Well, I've changed my mind about the last chapters of Saving God. I find them quite wonderful--in the way I find Plato's forms, Leibniz's monads, Berekeley's Idealism, and the Cartesian soul wonderful. There is something utterly wild about what Johnston is proposing, but what he writes is fascinating and unique. True? Well, let's not go that far.
Things here get complex enough that a blog post isn't going to do justice to the book. So--this is going to be scattershot. In chapter 9 we find that Johnston's positive account of "the highest one" actually has quite a bit to do with problems in the philosophy of mind. My cat is right now sitting by my computer staring at me. The cat is "present to me." In other words, I'm having a very detailed "cat-out-there" experience. Johnston asks a very surprising question. Is my brain "producing" or "sampling" the cat's presence? The assumption in philosophy of mind is that of course my brain is producing it. There's something going on in my head, and between my head and the world, so that the cat is present to me. There's unanimous agreement on the idea that there would be none of this "presence" in a world without brains.
But, Johnson says, for 40 years philosophers have been working away on explaining how the brain produces presence--there are now many theories about the nature of mental content on offer--but all the theories are failures. So maybe it's time for a radical change. He proposes that "presence" is actually out there, independent of brains. When I close my eyes, there is still just the same "presence of cat" there was when I had my eyes open. Note: he's not just saying the cat is still out there. It's the presence (which we normally think of as "mental") that's still out there.
To which I say, "cool!" But I'll come back to that.
So what does this have to do with God? Very roughly, what Johnston proposes is that "the highest one" that monotheistic religion is trying, but failing, to focus on, cannot be the "cosmic intervener" of the bible. (To make a long story short, Johnston thinks Yahweh just isn't all that supreme. See my previous posts....or better yet, read the book). What is supreme is the "outpouring" of being into existing things that "present themselves" in the way I just attempted to explain.
So the highest one is not a "person" like Yahweh is, and not the creator of the world, and not anyone you can supplicate. Yet Johnston says that in a non-literal sense (he draws on Aquinas's doctrine of analogical predication), we can think of the highest one in traditional terms. For example, the highest one is mind-like because it's the outpouring of being into things that present themselves. The presenting, which we usual take to be inside of our own minds, is out there in the reality he's identifying with God.
This is not monotheism, because Johnston isn't asserting the existence of a supernatural being separate from nature. But it's not pantheism either, since he isn't identifing God with nature. It's panentheism--the idea that God is only "realized by" nature. God is what happens through nature....it's the outpouring of being into existing things that present themselves. (The exact formulation Johnston prefers is in my previous post about the book.)
Religion is supposed to help us cope with life, Johnston thinks. He suggests that believing in this panentheistic highest one helps by inducing a sort of gratitude and hopefulness. Gratitude because being is so fulsome--there's such bounty out there! Hopefulness because the presence of things is out there, a part of the world, and won't disappear when I die or even when all of us die.
As I say, I think this is all wonderful and interesting. There's a lot we could say about it. But let's go back to the cat.
Let's grant that mental content has not yet been satisfactorily explained. Thinking about the cat can be explained in many different ways, none of which fully captures the phenomenon. But then, at that point, there are many possible moves. You might, for example, say that the cat's presence to me really is mysterious and explicable, but still say it's my brain that's responsible for the phenomenon of the presence, not the cat. In fact, how could presence really be out there, independent of minds? Yes, the cat's out there, but the cat's presence?
Granted, Johnston is not positing a transcendent, supernatural God. But all that presence he sees as being "out there," and processes like the "outpouring" of existence....are they "natural"? I take it he thinks they are, because they are realized by straightforward chunks of the natural world. But isn't there a limit to what natural things can do? Can cats present themselves? Can cats "receive" the outpouring of existence?
In short, is Johnston's understanding of the natural world an understanding of a natural world?
As I say, wonderful, but true is another matter. I do have to say that despite moments of exasperation, it turns out I enjoyed this book a lot. It's full of completely unexpected ideas and arguments. I think it does fulfill it's promise to be a sort of theology that's way off the radar, for today's critics of religion. Johnston offers a scathing critique of mainstream religion in the book. Despite his jabs at "the undergraduate atheists," non-believers will find much to like. The positive account of God is nothing like they're used to, and will no doubt provide fresh material for derision. But it really is something new (to me anyway) and interesting.
I almost wish I could believe in this god, because it does seem like, if I did, it would make the world feel even more interesting and bounteous than it already does. I must have a look at Rumi and Hopkins, the poets Johnston mentions as fellow travelers in the preface .
1. Saving God...Saving What?
2. Can you know if you believe in God?
3. Saving God
4. More Saving God
5. Even More Saving God