Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Taoist Concept of the Divine

Dialoguing with the good people at Debunking Christianity has produced some interesting (and some trivial) observations. I suspect that we will forever be at an impasse, but such is the nature of conviction.

I suspect, given my lack of attachment to any particular concept of God, that they will never be able to convince me of God's inexistence. After all, they could pick each concept of God apart, to which I would simply say, it's no surprise that concept didn't work. God isn't a concept.

I also suspect that, unless I hand them some vivisection of a being wearing God's name badge, they will never accept the possibility of God's existence. After all, God is, as I have said so many times, not empirically evident.

But that doesn't mean we can't have a good time, does it?

Anyway, responding indirectly to a discussion going on over there, I thought I'd post a story that comes from Taoism which presents us with a very foreign concept of the divine. I was asked why I chose to attribute to God only the "good" traits, and not the "bad" ones. Good question. I think a Taoist would ask such a question. Anyway, here's a story which comes from the book I'm currently reading, Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master, by Deng Ming-Dao.

Once a beautiful and richly dressed woman appeared at a house. Naturally, the owner of the house welcomed her. He was dazzled by her ethereal loveliness

"May I ask who you are?" he said.

"I am the Goddess of Fortune," she replied. "I bring luck to unhappy children, heal the diseased, grant children to the barren, bring untold riches, and fulfill every wish and supplication." The owner of the house immediately straightened his robes and bowed low before her, and personally gave her the honored seat in his home.

Before long, another woman came. She was bent over and hobbled. Her face was desiccated, misshapen, wrinkled. Her hair was tangled as dry rice grass. She stank. The owner was indignant and rudely demanded to know why she was trespassing.

"I am called the Dark Lady. Wherever I go, the rich go bankrupt, high officials fall in disgrace, the weak die, the strong lose their might, women weep endlessly, and men mourn."

The owner immediately seized her staff to drive her away.

But the Goddess of Fortune stopped him, saying, "Those who would honor me must also honor her, for wherever I go, the Dark Lady inevitably follows. We are as inseparable as a shadow to a body. We cannot live apart."

The owner immediately urged both goddesses to depart, now very much afraid that both might stay. The wise lead their lives this way.

In Taoism yin and yang are literally two sides of the same coin. The emphasis is on recognizing that their apparent duality is really a unity. While the person who asked me why I would ascribe "good" to God, but not "bad" may not have known this, but they were offering up a kind of Taoist critique.

If we recognize that if everything comes from God, and God is One, then everything comes from a kind of fundamental Unity; what do we make of concepts like "good" and "bad" as they relate to God? Is God the source of both?

This is an interesting twist to the problem of evil, which does not rest on criticisms of God's omnipotence or omniscience. This says, omnipotent or no, omniscient or no, if there is a God, then God - by virtue of being God - is responsible for the bad with the good.

Process theology has the best answer to this, but that answer will have to wait for another time. For the moment let's ponder the question.


exbeliever said...


You wrote: "After all, they could pick each concept of God apart, to which I would simply say, it's no surprise that concept didn't work. God isn't a concept."

It's not just "concepts of god" that we are attempting to "pick apart," it is also the basis for religious belief.

That is the point of my most recent post about your religious experience and if there is a more rational explanation for that experience than a disembodied ghost-mind (e.g. like an activity of your brain).

So, while you may be unaffected by our attempts to "pick apart" many different concepts of god, your religious beliefs are also in our sights.

Think of us as full-service critics. ;-)

Sandalstraps said...


I saw that and commented on it. By and large it was a nice attempt. But

1. You'll find that religious beliefs are awfully damned persistent buggers, and

2. Your piece rests on the kind of reductionistic thinking that has been discredited by most scholars of religion.

For an example of the limitations of reductionistic thinking as it applies to religion, see this. It doesn't apply directly to your argument, but it does deal with the form your argument takes.

Additionally, the danger of radical skepticism is that it leads you to, per the limited grounds on which you claim that it is possible to have "knowledge," be able to make very few affirmative claims. This even applies to the claims pertaining to how one obtains knowledge.

All systems of thought are axiomatic - that is, they rest on unargued for premises, because we have to start somewhere. You can't say that some people's axioms are unjustified because they can't make arguments for them while simultaneously denying that the same applies to you.

But that's and old hobby horse brought out just because its been stewing for a while, not because of anything in your piece. More on it another time.

Oh yes, and full-service critics you are indeed, and your criticism is much appreciated, since it keeps the rest of us honest.

exbeliever said...


You wrote: "Additionally, the danger of radical skepticism is that it leads you to, per the limited grounds on which you claim that it is possible to have 'knowledge,' be able to make very few affirmative claims."

I'm not so sure about that.

I wrote the following in response to very conservative Reformed Christians, but I think it is relevant here as well:

As for the laws of logic, what if they are only seemingly universal, but are truly not so? In the atheistic worldview there are objects in the universe. The relationships between those objects, however, are "not" in the universe. Steven Pinker's work (expanding on Chomsky's) has shown that the brain has different grammatical "sections" inside it. One section holds information about nouns, another verbs, another conjunctions.

When I say that the universe contains objects, I have the idea of "nouns" in mind. Now, what if the brain has simply evolved in a way that it attempts to grammatically relate nouns to each other? The laws of logic rely on words like "and," "or," "not," "is," etc. These words do not name things that exist in the universe. The laws of logic are made up of these words, however. The law of non-contradiction could not exist, for example, if the concept of "not" didn't exist. The laws of logic give rules of how objects relate to one another. There would be no laws of logic were it not for our language that holds certain relational concepts.

If the laws of logic were simply the result of the way that the human brain has formed, this explains why they would certainly "seem" universal. Inasmuch as human brains are similar (and they are very much so), then the laws of logic would seem universal to everyone with a similarly functioning brain. We could not fathom a possible world in which those laws would not apply because we cannot imagine the world differently than our brains allow us to. We would read our thoughts about the relationships of objects into every world that we imagined. The laws of logic would seem to us universal even if they were not.

But this theory does more than just explain why laws of logic can seem universal. It also has powerful explanatory power in cases of so-called "madness." If the laws of logic are simply mental constructs about the relationships of objects, then this would explain why people with brain damage and "malfunctioning" brains are so consistently "illogical." These people constantly deny the laws of logic. They see the world very differently than the rest of us. If the brain is responsible for constructing relationships between objects, then, it would come as no surprise when people with damaged or "malfunctioning" brains did not construct these same relationships.

Imagine, for example, a world filled with people with a similar brain damage. The laws of logic would look very different in this world.

Also, this theory has powerful explanatory powers when it comes to the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that language is responsible for shaping worldviews. In countries with dramatically different languages, what is considered "logical" is very different. We have Eastern and Western logics that are extremely dissimilar. While the condition of the human brain would explain the similarities between different cultures, the languages of those cultures would explain these logical differences.

My point, here, is to demonstrate that while universal laws of logic may, in fact, be unjustifiable in an atheistic worldview (though many atheists have good reason to deny this), seemingly universal laws of logic are easily justifiable by the theory I explained above.


But are all relative judgments invalid?

Consider motion. Imagine sitting next to me in a bar when I suddenly begin screaming, "My Guinness is moving! Sweet Lola, save me, my Guinness is moving!" You look at my glass, however, and say, "Man, atheism is really rat poison to the intellect! Your Guinness isn't moving; it's perfectly still."

Is it both possible that my Guinness is moving and that my Guinness is not moving? Of course it is!

I could respond to your skepticism, "Isn't this continent drifting, the earth rotating and revolving, our solar system spinning in a pinwheel galaxy, and our galaxy speeding away from others in the universe? How can you say my Guinness isn't moving?!"

At the same time, you could have said, "Look EB, there is a spot on the bar next to your glass and we can tell by this ruler that your glass is neither moving towards that spot nor away from it. Your glass is stationary."

Both contradictory statements are correct, but are relative to specific spatio-temporal frameworks. From certain spatio-temporal frameworks, my Guinness is stationary; from others, it is moving. The "fact" of the motion of my Guinness is relative to the spatio-temporal framework that is adopted. There is no one, "true" spatio-temporal framework that truly determines whether something is "really" moving or not, there are only different frameworks from which to judge.

But though my Guinness' motion is relative, it is still "objective." You would certainly admit the validity of my statement that my Guinness is moving from any of the other spatio-temporal frameworks that I mentioned as justification. I would certainly admit the validity of your statement from the spatio-temporal framework that you mention. Both statements are correct, but are so relative to specific spatio-temporal frameworks.

Now, what if the same could be said of moral judgments? What if I could say objectively that it is morally wrong of P to D (I'm stealing all of this from Princeton's Gilbert Harman if you are wondering), but had to qualify my statement that it was morally wrong according to a specific moral framework? My judgment would be objective, but not universal.

If morality is not universal, though, must I accept everyone's moral judgments as equally valid? Of course not. For one thing, it is certainly possible that someone makes a moral judgment that does not fit the moral framework they use to justify it [Just like it would be possible for someone to say that something is stationary from a framework in which that judgment is inconsistent].

Secondly, acknowledging that a belief may be justified by reference to another moral framework does not mean that I have to abandon my own moral framework. For example, I believe that it is morally wrong to rape someone. If I were to happen upon a man trying to rape a woman, my moral framework demands that I do whatever action is permissible according to that framework to prevent that action from taking place. I may acknowledge that the action is permissible according to the rapist's moral framework, but that does not mean that I must ignore what is demanded by my own moral framework.

Moral relativism, then, does not necessarily lead to moral nihilism.

Anyone familiar with Foucault's work on power structures will know that, if he is correct, social ideas and morality are shaped by power. There is nothing called "madness" out in the world. One cannot catch "madness" in a bucket and paint it pink. It is an idea that must be defined. Originally, the church and the family were the primary power structures that made this definition. The church needed a way to distinguish between God's directions to his people through the Holy Spirit and the babblings of a madman. People that had certain heretical "visions" and "promptings" from God were considered "mad." Now, it is the physicians who define these kind of terms. Whatever the age, though, power is the driver behind these definitions.

In the case of morality, then, power will be the stabilizing (or destabilizing) force behind societal morality. Obviously, that does not mean that one must accept society's morality (both the Christians here and myself reject our current society's morality, but for drastically different reasons). For example, though most of current, American society opposes same-sex marriage, I adamantly support it. I do not have to accept the majority opinion even if I acknowledge that that opinion is justified by reference to a certain moral framework. I can exert my power (however limited it is) to try to change societal opinion. I can also point out that denying homosexual couples marriage is inconsistent with other, primary societal values like equal treatment under the law.

Just like one can make objective statements about motion even though the statements are relative to spatio-temporal frameworks, so I can make objective statements about morality that are relative to specific moral frameworks. So, contrary to Bahnsen's argument, I can be outraged by the Holocaust and not have a universal morality to do so. Does someone else have to agree with my outrage? Certainly not, but I will exert every power available to me via my moral framework (which excludes violence) to make others see things my way. Morality, like every idea (according to Foucault) is a power struggle.

It seems to me that one can still make many affirmative claims even while holding a fairly robust relativism.

exbeliever said...


You wrote: "Your piece rests on the kind of reductionistic thinking that has been discredited by most scholars of religion."

Not exactly. I'm dealing with only one issue. I'm asking you whether it is more likely that a brain activity is a more probable explanation for your religious experience (given that there is good evidence to indicate that brain activity can explain religious experience--e.g. in the case of temporal lobe epilepsy) than a supernatural explanation.

I'm not pushing a full-scale reductionism; I'm simply speaking to this one particular issue.

Do you think it is more probable that your religious experience is explained by a brain activity or something supernatural?

Sandalstraps said...

It seems to me that one can still make many affirmative claims even while holding a fairly robust relativism.

Of course they can. I do it all the time. My problem with radical empirical skepticism has nothing to do with relativism.

Sandalstraps said...

Reductionism comes in when you say that it has to be one or the other. I say that it is both.

I have no interest in a God-of-the-gaps, a God who comes in when natural explanations fail. I am interested in God as that in which everything is grounded, found within the natural phenomenon and explanations.

As such, it is not the case that the phenomenon of a religious experience has either a natural cause (the firing of neural synapses) or a supernatural cause (whatever it is that we descibe as God); but rather that it is a natural phenomenon (which includes the firing of said neural synapses) which points to an underlting reality (an authentic experience of the divine).

Sandalstraps said...

As for your really long comment, I'm ashamed to say that so far I have only skimmed it, not having the time to give it my full attention. I intend to read it by the end of the day, or tomorrow at the latest, and comment on whatever in it needs commenting on.

I suspect, however, that since your argument seems to be a defense of the ability of relativists to make (at least tentatively) affirmative claims, I won't need to disagree with it much, since I hold that view as well.

My point is that empirical skeptics can't make many affirmative claims, but I'm saying the same thing over and over again, aren't I?

exbeliever said...


You wrote: "Reductionism comes in when you say that it has to be one or the other. I say that it is both."

Is there a reason to believe it is both, though? This all started when you said that one of the reasons for your faith is your "personal religious experience." If religious experience can be only physiological, then what are your reasons for thinking your own personal religious experience is not only physiological?

You suggested that your personal religious experience was one of the foundations of your faith. Yet, it seems that you have to exercise faith to establish one of the foundations of your faith. You have to "believe" that religious experience is both physiological and supernatural. But what is the basis of that belief?

Liam said...

To intrude on this conversation, I would say that in my experience (Catholic childhood, atheist for twenty years, Catholic again), I can appreciate EB's argument about the possibility of the faith experience being nothing more than a physical brain phenomenon. I certainly felt that way for a number of years. The reason those of us feel that a religious experience (faith, a sense of the divine, transcendence) is precisely that stems from the fact that on a experiential level, a purely neurological explanation is not a satisfying description of what we feel. I don't mean psychologically satisfying, I mean that on the level of the experience it doesn't give us full understanding of what we go through. What we experience is prior to any "rational explanation." I don't believe it is irrational, that is, opposed to reason, but perhaps it could be described as suprarational. EB, when you feel love or beauty, do you really feel that an adequate amount of brain science would explain what you experience in a satisfying way?

Of course, EB, I'm not trying to convince you of anything. You raise good questions, which makes me consider what I think about my beliefs. Thank you.

Princess Pinky said...


WOW! You have found someone who is more long winded than yourself. That is quite impressive.


Welcome! No, I can't actually read one of your comments, however it was a great skim.

Sandalstraps said...

Every experience which we have has a physiological component, but as far as I can tell no experience which we have is limited to that physiological component.

When I see a bird, for instance, neuron fire in my brain stimulating areas of it, allowing me to process and understand what I am seeing. The physiological description involves the activity going on in my brain as it responds to a stimulus. But there are other descriptions available, including that I am actually seeing a bird.

Of course, it does not follow from that that I am actually seeing a bird. Interestingly, if I understand the studies correctly, recent studies indicate that when we remember seeing something, or when we imagine seeing something, many of the same physiological activities occur in our brain as when we are actually seeing that object. Hence the power of imagination.

That said, for that process to occur we must have at some point see the onject which is now registered in our brain in order for us to have neural channels for remembering and/or imagining that object.

There are good reasons, then, to believe that when someone has a religious experience they are experiencing something real, even if our descriptions of it (God, the sacred, the holy, the other, the mystical realm, etc.) are imperfect, and quite possibly artificial mental construct which only loosely interpret the stimulus for the experience.

But, given the physiological power of imagination, we also have good reasons for disbelieving it. So, which do we choose to go with?

We all have our reasons. for believing what we believe, and those reasons are only to a limited extent logical.

You have to "believe" that religious experience is both physiological and supernatural. But what is the basis of that belief?

There is no external basis for that belief. It is axiomatic. But it is a testable axiom. It is tested as a mode of interpretng your phenomenological experiences is built on it, and as your life is ordered around it. More on that later. Alas, again, no time at the present.