From Passion to Belief, Part II

by Daniel Tippens

In my last essay, I argued that there are cases when having a passion alone can justify a belief. In this essay I want to apply this notion, extrapolating from this lovely poem.

The Heart of Night

When all the stars are sown

Across the night-blue space,

With the immense unknown,

In silence face to face.

We stand in speechless awe

While Beauty marches by,

And wonder at the Law

Which wears such majesty.

How small a thing is man

In all that world-sown vast,

That he should hope or plan

Or dream his dream could last!

O doubter of the light,

Confused by fear and wrong,

Lean on the heart of night

And let love make thee strong!

The Good that is the True

Is clothed with Beauty still.

Lo, in their tent of blue,

The stars above the hill!

The poet Bliss Carman eloquently captures the character and attitude of the individual who wonders. Such an individual, first, has a sense for the majestic, feeling awe when she looks at up at the cosmos. “We stand in speechless awe, as beauty marches by. And wonder at the Law, which wears such majesty.” To feel fear is to sense what is dangerous. To feel wonder is to sense what is majestic.

But to feel wonder also has a particular domain, according to Carman’s understanding of the passion, who says “across the night-blue space, with the immense unknown.” Anger only makes sense when directed toward agents and wonder only makes sense when directed toward the unknown. One way to understand this is to consider how what we ascribe majesty to is precisely those things which are somewhat beyond us. Individuals of royalty are majestic, and they are those things which have an air of mystery to them. To feel wonder, then, is to sense majesty in the unknown.

Of course, in order to sense majesty in the unknown, such an individual must recognize that there is an unknown. She must recognize that there are things which lie beyond the limits of reason, which we do not and possibly cannot understand completely, and can only strive toward. In this way, the wondrous individual exhibits the virtue of epistemic humility.

God, throughout western history, has been considered that thing in the unknown which instills wonder in us. It is the thing that is beautiful, epistemically beyond us, and awesome. If we agree that the experience of a passion alone can provide overriding confidence in a belief, then when one feels wonder, when he looks into the unknown, I see no reason why this couldn’t be such a case. Why isn’t that passion alone sufficient to ground overriding confidence in the existence of something majestic in the mysteries of the cosmos?

Given that the nature of the belief in God (as Hume himself noted) is of a very special kind that has an air of mystery about it, to believe in a God because one feels wonder does not reflect a sense of being naive and need not be the result of willful ignorance about the evidence for or against his existence. Indeed, many of the most brilliant minds in history have been convinced that a God exists, and surely if anyone knew of the evidence for or against existence of God, it would be them. Newton, for example, criticized Descartes’ picture of the physical world because it didn’t make room for the existence of God. To believe in the existence of God because of one feels wonder need not reflect naivety or irrationality, but rather can manifest the virtue of epistemic humility — a healthy recognition of “how small a thing is man.” Belief in God from wonder also does not reflect any moral vice; it need not be the result of a faulty capacity; and to feel wonder at the unknown isn’t inapt in the way that feeling anger at a rock would be. The undermining conditions for a passion, mentioned in the previous essay, just don’t have to apply when one looks up at the stars and is struck by wonder.

If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, then, I could legitimately and confidently tell them that it is because I wonder when I look into the unknown of the cosmos, and I don’t know of any reasons they could provide me with that could override this wondrous confidence, so long as I have done my due diligence in understanding contemporary physics. I sense something majestic in the mysterious, and that is enough.

What I particularly like about this reason for confidence in the existence of God is that it is deeply motivational. Human beings are attracted to things of beauty and awe. If you see a beautiful person, you want to know her. You want to understand more about her and to get to know her more intimately. To sense beauty in the unknown, then, motivates someone who studies the natural world to understand as much as possible about it, even though he recognizes that he will never understand it fully. I said at the beginning of the essay that what it means to have confidence in a belief is that one acts in accordance with it. To have confidence in the existence of this God from wonder is to act in such a manner, which means striving to get closer to that majestic thing in the unknown.

None of this commits the wondrous individual to believing that his God must be an agent or person, for there is no reason to think that we can’t sense majesty in non-agential things. It also isn’t to believe in a heaven, hell, or even an afterlife. The wondrous individual’s God is that majestic thing which he senses when looking into the unknown, and that’s it. There is something that lies beyond reason, which we have access to through overriding passion, and that thing is awesome. In this way, what the wondrous individual believes on the basis of his passion is something thinner, so to speak, than what people of traditional religious conviction believe in.

Einstein, Newton, John Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz — just to name a few — were some of the greatest minds we know of who tried to understand the unknown, and they all believed in a God. Their understanding of this entity was different — some took it to be agential, and others didn’t — and I suspect that this is because they simply felt the pull of wonder when they looked at mystery, acting in accordance with it, and giving us the different products of their explorations toward the majestic.

Many individuals of deep piety and conviction show a concern for a society that becomes godless; when its population stops believing in something majestic beyond the limits of inquiry. The ruminations above suggest an answer as to why. Failure to believe in something like a God may reflect a society that does not have a sense of wonder. They do not look up, may be “confused by fear and wrong,” and will not explore “the stars beyond the hill.”

Daniel Tippens is a PhD student at the University of Miami working in Moral and Political Philosophy. He currently blogs at The Related Public.

6 comments

  1. Spinoza is an atheist. Steven Nadler, certainly one of the foremost contemporary experts on Spinoza, makes that claim. In the 17th century declaring yourself an atheist could be very hazardous to your health, even in relatively tolerant Holland: Spinoza survived at least one assassination attempt by a Jewish fanatic and wore a cloak which the fanatic’s dagger had pierced without wounding him.

    God for Spinoza is simply reality. And Spinoza, contrary to what you say above, has zero sense of mystery or of wonder. There is nothing mysterious for Spinoza since he thinks that his system, as outlined in the Ethics, explains everything and that reality (or God) is totally rational and hence knowable.

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  2. There ain’t no place on this Earth where the majority of people are Atheists. Believers are majorities everywhere, even in Universities. There is no society that suffers from disbelief, because there is no widespread disbelief. Atheists are a minority. But when you start getting scared of them or thinking that they are somehow having a bad effect on society, it’s time to ask yourself why this is such a motivating concern for you? Why is it so important to justify your most fundamental beliefs? They are your bedrock, they don’t need justification. But to worry about the effect that non-believers are having – that suggests a deep insecurity. Have you asked yourself why you chose philosophy? One thing that modern philosophy has accomplished is to banish the use of God as a device to explain things. Belief in the unknown can be a great motivating force, but it contributes nothing to our understanding of reality. Only theories and evidence make a difference to understanding and knowledge.

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  3. Well. Where to begin?

    Rhetorically, as a sermon, this is lovely and engaging, and would find a place with many a liberal congregation. Some Unitarian Universalists would applaud (although some would not care one way or another, to be honest; that’s just how U-U types swing).

    As an argument, it fails on a number of levels. Of course, first we have to recognize the kind of argument this is. For all of its reliance on passion rather than reason, this is basically an Ontological Argument, although with implicit links with the Argument From Design which itself has implicit links with the Prima Causa Argument. The Ontological Argument has taken quite a beating over the centuries. Even Aquinas, discussing it as a “proof of God” disliked it, since it implies God can be a known quantity, and only God can fully know Himself. (Which is why this can work rhetorically, in a sermon, as presenting God as a *felt* quality, rather than as, strictly speaking, an entity. However that will only encourage believers; presented to the skeptical, this ‘felt quality’ is inevitably re-interpreted as an entity, and any entity has quantity; thus transformation into the Ontological Argument: ‘There exists a Divine Being in the passions, etc.’)

    Your essay also reminds me of James’ argument for the “will to believe,” something of a Pragmatist version of Pascal’s Gambit (which Voltaire dismissed with “the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists”). Reductively put, James argues that the continuing sense that there’s *something* out there warranted adopting religious belief as a hypothesis for directing one’s life, and seeing where we could go with that. C. S. Peirce ridiculed it mercilessly. And it has a serious flaw, one that we can read as a kind of subtext in Aristotle’s Metaphysics as well: “We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God.” Unwittingly, Aristotle raises an uncomfortable issue: People assert these qualities of God because such are what they want *for themselves*. It might be said that people believe in God because they want the perfection of what they want for themselves. James would probably not object to this; but he would be missing the real problem here: not that God could be mere projection of our own desires, but that in fact in simple adoption of the ‘perfect being’ model there is no way to differentiate psychological projection of desire from claims of existence concerning the object of desire. The desire and the claims of existence have to be separated and objective standards of verification have to be established for the claims of existence, mere projection of desire will not do.

    Personally, I find the question of God’s existence to fall under the heading of what the Buddha called “Questions Not Leading to Edification.” Such as: “Whether the dogma obtain, Mālunkyāputta, that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal, there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair, for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing.” From the Majjhima-Nikāya, Sutta 63.

    The world is neither beautiful nor ugly; humans are neither small nor large. Humility may simply prove mere inverse of pride.

    I searched for the passion of which you write here for 30 of my first 35 years; all it did was drag me through one disappointment after another. It wasn’t that I couldn’t feel it, I just couldn’t sustain it. And I know why. When I was fourteen, I sat on a hill, wallowing in the first truly major depression I was to feel recurrently my whole life. I looked down and saw a mound of earth covered with ants. The thought struck me: as living beings, if I had the soul my church promised me, why not they? That troubled me until I found that there were just certain questions not leading to edification. And the ants and I are on the same footing, I just have a bigger brain than they – no need to assume any soul! And even though I still get chronically depressed, I know that’s the result of physiology and upbringing and experience, not anything to do with ‘immorality,’ or lack of faith, or some divine plan – or how I might have disappointed Mr. Out-There Somewhere.

    If He exists, let Him be disappointed! If He doesn’t exist, the sunset will still be as beautiful, the air as sweet, the universe as unfathomable as it was long before humans made the first faltering efforts to fathom it.

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  4. “…a feeling of fear and a feeling of delight; the objects that cause this feeling – wild animals, [the] extremely large or tall, God, uniform, repeated columns or sounds, darkness…”

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  5. I keep coming back to this subject because it resonates so deeply and yet I struggle to understand it. Dan has done a marvellous job of describing it and he illustrates it with a most beautiful poem. Poetry is the song of the soul. The pedestrian responses to his essay largely ignored his central argument and that has been disappointing.

    As I read his essay I noted the following:

    1) We all experience awe and wonder. We all perceive majesty and beauty. It is a universal experience that varies only in the degree to which it is experienced. It has been described, analytically, as the three great transcedentals, the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

    2) It is regarded as highly admirable, a noble state, a state of exaltation. It represents the best we can be and the best we can achieve.

    3) It brings us to the edge of things we consider to be sacred. To experience the sacred is to arrive at the pinnacle of wonder.

    4) In the many expressions of art we represent these feelings in a fixed, material form so that others may experience them. They too then become objects of wonder.

    5) We love the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This love represents the highest state of our being.

    6) It is a universally felt deep yearning for beauty that finds its strongest expression in awe and wonder.

    7) But why? Where does it come from? What does this mean?

    8) It is not a property of the material world and yet we perceive it immediately and strongly.

    9) It has no survival advantage and yet it dominates our lives.

    10) Science cannot detect or measure it and yet its existence is undeniable.

    11) This is a property unique to our species. No other species show evidence of awareness of beauty, awe or wonder. Truth is invisible to them.

    12) It is the source of our species’ religious experience. It underpins all religion.

    13) It is a strange and inexplicable experience. It lies outside the explanatory world of science and of cause and effect.

    14) In the material sense of the word it is not necessary to life and yet life without it would be unbearable.

    15) We cannot create a machine that can experience this. It is not possible, either in principle or practice.

    16) We cannot imagine how a random recombination of lifeless particles could ever create our powerful awareness of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. It just does not seem even remotely possible.

    17) The existence of the True, the Good and the Beautiful is a profound mystery, one of the two great mysteries that are impenetrable to the human mind.

    18)The other great mystery is the existence of the Laws of Nature and their strange compelling power that acts everywhere, all the time, over everything with complete mathematical exactitude. No particle can escape its power. We simply do not know why this is possible.

    19) In the face of these two inexplicable, impenetrable mysteries we can do one of several things:

    a) shrug our shoulder with indifference. Such a person has the soul of an ant.
    b) deny it all, Such a person has the soul of a dishonest ant.
    c) cling to the illusion that science does really(or will) explain it. This is promissory materialism. Such a person has the soul of a deluded ant.
    d) gaze on awe and wonder, letting it possess one’s soul. Such a person is an enlightened ant.
    e) experience the revelation that these mysteries are the intimation of a greater and transcedental existence. Such a person is a spiritual ant.
    f) discover the meaning that Love, Truth, Goodness and Beauty give to life. Such a person is an inspired ant.
    g) embrace the purpose imparted by Love, Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Such a person is a purposeful ant.
    h) experience and embrace the sacredness of our existence by anchoring it in the transcedental. Such a person is a fully grounded ant who has realized his fullest and deepest potential by discovering and pursuing meaning in life inspired by a Love of the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

    20) One of the remarkable properties of our species is its capacity for emotional, intellectual and spritual growth. This growth follows the trajectory I have outlined above. The stages are:
    a) Indifference;
    b) Denial;
    c) Delusion;
    d) Enlightenment;
    e) Revelation;
    f) Meaning;
    g) Purpose;
    f) Sacralization.

    I congratulate Dan for a beautifully written, well reasoned and most stimulating essay. Dan, you are this site’s most valuable asset.

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  6. While I very much enjoyed Dan-T’s essay I would like to contrast it with Mark English’s essay, “Science and Disenchantment“, posted back in March 2016 (https://theelectricagora.com/2016/03/17/science-and-disenchantment/). It is well worth reading. The lively discussion that followed is also good.

    Dan and Mark, in their respective essays, present two contesting world views and I think that no matter where you stand on this issue it is important to give the other point of view careful consideration. It is my strongly held view that multiple perspective taking is foundational to good philosophy(De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats). Sadly the seal clubbers are to be found everywhere, determined to suppress such thinking.

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