The Human Mind as a Means to God

Attempting to prove the existence of God, or any deity for that matter, has long been the debate of scholars since perhaps the dawn of mankind. Doing so through empirical means has largely proved a fruitless endeavor contingent on circumstantial evidence and post-firsthand accounts through written texts which have been distorted through time and man’s agenda. It wasn’t until arguably the Enlightenment era that intellectuals were able to begin openly questioning the legitimacy of a higher power without being labeled a heretic and stoned to death, and even then, it had to be done discreetly. David Hume was one such man who, among other subjects, was vocal on using logic to arrive at the existence, or non-existence, of God.

In one of Hume’s works, the Dialogues Concerning the Natural Religion, he personifies the varying approaches to, and viewpoints of, the rationalization of religion through the guise of three characters. Holding something of an atheistic view of religion but presumably desiring his work to be published, Hume presents his beliefs indirectly through a number of dialogues in which he ends up playing the devil’s advocate with himself through each character, never out-rightly condemning religion, but rather, showing the flaws of different approaches through three characters who all claim that God must exist.  Much of the discussion therein takes varying forms of three of the most prevalent theories for the existence of God at the time: the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. However, these arguments and the manner through which the characters Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes arrive at their beliefs leaves something to be desired, the inadequacies of which undermine the points Hume attempts to illustrate.

One of the modes of discourse that permeates the dialogues is that of the analogy. Analogies are a convenient means for abstracting complex or otherwise incomprehensible ideas in a way that our minds can easily digest. This is especially useful as it pertains to wrapping our head around the idea of a god, whose attributes are typically characterized as existing outside the realm of conventional understanding. We see this come up primarily in the argument from design (the teleological argument), wherein the earth and its inhabitants are likened to artifacts, and God, the artificer (a watch and a watchmaker is a typical example).

The weakness of analogies is that there are as many number of ways to find similarities between two entities as there are discrepancies; that is to say: infinite.  As such, it is trivial to tailor any manner of analogs to the point at hand as the needs of the explanation require.  One analogy about the universe, which is made in Dialogue II by Cleanthes, is as follows:

“You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.”

It is just as easy to compare God to the mind of man and the universe to a machine as it is to say that the universe is nothing like a machine because it doesn’t meet the criteria for an automaton of possessing an explicit function for which to take inputs and produce some output. Further, the fact that machines are contained within a universe makes it impossible for the universe to be compared to something it encompasses. The analogies in the dialogues, and they are numerous, do little more than act as a hypothetical stopgap in an attempt to compare something we know nothing about to something we do, which may or may not in actuality be anything at all alike.

Attributing human-like qualities or any other qualities that exist as we understand them to God is problematic.  Doing so works off of the supposition that a deity is anything at all like its creations. This belies the typically-attributed nature of God being omnipotent and omniscient and assumes that he is subject to our universe’s laws, our understanding, or both. Presumably, if God were like humans, then he approaches the fallible nature of humans as well, which brings him further away from the values he is suggested to have. Furthermore, human understanding is admittedly limited, and to suppose that God operates within our narrow understanding of the universe is similarly not copacetic with the concept that a deity is by some significant magnitude more able and powerful than its subjects.

The limited scope of human understranding is not a trivial point. As is evident by mankind’s past erroneous theories which have been subsequently revised, among other reasons, we are very much in a period of knowledge expansion. Not only is our knowledge incomplete and potentially flawed, but the set of truths we can ever hope to know might well be limited to some fractional portion of the whole. The limitations on our capacity for knowledge acquisition manifests itself both physically and logically. Physically, our senses are limited to a finite domain of stimulation, as is evidenced by occurrences such as ultrasonic sound frequencies and light waves that exist outside of the visible spectrum, the existence of which could not have been confirmed without technological aid. Logically, our thought process is constrained by the innate architecture of the mind that lacks the ability to comprehend abstract concepts such as infinity or the fourth dimension. This doesn’t even begin to address the topic of truths that may exist that the human psyche simply lacks the cognitive wherewithal to fathom, much less ever understand, begging the question that the capacity to acquire knowledge might always be limited on virtue of the physiology of the mind itself.

Similarly, if a deity is all powerful, and thus has all knowledge, then it is certainly realistic to expect it to operate outside even the highest bounds our understanding might ever reach. That being said, even the truths we establish are relative only to the subset of knowledge we have obtained at any given point, and thus our understanding and proofs for God are rooted in some kind of approximated projection onto our truth system, in our terms, which may or may not be at all compatible with what the higher power in question actually is.

Despite the continued use of analogies throughout, Hume touches on this with the remark by Demea: “His ways are not our ways. His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible. And this volume of nature contains a great and inexplicable riddle, more than any intelligible discourse or reasoning.” Essentially, what this boils down to is an entity which I refer to as an “observer agent.” That is, only an agent who has awareness of the entire set of absolute truths about all realities and existences, or at least ones that affect any aspect that the universe in question is contingent upon, can make a confirmatory statement about the truth or falsity of any given aspect of those universes. Even the truths which we esteem to be absolutely irrefutable, such as the laws of physics, are built upon a human construct, in this case the abstraction known as mathematics, and are presented in terms of our own localized and incomplete understanding of the whole system. We have no means of knowing if said laws actually behave as per our model or if their implementation is something different entirely. A deity, by definition of its omniscience is always an observer, but an observer need not be a deity.  Until humankind can consider itself a member of this class of being for our universe, it is impossible to ever consider God with any amount of certainty, the Catch-22 being that one can never know if they have ever reached that point without reaching it.

The example of a child playing a computer game comes to mind. What he sees is cause and effect on the computer monitor and can make guesses about how things might work, but only the software developer who wrote the routines for calculating the game physics or displaying the world landscape can know for certain if those ideas held by the player have any truth. Was calculus used to simulate gravity or was it algebra? Maybe it was something entirely novel and different altogether? In this way, the developer is an observer agent for the game (universe) he created; the actual game world being an abstraction of the implemented algorithms.

If the acceptance of God, then, is so tightly bound to faith rather than the frail and finite knowledge we have, why bother attempting to reach this conclusion through human rationality at all? After all, people who possess said faith require no convincing about the existence of their god, and there is conversely insufficient evidence and human understanding to convince those who don’t otherwise. The problem with the concept of faith is that as soon as it comes into play, there is no longer discourse. Faith is not subject to logic — you either have it or you don’t — which is why most discussion on the topic, philosophical or otherwise, precludes faith by acknowledging that there is nothing up for debate as it pertains to being proof for the existence of a deity. Furthermore, faith acts as an impetus for action on a belief in a way that is not backed by rational reasoning on merit of its immunity to evaluation through logical means.

Since the nature of faith removes it from conjecture or common reason, we are only left with two options: logical discourse based on imperfect knowledge and presumed premises, or no discourse on the subject of God at all. Philo reiterates this sentiment in Dialogue I by saying, “If we distrust human reason, we have now no other principle to lead us into religion.” By this he implies that, despite the shortcomings of human faculties, it is all that we have available, and to not at least attempt to pursue some reasoning through logical means would be tantamount to accepting a God for no reason, or worse: deprive ourselves the means of ever arriving (or not arriving) at God at all.

And so the debate turns from attempting to reason about God through drawing inferences by comparison to things we know a posteriori, to attempting to prove necessarily that God exists a priori. The argument changes from the inductive position of design to a deductive one in the ontological argument, which is felt by Demea to be strongest. The rationale for the ontological argument goes something to the effect of: If something that exists is greater than something that does not exist, and if God is a being than which no greater can be conceived, God must exist. The central idea is that God is a necessary being and it would be inconceivable to believe that he cannot exist. Cleanethes explains his objection in Dialogue IX:

“I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no Being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.”

The problem with the ontological argument, which Cleanthes points out, is that it is purely rhetorical. That is, it sets its own rules and uses its premises to force a logically valid, but not sound conclusion. By means of the ontological argument, I can logic virtually anything into existence through pure thought games alone.

Additionally, the premises are questionable at best. What does it mean to be “greater” than another being? Why is it inconceivable to imagine God not existing? As Cleanthes states, anything can be conceived not to exist, God included, and therefore, he is not a necessary being.  Something that is impossible involves a contradiction, and anything that can lead to a contradiction is also inconceivable. Thus, what is impossible is also inconceivable.

The resultant reality presents something of a quandary. The conceivability of a universe without God illustrates the a priori proof as lacking, and thus requires us to do empirical investigation. Yet, as talked about earlier, the faculties of the human mind are severely handicapped when it comes to comprehending a being attributed as potentially being outside our realm of understanding entirely. We are thus left with only two options: accept that an omnipotent deity does not exist because it lacks the power to make itself understood in our terms, or continue to obtain knowledge in an effort to approach the full set of an observer agent, assuming we even possess the capacity to achieve that state.

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~ by Dux on October 25, 2010.

 
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