Sunday, February 11, 2018

“Aesthetic Atheism” Talk given to The Humanist Community in Silicon Valley, Feb. 11, 2018 Thomas Leddy, San Jose State University

“Atheists today are too often castigated as materialistic calculators whose lack of spirituality sucks their universe empty of all beauty. Remembering [Percy Bysshe Shelley’s argument for the non-existence of God in his short “The Necessity of Atheism.”] gives us an opportunity to counter this stereotype and to reflect on the aesthetic of enchantment with which a non-theistic world-view can be associated. The works of Shelley join the novels, poems, songs, sculptures, paintings, architecture and plays of generations of godless artists in exposing the straw man of the desiccated rationalist for what it is, and showcasing a humanist vision of life.” Andrew Copson, “Atheism's aesthetic of enchantment,” The Guardian, April 2, 2011
I have been an atheist since the age of 15.   I was strongly convinced, then, and am still today, by a number of arguments against God’s existence.  First, there is the problem of evil, which has never been adequately answered by theologians.   How could a good God create a world with so much suffering?  The atheist answer is that the existence of so much suffering proves there is no God if God is defined as the all-good, all-powerful creator of the universe.  Second, there is scientific evidence for a materialistic universe, and there is no need for immaterial things like God to explain what is not yet been explained by science.  Evolutionary theory, for example, gives us a much better explanation of the emergence of human consciousness than any religion.  Third, traditional proofs for the existence of God all fail for a variety of reasons.  Fourth, as David Hume showed, the concept of “miracle” is incoherent.  Fifth, religion is not necessary for morality.  I will not go into the arguments for atheism here, but if you are interested there are a number of good books out there.  In short, I find it hard to understand how belief in God, immaterial souls, and the afterlife can be taken any more seriously than belief in fairies.  But I am not against religion.  I think religion has a lot to offer us, even those of us who are non-believers.   I admire religion for trying to deal with the fundamental issues of what it is to be human, for addressing our deepest hopes, fears, and needs.  Religion at its best is based on experiences (for example of the presence of God in the world and in our hearts) which have, for large numbers of people, given meaning to human existence.  Philosophy of the non-religious sort, however, handles these issues better because it is not burdened by the metaphysical baggage associated with traditional religious belief.   Philosophy questions authority and allows us to doubt. 
But I do not reject religion because I believe in doubt.  To be sure, doubt is something I value.  Although, for many, doubt can be a source of pain, I enjoy it, at least when it is directed to the big questions.  I not only enjoy the adventure of raising difficult questions and trying to answer them, I enjoy the to and fro of debate over these things.  However, philosophy does not just give me doubt.  I love philosophy partly because it gives me a suitable replacement for faith.  That’s not to say that my belief in philosophy is an example of faith.  I do not have faith in philosophy.  Faith is belief based on some scripture or on the say-so of some religious leader, and philosophy does not offer anything like that, or at least it shouldn’t.  In logic, the “appeal to authority” fallacy happens whenever an authority is deemed to be higher than reason or evidence.  An example would be saying that something is true because the Pope says it is true.
What does philosophy gives me more than the joys of debate?  It gives me several quite different, beautiful, and systematic ways of understanding the world, each offered by a single writer or by a school of thought, ways that address some of the same fundamental issues addressed by religion.  Of course it is up to each student of philosophy to not only understand and appreciate these systems but also to oppose them and borrow from them in constructing one’s own system.
But before going into that I will say a couple words about science.  Science is a wonderful thing and I am a great advocate of science.  And most philosophers I know feel the same way.  I am not convinced that science is the only path to truth, but I think it is a very important one.  I, and most other philosophers, are happy with sharing inquiry with science.  Philosophers typically ask and try to answer questions that science cannot answer.  Traditionally, whenever a question becomes resolved or even resolvable by science philosophers happily give it up.  For example, philosophers no longer are concerned with the ultimate building blocks of the material universe.  We think scientists are doing the best job that can be done with this problem.
So what do philosophers do?  They ask and try to answer a certain kind of question.  Most philosophical questions take the form “What is X?”  For example, “What is truth?” “What is reality?” “What is man?”  “What is law?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is art?”  They then offer competing definitions or theories of these things and argue about them.  There are also the “Does X exist?” and “Is X real?” questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is nothingness real?”  And we also ask the closely related question: “What does the word ‘x’ mean?”  For example, you need to ask what is meant by the word “God” before you can ask whether God exists.   Of course not all “What is X?” questions are in the domain of philosophy.  Again, there are “What is X?” questions that are best answerable by science: for example “What is water?”  I am not saying that this question has finally been answered by scientists, but they are on the way, and they are getting better and better answers every day. 
However, there are other “What is X?” questions, such as “What is moral goodness?” which are not answerable, yet, by science.  Religion provides answers to some such questions, but again, religion does so via the appeal to authority fallacy and its answers are metaphysically suspect.  It is questions like these, or at the least the important ones, that are the domain of philosophy.  Philosophy then, sits in many ways between religion and science.  It is sympathetic to aspects of each, but it follows its own path and its own methods.
It also turns out, and this is equally important to me today, that art, especially great art (including music, visual art, literature, dance, architecture, movies) also provides much of what religion gives us, or gave us in the past, but usually without religious belief.  Although most people today still seem to need religion, great philosophy and great art can, together, give us all we thought we could only get from religion.  Nonetheless, as I will argue, that does not mean that religion is without value, even for atheists.
But, someone asks, what about morality?  Oddly, I suppose, I do not consider morality a complicated problem.  Thousands of years ago Confucius, and later, Jesus, got it right.  The basic moral rule is that you ought to treat others as you would have them treat you.  This isn’t true because either of these people said it was true:  they just provided the formulation of a basic insight.  The basic moral truth was recognized much later by Immanuel Kant as the second formulation of the categorical imperative:  act in such a way to treat people primarily as ends and not as means.  Without this moral rule we would not be able to function as a society.  The more people follow it the better off we will be.  There are also moral saints who go beyond following this basic rule in helping others.  I would say that their acts are not only morally right but morally beautiful.  (Since beauty is an aesthetic concept, we are entering here into the domain of aesthetics).  The Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s is an example of something that was not just morally right but morally beautiful.  We can argue over this but I do not think much more needs to be said about ethics, at least by me today.   
You may ask me why I am not an agnostic, especially given my natural skepticism.  Agnostics, it is true, reject all dogmatic belief.  But an agnostic holds that, regarding religious belief, there can be no knowledge one way or another.  On the issue of God the agnostic just says “I do not know…I cannot know.”  But how does the agnostic know that she cannot know about God’s existence or non-existence?  Most agnostics claim to know a large number of things in other aspects of their lives?  So what makes the subject of God so unique?  Some people say that you cannot prove that God does not exist, and yet atheists have come up with perfectly good proofs for that, proofs that just are not accepted by either believers or agnostics.  From the atheist perspective, evidence for belief in God is pretty much on the same level is evidence for other spiritual beings, such as witches, ghosts and fairies, that most people today actually reject. 
Can we ever be absolutely certain of anything?  No.  Can we be reasonably certain that God does not exist?  Yes.   
But earlier I was saying that philosophy offers me something more than just non-belief, and I want now to pursue that.  Each philosopher has his or her own perspective, his or her own philosophy.  Being a philosopher is a matter of building up, usually over a long time, an elaborate structure of ideas that helps make sense of things.  We philosophers generally call this structure our “philosophical position.” Today I will be talking about my own position (or perhaps, more modestly, my own hypothesis), and you shouldn’t assume that I will be speaking for any other philosopher or school of thought.
My point of view is based not only on years of reading and writing about philosophy, but also, like many other thinkers, on key moments of inspiration that have happened in my life.  Few philosophers would admit this.  But I would argue, perhaps controversially, that inspiration plays as important role in philosophy as it does in religion, art, science, and even in business and love.  The idea of inspiration was originally tied to religion:  the thought being that the prophet or mystic is inspired by god.  However, philosophers, unlike saints, do not take moments of inspiration as guarantees of truth, only as relatively reliable guides towards inquiry.  These moments, to be frank, can be like mystical experiences.  Does this pose a problem?  Does any use of inspiration give the game away to religion?  Does it imply the existence of a world beyond our material world?  I don’t think so.  I think that this material world in which we all exist has some pretty amazing properties, one of those being that it generates life, another that it produces consciousness, and another that it brings forth creative thinking and dramatic insight.  One of the main reasons people become immaterialists is that they shortchange what the material world, and the material things in it, including us, can do.  We do not yet know how this world accomplishes these things or how we, as parts of it, accomplish them, but this is no reason to hypothesize another world.
So, when it comes to having insights, I just think it is amazing that there are moments, usually after long study and hard intellectual work, when everything seems to come together and ideas flow, when we have a real idea, a real insight into things.  Again, belief in the value of these experiences does not require belief in something non-material that causes them.  Moments of insight just are one of the many surprising things the material world coughs up.  Moreover, such moments are not limited to philosophy, and can be found in art or, and it may be surprising for an atheist to say this, even in religion.   
So part of the basis of what I will say is a certain kind of experience, an experience of inspiration which is also, hopefully, or at least seems to me to be, insightful.  Whether or not it actually is depends on how its results fare in the battleground of ideas, and I am happy with that.  Again, I do not think that these experiences give what I will have to say any special validity.  I do think that they are much like the mystic experiences described by religious figures, although I have no way of proving so. 
The experiences I am describing often involve a perception of unity underlying a great deal of diversity.  After a number years of teaching philosophy I find such a unity between a wide range of thinkers.  And yet this unity ultimately depends, I must confess, on some rather unorthodox interpretations I have about each of them.  I doubt that I would ever be able to make this clear even to myself, and yet I do think that there is something like a perennial philosophy, that is, some inner truth to philosophy itself, a truth that is unfortunately hidden by superficial differences in language and approach.  The claim, in short, if I were ever able to spell it out, would be that philosophers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, Plato, Kant, Thoreau, Emerson, Dewey, Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger and Dogon all have a message to convey which is fundamentally the same, despite all of the differences between their various theories.  The central idea is that there is a path of transcendence, but one that is without God, without belief in an immaterial or transcendent realm, and without souls that survive our deaths.  All of these rejected ideas are just myths that hide an underlying and much more important truth.
So, then, what does this have to do with speaking to a group of humanists.  Just about everything.   Humanism, I believe, is also fundamentally committed to this way of seeing things, or at least something like it, i.e. that there is no religious truth and yet there is something like a religion of humanity, or perhaps of life, and that this religion (if we can call something a religion that is without faith or God) has something to do with what Lao Tzu meant by “the Way,” what Confucius meant by “humanness,” what Plato meant by “the Good,” what Kant meant by the “transcendental unity of apperception,” what Hegel meant by “the Absolute,” what Emerson and Thoreau meant by “Nature,” what Nietzsche meant by “eternity” and the Dionysian, what John Dewey (the great American Pragmatist philosopher) meant by “pervasive quality,” what Heidegger meant by “Being,” and what Zen means by “satori.”  Moreover, I think that the great religions were trying to talk about this very thing.  They just got this all confused with wishful thinking about the goodness of the universe and the existence of an afterlife.  
Why all of this talk about inspiration and mysticism?  The perspective I take towards these issues is fundamentally aesthetic.  That is, it focuses on aesthetic experience.  There are all sorts of low- level aesthetic experiences, for example the pleasure we take in a pretty dress, but there is also what Dewey referred to as “an experience” which is the high point of experience, and which is also aesthetic.  That is, experience itself is graded according to its aesthetic value.  An experience, or what Dewey also calls integral experience, has unity, a pervasive quality, great intensity, and considerable complexity.  In general, Dewey argued, we should have more of such things in our lives, and less inchoate experience, which is the opposite.
Aesthetic experience should not be confused with artistic experience.  Art plays an important role in aesthetics, but aesthetics includes natural aesthetics and everyday aesthetics as well.  Aesthetics deals not simply with a certain kind of experience but with the properties that give rise to it.  Notable among these are the beautiful and the sublime.  Religious experience really is just experience of these properties, as is also any profound experience of nature or art.  If you experience God, that is a sublime experience in the sense that it has aesthetic intensity and gives great delight, as well as being pretty scary.  Edmund Burke said that both terror and delight are essential to the sublime.  A better example of the sublime for atheists is seeing something dramatic in nature, like a volcano, but from a safe distance, so that there is an element of fear but a greater element of enjoyable astonishment. 
Now when I said religion is just experience of these properties that may seem unfair.   The believer would say that the experience of God is sublime precisely because God really exists.   Since I deny that He does, but want to be a bit fairer to the believer, I will say that the most profound forms of religious experience are actually profound forms of aesthetic experience.  Religion and art, then, are closely tied.  Religion may be said to come into being with ritual and mythology.  And ritual and mythology are proto-art forms.  Ritual, of course, requires belief in God or gods and the earliest drama and dance were ritualistic.  But as religious elements gradually disappeared from art performance, and as enjoyment of art no longer required belief in spiritual entities, secular art arose.  But it is still tied to its origins in profound ways.   
I have a name for my approach to religion, a pretty clunky one as these things go.  I call it “aesthetic atheism.”   The combination may seem strange.   Aesthetic atheism is a kind of atheism: it is predicated on non-belief.  However, at the same time, it stresses the aesthetic, particularly the beautiful and the sublime.  I developed the idea out of a dissatisfaction with more mechanistic and ham-fisted approaches to atheism, like those of such recently famous atheists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  Aesthetic atheism is somewhat more positive about religion than many other forms of atheism.  As I have suggested, religion is predicated on religious experience, and religious experience is very close in character to the powerful and profound experiences we can have of art, nature, and philosophy.  Aesthetic atheism recognizes this. 
As I said earlier, aesthetic atheism learns from the great philosophers, with the important exception of Descartes who made no worthwhile contribution to this project, whose logicism, over-reliance on mathematics, mechanistic view of nature, hard-core dualism, and rejection of human imagination, made him an opponent to all things aesthetic.
I want to end today with some reflections on Immanuel Kant, who, although deeply influenced by Descartes, managed to break away from him in important ways.  Kant of course was not an atheist.  He did believe in God.  But he also systematically destroyed all of the traditional proofs for the existence of God.  What we were left with after Kant was basically agnosticism.  It would be best, according to him, that we act as if we believed in God.  So Kant was deeply ambiguous about religion.  We cannot prove that God exists but morality would be meaningless without God, and free will would be impossible without the existence of a transcendent soul, or so it seems.  Because of his residual Cartesian dualism Kant could not conceive of free will as just another word for the amazing creativity open to us as material beings.  (But there is one passage that seems to indicate he could.)
Kant wrote three great critiques:  The Critique of Pure Reason, which showed that metaphysics has limits, in particular that it cannot prove that god exists, although it can provide us with certain a priori truths such as that everything has a cause; The Critique of Practical Reason, which attempted to ground morality in the categorical imperative, and The Critique of Judgment, which deals with issues of taste, beauty, the sublime, fine art and the apparent design of the universe.  By the time he got to this last book he had a problem.  He knew he could not prove the existence of a transcendent realm, a realm of God, heaven and the soul, and yet he thought he needed this realm to make sense of his ethical theory.  The Critique of Judgment, besides allowing him a chance to apply his previously developed theories to art, aesthetics and nature, provided, he thought, a solution to the problem of the gap opened up in his philosophy between the world of experience and the transcendent realm.  In my view, and I think in his as well, this book was the culmination of his entire career.  And the most important part of The Critique of Judgment comes when Kant discusses what he calls the fine artist, which he also called the genius.  It is in this discussion that Kant describes what he calls “aesthetic ideas.”
Here’s a quote from Kant on aesthetic ideas, which appears in Paragraph 49 titled “The faculties of the mind which constitute genius”:  (The Critique of Judgment tr. James Creed Meredith.  Oxford U. Press, 1952,)  “Soul (Geist) in an aesthetical sense, signifies the animating principle of the mind [for example when a poem is more than merely pretty or elegant it has soul].  But that whereby this principle animates the psychic substances [Seele] – the material which it employs for that purpose - is that which sets the mental powers [e.g. imagination and understanding] into swing [by which he means a free play] that is final, i.e. into a play which is self-maintaining and which strengthens the power of such activity.”  He goes on to say, “Now my proposition is that this principle is nothing else than the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas.  But, by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination [that picture or image] which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, i.e. concept, being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible..”  A rational idea by contrast is a concept to which no intuition can be adequate.  [For example, you could never fully imagine God] Further, “The imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is a powerful agent for creating, as it were, a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature.  It affords us entertainment where experience proves too commonplace; and we even use it to remodel experience…”  And “By this means we get a sense of our freedom”  so that we can borrow materials from nature working them up into something that “surpasses nature.”  “Such representations of the imagination [that is, aesthetic ideas] may be termed ideas.  This is partly because they at least strain after something lying out beyond the confines of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of rational concepts [i.e. ideas like idea of God or other abstract ideas like the idea of death]….thus giving to these concepts the semblance of an objective reality.”  [Notice he says “semblance”:  he is not really committed to God’s existence here.] Further, the poet [meaning any artistic genius] tries to interpret “to sense the rational ideas of invisible beings,” and other religious ideas, as well as abstract ideas related to life. 
Now I must admit that I am going to give a somewhat unorthodox take on what Kant means by “aesthetic ideas.”  Kant might not have approved of how I will go about using his notion.  My take on aesthetic ideas is that they are essentially powerful metaphors.  They are not literal truths but rather ways of seeing things.  They are the central force behind all sorts of creativity.  As Kant correctly said, they cause our thoughts to seemingly go on unendingly, or as Kant said, they generate much thought but no final definition.  They are sublime insofar as we find them astonishing and a little scary.  
The art of the genius is the art of creating aesthetic ideas.  Great works of art just are aesthetic ideas materialized in a medium.  Moreover, when a great work of art is created, including the great mythological stories of the great religions, what we get is a created world.  The genius artist and the religious figure both create a world, a “second nature,” out of the materials of the world.
As I have suggested I have modified Kant’s concept of aesthetic ideas somewhat.  I have given them something of the character of what he called rational ideas or ideas of reason.  By ideas of reason Kant means something like what Plato meant by his eternal Forms.  Kant included as rational ideas, the ideas of God, immortality, and the soul, but also the great ideas of philosophical interest, such as the ideas of justice, truth, and beauty. I am willing to agree with Kant up to a point on this:  the rational ideas are ideals, like the perfect circle which we can never actually draw.  But, on my view, unlike Plato and perhaps Kant, ideal things are not real, or rather, their only reality is their name and their touted ideal nature.  Rational ideas do not refer to real things:  they are just abstract markers, endpoints in a never-ending quest.  The aesthetic ideas, however, are real.  They are real things directed towards or trying to represent something which is unreal except for a name.
I fuse Kant’s concepts of aesthetic and rational ideas, dropping the aspects of each that I don’t like.  That is, aesthetic ideas, on my view, have a quality of unity that Kant never intended them to have, a unity he would not, however, have hesitated to attribute to rational ideas. I agree, however with Kant on many points concerning aesthetics ideas:  that they will not be fully explicable, that they are not unchanging, and that they are directed towards the rational ideas.  But the important thing is that they do not belong to another realm:  they belong to our world.  They are an aspect of the world we experience.
So, on my view, what Kant called rational ideas just are aesthetic ideas, or better, are the unreal things aesthetic ideas unendingly aim towards.  There are no rational ideas above and beyond aesthetic ideas.  One way of putting this is that if you want to see a rational idea or the referent of a rational idea you can only look at an aesthetic idea.  That is, rational ideas are just words:  they have no content, but they function as abstract goals, as things aesthetic ideas try to express, even when those things are not real and have no real reference.  Kant may be right that it might be best to act as if rational ideas were real, but the real things are the aesthetic ideas.   
Aesthetic ideas cause the appropriately receptive mind to have its faculties of imagination and understanding go into a free play that seems unending.  This experience is sublime.
We still feel wonder at certain things in nature:  the natural world seems as-if designed.  Moreover, the great works of humanity, including those of art, philosophy, science, and even religion leave us in wonder. 
It follows that religion is best seen as an unconscious art form.  Religious rituals should be seen as total works of art.  As such, religion incorporates within it many other art works and aesthetic phenomena.  Like grand opera, for example, religion incorporates within itself both the beautiful and the sublime.  It contains also the important elements of tragedy (first worked out in its aesthetic dimensions by Aristotle in his Poetics) and redemption (first understood in an active way by Nietzsche through his idea of the Dionysian as expressed in his The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music). Recognition of religion as unconscious art distinguishes aesthetic atheism from traditional atheism. 
Aesthetic atheism also has some affinity with the small number of religious practitioners who do not believe in the tenets of their religions, but remain in the church, mosque, temple, in order to retain the benefits of seeing the world under the light of a vast, although fictional, drama.  

Aesthetic atheism denies the existence of God and affirms our material being, but at the same time it affirms experiences of transcendence, of what Kant called “aesthetic ideas” which themselves both partake in the beautiful and the sublime. These ideas are to be found not only in art but also in other non-art cultural phenomena, including religion.   

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