On Proving the Existence of God

The great argument of the “new atheism,” as of most atheisms of the old stripe, seems to be that “you can’t prove the existence of God.”

In other words, using the tools of science, you can’t prove the existence of something that transcends science.

To think more clearly on the matter, it might be helpful to look at the word religion. It comes from the Latin – legio: to tie, and re: a broad prepositional prefix with too many possible meanings to be able to properly translate.

The idea is generally taken to be that of tying together.

A religion is not a conclusion to an argument. It is a teaching that ties everything else together, that harmonizes everything.

The most powerful religions are those that are able to tie the most together.

I am a Christian because, while I have great respect for other religions, they all seem to leave us with one or two irresolvable dichotomies that are reconciled in Christ.

The mother of all dichotomies might be that between the material and the spiritual realms. Naturalism, the religion of today, resolves it by denying the spiritual or giving naturalistic explanations for all things spiritual.

Gnosticism, the perpetual enemy of Christianity and, according to Richard Weaver at least, the painfully ironic foundational dogma of progressive education (Dewey, James, etc.) treats the spiritual as legitimate and important and the material as valueless.

Christianity tells of one who is big enough to weave all things together into a harmony that damages nothing and blesses everything: Christ, the incarnate logos: Spirit made flesh, God made man, the weaving together in one of all things.

Now, if a religion is true, it cannot simply dismiss what it doesn’t like. That is a sign of theological weakness. A true religion ties everything together.

But when a philosophy is based on a necessarily inadequate premise, as is naturalism, then it is hard for this Christian to see why he ought to abandon his foundations because the other guys have developed a sophisticated argument.

A premise is necessarily inadequate when it excludes what it doesn’t like at the beginning of the discussion.

God is not the conclusion of an argument based on naturalistic premises. He is the beginning of thought and the harmony of all truth. He is necessary to every other premise, but I don’t see how that can “prove” his existence. He is simply Necessary: to thought, to ethics, to beauty, to society, to physics, to marriage, to education.

Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

Image via Wikipedia

We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

Preparing the way for Hitler (part III of a series)

In my previous post in this series, I said I would discuss why Germany was so ready for Hitler and why they supported him so enthusiastically.

To understand this, you must understand that Hitler came to power in a Germany that had been preparing for him for a long time. An evil on the scale of Nazism, or Communism for that matter, does not come about without a long gestation. It requires enormous technological power, ideas about reality and human nature, a certain national spirit, political systems and assumptions, and probably a good dose of demonic involvement.

The same is true of a good on the scale of our constitution and liberties.

Life is the interchange of ideas and applications. It is not possible to determine which comes first for the simple reason that neither exists apart from the other. An idea  not embodied is an idea not thought.

Practically, therefore, our lives are a dialectic between our ideas and our circumstances. We dream big and try to make it happen. We find that we can’t perfect it, so we have to make a choice.

We can love the dream enough to accomplish as muc of it as possible. Or we can replace the dream with a fantasy and chase the hobgoblin of our dream. Or we can abandon the dream altogether.

We do this with our schools. A private school comes to be when a person or a few people share a vision for what education can accomplish. Then it gets hard. What will the leadership do?

Whatever they decide at this point will determine the actual life of the school.

We do it with our marriages and love affairs too. In this hyper-Romantic age people put the weight of the cosmos on their love-affairs. When you listen to the love songs of the 50’s and 60’s, it’s cute how they commit themselves to dying for each other to sappy music, how they look to their partners to be their soul-satisfying gods and goddesses. In the late 70’s, that childish impulse remains in the uber-pop music that people find so embarrassing after they turn 20 (or at least should), but disco, heavy metal, and punk inject a cynicism into popular music that has pretty much taken over.

It might seem quite a reach to write about popular love songs in the context of the rise of the Nazi’s, but I think you’ll see the point as we go on.

Music embodies ideas, sometimes in lyrics, sometimes in melodies, harmonies, and rhythms – and in the relation of these elements. Music is the metrical and sonic imitation of the movements of the soul.

Everything we do, think, and feel, is the embodiment of an idea.

Therefore, if we are going to understand how Germany was prepared for Hitler (and Russia for Lenin and China for Mao etc.), we have to understand the ideas that Hitler embodied in his rule of Germany.

We can study that question directly by asking, “What were the ideas that dominated German thought?” And we can study it indirectly by asking, “What forms did those ideas take?” In other words, what changes took place leading up to Hitler? What remained the same but was used by Hitler for his purposes?

Examples of the less direct approach would include, for example, the rise of Bismarck and his establishment of a “United Germany.” Bismarck had prepared the political/industrial soil.

No study of Nazism would be complete that did not take a close look at Bismarck’s effect on the German character, social structure, political activities, etc.

But as much as I love history, I find it easier to look at the world through the eyes of philosophy. A study of philosophy reveals a few things to us. For one, philosophy never arises in a vacuum. So what Randall called “the career of philosophy” will reveal something of the character of the people among whom a philosophy develops.

Second, philosophers (I use the term loosely here to include everybody who claims to be a philosopher and is studied in some philsophy class somewhere  – even though most contempory philsophers are sophists and anti-philosophers) have, historically, been the Dutch Uncles or the Uncle Tom’s of a culture.

What I mean by that is that philosophers come up with complicated rationalizations for all sorts of behaviors.  The reason for this is that ethics are rooted in a view of reality and philsophers at least pretend to try to explain reality. We’ll see shortly that they have, by and large, given up on that quest, but the point remains important.

College professors and government officials tend to look to philosophers to tell them what is right and wrong.  Then they tell their students. Then their students go home and inflict their new morality on their families. And if their students are studying in the teacher’s college, then they go into the classroom and teach it to the nation’s children.

This has happened over and over again over the past 800 years, so by now it should not need much defense. It is happening again in our country, and it happened in Hitler’s Germany.

So the study of philosophy as a human activity (as opposed to the study of Philosophy itself – i.e. the quest for wisdom) embodied in philosophical writings and societies can tell us a great deal about the society in which it grows and it will show us why a people thinks they ought to do some things and not do others.

In my next post, I will describe as simply as I possibly can the primary philosopher who prepared Germany for Hitler (and whose influence in 20th century American education has been infernally profound).

Let me end with a somewhat lengthy quotation from Owen Barfield’s unbearably brilliant book Poetic Diction that will highlight the war I am describing and underscore at least one of the main battlegrounds of that war. Everything that follows in this discussion, everything that happens in your life, is influenced in some way by what Barfield says:

The conflicting theories of knowledge of which the following pages take cognizance show every sign of diverging more and more widely, leaving a deeper and deeper gulf of incomprehension between them. Between those for whom ‘knowledge’ means ignorant but effective power [ed. note: please remember this phrase], and those for whom the individual imagination is the medium of all knowledge from perception upward, a truce will not readily be struck. Nor can we safely assume that the conflict will be confined to the intellectual arena. In the nineteenth century, belief in imagination proved itself to be clearly allied with belief in individual freedom; necessarily so, because the act of imagination is the indivdual mind exercising its sovereign unity. [ed. note, please remember that phrase as well]  In the twentieth century we are gradually learning that the converse is equally true. There is a curiously aggressive note, often degenerating into a sneer, in the style of those who expound the principles of linguistic analysis. Before he even begins to write, the Logical Positivist has taken the step from ‘I prefer not to interest myself  in propositions which cannot be empirically verified’ to ‘all propositions which cannot be empirically verified are meaningless’. The next step to ‘I shall legislate to prevent anyone else wasting his time on meaningless propositions’ is unlikely to appear either illogical or negative to his successor in title. Those who mistake efficiency for meaning inevitably end by loving compulsion, even if it takes them, like Bernard Shaw, the best part of a lifetime to get there.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, 1973, Page 22 (emphasis added)

If that quotation or any of the foregoing is incomprehensible to you, don’t worry. It was to me too at first. I’ve had to read it a few times, reflect on it, now write it, and read other things that helped me grasp it. There is no shame in not understanding a difficult passage. I will try to explain why I included it in the following posts.

By the way, these posts have arisen from my reflections for the summer conference on liberty. I hope you’ll be able to come as we are, as our government told us over 25 years ago, a nation at risk, and they rightly located that risk in our school system. I do not know how much longer we will be a free country. I do know that we cannot remain free without educated citizens.

Philosopher Citizens

Somebody mentioned in passing during the conference that Mortimer Adler said that not everybody will be an electrician or a lawyer or a football player (or something like that) but that everybody is a citizen and a philosopher.

Wow.

That means that every school must be serious about equipping their students to be citizens (people who know and love justice and seek to introduce her to their circumstances) and philosophers (people who love truth and know how to seek it).

Does yours?

The Order of Knowledge

James Daniels just reminded me about the order of knowledge and showed how you can see it disintegrate in western philosophical thought.

At the top of all knowledge is theology, the knowledge that holds all other knowledge together.

Below that is philosophical knowledge, knowledge of metaphysical things like being, mode, and change.

One more step down we find moral or humane knowledge, the knowledge of how we fulfill our natures as human beings in community (politics) or by ourselves (ethics).

Then comes natural science, or the knowledge that we can gain of the physical world around us through modes like observation and measurement.

Each kind of knowledge is gained when you ask questions that require that kind of knowledge for an answer, such as what is being (philosophy), how can I be happy (ethics), what makes a tree grow (science), or what is truth (theology).

Asking the right kind of question causes a person to develop the sorts of tools that sort of question requires.

Using those tools then arouses a given faculty in the human soul – a faculty of perception that fits the knowledge sought.

James showed me how in the 13th century you begin to see an attack on the validity of theological knowledge, which put philosophy at the top of the ladder. Of course, it couldn’t answer theological questions, so people got mad at philosophy for not being able to do what it isn’t capable of doing, so they dropped it for the moral sciences.

Need I say that they proceeded to fail? So people gave up on the moral sciences and trusted only in the natural sciences.

Then came the 20th century. Now the natural sciences are still highly regarded, but nobody really believes they provide ultimate truth except maybe Richard Dawkins.

Thus we live in an age of complete epistemological scepticism, newspeaked into “tolerance.”

Then to undermine the whole project, children are no longer taught how to gain knowledge because people don’t believe it is there to be gained anyway. So they grow up believing there is no knowledge and they live accordingly.

Thus the Hebrew intuition is verified once again: “The fear of God is the beginning of Knowledge.”

The problem of objectivity

The motto of the Fox News Channel is “We Report.  You Decide.”  The idea behind the statement is that they are attempting to report the news without bias or prior interpretation.  They are claiming objectivity, in the sense of being “without bias or prejudice; detached.”  Of course, claims to objectivity are numerous, extending to nearly every side of every debate, whether political, theological, etc. 

 

It is interesting to me that so many people claim to do the impossible.  Real objectivity is, generally speaking, beyond our reach.  We interpret facts, events, and statements by our preconceived ideas, presuppositions, experiences, and beliefs.  Because of that, none of us humans are actually objective.  Would ground be gained in the exchange of ideas if we were at least honest about the fact that we held a few coming into it?

 

My unbiased opinion is yes.