Tuesday, December 30, 2008

cogito ergo credo

(a roundabout attempt at starting to talk about my conversion -- weren't you just waiting ? : ))

This happened when I was just turned 18. The year before that, we had been living near Geneva, Switzerland, and I had graduated from an international school there. When we moved back to Anchorage, Alaska, rather than go right off to college out of state, I stayed home for a year and attended the local university part time.

I think my father must have driven me to university in the morning on his way to work, but on the way home I usually walked. Anchorage is a rather plain, frontier-looking city surrounded by austere and awesome natural beauty. It is rimmed by mountains -- the "smaller" deep blue Chugach range, which still contains mountains up to 13, 000 feet and the distant, almost unreal Alaska range, in shades of white, of which Mt Denali is the tallest among the tall, at over 20,000 feet. The trees are mostly thin silver birch, limned in black, and meagre spruce. But the landscape is dominated by those mountains, like icons of duration, set off by the ever-shifting clouds which sometimes hide the distant mountains and sometimes set them off in a cold glow. Walking home, I was washed in pale, delicate colors of sky and mountain and vegetation.

The distance was two or three miles. As I walked, I would imagine tales of journeys and adventure and danger. But I would also think and think. I'm not sure exactly how it came about, but what I often thought about was ontology and epistemology, though I did not call it those to myself.

I had never stopped believing in God in the experiential sense, but I had brought the intellectual question "Whether God exists" into the forefront of my mind during the difficult high school years, when classmates were living lives obviously separate from God, and the youth group at my church seemed silly and patronizing, and I had made some choices in life that had disappointed me in my own ability to live well. I was also reading Boswell and Alexander Pope and other Enlightenment authors at the time, taking advantage of the treasure-stocked university library (when in Europe, it had been a challenge to find a supply of books that were written in English). Though most of these readings did not talk philosophy -- mostly I liked the way they slammed each other in print, even in heroic couplets -- I suppose I breathed in some of the air of rationalism and skepticism that those people of the late 18th century breathed.

So... did God exist?

And consequently, as I walked, I began to speculate whether anything existed at all. Sure, I experienced it. But how, really, could I be sure I was experiencing a reality that was outside of myself. How could I be sure that what I perceived through my senses was accurate?

From what I have found out since, I was repeating Descartes' thought experiment, though I did not know it.

But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No. If I convinced myself of something [or thought anything at all] then I certainly existed.

I had not convinced myself that there was nothing else besides myself, as he says he did. But I perceived that there was no way to know for sure by starting from inside oneself, and yet, to frame a skeptical question, there seemed no other way to start.

This idea took hold of my imagination. When I got home from the walk, I would touch the piano. It was glossy and solid. It felt real. But did that matter? What was there of necessity that said that what felt or "seemed" a certain way actually WAS that way? What did "real" mean anyway? Was it just a provisionary word we use to accept and deal with our conceptual understandings, which might or might not actually approximate to true?

The only thing I could be sure of, as Descartes says, is that my consciousness existed. I knew that without question because it was barraging me every minute with mental and sensory input. Even in sleep, it was there in some form. Sleep was not a break in consciousness so much as a different state. So I felt that in order to ask the question, "What is the nature of everything?" I had at least to have the mental apparatus to ask questions. That was a starting point.

I also knew that I, my consciousness, had a beginning somewhere in time. There was a time when my consciousness did not exist as I knew it now. In fact, I could remember almost precisely when it started, sometime after babyhood.

(I don't remember ever speculating explicitly whether the passage of time, too, could be illusion. But certainly the speculation was there implicitly, as it almost had to be),

Still, whether or not my notion of time proceeding in consciousness was illusory, I was quite sure I had not self-originated. My consciousness did not include an act of self-creation. Nor did these sensory perceptions seem to come wholesale from myself.

There had to be something from whence I had originated. .... at least one other Being in the universe besides me, who was responsible for my existence.

(I did not really consider a "Force" as a possible cause of my existence, at least not as an ultimate cause, because I figured that "forces" are not existent in themselves, and they are not agents except in a secondary way, at least the way the apparent world was set up. It had to be in some sense a Person, as I saw it).

Person was necessarily a vague concept at this point in my thinking. So to posit a God did not necessarily mean it had to be the Christian God. (I did not consider the Greek gods a possibility, or any pantheistic system, because that only pushes the agency question back a notch. Nor did I seriously consider the good/evil dual deities, for the same reason. So I did figure it was One God).

If there was a God, and this seemed surer to me than anything except my own consciousness.... was He what you would call a "good" God?

As I walked daily through the pale light I felt the sky almost looming over me like an immense bright bulk of ether. Sometimes I felt like it was just me, my consciousness, and this Presence. Was He good? Why ought He to be?

In some ways, I realized rather painfully, it was a bit of a moot point. Good or not, He WAS and if He Was, He was primary, He had to be, because I wasn't the primary myself. I couldn't really call a referendum on Him. By definition, this is a frivolous effort UNLESS He is good. If He is a tyrant, I was in His universe..... it was His rules. How would I have the wherewithal to critique Him? Surely as Generator He would have ruled out that possibility from the start, except as a sort of cruel mockery. Mockery or not, it would be worth nothing, this moral sense, if it were installed by a deceptive God. I could not use it as a compass or a condemnation. It would not be "real" any more than anything else.

I am not talking about cowardly submission here. I am talking about intellectual coherence. .... the creature, strictly speaking, is incapable of critiquing the creator. The power we have to critique anything comes from holding a larger standard than what is held by the object of our criticism. One has to step outside of the situation to critique, and by definition this would be impossible IF He were a tyrant and at the same time the Primary Agent.

Realizing this helped me past a certain childishness that many, not least myself, are subject to. I read a lot of atheists and agnostics who say something to the effect that "If God is there, He is not good, so I will have nothing to do with Him." This makes a certain emotional sense, but it does not make rational sense. It is like Jonah. It is basically putting God into a subsection of one's rational framework, which is impossible if He is really God. On the other hand, it is consistent for a Christian to "critique" God in a certain sense, because they believe in a God who has given them the wherewithal to do so.

Descartes writes:

The fact that an atheist can be “clearly aware [clare cognoscere] that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles” is something I do not dispute. But I maintain that this awareness [cognitionem] of his is not true knowledge [scientiam], since no act of awareness [cognitio] that can be rendered doubtful seems fit to be called knowledge [scientia]. Now since we are supposing that this individual is an atheist, he cannot be certain that he is not being deceived on matters which seem to him to be very evident (as I fully explained).
Thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge [scientiae] depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge [perfecte scire] about anything else until I became aware of him.

This was basically my thought process. It is true that I had by definition no outside referendum as to whether my senses could be trusted, or in that sense whether God could be trusted. Neither did I really have much doubt. I was speculating this way because I had imbibed skepticism as a possible response to the world -- from the atmosphere of my high school and from reading --- and I wanted to follow out the skeptical logic to its ultimate conclusions. I wanted to give it a fair shake and see if it could be a viable way of seeing the world.

Looking around at the evidence of my consciousness, at the delicate silver birches that were rough on the edges and silky in the bark, at those mountains that seemed to make white into a spectrum of color, at the warm home waiting for me at the end of the walk, I could not propose to myself that this was completely a deception by an Evil Genius. Why would He bother, for one thing? Sure, there were bad things too..... if I went up to those mountains I would probably perish in short order from hypothermia, and that would be the end of my consciousness. That did not take away though from the goodness of the thing in itself. It seemed to me that whereas good can have a shadow of "not good" in some of its contingent effects, that it was difficult to conceive that "good" could generate out of bad, of its own, any more than that "something" could come out of nothing of its own.

Part of my "case" that God was good was that He had to be; "had to be" in the sense that I had to presume He was so in order to trust the evidence of my senses and even to trust my own moral sense that made judgments about good and bad in the first place.

As Aristotle writes:

But if life itself is good and pleasant (...) and if one who sees is conscious that he sees, one who hears that he hears, one who walks that he walks and similarly for all the other human activities there is a faculty that is conscious of their exercise, so that whenever we perceive, we are conscious that we perceive, and whenever we think, we are conscious that we think, and to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious that we exist... (Nicomachean Ethics, 1170a25 ff.)

So I remember sitting down near the piano with the lamp on it and realizing I had a choice.

I didn't really have a choice whether to believe in God or not. The way my intellect had presented it, there was no choice. "I have consciousness, and a stream of apparent sensory impressions, and I did not generate those myself." Therefore, there was Someone Else.

My choices were:

  • A deceiver God -- who gave me sensory impressions that were illusory, perhaps even wrenched around my thought processes so they were deceptive and warped (whatever that would mean, in an illusory world created by a tyrant).
  • A trustworthy God, who did as it seemed He had done -- made an objective world, put me in it as the child of a family, with a unique consciousness of my own, along with other people who as they seemed to me had unique consciousnesses of their own, and bestowed me a reasoning process that could help me make sense of the created universe, etc.
"Bad God" and "Good God" could not be the choices, yet, because remember, my moral sense without divine trustworthiness was a meaningless artifact. The choices were between delusive subjectivity and an objective reality, though perceived subjectively. Later, when I decided on "trustworthiness", I could decide on "good" by using the evidence of my senses and my reasoning process.

In some ways, I saw as Descartes said, that the atheist or deceiver thesis is a life-and thought-stopper. People walk around still, either denying the existence of God or saying He must be a bad God, but that is, it seems to me, because they have been preserved in a cheerful state of relative innocence and trust.

There is also the agnostic thesis. .... an "as if" acceptance of the material cosmos at face value. "I have no way of really knowing anything beyond the appearances of my senses, so I will assume that those appearances are reflective of some sort of reality and I will trust in them, and only in them". This did not seem satisfying to me because it hardly answered any of my questions, only set them aside.

Descartes writes:

All these considerations are enough to establish that it is not reliable judgement but merely some blind impulse that has made me believe up till now that there exist things distinct from myself which transmit to me ideas or images of themselves through the sense organs or in some other way. (Med. 3, AT 7:39-40)
In the end, I decided that of the two choices, though in one sense I had no way of having complete certainty, that the "trustworthy God who created a trustworthy universe that could be understood to some extent by a human intellect" thesis was much more workable than the alternatives. It came down to choosing the road to intellectual and material life. It "felt" like somewhat of a leap of faith. At the same time, it seemed that it was the only rational choice.

I do not say that every person has to go through this mental process in his or her life, nor do I think I got into it as deeply as another person could have. But I do think it's difficult to raise the skeptical question and NOT go through this mental process or something similar, IF one isn't simply skimming over the surface of life. A lot of the modern philosophers have dealt in one way or another with this question of whether anything can be known. It seems to a scientist, perhaps, who happens to be a strict materialist, that it is silly to go off on these side paths when after all the universe is all around to be experienced. In one way, it IS a side path. Many solid Theists would share with the materialists this robust sense that the question is not really a matter necessary to pursue. On the other hand, skepticism by its very nature makes these questions relevant, even pressing, for a rational mind... it unavoidably, even if implicitly, raises these questions, in a way theism does not.

A couple of notes:

In this post, I am trying to lay out my own thought processes that I went through quite a long time ago. So for instance, I'm aware that Cartesian philosophy is much more complex and to Catholics, more arguable, than it appears in this -- I am describing my teenage thought processes, so there is much that is sketched or incomplete because they were not issues in my mind at the time.

Also, I am vaguely aware that Kant addressed the "First Cause" and that basically real skepticism such as Hume's disallows the possibility of coming to universal principles from empirical experience. I am leaving all that aside completely, as well, because these weren't concerns of mine (and really still aren't, except in a theoretical way).

1 comment:

lissla lissar said...

Thank you for starting the novel. :)