", most people would agree with you, including some who subscribe to this blog. I don't know if it does or not; I only know it has an epistemic power beyond anything else we know. My views on this are best expressed in my review of Mario Livio's book, Is God a Mathematician? Roger Penrose has probably been my biggest influence on this subject.

As for Kant's 'thing-in-itself', I don't necessarily see it as a reference to Platonic's forms, though I think Cupitt does in the context that I cite him. I think quantum mechanics is evidence that Kant may be right: that the thing-in-itself may never be totally knowable, only our 'sensing' of it, where 'sensing' includes all the instruments we have at our disposal to measure or register some phenomenon.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Okay, so Spinoza is talking metaphorically. I have a habit of taking things too literally sometimes. Obviously the stone has neither free will nor consciousness, it just falls. But the inference of the metaphor is that free will is no choice, which I actually disagree on.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Diogenes, if you're still following this. On the subject of free will and choice, I wrote about it a couple of years ago, in response to an article I read in American Scientist. If you're interested, you can read it here.

Regards, Paul.

Diogenes said...

Hey this is good stuff. You are definitely scratching well below the surface. The "Freewill is the consciousness of a stone falling from a rooftop" is actually a quote of mine that sums up Spinoza's passage on free will in The Ethics.

My contention with Kant's metaphysics and modern physics is essentially the same. In a monistic system we don't have these dichotomies - mind/body, biology/environment, thing in itself/self - we have a whole that is infinite and eternal. Freewill in this context is a privation of knowledge of the causes that move one to act. Ultimately they come from something that is unknowable empirically on an essential level. This is why I also believe that quantum physics is a system that explains phenomena but does not really give true insight into the nature of what is.

Our senses and these systems have their place in the day to day application of pragmatic endeavors but I don't think they partake in what Spinoza spoke of as the "fourth kind of knowledge".

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Diogenes,

If you look at history, we have always believed that we know almost everything there is to know, and the present day is no exception.

Quantum mechanics is revealing the limits of our current knowledge, but I think that one day we will understand what underlies it. By that, I mean whether it's a window into another dimension or another universe, or whether it's evidence of time going backwards. These are all possibilities.

On the other hand, I think consciousness is a phenonemon that we may never fully understand, despite all the empirical evidence we have of neurons firing and the analogies we make with computers and software and the like.

But science is limited by the limits of empirical evidence. For everything else, we have philosophy. Some philosophical questions will surrender to science, but some will not. This is my view.

And also one that was expressed indirectly by Russell, as quoted by Mario Livio at the end of his book, Is God a Mathematician, and which I also quoted at the end of my post on Livio's book (refer link in my first comment).

Regards, Paul.

Andrew Louis said...

I'm going to have to take some time and read this, Paul. I'm a big fan of non-realism.

The Penguin said...

I cannot help but think that the penguin's take on the deity comes so much closer to what actually might be.....

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Penguin,

I left a comment on your own blog. For the benefit of others who may be interested, I left the following link.

Regards, Paul.