Do atheists reject the “wrong kind of God”? Not likely

Dorothy_0011b God-Satan Desk Signsby Daniel Linford

Why is it that some people do not believe in God? Some popular religious writers have claimed that atheists reject God because they were presented with the wrong kind of God. Atheists reject a god that is too small, it is claimed, and most have not considered the more sophisticated God that is really worth believing in. If only atheists considered the proper sort of deity, these authors insist, they would have long abandoned their atheism.

This is the position of several authors who have written popular books on the subject over the last two decades: Karen Armstrong [1], John Haught [2], and David Bentley Hart [3], to name a few. I think these authors are incorrect. There are good reasons for rejecting belief even in their gods. Here I will focus on Armstrong’s version, but several of my remarks will be applicable to a number of other theologies.

What sort of gods do these writers have in mind? If the wrong sort of God is “too small,” the right sort of God is much bigger: a radically transcendent being about which human languages can only speak indirectly. Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions of what a god might be like. God is so far beyond human comprehension, she insists, that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol. God, she tells us, “is the God beyond [our idolatrous conception of] God” [4].

Armstrong, and others of a similar view, are mystics who insist that the way that we speak of God comes in stages.

First, we speak of God directly: we might say “God is good,” where the word “good” means the same thing of God as it does when we talk about a virtuous human. Here we affirm one of God’s properties [5].

Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naive: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good.” Here we deny that God has some (human) property [6].

Many mystics insist that we should alternate between these two stages, affirming and denying, until we are left in a silence pointing to God. In the end, we learn that we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. Some theologians, such as Denys Turner [7] and Thomas Aquinas [8], have suggested that we do not even know what it means to say that God exists. Armstrong agrees. She writes that God is “not a being at all. […] We could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited” [9].

For Armstrong, because we cannot speak literally of God, we should resort to poetry, “which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do” [4]. It remains unclear, then, why Armstrong’s many books about God are not books of poetry.

If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist could not have rejected God after all. And a variety of traditional objections to theism, naturally, disappear as well.

For example, no longer could one say that the widespread suffering in our world is incompatible with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God because we would be unable to say what these properties indicate about God. If God is “all-knowing,” “all-powerful,” and “all-loving,” but in no way that we can understand, then, whatever that way is, it might be compatible with any degree of suffering whatsoever.

Still, the god of the mystical theologian, as I shall call it, is subject to at least three problems.

First, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, concerning a similar view, why should we think that God has this sort of transcendence — the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God — and not some other [10]? Armstrong’s theology seems to be nothing more than a vague assertion.

Plantinga continues by pointing out that a God beyond words is not coherent. Consider that the property of being God can be expressed in English. If mystical theologians insist that no property of God can be expressed in English, then the property of being God is not one of God’s properties. But how can God not be God? Similarly, God is not a bottle of beer. Yet mystical theologians could not say that God literally has the property of not being a bottle of beer. If none of the properties that we can attribute to God in human languages can be applied literally to God, then God is incoherent [11].

Second, the theist would have no reason to maintain belief in religious doctrines that had been provided only through divine revelation. Why not? As philosopher Erik Wielenberg has pointed out, there is a significant problem for revelation if we can know so little (nothing, really) about God. Consider the statement “God is good.” The mystical theologian insists that the word “good,” as it appears in this statement, cannot be understood by finite humans. If that is so, we cannot know what God’s goodness entails. For all we know, God may have reasons, beyond our comprehension, for lying to us [12].

But wait, you say, God cannot lie because God is morally perfect! I am not claiming that God lies. I am only claiming that believers have no reason to rule out the possibility of God lying. According to the view maintained by the mystical theologian, we cannot know what God’s moral perfection entails. It may be good, in a way that we cannot understand, for God to lie to us.

The mystical theologian wishes to say that God is truthful and trustworthy, but this would involve knowing things about God’s goodness which the mystical theologian maintains we cannot know. The mystical theologian may change her mind concerning what we can or cannot know about God, yet remember where we started. If we could more definitively say what God is, it would expose God to the atheist’s traditional objections (regardless of whether one finds them convincing or not).

If we cannot rule out the possibility of God lying to us, then we have no reason to trust those doctrines which humans learned about only through divine revelation. These include the Trinity, the Eucharist, the nature of the afterlife, and so on [13]. There would be little reason to accept Christianity, or any other traditional religion.

Armstrong does not appear to accept divine revelation in a traditional sense. For her, all of the world’s religions are each attempts to make sense of the same Divine Reality [14]. However, Armstrong would have to say that there is some sense in which the revelations made to each religion contain truths. But it is difficult to make sense of this position, given her take on God.

There is a related problem. Armstrong has written that, “[i]f a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job” [15]. But if we do not know what it means to talk about God’s goodness — or about any of God’s properties at all — why should we think that God is connected with the property “empathy and respect for all others”?

And now the third problem. Consider those doctrines for which we might have some evidence. This may include God’s hand in the creation and the maintenance of the universe or in miracles. Mystical theology entails that these cannot be evidence for God after all.

Consider some phenomena behind which one might suspect the handiwork of God. Such phenomena can only count as evidence for God if we have reason to think that God was likely to produce the phenomena in question. Indeed, if God was comparatively unlikely to produce some phenomenon, the latter may actually count as evidence against the existence of God. Yet mystical theology tells us that we cannot know what God is likely to do or to want. For all we know, any purported evidence of God’s presence is actually evidence of the contrary.

Mystical theologians may object that God is not to be inferred through evidence of design in nature (as Intelligent Design advocates insist) but is instead to be experienced [16]. This is no better: if we cannot know what sort of phenomena God is likely to produce then we cannot know what sort of experiences God is likely to trigger within us.

Mystical theologians should find it troubling that religious experience cannot provide us with reason to believe in God, but apparently they don’t. Both Armstrong and Haught argue that we can only come to know God experientially while at the same time implicitly barring the intelligibility of religious experience, thus leaving us without God.

Mystical theology gives us no justification for its radical (and seemingly incoherent) transcendence, without trust in scripture, without evidence for God, and without religious experience. Do atheists reject the wrong kind of God? How could we even know?


Daniel Linford is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Thomas Nelson Community College. His main interests are in philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and early-modern atheism. Dan recently earned his master’s degree at Virginia Tech and is currently applying to PhD programs.

[1] Armstrong, K. (2009) The Case for God. New York: Random House.

[2] Haught has made this claim in a number of works, but see especially Haught, J. (2006) Is Nature Enough? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Hart, D.B. (2014) The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Grand Rapids: Yale University Press.

[4] NPR, Karen Armstrong builds a ‘case for god’.

[5] Armstrong, 2009, pp 125-126, 140-141.

[6] Ibid. Readers may be skeptical whether Armstrong states that God is “not good,” at least in any way that we understand. Yet she writes on the first page of the introduction to The Case for God: “[…] we don’t understand what we mean when we say that [God] is ‘good’, ‘wise,’ or ‘intelligent’” (2009, p ix).

[7] Turner, D. (2007) How to be an atheist. New Blackfriars 83:977-978.

[8] Aquinas, T. Summa Theologiae, 1a q3 prol.

[9] Armstrong, 2009, pp ix-x.

[10] Plantinga, A. (2000) Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See the discussion of Gordon Kauffman’s and John Hick’s theologies in chapter 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wielenberg’s argument was in response to skeptical theism: the conjunct of theism and the view that the kinds of goods, their interrelations, and their implications of which we are aware are not representative of the kinds of good, their interrelations, and their implications of which there are (Wielenberg, E. (2010) Skeptical theism and divine lines. Religious Studies 46(4):509-523; also see Hudson, H. (2012) The father of lies? Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 5:117-132). The mystical theology considered in this essay entails skeptical theism, or something very close to it.

[13] See, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the after-life in Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 1, Article 1. Of course, which doctrines are taken to be accessible only through revelation will depend upon the particular religion. See also the discussion on the distinction between natural and revealed theology in Brent, J. (2008). Natural theology. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[14] Armstrong states: “Many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call ‘God’ is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.” In the same article, she appears to imply that Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims use different symbols to approach the same transcendent reality.

[15] Armstrong, 2009, p xvii.

[16] Haught, 2006, pp 31-32.


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123 replies

  1. Mario, if there is anyone here who can hardly be accused of reductionism is yours truly. But no, I don’t think the situation is symmetrical at all. So-called spiritual experiences are rare, and there are plenty of naturalistic explanations to account for them, so yes, I think it is reasonable to doubt the soundness of mind of someone who claims to have had one of those experiences. Would you not reasonably worry about the soundness of mind, or, alternatively, the credibility of someone who told you he had been abducted by aliens?


  2. Fred Eaker,
    The suggestion that “Prove that god exists” is of the same phrase regime as “prove you have a personal experience” is simply false. The ‘separate minds’ problem is amusing but otherwise lacks purpose or point. We presume the personal experience of others because we recognize them as organisms like ourselves. I may not know precisely how sugar tastes to you, but, barring some physical difference in our taste buds not generally expected in other humans, I have some sense of what you mean by “sweet,” if we are speaking the same language in the same culture. That is how we share personal experience. It may be imprecise, but it is good enough.

    “I cannot objectively prove to you that I have a subjective experience -” you can – you have – you wrote that comment. What the heck do you think language is for, anyway?

    I’ve always said that personal experience forms a kind of knowledge that ought to be accounted for in epistemology, but that doesn’t liberate it, as knowledge, from the demands reason makes of the knowable. That is why we have semiotic systems by which to communicate personal experience. Signifiers used to demonstrate and validate personal experience can be found all around us. Unfortunately, absolutely none can be found for the existence of the divine, and the only persistently presented evidence of mystical experience is personal report. One doesn’t need to suspect the validity of the experience for the mystic, in order to reject the mystic’s own interpretation, given that there are explanations that can account for the phenomena without recourse to the supernatural.

    No non-theist, that I am aware of, is any longer asking for ‘proof’ that god exists – that belongs to the day when people thought the problem could be resolved entirely deductively, and Kant showed that it couldn’t. But as science has acquired enormous explanatory force since then, what we now ask is simply for some evidence – any at all – that such an entity might exist.

    And as far as I can tell, the only evidence we get are personal reports – whether from the authors of supposed scriptures, or poetry from mystics, or assurances from theologians. But eye-witness reports have to be confirmed by external evidence; otherwise we are not simply being asked to trust the report, we are being asked to trust the reporter; and not simply on the fact that there was an experience as reported, but the reporter’s interpretation of the report.

    Or, to put it bluntly, you are not asking me to trust god; you are asking me to trust your interpretation of your experience. Thus, prior to ‘surrendering myself to god,’ I would first need to surrender my critical thinking to your authority. I reject that. Lacking empirical warrant for your interpretation of your experience, I must reject that, too.


  3. Hi Daniel,

    I also have a problem with this:

    But wait, you say, God cannot lie because God is morally perfect!

    Who is supposed to be saying this? Not Armstrong because she has already denied the ability to make such statements and so this cannot be a counter to what she is saying.

    Maybe someone like William Lane Craig? But he does not subscribe Armstrong’s views. Armstrong criticises people like William Lane Craig more than she does Richard Dawkins.

    And, from the Wikipidia entry on Karen Armstrong ‘Craig argues that Armstrong’s view of God as ineffable is “self-refuting” and “logically incoherent.” Craig also disputes Armstrong’s characterization of the religious views of early Christians?’

    So your three problems are essentially saying that the views of Armstrong et al are inconsistent with the views of Craig et al. Well yes, she states that right in the introduction.


  4. Excellent comment here, Mr./Ms. ejwinner.

    I will note that some people are still trying to prove the existence of god deductively–typically through the cosmological argument. The argument was long ago debunked, but people still trot it out as if it has some validity.


  5. Massimo – I’m struggling to track replies properly. I’ll quote….

    “Peter, sorry, you lost me at the metaphysics of X being logically irrefutable. No metaphysics can aspire to do that, Buddhist or otherwise, in my opinion.”

    But this is exactly what Nagarjuna achieves, and it is certainly not a matter of opinion. It would be why his view has never been refuted, why it cannot be refuted in the dialectic. He actually proves that it would be impossible to do so. The way he does it is basically simple, although it may look fiendishly clever. However, I could not explain how he does it except by writing a long article rather like the one that you’ve already read.

    I can say a bit. He proves that all positive metaphysical theories, which would include almost every possible form of theism AND atheism, are logically absurd. The view that would remain cannot be refuted. That is, he refutes every position that can be refuted. It is going to be up to scientists to falsify his worldview if it can be done.

    The strange thing is that his proof provides a sound justification for logical positivism just as long as we interpret his logical result as Carnap or Russell would have done. It is the best proof that God does not exist that I’ve ever seen. As for metaphysics, he only proves what we all discover. But he goes on to describe his ‘theory or emptiness’ and ‘doctrine of two truths’ or ‘worlds’, and it is these didactic tools that make sense of his proof, not the proof itself. He explains the failure of western metaphysics in an extremely elegant and simple way. It would be caused by the assumption that his view is incorrect.

    I think the issues are too much to deal with here and wouldn’t expect this to change your mind about anything. But I can confidently state that it would be impossible to refute Nagarjuna’s metaphysic using Aristotle’s logic, and would happily bet my house on it.


  6. OK, so it’s time for “oneness,” as well as a test of Massimo.

    Fred, since you didn’t answer my questions about the likes of Bhagwam Shree Rajneesh or Ram Dass, it’s time to up the ante. (Not that I actually expect you to reply, per Aravis on the previous essay here, by Massimo.)

    First, how do you know this isn’t a hallucination? Or mental illness? Or a brain illness? Or a brain condition from some other illness? Or a brain trauma?

    Respectively, peyote and LSD, schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy, the hypoxia often associated with near death experiences, or brain traumas along the general lines of Phineas Gage’s, can all cause all the symptoms and perceptions you think prove your mystical experience is “real.”

    But, let’s go beyond science, into a bit of philosophy.

    If we’re all one, how do you know any of this is “real”? Maybe Samuel Johnson’s foot was wrong and Bishop Berkeley’s odd quad is right? Or, in a college soccer game, where I was playing against a Christian Science-based college, seeing a defender get kicked in the shines and teammates telling him, “Get up, it’s not real.” (True story, Massimo.) Maybe they’re right?

    But, if it’s all spirit, you can’t prove it. And, you can’t attempt to describe it, so why are you trying?

    Maybe we’re all part of a dream by a giant. Or, to modernize, we’re all part of a computer simulation. Want to be byte-sized flotsam and jetsam of a Windows 95 run on a Cray?

    Didn’t think so.

    Or, maybe we’re all one, not in the “body of Christ,” to take certain versions of Christianity and a biblical phrase in a more mystical direction. Maybe you and everyone else is all part of the “body of Gadfly,” and not just a mystical body, but an actual body. It’s all one, and it’s all Gadflys all the way down. (Gadflys sting Hindu turtles to death.)

    Anyway, back to the “didn’t think so.”

    In my opinion, most people don’t want a version of mysticism that doesn’t feed grandeur, at a minimum, or grandiosity, at a maximum. So, either of my versions of mystical union are yuck to people like you.

    Ditto on reincarnation.

    All modern westerners (that’s you, Shirley MacLaine) want to believe that they were always the king in past lives. They were never the peasant or slave shoveling the shit out of the king’s stables, let alone never being the horse that was crapping in the king’s stables, doubly let alone the dung beetles feeding on that horse manure.

    (Some Xns just want to be like Tertullian, laughing in heaven at people in hell.)

    And, this third comment is a bit of a deliberate shaggy dog, designed to end in horse manure. Your inference, like your mileage, may vary.


  7. I think Tom Lehrer hit the nail on the head: “If a person has trouble communicating the least they can do is shut up”. That’s the way I feel about people who say they can’t use language to describe God.


  8. To me there are 3 attributes which are necessary for something to be considered God, as I understand the term:

    1. Intelligent
    2. Necessarily existing
    3. Source of all contingent things

    The claim that God cannot be a being because God is the source of all being, is simply to overload the term ‘being’. God, as I understand the term, is the source of all contingent being.

    The above are the bare minimum and of course there are other attributes which people ascribe to God, source of moral facts, omnipotent, omniscient etc.

    Of course anyone can use words to mean anything they want and debate about the existence of such a being and these may be interesting discussions on their own. But without the first three then the debate has gone outside of the ballpark of how I understand the term “God”.

    I think the above definition would be pretty much the one used in mainstream monotheistic theology for at least the last 1700 years or so and probably back to the beginnings of the Abrahamic monothestic traditions.

    So I think the concept of rejecting the “wrong kind of God” is, by itself, meaningless. If you reject the “God” championed by Karen Armstrong then you are joined by William Lane Craig. If you reject the “God” championed by William Lane Craig you are joined by Karen Armstrong.


  9. I’d like to leave a few comments responding to Robin Herbert.

    You accused me of misunderstanding Aquinas. Actually, the misunderstanding seems to be on your part. The translation you’ve quoted is very old and not complete. Notice that the citation I gave — 1a q3 prol — is not even available in the version you gave (it is available on here: Aquinas is of the view that God’s essence (esse) and existence (ens) are identical, but this is not the case for creatures. For Aquinas, God’s esse is incomprehensible to the created intellect — except in the Beatific Vision — and this has the implication that God’s being is not univocal with that of creatures (the analogia entis). In fact, a number of theologians argue that to predicate ‘being’ univocally of God and creatures is to commit an error (what they called the ontotheological error). Turner discusses this topic at length in the book I cited. Armstrong provides a less technical discussion of the same topic in her /Case for God/ (she doesn’t use the terms ‘ontotheological error’, but it is clear that this is what she has in mind).

    If you want to know the technical terms for the multi-stage thing, this is called “apophatic theology” or “apophatic mysticism” (the stage where we affirm properties of God is called ‘kataphasis’ and the stage where make denials of God is called ‘apophasis’ — again, Turner provides a nice discussion of this topic). It can be traced back in the Christian tradition to folks like pseudo-Dionysus, who Aquinas called “Denys”, and is discussed at length in a number of chapters of Armstrong’s book. There are variants which existed in Judaism (see Maimonides for examples) and Islam. A related idea — the via negativa — is mentioned in the Catholic catechism.


  10. A few folks on here have mentioned the idea that logic was somehow created by God and that God transcends all logic. This may be so, but is contrary to the position of most theologians, who would say that the mathematical and logical truths are necessarily the case. They cannot be altered, even by God.

    You might ask, “doesn’t that mean that God is not omnipotent after all?” Not at all. Consider the sentence “God creates a slongnockle”. You now ask, “what in the world is slongnockle?” The answer is that there is no such thing as a “slongnockle”. It’s an empty term without reference. The sentence “God creates a slongnockle” does not have meaning. A number of philosophers and theologians would argue that this is also the case for round squares. There cannot be round squares because part of the concept of a square is that it is not round. Thus, to say that God creates round squares is to speak nonsense. As such, God cannot do logically impossible tasks, yet this does not contravene God’s omnipotence.

    But let’s consider the idea that God really does transcend all logic. For reasons similar to the ones I’ve already given, that case is comparable to supposing that God transcends grammar. But does that really make sense? If it did, it would make sense to say things like “the cleverly green God awakens to find colorless blue ideas purple horse Tomahawk”. After all, if God transcends grammar, how can you possibly sat that such a sentence is nonsensical?

    It seems like it would be better to say that God does not transcend grammar, but that God does transcend our ability to understand or to describe (which is what the various mystics I’ve described do say).

    Some other folks have brought up Buddhism. Again, I’ll direct you to the fact that I was specifically discussing the kind of apophatic mysticism that Armstrong (and others) have directed against atheists and in defense of theism. Apophatic mysticism is not the end-all, be-all of Christian theology (I provided arguments from Plantinga — a Christian! — in opposition to that sort of theology) and is far from the only sort of mysticism one could believe in. In order to respond to Buddhism, I’d need to write another article. I’m not an expert on Buddhism, so I’m not the person to do that.


  11. I love the plasticity of the word “spiritual”. Like an important factor in the mental manual, it can be used as a vital element for all kinds of mental concoctions.
    In this new manual of psycholgoy, we have
    – the spiritual perception
    – the “spiritual experience”, more delicately qualified as “inner spiritual experience”. This brings to mind the various episodes of “external spiritual experience”, that any nature lover has been a witness to: a lovely volcano eruption, the furor of a tsunami, the eery beauty of a double rainbow, the grandeur of an 8,000 meter peak. External spiritual experiences are there for the viewing to any city slicker who cares to get out of town
    – the “spiritual side”. Which reminds me of the traditional advice of my undergraduate teacher: “don’t show your spiritual side to critical people. They’ll make fun of you.”
    – the “spiritual people”, which reminds me of that great masterpiece “The spiritual people in our midst”
    – “Wandering about the mental condition of a spiritual person” is an exciting experience. It’s been possible with Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash, the so-called “beautiful mind’ that kept wandering all over the place, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who proved more “spiritual” than most. Other mind wanderings have been spectacular: Bertrand Russell for example, or Franz Kafka. Some claim that wandering about the mental condition of Pablo Picasso has proved a worthwhile external spiritual experience. Right now in the States many writers eager for sensational copy are inviting us to wandering about the mental condition of spiritual President Obama.


  12. Peter, it is very much a matter of opinion, and the reason that position has never been refuted may simply be because nobody bothered to refute a claim that cannot be supported to begin with. I know a number of Buddhist philosophers, and nobody makes that claim, which would really be extraordinary. Would you mind giving us a sketch of this alleged proof?


  13. PeterJ,
    Well, Buddhist thinkers sometimes comment here. If they don’t now, it may be because Buddhism – of most kinds – are stringently non-theistic (‘not a question leading to edification’). So I seem to be the ‘house Buddhist’ on this particular thread.

    Unfortunately I happen to be a secular Buddhist, which means I reject any supernatural element in Buddhism, including re-incarnation.

    So: Nagarjuna: His logical arguments are fierce; they can, upon first reading, shoot through one like an arrow through the brain. Although later readings reveal his shaky grasp of positive dialectic, I doubt that any philosopher has as good a grasp of negative dialectics as he.

    But remember two things.

    First, Nagarjuna spoke to his time and place. Much of what we now know of metaphysics did not concern him.

    Secondly, Nagarjuna, in his time and place, was not concerned with philosophy as we know it. As a proselytizer, his primary concern was with practice – primarily meditation and ethical behavior. His destruction of the metaphysics of his day was merely preparatory to this.

    That is precisely why, reviewing what I know of the history of Buddhism, I remained a Buddhist. Most of what we say of Buddhism as a philosophy is what we might say of any philosophy, and must be judged according to the strictures by which we determine any philosophy. What makes Buddhism *Buddhism* apart from other philosophies is its practice and ethics.

    I can’t remember the source, but there is a story in the Zen tradition of a novice you brought to the abbot of his monastery a thesis on why the earth had to revolve around the sun. The abbot tossed it into the flames and drove the student away, crying “You are destroying Buddhism!”

    Our philosophy doesn’t depend on any metaphysics. It depends on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

    Emptiness is not a metaphysical anything (or nothing). Emptiness is what your mind should be when you meditate, should you choose to follow this path.


  14. Good post here and comments.
    First, I think if the likes of Armstrong insist that our language and reason are inadequate to talk about god, why talk about god in the first place?

    Robert, I see you mention the three things required for something to be considered a god. My first question would be why must the thing be intelligent and how do you arrive at this conclusion? Is it because a number of us are intelligent and so you think a god that is claimed to have created us must share that attribute?


  15. Massimo. Sure. Not a convincing sketch but a descriptive one.

    The proof takes each positive metaphysical theory in turn and shows it to fail in logic in that it causes a contradiction. Thus we arrive at the Middle Way view.

    In this way he disposes of all partial theories. Nothing ‘mystical’ about this, He only proves what Kant concludes, along with most other philosophers. Anyone who argues that metaphysical questions are meaningless or undecidable is agreeing with Nagarjuna. Anyone who cannot solve one is experiencing the truth of his conclusion. Partial metaphysical positions never work, and this seems like a no-brainer given the failure of twenty centuries of scholarly endeavour to make any of them work and the myriad arguments that show they don’t work. .

    Of course, whether his proof is valid is an important question, but even if it isn’t his conclusion seems secure. To my mind it is not important whether it is valid. Its value would be that it explains the metaphysical position that corresponds to the Buddha’s teachings and justifies his knowledge claims.

    Where Buddhism departs from our usual philosophical thinking is not in his proof but in its interpretation. Graham Priest would see it as a proof of dialethism. Melhuish would see it as a proof that the universe is paradoxical. But the most generous interpretation is that it provides a philosophical foundation for the Buddha’s soteriology. It would be odd if Nagarjuna went to all that trouble in order to show that the world is paradoxical, and utterly pointless.

    The word would be a unity, and this would be why all partial theories do not work. This is the most elegant, simple, effective and plausible explanation for why nobody has ever decided a metaphysical dilemma and for why our metaphysics is so utterly useless. It solves the ‘hard’ problem in principle, and in exactly the manner predicted by David Chalmers. It disposes of God. .

    So it may be invalid but it hardly seems to matter. It works as a solution. I can see why you might be sceptical but I do not see any of this as a matter of opinion. Unless I am right Buddhism is nonsense. The world has to be as Nagarjuna proves or the Buddha’s teachings cannot be informed by direct knowledge and must be speculative. The unity of the universe is necessary for mysticism, and if all partial
    metaphysical theories did not fail in logic this would be a disproof of Buddhism and all the rest.
    The discussion of apophatic theology here would be more philosophically informed if it referred to Nagarjuna’s explanation for why it is necessary in the first place. It would be necessary precisely because his logical conclusion is correct. We have to speak apophatically or we will be forced to endorse a positive position. The problem is the subject-predicate structure of language, which, as Russell observes, requires the reification of the subject even where we don’t mean to do it. The only other option would be to speak in contradictions such that true words will seem paradoxical, which seems to be Lao Tsu’s preferred approach. . .

    Of course, we can dismiss all this as uninteresting. But then we will be unable to solve any problems in philosophy. This prediction is endlessly testable. To bring him home, as it were, I would say that Nagarjuna explains the origin of stoicism and justifies its teachings and practices, and that if he is wrong then so is stoicism. .

    I’m a little surprised that you are so sceptical. There may well be one or two crucial issues here that I’m not addressing, or maybe Graham P is filling your mind with his philosophical pessimism 🙂 But dialethism would at least concede the accuracy of Nagarjuna’s conclusion.

    Not great off the cuff, but I’m doing my best. I’d be very happy to take this discussion elsewhere to deal with it properly and would find this helpful, if life is not too short. .


  16. Hi Daniel,

    You accused me of misunderstanding Aquinas. Actually, the misunderstanding seems to be on your part.

    :Perhaps, but I still rather think it is on yours.

    Your contention is that Aquinas is saying that we cannot know what it means to say that God exists.

    But he has only just said that we can demonstrate that God exists. That he would immediately undercut this statement by saying that we can’t know what it means to say that God exists fails the test of reasonableness.

    Also, as I pointed out he proceeds to make 8 rather confident statements of what it means to say that God exists.

    I don’t really see how your interpretation comes follows from what Aquinas says. What “a number of theologians argue” has no relevance to what Aquinas is saying. As I point out Aquinas says very clearly that God exists, so Aquinas is clearly not denying that God is a ‘being’..

    If you want to know the technical terms for the multi-stage thing, this is called “apophatic theology” or “apophatic mysticism” (the stage where we affirm properties of God is called ‘kataphasis’ and the stage where make denials of God is called ‘apophasis’

    Apophasis is not making a denial of God. It means to define God in terms of what God is not – for example God is not contingent. There is nothing particularly controversial about defining something in terms of what it is not, for example defining an odd number as being not evenly divisible by two.

    Aquinas is employing apophasis in the part of the Summa you quote:

    Now it can be shown how God is not, by denying Him whatever is opposed to the idea of Him, viz. composition, motion, and the like.


  17. Thanks Peter. Perhaps surprisingly, I remain skeptical. I don’t even know what it means to say that “each positive metaphysical theory in turn and shows it to fail in logic in that it causes a contradiction.” Take the metaphysical necessity, as some would have it, that water must be H2O. Please derive a contradiction from this.

    “Anyone who argues that metaphysical questions are meaningless or undecidable is agreeing with Nagarjuna.” Well, I guess I don’t, since I do think that metaphysical questions are perfectly meaningful. Whether and how they can be answered is, of course, another issue.

    “To my mind it is not important whether it is valid.” How can you say that? If it isn’t valid, it ain’t proving nothing, unless you are using a meaning of the term “validity” (in logic) that I’m unfamiliar with.

    “Graham Priest would see it as a proof of dialethism.” That sounds like a category mistake to me. Dialethism, like any system of logic, derives from a certain number of assumptions / axioms. To say that it is “true” is truly meaningless. It may be useful, or coherent, or both. But true?

    “It solves the ‘hard’ problem in principle, and in exactly the manner predicted by David Chalmers.” Ah, to me that’s another indication that it must be wrong…

    “Unless I am right Buddhism is nonsense.” I don’t think Buddhism is nonsense, but that’s certainly no argument. If you are not right, so much the worse for Buddhism.

    “I would say that Nagarjuna explains the origin of stoicism and justifies its teachings and practices, and that if he is wrong then so is stoicism.” That sounds to me like a complete non sequitur, at the least on the basis of what you have explained here.

    “dialethism would at least concede the accuracy of Nagarjuna’s conclusion.” Not sure how that follows, and at any rate, I’m to on board with dialethism either…


  18. Well, I THOUGHT last time was my last comment, but I guess I lied.

    SciSal12/04@3:03PM – Reply to the objection that equating god (small g noted) with ultimate reality is a “rhetorical trick:” I don’t think so. If God (note cap) does not encompass ultimate reality, then he/it is just another being whose existence is conditional – depending on things like space, time, natural law, and whatever other local environment might describe the reality in which he/it is. In that case, we should use the term “God” to denote whatever it is that has established those conditions, since THAT would be the only thing worthy of worship.

    The “interesting” part of the discussion is speculation (and perhaps argument based on what we perceive) on the NATURE of the ultimate reality/God.

    And in reply to another critic: Yes, I view logic (along with space, time, cause and effect, natural law) as also a creation of this “God” guy. If “God” is constrained by a logic he/it did not originate, then (once again) he/it is not the ultimate determiner of existence, and doesn’t meet my standard for using the capitalized word. We should, perhaps, worship logic (or natural law etc.) instead. And, by the way, there are lots of logical systems (see the classic work by Doug Hofstadter, GODEL, ESCHER, BACH) none of them both complete and consistent. Exactly which logical system (of the infinite number of possibilities) is to be considered an absolute necessity, needing no “source?” And how was/is it selected from among the candidates?

    Finally: anyone is, of course, free to describe him/herself as an “atheist.” Although I can never read their thoughts, I believe they are usually rejecting a specific concept of God that I, also, would reject, but that is too limited. Jack Miles in GOD: A BIOGRAPHY claims that the usual Western conception of God derives from the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. I think the Christian idea is indeed that, combined with a heavy dose of Zeus, whose image seems the model for most later European depictions of God. (Zeus was, of course, never synonymous with “ultimate reality” in Greek mythology.)

    As for capitalization: words are so, so inadequate for most of the key concepts to which I make pitiful allusions. I just try to make as many fine distinctions as I can. Thus God, god, Reality, and reality. So, “reality” might refer to our own big-bang spacetime, while “Reality” would be an attempt to refer to whatever it is that allows (requires?) big bangs to occur. And so forth.


  19. Robin:

    I have to confess to being rather confused as to why you’ve chosen to attack me on the particular points you have, since what I wrote concerning Aquinas is actually not controversial among Aquinas’s interpreters or followers. While you are correct that Aquinas states we can prove God’s existence, he is quite explicit that the term ‘existence’ (‘ens’ in the original latin) is not univocal between God and creatures and that Godly ens is not comprehensible to the created intellect. In fact, in connection with the five ways to “prove” God’s existence, Aquinas states in his Super librum De causis 6.175 that “[t]he First Cause is above being [ens]” and that “God’s essence is God’s very act of being, so God transcends understanding”. In other words, we can know _that_ God exists but not the _way_ that God exists (in the passage I cited, .Aquinas discusses the “manner of [God’s] existence” and reaches the conclusion that we cannot know what God is in His essence, but can only say what God is not (the via negativa)).

    Aquinas states that we can know that it is true that “God exists”, but we cannot know what it means to say that God exists. Aquinas thinks this because he identifies God’s ens and esse with each other, and God’s esse is not comprehensible except in the beatific vision, so God’s ens is incomprehensible.

    Here’s what Turner states about the passage I cited, which is the standard interpretation as given by other commentators on Aquinas: “[…] we are justified in saying ‘God exists’, though what ‘… exists’ means of God is beyond our comprehension. By the time we do get to know what ‘God exists’ means in the beatific vision-we will no longer need to say it.”

    This paper by Marlyn Adams provides a nice history of the topic:

    You stated: “As I point out Aquinas says very clearly that God exists, so Aquinas is clearly not denying that God is a ‘being’..”

    To deny that God is a being — or, what is equivalent, to deny that God’s ens is univocal with that of creatures — is not to deny that God exists at all. Rather, it is to deny that God exists in the same _way_ that creatures exist. Again: Aquinas affirms the analogia entis. In other words, all of the properties which apply to God — even existence (or being) — are only analogically predicated of God and creatures.

    You stated: “Apophasis is not making a denial of God. It means to define God in terms of what God is not – for example God is not contingent. There is nothing particularly controversial about defining something in terms of what it is not, for example defining an odd number as being not evenly divisible by two.”

    I don’t think you’ve understood me here. To make denials of God is to say what God is not; to use your example, we may deny that God is contingent. Thus, I don’t think that you and I disagree as to what apophasis is.

    Your argument for why apophasis is not controversial is problematic. For one thing, integers are either even or odd — there is no other possibility — so to define odd integers as those integers which are not even involves an additional statement (that numbers cannot be anything other than even or odd). In fact, this allows us to provide a positive definition of odd integers: y is an odd integer if, for some even integer n, y = 2n+1. At the very least, it’s not obvious that this would be true for God and a number of authors have explicitly denied that we can provide positive attributions of God.

    A relevant question for my article would be whether or not theologians like Armstrong think we can provide some positive attributions for God. She does not. Actually, she’s worse than Aquinas in this regard because she thinks we can only speak of God through “poetry” (does she mean metaphor? analogy? what?). Aquinas thinks we can literally predicate terms of God via the analogy of proportionality (it is important that metaphor and analogy are not the same for Aquinas) and that we can say what God is not (he rejects the notion, as Maimonides put forward, that all we can do is to say what God is not). However, he maintains that there is plenty about God — just about everything, actually — that is incomprehensible to the created intellect. As he states in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, God’s infinity exceeds all proportion, and this has the implication that none of God’s properties can be understood as infinitely magnified versions of creaturely properties. Instead, God’s transcendence implies that God is not only quantitatively but qualitatively distinct from the created realm.


  20. Robin:

    You stated:

    “I also have a problem with this:

    ‘But wait, you say, God cannot lie because God is morally perfect!’

    Who is supposed to be saying this? Not Armstrong because she has already denied the ability to make such statements and so this cannot be a counter to what she is saying.”

    Erm, I was not attributing that statement to Armstrong. I attributed that statement to “you” — as in, the reader! I expected readers to react negatively to the notion that it is possible for God to lie so I added some additional explication. I know that Armstrong denies the ability to make those sorts of statements, which is what I go on to explain in the rest of the passage.

    “Maybe someone like William Lane Craig? But he does not subscribe Armstrong’s views. Armstrong criticises people like William Lane Craig more than she does Richard Dawkins.”

    I’m not sure what the ratio is of Armstrong’s responses to Dawkins verses those to WLC, but you are wrong to say that I am only criticizing Armstrong on the grounds that she differs from WLC. I criticized Armstrong on her own merits (or demerits, as it were).

    For the record: I disagree with WLC, Dawkins, and Armstrong. I side with none of them; this particular article goes after Armstrong’s mysticism, but I could have written articles lodging my complaints about either of those other two instead.


  21. PeterJ,
    my previous comment: ” there is a story in the Zen tradition of a novice you brought to the abbot of his monastery a thesis on why the earth had to revolve around the sun.”

    Ouch, my bad. I’m so used to thinking in modern terms….
    The story took place in Japan, at the time when Western ideas were getting introduced, including the arguments that for a sun-centered planetary system. The novice, furious that this might conflict with Buddhist metaphysics, wrote his treatise as a ‘proof’ that the *sun* revolved around the *earth*.

    Sorry for writing elliptically, getting my words mixed up and thus seeming to propose the opposite point from what I was trying to say. The Abbot’s whole point was that Buddhism does *not* depend on archaic metaphysics, and the new sciences did not threaten it.

    Looking back on that comment, I also think I sounded presumptuous suggesting I was the only Buddhist on this commentary, rather than self-deprecating as intended.

    Alas, little slips undo us. And overly broad claims undo useful smaller ones.

    “The proof takes each positive metaphysical theory in turn and shows it to fail in logic in that it causes a contradiction. Thus we arrive at the Middle Way view. ”

    Now, that’s in the right ballpark. And anyone suspicious of metaphysics ought to take Nagarjuna seriously.

    But Massimo is right; where you take this is into claims too broad to be justified, and while you are trying to avoid mysticism, these claims rather weaken than strengthen any understanding we can have of Buddhism here, in the same way that defenses of any Buddhist mysticism do.

    No stream of Buddhist thought would suddenly evaporate if Nagarjuna were wrong, not even that most closely aligned with Nagarjuna’s own tradition. Again, he can destroy metaphysical constructs with ease, but when he has to make a positive claim, eg., that ‘ultimate reality is empty,’ hence ineffable, he’s on shakier ground – as, again, even early critics of his own tradition pointed out. Nagarjuna was well known for his tendency to equivocate; and actually dialetheism was not widely held among ancient logicians of Buddhist schools as a successful argumentative strategy.

    It’s entirely possible to understand ‘ultimate reality’ as just *this* reality, and to understand ’emptiness’ as an epistemic tool with which to avoid reification of concepts.

    The Buddha’s only knowledge claim is his insight into the Four Noble Truths; the rest of his doctrine elaborates their consequences. This is his soterology. It doesn’t need a philosophical foundation.


  22. Hello,

    I really enjoyed the article, thank you.

    However, I think it’s a mistake to apply reason and logic to something (mysticism), when it explicitly says that those things don’t apply.

    I wonder why Armstrong and company didn’t twig that to start with…


  23. @ejwinner: you wrote, “we have a right to demand that (god talk) is amenable to our reason.”

    Question: do you assume that everything is encompassed by our reason?

    Mathematics contains undecideable propositions. Godel demonstrated that every axiomatic system is incomplete … that there are correct formulas that cannot be derived within the system.

    The essay complains god is “incoherent”. Many atheists believe in physics … can they prove that physics is coherent? That’s a rhetorical question … they cannot. Simplifying assumptions are made … otherwise you could never get anywhere … and these assumption are taken on … yes … a leap of faith.

    It is arrogant … and by Godel, even illogical to assume that your system of reason will encompass everything. The best scientists know this and take great pains to discuss the limitations and tentative nature of their findings.

    I largely agree with Robin Herbert’s posts.

    It is like assuming beforehand that the transendental number “pi” SHOULD be the ratio of two integers, then discarding the concept of pi as nonsense when you demonstrate that it is NOT the ration of two integers.

    Armstrong’s god is transendant. The essay merely repeatedly moans that the “bigger god” STILL does not fit into the pre-assumed logic box. No one ever said it would.

    I thought it was a terrible essay. It utterly failed to address Armstrong’s point about transendance, and dogmatically insisted that “if it don’t fit into my system of reason then it ain’t there”.


  24. Thomas Jefferson in his search to understand God found in the Vedic texts a definition that worked perfectly for him: God is One. Most of the commentators as well as the author of the essay seem to still be searching for this understanding, Way to go, truth is proof. You know Einstein was asked at one time who he would most like to be associated with, he said it was the true searchers, and that there are only a few living at a time. And Rumi said something like: Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field, i will wait for you here. Be One, =


  25. “Question: do you assume that everything is encompassed by our reason?”

    (My) Answer: Well, the thing that is up for debate in this point (I think) is not whether reason can ‘grasp everything’ or not, but that everything that can be grasped by us human beings is essentially grasped by/with our reason.

    So, in a manner of speaking, your point is just as valid as Daniel Linford’s.

    If we can agree on what specifically we are addressing (in this case I’m going with Daniel’s article’s original point), then it makes sense to reject things which cannot be ‘reasoned’.

    Neither a small nor a big thing will do.


  26. Unlike Tom Dobrzeniecki, I don’t think Linford’s article is “terrible.” At the same time, I don’t see that much has been accomplished here. Only Robin Hebert has directly engaged Linford’s characterization of what Armstrong is “up to.” I’ve only read a couple of her books and didn’t come away with an impression that she’s constructing an anti-atheist agenda like, say, Craig. One sentence in the article was especially disconcerting to me, however: “Armstrong, and others of a similar view, are mystics who insist that the way that we speak of God comes in stages.”

    Is Armstrong claiming that she’s a mystic? Or are *you* claiming that she “and others of a similar view” [whatever this means] are engaging in mysticism? I suspect the latter of the two. In which case, I highly recommend that those interested in the subject might find it more interesting to read the SEP article on mysticism:

    In any event, I doubt that many atheists will find Ms. Armstrong’s conceptualization of God–whether big or small or mystical–to be convincing. Armstrong writes for a theist audience, and her major concern seems to be centered on religious tolerance and compassion.


  27. Good piece. More succinctly, perhaps, no literal god satisfying any criteria that might warrant worship is evident in human experience or detection, while no concept of a mystical or metaphorical god is sufficiently unique to be necessary for a full experience of being.


  28. Thomas, thanks for the link to the SEP article! I think the question here, concerning Armstrong and others, is why does anyone think that there is any intellectual depth into what she is writing? I have listened to several of her interviews, and to similar ones aired by Krista Tippet on NPR, for instance. And I only see a lot of fluff, peppering an astounding degree of rationalization.


  29. SciSal, well, sure! Why wouldn’t you? To your credit, you’ve never tried to obfuscate regarding you viewpoints on this matter. I don’t propose to know the answer to your question, “why does anyone think that there is any intellectual depth into what she is writing?” Of course, this is a value judgement, nevertheless. I make no claims as to why other people believe what they believe. I have enough problems dealing with my own beliefs or lack thereof. I guess we need to bring Pinker in to settle this. 🙂

    “And I only see a lot of fluff, peppering an astounding degree of rationalization.” Me too! But on all manner of subject. On a daily basis. And regardless of the proponent’s theistic or atheistic leanings.


  30. Massimo,

    Would you say that eastern and western mystics over time and space have been abducted by aliens? Was Pythagoras abducted by aliens by believing in the afterlife?

    What about the people that spend time and energy in the spiritual inquiry practicing Buddhism, Taoism, Yoga and so on? What about the shamanic tradition? Are all of them insane people?

    I don’t know if the so-called spiritual experiences are rare, perhaps they are. But what is certainly rare is to say that people that go along the spiritual inquiry have been abducted by aliens.

    Sure, I don’t deny that there are plenty of naturalistic explanations to account for searchers, the so-called spiritual experience is, obviously, a natural experience.


  31. Mario, I don’t think I ever used the word “insane.” Deluded, likely. Including Pythagoras, which doesn’t detract from his genius in other departments.


  32. As an atheist, I do not “believe in physics” or mathematics. Instead, I consider them useful tools for generating models of reality that can be tested against observations, to some degree of reliability.

    By contrast, transcendental claims assert truths about the nature of reality that are not testable in any reliable manner. Perhaps they’re so; perhaps they’re not. We cannot engage in any reasoned discourse about them, as they exceed the bounds of communal discourse. They are essentially private truths.

    I have no problem with a person claiming that he or she has discovered or been vouchsafed a private truth. But like others here, I do claim that it is incoherent to claim that one may establish through discourse the absolute–or even communal–truth of such claims. There are many such private truths, and if we go no further than accepting each on its face, we cannot choose among them.

    By contrast, through communal languages (physics, mathematics, the scientific method, even natural languages), we can arrive at useful propositions–for example, propositions that permit us to communicate with each other across the globe and to send spacecraft to distant planets.


  33. Fred opines:

    When one experiences themselves as consciousness (atma), one does not need to take from the world or others to sustain one’s existence because the mystical experience includes seeing oneself as consciousness, with no beginning or end. When one has this kind of experience, there is no need to exploit the world and in fact, once realizes their own potential to give and love unlimitedly because there is nothing to loose by giving if you never cease to exist.

    Starving yourself are you Fred? Brush your teeth, wash your hands, take antibiotics, use sewage treatment for human waste?Or perhaps you have transcended humanness and can photosynthesize? Then what is the nitrogen source, Rhizobium root nodules?


  34. I don’t think there’s a lot of intellectual depth to Armstrong, either. Without wading into the fire of Reza Aslan vs Bill Maher, Sam Harris (in person) and 50 other Gnu Atheists, I think as part of her fluff she overstates the case for how “kind” or whatever Islam is.

    But, but, but … she’s a TED prize winner, which of course means she’s fabulous. (I’m sorry, was I being sarcastic about half of what’s on TED? Never forget, folks, the E stands for Entertainment. And, that’s true, that’s not just my snark.)

    I don’t think she’s any more fluffy than others of her ilk, just not any more fluffy.

    Sidebar: I was saddened to see Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, after all she’s written. My review:

    That said, Gnus sometimes get mischaracterized. Take this piece by Jacobin:

    The original photo, besides some usage violation, pictured eight Gnus, only half of whom are Islamophobic.

    Mario Why is it rare? You have a Harvard psych professor, John Mack, claiming he can proof the truth of people’s alien abduction claims. I don’t believe that, either. (And, I’ve been to the UFO museum in Roswell. [It was free, Massimo, I wouldn’t pay for that!] After I muttered something sotto voce, somebody from museum staff or board heard me and muttered back something about the need to believe.)

    Per my previous comment, for alien abductions, just like mystical experiences, if not due to hallucination, mental illness, brain illness, a brain condition from some other illness, or a brain trauma, I believe they’re ultimately fueled by grandiosity.

    Per my Psychological Problem of Evil observation in my first post, I’m going to practice psychology with inductive reasoning on this.

    We know there’s no sentient life in our solar system, and it seems highly improbable there is any sentient life of our current level within 100 light years. (Sidebar: I think most people’s assumed values for most variables in the Drake equation are WAY too high.) The ability to have interstellar travel of 100 light years would require sentient intelligence of a level far beyond ours.

    Why would such creatures even come to our planet? They’re not giving admonitions about global warming or nuclear weapons to our governments, conspiracy theorists aside. Why would they contact John and Jane Doe for things like this? We have nothing to teach them otherwise.

    (Note how this closely parallels mystics. Why would their ineffable deity hand-deliver a message to just them?)

    Grandiosity is the reasonable, Occamistic conclusion. That said, per the mental illness note, short of schizophrenia, grandiosity can reach clinically neurotic levels.

    Shamans? They eat magic mushrooms, Mario. Well known. So do their reindeer. In fact, the Siberians even get a second dose of psilocybin from drinking their urine, reportedly.

    Now, back to Massimo.

    That said, we’ve got aliens and mysticism both. Should I go try to invite Acharya to comment? ☺


  35. Swept away by the flow of subjects and tangential discussions, I somehow forget what was the initial intent of this blog. I vaguely seem to remember it was something like science and philosophy.
    But now Socraticgadfly is sounding the alarm: topics are veering so far off intended subjects that any fanciful popular notion is granted a seal, if not of approval, at least of appearance.
    The quotation selected by Michaelfugate is really a winner:

    “When one experiences themselves as consciousness (atma), one does not need to take from the world or others to sustain one’s existence because the mystical experience includes seeing oneself as consciousness, with no beginning or end. When one has this kind of experience, there is no need to exploit the world and in fact, once realizes their own potential to give and love unlimitedly because there is nothing to loose by giving if you never cease to exist.”

    This is fun reading, and I could embellish this flight of fancy with even more colors and more wings. Many of the writers collected in the Bible and around the Bible do a far better job and a more interesting one at describing the fusion of the Self in the Infiniteness of the One and Only. But, honestly, what has this to do with science and philosophy? Why not read the mystics themselves and the popular crackpots instead?
    “There is nothing to loose”, but, truly there’s a lot to lose with this kind of loose elucubrations.


  36. Tom Dobrzeniecki,
    You not only edited out but ignored the first part of my sentence: “it does not matter if god is amenable to our reason; the question is whether talk about god is amenable to our reason (…).”
    Once this is taken account, the proper answer to your question, “do you assume that everything is encompassed by our reason?” is that the question is irrelevant. We are talking about what we do say, and language to be meaningful has to have some structure that can be reasonably interpreted.

    Consider these verbal offerings:

    Someone tells me, ‘I believe that there is a being about which nothing can be said.’ The grammar of this is clear, but there need be no reply on the topic, because the speaker has basically noticed no further discussion is possible concerning it, s/he is simply making announcement.

    Then another speaker says, ‘I believe there is a being about which nothing can be said, and I think you should, too.’ This sentence no longer concerns only the speaker‘s beliefs, it also concerns mine, and it carries with it an implicit request for agreement. Here, social convention impels me to answer. Three replies that, by convention, are most readily available to me are 1) assent; 2) refusal; 3) request for more information.
    This latter course has problems, however, in that the speaker has already insisted that no further information can be given. If the speaker replies, ‘if you believe you will feel so much better than you do now,’ depending on my mental state, this may or may not be persuasive, but it provides no new information. Again, the reasoning here is plain, and I would refuse the request.
    So, the speaker says, ‘you must trust me, this being exists.’ This is a further complication, because now, if pressed, I must ask for more information, not only about the purported being, but about the speaker’s veracity, and the credibility of any reasoning that could suggest the being’s existence. Yes, here, I ask for some reasoning that would vouchsafe at least the possibility of the being’s existence, as well as give support to any determination of trust in the speaker. But the reasoning will necessarily prove weak, since there is nothing to be said of the being, and the person’s trustworthiness will not be strong enough on its own to warrant assent to belief in an unknown. Giving assent here would indeed involve a ‘leap of faith,’ and one to which I do not feel tempted. So it is also here that I feel it right to request empirical evidence of the claim, thus relieving me of the need for any faith in the speaker’s report, but allowing me to judge the matter myself.
    As for the incompleteness of the sciences, that is no argument on your side. Within given domains, the sciences do fine. Gray areas are only frontiers for further research – at least, concerning things that do exist and about which we can speak.


  37. Daniel Linford: “Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions … that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol.… Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, … the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God. … In the end, … we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. … Mystical theologians … God … but is instead to be {experienced}.”

    When science discovers ‘W’ and reduces it to ‘A’ which is ‘irreducible’,
    and discovers ‘X’ which is reduced to ‘B’, ‘irreducible’,
    and discovers ‘Y’, reduced to ‘C’, again ‘irreducible’, etc.

    Then, ‘A’ is ‘popped out’ in blue, as pop (A), and there are pop (B), pop (C), etc. If there is no linkages among those pop(s), science must be viewed as pantheistic Popism.

    If there are some linkages (not reduction to one another) among those pop(s), then there is a pop set: Pop (all) = {pop (A), …}. Then science is a monotheistic Popism.

    Both scientific Popism are no different from the religious Godism in ‘structure’. That is, the religions will beat the scientism into a pancake with hands down. Buddha knew this the best; he was confident that no one in humanity (all the way in the past to eternal future) can resolve those ‘pop(s)’. That is, he could make up stories (mysticism) any which way he pleased (see ).

    For sciences, there are still having the following pop(s).
    Pop one: Standard model free parameters (the Cabibbo and Weinberg angles, Alpha, mass-charges, etc.),

    Pop two: Standard model fermions,

    Pop three: {intelligence, consciousness, morality, spirituality, etc.}

    Pop four: numbers {0, finite numbers, infinities}

    Unless we can ‘describe’ those pop(s), Armstrong, Plantinga and all Mystical theologians are absolutely correct. There is a least one Pop (God) is beyond the description of human conceptions and languages (including all sciences).

    Of course, Armstrong and her company are wrong. All those pops can be described precisely. For,

    Pop one, it pops out from the ‘timelessness-process’, see .

    Pop two, it pops out from the ‘immutable-process’, see .

    Yet, what is the pop for {timelessness-process, immutable-process}, it is described in detail in the book “Truth, Faith and Life: I Understand, Therefore, I Worship” (available at ).

    ejwinner: “… Emptiness is what your mind should be when you meditate, should you choose to follow this path.”

    This is a very low (low,…) level of Buddhism. You are grossly misunderstood the meanings of ‘emptiness’ in Buddhism. I will discuss this later.

    Fred opines: “… When one experiences themselves as consciousness (atma), … because the mystical experience includes seeing oneself as consciousness, with no beginning or end.”

    Buddhism (by meditation) and Christianity (via contemplating praying) have discovered no (0) law of Nature. The claim that the meditation consciousness can experience the ultimate ‘truth’ is a total nonsense.


  38. Noam Chomsky is reported to answer those who ask him if he’s an atheist with “What is it that I’m supposed to not believe in? Until you can answer that question I can’t tell you whether I’m an atheist.” This is really the only thoughtful position for someone who doesn’t have a specific belief in God, IMO.

    I consider myself a religious person who believes in God, but I don’t believe in what I hear atheists arguing against. If I had to label myself, it would be ‘(christian) pantheist’ but Dawkins’s designation as a ‘sexed up (Christian) Atheist’ would fit in relation to certain definitions of God. I believe the Cosmos or Nature is all that exists. So why is the word “God” important to me? Because I believe in the Sacred, and the word “Cosmos” or “Nature” doesn’t quite capture it. I’m a religious mystic in that every day I am astonished beyond words by the brute fact of my own existence. This is accompanied by an overwhelming gratitude for the gift of life and the bliss, awe, and companionship that accompanies it, This gratitude seems more directed toward nature as “God” then nature as ..well ‘nature’.

    When I contemplate my world, my own understanding seems able to only grasp what is causally dependent and yet this being all that exists is an absurdity. So it posits a Necessary Being which is synonymous with priority monism which I find expressed in Stoicism and in other religious theology. This necessary being is the Cosmos. If everything that we can examine is what it is by virtue of the Cosmos being what it is, we will never completely understand anything..much less everything. I experience this thought religiously, and I think it the same experience that is behind all religion no matter the supernatural mythologies and superstitions that attempt to express it.

    Finally, I don’t believe in substances or objects with inherent or independently existing properties, for me everything is process. Being is always a ‘way’ of being…not a ‘what’ of being. Things are what they do. I believe in the supreme being, which is to say the supreme way of being. That supreme way of being is love. God is love as the Christians say. It really is more blessed to give than to receive, as Christ said. Do this and one will experience being for which the superlative “God” is perfectly apt.


  39. >Then, ‘A’ is ‘popped out’ in blue, as pop (A), and there are pop (B), pop (C), etc. If there is no linkages among those pop(s), science must be viewed as pantheistic Popism.

    Sounds very much like The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. I always suspected there was something very deep about that book.


  40. The Old Eastern Masters believed the truth could not be spoken, but I believe it can be spoken it simply cannot be heard. And as for teaching the blind to see, One must learn to see Oneself. And and lastly, One can unencompass absolutely everything, and even find a mathematical system that is infinitely complete. =


  41. Son of Sharecroppers,

    “As an atheist, I do not believe in physics or mathematics. Instead, I consider them useful tools for generating models of reality that can be tested against observations, to some degree of reliability”.

    Perfect. But I don’t understand the semantic difference between not believing in maths and, at the same time, believing in maths as useful tools for generating models. Actually, searchers also test their emotional, logic and existential experiences to lead the path to wisdom, and that’s fine and balanced.

    “We cannot engage in any reasoned discourse about them, as they exceed the bounds of communal discourse. They are essentially private truths”.

    Private truths? There are about 200 million Buddhists. The number of Christians is around 2,000 million. There are 1,500 million Muslims all over the world. Do they exceed the bounds of communal discourse? On the contrary, religion is the clear example of communal language.

    What is a private truth? This is a subtle, somehow tricky question. Is QM a private truth? If it is so, we now understand Einstein’s disappointment regarding QM. What about the Big Bang model? Cosmologists as Alfred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi, Jayant Narlikar, C. Johan Masreliez, Peter Lynds, David Crawford, etc, are skeptic about such model. Here we have at least two private truths in conflict.

    What about the big mess around Planck and Biceps2 results? This is a crucial point insofar cosmologists try to understand the beginning of the universe. BICEP2 researchers reported the detection of swirls, or B modes, claiming that it could be a sign of gravitational waves rippling through the universe. This is a scientific, private truth. But in September Planck researchers released a sky map that showed that much of the BICEP signal likely comes from dust within our galaxy. This is another scientific, private truth. Thus, science is also subject to private truths. Sure, at the end we will know the right answer but in the meantime we have to deal with a provisional, contingent, private truth and it may take many years.

    Why a private truth spread over millions of people? To my mind, and at least in religious issues, a private truth is a perception that has been hidden until few individuals and schools reveal it. Thus, a private truth is the one that has been hidden and, once it is revealed, becomes communal.

    So yes, the scientific method provide us a tool to share our knowledge about nature, but the religious topic encompasses the sensitive, spiritual side of human mind and I wouldn’t reject it calling for a private truth.


    “Buddhism (by meditation) and Christianity (via contemplating praying) have discovered no (0) law of Nature”.

    Why the meditative consciousness has to be subject to science? It seems a call to materialize the religion of science. Leave me out of it.


  42. @ejwinner. Thanks for your reply.

    In the first place, I am not trying to convince you that God exists. I am just asking for a modicum of respect for people who happen to believe in an idea which, according to the National Academy of Sciences, is undecided and is the majority opinion in the world.

    As I have argued in a previous post, just because something properly lies outside of a given system of axiomatic rules does not mean it cannot be approached or approximated from within that system. YOU may not care to talk of a god about which nothing can be said, but others may enjoy the exercise.

    It is really not much different from someone talking about “alternate universes” which cannot be proven or disproven. Do you believe that mathematicians who talk about undecidable theorems are talking nonsense and wasting their time?

    I feel the “leap of faith” taken by believers is not much more odd than the “leap of faith” taken by scientists when they make numerous simplifying assumptions and adopt various axioms. Unfortunately in this world, we are obliged to just assume some things from the gut – otherwise, we would never be able to get anywhere. Why do some anti-theists sneer at the assumptions and gut-feelings of others while ignoring their own assumptions and gut feelings?

    Also, I don’t think I properly made my point regarding Godel and the incompleteness of science. Godel’s work indicates that there are NECESSARILY things on the outside of the axiomatic system – not just “grey areas” that will be cleaned up some day with some more research. Sort of like if you have the INSIDE of a cup, you’re necessarily going to have the OUTSIDE of the cup – that’s what a cup is. (Yeah.. I know, don’t tell me about a Klein Bottle!).

    I agree with you that the sciences do fine (in their limited domain). But I do object to anti-theists who claim to speak for Science, who claim to know answers to questions that the Scientific Community (NAS) itself says are undecided.

    I am NOT speak of you (ejwinner) here. Your remarks have been courteous and tempered.


  43. I would say there is a significant difference in the implications between these claims.

    People may believe what makes them content, whether it is true or not, and we can respect any position another holds. However, when we have the case that moral judgement and emotional blackmail follow, it is very much the business of the mind to object.

    I have come across this problem more frequently from the religious side of the debate, but I can think of non-theistic, historical examples, too, of course.


  44. ejwinner: “… Emptiness is what your mind should be when you meditate, should you choose to follow this path.”

    I owe you an explanation.

    Science is not defined by its content but is by its methodology, the Popperisnism. All different religions are also defined by their ‘methodology’. For Christianity, its methodology is ‘dogmatism’: I declare, you believe. For Buddhism, it is an –ism which does the ‘true search’ for the ultimate reality. Its starting point is right here where we stand (similar to Descartes’ {Cogito ergo sum}. Yet, its methodology is ‘negation’: anything which is not ultimate goes into the trash. Very soon, the house was emptied out, then the family, the sociality, the humanity, and finally the entire ‘nature universe’ (note, the lower case of ‘n’ for its nature), see . That is, there are at least three meanings for this ‘emptiness’ in Buddhism.

    One, it is a process.

    Two, as a process, there are many ‘states’ of it. One just empties out the house, or one has emptied out the family (becoming a monk), or…

    Three, to end this process. As this process goes ad infinitum, is there an ‘ultimate emptiness’ (UE)? The Buddha’s answer is a big “Yes”. But, how? Buddha ‘claimed (without proof)’ that the only way to reach this UE is via the ‘greatest wisdom (GW)’ and the ‘greatest compassion (GC)’. At this point, the UE is no longer empty but is GW + GC.

    After all, this UE = GW + GC equation is a ‘claim’, not a science. Thus, Buddha must ‘claim’ that this UE is,
    First, beyond the ‘nature universe’: Beyond nature = Super nature
    Second, beyond the description by all (languages, sciences or concepts, etc.)

    Theologically, the Buddha’s UE is ‘super nature’ (way beyond the ‘nature universe’), and anyone who reached UE does have the ‘super nature power’. The secular Buddhism was the ‘daycare’ for the novices before and is now promoted after the rising of sciences. By not believing the ‘super nature’ Buddhism, one has missed the nutshell of Buddhism and will stay in the daycare forever. Of course, meditation with empting mind is the ‘first’ step of this long ‘empting’ process.

    ejwinner: “The Abbot’s whole point was that Buddhism does *not* depend on archaic metaphysics, and the new sciences did not threaten it.”

    Amen! That Abbot got it. As Buddhism is not talking about ‘this’ nature universe, what the heck for discussing anything about ‘sciences’.

    PeterJ: “The proof takes each positive metaphysical theory in turn and shows it to fail in logic in that it causes a contradiction. Thus we arrive at the Middle Way view. … Anyone who argues that metaphysical questions are meaningless or undecidable is agreeing with Nagarjuna.”

    By discussing anything in ‘this’ nature universe (sciences, philosophy or metaphysics, etc.), he has totally misunderstood the Buddhism, Nāgārjuna (龍樹, 150 – c. 250 CE) or not.


  45. At the end of the day, the progressive protestant (theist) and the hardcore materialist (atheist) will find a common language, closer than what might be expected.


  46. Hi Tom,

    YOU may not care to talk of a god about which nothing can be said, but others may enjoy the exercise.

    Since — by definition — such talk cannot be about the god, it must be about something else. Presumably it’s about human hopes, human foibles and wishful thinking.

    I feel the “leap of faith” taken by believers is not much more odd than the “leap of faith” taken by scientists when they make numerous simplifying assumptions and adopt various axioms.

    When scientists do that, they try hard to rigorously test such ideas, doing their best to overcome human limitations and biases. When the religious take “leaps of faith”, it is all about indulging wishful thinking and doing the opposite of trying to be objective.

    … an idea which, according to the National Academy of Sciences, is undecided …

    The NAS only say that as a political tactic. After all, in the US, sciences are funded by taxpayers and by a Congress that are overwhelmingly religious. It is thus diplomatic not to upset them unnecessarily.


  47. Mario Roy–

    I won’t address all of your points. It is clear that you are using terms in a far different way than I am using them and are really addressing different issues.

    The original question is whether atheists would believe in a god if they had a different conception of god. Mr. Linford writes that Ms. Armstrong says that atheists should consider the notion of a transcendental god. My point–a point with which Mr. Linford and others have agreed–is that such claims are not subject to reasoned discourse as they are founded on a claim that they are super- or trans- or extra-rational.

    You claim not to understand the “semantic difference” between “believing in physics” and believing that physics and mathematics provide useful tools. The difference is that I do not consider physics and mathematics to be ultimate truths or grounds of being. I do not believe that physics or mathematics caused the universe or any part of it. I believe only that they may be used to describe the universe.

    Yes, all 2 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims and 200 million Buddhists and however many Hindus can be wrong. Everyone in the world can be wrong. Most religious people share much of that opinion, as the 2 billion Christians think the 1.5 billion Muslims are wrong and the 1.5 billion Muslims think the Christians are wrong and . . . And many Christians and Muslims condemn the errors of schismatics within their own religions.

    Most believers hold their beliefs simply because of where they were born and how they were raised. The various geographical accidents of their births do not obligate me to give any credence to their creeds.

    You are using the term “private truth” in a way that I didn’t use it. I said that transcendental claims are private truths. Such claims are of course based on private revelations that cannot be experienced or observed by other persons. Various people have vastly different experiences of god–or of godlessness. Those claims cannot be tested against one another because they cannot be observed or measured by anyone else. One must simply accept–or deny–the truth claims made by the person who has had the transcendental experience. That is why I call such claims “private truths.”

    We see this in real life. The truth claims of Christian vary from the truth claims of Muslims, etc. These various believers do not share a methodology that permits them to test their truth claims against one another. That’s why believers often resort to war, which is not a particularly admirable way of arriving at the truth.

    By contrast, truth claims made by scientists can be tested against one another using the scientific method.
    Yes, scientists may disagree with one another. But these disagreements are not “private truths”; they are instead differing opinions about the meaning of observations and the tools used to make those observations. Such opinions are amenable to resolution through the scientific method, as they may be subjected to additional modeling, testing, and observation.

    Finally, it is clear that you’re a dualist. I am not. I have never seen any evidence that dualism explains the observable world. Nor has anyone ever explained adequately how a supernatural entity (whatever that term means) may influence in any way a natural entity. Given that you are committed to dualism, I am not surprised that you disagree with me. Nor should you be surprised that I continue to disagree with you.


  48. Coel wrote:

    “When the religious take “leaps of faith”, it is all about indulging wishful thinking and doing the opposite of trying to be objective.”


    Have you done a statistically sound survey of religious people and discovered this? After all, your claim is an empirical one.

    Of course you haven’t.

    Can you please cite a statistically sound survey of religious people that substantiates this allegation, concerning their motives?

    I doubt it.

    Why do you feel the need to disparage and insult the worldviews of others, especially those — like the person to whom you are responding — who have done you no harm?

    I know quite a few religious people, none of whom fit your caricature, and I suspect many others participating on this board do too. My grandfather was a profoundly religious man, wise beyond belief, and in possession of a kindness that you could only dream of. I’ll take his “wishful thinking” over your arrogant attitude any day of the week.


  49. Do I understand the objections correctly?

    Problem 1a Transcendence in the sense that one cannot express God’s essence verbally is arbitrary, for there is no logical link between Godhead and verbal expressibility.

    Problem 1b A God of Whom literally nothing can be said is an incoherent concept. If both true and false propositions cannot be affirmed, then self-contradiction cannot be denied.

    Problem 2a If we cannot understand God’s meaning, there is no way to understand or even justify divine revelations couched in verbal forms that falsify God’s true nature.

    Problem 2b If truly cannot understand God, then we cannot conclude that our emotional experience of His goodness is from him, rather than a natural emotional state that occurred for unknown reasons.

    Problem 3 If God is incomprehensible, then creation cannot be construed as manifestation of His agency or purpose.

    For the purpose of this comment, I will assume that I’ve more or less got the problems right.

    Rebuttal 1a There is no logical necessity for God to eschew the arbitrary, merely an emotional preference on the part of some people

    Rebuttal 1b Philosophy uses a coherence notion of truth, which is why it fancies itself in opposition to religion. Religion uses a correspondence notion of truth in which the evidence of emotional experience tells us about reality. (Neither religion nor philosophy are committed to scientific materialist notions of what constitutes evidence, i.e., both oppose scientism.)

    Rebuttal 2a The outward form of religion created by revelation does not require justification, being in the nature of a performative utterance rather than a system of metaphysical propositions. Perhaps the most perfect disavowal of rationalism is the obedience of the unbeliever.

    Rebuttal 2b The experience is the evidence. The evidence points to the truth. The impossibility of a logical derivation is irrelevant, since coherence is not the standard of truth.

    Rebuttal 3 The experience of creation can serve as emotional truth, for which no material referent or logical proof is required.


  50. All Again, being more explicit than before, the “mystic experience” is just brain activity. It’s that humans, with a fuller sense of self, in part, and the evolution of attribution of agency as part of that, read into this brain chemistry things that other animals don’t.

    On my last comment, I told Mario that Siberians’ reindeer eat the magic mushrooms just like the shamans do.

    Why? Presumably, they’re having the same brain experience, and tripping out, in just the same way the shamans are.

    But, because they don’t have the same sense of self or the attribution of agency to things, they don’t interpret this as a mystic experience or contact with the Divine or the Ground of Reindeer Being.

    They just experience it, then eat some more shrooms. Period.

    To wrap this up, let’s go back to the early master of human nature (what a shame he didn’t live post-Darwin), Hume.

    This is a classic is-ought, in my opinion.

    Just because we evolved these agency-imputing mechanisms is no reason to keep using them today. There’s no mystic entity behind the rustling mental grass waiting to mystically enlighten you, to riff on an old illustration.

    Or, again, per earlier comment and Daniel’s theme (which has indeed been addressed by non-mystics), Your Mysticism Is Too Egocentric.


    Wm. Burgess It sounds to me like you’re either not listening to atheists carefully enough, or reading or meeting enough of them, or to riff on Coel’s article about religious and secular liberties, you’re demanding a laundry list, into which you’ll insert your own version of a “pantheism of the gaps.”

    So, if you want it said directly, I for one don’t accept your version of god either. Beyond that, I addressed the use of capitalized nouns in my first post, so I already said I didn’t believe in that version of God/Ground of Being/Dust of Being/Quarks of Being/Higgs Bosons of Being or anything like it. Nor do I believe in the Sacred/Divine/Ineffable/Noumena/Logos/Atman/Wholly Other or any other capitalized Essence that I my have missed.

    Or Process/Action/Motion/Movement or any other capitalized Verb or Gerund that I may have missed.

    Or Love/Hope/Orgiasticness (thanks, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Diogenes) or any capitalized Abstract Noun I may have missed.

    More generally, English isn’t German, and it certainly isn’t German run through the filter of Heidegger. Capitalizing a word proves nothing.

    And, lest we get a mystic via negativa popping up, capitalizing a word doesn’t prove Nothing, either.


    Michael Ahles “Private ears” or “selective deafness” fall under the rubric of private languages. Already asked and answered.


    Tom Dobrzeniecki If you see Gödel implying that methodological naturalism is “incomplete,” well, we could all become Pyrrhonic Skeptics and say almost everything of significance in life is a leap of faith, I guess.

    Of course, this ties back to the private languages issue. If any serious event is considered a “leap of faith,” then private languages abound!


    That’s my last comment, covering not only common mystic claims, but related ones like UFOs. Capitalized Astrology?


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