Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pantheism

My Christian blog friend/debate opponent J.K., left some links to a couple of articles about pantheism. Now, I am not a pantheist but I admit I find ideas like pantheism, panentheism, or deism to be orders of magnitude more compelling than metaphysical ideas expressed in popular religions like Christianity or Islam. Now I saw "compelling" in a very vague sense. I see the epistemological ladder laid out like this:

1. What's a "god"? I don't get it at all. (ignostic)
2. I don't know anything about gods. Maybe knowing is in fact impossible. (agnostic)
3. OK, maybe there is some "ground of all being". We could call it "God". (deism, pantheism, etc.)
4. I believe or know the particular nature of God. (Christianity, Islam, etc.)

To brush dangerously close to making yet another post about semantics, levels 1 and 2 are both compatible with atheism (in its weak sense.)

I'm not sure how to jump from 1 to 2, or 2 to 3, except for idle speculation. I think the last leap from 3 to 4 is quite large. For the sake of argument I'm willing to imagine the possibility of 3, but again, only in a very vague sense. I don't see how we can move from that to reliable specifics claimed at level 4.

Here are the two articles by Dr. Norman Geisler:

Pantheism—Part 1: An Exposition [PDF]
Pantheism—Part 2: An Evaluation [PDF]

Part 1 is a general summary of all the flavors of pantheism that have existed or exist today. I won't comment on that one, but it is interesting. I certainly don't come anywhere near most of those types of pantheism since most of the ideas expressed there tip completely over into level 4 with lots of unfounded specifics.

Here are my comments about the criticisms Geisler makes in Part 2. His words are in quotes, and I only quote a few sentences out of many so you should read the article to get the full idea.

1. "The most fundamental criticism of a strictly pantheistic world view is that it is actually unaffirmable by man..."

I agree with him there. I also think that is true (at least so far!) for any other religious or metaphysical idea.

2. "Second, granting that there are no real finite selves or “I’s,” then there is no such thing as an I-Thou relationship between finite selves nor between men and God"

So what? Maybe that's the way it is, or maybe not. As in the first criticism, there is no way to know. He says some pantheists like Alan Watts try to get out of this "problem" by saying the relationship between the pantheistic god and humans is similar to the Christian ideas of the relationships between the parts of the Christian Trinity. Geisler writes, "This move, however, will not suffice, since the persons of the Trinity are not anchored to finite and changing natures. They interrelate in accordance with the perfect and unchanging unity of one absolute and eternal nature."

I don't think Watts or Geisler accomplish much by referring to the incomprehensible Trinity. I also don't understand how Jesus could be unchanging. Didn't he have a brain which grew and changed over time developing memories and learning new things? Anyway, there is no evidence for either of these ideas.

3. "Third, the basic metaphysical assumption of monism begs the whole question."

OK, I really don't know what he's talking about here, but that's from my lack of education. I do like to see the proper use of "begging the question." Don't let your friends use it incorrectly!

4. "Fourth, the ship of pantheism is wrecked on the reef of evil. Pronouncing evil illusory or less than real is not only hollow to those experiencing evil, but it is philosophically inadequate as well."

Maybe so, but I don't think any religion adequately explains evil and suffering. I suppose as a Christian philosopher Geisler blames suffering, in part, on a fallen creation. I don't see how that is satisfying, let alone being supported by evidence. To play "pantheist advocate" for a moment, I guess one argument would be that God can't (being the universe itself) do anything about evil and suffering. That's just the way it is.

5. "Fifth, there is neither ground for absolute Good nor an ultimate distinction between good and evil in a pantheistic universe."

Once again, so what? I guess a pantheist would say, that's just they way things are, sorry it doesn't appeal to you! Those are the breaks.

6. "Sixth, the pantheistic God is not really personal. Strictly speaking, personality is at best a lesser or lower level of God."

See 5.

7. "Seventh, the pantheistic God is incomplete without creation; he is dependent on the creation that flows from him for the attainment of the perfections that lie latent in his own infinite potentialities."

I don't see how this is different from Geisler's Christian idea of God. He tries to contrast it by saying, "the theistic God is eternally conscious and complete and without need for anything to realize latent potentials. Indeed, the traditional theistic God is pure actuality without any potential in his being whatsoever. While a pantheistic God creates out of necessity and need, the theistic God creates out of love and desire."

Why can't we say it's the other way around? I could say the pantheistic God becomes the universe out of love and desire. Why can't the pantheistic God be eternally conscious too? I don't see any reason to believe one idea over the other.

8. "Eighth, if God is “All” or coextensive in his being with the universe, then pantheism is metaphysically indistinguishable from atheism."

What's the problem with that?

He also writes, "What is more, statements that include everything, such as “God is All,” are vulnerable to the charge that they say nothing."

I agree with that. But the pantheist would respond that it doesn't disprove his position either.

9. "Ninth, pantheism involves a contradiction within the nature of God as infinite."

I don't really understand this section either. Why not just say the pantheistic God is finite if there is a problem with the infinite version?

10. "Pantheism’s stress on the unknowability or ineffability of God is self-defeating."

I agree with that point. I think the same criticism can be directed at Geisler's own religion though since I always hear talk about God (Yahweh) and his mysterious ways.

It seems like some of these criticisms are aesthetic in nature in that Geisler just doesn't like the pantheistic model of God. In some forms of pantheism, their God is not good, but beyond good and evil. I sense Geisler finds this idea distasteful, which is ironic to me because I often hear Christians say the unattractiveness of some of their own doctrines lends weight to their veracity since nobody would choose to make up such an inconvenient state of affairs! Why can't this also work for the pantheist?

To reiterate, I've said I find the ideas like pantheism to be interesting but I don't have any specific beliefs in that department. I suspect the true nature of reality is completely different from any human religion. I don't have any evidence for that suspicion but I base it on the fact that ancient humans had absolutely no idea about things like quarks, galaxies or DNA. Ancient people weren't just wrong, they were at a completely lower level of ignorance, incapable of even imagining anything close to our current conception of the world. I suspect any inkling of some kind of "ground of all being" is far beyond our current knowledge, many times the difference between the level of ancient people and where we are today.

Thanks for the links J.K., the articles were interesting!

10 comments:

Dave said...

Perhaps you will find this description of a panentheistic world interesting http://www.sentforlife.com/worldorg.htm . Here you may understand how 'God' can be personal as well as pantheistic. Even the problem of evil can be explained to some degree.

that atheist guy said...

That web site is interesting, and I'd like a higher resolution version of that graphic showing the hierarchy of gods/powers. But, like I said below, all those ideas are firmly at level 4 of my epistemological ladder because they make so many specific claims about the nature of God and reality. Where is the evidence? Why should I believe that model over another?

Linda said...

Hello TAG!

I like your periodic hit-and-run on my blog. :-) Thanks for stopping by.

"I suspect the true nature of reality is completely different from any human religion."

I totally agree.

"Ancient people weren't just wrong, they were at a completely lower level of ignorance, incapable of even imagining anything close to our current conception of the world."

Lower level of ignorance… hmmm… interesting phrase. Is that something like “less false”? And perhaps you are inadvertently stating that simpler times allowed for higher knowledge and deeper understanding? ;-)

J. K. Jones said...

Hey TAG,

“I believe or know the particular nature of God. (Christianity, Islam, etc.)”

You sound as if you think that we Christians believe we have God all figured out. That is far from the case. We know some things about God, some from nature, some from Christ’s revelation of His nature. But to say we comprehend His nature, or even know it in its particulars, that is beyond what we claim. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite.

“..I think the same criticism can be directed at Geisler's own religion though since I always here talk about God (Yahweh) and his mysterious ways.”

Just because we Christians can’t know everything about Him doesn’t mean that we can’t know something about Him. The pantheist knows nothing at all.

“…I also don't understand how Jesus could be unchanging. Didn't he have a brain which grew and changed over time developing memories and learning new things?”

Jesus was a human being in all respects. He was also God in all respects. He laid aside His position and took on human nature. He was a human being. As such He could change in the ways you describe. Here’s a better answer:

http://www.ligonier.org/questions_answered.php?question_id=8

“Anyway, there is no evidence for either of these ideas.”

I have given evidence at length elsewhere. We have reason to believe in a God. We have reason to believe that we have historical accounts of Christ’s life. Those accounts give us ample evidence that Christ spoke for the God who is. The miracles Christ worked, including His resurrection, speak to the truth of what He said. The evidence abounds.

“…I don't think any religion adequately explains evil and suffering. I suppose as a Christian philosopher Geisler blames suffering, in part, on a fallen creation. I don't see how that is satisfying, let alone being supported by evidence.”

Christianity explains the existence of evil. Real evil. The kind of evil at work in the atrocities of history and the present time. Christianity cannot explain evil, but it at least allows evil to be evil.

Pantheism does not allow for evil at all. If all is one and all is GOD, then GOD is everything we find in the world. What we see just is. There is no difference between good and evil. Evil, in this sense, is not really evil. (Atheism doesn’t allow for real evil either.)

“…He also writes, "What is more, statements that include everything, such as “God is All,” are vulnerable to the charge that they say nothing."

I agree with that. But the pantheist would respond that it doesn't disprove his position either.”

It shows that the pantheist position is not logical. It makes any statement that advocates the pantheist’s position irrational in the strict sense of the word.


Still praying for you,

JK

that atheist guy said...

Linda:

Time (and motivation) for blogging comes in waves so that's why my comments and posts are so sporadic.

You wrote:
"Is that something like “less false”?"

I think so. But I rather not mix quantifiers like "less" with binary descriptors like "false". But just this once: Are Newton's theories false? A little bit, but much less false than Aristotle's!

"And perhaps you are inadvertently stating that simpler times allowed for higher knowledge and deeper understanding?"

Nah, they were just wrong! (But I don't think they were stupid. Of course they had a deeper understanding about surviving in the natural world than modern people.)

--

Thanks for reading the post JK. You wrote:

"You sound as if you think that we Christians believe we have God all figured out."

I did not mean to give that impression. I'm speaking from the agnostic/atheist position where nothing is known about God. As you say, the theist believes the finite cannot know the infinite, but they do claim to know some things. Those things are still a lot more than what the agnostic/atheist claims to know (= zero).

"Jesus was a human being in all respects. He was also God in all respects."

I looked at the link, but I still don't get it. I don't know how anyone can get it since it is claimed to be a mystery.

"I have given evidence at length elsewhere."

Yes, and again I've given the wrong impression. I know Christians have heaps of evidence that they find convincing. However we disagree over what is considered good evidence. This topic came up at this other blog:
http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=252

"(Atheism doesn’t allow for real evil either.)"

I'm not sure why "real" evil is necessary. I don't think it is easy to define "good" and "evil" in any world view. How about other hard to define words like "art". What is art? Do atheistic and theistic world views both allow for real art? Even simple nouns like "tree" can get tricky. Is a shrub a tree? How about a tall bush? Does God know what a real tree is?

Maybe you don't see an atheistic concept of evil as being "real", but it's not cloaked in any mystery either. "Evil" people have improperly wired brains due to combinations of genetic predispositions, abusive upbringing, or some kind of sickness or brain damage. (There is some "mystery" in the sense of not knowing the exact causes which can be very complicated.)

"It shows that the pantheist position is not logical."

Aren't all presuppositions (axiomatic statements) not "logical" because they are taken as self evident?

Is the Trinity logical? I don't think so because it is always called a mystery. I'm sure the pantheist can also say his claim that "God is all" is also a mystery.

--

PS: I see you quoted at the beginning an embarrassing spell-checker defying typo of mine. "here" instead of "hear". I'm going to fix that. I blame my stupid phingers!

J. K. Jones said...

TAG,

An explaination for where evil comes from does not account for the sense of injustice I feel when I am wronged. You are just giving a definition of evil as abnormal behavior, and an absolute standard.

The thing about the propositoin / thought "I exist" is that the statement is undeniable. You have to exist in order to deny your own existence. Undeniable statements are true based on the fact you can't deny them.

JK

J. K. Jones said...

TAG,

Sentence above should read "Not an absolute standard." Sorry for the typo.

JK

that atheist guy said...

JK wrote:

"You are just giving a definition of evil as abnormal behavior, not an absolute standard."

Yes, but that is the best I can do. I don't know of any ways to find absolute standards, and as you know, I don't trust religious claims about such absolutes.

"The thing about the propositoin / thought "I exist" is that the statement is undeniable. You have to exist in order to deny your own existence. Undeniable statements are true based on the fact you can't deny them."

I think you are referring to a previous discussion we had. The problem here is we might be deluded about the true nature of our existence. In a lucid dream, I might think I'm a talking bear saying "I exist". Yes "something" real exists (the dreamer in this example) but the bear-self is an illusion.

I think the undeniable statement should be "This feeling of self exists."

J. K. Jones said...

TAG,

“Yes, but that is the best I can do.”

That is a startling admission.

“I don't know of any ways to find absolute standards, and as you know, I don't trust religious claims about such absolutes.”

But if you look atg how you react when people wrong you, you might find a clue that there are some moral absolute that are universal in and of themselves. The absolutes are evidence for an Absolute who can be the basis for them.

“I think the undeniable statement should be "This feeling of self exists."”

You have to exist to have a feeling about yourself.

JK

that atheist guy said...

JK wrote:

"That is a startling admission."

How would I know if an act is evil or the result of psychosis? Maybe an absolute good and evil do exist, but I don't have any evidence to say if they do. In everyday language I might say a criminal was "evil" because he caused undue suffering. The same problem exists for other subjective judgments. I might call a certain painting "beautiful", but does that mean an absolute beauty exists?

Another point of difference behind this discussion is that I don't believe free will exists, although it is a useful fiction to set up a justice system.

Again, such absolutes might exist, but I don't think it would require the existence of a god.

"You have to exist to have a feeling about yourself."

I think our problem here is how we are defining "I" and "you". I'm saying the "you" in the statement above IS that feeling. Like the dreamer who is having a dream that he is a bear. Something exists in reality (the dreamer), but the "I" which the dream bear says in statements like "I am a bear" is just an illusion. That "I" is just a feeling of bear-self, but it is not the true self.