Hart and Armstrong: God on high

[BPSDB] One response to the ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins is to retreat up a mountain. There you are surrounded by fluffy, intangible ideas, and a silence where you can experience the ‘Unnameable’ who can never be understood, far from the people like  ‘strident adolescents’ who actually want to try to understand things. (Why is it when people assert their non-belief they are always called ‘aggressive’?)

That’s the mental picture I get from this review by Christopher Hart of what appears to be a pretty missable book by Karen Armstrong.

The trouble is, up in the solitude and rarefied air on the mountain-top, where neither believers nor sceptics can reach you and bring some criticism to bear on your thoughts, you start to imagine things.

You start to imagine that something about which you have written around twenty books can only be appreciated through ‘a graceful acceptance of mystery and “unknowing”’. You create a myth that the root of religion lies beyond ‘beyond human language’, ignoring the fact that its roots lie in attempts to communicate with forces and things (as well as dead real people) that affected everyday life but were conceived of as having consciousness and intentionality.

You rely for your evidence on the abstruse writings of church fathers, who  engaged in what was really an intellectual exercise at one remove from religion as it was practised. Without any sense of irony, you accuse atheists of claiming absolute knowledge and ‘pronounc[ing] with finality on pretty much everything’. This is despite the fact that Dawkins has always emphasised that science, although it gives us real knowledge, always contains tentative areas (why else do scientific research?) and that he for one would be open to discovering that God exists, given evidence.

You leave most believers at the foot of the mountain, because their faith is based (at least for the Abrahamic religions) on texts that emphasise the personality of God, his very human-like qualities ands his interventions in the world. For most believers, it is likely that their understanding of God is even more personal than that of the leaders of their organised religions.

The  top of the mountain seems to be  a realm where everything is made of mirages, appearing upside-down. Perhaps the case has been made that the experience is very enjoyable, but certainly no case seems to be made for anything recognisable as God to someone with their feet on the ground, believer or non-believer.

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One thought on “Hart and Armstrong: God on high

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I have read the review quite closely. Here’s my take: most constructs about which we care, have very vague physical correlates, and if interrogated too vigorously by someone with a penchant for reductionism will just, sort of, collapse.

    Let me provide a quick example. A lot of mathematicians have quite an advanced sense of intuition about how to go about mathematics. The popular conceptions of mathematics as a dry, formal and computational activity are largely wrong. Instead, it is a very human and organic activity, with a quite a deep seated tension between exploratory creative imagination and formal, rigorous culling of ideas (if you’re interested in Machine Learning, as I am, there is an interesting analogy here with simulated annealing).

    What’s my point? Great mathematicians and physicists develop a very sensitive and often quite ineffable idea of what they’re doing. They are using heuristics and analogies on such a high level that they completely resist formalization, and sometimes even description. Does that stop them? Not the good ones. It is the wellspring of their creativity.

    The same is true about life. As you live it, there is a clear “ground truth” – physical reality (there is a deep subtlety hiding here, which is that the apparent solidity and unambiguous reality of our human-scale world disappears at other scales, but let’s ignore this for now). But physical reality is almost the least interesting level of reality. If you just stick with objects and their immediate interrelationships, you don’t really gain much predictive power.

    To make smart predictions, you have to start abstracting, and indeed you do. You abstract from a messy collection of conjoined body parts to a single “animal” or “person”, a messy collection of desires and instincts and plans to a unique “individual” with a “history”, all the way up. All the important things in life: friendship, group membership, nationality, government, competition, cooperation, love, hate, belief and so on, all of these notions are so high level it is just silly to ask what their physical correlates are.

    And that’s fine. That’s what intelligence is – a hierarchy of abstraction. But we don’t deny the existence of these things. We know they are real and affect us and are worth trying to better understand. My claim would be the same can be try of even more abstract and “physically real” constructs, and perhaps, if you were so inclined, you could map these constructs back down to what ordinary, religious people call “god”.

    That seems quite reasonable. I’ve been thinking about precisely how one would do this, and I have some ideas. Now, just because I’m finding the idea of ‘god’ interesting again after many years of the traditional type of strident atheism does NOT mean I’m sitting praying to some personal god about what I want to happen next, as Dawkins would claim any sense of spiritual mystery would lead one to do.

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