May 7th, 2004


God meets Heisenberg or Anyone For A Dead Horse Smoothie?

Compelling Chronicle:

So, I decided to talk about Rene Descartes’s principle of "Radical Doubt". His approach to radical doubt was that he decided to discard anything of which he could not be absolutely sure. And that was supposed to mean anything. If it could be doubted, out it went; even if it seemed a pretty solid datum or concept. Seeming just didn’t cut it. This was how he, according to our text, arrived at his famous utterance, "I think, therefore I am."

The text was a two or three hundred-page survey of ten "world views" and there was just one chapter on Descartes. I know from other sources that Descartes wrote volumes and that volumes have been written by others about him, so I suspect that this is not the entire story. He was supposed to have wrestled with all kinds of angst-ridden postulates about "evil genies" that may have deceived his senses and with the question of whether God could or would lie about the nature of existence. He also struggled with "proofs" of God’s existence (like Anselm and Aquinas) that wouldn’t stand up by themselves because they were fraught with assumptions and prefabricated conclusions that required faith to accept.

Anyway, I decided to just leave it where I found it, "I think, therefore I am," making the assertion that this means that all a person can know with any certainty is that they exist. You can’t know for sure that there is any "solid" existence separate from and independent of your own. Perceived existence may indeed be an "illusion", but because we can’t distinguish "illusion" from "reality" with any certainty, they are equivalent. The hand in front of your face is whatever a hand is. Whether it’s solid or illusory, it is what we call a hand and that’s all that can be said about it. You can beat this to death in a thousand different ways, but the postulate is that all you can know is that you exist. This is also taken as read by a number of eastern philosophies, for whatever that’s worth.

It appeals to me a lot. As a confirmed Nihilistic Determinist (Reformed), I like the unshakeable nature of the concept. It’s about as self-evident and unassailable as it gets. Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadata Maharaj would probably say that it is the only self-evident, unassailable idea you will ever find.

The part that appeals to me (and repulses other people I know) is that while you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you exist, the knowledge of your existence says absolutely nothing about the nature of that existence. And, since you can know nothing specific about your existence you can’t know what caused, causes or allows your existence. But since you do exist, there is some principle, some being, some circumstance, some something that "causes" your existence and whatever that is can be called God.

So my premise was that you can know two things with certainty: that you exist and that God exists. Self-evident, no faith required. The problem, however, with God’s existence is the same as with yours --- the fact of existence says nothing about the nature of that which exists.

Can this really be derived from Descartes? I would say that it doesn’t need to be. You could start there or somewhere else. It turned out to be a weird argument to make, even if just recreationally. But that’s not the point.

The point is that, later, it occurred to me that maybe God is subject to something akin to Heisenberg’s "Uncertainty Principle". That is, the surer you are that there is a God, the less you can say about what that God is like and the more you think you know about God, the less you can be sure that that God actually exists.