The True and the Wonderful

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 .

Previous posts:

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


Faust said...

Well maybe not so theologically tone deaf after all!

I was wondering what you would think of chapter 9 which MJ introduces by saying:

"So now we shall have to do some more philosophy."

That will make or break the book for Jean I thought, for surely she does not think that philosophy "can at most produce temporary and Pyrrhic victories..."

Time for some edifying "trench warfare!" (I really enjoyed MJs choice of words here).

Light hearted snark aside I agree that this is a cruicial chapter, along with chapter 6 (Why God?) seems a good question).

The connection between Mind and God are obvious and the notion that we have immaterial souls has long been a refuge for those who would like to escape from a purely naturlistic vision. There has indeed been a great concern that if we are simply "meat machines," simply fleshy cogs turning fleshy teeth, then where is our freedom? Where is our contact with something outside a chain of cause and effect? How do we transcend our past? Where is the firm ground that will not shift in time?

So I think there is deep linkage between philosophy of mind and religion: as a final frontier of "mystery" it has a been a refuge for God(s) of the gaps, and even people like Sam Harris think we might find something spiritually important there.

I would have liked it very much if MJ had tied his talk of presence to the traditions he was responding to. Does he regard Davidson's anomalous monism as being a "producer of presence theory?" What about Rorty and Dennet's work that is in general agreement with and even an extention of Davidson's anomolous monism? Where does property dualism fit into his ideas about presence? As far as I know Derrida was the big popularizer of presence as an idea (and one which he worked against), is MJ arguing against this kind of thinking? I'm going to have to look for the lectures he references as having developed these ideas though I suspect they will be hard for me to access.

Here is some Rumi:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Like all poetry...it is of course optional.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes (to all of the above!).

Here is an interesting question the book leaves me with ...and it's really about metaphysics, not religion.

Let's say that you think consciousness, or content, or some other "mental" item is irreducible. So you can't explain what generates it, in naturalistic terms. Is it still much more reasonable to think just brains generate it, or does it become no less reasonable to be "pan" about it? Along with his "panentheism" Johnston is really arguing for panpsychism. He's got modes of presentation out there in the world, merely being "sampled" by our brains. Is that weird? (Yes, I think...but why?)

Faust said...

This stuff is extraordinarily difficult to talk and think about. Duh! right? I mean this is a code people have been trying to crack for quite some time!

I am someone who doesn't find this stuff strange, who has an inescapable "religious instinct" that I have been completely unable to shake, though I am also not "religious" in any ordinary sense of the term (so much the worse for the ordinary sense of the term!). So I don't find pansychism odd, I find it almost...intuitive. The trick is "how can a make this make sense in the powerful and successful language of cause and effect." "Is such a thing possible?" Or to put it all extremely broadly "How does one connect "poetry" and "science?""

On the one hand poetry: regarded by some as "irreducible" language or at any rate "untranslatable" (translations of Shakespeare are doomed to failure). Filled with metaphor, and thus with falsity? (Davidson's work on metaphor has become utterly fascinating to me).

On the other hand science: the very essence of commensurability: at least in theory. Where two scientific theories are incommensurable: we seek the common ground, how do we get the "grand unified theory?"

These patterns analogize to mind and body: mind is poetry, the body is science. Our science has shown us that the mind is in and of the body...is this the end of mind? Or does it mean that the body is full of mind...that the mind is in "all bodies?" This is the strange toggling the inhabits our attempts to overcome duality.

Jean Kazez said...

A general point about mind/religion discussions.

I think issues about the mind ought to be dealt with in their own terms, as questions just about the mind. There ought to be no fiddling to pave the way to religiously or existentially pleasing conclusions. Not that I'm saying Johnston is doing any such fiddling--I imagine it's by doing work in metaphysics and philosophy of mind that he's reached his conclusions about modes of presentation being "out there". But I do sometimes see people embracing or being attracted to certain ideas about the mind because they think they introduce some spiritually pleasing mysterious element into the world. Not good! We ought to be figuring out what's true about mentality, as in "true period." Right?

s. wallerstein said...

Interesting. I'm subscribing to this discussion, without comment.

Faust said...

Well, we must be aware of the dangers of confabulation and confirmation bias!

The rules I follow are these:

Beware of dogmatism.

Be prepared to adjust your descriptions as new ideas, arguments and data come in.

Celebrate the difficulty of the questions but do not get overcome by mystery (and if you get overcome then go silent for those "know" do not speak).

Having said that I don't think it is realistic to shut out and isolate this subject matter the way you propose. That would be like me saying: you shouldn't presuppose the existence of "moral facts of the matter" when you pursue an ethical research program. But you DO presuppose moral realism. Otherwise you would be able to present to me the aruments for having arived at that conclusion rather than trying to come up with arguments to support a pre-existing intuition.

I see no problem connecting this stuff to "religion" especially given that religion is mixed up in a lot of thought about mind until very recently. If nothing else one wants to address the way in which religious thought may have generated some of the very confabulation and bias existing in current theories. As long as one is explicit about the biases, and does not trade in on them as foundations from which the argument can proceed then I think there is no great difficulty here.

I suspect in general I am quite a bit less worried about "truth" than you are. You have already seen my disturbing tendency to "toggle" descriptions. But I do not have quite the same realist commitments that you do.

BLS Nelson said...

I don't understand what the word "presence" means.

I can understand it only if it names our intuitive gloss on the experience of intentionality. But intuitions, all and for the mostpart, are ontologically sloppy. We don't know if they fit the world, or if the world fits them.

In order to make things clear we have to decide what our criteria would be for making a clear, therefore successful, ontology. One way of going about this is to be clear about the difference between whether we're talking about the referent of the experience or the experience itself. But as soon as you do that, you answer the entire question.

You might say that the referent is identical to the experience. This works when we talk about mirages, say: the referent is the experience. But the example of the mirage is set against the backdrop of a zillion cases where there is no distinction. By contrast, since we're talking about all presences, we're talking about all our experiences. If we say they're equivalent, then we're left wondering where even a shallow distinction between sense and referent could possibly come from, since we take it for granted that it permeates all experience, and seemingly has no motivating counter-experience. So it must come from within us, arbitrarily imposed. If so, then we admit the difference between willful activity and our experiences. But then we have to ask, where does this distinction come from? We might plausibly say something like "one experience feels more alienated than the other". At which point you're free to go one step farther and notice that there are some experiences, i.e., your experiences of experiences that are out of your control, from which you feel very alienated. At which point we find that there is a motivating counter-experience, and so we have intelligible grounds for a sense-reference distinction in general after all. So we have no excuse for not only having a general distinction between sense and referent, but also in figuring out our criteria for applying it in particular cases, as it might turn out to be deeper than we first supposed.

Maybe we get worried that all definitive answers will be guesses, and so we ought to be agnostic. But then in order to do that, we abandon all our beliefs for intuitions: for all beliefs have ontological commitments. But that would be fatalistic, since an intuition is a propensity to believe -- belief is intuition's endgame. Why bother intuiting if you can't believe in anything?

BLS Nelson said...

Line should read: "This works when we talk about mirages, say: the referent is the experience. But the example of the mirage is set against the backdrop of a zillion cases where there is a distinction." I said the opposite of what I meant. Sorry.

Jean Kazez said...


I wonder the same thing. What are these "presences" that are out there in the world, for our brains to "sample"? I think they're supposed to be quasi-mental. Basically, he is transferring into the world "out there" what is normally taken to be part of the mind. But he's not saying there's any weird immaterial stuff drifting around out there. There's just the cat, presenting himself. I can "sample" that presence. My mind doesn't create it.

I think I can get the hang of talking this way, and it can all make a certain intuitive sense, but when all is said and done, it's none too clear what the view is committed to, ontologically speaking.

Faust--I do care about truth, but I enjoy ideas (and not just the true ones).

BLS Nelson said...

I guess unless I get some clarification over the word I remain pretty confused -- does he define it anywhere?

It surely depends in some part on a kind of external-invariantist approach to philosophy of language that is suspect. Indeed, Saul Kripke makes a guest appearance in chapter 1: "As the philosopher Saul Kripke established, we can use ordinary proper names perfectly competently even when we have quite false ideas about the bearers of those names."

But let's consider the case of the The Oracle at Delphi. (I'm stealing an example from Imogen Dickie here, albeit for different purposes). Suppose that it turns out that the Oracle is a secret rotating committee of sages and not a particular person. What happens to our semantic intuitions? At that point, consistent with externalism, "The Oracle at Delphi" could be one of two things: an empty name, or a discovery that it isn't an ordinary proper name at all (i.e., that the Oracle designates whatever entity/entities accomplished a particular historical feat, akin to the very ordinary title, like "The American President"). In other words, either we don't know what we're talking about... or we don't know what we're talking about! In the former case, the facts failed to fit externalism (our facts woefully misguided us), or externalism failed to fit the facts (so it fails as an invariant doctrine).

The emphasis ought to be on what is plain to see: what we decide to do when presented with new information is a decision, a pragmatic choice. Quine saw that plain as day, but evidently he wasn't convincing enough.

Still, in the case of Johnston, it will comes back down to a choice about what ontological status we want "presence" to have, which will lead to remarks like the above.

Faust said...

My understanding of Presence is that it comes from Heidegger and was then used very explicitly by Derrida. Essentially it's a word used primarily in continental philosophy, where it is something that is argued against. Presence is what "logocentrism" looks for by discerning eternal truths in the structure of reality...the real presence that underlies everything. I haven't read too many polemics for or against presence, though one of my favorite books, George Steiner's Real Presences, takes up the anti-deconstruction theme pretty directly.

So I interpreted MJ as taking a stance against de-construction (production of presence, we "construct" our worlds). However, he ALSO takes a stand against representation which is associated with correspondence theories of truth, a favorite of "logocentric" realists everywhere. So it seemed to me that he was mixing critiques with his take on things.

On the other hand to the degree that skepticism about reality is favored by de-constionists and given that some thinkers have suggested that correspondence theories of truth lead to that kind of "relativism" or skepticism perhaps this makes sense.

In any case this is why I would have liked him to have grounded his discussion a bit more in or relating to the theories of mind he felt he was explicitly critiquing...just to get a sense of how he was locating his critique relative to that broader discussion. He does offer some links to other essays that I believe he published (one dealing specificly with the ontological status of illusions!) but I need to examine that chapter one more time before I would have too much more to say about it.

I was trying to make sense of Ben's interesting but difficult to decipher bit on "referent of experience" vs "the experience itself." And then a bit later referred to as the "sense" vs "referent" distinction. Rather than try to guess what the argument might be I would like to have it reframed relative to a specific simple experience/sense vs referent event. Namely:

I see a red rose.

How does this fit into the ontological concerns discussed in the treatment above?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, some connections to Heidegger, but some of what he's saying is utterly mundane.

He says--look at something (cat, apple, chair, whatever). You're now having thoughts about it. Another way of saying that: the cat is present to you.

Then he says--close your eyes. Did the cat's "presence" disappear? Well, it's presence TO YOU disappeared, but it's still got that presence.

I was talking about this view with my long-suffering family the other night, and my son asked if this related to the old saw about whether the tree that falls in the forest without anyone hearing it makes any noise.

Yes, it's related, I think! I believe MJ is saying that the looks, sounds, feels, smells--all the ways that objects are presented to us when we think about them--are "out there".

That's the best I can do to explain--I'll leave it to MJ to clarify his own views whenever or wherever he wants to!

Faust said...

I think the connection to Berkeley is right, that this is a way of saying Berkeley was right that we need God to "see" things for us when we close our eyes, but that he was wrong to suggest that the God in question was a supernatural entity outside time and space looking in so to speak. Instead God is Objective Mind, the emergent result of (protophenomenal properties? Fill in blank _______ )

Again I'd have to read those chapters closely to offer much more than that.

So yes you are right that we need not read TOO much into the use of the word presence, but it's a loaded term, which has a specific (and recent) tradition behind it. So his use of it can't be accidental. I just don't know enough about that local tradition to see if there is some stuff he's doing behind the scenes for those familiar with that tradition.

Jean Kazez said...

I think you're right--some allusion to those other traditions going on there.

Chapter 9 is the fun chapter, if you are a philosopher. It would be fun to hear it thoroughly grappled with in a philosophy seminar room.