Sunday, May 21, 2017

On God

Renes Descartes/ Frans Hals portrait
John Searle in an introduction to one of his philosophy of mind courses describes what he considers to be the number one problem in our era: How do we get an account of ourselves as conscious, mindful, free, rational beings, that we can make consistent with our conception of the rest of the universe as consisting entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical, particles, and fields of force? How do we reconcile what we think we know about ourselves (as conscious, thinking minds) with what we know, or think we know, about the rest of the universe?

Searle spends a lot of his time thinking about consciousness: is it different from the physical? What is it? And whatever it is, is it free? We’re not sure—it’s the problem of our time because maybe in this century we will figure out what consciousness is. How does consciousness arise from purely physical and non-mental matter? And how does this process allow for free will—or does it?

Descartes (1596-1650) thought he had the answer. “Cogito ergo sum,” he said. The world is divided into the physical (i.e. bodies) and the mental (or minds). The physical world is wholly determined by the laws of nature—or the laws of classical and quantum physics [See, e.g. Feinman]; by contrast, minds are free. Descartes’ formulation of this mind-body split started with the ancient Greeks, but it is Descartes’ formulation of these ideas that has been our dominant model for three hundred and fifty years.

Descartes accepted the Aristotelian view that the universe is made up of substances that have properties. In the Cartesian vocabulary that we have all internalized, there are two types of substances in the universe: mental substances and physical substances. And each of these substances have an essential trait. Physical substances have extension (they are extended in space); mental substances are characterized by thinking, or consciousness.

What is man? Man’s essence under this Cartesian view is that we are thinking, conscious beings. We also have bodies, but our bodies are independent of mind. Minds are free (we have free will), but bodies are determined (governed by the laws of science), said Descartes. In addition, he thought, minds are indivisible—they cannot be separated into constituent parts—while bodies can be infinitely subdivided. Bodies can be destroyed; minds, by contrast, are indestructible. Our mental essence, our soul, thought Descartes, is immortal.

Descartes’ idea of a body substance and a mind substance fit like a hand in the glove of Christian metaphysics.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Gospel of John 1:1-4.
Descartes’s mind-body split was well suited to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as three aspects of one godly substance/entity. Just like we are mind (conscious, thinking beings with an immortal soul) but have physical bodies, God is a transcendent substance with the manifestations of the Trinity. When we die, our souls join (reunite?) in unknown manner with the transcendent God substance of Logos, Father, and Son.

Four hundred years before Descartes, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) had a similar view. As described by Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the prominent rabbi, teacher, and leader of modern orthodoxy in Judaism, Maimonedes posited that man’s soul is a kind of divine overflow. If we properly tend to this surfeit overflow (that is our soul) by diligently observing God’s law, then our souls will be preserved and rejoin the divine essence after death; if we don’t lead a good life by observing God’s law, then our soul will perish, and we’ll disappear without a trace, like the other (mere mortal) animals. See Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man (1944).

In the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity, therefore, God is a transcendent substance. It's an idea passed down to us from Aristotle, Maimonides, Descartes and Christianity.

When we successfully solve the mystery of consciousness, the Cartesian duality of substance will lose its grip on us. Once science can provide a definitive account of ourselves as conscious, mindful, free, rational beings, even though our brains consist entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical, particles, and fields of force, our duality of substance will be gone. We will stop thinking of mental substances as existing independent of body.

Once Descartes loses his grip on us, the idea of a transcendent God, a divine essence separate from nature, will be hard to sustain in popular culture.


By long force of habit, even scientists who are not in the grip of our Cartesian duality sometimes adopt God language. Stephen Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time said that once scientists succeed in finding a unified theory of everything, surely they will be looking into the mind of God. Einstein, said “I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

But quantum physicists, when they speak on television, have a problem. Their language is mathematics that very few people understand. So they have a problem of translation: how to express their mathematical truths in English. But when they resort to English, it can seem like they are making it up on the fly. When scientists speak of rivers of space-time, curved space, the relativity of time, and split atoms in a box at opposite ends of the earth causally affecting each other, or cats being alive and dead at the same time . . .well, it seems they are attempting to translate mathematical models that only very, very few people understand. And that math does not translate into English in a meaningful way, not even for the scientists who understand the math. The math is real, the linguistic metaphors may not be.

When we listen to the metaphors scientists trot out for us when they are speaking in metaphorical tongues, we fantasize that we have a clue, but I suspect we don’t. Yet I have faith that the math is real; that the math exists. That it makes the world go round.

When rabbis and priests speak to us of religion there is a similar phenomenon going on: they speak in metaphorical tongues about "transcendence,"  except when it comes to transcendence, I’m not sure the math is real.

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  1. I don't have FAITH that the math is real, I have TRUST that the math is real. I think there is a significant difference, because this trust can be tested by serious people who are more talented than me, Faith cannot be tested, you just get more opinions.

  2. Thanks, Victor. I think that is a helpful distinction. But note that the first dictionary definition of "faith" is "strong belief or trust in someone or something," i.e. the same as how you are using "trust" here. I think having a metaphysics matters. Religion has lost a credible metaphysics some time ago, our culture just hasn't caught up with that fact yet.

    1. We trust the math, for many reasons including it is verifiable by objective standards and it is published in peer reviewed journals. Some would say the peers have a herd mentality, but that is not me.