Tuesday, January 30, 2018

God as the creator of the world

Something that I would expect someone (specifically DZ Phillips, if I had to guess) to have done is to take Wittgenstein's sentences "My attitude toward him is an attitude toward a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul" and "The human body is the best picture of the human soul" and use them as a model for talking about God. A quick search on Google suggests that someone (indeed it is DZ Phillips) has done this for the latter but that no one has done it for the former. On p. 240 of Religion and Hume's Legacy, edited by Phillips and Timothy Tessin, Phillips writes:
Wittgenstein said that the human body is the best picture of the soul. Maybe for religious believers the world is the best picture of God -- the face and gesture of God. They believe there is something to be seen here. When the Psalmist says that the heavens declare the glory of God, he does not mean that the heavens are evidence of the glory of God. What he means is not captured by the cosmological argument. 
This seems about right to me, and yet:
  1. Is it better to say that the world is the best picture of God or that it is the only true picture of God, that it is the picture of God? Ramanuja says something like: the world is the body of God. (Sally McFague sounds like someone else to read on this too.) Perhaps that goes too far, but if so it's going too far in a good direction.
  2. I don't like the addition of the words "the face and gesture of God," as if there is much to God that is not to do with the world. The idea I want to see expressed is that God is the creator of the world, so that as long as we accept the idea of the world then it almost goes without saying that God exists. 'God' means: whatever brought this about. But without accepting any such thought as: There is some x such that ...   
  3. I'm also not sure about "there is something to be seen here." There is everything to be seen here, I would say.
  4. As for the Psalmist, why not say that the heavens are evidence of the glory of God? What else might count as such evidence? What better evidence could there be?  On the one hand I would say this, but on the other hand, point 2 implies (rightly) that talk of evidence is really out of place here. That is: there is no question of evidence, really. But if we are going to allow such loose talk, then the whole (natural) world and each thing in it is all the evidence you could ever need. The world is evidence of God in the way that a dead body with a knife in its heart is evidence of a murder.
  5. There are different cosmological arguments made by different people for different purposes. Couldn't some of them be attempts to express what I am trying to say in 2 above?
The idea that belief in God might be something like an attitude probably sounds too much like atheism for some people. But if it's an attitude that cannot be expressed or explained without reference to God then it is surely not exactly atheistic. 

Wittgenstein himself might be brought in as a witness against the idea of belief as attitude. In his lectures on religious belief the following exchange is said to have taken place:
Suppose someone, before going to China, when he might never see me again, said to me: “We might see one another after death” – would I necessarily say that I don't understand him? I might say [want to say] simply, “Yes. I understand him entirely.”
Lewy: “In this case, you might only mean that he expressed a certain attitude.”
I would say “No, it isn't the same as saying "I'm very fond of you” – and it may not be the same as saying anything else. It says what it says. Why should you be able to substitute anything else?
But Wittgenstein doesn't here (assuming he is being quoted accurately) deny that the person going to China is expressing an attitude. What he primarily denies is that what is expressed can be equally well expressed in different words. There is also an implication that we are not talking about a mere attitude. On p. 12 Wittgenstein is reported as saying:
“He could just as well have said so and so” – this [remark] is foreshadowed by the word “attitude”. He couldn't just as well have said something else.  
This is his objection to the word 'attitude' here. If we use the word' attitude' in some other way, as in the "attitude toward a soul" case, I would think, then the objection doesn't stand.

What if the same idea could be expressed in other words? In the Lecture on Ethics he says that:
all religious terms seem in this sense to be used as similes or allegorically. For when we speak of God and that he sees everything and when we kneel and pray to him all our terms and actions seem to be parts of a great and elaborate allegory which represents him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win etc. But this allegory also describes the experience which I have just referred to. For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. Third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.
The suggestion here is that we describe or point to certain experiences by saying certain things, in this case about God. Saying that God created the world refers to the experience of wonder at the very existence of the world. It sounds a bit odd to say that we are referring to or describing experiences here, and to talk as if describing an experience is the same thing as referring to it. Imagine a dialogue:
A: I sometimes have this feeling of absolute safety
B: What's that like?
A: We are safe in the hands of God
Or this:
A: God created the world
B: What are you referring to?
A: I wonder at the existence of the world
These are not the best dialogues ever written, but they don't seem that odd to me after all. In the abstract, referring to something and describing it seem like different things, but in these cases they seem to more or less come to the same thing. It is clear that we are not in the business here of simply describing or referring. It's more that something is being expressed, and I don't know what to call that something except an attitude. Wittgenstein calls it an experience, but it's not an experience that can be described without reference to the attitude in question. It isn't an experience like the feeling you get when x happens (the dentist gives you laughing gas, say), or the experience of  Mardi Gras in New Orleans (which might not be any particular kind of feeling). Wondering at the existence of the world is not just feeling wonder. (The existence of the world is not a state of affairs that happens to be the cause of feeling W in this case.) Nor is it the experiencing of some particular event or state of affairs. Whatever it is, it is something (not some thing) that cannot be understood without reference to something like the existence of the world or God's act of creation.

Whether it is (rightly or best called) just an attitude will depend, I would think, on how it goes with the rest of one's life.


  1. leaving aside authorial intentions (how would we know?) I would think the meanings would be in the uses, for instance I've never met a believer who is actually in a state of wonder about existence itself but many who are reading some majesty or the like in an aspect of nature as some evidence of a like quality in the Maker, this often happens in moments in worship where people are asked to share their joys and concerns. In denying this sort of literalism Wittgensteinians often remind me of folks who start down the path of mythopoetic readings of sacred texts as ways of making them reason-able...

    1. Thanks. I think I agree, although perhaps you'll correct me on that. That is, I wouldn't want to deny that believers might read "some majesty or the like in an aspect of nature as some evidence of a like quality in the Maker." I think the issue might be the idea of evidence. If I do a kind deed is this evidence that I am (probably) kind or more a manifestation, and therefore proof, of my kindness? And if God makes mountains is this evidence of some mountain-like (sublime, perhaps) feature of his nature or a demonstration of his sublimity? Using the word 'evidence' could make the whole thought sound too much like science or detective work. But I wouldn't want to go from this point (about which I think Phillips is correct) to saying that people are wrong to use the word 'evidence' in such contexts. We just need to be careful to understand what is and is not meant.

      Wondering at existence itself sounds odd to me too (as it does to Wittgenstein, although perhaps in a different way). It's not really an experience that I think I've ever had. He also says, though:

      I could of course wonder at the world round me being as it is. If for instance I had this experience while looking into the blue sky, I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case when it's clouded. But that's not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is.

      Does wondering at the sky mean wondering at there being a sky (of whatever color)? If so that seems a lot more specific than wondering at the existence of a world (of whatever kind). I find it easier to imagine this (sky) kind of wonder. But if he gives it as an example of the kind of thing he means by wonder at the existence of the world, then perhaps that isn't such a strange idea after all.

  2. It seems to me that theology is being avoided in this discussion; a Hindu and a Christian should not be expected to say the same things about the relation between God and the world, and it is in theology that they try to make their differences clear to each other. (Nor would a Muslim and a Christian say the same things about how God might show up in the world. This was something that irritated me when I tried reading Philips some years ago; he took it to be a "grammatical remark" that God could not eat an ice cream cone or ride a bicycle -- I wondered if it was also a "grammatical remark" that God could not eat bread or have a hole gouged in his side.)

    It also seems to me to be unfair to the history of "the cosmological argument" to bracket it from religion in this way; certainly when Avicenna is inventing new philosophical ideas like "absolutely necessary existence" this is not being done for extra-religious reasons. It seems better to me to claim that what most philosophers want to do with the cosmological argument does not capture the cosmological argument: if it is to be the sort of argument it purports to be, then it must develop within its own comprehension an elevation of the thinker to God -- if it was an argument that there are infrared waves, then perhaps I could recognize it as sound without being affected by it, but this should not be true about an argument that there is God. There should not be a valid argument from anodyne premises and such an existentially significant conclusion.

    My way of trying to elaborate on this: It seems to me that the contrast between contingent and necessary existence that someone like Avicenna has in mind is not something antecedently understood and only accidentally deployed in laying out the cosmological argument, but is a distinction he wants to draw first by making clear what is at stake with it -- the employment of these notions in this argument is not accidental to them, but is essential to them, is their entire point. To grasp "contingent being" in the right way just is to have grasped the import of the argument, it seems to me; the actual chain of reasoning and conclusion about a necessary existence are then so much pleonasm. And this is something I think could be fairly well captured by the first sentence from LW you quote: "My (existential) attitude towards the world is as a series of contingent existences. I am not of the (independent) opinion that the being of the world is contingent." For opinions are things that I can hold or not depending on how things appear to me at a time; but viewing the world as created or not is not a matter of how things appear to me at a time, but of how I can appreciate appearances. It is not as if the world has appeared so far to me to be contingent existences, but might one day start presenting me with absolutely necessary ones instead. But to look at things of the world in this way is just to view them as contrasting with absolutely necessary existence, viz. God. To articulate a cosmological argument as a syllogism or to say that the (changeless, eternally revolving) heavens declare the glory of God then come to much the same thing: they are ways of expressing this contrast grasped between the contingencies of the world and the absolute necessity of an existence even more eternal than the revolutions of the heavens.

    1. I don't know when, if ever, I'll be able to reply properly to this, but thanks very much. This is very much at least the kind of thing I want to say, or get at. If I get much clearer on what I have in mind then it might turn out to differ on some details, but this is helpful.

  3. is there more to this than how things might strike us (or not) for which we could (given proper data) offer a genealogy, is this (as I think was unfortunately the case with Mulhall in your recent post) more an assertion of this being the general/necessary case?

    1. I'm not 100% sure what the 'this' that you refer to is, but I think an assertion of what is necessarily the case is centrally involved. That is, given the meaning of 'God' there can be no question of evidence for or against his existence, or of there being an hypothesis about his existence. 'God' is not the name of an entity that might or might not happen to exist. (Or, so far is that is what 'God' is, no such thing exists.)

    2. sorry yes I meant this theological assertion (God/Creator), to say that the vast majority of believers are wrong to think of the use of "God" as an act of naming/identity seems to be a sort of sideways move to have a say about existence/kind or not, but I may well be missing the point.

    3. There is something sideways about it, I think, but I find this interesting (and promising) rather than sneaky. And done right it shouldn't imply anything about the vast majority of believers, since they don't get into philosophy of religion. Doing it right would involve, for instance, not denying that "God" is a name. But the fact that "God" is a name does not mean that religious believers think there is some x such that the word "God" stands to it in the same relation as the words "Chrysler building" stand to that building. That said, I'm not really sure what the 'it' I'm referring to here (as in "doing it properly") is, so I should probably stop.

    4. so it's prescriptive not descriptive (surely most believers think there is a God/person named Jesus/God for example)?

    5. If the it is Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion then it should be descriptive, although presumably in a way that brings out non-obvious features of religion. Or obvious but often ignored features of it.

      What inspired this blog post, though, was a vague feeling that I might be on the trail of some new kind of proof of the existence of God. This would not be a very Wittgensteinian enterprise. Nor would it be purely descriptive--certainly not of what most believers think.

      The philosophical question, as I see it, is less whether there is a person named Jesus and more: what does "There is a person named Jesus" mean? This is both (potentially) fascinating and why people hate philosophy.