Necessarily Contigent

Matthew linked to this article by Mortimer Adler on the Idea of God.

Matthew I think summarizes the piece well:

Tentatively answering that in the affirmative is my reaction to having read this complicated but profoundly rewarding transcribed essay by Mortimer Adler, “The Great Idea of God“…But its overall promise is intriguing to say the least: nothing less than a philosophical and reasoned argument for God not not-existing. (Which is to say God exists, but technically, the resultant understanding is of God in the negative, rather than knowing much of anything about God.) The advantage of this kind of argument? No dogma, put plainly. Instead, the human mind, realizing the limits of the human being, using human tools in their most artful form.

Adler goes through two classic arguments–one from logic and one from the effects of nature (plus some metaphysics)–attempting to prove the existence of a God. Or rather a Supreme Being.

The first is the argument from Anselm’s classic text Prosologion. Anselm begins by saying that whether or not God were to exist, by God we mean that of which nothing greater can be conceived. So far so good.

Then, the trick: to exist is better than not to exist. Hence, for God to be that which nothing greater can be thought, God must exist (since existence is a perfection).

Shrewd argument. And often forgotten when seen this way that Anselm wrote this in the context of a meditation/prayer. It is actually a mental form of devotion, not a cold calculating position.

Nevertheless, there is a major flaw with the reasoning. That existence is a perfection or a quality than can be added to a being. As if a being could be without existing. What is, without existing? A unicorn perhaps. Except that such a thing exists in the mind of the person imagining it.

Existence is a precondition not a perfection.

On then to the second argument, which comes from Thomas Aquinas. This is the one Matthew is referring in his quotation. It is one I think that Adler spends more time on and probably is more amenable to. Adler was himself a Neo-Realist/Neo-Aristotelian so it makes sense than a Thomistic argument is something he is open to.

Adler earlier makes use of (without noting) Thomas position on language concerning God. Thomas combined the apophatic path (what God is not) with the cataphatic (what God is like) by the way of Supereminence. God is not Love in the sense of created Love, but God is Love (even like our earthly loves) only to a super-eminent degree, so far beyond our conception. Supremely Love. Aquinas recall defined God as Being Per Se. Supreme Be-ing as it were.

The argument is one Aquinas 5 Ways that together–not separately by the way–are meant to put the balance of opinion towards the reality of a Supreme Being. Again, note that a Supreme Being is not God as conceived in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Aquinas well knew. This Supreme Being, where “he” to exist, is not bound in any way to love or care for creation. Very deistic and religiously a (mostly) useless concept in my mind. Who needs deism?

Anyway, one of these Five is the famous Argument from Contingency. All beings are contingent (i.e. require another to cause them). In fact the entire chain of causation is itself contingent. Contingent beings can not create other contingents, only cause them to be. Hence there must be a necessary being (only necessary beings can cause the existence of contingent beings). We call this necessary being God.

Here’s Adler on that difficult point:

Now that phrase, “cause of existence” is a very important phrase to distinguish in meaning from the phrase, “cause of the becoming of something.” Would you think normally that the parents of a child are the cause of that child’s existence? Normally you would. You’d say, “Yes, they cause the child to exist.” No. They don’t cause the child to exist; they caused the child to come into existence. And the moment after, the very moment after the child comes into existence, both parents can die and the child goes on existing. That kind of cause I call–let me diagram it this way–it doesn’t go into the very being of the thing. It’s external. It is a cause of the changing of something. It is the cause of the coming to be or the passing away of something. A cause of existence must continue to cause existence as long as the thing exists. And so, parents are not the cause of the child’s existence since the child continues to exist long after the parents do not exist and they cease to operate as causes.

The trick as you probably have noticed is this distinction between causing to become and causing to exist. Does this distinction even make sense?

Adler has a very interesting position on this argument. He writes:

I think of the four premises or propositions that constitute the body of the argument, I am clear and certain about two of them. I am clear that contingent things, things like you and me or trees and stone, that such things exist. I am also clear that if the effect exists, the cause required for its existence must exist. These two things I’m clear about. But when I come to the proposition that contingent things need a cause of their existence, I have some difficulty understanding that because I’m not sure I know the difference, really understand the difference between cause of existence and cause of becoming. And the most difficult proposition of all for me to understand is the proposition that contingent things cannot cause the existence of anything, they can only cause the motion or change or becoming of things but not the existence of anything.

He as well realizes possible problems with the argument. The argument moreover hides an assumption of Aristotle’s metaphysics & science (namely the cause of motion versus causing existence).

Overall Adler does a good job explaining the history, though I find his ending a bit weird and for sure unfulfilling.

I have some rational grounds for a certain[ty] that God exists even though I have to make a leap, a leap beyond those rational grounds to a belief. My reason carries me just so far being weak. My understanding doesn’t carry me the whole way yet. My understanding and reason carry me far enough so that I’m entitled as a rational man, as a reasonable man am entitled to make a leap beyond reason to the belief that God exists. And when I make this leap, I think I make it not to a belief in the God of the philosophers but I think the God I believe to exist is the God that is worshipped by the religions of the West. As Pascal says and other philosophers, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

I think the piece about having enough reason to make a leap is fine. But where did the leap come to the Biblical god, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Nothing of what came before really connects with that. The Supreme Being is the god of the Philosophers. The best one could argue I think is that I already believe in God through revelation and these philosophical arguments make it possible to believe a Supreme Being exists (though by no means proves it). And it confirms I think my hunch (unscientifically for sure) that no one really wants or cares about a deistic Supreme Being. That deism is practically no different than secular humanism, agnosticism, and atheism. And I think it’s fair to say the people who usually make this argument really have the Biblical God (gods?) in mind and are using this argument more as a backdoor method almost. To be fair to Adler, it’s a TV show and it looks like he was running out of time, so he squeezes that in right at the end.

That aside, let me get back to the notion of causing to exist versus causing to become. In a very real way Aristotle-Aquinas was right in this, but not in the way they thought.

Here’s Adler:

Now when we ask the question, “What does the word ‘God’ mean,” how do we think of God? What is our conception of God? Three basic possibilities occur. And I think that these three possibilities are quite exhaustive. First, it is possible for us to think of God as totally, I emphasize the word “totally”, as totally unlike anything else we know, totally unlike anything else we know. But if we think of God this way then we can have no definite conception of God. For if God is totally unlike anything else we know, we have no way of going to the things we know to our understanding of God. That is, we can have no carry over. We can attach no meanings to any of our settled meanings and understanding. Hence if we take this possibility, we eliminate any further inquiry into the existence of God.

What if this were right though? Coming back to the idea that none of us creates but rather only makes something come to be….this is true. Everything arises mysteriously. What is life? What is is? What is being? No one has or ever will answer this question. The farmer knows to plant, hoe, water, but she has no idea why the planet grows. She has caused to become but not made the plant exist, in the sense that she did not create plants. The whole is somehow more than the sum of the parts. How?

As Wittgenstein wisely stated, the only question to is why is there anything as opposed to nothing?

What if we should have no definite conception of God? Or better, what if the experience of Reality itself is Divine Ignorance? We would then correctly be unable too ascertain any absolute meaning to any of our settled (relative) meanings.

What if Reality, True God, was Life, its Essence and Source?

As Aurobindo said, The Unknown is not Unknowable. You may experience the Unknown (God or Life amounting to the same thing) but it is still Unknown. Seen through as Unknown. Or rather when experience ends, the Unknown shines through. Knowable in the sense of experience-able. Not knowable in the sense of understanding or comprehending. It remains Unknown in the experience.

All of the rest, arguments for or against the existence of God are plays of the mind, which always already is arising in the Space of the Infinitely Radiant. Which is why these arguments pro/con keep going around and around in circles. Because the mind is a closed loop track and these arguments never get one off this wheel-track. I don’t think the argument is convincing per se, I don’t think its not convincing. I’m not convinced of being unconvinced. I think it’s the wrong question.

What the arguments generally prove I think is not the existence of a Supreme Being but rather the need humans have to ground our logical rational mind in some standard. That role here played be the Supreme Being. The pro-Supreme Being arguments, like the Contigency one, are at least more honest I think that rationality can not ground itself and yet is a good thing. But it has to do so by positing an outside the system figure, which the mind can not do because it is a closed loop that makes categories based on their simultaneous opposite (Nagarjuna’s point in the dialectic).

God/Supreme Being is the one figure we may or may not accept exists that doesn’t work in our system of time-space (and fictional imagination). Hence it’s the one “thing” that doesn’t work with our minds which need their opposite (no right without left and vice versa), so the argument goes on and on with neither side winning or losing really. The mind needs not-God (God not existing) in order to make sense of God (God existing).

One way out of this is to say there is revelation, a non-rational event. Theologians like Karl Barth to mind. Kierkegaard as well. Of course then how do you decide whose revelation is right? All of them? Some of them? Only one? Which one?

Another way: I think it could work more as an invitation to take the red pill and go down the Rabbit Hole. Asking “Who am I?” What is This? Avoiding relationship?

Otherwise, this back and forth existing-not existing (can not not exist) is (from the Absolute View) a means of seeking, a meditation on one’s own state of suffering and strategic avoidance of infinite sacrifice and relationship. It doesn’t matter, from this View, whether the arguments prove/disprove whether God cannot not exist or not. Or some variation of thereof.

It is Shunya, empty of all such categories. Rather awake, sacrifice the Heart, and be Blissfully Ignorant in the Natural State, where neither God nor man exist, both having fallen asleep among the wildflowers.

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Published in: on October 24, 2007 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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