God and Wonder

By Varian Tippens

Throughout western history, some of the greatest minds in intellectual thought have believed in the existence of a God. Newton, John Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, for example, all shared this conviction, believing that there is something magnificent which exists and has some relationship with the universe, though it also stands outside of it in one way or another.

A notable exception to this is the formidable mind of one David Hume, the 17th century Scottish philosopher whose Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion still are taught today. But what is interesting about Hume is that he is well known for being an empiricist. He does not believe that there are any self-evident truths, nor does he believe that reason is what makes us confident in our beliefs. For Hume, all knowledge is acquired and justified by experience — observation of the world — and reason is a slave to the passions. We undergo sentiment which instills our belief, and reason justifies these passions. Not the other way around. In his Dialogues, Hume uses his empiricism to undermine his readers’ confidence in the existence of God. 

To illustrate the distinction between reason giving us confidence in our beliefs and experience, consider Zeno’s paradox. Reason has it that in order to traverse the distance between any two points A and B, there is always a halfway point C between them. If there is always such a halfway point — which reason has it that there is — one could never traverse a room. However, experience tells us that one can traverse a room — just do it right now wherever you are. This is a paradox precisely because the epistemic force of reason and experience come to clash. For Hume, experience would win out, and we’d modify reason in light of it. Perhaps we would deny that there is always a halfway between two points.

When I say experience wins out, I just mean that we act in line with it — our confidence comes from experience, here, because I act in line with the belief that I can traverse a room. If a particularly annoying philosopher told me I could never cross a room and exit the door because of the infallible reasoning found in Zeno’s paradox, that wouldn’t stop me from leaving the room and telling him that he and his reason can go fuck themselves.

I don’t want to take a firm stand on the rationalism vs. empiricism debate, here. I note it only by way of introducing the important claim for this essay: that there are times when the experience of a passion alone gives us overriding confidence in a belief. A passion, here, is a sentiment of some form or another — fear, hope, guilt, anger, rage, joy, etc. If I feel fear toward something, that fear alone can provide me with defeasible confidence in the belief that a threat exists. But what I want to suggest is the stronger claim that there are times when a passion by itself can legitimately ground confidence in our belief, regardless of how that belief conflicts with reason.

Before looking at how this stronger claim might hold true, first let’s consider cases in which we don’t think experience of a passion grounds confidence in one’s belief, insofar as we would criticize the individual who has confidence on the basis of it. Suppose, for example, you ask someone why they refuse to leave their house and survive by making Amazon orders bi-weekly, and they say, “because I’m afraid of everything outside of my house. People, cars, and even the neighbor’s dog.” You’d likely say, “okay, good luck with your life,” and walk away.

There are five conditions under which, I think, we legitimately reject someone’s passion as grounding confidence in their belief. The first is to say that it is because they hold it irrationally, in the sense that the individual seems to be willfully ignoring all evidence to the contrary. In the case of our house-dweller, there is plenty of evidence available — e.g crime statistics and numbers of dog-killings, and even the testimony of others — to be confident that the world is no more scary than the inside of their home. In this way, the individual exhibits an epistemic vice — he chooses to ignore things that would sway his passion. 

Another condition is that the passion was brought about in the wrong way — the subject’s sentiment was caused and not elicited by something in the world. This sort of undermining condition is most easily illustrated through an analogy with perception. If I take a hallucinogenic drug and see an apple, then when I tell my friend that I see an apple, he would be right to criticize my confidence. Similarly, if your friend burns down a fat joint and feels crippling fear toward everything around him, you would describe him as paranoid. If a particular sentiment wasn’t brought about in the right way, we don’t take it to ground confidence in a belief. 

The third condition is related to the previous one — someone has a faulty capacity. If a person’s amygdala has been injured — or any other emotionally relevant neural bases for emotion — we don’t take them to be a reliable source when it comes to their sentimental sense of the world. Like with the hallucinogenic drug, this is because the person’s passions are being caused by a faulty capacity, and not elicited by something in the world.

Fourth, we reject someone’s sentiment when it is directed toward an inappropriate target. I can’t feel gratitude toward a rock, for rocks aren’t the kinds of things that are appropriate recipients of sincere appreciation. Only agents are. The same goes for anger toward a hurricane or a tree.

The fifth condition is speculative, but I want to throw it in anyway, which is to say that we reject someone’s sentiments as grounding confidence when they reflect a vice. Consider the house-dweller again. Even if the world is scary, he chooses to stay inside instead of facing those things that are scary. His fear dominates his actions, and one can only describe such an individual as a coward. You might think that we reject someone’s passion as a legitimate reason when it shows something vicious about the individual, either epistemically — they willfully ignore evidence — or morally — it exhibits cowardice. 

But there are times when these conditions don’t apply, and experience of a passion alone can give one confidence in believing something exists on the basis of it. Again, suppose that you were to ask someone why they believe that another person is a threat, and they say with composure, “because I have crippling fear when I am around her,” or “I sense danger in him.” Such an answer would not be strange, you need not meet any of the conditions outlined above. Such fear can ground confidence that a threat exists. 

But in this case of feeling fear around another person, you might think that your passion is still defeasible by reason (on a personal note, I don’t think it necessarily is, but you might..). You could learn more about this person — through conversation with others or research about him online — to undermine the confidence derived from your fear. After reasoning about things some more, you might think, you won’t act on the basis of your passion alone. Your passion grounds confidence, but can be defeated by reason, later.

So here’s a better example: suppose that someone is diagnosed with liver cancer and given a slim but still uncertain prognosis. She’s looked up her chances, read all the statistics, and learned of the number of people with her diagnosis who tend to make it through. Yet, she still believes she will live. If asked why, she says, because I have hope.” Despite reason dictating that she won’t make it out, wouldn’t her passion of hope be good enough in such a circumstance of rational uncertainty? Certainly, I wouldn’t criticize her for it, and this is not just because doing so would make me a real asshole.

There are times when passion alone gives us overriding confidence in our beliefs — e.g with the hopeful cancer patient. But there are also cases in which it does not. Could there be an experience of passion which would ground overriding confidence in the existence of God?

I Believe Because I Wonder

The Heart of Night

When all the stars are sown

Across the night-blue space,

With the immense unknown,

In silence face to face.

We stand in speechless awe

While Beauty marches by,

And wonder at the Law

Which wears such majesty.

How small a thing is man

In all that world-sown vast,

That he should hope or plan

Or dream his dream could last!

O doubter of the light,

Confused by fear and wrong,

Lean on the heart of night

And let love make thee strong!

The Good that is the True

Is clothed with Beauty still.

Lo, in their tent of blue,

The stars above the hill!

The poet Bliss Carman eloquently captures the character and attitude of the wondrous individual. Such an individual, first, has a sense for the majestic, feeling awe when she looks at up at the cosmos. “We stand in speechless awe, as beauty marches by. And wonder at the Law, which wears such majesty.” To feel fear is to sense what is dangerous. To feel wonder is to sense what is majestic. 

But to feel wonder also has a particular domain, according to Carman’s understanding of the passion, who says “across the night-blue space, with the immense unknown.” Anger only makes sense when directed toward agents, and wonder only makes sense when directed toward the unknown. One way to understand this is to consider how what we ascribe majesty to is precisely those things which are somewhat beyond us. Individuals of royalty are majestic, and they are those things which have an air of mystery to them. To feel wonder, then, is to sense majesty in the unknown.

Of course, in order to sense majesty in the unknown, such an individual must recognize that there is an unknown. She must recognize that there are things which lie beyond the limits of reason, which we do not and possible cannot understand completely, and can only strive toward. In this way, the wondrous individual exhibits the virtue of epistemic humility.

God, throughout western history, has been considered that thing in the unknown which instills wonder in us. It is the thing which is beautiful, epistemically beyond us, and awesome. If we agree that the experience of a passion alone can provide overriding confidence in a belief, then when one feels wonder when he looks into the unknown, I see no reason why this couldn’t be such a case. Why isn’t that passion alone sufficient to ground overriding confidence in the existence of something majestic in the mysteries of the cosmos?

Given that the nature of the belief in God (as Hume himself noted) is of a very special kind that has an air of mystery about it, to believe in a God because one feels wonder does not reflect a sense of being naive and need not be the result of willful ignorance about the evidence for or against his existence. Indeed, many of the most brilliant minds in history have been convicted that a God exists, and surely if anyone knew of the evidence for or against existence of God, it would be them. Newton, for example, criticized Descartes’ picture of the physical world because it didn’t make room for the existence of God. To believe in the existence of God because of one feels wonder need not reflect naivety or irrationality, but rather can manifest the virtue of epistemic humility — a healthy recognition of “how small a thing is man.” Belief in God from wonder also does not reflect any moral vice, surely need not be the result of a faulty capacity, and to feel wonder at the unknown isn’t inapt like feeling anger at a rock. The undermining conditions for a passion which we mentioned earlier just don’t have to apply when one looks up at the stars and is struck by wonder.

If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, then, I could legitimately and confidently tell them that it is because I wonder when I look into the unknown of the cosmos, and I don’t know of any reasons they could provide me with that could override this wondrous confidence, so long as I have done my due diligence in understanding contemporary physics. I sense something majestic in the mysterious, and that is enough.

What I particularly like about this reason for confidence in the existence of God is that it is deeply motivational. Human beings are attracted to things of beauty and awe. If you see a beautiful person, you want to know her. You want to understand more about her, and strive to get to know her more intimately. To sense beauty in the unknown, then, motivates someone who studies the natural world to understand as much as possible about it, even though he recognizes that he will never understand it fully. I said at the beginning of the essay that what it means to have confidence in a belief is that one acts in accordance with it. To have confidence in the existence of this God from wonder is to act in such a manner, which means striving to get closer to that majestic thing in the unknown.

None of this commits the wondrous individual to believing that his God must be an agent or person, for there is no reason to think that we can’t sense majesty in non-agential things. It also isn’t to believe in a heaven, hell, or even an afterlife. The wondrous individual’s God is that majestic thing which he senses when looking into the unknown, and that’s it. There is something which lies beyond reason, which we have access to through overriding passion, and that thing is awesome. In this way, what the wondrous individual believes in from his passion is something thinner, so to speak, than what people of religious conviction believe in. 

Einstein, Newton, John Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz — just to name a few — were some of the greatest minds we know of who tried to understand the unknown, and they all believed in a God. Their understanding of this entity was different — some took it to be agential, and others didn’t — and I suspect that this is because they simply felt the pull of wonder when they looked at mystery, acting in accordance with it, and giving us the different products of their explorations toward the majestic.

Many individuals of deep piety and conviction show a concern for a society that becomes Godless — when its population stops believing in something majestic beyond the limits of inquiry. The ruminations above suggest an answer as to why. Failure to believe in something like a God may reflect a society that does not have a sense of wonder. They do not look up, may be “confused by fear and wrong,” and will not explore “the stars beyond the hill.”

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