17 April 2009

What does this desk explain?

A while back, before it was time for the political philosophy class to start, there was a bit of a pre-class discussion. I don't know what started it, as I walked in in the middle of it to hear them discussing Spinoza's and various other formulations of "God" (in quotes because most of these were not the Abrahamic God). Pelletti made a comment that I found very strange. He said something to the effect of, "The problem with pantheism is that it doesn't explain anything."

But why should a deity explain anything? Does the existence of this desk actually explain anything? Perhaps it explains why my office tools don't fall through to the ground, but they could rest on the ground just as easily. The desk just is. We don't expect that noticing its existence will explain anything in particular. If I refused to believe that there is a desk here solely because its existence does not seem to explain anything, that would seem a trifle odd. Either there is a desk there or there is not.

Perhaps it could be argued that the desk explains the sense-data associated with it. I see a somewhat rectangular shape, with rounded off corners. It feels cold and impenetrable against my elbows. The top surface is brown, but the rounded corners have shiny metallic inserts. Yet there are sense-data traditionally associated with the Divine as well, particularly with the mystical sense of the Divine: a sense of Oneness, of Totality. Positing such Oneness, a la pantheism, would explain that sense datum, would it not? Or do we not count sense data as needing such an explanation?

And, I know, the immediate rejoinder is that those particular sense data are some artifact of the way the brain processes information. But isn't the way we perceive the desk likewise an artifact of the way the brain processes information? We see light reflected in a particular spectrum that our eyes can detect. Our sense of touch reports only a limited set of information to the brain. Those sensations, too, are influenced by mental processing, yet most of us would not claim that the desk is only the result of such processing. Why the difference? Why are some artifacts of mental processing interpreted as meaningful and corresponding to something existent, while others are dismissed as being only artifacts?

I suspect the rejoinder to that one would be "physical evidence." That is, anyone with the appropriate sensory apparatus will detect an object in its place, and those with the appropriate cultural background will recognize it as a desk. Yet the mystical experience is widespread across different cultures, all describing similar experiences, and most give that experience a name connected to the Divine. Perhaps because we don't have a machine that can directly detect that experience, we reject it as less meaningful than the experience of the desk, but I suspect that most mystics would argue that the experience of the Divine is more meaningful.

Finally, either a thing exists or it doesn't. Whether the thing actually explains anything seems irrelevant to whether or not it actually exists. For instance, invisible ants in my computer might explain its occasional hiccups, but that gives me no reason to think such ants actually exist. Except for the sense-data connected with it, though, the desk just doesn't seem to explain much of anything, any more than the letter 'h' on my keyboard does, or the air in my lungs does.

Ideas and theories explain things. Objects and Beings just exist. (I have a feeling I'm going to wind up editing this in the morning, but for now I'm just going to his hit* "Publish.")

*Hiss would be more amusing, yes, but it's not what I actually meant last night. And for the moment, I'll let the post stand apart from this rambling comment. It occurred to me a bit after writing this that 'pi' is another good example. The "ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter" exists for any circle, or for any constructed approximation of a circle, if you prefer. But that ratio in and of itself explains nothing. With a bit of work, one can prove that the ratio will be the same for any perfect circle, and then we can measure it for constructed approximations of circles to compare. So this number 'pi' exists as a property of circles, but it is the consequence of an explanation, and does not itself explain anything.


Paul said...

Dang! I had some more or less worthy remarks last night on this fascinating post, but I went to bed and, after waking up this morning, I'm feeling frustrated that I can't recall what I was going to say. So, now I'm going to need to study your post all over again. Have you seen my socks? I seem to have lost those too.

Qalmlea said...

LOL. No, but I hear they (socks) migrate northeast in the spring...

Paul said...

I love this post! It's so thought provoking.

I tend to think slowly, so I'm going to need to mull this over for a while before reaching any conclusions, but at this point I'm thinking Pelletti is right to assert pantheism explains nothing, and you are right to assert that pantheism should not be treated as an hypothesis.

At least some mystics claim to have experienced an universal unity or "Oneness". Now, you can hypothesize that Oneness was caused by deity -- but there would then seem to be no way to test that hypothesis. That is, the hypothesis seems non-falsifiable.

On the other hand, if you claim that you are merely describing your experience when you refer to it as an experience of a deity, then you are not hypothesizing but describing. I think there are at least a few mystics who take that approach.

For instance, I recall in one of the Upanishads a passage in which the author says:

"Do the gods exist?"

"You don't know if the gods exist. I don't know if the gods exist. My guru doesn't know if the gods exist. Even the gods don't know if the gods exist."

Furthermore, I seem to recall it's plain from the context that the author uses the word "gods" in that Upanishad to describe, but not hypothesize a cause for, a certain kind of experience.

You know, if I were going to guess there was a deity, I would guess that deity was pantheistic because pantheism fits so closely with the reports of certain mystics.

John said...

I don't think the existence of a deity is any kind of explanation (nor should it be). You're right that such existence is entirely independent of anything else.

However, the deity's existence itself begs for explanation, and no evidence for such has ever been provided (or been later shown to have a very different explanation).

Moreover, there are people (they know who they are) who try to use a deity to actually stifle attempts to explain anything.

This is where I have a problem. I couldn't care less if Spinoza's God exists. Such a deity affects me about as much as Russell's Celestial Teapot. But when someone insists on a deity that directly influences the world on a significant basis, I insist on evidence. Otherwise, that deity is in the same category as Santa Claus, the Channukah Zombie and the Veruca Gnome.

John said...

P.S. -

If you haven't seen it, the BBC production of Hogfather is definitely worth it.

Word verification: blannock - a type of pan-fried camp biscuit best known for being hard, dry and flavorless.

Qalmlea said...

Yeah, I do have a problem with claims of any sort of interventionist deity. Particularly an interventionist deity who helps someone find her car keys on the same day that a raging hurricane kills a huge number of people... I mean, prioritize much?

And I wasn't so much claiming existence as trying to figure out why Pelleti's statement bugged me so much.

(Oh, and I saw a bit of the BBC Hogfather on tv somewhere, before I lost cable, and was surprisedly pleased. I'd expected to hate it, but, I agree, it was surprisingly well done. Now I just have to find it again to finish watching it!)

John said...

Netflix has it.

Rene Benthien said...

Excellent post.

I would have problems with any anthropomorphic deity, even if it was non-interventionist.

If the pantheistic deity is not anthropomorphic then doesn't pantheism becomes trivial?
God = Universe.

Else if proposition is that god IS a self-aware entity with consciousness, then pantheism would have to give reasons for its existence as there is no other measurable evidence.

The mystical feelings generated in many people have a wide variety of sources, and is explained by many secular and non-secular theories other than Pantheism.

Until there is measurable evidence Pantheism is an idea, not yet a thing.

Qalmlea said...

Hmmm... Yeah, overall I agree. I think I wouldn't have objected had Pelletti instead said, "The problem with pantheism is that it is unfalsifiable." So far as I can tell, it is unfalsifiable.

I would say that a pantheistic deity has exactly as much consciousness as the beings within its universe, but that may be more Taoist of me than pantheistic.

Rene Benthien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.