The Agnosticism Intrinsic to Monotheism

I recently wrote here about the strict monotheism of Muhammad. It occurred to me that the ultimate logical end of monotheism is free thought and tolerance; something of the sort that one might expect from a Unitarian congregation. In this sense, Islam is essentially a modern religion. Existentially, Islam seems quite primitive and barbaric, but its unitarian foundation may give us hope for it.

On the other hand, there’s a spiritual problem that arises from strict monotheism. It begins with this logic:

He [God] does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. God reveals only His will.

Isma’il Ragi al Faruqi

Strict monotheism requires that no man can rightly claim knowledge of God’s essence, therefore the rightful perspective toward divinity is agnosticism. Christian Unitarianism has taken a path toward agnosticism. Might Islamic unitarianism do the same? Rationally, this may be a good thing, but I find it spiritually threatening, because it creates an impassible divide between man and God.

This is perhaps the principle reason why I cannot be a Muslim. There are, or course, no lack of particular objections that keep me at a distance from Islam, but this agnosticism, this cold isolation from God, is a fundamental philosophical problem.

Monotheism need not be agnostic, but gnosis comes at a high price: idolatry. So long as a man can gain knowledge of God, he can become a partner of God, which is the unforgivable sin of Islam. It is indeed a sin: but it is a sin unique to soft monotheism.

Instant Karma: Doin’ the Math

One of the great themes in religion is compensation for virtue (not to be confused with another great theme: compensation for misfortune).

The classical model of compensation for virtue, Heaven and Hell, is perhaps best attributed to Zoroaster. This model may not seem terribly enlightened, but we should recognize that it was probably conceived for the sake of virtue itself. This doctrine has dominated western religion over the last 2500 years or so, but the general idea of compensation is more universal. It is quite natural to expect, or at least hope for, some kind of payback.

But payback has its price.

In more reflective circles, there has been a long-running dissatisfaction with the concept of compensation. What is the good of virtue if one expects payment for it? Should not the virtue be the reward? Otherwise, what virtue is there in virtue?

Mavericks
Peter Mel at Mavericks, by Abraham Lustgarten

The idea goes back at least two millennia, and has taken several forms:

  1. Virtue is its own reward.
  2. The deed is its own reward.
  3. Worship is its own reward.
  4. Work is worship.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to bind these equations, but I believe they share a common thread that justifies the grouping. The link between (1) and (2) is obvious.

The oldest explicit reference to this idea that I am aware of occurred in the first century C.E.:

Virtue herself is her own fairest reward. – Silius Italicus

This sentiment probably owes a lot to Stoicism, but I am unaware of any Stoic making this specific statement of equivalence between virtue and reward.

This equation was restated brilliantly in a corollary by the famous Seventeenth Century fisherman Izaak Walton:

Doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.

The Talmud is known to have made a similar equivalence: the deed is its own reward. This form of the equation was also employed by William Shakespeare, amoung others.

In the seventh century, the Imam Ali, who is generally considered the patriarch of Shi’ih Islam, couched the concept in religious terms:

A group of people worship God for the sake of reward. That is the worship of merchants. A group of people worship God from the fear or punishment. That is the worship of slaves. But a group of God’s servants worship Him solely out of gratitude and thankfulness. And this kind of worship is special to free men.

Nahj al-balaghah, trans. by Fayd al-Islam, p. 1182

Merchants and slaves indeed! Quite an insightful statement. Here we see how equation (3) corresponds to (1) and (2). Worship has no rightful reward; it is its own reward.

It is peculiar that a religion that puts so much emphasis on fear of God, Heaven, and Hell has produced statements such as this.

Here, I think, is where equations (2) and (3) come together to produce (4): The deed is its own reward, and the same goes for worship; therefore, the deed is worship, or as St. Benedict put it, work is worship.

To put it inn more abstract form:

d = r ; w = r ; => d = w

This proves nothing, of course; but I think you might understand the point of the transitive logic: virtue, [virtuous] action, and worship are one and the same, and it follows that, to be an agent of virtue, that is, to love and worship the Good with ones whole being, is itself the ultimate reward.

Searle vs. Spinoza

I’ve been discovering podcasts lately, and stumbled across a great Donald Rumsfeld impersonator that I ran into a few years back. His name is John Searle, a philosopher at UC Berkeley. I don’t believe he means to be impersonating Rummy, but he does a great job nonetheless.

Professor Searle has an amusing way of dropping caustic accusations with a particularly Rumsfeldian contempt. When speaking of the great 20th Century battle over panpsychism, he mentions the abhorrent resurgence of “dualism” against an equally abhorrent backdrop of materialism.

I think that when he uses that aweful epithet “dualists”, that he means to imply “panpsychists”, which are those people who believe that perception, in other words, subjective experience, is universal.

I can picture myself throwing my hand up amidst the audience and trembling with anticipation, yearning to ask the great Berkeley philosopher this one question: “Er, Dr. Searle, do you mean to suggest that Spinoza was a dualist?”

Baruch Spinoza is revered in some philosophical circles for synthesizing proofs for God and other concepts out of what he deemed to be the properties of mere matter (AKA “substance”). He has been called the “Prince of philosophers” and “the God-inxtoxicated man”. He was vehemently anti-dualist, and mind you, very familiar with the ideas of Rene Descartes. There is perhaps not one philosopher better known for monism than Spinoza, yet—he was a staunch panpsychist.

How could a monist be a panpsychist, you ask? Well, it seems that all the man did was suggest that thought, like extension, is a property of matter. Does Searle, then, see Spinoza as a closet dualist?

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I agree with Searle in his rejection of materialism, and yes, even in some of his criticisms of some forms of dualism (Cartesian dualism, for instance). As a non-materialist, he postulates that consciousness is irreducible. He postulates that it is distinctly subjective and qualitative; and just as you think he’s about to step off into the abyss, he postulates that consciousness occurs only in the brain. Phew! That was close. How’d he postulate that? Has any of us ever been outside of the brain?

It seems that John Searle is treading very cautiously on a tightrope, while hurling anvils of contempt this way and that. It is a remarkable feat to have succeeded at doing so for so long, especially considering how many such anvils have been hurled his way.

I don’t know how we could ever determine whether or not perception, or subjective experience, is somehow confined to the brain, though it’s likely to be the only place that we are going to experience anything. I can say with confidence that it’s a postulate that defines Searle’s position on the topic. Is that what postulates are for?

What Searle seeks to demonstrate, starting from this set of postulates, is that consciousness is an emergent property of matter, or does his actual argument go in the opposite direction? Does he actually want to demonstrate is that consciousness is confined to the brain? Perhaps the answer depends on whether he is arguing against a materialist or a dualist.

Searles is fond of the internal combustion engine as an analogy for emergence. Mechanical systems, he says, have emergent properties, so why can’t consciousness emerge out of a particularly complex machine such as the brain? The problem with that analogy, of course, is that our descriptions of mechanical systems is purely objective: how can subjectivity emerge from such objective descriptions?

The problem is also a logical one for Searles. Regardless of the direction of his logic, he depends upon a questionable postulate, whether that postulate be (1) the confinement of consciousness to the brain (human, and perhaps higher mammals), or (2) that consciousness is an emergent property of matter.

For Searle, it is necessary for consciousness to be causally linked to the objective, physical body if dualism is to be avoided. It is also necessary if he is to argue that consciousness could have evolved by natural selection. Though I would not exclude the plausibility or even likelihood of such a link, the problem is that it cannot be scientifically distinguished from a mere perception of a purely objective, mechanical causality. Searle proposes that conscious intentionality can be tested scientifically against body motor responses. But this would not prove that intentionality is objectively causal. It may merely be the perception of a mechanical determination.

In the end, the damned materialist-physicalists do not need consciousness to explain their objective universe. It has no need for subjectivity, and neither do they. At the end of the day, Searle, Spinoza, the Dualists, and yours truly can only stand on the sideline, incased in our respective ontologies, and bicker.

Haunted Mansion

Science is a wonderful thing. It has discovered a great many truths that had before lay hidden beyond the horizons of the imagination, and who should dare circumscribe the domain of future science? Where shall it send us? Annihilation, perhaps, but we will die in any case. Perhaps it will carry us to the very limits of fact. Who is to say?

I might venture to guess that there is one thing that science shall never discover. That one thing would be that I stand here, gazing over the back of his shoulder. I would love to tap on his shoulder and capture his attention, but I have no objective existence. He cannot feel my prodding finger, for I am entirely subjective. Alas! Science is indeed a wonderful thing.

What am I? I look down upon myself. I believe that I am a creature with legs, feet, arms, and hands. Yet in moments, with no small difficulty, I have removed them, and somehow I feel that I am unchanged. Using two newly liberated fingers I plug my ears. I close my eyes and mouth. Still I am unchanged. I smell and taste, but give me a smoke, and I find that losing even those does not change me. It seems at last that I am a brain operating under an external life support system. A brain, or perhaps a portion of a brain: a network of neurons firing in some perplexing rhythm I cannot understand. I may not have any senses, but my world remains full of detail. Yea, it is even a new world of discovery, for I have up to now been too involved in my senses to bathe in the fantastic world of unfettered imagination. Am I at last a single neuron? No, that must not be, for a neuron cannot be aware of all these memories and echos of smells, tastes, textures, sounds, and images.

Am I conscious? A bystander looking upon me would not think so, but I know that I am; or am I? Am I, rather, in a dream? Should I strive to open my eyes, or would that only wake me?

Have I ever been unconscious? Or has all of my sleep been a chain of dreams which I have simply forgotten? Perhaps I could live a lifetime of imagination, if I can only keep my eyes closed. After all, I have never once seen anything for myself, but rather, I have always been interpreting signals. Signals! I have all along been listening to a story over telegraph, converting it into experience with my imagination. Perhaps the story was true, but was the experience? I created every smell, touch, image, and sound to correspond to the code I received.

How can this organ be me? I know that it is mere matter. Perhaps all of its atoms were the soil of a wheat field somewhere once before I was born, or perhaps more recently. Where then is the portal through which I gaze? It is a perplexing old question. Is the matter magical? Perhaps it is the way that the matter is put together? Even if that is the case, should not the stuff itself have some magic? The stuff that dreams are made of, as the bard said. The very soil of the field. Alas, why should I persist in pretending that I am something other? Am I not a fantastic palace made of sand? On a beach perhaps, in the path of a wave, yes, but a brilliant palace.

Rearrange the furniture and paint a room: perhaps I might rememble a thousand other palaces. Were I to be destroyed, another palace would be here tomorrow or the next day, knowing nothing of me, but not much different than myself. None other than me, perhaps, only refurbished, renewed; untainted by the past.

In a moment, time’s dial will pass me by, and I think of the sparkling sand: what it must be like to sleep with such simple dreams, tossed to and fro in the waves, utterly forgetful of the palace it once embodied.

Morality and Cosmic Dualism

When we look into our basic perceptions, it seems that every slightest perception is in some way pleasurable or painful. Objectively, we can describe the mechanism of pleasure and pain, but we cannot explain the ultimate fact that there is an observer. It is the I am. Whether it is the I think is a matter of some debate.

It seems absurd that somehow the observer is a product of some objective mechanism. How could subjectivity ever emerge from objectivity? The two must coexist at the root of existence. Thought may emerge from some mechanism, but it can hardly be argued that perception itself is thoroughly mechanical.

The Observer does not experience sensations with an indifferent eye, but rather, it always seems to make some kind of value judgment. We can never be truly indifferent: it is not our nature. It seems to me that this moral polarity is a fundamental characteristic of perception itself.

Good and Evil are not simply emergent charateristics of things, but rather, Good and Evil are fundamental, coexistent attributes of subjective reality. This is not to suggest that we can ever comfortably give names to Good and Evil, as Nietzsche put it, but rather, that Good and Evil are two ubiquitous, mutually-opposed aspects of reality. Good and Evil, it might even be proposed, are, in a subjective sense, the stuff that things are made of.