Monday, November 5, 2012

Understanding the Question: "Do you Believe in God?"

    When asked if I believe in God I have what may seem a peculiar reaction.  After many years of reading in the history of philosophy, I do not think that asking about my belief in God is meant to query my opinion about an inherently unknowable entity, nor is it meaningfully posed if it asks if I am going by the word of some few I have accepted as authorities.  When I consider what I end up thinking about to answer the question, I consider nothing apart from how I have been living my life.  Here my interest in this question is not in answer it, but in accounting for, and even justifying, my reaction to it by evaluating what the question asks.  I will be helping myself to Kant's Practical Philosophy as a standard terminology for getting at the meaning of the question about belief in God.  I will develop an account in brief of Kant which may serve as an introduction to Kant's thoughts on the interface between morals and religion.
   When asked about their belief in God, many people have an answer grounded in a position developed over the history of philosophy, and either acquired from study or environment; these positions are: Theism, A-theism, A-gnosticism.  These positions are worthy of thought, but I mean to argue that none of them can satisfy the question concerning belief in God.  Why is this? It is because I am insisting that the question properly requires one consider their own life in a particular way that needs no recourse to arguments.
   I expect it sounds strange to insist that asking if one believes in God is a question of how one lives, or perhaps it is not so strange.  In either case, I mean to provide some justification, as well as some clarity.  But, how do I justify this, and what sort of clarity will be given?
   First, in order to justify reconsidering our beliefs in God in new terms, I will first examine what it is to have an interest in God.  There is a discourse already in the work of many thinkers concerning the source of our interest in God, and just as frequently people are surprised by thinkers who assure us that all men believe in God (at least in a certain sense).  I hope to be able to justify a certain sense in which many of us may have at least a vacillating belief in God.  As I mentioned, I will be employing Kantian terminology in order to have a standard for expression rather than a whole array of terms from the tradition.  This choice was based on my own familiarity with Kant, and not because such an account could not be given from another source.  I would be very interested in showing how these terms would be applicable elsewhere in the history of philosophy, and would love to share exchange with others on this matter.
   Second, the clarity which I want to provide does not, and cannot, consist in an answer to the question for any us: ultimately, each of us must look at our own lives to see if we believe and in what way.  But I hope to produce some clarity concerning our approach to this question, as well as some maxims in dealing with it.  We should not approach this question from the perspective of metaphysics except insofar as we mean to clarify the question - we cannot answer it with any doctrine, and our continual attempts to do so only hinder our understanding of the question and deny the answer we all have available.

The Interest in God as Unknowable Entity
   There are many ways we can talk about our interest in God, and many traditions.  I am not here considering all of the different cultural representations of faith, but rather the bare possibility of taking an interest in a God.  One reason why interest in God is particularly suited for a question like this is because of how unfathomable the object of interest is.
   Consider some object we can think, but which we cannot know.  Granting that you cannot know it, or determine it in any way, consider how you may take an interest in it and first think of it.  We do not know what it is, so have no idea of its usefulness, and we also have no reason to avoid it.  In fact, we are not even thinking the object in this example, since without any determinations this unknowable object is the same as any number of unknowable objects.  'God' is a concept of such an unknowable object, yet given some additional determinations which are interesting.  How is it that such an unknowable object becomes the object that takes on such determinations?
   When I speak of something as knowable I mean, with Kant, the possibility that an object can be given in experience.  And while God is unable to be given in an experience, we are still interested in him.  How we take an interest in these sorts of objects is a task that Kant accomplishes, and which we can benefit from considering.
   We can be interested in things we can come to know because they can be given to us in a certain way.  However, with things that cannot be given to us we can still have something we take an interest in which makes an interest out of something else, and this something else may be something which cannot be given.
   The moral law is given to us through the experience of moral feeling.  We recognize a duty to act or omit action from the experience of the moral law.  What the moral law imputes to us is the possibility of acting for the sake of that duty, and not for an externally determined factor, that is, it leads to an interest in our freedom.  So far as we consider our acts, or the acts of others, to be moral, we are also considering them to be freely done.  This isn't a metaphysical proof of freedom, but it is a proof of our taking others and ourselves to be free (in a positive sense) as an element of our morals and moral discourse.
   I use this example of freedom as a postulate to illustrate how something which cannot be known can become interesting to us.  If we did not have any moral experience we also would never be concerned with ourselves as free, though we may very well consider ourselves spontaneous (freedom in a negative sense).  A similar structure is illustrated in Kant which shows how we believe in God (as well as an immortal soul).  I will illustrate it briefly:
   Reason is a faculty of seeking unconditioned unity, not only in knowledge, but in life.  If we have ends that must conflict, then they are not in unity with each other.  The Highest Good is a state where none of our ends are in conflict, and we also have all of our ends met: we are happy to the degree which we are virtuous, and since we will be perfectly virtuous we will be perfectly happy.  (I have written about Worthiness to be Happy, and it would be good to read to clarify this point.)
   When we pursue the Highest Good we are striving to be moral, and restraining our desires whenever it is necessary in order to discipline ourselves to be more inclined to do what we ought to do.  However, it is still not in our power to make nature reward us for our virtue, and so we find that we have also assumed a postulate in the midst of these activities as well: God, a being who is able to judge and reward us for our moral worthiness.  So we find here that something which we do know - our way of acting - contains an interest that we did not arbitrarily insert, but which constitutes the coherence of the pursuit of our highest aim.

The Question Concerning Belief
   There is no impartial guarantee for the existence of God given above, nor is one possible.  However, God is required whenever we are willing to bring about the Highest Good - the unity of virtue and happiness.  If we are asked if we believe in God, and see in our own lives an effort to promote the Highest Good, then that is the same thing as our believing in God.  This is why I say that when we are asked if we believe in God, we have but to look and see how we are living our lives.
   If we see ourselves as promoting the Highest Good, yet deny our belief in God, we are saying that we are trying to bring about and end which we also take to be impossible, which is a direct contradiction in our behavior.  Of course, we can fluctuate in our belief, but we can be honest about what we are postulating at any time and find that sometimes we are believers and sometimes not.
   It is very important to point out that this faithful natural attitude does not depend upon any scripture or cultural development of a particular kind.  Rather it is would appear to be the fertile field out of which such scripture and articulate philosophical positions about God (for and against) begin to develop, as well as the basis on which scripture should be interpreted.  The more we can open ourselves up to carefully thinking through these sorts of fertile contexts in our own lives, the sooner we will be able to unravel many difficulties and disputes.
   (We may want to consider a thinker like Kierkegaard here, and wonder if his description of the knight of faith could serve as material for continued reflection on faith.  It appears that one could interpret the knight of faith as maintaining exactly that we will the Highest Good, yet affirm it to be impossible.  I am not committed to such a reading, but I do think that there are some who are interested in this, and I simply want to note that I am also interested in discussion about it.)

What do we do Now?
   Classical Theism, A-theism and A-gnosticism all present evaluations of approaches to the question concerning the the existence of God.  In the above, we have realized that a belief in God is not directly concerned with His existence as the result of a doctrine, but in how we are living our lives; and the way in which we are living our lives reflects our belief.  The classical treatment of questions directly addressing the existence of God still can serve us as examples of arguments that attempt to show some limits or extensions to our knowledge, but they can never really tell anyone if they believe in God or not.
   We should definitely not forget the classical treatment of the existence of God, but we should be very clear when we are presenting it and reviewing it as a sort of refresher about what we can know, however, it should be completely dispensed with in real discussions of religion, since a religious belief in God is not the product of any subtle arguments, but is found simply in how we organize our life around the problem of the pursuit of happiness and virtue.

Appendix: Ways of Believing or Non-Believing
   It may be interesting to consider the above analysis and see if we can establish briefly a use for the terms Theism, A-gnosticism and Atheism in this context.  Of course, these names for positions will acquire an entirely different mien now that we have reinterpreted the question concerning the belief in God along the lines we have.
   It seems that all finite rational beings (at least humans) are in one of these four conditions concerning God: interest, hope, belief, or delusion.
   If we acknowledge our self-worth or worthlessness, then we are able to take interest in the possible existence of God.  This seems to be a sort of pure A-gnosticism.
    If we are desirous of happiness from our worth, then we are desirous of God, and hope for His existence.  If we act as if we will be rewarded, then we believe in God.  This seems to be a sort of pure Theism.
   If we were to strive against virtue, then it seems like we may have a reversal of Theism available to us: if we are desirous to avoid punishment from worthlessness, then we are desirous of the non-existence of God, and hope for His non-existence.  If we act as if we will not be punished for our viscousness, then we do not believe in God.  This is a sort of pure A-theism.
   If you take yourself to know, theoretically, that there is, or is not, a God, then you are deluded.  This is usually considered Fanaticism.
   Some remarks must be made here which seem interesting.  Here it appears that A-theism is being accused of immorality.  I do not mean to imply that those who call themselves A-theists because of a position they have developed or have received from the history must be immoral, but rather that insofar as so-called A-theists are moral, I would probably consider them to be A-gnostic or even Theistic in the terms developed above.  It is important to keep in mind that these re-definitions of traditional terms are meant to express non-doctrinal positions which need not be articulated in order to be inhabited. 
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